on January 8, 2007
Proof positive that director Christopher Nolan, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are among the finest, richest talents in Hollywood, "The Prestige" is a wickedly clever and riveting tale of all consuming obsession. Don't be fooled by the magic angle. This is a classic tale that simply uses rival magicians and the tricks of their trade to illustrate what all-too driven individuals are willing to unleash on one another in the name of one-upsmanship and superiority. Bale and Jackman are terrific as the pair of rival magic men who try to destroy each other, their destructive animosity etched on their faces. And its a showcase for the considerable talents of Christopher Nolan, who (along with his screenwriter kin Johnathon Nolan) executes one the most impressively acrobatic balancing acts in cinematic storytelling with the ease of a born illusionist. Set in turn of the century England, magicians Alfred Borden (Bale) and Robert Angier (Jackman) toil to ascend to the upper echelons of the London entertainment circuit, under the tutelage of Cutter (the always superb Michael Caine), an experienced magician's aide. Borden's and Angier's relationship turns poisionous after a tragic accident during a routine show, and both attempt to sabotage to other's attempt to rebuild their stiymied careers until Borden unveils a mind-boggling trick called the "Transported Man," and Angier is driven nearly insane trying to discover Borden's methods that may (or may not) involve revolutionary new electrical technology developed by Nikola Tesla (a suprisingly restrained and haunting David Bowie). The Nolan brothers take this story and send through the gauntlet, using flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks keep their audience just a little off guard and totally unprepared for the final twists that come furiously flying in the film's film's minutes while never losing sight of the slowly deteriorating psyches of their characters. In other words, they tell their story just as any good magician would perform his trick. But stick with them. The film, although sometimes a grueling task to follow, steadily coalesces and amply rewards the careful observer. Besides, Wally Pfister's cinematography, which finds the right balance of elegance and grittiness, and Lee Smith's rhythmic editing practically draw the audience in. If "The Prestige" somehow passed you by in theaters, do not let it slip by now. Watch closely at the on the best films waiting to be discovered.
on October 22, 2006
2006 has been a quiet year for event films. The predicted blockbusters this past summer pretty much underperformed despite some being exactly as good as I thought they'd be. Other than Johnny Depp and the gang's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, every blockbuster didn't blow the industry out of the water. It's a very good thing that I had smaller films to tide me over. This year has been a very good ones for some independent-minded and smaller films which came out during the slow first couple months of the year and during the graveyard release months between the end of summer and the start of the late year holidays. I've already had the chance to see such very good films like Running Scared from Wayne Kramer and Hard Candy from David Slade to The Proposition from John Hillcoat. I am glad to say that Christopher Nolan's film adaptation of Christopher Priest's novel, The Prestige is another non-blockbuster that excites, entertains and, in the end, keeps the audience mystified but not confused.
I've read Christopher Priest's novel about dueling late 19th-century London magicians. It's a novel written in epistolary format with each chapter and section written as entries into the journal of one of the main characters in the story. The novel itself is pretty straightforward as it tells the story in near chronological order. I was hesistant to embrace this film adaptation when I first heard about it since alot of the mystery of of the story wouldn't translate so well in film if they followed the strict order of how the story was told in the novel. For Christopher Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, to just adapt the novel straight-out would've made for a dull and boring mystery-thriller. I was glad that the Nolan brothers were inventive enough to borrow abit from Christopher Nolan's first feature film, Memento. Their film adaptation of The Prestige doesn't go backwards in its narrative, but it does mixes up the chronological order of the story somewhat, but not to the point that Tarantino does in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. The two Nolans fudges abit with the timeline to add some backstory filler to help give the characters that Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman portrays with the reason for their pathological obsession with each other.
