Now You See Me: The Second Act

A sequel that will hopefully disappear into thin air

After being persuaded (read: forced!) by my friend Sam to watch ‘Now You See Me’ I was pleasantly surprised – the cast were charismatic enough,  the tricks they pulled off were entertaining and, aside from a plot twist that made no sense whatsoever, it was a nice slice of fantasy entertainment. 24 hours later, after coming out of its sequel, I felt no such positivity.  ‘Now You See Me: The Second Act’ is bland, boring and blithely bloated. You come out of the cinema not feeling fooled or tricked – but scammed for giving up 129 minutes of your life for such maddening rubbish.

One year on since they outwitted the FBI and the Four Horsemen have become Three – J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) , Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) – as the ‘lady horseman’ grew tired of waiting around for further instructions from the Eye. Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is still working at the FBI, doing all he can to keep the Horsemen in hiding and under the radar. He sets the Horsemen a new mission to hijack the launch party of a new software, inviting Lula (Lizzy Caplan) to join them. The mission gets hijacked by Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe) who kidnaps the Horseman and forces them to use their skills to go steal a data-mining device. Dylan has no idea where the Horseman are so breaks Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) to help find them. What are the chances that vengeance-seeking Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) may be involved somehow?

Writing the above paragraph was exceptionally difficult in the attempt to avoid being convoluted as that is what the film is – a far too convoluted series of ‘tricks’ that make no sense whatsoever. Whereas the first film was fun and flashy this one gets bogged down by attempts at pathos. Much of the plot is devoted to Ruffalo’s character mourning the death of his magician father 30 years on. This wouldn’t be so bad a plot point  were it not for the fact that Dylan is not a likeable enough character for the plot to hinge on and the fact it doesn’t go anywhere. There’s also an overwhelming sense when watching these sequences that the filmmakers are hoping for a third movie with a seemingly impossible reunion.

If magic is entertaining the masses with the impossible this film is the opposite – entertaining no one with the improbable. Very rarely does the story actually make sense – with the twists, trickery and questionable character motivations trying so hard to be clever they end up failing. That’s also true of some of the dialogue which regularly made no sense whatsoever. Ordinarily I’d then quote of one these lines as evidence but they must have been that ridiculous that my frontal lobe totally rejected storing them for future reference.

These crimes against cinema would be somewhat forgivable if the characters were likeable or the cast were enjoyable to watch. Sadly that is not a saving grace here. My disdain for characters played by Jesse Eisenberg continues, Dave Franco is unbearably vanilla and Radcliffe is supremely irritating. Harrelson would be the film’s saving grace  were it not for the fact he ends up playing a dual role as the evil twin brother of his character. He’s  so stereotypically camp that it’s offensive, his costume horrendously cheap and played so hammily you can’t quite believe what you’re seeing. Lizzy Caplan is a welcome addition – as she is to everything she stars in – yet is still stuck in a one-dimensional role as a manic pixie girl type chasing after Dave Franco’s character. Although she is given some rather meta dialogue – about being the ‘lady horseman’ and who will be playing the ‘floozy’ when they go undercover – these are not admirable additions by the script writer. More the least they could do by using such one dimensional characterisation.

Although there is one impressive set piece (the heist to steal the data chip) and it was more than thrilling to see my ‘ends on the big screen (hello Greenwich!) the rest of the film is lacking in warmth, wit and, well, magic. It’s short on logic and right now seems to represent this year’s very dull summer of blockbusters.

