Playing catchup – The Prestige & Master and Commander

I have no idea how or why I missed these two films when they came out. Peter Weir and Chris Nolan are my favorite directors and I try and see their films as they come out. Maybe I thought The Prestige was some cop buddies film (like Training Day) and I do have this thing about avoiding Russel Crowe films… Big mistake this time around.

The Prestige was a mind-bending tale of two rival magicians Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) who want to outdo each other in fame and kind of illusions they perform. Borden performs the ultimate illusion which drives Angier to look for solutions that take him to Colorado to meet Tesla (David Bowie). Tesla gives Angier the means to perform the illusion of the disappearing and reappearing man, with devastating consequences. The tale twists and turns, surprising the viewer with doppelgangers, betrayals, and confrontations. But the best is saved for last as the significance of the two cats and innumerable hats dawns on the viewer.

Both Bale and Jackman turn in excellent performances, Bale as the somewhat crude, upstart magician who resorts to every trick in the book; but in the end he is outdone by Jackman who is willing to sit back and let an innocent man be sent to the gallows. Michael Caine is wonderful as Cutter, at the start as the narrator explaining to a little girl the three essential parts of any magic trick – the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige, and later as the man who tries to keep Angier from his soul destroying journey to top Borden at his game.

In keeping with the promise of Memento, Chris Nolan delivers a fast paced, excellently layered tale that takes one on a breathless ride through the obsession that drives two men. This one is definitely worth revisiting so one can appreciate it for all it is, and look beyond the glamor of the sleight of hand at every turn in the film.

The Peter Weir film I saw next was perhaps even more interesting, because I was expecting so little from it! The HMS Surprise, under the command of Captain Jack Aubrey (Russel Crowe), is told to pursue the French Privateer ship Acheron so as to limit Napoleon’s reach into the Americas. Aubrey soon learns that the Acheron is a stronger, nimbler ship and will be hard to beat. Yet he pursues it with single minded obsession much to the dismay of his crew and the ship’s doctor and naturalist, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). The ships engage a couple of times and the Surprise is left embattled and crippled as the Acheron escapes. The crew are convinced of bad luck but the captain forges ahead with his duty of trying to hunt the enemy down. Along the way there is a delightful sojourn in the Galapagos Islands, and there the enemy is spotted yet again. The Captain takes a lesson from nature and plots his final assault on the Acheron.

The film is extraordinarily well shot, be it the claustrophobic quarters in the ship, or the desolate vistas of endless sea, or the wonders of the magical Galapagos. Russel Crowe turns in a performance of a lifetime, and Paul Bettany delights as the sensitive and scientifically inclined doctor. This is a rousing tale of valor and sacrifice and loss. It is well worth a watch – preferably on a big screen.

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