Now You See Me

Thursday, July 25th, 2013 11:06 pm
kate_nepveu: sleeping cat carved in brown wood (Default)
[personal profile] kate_nepveu
And now, I continue my pop-culture brain dump with a movie that hardly anyone I know saw (though it did unexpectedly well at the box office) and that isn't in theaters any more, because I believe in putting these things on the record: Now You See Me, the magic-show-as-heist flick with Mark Ruffalo, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman.

It opens with four individuals being observed by a mysterious figure in a hoodie (not a mysterious hooded figure; that's Welcome to Night Vale, which is next in my queue, I think). One is Woody Harrelson, using hypnosis to be a blackmailing asshole. One is the guy from The Social Network (Jesse Eisenberg), doing large-scale card tricks and being kind of a dick. One is a woman (Isla Fisher) doing a straight-up escape trick and being fierce. And one is some young guy (Dave Franco) picking pockets. They're all brought together for some mysterious plan . . . and then a year later, are running a magic show in Las Vegas with Michael Caine as their backer. Mark Ruffalo is the FBI agent assigned to investigate the aftermath of the show; Morgan Freeman is a professional debunker of magic tricks.

The thing about caper movies is that they need two things. On the mechanics side, they need both a satisfyingly non-obvious trick and a satisfyingly fair reveal. And on the story side, they need a reasonably just, by the standards of the genre, conclusion.

Now You See Me does well with the first at the beginning, but gets pretty wobbly in this regard thereafter. (I should never think "that's stupid" during an explanation; ideally I should never think it, but at least have it wait until the next day or even just the drive home.) As for the second . . .

SPOILERS.

As my summary may have suggested, the four-person team is 3/4 unlikeable, and there is essentially no time for character development. Put that together with the opening and I spent a good deal of time waiting for the mysterious backer to drop. Well, at first I thought it was Michael Caine, but then in their second show they rob him (in a way that makes no sense at the time, so much so that I thought it wasn't real for quite a while). But then I was looking.

I entirely missed that it was Mark Ruffalo, and so I naturally must dissect why. The movie played on, first, the ambiguity I would feel in who to root for in a cat-and-mouse game in the caper genre generally, with an added Robin Hood element to further muddy the waters. [*] So that took up a good chunk of my attention to Ruffalo's character: how close is he going to come, and do I want him to catch them? And that was exacerbated by the movie playing on my embarrassment squick to disguise the ways he was slowing the investigation down: I was too busy cringing at him losing his temper or getting shown up by Eisenberg's character (arrogance personified) or forgetting the "tackle" hypnosis instruction, to wonder if he was the backer. So that worked well.

[*] There end up being arguably three plot forces in the movie, Ruffalo's revenge, the Robin Hood thing, and the magicians' desire to prove themselves worthy of membership in the mysterious Eye society, which is too much. Also the hints that magic is "real", too much.

Except the reveal is that he's framing Freeman's character for the foursome's last theft because Freeman did an expose on his dad, who then died in an even-more dramatic escape attempt that was supposed to be his redemption. Or something. And I do not think that revealing magicians' secrets is an imprisonable offense! It looks to me like a lot of displaced anger at his dad for not rolling with the punches, or at an uncaring universe for a chain of bad things, but the movie entirely fails to position it that way. Freeman is the bad guy, Ruffalo is the good guy, the foursome are also good guys for working as a team (even though their personalities have changed not at all), the end. And I don't agree.

ETA: a comment by [personal profile] telophase reminds me that I meant to link to Penn and Teller doing the cups and balls, in which being shown how it's done doesn't detract from the awesomeness but enhances it.

Oh, and the mechanics bits that I still remember as nonsensical, nearly two months later: if someone cleans out your bank account electronically, and says in public that they're stealing from you, I can't imagine that your bank would hold you liable. And the safe being disguised by a giant mirror, like a rabbit in a box, makes no sense at all. What if someone walked just a little further into the room and saw their reflection? If you can get a giant mirror in the room you can also get a false wall. Sheesh.

Because this was back at the start of June, my partial notes on the trailers are all outdated except one, which is:

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones: there is no justice in the world.

