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Michel Gondry’s first foray into that of solo writer/director has finally been released outside the festival circuit. The Science of Sleep was created without the help of writing collaborator Charlie Kaufmann whose scripts for Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were brought to the screen by the visual prowess of Gondry. There is a void apparent as the story is not as tight and coherent, (if you can call a Kaufmann script either), as his past work. This is not a detriment to the finished product however. Gondry has delved deep into his subconscious and deeply hidden emotions to create a magical journey between reality and dream as two people come together and start a relationship as awkward as all are in real life. His secrets and embarrassing memories are lyrically woven together into a mesmerizing piece of visual poetry that can only have come from the mind of a true dreamer.

The Science of Sleep will not be for everyone. While true to life and relatable for many kindred spirits, the film is not accessible to those not willing to take the trip into fantasy. We are shown a blurring of the line for what is real at every instance, switching between three languages, live-actors, animation, and a combining of all these elements at one time. Anyone who has seen Gondry’s work with music videos, (I highly recommend his volume included in the Director’s Series put out by himself and friends Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham as all seven volumes show remarkable artistic work), will be familiar with the otherworldly effects used here. Everything is done by hand, meticulously animated and spliced in through camera tricks or blue screen backdrops. Gondry had poured his heart onscreen and while history shows many cinematic attempts at this fail, becoming pretentious headtrips, this film hits home with its’ melding of comedy and drama, laughter and heartbreak.

Much credit needs to go to actors Gael Garcia Bernal, (always wonderful, I’m highly anticipating how he is utilized in Iñárritu’s Babel) and Charlotte Gainsbourg, (radiant and wonderful as she was in 21 Grams, coincidentally by Iñárritu). Gondry has trusted them with his soul and they have trusted the material in turn. Where at many times the movie could have turned its absurdity to unacceptable lengths, these two bring it back and ground it with truly heartwrenching emotion. Bernal’s Stéphane can’t seem to delineate between reality and dream, causing instances of truth to be spoken accidentally and times of paranoia and low self-worth to cause chaos in situations that are actually working. Gainsbourg’s Stéphanie also has a sense of duplicity, being a woman who cannot allow someone she loves close enough to let him hurt her, so in turn she hurts him and her both. These two are meant for each other, but it can never work outside of a dream. Stéphane is a child who’s emotions flip at a second’s turn and Stéphanie is a stubborn girl who can’t realize she is leading others on by showing her affection but shutting down when it is returned. When she is in Bernal’s head apologizing for what her real-life counterpart has done, it is heart-breaking because you realize she truly doesn’t know what she is doing him. Likewise, when he turns on her for incidents he has manifested in his mind, it shows on her face the hurt of finally opening to him, but too late.

Mention needs to be made for Alain Chabat, as his comic relief is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise solemn reality. He knows how a relationship of this kind will end, but he tries to help his friend through it, in order for him to see for himself. Also, Gondry has outdone himself with his animations. The craft undertaken is amazing; worlds are made from cardboard tubes, liquids from cellophane bits, and reality from knitted fabric. He has truly put his stamp on this film creatively, physically, and spiritually. Love is a complicated entity that sometimes needs more than love itself. People cross in life for a moment of utter happiness, which can turn to pain quickly from one’s inability to allow themselves that joy. The Science of Sleep is a film that will stay with you and make you think of the moments you let slip by. The final frame leaves a hope for the future and a knowledge that a love can be revisited in memory; it can’t be taken from you no matter what.

The Science of Sleep 9/10

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photography:
[1] Alain Chabat (Guy) and Gael García Bernal (Stephane) in director Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, a Warner Independent Pictures release. Photo credit: Etienne George.
[2] Gael García Bernal (Stephane) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (Stephanie) in director Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, a Warner Independent Pictures release.

