What do you get when you combine Batman, Wolverine and Austin Power's dad? The answer is simple - a 19th century drama about two rival magicians who will go to practically any lengths to defeat the other, no matter what the cost. Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine star in The Prestige, the latest from on-a-tear director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, Memento).
Despite what the previews suggest, Bale and Jackman's characters, Alfred Borden and Robert Angier respectively, do not start out as friends. They are work acquaintances who both dream of bigger and better things. After an accident presumably caused by Alfred kills Robert's wife (Piper Perabo), Robert quietly vows revenge. As the two men improve their magical talents and slowly begin to develop careers, their obsession with one another increases. Fueled by Robert's rage, the two exchange blows, some meant to humiliate, some meant to kill. But it isn't until Alfed develops the ultimate trick - a trick that Robert cannot figure out - that Robert devotes his full purpose to crushing his competitor, but will their secrets kill both of them?
The Prestige is directed with grace and effectiveness by Nolan, who has proven himself to be one of the most consistent directors of the decade. The Prestige is certainly his least (forgive the pun) prestigious film, as his interest in his characters finally outweighed the entertainment value of the story he presents to audiences. He has always taken the non-traditional approach, relying more on character development than on action. Insomnia took things in a direction that mainstream Hollywood directors would not, and even Batman Begins leaned more toward drama than superhero action. But with The Prestige, it feels as though he lost sight - just a little bit - of the end goal - to entertain the audience.
The Prestige is a well-done film, with nice sets, a great cast, good acting and an intriguing plot. Having Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine and Scarlett Johanssen (yes, I forgot her earlier) in the same picture is a blessing, and not in disguise. Way back in 2000 when Jackman took on the role of Wolverine in X-Men, critics were proclaiming how he was the next big actor. I didn't see at the time, but with The Prestige I finally saw what others saw long before me (the bastards!). Jackman is a fine actor who brings an intensity to every role, and squared against Bale, another extremely capable actor, he makes for a great leading man. Caine, once again playing the wise supporting character, is his usual goodness, while Johanssen, despite the fact that she gets a few sneaky moves, really isn't given enough to do.
When I originally saw The Prestige in theaters, this is what I said:
Still, The Prestige did not live up to expectations. A little slow, a little too dialogue-driven at times, the movie could have benefited from some cuts. More so, neither character is especially likeable as they both suffer from some extreme faults - both attempt to kill the other at least once in their life. There are two twists near the end, but neither of them are incredibly well done. While Jackman's twist is the more fantastic of the two, it seemed rather out of place compared to the rest of the movie. This is probably a love-it-or-hate-it twist, and I still haven't determined which camp I fall in to. On the one hand, the twist could be deemed as cheesy (not to mention that the twist is revealed too early), and on the other, it sets the stage for displaying just how horrible a man Robert has become. The other twist, Bale's twist, is much better in terms of its delivery, but even that seemed to be too little too late.
With the movie now out on DVD, I was given a chance to view The Prestige for a second time, and I must say that the paragraph above just doesn't do the film justice. While what I describe above may be the initial reaction of many people, the second viewing allowed me to appreciate just how rich this movie is in terms of characters, thematic properties and plot twists. Bale's character is not nearly as horrid as he was in my first impression, and Nolan effectively handles Jackman's character as well, a character who the film treats as the main character and presumably the protagonist, but who is slowly morphed and molded into an antagonist. In addition, the second viewing allows you to realize just how much the film works its way up to the climax, and it drops plenty of clues along the way - but these are clues that are completely overlooked the first time round. In hindsight, I realize my initial reaction was that of disappointment toward a movie I expected to be something entirely different, but now, knowing exactly what the movie was about going into it, I appreciate it much more. The Prestige is certainly one of the best films of the year.
Review #2 (A-)
By Nathan Vass
Christopher Nolan has got the goods. He can make a movie. With Memento, he turned the nonlinear revolution on its head and gave us something we'd never seen before, intercutting forward and backward-progressing stories. With Batman Begins, he stepped up and did what should have been done 20 years ago- film the story as if it's a straight character drama. It's hard not to be excited for his next film, The Dark Knight, a Batman sequel, upon hearing of his bold creative decisions (he insisted that the word "Batman" not even be in the title). The Prestige was announced just last year, while Begins was slowly but surely raking it in at the box office. It was intended as a "small thriller project" in between Nolan's two Batman films, similar to Coppola's The Conversation, completed in between the making of Godfather I and II. The Prestige would be a low key effort between friends- Nolan, Christian Bale, and Michael Caine, all of whom worked together on Begins. In January of 2006, they got together, and with Hugh Jackman, put the film together for the low budget of $40 million- an unheard of number for a period piece with major stars.
The fact that The Prestige started out as such a low-key project is a testament to Nolan's considerable talent, as the film is as rich and complex as any of his other works. It offers the viewer a plot just as mind-bending as that of Memento. In turn-of-the-century London, two magician friends become rivals when one (Christian Bale) accidentally kills the wife of the other (Hugh Jackman). They spend the years dueling with each other in the world of magic, with the stakes going as high as they can go. Jackman and his behind-the-scenes helper, Michael Caine, are skilled showmen, but Bale's character has the edge in the freshness of his tricks. Jackman wants revenge for his dead wife, and he's also intensely curious to know how Bale achieves his seemingly impossible headline trick; Bale doesn't feel whole unless he's the absolute best magician in town. On a deeper level, the film is about the ruinous power of unrestrained obsession.
However, the thematics are not what you'll be discussing with your friends after a first viewing; you'll likely just be trying to figure out what actually happened in the movie. Nolan and his brother co-wrote the script in such a manner that the three acts mirror the three acts of a magic trick- the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. Screenwriters and film people will relish the film's structural cleverness, while others will delight in the constant reversals and twists. I can think of few films that consistently misdirect their audience more than this one. Like all good directors, Nolan has a great respect for the audience- he assumes that they are paying close attention and have the mental capacity to follow the tortuous narrative. The less you know about it going in, the more you'll appreciate it, so I'll keep this review short. Suffice to say that it's a real mind-bender, with devilishly clever plotting.
Much like Sofia Coppola's new film, Marie Antoinette, The Prestige doesn't transport us to the past with the benefit of hindsight; its characters live in their own present, as if the 19th century is happening now. This is how a period film should be. To achieve this verisimilitude, Nolan frames the characters without excessive regard for the setting, much as contemporary films do. His camera doesn't fetishize period trappings. Nearly the entire film is handheld, eschewing painterly compositions in favor of a more immediate reality. In all, Christopher Nolan has demonstrated that he is in no way a one- or two-hit wonder. In all his films, he has exhibited a sure-handed confidence that always results in something new and exciting. That this "fun side project among friends" is such a respectable picture cements his status alongside the best young directors of today.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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