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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 Dark Knight Rises (2012)

July 24, 2012 8 comments

I need to start with a short explanation of why I’m not going to comment directly on the Colorado massacre. This is a review blog and not concerned with real-world tragedy or the politics of gun control. The only relevant issue is briefly to consider whether writers and those who make films or television programs should be held accountable if people act out what they have read or seen. I’ve long been sceptical of any link between a person reading about specific behaviour or viewing that behaviour on a screen, and the decision to act it out. Since the introduction of the printing press, there have been millions of books from cultures all around the world in which people have been described engaging in a wide range of activities. When we add in films and television programs, and widen the boundaries of taste, we can observe an extraordinary diversity of human behaviour. At moments like this, we’re prompted to ask whether people exposed to depictions of violence become violent but that rather ignores the more general question of cause and effect.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Arthur (Michael Caine) enjoying a quiet moment

 

Abuse or aggression in the home is said to shape a child’s upbringing and make him or her more likely to be aggressive in the future. Naturally not all victimised or abused children become aggressive or abusive when they grow up. But some do. During their subsequent trials, the tendency to abuse others is said to be behaviour learned by experiencing how authority figures act. In other words, the socialisation process involves effects from the relationships within the family and the home environment, the interaction with authority figures, the pressures from peers, and a host of other factors. No-one would pull out a single episode in a television series such as Criminal Minds and blame it. Indeed, the problem in designing scientific research into whether there’s any link between violence observed and violence in action, is that showing people stimulus material and trying to measure their reaction takes the stimulus material out of context. Books, films and television do not exist in a social vacuum. Is it to be suggested we should not see news of the shooting in Aurora because this may incite copycat shootings? Every day, the news and comment media carry supposedly factual reports of criminal activity and other acts of social deviancy. There are tens of thousands of books which contain fictionalised versions of what we can imagine protagonists and antagonists doing to themselves or others. We should not censor the information that flows through our culture, nor seek to blame those who originate any individual item in the discourse as a whole. Indeed, news from Aurora would be a positive force for good if everyone focused on condemning the violence and discussing how public policy can be changed to reduce the chances of it happening again. The less violence is glorified and the more the peer group disapproves its use, the less the use of violence is seen as justified. If there are no rewards for the use of violence, there are fewer incentives for people to be violent.

Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman enjoying the ride

 

At this point I need to start talking about The Dark Knight Rises (2012) whose contribution to this debate is equivocal. Making a vigilante into a hero plays a dangerous social game. In some senses, it’s showing society taking a positive benefit from the activities of a man who never feels constrained by the usual social conventions. For more than one-thousand years, laws have tried to steer people away from individual action, outlawing blood feuds and criminalising revenge. We have been persuaded the peace and order in society is the greater good and surrendered our individual rights to the law enforcement agencies and the courts. In the film, the Dent Act has been used to deprive alleged criminals of due process. They have been locked away without a right to a fair trial on the facts, and without a proper process for sentencing. In terms of civil liberties, the cure has been worse than the disease. More importantly, the policy is based on the lie that Batman wrongly killed Harvey Dent and so represents the worst political expediency in action. Ironically this gives Bane some moral justification for leading a revolution and storming the local equivalent of the Bastille to release the prisoners. It’s just unfortunate that many of those released are dangerous and probably deserved to be locked up indefinitely. The later scenes showing the revolutionary courts in action mimic those set up by the Committee of Public Safety in France during the Reign of Terror and set up the power of the quote from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens at the end. It pays the framers of the Dent Act the complement of imitation. Both sides are completely arbitrary in their oppression of those they dislike.

Bane (Tom Hardy) strictly business before pleasure

 

Against this background, we need to understand the roles people play. Daggert (Ben Mendelsohn) is the ultimately corrupt politician who uses his position to advance his own fortune. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is the honest cop who feels guilt that he allowed the agenda to get out of his control. He knows the means do not justify the ends. Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) has opted for crime as the means to achieve her ends, but is wise enough to understand there have to be limits and ways to find redemption. She makes a pleasing counterpoint to the self-absorbed Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) who can’t ride down the street on his new bike without breaking half-a-dozen traffic laws every block. Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) represents a single-minded focus on the belief that humanity must somehow rid itself of corruption whether through projects to deliver low-cost energy to Gotham City or other ways. Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the voice of the young generation. Tired of being marginalised and victimised by older placeholders who have no accountability when things go wrong, he wants to get things done even if he ends up killing a few people on the way. But the most interesting figure is Alfred (Michael Caine) who gives a performance of great power as a paternal Everyman. He wants the best for young Master Bruce but not at the expense of Gotham City. When Batman distracts the police from chasing Bane and inspires mayhem, he shakes his head at the price society must pay for indisciplined interference. Would it not be better for Bruce Wayne to be actively involved in using his vast financial resources to help Gotham City out of the mess? Indeed, in Batman Begins (2005) the terrorist organisation called League of Shadows executed Bruce Wayne’s father because his philanthropy was so effective in stabilising the community. Alfred becomes disillusioned and leaves Bruce Wayne, the man he has loved as his own son. We are encouraged to see Bruce Wayne as losing his moral compass. He wallows in the arrogant delusion he can solve all his own problems (and those of Gotham City) by putting the suit back on.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Gary Oldman — tag team for good

 

Bane (Tom Hardy) is all business. He’s not showy or extravagant. His initial entry into the city is as a fixer for Daggert but, of course, he’s not a mere criminal. Nor, indeed, is he a true revolutionary. He’s a nicely complicated man who finds himself driven to destroy Gotham City. This understated performance makes a nice counterpoint to Batman’s more extravagant and flamboyant style. Whereas Bane lumbers around looking as if he’s just spent the night sleeping in his sheepskin jacket, Batman has to turn up on novel motorbikes or in futuristic flying machines looking dapper in his body armour. Bane is brutal and effective. With no knee or elbow joint in full working order, and with eight years of inactivity behind him, Bruce Wayne punches with the authority of a schoolgirl. Bruce Wayne overreaches because he believes in the myth of his own invincibility. He therefore has to learn what’s most important to him as his life lies in ruins. That the ending shows nobility of spirit is confirmation that he was, at heart, a good man. Alfred is justly proud of him.

 

However, I fear the film itself is not a complete success. As a piece of narrative fitting into the format of a trilogy, it’s a masterpiece. I see Christopher Nolan and his bother Jonathan Nolan who jointly wrote the screenplay, allowed a full novelisation by Greg Cox. I suspect it all works rather better on paper. The key difficulty is the need for the action to reflect the passage of at least five months. If a filmmaker is relying on the tired old device of the bomb counting down from 10, we only have a few seconds to watch the hero decide to cut the blue wire. This used to be exciting. But when the countdown is measured in months, it loses its dynamic force. As we watch Bruce Wayne rebuild his body, everything connected with Gotham City is fudged. How do all these policemen survive underground? Where does all the food come from to keep the population alive? How are water and power supplies maintained during the winter? And so on? Although the CGI of the flying bat is quite impressive in the final sequences, it was something I admired at a technical level more than found exciting. Oh dear, I was saying to myself, Gordon’s got himself into another of these silly script situations where he drops the gizmo and gets thrown around the inside of a truck like an action man toy. It’s all been seen before. Yes, it’s put together with all the skill we would expect of Nolan but. . .

 

Make no mistake, The Dark Knight Rises is a very impressive film and because it thoughtfully addresses some very interesting ideas of contemporary importance about our reaction to criminal behaviour in general and terrorism in particular, it deserves to reach the widest possible audience, i.e. it’s not just a fanboy comic book film. But you shouldn’t go expecting it to be non-stop entertainment in the wham/bam style of blockbuster cinema. It take its time and, in the end, this gives the film more emotional depth.