Christopher and Jonathan Nolan's screenplay for The Prestige was able to keep the mystery of the story intact, but it also keeps the amount of red herrings in such films to a minimum. Michael Caine's character, Harry Cutter, opens up the film explaining just exactly what constitutes a magic trick on stage. How it's divided into three parts. First, there's "The Pledge" wherein the magician shows the audience something ordinary he or she will use in the trick. Soon, the magician will follow this up with "The Turn" where the abovementioned ordinary object does something extraordinary in front of the audience. The pay-off of the magician's trick is "The Prestige" where the audience's astonishment occurs as they fail to deconstruct and figure out the means of the trick. That's pretty much the film in a nutshell. It's one big magic trick. The clues are there for the audience to see, gather and extrapolate their answer to the mystery that is the story. The screenplay doesn't treat the audience as if they need to be hand-held throughout the film. In fact, anyone who pays attention will be able to solve one-half of the mystery by the first hour. I won't say exactly whose half of the mystery it will be but people will be kicking themselves afterwards if they don't figure it out right away.
This magic trick of a film does have its many underlying layers of themes to add some complexity, drama and tension to the characters of Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman). I've already mentioned that throughout the film their mutual obsession about each other is due to a backstory detailing their past. A past where they were initially friends --- rivals even --- and apprentices to the magician Harry Cutter (excellently played by Michael Caine as the only voice of reason throughout the film). Borden and Angier's obsession is not just in ruining and sabotaging each other's magic tricks and lives, but also trying to find out each other's secrets as they both learn magic tricks which amaze and thrill the gentry of London's stage. From the beginning of the film these two characters begin a journey towards a path of destructive behavior which puts not just each other's lives at risk, but those who they care about. All of it in the name of humiliating and upstaging the other due to a tragic incident early in their mutual careers. These two individuals were not sympathetic characters and I applaud Christopher Nolan and his brother for not softening up their hard edges.
Most adaptors will try to make a story's characters more sympathetic and likable. They went the opposite in The Prestige. But even these two dark characters continue to exude the charisma and strong personalities that the audience will root for one or the other. Should they root for the charismatic and born shownman that Hugh Jackman's Angier character plays or go for the perfectionist Borden character Christian Bale plays. A perfectionist whose technical skills surpasses that of Angier's but whose introverted and brooding personality makes him little or no stage presence.
Both Jackman and Bale play their characters well. The film wouldn't be so good if it wasn't for the work of these two actors. It helps that they're surrounded by quality supporting character like Michael Caine as the seasoned, veteran mentor to the dueling magicians. Even Scarlett Johansson does very well with the part she's given. It's a part that many sees as more of a throwaway character. A piece of very good-looking distraction for both the story and the audience. But she gamely plays the role of pawn for both Angier and Borden. Unlike Michael Caine's character who remains the singular voice of sanity in the film, even Johansson's character of Olivia gets pulled into the obsessions and betrayals that's plagued both Angier and Borden. But in the end, she's just part of the process of "The Turn" and if people have been watching the film closely right from the beginning then she's also a clue as to the secret of one of the amazing magic tricks shown by the two magicians.
The Prestige also has a distinct look about it. The 19th-century London just before the start of the new millenium gives it a certain sense of Victorian-era familiarity. Production designer Nathan Crowley shows a London at the height of its Gilded Age, but soon gives way to a certain steampunk look as inventor Nikola Tesla makes an appearance during an integral part of the story. David Bowie portrays Tesla as an eccentric genius whose search for the secrets of the universe will lead to the discovery of what many of that era would consider magic. It's the ingenius looking technology created for the Tesla sequence which finally gives The Prestige it's root in fantasy and science-fiction. The film doesn't dwell on this new development but from that part of the story and until the end, the film takes on a look and feel of a steampunk mystery-thriller. There's not enough films that tries to mine this new subgenre and I, for one, am glad that Christopher Nolan added this new dimension to the film's overall look.
In the end, The Prestige really needs to be seen to be appreciated and for people to make up their minds about the film. Some will see it as a thriller with twists and turns that doesn't insult the intelligence of its audience. Some may see the film as just one large gimmick from start to end. Those people will probably be correct as well. The film at its most basic level is one long magic trick with all three acts. It has "The Pledge" which is then followed up by "The Turn" and then ends with "The Prestige". It will be up to each individual who sees the film to make the final decision as to whether they've bought into all three acts of the magic trick that is The Prestige, or come away having felt like they've wasted their time. I've not come across many who felt like the latter, even those whose own feelings about the film don't reach the same level of praise as I have for Christopher Nolan's latest offering. All I know is that this is a film that delivers on its premise to confound and amaze. It also continues to validate my views that Bruce Wayne and Batman are in very good hands with Christopher Nolan at the wheel. The Prestige is easily one of the best film of 2006.
