Everyone Has Reversals

Story Lessons, Big and Small (Warning: Spoilers!)

May 27, 2007

I Believe in Magic


It's not a trick, it's an illusion.

Can I just keep titling this post, instead of doing the hard work of writing it? Pleeease?

Okay, then. I guess I'd better get to it. In the spirit of healthy competition, may I propose this compare-and-contrast analysis of 2006's magic movies, The Prestige and The Illusionist.


I think The Illusionist wins this one. If you've seen The Prestige, the title's great -- unique, meaningful, and elegant -- but if you haven't, you might have a hard time finding this one in the video store. And the clerk may very well direct you to The Illusionist.


In The Prestige, we've got dual protagonists-- maybe leaning a little towards Hugh Jackman and away from Christian Bale, but nevertheless: we follow these two men in their quests to be the greatest illusionist of their time. Both men are brilliant and both are complex (especially that Christian Bale!). The movie also does something fairly clever-- we never know everything about either of these men. As viewers, we don't need to know everything. The film creates confidence in us that explanations (How is Bale doing the door trick? How does Jackman appear to disappear?) will all be forthcoming. But still, from moment to moment, we're grounded in one or both of these men-- we know what they want, why, and what's at stake. And I, for one, genuinely cared.

The Illusionist
does something a bit funny. The illusionist of the title isn't, in fact, the hero of the story. You can tell by the way we have no idea what he's thinking or doing at any given time, and by the fact that we don't go home with him. Instead, the protagonist of this tale is the police inspector played by Paul Giamatti. He's the one we're "with" in that we know about as much as he does. He's our connection to the mystery of how Jessica Biel was killed, and how Ed Norton is conjuring her spirit in front of packed houses.

Now, I don't have a problem with the unlikely hero as a concept. But in this case, it feels almost accidental. We don't, in fact, have a strong connection to this character at all. But he's what we're left with, because the other characters are either a) evil, or b) not what they seem-- if we went home with them, there'd be no puzzle -- no magic -- at all. Hero by default... kind of weak.


The rivalry in The Prestige begins with a (possibly) accidental death on stage and builds, piece by grudging piece. It's quite deftly done, actually: our allegiance flits from man to man, as the stakes get higher and the illusions more mysterious and dangerous.

The rivarly in The Illusionist: Ed Norton is a poor but kind performer in love with Jessica Biel. Rufus Sewell is the scheming crown prince engaged to Jessica Biel. Problem: only one Jessica Biel. And then with her murder, apparently committed by Rufus when she was choosing Ed... no Jessica Biels!

One is crafted. The other is: "You know every love story, different worlds, wrong side of the tracks, Romeo and Whatsername... it's like that."


Here's where I confess a modest but growing soft spot for Ms. Biel. When the movies were coming out, I thought the casting of the female in the love triangle said it all-- there's the Scarlet Johansson movie (probably classy and committed to the period) and then there's the Jessica Biel one, which probably had Scarlet at the top of their list, too, but couldn't get her, so they moved on down to a more attainable actress who'd most recently co-starred with a fighter plane. But I have to say-- Jessica was sweet and pretty and held her own with the fairly strong Ed Norton presence. Scarlet? I barely remember her. She faded into the background behind the two compelling leading men.

This has clearly devolved from "story lesson" into "casting things that make you go hmm", but oh well.


Ooh. A biggie. Sorry, Jessica, you can't save this category.

The magic in The Prestige is exciting. We learn how tricks are done-- and how they can be undone. We see our illusionists go to extreme lengths for their latest illusions, including breaking the rules of nature. And the couple of big mysteries -- the how was he doing thats -- are revealed in the big, climactic, fairly surprising finale... because they have to be, right? Who'd want to see a movie about illusionists without getting down and dirty in the illusions?

In The Illusionist, we simply don't get to see the man behind the curtain. He's not our hero, remember? Other than the explanation of Jessica Biel's manipulated murder (which, by the way, is about as simple and artless as it could possibly be), we don't get much in the way of revelations... many a CG-laden "illusion" goes unexplained, or at least unsatisfactorily. Hey, Ed, how did you make "apparitions" appear on the stage?


I loved The Prestige's dark-yet-sweeping feel. The nonlinear aspects helped-- I was always on my toes, trying to follow the various threads, much like a mark tries to follow which cup the ball is under.

In contrast, The Illusionist felt golden and shiny-- maybe a more pleasant world to be in, but also a much more Hollywoodified one.


The Prestige
: complete commitment to one's art. The laws of the natural world. Duality. Transformation. The devastation wrought by rage and grudges. Brotherhood. Friendship.

The Illusionist
: um... love? True love?


