JACKI LYDEN, host:
Just ahead, we get reacquainted with a 19th century poet whose legacy is the defense of immigrants, but first to the movies.
When the motion picture The Illusionist premiered this summer, it took audiences by surprise with its early 20th century magic act. Now comes The Prestige, which deals with similar subject matter and has A-list stars, a better-known director and a bigger budget. So with all those bells and whistles, is it magical? We asked movie critic Bob Mondello.
BOB MONDELLO: I was invited up on stage about a year ago to watch Ricky Jay, the world's most amazing card shark - I think the actual word is prestidigitator - spend a few minutes turning threes into queens and making aces rise up out of a deck, and generally doing things way too cool to be actually possible.
I sat at his elbow and never blinked and concentrated like crazy and decided after a while that the molecules in the card faces must be rearranging themselves. So it was fun to see him at the very beginning of The Prestige playing a bit part as a bad magician, with a manager, played by Michael Caine, who defends him, and two assistants who don't think he's very good.
(Soundbite of movie "The Prestige")
Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE (Actor): (As Alfred Borden) He's boring. Come on. Give me something fresh. He won't even try a bloody bullet catch.
Mr. MICHAEL CAINE (Actor): (As Mr. Cutter) A bullet catch is suicide. All it takes is some smartass volunteer to put a button in the barrel.
Mr. BALE: A real magician tries to invent something new that other magicians are going to scratch their heads over.
Mr. CAINE: I suppose you have such a trick, Mr. Borden.
Mr. BALE: I sure do.
Mr. CAINE: Would you care to sell it to me?
Mr. BALE: No. No one else could do my trick.
Mr. HUGH JACKMAN (Actor): (As Rupert Angier) Any trick can be duplicated. Right, Mr. Cutter?
MONDELLO: As magician wannabes, these assistants - played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman - are naturally competitive. And when tragedy strikes the act they're helping with, they become enemies, too.
Soon they're calling themselves The Professor and the Great Danton, rival magicians on stages across the street from each other. They sneak in disguise to spy on what the other is doing. They sabotage tricks and steal them when they can.
One that The Professor develops is called The Transported Man, in which the magician travels from one side of the stage to the other in a split second. It's pretty fabulous, and The Great Danton can only figure out one way to do it and that pretty clearly isn't how The Professor is doing it, so he sends his beautiful assistant, played by Scarlett Johansson, to see if she can squirrel it out of him.
(Soundbite of movie "The Prestige")
Ms. SCARLETT JOHANSSON (Actor): (As Olivia Wenscombe) He wants me to come and work for you and steal your secret.
Mr. BALE: (As Alfred Borden): Well, what does he need my secret for? His trick is top notch. He vanishes, and then he reappears instantly on the other side of the stage, mute and overweight, and unless I'm mistaken, very drunk.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BALE: It's astonishing. How does he do it?
Ms. JOHANSSON: It's killing him. He's obsessed with discovering your methods. He thinks of nothing else. He takes no pleasure in our success, and I've had enough. There is no future with him. He sent me here to steal your secret, but I've actually come to offer you his.
MONDELLO: I probably shouldn't tell you any more about the plot, this being what you might call a magical mystery tour of subterfuge. Suffice it to say that Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who burst on the scene with Memento, that murder mystery that moved backwards in time, are up to some new tricks in The Prestige, playing games with science - this being an age when electricity was considered mysterious - and generally crossing up audience expectations and then double-crossing them.
The film is never less than engaging, though considering that the title The Prestige refers to the moment in a magic act that gives it its wow factor, it's kind of a shame that the ultimate reveal in the movie is a little too tricky for its own good. But then I say that as someone so clueless about magic that the only explanation I can come up with for a real-life card trick is that the card face molecules must be rearranging themselves. I'm Bob Mondello.
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