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
An all-star cast, a true-life tale that incorporates a treasure hunt, a race against time, Nazis, and fish-out-of-water tropes as non-soldiers are placed in harm’s way, plus the skills of George Clooney behind the camera; in short, how could this go wrong? With that plot makeup and this cast it would take more effort to tell a boring big screen adventure of the real-life Monuments Men (and women). And yet, the movie found a way. It’s by no means a bad film and its heart is in the right place, but allow me to explain why The Monuments Men sadly fails to live up to its mission.
It’s 1944 and Adolf Hitler doesn’t just have his sights on constructing a permanent empire, he wants all the world’s art treasures as well. The Nazis have been plundering famous works of art, and while the war is coming to a close with the Allied invasion, the fate of these priceless works of art may be in jeopardy. Frank Stokes (Clooney) is tasked with putting together a team to save Europe’s art from the Nazis. He puts together an unconventional group of soldiers (Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville) and search for the hidden loot.
The film looks like it’s going to be a high-concept heist film when it reality it’s a series of vignettes that do not add up to a solid whole. Early on, the Monuments Men team is scattered to the wind, divided into pairs, and so we have four or five competing storylines that don’t develop as desired. To be fair, there are some very good scenes, well executed and written by Clooney and Grant Heslov (The Men Who Stare at Goats) where the conflict is turned up, but the film cannot escape the fact that it feels more like a series of scenes than a cohesive story. Not all of the stories are equal in their interest as well. The Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Damon storyline in France amounts to little else than her stalling for as long as the plot necessitates, then handing over the Very Important Info, then she’s swept aside. The comical asides, notably with Murray and Balaban, feel like scene fillers when there could be stronger material. Once they’re reunited as a group, you wonder why we even needed the time apart. Perhaps it’s an attempt to showcase a wider sampling of stories and perspectives on a complicated war, which is fine, but the characters don’t get the same complicated examination. Despite physical descriptors, these guys are fairly one-note and stay that way, which is a real shame especially when we start losing Monuments Men. The attention is split amongst a bunch of characters lacking proper development. If I felt like we knew these guys on any substantive level, I would feel more at their untimely passing.
Another issue that exacerbates the directionless feeling pervading the film is that it lacks a clear and concise goal. I understand they’re saving and rescuing art, but that’s kept vague until the very end of the film when it becomes more concrete. Until then, the guys are just traveling from place to place, retrieving this piece or that, having comic misadventures, and the movie just feels like it needs a stronger guiding force to corral all these stories, a concise goal that each scene builds onto and where the urgency increases. Late in the film, I got a glimpse of exactly what kind of movie Monuments Men could have been. Once the war is over, the Germans are replaced as antagonists by the Russians (two-for-two with classic American movie villains) and it becomes a race against time to get to the art before the Russians confiscate it. There was always a ticking clock in the film, as Hitler was assembling his art and his command would destroy them in spite of returning them. However, in the very end of the film, the urgency is cranked up, made real, and for once the film emerges with a sense of suspense. I think it would have been a more engaging film experience if the scope of the film were narrowed simply to the material covered in the climax, namely beating the Russians to the art reserves. It practically has a Raiders of the Lost Ark feel with two parties trying to outrace the other to the next precious treasure. How cool would that movie have been?
Another problem is the film’s seesaw tone never really gels together in a satisfying manner. The film awkwardly switches gears from drama to comedy to action without smooth transitions. Clooney wants his film to be a comical buddy comedy but also a poignant remembrance of the lives lost so that we can enjoy our great treasures. Clashing tones take away from the effectiveness, making us feel that Clooney didn’t feel confidant with either direction to make a movie. Alexander Desplat’s overbearing musical score instructs the audience what they should be feeling at any given moment. It vacillates without similar transitions informing you with little transparency that you should feel whimsical, now sad, and now heroic, now go back to whimsical. The entire film, from a story standpoint to a technical standpoint, cried out for a greater sense of unity.
