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Posts Tagged ‘Jesse Eisenberg’

Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland: Double Tap concludes in a manner which summarises the whole film rather nicely: as the credits roll, Woody Harrelson treats the audience to a full-throated rendition of the Elvis number ‘Hunka Hunka Burning Love’. It is enthusiastic, not actually awful, and indeed sort of entertaining, but it’s also a bit baffling and you do wonder what the point of it is.

It has, after all been ten years since the first film appeared. I did say at the time that a sequel would be welcome, but I didn’t quite anticipate there being quite such a long delay before its appearance – the Optimum Period Before Sequel is something we have discussed here as well, of course, and a decade is really pushing it. Even the film seems to be aware of the distinct possibility that it’s turned up too late for its own party – ‘Hello again! And after so long!’ are the opening words of Jesse Eisenberg’s voice-over. Given that the main players have gone on to bigger and more reputable things in the intervening period, one can only assume they genuinely have come back out of fondness for the material on this occasion, though I note that Emma Stone now qualifies for an ‘And’ in the credits, unsurprising given she is now probably the biggest star involved.

I could take up quite a lot of space listing all the various handwaves the film deploys and the ways in which it kind of demands the audience cut it some slack – the main one is to do with just how much time has elapsed since the original movie. None of the zombies have actually rotted away to nothing (then again, this is almost a convention of the zombopocalypse genre), and there are vague references to ‘a few years’ having gone by. On the other hand, Abigail Breslin was 13 when she made the first film and is very visibly 23 now, so they do have to sort of address this. What it all means is that from the start the film demands the audience be complicit in its silliness and the fact it doesn’t really hold together as anything other than a knowing piece of popcorn entertainment.

Anyway: as the film starts, the quartet of survivors – Tallahassee (Harrelson), Columbus (Eisenberg), Wichita (Stone) and her sister Little Rock (Breslin) – have made the derelict White House their new home, mainly because this is just a funny idea. The plot struggles a bit before managing to contrive stresses within the group that result in the two women departing, leaving the men behind. Columbus is initially bereft by the departure of the love of his life, but then comes across Madison (Zoey Deutch), an epically dim young woman who’s been living in a fridge since the collapse of civilisation. Then Wichita reappears, delivering the news that Little Rock’s rebelliousness has reached the point where she is now heading for Graceland in the company of a pacifist folk-singer.

Needless to say, the group agree to put their differences aside and make sure Little Rock is all right, although the presence of Madison amongst them inevitably causes some friction. A bigger concern is the appearance of a new and much deadlier breed of zombie, which they are bound to encounter if they go back on the road…

When Zombieland initially came out I was rather positive about it, noting the surprising longevity of the zombie boom which was kicked off by Danny Boyle and Alex Garland in 2002. That was ten years ago, and things seem to have got to the point where the zombie movie has become something of a staple of the horror genre: doing a new zombie-themed TV show or movie or book or comic isn’t really noteworthy anymore – just more of the same. Double Tap acknowledges this when it jokily refers to the wide availability of zombie-themed entertainment these days.

It doesn’t actually try to spoof or parody the zombie genre any more than the original film, though, nor is it a particularly serious attempt at an actual horror movie – there is plenty of gore and splatter in the course of the story, naturally, but it’s only fleetingly scary. Nothing is taken seriously enough to be actually disturbing or frightening. Instead, this is basically just a rather offbeat comedy film which happens to feature a handful of elaborate sequences with the stars blowing the heads off undead extras with impressively big guns.

So how does it hold together as a comedy? Well, I did kind of fear the worst for the first few minutes of the film, as it really does struggle to find its groove, with the various developments in the relationships between the quartet feeling laboriously contrived, and good jokes being rather thin on the ground (the film is set in a world where the Trump presidency never happened – one good thing about a zombie apocalypse, maybe – so any satire derived from the characters being in the White House is only implicit). However, once the plot is laid in, and especially once Deutch’s character appears, it does pick up quite considerably and there are some very funny moments.

These are mostly due to the skill and efforts of the cast – Harrelson is on particularly good form, though Eisenberg and Stone also contribute deft comic performances – because the script itself is really all over the place when it comes to things like the actual plot. The story is episodic to the point of feeling actually disjointed, with weird digressions and tangents happening throughout, regardless of whether they actually make a great deal of sense (at one point Tallahassee and Columbus meet their near-doubles, Albuquerque and Flagstaff) or advance the story. The film seems to take a (not inappropriate) shotgun approach to comedy, blasting away wildly at anything in sight in the hope that at least some of the jokes will hit the mark. It just about manages to get away with it.

What is interesting, and kind of refreshing, is that as a result the film feels a bit less inhibited in terms of its humour than many modern films. By this I mean that Double Tap quite shamelessly includes jokes about dumb blondes who love pink things, gun-loving right-wingers, hippies, and so on (jokes about a hippy commune in a 2019 movie? Yes indeed. See what I mean about the film being a bit all over the place in some respects). At a time when it feels like most mainstream movies have to subject themselves to a rigorous vetting by the Progressive Agenda Committee (apparently the focus group decided it’s a much friendlier name than the Thought Police), it is nice to find a film which apparently doesn’t care at all about that sort of thing.

