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PRESTIGE, THE

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C

Although it’s about two rival prestidigitators who try to outdo one another with amazing tricks, and is directed by the virtuoso Christopher Nolan, the man who gave us “Memento” (as well as “Batman Begins”), “The Prestige” is seriously short of cinematic magic. It’s a ponderous tale of envy and one-upmanship that promises much but in the end delivers surprisingly little.

That’s curious, given that the picture opens with an elaborate explanation, delivered by the old illusion-creator Cutter played by Michael Caine, of how a successful trick is structured–a pattern the script, based on a novel by Christopher Priest, obviously aims to imitate. It begins with an apparently “ordinary” (or at least not incredible) premise–in this case an on-stage accident which takes the life of Julia (Piper Perabo), the magician’s assistant and wife of Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), one of the magician’s apprentices, who blames Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), the other apprentice, for her death. Then it proceeds to do something unusual with the premise–here, detailing a long-term performance duel between Angier and Borden in which each seeks to destroy the other professionally and personally. The rivalry ramps up when Borden unveils an astonishing trick, in which he’s miraculously transported from one side of the stage to another. An effort to find out the secret to that effect leads Angier to send his lovely assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) to Borden as a spy–with unfortunate results–and to Angier’s trying to duplicate the feat in a way that Borden unravels and then fatally undercuts. That leads Angier to track down the mysterious Italian inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), Thomas Edison’s great rival and Borden’s supposed source, to develop a superior version of the illusion–which in turn takes the two men’s battle to a still higher level. All of which leads to what in the trade is called the “prestige”–the astonishing reversal, here involving another death (Angier’s, shown at the beginning of the film, for which Borden is convicted of his murder–also shown early on) and a series of revelations that explain what’s preceded, as well as the truth about how things actually turned out.

This precis has been kept fairly general to avoid “spoiling” the ending–something that would be as unconscionable in the case of a movie that’s attempting to fool you as it is with a magic trick. But it’s not improper to say that the big surprises regarding the duplication tricks, when they come, are either limp (in Borden’s case) or more than a little silly (in Angier’s). Some will say that as puzzle solutions, they’re simply unfair, since they haven’t been properly prepared for. But in any case, as legerdemain they’re surely unsatisfying.

Still, one might be willing to swallow a disappointing denouement if what’s preceded it has been sufficiently engaging. Unfortunately, despite an excellent physical production (by designer Nathan Crowley, art director Kevin Kavanaugh, set decorator Julie Ochipinti and costumer Joan Bergin), most of “The Prestige” is an oddly plodding affair, in which Nolan fails to match the vigor and intelligence of his earlier work. And the lead actors aren’t at their best, either. Caine comes off reasonably well, using his customary crusty elan to energize his scenes. But while it’s easy to understand why Jackman would have embraced a part that essentially allows him to give two performances–actors love to have an opportunity to show their versatility–he comes off strangely flat. And Bale, who’s done some really extraordinary turns in pictures like “American Psycho” and “The Machinist,” is no more than conventionally blustery as the lower-class Borden. (The big revelation about the character late on makes the performance, in retrospect, seem even weaker.) And then there’s Johansson, a lovely girl who once again shows herself an amateurish actress, particularly when outfitted in period dress. The only cast member who really stands out, in fact, is Bowie, who with thick black hair, impeccably tailored suits and a cooly enigmatic air, makes Tesla a striking figure. But he’s just window dressing in an otherwise rather mundane exhibit.

“The Prestige” also has the misfortune to follow “The Illusionist” into theatres. It’s not a literal, and inferior, copy of the that film, as “Infamous” is of “Capote,” but the comparisons are decidedly not in its favor. “The Illusionist” may be flawed, but its sleight of hand is still much more mesmerizing than what Nolan offers here.

REBOUND

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C

This is the sort of movie one approaches with trepidation–a by-the-numbers family flick showcasing a star playing coach to a bunch of bumbling kids he “surprisingly” turns into unlikely winners. The plot will be excruciatingly familiar to anyone who’s seen pictures in the genre from “The Mighty Ducks” to “Kicking and Screaming,” not to mention what seem like hundreds of others in between. And yet “Rebound” turns out to be not as bad as you might expect. Sure, it’s utterly predictable. And yes, it’s completely unbelievable. It’s hardly a good movie. But it could have been a lot worse. And with this sort of movie, you learn to appreciate mediocrity when sheer awfulness seems likelier.

Martin Lawrence plays Roy McCormick, a college basketball coach who’s become less interested in his job than his endorsement deals. When he’s banned by the league after his notorious temper has an unfortunate effect on an opposing team’s mascot, his agent (Breckin Meyer) finds a loophole that will permit his reinstatement if he remains on good behavior for the rest of the season. The problem is that the only team available for him to coach is the one from his old junior high–the Mount Vernon Smelters–a ragtag bunch of losers who haven’t scored, let alone won a game, in eons. Roy’s not really interested in coaching the kids, but, wouldn’t you know it, he eventually comes around, and so do they. And along the way he not only connects with the single mom (Wendy Raquel Robinson) of his star player (Oren Williams), but–can you believe it?–finds out what’s really important in life. (Just a hint: It’s not his money, his big house, his advertising contracts or even his job. It’s…well, you know.)

It would take a book as long as the telephone directory of a major city to list the cliches in this script, attributed to no fewer than five sets of hands (three responsible for the story, and two who actually wrote it). The absurdities are even worse. All it takes to transform the team from a bunch of inept oafs to a championship squad, it appears, is a little attention; certainly we see no evidence of serious training or drills. And is there really a state championship tournament for junior high?

But what matters in a movie like this, of course, isn’t whether it’s realistic but whether it’s tolerable. And wonder of wonders, “Rebound” is. Steve Carr’s direction is at best pedestrian, but at least it’s not as unremittingly frantic as his work on “Daddy Day Care.” Lawrence, who’s often R-rated crude, tunes himself down to the point where’s he’s actually rather likable. (Why he also appears briefly in the guise of a flamboyant preacher, however, is beyond understanding. It’s a poorly staged bit, and desperately unfunny. Maybe Lawrence just insisted on showing off his supposed range.) And he’s surrounded by a group of kids who are also, rather miraculously, not obnoxious. In addition to Williams, who sort of resembles the (then L’il) Bow Wow of “Like Mike,” there’s One Love (Eddy Martin), who cares more about the appearance of his sneakers than his game; Goggles (Gus Hoffman), with the big glasses; chubby Fuzzy (Logan McElroy); tomboy Bic Mac (Tara Correa), the girl recruited as team enforcer; and Wes (Steven Christopher Parker), the tall, shambling kid who has to overcome his shyness to overawe his opponents. There’s also the chinless Ralph (Steven Anthony Lawrence), who has a proclivity that seems obligatory in movies aimed at kids nowadays–to throw up in stressful situations. But even he isn’t as irritating as some of the adults, especially Patrick Warburton as the loud-mouthed, arrogant coach who becomes McCormick’s bete noire. And the Tom Arnold-led camera whores from Fox’s “The Best Damn Sports Show Period” show up again to provide supposed commentary to the action. These guys are getting to be as depressingly frequent in that sort of role as Larry King used to be. Like most pictures aimed at the family trade, this one was obviously made on a limited budget, and it’s hardly beautiful-looking or visually stylish. But it gets by in those areas.

As familiar as it is, “Rebound” could well have been titled “Replay,” but although it’s just a formula flick, it’s not an awful one. Too bad that’s not saying much.