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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 Avengers (2012)

As those of you who read these reviews will know, I often pick a theme by way of introduction. This time, it’s the tried and tested idiom, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Some like to attribute this insight to Aristotle, others to some more recent philosophers. No matter. It represent a nice idea to chew on when you have a moment to ruminate. Essentially, you can take it at a metaphorical level and say that a watch is only a physical device but it has a higher purpose in telling you what time it is. Or you can use it to refer to a team. Individually, they may not be strong but, when you put them together in the right way, you get synergy. Well, starting off with the watch metaphor, this film is like someone strapping Big Ben to your wrist and then enthusing about how it not only tells the time but also has these great chimes. Having just sat through 142 minutes, the first word that comes to mind is ponderous. If you think this is a reference to the massive, if not lumbering, quality of the Hulk, you’d be mistaken. Almost everything about this film is laborious.

Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow

 

This is not to deny that parts of the film are actually very good. It’s just that, when it’s all put together and you have to sit through all the rubbish to get to the good bits, it all feels a bit tiresome. So let’s do a quick recap. Back in the land owned by Marvel Comics, Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and Captain America are renegades from WWII. While the Captain is snoozing under the ice, Nick is setting up SHIELD, the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card to be played when superhuman threats are about to overwhelm our defences. Jackson is actually credible even though asked to do obviously silly things. He brings an unexpected gravitas to the role even when responding to Loki emerging into one of SHIELD’s secret underground installations, capturing the McGuffin and kidnapping two key people who will guard and use the McGuffin to open a portal and let in the alien army. To give his newly acquired minions time to achieve their allotted tasks, Earth’s enemy allows himself to be captured and then sets about trying to undermine the morale of the Avengers. None of them like to work as part of a team so, at one time or another, they all have to fight each other. Instead of disagreeing and holding a debate, they tend to settle arguments with whatever weapons are to hand. Except for Dr Banner, of course. It’s better not to make him angry.

Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye

 

So after a few impressive opening scenes, the first hour or so is all rather tedious except for one or two pleasing moments. I confess to being completely taken by Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow and, despite the fact the supply of arrows seems inexhaustible, Jeremy Renner makes an interesting Hawkeye. It’s a shame we’re not allowed to see much of him. I find the idea of mere humans outperforming all-comers intriguing and, just as Batman uses intelligence with technology in support, it’s the spirit that prevails. This would apply to Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark except he’s Tony Stark and an arrogant SOB. Chris Evans is very one-dimensional as Steve Rogers and, in the second half, that becomes the right dimension so he comes good by staying who he is. Chris Hemsworth is completely pigheaded as Thor and the most annoying of the heroes. Which leaves us with Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. This is a big improvement on previous attempts at creating the Hulk on screen. As a walking-talking example of humility, he actually tones down Tony Stark in the scenes they share. Incidentally, the cameo argument with Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Pott is better than anything in the earlier Iron Man films. This almost makes the relationship credible. Which leaves us with Tom Hiddleston as a surprisingly pleasing Loki. He’s a good trickster but should not be seen dead in that horned hat.

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner

 

The special effects are, for once, special. SHIELD’s helicarrier actually looks as though it might work although the invisibility shield is the usual silly project-a-picture-of-the-sky on to the hull variety. It’s far better than the equivalent in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The jet fighters and transports are also beautifully rendered with VTOL and manoeuvring beating anything the Harrier jump jet has been able to achieve. The final battle is very well structured and beautifully paced. It could have become very repetitive, but manages to keep everything fresh as each hero is allowed a few moments to hold a position, fight a corner or try to disable the McGuffin. I was particularly impressed by the animatronic alien landing craft. They manage to look simultaneously impractical but, from the point of view of a mere human observer, completely intimidating. The Hulk’s leaping ability and smash-through-anything approach is hilariously over-the-top and through-the-bottom as well. The Iron Man suit yet again demonstrates a level of invincibility above and beyond the call of duty. Quite how Stark is supposed to emerge in one piece is beyond understanding. That made it good to get back to basics with the Black Widow beating those pesky aliens in hand-to-hand combat. As one woman said as she was about to be incinerated by aliens, Captain America can rescue me anytime he wants. He’s just dogged and, even though no-one asks him to take on the role, he makes a natural leader. Thor pitches in but, for someone supposed to have godlike powers, he’s rather cut down to size by the weight of numbers coming through the portal. Indeed, the heroes might have lost had Earth’s governments, in their wisdom, not decided to send a different kind of help.

Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans looking for more to fight

 

So The Avengers has good patches that increase in frequency as the film develops leading to a superior fight at the end. This means you should pack sandwiches and a flask of hot tea to see you through the opening section. You can break out the popcorn and coke nearer the end and so finish on a high. I suppose this film will make several tons of money. The marketing hype has generated the interest and, if the intended market is anything like the people who surrounded me when I saw the film, teen boys will flock to this like bees to a honey pot. It has their demographic most skillfully written all over it by director Joss Whedon who has probably done as well with the plot as anyone could. Once you have to have this crowd of principals assemble and then give each a fair amount of screen time, it’s going to get ponderous until they are forced to drop their differences and start fighting the real enemies. So if there’s an inner teen lurking inside you or, like me, you enjoy science fiction and fantasy, you should probably see this. Otherwise wait for it to come on television and enjoy the battle at the end.

 

For my reviews of allied films, see:
Captain America
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Thor

 

This film was short-listed for the 2012 Nebula Award and for the 2013 Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation.

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