Then there’s the question of whether art is worth people giving up their lives, and this is a valid question that deserves consideration. I was never in doubt what Clooney and company would say to this ethical query, but it’s as if Clooney has little faith in his own audience. He gives three separate speeches about the significance of art and culture and why it is worth dying for. I expected one hefty speech, but three? It’s like Clooney is afraid his audience will waver when blood starts to be shed, and so we need to be reminded by the professor why art is significant to mankind’s value. The point has been made; it doesn’t need to be belabored. The film even ends on recycling this debate, with Clooney putting one final stamp of judgment before the credits roll.
One gets the sense while watching The Monuments Men that it would make a better documentary than a fictional feature film, at least this incarnation of a fictional film. Hearing from the men who lived it will be far more interesting than watching the comic squabbles of Clooney’s crew through Europe. I was instantly reminded of an engrossing documentary from a few years ago called The Rape of Europa, which looked at the subject of saving the arts from Hitler, not specifically the Monuments Men. That documentary was filled with so many different fascinating stories, I remember thinking that any one of them could have made a stellar movie. Monuments Men is further proof that a sharper, more contained focus would be best rather than trying to tell as many war stories involved on the topic. Clooney has proven himself an excellent director and despite his film’s faults it’s still an entertaining film in spurts. I just think we all expected better given the pedigree of talent involved and the can’t-miss quality of the history.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Ambitious filmmaking is welcome, but usually ambition leads somewhere, which is the main problem with co-writer and director Derek Cianfrance’s unwieldy 140-minute multi-generational crime drama, The Place Beyond the Pines. First we watch Luke (Ryan Gosling) as a traveling motorcyclist enter a life of crime to support his infant son. Next the focus shifts to Avery (Bradley Cooper) as a cop with a conscience running into corruption on the force. Last, we jump ahead into the future and watch the dramatic irony unfold as the children of Avery and Luke interact, waiting for them to learn their paternal connection. I believe Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) and his team was attempting to tell a meditative, searching drama about children paying for the sins of their fathers, the lingering fallout of bad decisions and moral compromises. Except that’s not this film. By the end of the movie, while some secrets have been laid bare, there really aren’t any significant consequences. The film does an excellent job of maintaining a sense of dread, but it doesn’t come to anything larger or thought provoking. The entire structure of this film is geared toward a tragic accumulation, but it just doesn’t materialize. That’s a shame because it’s got great acting through and through, though I have grown weary of Gosling’s taciturn antihero routine that seems like a rut now. Avery’s portion of the plot was the most interesting and anxiety-inducing, but I found the movie interesting at every turn. The characters are given pockets of nuance and ambiguity as they traverse similar paths of desperation and conciliation. The Place Beyond the Pines is a perfectly good movie, albeit disjointed, that cannot amount to the larger thematic impact it yearns for.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Everybody loves magic, right? At least the prospect of being surprised and delighted. Now You See Me takes something everybody loves (magic) and mixes it with a genre everybody loves (heist movie) and has already profited from the results at the box-office. Mix an ensemble of actors, though all of them white, and look over in this direction for a diverting, entertaining, and ultimately frustrating film that is too breezy to hate.
Four different magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco) have teamed up to form a super team, The Horsemen, and they’ve taken Vegas by storm. A year into their reign, the insurance magnet and casino owner, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), is sitting pretty with his investment until the Horsemen turn their targets on him. With each new fantastic trick, the quartet fleeces the shady businessman of his money, returning it to wronged parties and the public at large. FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol Agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) are tasked with finding the magical fugitives and figuring out their greater scheme. Just as one of the magicians notes, every time they think they’re one step ahead, they’re actually three behind.
