Now You See Me (2013)
by Steve Habrat
French director Louis Leterrier is the type of guy who makes movies that you watch on HBO. They’re the stuff of sweatpants and lazy Sunday afternoons when you have absolutely nothing else pressing to do. You really don’t have to put your brain to work when you watch any of his movies; you just have to be in the mood to watch some slick action scenes guided by Jason Statham or Jet Li. However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t really enjoy seeing his full-throttle Marvel offering The Incredible Hulk on the big screen. The last time we saw Leterrier, he was tangling with the gods in 2010s Clash of the Titans, a film that was met with almost unanimous negative criticism. Now Letterier returns with the Ocean’s Eleven-with-a-wand studio boardroom crime caper Now You See Me, a fairly entertaining but poorly drawn action-heist hybrid that seems tailor-made for Twittering teens and those audience members out there who are easily impressed with even the slightest plot twist. Is this necessarily a bad thing? No, in fact Now You See Me is a fun and simple distraction, yet it feels like the type of movie that you watch on HBO on a lazy Sunday. Now You See Me has plenty of snappy action, a plot comprised of infinite plot twists, and cool performances from a mixture of veterans and newcomers, but it lacks substantial character development and the blue-in-the-face exposition bogs down the third act. Leterrier makes damn sure no one walks away scratching their head and asking their date what the hell just happened.
Now You See Me introduces us to four street magicians, Daniel Atlas (played by Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt Osbourne (played by Woody Harrelson), Henley Reeves (played by Isla Fisher), and Jack Wilder (played by Dave Franco), who are brought together by a mysterious hooded figure and one year later are performing as “The Four Horsemen” in Las Vegas. The group, who has become a huge worldwide sensation, announce one evening that they are going to rob a bank with the help of one lucky audience member. The man who is chosen to help out with the trick is seemingly teleported to his bank in Paris, where he is asked to activate a vacuum that sucks the money from the vault and dumps it down on the cheering Vegas crowd. The stunt, which captures the world’s attention and turns “The Four Horsemen” into media superstars, immediately gets the attention of bullheaded FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (played by Mark Ruffalo) and his new partner, Interpol Agent Alma Vargas (played by Mélanie Laurent). Rhodes and Vargas immediately have the four magicians arrested, but lack of an explanation forces the FBI to release the group. After the group performs another robbery in New Orleans, this time on their sponsor, Arthur Tressler (played by Michael Caine), Rhodes and Vargas are forced to seek help from ex-magician Thaddeus Bradley (played by Morgan Freeman), who makes a living revealing the secrets behind magic tricks.
After giving us a brief introduction to each of its characters and their different illusion styles, you begin to think that Now You See Me may just decide to operate in a much more grounded sense. However, this sense of grounded realism disappears completely when the ragtag group is pulled from the streets and united in front of blueprint holograms that look like they were confiscated from Tony Stark’s workshop. Not one of the characters bats an eye or thinks to really ask who has brought them all together. From here on out, Now You See Me goes huge with its magic tricks and its fiery action, all of which completely incinerate character development. While the magic show sequences thrill with their flashing strobe lights, easy-laugh host dialogue, and pounding techno, the real razzle dazzle comes in the middle with its foot chases through thick Mardi Gras crowds, fist fights in cramped New York City apartments, and jittery car chases through stuffy NYC traffic. It is all the usual stuff you want from Leterrier and, more importantly, a summer blockbuster, but you can’t shake the feeling that it is all scaled back fluff that would appear in a late summer toss-offs rather than a frontline May effort.
Much like Ocean’s Eleven, Leterrier puts together a who’s-who of talent to rope in audiences. The leader of the pack is Eisenberg, who proved his acting talents in David Fincher’s staggering The Social Network. He certainly brings some of the self-assured swagger that he applied to Mark Zuckerberg and for the most part it works, but the character is too poorly drawn to be much of a hero here. Eisenberg certainly tries with the character, but he isn’t given much to work with so he just shrugs his shoulders. This phoned-in feeling unfortunately doesn’t begin and end with Mr. Eisenberg. Harrelson is his usual kooky self as the swindler hypnotist Merritt. He’s another one you expect some heavy lifting from but he doesn’t break much of a sweat. The young Dave Franco (yes, it is the brother of James) seems eager to get people talking, but the script gives him so little to do, the half the time you forget he is even there. Franco gets most of the action scenes and you do get the impression that he could be a future action star, but only time will tell. Fisher is here simply to give the film so much needed sex appeal but even she seems like she is checking her watch over really putting forth much effort. Caine and Freeman both give the typical performance that you’d expect. They seem to be getting a big kick out of the whole thing, which adds some charm to the film. Laurent basically steals the show as the sweet Interpol Agent who is driven by faith. She balances out the almost-too-serious Ruffalo, who seems like he is trying to make up for everyone who is here just for a beefy paycheck.
While Now You See Me is light on its feet, fast-paced, and fairly exciting, the film really deflates when all the smoke and mirrors are pulled away. There is really nothing behind all those wonderful tricks. The characters don’t really develop and Leterrier tacks on a long-winded and rigid explanation at the end of the film when all of the action should have smoothly meshed together. Instead, it just seems all over the place and in a mad dash. It almost feels like the filmmakers don’t really trust the audience to put it all together so they just do it for you. Also, I’m still not sure that they really sold me on the myriad of twists that hit at the end but the crowd I saw it with was marveling like crazy at it. Overall, as an Ocean’s Eleven knock-off, Now You See Me entertains, but it lacks a certain martini buzz strut and tuxedo-cool confidence to really keep it aloft. It comes off plastic and artificial, with only a smidgeon of heart inside that pretty cool premise. If I were you, I’d probably wait for it to come to HBO and watch it from the comfort of your couch. It’s small screen entertainment from beginning to end, but there isn’t particularly anything wrong with that.