Like many other reviewers, I came into Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige" with high expectations. He, thus far, has a pretty good track record in my book. "Batman Begins" ranks highly among adult comic book movies, but prior to that--he scored big with the sublime "Memento" and the underappreciated "Insomnia" (where, miraculously, he coaxed restrained performances from both Al Pacino and Robin Williams). So teaming Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in a dark and twisty tale of obsession and revenge seemed like movie nirvana. And "The Prestige," while not a perfect film, certainly provides its leads with robust roles and delivers much to admire.
Set in the world of magic, two practitioners (Bale and Jackman) start out together in an act devised by Michael Caine. When a tragedy strikes, Jackman loses his wife and holds Bale accountable. Though they go their separate ways, they never mentally disconnect. Jackman plots revenge, Bale retaliates and their lives become a complex game of one-upmanship--as each strives to be the better illusionist, to boast the better trick. The film is a sleek and nasty mechanism as rage and jealousy propel the action. While this has left some people feeling cold--there is no one to particularly root for--I found it refreshingly mean spirited and believable. Jackman and Bale both give great, passionate performances. Whether or not you like the movie, I think it would be hard not to see that these are two undervalued performers getting a chance to do some "big" acting. Caine is terrific, as always, and Scarlett Johansson is perfect as a woman caught between the feuding warriors.
As you might expect from a Nolan film, there are some surprises--some tricks to be revealed in the film's prestige. Now I have an eye for movie "surprises," I guess I'm too suspicious or analytical. I figured out one of the primary surprises early on--but that didn't lessen my interest in the film, I was just as curious to see how it played out. The film is built in a multilayered flashback structure that is interesting and rewarding. It adds to the dramatic revelations of the final act. But there is a science fiction element that is dropped in at the last moment. And while I know that the film is actually based on a sci-fi work, this was the least compelling aspect of the film. In fact, it might have ruined a lesser movie altogether. After so much real emotion, such a fantastic setup, so much believability--this plot twist quickly brings what was a great film back to earth as a good one.
"The Prestige" is a satisfying and adult treat. It boasts some of the best performances of the year, and is beautiful and fascinating to look at. It's quality filmmaking, one that is recommended despite the shortcomings of the final payoff. KGHarris, 12/06.
NOTE: If you're wondering whether the Blu Ray purchase is a worthy one over the DVD, it is. The picture quality is consistenly completely smooth with a wonderful sense of depth that really shines through. The audio, meanwhile, is subdued but wonderfully so. The uncompressed surround is terrific. Now that the tech specs are out of the way, onto the bulk:
Ever since Christopher Nolan's little seen movie entitled Following, I knew we had a director worth keeping an eye on. Following that up with Memento was perfection and then there was the oft overlooked Insomnia. Then, he reinvented the Batman saga. However, scrunched between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight was this little movie about magic, named The Prestige. Actually, it wasn't really about magic. It's about obsession, misdirection and mysterious plot twists...pretty much par for the course.
Nolan has crafted a fine story that runs like a trainwreck. From the first death in the film, you know that things can't end happily. At every corner, each magician tries to top the other, but neither is strong enough to know when to stop. And what happens when someone has a trick that is utterly impossible to pull off? How do you top it? By doing the unimaginable.
And it's the unimaginable that will either make you love or loathe this film.
When I saw The Prestige in the theatres back in 2006, I left feeling a little bit cheated. After a pitch perfect first two acts, in which Jackman's Angier and Bale's Borden continued to try and upstage/get back at each other, Christopher Nolan (and brother Jonathan) threw an utter curveball that seemd to not only stretch my belief in what I was watching but completely seemed out of place. I thought about the movie for a long time and decided that I ultimately didn't like it.
