Now You See Me 2 (2016)

2017 #54
Jon M. Chu | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France* / English, Mandarin & Cantonese | 12 / PG-13

Now You See Me 2

Con thrillers are much like magic tricks: they set you up to expect one thing, then reveal something else was going on all along. The major difference is that, unlike most magic tricks, con thrillers eventually show you how it was done. So whoever came up with the idea of combining those two things into a movie where magicians use their skills to pull off elaborate heists was practically a genius in my book — what a magnificent marriage of ideas! Unfortunately, the resulting films — Now You See Me and this sequel — aren’t much good at magic, routinely substituting CGI for the tricks, and they’re not great at cons either, substituting a headlong rush and a barrage of twists for a plot that hangs together. And that’s why these films are fundamentally empty: they don’t understand that the impressiveness of both magic and a reveal-based narratives lies in doing it for real, not in pretending to do it.

Nonetheless, I quite enjoyed the first movie — in spite of its flaws, it was a daft bit of fun. The sequel (which misses a trick from the off by not being titled Now You Don’t) is too stupid to even manage that level of entertainment, instead devolving into a morass of nonsensicality. It’s not even that its plot has zero credibility as a plausible story — it’s the very way it’s put together as a film. Scenes feel disconnected from one another. Bits within them seem to have been snipped out. Sequences of varying scales seem to have been created from the notion of “what if we had a scene like this?” with no thought given to if it fits in the film, or even if it makes sense within itself. I’m left wondering if the movie had to be heavily trimmed for time; or did it never make any sense and this is the best they could stitch together?

The cast try to understand the plot...

Some spectacle-driven movies can drift by without too much sense, but a con movie — where a major component is the explanation — is not one of them. Indeed, Now You See Me 2 endeavours to make sense. It tells you there was a twist; a clever plan; that someone pulled the wool over someone else’s eyes. Sometimes it does even pretend to explain how they supposedly achieved that… but it doesn’t actually explain it. It tries to just sweep you along in a whirlwind of “surprise!” moments. That might be fine if you don’t care how it hangs together, but if you pause to consider who knew what when, and who plotted what and how… well, the film doesn’t want to give you a chance to think about any of that. That just contributes to my belief that, if you did stop and try to piece it all together, you’d discover it doesn’t actually make sense.

A few minor positives come from the new cast members. Lizzy Caplan is really good, a funny addition to the team, and Daniel Radcliffe entertains as the smiling villain, although thanks to the flurry of reveals he doesn’t get as much screen time as he deserves. Actors like Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine feel like they’re phoning it in for a paycheque. Well, sometimes a movie’s worth doing if it, say, pays for a nice house, eh Michael?

Watching it doesn’t bring any such benefits, though, so don’t bother.

2 out of 5

* I had this down as a USA/UK/China/Canada co-production. IMDb now says USA/France. Other places say just USA. One of the main production companies is from Hong Kong, according to IMDb. So who the hell knows? ^

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

aka Hauru no ugoku shiro

2016 #193
Hayao Miyazaki | 114 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | U / PG

Howl's Moving Castle

Director Hayao Miyazaki’s first film after he won the Oscar for Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle is another fantasy adventure about a young girl encountering a magical world. Well, I’m bending that similarity a bit — the heroine is considerably older than the one in Spirited Away (a young woman rather than a girl) and she already lives in a world where magic exists (but she doesn’t seem to have encountered much of it).

Adapted from a novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle concerns Sophie Hatter (voiced in the English version by Emily Mortimer), who works in her family’s hat shop in a fictional Mitteleuropean country in a steampunk-y past (anime really gets away with launching you into these subgenre-mash-up worlds in a way no Western work ever dares, doesn’t it?) After a brief chance encounter with famed wizard Howl (Christian Bale), Sophie is attacked by the wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) and transformed into an old woman (now voiced by Jean Simmons). She goes hunting for Howl’s titular abode/transportation, wherein she meets sentient fire Calcifer (Billy Crystal), Howl’s young assistant Markl (Josh Hutcherson), and alongside them gets swept into a brewing war with a neighbouring country.

Frankly, the plot is a bit messy, flitting from one situation to another in a way that feels in need of some streamlining. The climax is particularly hurried, underpowered, and under-explained. For example, there’s a missing prince who suddenly turns up to resolve the whole war storyline — a prince who was only mentioned in passing in some background dialogue nearly two hours earlier.

Running up that hill, no problem

However, much of the film is enjoyable in a moment-to-moment sense. The affable characters are quite delightful to get to know even as they’re getting to know each other, and there are some magical sequences. Plus it’s all beautifully designed and animated, as you’d expect from Studio Ghibli, though we should never take such achievements for granted. The English dub is pretty good too, benefitting from Disney picking it up and getting a starry cast, and no doubt the direction of Pete “Monsters Inc / Up / Inside Out” Docter and Rick Dempsey. No disrespect to the professional voice actors who work in anime day-in day-out, but they often perform with a certain stylisation that isn’t always naturalistic.

