27th 11 - 2016 | 4 comments »

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Director: David Yates

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By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers.

Regardless of the self-evident motives Warner Bros have, the return of J.K. Rowling’s fantastical world to the big screen doesn’t just feel like a promise of welcome revisit, but close to an act of civic duty: man, do we ever need some real invention and fun at the moment, given the tawdriness of current political life and the dismal survey that has been this year’s blockbuster “entertainment.” Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them proposes to fill the void. The title, as fans of Rowling’s original novels surely know, comes from the standard-issue textbook given to Hogwarts students in magizoology, a guide to the various species of magic animal written by one Newt Scamander. Some years ago, before finishing the original novel cycle, Rowling, produced a mock version purporting to be Harry Potter’s personal edition of the standard handbook as a charity project. Although it includes no plot or characters, that book provides the seed for a revisit and expansion of Rowling’s imaginary universe, five years after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 set the seal on the original series of adaptations. The setting signals a reorientation of expectations and makes room to introduce some new elements to the rich, but already well-exploited zones of Rowling’s fantasy, like Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, and the general Dickensian pokiness of her magic Britain. So, the scene has shifted to New York in the 1920s, a realm of melting-pot energy and soaring art-deco ambition.

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Oscar-winning It-boy Eddie Redmayne is cast as Scamander himself, who steps off a passenger liner in the New World carrying a battered piece of luggage with dodgy locks. Thanks to a magic device that makes the suitcase interior seem utterly humdrum, Newt passes through customs and arrives in a city straining from the wealth of human life it contains and now wracked by manifestations of some unseen, but very potently destructive entity. Very quickly, Newt’s propensity for collecting strange creatures and his hazy, eccentric, dismissive attitude for official mores starts to get him in trouble. His suitcase, much like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, is almost a world unto itself on the inside, a voluminous mobile zoo where he keeps the many magical animals he studies and nurtures. One of the creatures kept there, a Niffler, resembles an anthropomorphic, kleptomaniacal platypus. This critter slips out whilst Newt is distracted and causes havoc in a bank, forcing Newt to hunt for him high and low. On the search, Newt encounters a portly factory worker and veteran, Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who’s in the bank to petition for a loan to open a bakery. Kowalski is swept up in Newt’s attempt to corner the Niffler in the vault and freaks out as he’s subjected to the stomach-churning, physics-twisting arts of apparating.

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Meanwhile, Newt’s haphazard tracking techniques attract the attention of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who works for the local equivalent of the Ministry of Magic, the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA). She arrests him and drags him in to be judged by the MACUSA President, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo). But Tina has recently been demoted from her former rank of Auror, a hunter of malign wizards, to mere functionary. Picquery promptly ejects her and Newt, as more important matters are troubling the city. Europe has been rocked by the disappearance of Grindelwald, the dark wizard whose campaign to assert the superiority of magic kind and destabilise the old solution of remaining hidden within the larger human world is sending shockwaves through the whole wizarding community. A MACUSA operative, Graves (Colin Farrell), is taking an increasingly strict, even ruthless line against any dangers. On the opposite side, a street preacher and campaigner, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), leads an organisation called the New Salemites, dedicated to making people at large aware of the existence of magic folk and their danger as unholy beings. Newt soon finds that his suitcase has been accidentally swapped for Kowalski’s, as he finds the one he carries is loaded up with the would-be baker’s pastry samples.

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Fantastic Beasts sees Rowling debuting as a screenwriter, and David Yates, who handled the last four Harry Potter films, returning to maintain the brand standard. This is his second big-budget film for the year, after The Legend of Tarzan, another attempt to revive a franchise hallowed in pop culture, albeit a much older one. Rowling here is adapting her familiar talents as a fount of such lore and the elegant sprawl of her plotting from the leisurely pace of the printed page to the chop-chop wont of big cinema, but not without hesitations. Rowling’s talents at setting up complex story elements and making them rebound off each other like a pinball game are still in evidence in the early sequences, as Newt is first distracted from his ultimate goal in New York by one of Barebone’s speeches, which Tina is also watching, as keeping an eye on the witch hunter was her job and the cause of her losing it. Newt and Kowalski both serve to a degree as audience surrogates confronted with a fresh dimension of experience, as Kowalski is drawn into working with Newt to recapture the animals he accidentally sets loose. Newt and Kowalski soon bond, as both are outsiders defined by difficult pasts and an alienated present. Both men served in the Great War, if in radically different ways—Kowalski as doughboy and Newt fighting with dragons on the Russian front. Kowalski feels cut off from the general flow of life because he wasn’t able to come home until 1924, and he wants to pursue his personal, attentive craft-art for people in the face of industrialism’s new impersonal plenty. Newt is uneasy around people and distracted, possibly even damaged, borderline dismissive of not just wizarding bureaucracy but also of humans in general, whom he describes as the most vicious animals on the planet.

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The men also find themselves taken under the wing of Tina, who starts to feel a responsibility to keep Newt out of trouble, and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). The sisters give the men a place to stay, in their pokey shared apartment. Queenie, who has the ability to read minds, is drawn to Kowalski, who, in spite of his unprepossessing exterior, quickly proves to be one of the most forthright men she’s ever met. Although sworn to remain in the sisters’ apartment, Newt soon leads Kowalski out into the New York night to track down the animals that escaped the suitcase, including Niffler for the second time, a gigantic rhinoceroslike creature called an Erumpent that’s searching for a mate, and a snakelike creature that grows and shrinks according to the available space in which it finds itself. The Niffler likes to steal any kind of shiny object, filling up a pouch with endless amounts of bright baubles, and Newt finds it trying to hide in plain sight in a jeweller’s window, striking a pose like a stuffed mascot. Chasing down the Erumpent proves a more arduous task. Newt tries to entice it away from impending union with a bewildered hippo in the Central Park Zoo by daubing himself with scent and performing a mating dance, only for Kowalski to spill some of the scent on himself. The beast chases after him instead, resulting in a chaotic dance upon the frozen lake as Newt tries to restore it into his own zoo inside the suitcase. That place, Kowalski learns from the inside, contains many more of Newt’s rare friends, including a colossal flying birdlike creature that is the real reason he’s come to America—he wants to release it in the wilds of Arizona. He also has a strange, amorphous ball of dark, parasitical energy called an Obscurus, something he warns Kowalski to stay away from.

