Films of August: Illusionist Is Magic

Beaches beckon. Lobsters lure. Before I head for the hammock and a month’s vacation, here’s a brief lineup of some of the films that will open in August. Except for a few action thrillers like World Trade Center and Snakes on a Plane, the usual plethora of animated kids-out-of-school escapism, and a continuing plague of idiot comedies starring either Will Ferrell or Owen Wilson, the films this summer reach farther and dig deeper than usual into the darkness of the human heart. Get ready to be hot and depressed.

Best of the summer coolers is The Illusionist, a richly textured and very entertaining movie that actually knows the value of telling a good story with skill, precision and excitement. Set against the political intrigue and baroque architecture of 1900 Vienna under the Habsburgs and described as a “supernatural mystery,” it tells the darkly brooding and intensely romantic story of a magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton), who fell in love as a poor peasant teenager with Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), the beautiful daughter of an aristocratic family for whom his father worked as a furniture maker. The romance was doomed by class differences from the start, and the two childhood friends were separated by prejudice and social barriers. Disgraced and rejected, the boy disappeared for 15 years. When he returns as Eisenheim, a famous alchemist and theater star, he finds Sophie betrothed to Crown Prince Leopold and an innocent pawn in a dastardly plot to overthrow the empire and destroy the monarchy of Emperor Franz Joseph. Embers of their old romance are quickly rekindled, but a new threat surfaces when the magician is hounded relentlessly by Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), under orders to arrest the performer and expose him as a fraud.

Uhl is torn between a loyal allegiance to his boss and an insatiable fascination with the immensely popular illusionist, whose stage tricks surpass mere sleight of hand and transport his audiences into elevated states of ecstasy. Watching the affair between the illusionist and the future princess develop from the shadows, Uhl waits too long to act. Handsome, ambitious and violent, the evil prince goes mad with jealousy and murders Sophie in a frenzied tantrum. No cowering citizen will lift a finger to bring the future emperor of Austria to justice, and both Eisenheim and Uhl find their lives in danger for their suspicious natures. It’s now up to the grieving Eisenheim to summon all of his spiritual powers and stage one last elaborate show that will magically bring Sophie back from the grave, avenge her death and heroically save the political future of the Austrian empire. To that end, the movie honors the tradition of narrative filmmaking with a coherent plot, holds you riveted for 109 minutes, and ends with enough surprises to keep you shocked, awed and applauding with joy.

Intelligently written and skillfully directed in the form of a puzzle by Neil Burger ( Interview with the Assassin), and elegantly photographed with style and opulence in the fin-de-siècle theaters and hunting lodges of Prague, The Illusionist has a lyrical quality that becomes almost surreal. As the countess in jeopardy, Jessica Biel, from the disastrous Cameron Crowe film Elizabethtown, is a blank page. But happily, the rest of the cast brings passion and ballast to the overripe story. As bad as he was in M. Night Shyamalan’s ghastly Lady in the Water, Paul Giamatti redeems himself as the barrel-chested gumshoe. As the corruption behind the throne, Rufus Sewell is a perfect Oil Can Harry villain—the Mitteleuropean epitome of a fairy-tale Prince of Darkness. It takes practice getting used to the idea of lanky, contemporary Edward Norton in a period piece, but as a cloaked and bearded mandrake, he charges his enigmatic role with electricity onstage, even performing his own illusions, and an unmistakable sadness in the illusionist’s private life that adds greatly to the film’s edgy romanticism. The theme is that nothing is what it seems, which applies to The Illusionist in particular, as well as to the misconception about summer movies in general.

The Night Listener casts Armistead Maupin’s gimlet eye on a tale more bizarre and less convincing than his popular Tales of the City series. Robin Williams plays Gabriel Noone, the gay host of a late-night public-radio show called Noone at Night, on which he tells contrived yarns to insomniacs. Tired, blocked, overworked and miserable after his boyfriend of 10 years leaves him, Noone becomes infatuated with a 14-year-old listener named Pete who has written a book about his tortured childhood, including a history of sexual abuse in kiddy-porn flicks while his mother watched. Now the mother is in prison, Pete has AIDS, and Noone is understandably moved to help the kid find a publisher. Donna, the social worker who adopted the boy, seems nice and concerned and caring enough on the phone, but slowly her voice turns from friendly to cold and distant as she reveals ugly shards of a sinister personality.