Date: Friday, July 26th, 2013 04:29 am (UTC)
metaphortunate: (Default)
From: [personal profile] metaphortunate
You're reminding me of the problem I had with The Prestige, which - have you seen it? I mean, it's worth it, but just in case, the big problem with it for me was that it was presented as a heist/mystery-type movie, and then it turned out to be the equivalent of, say, a Sherlock Holmes story in which the explanation is 1) the killer had, unbeknownst to Watson, been raised by Russian acrobats and therefore could do physical feats that would be impossible for almost all humans, and 2) the body was missing because a door to another dimension had opened and extradimensional monkeys had eaten it. I am totally okay with fiction about extradimensional doors, but I feel that it is unfair to spring them on the reader or viewer 3/4 of the way through a mystery story.

Date: Friday, July 26th, 2013 11:00 am (UTC)
veejane: Pleiades (Default)
From: [personal profile] veejane
Hee hee. I've had this discussion a couple of times with people, and I've come to the conclusion that the movie would have worked much better (for me) if instead of "It's real magic!", the ingenieur had said at the inquest some other root-word like "It's wizardry!" or "It's uncanny!" or even "I demand a trial! The laws of physics have been broken!"

Because at base the conflict between "magic" --- stagecraft tricks -- and "real magic" -- bizarre/sfnal science -- is too important to rely on a single adjective. If we'd actually seen some sfnal science earlier on, or if that ingenieur had been able to make the distinction in a way we the audience would understand (I think his outburst would have to be considerably longer), I'd have been much more primed to expect the extradimensional monkeys.

Could have been a silent scene! Just, before the opening credits, Tesla looking puzzled as his object-miniaturizing machine (pile of teeny tiny hats behind him) instead turns his cat pony-sized. Or something.

Date: Friday, July 26th, 2013 02:36 pm (UTC)
metaphortunate: (Default)
From: [personal profile] metaphortunate
Ah! Now you have me thinking about how the movie isn't really a heist movie - it's the explanation of a magic trick. And it turns out that for some reason the explanation is "the magician could do actual magic", it's REALLY PROFOUNDLY unsatisfying! I wonder why that is?

Also, that Sherlock Holmes basically went around explaining how magic tricks were done. Poor Doyle, no wonder he became so gullibly desperate for some illusion in life.

Date: Friday, July 26th, 2013 10:49 pm (UTC)
veejane: Pleiades (Default)
From: [personal profile] veejane
My favorite P&T clip is of a cup-and-ball trick using clear cups, so you can see exactly what Teller is doing and how gracefully. And you're right, it's the competence that's the appeal, as well as the relationship between trickster and audience. There was a profile in Esquire of Teller recently, or really about how he filed a cease & desist on someone from YouTube who'd made a film explaining one of his classic tricks. There's a lot in there about what the audience wants out of a trick, how much they may want to believe it. Here it is: http://www.esquire.com/features/teller-magician-interview-1012

If that relationship between performer and audience is key, then yes, no amount of foreshadowing is going to make the viewer like the extradimensional monkeys. Because the effect is that the performer is lying to the audience all along -- not leading them on a mutually-agreed-on journey of wonder, but hiding his sfnal science behind the cloak of that that journey. It betrays the relationship, makes the performer untrustworthy to his audience.

We outside the movie's frame aren't "his audience," but the bleedover is significant, I think.

Date: Friday, July 26th, 2013 12:38 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] mariness
I actually had two problems with the Prestige. The larger one was by the end of the movie, I hated everybody up to and including Michael Caine's character. (Maybe not the little girl. But definitely everybody else.)

So by the time the extradimensional monkeys showed up I was already aggravated, and when I realized that the movie had provided no buildup to them whatsoever, the effect was, ok, you've just made me sit through two hours of watching people I don't like AND it's a cheat at the end?

Well, to be fair, one of the twists isn't a cheat, it's just not very probable, but any problems I had with that one were dwarfed by extradimensional monkeys. As you said, if we'd gotten even a small hint of that possibility earlier in the film I probably would have been ok with it.

I don't think it helped that the Illusionist was released at the same time, and although that film also had its Big Gaping Plot Holes I really liked the cop character, who was enough to keep me enthralled in the film. Classic demonstration of how if you give me someone to watch/root for I can (mostly) overlook some Er, No, issues. The Prestige never did that.

Date: Friday, July 26th, 2013 01:21 pm (UTC)
mmcirvin: (Default)
From: [personal profile] mmcirvin
I watched The Prestige with someone who actually did not get that the weird-science twist was supposed to be real, and completely misinterpreted the entire last part of the movie until I explained it to her. She's very smart and accustomed to both science fiction and the visual language of movies. I think the left turn was just so jarring that her brain strained to construct some kind of alternative plotline.

