Dir. – Neil Burger
Dir. - Christopher Nolan
Who’d of thought 2005 would hit you with back-to-back turn of the century magician movies like it was some hot new Korean genre. Both these movies were recently put out on DVD and though both are worth checking out, The Prestige comes to you with many more tricks up its sleeve and a much better, well, prestige.
The term “the prestige” in the world of magic is basically the equivalent of the punch line in world of comedy – the presto or abracadabra moment – what the The Illusionist is missing most.
The Illusionist does have some good casting and performances going for it. Oddly enough though it’s Edward Norton who comes up a bit short. Usually he’s the guy upstaging his co-stars, but up against Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell he’s bit outshined. One of the contrasting elements between these two movies is the running time. The Illusionist is quick and to the point with its mystery at 90 minutes. So it’s to Ed’s fault that he tries to put too much moody nuance into his role as the magician trying to get his childhood girlfriend back. [I think it’s also his fault that his goatee is so fucking distracting. Ed was saying he was channeling Dr. Strange with that thing but it’s way more Blutto – the kind that only big dudes like Blutto should wear. To his benefit, by the end of the movie I was still trying to figure out if it was real or not and I don’t think the filmmakers intended this mystery to be so prominent. If it is real – may we never see that shit again; if it isn’t someone should’ve been fired.] But Paul is his usual greatness. He was born to do early twentieth-century detective. And because of Dark City I’m still happy to see Rufus pop up in these kinds of roles. I’m not sure why he seems to be relegated to period pieces but he brings intensity to everything he does that can make an otherwise trivial scene seem like the most important bit in the movie. Oh and yeah, Jessica Beil is in this too. She almost makes you believe she’s a princess in waiting.
In The Prestige everyone shines brighter. Hugh Jackman comes out with some pretty high honors in my book. I already knew Christian Bale can do pretty much anything – and as much as I like the first two X-Men movies Hugh is still a wild card. But he really holds this movie together for me. Not that he’s the one that really stands out; it’s just that he keeps the movie tethered. Bale is doing his troubled moody thing, hitting the dark notes of the movie as the guy that accidentally (?) kills Hugh’s wife early on – starting the cycle of doom that is the movie’s crux. Hugh’s the guy you’re attached to and for most of the movie it looks like he’ll be the good guy. For a while he makes for a good protagonist until too many punches are traded. Is the excellent Michael Caine the only one on the up and up? Is the shaky Scarlett Johansson only in here to move forward a couple plot points? Could be.
Obsession as a theme works well in literature. You can work that slow burn and stoke those flames of envy, revenge, and paranoia so that you have to turn the next page again and again. But as DePalma’s Black Dahlia will tell you, sometimes in movies that shit can come off as flat as a soap opera. But one thing that never changes, and a message that Prestige treats well, is that everyone ends up with a bit of dirt on their hands. Looks like Fincher’s Zodiac is going to hit the home run with this obsession angle but Prestige nails the theme with suspense, great camerawork and a lot of originality. The plot twists in The Prestige, and there are more than a couple, might be too much for some. But what M. Night could learn from Christopher Nolan is that making the audience care is first and foremost. By the time the final trick is performed I was fully invested in a very cool and well told story, not some masturbatory, self-aggrandizing hoo-ha.
Between these two movies there’s going to be a lot of guessing by the viewer to try and figure it all out. The Illusionist is trying a simple slight of hand with a rather straightforward story. The Prestige is making its business to fuck with you and dare you to figure it out and is definitely the more rewarding of the two. Basically The Illusionist = Rob Roy as The Prestige = Braveheart. Both good movies – just one is working on a grander scale that the other.
Paddy, I know you have a fondness for Mr. Nolan, even though I think you overestimate Memento. Quite the achievement here, no?
Yes, quite. After watching The Illusionist, I was prepared to do an all-out attack on the banality of Hollywood movies; how they can take actors as gifted and charismatic as Norton and Giamatti (I’m not on a first name basis yet) and turn them into grumbling caricatures; how they pander to the trite expectations of an audience they don’t respect; how they strip stories of any powerful or inconvenient tension in the name of a numbing “entertainment” that leaves us as shallow and empty as when we enter them. But I won’t do this rant because, well, because The Prestige is the kind of movie that reminds you that all of the glamour and money of Hollywood can be put into a serious story at the same time as providing two hours of fantastic entertainment.
The less said about The Illusionist the better. We are introduced to a character (Norton) who is a full fledged magician, and the only thing we know about him is that he was a peasant as a child. Apparently the simple knowledge that he was a peasant and that he now has great hair is meant to be sufficient information to care about him. The movie follows the oldest of Hollywood clichés: the poor guy loves the rich girl but the rich girl is going to marry the bad rich guy. I won’t reveal if this set-up turns out bad (a la Titanic or Tears of Black Tiger), but I will tell you the resolution is not original, and you will be able to spot it half way through the movie. I’m not kidding, I never figure out movies, and I had this one pegged from the beginning.
Unlike The Illusionist, The Prestige does give you a reason to care about its characters through the depiction of the early poverty and struggles of the magicians. You never know how Ed Norton went from being a twelve-year old to a star, but with Alfred Borden (Bale), you actually get to see him work his way up through the bawdy and seedy clubs before he becomes a star. What drives both Alfred and Robert Angier (Jackman) to continue the struggle is obsession; obsession with being the best, with finding happiness, with escaping the boundaries of the physical world. While the dangers of obsession is a pretty standard theme, The Prestige works because it actually shows you the depths of the obsession within the characters rather than just telling you they are obsessed. (In this case, Bale is far superior to Jackman, who as always is completely lifeless). And, more importantly, it manages to give two excellent character studies in the course of engaging and thrilling experience.
I don’t toss around words like “thrilling” often, but The Prestige has so many twists, and so many different levels of tension, that it completely captivated me (I imagine the book, by Christopher Priest, is a serious page turner). One reason (of many) why The Prestige succeeds where The Illusionist fails is the multiple levels of dramatic tension. In The Illusionist, it is basically Norton versus the Prince; good versus evil for the heart of the fair maiden. In The Prestige, however, you have two (or more) characters that alternate between protagonist and antagonist and the girl they want (Johansen), turns out to not be better than either of them—there will be no redemption through the love of a good women here. Additionally, the way the stories are told are dramatically different: a pat voice-over by Giamatti for The Illusionist, a dual back story in The Prestige told through the device of the two main characters each reading the diary of the other. It really is amazing that Nolan and Neil Burger are in the same business.
The Prestige is also helped by its none-too-subtle reliance on a classic of literature, Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (Jackman’s stage name is The Great Danton). Like that novel (and the great Memento), The Prestige examines the notion of the self, and how easily a coherent picture of the self can dissolve in the face of lost memory, the act of performance, or even disappear (literally) into thin air. This changing sense of identity also works as a metaphor for the changes that were taking place in Europe and America around the turn of the twentieth century, when the old regime was replaced by a new and scary (though irresistible) world of trains and electricity. Though the early 1900s are often seen as a pivot point for the modern world, The Prestige subtly suggests that things could have been different; that we, as a world, could have been something else, and possibly avoided many of the horrors of the twentieth century. For Dickens, the French Revolution served as such a moment, where the ideals of egalitarianism devolved into blood and destruction. Nolan, on the other hand, proposes that instead of the industrial and corporate electrical world of Thomas Edison, we could have had the wondrous and (yes) magical possibilities of Nikola Tesla (played wonderfully here by David Bowie).
There are some plot difficulties for The Prestige, and Nolan may be wrong about Tesla—maybe Edison is all we could ever get—but the movie functions much in the same way magic itself does, to provide an alternate world of possibility though wonder. Near the end of the movie, Jackman’s Danton muses on why the audience comes to see tricks that they know are false. “It is because they see all that is miserable at the core of the world,” he tells Alfred. While The Illusionist’s tricks offer the audience easy resolutions and a world with a happy ending, The Prestige knows better: all magic and movies can do is distract us for a few hours at a time.
Sean puts an end to this:
As much as I may not wish to admit it, after your beating on The Illusionist, I’m tending to come around to your side on it -- that being, perhaps it isn't quite "worth checking out". Hopefully movie posters won't be resorting to that quote. The story is weak, to put it nicely. Though I still think Giamatti and Sewell put in good work, the movie is ultimately forgettable. As okay as it is for your average movie-goer, the entire thing ultimately collapses under the smallest bit of scrutiny. True enough, Paddy. And I know you want to see it on the Unwatchable list so I think we can make that happen.
I believe there is a lot of support out there for the anti-Edison message in The Prestige. I know The White Stripes will sing you a song or two about poor Tesla, his dreams of free electricity for everyone and the evil of the Edison Empire. Tesla should probably get a movie of his own but he’s also a great character to keep mysterious and Prestige uses him as a character well.
While Jackman’s not wowing anyone with his performances (I’ll still say X-Men 2 is his best job – and yes, that is saying something about the guy, but didn’t he win a Tony?) I really do think he’s the guy who held this movie together. If you were to cast another guy like Christian Bale in his role, someone who would be tempted to do a whole lot more emoting and showiness, the movie would have fallen apart and gotten ridiculous and hammy. What you call lifelessness I’ll call the understated performance that the role required and that he did a good job of making it the most relatable character in the movie – besides maybe Caine’s character. I’m not really trying to defend Jackman's career here, for the most part he never does much for me either, but this time I think he deserves a couple small kudos.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen it – but I think I did Rob Roy a disservice by comparing it to The Illusionist. I remember a good Tim Roth performance and a couple excellently staged sword fights in Rob Roy, which is more than I’ll remember The Illusionist for. Also, last side note, my tv – which granted is older than it should be, had some big problems with the blacks on the DVD for The Illusionist. In the past there’s been moments on certain DVDs, The New World for instance, where the shadows turn into a pixeland party mess and I’m sure there’s proper terminology for this that I'm at a loss to remember but it was to a point of distraction on this viewing. But for the most part it just made me want to buy a better tv. You don’t get nominated for best cinematography Oscar for nothing, right?