Archive for September, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)

Starring- Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Olga Merediz, Mahershala Ali, Ben Mendelsohn, Bradley Cooper, Rose Byrne, Gabe Fazio, Harris Yulin, Robert Clohessy, Bruce Greenwood, Ray Liotta, Emory Cohen, Dane DeHaan

Director- Derek Cianfrance

R- language throughout, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use and a sexual reference

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G07pSbHLXgg

The sins of the father will be visited upon the third and fourth generations. The cycle of violence will persist until someone breaks it.

I get it. But if we’re going to keep doing this sort of thing, can we find new ways of tackling it that gain us fresh and resonant insights into the nature of the whole thing? Instead of running it through the usual machine and then just punctuating it with a bit of obligation?

The Place Beyond the Pines tells three stories. Two of them are about fathers. One, Luke (Ryan Gosling) is a deadbeat who makes a living riding dirt-bikes at a traveling fair. While passing through his hometown, he discovers he fathered a child with Romena (Eva Mendes), a one-night stand. Struck with a sudden sense of responsibility for the kid, but knowing he can never help out in his current situation, he tries to make a little money the only way he knows how — bank robbery.

The other is Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), an area police officer. He’s ambitious and at least mostly well meaning. He’s a good cop but has a tense relationship with his wife, Jennifer (Rose Byrne). When happenstance makes him a local hero, he finds himself sucked into a hotbed of crime and corruption that seemingly has no easy out.

The third story is about their sons — A.J. (Emory Cohen) and Jason (Dane DeHaan) — who, as teenagers, befriend one another and must learn how to live with the world their parents have created.

I’m not trying to be overly negative here, because The Place Beyond the Pines is definitely not a bad movie; it’s actually rather good, if noticeably shy of greatness. Honestly, I think I’m just completely burned out on this sort of thing — “art” movies that explore really dark subject matter in a fairly straightforward and been-there-done-that sense and do it rather well but without ever gleaning new insights or really finding a way to make the experience redemptive.

It’s possible that it simply comes at a bad time for me. It so happens that I started watching Breaking Bad about a month ago. It and The Place Beyond the Pines both concern the far-reaching consequences of our actions, both good and bad, and it does it so, so much better.

The Place Beyond the Pines isn’t bad at it, per se. It tends to focus less on the consequences of particular actions and more on the consequences of particular mindsets and worldviews practiced over long periods of time and inflicted on the developing psyches of children and teenagers. And those psychologies do develop fairly well, at least as a sort of tone that builds quietly throughout the length of the film.

But it has a tendency perhaps to be overly subtle. A film needn’t spell everything out, and it certainly shouldn’t just dump character information on its viewers haphazardly. But it never hurts to show us what we need to see, to allow emotional context to develop through the way the characters interact. The Place Beyond the Pines does this to a certain extent, but if it’s going to tackle the “sins of the fathers” deal, the way specific actions affect specific people needs to be very, very clear.

This movie leaves too many blanks for the audience to fill on its own — not blanks that are strongly implied or that don’t really need to be filled, either. It simply presents you with characters whose lives are broken and collapsing around you and says, “You should just assume this has something to do with the way x person acted or the thing x person did that you didn’t see but can assume happened because, you know, he/she wasn’t a great person.” That’s a natural assumption, but it lacks specificity and, thus, emotional impact.

As such, The Place Beyond the Pines begins to unravel in its third act. It does a solid job with the first two stories. Both are suitably intense and draw neat parallels. Luke is a bad person who thinks of himself as a hero and isn’t entirely wrong. Avery is a good person who thinks he might be a villain and also isn’t entirely wrong. One is not married to his child’s mother but seems to love her unconditionally. The other is ostensibly happily married, but there’s friction. Both have sons — one will grow up in money, the other will grow up in poverty, and neither will manage to turn out all that differently. And the visual approach is solid — shot well, edited well, making rare great use of the orange and teal effect: of primary colors in general, actually — even though it seems to run out of ideas late in the game.

But as the story of the two teens unfolds, and the film begins trying to wrap its prior subplots into a singular theme, it crumbles. It makes sense that one of the kids is rebellious and into his fair share of illegal activity. While we might never get to see exactly what it means to him, it’s clear that one and perhaps both of his parents were strict and emotionally unavailable with him. But the other? Perhaps he has a hard life, but from everything we see, both of his parental figures are incredibly loving, supportive, and warm. That’s not to see good parents never produce bad children, but when your point is that your actions will affect those who come after you, doesn’t that sabotage it somewhat?

The film’s heart is certainly in the right place, but by the time it’s ready to try to make this theme redemptive, it doesn’t ring true. That’s not because it creates a situation that’s so awful that basic goodness seems out of character for humanity. It’s because the characters’ motivations are so sketchily established that the awful bits aren’t really ringing true either. Thus, we have characters in a situation being forced to make a decision where either option would feel a bit unearned.

It tugs at your heartstrings a bit. It informs a bit. It explores troublesome topics a bit. But it never really reaches that point where it cuts into your soul, grabs you and brings you to some new understanding of yourself and the world around you. It has good ideas, but none of them are structured in such a way that you could easily glean wisdom from them. It’s all just a touch too distant, an art movie that, while being largely a quality film, gets drowned in posturing to match its own genre conventions and thus remains rather vague — relatable to just about everyone but incisive only to a few.

 

-Matt T.

Epic (2013)

Starring- Amanda Seyfried, Josh Hutcherson, Jason Sudeikis, Colin Farrell, Christoph Waltz, Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd, Steven Tyler, Beyonce Knowles, Blake Anderson, Pitbull

Director- Chris Wedge

PG- mild action, some scary images and brief rude language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-xu3JLXfuwQ

I remember watching the first trailer for Epic. It’s the one linked above. I remember my reaction to it. It was one the Internet seemed to share. For a gorgeous and moving minute and a half, it promised visual beauty, enchantment, magic, mystery, a sense of wonder at the unknown. It promised imagination, scale, detail, texture, roaring adventure, childish glee.

And then, a talking slug told a stupid joke, the asinine title appeared on the screen, and our hopes completely deflated.

Watching the movie itself is like that. It’s a mixed bag of frustrations and joys. There is much to like — emphasis on much. It’s also one of the most frustrating movies of the year, not because it’s terrible but because it’s constantly apparent what it has the potential to be and isn’t.

Amanda Seyfried voices Mary Katherine, a teenage girl sent to live with her estranged father (Jason Sudeikis) — estranged because he believes with all his heart that an advanced race of tiny people resides in the forest and spends all of his time chasing after it.

He’s right, of course. There are two — the Leaf Men, protectors of the forest and all of the life in it, and the Boggans, creatures of rot and decay.

