Knight at the Movies ARCHIVES
Three good movies and the one that (thank God) got taken away
The Illusionist, a period romantic drama set in Vienna in 1900 is based on a short story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Pulitzer
Prize winning author Steven Millhauser.  In transferring the story to the screen, writer-director Neil Burger has opened it up, added a
love triangle (Edward Norton-Jessica Biel-Rufus Sewell) and expanded the role of a corrupt but likeable police chief played by one of
Burger’s fellow Yale classmates, Paul Giamatti.  The result is very old fashioned and has the feel of one of those big budget, MGM,
top of the line kind of entertainments – something like
Random Harvest, say.  It’s grand and tragic and beautiful and fun all at once.  
In pulling off this cinematic trick – and much more besides –
The Illusionist signals the arrival of a major talent in Burger – with only
his second feature.

The story, told in flashbacks, focuses on Eisenheim the magician (Norton) who is the toast of Vienna for his startling, dazzling
displays of prestidigitation.  Like Streisand’s Daisy Gamble in
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Eisenheim can make plants grow (a
delighted audience roars its approval when an orange tree sprouts from his top hat) and dazzle his packed houses with his mix of
philosophy and magic.  He might even have the ability to bring back subjects from the dead.  

Word of mouth spreads quickly about this amazing magician and soon he gets a visit at the theatre from Chief Inspector Uhl
(Giamatti), who has been sent to check out Eisenheim at the behest of the boorish Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell).  An
amateur magician himself, Uhl begs for the secret to the orange tree trick while at the same time doing a bit of advance recon
before Leopold and his guests arrive for a royal command performance.  During this show Eisenheim calls for a volunteer who isn’t
afraid of death and Uhl sends his adventurous fiancée, the beautiful Princess Sophie (Biel), onstage.  Eisenheim recognizes Sophie
though she doesn’t know him at first as the two enjoyed a brief but intense friendship as adolescents before the high born Sophie
was whisked out of the reach of the working class Eisenheim.  Now that the two have reunited (and the trick a major success), their
love reignites but it will take every bit of Eisenheim’s ingenuity to find a way for the two to outwit the brutish Leopold and the crafty
Uhl and his men if there is a hope for them to end up together.

In figuring out how love will find its way, Burger takes his characters through a series of twists and turns (culminating in a large one)
that are a lot of fun (the film has the same kind of cleverness as one of those Agatha Christie mysteries) – with a major difference.  
Dialogue and explanations are kept to a minimum and silence plays an enormous part in the movie.  There are many sequences in
which Norton is alone onstage in front of a hushed theatre performing his sleight of hand where one can almost hear the intake of
breath when the magic feat is revealed.

The movie is also magnificent to behold – shot in blacks and browns (the prominent colors of the era) on gorgeous period perfect
locations in Prague (filling in for Vienna) – and captures the ghostly look of early photographs (the film’s sumptuous cinematography
is by Dick Pope and the detailed, fussy costumes are by Nglia Dickson).  The mood of the film is also helped by an enigmatic but
notably restrained score by Philip Glass.

Finally, there are the performances.  Norton with his usual mysterious comportment is the perfect choice for the emotionally wounded
but crafty and determined Eisenheim while Giamatti adds a delicious charm to his world weary, resigned to corruption police inspector
– a sort of turn of the century Colombo.  Sewell has a great time relishing the petulant villain, who strides around his hunting lodge
lined with hundreds of antlers from previous kills issuing orders with a wave of his hand.  He’s a perfect cousin to Billy Zane’s high
born snobbish cad in
Titanic.  And the character’s mustache and beard completely transform the flat planes of Sewell’s face, giving
him the exact look of the period.  So much that it took me several scenes to recognize the actor.  And Biel has much of the grand
lady/ice queen air of Greer Garson or Grace Kelly – just right for the smoldering embers role of the Princess.

The Illusionist has another reward that one can only get experiencing it with a roomful of strangers – the delight one feels in sharing
in its secrets – as one did with
The Sixth Sense and The Others.  It’s a great part of the fun but unlike those and other films along this
order, it’s not the end all and be all as it has been for the M. Night Shyamalan pictures – and that may be this movie’s biggest trick
of all.


