The Prestige is an entertaining film with some great performances and some equally impressive twists – though not necessarily the ones you might be expecting!
The Prestige is the tale of two young wannabe magicians who begin their careers as part of another magician's act. Alfred Borden [Christian Bale] is the technician of the pair; Robert Angier [Hugh Jackman] is the showman. While working for this other magician, Angier's wife, Julia [Piper Perabo], is killed when a trick goes wrong. Angier blames Borden – and thus begins a lifetime of bitter rivalry.
When Borden comes up with a magical masterpiece called The Transported Man, Angier becomes obsessed with figuring out how it works. His efforts take him to America, where he seeks audience with the radical scientist, Nikola Tesla [a subtle, and very effective David Bowie], to learn the secret of the apparatus Tesla is alleged to have built for Borden.
As we watch the film, we learn, courtesy of Angier's mentor, John Cutter [Michael Caine], the three stages of every successful magic trick: The Pledge [wherein we are shown something ordinary], The Turn [in which said something is made extraordinary], and The Prestige [wherein said something is returned to its original state]. The film follows these stages…
In The Pledge, we meet our two prestidigitators-to-be; stage two finds them becoming the best magicians in the world; stage three… Ah, but that would be telling…
Like all of Christopher Nolan's films, to date, The Prestige requires its audience to pay close attention. While some things may seem obvious, they may – or may not – be as them appear. When Cutter dissects one of Borden's tricks, can his simple explanation be right – or is there something otherworldly going on? When, thanks to Cutter, Angier is able to pull the same trick via Cutter's method, we begin to think that Borden may be doing the same – and yet, there remains that hint of doubt that makes a good magician's audience wonder…
The screenplay, by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan [adapted from the novel by Christopher Priest], weaves in and out of the ordinary and extraordinary and, ultimately, works because it treats both with the same respect. As Borden asks at one point, "Are you watching closely?" In truth, you will have to watch closely to discern the reality behind the illusions – and when the two appear to merge, we are reminded that misdirection is at the heart of all magic tricks.
Christopher Nolan has yet to make a film that is less than excellent, and The Prestige keeps his record intact – despite having two lead characters whose obsessions are so great that they only allow for glimmerings of the two men's actual personalities. What makes the film – you should forgive the expression – magical, is a combination of two factors: the intelligence and wit of the script, and the quality performances, especially from the supporting cast.
Michael Caine continues to create characters of surprising depth without seeming to do much at all; Piper Perabo makes Julia endearing despite her limited screen time and small number of lines; Rebecca Hall almost steals every scene she's in, as Borden's wife, Sarah. The aforementioned David Bowie, and Andy Serkis [as Tesla's assistant, Alley] make an intriguing pair – there could be an entire movie about the two of them…
Nolan's direction, as with his other films, allows the story to unfold in its own time [the film runs 130 minutes], but never drags. The cinematography, by Wally Pfister, is lush enough to evoke the period, and concise enough to allow the story to tell itself.
Flags of Our Fathers may well be Clint Eastwood's finest film. It's a study in the horrors of war; the value of propaganda, and the effects of each on both the soldiers at the front and the folks back home. It's also a study in "the ends justifying the means" – and that makes it both doubly harrowing to watch, and doubly rewarding for its audience.
While being interviewed by the son of one of his men, Dave Severance [Harve Presnell] tells James Bradley [Tom McCarthy] that one photo – the right photo – can win a war. Specifically, of course, he's referring to the photo of the flag being raised at Iwo Jima, during World War II.
Flags of Our Fathers adapts the book by Bradley [with Ron Powers] in an unusual manner. It opens with the elderly John "Doc" Bradley [George Grizzard] calling for "Iggy" as he collapses on the stairs in his home; shifts to the events leading up to his unit's arrival on Iwo Jima – and the bloody battle that began there – and then shifts to the War Bonds drive in which the young Bradley [Ryan Phillippe], Rene Gagnon [Jesse Bradford] and Ira Hayes [Adam Beach] were drafted to play the part of "The Heroes of Iwo Jima."
