One of the summer's surprise hits was Now You See Me, a caper picture about a dogged FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) investigating four stage magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco) who seem to be the architects of a multi-billion-dollar bank heist. Despite the film's tagline of "The closer you look, the less you'll see," it appears that Now You See Me's success was predicated less on offering original, unpredictable twists and more on mashing up different genre modes that have already been well tested for viewer approval. The movie's central conceit of bank-robbing magicians conflates The Sting (or Ocean's Eleven, if you wish) and The Prestige into one handy package (and for added brand identification, Now You See Me features The Prestige's Michael Caine in a small role just to reinforce this film's connections with its predecessors), and its accomplished cast exists to riff on established character tropes, many of which they've already played before; besides Ruffalo doing his best Tommy-Lee-Jones-from-The-Fugitive impression and Franco pulling off a spot-on Tom-Cruise-from-The Color of Money, Now You See Me unironically casts Morgan Freeman as the wizened expert who watches the proceedings with a twinkle in his eye, Harrelson as a spacey goofball, and Eisenberg as a less nuanced version of his Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network. How these pieces all interlock shouldn't be a shock to anyone, yet despite the familiarity on display, Now You See Me remains a fleet, mostly engaging slice of summer escapism. Director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, Unleashed) adopts a restless, fluid camera style that helps lend the proceedings real flair (in fact, his dynamic camera is often more impressive than the magic tricks, which seem to suffer from an abundance of CGI), and he gets energetic star turns from all his actors - their committed work helps to lessen the sense that we're watching a stock character roster. Best of all is the ending, which drops a major bombshell that is equal parts audacious and improbable, and the movie is all the better for it.
While Jeffrey Kauffman took the film to task for its lapses in logic, he too found it an entertaining, if silly, romp, writing that "here's a twist ending that even pretzel maker extraordinaire M. Night Shyamalan probably didn't see coming: Shyamalan's hugely hyped sci-fi epic After Earth opened to withering reviews (well, that part probably could have been predicted), but also encountered such lackluster box office appeal that a relatively little, came out of nowhere film called Now You See Me lived up to its title and claimed the number spot the same week that Shyamalan ill-fated opus also opened. That sleight of hand is only partially indicative of the tricks of the magical trade on display in this enjoyable but sometimes over convoluted film, one which relies fairly heavily on what professional magicians refer to as misdirection—holding up a shiny bauble or something similar to momentarily draw the audience's attention away from what really matters. Now You See Me frankly never reaches the inspired heights of Christopher Nolan's defining The Prestige...but it's head and shoulders [above] lesser fare like The Illusionist."
From Anchor Bay comes The Lords of Salem, the latest feature from musician/filmmaker Rob Zombie. The Lords of Salem comes at an interesting crossroads for its writer/director; while Zombie made a name for himself - cinematically - with House of 1000 Corpses and its even more accomplished sequel The Devil's Rejects, his two poorly received Halloween reboots killed a lot of the goodwill Zombie had accrued among horror fans (Zombie's first Halloween is ugly and uncomfortably derivative of the 1978 original; his Halloween II is both frenetically inspired and frenetically muddled). If nothing else, The Lords of Salem represents somewhat of a return to form for Zombie. Though it wears its influences on its sleeve (Rosemary's Baby and The Omen, to name a few), that kind of genre pastiche is Zombie's forte, and it acts in service of an original story: Zombie follows a burnt-out radio DJ (his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie) as she stumbles into the middle of a witches' cabal. The Lords of Salem doesn't always make sense, and Zombie's affinity for stunt casting can be just as irritating here as in his previous ventures (Ken Foree and Lisa Marie are particularly galling), but what he loses in coherence and performance, he gains in terror. Zombie really puts his heroine through the wringer, creating a slow-burn that escalates into ever more surrealistic intensity, and that willingness to build to scares without resorting to splattery mayhem (note: The Lords of Salem isn't gore free; it's just not as bloody as, say, The Devil's Rejects) evinces a certain degree of maturity on Zombie's part. He doesn't just want to make his viewers sick - he wants to haunt their dreams, too.
Martin Liebman praised the film's tone, how "there's rarely a moment in the film that doesn't in some way unsettle or upset, whether through its creepy story, bleak visuals, or use of negative religious symbolism to further its devilish plot. The film features superbly horrific, soul-scratching industrial sort of music that perfectly underscores the themes and defines the satanic plot. Zombie's film blurs the line between reality, fantasy, and terror; it's never quite clear which is which, whether at its seemingly most serene and "normal" and particularly when the film is at its most bizarre or unnerving. Zombie's picture is stocked with uncertain metaphor, regular confusion, and all sorts of negativity, all of which heighten the sense of peril, doubt, fear, and fundamentally disquieting spirit. All of the oddity swirling about the picture helps to define it rather than hinder it. The Lords of Salem escapes the clutches of straightforward horror in favor of a more wayward tone that accentuates, rather than undermines, all of the other positive characteristics that make it a winner of the oddest but most satisfying variety."
