Sunday, June 30, 2013

Fast Cars & Mysterious Magicians

With magic acts (and sometimes with movies), it’s often what you don’t see as much as what you do see that makes the trick work. In the new film Now You See Me, figuring out the puzzle is part of the fun. As the film opens, we meet four magicians who all receive a mysterious summons; they all end up at the same address, where some strange events occur. We fast forward a year and the group, now called the Four Horsemen, are the most popular magicians in the country. For the climax of their latest show, they plan to rob a bank in Paris while remaining on stage at their show in Las Vegas. The robbery succeeds, and an FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo, The Avengers) is put on the case. He's joined by Interpol agent Alma Vargas (Melánie Laurent, Inglorious Basterds) who might have an agenda of her own. As they try to trap the Horsemen, bigger and more elaborate heists (and more amazing tricks & stunts) occur, and it becomes apparent that there is more to these events than meets the eye. We also start to hear about a disgraced magician whose untimely death may figure into the ongoing plot.

But what is the Four Horsemen's endgame? And how does a famous debunker of magic named Thaddeus Bradley figure into the mystery? Now You See Me is a twisty thriller with magic, chases, mystery and misdirection. Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrleson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco are a lot of fun as the Four Horsemen and there's a great supporting cast including Morgan Freeman as Bradley and Michael Caine as the group's financial backer. This fast-paced thriller is well directed by Louis Leterrier, who helmed 2008's The Incredible Hulk starring Ed Norton. The film's puzzle box structure and twists will keep you guessing. While it may not quite tie everything together in a neat bow at the end, this is an intelligent, fun film that should appeal to mystery and action fans.

And speaking of action: Fast & Furious 6, the latest in the Vin Diesel led franchise is a movie that delivers exactly what it promises; Car chases, explosions & large scale stunts. This series has been in high gear (pun intended) since the entire original cast reunited for the fourth installment. From that entry forward, the movies have shifted focus from illegal street racing to heists & capture the villain style stories, and that has worked in the series' favor. This time out, DSS agent Hobbs (The Rock) asks Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his crew to help him catch a former British Special Forces soldier named Owen Shaw. He's gone rogue, and is selling high-level weapons systems to the highest bidder. Shaw's assembling the parts for a device that can completely disable power in an entire region, leaving it vulnerable to attack. But our crew is retired, has split up and is living off the proceeds of their mission in the last film. 

Hobbs piques Dominic's interest by showing him a picture of Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) who supposedly died in the fourth film. Apparently, she's still very much alive and working for Shaw. Dom agrees to go after Shaw, so he can find out the truth about Letty. The rest of the crew agrees to the mission, and they all are promised pardons if they help Hobbs capture Shaw. As with all the "Furious" films, there's action to spare; this film definitely goes bigger than the last couple of installments. There are chases involving tanks & planes, and the stunts & effects are impressively mounted. But the other thing that keeps us coming back to these films is that we enjoy seeing these characters. As Dom says during the story, they're family; we care about what happens to them. This is high-octane action filmmaking, ably directed by Justin Lin, who's been with the series since the third installment. The door is left open for Part 7, which has already been announced. If you liked the previous films or are an action movie fan, you'll enjoy Fast & Furious 6.

Both films are currently playing in theaters; here are links to the trailers for Fast & Furious 6 & Now You See Me

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Heroes Are Hard to Find: Superman is Back in Zack Snyder's "Man Of Steel"

Back in college, I had a chat with one of my professors about the portrayal of heroes in pop culture. His contention was that we’d lost something in these characters by making them silly, and less larger than life, in contemporary versions of their adventures. He felt that the protagonists of older stories were more unique & had dramatically interesting flaws. In his opinion, true heroes were in short supply. This was the mid 80s, mind you, so considering some of the movie & TV heroes of the time, he may have had a point. But my opinion was that heroes & their adventures were able to be re-interpreted in many different ways. Each generation has re-fashioned these stories in their own style, and enjoyed them in a new light. If I remember correctly, I think we ended up agreeing to disagree on the subject. I was thinking of that conversation when I watched Man of Steel (2013), director Zack Snyder’s darker, interesting re-imagining of the Superman saga.

