Friday, June 28, 2013

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY Pits Monster Geeks Vs. Greeks


- Is PIXAR slumping? I don't know. I hope not. Is this one of those late-period Simpsons things, where the argument is brought up that they're not as good as the glory days, but that a only-okay-for-Pixar movie is still better than most of the competition? Maybe. Pixar was so good for so long, churning out original hits like Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, and Wall-E, that everyone sort of wondered when the other shoe would drop. When Toy Story 3 came along and was (improbably) actually the best Toy Story yet (and one of Pixar's best), it was cemented: Pixar really could do no wrong. But lately, the momentum seems to have shifted a bit. Cars 2 was solid, but many were less than impressed. Brave didn't live up to its pre-release hype. And now, Monsters University is, of all things, a prequel. A prequel?! Aren't prequels where good franchises go to die? Isn't a prequel - that most hackneyed and cliched of Hollywood franchise-building tactics - a bit below the high standards of excellence that Pixar is known for? The very idea of it was off-putting.

On paper, Monsters University if not exactly a riveting concept. Was anyone really demanding the "secret origins" of Mike and Sulley from Monsters Inc., told as a send-up of 80's-style geeks vs. greeks college comedies? Not so much. But Pixar does tend to do these things well, and with Pixar you can expect a love and care put into the movie that other studios wouldn't bother with. You can also expect a level of thematic depth that most animated films don't possess. As familiar as the setting and conventions of Monsters U may be, the story undoubtedly takes some unexpected and thematically-complex turns. In short: I don't know that MU's jokey, cutesy, prequel premise was ever going to lend itself to cinematic greatness - but damned if Pixar doesn't aim high.

As mentioned, the movie's plot details the first meeting of Mike and Sulley, when both are just starting out as students at the prestigious MU. Mike is the classic monster underdog - not inherently good at being scary, but determined to succeed anyway thanks to a combination of perseverance, doggedness, hard work, and heart. He's convinced that if he studies hard enough and gives it his all, he'll overcome his deficiencies as a scarer, and become one of the greats. Meanwhile, Sulley arrives at MU with a rep as a gifted scarer, thanks to his family name, and the fact that his dad was a legend. Sulley is practically destined to be a great scarer - a second-generation blue-chipper who may not be much for studying and technique, but who makes up for it with good genetics and natural talent. Mike and Sully start out as rivals, but after getting into some trouble together and facing the wrath of MU's intimidating Dean Hardscrabble, both get kicked out of the scare program, and become desperate for a way back in. Enter the Scare Games - MU's annual inter-fraternity scaring competition. Mike and Sully make a deal with Hardscrabble to let them back into the scare program if they manage to win the games - though they'll face expulsion from MU if they lose. The Dean agrees, but that means that the unlikely pair has to join a fraternity. The only one that will have them is Oozma Kappa (OK!) - a motley crew of losers and rejects. Their chief competition is Roar Omega Roar - a bunch of big-shot frat-monsters with designs on winning the games.

What I quickly realized about Monsters U is that it's really a comedy, and maybe the most overtly comedic movie that Pixar has made. The movie has its roots in things like Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds. There's lots of homage to other college comedy classics, and there are a lot of winking references that movie fans will enjoy. What's more, the script from Dan Scanlon, Daniel Gerson, and Robert Baird is typical Pixar goodness. The dialogue is clever, the jokes (both verbal and visual) are snappy and at times hilarious, and the characters - even the side ones - are sharply defined and creatively conceived.

I'll focus in for a minute on those visuals. While MU doesn't have the scope or scale of Pixar classics like The Incredibles or Wall-E, its comedic elements allow Pixar's crack team of animators to really have some fun. There's all sorts of brilliant little Looney Tunes-esque visual gags (including a great one that pays off in a hilarious post-credits scene). And while there is an old-school, Saturday morning cartoon-style charm to some of the characters and jokes, there are also some undeniably cool action scenes (primarily the competitions from the Scare Games) that have a sleek, videogame-esque sense of dynamism. Finally, there are some moments of unexpected visual beauty in the movie that really wowed me. In particular, scenes in which the monsters travel into the "real" world - where us humans live - have a stunning look and feel to them, as the textures of the animation become grittier and darker, and the cartoonish monsters take on a legitmately-monstrous heft and weight. The character designs, overall, are are really cool. From the winged, demonic Dean Hardscrabble to the oddball members of Oozma Kappa, MU is overflowing with cool characters (loved the punk rock riot grrrls of the HSS sorority). So even if MU doesn't have the big, dazzling, jaw-dropping moments of a Wall-E, it's still got visual flair to spare.

Of course, the voice actors are another big reason as to why the movie succeeds. While it's a little hard to imagine the aging voices of Billy Crystal and John Goodman as belonging to fresh-faced college students, both (particularly the amazing Goodman) are so good in general that that initial weirdness factor soon dissipates. The movie overall though is loaded with smartly-cast voice actors. Helen Mirren shines as Dean Hardscrabble. Steve Buscemi is a lot of fun as Mike's geeky roommate Randy. And Aubrey Plaza has some of the movie's funniest moments as deadpan Scare Games ringleader Claire.

And what's interesting about the movie is that while much of its structure follows the usual college comedy template, it takes an interesting left turn towards the end. It doesn't get uber-dark or anything like that, but things also aren't *quite* as awesome-happy-everyone-is-amazing as you might expect. In the world of Disney, dreams always come true. But in the slightly-more-complex world of Pixar, sometimes it's less about dreams and more about making the best of what you have. It's a unique message - especially for a kids movie. A message that maybe not everyone is going to be a movie star, or a pro basketball player, or President. But maybe there are other things that are just as good, even if they're a little less reach-for-the-stars huge. In an age where kids and teens are constantly made to believe that they are one YouTube viral video away from being a TV star, it's a refreshing, if humbling, message from Pixar.

So what doesn't work? Well, for one thing, there's the line between paying homage and repeating what's come before. Sure, for kids the whole college setting and geeks/greeks rivalry may seem new, but there is something that's at times a little numbing about seeing a movie like this revisit so many tried-and-true genre conventions. Again, some of it may be the whole holding-Pixar-to-a-higher-standard thing. But it does feel a little disappointing to go from such a wholly original and imaginative idea in Monsters Inc. to a much less original and imaginative premise for its prequel. The comedy helps, and like I said, the movie is very sharp and funny. But it also feels relatively lightweight and fluffy as compared to the usual Pixar fare. I'd also chalk that up to the movie's rather mundane college campus setting. Pixar has fun with it, by subverting things to fit the whole monsters motif, but personally I don't think they go far enough. It seems like there is more opportunity for world-building, that isn't fully taken advantage of. And then there's just the usual case of prequelitis. You can't help but feel like it's sort of a stretch to shoehorn in this whole backstory to the world of Monsters Inc.

Overall though, I really enjoyed the film, and I think it will pleasantly surprise those who may have dismissed it offhand. It's funny, clever, a fun remix of college comedy films from back in the day, and has some really eye-popping character art and animation. Not a Pixar classic, but a positive sign that, hey, even when these guys don't hit a home run, they're still among the best in the biz.

My Grade: B+

Monday, June 24, 2013

WORLD WAR Z Has Impressive Action, But Not Enough Brains


- It became pretty clear, well before the release of WORLD WAR Z, that the movie would have virtually nothing in common with the book on which it is based, save for the eye-grabbing title. As a fan of the book, I couldn't help but be disappointed. Sure, it made sense that the book's structure would have to be changed for a film adaptation - given that the book is comprised of a series of anthologized chapters detailing the course of the war against zombies, told from the perspective of a journalist looking back on the war's key events. But I still thought that the spirit of the book might remain intact - that being the idea of taking the classic, Romero-style, archetypal zombie, and posing the question of "what would *really* happen?" - on a global, big-picture scale, in the event of a full-on zombie apocalypse. Shows like The Walking Dead tend to tell their zombie stories on a smaller scale - following isolated bands of survivors as they traverse the post-apocalyptic wasteland. But Max Brooks' idea of approaching zombies with dead-on seriousness - looking as realistically as possible at how politicians, the military, the U.N., and others from across the globe would deal with this unimaginable threat - made for some great reading and intriguing scenarios. Here's the thing though: Max Brook's book practically bleeds with love for zombies and the zombie genre. It works so well because it is a perfect hybridization of classic zombie lore with a new type of approach to zombie storytelling - telling this huge, epic story on a global scale. In the new movie version, that is all pretty much tossed out the window.

