Friday, May 31, 2013

Deft Illusion: Now You See Me

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Here's the thing about magicians: They're kind of insufferable. Either they take themselves waaaay too seriously, or they're irreverent, but come off as thinking they're smarter than the rest of the world. (OK. Maybe there are only two magicians who fall into the latter category.)

And here's the thing about movies about magicians: Magic loses its, well, magic, when it isn't seen live. The minute TV or movies come into play, there's none of the "Wow! How did they just do that?!" wonder because so much can easily be done via editing, camera trickery, or just plain special effects.

Now You See Me is filled with insufferable magicians, and no real magic. And yet...I kind of liked it.

Maybe I should qualify that. Mark Ruffalo is in it, and I will like, at least a little bit, anything he's in. I can't help it. I'm flesh and blood, people! But he's not the only thing likable about the movie.

The other things are, alas, not the four magicians at the center. When the movie begins, they are the fairly well-known street magician, J. Daniel Atlas, (Jesse Eisenberg); a washed up "mentalist," (Woody Harrelson); a nightclub magician whose act includes a tank of piranhas, (Isla Fisher); and a pickpocket and break-in artist who deflects from his crimes by doing well-worn tricks, like bending spoons with his mind, (Dave Franco).

They're brought together by a mysterious stranger, and before you can say abracadabra, they've become The Four Horsemen (because The Three Horsemen and One Horsewoman was too cumbersome, I guess), a magic act performing for a huge crowd in Las Vegas.

During the course of this show, they (appear to) rob a bank by teleporting an audience member into a bank vault in Paris, opening an air shaft in the vault, that then sucks all the money out of it and into the Las Vegas theater, where it rains down on the audience.

Illusion? Or actual robbery? The fact that a vault of money in Paris does indeed go missing the same time the show is going on leads the FBI--and Interpol!--to believe the magicians--somehow--robbed the bank, and they're taken into custody, where they are questioned by an FBI agent reluctantly assigned to the case, (Mark Ruffalo), and a French Interpol agent, (Melanie Laurent), who, well, kinda digs magic.

Also in the audience is legendary magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley, (Morgan Freeman), who hopes to expose the magicians' secrets, and make a ton of money in the process, because apparently there's a huge market for magic debunking DVDs.

Alas, the FBI doesn't have enough to hold The Four Horseman, and they're set free to move on to their next act. But not without the agents and debunkers hot on their trail.

Now, there's some fun to be had in the moments where the Horsemens' tricks are explained, because they're clever set-ups. But there's a bit of frustration in knowing that much of it could never actually be done in real life. And when it comes to their stage tricks, it's all heavily CG reliant, and therefore not really very magical.

But it you cast that aside, and concentrate on the caper aspect of it all, it becomes more enjoyable, because, let's face it. The robberies pulled off in an average caper movie could never really happen in real life, either. It's just fun seeing how a big, elaborate crime can work in the world of movie make-believe. And if the audience in the preview screening is any indication, people love--to the point of screaming about it--when movie magicians give tons of money to their fake audiences.

And while the magicians are the heroes of the movie, they're not actually in it that much. I don't know if it's because trying to give real depth and personality to four magicians is just too cumbersome a task to attempt for a caper movie, or because the personalities they are given are, for the most part, too annoying to showcase for long.

Instead, more time is spent with the agents trying ensnare them, and while the growing relationship between the FBI and Interpol agents is, admittedly, a bit hokey at times, Ruffalo and Laurent are good enough actors that the eye-rolling was minimal.

I'll give no spoilers, but it's obvious that Now You See Me wants to be one of those, "WHAT?? I need to watch that whole thing again, now!" movies, but frankly, I don't think its tricks would hold up to a second viewing. Instead, take it for what it is, a simple but deft illusion that, were you to see it done again, would lose what little magic it had.

Way Past The Honeymoon Stage: Before Midnight

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I'm going to come right out and say it: If you haven't seen Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, do not--DO NOT--go see Before Midnight. It will be a miserable experience. You don't even need to continue reading this review. The decision is made. You're not going to go see Before Midnight. Go see France Ha. Or heck, how about Fast and Furious 6? Or better yet, you can watch the first two movies and THEN go see Before Midnight.

But even if you HAVE seen the first two movies, be prepared, as you may still find Before Midnight to be a miserable experience.

I'm roughly the same age as the characters of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), which means I was a young romantic full of philosophical life questions when I saw Before Sunrise, and a heartbroken and slightly jaded thirtysomething when I saw its sequel, Before Midnight. It's a unique experience to see movie characters grow and change at the same rate and ways that you do, and that's why I will always appreciate these movies, even if I don't always love them.

