REVIEW: “Now You See Me”

See me poster

I have to admit, the idea behind “Now You See Me” is pretty intriguing. As silly as it may sound, a group of magicians working together in huge elaborate bank heists is loaded with potential. The movie also puts together a pretty impressive cast featuring some fresh young talent, fun and reliable veterans, and a French actress that I’ve become a big fan of. So the ingredients are there for a fun an entertaining little thriller. That’s why it’s so sad that the movie stumbles all over itself and ends up being an unfortunate disappointment.

The story goes something like this – Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco are small-time magicians working the streets and house shows. They’re all brought together after being slipped a mysterious tarot card and address by a hooded stranger. We then leap forward to find that they have a fancy new stage show and perform under the name The Four Horsemen. After their first big show in Las Vegas rains down stolen money on the jubilant crowd, the FBI immediately get involved. Agent Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) teams up with a French Interpol Agent Alma Vargas (Mélanie Laurent) to head the case. Their initial interrogation with The Four Horsemen leaves a sour taste in Agent Rhodes’ mouth and he makes in his goal to stop them before their next big show.

SEE ME

Michael Caine shows up as a wealthy insurance man who sponsors The Four Horsemen’s act but who may not be the ultimate brain behind their operation. We also get Morgan Freeman as a former magician who now makes his money debunking and discrediting magic acts. Both are tossed into the mix of what becomes the movie’s big question – who is the person that’s really behind The Four Horseman? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that twists and misdirections are a big part of this film. When the story stays focused on that it can be entertaining. Unfortunately this thing goes all over the place and by the time the twists do finally come, their effects on the convoluted story pack little punch.

There are numerous structural and narrative problems with “Now You See Me”. First, there are so many enormous plot holes many of which you could drive a truck through. There are also hugs gaps in logic that no amount of magic can explain. The pacing is good enough that you can overlook some of these things while watching the film. But if you take even a second to think about some of the things they completely fall apart. The story has holes. The characters have holes. The explanations and revelations have holes. We also get bits of mumbo-jumbo about some mystical magical force called The Eye which honestly I still don’t understand nor do I even care to.

Then there is the magic. With the exception of Eisenburg’s cool card trick during his first scene (a trick which got me), most of the magic and illusions were underwhelming. Most of the time they felt more like movie trickery than actual magic tricks. Also I can’t say I ever fully bought into any of the Horsemen as serious magicians. Some may blame the actors or it may be because we hardly spend any time with them. Most of our time are spent with the FBI trying to piece together what’s going on. That leaves The Four Horsemen feeling pretty flimsy.

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Personally I felt the performances were decent enough. Some where able to overcome the lackluster writing while others were smothered by it. Caine and Freeman were rock solid as always and Eisenberg was also quite good. But it was Laurent, the fine French actress I mentioned above, who gave my favorite performance. Like every other character, she has to deal with some occasionally clunky dialogue but she handles it very well. Not so with Ruffalo. He has his good moments but he also has a few stumbles. But once again, the script does him no favors.

“Now You See Me” is a real toughie for me. I was never bored. I never checked my watch. I enjoyed some of the performances, particularly from Laurent. But there are just too many stinking flaws to give the movie a recommendation. The story is riddled with plot holes. Some characters are so poorly written. The magic, which should be a strong point, won’t blow anyone’s socks off. In the end all of these problems sink the movie and keep it from being the film it should be. That’s a shame because the parts were in place. There just wasn’t a good enough story to work with.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

THE SHOWDOWN : “The Avengers” vs “The Dark Knight Rises”

Without a doubt the two biggest movies of the year in terms of box office results and expectations has been Disney/Marvel’s “The Avengers” and Warner Bros./DC Comics’ “The Dark Knight Rises”. Both films were two of the most highly anticipated and heavily promoted pictures leading up to their releases. Now both have hit the theaters, made millions of dollars, and have been talked about by critics, geeks, and movie fans from around the globe. But which is the better movie? I thought it would be fun to put the two side-by-side and see who comes out on top. They’ll face off in several categories and we will see who’s standing in the end.

