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Now You See Me 2 ••

Now_You_See_Me_2_posterStarring: Jesse Eisenberg,  Mark Ruffalo,  Woody Harrelson
Director: Jon M. Chu
Screenplay: Ed Solomon
Action/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 129 minutes
Release Date: June 10, 2016


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, just like magic, another movie sequel appears out of nowhere.

Now You See Me 2 should have been called Now You Don’t because that’s what I wished I had done.

The three horsemen magicians have been laying low for a year, awaiting instructions from a secret organization called The Eye. Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt (Woody Harrelson), and Jack (Dave Franco) are joined by a fourth horse-“man” named Lula (Lizzy Caplan). Their FBI handler, Dylan (Mark Ruffalo), assigns the horsemen the task of stealing a device that can remove data from any computer system. Their heist, however, goes terribly wrong.

It turns out they’ve been hijacked to Macau, China by Merritt’s evil twin Chase. He works for an evil technologist Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe). Now their main mission is to steal the device for Mabry or suffer the consequences. They rush to an old magic shop in downtown Macau to get the supplies they’ll need for the heist.

Greg, the first Now You See Me was only mildly entertaining at best, and so I had rather low expectations for this sequel. Usually low expectations improve a movie’s chances of impressing me. But alas, not so with this sequel. For me it had the same problems as the first installment. The magic wasn’t real, just all CGI effects, which meant that all that impressive card-throwing (which we saw A LOT of) was faked and hardly jaw-dropping. Then there is the far-fetched plot that depends on multiple cases of “instantaneous hypnosis”. Apparently, all you have to do is surprise someone and they fall under your spell. Ugh.

Yeah, it was pretty weak. The subplot with Merritt meeting his identical twin was just weird. It wasn’t funny, entertaining, or clever. Chase, the twin, showed up without notice wherever the horsemen seemed to be. There was no logic, rhyme, or reason to the character in the movie. It’s almost as if someone said “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if Woody played his own twin? We haven’t seen that in a while,” and then proceeded to inject him wherever the plot seemed to be lagging.

There is at least a hero’s journey. The horsemen are sent down a tube that takes them magically from North America to Asia, and therein begins their adventure in the unfamiliar world. In this world they encounter the usual elements of the hero’s quest, including a mysterious and exotic elderly woman who serves as a mentor figure. Comically, the old lady turns out not to be as exotic as they are led to believe; still, she’s an archetype of wisdom that heroes rely on during their journey.

This is an odd-shaped ensemble cast. The four horsemen are a team and they are commanded by an unseen mastermind “The Eye.” Then there is a fifth guy (Ruffalo) who acts as their mole in the FBI. And then there’s Morgan Freeman acting as … some guy in jail. Freeman appears to be an oppositional character, but ultimately it is revealed that he is “The Eye” and has been molding Ruffalo to take on the role. This is a common trope – the student becoming the master. So, ultimately, Freeman is a mentor. It’s a convoluted, hackneyed and obvious plot point. I wasn’t impressed.

Now You See Me 2 is a sequel that never should have been made, following up on a predecessor that was wracked with mediocrity. This film had the same problems as before — magic tricks that obviously benefitted from CGI enhancements, and a plot that is ridiculously far-fetched. All the star power in this film could not overcome its underwhelmingness. Like its predecessor, I give this move 2 Reels out of 5.

The hero ensemble was fun to watch at times, and the female newcomer to the group, Lula, was a welcome addition. It isn’t exactly a John Hughes-like cross-section of archetypes, but the group does feature a quirky nerd in Eisenberg, a smart-ass in Harrelson, a pretty boy in Franco, and now the Molly Ringwald-esque character in Lula. There is a hero’s journey here and some classic elements straight from Joseph Campbell. So I can justify awarding 3 Heroes out of 5.

The mentors are a muddy mix of men mishandling the magicians. We do appreciate Morgan Freeman’s cleverness, but we are also aghast that he would allow himself to be imprisoned for a couple of years just to fool someone. Rule number 1 of movie-making: Don’t ever do something that is reminiscent of Dumb and Dumber Too.  I’ll award these meager mentors 2 Mentors out of 5.

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It’s hard to be underwhelmed when one’s expectations are already low. Still, while NYSM2 lacked in every other way, at least is accomplished that one thing – completely under-delivering. I won’t recap all that is wrong with this film and give it just 2 out of 5 Reels.

I thought Ruffolo’s character did a nice bit of transformation in this story. If we look at the pain he felt in losing his father, we see it is mended by him taking his own place in the hierarchy of magicians. But the entire movie is so outrageous in its premise that it’s hard to see this as a proper hero’s journey. I can only muster 2 out of 5 Heroes.

I liked the Lula character and wished there were more of her in it. She was the newcomer to the group and could have done with some mentoring. Her immediate acceptance by the team, and subsequent integration into the group’s dynamic left little room for mentorship. On the flip side, I was happy that she wasn’t played up as the “dumb girl who needs to be pulled along.” We’ve touched on the Morgan Freeman mentoring of Ruffalo – but it’s an unlikely scenario. I can award only 1 Mentor out of 5.

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ••

Batman_v_Superman_posterStarring: Ben AffleckHenry CavillAmy Adams
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: Chris TerrioDavid S. Goyer
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 151 minutes
Release Date: March 25, 2016


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It’s the battle of the century. Batman v Superman – are you team Clark or Bruce?

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

I’m rather partial to Alfred and Lois, actually. Let’s recap.

During the battle between Superman and General Zod (see Man of Steel), Bruce Wayne was in Metropolis. His employees were in the buildings that were devastated by the damage incurred by super beings fighting in the skies above. Bruce (aka Batman) is deeply disturbed by the danger that Superman has brought to the planet. He feels Superman is more of a liability than an asset. He makes it his goal to destroy Superman.

Meanwhile, Superman is also becoming unhappy with Batman, whom Clark Kent sees as more of a villain than a hero. Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) steps in to take advantage of the rift between the two superheroes. Luthor retrieves a weapon containing Kryptonite from the bottom of the Indian Ocean. While attending Luthor’s party Bruce Wayne meets Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), who manages to steal information from Wayne that Wayne stole from Luthor. Soon it becomes clear that Batman and Superman must have a showdown, and that such a fight can only work to Luthor’s advantage.

BvS Is a totally mixed bag of nuts. The plot meanders from Superman’s love interest, to Batman’s angst, to Superman’s nightmares, then Batman’s nightmares, to Lex Luthor’s manic obsession with killing both Superman and Batman (for reasons never made clear). And Wonder Woman thrown into the mix just because. We’re witness to Superman’s keen instincts to Lois being in danger and Lois appearing in places just as Superman needs her. There is no logic or internal consistency to this story, just scene after scene of special effects knit together by bits of dialog that make no sense.

Greg, I had problems with the entire premise of the movie, namely, that Batman and Superman could be duped into disliking each other. We recently reviewed the movie Allegient in which I noted the discontinuity of a genius hero such as Tris being easily fooled by the villain. In BvS, we have not one but two superior beings who show a silly misjudgment of each other. It’s as if some higher-up in the movie industry was inspired by King Kong vs. Godzilla and thought two legendary heroes fighting it out would be brilliant. It isn’t.

We’ve now reviewed three movies in a row in which there is no hero transformation. This pattern is unfortunate, but perhaps it is no coincidence that these are March releases and not Oscar season releases. The other two recent non-transformative movies were Allegiant and London Has Fallen. One could argue that Batman and Superman were transformed in their opinions of each other, with each of them realizing at the movie’s conclusion that the other wasn’t such a bad guy after all. For me, that hardly qualifies as a transformation. It’s more a statement of the obvious, and we didn’t need two and a half hours to figure out that both superheroes are super-heroic and really deserved a better movie than this.

You’re right, Scott. There is no logic to this movie. Apparently Batman becomes best buddies with Superman when the Man of Steel begs the Caped Crusader to save “Martha.” What a coincidence that both men have “Martha” for a mother’s name. It’s a ridiculous plot point and is only one of many in the film. As you point out, neither hero is transformed. And this is the case with many episodic heroes. We don’t look for a change in their character because that means they will be different in the next incarnation and we need Batman to be angst-ridden and we need Superman to feel alienated.

As for mentors, there really are none here. Alfred acts more as an engineer, building suits and toys to Bruce’s specifications. And Lois Lane is the constant damsel in distress. Clark’s mother offers some advice and a ghost/dream/imaginary visit from Clark’s father also offers some guidance. But otherwise, it’s a mentorless journey. Pretty dull stuff, really.

Yes, we’re treated to a lot of cool CGI effects and some terrific fight scenes. You can tell that the movie knows it is lacking substance when it becomes what we call a cluster-truck. Only substitute the word truck for a word that rhymes with it. When the big green monster makes an appearance at the film’s end, I was not only looking at my watch, I was actively rooting for time to speed ahead faster than a speeding bullet. We needed this movie to end about 30 minutes before it actually did.

And you’re correct about the vapidness of the hero’s journey, and about the mentors to our heroes being largely absent. I do need to mention one positive to this movie, and that is the performance of Jesse Eisenberg in the role of Lex Luthor. I remember admiring the potential for evil in Eisenberg in his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Now we see Eisenberg’s unsurpassed ability to play a quirky, humorous evil genius who is more than a match for not one but two legendary superheroes. It’s fun to watch.

I won’t drag this review out any further. There’s virtually nothing good in this film. I thought Lex Luthor lacked any sense or motivation. There’s an attempt to foreshadow other Justice League characters besides Wonder Woman. I think that the DC Comics execs have seen the success of the Marvel Studios movies and felt the need to catch up – so they dumped everything into one movie and it is just superhero stew. It needs salt. I give Batman v Superman just 2 Reels out of 5.

We’ve already discussed the deficiencies with the heroes here. We have a certain common thread in that the heroes are orphans but one got over his loss and the other didn’t. There’s no transformation and a very strange buddy friendship in the end. I can’t muster more than 2 Heroes out of 5.

And there were no mentors. None. So I award 0 Mentors.

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Batman v Superman is based on the gimmicky idea that two super-smart heroes would make the super-dumb mistake of believing the other to be a villain. It’s a faulty premise, and the mistake is compounded by the movie’s poor execution that relies on weird things going on like the appearance of Wonder Woman and a big green monster. Also, any movie that kills superman twice, and is twice wrong (of course) is lacking in creativity and stretching the bounds of credibility. I can only award this film 2 Reels out of 5.

We’ve both pounded home the point that there is no hero’s journey, no hero’s transformation, and no point in watching, unless of course we like big green monsters. You’re right that this movie follows the pattern of a buddy hero story. We have two men who dislike each other but are forever bonded together because their mothers happen to share the same name. Good grief. I can only award a rating of 1 Hero out of 5.

I suspect that Alfred was a mentor to Bruce Wayne, although you are correct that his mentorship was limited at best. One could say that these two superheroes are guided by super-codes of super-conduct. So while there may be a dearth of actual living heroes, there are implicit codes by which they live their heroic lives. Still, there’s not much mentorship going on here, so I can only muster a rating of 1 Mentor out of 5.

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Hail, Caesar! •1/2

Hail,_Caesar!_Teaser_posterStarring: Josh Brolin,  George Clooney,  Alden Ehrenreich
Director: Ethan Coen,  Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen,  Joel Coen
Comedy/Mystery, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: February 5, 2016


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All hail the conquering movie review. It’s time to review Hail, Caesar.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Hail, Caesar is a hell of a Caesar. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who is a big-time movie producer at fictional Capital Pictures in 1951. He’s a busy guy with several pictures in the works. His first stop is a back-alley photographer’s studio where his pin-up star Gloria DeLamour (Natasha Bassett) is being photographed in compromising positions. Before the cops arrive, he feeds Gloria a cover story that explains why she’s there. This is just the beginning of Eddie’s day and it isn’t even light out yet.

The studio is currently filming an elaborate production called Hail, Caesar, starring the famous Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Two extras in the film kidnap Whitlock and take him to a group of communists who want to take down Capital Pictures. Meanwhile, western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is being groomed as a more traditional dramatic actor by famous director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who realizes it’s a lost cause.

Scott, Hail, Caesar is a veiled look at 1950’s movie making. The titular film within a film Hail, Caesar closely resembles Ben Hur making Clooney a faux Charleton Heston. There’s a subplot where DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is an unmarried pregnant swimming star actress – an allusion to Esther Williams. The western kid, Hobie Doyle, is Roy Rogers and Channing Tatum tap dances a gay frolic in a nod to Gene Kelly.

This all would have been a fun romp if only the whole thing made sense. For the most part, this is a movie about Mannix running from problem to problem with what should be witty situations. But there is never a punch line. Tatum’s character is rowed out to sea by the Communist writers and boards a Soviet submarine. It has no bearing on the plot and is supposed to be some sort of joke about the blacklisting of artists in the 1950’s and 60’s. I found the whole thing both bizarre and confusing.

