Thursday, June 6, 2013

Now You See Me

       Anybody Got Some Extra Fairy Dust?
               Review by Ken Burke            Now You See Me

An interesting, visually-rich blend of heist movies, Occupy revenge, Las Vegas-level magic showmanship, but a finale that twists into too many turns at the last minute.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.]
Fast & Furious 6
Sorry, guys, this is as close to a review
as you're going to get from me
Recently I’ve bragged a bit about how I’m able to take Roger Ebert’s final intentions to heart (to review only the films that he wanted to rather than feeling an obligation to cover everything on the circuit) based on my status as an unpaid journalist (of sorts, regarding the “journalist” aspect which I’ll leave up to reader reaction; more on the “unpaid” part at the end of the review) who has no editor to please, no deadline to meet, and no audience expecting me to have a review ready of all the new releases on their opening days (although I do appreciate the several thousands of you worldwide who have chosen to read my writings, even though they’re intended for retrospective considerations and toss spoilers around like Frisbees).  That freedom of choice of what to put my energies toward has allowed me in the last couple of weeks to follow the advice of my brethren in the profession and completely avoid such fare as After Earth (M. Night Shyamalan—he of the rapidly-disappearing career, a relevant topic for this review’s ultimate focus on magic tricks), Epic (Chris Wedge), The Hangover Part III (Todd Phillips), The Croods (Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders), G.I. Joe: Retaliation (Jon Chu), and Pain and Gain (Michael Bay), even though they were almost all in the Domestic Top 20 last weekend (Pain and Gain slipped to #21 after being #12 the week before) and a couple of them (The Croods, G.I. Joe …) are well north of the $100 million gross income mark.  However, I think I’ve done my duty fairly well lately with the more interesting offerings from the smaller films (especially Before Midnight [Richard Linklater; review in the June 5, 2013 posting], Mud [Jeff Nichols], and To the Wonder [Terrence Malick; review of this and the previous one in the May 3, 2013 posting], all of which are still playing in at least a few theatres so I encourage you to see them if you can), leading to a decision to spend a couple of hours with something mainstream that is making some money and/or generating some critical noise in order to pass on some comments about activity in popcorn land.

Given the generally positive critical responses (Rotten Tomatoes 72%, Metacritic 61%, Movie Review Intelligence 70%) and the superb box-office take of $170 million after only 2 weeks in competition, you’d think I’d choose Fast & Furious 6 (Justin Lin), as teased in the previous paragraph, but I saw one of these once and haven’t gotten any sense that there’s all that much to be gained from a new episode except more extravagant stunts (besides, if I want to see muscle-bound men defying the normal laws of gravity I can find it for free on any number of WWE TV wrestling shows all week long, although Dwayne Johnson [The Rock] is finished with his recent return to the ring [likely done only to promote the fact that he costars in Fast …, G.I. …, and Pain … from my current “fuggetaboudit” list]) so I decided to see a critically-drubbed(42, 50, and 50 from the respective critical consensus sites noted above)-but-still-audience-embraced movie (this “winner” pulled in over $29 million in its opening weekend, a very respectable start), especially one on a topic that intrigues me; when I put all that together I end up with Louis Leterrier‘s Now You See Me, which is fascinating in many of its individual magic extravaganza scenes and locations but overly confusing and derivative in total.  However, I saw it so that you don’t necessarily have to; therefore, onward to the deconstruction of the scam pulled off by the Four Horsemen:  Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, James’ younger brother).  When you start with that strong a cast, then you add prominent roles of FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) trying to figure out what these folks are doing and how to stop them and magician-debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) who seems to have never encountered a payoff that he wasn’t interested in, along with minor appearances by the Horsemen’s benefactor, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine)—that’s right, we get to see Freeman and Caine together again without another Batman movie premise—you’ve got something that I felt was likely worth a bargain-matinee’s-amount of my time, no matter how short it may fall of its full potential.  Actually, it’s not even Now You See Me’s potential that’s in question here because you’ll find enough of it taken from such sources as Ocean’s 11 (Steven Soderberg, 2011) and its sequels, The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995), and an expensive night in Las Vegas with David Copperfield (a consultant for this movie) that it feels like you have to hold these various sources somewhat responsible as well for what transpires in Now You See Me.