Ready or not, the 9/11 movies are coming.  Last spring saw
United 93 and now we have two within a week – the based on the facts
World Trade Center from Oliver Stone and the fictional The Great New Wonderful from Danny Leiner, who before this, believe it or not,
Dude, Where’s My Car? and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.  Great New, as would be expected, is a complete 360 from those
less than glorious pictures.  There are reasons to see both movies though, surprisingly, the later is the one that has resonated far
beyond the screening for me.

World Trade Center is based on the inspiring true story of two Port Authority policemen (Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena) who
became trapped under the rubble of one of the collapsed towers.  Considering the subject matter and this being an Oliver Stone
picture, the advance press was leery of what the result would be but Stone doesn’t indulge in any of his signature cinematic
pyrotechnics (not that I have minded them – I’m a big fan).  Rather, in this case, he has the sense to tell what is, in essence a
simple straight ahead rescue story in which flashbacks of the trapped victims and their families play a large part.  Fans of
Ladder 49
will definitely appreciate this movie.  

But before the rescue comes the journey down to the Twin Towers and the ride with Cage and his fellow officers to the chaotic area
and the first sight of the damaged, burning buildings, the air filled with paper and bodies is devastating.  These scenes feature
another signature of Stone’s movies – his ability to recreate perfectly (thanks to seamless computer effects here) tragic historical
events.  It is numbingly sad to witness these scenes and the entrapment and rescue events that follow and take up most of the
picture, while genuinely compelling, went by in a slow haze for me.

The Great New Wonderful, which plays an exclusive engagement in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Center beginning this Friday,
also cuts deep and resonates longer.  Perhaps because the subject matter is unacknowledged grief or because a fictional account of
characters (told in five separate stories) in the aftermath of 9/11 allows the writer and filmmaker the release and responsibility of
fealty to true lives.  

The picture, unbelievably, starts as a wry comedy.  We see one of those grief counselors (Tony Shalhoub in typical cagey mode)
second guessing his patient, a young couple coming to terms with the mental problems of their young son, Maggie Gyllenhaal (who
also appears in
World Trade Center) as an upscale pastry caterer questioning her values of excess and rivalry with competitor Edie
Falco in the aftermath of the tragedy, Olympia Dukakis who nightly pastes stories about the tragedy in a scrapbook and yearns for
change, and two East Indian security guards who are best friends and neighbors.  As the characters go about their lives slowly we see
the post traumatic stress that is affecting all of them and which, by the end of the movie, seems to blanket all of Manhattan.  

This subtle, profoundly moving picture is not a downer and has wonderful performances and a well crafted script by first timer Sam
Catlin and certainly puts director Leiner in a new light.  Highly recommended.


I am a walking advertisement for the Jim Stafford novelty hit of the 70s.  I don’t like spiders and snakes.  So when I inadvertently
saw the trailer for
Snakes on a Plane and kept my eyes closed through much of it, I knew I would have to forgo my usual critical
duties for this Samuel L. Jackson “action thriller.”  And hearing Jackson angrily exclaim “Get these mother-f-kin’ snakes off the
mother-f-kin’ plane” wasn’t exactly an inducement for me to see the picture at any rate.  Then the picture’s distributor, New Line,
announced that there wouldn’t be screenings for the critics in order that the fans of the movie, who had been internet buzzing about
the movie for over a year, could arrive at this epic and “discover it for themselves” unsoiled by critical analysis.  

Every critic – and by now much of the public – must be aware that this is the classic sign of the arrival of a turkey (and not of the
Thanksgiving variety).  So I am pleased to announce that a) my phobias have been left intact, unsullied by New Line’s picture and b)
that it was my ironic pleasure to receive a computer generated call from Samuel L. Jackson the other day.  “Hello Richard…” Jackson
began before starting to talk about snakes.  “I’m not allowed to see your mother-f-kin’ movie so get off my mother-f-kin’ phone” I
barked before slamming down the receiver.  I “discovered for myself” that that was the right thing to do and quickly rated my actions
with ****.
Great, Good, Good, God No:
The Illusionist-The Great New Wonderful-World Trade Center-Snakes on a Plane
Expanded Edition of 8-9-06 Knight at the Movies Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.