SPECIAL EFFECTS

When judging the special effects, it’s hard to come up with a fair and conclusive winner. Both movies approach their action sequences in significantly different ways. “The Avengers” uses a lot more CGI and much of director Joss Whedon’s vision is dependant on it. What’s truly amazing is that the movie really pulls it off. The massive CGI set pieces are sights to behold and this is easily the best looking Hulk yet to hit the big screen. Director Christopher Nolan chose a more traditional approach to special effects and they are perfect for the movie he was making. While he did use CGI, he relied much more on intense stunt sequences and traditional set designs. Explosions, flipping cars, and large-scale battles make up the thrust of the action. So judging the two by the same standard is impossible. Therefore I’ll just go by the impressive scope of the vision that’s brought to life on-screen through the effects. WINNER – “The Avengers”

SCORE

Both films have booming, energetic scores but take two very different approaches. I’m a huge fan of Alan Silvestri and he certainly delivers a solid score in “The Avengers”. It works nicely alongside of the action sequences and it’s never overdone or out-of-place. But perhaps the one negative is that I don’t remember one detail about it. Scores that have really resonated with me have also stuck with me. Hans Zimmer’s powerful score in “The Dark Knight Rises” stuck with me on several occasions. His score is ever-present and some have had problems with that. But I found it gives a cinematic pop to so many of the action sequences and in other instances really builds the intensity. His use of familiar tunes from the earlier films are perfectly used and at times had me wanting to pump my fist. Nolan may overuse the score some, but for me it really made an impression. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

ACTING

One thing both movies were blessed with were remarkable casts. The fantastic collection of actors and actresses give both movies huge dramatic lifts and when combined provide one impressive list of talent. “The Avengers” is led by Robert Downey, Jr.’s razor-sharp, wise-cracking performance that only he could deliver. The movie also introduces Mark Ruffalo who undeniably gives us the best Bruce Banner yet and Jeremy Renner who is wonderful but underused. And then throw in Tom Hiddleston and his Oscar worthy performance as Loki. But while “The Avengers” has a great cast, “The Dark Knight Rises” is a much heavier and more dramatic picture which gives it’s equally phenomenal cast a broader range of material to work with. Christian Bale gives his best performance of the entire series. Gary Oldman is simply perfect as Gordon. Anne Hathaway makes her series debut and really surprises. Tom Hardy is wonderfully brutal. And of course there’s Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They’re given much more to do and they each shine. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

VILLAIN

Both movies have fantastic villains but also very different villains. “The Avengers” finds the heroes up against the mischievious meddler Loki. While he’s not that intimidating in stature, Loki manages all sorts of chaos through manipulation and trickery. But what really makes Loki so impressive is Tom Hiddleston. Without a doubt he is having a blast with the character and he carries over his great work in “Thor”. He makes Loki a viable threat and an incredibly fun villain to watch.

In “The Dark Knight Rises”, Bane is an entirely different creation. Tom Hardy stars as the intelligent but psychotic brute who intimidates more through violence and force than mischief. Bane is a vicious presence and he’s stands out in every scene he’s in. Hardy’s physicality helps give the fight scenes a gritty realism and his swagger shows his fearlessness. From the first scene he’s in, you know that Bane is a villain not to be messed with. So both movies feature villains that are very different yet equally menacing and ultimately engaging. WINNER – DRAW

STORY/WRITING

Both movies feature some outstanding writing. “The Avengers” is faced with the task of taking a handful of earlier films and bringing them and their characters together in a good, cohesive way. It’s a daunting task and Joss Whedon makes it work. He makes “The Avengers” a climax movie that all of the individual superhero pictures were building up to. He also manages his large cast wonderfully. Another strong point with Whedon is the fantastic injection of humor throughout the picture. There are some truly laugh-out-loud moments and Whedon is respectful of the material but never takes it too seriously. It’s really well done.

On the other hand, Christopher Nolan is an incredible storyteller with his own unique visual presentation. His movies are generally more complex and layered and often times he challenges his audience. “The Dark Knight Rises” is no different. The story twists and turns and Nolan injects it with just the right amount of action and intensity. He also does a fine job of connecting it with the previous film as well as wrapping up his trilogy with a near perfect ending. Nolan doesn’t dumb things down and gives us a glorious and rousing ending to what is arguably one of the greatest trilogies in film history. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

AMBITION

With “The Dark Knight Rises”, Christopher Nolan finishes his spectacular vision of Batman and his universe. It’s most certainly an ambitious film. Nolan introduces new characters, connects us to the previous film, gives us an evil and brutal new villain, tells another deep and satisfying story, and wraps the entire series up, all in one film. It’s quite a vision. For Joss Whedon the task was quite possibly tougher and more ambitious. As mentioned above, Marvel had created several individual superhero franchises and each pointed to the Avengers project. “The Avengers” movie was a culmination of all of those movies and characters and Whedon had to bring it all together – a tricky job. A movie that ambitious had so many things that could have gone wrong but instead we were given one of the best times at the theaters this year. WINNER – “The Avengers”

DIRECTION

Both Joss Whedon and Christopher Nolan had the advantage of directing material that they were instrumental in creating. As writers, they had strong and distinct visions for their movies which carried over into their direction. Whedon wonderfully visualizes his wild superhero world, creates some astonishing action sequences, and nicely utilizes his great cast. Whedon draws everything together with an almost seamless result. Nolan is also a visual storyteller and his style is evident from the opening scene. Again, he is directing much weightier and more layered material and his ability to translate it on-screen so vividly is a testament to his rock solid direction. While “The Avengers” is sharply directed and a huge accomplishment, “The Dark Knight Rises” does go down more challenging roads, features a more hands-on approach to its action, and requires a more complex use of its characters. Nolan’s direction is spot-on. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

CONCLUSION

Both movies are exceptional examples of why the superhero genre is a legitimate form of cinematic entertainment. These are movies that aren’t just seeking box office numbers and millions of dollars. These are two strong movies with great storytelling, amazing special effects, phenomenal casts, and writers/directors that not only care for their projects, but put a great deal into making them the best movies they can be. But out of the two, “The Dark Knight Rises”…well…rises to the top. The deeper more layered story, the extremely high stakes, the more realistic grounding, and the wonderful way it wraps up Christopher Nolan’s Batman vision give it the edge over Joss Whedon’s fine film. Both films met some really high expectations, but for me “The Dark Knight Rises” was a better film that I will still be talking about for a long time.

THE OVERALL WINNER

Review: “The Avengers”

Marvel Studio’s “The Avengers” is the culmination of what may be the most ambitious project in film history. For those movie fans who have been living in a cave for the past several years, Marvel has been releasing several individual superhero movies that have all set the table for this huge event film. Two “Iron Man” pictures, “Captain America”, “Thor”, and “The Incredible Hulk” have all been linked together through brief reoccuring cameos and hidden after-credits scenes that refer to something called “The Avengers Initiative”. As any comic book geek could tell you, that’s a reference to the Marvel superhero team that first debuted in comics in 1963. On the surface, the idea for an Avengers film that’s directly tied into other individual superhero movies sounds great. On the flip side, even though the other films have been good, there are still plenty of areas where “The Avengers” could go off track. Well as a movie and comic book fan, I’m happy to say that “The Avengers” not only meets the challenges of it’s vision, but it’s an action packed adrenaline rush that offers some of the most fun I’ve had at the theater this year.

To handle this rather large undertaking, Marvel placed the project in the hands of Joss Whedon. Whedon was a good choice mainly due to his variety of experience. He’s found success in television, film, and comic books and he uses his knowledge of each combined with Disney’s deep pockets to create a movie that would appeal to the fanboy and the casual moviegoer alike. One thing that helps Whedon is that the film doesn’t require your traditional origin story. While we do see the generation of the team, we know all of the characters from the previous Marvel movies so Whedon is able to dive right into the story. That being said, don’t mistake this for a deep, engaging story that will challenge the audience. But I’ll also say that anyone going into “The Avengers” for that has already missed the point.