It doesn’t quite change the fact that Zombieland: Double Tap is really a superfluous sequel trading heavily on fond memories of the first film. As a comedy, it is funny enough to justify its existence, and it is honestly  quite nice to spend an hour and a half watching something so openly and inoffensively silly, intended only to entertain. It never quite trashes the memory of the first film, but neither does it really add lustre to its reputation.

 

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Oh well, let us move on and roll the dice for this year’s Woody Allen movie: because, let’s face it, you’re never completely sure what you’re going to get from Allen these days. The odds of something on a par with Sleeper or Annie Hall are, let’s be honest, vanishingly small, but with a bit of luck you might end up with a Blue Jasmine or (I am reliably informed) Midnight in Paris. You would probably receive something along the lines of Magic in the Moonlight or To Rome with Love and not feel too disgruntled about it. But there is always the grim possibility of another Irrational Man or Whatever Works lurching onto the screen.

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It probably goes without saying that Allen’s Cafe Society finds him in familiar territory, primarily being a Jazz Age romance for which he has managed to secure another of his stellar casts. The film is set in the 1930s. Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, a well-brought-up New York Jewish boy from a fairly humble background who decides to move to California and seek his fortune there with the aid of his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), who is a successful agent. Possibly this strikes you as a surprisingly felicitous family connection, given the whole humble background thing; I know it did me.

There’s something slightly odd about the plot of Cafe Society: usually it’s pretty straightforward to give a quick indication of the set-up and a suggestion of what the central axis of the plot is, of what the main driver of the action is – the central conflict, if you will. But every time I’ve tried to give an indication of what the film’s about I’ve just found myself describing the whole plot, quite possibly because there’s nothing to suggest what’s going to happen next from one scene to the next. I’m not suggesting that the film is a chaotic, plotless shambles, because there is a logical sort of development of scenes and characters (well, up to a point), it’s just not clear until the very end what the story is actually supposed to be about.

Or, to put it another way, this is another film which feels like a first draft, and sorely in need of a good edit and polish. One of the more memorable scenes is an encounter between Bobby and a first-time call girl, which does not go entirely to plan – it’s more funny as an idea than in reality, and sticks out primarily because it is so incongruous, adding nothing to the main story. So what’s it doing in the movie?

You could say the same for a lot of the film. The story eventually settles down to being about Dorfman’s complicated romantic entanglements with two women, both called Vonnie (played by Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively), as he makes the rather unconvincing transition from being a go-fer at a Hollywood talent agency to suave man-about-about-town and night club manager in New York City’s underworld.

Now, there is potential here for a rather affecting story, as Dorfman and his first love meet each other again and reflect on how their lives could have gone differently: the stuff of a mature, thoughtful, bittersweet drama. Some of this indeed gets realised, primarily because of a rather good performance from Kristen Stewart. I’d only previously seen her in the Twilight movies, which may not have left me with the best impression of her abilities, but here she is genuinely affecting and natural; you can quite understand why men keep falling in love with her the first time they meet her. In fact I might go so far as to say that Stewart’s performance is the main reason to see this movie: Carell and Lively really don’t get the material they deserve, and Eisenberg is… well, everyone goes on about how Eisenberg is the natural latterday performer to serve as Woody Allen’s avatar in these movies, but I don’t really see it myself. Eisenberg never quite has that hapless quality that makes Allen such an appealing screen presence – instead he just comes across as a bit smug, somehow.

But the stuff about the romance too often gets shoved out of the way in favour of by-the-numbers routines about Jewishness and a dead-end subplot about Dorfman’s gangster brother (Corey Stoll). Sometimes these come together to produce one of the film’s funnier moments – ‘First a murderer! Now a Christian! What have I done to deserve such a son!’ cries the mother of a Jewish gangster on learning her boy has converted on the way to the electric chair – but on the other hand this is just getting in the way of what the film is supposed to be about. I suppose you could argue that Cafe Society is making some kind of point about how the movie business and the criminal underworld are actually quite similar, but if so it goes largely unarticulated.

To be clear, Cafe Society is not one of the very bottom-of-the-barrel Woody Allen movies, but neither is it likely to be seen as a return to form or a late-period classic. It’s fairly well-mounted (though clearly done on a low budget), but it either needed to be a much bigger, sprawling family saga taking place over a much longer running time, or to focus much more closely on the central relationships. As it is there’s an uncomfortable sense that it’s trying to do both: at times it feels like a film which has been savagely cut down in the editing suite, with a voice-over filling in rather too many details of the story.

If you follow the career of Woody Allen, you know what to expect these days: the films are probably not going to be great, it’s just a question of how good the script is at the point when Allen has to take it in front of the camera. In this case the script is just about okay, and the film passes the time relatively pleasantly, but you are likely to have forgotten most of the detail by the time next year’s offering makes an appearance.

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‘Batman Vs Superman is where you go when you’ve exhausted all possibilities. It’s somewhat of an admission that this franchise is on its last gasp.