Apparently Howl’s Moving Castle is Miyazaki’s favourite from his own work, probably because some of its themes (anti-war sentiment, a positive depiction of old age, the value of compassion) are close to his heart. While those are worthwhile topics, they sit alongside the aspects mentioned above as good parts that aren’t wrapped up into a whole that equals their sum. But even if it’s not Ghibli’s finest work, it’s still a likeable fantasy adventure.

4 out of 5

Howl’s Moving Castle was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Studio Ghibli’s first TV series, Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter, is available on Amazon Prime in the UK and USA (and presumably elsewhere too) from today.

The Last Dragonslayer (2016)

2016 #195
Jamie Stone | 101 mins | download (HD) | 2.00:1 | UK / English

The Last DragonslayerI’m not sure whether to commend or condemn Sky1 for having the balls to schedule a light family-friendly fantasy drama against Doctor Who on Christmas Day — that seems like damning yourself to low ratings. But then Sky never exactly stands at the pinnacle of the charts, and, in the catch-up-driven landscape of modern TV, does it even matter? I mean, as if to show their disregard for schedules, the premiere broadcast was actually at 3am the night before.

Anyway: adapted from the novel by Jasper Fforde (the first in a series, as will eventually become clear), The Last Dragonslayer is the story of Jennifer Strange (Ellise Chappell), a teenage orphan living in the Ununited Kingdom (a name never uttered on screen, perhaps for fear of looking like political commentary in the current climate). This is an alternate-world Britain where magic exists but is on the wane — it’s powered by dragons, but they’re dying out; besides which, the public have become more enamoured with things like technology and supermarkets. Adopted by the kindly wizard Zambini (Andrew Buchan), Jennifer learns about the importance of magic, and the importance of dragons to magic, which is a bit of a problem when the country’s seers have a mass vision that the last dragon will be slain on Sunday, and shortly thereafter Jennifer discovers her long-prophesied role as the last official dragonslayer.

Jennifer StrangeAbout now you’re probably thinking The Last Dragonslayer is completely derivative of every other major young-adult fantasy franchise of the last… well, forever. It’s hard to deny that the plot is, at least in its broadest thematic strokes, a pretty familiar affair. What makes the enterprise worthwhile is its humorous execution. This isn’t a spoof of the genre, more a satirical mash-up of familiar fantasy building blocks and modern life. So, for example, the king’s chief knight is also a pop star, followed around by a gaggle of adoring female fans; when Jennifer finds herself in need of money, her dragonslaying assistant signs a sponsorship deal with soft drink brand Fizzipop that requires her to film an advert, make at least two promotional appearances, and wear a branded T-shirt until the dragon is slain. It’s this whimsical slant on our world that is arguably Dragonslayer’s most successful aspect.

Another would be its characters. Chappell makes Jennifer a capable hero without having to resort to the kind of self-serious moping that dogs so many current young adult leads (Katniss, I’m looking at you). Buchan also gets to move away from the moping that’s so often called for in series like Broadchurch, making the affectionate, skilful Zambini an easily likeable character within just a few deceptively simple scenes. Without meaning to spoil the plot, he’s not in it enough. The slack is taken up by the likes of Pauline Collins and Ricky Tomlinson as a pair of batty magicians, Matt “Toast” Berry as the immature monarch, and Anna Chancellor as the smarmy corporate head of supermarket giant Stuff Co. The only weak like for me was Richard E. Grant as the voice of Maltcaisson, the last dragon — it just didn’t feel like he had the vocal presence to be playing a huge majestic beast. But not everyone can be John Hurt or Benedict Cumberbatch, I suppose.

Dragon breathI guess The Last Dragonslayer’s irreverent, sometimes silly tone won’t be to all tastes, but I enjoyed it very much. Unsurprisingly (all things considered) the book is the first in a series, and so not everything is fully resolved by the film’s end. Let’s hope that, in spite of their scheduling, it’s done well enough for Sky that sequels are forthcoming.

4 out of 5

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

2016 #151
Woody Allen | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13*

Magic in the MoonlightWoody Allen’s 44th film is a Sunday-afternoon-style period comedy, which nonetheless manages to touch on issues of existentialism and the meaning of life. If that sounds terribly Deep, don’t worry: Magic in the Moonlight may tickle your fancy, but it’s unlikely to tax your brain.