Noone begins to question the validity of the story. Is Donna just a friendly protector or the real mother who encouraged the sexual abuse? Why is Pete no longer able to return calls? Noone’s ex-lover (Bobby Cannavale) suggests that both voices sound alike on the phone and convinces him that it’s a set-up, a scam. Noone’s secretary (Sandra Oh) can find no record on the Internet of an arrest, trial or prison sentence involving the boy’s mother, so he flies to Wisconsin to check the story on his own. There’s no such address. But he recognizes Donna’s voice in a booth at the local coffee shop and discovers she’s blind. Is Pete a figment of some deranged imagination? Are Pete and Donna the same person? In the film’s most harrowing scene, Noone enters Donna’s dark and shadowy house and confronts her. What happens next is hair-raisingly well-played, thanks to the versatility of Australian chameleon Toni Collette, but does little to shed light on a potty story that leaves you guessing.

The story, based on an actual telephone friendship with a boy whose existence has never been proven, is another creepy head-scratcher more atmospheric than believable. Director Patrick Stettner, who did a much better job with his revenge-thriller debut film, The Business of Strangers, tries hard for a macabre Hitchcock effect in which desperation, illusion and identity confusion collide. In which case, Robin Williams is the wrong actor to hire. As much as I admire his comic antics and vocal animatronics, he is not always persuasive in dramatic roles. We’ve seen every furrowed brow and lip curled to the point of tears, followed by a Mork honk, so many times that the tendency is to laugh. In tense suspensers like One Hour Photo or The Night Listener, you anticipate the next line before it happens. This can be fun in a farce like Mrs. Doubtfire, but fatally disconcerting in a nail-biter. What you end up with is one nail, lightly chewed.

Conversations with Other Women is a talky two-hander, played gamely by two enormously engaging people, Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter. They meet at a wedding. He’s the bride’s brother; she’s a bridesmaid. Sipping champagne in a fog of cigarette smoke, they strike up a conversation. Forced to provide on-camera testimonials for the wedding video, it seems they’ve met before. In fact, when the movie stops being coy and describing how they met at a barbecue in Cape Cod, where she retreated from the buffet table and hid behind a tree reading Jane Austen, the truth hits the fan. O.K., they were married once, and haven’t seen each other in 10 years. Lots of dialogue—awkward, nervous, candid, rude, sometimes intelligent—follows incessantly as they bed down in a hotel room for auld lang syne.

The entire movie is filmed in an annoying split-screen process in which they compete with their younger selves and each other, sometimes during the same scene. They end up telling each other everything they want to hear about what they remember, and a few things they don’t. Instead of a hokey Hollywood ending, it fades on a note of irony and sadness. By the time he finally gets around to telling her he still loves her, she’s in the shower and doesn’t even hear him. Thanks to the beautifully modulated performances of the two attractive stars, the movie occasionally lifts off, but you can almost hear the sweat drip from director Hans Canosa’s forehead trying to protect everyone from claustrophobia. The split screen sabotages his best intentions; it’s a conceit that only manages to make the viewer irritable. Fortunately, it’s only 84 minutes long.

The scalding talents of the moody, introspective young actor Ryan Gosling are sharply focused in Half Nelson, elevating an otherwise slight and depressingly offbeat film high above the realm of the ordinary with blast-furnace force. Mr. Gosling, who played a neo-Nazi in The Believer and a lovesick farm boy in The Notebook with heartbreaking equanimity, is an idealistic but far from ideal inner-city-high-school history teacher who struggles by day to free his ghetto students from their bleak fates and empower them with courage, knowledge and hope. Then he struggles with his own personal demons at night, hanging out in bars, snorting too much coke and sliding deeper into crack addiction.

Blinking and rubbing his eyes to stay awake, he attracts the attention of a 13-year-old girl and part-time drug dealer on the basketball team he coaches, and the movie wafts into an understated but wrenching dossier on their unlikely friendship. Instead of a white teacher trying to save a black ghetto child, the roles are reversed. Thanks to Mr. Gosling’s under-the-microscope revelations of character analysis, and a remarkable youngster named Shareeka Epps whose eyes miss nothing, their relationship is sensitive and liberating, without sentimentality or clichés. There’s an incredible energy level, even in their stares. Half Nelson is pure, but it packs a big emotional wallop.

Kinkiest film of the summer: Brothers of the Head, a rock ’n’ roll version of the great Broadway cult favorite Side Show, with the genders reversed. It’s a lurid fiction, told in a clever documentary style that makes it look uncomfortably real, about Siamese twins (magnificently acted by real-life twin brothers Harry and Luke Treadaway, who are not conjoined but do play their own guitars) sold by their father to a corrupt theatrical producer, exploited as freaks, beaten and abused and turned into a pop singing act called the Bang Bang, shocking and driving their fans into erotic convulsions by showing the hump of bone that connects them while French-kissing onstage, and privately revealing the tragic fragility of their logistical imprisonment when one twin falls in love and the lonely, frustrated brother is distanced emotionally but not surgically. By the time they test their physical boundaries with sex, vodka and cocaine, violence, self-mutilation and horror are inevitable. It’s a musical.

I could tell you more, but I’m outta here. See you in September. Films of August: Illusionist Is Magic