The Illusionist (2006)

illusionistcover01A Steven Millhauser twin spin!

The movie uses a flashback sequence to start in the same scene as the short story.  As a boy, Eisensheim encountered a traveling magician who performed miraculous tricks.  In the short story, he starts with coins from the boy’s ear; in the film, it is a frog, which is an improvement.

After a bit more conjuring and levitation, the wizard disappears, and by some accounts also the tree he was lounging under.  And maybe he also made off with the boy’s personality, because young Aaron Taylor-Johnson grows up to be the charisma-free star of Godzilla.

Paul Giamatti plays the role he always plays, Paul Giamatti.  In this case his character is Inspector Walther Uhl, who appears in both versions.  It is confusing to call Paul Giamatti by that other name when he is clearly Paul Giamatti, so lets just call him Inspector Giamatti.

The film and short story share the same early illusions.  As Eisenheim takes the stage, he removes  his black gloves, throws them in the air and they become ravens.  Both versions contain the Orange Tree illusion where Eisenheim plants a seed, grows a small tree and produces oranges in a few seconds.  The 2nd part of the trick has trained butterflies flying in with a handkerchief.  It is a callback to a handkerchief a volunteer gave him, but it just seems strangely separate from the Orange Tree trick part of the illusion.

illusionisttree01The film mostly stays with the source material as a large mirror is wheeled on stage, and a volunteer is taken from the audience.  Eisenheim directs the woman through a series of movements.  Naturally, the mirror image reflects those movements; until it doesn’t.  In both versions, but in slightly different ways, the volunteer’s reflection is stabbed as the actual volunteer watches motionless.  This miracle is disconcerting to the entire audience — the 5% at the necessary angle to view the illusion, and the 95% who fear they grossly overpaid for their seats.

Around this time, the film makes its biggest departure away from the short story.  True, the story as written might not have supported a feature-length film.  The filmmakers could have gone in at least two directions — playing up the fantastic elements of the story, or shoe-horning in a love triangle among Eisenheim, the Crown Prince of Austria, and the volunteer who was the Prince’s fiancee Sophie.  While still a great movie, I wish they had gone for option #1.

In the short story, the illusions get darker.  In Book of Demons, the titular book bursts into flames releasing “hideous dwarfs in hairy jerkins who ran howling across the stage.”  In Pied Piper, he causes a group of children to vanish.  When they return, some claimed to have been in a heavenly place, but others claimed to have “been in hell and seen the devil who was green and breathed fire.”  If there had been more of this, but still grounded by an abbreviated romance — GOLD!

The  rest of the film mostly plays out the love triangle which does not exist in the short story.   There is a murder, political intrigue, framing, suicide, more magic.  And mostly a happy ending.  Inspector Giamatti even turns out to be an OK guy.

illusionistjessicaThis is not the usual  blueprint for Steven Millhauser’s stories.  He frequently begins with a premise of something very big, or something very small, or something physically impossible and beats that premise to death.  But I mean that in the best possible way; examining the phenomena from many different angles, creatively tackling the implications.  It might be a town that maintains an exact duplicate of itself, women’s dresses that are as big as houses, paintings that seem to move, or an illusionist with who performs impossible feats.

The premise is the thing for Millhauser.  You don’t go in looking in for a love triangle with the Crown Prince of Austria.  I hope to cover more of his work later.

Post-Post Leftovers:

  • On Amazon, this is categorized as Movies & TV > Blu-Ray > Romance.  Such a lost opportunity.
  • Sophie’s name is mentioned exactly once in the short story.
  • Although in both versions, Eisenheim is clearly performing impossible feats, the short story makes more of a case for the supernatural.  The Orange Tree illusion, however, actually has an historical basis, even if it was tarted-up with the trained butterflies.
  • I read this in the collection We Others: New and Selected Stories.  I am happy to support the arts, but putting out a collection of 21 short stories where 14 have been previously collected is just effectively forcing me to pay 3 times as much for the new material.  Well, not forcing exactly, as I actually set foot in a public library for the first time in years.  Sorry, Steve-o.
  • And don’t get me started on the trade paperback scam.
  • I don’t generally give actors much credit for their craft, but you can pretty much depend on Edward Norton to be great in anything he does.
  • Handkerchief is a strange word; it is literally a hand kerchief.  But a kerchief is specifically defined as being a woman’s scarf.  It is one of those strangely literal words like fireplace that say just what they are with an almost caveman simplicity.  Ummm . . . . fire . . . place!

