Monday, April 28, 2014

The Prestige


Things have been so exciting here at Chateau Maine the last few weeks that I have had simply no time to write to all of my fans or to get out to the cinema the way that I should. However, as of today, I have an important announcement. I shall be returning to the screen in a new musical production. It had come to my attention that 80s nostalgia is all the rage so it was just a matter of finding the right 1980s property to adapt for a screen musical extravaganza. I am happy to say that I've found exactly the right one: Die Hard.

I do realize that there will need to be some substantial rewriting to make the tale of rugged cop John McClane battling evil terrorists in a Los Angeles office tower suitable for my unique talents, but I'm sure the crack screenwriting team I've assembled will be more than up to the task. First off, we're going to have to change that title to something a bit more feminine. Tentatively, we're going with Flaming Desire as, against a background of mayhem and exploding helicopters, we play out a tragic love triangle between the hero, his separated wife, and the chic terrorist who tries to come between them. The Bonnie Bedelia part, my role, will of course need to be beefed up quite a bit and include at least three tap numbers, the first to be an office party hoe-down where I dance up and down a set of taiko drums to Rockin Around The Christmas Tree.

Normy and I decided to head off to the Cineplex last night to celebrate the good news. Our choice was The Prestige, a new film from Christopher Nolan of Memento and Batman Begins fame with the dreamy Hugh Jackman and the equally dreamy Christian Bale in the leads. The Prestige, like another film from earlier this summer The Illusionist, is set in the late Victorian era, the heyday of stage magicians and illusions. Performers such as Houdini packed vaudeville houses, music halls and respectable theaters thrilling their audiences with death defying displays and seemingly impossible feats. Our way into this world is through the eyes of Cutter (a sly Michael Caine), a designer and builder of the cages, cabinets and other contraptions needed for stage magic. As he explains to us, every successful magic trick has three parts - the pledge, where the magician promises something wonderful - the turn, where something impossible seems to happen, such as a vanishing - and the prestige, where order is restored, in a way even more impossible (such as the return of the vanished person or goldfish bowl or canary) in the most unlikely of places.

Into this world come two talented young magicians, Angiers (Hugh Jackman), aristocratic and wealthy and the much more pedestrian Borden (Christian Bale). Both start out as plants and shills for a senior stage magician Milton (Ricky Jay, a real stage magician who moonlights in films). One night, a trick goes horribly wrong and Angiers wife (Piper Pearbo), Milton's scantily clad assistant, is killed when an escape from a water tank fails. Angiers blames Borden and what was a friendship turns to bitter rivalry spanning years and continents. Each grows in reputation and fame and spends great energy trying to damage the other one. This starts with sneaking into each others' acts to ruin illusions, and escalates over time to more and more deadly maneuvers.

When Borden invents a trick called 'The Transported Man' in which he is able to enter a cabinet on one side of the stage and then appear out of another on the other side practically instantaneously, Angiers is determined to find out how he does it. He uses his sometime love and duplicitous assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) to infiltrate Borden's household. She swipes his coded diary which leads Angiers to Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) and his assistant (Andy Serkis) who promise to build him an electrical machine that can achieve this same result. This leads to plots, counterplots, and eventually a triple twist ending involving murder, conspiracy, criminal justice and a willingness to sacrifice everything to best the other.

Like MementoThe Prestige plays with time and chronology, sometimes telling the story in chronological sequence, sometimes in flashback and fairly close attention needs to be paid to keep from getting muddled in the storytelling. Nolan, who co-wrote with his brother Jonathan, knows exactly what he is doing and every reversal of plot makes perfect sense if one has been keeping up. This is a film that needs to be seen in one sitting without distraction, or pieces will not make sense. The stunning surprises at the end are not too hard to figure out well in advance if you are a discerning viewer. I had Borden's secret guessed halfway through the film and Angiers' secret shortly after he acquired Tesla's machine.

Jackman and Bale are both in fine form. Bale, in particular, is able to put an individual stamp on a tricky part which must be viewed one way as the film proceeds and in a completely different way retrospectively. They obviously enjoy the period settings and the pushing of psychological buttons that their bitter rivalry requires. Caine is also in fine form. In many ways, he acts as almost an omniscient narrative presence to keep the audience informed, but he never falls into the trap of simply playing a device. I also highly enjoyed David Bowie, one of the quirkiest of actors, as the eccentric Tesla. It would have been easy for him to take the part into loony mad scientist territory but he goes in a much dreamier, unfocused direction which I found interesting. Scarlett Johansson, who has become Hollywood's 'it' girl of the moment, is a somewhat vacant screen presence. She's pretty enough, but her character is underwritten and she brings nothing to the role. A more experienced actress would have been a wiser choice.

The production captures the atmosphere of the 1880s-1900s theatrical world nicely from dingy basement saloons to opulent tiered box European theaters. Fog rolls in and out of the streets and the atmosphere feels like a post modern update of Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes films of the 1930s. The film, like those, is also a grand puzzle. But I wish it had a solution that did not require the violation of the second law of thermodynamics.   All and all, I do recommend this film to fans of the actors, and fans of ingenious puzzle thrillers. It's a good time.

Crushed canary. Crushed fingers. Multiple crushed necks. Onstage drowning. Gratuitous Ricky Jay. Bullet catch gone bad. Chisel injury. Multiple top hats. Duplicate cats. India rubber ball bouncing.

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