Monday, September 08, 2008

A Life of Illusion

253. and 254. Although they are ultimately very different movies (I was led to believe that they are very similar), both The Prestige (2006, directed by Christopher Nolan) and The Illusionist (2006, directed by Neil Burger) share one huge, overwhelming problem: movies about magicians cannot avoid cheating the audience. It's a function of film. Especially nowadays, you can do ANYTHING on film, so any illusion performed for the camera, however "real" it might be will always be suspect. To its credit, The Prestige understands this better than The Illusionist, and it side steps it with the Penn and Teller technique of making the entire process transparent. It gives away the tricks. Nolan's movie is downright brutal about it, too (witness the fate of various birds in cages). But then...the movie veers dangrously into the realm of fantasy towards the end, as Hugh Jackman's magician, attempting to duplicate a trick by his enemy, Christian Bale, receives a machine from Nicola Tesla. And there, the movie drives off the cliff. Oh, it plays fair with the audience. I knew almost all of the film's secrets before it revealed them. For the most part, waiting for them to unfold was mostly make-work. Meh. I was a bit more engaged by The Illusionist, due in large part to Paul Giamatti's engaging role as the police chief under the Crown Prince of Austria. Giamatti is superb, and provides the audience with an "in" for the story. He's fascinated by magic. He wants to know how it's done. Unfortunately for him (and the film), the movie chooses to keep its secrets, and despite its intention to transform into a kind of fairy tale at the end, one can't help but feel cheated.

255. and 256. I don't express a preference between either version of Gaslight (1940, directed by Thorold Dickinson, and 1944, directed by George Cukor). Where the first film exceeds the second through superior direction, the second has better performers. Anton Walbrook is cold fish compared to Charles Boyer--though both are wonderfully loathesome as fortune hunters trying to drive their respective wives insane. Ingrid Bergman trumps Diana Wynyard in almost every possible way. But Cuckor is an actor's director who relied on his production crew to design the "look" of the movie, whereas Dickinson's approach is much more cinematic. Both of them are pretty good movies. So call it a draw.

257. I transferred John Carpenter's remake of The Thing (1982) to DVD from my old laserdisc this weekend. I don't remember the last time I watched it. It's been years. Rob Bottin's special effects are every bit as revolting as they were the last time (I LOVE the spider head scene), but I don't remember grooving to Dean Cundey's panavision camerawork the way I did this time. This is Carpenter's best-looking movie. I'm still trying to figure out why Carpenter hired Ennio Morricone if he wanted the score to sound like one of his own compositions, but that's one of the movie's more endearing mysteries.


alan said...

I like to think that Melies figured this out 100 years ago and that's when he became enamored of "stop motion"...I love "The Imp" or "The Black Imp" as it's variously titled.

I love both movies you mention despite their problems; I love the storyline in "The Illusionist"- setting things against the Hapsburg history really intrigued me (sorry if I'm easy...).

Yes, Paul Giamatti can steal most any movie...even "Shoot 'Em Up" when I so didn't want to see him play a "baddy"!

"The Prestige" I loved for the casting of David Bowie as Tesla and it's possibly gaining Nicola another examination by those that saw the movie. (I just love the way our government waited until he died to honor his patent so they could get out of paying both he and Marconi!)

Ingrid stole my heart when I was pre-teen...

I'm sneaking into horror from the other end of the spectrum, never being one for the "modern" end of things, but having been led there by "Dr. Caligari" and "The Golem" and having my appetite whetted by Browning ("Freaks"?), I'm slowly heading that way...

You pack a lot of film in a weekend for someone that made one as well!

Off to my "dungeon" with Dave Pell on the "Music Choice" box...


Renee said...

Completely agree about The Prestige and The Illusionist. All movies are illusions, so a movie about illusionists had better be engaging...and these really weren't. The Illusionist is easier to watch by virtue of the more likable characters and Giamatti, but it's an old story not told in a new way.

The Thing is awesome. It's the first movie Beth and I ever saw together, and we watch at least once a year or so. The fact it doesn't have a single female character is genius, and the sort of cool I wish more filmmakers would latch onto these days.