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Simon Read [Celluloid 06.26.13] horror thriller mystery

Sebastian Silva's Magic Magic concerns a group of young adults holidaying in a villa in the Chilean countryside. It's billed as a kind of psychological thriller/horror story about an emotionally disturbed girl within the group (played by Juno Temple) who mentally unravels over the course of their visit, but finds her pleas for help ignored until things spiral out of control. Having seen the film I suppose this would be one way of describing it, but I was wildly confused about what exactly the director was trying to achieve here. If it's a thriller, then why weren't we remotely excited? There is no horror to speak of (unless you count the selfishness and stupidity shown by the characters) so I cannot square that circle. There are certainly deliberate moments of black comedy in here, but then why were the biggest laughs unintentional ones? These questions are made more frustrating by the fact that Temple is delivering a very solid performance, but one which seems to belong in a different film. I had hoped that the strange plot elements and uneven tone might be driving towards something revelatory that would tie it all together, but in the end there is a completely bizarre last act which comes from left-field and is, frankly, a total insult. I really did not like this strange little film one bit.

The first shot introduces Michael Cera's (credited as a producer) character 'Brink', dancing and singing awkwardly to The Knife's 'Pass This On' ("I'm in love with your brother/What's his name?/I thought I'd come by to see him again") and it gets a solid laugh. It's a scene which would fit into any standard Cera comedy, as he's best known for his roles as shy and sensitive, socially outcast bird-faced misfits who are constantly embarrassing themselves. Here however Cera is breaking with tradition and playing a creep. Juno Temple plays Alicia, whose cousin Sarah (Emily Browning) has organized the trip with her other friends Agustin (Agustin Silva) and Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno). Before we're even introduced to these characters we can immediately tell that Alicia is highly strung. Clinging at every moment to her cousin, she has a wide-eyed look of fear and bewilderment which practically screams, "Don't take her on holiday with you."

Just before the trip begins, Sarah is called away at short notice to resit an exam, and Alicia is pressured into joining the others against her will. During the car journey the CD player breaks and will only play Cab Calloway's 'Minnie the Moocher' on a loop. Things get more tense when the group find an injured puppy and take it with them, but then decide to abandon it by the side of the road when its incessant whining becomes intolerable. These events only serve to make Alicia more miserable, and things don't get much better when the group arrive at the spooky villa, where she feels increasingly alone and intimidated by these strangers and is constantly harassed by Brink, who - despite her obvious disinterest - is desperate to sleep with her.

Alicia's behaviour becomes more and more erratic as she stays awake with insomnia for days at a time and begins to experience paranoid hallucinations, ignoring her new 'friends' until her cousin gets back from college. When Sarah finally returns she seems distant and wary of Alicia, who begins to suffer a full-on nervous breakdown.

Much of the above is played for laughs, such as Alicia fleeing in humiliation after she's humped by a dog which she had simply thought wanted to make friends with her. Many scenes though are played as deadly serious, including a nerve-wracking moment when Agustin hypnotizes Alicia, and Brink convinces her to perform crude sexual dance moves and then place her hands in the fire. The film never seems to achieve a clear balance and the shifts in atmosphere clash awkwardly and prevent it from ever finding the proper tone. This is a problem for the audience as we are not really sure if we should be taking the material seriously, and it serves to show how badly thought-out the script was and reveals the unpleasantly juvenile sensibility behind it.

Temple is a good actress and she has nothing to be ashamed of in her performance, but she really deserves to be in a better film. The entire cast are, I suspect, just doing what's asked of them. Clearly Cera is looking to break away from his familiar nerdy persona (this is his second time playing a dark character in a Sebastian Silva film) but he is miscast as the role called for an actor less associated with humour and more comfortable in playing a threatening role. His presence had the audience anticipating a comedy and this led to uncertain laugher as his Brink character knocked back scotch, slurred rude insults and strutted around acting macho. As a test, re-read that and then try to imagine watching the star of 'Superbad' acting tough without it being unintentionally silly.

It's worth mentioning that Christopher Doyle's cinematography is beautiful here as always, but it only serves to highlight the film's other shortcomings.

Magic Magic wears its influences on its sleeve but, unfortunately, merely referencing Robert Wise and Roman Polanski does not a masterpiece make, and as we sit through a film which mainly consists of people bickering with each other and acting miserable it does start to have a profoundly depressing effect. There is a pulse which quickens slowly after the first act - as Alicia advances from sad and strange to totally crazy - and culminates in an agonizingly protracted final scene which was an affront to common sense and added nothing to the film whatsoever. As an ending it gave us nothing except a reason to finally leave, and proof that the writer had come so far that he couldn't just stop and start again from scratch, so felt that he had to end things quickly. It made an impact but it wasn't the right kind, and people were laughing - but for the wrong reasons.

I cannot in good faith recommend this film to anybody.

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j.j. (9 years ago) Reply

page 14 from the book "YOUR SCREENPLAY SUCKS"


Enough said.

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