The Hangover Part III (2013)
by Steve Habrat
After taking in the revolting antics of 2011s The Hangover Part II, the question of whether the world truly needed the second Hangover film hung thickly in the summer air. Was the follow-up to the inexplicable 2009 megahit really necessary? Apparently, Warner Bros. and director Todd Phillips thought the world needed a double dose of the Wolfpack. I don’t think there is any doubt that the world DEFINITELY didn’t need a third Hangover movie, but here we are with what is being called the final installment in the Hangover trilogy. Let’s hope so. Let me be clear when I say this—America, this is what you asked for. The Hangover Part III is about the laziest movie I’ve seen all year. It can be commended for breaking the formula of the first two movies and trying something new, but was everyone sleepwalking through the making of this thing? Devoid of any solid laughs and structured with a plot that seems like it was conceived by someone in a drunken stupor, The Hangover Part III is about as flat, arid, and jaded as cash grab sequels come. Even the target audience will have a hard time finding the humor in all of this, and more importantly, they’ll find it nearly impossible to root for the horribly detached heroes Phil, Stu, and Alan. You’ve been warned, folks.
The Hangover Part III focuses much of its attention on bearded oddball Alan Garner (played by Zach Galifianakis), whose bizarre behavior is slowly spiraling more and more out of control He has quit taking his medication and in a seriously foolish move, he purchases a giraffe that is killed while he tows it down the highway. Appalled by his son’s anti-social behavior, Alan’s father, Sid (played by Jeffrey Tambor), drops dead of a heart attack. It doesn’t take long for the grieving family to round up Alan’s best buddies and stage an intervention for the distraught man-child. Among the friends that step in are schoolteacher Phil Wenneck (played by Bradley Cooper), dentist Stu Price (played by Ed Helms), and Alan’s brother-in-law Doug (played by Justin Bartha). The group convinces Alan to go to rehab, but he is only willing to go if the Wolfpack will go with him. While on their way, the guys are rammed off the road and confronted by the pudgy gangster Marshall (played by John Goodman), who demands to know the whereabouts of flamboyant Chinese gangster Leslie Chow (played by Ken Jeong). It turns out that Chow, who has recently broken out of a Bangkok prison, has stolen $21 million dollars in gold bars and that Alan is the only one who has had communication with him since the escape. Marshall takes Doug as collateral and threatens that if the Wolfpack doesn’t track Chow down in three days, he will kill Doug.
The biggest crime of The Hangover Part II was that it recycled the plot of the first film, switched locations, and then padded it with a thick layer of lurid shocks. It was the ultimate endurance test and I’d say Phillips was the true victor. With The Hangover Part III, Phillips wisely moves away from the gross out approach that he used in Part II. You’d think that a toned down feel and a fresh plot that was minus a night of heavy drinking would refresh the franchise and energize the main players, but it’s actually the complete opposite. There is barely a laugh to be found throughout the hour and forty minute runtime, just ask the packed showing that I attended. There was an excited buzz in the air before the opening credits rolled and as the film drug on, you could feel that excitement slowly fading as joke after joke failed to get much of a reaction. To make things worse, Phillips then placed the two most popular characters, Alan and Chow, at the forefront of the entire project. You probably already know I’m not a big fan of either character and I think that a little bit of each one goes a very long way. You can just sense that the studio and the filmmakers are crossing their fingers that Galifianakis and Jeong will carry the film across the finish line. It should be said that they don’t. They stumble and fall the minute they get moving.
The sense of laziness carries over into the performances from Helms and Cooper, both who act like they’d like to just step away from the project altogether. Cooper, who is hot off an Oscar nomination for his surprising performance in Silver Linings Playbook, seems to be preoccupied with his new success and bored with the story. The script doesn’t even bother to elaborate or deepen his character in any way, shape, or form. He’s just going through the motions for a paycheck and its painfully obvious. As far as Helms goes, he was the one doing most of the work in the first two films, but here he seems edged out by Phillips and Galifinakis. He was usually the one who had the best one-liners but he’s nearly invisible this time around. Galifianakis is off his game (and his rocker) the second we catch up with him as he speeds down the freeway with a CGI giraffe being tugged behind him. Every single joke he cracked made me want to bury my face in my hands and shake my head (mind you, that is not a compliment). As far as Jeong’s Chow goes, there is just entirely too much of him. Even the die-hards will have a hard time defending his drastically increased screen time. Goodman puts forth quite a bit of effort as Marshal and he certainly owns the screen when he is squeezed into it, but there is little in the way of substance there. Fans of the first film will rejoice when they catch a glimpse of Mike Epps as “Black” Doug, Heather Graham as Jade, and, yes, even Baby Carlos, but the thrill will instantly fade when you realize they are given absolutely nothing to do besides reminding the audience that they still exist.
While I will agree that The Hangover Part III is a step up from the pitiful second installment, it is still the furthest thing from a great film. There are certainly a few cruel jokes (the worst being the decapitation of the giraffe) but most of them are unbelievably tame, limp, or simply non-existent. There are times when the film seems to be attempting to jump from the comedy mold entirely and into something resembling an action movie/crime caper, but it is far from smooth about this transition and it is just plain awkward. The project doesn’t even perk up when the Wolfpack finally arrives back in their Las Vegas, their blinking and flashing Hell on earth. By that point, it seems like cast and crew have upped and abandoned this turd altogether. Overall, the reshaped plot is a smart move, but the lack of even one memorable joke and the drastic shift in tone seem to have crushed the Wolfpack’s party spirit. They are ready to move on to bigger and better projects, ones that are more deserving of their comedic talents. And you, America, are ready to laugh at something far funnier than these obnoxious and poorly drawn characters. This is the worst film of 2013 so far.