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Sherlock Gnomes (2018)

It’s been a couple of hours after watching Sherlock Gnomes and I still have alcohol working through my bloodstream (a byproduct of having to watch Sherlock Gnomes) and so I thought why not begin the review writing process and see where this goes. A little pretext first: I had no intention of watching this movie. Every time its trailer came before a movie I was watching, I cringed harder than I ever have. I cannot remember another movie trailer that I would describe as soul-killing as this one, with its emphasis on butt humor and an extended joke about a thong-wearing gnome farting in the mud. To watch this trailer was to look into the empty abyss and have it look back into you. It was this repulsed reaction that entertained my friend Ben Bailey so much that he insisted that we watch Sherlock Gnomes one fateful evening (he paid for my ticket and my suffering). I loaded up at the theater’s bar and the bartender made the easiest upsell he ever did in his life, and I took my tall adult beverage, sat in the theater, and awaited the end, like a man heading toward execution. Then a funny thing happened and Sherlock Gnomes was not the film advertised in its abysmal, life-questioning trailer. It’s still not great, though.

Following the events from the 2011 original, Gnomeo and Juliet, the garden gnomes have relocated to a new home in London. Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (voiced by Emily Blunt) are entrusted with the gnome-specific responsibilities of the garden by gnome leadership. I guess it’s about making the place look nice. Anyway, Sherlock Gnomes (voiced by Johnny Depp) and his trusty sidekick Watson (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) are looking into the disappearance of gnomes all over. One unfortunate day, while Gnomeo and Juliet are away from their garden, the rest of the gnomes have been kidnapped. Sherlock Gnomes and the others vow to find them, believing the culprit to be Sherlock’s longtime nemesis, Moriarty (voiced by Jamie Demetriou).

Remarkably, a solid 80 percent of the trailer for Sherlock Gnomes is not in the finished film. The fart Jacuzzi? Gone. The “no ship Sherlock” bit? Gone? The thong-wearing gnome twerking? Gone. This fascinates me. We’ve long been plagued with trailers that ultimately have moments not in the final product, but I’ve never seen a movie, let alone an animated feature, where the clear majority of its trailer does not exist. Animated films take many years in development and are generally costly. If a live-action film cuts footage in its final edit, it lost those days of work. If an animated film cuts footage in its final edit, it lost months if possible years of toil. How does this happen? Was the trailer an intentional ruse meant to advertise a far more juvenile, base, and dispiriting movie? The trailer features several jokes or references that, I assumed, were never intended for the final product because these scenes involve the other gnomes who were kidnapped. That means they were animated and either radically changed the story or these jokes were cynically constructed to produce a misleading trailer to appeal to children with farts. This truly fascinates me and befuddles me, a worthy mystery for Sherlock Gnomes (UPDATE: theory confirmed!).

The actual Sherlock Gnomes film I sat through wasn’t actively painful but it wasn’t particularly engaging or rewarding either, a mediocre children’s movie that will vanish from memory upon the ride home. There were a handful of moments where I rolled my eyes but no joke, no pun, even approached the pain of that trailer. On the flip side, there was perhaps two jokes that drew a mild chuckle and that was it. For the majority of the 86-minute running time, I just sat and took it all in, never really engaging. It was boring yet inoffensive, colorful yet unimaginative, and derivative yet silly enough to be a trifle. The look of the animation as a bit more polished than I was anticipating. The use of lighting and scale is well balanced. The voice acting was acceptable from the star-studded cast and I didn’t feel any great sadness for anyone’s involvement. The lessons and plot twists will be predictable enough for someone over the age of eight, but hey, everybody needs to learn some time. The use of the Elton John song catalogue (he is a primary producer) is the most forced element in the film, elbowing in one song or another, including “original songs” that you won’t even remember. Much like the rest, John’s contributions are mediocre and easily forgotten.

I kept wondering about the strange world building and its implications. This is a clear application of Pixar’s oft-used formula of the secret-life-of, this time with garden gnomes. Except there’s a segment where Sherlock and Juliet go to a club populated with dolls, stuffed animals, and toys of all sorts. So it’s not just garden gnomes that are secretly alive, it’s also children’s toys. Which means this is essentially the same universe as Toy Story. For whatever reason, and maybe it’s a misplaced sense of novelty, we stick with the gnomes. These creatures worry about being smashed, though can they be put back together much like Humpty Dumpty (except he couldn’t be put back together even with the help of all the king’s men and horses, no never mind this references. Also, what good are horses going to do putting together the shattered pieces of an egg-man? Do horses have thumbs to pick up the broken pieces? I feel like this entire aside might be attributable to the alcohol still in my system). If breaking is their biggest fear, why do these gnomes take such unnecessary risks with their safety and well-being? When Gnomeo is tossing Juliet in the air atop a ladder, I worried for her little gnome life. This cavalier attitude prevails amidst the larger gnome community, and my only conclusion is that these creatures are either thrill-seeking junkies or masochists. Then I began thinking of the life of other garden gnomes. I assume most gnome-owners don’t exactly have an entire menagerie of these things, and so the majority of gnome existence must seem awfully isolated and lonely. Their communities must be few and far between. Then I started thinking about transforming past Best Picture-winners into gnome format, and let’s just say that 12 Years a Garden Gnome was not a good idea for anyone.

This is a sequel and combined spin-off for the animated gnomes world, so the holdover characters often feel superfluous. This is clearly more of a Sherlock vehicle and there are even references to the Hound of Baskervilles and The Final Problem, among others. This is trying to establish a Sherlock Gnomes franchise first and foremost. The Gnomeo and Juliet subplot feels rushed and foolishly resolved. Now tasked with running the garden, Juliet feels overwhelmed with pressure and Gnomeo feels like he isn’t getting attention. Rather than support her, or see things from her perspective, he pouts and accuses her of taking him for granted. To conclude this storyline, she actually apologizes, and I shouted, “Apologize for what?” A better rendition of this storyline is realized with Sherlock Gnomes repeatedly being indifferent to Watson’s contributions. When the main theme, character arcs, and plot points involve new characters, you might as well get rid of the holdovers and go all-in on Sherlock Gnomes. Was there a picky audience that would have said, “I will only accept another gnome-related children’s film if it has the tiniest connection to the last gnome-related children’s film”? Also, there’s another garden gnome children’s film on the horizon, Gnome Alone, so stay tuned, gnome aficionados.

The victory is that Sherlock Gnomes is not the seventh-seal-breaking apocalyptic event that its reprehensible, punishing, life-sapping trailer suggested. Hooray for you, Sherlock Gnomes filmmakers. The finished product is still a mostly middling time-waster that feels like a Gnomes relaunch. I fully admit this movie was never intended for someone my age, but I attempted to see its merits for its intended audience. If you have young kids, this is a reasonable 86-minute time waster while you, presumably their parent, can do something better with that time. Go back to that novel you keep pushing off. Have some alone time with yourself or another person. Or simply close your eyes and enjoy the silence. Whatever you do, Sherlock Gnomes is an adequate comic adventure that will afford you time to think.

Nate’s Grade: C

Side note: While looking up images, I came across an entirely gallery of Sherlock Gnomes poster parodies for movies like I, Tonya, The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Darkest Hour, The Disaster Artist, The Post, and even Call Me By Your Name and  All the Money in the World. Even All the Money in the World but in gnome form! This is inane!

UPDATE: Thanks to the amazing connectivity of the Internet, someone closely involved with the Sherlock Gnomes production contacted me to inform me that my theory about the trailer discrepancy was correct. Paramount’s marketing team wrote the trailer and insisted the production spend valuable time animating it. The more juvenile jokes were designed, as this source indicated, to put as many butts in the seats opening weekend, and that the marketing department said they knew best, and that was that. The production spent time creating scenes for a trailer they had no intention of ever being in the finished film with scenes that badly characterized what kind of movie it would be. This drove the production team crazy. You can blame Paramount’s marketing department for the soul-killing trailer. Thanks, Sherlock Gnomes source, for reaching out and clearing up that mystery.

Going in Style (2017)

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

Now You See Me 2 (2016)

Now_You_See_Me_2_posterThe 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.

Now-you-See-Me-2It 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.

thumb_NowYouSeeMe2_ExclTrailerDirector 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+

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

indexDirector Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service is my favorite James Bond movie. It’s everything you’d want in a spy thriller while charting its own edgy direction. It’s a combination of Bond and My Fair Lady, and I never knew how brilliant that combination could be until Vaughn got his hands on the graphic novel source material. Newcomer Taron Egerton lays on plenty of star-making charm as a spy-in-training under the guidance of a dapper gentleman brawler Colin Firth. The spy hijinks are fun and stylish but what Vaughn does just about better than any other big-budget filmmaker is pack his movie with payoffs small and large so that the end result is a dizzying rush of audience satisfaction. The action sequences are exhilarating, in particular a frenzied church massacre made to appear as a single take. I never would have thought of the tweedy Firth as an action hero, but he sure plays the part well. There’s also an awesome villainous henchwoman who has blades for legs, and the film makes fine use of this unique killing apparatus. Kingsman explodes with attitude, wit, dark surprises, and knowing nods to its genre forbearers. Vaughn is a filmmaker that has become a trusted brand. He has an innate ability to fully utilize the studio money at his disposal to create daringly entertaining movies that walk to their own stylish beat. This is a cocksure adrenaline shot of entertainment that left me begging for more.

