Now You See Me – A Review

And, once again, the promise of magic lures me into a so-so movie.

As you may recall from my review of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, I have a bit of a soft spot for the performance of prestidigitation. If a movie or television show features illusionists, it peaks my interest. So when I saw the trailer for Now You See Me I was somewhat curious, despite the fact that my track record with pop culture associated with magic is pretty mixed at best. The cast was another strong selling point; if you are able to talk Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, David Franco, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine into appearing in your film, one would hope that there is the material there to back up that star power.

Unfortunately, I think there may have been some sort of mass hypnosis to get this many talented people associated with this project. Now You See Me is a harmless film that might be fun if you can overlook the fact that most of it makes little to no sense. There are some interesting twists and good action sequences, but the film is bogged down by terrible dialogue and a half-baked plot that falls apart under even the smallest scrutiny. Now You See Me has some elements of a good caper movie and starts off with promise, but just can’t sustain that energy throughout the rest of the film.

The general plot of the film is as follows: Four magicians (Eisenberg, Harrelson, Fisher and Franco) are brought together by some mystery person for unknown purposes (this all happens before the opening credits). They start performing together as “The Four Horsemen” and during their Las Vegas show they appear to rob a bank in Paris. This captures the attention of the FBI and Agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) is tasked with figuring out how the foursome could pull off such a caper while seemingly being in another country. Rhodes receives some guidance from ex-magician Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) who has made a career of revealing how magicians perform their illusions. Is there really magic at work here or is magic just the smokescreen for something else?

As I stated in my review of Star Trek Into Darkness, the part of caper movies that I find most interesting is the assembling the team component. Now You See Me dispenses with that pretty quickly, but it is not surprising that I was more interested in the early part of the film. Unfortunately, because such a little amount of time is devoted to the team building and it focuses more on the types of magic that they perform (sleight of hand, escape artists, mentalist) that The Four Horsemen are kind of blank slates without much personality or development. Harrelson and Eisenberg flesh their characters out the most, but even they are just vague sketches. There are glimpses at backstory – Eisenberg and Fisher used to work together and there are hints at romance – but not enough to be anything substantial and actually just wind up raising more questions than providing answers. The same can be said for Ruffalo’s FBI Agent – he doesn’t have a lot of personality and we mostly see him just look annoyed and confused as he tries to explain how The Four Horsemen have pulled off their accused crimes. This is part of the larger issue with the movie – it never slows down. Between the camera angles and the action, there aren’t many moments of reflection or any breathing room. That may be by design as reflection on this movie will only highlight the fact that a lot of what you are watching makes absolutely no sense. The movie ended and I wasn’t sure what the point was of the last two hours. I have no idea what motivated most of their actions and I left the theater with the sense that the writers had totally cheated in the vague resolution that they provided. The problem with telling a story about magic is that when you explain what was actually done, you are actually trying to impose a logical structure on something that by its very definition defies logic.

Now, logic and action don’t necessarily go together in movies and for a while the illusions and the twists and turns of the plot are enough to be somewhat satisfying in an empty calorie, junk food sort of way. But because so much of the movie is from the perspective of the FBI, we wind up seeing a lot of the same material twice: once when The Four Horsemen are doing their thing and then a second time when the FBI finally figures out how they did it. It gets a bit repetitive. Watching people that are almost always a step behind is not particularly entertaining, especially when you have no idea who you are rooting for. I’m not sure if I was supposed to hope that The Four Horsemen got away or if I was pulling for Ruffalo and company to put it all together and finally beat them at their own game. I had no stakes in the game.

Now You See Me does have some very exciting action sequences that make parts of the film a fun ride. Franco, in particular, gets some pretty exciting stuff to do (eventually – the first half of the movie he is just kind of there). The illusions in and of themselves are also entertaining. Harrelson is always amusing and hearing Morgan Freeman narrate anything is a pleasure (I think they may have put an unnecessary scene in the movie JUST so he could do a voice over).  I like Ruffalo a lot in general so that good will was carried over to him in this film, though it was mostly unearned. Now You See Me can’t live up to its own expectations and grandeur, but it occasionally has some moments that illustrate why so many people were attracted to this film, at least in theory. It’s the execution where the problems lie and even those moments can’t gloss over the plot holes and emptiness of the film.

