"Illusionist" conjures magic
by TYLER MILLS
This article originally appeared in The Tiger on October 6, 2006 | PRINT

Films in general are nothing more than illusion. They are merely a series of still images shown at a rate of 24 frames per second, giving our eyes the false impression that they are actually seeing movement on the screen. Neil Burger's most recent film, "The Illusionist," attempts to play a similar trick on his audience. The scenes may look like they add up to something, but there is certainly some trickery afoot. If you are quick-witted enough to figure out the illusion before its revealing, it takes away some of the film's magic.

Edward Norton stars as Eisenheim the Illusionist, a turn-of-the-century magician in Vienna. We first see him at what looks to be a sort of séance with a crowd gathered around. Before Eisenheim can continue, a police inspector by the name of Uhl interrupts the proceedings and places him under arrest for disturbing the peace. In the very next scene, Uhl visits Crown Prince Leopold to update him on the status of Eisenheim. It is here where the story really begins through a series of flashbacks as told by the inspector.

Norton gives a typically fine performance, though at times it seems automatic. As usual, Paul Giamatti does a remarkable job with his role as Police Inspector Uhl, giving his character just the right amount of ambiguity as to whose side he is really on. Even Jessica Beil, known for her laughably dreadful performances in "Stealth" and the remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," performs at the top of her game, though her role lacked much depth as an actress.

From a filmmaking standpoint, the movie is wonderful. By washing the film out in a hue of yellow and brown color casting, Neil Burger and cinematographer Dick Pope immediately conjure a sense of time and place as we watch the film. The costumes and set design are also superb. If the Academy remembers this film around Oscar season, it could have a strong chance of competing for one the statuettes in these areas (especially since the Academy tends to have a special place in its heart for period pieces).

Best of all is Philip Glass (the composer featured in one of my previous Found Sound articles); he contributes yet another remarkable original score, his best since "The Hours" in 2002.

Other than an overlong running time (the two hour film is based on a short story), a lethargic pace and a heavy reliance on its surprise ending, "The Illusionist" is top-notch. In a year that has given us only a handful of good movies amidst a sea of duds and disappointments, it is nice to see a rewarding sleeper film like this one come along. "The Illusionist" will probably only be showing for one more week in theaters around this area unless it comes to the Carmike Astro 3 downtown, so make sure to catch it while you have the chance.

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