Judge Adam Arseneau spent a lot of time freeze-framing his DVD player to figure out how Copperfield pulled off his illusions, and then wrote the secrets all down in this review. Unfortunately, the review vanished, so he had to start again.
"I have never seen a Statue of Liberty disappear the way this one did!"
After almost twenty years of professional magic, David Copperfield is the Coca-Cola of illusionists. Nary a soul still exists that hasn't heard of his record-breaking Broadway show, or seen one of his zillion CBS television specials, or wanted to make out with his (ex) fiancée, and therefore, learned his name by proxy. The man has brand recognition the likes of which major corporations fantasize about at night.
David Copperfield: Illusion, for the most part, is actually the repackaging of a previously televised special entitled 15 Years Of Magic: The Magic of David Copperfield with a few new bits tossed in at the end. The format of the feature is so nauseating that it risks incredulity. The shamefully corny and egotistically exploitative narrative style goes something like this: in a faux-interview format with his then-fiancée Claudia Schiffer playing the role of "hot reporter chick," she has come to record the thoughts of the brilliant yet reclusive magician locked away in his gigantic CGI-created Batcave-esque hideaway of magic props and treasures. The reclusive magician relates his tales of wonder. Then, we cut away to watch the tricks being performed, as if we are seeing the memories flood back to him, which may or may not end with the magician taking the reporter into his arms and flying away.
I can't speak for you, but this narrative makes me want to swallow the actual DVD, length-wise, just to activate my gag reflex. Normally, the reflex would be automatic, but all my saliva seems to have dried up in disgust.
But, on the other hand, there is no denying that the illusions performed by Copperfield are maddening and fantastic. You find yourself, against all better judgment, hurling expletives at your television set, saying intelligent things like, "Now how the @$*& did he do that?" Despite the inherent hokeyness of the narrative, Illusion is, at its core, a collection of the best stunts Copperfield has ever pulled off, and there are few people alive who would not find his performance enjoyable. This DVD contains the classic Copperfield illusions—the Statue of Liberty Disappearance trick, the trick where he walked through the Great Wall of China, his notorious "flying" trick which took him seven years to develop, the Imploding Building, the Vanishing Airplane, the Orient Express Mystery, dozens of lesser sleight-of-hand tricks, some tricks from his Broadway show, and countless others.
Well, not actually "countless." If you wanted, you could count them all. Go ahead, be my guest. But suffice it to say, Illusion contains two hours of magic crammed onto the DVD, magic that is sure to delight and stupefy even the most jaded of cynics.
A commentary track features Copperfield reminiscing about each particular illusion, and is one of the "saving grace" features on the disc. The normal, über-corny dialogue rife throughout the main feature is onerous at best, and this subdued and factually interesting alternative audio track is the preferred accompaniment to the film, in this reviewer's humble opinion. Copperfield, while never getting into the details of how an illusion is executed, is more than forthcoming about the historical origins of the magic tricks themselves, giving proper credit to their originators when appropriate, explaining how for many of his tricks, he simply built atop the foundations of previous magicians (which building at times seems merely to have consisted of the addition of a Peter Gabriel soundtrack to the affair, but that is another story). He also dives into the technical side of some of his more complex tricks, explaining the years of research, development, and planning that went into pulling each one off, like how it was ten times easier to arrange with the Communist Chinese government to walk through the Great Wall of China than it was to arrange a shoot at the Statue of Liberty with the City of New York.
For someone with such a larger-than-life onstage persona, Copperfield is quiet, reserved, oddly humorous, and modestly humble (in a rock-star sort of way, of course). Mirthfully watching his own vintage performances, Copperfield, to his credit, is the first to ridicule his own persona. "This is back in my Michael Jackson phase," he quips, and as his leather-jacketed image starts posing in dramatic, Vogue-esque spotlight arrangements, he says things like, "Oh yes, this is pose 48-B," and "Next, I go right into pose 49-A," with such dry and sardonic delivery that you have no idea if he is serious or not. One definitely gets the sensation that Copperfield would like you to believe that his hairstyles for most of the 1980s and '90s were an illusion as well.
