Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Hat Tricks

By Tony Buchsbaum

Nobody makes movies about magicians, but last year there were three. The Prestige, directed by Christopher Nolan, The Illusionist, directed by Neil Burger, and Scoop, directed by Woody Allen. I liked them all, but I fell hard for two of them, and both are newly-available on DVD.

The Illusionist, which stars Ed Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Jessica Biel, is a late 19th century fable, really, about a young boy who grows up to become a world-famous magician—and his desire to find again the young girl he loved as a boy. As Eisenheim, Norton delivers his usual highly-focused, finely-honed performance. Norton always has a strength of conviction whenever he appears on-screen, and it’s that intensity that sells his work, again and again. Here his magician’s own focus, on pushing the envelope as far as he can while he maneuvers himself closer and closer to the girl, drives the plot forward.

The girl, Sophie (Biel), is a stunner, now engaged to Crown Prince Leopold (played with icy precision by Rufus Sewell). While fascinated by Eisenheim’s act, the man is also threatened by it. The prince is angling to steal his father’s throne, and so magic is at once a distraction and a frustration; he doesn’t understand it, and that makes the magic and the magician highly suspect—especially when he finds that Eisenheim and Sophie are more than just acquaintances.

When Eisenheim and Sophie realize they’ve found each other again, their long-dormant passion reignites, and the big question becomes “How will he win the girl and avoid being made to disappear, as it were, by the Crown Prince’s cronies?”

Giammati plays the chief crony, the town’s police inspector, with a precision all his own, coming across as both a political player and a dandy. He, too, is fascinated by magic, and also somewhat intimidated by it. Eisenheim, of course, won’t share his secrets, leaving the inspector no choice but to look ever more closely at his actions both on- and off-stage.

The Illusionist really is a chess game, with each piece moving itself around the board, each trying, in a way, to outdo the others. Neil Burger’s direction is very old-style, complete with iris effects and a sepia-toned image throughout, and highly selective focus that places Biel in soft focus and most everything in stark contrast. Special effects play a role in bringing Eisenheim’s magic to life, but what makes that work most effectively is Norton’s conviction. You believe in the magic because he believes in it.

The Prestige, while still a film about a magician, is actually much more—and therefore much more interesting. It’s a film about two magicians competing with each other for the best trick, the most fame, and the girl.

Directed by Christopher Nolan, who recently helmed Batman Begins, has a sure hand, surer, in fact, than he did with that film and surer than he did with Memento, his first film. Momento’s gimmick was that it was told in reverse; I found that idea interesting, but in the end the gimmick was just that. I didn’t buy it.

The Prestige I did buy. It suffers from nothing so base as a gimmick. Indeed, its story (co-written by Jonathan Nolan, the director’s brother) is powerful, inventive, and its execution assured, surprising, and wholly satisfying. Hugh Jackman stars as Robert, and Christian Bale as Alfred; they once worked together but now both are working on a trick in which a man is transported from one side of the stage to the other. Joining them is Scarlett Johansson as their comely assistant, Michael Caine as Alfred’s friend and mentor, and David Bowie as Nicola Tesla, whose inventions serve as both metaphor and inspiration. Whereas with The Illusionist the intensity comes from Norton’s character, here the intensity comes from the flash fires that ignite when the two men near each other, when their work and their secrets intersect.

To write too much about what happens here would be to spoil the trick—and the same is true of The Illusionist. Both films are tricks in and of themselves; both play with the idea of storytelling and what the viewer must be told/shown to make the tale compelling and the trick work.

The thing is, the tricks—that is, the films—work wonderfully. The Illusionist has a magician competing against himself, essentially, to create the best trick ever, and The Prestige has two competing against each other, looking for the same holy grail. You won’t go wrong watching either film; they’re both examples of genuine moviemaking magic of the very best kind.

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