Friday, May 31, 2013

Now You See Me: Classic Misdirection.

Movie Review: Now You See Me

Director: Louis Leterrier

Reviewed: 31 May 2013

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

An all-star cast of Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Melanie Laurent, Dave Franco, and Common unite to make a film that is never greater than the sum of its parts. Louis Leterrier's "Now You See Me" dazzles with its twists and turns, but it never fully worked or won me over. However, it is a fun time at the movies and refreshing in its storytelling.

"Now You See Me" genuinely would be fun to see again because once the big reveal happens, everything that came before it changes. That moment is quite fun, and the director plays fair by dropping clues into the film as he misdirects the audience. A swift series of opening scenes introduce everyone: J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) doing card tricks on a Chicago street; Merritt McKinney, hypnotizing and hustling in Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans; Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) escaping from chains inside a water tank; and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), a street hustler on a ferry in New York City, offering to bend spoons for cash. When the team all receives a card from a shadowy figure representing "The Eye," an association dedicated to the preservation of magic, they all converge on an apartment in Brooklyn. Cut to a title card that reads "One year later," and they have combined to create a Las Vegas magic act called "The Four Horsemen" whose daring exploits lead to an audience member being plucked from the crowd, sent through time and space in a teleportation device, and a robbery of a Paris bank. The robbery brings the heat down on the Horsemen in the form of Las Vegas police officer Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent). An elaborate game of cat and mouse ensues, hopscotching from Las Vegas to New Orleans to New York City as arrogant millionaires, debunking journalists, and law enforcement try to catch the troupe.

To say more would ruin the film. I think "Now You See Me" has the distinction of being more fun to think about than to watch. The twists are quite fun as the entire construction of the film makes everyone a potential "5th Horsemen." However, the multiple elongated swirling camera movements around the characters grew tiresome and distracting as did some nonsensical CGI. A commitment to making the film about magicians, not killers, provides an exhilaration to the fight and chase scenes, as the goal is not to kill but to handcuff; this decision makes for a wonderful sequence where Dave Franco eludes capture in a small apartment through acrobatics and using a man's suit coat to trap him. I like the reunion of "Zombieland" with Eisenberg and Harrelson because of their chemistry of mild insults toward each other, though I think for the second time this summer ("The Great Gatsby" being the first), Isla Fisher is given little do. I think the long sequences in a few locations works much better than taking on something much more elaborate. Production value is high, and the locations of Paris, Bourbon Street, and Las Vegas all shine.

I found myself wanting a film more focused on the magicians and less about the police chase. Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent are fine, but their development as characters translates into less jabbing between Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson. Simply put, I think those actors needed more screen time to emerge into more than just character types and to build some kind of arc. You could do a lot worse than "Now You See Me" for a summer film, but the question remains: Was there another film, a better film, that disappeared from view after the promising first twenty minutes?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Jack Reacher: A fun, satisfying ride.

Movie Review: Jack Reacher

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Reviewed: 25 May 2013

jamesintexas rating--***

"Jack Reacher" had me at the first appearance and winding monologue from German director Werner Herzog. His voice is always memorable and distinct, and his character's brutal story of survival provides an air of dark menace. The world is full of dark, menacing bad guys. But this is Tom Cruise's show, clearly, and he owns the film as Jack Reacher, an off-the-grid, former military investigator with experience in the Balkans and the Persian Gulf who travels to Pittsburgh to investigate a horrific sniper shooting of five people on a bright waterfront. Reacher works with the defense attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) to see if the ex-military man picked up by the police for the crime actually did it. Along the way, Reacher is followed and attacked, proving himself surprisingly agile and resourceful. Reacher is a perfect role for Tom Cruise who oozes confidence and control. Part of the fun of the performance is watching Cruise calibrate his responses to project that confidence as well as display a dazzling array of fighting moves to show Reacher's dominance in all scenes. He is also smaller than most of his foes, adding an element of underdog to the proceedings. However, Tom Cruise could never really be an underdog.

McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning writer of "The Usual Suspects," makes some fun choices here. The film opens with a horrifically violent scene and moves the story forward to the eight-minute mark before the first line of dialogue is spoken. He gives Cruise some wonderful lines as the supremely confident hero. The chase scenes stick out because of the total lack of soundtrack, enabling the audience to hear the shifting of gears, the roaring engines of the racing cars, the satisfying crunch of metal on metal. A final fight scene shows two men matching up physically by throwing away their guns and choosing hand to hand combat instead.

One criticism of the film would be that I did not understand the motivations of major characters. I wonder since Jack Reacher is a character in a major series of novels if more information is forthcoming in additional stories. The final third of the film seems to change Reacher's controlling confidence into a devil-may-care improvisation which does not work as well or fit with the previously established character. Sadly, Rosamund Pike is given little to do, as is the great Richard Jenkins, as her District Attorney father. Pittsburgh looks glorious with its bridges and stadiums surrounded by the rivers as well as a fun joke about people waiting for a bus covering for Reacher. When compared to Cruise's latest film "Oblivion," "Jack Reacher" is engaging and fun in its low-tech way. And, it's got Werner Herzog.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Great Gatsby: American Dreamin'

Movie Review: The Great Gatsby

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Reviewed: 16 May 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Link to Cinespect Movie Review: 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The (Awkward) Comedy

Movie Review: The Comedy

Director: Rick Alverson

Reviewed: 6 May 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

My brother Danny has always urged me into the comedy of Tim & Eric, and I started listening to "On Cinema," a mock-film podcast where the hosts review films in the most cursory of ways, calling nearly every film an "instant classic" and a "great popcorn movie" as they urge us to find them at local video stores or garage sales. I have admired the silliness in their work, although I never immersed myself in their world until seeing the new film "The Comedy." I was profoundly disturbed and impressed with this film and its lead performance. 

Swanson (Tim Heidecker) parades drunk and naked across the opening scenes, a giant man child who spews beer on his friends, engages in juvenile pranks, and appears to be a real-life version of Billy Madison. Loosely separated by encounters with women as well as shots of Swanson captaining his boat in the harbor of New York City, "The Comedy" follows him through his life as he drinks, enjoys time with his close friends, vaguely pursues a job, and in general mocks the world around him through awkward scenarios. However, a genuine melancholy haunts the edges of this character with hints of his failed relationship with his father, a brother requiring medical attention, as well as a restlessness of spirit despite an extremely comfortable lifestyle. 

Be warned. There are some horrifically offensive scenes and conversations in "The Comedy." A prank on a taxi cab driver quickly devolves into dire cruelty. An ugly monologue devolves into crude racism, all delivered in a mock-Southern accent to another family member during a serious moment. A scene in a church mocks its solemnity with movement, chanting, and invocation of demons. A slide show juxtaposes childhood family photos with pornography. A conversation starts, "Hitler never gets credit for..."  You get the picture.

Alverson frames Swanson often with a drink in hand, slouched or hunched over, usually with his belly distended or poking out from underneath his shirt. There are some marvelous shots of the New York City skyline from a tennis court and from the water. At times I was frustrated by its apparent lack of narrative, but Alverson is working deeply here. The structure of the film involves periodic returns to Swanson's community of male friends who live in similar states of arrested development as well as moments of silent reverie as he captains his ship through the harbor. These reinforce the idea that Swanson is adrift and trying to navigate the waters of his own life.

The film's final shots provoke and prod in an emotionally affecting way. Swanson's childishness as journey never has a typical arc, but the stakes are always present. This man drinks and eats cookies and rots from within. Heidecker's committed, still performance captures his self-loathing as well his desire for human connection. Swanson makes fun of others quite a bit in this film, but there is little laughter from him, beyond when he is sitting in the cocoon of friends. Two key moments involve Heidecker shifting his body and voice to suggest that the persona of Swanson is a construction, a facade crafted to shield himself from the pain of his dying father and his sick brother. 

"The Comedy" is a film that surprised me and will linger on in my memory. And, I just have to say it. The scene with the three men in the church chanting and scooting different directions in parallel pews was brilliantly funny. Heidecker chants, "You are in the demon's house" in a low voice, and the shot of them moving horizontally with such fierce determination had me laughing hysterically. I am not proud of it, but I laughed deeply.