The other day, it was playing on a movie channel and I managed to catch it just as the opening credits were running. "I'll just watch a little bit of it," I thought and ended up staying for the entire runtime. I bring this up because what I find so thrilling and interesting about The Nolans is just how well-constructed (to a fault) their movies are. The continual moving back and forth in time is nothing new to them (Following, Memento), but the way it's constructed, perfectly, as the three acts of a magic trick is pure...well, magic.
And watching through it a second time illuminated just how early they set up the events. The twisting third act no longer seemed utterly incredulous (only just semi-incredulous). The other not-so-out-there twist seemed incredily "duh!" but what was perfectly appropriate was simply how well a fairly obvious answer is hidden in plain sight and yet, not seen.
In the end, the final lines speak volumes: "Now you're looking for the secret. But you wont find it because of course, you're not really looking. You don't really want to work it out. You want to be...fooled."
MOVIE: The Prestige is Christopher Nolan's new thriller and also the second film about magicians that we've seen in the past few months. A lot of people compare it to The Illusionist, but in fact we have two very different films here. The Prestige tells the story of Robert (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred (Christian Bale), two friends who make their living as magicians in London. The two start to become competatitve and try and outdo each other with every new trick. When Alfred performs the amazing transportation trick it drives Robert insane as he tries to figure out the secret. His assistant played by Michael Caine says he uses a double, but Robert believes otherwise. He travels to see Nikola Tesla (played surprisingly well by David Bowie), a mysterious man who designed a machine for Alfred once. Tesla's assistant is played by the one and only Andy Serkis who is finally branching away from Peter Jackson. What follows is a great and entertaining film, but it's really more about the tricks and the twists than it is about the characters.
The film is incredibly stylish and it has Christopher Nolan written all over it. He crafts a great film and follows the structure of the magician's act. Act one of the film is indeed the pledge, and we see something that seems ordinary but probably isn't. This seemingly innocent rivalry is more than meets the eye. Act two is the turn in where the magician makes this ordinary something become extraordinary. This point comes when Alfred performs the inexplicably amazing transportation trick. We think we know what's going on, but Nolan knows where he's leading his audience; we know nothing. The final act is called the prestige, where all the twists and turns are presented to the audience. Once this suspense ride finally resolves and ends, the audience is left sitting tensely in their seats as the screen fades to black. "Directed By Christopher Nolan" appears on the screen and we realize who the true magician is. The film is a wild ride with incredible atmosphere and great acting. You truly are captivated by the setting of the film. David Julyan's tense ambient score keeps things on the edge and Wally Pfister's dark and muted cinematography creates the perfect mood. The only flaw of the film is the lack of emotion we as the audience have for the characters. Throughout the entire film we are thinking "oh, what turn is going to happen next?!", not "what is going to happen to Robert!". Don't get me wrong, the characters are strong enough to carry the film, but the film should be centered around them not the magic.
ACTING: As in terms of acting we get a fine slate. Christopher Nolan brings his Batman Begins buddies back and we have Christian Bale and Michael Caine. Hugh Jackman has the lead role with supporting work from David Bowie, Andy Serkis, and Scarlett Johansson. Christian Bale steals the show and crafts a very deceiving character, which all the more helps the impact of the twist ending. Bale finally gets to act with his native English accent, and it's interesting to hear him with it since we are so used to him speaking with an American accent. Hugh Jackman does a superb job at matching Bale's screen presence. The acting is great all around, and it always is when it's a Nolan film.
BOTTOM LINE: Nolan delivers a crafty and suspenseful film. It's visually stunning with great cinematography and set design. However, on the character side it lacks to deliver an emotional punch, the film is purely contextual. It's a great movie though that promises to entertain.
on January 7, 2007
If you are a fan of Steam Punk (Verne-Wells Victorian Sci-Fi, "The Wild, Wild, West"), or love the edgier episodes of "The Twilight Zone," then you will love the movie.
It is essentially a psychodrama about a rivalry and obsession that goes out of control. The distinct difference is that this is a Steam Punk Victorian Era, which is only revealed at the end of the movie, and various Christophers associated with this project (writer, director) used the rivalry of magicians as the friction-point.
About one-third of the way through, my heart was broken because I could tell there were no heroes in the move. This is a credit to all involved, since it illustrates the point that obsession, rivalry, and revenge are like an oil slick: everyone is left greasy and dirty. Even the mentors who should have known better are dingy.
Additionally, the non-linear flashback/flash forward added to the theme. What we see is one odd lump of humanity. Again, this lumpiness reminds us of the sad results of obsession, rivalry, and revenge.
I do have one criticism. Tesla was portrayed as being cautious toward science. This is inaccurate. Even at this stage in his life, he still had a burning passion for science. His autobiography begins with these words, "The progressive development of man is vitally dependent on invention. It is the most important product of his creative brain. Its ultimate purpose is the complete mastery of mind over the material world, the harnessing of the forces of nature to human needs. This is the difficult task of the inventor who is often misunderstood and unrewarded. But he finds ample compensation in the pleasing exercises of his powers and in the knowledge of being one of that exceptionally privileged class without whom the race would have long ago perished in the bitter struggle against pitiless elements."
Read "Tesla: Man Out Of Time" for a more accurate description of the Wizard of Colorado Springs.
Note: The ending almost left with a feeling of deus ex machine, but after reviewing this film--it is shuffled like "Citizen Kane"--I realized there were enough clues and proper set up for the semi-surprise ending.
PS--and yes, seeing Wolverine, Batman, Gollum, and Ziggy Stardust in one film makes it worth seeing.
on January 22, 2007
This year brought us two magic movies and both were good in their own way. Only one of them was truly great, though. I enjoyed "The Illusionist" thoroughly. My only problem was that I felt it was bogged down by a rote love story and a predictable ending. After seeing "The Prestige", I felt like the filmmakers had learned a lesson from "The Illusionist" on how not to make a film about magic. Of course that isnt really possible considering they had to have been made around the same time. In fact, "The Prestige" may have been shot earlier as Nolan was getting in to work on the next Batman film. In several interviews, Christopher Nolan regarded "The Prestige" almost as a stop-gap film. He said he wanted to do something small and quick before going back to Batman. Which makes his achievement here all the more impressive.
He has crafted a movie with real magic in it that seems to have an endless amount of thought put into it. This movie gets better and better and better every time you see it. For this man's stop-gap film to be so thoughtful and rewarding, one can only imagine what kind of a movie he would make if he was really going all out. But maybe that kind of toss-off attitude is what's key to this movie's success. It feels so fresh and alive partly because the performances seem off the cuff and spontaneous. Like maybe the director got together with some buddies and said, "Let's have some fun with this". And much of the fun in this movie revolves around messing with your head. Yeah, you. The one watching the movie.
"The Prestige" plays like a magic trick from beginning to end. Without spoiling anything, I must say that the description of a magic trick that Michael Caine gives in the movie can easily apply to the construction of the actual film he's saying it in. The opening shot is really fantastic as it sets the dark mood and gives you an important clue in unlocking the film's secrets. Of particular note as well is the fine work of the two lead actors, particularly Hugh Jackman, who has displayed an incredible range this year with both his dual role here (don't ask) and his career best work in "The Fountain". These two incredibly talented guys spar with each other in a far more satisfying way than Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti do in "The Illusionist". Here you feel a real danger and ferocity that hits you right in the gut. Kudos also to David Bowie for being awesome in just about everything I've seen him do with acting. He makes Nicola Tesla, a real man, this iconic, almost Godlike figure of mystery and genius.
I think I've said enough. This movie stands on its own as one of the best movies I've seen this year. And I've made it a point to see pretty much every movie that has been buzzed about or praised this year, along with some pretty crappy ones as well (as of now I've seen 87 movies released in 2006).
