Sunday, June 30, 2013

"The Lone Ranger" Review

This Independence Day, Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski brings us his edgy update of The Lone Ranger, which sees the Native American warrior Tonto (Johnny Depp) recounting the untold tale of John Reid's transformation from a mild-mannered lawman into the masked legend of justice known as The Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer).

The script from Pirates scribes Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio and Snitch writer Justin Haythe delivers nonstop humor and action, as well as a plot riddled with twists and endearing characters. In essence, it's everything that a great summer movie should be.

If you're going to do a big-budget reboot properly, the top priority for a filmmaker is to stay true to the spirit of the source material. Anything else, such as fleshing out characters more deeply, is just a bonus. Not only does Verbinski's Lone Ranger stay true to its campy Wild West roots; it tackles many of the familiar tropes from the old radio and television programs with a wicked, often gleefully self-deprecating sense of humor. The Lone Ranger's classic "Hi, ho Silver!" is met with a blunt "Never do that again!" from Tonto. There are also roughly two or three instances where Tonto breaks the fourth wall in his recounting of the story in hilariously unexpected fashion. I found myself laughing so often that I had to do some research afterwards to assure myself that this film, in fact, was not intended to be a comedy so much as it was to be a western with comedic elements.

Furthermore, longtime fans of The Lone Ranger should be pleased to know that the film's musical score DOES include Rossini's rousing "William Tell Overture", which has served as the theme music for The Lone Ranger since his earliest appearances on radio in the 1930s and 40s. Watching stars Depp and Hammer miraculously weave their way across two runaway trains, beating up bad guys, with all of the action set to Rossini's music is some of the most fun I've had at the movies all year.

As for the leads, they're nothing short of stellar. Depp goes all in with the makeup once again in his role as the Lone Ranger's Native American sidekick, Tonto. He is a blast to watch, as usual, and successfully drives most of the film's humor; though his character takes several cues from Captain Jack Sparrow, be it with facial expressions or the way he convinces himself of the relevance of some inanimate objects. (Here it's a dead crow, but remember the "jar of dirt", the Aztec medallion, or that weird scene with the crabs disguised as rocks in Pirates 3?)

Hammer plays the unlikely titular hero with aplomb, even though his name and good looks may recommend him more for a role in Thor. He perfectly embodies the fish-out-of-water qualities that make his character so endearing. Hammer's John Reid knows that he must protect the Wild West from the fiendish likes of Butch Cavendish (a disgustingly, gleefully sinister William Fichtner) and his train-robbin', silver-stealin' gang. The fascinating problem for Reid is that he must decide whether to be true to his college-educated self by apprehending the villains and allowing them to stand trial or remain loyal to his unlikely partner (Depp) by embracing the mask of the Lone Ranger and demanding blood. Hammer's chemistry with Depp is near-perfect, as the two make for a wonderfully mismatched duo.

Any major faults with The Lone Ranger can be attributed to its sense of campiness. There are several  ham-fisted stunts that get harder and harder to forgive as things move along. But even so, you can't help but smile and call Tonto a badass for non-chalantly walking across a ladder from the roof of one speeding train to another, just to have the ladder hit a tree and shatter into a thousand tiny splinters the moment he steps off. There's also a decent amount of violence, even for a PG-13 Disney movie. The ambiance isn't quite as dark as Pirates of the Caribbean, but the violence is more frequent and more intense. Scenes of cannibalism, blood, gunplay and drowning are depicted in a fairly non-graphic manner, but think twice before bringing children under the age of 10.

All in all, credit the screenwriters for a strong script that maintains its reverence for the source material while refusing to take itself too seriously. Credit both Verbinski and Pirates producer Jerry Bruckheimer for taking the appropriate creative liberties to ensure that an 80-year-old property would feel new and exciting to young audiences while still allowing fans of the original material to take a walk down Memory Lane.

A surprising sense of humor, a fair dose of intense Wild-West action and fine performances from Hammer and Depp allow The Lone Ranger to zoom past expectations like a runaway train. All the ingredients for a perfect summer blockbuster are here, and Verbinski and company darn-near pull it off. This is as entertaining a time as you're likely to have at the movies all year.


Saturday, June 22, 2013

"World War Z" Review

Did you know that Max Brooks, the author of the book "World War Z", is the son of legendary comedian Mel Brooks? Who knew the spawn of the guy who conceived such comedy classics as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein would be into horror? I guess the apple does fall far from the tree.

Prior to seeing the film version of Brooks' novel, I knew very little about the source material. I'd heard it was good from folks who had read it but that the movie would deviate very much from the way the book was presented, much to the ire of fans. As I haven't read the book myself yet, I can't quite comment on the dissimilarities, so I'll just voice my opinion on the movie itself instead.

Anyways, the film version of World War Z features Brad Pitt in a stellar turn as Gerry Lane, a former United Nations employee who's called back into the line of duty when the world is stricken by an unprecedented zombie pandemic. With his family granted asylum on a UN aircraft carrier, Gerry traverses the globe in a race against time and nature to find a cure.

Director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace) manages to craft quite the summer blockbuster out of a reported budget north of $200 million and a script from Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom), Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) and Damon Lindelof (Prometheus, TV's Lost).

World War Z is unlike any zombie movie or television show out there. It elevates the traditional zombie-horror genre to epic heights that have never been reached before in terms of scope and scale. However, many zombie enthusiasts will undoubtedly find fault with the film's PG-13 rating. This isn't so much a horror film about zombies as it is just another blockbuster action film. It's less frightening than an episode of The Walking Dead, and it's almost entirely devoid of Romero-grade blood and guts. It would be a mistake to approach this film with the expectation that it's going to be a terrifying bloodbath because it isn't. At all.

Even though the action may be devoid of the gore that zombie fans crave, that's not to say that Forster doesn't include any dazzling set pieces. Whether it's a horde of "zekes", as they're often referred to in the film, scaling a hundred-foot wall or cascading over each other like rushing water through the streets of Jerusalem, there are plenty of heart-stopping action sequences to marvel at here. Having said that, I was unimpressed by the CGI work on the zombies. The horde scenes are cool, but they look incredibly cartoonish.

The biggest problem with World War Z is, by and large, the story. That seems to be a theme with
most of this summer's blockbusters. What starts off as a riveting tale of one family's struggle for survival quickly becomes "Brad Pitt versus the zombies". His family falls by the wayside, becoming superfluous to the story between the film's 30 minute mark and 114 minute mark, just a minute or two shy from the end. The talented Mireille Enos (TV's The Killing) is squandered as Karin Lane, Gerry's wife. It'll take more than a few staticky phone calls from half a world away in order to keep your damsel-in-distress relevant, Gerry!

Before closing, I'd like to throw a bone to Matthew Fox who must be struggling for work after last year's dismal Alex Cross. Fox is a tremendously talented actor, as exemplified by his turn as Jack on TV's Lost; but his talent is given no room to shine in World War Z. His character is a nameless military man for the UN who is kept so quiet, you'd hardly know it was Fox. He barely shows his face and speaks roughly two lines. I don't know why Forster didn't just have a nameless actor fill the role.

Forster's World War Z is an adaptation that, apparently, deviates heavily from its source material. The story presented by Carnahan, Goddard and Lindelof feels disjointed in terms of character relations as Gerry constantly works with different people around the globe, allowing little time for emotional investment from the audience. The story would've been stronger if it simply focused on the family's fight for survival as a unit, which is how it started. It should've stayed that way.

The CGI isn't that impressive, and the zombie violence is tamer than any given episode of The Walking Dead. But bravura set pieces, intense action and a stellar performance from Pitt are just enough to recommend World War Z as a serviceable summer blockbuster. This would be a fine one to rent when it comes out on BluRay.


