Make Believe


Make Believe

Voguing, teen magician style.

(2010) Documentary (Crowd Starter) Neil Patrick Harris, Lance Burton, Krystyn Lambert, Bill Koch, Hiroki Hara, Derek McKee, Siphiwe Fangase, Nkumbozo Nkonyana, Gay Blackstone, Joan Caesar, Joe Diamond, Kyle Eschen, Ben Proudfoot. Directed by J. Clay Tweel

Magic is meant to look effortless;  a wave of the hand, a gesture, a subtle movement and the impossible becomes real. Getting that sort of effortlessness takes hours of practice and unbelievable discipline. For teenagers, that kind of commitment is rare indeed, particularly when it comes to something so ephemeral and let’s face it, something with bleak career prospects.

The World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas is perhaps the most prestigious gathering of magicians, conjurers and illusionists in the world. Each year they present a Teen Magician competition for up and coming talents ages 13-18. This is the real deal; there is some pretty decent prize money not to mention an opportunity to be noticed by people who can help you along in a potential career.

They come from all over the world; a magic duo from South Africa (Fangase, Nkonyana) who work their own culture and the allure of the World Cup (which was held in their country the year after this particular Seminar) to tell a story; a young man from rural Japan (Hara) who practices his craft obsessively in remote places, lonely and misunderstood by those who live in his village.

They also come from the United States as well; a beautiful blonde from Malibu (Lambert) with ambition and drive, one who understands the difficulties faced by a female magician and already armed with membership in the prestigious Magic Castle and mentorship from an established magician; a youngster from Colorado (McKee) who has tremendous potential but may or may not be ready for the competition; a veteran participant (Koch) who is entering his last year of eligibility and wants to go out in a blaze of glory.

For all their dedication and determination, these are all still teenagers with all the social awkwardness and angst that it implies. Their self-discipline and sacrifice is to be admired as it would be in a gymnast or a figure skater going for Olympic gold. Most kids have no more ambition than to have their parents buy them the latest videogame, or to hang out at the mall with their friends – or even more likely, in Internet chat rooms.

I liked the way first-time director Tweel got us to know and care about these kids. Not all of them are people you’ll want to be best friends with, but you’ll at least want to spend some time with them and hope they find the success they’re looking for. While Lambert’s single-mindedness has been off-putting to some critics, I found that she was no different than some of the student council members I’ve known. She is a young woman who knows what she wants and is determined to go after it; far from being off-putting, I found that commendable as most women are discouraged from those sorts of things as being non-feminine. Trust me, she’s very feminine, quite pretty and if she continues her pursuit will undoubtedly go far, whether that pursuit is magic or something else.

I found myself enchanted with Hara’s approach to magic which is quite visual and blends the subtle and the showmanship quite nicely. Also the South African duo, who came from a background of poverty the American contingent might have been surprised at, was charming and guileless. To some extent, the American kids all had an eye on their own career and were somewhat guarded on-camera; it was when they let their guards down that I felt that the movie was at its most compelling.

This might be a bit hard to find in video stores but you can order the DVD from the movie’s website. This isn’t the kind of hard-hitting documentary that tackles issues that affect us all, but it is a slice of American pie that comes straight from the heart (even if not all the participants are American). There’s enough warmth and charm here to make it worth viewing; whether or not it bears repeated viewing is truly a matter of personal taste but for my money if you get an opportunity to check it out by all means do so.

WHY RENT THIS: A look at young people dedicated to their craft and some beautifully staged magic tricks. Makes you care about the participants.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat scattered in its approach. Somewhat disposable subject as documentaries go.

FAMILY VALUES: A few mildly bad words scattered here and there but otherwise fine for general audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producers Ed Cunningham and Seth Gordon were previously responsible for the documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a how-to tutorial on how to perform some of the magic tricks shown in the movie, as well as some that are not.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13,141 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this movie broke even at best but probably didn’t.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, Rebel

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The Illusionist (2006)


The Illusionist

We're both adults here; we'll flip for it. Winner gets top billing, loser gets this cherry tomato.

(2006) Thriller (Yari Film Releasing) Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan, Jake Wood, Tom Fisher, Karl Johnson, Aaron Johnson, Eleanor Tomlinson, Vincent Franklin, Nicholas Blane . Directed by Neil Burger.