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When sticking to this stuff, Fantastic Beasts is great fun. Yates bridges the ingenuity of Rowling’s conceptual imagination and stages the realisation of it as the hapless humans, magic and nonmagic alike, chase after these creatures. Here, Fantastic Beasts locates the spirit of the likes of Looney Tunes and classic slapstick comedy, a percussive physicality and wiseacre absurdity that gives an unmistakably New World inflection to the traditionally English basis of Rowling’s work, in the ethos of the Great British Eccentric and the traditions of pantomime, Victoriana fantasy fiction, and the comedy of manners in the Ealing style. Perhaps the clearest conflation of the two is apparent during the sequence when Newt tries to seduce the Erumpent, performing his mating dance in a series of ridiculous ritual gestures, moving with the total self-seriousness of a scientific nerd who has dedicated his life to learning the communication of species everyone else recoils from, Doctor Doolittle and Jane Goodall and Harpo Marx colluding in one body. Setting this sequence in Central Park, that islet of nature with its not-so-faint whisper of the wild amidst modernity’s first supercity, gives the film a note of unexpected kinship with a host of works—the big-city hauntings of Cat People (1941) and Portrait of Jennie (1945), the juvenile adventures of Madeline and the heroines of The World of Henry Orient (1964) and even Snoopy’s dance upon the Central Park ice in A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969). Newt’s problems with human sociability and preference for animals weirdly, but aptly echoes Paul Schrader’s bizarre remake of Cat People (1982), and that’s the only concept that’s strayed in from the darker wing of fantastic fiction, as the thrust of the real plot, which takes time to come into focus, has a certain kinship with both Carrie (1976) and The Brood (1978).

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Rowling’s gift for conjuring characters who appeal in spite of, and because of, their difficulty in presenting a pleasing face to the world is thankfully still strong here, as well as her ability to generate an effervescent emotional tone. There’s a quality of innocence to our heroes, in spite of their grown-up emotions and psyches, a connection with the classic protagonists of this universe: Kowalski is reminiscent of Ron Weasley in his awkward desire to prove himself and natural awe in the presence of femininity, whilst Newt suggests Harry if he’d emerged from his adventures with a bout of PTSD. Redmayne, fresh off winning laurels for his portrait of Stephen Hawking in the execrable The Theory of Everything (2014), thankfully judges his performance as Newt well, throwing in a dash of Hugh Grant’s signature hem-haw charm along with signs of a deeper estrangement, wincing and averting his gaze even as he converses with people with whom he seems to feel accord, but charged with purpose and energy when engaged with his creatures. Waterston, who gained deserved appreciation for her breakthrough performance in Inherent Vice (2014), is even better as Tina, who, with floppy flapper hat perched above button nose and lanky limbs, is a talent whose enthusiasm and conscientiousness sometimes outpace her good sense, not as shaky in society as Newt, but not quite a good fit either. But it’s Sudol who steals the film with her witty melange of period types, a chatty flirt and good-natured open book who, ironically, has everyone else’s thoughts open to her, awaiting the right person nice enough for her to be nice to: the way Sudol says the line, “But we made them cocoa!” is almost enough to paper over many a fault.

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Fantastic Beasts runs into trouble, however, when it tries to broaden its scope beyond the knockabout adventures of Newt and his hapless team. The naming of certain phenomenon suggests an awareness of the American style of such things—muggles are called no-majs in a clipped, contemptuous abbreviation rather than allusive wordplay, and MACUSA, befitting a land in love with acronyms and hinting at a parable about McCarthyism in the offing. The background of Grindelwald’s campaign to stir the magic folk to vengeful pride and force a schism between the magical and ordinary populaces meanwhile evokes the spectre of Nazism, whilst the pall of harsh authoritarianism descend as Graves, MACUSA’s chief Auror hunts the entity attacking the city and coldly sentences Newt and Tina to death when it’s believed the marauding force might be one of Newt’s escaped creatures and played a part in causing a no-maj death. That fatality comes during a political banquet, as newspaper tycoon Henry Shaw (Jon Voight!) promotes his elder son Henry Jnr.’s presidential aspirations, only for the invisible entity to invade the banquet and kill the younger Shaw. Meanwhile Shaw’s second son Langdon (Ronan Raftery) tries to interest his father, without success, in the machinations of Barebone and the New Salemists. This stuff is all important in a way, but the problem is the narrative can’t work out how to arrange it all, partly because the essence of this entry is essentially a goofball frolic. The original series was defined by the tugging gravity of its date-with-destiny storyline, something this film’s busy outlay of elements doesn’t ever feel like recreating.

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One seemingly minor but cumulatively revealing problem Fantastic Beasts offers is that the Harry Potter tales understood the tidal psyche of modern Britain, constantly beset by a longing for the past and a guttering hunger to prove itself in the present, and also reaching beyond mere parochial charm to stir the same emotions on a universal scale. Whereas nothing here suggests such a keen understanding of the Americas, particularly in the go-go ’20s, even as surveys of the MACUSA headquarters offer a refreshingly multicultural sprawl. A metaphor for the colour bar is suggested in a ban between wizard and no-maj marriage, one that Queenie’s percolating romance with Kowalski seems poised to violate. Although the film suggests a likeable breadth to its cultural references rooted in the era, most disappointingly for me is that it does little to exploit the period setting with any specific sense of flavour. One of the few moments when it does comes in a brief visit to a hidden goblin tavern, a sequence that cannily conflates wizarding secrecy with speakeasy mores, where green-skinned chanteuses warble the blues and gigglewater stirs bewildering sounds from Kowalski when he downs a glass. Otherwise, the landscape of the magical new world is painted as rather busy, but never entirely coherent, and the superstructure intended to support a long story arc through subsequent instalments comes across as dashed off and flimsy. The America of the 1920s was the polar opposite in motivating spirit to the one that lingered inside the Harry Potter series—it was all about ravening, relentless progress. This might have been manifested by bringing a cleverer, Steampunkish approach to the New World’s magic. But apart from an upgrade in vacuum tube technology, there’s nothing like that.

