Friday, May 31, 2013

Review: Now You See Me

Now You See Me…and now you see an incredibly mediocre movie.

Now You See Me is the newest in a string of movies made in the past few years presenting a story about the world of stage magic, and it is probably about the worst of the bunch (oh wait, The Amazing Burt Wonderstone, that’s the worst. This is a step above that). This one sends FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol officer Alma Dray on a wild goose chase to capture a group of magicians who call themselves the Four Horsemen (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Ilsa Fisher, and Dave Franco), whose big trick appears to be robbing banks in locations all over the world. Unfortunately for Rhodes, these conniving criminals are always several steps ahead of Rhodes, who is made a fool by their trickery. As Jesse Eisenberg’s character states, “the first rule of magic: always be the smartest guy in the room.”

The creators of Now You See Me have done a little magic of their own, making anything resembling interesting characters or development of those characters disappear before the audience’s very eyes. It’s a shame really, considering the load of capable talent that populates this movie, including Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, and to a lesser extent, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, and Jesse Eisenberg. None of these characters are made interesting enough to care about as you watch their crafty illusions and daring escapes, or, on the flip side, their foiled attempts to capture the crooks.

If the paper-thin characters aren’t bad enough, the movie houses a plot that’s almost as hard to believe as the idea that some of the tricks being performed in the movie are anything but CGI. It starts out simple and interesting enough, but it only gets crazier as the con gets bigger, leading to some moments in the movies back half that are too farfetched to take seriously, if you even care by the time it’s over.

Director Louis Leterrier (Clash of the Titans, The Hulk) doesn’t help matters, as he struggles to succeed in bringing the story home and relies on flashy visuals and quick cuts to trick the audience into forgetting the movie’s ridiculous premise.

I will say one of the few things the movie has going for it is the fact that the cast IS impressive. Woody Harrelson provides a few humorous moments, but the best part is being able to see a couple of scenes where Caine and Freeman face off against one another. It’s a real treat to see these two heavy hitters occupying the same screen space together, and the movie is almost worth it just for that, but the excitement of witnessing this union of acting giants is only temporary. In fact, if you want to see these two in a movie, you’re much better off going back to revisit The Dark Knight. I don’t recall that they have screen time together in that movie, but they’re both in it, and play more interesting characters. It’s a much better way to spend a couple hours.

Speaking of superior Christopher Nolan movies, instead of wasting your money on Now You See Me, which you would be perfectly fine renting when it is released on Blu-ray and DVD, do a double feature of The Dark Knight and The Prestige. That remains the greatest movie about magic and illusion ever made.  Now You See Me, with its lack of characterization and implausible plot, not so much.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Trailer Trash Thursday

It seems like it's been a slow week for trailers. below is a collection of some that appear to be interesting, whether it be for better or worse.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints (HERE) looks like it has great potential to me. Ever since The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Side Effects, I have become a big fan of Rooney Mara, and so her inclusion in this movie has me excited to see it from the beginning. Casey Affleck has also impressed me in the past, and the movie looks sufficiently dramatic.

On the other end of the genre spectrum are The World's End (HERE) and Machete Kills (HERE) both look like tons of fun, and in the case of The World's End, I've gotten to a point where I'll see anything Edgar Wright makes, so I'm in.

Unfortunately, Planes (HERE), which seems to take place in the world of Pixar's Cars, looks to be more on the lame side to me, as does Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (HERE), another entry in a franchise I've never really cared for, and this trailer doesn't really change my mind.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Movie Trivia Tuesday: The Wizard of Oz

This past weekend, I saw a stage performance of The Wizard of Oz that, while cute, only made me appreciate the original, masterful, 1939 movie more than ever. I have always been a fan of The Wizard of Oz, but after that production, which featured some of the scenes that were left out of the movie (and rightly left out, I might add), not to mention the lackluster Oz The Great and Powerful from earlier this year,  I have come to appreciate what we have in the original film much, much more. It also made me want to explore some of the history and other information surrounding the movie. Here are some facts about The Wizard of Oz.

  • The movie won two Oscars, one for Best Original Score and another for Best Original Song for "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." It was also nominated for Best Art Direction; Best Cinematography, Color; Best Effects, Special Effects;  and Best Picture.

  • 1939 was a very difficult year for The Wizard of Oz to compete for Best Picture, and it lost to Gone with the Wind.

  • Buddy Ebsen was originally cast to play the Tin Man, but after a reaction to the aluminum dust that was used for his make-up caused him to be rushed to the hospital, the role was recast with Jack Haley. The material used for the make-up was also switched from aluminum dust to aluminum paste. Buddy Eben's vocals remain in the film whenever they sing "We're Off to See the Wizard."

