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October 28, 2006

The Prestige Review

Three and a half stars.

This is a puzzle movie, a con movie, a movie about tricks and misdirection. It's a plot-heavy movie, but it avoids the pitfalls of lesser movies of that sort, e.g., contrived "characters" who don't seem human so much as pawns to be moved around as necessary on the scenarist's chessboard, an emptiness apart from the big reveal, etc.

It's a damn good movie, a gorgeous movie (London and Colorado Springs in 1899 look great), and the performances are uniformly excellent. The script is bit like Batman Begins, in being told backwards/forwards/sidewards all out of order, but it all flows seemlessly.

The basic plot, if you don't know, is that Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play rival magicians in 1899 London. They begin as friends -- no, not friends; friendly coworkers mutually jealous of each other's talents -- as assistants/plants in a lame magician's act (that magician played, inevitably, by real magician and frequent David Mamet trouper Ricky Jay). A tragedy occurs, caused by the negligence of one, and from that point on they are engaged in career-long game of vengeance, sabotage, attempted murder, and dirty tricks against each other.

They're also both obsessed by learning each other's secrets, and both have enough of them to keep things moving quickly with that constant frisson of "Oh yeah... of course...!"

Pretty much everything every mentioned or shown on-screen is a set-up for a revelation later, except for one Big Fat Red Herring that you'll focus on as the key to it all when it really doesn't figure into things at all -- a bit of misdirection in a movie about misdirection.

David Ansen of Newsweek writes:

Magic acts are built, we're told, into three acts—the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige—which the movie tries to duplicate with its complex, triple-time-scheme narrative. At the end of this dark entertainment three twists await: one you will certainly see coming, another you may have figured out just before it happens, and the final may be so tricky you won't quite piece it all together until after you've left the theater (the "explanation" whizzes by so fast it can be hard to catch.)

It's that first one -- the one you see coming -- that basically provides cover for the rest of the tricks/twists, because you get sucked into figuring out that one obvious twist thereby missing the import of the other clues and tells being presented to you.

An hour after the movie, I was still trying to figure bits of it out. Not the main parts of the plot -- those are comprehensible enough -- but the little details here and there. This morning I realized another thing that hadn't been obvious on first viewing. If a movie is to be judged on how long you spend thinking about it later, then The Prestige is a fine movie.

I actually don't buy that definition of how good a movie is, but if you liked going back over the clues in The Usual Suspects, for example, and debating exactly who was doing what when days after the movie, then The Prestige is your sort of movie. I had to check on-line to make sure I hadn't missed anything big. I hadn't, but I did miss some small things.

If I have a criticism, it would be (avoiding spoilers) that there was a conventional sort of way they could have gone with this basic set-up, and I think going that route would have resulted in a flawlessly crafty, if conventional, puzzle-movie. That's the way I expected it to go, and I think I still would have preferred it to have gone that way -- a bit conventionally.

Instead, the film introduces a What-the-Fuck element near the end of the movie. "Introduces" is a strong word; after all, they've been foreshadowing this the whole time, and even the commercial campaign promises, "The trick is that it's not a trick... it's real." Still, I was hoping that was all a con, yet another bit of misdirection. Instead of going that way, the introduce a bit of fantasy or "magical realism" as an eleventh hour plot device which, while adding a bit of wonder and strange implications (to be chewed over on the ride back home), still feels to me a little out of place. Maybe it's the mainstream-movie philistine in me-- they wanted to go art house and magical realism; I wanted them to do a more conventional con. Though I'd've preferred my own plot (I think), hey, it's their movie, and at least they did something different and unexpected, I guess.

That bit of strangeness comes via scientific genius and pioneer of electricity and magneticsm Nikola Tesla, a real-life wizard played well by... David Bowie. And not David Bowie playing David Bowie, all weird and crap (but basically David Bowie) like in Labyrinth. No, he's playing a genuine character who isn't David Bowie, but with an air of rock-star mystery that serves him well.

One last point of interest is that it's not clear who the "hero" is in this movie. Arguably, neither Bale or Jackman are "heroes" at all; but Jackman does seem to get more camera time, and feels more like the viewpoint character. Cerainly we know a lot more about him (although not as much as we at first think). People seem to be debating who the hero was -- who was "less bad," basically, though neither is truly evil and neither truly good -- and some say their sympathies changed during the movie from Bale to Jackman and back again. I was a Jackman guy all the way through, and maybe my bias towards the conventional -- i.e., one guy's the hero, the other's the villain, that simple -- put me off the movie a touch.

Those fairly minor disatisfactions aside, it's just a lot of fun, a movie that keeps you guessing almost all the way through, and even a little bit more the next day. Critics claim the characters are "one-dimensional" and not so much humans as mechanical contrivances of the plot, but I think that's unfair. Sure, in an intricately plot-heavy movie like this, characters exist to serve the plot, and certainly niether Bale or Jackman is deeply characterized, but their performances are strong enough that they feel flesh and blood. Bale less so, who always feels more like a cipher; but then, he's supposed to.

Terrific movie. Your mileage may differ depending on how much you buy the last act -- "The Prestige" of the film, as it were. I didn't quite buy it all myself, but still, I was more than satisfied I took the ride.

Minor Criticism: The problem with the two-smart-guys-outsmarting-each-other movie is that the smart guys in question aren't always really all that smart, and are (when the plot requires it) sometimes pretty damn stupid in failing to figure out the other's machinations.

Some of the twists here were fairly obvious to me, and certainly should have been transparently obvious to accomplished magicians who live and breathe this stuff. Both Bale and Jackman are, like Eric Cartman, selectively genuises and selectively morons.

Still, hey, you can't have all the characters figure everything out in the first ten minutes, now can you?

A Halloween Movie: The Presige isn't really a horror movie per se, but it certainly has most of the trappings of a horror movie -- dark doings, hangings. light maimings, secrets and mysteries, obsessions, vengeance, a shadowy and grimy London a few years after the Ripper retired, a hint of the truly mystical. There's no cussing, no actual sex, and not really any gore (though there is death, and neither character is above inflicting permanent physical debilitating injuries on the other), but it does have the feel of Victorian ghost story -- just without the ghosts. It's also got a touch of the Lovecraftian, as one character's obsession for real magic leads him to commit some monstrous and strange crimes. (I'd be more psyched about that angle if I bought the Big Weird Plot Device involved, but I really don't.)

For those looking for a bit of Halloween Trick or Treat but who resist the sequel to the surprisingly terrific Saw movies, this might be a solid alternative.

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posted by Ace at 04:36 PM

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