Now You See Me

Now You See Me presents illusion on a grand scale. Not only the outsize magic tricks, but the characters and the plot points, too, are not always what they seem to be. The result is a vastly entertaining movie.

At the movie’s start, four magicians are introduced in brief vignettes: Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt (Woody Harrelson), Henley (Isla Fisher) and Jack (Dave Franco). After demonstrating their talents, each gets a mysterious card inviting them to a meeting that results in their forming a team.

The Four Horsemen, as they call themselves, begin with a true WTF? illusion in which they rob a bank in Paris from their Las Vegas stage. Hard to explain the depth of the illusion here, but it’s a mind-blower. (The audience volunteer for this trick looks, on first glance, to be a very big star in a cameo. Whoa! But, no, it’s not actually Robert Downey Junior, just a guy who looks a bit like him.)

When the Paris bank finds that their Euros have gone poof, FBI agent Dylan (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent Alma (Mélanie Laurent) question the four, but release them. Also entering the story is Thaddeus Bradley (played by Morgan Freeman), a former magician who has made a career debunking and exposing other magicians’ tricks via a line of successful videos. Michael Caine appears as the Four Horsemen’s manager/advisor/benefactor.

As the fast-moving storyline progresses, the main question to be answered is who assembled these four and what is this person’s motivation? Following a trick/stunt in New Orleans that includes the apparent criminal theft of more money, our gang of four retreats to New York. As authorities close in, they run. Magician Jack is pursued in an exciting chase through Manhattan traffic that results in a fiery crash on the 59th Street Bridge. Jack’s apparent demise leaves no one feelin’ groovy.

After the Four Horsemen’s penultimate bit of business atop an NYC rooftop, all is explained and the elaborate, tangled web is unraveled.

With some films, you might hope to get to know the characters better, but with Now You See Me, it’s the plot that keeps the wheels turning. Mere surface awareness of the film’s individuals turns out to be for the best, I believe. Because, as Eisenberg’s character Daniel says at the movie’s beginning, “The closer you look, the less you see.”

(Rated PG-13.)

After Earth

After Earth is a decent but perfunctory sci-fi movie. It does not break any new ground. There’s no urgent reason to see it now, unless you adore Will Smith (as many fans do).

When you see “Directed by M. Night Shaymalan” at the beginning, you may wonder if there will be trickery or red herrings or left field surprises. The answer is no. You can pretty much see the plot resolution of After Earth coming right down Lindbergh (or other major artery near your respective theater).

The movie is a showcase for Will Smith’s son, Jaden, who plays Kitai Raige. The 14-year-old is a passable actor, but likely would not have been cast in the role were his dad not the main star, producer and story source.

Set in the distant future, a thousand years after Earth has been abandoned, following wars, destruction, etc., Kitai’s home planet is Nova Prime. As befits the sci-fi future, there’s plenty of cool, but stark, architecture. The military uniforms are awesome.

Will Smith stars as Cypher Raige, a military man who’s been away from home too long. He’s similar to Robert Duvall in The Great Santini. Great military man, not so great family man. But Cypher’s ready to retire and hang with the fam… after one last mission.

Cypher takes his son on the mission. And when asteroids damage the spacecraft, an emergency landing occurs on… good ol’ planet Earth! And, for a planet that was left behind because it was uninhabitable, it looks pretty darn good! Oh, there are pesky predators who’d kill you in a second, but the forests appear verdant and the streams and rivers clean.

After the crash landing, Dad is badly hurt and can’t walk. And the device that sends a signal back to Nova Prime is damaged. But there’s another one in the tail section of the craft, a few miles away. So the young and callow Kitai takes off on a journey to find it. Will he make it?

Other than Smith and son, the most notable cast member is Zoe Kravitz, another celeb spawn. The daughter of Lennie Kravitz and Lisa Bonet plays Kitai’s sister. Sophie Okenado is Mrs. Raige.

After Earth is a standard, run-of-the-mill sci-fi flick. It’s not awful, but there’s really nothing here to get jiggy about.

The Hangover Part III

The Hangover Part III is intermittently funny. But a handful of good laughs and outrageous bits do not make up for a weak story with a less-than-stellar supporting cast.

Zach Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Justin Bartha are the Wolfpack (Alan, Phil, Stu & Doug) whom we have come to know and like from the two previous films. Then there’s Ken Jeong as Mr. Chow, who gets way too much screen time. As with Sriracha sauce, a little bit of Chow adds flavor, but an excessive dose can be hard to swallow.

