Now You See Me: smoke and mirrors

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The Prestige and The Illusionist were great films. Mainly because they were almost like magic tricks themselves – constantly keeping the audience guessing until the very end. Now You See Me obviously draws from the same genre, but with too many sub-plots, characters and the added heist element, it is ultimately little more than a poor man’s Ocean’s Eleven.

At the start of the film, four magicians are recruited by a mystery man to put on a big show in Las Vegas, subsidised by a wealthy businessman (Michael Caine). Calling themselves The Four Horsemen, they are cocky sleight-of-hand artist Jesse Eisenberg, psychic trickster Woody Harrelson, Harriet Houdini Isla Fisher and pickpocket Dave Franco.

Somehow or other — the script isn’t strong on explanations — they are headlining the MGM Grand in Vegas within a year. At the show, they bring a Frenchman to the stage as a volunteer, “teleport” him to the vault of his bank in Paris, and get him to steal millions from the vault.

The FBI then selects one of its agents (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the crime, and he’s assisted by a French Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent) and an annoyingly smug ex-magician (Morgan Freeman) who has dedicated his life to working out how tricks are done, and spoiling them for the audience.

The result is a cacophony of big-name actors all vying for screen-time amidst overlapping and often nonsensical storylines. Most of the acting is underpowered, and the normally excellent Ruffalo gives the worst performance of his career. To top it off, the director can’t even decide who the main characters are. Is it the gruff and confused FBI agent and his suspicious colleague, or the four illusionists?

Unsurprisingly, the man behind the camera is none other than Louis Leterrier, whose last creative act was to inflict the 2010 3D remake of Clash of the Titans upon the world. His new film is smaller in scale, but equally short on sense. Definitely one to avoid.

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Man of Steel: not quite a Nolan, but juicier than ever

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Co-produced by Christopher Nolan and directed by the somewhat audacious blockbuster engineer Zack Snyder, Man of Steel takes Superman (Henry Cavill) back to square one and recalibrates him as a pure-of-heart hero for a new age. It’s a risky move, the implications of which are fully realized in the movie’s tense climax, in which Superman is compelled to act in a way that none of the other prior screen incarnations of the hero would ever have considered.

Nolan co-concocted the story line with expert screenwriter David Goyer, and Goyer battles the origin-stories-are-boring problem with a two-pronged approach. The birth of Kal-El and the end of the planet Krypton narrative gets a juicy backstory involving genetic archiving, internecine struggles between warlike factions, and a more pronounced series of confrontations between wise and saintly Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and the once-noble but increasingly power-mad General Zod (Michael Shannon) These scenes are substantially aided by the fact that Krypton is rendered beautifully as the ultimate sci-fi planet.

Goyer also keeps things moving via a multiple flashback structure that toggles between the young Clark Kent and the present-day action. Young Kent finds that his enhanced senses can drive him crazy and that his superstrength renders him a freak. Given Nolan’s work on the Dark Knight movies, the notion of a tormented Superman shouldn’t surprise us. But the whole idea of Superman, as conceived by two comic book artists almost a century ago, was rooted in optimism, and to their credit, the creators of the movie don’t forget that; they just make optimism a more difficult place for Kal-El to get to.

Surprisingly, in this iteration of the origin story, intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) gets to know a drifting, bearded, do-gooding stranger before she meets the Clark Kent who also works at the Daily Planet. One big digression the movie takes is making Lois privy to Clark’s “secret” right from the get-go.  The move not only make sense, but it spares us a lot of silliness down the line.

Even though some of the attempts at gravitas don’t work, the movie does make you believe that a flying man in tights is a thing of scary awe and with a superb all-around supporting cast, Man of Steel blasts the archetypal superhero into our uncertain new century in high style, neither selling him out nor making a sap out of him.

I, for one, am looking forward to the next installment already.

DVD Review: Life of Pi

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Life of Pi is a true masterpiece, and is one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen.

Director Ang Lee has done what many thought could not be done, he turned the best-selling novel into a larger-than-life work of art. Not only that, but it is actually one of the best book-to-movie adaptations for a long time.

The film tells the story of Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma / Irrfan Khan), zookeeper’s son. Pi is uprooted from his home in Pondicherry, India, when his father decides to move their zoo to Canada. The family catches a ride on an ocean freighter along with the animals – imagine a modern-day Noah’s Ark. When a massive storm rocks the freighter, the boat sinks – and Pi finds himself one of the few to survive. He is all alone in a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a ferocious Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Yes, it sounds far-fetched and unrealistic – that’s what I though too. At every twist and turn, I expected to laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all. But I didn’t.

It is genuinely one of the tensest, most captivating movies I have seen in a long time. It takes a story of fantastical proportions and not only makes you believe it, but makes you care about it. The acting is magnificent, to say the least, with newcomer Suraj Sharma (teen Pi) tugging the heat-strings in all the right places, and Irrfan Khan (adult Pi) reservedly superb as naval-gazing narrator.

Simply put, Life of Pi is glorious. A marvel that takes cinematography to new heights with its crisp rendering of dreamlike landscapes and its fierce yet fascinating feline co-star, all while delivering a poignant and inspiring story of human endurance.

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The Blu-ray disc includes the following HD special features:

  • A Filmmaker’s Epic Journey: Not many Blu-Ray can tout over an hour-long documentary, The four-part making-of documentary shows the four-year filming process, and covers everything from the adaptation of the novel, filming, and the lengthy post-production process. The documentary includes interviews with the cast, and focuses heavily on Ang Lee and newcomer Sharma.
  • A Remarkable Vision: The award-winning visual effects are spectacular. Bill Westerhofer and the team at Rhythm and Hues visual effects show how they were able to make the film look realistic.
  • Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright: This feature focuses on the CGI used to create the tiger with the help of a real-life tiger.
  • Gallery: The feature gives a peak at the pre-production art, which you can watch in an auto-play slide show.
  • Storyboards: The feature shows the storyboards used for seven of the big scenes in the film.

If you have not seen this Academy-Award winning movie yet, buy it on the spot. You won’t regret it.

Red Dawn: jingoistic and unnecessary

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The jingoistic Red Dawn, in which North Korea invades America in the very near future, is the unfortunate  movie Chris Hemsworth signed up for when he was still an unknown and maybe  living, if not under a rock, perhaps in a pickup truck. After MGM went belly-up in ’09, Red Dawn was, for all intents and purposes, left on a shelf somewhere to gather dust – hence why it’s only now seeing the cold harsh light of day.

If you read the first sentence correctly, you’re probably wondering how North Korea (population 25 million) can raise enough invaders to attack the Unites States (population 315 million). Short answer is, thy probably can’t. You see the original screenplay for this remake named the invaders as Chinese. After principal photography was completed on the film three years ago, the enemy identity was changed to North Korea by reshooting several scenes, redubbing lots of dialogue and using digital adjustment to change the looks of flags, uniforms and insignia on trucks and tanks. Why? Because China is one of the biggest markets for American movie exports. North Korea, not so much.

In this remake of the 1984 cult classic, the able Hemsworth plays Jed Eckert, an emotionally bruised veteran on a visit home to Spokane after a few tours in the Middle East. His little brother  Matt (Josh Peck) is the quarterback of his high school football team. After a prologue of talking heads giving a political “primer” on declining  relations with North Korea, the film opens with Jed and the boys’ dad (Brett  Cullen) watching in dismay as the Wolverines lose their game.

The brothers Eckert wake the very next day to the sight of North Korean paratroopers floating down from the sky. Spokane is soon under foreign  control, as well as other American cities. The boys escape to their family’s hunting cabin with a crew of  friends and acquaintances, including a pair of younger, handily tech-savvy geeks  played by Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games) and Conor Cruise (son of Tom Cruise).

Under Jed’s tutelage they emerge as Wolverines – teenage ass-kickers raising  hell for those dopey invaders, who bumble and stumble and can do little more  than raise a frustrated fist at the pesky kids. Only one of them, their leader Captain  Lo (Will Yun Lee) even gets a name.

Adrianne Palicki, Isabel Lucas and Alyssa  Diaz provide the girl power, all of which is very PG (no bunker hook-ups  for these kids) while Peck projects such pained  sensitivity that I had doubts about his characters ability to make a sandwich, let alone  kill dozens of Koreans.

