The populist puzzle box of 'Now You See Me' and 'Bunker Hill' on VOD

There’s been a lot of movies since the financial collapse of 2008 that trade in the wish fulfillment of the 1 percent.

In the squandered sci-fi tale “In Time,” the rich subjugate the poor by equating one’s lifespan with money — something lower-class citizens don’t have — and the paycheck-to-paycheck folks literally run out of time and expire. In the popular adaptation of “The Hunger Games,” the wealthy class keeps poor people in line by giving them a glimmer of hope in a do-or-die reality show.

The Robin Hood legend reared his head in the mainstream one-percenter comedy “Tower Heist” where Ben Stiller plays a building manager of a luxury high-rise who robs a millionaire to get his staff’s pension-fund money back after it was “invested” in a Ponzi scheme.

The new heist movie “Now You See Me” gives that age-old formula a twist, turning four illusionists into a modern day version of Robin Hood’s Merry Men who rob banks with magic and then shower their crowds with money.

Thanks to a script full of clever comebacks and put-downs, the Four Horsemen themselves (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco) have just enough spark and personality to keep “Now You See Me” afloat through its more ridiculous plot twists. Because the story unfolds at such a brisk clip (and spends a lot of time with a good amount of supporting characters such as Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent), the Horsemen don’t really have enough screen time to create believable characters, but that’s not the main attraction here anyway.

“Now You See Me” is a slick piece of populist entertainment that challenges the audience at every second to stay one step ahead of the game. It’s a challenge issued in its opening montage, where every bit of action and dialogue is an important clue that will help you solve the puzzle. It’s not a whodunit, it’s a howdtheydo it. The film also has an extra layer of fun guesswork built in because its characters are constantly explaining how magic tricks and misdirection work, so it’s essentially giving you the answers while daring you to figure it out ("The closer you look, the less you see") before the movie’s over.

I would love to see what the notecard-littered floor of screenwriters Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt looked like when they were knee-deep into the plot intricacies of their story. I’m also wondering if the hundred or so put-ons and conveniences hold up with a second viewing. But during the film’s not-quite-two-hour running time, I didn’t care because I was caught up in the film’s breezy energy. Director Louis Leterrier uses sweeping camera shots and a snappy editing style to match the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t pace of the story.

There are two ways that an exercise like “Now You See Me” could have failed miserably, and it admirably succeeds on both counts. First, there isn’t a preachy or heavy-handed moment that addresses the financial crisis. Even a comedy like “Tower Heist” felt heavy-handed at times. “Now You See Me” uses the inherent underdog qualities of its story to its advantage and doesn’t preach on. If anything, it blends the wish fulfillment aspect with a dose of personal honor. (It’s less successful shoehorning in a romantic subplot.)

Secondly — and perhaps most important of all — “Now You See Me” lives and dies by the final reveal. As much as the twist-heavy plot relies on a preponderance of happy coincidences in order to survive, it also seems to have all its ducks in a row from a character-motivation standpoint. In addition, the skillful use of compounded red herrings and misdirection (yes there’s that term again) ensure that when the moment of truth comes, it dawns on us suddenly that Leterrier’s been telling us what it will be the whole time.

KU Associate Professor and writer/director Kevin Willmott has been showing his independent film “The Battle for Bunker Hill” at film festivals throughout the country for the past five years. Shot in and around Lawrence and Nortonville, starring Lawrence resident Laura Kirk, and co-scripted by Lawrence resident Greg Hurd, the movie is finally available to be viewed at home.

New World Distribution has released “The Battle for Bunker Hill” worldwide on platforms like Google Play, YouTube movie rentals, Amazon, the PlayStation Store, and iTunes. Completed before the J.J. Abrams-produced TV show “Revolution” (which employs a similar premise), “The Battle for Bunker Hill” centers on an unexplainable event knocking out power and communication in a small Kansas town.

A former Wall Street executive and recent ex-con trying to win back his wife (played by “NYPD Blue” star James McDaniel) is then embroiled in controversy when a militia springs up amidst the confusion. Willmott, who also directed “CSA: The Confederate States of America” and “Destination: Planet Negro,” is no stranger to the theme of strained race relations, and uses this sci-fi concept as a springboard to explore issues of bigotry and racial profiling, which are still making headlines today.


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