Now You See Me

Now You See Me might well have come out of a focus group dedicated to creating the film plot most appealing to me. I love a good heist movie. Scratch that: I love any heist movie; it doesn’t need to be good. If someone says, “Here’s the plan,” and then proceeds to explain in voiceover while we watch the plan being carried out then, thank you very much, you’ve got my money. Add illusionists to the mix and you’re just testing the limits of my excitability.

Now You See Me - Jesse Eisenberg

Like any good magic show, Now You See Me is energetic, stylish and funny. There’s a great mix of professional rivalry, romantic tension and camaraderie between the four illusionists/bank robbers. If anything it could have done with even more of their banter rather than so much focus on the lawman on their case. Jessie Eisenberg returns to the persona of an arrogant genius that worked so well in The Social Network, only this time he’s a little more charming.

The plot is a relatively straightforward thriller, presenting a relatively small number of people as the potential real identity of the shadowy figure pulling all the strings. It’s not hard to figure out which one of them it must be just to keep the ending interesting, but it’s executed pretty well. The only major flaw is an over-reliance on explaining what’s going on rather than revealing enough clues to work things out for yourself. I don’t think that should ruin the film for anyone, but it gives a general sense that the filmmakers expected to be smarter than their audience.

 

The Internship

I’ll start by admitting that The Internship may not be a movie that most people will want to see. The trailers haven’t done much to convince anyone that it’s worth their time and money. The stars, Vince Vaughan and Owen Wilson, haven’t been at their best for a few years now, and that’s if you were even a fan of them in the first place. The concept — two middle-ages salesman out of touch with the modern world compete against genius twenty-somethings for a job at Google — reads like little more than a sales pitch.

Still, as a Googler, and a person with a relatively high tolerance for mediocre comedy, I was planning to see it anyway. I was pretty pleased then when the opportunity presented itself to see the film on Google’s time and money instead of my own. We rented a screen at the Odeon on Leicester Square this afternoon and packed a few hundred Googlers in to see it ahead of the official UK release tomorrow.

The Internship

I wasn’t alone in going in with low expectations. I also think I wasn’t alone in coming out relatively pleased as a result. My reservations about it were all borne out. It feels like it was made by an eager fan of Old School or Wedding Crashers who wanted to reproduce the style of those films without really understanding what made them so good. There’s an element of self-parody to it, of Vince Vaughan doing his best impersonation of Vince Vaughan. And while I’ve spent the last six years building up a tolerance for enthusiastic promotion of Google products, I don’t believe a feature film is the ideal medium for it.

Still, I’m generally fond of Vaughan and Wilson, and they managed a few more funny moments than the trailers would have you expect. There’s nothing spectacular here, but it’s sufficiently amusing that I don’t feel my time was wasted. There are probably a few lines that will make it into the parlance of the office.

The Internship (bikes)

I expected a total catastrophe of a film, but what I saw was just a poor example of a style of film I generally like. Its structure is formulaic but with a bit of work it could have served well enough to make a decent film around it. Many scenes look like the actors were given the gist of what should happen and told to make it funny. If they’d been given longer to produce more of the kind of ad-lib gems that Anchorman is packed with, or if the writers did some work up-front, there would have been more laughs.

There’s a threshold in comedy, what I’m going to call the funny bar. It works like this: if you’re above the funny bar your audience will be enjoying themselves and on your side. This makes them more willing to laugh at something that’s maybe not quite as funny as it ought to have have been. If you’re below the funny bar, the audience is annoyed at you and having a bad time. Everything that’s sort-of-funny suddenly turns into not-at-all-funny, or even annoying and stupid. Seeing The Internship with fellow Googlers set the mood such that the movie passed the funny bar, but I wouldn’t bet on it getting there all on its own. We got some extra laughs from depictions of Google that were amusingly inaccurate or, sometimes, amusingly (and unintentionally) accurate. Most people won’t have the same experience.

Revenge of the Nerds

I’d feel a whole lot better about the nerds’ victory against the jocks at the end of Revenge of the Nerds if the nerd fraternity were not made up entirely of sex criminals. And if the movie were funny. This is not Anthony Edwards’s finest hour. I am impressed that he grew up to be a fighter pilot though.