Nate’s Grade: A

Interstellar (2014)

MV5BMjIxNTU4MzY4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzM4ODI3MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_While arguably the industry’s most ambitious blockbuster filmmaker, Christopher Nolan hasn’t released a film to his name that I would call a misstep; even the weaker but still altogether thrilling Dark Knight Rises. Until now.

In the twenty-first century, food shortages and climate change will render Earth inhabitable. The planet is dying and the only hope is to find a new home in the stars. Conveniently, a wormhole near Saturn has opened and a secret NASA mission sent 12 brave astronauts through to send back information on the 12 potential worlds. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is the best pilot in the world, a former NASA employee, and trusted by the project’s leader (Michael Caine) to lead a team (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi) to the other side of the universe. Cooper is hesitant to leave his children behind, particularly his ten-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), who says a peculiar ghost is haunting her in her room. The greater good wins out, and Cooper reluctantly blasts off into space to save his children and all Earth’s children.

Interstellar is clearly a personal film for Nolan. It’s about nobility, exploration, sacrifice, but really it’s about a father trying to get home to his daughter (the son doesn’t really seem to matter as much in the story). Nolan’s catalogue of films has been able to straddle the line between blockbuster and art, providing mass appeal with uncommon intelligence and nuance. However, I don’t think Interstellar is going to work for most audiences.

Interstellar-05Maybe I’m just too savvy for my own good having seen plenty of movies, but I could accurately predict every single plot turn and Nolan and his co-screenwriter brother Jonathan made it easy. When we’re told about a ghost within minutes and it’s a movie about space travel, you shouldn’t need any help. And then the ghost ends up speaking in Morse code and communicating, “stay,” that’s Nolan hitting you over the head with what to expect by the end (a conversation how parents are ghosts for their children is too much). You should also be able to figure out who Ellen Burstyn is going to be, and it’s not going to be Talking Head #3 in a television interview. Likewise, the illustrious astronaut Dr. Mann is referred to but purposely never shown, so you can assume it’s going to be a familiar face, which it is. Then once that A-list actor is onscreen you know there has to be more to this character because why would a movie star agree to play a part that amounts to merely, “Yeah, this planet is good. We’re done here”? Because of the slow nature of the film it makes the easily telegraphed plot turns more frustrating. The supporting characters are presented so incidentally, as if they didn’t merit extra time. Amelia (Hathaway) has one mushy monologue about the power of love, tipping the film’s philosophy, but that’s all there is to her character. The rest of the cast amounts to stuff like Black Guy on Ship and Bearded Wes Bentley. Nolan’s past work has been very generous to the characterization of his supporting players, especially with the Dark Knight trilogy. These people mattered. With Interstellar, their impact is purely in the name of plot and serving the father/daughter relationship.

And yet, the movie also precariously dips into the danger zone of boredom. Quantum physics isn’t going to be a popular conversation topic for your average moviegoer. There’s a reason that Back to the Future has a wider audience than Primer. By no means am I advocating for a lobotomized science-fiction experience, but Nolan seems to only have two modes when it comes to his characters and their dialogue here: treacle or science jargon exposition. I paid attention but it’s easy to zone out or just have your eyes glaze over as characters talk about the ins and outs of time travel, black holes, relativity, and gravity. The equally frustrating part is that all of the emphasis on science is thrown out the window for the film’s protracted resolution, offering a climax that intends to close a time loop but really only opens further questions when you know the identity of the “they” in question making all the plot mechanics happen. It all just ends up as a simple message to spend more time with your kids. The plot is dense without being particularly complex. The pre-space sequences take up far too much time and in general the Earth plots just don’t compare with the alien planet space exploration. When Cooper is venturing into a rocky alien world, I don’t want the film cutting back and forth between that struggle and his daughter on a dusty Earth. I wish all of the Earth sequences post-liftoff were jettisoned from the screenplay.

