Movie Review ~ Now You See Me 2

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The Four Horsemen resurface and are forcibly recruited by a tech genius to pull off their most impossible heist yet.

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, David Washofsky, Tsai Chin, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman

Director: Jon M. Chu

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I’m just as surprised as you are that 2013’s Now You See Me did well enough to warrant a sequel seeing that I left my screening frustrated at its cheats and wholly averse to its attempts to charm. Still, someone thought it was smart move to assemble the old crew again three years down the line and aside from a new female in the mix, not much has changed about the film or my opinion of the series as a whole.  What could have been a slick summer mea culpa sequel is just another time-wasting sleight of hand.  It’s not that we can see what the actors and filmmakers have up their sleeves, it’s that we don’t care in the first place.

If you haven’t seen the first film you’re going to get some spoilers so if you don’t mind having the final twist of the original spoiled for you keep reading.

In the years since the Four Horseman took down a wealthy mogul (Michael Caine, JAWS: The Revenge) and a shady secret spiller (Morgan Freeman, Lucy) they’ve kept a fairly low profile. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, American Ultra), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson, Triple 9), and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, Warm Bodies) haven’t gone far though and as they’re readying another elaborate trick to expose a cell-phone hacking scam they’re joined by Lula (newcomer Lizzy Caplan, Bachelorette, replacing Isla Fisher as the lone lady in the bunch) who was recruited by their leader, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Marc Ruffalo, Spotlight).  A mole in the FBI agency, Rhodes has been leading his colleagues on multiple wild goose chases, until it all catches up to him and his Horsemen when the tables are turned and they’re split up.

The Horsemen wind up in China, face to face with elvish Daniel Radcliffe (What If) who has grown a beard to show he’s not Harry Potter any longer. There’s some jibber jabber about an all-powerful computer chip Radcliffe wants and a rather lengthy sequence where the Horsemen break into a high security company to retrieve said chip. Hiding the wafer thin treasure on a playing card, director Jon M. Chu (Jem and the Holograms) takes, no kidding, nearly five minutes showing the Horsemen passing the card between each other to avoid being caught by guards that are frisking them. It’s an exhausting passage of time that isn’t nearly as impressive as anyone involved thinks it is.

Meanwhile, Rhodes has to bust Freeman’s character out of jail because only he knows who’s behind the mystery.  A personal vendetta between the two men quickly resurfaces and becomes a focal point for several head-scratching plot twists down the road. When the Horsemen and Rhodes are reunited, the final truth of who the man behind it all is and though the mystery is ostensibly solved, there’s still a good forty-five minutes left.  It’s in these forty-five minutes that I officially checked out as it’s just a series of parlor trick moments that are less than magical.

As I’ve said before, magic tricks onscreen just don’t work for me because there’s no sense of disbelief one can reasonably hold.  When magic is done live and in person, it can be an impressive experience because you learn to not trust your eyes.  On film, when I see a trick being performed in the middle of multiple edits and angles I’m just wondering how many takes and lighting set-ups it took to get it to look right. It just doesn’t work for me.  At all.

Performances here are in line with the broad script.  God love him, Ruffalo acts the hell out of his role and for that I thank him. If only his co-stars had found a way to do the same. Eisenberg is as nebbish and stilted as ever, Franco is disarming but not given much to do, Caplan starts off with spunk but gradually gets reduced to ninth banana, Radcliffe as usual is having way more fun than we are, and Caine and Freeman are just there to cash their checks (at least Freeman is required to both stand up and walk in this film…unlike London Has Fallen).  And poor Harrelson pulls double duty as Merritt and his offensively fey twin.

Capping off with another finale that throws some random turns in at the very end, Now You See Me 2 is slickly made and moves fast but is superficially bland and all together hollow.

Movie Review ~ Youth

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A retired orchestra conductor is on holiday with his daughter and his film director best friend in the Alps when he receives an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to perform for Prince Philip’s birthday.

Stars: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Watching Youth late one night with three other people, by the time it was over I was the only one awake so right off the bat I’ll let you know that just like director Paolo Sorrentino’s previous film (2013’s The Great Beauty, an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film), his follow-up isn’t going to be for everyone.  Youth is a commitment to take in and even those concentrating hard may not walk away with much from the proceedings.  Easy to hate, hard to love…like most good movies should be.

