A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 472 – The Illusionist (2006)

The Illusionist – June 15th, 2011

I’m feeling a great deal better tonight than I was last night and so we opted for something neither of us had seen. Something we would likely need to pay rather close attention to, given that the conceit involves stage magic and illusion and a mystery. And I did want to pay rather close attention to it, though it wasn’t as intricate as it appears to be on the surface. Which was good, because I’m feeling better but not that much better. Still, this was the perfect sort of “new” movie for me to watch this evening.

One thing I’d like to lay to rest right away is the comparison of this movie to The Prestige. Yes, they’re both period pieces focused around a stage magician performing impossible tricks. Yes, there is a romance involved. But they’re not telling the same story and they’re not telling their stories in quite the same way. The lead characters aren’t the same sort of person and neither are the villains. I can see why comparisons are made, but I really don’t think they’re entirely fair because the movies themselves are doing different things. And with different mechanisms. And I greatly enjoyed The Prestige, but I also greatly enjoyed this movie and I don’t want to spend this review poking one in favor of the other or vice versa. So I won’t be.

And besides, this movie deserves a solo review. It is a gorgeously filmed movie with an excellent cast. The plot is somewhat predictable, but given how it’s executed, that didn’t seem to matter to me. The twist here isn’t the point so much as how the main character pulls it off. This is the story of the son of a cabinetmaker and the daughter of an aristocrat and how they fell in love and were parted. And it is the story of how the two managed to come together again, despite obstacles in their ways. It is the story of determination and cleverness and ruthlessness, which I thought was far better done than I expected.

It helps that I love Edward Norton and feel that he’s got a Gene Wilder quality to him in that he’s normally composed and contained but with an intensity that could erupt at any moment. And he never does here. As Eisenheim the Illusionist he is thoroughly under control the entire time. Even when he appears to be broken, he is under control. He is the master in this movie. Eisenheim shows up in Vienna, playing his show to mostly full houses. He performs illusions and stage magic along with a bit of mysticism and talk about the soul and the nature of time and the like. It infuses his show with a dream-like quality that clearly helps build his audience. When he gains the notice of the Crown Prince, he also re-meets his childhood sweetheart, Sophie. But Sophie is set to be engaged to the Prince. And the Prince has a nasty reputation with women.

I hesitate to explain the specifics of what happens next because telling too much reveals the trick to the plot. But the trick isn’t really that tricky. So look away if you hate spoilers please. Because I’m going to go into a little bit of detail.

The thing here is that Eisenheim knows straight away that the Prince will never allow Sophie to go and certainly not with him. It’s obvious. And the movie begins in the middle of the story, with all of these things having happened already. Sophie is apparently dead and Eisenheim is apparently raising her spirit. The Prince is already out to get Eisenheim and Inspector Uhl is already stuck in the middle of it all. And what the movie tells you is how they all got to this point. It seems clear to me right away that Eisenheim is using some form of illusion trickery to present Sophie’s “ghost” to the audience. And it is equally clear to me that he’s out to break the Prince. It’s the emotional build-up that’s important here.

Now, while I love Edward Norton and I loved him as the determined and enigmatic Eisenheim, two other stand-outs are Rufus Sewell as the Prince and Paul Gaimatti as Inspector Uhl. The Prince is the obvious villain from the first moment he appears on screen and Sewell has that gaunt and empty-eyed look that lends itself so well to either desperation or cruelty (and I’ll likely mention this again when we do the Harry Potter movies but much as I love Gary Oldman, I still think Sewell could have played an amazing Sirius Black). Inspector Uhl, on the other hand, is a man caught between what he knows is right and what he is bound to by law. He has to obey the Prince, but he admires Eisenheim and knows full well that the Prince is a dangerous man. And Giamatti plays him excellently, going between the two and trying to find a way to both help Eisenheim and stay true to the Prince, which is impossible. In the end he has to realize that it isn’t the Prince he must be true to, but the Emperor. By the time the reveal has happened and Uhl has realized the scale of the sleight of hand Eisenheim has managed to pull off, well, he can’t help but admire the skill. The Prince, after all, was a nasty piece of work and plotting to overthrow his father. So the orchestration of his downfall is hardly something to regret. And Uhl is shown from the start to be a man who appreciates a good trick, even when he’s the one who’s been tricked. And that’s when you (and Uhl) realize just how in control Eisenheim was the whole time. Like any good magician, he was misdirecting onto something flashy while the trick was performed in plain sight.

