Film Review: Now You See Me

A mysterious, hooded figure assembles the ultimate illusionist dream team in Louis Leterrier’s Now You See Me – a frustratingly flawed thriller which, despite an entertaining first half and strong cast, ultimately loses its way and ends up with very little up its sleeve.

Jesse Eisenberg is up-and-coming magician J. Daniel Atlas, the gang’s charismatic and cocky leader with an irritating lack of eyebrow control. Then there’s Woody Harrelson, who injects some much needed laughter as old-timer hypnotist and master of mind-tricks, Merrit McKinney. Isla Fisher brings the sex appeal as Atlas’s glamorous former assistant Henley Reeves, and Dave Franco is the young, wily and street-wise Jack Wilder; whose main trick appears to be his ability to throw cards really fast. When they all receive a card from ancient magical order ‘The Eye’, the quartet joins forces and, thanks to the financial clout of millionaire benefactor Arthur Tressler, played by the legendary Michael Caine, they become the Four Horsemen – Las Vegas’ hottest new magicians (move over Penn & Teller).

After staging an elaborate trick which sees the Horsemen apparently teleport a male member of their audience to France, where he helps them rob a Parisian bank, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is assigned to distinguish between spellbinding showmanship and the potentially criminal reality. He is partnered with French Interpol agent Alma Dray, played by Inglourious Basterds star Melanie Laurent, who has a slightly suspicious fascination with the magical arts. Rhodes and Dray enlist the assistance of former-magician, turned TV debunker of illusions, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) to help them make sense of the Four Horsemen’s impressive heist. Sounds good so far, right?

Unfortunately, this very exciting premise soon makes way for a ludicrous second act, with an overly complex plot, that ends up tying itself in more knots than a balloon animal.  Now You See Me is at its best when it focuses on the exploits of the Horsemen and their growing camaraderie; with the witty and often snarky performance of Harrelson as McKinney being particularly enjoyable. Their glitzy stage shows, in spite of occasionally dubious special effects that remove some of the intended magic, are also thrilling and compelling spectacles. However, the film then proceeds to abandon the things it was doing so well in favour of some unnecessary, action-packed fight scenes and a high-speed car chase.

Attention also shifts from the four magicians and onto the less interesting investigations of the seemingly hapless Agent Rhodes, who is always several steps behind the Horsemen and constantly made to look ridiculously incapable of doing his job. There is also very little on-screen chemistry between Ruffalo and Laurent, which causes their inevitable romance subplot to feel awkward and contrived. The film seems to think it’s cleverer than it actually is, and the unexpected and frankly laughable ending is surprising for all the wrong reasons.

Most great magic shows leave the audience exiting the theatre with a plethora of tantalising questions; Now You See Me provides only disappointing answers.

by Gary Woodcock

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Film Review: Chasing Mavericks

Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted’s Chasing Mavericks is an overly-sentimental and clichéd biographical surfing film that attempts to ride Gerard Butler’s celebrity wave, but finds itself crashing against the rocks due to its lifelessness and bad writing.

Jay Moriarty (played by Jonny Weston in the film) was a Californian surfer who gained notoriety in 1994 when he attempted to ride the infamous waves known as Mavericks at the age of 16. In Chasing Mavericks we follow Moriarty from when he first became interested in surfing at 9-years-old, until the big moment 7 years later, which is made possible due to the intense training from his mentor and friend, Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler).

I’m sure, in real life, Jay Moriarty had a pretty interesting life, but this film doesn’t reach the same peaks. The script is packed full of trivial (though intended to be inspirational) talk and is anything but subtle; when Moriarty’s friend tells him his dream girl is too old for him, and Frosty dictates that he won’t train Moriarty to ride big waves, the film is blatantly telling us what is going to happen. Unfortunately those big moments are building far in the distance and there’s nothing we can do but wait for them to reach the shore.

If you have no interest in the mechanics of surfing, then you may find yourself, like I did, completely bored until the last 30 minutes – which is admittedly thrilling. Many of the scenes take place, expectedly, in the sea, but the writing is as dead as the water that Moriarty and Frosty often find themselves in. The two of them seem to be unable to have a normal conversation and, even though I agree with the sentiments of being passionate about hobbies and goals, they take it to another level. Chasing Mavericks breaks right through the barriers of seriousness into completely cringe-worthy cheesiness.

The writers and directors did seem to realise that you can’t make a film consisting entirely of conversations while treading water, so they tried to keep things fresh with some extra story-lines. However, this filler content is comprised of a clique rivalry and a childhood sweetheart love story that feel like they have been pulled straight from a high school drama on the Disney Channel.

One thing the producers didn’t seem to realise was the importance of casting. Not including Gerard Butler, who acted comfortably, the cast didn’t seem experienced enough to make anything out of the badly-written script, and many of the actors, even the main star Weston, found themselves being overly-dramatic. As a whole, there is a strong sense that the film is taking itself a little bit too seriously.