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If you desire to see an edge of your seat thriller, definitely take the opportunity to go downtown to the Market Arcade Theatre and check out the enthralling, French-language 13 Tzameti, while you still have the opportunity. This film is a debut that any veteran director would love to have included in his/her filmography. A minimalist film in terms of dialogue and set, the real magic lies in the performances. Each character has his life on the line at some point during the proceedings, whether it physically, monetarily, or emotionally. The closest film I can compare it to is the final half hour of Eli Roth’s Hostel, only with tension amped up to the extreme, and the gratuity of gore and sex turned down to an almost non-entity. By showing reactions to and only short bursts of violence, director Géla Babluani has created a master-class in the school of less is more. Whereas Roth went for the outlandish, gross-out effects, Babluani sticks with reality and it is that much more effective as a result.

While all the acting is top-notch in terms of expressing the weight of the world trouble laid on almost every character’s shoulders, our star Sébastien, played by George Babluani, really stands out. He starts out as a young laborer, capable and taking pride in the job he is doing. His family at home really needs the money this job will soon afford, hopefully to take some pressure off his gimp brother who seems to only have time to sleep when he is not hard at work. Sébastien soon realizes that his employer is not well, mentally or financially. He overhears a conversation while working on his employer’s roof that, besides fronting the advance for his construction work, the old man really doesn’t have the money for anything else, and is not sure he can do the task awaiting him again. This task is given through a striped envelope containing a train ticket and paid hotel room. Circumstances soon play out which leave young Sébastien broke and in possession of said letter, whose conversations around seem to show a bountiful of wealth upon receipt. The desperate times call for him to go in his employer’s place, without any knowledge of what he will have to do, in order to bring some money back to his family.

George Babluani gives an emotionally draining performance, transforming from a hopeful boy with work to a broken heap of nerves, fighting for his life knowing that his only hope for survival will be to kill at least one other human being. As the film’s trailer showed, the task at hand is joining an underground gambling event of Russian Roulette, with a twist. Your gun is pressed against the back of the head of the man standing next to you. When the light above turns on, everyone shoots; there can be only one victor after the three rounds and final duel. But don’t look in the others’ eyes; it is much harder to pull the trigger on someone whose soul is bare than the matted down, sweat drenched hair motionlessly dead ahead. These actors are battling the nerves to not only stay alive, but also deal with being a murderer in order to survive. Babluani, the director, shows us such realism that you almost believe these men have real guns in their hands, playing God while their handlers wait in the adjacent room to see if their millions have been betted on the luckiest man. The final duel is painful to watch, seeing these men resolved to tears and a need of forgiveness knowing what they will have to do.

While the contest is the crux of the film, it is not the only trial needing to be overcome. We have police on the hunt for the hideout to put a stop to the games and we have handlers with novices who have never shot a gun—they must put the unknown players in because they will be fined if not, and if for some reason that person brought the police, they’d be considered the rat if they left before a raid. The stakes are high, the outcome always looking bleak. As a viewer, you have no idea where the story will take you next, no one is special and everyone’s life hangs by a thread. The gorgeous black and white cinematography helps keep you on edge, viewing through sharp angles and thick grain, adding to the tension and heart-pounding action unraveling itself on screen. I almost can’t wait to see the Hollywood remake, which has been recently greenlit for development, just to see how they ruin an amazing feat of cinema.

13 Tzameti 8/10

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[1] Georges Babluani in 13 TZAMETI, a Palm Pictures release 2006.
[2] Aurelien Recoing in 13 TZAMETI, a Palm Pictures release 2006.

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It’s the end of summer; time to dump all those films that wouldn’t hold up as summer blockbusters and gear up for award season. Lucky we have our trusty indie theatres, saving us from the boredom of sitting through paint-by-numbers fare, by offering more festival circuit darlings. This week sees the opening of the much-hailed Half Nelson. While most praise is bestowed upon star Ryan Gosling—justly so—this film is much more than one man. One man does not make a movie, and we are treated to one of the years best here. From the gritty, hand-held camerawork, emotion-wrought close-ups, nuanced acting, and realism to the stresses of life, every facet is utilized to the utmost effectiveness. Credit newcomers Ryan Fleck and his co-writer Anna Boden for crafting a beautiful story about humanity and the strong will for the survival of others overpowering any self-loathing one might weigh himself down with.