For a solid chunk in the middle, Interstellar becomes the exact film I wanted it to be. The crew has traveled through the wormhole to another galaxy and now has to deliberate. Which planets will be visited? What are the risks? Is data more important than human messages? Is returning home more important than fully exploring the worlds? What happened to the explorers? I could have dealt with the entire movie playing out this intriguing and conflict-driven scenario. You feel the immense magnitude of every one of their decisions. The future of humanity depends on them. Every planet provides a new mystery; what’s it like and what happened to the explorer? When you’re dealing with a finite supply of fuel and time dilation, there are debatable options as to what is best for the numbers. There’s always Operation Repopulate as well. If you have to start somewhere, McConaughey and Hathaway are not bad genetic pools. For this stretch, Interstellar is fabulous. It’s a shame then that the film then engineers a plot conflict that dominates the direction of the third act.

Interstellar-Matthew-McConaughey-850x560Nolan hasn’t lost his gift for crafting eye-popping visuals and bringing a rousing sense of scale to his movies. Interstellar is blessed with spectacular images of our universe, alien worlds, and mankind’s place in the whole realm of the cosmos. Nolan’s usual DP, Wally Phister, was unavailable, taking time to direct his own debut, Transcendence (probably the last film he directs as well, like Janusz Kaminski’s little-seen, little-remembered Lost Souls). The change of DP does Nolan good, giving the film a different, Earthier feel under Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her, Let the Right One In). Nolan isn’t the greatest stager of action but he is remarkable about putting together memorable set-pieces, and Interstellar has some standouts from the hostile alien environments to a thrilling space-station docking that is not for those susceptible to motion sickness. The special effects are terrific and the retro cubist robots are a fun addition. The only technical element I found lacking is the score by Nolan’s usual accompanist, Hans Zimmer. It’s bleating organ music intended to add a spiritual sense to the cosmic awe but it mostly becomes annoying. It sounds like a church organist died atop their instrument.

There is one great moment of acting in the film. Not to say there is an overabundance of bad acting, more like over emoting with a script and dialogue that do not deserve the waterworks. It involves Cooper after a mission, catching up on video messages sent from his children on Earth. In this very efficient scene, the magnitude of the consequences of Cooper’s decision is emotionally raw and he is overpowered with regret. McConaughey has been on a record-breaking tear of supreme acting performances, especially if you count his mesmerizing turn in HBO’s True Detective. Nolan allows the moment to play out, to sink in, without overdoing it, and it succeeds wildly. The other times Interstellar tries to wring out emotion feel too facile and maudlin to be effective.

This is my first real Nolan disappointment, a bloated film struggling to be important and say Important Things about the Human Condition but coming up short. It has its moments of excitement and awe but more so those moments are surrounded by too much dead space. The story is dense while still being undercooked, with too many listless supporting characters that amount to nothing, and easily telegraphed plot turns that are frustrating. Interstellar snuffs out all the intriguing possibilities it has to come back to its sappy father/daughter relationship that never truly feels earned. By no means is Interstellar, Nolan’s space travel opus/ode to Stanley Kubrick, a bad film. Unless you’re a sucker for easy sentiment, it will likely be a disappointment in some way, whether it’s too long, too boring with its science, too cloying with its emotional tugging, or just underdeveloped and overcooked at the same time. Interstellar is ambitious with its vision but seriously flawed and ultimately an obtusely personal sci-fi snoozer.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Now You See Me (2013)

now_you_see_me_xlgEverybody 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.

Now-You-See-Me-FIREBALL-TIMLet’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.

now-you-see-me-600x423My 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-

Cars 2 (2011)