Ray Bradbury Theater – Gotcha! (S2E4)

rbgotcha04Note to self:  Do not make “fine mess” reference as it is only 50% accurate.

This is not quite a twin spin.  There is a story in the Bradbury book called The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair which tracks the first few minutes of this episode fairly well.  However, the short story becomes a traditional melodrama like early Vonnegut, while the episode veers into horror.

Strangers John and Alicia attend the same costume party as singles.  Improbably, they have independently elected to attend dressed as characters who individually have absolutely no identity without the other.

This is especially strange for Alicia.  At least John has the gut, the black suit, the bowler, and the mustache to sell himself as Oliver Hardy.  In a pinch, he could also claim to be a fat Charlie Chaplin or Hitler.  Alicia really just has the hat.  Never-the-less, once they meet-cute, she does exhibit a pretty good Stan Laurel vibe.

Alicia takes him to a staircase famous from one of L&H’s movies.  She had been filming a commercial there earlier in the day.  Inexplicably, the crew left a piano case there, but nothing comes of it.

rbgotcha01Then they go to a diner and and commence one of the longest, least erotic public displays of affection in movie history.  It is even more uncomfortable when done by a couple role-playing 2 dudes.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  However, that is followed by a really nice montage of their courtship.

Then things get weird.  Alicia takes John to a fleabag hotel promising to play the titular Gotcha! game.

She gives John white pajamas to wear, lights a bunch of candles and tells him to remain completely silent until the alarm clock goes off.  There is a nice shot where she is standing at the end of the bed, and we are seeing John’s POV.  Alicia says “Gotcha” and sinks as if through the floor, although the bed blocks our view.

rbgotcha06After several largely pointless shots of the candles, John, the alarm clock, and the shower head, Alicia suddenly reappears with a pasty face and puts her bony fingers on John’s face.  “Gotcha!”

The alarm goes off and she is her cute self again.  “Gotcha.”  John is terrified, in tears, and she apologizes.  For reasons unknown, he goes with her back to the same diner.  He seems to be PTSDing pretty hard.  She asks if everything is OK, if he would like to play the game again tomorrow with the roles reversed.

He says no, but as she is leaving dejectedly he says, “Gotcha.”  He says it with the blankest possible face, and it is impossible to attach any valid analysis to the ending.  Sadly, botched endings are becoming the hallmark of this series.

Post-Post Leftovers:

  • Alicia says that the original scene with the piano case was filmed 4,000 miles away in Los Angeles.  Unless this episode takes place in Ecuador, that is just about impossible.
  • It is weird that they made the effort to have the crate be so similar to L&H’s in some ways (placement of the THIS END UP stencil), but not in others (placement of the cross beam).
  • Brad Turner went on to direct 46 episodes of 24 — almost 2 full days — so he is forgiven.
  • The Laurel and Hardy theme song, used way too much in this episode, is Dance of the Cuckoos.

Trancers (1985)

trancerscover0220 horror movies for $5; what could possibly go wrong?  Part III.

Another title that prompted my $5 investment in this package. Like Prom Night, I had heard of this one, but had no knowledge of it, good or bad.  It just seemed like one of those Up All Night denizens that I never saw.

