The Illusionist 2006 Loosely based on Steven Millhauser’s story “Eisenheim the Illusionist.” Directed by Neil Burger. An entertaining love story with magic and political skullduggery. 1889. Eduard Abramovich (Edward Norton) and Sophie, the Dutchess von Teschen (Jessica Biel), have been in love since they were children. Torn apart by class conscious adults, they haven’t seen each other in years. Eduard returns to Vienna as the famous magician Eisenheim and sees Sophie in the theater audience. He learns she’s been promised to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), known to be brutal to women.
Asked to perform at a private party for Leopold, he humiliates the royal and is exiled. Sophie comes to warn (and be with) him but sees no way out of the situation. Everything that happens after – until the end – is extremely clever misdirection and worth the price of admission. As Chief Inspector Walter Uhl, Paul Giamatti is particularly good at expressing sympathy for and fascination with Eisenheim while maintaining allegiance to Prince Leopold. Four magicians provided magic and technical advice, one was a hand stand-in for close-up work. Free with Amazon Prime.
The Prestige 2006 Based on the novel by Christopher Priest. Directed by Christopher Nolan. A psychological thriller of fixation, ambition, deceit, and deduction. 1890s London. Robert Angier and Alfred Borden (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) are both apprentices when Angier’s magician assistant wife can’t escape an effect and is killed. Her husband blames Borden who tied the knots. The men becomes sworn enemies and chief competitors who will stop at little to secure one another’s secrets. Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson) is hired to spy, but tables are turned.
Marriage, suicide, danger, Tesla’s devices; misinformation, and misdirection follow. Nothing is more important than the effects. You may not figure this out before the reveal but it’s compelling to try. Also with Michael Caine as stage engineer John Cutter, Rebecca Hall, David Bowie, Andy Serkis, Roger Rees and magician/mentalist Ricky Jay. Angier’s theft of Borden’s teleportation illusion mirrors real-world examples of stolen tricks among magicians. Similar rivalries include magicians John Nevil Maskelyne and Harry Keller’s dispute over a levitation illusion. Rent on Amazon Prime.
The Great Buck Howard 2009 Inspired by mentalist The Amazing Kreskin. Directed by Sean McGinley. Troy Gable (Colin Hanks) quits law school and at loose ends takes a job as road manager to fading mentalist The Great Buck Howard (John Malkovich, all teeth and toupee). After a heyday with 61 Tonight Show performances, Buck’s manager Gil Bellamy (magician/ historian Ricky Jay) can only book the artist into small venues where an older audience remembers him. The performer is egotistical, demanding. “He was cheesy, but he also had a timeless charm,” Troy says.
No matter how small the audience, Buck gives 100%, ending each act by having one volunteer hide that night’s fee somewhere in the theater while he waits backstage with two others. If he fails to find it – he hasn’t in 40 years – the money goes to charity. In Cincinnati, Buck plans to not only do his show but present a separate, ostensibly career-saving effect to invited press and the public.
Press liaison Valerie Brennan (a charming Emily Blunt) arrives to help publicize the event and manages to pack the room. (She also hooks up with Troy.) Buck is wildly successful, but just before he finishes, the press runs out having heard native son Jerry Springer has been in a car accident. The rest of the story shows how Bucks career is saved, enjoys considerable resurgence, fails, and returns to a new normal. Oh, and there’s a touch of the unexplained. Tom Hanks aptly plays Colin Hanks’ disgruntled father. Rent on Microsoft.
Now You See Me 2013 Directed by Louis Leterrier. A magic-marries-heist film with liberal-for-the-people undertone. And yes, it works. Young magicians J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) are invited to a clue-filled apartment where agreement to train together sends them on a road to becoming “the Four Horsemen.” Their large scale, novelty magic act, backed by insurance magnate Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) is next seen in Las Vegas. It doesn’t matter which effects are possible, they’re great to watch.
The finale of the debut show transports a volunteer into the vault of Crédit Républicain bank in Paris. The vault is then emptied showering the Las Vegas audience with real money. Other extravagant performances make the group cultural heroes. They’re tracked by two contingencies: agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) on one side and ex-magician Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) who makes his living revealing magician’s methods (anathema to The Society of American Magicians) on the other.
Hidden identities and agendas rule the plot. Lack of character depth didn’t bother me a bit. This is really fun. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Now You See Me II 2016 Directed by Jon M. Chu. Few cast changes, a more complex plot, but less satisfying. Rent on Amazon Prime.
An Honest Liar: The Amazing Randi 2014 A feature documentary. Directed and produced by Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom. James Randi (born 1928) was for half his professional life, a successful magician, mentalist, and escape artist who prided himself in duplicating the feats of Houdini. Forty years ago he retired from stage work to devote himself full time to debunking (he prefers “investigating”) psychics who rob and sometimes harm the public (both physically and psychologically) as well as giving magicians a bad name.
“Magicians are the most honest people in the word. They tell you they’re going to fool you and they do.” In this film, the dapper protagonist looks like a wiry, slightly bent Santa Claus. There’s a glimpse of his past: childhood and professional exploits, but much of the film is devoted to thorough exposing of people like Uri Geller and televangelist healer Peter Popoff. (Fascinating.) That both were able to recover from public unmasking and resume their careers shows our determined gullibility.
Randi also demonstrates how scientific studies, such as the well funded Project Alpha at Stanford University, can easily be taken in. At one point he creates a false seer to show how willing people are to believe without evidence. In every case, one can only admire his intelligence, methods, and grace under fire.
The other part of the story involves his relationship with a young Puerto Rican man named Jose. The touching May/December romance was eventually legalized in Washington, D.C. Talking heads – both scientists and peers – are few and well chosen. They include Penn and Teller who declare that if Randi wanted to use his considerable skills as a psychic, he could have been rich. Randi is the co-founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). Intriguing and entertaining. Free with Amazon Prime.
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