A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 304 – The Prestige

The Prestige – December 29th, 2010

I hadn’t heard the ending to this movie before it began, but I figured it out fairly quickly. It helps that I’ve seen a particular episode of The Avengers that uses the same ending. And it’s one of my very favorite episodes. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned it. Do a little digging and you could spoil yourself for this. Or you could just watch it.

There’s a certain amount of spoiling that I don’t think I’m going to be able to help here. The whole concept of the movie is two magicians attempting to outdo each other with improved versions of the same trick. A trick that involves a man mysteriously transported a distance instantly. And being magicians, they have secrets to how they perform it. One of those secrets is explained as a matter of course in the movie. You watch as he does it and changes it and figures out a more dramatic way of doing it. But the other, his secret is a magician’s secret. And it’s a good one, as secrets go. So I apologize, because if you keep reading and you haven’t seen this, I will be revealing the secrets and ruining the tricks. I’m sorry.

Andy had this movie spoiled for him. He hates spoilers (I don’t much mind them), so I feel bad about that because there’s a great reveal here. I didn’t need it, sadly. I’m far too good at facial recognition. I caught the actor who played Moriarty in Star Trek: The Next Generation as the judge. I recognized one of the guards as a one-episode actor from the Highlander series. And while William Morgan Lee (who’s been in everything from Zork Nemesis to the recent Star Trek reboot) and Roger Rees are far more recognizable and well known, I can spot them a mile away. I know it’s bragging a bit, but I spotted Peter Wingfield in full camo paint, in a darkened shot for less than a second in a trailer. It’s a totally useless talent, but it also means I spotted Christian Bale (tip of his nose, shape of his chin) right off. But unlike Andy, I’m the sort of person who likes to know how a trick works. I like to see it built and performed. At heart, I’m a stage hand, working the ropes and lights and never being seen myself. So I suppose it’s only natural.

The funny part is, even knowing the trick, Andy still didn’t spot him right away. I think that’s a testament to the nature of the trick and the nature of magic. Even when you know some of how it’s done, you can still be fooled and misdirected. And this movie does a brilliant job when it comes to showing you but not showing you. The tricks are all right there in plain sight. I can think of three blatant pointers to the big secret right near the beginning, and that doesn’t even count the opening scenes and dialogue from Michael Caine’s character, Cutter. Half of an early trick you see points to one secret and the other half points to the other. It’s told well, with plenty of leads and references, and also plenty of hiding and secrets.

The movie is bookended with Cutter explaining how a magic trick works. He is showing a little girl a trick with a disappearing bird in a cage, telling her that there are three stages to every trick, ending with the reveal, the prestige. After that we start to learn the story of Alfred Borden and Roger Angier, two would-be magicians who study under Cutter in hopes of becoming the best. Cutter is an engineer, who can build contraptions and create tricks. But in a profession where risks are taken, people get hurt. And when Angier’s wife dies during a trick, due, he believes, to Borden’s insistence on showing off, the rivalry is born. It’s about being the best, but it’s also about sacrificing things and coping with loss and revenge.

Throughout the movie, while Borden and Angier try to top each other, they’re also digging at each other to even the score. It’s only partially about reputation. If you can damage your opponent’s reputation, do it while physically or emotionally wounding him too. That’s how they do it. By the end of the movie they’re both fairly unlikable. One is slightly better than the other, but really the only good guys in the movie, in my opinion, are Cutter, Nikola Tesla and Tesla’s assistant, Alley. The women in the movie are largely innocents, caught up in this hideous rivalry that will destroy them all. The audience is innocent as well, merely wanting a good show and to be fooled for just a moment into thinking there is true magic in the world. Angier and Borden want to be the best, and there is much talk about getting one’s hands dirty in order to do that. Cutter, however, never wanted them at each other’s throats. He never wanted them hurt, even if they did get their hands a little dirty. Because he didn’t want them to have to. Just to be willing to.

