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.

Derren Brown: Infamous

“Courage isn’t a matter of not being frightened, you know. It’s being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway.”

Doctor Who

Ooh, a rare treat tonight, Constant Reader. It’s the televised version of illusionist and mind-reader Derren Brown’s latest stage show, Infamous. It’s the usual mind-bending mix of extreme headology, apparent mediumship and impressive memorisation.

Actually, it’s a bit of a mish-mash, this one. There doesn’t appear to be any overriding theme, and I’m not entirely sure what the relevance of the title – Infamous – is supposed to be. The finale is rather disappointing compared to the triumphant tying-up of, e.g., Svengali or Enigma.

But the core is still here, and it’s Brown himself who carries the show, instead of his various tricks and illusions. His personality alone, his showmanship, his manner, his way of working his audience – dear God, he’s astonishing. He does a screamingly funny impression of a Leeds medium at one point; it’s brilliantly lifelike as well as deeply satirical.

This is going to be a short review, I see. It’s because I have no more words. I could watch Derren Brown all day. And marvel that such a person could actually exist.


“Fairy tales are real not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that the dragon can be defeated.”

G. K. Chesterton

Constant Reader! Today, the 28th July 2014, is a day for celebration, because today The English Student is two years old.

That’s two whole excellent years of fangirling, snark, and general incoherent mumbling.

*lets off party poppers*

And how better to celebrate than a List?

Mildly Interesting Blog Stats #2

(Mildly Interesting Blog Stats #1 is here, if you wish to compare. It is, however, quite possible that I am the only one who is interested.)

  • I have written, according to my Dashboard, 547 posts in total. However, I’m taking this with a pinch of salt, since it does not take into account a large number of posts which were inexplicably deleted – I think about 100.
  • My top search term is now “derren brown automaton doll you tube”, slightly worryingly. I have no idea how that got here.
  • My top referrer is apparently
  • My most used tag is still TV drama“. Despite all my efforts, I am still a telly addict.
  • My most visited post is still Derren Brown: Fear and Faith, which just goes to show that the Internet has impeccable taste.
  • Aand…four of you visited yesterday. Which is better than zero, on the whole. So huzzah!

Here be Incoherent Mumblings. Consider yourself warned.

Just this: This blog is possibly the achievement I’m proudest of, ever. I’m frankly amazed I’ve kept it going for two years, and that people (even four people) are still visiting. So…thank you, Constant Reader, whoever you are, for, well, reading. And long may it last.

*lets off more party poppers*

Sherlock: The Empty Hearse

“I believe in Sherlock Holmes.”


Hurrah! Everyone’s favourite emotionally illiterate genius detective is back in London to uncover a potential terrorist attack involving the Fifth of November, an underground train and the Houses of Parliament.

Because we haven’t seen that plot anywhere before. Especially not in a dystopian film about a terrorist in a Guy Fawkes mask starring Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman.

But there was so much to squee about in this episode, though, to be honest, the terrorism plot took second place to Character Development: to John’s anger at Sherlock and his relationship with Mary; to Sherlock’s awesome back-and-forths with Mycroft; to Molly Hooper; and, of course, to Anderson’s guilt and relentless conspiracy-theorising that curiously resembles the conspiracy-theorising of people on YouTube right now.

Oh, and did I mention Derren Brown?


Does it get any better?

Well, in fact, it does, because it turns out SHERLOCK LISTENS TO LES MISERABLES.

Now all we need is a contingent of hobbits.

The Empty Hearse wasn’t, admittedly, the best episode of Sherlock ever (The Great Game or possibly The Reichenbach Fall still hold the top spots): the whole thing was a little incohesive and Sherlock came across as a little preachy at some points. But it’s still one of the best pieces of television I’ve seen recently (I would say “this year” but since it’s only the 2nd January that’s not much of a compliment) and I did not want it to end. Ever. Mainly I just like that he’s back. Solving crimes, annoying people and generally being badass.

Excuse me, I’m off to laugh at all the YouTube conspiracy theorists who got  it wrong.

Derren Brown: The Great Art Robbery

“Oh! what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive.”

Walter Scott

Oh yes.

He’s back.

And this time, the mind magician is stealing a £100,000 painting from under its owner’s very nose. Literally, in fact. With the help of four elderly people who have in all probability never done anything worse in their lives than “accidentally” go home with a pen from the stationery cupboard.

Brown claims he’s trying to change our perceptions of elderly people, but we all know this is a lie. Really he’s just doing what he always does, which is impress people, and perhaps freak them out just a tiny bit.