1 star

 

 

Alice Through The Looking Glass

Disney provides a sequel that no-one actually asked for

Alice Through The Looking Glass is, quite literally movie-making by numbers. The end-product is tick-boxing, almost as if it is following a guide called Pretending To Be Weird For Dummies, but it was only ever made due to the admittedly very large numbers of the first film. Six years ago Alice In Wonderland made a worldwide total of $1,025,467,110 at the box office. It currently ranks at number 23 of the highest grossing films worldwide. It’s therefore not unsurprising that this film was made, though the fact it took six years to get it done is and the fact its sequel film is equally mediocre is no excuse at all.  Interestingly Alice Through The Looking Glass was predicted to earn $55–60 million  from its opening weekend but instead earnt only $27 million. Alice In Wonderland earnt $116 million  in its opening, a difference with its sequel of 70%.  Considering it earnt so much money Alice In Wonderland had a frosty reception with critics and audiences alike. Clearly the people sat around the table who greenlit Alice Through The Looking Glass cared more about getting money out of its audience as opposed to actual enjoyment or satisfaction. Deciding to see ATTLG was due to curiosity and to quote the 1951 animated Alice In Wonderland, “Curiosity only leads to trouble.”

Alice (Mia Wasikowska) has spent the past three years sailing the high seas upon her father’s beloved ship ‘Wonder’. Alice returns home she finds that her family’s finances are so poor that they will have to either give up ‘Wonder’ or the family home. It’s at this point that Absolem (Alan Rickman) in the form of a butterfly calls her back to Wonderland. The Mad Hatter/ Tarrent Hightopp (Johnny Depp) believes that his family may actually still be alive. No-one else believes him which is causing him to fade away. Alice must use a time travelling device stolen from Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) to save Hatter. Old foe Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) wants the time travelling device for a different reason, to get revenge on her sister White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Will Alice succeed in her mission to save Hatter, will she be intercepted by Time or will Wonderland be destroyed forever through her trying to change time?

 SPOILER ZONE (SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU WISH TO AVOID SPOILERS) The main problem with this film, its fatal flaw if you will, is that so much of it is so utterly pointless. Time tells Alice from the outset that she can’t change time. But she tries anyway, for an hour of the film’s running time, only to find out that she can’t and in the process may have destroyed Wonderland for ever. Not only does it lead to feelings towards Alice akin to my current view of Bran from Game Of Thrones ( I still can’t hear the phrase ‘Hold The Door’ without nursing an internal sob) but there’s also an ironic feeling of having had your time wasted. Time is established as a villain who accent-wise seems to be impersonating Arnold Schwarzenegger yet arguably (this may have come about due to my less than satisfied feelings towards this film) he was surely trying to do the right thing? Alice is the one who nearly destroyed everything, yet she is the one lauded and celebrated from stopping it happening..? 

Anyways…the big problem that Alice In Wonderland had was that it tried to be weird. The ridiculousness of Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter personified this problem with a truly grating performance. Mercifully he has less screentime in this one but it is still enough to make you wince and feel slightly creeped out. It’s a combination of make-up, costume , performance and vocal choice that I just do not understand. Wasikowska is wonderful as Alice, an actual wonder to watch in a land filled of synthetic versions of it.In fact I’d argue the film’s best moments are when Alice is bringing that wonder into the real world – how society views her with such ill-regard and her brief stay in the ‘care’ of female hysteria speicliast Dr Bennett (an underused Andrew Scott) are moments when the film feels real fresh and lacking the self-consiousness that lingers of the rest of it.

A surprising appearance of Richard Armitage as King Oleren reminded me of Middle Earth and how Peter Jackson managed to create a fully fledged world that athough different from ours seemed equally real. That has not happened with AIW or ATTLG. Instead we’ve been given two films that try to be quirky and strange yet are truly not – neither film has heart to it – and are instead synthetic manifestations of it. The first film may have succeeded on trying to profiteer from the ‘strange’ but the huge defeat of its sequel suggests that people have learnt their lesson. On a grander scale it’s hard not to ponder what this huge loss means for future Disney films. Nearly all of Disney’s upcoming slate is of remakes or reimaginings as they seemed to be safe entities with a pre-sold audience. Just a few weeks ago with Jungle Book (click here to read my review)  Disney proved it could do it well. But after this, I’m not so sure now. Hollywood has taken an approach of putting all of its eggs (monies) into one safe basket (a film based on a book/previous film) yet the scale of ATTLG box office after numerous others may require a change in thinking.

A huge budget and elaborate sets yet no-one appears to have worried about the plot. It’s a mess.

