Friday, November 24, 2006

REVIEW: The Illusionist, Borat, Deja Vu

Mad Professah has been busy catching up with some films now that the other half is in town for the Thanksgiving holiday. Tuesday night I saw The Illusionist because a friend had said it was at least as good as The Prestige, which I thought was an absolutely brilliant movie. "It's probably better than The Prestige," he said. To which I now reply, "Huh?????"

The Illusionist is a truly execrable film, and specifcally pales when compared to The Prestige in almost every dimension. It has a lesser lead star (Ed Norton versus Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman), a lesser co-star (Paul Giamatti versus Michael Caine) and a lesser female lead (Jessica Biel versus Scarlett Johansson). In addition, The Prestige was written and directed by the very talented Christopher Nolan while The Illusionist was written and directed by Neil Burger who had only made the little-noticed Interview with the Assassin. The main problem with The Illusionist is its over-reliance on digital visual effects. This is particularly damaging since it is a movie about a magician (or "illusionist") so that when fantastical or hard-to-explain feats occur on screen the audience can easily see it is due to the the film director's "magic" abilities and not the character's purported magic abilities. This is an absolutely fatal flaw, despite Ed Norton's always riveting screen presence. In The Prestige, the inclusion of fantastical elements and visual special is always internally consistent within the logic of that film's universe, and is clearly described and proscribed. The good things The Illusionist has going for it are underutilized. Paul Giamatti is completely wasted in a role where he is reduced to following around Norton and blathering on in a ridiculous "Viennese" accent. Jesscia Biel is beautiful (if you like that sort of thing) but the plot is atrocious; not for a moment did I feel an ounce of suspense or uncertainty of where the film was going or how it would end.

A lack of suspense is something that Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan shares with The Illusionist. However, in a subversive comedy instead of an intended dramatic love story, this is not a meaningful defect. As some of you may know, Mad Professah is not a particularly politically incorrect kinda guy, so I had some trepidation in paying money to see the film which has since become a cultural touchstone (One is sort of forced to take notice when Entertainment Weekly says it "may be the funniest film ever made").

Although one does laugh out loud at moments in Borat it is instructive to contemplate precisely what the audeince is laughing at. Is the audience laughing at the "fish-out-of-water" joke? The "let's laugh at those unfortunate people" joke? The nervous "let's laugh at those people about to make a fool of themselves on camera revealing socially unacceptable views" joke? The sheer absurdity or eccentricity of the character played by writer-creator Sacha Baron Cohen? At different times in the movie I think the laughter is motivated by one or more of each of these aspects. Only some of these are actually about "throwing a spotlight on Americans' own prejudices and cultural quirks" through portraying an openly bigoted naif wandering around the United States. The others are merely about getting the audience to laugh. Not that there is anything wrong with that. All in all, I think that the movie contained a well-measured mixture of gags and gimmicks which will amuse a very large segment of the audience. GRADE: B+.

Since Borat was pretty short (82 minutes long) we decided to see (for free) Déjà Vu, the new Denzel Washington flick which earned a surprisingly positive review from Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan on NPR's Day to Day this morning. It's directed by Tony Scott (Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, Top Gun), the younger brother of highly acclaimed film director (Sir) Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Alien). Déjà Vu is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (C.S.I., Pirates of the Caribbean, Bad Boys). Besides the always interesting double Oscar-winner Washington, the movie co-stars newcomer Paula Patton and Val Kilmer (in a middle-aged supervisorial role!) along with Adam Goldberg (Saving Private Ryan) and Jim Caviezel (who played Jesus in Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ as the uncomfortably attractive "bad guy").The script is credited to Bill Marsilii (Cartoon Network's Courage the Cowardly dog) and Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek). The film is the first big Hollywood production to be set in an aprés-Katrina New Orleans. Columbia University physics professor Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe) is listed as a consultant on the film.

Although other reviewers are generally giving the film a shellacking ("exceptionally average," "preposterous," and "formulaic") there are uniformly positive reactions to the performances.
Mad Professah thinks that Déjà Vu is a surprisingly good film. First off, it is actually a sci-fi, action, romance thriller! This is not clear from the odd marketing campaign, which promises to explain what causes feelings of déjà vu. In some sense, it is also a clever marketing hook, since anyone who has experienced the spine tingling sensation of "haven't I seen this before?" which we call déjà vu will be a likely candidate to see Déjà Vu. The film does not explicitly provide a global explanation for feelings of déjà vu but does hint at a metaphysical source.

As Kenneth Turan's insightful review points out, the story appears to be heavily influenced by the work of Phillip K. Dick, who was one of the most creative science fiction authors of all time. His work has been the source material for many hollywood films such as Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck and A Scanner Darkly among others. The science fiction element enters the film quite early and it is at this point where the audience has to decide whether they will buy into a admittedly preposterous plot device or not. This is where a significant fraction of most reviewers check out. However, most Denzel Washington fans and/or science fiction aficionados will happily continue to follow the story albeit with perhaps a little chuckle.

If they do, they will be rewarded with a slow building romance between the always attractive Denzel and the truly stunning Paula Patton ("She looks like a young Halle Berry!" said the other half) as well as a truly suspenseful action thriller. There is a remarkable car chase with Denzel in a souped up Hummer driving against traffic while literally keeping only one eye on the road as well as the de rigeur Bruckheimer booms and bangs and Scott directorial flourishes.


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