Universally regarded as the least involving and nuanced film in Pixar’s illustrious catalog, Cars was the last film I thought would get the sequel treatment. Was it a creative tale that yearned to be told on the big screen, or is this just a business decision motivated by the sound of merchandizing coffers? Those talking cars seemed pretty content by the end of the 2006 original film. It doesn’t take long to realize that Cars 2 was done strictly for the cash. A sequel to the least involving Pixar film, with an even less involving storyline and elevating the most annoying character (Mater the tow truck) to lead status provides little in the realm of adult entertainment. The storyline, a mistaken identity spy thriller, seems like a rejected plot for a lesser direct-to-DVD sequel. While the visuals are still outstanding, the humor is stuck in neutral, overloaded with motor vehicle puns and groan-worthy visual gags. The message about accepting your uncouth friends no matter what their bad behavior might be seems rather misguided. That’s the message? Congrats Pixar, for providing cover for irresponsibility and incivility. The environmental message and its connection to a Big Oil conspiracy feels tacked on as an afterthought to try and crowbar in something more meaningful than a mediocre spy farce. I think cars are rather limited in their anthropomorphic expressions. There’s only so much they can do. And a world populated completely by living, breathing, gas-guzzling (can they get drunk on ethanol?) vehicles begs for an examination on how this world operates without any opposable thumbs. After a magical slate of films that dealt with serious mature themes and danced with storytelling finesse, it’s a shame that daring run comes to an end with such a rudimentary roadblock. Little kids will be entertained by all the bright colors and simplistic storytelling, but I cannot foresee too many fans of Cars even justifying the sequel’s existence.  It’s not out rightly bad it’s just so pitifully pedestrian. Cars 2 has so little going on under its hood, you’ll swear it came from a different maker.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Dark Knight (2008)

In 2005, Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman series was a critical and commercial success. Gone were the campy and opulent sequences of old and the nipples on the Batsuit felt simply like a bad dream. Nolan served as director and screenwriter and brought serious psychological depth to his story and characters. As a life-long Batman fan, I loved it and wanted a sequel immediately with the exact same people responsible. The Dark Knight has been overshadowed by the passing of actor Heath Ledger, a gifted young actor nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. He’s gone from gay cowboy to the criminally insane, and it’s all anyone can talk about. The buzz on Ledger and The Dark Knight is deafening and I am about to join that joyous chorus. This is a movie for grown-ups and makes lesser super hero adventures look downright stupid.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is dealing with the repercussions of his choice to assume the masked identity of Batman. He’s cracked down on Gotham City’s mobsters, and in their desperation they have turned to a crazed anarchist that likes to wear strange makeup. The Joker (Ledger) promises to return Gotham back to its old ways but even he knows this isn’t possible. “You’ve changed things,” he tells Batman. “There’s no going back.” The Joker wants to break the will of Batman and Gotham City and sets up elaborate and disturbing moral dilemmas that push many to the edge. His purpose is chaos, which isn’t exactly what the Mob had in mind when they subcontracted his services. Bruce must rely on his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and company tech guru Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to help him combat a man that “just wants to watch the world burn.” Gotham also has a new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who is willing to put his name on the line to clean up the city. He’s butting heads with Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) because of Gordon’s secrecy and his reliance on Batman to do the things the law won’t allow. Dent wants to prosecute mobsters and is willing to put himself in jeopardy. He believes Batman is waiting for men like him to take the baton. Bruce’s old squeeze Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes — upgrade) has fallen for Dent. He’s an emotionally available man who wants to do good. Naturally, Dent and Rachel will becomes targets of the Joker.

First off, believe the hype because everything you’ve read and heard about Ledger’s performance is the gospel truth. The actor vanishes completely underneath the gnarly latex scars, stringy hair, and smeared makeup. He transforms into this menacing figure and he makes Jack Nicholson look like a circus clown in comparison. He’s creepy and funny in a totally demented and spooky way, but he almost comes across like a feral creature that enjoys toying with his prey. Ledger fully inhabits his character and brings a snarling ferocity to the role. The Joker is given no back-story and he takes a macabre delight in crafting differing versions of his sordid past depending upon the audience. Ledger’s Joker is like a mixture of sadist and intellectual, of Alex from A Clockwork Orange and Hannibal Lector; he finds a way to get inside your mind and unleashes torment. There’s a great scene where he’s left alone in a holding cell with a police officer. The Joker taunts the man, getting little reaction from the trained lawman, but then he hits a nerve. The Joker asks how many of his friends, his fellow officers has he murdered. He then rhapsodizes the finer points of using knives instead of guns because guns are too quick. With knives he can see who people truly are in the final moments of existence. “So in a way, I know your friends better than you ever did,” he tells the officer. “Would you like to know which of them are cowards?” This triggers the officer to break his protocol and play into the Joker’s scheme. I’m not ready to say Ledger’s performance overtakes Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men) as the most menacing villain of late, but Ledger certainly will make your skin do more than crawl.

Ledger gives a performance worthy of posthumous Oscar consideration. Toward the end of the film I found myself lingering on sadness that, well, this was it. This is all we are ever going to get of the Joker, such a fabulous character, but even more, this was the last full performance we are ever going to get from Ledger. His unnerving performance will stand the test of time when it comes to haunting screen villains, and I’m sure the actor had many more incredibly performances left in him before he passed away.

