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DARK `PRESTIGE' A TALE OF MAGIC GONE AWRY.

Byline: Glenn Whipp Film Critic

`Are you watching closely?'' Those are the first words of Christopher Nolan's latest ode to pretzel logic, ``The Prestige.'' They're spoken by Michael Caine and they're meant as both an admonition and a tip-off that Nolan and his writing partner, brother Jonathan, are venturing back to ``Memento'' territory of fragmentary storytelling where nothing is at it seems.

That kind of misdirection is perfectly suited for a movie that equates the sleight of hand of its magician protagonists to the illusory nature of film. ``The Prestige'' is the kind of popcorn movie that M. Night Shyamalan should dedicate himself to making -- a dark, freaky thrill ride, committed to old-fashioned storytelling that doesn't take itself too seriously.

The movie follows the rivalry of two magicians in turn-of-the-century London. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) is a master showman but not a particularly good magician. He likes to cut corners. Rough-edged Cockney Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), on the other hand, is completely devoted to his art to the expense of its commercial appeal. They begin as allies and then are separated by a tragedy that gets to the

heart of their philosophical differences.

From there, it's a nasty game of one-upmanship, their obsession with each other taking on a hatred that obliterates reason. The story flashes back and forward, showing Borden reading Angier's diary, which, in part, focuses on Angier's attempts at deciphering Borden's own journal. There's a side trip to Colorado, a meeting with the mad genius Tesla (David Bowie) and a girl

(Scarlett Johansson) caught in the middle of the war.

Since Nolan is up-front about the gimmickry, you can hardly object to the mind games he plays (like a virtuoso) throughout the movie. It helps that he has two actors committed to playing characters so fixated on each other that they become monsters in the process.

In the words of Caine's trick-maker, the prestige ``is the part (of the magic trick) with the twists and turns, and you see something shocking you've never seen before.'' The movie may not be that groundbreaking, but it does deliver its bells and whistles with an intelligence and theatricality that makes it something eminently enjoyable.

Glenn Whipp, (818) 713-3672

glenn.whipp@dailynews.com

THE PRESTIGE - Three stars

(PG-13: violence, disturbing images)

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson.

Director: Christopher Nolan.

Running time: 2 hr. 8 min.

Playing: In wide release.

In a nutshell: Christopher Nolan's fragmentary, illusory story of two rival magicians brought down by obsession. Its twists and turns are eminently enjoyable.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Christian Bale, left, and Hugh Jackman star in ``The Prestige,'' a tale of rival magicians and their obsession with each other in turn-of-the-century London.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 20, 2006
Words:453
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