What really completes the movie for me is the cinematography and soundtrack. It would have been a lovely movie anyhow, but there’s a sepia-tone quality to many of the shots that puts it right in the time period for me. There’s a blurring and darkening around the edges in some shots, as if the film itself is old. A bit of a conceit, but it suits the feel of the film so well. The lighting is soft and warm and the music is haunting, which only makes the mood later on, when Eisenheim is performing his spirit routine, that much eerier. It’s very recognizably Philip Glass, but not in a bad way. My one complaint here would be that the film clearly prefers the stylized look of the illusions to making it clear that they are illusions, leaving it unclear as to how Eisenheim was performing the tricks. But I like it better to believe that it was all tricks. Done with mirrors and smoke. Because it makes it that much more interesting to have it all be for real and for Eisenheim to be that talented. That skilled. That clever and determined. It makes him a fascinating character and an equally fascinating center for the movie.

June 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Illusionist

June 15, 2011

The Illusionist

In the same way that Deep Impact and Armageddon came out in the same year, or Bug’s Life and Antz, this movie came out in the same year as The Prestige. It’s a phenomenon that puzzles me. Is it that rival studios rush to steal each other’s thunder by releasing similar movies or is it because marketing focus groups say that this is the year that a movie about a magician would be a success this year so they rush to produce that script they bought a while back. Or is it simple coincidence? I don’t rightly know the answer, but then again – I really enjoy a mystery.

So naturally I enjoy this movie. It’s a mystery with an illusionist at its center, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.

What’s interesting about this movie is that the plot is almost inconsequential. It’s predictable and telegraphed, and maybe even tired. In the eighteen hundreds there’s a low-born boy with a knack for slight of hand in Vienna who, in his youth, had an illicit love for a young high-born girl. The heartless world forces them apart and years later the boy has returned to Vienna and started a show as an illusionist whose trick mystify everybody from the common peasants to the local chief inspector. The crown prince of Vienna is a cold-hearted cynic who wants only to understand how the illusionist’s tricks are done and by odd coincidence his soon-to-be fiance is the long lost love of the illusionist. It’s a clash between the illusionist and the prince for the future of the countess, with the inspector stuck in the middle.

That doesn’t even begin to capture what the movie is about though. This movie, like the stage shows put on by Eisenheim the Illusionist, is a carefully crafted work of art. This is apparent from the very start of the film. The performances of Ed Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, and Rufus Sewell are all deadly ernest. Norton is the enigmatic Eisenheim whose single minded devotion to the countess drives the entire movie. His passion and his emotion permeate the film. Just the power he can put into a simple glare is astonishing. Then there’s Giamatti as the hapless inspector. His character is the narrator and the audience stand-in, the easiest character to sympathise with. Like the audience he is skeptical, wants to understand how Eisenheim pulls off his tricks, and almost wants to believe that they’re real. Jessica Beil is the countess, and although her role is largely that of an object to be fought over by the illusionist and prince she also manages to have some backbone and attempts to take her destiny into her own hands, which is impressive. The engine behind the plot is Rufus Sewell as the cold prince who dispises trickery and wants the countess to further his own ambitions. He manages wonderfully to give his character, who is reprehensible in most ways, a tinge of humanity, especially near the end of the movie when he begins to show how frustrated he is with the gullibility of everybody around him.

In addition to the astonishing performances there’s the very look and feel of the movie. This is one of those films that shows just what the medium is capable of in terms of setting the mood and creating an atmosphere. Director Neil Burger and cinematographer Dick Pope have crafted a very specific look to the film which captures the imagination and helps convey the other-worldly feel of the entire project. The movie is presented in a manner reminiscent of old nitrus based film stock from the earliest days of movies. It has a grainy look, with faded and out of focus edges (particularly during flashbacks or scenes representing the speculation of the inspector.) It uses old timey iris-out ends to scenes. It’s often lit practically with lamps and flames. In short it feels antiquated and aged. It’s as though it’s a restored film from bygone days simply uncovered by Burger.

The Philip Glass minimalist soundtrack also helps to set the mood. Indeed I’d say that much of the object of the whole film is to capture your imagination. Like the inspector you want to believe as you watch that some of the impossible things that Eisenheim accomplishes are real within the world of the movie.

My one complaint would be that the film makers cheat so much with the magic. There are some illusions shown that are very real slight of hand performed live in front of the camera, but there’s an awful lot of CGI special effects as well, which muddies the plot and confuses things. The power of a true illusionist is that he shows you something impossible that you somehow want to be true, but does it with clever trickery and misdirection. Part of the fun is trying to figure out how these things are done (although knowing the trick is often a let down because the answers are sometimes too simple and straight forward.) I felt cheated by this movie because the impossible things on stage were so clearly fake.

Still, I came away at the end awed by the craftsmanship displayed. It’s a gorgeous movie filled with powerful performances and with a truly unique look and feel to it. I’ll admit that it made me want to watch The Prestige again when I was done with it, but they’re very different films. It also made me want to see some true masters of the craft at work. Maybe we need to get Penn & Teller Get Killed now.

June 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment