Watch carefully...it's the Dueling Magicians, Final Countdown, ABRACADABRA! Edition of TicketStub:

* The Illusionist - Keep your eyes on Paul Giamatti's fine walrus moustache, and all will be revealed. This sepia-toned fable weaves a gentle illusion of lost love and hoodwinkery, sort of like Romeo & Juliet crossed with Robin Hood and a dash of The Usual Suspects. Everybody's favorite black-eyed rogue, Edward Norton, plays Eisenheim, a poor but noble boy whose aristocratic childhood love, Sophie, is taken away and later engaged to the ruthless, arrogant Prince Leopold, played by go-to slimeball Rufus Sewell. Can you see where this is going? Jessica Biel, the anachronistic hottie playing Sophie, is the only thing that looks out of place in fin-de-siecle Vienna -- this movie was made on a certain budget, but it was well spent on authentic settings and simple but effective stagings of the illusions, which, while enhanced by computer, are delightful. The gaslight and gloom are as palpable as the plummy Slav-ish accents. Paul Giamatti hams it up winningly as Police Inspektor Uhl, a canny bureaucrat charged with discovering Eisenheim's secrets by the Prince. Once Sophie turns up murdered, though, those secrets turn far more convoluted -- and their resolution more fantastical. Unlike Nat, who spotted the twists a mile off, I got caught up in the tricksy plot and thoroughly enjoyed it. I like a movie that sprinkles the fairy dust judiciously and doesn't get in over its head. Extra points for terrific sound editing! See, that sounds dull but it goes a long way. (A-)

* The Prestige - This movie sells itself: Batman vs. Wolverine! Or alternatively it's Battle of the Tall, Dark & Handsomes...or something. OK, so Hugh Jackman might walk off with that prize, but Christian Bale is no slouch. The two play professional magicians in fin-de-siecle London, under the tutelage of a grizzly Michael Caine and battling for audience domination and eternal glory. Who can perfect the better illusion, and at what price? Told by Christopher Memento Nolan in a craftily unfolding, time-stuttered way, the story absorbs you in stages, just like a magic trick's three steps: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. I liked how the themes of hubris, deception, and surprise chimed again and again throughout the unspooling plot, but they were a bit dark and weighty, dare I say existential. Both men are broken by their ambition to become the "real" Transported Man...again, it's so Jungian, and yet by the end they're both so beyond redemption you kind of want to see them both dead. Wait, does that happen? It's sort of hard to say. Actually, I was the one who spotted the essential plot wrinkle way ahead of Nat, which in this case filled me not with smug satisfaction but rather moral dread. The film is thoughtfully made, but a little too sinister to bear repeated viewings just for the plot puzzle. OTOH, David Bowie's fantastic cameo as Nikola Tesla (!), assisted in his mountaintop lab by none other than Andy Serkis (!!), deserves to stand alone as a short film. Also on the upside, the illusions look really cool. And when your lovely assistant is Scarlett Johansson, how wrong can things go? (B+)

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