The Dark Knight has less in common with other superhero series and should be considered a modern crime drama. It has more in common with Heat than with Spider-Man. Even compared to Nolan’s excellent Batman Begins, this is the first Batman film that feels like it occurs in a real city in our own reality. In Batman Begins, we had the CGI ghetto that happened to be conveniently where all the city’s scum lived, an ancient league of ninjas that wanted to wipe an entire modern city off the map, and then a super microwave that zapped water molecules in the air. Even though it was the most realistic Batman yet, it still had some fantastic elements that kept it from feeling fully believable. This newest Batman adventure feels more like a real city and a city that is being torn apart. You get to see a lot of Gotham City’s moving parts and different social circles and then see the Joker tear them apart. The knotty screenplay by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathon is dense and packed with subtext and ambiguity not seen in the likes of other spandex-clad super hero movies. This isn’t a super hero movie so much as an enthralling crime thriller with better gadgets.

Whereas Batman Begins focused on the psychology of a man that dresses up in a costume and fights crime, now the attention turns into examining the impact of Batman. There has been escalation, just as Gordon hinted at the close of the last film. Batman has stepped up law enforcement and now Gotham’s criminal element has placed their trust in a psychopath that promises results. This is a movie about symbols and ideals and about the tenets of civilization. The movie presents an arsenal of mature questions and rarely gives absolute answers. Batman I supposed to be a hero but does he play by the law? Can he make decisions that no one else can? Batman believes in the goodness of others and serves as a symbol for the city to stand up against corruption, but can Batman be corruptible? Does he have a breaking point? Is implanting hidden surveillance and spying on 30 million people in the name of security overstepping? Is it acceptable to cross a line if your enemy crossed it first? The Joker lives at the other ideological end and believes that human beings are selfish and will eat each other when the chips are down. He devises disturbing social experiments that test the limits of ordinary citizens and how far they are willing to go out of self-interest. The Joker is an anarchic force that seeks to tear down civilization itself, and that is a far more interesting and devastating plot than vaporizing water molecules with ninjas. When the movie covers the tired “we’re one in the same” territory that most super hero flicks hit (the Joker responds to Batman with, “I don’t want to kill you. What would I do without you? You complete me.”), it even makes sense given the psychological and philosophical complexity at root.

And oh boy, is The Dark Knight dark. This flick racks up a body count that could compete with movies usually involving some cataclysmic act of nature. The Joker’s unpredictable nature, and the dark twists the film plumbs, creates an atmosphere where you dread anything happening at any time, and mostly bad things happen. Batman must come face to face with his limitations and the realization that his actions, no matter how altruistic, will have negative consequences. This is not a movie for young children. If any parent buys their child a Joker doll and takes them to see this movie then expect years of therapy bills down the line. Much of the violence is implied but the overall effect is still chilling. It’s difficult to call The Dark Knight a “fun” movie. Batman Begins was fun as we followed Bruce Wayne tinker and become his crime-fighting avenger. This movie watches much of what he built get taken away. The movie makes gutsy decisions and for a super hero movie, let alone a summer blockbuster, and this is one decidedly dour flick where no character ends in a particularly pleasant place, especially poor Harvey Dent.

Speaking of Mr. Dent, while Ledger is deservedly getting all the buzz and plaudits, Eckhart’s excellent performance is going unnoticed. Dent gets just as much screen time as Batman and is the white knight of Gotham, the man unwilling to break the boundaries of the law to merit out justice. Like Batman, he serves as a symbol for Gotham City and its resurrection from the stranglehold of crime. Batman fights in the shadows and serves as an anonymous vigilante but Dent is the face that can inspire the city. That’s what makes his transformation into Two-Face all the more tragic. You really do care about the characters in this movie, so when Dent turns on his principles and seeks out vengeance you feel a weighted sense of sorrow for the demise of a truly decent man. Eckhart and his lantern jaw easily sell Dent’s idealism and courage. After his horrific transformation, Eckhart burrows deep enough to show the intense hatred and mistrust he has even in fate. He gives a terrific performance that plays a variety of emotions and does justice to them all.

The rest of the cast, just to be mentioned, is excellent yet again.

