August 20th, 2006

Wilde of Mystery

What Looks Like Vienna is Actually Light on a Screen

Last night, I finished with pencil and ink at around 8:30pm, so I decided to go out and do something, since it was Saturday, or such was my feeble rationale. While drawing, I'd been listening to NPR and I tuned into Ebert and Roeper (a series of guest hosts have been filling in for hospitalised Ebert--this week was a guy named John Ridley--last week was Kevin Smith. You can still listen to audio of the Smith episode here), and all sources were talking about this movie The Illusionist.

I hadn't even heard of this movie until about a week ago, and it seemed like a Johnny-come-lately to cash in on The Prestige's hype. But I was generally hearing good things about it, so I decided to give it a shot. It turns out to be a pretty good movie. Not perfect, but a long way from bad.

The movie's about a magician named Eisenheim(Edward Norton) in 19th century Vienna, trying to win the love of his childhood sweetheart, Sophie (Jessica Biel), despite the fact that the crown prince (Rufus Sewell) is engaged to marry her.

As many reviews point out, though, the central character is really the police inspector Uhl, played by Paul Giamatti, whose task to find out for the movie audience what's actually going on betwixt the above mentioned characters.

I had only two significant problems with the movie; (1) everyone's speaking English with these annoying posh British/German accents. I guess it's supposed to give you the flavour of the language without forcing the filmmakers to actually learn German and take the box office hit of releasing a Hollywood movie in German with subtitles. But I think they would have been better served by having the actors--especially Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti--speak in their natural accents. To me, this accent thing just seems to suggest that nobody in Vienna can speak German properly.

(2)Edward Norton was horribly miscast. This is another attempt by him to convince everyone he wasn't perfectly cast in Fight Club as the wimpy loser. Here he tries to be a dark and mysterious romantic lead which, coupled with the gorgeous cinematography, is often times unintentionally very funny. I felt a little embarrassed for Norton and for everyone involved in the movie, particularly during the passionate candlelit love scene, which wasn't helped by drawing on clichéd devices like the close-ups of flesh moving against flesh, and annoying in vogue devices like the drowsily focusing camera to simulate afterglow. I was reminded of a criticism Bernard Herrmann had for Vertigo--that the male lead ought to've been Charles Boyer. I liked Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, but I found myself lying awake at one point to-day thinking of actors who'd have been better suited for the part in The Illusionist. Whenever I think "male romantic lead", Cary Grant instantly pops into my head, so it took a few moments to brush him aside. The illusionist needed to be fiercely, ravishingly handsome, maybe a little frightening, and definitely elegant. It would also help if he was slender and good at seeming dextrous. This obviously ought to've been Johnny Depp. He'd be my number 1 pick, with my dark horse number 2 being Jim Carrey.

Onto what I liked about the movie;

Wonderful cinematography by Dick Pope. In one of the reviews I'd heard, it was mentioned how Pope enjoyed simulating early 20th century film, and this was evidenced in the movie by mild flickering and slow, seemingly hand-operated iris wipes during flashbacks that actually reminded me a lot of Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula. But lighting and colour choices were quite good all the way through, mostly without falling into the so-perfect-it's-lustreless problem seen in films like Henry and June.

There was a problem early in the movie, during a flashback of Eisenheim as a boy wandering through a grassy field. The scene looked like it was ripped whole from The Fellowship of the Ring, with young Eisenheim looking exactly like Frodo, from his clothes to his hair to his complexion. And then he meets an old magician in a broad-brimmed hat, and I was fully expecting to hear, "You're late!" "A wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins . . ."

I think if I were in a much more tolerant mood, I might be able to appreciate the love story in the first half of the movie. But things really pick up when it becomes a murder mystery, and there's a fairly satisfying twist at the end. It's a twist you see coming rather early on (at least I did), but it's fun to have it all explained like a magician explaining his trick, many of the details of which were surprising and interesting. There were one or two cheats, and there was, in my opinion, an over-reliance on cgi, but on the whole, I didn't feel like a sucker for suspending my disbelief.
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