Friday, June 21, 2013

"The Bling Ring" Review

Just when you thought it was safe to unlock your doors...

The Bling Ring is the latest feature from writer/director Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation). It tells the true story of a group of fame-obsessed teenagers who use the internet to track the whereabouts of different celebrities in an effort to rob their homes.

There's little more to the story than that. The Bling Ring is meant to serve as a cautionary tale that reveals the trouble with our culture's obsession with luxury. It's true that no amount of money, pearls, Louboutin shoes, Rolex watches or stolen Porches can buy happiness, and the kids learn this lesson the hard way. It's just a shame nobody bothered to teach them this lesson in the first place.

There's no sense of purpose to the action. I never grasped any sense of remorse until it was too late for the characters, and even then, the tears felt like an act. I didn't fully understand WHY they were robbing Paris Hilton and Orlando Bloom. Was it some sort of Robin Hood complex? Steal from the rich to make their own lives richer? Coppola never delves deep enough into the psychology behind what's onscreen, and in turn everything comes off as superficial. Her screenplay robs these characters of any real depth. In the end, I felt nothing for these kids as they earned their comeuppance.

But I'll be damned if they don't look good doing it. Israel Broussard (The Chaperone), Katie Chang (A Birder's Guide to Everything), Emma Watson (Harry Potter 1-7), Claire Julien (daughter of Dark Knight cinematographer Wally Pfister) and Taissa Farmiga (TV's American Horror Story) certainly kept my attention for the brisk 90-minute run time. They're not just beautiful people; they're capable actors as well. That is, until late in the film when I was ready to just strangle somebody.

My favorite actress of the film, Watson, also played my least favorite character, Nicki. She would've been fine, and I couldn't keep my jaw wired shut while oogling at how gorgeous she was. But the ending ruins her entire character. Maybe that's the point, but I just couldn't help hating Nicki once the credits rolled. If you see the movie, you'll understand why.

I'd say the best thing The Bling Ring has going for it is the cinematography from Chris Blauvelt (Zodiac) and the late Harris Savides (American Gangster). The film is impeccably shot, with my favorite sequence being the single-take robbery of Audrina Patridge's home. The walls are essentially all glass, allowing the cinematographers to get a single, wide-angle shot of the entire exterior of the house while still capturing all the activity going on inside. Watching the actors scurry about the house from this perspective makes them look like mice in a maze, trying to grab whatever elusive pieces of cheese they can find before the authorities arrive. It's a very clever way to break away from the editing frenzy of the rest of the film.

Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring is a cautionary tale about our fame-obsessed culture. That purpose is clear, but the execution is sloppy. Capable acting performances from gorgeous leads and stellar cinematography aren't enough to cure the characters of their idiocy or contribute any sense of depth to the story. If Coppola had explored more of the psychology behind these luxury-obsessed teenagers rather than tell a straightforward account of the crimes they committed, the movie would've been much more engrossing.


(*doubled for Emma Watson)

"Monsters University" Review

Another year, another animated adventure from Pixar.

Following up last year's Oscar-winning Brave is Monsters University, a prequel that sees several familiar faces from the studio's 2001 hit Monsters, Inc return to the screem - I mean... screen. 

The story chronicles the relationship between Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) when it was in its infancy - a time when the two weren't always best pals. Forced to work together in order to salvage their tainted reputations after the two cause a disturbance during the semester scare exam, Mike and Sulley join the misfit brothers of Oozma Kappa fraternity in order to compete in the annual Scare Games. The catch? If OK wins, all members receive admittance into MU's prestigious Scare School. But if they lose, Mike and Sulley will be expelled from campus. Can they pull it off and prove Dean Hardscrabble (a shudder-inducing Helen Mirren) and the rest of the naysayers wrong?

Monsters University is one of those movies that has absolutely no reason to exist besides milking the familiar, 12-year-old brand at the box office. But once you've seen it, everything about Monsters, Inc. makes much more sense. For all it's worth, I'm glad this movie exists.