The Prestige works on many levels, as a character study and a depiction of rivalry and revenge, as a period piece that illuminates the ingenuity and sacrifice and risk required to carry off the trickery and deception of stage magic. It is a very entertaining film, that captivated my attention throughout, was very well acted (especially by Christian Bale) and very well paced. It is, moreover, a film that does not commit the usual crime of Hollywood films of dumbing things down for its audience. Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker who obviously respects his audience, expects them to be capable of piecing things together, and doesn't lay everything out. (A recent film that is guilty of this sin is "Lucky Number Slevin" which was very entertaining but would have been much more interesting if the directors didn't feel the need to explain everything that anyone who had been paying attention would have already gotten, in great detail in the concluding scenes). Most interesting, I think, is the ending of the film, an ending many other reviewers take to have been a kind of fraud or cop out. As I read the film, the director uses this ending very deliberately to call attention to his own manipulation of audience expectations in the preceding parts of the film. While the methods of the "magic" in the end evoke horror and disgust, they in fact serve only as a grotesque mirror of the sacrifice required by the trickery that is depicted throughout. In hindsight, the ending can be seen to be prefigured by a very early scene in which we see how a bird is made to disappear and reappear. We accept and admire the skill and sacrifice and risk of the artists to a point -- but only when we have the security that in the end none of it is real. We want to suspend disbelief, but would be horrified if we truly believed. At some level, I think this functions as an intriguing reflection on what audiences want in film: we tend to want what we see to be as realistic as possible without crossing a line to make us believe it is really real -- brutal and bloody depictions of gratuitous violence are okay, and the more lifelike the better, but images of actual violence drawn from contemporary wars generate outrage. A film that can simultaneously do the job of being slick and entertaining, and at the same time raise intriguing and profound questions about the nature of entertainment, and of audience expectations, and of the relation between image and reality is definitely worth a look. I know I'll be seeing it again.
on October 23, 2006
The Prestige is introduced with the basic elements of magic. Like the structure of most storytelling, there is a beginning, a middle and an end but instead it is called the Pledge, the Turn and finally, the Prestige.
The Prestige follows this structure...but not in sequence. Instead, most of the film is told in flashbacks through diaries, introducing the characters at the Turn of the trick and the movie before moving back to the Pledge with the two Victorian magicians at the beginnings of their relationship and rivalry. From that rivalry, a story is told that explores the depths these characters will go in order to keep the secrets that come with their profession and their obsession with learning each other's secrets in order to become the superior magician. While the reveal of their secrets, the Prestige, can be predicted, it doesn't make the reveal or the anticipation any less satisfying.
The film has an impressive cast, led by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as the rival magicians, Robert Angier and Alfred Borden. With two likeable leading men it was difficult to choose which character should come out as the winner of their rivalry or if either one should or even could. The characters' very different personalities undergo dramatic shifts, varying from charming to sinister, as they seek out their goals, needs change and secrets are revealed. The performances of both actors add greater depth and mystery to their characters, making them either more sympathetic or more suspicious depending on the event, the point of view or the reveal. With two such intense characters, Cutter, played by the legendary Michael Caine, puts the need for secrets in perspective as their guide and mentor while adding another, more objective view of the rivalry between the two magicians.
Adapted for the screen by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan and directed by Christopher Nolan, the flashbacks could make it difficult to keep track of the timeline, however that turns out not to be the case. Although the direction is at times a little heavy-handed and deliberate, it is also beautifully filmed with tones, sets and costumes that enhance the era of the story.
As with any magic trick, it's a little disappointing to have the secret of the trick fully revealed. That is also the case with The Prestige. However, it would be more disappointing if the secrets were left unknown. It's a gripping movie, filled with intense emotions that come from mystery, suspense, drama, romance and rivalry which make the journey extremely satisfying.
on March 6, 2007
After reading the reviews I had high expectations fro this movie, and for once I wasn't disappointed. This is the movie that got me to buy a Blu-Ray player after owning an HD DVD player since its launch last April. This is an entertaining movie with lots of plot twists, mystery, and intrigue. Couple that with an all-star cast including Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, and Scarlett Johansson and you have the ingredients for a great movie. Hugh surprisingly holds his own and the movie kept my interest. The movie falls back on some supernatural silliness at the end, which is the only low point of the movie. As much as I liked this one, I liked The Illusionist a bit better. The Blu-Ray picture quality was OK, but the movie is mostly dim indoor scenes, which do not show as dramatic an improvement over DVD as bright outdoor scenes.