No cheap tricks or illusions behind 'The Prestige'
Published: Thursday, March 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 1, 2007 at 12:27 a.m.
You're a magician, not a wizard." This is a stern warning from experienced stage magician Cutter (Michael Caine) to his ambitious apprentice Angier (Hugh Jackman) in "The Prestige."
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In most movies, magic implies spells, robes, elves and broomsticks. But both "The Prestige" and "The Illusionist" deal with men who use trickery and sleight of hand to perform as stage magicians. There are no occult forces here, just talented showmen practicing an old craft.
Although both movies deal with magic, and both feature the world's best actors, they couldn't be more different.
"The Prestige" is the latest film from Christopher Nolan, director of "Memento" and "Batman Begins," and once again he creates a story based around an obsession. It's my favorite type of obsession - the blood feud. And this is one for the ages; it's like David Copperfield versus Doug Henning crossed with Batman versus Wolverine.
Angier and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are magician's assistants, learning the trade from Cutter. Borden's mistake in a trick leads to Angier's wife drowning, and the rivalry is born. Angier sabotages Borden's show, leaving him disfigured, and Borden wrecks Angier's career in turn.
Angier is a better showman, but Borden is a more talented magician. Angier becomes obsessed with learning Borden's greatest trick, the Transported Man. Professional humiliation leads to violence, and a guy even gets buried alive, before Angier's quest leads him to the doorstep of Nicola Tesla (David Bowie - yes, David Bowie!), and things really get crazy.
It should also be mentioned that as the movie starts, Borden is on trial for the murder of Angier. But is anything as it seems with these magicians?
"The Prestige" is a complicated, convoluted little film. Much like his backwards-traveling "Memento," the director uses a narrative that jumps back and forth through time. The plot itself is labyrinthine, with so many twists and turns that my little plot synopsis just barely scratches the surface.
Jackman holds up his end of the feud as the driven, arrogant Angier, and the supporting cast is fantastic (Caine and Bowie are both phenomenal). But once again Christian Bale gives a remarkably layered, nuanced performance when he doesn't have to. Like with "Batman," he creates a surprisingly complex character that you can't truly appreciate until the movie has ended.
"The Prestige" is a very dark, grim movie; maybe too much so for some viewers. But I thought it was an amazing piece of work.
It opens with Caine explaining the three parts of a magic trick - the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. The beauty of the film is that it follows this initial outline, and tricks you with sleight of hand - this isn't a movie with a "big shocking twist" ending, because the plot turns make sense, and most of the pivotal information is shown to you at the beginning of the film.
"The Prestige" was right up my alley, and beautifully done. Definitely one of the best DVDs so far this year.
"The Illusionist" is more of a love story, but still very dark and grim. Edward Norton stars as Eisenheim the Illusionist, a performer of such remarkable ability that it draws the attention of the Crown Prince. The Crown Prince is, of course, a self-righteous jerkwad (played to perfection by Rufus Sewell) who just so happens to be betrothed to Eisenheim's childhood sweetheart (Jessica Biel).
Will Eisenheim be able to outwit the smarmy Prince? Will poor Jessica Biel have to marry that cad? Will Eisenheim make good on his childhood promise to "make her disappear"?
Unfortunately this movie must have been written in Morse code, because it is all telegraphed from the opening flashbacks. Where "The Prestige" tricks you by giving you all the clues you need early on, "The Illusionist" just has a lazy, clichéd plot that makes the ending seem pretty obvious.
How obvious? Well, I'll tell you a true story. When I watched this DVD, I got about halfway through it, and had to pause it to take care of my daughter. I was so convinced that I knew what was going to happen, that when my wife got home I told her all about the film and spoiled the ending for her. It wasn't until two days later I realized that I had never finished watching the film. I told my wife the ending without actually having seen it, my brain just filled in the blanks.
So I finished watching the movie, and it turns out I was right. And that doesn't speak very highly of the story. Another problem is the illusions themselves. They are neat to look at, yes, but since they are almost entirely rendered in CGI there is no sense of stage magic - it seems a little too George Lucas-like for the mood of the movie.
On the plus side, the acting is fantastic. Norton is one of the best in the business, as is his co-star, Paul Giamatti. The scenes these two men have together (Giamatti as a policeman intrigued by Eisenheim, and forced to investigate him) are the best moments of the film.
"The Illusionist" is not a bad movie at all; it is well shot, visually appealing and well acted (even Biel is better than usual). But it isn't a memorable one. It is a lot softer and more romantic at heart than "The Prestige" and therefore has more widespread, mainstream appeal. But it's not nearly as engrossing.
Both movies are set 100 years gone by, and for good reason. Today, stage magic is dominated by theater geeks like David Copperfield and animal lovers like Siegfried & Roy. There is a new breed of "street magicians" like Criss Angel and uber-weirdo David Blane.
But these films are set in a time when magic was a popular form of entertainment, and taken seriously by its practitioners. I'm not sure if this is true, or something invented by the screenwriters so that Angier, Borden, and Eisenheim didn't have to engage in such drama at children's birthday parties. Although now that I think about it, that doesn't sound like a bad idea for a sequel - "The Illusionist Part 2: Sophie's Sweet Sixteen."
Saw a movie critic in half at Rewindcolumn@hotmail.com
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