Let’s begin by admitting that the premise of a group of magicians performing heists is excellent. Seriously, on that alone I’d be hooked. Wouldn’t an Ocean’s 11-style movie about a group of magicians working a big score just be awesome? There’s so much fun to be had with such a breezy premise and for the most part Now You See Me lives up to its breezy potential. It works in segments, presenting a magical set piece, watching it unfold, and then unpacking it, sort of like a reverse heist sequence. It provides a bite-size moment of satisfaction, and then the movie goes off and repeats the process. The Horsemen elude the police and we start to get a broader sense of their aims, namely a slice of class warfare vigilante justice. There’s a genuine thrill to watching smart, talented types outfox their antagonists, and Now You See Me is no different. Under Louis Leterrier’s (Clash of the Titans) direction, the results are fast-paced, constantly shifting and surprising, and so cheery in tone that it’s hard to fault the movie for its lack of substance. Here is an example of a summer movie that’s just fun to watch. It taps into the desire we all have to be fooled, the same willful disbelief we process when watching magic or movies themselves, the modern artistic equivalent of magic. For a solid hour-plus, Now You See Me is a diverting and entertaining action thriller.
There are only a handful of traditional action sequences in the movie as most of the thrills are comprised of the illusions and some foot chases. I do want to single out a great moment, namely a magic fight where Jack Wilder (Franco) runs al over an apartment subduing police officers with magic. At first he relies on stealth to get the drop on them, but then the guy resorts to what is practically magic kung fu, using his sleight-of-hand to disarm his attackers. He then uses playing cards and flash paper at his disposal. I only wish that Rhodes, Wilder’s main adversary in the scene, tried to fight fire with fire, so to speak, and make use of the magical accessories in comical matters. The scene’s imagination reminded me of the final confrontation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? where a selection of toon-specific tools were brought back for a unique showdown.
But with most magic acts, the good times start to fade once you find out how the trick is done. What hampers Now You See Me from being a stronger movie is a convoluted third act that goes to great preposterous lengths to explain the source behind the Horsemen. It’s pretty much who you’d assume it would be but I’ll still refrain from spoilers. Suffice to say, it’s an ending that doesn’t really work especially since it’s one of those reveals that makes you think back and question ordinary scenes. The movie muffs the landing, relying on twists to satisfy what was really just a high-concept heist movie. Another issue I had with the film is how quickly it marginalizes our would-be Robin Hoods of magic. After about the 45-minute mark, the Horsemen get sidelined as supporting characters and the movie is almost entirely told from the perspective of Rhodes. I understand there’s got to be some narrative discipline so that we don’t know the protagonists’ tricks before they perform them, but if I’m going to stuck with the dogged cop then make it his movie from the start. Compounding this problem is that the Horsemen, through no fault of the actors, barely register as characters. The actors are given one-note, and in the case of Fisher (The Great Gatsby) it was Woman, and that’s it. We see them as they perform their tricks and their daring escapes, but that doesn’t count as character development. In this regard, it’s less bothersome that these poorly conceived people get sidelined but then you stop and think that the only character you actually feel some interest in is Laurent’s Interpol agent.
My suggestion for any possible future installments (Now You See Me Again? Now You Don’t?) is to focus more on our core team of magicians rather than their mysterious benefactor. I would also stress less time spent talking about The Eye of Horus or whatever through-the-centuries secret club of magicians the film was hinting at. I liked that, while completely elaborate and with endless fortune in preparation, that the illusions still had some tenuous foot in reality, that the magic tricks could be done in a somewhat recognizable world of ours (ignore the hologram junk). I strongly feel that even hinting about secret magical orders is just a step too far, breaking the film’s credulity, and taking what was fun and making it silly. I was worried before seeing the movie that the magic, as advertised, was going to be too supernatural. I was relieved that there wasn’t going to be a late reveal where some character rolls their eyes, probably Eisenberg, sand says, “Well, yeah, magic is real. Stupid.” When you’re playing around with larger-than-life figures that deal in theatricality and misdirection, I think it’s paramount not to get too carried away, failing to ground your movie for the audience.
If you’re looking for a fun time out at the movies, Now You See Me will serve its purpose well enough until it begins to fall apart by the end. You may find yourself looking back and the earlier mystery and thrill of the unknown will dissipate upon reflection, leaving you with little. It’s fun while it lasts but when it’s all over you’re left with substandard characters and an overly convoluted plot that doesn’t satisfy in the clinch. Magicians-plan-heist is such a juicy premise that I hope someone else makes better use of it. I would still love to see that movie, only well developed and giving me characters to actually care about. Now You See Me is as substantial as a magic trick itself but it’s an inoffensive, carefree, and mostly fun ride at the movies, though I think so much more could have been done with this concept and this budget. For a $75 million dollar magic trick, I want a better result.