Throughout the other Marvel films, particularly “Captain America”, we learned about a cosmic energy source known as the cosmic cube. In “The Avengers”, S.H.E.I.L.D. head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has a team of scientists led by physicist Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) trying to harness the power of the cube, now known as the Tesseract. But suddenly the cube activates and opens a portal allowing the evil Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to entire the facility and steal it. Knowing the immense threat associated with the Tesseract being in the wrong hands, Fury activates the Avengers Initiative. But getting such a diverse group of superheroes to cooperate and coexist proves to be a lot harder than expected.

Fury starts by contacting Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). He sends her to India to find Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) while sending Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) to Stark Tower to speak to Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). While the two are gone, he approaches Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and sends him on a mission to retrieve the Tesseract. Upon hearing of Loki’s involvement, the thunder god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) also entires the mix as does the marksman and assassin known as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Each of the heroes have their own baggage and their own personalities which often times clash to the point of dysfunction. But their disagreements give us some of the movie’s cooler and often times funnier moments. As you would expect the situation worsens and it’s up to the team to pull together or the world will be taken over starting with New York City.

It’s a pretty cut-and-dry story but it really works because Whedon understand his characters and he knows what kind of movie he’s trying to make. His familiarity with the Marvel comic book universe is clearly seen throughout the picture but nowhere more than in his treatment of the characters. As a comic book fan, I was really impressed with how they all felt right and it’s clear that the source material played a big role in shaping the on-screen versions. But Whedon never falls into the trap of taking things too seriously. The movie is filled with laugh out loud funny moments that are cleverly used and they never feel cheap or forced. They mix perfectly with the razor-sharp dialogue and the jaw-dropping action sequences. But the fantastic action and special effects shouldn’t surprise anyone. Afterall, “The Avengers” is a superhero action picture and Whedon knows it. The action comes at a furious pace and I can see where some may view it as relentless. Personally, I was completely wrapped up in it. The movie sells the superhero action through some of the most spectacular visuals and editing that you’ll see. I was blown away.

I can’t write a review of “The Avengers” without mentioning the incredible cast. One of the reasons the Marvel films and particularly “The Avengers” works so well is because of the amazing casting. Everyone is invested in their character and not one single performer phones it in. Downey, Jr. continues to be the perfect Tony Stark mainly due to his natural ability to use sarcasm and fire off funny quips without hesitation. Chris Evans, known more for his goofier roles,  is also quite good as the serious and straight-laced Captain America. I also really liked Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. He’s the third actor to take on the role and he nails it. Much like Downey, Jr., Hemsworth is the perfect Thor and he shares some of the film’s best scenes with Hulk. Renner and Johannson also handle their roles very well. But I have to give special time to the wonderful Tom Hiddleston. He’s a remarkably diverse actor and he shows it here. His Loki is mysterious, mischievous, and evil and Hiddleston slithers through his scenes stealing many of them. There are also nice smaller performances from Gregg, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cobie Smulders that are just icing on the cake.

I can see where some people may not respond as positively as I did to “The Avengers”. The action is pretty much start-to-finish and if you’re not interested in the characters you’ll have a hard time embracing the story. There are also a few shortcuts taken with the story for the sake of convenience that could have been done a little better. For me, I have a connection to these characters through all my years of comic book reading and this film exceeded my expectations. But being a comic reader isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying this movie. If you’ve liked what Marvel has put out leading to it, you’re going to love “The Avengers”. Sure, it’s a loud, energetic summer popcorn flick, but it’s also a really good one. It’s honest and it never tries to be something it’s not. Featuring one of the better ensemble casts and some top-notch directing from Joss Whedon, “The Avengers” is a big budget blockbuster that actually deserves all the money it’s going to rake it. When’s the next showing? I’m ready to see it again.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars