One Good Film: "The Illusionist" (2006)

Plus: "The Bear" and "Black Rain"

One Good Film: "The Illusionist" (2006)

A regular feature for paid Watch List subscribers: I suggest one reasonably under-the-radar movie from the recent or distant past, and you do what you want with that information.

The Illusionist (2006, ⭐ ⭐ ⭐, for rent on Amazon, AppleTV, Microsoft, Vudu; streaming with ads elsewhere) Not to be confused with the Oscar-nominated French animated film from 2010 (a delightful ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐-star watch in itself and widely rentable), this is the equivalent of a beach read you can’t put down, or, more precisely, a s’more for a summer night – your fingers get sticky but the sugar buzz is worth it. Set in the waning days of the Hapsburg Empire, Neil Burger’s opulently kitschy romantic suspense-drama stars Edward Norton (above) as Eisenheim the Illusionist, Mephistophelean star of the Vienna stage; Jessica Biel as his noble (and therefore verboten) lady love; Rufus Sewell quite dandy as a sadistic Crown Prince who’s not used to having his playthings taken away by a commoner, no matter how well-waxed their Vandyke; and — stealing the show with a serving of ham, gravy, and mashed potatoes — Paul Giamatti as the prince’s Chief Inspector, an amateur magician as fascinated by Eisenheim’s arsenal of tricks as he is hellbent on bringing the man down. The movie came out the same year as Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige,” a similar period drama about two warring magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) that’s more ambitious in themes and cinematic techniques and for that reason (and for the Nolan mystique) gets a lot more respect. To which I say, fine, but “The Illusionist” is a lot more fun. Reviewing it for the Globe in 2006, I compared the film to “an over-upholstered wing chair in the corner of a men's club — you settle in only to be startled by how ridiculously comfy you are.” Of the performances I noted:

“The Illusionist” has been constructed for our amusement, and much of the fun comes from watching different acting styles thrown together like cats in a sack. Norton banks his powers to play Eisenheim straight, with sudden shafts of anger and sadness, and if he edges close to self-parody at times, he’s still the grounding principle the movie needs. … Sewell takes the throbbing-vein approach; he’s playing to the back seats, bless him. Biel — whose casting has been a matter of concern to “7th Heaven” fans — manages to not look like a mall chick in period finery. She’s elegantly lovely, in fact, and since her role doesn't require heavy dramatic lifting, she gets off with hardly a singe mark. As mesmerizing as Norton is, though, the show’s stolen by Paul Giamatti, who gets the joke of the movie but never stoops to winking. Chief Inspector Uhl is the one character who holds the story’s many strands together, and Giamatti treats the part as — dare I say it? — a particularly fine glass of pinot noir. He inhales the bouquet, rolls the overripe dialogue over his tongue, savors the heady undercurrents of butter and fruit. The man stops just short of getting drunk.

If you’ve ever read Glen David Gold’s 2001 novel “Carter Beats The Devil,” you’ll have some idea of the prestidigious old-school pleasures to be found in “The Illusionist.” On top of all this rolls one of Philip Glass’s least obstreperous and prettiest scores, one that matches the film’s woozy romanticism while propelling the drama forward on Glass-ian wheels of melody that keep it from getting stuck in the mud. I often show the final sequence to students to demonstrate what a good soundtrack can bring to a movie, playing the clip first “mit-out sound” (as Lubitsch is supposed to have said) and then with music. Try it for yourself, but only if you’ve already watched the film, because this is as spoiler-y as it gets.

Here’s the trailer, which makes the movie look more like hooey than it actually is. Well, no, it is hooey, but it’s the kind for which you may be grateful after a long day in the real world.

Wil Poulter and Lionel Boyce in “The Bear”

Having been off at family-reunion vacation in the previous week, I finally got around to finishing the second season of “The Bear” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐) last night, and let me be the 5,381st person to recommend the Hulu series to you if you have not already partaken of its feast. I understand if you were put off by the first season’s jitters – enough to trigger PTSD in this long-ago veteran of serving Sunday brunch to hungover Manhattanites – but do know that many of the new episodes slow down to focus on one or another of the characters: Lionel Boyce’s pastry chef Marcus, who is sent to Copenhagen to up his game at the elbow of Chef Luca (played by one of my favorite under-sung actors, Will Poulter), or, in “Forks,” one the best episodes of TV you’ll see all year, the explosive Richie finally achieving satori during a week of trench duty at one of Chicago’s top restaurants. Watching the phenomenal Ebon Moss-Bachrach portray this character’s demons finally, maybe even permanently, sitting down to table has been one of the most moving of recent fictional sights, and that last scene with Olivia Colman’s Chef Terry was the cap on the mushroom – a genuine grace note. (Too bad that Jeremy Allen White’s Carmy is still stuck in the walk-in cooler of his own mishegoss.) And how about that hour-long holiday dinner from hell in Episode 6, with guest stars flying in from all angles – my wife and I guffawed out loud when John Mulaney rounded the corner as Cousin Stevie – and Jamie Lee Curtis turning in a DEFCON 1 stress test of a performance as Berzatto matriarch Donna. I do wonder if “Bear” creator Christopher Storer and company had a look at 2016’s “Krisha,” with which Ep. 6 of “The Bear” shares a holiday, a jagged vibe, and a woman on the verge of an extreme nervous breakdown. I guess if you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best. Also of note: the show’s music choices, which are unerringly emotive and available as a Spotify playlist right here. Worth the link just to revisit that final episode’s R.E.M. cut, “Half a World Away,” while Carmy tightens the noose of imposter’s syndrome around his neck and the rest of the cast rejoins the living. I can’t wait for Season 3; if only Hulu would let me sign up for the ads-free version, which seems to no longer be an option on my account page.

If you were one of those viewers annoyed at the circumspection with which “Oppenheimer” depicted (or, rather, didn’t) the effects of the atom bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, know that MUBI, the subscription streaming channel specializing in foreign and independent fare, is hosting as their movie of the day Shohei Imamura’s little-seen “Black Rain” (1989, ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2), which depicts the bombing and its literal fallout on a handful of characters in the immediate post-war years. It's a graphic, deeply sad, and deeply necessary act of reconstructed witnessing that’s also available for a $1.99 rental on Amazon, and not to be confused with either the same year’s Michael Douglas cop drama or a similarly-titled 2009 action film.

Please don’t hesitate to weigh in “The Bear,” “The Illusionist,” Imamura — anything, really. We love to hear your thoughts here at the Watch List.

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