I just watched Scott Ryan's The Magician (nothing to do with magicians, by the way). Its main claim to fame is that Michele Bennett also produced Chopper an also amoral antipodean anti-hero. Is anti-hero generous? Yes. So sets the tone for the rest of my overly-cynical 'review' of this short-of-the-mark film. The whole reason I bought it was because of its comparison (by what critic I don't know...) to Man Bites Dog. The idea should be that it's an exploration of documentary TV 'objectivity'. With things feeling so staged most of the time, it was always hard to 'let go' and believe.
The Magician's biggest problem is that it thinks ad-libbed dialogue is good dialogue, or even good anything. Even amongst decent actors, it's a tough skill, but I think this project didn't have the time - and probably therefore money - needed for the re-taking of scenes (the shooting equivalent of re-drafting) to make it better. There is so much 'dead' dialogue, nervous actors saying 'y'know' so much, trying to second-guess in the moment, where more rehearsals could've produced a much more believable scene.
Now I'm not saying I know what'd be credible in the world of Australian assassins, but so many things stretched my credulity too far. I immediately thought Ray's captive is too eager to get into the car, cuff himself, dig his own grave etc. NO resistance whatsoever. There would be at least SOME kind of discomfort with being asked this. And there was that scene where Ray decides to avenge his documentarist's previous grievance where, at the second time of asking, he gets him back some of his stolen goods. If you think it's lame the way I'm describing it, well, it's not far off in reality. Maybe if they'd set up Ray's character as the world's best assassin, then people would be almost glad to follow his orders (maybe even in a tongue-in-cheek style, like they're just glad to be with a celebrity though they know it means their demise), but this is never established. Maybe they tried to with that initial in-the-first-five-minutes execution, but it wasn't enough. I'm not being pernickety, I really was extremely conscious of it.
The second main problem is that there's no decent 'showing'. There is a LOT of clunky exposition. I'm really not sure how it came to be produced in such a professional way when the project is clearly quite rough. It's not terrible, and I can see how this would be - as an 'on the job' project - very useful to an individual, learning what they think works and what doesn't. Its shortcomings are so horrendous though. The documentary format should be liberating, not a 'tick box affair' of storytelling. I felt there were so many aspects of Ray's character that they shoe-horned in through exposition, such as his army career, his possible homosexuality and then a brief flicker of family life NO! You don't have enough time in a film to tell a whole life-story, that's the point, that's the art! You have to be careful with the documentary format. It should totally
liberate you but Ryan (as writer, director, actor, producer and editor) hasn't thought enough. He's cut the worst
bits out, as his extras show, but what's left is below par for today's please-don't-patronize-me audience.
I think it's a poor experiment with character over plot. I'm not just judging, I've written similar things myself where I've put in an ill-fitting scene because the theme it addresses helps the story. But in The Magician, it was basically a way of spelling out beyond all doubt something like [read with robotic voice] 'he is not comfortable with not being the most alpha of men and any challenge to his masculinity makes him feel not so good'. In the past I thought an 'issue' like this advances the plot/character, but it should all be there from the start, and be there so much that the ways you show it can be extremely subtle. If you're showing a truth, you shouldn't need to tell people it's true (sorry that's probably quite patronizing in itself).
We get told clunkily at the end that the only reason we're seeing the documentary is because Ray is dead. I don't care. I don't feel close to the character, don't care he's dead. I actually care more about the documentarist, who drives on the story, despite his questions clearly lacking an appropriate level of tact. Apparently he's given no thought to the fact he is interviewing a psychopath. You don't goad one about being wrong about whether or not Clint Eastwood was in The Dirty Dozen (one of the two of three instances of humour that one can excavate from the footage) when you're dealing with a killer. Judging him about his views on homosexuality too: question him, yeah, but this interviewer is doing the equivalent of waving a red cape around a bull, then blowing raspberries. Yet the 'big killer' hardly gets angry, let alone doesn't pull a gun out and threaten him to shut his mouth.
It isn't really explained why there's such comfort between the man with the camera and the man with the gun. The Independent describes Ray as a "swaggering psycho" on the promo part of the box, so my guess is that he's so egotistical, he doesn't want to kill the cameraman or else his story won't get told. That just doesn't hold much water though. If he was so narcissistic he'd hire another crew. Nothing's really explored all that well, and I don't mean in a pleasant 'I have unanswered questions to ponder after the film's over' like you do when you consider, for example, who might be infected in John Carpenter's The Thing.
Basically I'm bitterly disappointed (as if you couldn't tell). In order
to try and redress the balance, I'd like to genuinely say that acting in
general, aside from of course the ad-libbed bits, weren't that bad.Still, if you think my 'review' is bad, you should read this from The New York Times.