Partially Wrecked: The Misadventures of Wreck-It Ralph

Movie Review: Wreck-It Ralph

Director: Rich Moore

Reviewed: 17 March 2013

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

Together, the monsters and villains recite the pledge: "I'm bad, and that's good. I will never be good, and that's not bad. There's no one I'd rather be then me." No scene in "Wreck-It Ralph" is as much fun as the Bad Guys Anonymous Meeting that opens the film. In a daring display that builds off of the "Finding Nemo" sharks who state "Fish are friends, not food!" an assortment of zombies, ghosts from Pac-Man, pirates, and more sit in a circle and talk about their feelings. Ralph, a nine-foot tall crusher from a Donkey Kong-type video game, enters the meeting with his flame-red hair and wounded ego: "I don't wanna be the bad guy anymore."

"Wreck-It Ralph" chronicles Ralph's journey to another video game and to another life as he breaks free of the repetition and stereotyping of his own game. Marvelously voiced by a very game John C Reilly, Ralph travels via the power cord at the arcade to a Grand Central Station of video gaming and tries to insert himself into other games and other worlds. After disastrously disrupting a Halo-type game, Ralph travels to a candy-colored race car game, something akin to MarioKart, and there he meets tiny, punchy, glitchy Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) who is outcast like him. Together, they must scheme a way for Vanellope to enter the racing game and win it, since the upheaval that will create will alter the game's code which could possibly change everything (I think).

An existential crisis from a video game character. The ability for video game characters to cross over and know each other. The critique of the new games by the older ones.  The search for agency.  All promising ideas for a children's movie. There are some incredible visuals and colors in this film. My struggle with it involved the shift to autopilot when they arrived in Vanellope's candy-colored world; the world and its rules did not engage me, and I was disappointed that the director chose to set the bulk of the story there. I think the central relationship between Ralph and Vanellope grated on me and did not ultimately work. Some not so subtle product placement anchors the final scenes, and the wit disappears as the visuals and racing take over. "Wreck-It Ralph" suffers from a lack of a great villain, though the always sunny Felix (Jack McBrayer), Ralph's counterpart in his own game, offers some laughs in his inability to stop fixing things and an improbable love story with a military commander.

I still want a movie like "Wreck-It Ralph" where the characters from my beloved childhood video games all know each other. Where the heroes from Mega-Man interact with those of Contra. Where Super Mario Brothers meet up with Link from The Legend of Zelda. Where Q-Bert and Frogger and Dr. Mario all meet up. For a few moments, "Wreck-It Ralph" offers a window into the marvelous possibilities of "What if?"

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

ParaNorman: A Wonderful Film For All Ages.

Movie Review: ParaNorman

Director: Chris Butler, Sam Fell

Reviewed: 1 May 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

With its wryly funny take on the Salem witches and the life of a small town, "ParaNorman" delights from the very first scene in a way that never talks down to its audience and instead delivers a beautiful, frightening film about the very real power of death in a young boy's life. Gorgeously rendered in stop-motion animation (think "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Wallace and Gromit"), the town of Blithe Hollow must stop a curse from a long-dead witch which brings the undead to life. It's only hope? A young outcast named Norman who can see the dead and talks to them on his way to school. Norman's opening scenes with his grandmother are quite touching and set the foundation for the rest of the film. Norman is no superhero with ridiculous powers. He is a kid with fears and doubts, struggling to make friends, struggling to make sense of death.

Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his friend Neil (Tucker Abrizzi) earn most of the laughs, but Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann are fun as his parents, along with Elaine Stritch as Grandma. The voice work here is done well and integrated into the characters so well that I had to look up who voiced who at the end. Scene after scene in "ParaNorman" is lovingly crafted with the directors playing with proportion and size in humorous and creative ways. I think the stop-motion technique lends itself well to stories rich in humor, abuzz with strange looking characters interacting with each other.

Take Norman's hair, for example. It resembles Bart Simpson's crossed with the Bride of Frankenstein with its spiky verticality. Or, take the overhead tilt down shot of Norman walking into school, showing us how the crowd parts and isolates him as the weird kid. Besides being smart, sad, and funny, "ParaNorman" has heart firmly rooted in an endearing anti-bullying message. This film is not just about the outcast kids turning the tables on their tormentors. And a last minute revelation is a first for me in this genre of film, and it felt totally appropriate and paid off earlier scenes.

I recommend this film to all ages, though I think it may be a bit intense for some younger viewers. I showed the first 45 minutes to my high school juniors, and they were laughing intensely at it.  Funny is funny, and a well-crafted movie is always going to find its audience eventually.  Catch up with "ParaNorman."  You won't be disappointed.