WORLD WAR Z is actually a pretty entertaining movie, taken wholly on its own merits. But it seems almost embarrassed that it's about zombies at all. The trailers showed zombies only as an amorphous blob of undead humanity. And that's true for most of the film. The film never has fun with the concept of zombies. And I think it's sort of a shame that the movie didn't adhere more to the book's use of "classic" zombie archetypes, instead going for zombies that resemble the fast-moving "infected" creatures we've seen in movies like 28 Days Later. I say this not because I'm some hardcore zombie purist or anything, only because I think it makes the premise of the film less fun when you take away the iconic elements of its monsters. The zombies of World War Z are not really that monstrous. They're just crazy-people who run and bite and swarm like locusts. There's a generic element to them, and that generic-ness infects (pun intended) the whole movie to an extent.

One problem is that the film focuses on Bradd Pitt's character to the exclusion of all else. Pitt makes the most of it, bringing his usual slightly off-kilter likability to the role of former U.N. operative Gerry Lane. Lane quit his gig - going into global problem areas to help with crisis-management - to spend more time with his wife and two daughters as a stay-at-home dad. But when the zombie crisis kicks in, Gerry agrees to go back to work for the U.N., in exchange for the safety of his family, who will receive shelter on an oceanic military base. Gerry's assignment is to travel to various global hot spots and gather any info he can about what's causing the zombie plague, and what might be able to stop it. The mission includes trips to South Korea in search of a potential "Patient Zero," an excursion to Israel to see why it is that they built an anti-zombie wall prior to the first known outbreak, and a fateful stop at a World Health Organization compound in Europe. Like I said though, Pitt's character is always front and center, and the details of the global zombie response take somewhat of a backseat. It's frustrating, because we're teased with tantalizing hints about the aftermath of the zombie outbreak, but we never see any of the really big stuff go down. The movie mostly takes place in an in-between time, a time following the initial outbreak but prior to when the actual "war" starts. We hear about the effect of the zombie outbreak on Washington, we are told about the plan that led to the Israeli's preventative measures, and we see brief flashbacks that hint at what happened to the South Korean Patient Zero. But we never seen any of it. We only see what Bradd Pitt sees, which means we miss a lot of the good stuff (except for the good stuff that happens to happen precisely as Bradd Pitt arrives - which in its own right feels a bit contrived).

Director Marc Forster does a pretty decent job of making the movie chug along at a nice clip, and he orchestrates some impressive set piece action scenes. During the movie's more frantic moments, things at times get a little *too* frantic, meaning it becomes difficult to tell exactly what's going on. There's some rapid-fire editing that distorts a lot of the action to the point of overkill. Forster walks a fine line. At times, as in the movie's thrilling opening where a wave-one zombie attack causes chaos on an urban street, Forster effectively crafts scenes of large-scale mayhem and panic. Other times, the chaos overwhelms the story being told, and the action is just plain hard to follow. In the movie's final act, the scope narrows considerably, and the pace becomes more methodical. It is in this section that Forster really shines - he seems more comfortable with more traditional horror - Pitt and his compatriots skulking in confined hallways, trying to avoid lurking zombies - than with the all-out action of previous sections.

And that leads me to the other thing about this movie ... even if you haven't heard about the film's production problems - its scrapped third act, cut-out subplots, numerous re-writes, etc. - you may still come away from the film feeling like it had a disjointed, scraped-together feel to it. What works about the movie's structure is Bradd Pitt's central drive to return safely to his wife and kids. What doesn't work is almost everything else. The movie starts on a great, moody note - with a montage of actual news footage depicting a world already on-the-brink ... even before zombies entered into the picture. And like I said, that first scene of urban chaos, of people realizing that something's gone horribly, horribly wrong - it's very effective, and sets a great tone for the rest of the film. But from there, nothing quite seems to happen in an organic fashion. As mentioned, we seem to skip over major events, and everything begins to feel loosely-sketched. Things are happening - we see destruction and devastation, but the whys and hows are glossed over. After all, what could be more important than Bradd Pitt getting back to his two little girls? This same sketchiness is true of the film's characters. If they're not Bradd Pitt, then we don't need to know about 'em. Exhibit A is Daniella Kertesz as a badass Israeli soldier named Segen. Kertesz does a great job of making us root for this character, but she does it in spite of the fact that the script gives her nothing to work with. No back-story, no history, nothing to make us care for her except for Kertesz's expressive eyes.

The movie also resorts to having Pitt's character be the prototypical "chosen one." Instead of telling a story about humanity's collective resistance against the zombie threat, this is a scenario where Bradd Pitt plays the Will Smith role and does it all himself. It just feels like the movie was afraid to tackle the big themes or big scale of the book, and so it took the easy way out and transformed into Bradd Pitt Saves The World From Zombies. Speaking of politics, there are almost none in the movie, save for some winks at things like the North Korea / South Korea and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. But the movie pays only lip service to addressing how a single, worldwide threat of this magnitude might realistically affect geopolitical realities. I don't think it's any coincidence that perhaps the most intriguing scene in the movie - where we get a glimpse of the Israeli thought-process in planning for the attack - is one of the few that really dares to put some intelligent thought into the hows and whys of the narrative.

I think that's what my overall "meh" feeling towards this movie boils down to. While it's an at-times impressive ride, there's no stand-out characters, and no real twist or angle that really captured my imagination. The promise of that great title - "World War Z" - is never fulfilled as it is in the book.

To its credit, the movie does have some truly excellent action sequences. There's a chase scene through the Old City of Jerusalem that's super cool, even if just for the novelty of "holy crap, zombies running around Jerusalem!" There's a riveting airplane sequence, in which Gerry and Segen rather ingeniously pull out all the stops to survive a zombie attack at 20,000 ft. And there are some really well-done, edge-of-your-seat stealth survival-horror sequences set at the World Health Organization building. Those three or four pretty-damn-good sequences make the movie worth seeing, and keep it moving along briskly and in an entertaining fashion.

And hey, a couple of kickass man vs. zombie action sequences is plenty to make for a fun popcorn movie ... at least in my mind. But still, there is that lingering feeling that the movie could have been much, much more had it actually delivered on its title, and really embraced its premise in any meaningful way. As is, it feels like an effort to salvage something that was sort of inherently broken to begin with - a movie that had a hard time deciding what, exactly, it wanted to be. The best zombie stories make you think about what you would do if faced with the zombie apocalypse. What choices would you make? What dangers would you have to be mindful of? How would you survive? In the world of World War Z, the answer is frustratingly simple: be Bradd Pitt.

My Grade: B

Sunday, June 16, 2013

MAN OF STEEL Is The Super Epic We've Been Waiting For


- I'm a Superman guy. People say Superman is cheesy. They say he's too powerful, too perfect. Those people are missing the point. Superman is an icon, an ideal. The best Superman stories are big-picture morality plays. The best Superman stories inspire and give us hope. Superman, to me, is about the idea that humanity has in them the capacity for good - to use great power for good. Superman fights a neverending battle that serves his ideals. With his power of alien origin, he could kill us, oppress us. He could view humans as an "other" as we view ants. But Superman is the ultimate immigrant story - the ultimate American story. Created in post-depression America by two young Jewish kids, Superman was the messianic figure who, in an unfair world, a world creeping into darkness, brought light and hope - who fought for the little guy and who served as a symbol for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

Superman as a hero and as an ideal has always inspired me. The core idea - that we should strive to do good - is such a simple yet powerful one. It's the basis for the superhero myth. Without Superman, none of the other costumed heroes currently flooding the theaters would exist. Superman to me has always been the best hero because of the ideals he represents, but also because his story is one that's both grounded and cosmic. Superman's origins are both the stuff of epic science fiction and of Rockwellian Americana. Superman / Clark Kent's feelings of alienation are ones we all can relate to, and his All-American values are ones that we all know. But Superman is also a character that lends himself to epic adventure - time and world spanning journeys, world-conquering villains, imagination-expanding ideas. Superman is our modern Epic Hero - an Odysseus for the Science Age.

But time and again in recent decades, there have been those who've sought to make Superman less Super. While the Richard Donner movies featured a classic, timeless performance from the great Christopher Reeve, they were also cheesy as hell. Despite some dramatic moments, there were also numerous tonal shifts towards campy comedy and eye-rolling superheroics that undermined the great work of Reeve. Later, Lois & Clark turned Superman into prime-time romance, and Smallville upped the teen angst and soap operatics, with a "no tights, no flights" policy that made Superman less icon and more teen idol. That's not to say that those shows didn't have their moments, but as a Superman fan, they rarely left me fully satisfied. Meanwhile, Superman Returns left me flat-out disappointed. The movie paid slavish homage to the Donner films, keeping some of the worst aspects like used-car-salesman Lex Luthor. That movie was so wrapped-up in the symbolic aspects of Superman that it forgot the imagination and sci-fi. For a hero that starred in Action Comics for decades, Superman Returns somehow neglected to show Supes throwing a punch.

For me, my earliest memories of Superman were colored by what I had seen from the Donner films. I didn't get why Superman was cool. That all changed when circa 1992 I began reading The Death of Superman and Reign of the Supermen storylines in the comics. Suddenly, I was obsessed. I began reading weekly Superman comics from then on. I went back and read the best Superman stories by the greats like John Byrne, Jack Kirby, Alan Moore, and Elliot S! Maggin. I read new classics by Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Mark Millar, Joe Kelly, Jeph Loeb, Kurt Busiek, Geoff Johns, and more. I realized that the best Superman stories - from All-Star Superman to Kingdom Come - gave Superman a humanity and relatability, but also played off the iconography - they were big, they were epic, they were larger than life. They were, in a word, super.

MAN OF STEEL is the first live-action Superman that truly fits that description. For that reason, people who only like Superman when he's written more like the street-level, wise-cracking, down to earth Marvel heroes ... well, they may reject this film. This film is huge, epic, full of weird sci-fi and mega-sized super-powered smackdowns. And it also takes all of that stuff seriously. There's not a lot of winking at the audience. And you know what? I say that's okay. Sure, Superman has a history of stories that are whimsical and even comical. But there are also plenty of stories (especially in the modern day), that have a darker, more intense tone. Biblical would be a good descriptor. And MAN OF STEEL fits that bill. It's biblical-level epicness - superhero sci-fi on a grand stage.

It all starts with a rip-roaring prologue set during the final days of Krypton. There is no doubt: this section of the film is flat-out awesome, and it plays 100% to director Zack Snyder's strengths. I love visual imagination, I love great world design, and damn, I loved seeing the "World of Krypton" come to life like NEVER before. Everything about this section is pitch-perfect, from Russell Crowe bringing the GRAVITAS as Jor-El to Ayelet Zurer as Lara. There are elements of this Krypton that I recognized from various comics - the servant robots, the society ruled by genetic manipulation, the crazy dragon-like creatures that Jor-El rides into battle. But this is also a Krypton that looks like nothing I've seen before. I got that old feeling from it. That Superman feeling. The feeling that I was seeing something new and different and awesome. FINALLY ... a Superman movie with IMAGINATION, that dared to be crazy, cosmic, and weird!

Russell Crowe is also just so good as Jor-El. He carries that prologue in grand fashion, turning in his most memorable and iconic performance in years. What a pleasure to see him square off with the equally awesome Michael Shannon as General Zod. It almost makes you want a World of Krypton prequel with badass Jor-El in the lead. But even amidst all of the crazy cosmic action in the prologue, the movie sets up a very important idea - Kal-El is special even as a baby. He's the first natural birth on Krypton in generations. On a world where all people are bred to fulfill a specific role, Kal-El is the first in ages who is free to forge his own path. His nature is, as it were, free to be nurtured - and it will come to be nurtured by the Kents and their heartland morality. Diametrically opposite of that is Zod. He exists for one purpose - to protect and ensure the survival of Krypton at all costs. And so, when he eventually makes his way to earth, he sees no reason not to exterminate humanity and resurrect Krypton in its place, via a codex that contains the genetics of all of Krypton's various bloodlines.

Michael Shannon's Zod is one of the best-ever villains in a superhero movie. His motivations are simple yet potent. His hatred of Jor-El and by extension Kal-El is palpable. He looks like a psycho badass, whether in his normal Krypton military gear, on in the creepy-as-hell space suit he wears over it. And this is Michael Shannon we're talking about - one of the very best actors working today, and perhaps *the* best at playing unhinged villains. Shannon brings a scary intensity to the role that is unrivaled. Forget used-car-salesman Lex Luthor, THIS is a villain worthy of Superman. Now, there is the legacy of Terrence Stamp in Superman II - certainly, an iconic performance. Shannon as Zod is completely different, and equally if not more memorable. Maybe he doesn't have a line as good as "Kneel before Zod." But he has an evil factor that renders catch-phrases unnecessary.

But let's talk Superman. Henry Cavill. I thought he nailed it. Cavill looks the part more than anyone since Christopher Reeve. He's got the sort of home-spun heartland humanity that you want in Superman, but he's also the most kick-ass Superman ever in film or TV. Unlike gawky Brandon Routh or baby-faced Tom Welling, this is a Superman who, finally, feels larger-than-life and superheroic. At the same time, Cavill deftly gives his Clark moments of real non-humanity, where he does feel otherworldly and alien. I've never seen that before outside of the comics, and it emphasizes the movie's theme of alienation. Clark knows he can't trust Zod, but Cavill also does a great job of showing Clark's weariness with humans.

Still, my favorite character in the movie might just be Lois Lane. I was a little worried when Amy Adams seemed not to figure much into the movie's marketing. But fear not - this is one of the best, coolest versions of Lois ever. Trust me, I'm a true-blue Superman fan and know the comics inside and out. But I was nonetheless incredibly pleased with the changes to the cannon that were made here with regards to Lois - it was different, but it felt like a great evolution. Basically, the movie does away with the whole idea (which can often seem silly and grating) of a sort of love triangle between Lois, Clark, and Superman. Especially given that Lois is a world-class reporter, her obliviousness when it came to Clark and Superman always seemed contrived. That's why my favorite version of the Lois and Clark relationship has always been the two of them as a couple with no secrets - a true team. And that's exactly what we get here - a Lois who is two steps ahead of everyone else when it comes to investigating this strange visitor from another world. A Lois who very quickly becomes Superman's ally and confidant, and who also kicks plenty of ass in her own right. There's an awesome sequence in the film - maybe it's best - where Lois, trapped on Zod's ship, has to make a daring escape. I'll confess that I was sort of smiling ear to ear during the sequence, because it just felt like man, Lois Lane being 100% "super" and not just a damsel in distress - about damn time! Maybe some will want more rom-com shenanigans and Donner-esque screwball comedy between her and Clark. But like I said, this is an epic, biblical-scale movie, and to me it seems fitting that Lois and Clark have a sort of star-crossed romance and partnership. Lois Lane in this movie boldly stands by Clark rather than betray his secret - even though doing so costs her the scoop of the century. If that's not enough to light the spark of an iconic romance, I don't know what is. Lois and Clark aren't even a couple, per se, by the movie's end. But the spark is there, as are the makings of Lois and Clark as (forgive me, Batman) the World's Finest team. There's almost an Office-esque Jim and Pam-style chemistry, I dug it. Amy Adams does so much with a glance, a nod, a smile. It's a knockout performance.