Gosling is truly a tour-de-force in terms of his multi-faceted character Dan Dunne. He is a man who has gone through the worst of his addition to crack, and been through rehab only to find that he still can’t handle life without the crutch. Dunne has decided to live for the moment and in doing so has to periodically wake up to the rest of his life passing him by. As Frank (a great performance from Anthony Mackie as a conflicted drug dealer) says at one point, baseheads don’t have friends. Gosling says his addiction is in his control, that the children ground him. Unfortunately he just doesn’t see how he pushes those he loves away at every turn. When his secret is revealed to one of his students, there is a revelation. Someone has come into his world that can help him, who knows his problem and can try and steer him back to life. This young girl, however, is on the brink of a downfall herself; seeing her mother work double shifts to stay afloat while being helped by the drug dealer who was the cause for her brother’s incarceration. Why not help out and make some fast cash?

Shareeka Epps is the young girl who has discovered a kindred spirit in her teacher and coach. Her character Drey sees an intelligent individual, trying to make a difference in the world while also being tied to the underbelly of addiction. The two live parallel lives, both knowing the natural progression of the others’ circumstances and trying to stop that path for the other while slowly falling off the cliff themselves. Epps is amazingly real as Drey. She has all the emotions of a Middle Schooler bottled up inside, trying to survive without a older figure steadily in her life. Her innocence and purity, however, does come out when talking with Gosling, as does his. They can open their souls to each other and know they won’t be judged. This relationship is why it is so heartwrenching emotionally to watch the climax of the film, when we see that fate takes us to room 50 where all our demons are released.

Yes the performances are acted to perfection, but much credit needs to be given to the writers. Gosling and Epps are layered emotionally with careful attention to detail. The film is told in short snippets of life’s travels, and each moment peels back a layer that has been buried underneath thick skin. A thirteen-year-old girl should not have the immense weight which Drey has unleashed on herself. The journeys she takes with her teacher, her mother, her brother, and Frank show the world through her eyes, and the bleakness that is so close she doesn’t think she can avoid it. As far as Dunne goes, when we see his tries at a relationship culminate in his contempt for those who can’t follow his deep philosophical thinking, we see a man in crisis. He has been disillusioned at a young age, as seen in a nicely orchestrated dinner scene with his family. All his needs for equality are very close to heart. He won’t teach from a Civil Rights syllabus because that would be short-changing the subject. Dunne wants to bring about change in his students, he wants to show the competing pressures of opposites and make a difference in their lives, as he has not been able to do in his own. The human soul is a complicated force of nature in this way. It seems to never have a problem giving up on itself, as we are all sinners striving for good. However, to give up on those around us that we love cannot be done no matter how much we try. Tension can rise to a boil, but when you see those around you in peril you do your best to wake up and do what you can to help them strive for the better. One never knows the outcome; at any moment everything can once again fall apart. We do know that by trying there is always hope.

Half Nelson 9/10

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photography:
[1] Nathan Corbett star as Terrence and Ryan Gosling as Dan in ThinkFilms’, Half nelson – 2006
[2] Frank (Anthony Mackie) and Drey (Shareeka Epps) in Half Nelson – 2006

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A true overlooked movie, Bandits is a gem waiting to surprise people. With a guy like Barry Levinson directing, having classic comedies like Diner and Toys, (another ill-received winner) under his belt and dramedies like Rain Man, you know you will be entertained. If you still feel unsure after finding out it stars Bruce Willis and two of the best actors working today in Billy Bob Thornton, (when not playing the vulgar schlub he has lately), and Cate Blanchett, you don’t enjoy cinema. This trifecta of actors really shine together causing laughs at every turn while still grounding the film enough to keep the serious criminal consequences relevant.