In case you’re not familiar with the source or context of that quote, it’s from noted comic-book movie writer and director David Goyer, explaining in 2005 why it was decided not to go with Wolfgang Petersen’s proposed film of that title. Eleven years is a geological age in Hollywood, of course, which is why Goyer now has his name on the script of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, the crucial second instalment in DC’s attempt to establish a franchise featuring its own roster of superheroes. Nevertheless, does something about this strike you as a little off? It may well.

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BvS (I can’t be bothered to write the full title out every time) is the follow-up to Man of Steel, and as before is directed by Zach Snyder. I’m going to cut to the chase here: as a movie it seems to be the result of two distinct creative agendas, neither of them exactly surprising. Firstly, DC have been casting envious eyes upon the massive critical and (particularly) popular success of the Marvel Studios movies over the last nearly-ten years, and want a slice of the same cake. So BvS has the job of singlehandedly jump-starting a similar enterprise, introducing a slew of new characters and concepts (something which, you may recall, Marvel split across three or four movies).

Secondly, it – like every other Batman film of the past 30 years – is utterly preoccupied with Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which features a grim, brooding, slightly unhinged Batman in an everyday story of how to make slightly fascist social views acceptable for a young and liberal audience. The climax of Miller’s book is a spectacular showdown between Batman and Superman (here presented as a tool of the corrupt establishment).

Whatever your opinion of Frank Miller’s politics, he is undeniably a great storyteller when he’s on form, which is not something I’m sure anyone has ever said about Zach Snyder. Hmm. Well, the movie opens with a brief, portentous recap of the Kryptonian attack on Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel, in which we get to see Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) trying to save some of the bystanders and generally being appalled by the chaos and destruction the aliens have caused. This makes him miserable for the rest of the movie, as if Batman isn’t usually miserable enough.

Flash forward a couple of years and we learn that being miserable has made Batman even more brutal and savage in his war on crime than usual, to the point where Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is quite outraged by what he sees as unjustifiable terror tactics and unchecked vigilanteism. This at least takes Kent/Superman’s mind off the fact that his various super-deeds have proved rather controversial, because good deeds can sometimes have bad consequences (yup, this movie is that morally profound). This makes Superman miserable for the rest of the movie, too.

Also fairly miserable is brilliant entrepreneur/scientist Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who considers the presence of Superman on Earth to be an affront to human supremacy. To this end he has laid his hands on some interesting green rocks extracted from one of the destroyed Kryptonian ships, in the belief they may have interesting effects on Superman.

(Also hanging around the plot is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who, to her enormous credit, isn’t miserable at all and actually seems to be enjoying herself.)

Or, to put it another way, the standard structure for this kind of story goes as follows: two superheroes meet for the first time. There is, inevitably, some sort of misunderstanding, and the two of them take each other on. However, they soon realise they’re on the same side and join forces to deal with the genuine, much more significant threat.

That’s a classic structure (and one which I adhere to myself when running superhero RPGs, for instance) – it’s done properly in the first Avengers movie, for example. However, it kind of presupposes the hero-on-hero action will be happening in the second act, which is at odds with the desire to do Dark Knight Returns on the big screen – there, the hero-on-hero stuff is the climax. The film has to compromise, which means it doesn’t really do either story justice.

And, architecturally, the mashing of structures unbalances the whole movie. This is a long film (and it certainly feels like it), and with the big battles all held back for the third act, it struggles to find things to do for much of its running time. In the end it settles for lots of brooding, apocalyptic dream sequences, heavy-going quasi-theological discussions, laborious setting-up of planned future movies, and characters glaring miserably at each other, prior to a final half-hour or so made up almost entirely of things going boom.

The real victim of the mangled plotting is Lex Luthor, who seems to have half-a-dozen schemes going on simultaneously, not all of which make complete (or even partial) sense. Or, to put it another way, his plan is to frame Superman as being responsible for various terrorist atrocities, get his hands on some Kryptonite to kill him with, blackmail him into killing Batman to further besmirch his good name, and then breed a giant half-Kryptonian monster to batter him to death. Now that’s what I call multi-tasking. To put it yet another way, Luthor is basically just a plot device rather than an actual character, which is why a talented actor like Jesse Eisenberg has to resort to an array of tics and quirky mannerisms just to give him any kind of identity. As it is, the character still doesn’t convince.

As you may have gathered, once it’s (reluctantly) finished trying to be The Dark Knight Returns, the movie has a go at being (spoiler alert) The Death of Superman, complete with a CGI version of Doomsday. Even this is not that interesting to watch, due to Snyder’s preferred aesthetic of everything that’s not actually exploding being grim and gloomy – although, to be fair, once the three heroes team up to fight the monster it actually starts to feel more like an actual superhero film (plus the only two proper jokes in the film are both near the end).

Actually, I would say that the glaring problem with BvS is not that the structure of the film is wonky – other blockbusters have got away with as much – but that the tone of the thing is so relentlessly depressing. Oh, God, it’s so horrible that Superman is flying around saving people and averting disasters! It’s so awful that Batman is fighting crime in Gotham City! The whole thing is literally this ponderously gloomy – there’s none of the joy or colour or imagination of even a so-so superhero comic. Are DC doing this just to be different from the slightly self-mocking and frequently goofy Marvel movies? If so, then distinctiveness arguably comes at too heavy a price.

