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Now You See Me (2013)

Now You See Me

When I was young and gullible, my parents took me to shows which featured stage magicians. The old music halls were closing down but there were still two venues in Newcastle, our nearest city, which continued something approximating the old traditions. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was lucky enough to work professionally with a man who did both stage and close-up magic. Suffice it to say, I remain in awe of the man’s manual dexterity. I never tired of watching him perform. Even when you know what you’re looking for, it’s still hard to see. So when a film based on large-scale illusions comes to the cinema, how can I not want to see how it’s done. We start off with an introduction to the core cast who are going to go on to do the big tricks. At the outset, they are J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) a street-magician who likes to pick up girls, Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), a shakedown hypnotist who likes to fund his lifestyle through gifts from his victims, Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) a pickpocket thief who can run fast, and Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), an escape artist with a faintly macabre twist involving piranas. They are all head-hunted and left a calling card. When the four turn up at the designated address, they are remotely given the blueprints for a stage magic show and become The Four Horsemen at Las Vegas. The highlight of this show is that they rob a bank in Paris for Etienne Forcier (José Garcia).

The four magicians and sponsor Michael Caine

The four magicians and sponsor Michael Caine

 

At the Vegas show, we have Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) as their sponsor and Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). When they apparently complete the theft of 3.2 million euros, Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) an Interpol agent, comes to join the FBI Special Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo). When they realise the problem in proving the magicians actually stole the money from the French bank, they ask Thaddeus for help. He used to be a magician and now makes his living telling the world how tricks are done. He deconstructs this bank heist and shows how the mark was selected from the audience and the money stolen (not from the bank, of course). But all this is supposition, so now the pair of investigators bide their time and wait for the magicians to make a mistake (Hah! As if that’s ever going to happen in a film like this!).

Morgan Freeman

Morgan Freeman

 

The Four Horsemen now move on to New Orleans for a $140 million distraction when they reveal Arthur Tressler as the head of an insurance company that bilked every member of the audience out of money for their insurance claims. So this is (at least) three tricks conceived years in the past that play out in the present. For the audience, the challenge is to work out what’s real and who’s responsible. Someone had to recruit these four “lost” magicians and give them the magic tricks to perform. Setting up the Paris trick was months in the planning and execution. We’re to take it on trust that the four would have done all this with the threat of criminal proceedings and jail waiting at the end, just for the prestige (borrowing that word from another film). I think I’m prepared to believe this. Some people, whether as performers or just “lucky” picks, would go along with a plan like this for the celebrity or notoriety it will bring. After all they are exposing injustice. Like Robin Hood, they have a higher purpose in their criminal activities.

Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent

Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent

 

At 115 minutes, it’s almost too long. It starts at a terrific pace and charges through the set-up and first magic show without pausing for breath. The narrative then gets a little fuzzy because we must necessarily keep track of the investigators, the sponsor, the magic consultant and the four. I was still breathless at the end of the “trick” in New Orleans but it all gets a little bloated when the FBI close in on the Four’s base in New York, we have the chase culminating in the crash on the bridge, and then the big disappearing act. That’s all not quite overblown. Then we’re back up to speed again for the whodunnit at the end. While watching, I don’t think it matters that certain prerequisites for the plot to work are outrageously unlikely if not actually absurd. Half the fun of films like this is suspending disbelief long enough to get the end end without the brain kicking in to pick holes in the detail of the plot. This plays a good game. I guessed early on which piece of the history was significant but, until we get the the end, we’re not told precisely how it all fits together in the present. The glue that sticks it all together is Morgan Freeman. He’s the wonderfully unreliable ex-magician who’s making money out of his promises to explain the tricks these Four are performing. Let’s be honest here. If anyone should be able to see how a trick is being done, it’s an ex-magician, right? Everyone else just slots into a strong ensemble cast with Michael Caine doing a cameo of his gangster as businessman persona. It’s not perfect as tricks go but, given the poor quality of the films so far in 2013, Now You See Me is one of the better efforts to hit the screens.