Certainly, the whole thing offers a lot of visual and conceptual intrigue as the Horsemen ply their various trades throughout the movie, including the very beginning as we’re introduced to each one separately (Atlas with spectacular card tricks—lights come on in a tall building to match the audience member’s chosen card [he reveals that he’s in cahoots with a guy in the building but how he conveys the proper card isn’t explained, if it even can be]; Reeves is chained in a tank where she about to be devoured by piranhas but somehow turns up safe at the rear of her crowd even as the tank seems to fill with her blood; McKinney is a hypnotist/mentalist who seems to have the real power of putting people under in a very quick fashion; and Wilder is largely a con artist/pickpocket but also very agile—which helps him escape his victims).  Somehow someone (we see the back of an unknown person in a grey hoodie in each scene of the 4 magician introductions) plants a mysterious Tarot card at the site of their individual tricks with instructions to meet on a certain day at a certain address in Brooklyn, although they’re not yet all personally known to each other (Reeves at one point had been Atlas’ assistant—apparently in more ways than one—but they’ve gone their separate ways).  In a scene that seems straight out of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977; “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi; you’re my only hope.”) a holographic projection is suddenly activated, then we’re whisked a year into the future where the 4 have somehow gained enough fame (with backing—for no clear reason except, I assume, the promise of profits—from benefactor Tressler) to pack a Las Vegas hotel auditorium where they perform the trick publicized so much in the trailer:  Random (not really, but he doesn’t know how he’s been stalked and primed to attend this performance) audience member Etienne Forcier (José Garcia) is seemingly transported to his bank vault in Paris where he supposedly connects an air shaft to the Vegas theatre, resulting in 3.2 million euros being sucked out of the French vault and rained down on the U.S. audience.  This immediately brings a response from the FBI (Rhodes) and Interpol (agent Alma Dray [Mélanie Laurent]), but the impossibility of the situation leads to no arrests, just huge publicity for the next big trick at a show in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.  Here, the magic is even more mysterious as audience members with smart-phone links to their checking accounts suddenly find instant deposits in their meager holdings while a tote board shows a corresponding decrease in Tressler’s account, until he’s been drained of about $140 million while our Horsemen escape with a promise of another show-stopping trick in NYC.  Throughout all of this Rhodes and Dray are constantly out-maneuvered by our 4 crafties, but as the chase continues they now have an angry Tressler on their tails as well.

The final complication in what continues to progress as a quite complex plot (not surprisingly, given all of the notable characters who get a reasonable share of screen time—with Caine’s Trussler being the one who most disappears from the action after the New Orleans caper) comes from Freeman’s Bradley, a former magician who now makes his living exposing the procedures of other wizards on a cable TV show (if there’s a clear explanation as to why he went renegade against the brotherhood it eluded me).  At various times in this story he seems to be helping first himself, then Rhodes, before being hired by Tressler to bring down these brilliant thieves in retaliation for their sting against him.  Bradley certainly seems to know what he’s doing, as he shows Rhodes how the Vegas job was pulled off (the euros were actually stolen by the Horsemen from a Paris delivery truck, replaced with fakes that were primed to combust so that no trace of them remained in the real vault while Etienne was simply in a facsimile vault under the Las Vegas stage [but he didn’t know that] so that real money was being pumped into the theatre but not through intra-planetary teleportation; why Rhodes, Dray, and associates never discovered the Vegas basement “vault” before letting the perps go their merry way is just one of many plot holes that accumulate too rapidly as the brisk pace of this movie charges ahead in a manner that keeps you intrigued until the inevitable but far-fetched explanations start taking place at the end) and leads the lawmen to assume that the New York trick will involve the theft of $500 million which resides in a secure safe in Queens (maybe that’s where Jay Gatsby’s money ended up after his death, assuming that his long-lost father probably didn’t want anything to do with it after he suddenly showed up for the funeral).  As this is the type of movie that depends on lots of unraveled threads needing to be sewed up, quick action, and the constant questions of how it will all turn out, we get what we expect here (at least until the concluding scenes) as the huge Queens cashbox is found to be full of balloons, Wilder seems to die in a fiery car crash after a fabulous chase scene through city streets and onto the 59th Street bridge, and the remaining Horsies continue to elude Rhodes and Dray then seemingly jump into thin air from a rooftop as money once again rains down on the crowd, but it’s fake cash this time with the real bills being stuffed into Bradley’s car just in time for Rhodes and company to catch up and arrest him for the theft.

