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September 07, 2013

Movie Review: Now You See Me

Now out on DVD and available for PPV.

Director Louis Leterrier (Clash of the Titans, The Incredible Hulk) summons the spirit of the TBS heist series "Leverage" and picks the pockets of the magical puzzle movie The Prestige and combines them to stage an audacious illusion: A very dumb movie inside which is hidden a clever movie, which itself conceals a movie which is actually even dumber than you first thought. But dumb in a fun way.

Somehow managing to levitate a premise-heavy gimmick movie into the air, he conjures up a fun, dumb, fast-paced, dumb, outrageous, dumb, compelling, dumb, watchable, dumb, and tricky (but in dumb-tricky sort of way) enjoyably dumb thriller/con caper movie, a veritable Feast for the Eye-Rolling.

The movie starts by introducing four street magicians of varying levels of success. Danny Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) is the "hottest" magician at the moment, sort of like David Blaine when he was just on the cusp of becoming truly famous and Annoying Everyone. Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is a once-famous mentalist now on the downward slide of living hand-to-mouth off petty blackmail shakedowns. Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) is a former assistant to Danny Atlas (and yes, it's the sort of movie where people are named "Danny Atlas" and "Henley Reeves" and of course must have had some kind of former romantic involvement, despite her being hot and him looking like Mark Zuckerberg, because Shut Up It's The Rule). She's now a magician on her own, doing some kind of Underground/Rave Circuit escapology act that the Hipster Kids really love, because if there's one thing Hipster Kids really love, it's enjoying magic acts in a non-ironic way.

Meanwhile, a guy who's barely in the movie, played by Dave Franco (James Franco's brother), is named, and I'm not even kidding about this, "Jack Wilder," and yes, as a matter of fact he does do a lot of interesting tricks with playing cards, why do you ask? In addition to being a specialist in pickpocketing and sleight-of-hand and being named Jack Wilder, he's also a petty thief.

This Ocean's Four are recruited by a Mysterious Figure in a Gray Hoodie, a man (???) whose face is never seen, for Unknown Purposes, but it seems to have something to do with the old Egyptian hieroglyph for the Eye of Horus. It's actually all kind of fun and silly in a Dr. Who sort of way.

It's the kind of movie where people explore dark and mysterious apartments with flashlights they Just Happened to Be Carrying (because Shut Up) but you kind of don't notice because Hey Look at the Cool Holographic Images That Are Playing Now.

Cut to One Year Later -- and this cut to One Year Later is where the entire trick of the movie resides, as I'll talk about in a second -- and these four have now joined forces as the "Four Horsemen," who appear to be a wildly-successful magic act playing for an ecstatic crowd in Las Vegas. And tonight, they have a very special Trick, apparently one they've been promising for months during their rise to fame-- they're going to pick a random person out of the crowd and rob that person's bank for him, right from the stage.

What? Wait a minute, Movie, did you just drop me into the middle of an Absurd Ridiculous Premise without so much as giving me the smallest amount of foreshadowing, explanation, or rationalization for it first?

You sure did, Movie. You sure did. And I can't even hold it against you too much, Movie, because now I want to see how they're going to do this.

Let's skip ahead and just note they do in fact seem to rob a bank -- halfway around the world, in Paris -- right from the stage. And while it's not a crime to pretend to rob a bank as part of a magic act, it is a crime to really rob that bank... which, the FBI soon learns, is sort of what actually happened.

Those three million Euros they dropped on the crowd at the end of their "illusion"? Yes, it turns out those three million Euros went missing from the Credit Republicain bank at the exact moment they claimed to be robbing it, using... um, "magical teleportation."

Or maybe they're lying about that. Yes, they're almost certainly lying.

But then how did they do it?

And why? They're now in-demand entertainers. Why rob a bank? Looks like they're selling out major auditoriums. They're on the path to becoming rich.

What the hell is going on? Fifteen minutes in and already nothing makes sense. Most movies don't start not making sense until the middle of Act II.

This movie is so incredibly dumb, but it's so well-meaning in its dumbness. It's like a Big Dumb Puppy that's clumsy on its feet and just keeps bopping you in the groin with its big dumb puppy head and it slobbers all over you and sometimes it chews the furniture or drops a Puppy Poop but it's actually Trying, it its own dumb, relentlessly ingratiating manner, and simply trying puts it several steps above many other movies they're making these days.

They're not heavy hitters. They don't hit any home runs. What they do instead is make contact with the ball and get on base and then begin stealing bases left and right, ultimately stealing home, or perhaps getting called out at the plate by Your Brain, but you'll have to umpire that call yourself.


The magic of the movie lies in that One Year Later cut. It conceals so much. It conceals everything. In much the same way that you never see the magician building his trick cabinets and trap doors and fake swords for a year before the show, you never see the "Four Horsemen" preparing, or even discussing what exactly it their motivation and goal here is.

That means an awful lot of awful scenes in the movie, which would be Painfully Stupid and Implausible if you were forced to sit through them, actually aren't even in the movie at all. You're forced to provide your own explanation for what happened in that Missing Year, at least for most of the movie, and wait for the movie to confirm those guesses or provide other answers.

So that means that major questions -- including some which frankly never have a good answer -- aren't answered until almost the end of the movie, when it's frankly way too late to complain much about it. Basic questions, like:

What exactly is the goal here? This is a con movie, that's obvious enough; and sure, magicians are basically Theatrical Con Artists, so it's plausible enough they'd make for a good con/theft team. But who is the target? Who is the mark?

They don't tell you. Eventually you'll know who the target is -- at the moment the Target Himself knows who the target is -- but until then, you're just trying to catch up with the movie, almost as if you've missed three or four critical reels of the film.

Which is exactly what you've missed. Three or four critical reels of this film are just missing, and so for the rest of the movie you're going to be behind it. Even though the movie is Dumb and you are probably Smart, the movie has a big advantage on you when it's cut out the three or four reels of the film that explain everything up front.

And speaking of Critical Character Motivations the movie doesn't supply until the end...

Why are these four people, two of whom have clean criminal records, willing to openly and arrogantly taunt the FBI and Interpol over their robbing of a bank? What promised reward could possibly justify such absurdly reckless behavior?

The movie just says, "Don't think so hard about it, Braniac. We'll get to that when we get to that." By the time you do get to it, you hardly notice that it doesn't make any sense because you've had so many other things that don't make sense thrown at you in the interim.

And what the Hell is Michael Caine doing here all of a sudden? Morgan Freeman I understand; of course Morgan Freeman is suddenly in this movie For No Reason Whatsoever. That's sort of his Thing.

But what about Michael Caine? He seems to have teleported in from The Prestige, actually. Why is this millionaire suddenly the Mysterious Benefactor of four formerly-unknown street magicians?

The real trick of this film is the trick Gandalf used to trick Beorn into permitting all thirteen dwarves (and Bilbo) to eat lunch at his house when he initially only thought he'd be serving three. By telling a fun story with cliffhangers and dangling mysteries, he was able to smuggle more and more Dwarves to the lunch party.

This movie does the same thing, except instead of suddenly introducing more Dwarves, it keeps on introducing more Preposterous Premises. And before you know it there's a Baker's Dozen of them.

Plus a Hobbit.

The experience of watching the movie is essentially a dialogue between the movie and Your Brain:

MOVIE: Okay, there's going to be a few premises you're going to have to grant me here, but if you grant me them, I promise this will be a fun movie with twists and all that good stuff.

YOUR BRAIN: Okay just get on with it.

MOVIE: So anyway Jessie Eisenberg is such a Cassanova that female fans are crazed to get into bed with him, and Isla Fischer still pines for him ---

YOUR BRAIN: So like does he have a winning personality?

MOVIE: No, not really a winning personality. He's more of a Gigantic Douche type.

YOUR BRAIN: So... I don't understand. Has he hypnotized her? Is he the hypnotist one?

MOVIE: No, that's Woody Harrelson.

YOUR BRAIN: Then what's his specialty? Rufie Magic?

MOVIE: Can I just tell this story?

YOUR BRAIN: Fine. Get on with it.

MOVIE: So then the gang begins staging Impossible Illusions because Mirrors and Holograms Can Do Anything--

YOUR BRAIN: Wait, they can do anything? That's ridiculous.

MOVIE (fakes a chuckle): Oh yes that would be ridiculous. I was just kidding. Ha ha ha.

YOUR BRAIN: Oh okay, ha ha ha.

MOVIE (under its breath): I just meant Mirrors and Holograms Can Do Most Things.

YOUR BRAIN: What? I didn't quite hear that.

MOVIE: Nothing, nevermind. So like I was saying, this Secret and Ancient Fraternal Order I had previously mentioned--

YOUR BRAIN: You didn't mention a "Secret and Ancient Fraternal Order" before.

MOVIE (tugs ear nervously): I'm quite certain I did.

YOUR BRAIN: First I'm hearing of it. What do you mean by "Secret"?

MOVIE: You know how Keyser Sosa was supposedly a big secret but everyone knew about it except the One Guy they needed to tell the legend to?

YOUR BRAIN: Yeah.

MOVIE: Well it's secret like that.

YOUR BRAIN: Okay, what about "Ancient"? How ancient? Like the Freemasons?

MOVIE: Older.

YOUR BRAIN: Like the DaVinci Code?

MOVIE: Older.

YOUR BRAIN: Older than the DaVinci Code? What the hell kind of movie is this? It's starting to sound like you're just making all of this up as you go.

MOVIE: No, we had a script.

YOUR BRAIN: A finished script?

MOVIE: (Shrugs.)

YOUR BRAIN: Okay. Whatever. Just promise me that when this is all over, you're going to give me a good explanation for all this nonsense at the end.

MOVIE (wipes large amount of sweat from brow): I promise, at the end you'll definitely have an explanation.

YOUR BRAIN: I said a "good explanation."

MOVIE: What is "Good," anyway? Isn't one man's "good" another man's "slapdash and contrived"?