  • In a deleted musical number that was to appear while the group was in the forest, the wicked witch sends a swarm of insects that causes the group to dance the Jitterbug furiously, robbing them of their strength. The scene was originally included to capitalize on the bobby-soxer dance craze at the time, but was later removed out of fear that it was date the movie too much. The song (featuring Buddy Ebsen as the Tin Man) still survives, along with a rough filmed version, which you can listen to and watch here. Furthermore, a reference to the scene remains in the final film when the Wicked Witch says "send the insects on ahead to take the flight out of them" before the flying monkeys take off.

  • Shirley Temple was considered for the role of Dorothy, closer matching the actual age of the character, but there were two problems with that: She was under contract with 20th Century Fox, and was eventually deemed to have inadequate vocal talent for the role.

  • Judy Garland had to wear an uncomfortable corset-style device around her torso to maker her appear younger and flat-chested.

  • Producer Marvyn LeRoy originally intended to use MGMs Jackie the Lion (from the studio's logo) in the role of the Cowardly Lion, dubbing in an actors voice for the dialogue, but this idea was scrapped when Bert Lahr was suggested for the part.

  • Richard Thorpe was the original director of the movie, but was fired. He had made several choices for his vision of the film that were scrapped, including a blond, tousled hairstyle and baby doll make-up on Dorothy, different make-up for the Wicked Witch and Scarecrow, and a different look for the yellow brick road with oval bricks that looked artificial. All of these things were changed when George Cukor signed on as intermediate director.

  • There were actually five directors assigned to the movie at different points: Richard Thorpe, none of his shot material actually existing in the final film, George Cukor, whose only major contribution was changing the look of Dorothy and the Scarecrow, Victor Fleming, the credited director, who shot the bulk of the movie, but who had to leave to direct Gone with the Wind, King Vidor, who mainly filmed the Kansas scenes (the storm and "Somewhere over the Rainbow"), and producer Marvin LeRoy, who directed some transitional scenes. The movie also had 14 writers. 

  • Roy Bolger was originally cast to play the Tin Man and Buddy Ebsen the Scarecrow, but the roles were switched because Bolger's childhood idol, Fred Stone, had originated the part on stage in 1902 (Stone was briefly considered for the part, but at the age of 65 in 1938, he was not up to the physically demanding role).

  • "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" was nearly cut from the film entirely for multiple reasons: Some at MGM felt that it made the Kansas scene too long,  while others thought the song would go too far over the heads of the children for whom the movie was intended and furthermore thought it was degrading for Dorothy to be singing in a barnyard.

  • The horses at the Emerald City were colored with Jell-O crystals.

  • After he receives his "brain," the Scarecrow incorrectly recites the Pythagorean Theorem.

  •  Most of the Wicked Witch's scenes had to be trimmed or cut entirely because they were thought to be too frightening for children.

  • The snow used for the "poppy field" scene was made from 100% industrial grade chrysotile asbestos. This was done despite the fact that the health hazards of asbestos had already been known for several years.

  • Three quotes from the movie appear on the American Film Institutes "100 Years...100 Movie Quotes" list:
         - "Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." (#4)
         - "There's no place like home." (#23)
         - "I'll get you my pretty, and your little dog, too!"(#99)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Trailer Trash Thursday: Monsters University and Don Jon

Two new and noteworthy trailers debuted recently that I think are worth discussing. The first is the newest Monsters University trailer. Pixar seems to have become comfortable with revisiting its old franchises lately, and I'm not so sure that's such a good idea. Toy Story 2 and 3 are great, but then you have Cars 2, which is terrible. I suppose with this movie, and later Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo, we'll see if they can successfully create a sequel that doesn't have the words "Toy" and "Story" in it. This trailer looks like it's full of energy and excitement, which is great and promising, but is also bereft of laughs (for me). Hopefully they're just saving those for your experience with the actual movie.

Next up is a movie that looks...strange, but also perhaps secretly good. I find Don Jon notable mostly because it is the feature film screenwriting and directing debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Gordon-Levitt has been a terrific actor in my eyes for a while now, and I'm very interested to see what he is capable of doing behind the camera. If Ben Affleck has taught us anything, it's that sometimes that works out great. I have to imagine Gordon-Levitt will do pretty well. I certainly have faith in him. He also stars in the movie, so that should help matters.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"Only God Forgives" receives negative reaction from critics after screening

Well, this is depressing.

Only God forgives was (and really, still is) a movie that I had been very much looking forward to. The Red Band trailer looked amazing, and it all seemed to have a ton of promise. Drive was awesome, showing the talent of Nicolas Winding Refn as a director, and Ryan Gosling has been mostly great in his recent movies. I really thought this was going to be one of the best, or at lest best made, movies of the summer. However, apparently there has been a lukewarm reception to Refn and Gosling's new movie, even to the point of being booed at a screening. Seeing this news definitely tempers my expectations in terms of this being another masterful output from Refn, as was the case with Drive. Too bad. Maybe my reaction will be positive, though. Look forward to my review when the movie comes out in July.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Movie Trivia Tuesday: Casablanca

We all love to learn new things, right?! I highly enjoy doing research on movies and finding little factoids about them, either relating to hypothetical casting choices that didn't pan out, errors left in movies, production stories, information about awards and accolades films received, or other interesting tidbits. I thought it would be fun to share some fun facts about movies with my readers in a weekly column I will call "Movie Trivia Tuesday!" This week, I thought it would be appropriate to start with one of the most celebrated films of all time, Casablanca. Here are some cool facts about this great movie.

  • Though it is often misquoted, no one ever says, "Play it Again Sam" in the film. The closest to this line is when Humphrey Bogart says to Sam, "You played it for her you can play it for me...If she can stand it, I can. Play it!" and when Ingrid Bergman says “Play it sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’"

  • Bogart's signature line, "Here's looking at you, kid!" was originally in the script as "Here's good luck to you, kid," until he changed it. His new line never appears in the script.

  • Casablanca is based on a then-unproduced play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s. The movie was renamed Casablanca because of the popularity of the Charles Boyer film Algiers.

  • In the scene where Humphrey Bogart waits for Ingrid Bergman in a Paris train station, it’s raining and Bogart’s hat and trench coat are soaked.  He receives a letter saying Ingrid isn’t coming and gets on the train. We see Bogart standing in the train’s doorway with a dry coat and hat.

  • Michele Morgan was considered for the female lead. RKO asked for $55,000 to use the actress, but producer Hal B. Wallis refused to pay it when he could get Ingrid Bergman for $25,000.

  • The music was written by Max Steiner, who was best known for the score for Gone with the Wind. The song "As Time Goes By" by Herman Hupfeld had been part of the story from the original play. Steiner wanted to write his own composition to replace it, but Bergman had already cut her hair short for her next role (María in For Whom the Bell Tolls) and could not re-shoot the scenes which incorporated the song.

  • Studio publicity in 1941 claimed that Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan were scheduled to appear in Casablanca, and Dennis Morgan is mentioned as the third lead. However, this was never the case and the false story was planted, either by a studio publicist or a press agent for the three other actors, to keep their names in the press. Meanwhile George Raft was angling for the part with Jack L. Warner, but Hal Wallis had been assigned to search for what would be Humphrey Bogart's next starring role. He wrote to Jack Warner that he had found the next movie for Bogart and that the role was perfect for him. Nobody else was ever considered for the part.

  • Producer Hal B. Wallis nearly made the character Sam (the piano player) a female. Hazel Scott, Lena Horne, and Ella Fitzgerald were considered for the role.

  • Out of 8 nominations, Casablanca won 3 academy awards, for best director, best screenplay and best picture. Humphrey Bogart was nominated for best actor but lost to Paul Lukas in Watch on the Rhine. Claude Rains was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Charles Coburn in The More the Merrier. Casablanca was also nominated for Best Dramatic Score and Best Cinematography, both of which it lost to The Song of Bernadette, and Best Film Editing, losing to Air Force.

  • Rick's Café Américain was modeled after Hotel El Minzah in Tangier, Morocco.

  • Casablanca was named the #2 movie of all time by the American Film Institute in 1998 behind Citizen Kane. It later dropped to #3 behind Citizen Kane and The Godfather in the 2007 update to the list. 

  • Six quotes from the movie appear on AFI’s “100 Years…100 Movie Quotes” list:
-      "Here's Looking at you, Kid." (#5)
-      "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." (#20)
-      “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’” (#28)
-      “Round up the usual suspects.” (#32)
-      “We’ll Always Have Paris.” (#43)
-      "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." (#67)

Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

J.J. Abrams sure knows how to make a fun sci-fi action movie. This was abundantly clear from his efforts with the first film in his reboot of the Star Trek franchise, and now the same can be said for its sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness.

One of the greatest strengths of Abrams' 2009 Star Trek was without a doubt the wonderful cast that was assembled to represent the classic characters of the television show and movies depicting the world of the original series. With Star Trek Into Darkness, these characters get an even greater to opportunity to show their individual strengths.  What’s more, especially within the first few minutes, you get to see them working together as a cohesive unit.  Chris Pine as Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock remain particular standouts among this interesting and enjoyable band of characters, and they handle the daunting task of portraying these iconic characters very well.