And this leads quite nicely into the Moral of the Story (otherwise known as Rule One), which is: Derren Brown lies. All the time. Are you telling me, really, that he couldn’t have informed the local police that, by the way, a film crew are going to be graffiti-ing this wall? Of course not. And are you telling me that any stunt designed by Derren Brown could possibly go wrong? Even if it is executed by upstanding, honest citizens? Of course not.

We know this. And yet we get fooled every time. Despite the fact, and this is the really good bit, that he told us exactly what he was going to do. There I was, thinking smugly, “I know Rule One! No-one can fool me! I know exactly what Derren Brown is doing!”, right up until the point when it inevitably turned out that I knew nothing. Because, in spite of all the warnings and hints, I, and probably much of the country, was looking in the wrong place. Again.

I’d like to finish with the observation that a man who says to an unsuspecting member of the public whose watch he has just nicked, “Sorry I took your time” is probably impossible to second-guess. Even if you bear in mind Rule One.

Doctor Who: The God Complex

“Cowardice isn’t quaint, it’s sly.”

Doctor Who


And we’re paying a last visit to some old episodes from the Smith Administration before his impending exit in favour of Peter Capaldi, in the spirit of nostalgia and fair-mindedness and a general and deplorable lack of Doctor Who in everybody’s lives…

Actually, that’s a lie. Really I was just waiting for Derren Brown’s latest escapade to start on Channel 4, and reruns of Doctor Who seemed like a good way to fill the time. (When are they not, anyway?)

So The God Complex is, for the first half-hour, a promising episode. In a creepy 1960s hotel, the Doctor, Amy and Rory (who is a reason to watch this all by himself) find a bunch of terrified people who tell them that every room in this hotel contains someone’s deepest darkest fear…and when you find your room, something even more terrible comes to claim you…

Like I said, promising. That initial premise is embellished and improved upon by some well-placed humour (the race whose whole economy basically depends on successive invasions is particularly inspired), a Muslim character who for a change isn’t mad or suicidal and is in fact rather intelligent, and a nice twist on the by-now-rather-hackneyed theme of Saving the Day by the Power of Love.

This is all rather let down by the payoff, however, in which we are supposed to find out what the point of the whole setup is…and we don’t, really. The Doctor mutters something about a prison, and That’s All, Folks! Onto the Great Goodbye Scene in which Amy and Rory Leave.

I have a couple of questions: who is the prison for? The monster? But wasn’t he just a guard? And if so what’s going to happen now you’ve killed him? And don’t you think whoever built the prison would find a better food source for said guard? Like, the prisoners themselves? It feels as if the screenwriter (Toby Whithouse, allegedly) came up with a REALLY GOOD IDEA without really thinking it through and realised the night before he was due to hand the script in that there was no proper explanation for it, and so hastily tacked one on the end. This is sloppy story-telling, and it’s annoying, especially when you are expected to draw some deep moral from it. (“To such a creature, death would be a gift.”)

So, a request to the incoming Capaldi Administration: please remember that your viewers aren’t stupid. Thank you kindly.

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor

“Great men are born in fire; it is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.”

Doctor Who

I know this is a little late…but wasn’t the Doctor’s 50th a great big piece of awesome? I don’t even think I can write a coherent review; so I’m afraid today is going to be a List.


Ten Things I Loved About The Day of the Doctor

(Oh, hellfire! I can only have ten?)

  1. GALLIFREY STANDS. Just the most awesome moment in all 90 minutes, that message from the Doctor…apart from all the others, that is…
  2. In a related area, the bit where all twelve of the Doctors appear at the Gallifrey High Council, with respective footage – oh, wait. “All thirteen”! Peter Capaldi, you are going to be awesome.
  3. The sheer Britishness of the thing. How many Americans do you think would understand the reference to Derren Brown? (Yeah, he turned up too. On reflection, perhaps that should have been another point.) Or about the ravens at the Tower of London? There was a British Queen, a British setting, British actors (not an American in sight). The Day of the Doctor was not, emphatically not, an episode aiming to snare new American audiences but one that rewarded generations of British Whovians who have watched the Doctor all their lives. And that is a wonderful thing.
  4. The links and references to fifty years of Doctor Who  – the Foreman school, Ten’s “I don’t want to go” – that surprised and delighted those who understood them yet did not exclude new fans.
  6. The way that the plots were woven together to support one another – the Zygon plot informed the Gallifrey plot and vice versa. Very clever, and very satisfying.
  7. The fact that we get our happy ending – that Gallifrey may stand, that John Hurt gets to be the Doctor for a while – without undoing the work of the Time War upon the characters of Nine, Ten and Eleven. Again, clever and satisfying.
  8. The humour: the audience laughed so many, many times, but it that humour never impinged upon the seriousness that the plot demanded.
  9. Wasn’t the picture thing clever? Especially the title: “Gallifrey Falls” and “No More” (both brilliant, eloquent titles, by the way) which becomes, in a  stroke of genius, “Gallifrey Falls No More”.
  10. The love, the sheer love for Doctor Who that floated around that night. I went to see it with the University Gang in the cinema, and it was wonderful to think that, across the world, thousands, possibly millions, of people were watching and thinking about Doctor Who all at the same time. And at the end everyone clapped, and the Doctor won, and it was just the best thing. The best thing ever.