As the drive progresses, the film flashes back to various events of their time on Iwo Jima – the feeling is that of battle fatigued soldiers having flashbacks, and it adds greater depth to their various reactions on the drive: Bradley's stoic determination to do the job; Gagnon's playing the publicity to make contacts for after the war; Hayes' retreat into the bottle. We learn that the flag-raising photo is not only an accident, but that it was the second such raising – and, more importantly, we learn why…
Eastwood's direction is as sure-footed as a mountain goat and as subtle as a Gurkha guerilla. At no time do any of the film's events seem staged, or calculated [except where such calculation plays a part in the story – as when the decision is made to use the photo of the second flag-raising as a rallying point for the American public]. Several performances are of Academy Award-winning quality. It will be interesting to see which ones receive nominations [my bet is Adam Beach will be nominated for Supporting Actor – and could well win].
While Flags of Our Fathers provides a look at the nature of, and necessity for propaganda, it also makes it clear that it is a weapon – no less than a rifle, or a bomb – and is often used even more ruthlessly. On the other hand, the film also shows how properly used propaganda can inspire – and make mad.
The screenplay, co-written by William Broyles Jr. and Oscar
It may have made more money than its predecessors, but X-Men – The Last Stand is the least of the three movies because writers Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg, and director Brett Ratner forgot one important thing: it doesn't matter if all the action set pieces are faithful to the comic when the underlying character moments are few and far between…CLICK THIS LINK TO SUBSCRIBE TO EMTV, OUR iTUNES VIDEO PODCAST!!
Banned from rebroadcast on cable TV! That's harsh, but Takashi Miike's episode of Masters of Horror is a very strange, very surreal and very violent excursion into the realm of Japanese horror. The episode is called Imprint, and it is not to be watched while eating! Also, DVD sets for two unexpected hits: The Unit – Season 1, and My Name Is Earl – Season One…
Christopher [Billy Drago, in an apparently non-villainous role] has scoured Japan in search of Komomo [Michie], a prostitute with whom he had fallen in love – and promised to return for. After years of searching, he comes at last to an island bordello that houses the least of those working the oldest profession. While he fails to find her, he is also unable to leave the island until the next morning.
At the madame's insistence, he takes a room in the whorehouse and, when badgered about a companion for the night, he chooses a Woman [Youki Kudoh, Smilla's Sense of Snow] whom he had glimpsed in the shadows. He discovers that she is deformed, but doesn't seem affected by her deformities – and asks if she knew Komomo. Her response is a tale of darkness and violence…
Imprint is based on Shimako Iwai's novel, Bokee Kyote, and is fascinating for its expression of the Japanese horror sensibility. According to Miike, these films are based on old grudges and vengeance – the horror comes not from the supernatural, but from the self. Christopher's torments are many – and the Woman deftly plays upon them. Of course, she is also tormented, and so she and Christopher make ideal companions for their one evening together.
Because the film is shot in English – with most of the Japanese cast reciting their lines phonetically – some of the performances don't have the same kind of impact as if they had been done in Japanese, with subtitles. Even so, the cast does a remarkable job of capturing the essence of their characters despite this handicap.
Youki Kudoh, at least, has the benefit of having learned English for her role in Smilla's Sense of Snow – this gives her performance the impact required. Billy Drago's Christopher is uneven at best – Drago's performance yo-yos between subtle and over the top. It might be a result of Miike's lack of knowledge of English.
If you can handle the graphic scenes of torture, and the revelations about Woman, chances are you will enjoy Imprint. It's a smartly conceived and mostly well-executed sixty-three minutes of mind and mood altering terror. It is not a popcorn movie – in fact, I recommend that food not be a part of this particular experience…
Features include: an Audio Commentary [by Chris D. – author, musician, programmer for American Cinematheque, and Wyatt Doyle – NewTexture.com] that looks at the films flaws in depth; I Am The Film Director of Love and Freedom – an in-depth interview with Miike; Imprinting – a fifty-minute making of featurette; Imperfect Beauty: The Make-Up and Special Effects of Imprint; Still Gallery; Takashi Miike bio; DVD-ROM Screenplay, and DVD-ROM Screensaver.
Masters of Horror: Imprint – Grade: B
Features – Grade: A
Final Grade: B+
The Unit – Season 1
When The Unit premiered – as a mid-season replacement – following NCIS on Tuesdays, its biggest draw was that it was created by noted playwright and filmmaker David Mamet. The idea was that the show would follow a Special Forces team on their various missions, while simultaneously following the home lives of their families. The series concept was taken from the book Inside Delta Force, by former Delta force member Eric Hanley. Like NCIS, The Unit became a reasonably big hit without a ton of fanfare – and without much critical recognition.
