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Now You See Me (2013)

Now You See Me

When I was young and gullible, my parents took me to shows which featured stage magicians. The old music halls were closing down but there were still two venues in Newcastle, our nearest city, which continued something approximating the old traditions. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was lucky enough to work professionally with a man who did both stage and close-up magic. Suffice it to say, I remain in awe of the man’s manual dexterity. I never tired of watching him perform. Even when you know what you’re looking for, it’s still hard to see. So when a film based on large-scale illusions comes to the cinema, how can I not want to see how it’s done. We start off with an introduction to the core cast who are going to go on to do the big tricks. At the outset, they are J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) a street-magician who likes to pick up girls, Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), a shakedown hypnotist who likes to fund his lifestyle through gifts from his victims, Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) a pickpocket thief who can run fast, and Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), an escape artist with a faintly macabre twist involving piranas. They are all head-hunted and left a calling card. When the four turn up at the designated address, they are remotely given the blueprints for a stage magic show and become The Four Horsemen at Las Vegas. The highlight of this show is that they rob a bank in Paris for Etienne Forcier (José Garcia).

The four magicians and sponsor Michael Caine

The four magicians and sponsor Michael Caine

 

At the Vegas show, we have Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) as their sponsor and Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). When they apparently complete the theft of 3.2 million euros, Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) an Interpol agent, comes to join the FBI Special Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo). When they realise the problem in proving the magicians actually stole the money from the French bank, they ask Thaddeus for help. He used to be a magician and now makes his living telling the world how tricks are done. He deconstructs this bank heist and shows how the mark was selected from the audience and the money stolen (not from the bank, of course). But all this is supposition, so now the pair of investigators bide their time and wait for the magicians to make a mistake (Hah! As if that’s ever going to happen in a film like this!).

Morgan Freeman

Morgan Freeman

 

The Four Horsemen now move on to New Orleans for a $140 million distraction when they reveal Arthur Tressler as the head of an insurance company that bilked every member of the audience out of money for their insurance claims. So this is (at least) three tricks conceived years in the past that play out in the present. For the audience, the challenge is to work out what’s real and who’s responsible. Someone had to recruit these four “lost” magicians and give them the magic tricks to perform. Setting up the Paris trick was months in the planning and execution. We’re to take it on trust that the four would have done all this with the threat of criminal proceedings and jail waiting at the end, just for the prestige (borrowing that word from another film). I think I’m prepared to believe this. Some people, whether as performers or just “lucky” picks, would go along with a plan like this for the celebrity or notoriety it will bring. After all they are exposing injustice. Like Robin Hood, they have a higher purpose in their criminal activities.

Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent

Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent

 

At 115 minutes, it’s almost too long. It starts at a terrific pace and charges through the set-up and first magic show without pausing for breath. The narrative then gets a little fuzzy because we must necessarily keep track of the investigators, the sponsor, the magic consultant and the four. I was still breathless at the end of the “trick” in New Orleans but it all gets a little bloated when the FBI close in on the Four’s base in New York, we have the chase culminating in the crash on the bridge, and then the big disappearing act. That’s all not quite overblown. Then we’re back up to speed again for the whodunnit at the end. While watching, I don’t think it matters that certain prerequisites for the plot to work are outrageously unlikely if not actually absurd. Half the fun of films like this is suspending disbelief long enough to get the end end without the brain kicking in to pick holes in the detail of the plot. This plays a good game. I guessed early on which piece of the history was significant but, until we get the the end, we’re not told precisely how it all fits together in the present. The glue that sticks it all together is Morgan Freeman. He’s the wonderfully unreliable ex-magician who’s making money out of his promises to explain the tricks these Four are performing. Let’s be honest here. If anyone should be able to see how a trick is being done, it’s an ex-magician, right? Everyone else just slots into a strong ensemble cast with Michael Caine doing a cameo of his gangster as businessman persona. It’s not perfect as tricks go but, given the poor quality of the films so far in 2013, Now You See Me is one of the better efforts to hit the screens.

 

Oblivion (2013)

May 15, 2013 2 comments

Oblivion poster

I suppose Oblivion (2013) makes a change. Instead of dealing with the crash-bang defeat of an alien invasion and stopping the cameras rolling before Earth gets to do the clean-up operation, removing all the damaged and destroyed buildings and the bodies of the aliens we managed to slaughter, this film starts off with the notion that the aliens turned up and attacked the moon. Don’t you just love science fiction. Knowing they could never hope to defeat Earth’s military might, they took on the one target they knew they could beat. Oh, and of course, substantial destruction of the moon changed the gravitational effect of said moon and there were earthquakes and tsunamis down here that pretty much did in Earth’s defences. Pretty sneaky, huh? Except the military had enough nuclear firepower to defeat these pesky creatures when they did land. The price of Earth’s victory? Contamination on an epic scale.