The Leaf Men — under the command of Ronin (Colin Farrell) serve a queen (Beyonce Knowles), who is in the process of choosing a successor when Mary Katherine stumbles into their midst. After a fierce battle between the Leaf Men and the Boggans, the queen’s magic falls upon Mary Katherine, shrinking her down to their size and leaving her the caretaker of an enchanted pod, the fate of which will determine the fate of the forest.

It’s kind of a complicated setup. There are details missing from that description that don’t fit well into a general overview. There’s a rambunctious Leaf Man named Nod (Josh Hutcherson), who leaves the force because he chafes under authority but is drawn back in when the Boggans score a crucial victory and become a major threat to the forest. The Boggans themselves are subject to Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) and are intended to exist in balance with the rest of the forest but have exceeded their grasp. Both have eluded Mary Katherine’s father because they deliberately misdirect him — on top of the fact that they move at a faster speed than humankind.

The magical elements in this story can be equally…difficult. It seems as though the queen selects a pod from the garden — tended by Mub (Aziz Ansari), a slug, and Grub (Chris O’Dowd), a snail — and that the pod then chooses her successor after the long and roundabout magical pieces are slid into their magical places. They have the power both to heal and destroy the forest, depending on whether or not everything is done exactly right.

Most of this, you take with the territory. There are some major flaws in this premise, but most of them emerge after the fact and don’t actively disrupt the movie while you’re watching it.

For the most part, the setup and the characters who inhabit it are all rather familiar — but it’s a warm and inviting kind of familiarity. For all the sense it does or doesn’t make, the story is possessed of a beautiful simplicity that hearkens back to some of the all-time great children’s films, including some of the equally straightforward and unpretentious fairy tales.

Moreover, it’s absolutely fantastic in this day and age to see a kids’ movie that is, for the most part, internally serious — without taking itself too seriously or lapsing into postured grimness. It may have some ill-advised comic relief, but the parts of it that are supposed to be serious aren’t upended at every turn by a subversive move or a sudden comedic twist. They play out as they supposed to. And on a related note, it’s actually shocking to see an animated film made within the last ten years that actually uses death, takes it seriously, doesn’t reverse it as soon as things get too emotionally intense, and considers its ramifications.

In addition, this is an absorbing world, and visually, it’s hands-down the best thing Blue Sky has ever done. The studio still doesn’t have the budget of DreamWorks or Pixar, but it handles that in the best way, using style and art direction to smooth over its comparative lack of resources. Its humans still look a little rubbery, but other than that, Epic looks fantastic. The colors are rich, the animation is fluid, and the direction is solid. The environments in particular are spectacularly rendered — green and textured and full of light and life.

The characters are types more than fully fleshed-out individuals, but then again, this is a simple, archetypal adventure. Since when are they ever? What’s important is that these characters have personality and life, and they’re fun to follow through this roller-coaster narrative. Mary Katherine is the innocent and somewhat headstrong straight woman in over her head and mostly just along for the ride. Nod is rebellious and independent but without becoming completely awful and obnoxious — he’s still a good person who wants to do good things. Ronin is perpetually serious, but it’s a warm sort of serious, the kind that clearly has some heart behind it; the story allows him to experience love and loss in equal measure. The queen is a startlingly rare character nowadays, one who’s upbeat and passionate and loves what she does and who she is without being sugary and insufferable.

You have your missteps, sure. The completely inevitable romance that blossoms between Mary Katherine and Nod is, well, completely inevitable and never once begins to feel like anything other than that. The plot broadcasts pretty clearly where it’s going and how it’s going to get there. And Mub and Grub appear to have been created for the sole purpose of completely ruining this movie. There’s dumb comic relief, and then there’s…this. There’s only one thing I hate more than stupid, unfunny comic relief in a straightforward fantasy film, and that’s stupid, unfunny comic relief that employs outdated and distracting slang. Everything Mub, in particular, said in this movie was like a bullet to my brain.

But what Epic really needs is a good onceover, maybe two, of its script. I remember about two or three years ago: Pixar was on top of the world, and Disney was recruiting its writers to touch up pretty much everything else it was working on. Epic is not a Disney film, but it needs something like that. The framework is already there; it just needs someone to go over the structure and grease up the hinges a little bit.

Firstly, it’s a movie in search of an ethos. Everybody has a lesson he or she needs to learn and/or hopes to achieve. Mary Katherine needs to learn how to love her father. Nod needs to learn responsibility. Ronin should need to learn how to let go of the things he’s lost, but the movie kind of forgets that was a thing that happened. Grub wants to be a Leaf Man. That sort of thing. And as is to be expected from a children’s movie, just about everybody does learn or achieve something. But mostly, they just sort of do; there isn’t really any process that leads up to it, nor is any of it tied very directly into the actual plot of the film. The only change that gets built up in any way is Mary Katherine’s attitude toward her father, so it’s a shame that’s also the one that goes completely off the rails. The fact that the Leaf Men are real is used to completely exonerate her father of the fact that he objectively neglected his family while pursuing them. His moment of realization, where he resolves to change, is portrayed as a mistake actively inhibiting the heroes’ mission.

Secondly, the movie’s emotional structure is a bit awry. That happens fairly often, but Epic breezes through some plot and character development that even most bad movies would sit down and indulge for a moment. That it takes death seriously is one of its most praiseworthy traits, but it doesn’t take it as far as it should. Two deaths early on supply separate character motivations that, given time to play out, could be very potent. But the movie doesn’t take time to let it sink in, and it doesn’t give us any scenes later on that really drive home what those characters meant to the people they left behind.

I also think of the way Mary Katherine experiences this strange new world. After she’s first drawn in, one would expect her to be brought back to the kingdom of the Leaf Men, where the movie would spend some time introducing her to the world, letting her — and by extension, the audience — wonder at it and fall in love with it. But no — she shrinks, and the plot immediately kicks off, with her as an active participant. It’s all just a bit too fast.

And I’m not suggesting that all of these things would be easy to fix or to get right in the first place. But a few good story editors would be able to catch them, and it wouldn’t take too many rewrites to hammer them into something with a bit more emotional continuity. Epic was released maybe a year in advance of its actual readiness.

And it’s incredibly frustrating. Epic is good enough that, had it released in the 1990s, would almost certainly have been adored by my young self. And it will likely also be adored by those who are young now. I would not rob them of that — it is still imaginative, lively, and unique among the films from which they would otherwise have to choose.

But Epic is also flawed enough that recognizing it, distantly, as a film I’d have loved as a child is the closest my adult self can get to actually loving it.

-Matt T.