The series began with the arrival of Bob Brown [Scott Foley] and his family. In short order we met most the show's pivotal characters – the unit's commanding officer, Col. Tom Ryan [Robert Patrick], Sgt.-Major Jonas Blane [Dennis Haysbert], Mack Gerhardt [Max Martini], Molly Blane [Regina Taylor], and Kim Brown [Audrey Marie Anderson] among them.
Over the first season we saw the unit handle a hijacked airplane, assassinate an arms dealer, undergo SERE [Survival Evasion Resistance Escape] School and a great deal more – all the while, seeing how their wives and children dealt with the nature of their jobs and maintained at least an approximation of a normal life back home.
While The Unit may not be as all-out wonderful a series as one might have expected from David Mamet [the writing rarely meets his high standard, though it is very good], and the subject matter certainly tends to look [to the uninitiated, at least] like little more than propaganda, the series provides lots of action and almost as much intriguing family drama. It's a weird mix, but it does give the unit's missions rather more urgency than usual – after all, we get to know the people who most want them to survive [and have to deal with the possibility that they might not.].
Features are: one audio commentary [on SERE] by Executive Producer Shawn Ryan, Supervising Producer and Author Eric L. Hanley, and Demore Barnes [Hector Williams]; Inside Delta Force – a featurette built around Hanley and revealing that every episode of the series is based on one of his missions [and pointing out that most of what we see in the unit's actions is based in fact].
The Unit – Season 1 – Grade: B
Features – Grade: B-
Final Grade: B
My Name Is Earl – Season One
One of the most unexpected success stories for NBC, last season, My Name Is Earl is a sitcom unlike anything ever seen on TV. Combining trailer trash characters and a philosophical bent built around the concept of karma, Earl is the strangest feelgood show on TV – and literally antithetical to what has come to be known as the typical NBC sitcom.
Earl [Jason Lee] is a low-rent trailer trash punk – as the show's saga sell spells out very clearly. When he wins one hundred thousand dollars on a scratch lottery ticket, he promptly loses it when he's hit by a car while celebrating. Flipping through channels, while recovering in the hospital, he chances upon Carson Daly explaining how he lives his life according to the concept of karma.
Inspired, Earl decides he has to make up for every nasty thing he's ever done and comes up with a list of people he's wronged – so that he can make amends. Shortly thereafter, the breeze brings his lottery ticket back to him and he becomes convinced that he's on the right path.
One of the best things about Earl is its sweetness [without becoming cloying]. As Earl details his life with – and then without – his former wife, Joy [Jaime Pressley], we see that he not only harbors any ill will toward her new husband Darnell/Crabman [Eddie Steeples], they actually get along better than either of them does with Joy! The there's Earl's slightly dim brother, Randy [Ethan Suplee] who worships the ground Earl walks on…
In the pilot, Earl decided to make amends with Kenny, a kid he'd hassled all through school. His solution? To get Kenny laid. The problem? Kenny turns out to be gay. How does Earl solve the problem? He takes Kenny to a gay bar.
Each ep takes one of Earl's misdeeds and applies his unusual sense of logic to making amends. Thus he finds himself trying to make up for such gaffes as: costing his father a mayoral election [Cost Dad An Election]; depriving Randy of his one possible moment of high school glory [Randy's Touchdown]; stealing a laptop computer [The Professor], and not paying taxes. Naturally, every time he tries to make things right, he runs into obstacles…
My personal favorite episode is Bounty Hunter, which guest-stars Juliette Lewis, as Earl's embittered ex, who comes to town to get Joy for stealing Earl from her. The episode plays on all kinds of action film clich
Time Lords are a hardy breed and when Doctor Who [Sci Fi, Friday, check your local listings] returns, there's a new regeneration of The Doctor – though his regeneration hasn't quite come off correctly – leaving his current companion, Rose Tyler, to try to save the world without him…
The Christmas Invasion finds the TARDIS hurtling rather unsteadily back to Earth, containing a Doctor [David Tennant] who hasn't recovered from his latest regeneration, and a very worried Rose Tyler [Billie Piper] – who still isn't sure that the semi-conscious man accompanying her is really The Doctor. On the plus side, the TARDIS has returned to Earth just in time for Christmas. [This 2005 Christmas special served as an introduction to The Doctor, Mark 10 – and aired in the UK and Canada last Christmas.]
