Widows has an all-star cast, an Oscar-nominated director, and a best-selling novelist-turned screenwriter, so my expectations might have been turned up a bit too high. It follows a team of titular widows (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Dibecki) picking up the pieces in the wake of their husbands’ deaths. It seems their dearly departed spouses stole money from a local criminal who very much demands the sum returned. The women must enter into a criminal heist, using notes left behind by a dead hubby, to settle the debt and spare their lives. Widows is a higher caliber crime movie with notable texture given to a wide assortment of characters; even the villains are given small character touches to better flesh them out and feel more realized. There’s a concurrent election tying together different corrupt and criminal enterprises that widens the scope of the film into a grander scale. The characters and performances are the selling point of the movie and provide consistent entertainment. Davis (Fences) is the strong-willed linchpin of the group and I could watch her boss around people for hours. Dibecki (The Great Gatsby) has a nice turn as a trophy wife accustomed to being abused. The problem is that there might be too many characters. Rodriguez has far more significance in the first thirty minutes and then is put on ice. Likewise, Carrie Coon and Cynthia Erivo are hastily added when the plot requires something of them. That plot, adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), proves to be the film’s biggest hindrance by the end. The second half plot turns seem to come from a schlockier version of this story, not the classier version we had been treated to beforehand. There are character decisions that baffle credulity and personal safety. The quality of the characters deserved a movie that could refrain from the hacky genre twists. McQueen’s precise camerawork is still alive and well and highlights tension and also moments of social commentary, like when we watch a car travel mere blocks from a rundown inner city neighborhood to a fancy gated residence. There’s a lot to like with Widows, and plenty to get excited about, but I wanted to like even more.
Nate’s Grade: B
This review is weeks late after having sat down and watched American Animals, and it’s stuck with me in a powerful way. It’s a movie that pulls back the disparity between crime in the movies, so stylized and slick and carefree, and crime in real life, often traumatic, dehumanizing, and with lifelong complications for both victim and perpetrator. It’s a movie that examines a youthful sense of ennui that their lives are missing out on something extraordinary, and a step too far over a very clear moral line thanks to a fantasy given shape by escapist movies and other media. It’s also a slippery I, Tonya-style look at memory and contradiction but this time from the real-life people involved. It’s an entertaining dark comedy, an unexpected true-crime caper, and most resonating of all, a nerve-wracking thriller that left me morally queasy and unwell, but in a good way. In short, American Animals is one of the best films I have seen so far in 2018.
In 2004, at a small Kentucky liberal arts university, four young men are planning their own version of the “perfect crime.” The school has a rare books section including an original copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species and a large and valuable edition of John James Audobon’s The Birds of America. The books are appraised at $12 million dollars. Spencer (Barry Keoghan), an art student, teams up with Warren (Evan Peters), Erik (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas (Blake Jenner) to plot a daring heist. The men feel like their lives are missing something exciting and a heist is just the ticket. They just have to break in, steal the books, and subdue a librarian (Ann Dowd). Easy stuff, right?
For the first half of the movie, American Animals plays out like a dark comedy. I had no prior knowledge that we were going to get the real-life subjects appearing as themselves in interviews cut throughout the film (their family members are still actors though). The film even plays around with this narrative hook for a few laughs, making quick cuts for punchlines and trying to square conflicting accounts, like having one scene alternate between two locations in dispute of its telling. It also helps set one of the major themes going forward in a nimble fashion, namely the difference between the reality of events and the whimsical, fantasy movie version of what an excursion into crime would be like. Having been bred on cinema’s glorified depictions of heists, the guys come to assume that a heist is sexy and fun and something that doesn’t end up hurting anyone. There’s a charming quality to the fact that Spencer uses his art skills to create models of the rare books room. There’s a laughable ingenuity to the fact that they’re planning on holding the heist in the middle of their class exams, since who would suspect students during that important time? There’s a bemused naiveté about the power of their disguises when they dress as a shuffling group of old men in powdered faces. We’re set up for a funny story about bumbling students falling all over themselves at attempted criminal shenanigans.
I was expecting a relatively light movie just from the plot particulars. It’s a heist film and the goal is to steal a bunch of books. It seemed small-scale in scope and anodyne. What trouble could a group of students get into attempting to steal books? Writer/director Bart Layton (The Imposter) seems to know this, lulling the audience into a false sense of security. He even teases the movie version of what the heist might be like, with our characters suavely stepping into their parts with practiced precision, all while music reminiscent of the Ocean’s Eleven franchise hums in the background. This is the cool-movie version, the version the characters have fantasized over in their minds, and the version that the audience is more attuned to expect. What we actually get is something very different. The heist itself plays out in excruciating detail and it runs counter to their planning. The reality of subduing the librarian is upsetting. It’s supposed to be so simple, after all, but the reality is anything but. The characters almost avoid this whole scenario, aborting their heist only to return back to it the next day. You feel the anguish of how close they were to turning away at several steps, the moments this ordeal could have been avoided, and yet fate barrels onward, energized by a misplaced sense of purpose. American Animals doesn’t let you or its characters off the hook either. I was fidgeting and sweating nervously throughout the heist and its subsequent fallout. Again, this is all about a bunch of stolen books, and I was beside myself with anxiety.
It’s only afterwards and looking back that you realize how masterfully Layton has built up his scenes and the necessary information to make you squirm. With every heist, the particulars of the setting, the challenges and tight window need to be established, and once that occurs, we’re hoping for unexpected complications. But in order for those unexpected consequences to really hit hard, we have to be trained with what Plan A was going to be, and American Animals does this superbly. People have their designated roles and areas they refuse to partake in, like Eric makes it clearly known he will not be responsible for subduing the librarian in any way. Of course, you can expect what will eventually happen, pushing his character to an even more uncomfortable place. I was very appreciative that there’s an extended resolution after the heist, where the guys try to unload the books to a seller, and the further complications. You really feel the screws being tightened and the overwhelming feeling of dread. It’s another confirmation for me that I’m just not cut out for a life of crime. The day-to-day anxiety is just too much.
