My life in the past few months has been a big Baader-Meinhof of magic. While I have been seeking out texts and other media related to magic, I’ve also been tripping over the subject. Here are a couple recent cinematic stumblings.
Now You See Me (2013) – Directed by Louis Leterrier, Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Mélanie Laurent, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco with Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. I included the entire main cast there because just look at it. What a great cast!
A few months ago when I first saw the trailer for Now You See Me, I was a little disappointed. This summer is filled with movies I want to see. Trying to scheme my way into one more seemed pretty unreasonable, not matter how magic-packed this film looked. (If my income were substantially higher or ticket prices were substantially cheaper, I’d go to the movies every weekend.) If it came out in September or October, well, I figured my chance of seeing it in a theater was better. Then Iron Man 3 happened. I am perhaps overly unhappy with that film and, in true over-reaction style, it’s put me off of big budget blockbusters for the moment. That’s not to say Now You See Me doesn’t have a budget (IMDB put it at $75 million), but I’ve come to appreciate any movie that can pull off effects and still stay under the $100M mark.
This is going to be a biased review. I like magic. I like heist films. Put the two together and I have a peanut-butter-and-chocolate situation. This is going to be something I like even if the ingredients aren’t that good. Or, to belabor the metaphor, even if the ingredients are great but in the wrong proportions.
The characters, mostly, are a lot of fun. The interplay between Woody Harrelson and pick-a-character-any-character is one of the movie’s stranger points. Michael Caine and Dave Franco aren’t given a whole lot to do other than being the rich English guy and the fourth wheel on the tricycle respectively. Mark Ruffalo is generally grumpy, Morgan Freeman is generally enigmatic, and Mélanie Laurent is generally French. Luckily, these are all things that these actors do well.
The plot felt like it could have been a little tighter and a little clearer. After the second bank robbery, there is a bit of a shift in the attitudes of characters and the feel of the movie that probably could have been explained. Then, of course, there’s the magic. By and large, the tricks seemed reasonable, but again, some of the details could have been cleaned up to make the movie stronger. For example, one illusion is done with mirrors. After reading Hiding the Elephant, yes, I can see how you *might* be able to do that with mirrors, but it would be a more complex thing. For me, it would have been cool if there had been some actual magic history worked into the plot, but I guess that’s why I’m writing the book I’m writing.
Now You See Me is not perfect. In fact, it’s far from perfect. But it is ambitious and non-franchise and I left the theater satisfied with how I had spent my money.
Hugo (2011) – Directed by Martin Scorsese, Starring Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, and Chloë Grace Moretz.
When this movie came out, I knew nothing about the book by Brian Selznick and thought it was an odd choice for Martin Scorsese to direct. It was a kid’s story. Set in France. No rock & roll. No New York. Actually, worse, I had a misconception about the story. I thought it was the sort of light, fluffy, middle-grade fantasy that was trying hard to be on the same level as Philip Pullman books with aspirations of C. S. Lewis.
I’m not unhappy when I’m wrong.
At the end of the 19th and in the early decades of the 20th century, there was a great interplay between magic and technology. After all, what is magic but giving an audience what they don’t expect to see or hear? This is exactly what radio, movies, and TV did. Hugo is a story that weaves together one of the technical props of late 1800s’ magic- –the automaton– -with the coming technology of the motion picture. Georges Méliès was a magician before he was first prolific writer, director, and actor of film. Once I realized what this story’s deep plot was about, the preservation of film history, of course it was a project that Martin Scorsese would direct!
It is a beautiful film. Near the beginning there is a patented Scorsese one-shot of Hugo moving through a giant clock at the Gare Montparnasse railway station. Let me repeat that. A one-shot. Through a clock. The acting is great. Ben Kingsley even looks like Georges Méliès. After seeing him a couple weeks before in Iron Man 3 (he is the best thing in that movie), I was reminded how good of an actor he is. Second best actor in this film: Chloë Grace Moretz. I hope she avoids all the nastiness of growing up in the movie industry and continues to give great performances no matter what she’s in. Sacha Baron Cohen is ridiculous, but the writing allows him to be more than a cartoon villain.
Hugo was considered a flop. It’s a slowly paced film about history. I can kind of understand why this didn’t tear up the box office. At an hour in, I was surprised that only an hour had passed. I wasn’t unhappy about that, but it made me do a double take. Adult me really liked this movie. Ten-year-old me probably would have liked it too because I’ve always been interested in special effects and movie history since The Making of ‘Star Wars’. For the general, movie-watching public? Don’t be afraid to get your feet wet with some historical fiction. Even if there are kids involved. This is a Martin Scorsese movie after all.