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Touching on Touchstone

The Prestige DVD Review

The Prestige (2006) movie poster - click to buy The Prestige

Theatrical Release: October 20, 2006 / Running Time: 130 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Hugh Jackman (Robert Angier), Christian Bale (Alfred Borden), Michael Caine (Harry Cutter), Scarlett Johansson (Olivia Wenscombe), Rebecca Hall (Sarah Borden), Andy Serkis (Alley), Piper Perabo (Julia Angier), David Bowie (Nikola Tesla), Roger Rees (Owens), Edward Hibbert (Ackerman), Ricky Jay (Milton), Samantha Mahurin (Jess Borden)

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The Touchstone-Warner Bros. co-produced drama The Prestige invites viewers to Victorian England to peer into the competitive world of professional stage magic. There, our attentions lie with two budding magicians. One, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), is the better showman, able to sell his acts. The other, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), is the more skillful illusionist, capable of performing tricks that universally astound.
A grave mishap turns the two former allies against each other. A fierce rivalry ensues, which finds Angier and Borden engaging in an unending challenge of one-upmanship.

With the help of the wise stage engineer Harry Cutter (Michael Caine), Angier plots against the devoted Borden, who Angier sees as having taken his livelihood away from him. There are seemingly no bounds to how far the two men will go to exact revenge on the other. Dreadful disruption of an act, espionage, disfigurement, and even murder transcend.

What begins as a look behind the curtains of secretive trickery turns into obsession between two men insistent on outdoing one another. Like a good magician's act, the movie keeps you guessing throughout. Its cards are never all on the table and you're not even sure which of the two leads to root for. Nevertheless, it is just a lot of fun to immerse yourself in a universe of clever men with tricks up their sleeves.

Hugh Jackman plays Robert Angier, a showy Victorian magician. Christian Bale (of Disney's "Newsies" portrays Alfred Borden, Angier's friend-turned-rival, a calculated performer.

In the course of just a few films over the past ten years, Christopher Nolan has established himself as one of the most visionary filmmakers working today. As producer, screenwriter (with brother Jonathan), and director here, Nolan continues to expand his range, while relying on similar devices employed for past successes, such as voiceover, non-linear chronology and personnel of Memento and Batman Begins.

The Prestige is expertly crafted and proves that a period setting need not be the basis for stuffiness, slow pacing, or formula. In the dark but complex turn-of-the-century life depicted here, there is enough vitality among the compelling characters to engage modern viewers turned off by the premise or what has come to be expected of movies set in the past. The rich film even does its best to handle twists that were presumably much easier to pull off in print, where they first appeared in the 1995 Christopher Priest novel on which this is based.

Audiences may not be willing to grant praise to the movie's every move. The presence of real-life engineer Nikola Tesla (portrayed by David Bowie) confounds more than enlightens. The twist endings don't answer every question or even hold up too well to reflection, but this trait, which makes the proceedings conducive to close repeat viewings, cannot rob the power the film maintains throughout.

Rock icon David Bowie depicts the influential 19th century engineer Nikola Tesla, who is consulted by Angier for some out-of-this-world help. Oscar winner Michael Caine makes the aged Cutter a likable alibi.

The performances are key to the effectiveness of The Prestige. In the lead roles, Jackman and Bale are both excellent and they're reinforced by a fine supporting cast, which includes Andy Serkis (Gollum, King Kong) in the flesh and Scarlett Johansson (with a nearly pulled-off English accent) as a magician's assistant of questionable loyalty.

The Prestige joined the company of Deep Impact and Armageddon, Antz and A Bug's Life, as part of similar-looking pairs of movies that opened close to one another. It was released within two months of The Illusionist, another turn-of-the-century Europe magician drama, which starred Edward Norton and Jessica Biel. Both films were warmly received by critics.
Both did moderate business at the box office, with The Prestige's $53 million domestic gross being very comparable to indie Illusionist's nearly $40 million intake when theater counts are considered. Both are among the five nominees in the Best Cinematography category at next week's Academy Awards. Prestige is also nominated for a Best Art Direction Oscar. Unlike the two aforementioned couples, it may be too close to call a winner in this competition.

Awards, praise, and extraordinary talent at its best are three things that were definitely not found in my recent review of The Guardian, the Touchstone film released prior to The Prestige. That should only illustrate that it's tough to write off an entire film studio, since there are always going to be hits and misses. With more triumphs like this and Michael Mann's Oscar-nominated The Insider, maybe the Walt Disney Company would not be in the midst of scaling back production in the output of its mainstream adult-friendly branch. Perhaps the most we can do is merely let those in the business sort this one out. Rewarding a worthy film like The Prestige with one's attentions is probably the most powerful thing an individual can do in hopes of supporting good cinema.