The last attempt at reviving Superman on the big screen, 2006’s Superman Returns, while successful at the box office, was not a critical or audience favorite. It had some interesting ideas, but it was very much a valentine to the Richard Donner directed Superman (1978), which featured Christopher Reeve’s iconic version of the character. Director Bryan Singer was clearly in love with the Donner film, and in some ways, Superman Returns felt like a re-make rather than a new movie. It didn’t tread any new ground, and ended up disappointing audiences as a result. In fact, our hero had greater success on TV in recent years in the long-running series, Smallville (2001-11). Man of Steel is a more dramatic, somber interpretation of the character than we’re used to seeing on the big screen.

The film opens on Krypton, where Jor-El (Russell Crowe, imbuing the role with quiet authority & strength) tries to warn the ruling council that over-use of their natural resources has made the planet’s core unstable. His warnings fall on deaf ears. Meanwhile, General Zod, a rebel military leader, attempts a coup, feeling that Krpyton has become stagnant, and needs new leadership. Jor-El & his wife Lara, knowing their world is doomed, send their infant son Kal into space, having selected Earth as his new home. Zod kills Jor-El, but is captured. He and his soldiers are banished to an area called The Phantom Zone. Shortly afterward, Krypton explodes, and Kal’s ship continues its journey toward Earth.

After the Krypton sequence, we flash forward to an older Kal, who’s traveling the world, and doing good deeds behind the scenes, while keeping his alien origins from the world. There are flashbacks to his younger years with the Kents (Kevin Costner & Diane Lane), who discovered the ship, adopted him, and named him Clark. We see some interesting sequences with Clark's powers starting to emerge, and his feelings that something may be wrong with him, as he tries to come to terms with his origins. Jonathan Kent councils him that he’ll need to hide his true nature, because our world might feel threatened by what they don’t understand. As the grown-up Clark tries to keep to the shadows and do more good, a reporter named Lois Lane is tracking down the stories of this “mysterious savior” in order to figure out his identity. Then Zod & his followers, who have been freed from the Phantom Zone, show up seeking Clark/Kal, and threatening Earth’s destruction. Our hero may finally have to reveal himself in order to defend his adopted homeworld.

If you’re more familiar with the Superman of the Donner/Reeve era, the serious tone of the film may surprise you. The script is by David S. Goyer, who co-wrote Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and Nolan is the film’s producer. Their influence is definitely felt here. In fact, there are some neat twists to the Superman myth. For example, Krypton has used genetic engineering to produce its children for ages, and pre-determine their role in life (soldier, scientist, etc.). Kal is the first natural birth on Krypton in generations, and Jor-El hopes he can make his own destiny. Zod (who was engineered to be a soldier and defender of Krypton) starts his rebellion because he believes the dependence on genetic engineering has ruined his society. There are also some interesting Jesus/Judeo-Christian parallels to Kal's story, which have always been an underlying theme for the character.

Of course, when Zod shows up, he’s not only looking for Kal, but a world where he can create a new Krypton. The usual super-battle between hero & villains ensues, but this isn’t your father’s Superman. The humorous moments of the fights from Superman II (1981) are nowhere to be found here. The battle sequences are impressive, though they do go on a bit too long. The climax of the conflict (warning: spoilers ahead) is one of the film’s major deviations from previous versions of the character. Superman kills Zod to end the threat to Earth. We’ve long been used to the fact Superman was the one hero who never resorted to killing his enemies to solve a problem, and it feels a little surprising here. In a way, it’s an effective moment, because you don’t see it coming. But it still felt a little off-putting, even though Kal shows some remorse for his actions. This scene has sparked some passionate reactions from fans, which you can investigate around the web if you'd like to further explore the debate.