Pixar's level of creativity isn't at its zenith here simply because they didn't have to invent an entirely new cast of characters or deviate that far in their conceptualization of how the Monster world should look. That being said, the attention to detail and the depth lent to the animation has never been better. The color palate appears to be infinite, with no two shades ever being the same. The apparent use of every color known to man, or monster for that matter, creates a sense of wide-eyed wonder for the audience. Just as Mike steps off the bus to marvel at MU's sweeping campus for the first time, the audience may as well have stepped off the bus right behind him.

In addition to the gorgeous animation, I can't give enough praise to the screenplay written by Robert L. Baird (Chicken Little), Daniel Gerson (Monsters, Inc.) and Dan Scanlon (Cars). The dialogue is hilarious with loads of clever references to the first film, including the origin of Sulley's scaring rivalry with Randall (Steve Buscemi) and the first sighting of CDA agent 001. It's also fascinating just to witness the relationship between the leads begin with nothing more than contempt and blossom into the friendship that audiences know from Monsters, Inc. Quite the exercise in character development.

And don't get me started on the climax! I'm still geeking out about it! The writers elect to go with a big twist followed by, quite literally, a slam-bang (or stomp-roar) horror sequence that will have adults on the edge of their seats. If they were trying to find a way to top the rousing door chase sequence from the first film, they succeeded. 

Personally, I feel the same about Monsters University as I do about Toy Story 3. It's not so much a kid's movie as it is an animated movie made for the kids, like me, who grew up watching Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story. Toy Story 3 has a much more powerful emotional resonance than Monsters U. But as a college student I appreciate the humor much more than the six-year-old sitting next to me might. That being said, the film doesn't merit anything harsher than a G-rating. This isn't a cartoon version of Old School. No potty-humor; no cheeky, adult pop-culture references. Just good, old-fashioned fun that anyone ages 4 to 104 can enjoy.

That brings me to mention the star-studded cast of voice actors which features such big names, you'd think you were watching an animated feature from DreamWorks. Billy Crystal, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi reprise their respective roles as Mike, Sulley and Randall. Helen Mirren replaces James Coburn's Waternoose as the story's seasoned authority figure and head of Monsters University, Dean Hardscrabble. Mike and Sulley's Oozma Kappa brothers are voiced by Charlie Day, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Joel Murray and Peter Sohn, with Day's fun-loving Art stealing the show. Rounding out the cast are Alfred Molina as Professor Knight, the Scaring 101 teacher; Parks and Recreation's Aubrey Plaza as the president of Greek Council; Nathan Fillion as Johnny Worthington, president of the snobby Roar Omega Roar fraternity, and John Krasinski as Frank McCay, an employee of Monsters, Inc. and Mike's inspiration to attend Monsters University. Oh, and keep an eye out for another special cameo from John Ratzenberger, who's had a role in all of Pixar's feature films to date.

Monsters University is a prequel that has no business existing, but the human world is better with it than without it. While not quite a peak in creativity, dazzling animation, impeccable voice acting and a script riddled with smart, clean humor as well as a rousing climax make this a more than welcome return to form for Pixar Animation Studios. As a college student who can relate to much of the monstrous onscreen madness, I'd say that not only did I get more enjoyment out of this movie than Monsters, Inc., but Monsters University is the most unadulterated fun I've had at the movies this Summer, if not of 2013. Don't miss it.

9.5 / 10

Saturday, June 15, 2013

"Man of Steel" Review

"Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane!"

It's Superman like you've never seen him before!

This week, 300 director Zack Snyder brings us Man of Steel, a highly-anticipated re-imagining of Superman from screenwriter David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight) and producer Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight).