I left this movie feeling a strange mixture of jubilation and sadness, still reeling from the expertly developed and executed moral tension. The technical skills are just as strong, each working in succinct harmonious sequence to bring about Layton’s vision to startling effect. The editing is extremely tightly constructed. The smooth cinematography by Ole Bratt Birkeland frames the tension and comedy expertly, and the ominous music by Anne Nikitin kept me on the edge of my seat. It’s almost like a full-blown David Fincher film by the end. The acting is another strong point, with each actor initially relegated into a stock role (“The Muscle,” “The Wheelman,” etc.) we’ve come to associate with these kinds of movies. The film nicely pushes the characters beyond a casual, cursory understanding, blurring the lines of who they are as they blur lines of their own. A surprise standout is Blake Jenner (unrelated to the Kardashians/Jenner clan) who joins the team the latest, seems like a stereotypical rich jock lunkhead, but when he breaks down and articulates why the team is as screwed as they are, his clarity can catch you off guard. He’s the first to realize they’ve trashed their lives and are doomed and for nothing. Also deserving of praise is the always-wonderful Ann Dowd (The Handmaid’s Tale); your heart hurts for this poor woman who is confused, scared, and undeserving of her harrowing ordeal.
American Animals hasn’t been able to leave my thoughts for weeks, which is usually the sign of a pretty good movie. It upset me. It rattled me. It entertained me. Most of all, it made me think, about the lines people cross in the name of missing out on some vague sense of grand experience, of the differences between the reality of crime and our appealing fantasy versions of crime, and why those stories appeal to us in general. I kept thinking about the pain these four men had caused themselves and others and their regrets. I kept thinking about how smartly Layton utilizes documentary storytelling techniques to enhance his film as well as better examine the disconnect of reality-versus-movies. It’s a movie that could have been told as a documentary but excels best as a hybrid of the two, one that challenges our conception. I’m shocked it wasn’t credited to a book or news article as its source material, meaning Layton compiled all of this impressively on his own. This is a movie that got under my skin, that made me uncomfortable, but also thrilled me and entertained me from its first minute until its very last. I highly advise looking for American Animals once it becomes readily available.
Nate’s Grade: A
Coming off the cataclysm of Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel’s latest serves as a palate cleanser, a breezy and light-hearted comic adventure with little more on its mind than having fun with its possibilities and leaving the audience happy. The basic premise of a team of thieves that can shrink or expand at will calls for a light touch, and returning director Peyton Reed (Bring it On) and his team have a strong idea of what an Ant-Man movie should be. Ant-Man and the Wasp won’t blow anyone away with its story or characters but it hits a sweet spot of silly comic affability that kept me smiling.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is close to ending his two-year house arrest following the events of the Berlin brawl in Captain America: Civil War. His old partner Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) a.k.a. the Wasp is working with her scientist father, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), to discover the location of the missing Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), lost for decades in the subatomic quantum realm. They need Scott’s help to steal the final parts necessary to complete their quantum field transporter. There are other forces looking to make use of Hank Pym’s technology, namely Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a woman who can phase through matter, and an unscrupulous local buyer (Walton Goggins) looking to profit. With the help of the Wasp, Scott Lang must protect his friends and allies so they can rescue Janet Van Dyne before she’s lost for good, and he cannot be caught before his house arrest period comes to an end or he’ll go to jail.
When any action movie has unique circumstances, especially those in the superhero realm because of their unique powers, I crave the proper development of the concept and the action sequences to make clever and imaginative use of their available tools. If you have characters that can shrink, that can make other objects big or small, and there’s a villain that can phase, then I expect a thorough and fun implementation of these elements to separate the movie from others. It takes a while to get going, but once the streamlined exposition is behind us, including multiple instances of explaining the plot to the audience, Ant-Man and the Wasp zips by on its sheer sense of sprightly whimsy and visual wonder. Paul Rudd (Wet Hot American Summer) is still as effortlessly charming as ever and elevates every scene partner. When it’s moving, the film does a fine job at entertaining, with funny quips and charming actors and visual panache. When it slows things down to explain or introduce perfunctory characters (looking at you, Laurence Fishburne) that’s when it becomes less than mighty. Ant-Man and the Wasp kept me laughing throughout, especially with the triumphant return of series MVP Michael Pena (CHIPs) as the energetic, motor-mouthed Luis. There are enjoyable payoffs strewn throughout and solid comic asides. It doesn’t feel too jokey to the point that nobody involved cares. It feels like everyone is united with the same mission statement.
The final act in particular is a blast, as now we have our MacGuffin and all of the various teams vying for it in an elaborate series of chase scenes. The cars are racing back and forth, under and over one another, with characters constantly jockeying for top position. It’s an exciting flourish to a conclusion, and every time a car went tiny for a split-second escape, or an ordinary item like a Pez dispenser went huge to form an obstacle, I grew happier and happier. The screenwriters unleashed a flurry of fun and zippy action ideas. Some will balk at the lower level of stakes in the Ant-Man films, or their general aw-shucks silly charm, but I view both as a virtue. Just because it’s a superhero movie doesn’t mean there can’t be a healthy degree of amusement, if properly executed and applied.
The villains are kept interesting enough, through concept or casting. With Ghost, here’s another character that can manipulate matter to her advantage. Her back-story is pretty ordinary (science experiment, looking for way to end pain/save her life) and kept mostly uncomplicated, as her plan is a matter of life and death. Hannah John-Kamen (Ready Player One) has a terrific look and physicality to her, but she’s lacking anything really memorable to do as a performer. Her character has some cool moves but that’s all. It feels like more could have been done with this antagonist. Then there’s genteel local criminal Sonny Burch who is given great gusto by Walton Goggins (The Hateful Eight). It’s like he simply plugged his Justified character’s smooth charisma. He’s a gentleman robber who has just enough self-awareness to acknowledge the absurd. A highlight of the film is an exchange between Goggins and Pena. He’s so good in such a relatively throwaway criminal role that I wish Marvel had saved Goggins for something grander down the line, something to really let his charisma seep into his wild, anarchic energy below the surface.