Nolan has also stepped up his directing skills and delivered some high-intensity action. His first foray with Batman had some dicey action sequences that suffered from choppy editing, but he pulls back his camera lens and lets the audience see the action in The Dark Knight. The explosive high point is a long car chase where the Joker tries to attack an armored police car via an 18-wheeler truck. The police look for safe detours to escape the Joker’s line of fire, and when Batman surfaces with the sleek Batpod motorcycle thing get even cooler. What makes the sequence even better is that all of the peripheral characters behave in semi-logical ways, meaning that your secondary cop characters are respectable decision makers. Nolan also shot several sections of the film in IMAX, which boasts the highest resolution possible for film stock. The panoramic views of Batman atop buildings are breathtaking and may strike vertigo in some moviegoers. The movie looks great and it delivers the action goods but it’s really more of a tense thriller with more tiny moments of unease than an out-and-out action flick with gargantuan explosions and blanket gunfire.

Despite the undeniable brilliance of The Dark Knight, the movie is rather exhausting. After a decent 45 minutes of establishing the characters and setting up the stakes, the movie is essentially two hours of climax after climax, and you will be perched on the edge of your seat and tense until the end credits crash onto the screen. It’s exciting and overwhelming but you will feel wiped out by the end of the movie. There are a lot of characters and a lot of subplots and while I’m thrilled the movie has so much intricacy it also makes it hard for the film to come to a stop. The climax with Two-Face and Gordon’s family also feels misplaced. At a tremendous 2 hours and 30 minute running time, The Dark Knight will test your endurance skills in the best way.

I honestly have no idea where Nolan and crew can take the story now. The Dark Knight seems unlikely to be topped. This is an intense, epic crime thriller with a labyrinthine plot that is packed with emotion, subtext, philosophy, penetrating open-ended questions, and genuine nerve-racking tension. It’s hard for me even to think of this movie as a super hero flick despite that fact that it’s about a billionaire in a rubber suit. This is an engrossing modern crime drama that just so happens to have people in weird costumes. Nolan and his brother have crafted a stirring addition to, not just the Batman canon, but to cinema as a whole. Ledger’s character is the driving force behind the film, the man that makes everyone else react, and his incredibly daring and haunting performance will stand as a last reminder of what talent was lost to the world when he passed away. I for one will be amongst the throng crying out for Oscar recognition but not just for Ledger, for The Dark Knight in general. And I may not be alone. The Dark Knight is currently breaking every box-office record imaginable and seems destined to finish as the number two highest grossing movie of all time, steadily behind James Cameron’s Titanic. If the Academy is looking for a way to shore in better ratings for the Oscars, it might seriously consider nominating The Dark Knight in some key races. It certainly deserves recognition.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Prestige (2006)

Christopher Nolan can do no wrong in my book. The director of Memento, Insomnia, and Batman Begins has bewitched me with his clever non-linear storylines and artistic vision. The Prestige is 2006’s second period set magician movie, and in my opinion it’s the better of the two. Nolan’s film lacks the magic of The Illusionist, instead focusing more on the bitter realities of obsession, self-destruction, and the lengths that men will travel for vengeance. The script centers on a pair of dueling magicians (Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman) that are each trying to discover the other’s trick and top them. The storyline is as twisty as a pretzel and told in Nolan’s familiar non-linear fashion, building to a very dark reveal. Whereas The Illusionist sweeps viewers up with the wonder of magic, The Prestige is all about how tricks are orchestrated both on and offstage. The results are a tad cold; you don’t really feel for either magician. The movie is itself a trick but one grandly told with excellent slight of hand. The final act takes a step outside of the film’s tone but it works for me, and it’s been weeks since I last saw the haunting final images and I still cannot get them out of my mind. The Prestige is another notch on my Nolan love meter.

Nate’s Grade: A

Children of Men (2006)

Alfonso Cuaron is a master filmmaker and a gifted storyteller. He excels at telling entertaining stories whether they be about kids or adults. His Harry Potter film is still the most watchable and imaginative, and his earlier children’s movie, 1995’s A Little Princess, has enough power to still get me misty. Even when Cuaron sets his sights on a sex comedy (Y Tu Mama Tambien) he can’t help but turn it into an affecting art movie. This man just knows how to tell a good story. Children of Men, a bleak science fiction thriller, is just the latest example of how effortless Cuaron makes it all blissfully appear.

In the year 2027, and the world is on the brink of annihilation. It’s not plague or rampant warfare that are the obvious culprits. The reason for mankind’s end is something more natural and depressing — women have stopped being able to make babies. England seems to be the lone country with some fraction of stability. Illegal immigrants are rounded up and housed in refugee camps for deportation. Cages full of crying and pleading foreigners are on many street corners. In a world of danger and hopelessness, always count on the kindness of xenophobia.