Breaking out of jail on a whim, Joe (Willis) and Terry (Thornton) find themselves free men needing money. They decide to rob banks long enough to make a nest egg to run a hotel/club down in Mexico; yes that is where they are keeping Acapulco these days. They become the “sleepover bandits” as they kidnap the bank manager the night before the crime so as to take the money without hostages causing a problem. Just the satirical notion of these hardened criminals becoming overnight celebrities where bank managers revel in the thought that they can be victims, is funny enough. Throw in Cate Blanchett’s manic-depressive housewife on her last thread Kate, and we have some really laugh-out-loud hijinks. When she is singing to cheesy 80’s Bonnie Tyler music while cooking and driving, you can see the amazing comic timing she possesses to go along with the dramatic chops she usually shows. One of our most versatile actresses, maybe not quite deserving of the Oscar last year, but definitely worthy of the Oscar-winner status, there hasn’t been a bad performance by her that I have seen. I can’t wait until later this year when she joins heavyweights Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga with their emotional epic Babel.

Bruce Willis shows again that playing against his tough-guy type is really where he succeeds best. Joe has all the charisma and muscle of an action hero, but also the sarcasm and wit to really poke fun at the stereotype. Thornton gives a magnificently physically showing as the hypochondriac Terry. His idiosyncrasies are hilarious to watch and the banter with both Joe and Kate is perfect. There are so many one-liners that spew from his fast-talking, too smart for his own safety mind. “You know the hardest thing about being smart? You pretty much know what’s gonna happen next. There’s no suspense.” He also has the uncanny demeanor to switch personas mid-sentence, acting tough and then, when ridiculed about his disguise, almost quietly, as though to a confidant, asking if it really is that bad.

Rounding out the comic genius is relative newcomer Troy Garity. His stuntman is the ultimate stereotypical guy’s guy whom needs to be babysat at every turn by the two criminal minds. The childlike fascination is perpetually ingrained into his features and expressions as he is just a kid in a candy store. Garity’s charm makes the role successful and an integral part to the story. Credit writer Harley Peyton for loading his script with so many disparate characters which when mixed together work together like clockwork. After writing ensemble work with quirky roles in the likes of TV show “Twin Peaks,” one can see why. Hopefully we will be able to see more from him in the future, and also more like this from Barry Levinson, who’s last film Envy was so bad it was released after a hiatus on the shelf for two years.

Bandits 8/10

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[1] Cate Blanchett, Troy Garity, Billy Bob Thornton and Bruce Willis in MGM’s Bandits – 2001
[2] Cate Blanchett as Kate Wheeler in MGM’s Bandits – 2001

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Silent Hill is a study in atmosphere and mood. While some may say it is style over substance, I’d have to agree a bit, but correct the statement to style with substance. Christophe Gans, the visionary director behind a great foreign film Brotherhood of the Wolf, has crafted a film that is visually astonishing while mind-bendingly layered. Credit writer Roger Avary, whom I have yet to be disappointed with anything I’ve seen containing his involvement, for adapting, not the story exactly, but the emotion and structure which has made the eponymous video game as successful as it has been. While one can look at numerous message boards yelling that this movie is trash compared to the game, the main character’s sex has changed, monsters are in that shouldn’t be, etc., as a film fan (who has never played nor seen the game played) I need to tell these people that film is a new medium. The transition, in my opinion has gone over practically without a hitch.

The acting is superb throughout, a tough sell for a movie of this ilk. Amazingly, Gans was able to compile an on-the-cusp of A-list cast to do the material justice. This is not a hack-em up slasher flick, nor is it a horror of the kind churned out each week to make money. Silent Hill is a stylish art film whose atmosphere haunts. The multi-plane dimensions are reminiscent of the classic Hellraiser movies, along with the creatures that have been manifested from the minds of those being pursued. Each monster here has been created for a reason and does its’ job. This is not the real world, but a nightmare come true. Radha Mitchell plays the desperate mother to perfection, showing fear for outside forces and fear for the wellbeing of her child. While under-used, Sean Bean also shows a subdued emotional palette as he searches for his wife and daughter. The always effective Deborah Kara Unger plays the outcast nicely. A mother herself, she must live with the mistake she has made; the devil reaping revenge won’t allow her to die, maybe due to the love her daughter still holds, but more realistically because she must live with her sin for eternity. As far as the creepiness scale goes, praise should be awarded to Alice Krige as an overzealous cultist and to young Jodelle Ferland who plays some very disturbing scenes like a pro. Ferland is a credit to some liberal parenting I’m sure, as she is cast as some emotionally wrought children with many skeletons in her subconscious. She plays the layers great and I just can’t wait any longer for the much overdue Tideland, directed by auteur Terry Gilliam and starring Jodelle.