 

The Marseille Caper by Peter Mayle

The Marseille Caper

I need to start off this review with a little theory. Over the years, distinctions have arisen between structuralism, formalism and functionalism. As applied to literature, functionalism goes beyond an analysis of grammar and looks at the function of language in a larger context. So instead of asking about the structure or form of the language, the question is more what the speakers or writers do with it. It’s a more holistic question looking at meaning, authorial intention and the outcomes achieved through the use of the given language. I suppose functionalists are interested in the capacity of language to achieve the author’s intentions. So in The Marseille Caper by Peter Mayle (Knopf, 2012) we have a book which, in all senses, satisfies formalist and structuralist criteria, i.e. when you look at the components of language used, all the properties of language have been most professionally exploited. But when we come to functionalist considerations, there seems to be little attempt made to interact with the audience. There’s an essential passivity about the text which makes the reading experience decidedly dull. What has gone wrong?

As a caper, this is crime fiction that sits on the dividing line between an adventure and a thriller. Many might say this is a false distinction. That in both genres, a protagonist encounters physical danger, so the plots are basically the same. After the set-up, we see the emergence of risks as our hero explores the local environment. Regardless whether the hero is active or passive, the risk matures and positive threats have to be repulsed. In a thriller, the level of suspense and excitement is significantly higher, stimulating the reader’s sense of expectation that serious injury or death are imminent. However, adventures can literally be our hero against the environment, i.e. surviving piranas and other perils when the plane crashes into the Amazon rainforest. Whereas thrillers always feature villains and our hero has to take the initiative in some task or quest. Put simply, if a thriller fails to thrill, it’s a failure. But we can admire an adventure story and enjoy it because our expectations of emotional engagement are initially set at a lower level.

Peter Mayle looking decidedly distinguished

Peter Mayle looking decidedly distinguished

Applying functionalist methods to the evaluation of this text, what should we be looking for? It should start with an analysis of the plot. The point should be to deliver peaks and troughs of emotion, rather like a roller-coaster ride. Overall, there should be a sustained sense of suspense as our protagonist comes into danger. There can be surprises, minor moments of early triumph, some humour, and moments of sadness and despair while the level of danger ratchets remorselessly up to the climax at the end. Set-piece chases and fights will provide high points. Injuries and the deaths of team members provide the lows. As we approach the end, there will be a sense of impending doom. All this needs to be delivered with vocabulary choices to heighten emotion and structural choices, e.g. simple sentences, shorter paragraphs, etc. to produce a page-turner style.

No wait, I did say this was a caper. That means the most we can expect are swindles, perhaps thefts and, when the author feels the need to kick it up a gear, a kidnapping. So perhaps by definition, a book with this title can only be mild adventure. Hmmm. Well this is the second book featuring Sam Levitt. In his first outing, he earned his finder’s fee from the insurance company employing him by stealing the property back from the rich man who had “acquired” it. Impressed by our hero’s ingenuity, the same rich man now forgives past transgressions and employs our hero to front a bid to build some beach-front property in Marseille. Although there are two competing bidders, we’re only interested in one Englishman whose approach to business is to buy or bully his way to success. When it comes to the broad sweep of the narrative, there’s no real sense of threat or menace. Only one person is injured and all problems are easily overcome. Frankly, I can’t remember reading a crime/adventure/thriller novel quite so insipid for months. There’s no suspense and no humour to compensate for the lack of thrills. The only thing that distinguishes it from the pack is the detailed descriptions of the food and wine consumed during our hero’s stay in the Marseille area. Since I like French food and wine, this element of the book was interesting but, otherwise, The Marseille Caper falls completely flat. It’s not functionally fit for the purpose of being read with enjoyment. The only thing in its favour for me as a reviewer is that, at 210 pages, it’s mercifully short.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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