You could also argue that a mainstream audience most likely hasn’t read The Dark Knight Returns and isn’t going to get all the references to it here (there are, of course, many), and isn’t going to recognise this conflicted, adversarial take on these two iconic characters. (I have to say the film kind of misses the point of DKR, too: you’re firmly on Batman’s side in the Miller book – his Superman is a compromised, arrogant figure – whereas here the Kryptonian is essentially an innocent party being roughed up by a headcase.) Certainly, the big thing – the colossal thing – BvS has going for it is that it puts Superman and Batman on the big screen together for the first time. But for some reason Zach Snyder seems to think he can only do this by making them essentially unrecognisable – Superman is a guilt-racked, despairing victim, Batman is a vicious, paranoid loon.

A friend of mine has written quite an impassioned piece in defence of BvS, saying he found it quite heartwarming to see the two characters come together and interact with each other, and that you shouldn’t criticise it just because it deviates from the minutiae of comics lore. I understand entirely where he’s coming from on the first point, but the movie doesn’t just get the little details of comics mythology wrong, it completely fails to grasp what makes these two characters so iconic and beloved.

(The only thing about the movie which is even vaguely successful is Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, but here they have the advantage of not having to compete with numerous other recent on-screen versions of the character, plus she isn’t actually in the film that much outside of the climactic battle.)

To understand all is to forgive all, or so the theory goes. I suppose it’s possible to understand the reasoning behind the creative choices the makers of BvS made – the perceived need to be tonally distinct from the Marvel films, the hope of launching a slate of further spin-offs, the desire to (once again) borrow liberally from The Dark Knight Returns, the importance of ‘being taken seriously’ (whatever that means in this context) – but does that excuse the film-makers making such a botch of a premise with so much potential? I have to say I think the answer is no. There’s probably an argument to be had over whether this is just a disappointment or an actual disaster, but what’s inarguable is that it really could and should have been much, much better.

 

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At the moment I seem to be seeing odd resonances between films everywhere, something which is all the more striking when the films themselves are rather different. For instance, I have discovered that The Raid 2 started life several years before the first film, being put on hold while the film-makers tackled a less ambitious project. Meanwhile, John Michael McDonough’s current Calvary is a follow-up to his 2011 film The Guard, and features many of the same performers.

I’ve seen both of these films in the last week, along with Richard Ayoade’s The Double. The Double is a follow-up to Ayoade’s 2011 film Submarine, featuring many of the same performers, but was actually the director’s first choice of debut project, being put on hold in favour of something less demanding. See what I mean? All right, it’s not quite Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but even so.

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Based on a story by Dostoyevsky, The Double is one of those films which acts as a magnet for certain types of comment. One day, no doubt, it will be possible to write about this film without mentioning Brazil or using the word Kafkaesque, but that day has clearly not yet dawned.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a much-misused office drone in a ghastly dystopia located somewhere between the 1950s and the 1980s. His talents are unrecognised, his work is underappreciated, and he’s not getting anywhere with the photocopier girl from work (Mia Wasikowska), either. But then a strange sequence of events culminates in the appearance of a new guy at work – his name is James Simon, and he appears to be Simon’s exact physical duplicate (although, weirdly, no-one seems to notice this). The two are initially friendly, but then the newcomer starts trying to take over Simon’s life and supplant him in the meagre position he’s managed to reach…

As you can tell, this is a surreal, non-naturalistic story, and Ayoade has made the logical choice to set it in a bizarre, non-naturalistic milieu. This is not our world, nor does it pretend to be – but it does bear a striking resemblance to the world of Brazil, with its bulbous ducting, low-tech computers and acres of concrete urban wasteland. I’m not sure whether this is a conscious homage or not; the similarities are just to bit too close for the idea of it being coincidental to really convince. I suspect Ayoade was working with a lower budget than Terry Gilliam, and in any case he’s not quite in the same league as a visual stylist, and so the film is less engaging to look at than Brazil itself was.

In fact, the general look and feel of The Double is much more reminiscent of a whole slew of other British movies from the early 80s, most of them comedies or borderline fantasies: this is the kind of off-the-wall project I can imagine George Harrison putting his money behind back when Handmade Films was a going concern. You may recall the somewhat variable success rate of Handmade productions, and indeed for a while I was starting to think that Ayoade had embarked upon a meticulous attempt at a pastiche of bad British film-making from thirty years ago.

The problem is that the whole thing, while immaculately designed and photographed, is just a bit too detached from reality to really engage the viewer. The tone of it is a little questionable too: if it’s meant to be a black comedy, it’s not really funny enough, and if it’s meant to be a drama (or perhaps even a horror fantasy), it’s not quite dark or extreme enough – there are potential depths of frustration, isolation and paranoia here that the film never manages to access. The fact that, by the time the climax arrives, the film seems rather more concerned with visual style than plot coherence is a problem too.

