Friday, May 31, 2013

Mark at the Movies: Now You See Me

Back in the day during my film critique studies (in college), we were taught that the title of a movie is usually - though not always - indicative of a film's main theme, or is used to underscore the message of the movie. Here, with this picture, your mind immediately leaps to the rest of this phrase: " you don't." In fact, that is one of the key lines in an early scene.

What the title is trying to tell us, I believe, is that the movie's heart lies in misdirection --> what you don't see. And, indeed, that turns out to be the case.

Plot: Four magicians with diverse talents, working mostly in little known locales for whatever they can shake out from a crowd, are recruited to become "The Four Horsemen" by a mysterious benefactor and the next thing you know (a year later), they're playing Vegas. Turns out their public appearances come in three "acts" and the first is robbing a bank right there, live on stage (and in France, no less), with the help of an innocent audience member. The second act involves ripping off an insurance company (with an interesting twist), and the final performance includes stealing a huge safe loaded with cash. As soon as the first heist is performed, however, the FBI is called in (and even Interpol due to the French connection) and the group has also attracted the attention of a magic "debunker" and all three spend the remainder of the film chasing the quartet and being led a merry chase, indeed. About a third of the way through the film we are introduced to "The Eye," a secret cult of "true" magicians dedicated to taking from the rich and giving to the poor which is, in fact, what The Four Horsemen do in their first two acts. The movie is all about what happens next, and will they get away with it all, and why were they doing it in the first place?

Players: Jesse Eisenberg headlines the mostly well-known cast as lead magician J. Daniel Atlas and grinds through his scenes with a capital Smug. Mark Ruffalo plays the beleaguered and often dumbfounded FBI agent Dylan Rhodes, saddled with this no-win case. Woody Harrelson is mentalist Merritt McKinney who proves to be a skilled observationalist and owns a piercing stare. Isla Fisher portrays escape artist (and former stage aide to Atlas) Henley Reeves. The last of the quartet is Jack Wilder, acted by Dave Franco (the brother of James Franco). French actress Mélanie Laurent is re-introduced to American audiences (after her turn in "Inglorious Basterds") as Interpol detective Alma Dray and represents belief to Rhodes' skepticism. The always watchable Morgan Freeman is around to explain how some things were done as debunk artist Thaddeus Bradley, and Michael Caine is pretty much wasted here as insurance mogul and financier Arthur Tressler.

Performance: With so much plot ground to cover, the story must by default leave these characters' back stories practically untold, so it's difficult to work up much enthusiasm for anyone in the movie, except Ruffalo, who has the most screen time and always seems to come across as a sympathetic nice guy. The script does leave us with some questions that more or less cheat us of an honest ending, and sour the nature of a major character, but I can't fault the actors for this.

Point: There is no point to this movie. Nothing deep. No hidden meanings. Just a slick, captivating thrill ride with mostly unexpected twists throughout. The most honest line of dialogue is when Morgan Freeman utters, "When a magician says here's the magic (pointing with one hand), you can be sure the trick is actually being done elsewhere." Eisenberg utters several times throughout the film, "The closer you look, the less you'll see."

Particulars: I found nothing terribly objectionable here. There are no scary scenes, no bloody violence. It is rated PG-13 but I didn't even hear the one F-bomb these films are allowed, which was a relief. There were a few instances where God's name was added to "damn" that didn't need to happen, and "sh--" abounded throughout, of course. Early in the movie a young lady whips off her dress to reveal a pretty figure in lingerie and some mild innuendo follows, but nothing comes of it.

Raymond's Rating: Two stars. While the movie was impressive in its execution, there were too many characters, too much plot, and not enough meat in the story to sustain any kind of emotional connection to the film. I wonder how things would have played out had the revelation at the end of the film been delivered earlier, and if more reason had been given for Morgan Freeman's character to go through what he did at the end. After all was said and done, I found myself watching just to see what was going to happen next. Perhaps that's all I should expect from a summer flick.


Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Abracadabra.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Mark at the Movies - Star Trek 2: Into Darkness

Plot: A little girl is ill. A self-sacrificing act of sabotage is the price demanded for saving her and that kicks off what turns out to be a one-man war on Starfleet that leads the Enterprise and her crew into peril and a possible intergalactic war with the Klingons. But the film's main perpetrator will allow no obstacle to stand in his way of revenge, and Starfleet High Command is ready to welcome a war and between those two, Captain James Tiberius Kirk and the other characters we have come to know and love so well find themselves caught in the middle. The question comes down to "how do you protect Starfleet - even from itself?" The answer eventually becomes clear, but the body count is high and we are taken on an emotional roller coaster through the whole journey.

Players: All of the cast from the first film returns. Chris Pine is the young Jim Kirk, Zachary Quinto seems even more comfortable in the role of Spock, Karl Urban continues to chew up every scene he's in as the irascible Leonard McCoy, Simon Pegg is the ebullient Scotty, Zoe Saldana is Uhura, and both helmsmen: John Cho as Sulu and Anton Yelchin as Chekov are given more to do this film. Bruce Greenwood returns as Christopher Pike, and along for the ride on this trip are the much-discussed Benedict Cumberbatch - playing John Harrison, the villain of the piece - as well as Peter Weller in an important role, and Alice Eve, who provides insights at critical moments and takes on the job of being the film's "eye candy" for a few frames. There is a cameo from a special guest star, as well, but I won't give away that identity so as not to spoil your fun.

Performance: As I mentioned, it's an emotional roller coaster. The canon of the Star Trek universe is so familiar to so many that no time need be spent on each character's back story for us to understand the unique interplay of give and take, joke and jest, and point/counterpoint they immediately dive into with each other. It *is* an alternate timeline, so characters are allowed to deviate from the Star Trek norm. I was particularly impressed with the range Quinto explored within the narrow confines of Spock's Vulcan cold logic. Weller is comfortable in the role of a man wielding power and used to getting his own way. Urban is a delight to watch. Somewhere DeForest Kelley (the original McCoy) is smiling. Simon Pegg can no longer claim to play the only comedic relief in the cast, but his work as Scotty continues to be enjoyable, as well. And what can I say about Benedict Cumberbatch without giving away too much? He is not who he seems to be, and he effectively works both sides of the good and evil equation. He manages to walk that most delicate line of acting roles: he makes you feel for him while he's committing atrocities. While Chris Pine gets most of the screen time as Kirk, and his performance is spot-on and commendable, at the end of the film it was these other actors who stood out in my mind.

Point: What do you do to save your friends? What decisions do those in power have to make in order to propel a civilization forward? When do you ignore the rules to save those you care about? In the end, Star Trek Into Darkness reminds us of some important truths: do what's right, no matter what. Be loyal to those you love to the point of death and beyond. And even if you mess with the timeline, you'll eventually end up in the same place.

Particulars: Parents should be warned there is liberal use of the word that colloquially describes fecal matter. Scotty gets drunk (but really, don't we expect that of Scotty?). A human head is crushed off screen. Humanoids with entirely black eyes and painted faces are seen, which may prove to be a frightening image to small children.

Raymond's Rating: I am a self-professed "Trekkie," so take that into account when I say this was a fantastic film. My only quibble is with one scene involving a Tribble that ultimately telegraphs a key plot point later, and winds up taking much of the suspense of one of the film's most critical scenes away. It was the only unnecessary scene (as that plot point was set up in the very beginning of the film). Aside from that minor defect, I give this movie a full four stars. In the end, it's a brilliant retelling of a familiar story and well worth plunking down your dollars to see.


Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Boldy go.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Mark at the Movies: Iron Man 3

PLOT: "The Mandarin," a madman patterned after Middle East terrorist leaders, is out to destroy America and seems to have a personal vendetta against the U.S. President. Meanwhile, millionaire industrialist (genius, philanthropist, etc.) Tony Stark is having trouble settling into a stable relationship with his long-time assistant, Pepper Potts (who now runs Stark Industries), beset by nightmares about his New York experience with The Avengers and prone to panic/anxiety attacks. When one of The Mandarin's attacks injure Tony's friend and one-time chauffeur Happy Hogan (played by Iron Man 1 director Jon Favreau), that's the last straw for Stark's stress levels and Tony calls out the Mandarin - giving out his home address, no less - and the battle is joined, but there are wheels turning within wheels here, and not everything will turn out or turn up the way it first appears.

