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A Vague but Appealing Indie Film about Sexual Awakening
There is a moment in Cate Shortland's "Somersault" where Joe (Sam Worthington), a surly and emotionally closed-off young man confused over the feelings he has for his kind-of girlfriend Heidi (Abbie Cornish), shows up at the home of an openly gay acquaintance of his mother's andafter downing several shots and spilling his guts to the older manfollows him into the hallway and makes an awkward pass at him by planting a drunken kiss on him. It's a surprising twist in both Joe's development as a character and the movie itself, but it's just one of several similarly unexpected--and unexplained--moments that define Shortland's oddly compelling drama about sexual coming-of-age. Joe is not the main character, nor does the film ever revisit his attempt at same-sex experimentation, and it's that vague attention to detail that is the most frustrating aspect of the movie. The story actually belongs to Heidi, an evidently emotionally troubled teenager with no concept of propriety who, for no apparent reason, decides to make a pass at her mother's hunky boyfriend. When mom comes home and catches the two kissing, she freaks, and Heidi runs away to a neighboring town. There, she shacks up in the small flat of an empathetic motel owner, gets a job at the local BP service station, and has sex with a string of guys. It is Joe, however, that most captivates her, and their awkward and strained attempts at forging a relationship are some of the most authentic captured on celluloid. Both of them are plagued by troubles that are never explored (apparently, Heidi once tried to commit suicide, as is evidenced by the scars on her wrists), but as they begin to open up to each other, the movie becomes more fascinating and oddly romantic. Shortland's direction is as languid as her ambling script (a bit more back story on the characters would have made them more three- dimensional), but her style is effective nonetheless, providing a showcase for the talents of both Worthington and Cornish, two young Aussie up-and-comers who appear to have big futures ahead of them. Grade: B.--Originally published in IN Los Angeles Magazine.
The Prestige (2006)
When the Magic is Missing
The Prestige Director Christopher Nolan ("Memento") pulls out all the stops for his latest film, the thrillingif emotionally voidThe Prestige, in which the strapping Hugh Jackman ("X-Men") and Christian Bale ("Batman Begins") face off against each as two magicians locked in a never-ending game of one-upmanship. Set in turn-of-the-century London, the film unfolds via flashbacks and flash-forwards that keep the audience guessing, unraveling the back story behind the murder mystery that serves as the backdrop of the plot. As the film begins, Alfred Borden (Bale) is locked a prison cell awaiting sentencing for killing someone, and that the identity of the unknown deceased comes as no great shock when it is revealed in the second act is only part of the film's troubles.
As we learn, Borden and fellow illusionist Richard Angier (Jackman, nicely shedding extended claws and rubber suits for snappy tuxedos and top hats) were once colleagues whose partnership came to an end following a tragedy caused by one of Borden's too-risky magic tricks. After parting ways, the men end up haunting each other's livesstealing each other's tricks, doing underhanded deeds, and transgressing in ways that only alpha males driven by ego and showmanship can do.
The film moves along at a brisk pace, its story punctuated by jumps back and forth in time and thrilling sequences of the men performing their awe-inspiring tricks onstage. The stakes are rather highindeed, matters of life and death are often up for grabs; yet for all the drama and heartache alluded to in the script, the film is ultimately a triumph only in style over substance. As he did in the similarly gimmicky "Memento" and "Insomnia," Nolan places all the emphasis on events rather than characters, pulling audiences along on the adventure but never really giving us the emotional payoff the story truly deserves.
Which is a shame. Jackman and Bale both deliver commendable performances, with Scarlett Johansson luminous as always as the criminally underwritten assistant who becomes a pawn in their game of revenge. The film is also gorgeously shot and briskly directed, drawing one into the time period with such authenticity to detail yet driven by a contemporary pacing that the late 19th century feels like it could have happened just yesterday. The plot twists are often surprising as well; Nolan (working with brother Jonathan on the screenplay) is certainly a master at delivering surprises at every turn. But, "Batman Begins" excepted, Nolan's downfall as a director is his maddening inability to connect to his own characters. Like the feuding magicians depicted here, The Prestige merely gives the illusion of a satisfying period thriller. You may leave the theater feeling elated, but the effect wears off quickly, leaving you with the opinion that Nolan is a talented director who could afford to get himself a new bag of tricks. Grade: B.