Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Illusionist Blu-ray Review

I’ve always loved movies about magic so I was looking forward to reviewing The Illusionist which I missed in the theaters.  I remember this movie came out around the same time as The Prestige so there were dueling magician movies just like volcano, Wyatt Earp and asteroid movies, which usually ends with the first movie doing well and the second one suffering. That didn’t happen this time however, as The Illusionist made over $20 million less worldwide than The Prestige did even though it came out two months before it with the advantage of being the first out of the gate. That’s not to say it didn’t perform well at the box office or that it’s a poor movie as neither one of those statements are true. It made a healthy $87 million worldwide and it’s an excellent movie. Let me tell you why... 

THE FILM (4 out of 5 stars)
The movie begins with Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) informing Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell)information about an illusionist named Eisenheim (Ed Norton) who despite being warned by the Chief Inspector, keeps making the dead appear on stage. Then we flash back to Eisenheim’s childhood where his younger self (Aaron Johnson) met his soon to be soul mate Sophie, the Duchess von Teschen (Eleanor Tomlinson) by impressing her with his magic tricks.  Their burgeoning love is complicated by the fact that they come from different financial classes and it doesn’t take long for them to be split up to maintain that class structure.  Frustrated by society’s prejudice against his social standing, Eisenheim decides to travel the world to learn more magic so when he returns to Austria he will have a higher place in the same society that had scorned him years earlier.
So 15 years pass by before Eisenheim returns and starts performing to larger and larger crowds until one night, the Crown Prince Leopold and his soon to be fiancĂ©e (an older Sophie played by Jessica Biel) are in attendance.  Eisenheim asks for a volunteer to assist him that isn’t afraid of death and Leopold callously forces Sophie to be the volunteer.  Of course the two soul mates recognize each other and begin to surreptitiously meet which raises the suspicions of the Chief Inspector who Leopold has tasked with keeping an eye on Sophie in exchange for promises of career advancement down the road.  The problem for the Chief Inspector is that not only does he love magic and Eisenheim’s show, but he is also sympathetic to the man himself. Giamatti does an excellent job portraying a man who is forced to walk a tightrope due to his shifting loyalties. Throughout the movie, one is never sure what he will do as he is conflicted himself.

Ed Norton was trained in sleight of hand for this role by Ricky Jay and James Freedman and it shows as he performs several tricks himself and does a flawless job.  He turns in a warm performance which is a nice change of pace to see from his usual roles.  His character of Eisenheim cares about people and treats everyone fairly, saving his disdain and subtle mocking of the upper-class to be revealed during his show.  He pushes it too far though when he makes a fool out of the Crown Prince and his family through one of his illusions.  Leopold forces the show to close early in an attempt to rid himself of the upstart illusionist. Rufus Sewell has made a career playing these types of villains and he always does a great job. Part of me feels bad that these seem to be the only roles he gets but at the same time, there is a reason for that as he is so good at it.

Jessica Biel is lovely as ever as Sophie and does a nice job with a role that one wouldn’t think of her for.  According to the Director’s Commentary, Biel showed up for her audition in period clothes to help sell her performance.  It obviously worked, and she does a fine job in the movie.  She’s no damsel in distress as she proves throughout the movie.  This wasn’t the usual stereotypical role so I can see why she fought for it.  Director Neil Burger has created an unusual hybrid movie that is equal parts romantic, magic, and mystery that works really well.  It’s always hard to mix genres like these, but he pulls it off with aplomb with a lot of help with from an excellent cast.

VIDEO (3 out of 5 stars)

Stylistic decisions by the Director inherently affect the presentation of this 1.78:1 AVC/MPEG-4 AVC/MPEG-4 encoding.  In an attempt to conjure (no pun intended) a suitably appropriate period look, the picture has been desaturated and washed out with deliberate flickers added to make it feel more like an old time silent movie.  In one love scene for example, it was lit only by kerosene lamps for an authentic feel although the air had to be cleared after each take as no one could see anything!  Despite the efforts to make this look period, the video is still pleasing to the eye and nice details can be seen.  This is just one of those stylistic choices that don’t lend themselves to High Definition but I still think it looks fine. You can see some film grain and it’s a nice clean and hasn’t had too much DNR or digital compression used and overall I think it’s a perfectly acceptable quality if you take into account the choices made by the Director and the DP.

AUDIO (4 out of 5 stars)

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio is presented well with clean clear dialogue and ambient surround use when appropriate.  Special mention must be made of Phillip Glass’s score for the movie which is lush and mysterious and quite an addition to the movie.  It is served well by the audio on this Blu-ray and I liked that the movie didn’t resort to audio gimmicks for this type of movie and instead just presented a nice clear delivery that suited this kind of film.  This isn’t a bombastic of assault on your ears that alternates between being deafening and then making you crank up the volume to try to hear what the actors are saying, but it is effective and totally appropriate for the movie.

SPECIAL FEATURES (1 out of 5 stars)

Now we come to the disappointing part of this review.  While Disc 1 has the High Definition version of the movie, Disc 2 has the Standard version and some meager extras.  The really sad part is the fact that the extremely short featurettes duplicate themselves.  The same actor excerpts are used for both of them so if you see one you’ve pretty much seen both of them.  The other bewildering decision is the fact that if you want to listen to the Director Commentary, you can only listen to it on the DVD disc as it is not on the High Definition disc at all.  For what it’s worth here are the extras:
Feature Audio Commentary by Writer/Director Neil Burger (DVD only)
The Making of the Illusionist Featurette
Jessica Biel on the Illusionist Featurette

FINAL THOUGHTS (3 out of 5 stars)

While this is a great movie and I believe this release has the best picture quality it will get as well as excellent audio, I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this as the extras leave a lot to be desired.  I hope that eventually a Director’s Cut Edition may be released with a lot more comprehensive extras and the commentary track on the HD disc.  Because of the lacking nature of the special features I have downgraded my total to three out of five stars.  It would have been great to see a featurette that showed Norton learning sleight of hand to prepare for the role. There has to be more available behind the scenes video that they should have added than was included here.  If you don’t care about the special features then I can heartily recommend this Blu-ray to you as the movie and cast are excellent and it was directed and scored with a lot of finesse and confidence.

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