Some other thoughts:

  • Ever since Jesse Eisenberg starred in The Social Network he can’t seem to shake that Zuckerberg smugness in my eyes. It is channel appropriately in this movie, but I have a tough time seeing him in other roles without that baggage.
  • Morgan Freeman as a magician is a film I would definitely sign up to see.
  • I saw my first trailer for the second Hunger Games film (Catching Fire) and it has me suitably excited for the film this November.
  • Isla Fisher is everywhere lately – She was in The Great Gatsby, the new Arrested Development episodes and now this film. I’ve seen more of her in the last few months than I’ve seen some friends. She’s Hollywood’s redhead of the moment.
  • Michael Caine really doesn’t have enough to do in this film, but it’s always nice to see him.
  • In the card trick that he does in the beginning of the film, the card that the fan picked was actually the same card that I picked from the deck. That was kind of weird.

Now You See Me is simply a mediocre film that doesn’t use this talented cast to the best of their abilities. It has moments where it is very enjoyable and the enduring interest in resolution for some of the big questions of the film kept me somewhat engaged in the proceedings despite the ludicrousness of the story. It definitely has portions that are visually stimulating and exciting, but those moments are not enough to save this film from its faults. Even Woody Harrelson in a porkpie hat can’t make up for a film that’s story feels like a big cheat in a lot of ways. Now You See Me is better categorized as Now You See Me on cable or on DVD.

Now You See Me opens nationwide today.

Pop Culture Commencement

This past Memorial Day weekend marked the REDACTED anniversary of my graduation from college. I always thought it was funny that commencement was on a holiday weekend, since our fall semester used to start on Labor Day. My alma mater was apparently hell-bent on eating up as many three day weekends as possible.

Commencement ceremonies are boring; I don’t think I’m saying anything all that shocking with that admission. It’s a lot of sitting around and waiting for either your turn to walk across the stage or to clap for the people that you know that are walking across the stage. I would have skipped my Masters graduation ceremony altogether, but I was getting an award from my department and they led me to believe that I had to be at graduation to receive it. I didn’t – there was a separate departmental ceremony that I could have shown up for later in the day – and I wasted three hours of my life (and my family’s life) sitting in a hot gym being bored. It’s all pretty mundane and most commencements follow the same basic formula, though I always appreciated the bagpipes at my undergraduate ceremony. Bagpipes are almost always a welcome addition in my book.

The only thing that can really liven up a graduation is a solid commencement speaker. Bringing in someone who is famous or exceptional and that is capable of giving an engaging and entertaining speech can make a real difference. Unfortunately, I have never actually been at a ceremony where this took place. When I was an undergrad, my college frowned upon paying a lot for someone to come speak. They were under the delusional idea that coming to speak at a small liberal arts college in upstate NY was compensation enough. I was nominally involved in student government in college and I remember that we even offered to use a big portion of our operating budget to bring in someone more prestigious (I think it was a Kennedy – though for all I know it could have been actor Jamie Kennedy. I didn’t pay a lot of attention in these meetings.) The college turned us down. My commencement speaker had something to do with politics in Ireland, which was way too heavy for a Saturday morning. It was boring and ultimately most of the day was pretty forgettable. The college has since changed their tune on commencement speakers as this year they had Deepak Chopra. So not fair.