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Rowling’s method of mediating broad statements about individuals within and at odds with society is certainly in play here, but it lacks the spice of familiarity that informed the ruthless caricaturing of New Town fascists like the Dursleys, sociopaths in knitwear like Dolores Umbridge, or the related types noted in Rowling’s expansion of her palate with the partly satirical, partly tragic social panorama The Casual Vacancy. Fantastic Beasts tries to make up for this by quoting a certain brand of bygone melodrama, one that often also strayed over the boundaries into the kind of silent comedy the film tries to evoke—the dens of stern despotism and civic-moralist dominion that provided many an iniquitous prison in D.W. Griffith or G.W. Pabst films, as well as dogged Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Morton’s chilly, ardent, vicious, matriarch is an interesting creation, and introduces a subplot that further expands Rowling’s fascination with the right and wrong way to be an adult and foster children (as well as extending Morton’s scary inhabitation of the same type, after John McNaughton’s The Harvest, 2015). She raises orphans and schools them in her brand of paranoid suspicion and hatred for any sign of peculiarity, forcibly punishing and repressing any sign of such peculiarity in them, including her glum-looking ward Credence (Ezra Miller, who has been carefully made up to look eerily like Buster Keaton). Credence is contacted by Graves, who seems to believe another of Barebone’s charges, Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove), might be a fearsomely powerful wizard, and Graves seems intent on fostering and winning over such power to his own enigmatic cause. Tina’s own downfall as an Auror came about when she tried to confront Barebone about her abuse of Credence in her determination to keep his magic at bay.

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Perhaps the best idea in Fantastic Beasts is also the most disappointingly handled—the concept of the Obscurus. This is an inversion of the Patronus, a manifestation not of shielding inner strength, but of the kind of inchoate rage that builds up inside young people when their real nature is denied. The Obscurus is a kind of projection that was once common in the wizarding world back when their kind was being hunted constantly by ordinary people. It’s now considered an extinct phenomenon by the wizarding mainstream, but Newt has discovered its persistence and recognises that an Obscurus is being manifested in the city. Sadly, the film’s second half, as Fantastic Beasts tries to bring its plotlines to an intersection and then a climax, begins to resolve in a way that feels like far, far too many other blockbusters of the moment, with city-levelling special effects and clumsy orchestrations of human elements. Yates is a fine director, but his work here lacks much distinction: the staging is often merely efficient rather than inspired, the bouts of action, comical and serious, never quite becoming as clever and intricate as they ought to be, although he does manage to invest some moments, particularly the capture of the Erumpent, with a sense of balletic motion. One distinctive touch Yates brought to the Harry Potter series was manifest in his magical action sequences—magic happened so quickly in his entries that it suggested levels of perception and wielded talent right at the edge of liminal awareness and thus, gave a clue as the difference between the great magicians and the merely good. Here, though, the same ploy just feels weirdly clumsy, and the visualisations of the Obscurus too clichéd as far as contemporary digital effects go, offering just another cloud of black tendrillar smoke, like something Marvel’s house of CGI hacks might have turned out.

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All this actually made me appreciate a little better the job Chris Columbus did on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) in introducing a legendarium and the dramatic essentials that would power the next seven entries, for all the juvenile flatness in his approach. Ironically, although The Legend of Tarzan’s script was almost painfully uninventive, Yates’ eye was more confident on that film, as he offered an eerie, almost abstracted vision of a mythical Africa where heroes and monsters roam. And as far as adventures in magical realms goes, and as verboten as this might be in current critical appreciation, I think I may have preferred Tim Burton’s lumpy, but often weirdly personal romp in similar territory this year, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a work that embraced weirdness as a perfectly respectable trait much more vitally than Fantastic Beasts manages. By the finale of this, I was cringing a little at the sloppiness of the exposition, particularly as Graves is unmasked by Newt as Grindelwald in disguise; played by Johnny Depp in one of his customary oddball guises, this one suggesting an escapee from a prison for sadistic Oompah band members. That said, Fantastic Beasts admirably refuses to give too much satisfaction, as Newt and Tina’s efforts to prevent a tragedy fail, signalling that although Fantastic Beasts retreats into the past for setting, whatever new series will spring from this is going to continue playing to the more mature awareness of its longtime fans.

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Moreover, the movie recovers its savoir faire beautifully in its concluding scenes, particularly in its visions of Kowalski, faced with having his memory of his extraordinary adventures and new lady love erased by MACUSA order, accepting with grace and receiving a farewell kiss from Queenie in the midst of a falling rain that will rob him of such splendours, whilst all about him magicians repair the broken city. It seems fitting for a work in Rowling’s universe that the real visual set-piece celebrated here is not the destruction of the city, but its restoration—buildings and train lines and urban infrastructure reforming with both awesome power and delicate precision, restoring all the inhabitants to their lives and spaces. Here, the little touches of grace continue and remind one of the best spirit of this marque, like Tina’s little skip after Newt takes his leave but suggests he’ll return, and the final smile the supposedly oblivious Kowalski gives Queenie when she turns up in his new bakery. Frankly, Rowling and the cinematic creative team will need to spend a little more time at the drawing board before offering another entry in this renascent series. But the new elements that work here are sufficiently charming to make me willing to stick with it.


3rd 05 - 2010 | no comment »

Shorts/Take 2: The Letter/Bottles/Speed Grieving/Breathtaking

The 2010 Talking Pictures Festival (May 6-9)

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The Talking Pictures Festival has put together an intriguing program for its second group of short features. All of the films are, in one way or another, tales of the fantastic animated by themes centering on death, vengeance, or both.

The Letter (2009)
Director/Screenwriter: Edward Heffernan

Alfred (William J. Norris), a rich, elderly man who sticks with a strictly circumscribed routine that has him do little more than go out to church, read, paint, and rail at the weekly indignity of a visit by his doctor (Richard Henzel). The morning that starts the film has his maid Rosalinda (Carmen Cenko) bring him his breakfast tray, which also contains a hand-inscribed letter. Alfred looks at the plain envelope and stuffs it into his nightstand’s drawer. When he receives another letter, however, he opens them and reads them. They are addressed “Dear Beth” and seem to be from a sweetheart who has not seen his beloved in a while. The second letter announces his intention to come to see her, and his concern over whether she has been with someone else seems ominous. But does this man really exist, and who could Beth be? William Norris, a wonderful actor who has been on the Chicago acting scene for as long as I can remember—best known, perhaps, for playing Scrooge in The Goodman Theatre’s annual staging of A Christmas Carol—strikes all the right notes in showing Alfred’s loneliness, terror, and confusion. Edward Heffernan is an unusually talented 16-year-old high school student who has written a genuinely puzzling script and created an eerie atmosphere that suits it to a tee.