The Prestige is the better movie. It takes more chances, it's atmospheric, it's original, and it feels like a journey. But I do not knock for one second those of you who are sometimes just looking for something to watch while Mum's over. (She says, having just finished a new draft of a very golden & shiny rom-com.)


May 21, 2007

Hope: Now Fully Transferable

Regular Reversals readers know I love a good (okay, even a bad) horror movie.

That's my lead-in to talking about Black Christmas. Which wasn't, by the way, all that bad. At the very least, it was fun-- gleefully silly, as opposed to the increasingly common dialled-in gunk.

Anyway. Black Christmas follows a bunch of sorority sisters as they're stalked by a serial killer. Subconsciously, as a viewer, you see several potential victims, and start placing your bets on who will stand up as the hero and survive this ordeal.

Without even realizing it, I placed my bets (in the form of hoping/assuming they'll survive) on the character played by Michelle Trachtenberg. The only other sorority sister with a recognizable face was Lacey Chabert, and her character seemed too dumb to last. But Michelle... she seemed sensible. Ready for a fight.

So midway through the second act, when Michelle bit it, I was genuinely surprised. And started casting about for the next possible hero I could pin my hopes on.

And that's when I realized: sometimes horrors are simply about someone surviving. It doesn't actually matter that much who. The horror movie is the world gone wrong. As long as one of our characters can take down the monster, the world is set right again.

Other examples of this "as long as someone survives" phenomenon: Pitch Black and Deep Blue Sea. (Got others?)

I can't believe it's taken me so long to process this simple truth. I'm sure there are many-a-masters-thesis out there on this very subject.

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May 13, 2007

The X Factor

A few people who know me have asked why I haven't blogged about some recent movies they know I've seen.

The truth is, I liked them too much.

Or maybe it's not as simple as that.

Let's explore this together, shall we, virtual therapy loyal blog readers?

The movies in question are Children of Men, Little Children, Pan's Labyrinth, and The Lives of Others. Haven't blogged about a one. Loved 'em all.

I thought about blogging about genre. Or genre hybrids. Children of Men seems like a sci-fi action movie that defies some of its genre conventions (i.e., there's not a whole lotta sci- in that fi). Pan's Labyrinth: the fairy tale no child should see. Little Children seems almost genreless... how is it getting away with that? It's part satire, part comedy, part drama, part romance... it's mystifying.

I also thought about blogging on the topic of subplots that are, in fact, the movie. Little Children's love story doesn't hold a candle to its pedophile character study; Lives of Others flips back and forth between a character we hope will change, and a character we hope will succeed/survive. Which is the hero? And Pan's Labyrinth, of course, plays the traditional fantasy quest tale as a subplot to (distraction from?) the main story of battling fascism in the above-ground world.

I couldn't bring myself to write these posts, though.

When I went to write a post about a "lesson", the lessons just seemed beside the point. Why take a single lesson out of a movie that, as a whole, knocks you out?

Would doing so reduce a movie one loves to less than its whole? Is it messing with the gestalt of the thing? I'm not one of those people who believes you can't love what you carefully study; otherwise, I'd never write this blog.

And yet...

...there is a reluctance.

How about we leave it at this: each of these movies had an effect on me that lasted beyond the experience in the theatre. I was, for lack of a better word, "haunted''. I kept thinking about the film long after I'd seen it. This is so rare, and I love it when it happens.

How do you write to haunt? I'm sure I don't know. There's definitely an X factor there. I'd be a fool to pretend I knew how to create the X factor. (Or, if I did, I'd be a fool not to be peddling it in small vials by the side of the road.)

The lesson for me, anyway, is: go for broke at least once in your career. Surely the farther you reach, the likelier it is you'll hit on something truly great.

May 06, 2007

Horror Movie Real Estate

Horror movies are often set in the big city, the suburbs, or the middle of nowhere. There are advantages to all of those environments. In the city, you've got endless setpiece possibilities. In the suburbs, built-in satire. In the middle of nowhere... well, in the middle of nowhere, no one can hear you scream.

But seeing Slither reminded me that, sometimes, you're best off setting your horror in a small town.

Unlike a suburb, a small town is a microcosm. It's an entire world in and of itself. You get the schoolteacher fighting alongside the sheriff fighting alongside the old priest.

And everybody's neighbours; because everybody knows one another, the stakes feel somehow higher. "Oh no, it got old Mrs. Vandercramp! And her pet parakeet Simone!"

Plus, in the small town, you get that bonus feeling of things just being more wrong somehow. People get eaten at the church bake sale or whatever. There's a bigger gap between the world that should be, and the world that is. (Let's face it, those of us in big cities pretty much expect death by masked serial killer and/or werewolf.)

Look out, small towns: we're coming after you.

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