You come out of “Idlewild” looking forward to whatever its director, Bryan Barber, decides to do next. Barber, the man behind many an Outkast video, has definitely done right by the duo’s first movie. The frames are rich with detail, and the images jump and pulsate. And possibly because he wasn’t aware that it’s not generally a cool thing to do — or more likely because he didn’t care — Barber makes bold use of animation to add extra fizz to the proceedings. The picture is wonderful fun just to look at.
It’s not a run-of-the-mill rappers-make-a-movie movie, either. The story has standard elements — it’s a buddy comedy, and a musical, and a ’30s gangster flick, too — but they’re swirled together with a buoyant spirit; you can almost feel the filmmakers’ excitement about what they’re achieving. You want it all to work, and a good bit of it does.
It’s 1935, and two life-long pals named Rooster and Percival (Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and Andre “3000″ Benjamin) are passing their time, with different degrees of success, in their sleepy hometown of Idlewild, Georgia. Rooster grew up in the bootlegging trade; Percival’s father (Ben Vereen) is an undertaker. Rooster manages the town’s amusingly elaborate nightclub/bordello, called Church, where chorus girls flounce around the stage in pink-feathered splendor, patrons jitterbug riotously across the dance floor, and Rooster himself performs every night, backed by a band that includes Percival (moonlighting from the family funeral business) on piano.
Rooster gets his hooch from an amiable mobster called Spats (Ving Rhames); but when one of Spats’ thugs, Trumpy (Terrence Howard), decides to move himself up in the operation, things get complicated, and then dangerous. Meanwhile, the introverted Percival, who has a gift for songwriting, keeps putting off his dream of leaving Idlewild to pursue a musical career in some larger, more toddling town. He gets a powerful nudge, however, with the arrival of Angel (Paula Patton, in a star-making performance), a beautiful singer from St. Louis who’s been booked into the Church for an extended residency. Angel is pursuing her dream, and when she falls for the under-motivated Percival, she urges him to start chasing his, too.
The movie is filled with music, of course, and while attempting to incorporate rap into ’30s-style jump-band numbers sounds like a dodgy idea, Big Boi pulls it off so smoothly (in his first performance scene, at least) that it takes a moment before you register that he is, in fact, rapping. (Later, however, when he breaks out into a rap in the middle of a guns-blazing car chase, you wince in dismay.) In any case, the attempt to demonstrate a through-line of black musical continuity — from Jelly Roll Morton and Cow Cow Davenport, who both get name-checked, right up to the hip-hop present — is a worthy one, and for the most part entertaining, too.
The movie’s cast (which includes Patti LaBelle, Cicely Tyson, and Macy Gray as a trash-talking, whiskey-slugging club girl) is energetic and engaging — there’s a ton of personality on display. But whenever Terrence Howard puts in an appearance, he owns the picture. His Trumpy is an unsettling piece of work, a gunman with a smile that can light up whatever room he’s in — until his face goes slack and his eyes go dead, and suddenly he’s very scary.
The most intriguing parts of the film are its visual conceptions — one in particular. It’s set in Percival’s bedroom, where he sleeps beneath a wall full of cuckoo clocks (there must be a dozen of them). Whenever it’s wake-up time, the wooden birds all come rocketing out on their little pedestals and burst into song — a hilarious sleepy-guy’s nightmare. Another animated effect — a namesake barnyard fowl embossed on the front of Rooster’s silver hip flask that intermittently springs to life and starts yakking at him (in the voice of Fonzworth Bentley) — is funny the first couple of times we see it, but increasingly less so after that. (As for the dancing staff notes that cavort across Percival’s sheet music, they might have been more wisely limited to a single appearance.)
So what’s not to like? Well, one of the stars is decidedly problematic. Not Big Boi — he’s a movie natural, bristling with a sharp, hustler’s charisma. His partner Andre, however — a figure of enormous appeal within the context of Outkast — is a glum, muddling presence here, and he drains the life out of just about every scene he’s in. This is a serious problem, because Percival and Angel’s love story takes up half of the movie. And while Paula Patton (no relation to Mr. Boi, by the way) holds up her end of this lopsided relationship with radiant sweetness, Andre simply has no facility as an actor, and no energy, and so his scenes droop dismally. He is a brilliant musician, of course — but oddly, that doesn’t serve the movie particularly well, either. One number that he sings with Patton is so eccentrically structured, and its harmonies are so out-there (at least on first hearing), that it’s difficult to process as a song.