I agree, Greg. The Coen brothers badly miscalculated here. I’m trying to figure out their rationale for producing this movie. Did they want to show us how bad the acting was back in the 1950s? Did they want to remind us of that era’s values regarding women, religion, and communism? Did they want to show us that movies once featured tap-dancing sailors, singing cowboys, and huge synchronized swimming ensembles?

There’s very little of value in this movie. It wasn’t entertaining to watch George Clooney pretend to be a bad actor. There’s a reason why today’s movies aren’t about tap-dancing sailors or swimming starlets — these scenes are no longer interesting to modern audiences. Most problematic is the fact that there is no hero story to be found in Hail, Caesar. Baird Whitlock starts out a fool and remains one. Eddie Mannix is a movie studio problem solver at the outset, and he remains one. Hobie Doyle is a simpleton from start to finish. This movie is a strange collection of scenes that add up to nothing.

The hero is Eddie Mannix. He has all manner of challenges with the screwball crew of actors he has to wrangle. But as far as a transformation, it’s hard to gauge what he’s working on. One of his challenges is the opportunity to go to work for a defense contractor as a manager. The lifestyle would be easier and the money better, but Mannix loves the job he’s doing. Ultimately, he chooses to stay with the movie company, despite the toll it takes on him physically and his family life. I don’t know if this is a transformation, as he pretty much ends up where he started. But at least he’s resolved an issue of internal turmoil.

The supporting characters, as I said, are a variety of nut cases. But they are all cut from the same cloth. As actors they are self-centered and oblivious to the workings of the world around them. As such, they make for a sort of hydra-character – multiple heads but one body. That is, they are all one supporting character which is the trouble child. I will make one exception to that. The western kid, Hobie Doyle, turns out to be a very sharp tack in the bunch. When Whitlock is abducted, it’s Doyle who knows how to deal with the bad guys and gives advice to Mannix. He’s not quite a mentor, but it is at least a confidante.

Greg, forgive me if I launch into the ratings for this movie right away. The less said about Hail, Caesar, the better. The film is an odd mix of vignettes about the movie industry from a bygone era, and it’s a mix that offers neither a coherent message nor any entertainment value. The Coen brothers usually deliver the goods, and so I’m scratching my head wondering what they missed or what I missed. Based on what I saw, this movie disappoints on the level of storytelling, character development, and the hero’s journey. I’m sorry to give Hail, Caesar one single Reel out of 5.

There is no hero’s journey, and so let’s assign the movie 1 Hero out of 5 and then go right to the rating of the mentors in the story. Oh wait — there is no story, and so there are no mentors. I suppose it could be argued that Mannix is a mentor figure, as he counsels people here and there, and he even tells Baird Whitlock to get his act together at the very end. He should have told the Coen brothers to get their act together. We never see any lasting fruits of Mannix’s mentoring labors, if you can call them that. Mannix the much maligned mentor merits a metric of 1 Mentor out of 5.

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That’s alright Scott. Hail, Caesar is a confusing mass of conflicting impulses (that’s for all you Star Trek fans out there). There is very little plot and what little there is not coherent. Over the last five years we’ve been viewing movies we’ve seen a pattern of movie releases.

May through September are the summer blockbusters. October is for scary movies. November and December are the doldrums except for arthouse films that are in limited release to qualify for the Oscars. January films are the Oscar hopefuls that were released at the end of December to just qualify for nomination. Then there’s February, March, and April. These are the dregs of the film schedule and Hail, Caesar falls nicely into that range. I award it 2 out of 5 Reels since I appreciated the craft necessary to reflect back on the golden age of filmmaking, if I didn’t enjoy the story.

Eddie Mannix is an interesting guy with a number of challenges and a constant set of inner conflicts. When we rate a hero we look for a problem to solve and a transformation. Mannix has an inner problem – whether to take a cushy job. But he doesn’t have much of a transformation. While he comes to peace with the life he’s chosen, he’s very much the same fellow at the end as at the beginning. I give him 2 out of 5 Heroes.

And this year we’re rating mentor characters. The role of the mentor is to guide the hero in his quest. Aside from the one time he asks Hobie Doyle for advice, Mannix is mentorless. He’s very much an island unto himself. He enjoys the chaos that the studio imposes on his life and ultimately he chooses that life. But he does it largely alone and so the mentor character is quite absent, and the story suffers for it. I give Hail, Caesar 0 out of 5 Mentors.

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