As Rose, Jackie [Camille Coduri] and Mickey [Noel Clarke] try to figure out what's wrong with The Doctor [Jackie is amazed to discover he has two hearts!], an unmanned United Kingdom spacecraft disappears before the eyes of its trackers. As Prime Minister Harriet Jones [Penelope Wilton] tours the facility that put Great Britain into space, they receive a signal from the explorer – from beings who seem to have exoskeletons, and speak very aggressively.
Using translation software provided by UNIT [a lovely reference to the show's earlier days], they discover that the aliens – the Sycorax – have claimed the planet for themselves. When they arrive, Jones refuses to surrender, but they have an ace up their sleeves: somehow, they control one-third of the world's population – and force them to climb to the top of the nearest tall buildings [the implication being that if the Earth doesn't surrender, they will plunge to their deaths].
With The Doctor unconscious, Rose and Mickey carry him to the TARDIS [the only safe place on the planet], but Jackie is accidentally left behind. The Sycorax bring the TARDIS on board their vessel and it falls to Rose to try to save the world. The results are not promising…
Russell T. Davies came up with a lovely script for The Christmas Invasion. By making The Doctor's latest regeneration problematic, he gives Rose a chance to show more courage and determination than she's needed in the past. We also get a bit more character development for Mickey and Jackie, as well. Even better, we get to see a Doctor who really doesn't know who he is – or at least, what kind of person he is.
The special is filled with all sorts of delights, but my favorite has to be "The Impressive Big Red Button That Must Not Be Pressed Under Any Circumstances." There are so many television shows that have the equivalent of a "Big Red Reset Button" that puts everything back to point zero at the end of an episode, this feels like a reminder that Doctor Who is a show where there things are changing and characters are always growing. Another highlight is the introduction [though mostly offscreen] of Torchwood.
When the first episode of season two, New Earth, airs next week, we get to see that such is, indeed, the case. The episode finds The Doctor and Rose on New Earth, just outside of New New York, where they visit a strange hospital that's run by cat-like beings who have cures that are centuries ahead of themselves. We once again encounter two characters from the second episode of season one [or if you're a purist, season twenty-six]: The Face of Bo, and another…
In Tooth and Claw, the show takes on the idea of werewolves – placing one in Victorian England. We also get martial arts monks and a very odd running gag that features Rose trying to get Queen Victoria to say, "We are not amused." The beginnings of Torchwood are hinted at, as well. Now, if only the CG werewolf was a hair more convincing…
This may be the weakest episode of the series, to this point, which reinforces just how good the show really is. If an episode this good can be considered the weakest to date – and the season ahead holds joys like two-parters featuring the Cybermen and Satan – then we can rest assured that Doctor Who remains one of the best [and strangest] shows on television. [It also functions as a dose of lightness to balance the darker Battlestar Galactica – which also returns on Friday.]
We’ve had to wait an extra four months for the return of Battlestar Galactica [Sci Fi, Fridays, check local listings], but it was worth the wait. The special, Battlestar Galactica: The Story So Far, this week – and when the third season premieres, next week, it returns the show to its place in the ranks of the very best programs on television. It also begins four months after the Cylons discovered New Caprica and forced the government of the Twelve Colonies to surrender. Where to begin? The Leoben [Callum Keith Rennie] model has returned and taken Kara “Starbuck” Thrace [Katee Sackoff] away to live with him; the Brother Cavil model [Dean Stockwell] is advocating the reduction of the human populace to something more manageable; Lee “Apollo” Adama [Jamie Bamber] has gotten fat, and Gaius Baltar [James Callis] is now head of a puppet government. In short, things are going to hell in a handcart and there doesn’t seem to be anything anyone can do about it. Continue reading Battlestar Galactica: The Insurrection Begins!→
What would you do if you were to wake up one morning with some amazing new power? Let's say you could fly – or, even better, teleport yourself anywhere in time and space? Would you exploit your new ability for personal gain, or use it to help others? Now, let's say that others – just like you – also gained strange new abilities. That's only part of the premise of NBC's intriguingly complex new series, Heroes [Mondays, 9 p.m./8 Central] – because as these abilities begin to appear, they foreshadow something dark and terrible…
Everyone has had – at one time or another – a dream that they were flying. Some may even have had dreams of being super-strong, or invulnerable – perhaps because some of our greatest fictional icons include superhero characters like Superman, or Spider-Man. In Heroes, many different people from all over the world wake up to discover they have unique and amazing abilities…
In a weird way, the powers fit the personalities who receive them: artist/junkie Isaac Mendez [Santiago Carbrera] paints the future when he's high; Texas cheerleader Claire Bennett [Hayden Pantierre] discovers that, no matter how badly she hurts herself, she heals almost instantaneously [what teenager doesn't think she's invulnerable?]; Matt Parkman [Greg Grunberg], an LAPD cop, discovers he can receive other people's thoughts [talk about informant!], and so forth.
