Monday, October 30, 2006

Movies - The Illusionist and The Prestige

OK, so it's no coincidence that both of these movies came out within weeks of each other. Both The Illusionist and The Prestige explore life within the world of professional magicians. Even though each movie has its own very unique underlying tone and storyline, I figured I'd devote a single post to both movies.

First, a very quick overview of each flick:
The Prestige
Two up and coming magicians are pitted against each other in a tale of revenge and jealousy. Neither magician seems all that extraordinary, though Jackman's character is presented as the better showman. Bale's character speaks with a thick accent that is at times too over the top and distracts from the show. When Bale perfects a trick that confounds everyone, Jackman is thrown into dangerous obsessive actions that lead him into a world of true science fiction surrounded by sparkling eye-popping special effects.
Character development remains at a minimum with neither character expanding much beyond their intent to one-up the other. Michael Caine shines as usual, sometimes overshadowing the scene, other times obviously being held back to the detriment of the movie. David Bowie (I know...when was the last time you saw him in a movie) also does a great job and is a joy to watch (even if his character also lacks depth). The women in the movie are there as supportive roles, and often even less than that. Scarlett Johansson is there purely as eye candy and to provide yet another motive (do they need another one) for jealousy between our magicians. Bale's wife actually shows some decent acting abilities but her character's role is largely ignored. To an extent, this helps develop Bale's character by showing him as an insensitive dolt, but to another extent, it leaves the audience with an empty feeling.

The Illusionist
A talented misfit lower class child falls in love with a duchess and their youthful love is viciously torn apart, leading him to devote his life to perfection of his magic and her to the life of aristocracy. When he returns, she is betrothed and soon to be wed to an insensitive prince and would-be-usurper of the thrown. Naturally, they engage in numerous trysts to rekindle their youthful love and let the flame burn even brighter than before. The prince is naturally thrown into fits of jealousy, not necessarily because he cares for Biel's character, but because he needs to marry her in order to complete his political agenda. Norton and Biel discuss methods of running away together but tragic turns of events cut their plans short and throw Norton into a meloncholic stupor.
The characters are well crafted and function well together. Giamatti works his own magic, stealing the scenes as the charismatic and intriguing detective. Norton's character has depth of emotion but also plays stoically behind a wall of indifference, making it sometimes difficult to feel for him.

Both movies work heavily within flashbacks. The Prestige transitioning back and forth between them frequently. In some movies, this tactic can get confusing, but they pull it off well and manage to keep you well informed as to the accurate time period throughout. The Illusionist keeps you in flashback exclusively for a large portion of the movie and doesn't switch between the two but rather brings the flashback up to meet 'current' time and continues the tale from there. This avoids possible confusion in wondering if you're in or out of a flashback, but also distracted me slightly once time caught up with itself and I realized that I had been watching a flashback for the past hour.

The character development within The Illusionist was far and above much better than that of The Prestige. The Prestige's characters remained fairly static throughout the film. They were believable to an extent due to the actor's intensity and prowess, but without emotional growth and change, it was difficult to draw them off the screen as entirely palpable characters. The Illusionist on the other hand often had more subtle acting styles, but allowed the characters to display their emotions and motivations more thoroughly and thus allow the audience to more aptly believe in their struggles.

The plots are variant in theme and tone, but they both share underlying commonality. The plot device of jealousy functions in different ways in each film due to the differences in characters. Norton's character in Illusionist is far more subtle and sneaky than any of the characters in Prestige who are blatantly cutthroat. Some of the methods of revenge exchanged between Bale and Jackman are downright vicious and seemingly without any thought to the larger picture or even the end results. Norton's character was much more calculated and defined.
The love plot for The Prestige is the weaker of the two, at least until you dealve farther into the show, at which point there is potential for an extensive building of the jealousy and revenge based on the love triangle. However, that plot point is allowed to fall by the wayside. The Illusionist keeps the love triangle at the forefront and uses it to drive the plot forward, sometimes distractingly so.

The elements of magic used in each movie are strangely varied. Both show the the world of magicians as somewhat precarious and explore the methods used to create the 'perfect illusion.'
Most of the tricks shown in The Prestige remain fairly common and often explain to the audience how they are performed. The ultimate trick used at the peak of the jealousy/revenge plot is portrayed as somewhere between true magic and perfection of science. In the end, we learn that each magician achieved the trick through different means and with entirely different (though equally sacrificial) results. The science fiction posed to complete the tale ends up being one that stretches the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. The revelation ends up with an anti-climatic "aw...come on" rather than a feeling of satisfaction.
The Illusionist demonstrates magnificient illusions that leave us (and the other movie characters) wondering about possibilities of supernatural influences. To some, this could be as dissatisfying (or moreso) than the sci-fi explanation of the other movie. However, the supernatural suggestion is expressed only as one possibility and never expressly confirmed...furthermore, it is presented in line with the story such that even if it was proven, it would not detract from the movie. The revelation results in a chuckling "aha" moment that has you fully relating to the character revealing the plot.

Overall, both movies were very enjoyable and could be watched again and enjoyed.

The Prestige was the weaker of the two films both in terms of plot and character development. I had suggested to myself one of the two final revelations (Bale's) to myself about midway through the film. Jackman's revelation was a bit more ellusive and was both more annoying (because it broke the suspension of disbelief) and more enjoyable (because the reference from earlier in the movie was more subtle/intriguing). Prestige definitely felt as though it was striving for the action-filled style that innundate our box offices through the summer months but, knowing that it couldn't compete with MI:3 or X3, attempted to be the explosive/exciting movie of the fall season.
-- I give this film 2.5 out of 5 stars.

The Illusionist was a slower paced film that on occassion needed to speed up a bit. The lighting and music worked to accentuate the slower tone of the flick and showcase it as a period piece. The strong character development and excellent interweaving plot allowed the audience to fall headlong into the movie and be fully immersed, with the one small jolt being the transition from flashback to current time. The plot resolution was immensely gratifying and induced well-deserved smiles and chuckles alongside the on-screen character during the scene. Some of the acting was over the top, and other portions were a bit subdued, but in large, the style fit with the piece.
-- I give this film 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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