There are also two scenes in the film that just about stop it dead. One involves Big Boi and an old woman with a car full of kids and a Bible. It’s an overlong attempt to illustrate a homiletic little message that doesn’t need to be driven home with a jackhammer, but, alas, is. The other scene involves Andre singing to a corpse — I’ll say no more. (He might want to re-think this singing thing in any event.)
For all of its virtues — its rousing dance scenes, its visual invention, its great overall look — “Idlewild” loses steam in its second half, and it dribbles away in search of a solid ending. Which is too bad — the picture blazes an adventurous new trail for hip-hop movies. It’ll be interesting to watch director Barber, at least, keep blazing.
“The Illusionist”: Mystery Achievement
Director Neil Burger conjures up the wonder of magic without recourse to special effects. Not many of them, anyway — and especially not the hyper-digital kind, which have become so familiar by now that they’re almost a sort of anti-magic, putting our imagination to sleep as their predictable wonders wash over our eyes.
“The Illusionist” is set in Vienna at the end of the 19th century. An enigmatic magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton) has arrived in town and begun putting on shows in a local theater. His illusions are so baffling that the people who crowd in to see them each night begin to believe they might actually be otherworldly in origin. Word of these feats soon reaches Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), the son of the Emperor. Leopold (a fictional character who loosely suggests the actual Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, ill-omened son of the Emperor Franz Josef I) is a man capable of the sort of casual brutality that comes naturally to someone born to absolute power; but he’s also a determinedly modern man of high intelligence, and thus an enemy of superstition. He dispatches his top policeman, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), to get to the bottom of Eisenheim’s tricks.
Uhl is at a loss to explain the things Eisenheim does onstage. The inspector watches as he sprinkles seeds into a pot and coaxes up a miniature orange tree, which proceeds to blossom. He marvels as a handkerchief — last seen in the possession of a member of the audience — comes drifting out over the flickering footlights, held aloft by two tiny butterflies. An amateur magician himself, Uhl is wildly impressed, and utterly bewildered.
Leopold, frustrated by his inspector’s failure to provide an explanation for this retrograde fakery, decides to attend one of Eisenheim’s shows personally, and he takes along his fiancée, the Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel). When the magician calls for a volunteer from the audience to assist in one of his illusions, Leopold sends Sophie up. As it happens — and as they suddenly realize — Sophie and Eisenheim know each other. They were teenage lovers years before, until her noble family ran the low-born Eisenheim off. It was this sorrowful event that impelled the budding magician to set out on a long journey through Europe and Asia — years of wandering in which he accrued the esoteric skills he has since deployed nightly onstage. Now reunited with the love of his youth, and of his life, Eisenheim resolves not to lose Sophie again.
The story becomes a battle of wills between the prince and the magician, with Inspector Uhl, a good man at heart, caught between them. Complicating things is a royal plot that could shake the foundations of the Habsburg Empire. There’s also an unexpected death that seems to signal the story’s conclusion — but it takes place within an overarching illusion that proves to be Eisenheim’s most daring feat yet.
The movie was filmed in Prague, and the city’s cobbled streets and brooding Gothic atmosphere offer a convincing approximation of fin de siècle Vienna. The images have been treated in a way that suggests tinted daguerreotype photography, and there’s a visual unity to the picture that’s entrancing to behold. As Eisenheim, Edward Norton, with his black frock coat and his severe goatee, manages a magical feat of his own: He embodies a character who is essentially unknowable, and yet, with the subtlest of physical indications, makes him fascinating. We’re never sure about Eisenheim. Is he simply an expert showman, or are his powers possibly real? (For the film, Norton trained with the superb magician Ricky Jay — who also consulted on the movie’s vintage illusions — and when he gracefully manipulates coins and spheres along the tips of his fingers, we know he was an apt pupil.)
The rest of the cast performs at a similarly refined level. Paul Giamatti captures the mixed feelings of a man rooted in the world of class and duty but drawn to the more liberated realm of imaginative possibility. Rufus Sewell’s Leopold is similarly conflicted — for him, Eisenheim represents a credulous peasant past from which the world needs to be delivered. Jessica Biel solidly portrays Sophie as a strong-minded woman imprisoned within the strictures of her privileged social class, and longing to escape into the sovereign freedom that Eisenheim has found. (Biel’s peach-toned beauty adds another ravishing pictorial element to the film.)
“The Illusionist” is the kind of ambitious and lovingly crafted movie that people are always wishing Hollywood would make more of. (Not that “Hollywood” made this one — it’s an independent production.) So I wish the picture’s conclusion — the working out of the final illusion — weren’t quite so abrupt, and that it added up more convincingly. Considering the general run of more heftily budgeted films this summer, though, that barely qualifies as a quibble.
— Kurt Loder
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