Sunday, March 08, 2009

Review- The Prestige

first line from "The Prestige".

There's a story about the sleight-of-hand/con game/arcane performance expert, writer and actor (he appears in "The Prestige") Ricky Jay. From 1985 to 1990, he was the curator of the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts, an extensive collection of items that pertained to magic and anything else that today one could call "non-traditional" showbiz. It was a dream gig for Jay. Unfortunately, in 1990, the owner of the collection was a banker and this banker was shut down by California banking regulators with it's assets (mainly the collection which was the only thing- thanks to Jay- that had increased in value over the years) liquidated.

And that is how, in a California bankruptcy court, the entire collection came to be owned by David Copperfield, a ritzy super-showman-as-magician. In other words the complete anathema to the intellectual, magic-for-magic's sake Ricky Jay.

One could make a decent comparison between that story and the plot of "The Prestige", a puzzle film about competing 18th century magicians, that is as much about art vs entertainment, obsession and the folly of revenge as anything else.

The film begins with a murder trial, as one of the two competing magicians ("The Professor" and "The Great Danton") has been accused of doing away with other. You have to pardon me as I am trying to not reveal more than is necessary here. The Professor, or Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is a working class conjurer who approaches magic as an art, one to be fiercely guarded from others (including his own wife), especially his former friend The Great Danton, aka Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). Danton is someone who takes the grubby Professor's tricks, steals them and flashes them up for an ever-increasing audience. Sounds familiar?

The casting of this film, from just the art vs commerce aspect couldn't be more perfect if they has put Karen Finley (one of the four performance artists the NEA denied grant money to in the early nineties) in Bale's part and an animated dollar sign in Jackman's.

Christian Bale, of course, is known for his impassioned devotion to every part he plays, from losing a gazillion pounds for "The Machinist" to even nailing musical theatre in "Newsies".

Also, he tends to throw temper tantrums when cinematographers get in his way.

Jackman, meanwhile is a favorite of the showbiz community, thanks to his genial, nice guy-ness and his winning enthusiasm for everything from "Wolverine" to, well, fun, upbeat musical theatre.

It's a good match up. Batman Vs. Wolverine. Crazy Method Actor vs. Straight Musical Theatre Guy.

But there's more to the film than just art vs. commerce. There is also the theme of magic (which arguably uses science as a tool for the trick) vs. science (which to the primitive eye can seem like sorcery).

We see The Professor's trick "The Transported Man" amaze Danton who then uses his assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) to steal Borden's diary. Which is encrypted. And the key is the name "TESLA". As in Nikola Tesla (David Bowie- genius) Thomas Edison's arch-rival, who brought about Alternating Current and is a good catch-all for conspiracy theorists as his theories and inventions included a death ray (perversely called a "peace ray") the plans of which mysteriously disappeared after Tesla's death.

Hmm, you know Edison was more of businessman than Tesla (Tesla somewhat valuing the purity of his science above the financial possibility). So, maybe we are back to art vs. commerce?

Speaking of the cast, it includes America's favorite indie hottie Scarlett Johannson, America's favorite old Cockney Michael Caine and sitcom actors including some brits who have moved to America including Daniel (not British, but often plays one on TV, including "The Nanny"'s butler) Davis, Jim (Brit expatriate writer/actor/Christopher Guest movie regular cast member) Piddock, Roger (Professional arrogant Brit/Rebecca's boyfriend on "Cheers") Rees, and Edward (Professional British Fop/"Gil" on "Fraiser") Hibbert. This last bit of casting makes sense as the entire production was filmed in Southern California locations, doubling for Victorian England.
The entire film is one misdirection after another.

We can see this in so many parts, the way the film is constructed as flashback within diary entry, within flashback, within a different diary. The casting with American actors playing British. The two lead characters and their aliases. And a very successful film made by a commercial filmmaker who has brought an independent filmmaker's sensibility to the dollars and cents world of Hollywood film.

Christopher Nolan was someone who made a successful dent in the indy world with "Following" and the critical and commercial success of "Memento". After a smaller success with the Hollywood remake of "Insomnia", he was given the keys to the kingdom by Warner's to make "Batman Begins", which was a big hit for them. Maybe you remember that?

So we come back to art vs. commerce. The success of Nolan's career shows what the film story cannot- the way either art or commerce can win is they work together organically.

Like a man who makes a superhero film, but says "why not tell a story that's more than a bunch of illustrated panels of action strung together. One that moves on a deeper level than what a punch to the jaw brings."

Because there is a special kind of magic in the story that is well-told.


CittyKatt9 said...

Dear Sir, Mr. Jones

I Dub thee..."Connoisseur"

1)Expert: an astute judge in matters of fine or domestic arts, or somebody with discriminating taste in such a specialty.
2)A discerning judge of the best in any field.

Capivating insight Mr. Jones...
While reading your review the movie was playing in my mind.
You made me want to see it again.

Delightfully Pleased!

Till we meet again...Ciao

your fiend, mr. jones said...

Who am I to argue with such analysis? ;>

Anonymous said...

.....Classic Foster Brooks.....

with your pal Dino. enjoy.

SILVUM said...

Nice blog Robin.