With all that said, the events involving the rescue of Janet Van Dyne are the weakest parts of the movie, and this saps the other Van Dyne characters as well. I just found myself caring very little for this excursion into the quantum realm, especially when we have fancy heists and opponents who can walk through walls. I understand the importance the rescue mission has with the other characters, but it didn’t feel that important to me. I was more invested in Scott’s ever-increasing near misses being caught breaking his house arrest, which was days away from being lifted by the FBI. Those scenes gave me the delightful Randall Park too (TV’s Fresh Off the Boat). Maybe it’s a casualty of the film’s genial tone, but I think the real culprit why I found myself unmoved is that the Janet rescue is the core storyline attached to Hope and Hank. Beforehand, Hank Pym served as a grumpy mentor figure for Scott, and now he’s mostly complaining about Scott’s exploits and how they invariably jeopardize the retrieval of his wife. Hope gets her spotlight, and name in the title, as Wasp, but she too is saddled with the same humdrum boring material. Lily (The Hobbit films) goes from scene to scene with a cloud of pinched annoyance. They’ve taken two characters who were more interesting in the first film, sanded off things that made them interesting, and bumped up their screen time, which is not a great formula. Everyone seems so irritable around this plotline, and when you haven’t invested much in it, that irritation becomes dangerously off-putting.
If you’re looking for silly, lighthearted escapism, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a superhero flick with entertainment as its top priority and enough infectious fun to achieve its more modest goal. It doesn’t follow the heist formula of the first film but it still finds room for comic asides and stacking payoffs for a lively, inventive final act. It’s definitely a lesser movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) but you need adventures in lower stakes too, especially after twenty movies and counting. Ant-Man and the Wasp could have used some fine-tuning and tightening, especially in its second act, and the quantum stuff definitely didn’t register for me, but it’s a mostly fun and acceptable summer escapade.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Ocean’s movies, with the exception of the too-cool-for-school 12, have glided by on their charm, style, and a knack for having fun with cool characters and satisfying twists and turns. After 2007’s rebounding Ocean’s 13, it looked like the franchise was going back to dormancy, and then writer/director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) resuscitated it with an all-female team, following the exploits of recently paroled Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock). Like her (recently deceased?!) older brother, Debbie has a big score in mind, the New York Met Gala, but more specifically a $150 million diamond necklace to be worn by self-involved acting starlet, Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway). Debbie gathers a team of specialists and, with the help of he best friend Lou (Cate Blanchett), the assembled eight schemes to get rich off the neck of Ms. Kluger. Like its predecessors, this movie glides on by thanks to fun characters to root for and a fun heist that packs enough setups, payoffs, and reversals. The heist formula demands a protracted setup but this gives way to a bevy of payoffs, when done correctly, and even more payoffs when complications must be dealt with in a rapid time. Each of the ladies get a significant part of the heist, though not all of them have the same level of memorable involvement in the movie itself. Ocean’s Eight is a slick crime fantasy given a feminine twist, dipping into gaga fashions, killer jewelry, and celebrity worship. Bullock is a strong lead but it’s Blanchett that won my heart, so confidant in her wardrobe of striking men’s wear. Hathaway is a cut-up as a flaky actress needing constant validation. Part of the allure of the movie, and the heist itself, are the high-end clothes and accessories. Its prime escapism for the target audience to “ooo” and “ahhh,” as my theater did. Ross follows the house style of Steven Soderbergh closely with lots of tracking shots, zooms, and a consistent sense of movement. The pacing is swift and thankfully there’s a significant resolution after the heist that still finds time for even more payoffs. It’s not quite on par with the original, but I’d declare Ocean’s Eight the best of the sequels. It’s fizzy fun, but what happens if there are three more of them?
Nate’s Grade: B
The notorious back-story behind Solo: A Star Wars Story has more than eclipsed whatever else this “young Han Solo” prequel appeared to offer. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were responsible for a string of fast-paced, silly hits like The Lego Movie and the 21 Jump Street films, and when producer Kathleen Kennedy hired them, it felt like an inspired infusion of new blood to make a Star Wars movie different in tone and approach. Five months into shooting and mere weeks away from completing photography, Miller and Lord were fired. The on-set rumors and sources have relayed a badly conceived marriage between the directors, given to improv and irreverence, and Kennedy’s sense of what a Star Wars movie should include. Enter Ron Howard, no stranger to the world of George Lucas, and an extensive battalion of reshoots, and you’re left with Solo, which only lists Howard as director. With that as its genesis, it feels like this movie should be a train wreck. It’s not that. Instead, Solo is fitfully entertaining but underwhelming diversion weighed down by its untapped potential.
Years before that noisy Mos Eisley cantina, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is a low-level criminal trying to find a better life. He loses his girl, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), joins the Imperial Army, and defects, finding a partner in a big hairy wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suatamo). The two of them join a crew of thieves run by Beckett (Woody Harrelson), and after a job gone wrong, everyone is in grave danger and deep debt to the crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). The crew must even the score and make things right, and they must navigate unreliable allies like Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), his trusted robotic assistant L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), and, most surprisingly, Qui’ra herself, working as one of Vos’ top criminal consultants.
Solo is hard to justify except as an increasingly tedious appeasement to the greater altar of fan service. The movie reminded me of those young author biopics like Finding Neverland where everything is given the unspoken-though-heavily implied significance of dramatic irony, where the audience knows, “Oh, this will be where that comes from, or that’s the first time that happened, etc.” Solo provides further light on the Star Wars minutia that only a scant few will work up real excitement over. For every interesting revelation, like Han and Chewbacca first meeting and bonding, there are numerous others that could best be characterized as cataloging the story of Who Gives a Crap?: The Movie. Who cares how Han got his dice? On that note, did I just not remember this trinket being as heavily showcased in the original trilogy as these new films emphasize? Also, who cares about how Han gets the Millennium Falcon? Who cares how Han got into the smuggling business? Who cares why Han was on Tatooine to begin with? The film expects audiences to supply the significance for scenes that lack that on their own. Too much of the script by Lawerence and Jonathan Kasdan (In the Land of Women) coasts along on audience good will carried over from the original trilogy.