The good moments, rare as they are, all seem to happen near the end of the film. There are some big character developments, and with the huge finale you will find yourself caring (even if just a little) for characters that just weren’t interesting for the first hour-and-a-half. But this great gasp for air at the end doesn’t save Chasing Mavericks from its inevitable fate.

by Tom Woodcock

Film Review: The Internship

Gary says:

The Internship reunites nobody’s favourite comedy duo, the stars of 2005’s Wedding Crashers, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, in the roles of Billy and Nick – two ageing watch salesmen who realise that time is against them when they’re made redundant and forced to find new jobs.

Billy takes to the internet in search of opportunities, before solving the age-old question of what happens when you type the word “google” into Google. No, it doesn’t break the internet; instead, it lands the pair an internship at the Silicon Valley giant. Aided by their younger, more tech-savvy teammates, the two then proceed to botch their way through a series of challenges – including a bizarre task where they’re judged on their Quidditch playing ability – all in the hope of earning a full-time role at the company.

The laughs come few and far between and, when they do finally arrive, they’re never really worth the wait. The film’s comedy highlight is a cheesy, slapstick moment which sees Billy throw a slice of pizza that hits a fellow intern in the face. Most attempts at humour fail to produce so much as a titter, and some viewers may have trouble sleeping after sitting through Anchorman star Will Ferrell’s nightmarishly unfunny cameo as Nick’s creepy, bed-salesman brother-in-law.

The Internship’s opening scene sees the two protagonists driving a car and singing along to Alanis Morissette’s nineties anthem, Ironic. It’s a fitting soundtrack to a film that preaches the importance of change and keeping with the times, all whilst starring two ancient relics who trudge their way through the same-old comedy narrative that moviegoers have paid to sit through hundreds of times before.

Tom says:

Shawn Levy succeeds in creating the longest advertisement since Michael Bay’s series of Chevrolet commercials with The Internship, a two-hour long promo for Google, starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson as two out-of-the-loop salesmen that get a chance to work for the world’s largest search-engine.

Having just lost their jobs as watch-salesmen, Billy McMahon (Vince Vaughn) and Nick Campbell (Owen Wilson) stumble upon an opportunity to reconnect with the modern world and apply for an internship at Google. Billy and Nick are not the only interns, however, as they are thrust into a huge crowd of incredibly stereotypical and unrealistic characters, such as the parentally-pressured Asian guy, the socially-incapable genius and Hollywood’s favourite portrayal of a “geek”: the attractive girl with thick-rimmed glasses. What follows is a series of five tedious tasks created to see if the interns are worthy of working at Google. Tasks such as: finding a coding bug, working a help-desk and creating an app. It really is as thrilling as it sounds.

Those expecting to see the same comedic chemistry between Vaughn and Wilson as seen in Wedding Crashers are going to be sorely disappointed as the mere handful of gags are submerged under wave after wave of Google-love. The writers clearly wanted us to know how fun and relaxing it is to work for Google, be it due to the free food, the nap area or the volleyball court, they pushed the point so far forward that it begins to feel like a recruitment video.

With little-to-no likeable characters, empty “geek” humour to rival The Big Bang Theory and constant Google adoration, The Internship feels like a monotonous piece of propaganda for a company that needs no publicity.

by Gary Woodcock & Tom Woodcock

Film Review: Hummingbird

Always the anti-hero, Jason Statham is back again to clean up the streets in Steven Knight’s Hummingbird, the story of a now-homeless war veteran who turns vigilante after his fellow street-dweller Isabel is murdered. Unfortunately for Knight, the plot is anything but killer.

Jason Statham plays Jason Statham Joseph Smith, an ex-Royal Marine living on the streets while on the run from the Military Court for committing a heinous act in Afghanistan. As we were introduced to Smith, with his long dirty hair and grimy tracksuit, I thought to myself: “Finally! A Jason Statham film where he isn’t smartly dressed and rich – or bald!” and when the two cockney gangsters started pummelling him: “And he doesn’t know how to fight!” Well I soon felt like an idiot for thinking that would be the case because not 5 minutes later he just so happens to stumble into the house of a very wealthy photographer, who also, coincidentally, is out of town for months. And the first thing he does when he breaks in? He shaves his head and puts on a suit – damn it. Well there’s still the lack of fighting ability, right? Nope! By shaving his head, Statham pulls some sort of reverse-Samson and never gets hit by a single punch, kick or bullet in the remainder of the film. This is the exact type of role that I’m bored of Statham playing. I would be much more interested in seeing The Adventures of Hobo Statham but, as in a lot of his other films, he always finds a way to become the perfect street-fighting action hero.

