Cleolinda Jones (cleolinda) wrote,
Cleolinda Jones

Re: The Illusionist

So I'm going through my inbox a couple of days ago and there's an email from a Fox/M80 DVD rep who found the entry I wrote on The Illusionist and saw how much I loved the movie. I mean, I'm sure Fox is contacting a number of bloggers, but you can do worse than someone who started reading up on stage magic because of this and The Prestige. (And no, I still haven't tracked down the Steven Millhauser collection with "Eisenheim the Illusionist" yet, which vexes me deeply.) And they said that if I'd mention a few things, they'd send me a copy of the DVD, which 1) yay! and 2) I feel I should mention in the interest of fair play. But asking me to promote The Illusionist is like asking me to promote chocolate: my enthusiasm is genuine.

So first of all, I go to the DVD site they linked me to, and omg. They show you the plans for the orange tree! Jim Steinmeyer explained it in only the vaguest terms! It was a really beautifully done scene in the movie--I think that was my favorite track on the soundtrack--although my suspicion is that it was done with CGI in the movie. Which is why I wanted the DVD, because I so wanted to see the extras--apparently Ricky Jay was an advisor on both The Illusionist and The Prestige, as I understand it, so theoretically they could have recreated the orange tree illusion for real; I'd have to watch it again to see. I just assumed it was CGI because it was such a lovely, glowing effect, only finding out later that it was a famous Robert-Houdin illusion from the mid-1800s (and I'm not even sure he originated it). The other thing I loved was that Edward Norton wanted to do all the non-FX magic himself, and I'm completely fascinated by sleight of hand. Not how it works, exactly--yes, I'm sure you palmed it or hid it between your fingers or whatever--but the way it looks. There's a clip on the DVD site (go to Trailer and then Clip #2, "Trade Secret," which is also kind of sweet because the Paul Giamatti character reveals that he's an amateur magician and completely forgets to be officious in his enthusiasm for Eisenheim's illusions) where you can see Norton roll a ball back and forth over his fingers. It's a very simple, casual gesture, but it's just beautifully done. And kind of hot.

So I totally geeked out over the stage magic itself. Two other things I really liked: as I mentioned the first time around, I love the sepia-toned cinematography. I still can't tell exactly when the movie is set, since Jessica Biel's costumes seem to be very Edwardian (and were done, to my surprise, by Ngila Dickson, she of the many flowing elf dresses), but the footlights in the movie are still open flames--okay, wait. At that last link, the Costumer's Guide link:

Award-winning cinematographer Dick Pope (Topsy-Turvy, Nicholas Nickleby, Vera Drake) tells of the book that [director Neil] Burger showed him that contained color photography from the early 1900's: "Neil had obviously been carrying this book around with him for some time that explained the autochrome process, which very simply consisted of glass negative slides with a primitive kind of emulsion. The book contained really wonderful images and he had a very strong desire to make The Illusionist look like that."

So it is the early 1900s. And the whole movie really does have this wonderful, mysterious antique look to it--the opening/credit sequence alone is very, very striking, almost haunting, with the Philip Glass score and all. Speaking of Jessica Biel: she's the second thing. I mean, obviously Edward Norton pwns the hell out of it, and Rufus Sewell shows up in a very tense, jocular-but-threatening performance as the Crown Prince, but Jessica Biel is the real surprise of the movie. I honestly think that she saw this as her chance to change people's minds about what she can do and decided to put her back into it, because not only is her accent extremely good and natural, I think it's actually more consistent than Norton's or Giamatti's. I don't know that I ever heard her slip, and I was actually listening for it. I was talking about this on Snarkfest the other day, but I think Biel is actually a wonderfully counterintuitive piece of casting, because the character's just kind of there in terms of the writing. Childhood sweethearts, abusive fiancé, struggle to be independent, you know, okay. But when you cast someone as modern and athletic as Jessica Biel, you can immediately believe that she'd ride off on horseback in the middle of the night and have an affair behind the prince's back. Biel is good enough to fit the character, yet stands out in the way that Sophie herself must have stood out in society. You've automatically written a certain independence and fortitude into the character just by casting the right actress.

So, anyway. That's me nattering on about the movie, which I think I would have done more of when I first saw it if I hadn't seen two movies that night and been out until one in the morning. The Illusionist isn't structured as brilliantly as The Prestige, which was actually built like a magic trick itself, but goes for a beautiful evocation of tone and mystery instead.

And just for the record, here's the actual assets Fox gave me. Which is to say, they're not feeding me information to repeat back to you; they gave me a couple of banners and a buddy icon. Voilà:

So, the movie’s coming out on January 9--Tuesday, I think? That’s the first thing they wanted me to mention. The second is that there’s an accompanying magic contest. Prize: One (1) Grand Prize: ATrip to the Magic Castle in Los Angeles ("The Magic Castle is a Hollywood landmark, and a well-known performance venue for the magic industry, being one of the most famous magic clubs in the world. It is a private clubhouse for The Academy of Magical Arts, an organization devoted to the advancement of the art of magic, with emphasis on preserving its history"). It sounds like you're supposed to film yourself (this is in the rules; you can't call in an expensive professional videographer or anything) performing some kind of magic trick, and I think you are allowed to have assistants ("third parties"). You then upload the clip to the contest site, much the way you'd upload it to something like YouTube. Judging criteria: "Winners will be selected by a panel of judges using the following criteria: creativity and originality of video (50%); quality and originality of magic trick (50%)." So presentation, as in all stage magic, does count. The interesting thing is that Steinmeyer notes in Hiding the Elephant that there are relatively few tricks a magician can perform. You can make something disappear, you can make something reappear, you can make something move from one place to the other, and so on. Most vanishing acts, for example, are done with mirrors or trapdoors; I'm not even sure how you'd do it otherwise. So as far as creativity and originality go, they're not asking you to reinvent the wheel; they're asking you to dress it up a little differently. So if you're interested in performing magic, or you know someone who is, you've got until January 31 to upload something. Dooooooo it.

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Tags: movies, stage magic, the illusionist
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