Tag: illusionists

Film Review: Now You See Me

This review contains spoilers.

Now You See Me is the kind of film you can really only watch once.

It’s a film about magicians; not the fantasy Harry Potter kind levitating broomsticks and fighting dragons, but the real-world illusionists pulling rabbits out of hats and cold-reading, the Derren Browns and the David Blaines.

Four street magicians, calling themselves the Four Horsemen and following Mysterious Instructions issued by a Mysterious Hooded Figure™, steal three million Euros in paper money from a Parisian bank, live on stage in Las Vegas. The film alternates between their trajectory as they promise two more shows of similar audacity, and the story of the FBI team assigned to investigate them for, um, stealing three million Euros, which definitely did happen, even if they can’t prove the Horsemen did it.

There are some things the film does very well. It’s good, for instance, at articulating the anarchic appeal of magicians, the idea that in a world increasingly governed by institutions and entities most of us cannot hope to understand, there are still those who can game the system, exist in the space between the rules, break the laws and not be held accountable. After the Paris heist, the Horsemen escape arrest because, as one of them observes to the FBI, arresting them would involve admitting the existence of magic, which would render the organisation a laughing-stock; the Horsemen are ghosts in a machine that cannot acknowledge them because to do so would undermine its own legitimacy.

It’s a film steeped in modernity, and problems of modernity, with its fast-paced jump cuts, its palette of techno-blues and blacks, and Jesse Eisenberg, who thanks to The Social Network is essentially synonymous with swift-talking, showy contemporaneity. The chemistry between the Horsemen (Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco and Woody Harrelson) is great, their onstage camaraderie nicely contrasted with offstage tensions; it’s a good way of getting at both the appeal of illusion and its inherent falseness.

Unfortunately, the film fails (for me, anyway) because it’s basically a metafilmic gimmick. One of its central mantras is “the closer you look, the less you see”; another is the idea that the place where the magic seems to be happening is exactly not the place where the important part of the trick is happening. So the film’s final revelation, the one designed to “solve” the entire story, Illusionist-style, is that, unbeknownst to everyone involved, the FBI detective assigned to investigate the Horsemen is actually the Mysterious Hooded Figure™ who’s giving them their instructions, having engineered the whole situation since he was about fourteen years old in order to take murky revenge on a magician-debunker called Thaddeus who’s also been tailing the Horsemen.

D’you see? D’you see? The Horsemen and their Amazing Stage Magic are a distraction from the real story, the distraction that allows the trick to happen in the shadows. Just as the Horsemen trick their audiences, the film tricks you. Do you see how clever the writer is? All fiction is a trick designed to delight you and dazzle you and distract you from the horribleness of the world!

Yes, film, I see.

The problem with this is that, although there are some ways in which fiction can be compared to a magic trick, there are some important ways in which fiction is not like a magic trick. The most important of these is that, while magic tricks can get away with a surprise ending because this is the real world and if something happens it must be possible, in fiction you have to show your workings because otherwise your audience will lose interest and wander off.

By which I mean that saying that someone is a master manipulator is very different from convincing us that they are. The fact is that the FBI agent character (Dylan) does a very good impression of not being able to manipulate his way out of a paper bag, and no big reveal is actually going to change that.

By the film’s own logic, I should be able to rewatch the film and see the trick happening, now I know where to look. I just get the feeling that it doesn’t have this kind of rewatchability; that there are no clues telling me that Dylan is running the whole show. I’m not even 100% sure on his motives for revenge on Thaddeus; my parents were talking over a bit of dialogue that may have given me a clue, but to be honest if I managed to miss such an important bit of plot in such a small space of time that’s not much of an excuse for the film.

As a result, the ending leaves Now You See Me feeling curiously disappointing and unsatisfying, an irritating bit of show-offery that doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. It’s not by any means unwatchable (although if you’ve read this review it probably is now), and in fact it’s quite entertaining; it’s just that, like most magic, it could have been something more.

Review: A Gathering of Shadows

gathering-of-shadows_ukcover-400x586A Gathering of Shadows is the sequel to Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, which I read right back at the beginning of the year and rather enjoyed. The series is set in a universe in which there are four Londons connecting four worlds, side by side: Grey London, our own in the time of Mad King George, where magic has been bled away to stop it burning the world; Red London, where magic is plentiful and the people are, by and large, prosperous; White London, a dying world full of murderers preying on whatever magic they can find; and Black London, unspeakable, utterly destroyed (or so it is assumed) by magic become conscious. When a Black London artefact found its way (impossibly) into Grey London, it’s down to Kell, one of only two magicians left who can cross the boundaries between worlds, and Lila, a cross-dressing thief, to return it before everything comes crashing down.