A baby from the dying planet Krypton is sent to Earth by his parents (Russell Crowe, Ayelet Zurer) in the wake of a coup staged by Krypton's ruthless military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon), who wants the baby in order to begin colonizing another world. The child crashes in the corn field of Kansas farmers Johnathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane respectively), and in turn the Kents raise the abandoned alien child as their own. As the boy grows up, he begins to hone his superhuman abilities, much to the chagrin of townsfolk like Mrs. Ross (Heidi Kettenring), who asks questions as to how one boy was able to drag a sinking school bus full of kids, including her son, to safety. Soon the boy, Clark, realizes that he is not a child of Earth and that he must keep his extraterrestrial heritage and abilities as secrets, even though he owes it to himself to one day find out the reason for his placement on Earth, as his father says.

When Clark grows into a young man (Henry Cavill), he finds a Kryptonian ship buried in ice while working with an excavation crew and uses that ship to discover his purpose of being sent to Earth: to act as an ideal of hope and good for the humans. Clark's new mission is put to the test when Zod threatens to destroy Earth in order to make way for a new Krypton.

It's an origin story that audiences have seen before in 1978's Superman: The Movie and 2006's Superman Returns. But this time around, Snyder, Nolan and Goyer have ramped up the action while also trying to humanize Superman in a way similar to that of Batman in Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy.

For the most part, it works. Man of Steel is a blast, even if it isn't quite the next Dark Knight.

It was surprising to see Man of Steel shift from Superman's short time as baby Kal-El on the planet Krypton to him being bearded and full grown, working in conditions one might see on an episode of "Deadliest Catch" in the very next scene. To cover the backstory that appears to be skipped over, the scenes featuring Kal-El growing up in Kansas as Clark Kent are presented mostly as daydream sequences, bouncing back and forth between Clark finding his way as Superman and finding his way as a child.

Those sequences with him as a child are where Man of Steel is strongest. The drama is thick, with Clark constantly treading a thin line between maintaining his human facade and revealing his superhuman abilities to the world, questioning himself every step of the way. It's fascinating, and the acting performances featuring Costner and Lane as Clark's human parents and Dylan Sprayberry as Clark at age 13 are stellar.

Sadly, Man of Steel undercuts itself once Zod invades about a third of the way into the movie. This is where the action really picks up. A flurry of Transformers-grade destruction and good-looking CGI make the spectacle of the action scenes both believable and satisfying. Having said that, there's a noticeable shift in tone and focus when Superman wraps up an epic, high-flying fight scene with General Zod and then flashes back to his humble beginnings in Smallville, Kansas. By cutting between the non-stop action and Superman's days as a child, Snyder allows his film to shift tone and focus constantly. There's no consistency, and that's what proves to be the kryptonite, if any, for Man of Steel.

Otherwise, the movie itself is a whole lot of fun. Henry Cavill (Immortals) proves to be a wonderful Superman, despite a few creative liberties with the suit that purists may not appreciate. No red underwear this time, folks.

As Superman, Cavill brings a brooding presence while still maintaining much of the small-town charm his character was raised with in Kansas. He truly feels like the people's hero; like any human who would choose to face the invaders at Earth's door. He just happens to find himself better equipped. (Heat vision and sound-barrier-shattering flight speed tend to help in those situations.)

As for the bad guy, Michael Shannon brings us the next great summer villain in General Zod (after Benedict Cumberbatch's Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness). He's frightening, brooding, and he comes off like he deserves to just have the crap beaten out of him. But see, even for Superman that's no easy task. Zod is a Kryptonian just like Superman, which means he possesses the same abilities that Superman has. It's a surprisingly even hero-versus-villain match-up, which makes it that much more exciting when they finally meet for their climactic showdown.

The supporting cast includes Amy Adams as Lois Lane, an intrepid reporter for Metropolis's Daily Planet newspaper whom Adams feels spot-on as, Russell Crowe in another brooding turn as Kal-El's father, Jor-El, a role previously held by Marlon Brando, and Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Planet.

In the end, there's no denying that Man of Steel is big on spectacle. It's about as good as one would expect producer Christopher Nolan's dark, realistic take on Superman to be while still delivering on the high-flying action that fans have demanded for years. Strong CGI makes the action scenes believable while they each play out just long enough to be very satisfying. The level of intensity had my heart racing.

That being said, I still prefer the scenes with Clark growing up in Kansas and questioning who he really is. That's where Man of Steel's real drama is, and the actors in these scenes make them just as fun to watch, if not more so, than the action sequences. The filmmakers truly managed to humanize Superman.

But Man of Steel finds its kryptonite with inconsistencies in focus and constant tonal shifts. It's like director Snyder couldn't decide whether to tell a riveting human drama or show off the special effects budget in classic blockbuster fashion. Trying to do both at once doesn't quite work here. The strong drama of the Kansas scenes feels undermined by the gratuitous blockbuster spectacle of the later scenes, even though those gratuitous blockbuster scenes are consistently gripping. Man of Steel is still one of the better films to be released this summer and should be seen on the big screen before it soars away in order to witness the epic action as it was meant to be seen.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"This Is the End" Review

Grab your best buds and batten down the hatches, for The End is nigh.

In This Is the End, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride and a bevy of other celebrities gather for a housewarming party at James Franco's new pad. When the festivities are disrupted by apocalyptic events, Rogen, Baruchel, Hill, Franco, Robinson and McBride find themselves trapped inside the house with limited supplies, let alone each other. Eventually the gang is forced out into the open world of a decimated Los Angeles, where they face their fears and learn the true meanings of friendship and redemption.

This Is the End marks the first foray into directing for writing/creative duo Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad), and they did a splendid job. The screenplay delivers one gut-busting punchline after another and even includes a few unexpected scares. Rogen and Goldberg deserve credit for maneuvering through several horror movie cliches while still keeping the mood fresh and funny. The scares are effective, but the film never loses its lighthearted focus. That's a quality that the very best horror-comedies (like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland) are known for.

Not much can be said about the acting performances because the stars all portray themselves. Seth Rogen stars as Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel stars as Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill stars as Jonah Hill and so on. All the actors involved (save maybe Rihanna and Emma Watson) comprise a large number of today's top comedic talents. The laughs come easy thanks to their presence alone. No matter how sophomoric the humor is, be it arguing over McBride's masturbation habits or Hill's nightmarish encounter with a well-endowed demon from Hell, it's hard not to chuckle at the very least. By the time the credits started to roll, my face hurt from smiling and laughing so much.

This Is the End is especially entertaining for its self-deprecating, satirical sense of humor. Actors portraying themselves as characters while cleverly commenting on the public's fascination with Hollywood stars and their high-end lifestyle lends this comedy a brain to go along with the funny bone. It's refreshing to see these big stars take shots at each other and refusing to take themselves or their work too seriously.

Along with the brain and funny bone, This Is the End has a heart as well, with a major plot point revolving around the pursuit of divine salvation. The guys put aside themselves and go for many genuine acts of kindness and brotherly love after venturing out of Franco's house. This leaves the audience with that romantic "awwwww" feeling but never feels especially mushy thanks to the film's edgy humor which persists right up until the moment the credits start. Guys, see this with a group of close, platonic male friends because you'll want to hug each other in that "I-love-you-bro" way afterwards.

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's This Is the End marks the duo's first feature as a directing team. It's clear that the two have an impeccable comedic rapport based on the story they've created here and the heart, brain, and funny bone inherent therein. Aside from a few shoddy visual effects shots and one or two sex jokes that go a bit too far, This Is the End still serves as a consistently hilarious, engaging and entertaining horror-comedy. This is the chaser that washes out the bad taste that The Hangover 3 left in our mouths and is easily the best comedy of the year so far.


Sunday, June 2, 2013

"Now You See Me" Review

We've seen the tricks up Christopher Nolan's sleeves with his spellbinding magic-thriller The Prestige, and we've seen what Neil Burger (Limitless) can pull out of his hat with his engrossing period piece The Illusionist.

