May 16, 2007

Movies for Grown-Ups: The Prestige

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

(UPDATE! Novelist Christopher Priest, author of the novel this movie is based on, dropped me an email yesterday to make something clear -- that he granted the film rights to Nolan because he found him the most interesting director of the bunch, but not because he thinks Sam Mendes is a hack, like I said here in my original review. Thanks for the correction, Mr. Priest -- that's what I get for trusting Wikipedia! Also, the story below about the real Caucasian who played an Asian magician during the Victorian Age? Turns out there were actually two guys back then, one actually Chinese [Ching Ling Foo] and able to actually do the "goldfish trick" shown in the movie, the other a Caucasian pretending to be Chinese [Chung Ling Soo], and not able to do the trick. Nolan simply used the wrong name in the movie, which Priest wanted to clarify.)

The Prestige (2006)
Written by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, from the original novel by Christopher Priest
Directed by Christopher Nolan

The Prestige

My mind is still reeling a little, a few days after seeing Christopher Nolan's latest dark, atmospheric thriller, The Prestige -- because really, where do you even start to describe such a film to an unsuspecting audience? It is firmly a period-specific genre film, to be sure (a Victorian-era murder mystery, to be specific), as eligible for those frilly costume and set Oscars as any historical drama; but it is definitely not a historical drama, and in fact might be best described as an HG Wells-style retro science-fiction story, that is if Wells happened to have been an opium addict (and who knows, maybe he was). But it's not strictly a re-imagining of a Victorian fantastical tale either, because it also deals with some very angsty human-interest issues belonging firmly to our modern era; like what lies at the root of obsession, anyway, of whether this is simply a necessary by-product of the quest to be the best at what you do, and of what other parts of our "normal" lives we'll sacrifice for the sake of that goal.

The Prestige

Whew! Oh yeah, and it's a two-hour kickass visual orgy for nerds, too, kind of like cross-breeding Moulin Rouge, Blue Velvet, The Matrix, and that stoner roommate you had your sophomore year in college, who was always screwing with your head when you were messed up simply because they could. It's that too.

The Prestige

So maybe let's start at the beginning, for those who need it; The Prestige is the fourth and latest film from celebrated director Christopher Nolan, who previous credits include the 2000 indie breakout hit Memento, the disappointing 2002 Robin Williams "I'm being a creep now" vehicle Insomnia, and the 2005 big gushing fanboy love letter Batman Begins; it's the second collaboration he's done with his celebrated author brother Jonathan Nolan, who wrote the incredibly convoluted short story that Memento is based on, as well as co-writing the script of both that and this with Christopher (in this case from the original novel by Christopher Priest, an interview with whom is nicely included in the DVD extras). It was a movie released in the fall of 2006 with almost no fanfare, which then limped out of theaters a few weeks later, and just recently finally received a DVD release. And now that I've watched it, my only question remains, "Why?" Why didn't this movie naturally become the biggest hit so far of Nolan's career, it so obviously being the best film of them all, as well as catapulting him from "young promising director" into legitimate genius (also known as "The Apocalypse Now Moment")? It is an exquisite thing, a movie sometimes so beautiful and haunting that you find yourself literally holding your breath. So why did it crawl out of theaters last winter generating neither any particular buzz nor any particular revenue?

The Prestige

As with any Nolan (Nolanean?) movie, surprise is of the essence; I'll be treading lightly with the plot details today, although of course a certain amount simply must be divulged for the sake of making my point. For example, although it takes place around the world and features a dozen main characters, the story is ultimately about two magicians in London at the beginning of the 20th century -- the "Professor" (Christian Bale) and "The Great Danton" (Hugh Jackman, at his absolute career-best) -- at a time before television and overseas jets, when magicians were treated by the public as part showmen and part religious prophets. Indeed, as the Victorian Age was demonstrating to people at the time, a whole lot of things we had thought impossible suddenly were real -- electricity, radio, transcontinental rail, the rapid exchange of far-flung international secrets. If a man like the real-life Nikola Tesla (played here perfectly by David Bowie) can hold an oversized lightbulb in his hand, and make it glow from the alternating current coursing through his body, then maybe a magician really can catch a bullet.

The Prestige

But as we're reminded throughout the movie (and indeed, becomes a metaphorical point to it all), there's a difference between a magician and a wizard, with one getting rich off society and the other banished from it; no matter how fantastical, the audience must always be given an out for it to be entertaining and not terrifying, a possibility that the entire thing is an elaborate manmade sham that any mortal could duplicate, if only knowing the closely-guarded secret. As most poetically put by Cutter (Michael Caine), the behind-the-scenes engineering genius who creates the elaborate traps for them both, "The audience never applauds when the person disappears; they only clap when he comes back."

The Prestige

This dichotomy between "entertaining magic" and "real magic" is a running theme throughout The Prestige (whose title, for those who are curious, refers to the third part of a magic trick, or in other words the part where a magician says "ta-da"); it informs not only the way the characters behave and interact, but also their overall motivations and why they respond to certain situations the way they do. That's another wonderful little touch about the lean and mean script by the Brothers Nolan, and why it proves that they really are one of the smartest screenwriting teams working today; that even though all these fantastical things are going on, requiring a lot of expensive special effects and set decorations, featuring two men who are supposed to be cold, unemotional geniuses at what they do, the story is ultimately about the simple human rivalry that develops between them, over which of them has "suffered more" for the craft.