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Starring- Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher, Amitabh Bachchan, Adelaide Clemens, Vince Colosimo, Eden Falk, Kate Mulvany, Brendan Maclean

Director- Baz Luhrmann

PG-13- some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuQhprtLJ3k

Not great, but then again, neither is Gatsby. The Great Gatsby is a film that is suited to its namesake — grandiose, ostentatious, showy, absurd, but also human in a way, wide-eyed and with a reach that exceeds its hopeful and persistent grasp. Perhaps the Great American Novel deserves something a bit better than this. But its protagonist deserves it exactly. It might not be a perfect film, but it is, perhaps, a perfect version of itself.

In the Roaring 20s, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves from modest country living to the big city — New York — to chase the fortunes seemingly raining down on everyone else as a bondsman. He moves into a small cottage in the woods, not far from his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her wealthy husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), nor from the veritable palace inhabited by his neighbor — one mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).

No one really sees Gatsby — or they do and simply don’t realize it. Those who do can agree on very little about him. He comes from wealth, he’s a relative of the Kaiser, he’s a war hero, he’s an Oxford man, he’s a criminal, he’s anything and everything. The only thing anyone really knows for sure is that he throws the best parties in town, and no one’s invited because everyone is permitted to come and go at their leisure.

No one except for Nick, that is, who receives a personal invitation to one of Gatsby’s big bashes. He meets the man himself, learns his secrets, and soon becomes wrapped deeply in the web Gatsby has weaved for himself, chasing after the one thing the man who has everything truly desires.

This take on The Great Gatsby is one of the most faithful book-to-movie adaptations I can think of. It must expand on certain elements, true enough — F. Scott Fitzgerald had a tendency not to transcribe everything directly but to allude to whatever he felt could be alluded to. Film lacks that luxury. But there’s very little in the book that doesn’t make it to the film, and it comes across straightforwardly. It isn’t until, oddly, near to the end of the film that noticeable portions begin to be excised, usually at no particularly detrimental effect.

The Great Gatsby is a great story, and one whose translation into film is accomplished rather smoothly. So, Baz Luhrmann’s take could hardly be terrible. The book isn’t, and the movie has clear admiration for its source. The story and characters are all here, and they are as you remembered and, in many cases, as you imagined.

The casting is impeccable. Tobey Maguire’s character is required to be that rare sort of protagonist whose presence is supposed to be fairly easily forgotten or overlooked. He’s a pure reference point, a visual manifestation of the audience on screen, following events. Maguire blends in and doesn’t intrude, much as Nick Carraway did in the novel. He watches the plot unfold and mostly has an inactive hand. Many actors would’ve seized upon this part and tried to make it into more than it should’ve been, overpowering the things that matter. Maguire has the decency not to show off. He commits himself in service of the story. Maybe it’s not the greatest compliment you could pay an actor to say that he or she blends in well and isn’t easily noticed. But that’s what Maguire is supposed to do here, and he does it.

Carey Mulligan as Daisy is flighty in a practiced way, but one that is practiced so much that it begins to seem as though the character is masking the truth by being completely honest about it. Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan completes the couple well. Edgerton has interested me as an actor since Warrior. He is perfectly cast here. He is handsome in that gruff way, and he handles Tom’s abrasive personality and bigoted pseudo-intellectualism with aplomb.

But as far as I’m concerned, Leonardo DiCaprio is Jay Gatsby, and will be, at least in my mind, for as long as the character continues to matter. He looks perfect, for starters — young but not too young, handsome in an illustrious and charismatic way and just barely rugged and wrinkled enough that you believe he’s seen more of the world than most people his age. And the performance itself is one of dogged hope and optimism approaching total unreason, a man lost completely in his own world and in the pursuit of a singular goal that strikes him as being higher than all the riches in the world — lost love.

This is the interest to me of The Great Gatsby. Many have chosen to interpret it as an indictment of the excessive wealth and self-absorption of the detached rich in times of economic glory, and far be it from me to deny someone else their take on it. But what struck me, in particular, about the book was how cursory the element of wealth seemed to be. Certainly there was some criticism there, but the fact that the characters were extremely wealthy had only a bit to do with it. Their wealth is halfway a symptom and halfway the disease; perhaps it would be best described as a cure prescribed by an incompetent doctor that in truth only worsens things.

As a film, The Great Gatsby accentuates what, in the book, seems more of a trivial side matter. Baz Luhrmann’s direction comes in incredibly handy here. His eye for decadence and extremity elevates these parties, though not much different from their state in the book, into almost distressing affairs. They stand on their own as self-criticism, needing nothing other than to be seen unfiltered.

But in truth, this story, to me, is one in which wealth becomes a mechanism for people to exist in the past and refuse to grow up or assume responsibility for themselves. In some ways, perhaps it looks upon the Roaring 20s as an early precursor to the apparent epidemic of suspended adolescence described by many sociologists today.

The story draws a line between varying types of wealthy men. There are those like Tom and Daisy who inherited their wealth, doing nothing to earn it and still nothing to continue to deserve it. They are adults, but they — and a great many of their friends — do not act like it.

Gatsby himself was among the new class emerging in great numbers at the time — millionaires who could claim, at least in some distant sense, to be self-made men, regardless of the sources from which their wealth was derived and whether or not they could be called ‘legitimate.’

Perhaps this is why, while Daisy clings to a very teenage and put-upon cynicism and sense of irresponsibility and Tom clings to his college athletics and his racist intellectual fads that fuel his sense of superiority, Gatsby truly goes the extra mile. His entire life is founded upon this singular hope — that the details of his youth can be replicated in his modern existence, without interruption, as though they had never failed or gone away. His wealth is the means by which he can chase the impossible dream — not that he knows, or could ever know, that it is impossible. He constantly awaits her call, after all, even though Nick knows better.

His is a childish hope, rooted in what has been and unconcerned for what will be except that it must be precisely like what has been. He throws his parties, and he digs his hands into filthy business, and he uproots relationships. He is a man incapable of dealing with his reality, of finding a way to move forward and become an actual adult — in spirit as much as in body. He is so incapable of realizing the folly of his path that his story is fated for tragedy from the moment that he begins.

Nick clearly begins to project his own youthful fantasies upon Gatsby, retreating into them further when the dull alarm of his thirtieth birthday galvanizes him. In truth, perhaps the film’s only major misstep in its story is what I perceived to be its romanticizing of these fantasies. In the end, this adaptation seems nearly to elevate Gatsby as some epitome of hope that is sadly unrealized in most of our lives. Does it not see the consequences wrought by Gatsby’s refusal to engage with reality? Does it not understand what is meant by the book’s iconic final line?

Or perhaps it is me.

At any rate, the story is intact, and as far as I’m concerned, it can’t go terribly wrong outside of that, especially since it’s one that works quite well in film. This version draws out the emotional intensity of it and turns up its outwardly simple but inwardly quite multilayered tale.

What bothers me, despite its strength in some of the aforementioned areas, is Luhrmann’s direction. This is the first time I have seen one of his films in full. Normally, with well-known directors, I attempt to rectify that at least somewhat prior to their latest release. With Luhrmann, though, what I knew of him suggested to me that his style would grate on me. And it does.

There are good things about it — the parties, for one, as previously stated. I won’t contend that he doesn’t know how to shoot things either. His color palette is rich, deep and painterly; it matches perfectly the dark blue — speckled with bright lights — that dominates the book’s cover artwork. It looks the way it should look.

But it’s very over-the-top, transforming nearly every scene into something almost comically too much. It erodes much of the story’s subtlety, with stylistic flourishes rushing in at every emotional beat to accentuate in a way that doesn’t so much accentuate as it does drown out what’s actually happening and become the new dominant feature, existing unto itself.

The score is a mixed bag. I should confess my biases here — I don’t like Jay-Z. There are times when it works and times when it’s just too modern. It’s hard to call The Great Gatsby a period piece; it’s stylistic and would inhabit unreality in any historical setting. But it grates with the on-screen imagery, particularly during the parties. It’s like this movie is a sixteen-layer cake, and the score is a seventeenth layer that’s a completely different flavor. It’s unnecessary and periodically distracting.

But, ultimately, sumptuous. Despite its excess — excess that is, perhaps, thematically warranted — The Great Gatsby is a visual treat, and of course, one never tires of this story. This adaptation doesn’t tell it too differently, but in truth, that might be its strongest point.

It’s the movie Gatsby deserves. It personifies him. It isn’t perfect, but it shares his personality and character. In that regard, it’s flawed but not frustrating. It’s a solid and occasionally spectacular adaptation — and one well worth experiencing.

 

-Matt T.

World War Z (2013)

Starring- Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Ludi Boeken, Matthew Fox, Fana Mokoena, David Morse, Elyes Gabel, Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Ruth Negga, Moritz Bleibtreu, Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove, Fabrizio Zacharee Guido

Director- Marc Forster

PG-13- intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcwTxRuq-uk

“It’s like a video game you can’t play” is one of the oldest and — by now — most irritating critical clichés in the book, more so because it tends to be used synonymously with “has more explosions than lines of dialogue, and that’s how video games are, right?”

But the longer I think about it, the more apt the comparison seems in the case of World War Z. It would make a better video game — maybe. At any rate, it’s not a particularly good movie.

Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former U.N. employee who charged into the thick of war-torn, Third World nations in times of crisis, is living comfortably in retirement when the world upends itself. A viral outbreak turns huge portions of humanity into wild, ravenous hordes, technically dead, with only one instinct — to turn others and make more of them.

Gerry and his family survive the initial outbreak and are soon airlifted to a U.N fleet in the middle of the ocean, where those who remain of the world’s leaders are rushing toward a solution. The outbreak is global, and the population loss deepens with every passing second.

Because of his experience, Gerry is called back into the field to ferry around a group of soldiers and scientists as they endeavor to find a cure before the last of humanity is completely overrun.

Level One is the family’s escape from the initial outbreak. No weapons; it’s a low-difficulty escape mission that produces stressful moments but nothing insurmountable. The next mission in South Korea introduces guns but keeps the pacing and threat on the low side so that the player can get a feel for the controls. Level Three, in Jerusalem, finally marries the two and gives players a hectic run-and-gun mission. Level Four does the same thing but narrows the space for a more claustrophobic experience. And Level Five is a stealth mission.

After each level, the movie cycles out most of its characters other than the protagonist. Each mission introduces a new cast who deliver the necessary exposition prior to kicking off the FPS action yet again. Every level takes place in an exotic new location with various environmental hazards — barbed wire, big walls, etc. Each one also centers around a new mini-narrative governed by changing objectives and situations. And each one ends with that one expository clue that provides justification for moving to the next location.

A few of these sequences are suitably harrowing — and it helps the film immensely, at least in retrospect, that the best of them is also the last of them. But there isn’t a whole lot connecting them, at least not in a sense that makes them particularly compelling.

There’s a lot of iffy plot-related stuff going on. First off, the movie doesn’t have a good radar for when creepy imagery crosses the line over into silly imagery — granted that there isn’t quite as much special effects failure as the trailers might lead one to expect. The zombies themselves — and I will give the film some credit for actually using that word, where other, equally serious works would tiptoe awkwardly around it — function by some arbitrary and occasionally changing rules. That being undead gives them all the powers of Superman and Spider-Man is something you just accept with the territory, I suppose. And the whole Jerusalem bit, in particular, raises red flag after red flag after red flag after red flag until the whole sequence collapses in a heap of things that don’t make sense and never could have.

Those are all things I could overlook. The most damning flaw in World War Z is that it’s not even remotely attuned to the way the events of its story ought to be affecting the characters emotionally — or the audience, for that matter.

A big part of this is how neutered and chaste it is. Anyone who reads me regularly knows that I’m not a fan of violence in media — far from it. But, full stop, you are never going to successfully make a PG-13 zombie movie unless it’s a comedy like Warm Bodies — and even then, you’re walking a fine line. This is a concept that is inherently horrifying, centered around monsters that kill you in ways that are inherently horrifying. The characters must be reacting accordingly, and the audience must be taking that journey with them.

But it can’t. A cutaway during a violent or brutal moment can be an effective technique in the right hands, but it will fall flat every time if cutaways are all there ever is. The moment the first outbreak occurs, the movie speeds into a frenzy of shaking cameras, quick edits, and baffling shot selection. You can’t see a thing; honestly, you can’t tell who’s human and who’s a zombie half the time. The first outbreak is a whole lot of incomprehensible running and screaming.

And when we do see it, it’s almost aggressively PG-13. The zombies in this don’t bite people; they gum them. You see marks in their arms like I get when I lean on a hard surface for too long. Zombies that get hit with crowbars and sharp objects react like they’ve been hit by plastic bats borrowed from kindergarten tee-ball games. So much happens off-screen that the horror of it simply never sinks in. The trick to letting people’s imaginations fill in the awful bits is to give them just enough to be afraid of. World War Z never does.

