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"The Illusionist"

Directed by Neil Burger.
Written by Neil Burger.  Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser.
Starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel and Rufus Sewell.
Release Year:  2006
Review Date:  8/3/06


Free has been good to me so far in August: three flicks in three days, all sponsored by somebody else.  I've had a good run so far this month but with "The Illusionist", the new fantasy film by writer/director Neil Burger, my run of good luck had to end sometime.

The film is not all bad, just uneven in terms of quality and then slapped with an ending that everyone in the theater could see coming.  Edward Norton plays the title character, a magician living in Vienna near the turn of the 20th century named Eisenheim who has the ability to create sleight-of-hand tricks that are truly unique, like the ability to create apparitions and make plants grow out of thin air.  When we meet him, he's being hauled away by the police, led by Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti, making me forget about "Lady in the Water" quite nicely), for fraud charges stemming from his ridiculous magic act.  Uhl meets with his superior, a prince named Leopold (Rufus Sewell, most recently the bad guy from "The Legend of Zorro"), and we get to learn what got us to that point--Eisenheim's peasant childhood, his friendship with the rich girl next door (later played by Jessica Biel), Eisenheim's early performance career and the present day, where he is reunited with his former neighbor at a chance performance and rekindling of the flames drives the story in another direction.

I loved the performances of three of the four leads; Biel surprised me because normally, she's complete dogshit (even IF she's a hottie).  Giamatti looks like he is having a blast in this part, and his energy gives the film a boost whenever he's on the case of the traveling magician.  The magic tricks that Eisenheim gives us are so far-fetched that you just kind of sit back and marvel at how cool it MIGHT be for someone to have the power to create butterflies out of thin air, or the vision of a dead child for an audience to behold.  This also takes away from the film, though--I kind of wish some of the magic tricks were given more of a background, because as it is, it seems like complete hokey that any of this is possible.  Sewell is a passable bad guy, one that doesn't go off ranting at things that go wrong...but, in the few moments where he is truly angry, he ratchets up the juice during those scenes quite nicely.

Strangely, it's the Norton performance that is the least interesting; it's some mix of Norton not looking as interested in the work as normal, combined with an accent that was neither German nor Austrian, but instead feels vaguely English, combined with strange reactions at key moments in the film.  There's one in particular that catches your attention--when he finds a dead body in a stream, he just kind of gives you a "damn...oh well" look and gets back to the business at hand.  Norton's best moments in "The Illusionist" come whenever he is just walking around Vienna, wearing the bad-ass goatee; otherwise, he is not the Ed Norton we have come to know and love.

I don't know what it is, exactly...I just know that the film doesn't deliver as well as you would think, given the cast and the material.  The sets feel vaguely European, but nothing about the production design distinguishes itself (which translates to "Oscar nomination for Costumes and Art Direction"), and other aesthetics fall flat.  "The Illusionist" isn't bad, but don't feel the need to run out and catch it; there's better stuff already on the market.

Rating:  Matinee


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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The "fine print":
All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09