The Prestige

It's an intense and base human emotion that we can all intrinsically relate to, simple petty jealousy, and is what keeps the plot moving at an impossibly breakneck and complex speed: it's what inspires the Professor to eventually write down all his secrets (in cipher, of course); and what inspires The Great Danton to then steal that notebook, and keep his own journal about the translation process; and what inspires the Professor to eventually steal that second notebook, reading about Danton reading about the Professor reading about Danton. Why yes, much like Memento, it's easy to get lost during The Prestige if you're not paying attention; and in fact, now that I think about it, maybe that's why this film didn't do so well at the box office, because I'm now suddenly remembering all the people who were hopelessly confused by Memento and actually hated the movie because of it.

The Prestige

It's both the ultimate compliment and ultimate insult I can pay a film, which I definitely do here; that it is much too smart for a wide mainstream audience, the kind of movie that will rattle around in your head for months afterwards but only if you're prepared to let it. Just as physical exercise is a push/pull experience of tension and release, of regularly taking on more than you can handle and then spending an equal amount of time recovering (or "feeling the burn," as they say), so too can one take on challenging stories that have multiple hidden metaphorical meanings, and "feel the burn" of discovering these multiple meanings over long deliberation. Eye of the tiger! As the film progresses, for example, we realize more and more that the magicians are after the same thing, even though they're approaching it in opposite directions, and that they suffer from the same baggage, even though it manifests itself in opposite ways.

The Prestige

We realize that this frisson is what fuels every second of the movie, and what leads the film to the series of surprises at the end that it holds; that the Professor's decision to start wearing a dramatic fake goatee in public, for example, not only demonstrates how inept he is at the "show business" side of magic, but also how much help he's suddenly receiving from his new assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson, who unfortunately is not given much to do here), while also all being a subtle clue as to one of the secrets at the end. The two scripts that the Nolan brothers have now written together have both turned out to be much like an aged Zen master you stumble across accidentally at the edge of the beach one morning -- endlessly complex, endlessly simple, endlessly elegant, and wickedly funny and kinda sexy to boot, albeit in an odd way you can't quite put your finger on. Coming from a writing background like I do, it's something I especially look for in the movies I enjoy; and if the above is just too flowery a metaphor for you, maybe The Prestige isn't the right film for you in the first place.

Out of 10:
Writing: 10
Acting: 9.5
Directing: 9.7
Cinematography: 10
Overall: 9.8

Random notes:
--No review of The Prestige is complete without a mention of the extraordinary soundtrack by David Julyan; it alone is half the reason the movie is so damn creepy at points. There are several samples at the movie's official website, for anyone who wants to check it out.

--Sam Mendes of American Beauty was the first director to express an interest in adapting this novel; author Christopher Priest, though, considers Mendes a hack, and insisted that Nolan be given the rights instead. Good for you, Priest; Sam Mendes is a hack! (See the update at the top of this review.)

--Chung Ling Soo, the fictional master magician who provides an early metaphorical scene for the film, was based on a real person from the Victorian Age, who really did perform the trick shown in the movie the way it's explained; he was also Caucasian, by the way, although lived his entire public life as an Asian in order to maintain the illusion. (See the update at the top of this review.) He died because of another running theme from the movie, a bullet-catch trick gone wrong; his last words were "My God, I've been shot," the first English he had spoken in public in 19 years.

--The two main characters' four initials spell ABRA...and letters from their first names can be pulled to spell CADABRA as well. Get it? This was an invention of the Nolans, according to novelist Christopher Priest, not something from his original book.

--And speaking of true stories inspiring part of this movie, Nikola Tesla actually did have a secret laboratory in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and received the support of the town for it by providing them with free electricity. Also much like the movie, Tesla was an eccentric genius who was hounded by Thomas Edison because of his inventions, and who often ran quasi-con-jobs on interested parties in order to secure more funding.

--One of the characters (I won't tell you which) gets two of his fingers blown off at a certain point in the movie. Nolan picked those particular fingers as an homage to the 1980s science-fiction masterpiece Blade Runner (Harrison Ford's character loses the same fingers); Nolan has admitted numerous times that the movie is one of his all-time favorites.

--And just because it bears repeating, for those who don't know -- Nolan raised the final money he needed for his breakthrough hit Memento by hosting a special screening of his short student film Following at the 1999 Hong Kong Film Festival, then literally passing a hat among the audience afterwards. Now that's the underground arts in a nutshell, my friend.

Best viewed: with a full bottle of red wine, and your geeky romantic partner who gets sexually aroused by NPR monologues, while listening to the Handsome Family. You nerd!

Next on my queue list: Requiem for a Dream, the uplifting tale of a plucky inner-city school teacher, from the inspirational mind of Darren Aronofsky (Pi, The Fountain). Or, no, wait a minute, actually it's that Oscar-nominated movie about drug addiction, that apparently is so bleak that most people want to slit their wrists by the end. Damnit, I'm always getting this film mixed up with Dangerous Minds!

Read even more about The Prestige: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:49 PM, May 16, 2007. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |