Saturday, October 28, 2006

Reel To Reel: The Prestige

The illusion of revenge.

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Violence, Intense Magical Content

We learn a magic trick has three acts, the climax named "The Prestige," when the audience oohs and ahhs and applauds after somebody has disappeared, reappeared or escaped from certain death. The film of the same name is one gigantic magic trick, with plot manipulations and editing slight of hand building up to a big finish that maybe we should have seen coming, or maybe not. It plays the audience ruthlessly for two hours, and it requires your undivided attention. This is not a two-soda film where you can get up, drop back in and miss only half a beat.

The Prestige darts between two up-and-coming illusionists in late 1800's London, Robert Angier (Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Bale). They work together as shills -- planted volunteers in an audience called upon to pull off a trick -- until a disasterous accident turns them against each other. Bale is anxious to develop new and exciting magic, but he has trouble exciting his audience. Angier is the showman, one who knows how to sell an illusion for maximum impact. He hooks up with Cutter (Caine), an engineer who introduces him to new technology for making things disappear.

The professional rivalry turns increasingly obscessive as Angier tries to discover the secret to Borden's showcase illusion: a teleportation trick where the magician walks into one cabinet and then -- ta-da -- out another several feet away. Angier and Cutter think it can be done better, if Angier just learns how to do it. Borden is playing to half-empty halls and trying to fend off his rival, who has cost him bookings and part of one hand.

Explaining any more than this is detrimental and confounding. I got lost in the picture at several points, but then again, misdirection is an essential part of magic, and I'm sure director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins) wants it that way. With so much misdirection though, it's hard to care about any of the people on the screen save for Caine's character, who has that old-school charm.

The Prestige is not as good as The Illusionist, released a couple of months ago, which had better focus and more emotional core. And maybe that's the real reason I like it better. I want magic to dazzle me, not bamboozle me. Yet look at the success of Penn & Teller, who made bamboozlement their hook. You can only do the same old tricks so many times.

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