At this point, i.e. about two minutes into the film, we get a major inconsistency in the narrative. If Earth was seriously damaged by all this, how come we could develop the technology to build this superduper space station and go into residence around Titan? This is clearly beyond our abilities, even without the odd high tide washing over cities. More importantly, if Earth didn’t beat all these scavenger beings and they hang around still attacking our hero, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), why not get more systematic to exterminate them before settling into a life in outer space to wait for the planet to heal? Failure on this front means they breed while we’re away and can build defences to stop us coming back. We’re also immediately shown that “they” are messing with our hero’s memories. He keeps getting flashbacks to the pre-invasion Earth and sees this dominant image of a woman. This must be some imperfection from the last security memory wipe which occurred almost five years ago. Except Jack is obviously an unreliable narrator and we can’t trust anything he claims to remember. His minder (and lover), Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), is apparently there to keep Jack on mission and acting within the “rules” laid down by Sally (Melissa Leo), the liaison officer in command from the space station.

Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise in the mile high club

Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise in the mile high club

So we hypothesise that the aliens won and, having wiped Jack’s memories, are now using him to repair their drones while they steal our water. The images of the beached ships and odd bits of building left exposed are quite impressive and confirm destruction on an epic scale. Assuming this is replicated across the planet, it’s inconceivable humanity survived in any numbers. As you would therefore expect, this homely drone maintenance engineer and his consort believe they are the only folk left on Earth and they have one of these idyllic homes perched on top of a mountain while he completes the establishment of the drone network (except the trailer has already shown us that Beech (Morgan Freeman) is alive and well and living in semidarkness so he can see where the end of his cigar is to light it when he strikes a match). His sidekick is Sykes (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who looks difficult to kill. OK so what’s the verdict after ten minutes? It seems Earth has also developed antigravity because these drones move around without regard to little constraints like mass and momentum. There’s also this nifty flying thingamagummy for Jack to patrol his allocated quadrant which is also way beyond anything we could have developed.

For the record, not one bit of the “science” in this science fiction film makes any sense. If aliens blew up the moon, we could have a ring like Saturn which would be really cool when the sun shines on it or there could be a big dust cloud which would have substantially the same mass as the moon in solid form, i.e. have the same gravitational effect. If the moon was pushed away, the sun would take over as the dominant gravitational force and we’d get high tide at noon every day. Oh, and people would stop changing into wolves when the moon was full. The assertion Earth would have been pulled to pieces because of this sneak attack is ludicrous. The only point of this scenario is to justify the montage of CGI images that provide a context for the actors to say their lines which, for the most part, are ditchwater dull and make little sense.

Morgan Freemen and Nikolaj Coster Waldau looking stealthy

Morgan Freemen and Nikolaj Coster Waldau looking stealthy

Perhaps we can save the film by dignifying it as an SFnal examination as to the meaning of identity. You know the kind of thing. We are the sum of all we remember so, if there’s an artificial block on our memories, our character changes. Why? Because if we can no longer remember how we reacted in the past, experience stops guiding us in the present. Except all this film does is prove these damn fool aliens don’t have a mind machine to beat the mind of Tom Cruise. He’s back in the past remembering football games and this woman on top of the Empire State Building. You just can’t keep the mind of a good hero down. It bears mentioning that the main plot set-up and twist is the same as in Moon (2009) which was not unlike Eutamnesia (2000). It’s difficult to be genuinely original when there have been so many books and films on this theme. So perhaps we can say the CGI is great and the action exciting? Well, the first fight sequence is chaotic and the behaviour of the drone makes little sense. Then an old piece of technology crashes and, after forcing the drones to pull away, Jack rescues Julia (Olga Kurylenko). She’s been in suspended animation for sixty (or more) years and, yes, she’s the girl he keeps remembering. What? Earth had suspended animation technology? Perhaps they also had stealth technology as well.

At this point, lots of stuff happens and then it ends. Perhaps this would not have been too bad if it had only been a ninety minute film but, at one-hundred-and-twenty-four minutes, it feels like Purgatory. It’s an excuse to watch Tom Cruise ride his motorbike, fly this cool thingamagummy and shoot at whatever moves (and do environmentally sustainable things in a patch of jungle). Andrea Riseborough is there to look good and prove that the alien mind machine works on women. Olga Kurylenko is there as the “other woman” and to perpetuate the species. Morgan Freeman lights up the screen and his cigar for about ten minutes. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is effectively invisible. For me Oblivion is appropriately named because that’s where the film should be consigned.

Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

Olympus Has Fallen

Olympus Has Fallen (2013) starts with Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), our hero, and the President (Aaron Eckhart) practising their boxing before the First Family sets off for a fund-raising bash. This establishes that neither of them know how to fight for real and that the President is a good sport, not minding too much if an underling hits him in the mouth. Then it’s off into the snow and ice for the excitement of a midnight dip and a tragedy to reset the First Family’s dynamic. As is then required, eighteen months pass and the tensions rise on the Korean peninsula — this is a coincidence, of course, not cause and effect. Even to my jaded ears, Gerard Butler’s attempt at an American accent sounds unconvincing. He’s even less convincing as a lover and he’s definite not a model employee — the President has transferred him because he can’t stand seeing the men who were there on that night or perhaps he just can’t stand hearing the accent mangled. Whatever the reason, he’s all whiney and depressed. The opening sequence is slow-moving and, not to put too fine a point on it, boring.

Gerard Butler

Gerard Butler

 

Finally the pace begins to pick up with a low-flying plane coming into restricted airspace while a convoy of vehicles brings the South Korean Prime Minister through the streets and into the White House. Then the plane shoots down the two jets sent to intercept and starts shooting at targets around the White House. This spooks the President into his bunker, thoughtfully taking the visiting South Korean team with him even though it’s “against protocol”. Films like this would just die if people did what they are supposed to do. The attack on the ground then gets more systematic as tourists suddenly turn into commandos. Amazingly, it takes Gerard Butler almost thirty-five minutes to fight his way into the White House and the rest of the film to get back out again. The only note of originality during this attack is the use of Washington sanitation vehicles as covert armored vehicles. Needless to say, all the permanent guards and secret service agents are mown down as the White House falls into enemy hands. Uncharacteristically, the US Army turns up too late to do anything. They’re usually more gung-ho than this. When Kang (Rick Yune) the leader of this Korean strike force, confirms he’s holding the President hostage, this is a low moment for America and the music plays like a funeral march as international hubris is rewarded with local failure. Fortunately Gerard Butler is scrabbling around in the dark looking for the President’s son. The result is inevitable. We then come to the McGuffin. Every film worth its salt has to have a device of some sort. This film has the Cerberus computer system. If three codes are entered into the White House system, the terrorists can abort any nuclear missile launch. The Speaker (Morgan Freeman) takes over as acting President and lengthens his vowel sounds to sound, well, Presidential.

Rick Yune

Rick Yune

 

It’s not hard to say why this film fails to generate any thrills. It’s doing everything by the 1980s playbook and, since we’ve seen it all before, it’s no longer thrilling. The plot takes the plodding route. First, introduce the hero and establish a relationship with the President and his son. Establish the political scenario on the Korean peninsula and then stage the titular attack. Except it’s all the worst kind of melodrama without any depth or subtlety. For example when the Koreans spot our hero on the surveillance cameras, they identify him. One says, “We don’t need to worry about him.” and the President makes a whispered aside, “You should.” which says a great deal about the quality of the dialogue and its ability to maintain suspense rather than deflate it with unintended humour. Worse, a lot of the action takes place in semidarkness with the sub-Hans Zimmer heavy chords supposedly signalling how exciting all this is. Except it blatantly is not exciting. It’s just one cliché after another. So Gerard Butler starts torturing some of the Koreans he’s captured. His approach is literally laughable. Or to put it another way, the dialogue produced laughs from those around me which is not what you expect from a torture scene. Apart from this, the whole package is a third-rate rerun of the Die Hard scenario. He’s an insubordinate lone wolf in a violent quest to defeat terrorists who have taken over a building. All the scriptwriters have done is change the building to the White House which, fortunately, is insured against all the usual catastrophic events visited upon it by Hollywood. To tell us Gerard Butler is a hard man with a ruthless streak, he says “fuck” a lot. To show he’s also got a brain, he also uses the adjectival, gerund and adverbial forms of “fuck” as well.

Aaron Eckhart

Aaron Eckhart

 

Perhaps it’s just the 13 in 2013 that’s giving me such a run of bad luck, but every film so far apart from Iron Man 3 has ranged between bad and catastrophically awful. This film has a terrible plot that makes no sense a lot of the time, incredibly bad dialogue, badly-lit action scenes, poor CGI, wooden acting from almost everyone, only token women, and ghastly sentimentalism cast as patriotism in the final speeches. You should only go to see Olympus Has Fallen as a paid member of a focus group to analyse why this film is so bad and to offer advice to the producers on how to avoid making a turkey of this size in the future.

