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Monday, January 22, 2007

DVD REVIEW: The Illusionist (2006) **1/2

The Illusionist (2006)

PG-13 for some sexuality and violence.
1 hr. 49 min.

written by: Neil Burger from a short story by Steven Millhauser
produced by: Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Michael London, Cathy Schulman, and Bob Yari
directed by: Neil Burger

I caught this one over the weekend. The execution of illusion, trickery, and escapism has always been interesting to me. Although, it's never inspired me to learn any tricks, I'm always curious about how one learns such skill and mastery of deception. So, with that interest in mind and being a fan of the three main actors here. I decided to roll my sleeves up and pull this DVD outta my hat for a viewing.

After a sepia-saturated opening credits and beautiful Philip Glass score starts this turn of the century mystery/drama in Vienna. The story begins in the middle of the film as Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) recounts the history of Eisenheim for Crown Prince Leopold, following Eisenheim's arrest during what appears to be necromancy passed off as a magic show.
Uhl narrates what he knows of Eisenheim's (Edward Norton) past in order to give some background on the character as well as introduce him to the viewers. It seems Eisenheim was the son of a carpenter and as a teenager (Aaron Johnson) he met a traveling magician along a road. The magician performs several tricks for him and then, according to various accounts, both the magician and the tree he was sitting under vanish. Eisenhim becomes obsessed with magic tricks after that and also falls in love with a girl supposedly his age named Sophie (Jessica Biel), a duchess well above his social standing, whose parents hired Eisenheim's father as a cabinet-maker.

Due to their social status, the two are forbidden to see each other causing them to meet in a secret hideout in the woods. It is here that Eisenheim tells of his plans to go to China cuz he read that the Chinese know a way to make people disappear. Sophie idealistically promises to go with him. On the day that they are going to leave, however, the police come looking for Sophie. The two hide in the secret room and Sophie begs Eisenheim to make them both disappear. He is unable to fulfill this request, however, and the two are separated. Eisenheim leaves his village to travel the world and perfect his magic after this.

 Norton and Jessica Biel in Yari Film Group's The Illusionist

Fifteen years later guess who's back in town? Hey, you're pretty clever. So, Eisenheim does his young Bruce Wayne thing around the world, picking up all sorts of trickery and knowledge to support his passion for illusion. He returns a master illusionist, gets a manager and sells out theatrical shows night after night. He's a sensation! He talks about existential topics such as time, life and death in his performances while wowing audiences with illusions that relate to his topic. He slices an orange in half on stage, picks out a seed and inserts it into a flower pot sitting on a pedestal. He backs up, outstretches his hand while grabbing the air in front of the pot. Soon enough an orange tree starts to grow out of that pot. The audience, including Inspector Uhl, is understandably amazed.

Eisenhein soon finds out that Sophie is expected to marry the ruthless Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell, that's right ruthless Rufus as he is in just about every role lately). Leopold is an insecure Royal hothead who has a reputation for backhanding the ladies. After humiliating the crown prince during a private show, Eisenheim finds his hit performance shut out of Vienna. Eisenheim and Sophie, having recognized each other at a performance, meet privately and finally consummate their love. Their romance begins anew and they plan to run far away from Vienna and Leopold. Yet something must be done to stop Leopold, who, she reveals, is planning a coup d'etat to take control of Austria from his aging father, the emperor. Frequently drunk Leopold has Inspector Uhl, follow the couples every move and report to him. Unfortunately, Leopold's aristocratic social standing makes any accusations against him unthinkable. As Eisenheim plunges into despair and the citizens of Vienna begin to suspect Leopold of murder, Uhl begins to observe Eisenheim's actions more closely.

Next thing we know the Inspector has to somehow piece together a murder mystery that revolves around all these characters. That's not an easy thing for him because he respects and admires Eisenheim although part of him thinks the illusionist is a bit off. The other problem is if he continues to serve the Crown Prince to his pleasure, he can guarantee a position as either the Chief of Police or Mayor of Vienna. All quite attractive for a hard-working son of a butcher who just wants the truth to be revealed. Still, in the entertainment business Eisenheim is in, it is hard for Inspector Uhl to decipher what is real, what is an elaborate trick and most importantly who is a murderer.