Anthony Edwards in Revenge of the Nerds

Behind the Candelabra

Behind the Candelabra is a really endearing, often funny, and beautifully stylish film about a couple of surprisingly normal people in an extraordinary setting. It’s based on the autobiography of one Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon) who, for five years in the late 1970s, was the lover of Liberace (Michael Douglas, newly returned to cinema after a recent bout with cancer).

Liberace

What struck me most about this film was how human the two central characters were. Despite their bizarre millionaire Las Vegas lifestyle, the promiscuity, drug use, cosmetic surgery and the difficulties of being a gay public figure in the 70s, their concerns are ultimately pretty similar to those of any other couple. One of my favourite scenes had them more or less just sitting in the living room watching TV and enjoying each other’s company. It’s a great balance against the fabulous glitz of Liberace’s Vegas shows, and it made me feel like they could have ultimately been happy if the bullshit of fame and money was stripped away. That’s the message of the film, and of most celebrity biopics I guess.

For a story that ends with a death from AIDS1 there are a surprising number of laughs. Rob Lowe’s portrayal of cosmetic surgeon Jack Startz is fantastic, with mush of the credit going to the make-up department too. His face is so sculpted he can hardly form a facial expression, and he ends up looking like a cross between Michael Jackson and the Johnny Depp incarnation of Willy Wonka. The scene in which Liberace asks him to do some work on Thorson, with Thorson listening in quiet terror, is a gem.

Scott Bakula

There’s some fun to be had in trying to recognise some of the familiar faces behind make-up and moustaches too. Scott Bakula in particular should think about keeping the look he’s got in this film, which I would characterise as “if Sam Elliot were a Beatle”.

  1. That’s not a spoiler. It happened nearly 30 years ago.

Much Ado About Nothing

I’ve written a lot less on this blog over the last few weeks. Partly that’s due to having had less time to write than usual, and partly due to having less time to watch films. In either case it was mostly down to the distraction of having recently got married. So what better way to return to the film blog than with a 400-year-old comedy about marriage?

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing is on very limited release, but as usual you can find it at a reasonable number of London cinemas anyway. We found it at the Curzon in Soho, a cinema I’ve been aware of for years but which I’d never actually been to before.

The film will primarily attract Joss Whedon fans at first, not only because he adapted, produced and directed it and composed the score, but also because the cast overflows with alumni of Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Avengers Assemble. It would be a shame if it never found an audience outside of the Whedon faithful though. It’s an excellent Shakespearian adaptation, probably the best since Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

As with any centuries-old work there’s the potential to have trouble with the unfamiliar dialog, but the romantic comedy plot is straightforward enough that no-one should have trouble following it, even if you may miss a few of the details. I struggled a bit to figure out who was who at the beginning but had no trouble following the rest of the film despite that. For me, oddly for a fan of verbal wit, most of the big laughs came from physical comedy. Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk are hilarious for every second of their screen time, but — in terms of comedy and otherwise — Amy Acker is the person who really steals the show.

Iron Man 3

Iron ManIn Iron Man 3, Shane Black has fixed what was always broken in the franchise.

The big problem with Iron Man 2 for me was that there was too much Iron Man and not enough Tony Stark. As soon as Robert Downey Jr is hidden away inside that metal suit the personality evaporates and the movie loses all of its charm. They put Downey Jr’s name on the poster, but the computer graphics wizards are the star of the film, and they don’t have nearly the same appeal.

The same was true of the first film, albeit to a lesser extent. I praised the first Iron Man when it came out for managing to focus as much as it did on the man behind the hero. But when you make an expensive mid-summer comic-book blockbuster you can’t really get away without the climactic action scene, and making that scene without the big iron suit would have been a disaster. It was inevitable that the man would fade into the background in favour of the suit at least at the end of the film, and so it went. It appeared that this was the best we could hope for.

