Movies in Brief
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
PG-13, 110 minutes
Eisenheim the Illusionist is no ordinary magician. Rather than the usual array of card and coin tricks, he begins each performance by removing his black gloves and tossing them into the air, where they turn into ravens. He springs an orange tree from a seed in a matter of seconds and casts a handkerchief borrowed from the audience on fluttering butterfly wings. Most amazing of all, with severe concentration and a wave of his hand, he conjures spirits from beyond the grave.
From the moment he arrives in Vienna in 1900, brooding, sly Eisenheim (played masterfully by Edward Norton) establishes himself as a crowd-dazzler. In the words of a fictional critic, his work “transcends mere illusion and approaches the realm of art,” but others, sensing the dark side of his craft, wonder if he has sold his soul.
The illusionist’s true rivals, though, are those skeptics — like the ambitious, seemingly unscrupulous Inspector Uhl (Paul Giammati) and the brutish Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) — who refuse to believe that his stagecraft is anything more than the usual sleight-of-hand offered by the corner magician. At first, they seek to expose Eisenheim as a fraud to show that reason and logic always triumph over mystery. When the illusionist re-encounters the Countess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), his long-lost childhood sweetheart who also happens to be Leopold’s expected bride, the disagreement becomes more than philosophical.
The addition of the characters of Sophie and the crown prince, and of the themes of first love and romantic betrayal, are typical Hollywood intrusions into the darker, more cerebral short story by Steven Millhauser on which this movie is based. But “The Illusionist” is hardly a conventional film. Tightly written, convincingly acted (with one caveat: the faux Austrian accents will persuade only those who believe that English is spoken worldwide in only two accents — American and Foreign), and superbly structured, it is at once an attractive period piece, a probing meditation on truth and illusion, and, by its conclusion, a reminder that the contemporary equivalent to Eisenheim’s fin-de-siècle astonishments is found in the cinema.
– David Grosz
Unrated, 91 minutes
Paula van der Oest’s choppy, moody adventure begins with a unique coming-of-age scene: A girl gets her period for the first time and then finds a wounded drug mule, a boy her age, in the family tool shed. “Moonlight” differs from most kids-on-the-loose movies for not lingering over wonder, violent losses of innocence, or other clichés of childhood. Claire (Laurien Van den Broeck) just ploughs ahead. She nurses her cipher of a friend (Hunter Bussemaker) back to health, runs off with him, takes hits from the cocaine packs that pass through his system, and even fights off the drug thugs hunting him down.
Whew! But though Ms. van der Oest likewise hurries scenes along, we never get a good enough sense of Claire to understand the effects of all this (or where her boundless daring comes from). When we meet her (practicing the piano), she and her parents, a concert musician and a psychiatrist, live in a round, white modern house in the middle of the woods. Within the week she’s disguising her new companion as her mentally handicapped sister to piggyback on to a nun-run school trip. Ms. Van den Broeck, though self-assured, isn’t up to holding together a character who is flung through so much so fast.
“Moonlight” has been on and off the shelf for a while. That (hopefully) explains the ragged editing, ham-handed soundtrack selections, and left-field dips into thriller suspense. Thematically, one can see why the film might be a hard sell, too: It doesn’t make excuses for or romanticize Claire’s wholesome sexual experiments with the boy, nor does it punish her for her wild ride. Committing itself to the girl’s admirable headlong folly is good, but we should know her a bit better than her companion, who says almost nothing.
– Nicolas Rapold
PG-13, 92 minutes
“Accepted” is the quintessential drama for the current college generation, asking all of the important questions, such as: Why should college students pay old people to teach them when they can pay young people to not teach them?
When the film’s protagonist, high school senior Bartleby “B” Gaines, fails to gain acceptance to any American college program, he bucks the system by creating his own college program. The film argues that most college students mindlessly pay thousands of dollars to earn a degree based on the senseless requisites set out by college administrators, but students at the school Bartleby has created pay similar amounts to be told they can teach themselves.
Last year, only 69% of high school graduates went on to college. But in the world of “American Pie,” “Orange County,” and “Van Wilder,” college is the reward for every preppy, unmotivated high school grad, no matter how minimal his academic performance or interest may be.
So “B” creates a comfortable haven for himself and others who want the prestige of college life without any of the irritating drags on their social calendar. When he finds a piece of property to pass off as the South Harmon Institute of Technology, other young underachievers arrive, parental checks in hand to bestow on young Bartleby.
Despite some youthful indiscretions, the students who arrive at South Harmon are surprisingly obedient and docile. Other colleges may have spurned them, but they in turn spurn traditional colleges that dictatorially tell students what to do. Instead, these innovators wait patiently for Bartleby to tell them what to do.
