“Now You See Me” (PG-13, 116 minutes, Lionsgate): If there was an instruction manual for heist movies, the directions would include amusing the audience members with witty banter, delighting them with a clever crime and shocking them with one final never-saw-it-coming twist.
The makers of the entertaining and confounding “Now You See Me” have all those components in place. The problem is that, in focusing on what makes a good caper, director Louis Leterrier forgot about character development, carefully constructed tension and believable plot points.
The film opens with an “Ocean’s Eleven”-like montage introduction to four magicians. There’s the egotistical card-trick pro Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, basically playing Mark Zuckerberg again), con man and lock picker extraordinaire Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), underwater escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson). The four are brought together by an unknown person who offers a reward if the magicians team up and carry out some large-scale deception. Fast-forward a year, and the quartet, now known as the Four Horsemen, vamps on a Las Vegas stage preparing for the evening’s pièce de rèsistance. Without leaving the arena, the illusionists appear to rob a Parisian bank and rain the stolen euros on the excited audience. “Now You See Me” purports to offer visual splendor inside of a cinematic cryptogram. Now that would have been a neat trick.
“The Iceman” (R, 105 minutes, Millennium Films): It’s somewhat difficult to judge Michael Shannon’s performance in “The Iceman,” a movie based on the true story of Richard Kuklinski, a serial killer and mob assassin.
Kuklinski, who died in prison in 2006, murdered, by his own imperfect recollection, 100 to 200 people, without apparent compunction. That — or possibly that he sometimes froze his victims’ bodies before dumping them — was the reason for his chilling nickname. The cold-bloodedness, at least, Shannon gets exactly right. Ariel Vromen’s film (written by the director and Morgan Land) shows Kuklinski committing his first on-camera murder after he’s been disrespected by a guy in a bar; he follows the jerk outside and casually slits the man’s throat. A later scene shows him visiting his incarcerated little brother (Stephen Dorff), who alludes to at least one earlier childhood murder. It’s harrowing stuff, as the corpses pile up. Eventually, numbness sets in as we watch Kuklinski’s body count rise. All the while he maintains a semblance of suburban normalcy, marrying a mousey wife (Winona Ryder) and raising a couple of clueless daughters.
“Stories We Tell” (PG-13, 108 minutes, Lionsgate): Sarah Polley begins her documentary with an epigram from Canadian author Margaret Atwood. But this rich, sensitive, densely layered piece of poetic nonfiction also conjures a famous aphorism of William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Polley, an actress who has pursued an accomplished directing career with the fictional features “Away From Her” and “Take This Waltz,” brings the past to vivid, astonishing life in “Stories We Tell,” an excavation of her own family that hinges on a long-buried secret, how it’s reverberated with everyone it’s touched and the contentious ways they explain it. Sitting her four funny, smart, attractive siblings down for talking-head interviews, Polley makes a simple request: Tell the story from beginning to right now, in your own words.
They do, and thanks to their observant storytelling and Polley’s judicious editing, what unfolds is a riveting drama. Held together by a memoir written and narrated by Polley’s father, Michael, “Stories We Tell” begins in the 1960s, when he and her mother, Diane, met and fell in love while doing a play. Looking back, he says, he realizes that Diane — an outgoing, charismatic actress who appeared frequently on Toronto television — probably fell in love with his dashing, intrepid character. Using home movies and original material filmed on vintage-looking Super-8, Polley creates a vibrant tapestry of the facades and false assumptions that form the captivating subtext of “Stories We Tell.”