October 22, 2006

The Illusionist

illusionistA quality genre movie from the mysterious Bob Yari Productions. A love triangle between Eisenheim The Illusionist (Edward Norton), the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), and the young royal they both want: Sophie (Jessica Biel, 7th Heaven, Stealth, Blade: Trinity), set on the damp cobblestone streets and the dimly-lit theaters of late 19th-century Vienna. The leads are all good if unspectacular, although their accents were a bit muddled. What country are these Austrians supposed to be from? Paul Giamatti plays a soulful Inspector, giving the movie some much-needed soul against the overly bloodless and painfully serious passion (both romantic and paranoid) between the principals. The location shooting lent the movie plenty of authenticity, and the photography was pleasantly dim and sepia-toned. The facial hair of Norton, Sewell, and Giamatti looked great, and Giamatti's giant and pimply forehead was perfectly Old Europe. The actors cast to play Eisenheim and Sophie as children were perfect: The young Sophie had the same overstuffed mouthful of teeth as Biel (The royalty in the 19th century get great dental care- who knew they had bleach-trays and ceramic verneers in 1890?) The one lovemaking montage was almost laugh-inducingly cliched. The tangled limbs! Hands stroking body parts which we can't quite identify! No moaning or groaning (just the Phillip Glass score). All in slow motion!

The illusions were perfectly rendered with modern 21st-century CGI, perhaps too well-rendered for a 19th-century illusionist. The CGI broke the suspension of my disbelief that Eisenheim could create such perfect visions; Emily argued that what we saw onscreen represented the visions which the Viennese audiences believed was onstage. The mystery which the Inspector must solve was a little too transparent for me- the twist ending was perhaps a notch or two below The Usual Suspects or an M. Night Shyamalan film.

While I found the Neil Burger's direction workmanlike and unremarkable (this was his feature-film debut), I admired the hard work which went into directing and choreographing the sounds of the theater audiences: each gasp, murmur, shouted call, and applause, had to be painstakingly arranged. The theater audiences were a central character in the movie, and no canned 'audience on CD' would have sufficed. (Arlington Capitol Theater)