Tag Archives: Christian Bale

Mind At War: Nate’s Top Ten Films on Mental Illness

The subject of mental illness is one that’s close and important to me as I myself am one of the afflicted, and it’s impossible to ignore that the treatment of it by Hollywood, particularly in formative years, hasn’t been so apt. Don’t get me wrong, I love stuff like Me, Myself & Irene or Split as entertainment but in terms of accurately representing the conditions that beset human beings, they haven’t been so hot. There are those films and filmmakers out there that strive to educate and enlighten or even just to craft an effective thriller or comedy and still stay true to real life, doing important work for the collective awareness and making terrific art/entertainment in one shot. Here are my personal top ten favourites!

10. Geoffrey Sax’s Frankie & Alice

Multiple personality disorders are popular in Hollywood but there’s a tendency to mock, sensationalize or tell a ‘real life’ story that’s later proved as fraud. This one showcases Halle Berry in a galvanizing dual performance as a go-go dancer afflicted by two very different internal identities and finding her life in splinters as a result. When a kind, compassionate psychiatrist (Stellan Skarsgard) makes it his mission to help her get back on track it becomes apparent just how challenging and horrific it must be to endure such a thing.

9. Dito Montiel’s Man Down

I heard this one sold one single theatrical ticket in the UK and didn’t fare much better here, getting squeaked into a quiet streaming release. It’s too bad because it is one haunting drama about PTSD featuring an implosive, incredibly intense performance from Shia LaBeouf as an ex marine who can’t psychologically reconcile his experience and is lost amongst his own trauma. Terrific work from Kate Mara as his wife and Gary Oldman as an army counsellor too.

8. James Mangold’s Girl Interrupted

Likely the most accessible and mainstream story on this list, Mangold’s look at a mental care facility for girls in the 60’s gets a superficial rep in some circles but I find it to be every bit the rewarding drama, ensemble piece and explorative journey that those who champion it say. Winona Ryder plays a wayward girl whose self destructive behaviour lands her there but it’s Angelina Jolie as a fellow patient diagnosed with borderline personality disorder that both anchors the film and provides it with a wildly unpredictable streak.

7. Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island

This is of course a big old elaborate mystery film with a gigantic cast, many red herrings, tons of subplots and all kinds of stylistic fanfare. But if you look past all that there’s a harrowing and very realistic portrait of minds irreparably damaged, between Leo Dicaprio’s PTSD afflicted ex soldier and Michelle Williams in a haunting turn as his deeply sick wife. The film overall is a tantalizing guessing game and broadly covers the thriller board but the final act brings it right down to earth for a grounded, grim finale showcasing the brutal honesty of these illnesses and the heart wrenching tragedy they beget.

6. Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King

Robin Williams gives one of his best performances as Parry, a once successful professor of medieval history who lost his mind following the death of his wife and now wanders the streets of NYC, homeless. Jeff Bridges is the radio DJ who befriends and tries to understand him and their relationship carries the film. So to does Gilliam’s knack for surreal visual storytelling, letting these fantastical creations run wild and giving us a glimpse into Parry’s damaged but fascinating mind.

5. Brad Anderson’s The Machinist

Christian Bale’s Trevor Reznik hasn’t slept in a year. Guilt, extreme weight loss and delusions are just the start of his problems. This is billed as and feels like a thriller but I think that’s deliberate on director Anderson’s part to put us in the hot seat next to Trevor, to make us feel the same paranoia and delusions of persecution he does. The atmosphere here is almost suffocating, the score a muted tangle of busted nerves and Bale’s performance something just this side of unearthly. When it all comes together and we see why he is the way he is it’s deeply sad but makes a kind of terrible sense and gives the film a final stab of emotional weight.

4. Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace

PTSD is only vaguely hinted at in this beautiful father daughter drama but it’s there in every frame, in every mannerism of Ben Fosters masterful performance. Him and newcomer Thomasin Mackenzie achingly display a family dynamic that has been set off balance by his illness, and the wedge it has driven both between them and between him and ever living a normal life again. This is a restrained yet heartbreaking film that gently unpacks its themes with kindness and compassion, letting a devastating final scene bring the whole point home heavily but somehow lightly in the same note.