Paul Giamatti in Yari Film Group's The Illusionist
It all sounds like an intriguing movie and it certainly holds the viewers attention. The reason I'm giving it this rating though is because I feel writer/director Berger didn't trust his audience enough. I can't get into why that is without spoiling the ending for you. If you have any interest in this kinda movie, see it cold turkey. I haven't given any revealing plot points but my wife and I were easily able to figure out what was going on in the movie before the movie could tell us. I woulda given the film three stars if not for that. As for the actors, the movie has a decent cast. Giamatti was great as always. I've enjoyed his work since his bit part in "Saving Private Ryan" to his great role in "American Splendor". Here he's in what is essentially one of those "viewer" roles where he knows just a little less than those watching the movie. He's learning as he goes only we're one step ahead. Giamatti shows the confusion the character has in investigating Norton's Eisenhein, while maintaining the inner conflict due to his loyalty to royalty. Oscar-nominated Norton has made some good career choices and this character can be added to his respectable filmography. I haven't seen Biel in a whole lot but I prefer her to all the other "Jessicas" out there (Simpson, Alba, etc.). She almost seemed a tad to young for Norton though. Like a uncle-niece affair. I know. And as I mentioned above, Sewell always plays his villians the same. I mean he's good but should we really have to see him "phone it in" like this each time? I'd like a lil more "Dark City" from him.

The film is quite an accomplishment when you consider Burger's background. His only other film credit was a shot on digital mockumentary about the Kennedy assassination, which could not possible prepare audiences for a lush period piece centering on forbidden love, a twisty whodunit, and a main character whose craft seems almost supernatural. It's a leap of faith so large than many a movie fan wouldn't dare the creative chasm. And that's a shame. Taking a typical tale of class-crossed lovers, political intrigue and personal vendettas and filtering it through the evocative world of turn of the century Europe, the end result is a movie that's inviting, intriguing and never short on ideas. Still, it didn't have to talk-down to the audience or at least to me. By combining the celebrated showmanship of old world magicians with a few technological tweaks, we end up with a fascinating display of dramatics that subverts the basic challenges of keeping the unexplained enticing within the already enigmatic realm of cinema.
Special Features:

The Making-Of featurette is nine minutes of actors spewing out their undying love for the film (blah blah blah! Hey, it's fun to get pad too!) and its creator. Even worse, the Jessica Biel interview is merely the full length version of the clips contained in the prior puff piece. Say what? Indeed, the only significant bonus is an amiable audio commentary from director Burger, which I didn't listen to. From what I've read, it's very upfront about the film's origins and ideas ( Steven Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist", features none of the romantic backstory or murder mystery elements included here) and eager to explain most of the magic tricks shown (including indications where CGI was a necessary evil), the discussion is in-depth and intriguing. Especially noteworthy is his opinions on Biel (more a looker than an actress, at least before this role) and how Giamatti and Norton fleshed out their already complicated parts. If there is a single factor that elevates this otherwise dreary DVD package, it's probably Burger's candid conversation.
The Skinny:

  • So that the crew would not have to use CGI to "fake" the magical illusions seen in the movie, Norton received intensive training in sleight of hand and other stage magic techniques from British magician James Freedman.
  • Although the film is set in Austria, it was filmed mostly in the Czech Republic. The city of Vienna is represented in the movie by those of Tábor and Prague, while the scenes set in Eisenheim's childhood village were shot in Èeský Krumlov. The Crown Prince's castle is actually the historical fortress of KonopiÅ¡tì (located near BeneÅ¡ov), formerly the home of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. All other shots were at Barrandov Studios in Prague.
  • "The Illusionist" is one of three 2006 films which revolve around the topic of stage magic and feature magicians as main characters. The other two are "The Prestige" and "Scoop", which share two actors: Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson. The Prestige and The Illusionist are both set in the past; Scoop is set in modern times. Scott Penrose and James Freedman (Edward Norton's trainer for The Illusionist) were among the magic consultants for the movie.
  • Although the story is fictional, some of the details are based on the life of Austrian Crown Prince Rudolf, only son of Emperor Franz Josef. The painting of the emperor which Eisenheim creates is an actual portrait of Franz Josef. The bodies of Rudolf and his mistress, the Baroness Mary Vetsera, were found at his hunting lodge Mayerling on January 30, 1889 in what is now known as the "Mayerling Incident". This was initially covered up by the Imperial Family, creating controversy and mystery.
  • When Prince Leopold is approached by Inspector Uhl, while hunting, to inform him of Eisenheim and Sophie's meetings, the Prince asks what they were seen doing together. The line about if they were seen "fornicating" was originally filmed as him saying "@#$%ing" instead. They chose the take using "fornicating" to avoid an R-Rating in compliance with the MPAA's policy that the f-word not be used in reference to intercourse in a PG-13 film.
  • The character portrayed by Philip McGough is shown in the credits to be named Dr. Hofzinser, after the prominent sleight-of-hand artist of the same name.
  • The character of Crown Prince Leopold, though himself fictitious, appears to be based on the historical Crown Prince Rudolf, who was heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne until his death in 1889. Like Rudolf, Leopold is described as being the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, who appears briefly in the film, along with a young cousin of Leopold who bears a close resemblance to Emperor Karl I.

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