Taking place over several days at a European health spa, Youth follows a retired conductor (Michael Caine, Interstellar) and fading director (Harvey Keitel, The Grand Budapest Hotel) making their annual pilgrimage for some rest and rejuvenation.  Caine’s character has just been asked by the Royal Palace to conduct a song he composed for his late wife, a song he hasn’t been able to approach since her death.  Keitel’s director is holed up with writers trying to figure out how to work his latest film after a series of failed flops.

Into the mix comes Caine’s daughter (Rachel Weisz, Oz the Great and Powerful) arriving as her marriage is falling apart and a young actor (Paul Dano, Prisoners) taking a brief hiatus while preparing for his next big role.  The film is a series of overly talky scenes that tend to come off as new-agey tripe but somehow managed to continually captivate me.  The film and its characters never seem to go where you think they will, making for a curiously fascinating two-hour excursion into some out-there territory.

It’s the performances that trump Sorrentino’s considerable style (still heavily influenced by Fellini).  Caine is almost impish over the course of the film and Keitel’s shows a vulnerability he hasn’t been able to achieve in some time.  Before the last few years, Dano has always struck me as a shapeless lump on film but he’s starting to actively take form before our eyes…his character here has a transformation that’s, to put it mildly, shocking.  Weisz has a humdinger of a monologue delivered in one-take…reminding us why she’s an Oscar winner.

Speaking of Oscar winners, there’s big buzz that Jane Fonda (This is Where I Leave You) will snag a nomination for her work here, and I’m still not quite sure whether I agree with it or not.  As Keitel’s leading lady, she is onscreen for less than seven minutes but makes quite the impression in that small amount of time.  It’s either a gaudy camp excursion or an elegantly sad triumph but darn it all if I can’t decide what it ultimately is.  One thing is clear though, Fonda is lampooning her own celebrity in some way and because of that, it’s a zinger of a scene.

As in The Great Beauty, Sorrentino shows a flair for style and music…though it’s not always refined.  Some scenes are deliberately obtuse and characters pass by without explanation…but the more you try to make sense of it the less likely you are to let the movie simply exist in its form.  I loved the opening set to “You Got the Love” from Candi Stanton (performed with airy verve by The Retrosettes) and a later scene involving Keitel encountering a host of previous actresses is pretty fun.

It’s not going to be for everyone…I’m not even sure if I see it again I’d feel the same way about it.  But my first impression of Youth was that I enjoyed its fresh feeling.

Movie Review ~ Interstellar

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Mackenzie Foy, Topher Grace, David Gyasi

Director: Christopher Nolan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 169 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Most of the reviews for Interstellar are going to focus on the fact that it’s a let-down to what we’ve come to expect from director Christopher Nolan.  Destined to be held to the impossibly high bar he set for himself with his trilogy of Batman films (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises), you could say that he really only has himself to blame for critics and audiences alike coming to expect a certain need to be filled with each Nolan epic.

While I agree that Interstellar may not be the 2001: A Space Odyssey of the new millennium as many thought it would be, I still marveled at the sheer magnitude of innovation surrounding the film.  I applaud its commitment to science, cinema, and humanity – it’s why I left the screening with a spark of ebullient respect that literally kept me up tossing and turning in bed as my dreams were filled with wormholes, theories of relative time, and all those failed physics tests of my youth.  Yet, as I continued to think on Nolan’s film as a whole, I found enough fault in the melodramatic moments Nolan and his brother Jonathan have unfortunately wedged in that overall my jovial enthusiasm for the movie faded…and faded fast.

In a distant future, our crops are dying and our prospects look grim.  Single father and retired pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club) lives on his farm trying to do best for his children.  Guided to a secret government facility by a series of events I won’t divulge here, it isn’t long before Cooper is blasting off into space with a two pronged mission to find a new world to inhabit and save the human race.

That’s a heavily oversimplified rundown of the first hour of Nolan’s three hour trek into universes beyond our reach and it’s this earthbound time at the front of the picture and the final hours that kept restraining the journey from really rocketing into the oribit I wanted it to.  There’s a manipulative feeling to what the brothers Nolan have constructed, with attempt after attempt to tug at the heartstrings of viewers.  What they failed to include, however, is a set-up that allows us to be attached emotionally to anyone enough to be moved by their fight for survival.

The film is best when it’s floating in space because that’s when the artistry begins to take form and all cylinders start to fire.  Projected on an IMAX screen and making full use of an immersive sound design (my teeth are still rattling), Interstellar could come across feeling like an entertaining school lecture with its long monologues describing time travel and explanations of the effects of relativity.  Thankfully, Nolan finds a balance in keeping audiences up to speed without boring them (or dumbing it all down) with textbook-ish dialogue that only a multi-PhD professor would grasp.