Millenium Media is bringing The Iceman to Blu-ray this week, and this docudrama offers a glimpse at one of the most heinous true-crime stories ever recorded. The title refers to Richard Kuklinski, a major player in the New York mob who lived a dual existence. On one hand, Kuklinski was a devoted family man, perpetually concerned about his wife and children. On the other, Kuklinski was a brutal mob assassin, and he killed between 100 and 250 people. That kind of dichotomy requires an actor who can simultaneously convey menace and compassion; luckily, director Ariel Vromen cast Michael Shannon to play Kuklinski. In projects like Boardwalk Empire, Take Shelter, and this summer's Man of Steel, Shannon has excelled at imbuing brutal, tortured characters with pathos and tenderness, and the mix of savagery and humanity he gives Kuklinski is reminiscent of Shannon's best work. Even when Kuklinski does horrible things - and The Iceman's biggest flaw is that it tends to wallow in Kuklinski's brutality - Shannon keeps us invested in his inner life, in his separate relationships with his "work" partner (The Avengers' Chris Evans) and spouse (a very good Winona Ryder).
TV-on-Blu-ray gets another addition with Spartacus: War of the Damned package. The third (or fourth, if you count the Gods of the Arena prequel commissioned after former Spartacus star Andy Whitfield was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma) and final season of Starz's Spartacus series, War of the Damned seems explicitly engineered to avoid the program going out on a bum note. In relaying the bloody conflict between the title character (Liam McIntyre) and the venal Marcus Licinius Crassus (Simon Merrells), showrunner Steven S. DeKnight overstuffs this season with incident, packing in secret betrayals, political infighting, epic battles, and all the graphic sex and violence that have made Spartacus a cable television favorite. It might not be as literate as I, Claudius or as visually polished as HBO's short-lived Rome, but this new Spartacus has no such pretensions; it's a rollicking, full-throated page-turner, with a major cliffhanger or reversal in every episode, and under those terms, it succeeds admirably. Better still, DeKnight and his staff conclude their hyperkinetic version of the Thracian legend in a way that's genuinely satisfying - despite its (not-so) humble origins as a 300 wannabe, Spartacus has become popcorn entertainment that you don't have to hate yourself for enjoying.
Martin Liebman's Blu-ray review calls the series "one-half drama and one-half spectacle. War of the Damned is no different. Both parts play in harmony, though not always equal harmony; the sex and violence always feels like the dominant force, but not necessarily to the detriment of the program. War of the Damned, then, plays exactly as fans expect and demand, bringing the story to conclusion through the prism of its spectacle and the occasional, always welcome, and even expected major twist or revelation or happening that redefines the show in some way in almost every hour. War of the Damned, however, doesn't so much rely on ever-new dramatic dynamics - despite some new characters - but rather the evolution of old ways through the inclusion of new faces and the updating of old challenges. In that regard, it's simple storytelling and effective dramatic unfolding of the universe by way of introducing new wrinkles into old, comfortable clothes. War of the Damned plays out just as it should and, basically, as expected, both in a historical context as well as within the series' established parameters. Fans will praise the seamless continuation and mourn the inevitable conclusion, both the conclusion to the story and the conclusion to the series. And one cannot ask for much more of a satisfying end to a rather short-lived but fan-favorite program."
Shout Factory has picked Tuesday to street Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, the film version of the cult television favorite. Make no mistake: while other movie adaptations of TV shows might shoot for bigger and better in terms of scope (think Miami Vice or Star Trek), Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is, essentially, a standard series episode thrown up on the big screen, and that shouldn't come as a surprise, considering the show is simply humorist Mike Nelson (in MST3K's later years) and his robot friends verbally eviscerating some of the worst movies ever made. It's hard to go too much bigger with that concept. Where the movie differs from the show is that, in this case, the feature that Nelson and Co. have selected for derision really isn't all that bad; it's the 1955 sci-fi adventure This Island Earth, which was a critical and commercial hit during its theatrical run and is still enjoyable (albeit dated) today. In some respects, the movie's decision to mock a picture that doesn't really warrant the criticisms compromises the spirit of the original program - the relative quality of This Island Earth makes many of the jokes seem petty, as do the many cuts the MST3K crew made to the ninety-minute-movie in order to fit Universal Studios' mandated seventy-three-minute runtime. Still, for a select subgroup of viewers, decent Mystery Science Theater 3000 is better than none at all, and its riffs on This Island Earth prove generally amusing. At the end of the day, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is essential because it marks the show's HD debut - here's hoping Shout dips into their MST3K back-catalog for future Blu-ray releases.