Colin Firth stars as Stanley Crawford, a genius illusionist and renowned debunker of spiritualists, who’s recruited by fellow magician and childhood friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) to expose a young ‘psychic’ named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who has enthralled a rich family in the South of France, but whose methods have Howard stumped. Despite his unconcealed cynicism, Stanley too struggles to find the truth, but he does find himself increasingly smitten with Sophie…

After this setup the plot is no great shakes (the one twist is eminently guessable), but the rest of the film is a romantic confection made up of sunny Côte d’Azur locations, pretty vintage costumes, gently witty dialogue, and quality actors gamely playing along. Firth is hardly stretched as a romantic lead — indeed, he has one scene that is virtually lifted wholesale from Pride & Prej — but Stanley’s pompousness and sarcastic cynicism gives the role a little bite. Emma Stone’s big eyes do half the work for her, though she still gives it her all in a way that makes her character and performance endearing. Eileen Atkins, as Firth’s beloved aunt, and McBurney get halfway decent supporting parts, though there’s little time for the rest of the cast, especially Marcia Gay Harden, whose role as Stone’s mother is virtually nonexistent.

Magic with daylightThe most pleasing aspect is probably Darius Khondji’s photography. He emphasises the region’s beautiful golden light, with saturated colours emphasised by deep shadows, to create a warm and idyllic atmosphere, further accentuated by the twinkling blue ocean and stunning locales. It’s exemplary work that will likely make you long for distant times and places.

It may ultimately be a slight work, then, but it is still a delightfully pleasant way to spend 90-something minutes.

4 out of 5

* for “a brief suggestive comment, and smoking throughout”. So, it’s a PG, really. ^

Now You See Me (2013)

2015 #79
Louis Leterrier | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 12 / PG-13

Louis Leterrier, helmer of the Clash of the Titans remake everyone would rather forget and the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie everyone does forget, directs this magic-inspired thriller — a film all about misdirection that pretty successfully pulls off one of its own.

Four low-key magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco) are brought together by a mysterious, unseen other to stage a massive Las Vegas show, in which they teleport an audience member to a bank in Paris and rob it. But they didn’t, of course, because magic isn’t real. Or did they? So begins a cat-and-mouse tale, as the FBI (represented by Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol (represented by Mélanie Laurent) chase their ever-mounting criminal campaign, followed by a magic debunker (Morgan Freeman) and big-money investor (Michael Caine).

Really, the whole film works on many of the same principles as a magic show: it’s there to dazzle you, confound you, make you guess how the tricks were done. That there’s eventually a reveal and a twist is an end unto itself, regardless of the believability of the plot or the depth of the characters (neither of which you get in most magic shows, of course). Personally, I love magic, and I love finding out the truth behind it, so both of those boxes were ticked for me. OK, this isn’t real magic, a fact only emphasised by an over-reliance on CGI at times; but it plays by enough of the right rules to work for most of its running time.

That seems to have made it pretty divisive, however. Reading online comments, it’s a real love-it-or-hate-it movie, in quite a literal sense — some people properly despise it. Their criticisms aren’t wholly unfounded: the characters are thin; at times it’s unclear which side we’re meant to be following or most invested in; the use of CGI in the magic somewhat undermines it; a good deal of the plot stretches credibility. Conversely, the credibility is questionable from very early on, so the counterargument goes that it’s the whole MO of the film — you don’t complain about Iron Man not being possible in real life, do you?

The biggest flaw is perhaps that of the characters and the issue of whose side we’re meant to be on: at times it seems like we’re meant to consider the magicians the good guys; at others, the agents chasing them. Does the film want to have it both ways? It can’t, either because that’s never possible or because Leterrier and co aren’t up to pulling it off. Nonetheless, there’s not enough time invested in any of the characters. When at the end one of the magicians comments that they’ve “had an incredible year together”, we just have to take them at their word because we’ve not seen any of it, not even a montage. That preserves the film’s mysteries, but when every character is hiding something — or if they’re not, we need to suspect they might be — it’s hard to relate to any of them. For me this isn’t a huge issue — I can live without likeable or engaging characters when the film has other stuff going on — but I know it’s a deal-breaker for some.

If nothing else, the film is slickly made, the camerawork and editing swish and flashy in a good way. Again, some people don’t approve of this aspect, but I don’t quite understand people who criticise it. I don’t mean people who criticise the film for just being those things, people who want it to offer more in terms of character or plot because they think it’s lacking — that’s a fair enough accusation. But why is a slick/swish/flashy style inherently bad in and of itself? Such a style certainly fits the magic world. I guess it’s just not to everyone’s taste.

Ultimately, Now You See Me is no more than an entertaining thrill ride; the kind of film that races breathlessly ahead so as you don’t have time to think too deeply about its mysteries, or its plot holes. Clearly it’s an experience you have to get on board with or you’ll loathe it, but, personally, I was entertained and thrilled.

4 out of 5

Jesse Eisenberg’s new movie, American Ultra, is flopping in the US now and out in UK cinemas from September 4th.