Tuesday, August 29, 2006

"The Illusionist" casts an old-fashioned charm


directed by Neil Burger
starring Ed Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell

Let’s face it: we moviegoers are a blasé bunch when it comes to magic—magic, that is, of the silver screen variety. Maybe it wasn’t always so. Certainly there was a time when some of us echoed (at least internally) Elliot’s whoop of incredulous joy the moment his bike took flight in “E.T.,“ or when our own expressions mirrored the gaping wonder on Dr. Sadler’s face as she beheld brontosauri for the first time in “Jurassic Park.” Nowadays, however, we all take it for granted that any respectably financed film will make us believe—or at least suspend our disbelief—that a man can fly, or a giant ape can ascend the Empire State Building. At most, we may admire the skill that makes some illusions (like Gollum from “Lord of the Rings”) more palpably lifelike than others, or advances the game to a whole new level (like bullet time in “The Matrix”). Fundamentally, however, most of us do not feel a compelling need to find out exactly how a trick is done, or ponder for even a second whether our eyes do deceive us.

Yet I’m willing to bet that most of us are far more intrigued and impressed by a live magic show than the most dazzling technical wizardry the movies have to offer. As the magician is right there before us, performing in our immediate presence, his trick tantalizes us with the notion that we should be able to deduce a logical explanation for it. The best thing about “The Illusionist” is how deftly, indeed almost imperceptibly, it summons forth that peculiar mixture of childlike wonder and rational skepticism in the face of the seemingly impossible. Perish the thought of CGI, although it was probably employed; what you’re thinking, along with the magician’s audience, is how the devil did he do that? A meticulously crafted production, in all senses of the word, the film centers on the magic of the stage and places the viewer in the position of the live audience who have come to be astounded. And are astounded. And may even suspect that the man on stage (Ed Norton, looking suitably austere and mysterious) has had some dealings with those things in heaven and earth other than are dreamt of in their philosophy.

Historical context plays a part here, too, especially as regards the flirtation with a supernatural explanation. “The Illusionist” is, after all, set in turn-of-the-century Europe, when mysticism and communion with spirits coexisted more or less peaceably with rapid progress in science and technology. But to the film’s credit, it evokes the flavor of this period without succumbing to the feel of a period piece; for all its 19th century trappings, it has an oddly timeless, almost fairy-tale feel, highlighted by its artful use of lighting and shadows and an unexpectedly understated score by Philip Glass.

The actual narrative unfortunately doesn’t quite live up to the atmospherics. Loosely adapted by director Neil Burger from Steven Millhauser’s short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” the plot is simple enough: as a boy, Eisenheim, a poor carpenter’s son, catches the eye of Sophie, a young aristocrat, with his magic tricks, and the two children become devoted to one another. Alas, the class thing gets in the way and they are cruelly separated—only to reunite fifteen years later, when Eisenheim (Norton) makes his appearance in Vienna as a magician of renown. In attendance at his first show is Sophie (Jessica Biel), accompanied by her betrothed, the dangerously ill-tempered, unscrupulous Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell, chomping on the bad-guy role with his usual relish). Leopold soon senses that Eisenheim is a threat to him, and sends one of his minions, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti, playing effectively against type), to figure out a way to arrest him. Uhl dutifully follows orders, but as an amateur magician who really wants to know how Eisenheim does his stuff—especially a nifty trick involving an orange tree and some tiny butterflies—he finds himself torn between conflicting emotions.

This little three-way tug-of-war has much promise, on which it only partly delivers. There are some superb moments, as when Norton pulls a “sword in the stone” moment on Leopold and for just one fleeting moment, throws down a silent challenge to his power that’s more unnerving than a slap in the face. Or when Uhl, engaging in would-be urbane dialogue with Eisenheim about his tricks, struggles not to let the inner fanboy in him derail his official authority. Norton, Giamatti, and Sewell are all excellent throughout. Yet their interactions are made to play second fiddle to the somewhat bland love triangle that is the ostensible heart of the movie. This is no knock on Biel, who looks regally lovely and is convincing enough as the object of Eisenheim’s desires. But the triangle itself is one we’ve seen before, many times, and to the extent it’s supposed to serve mainly as a catalyst or vehicle for the film’s other themes, it doesn’t altogether hold up. It feels too tired. And ultimately its resolution (such as it is) disappoints any true romantic’s desire for a mystical dimension to the story, without satisfying the skeptical rationalist in us, either.

All of “The Illusionist”’s aspirations—and, perhaps, its weaknesses—are evidenced in one flashy, if slightly hokey, final sequence that explains either everything (imperfectly) or nothing, depending on how you choose to interpret it. Which is, in a sense, befitting the overall sensibility of a movie that is perhaps deliberately more show than substance. A magician, after all, never gives away his tricks.


ALSO SAW (at screening):


directed by Kirby Dick

This is an investigation into the mystery of MPAA ratings—and what a mystery it turns out to be. That the ratings are often wildly arbitrary, that they betray far greater squeamishness towards sex (especially anything other than heterosexual missionary-position sex) than towards violence, that the ratings seem to be more lenient towards studio pictures than independent releases—none of this is earth-shattering news, though it’s exposed here with a wickedly incisive humor that highlights the absurdity of the entire system. What “Rated” does shed light on, and what is in fact the focal point of director Kirby Dick’s insistent quest, is the astonishing secrecy in which the ratings board is shrouded. Because the MPAA has consistently refused to reveal the identities of the board members or any information whatsoever about the criteria or process by which they decide on ratings, Dick has the bright idea of hiring private investigators to stake out the ratings board headquarters and crack the mystery of who these people are and how they do what they do. The PI’s make some progress with respect to the first question, far less with regard to the second.

Nonetheless, Dick delivers an effective indictment of what emerges as essentially a Hollywood-approved censorship board, one that offers no explanation to the filmmakers it censors, far less any input into its inner workings. (Dick’s account of his own experience trying to appeal the rating of this very film is hilariously Kafkaesque.) He also suggests, all too plausibly, that the board’s mystifying tolerance for graphic violence is tilted towards the studios’ self-interest in being able to market to its principal audience (adolescent boys). However, he doesn’t seem especially interested in exploring the question of whether the idea of the ratings system itself is fundamentally flawed or valid, or what an appropriate alternative system, if any, would be. As such, the film is more entertaining than genuinely thought-provoking, and, sadly, unlikely to work the kind of revolution Dick would like to see.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Of Snakes and Planes

No, I did not see "Snakes on a Plane" this weekend. And no, it was not because I'm a latent film snob. Believe me, I was strongly tempted to go on opening night and see if it lived up (or down) to expectations. But considering gory violence (even the fake kind), snakes, and planes freak me out independently of each other, I decided it would be masochistic to subject myself to all three in one movie...especially since I'm flying cross-country in less than a week. Even though I decided it would almost be worth the self-torture just to hear Sam Jackson bellow, "I've had it with these muthafuckin' snakes on this muthafuckin' plane!"

Well, it looks like I wasn't the only one who stayed away - much to the chagrin of all those pundits who bought into the hype and were poised to analyze the "Snakes" phenom as the blueprint for movie marketing in the digital age. So it goes: in the course of one unremarkable opening weekend, "Snakes" as a discussion topic has gone from red-hot buzz to yesterday's news. Personally, I don't think the folks at New Line should be too crestfallen. It ain't over yet - word of mouth is still the surest path to long-term box office success, and there are distinct signs that word on the street (or in text-messaging land) has been strong. In fact, judging from the reviews and online chatter, it sounds like a lot of viewers, prepared for a movie with no redeeming value whatsoever, were surprised to find unexpectedly effective shlock. I guess we'll see if the buzz proves to be good for anything in the long run.


On a much more serious note, I've been meaning to write a review of "World Trade Center" for the past couple of weeks and not making much headway. It's not that I have any difficulty discussing the film because of its subject matter. Rather the contrary: it seems like I'd rather talk about 9/11 films with others than dissect them in a vacuum. To that end, I direct anyone who wants my opinions to this discussion at Cinemarati.