Kevin Costner was basically born to play Jonathan Kent. A great piece of casting. His scenes in flashback with a young Clark have a real resonance, because we feel the weight of a father who struggles to parent a son who is innately different, inevitably meant for some higher purpose. This is where the movie's humanity lies - the conflict in Clark between his adopted parents, who want to keep him safe and protected, and the desire to discover his origins and his destiny, which surely lies somewhere beyond Smallville. Diane Lane is also excellent as Martha Kent. There's a blue-collar aspect to these Kents that I like. There is some of the classic Rockwellian tone to the movie's Smallville segments. But there's also a little more grit, and Costner and Lane embody that. Other standouts include Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Christopher Meloni as an army colonel who becomes an ally to Superman, and Richard Schiff as Dr. Emil Hamilton. I'll also give a special shout-out to Antje Traue as Zod's right-hand woman Faora, who kicks ass and takes names with style. She's just totally ruthless, seething evil. A great, memorably villainous turn.

On Zack Snyder ... look, I'm a fan. I think he gets a bad rap for no real reason. And MAN OF STEEL is likely his best directorial effort yet. He keeps things grounded when needed - we've never really seen Snyder do the more salt-of-the-earth stuff before that he does here with his Smallville flashback scenes. And yet, he also delivers epic superhero action in spades, the likes of which we have never seen before on the big screen. Yes, over the last decade or so, movies like The Avengers have delivered the kind of comic book action spectacle that fanboys and fangirls long dreamed of seeing realized in live action. Movies like The Matrix sequels and the more recent Chronicle have delivered Superman-esque action in such a way that made you think "man, this is what a Superman movie should look like." But I don't think it should be understated that *this* is, finally, the first time we're seeing Superman-worthy action in a SUPERMAN movie. On a visceral, primal level, and as a lifelong Superman fan, it's just damn satisfying. Some may not care about the scope of the action, and I get it, sort of. But Superman's neverending battle plays out in superpowered bare-knuckled fights to the finish. That's just how it is, people. That's the superhero bread and butter, and rarely if ever has it been so dynamically realized in a film. Snyder whips out cinematic tricks that left me breathless, from a knock-down, drag-out brawl in Smallville to a roller-coaster-ride airborne battle in Metropolis. From the prologue filled with chases atop flying alien dragons, to Superman powering through a tentacled warship in a last-ditch effort to save the world ... this is just great stuff. Some will dismiss it, say it's empty and hallow. To those people, I say - this is Superman! From Kirby's galactic, page-popping brawls to the classic art-deco Fleisher cartoons that had a mostly wordless Superman punching  away at giant robots, Superman has ALWAYS been about epic, visually-dazzling action that captivates the imagination. Some may have forgotten that over the years, but Snyder and co. didn't.

On that note, I'll address the biggest and most passionate criticism against the movie that is makin' the rounds: the notion that the movie features too much reckless destruction in its action. The critique is that we don't get enough sense that, in the midst of his epic battles, Superman is going out of his way to save innocent people and prevent damage. As Superman and Zod go at it in Metropolis, buildings crumble, trucks explode, and seemingly, many innocent people become casualties of their collision. I can see where these critics (notably acclaimed Superman writer Mark Waid) are coming from ... to an extent. I think a quick scene of Superman pausing his attack to save a kid, or to free someone trapped in rubble, or prevent a building from collapsing, would have gone a long way to make these battle scenes feel more Superman-like. In truth, the collateral damage from the movie's big battles is such that it does almost make you feel a bit uneasy. Even some quick codas of Superman helping to free trapped people or rebuild the city in the battle's aftermath would have helped. At the same time, I have a hard time seeing this criticism as any sort of deal-breaker for the movie as a whole. For one thing, we *do* see several scenes throughout the movie of Superman doing all he can to save individual people when they are in need. He saves Christopher Meloni's character, Lois, and several others in the heat of battle. And, many of the film's flashback scenes are explicitly *about* a young Clark going out of his way to save people, while remaining largely anonymous and in the shadows. For another thing, the movie clearly shows that the battles with Zod are not only Clark's first as Superman - but his first battles of ANY kind. He's never even tested the limits of his powers before. He literally has not fought anyone in a direct manner, ever, before this - let alone adversaries who have his same abilities. Point being, this is a Superman who is a complete novice in many ways, and suddenly he is being confronted by a superpowered being who is murdering thousands, who fully intends to destroy ALL LIFE ON THE PLANET. It's understandable that Clark might be so hellbent on stopping him at all costs that he can't fully absorb the mass-destruction that results from their conflict. And yet ... the aftermath of the Zod battle is handled in such a way that it's clearly a turning point for Clark - and he is devastated by it. I expect that future movies would address his quest to become a "better" Superman.

Still, I think some of the criticisms about that aspect of the movie tie in to what may be some recurring flaws in the scripts of writer David Goyer. Overall, I am a fan of Goyer's - after all, he's had a hand in some of the best comic book adaptations of recent years, including The Dark Knight. But Goyer, I don't think, is a details guy. His scripts seem to always have a looseness to them in some aspects. Goyer loves to set up intricately laid-out, puzzle-like plot drivers. And MAN OF STEEL has its own sci-fi spin on that, with Zod's quest for the codex that will re-ignite Kryptonian civilization on earth, and the World Engines that will terraform earth to further allow for the creation of a New Krypton. Goyer will give you every detail about how the World Engines are reverse-engineered from the Phantom Zone projectors or what have you, but he won't throw in a line that clarifies whether Metropolis was evacuated before or during the giant battle that eviscerates a chunk of the city. I think that's partly where some of the issues with those battles come from. The other thing though is that Goyer can occasionally seem a little tone-deaf when it comes to big, emotional moments. The same way in which Batman's "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you" line to Ra's Al Ghul just felt off, MAN OF STEEL has a couple of moments that, as hard as the movie (and Han Zimmer's majestic score) tries to sell them, just don't seem earned. The biggest one for me is a flashback to a key moment where Clark finds himself helpless to save Pa Kent in Smallville. Cavill and Costner both play the moment as well as one could hope for, but it still just doesn't ring true. Even putting my preconceptions about Clark Kent and Superman aside, there was just *no way* that Clark - as we know him from other scenes in this movie - would act the way he did here. To sum up: I think Goyer has a real talent for writing epic, thunderously-paced stories that sweep you up with relentless pacing and nonstop intensity. But sometimes, in the need to make everything big and huge and melodramatic, he tends to misread or omit the small moments that would make all the difference in selling the story and filling in logic gaps.

That said, I think that MAN OF STEEL hugely benefits from having the same sort of forget-to-breathe pacing and intensity as Nolan's Batman films. I don't know how much influence Nolan had on the look, pacing, and overall arc of the movie, but there is a very Nolan-esque structure here. With films like the Dark Knight, you could overlook the occasional tonally-off moment or annoying plot hole because, man, the movie was just so impactful, so hypnotic in its intensity that in the moment, it totally swept you away. Same goes for The Man of Steel. Very deliberately, I think, the movie just thunders along. No opening titles or credits. Few breaks in the intensity. It just keeps hitting the high notes like a rock opera that won't let up. This was one of those movies where I barely blinked. I sat upright in my seat, transfixed. That incredible Hans Zimmer score - soaring, inspiring, classic - made it all the more immersive an experience. This is a movie that gave me chills on multiple occasions - Clark putting on the super-suit for the first time, Russell Crowe's impassioned speech to his son about his destiny, the military's moment of realization that the flying guy in the red-and-blue was one of the good guys. Yes, I love the quips and comedy and ironic coolness of the Marvel movies. But sometimes, I want to dispense with the irony and just be inspired, moved, and swept away. That's what MAN OF STEEL will do, if you let it.

I could go on with other little thoughts and asides and nerdy nitpicks. I wish the movie's color palette had been brighter - I'm not sure why everything had to be shown in Nolan's preferred palette of muted greys. Give me Kirby-esque bright colors in my Superman stories, thank you very much. I wish that, given the story's cosmic, comic-book nature, we got some additional hints that this took place within a larger DC Universe. I wish Jimmy Olsen was in it. And yeah, the fanboy in me wishes that at some point, Michael Shannon would have gotten the opportunity to bellow "kneel before Zod!" But man, I also think we're living in an age where some people make nitpicks into blow-up-the-internet level take-downs. I'm already seeing the strongly-worded essays popping up online that go in depth about various issues in the movie, examining small moments with a microscopic level of analysis that makes me wonder: what would these same critics have said if they were writing about the Donner films when those were first released? The same movies that many regard with nostalgic love contain two or three WTF moments for every one in MAN OF STEEL. Not only that, but even though, yes, I had some criticisms of the script, I also recognize that a movie script has creative freedom to do things like jump around in time, leave things open for interpretation, and not explain every single detail of how every single moment in the movie came to be. I'm already seeing people ask questions about Man of Steel that to me are clear "use your imagination, duh" sorts of situations.