This leads to two scenes of closure (which maybe you can get away with if you’re bringing something as monumental as Lord of the Rings to conclusion—although some critics panned this presentation, even though it comes straight from the book), but it’s not the best choice for this ordinary (but at-times-well-planned) heist film (most of what we originally are compelled to contemplate as magic is debunked about mid-way by Bradley, although I don’t fully understand how our sympathetic thieves managed to do all of their banking shenanigans against Tressler and for the N’awlins folks they were compensating [which also has a bit of imbalance, given that the first beneficiary gets just a couple of thousand while the next one gets considerably more, etc., so either our Robin Hood corps was just clumsily bestowing in terms of who got what or they conducted meticulous background checks to see who needed what, but on screen it just seems that their random largesse might create as much friction with the wildly uneven distributions as it provides relief]).  In the first ending scene, we have an interaction between agent Rhodes and newly-arrested Bradley, in the latter’s Bastille-like jail cell where he again explains a Horseman trick, how the Queens money was actually stolen (no smoke involved—until the vault door is torched open—but mirrors figure prominently in the scheme) thereby seemingly proving his innocence.  Rhodes, however, allows Bradley to understand that he’s the one who masterminded the whole plot, with a primary intention of putting Bradley behind bars so no release is to be forthcoming.  (Again, we have to make assumptions, that Rhodes will be believed in testimony that contradicts Bradley’s, but it’s a bit of a slim strategy given that Bradley is not known as a criminal while you’d think that circumstantial evidence would at least require a continued search for the Horsemen, who quietly move on with their lives, seemingly with no concern from any representatives of law and order.  But wait!  Bradley's Black—obviously guilty as charged!  But wait again!  He's Morgan Freeman!  This is going to get complicated, damn it.)  In the actual finale, Rhodes is in Paris where he meets up with Dray so as to confess his masterminding of the Horsemen’s crimes (despite all of the “justification,” we still do have 2 major thefts here and I’m sure a lot of associated charges) by explaining how he’s the son of a famous magician who was exposed by Bradley so his father attempted a career-restoring escape from a safe at the bottom of the East River; however, the safe had faulty construction, leading to Dad‘s death and magician-apprentice Sonny spending the rest of his life building a career in law-enforcement so that he could get into a position to assemble the Horsemen and set up his schemes in order to take revenge on Bradley, Tressler (whose insurance company refused to pay anything for Dad’s death because the body wasn’t found [the New Orleans folks just happened to be stiffed by Tressler as well after Hurricane Katrina so it was a 2-birds-with-1-stone-thing to do the bank-accounts sting there), and the Paris bank (where the funds resided that would have paid the insurance—to me, the least culpable of Rhodes’ victims but one burned by him nevertheless).

Given that the Horsemen never took any of the various stolen monies for themselves they were rewarded by Rhodes with membership in the very ancient magicians’ society, The Eye (of the Egyptian god, Horus, the embodiment of the sky, war, and protection of the pharaohs in this long-ago civilization), a group of legendary but clandestine guardians of the secrets of the unseen arts (implying that here may be some real supernatural activity beyond the explained tricks in this movie [as also implied in The Usual Suspects], so maybe they’ll pop up in Dan Brown’s next book; however, while the Eye of Horus is a very powerful iconic presence in ancient Egyptian mythology there doesn’t seem to be an actual magicians’ society with this name—of course, if they’re truly clandestine then there probably wouldn’t be any record of them, would there?—but the combination of the supposed power they represent, the symbol of the eye, and the danger of looking into it reminds me of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, which may be another purloined source for this collage of a movie).  However, except for a nighttime ride on a carousel in Central Park to celebrate their Eye induction we don’t get any further insights into what becomes of the Horsemen’s lives (no sequel, please); rather, we focus on the budding romance between Rhodes and Dray as they pledge their love (and, apparently, her silence on the whole revenge plot) on a Paris bridge, sealed with a padlock and the key thrown into the Seine, joining thousands of other secured promises there, despite his constant rejection of her being part of his team throughout the film along his consistent duplicity about being involved with the Horsemen heists, not only to her but also to us as he constantly acted as if he had no clue how they were pulling off their scams (made easier, as best I remember, by him never being along in a scene by himself so that the ruse he was creating needed to be carried out no matter how much of a lie it was to everyone but him and his 4 accomplices).  Of course, with all of the other associations that this movie conjures up maybe Agent Dray knew that, no matter what the crimes involved, she’d better be nice to Mark Ruffalo or else he might turn into the Incredible Hulk and smash her and that lovely bridge to smithereens.  Such an explanation wouldn’t be too much out of keeping with what we really do have here, but at least if Agent Rhodes is that persistent to have built his whole life on structuring the perfect plan to avenge his father he could probably be counted on to persist in a relationship as well so she’s likely making a wise investment (better than the clients at that Paris bank—who’d also better not count on Tressler for depositors’ insurance).