Players: Nearly everyone from the Iron Man story returns - Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, even a cameo from Shaun Toub, who was in the very first Iron Man movie. Noticeably absent is Scarlett Johansson. This film also features Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Rebecca Hall, the aforementioned Mr. Favreau, and everyone's favorite computer assistant, Jarvis, voiced by Paul Bettany and given a somewhat larger role and personality here.

Performance: In an action movie, you don't look for great range or depth of character, and don't expect that here. Downey is still the quintessential Tony Stark, Cheadle provides solid foundational support as sidekick and yet stands on his own as both a character and an actor, and Paltrow is both sympathetic and strong as straight-arrow Pepper Potts, who knows Tony's strengths and weaknesses, and juggles them appropriately. The villains in the movie are, by and large, portrayed effectively enough that the audience feels happy when they receive their comeuppance.

Point: When the movie was all said and done, I came away with the feeling that the message was about the mistakes we make, how they come back to haunt us, and how we eventually learn from them. Tony dares to take steps he's never taken before, and seems to finally be at peace with both himself and the world. Taken as a whole, this trilogy journey about the creation of Iron Man to the resolution of Tony Stark, simply Man, has been a good one. While you are left wondering how it will be possible by the end of the movie, we are assured that Tony Stark will return. And yes, stay all the way through the end credits.

Particulars: Other websites are better at this than I, but personally I found nothing really objectionable about the film, in terms of language, violence, sexuality, or morality. The woman in the row behind us at the theater used worse language every time something unexpected happened on the screen.

Raymond's Rating: It's not four star material, but I would give it a solid three stars for entertainment. My acid test for movies is "did I or did I not feel the need to look at my watch?" With Iron Man 3, I didn't even think about the time until the end credits were rolling and my bladder was nagging at me. If this was 2013's first summer "blockbuster," it's going to be a good summer.


Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Happy Birthday, Internet!

The World Wide Web turned 20 yesterday. One more year and it can go buy itself a congratulatory adult beverage.

It was opened up for public use on April 30, 1993. The news story on this - thanks to Kim Komando - is here. The concept of the WWW was conceived by British physicist Tim Berners-Lee (not Al Gore!) in 1989 but took four years for the restrictions to be lifted and public access granted.

And look how it has changed our lives. My, my, my. 20 years ago I was the father of a 6-year old boy, I was mourning the recent passing of my hair, and I was celebrating my tenth anniversary with the U.S. Postal Service. I was using Apple IIe computers at work, and had a first generation Apple IIc at home. (Eventually I switched to the PC platform for productivity and available software reasons. Sorry, Steve Jobs and Apple wonks everywhere.)

Now, I find that probably 80% of my communications are over e-mail, much of my social interaction is done on Facebook, and my Smartphone keeps me in touch with news and friends no matter where I am. All because of the Internet.

Yes, I still talk to people in real life. On the phone, at church, in restaurants, and I meet with friends on a face-to-face level frequently. No worries about becoming an online hermit here. But this anniversary puts me in mind of a mental exercise I like to go through every now and then.

We all have heard the things our parents have said to us:

  • "In my day, we had to get up, walk six feet, and change the channel by hand."
  • "When I was your age, when we got home, we had to get out of the car - no matter what the weather was doing - and lift the garage door by hand."
  • "When we first had a telephone, if someone called and no one was home, we didn't know about it!"

Stuff like that.

So the mental exercise is wondering about the things we'll be saying to our own grandkids. I imagine we'll eventually hear ourselves say...

  • "When I was your age, we could turn the computer off."
  • "Used to be you needed a key to get into a car and turn it on...."
  • "I remember when the computer sat on top of your desk, not the top of your glasses."

And what's even more fun is trying to imagine what our children will say to their children.

  • "When I was your age, we actually had to go visit the doctor in his office to find out what was wrong with us!"
  • "Google used to just be a big company, not a country."


Here's a grin, courtesy of Dilbert:


Heh. What do you imagine you - and your children - will be hearing yourself say in the future?


Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. "I remember when people used to do this online diary kind of thing. We called it a 'blog'."