As far as being a heist movie, Solo doesn’t put much concentrated thought with its heist set pieces. Much of the plot hinges on a “job” to recover a large amount of fuel owed to the scary crime boss, so the job itself should be treated as important. Once topside, the characters stick to their ruse for about five minutes and things immediately go bad and then it’s just one messy, ongoing action sequence. I could understand carefully planning a scheme only for it to unexpectedly go wrong, but the appeal of heists are their intricacy, development, and complications, and Solo sadly snuffs this appeal out. The high-point of the film is an early Act Two heist that’s the sci-fi equivalent of a train robbery. Things start off promising with the space craft being able to rotate around its rail, which tickles the imagination for plenty of dire hangings on. We even get a few preparatory words for the plan, though even those are fairly general. And then things start and they immediately go bad and stay that way without satisfying complication. Part of the appeal of heists is seeing the curve balls, the unexpected complications, and how our team reacts and recovers. It’s a fun sequence with some thrilling visuals but it never rises beyond the sum of its action particulars, and so an important set piece is held back from going for greatness. The action throughout Solo is serviceable but rarely does it feel like what’s onscreen is the best version of what it could have been. Serviceable, sure.
Which brings about the inevitable analysis over what can be gleaned from the final product that traces back to its original team of directors. There are a handful of comic asides that feel like the lasting touch of Miller and Lord. Beyond that, Solo feels very much like Howard’s movie, though much like Rogue One, the mind conjures the possibilities of the original version. One of the biggest changes is that Howard added Bettany’s gangster character. He’s on screen for really two sequences though his importance stretches over the entire film. Solo feels cohesively like one movie to the degree that if you had never heard about the headline-grabbing production tumult, you wouldn’t suspect anything had happened behind-the-scenes. However, the lasting impact seems deeper, namely that many of these sequences feel, to some degree, interchangeable by design. The execution and development feel lacking. It’s a lingering feeling that what you’ve been watching isn’t fully coming together. It’s not fully engaging the attention and making the most of its beloved characters. It feels less like a seminal moment in the story of Han, Chewie, and Lando and more like an extended episode of a television series. I was too detached and grew restless too often. I started waiting for it to be over rather than waiting to see what happened next.
Ehrenreich showed enormous promise with 2016’s Hail, Caesar! both with comedy chops and leading man appeal, so he seemed like a capable choice for a young Han Solo. After rumors of having to hire an emergency acting coach on set, I was expecting a poor performance. He’s decent, grinning through the indignities, stumbling along with a sardonic sensibility that still plays into a confident sense of optimism against the odds. Ehrenreich, much like most of the movie, is perfectly fine, entertaining at times, but far too often a passing blip. The real star of the movie is Glover (TV’s Atlanta) who is brimming with charisma. Plus Lando’s suave, pansexual nature and tendency toward shady scheming lends itself to a more fascinating glimpse at a character we know decidedly less about.
Clarke (HBO’s Game of Thrones) is saddled with a non-starter of a storyline as the old girlfriend who got away. Harrelson (Three Billboards) plays another cranky father figure role. Bettany (Avengers: Infinity War) is generally wasted as a villain lacking a stronger sense of identity or menace. His weapons of choice, two laser-edged knives, seem like where the depth of character creation ended with him. Oh, he also has scars over his face, so that’s about the same as a personality. The lone supporting player that leaves an impression is Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) as the android, L3-37. I could have used an entire movie with her and Lando. She becomes a political revolutionary by accident over the mistreatment of droids, and L3-37 does what the other supporting characters, and even what Ehrenreich to some extent, do not — leave you wanting more.
After its problematic history, it would be easy to look for ways to carve up Solo as a Hodge-podge creation of studio interference but that’s too tidy an explanation. I’m not against the idea of a “young Han Solo” film franchise, though it needs to find the right stories to shed new and meaningful light on this classic rogue. Han Solo was, like, mid thirties at the oldest in 1977’s Star Wars and Ehrenreich’s early-to-mid 20s version doesn’t afford a great many differences (he was already a “young” character to start with). If you’ve bought into the Star Wars universe, there should be enough to at least be entertained by, and if you’re a nascent fan, then Solo might be an easily digestible fun adventure. The mitigated or underdeveloped potential nagged at me as I was watching. It’s got aliens and space heists and most of the time I was approaching boredom. I’ll label the movie with its own Scarlet F: it’s… “fine.” It’s the kind of movie you shrug your shoulders at afterwards, not necessarily regretting the experience but moving along. Perhaps we’re just at a natural point in the post-Disney-purchase of Star Wars, and now we’re facing less-than-ideal time-discharged product. I was hoping for more, either good or bad, but had to settle for a relatively lackluster prequel. I don’t know if there will be further escapades with the “young” Han Solo but I wish they choose them more wisely. Even the title feels bland.
Nate’s Grade: C+
If seeing Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin pal around and bicker for 90 minutes is enough reason to see a movie, then Going in Style offers that and precious little else. This is a movie that offers little more than three great old codgers doing their schtick as they plan to rob the bank that is cheating them out of their hard-earned pensions. The old-guys-acting-up routines vary from mildly amusing to sad and desperate, like a sequence where the trio inexplicably decide to practice their criminal impulses by robbing a convenience store. It’s all so broad and obvious and lackluster. There’s a scene where they get high and the mere utterance of the word “munchies” seems like it’s intended to be a comedic payoff. Going in Style is a remake of a 1979 movie where George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg take to a life of crime to animate them from a forgotten existence. It was strangely serious and had pockets of depth about the kind of care the elderly were receiving and how invisible their needs became to our country. This update loses any seriousness for exasperated and hollow hijinks. One-time indie darling Zach Braff (Garden State) takes his turn as a hired gun directing for the studio system. I don’t know if he was easily cowed by the acting veterans or the studio, but his comedy instincts honed over several seasons from Scrubs feel muted here. My theater was packed with people old enough to get their social security checks and they were barely chuckling politely. It’s predictable every step of the way and ginned up with contrived conflicts. Still, if all you want to see is a group of octogenarians crack wise and act foolish and you have no other pressing demands, Going in Style may be just enough to get by.
