PG-13, 128 minutes
Now playing at Carmike Cinema 6
Using my infallible powers of precognition, I predict that 2007 will be a good year for magicians. And I’m not talking about those faux-hip “street” magicians like David Blaine—their time is up. No, I’m talking about the old-fashioned stage magician, the guy with the doves and the tuxedo. Late 2006 has already seen two tricky, turn-of-the-century magician yarns hit movie theaters (The Illusionist and The Prestige). Do I sense a trend akin to 1998’s asteroid chic (which swept—and destroyed—the world courtesy of Armageddon and Deep Impact)? Ask me again next spring, when models are pulling rabbits out of their Christian Dior top hats on the runways of Paris.
Following close on the heels of The Illusionist, the temporally and subjectively similar film The Prestige mixes magic, science and a good, old-fashioned bit of revenge into one intriguing historical fantasy. In the end, it may not be the greatest trick ever performed on screen, but it’s got enough flash and dazzle to keep most audiences entertained right on up to the shocking (in more ways than one) finale.
All of this should come as no surprise. After all, the film is written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who has already proved his taste for intelligent, twist-filled narratives in his films Memento, Insomnia and Batman Begins.
This newest effort is set around the turn of the century, and involves a professional rivalry between two London stage magicians. Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) start off their careers as assistants to a going-nowhere illusionist. One fateful night, a trick goes wrong and Angier’s wife is killed, drowned during an on-stage water escape. Angier blames Borden, who may or may not have tied an improper knot. Angier’s anger takes the form of a rapidly escalating game of one-upsmanship. Over the years, these two men try to top each other with more and more elaborate stage illusions, pausing occasionally for the odd murder attempt.
As a loving recreation of Victorian showbiz and the often heated rivalries that dominated the world of prestidigitation, The Prestige is both gorgeous and compelling. It does, however, violate at least one rule of magic: A good trick should be simple. The set-up here is quite complicated. Narratively, the film jumps around in time and place. At one point, Angier is reading Borden’s diary and having flashbacks. At another point, Borden is reading Angier’s diary and having flashbacks. It takes a bit of concentration to sort it all out.
Eventually, the story takes Angier to America in a hunt for real-life fringe scientist Nikola Tesla (played—surprisingly, but quite effectively—by David Bowie). He’s looking for the ultimate trick, and he believes Tesla and his cutting-edge electrical experiments might just give him what he’s looking for to finally defeat Borden.
One of the problems with a film like this is that viewers are told, from the very beginning, that the characters will do their utmost to trick each other and the audience. It’s a movie about magicians, after all, so audiences will be looking for every twist, every trick. But, while most can be worked out with a bit of brainpower and some close observation, the story won’t be entirely spoiled by figuring out a few secrets (unlike, say, most M. Night Shyamalan films).
The acting is quite strong (Michael Caine and Scarlett Johansson are welcome members of the supporting cast), and the historical atmosphere is appropriately gloomy and mysterious. Some may find it hard to sympathize with either protagonist, as they’re both sort of vindictive jerks. But the situation they’ve gotten themselves stuck in is so intriguing, it’s hard not to be riveted to the screen for the whole 128-minute thrill ride.
There is a moment, late in the film, when The Prestige crosses over, skipping genres from historical drama to something else entirely. This is a tricky thing to pull off. At first, it seems a bit out-of-the-blue. But Nolan has a strong sense of purpose here, and he manages to blend this new element quite well into the narrative. (It helps that he’s operating from a pre-established story—a novel by British author Christoper Priest.)
Dark, original, and a real treat to look at, The Prestige is a tricky bit of legerdemain. Some may find the narrative too baroque, and may trip themselves up guessing at the film’s various twists, turns and inevitable plot holes. But, if you simply allow Nolan to take you by the hand and guide you through this grim, entirely over-the-top revenge fantasy, odds are you’ll fall for his lovely illusion hook, line and sinker.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of Amer-ica for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (R, 82 minutes) Is he funny because he’s an annoying jerk or is he funny because he’s pretending to be an annoying jerk? Either way, the end result is the same. Rabid fans of Brit comedian Sasha Baron Cohen (“Da Ali G Show”) will love this embarrassingly rude faux documentary about a Kazakhstani journalist (Cohen) who comes to America to make a film. Non-fans will simply be aghast at the endless footage of fat, fully nude guys wrestling that comprises this film’s humor. Most of the run time is simply made up of “Jackass”-style pranks in which the racism and xenophobia of Americans is allegedly exposed. (Although it should come as no big surprise to anyone that rednecks at the rodeo get a little mad when you make up words to the National Anthem.) Coming Friday; check local listings
Catch a Fire (PG-13, 98 minutes) Aussie Phillipe Noyce (The Quiet American, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Patriot Games) directs this dark political thriller set in South Africa during the turbulent 1980s. Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher) portrays real-life hero Patrick Chamusso who was jailed and tortured after being wrongly suspected of sabotage at an oil refinery where he worked. Tim Robbins plays against type as a seemingly soulless colonel in the country’s Police Security Branch whose cruel pursuit drives naïve, apolitical Patrick on a transformative quest to free his country from oppression by any means necessary. Noyce contributes a slick production, driving home (perhaps a bit too heavily) the story’s modern-day metaphor. Playing at Regal Downtown Mall 6
