Tension on set: 'Money Monster'
Owls Head — Money Monster (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 98 min.). This is a tense thriller with lots of comedic elements, starting with the tacky "Money Monster" stock market guidance show hosted by Lee Gates (George Clooney) and produced by Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts). A while back, Gates had pushed the stock of IBIS Clear Capital on air, but the stock has just dropped drastically, losing $800 million in value due to a "glitch" in its auto-trader program. One of the points of director Jodie Foster's film is how harmful this electronic treatment of our money can be.
Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell) inherited $60,000 from his mother and invested it all in IBIS stock, as his girlfriend is pregnant and he only makes some $14 an hour. Budwell sneaks onto the "Money Monster" set, disguised as a delivery man, and takes Gates hostage. He makes Gates put on a suicide vest. Budwell also demands that the show stay on the air and that IBIS refund all $800 million to its investors. Behind the scenes, both Fenn and IBIS Chief Communications Officer Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe) try to find out answers on why the glitch occurred. Meanwhile, IBIS Chairman Walt Camby (Dominic West) is mysteriously absent, even though he was slated to be interviewed by Gates that day. Conspiracy theorists will enjoy this film, as will those just looking for a good time. Despite his actions, Foster and screenwriters Jamie Linden and Alan DiFiore & Jim Kouf make Budwell a sympathetic character. Indeed, Budwell even wins Gates over, after some pointed conversation between the two men. When the film moves beyond the TV studio, it briefly satirizes America's love of instant celebrity, having people line the streets to watch Gates and Budwell, even though Gates has a bomb strapped on him.
Extras include three deleted scenes (2:23); a look at the pressure cooker scenario (9:55); an anatomy of the ending scene (7:09); Clooney and Foster discuss making the film (5:27), which include nine pages of dialogue a day, as this studio scenes were shot in sequence; and a music video by Dan the Automater. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 2.25 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
Now You See Me 2 (Summit, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 129 min.). I loved the first film, which I found highly entertaining. This return of The Horsemen, four topnotch illusionists, is not quite as good, mainly because it basically forgets about magic for the first hour, seeming more like a "Mission Impossible" episode. Then comes a great scene in which a computer program chip, disguised as a playing card, is passed continuously between The Horsemen as they try to steal it from a guarded room.
The film actually picks up where the first one left off -- there is no way to avoid spoilers if you have not seen the first film; go watch it if you have not -- this time showing the death of Lionel Shrike in an escape-from-the-safe trick that went wrong in 1984, and the effect it had on his son. The first film just ended with the explanation. Meanwhile, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) vows revenge from prison, after he had been set up to take the fall in the first film 18 months previously. Horseman J. Daniel Atlas (a terrific Jesse Eisenberg), the not-dead Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) and Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) are back, but Henley has left, so sarcastic Lula (Lizzy Caplan) is the new recruit. The FBI's Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is still hunting The Horsemen, until, during a show in which The Horsemen are revealing that Octa Tech's new prototype phone will enable it to steal all its users' personal information, which the firm can then sell on the black market, someone reveals Wilder is not dead and the identity of a fifth Horseman.
In one of the film's best humorous bits, the four Horsemen are kidnapped and transported to Macau (McKinney: "I think they just call it food here," in reference to the Chinese food that passes by) by the crew of Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe of the "Harry Potter" franchise getting to play an over-the-top villain of the James Bond mode, albeit of a lower order). Mabry, who also faked his own death, used to be co-owner of Octa Tech. One of those who works for Mabry is Chase McKinney, Merritt's twin brother (also played by Harrelson). Mabry demands The Horsemen steal the Octa control chip, while Rhodes busts Bradley out of prison and they head for Macau. Also popping up for revenge is Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), with a surprising connection with one of the other characters. Everything shifts to England for the final reveals, as the ending more resembles the first film with its fun illusions.
Extras include audio commentary by director Jon M. Chu; the actors express their affection for each other and how nice it was to return (21:11); a good look at bringing the film's magic to life (16:09; note that recent "America's Got Talent" contestant Blake Voigt served as one of the magic consultants due to his abilities with playing cards); and another solid featurette on the sets (17:14), including interviews with cinematographer Peter Deming and production designer Sharon Seymour. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2.75 stars
The Duel (Lionsgate, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 100 min.). This psychological thriller, disguised as a Western, also stars Woody Harrelson (see "Now You See Me 2" above) and reunited him with his "The Hunger Games" franchise co-star Liam Hemsworth. Again they are on opposite sides. Harrelson plays Abraham Brant, a cult leader in 1888 in the Texas border town of Mt. Hermon. Brant not only serves as the town's mayor, but he leads religious services that involve snakes. Hemsworth is Texas Ranger David Kingston, whose father was killed by Brant in a "Helena style" duel -- wrists tied together, each combatant armed with a knife and they fight to the death -- 22 years earlier. Now, the Rangers suspect Brant has something to do with the Mexican corpses that have been showing up in the river, including that of the nephew of Mexican General Calderon (Jose Zuniga). Calderon's niece is still missing.
