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Tuesday, 27 August 2013

No You Don't

Movies about magicians are tricky.

OK, now we've got that out of the way, let me explain. One of my less satisfying viewing experiences of the summer was a heist movie called Now You See Me, the premise for which involved four illusionists teaming up and combining their skills to pull off a series of spectacular and ingenious crimes.

The spectacle was there but key moments of that ingenuity were achieved with VFX rather than performance skills. So where's the point? Magic, like dance, is one of those things that you appreciate because a human being is doing it.

In the early days of television, screen magicians understood that without a perception of honesty in the presentation, the person-to-person trickery has no value. So no cuts, no camera tricks. We expect to be fooled, but not cheated of any chance to spot how. In these less principled times, when exposed dishonesty has been rebranded as 'constructed reality' and no one admits disgrace, it's possible to see concocted TV magic where no magic is performed at all - a performer pretends to do a trick, a crowd of stooges pretends to be amazed, and the trick itself is faked in the edit. Check out online magic forums to see other magicians calling out the offenders.

But what does that matter in a movie? They're actors, not magicians, any more than Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis are ballerinas. And the actors do a creditable amount of work to convince us that they can do this stuff. Many of the story's illusions mimic famous effects, and magic advisor David Kwong was involved at the scripting stage:
CGI was employed in hand doubling for more elaborate moves and one trick where Fisher’s character floats above the audience in a bubble. “They’re portrayed as the magicians of tomorrow,” he says. “The director asked me what tricks I wanted to do, but never quite had the method for them."
That's where the film falls down, in director Louis Leterrier 's cavalier use of what's been placed at his disposal. There are tricks here that look like known tricks, but with a damaging sense of no method behind them. Behind all magic stands hard science. As Christopher Priest suggested in The Prestige, the most significant element in an illusion is the invisible work behind it, referred to as The Trouble.  With its emphasis on planning, execution, and surprise, The Trouble is also a fair description of what makes a successful heist movie tick.

Now You See Me's problem is that the Trouble rarely convinces. So for now, I'll have to make do with this.


Wednesday, 21 August 2013

New Stories

From the editorial desk of Scott Harrison come a couple of projects, both of which include new stories of mine.

On sale from August 24th is Thirteen, an audio anthology available for MP3 download with a CD version to follow. Thirteen is...
...presented as a portmanteau anthology, with an umbrella story tying all 13 stories together, and produced with appropriate sound effects to give the impression of an old vinyl recording - a homage to the horror LPs of the 60s and 70s.
My story is titled With Her in Spirit and is read by Frances Barber.

Yeah, Frances Barber. How about that?

There's a full list of stories and performers at the Spokenworld Audio website. The other contributors include Kim Newman, Mark Morris, and Simon Clark, with readings by Arthur Darville, Gemma Arterton, Greg Wise, Lalla Ward... don't make me list 'em all, click on the link and take a look for yourself.

Then in November there'll be Twisted Histories, a paperback anthology from Snowbooks which includes my story Blame the French. More about that one nearer the date.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Who's Who

So we made it back from London just in time to catch the second half of the BBC's live announcement of the new Doctor Who casting, settling down before the TV with the Bargain Bucket we'd picked up on the way home. We hadn't been rushing back, or anything. Twitter was hardly likely to be silent on the subject in the coming hours. Not if the past few months have been anything to go by.

Given that I wasn't particularly invested, I was surprised to feel oddly moved when Capaldi stepped out. It was a nice moment and it felt right in all kinds of ways. I have no form when it comes to anticipating Who recastings; I'd never have predicted Smith, Tennant or Eccleston. Now I see them all as manifestly right moves... with the possible exception of Eccleston, who for me will always be the odd-man-out Doctor.

I'm not saying he didn't work. One of my favourite "Welsh Who" stories is an Eccleston episode, Rob Shearman's Dalek. But his leather-jacketed rough-edged Everyman seemed to stand outside the parameters of a character that, until that point, I'd imagined had none. A strength of the format, I'd always assumed, was that the Doctor could be anybody. But suddenly I could see a testing of the hidden limitations behind that illusion of infinite possibility.

With Tennant and then Smith we were back within the parameters, whatever they are. Don't ask me to define them; casting is an art, not a science. Nor is it an opportunity for social engineering; it's high-stakes showbusiness, with a massive commercial decision resting on a producer's shoulders. Moffat is not only tasked with making the decision, but with making the decision work.

Were I in the hot seat, I'd have cast Capaldi like a shot. He's been on my male-lead wishlist for almost every project of the last 20 years, and the fact that he's never appeared in anything of mine is a sign of the regard usually given to a writer's casting thoughts. I suppose it's ironic that he's now on the show when I'm not. But there you go.

And people complaining that he's too old; f*** you, he's younger than me.