And the writers seem to know this, too, because this is another movie that is completely lacking in emotional continuity. Nothing that happens in World War Z seems to affect its characters in any way resembling real life. One of the central horrors of the zombie apocalypse subgenre is the way in which it is inherently degrading to human beings, in addition to the way it instantaneously and irreparably collapses the world as it once was. No one in this movie ever seems to process this. The government personnel seem mildly concerned at best. They treat it like just another viral outbreak — a serious one, a potential epidemic. But the true significance of it seems completely lost on them. Everywhere Gerry goes, people are holed up and maybe a bit frightened, but they mostly seem like families huddled in a tornado shelter, waiting for the storm to pass. The direness of it doesn’t seem to strike anyone. Even Gerry, who goes from one place to the next and sees thousands die as humanity’s varying last defenses fall one by one, never seems to have that dark night of the soul where the burden finally becomes too much for him to bear. It doesn’t seem to wear down on him. Some characters — including, in one instance, a small child — lose literally everything and everyone they have in the world, and not only does no one ever pause and ask if they’re okay, they themselves seem entirely unbothered by this. The most human moment in the entire movie is almost a throwaway one, where soldiers in hiding rescue Gerry and immediately begin asking him about the status of all their hometowns. This is soon forgotten as well.

The script sets up all these potential emotional driving forces that it must not have placed there arbitrarily. And yet, in the end, it seems utterly unaware of them. Those intense moments where the characters have that one thing or person they love most in the world put on the line never come, even when the setups are practically screamed at you.

I still have faith in Brad Pitt. More than most Hollywood stars, he seems to have a nose for scripts that are, if not good, at least interesting. World War Z isn’t nearly bad enough to change my opinion of him. I have difficulty understanding what attracted him to this, though. Maybe it was the scale of the project — World War Z was declared another one of those “unfilmable” books, and as such was inherently ambitious from the beginning. Of course, from what I’ve heard, it crossed that hurdle in the least ambitious way possible — having basically nothing whatsoever to do with the book outside of the basic premise. Maybe it was something he saw in the part, but it doesn’t come across on-screen. The script for World War Z seems to function under one rule: None of the actors should have anything to do. All of the characters are almost completely identity-free, and most are so passive that they might as well be mannequins with “Hero’s Motivation” taped to their chests.

All in all, I suppose this could have been a disaster. It certainly looked like it was going to be. In truth, it’s pretty borderline. That the final reel is the best one actually required me to think hard before deciding whether I liked it more than I disliked it. To some extent, I find myself distantly admiring it for at least attempting to tackle this genre from a different perspective than what we’ve seen in the past. Zombie movies always leave me asking, “Where in the world is the government during all of this?” Now, I know.

But this thing was sunk from the beginning, firstly because its script is not cohesive and bears a feeling of arbitrariness in its development and direction, and secondly because somebody at the studio uttered the words “PG-13,” restricting its techniques so badly that it has absolutely no room to breathe.

Right after Warm Bodies tried to restore some social commentary to the zombie flick, World War Z has taken it right back out — alongside character, story, direction, and any semblance of feeling.

 

– Matt T.

Movie Review: Dredd (2012)

Posted: September 27, 2013 in Movie Reviews

Dredd (2012)

Starring- Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Warrick Grier, Wood Harris, Domhnall Gleeson, Langley Kirkwood

Director- Pete Travis

R- strong bloody violence, language, drug use and some sexual content

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PifvRiHVSCY

As it turns out, even when in contest against sizable portions of the Internet and critics in general who insist that something is surprisingly great, my instincts are a better barometer for what’s going to resonate with me personally.

Dredd does not.

And I should have listened to my instincts. In retrospect, this is a film I think I’d rather have been spared.

The plot is unsurprisingly thin and could more accurately be referred to as a setup. In the distant future, the entire population of the United States resides in a single, massive city stretching along most of the east coast. Crime and poverty are rampant. The last bastions of law and order are the Judges, an elite police force. They’re also juries and executioners. Sentences are simple and prescribed, and they are administered on the spot.

In most cases, they are death.

Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is one of the best. He’s assigned a new recruit — a psychic, Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). His job is to test her in the field — where one in four new recruits are killed immediately — and either pass her or fail her at the end of the day.

Judges can only respond to 6 percent of all crimes in the city. Anderson gets to pick which one. She chooses a grisly triple homicide at Peach Trees — a megastructure that houses 75,000 people, most of them extremely impoverished.

It’s turf belonging to Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a vicious drug lord who uses Peach Trees as a base for selling SLO-MO, a new drug that causes those who take it to experience time at a fraction of its normal speed.

She’ll hear nothing of Judges roaming her territory, so she locks down the entire structure and sets a legion of criminals against the pair. Left with no choice, Dredd and Anderson must fight their way up hundreds of levels, each of them the size of an entire neighborhood, and bring Ma-Ma to justice.

Even now, as I’m writing this, I’m not particularly sure why. I don’t have anything very meaningful to say about this film — at least, not to people who haven’t made up their minds about it already. They’re going to find my objections to it completely trivial.

Maybe I’m trying to find something interesting in my reaction and hoping it’ll turn up. Maybe I’m trying to finally address, head-on, this concept we refer to as “the action movie” and, yes, possibly indict myself on a few points.

Mostly, I think I’m trying to understand the disparity in my reactions to Dredd. Because I have two. The first is that it’s a really good movie. The second is that it doesn’t even remotely matter.

That first one probably comes as a bit of a surprise. It certainly surprised me. Dredd is very sure-footed about what it does. It knows exactly where it’s going and how to get there. It sets that up with minimal fuss and no distractions. It’s a well-oiled and perfectly functional piece of machinery. It delivers every little thing its black heart intends about as well as it could.

Thirlby is likable. Headey is positively heinous. Dredd himself is hardly a character and possesses only the most basic personality and traits, but Urban gives a surprisingly committed performance. He knows what sort of movie this is. He snarls every line in a Batman voice. He betrays no emotion. He wears a constant frown and exaggerates it to almost cartoonish levels, contorting his face like he’s going for the world record in gum-chewing. The movie isn’t ashamed of Dredd either; other modern adaptations and remakes would absolutely have done away with that ridiculous costume. Dredd just revels in it. The direction is slick and stylish. The film is shot well and edited even better and stands as another example of the extent to which high technical skill contributes to an action movie’s success. This is not a script- or character-driven movie. It is compelling almost solely because the action feels like a real, ongoing thing in which the audience is an active participant. The direction propels what’s happening on-screen rather than fighting its inertia with shaking cameras and hyperactive editing.

But I found it impossible to enjoy for what I can only call “the usual reasons.” I don’t understand the point. No one has adequately explained it to me yet.

Normally, with something like Dredd, I’d write it off as something I’d inevitably dislike and not even worry about it. I think what persuaded me to give it a chance was the assertion on the part of several critics that it’s self-satirical, that there’s something more to it than gunfire and explosions. And frankly, it’s been a while since we last had a good satire — or any satire, come to think of it.

But in context, I can only see that as an excuse. I’ve been hard-pressed to find reviews that elaborate upon that concept in any sense that could make it understood to me — I failed to see it on my own. Yes, it’s a bit cheesy. Yes, it’s quite over-the-top in some respects. Yes, it’s so persistently grim and gritty that it winds directly around to being almost comedic at times — and probably intentionally so. But what I saw was an arbitrary celebration of violence in movies. And that was it.