Death of a President (R, 90 minutes) This hyper-controversial TV movie out of England posits the assasination of George W. Bush in Chicago. Strip away all of the controversy, however, and its a relatively dull fake documentary about a political conspiracy. It plays out like a “whodunnit,” but the mystery isn’t all that exciting. Playing at Vinegar Hill Theatre
The Departed (R, 149 minutes) Martin Scorsese seriously reworks the 2002 Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs, transferring the intense cops-and-robbers action from the Far East to the East Coast. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a fresh recruit from the Boston Police Academy who is put deep undercover in an Irish mob run by flamboyant gangster Jack Nicholson. At the same time, Nicholson has got his own undercover agent (Matt Damon) operating inside the police department. Much bloodshed erupts when our two moles are dispatched to find out each other’s identities. Playing at Regal Seminole Square Cinema 4
Flags of Our Fathers (R, 132 minutes) James Bradley’s book about the Battle of Iwo Jima (and that famous flag photo) gets adapted by screenwriters Bill Broyles (Apollo 13, Jarhead) and Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash) and directed by Clint Eastwood. Not too shabby. Film follows the life stories of the six men who raised that famous flag. Amazingly, the film both celebrates the heroism of the battle and also deconstructs the government’s cynical PR manipulation of the event. Ryan Phillippe, Barry Pepper, Adam Beach and Jamie Bell are among the low-key cast. Playing at Regal Seminole Square Cinema 4
Flicka (PG, 100 minutes) It’s safe to assume that roughly half the females in America have read Mary O’Hara’s equestrian novel My Friend Flicka. Here’s another film version, this one starring Alison Lohman (White Oleander) as a rebellious teen who raises a wild mustang to prove to her father (real-life hick Tim McGraw) that she’s capable of taking over the family ranch. There’s lots of weeping and hugging and pretty shots of horses. Girls will love it. Boys, I’d advise you to remain in the parking lot and stomp on ketchup packages for 90 minutes. Playing at Carmike Cinema 6
Flushed Away (PG) Didn’t get enough CG-animated animals this summer? Here’s some more. This is actually the first computer-animated film from Aardman Studios (makers of the “Wallace & Gromit” films). The story follows the adventures of an uptown rat who gets flushed into the sewers of London. Voicecast includes Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellan, Andy Serkis and Bill Nighy. It’s cute stuff, but you can expect a poop joke or two this time around. Coming Friday; check local listings
The Grudge 2 (PG-13, 95 minutes) Director Takashi Shimizu tackles his tale of vengeful ghosts for the sixth time (four films/remakes/sequels in Japan and two in America)! This one kills off the gal from the first American version (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and passes the ghostly curse off on her sister (Amber Tamblyn). As in previous installments, there’s more creepy atmosphere than outright horror, but the story is starting to take noticeable shape…assuming you’re not burned out on stringy black hair and little Japanese kids in pale makeup. Playing at Regal Seminole Square Cinema 4
Infamous (R, 110 minutes) Yes, this is the other Truman Capote biopic. It also covers the period in which Capote was researching his book In Cold Blood. This one, however, stars Sigourney Weaver, Gwyneth Paltrow, Hope Davis, Sandra Bullock and Isabella Rossellini. Oh, and some Brit named Toby Jones as Capote. This version is lighter, glossier and can’t help but suffer in comparison to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance in Capote. Playing at Regal Downtown Mall 6
Marie Antoinette (PG-13, 123 minutes) Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) was roundly trashed at the Cannes Film Festival for this blithe adaptation of the life of France’s ill-fated queen. The hip cast (Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Asia Argento, Molly Shannon) and revisionist’s disregard for history won’t lure many Francophiles, but young viewers with a taste for eye candy and new wave pop tunes may have fun. Just don’t expect to pass your history test after watching this trendy biopic. Playing at Regal Downtown Mall 6
Open Season (PG, 86 minutes) Wow, Ashton Kutcher fans are certainly like pigs rolling in filth this week. Between this and The Guardian, there are two Kutcher films in which to wallow. Frankly, it seems like overkill—not unlike the dogpile of computer-animated animal movies we’ve been subjected to this summer. Here, Kutcher plays a cartoon deer who helps a domesticated grizzly bear (voiced by Martin Lawrence) to survive in the wild. Only complication: Hunting season starts in three days! Playing at Carmike Cinema 6
The Prestige (PG-13, 128 minutes) Reviewed on page 58. Playing at Carmike Cinema 6
Running With Scissors (R, 116 minutes) Augustin Burroughs’ autobiography gets the big screen treatment with an impressive cast, including Annette Bening, Brain Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Evan Rachel Wood, Alec Baldwin, Jill Clayburgh and Gwyneth Paltrow. Unfortunately, “Nip/Tuck” creator Ryan Murphy turns the whole affair into a cartoonish and rather dull affair in his first theatrical outing. Fans of Burroughs’ colorful book will be disappointed. It’s your basic coming-of-age tale about a kid raised by a crazy mother, who deposits him at the doorstep of her even crazier psychiatrist. Dysfunction ensues. Playing at Regal Downtown Mall 6
The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (G) Yes, well, somebody’s got to keep Tim Allen employed. This time around, Martin Short arrives as the scheming Jack Frost who wants to…oh, you know, ruin Christmas or something. Stay home and watch “The Year Without a Santa Claus” instead. Coming Friday; check local listings
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (R, 84 minutes) Ah, there’s nothing like beating a dead horse. And then stringing its corpse up in a garage and hitting it with a hammer and then cutting it up with a chainsaw and then eating it. The director of the crummy tooth fairy horror flick Darkness Falls attempts to cash in on the relative success of 2003’s TCM remake. In this prequel, a group of teens on a road trip breaks down in the middle of nowhere and is terrorized by an evil sheriff (R. Lee Ermey) and his twisted offspring. At least there’s lots and lots of blood and guts for you gorehounds out there. Playing at Carmike Cinema 6