As for your investment with Now You See Me, I wouldn’t shell out more than bargain-matinee bucks, with more of a preference to wait for no-extra-charge-beyond-the-small-monthly-fee video streaming because while the showmanship of the big magic acts is impressive, the car chase/crash is a great adrenalin-pumper (another preplanned scheme, switching cars before the fireball so that Wilder’s alive at the end, of course—but I did get a dose of whatever I may have missed with Fast & Furious 6), and the sheer collection of acting talent in this “Wait-a-minute-what-was-that-all-about?” story provide a pleasant-enough diversion, I think you’ll walk away from this thing thinking “They had all that to work with and this is what they came up with?” rather than “Wow!  Let’s disappear for a few minutes, then magically reappear and watch it again” (without buying a second ticket, of course).  I liked what I saw most of the time, but just as you’re encouraged in the trailer to come closer to watch the trick, which makes it easier to fool you, the closer you watch the events and motivations of this movie the more you feel you’ve been tricked into seeing something more substantial than what’s actually there.  Maybe you should just forget the whole thing entirely by spending a lot less time and money with a listen to this thematically-linked old hit from America, “You Can Do Magic” (from their 1982 View from the Ground album) at  It may not leave you with the ability to “have anything that you desire,” but it might be a better choice than being ripped off by a con artist in a movie theatre lobby—or a team of filmmakers trying to hustle you with a not-really-so-magical-experience on screen (and while Now You See Me did do well in its opening weekend it’s been falling off notably since then so they may have to rob another bank to even break even after paying all of those name-brand actors’ salaries).  Better things are coming this summer, so just be patient and think twice before paying for this one—or go see Before Midnight for some real screenwriter/thespian magic if you can accept virtually all (well-crafted) talk and no action.

Shame (2011) with Michael Fassbender
(Regarding my “unpaid” remark in the first paragraph way above, I recently attempted to sign this blog up with Google AdSense so as to generate a little extra income now that I’m officially retired from Mills College [still Professor Emeritus of Film Studies, though; thanks, Trustees].  However, the robots, spiders, and whatever else Google uses to scan through web pages turned me down because I was told that the chatter from Two Guys in the Dark doesn’t meet their content standards for sites that they’ll allow for ads.  That baffled me so I inquired further [given that I have a colleague who works at Google; a very fortunate circumstance because the great deluge of web sites that they manage would probably require quadrupling their employee ranks to provide enough human eyes to look at all of them, so you can post chats all you want but you aren’t likely to get a reply from an actual Google employee, although others in your same situation may end up offering the advice you need], only to find out that because a lot of the films that I choose to review contain R-rated content I’m constantly using images and language just to illustrate what’s going on in these narratives that fall outside of the squeaky-clean standards that they’d like to promote for “family-safe” content that they’ll connect to advertisers [this explanation comes from my Google friend, not any official statement on the company’s part].  I can understand their policies and concerns that well-meaning sales people don’t want to inadvertently hawk their products on what might turn out to be porn sites, because this whole situation is largely computer-driven with little chance for direct human oversight.  However, given that there are plenty of legitimate, adult-themed films that I’ll continue to explore—such as in as one of my first reviews [posted here on Dec. 20, 2011], Shame [Steve McQueen, 2011; this one goes the full distance to NC-17, but despite the sex-addiction theme there’s nothing that I’d call pornography at all]—I can’t change what I’m legitimately doing [I realize that newspaper and magazine critics review R-rated films also, but they have to be much more discreet in how they euphamistically express themselves; within reason, I prefer to let it fly a bit more directly] just to conform to what Google’s also legitimately doing with product placements, so you won’t see any ads here [not a bad thing; I was conflicted about even considering incorporating them] and I won’t see any income until those huge Social Security checks start rolling in.  Thank God—and the National Association of Theater Owners—for bargain matinees and senior discounts, but rest assured I get nothing but the satisfaction of your readership from writing and posting these cockamamie comments.)

If you’d like to know more about Now You See Me here are some suggested links: (16:41 interview done by Jake Hamilton [yeah, him again, the pride of Houston, but at least he’s asking some decent questions for a change—at least in the first part, but then he reverts to form] with actors Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Mark Ruffalo, and Isla Fisher)

We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control, as well as problems we’ve encountered with the Google RSS Feed Alert when used in conjunction with iGoogle and Google Reader.

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Thought it was pretty good. Agree that the ending was contrived but was a feel good result with the possible exception of Morgan Freeman.

  2. Hi rj, Thanks for the comment. It's not a bad movie overall, just one that I wish could have left me with more of a feeling like I got from The Usual Suspects with the surprise reveal, but, then again, that one worked exceptionally well and I shouldn't require every unexpected ending to be part of some significant viewing experience. All in all, there's still a lot to like about Now You See Me. Ken