On the other hand, it would be remiss of me not to say that Ayoade is clearly a talented director, and that the look of the film is not entirely unimpressive. The Double is not a complete failure, and much of the credit for this must go to Jesse Eisenberg, who gives a technically brilliant pair of performances as the strange twins at the heart of the story. Eisenberg is such a distinctive performer that it sometimes seems that people struggle to find roles that do his talent justice – too often he’s just typecast as The Geeky Guy (it will be interesting to see if his forthcoming turn as Lex Luthor in Batman Vs Superman will fall into this category). At least in The Double he gets a chance to show more of his range. It’s much more his film than anyone else’s, but Mia Wasikowska is fine as the love interest, and there are nice, if mainly brief, appearances by the principal cast of Submarine in supporting roles (mainly Yasmin Paige and Noah Taylor).

The Double, appropriately enough, is a film which has a striking similarity to quite a number of other well-known films. Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite managed to replicate their quality. There is a lot to admire about this film, and Richard Ayoade is clearly not one of those people who only had one good film in them – but the fact remains that I found The Double a lot easier to admire than to actually like or enjoy.

 

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Another week, another installment in one man’s odyssey round every Vue multiplex within the M25. Yes, it’s New Cinema Review again, and this time it’s the Vue Islington, offering yet another scam new pricing option – ‘Vue Extreme’, with bigger screens, better sound, and so on. The effect of the giant screen, etc, was really lost on me as I found myself sitting about a quarter of a mile away from it. I was quite impressed by the fact that the theatre actually had an usher who occasionally popped up in an attempt to ush the teenagers going berserk in the aisles – though this was still really just putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. O tempora! O mores!

Once upon a time it was quite unusual for a film to get what is called a day-and-date release – this is when a film is simultaneously unleashed upon audiences around the world. Before theatres went digital, the cost of striking all those extra prints was prohibitive except in the case of the very biggest, and most prone to be pirated, films. To give an example, Attack of the Clones got a day-and-date release, but the first Spider-Man didn’t, arriving in the UK two weeks after its US launch: something almost unthinkable for a major summer blockbuster today.

Now You See Me is a movie which looks like it’s pitching for blockbuster status – a decent stab at an all-star cast, populist director, big set pieces – and yet it’s arriving in the UK six weeks after the States. Possibly this is just one of those things, but possibly not.

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It is, on the face of it, a curious movie anyway: the trailer makes clear this is going to be a polished, slick movie with a twisty-turny plot concerned with multiple levels of ‘reality’ and a degree of gamesmanship in its dealings with the audience. This, put together with certain story elements and the presence in the cast list of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, instantly made me certain that this was a major studio’s first attempt at a Christopher Nolan pastiche.

What suggested that the movie might prove memorable was the fact that the director selected to duplicate Nolan’s wizardry was Louis Leterrier. Now, I have enjoyed every Louis Leterrier film I have seen, and he is the man partly responsible for The Transporter, surely one of the landmark films of the 21st century so far. I love The Transporter, but I also love Inception, and it would be stretching a point to say that the two films share much of a sensibility.

So I turned up to Now You See Me expecting either a pleasant surprise or an uproarious calamity. It is the story of four magicians – an expert in close-up magic, a street hustler, an escapologist and a mentalist – who are played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco (no, me neither), Isla Fisher and Woody Harrelson. (To preserve a sense of mystery about the plot I will not reveal which of the quartet is required to appear in their opening scene wearing a clinging, glittery swimsuit.) Initially working individually, they are assembled by a shadowy figure who provides them with detailed instructions and blueprints to carry out a fiendishly complex plan.

The plan primarily involves doing naughty things with other people’s money: apparently robbing a Parisian bank during a live show in Vegas, for example. The FBI and Interpol take a dim view of this sort of thing and the job of figuring out how they did it is given to Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent. As the FBI is reluctant to suggest that the magicians actually robbed the bank using genuine magic, Ruffalo recruits ex-magician turned professional debunker Morgan Freeman to help him figure out how they did it – but the group’s backer, Michael Caine, does not want to see his investment ruined, especially with all the publicity they are attracting…

Now You See Me is predicated on one simple idea, which underpins the plot and whole philosophy of the film. This is that Magic Is A Good and Wonderful Thing In And Of Itself, and that – by extension – Magicians Are Innately Good And Wonderful People. As a result it is okay for them to rob banks, drive businessmen close to bankruptcy, and break into safes, as long as their victims are established as being Not Nice People. The script really does a number in terms of ensuring that the thieving conjurors come across as good guys, although there’s still the problem that one of their targets ends up going to prison, most likely for the rest of his life, his offence apparently being not much more than having a smug and annoying personality. Hmmm.

That said, the film looks good, it’s energetically directed by Leterrier, and the first half is filled with good set pieces and scenes where charismatic performers like Eisenberg, Caine, Harrelson, and Ruffalo get to trade some quite snappy dialogue. I rather enjoyed all this, and the appearance of Freeman’s character reassured me that this wasn’t going to be some dodgy thriller-fantasy fudge where the ‘magic’ would be left unexplained.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t really hold true for the entire film – some fairly outrageous things go on with barely a sniff of explanation given. There’s a fight sequence between Ruffalo and one of the magicians which almost plays out like something from an episode of The Avengers – the guy seems to disappear into thin air, starts shooting sparks out of his fingers, and so on. It looks good but it’s still a bit nigglesome.