As the Wolfpack takes Alan to an asylum, the gang is detained by bad guy Marshall, played by John Goodman. Doug is held captive while the other three Wolfpackers are sent to recover the gold stolen from Marshall by Chow.

While we in St. Louis all love John Goodman, he adds little here. Same can be said for Heather Graham, Mike Epps and Jeffrey Tambor.

There is one standout among the supporting crew: Melissa McCarthy. As she did in This is 40, she provides the film’s saving grace moment. In THP3, she plays a pawnshop boss who has a beautifully acted flirtation with Alan. Her dash of Sriracha is just the right amount.

The Hangover was funny, outrageous and cleverly assembled. The Hangover Part II was more outrageous, somewhat funny, but lacking in cleverness. Part III has a “let’s just get it done and collect our paychecks” feeling. It’s not as funny as it should have been. The outrageousness seems perfunctory. And the word “clever” will never ever be used in the same sentence as The Hangover Part III, except for this one.

Why should you see this movie? You’re a big Zach Galifianakis fan. You think Mr. Chow was the funniest thing about the first two Hangovers. You have a thing for Paul Rudd. (Sorry, but Justin Bartha seems like a less smarmy Rudd clone.) You dig Melissa McCarthy and want to see her brief, but memorable, scene with Zach G. You hope The Hangover sequels will continue for years to come.

Why should you skip this movie? It’s not that funny. It’ll be on cable in January. There are better movies on other screens. It’ll make you think less of Bradley Cooper (who was so good in Silver Linings Playbook). You have four unwatched episodes of Doomsday Preppers on your DVR.

According to the THP3 trailer, “this year, it ends.” We can hope. III is definitely enough for this franchise.

Star Trek Into Darkness

As with many such films, Star Trek Into Darkness is critic-proof. The movie will have a huge weekend box office, no matter what anybody says about it. Even if STID were horrible, there would be long lines at theaters across the world. Happily, I can report that Star Trek Into Darkness is not horrible.

The new Kirk and Spock, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, deepen their bromance in STID to the point that the supposedly unemotional Spock actually sheds a tear when Kirk is in peril. They team up to fight a common enemy, one who threatens the existence of the Starfleet.

The movie opens with a stunning sequence. We see Kirk running through a forest of bright red trees, being chased by mime-like white-faced creatures who have yellow scarves around their heads and lower abdomens. It looks like a fantasy scene from a Japanese anime. At a cliff, he jumps and… Well, then the adventure really gets going, when Spock descends into a volcano on this strange planet.

Back home on Earth, a deadly bombing of a Starfleet underground archive in London is followed by an attack on Starfleet HQ in San Francisco. The villain behind it all must be tracked down and brought to justice. The bad guy is John Harrison, played wonderfully by Benedict Cumberbatch. You might get an occasional slight Valdemort vibe from his character.

The movie’s tension is amped up by a soundtrack that lays the dramatic music on rather thick. No subtlety here. That tension, though, is compromised by a heavy dose of quips, which give the film a cartoonish feel. Chuckles galore are piled on to the point of distraction. Enough!

Chris Pine brings a swagger to Kirk that’s similar to William Shatner’s. Pine is ruggedly handsome, in a Redford sort of way. Quinto, on the other hand, is a decent actor, but doesn’t hit that severe note quite as nicely as Leonard Nimoy managed. This movie has a bit too much Spock for my taste.

Notable supporting cast members include Simon Pigg as Scotty, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, Karl Urban as Bones McCoy, Peter “Robocop” Weller as Admiral Marcus and Alice Eve as Marcus’s daughter.

The looks of San Francisco and London in 2259 are not much different from 2013 Shanghai, with a few modifications. A future feature that I found goofy: people communicating via flip phones, not unlike the one I gave up a few years ago. (But in Trek, they get great coverage!)

Star Trek Into Darkness has content that will please fans of all the various Star Trek TV incarnations, as well as fans of past Trek movies. How about someone who’s totally out of the Trek loop? I think first-timers will figure out the characters and the scenario quickly and easily. It’s not rocket science. (Well, yes, it is, but…)







The Great Gatsby

Director Baz Luhrman’s version of The Great Gatsby is, above all, great storytelling. Yes, it has moments of sensory overload, but Luhrman and his cast also slow things down to let us get to know the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story of life in the early 1920’s, aka the Jazz Age.

