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Knight at the Movies: The Illusionist, World Trade Center, The Great New Wonderful and Snakes on a Plane
by Richard Knight, Jr.

This article shared 3928 times since Wed Aug 16, 2006
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Images from The Illusionist and Snakes on a Plane.


The Illusionist, a period romantic drama set in Vienna in 1900, is based on a short story 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 ( involving Edward Norton, Jessica Biel and Rufus Sewell ) and expanded the role of a corrupt but likeable police chief, played by 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 shows—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.

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. Word of mouth spreads quickly about this amazing magician and soon he gets a visit from Chief Inspector Uhl ( Giamatti ) , who has been sent to check out Eisenheim at the behest of the boorish Crown Prince Leopold ( Sewell ) . During a show for the Crown Prince he sends his fiancée, the beautiful Princess Sophie ( Biel ) , onstage. Eisenheim recognizes Sophie 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, their love re-ignites but it will take every bit of Eisenheim's ingenuity to find a way for the two to end up together.

The movie is 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 mood of the film is also helped by an enigmatic but notably restrained score by Philip Glass. Finally, there are heartfelt, earnest performances from all the leads.

The Illusionist has another reward that one can only get watching it with a roomful of strangers as one did with The Sixth Sense and The Others: the delight one feels in sharing in its secrets. 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, directed 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 latter 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. Oliver Stone doesn't indulge in any of his signature cinematic pyrotechnics ( not that I have minded them—I'm a big fan ) . Rather, 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—with the air filled with paper and bodies—is devastating. These scenes feature another signature of Stone's movies: his ability to re-create perfectly tragic historical events ( here, thanks to seamless computer effects ) . 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 at the Gene Siskel Center beginning this Friday, also cuts deep but resonates longer. Perhaps it resonates longer 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 true lives. The picture, unbelievably, starts as a wry comedy but, as the characters go about their lives, slowly reveals 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 from a dream cast that includes Maggie Gyllenhaal ( who also appears in World Trade Center ) , Tony Shalhoub, Olympia Dukakis and Edie Falco. Its well-crafted script is by first-timer Sam Catlin and the movie certainly puts director Leiner in a new light. This movie is 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 motherf--kin' snakes off the motherf--kin' plane' wasn't exactly an inducement for me to see the picture at any rate. But 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 happy to relay that a ) my phobias have been left intact, unsullied by New Line's picture and b ) 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 motherf--kin' movie so get off my motherf--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 four stars.

This article shared 3928 times since Wed Aug 16, 2006
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