That’s why I was so delighted to find that Shane Black (who up until now was best known for writing the Lethal Weapon films, and previously directed Downey Jr in Kiss Kis Bang Bang) had obviously done his homework to figure out how to address the problem in this third instalment. This film is Stark from beginning to end, with all the wit and charming arrogance that goes with him. Like in the first film, he’s forced to fend for himself without his technological backup for significant chunks of the film. But unlike that film, this one sees him in and out of the suit throughout the finale. The sense of this still being Tony Stark fighting the good fight carries on through to the end; it’s not just a red and gold fighting machine in his place.

When Downey Jr’s not hogging the spotlight there’s the occasional opportunity to appreciate the excellent supporting cast. Don Cheadle gets a slightly expanded role in this film relative to the previous one, and he’s about at his most bad ass ever. Ben Kingsley is brilliant as the Mandarin, especially in the latter part of the film. I won’t say what I liked about him for fear of spoilers, but he has a couple of great scenes. Gwyneth Paltrow is typically under-used, but she gets to kick a little bit of ass.

The plot isn’t especially clever, but it does a fair job of avoiding the worst of the comic-book movie clichés. The joy of this film is more in the details than in the big picture. That said, there are a lot of great moments so it adds up to a surprisingly great film. It’s streets ahead of its predecessor, and while I wouldn’t necessarily claim it’s better than the original I also wouldn’t argue too strongly against anyone who did.

★ I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night. That puts me six up on the lot of you.

Brick

#489 Brick, Rian Johnson, 2006
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

On Monday evening Rian Johnson, whom you are most likely to know from last year’s Marmite-like1 sci-fi thriller Looper, was kind enough to take some time out of his holiday to visit the Prince Charles Cinema for an audience Q & A. The original programme was a double bill of Brick and The Maltese Falcon, but when Johnson contacted the cinema with an offer of making an appearance it was changed to an all-Johnson bill of Brick and Looper with the Q & A sandwiched in between. I’ve been a fan of his since I first saw Brick in 2006 so of course I jumped at the opportunity to sit up front and listen to him talk about his movie creations.

Rian Johnson Audience

Rian Johnson’s picture of the audience, taken during his Q & A session. You can just about make me out at the extreme left of the front row.

The cinema has posted the audio of the Q & A if you fancy a listen. The person immediately to my left (visible giving the thumbs up in the picture above) video’d the whole thing too, but he left before the start of Looper so I didn’t get a chance to ask if he planned to post it online. I’ll post an update if I manage to find it.

Left: Johnson takes a photo of the audience. Right: Q & A in progress.

Left: Johnson takes a photo of the audience.
Right: Q & A in progress.

Happily, Brick is on the 500 greatest films list, so on top of a chance to see a director I greatly admire I also got the opportunity for another review. I actually reviewed Brick on my other blog back in 2006 when it was first released, but that’s no reason not to have another crack at it. Back then I obviously had more difficulty appreciating the less mainstream style of the film, though I still liked it a lot and I urged everyone that would listen to me to watch it. I don’t know whether I’ve become more or less discerning since then, but I enjoy this movie more every time I see it.

For anyone who hasn’t seen or heard of it — which may well be many of you; it didn’t see a huge amount of success on its release — Brick is a classic film noir story of a private detective (named only Brendan, and played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) investigating the suspicious death of an ex-girlfriend and the knot of organized-crime politics that led to it. It has all of the hallmarks of film noir: the hard-assed gumshoe who plays by his own rules, the shady mobsters, the seductive dames. What sets it apart from other such films is that the detective is a highschool student, the mobsters are small-time pot dealers, and the whole thing takes place in a sunny California town instead of a rainy 1920s inner city.

Johnson says he loved noir books as a kid — I think he called out Dashiell Hammett specifically — and he wanted to make a film with that kind of exaggerated grittiness, but he was concerned that audiences are so familiar with the visual language that they would be prone to shutting off and failing to engage with the film in the way that he did with those books. His creative solution to that problem was to change the visual language by transplanting the story into a completely different context, while maintaining the other core elements of the genre. So the pinstripe suits and trilbies are out, but the intrigue, the danger, the snappy dialog, and the preternatural self-assurance of all of the characters are all still there.