The same can be said for most of the second half of the film – Michael Caine’s character does his own vanishing act, and it all becomes increasingly vague and far-fetched in plot terms. It is all capped off by the sort of twist ending which has you shouting ‘What! That’s completely absurd!’ at the screen. I’m virtually certain the plot of this film doesn’t actually make sense in light of the climactic revelations – even if it does in strictly logical terms, it’s still massively implausible – but the idea of watching it again in order to check really doesn’t appeal at all.

Still, it’s by no means the memorable disaster I was half expecting. Looking back on it from the closing credits Now You See Me is probably not a very good film, but while I was watching it I did quite enjoy it – particularly the first half. It is not deep or clever by any means – but it is glitzy, silly, forgettable, crowd-pleasing fun. All in all, and with all due respect to recent events, this is less Christopher Nolan than it is the Nolan Sisters.

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It’s nice to see older folk developing a taste for travel far from their usual stamping grounds, although this usually takes the form of extended holidays. What’s slightly unusual about the ongoing Tour Grande du Woody Allen is that the celebrated director appears to be working all the way: having already made a number of films in London, Paris and Barcelona, Allen has now pitched up in Rome.

He claims this is simply due to the fact that he can only get funding for his films in Europe now, his American box office just not being strong enough – to be perfectly honest, I’m prepared to believe this, given the rather ropey quality of the recent Allen films I’ve seen. That said, I’m aware that Midnight in Paris was apparently something of a return to form – unfortunately I skipped seeing it in favour of Real Steel, which was probably a mistake. Nevertheless, the considerable success of Midnight has at least ensured that To Rome with Love (a lousy title apparently imposed on Allen) has secured a UK release beyond the confines of the arthouse. But does it warrant it?

Well, this film is a distinctly mixed bag, in tone if not in quality. The tendency towards multiple parallel plotlines which has distinguished many recent Allen movies has reached its logical conclusion, as this is a portmanteau film composed of four different stories which don’t intersect (and the intercutting between them seems a little disingenuous given they clearly occur in vastly different timeframes).

Most similar to recent Allen films is the story of Jesse Eisenberg’s character, who’s an architect living in Rome with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig). When they are visited by Gerwig’s best friend, an implausible free spirit played by Ellen Page, Eisenberg finds himself contending with an intense attraction to Page despite his existing relationship with Gerwig (this would have struck more of a chord with me had the roles of the two women been reversed – i.e. I’m developing a tendresse for Greta Gerwig – but there’s no accounting for taste). The story is coloured by a peculiar conceit where Alec Baldwin appears as a Greek chorus-like character who comments sourly on scenes and debates characters’ actions with them – but it’s made clear he’s not just a dramatic device but a character in his own right. What is clear is that, perhaps self-evidently, Jesse Eisenberg is uniquely well-placed amongst young performers to channel the spirit of Allen himself.

Elsewhere, Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi play young newlyweds in Rome for their honeymoon. Through a series of quirks, Tiberi finds himself having to pass off a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) as his new bride in front of his snooty family, while Mastronardi ends up being romanced by a famous movie star. This section is basically played as gentle farce, quite charmingly sexy in places, and also rather improbable – but engaging and funny all the same.

In perhaps the weakest segment, Roberto Benigni plays a middle-aged clerk who wakes up one day to discover he has inexplicably become a massive celebrity, his every doing now the subject of intense public and media interest. (This bit and the one with the newlyweds is actually performed in subtitled Italian, by the way.) Once again, it’s quite funny, but utterly insubstantial, and it quite clearly couldn’t support a whole movie on its own. Unlike the rest of the film, this part clearly has a message in mind, about the nature of celebrity: it’s not an especially profound one, but neither is it the one most mainstream films might choose to deliver.

However, best of all is a story starring Allen himself as the world’s least visionary avante-garde opera director, in the city to meet his daughters’ future in-laws. To his surprise he discovers that her future father-in-law (Fabio Armilliato) has an astounding singing voice – but only while he’s singing in the shower. The preposterous tale of how Allen sets about exploiting his fabulous discovery despite this trifling inconvenience is told deadpan: it’s utterly silly, but made irresistible by the presence of Allen himself, in his first appearance in one of his own films for ages. He’s as twitchy and neurotic and miserable as ever, and the talent for endless, off-hand one-liners is still there, such as when he frets about his son-in-law’s socialist politics: ‘I could never be a Communist – I can’t even share a bathroom!’ And many, many more. This is the strand of the film you’re always eager to get back to, almost solely due to Allen’s presence in it, and one wonders how much of the weakness in his recent movies is due to his decision to stay behind the camera.