And a lot of the positive reviews of this movie have been completely honest about that. I see praise for how far it goes, how bold it is about, and — mostly — how inventive it is in its kills.

Oh, and how inventive it is! In terms of the plot, it’s completely irrelevant what drug Ma-Ma sells. But SLO-MO is here for a reason. It slows down time for the user. That makes it an effective torture device — for the audience as well as the victim. Ma-Ma is fond of juicing people up on SLO-MO and then tossing them from the top of the tower. The first time this happens, we see all of the bodies splattering on the floor. The second time, the camera takes the place of the floor. The victim hits the lens headfirst. There is no cutaway.

In the case of the first victims, it’s worth noting that these individuals are also flayed alive. Dredd has mercy enough to only allow us a passing glimpse at this. It loves looking at those meaty corpses, though.

Really, the only thing Dredd revels in more than its hero killing bad guys is probably its bad guys killing civilians. It does this so often that I have to interpret it either as a test of nerve or as pure sociopathy. It is unrelenting and never once fails to punish anyone’s kindness or courage. And it comes in many flavors, whether that’s people getting burned alive, blown up by cannons, or some other equally creative method. One individual’s throat collapses under an opponent’s fist; we see all of this. There’s even an incredibly distressing implication of sexual violence that I’m just incredibly, breathlessly grateful we didn’t actually get to see — not that Dredd doesn’t get as close as it possibly can.

If any of it is self-satire, I’d be incredibly grateful to hear someone make a compelling argument for exactly that. That it’s an incredibly and openly stupid movie does not in and of itself accomplish this end, especially since none of that is applied specifically to the violence itself. From where I stand, I don’t see the fundamental difference between this and a Saw movie. Sure, this is more blood and explosions than gore and torture — though, believe me, there’s plenty of overlap. As far as I’m concerned, they come from the same place. One of these days, someone will sit me down and successfully explain to me how this is fun and will do so in a way that makes me completely understand and no longer has me worrying about what movies like Dredd signify culturally.

And maybe, to turn the gun around for a second, I’ll also manage to explain why the sanitized version of this exact same movie would offend me quite a lot less and maybe attempt to determine whether or not it should. Objective lines are, as ever, impossible to draw.

But for the moment, I can stick with the things of which I am fairly certain, and I won’t go to bed uneasy tonight for saying that Dredd is cruel and bloody and awful and psychopathic and vengeful and that we deserve and should demand a heck of a lot better.

-Matt T.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Starring- Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve

Director- J.J. Abrams

PG-13- intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAEkuVgt6Aw

It turns out I’ve only got space in my heart for one J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie, and it is certainly not this one.

Ordinarily, I don’t really know if a movie is going to devalue in my mind from my immediate reaction after seeing it. That’s why I usually wait a day or two before I get started on the review. Sometimes I’ll write it immediately, but that’s only when my initial reaction is as intellectual as it is emotional, i.e., I need to understand the specifics of my reaction very well.

But the first thought that crossed my mind as soon as Star Trek Into Darkness rolled the credits was, “Well, time to let that degrade.” And degrade it did.

This time around, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, led by Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), gets embroiled in a terrorist conspiracy after rogue former Starfleet operative John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) kills a number of the organization’s highest-ranking officers.

The Enterprise chases Harrison into Klingon space, prepared to bomb him from orbit and slip away before its presence there ignites a war. But Harrison is not what he seems — and neither, for that matter, is Starfleet. And soon, the Enterprise is in the middle of a three-way conflict with shifting loyalties, uncomfortable alliances, and unknown ends.

Most of what’s wrong with Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t J.J. Abrams’ fault. Not that he couldn’t have fixed almost all of it — at this point, the fact that his movies so frequently suffer from severe logical problems, even though he usually doesn’t write them, has me thinking he is not particularly attuned to them — but they mostly don’t originate with him. He’s actually toned down on the lens flares, which is good. And while he might be starting to lean a bit too far to the south side of “frenzied mania,” his direction remains energetic and propulsive. These may be things I am telling myself simply because I have a vested interest in how this whole Star Wars: Episode VII thing turns out. Nevertheless.

We could beat around the bush forever. But ultimately, almost from beginning to end, the sole and most crippling problem with Star Trek Into Darkness is that its script is unforgivably awful.

I’m not going to pretend that the first movie didn’t also have this problem. It did — and in fact, it had most of the same problems. I’ve always had a strange relationship with that movie. I love it, and I’ve watched it many times. Gun to my head, I’d probably wouldn’t have it in me to actually call it good. Rather, the bad elements come together in this one-in-a-million way where they’re so wide-eyed and adventurous that you just sort of embrace the dumbness and let yourself go along for the ride. Of course, the first movie also slides its pieces into place a little more gracefully and is better constructed overall, which allows Abrams’ solid direction and generally stellar control over tone to save the bad spots.

But on the whole, this marriage between writers Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci is bearing very ugly children who inherit Lindelof’s propensity for writing arbitrary mystery and obscuring everything behind smokescreen after smokescreen after smokescreen, as well as Orci and Kurtzman’s propensity for writing screenplays that I simply don’t like at all. The three of them somehow manage to bring out the all of the worst in one another and basically none of the best.

That hits critical mass in Star Trek Into Darkness. Part of what works about the first one is that, at its core, it’s really a fairly simple film with characters who have fairly simple motivations that tie into a fairly simple overall objective. And most of that isn’t obscured or confused or misdirected.

This one, on the other hand, spends the second half of its running time indulging a conflict between three different parties. Some of them have similar motivations that break paths on one or two significant points. Some of them are complete outsiders to that but become involved in an “enemy of my enemy” sort of way. Others are just following orders. And the movie blunders into just about every imaginable pitfall.

Obviously, you’re going to get a bit of moral ambiguity in a situation like this, where everyone has at least one or two overlapping goals. The bad part is that the movie seems as though it’s not even kind of aware this has occurred. The end result is a film where the villain is described as anyone who currently has his or her guns pointed at the heroes. And not only is that at odds with what Star Trek historically has been, it’s also at odds with (one of) the movie’s own stated messages. Kirk is constantly breaking the rules, defying convention, and taking huge risks to save single members of his own crew. He puts his life — and sometimes the mission itself — at stake repeatedly in order to save them. His most righteous moments come when he is defending himself from those who disagree with this tactic — Spock (Zachary Quinto), for instance. But apparently, it’s just his crew and not Starfleet more generally, because he’s not nearly as forthcoming with other people’s crews.