Date: Friday, July 26th, 2013 01:26 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] mariness
I got it, I just was already aggravated. Now that I think about it, it probably didn't help that I was already being asked to believe one pretty improbable scenario, and then I had to buy a weird science/interdimensional thing when all I really wanted was for everyone to die painful deaths slowly pecked away and eaten by birds.

Date: Friday, July 26th, 2013 04:47 pm (UTC)
mmcirvin: (Default)
From: [personal profile] mmcirvin
After the fact I realized that I'd missed the crediting of the screenplay to Christopher Priest, which would have been fair warning.

Date: Saturday, July 27th, 2013 04:24 am (UTC)
metaphortunate: (Default)
From: [personal profile] metaphortunate
I can't believe I forgot that post was yours! I did remember it.

Date: Friday, July 26th, 2013 11:11 am (UTC)
veejane: Pleiades (Default)
From: [personal profile] veejane
On the mechanics side, they need both a satisfyingly non-obvious trick and a satisfyingly fair reveal.

Bah, modern caper movies. Why, in my day, we watched Jules Dassin put on ballet slippers to cross a loud floor and press his ear to the safe while turning its lock! (Rififi an extended no-dialogue bank-heist sequence.) No tricks about it! Just the tension of a difficult and unlikely job done well!

I was thinking about this as I re-watched some of those old Clive Owen BMW ad-films. The John Frankenheimer one has a night chase sequence where the driver reverses suddenly to bash out his chaser's headlights, and then off he goes through the obstacle course, and you can see what he's thinking only a moment after he thinks it: the chaser will, and does, fail to avoid the obstacle, and crashes, because he got no headlights. It was a great little masterwork of wordless plotting, not a "twist" per se but a combination of realistic environment and fast thinking.

I think movies tend to rely on the twist-and-reveal formula a little too much in lieu of any other plot tensions, and as you say, they often bungle it.

Date: Friday, July 26th, 2013 10:56 pm (UTC)
veejane: Pleiades (Default)
From: [personal profile] veejane
I love them too!

I do think that some heist movies are tricky -- the Italian Job remake was somewhat tricky; Ocean's 11 was tricky -- and some aren't. But I think those tricky heist movies share reading protocols more closely with murder mysteries than they do with their non-trick heist brethren, because one of the most important things, as discussed above, is how much is disclosed to the audience and when. When the story outright lies to its audience, or withholds information strictly for the sake of a later reveal, the story dooms itself to failure.

(Non-tricky heist movies can go sit in the other theatre with non-mystery thrillers. Help help, I think I'm developing a Venn diagram.)

Date: Friday, July 26th, 2013 03:09 pm (UTC)
telophase: (Default)
From: [personal profile] telophase
Toby and I pretty much shared the same opinion of the movie, which is that it was okay, but not great, and we both were pretty much going "eh" until Ruffalo's reveal, at which point we both had a desire to watch it again in order to see if Ruffalo's character's unprofessionalism and screw-ups would now be obvious calculations to throw the investigation in a different direction.

I was impressed at the way he managed to cultivate a three-day beard in all scenes, no matter how long or short it had been since he had the opportunity to shave.

Also, I always roll my eyes at the "you can't reveal tricks!!!" thing whenever I find it. The big penalty of revealing a trick is that you're thrown out of a professional magician's organization. Sometimes. I'm under the impression that Penn & Teller, who reveal tricks all the time (but usually as part of doing the same trick in a completely different way), are still part of it, despite the grumbles of some of the other members.

Date: Friday, July 26th, 2013 03:27 pm (UTC)
telophase: (Default)
From: [personal profile] telophase
That's my favorite trick of theirs!

I saw them live once, and they did a version of a classic Spiritualist seance-type trick: got volunteers from the audience to come up and tie Teller to a wooden chair with his tie and a some rope. Then, as Penn talked, he drew a curtain around Teller, and periodically we could see the shape of Teller's face and hands thrust into the fabric of the curtain. Every time Penn pushed the curtain back, Teller was still there and--I think--checked by the people who had tied him, who testified that their knots were undisturbed.

Until the end of the trick when, with the curtain gone, and Teller appearing still tied down, he just stood up and walked away, revealing that whatever the volunteers had done, it wasn't tying him down.

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