An impressive, Oscar recognized cast (2 nominees and 4 winners…5 if you count a surprising cameo) make the most of Nolan’s multi-layered script.  McConaughey’s a bit of an odd duck as our hero lead.  Adept at wearing his emotions on his sleeve, I found myself craving for a shot of the actor that didn’t show him with his eyes welled up with tears.  Cool headed when trouble arises, he still cuts the appropriate swath of an All-American dad just trying to get home to his kids.  Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) has never been a favorite of mine but the break she took after her Oscar win has given the actress time to reacquaint herself with a grounded acting style and she largely succeeds in her role as a brainy, all-business counterpart to McConaughey’s cowboy cavalier.

Rounding out the cast is Michael Caine (Now You See Me) as Hathaway’s father and McConaughey’s mentor and Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) playing a scientist with a link to McConaughey, alongside Wes Bentley (Lovelace) and David Gyasi (Cloud Atlas) as fellow explorers onboard the shuttle.  Caine has a long history with Nolan but here the role he’s been given is so clearly designed as a plot device that it’s hard to form an honest opinion of the performance.  Chastain fares better, considering she’s saddled with a hefty amount of the problematic moments in the final third of the film.

Less complex than Nolan’s trippy Inception and lacking the emotional attachment of 2013’s better (and shorter) Gravity, Interstellar is a film I can imagine getting less interesting with repeat viewings.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll see the movie again in 70MM on the largest screen I can find because the movie looks absolutely incredible…but I’m not sure all the additional viewings in the world can excuse some major cracks in Nolan’s ambitious rocket-ship.

The Silver Bullet ~ Kingsman: The Secret Service

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Synopsis: A veteran secret agent takes a young upstart under his wing.

Release Date: October 24, 2014

Thoughts: This adaptation of the comic book “The Secret Service” looks fairly interesting based on this trailer I originally saw way back in May with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Sure, we’ve been inundated with countless big screen treatments of books focusing on seemingly ordinary teens that are tasked with saving the world…but something about this reminds me of a working class James Bond and that’s intriguing. Though I’ve grown weary of Samuel L. Jackson (RoboCop) popping up in every movie, I’m even more concerned about the recent overexposure of Colin Firth (Magic in the Moonlight). Kingsman: The Secret Service will mark the sixth film of his to be released in 2014…thank heaven he dropped out as the voice of December’s Paddington! Directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass 2), this potential franchise starter could be a nice film to take in during the crisp autumn season.

The Silver Bullet ~ Interstellar (Trailer #3)

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Synopsis: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.

Release Date: November 7, 2014

Thoughts: I’m so ready to see Interstellar. Not that I needed any more convincing after the teaser and first trailer for Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi drama, but this recently released preview shown at Comic-Con definitely ramps up my anticipation.  I cringed a bit when I saw how long the trailer was but thankfully Nolan (Batman Begins) remains a cagey filmmaker and doesn’t let go of many plotlines and important pieces of info that could spoil the overall experience.  Bolstered by a truly A-list cast featuring Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Jessica Chastain (Mama), Ellen Burstyn (Draft Day), and Michael Caine (The Dark Knight Rises), the rocket boosters are starting to truly heat up to send this one into orbit come November.  Can’t wait.

The Silver Bullet ~ Interstellar (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.

Release Date: November 7, 2014

Thoughts: Now at the point where the mere mention of his name guarantees you’ll buy a ticket to his films, director Christopher Nolan steps out of the shadow of The Dark Knight Trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) and looks upward into space. The first teaser for Interstellar had tongues a-waggin’ though it had next to no original footage and while this second look reveals a tad bit more about what the film is all about, it’s still more intriguing than verifiably interesting in my book. Then again, Nolan’s trailers have historically been as spoiler-free as possible so that’s par for the course. Make no doubt about it, this is one of the most highly anticipated films of the year and it doesn’t hurt Nolan has the star power of Oscar darlings Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, Mud), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Michael Caine (Jaws: The Revenge) and Ellen Burstyn (Draft Day) to escalate this to warp speed. I expect big things from this one…and I’ll bet we get ‘em.

The Silver Bullet ~ Interstellar

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Synopsis: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.