1.5stars

Warcraft: The Beginning

123 minutes of beginnings and little take-off

I came out of Warcraft feeling confused. As a total noob when it comes to W.O.W I knew nothing about the material before seeing the film and the film has little provision for the uninitiated.  Whilst scowling the web for plot summaries and plot explanations to answer my questions I also came across the reviews. Two outcomes came out of this experience, 1) I still have unresolved questions that may just have been plot-holes 2) There are some really brutal reviews out there that make me feel very sorry indeed for Duncan Jones and his film. Read any of his PR for the film and it is clear this is a project of passion for him – an element that really shines through when watching. Warcraft is not horrendous nor particularly bad; just too convoluted to allow it to flow. Plus, considering the entire film focuses on introductions it still manages to leave too many gaps and lead to much head-scratching. 

Draenor, the homeworld of the orcs, is dying. A green-skinned orc called Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) controls a magical force called The Fel which allows him to open a doorway from their world to another, Azeroth the home of the humans. Gul’dan plans to send over the orcs in batches, the first being a group of the strongest warriors. Duratan (Toby Kebbell) the chieftain of the Frostwolf clan, his pregnant mate Draka (Anna Galvin) and his second in command Orgrim (Robert Kazinsky) are amongst the first to cross. Duratan has his doubts over the mysterious green magic, believing there to be a link between Gul’tan using it and  the destruction of their home. Fearing the same will happen again with this world me makes contact with Anduin Loather (Travis Fimmel), the military commander of the city of Stormwind who in turn contacts the king (Dominic Cooper), the Guardian (Ben Foster) and a young mage (Ben Schnetzer). United will they be able to stop the Fel from destroying yet another world?

That’s the plot as far as I understood it (apologies to any of the more informed if I have gotten anything majorly wrong there!) It’s not the plot itself that leads to confusing, but some of the main nuances. Character motivations often go unexplained, as are the links and relationships between them. Considering the film’s focus is to introduce it almost feels like a prior film that I had missed had already done so. When it comes to the storytelling process I’m still not sure if the film is really clever or really stupid, lumbering along from one set-piece to the next, frequently impenetrable to the viewers.

The world of Warcraft is a rather beautiful and detailed one, with lots of layers and depth. However although it has made the transition to the screen it has perhaps not been translated enough for it to draw in those new to franchise, and I suspect it it is too diluted for it’s loyal fanbase. I have no qualms in metaphorically using a glossary to understand a mythology for a Fandom, something I have regularly had to do whilst watching six seasons worth of Game Of Thrones or even the six Middle Earth films,  but this film has too quiet a soul and too dull to warrant such extracurricular research. There is also a prevailing sense, resulting from poor critical and commercial reviews along with poor box office takings, that this is a world that will not return to the screen again…

The characters that inhabit this world are fine, not particularly good nor particularly bad. Just. Fine. Kebbell is standout as the conflicted Orc, proving yet again at his great skill at using the technology to create such wondrous creatures. Fimmel is almost an Aragorn 2.0, a reminder of just how good Viggo Mortensen  was in the role of charmer with a heart of gold. A shoehorned-in romantic subplot with half-orc Garona (Paula Patton) is undercut in terms of believability both by underdevelopment and forced chemistry. The rest of the cast are criminally underused. 

Warcraft is a film that is fantastical, but far from fantastic. Although the story being told is adequately entertaining it is told in a manner that is rather butchered, dull and rushed. It’s enjoyable enough but there is a prevailing sense that this film is not as good as it could have/ should have been.