 

Gnomeo and Juliet (2011)

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Since this is a film brought to fruition by the partnership between Elton John and David Furnish, and they have also just announced a new addition to their family, I suppose I should start this review with the shout, “It’s a gnome!”

Gnomeo and Juliet has been eleven years in the making with still some bad feeling between Elton John and Disney which was originally slated to animate the script. As I sit down to write this review, it has already taken $120 million at the world’s box offices which, by any standards, is a reasonable amount since its release on the 11th February. All of which begs the question: is it any good?

David Furnish, Emily Blunt, Elton John and James McAvoy at the premier

There’s always a risk when a project has been so long in the pipeline that it loses something vital. People have too much time. They overthink. The developing work ends up lacking spontaneity. . . Not, of course, that an animated film is ever really spontaneous given the amount of effort that has to go into physically making it and then getting the voices synched in. But. . .

Early action from Gnomeo and Juliet

I’m put in mind of an old joke. Lost in the Irish countryside, the English driver asks a local, “If you were going to Dublin from here, which way would you go?” The local thinks for a moment and relies,”Well, if I was going to Dublin, I certainly wouldn’t start from here.” There comes a moment with a concept when the author has a decision to make. He’s planning a parody of a Shakespeare classic and he’s asking himself, “Can I get to Romeo and Juliet if I start with garden gnomes?” At this point, he should have remembered the joke. There have been some, and probably will be more, brilliant re-imaginings of Shakespearean plays. There have been some remarkably inventive animated films staring all manner of animals, creatures and “beings”. There even was a BBC TV show called the Gnomes of Dulwich in which Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd played out a conflict between their own garden paradise populated by original stone gnomes, and the new plastic gnomes next door. Since Elton John is old enough to remember this short series, it may have influenced his choice. Except the Dulwich gnomes were intended as a comedic exploration of more serious issues like race relations, whereas this is apparently worth nothing more than cheap shots at Shakespeare. There’s always scope for using rats or pandas to say something interesting about the human condition. . .

Tybalt hanging tough

So the first sign of impending disaster is the metafictional opening. We have the camera in a theatre awaiting the curtain rising on a production of Romeo and Juliet as played by gnomes. We have a gnome begin the Prologue dodging the hook to pull him into the wings. My heart sinks. We can have great fun with Shakespeare, or we can have an original story with gnomes, but not both together. So here’s the set-up. In semi-detached gardens, we have Blue and Red hatted gnomes. They come to life when no humans are watching and freeze if they are about to be noticed — if this sounds like Toy Story. . . The metafiction continues with Shakespeare putting in an appearance and the entire cast (including a partly reconstituted Tybalt), taking a curtain call at the end.

There are some good things to say. The quality of the animation is good and I always enjoy listening to Elton John’s music. Indeed, on one or two occasions, the use of the music is very clever to those of us who remember the lyrics. It was fun to hear some of the voices with Jason Statham and Hulk Hogan typecast as the violent bad guys. James McAvoy and Emily Blunt are adequate as our star-crossed lovers. It’s a pleasant surprise to hear Michael Caine back in action. While the rest of the top-class professionals are all pitch perfect with whatever thankless words they’re given. But the sad reality is that the first half drags. There’s no emotional set up. We get pitched into set-pieces like the lawnmower race before we’ve been given a chance to identify with the various characters and understand their relationships. Although it does improve slightly towards the end as we move away from the strict line of Shakespeare and get into the acquisition of the Terrafirmator, it remains strangely uninvolving. I really didn’t care that much who survived with merely a chip and who got pulverised.

It’s all a bit of a shame. I wanted it to be better than it is. So, if you have children, it’s easy on the eye and will probably hold their attention. But for parents, I’m afraid there’s little for you other than the thought that it’s relatively short, being a mere 84 minutes long. Then, there’s just the post-film ritual of a burger or whatever else your children demand, and a stiff drink waiting for you when you get home.

Here are reviews of the films featuring Jason Statham:
Blitz (2011)
Gnomeo and Juliet
Killer Elite (2011)
Safe (2012)

 

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