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It was the year of magic at the movies, and not just the on screen, cinematic kind. Hollywood reconnected with prestidigitation in a big way, releasing two competing looks at slight of hand and the fine art of fooling an audience. One was Christopher Nolan's follow-up to his critically acclaimed and wildly popular take on the Batman mythos, the other was an under the radar effort by an unknown filmmaker responsible for a well received docu-drama on the JFK assassination. When the box office figures were finalized, and all the journalistic opinions were tallied, one effort clearly came out on top. And it's not the one you'd think. Indeed, while The Prestige raked in $52 million in receipts, it was offset by a $40 million budget. The Illusionist, on the other hand, seemed to get better notices (the Rotten Tomato ranking difference between the two is negligible however) and earned a whopping $40 million compared to its $16 million costs. Arriving first on DVD, this combination thriller and romantic drama deserves a lot of credit for its attention to period and place. But when it comes to actual narrative nuance, it can't hold a candle to Nolan's battle between two world-weary wizards.
Eisenheim The Illusionist, is the talk of turn of century Vienna. His amazing magic act has both commoners and the upper crust buzzing with baffled amusement. He has even drawn the attention of the scheming, conniving Crown Prince, Leopold. Considering himself a rational man, the Royal wants to unmask the performer, proving him a fraud, and/or an enemy of the state. He places his hand picked police chief Inspector Uhl on the task of uncovering the secret to Eisenheim's success. In the meantime, the Prince's paramour, the Duchess Sophie, has rekindled her love for a man she knew when she was a child. And wouldn't you know it, it turns out to be Eisenheim. Furious, the future leader of Austria's jealousy turns fatal, requiring Uhl to piece together a puzzling murder mystery. Not only must he determine who is guilty, but he must decipher between what is real and what may be merely an elaborate trick.
The Illusionist is quite an accomplishment when you consider writer/director Neil Burger's background. His only other film credit, a shot on digital mock doc about the Kennedy assassination, 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. While it pales in comparison to Christopher Nolan's masterful adaptation of Christopher Priest's novel The Prestige, The Illusionist (based on a short story by Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Millhauser) is a delightfully engaging effort, a film overloaded with sensational small touches and mesmerizing melodramatic strokes. 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 (expertly realized by several found locations in Prague), we end up with a movie that's inviting, intriguing and never sort on ideas. 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.
At the center of this story is a quartet of compelling characters – Eisenheim (played with just a splash of contemporary cynicism by Edward Norton), Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti, expertly lost in the role) Crown Prince Leopold (made both pathetic and piercing by Dark City's Rufus Sewell) and the shimmering, sublime Sophie (given a good turn by Jessica Biel in what is a basically underwritten role). How they interact, how they confuse and control each other is the key to The Illusionist's success. Sometimes, Burger and his cast manage magnificently. During a command performance in the Prince's palace, a subtle sequence of one-upmanship sees everyone in the cast masking conflicting and contrasting emotions. Similarly, whenever Uhl is speaking one-on-one with Leopold or Eisenheim, the conversations crackle with real thespian thunder. It has to be said that there is little chemistry between Norton and Biel as carnal companions, but we still believe in their relationship because of the carefully controlled flashbacks that Burger uses to set up their story. And this is not a movie made up of subplots. Even though Uhl enjoys magic himself, and Leopold has a plan to seize power from his father, those aspects of the narrative are tossed off and treated as the ancillary trappings of such a long forgotten era. Indeed, there are times when The Illusionist relies heavily on its production design, hoping it will carry some of the story's cinematic weight.
Like any movie positioned on a twist ending to sum up its success, The Illusionist does a decent job of hiding the key clues to its last act denouement. Keen cinephiles will probably have it figured out long before Uhl's wide-eyed realization, but this does not detract from the way in which Burger balances the needs of the mystery with the forward progress of his plot. The finale doesn't provide the same feeling of cinematic satisfaction that one gets from an M. Night Shyamalan exercise or The Prestige's metaphysical mindf*ck. Indeed, The Illusionist is as old fashioned in its wrap up as the epoch its characters exist in, and since we feel little of the supposed passion between Eisenheim and Sophie, there is not the emotional resonance one expects from such a reveal. Still, it's clear that Burger is a filmmaker worth watching, a man with a distinct eye for the artistic and a clever way with a camera. As a director, he makes several aesthetically pleasing choices – rendering the flashbacks with a slight flicker to mimic silent film, desaturating the color and controlling the compositions to maximize a scene's inherent drama – and he does manage to get some engaging performances out of his cast. A clever combination of pre- and post-modern moviemaking sprinkled with just a little too much pat plotting particulars, The Illusionist still deserves all the accolades it received. While it is not the best magic movie of the year, it is a remarkably accomplished piece of masterful motion picture making.
Sadly, it's impossible to state how good or bad The Illusionist looks on DVD. Fox, who distributes this title, insists that all review copies sent to critics for consideration be incomplete, non-final product. The result is an image that's pixilated, occasionally murky, and embellished with a rectangular 20th Century logo that pops up at inopportune times across the image. According to online listings, you can buy this film in either a widescreen (1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen) or full frame (why bother?) release, and while the overall look on this particular disc is substandard (in fact, the Oscar screener sent out by the Yari Film Group is much, much better), one assumes the final product will be professional and presentable.
Again, it's hard to grade the sonic reproduction on this DVD, since it is definitely not the final product. The supposed Dolby Digital 5.1 mix did have a nice amount of atmosphere, and allowed for easily discernible dialogue and a certain level of enigmatic ambience. Most importantly, Phillip Glass's magnificent score really comes alive, a combination of classical and his own mesmerizing minimalist approach.
With one major element, the added content for The Illusionist is paltry, to say the least. The Making-Of featurette is nine minutes of EPK pabulum, actors spewing out their undying love for the film and its creator. Even worse, the Jessica Biel interview is merely the full length version of the clips contained in the prior puff piece. Indeed, the only significant bonus is an amiable audio commentary from director Burger. Very upfront about the film's origins and ideas (the short story 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 Paul Giamatti and Edward Norton fleshed out their already complicated parts. If there is a single factor that elevates this otherwise dreary DVD package, it's Burger's candid conversation.
Beautiful to look at, considered in its characterization and more than capable of handling its last minute storyline surprises, The Illusionist only suffers significantly in comparison. In a year when The Prestige plays by a similar, and far superior, set of rules, this film can only look like an also-ran. Still, for everything that Neil Burger and his creative cast get right, as well as the amazing Eastern European backdrops, this movie easily earns a Highly Recommended rating. Many critics complain that magic cannot work on the silver or small screen because the medium places a barrier between the audience and the artist. As a result, such sensational feats of misdirection are more or less ruined by the camera's rigid perception. If anything, 2006 will be remembered as the year when such a theory was definitively debunked. And The Illusionist will be remembered as one of the more enticing explanations for such a switch in this presumptive motion picture position.
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