Illusion contains some other fairly tasty supplementary content as well. Highlights of these extra features includes a montage of CBS promo commercials advertising Copperfield's magic specials over the years, including a very early, very disturbing segment featuring a close-up maniacal shot of his eerie eyes and darting, wild eyebrows that actually makes you want to light things on fire, because the dogs barking in your head tell you to. Also included is a riotously hilarious Conan O'Brien sketch where a Copperfield lookalike walks around Times Square, performing "illusions" and "magic tricks," all the while darting gigantic fake eyebrows around like lab mice on strings. This self-deprecating content adds to the charm of the DVD as a whole, for it cements the fact that Copperfield doesn't mind laughing at himself. And neither should we.
Of particular academic interest is a fascinating tour of some of the flagship items stored at the International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts, which, coincidentally, Copperfield owns. By futzing with the remote, one can browse through some of the more fantastic pieces of magic historical lore that the museum displays, such as magical clocks that defy rational convention, original transformation trunks owned by Houdini, and so on. Illusion dishes up some interesting extra content, to say the least.
Unfortunately, things take an ugly turn examining the technical backbone of this DVD, where this disc manages to make a lot of judgment points vanish into thin air. First, the good news: the soundtrack is a simple stereo mix, and sounds reasonably competent. The dramatic orchestral music that accompanies most of Copperfield's pieces lilts through the speakers effectively enough, with good bass response, and dialogue is always clean and clear. But alas, on to the video…
Basically, the video quality is terrible. Downright terrible! Granted, the majority of the footage is archival broadcast-quality footage dating back at least a decade, but there is absolutely no excuse for the inordinate amount of jagged, shimmering edges, and the obscene amount of anti-aliasing that makes people look like they are surrounded by swarms of mosquitoes. In one illusion sequence, rain starts falling from the stage, and the digital distortion is such that it actually looks like people are being pelted with jagged rectangular ice cubes. That is how bad a transfer we are talking here.
I can think of only one explanation for the ineptitude and/or sheer lack of care put into this DVD transfer: if the resolution were pristine and photorealistic, one might be able to discern the secrets behind the illusions. But sadly, I think better of such desperate thoughts, where I am clearly trying to explain the inexplicable and unexplainable…and I'm not talking about the illusions.
Pray for those with high-end televisions. They will be having nightmares about jagged black lines trying to cut their eyeballs in twain, a la Un Chien Andalou.
As bad as the technical and narrative problems are on this DVD, in the end its numerous redeeming qualities save this disc from the trash heap. For one thing, David Copperfield is an amazingly engaging, amusing, and entertaining performer, and his illusionary prowess is unmatched. The dude is fantastic, and everyone knows it, and this is why people drive gigantic dump trucks full of gold and money and supermodels over to his house, and unload them into his backyard. And he deserves it.
Personally, I attribute his illusionary prowess to creepy eyebrow power. Seriously. Those things jump around, clearly independent of his own thought, and distract you to the point where he literally could make anything disappear and you wouldn't even notice.
You would be hard-pressed to call this a disappointing DVD, because inherently, magic is freaking cool, and nobody does it better than David Copperfield. Unfortunately, anybody who has been alive for the last fifteen years will most likely be familiar with the majority of the material on this DVD, and the ghastly visual transfer and corny narrative is bad enough to make you wish you weren't. These glaring issues prevent Illusion from being a masterful success on DVD.
But, thankfully, a failure it is not. There is no escaping the undeniable coolness of Copperfield on stage, at the climax of an illusion, struggling vainly to open those pesky locks that never seem to come unlocked until the very last possible second, and even though the rational part of your brain is scoffing and looking for the trap doors, the other part of you—the part that never grows up, and never will—is delighted beyond reproach, and thrilled to death.
Basically? Magic rules. And like an elegant magic trick, this DVD fools the mind into ignoring all the problems with this disc, and allows you to see through the glaring problems into the sheer entertainment of it all, and come away smiling.
And that's just fine with me.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Track with David Copperfield
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