Niagara Gazette

June 3, 2013

CALLERI: When genre films don't find their cinematic footing

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Motion picture studios thrive on caper thrillers and science fiction films, so it’s no surprise that two new entries in these genres are part of the early “summer” box office rush.

Neither “Now You See Me,” about magicians pulling a heist, nor “After Earth,” about the planet Earth after its collapse, is one for the ages, although the heist picture is certainly a bit more tantalizing.

In a Las Vegas auditorium, four talented magicians, with the unwitting help of a pleasant Frenchman, seem to rob a bank in Paris successfully. It’s a clever trick, one that will be explained later in the film. I’m a fan of magic, especially sleight-of-hand work. A good friend of mine, Victor Trabucco, is not only a master glass artist, but he’s also a master magician, and he even holds a patent on a magic trick he invented. I have sat inches away from him when he’s performed card tricks, and I am always amazed. I wish all movies astonished me that way.

I enjoy not knowing how tricks are created and carried out. So I have to admit that I was genuinely surprised when, in “Now You See Me,” we are let in on the secret of how the Paris bank robbery was done all the way from Nevada. I wish the movie had maintained that sense of wonder.

A quartet of happy-go-lucky magicians, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, and Jesse Eisenberg, are known as “The Four Horsemen,” but they are basically con artists. They are called upon by a mysterious stranger to carry out a major heist in New York City after having impressed everyone with their Vegas feat of legerdemain. The film also makes a brief stop in New Orleans.

Before the New York caper, the madcap magicians will bedevil a millionaire insurance executive (Michael Caine) and will be studied by a famous debunker of magic (Morgan Freeman). The foursome is also being pursued by Mark Ruffalo’s FBI agent, who is the slovenliest and most unlikely federal agent I’ve ever seen. He's flustered and angry and a genuine slob. He makes Peter Falk’s rumpled, scattered Detective Columbo seem like a cool, calm and collected neat freak. Ruffalo is joined by Melanie Laurent’s Parisian Interpol sleuth, who is smarter and more confident than anyone in the FBI.

The story leads to an extravagant, over-the-top showdown filled with strobe lights and confetti and helicopters zooming over huge crowds watching a magic trick from the rooftops of New York. There’s too much silly activity for the pay-off it delivers. The heist seems an afterthought.

For an hour, when it concentrates on magic, “Now You See Me” delivers the goods. Then it gets mired in action movie clichés, including car chases and martial arts fighting. Suddenly, Franco’s character becomes Bruce Lee.

Overall, the film is pleasantly acted, especially by Freeman, Laurent, Caine, and Harrelson. They never turn their characters into stereotypes. The screenplay by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt runs out of gas before the big reveal of who ordered the NYC caper. Director Louis Leterrier, who made the first two “Transporter” movies and the “Incredible Hulk” remake with Edward Norton, does the best he can with what he’s given. However, letting slide the film’s roots in magic is a mistake.

“After Earth” is one of the worst movies I’ve seen, and that’s saying something. The film is a vanity production organized by actor Will Smith. He, his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, and her younger brother Caleeb Pinkett are producers. Will, who wrote the screen story, stars with his son Jaden in what is essentially a two-character science fiction melodrama that hasn’t much science but does have a lot of tedious fiction. The actual screenplay is by failed director M. Night Shyamalan and Gary Whitta, neither of whom exhibit an ounce of interest in originality or interesting philosophy.

Yet again, Earth has to be abandoned because of something or other. We are led to believe that humans have the ability to send everyone into orbit and colonize nether worlds, but they can’t fix their own planet’s problems.

Will Smith plays Cypher Raige, who has to transport a creature somewhere. He takes his son (Jaden) along for the ride. They crash back on Earth. Will’s legs are broken. Shipbound, he has to help his son search for a communication device that will bring rescuers. The hunt is dull. None of this is helped by the fact that Will, an action star, is immobile, or that Jaden lacks the acting skills required to take on any believable tasks.

“After Earth” is cheesy-looking and ponderous. Regardless of all the professionals involved, it’s an amateurish misadventure on every level.

 

 

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.