As the film’s hero, Justin Long (most recently the star of many Mac commercials) makes impressive efforts to resuscitate the film, which tries desperately to deliver quick punch lines and fast-forward through the pesky plot details. Justin Hill, as Bartleby’s beleaguered, chubby best friend Sherman, has a charming delivery that should serve him well elsewhere. The rest of the cast has more trouble, seesawing between jokes that try to conjure successes like “Old Scool” and “Animal House” without ever finding their own footing.
– Meghan Keane
R, 94 minutes
Literary adaptations are notoriously tricky. I imagine it was with no small amount of bitterness that Ernest Hemingway famously commented that all a writer could do about Hollywood was toss his manuscript over the California border in the dead of night, wait for them to throw back a sack of cash, and run like hell in the opposite direction.
By this standard, Charles Bukowski is maybe the luckiest writer of the 20th century. His relatively small but impassioned output has inspired no less than three major film adaptations — “Tales of Ordinary Madness,” “Love is a Dog From Hell,” and “Barfly.” Even more remarkable, all of these films are above average or stellar.
Well, the newest entry “Factotum,” is number four on that illustrious list, and for Bukowski’s sake they should have quit while they were ahead.
There’s not much of a plot to contend with; the film is loosely based on Bukowski’s eponymous second novel in which our anti-hero — Bukowski’s alter ego Henry Chinaski (Matt Dillon) — does what he’s always done. He drinks, he screws, he contemplates — and in between he gets fired from a succession of menial jobs.
Chinaski’s life as described in Bukowski’s work isn’t exactly begging to be put on screen. Past Bukowski adaptations have relied on some exceptional performances to render the material screenworthy. Ben Gazzara is exceptional in “Tales of Ordinary Madness,” and Mickey Rourke is magnetic and searing in “Barfly.” (It was probably Rourke’s best performance, and in his prime he was arguably the most underrated actor in Hollywood history.)
Unfortunately, Mr. Dillon is not quite up to the task. He gets the vibe right, but as usual he comes off as laconic. His portrayal of Chinaski doesn’t project the passion and urgency indicated by the crescendos in Bukowski’s prose. By contrast, Lili Taylor, usually a welcome presence as the ne plus ultra of indie films, overacts as Chinaski’s on-again-off-again girlfriend.
There’s not much else to recommend. The physical direction by the Norwegian director Bent Hamer is adequate, but the production values of the movie are such that it looks less like a major film and more like a sub-par BBC adaptation. The story itself is a series of loosely connected episodes, strung together with lots of voiceover from Bukowski’s novel; often it seems to be an audible crutch to justify the lack of narrative.
However, to the film’s credit, it nails perhaps the most important detail. It is quite faithful to Bukowski’s work. I suspect devoted Bukowski lovers — and there are a lot of them out there — will find much to appreciate. Everyone else is better off adding “Barfly” to their Netflix queue.
– Mark Hemingway
R, 98 minutes
Senator Jack Kray (Michael Lerner), better known as “the Nazi from North Carolina” is Taking Back America one vote at a time in his re-election campaign, starting with a speech at a New York college, where he’ll be introduced by his son. But said hunky young offspring, Henry, is clearly gay, a fact that would deep-six conservative Papa’s dreams of a third term. Henry is deep in the closet, however, which doesn’t stop him from fleeing to Los Angeles, gagging at the hypocrisy of pretending to be in a perfect family to advance his dad’s career.
Mom (Karen Allen, sporting a honeysuckle thick Southern accent) tries to intervene, but the controlling Senator will not be defied. Henry is dragged back to the campaign by eager Young Republican Skip (Ian Reed Kesler), his spirit seemingly broken. But when he sleeps with the much older Anthony (Jack Noseworthy) the night before the big speech, he becomes embroiled in a plot to publicly out himself and destroy daddy’s career.
First time director Zak Tucker uses light to slice up the digital frame like a razor, and a jump-cut-happy editor carves the narrative to the bone, but it’s all for naught. The film fancies itself an urgent political thriller, a coming out story, a drama about living with AIDS, and a romance about opening yourself to being hurt. But the contrived script winds up reducing everyone’s best efforts to the level of a boring TV movie.
The problem might lie with the history of the project, which was originally slated to star Billy Crudup and be directed by Herbert Ross (“Steel Magnolias”) before passing into the hands of documentarian Douglas Keeve (“Unzipped”). Keeve took a hike early in the shoot and Mr. Tucker, originally the editor, received a battlefield promotion and became the new director.
– Grady Hendrix