Movie Night In: ‘Memento’ and ‘The Prestige’

This set of reviews is about films by one of the most visionary directors coming to us in the 21st century: Christopher Nolan. Though most well-known for redefining the comic book hero genre with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight and having one of the most-talked-about blockbusters of 2010 with the Academy Award-winning Inception, it’s his slick and twisty style of storytelling and filmmaking in all of his directorial works (Most of which he has also written or co-written the screenplay for) that makes him a force to be reckoned with. Here are two of his other popular and acclaimed movies: the 2001 neo-noir Memento and the 2006 fantasy The Prestige.

Memento was the second film directed and written by Nolan (Based on a short story by his brother Jonathan) and considered to be his major film debut. The mysterious psychological thriller, which recently celebrated the ten-year anniversary of its release, follows a man with short-term memory loss and seeking to avenge his wife’s murder. Guy Pearce plays Leonard, who suffered a head injury at the hands of his wife’s assailant. To remember things, he takes Polaroids, writes notes, and tattoos more notes on his body. Along his risky quest for justice, he encounters Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), who offers to help him, and the unusually sunny Teddy (Joe Pantoliano).

There is much intrigue in this story, and like many of Nolan’s films, it will require you to watch closely and pay attention to put the puzzle pieces together. It sounds like a job for many, but also a delight for many, and serves as a sentimental and always-continuing testament to the director’s work. The shooting style of the movie is another strong point: Some scenes are shot in color to represent a backward timeline and other scenes are shot in black and white for a sequence going forward, and you can only stick around to see what happens when the two timelines converge.

One thing for certain is that when both sequences meet, it’s the climax of Memento‘s mastery. Though the action is small compared to obvious efforts, the degree of intensity and anticipation is brutally exciting. It’s truly an exercise for the brain. Don’t expect to figure it out on the first try. But for those who love an extremely stylish challenge, Memento will be a film to remember and enjoy over and over again.

OVERALL SCORE: 9/10

In contrast, The Prestige is a film about magic and has a kind of supernatural element that differs from the likes of the Batman films and Inception. It also features big-name stars, including frequent Nolan collaborators and Academy Award winners Christian Bale and Michael Caine. Based on a Christopher Priest novel and set in 20th century London, The Prestige is the story of the two feuding magicians Alfred Borden (Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). The men were brought together by another magician and his engineer, John Cutter (Caine), but torn apart when an onstage mishap claims Angier’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo). They set out to sabotage and one-up the other as they establish themselves, and also compete for the affections of Cutter’s assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson). Ultimately, the desire to expose the secrets of each magician consumes both Borden and Angier, leading to tragedy. Rebecca Hall, David Bowie, and Andy Serkis co-star.

The film’s pacing is sometimes off, but it doesn’t take away too much from the story. However, again, like many of Nolan’s films, miss a moment of the nonlinear narrative and you’ll be lost. What separates The Prestige from the director’s other work is that it stands as a period piece as opposed to the usual contemporary landscapes, and what separates it from other period pieces is the cloud of darkness looming over it. There’s a look and feel of film noir even amidst the special effects of the illusions. While we may or may not feel an ounce of sympathy for the characters in this rather cold story, there is the curiosity to see what happens next, culminating in a coda that will make you go “A-ha!” or “What?” It will make you question everything you thought you knew about the story, and that in itself is the incredible magic of The Prestige.

Despite the film’s themes of a performance art that’s surrounded by skepticism, it doesn’t parade visual effects to get by. It’s undoubtedly beautiful, in a somewhat disturbing way, to look at. But rather, it’s the cliffhanger of a mystery, its dark and twisted story, that makes The Prestige quite the entertaining fantasy. It lives up to the type of film that Christopher Nolan is known for, the genre kind that keeps people guessing. With the addition of dramatic magic performances and a lush 1900s English setting, these experimental qualities have enhanced this movie as a standout in this influential moviemaker’s filmography.

OVERALL SCORE: 8.5/10

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