What We’re Watching – 1/25/2012
Here’s what I’ve been watching recently:
The Prestige (2006)
I decided to return to Christopher Nolan’s directorial effort between Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) the other day, and was pleased to see that it still holds up as well as when I had first seen it. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this film is one of the Nolan’s best outings as a filmmaker. There’s something about the story of two rival magicians, played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, and the intense bitterness they have for one another that I found to be completely engrossing. Robert Angier (Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Bale) at one time were partners in crime, but, after a tragic accident, became hated enemies, each trying to outdo the other in their shows with an increasingly impressive magical stunt. So intense is their hatred for one another that they each begin to interfere with the other’s performances—stealing each other’s tricks and revealing the secrets they so desperately try to hide from the world. To be a great magician is to accept sacrifices at any cost, and this leads both Angier and Borden to sadness and heartbreak.
One of Nolan’s continuing themes throughout his career is that of obsession, the kind of extreme passion one has and the dangerous possibilities if that were to be misguided. This film is a clear representation of that idea, as we see Angier and Borden go to any means—whether it is traveling the world, putting the ones they love in danger, or even causing their own physical selves harm—to be the very best in their profession. Christian Bale has always been good in his roles, and here he plays a man who isn’t very entertaining of a performer, but is a master magician whose best trick infuriates his competitor with its mystery. Hugh Jackman, for me, really stands out here, showcasing a much more serious, darker tone than he had in the X-Men films. He starts out as sympathetic, motivated by the tragic loss of someone nearest to his heart, but slowly moves to begin more diabolical in his actions. So convincing is his tragedy that I found myself really caring for him, even though he ends up doing some pretty despicable things.
I think The Prestige is a film that needs to be revisited. It’s shot incredibly well, with outstanding performances all around, including Michael Caine, Rebecca Hall, and Scarlett Johansson. Christopher Nolan’s fingerprint is all over this with its style, and deserves to be mentioned along with his other great works.
Now here’s a movie that I could only describe to you as “interesting.” I jumped into my Criterion box set of America Lost and Found: The BBS Story and watched its first entry, Bob Rafelson’s Head. Rafelson was familiar to me for being the director who made one of my favorite Jack Nicholson films, Five Easy Pieces (1970). For others, they may recognize him as being the man who helped create and bring the popular band The Monkees to television. They were a massive hit for their time, even though they were created by outside means and did not have complete creative control of their musical output. Things started to change by the time this film came to be. After being inspired by the success of The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Rafelson, along with his co-writers (including an up-and-coming Jack Nicholson), crafted a film that took the band members (Peter Tork, Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, and Michael Nesmith) on numerous skits and psychedelic escapades, told in a circular fashion with no discernible narrative throughline. At one point we see them running along an expansive desert being chased by Native Americans, the next entering a boxing match, and then the next scene after that dancing in a Fred-and-Ginger like interlude, all set with their music as a backdrop.
To be honest with you, I’m not really sure what to make of this movie. I certainly know what they were going for. For The Monkees, their beginning was dominated by people telling them what to do, how to dress, and how to play their music. With the making of this film, they wanted to break out of that bubble gum pop identity that they were initially forced into. There are a number of scenes in which we see them playing with and satirizing their own image, and a sequence where we find them jumping off a bridge to escape the paparazzi is more than just a “subtle” metaphor. For Bob Rafelson, he shot and directed this film with all of the style that the New Hollywood movement encompassed. A sense of “counter culture” and “going against the system” is clearly in play, with a story that does not exist and a meta aspect that frequently reminds us that we’re watching a movie. There is a humorous part of the film where Rafelson stops filming midstream to step in front of the camera to interact with the actors. Even Jack Nicholson has a cameo as himself discussing with Rafelson what should be shot next.
While there is a definite lightness and sense of fun throughout the movie, I ended up not completely enjoying it. As a time capsule seeing the way things were at the time, it works. As an attempt for The Monkees to do something their own way and as an experiment to test the possibilities of film technique, it’s worth mentioning. But for being a film in which we become interested in what happens and caring for actual characters, it falls a bit flat. Although I’m glad I saw it, it’ll be a long time before I watch this one again.