In the end, I am happy. In many ways, this is the Superman movie I've been waiting for my whole life. Superman is many things to many people - romantic leading man, religious allegory, man of action, sci-fi adventurer, American symbol ... and the list goes on. But after so many Superman adaptations that seem hellbent on making Superman "relatable" to the average person - i.e., make him something other than Superman - and after so many Superman adaptations that pay homage to other eras and other times ... it is nice to have a Superman movie that is unabashedly SUPERMAN, and yet, a Superman that feels updated for 2013 in ways that make sense and feel true to what has often worked best about the character. I still think, of course, that there is room for improvement. I think a sequel could be even better, and show a Superman grappling with the mistakes he may have made in this movie, even as he is determined to keep fighting the good fight and striving to live up to an even higher ideal. But man, this is a good start. A great Superman movie that could kick-off something truly special and truly, well ... super. Bring it on.

My Grade: A-

Friday, June 14, 2013

THIS IS THE END Is An Epic Comedy Classic


- It's rare that a movie is this funny. I mean, honestly ... I can't even remember the last time I saw a new film that was anywhere even in the vicinity of THIS IS THE END. It's hard to write reviews of comedy, but I will just say this: this one feels like writers/directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg got away with something. Somehow, some way, they convinced Sony to give them millions of dollars to make a completely over-the-top, incredibly vulgar, balls-to-the-wall comedy about Rogen and a bunch of other actors - playing themselves - facing the full-on apocalypse. And what I've found is that the best comedies usually come about in this way ... when the movie gets made despite all common sense saying that it probably shouldn't exist. Thankfully, someone chucked common sense out the window and said "have at it." Because ... my god ... this is an instant comedy classic that will be quoted and re-watched from now until the end of days.

THIS IS THE END actually has some great character dynamics, even though all of the actors are playing heightened versions of themselves. The main arc of the movie revolves around the precarious friendship between Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel. While Seth has settled down in Los Angeles and mostly embraced the Hollywood lifestyle, Jay has stayed away from LA, and avoided the parties and the celebrities and the fakeness. So when Jay goes to visit his old friend in LA, he hopes to spend his time with Seth playing videogames and getting high. Seth, however, wants his old friend to get along with his new friends, so he drags a reluctant Jay to a party at James Franco's new house. There, Jay doesn't exactly ingratiate himself, and looks to make a quick exit. But when he and Seth head out for a snack run, all hell breaks loose. Literally. Some kind of crazy, apocalyptic disaster breaks out (we eventually learn its exact nature, but I won't spoil it here), as giant holes open up in the earth, and, well, basically, some really crazy $#%& goes down. Seth and Jay hightail it back to Franco's house, where we're treated to an epic slaughter of the various celebrities at the party. Eventually, the surviving group consists of Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride (with one or two additional surprises thrown into the mix). And from there ... hilarity ensues.

The main joke of the movie is watching these laid-back actor types try to deal with the apocalypse. And so it never comes off as smug or annoying that everyone is playing themselves, because hey, the joke is squarely on them. Each actor is playing a heightened version of themselves, a version that hilariously and smartly plays off of or subverts their real-life reputations. Rogen is the good-natured if mostly-useless stoner, Baruchel the uptight hipster, Franco the self-important artist, Hill the passive-aggressive poseur, Robinson the child-like goofball, and McBride, well, he's basically an only slightly toned-down version of Kenny Powers - a hilariously unpredictable loose cannon. Other actors who pop in for cameos do even crazier and more subversive versions of themselves. Michael Cera is awesome as sort of the anti-Michael Cera. Known as a nice guy, Cera plays Michael Cera as a coke-snorting, womanizing asshole - universally hated by all. It's funny as hell. Also great is Emma Watson, who shows up all of the guys by being, by far, the biggest badass of the bunch. There are all sorts of other great little cameos - from Kevin Hart, to Aziz Ansari, to Rihanna, to Jason Segel. And some others I won't reveal, because part of the hilarity is the surprise-factor.

The interesting thing here is that, man, the movie actually delivers on its apocalyptic premise, and delivers some huge, epic set pieces. There is some crazy-ass CGI stuff in the movie that I wasn't expecting - and Rogen and Goldberg give the movie an added sense of scale thanks to some surprisingly exciting and well-done action scenes. Sure, all of the action has a comedic bent - but man, there is some well-choreographed scenes and some insane-looking, hellspawned creatures. Suffice it to say, many full-on action movies wish they had set piece sequences and monsters as good as those in THIS IS THE END.

But, let's get down to it ... what makes THIS IS THE END so damn amazing is that it has a dream team of funny actors performing from what has to be one of the end-to-end funniest scripts ever in a big screen comedy. Almost every dialogue exchange in the movie has some great little moment in it - there's barely a minute that goes by without solid laughs. And when the movie hits its comedic high-points, it's quite simply off-the-chain, drop-dead funny, delivering some of the biggest belly-laughs of any film I've seen. Rogen and Goldberg proved with Superbad that they know how to write great back-and-forth banter, but they take it to another level here.

And every one of the main actors has multiple "home-run" moments of hilarity. Whether its Craig Robinson revealing his sordid past, Jonah Hill getting possessed by a demon (Exorcist-style), Seth Rogen recounting childhood traumas, Jay Baruchel hating on Forrest Gump, or James Franco showing off his incredibly self-indulgent art collection ... there really is no weak link. But personally, the man who brought it all to another plane of crazy-ass-awesome for me was Danny McBride. I've been a huge fan since The Foot Fist Way. I'll defend Your Highness to I'm blue in the face. And I maintain that Eastbound & Down is one of the funniest things ever on TV. But for those who still doubt the greatness of McBride, I have to imagine that they'll be converted to the cult after seeing THIS IS THE END. McBride is a freaking force of comedy nature in this one, stealing scenes with his volatile temper, total contempt for his friends, and mastery of blunt-force, hilariously vulgar insults. McBride is one of those guys who can make just about anything funny with his unique delivery, but when he's paired with material this funny and other actors this good, he's just plain legendary, Kenny Powers-style.

And hey, through all the vulgarity, rapid-fire humor, and invading demons from hell, the movie actually finds time for some genuine heart. Somehow, in spite of everything else, Goldberg and Rogen make this a movie about more than just whacked-out comedy, but also about friendship, growing up, and about being a good person. Who would have guessed?

But above all else, THIS IS THE END is just a blissfully hilarious movie that doesn't let up on laughs for its duration. It's quite simply awesome - a kick-ass end-of-world comedy that is one of the must-see movies of the summer.

My Grade: A

THE KINGS OF SUMMER Is An Indie Comedy Gem


- During summers crowded with pumped-up blockbusters, you also tend to find some real indie gems buried within the rubble. This summer, one of those gems is undoubtedly THE KINGS OF SUMMER - a funny, quirky, heartfelt coming-of-age comedy that is most definitely worth a look.

The movie deals with two teenage boys who are best friends, each of whom is dealing with the usual variety of hormone-driven teen angst, amplified by their uniquely intolerable parents. For Joe (Nick Robinson), it's his dad, Frank (a hilarious Nick Offerman - you know, Ron Swanson!), who drives him insane. Joe's mom died years earlier, and ever since, his dad is prickly, moody, and seemingly at constant odds with Joe. Joe doesn't help things by taking every opportunity to antagonize his dad - like deliberately trying to spoil things with Frank's new girlfriend when she comes over for dinner. Nonetheless, Joe feels confined, held back, tormented, and has a desperate need to get out of his house. When his older sister (Alison Brie of Community fame) comes home to visit from college, Joe practically begs her to take him back with her. Meanwhile, Joe's best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is in a similar boat. He has the classic overbearing, overprotective parents - played to hilarious effect by Marc Evan Jackson and Megan Mullally - and he's had enough of 'em. And so, Joe hatches a crazy idea and convinces Patrick to go along with it: they find a remote spot in the woods, leave home, and build their own ramshackle house where they decide to live for the summer - away from parents, and, well, everyone else.

Even as Joe and Patrick's parents frantically enlist the local police to search for their missing sons, the two are joined by a third classmate - the ultra-eccentric Biaggio (Moises Arias) - a nutball of a kid who is given to random philosophical musings and who resembles a young Mr. Bean. A classic outcast, Biaggio couldn't be happier playing lackey to Joe and Patrick out in the woods. For a while, things seem to be working out for the three teen runaways, living out their own mini Deliverance-esque adventure. But of course, it isn't long before a girl enters the picture, and drives a wedge between the boys. Joe's crush, the newly-single Kelly (Erin Moriarty) crashes the party, and from there, things get complicated.

The movie is an interesting mix of styles and tones. At the center of the film is a classic coming-of-age, humor-with-heart comedy that's John Hughes-ish and Judd Apatow-ian - but with an absurdist flair, mostly thanks to Biaggio's wackiness. Around the periphery of the film, the supporting characters, like Nick Offerman's Frank, or Mary Lynn Rajskub's police captain, seem to share the kind of small-town quirkiness and charm that wouldn't be out of place in Parks & Recreation's Pawnee. Beyond that, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts gives the movie a Terence Malick-esque, picturesque quality. He inserts long, lingering shots of nature into the film - dwelling leisurely on trees, plants, and animals. He includes majestic views of mountaintops, and other shots designed to show the smallness of the characters within the natural world. It reinforces the idea that, despite the quirky comedy, the movie is going for a certain sort of gravitas. Sure, these kids' escape into the woods starts off as a sort-of-silly way to get away from their annoying parents, but it ends up becoming a true back-to-basics social experiment. Even though there's a lot of comedy to be found in the guys' efforts to survive in the wild (i.e. giving up on hunting in favor of trekking out of the woods for fast-food chicken), there's also some real weight to what they are doing. If they're not careful, they could get sick, or hurt, or die.

The tonal shifts can be a little weird sometimes, but mostly, it all comes together pretty well. It helps that the cast is so good. I was particularly impressed with lead actor Nick Robinson - he has a natural charisma and seems exceedingly talented - I can see him becoming a big star. As Joe, he paints a picture of a frustrated teen who is at once a leader but also a very confused kid who is still very much figuring it all out. Gabriel Basso is also very good as Patrick - he is the kid who would have probably been the alpha male jock if not for all of his parent-derived insecurities. I also have to give a shout out to Moises Arias as Biaggio, who seems to arrive out of nowhere as this fully-formed comic personality (though further inspection reveals he was a regular on Hannah Montana - so I guess he's got some experience at playing wacky). But what he does here is really pretty impressive. He's like some odd mix of Mr. Bean, Balki Bartokomous, and Zach Galifianakis. He's a total scene-stealer, and he spouts off some absolutely hilarious lines, and partakes in some laugh-out-loud funny physical comedy. And of course, the main story is only accentuated by having Nick Offerman at his funniest as a key supporting character (some of his bitter rants are just amazing), as well as funny people like Alison Brie, Megan Mullally, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Kumail Nanjiani in supporting roles.

What keeps the movie from being a classic is that previously-mentioned tonal inconsistency, along with the fact that, at times, it sort of meanders. There are a whole host of character dynamics that don't feel fully explored, and that means that the plot ultimately lacks a ton of depth. When Joe and Patrick fight over Kelly, for example, we don't quite get a sense for the dynamic between them when it comes to girls. Does Patrick usually get the girl, leaving Joe out in the cold? Does Joe have a history of resenting Patrick for being more popular and sociable? Point being: at times, it feels like the movie is more checking off a list of teen drama bullet points, but forgetting to really take us inside the minds and motivations of these characters. And so, while the comedy tends to be the movie's strong point, the drama, while occasionally affecting, doesn't have quite the oomph it should.

Overall though, THE KINGS OF SUMMER is a really strong film - a great portrait of the proverbial teenage wasteland, and a movie filled to the brim with funny characters and moments. Plus, as mentioned, it's surprisingly a very artfully-shot movie - visually, it really takes you into the woods, and gives you a sense of what it'd be like to ditch everything and go back to nature (with the occasion detour, of course, for some fast food and beer). This is not just another teen movie, but a worthwhile flick that has a lot of laughs.

My Grade: B+

Thursday, June 13, 2013

THE PURGE Is Full-On Midnight Movie Madness


- THE PURGE is a gloriously absurd B-movie that is oftentimes silly, stupid, and/or just plain makes no sense. And yet, there's a giddy sense of fun to the film and its over-the-top, high-concept premise that makes it a perfect midnight movie.

The premise of The Purge is ridiculous, yet undeniably tantalizing. In the near future, the US has recovered from economic and societal collapse by instituting The Purge - an annual 24-hour event in which all crime - yes, ALL crime, is legal. The idea is that, by giving people one day in which to let off some steam - murder, kill, pillage ... you know, the usual - you'll both weed out society's dregs and give people incentive to be on good behavior for the rest of the year. There's also a definite undercurrent of class-based politics here. While the not-violently-inclined middle and upper class folks barricade themselves in their homes on Purge Day, via high-end security systems, the poor and homeless are left as easy pickin's for any psycho with a shotgun who feels like using 'em as target practice. Eliminate society's poor and needy, and hey, suddenly the economy is in better shape. The movie leaves many, many unanswered questions about how exactly Purge Day works and how exactly average Joes deal with it / react to it. All we really know is that certain government officials are off-limits, that only a certain grade of weapons are allowed (i.e., you can go out and murder with handguns or knives, but not with, say, bombs), and that all medical and safety services are suspended (so no firemen, no police, and no hospitals on Purge Day - sorry random people who have heart attacks or strokes - you're screwed!).

As Purge Day dawns, the movie introduces us to the Sandins, a whitebread sort of all-American family, whose patriarch - played by Ethan Hawke - happens to be a home security systems salesman, who's sold systems to just about everyone in his neighborhood. Oh, the irony, as said system will, of course, be put to the test once Purge Day hits and law seizes to exist. I won't spoil how things unfold, exactly, except to say that the Sandins' plans of a nice, quiet Purge Day spent playing boardgames and watching movies gets upended when their son, Charlie, lets in a homeless man who is on the run from a pack of yuppie psycho killers who've been hunting him for sport. Things pretty much go downhill from there for the Sandins, as this nice every-family has to lock n' load in order to survive a night that's quickly become a nightmare.

THE PURGE is one of those movies that will have you face-palming yourself on multiple occasions. The characters make absolutely moronic and illogical decisions - decisions that could only come from the mind of a screenwriter desperately trying to move them from Point A to Point B. There are major plot holes. Characters are forgotten about for long stretches only to return as if by magic. The movie has severe problems with time and space - in particular, its sense of spacial geography pretty much falls apart once the home invasion begins. Characters' motivations are very, very broadly drawn - in particular, an early subplot involving the boyfriend of teen daughter Zoey is such a stretch that it's almost laugh-out-loud funny.

But here's the thing, a lot of the movie really *is* laugh-out loud funny. Sometimes intentionally, many times not. It's hard to put into words, exactly, but what makes The Purge so damn entertaining is that even when it's trying to be serious, it's still only about 75% serious. There are moments in the movie that are 100% satirical and tongue-in-cheek, and those moments work very well. But the rest of the movie is still, tonally, somewhat self-aware of its own absurdity. It invites you to laugh at the ridiculousness, and it self-consciously contains moments meant to elicit applause, and moments meant to make you shout "WTF is happening right now!"

Yes, the movie does have some issues with tone. It slowly gets more and more over-the-top as it progresses, with its final act becoming an all-out black comedy. In all likelihood, there isn't enough overt satire in the first two-thirds of the movie. There are moments, but the movie doesn't have enough fun with its premise, or really hammer home any one particular point. Like I said, there is some commentary here on class warfare, on gun ownership, and on American society in general. But the movie seems to shy away from getting too much into any of that, tossing in little satirical moments here and there, but ultimately satisfied to be a souped-up home invasion film. I think that's why the movie is frustrating in some ways, because the premise has so much potential, but the movie only barely touches on it.

In some ways though, that's okay. It's a fun little story. And what makes it all work is that Ethan Hawke and Lena Heady are totally up for this, and 100% get how to play the B-movie tone to perfection. Hawke is quite entertaining as the Ned Flanders-ish, dorky dad who eventually has to unleash his inner badass. Same goes for Lena Heady as the buttoned-up mom ready to smash someone's head in if it means protecting her family. The kid actors are unfortunately a bit less convincing. And Rhys Wakefield, as the main, home-invading, mask-wearing psycho, is hilariously over-the-top, but perhaps a bit *too* over the top at times. But the two leads get what movie they're in, and really help make it all work maybe better than it should.

The Purge could be called a bad movie in some ways. There is just a lot about it that's not well thought-out, poorly-handled, or ill-advised. There's spotty acting, writing, and direction in spades. But man, it's got charm, ambition, and entertainment value to spare. Maybe I'm just a sucker for these sorts of outlandish, satirical sci-fi premises - they take me back to the likes of Escape From NY or They Live - John Carpenter's totally crazy yet imagination and gallows humor-filled cult favorites. There's something to be said for the B-movie that has no shame and no desire to hold back in the name of good taste or common sense. And there's something to be said for a movie whose premise alone can inspire hours of endless "what-if" conversations, debates, and jokes. Not a good movie in any strict sense of the word, but hey, I still had a blast seeing it in a theater full of people laughing and joking and reacting.

My Grade: B

Friday, June 07, 2013

NOW YOU SEE ME Is Anything But Magical


- I had a good feeling about NOW YOU SEE ME. It felt like one of those under-the-radar summer sleepers that might steal some thunder from some of the more high-profile releases. Sure, it didn't have superheroes or Vin Diesel, but it had reliable vets (and Dark Knight cast members) like Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, exciting newcomers like Jesse Eisenberg and Melanie Laurent, The Hulk (aka Mark Ruffalo), and hey, it was about magic to boot. I know they say magic is box-office poison (as Steve Carell and Jim Carey can attest), but hey, who doesn't love a good movie about magicians - especially when said magicians use their magic to solve and/or perpetrate crimes? Apparently, many people had the same hunch about this movie I did, because it was in fact a sleeper hit at the box office, making many more millions than originally projected.

That's all well and good, but there's one major problem: the movie itself is a mess. I went in with high hopes, and came out frustrated and annoyed at all the squandered potential. Like I said, the movie's got magic, an all-star cast, and hey, I even count myself a fan of director Louis Leterrier (loved the first Transporter, thought The Incredible Hulk was underrated, and thought Clash of the Titans had some great visuals marred by a flat script). So what happened? First and foremost, I blame a lot of the movie's faults on a weak and totally nonsensical script.

The movie's plot hints at something very ambitious, but none of it adds up to anything. The basic story is this: four magicians, each with a different magical specialty, are brought together by a mysterious, unseen benefactor, and convinced to join forces as a sort of all-star magic act known as The Four Horsemen (a poor choice of name - not only because the group is supposed to be inspiring, but hey, it's a name that's sort of been used once or twice already, ya' know?). The Horsemen are, on the surface, an assemblage of high-profile magicians who perform together. But their act - which includes magical stunts like robbing banks from afar - is not just for show. In fact, they are *actually* robbing banks and stealing money, though their magical methods make it hard for the police to pin any crimes on them. Meanwhile, the Horsemen's crimes have a Robin Hood-esque populist slant - stealing from the rich, giving to the poor, etc. - and they become heroes to the 99%, even as they officially become outlaws.

The magicians are the best thing about the movie. For one, it's fun to see how each one has a different, superhero-esque talent. Jesse Eisenberg's J. Daniel Atlas is a street magician with bad attitude to spare. Isla Fischer's Henley is a stage performer specializing in daring escapes, with a major flair for theatrics. Woody Harrelson's Merrit is a shifty hypnotist, not above using his craft to make a quick buck. And Dave Franco is a drifter who specializes in sleight of hand. All four of these actors do a nice job, and it's fun to see them interact - Eisenberg and Fischer as the bickering ex-partners, Harrelson as the shady uncle of the group, and Franco as the punk kid who is more talented than he knows.

But for some reason, the movie severely limits their screen time. Instead, the should-be main characters of the film are given the short shrift in favor of those pursuing them - Ruffalo's Vegas cop Rhodes, and Laurent's Interpol agent Alma Dray. A huge chunk of the movie centers on their investigation, and its easily the most bland and boring part of the movie. Their scenes have a dulling sense of repetition, not helped by an elder-statesman magician played by Morgan Freeman who acts as their adviser on all things magic. While it's always nice to see Freeman, his role here amounts to a lot of smarter-than-thou lecturing, a lot of scolding Ruffalo for not understanding magic, magicians, etc. It gets old, especially when we'd rather be spending time with the Horsemen.

As for Ruffalo, I hate to say it, but he seems to be phoning this one in a bit. He's all passive-aggressive smiles and clenched jaws, constantly acting like the worst cop ever. Meaning, because he's written as a character who hates magic, has no time for childish things, etc., that is made to carry over into his investigation of a criminal case. But instead of just sitting down and talking to Freeman and getting info on his suspects, it's just him constantly whining about hating magic. To add one more layer to the character's annoying-factor, he has the most forced romantic tension with Laurent's Alma ever. The characters seem to basically dislike each other throughout the entire movie, except, you know, when they're actually in love and stuff. Because they are two cops working a case at odds with each other (Laurent is all into magic), so, of course, they must secretly be in love.

And since we spend so little time with the Horsemen, we really have little clue into what the hell they're doing. Like I said, there seems to be a Robin Hood-meets-Banksy element to their crimes - populism meets performance art - but why exactly they're doing what they're doing, or what their end game is, we don't quite know. The movie uses the fact that they're acting out the wishes of their hidden benefactor as an excuse to keep things vague. But the payoff the mystery is so weak that it doesn't do anything to absolve the movie's copious story and character issues. I'll just say that the absurdity reaches its peak in the final act, as the Horsemen prepare to pull off their final heist, all while eluding Ruffalo and a battalion of cops. The entire sequence is so vague and murky. What are the Horsemen trying to pull off? Why? Why are huge crowds gathered to see them perform a grand trick that essentially amounts to a big light show? It's the epitomy of anticlimax. There is a lot of ambiguous talk about the Horsemen wanting to "bring magic back into the world" and whatnot, but what that means in the context of the movie, I have no idea.

But here's the thing: the movie compounds its problems by centering itself around the central mystery of the benefactor's identity - all so it can close out with a huge twist ending. No spoilers here - just a warning that, to me at least, it's one of the lamest and cheapest twist endings I've seen in a movie in a while - the kind that basically INVALIDATES THE ENTIRE MOVIE IN RETROSPECT. Given the big ending reveal, so much of what happened in the rest of the movie no longer makes sense that it hurts my head to think about it. Worse, the explanation of the twist is so silly and unworthy ... just prepare your hand, because you will be face-palming yourself upon hearing it.

One other thing I'll say about the movie - it's about stage magicians, and it does try to respect the craft of magic and illusion. Some of the more interesting parts of the movie are when we go behind-the-scenes of the various illusions we see performed. But, the movie also has a supernatural element to it that is pretty absurd. Full disclosure: I am a total sucker for stories about stage magic vs. "real" magic and the intersection of the two. But since 95% of this movie is trying to be a semi-grounded heist movie that explains the reality behind its illusions, the 5% of it that deals with "real", legit, mystical magic feels totally out-of-left-field and groan-worthy.

As for Leterrier, he gives the movie some kinetic flair, but predictably, he excels with the scenes that are *supposed* to feel big and epic and crazy, but seems a bit lost with the smaller-scale stuff. I think Leterrier's penchant for big, epic action actually hurts the movie in some ways, because a lot of the movie is shot as if we were watching The Avengers, when in fact nothing all that amazing is happening on screen. Like, that final trick of the Horsemen - it's shot with sweeping cameras, plunging angles, a huge sense of scale - all for a scene in which nothing all that huge is happening. There's definitely a bit of a disconnect. The one sequence where everything comes together like magic (yep, I went there), is an awesomely-staged fight scene between Ruffalo and Franco, in which Franco counters his opponent's size advantage with a furious flurry of magic-based offense, including Gambit-style card-throwing and evasive, now-you-see-me, now-you-don't illusions. It's the one sequence in the movie that seems to perfectly pair Leterrier's talents with the material.

On the other hand, the entire movie is, undoubtedly, elevated by its cast. There are scenes that are just plain fun to watch, because you get to see Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine snipe at each other in a battle of the awesome old dudes, or because Dave Franco and Jesse Eisenberg get to tag-team as a pair of underestimate-'em-at-your-own-peril underdogs, or because Woody Harrelson is so fun and funny trying to blatantly hit on a not-having-it Isla Fischer. The cast makes the movie watchable and breezily entertaining even when it probably shouldn't be.

However, the great cast, combined with the movie's fun subject matter and glimpses of potential, make its failure to hit a home run that much more frustrating. Even when certain scenes work well, the overall structure of the movie - hinging on a big twist, focusing on the cops rather than the magicians - is so broken that a few cool scenes can't salvage it. It adds up to a movie that tries hard to feel smart and clever, but ends up feeling sort of dumb. It might make you wish you had just re-watched The Prestige.

My Grade: C

FAST & FURIOUS 6 Delivers Bone-Crunching, Hyperactive Action

FAST & FURIOUS 6 Review:

- I had lost interest in the Fast & Furious movies, until Fast 5 came along and reinvented the series as a sort of street-level Avengers, with an emphasis on huge action, larger-than-life personalities, and a sense of humor that had been missing from the far-too-self-serious series for most of its lifespan. Fast 5 was dumb but well-choreographed fun, and led by walking comic book heroes Vin Diesel and The Rock, it felt like a hi-octane throwback to the muscled-up action flicks of the 80's. The sixth film in the series builds on Part 5's formula, but amps things up to almost absurd levels, cutting furiously from scene to scene in a blatant attempt to capture and keep the attention of a generation off ADD-addled gamers. The movie wastes little time getting from Point A to B, and its plot is basically an excuse to get its cast involved in some heavy-metal action scenes. What's refreshing is that, like the actionfests of old, Furious 6 has no pretensions of being anything other than a popcorn smash-'em-up. So if you check your cerebral cortex at the door and go in looking for some over-the-top thrills, you'll likely come away satisfied.

Amazingly, six movies in, and the Fast & Furious franchise now has its own semi-dense mythology that may have you checking Wikipedia, trying to figure out what happened in which movie, and how it all fits together. So while plot may not be of the utmost priority in this film, it does throw out a lot of references to the older films. Old characters are brought back, and fans even finally learn when, exactly, the infamously mysterious Tokyo Drift falls into the franchise timeline. But really, all you need to know is this: Hobbs (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) the hulking Interpol agent from the last movie, is chasing a slick, would-be master criminal named Shaw (Luke Evans) and his gang, to prevent them from stealing and selling off an advanced weapon. To do so, he tracks down and recruits Dom (Vin Diesel) and his semi-retired gang. Dom and Brian (Paul Walker) are keeping a low profile in Brazil. Brian and his wife/Dom's sister (Jordana Brewster) have a young son, and both he and Dom claim they are done living on the edge. But just when they think they've gotten out ... along comes The Rock to pull them back in. Hobb's ace in the hole is his intel regarding Dom's old flame, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). Even though she died pretty definitively in one of the previous movies, well ... she didn't. Hobbs promises to give Dom the still-alive Letty on a silver platter ... if he and his crew help take down Shaw. And so it begins.

So basically, weirdly complex mythology aside, this is a "getting the gang back together" movie, and an excuse to both pay homage to the series' past, and take it to an even more extreme place than it's ever been. You've got to give director Justin Lin credit - he knows how to stage big action that is hyperactive yet impactful. He also knows how to make his actors seem appropriately larger than life. In the last movie, when Vin Diesel and The Rock fought, it felt like a true clash of titans. In this movie, we get similarly scintillating smackdowns, including the battle of the badgirls - Michelle Rodriguez vs. MMA star-turned-actress Gina Carrano. What makes the action in the movie work so well is that it all feels legitimately bone-crunching. Unlike so many CGI-fueled summer blockbusters, Lin seems to place a high value on good old-fashioned stunt choreography. He's got legit bruisers like Johnson and Carrano in the cast, and the way he stages a lot of  the hi-octane action is decidedly old-school. Yes, many of the big set pieces are almost absurdly over-the-top (the grand finale, in which Dom's crew tries to stop a large plane from taking off, apparently takes place on the world's longest runway). But despite the craziness and fast pace, there's a tangibility to the action that a lot of movie's lack. And when you've got human action figures like The Rock, Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodrigeuez, and Gina Carrano driving the action, the movie possesses the gleefully childlike quality of a kid playing with action figures. Someone should really give Justin Lin a crack at an Expendables movie.

The movie seems to have some idea of its own absurdity, which makes the film a lot easier to swallow, and a lot more entertaining than older entries in the series. The dialogue is suitably big and bold, and even when the story gets ridiculous, you can't help but smile at the ridiculousness.

Still, there are plenty of moments that are not-so-fun and that drag the movie down. Paul Walker is still sort of useless, for example. The movie sends him off on his own little side mission to track down the truth about Letty's survival, and these scenes are all pretty lame. Not only is the secret of Letty's non-death not-that-exciting, but it sets up an eye-rolling amnesia scenario that - while leading to one good scene between Diesel and Rodriguez - ultimately takes the story into some pretty strange and unsatisfying places. Meanwhile, the movie is at its most entertaining when it's being deliberately campy, but, when it goes for legit laughs, it tends to fall flat. A lot of the movie's overt comic relief comes from Ludacris' Tej and Tyrese Gibson's Roman - meant to be a comedic duo of sorts. But these guys don't add much to the movie other than one or two decent one-liners.

I also wish that Shaw was a better villain. Luke Evans seems to have the right chops to play a truly memorable, sadistic baddie. And he absolutely nails most of his big scenes in the movie. Problem is, he is forced to play a completely generic bad guy. Sure, there are hints that he is some sort of nihilistic sadist, but really, we don't know much beyond he's bad. What is his plan, exactly? For most of the film, he's just sort of there, scheming and wreaking havoc, but he just seems to sort of appear whenever it's convenient.

Which partly gets at the larger problem here - the movie moves at such a fast clip that plot points, characters, and locations barely get a chance to make an impact. Rarely have I seen a movie with so many helicopter-cam establishing shots of exotic locales in the space of two hours. We dash from place to place, scene to scene, so fast that it's all a blur by the end.

For what these movies are, that's mostly okay. Going forward, yes, I'd like to see better villains, a more well thought-out plot, and a narrative that slows down just enough so that "fast and furious" doesn't literally describe every scene of the movie. But this is dumb fun that's not trying to be anything but - a showcase for some of the most entertaining action stars out there to do their thing and partake in some meaty, rollicking action. By the time the movie ends - setting up a great cliffhanger for a Part 7 (!), in which one more iconic action hero is thrown into the mix - I was left in a sort of giddy state of brain-fried satisfaction. Maybe it's the simple realization that, hey, a movie about a gang of criminal street racers - only semi-interesting  ... but a movie about a gang of criminal street racers trying to save the world from crazy uber-villains? Much more interesting, and a concept with nearly infinite shelf-life. As long as a world-weary Vin Diesel is leading the charge, I'm in.

My Grade: B