Nate’s Grade: B-
It’s the age-old story about an elderly man (Frank Langella) suffering from Alzheimer’s who teaches his robot helper to be his partner in jewelry heists. While that sounds a lot more fantastic than the movie we eventually get, Robot & Frank is a mellow, sincere, and overall nice movie that treats the particulars of its world with a wry sense of whimsy. The movie is really a mismatched buddy film as Frank is hostile to being forced to live with robotic help, but soon the two of them form the basis of a friendship, and when things get dangerous it’s heartwarming the lengths they’ll go to save the other. Give the Alzheimer’s subject, expect some twists in the final act concerning Frank’s world. The movie wants to hit us emotionally but I felt mostly remote, smirking at some of the fun of the old codger back in the burglary business of his youth. But the film just stays at a very even-keel level of emotional resonance, drawing us in but not exactly taking us anywhere. The ending is curiously without any sort of comforting resolution that could have put a solid piece of punctuation on the film’s emotional drama. Langella, it should be said, is excellent. Robot & Frank is a high-concept buddy film, fairly pleasant and entertaining but when it comes to a close you may wish that the film had relied less on chaste understatement.
Nate’s Grade: B
January at the movies has long been a time for two kinds of releases: 1) award-worthy films expanding into wider release, and, 2) crap. That’s about it. I’ll let you figure out which category the action thriller Contraband belongs in.
Paul (Mark Wahlberg) was once the best smuggler in the business. He’s since gone legit, starting a family and his own private security business. His brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) gets into trouble with some bad men. He tosses a load of smuggled drugs to elude Customs ships, but now Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi) wants the value of the drugs or else. Paul knows he has no choice but to put together one last job to save Kate’s (Kate Beckinsale) brother. Paul leaves his family in the hands of Sebastian (Ben Foster), a trusted accomplish on many missions. John puts together a team and plans to board a ship headed for Panama City. While there, the team will load large sums of confederate money. The sale of the fake currency should square things between John and Briggs. However, little goes according to plan.
Contraband is a lousy heist picture that feels like it’s making it up as it goes. First off, the premise of John having to go back into his art of smuggling to settle a debt has been overdone, and the fact that John’s idiotic brother-in-law is as fault makes it hard to care that something might happen to the idiot. But why God do they bring this screw-up, the brother-in-law, along with them? He’s already proven to be a poor decision maker and a moron, and, surprise surprise, when in Panama the guy gets them into more danger. So irritating is this character, always foolishly making things worse for John, that you wish they had thrown this dolt overboard. This is a movie structured with a small beginning, a small end, and a great big fat middle, and it’s that middle that involves our destination to Panama. With heist movies, as well as most thrillers, we don’t want things to go according to plan. We want to see organic complications and watch our team of characters adjust. With Contraband, the complications don’t feel natural so much as like careening plot elements from other movies. John’s quick visit goes out of control, with the team losing their payment money for the confederate loot (guess who’s responsible for that? Guess?), and they have to go find a budding crime lord, Gonzalo (Milk’s Diego Luna), and then this crime lord just happens to be plotting a heist at THAT EXACT MOMENT and John and his team should come along and then the heist goes bad, as always, and the team ahs to get away, but Gonzalo demands to be taken to a hospital by gunpoint, and then the cargo ship is going to leave port, and, and, and, and, etc. There are so many breakneck plot turns thrown in that it feels like a broken blender spewing half-formed plot residue everywhere. It’s the film equivalent of the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie story (“If you give a smuggler a deadline, he’ll need a contact. If you give him a contact, he’ll need to do the contact a favor. If he does the contact a favor, he’ll have to do this one job for him. If he does this one job for him, he’ll need a crew. If he needs a crew, he’ll need… etc.).
Let’s take a moment to analyze the peculiar masks Gonzalo and his team choose to utilize. They literally wrap duct tape around their faces. That’s got to be the dumbest mask in the history of cinema, and there have been some stinkers. They couldn’t afford pantyhose? Anything? They had to use tape? First off, you can’t conceal key features, like your eyes and mouth, and lastly, isn’t it going to be something of a bitch to rip those things off? The only person who could properly wear a duct tape mask would be someone suffering from alopecia (condition that leaves a person hairless). Otherwise you’re sacrificing your eyebrows. Maybe this is just how things are done in Panama.
So much of this movie feels like it’s on autopilot, just drifting like that cargo ship. At this point, I don’t even think Wahlberg is trying to hide his indifference to the material. He’s a man with a shady past who went legit and has a family now, but in order to protect that family he is drawn back to his shady past. How many times has this plot device just been used in the last few years? The rest of the characters fill out the crime thriller cheat sheet: young screw-up who serves as plot catalyst, parent in prison to provide cautionary tale, best trusted pal that ultimately proves to be untrustworthy, and the harried, often victimized wife. Poor Beckinsale (Underworld) who gets beaten, threatened with a gun in her face, and victimized to a degree that it feels like exploitation. This woman can never catch a break. She gets few moments in the film where she is free from being terrorized with violence. I have no idea what would attract an actress like Beckinsale to this part other than the allure of a paycheck. Contraband stalls when it comes to thrills, and part of this is because the villains seem so lame. Briggs just comes across as an inept criminal, like somebody’s own screw-up brother-in-law that tagged along to play with the big boys. He’s routinely beaten and bossed around. It’s hard to take his threats seriously, so the movie cuts its losses and just has him threaten Kate some more. It becomes old quick. The only thing that keeps Contraband going is the great distance between Paula and his family, a divide that keeps Paul vulnerable. Too bad that the movie can’t think of anything thrilling to do with this scenario and settles, all too frequently, on scaring the wife. Wouldn’t the film have been more engrossing if Paul’s wife had been kidnapped this whole time? Would that not cause a better sense of urgency than the vague threat that a character we don’t care about might get offed for being stupid?
From an action standpoint, the thrills rarely materialize, relying on a contingent of blunders and coincidences to provide the thrills. There wasn’t a moment where I worried for a character on screen. This may be because I didn’t care for a person on screen, thanks to workmanlike characterization, but it’s also got to fall on the feet of Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur (who starred in Wahlberg’s role in the original Icleandic version of this flick) and his nascent camerawork. There will be moments where his camera does stutter-step zooms, mimicking the docu-drama camerawork that’s been en vogue with action cinema. And then he’ll never repeat it. There’s a shot of Gonzalo blowing the armored car up and it’s filmed in a high-speed, stylized shot to distill the strange beauty of the force, and then this never happens again. It’s like Kormakur is sampling all 31 flavors of action movie styles and can’t decide on a visual tone. The action is too dependent on arbitrary coincidences for it to be satisfying of thrilling; we’re just waiting for the next out-of-nowhere plot turn to move things along. The ending attempts to tie up things nicely but feels asinine and laughable in how John can take out three villains in one well-orchestrated, tidy swoop. Don’t even get me started on the impracticalities of John hearing a lone cell phone ringing to be able to trace his wife in an entire construction site. The resolution feels ludicrous and a stroke of dumb luck.
Contraband is a convoluted, knuckleheaded thriller that drags because of arbitrary maneuverings, poor characterization, a fat middle section plot-wise, and pedestrian action. The movie feels like it’s being made up on the spot. As a result of all this tiresome lateral plotting, Contraband feels like it’s going nowhere and spinning into oblivion. I found myself nodding off at various points, my brain bored by all the generic goings-on. The constant victimization of Paul’s wife is a rather ugly development for a movie that confuses salty language and furrowed brows for toughness. The movie is devoid of any sense of fun. It just becomes an empty enterprise of actors going through the motions to work of genre pap. Even by the dirt-low standards of January cinematic offerings, Contraband isn’t worth a cent of your hard-earned money.
Nate’s Grade: C-