Dear God. Has Steven Moffatt done something right for once? A miracle indeed.

One Year On…

“Fairy tales are real not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that the dragon can be defeated.”

G.K. Chesterton

Almost exactly one year ago now, on the 28th July 2012, I wrote my first post for this blog. I say “almost” because it’s after midnight now…but still. A whole year!

After much reflection (well, about three seconds’ worth) I have decided not to link to my first post, because it’s probably the most cringingly awful thing I’ve ever written.

So, instead, the List of (Mildly) Interesting Blog Stats:

  • I have written 308 posts, not including this one. Which means I’ve missed 57 days of blogging…dammit.
  • My top search term is, hearteningly, “the english student adventures in l space”.
  • My top referrer is something called, which on closer inspection turns out to be an alternative to Google. So hurrah for breaking monopolies!
  • The tag I’ve used most often is “TV drama“. Yes…I watch a lot of television.
  • The most popular post at the moment is Derren Brown: Fear and Faith.
  • And a whole 7 people visited yesterday. This is the most depressing item on the List. But then, the Internet is a very big place. Thank you, anyway, to those 7, and to anyone else who’s been listening to my rants this year. Happy Sunday (or possibly Monday), everyone.

Derren Brown: The System

“Fairy tales of yesterday grow and never die.”


Delving deep into the archives of 4OD for something to review tonight, I came across The System, one of the wonderful Derren Brown’s Specials and, incidentally, the first Derren Brown programme I ever saw. It was in a GCSE Maths lesson. Take from that what you will.

In The System (first broadcast 2008, so not exactly recent), serial conman and mind magician Derren Brown takes on the world of horse-racing, claiming that he has a miraculous System that can predict the winner of a horse race, every time. Cue much quibbling from professional race people, and much delighted (and annoying) screeching from Kadisha, the lucky member of the public chosen to bet on the horses that the System predicts will win.

The System is classic Derren Brown in that you spend an entire hour trying to work out what he is doing, only to find that you were looking in the wrong place all the time. It’s still just as astonishing and strange as it was the first time I watched it – possibly even more so, given that this time around I knew what he was doing. Although it must have cost Channel 4 an awful lot of money.

I really think Derren Brown would make an excellent 12th Doctor, too. You read it here first.

Ben Earl: Trick Artist – Crime

“I am not yet born; O hear me:
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God come near me.”

Louis MacNeice

I am a sucker for magic tricks. The appeal is in trying to work out how it was done, how the illusionist draws your eye here while he does something else over there, how he works his audience. It’s like a murder mystery without the murder and bloody violence.

(Talking of murder mysteries, I have heard a rumour that Sherlock faked his death with the help of Derren Brown. If this is true, I shall be sorely disappointed in Sherlock and in the scriptwriters. Dammit, he’s found his way into another post.)

Where was I? Oh yes, murder and bloody violence. Well, anyway, Ben Earl appears to be the new kid on Magician Block, and, according to the 4OD description, his show features “strong language and dangerous stunts that should not be tried at home.” Just to make sure that everyone knows that jumping between two cars at high speed IS DANGEROUS, PEOPLE!

Earl is an illusionist, which means turning cigarette papers into butterflies and catching bullets in his hand. “I don’t see how he’s actually going to catch a bullet,” says a random member of the public invited along to the bullet-catching facility (which, Earl says mysteriously, is “somewhere in the south of England”; unfortunately, in a later shot, the name “Wiltshire Ballistic Services” is clearly legible. That’s that secret out, then.). Well, Incredulous Member of the Public, I have two things to say to you. a) Have you not seen The Matrix? b) It’s not magic, it’s science. The weakened bullet-proof glass slows down the bullet just enough to make it safe to catch. There was never any real danger of Earl getting his hand pierced.

And that’s the trouble with all these tricks. They’ve all been done before, or they’re simply unspectacular because easily explained. The butterfly one was nice, I will admit, but I couldn’t help comparing everything else with Derren Brown, who does it so much better and so much more cleverly. Earl’s patter often sounds didactic and awkward, and he doesn’t seem personable enough to make the tricks really interesting. You need something more than clever hands to make it on Magicians’ Block.