3. David Cronenberg’s Spider

Ralph Fiennes give a focused, intense turn as the titular individual, a man released from a mental care facility and relegated to a London halfway house where all the scrambled and tumultuous memories of his past come tumbling down through the scattered web of his broken mind and into the present. Recollections of his parents (Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson) are somehow shrouded from himself, by himself and as he tirelessly works to regain his sanity, he slips further away from it. Cronenberg uses shadows, dimly lit alleys and creaky, barren rooms to show how this character has been cast away from his own perception and wanders about like a lost soul.

2. Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy

The life and times of Beach Boys pioneer Brian Wilson are explored here, namely at two important junctures in his life. Paul Dano plays him younger, at the height of fame and success but poised on the cusp of a psychotic breakdown after stress and an unhealthy relationship with his abusive father (Bill Camp) reach a fever pitch. Decades later John Cusack embodies a much older Wilson, stuck under the tyrannical yoke of an evil, manipulative psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti) until he meets the love of his life (Elizabeth Banks) and a chance at a fresh start along with her. The scene of Dano putting recording headphones over his ears and closing his eyes in horror as he hears voices is one of the most brutally honest and realistic depictions of auditory hallucinations you can find in film. Wilson had a rough life and the film makes that very clear but it’s never ever sensationalist or exploitive and overall has a message about love, light and working endlessly to overcome any demons or struggles thrown into your path.

1. Kasi Lemmons’ The Caveman’s Valentine

Samuel L. Jackson gives a career best as schizophrenic former musician Romulus, a man afflicted by terrible hallucinations and delusions to the point that when he discovers a genuine murder conspiracy no one, including his police officer daughter (Aunjanue Ellis) believes him. This film is driven by a fascinating mystery narrative that takes Romulus from his cave in Central Park into the pretentious New York art world and beyond to find a killer. At heart though director Lemmons let’s it m be a serious minded exploration of what it must be like to live like that, to be constantly sabotaged by your own mind. Jackson’s brilliant performance and Lemmons effective use of surreal, mesmerizing imagery give us a compassionate, dynamic window into this man’s mind and in turn a unique, thought provoking piece of cinema.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more content!

-Nate Hill

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins

These days we take the abundance of DC/Batman films and TV series for granted, but back in the first half of the 2000’s there was a massive drought left on the land thanks to Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, which we won’t go into here. Then Christopher Nolan came along and changed that forever, not with necessarily a bang, but the thoughtful, moody, introspective Batman Begins, a film that served as catalyst to one of the most celebrated motion picture trilogies of today. That’s not to say it didn’t blast into the scene with a bang, this is one seriously fired up action film that left iMax screens reeling and sound systems pumped. It’s just that Nolan gave the Batman legacy the brains and psychological depth that it deserves to go along with the fireworks, while Schumacher & Co. were simply making live action Saturday morning cartoons, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing either but after two films seemed a bit beneath the potential of what Batman could be.

Nolan bores into the roots of Bruce Wayne’s anguished past to expose themes of fear, not only facing his childhood fears but eventually becoming them to release the anger he’s harboured since that night in the alley. Christian Bale finds both the cavalier flippancy of Bruce and the obstinate, short tempered dexterity of Batman and yes, he makes an impression with a voice that has perhaps since become more well known than the films. Trained in the heartlands of the Far East by mysterious Ducard (Liam Neeson), Bruce returns to Gotham years later to find it rotting from the inside out with crime, corruption and poverty. Nolan shows the rocky road he sets out on and the failures he endures in his first few ventures onto the streets in costume, crossing paths with Cillian Murphy’s dangerous Dr. Jonathan ‘Scarecrow’ Crane, uneasily aligning forces with Gary Oldman’s stalwart Jim Gordon and assisted at every turn by Michael Caine’s Alfred Pennyworth and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox. Nolan assembles a cast full of roles both big and small including Richard Brake, Mark Boone Jr, Ken Watanabe, Linus Roache, Rade Serbedzija, Joffrey Lannister, Rutger Hauer and more. I have to mention Katie Holmes because she gives one of the most underrated performances in the whole trilogy. I’m not sure what went on behind the scenes when recasting her with Maggie Gyllenhaal for the next film but it did no service to the character, Katie made it her own, is full of personality and will always be the real Rachel to me. Special mention must also be made of Tom Wilkinson as mob boss Carmine Falcone, who is only in a handful of scenes but scares the pants off of everyone with his off the cuff blunt dialogue, violent tendencies and shark-like personality.