Jeffrey Kauffman also found the MST3K somewhat lacking, with the end "result...a curiously bland outing at times which occasionally bursts into moments of relative hilarity. While the breakaway moments are manic and agreeable enough, they rarely rise to the all out insane levels that lovers of the television series may wish they had. The commentary during This Island Earth does have a few classic zingers (my own personal favorite, as relatively minor as it may seem, is 'If it's Universal, doesn't that automatically make it International?'), but again there's a definite feeling that meddling hands kept this outing from ever approaching the lunatic heights that many of the standalone episodes did. One of the things that actually may work the most against MST3K: The Movie's ultimate success was its decision to utilize the relatively (emphasis on relatively) highbrow This Island Earth. This was actually one of Universal's—er, Universal-International's—biggest films of the mid-fifties, one that had then state of the art special effects and a reasonably intelligent script. It was also one of the last features shot in three strip Technicolor (though evidently some if not all of the special effect sequences were done in the Eastmancolor process). In other words, this was not the typical MST3K fodder of low rent, rudderless cinema with bargain basement scripts and acting prowess. Yes, This Island Earth is inarguably goofy and its aliens are laughable, but there just doesn't seem to be quite enough raw material here for Mike and his cohorts to sink their comedic teeth into."
Finally, the pulp crime entry Empire State hits the home media market this week. Like The Iceman, Empire State is based in fact, telling the tale of Chris Potamitis, a struggling security guard who ends up plotting a massive armored car heist. The problem is, while The Iceman benefited immeasurably from the talents of Michael Shannon in the lead role, Empire State casts Liam Hemsworth as Potamitis. It's a wan, underwhelming turn from the Hunger Games star - he barely conveys Potamitis' financial desperation or his panic when evading the NYPD - and it doesn't help matters that the Blu-ray has an interview with the real Chris Potamitis, who seems far more interesting and engaging than Hemsworth. However, Hemsworth is but one of Empire State's issues; other than some good work from Dwayne Johnson and Sky High's Michael Angarano, this picture is treading way-too-familiar B-movie territory. Considering its director is Dito Montiel - who energized the otherwise routine melodramas A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Fighting - that sense of "been there, done that" is inexcusable. Montiel is better than routine, and Empire State deserves more spark.
In his Blu-ray review, Jeffrey Kauffman called Empire State's "chief fault...may simply be in the casting of Hemsworth. The guy is obviously a good looking matinee idol type, and as such audiences' sympathies are going to be with him. The screenplay does nothing to subvert that initial impression, positing Potamitis as an upright, decent and stalwart young man who's facing a life of menial jobs due to one unthinking mistake...Empire State succeeds in some small but effective ways. Director Dito Montiel has an excellent eye for the fetid streets of New York's ethnic neighborhoods, aggregations of people who scream epithets at each other while dodging enormous mounds of garbage that have been piled up, cluttering sidewalks and alleyways alike. And he elicits an really remarkable performance from Angarano, who makes Eddie a dodging, weaving, tic filled guy on the make. In fact Angarano easily overpowers both Hemsworth and Johnson, and the film might have actually been a lot better had it focused on him rather than the character of Chris. Second billed Emma Roberts is basically unseen for the bulk of the film, consigned to just a couple of scenes as a putative love interest for Chris whose part is probably lying around on the cutting room floor. As is so often the case, the film twists what really happened into a fanciful but ultimately unbelievable escapade. The real Chris Potamitis was found sunning himself by a pool in Puerto Rico. In an ironic twist of fate, the film's Potamitis never makes it out the neighborhood he sought so desperately to escape."
Maybe Now You See Me. Buying The Lords of Salem, The Fugitive (I've owned each different upgrade), Person of Interest: The Complete Second Season (when the price is good for me) and I've already pre-ordered MST3K: The Movie!
Uh, could we please have This Island Earth as a nice BD release? Don't get me wrong; I enjoy MST3K, but there is a dearth of Golden Age Sci-Fi on blu-ray. We've got Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Fire Maidens of Outer Space (?!), Colossus of New York, and The Space Children. Oh, and the Harryhausen stuff, but there is a treasure trove waiting to be upgraded.