As a whole the film is very entertaining and consistently funny, much moreso than any other recent Allen movie I’ve seen. It’s also flimsy, incredibly whimsical and frothy, with its origins as a marketing ploy for the Rome Tourist Board quite obvious. If you’re not a fan of Woody Allen already, then this is probably not the film to convert you to the cause: but if you’ve been waiting for him to produce another properly funny film, or indeed give another great comic performance himself, then To Rome with Love may be what you’ve been waiting for.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 19th 2009:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to the movie review that’s not afraid to be wrong. Well now, first off this week we look at the latest offering from Ricky Gervais, who’s risen from near-obscurity to international acclaim and bona fide movie stardom in only the time it takes a rather lazy and feckless person to write 170 editions of an intermittently popular internet film review column. Currently he’s on screen in The Invention of Lying, which as usual he co-wrote and directed, on this occasion with Matthew Robinson (fans of the Og-monster can take heart: Gervais’ regular collaborator Stephen Merchant gets a tiny cameo).

Gervais has described this film as an attempt at ‘the funniest Twilight Zone episode ever’ , which isn’t at all misleading, although I don’t recall Rod Serling ever launching a Zone story with an extended comic riff about masturbation, as happens here. Anyway, it’s the story of Mark Bellison (Gervais), an unsuccessful staff writer at a film company. His mum is in a care home and his most recent date with the lovely Anna (Jennifer Garner) was hardly a great success. But his life changes forever when Mark discovers he has the unique, near-supernatural ability to say things that aren’t literally true!

For Mark lives in a world superficially almost identical to our own, but where everyone is completely, literally and brutally honest all the time. All their movies are documentary lectures on historical fact. Their advertising is unrecognisable. People openly admit to the shallowness of their love lives. In this world Mark’s new faculty gives him immense power, as everyone takes every word he says at face value, but it brings unexpected responsibilities with it, too. More importantly, though, is he ever going to get anywhere with Anna in the romance department?

Well, you’re going to find this movie deeply irritating unless you cut it some serious slack right from the start, because the premise is so high-concept it’s practically piercing the ozone layer. Do people in this world have dreams? Don’t they ever use conditional sentences? Isn’t the use of the imagination crucial to our existence as human beings? Forget all these questions and many more, as the film ignores them, and while you’re at it do your best not to notice that a lot of the humour derives not from simple honesty but people apparently lacking any kind of interior monologue and being compelled to say every thought that crosses their minds, which surely isn’t quite the same thing.

This is really a one-joke comedy, but Gervais is tremendously inventive when it comes to continually putting new spins on it. Most striking is a long section in the middle where the film suggests that not only is fiction essentially a kind of lying, but so is religion – there are shades of Life of Brian in how this is articulated. The laughs never stop coming – quite the opposite – but the movie is quite serious in exploring the ramifications of its central idea. At first glance the movie appears rather thought-provoking, but in the end it seems content to simply nose around big and complex ideas rather than do anything with them or come to any kind of conclusion about its main theme – is it okay to lie to people if it makes them happier?

Probably quite sensibly, it doesn’t try too hard to be naturalistic, but Ricky Gervais gives a typically classy deadpan performance in the middle of everything – and hints at having considerable potential as a straight actor, one sequence where he attempts to comfort his sick mother being startlingly moving. Garner is her usual perky self, and it’s presumably a credit to Gervais’ growing international clout that he’s secured cameos from actors of the calibre of Ed Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Barry off EastEnders. The direction is nothing to be ashamed of, but for me the reliance on using classic pop songs to set the atmosphere got wearing – Charlie Kaufman was mercilessly lampooning this six or seven years ago.

It won’t split your sides, and I suspect a lot of people will be left distinctly unimpressed, but I found The Invention of Lying consistently amusing and rather likeable – even if it’s a bit less clever and profound than it probably aspires to be.

Moving on, one fictional milieu which has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years is the good old Zombie Apocalypse, which is so ubiquitous nowadays you wonder if the media know something we don’t. Forty years after its arguable invention, it’s even gone multimedia – in addition to movies like the Resident Evils, the 28… Laters, the fruits of George A Romero’s sudden increase in work-rate, and various others, there are now high-profile Zombie Apocalypse comics (The Walking Dead), TV series (Dead Set), and novels (the utterly brilliant World War Z). It’s getting so it’s difficult for any new project featuring hungry cadavers and the collapse of society to stand out from the (probably quite smelly and slow-moving) crowd.

Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland solves this problem by playing the whole thing for laughs. In this movie Jesse Eisenberg plays Columbus, a fairly useless twitchy geek making his tentative way across the corpse-ridden US after – we’re told – mad cow disease mutates into a zombie-causing strain. Hmm. (Taxonomists of the undead will note that this movie features another sighting of the recently evolved ‘running zombie’, which seems to be competing well with the traditional strain, particularly in relatively low-budget projects which can’t afford vast mobs of extras.) Anyway, he soon hooks up with zombie-hating, cake-loving badass Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a man crazed with a lust for revenge since zombies ate his puppy, and the duo in turn encounter Wichita and Little Rock (the agreeably comely Emma Stone and surprisingly tolerable child-actress Abigail Breslin), sisters who are heading for a supposedly zombie-free enclave outside Los Angeles. (The thing with the weird names is just one of a few slightly laboured elements of a script which in places tries a little too hard to be quirky). Will this odd quartet survive the manky hordes roaming the land of the free?