 

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

October 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Watching this film prompts the question of why we watch films. It would be too easy to start and stop with the idea that films are something we find amusing or diverting. This would pitch the expectation at a level equivalent to something relatively light and frothy. While it would not deny the possibility of some intellectual weight, the “intelligence” of the script or the performances would be less than obvious, perhaps something we might only pick up in the post mortem when the other ideas had been fully explored. Yet Gone Baby Gone manages the clever trick of being a very sophisticated exploration of a moral dilemma and entertaining, i.e. it has people investigating a kidnapping and shooting at each other (or into the air at one point). So, in the conventional sense, it’s pandering to an audience that likes thrillers while inviting them to look beyond the superficial action and see something more interesting to talk about in the pub afterwards.

Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan consider whether to take the case

 

As an example, let’s take a brief look back at a previous morality tale. The Accused (1988) has Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster) raped by multiple attackers. The point of the film is to explore the gray area of liability for spectators who cheer on the rapists. If the original producers were to make a sequel, they might suppose Sarah is pregnant and proposes to have an abortion. Relying on his religiously inspired moral stance against abortion, one of the rapists asserts his paternal rights and petitions the court for an injunction to prevent the abortion. Well, we all know the action would fail. While the child is still a part of the mother’s body, it’s her right to determine what should happen. Fathers have no status when it comes to deciding the fate of their potential children. This is not to say there may be local laws controlling the legality of the abortion but, for the purposes of our potential drama, let’s assume that the victims of rape are allowed to abort.

Ed Harris and John Ashton try to get the truth out of Amy Ryan

 

If someone were to make this sequel, it would run the risk of being preachy on an inflammatory issue. In many countries, abortion is highly controversial and no matter what line the script took, it would upset one side of the polarised debate. So, coming back to Gone Baby Gone, it invites the viewers to consider a simple question. Assuming kidnapping a child is always a crime, are there circumstances in which the commission of this crime would be in the best interests of the child? This is a film based on the book of the same name by Dennis Lehane. It’s the fourth in the series featuring Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angela Genaro (Michelle Monaghan). The couple operate as private detectives, specialising in finding those who have disappeared. Against her better judgement, they take the case and immediately find themselves pitched into a difficult family situation. It’s immediately obvious the mother, Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) is a hopeless addict who cares nothing for her daughter. As more evidence emerges, it appears this mother may have been involved in various criminal activities during which she came into possession of a large sum of money. A criminal interested in recovering this money would have a motive for kidnapping her daughter.

Morgan Freeman, the ever reliable performer

 

Once our private detectives get on the trail, they find two senior police officers more than helpful: Ed Harris and John Ashton. Their boss, Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) also seems to mellow as the investigation proceeds. A second child then goes missing and a tip comes to Patrick Kenzie identifying the possible abductor. This results in more co-operation with the police, but the outcome is not what Patrick might have hoped for. Since private detective heroes must always be competent, they eventually find the girl but must then decide what to do about it. If you take the view the interests of the child are the first and paramount consideration, you might condone the crime and leave her where she is. But if you trust the system, you might call in the police, send the kidnappers to jail, and wait for the state to declare the mother unfit and find a good foster home. Except who would trust the state with something as important? Only someone self-righteous who would always want to uphold the letter of the law. Which is why I mentioned the abortion issue. One side assets its right to impose its morality on the mother in the belief it knows best. Here our two private detectives get to decide what’s best for the child. For those of you who like to follow loose ends, the question of what happened to the kidnapped child is explained by Dennis Lehane in Moonlight Mile, published in 2010.

Dennis Lehane, author of Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island and Mystic River

 

Gone Baby Gone is elegantly adapted for screen and directed by Ben Affleck making an auspicious debut behind the camera. Although there’s not a little nepotism in the casting of Casey Affleck as Patrick Kenzie, the result is impressive. Similarly, Ed Harris puts in one of his better performances, the two actors standing out in what is otherwise an ensemble cast — sadly, Michelle Monaghan is not given much to do as Angela Genaro. This is more at the brain food end of the entertainment scale but, by my standards, that make it one of the better films of the last decade. It should also be said that Dennis Lehane is a consistently impressive author and, if you have not already done so, you should read his books.

 

For a review of another film directed by Ben Affleck, see Argo.

 

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