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EW review: Darkly magical 'Prestige'

By Owen Gleiberman
Entertainment Weekly
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(Entertainment Weekly) -- We think of magic as puckish, elegant, lighter than air, but in "The Prestige," an aggressively devious sleight-of-hand thriller directed by Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins), the magic, even at its most clever, is powered by currents -- sometimes literal ones -- of electricity and danger.

In the Victorian age of high magic showmanship, a woman gets dunked with a violent splash into a glass tank, and it's far from preordained that she'll ever get out. A man makes a bird vanish by smashing its cage; a bullet catcher asks a ruffian in the crowd to fire a gun at him, and the trick turns out to be as hazardous as it sounds.

Then there's the enigmatic silver sphere, invented by Thomas Edison's rival Nikola Tesla, that shoots off white bolts of Frankensteinian voltage, teleporting a top hat (or a person) from one place to the next. Magic or technology? Either way, "The Prestige" wants to fool your senses by ripping a hole in reality.

It does so with a busy, at times brutal, singlemindedness. Nolan unfurls the parallel stories of two magicians, the sleek showman Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and the brooding virtuoso of illusion Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), the two of whom start as young partners but end up as fierce competitors, trying to top each other's secrets in a fake-out to the death.

"The Prestige" leaps around in time with dizzy abandon, a deliberate strategy to make magic seem like the most concrete, grounded thing in the movie. It works, though at the expense of giving the audience much room to breathe.

Kicking off with an apparent murder, the movie flashes back to Angier and Borden as they learn the tricks of their trade, abetted by Cutter (Michael Caine), a builder of illusionary hardware who explains the three parts of every great feat of magic: the Pledge (mundane setup), the Turn (which fashions it into something extraordinary), and the Prestige (in which the ordinary is restored with a miraculous twist). This formula of wonder comes alive as each magician lures audiences with his version of the Transported Man, in which the performer enters a door on one side of the stage only to emerge, moments later, from a door on the other side. How Borden achieves his far more amazing version is the movie's pivotal mystery.

Watching "The Prestige," you may find yourself longing for a bit of the old-fashioned, streamlined trickery of "The Illusionist." Nolan gives his heroes wives, plus an assistant (played by Scarlett Johansson) who becomes the spy/mistress for each man in turn, but the relationships aren't convincing; they're more like setups for illusions -- flesh-and-blood versions of the Pledge.

The film works best on stage, where Nolan keeps your eyes popped wide in curiosity. His canniest move is to reveal the key to certain tricks, thus upping the ante on the tricks we aren't in on. Jackman, all keen intensity, and Bale, who knows how to push passion to the brink of pathology, are magnetic foils, and David Bowie makes Tesla a turn-of-the-century gentleman freak genius.

"The Prestige" isn't art, but it reaps a lot of fun out of the question, How did they do that?

EW Grade: B+

'Marie Antoinette'

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

Pampered princess, poor little rich girl, misused celebrity, lonely bubblehead, underappreciated trendsetter who misses her subscription to the 18th-century equivalent of Teen People -- the adolescent queen envisioned by writer-director Sofia Coppola in "Marie Antoinette" is, at one time or other, all of these lost clotheshorses.

And since this is Ms. Coppola we're talking about, stylish and soft-spoken "Godfather" royalty from the Hollywood kingdom herself, it's tempting to read autobiographical identification into the filmmaker's madly chic, tauntingly shallow biopic, set during the young queen's married life. Following "Lost in Translation" (in which a lonely, effortlessly hip girl rattled around Japan), here's Coppola's "Lost in Versailles." In this rarefied universe, the privileged go shopping while, unseen and unheard until the very end when they storm the palace, the less style-conscious masses apparently get by on their own.

It's tempting to search for autobiography, yes, but too easy: This yummy-looking, artfully personal historical fantasia, borne on currents of melancholy and languor and rocking out to a divine soundtrack of 1980s New Romantic pop music (plenty of the Cure, Bow Wow Wow, and Adam Ant), is the work of a mature filmmaker who has identified and developed a new cinematic vocabulary to describe a new breed of post-postpostfeminist woman. And that contemporary creature is also of the artist's own invention.

Call that girl ... Kirsten Dunst, a vision of bewildered loveliness as the 14-year-old Marie of Austria, betrothed, in a political deal, to the even more bewildered 15-year-old future Louis XVI of France, played by Jason Schwartzman. (The marriage was famously unconsummated for seven years due to the child king's withering lack of sexual know-how.)

With her winning touch of girlfriend-of-Spider-Man resilience and the easy, modern way she wears her formidable ball gowns, Dunst embodies the teen girl of today and of more than 200 years ago. And in returning to the star of her first feature, "The Virgin Suicides," as muse, the filmmaker wisely lets Dunst set the movie's tone of voluptuous lostness.

"Marie Antoinette" uses Antonia Fraser's marvelous 2001 biography as a reference, but Coppola's movie views the world through the young queen's eyes. And eventually, that narrow POV loses focus and veers toward distractedness as the seriousness of the brewing revolution becomes clearer. Instead, friendless in an adopted country strangled by its own demands of etiquette (Judy Davis is a hoot as the worst of the sticklers, the Comtesse de Noailles) and unable to arouse her husband, Marie turns to luxury as solace -- cakes, jewels, parties, shoes.

Was she a flibbertigibbet, a casualty of gossip and mean press coverage, a Princess Diana before her time? Coppola's stranded royal suggests that at heart, Marie Antoinette was just a simple girl who wanted to have fun, and got her head handed to her.

EW Grade: B+

'Running with Scissors'

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

Watching "Running With Scissors" the movie instead of reading "Running With Scissors" the best-selling memoir by Augusten Burroughs is like running with a spatula, or maybe some weird toast tongs. The experience is unusual -- zany, even -- but not nearly as dangerous or exhilarating as one would hope from the recklessness the title implies.

This is quite a feat of dullness on the part of writer-director (and "Nip/Tuck" creator) Ryan Murphy, considering the rawness of Burroughs' unenviably colorful autobiographical material: Raised by a monstrously narcissistic mother (Annette Bening) prone to psychosis and the creation of bad poetry, young Augusten (Joseph Cross) is deposited like a foster kid in the home of his mother's barmy psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox).

And in the way of crazy shrinks throughout psychoanalytic history, Finch has a brood (Jill Clayburgh as meek wife, Gwyneth Paltrow and Evan Rachel Wood as damaged daughters, Joseph Fiennes as profoundly disturbed ''adopted'' son) that makes the clan in "Little Miss Sunshine" -- or "The Addams Family" -- seem Walton fresh and functional.

Burroughs describes life in the Finch hell house with bleak hilarity that gains power from the suggestion of warped ordinariness -- doesn't every shrink wake his sleeping family to admire what he has just produced in the toilet? But Murphy, a first-time feature filmmaker, lacks an equivalent voice of his own -- or the confidence to influence through understatement; instead, he goes for the shorthand of ornate retro-'70s production and costume design, bumping up against arch kitsch. (To call the cluttered house itself a character, as the director has, is to cede narrative control.)

Bening is elegantly unvain in her ferocious performance as a bad, sick mother, but in this standing-still adaptation she's bested by kitchen decor.

EW Grade: C

'Flicka'

Reviewed by Scott Brown

Horse love and daddy love are the purest loves of all, and Flicka, a new yet insistently old-fashioned spin on the kid-lit classic "My Friend Flicka," traffics in both.

But bighearted and beautifully shot as it is, this latest film version (the original starred Roddy McDowall, the Alison Lohman of 1943, as the misfit trainer of a ''loco'' horse) can't buck its public-library mustiness, despite a blaring pop/country soundtrack. As for our heroine (Lohman), her archetypal struggle with crusty Pa (uncrusty Tim McGraw) feels attitude-heavy and life-lesson-light.

EW Grade: B-


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Prestige

Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play rival magicians determined to outdo each other in "The Prestige."

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