Reality is, in reality, made up entirely of our own perceptions. Look at a picture of a clown and you might see an object of gaiety, or for some, a terrifying figure with homicidal tendencies. The picture hasn’t changed any between one viewing and the next, but the way we perceive it always does. In some rare cases, perception can actually change reality to a degree.

That is what illusionists count on. During the 19th century, performers of magic were referred to as “illusionists” rather than magicians since those rationally-minded people of that era knew that these performers were not creating magic but rather, illusions of magic. In turn-of-the-century Vienna, one of the best and most popular illusionists is the great Eisenheim (Norton), a man of humble birth who had as a young boy (Aaron Johnson) fallen in love with a young Countessa, Sophia (Tomlinson). However, class distinctions being what they are, the two were separated and Eisenheim went on to Asia to study under the masters of illusion.

His shows get the attention of Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti) of the Vienna Police, who has the ear of the Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell). Uhl, an amateur magician himself, is thoroughly entranced by the illusions perpetrated by Eisenheim, particularly that of an orange tree that apparently grows miraculously from a seed to a fruit-bearing tree in a matter of moments. The Crown Prince decides to attend a show himself, bringing with him his retinue, which now includes a grown-up Sophia (Biel). When Leopold sends up Sophia to participate in an elaborate illusion, the two childhood friends reconnect.

Leopold, on the other hand, is a man who prides himself on his intellect and is frustrated that he cannot debunk Eisenheim’s illusions out of hand, so he invites him for a private performance at his hunting lodge. Eisenheim, who has never learned how to be circumspect around those with power, humiliates Leopold which gets his show shut down.

There are forces at work however, that even the great illusionist can’t control. Leopold is set on marrying Sophia, which will bring Hungary solidly behind him in a forthcoming coup against his own father, the reigning emperor. Eisenheim and Sophia find themselves as pawns in a very deadly game, and as smart pawns are wont to do, they decide to take their pieces off the board and get the heck out of Dodge. However, the crazed Prince whom, it is rumored, once pushed a woman out of a balcony to hide the bruises he gave her during a sexual encounter, isn’t the sort to let them go easily. When things go terribly wrong, Eisenheim has no choice but to turn to darker powers to bring down the corrupt prince.

This is a solidly made movie, based on a short story by Steven Millhauser. Filmed in Prague, Burger evokes pre-World War I Vienna beautifully, filming mostly in shades of sepia and black and white. This gives the whole movie a kind of washed-out quality, not unlike looking at antique photographs.

Norton and Giamatti are two actors who can always be depended upon to give a terrific performance. Both do fine jobs in their roles, with Giamatti getting a little more to work with than Norton. Jessica Biel, who hitherto has been essentially a pretty face/nice body sort, does a surprisingly good turn as the strong-willed but trapped countess, caught in an untenable situation.

If there is a problem with this movie, it is that the filmmakers tend to telegraph the twists and turns a little too much. I found myself guessing well ahead of time what was about to transpire and I know Da Queen was doing the same. I would consider us fairly well-educated filmgoers, but not particularly brilliant. I think I would have appreciated a bit more misdirection in the script. Also, the accents affected in the movie could be better. A note to filmmakers – if the film is set in a German-speaking country, we all figure the characters are speaking in German without having to have all the actors sound like Colonel Klink. Unless the actors are actually speaking German in the movie and periodically speak English, there’s no need to have them speaking in heavy accents. After all, shouldn’t they theoretically be speaking in their native tongue?

Be that as it may, this is a nice atmospheric period piece that has some elements of genuine creepiness and a nice surprise or two. The effects are not really groundbreaking, but are well-executed and serve to enhance the story, rather than the other way around. I was a little disappointed but still, I didn’t think they did too badly.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific perforances by Giamatti, Norton and (shocker) Beal. Great cinematography and location really evokes the era and the place.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little too predictable, particularly when it came to the twists and turns.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of sexuality and a little bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: While the movie is entirely fictional, it is loosely based on the Mayerling incident, in which Austrian crown prince Rudolph and his mistress were found dead at his hunting lodge on January 30, 1889.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $87.9M on a $16.5M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Take Me Home Tonight