While the acting surpasses the genre that Hollywood has tried to pigeonhole the movie into, it is the visual style that really impresses. From the first moment in the town of Silent Hill, when the snow falls through the fog, a flake is caught by Radha Mitchell and turns black, the viewer gets an idea of the attention to detail. Each conversion between reality, Silent Hill grey, and menacing darkness is seamlessly orchestrated. Watching the structures of the grey burn to ash, in turn becoming creatures of the darkness after the air-raid siren ceases, is magical. It’s even more so when the darkness has come to an end and the creatures turn back to ash and slowly materialize together into walls and doors. The cgi work is top-notch as well as the sound effects. Every industrial sound is placed with care and the use of a score does more for mood than any heavy-metal soundtrack could—what seems to be the horror choice of the past decade.

Gans had a vision and he filmed it. The cinematography and visuals are a sight to behold and unfortunately for a horror film, not to be appreciated by the audience the studio has targeted. This is not a horror film more than a dark insight into the psychological mind of a scorned child; a child who hadn’t developed her mind enough to go past atrocities she has seen and experienced. Because of this, her openness to a deal with the devil can have drastic results. Silent Hill is an intelligent thriller that calls for attention and thought. It is a shame that the filmmakers knew this wouldn’t go over with the general audience and had to explain every detail during an extended flashback sequence towards the end of the film. If only Gans had been really creating an independent vision and was allowed to leave surrealism to itself a la David Lynch, I probably would have given this film a perfect score. Instead, money really does talk and when Hollywood wants accessibility, every action must be taken to make the backers happy.

Silent Hill 9/10

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[1] Radha Mitchell as Rose searches for her sick daughter in Sony Pictures’ Silent Hill – 2006.
[2] Jodelle Ferland plays Sharon, Rose daughter in Sony Pictures’ Silent Hill – 2006.

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Possibly my first true screwball comedy, definitely my first Ernst Lubitsch film, Heaven Can Wait lived up to the reputation of being a well made, laughter filled time. Sure it is a bit dated at times, but overall I believe the message and events occurring transcend age, probably due in small part to the fact that the film spans eighty or so years. Henry Van Cleve has passed away and knowing that he would probably have too much trouble getting into heaven, he decides to go to the place many have told him to go during life…hell.

I really enjoyed the rapport between Don Ameche (Van Cleve) and Laird Cregar (His Excellency/Satan). Cregar has a lot of charisma and is a nice change of pace from most guardians of the underworld. He has a strict code of rules, not just anyone can receive eternal damnation; one has to have earned it in spades. The fact that Ameche is trying to get in quickly, so as not to have to worry, is great, especially since he has to prove why. Of course as many stories of this ilk show, it’s the women of his life that he must speak of to explain why he has sinned. It’s a shame that there weren’t any intercuts showing the two of them in Hell sitting and discussing Henry’s life. The bookends to the film are nice, but it almost seems a shame to have seen Cregar so little.

Based on a play, Heaven Can Wait stands up well as a film. It is very much a dialogue driven movie, yet there are some great visual moments included as well. The script is great, sprinkled with dry sarcasm along with some laugh-out-loud moments and some surreal absurdities. Don Ameche is very effective as the Casanova who can’t help himself even when he has the woman of his dreams. That woman, played by Gene Tierney, shows great comic timing to play off of the manipulative Ameche. She is a beautiful actress and can act very well. Tierney needs to play every emotion possible to show the ebbs and flows of their relationship while still retaining the love she has for her husband through all the tough times. Sure the whirlwind chance meeting which leads to their eloping is hilarious, and the rescue from Kansas plays out with almost a slapstick feel—especially between Tierney’s character’s parents and their funny papers—however, the real shining moment is their final dance together. Their love is displayed for all to see as they twirl in solitude while the rest of the party is seen through the opening between rooms. The moment is both beautiful and heartbreaking all at once.

I must say I was a big fan of the film and will seek out more Lubitsch in the future. Trouble in Paradise, available on Criterion DVD along with this film, and probably his most recognized work, Ninotchka with Greta Garbo, tops the list to check out. A great script, talented ensemble cast (look for comic genius from Charles Coburn and his baseball bat in heaven) as discussed, and superb make-up work (Don Ameche as eighty actually looks like he did at eighty, see Cocoon and a more cynical take on his character here in Trading Places) are molded deftly together to create a nostalgic look on life and those that one touches during his time on earth.

Heaven Can Wait 8/10

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After viewing The Rules of Attraction, one can definitely see how Roger Avary and Quentin Tarantino were friends. Upon leaving their jobs as video store clerks, the two went out and did Reservoir Dogs together, before collaborating on Pulp Fiction. Tarantino took all the credit for those two movies, basically striking Avary out of Dogs completely and only giving him story credit for Pulp. With Rules of Attraction, one sees that there was probably more influence on both films. While this adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel contains many clichéd style maneuvers, they all work effectively in telling the tale. Multiple uses of rewind, spilt screen, and the re-showing of events could have been a drastic failure of cheap trickery with less able hands. Here, though, Avary shows some skill and uses everything to further advance a complicated tapestry of storylines and encounters from the stellar cast of young up-and-comers.

This is a story about a weekend of college partying at Camden. We have co-eds of all grades, races, and sexual orientation weaving in and out of each other’s lives, going from party to party, having altercations, conversations, and a lot of casual sex. James Van Der Beek is actually really quite good breaking out of his good boy image from WB-fare casting. His performance really makes me wish his sanitized image didn’t warrant Todd Solondz from cutting his arc from the disturbingly good Storytelling. Shannon Sossamon does admirably as the confused girl rooming with a slut, doing drugs, but wanting to stay pure for the man of her dreams. It is this conflicting nature that runs rampant throughout each character’s existence. The dry, cynical humor prevalent in another Ellis adaptation, American Psycho, carries through here as well. Without so much satire from that film, Rules reaches an absurdity at times that makes you think back to your college days and the craziness and emotional stupidity you remember seeing from those surrounding you.

I give Avary a lot of credit for his sense of detail too. The soundtrack enhances each scene, where it is used, effectively, most noticeably with the hilarious juxtaposition of Ian Somerhalder and Russell Sams dancing and lip-synching to a George Michael song on a hotel bed with their mothers in the dining hall swapping prescription drugs between sips of vodka. Little scenes like seeing a suicide being lifted into an ambulance, students crying all around, with a girl hitting on one of the police officers in the foreground are brilliant. Avary makes the viewer never take a break as there is no telling what he/she might miss. Also, the casting choices are superb in every instance. Clifton Collins Jr. is menacingly funny as a drug supplier, Eric Stoltz creepily spot-on in a small role, Faye Dunaway hamming it up in the aforementioned hotel dining scene, and Fred Savage in a gem of a cameo.

Even when you think the gimmicks are through, and we have linear storyline normality, we are treated to a fast-paced recap of Kip Pardue’s character’s trip to Europe. The matter-of-fact nature in which the sequence is narrated during its quick cut montage is great. Supposedly this footage was edited into a bridge film called Gliterrati, to connect Rules to a future film adaptation of Ellis’ Glamorama. Unfortunately it has not been released in its full form and Glamorama has been removed from Avary’s slate of upcoming films. Either way, The Rules of Attraction allows for the hope that we will see more Ellis-based films. If nothing else I can’t wait to break into the collection of his works sitting unopened on my bookshelf, waiting to be read for the past year or so.

