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Now you see it: (l-r) Giamatti and Norton in The Illusionist.

Stiff Sleight of Hand

By Laura Leon

The Illusionist

Directed by Neil Burger

Set in turn-of-the-last-century Vienna, The Illusionist is about as fresh and innovative as, well, century-old Viennese pastry. Somehow, for all its old fashioned melodrama, complete with romantic flashbacks, it is a fairly solid, mostly satisfying bit of filmmaking, and yet a textbook case of a movie being less than the sum of its parts.

Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, The Illusionist refers to the master conjurer Eisenheim (Edward Norton), whose ability to make orange trees grow out of on-stage buckets or phantasmic spirits arise seemingly from the dead delights packed houses, including Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), lead snoop of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). For his part, the heir to the throne prefers science over fantasy, fact over theory; his is a merely passing interest until his fiancée, Duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel), takes an interest in Eisenheim. Suddenly, the debate over reality versus imagination takes on romantic, not to mention political, overtones, as the magician pointedly lays claim to Sophie’s heart. Leopold entrusts Uhl to take care of this problem, and is none too pleased when his policeman also seems mesmerized by Eisenheim’s gift.

To say more would be to give too much away. That said, one can see the finish line almost immediately. The frustration with The Illusionist lies with its utter lack of tension, of a sense of urgency, which, if present, might have been enough to let us forget, or at least forgive, the complete obviousness of the plot. Eisenheim and Sophie are in the midst of a dangerous political plot; their knowledge of it should make their situation all the more perilous. The idea that the people, moved by Eisenheim’s abilities and cunning, begin to question their government should add to the considerable stakes, and yet director Neil Burger has no clue how to impart that necessary edge. When Eisenheim takes the stage, surrounded by imperial police just waiting for the word to arrest him, the audience should be on the edge of their seats, but the feeling is one of great comfort, even laziness, on the part of the viewer.

That inability to rouse out of a comfortable stupor is due, in large part, to the sumptuousness of the movie. The filmmakers deserve kudos for fashioning a stunning feast for the eyes, set against a palette of muted fawns, yellowed ivories, tobacco browns and sooty blacks, with occasional flashes of clarets and Prussian blues. It may sound drab, but it’s rich and imparts the feeling of having been transported into a delightful fairy tale from an era gone by. This is particularly true of the flashbacks, which detail Eisenheim’s and Sophie’s youthful romance. The acting is superb, despite the on-paper sense of being a motley collection of thespians. Norton is subdued, almost Mephistophelean. Sewell’s Leopold is delightfully contentious, yet obviously intelligent. Biel, of TV’s 7th Heaven, channels the young Ingrid Bergman in her stately beauty and crystal intellect. But it’s Giamatti who holds it all together, as a butcher’s son turned bureaucrat aspiring to greatness in Leopold’s empire, an amateur magician who, nevertheless, can’t help but look at the facts of the case. He straddles the gap between the real and the imagined, and in so doing, provides the most alive, refreshing aspect of the movie. Too bad Burger couldn’t figure out how to use this to the advantage of a better-realized picture.

Missed Kicks

The Protector

Directed by Prachya Pinkaew

The Protector, starring Thai martial-arts sensation Tony Jaa, starts out promisingly, delivering on its marketing ploy of combining Americanized, Jackie Chan-style humor with director Prachya Pinkaew’s brand of Thai exoticism. But aside from the escapades of an adorable baby elephant, the film loses its light touch within minutes, and gimmicky filmic effects obliterate any indigenous color. The Protector’s descent into pedestrian, chip-socky fare is especially disappointing since it’s been touted as a sequel to Ong-bak, Jaa’s and Pinkaew’s 2003 breakthrough. The story of a naive villager who kickboxes his way through big-city corruption to recover a sacred Buddha, Ong-bak balanced thrilling choreography with a cohesive and moving plot.

The Protector appears to have had similar ambitions. Jaa’s naïf, Kham, pursues a sacred object—a regal elephant believed to embody the power of divine kingship—to a cityscape of iniquity, this one in Little Thailand in Sydney, Australia. Apparently, the location was chosen merely to contrast Thai and Aussie accents, since the filming is mostly confined to back-lot interiors. Kham is aided by a Thai policeman who doesn’t do anything other than stand around not getting shot, and he is thwarted by a roster of cheapie kung-fu caricatures, including a nefarious femme and a sadistic detective who walks on to kill his cohorts for no discernable reason. Choppy editing (entire scenes seem to have been cut for cost- effectiveness) and a hack-job screenplay fatally detract from the bare bones (pachyderm bones, as it turns out) of Pinkaew’s story.

Even so, it’s possible that martial-arts buffs will find several scenes to be worth the price of admission: Kham levels a room full of bureaucrats as though playing a game of bone-breaking Twister, showcasing Jaa’s astounding Judo skills; and the climactic battle between Kham and a Western colossus crisply delineates the star’s use of weight and leverage to topple a massively larger opponent. And the match occurs in a burning temple that’s filmed in mystically desaturated colors, with a horde of enemy apparitions popping up like Ghosts-in-the-Box.

From the temple extravaganza on, however, the production must have run out of inspiration as well as time and money; the mythological backstory is concluded with all the finesse of a dung sweeper, and Kham fades out like a bored specter. Jaa and his newfound international audience deserved better.

—Ann Morrow

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