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Were you surprised by 'The Prestige'?

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94436__prestige_l_1The art of fooling people is all about misdirection. “Please feel free to inspect my female assistant’s dazzling smile and generous curves,” a magician will subliminally implore his audience. “Don’t worry about what my hands are doing with this alarmed-looking parakeet.” It is a fact that is rammed home by two recent magic-related movies, The Illusionist and The Prestige. This is not so much because both films touch on the concept of misdirection but because these supposedly tricksy projects actually direct the viewer towards their respective surprise endings with the enthusiasm of over-caffeinated aircraft controllers. Indeed, when you think about it, making a movie with a surprise ending which is also about magic is the very opposite of misdirection. The best unexpected reveals — such as those to be found at the end of Fight Club or Psycho or The Sixth Sense — are so shocking largely because you’re not expecting any kind of reveal at all. But, in a movie whose very subject is trickery, the audience is on guard right from the start. The result is that any kind of third act “tah-dah!” had better be pretty darned “tah-dah!”-ish.

That is not the case with the surprises which conclude The Illusionist or The Prestige (at least not in the case of the one which involves Christian Bale’s character, pictured). Indeed, both reveals are so heavily, and clunkily signposted by the halfway mark that I was genuinely surprised when they turned out to be the surprises. Surprised — and enraged.

The remarkable thing about all this is that both movies can boastthe involvement of Ricky Jay, one of the best magicians in the worldand one of the finest playing card manipulators who ever lived. Jayhas a cameo in The Prestige as a magician and is credited on The Illusionistas “magic consultant.” One can only assume they didn’t consult himenough. A far better showcase for Jay’s marvelously sneaky talents isa DVD which accompanies the album Ricky Jay Plays Poker(due from Octone/Legacy on Nov. 21). Actually, the CD itself is a fineenough collection which rounds up 21 poker-related tracks from Dylan’s”Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie” to Saint Etienne’s “Etienne Gonna Die” (atrack which samples David Mamet’s movie House Of Games, anothersomewhat disappointing Jay-assisted film, albeit a genuinely tricksyone). But it is the DVD that makes the package an essential one, as Jaylectures a group of associates, including his Boogie Nightscostar John C. Reilly, on how to cheat at cards. The best — and mostdevilish — moment arrives when he shows a relatively easy way to make atalented and honest poker buddy look like he’s been conning his friendsout of all their money.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is magic.