I can’t say this is my favourite film in the franchise or even the one I’d call the best (Dark Knight holds both those honours), but it is definitely the one that stands out to me the most when I think of the trilogy as a whole. Why? Visual aesthetic and production design. With the next two films Nolan cemented a very naturally lit, real world vibe that became his signature touch on the legacy, but Begins is different. There’s a burnt umber, earthy, elemental, very gothic tone he used here that just isn’t there in the next two, and whether intentional or not, it sets this one in a Gotham slightly removed from Knight and Rises. The mood and story are also rooted far more in mysticism and the fantastical as opposed to the earthbound, economically minded, concrete edged sensibility of what’s to come. Just a few observations.

In any case Nolan pioneered an arresting new Gotham for Batman, his friends and foes to do battle in, he injected the smarts, philosophy and character development that the franchise had been thirsting for a long time before. Wally Pfister’s swooping cinematography, Hans Zimmer’s cannonball original score, Nathan Crowley’s spooky, cobwebbed production design and every performance in the film work to make this not just one hell of a Batman film, but an overall excellent fantasy adventure that truly transports you to its world, the mythology, development and destruction of which leaves a lasting imprint on the subconscious. Brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

The Man behind The Dark Knight rises by Kent Hill

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How did this wonderful film slip through the cracks? There was little to no word about this utterly enthralling and compelling story about the ‘other’ man behind the bat.

I admit to you now – I was in the dark. While comics were a staple of my formative years, as that time receded, my interest had diminished to ‘casual’  by the early 2000’s. Even then I was far from what you would refer to an an aficionado. Comics were flame bursts in the dark. Most of mine were not pristine, and I collected them by the bundle when my Grandmother would take me along with her to the Book Exchange and allow me to parlay a stack of her used paperbacks for a pile of superhero awesomeness.

But, back to the topic at hand. I read comics without much regard for who created them (that attention to detail I reserved for my first obsession, the movies). I was there to indulge, pure and simple. Still, as our awareness grows, so do we seek out ever greater detail – the mechanics that make our preferred mode of escapism tick and thus our experience is enriched and the depths of our interest continue to descend into the pop culture sea that abounds, seemingly fathomless.

Such is the story brought to life by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce. Like the equally incredible Searching for Sugar Man before it, Batman & Bill traces the steps of the elusive Bill Finger – the man who, in case you didn’t know, co-created Batman with Bob Kane. And, like Sugar Man, the plot, which on the surface might seem to have a logical conclusion, just keeps unraveling as the real life seeker of justice, Marc Nobleman, tracks down and lets the sun shine brightly on the life, labors and legacy of Finger.

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Now I’m not going to spoil this at all. You must, must, must seek out this glorious unfolding of a sad, arduous, but ultimately triumphant saga which is predominantly about rewriting history, but at its heart there is a drum that beats and reminds us to stand tall in the face of adversity, and the film depicts this, in the form of the mammoth uphill battle to place Finger’s name next to Kane’s as a creative force behind one of the truly monolithic heroes from the realms of illustrated storytelling.

All I will say is that the end broke me up like Field of Dreams always manages to. Yes, strong men also cry, to quote The Big Lebowski, but you’ll walk away from this film ever changed and with a sense of pride having seen honor restored, a name reclaimed and a final note so satisfying it’ll touch your heart.

Read the book, see the film, and as for right now enjoy my chat with the extraordinary team who have captured beautifully this tale of a watchful protector who fought with a pen mightier than any sword to see the ‘other’ man behind the Dark Knight, rise…

 

https://www.hulu.com/press/show/batman-and-bill/

https://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/1360261187749/batman-and-bill (for Aussie viewers only)

https://www.amazon.com/Bill-Boy-Wonder-Secret-Co-Creator/dp/1580892892

 

