Friday, August 6, 2010

"The Illusionist" - that summer's OTHER magic film

You've noticed it: every so often, Hollywood sees the nearly-simultaneous release of two films with the same plot. "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" were the two "meteor" movies one summer. One year saw a pair of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral pictures, "Wyatt Earp," and "Tombstone." Topics get popular, studios compete, or a new venture gets produced just as similar one ends filming. So these things happen, but 2006 saw a damn odd duo of all-star magician films, "The Prestige" and "The Illusionist." I saw the former in the theater; I only caught the latter in June. The upshot of my recent viewing: it's reasonably- or fairly-good, and very pretty.

I give you... Korean glowy balls!

Before I begin to lay this out, let me say that I will be taking a partial break from the site, a bit of a boring one. I've got an injured eye, and I shouldn't be looking at bright screens too often until I'm better. This means that new reviews - like "Inception" - will have to wait a spell. I'll flesh out and post reviews that I've already began, though. I hope to entertain, critique, and expound, no matter what. Enjoy, please.

"The Illusionist" stars Ed Norton, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, and Paul Giamatti. Norton plays the titular role, the unflappable Eisenheim. But he's no man - he's a performer who stages CGI impossibilities that awe and confound 1890's Europe. When Eisenheim sets up shop in Vienna, he finds out his childhood sweetheart (Biel) is with the Crown Prince (Sewell). Eis-y renews the acquaintance and gets audiences to question all their beliefs, so the Prince sets his pet cop, Inspector Uhl (Giamatti), to hound the master Illusionist.

Every time it's said with gravitas, "Eisenheim" sounds ridiculous. I laugh and giggle, yet Norton is such a stellar actor that I won't let it ruin the movie. The cool-but-confusing intro starts near the end of the picture, as Inspector Uhl interrupts a performance to arrest the magic-man. The film abruptly cuts to Uhl meeting Austria's Crown Prince Leopold, to whom he recaps the Eisenheim investigation.

I look like the guy who gets the girl. Good, right? But I'm stuck with this weird manager!

As a child, our lead chances on an old man who instills him with an interest in magic. Later, the boy practices balancing objects as he walks down the street. This earns him the attention of a young noblewoman, Anna - we can tell she's a noblewoman because (a) she's riding a horse and (b) her companions are total a-holes.

Naturally, society will not allow them to realize their growing affection. For the crime of talking in a private room in a private home, the poor lad and his family are threatened. The boy leaves Austria, changes his name (to Eisenheim???) and travels through the Orient, honing his skills. The screenwriter felt all this action was unimportant, as we never spend a moment outside of Europe.

Needless to say, everything gets very interesting once Eisenheim returns to perform in his home land. His performance blows everyone's socks off, to say the least. He immediately commands the attention of the Duke and his ho (Sewell and Biel, who should've been cast opposite). Eis-y recognizes his young love after she's pulled out of the audience to perform. This chance encounter drives the whole plot of the film. Norton and Biel pull at each other like magnets, while Sewell uses Giamatti to keep them apart.

Making his tea buddies disappear? That's one cold trick.

Naturally, Team Less Attractive is facing an uphill battle. Anna handles herself with incredible poise and intelligence, while Eisenheim's improbable cleverness could topple a nation. Their plan is to get some romance-novel-style booty action, while working to discredit Prince Crazy-Eyes with the public and his peers. It's just a shame that - as in "The Prestige" - the magic can feel kind of incidental.

Don't get me wrong, "The Illusionist" certainly builds well. Each performance does trump the next one. CGI creates brilliant displays of wizardry, and the tricks are astonishing to behold. Yet the viewer never gets close to the secret of Eisenheim's powers; hints are made, plans are revealed, and we see some simple designs explained. They're all so good that they almost work against the film...

Did he steal that shiny hand from the Twilight characters?

If Eis-y and his team can design these effects, why can't other people even approach the same? We never learn how Norton manages tricks that would enrapture 21st-Century crowds. What makes our hero so special? A little back-story and a beautifully-captured flashback are all we have. The level of Norton's mastery gives us little doubt that he will succeed - his character is practically a god.

This film is beautifully shot by master auteur Neil Burger. No, wait, Neil Burger's barely done anything. Seriously, this is his imdb page There's 6 entries, tops. Despite the spare CV, the film is confidently-directed. In fact, it's a fairly impressive job of direction.

Tons of beautiful images abound - this movie is often as lovely to behold as "Sleepy Hollow." An especial favorite is Uhl's long walk down the "Stag Corridor." Imposing... Pretty... I'd post a video if I could find just that sequence:

It has quite an effect, don't you think? Burger tends to start scenes with shots of beautiful old houses and buildings. These not only work as establishing shots, they act as appropriate punctuation to give the picture a good pace. The director accomplishes all this while establishing a visual motif, so the crew here certainly gets my respect. Burger also puts a lot of subtle touches into the film - Eisenheim's manager is in front of a horse far in the background; it's a nice and clever comment on that preening figure.

Norton, as always, is amazing. The film starts with his part sitting in a chair, staring at his audience with tiredness (and possibly anger?) writ all over his face. It's great. In fact, I told friends - before I turned on my DVD player - that I could watch Ed Norton sit in a chair for an hour and it would probably be great.

Giamatti handles himself well, though I haven't decided if I like him or not. Sewell is ok, although I never really like his presence - this might be attributed more to bad luck or scripting than any acting flaws... Biel does a perfectly good job with the mid-level female role she has; I hope that I'm saying that without being distracted by her beauty.

The plot resolves itself neatly enough. It becomes a heist/caper flick, which is hardly a surprise. A magician who can't actually perform magic is basically engaged in a con, right? That makes me wish more attention got paid to that whole "illusion" thing, but still... The film does manage to give the four main characters proper arcs, as well as some unexpected scenes for each role. The result is all very nice, yet I expected even more. It's hard to penalize "TI" for raising my hopes too high, especially since "The Prestige" was actually a bit disappointing.

"The Illusionist" is a smartly-made movie that you will likely enjoy. But, aside from the special effects and visual composition, this is not the sort of movie that many folks would want to see twice. It does what it does well, but doesn't impress as strongly as you'd think it would.

I am Lord Rufus. Don't I look obviously mad?

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