So Gathering picks up four months after the end of Darker (which was pretty much a self-contained story). Red London is about to hold the Element Games, a magical tournament between the magicians of three empires – a carefully choreographed political spectacle to keep the peace. Kell, who is a sort of possession of the royal family of Red London due to his rare abilities, and Rhy, the prince of Red London, are both feeling trapped by their state responsibilities and by the bond Kell created between them to keep Rhy from dying at the end of Darker. Meanwhile, Lila is on her way back to Red London having spent four months at sea in the service of the flamboyant privateer Alucard Emery.

Gathering is very definitely a Middle Book: nothing very much or very pressing actually happens – although there’s also very little that feels like it’s setting up for the next book. It should feel like Schwab is just marking time – but somehow it doesn’t.

Partly, I think, it’s because Gathering is deeply invested in its characters, and is perfectly happy to wander down random tangents in the service of developing them. In particular, it avoids the all too common tendency in fantasy for characters to fall narrowly into “good” or “evil”; instead, they manage just to be “people”, who make bad decisions or good decisions for all kinds of reasons, selfish and selfless. Lila, for example, is a killer, and largely unapologetically (one of her first acts here is to murder a man whose purse she’s stolen); the text doesn’t quite judge her for that, and she kills rarely enough that the text avoids the trap of making murder look cool. I’m well aware that Lila, actually, is something of a stock character – the insanely skilled and stubborn thief in the night who turns out to be good at everything – but she’s so much fun that I don’t care.

There’s also an incipient hint of romance here, which is a shame, because I was gunning for Schwab to ignore the usual YA swoony swoony romance thing, as seemed likely in the first book – but there is a gay relationship here which the characters don’t see as unusual, so that’s something.

Generally, I think Gathering is a broader novel than Darker, taking in several viewpoint characters so that information gets released to us in bits and bobs, at precisely the appropriate time; a clever trick which, alongside the device of the Element Games (in which some of Our Protagonists are participating, of course), gives this functionally plotless novel the illusion of pacing and tension.

One last thing that I found fascinating – the novel’s interest in masks, in double identities, in the parts that people play, an interest reflected in its focus on the material realities of Red London and especially on clothing and colour, where it picks up a brilliant steampunky vibe. I’m not sure how much there is to say here until the third book gets published, as really Gathering doesn’t quite stand on its own.

Definitely a Middle Book, then, but one that pulls off its Middle Book-ness with aplomb and skill. I think I actually enjoyed it more than its predecessor.

Top Ten Books I Read Before I Was a Blogger

  1. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m currently re-reading this, and I think one of the things I love about it is how autumnal it is: that gentle, gorgeous sadness.
  2. Going Postal – Terry Pratchett. Or, all the Discworld books. Going Postal is one of my favourites, though: I’m fascinated by showmen, and if Moist is anything he’s a showman.
  3. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. Apocalyptic and vast, a story of truths half-told, of men in black and way stations and mutants under mountains: in many ways this is just perfect fantasy. I’ve never read anything like it since.
  4. Sabriel – Garth Nix. I read and re-read this, and its sequels Lirael and Abhorsen, endlessly. It’s got an awesome heroine, a sarcastic cat, a vast and wonderful library (in Lirael), and an invented world with a lot of depth.
  5. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. This was my first Dickens, which I read when I was in school: I fell in love with its sprawling sentimentality.
  6. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. Another novel that features libraries: its main characters track down Dracula through a paper trail of pamphlets and books from across time. It made me want to go to university; not that I hadn’t wanted to go before, but this made me want it concretely.
  7. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams. Dirk Gently is one of the great comic creations of English literature: irreverent, off-beat and ironical.
  8. Persuasion – Jane Austen. Another wonderfully autumnal novel: I read it for my A-level course, and it was just so rewarding to study.
  9. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling. This was the first Harry Potter book I read (don’t ask) and I’ve had a soft spot for it ever since. I think it strikes a great balance between worldbuilding and plot, a balance that the later books don’t ever really achieve.
  10. Northern Lights – Philip Pullman. I just really, really loved the idea of daemons, and the fact that it was a huge, dense book to get stuck into. Reading it back now, it’s also full of quite complex ideas about science and metaphysics and philosophy.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: Nights at the Circus

nights-at-the-circusNights at the Circus (1984) turned out to be a wondrously unexpected confection of high Gothic camp and sly cultural criticism.