2 stars

X-Men: Apocalypse

“At Least We Can All Agree The Third One Is Always The Worst”

The above line is uttered by Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) about halfway through the movie, when she and a few other character leave a cinema screening of Return of the Jedi. It’s one of numerous strange self-aware moments within the film. If this had come out a year after Deadpool it could easily be assumed to be a rip-off of the superior film’s meta sense of humour. Instead it comes across as strangely self-satisfied and almost arrogant. Considering her character is telepathic it almost feels like she was reading this viewer’s mind…

10 years after the stand-off with the Sentinel prototypes at White House the X-men have never been so far apart from each other yet have never been so strong individually. Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters is full of mutants, with Professor Xavier himself (James McAvoy) and second is command Hank Mccoy (Nicholas Hoult)  keeping a close watch on telepathic protegee  Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and new recruit  Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) as both re struggling to control their powers. Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) has become a loner/nomad/mercenary helping other mutants.  Erik Lehnseer(Michael Fassbender) is now a married man with a young daughter. But when immortal physic mutant Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) rises from a millennia -long sleep  his awakening will have consequences for the world’s population of humans and mutants alike. 

How do you like your squash? I personally like it strong and full of flavour. I don’t like it weak – diluted and lacking in flavour.  That’s my problem with this film. To use this clunky analogy for all it’s worth the cordial (the good stuff) is diluted by too much water (i.e characters, plot and action). Although the ‘too-many-characters-may-spoil-the-broth’ did cause Civil War a bit of a stumble, in the case of this film it forces the film to fall flat on its face. Repeatedly.

Fatal Flaw Time: Characterization is almost completely abandoned in favour of action and set pieces. For fans of the franchise, or any of its other incarnations, we witness one dimensional versions of the characters we know and love. Lawrence as Raven/Mystique spends the majority of the film either wearing a pinched expression of exasperated  discontentment. McAvoy’s dialogue is reduced to  platitudes and mawkish ponderings. Sheridan does little to win favour for Cyclops in the versus Wolverine debate. Turner is okay as Jean Grey but her American accent quickly steals audience focus for all the wrong reasons. And, alhough it was great to see a cool AF version of Jubilee (Lana Condor) hanging around I’d rather her not even have been there as she is bitterly unused. Talk about how to (metaphorically) prick-tease a Fan-Girl!

Then there’s the villains. Fassbender has some incredibly emotionally and engaging sequences but is then too frequently forced to fade into the background. Isaac is criminally wasted, hidden under rubbery prosthetics with a character whose character and abilities are far from defined. The three new characters who join Magneto as the Four Horsemen are completely overwhelmed – Ben Hardy as Angel is ill-served, Olivia Munn as Psylocke weirdly reminded me of this sketch by Mitchell and Webb in terms of OTT villain-face and Alexandra Shipp as Storm seems more than interesting enough but underused. The villainous plot they hatch is of such a scale that is almost becomes bland (think the final 30 minutes of Man Of Steel) and completes overwhelms its characters.

Though, in fairness it’s so overstuffed with characters  it’s almost unsurprising, although not forgivable. The motivation of the characters is devoid of reason and the plan itself lacking real purpose. The plot is also so full of holes (talking Swiss cheese territory here) that it becomes incoherent. There’s nothing new or interesting with the plot, it takes some irritatingly familiar paths, that this film feels tired and bloated in comparison to its counterparts. It’s also so unbearably serious, akin to SvS:DoJ in terms of getting ‘dark’ confused with ‘murky’. 

In fact, upon reflection, the only franchise contribution I enjoyed and I am truly thankful for is that of Kodi Smit-McPhee as Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler. He is given some of the film’s funniest, sweetest and most moving moments. He’s a real joy to watch and probably the only reason I would risk the (inevitable) follow-up. What I can’t forgive the film for is a sequence that occurs just after the Jean Grey’s line about trilogies. After a rather wonderful and emotional sequence that has been delicately woven the tension is completely destroyed, totally sledgehammered, by a shift in tone that is so jarring it is unbearably stupid.  It’s a sequence involving Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters – who totally stole the show in Days of Future Past  in the space of 10 minutes of screentime) that I would have undoubtedly loved at any other point in the film. But, straight after such a well-executed and pathos-filled sequence, it is utterly wasted and even made me resent his character. By the end of the film my faith in him was somewhat restored though my love for him has been somewhat tainted. Such an inconsistent moment reflects the very nature of the entire film.