If the movie finds an audience, that audience will most likely be 14  and oblivious to the fact that there ever was an earlier Red Dawn.

Definitely one to stay away from.

Broken City: Another awful Mark Wahlberg movie

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If you had to choose two actors suited to a political crime thriller, chances are Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe wouldn’t be the first names out of the hat. Never-the-less, they’re big names. The bigger the names, the better the film right? Right??

Cue Allen Hughes’s Broken City; the only proof we need to finally conclude that a film requires a lot more than well-established actors.

Wahlberg, in a not-so-unique role, plays Billy Taggart, a good cop in a bad town.

One night, Taggart makes a decision that changes his life forever. Years later, the city’s mayor (Crowe) remembers the cop-turned-private-eye and asks him to take on a new assignment. The mayor suspects his wife (an impressive Catherine Zeta-Jones – credit where credit’s due) of being unfaithful and wants the ex-cop to investigate.

So begins a twisted and unnecessarily convoluted tale as Taggart tries to find out what’s going on. That is, quite genuinely, the whole film right there. Taggart becomes confused. Taggart investigates. Taggart (on more than one occasion)  blatantly asks “What’s going on” and, in the end, Taggart finds out what was going on. Riveting.

On several occasions, Hughes places too much responsibility on his stars to carry the film on their own, believing that if he simply puts them in a scene together the actorly sparks will fly. This doesn’t work, however, unless they also have something interesting to say.

In Broken City, neither the over-complicated plot nor the overwritten dialogue ever grips. At times, it seems that barely any effort is being made at all, when Zeta-Jones, for example, makes a speech about human rights below a huge sign reading “Human Rights Campaign”. A little imagination, people, please. But that’s Broken City, a film that takes a sledgehammer to subtlety.

Avoid at all cost.

DVD Review: The Odd Life of Timothy Green

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Framed as a flashback, The Odd Life of Timothy Green is the story of Jim and Cindy Green (Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner), who live in a dying industrial town whose economy depends on the local pencil factory.

At the film’s start, Jim and Cindy get some terrible news – after years of trying everything, they are told that they will never be able to produce a baby of their own. One of the films most heart-wrenching moments, we see Jim and Cindy go through sadness, anger, and eventually denial.

Sick of mourning, they get drunk and start imagining the kid they would have had, writing each of his awesome attributes on a piece of paper, then putting the slips into a wooden box, which they bury (or plant) in their garden (along with their dreams apparently).

Overnight, something magical happens – there’s a rainstorm localized specifically over their house and garden and something crawls out of the earth. In the morning, Jim and Cindy discover muddy footprints leading to what would have been the baby’s room – and inside, a mud-covered 10-year-old (CJ Adams) who announces that his name is Timothy and that he is theirs.

Timothy is a strange little strange little cookie to say the least. He doesn’t pick up on social cues—he’s oblivious to bullying and can’t figure out the fun of sports – and persists on photosynthesising at the most inappropriate moments. Timothy is a unique soul, but it’s a struggle to get really excited about his arrival, excepting the fact that he’s growing leaves along his shins.

Luckily, the camera often follows Cindy and Jim. The majority of scenes are reliant on their connection, which Garner and Edgerton pull off spectacularly – they really work as an on-screen couple. Both deliver fine performances as parents who desperately want to become parents, but even their combined efforts can’t save this movie from its own overbearing sentimentality.

Having said that, The Odd Life of Timothy Green is definitely a different kind of film and one that the whole family could enjoy. It’s not the greatest movie ever made, but it has its moments. A safe bet if you’re looking for a family friendly tear-jerker.

Breaking Dawn Part 2: Twilight at its most tolerable

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Doomsday for Twi-hards has come and gone – the Twilight saga has ended, if not on a high, then at least on a considerably better note than it began.

Converted into a bloodsucker after a rather brutal childbirth in the previous film, our protagonist Bella (Kristen Stewart) is now faster, stronger and hungrier than she’s ever been, and even Edward (Robert Pattinson) has trouble keeping up with her.