David Ayer’s Harsh Times

David Ayer’s Harsh Times sees Christian Bale in a character study of extreme dysfunction and maladjusted anger, it’s a tough, bitter film to watch but one that leaves a firebrand in its wake, for better or worse. Bale plays Jim, an Iraqi war vet who has come back stateside so internally fucked up and damaged that he can barely hold down a job or keep up steady relationships with anyone that don’t teeter towards self destruction. He spends his days meandering around the outskirts of LA with Mike (Freddy Rodriguez), his partner in petty crime and apprentice in all things spiteful and misanthropic, much to the dismay of Mike’s much more successful girlfriend (Eva Longoria). Jim is both psychologically broken and emotionally untethered, a dangerous combination if left unchecked, and the downward spiral of violence, drugs and antisocial behaviour he slides into is a sad, pitiable thing to see. Did Jim have an affinity for criminal activities before the war, or did his experience change him into the man he is now? What and where is the causality, if any? Where do the lines blur? Ayer keeps it close to the chest, but the clues are all there in Bale’s measured, incendiary performance that may be his best so far. Sparks of vitality still shine through, as when he shows interest in a job with the Bureau (JK Simmons has a great cameo as the chief interviewer), but even with that he causes corrosive friction, perhaps unintentionally. It’s a blistering character study of a guy whose environment has turned him hard, until he goes against the grain almost by second nature and circles a drain that was a long time coming and from which there is probably no escape. Mixed up with a whole bunch of the wrong kind of people from gangbangers to prolific drug runners, this film sees Jim hit the end of his road,. Both Bale and Ayer make it something powerful to watch, if miserable too.

-Nate Hill

After the Apocalypse: A Conversation with Barry Hunt by Kent Hill

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There are too few films in this day and age that leave you with something to ponder in the wake of experiencing them. But, The Further Adventures of Anse and Bhule in No-Man’s Land is, I’m pleased to report – does not fall into that category.

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As I remarked to its gentleman director – Barry Hunt – I found myself thinking to the influences which drove his artistic choices and compositions. I found traces of Herzog, Annaud, Jodorowsky – even Samuel Beckett.

For you see, this ain’t your typical day in the wake of the devastation of the world as we know it. Mr. Hunt has crafted here a sublime and visual feast that is as deep as it is vast. I found myself recalling films like Quest for Fire, Aguirre and Holy Mountain – even the lost children scenes from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

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One of the founders of the Sowelu Theatre in Portland , Oregon, Hunt has taken this intriguing, theatrical source material and constructed a film which is at once engaging and thought-provoking. And you can’t tell me there are too many films about which offer these sensations anymore. From the opening scene, to the world after the fall, Anse and Bhule also brought back to me the emotions evoked by McCarthy’s The Road. Both are absorbing journeys in which the characters we follow must shed, if you will, their emotional and even physical ties to all they have known. Then and only then can they truly become creatures of the new age, thrust upon them.

I urge you to seek this film out, and prepare yourself for a profound cinematic experience. The burgeoning cinema of Barry Hunt I eagerly anticipate. He has a new film in the spawning, and I have a feeling it will, just as Anse and Bhule did, exceed my expectations while completely stripping them away.

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https://vimeo.com/107316810

I present a fresh and brave new voice in the service of pure cinema. I give you, Barry Hunt.

 

THE RIDDLE OF STEEL with Matt Greenberg & Kent Hill

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Matt Greenberg returns, and after the most excellent first time round it was never a question of if, but when. Matt is, of course, not only a cool cat but a talented screenwriter (Reign of Fire, 1408). In our first interview (which you’ll find here: https://podcastingthemsoftly.com/2017/01/13/writing-with-fire-an-interview-with-matthew-greenberg-by-kent-hill/) we discussed his career, the highs and lows – basically his adventures in the screen trade.

This time round I really had no plan, and I find that makes for the best interviews, cause, man, it can go anywhere. I love his unfiltered take on the epicenter of the film industry, his encounters with certain movie town luminaries, his hilarious CliffsNotes on the status of the latest cinema fodder, and his seeds of wisdom when we’re talking shop.

From possible titles for Meatloaf’s next album to O.J. Simpson, to the best idea I’ve ever heard for a reality TV series, Matt and I don’t just shoot the breeze, we gleefully fire and Uzi into the clear blue sky and I hope you’ll delight, as I do, with what hits the ground.