Nate’s Grade: C
The first Now You See Me was a pleasant surprise that took a simple concept (magician heist) and injected enough sly fun, style, and humor and made a memorable action thriller. As success demands, a sequel was commanded, but I had hopes considering the blueprint of its success could be repeated because those core elements were strong. We all love heist movies, we all love to be fooled, we all love to watch a smart people befuddle those in power, and the reveals made it even more enjoyable. I wasn’t expecting Now You See Me 2 to drop much of what made the first film appealing and shamble through its set pieces with a disinterested sense of sequel duty. The magic is gone.
The Four Horsemen magic act (Jessie Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Lizzy Caplan) has made quite a few enemies. They’re a group that attacks the fraud, exploitation, and greed of those rich and powerful who feel untouchable. This merry band of Robin Hoods is transported against their will to Macau, China by Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe). Walter lost a lot of money from the Horsemen’s antics in the first film and demands they steal a super microchip that will allow him to erase his identity and stay private permanently. Meanwhile, the Horsemen’s handler, Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), is blackmailed by famous and currently incarcerated Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). Bradley has a score to settle with the Horsemen and uses Rhodes to escape from prison. All forces are headed to Macau and much more will be learned of the Horsemen’s behind-the-scene organization, The Eye.
It feels like the filmmakers aren’t even trying to keep one foot in reality this time. It’s not like the first Now You See Me was a deeply grounded movie but it took pains to at least offer varying explanations for how these illusions were accomplished. Some of the answers were clever and some were preposterous, but at least they tried to show you their work, which made the Horsemen even cleverer, in my book. Understanding the preparation for the illusions and the execution of them adds to their impressive aura. The characters in the sequel don’t even attempt to explain the far majority of their tricks, and it’s simply not as fun. The opening job is a fun refresher because we see the different characters working together but also because we can see how they’re getting away with their shenanigans. As the movie continues, those magic acts get bigger and bigger and more ludicrous and harder to explain and then the movie just stops trying to explain. At this point magic might as well be real and the Horsemen are wizards. There’s suspension of belief and then there’s simply obliterating all connections to reality. When Eisenberg can control the direction of rain itself without any explanation, it cheapens the thrill. Because if there isn’t some level of limitations, requiring the tricks to be based in reality, then the on screen efforts lose their appeal because it doesn’t matter. It’s like haphazardly just writing, “The Horsemen do some magic junk and get away.” It’s just not as satisfying when it feels like the trick is ultimately on the audience.
Another complaint I have is that the scattered script seems littered with missed opportunities. One of the bigger misses that comes to mind is Harrelson’s twin brother, an obvious Matthew McConaughey impression from his True Detective costar. The character isn’t nearly as funny as Harrelson or the producers believe. He isn’t particularly memorable or necessary to the plot at all, but that’s not even his biggest offense. In a movie about magicians playing sleight-of-hand trickery, how in the world do we not have a switcheroo with the twins? That would justify his existence for the plot. I was shocked this never happened because it seemed so obvious. Why is he a twin? What does being a brother to Harrelson have to do with anything related to the plot? The script also gets overcrowded with antagonists, introducing Radcliffe and then bringing back Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. The characters don’t so much compete with one another as they operate in separate spheres until a “twist” reveals more about their connections. Their agendas are too opaque. Radcliffe wants them to steal a super microchip so he can fully be “off the grid.” A man of his means shouldn’t have a problem with this. It’s not like he’s hiding out from the law for some kind of corporate espionage. It’s a convoluted reason to bring the Horsemen to his hiding spot in Macau. It’s just one in a long line of ideas that never feel fully developed. Even the magic set pieces don’t feel as fun. Seriously, one of the climactic magic set pieces is a human game of three-card Monty.
Director John M. Chu (G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Jem and the Holograms) has worked with action before and certainly knows his way around choreography, but he feels too hesitant this time. The action scenes are rare and the chase sequences are muted. Outside of the tricks, there isn’t a standout action scene in the whole movie. In the first film we had a pretty fun magic fight that was wild and surprising and loaded with small payoffs. In this movie we have a motorcycle chase that plays out as expected. We have a foot chase that plays out as expected. You have professional illusionists at your disposal; action set pieces should not play out as expected. The most fun sequence is fairly straightforward but easily the best developed, and that’s the Mission: Impossible-esque heist of the microchip that is outfitted onto a playing card. It’s also clearly the most visually inventive sequence as the Horsemen play a game of keep away and the camera literally at times tumbles into their clothes. I think what makes this easily the best sequence in the movie is because it’s moderately grounded, the stakes are explained, and the audience is in on the trick, enjoying all the flimflam obfuscation. It also means when there are complications to the plan the sequence generates suspense. When you don’t know what’s going on and don’t know when things are going wrong, or how they could go wrong, it’s hard to generate genuine suspense. Being involved in the action is much more fun.
The actors all seem on autopilot, falling back to the broader descriptions for their characters. Eisenberg is a smug and cocky. Harrelson is smooth and shrewd. Franco is awkward and insecure. Isla Fisher is replaced by the capable Lizzy Caplan (TV’s Masters of Sex) as the requisite Female Horsemen. She makes a good impression but part of it is that Capaln seems to be the only member allowed to be comedic. It feels like there are three straight guys to her comedy cut-up. She’s good but without variation it also starts to lose its appeal when only one character seems to be trying. Ruffalo (Spotlight) seems too often unrelated the Horsemen story as he discovers more info about his father. He’s the only character that actually has something of a storyline, though his playing of both sides and attempts to hide his role to the FBI is just another ludicrous element. I miss Melanie Laurent too.
