‘Prestige’ is magical 

Not much to ‘Death’

click to enlarge TRICKY PAIR: Johannson and Jackman.
  • TRICKY PAIR: Johannson and Jackman.

Astute screenwriting, solid direction and terrific acting from the leads, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, make the new release “The Prestige” one of the year’s best flicks.

“The Prestige” gets its name from the third act in a magician’s trick. For instance, making a dove reappear in the hand after hiding said dove and a cane under a sheet and making the cage disappear is the “prestige.”

Only, did you know just how magicians performed that disappearing dove trick? It’s a major foreshadowing piece of a puzzling script that, when it reaches its own prestige, will leaved you stunned in ways you probably haven’t been since M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense.” The story is full of tragedy, obsession and vengeance gone awry between two rivals, but it also includes elements of scientific history and science fiction to boot. While dealing with the rivalry of two would-be magicians looking for a break in 1890s London, it manages to contrast their battle to that of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla over electric current, a major ingredient in the film’s defining trick.

The story is told in flashback, with Bale, as magician Alfred Borden, awaiting execution on the gallows for murdering his rival, Rupert Angier (Jackman). Borden is reading from Angier’s journal, which has been delivered to him by a representative of a British lord who wants the secrets to Borden’s art. Angier, it seems, had stolen Borden’s journal, trying to determine the secret behind Borden’s “Transported Man” trick. Angier goes to Colorado to seek out Tesla (David Bowie) and the secret transporter he believes Tesla created for Borden.

We’re taken further back to their first meeting, as audience plants helping an older magician and his female assistant, who is in reality Angier’s wife, perform the escape-from-the-locked-water-tank trick. A faulty knot tied by Borden, however, leads to tragedy and Angier’s never-ending spite.

Christopher Nolan’s direction, as he did with “Batman Begins” and “Memento,” keeps the action taut all the way to the surprising ending. Nolan and brother Jonathan Nolan developed the screenplay from Christopher Priest’s novel.

Michael Caine’s Cutter serves as Angier’s expert assistant, and Caine is wonderful. Director Nolan frames Scarlett Johansson’s face for a number of beautiful shots, and Johansson, as a love interest to both Angier and Borden, is outstanding. Piper Perabo, whose coming out was in the lame “Coyote Ugly,” gets a few early minutes to shine as Angier’s wife. Newcomer Rebecca Hall solidifies the lineup of ladies as Borden’s bride, but it’s youngster Samantha Mahurin, as Borden’s daughter, Jess, who will be stealing your heart.

London in “The Prestige” is presented Dickens-like, all dark and gloomy for the most part, and the life of a Victorian-era magician can seem as shady as a backroom craps game, until a great trick comes along and makes that magician the toast of the town. “The Prestige” is great film that has come along at just the right time.

— Jim Harris



Not much to ‘Death’

Unless you’ve being held in a secret CIA torture center, spending your days praying for death and getting waterboarded, you’ve probably heard about it: that new pseudo-documentary that discusses the assassination of George W. Bush and its aftermath.

Right-wing pundits have been practically screaming from the rooftops about this one. Democrats, meanwhile, haven’t mentioned it, for fear of getting a sandbag over the head and a free trip to Gitmo.

Beyond all that free publicity and partisan hype, however, “Death of a President” isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be. More provocative than entertaining, if its central figure was a fictional politician instead of the sitting president of the United States, this might be fodder for a student film. Instead –- and because the filmmakers had the balls to stir up the Repubs and the Secret Service by making it Bush who takes the bullet rather than President Smith –- they’ve kind of hit the talking-head jackpot.

That said, the scenario of “Death” is enough to send goose bumps up the arms of even the most fervent Bush-loather: While on a fund-raising swing through Chicago in 2007, Bush is shaking hands at a rope line when he is felled by two bullets from an assassin’s gun. The Secret Service and the FBI swing into action, and soon arrest the Shadowy Islamic Terrorist of Bush’s nightmares: a Syrian who had taken training at one of those Afghani summer camps for nogoodniks back during the Taliban years.

With the man quickly tried, convicted and sentenced, that might have been that –- except for President Cheney’s bombing the bejesus out of Syria, of course. The problem, however, is that it soon becomes apparent that there might have been another, closer-to-home explanation — one that was possibly stifled because the administration’s military/industrial pals can’t find a way to profit from a native-born terrorist.

Told in retrospect by several shell-shocked characters — one a presidential speechwriter, another the head of the FBI’s Chicago field office, another the wife of the Syrian arrested for the crime — the story does have a certain narrative drive to it, and the scene depicting the shooting of Bush will raise goose bumps. However, if you mentally subtract the centerpiece of Bush’s murder, “Death” turns out to be about as compelling as an off-week episode of “CSI.”

Given that, the only answer as to why the filmmakers decided to build their story around the assassination of Bush is to get the pundits talking and the looky-loos out to the theaters. Had Bush only been wounded in the attempt, this could have been a place to talk about some of the more regressive and damaging policies of the Bush administration, not to mention the American public’s willingness to trade in their principles for blind patriotism and the illusion of a little safety in the wake of a national tragedy, as seen in the days after 9/11. But because they wanted the maximum amount of provocation per minute of film, they go all the way and kill him. After that, “Death” soon spins the only direction it can go: into a sort of stale whodunit with only a few twists and turns.

While the filmmakers should be commended for their willingness to experiment with the mockumentary format, their execution is a bit off. Though “Death” is interesting, it’s mostly a one-trick pony.

— David Koon


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