Despite the movie's dour title, much of the fun that was present in the 2009 movie is carried over to Star Trek Into Darkness. While the original T.V. series is not really known for its tense action, these movies definitely excel in that department, and it works to their advantage, injecting a huge sense of excitement into the franchise. It helps that Abrams directs with a great eye for highly entertaining action. 

If I had a complaint about the first movie, it was that it had an underwhelming villain in Nero, who was not very interesting to watch and who I really didn't care about. Nero was the weakest part of that movie. Fortunately, Star Trek Into Darkness wholly rectifies its predecessor's shortcoming with Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison, a mysterious terrorist with a secret past. Harrison as a character is threatening and sinister and Cumberbatch is excellent in the role.

As fun as it is to watch, this movie still suffers from a lack of freshness. On one hand, it's nice to see a little bit of fan service, and Abrams clearly strives to please longtime fans with his references, but a handful of screenplay and plot hole issues make this movie feel like a retread of material that has been done and done better in years past. It would be great to see a completely new Star Trek movie that doesn't rely in some degree on winking to previous iterations in the franchise. With Abrams taking on a new duty as director of the upcoming Star Wars sequel, however, who knows if or when that will ever happen. Here's hoping he continues with the Trek universe as well at some point.

Overall, despite some script problems, Star Trek Into Darkness is a thrilling and entertaining movie that is a worthy follow-up to Abrams' original. The cast is just as strong the second time around, with an even better villain. Much of the first installment's sense of humor and fun is still intact, with a good dose of drama injected into the mix. Make sure to watch 1982s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan first so you can play "spot the references." There are a several.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review: Iron Man 3

After his third outing in the Iron Man suit, Robert Downey Jr. has shown once again that he was born to play Tony Stark.

Downey Jr. has consistently shined as Tony Stark, and it’s easy to pinpoint how and why. It’s hard to imagine any other actor playing the smug and sassy billionaire playboy philanthropist and being able to succeed in the part nearly as well as Downey Jr. does., because it feels like he IS Tony Stark.  I’ve heard it said that Robert Downey Jr. is just playing himself in the Tony Stark role, but I applaud the filmmakers for finding an actor who echoes the character so perfectly.

While Downey Jr. is certainly a seasoned veteran to the franchise, and continues to be excellent in the role of Tony Stark, Iron Man 3 ushers in the work of a new director into the world of Iron Man in Shane Black, writer of Lethal Weapon and Lethal Weapon 2, and writer/director of Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, also starring Downey Jr. Black vision of the Iron Man universe that is good, but not great. Black is a quality director of action and it surely shows in this movie.  One of the absolute highlights of Iron Man 3 is a collection of remarkable and exciting action sequences. From an assault on Tony Starks home to a daring rescue of white house officials plummeting through the air after being sucked out of Air Force 1, to an explosive shootout at the films climax, every action sequence feels like the best part of the movie, and in those moments, it’s definitely a whole lot of fun. 

Essential to the formula of a completely successful comic book movie is an interesting villain. I feel that is an area where Iron Man 3 doesn’t really work.  Oh, the Mandarin is interesting enough, and Ben Kingsley is predictably great in the role he has to play, but let’s just say his character goes into a strange direction that might anger hardcore fans of the comic

This is a good place to address the more comedic elements of the movie.  As I pointed to earlier with my assessment of Downey Jr. as Stark, he maintains his sense of humor in this movie, delivering some great comedic lines, some of which, admittedly, do work better than others. Even Ben Kingsley gets to flex his comedy muscle a bit to great results.

As much as I enjoyed Downey Jr. and Kingsley, I am not a fan of Guy Pierce. Frankly, where his character goes is bland and boring, but I don’t think I can say much more than that.

This movie is the first in the “phase 2” portion of Marvel’s stable of films, and the first to appear after the enormous success that was The Avengers. That is a tough act to follow, but how this movie handles previous events works well. There are a few references to The Avengers, most notably in the form of sleepless nights, nightmares and panic attacks experienced by Tony Stark and an anxiety that pervades him throughout the movie over what happened with the space worms in The Avengers. These moments felt welcome in the film, and it’s great that they didn’t try to shoehorn in an excessive amount of references to the point of going overboard. In fact, Iron Man 3 provides an enjoyable continuation of the Marvel universe. One that still makes me want to see where things are going as they lead up to The Avengers 2, with the next two stops being Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

While I do feel sucked in enough to want to see where things are going, the fact is Iron Man 3 is a good movie that falls short of being great.  However, while it may not be the best installment in the series, it’s a marked improvement over the previous installment, and it’s likely to be some of the most fun you’ll have at a theater all summer.