Hang on, you may be saying: didn’t the peerless Shaun of the Dead do the whole comedy Zombie Apocalypse routine over five years ago, and set the bar extremely high to boot? True, Shaun was my point of reference going into this movie, and to start with Zombieland falls a long way of its standards – the opening sequence just isn’t particularly funny, with the script somehow missing the right beats and the tone distinctly uncertain. But things improve considerably as soon as Harrelson comes on screen, as he gives a barnstorming and endearingly absurd performance which is exactly the thing the film needs. It improves enormously as it goes on and stops trying to be funny and horrific at the same time. In the end it’s not a true comedy-horror fusion, or a parody of zombie movies, but simply a broad and very offbeat comedy (a bit too offbeat to be really credible in places), which adeptly includes effective moments of romance, emotion, and action. Not to mention splatter and pus, of course.

I found myself enjoying it hugely as it went on, but am reluctant to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling the fun. The small cast give likeable performances, the post-apocalyptic landscape is convincingly rendered (well, the electricity’s still on everywhere, but…) and Fleischer’s direction is mostly neat and effective. There are a few whistles and bells with the graphic design (captions whizzing around the screen) which I wasn’t mad about, and the thrashing heavy metal soundtrack didn’t do a lot for me, either, but by the end I was laughing out loud longer and more frequently during Zombieland than The Invention of Lying. My sources (okay, the inter web) tell me it’s done rather well at the box office – and this is one instance in which, if they can keep the quality up, a sequel would be very welcome. It’s definitely a comedy more than anything else, but Zombieland is also a quality piece of work.

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As if we weren’t already deluged with movies based on books, movies based on plays, movies based on comics, movies based on computer games, movies based on theme park rides, and movies based on (for heaven’s sake) toy ranges, it seems we now have to contend with movies based on social networking websites. Presumably iPhone Apps: The Beginning is also on the way. (Oops, I forgot – movies based on board games. Don’t laugh – Battleship: the Movie is currently filming, starring Rihanna.)

I refer, inevitably, to David Fincher’s The Social Network, charting the origins and rise of just such a popular site, which I understand is called ‘Facebook’. The easy capsule plot outline here is ‘how the dream turned sour’, though according to the movie Facebook’s ultimate origins were fairly bitter to begin with, inspired by brilliant but socially inept Mark Zuckerman (Jesse Eisenberg) getting chucked by his girlfriend and executing a spiteful, inspired on-line revenge.
The general direction things will take is signposted early on by the film’s being structured in the form of flashbacks to two separate lawsuits brought against Zuckerman, one by a trio of preppy types who claim he stole their idea, the other by his former best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who believes himself wrongly forced out of the corporation Facebook ultimately became.

I’m the kind of person who’s quite happy to use a website, but who (a smattering of ancient HTML aside) has absolutely no idea how it works. Being sensible people, the film-makers (Fincher and scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame) almost entirely avoid techie jargon and concentrate on the personalities involved. The exact issue of whose idea Facebook actually was is somewhat fudged (probably to avoid the film-makers’ starring in a lawsuit of their own), but the movie goes on to recount its spectacular success as it spreads from being limited to Harvard students, to universities across the USA, to the point where… well, my ‘People You May Know’ box is usually full of Kyrgyzstanis, Taiwanese, and other assorted foreign coves. Along the way Zuckerberg falls under the sway of dangerously glamorous internet entrepreneur Sean Parker (an accomplished turn from a shrewdly-cast Justin Timberlake), at which point the friendship of the two founders comes under increasing and ultimately fatal pressure.

This is a sharp and witty film (as you would expect with an Aaron Sorkin script, you can crack the dialogue like a whip), but not an especially warm one. Of the principal characters, only Saverin emerges as truly likeable. Eisenberg’s central performance is pitched superbly, keeping Zuckerberg just about sympathetic without omitting any of his (allegedly) less attractive qualities. But beyond this, the film casts a somewhat baleful eye across all of its characters and settings – the opening sequence intercuts deftly between Zuckerberg and his pals gleefully hacking into private information in order to set up a fairly misogynistic website from a cramped bedroom, and the privileged Harvard in-crowd pursuing their own, deeply hedonistic interests, and the film appears to find nothing appealing about either of them. And this comes across as simply the wider world in microcosm. The view of society I came away from this film with was of a rigidly hierarchical and ultimately rather unfair and unforgiving construct. (Though, you know, personal opinions may be creeping in there, and what are you going to do? It is, after all, the only game in town.)

'...and if the site really takes off, we may even be able to pay the electricity bill.'

The Social Network has apparently drawn some stick for various reasons, some of them factual – there are claims that the chronology is inaccurate and even (shock horror) that some of the technological details are wrong. I have to admit that as a moviegoer this sort of thing doesn’t particularly bother me, certainly not in comparison with things like story, performance and direction. The Social Network scores notable hits in all of these areas, and everyone involved seems to agree that the general thrust of the story is true. And it’s not like it’s being marketed as a documentary, or anything. (And if Mark Zuckerberg truly objected to the way he’s depicted here, surely he could have bought the film company and had the negatives burned, or deleted, or whatever.) It’s a compelling and entertaining account of something of at least passing interest to a massive number of people in the world today, with thoughtful things to say about the way we live. And if it isn’t the truth, as John Ford once said, go ahead and print the legend.

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