Two magician movies are coming out this fall, The Illusionist (trailer) and The Prestige (trailer). I saw The Illusionist at Sundance, and absent any firsthand data on The Prestige except the trailer, I recommend that if you will only see one magician movie this fall, go see The Prestige. It's almost like that classic statistics question "The Monty Hall Problem." I've only seen what's behind one door, but I'm going to switch and go with the other door now.
Both have two word titles in the form of article noun. Both center around dark, smoldering magicians: Ed Norton in The Illusionist, Christina Bale in The Prestige. Both feature a hot babe: Jessica Biel in The Illusionist, Scarlett JohanSSon in The Prestige. The magic in The Illusionist is never really explained (though there is a twist that is made clear). From the trailer, the magic in The Prestige may not be explainable at all.
The Illusionist looks good, like a sepia-toned postcard from turn-of-the-century Vienna. Prague makes for a fetching backdrop, as always, and I'm a sucker for scores by Philip Glass. But the romance at the heart of this romantic thriller, between Biel and Norton, feels flat. The movie needs to break free of the familiar conventions of this genre (yes, there is a sneering villain of a prince with a menacing mustache, played by Rufus Sewell, to antagonize our hero Norton, the mere son of a cabinetmaker), like Houdini escaping padlocked chains in a tank of water, but the movie puts forth only a mild effort to do so. A good magic trick leaves the audience dying to know how it was done, but when The Illusionist finally trotted out the great reveal, I'd lost interest.
The character of greatest appeal is Paul Giamatti's police inspector Uhl, half aspiring but bumbling magician, half obsessive detective. The way he almost gargles his lines in his throat before he delivers them and the way he mouths his pipe as he deliberates gives the audience a sympathetic character with some depth to hang its hat on.
As for The Prestige, I know little. The director is Christopher Nolan, which is a checkmark in its favor, and I'm generally a fan of any movie where Christian Bale plays someone who might just be crazy.