The film makes an occasional nod to the incongruity of the setting. When Brendan finally manages to meet with the Pin, the town’s big crime boss, the two sit uncomfortably while the Pin’s mother goes through the fridge to see what she can offer Brendan to drink. The few scenes like that are strange, because the rest of the film makes it clear that these characters are for real; they aren’t just children playing at grown-up games. It’s like putting a scene or two from the Goonies into Lord of the Flies. You get a few laughs out of it, but on balance I would have preferred the film to be played totally straight.

One of the more amusing insights that came from the Q & A was about the film’s characteristic jump cuts. Some of the longer shots are broken up by flashes of what one assumes are either dreams or memories, which highlight Brendan’s increasing levels of both obsession and stress. It turns out these jumps came about because so much of the film was made up of very extended shots, many of which needed to be shortened. As it was impossible to remove the parts containing crucial information, and there were no alternative angles to move between, Johnson had to cut out bits of the middle of the shots:

Its nature, because it’s a detective movie, is “this interlocks with that, interlocks with that”. It’s not like a drama where you can start reshuffling scenes. And there wasn’t even that much we could cut out.

When I shot I didn’t do any coverage and I shot a lot of stuff in just single master shots, so when I got in the edit room it became a problem. I’d have a scene where I couldn’t cut it out because you can’t lose that information but at the same time the scene was running like 40 seconds and the movie was too long. The movie was 2 hours and 40 minutes or something. We had to cut time out of it, but how?

And that’s what led to… there’s a lot of scenes where you see these jump cuts that look like pre-planned artistic choices. I decided I would just cut the boring bits out of the middle of the shot, and so it compressed it. And saved our butts.

He mentioned that he was working on his next film, but didn’t give anything away about what it might be. Given the two year gap between Brick and the Brothers Bloom, and the four year gap before Looper, it might be a while before we see the next thing hit our screens. But when it does come out, I hope he will consider coming back to London to show it to us.

  1. You either love it or you hate it.

★ I wish to check the position of the Nile. My sister tells me it is in South America.

Sense and Sensibility

#315 Sense and Sensibility, Ang Lee, 1995
Cast: Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant.

My English teacher in school, Miss Tallon, was a fan of Jane Austin, so whenever the curriculum made room for her to cover an Austin book she took it. While I don’t think I would have expressed any significant affection for the books at the time, I must have taken something from them because I’m quite fond of them now. At secondary school I studied Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and I’ve seen a couple of film and TV versions of each of those stories. Sense and Sensibility is my first film based on an Austen novel that I hadn’t previously read, and it surprised me by quickly becoming my favourite.

There’s a certain style you have to expect from Jane Austen: she never strayed from the themes of love, family politics, and comedic misunderstandings. Her work is packed with verbal wit. The requirements of nineteenth century English etiquette force her characters to couch both affection and insult in much more subtle terms than anyone would bother with these days. As there’s little I find more amusing than an intelligently veiled jibe, the style suits my tastes perfectly. In a strange way it’s a little reminiscent of the dialogue you get from Aaron Sorkin.

As I said, I haven’t read the book (Austen’s first) so I don’t know how much of the script to attribute to the author and how much to Emma Thompson, who not only plays Miss Dashwood, the lead, but who also adapted the novel for the screen. Thompson won the 1996 Oscar for best adapted screenplay, so clearly she contributed something.

The cast are all stellar, with Thompson and Kate Winslet having each been nominated for Oscars for their roles as the sisters of opposing sensibility alluded to in the title. But my favourite role is Hugh Grant’s Edward Ferrars, love interest to Miss Dashwood. No-one does a better Hugh Grant impersonation than Hugh Grant does, and this film features possibly his finest example. Even better than his bumbling “I think I love you” speech from Four Weddings and a Funeral, and that’s saying something. Here he is charming Emma Thompson by winning over her elusive younger sister:

As a light entertainment with plenty of situational and verbal humour, and little to tax you — intellectually or emotionally — this is a pretty perfect film if you’re tired or under the weather. It would make a perfect in-flight movie. But it’s also worth seeking out a DVD or (don’t tell anyone I said this) looking to see if anyone has uploaded the full film to YouTube (hypothetically of course).