Now You See Me 2 (how could this not be called Now You Don’t?) is a lackluster sequel that seems to have forgotten what made the first film the enjoyable caper that it was.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Adam McKay is not exactly the kind of name you associate with a prestige picture that’s building serious Oscar heat. McKay is best known as the director and co-writer of Will Ferrell’s best movies, from Anchorman and its sequel to Talladega Nights and the underrated 2010 buddy cop movie, The Other Guys. If you stuck through the closing credits for Guys, you were treated to an animated education lesson on the size of Wall Street’s greed and accountability in regards to the 2008 financial crisis. It was impassioned, angry, and an interesting note to end an otherwise goofy comedy. The Big Short is based upon Michael Lewis’ (Moneyball) best-selling book and it’s a disaster movie where the biggest disaster is the world economy. The movie McKay co-adapted and directed is bristling with intelligence, indignation, and a clear purpose. He wants to make you very angry, and by the end if you’re not, you haven’t been paying enough attention.
In the wake of the financial collapse in 2008, the fallout was so tremendous that many people felt nobody could have seen this coming. There were a few and they made out like bandits while trying to warn others about the impending doom. In the early 2000s, Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a hedgefund manager who sees warning signs that the housing market is a bubble ready to burst. He sees the toxicity of the majority sub-prime mortgages wrapped together and sold as a seemingly safe security, a CDO (collateralized debt obligation). His bosses think he’s mad and they’re furious when they discover Burry has gone from bank to bank making big bets against the housing market. The banks are eager to take what they believe to be easy money from a sucker. How could the housing market burst? Other Wall Street investors take notice of Burry, notably Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who pitches the plan to “short” the housing market. Nobody takes him seriously except Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his small team who works for Goldman Sachs. Baum is curious how something so large could go unnoticed, so he and his team fly to Florida and Vegas to investigate the realities of the market and what they find does not match the rosy cheerleading from Wall Street. A pair of wannabe traders (Finn Witrock, John Magaro) stumbles across Burry’s analysis and try to make their own bets, except they need a bigger name to make the trades. They reach out to an ex-Wall Street trader (Brad Pitt) who agrees to shepherd them on this quixotic quest. Are these men righteous defenders of fraud or just people trying to get their own cut of the pie?
The brilliance of The Big Short lies in its accessibility and the virulent passion that McKay has for the subject matter. The movie is structured like a heist and an underdog story, suckering in the audience to root for the upstarts trying to fleece the big banks and profit off their greed and stupidity. For the first 90 minutes or so, the film comes across like a caper and we follow our group of misfits as they fight against the conventional wisdom that the housing market could never topple. These guys see the signs and the risks that others could not or would not see, especially since the flow of money was rich and the good times could be shared, which lead to collusion from the very same agencies designed to regulate and enforce the financial laws. For those 90 minutes the movie flies by on its sense of whimsy and are-we-getting-away-with-this good fortune, putting our band of misfits in position to win big on the losses of the ignorant and fraudulent. And then, in one swift move, it all comes down and you’re reminded, rather indignantly by Pitt’s character, that what they are benefiting from is the meltdown of the U.S. housing market and by extension the American economy. What once felt like a celebratory caper now starts to feel queasy, and it’s in the last act that The Big Short reminds you just how awful the events of the 2008 financial crisis were and how these guys did nothing more than benefit from mass misery. These are not heroes, though Mark Baum is given plenty of moral grandstanding moments that present him as the closest thing we have in the picture. These were a bunch of guys who got rich betting on a lot of other people’s bad bets, bets that almost destroyed the world’s economic systems. The concluding half hour feels like a sudden stop after a sugar rush, where you’re left to question your decision-making but also come to terms with the reality of what seemed like a fun time. McKay lures his audience in with the guise of a heist/underdog story, appealing and accessible avenues of cinema, and then serves the cold hard medicine in the concluding moments.
McKay is admirably trying to educate and advocate while he entertains, but he truly wants the audience to understand why they should be sharpening their pitchforks. At several points, characters will break the fourth wall and talk directly into the camera, admitting that certain events didn’t happen exactly as we saw, or occasionally they’ll remind us that what we watched was exactly how it happened. It’s a measure that isn’t overplayed and helps juice the spirits of the movie, becoming something of a confidant in the schemes with the onscreen participants. When things gets a little hard to understand with the mountain of Wall Street lingo, McKay will cut to celebrity cameos to help explain the more arcane instruments of the financial system. Margot Robbie luxuriates in a bubble bath and explains sub-prime mortgages, Anthony Bourdain explains CDOs, and Selena Gomez, in a rather cogent analogy, explains synthetic CDOs as an endless chain of side bets being made off one hand of blackjack. The movie goes pretty fast and a viewer might experience information overload but McKay knows when to slow things down and provide a well-timed assist so that his learned audience will see the true extent of the corruption and greed rampant in how Wall Street handled its business.
Of the three storylines, I found Mark Baum and his team easily the most interesting and I think McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph (The Interpreter) agreed, which is why he’s the biggest part of the movie. Burry gets things started but he recedes into the background after the first act, and that’s where Baum and his financial team step into the spotlight to further explore how unstable the housing market just might be. I think this is Carell’s best dramatic performance to date (I wasn’t wowed by Foxcatcher). He’s playing perhaps one of the angriest people seen on screen but that’s because he has a moral center and the bad business practices, let alone the sociopathic greed of his “peers,” constantly enrage him. He’s something like a flabbergasted crusading journalist who keeps shaking his head in stupefying revulsion at just how deep this whole thing goes. Having Baum as our entry into the moral morass of Wall Street allows the audience to feel a sense of ethical superiority, and then like Pitt’s character, it can all go away with one perfectly articulated retort. There’s a moment where Baum is lambasting a mortgage ratings officer (Melissa Leo, her only scene too) after she admits that if they don’t rate bad mortgages as good, the banks will just go to their competitor, and then she accuses Baum of being a hypocrite. His reason for the office visit is not his outrage at the fraud but the fact that this fraud is holding up his winnings. He’s not the crusader he may wish to be. Bale (American Hustle) and Gosling (Only God Forgives) are perfectly cast and provide strong supporting work in small doses spread throughout. Pitt is in 12 Years a Slave producer mode where he knows he needs to appear in the movie to better sell it to audiences, and so he’s here and rather unremarkable. There is a bevy of familiar faces (Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall, Max Greenfield, Karen Gillan) appearing in small moments as if everybody in Hollywood wanted to get in on McKay’s party.
