March 29, 2020
Column

‘Illusionist’ successfully captures the imagination Magic tricks, music, acting and story all work together in spellbinding tale that toys with viewer’s mind

In theaters

THE ILLUSIONIST, written and directed by Neil Burger, based on the short story by Steven Millhauser, 109 minutes, rated PG-13.

In “The Illusionist,” a satisfying period mystery from writer-director Neil Burger, it’s the rich, shadowy atmosphere of Dick Pope’s cinematography and Ondrej Nekvasil’s production design that grabs you first, then Philip Glass’ spellbinding score, which is nearly as great as his work in “The Hours,” and then the story itself.

Like the best, most hypnotic magic trick, here is a movie that seamlessly draws you in, wows you and then tricks you, though you’re delighted by the trick even if you saw it coming, which likely will be the case for some of those who see it.

Set in turn-of-the-century Vienna – fittingly where Freud grew up and began his practice – this layered, beautifully measured film toys with your mind. It stars Edward Norton as Eisenheim the Illusionist, who is such a gifted and controversial magician, he eventually comes to fill theaters to capacity.

The key to his draw is that Eisenheim has developed an illusion so unaccountably real, one is forced to question that if it is indeed real, what are we to make of his abilities? It appears that he has the power to bring people back from the dead, which gives those in attendance hope that perhaps he might be able to bring back their lost loved ones, if only to allow them a fleeting chance to reconnect.

Each show opens with a single chair at center stage, with the flickering glow of the stage-light candles illuminating it as well as the eager faces in the crowd seated before it. Since Eisenheim isn’t without a flare for the dramatic, he comes to the chair with his head cast down before sitting, taking a breath and calling the dead to him by lifting an outstretched hand. Eventually, he conjures wavering images of the deceased – either a man, a child, or a woman come to the forefront. It’s the woman who gets him into trouble.

When Eisenheim was young, he fell in love with the duchess Sophie von Teschn, whose royal blood wasn’t exactly a suitable mix for his pauper’s blood. Spirited away by her family, they were separated for years, until one evening, at one of Eisenheim’s performances, he meets Sophie (Jessica Biel) again.

Their connection is undeniable, yet a disconnect is at hand. Sophie is engaged to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), a ruthless man who is so insecure, he decides to ruin Eisenheim for two reasons. First, he can’t grasp the man’s illusions, which infuriates him, and second, because it gradually becomes clear that he’s losing Sophie to Eisenheim.

Reluctantly assisting Leopold in his quest to doom the magician is Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), who narrates the story and who becomes stunned by the ease with which Eisenheim turns the tables on Leopold in the wake of a grotesque murder.

Deception and betrayal all are part of the melodramatic mix – as are several fine performances from the excellent cast. As for the ending, pay close attention. Unlike most magicians, Burger has the burden of being a director, which means that for his film to succeed, he must reveal his own tricks lest he letdown his audience. In a final rush of images, he does – and, though it comes in a blur, the damned thing adds up.

Grade: B+

On HD DVD

THE POLAR EXPRESS, directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Zemeckis and William Broyles, Jr., based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg, 97 minutes, rated G.

Robert Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express,” now available in a high-definition transfer on HD DVD, is so chilly and devoid of life, it should have been released on Halloween.

Zemeckis has taken Chris Van Allsburg’s spare, 32-page children’s book, and inflated it with plot elements and characters not in the original. The movie’s story and characters are so flat, this sleeper car derails.

Using performance capture technology, the film uses real actors – Tom Hanks chief among them – to achieve photo-realism through computer animation. That’s an inevitable progression of the CGI movement, but is photo-realism really what audiences want from an animated movie? “Express” believes it is.

What we have here is a movie whose computer chip renders beautiful interiors and landscapes but which fails to faithfully capture the human form. The children in this movie, in particular, don’t look like real tots struggling to believe in Santa. They look like waxen, undead extras from “Night of the Living Dead,” their lifeless eyes so unnerving, they make the movie difficult to enjoy.

The film follows an 8-year-old boy (voiced by Hanks) whose belief in Santa is on the wane. On Christmas Eve, he falls into a deep, vivid dream that transports him to the North Pole by way of the Polar Express, a gleaming train that magically pulls in front of the boy’s house.

The Express is filled with other children needing their own beliefs recharged and is manned by a conductor also played by Hanks. Their journey to the North Pole proves harrowing, ghostly and fraught with danger – it’s literally a roller-coaster ride into situations that nearly cost all their lives.

When they finally do meet Santa and his ugly gaggle of elves, what they find is an industrial underworld as bleak and as deadly efficient as the one in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” Individual scenes in “Express” are impressive and the movie does mirror the look of the book. But for the warm cup of cheer most audience members rightfully expect from this G-rated movie, they should know that the film’s cup is on the down side of empty.

Grade: C-

Visit www.weekinrewind.com, the archive of Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s reviews, which appear Mondays in Discovering, Fridays in Happening, and Weekends in Television. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

THE VIDEO-DVD CORNER

Renting a video or a DVD? NEWS film critic Christopher Smith can help. Below are his grades of recent releases in video stores. Those in bold print are new to video stores this week.

Akeelah and the Bee – B+

ATL – B-

Basic Instinct 2 – D+

The Benchwarmers – D

Big Momma’s House 2 – D

Breakfast on Pluto – B

Brokeback Mountain – A-

Broken Trail – B

Capote – A

Cheaper by the Dozen 2 – C-

Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – A

Click: DVD and Blu-ray – C-

The Constant Gardener – A-

Curious George – B

Date Movie – D-

Derailed – C+

Dinosaur: Blu-ray – B

The Dirty Dozen: DVD and Blu-ray – A-

Double Indemnity – A

Eight Below: Blu-ray – B+

Failure to Launch – C-

The Family Stone – D

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift – B

Freedomland – C-

Friends with Money – B

The Fugitive: HD DVD – A

The Hills Have Eyes – D

A History of Violence – A

How Art Made the World – A

Howl’s Moving Castle – A-

Inside Man – B+

The Jeffersons: Complete Fifth Season – B

Junebug – A

Kinky Boots – B+

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – B+

Last Holiday – B

Lethal Weapon 2: HD DVD – B+

The Libertine – D

Lucky Number Slevin – B

The Matador – B+

Match Point – A

Munich – A-

Nanny McPhee – B-

North Country – C

Paradise Now – A-

Poseidon – B

A Prairie Home Companion – C

Pride & Prejudice – A

The Producers – B+

Red Eye – B+

Rumor Has It… – C-

Saving Shiloh – B

Scary Movie 4 – D+

The Shaggy Dog – C-

Shakespeare Behind Bars – A-

16 Blocks: Blu-ray – B

The Squid and the Whale – B+

Stay alive – D-

Syriana – B+

Take the Lead – C-

Tough Guys Collection – B+

Transamerica – B

United 93 – A

Walk the Line – A-

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit – A

The Warrior – B

X-Men: The Last Stand – B-


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