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Eisenheim is a stage magician who amazes the audiences of turn-of-the-century Vienna, drawing the attention of Crown Prince Leopold. When the Prince's intended, Sophie von Teschen, assists the magician onstage, Eisenheim and Sophie recognize each other from their childhoods -- and a dormant love affair is rekindled. As the clandestine romance continues, Chief Inspector Uhl is charged by Leopold to expose Eisenheim, and Eisenheim prepares to execute his greatest illusion yet.
For more about The Illusionist and The Illusionist Blu-ray release, see The Illusionist Blu-ray Review
Starring: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell
Director: Neil Burger
» See full cast & crew
The Illusionist Blu-ray Review
Will make a “how’d-he-do-dat” out of you.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, June 15, 2010
Sometimes it happens: two similarly themed films, developed concurrently by separate studios, get unleashed on moviegoers within months—sometimes mere weeks—of one another. Armageddon and Deep Impact, Capote and Infamous, A Bug's Life and Antz, The Truman Show and EdTV, even Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. Usually, one film takes the forefront of public consciousness, while the other slides into relative obscurity, remembered only as "that movie that came out around the same time as ___________ and was pretty much the same." Occasionally, though, total confusion ensues, as was the case with 2006's pair of turn-of-the-20th century magician mysteries, Christopher Nolan's big-budget, star- studded The Prestige—featuring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, and David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, among others—and the smaller-scaled indie production The Illusionist, no less impressively cast with Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Rufus Sewell.
My conversations with friends who had seen one film or the other—while I had seen neither— always seemed to go something like this:
Friend: Hey, I saw that magician film!
Me: Which one?
Friend: The Prestige.
Me: Which one is that again?
Friend: The one with Wolverine and Batman.
Me: I keep getting the two confused.
Friend: How do you confuse Wolverine and the Caped Crusader?
Me: Funny, smartass. No, the two films.
Friend: Right. The Prestige is the one with the big twist ending.
Me: Doesn't The Illusionist have a twist ending as well?
Friend: Yeah, it's actually a prequel to The Incredible Hulk. All that absinth they drank in turn-of-the-century Vienna turned Edward Norton green.
Me: (Angry, protracted silence.)
Friend: No, sorry, I dunno. I didn't see it.
Me: I hate you.
Of course, surface similarities aside, the two films are quite different. Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, director Neil Burger's The Illusionist is a carefully plotted thriller set during a fictional political upheaval in 1890s Vienna. Burger initially sets the nostalgia-clouded scene by aping the style of early cinema, using iris fades, heavy vignetting and a flickering image to tell the backstory of Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton), a master magician whose controversial stage act of spiritualism and slight-of-hand is rousing the city's bourgeoisie. As a teen, Eisenheim—the lowly son of a cabinetmaker—falls in mutual puppy love with the young Duchess von Teschen (played in adulthood by Jessica Biel), but the wide divide in their social statuses dooms them to a life apart. Eisenheim travels the world, learning magic, and years later, when he finally returns to Vienna to perform, he reconnects with the duchess, only to find her engaged to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), a petulant know-it-all conspiring to usurp his aging father's throne. The inevitable rivalry between the two men is stoked when Eisenheim embarrasses the prince with a clever, politically satirical illusion, using the Arthurian sword-in-the-stone legend to question Leopold's right to assume power. In retaliation, the prince has his right hand man, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), find a reason to shut down Eisenheim's show.
Without giving too much away, the film follows Eisenheim as he slyly subverts Leopold's authority —turning the people against him—after the duchess is found conspicuously dead, floating face-up in the river. Needless to say in a film about magic, not everything is exactly as it appears, and though we may solve the riddle long before the film solves it for us—in an over-obvious montage of ah-ha moments—the drama that takes us up to that point is mesmerizing. As with most magic tricks, the mystery is far more compelling than the reveal. You know that slight twinge of disappointment when you ask the guy at the party to explain how he did that totally mind-blowing coin trick and it turns out to be exceptionally simple? That's the feeling that greets you at the end of The Illusionist. That said, while the big climactic "twist" will have you nodding, vaguely unsatisfied, saying "yep, gotcha," the film thankfully leaves the sense of wonder at Eisenheim's stage act unspoiled. Writer/Director Neil Burger clearly did his research about the illusions that were possible during this time period—he had production assistance from famed magicians Ricky Jay and James Freedman—and though most of Eisenheim's spectral manifestations can be explained with a Google search for "Pepper's Ghost," there's still room to wonder whether he might have real supernatural abilities. (A far better resolve than The Prestige's sci-fi deus ex machina.)
