The Prestige is sort of my expectation model here, sandwiched as it was, and as this one will presumably be, between two Batman movies. I've been rewatching The Prestige in bits before bed all week, and sweet lord is that an excellent movie: gorgeously shot, sometimes mordantly funny, and playful but not flip in pitting the art of illusion with the science of magic (or vice versa?). He also made those two great Batman movies; directed Al Pacino and Robin Williams to two of their best performances of the past ten to twenty years in Insomnia; and, you know, made Memento, the tricky, noir-ish mediation on memory and self-deception that Inception also seems poised to imitate. Nolan, with his brother Jonathan, sometimes goes a little on-the-nose with his dialogue (even my beloved Prestige and Dark Knight have this problem), but if you get Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, and Michael Caine to recite said dialogue, you'll probably be fine. Around the halfway mark, it's been kind of a dim movie year; yes, we got another Pixar homerun, some Scorsese/Polanski thrills, and the usual passel of high-quality indies (in order of descending quality: Greenberg; Fish Tank; Please Give; Cyrus; The Kids Are All Right). But we could certainly use a Pfister-shot, crazy-expensive, original-screenplay-based tripped-out Nolan mindfuck about now, couldn't we? [Always! Also, thank you for not preemptively wishing your expectations into existence! I will be satisfied with Inception if it proves to be half as mindboggling a demonstration of exterior-projected magical thinking as the comments threads it's generated. -Ed.]
The Sorcerer's Apprentice: If I harbor any guilt over my enjoyment of the National Treasure series (and believe me, I don't harbor much), it's that those movies, along with the Pirates of the Caribbean pictures, have apparently convinced superproducer Jerry Bruckheimer that he has got this Spielberg/Lucas family-friendly adventure filmmaking thing down to a science. Hence this summer's also-ran Bruckheimer fantasy-adventures like Prince of Persia and now The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the latter kinda-sorta based on the Fantasia segment [Based on the eponymous classical piece by Paul Dukas, adapted from Goethe's "Der Zauberlehrling". The more you know... -Ed.] with Mickey Mouse running afoul of magical brooms. Apprentice is better hokum than Persia—goofier, more inventive, with the always-watchable Nicolas Cage as the last good sorcerer—but its faith in the power of magical objects and ripping off Harry Potter is still disturbing. Indeed, for something that sounds synthesized from a screenwriting workshop, Sorcerer's Apprentice is remarkably meandering and choppy: bad guys turn up to menace the good guys, sorcerer battles ensue, and good and/or bad guys escape back to their base, until the next time one group turns up out of nowhere. The uneven pacing does leave room for some patented Cage eccentricities—he's been playfully selling out for Bruckheimer since Johnny Depp was running around Nick of Time—and some neat effects bits like liquid-y mirror-image worlds and statues that come to life. At its best, The Sorcerer's Apprentice treats its visual effects, even the pointless ones, as play, not as slathered-on visual goo.
Cage's stone-faced commitment seems like a good match for the nervous, hesitant Jay Baruchel, who plays the chosen-one apprentice, and they have some amusing exchanges. But Baruchel, the Apatow alum with the De Niro squint and the mouth full of wavering marbles, is the victim of an unfortunate young acting trend—call it the LaBeouf method—dictating that the charming young wiseguy need not actually say anything funny; apparently, it's the endless stammering and twitching itself that is supposed to be hilarious (this actually kind of works for Michael Cera, though he gets more actual wisecracks off under his breath in a trailer than Baruchel has managed aloud over his last two movies). Without any funny lines, he's outshined by Toby Kebbell playing his unscrupulous counterpart, a Criss Angel-y magician recruited by evil sorcerer Alfred Molina. Bruckheimer recruits for some of the best slumming in the business, and the likes of Cage and Molina give Apprentice short busts of fun; it's just a shame that it's surrounded by such tedious, over-explained mythology (stop teasing us by mentioning an army of all-powerful undead wizards if you're not going to show them!). I'm afraid Bruckheimer and company may have begun to believe their own Barnumesque showmanship. National Treasure works as a faster, nimbler rip-off of The Da Vinci Code, but these newer fantasies brim with the unearned confidence of presumed originality. They might well inspire faster, nimbler rip-offs of their own.