The Rules of Attraction 9/10

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[1] James Van Der Beek and Ian Somerhalder in Roger Avary’s drama/romance The Rules of Attraction, also starring Jessica Biel, Kip Pardue, Shannyn Sossamon and Kate Bosworth – 2002
[2] Shannyn Sossamon and Jessica Biel in Roger Avary’s The Rules of Attraction, also starring James Van Der Beek, Kate Bosworth, and Kip Pardue – 2002

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There is a lot of buzz going around movie circles about this being the year of magic. With Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige garnering much anticipation, the lesser-known The Illusionist, by director Neil Burger, hits screens first. Trailers show that while it appears to be the more accurate movie in terms of period and realism, it doesn’t seem to have the flash or grave consequence as Nolan’s film. While The Prestige is a movie about rivalry and mysticism, The Illusionist is a love story shrouded in trickery and class distinction. We are treated with realistic performances from all the principles, gorgeous cinematography and sleight of hand illusions, yet ultimately are shown a slight story that plods along while entertaining. It is a good film, well worth seeing, yet I have to say it just makes my interest in Nolan’s new movie heighten.

Edward Norton is a son of a carpenter who worked on the house of a dignitary. This nobleman had a daughter, Sophie, who became smitten with Norton’s character. The two want to run away, but their plans are thwarted, as usual in these types of plotlines, by the class disparity; no peasant can be with a noblewoman. We flash forward 15 or so years to Norton’s return from exile as Eisenheim the Illusionist in Vienna. His tricks are top-notch and garner the attention of Chief Inspector Uhl, played nicely by Paul Giamatti as a peasant trying to make a name for himself, yet who still knows his role in society. He tells the Prince who comes to see it for himself. Of course the Prince’s girlfriend is Sophie, all grown up, and she rediscovers the love that was taken from her once she sees her childhood friend on stage. The film then plays out to show the struggles between the prince and the pauper to see the strength of true love.

Norton and Giamatti are both stalwarts of their craft and here is no exception. I think the two actors to mention are Jessica Biel and Rufus Sewell. Biel radiates beauty, yet hasn’t really shown anything to warrant top-bill status as far as ability over stardom. As Sophie, she has an innocence and lack of class status that really proves her love for Norton. This isn’t your normal wealthy woman who plays with those under her, she truly loves Eisenheim and has during all the years she lost living without him by her side. I was pleasantly surprised by her understated performance, she did what was needed, and maybe took a step in the right direction from fare like her role in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. Sewell on the other hand, shows once more that he is vastly underrated. He plays villainous slime to perfection. The cold stare and palpable malice on his face at times creates true fear. Hopefully one day he will get a chance to shine like he did as the lead in the great Dark City.

The real beauty of small films like this is the ensemble casts and overall craftsmanship. Craft almost supercedes acting here, as good as that is itself. Visually, the opening titles are the best I can remember of those seen this year. The focus changing of the old silent film script font is a sight that really immerses the audience into the story. They create a mindframe that we are being transported into a time that has past, a time of real artistry and imagination. Even the early flashback is vignetted in a feathered-edge oval. The magic tricks also are shown realistically with few moments of fake cgi to take you out of the reality. I’m sure the consulting by magician Ricky Jay, a David Mamet stalwart and former castmember of “Deadwood”, has something to lend to this. It’s just a shame that he couldn’t crack the cast-list here to as he has with The Prestige.

It’s too bad that with all of these great things, The Illusionist just didn’t have it all. The story is at its core a simple love triangle with magic thrown in. Its almost two hour length seems a bit bloated during the middle portion and unfortunately brings the intrigue down with it. The ending is also obvious, yet because it is pushed so far back from view you almost second-guess the shear necessity of it until it finally happens. Although you know it’s coming a mile away, the filmmakers so wanted it to surprise the audience that they wait until the last possible moment to spring it on you. Sadly, this tactic doesn’t promote a sense of awe, but instead just makes it feel tacked on as though they couldn’t find a way to seamlessly have it happen, so they just unraveled it all at once. It just left me with an empty feeling on an otherwise technically beautiful film.

The Illusionist 6/10

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[1] Paul Giamatti and Edward Norton in The Illusionist – 2006.
[2] Rufus Sewell as Crown Prince Leopold in The Illusionist – 2006

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