Old Tricks

The wizardry of The Prestige; plus, Flags of Our Fathers and Running With Scissors.

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Like Christopher Nolan’s first major film, Memento, The Prestige (Newmarket Films) has an intricate, time-shifting story that never stops turning the tables on the viewer. Also like Memento, it ends with a rapid, mind-bending montage that wreaks havoc with our previous understanding of the film’s events. But unlike the previous film, and to its great credit, The Prestige is utterly without pretense. It doesn’t want to explore epistemological questions about the nature of perception and memory; it just wants to mess with our heads. And as a wily, slightly sadistic chess game of a movie, it succeeds quite nicely.

Without giving anything away, I can say this much: Robert Angier * (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are dueling magicians in Victorian London. The genesis of their quarrel: Borden accidentally killed Angier’s wife (Piper Perabo) onstage in an escape trick gone wrong. But as the years pass and their rivalry escalates, her death becomes a mere pretext for the men’s ever-more absurd feats of one-upmanship. Obsessed with Borden’s signature trick, the “Transported Man,” Angier embarks on a quest to figure out how he does it—a quest that, as every good quest should, eventually leads him to David Bowie on a mountaintop. * Bowie plays Nikola Tesla, the real-life inventor who was a contemporary and rival to Thomas Edison. Tesla’s technological contribution to the Angier/Borden matchup provides the plot’s fulcrum. It also shifts the movie from a Realist (if Gothic) thriller toward the realm of science fiction—a move that, it might be argued, cheats viewers at the game the movie itself has set for us.

I know I’m not the first to compare Jackman to Cary Grant, but the analogy really is compelling. In addition to the physical resemblance, they share a suave lightness that can easily shade over into menace. Bale is the perfect nemesis, all brooding and cockney roughness. And Michael Caine, who’s cast as an ingeneur (a kind of magician’s trainer), has enough sly wisdom not to take the whole thing too seriously.

Clint Eastwood’s last two movies have been overpraised genre pieces. Mystic River had a crude emotional power despite its rough spots, but Million Dollar Baby came by its tears far too easily, and some of its broad caricatures—the greedy redneck family, the stoic black man—were downright disturbing.

Disliking Flags of Our Fathers (DreamWorks), Eastwood’s tribute to the Greatest Generation, feels tantamount to spitting on the flag—or worse, your father. But however deeply felt Eastwood’s commitment to the project, however laudable his struggle with the moral complexities of war, he simply hasn’t made a movie that’s compelling to watch on its own terms. A potent one, sure: It’s impossible to see young men’s bodies blown up by grenades at point-blank range and not feel fear, anger, and nausea. But as graphic and frightening as parts of this film are—and some of the battle scenes can be watched only from between your fingers—Flags relies too often on the standard war-movie structure: Develop the soldiers’ characters just long enough to be able to tell them apart, then throw them on the battlefield to be picked off, one by one, in increasingly horrible ways. The long, graphic battle scene of the landing on Iwo Jima, filmed in desaturated colors, recalls the opening of Saving Private Ryan, and the final shot, in which we revisit the same beachhead in the present, is straight out of Schindler’s List.

In the movie’s best scenes, Eastwood examines the way heroism is constructed retroactively by the PR machine of war. He follows the three surviving subjects of the famous Iwo Jima flag-raising photo (played by Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, and Adam Beach) as they’re sent on a U.S. tour to promote war bonds. The whole thing is folded into a present-day frame story, in which one survivor’s son (Tom McCarthy) travels around interviewing the survivors who knew his father. The modern-day scenes are stiff enough to resemble an Army training film. It feels disrespectful to say it, but this kind of war movie, like war itself, is starting to feel sickeningly familiar.

Augusten Burroughs, the author of the best-selling coming-of-age memoir Running With Scissors (Sony), was sued by the Massachusetts family with whom he lived for several years in the late 1970s, and whom he depicts as slovenly, manipulative, dog-food-munching, child-abusing lunatics. But maybe the Turcottes (the real name of the family here called the Finches and played with gusto by the likes of Brian Cox, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jill Clayburgh, and Evan Rachel Wood) needn’t have worried so much. In the movie version, written and directed by Ryan Murphy of TV’s Nip/Tuck, they actually come off as kind of loveable.

Of course, Murphy does change some of the book’s more jaw-dropping details for palatability’s sake. For example, when he was first molested by Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), the gay schizophrenic who would become his sort-of boyfriend, the real Burroughs was only 13, not 15. Joseph Cross, a fresh-faced kid who also appears briefly as cannon fodder in Flags of Our Fathers, hits just the right note as the exploited and vulnerable but ultimately resilient Augusten. Annette Bening, who keeps getting better with every movie she makes, plays the mother as a darker twist on the loveable narcissist she created for last year’s Being Julia. Her Deirdre Burroughs, solemnly declaiming subpar feminist poetry from beneath a frosted shag haircut, is a delicious monster. By turns cruel, self-pitying, and mordantly witty, she makes living with a delusional psychotic seem like the adventure of a lifetime.

Correction, Oct. 20, 2006: Due to an editing error, the original version of this article incorrectly identified Hugh Jackman’s character in The Prestige as Rupert Angier. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, Oct. 30, 2006: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to a magic trick as “The Transformed Man.” It is called the “Transported Man.” (Return  to the corrected sentence.)