This year, lots of pop culture figures donned caps and gowns to give the keynote address and collect a made-up degree. These speakers were both entertaining and insightful and while I don’t know that anyone could have livened up graduating in a parking lot (they’ve since moved commencement to the soccer fields – everything got better after I left), they certainly would have helped make my ceremony a much more enjoyable and memorable experience:

Joss Whedon – Wesleyan University Commencement:

 

Stephen Colbert – University of Virginia Commencement

 

Anders Holm (Workaholics) – University of Wisconsin

 

Eric Idle – Whitman College Commencement

 

Jimmy Kimmel – UNLV Commencement

 

Kerry Washington – George Washington University

Odds and Ends – Almost June edition

Sorry folks…I don’t have much in way of a snappy intro this week. I don’t know if all this dreary and rainy weather is sapping my enthusiasm or if it is just because I’ve been so busy, but the creative juices just aren’t flowing like normal today. So I’ll skip the long intro – that’s not what you’re here for anyway – and just get to the main event. Enjoy your biweekly roundup of all things pop!

  • Congrats to Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul and his new bride, who were married last weekend. He seems like a very down to earth guy. We should be pals.
  • Gael Garcia Bernal will star in Jon Stewart’s directorial debut.
  • I had no idea that people were this into Vin Diesel – 14 pieces of fan art featuring the actor. Da Vinci’s Diesel is easily my favorite:

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  • Sounds like earlier reports might have been incorrect – Sam Mendes appears to be back in the picture to direct the next Bond movie. Yay! He did a great job with Skyfall.
  • Oh NBC – you shouldn’t be spelling the name of one of your stars wrong in the credits:

Smash

 

  • I posted this on the blog’s Facebook page, but it bears repeating – Jimmy Fallon’s Game of Desks skit:

 

  • Will Smith and his son Jaden reunited with some familiar faces during this appearance on The Graham Norton Show:

I’ve seen enough clips from this show to make me think I should be tuning in. They seem to have a lot of fun.

  • Ellen Degeneres had a mini Friends reunion:

 

  •  A LEGO Lord Voldemort goes wand shopping:

 

  • If the measure of success is having a walking tour and adult film based on your show, than Girls has definitely made it.
  • A new Kelly Clarkson video has been released:

 

  • Ke$ha drank her own pee on her reality show, which got the Parents Television Council all up in arms.
  • I’m very excited for this – Starz has announced the debut date for their show The White Queen, based on Philippa Gregory best-selling novel series The Cousins’ War.
  • These guys did a homemade version of the Clock Tower Scene in Back to the Future:

 

  • I have been to exactly zero of Esquire’s best bars in America. That is kind of a tragedy. I’ll have to add these to my travel folder along with restaurants from Man vs. Food and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
  • This is nice – after fans bought gifts from his registry, Washington Redskins QB RG3 sent them handwritten thank you notes. That’s better than some of my friends have done – I’m still waiting for thank you notes from a handful of weddings over the years. So tacky.
  • This 4 year old knows more about Marvel Superhero trivia than I ever will:

 

  • There’s going to be a Paula Deen museum. Sadly, it is in Albany, GA not Albany, NY.
  • My beloved tolerated Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo has been done up to look like the home of the Giants for a movie. I find that kind of insulting; it’s one thing to be a stand in for a fake team, but quite another to be made to look like another NFL team plays there.
  • Ryan Gosling’s latest film was booed at the Cannes Film Fesival.
  • Uproxx has the top 100 network shows for the 2012-13 television season. Interesting that several shows that were cancelled actually had higher ratings than Community (including Happy Endings).

And as always, we wrap up with the mashups and uppercuts:

  •  A mashup of Daft Punk and Soul Train:

 

  • Not to be outdone, a Mad Men/Daft Punk mashup:

 

  • And to complete the Daft Punk trifecta: “Get Lucky” played on the banjo:

 

  • Beer of Thrones:

I can assure you this doesn’t happen when you drink the actual Game of Thrones beer.

 

  • A supercut of dancing in movies:

 

  • A Minecraft made trailer for Man of Steel:

 

  • A supercut of video games and arcades in film:

 

 

  • Jane Austen’s Fight Club:

 

  • A mashup of the theme from Space Jam and Titanic greatly improves the latter:

 

  • And finally, since Memorial Day weekend marks the kickoff of summer, a remix of summer-themed songs: