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The Illusionist and The Prestige: Two Hollywood movies about turn-of the-century magicians in one year - how'd that happen? Not that it's unusual for competing projects about the same or similar subject matters to go into development, but rarely do both stay the course: A star drops out, financing dries up, someone blinks and then there's only one film left. This week's DVD Tuesday pick is The Prestige, which isn't to say The Illusionist is a bad movie; in fact, they make a great double bill. But The Prestige has a bracing mean streak that warmed the cockles of my dark, dark heart.

Impoverished cockney Alfred Borden ( Christian Bale) and well-born American "Robert Angier" ( Hugh Jackman) - he uses a pseudonym so as not to embarrass his family - once worked together under the tutelage of Harry Cutter ( Michael Caine), a renowned ingeneur, or a guy who devises and builds mechanical illusions. Both are talented, but in completely different ways: Alfred is the better technical magician, Robert is the superior showman. And while they used to be friends, they became bitter rivals, trapped in an ever-escalating rivalry that leaves Robert dead and Albert in jail for his murder. But as Cutter warns in the film's puzzling prologue, you have to watch closely: Nothing is exactly as it seems.

It's a tricky narrative that jumps back and forth in time behind the scenes and can never be taken at face value - this is, after all, the work of Memento's Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, working from Christopher Priest's 1995 novel. It also has top-flight performances from Jackman, Bale and Caine, Scarlett Johansson playing a slippery beauty, and a behind-the-scenes tour of prestidigitation at its most callous. All this, and Nikolai Tesla ( David Bowie), too. And did I mention that it's flat-out gorgeous?

Every illusion, says Cutter, has three parts: The "pledge," an ordinary object or action; the "turn" that startles (and misdirects) the audience; and the "prestige," the final, unpredictable reveal that leaves them gasping. The Illusionist ends with a clunky montage that explains way too much, but the reveal at the end of The Prestige gave me a first-rate "didn't see that coming... but should have" thrill. The combination of utter outrageousness and meticulous setup is hard to beat.

THINGS TO CONSIDER:

Are magic and movies an inherently bad match? Much of the thrill of magic acts is seeing the apparently impossible in real life, but just about anything can be faked on film.

Assuming that the storyteller is playing fair, do you like unreliable narratives in which you have to constantly re-evaluate the telling to get to the tale? Or do they make you feel like throwing a "who cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" hissy fit?

If you've seen one movie on a subject - say, Capote - are you interested in seeing another, like Infamous? Why or why not?

If you've seen both The Prestige and The Illusionist, how do you think they compare?

Remember: Send your movie questions to FlickChick.

Previous DVD Tuesday blogs:
13 Tzameti
The Departed
Suspiria
Kiss and Make Up
Kiss Me Deadly
The Long Good Friday
What Alice Found
The Devil's Backbone
The Descent
The Devil Wears Prada
Pandora's Box
The Thief and the Cobbler
Nashville
Panic in the Streets/Jack Palance Interview
The Pusher Trilogy
Scarface
Slither
Sunset Blvd.
In Cold Blood
Brick

Also: This week's new DVD releases