Release Date:  November 7, 2014

Thoughts: With a director that has yet to make a bad film and a, well, stellar cast of A-Listers it’s not hard to see why Interstellar is already one of the most highly anticipated films of 2014.  Director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) has tapped Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Jessica Chastian (Zero Dark Thirty), Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine (Jaws: The Revenge), and Casey Affleck for his new film, details of which are still being kept tightly under wraps.  Sources say it has to do with time travel and the race to save the food supply of our planet but if I know Nolan it’s about so much more.  The first look doesn’t have a lot of footage to it (and you know I love my teasers) but it nicely places its stake in the ground as the movie we’ll be talking about in about a year.

31 Days to Scare ~ Jaws: The Revenge

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Chief Brody’s widow believes that her family is deliberately being targeted by another shark in search of revenge.

Stars: Lorraine Gary, Lance Guest, Mario Van Peebles, Michael Caine, Karen Young, Judith Barsi, Mitchell Anderson, Lynn Whitfield

Director: Joseph Sargent

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review:  It’s somewhat sad that the first Jaws film I ever saw in the theaters was this third sequel and final nail in the coffin of the series (for now).  Remember when the Sunday newspaper would have an ad for movies opening on Friday and a listing of the theaters it would be playing at?  I can vividly recall opening the paper and finding the announcement for Jaws: The Revenge , clipping it out, and keeping it with me all week while begging my parents to take me over the weekend.  Well, my parents and I found ourselves at Yorktown 3 for a Sunday showing and even as a seven year old I knew the film was crap.

Truly the lowest of the low, Jaws: The Revenge is a travesty of a film…one that gets worse with each viewing and is so off the mark that you wonder how anyone involved kept showing up for work day in and day out.  The premise is ridiculous, the direction stale, and the shark is so fake looking you expect to see a Made in Singapore stamp on its rubbery dorsal fin.

Star Lorraine Gary was so enjoyable in Jaws and Jaws 2 as the wife of Chief Brody that it was easy to overlook that in real life she was the spouse of the head of Universal Studios.  Now a widow, Ellen Brody still lives in Amity and her youngest son is following in his father’s footsteps.  One wintery night, Sean Brody answers a call to dislodge some pilings stuck on a buoy and he’s soon gobbled up by a mean ole shark as a choir of townsfolk sings Silent Night, masking his cries for help.  What could have been a reasonably effective opener (after a nice underwater credit sequence) is marred by an already fake looking shark and stilted direction from Joseph Sargent.

The grieving Ellen is convinced the shark intended to kill her son…which is totally logical, right?  Instead of shipping her off to a loony bin, her other son (Lance Guest) encourages her to come down to the Bahamas to clear her mind and spend some time with her granddaughter.  End of movie.  Wait…no…it isn’t?  Oh…OK.  So…Ellen flies off to the Bahamas and our revenge-seeking shark swims all the way from New England to the warm waters of another island town looking for Ellen and her family.

There are so many problems with this scenario that I don’t even need to go over them here.  It simply makes no sense in the least…begging the question why no one raised their hand and said “Um, that’s dumb.”  Even co-star Michael Caine (Now You See Me) missed accepting his Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters because he was filming his gaffe-filled performance as a pilot that takes an interest in Ellen.  So we have about forty minutes where the shark pops up randomly and continues to do things sharks wouldn’t (and couldn’t) do like standing still in the water, leaping out of the water, and roaring like a dinosaur.  It’s laughably bad and is a total affront to the films that came before it…even Jaws 3D.

In a way, I’m glad that Jaws: The Revenge was the last in this series.  Though other shark films have been released over the years there hasn’t yet been another attempt to continue the Jaws legacy.  I’d be up for it if someone had a good idea, talented director, and made use of the original location of Amity Island.  Just please…no more trips to the Bahamas.

Movie Review ~ Now You See Me

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An FBI agent and an Interpol detective track a team of illusionists who pull off bank heists during their performances and reward their audiences with the money.

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Morgan Freeman, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Caine, Common, Mélanie Laurent, Dave Franco

Director: Louis Leterrier

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  Back in November when I reviewed the trailer for Now You See Me, I mentioned how difficult it was for films about magic to really draw movie audiences in because seeing disappear on screen is much less interesting than being dazzled in a live environment.  Well it turns out that drawing the audience in is the least of the troubles the film is saddled with because the movie itself is too lame brained for words.  While not as big of a loser as The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, it’s a bummer of a summer flick that does its best to distract you with smoke and mirrors but ultimately can’t disguise the fact that it’s a second rate act with no impressive finale.