No sooner than they’ve settled into their new home and enjoyed a few passionate moments, Edward and Bella learn that the Volturi, that feared clan of vampire law-keepers, is headed their way to pick a fight. Turns out the Volturi are convinced Bella’s daughter, Renesmee, is an “immortal child” and therefore must be immediately killed.

Truth is, since the girl was conceived and delivered while Bella was still human, she’s very much mortal, but that won’t stop the Volturi using the misunderstanding to rid themselves of a potential rival coven – and recruiting some talented individuals while their at it.

So the Cullens call in favours across the globe, assembling a force to face the oncoming Volturi army. Good luck trying to keep awake as you’re introduced to these dozen-or-so friends, each with a special power or gift to be explained and suitably demonstrated.

Creepiest of the lot is little Renesmee herself, the root cause of all the problems in this film. The kid (Mackenzie Foy) ages rapidly, and has this strange gift where she can touch your face with her palm and teleport her back-story to you – a trick her shameless parents encourage her to do with pretty much everyone she meets.

Almost all the characters in this film are lacking in some way. Though Kristen Stewart appears a little less morose in this film than she usually does, Edward as a character is still as stiff.

In fact, the only truly enjoyable thing in this film, apart from Taylor Lautner taking his shirt off once again, is the delicious overacting by Michael Sheen as Aro, leader of the Volturi, who offers up such a deliberately hammy performance it’s hard not to laugh out loud.

The climatic battle scenes at the end do manage to deliver some surprisingly gory thrills also – but it’s an unfortunate case of too little too late. Though a marked improvement from the previous Twilight instalments, Breaking Dawn Part 2 leaves a lot to be desired.

Rust and Bone: A tough watch

Rust and Bone marks the return of Parisian film-maker Jacques Audiard. Much like his 2009 success A Prophet, this picture pushes viewers to the unpleasant extremes of reality whilst remaining rooted in the mundane. .

Party girl Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) meets security guard Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) when she gets in a fight in a nightclub. She isn’t badly hurt but he drives her home anyway and they part ways. The next day, Stephanie returns to work at Marineland where she trains killer whales. Soon catastrophe strikes and Stephanie is pulled into the water and her legs are bitten off.

Wheelchair-bound, Stephanie becomes depressed and reclusive, but contacts Ali on a whim and begins a friendship with him. The ensuing romance, if that is the correct term for this complex relationship, stretches both characters beyond their limits. She may carry the obvious handicap but Ali is shown to be grievously emotionally disabled. Rarely has such an unsympathetic and flawed character led a film so convincingly.

A Hollywood version of this film could have been corny and soap-like, but Audiard’s characters are passionate and real, and the way that they are shot makes this story incredibly powerful.

The CGI special effects are stunning, appearing to erase Marion Cotillard’s legs as if by magic. These impressive techniques are mind-boggling; her legs aren’t tucked away by some clever camera angles, they’re simply gone.

The film also tackled the awkward subject of sex with amputees in an intimate no-nonsense way not usually seen on film. As in the recent French hit Untouchable, where a paralyzed man was sent on a blind date, Rust and Bone tenderly shows its characters’ healthy love lives despite their physical disability.

Marion Cotillard gives a staggeringly beautiful performance, giving emotional depth and veracity to the role. This is arguably her best since her Academy award-winning turn as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (2007).

Jacques Audiard has fast become the World’s favourite French director. His previous features have been showered with awards, and Rust and Bone has now earned a selection of its own, recently winning the Best Film prize at the London Film Festival, and being nominated for the Palme D’Or earlier this year, too.

A tough and original watch.

DVD Review: Magic Mike

There are guy movies and girl movies, the latter of which the guys label “chick flicks” and often only ever see under protest.

Is Magic Mike a chick flick?

If it is, it may the first of a new breed. It’s a crisp, unsentimental story, with none of those lingering sunset shots you find in Nicholas Sparks’ adaptations, and a heroine who spends most of the movie tutting her disapproval on the sidelines. But while it’s not necessarily a chick flick, you can be sure that the primary audience to this film are indeed women.

Why? Because Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) is a stripper, and so is his mentor, club owner Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), and his 19-year-old protégé, Adam (Alex Pettyfer).