I say unexpected; in actual fact I had no idea quite what to expect going into the book. Angela Carter is famous – in some cases notorious – for her bloody, dark Gothic fairy tale retellings, awash with trenchant second-wave feminism. Never having read any of her work (and having neglected to read the back of the book before I started it), I was expecting a collection of short stories; what I got was a novel.

Nights at the Circus, then, follows Fevvers, an aerialiste travelling Europe with a circus in 1899, the last months of the nineteenth century. She’s something of an international star, due to the pair of enormous technicolour wings she sports on her back. Are they real, or false? Is she fact or fiction? Jack Walser, an American journalist, tries to find out: first by interviewing her, and then by joining the circus and following her across Europe, even to the frozen wastes of Siberia.

Like all good Gothic novels, it’s a book engaged in pushing at the limitations of narrative, which is also where Carter’s feminism – or, rather, her radicalism – comes in.

A key part of this pushing, it seems to me, is the book’s treatment of time. It’s no accident that Nights at the Circus is set right on the boundary between one century and the next: a liminal space, a pause where the nineteenth century runs out of steam and the twentieth has yet to gear up; a place of potential, and thus of uncertainty.

In the first section of the novel, in which Walser interviews Fevvers and her ever-present companion Lizzie, and is treated to an extended recitation of her increasingly colourful and unlikely life story, he hears Big Ben strike midnight. And then again. And again. Walser is a rational being, and he cannot quite fit this into his head: is it a trick? A mistake? Is he hallucinating? The uncertainty this creates – and, deftly, Carter manages to maintain it as uncertainty, never quite making the women’s power over time explicit – reverberates through the book, setting up interference patterns with its ostensibly realist mode, leaving it constantly in an, as it were, startled destabilisation that never exactly topples into something surer.

Because, of course, Nights at the Circus is pastiching the classic Victorian novel, with its three-book structure, its dense run-on syntax, the cynical and would-be objective observer (Walser) with whom the story begins; which, again, makes it all the more effective when moments of hallucinatory magic realism creep in; as when, late in the novel, the train carrying the circus through Siberia crashes in the wilderness, and Fevvers looks on the carriage that once held the tigers:

[blockquote] …the tigers were all gone into the mirrors. How to describe it. The “wagon salon” lay on its side, ripped open like the wrappings of a Christmas toy by an impatient child, and, of those lovely creatures, not a trace of blood or sinew, nothing. Only pile upon pile of broken shards of mirror…On one broken fragment of mirror, a paw with the claws out; on another, a snarl. When I picked up a section of flank, the glass burned my fingers and I dropped it. [blockquote]

Is this metaphor or truth? Hallucination or magic? The text is never allowed to retain the objectivity of Victorian narrative, and never allowed to stabilise into anything else, either. The Victorian novel is, in fact, queered: to create that carnivalesque circus-space which, matter-of-factly, defies normativity of all kinds. There is space in the circus for strong and ambiguous female relationships like Lizzie and Fevvers’; for unambivalently queer relationships like that between the female tiger-tamer and Mignon, a girl picked up on the streets of St Petersburg with a history of abuse at the hands of men; for humankind’s close cousins, the chimpanzees, to come into their own as intelligent and independent beings. This space, of course, is space denied to these groups by the traditional Victorian narrative.

It is a glorious text; but I confess to being disappointed by its closing third, which sees the circus gradually scattered by the vastness of Siberia, Fevvers herself fading from brash and defiant technicolour to more muted shades of lostness. I think there is a reading here, perhaps, that sees the trappings of civilisation, and thus the very need for such queering, stripped away by the wilderness at Russia’s heart: Walser ends up among a shamanic tribe who have no sense of historic time (here again the theme of the tyranny of history), briefly made amnesiac from the crash, so that his links to white male civilisation are shorn away, and only that experience makes him worthy to be (inevitably but still disappointingly) paired off with Fevvers. And, in a side-plot, the Siberian wasteland becomes a site for queer revolution, as female prisoners in a nightmarish pantechnicon fall in love with their female guards and rise up against their tyrant jailer. The point being, I think, that the frozen wastes outside civilisation crumble old assumptions about civilisation away, generating a new, and most importantly stable, space for the dispossessed and the downtrodden that is not fetishised and contingent as the circus necessarily is.