And of course, it results in the more technical problem where everything is merely confusing. You really do have to assess Star Trek Into Darkness from a distance and in a very overarching way in order to make sense of it. Trying to fit the details and the specifics of the universe into some sort of cause-and-effect analysis is completely impossible. There are holes everywhere.

Star Trek had some holes, too. Some of them were in the plot more generally (seriously, Nero, you travel back in time and, instead of trying to save Romulus from destruction, which you can totally do now, you decide it’s an opportunity better used to punish the people who failed to prevent its destruction, even though it hasn’t been destroyed yet and you have the power to keep it that way). And there were a few that emerged on a scene-to-scene basis.

But Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t have a single, solitary scene in its entire running time that does not completely collapse when you think about it in any way at all. Plot holes happen — that’s almost a given, and I usually don’t hold it against movies provided they don’t disrupt it emotionally. But in this movie, they are blatant. They exist so close to the surface that it’s incomprehensible to me that the writers failed to notice them. They are the first questions the audience asks when the scene starts: “Oh, this is quite a situation the heroes are in. Oh, wait, no — I see how they’re going to get out of it! Or…they can also do that. Why are they doing that? That’s so much harder.”

This is worsened by the tendency of these films to resolve every imaginable problem using the method of “randomly making something up that will solve that problem.” In the last movie, the writers contrived a situation wherein Kirk needed to get back to the Enterprise, which was in deep space at warp speed, from an ice planet in the middle of nowhere. The solution was having Scotty (Simon Pegg) come up with a Magic Mathematical Formula that would allow Kirk to beam anywhere at any time. That was in the third act of that movie, so it didn’t change things much.

But Star Trek Into Darkness has to grapple with the fact that this technology exists, and it does so by not doing so, except when the plot needs to beam someone or something somewhere. If there is a scene in this movie that doesn’t leave you asking, “Well, why don’t they just beam there?” I don’t remember it. This movie actually compounds the problem when it solves another unfixable problem by magically giving the heroes the power to beam physical objects — including nuclear bombs — to other locations.

Recap: Starfleet can beam people and objects not just from ship to surface but from galaxy to galaxy. Why do they need ships again? Why do they keep putting themselves deep behind enemy lines in extraordinarily dangerous situations again? Why do they have to physically travel to Klingon when Harrison beamed there, left the device he used to beam there at the scene of the crime, and left the coordinates to which he beamed on the device’s display?

“Hey, Kirk, I need you to go behind enemy lines and bomb an enemy of the state quietly and without starting a war,” Admiral Marshall (Peter Weller) says.

“Hey, Admiral Marshall, why don’t you just beam a bomb to his current location?” I say.

And here’s the kicker: Star Trek 3 will be a terrible movie for this exact reason. I’d hate to be the poor director who gets saddled with that while Abrams is working on Star Wars. This movie resolves its final unfixable problem (and defuses the only emotional risk it takes) with Magic Science in such a way that the sequel will either have to be a philosophical examination of life and death (which won’t happen because, what is this, an adaptation of a TV show that used sci-fi scenarios to examine sociopolitical realities? Come on), or will be an utterly tensionless affair that either pays no attention to the world-changing discovery made at the end of this movie or that does pay attention to it and simply has no idea how to construct a dumb action movie around it. These invented solutions to big problems only result in bigger problems for these movies narratively.

And when it’s not inventing solutions, it’s just breaking its own rules. It’ll set up a certain problem that cannot be solved in a certain way and then solve it simply by doing the exact same thing except more so.

And while the first movie mostly got away with this, as of Star Trek Into Darkness, this series needs to decide if it’s a modern update that borrows characters and concepts from the original or if it’s a straight adaptation pitched directly at fans. This movie is constantly referencing Star Trek lore in such a way that’s likely to anger fans who are watching the canon get changed/abused and to confuse newcomers who have no idea why the characters are acting all significant about the revelation they just received. Plus, the references here are just awful. It invokes one classic line very early on in a situation that hasn’t remotely earned the gravitas needed to pull it off. And the ending — I am still trying to recover from that. That was the hardest I’ve laughed at a movie that wasn’t attempting to be funny in a very long time.

And then, there’s the moment where it blithely invokes 9/11 imagery and doesn’t pay the slightest heed to the consequences of this act. The less said about that, the better.

I’m fairly certain this is the first time I’ve outright disliked a J.J. Abrams movie. (Depending on whether or not you consider Cloverfield a J.J. Abrams movie; you’d have to pay me quite a lot to watch that again.) I’m also fairly certain this is the most I’ve ever come in retrospect to dislike a movie that I didn’t actually hate all that much while I was watching it. I won’t see it again, because it will make me angry the second time.

The script is an afterthought, the characters don’t have nearly the same chemistry, it’s morally ambiguous without realizing it or adjusting its attitude to accommodate it, it’s obfuscated and confusing, every single scene collapses when logic is applied and it briefly indulges in casual misogyny that doesn’t even have the benefit of a half-hearted excuse.

Star Trek Into Darkness marked the moment where my attitude toward Star Wars: Episode VII switched from caution to worry.

 

-Matt T.

Now You See Me (2013)

Starring- Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Melanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Common, David Warshofsky

Director- Louis Leterrier

PG-13- language, some action and sexual content

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzJNYYkkhzc

Now You See Me would be more aptly titled Now You Don’t, and the lack of an implied prestige in that old set of magic words is rather appropriate. It is obfuscation upon deception upon twist upon turn upon secrecy. It isn’t so much a series of illusions increasing in scale until the grand finale — or even a single illusion that builds over time into an incredible climax — as it is one performance subdivided into dozens upon dozens of smaller tricks, some unrelated and some not, some explained and some not, culminating in a big finish that invokes entirely new tricks you never knew were going on, resolves emotional buildup that you didn’t realize you were supposed to be responding to, and then walks away with a smile on its face, certain that its audience must be absolutely enraptured when, in truth, they are simply confused.

In short, Now You See Me has a handful of interesting ideas at its core, but it is so determined to impress you with its cleverness that it completely outsmarts itself.

J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) are magicians of varying skill performing venues of varying size. One day, each of them receives a card containing a mysterious invitation.

When next we see them, they are a joint act — the Four Horsemen — performing for crowded stadiums on the Las Vegas strip. And their newest trick is a doozy — robbing a French bank, on-stage in Vegas, and redistributing it to the members of the audiences.

The four are arrested, but baffled investigators are unable to make heads or tails of how they did it, so they are released.

But with the Four Horsemen promising an Act II and an Act III to their magical Robin Hood shtick, Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is put on the case and, along with Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent), begins a high-stakes chase with a criminal quartet that seems to be perpetually two steps ahead of him.