From the opening shots of a buff, naughty McConaughey teasing the audience in tight leather trousers (“What can’t you touch?”), it’s clear that Soderbergh has the measure of what his audience wants. He’s going to give it to them, too, but not too much, too soon because the tease is as important as the strip.

A college dropout who draws the line at taking any job that requires him to wear a tie, Adam is living with his big sister Brooke (Cody Horn) when his new buddy Mike ushers him into the delights of the Xquisite Male Dance Revue. In time-honoured backstage musical tradition, “the kid” gets thrown on stage when one of the stars can’t go on. Next thing he knows, Adam is shopping for a stars and stripes thong for the Fourth of July special.

Scripted by Reid Carolin and inspired by Channing Tatum’s own experiences as a Tampa stripper in the 1990s, Magic Mike is honest about the attractions of the job (money, girls, fun) without pretending it’s a smart choice in the long run (too much fun, too many girls, not enough money).

Brawny and bruised, Tatum doesn’t look like it but he is one hell of a dancer. If the movie was in 3-D you’d probably be stuffing bills into his briefs.

Magic Mike hits DVD outlets on October 23rd.

The Avengers: an absolute Marvel

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With Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spiderman still to hit cinemas, it’s looking like a definitive year for superhero movies as The Avengers storms the big screen and wins over critics across the globe.

The premise of the movie is simplistic – bad guy Loki hatches world-domination scheme, petulant but kind-heated good guys swoop in to save the day, Scarlett Johansson in leather looks damn hot. But somehow, somewhere along the way, it becomes a lot more than that.

Six gifted and special people, Iron Man (Downey Jr), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), have to come together despite their differences to stand against Loki, a Norse deity hell-bent on ruling the earth with an iron fist.

Usually, movies that feature an abundance of big name stars are not to my taste. Take, for example, New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day – lots of stars, not a lot of substance. The Avengers, I’m happy to report, is nothing like either of those films.

The cast, which features Hollywood A-listers such as Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Samuel L Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow, meld fantastically with each other and with the storyline.

Prior to The Avengers, we saw Iron Man 1 and 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America. Each of these films, while not to be seen as prequels, did indeed do the job they were created to do – they gave the main Avengers depth, backstory, and character while being box office success stories in their own right. Granted, Black Widow and Hawkeye were left out of this process and, as such, weren’t developed as much as they could have been, but I see that as an unfortunate casualty of an otherwise fantastic development process.

Though I do genuinely love this new method, I have to note that some of the previous Marvel Movies weren’t quite up to scratch. It seemed as if the Captain America installment was not as thought out as either Iron Man or The Hulk and that it was only there to fill the gap until the 2012 release of The Avengers. I also thought that Thor, though it was a joy to behold 114 minutes of Chris Hemsworth, was a bit of a let down in places.

But whether it’s down to the previous films, the stellar cast, or Joss Whedon’s scriptwriting prowess, The Avengers itself is clearly the best
Marvel Movie to date. The acting is near impeccable, the action is raw and the jokes are hilarious. Stark is his usual cheeky self, Bruce Banner is broodingly deep and Thor is just as beautiful as he ever was. There’s also something disturbingly attractive about terrifically entertaining Asguard bad boy Loki played by the fantastic Tom Hiddleson who, according to many critics ‘steals the show’.

Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk was also a breath of fresh air in this sneakily unique heavy hitter. He gives his character more depth than either Eric Bana OR Edward Norton (something I never thought I’d admit) and is both endearing and heart-wrenching in his portrayal of Bruce Banner. Instead of going for the “woe is me, I get angry and smash things” angle, his manner and acting style hint towards a deeper, more depressing self-loathing.

What I like about the film, is that it deviates from the traditional ‘Good vs Evil’ trend just the right amount. There’s the bad guy, obviously, and the quest to save humanity… but there’s also some interesting in-fighting and tension between avengers. It’s clear that they all come from different moral standpoints, and I think Joss Whedon did a great job using that to his advantage.

I also like the fact that it does exactly what it says on the tin. Here’s a Marvel Movie for people who like action movies, for people who like Marvel Comics, for people who always played the “Who would win in a fight…” game and, of course, for people who want to drool over Chris Hemsworth and Scarlett Johansson.

If you see nothing else this month, go see this. You won’t be disappointed.

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