And yet: I missed the glorious and defiant Fevvers of the first half of the book; and I also feel uneasy about the superstitious portrayal of the Russian tribe that helps Walser to his epiphany. They exist without context in a novel in which everything else is complicated, and that feels like a lazy and an exploitative choice.

It’s not a perfect book, then; but the Gothic is not a genre of perfection; precisely the opposite, in fact. The Gothic creates gaps in our orders of signification; and here, fairly unusually, those gaps are serving a political purpose as well as a structural one. If Nights at the Circus isn’t perfect, it is at least fascinating and full of ambivalence, and my, will I be keeping an eye out for more of Carter’s work.

Afterlife: Things Forgotten

“That’s what ghosts are – they’re our own pasts haunting us, they’re our fears and our inadequacies.”


Another emotional episode from Afterlife, and although I think it’s one of the more powerful of the series, there’s not actually very much to say about it – it’s simple and potent.

Things Forgotten sees Alison alone. The ghost of her mother is gone, but so are all the other ghosts. When a teenage boy, Harry, calls on her for help, haunted by a horribly creepy child spirit with the face of a clown, she can see nothing and do nothing, and she’s horrified by the theatrics of Jennifer, another medium who Harry’s parents have called in to help. Eventually, it’s Robert and the rational wonders of Psychology that save the day, leaving Alison (and us) wondering whether there were ever any spirits at all. And if that’s true, where does that leave what Alison has been?

But, as always, the show is too clever to pin us down to one reading, and its ending casts doubt once again on the primacy of the rational. We can’t believe in Jennifer’s performance, over-the-top and over-assured (“you’re not one of us,” she spits angrily at Alison as she supports Robert’s scientific intervention. “Good,” Alison replies); but the ending of Things Forgotten leaves the rational interpretation feeling impoverished and inadequate. The answer lies somewhere in between: not as mystical and chaotic as Jennifer would have us believe, nor as mechanical and methodical as Robert thinks.

I remain impressed with the nuance of this show, its skilful treading of a line between scepticism and belief, its ability to remain between truths episode after episode. It’s still occasionally campy (although, it has to be said, much less so than in earlier episodes), and still occasionally troubling with its gender politics; but, my, has it got under my skin.


Now You See It: Ep 1

“Memory plays tricks. Memory is another word for story, and nothing is more unreliable.”

Ann-Marie MacDonald

Oooh. look, the BBC has a new magic show! Hurrah, right?

Unfortunately, it actually turns out to be something like You’ve Been Framed but with magic. So while it’s mildly interesting if you haven’t seen the clips before (which you might have, since they seem to have been garnered from sources many and various), mostly because of Mel Bake Off Giedroyc’s gently humorous narration, you’re not going to need to be glued to it every week. It’s just scheduling stuff, really. Disappointing; it’s been ages since I’ve seen any really good magic.

When’s Derren Brown coming back, again?

Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang Pts 1 & 2

“Books were safer than people anyway.”

Neil Gaiman

#WhoOnHorror is back on this blog, mainly because ancient episodes of Doctor Who are very diverting to watch when you’re procrastinating. Because the Horror Channel only shows two episodes in one go, I’m only reviewing the first two parts of a six-parter, on the basis that I can’t remember where one part ends and the other begins.

So. Four and Leela, fresh from the exciting adventure of The Face of Evil, end up in Victorian London, intending to watch a magic show. (Doctor Who and MAGIC? Sold.) But something weird is going on. People are disappearing, there are strange noises beneath the theatre, and the writers are being just the tiniest bit racist. (All the baddies are Chinese. Is some imagination really that hard to come by?) Tom Baker appears to have become a ninja overnight, everyone is dressed as Sherlock Holmes, there’s an ROUS loose in the sewers, and I’m pretty sure the Doctor makes a Lord of the Rings reference at one point: “You can’t go walking round London in skins.” ANYONE?

Like I said, diverting. Especially when that pile of revision is calling.