*****

Bottles (2008)
Director/Screenwriter: Jon Stout

Mira (Teressa Byrne), a divorced mother, narrates this film about a strange power she and her daughter Cheyenne (Jillian Henry) share and how she decides to handle Cheyenne’s experiments with animals and people. Emotion is something Mira has never let carry her away—because of the consequences—and that, it is suggested, is what drove her husband Marc (Greg Baglia) into the arms of another woman (Heather Goddard). It would be unfair to share their secret, but it’s a chilling reminder of how deep emotions can run in even the most even-tempered of people. Some great spooky music adds a bit of humor to a film that, ultimately, shows a ghastly outcome for one of its characters.

*****

Speed Grieving (2009)
Director: Jessica Daniels

Malia (Alysia Reiner) is a working woman who has just been told her father (James Naughton) has stage 4 cancer and will not recover. Shaken by the news, the usually take-charge Malia is at a loss about what to do. Unexpectedly, she sees her life flash before her eyes—specifically in a “clinical trial” designed to test whether a person can efficiently grieve in 15 minutes. Grief can cause hallucinations, and this witty film uses that fact not only to lampoon our speeded-up world but to teach the lesson that grieving takes time and perhaps can and should be savored.

You can view the trailer here.

*****

Breathtaking (Dasak, 2009)
Director: Vojin Vasovic

It’s no surprise that the most fanciful of the shorts in this program comes from the Balkans—specifically, Serbia—a region that, in my opinion, cannot be topped for black, absurdist humor. Breathtaking concerns Sveta (Dimitrije Stojanovic), a doughy, 30ish man who lives under the oppression of his mother. He follows a simple routine each day, outlined for us by a narrator (Miroslav Petrovic Mishko), of running a gauntlet of neighbor ladies who comment about his packed lunch of beans and the advisability of him getting married, a card game of “Cheat” at his friends’ tavern, and a walk to his job at a military museum. Quite by chance, he finds he has the power to make anyone stop breathing simply by flicking his fingers at them. Things get out of hand as Sveta feels overwhelmed by the bustle of his town and decides to “protect” himself. Stojanovic plays this lethal sad sack with aplomb, and director Vasovic has a great eye for framing shots flatly or at odd angles for humor. Special kudos go to costume designers Sefanija Ilic and Iva Sokovic for outfitting Sveta, his mom, and their home in a gaudy flower material that is reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara’s improvised drapery dress and perfectly captures the ridiculous symbiosis of mother and son. I laughed heartily through this absurd, dark comedy (which I believe the opening credits say was [credibly] inspired by Luigi Pirandello) that has to be seen to be believed.

Shorts: Take 2 will be shown May 8 at 12:30 p.m. at the Hinman Theater on the 9th floor of the Hotel Orrington, 1701 Orrington Ave., Evanston, Illinois.


28th 03 - 2010 | 10 comments »

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

Director/Screenwriter: Jaromil Jirês

By Roderick Heath

Czech director Jaromil Jirês’ intoxicating 1970 masterpiece Valerie and Her Week of Wonders manages to be many almost-contradictory things at once: highly surreal and yet oddly logical, wistfully brooding and yet often pungently humorous, unsettling and yet deeply gentle, intricately perverse and beatifically innocent, richly sentimental and darkly knowing. Indeed, a major undercurrent of the film is an exploration of the unity of opposites: Valerie herself (Jaroslava Schallerová) is catalyst, as object of desire, babe in the woods, dreamer, suppliant, anarchist, victim, conqueror, and saviour. Her odyssey slips the boundaries of the rational world and melts all given codes and figures into a mysterious confection. There’s a variety of coherent narrative here, but one that follows the associative twists of a dream state, and Jirês purposefully harks back to the great folk-myth tradition from which the fairy story and horror tale both sprang and parted company when broken up into modern genres.

Jirês’ film, based on Vítezslav Nezval’s novel, fuses ecstatic fantasia and gothic fugue into a singular vision that interrogates the symbolic underpinnings of so much imagery common to folk-myth. It’s also a lethally funny satire, on repression, anxiety, family roles, and sexual awakening, as well as a celebration of the fecundity of humanity—especially its feminine variety—and the imagination for moulding the world. The initially bewildering run of visions that sets Valerie in motion reveals the heroine at the cusp of womanhood, in images of sentimentalised ripeness similar in effect and intent to Picnic at Hanging Rock’s reclining, meditating maidens. For example, Valerie delighting in a pair of earrings that she cups with delight (at one point she holds them to her chest, and they do seem to symbolise her filling adolescent breasts), and the recurring image of the girl swimming in the lily-clogged water of the fountain at the centre of the main square of her town. That fountain is the very heart of the film’s geography and of the action, and Valerie’s swim evokes the purest image of a water-nymph ready to snatch herself another Hylas.

And yet Valerie is already in danger when she becomes the prize at stake for a mysterious vampiric monster (Jirí Prýmek) who employs his handsome young thrall Orlík (Petr Kopriva) to steal her earrings while she sleeps in a greenhouse. But Orlík gives them back to her, defying his mysterious master by being entranced by Valerie himself.

Valerie lives in a staid, sizable bourgeois house with her stern, frigid-looking grandmother Elsa (Helena Anýzová), who tells her to put aside the earrings, which belonged to her disgraced, exiled mother. Elsa instead recommends she attend the service being given by a troupe of missionaries, priests, and nuns who are filing into town at the same time Valerie’s slightly older friend Hedvika (Alena Stojáková) is being wedded to a “stingy farmer,” an event that also draws actors and circus folk. Valerie, however, is intrigued by the naturally overflowing sexuality expressed by the young peasant women of the town who kiss each other and flirt with the strong young men who hang about them, waiting to copulate with glee in the woods at the edge of town. Grandmother herself has a few dark secrets tucked away, and when Valerie, watching the crowd in the square, spies the grotesque vampire himself, Elsa seems to recognise him as someone troublingly familiar.