Theo (Clive Owen) is a bureaucrat that combats the future with cynicism. He can barely escape getting blown up for his morning coffee. Theo used to be an activist and married to Julian (Julianne Moore), the current leader of the Fishies, deemed a terrorist group by those in power. She finds him and asks for one last favor. Her people need transit papers to get Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a refugee, and Miriam (Pam Ferris), a former mid-wife, to safety. Then Theo discovers the importance of his assistance. Kee is eight months pregnant. The government would never admit that that the first baby in 18 years belongs to a refugee, and political groups would like to use Kee and her baby as a rallying point for an uprising. But first Theo must get her out of harm’s way.

The idea of a world of infertile women is fascinating and full of big questions. This dystopian future must confront its own mortality in a very real way. Theo asks a friend hoarding classic art why he bothers. There will be no one alive in 100 years to even see them. Miriam says strange and heartbreaking things happen to a world that forgets the sound of children’s voices. Plenty of heady discussion is generated from a premise that affects every person on the planet. Why can’t women have babies? No explanation is given and none would seem credible. A religious faction believes this is the punishment of a vengeful God. People forget what babies even look like and what is commonly done for their care. The film also has a stark and timely portrait about the treatment of illegal immigrants. Children of Men is an intellectually stimulating movie that never rubs your nose in it. It trusts the intellect of the audience enough to leave many unanswered questions left to chew over and debate long after the movie ends.

The answers Children of Men finds seem reasonable and appropriate. Home suicide products exist for people that want to take back some control over their life, or at the least, are sick of waiting for the even more inevitable. It also seems entirely likely that this future world would turn the youngest living person (“Baby Diego” at 18-years-old) into a celebrity worthy of incredible mourning upon his untimely demise. These coping elements feel dead-on and only enhance the realistic tone of the film.

The film is a beguiling think piece but it also succeeds magnificently as a straightforward thriller. The majority of the second half is built around chase scenes and navigating to perilous outposts of safety that eventual crumble. Cuaron has a dizzying sense of believability as he puts together his world, and his roving camera feels like an embedded reporter on the front lines of chaos. The gorgeous cinematography and realistic set design contribute to the visceral sensation Cuaron sets alive with his visuals. There are long stretches where the camera continues rolling for nine minutes uninterrupted. I was left spellbound and felt trapped in this world just like the people onscreen. I was also wondering how much planning it took to coordinate and choreograph these long takes.

There are two very memorable scenes to quicken the pulse and both of them involve Cuaron’s mobile unblinking camera. The first involves a car chase perhaps unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Theo is leading an escape at dawn and robs the other cars of their keys. However, his own escape car refuses to start and the bad guys take notice. The sequence seems to last forever as Theo is forced to literally roll the car down a hill to outrun his pursuers who continually catch up with him. The second sequence follows Theo making his way through a refuge camp in the midst of a violent uprising being put down by heavily armored government troops. We watch every excruciating second of his survival as he navigates past gunfire, tanks outside a hotel, and then climbs through the different levels of the hotel being bombarded until we see, at a distance, where Theo’s trek all began. Exhilarating might just be the best word to describe Children of Men.

But nothing feels cheap or too sentimental in this world. This is a harsh and dark world where anything can happen, so the audience is left in constant peril worrying about the fates of every person onscreen. Like Casablanca, it strips away idealized notions of bravery and duty and just shows humanity for what it is and what it can be. That is gutsy but then that’s Cuaron as a filmmaker.

Speaking of Casablanca, Owen seems like a modern-day Bogart in this role. He’s ruggedly good looking but also a sly charmer. I’ve stated before my undying man-crush on Owen and Children of Men has only added to it. Owen has a remarkable way of playing detached but still noble and conflicted. He has the best slow burn in movies. The moments of wonder for him become our moments of wonder and worry. The rest of the actors appear in limited functions but provide good work. Michael Caine practically steals the movie as a crude yet philosophical hippie.

This is science fiction at its best. Children of Men is stark and realistic and truly immersive; you really feel like a member of this tumultuous future. It works simultaneously as a thought-provoking what-if scenario and as an exciting thriller. Simply put, this is a highly engrossing movie that separates itself from the pack. Cuaron has created a disquieting and entertaining sci-fi think piece that succeeds on its numerous merits. I knew half way into the movie that the newly minted wife, Mrs. Me, was only going to want a baby more from what we were watching. At least she now has a new argument: “It’s for the good of humanity.”

Nate’s Grade: A

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