Film in 2006 #1: Nothing is What It Seems. Except maybe for this DVD.

In anticipation of the Academy Awards, presented on Feb. 25, I'm starting a series of pieces about the past year in film and those works that are nominated for Oscars. The first entry in this series can be found below, a DVD review of The Illusionist, nominated for one Academy Award, Best Cinematography.

History will reveal that The Illusionist was the lesser of the two magician films to be released in 2006. (The other was, of course, The Prestige.) Overly slick direction, sub-par plotting and sometimes-hammy acting dragged the film down. (Read my original review here.)

One area The Illusionist does succeed is in its cinematography. Dick Pope's work is some of the best of the year and wholly warranted of the Oscar nomination it garnered. And while Pope's moody, ethereal work looks fine on the movie screen, it absolutely soars on DVD. The film's texture is more pronounced, especially in the theater scenes and when action takes place on the streets of Vienna (which is really a stuck-in-time Prague). Sepia tones, crisp blacks and a crushed-velvet royal palette give the film a silent film look that's inline with the era of the action in The Illusionist (early 20th century).

But perhaps most revealing is how the film was shot with an almost constantly flickering border, as if it was being run through a nickelodeon or early Edison Vitascope projector rather than a state-of-the-art one from the 21st century. What makes this so revelatory is that, in theaters, such a device isn't entirely obvious. The flickering in the film is in competition with the flickering naturally caused by the projector itself, so it's difficult to discern if what is being seen is an intention of director Neil Burger and Pope or is just the wear and tear of the film stock. On DVD, it's entirely clear that Burger and Pope intentionally used such this framing device.

Fairly, it works better in some places than in others. In the early flashback scenes of Eisenheim's youth, there is an oval framing mechanism used to make everything in the oval in focus and everything outside it slightly gauzy. This is a hallmark of early film, and its use here doesn't seem tacky, be it in flashbacks or during magic shows. (When it's used in a post-coital scene between Eisenheim (Edward Norton) and Sophie (Jessica Biel), though, the result is a feeling of watching a romance novel come to life.) However, Burger uses numerous iris ins and outs as intro and outros to scenes that look too digital for their own good. When we move from Eisenheim's past to something closer to the present, there is an iris in on Eisenheim walking away from his family's farm. The next scene begins with a jumpy iris out on a stately theater in Vienna. The iris in feels fine enough, probably because it moves in so tightly as to not be obtrusive, but the iris out feels like an iMovie tool used by a film student for the wrong reasons. It's admirable that Burger sticks with this transitional tool throughout the film, but the execution mostly fails and this is all the more prominent in home theaters.

Unfortunately, the DVD of The Illusionist doesn't offer more than the film itself. There is a collection of trailers, two featurettes made as ads for the film (one, "Jessica Biel on The Illusionist even reuses footage and answers from Biel used in the other, "The Making of The Illusionist"), and a commentary by Burger. Burger's views on the film should have been a saving grace for the DVD. However, he chooses to pull the curtain back on nearly every magic trick seen in the film, essentially ruining the experience of watching some of the best scenes. It would be unfair to compare Burger's commentary to one of those Fox TV Secrets of Magic Revealed shows, but it's not far off when he launches into how strings were uses to make things appear to be levitating or handkerchiefs soaked in chloroform were used to knock volunteers out in the service of "hypnotizing" them. Those things might all be intuitive to today's audiences, but why spoil the fun?

The Illusionist on DVD works to highlight the beauty of the film's cinematography—the film looks simply amazing. But it doesn't accomplish much else. A home video release can't change structural flaws in a film's narrative, but in 2007 it should offer something in the way of insight into the film's creation.