Buy The Prestige on DVD from Amazon.com. (The title refers to the third and final act of a magic trick which brings about a restoration of order.) DVD Details

2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish;
Closed Captioned
Release Date: February 20, 2007
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Black Keepcase with Side Snaps and Holographic Cardboard Slipcover

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Prestige comes to DVD and Blu-ray exclusively in a 2.35:1 widescreen transfer that has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The film's predominantly handheld cinematography opts for a fairly dark and muted palette, but the visuals are both consistent and consistently satisfactory. While the video here doesn't exceed expectations for a new studio movie's standard DVD release, it certainly meets them.

In the sound department, the movie boasts a Dolby Digital 5.1 track in English, French, and Spanish. There are plenty of peaks and lulls in the dynamics, as bolts of electricity sporadically provide jolts and David Julyan's score competently complements suspenseful turns. For the most part, the sound mix is somewhat low-key, even in the occasional theatrical scene.

Christopher Nolan is a focus (but not the only one) of the 5-part featurette "The Director's Notebook: The Cinematic Sleight of Hand of Christopher Nolan." A poster for The Professor's Transported Man trick is found in the Art Gallery. A bird and cage bit is one of four animated illusions which can adorn the Main Menu.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

There are only two bonus features here, which is surprising for a film that was once thought to be in the running for a Best Picture Oscar.
On the other hand, perhaps it's not so surprising, since the film is strong enough to attract customers without a bulky extras list on the back of the case.

The first and only video-based supplement is "The Director's Notebook: The Cinematic Sleight of Hand of Christopher Nolan" (19:25). The menu and packaging present this as five distinct pieces -- "Conjuring the Past", "The Visual Maze", "Metaphors of Deception", "Tesla: The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century", and "Resonances" -- but they're too short and similar to not be perceived as one complete production featurette, achieved with the provided "Play All" listing. Viewed as a whole, this making-of gladly covers the usual "how" and "why" ground as it pertains to The Prestige and it does so in a thoughtful, unique, and interesting manner. We hear from Nolan, all the leading actors, author Christopher Priest, and production designers. The remarks offered lend easy-to-appreciate insight into the feature, noting its contemporary-minded approach to portraying the period setting in an accurate but exciting way.

The other bonus is a series of four Art Galleries. Rarely found on a modern live action film's DVD, this seems included to pad out what is a surprisingly sparse disc. Three of the galleries ("Film", "Behind-the-Scenes", "Costumes and Sets") each deliver approximately 25 press-friendly stills. It's something you'd expect more out of an official website than a DVD. "Costumes and Sets", for instance, merely features characters in shots where wardrobe choices or locations are more prominent. The final gallery, "Poster Art", neatly provides ten images of posters for the movie's acts, not the movie itself.

The menus are simple but sensible, resembling old-time magic act posters brought to life. A quartet of unmarked icons at the bottom left hand of the Main Menu trigger animated illusions based on parts of the film. In effect, you can then choose between four different Main Menu schemes, though the only thing that changes is visual on the right side of the screen.

The automatically-playing previews at the start of the disc promote Pixar's Ratatouille, Miramax's multiple Oscar nominee The Queen, the Touchstone thriller Deja Vu, and the notion of anti-piracy. The Sneak Peeks menu holds additional spots for Renaissance, the Roger Corman Collection, and Disney films on Blu-ray Disc.

Continuing what is apparently a new tactic for 2007's Touchstone DVDs, the initial pressing of The Prestige finds the DVD housed in an embossed cardboard slipcover which doesn't offer any artwork besides what the standard black keepcase below does. Still, with a touch of holography given to the cover-dividing Scarlett Johansson and smoke, it may attract potential customers the way the otherwise standard "big heads" front may not.

Ghostly lights and an obsession haunt Angier. Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) and The Professor (Christian Bale) take their bows. That's all, folks!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Prestige is a suspenseful and intriguing film that holds you captive throughout. Between the solid performances, sharp script, winning atmosphere, and effective direction, you're given more than enough to overlook an ending that doesn't quite add up as well as you'd like. Contrast the very few shortcomings with the very many strengths and it becomes clear that this is one of last year's best movies.

A surprisingly sparse DVD doesn't keep this one from being recommended. While the gallery isn't much, the fine featurette serves to complement the movie, and picture and sound are expectedly stellar. Sure, the lack of deleted scenes and a commentary is worth noting, but their absences don't change the fact that you should definitely check out this entertaining film.

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Also available on Blu-ray Disc

Related Reviews:
Howl's Moving Castle (2005) Newsies (1992) The Muppet Christmas Carol: Kermit's 50th Anniversary Edition (1992)
The Guardian (2006) The Night Listener (2006) Once Upon a Mattress (2005) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Magician Mickey (1937) The Sword in the Stone (1963) Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979) King Arthur: Director's Cut (2004)

Reviewed February 20, 2007.