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 Incredible Hulk (2008)
by Steve Habrat
After Ang Lee’s weighty Hulk, Marvel Studios wanted to cut out some of lengthy character development and restart the Hulk franchise to fit with their upcoming superhero mash-up The Avengers. The result was 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, a faster paced and action packed thrill ride that covers the Hulk’s origin in the opening credits and then jumps right into earth shaking battle sequences that aim to give both Hulk fans and average audience members exactly what they are looking for in a summer blockbuster. The Incredible Hulk is a major improvement over Lee’s slower character study in the action department, climaxing in a car-lobbing final showdown in the streets of New York City, but the film is hollow, never asking us to really use our brains in any way. With Lee’s Hulk, Marvel gave us too much of the big green guy and with director Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, it feels like not enough. What gives Leterrier’s film the upper hand is the strong presence of a much more effective and present villain to torment the Hulk.
The Incredible Hulk begins with a green tinted opening credit sequence where we see Bruce Banner (Played by Edward Norton) get exposed to the dreaded gamma radiation that causes him to turn into the Hulk. Banner ends up injuring the love of his life Betty Ross (Played by Liv Tyler), who is present during the accident. Banner flees the lab after the accident and Betty’s father General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Played by William Hurt) sets out to arrest Banner for what he has done to Betty. The film then jets to Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, where Banner hides out while he searches for a way to cure himself. Banner also works on ways to control his anger through breathing techniques that keep him without incident. Banner keeps in contact with a mysterious scientist that he calls Mr. Blue and communicates with him via the Internet. Mr. Blue claims to have a way to cure Banner but he needs information that would require Banner to return to the United States and risk being taken into custody by General Ross. After an accident in the bottling factory where Banner works, General Ross discovers Banner’s location and sends the deadly British Royal Marine Emil Blonsky (Played by Tim Roth) after Banner, who quickly flees and finds himself on a journey back home to meet the mysterious Mr. Blue. Blonsky, on the other hand, finds himself fascinated by Banner and his condition. General Ross agrees to “level the playing field” and inject Blonsky with a serum that can allow him to battle the Hulk but there are horrific side effects.
The Incredible Hulk tosses out Lee’s comic book panel aesthetic for a typical polished summer blockbuster look. We also don’t have to wait until about forty minutes in to catch a glimpse of the big green guy in action. Leterrier is just dying to unleash his new and improved Hulk on us and I must say he is impressive. Gone is the purple compression shorts wearing Hulk and present is a Hulk in tattered jeans with leathery looking skin. The action is also a bit grittier and in your face, just about everything in the Hulk’s way getting tossed, kicked, punched, or used as shields or, (awesomely) boxing gloves. The downside of all the teeth rattling action is that Leterrier focuses a little too much on it and not enough on developing a meaty story. I’ve heard talk that screenwriters Zak Penn and Edward Norton had a longer version with a bit more character development but Marvel rejected it in favor of a faster pace. It’s a shame because I would have liked to get to know a little bit more about Norton’s Banner.
In addition to beefed up action, The Incredible Hulk features a slightly stronger cast than Hulk did. Edward Norton doesn’t spend a good majority of the film moping over daddy issues from his past. Norton possesses a natural gangly and bird-like look to him than Bana’s Banner, which makes his transformation into the Hulk all the more shocking. Bana sort of looked like he could have held his own in a scuffle without transforming into a giant green muscle. Much like Jennifer Connelly, Liv Tyler isn’t given much to do as Betty Ross aside from run around from location to location with Banner. Tyler also happens to speak in a breathier tone than Connelly did. William Hurt as General Ross adds a bit more attitude than Sam Elliot did and when he unleashes his temper, you will want to run for cover. The real star here is Roth, who has a blast flashing a sinister grin as Blonsky, the deadly super soldier who becomes addicted to a serum that turns him into the slimy Abomination. Roth is clearly on top of the world in the role, his excitement level growing as he evolves into a truly formidable villain for the Hulk. With Abomination, Leterrier single handedly lays waste to Lee’s Hulk, just the mere presence of a clear-cut villain a huge bonus.
The Incredible Hulk is a shameless thrill ride that is more enamored with eye-popping CGI monsters and fiery destruction rather than the psychological study that its predecessor was so stuck on. It’s so obviously sugary summer fun but it does its job and you can’t fault it for it. If it boiled down to it, I would probably choose The Incredible Hulk for a Friday night movie if I ever had to make the decision. Norton is clearly the better choice for Bruce Banner and Roth is a devilish delight as the Abomination. You’ll thrill when they begin trading blows in the final stretch of the film. In a way, I wish that The Incredible Hulk had tacked on another fifteen minutes to develop this new Hulk universe and to allow me to warm up to these new interpretations of the characters that Lee introduced us to. The Incredible Hulk also gets a surprise visit from a certain Armored Avenger, which teases us for the epic upcoming mash-up and will drive Marvel fanatics wild. Even if moments of it are lopsided and a bulk of the story gets lost in all the rumble, The Incredible Hulk still manages to get your to be mindless, smashing fun for everyone.
The Incredible Hulk is available on Blu-ray and DVD.