Some of those who receive these abilities hate them, or are frightened by them – like single mom and creator of an erotic website, Niki Sanders, who sees something strangely ominous in her reflection; or the aforementioned Mendez, who thinks his ability is actually evil – and for good reason! Others, like Hiro Nakamura [Masi Oka], are enthusiastic – and why not? He's the one who gets the ability to teleport!
While our characters begin to deal with their abilities, there are hints that an Indian university professor has come to believe his father's odd theories about human evolution – and others who seem bent on investigation the possibility of such evolved humans even existing. In the case one bespectacled, middle-aged gentleman, that interest takes on decidedly unsavory overtones.
Over its first three episodes, Heroes lays the groundwork for an epic tale. There are odd connections between some of the characters; there are hints of the future; weird murders; and more plot arcs than a half-dozen regular shows. Early buzz on the show suggested it might, just, be the best new series of the season – let alone the best new series on NBC. Based on these three episodes, it seems entirely possible that NBC has found a series to rival ABC's Lost for intrigue, character and wild adventure.
NBC is certainly chuffed about the series – among the online bonuses for interested fans is a comic that is taken from the series: 9th Wonders. In the series, the comic is written and drawn by Mendez and is purchased by Hiro – who discovers that it is telling his story! The online version will supplement the series: sometimes directly, sometimes tangentally – but will always add another dimension to the show.
Given the amount of thought and energy that went into Heroes, it's a relief to be able to say that it is one of the best new series of the season – in a season with a lot of really good new shows. And if you aren't completely hooked by the end of the final scene of the third episode, then nothing will ever impress you!
Steven Zallian's "All The King's Men" recounts the rise and fall of Louisiana politician Willie Stark [not-so-loosely based on notorious Louisiana politician, Huey Long]. More faithfully adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren than the original 1949 film, it still comes off as a tepid remake. Part of the problem is that it feels like a mash-up of two vastly different films…
Low-level politician Willie Stark [Sean Penn] – a county treasurer in a small county – rises to become governor of Louisiana by running as the man who fought a corrupt system and lost, resulting in the deaths of three schoolchildren in a fire in a badly built school. He had contested the awarding of the contract to a certain contractor, but was ignored – until the fire.
Between his hammering home the corruption of the current administration, playing on his being a "hick" – just like the majority of Louisiana voters – and promising to build roads, schools and hospitals, Stark gets himself elected. A rare, objective reporter, Jack Burden [Jude Law], is enlisted to work with Stark's administration – along with a PR flack [Patricia Clarkson] and one of the former administration's thugs [James Gandolfini].
The problem is that power corrupts, and – although he fulfills his campaign promises – Stark falls prey to the various temptations that come to a man in power. While he uses suspicious means to fulfill his promises, he espouses a philosophy that "all good comes from bad."
With its washed out palette, "All The King's Men" captures the gritty, grimy feel of a Louisiana that could be in the middle of the thirties as easily as the fifties. It's easy to believe that this area's people are beaten down and on the verge of giving up even thinking of the possibility of better days.
The biggest problem is that Sean Penn and the rest of the cast are in two different movies. Penn seems to be playing Shakespeare, while everyone else seems to be part of downer version of a Frank Capra film. The contrast between the two might provide what life there is to the film, but Penn is so over the top that we can see him acting and it pulls us right out of the film.