With some characters, motivations are obvious. With others, the character’s needs and wants are more gradually revealed. One person leaving a Gatsby screening observed that the casting of the key players was almost perfect.

Leonardo DiCaprio, in a performance that’s among his best, plays the title role and keeps Gatsby initially mysterious. Tobey Maguire is also a standout as Nick Carraway, the narrator of the book and movie, a callow Midwesterner who is awestruck by what he experiences in New York. Cary Mulligan captures Daisy Buchanan’s grace and charm, as well as some of her less savory qualities. Another impressive player is Joel Edgerton as the impetuous Tom Buchanan, who reveals all of his character’s anger and resentments. In a small role, Isla Fisher shines as Myrtle Wilson.

Trailers for Gatsby and Luhrman’s reputation for bombast may have set the bar high for those anticipating a loud and splashy, over-the-top production. Indeed, a couple of the parties at Gatsby’s mansion are mind-blowers. And the fireworks scene, accompanied by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, is jaw-droppingly spectacular.

Luhrman loves the fast fly-in shots and so do I. (They’re like zoom-ins, but the feeling is of the camera’s moving.) His bookending the film with the black and white vintage look titles is clever, but not quite as clever as the titles sequences seen two months ago for Oz the Great and Powerful.

Those who hold Fitzgerald’s novel in high esteem will appreciate the filmmaker’s respect for Fitzgerald’s text. Those who rolled their eyes upon hearing that the movie would use contemporary music in its soundtrack will find that most of the selections work in harmony with the film’s events. Lana Del Rey’s Young and Beautiful is particularly memorable.

The Great Gatsby is a classic novel, one that’s taught at schools and colleges. Transferring such a tale to film is not easy. Painting a portrait of the characters that’s true to the printed work and including major plot elements requires a variety of skills. Those skills are evident here, particularly in the time management of the story.

My only qualms: I thought Gatsby’s home was substantially grander in the movie than I’d imagined from the book. Also, I pictured Gatsby to have a more weathered, rugged appearance than does DiCaprio, who looks fit and healthy.

It’s notable that The Great Gatsby is rated PG-13. Hats off to Luhrman for making a great movie without a single f-word. (High school English teachers, feel free to send your students to see The Great Gatsby without fear of getting yelled at by the school board.)

The Great Gatsby is solid, with few flaws. Enjoy the story, the characters, the settings, the cars, the wardrobes. Don’t miss it, old sport!

Iron Man Three

Iron Man Three is extremely good! Everything that went into the making of this movie revolves around Robert Downey Jr. and his considerable charisma and talent. He deserves every tenth of a percent of the box office he’s getting.

It starts when Downey as Tony Stark/Iron Man brushes off a geeky guy on Y2K eve. The geek, Aldrich Killian, played by Guy Pearce, takes offense, gets a haircut. He returns a few years later with some bad stuff that reprograms brains, generally with horrible results.

Meanwhile, Stark realizes he’ll have to confront a Bin Laden type madman who appears on TV and calls himself The Mandarin. This villain (played by Ben Kingsley) is able to cut in on every TV channel to deliver his taunting threat to the world. Stark dares The Mandarin to attack him, even offering his home address.

The attack comes. And the spectacular Stark home collapses into the Pacific. Even though I know it’s not real, I’ve always loved that house. While it’s sad to see the home destroyed, the attack by the Mandarin’s bad guys is a terrific action sequence right up at the front of the movie.

After the attack, Stark is presumed dead. But, no, he ends up in a small Tennessee town, where his priority is to make a call to his gal Pepper, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, to let her know he’s alive.

In this berg, he is befriended by a cute kid named Harley. The young man who plays Harley, Ty Simpkins, is one of the better kid actors I’ve seen.

Stark’s efforts to track down and quash the Mandarin include a confrontation aboard Air Force One and an amazing skydiving stunt. The final faceoff goes a bit long. A large helping of action would’ve sufficed. Instead, director Shane Black gives us the extra large.

IM3 feels, at times, almost like an old Bond movie with its evil villain and his “lair” and his henchmen and a charming hero who cracks jokes in times of great peril. Stark prefers wine to martinis and is true to his one woman, but he has the swagger and clever mind of the 60’s era Bond.

Fanboys who’ve followed Iron Man in the Marvel comic books may not be pleased with this film. The story and the villains are not exactly the same. But for those of us who know Iron Man from the movies, this film satisfies. Heck, I’m ready to watch it again.

Runtime is 2:10, but Iron Man Three flies by. In some scenes, literally.