YOUR BRAIN: Not really, no.

MOVIE: Agree to disagree. Do you want to know about the bank robbery or what?

YOUR BRAIN: Is the bank robbery explanation going to make sense at least?

MOVIE: Absolutely! (under breath) Mostly.

YOUR BRAIN: Fine. Then tell me about the bank robbery...

Early in the movie, Morgan Freeman, who's one of those guys who makes millions of dollars by putting out videos revealing magician's tricks (What?! What kind of guys are those? Shut Up, the movie explained), explains to the lead FBI investigator the basic principle of magic:

Whenever the magician is saying "Look at this big magic trick over here," you can be damn sure the actual trick is taking place well away from where you're looking.

And so it is with Now You See Me, where, in a funny kind of way, the real magic is in the things you don't see, and the little movies you make in your head when you're trying to figure it out.

It's also the sort of movie where people casually mention a great magician named Lionel Shrike, who died performing a Houdini-esque escape, and you just know that a half hour later they're going to say "And of course his body was never found," but you're wrong, because they don't say that a half hour later, they say that ten seconds later.

His body was never found. Of course his body was never found. Why bother even being cute about it? We all know it's coming.

This kind of movie wouldn't be This Kind of Movie if there wasn't a Mysteriously Important Unseen Character who died under ambiguous circumstances whose body was never found.

Deal with it. Now let's talk about the second heist.

Recommended, but only if you're in a silly sort of mood and are willing to swallow some Ridiculous Premises without too much complaint.

Keep the comments free from any spoilers or even hints. Do not discuss anything that happens beyond the first half hour. I have a Spoiler Review in me that I think explains how the movie gets away with some of its Persistent Egregious Shenanigans and Nonsense, but I'm not posting it because the only thing that makes this movie interesting at all is trying to keep up with Whatever Stupid Thing Is Going to Happen Next, so please don't ruin it for anyone like that.

I'll post that spoilerish analysis some other time. No Spoilers!

Bonus Compliment: The director staged a wonderful footchase in the favellas around Rio in The Incredible Hulk. I think footchases are a very underrated and underutilized bit in movies.

Anyway, he demonstrates again that he's good at footchases by staging another one here. Plus a cramped-quarters hand-to-hand fight that is much better than it needed to be. I'd say it was like the fight in the Bourne Idenity, except far far stupider and employing Magical Tricks.

The X-Men: Days of Homages Present. The movie has a weird X-Man vibe, from the Specialty Powers to the half-hearted attempts at character interactions. (The X-Men movies, all of them, did this better than this movie.)

Here's the weird X-Man thing. First of all, it has the Professor X problem. Professor X is far too powerful. He doesn't seem powerful, because he's an old crippled bald guy with a bad case of Jean-Luc Face. But his power is controlling everyone.

That's a big deal.

This is why every X-Man movie must get rid of Professor X halfway through the movie. Because if Professor X is around for the big fight at the end, there's not going to be a big fight at the end. A man who can control people's minds at will does not need to fight.

In this movie, which is dumb, Woody Harrelson has the power to Hypnotize people to do pretty much whatever he wants. If there are limitations on this ability, the movie does not name them. He can even hypnotize people over the phone.

Not only is this Ridiculous, but we have the Professor X problem: If you have Woody Harrelson and his ability to hypnotize everyone into doing exactly what he wants, why do you need anyone else? Or even a plan, beyond "Have Woody Harrelson hypnotize everyone and make everything we want to happen, happen."

The movie deals with this by not dealing with it. Harrelson doesn't use this implausible ability (the only truly This Is Stupid ability) very often. They just use it when they Have To. And even when they Have To, there were other possible ways around the problem; so why stick this ridiculous superpower in there at all?

The other X-Men, I mean Horsemen, included Rogue, I mean Isla Fisher, who, for no good reason, wears gloves the entire movie except for one scene (and in that scene she's doing lock-picking underwater, so she couldn't wear gloves there).

Why does she always wear gloves, just like Rogue? I assume just to bother me.

Then "Jack Wilder" has a mixture of Gambit's Kinetic Playing Card Throwing power (but not a real superpower; just like, "he's really good at it"). Plus, Out of Nowhere, he suddenly picks up a bit of Beast's super-agility for a couple of scenes.

Finally, Jesse Eisenberg doesn't really have superpowers, except some kind of Mental Control Over Ass, but he does have one of the X-Men's personalities. He's a dickish control freak and the team leader, even though it seems like other people are better suited for the role.

He's Cyclops, then.

Why is this happening? Why does "Jack Wilder" throw exploding playing cards (or flash paper or something) and look exactly, and I do mean exactly, like Gambit did doing the same thing?

Why is the director of Marvel's The Incredible Hulk going out of his way to make a movie about illusionist con artists sort of seem like it's Marvel's X-Men of Stage Magic?

I have no idea.

Just a weird mystery tucked into this Big Dumb Goof of a Movie.

digg this
posted by Ace at 05:46 PM

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