So for luck, for laughs, for the unknown, join us now, me and my mate Matt as we sit down again. And don’t worry – we also talk about movies…

Scott Cooper’s Hostiles

Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is beautifully shot, competently staged, well produced, acted and scored, but there’s a certain depth, development and complexity lacking, and I lay the blame on script, which seems a little south of the polished stage, with one foot still rooted in the blueprint phase. It’s a shame because the actors are game to give the film all they’ve got, but the script handed to them just isn’t on par with their efforts. Christian Bale is implosive as ever in one of his best performances as Blocker, a decorated civil war vet who has spent a great portion of his career heavily involved in the war and genocide against Native American tribes, and as such has become a hard, mean and brittle tempered creature. It’s fascinating to observe how someone like him, who does have a decent soul deep down, can be turned so backwards and hateful in circumstances like that, another theme the film doesn’t quite follow through with. Blocker is tasked with one last mission before semi-early retirement: Escort legendary Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, excellent as ever) and his kin from Arizona back to his home in Montana to live out his remaining years. Blocker bristles at the thought, but when his salty superior officer (Stephen Lang) threatens his pension, he begrudgingly saddles up. The film then showcases their journey, several hardships and skirmishes they find themselves in, all to fertilize the eventual bond and understanding formed between the two groups and their decision to work as a unit, and even respect each other. Here’s the problem: the script isn’t deep or thoughtful enough to make any of these arcs believable. The Native characters are painfully underdeveloped, particularly Yellow Hawk’s son and his wife, played by Adam Beach and Qorianka Kilcher, two actors more than capable of handing in great work when the material comes their way. The one thing that does work and is probably the best quality that film has is a character played by Rosamund Pike, a frontier farmer whose entire family is slaughtered by vicious Comanches in the film’s arresting opening scene. She joins Bale’s company, and Pike plays her with harrowing sadness, terrifying vengeful poise and gives one of the most realistic, un-cinematic portraits of grief I’ve ever seen. Come awards season next year, she should be a front runner. The film almost doesn’t deserve her sterling subplot, but it does it’s best, and reaches some heights here and there. Bale’s company is played by a reliable troupe including upright Jesse Plemons, melancholic Rory Cochrane and grizzled Peter Mullan. Also appearing is western veteran Scott Wilson in a brutal last minute cameo, always nice to see him still in the game. There’s an unbalanced focus between the soldiers and the natives, who I wanted to learn more about but were left as mainly tagalong bystanders with scant dialogue. When Bale’s arc reaches it’s final stages, I felt slightly cheated by everything that came before: I didn’t quite believe that what he’d been through was enough to sway over two decades of hate and prejudice, and once again the fault lies with script. A little more care, preparation and editing could have turned this from a good film into one for the ages.

-Nate Hill

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises faced a tricky maneuver: providing a follow up to the earth shattering, delirious success that was 2008’s The Dark Knight. The film was never going to be as good as or better than that lightning in a bottle stroke of genius. However, the film we did get is one epic, operatic sonic boom of a Batman film, and if there’s one area where it does in fact outdo The Dark Knight, it’s in scope. The action set pieces here have an earth shattering, monumental quality to them, mainly thanks to Tom Hardy’s Bane, a full on monster who brings biblical destruction to Gotham City with some calculated, maximum impact attacks that almost blow the speakers of any system they’re shown on. Despite the apocalyptic blitzkrieg, Nolan loses none of that precious philosophy that has made this franchise glow so far, the sharp-as-a-tack dialogue and moral complexities of existing in a world of vigilantes and terrorists. It’s been eight years in Gotham since Batman took down the Joker and, somewhat controversially, the fallen angel that was Harvey Dent. Bruce Wayne has become a crippled recluse while the city more or less flourishes quietly, but there’s nothing that’ll roust a burg out of tranquil slumber like the arrival of a seven foot tall, highly trained psychopath bent on chaos. In a vertigo inducing opener set atop the clouds, Bane triumphantly crashes a CIA aircraft and makes off with its cargo, a mere taste of his brutality to come. Bruce is forced out of hiding to do battle with him, and before you know it they’re all thundering around Gotham’s tunnels and edifices, pursued by hordes of snarky GCPD, who no doubt have missed this kind of action for a near decade. The new commissioner (Matthew Modine) is a hotheaded nimrod, while Gordon (Gary Oldman, the gravitas is real with this guy) still hurts from the tragedy years before. Anne Hathaway throws a wicked curveball of a performance as Selina ‘Catwoman’ Kyle, and although no one will ever, *ever* top Michelle Pfeiffer’s brilliantly kinky turn years before, she’s a deadly force to be reckoned with both for Bruce and the criminal factions vying for power. Hathaway seems like a sanitized choice for the cat, but she’s deft, sexy, formidable, competent and looks damn good in that outfit careening around on Bruce’s batbike. Marion Cotillard is great as the mysterious Miranda Tate who may be more dangerous than she seems, a shtick which Cotillard unnervingly perfected first in Inception. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are top notch as Alfred and Lucius once again, Ben Mendelsohn plays up a sleazy business rival for Bruce, Juno Temple is cute as Selina’s off again, on again lover, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s intrepid detective gets a whole lot of plot momentum and crazy good dialogue, and the jaw dropping lineup of supporting work includes Brett Cullen, Burn Gorman, Desmond Harrington, Chris Ellis, Robert Wisdom, Tomas Arana, Aiden Gillen, Brent Briscoe, William Devane, Nestor Carbonell, Reggie Lee, Wade Williams, Christopher Judge, a brief reprisal from Liam Neeson and Cillian Murphy as that pesky Scarecrow, the only villain who appears in all three films. The story goes to places the other two films never ascended to, and if the Joker thought his antics aspired to anarchy, he’d do flips when Bane literally starts blowing up the city on a massive scale, an extended sequence that’s delirious in it’s armageddon worthy panic. On a more personal scale, Batman deals with being broken, the cost he must pay to ultimately save his city, and the unknowable matter of when to cash out as a superhero, or forever give up your soul to a fight that has neither end nor reason. My only issue with the story is how a certain third act revelation pretty much neuters Bane’s character arc and renders his whole fearsome nature somewhat too human and redundant when all is said and done, it’s a narrative decision Nolan should examine closely for his own sake, and avoid such an impotent cop-out when writing his next arch villain. The cinematography is aces, the cgi blending seamless, Hans Zimmer’s score gives us the classic thunderstorm passages we’ve come to love while adding a rhythmic chanting for further depth and flavour. There’s not much that can be said that’s negative about the film, it’s one hell of an achievement and doesn’t let up until the Big Bang of an ending provides release for the franchise and every character in it, an expository epilogue in which loose ends are tied, and some semblance of peace is found. A near perfect third act to the trilogy, and a superhero flick for the ages.

-Nate Hill

HE IS NED: An Interview with Max Myint by Kent Hill

2015 was the year. I was in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia at our version of San Diego’s Comic Con: SuperNova. I was there peddling my books but, in the booth next to mine, something amazing was afoot.

A giant banner held the image of the famous, or perhaps infamous Australian bush-ranger Ned Kelly; transformed and repackaged as vigilante, looking battle-damaged and bad-ass holding the severed head of a zombie in one hand and a loaded pistol in the other.

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That image invoked more than history and cultural iconography. It spoke to me as a concept so simple, yet compellingly cinematic. He is one of our country’s most treasured pieces from the past in a fresh guise and pitted against a dark, futuristic dystopia where the undead have evolved and formed a society in which humanity is not only a minority, but is being systematically wiped out.

Max Myint leads the creative team, spearheading, if you will, the rise of this epic saga of the man called Ned. A talented writer, sculptor and world-builder, the gutsy, gritty dark realm that he has helped usher in is about to explode on November 10. In the midst of the stench of rotting flesh and the searing of metal is something that commands attention. I for one can’t wait to see Ned’s rise and rise continue, and Max and his talented team blast this thing out into the masses . . . and watch it catch fire.

The living have surrendered…

Except for one man…

They call him Ned!

https://www.facebook.com/Iamnedcomic/

https://podcastingthemsoftly.com/2016/08/04/not-yet-a-major-motion-picture-but-hopefully-one-day-an-interview-wit-the-creators-of-the-man-they-call-ned-by-kent-hill/

“Are you watching closely?” A review of The Prestige – by Josh Hains 

“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.”

– Cutter (Sir Michael Caine); The Prestige, 2006

I’ve always been enamored by magic since I was a young boy. I don’t know how to perform any tricks and haven’t read dozens of magic books, but I’ve seen enough magic performed to validate my love for it. I’ve always enjoyed trying to decipher how a trick is pulled off. Sometimes I’m right, sometime I’m wrong. That’s the name of the game. In the case of The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s 2006 masterpiece, I’ve spent the last couple years on and off deciphering the movie as best I can. A part of me doesn’t mind the ambiguity, and doesn’t need to solve the puzzle. The other half just had to solve it. I believe I have the movie figured out better than most, but whether or not I finished the puzzle isn’t the point of the movie. The point is entertainment, and I think The Prestige is amongst the finest entertainment you’ll find in cinema.

Apprentice magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) work under Milton The Magician (Ricky Jay), frequently acting as fake volunteers for Milton in 1890’s Victorian London. Julia (Piper Perabo), Robert’s wife and an escape artist, drowns while trying to escape from a water tank with her hands bound when Alfred ties the necessary slipknot too tightly. She’s gone before stage engineer (or “ingenieur”) John Cutter (Sir Michael Caine) can break the glass with an ax. This tragic event sets into motion a bitter and violent years long rivalry, each man trying to one-up or sabotage the other.

During this time, Borden marries Sarah (Rebecca Hall), and together they have a child, their daughter Jess, while Angier launches his own magic career with Cutter and new assistant Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlet Johansson), and Borden perfects a new trick dubbed The Transported Man. The trick bewilders Angier, but Cutter is unimpressed, suggesting Borden uses a double to complete the trick. Angier finds that solution too obvious, and becomes obsessed with finding the answer at seemingly any cost. Through a series of unfortunate events, both Borden and Angier find themselves in possession of the other’s personal journals that hold the ins and outs of how each trick is performed. Borden’s journal leads Angier to Nikola Tesla and his assistant Mr. Alley (the late David Bowie, and Andy Serkis, respectively), in the hopes they hold the key to replicating Borden’s trick.

The Prestige reminds me of a Jenga tower. Remove the wrong piece and the entire thing comes crashing down, remove the right piece and it stands tall for a while longer. At any moment the film could derail if all the plot threads weren’t tied up nearly with a bow, and yet for me it never does derail. Remove the script from your mind for a moment. Are the performances great? At least 3 are Oscar worthy. And the cinematography, score, set design, and costuming, how are they? Immaculate as one might expect from Nolan and his trusted team. And the script, what do you think of it? Delightfully complex, thought provoking, and fresh. For me, there aren’t any cracks in the glass.

About that ending. The film gives you clues as to how the lives of both men will turn out. One is willing to kill a bird and present a new one to the audience in its place, the other willing to save the bird and re-present it to the audience. Bearing that in mind, the possibility exists that one of the two men acquired a machine capable of successfully duplicating a person, much like a pile of hats and black cats (“They’re all your hat.”). The first duplicate is killed, then every night for 100 nights straight, the man performs the “Real Transported Man”, constantly duplicating himself and either he or one of his duplicates winding up in a tank of water below the stage they perform upon. Perhaps the true prestige is that the other man pulled his trick off using a twin brother, while the other sacrificed his life and the lives of duplicates for the look on people’s faces when they witness his great trick.

Perhaps the solution is simpler, and the machine never worked to begin with, and Tesla was just a distraction from the real trick, the use of a double. And perhaps when that man found out he’d been tricked, he chose to use a double from prior engagements, a drunkard stage actor, to help pull off his great illusion, and no one ever drowned until the night his rival came up on his stage. Maybe a trick lock was always used beforehand and replaced with a real one to setup the rival. Maybe the duplicates seen in a morgue or standing erecting in water tanks at films end are nothing more than wax figures. And maybe the revelation that his rival used a double all along makes his efforts seem fruitless in his final moments. Maybe the prestige of the film is that simple yet no one wants to accept it because of the simplicity, and certain science fiction infused elements like a machine capable of duplication are far too compelling and obvious a solution to be ignored.

Maybe we’re not meant to solve the mystery, just be driven mad by our own obsessions with it. Maybe we’re all Angiers.