Performance-wise, the film gets off to a rough start with the over-earnest actors playing the young versions of Eisenheim and the duchess, but thankfully, their flashback sequence only lasts for a few minutes. The adult actors—with the possible exception of Jessica Biel, who is good, but seems somewhat out of place—are all terrific. Rufus Sewell is devilishly villainous, his show-off-ish dissections of Eisenheim's tricks a thin mask for jealousy. As Chief Inspector Uhl, a kind of proto- forensic detective, Paul Giamatti is nuanced and conflicted, torn between his allegiance to the prince and his wonder at Eisenheim's abilities. And the always-dependable Ed Norton is quietly enigmatic, all internal pain and esoteric genius. It's also refreshing to see a period piece that isn't a stuffed-shirt regency costume drama. (Not that there's anything wrong with those, of course.) Filmed in the Czech Republic, and color-graded to have a faux-vintage look, The Illusionist has a grim, haunted atmosphere, as if literally seen through a glass darkly. There are trappings of artificiality—I kept staring at Rufus Sewell's mustache, thinking how fake it looked—but the film does seem culled from another time, a cinematic specter.
The Illusionist Blu-ray, Video Quality
Essentially the same disc released in 2009 by Canadian distributors Alliance, this U.S. release of The Illusionist features a fairly strong 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. The film has a very stylized, faux-vintage look—complete with iris fades, vignetting, and flicker—which leads to some video traits that would normally be seen as flaws in other productions. Black levels are exceptionally dark, for instance, frequently crushing shadow detail during nighttime and interior scenes. Even though this is largely intentional—heavy shadows are an almost necessary part of the film's visual aesthetic—there are still times when the blacks seem too oppressive. (Make sure you watch this one with the lights out. Any glare on the screen is amplified by the darkness and will likely drive you to distraction.) Daylight scenes look quite good though, with strong contrast and a muted color scheme. The whole film is cast in a nostalgic amber glow, resulting in warm—sometimes overly yellow—skin tones, creamy highlights, and rich browns. Clarity gets a significant boost from the standard definition DVD, and while some of the longer shots look a little soft, close-ups display resolved skin texture and reveal fine detail on the period costuming. The film's grain structure is thin and unobtrusive, and I didn't notice any overt compression-related issues.
The Illusionist Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Less reliant on sound design than The Prestige—with its electrically arcing Tesla contraptions— The Illusionist features a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that more than capably handles the film's limited audio requirements. The movie is front-centric and dialogue-driven, but there's a good sense of separation between channels and the periodic use of the rear speakers adds to the film's hazy, turn-of-the-century atmosphere. Autumn leaves blow through the soundfield, horses clip-clop between channels, and airy ambience holds it all together. It's not exactly immersive or involving, but I never felt like I was missing anything. A better example of what this track can do is the score by Philip Glass, which features deep, potent low-end orchestration, rich horns, and melodic strings. Since this is a relatively quiet film, voices are always crisp and intelligible, with no muffling or drop-outs. If you're hard of hearing, however, you're out of luck, as the disc has no subtitle options whatsoever—a serious oversight.
The Illusionist Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The very definition of "bare bones," this U.S. release of The Illusionist contains zero bonus features and doesn't even have a menu (you have to select audio options by pressing the pop-up menu button.) Make sure you get your popcorn popping and soda pouring out of the way before popping in the disc, because the film starts automatically.
Oddly enough, the included DVD has a director's commentary—along with some EPK promo fluff and a trailer—but are you really going to watch the film on Blu-ray and then re-watch it in standard definition just to hear the commentary? It seems that Fox couldn't be bothered to re-encode the film with the commentary, choosing to simply nick the transfer and all from Alliance, the company that released the film in Canada. Heck, even the Italian Blu-ray is loaded up with special features.
The Illusionist Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Moviegoers had the choice of two mystery-driven, magic-related period pieces in 2006—both of them with twist endings—and while The Prestige is the flashier and more ambitious of the two, The Illusionist plays a clever game with its cinematic sleight-of-hand. As a complete package, this Blu-ray release is somewhat disappointing—no special features, no subtitles, not even a menu— but the audio/video quality is solid, and if you're just looking for the film itself, this disc will certainly suffice. Casually recommended.
The Illusionist Blu-ray, News and Updates
• The Illusionist 2010 Announced on Blu-ray - March 14, 2011
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has announced The Illusionist (L'illusionniste) for Blu-ray release on May 10. This animation movie (not to be mistaken with the 2006 movie of the same title) is directed by Sylvain Chomet based on an unproduced story by Jacques ...
• The Illusionist Blu-ray in June - April 20, 2010
One of the most sought-after import titles is getting a US Blu-ray release: The Illusionist, starring Edward Norton, Jessica Biel and Paul Giamatti, is being released on Blu-ray on June 8. Back in the fall of 2006, show-business fate would have it that two movies ...
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