Film Review: Tim’s Vermeer

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 22 July 2014.

From the twisted and warped minds of famed Las Vegas illusionist duo, Penn and Teller, comes a new documentary that is neither twisted or warped but manages to be magic nonetheless. Tim’s Vermeer tells the tale of inventor and successful entrepreneur Tim Jenison and his obsession with unlocking one of the mysteries of the art world.

Prior to the screening I was the last person you would invite to be on your table at a great Dutch painters trivia night, so apologies if you already are familiar with the topic. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) is renowned for his photo realistic painting style, seen in perhaps his most famous work, The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Said to “paint with light”, there has been much speculation that Vermeer utilised optical devices to aid his work.

Armed with this knowledge, Jenison goes one step further and sets out to prove this theory by attempting to design and build an optical “machine” in order to paint his own Vermeer.

I had the pleasure of attending Penn and Teller’s Las Vegas show at The Rio, which has been successfully running for the past 12 years. Highly intelligent and utterly hilarious, their act can be a little confronting if you do not agree, or are at least sympathetic, to their political ideals (libertarianism) or philosophical beliefs (atheism and skepticism).

Unlike their fantastic pseudoscience debunking TV show, Bullsh*t!, Penn and Teller do not adopt their usual aggressive and confrontational style for Tim’s Vermeer. Instead we are drawn in with a gentle observational approach which does not cast judgement on Jenison’s preoccupation but rather simply takes us along for the journey.

Directed by Teller and narrated by Penn (the former is the one who doesn’t speak onstage), it is hard not be totally absorbed in Jenison’s quest as he travels to Delft in the Netherlands to see where Vermeer worked, and London to speak to experts. He even is granted 30 minutes with the Queen’s own Vermeer in Buckingham Palace.

Neither a painter or a tradesman, Jenison almost singlehandedly reconstructs the setting of The Music Lesson, including walls, furniture, props and costumes, before spending almost five years painstakingly recreating the painting one brushstroke at a time using his ingenious lens and mirror device.

Although a shortlisting in the best documentary category in the 2014 Academy Awards did not eventuate into a nomination, Tim’s Vermeer is a fascinating and highly enjoyable tale of one man’s eight year quest. Edited from 25,000 hours of raw footage, Penn and Teller have crafted their own masterpiece.

Published in: on October 5, 2014 at 15:08  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: (Don’t bother to see) Now You See Me

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 13th August 2013.

The makers of Now You See Me want you to believe that the film shares roots with Christopher Nolan’s brilliant The Prestige. Both feature the stage magic theme and Michael Caine in a prominent role. To strengthen the association, Morgan Freeman also co-stars with Caine in both this new feature and Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Unfortunately, Now You See Me is not even half as smart as The Prestige and the only magic trick on show is the filmmakers making money disappear from unsuspecting moviegoers wallets to see this mess.

The film initially shows promise as we are introduced to street magician Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), washed out hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), street hustler Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, brother of James) and high risk illusionist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher). Brought together by a mysterious stranger for an even more mysterious purpose, the quartet become the Four Horseman and are soon filling stadiums under the guidance of millionaire sponsor Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine).

For the finale of their Las Vegas show, the Four Horsemen seemingly pull off the impossible: making millions of euros disappear from a bank vault on the other side of the globe. This trick draws the attention of FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent), as well as professional magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman).

The trickery behind this initial illusion is explained but ridiculously we’re left completely in the dark for all of the subsequent acts of magic. There is no “prestige” or final reveal. Instead, the storyline spins completely out of control until it crash lands with a highly unsatisfactory resolution. Three screenwriters are credited for Now You See Me. I suspect that they have never met.

Director Louis Leterrier’s previous films (Clash of the Titans, The Incredible Hulk, Transporter 2) have all favoured style over storytelling. Now You See Me proves no different. The Las Vegas and New York City locations are appealing, and the performances by the Four Horsemen are certainly glossy and elaborate, but it’s all distraction and little else.

The performances are all uniformly solid with everyone doing a lot with their thinly written characters. Jesse Eisenberg once again proves to be a watchable leading man, although I suspect he is only capable of playing himself. Isla Fisher is radiant and deserves her place as one of the most in demand actresses working today. Mark Ruffalo is charismatic and on a rise after his turn in The Avengers. And Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman once again play Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, respectively.

Despite a trailer that promises so much, Now You See Me doesn’t deliver. It’s the cinema equivalent of asking someone to pick a card, any card and then walking away with no explanation.


Published in: on September 11, 2013 at 00:05  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review – The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 19th March 2013.

I’ve always been a little dubious when it comes to movie titles that consist of a character’s name. For every Erin Brockovich there’s a Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. For every Michael Clayton, there’s a Mr Deeds.

Blame Adam Sandler. He certainly cornered the market on this, starting with Billy Madison, his finest comedic turn in my opinion, and then Happy Madison. It’s all downhill from there but that’s another column.

And so it was with a little trepidation that I experienced The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Steve Carell stars as the titular Las Vegas magician whose act has became stale. A split with his long time stage partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) and the growing popularity of newcomer street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) forces Wonderstone out of his luxurious casino apartment and onto the streets. With the help of veteran magician Rance Halloway (Alan Arkin), the man who inspired him to become an illusionist, Wonderstone must rediscover his roots to win back his place onstage at Ballys.

Carell is a gifted comedic actor but I’ve never been convinced that he can carry a film on his own. Smartly, he surrounds himself with a fantastic supporting cast. Most recently seen in the brilliant HBO series Boardwalk Empire as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, Steve Buscemi reminds us that he can do comedy too with a scene stealing turn as Wonderstone’s naive offsider. Alan Arkin is one of the best character actors working today and shines as a disgruntled retired magician. And Jim Carrey is all abs and tattoos as the sinewy unhinged Steve Gray, a thinly veiled clone of street magician Criss Angel.

But the true stars of this movie are the crazy wigs. Carell, Carey and Buscemi are regularly upstaged by their Copperfield-tastic rugs.

Screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley also penned Horrible Bosses, a comedy with a nasty streak that starred Jason Bateman and Kevin Spacey. This time, they hold back on the black humour in favour of sight gags and slapstick.

Director Don Scardino is a veteran TV comedy director best known for his work on 30 Rock, and handles proceedings with a solid but unremarkable style.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has enough gags to keep you tittering throughout its 100 minute running time. Unfortunately, most of them are featured in the trailer. The best laugh of the film comes right at the end of the film. I won’t spoil it except to say that it is worth the wait.

You could do worse than this flick for your hard earned movie dollars. I just don’t think we’ll be talking about it in a few years. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a solid but unremarkable comedy. Only time will tell if it will be remembered as a successful movie named after its lead character.