Friday, June 28, 2013

Now You See Me Movie Review

Ocean's Eleven set a pretty high standard for heist movies where the scoundrel robbers manage to stay just a couple of steps ahead of everyone who is pursuing them. Now You See Me (2013) doesn't exceed Ocean's Eleven by any means, but it blends a heist movie with the idea of magic, which leaves us with a pretty creative and interesting movie.
Four street magicians, Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), McKinney (Woody Harrelson), Reeves (Isla Fisher), and Wilder (Dave Franco) each answer a mysterious summons to an obscure address with secrets inside. A year later they are The Four Horsemen, big time stage illusionists who climax their sold out Las Vegas show by apparently robbing a bank on stage. This puts agents Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) of the FBI and Alma Vargas (Mélanie Laurent) of Interpol on the case to find out how they did it. The mystery proves difficult to solve even with the insights of the professional illusion exposer, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). What follows is a bizarre investigation where nothing is what it seems with illusions, dark secrets, and hidden agendas galore as all involved are reminded of the great truth in the puzzle: the closer you look, the less you see.
In the opening scene we see each of the magicians showing off their skills and it really draws the audience in quickly. Atlas is doing a card trick on the streets and asks a young lady to pick any card from a deck while he flips through them himself. For the heck of it I picked a card I saw as the deck passed by the screen. The trick is finished by the selected card's suit and rank appearing in lights on the side of a large building. Interestingly enough, it was the card I picked out as well. That instantly made me think that professional stage magicians were consulted in the making of this movie, and that it wouldn't need a lot of CGI effects to impress the audience. Yes, there was some CGI used, but most of it was used in complex camera work, less so for the "magic tricks."
There is a great cast in Now You See Me. Woody Harrelson is great in most everything he's in. Jesse Eisenberg is a fast talking arrogant dweeb as usual, but he plays that sort of role well. The actors who play The Four Horsemen have distinctive differences in how they act when the characters are on and off stage, which is impressive. You can tell when the character is performing and when they are not, an indicator of good acting. I haven't seen Mark Ruffalo since The Avengers, he's a great Bruce Banner and he's a great FBI agent who is at his wits' end chasing stage performers who seem to possess actual magic abilities. We've even got Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman topping off the ensemble; even when they appear in subpar movies, their mere presence improves the overall quality of the film.
The script is not perfect by any means, but it remains engaging and fun. The dialogue was witty and flowed well. It seemed to think it was a bit deeper than it actually was. Rhodes keeps insisting that magic can't be real, but finds fewer and fewer reasons to believe that it is not. Alma also thinks that everything the Four Horsemen are doing is simply an illusion, but makes statements about how good it is to believe in something. That's nice, but I never really saw where they were trying to go with that idea. While most of the script is pretty good, the ending seems very out of sorts. It's as if the script writer finished writing the climax and kind of threw some random stuff in at the end because there needed to be a conclusion of some kind. You simply don't see the end coming at all. On the one hand, it sort of fits thematically; we're constantly told a magician distracts the audience from what's really happening. But there was next to nothing that even hints at what was "really happening" in the movie and from a film making standpoint, that made the ending seem unjustified, incongruous, and sloppy.
Now You See Me was a clever concept that was really fun to watch. It wasn't great; the script has some flaws, there's a baseless love interest, it doesn't resolve all of the questions it raises, and the ending comes out of nowhere. In spite of that, it has excellent cast, some outstanding visuals that don't rely heavily on CGI, and it coyly plays with the movie viewers. Some of the magic was debunked, but we never know for sure how much of the tricks were illusions or if it was actual magic. It evens out into what a summer movie should be: fun. While it is a fun movie, I'd wait for it on Blu-Ray; it's worth seeing, but not on the big screen. I also recommend seeing it twice. It's the kind of movie that's probably a bit more interesting when you know the end from the beginning.

Here's the trailer for Now You See Me:

What is your favorite heist movie? Comment Below and tell me why!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Man of Steel Movie Review

A couple of years back, someone decided to ignore the Superman 3 and 4 movies because those were terrible, and pick up the Superman movie franchise where it left off. Superman Returns was a pretty bad attempt at picking up the franchise. So, rather than continue beating a dead horse, Zack Snyder directed a series reboot. Man of Steel (2013) restarts the whole story from square one. While I'm not really a big Superman fan, I think this is the Superman movie we've needed for some time.
The planet Krypton faces imminent destruction due to its unstable core, resulting from years of exploiting Krypton's natural resources. The Ruling council is overthrown by the rebel military leader, General Zod (Michael Shannon), and his followers. Scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) launches his infant son Kal-El on a spacecraft to Earth to escape Krypton's annihilation, though Zod swears to hunt down the boy. Kal-El is found and raised on Earth by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Kiane Lane) who give him the name Clark Kent. Due to Earth's sun's radiation having unusual effects on young Clark's alien physiology, he develops extraordinary powers which he keeps secret for fear of how Earth's people will react to him. As an adult, Clark (Henry Cavill) roams the earth trying to find out about his mysterious origins. Along the way he encounters firecracker reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who is also researching unusual occurrences for The Daily Planet. But before long, General Zod finds Kal-El on Earth and begins an invasion, meaning to wipe out its inhabitants.
We've never had a Superman story like this. The previous Superman movies revolve around a normal human who has pitiable physical abilities compared to Superman's god-like powers (usually Lex Luthor) who is trying to manipulate Superman or get him to break his unbreakable willpower. The issue is never "Can Superman stop him?" it's more like "Can Superman stop him fast enough to keep casualties to a minimum?" While that is an interesting problem for Superman to face, it's all that has ever been done in Superman movies. They've also remained very terrestrial; we are told briefly that Superman is an alien, but it isn't really expounded upon or explored.
Man of Steel starts out on Krypton, and we get to see quite a bit of it. We don't just get a glimpse; we get to understand the political climate, we get a feel for the culture and history, and a sense of what Kryptonians are like. Later when General Zod invades Earth, we see spaceships, weapons, and all sorts of crazy alien technology. I like how the reason for why Kryptonians develop super powers is established and how the sensory overload really disturbs and weakens them until they learn to adapt to the physical changes. In a flashback we see young Clark Kent in school when he is overcome by his x-ray vision and super hearing. The boy curls up in a fetal position, coving his ears, and tries to block the sensory overload. It looks a lot like an autistic child having a meltdown. The setting is so much more detailed, and it is developed steadily throughout the movie. That alone shows how well Man of Steel was written.
The characters were well written, too. Kal-El isn't really called "Superman" in the movie, which was a delightful detail. Kal-El is a very human character and is very easy to relate to. He was raised by some very good parents who instilled in him a strong sense of morality and  righteousness, but they also encouraged him to keep his powers a secret because none of them knew how the people of Earth would react to him being so different. This really illustrated the "alien immigrant" nature of Superman's character, the fear and uncertainty about being different is something anyone can relate to. In spite of his moralistic upbringing, Kal-El is faced with situations that no parents from a farm in Kansas could ever have prepared their son for. Trying to figure out what is the best thing to do isn't easy, and we get to see that realistic weakness of character in Kal-El. Also, never ever threaten Clark Kent's mother. Just saying.
It was also neat how the human characters acted as heroes, not just weaklings incapable of defending themselves. One of my favorite scenes is when Lois is being advised by the holographic program of Jor-El on the Kryptonian spaceship on how to avoid or defeat the Kryptonians as she makes an escape. Lois is not a damsel in distress; she's a strong, brave, and a very intelligent woman who is able to hold her own even when up against god-like aliens. Kal-El might have been able to stop the villains, but since the human protagonists help and support Kal-El, more people are saved even if they cannot confront the villains themselves.
My only real complaint about Man of Steel is the amount of action sequences there were. Don't get me wrong, the action scenes were great and have the magnitude that a Superman movie deserves. But there was very little time for the audience to recuperate after an intense action scene. It's like there's a crazy action scene followed by a crazy action scene which is followed by yet another crazy action scene. They were good, no doubt about it, but at some point the novelty of seeing these super powered people being flung through buildings wears off and it left me thinking that the movie could cut back on the action scenes a bit and that it doesn't have to make everything so exaggerated and crazy. There's even a point in the movie where everything has basically been resolved and the movie could come to an end, but yet another over-the-top fight scene begins. There is lots of story to tell and some great characters to develop, but if an action movie actually makes you stop and think, "Really? Another fight scene? Is this scene even necessary?" then the movie has probably gone too far. The action is great, but I feel as though less could have been more in this case.
Man of Steel showed us an expanded Superman universe, the likes of which we have not seen before and probably was not possible until recently. It's a decent movie that focuses on setting and characters. It's well written and manages to tell the story logically and gradually. It is a bit choppy at the beginning, but doesn't lose the audience. The action is great and lots of fun, but the movie would have benefited from cutting back on the number of the action scenes. Man of Steel is worth catching in theaters. I'm not even a Superman fan and I enjoyed it. I was teetering on whether or not it's worth buying a copy, but I think I can safely say this is worth owning on Blu-Ray.

There have been a lot of actors who have played Superman. Christopher Reeve is easily my favorite. Who is your favorite Superman? Comment below and tell me why!

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Kite Runner Movie Review

A couple of years after the 9/11 attacks, there was a historical fiction novel published which was entitled The Kite Runner. Since the media had demonized the middle east so much after 9/11, many people flocked to the book expecting some kind of behind the scenes look at what Afghanistan was really like. I heard lots about The Kite Runner but never got around to actually reading it. In 2007 a film was made based on the 2005 best seller.
During the 1970's in Afghanistan, the two children, Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada) were inseparable. Their long days under azure Kabul skies were often spent getting into innocent mischief or preparing for the highly anticipated kite-fighting tournament. When the day of the tournament arrives, however, a glorious victory is quickly offset by a fearful act of betrayal. Not long after that fateful day, the Soviet military invades Kabul and Amir escapes to America, leaving his old friend behind just as the ominous possibility of war becomes a reality. Two decades later, Amir (Khalid Abdalla) returns to Afghanistan to find his beloved homeland has now fallen under the iron-fisted rule of the Taliban. Still, all hope for redemption hasn't been lost just yet, because now that Amir stands face to face with the irrepressible secrets that he struggled so vigilantly to bury, he will receive one last chance to make peace with the past, and lay the groundwork for a brighter future.
The Kite Runner is an interesting movie in that it relies on the story and characters to sell itself to the audience. There are no big name American actors, no flashy special effects, and not even popular movie genre to draw audiences in. It's just pure story. On top of that, it puts very human faces and historical context on the tragic images of war in Afghanistan. While it's not the purpose of The Kite Runner, it does show us that the people there are not evil, but simply peaceful people who are set upon by a violent Islamic fundamentalist political movement.
The first half of the movie revolves around Amir and Hassan as children. The two young actors are very convincing and give us a marvelous acting display. Much of the film is spoken in Dari, which is an Afghan dialect of Farsi, or Persian. So without the subtitles non-Dari speakers would have difficulty being able to follow with the finer story points. However, the acting is so well done that I'm sure anyone can grasp the larger concepts by reading the actors expressions. I was particularly impressed with Homayoun Ershadi, who played Amir's father Agha Sahib. He has such a powerful presence, a face that seems deeply good; it is difficult to imagine his face reflecting unkind feelings.
Something I'd hear about a whole lot after the book's release was the rape scene. There is an older boy who picks on young Amir and Hassan in the first part of the movie. He is a violent young man, a bully, a racist, and a sociopath. The older boy rapes Hassan, and drives an emotional wedge between Hassan and Amir. This could have been a visually explicit part of the film, but it is thankfully very tame; there is no nudity and the sexual aspect is only suggested very briefly at the end of the scene. The Kite Runner is PG-13, and is in fact fairly tame visually for its rating. While rape is a horrific thing, I don't feel that the scene should deter you from seeing The Kite Runner. Incidentally, Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada who played Hassan, greatly feared Afghan reprisal for appearing in a rape scene and the film's producers have helped to relocate him.
The Kite Runner is a pretty good movie that touches on some serious issues; friendship, betrayal, war, peace, tradition, truth, lies, redemption, and love. It's a good story that doesn't rely on flashy imagery or big name actors to sell itself. The actors are incredible, the story is optimistic in spite of moments of bleak pessimism. There are several opportunities for the movie to become very gruesome or visually explicit but it doesn't, and I'm thankful for that. I didn't feel as moved by it as the movie seems to hope that I would be, but it's still a good film, and I think it's worth the price of renting.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Great Gatsby Movie Review

Hollywood is notorious for making movies based on classic and bestselling novels and jazzing them up and twisting them around to appeal to audiences. The Great Gatsby (2013) looks pretty flashy for a movie based on a character driven story which a lot of people dreaded reading in high school. That aspect alone made me leery, but I was enticed by the visuals in the trailer so I saw it anyway.
In the spring of 1922, an era of loosening morals, glittering jazz, bootleg kings, and sky-rocketing stocks, would-be writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) leaves his Midwest town and moves to New York City. Chasing his own American Dream, Nick lands next door to a mysterious, party-giving millionaire, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Within eyesight across the bay lives Nick's cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her unfaithful, blue-blooded husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). It is thus that Nick is drawn into the captivating world of the super rich, their illusions, loves, and deceits. As Nick bears witness, within and without the world he inhabits, he pens a tale of impossible love, incorruptible dreams, and high-octane tragedy.
The Great Gatsby is a character driven story. There's a lot of scenes that are dialogue driven, and they are well written. The script really is great and the dialogue for each character seems believable, sounds contemporary to the time period, and moves the story forward. These dialogue driven scenes are set against some phenomenal sets and costumes. It's not necessarily distracting, but it seems odd to have such rich visual detail in scenes that do little more than have characters talk with one another. Similar to my odd complaint about Funny Girl, the sets were huge, elaborate, and detailed, even if they were mostly digital. There are tons of sweeping camera shots and wide angles that capture a lot of background motion and detail. It seems gratuitous and "visually loud." I'm not sure how else to describe it. It looks amazing, no doubt about it, yet superfluous.
Look at this guy! How can you not love this guy?
Leonardo DiCaprio was an excellent choice for Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is supposed to be a likable character and I can't think of a role I've seen DiCaprio in where you didn't want to root for him. Nick describes Gatsby this way: "He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself." When we see Gatsby for the first time he gushes with charm and likeableness. DiCaprio plays to that character description astoundingly well. Also, he say "old sport" perfectly. Most everyone else's acting seemed overly dramatic and even silly at times. These are good actors, so I blame the director, Baz Luhrmann, for making them act that way.
I would have liked to hear music that was more in times with the 1920's. 20's swing and jazz music captivated the feel of the era. Instead, the music that was used was something called "Electro Swing." It combines old big band swing style music with some techno sounds and beats using synthesizers and electronic drum machines. I've only recently started hearing this niche music genre, and some of it isn't half bad. Unfortunately several of the specific songs used in Gatsby are half bad. I understand wanting to use a sound track that is both marketable to teenage movie goers and wanting to use music from the time period. Electro Swing is a logical choice. But the modern rap vocals used in several songs seem so painfully out of place for a movie set in the 20's that it made me wish they had simply stuck with actual 1920's music.
It's no secret that Hollywood butchers literature in the interest of ticket sales. The end result is a movie with the title of a good piece of literature which, more often than not, has little to do with said good literature. Once in a while we're thrown a curveball and we get a movie that actually holds true to the book it's based on. I have not read The Great Gatsby, but from what I understand, the movie manages to get the books' symbolism and themes across very well. It acts as a cautionary tale about the decadent downside of the American dream. There are themes of aspiring to start over again, social politics and the brutality and betrayal that comes with it, the perception of our own ideals and of those of other people. It comments on the excess of the rich, the recklessness of youth, and materialism and worldliness. With these themes well incorporated, The Great Gatsby does a splendid job of causing us to reflect on our own modern times and struggles.
The Great Gatsby was a good movie. The visuals were incredible, even if they were excessive. DiCaprio was excellent, as usual, and outshines the rest of the cast. The music could have been better if other songs within the same sub-genre had been used. The themes were beautifully incorporated, and should cause us to reflect upon our modern society. I saw The Great Gatsby in 2D, but there were several scenes that made me stop and think, "You know, that would probably look really cool in 3D." I'm glad I saw The Great Gatsby, but I didn't really enjoy it enough to want to own a copy. It's worth catching in theaters, possibly in 3D. Even if you don't catch it in theaters, it's worth the price to rent.

What's a classic piece of literature you would love to see made into a good quality movie? Comment below and tell me all about it!