The film has a fairly solid opening as we are introduced to four illusionists that are brought together to form the Four Horsemen.  Though all four seem to know each other, there’s not a lot of back-story offered up so we’re just supposed to accept that everyone is aware that the others are equally smart tricksters.  Soon the Four Horsemen are doing a show at the MGM Grand and in performing one masterful trick that’s tied to a bank heist they catch the attention of the FBI (Mark Ruffalo, Marvel’s The Avengers), Interpol (Mélanie Laurent), and a sly former magician (Morgan Freeman, Oblivion) now more interested in pulling back the curtain on other magic acts.

Like most magic tricks, the film becomes less interesting the more that things are explained.  Aside from the swift opening, much of the film feels deliberately manipulative to continue to support the overblown set-up.  Some of the magic is revealed in ways that are easy to accept but too much of the tricks on display have no basis in reality.  Had the movie employed more of a sci-fi/alternate reality aspect to it like Looper it may have made the more eye-rolling moments easier to digest.

Part of the problem is that there are just too many cooks in the script kitchen.  Boasting a remarkable five (FIVE!) screenwriters, the movie feels like a heavy bowl of stone soup with multiple people contributing to the pot.  I’ve mentioned the curious (but obviously intentional) lack of back-story but also offered up for evidence are large gaps of time and information that simply aren’t accounted for.  The script so clearly wants to keep us in the dark that it becomes frustrating to watch.  The best films with twists and turns handle their misdirection with a proper plan for revealing the man behind the curtain but it’s patently clear that no such pre-planning was done here.

The finale of the film feels like the fourth or fifth one that was shot.  It comes out of nowhere and feels like one screenwriter was mailed the outline of ¾ of a script and told to write the rest without consulting with anyone else.  It also cheats the audience by asking us to accept s certain fact without referring back to what we already know is true.  This is not the way to make a satisfying caper film and audiences that are paying good money to see the film deserve better.

Assembling an interesting array of actors is probably the best trick that the film achieves though not everyone is quite as successful.  I’m officially over Jesse Eisenberg as he turns in his umpteenth version of the same character – a cocky annoyance that fancies himself an elevated David Copperfield.  Also on the low end is Isla Fisher, normally put to good use but who is strangely out of place and out of a consistent American accent.  And why her character wears these tiny motorcycle gloves for the whole film may be the biggest mystery of all…dry skin, maybe?

Harrelson, Caine, and Freeman are their dependable selves but it’s Ruffalo and French star Laurent that are the most interesting people to watch.  I wasn’t too keen on Laurent as the movie opened but Ruffalo is a good cinematic partner that can make his co-stars shine.  Though Ruffalo winds up being shorted as the film progresses, he soldiers forth gamely — though he must have been asking himself, “I went from playing The Incredible Hulk to this?”

Speaking of The Hulk, Now You See Me is directed by Louis Leterrier who was in the director’s seat for the 2008 failed reboot of The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton.  Leterrier brings the same energy he brought to that film and two Transporter films by keeping the camera in constant motion with little reprieve for the audience.  Though the camera work is not hand-held, it’s a whirling dervish of movement that could send weak stomached audience members on a queasy adventure to the lavatory.

Though some of Now You See Me is interesting in passing, it’s not worth your time and money in a busy summer movie season.  Even on Redbox or Netflix the film would only be a middling choice for the savvy movie-goer.  Now You See Me…you shouldn’t.

The Silver Bullet ~ Now You See Me

Synopsis: FBI agents track a team of illusionists who pull off bank heists during their performances and reward their audiences with the money.

Release Date:  June 7, 2013

Thoughts:  I’m all for movies that have a few nice tricks up their sleeves and Now You See Me looks to have some nifty ones waiting for us.  Though not being released until June of 2013, I have high hopes for this caper film that boasts an impressive lineup of character actors from Morgan Freeman to Woody Harrelson.  Never being a huge fan of Jesse Eisenberg (who essentially plays the same character in each film…he’s like an American Hugh Grant), I’m willing to give him another chance with this one.  Movies about magic can be difficult because audiences don’t always like to feel like a film is pulling a fast one on them…but the premise looks interesting, the cast is appealing, and arriving at the start of the summer movie season could be a nice counter-programming move to the bombastic flicks that will surely be occupying every other theater at that time.  Count me in for this.