April 13, 2010
 

$carlett's Prestige & 007's Casino Royale

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The New Movies.

By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

The Prestige. The magicians who served as consultants for this turn-of-the-century London tale of rivalry and betrayal are among the best in the profession--Ricky Jay and Michael Weber. (The renowned illusionist David Copperfield is also thanked in the credits.) In particular, Ricky Jay is well known to Broadway audiences for his spellbinding presentations as well as his historical expertise and scholarship. Ricky is a magician's magician--a showman who can mesmerize 1000 people winding up and playing a 19th century French automaton with slowly moving head and hands that produce a selected card, or by pitching cards across a stage with enough force to split a watermelon.

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Jay often acts in David Mamet movies, and he's briefly seen in "The Prestige" doing an onstage Chinese water torture cabinet illusion with Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman cast as young magicians learning the trade as audience plants, while Michael Caine (playing the equipment maker) watches from the wings. The fact that Mr.Jay has lent his participation and skills to "The Prestige" is something like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval; it promises us that the film will be faithful to the profession of magic in all its mystery,. complexity, wonderment and--just as importantly--its secrecy.

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"The Prestige" doesn't fully live up to that promise, but it's still an immensely entertaining and riveting movie. Directed by a cinematic master of misdirection, Christopher Nolan ("Mememto"), the film traces Bale and Jackman's growth into rival magicians on the London stage, just as Thomas Edison was begin to light urban and rural landscapes. Initially it's fascinating but unsettling to watch the preparation and execution of some classic stage routines like the bullet-catch and the fly-apart birdcage. The latter was a signature trick of the master conjurer Harry Blackstone in the 1940s. As a semi-professional children's magician for some years, this writer got a very queasy feeling watching scenes with Bale and Jackman (and an assistant played by Scarlet Johansson) discussing the methods and mechanics of illusions, and demonstrating the secrets of these timeless classics.

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But then "The Prestige" settles into its central premise, which is the one-upmanship between the two performers, part of which are disappearance/reappearance routines by both men, and part of which is Bale's search for a unique piece of electrical equipment built by an eccentric inventor (marvelously played by the disguised rock artist and one-time mime David Bowie). The revelations of the routines become integral to the progression of the bitter and tragic rivalry of the two. Nolan's climax is a stunner, and then that stunner is topped by another stunner, and yet a third topsy-turvy twist. The title of the film refers to the third of three parts of a magic presentation--The Prestige, or the completely unexpected ending. Nolan provides one after another after another. Without these reveals, there's no movie.

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"The Prestige" is a polished, elegant and opulently produced "amusement." Everyone is on-point, and Michael Caine's portrayal of the philosophical precisionist--the master builder who flanks and shadows the two younger, handsome combatants--may well earn him a supporting-actor Oscar. In a sense, this kind of movie assumes your complicity. It asks that you don't give away its secrets. Ricky Jay is probably betting you won't, at least until the person you recommend the film to, sees it--Consider it done.

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Casino Royale. Every James Bond fan should welcome this 21st chapter of the screen's longest-running espionage franchise with open arms. It's a long-awaited, long-overdue return to form--an 007 dramatic thriller with a new, immensely likeable actor, Daniel Craig, who carves out a distinctly different persona for the dauntless British agent who Ian Fleming first introduced to many of us in our college days.

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Craig is a Bond who takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'. The actor sports a superb physical build and appears more fit than any other star who's assayed the role. "Casino Royale" trades the extravagant gadgetry that's plagued many outings for the tight-in, intense slugfests that powered Sean Connery's early 60s classics. Can you ever forget the train compartment fight between Connery and Robert Shaw in "From Russia With Love"? Craig in "Casino Royale" delivers a lot of set pieces like this--in a men's room, along the steel highbeams of a highrise under construction, in a hotel stairwell, inside the cab of an airport fuel truck plowing toward a departing superjet, even in a building that's collapsing floor by floor into the sea before our astonished eyes.

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The villains in this blessedly PG-13 adventure pile up and go down like fireflies, but Craig more than takes his share of pounding, pummeling and poisoning. The lead heavy (Mads Mikkelsen) is a familiar Bond bad guy--a Vladimir Putin lookalike who sports a scarred lazy eye and is squarely in the tradition of Donald Pleasance, Klaus Maria Brandauer and Gert Frobe. They're smooth together in the film's long, million dollar poker games at a casino in Montenegro as well as in a dingy ship's hold where Mikkelsen does some "Reservoir Dogs"-style torture on a stripped and defiant Craig. Bond's major love interest is well-played by the French actress Eva Green, and their affair is refreshingly free of the cloying witticisms and trophy-girl sexualizing that dumb down so many Bond films. Here Bond really falls in love, and Miss Green's ultimate revelation is a true shock to both his system and ours.

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To its credit, "Casino Royale" is not infested with the product placements that have given such a sketchy commercial feel to recent Bond films. Aston-Martin, Sony digital phones and Gordon's Gin get their share of screen time (they could qualify as executive producers), but that's about it. The film's two-and-a-half hour running time is evenly paced and consistently arresting, alternating its frenetic showstoppers with leisurely and carefully developed scenes of Craig interacting with Miss Green, several other beauties and the ever-resourceful Judi Dench as his control. Craig seems a serious, almost working-class actor and carries his prizefighter body easily. He has a touch of animal magnetism that Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan never exhibited. Craig runs fast, jumps high, and seems to take a lot of bruising freefalls without benefit of stunt doubles. At 38, Daniel Craig, like producer Barbara Broccoli (the daughter of the series' late original producer Cubby Broccoli), could be settling into double-o-seven for the long haul.

Stay tuned for Kurt's review of Happy Feet later this week in the Journal.
The Editors

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