Director Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300) & his crew have done a great job with the look of the film; the Krypton sequence in particular is very impressive. The film is well cast; Henry Cavill is an effective Superman/Clark; he ably portray's the character's conflict as a man of two worlds; Amy Adams is a determined, less flighty Lois than we’ve seen in previously. Michael Shannon is very good as Zod, and manages to add shadings to the character that make him more than a one-note villain. Costner & Lane are wonderful as The Kents, giving excellent, understated performances, though Lane's role feels a little underwritten. The supporting cast is filled with familiar character actors who add gravity to the film, including Laurence Fishbourne (as Perry White), Christopher Meloni and Richard Schiff. As often occurs with films like this, there are a few Easter eggs and hidden in-jokes for longtime fans of the Superman saga.

Man of Steel effectively re-launches & re-interprets this beloved character, now in his 75th anniversary year. While there are some minor issues with the story, overall this is a well-done superhero film (with a heavy emphasis on the science-fiction aspects of the story) that respects its source, and takes an often told story in some intriguing new directions. It will be fun to see where Warner Brothers goes with Superman & the rest of the DC Universe characters. A sequel to this film is reportedly already in the planning stages, but what's next? Could it be that long-gestating Justice League movie? Or perhaps a World’s Finest style Superman/Batman team-up? Only time will tell. Man of Steel is now in theaters. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Sunday, June 16, 2013

New Releases From John Fogerty & Natalie Maines Showcase The Songs

Revisiting the musical past can be a tricky prospect for an artist. It’s become common practice for musicians to record cover/tribute albums or revisit their own catalogs and re-work older songs, as a way of keeping themselves visible between new releases. Sometimes these projects work, and sometimes they don’t, but two recent releases that fall into this category are outstanding, and worthwhile listens:

Wrote A Song For Everyone – John Fogerty first came to prominence as the leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival, recording a series of now classic singles and albums in the late 60s and early 70s. His solo career proceeded in fits & starts, largely due to legal battles and other issues with his record company. For years, Fogerty didn’t even perform CCR songs in public due to his ongoing legal troubles. He re-embraced those songs in 1997, and has been touring and recording regularly ever since. On this recently released disc, he runs through a dozen CCR and solo classics with a series of all-star collaborators, including Kid Rock, Bob Seger and My Morning Jacket, trading verses and guitar licks with his co-stars.The album kicks off with a blistering version of “Fortunate Son,” performed with Foo Fighters. When Dave Grohl & co. help kick things off, you know you’re in for a treat.

Keith Urban shows up on a country-esque arrangement of the early solo tune “Almost Saturday Night,” bringing the song back to its roots. Fogerty’s sons Shane & Tyler help out with CCR ‘s “Lodi.” One of the true highlights of the album is Miranda Lambert’s powerful performance on the title song, perhaps the record’s strongest selection. But there are other standout tracks here, including “Someday Never Comes” with California retro rockers Dawes, and “Bad Moon Rising” with the Zac Brown Band. There are also two new compositions by Fogerty, “Train of Fools” and “Mystic Highway.” These great versions breathe new life into these classic songs, and make them sound fresh. This isn’t a mere vanity project; it’s an excellent release showcasing some of rock & roll’s classic lyrics by one of its most significant artists. This fantastic disc is highly recommended. Fogerty is touring to support the release, performing an entire Creedence album (as well as some other hits) every night; should be a fun show.

Mother - Dixie Chicks front woman Natalie Maines has been laying low in recent years. After the controversy over her comments about President Bush in 2003, covered in the documentary Shut Up & Sing, and winning an Album of the Year Grammy for 2006’s Taking The Long Way, she’s been raising a family with husband Adrian Pasdar, and working on some philanthropic projects. Her first solo release, Mother, is an amazing album filled with great music. Kicking off with a beautiful version of Eddie Vedder’s “Without You,” the album is a mix of covers and several originals co-written by Maines. She runs through an eclectic selection of songs, ranging from an emotional version of the Pink Floyd classic on the title track, to tunes by Jeff Buckley and Patty Griffin. What’s most effective here is that she showcases some lesser-known tracks, like Buckley’s “Lover, You Should Have Come Over,” and “I’d Run Away” by The Jayhawks. Maine’s voice has lost none of its power or vulnerability, and she’s in fine form. The production by Maines & musical collaborator Ben Harper shades the sound more towards roots rock and acoustic music than country, but those styles work in the music’s favor. This is a record that bears repeat listens, and you’ll like it more every time you spin it.