Director Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk, Transporter 2) now faces the task of wowing audiences with his cinematic prestidigitation.

While Nolan and Berger elect to set their films near the turn of the 20th century, Leterrier's Now You See Me puts a contemporary spin on the magic-caper. It follows a crack team of federal agents (led by Mark Ruffalo) as they track and attempt to expose "The Four Horsemen", a group of illusionists (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco) who pull off bank heists during their shows and reward their audiences with the money.

It's a fascinating premise from writers Ed Solomon (Men In Black), Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans) and first-timer Edward Ricourt that doesn't feel squandered, even if the Horsemen's final act is slightly anticlimactic. The narrative of Now You See Me features plenty of twists, but it remains comprehensible enough so that it doesn't burn the audience out like a stack of flash paper money. It's consistently paced thanks to the enthralling, yet occasionally far-fetched, illusions of the magicians, along with cheeky, enjoyable performances from the all-star cast and some intense chase sequences.

It's easy to forgive a movie's shortcomings when the cast includes Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Mark Ruffalo. Eisenberg, Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and James' little brother Dave Franco comprise "the Four Horsemen". All of their characters come off slightly pretentious, and even outright douche-y at times, but it's hard to tear yourself away from them. When they aren't busy hilariously bickering with each other, they're always moving and doing something different in order to keep themselves a step ahead of the law. Staying engaged in order to see what they do next is always a treat.

Ruffalo and French actress Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) play the agents hot on the tails of the "Four Horsemen". As Agent Rhodes, Ruffalo's persona deteriorates right up until the film's climax, looking, sounding and feeling every bit like the Tom who's worse for wear against a foursome of Jerrys in this cat-and-mouse caper. Laurent balances the scale against Ruffalo as Interpol agent Alma Dray. She lightens up the mood whenever Rhodes is down, yet she's fully capable of holding her own and contributing to the case. Rhodes and Dray are easily the film's two deepest characters.

Freeman plays Thaddeus Bradley, a personality who debunks magic acts on his television show. The FBI enlists his expertise to try and catch the "Four Horsemen", as well as figure out how they're able to rob banks without, as far as anyone is concerned, leaving the theater. Caine stars as Arthur Tressler, the wealthy benefactor to the "Four Horsemen". Freeman's is the more fleshed-out character of the two, but neither should be considered "bone-deep" or "the performance of anyone's career". The magnetic personalities of Caine and Freeman are what keep their characters afloat. In lesser hands, it'd be easy to forget that Bradley and Tressler are pertinent to the story.

The scenes involving the Horsemen's shows are the most diverting of the film, but like all magic, it's necessary to suspend disbelief in order to be drawn in. They perform three shows: Act I, Act II and Act III, all of which occur in different cities. Act III takes place in New York City and features the hokiest stunts of the film, even for a team of illusionists. But there are some fun chase sequences too; the car chase in New York and the foot chase through Mardi Gras in New Orleans are the most impressive.

As with The Prestige and The Illusionist, Now You See Me feels like you're stuck in the middle of a magic act the entire time; like you're being strung along only to be duped by the Horsemen's next play. That's something a magic-caper like this should be commended for.

My only major gripe is that it's difficult to decide which set of characters is really the center of the story. With a seemingly equal amount of screen time for both the magicians and the FBI agents, Now You See Me loses a step in terms of focus. But both sets of characters reach satisfying outcomes. That is, all apparent loose ends seem to be tied up by the movie's end. I see no need for a sequel.

Despite a slight lack of focus and relatively thin characters, Leterrier's Now You See Me gets an ample boost from its captivating set pieces and the magnetic personalities in its cast. This film is a welcome addition to the mystical-thriller genre that includes the likes of Nolan's The Prestige and serves as a fresh, original diversion in this superhero-saturated summer.