The vampire’s insidious infestation of Valerie’s life begins to manifest as he fills every patriarchal position in the narrative. He’s the elder priest who gives the congregated village females a blessing. He’s the also the local constable by whom Orlík is ensnared. He’s the long-ago lover of Elsa, and claims also to be father to both Valerie and Orlík. “I have never loved another man since you seduced and abandoned me,” Elsa moans to the vampire. “Sorry about that,” he replies. The vampire announces his new reign by setting fire to the waters of the fountain: he is the yin to Valerie’s yang and the kindler of black passions. Elsa is smitten with one of the missionaries, Gracian (Jan Klusák), who’s just returned from Africa; the vampire leads Valerie into a hidden chamber and forces her to watch through a peephole as Elsa flagellates herself before Gracian. In order to regain her youth and beauty, Elsa is willing to sign over her house to the vampire, whom she calls Richard. He infects her, and after being restored to rapacious youth and imprisoning Valerie, she poses as Valerie’s cousin and seduces and drinks the blood of anyone she can. Orlík keeps rescuing Valerie from her predicaments and vice versa; even if they are brother and sister, they seem fated to be together.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders could be the most delicate and evocative work of the ‘60s and ‘70s renaissance of fantastic cinema in Europe, working with material certainly familiar to some more definable generic directors I’ve celebrated lately—Jean Rollin, Jesus Franco, Dario Argento, Terence Fisher—and yet freed from the cruder necessities of the commercial cinema they served. The cinema to which Valerie belongs is imbued instead with a folk-myth atmosphere essayed in terms more closely related to Sergei Paradjanov’s Sayat Nova. Indeed, some tableaux vivant shots, like the vampire standing upon a ledge against a church wall with arms spread or Hedvika arrayed in her bridal gown, or visual conjuring like the vampire hailing the birds escaping their coops in the dusklight, echo Paradjanov’s style keenly. It is, when you think about it, a rare event for a filmmaker to truly utilise the capacity of cinema to work magic, especially these days, when magic is usually the product of remarkably nonmagical CGI.

Judging by the style of clothes and settings, the film takes place in the late 19th century, but it is replete with hazy elements that suggest both a far more distant past of premodern spirituality and folk-culture, and more contemporaneous touches. Jires contrasts Elsa’s Victorian hairdo with the younger girls’ pure ’60s cuts, reflecting the generation-gap alarm at its heart, as well in the conflict of the ripe rustic images and the grinding wheels of nascent industry.

The structure is studded with paranoid surrogate figures and the intricate interplay of social and familial roles, with every characterisation threatening to blend into another, suggesting layers to identity. The merely relative nature of identity, when it comes to enacting such roles, is constantly restated: only Valerie remains firmly integral at the core, and here the anxiety is about which character seems to represent her future and desires. A constant motif of Valerie’s odyssey involves acts of spying: the vampire’s first direct act is to show her the hidden rooms, clogged with spider’s webs and dust-crusted books, and then force her to watch Elsa groveling and beating herself before Gracian’s amused gaze. Later, in another deserted part of the house, mysterious machinery cranks and whirs as Valerie spies on Elsa ensnaring a young man, and then trying to also seduce Orlík.

Such moments are perfect metaphors are Valerie’s forceful introduction to the hidden intricacies of the adult world lurking behind the settled forms and genteel pretences of Elsa’s upbringing. Incestuous lust is a constant motif, as it was in so much classical European mythology—seen in Valerie and Orlík’s sibling attraction, in the vampirised Elsa reborn as the imperiously sexy faux-cousin trying to drink Valerie’s blood, and finally in a striking consummation between Valerie and her vampire father. To save him from starvation, Valerie smears chicken’s blood upon her mouth in a telling approximation of lipstick and kisses him to reawaken his thirst, briefly restoring him to the young, beautiful hunter he once was before he reverts to the ravenous monster. When Valerie’s mother (Anýzová again) turns up, daughter, mother, and grandmother all kiss each other with strangely knowing intimacy. Valerie’s sexual innocence is constantly placed at stake, with the constant threat that she will be involved in something transgressive either according to her own drives or by violation according to someone else’s.

These perverse elements, however, finally feel less literal than acknowledgement again of the interchangeable, successive nature of adult roles—from daughter to mother, from lover to parent—and the finite way sexuality defines all such roles. But the whole landscape is rife with sensual possibility, signaled by the peasant lasses who greet all physical contact with unsullied enthusiasm. Hedvika, in marrying her aging, portly farmer, is anxious about her commitment, and yet she pledges to “grow older” for him, for he’s as nervous as she is; when they unite, Elsa takes the chance to bite Hedvika, presenting the delirious, crucial image of sexual health being sucked out of the girl from both sides in a mad ménage à trois. Later, Valerie, fount of all health, restores Hedvika by sleeping with her in moment of desexualised lesbian love redolent of natural fulsomeness and healing potential.

It’s hard to describe Valerie’s deeper, darker levels without stinting on its effervescent humour and sprightly vitality, much of which stems from a constant Buñuel-esque anti-clerical satire. For the film constantly resorts to images of the ancient wooden shrines around the village, describing such motifs as Adam and Eve and the Virgin Mary, with whom Valerie is associated, which are the home to hives of bees, ripest symbol of natural bounty, and thus uniting natural and spiritual fulsomeness. But Gracian, as representative of the church, is a hypocrite who hustles his train of nuns hurriedly past a peasant couple gleefully rutting in the woods, but lets Elsa debase herself before him with an indulgent smile and tries to seduce Valerie in her bedroom, where, in the film’s most cripplingly hilarious moment, he opens his cassock to reveal an African tooth-bedecked necklace with the pride of a swinger’s gold peace-symbol chain, whilst leering like a randy bear. The totemistic power of her earrings and a pearl Orlík gives her deflects him with an astounded, and troubled exclamation of “What have you done?” Later, he accuses her of being a witch, and has her burnt at the stake, to which Valerie’s fearless reaction is to poke her tongue out at him before using her totems to vanish from within the flames.

The theme of Death and the Maiden, with roots in the Germanic folkloric scheme, is of course a vital one in the European artistic tradition, with its dialogue of effusive youth and beauty set against entropy and inevitability, translated into an innately sexual metaphor of femininity and masculinity, locked in a process of conquest and surrender. Valerie’s travails with the monster/father/lover figure certainly employs this motif, but Jirês invests it here with that specifically playful, pastoral quality that is familiarly Czech and distinct from more lugubrious German cinematic takes on the idea which Jirês references, like Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), whose Max Schreck style of vampire Richard resembles. The vampire and Elsa each enact a twisted fantasy of retaining youth by becoming monsters, but also embody Valerie’s anxieties as the blooming of her womanhood also means getting older, and facing the inevitable withering of that bloom. She constantly crosses paths with a small girl who gives away flowers around the village, bestowing her gifts on everyone, the arch-innocent whom Valerie is ceasing to be.

Valerie’s fleeing Gracian’s repressed, hypocrisy-dominated overworld sees her venture instead into a labyrinthine under the town now dominated by the vampire and Elsa, with the peasant men and women in their thrall, as if suggesting the way expressions of natural sexuality was forced underground by pharisaic religion and subjected then to perverted transformations. Ironically here, when the vampire drinks a potion into which Valerie throws her pearl, he himself is toppled and reduced to a slinking ferret—Orlík has constantly called him a polecat—and scuttles away as the thralls try to stamp on him. Later, Orlík shoots the polecat and displays his fur.

Thanks to Valerie’s prayers, the week of wonder seems to come to end, or more accurately, reboots, with the household’s rhythms restored to the same normalcy as at the beginning, and Elsa returned to her grandmotherly age, to expire in shame as she explains an omen to Valerie that entails the return of her mother. Her mother, when she comes, is in the company of Valerie’s father, who is the young hunter the vampire had appeared to be. Elsa, resurrected, comes out to meet her daughter and husband, and the suddenly reunited family proceeds into the woods, where, rather than finding a newly clarified form, everyone encounters their many alter egos. All the characters frolic in a riverside glade where the peasant girls infest the branches of a tree as if in a pagan rite and eagerly embrace the vampire on a boat, whilst Gracian is confined to a birdcage. The nuns and maidens lounge in ease together, and the whole cast gather around the bed where Valerie lies down to sleep, or, more likely, awaken at last. At the cusp of the waking world, all opposites and figurations join, and the flower girl refuses to give a bloom to Valerie here—she has ceased to be a child.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is composed with such ripe artistic and technical skill it’s hard to believe it didn’t simply spring out of someone’s head, and yet, of course, it’s the result of hard work. Special kudos are owed to cinematographer Jan Curík, with his sharp, yet muted colours, and Lubos Fiser and Jan Klusák for their inventive, atmospheric score. The cast, who were almost all post-dubbed by other actors, are nonetheless splendidly suited, especially the weirdly wonderful Anýzová (usually a costume designer for movies), called upon to play the many notes of the adult female, swinging from glowering, pale-haired domestic despotism to saucy, fishnet-stockinged femme fatale, giddily lapping the blood off a man’s neck or locked in a woozy waltz with her undead lover.


19th 07 - 2009 | 13 comments »

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Director: David Yates

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By Roderick Heath

David Yates’ unexpectedly splendid third feature and his second Harry Potter film, sees a director come of age as a wielder of imagery and a buckaroo adept at handling a cast of Britain’s most fearsome character actors. More than that, Yates and writer Steve Kloves finally provide a fitting follow-up to Alfonso Cuaron’s reinvention of the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) in the intensity of its fantastic imagery and the quality of its engagement with its characters. This is characterised, oddly enough, by a level of dry, keen-witted restraint rare enough in a blockbuster.

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Episode six begins with the shadowy threat of Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters beginning to assail even the Muggle world, destroying an appropriately new-school target, the Millennium Bridge, and wreaking general havoc. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), idling away the summer still haunted by the death of his godfather Sirius Black, is flirting with a railway café waitress when he’s summoned away by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). He’s to play a part in extracting from Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), a teacher summoned out of retirement by Dumbledore, a crucial memory involving Slughorn’s one-time student, Tom Riddle, the future Voldemort. The memory may just hold the secret to curtailing Voldemort’s capacity to return from the dead. Meanwhile, perpetual foil Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) has been recruited to arranging the infiltration of Hogwarts by the Death Eaters, led by the sibilant bitch-queen Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) in an assassination attempt on Dumbledore. Snape (Alan Rickman), the great series question-mark, has been forced by Bellatrix and her sister, Draco’s mother, Narcissa (Helen McCrory), into a pact to kill Dumbledore if Draco can’t.

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The second-last instalment (not counting the fact that The Deathly Hallows will be split in half) was faced with significant problems. J. K. Rowling’s book, though sporting an impressive, wrenching finale, was one of the lumpier and least focused entries, with few set pieces and a lot of Pensieve flashbacks, so the film of it seemed doomed to place-holder status. Oddly enough, this seems to have made the filmmakers more confident in compressing the plot and expanding on the interaction between the characters. The film’s single greatest scene, perhaps of the whole series thus far, sports Harry, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), and newbie Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) mourning over the corpse of a giant spider. Hagrid’s distraught, Slughorn is befuddled and opportunistic in trying to gain a vial of the spider’s venom, and Harry, jubilant as a coke-fiend under the influence of liquid luck; the three of them perform a kind of awkward funeral service, after which Hagrid and Slughorn get roaring drunk, and the teacher tearily, drunkenly confesses his darkest shame to Harry. It’s a couplet of scenes that alchemises something priceless out of the material and the actors, capturing the qualities that make Rowling’s creation so beloved—the rich sense of the English traditions of droll black humour and wonderment in the banal, attachment to both the fantastic and the familiar, the emotional, and the just plain weird.

But what’s really intrigued me about Rowling’s creation is its basis in a peculiarly British sensibility, and not just the cutesy one that’s on the surface. The evocation of the WWII era in UK speculative fiction is a cliché, from John Wyndham’s Blitz atmosphere in novels like The Day of the Triffids (1959) through to the single greatest Doctor Who episode, “Genesis of the Daleks” (1975), with its outer space SS and eugenicist supervillain. Although Voldemort, in his bleak background, genocidal intent, and general megalomania, is undoubtedly Hitleresque, Rowling’s atmosphere is rather more Cold War, constantly evoking another buried shadow in the British psyche—the betrayal of its esteemed institutions by the Soviet moles Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, and Donald MacLean, who sprang out of precisely the sort of close-knit public school atmosphere Rowling’s series celebrates, and gouged a hole deep in both left- and right-wing psyches. Thus, the Death Eaters all share a radical commitment that’s built around an assumption of their own superiority. Tellingly, both Harry and Voldemort are defined by a sense of lost lineage that places them each ill at ease in either the patrician or plebeian schemes; Muggle-born Hermione desperately attempts to overachieve to find her place in the scheme of things.

Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1986), written by Chris Columbus, was probably the reason for Columbus being the initial choice to helm the series. That film is startlingly similar to Rowling’s creation, rather more so than the commonly cited Star Wars series, with two-boys-one-girl trio of heroes in a boarding school unearthing a conspiracy involving their own teachers, one of whom, Anthony Higgins’ Professor Rath, destined to reinvent himself as lifelong nemesis Moriarty. Columbus, however, was not as good a director as Spielberg or Levinson, and his opening pair of films were all gee-whiz mugging. Still, I was intrigued enough to take up the books. I soon realised Rowling, for all her limitations as a writer, had two great gifts: real emotional intricacy and a genius for plotting, gifts that kept me going through the acres of not very amazing this-adolescent-life satire.

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This is perhaps why Cuaron’s much-admired entry irritated me as much as it impressed. For all Cuaron’s lovely visual embellishments, he buggered up the fundamental thrill of the moment when Rowling’s clockwork plot and manipulated perspective clicked into alignment. Rowling’s commitment to watching the world through Harry’s eyes became a liability that badly hurt the last two books (the terminus for Snape’s subplot in The Deathly Hallows was criminally clumsy), a problem that Yates and Kloves solve with dexterity here, boding well for the thunderous conclusion to come. The finale is sublimely handled with a sense not just of spectacle, but also of threat and mystery, as Dumbledore and Harry risk life and limb to rescue an object that proves to be a fake. The sequence is realised with startling visual invention and a fit sense of minimalism by Yates, from black waters teeming with grotesque skeletal wraiths to the blinding swirls of Dumbledore’s roaring fire-magic imbued with a genuine sense of evil and wonderment. Hail the uniquely sadomasochistic moment in which Harry fulfils Dumbledore’s promise of making him pour litres of potion down his throat that fill his paternal teacher with screaming self-loathing, and a confrontation between Harry and Snape that’s been pared down from giddy free-for-all to a singularly dark nonbattle.

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It’s a conclusion that outlines how comfortable Yates is here in turning good literature into intelligent cinema, a shot in the arm desperately needed to stop ambling its way to a conclusion as a glorified advertising hoarding. Yates’ debut feature, a fine piece of bittersweet Victoriana, The Tichborne Claimant (1998), was a tale that treated an unremitting account of social revenge on presumptive social climbers with the lightest dust of magic realism. Likewise, The Half-Blood Prince has the same keen sense of how to weave the corporeal and the ethereal, the social and the fantastic in terms of Rowling’s crucial conception of the two being confoundingly complex, requiring young folk to become map-makers of their own existence. Yates is also unafraid to embrace horror-movie chic as his stylistic avatar for the series’ intended maturity, quoting J-horror, George Romero, and Hammer horror, sporting a sequence in which Harry and crush Ginny Weasely (Bonnie Wright) combat Bellatrix and werewolf henchman Fenrir Greyback (Dave Legeno) in a swamp that’s straight out of Terence Fisher. Carter seems to be channelling Sweeney Todd costar Johnny Depp in her eccentric lurches of manner and diction, and she’s a gas whenever on screen, which, alas, isn’t enough.

The Harry Potter franchise demands attention, not just for the scale of its appeal and success, or even for just being expansive, easygoing fun in an increasingly jarring, bullying era of event movies, but because after six instalments and nine years, the series is something that’s never really been done before in Hollywood. Even some close cousins I came up with—the Weissmuller/O’Sullivan Tarzan films, the Connery-Bond films of the 60s, the Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub series—don’t quite compare because they didn’t sport as sophisticated a running story as the Potter episodes, nor the same unity of production elements maintained over such a length of time, including a steadily aging core cast whose actions and reactions have become as familiar as old friends, working with defined stories whilst also existing in a state of flux and volatility dictated by the way time affects both cast and audience.

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Thus The Half-Blood Prince takes advantage of the expansion of the acting talents of its three principal stars. Daniel Radcliffe, who’s played stoic heroism with increasing obviousness, has his best moments when his consumption of distilled luck remakes him momentarily as almost drunkenly chirpy, allowing him to give his character an assertive eccentricity it otherwise lacks. Emma Watson as the girl-nerd Hermione who doesn’t realise what a babe she’s grown into, broken up by her growing, unrequited ardour for Ron Weasley, has a newly light touch; and Rupert Grint has undeniable potential, stretched here in moments such as when Ron is temporarily befuddled by a love potion that reduces him to a grinning git that leads to a priceless piece of wordless acting when he’s brought around and his love-sick smile faces into mere sickness. Beyond that trio, the series stalwarts, from Maggie Smith’s perpetual recasting as Miss Jean Brodie to Rickman’s perfect Snape, are in top form. Broadbent’s fusty, fogged Slughorn is so perfect it’s a damned shame he’s never been in the series before, and Evanna Lynch’s lovable dingbat Luna Lovegood steals every scene she’s in. l


27th 09 - 2007 | 2 comments »

The Illusionist (2006)

Director: Neil Burger

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This is the 200th post on Ferdy on Films, etc. No, unlike the 100th episode of a TV series, I’m not going to be set for life with some lucrative syndication deal, nor am I likely to win a car for being the first blogger with 200 posts on this particular day of the month. It’s simply a way of marking what I and my contributors have accomplished in the way of productivity and especially, how many bloody movies I’ve seen since December 2005 that I have found inspirational enough to write about. Looking back on such films as Make Way for Tomorrow, Habit, Sadie Thompson, and The Call of Cthulhu, to name but a tiny few, I’d have to say I’ve been a lucky film geek indeed.

Believe it or not, I have thought a lot about what film I’d take up for my 200th post. There are so many classics still waiting for me to see and write about, so many directors, stars, and screenwriters who deserve more of a spotlight than they’ve gotten. Ultimately, though, I think I’ve known all along which film would take this “honored” place—The Illusionist, the last film my mother ever saw in a movie theatre, one I was privileged to choose and take her to see.

My mother, who died last November, is the first and greatest inspiration for my love of film. She would regale me and my brother with stories of entire Saturdays spent at the movies, eating the lunch her mother would pack for her while feasting her eyes on serials like Buck Rogers, newsreels, cartoons, and, of course, the feature film. Sometimes she’d take dishes home when the theatre was handing them out as a promotion. She was a big fan of musicals—of Judy Garland, Fred and Ginger, Der Bingle. Of course, she also loved the women’s films like Mildred Pierce and Mrs. Miniver. One afternoon, she and I shared a box of Kleenex as we sobbed our way through Madame X.

