Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Mystery of "Now You See Me" (2013)

Two years ago I saw a trailer for a movie about magicians who rob banks to give to the poor.   I never heard much about it and thought maybe it had gone straight to video.  But no, it was released, but with very little marketing and then a number of odd things happened.

I may as well tell you up front that I believe that this film is actually an important and intellectual French film masquerading as a trivial popcorn movie. There are a number of things about this film that reveal that it is not mere cinematic fluff but is of interest to the readers of this blog, compelled as we are by the appropriate and innovative use of visual effects and our study of the esoteric knowledge that is hidden from the average, uninitiated member of the filmgoing audience.

On the surface the movie is an action / caper film about 4 street magicians who are brought together by an unknown person to create a new act, called the Four Horsemen. They nearly instantly become very famous and successful and their shows sell out and become media events not just because they have great style but also because they rob banks as part of their show and then give the money to their audience. Since in fact there are laws against robbing banks, unless of course you are already wealthy in which case you can do what you want, the FBI and Interpol get involved to solve the case and put our heroes into prison. The Four Horsemen have to somehow continue to evade the FBI, continue to rob banks, and somehow do all this in their final show in New York with the whole world watching and the FBI closing in.

But from the very beginning, the film confounds expectations.

A young man stands in front of a mirror practicing various sleight of hand flourishes with a deck of cards (see below). As he does so, there is a voice over, the voice of a young magician and he says to his invisible audience:

Magician: Come in close. Closer. Because the more you think you see, the easier it will be to fool you. Because, what is seeing? You're looking, but what you are really doing is filtering... interpreting... searching for meaning. My job? To take that most precious of gifts you give me, your attention, and use it against you.

So you see, the movie begins with an idea, an idea from the philosophy of magic. It is very unusual for an American movie to begin with an idea, or to even have an idea anywhere in the movie for that matter. That was the first clue that something unusual was going on.

Lots of style and glitz in our magic shows these days.

Superficially, the plot holes of the film, perhaps more appropriately called plot chasms, might signify the film as not serious. But this unusual opening monologue also suggested that there was something else going on, something behind the scenes, something mysterious.  These clues suggested to me that perhaps it was made in the cinematic tradition of another country.

Let us review some of the other unusual things about this film.

First, Hollywood (in this case, an American & Canadian studio) rarely makes movies about magic, that is, the profession of magic in this country. Whether the magicians are stage magicians, close-up magicians, famous escapists, mentalists, whatever, they rarely make films about these people, no matter how fictional. Such films are said to not make money, according to the standard received wisdom. But this movie was made nevertheless.

Step into my bubble, he said.

Second, the film, when released got lukewarm and mixed reviews, and received almost no marketing from the studio and it was expected to die a quick death. But, strangely enough, it didn't. Instead it proceeded to slowly build business by word of mouth and made over $100 million in this country for a total of at least $230 million in first release. That is very good for a film that cost $75 million to make and was expected to flop. In fact, it made more money than several other very expensive summer movies of that year and they are even making a sequel.

Third, this film was made by a relatively unknown French director and it is very rare for this country to finance a film by a foreign director because such films rarely do well in this country. Unless of course the foreign director makes films that are like American films in which case he really isn't all that foreign, now is he? Hollywood from time to time will co-finance a film by a famous foreign director, but that is not what happened here.

She is beautiful.

He needs a shave.

Fourth, the film is very, very French. It is not just an American caper film done by a foreign director. No. From beginning to end, this film feels like a French film in spite of the fact that Canal Plus did not finance it. How could I tell? Well of course there was the opening already alluded to, but beyond that French filmmakers have a very firm grasp of the essence of a film and have no problem sacrificing plot credibility at any time if it contributes to the style of the film or to the film's higher purpose. Plot, character, plausibility? Poof, that is irrelevant. Second, the French seem to have an affection for sophisticated and intelligent women who are not 22 years old as all the women in Hollywood seem to be and who, generally speaking, have an affair with the male lead. Third, they are very partial to male leads who do not shave. Fourth, the French as a culture have a strange appreciation for the big budget nightclub Vegas-type of show, in this case, of Magic. So lots of spotlights and lots of showmanship. Kindof Siegried and Roy without Siegfried and Roy. But most of all it is the cavalier dismissal of reality at any time that just felt so very French to me.

A typical French film might be a romantic action film about a beautiful and well (un) dressed young woman who is secretly a mysterious alien and who knows the secret of the rebirth of the universe and will save the galaxy if only these men in the story would stop screwing around and get out of her way before it is too late. This film is not about that, but it is about 4 street magicians who do the most amazing and implausible things with a good sense of style and outwit the FBI at every turn.

Fifth, the visual effects generally have a lot of panache and are not held back by any old-fashioned concerns about believability. As the French are very much into the meaning and semiotics of modern architecture, the final scenes are a very busy effects sequence with projection on buildings that is actually quite interesting if a little unbelievable.   The problem is that while we can project stereo on a building, I don't think we have the technology to project something such that each member of the audience will have their own point of view and perceive a holographic or stereo image that appears natural and in place.  I think that most of these techniques restrict you to one point of view or at most a very few.   This is a rare example of someone in the film business actually thinking ahead.

Since the police are after them, the Four Horsemen, now reduced to three, make a virtual appearance.

Sixth, the film seems to attribute much of its implausibility to the invisible hand of a secret philanthropic organization from ancient Egypt that may be behind the mystery.

And finally, I normally hate films with plot holes like this. But in this case I did not mind it one bit. In fact in spite of everything, or perhaps because of all the things I have mentioned, I actually found the film charming.

Although nominally the film may be about magicians who rob banks, we also have here a nice Cinderella meta-story about a French summer popcorn film that did well.


Now You See Me (2013) on IMDB

Hollywood Reporter article on Now You See Me Boxoffice



1. A flourish is the display of a deck of cards in a way that is designed to impress. It may or may not be part of an illusion. A good card player will often use flourishes when shuffling a deck as a way of intimidating his opponents or perhaps just to show off. In magic, it is part of the entertainment value of a show and is often used to distract the audience's attention. It may also be used by the magician as an exercise to develop skill and coordination.

1 comment:

  1. Luv the build up to 'the final hint' Thanks to your review im gonna watch this movie,