There is one annoying misstep in the movie and it occurs about halfway and it’s made to stretch out the stakes in a haphazard manner. The Big Short is a disaster movie where the audience knows exactly when the disaster is coming, and yet there’s a section in the middle where the characters are all left in doubt whether their big bets will pay off because of the ratings fraud. Burry is threatened with losing his job. It’s silly because we know the economy is going to crash in 2008, but the movie throws out a weak obstacle that, hey, maybe it won’t crash. It reminds me of the Hinderberg movie from the 1970s. There were several moments where it looked like that zeppelin full of hydrogen was going to go up in flames… except students of history know that moment is fated in New Jersey, so all the close calls were foolish fake-outs for a major event that was well anticipated. We all know the economy is going down so there’s no need for the manufactured doubts.
McKay and company want to wake up a fairly apathetic general public about the crimes and negligence of the Wall Street robber barons that risked the world’s economy and then managed to skip out on the tab. The tones can juggle wildly, and I’d credit McKay’s background in comedy for his ability to maintain a reliable and firm comic footing for the film without losing the significance of his message. It’s hard to nail down a genre for the movie; it’s a dark comedy, a drama, a true crime picture, and a wake-up call. You have moments that feel like a heist flick and moments that feel like a sickening journalistic expose. It’s got highs, lows, laughs, groans, and plenty of human emotions, though the most prominent would be disgust and disbelief. The Big Short is advocacy populism as pop-entertainment, and it succeeds ably. It’s an economics lesson for the public. At the end of the movie, the closing text informs us about “bespoke tranches,” which are investment opportunities that banks are flocking to ($5 billion in 2013 to $20 billion in 2014). It’s just another name for CDOs. Unless an informed public demands action from the system, it seems that Wall Street is doomed to repeat its same high-risk mistakes and that same vulnerable public is doomed to clean up the mess.
Nate’s Grade: A-
For the longest time it looked like Ant-Man might be the first dud of the runaway successful Marvel cinematic universe (MCU), a film franchise that was practically printing money at its leisure. It’s a strange setup and the man responsible for the movie even existing, writer/director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), walked away six weeks before cameras were going to roll. Wright was a big fan of the character and has been working on and off on a screenplay with Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) for the past eight years. Before there was an MCU, there was Wright pushing for Ant-Man. I’m pretty sure Marvel execs weren’t thinking the relatively unknown character was worth sinking money into, but Wright kept pushing. I was far more excited for an Edgar Wright superhero movie than I ever was for Ant-Man, and then it all went away. Neither side has spilled too many details but it appears the divorce was a result of “creative differences,” which is odd since Marvel approved Wright’s script through eight years of development. Several directors were auditioned and Peyton Reed won the spot. The fact that Marvel has gained a rep for being a formula-driven creative committee and they literally hired a director with a film credit called Yes Man is an irony I don’t know that fully sank in. If Marvel was going to miss, this was the film. A funny thing happened in the ensuring year. Ant-Man is a visually engaging, energetic, and funny superhero caper that stays fun from start to finish and is a more entertaining movie than Avengers: Age of Ultron. Didn’t see that coming.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a master cat burglar just finishing the end of his prison term. Lang was punished for a “cool crime,” stealing millions a large corporation had illegally bilked form customers and returning it to the very victims, but it makes it hard to secure gainful employment. Scott falls back with his old crew, lead by his pal Luis (Michael Pena), and break’s into Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) safe. Expecting cash and jewels, Scott is disappointed to only find a weird looking suit, which he takes anyway. Hank observes Scott and communicates with him about the power of the suit. The wearer can shrink down to the size of n ant with the push of a button in the glove. Hank needs a protégée to wear the suit now that he’s too old. His estranged daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), is working for Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), a scientist close to breaking through on replicating the amazing shrinking formula of Pym’s. As soon as Cross cracks the code, he’s going to sell the technology to the highest bidder (hail HYDRA). Hank must convince Scott to become the Ant-Man and sneak inside Cross’ secured workshop and steal his technology before it gets in the wrong-er hands.
Arguably weirder than last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which had a talking tree and space raccoon amongst its main characters, Ant-Man is the hardest property to sell by Marvel yet, and it smartly aims its sights lower and succeeds with the modest goal of just being a fun and enjoyable time at the movies. It helps that the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously and has characters pointing out the absurdity of its premise and developments, but not past the point where it would be detrimental. Let’s face it, a guy who can shrink down to ant-size isn’t that weird when you consider the applications, especially in espionage. The filmmakers do an admirable job of selling a superpower that pales in comparison to most other heroes on the market. However, the weirder power is that Scott has the ability to communicate and control ants via brainwaves. That seems like the even bigger superpower but it also begs the question, why simply ants? Of all the animals or living creatures who could be harnessed with this technology, we go with the tiny ones. There may be an explanation in the history of Ant-Man comics I’m missing but that doesn’t matter when we’re talking about the execution of the movie. The guy is able to control different species of ants with his mind. He is no Ant-Man but the Ant-King. Anyway, I think this power could be much more effective applied elsewhere. The ants are Scott’s friends and he has to train himself training them, getting them to coordinate and assist him properly, or else… there’s not much else at stake because they’re expendable. Perhaps their queen could have eaten Scott if he were unsuccessful.
On its surface, this movie should not work and is too goofy and insubstantial to engage, and yet that’s precisely what appealed to me. Not every superhero film needs to be averting a cataclysm that will destroy the planet. If the stakes feel big to our characters, and if the audience cares, then the stakes feel plenty big for us too. Scott simply foiling the corporate bad guy to be in a better position to see his daughter, that’s workable. Then the storyline is told through a heist, one of cinema’s most enjoyable plot mechanics. Heists are programmed for audience pleasure because it requires teamwork, which utilizes our cast in different and fun ways, it brings plenty of conflict and complications, and it lays out its steps one-by-one and provides a series of payoffs with the completion. It’s a tribute to Reed and the filmmakers that the heist portion of the film isn’t even the most fun part of the story. The majority of the middle is Scott coming to terms with the suit, his powers, his relationships in his life, and the mission. There’s probably one too many training montages (yeah, you get those sugar cubes you ants!) but the pacing is so breezy and the sense of fun so palpable, I didn’t mind. The use of humor never diminishes and Rudd is such a charismatic anchor for the movie, and yet he’s actually somewhat underplayed. He has it within him to be much funnier, but I guess he had to dial it down to effectively be seen as an action hero, hence the presence of newfound abs.
I didn’t have a lot of hope for the film once Wright left but I have to credit Reed for what he has achieved. It’s impossible for me to divorce myself from Wright’s involvement, and what kind of kinetic fireworks he would have birthed, but Reed manages to make Ant-Man come alive visually. Reed’s prior history shows an affinity for comedy but the films have never needed to be visually stylish, though I’d argue my super not-guilty pleasure Bring it On had an above average sense of visual spunk. Still, Ant-Man is a consistently visually immersive film that manages to find new perspectives. Scott’s first foray as a shrunken Ant-Man is an entertaining adventure through the dangers of a house party. The action sequences in miniature are treated just as we would expect a large-scale superhero epic to be treated, and then Reed pulls back at times for prime comic effect, like a battle atop a train that’s really just a child’s toy set. The visuals grandeur is patterned after the typical Hollywood action epic but the movie pulls back repeatedly to remind us how silly everything can be. The small world perspective opens up the movie in its storytelling and definitely in its action choreography. Because the Ant-Man has super strength when small, it behooves him to shift between small and human sizes when fighting. We’ll watch Scott race across the barrel of a gun in one second and then full-sized and hurling a security guard through a plate glass window the next. It provides a new sense of dynamism to basic fisticuffs. Reed takes advantage of the visual possibilities of his pint-sized super hero, like a clever battle that takes place entirely inside the contents of a briefcase. I chose not to watch this film in 3D, as my preferred option, but this is one I would almost consider going 3D. The shrunken worlds use a lot of macro photography to maximize the effect of depth.
The cast also seems to be perfectly attuned to the comic rhythms of the story and several supporting players make the most of their moments to shine. Pena (Fury) is hilarious as the easily excitable friend given to lengthy diversions when retelling his tales of intrigue. The two instances where Pena breathlessly recaps what so-and-so said to so-and-so are two of the most playful and comically fulfilling sequences in the movie. I also enjoyed the fact that he’s always making waffles for his friends but this is never overtly commented upon. While Pena provides another dose of humor, the heart of the movie is really the father-daughter relationship, and it’s nice that Lilly (The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies)’s character is given such prominence. She resents Scott because she feels like by every right she should be the Ant-Man; the movie presents the two like bickering rivals fighting for the approval of a father figure. Hope’s credible grievances with her father are treated with weight and her reconciliation is given as much screen time as Scott’s training, pairing the two more as equals. Douglas (Last Vegas) is a warm and welcoming presence as a mentor working through his regrets late in his life. The de-aging CGI effects are amazing early on, showing a 1989 version of Douglas that looks pristine. He looks like he just stepped off the set of Ruthless People. The only weak point is Stoll (TV’s The Strain) but that’s because his underwritten villain is just too generic to blend in amidst all the colorful characters and comic mayhem.
It’s impossible to watch Ant-Man and not try to imagine what it would have been like had Wright remained as its director. Wright’s presence is still felt in stretches and he and Cornish are still the top-billed screenwriters, with the addition of Adam McKay (Anchorman) and Rudd himself performing a rewrite. I’d love to one day read what Wright’s full script was like and what Marvel eventually decided they could not abide. Whatever the case may be, the Ant-Man that made it to the big screen across the world is a surprisingly entertaining and spry piece of work. Reed provides a nice dash of visual flavor without losing its sense of the comedy or drama, Rudd is effortlessly charming, and the structure provides plenty of payoffs. Above all else the movie maintains a sense of fun and a lightness in an arena too often overwrought with doom and gloom. I don’t imagine there will be any Ant-Man sequels soon since the character is rather limited, but expect to see Rudd popping up in other MCU titles (he’s already been spotted filming Captain America 3). Ant-Man is a fun diversion but even Marvel knows not to push its luck too far.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Muppets are back, though their new film seems to vaguely be recreating the amusing if somewhat slight Great Muppet Caper. The same blend of Muppet-staple sweet goofiness and anarchy is still a pleasure to watch, causing me to laugh throughout; it’s just that there are more leaden stretches between the laughs. The side stories have more interest and humor than the main storyline where Kermit has been replaced by a nefarious Russian doppelganger. Ricky Gervais is wasted as a criminal sidekick and he doesn’t bring much energy to the film. Fortunately Tina Fey, as a gulag prison guard, and Ty Burrell, as a Pink Panther-like Interpol agent, rise to the occasion. Burrel, teamed up with Sam the Eagle, made the movie for me. Their comic interplay and rivalry is the best and gives way to the best use of sight gags. It’s an amusing and agreeable film but there’s a noticeable spirit missing, possibly from the departure of living Muppet Jason Segel as an actor and a co-writer. I was shocked that Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for the 2011 movie, was the same man behind these new tunes. With the exception of maybe two songs, the remaining majority of the songs are downright dreadful. Within minutes of leaving my theater I could not for the life of me remember one of the tunes. The celebrity cameos are also less fun, many poorly integrated into the film, just the actors appearing and then vanishing. James McAvoy just walks onscreen to deliver a package. Is that the best use of everyone’s time? Still, while a noticeable step down from 2011’s The Muppets, the movie still has enough of the Muppet charm and silliness to entertain. It’s just missing some of the magic that made their return so special.
Nate’s Grade: B