Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Prestige

These magicians have plenty up their sleeves...

Dexterity, charm, and the power of persuasion -- these are the mainstays of any competent magician. The ability to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of human perception and take advantage of its loopholes is precisely what pays the bills of any illusionist, from humble small-town acts all the way up to David Copperfield and his disappearing Statue of Liberty. It isn't wizardry these men employ, but we pay for the experience of being convinced that it is. The same could also be said for any great filmmaker. Creating a world filled with people who are physical, 3-dimensional realizations of the vapors in someone's imagination, and putting them in situations that are nothing short of astounding, making us believe for a brief time that their fantastic adventures are not only genuine, but that we are also a part of them, is real magic in the making.

In The Prestige, we find that magic is not only the obsession of the main characters, but that it is also the film in its entirety. Director Christopher Nolan joins forces again with his Batman Begins staple actors Christian Bale and Michael Caine, adding to the mix Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson, to bring us what is perhaps one of the most complex, fascinating storylines to be shown on screen this year.

We meet Alfred Borden (Bale), Rupert Angier (Jackman), and Cutter (Caine), a small magic act in London around the turn of the 20th century, who perform all manner of classic sleight of hand: disappearing birds (the greusome secret of this trick is revealed early on), daring escapes from tanks of water, bullets nimbly caught from fired guns. Cutter is the wise mentor of the two young men, arranging the magic behind the scenes and mediating the dueling personalities of Borden and Angier, who are fierce rivals. Angier is the charming showman whose talent in magic extends only so far as being able to dutifully follow Cutter's conventional techniques. He lacks imagination, but with his good looks and winning smile can sell any act to a crowd. By contrast, Borden's genius is remarkable, and he is comfortable with it, but his techniques are elemental and without flair. He can spot the methods of any illusion from the back of a crowded room, and he has the ambition and the craft to perform amazing feats, but he lacks the showmanship to wow an audience. Naturally, Angier is fiercely jealous of his partner's talent, but when the group's lovely assistant, also Angier's wife Judith (Piper Perabo), drowns during a water-escape gone wrong due to Borden's mistake, Angier's jealousy erupts into an obsessive determination to bring down the other magician.

What follows is a series of revenge tactics that become nastier with each turn. For Angier's wife, Borden loses a few fingers. Borden avenges the lost digits by sabotaging a few of Angier's magic acts in rather brutal ways; however, when Borden's magical genius reaches a climax in the form of a trick that cannot be explained by any conventional illusionist techniques, Angier's obsession to learn his rival's secret reaches an unstoppable velocity.

This has so far been laid down as a pretty simple plot, but do not be fooled. Christopher Nolan weaves this tale in a style that only the director of a film like Memento can master, with a series criss-crossing, competing flashbacks that is at times confusing, and requires constant attention, but is never short of fascinating. He provides this story with a visual backdrop of the muted yet stylish hues of the late 19th century that are delicious to behold, and perhaps most importantly, Nolan and his brother laid down a screenplay that is full of interesting characters, and even a real historical figure: eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla (I'll let you be surprised as to who plays him). Bale and Jackman portray men who are vastly different, but who are equally engaged in the art of deception, both professionally and personally. Borden is a hard man to know, seemingly charismatic and arrogant one minute, and coldly aloof the next. He is observed by others as a man who is deeply divided, with a wife who can tell from day to day whether or not her husband's declarations of love are genuine: "No, no, you don't mean it today. You love the magic today," she says matter-of-factly to which Borden can't help but agree, with certain bewilderment.

Angier eventually beds his replacement assistant, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), but she soon realizes that she can't compete with his drive to steal the work of his competitor. We at one minute sympathize for him and the next fear him. Jackman's acting work here is nothing short of superb.

From here, I can reveal no more. I have been made privy to the secrets of not only the magic trick itself (although, I am forced to wonder if the true instrument could even be considered magic), and it is my duty to not spoil the illusion for the other viewers. After all, as the film instructs us several times throughout its 2-plus hour length, we really don't want to know. To know would deaden the mystery, and there is plenty to keep one guessing up until the final reveal, The Prestige as it were, which we are told in the beginning, is when the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.

Prepare to be wowed.

Gouda's Final Grade: A

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Departed

So much talent on one screen should be illegal...

Loyalty is a tricky beast; the need to fulfill our obligations to those to whom we are most emotionally dedicated often eclipses our concepts of right and wrong. It's not so much a matter of what we have to do to retain our idol's favor, but that the deed is simply done without question. This is especially true if lurking in the background of every transgression of our moral sensibilities is the certainty that a failure would result in the loss of our lives. If we are indoctrinated as children to become loyal to a monster, it is to be assumed that we would end up doing the deeds of a monster.

In Martin Scorcese's latest film, an epic of dueling loyalties is played out in a taut, complex, brutal, and ultimately brilliant fashion. Like being witness to a boxing match between two men who are blindfolded, we are never quite sure who is going to land the knock-out punch, or how. The ring: the Massachussetts State Police Special Investigations Unit. In one corner, we have Sergeant Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), an up and coming star in the department. He's charming, intelligent, and has the skills to promote easily within the ranks. This is especially beneficial to Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), a powferul Irish mob boss who practically raised Sullivan from a boy and remains the central figure of Sullivan's loyalties. Unknown to Sullivan and the others working under him in the department are the names of the undercover agents assigned to the Costello case, and this is the biggest thorn in Sullivan's and Costello's sides.

Which brings us to who is in the second corner: officer Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose hopes of escaping his own crime-ridden family leads him to the State Patrol. Unfortunately, his past does not escape the attention of higher-ups Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) who want to use Costigan's family connections with the Irish crime syndicate to insert him into a deep-cover assignment to build a stronger case against Costello.

This is when Scorcese's mastery as a storyteller takes center stage. Bouncing us between the lives of these two men, we observe their differences, but more striking are their parallels. Imprisoned by their very grim loyalties, their lives begin to fall apart. Costigan develops a painkiller addiction while Sullivan is continually haunted by intimacy issues with his clinical psychologist girlfriend, Madolyn (Vera Farmiga). Often times, it becomes mind-boggling watching how one operation to nab the elusive Costello is thwarted from within by Sullivan while both the police department and the mob know they are dealing with their own respective moles. We ultimately end up with a tale of one rat chasing another.

This story is enhanced so well by a superb screenplay overflowing with dialogue that makes us laugh and gasp, often simultaneously. Mark Wahlberg delivers his most solid work to date, playing a character who delivers the majority of the movie's best lines. And Alec Baldwin, who has become almost as iconic as Christopher Walken in recent years with the dialogue, does not disappoint as the head of Sullivan's department.

Plenty of critics have attempted to draw conclusions between this movie and Scorcese's previous masterpieces, namely Goodfellas, saying that this one doesn't match up. Let's be clear- a movie like Goodfellas can really happen only once in a lifetime for any great director and Scorcese, being perhaps our greatest living director, is lucky to have several pieces of genius under his belt. And rest assured, he can add this film to it. I'm not going to try to draw a distinction between The Departed and his previous films; Scorcese is clearly at the top of his game here. He has made a movie that sets the senses ablaze, and by the end, delivers a swift knee to the solar plexus.

This is, by far, my favorite movie of 2006.

Gouda's Final Grade: A+