Another problem is that – with the exception of Sir Anthony Hopkins and one or two other minor supporting actors – the rest of the cast is briefly sketched and remains something of a cipher. Only Jude Law and Kate Winslet [as Jack Burden's One True Love] even seem to be trying to rise above the lackluster script.
When one has a cast of this stature, and a source that is as impeccable, it is a pretty good trick to turn out a film that this lukewarm. There aren't many films that make feel like I've had time stolen from my life, but this is certainly one of them. A better bet would be to seek out a copy of the original 1949 film that won three Oscars
Do we really need another lawyer show? CBS thinks so – and they've lured James Woods to star in Shark [Thursdays, 10 p.m.], a series that has been described as "House in a courtroom. That's not entirely the case – though Sebastien Stark [Woods] is definitely not the most likable guy on TV…
Six days after winning his latest high-profile case, Sebastien Stark is driving along, singing along with Mack The Knife when he gets a phone call. The man he defended has killed his wife. Stark breaks down. Then the mayor, Manuel Delgado [Carlos Gomez], offers him a position in the D.A.'s office – and gives him three good reasons why he'll take it. Amazingly, Stark takes the job!
Now the nastiest, snarkiest defense lawyer in the known universe is prosecuting, and D.A. Jessica Devlin [Jeri Ryan, Dark Skies, Star Trek: Voyager] assigns him a miserable case: a young woman on trial for murder, who claims she was defending herself against a rape. Even better, Devlin assigns him a team that consists solely of lawyers who are in her bad books. Best of all, the defense has unlimited funds and the case goes to court in forty-eight hours!
Meanwhile, Stark's relationship with his daughter, Julie [Danielle Pannabaker, Sky High], is rapidly deteriorating – in spite of her best efforts – and the Starks are due in court to set her custody in a very short while. For Stark, it's the worst of times and the worst of times…
With forty-eight hours until trial, Stark shows that, whether he's on the side of the angels or no, he's one mean motherscooter. He builds his team's morale by rattling off a list of their shortcomings and introducing them to his "Cutthroat Manifesto" – three rules with which he tries every case: 1. Trial is war – second place is death; 2. Truth is relative – pick one that works; 3. In a jury trial, there only twelve opinions that matter – and yours is, most assuredly, not one of them!
On the plus side of the ledger, his team is joined by Madeline Poe [Sarah Carter], a hungry, ambitious young lawyer who plans to go into private practice and wants to learn from the best. "Sucking up," notes Stark, "always a good tactic." On the negative, he upbraids one of his team, and she says, "If I'm such a screw up, why don't you fire me?" he fires her! [How to win friends and influence people – not!]
Much of the trial material is standard stuff – though Stark's full-scale basement courtroom [made with items from famous old courtrooms] is not only different, but also the one over-the-top note in the show. His use of mock juries and forensics echoes that of the previously premiered "Justice," but his family issues are definitely his own.
Danielle Pannabaker shines as his daughter. She obviously cares about her dad – in spite of his absent-minded parental behavior. She makes one of the most important decisions in the premiere, and makes it for the most logical reasons – but it works on an emotional level because of what she brings to it. Plus, she provides the most cogent analysis of Stark's new career as a prosecutor: "I really thought you'd changed. It turns out you just changed sides."
Woods owns the screen whenever he's on and the only cast member – other than Pannabaker] who holds her own with him is Ryan, who's more-than-slightly-disgruntled D.A. Devlin gives as good as she gets. Stark's team is mostly colorless [not in terms of diversity, but in terms of presence] and it remains to see if they'll be developed at all – one of the strength's of House, of course, being that House's team has been developing as characters since Day One.
Spike Lee directed the premiere, and he does a good job of taking material that's only slightly better than average and playing it up. Lee is a genius and between his direction and performances from Woods, Ryan and Pannabaker, I'm definitely interested enough to see if the series can develop into top-flight entertainment. For now, though, it's the main cast that makes Shark worth watching – and they are spectacular.
Kidnapped [NBC, Wednesdays, 10. p.m.] is the second network series to revolve around the kidnapping of a member of a VIP family [FOX, Vanished premiered two weeks ago], but it is a much better series on almost every level. The premiere introduces the main players on all sides: the family of the kidnapped boy; the kidnappers; a freelance retrieval expert, and the FBI…