Well he’s not entirely perfect. One thing that did stop Hummingbird from being a total disaster is the way that it shows Smith’s damaged mind. Occasionally Smith will experience surreal, sometimes disturbing, visions and flashbacks, such as the vision of a man hanging by a noose with a bag on his head or the imaginary hummingbirds flying around his bedroom. I found these dream-like elements to be an entertaining way to show Smith’s state of mind and how his days in the war still affect him now. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen frequently enough, as most plot elements – including avenging Isabel, which I assumed was the main storyline – is pushed aside to make way for what I believe to be the most ridiculous part of the film: his relationship with a nun named Cristina.

Cristina, played by Agata Buzek, is a sex attack victim who turned to the sisterhood at a young age after being raped 17 times by her ballet instructor. She met Smith while serving food to the homeless on the streets of London and, when Smith luckily becomes wealthy, he decides to thank her by giving her £500. Now, bearing in mind that, at this point, Smith has made it his aim to avenge Isabel, he seems to lose all chivalry as he attempts to woo Cristina by buying her a dress and inviting her to a gallery of male nudity photos. And, of course, it works, because nothing would get a sexually-abused nun to give up her lifelong vow of abstinence than a date with Hobo Statham In A Suit in a museum of dick-pics. It’s one of the most ridiculous and pointless displays of masculinity and vanity that I have seen in a long time.

Not everything is terrible, however. I can’t fault the camera-work, fight choreography or psychological aspects of the film, and despite not being the greatest actor, Statham certainly knows how to play these kinds of roles. But unfortunately all of this does not save Hummingbird from being an unfocused mixture of happenstance and needless male prowess.

by Tom Woodcock

Film Review: Despicable Me 2

Gru and his lovable army of yellow minions are back in this fun sequel to 2010’s Despicable Me – which, although enjoyable, struggles at times to emerge from the dastardly shadow of its predecessor.

Once sour-faced and bitter at the world, Gru (brilliantly voiced by Steve Carell) has now completely renounced his evil ways in favour of a sweet and innocent life making jams and jellies. However, when a mystery bad guy gets his evil hands on a chemical compound that transforms cute bunnies into killing machines, Gru is kidnapped and submerged into the underwater headquarters of the Anti-Villain League, led by the unfortunately-named Silas Ramsbottom (voiced by Alan Partridge himself, Steve Coogan), to reluctantly provide his unique insight and diabolical expertise.

Most of the familiar faces from the first film are here such as the decrepit Dr. Nefario (voiced by Russell Brand) and Gru’s three adopted children – Margo, Edith and the adorable Agnes – to whom he has become a doting and loving father. Disappointingly though, there is no return for the hilarious Jason Segel as Vector, Gru’s tech-geek, lunar-theft rival; who was perhaps the best and most despicable character in the original.

Instead, several new characters are introduced that, sadly, struggle to provide the same direction or magnitude that Vector brought to Despicable Me. Kristen Wiig, who voiced the detestable and plump orphanage owner Miss Hattie in the original, returns to lend her vocal talents to a different character – Gru’s AVL kidnapper and new love interest, Agent Lucy Wilde. Although she’s likable enough, Wilde is anything but wild. She’s far too pleasant and brings out a much softer and less entertaining side to Gru.

Part of what made the original so entertaining and unique was that it told the story from the villain’s perspective – and it would’ve been nice to see Gru return to his old, reprehensible self for a while in Despicable Me 2. So it’s a shame that the most terrible act he commits in the sequel is throwing a child’s Frisbee down a sewage drain. However, despite becoming more loveable than despicable, he is still a very funny character. One particular sequence where Gru attaches a sensor to his belt, and is thrusting his crotch at objects in an attempt to find the compound, had the audience buckling over with laughter. The marvellous minions, who have been given their own spin-off movie set for release sometime next year, also have a much larger role in the sequel and provide some excellent comedy moments.

Unfortunately though, Despicable Me 2 doesn’t live up to its name, as Gru and his crew are much too nice. It’s still fairly entertaining and kids will absolutely love it, but it doesn’t have the first film’s universal appeal. Older fans of Despicable Me won’t be feeling over the moon at the lack of diabolic schemes and dark humour that made the original so special.

by Gary Woodcock

Film Review: This Is The End

Tom says:

James Franco throws a party of biblical proportions in directors Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s first venture into horror comedy. In true Goldberg/Rogen fashion, expect to see familiar faces from both Superbad and Pineapple Express, as well as many other celebrity appearances, in this apocalyptic cameo-fest that is hilarious from start to finish.

Forget high-school house parties and drug deal getaways, Goldberg and Rogen leave no expenses spared in This Is The End, a tale not restricted to our dimension. After arriving in Los Angeles to visit his good friend Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel is invited to a house party hosted by none other than James Franco, who has just moved into the neighbourhood. On arrival, the place is packed full of famous faces. In the same style as the sitcom Extras, the actors in this film are playing over-the-top caricatures of themselves, such as the overly-loving Jonah Hill, the foul-mouthed Emma Watson and, best of all, the coke-fiend Michael Cera who definitely deserves his own film.

Many of these faces are not around for long, however, as a giant sinkhole opens up outside Franco’s house, swallowing dozens of party guests. The film then takes a turn down the end-of-the-world route which would feel unimaginative and overdone if it was not for the opportunities for comedy that it creates. As with Goldberg and Rogen’s previous films, This Is The End features the same loose-scripted, improvised humour that manifests itself when you put people like James Franco, Danny McBride and Jonah Hill in the same room and, with judgement day happening right outside the door, that happens a lot.

The lack of creativity story-wise slightly lets it down, but that is easily excusable as the non-stop laughs more than make up for it. This Is The End may be the best comedy you see all year.

Gary says:

Evan Goldberg and his hilarious writing partner Seth Rogen, the comedy minds behind the excellent Pineapple Express and Superbad, leap on to the apocalyptic cinema bandwagon and ride it straight to hell with their devilishly funny directorial debut, This is the End.

A packed party at James Franco’s ultra-cool Los Angeles home is the setting, as the world begins to fall apart – dragging doomed celebrities into a fiery sinkhole. The special effects team demonstrate that the devil really is in the detail, with impressive CGI demons and realistic gore affording the film with some truly blockbuster moments.

This is the End’s main strength is undoubtedly the incredibly likeable cast. Rogen and Franco continue their endearing bromance last seen in Pineapple Express, with Danny McBride, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Jay Baruchel also portraying fictional, and quite often bizarre, versions of themselves. There are also plenty of great cameos; particularly from Channing Tatum and the typically innocent Michael Cera who, in this world, is actually an unruly cocaine addict. The film’s bright white climax also provides several surprises that make it very difficult to leave the cinema without an enormous smile across your face.

If you are easily offended, this is not the apocalypse film for you; with a large portion of This is the End’s more lowbrow moments coming from jokes involving the cast’s various bodily fluids. However, this is not to suggest it’s a film void of intelligent humour, as the highly improvised dialogue provides plenty of witty spontaneity.

If you can stomach the gross-out moments, This is the End is a brilliant horror comedy which, for fans of Goldberg and Rogen’s previous work, is completely unmissable.

by Tom Woodcock & Gary Woodcock

Film Review: Stand Up Guys

Fisher Stevens’ sophomore feature-length, Stand Up Guys, is a bitter-sweet and sentimental story about an ex-stickup man trying to get the best out of the remainder of his life, after being released from prison to find out his old partner has been assigned to kill him.

Valentine, or Val as he likes to be known, played by Al Pacino, has just been released from prison after 28 years, which he served for accidentally killing mob-boss Claphands’ son. Waiting to meet him at the gates of the prison is his old crime-buddy Doc, played by Christopher Walken. What Val soon finds out is that Claphands has told Doc that, in order to save his own life, he must kill Val. And so Val, Doc and their old wheelguy Hirsch, played by Alan Arkin, who they pick up from a nursing home, go on a series of escapades in order to feel alive again before that dreadful moment.

This film is at its best when it is serious. There are moments, in cafés and on late-night strolls through the city, when Val and Doc take the time to talk about past jobs and the lives they used to lead. And I don’t think these moments would work as well with any random old guys playing them. They work because it’s Al Pacino and Christopher Walken, two men that have lived so many lives on screen, two men that, just like Val and Doc, are in the twilight of their careers. These moments work so well because the roles of Val and Doc are so similar to the roles that they’ve played throughout their career, that it almost feels like it’s Pacino and Walken reminiscing about their life’s work, and it makes the hair stand up at the back of your neck.

Overall, the script is not that great but, as you would expect, Pacino, Walken and Arkin make it work – mostly. With such vast experience between them, the trio can pretty much make any character seem believable. But one thing that, if written badly, won’t work well – great actor or not – is comedy. Unfortunately, this film is not very funny. Contrasting those great sentimental moments I mentioned is terribly sad moments, such as the scene where you see Al Pacino sat on a hospital bed with a massive erection. And I say you see Al Pacino, not Val, because it’s Al Pacino. It’s Michael Corleone, Tony Montana and Vincent Hanna. And he’s sat there pretending that he has a massive erection, while Christopher Walken stands and watches the doctor assess it. This is not what I expected such great actors to be doing near the end of their careers, and I don’t know whether to be annoyed at them for taking the roles, or the writer for having the audacity of writing scenes like this.

With such sombre and heartbreaking highs and, for different reasons, sombre and heartbreaking lows, Stand Up Guys is a very polarizing film. But if you choose to forget the middle section, where sincerity is replaced with childish humour, and where Val’s imminent death seems to be forgotten, you might actually find that this film is quite touching.

by Tom Woodcock