Kingston is sent to investigate on the sly, but has his wife (Alice Braga as Marisol) talk her way into accompanying him. That will turn bad, as Brant is attracted to Marisol. Brant, in fact, ironically makes Kingston, who is operating under the name David Locke, the town's new sheriff. Kingston has several run-ins with Brant's son, Isaac (Emory Cohen), and looks to help Naomi (Felicity Price), who has been forced into prostitution and is not allowed to leave the town. The film takes an interesting "The Most Dangerous Game "(1932) turn when the reveal comes about the Mexicans. The expected final duel between Kingston and Brant is not of the Helena variety, however. The only extra is audio commentary by director Kieran Darcy-Smith and production designer Toby Corbett. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 1.25 stars
Center Stage: On Pointe (Sony DVD, PG, 92 min.). The third installment of the franchise features some appealing performances, but not a gripping enough story. Surprisingly, the film also could do with a lot more dance. The film is centered around Bella Parker (Nicole Munoz), the younger sister of Kate Parker. Kate has become a star ballerina (see "Center Stage: Turn It Up" for her story), but her sister is more into modern dance. Bella is talked into trying out for the American Ballet Company's six-week training class, after a wealthy benefactress of the ABC says the company's attendance is down because of its emphasis on only classical ballet. That forces director Johnathan Reeves (a returning Peter Graves in what is essentially a cameo at the film's start and end) to seek company members who are into modern dance, or see the company shut down.
Twelve dancers are selected and they go through the usual ups and downs of classes, with one instructor, who hates modern dance anyway, particularly hard on Bella (who tried hiding her true identity by using a fake last name, yet adorns her cabin with posters of her famous sister). Chloe Lukasiak from "Dance Moms" plays a young, gifted modern dancer. On the classical side is Damon (Barton Cowperthwaite, a bit of a find and a much better dancer, with his long legs, than an actor), who is partnered with Bella and, of course, becomes a love interest.
The best dance moments come when one of the recruiters joins Bella as she is dancing early on and then the moment when Damon first learns to dance with emotion. The series is somewhat noted for strange or overwrought final performances; here, the final audition is by a trio. The only bonus feature is a dance tutorial with Lukasiak (10:38). Grade: film 2.5 stars; extra 0.5 stars
Night Train to Munich (Great Britain, 1940, Criterion, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 95 min.). This comedy-drama is set on the eve of war between Great Britain and Germany, specifically, the bulk of the action takes place on Sept. 3, 1939. That is pointed out because, other than an early concentration camp scene, the film, directed by the great Carol Reed, takes a light-hearted approach to the Nazis for the most part. As film critic Philip Kemp points out in the booklet essay, the film was made and released during the period known as the "Phony War," before France fell, the British Army narrowly escaped annihilation at Dunkirk and the Luftwaffe began bombing British cities.
The film centers around the Nazis' attempts to force Czech scientist Axel Bomasch (James Harcourt), who has developed stronger armor plating for military vehicles, to work for them. Bomasch manages to escape to England on the day the Third Reich storms Prague, but his daughter, Anna (Margaret Lockwood), is taken prisoner and placed in a concentration camp. There, she meets fellow prisoner Karl Marsen (Paul von Herneid; later known as Paul Henreid), who helps her escape to England. The go-between for Anna and her father is Gus Bennett, who sings newly written songs in a seaside shop that sells sheet music. Bennett, who we later learn also goes by Dickie Randall, is played by Rex Harrison, 31, in his first lead role. (Ahead of Harrison were classic roles in "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," "Cleopatra" and "My Fair Lady.")
When the Nazis trick Anna and her father into capture, Bennett is sent to Berlin to free them, and he is able to impersonate a German major from the Corps of Engineers and waltz right into the Nazi Admiralty and gain access to Anna. The plan is to escape the next morning, but instead they are ordered to travel by train to Nazi headquarters in Munich. From this point on, the film is more thriller, except for the appearance of Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) as fellow passengers on the train. (This was the second of nine appearances the duo made in 1940s films; their debut was in "The Lady Vanishes.") The final showdown takes place in the Swiss Alps. While the last portion of the film is exciting, many of the sets are less than convincing.
"Night Train to Munich" shares many things in common with Alfred Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes." In addition to its train setting, both films were written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (known for their sharp, droll dialogue, the two worked together for 38 years); both starred Lockwood; and both featured the characters of Charters and Caldicott. Interestingly, Gordon Wellesley, author of the original serialized novel, received an Oscar nomination for best original story, even though only the first 10 minutes of the film is based on his story. Gilliat and Launder made up the rest. In addition to the well-written essay, there is a 2010 conversation (29:22) between film scholars Peter Evans and Bruce Babington about the director, screenwriters and social and political climate of the time. Grade: film 3 stars; extra 2 stars