As I became a more serious film buff, I began taking her to see foreign-language films. She especially loved The King of Masks, a charming film from China, and soon she wanted to see all the foreign films she could. She accompanied me to Ebertfest several years in a row, enjoying some of the offerings very much and sitting patiently through some of the more experimental films I wanted to see. Mom was a good sport, and she liked to be out among people, sharing the experience of watching a movie.

For a brief period of time after her cancer treatments ended, Mom regained a bit of strength and energy. She didn’t go out much, but whenever she did, it was a joyful event. That’s why The Illusionist holds a very special place in my heart. This tale of a 19th century master magician pitted against a police chief in the pocket of a ruthless monarch seemed just the right mix of costume drama, romance, intrigue, and visual spectacle to delight Mom. We went with the hubby to a cineplex five minutes from our home; Mom picked up the tab.

The film opens on the friendship of young Sophie von Teschan (Eleanor Tomlinson), an aristocrat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Eduard Abramowitz (Aaron Johnson), the son of a cabinet-maker. The young couple fancy themselves in love. Eduard, using his cabinet-making skills and ingenuity at creating trick devices, carves a locket with hidden compartments for Sophie. However, the unsuitability of a commoner as a suitor for Sophie is obvious to her family—though not to her and Eduard—and she is shipped out of the country to a finishing school.

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Years pass, and Vienna is all abuzz about the magnificent tricks of Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton), a renowned magician who has been making a name for himself throughout Europe. Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) consider his show to be exceedingly clever—Uhl is particularly fascinated with Eisenheim’s growing of a small orange tree on stage—but certainly not magic. Leopold charges Uhl with helping him to discover Eisenheim’s secrets. They go to a performance to observe him more closely; the Duchess Sophie von Teschan (Jessica Biel) accompanies them. When Eisenheim calls for a volunteer from the audience for a trick, Leopold urges Sophie to go, hoping she will be able to tell him what happened to her afterward. Eisenheim—in reality her long-lost love Eduard Abramowitz—recognizes Sophie immediately. He captures her image in a mirror and makes it move independently, in another triumphal performance; she can offer nothing of his secrets to Leopold.

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The next day, on the prince’s orders, Uhl goes to Eisenheim’s workshop to invite him to perform for Leopold and his guests at the palace. He confesses a fascination with Eisenheim’s abilities, and Eisenheim teaches him a very simple trick. When Eisenheim learns Sophie will be present at the palace—though dismayed to learn she is engaged to Leopold—he agrees to come. When Sophie encounters Eisenheim again, she greets him as her old friend, recognizing himbelatedly after the show.

Illusionist%20court.jpgLeopold watches Eisenheim’s tricks carefully, skeptical of a floating ball stunt. He asks Eisenheim to do something more basic. With this, Eisenheim asks for Leopold’s jewel-encrusted sword. He balances the sword on its tip and challenges members of the audience to lift it, like Arthur removing Excalibur from the stone. None can do so. When Leopold steps up, Eisenheim does not release the sword immediately, vexing the prince and bringing down a vendetta to have his show closed down.

In the meantime, Sophie and Eisenheim renew their romance. He begs her to come away with him, but she says Leopold would never let her go and would hunt them down and kill them eventually. Nonetheless, she determines not to marry the prince. She rides alone to the palace one evening and confronts Leopold with this news. He slaps her. She goes out to the stable to ride off, and he follows. The next image we see is of Sophie slumped forward on her horse as it gallops through the palace gates.

When Sophie’s horse is found with a bloodstain on its neck, the search for the duchess is on. Eisenheim soon finds her floating in a river and rushes to her; she has a sword wound in her neck. He cradles her soaked, pale body in his arms and cries. Uhl goes to view the body in a covered cassion and finds a jewel in the folds of her dress. When he surveys the stable, the apparent crime scene, he sees something in the straw in the stall. But his attentions are diverted to other matters—seeing that Eisenheim, who is accusing Leopold of Sophie’s murder, is removed from Vienna.

Eisenheim decides to close his show. He goes off, only to return several months later to prepare a new show in a theatre he has purchased. The theatre is guarded by Chinese helpers, lending the impression that Eisenheim has been studying some very mysterious arts during his absence. When the new show opens, it appears that Eisenheim can conjure the spirits of the dead.

Championed by the religious faithful for providing proof of an afterlife, Eisenheim tempts fate by conjuring the spirit of Sophie, who provides cryptic information about her death. Whispers about Leopold’s complicity in her murder—he has been rumored to have killed women before—force Uhl to take action to shut down the show and place Eisenheim under arrest for fraud. “Why did you do it?” Uhl implores. “To be with her,” answers Eisenheim. A truer word was never spoken.

In fact, Eisenheim never pretends to be anything but an illusionist—indeed avoids the fraud charge and jail by telling the assembled crowd outside the police station that what he does on stage is not real. Perhaps that should have tipped me off that all was not as it seemed, but I completely went with this movie. Even seeing obviously computer-generated illusions that would have been exceedingly difficult to pull off as a mechanical trick in any case, I let Eisenheim trick me. It was fun. Nonetheless, Eisenheim’s plans were, in the final analysis, ruthless and unjust. The film made Leopold look like a slime who deserved whatever was coming to him and did so in the name of love. Maybe that’s fine for the romantics, but it certainly cast a shadow for me.

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The cat-and-mouse game between Eisenheim and Uhl was very entertaining. Although Eisenheim clearly found Uhl’s toadying to Leopold disgusting, Uhl’s admiration for Eisenheim’s skill was genuine and ultimately redeeming. Giamatti was never better than as this pragmatic cop with strong powers of observation—yet not quite strong enough. Norton was a convincing lover and charismatic mesmerist, particularly in the period theatres that blazed with flaming torches for footlights. Sewell, a highly underrated actor, brought a steely determination to his character; every action was completely consistent and intensely felt. One feels Biel tried her best, but she really is little more than a very pretty face. That works, however, in this context of eternal love, and she really wasn’t in the film enough to ruin it.

All in all, this is a clever, visually exciting film—well-paced, well-acted, and especially intriguing for mystery lovers. I want to thank everyone responsible for making The Illusionist for providing this great send-off for my mother, a loyal film fan to the end.

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