The scene opens in a hazy and heavily neoned 2247 where Jack Deth tells us he finally “singed” Martin Whistler on one of the rim planets.  Now he is hunting down the rest of his murderous cult, the titular Trancers.  In a diner of the future which still looks as much like the 50s as they did in the 80s, he dukes it out with an elderly waitress who turns out to be a Trancer.  Soon she is a dead Trancer as he kills her and we learn that they disintegrate when killed.  Hence the “singeing” of Martin Whistler.

As in every anti-hero cop movie since Dirty Harry, the “suits” don’t appreciate his zeal for his job, and he ends up tossing away his badge.  As in every anti-hero cop movie since Magnum Force, he gets right back on the job.  His boss tracks him down at the beach where he is treasure hunting.  Not sure whether this was due to a war, or climate change, but LA (now called Angel City) is mostly underwater.trancers02a

While this is a pretty bad effect, that’s OK by me in a low-budget movie.  If you’re paying Matt Damon $20M to star in some sci-fi joint, those effects better be awesome.  If you’re scraping by just trying to get your movie finished, I’m willing to meet you half way.  Of course if Matt Damon is in an indie phase and works for free, I’m out again.  Just not a fan.

His boss, McNulty, tells him that Whistler is still alive, so Deth agrees to talk to the council which runs things now.  Whistler has already killed one of the members, and fled to the past.  The two surviving members (including George Costanza’s boss Wilhelm) play a hologram of Whistler describing his plan to murder their ancestors, clearing the way from his triumphant return.

Seems like a lot of trouble since not-Wilhelm has just said that their fortress was “like paper” before this killer.  Why not  just kill them in 2247?   Obviously, there is just one man who can time-travel to the past and prevent an unstoppable killer from destroying mankind by assassinating it’s leaders’ ancestors.  Unfortunately, Michael Biehn was filming Aliens, so we got Tim Thomerson.

Deth sees the council has Whistler’s body on ice, and he blasts it.  This strands Whistler in 1985 because, as we know from the underrated Switch in The Matrix, you’ve got to have a body to come back to (i.e. home is where the heart is).

trancershelen01Whistler and Deth both download into ancestors’ bodies circa 1985.  Deth gets the better of this deal as his ancestor happened to be banging Helen Hunt at the time.

They go to Helen’s job as Santa’s Helper in a mall where, naturally, Santa is a Trancer forcing Deth to shoot him in front of some kids.  It will be another 10 years before Helen Hunt wears that great wife-beater in Twister.  In 1985, though, she was pretty cute rocking that red Santa’s Helper suit.

Deth and Whistler converge at a tanning salon run by Wilhelm’s ancestor Chris Lavery.  Of course, he turns out to be a Trancer and locks Deth in a stand-up tanning booth the size of my first apartment.   Bad news for him as back in 1985 they still made these models with a cremation setting — what were they thinking?  Sadly off-screen, Whistler arrives and kills Lavery.

Outside, Whistler — a detective in this era — catches Deth and Helen.  He and his men open fire, but Deth has been issued a special watch that briefly slows down time for him.  Or, rather, he remains in normal speed, and everything else slows down.  I assume everything.  Whistler.  The police.  The bullets.  Gravity.  The earth.  The sun.  The universe.  There are so many things wrong with this that blah bah blah.  Again, though, I’m willing to roll with it in a fun little movie.

And it is fun.  I appreciate the little touches — Deth’s gruff boss McNulty has to transport back to 1985, but the only relative he can find to download into is a little girl.  Not only does she exhibit his gruff persona, she sticks around to peep through the window at Deth & Helen making out.

Deth and Helen track down not-Wilhelm’s ancestor on skid row.  With his help, they beat Whistler, and send him back to the future; even though Deth had destroyed his body, so that was supposed to be impossible.

Deth stays in 1985 with Helen Hunt.  No mention is made of the poor sap whose body he downloaded into, who is now probably in the Phantom Zone with General Zod for eternity.  Jake Gyllenhall also pulled this crap in Source Code so he could stay with a hottie.  Not cool, guys.