Wrote A Song For Everyone & Mother are excellent showcases for the strength of these artists and the power of great songs. Both releases are currently available in stores & online. These discs are two of the year's standout releases thus far. Here are links to John Fogerty performing “Someday Never Comes” with Dawes and Natalie Maines performing “Without You."

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Short Takes: Ghosts, Gunslinging Lizards, and A Time-Spanning Epic

Cloud Atlas (2012) – This is a mind bending puzzle box of a film. Based on David Mitchell’s 2004 novel, there are multiple storylines taking place simultaneously, ranging in time from the 19th century to the far future. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Jim Broadbent (among others) play multiple roles in the various stories, many of which share a connection. For instance, a character in one segment might be reading a book about a character featured in another. It’s a clever, intriguing tale about life, love, karma and the things that bind us all together. The performances are first rate. The movie is at times dazzling, thrilling, frustrating and moving – sometimes all at once. This is definitely not your run of the mill big budget blockbuster. Co-directors The Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) have created a beautiful, challenging mosaic that warrants repeat viewings. If you’re in the mood for something challenging & different, give Cloud Atlas a try. You’ll definitely be talking about it afterwards, and it absolutely warrants repeat viewings.

Rango (2011) – This animated tale is a lighthearted spoof of classic westerns. A corrupt mayor is terrorizing a desert town called Dirt. He rations the water and rules by fear, along with his henchmen. He’s also forcing everyone to sell their land to him, for a development project that will make him rich & powerful. A pet chameleon that is accidentally stranded in the desert ends up helping the town and becomes a hero in the process. All the characters in the film are animals; the animation & design is wonderful. You'll believe a chameleon can become a gunslinger. There are many visual references to spaghetti westerns & other classic movies, and the score by Hans Zimmer recalls the Ennio Morricone music from the classic Clint Eastwood westerns directed by Sergio Leone. The wonderful voice cast includes Johnny Depp, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Isla Fisher and Bill Nighy. They were reportedly given costumes to wear, and recorded their dialogue together, to help them get into character. This may resonate more with older viewers than the kids, but it’s a fun film. Directed by Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean), Rango won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature of 2011.

The Inkeepers (2011) – Two twentysomething employees of a run down hotel have an encounter with the supernatural in this thriller, written & directed by Ti West. Luke (Pat Healy) has been using cameras placed in various areas of the hotel to make recordings and prove there is a supernatural force there. His co-worker Claire (Sara Paxton) gets drawn into the mysterious events, and tries to help him capture a ghost on film. She becomes fascinated by the strange events that occur, and witnesses some things she can't explain. One of the hotel's guests, a former actress who now dabbles in psychic phenomena, warns the duo not to mess around in areas they don't understand. Is there a ghost or supernatural force present, and what does it want? The movie is definitely influenced by previous films like Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project and The Haunting. The story builds slowly; in fact, the first half of the film is more humor driven, and the second half starts to dial up the suspense & horror, leading to a creepy conclusion. It’s an ok film, with a good cast (Kelly McGillis shines in a nice supporting performance as the actress turned psychic) and some clever direction by West. But you’ve seen this story before, and the movie doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It’s probably worth a look for genre fans, but there are much better horror films out there, including West’s previous scare-fest, the offbeat, terrifying 2009 thriller The House of The Devil.

Cloud Atlas, Rango and The Innkeepers are all available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital viewing and download. Here are links to the trailers for Cloud Atlas, Rango and The Innkeepers,