Now You See Me seems as though it’s trying to answer its critics before they even get their hands on it. At a certain point, it becomes clear that its grand statements of learning to be childlike and appreciate the illusion are less a theme that it’s developing and more an admonition to critics: Don’t over-think it. Of course, I don’t see how you could. Now You See Me is the sort of movie I assume has plot holes, though I can’t point to any of them, because it throws twist after twist after twist onto an increasingly unstable house of cards in every single scene, and at a certain point, it’s nearly impossible to keep track of the step-by-step of who’s doing what and why and how. The film explains most of the Horsemen’s biggest illusions, but many of the smaller things they do in the interim would require degrees in Herbology from Hogwarts rather than mere physical trickery. I don’t know how mentalism works, but it’s almost certainly not this — Merritt could easily conquer the world if so inclined.

What Now You See Me overlooks is that even good magicians will weave emotion into their illusions, and this part of it is not trickery. Their goal is to confuse the mind but to keep the emotions steady and engaged, to build up and play to that childlike sense of wonder and mystery, to pay that off with a ‘wow’ moment that puts jaws on the floor. Now You See Me plays with both — regularly — and it simply cannot sustain itself. It obscures not only the facts of the situation but the way the audience is supposed to be feeling about any of it. The Horsemen are villains in one scene, heroes in the next. The film takes entirely too long to decide that Rhodes is going to be its protagonist. It starts out making him kind of surly and unlikable, which makes you suspect he’s going to be the uncouth law enforcement official going after our heroic rogues. It switches out of that mode immediately after, but even then, it spends the rest of its time embarrassing him repeatedly like he’s the unsympathetic protagonist of a television sitcom. And of course, it sabotages itself, because even with the Horsemen as the antagonists, you kind of want them to succeed, at least until the third act — you want to see what other big tricks they have up their sleeves.

Character after character after character gets thrown into the mix. With the Horsemen, Daniel and Merritt are the only ones who get to do much of anything. Daniel contrives the tricks; Merritt supplies the necessary hypnosis. Henley and Jack don’t seem to have any defined role, and even on-stage, it seems like they’re only The Girl and The Third Guy. They don’t get to do much within the confines of the plot, either. Jack in particular is always standing in the background, but his lines in this film, played back-to-back, would probably only last about five minutes.

There are a bunch of FBI agents. Rhodes and Alma are easy enough to keep track of. The others seem like background characters, but then, they stick around. Rapper Common plays one of them, implying that the writers must have had something in mind for the character, but I can only recall one scene in which he really does anything.

You’ve got the Horsemen’s manager, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), who starts out friendly, turns mean in a hurry, and then gets wrapped up in the middle of somebody else’s overly complicated revenge plot.

And then there’s Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), whose career is in debunking popular magicians publicly. He’s playing every imaginable side of a game the audience is only half-aware exists for motives he keeps mainly to himself. He drops vague revelations here and there and is more explicit elsewhere. But he’s completely untrustworthy, so the line between misdirection and explanation becomes so blurred that you never know which is which.

Every single one of these characters knows a thousand things the audience doesn’t, which makes the movie an emotionally confusing mess where each player in the increasingly twisted plot has a motivation but either isn’t saying what it is or is lying about it. Now You See Me is definitely in need of a point-of-reference character for the audience to follow through this labyrinth — and it almost does. And then, there’s the final twist.

It’s difficult to discuss the specific nature in which the movie’s last major twist doesn’t work at all without spoiling it, and I’d be remiss to do so, because keeping up with all the nutty twists is the main enjoyment in this thing. I’ll give it a shot anyway.

The Sixth Sense is another movie with a famous twist ending. And that one really works. Firstly, it works because there are actual clues given leading up to it. You could conceivably guess at the ending, and even if you couldn’t, watching it again would turn up all the details you missed. Secondly, the film’s central emotional thrust is not affected by the twist. At the end of the day, the core of the movie is still a boy and a psychiatrist helping each other through their individual struggles and building a meaningful and resonant relationship.

The twist in Now You See Me makes you feel cheated. You feel as though you need to watch the movie again — not so you can pick up on all the details, which aren’t there, but so that you can watch the real movie this time, now that you know what everyone was actually up to. The first viewing feels like a complete waste of time because everything it does coax out of you emotionally ends up being a lie. You’re not mystified and awestruck at the misdirection, sleight of hand, and illusion used in conjuring up this grand finale — primarily because none is used, as there’s a difference between a twist and just making up something out of thin air, throwing it at the audience and shouting, “Aha! I have surprised you!” You’re a little peeved that the movie was just stringing you along the entire time.

The ending ends up being completely unsatisfying because of this. Once it gets the last twists out of its system, it seems to feel as though it’s finally clarified who the heroes and villains truly were in the whole ordeal. But with everyone’s motives having been obscured and lied about and their actions unclear in purpose and effect for the entire movie, you don’t feel as though the villain has earned a righteous comeuppance or that the heroes are all that spotless, noble, and justified.

Prior to the ending, Now You See Me is mostly watchable. Sometimes, it approaches being fun, just because it’s so madly inventive and in love with what it’s doing. It’s never truly engaging, though, because it doesn’t properly capture the mystique and the magic and the sense of possibility. As a director, Louis Leterrier is too concerned with getting from point A to point B, so he shoots everything in this quick, choppy, frenetic style that works for action sequences but doesn’t let things breathe when what you need is a little atmosphere. The illusions themselves are visually underwhelming.

And it’s never tense, either. From the beginning, you know what type of movie it is: the type in which everything that happens will be revealed at the end to have been All Part of the Plan. Key emotional moments fall flat because you’re certain that none of it is real and that it’s all been carefully calculated to achieve something other than what is initially seen. Mostly, you’re right.

Now You See Me does have a heck of a cast. Substantial parts of it don’t really get to do much. Jesse Eisenberg is pretty much doing his character from The Social Network all over again, but we did almost give him an Oscar for that part. Woody Harrelson’s dry cynicism is fun, and his is also the only member of the Horsemen whose introductory scene gives him valid reasons for becoming a part of this enterprise. Freeman is great in an uncharacteristically shifty and ambiguously moral part. And Ruffalo’s intensity gets the film a long way.

And it’s also that rare bad movie with a great cast where you can actually understand how talent of this caliber managed to get signed onto it. Let me be clear that there are, again, some very interesting ideas at the core of this movie, and sometimes even closer to the surface than that. There isn’t anything particularly cynical about it. It feels very much like its own thing, like somebody’s great idea being committed to film by people who truly believe it’s a great idea.

I wouldn’t say that it ends up being less than the sum of its parts. It’s more that it’s got too many parts to sum. It’s confusing and frustrating and sometimes enjoyable but often more concerned with catching the audience off-guard than with actually giving it a great show.

-Matt T.