This was the 3rd movie watched out of this $5 set.  I started with the cream, but so far I have gotten my $.75 out of those 3 movies.  Definitely a product of its age (1985, not 2247, although shoulder pads were big in each), but a fun movie with a good cast. In honor of Helen Hunt in Twister, I give it an F3 on the Fujita Scale — OK, but no Finger of God.

Post-Post Leftovers:

  • Art LaFleur plays McNulty.  Richard Erdman (credited here as Drunken Wise Man) played a character named McNulty on The Twilight Zone.  If that dude from The Wire shows up, I’ll shit.   Anyways, the McNulty in TZ had a watch that did exactly the same thing as Deth’s.  Coincidence or homage?
  • Not-Wilhelm’s name is actually Ashe.  Her 1985 ancestor is named Ashby.  Why?  Why make the name so close, but different?
  • Deth claims not to be able to return to 2247 because the syringe with the time-travel drug was broken, but it has been demonstrated earlier that anyone could shoot him with a laser and transport him back.
  • The beach above looks like Point Dume where they filmed the end of Planet of the Apes, but I can’t confirm.
  • The 20 Movies box helpfully refers to this as Trancers I, lest anyone be disappointed thinking they were buying the classic Trancers II, III, IV, V or VI.
  • Any movie that works in Theme from Peter Gunn is OK with me.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents – The Legacy (S1E35)

ahbabysitter03The episode opens with a voice-over describing “Palm Beach, where the sun spends the winter, and people spend fortunes to be in it.”  I guess sun is the “it” of that sentence, but it took a couple of rewinds for me to make sense of it.

We are introduced to what I can only assume is known as the “old money” crowd.  Or the old “money crowd”.  The “nonagenarian money crowd”, to be more accurate.

Writer Randall Burnside is in town to gather info on his next subject, Prince Burhan.  He is introduced by the geezers to Irene Cole, wife of oilman Howard Cole.  As is common with Hitchcock, this marriage is a little off.  Mr. Cole is hanging out with a floozy starlet, playing tennis, boating, while ordering his wife around.  Burnside is surprised to hear that Irene has the money in the family, yet tolerates this behavior.

The famous Prince Burhan arrives, either having spent too much time in the Florida sun, or having been made up just a few coats short of Al Jolson to represent some indeterminate Arab / Indian country.  He seems to be quite taken with Irene, asking her dance, then out to lunch the next day, and for a walk.  To be fair, her husband apparently believes what’s good for the gander is good for the goose.

We flash a few days forward and learn that the Prince is still spending a lot of time with Irene, sending her a bouquet of roses every morning, and wanting to party like its 1959.

Hanging out in a cabana, Prince Burhan makes clear his feelings for her, and Irene makes clear her belief in old wives’ tales.

legacy01The next day, Burhan kisses Irene and says he will kill himself if she doesn’t marry him; thus proving that he is not only a famous prince, but a drama queen.  She refuses and sends him packing.  Burhan dies the next day in a car accident, leaving Irene distraught with guilt.

Three months later, Burnside returns to Palm Beach.  The resort manager informs him that the Prince was after Irene’s millions, that he was bankrupt.  Somehow this is news to Burnside who has just finished writing a biography of Burhan.  This is why you never hear about the investigative team of Woodward & Burnside.  The manager, however, says it was an accident rather than suicide because the Prince’s mechanic had been in the middle of working on the brakes; also news to our intrepid reporter.

Burnside goes to New York to let Irene know it wasn’t her fault.  However, he sees the positive effect Burhan’s death had on them.  Thinking that the Prince killed himself over her, Irene has gained new self-confidence (and her own young actor boy-toy).  Her husband has become much more attentive seeing that another man could desire her (and no sign of his floozy).  Burnside says he doesn’t want to rob them of the Prince’s precious legacy to them and breaks the 4th wall: “Would you have?”

Post-Post Leftovers:

  • In a headline about his death, Burhan is described as Oriental.  In common parlance, that would exclude India.
  • According to Wikipedia, ”Oriental” is banned from legislation in Washington state due to being raaaaaaacist.
  • Once again in a Hitchcock joint, we have a woman disparaging herself and criticized by others for being “plain”, “ordinary”, “not amusing”, and (gasp) “over 30”.  At least this time, he did not cast his daughter.
  • Another unexpected 4th-wall breakage, just 2 days after Tales from the Crypt.  More jarring than effective this time, though.
  • Bess Flowers appears uncredited as an extra.  She might have been the most prolific actress in history.  She appeared in over 700 films, including 23 that were nominated for Best Picture.
  • Oh, Hitchcock, you so crazy . . .

    legacy02a

    Actual Closed Caption

Prom Night (1980)

promnightcover0220 horror movies for $5; what could possibly go wrong?  Part II.

This movie was one of the reasons I bought this set.  Not that I had any love for it, but I had at least heard of this title; and of course Jamie Lee Curtis gave it some gravitas.

Like every horror movie made in the 80s, this one starts in the 70s.  A pack of brats is bullying one of their schoolmates, Robin, in an abandoned school.  What starts as a hide & seek game devolves into them chasing her yelling, “kill, kill!” like those punks on Triacus.  As always, it’s fun and games until someone puts an eye out.  In this case, the eye and the rest of the body are put out of a 2nd story window.  The kids, wise beyond their years, react just like adults — by fleeing the scene and not telling anyone.

At this point, we can already predict who the killer is going to be, even though he was barely seen.  Of course Alex, the brother of the dead girl, can be expected to have a motive.  But when you are trying to predict who is going to grow up to be the serial killer, a stronger indicator might be the kid who dresses like his sister.  promnightstripes02Cut to 6 years later.  A mysterious caller — OK, it’s Alex —  starts calling the posse from 6 years ago.  But we still have to go through the usual suspects:

  • The groundskeeper – Why are groundskeepers always the first red herring?  The sharp implements?  If this took place today, we would know it isn’t the groundskeeper because the killer speaks English.
  • The Child Molester – Leonard Murch is only seen in bandages, and doesn’t even get a screen credit.  Despite the Lieutenant going all Sam Loomis, he is a no-go; the Screen Actors Guild would never allow it.
  • Lou, the boorish 25-year old high school student in the black ski mask?  Ninja, please!

Finally at the 1 hour mark, we get another kill.  As I am a firm believer in Survival of the Cutest, it is disappointing that it is Mary Beth Rubens.  It takes a mere 7 minutes to get the next kill, so we’re off!  We get a fun pursuit in a van (leading to a great fiery crash), and another good chase with an axe.

Clearly being Advanced Placement students, these prom-goers deduce there might be a problem after seeing a decapitated head on the dance floor.  As usual, JLC comes through, and unmasks the killer.  Surprise, it is Alex!

It was never boring, but the pressure was really on the last 30 minutes to redeem the first 60 minutes.  Overall, it worked for me.  On the Pass / Fail scale: Pass.

Post-Post Leftovers:

  • Released the same year Leslie Nielsen starred in Airplane; and in between Jamie Lee Curtis’ 2 Halloweens.
  • Michelle Scarabelli is here somewhere uncredited.  Sadly I did not see her.
  • Screenwriter William Gray wrote the classic The Changeling starring George C. Scott, also released in 1980.
  • I was stumped as to whether the van crash was an excellent model or a fake looking real van.  No matter, it was a great crash, great shot and great fireball.
  • Actually the opening is pretty effective as the kids really do seem menacing, and the old building is used well.
  • Its sequel title Prom Night II: Hello Mary Lou is right up there with Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.  Who is naming these things, Jesse Jackson?  Sadly, I know of no rhyming 3rd installments.  Star Wars III: Return of the Jediii?, Back to the Future III: Cowboy Marty?, Godfather III: WTF Sofi . . . uh?
  • Really, this is all we get for our R-rated 90 minute investment?promnightshower01