Story, Setting & Stars – the 3S theory I use to determine if I can enjoy a movie. If you can get me with at least of one of those factors, then I’m down. This weekend, 2 disparate movies – “The Purge” & “Now You See Me” – passed the test, in wildly different ways.
Imagine the United States with no crime and a 1% unemployment rate. Apparently, our “new founding fathers” devised a solution to curb our barbaric and self-destructive tendencies – one night a year, all crime is legal. Any individual can play grand theft auto on their fellow man for 12 hours with no repercussions (as long as they aren’t Class 10 individuals – there are always advantages for being deemed important, even in the future). The theory is that this barbaric, cathartic release allows us to remain in a calm nirvana the rest of the year. Detractors deride the purge as a tool to cleanse society of the poor, uneducated, unwashed undesirable wastrels from society. Others accept & even embrace the event as a necessary evil to allow the United States to become a utopia. Ethan Hawke decides to become rich by selling home security systems to protect his wife (Lena Headey) and two children (names unimportant). Of course something happens to test the family, and mayhem ensues.
Full disclaimer – as a typical suspense/horror movie, “The Purge” is mediocre at best. Besides Ethan Hawke & Lena Headey, nearly every other character serves as a stereotype, place holder or plot device. One of the main villains (Rhys Wakefield – the blonde, possibly inbred, definitely insufferable jackass in the trailers) is named “Polite Stranger” in the end credits. Do seemingly smart individuals act stupidly in the worst possible moments? Yep. Are there eye-rolling twists that suspend disbelief? Yep. Are there events portrayed in the movie that make no sense? Of course there is. Did I hear fellow movie goers literally curse due to the hare-brained activity of the majority of the cast? Damn right. Was the movie enjoyable? Surprisingly yes – strictly because of the setting and story.
Maybe it’s because I was blessed to live in DC for nearly 8 years, but this movie reminded me of a funhouse mirror version of Georgetown. In the movie’s universe, it made sense for the Ethan Hawke to get rich off of the fears of his neighbors by just selling “foolproof” home defense systems. Of course Lena Headey would have to deal with passive-aggressive jealousy and hatred from her Stepford neighbors who feel exploited by basically funding their lifestyle. And of course in a society like this, they’d have precocious annoying snot-nosed kids that would eventually place them in harm’s way due to their tolerance and love of their fellow man. I won’t delve too much into the antagonists of the movies, to avoid spoilers – I will say that they represented the most diabolical, vile individuals known to man….hipsters. Douchebag Abercrombie & Fitch types with half-assed nihilistic tendencies and quarter-assed Heath Ledger impersonations, they served their two-dimensional role perfectly. And by role, I mean portraying targets for Ethan Hawke to go Training Day mode on them. So if you embrace the conceit of the movie, and look through the eyes of the characters, then you will find enjoyment in the Purge. Just don’t go in expecting a masterpiece in suspense filmmaking, and you’ll be ok.
Saturday brought along a matinee showing of “Now You See Me” due to word of mouth aka my wife demanding we see this movie. I had extremely low expectations for the movie – the trailers seemed to be a mish mash of splashy spectacle without any substance. That wasn’t surprising considering the director of the film Louis Leterrier. His films, which include the first two Transporters, Unleashed, The Incredible Hulk, and Clash of The Titans, tend to be visually pleasing, with a dollop of emotion designed to add gravitas. Gravitas which doesn’t always lead to weight or attachment, but whatever – my wife was paying, so at the very least I could kill time. I ended up enjoying this film more than I thought I would, strictly due to the performances of the actors involved. In honor of the film’s motto – the closer you think you are to figuring out the trick, the farther behind you fall – I’ll do this critique in bullet point fashion to show my experience.
1. The Four Horsemen (Jessie Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco & especially Woody Harrelson) were successful in portraying a group of magicians working together to achieve increasingly elaborate magic tricks. They had chemistry, and bought believability and a modicum of depth to what could’ve easily been caricature roles. Out of the four, Harrelson’s mentalist was clearly the star, with Eisenberg and Fisher also providing their usual solid performances. As for Dave Franco, he has two things going for him – a very distinctive look (my wife recognized him from 21 Jump Street based on his cheekbones), and a prickish yet likeable sensibility. It takes talent to be able to root for criminals without guilt in movies, and these four are able to pull it off.
2. The other characters – Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent as FBI & Interpol agents, Morgan Freeman as an ex-magician and current magic debunker, and Michael Caine as the Horseman’s benefactor and future antagonist – also play their roles well. Ruffalo can play the harried, skeptical, determined enforcement officer in his sleep, yet has enough charisma to allow empathy for his character. He also has enough skill that it’s not insulting to think of him being able to spark a romantic flame with his French Interpol partner. Laurent plays an effective contrast – the young agent with common sense and verve, as well as a childlike innocence of the unknown wonder of magic. As for Freeman and Caine, anyone who has seen the recent Batman movies already know what they bring to the table.
3. While watching the movie, I realized I was being suckered. I noticed that I was basically playing the roles of Ruffalo and Freeman – instead of enjoying the movie, I was trying to figure out the events and the story, looking for holes and attempting to stay one head ahead of the story. And like Ruffalo and freeman, I frequently felt myself being duped, and eventually feeling stupid. In a movie in which a woman floats in a bubble and 3 people literally make a forty foot jump with ease, the aspect of trying to dissect the movie felt stupid. Once I embraced that, my enjoyment increased exponentially.
4. The actual magic…hmm. The movie made a fairly honest attempt to explain the implausibility of the set pieces and spectacles involved. I’ll be the first to admit that some of the tricks ventured into the land of “get the hell out of here with that nonsense”, but it didn’t detract from the enjoyment level found in the film. And any movie that can convince me that James Franco’s little brother could defeat trained FBI agents in hand-to-hand combat through sleight of hand and quick reflexes deserves a little leeway.
5. You noticed I haven’t talked about the plot of the movie yet – mainly because the story was ridiculous on an epic scale. A group of random magicians are recruited by a mystery individual/organization to work together to plan 3 epic robberies, with the FBI and Interpol working together to foil them. They also receive kinda/sorta/maybe assistance from Morgan Freeman as well as Michael Caine, who initially serves as their sponsor before looking for revenge due to being the 2nd victim of their 3 crime spree. There’s also an overriding theme involving the Eye of Horus – a group of magicians that recruit individuals to share the secrets of “true” magic, along with some other mumbo-jumbo. Sounds relatively simple on paper – yet the journey has more holes than tights on a 20 dollar dancer. I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say there was a lot of suspension of disbelief involved in the movie. I guess considering the subject matter, that was the point, but it tested my faith at times. It also definitely suffered from Dark Knight Syndrome aka a crapload of random implausible events required to reach a goal. And there is a major twist at the end which can be extremely divisive. There are enough clues dropped to explain it, but you either accept it or call BS.
But maybe that’s the point of the movie – you can waste time trying to find critiques about the movie, and feel foolish, or you can sit back and enjoy the flashy spectacles and enjoyable actors. I did the latter, and left with a pleasant taste in my mouth. So mission accomplished. -Shahid
Filed under: Movies, Stunt Granny Movie Review | Tagged: Adelaide Kane, Agent Fuller, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Alma Dray, Arija Bareikis, Arthur Tressler, Bloody Stranger, Charlie Sandin, Chris Mulkey, Common, Dana Bunch, Dave Franco, David Warshofsky, Dr. Peter Buynak, Dylan Rhodes, Edwin Hodge, Ethan Hawke, Evans, Freak Interrupting, Henley Reeves, Henry, Isla Fisher, J. Daniel Atlas, Jack Wilder, James DeMonaco, James Sandin, Jesse Eisenberg, John Weselcouch, Lena Headey, Louis Leterrier, Mark Ruffalo, Mary Sandin, Max Burkholder, Mélanie Laurent, Merritt McKinney, Michael Caine, Michael Kelly, Morgan Freeman, Mr. Cali, Mr. FerrinPeter Gvozdas, Mr. Halverson, Mrs. Grace Ferrin, Mrs. Halverson, Now You See Me, Polite Stranger, Rhys Wakefield, Thaddeus Bradley, The Purge, Tisha French, Tom Yi, Tony Oller, Woody Harrelson, Zoey Sandin |