Before Midnight picks up nine years after the last movie. As that one ended on a slightly ambiguous note--you don't know if they get together or not--it's slightly spoilery to reveal that, yes, they did get together, and they've been together ever since. (They are not, however, married, as I've seen reported in some stories about the movie.) Not only that, but they've got two kids--twin girls-- while Jesse is also father to a teenage boy, from a previous marriage.

The movie takes place during the last night of a summer vacation in Greece, and over the course of much conversation with friends they're vacationing with, and between Jesse and Celine, we learn what happened in those nine years since their reunion in Paris.

Nine years is way past the honeymoon phase of a relationship, and the wear and tear is showing in the fabric of Jesse and Celine's romance. Where the past two movies had the two of them essentially getting to know each other through conversation, this one shows that while they certainly know each other very well--in some cases too well, as aspects of the relationship have become routine--they can still be surprised by truths that are revealed.

When I saw the movie, I hadn't seen the second one since it came out in 2004, and it was about that long since I'd seen the first one. I will admit I found Before Midnight to be a bit of a chore to sit through. It's not an exaggeration to say the majority of the movie is Celine and Jesse arguing. And as true to life as that may be, it's still not exactly an enjoyable night at the movies.

But I didn't want this third entry in the series to sully my appreciation of the first two, so I went home and re-watched them. And it made me appreciate Before Midnight a bit more. When you see them close together, you are more able to recognize callbacks to previous conversations, and see how these callbacks are important to the characters. (The ending of Before Midnight involves a bit of storytelling by Jesse that is very similar to a conversation he had with Celine when he first met her on that train oh so many years ago.)

So, while I can't recommend Before Midnight as a standalone movie, I can say that, as an entry in the series, it is an important, if not exactly enjoyable, entry. And I hope against hope that it is not the last visit we have with Jesse and Celine, and that in nine years from now, I'll be back here reviewing Before Dusk.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Luminous Gerwig: Frances Ha

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Frances Ha, the latest collaboration between director and writer Noah Baumbach, and actress and writer Greta Gerwig, played the San Francisco International Film festival earlier this month, and they were both in attendance for a Q&A after the screening. They spoke about their collaboration process--in which Gerwig did a lot of the writing solo--and how Baumbach approached directing her script. Interestingly, there wasn't a lot of on-set improvisation, as Baumbach prefers that everything be solid in the script beforehand. That approach is a lot more evident in his past collaborations with Wes Anderson, (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox), than it is in France Ha, which has a very low-budget, loose, and borderline mumblecore feel to it.

What the two of them didn't really discuss was their personal relationship. They are, in fact, a couple, and while that doesn't necessarily have any baring on the work they do together, I think in Frances Ha, it's very important.

The film is centered Frances (Gerwig), a post-college woman who's a bit adrift. She aspires to be a professional dancer, (modern dance is her form of choice), but doesn't get the breaks she hopes for with her company. She has a best friend, Sophie (played by Mickey Sumner, Sting's daughter), and theirs is one of those twentysomething friendships that has all the intensity of romance, while being strictly platonic. (It brought to mind the similarly-themed Walking and Talking, although the characters in that movie are slightly older.)

When Sophie decides to get serious with her boyfriend, the friendship starts to fracture, and this sends Frances into a bit of a tailspin, as she attempts to face adulthood alone.

Greta Gerwig is in every scene of this movie, which, if you're a Gerwig fan, is a good thing. She's always had a very quirky and engaging screen presence, and in every movie she's in, no matter how big or small the role, she stands out.

The movie's black and white photography, New York setting, and concentration on smart but neurotic white people may bring to mind the work of Woody Allen. And that's also where the relationship between Gerwig and Baumbach comes into play.

Allen's Annie Hall and Manhattan are both love letters to Diane Keaton--who he was romantically involved with for several years--and the city of New York. There's a similar love on display in Frances Ha. Gerwig has never looked more luminous in a movie, and her character is made to be very sympathetic, despite her some serious character flaws. It's not enough to say the camera loves her; it's very clear the man behind that camera does too.

At the festival's post-screening Q&A, Gerwig answered a question about the film's ultimate resolution, and I really wish I could quote her, but it's kind of a big spoiler. So I'll just paraphrase. Frances Ha isn't about huge triumphs. Instead, it's about how little life changes, and accepting some truths about yourself, can lead to tremendous happiness.