As a teacher I’ve found the true power of saying the following phrase and it’s the only phrase I can find that fully articulates my feelings towards this film. It’s not that I’m angry X-Men:Apocalypse – I’m just disappointed.

2 stars

 

Louder Than Bombs

What happens to a bomb that doesn’t explode?

My response to this film is surprisingly (well it would be to my past self) problematic. If I had reviewed it soon after watching yesterday I would have been rather damning of the film. Now, with roughly 28 hours worth of distance from seeing it, I feel slightly warmer towards it. (Only a few degrees mind – let’s not go crazy). With a level of retrospect I can admire the ideas and ambition of the film, something which I wouldn’t have been able to do initially after watching. However, whilst I may feel softer towards it I am still not a fan and think the film is largely unsuccessful it what it wants to achieve.

Three years ago famous war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) died in what most believed was a car accident. Now, as a museum retrospective of her life and works is fast approaching, her close friend is about to write an article about her in the New York Times and as he advises her widower Gene (Gabriel Byrne) he will mention in the article the fact that her death was most likely suicide. Gene must now find a way of telling his youngest son Conrad (Devin Druid) the truth before he finds out through other means. An opportunity to do so arrives when eldest son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg leaves his wife and newborn daughter to come home and help look through his mother’s work space to find photos for the retrospective. Whilst home Jonah must find a way of coming to terms with the past in the form of ex-girlfriend, his brother’s difficult present and how his future role as a father may be shaped by his relationship with his own. 

It’s interesting that through writing the above plot summary I found myself again warmly engaging with the key ideas of the film. All of us have been touched by some sense of loss and each of us will handle the grief in different ways – some may mentally stay in the past with that person whilst others may push such thoughts aside and stay primarily focused on the present and future.

All of the actors do a fine job in subtly portraying grief. Byrne’s father trying to do the right thing for his two boys whilst watching his relationships with both fade away truly pulls at the heartstrings and occasionally at the bone. Druid plays the difficult emotionally stunted teen finely and somewhat reflecting the universal horror of adolescence. As difficult as my audience-actor relationship is with Eisenberg (forgiveness for his version of Lex Luthor is still far far away) but at times I did appreciate his character Jonah. I can say quite honestly that in the film’s opening sequence I even enjoyed watching him.

But it’s Huppert’s grief that is perhaps the most visceral, even though it is she that is being grieved by the family she left behind. It is a roughly two minute sequence about halfway through the film that really demonstrates this. The camera just focuses on her face in close-up for two minutes. For those two minutes nothing else happens. But as we know her character and we know the emotional battles she suffered (between her art and being a mother/wife) we read the metaphorical scars on her face. We look into her eyes and see the utter despair. We look behind her mask in a way we either chose or are unable to do with each other in real life.

All of this being said I think these ideas are stunted by execution. Though the pontification and using on the nature of grief is extraordinary and truly applaudable, either through intention or accident we are unable to connect with any of the characters – all are pretty unlikeable on various levels and for various reasons. It’s this aspect of the film that will and has been truly dividing audiences. Perhaps it is intention – that grief cannot and should not be sugarcoated, sometimes it will bring out the worst in each of us. However I am in the camp that views this as a flaw and something that prevents me from truly connecting with the film.

Whilst I well and truly admire the film’s sentiments and ideas by borderline disdain for it’s characters stops me from truly appreciating its merits. The fact the film takes a rather poetic storytelling approach, of drifting between moments, of days being indefinable, of present day being interchangeable with memory, did was not cohesive enough for me. In some ways I write this paragraph with a degree of apology, as someone who lost a relative (my uncle) in June and will soon be facing the prospect of that first anniversary without him. Sometimes I reflect on whether I am grieving ‘properly’, if I am approaching my grief ‘healthily’ and if I am ‘normal’ in my response. The film carefully weaves these ideas into it’s narrative but somewhat abandons them in favour of artistic statement and style.

Whilst full of poignant moments the film is ultimately too cold and reserved to provide the cathartic intimacy it appears to wish to provide.

2 stars