I very much enjoyed this movie, even knowing the secret to how half of it worked. I still enjoyed watching how it all came together and played out. I enjoyed the theatricality of it and the showmanship. I certainly enjoyed all the performances, even if it was slightly disconcerting to have Michael Caine teaching someone named Alfred, played by Christian Bale. But Alfred Borden is no Batman (even if he does have a secret identity). There are no heroes here. Just magicians and tricks and a cycle of revenge that ends only when the curtain comes down.

December 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Prestige

December 29, 2010

The Prestige

This movie starts right out of the gate being clever. It dives right into the fantasy of the movie world without any of that mumbo-jumbo of having opening credits. It just has a title card – two words in bold type hovering over a field filled with top hats – the first hint in a long series of clever slight of hand that slowly reveals the secret behind this movie. Even without opening credits however this movie absolutely screams Christopher Nolan. It plays with time, jumping forward and back through the story in a very Chris Nolan way (familiar to anybody who’s seen Memento of the more recent Inception.) It stars some of his favorite actors in Christian Bale and Michael Caine. It has a fun mystery to it and a cool reveal at the end of the movie.

There are several tricks Nolan uses in the telling of this tale. I mentioned how he bounces back and forth in time. The plot revolves around a pair of rival magicians and their constant bitter and nasty attempts to destroy each other’s careers and lives. They discover much about how their lives played out by reading each other’s diaries. So we get narration, flash backs, flashes even further back, jumps forward… just keeping track of it all takes a lot of concentration. Just editing this together into a film that makes sense to the viewer must have been a herculean task. What’s even more astonishing though, is that all this cleverness is just misdirection. It’s the magician waving a handkerchief about while the real trick goes on in his other hand. Nolan wants you concentrating on all the plot threads, he wants you concentrating hard trying to figure out just what the actual sequence of events is so that he can cleverly work the real magic of the film right out in the open without you seeing it.

This movie is part mystery, part tragedy, part dark fantasy and all magic. It’s an homage to the art of magic, with detailed reveals that explain how some of the tricks work, but also a warning about the danger of becoming obsessed with that world. There’s an underlying theme that in order to become a truly great magician one has to be willing to make sacrifices. One of the rivals – Alfred Borden aka The Professor – understands this from the very start. His rival, Robert Angier, never seems to grasp it until near the end of the film. He wants to believe that great magic is possible even when his wife, early in his career, is tragically killed onstage while attempting an underwater escape. He has a great grasp of the necessary theatricality necessary but not of the sacrifice. Magic, this movie says to us, is a gruesome and brutal art form based on deception. The two lead characters are men consumed and destroyed by this constant deception.

There are layers upon layers to this film, with deep motivations for the characters that are not entirely clear in some cases until quite late in the movie. It must have been a wonderful pleasure for the actors to dig into these characters and bring them to life. Hugh Jackman plays the pathetic Angier, who is destroyed by his wife’s death and commits all of his efforts from that point on to the destruction of the man he holds responsible. Borden is played by Christian Bale, who in many ways has the hardest job here since his character is so hard to understand. Michael Caine is their mentor in the ways of magic and an inventor of clever contraptions to deceive the audience. Throw in a cameo by David Bowie as Nikola Tessla, the real life eccentric genius and inventor and a wonderful performance by Scarlett Johansson as Angier’s attractive assistant and you have probably one of the best casts you could possibly assemble. It’s their job to sell this warped, sad, tragic world of deception and betrayal.

I had this film spoiled for me before I watched it. I truly wish that I had not. It would have been so much more fun if I hadn’t known the trick behind it. But as you know if you’re a fan of Penn and Teller the best magic tricks are the ones that are still fascinating and fun to watch even when you know how they are done. Perhaps especially then because you can appreciate all the more the craft of the magician. Chistopher Nolan is a wonderful master of his craft, and it’s a joy to watch him work, so even with the ending spoiled for me in advance I completely loved this movie.

December 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment