Saturday Cimema ~ Several Cinematic Houdinis

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Earlier this week, a fellow Hugh Jackman fan linked to the following: Houdini Musical, Starring Hugh Jackman, May Have Chicago Premiere Prior to Broadway. My first thought was, “Dude, isn’t he a little tall to be Houdini?”

According to IMDB*, Harry Houdini was 5’6″. Wikipedia quotes 5’5″ and notes that his shortness was often remarked upon. Hugh Jackman is 6’2″. I’m guessing the milk can escape isn’t going to be in the musical. (Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time Jackman’s been called upon to “play short.” According to the Marvel Wiki, Wolverine is 5’3″.)

File:Deathdefyingacts-poster.jpgI had recently watched Death Defying Acts and thought that Guy Pearce was too tall too, and too eloquent, so I started to wonder just how Hollywood has treated Houdini. After tracking down a few bio-pics and “guest shots,” I noticed a few things in common and a few things that often seem to be missing–mainly Houdini’s interaction with magic community. He worked to organize magicians and also habitually seemed to piss them off. These are things overlooked and would probably require a series rather than a movie. Even if he is my 20th favorite magician, I’d watch a Mr. Slefridge-style series. And might I suggest some height appropriate actors? Daniel Radcliffe or Frankie Muniz are both 5’5″, but my pick would be a hair-dyed Seth Green (5’3″).

(While looking up information for this post, I find that Wild About Harry reports that the History channel has green-lit a two night series starring Adrien Brody, 6’1″.)

* I’m cribbing all my height information from IMDB.

What I’ve Seen:

Houdini (1953)
Tony Curtis – 5’9″

  • File:Houdini.jpgWhat it’s got: Screwball romantic comedy, Houdini as the Wild Man and sawing Bess in half on their wedding night, Houdini working at a safe factory, lots of random magic, Bess threatening to leave over his relationship with magic, use of lockpick with toes, mysterious absent mentor Von Schweger and Otto the assistant, mention of Missouri (the Show Me state), a Halloween curse, not very dramatic debunking of a seance.
  • What it’s missing: Theo, Houdini interacting with other magicians, Houdini being punched in the gut.

The Great Houdini (1976)
Paul Michael Glaser – 5’11”

  • What it’s got: Houdini with a New York accent and struggling to become famous (suggested alternative job: working in a tie factory), Houdini and Bess working on their mind-reading act in bed, Bess leaving over Houdini’s relationship with his mother,  the religious inclinations of Harry (Jewish) and Bess (Catholic), mention of Missouri, dramatic debunking of a seance, Halloween spookiness, Vivian Vance stealing every scene.
  • What it’s missing: Theo, Houdini interacting with other magicians, the love interest being called a shiksa.

Voyagers! “Agents of Satan” (1982)
Michael Durrell – shorter than everyone else except the kid

  • What it’s got: Escape via time travel! Dramatic debunking of “mentalist.”
  • What it’s missing: N/A – Houdini is a secondary character in a one hour TV drama.

Via Wild About HarryFairyTale: A True Story (1997)
Harvey Keitel – 5’7″

  • What it’s got: The best Houdini hair, nice depictions of magic including Houdini post-water chamber escape waiting behind the curtain to build suspense.
  • What it’s missing: N/A – Houdini is a secondary character and is fairly compromising on the subject of fairies. He advises the young Miss Wright to never reveal her secrets.

Death Defying Acts (2007)
Guy Pearce – 5’10”

  • What it’s got: A buff, fit, perpetually injured, haunted Houdini at the height of his career, a put-upon manager, a story from a medium’s perspective, a little girl who reads comics, an incredibly lush movie that covers a very small period of time.
  • What it’s missing: Bess, the needle trick, mention of Missouri.

Notable, but I Haven’t Seen:

Jeffrey DeMunn  (5’9″) played Houdini twice in 1981’s Ragtime and as adult Houdini in Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color‘s “Young Harry Houdini” (1987).

Houdini (1998) (TV) Played by Johnathon Schaech – 5’11”

Saturday Cinema ~ Let’s Hear It for the Girls

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File:Brave Poster.jpgBrave (2012) – Directed by Brenda Chapman, Starring the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly & Emma Thompson. Disney. Thankfully without too much singing. As I suspected, this would have been one of my favorite movies when I was eight. A heroine with a mop of curly red hair who doesn’t necessarily want to be a princess? Yes, please! There’s been some criticism that, at the end of the day, Merida doesn’t gain freedom from the tradition of marrying. The decision is just sort of put off. But really, just maybe, that’s a little more real life than fairy tale. Maybe change needs to be enacted gradually. Maybe Merida puts off marrying indefinitely because she finds so many other interesting things to do, and everyone gets used to that fact. Or maybe she does end up marrying and remains an active participant in her kingdom’s rule, bow in hand. Fantastic animation. Fun characters.

File:Snow White and the Huntsman Poster.jpgSnow White and the Huntsman (2012) – Directed by Rupert Sanders, Starring Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron. I will recuse myself. Kristen Stewart bugs me. She has this somewhat emotionless quality that kind of makes me twitch. Despite this, I really tried to enjoy Snow White and the Huntsman. It’s a pretty movie. There are some really neat special effects and beautiful costumes. Okay, maybe the only really great costumes were Charlize Theron’s dresses and Kirsten Stewart’s non-boob-plate armor. I did like how unromantic the movie is. Sure, true love’s kiss is needed at one point, but Snow White doesn’t even pause to return the favor. Two guys vying for affection? Meh, whatever. Win hearts and dance with dwarves instead. Unfortunately, the movie felt overlong and distant. Maybe it’s Stewart’s spaciness, maybe it’s the director’s inexperience, but I never felt any connection to the setting or events. (Exception – I kind of felt bad for Ravenna, the evil queen. It’s hinted that her character has seen some hardship and she’s worked her way into an impossible situation.) Other minuses: The battle tactics made me wince, and why couldn’t the Huntsman have a name?

Saturday Cinema ~ Why I Liked The Lone Ranger

Ticket3I like going to the movies. If I had more money than I do, I’d go more often. Usually, we try to keep trips to the local cineplex down to about three a year, usually a summer movie, a fall movie, and a winter movie. Usually, those movies are big-screen spectacles or movies I want to support by buying a ticket. This summer has been an outlier; it’s been filled with movies in both categories. I’ve seen five (Five!) movies this summer. What have been my favorites? Here’s roughly how they stack up:

  1. Now You See Me
  2. The Lone Ranger
  1. Much Ado About Nothing
  1. Pacific Rim
  2. Iron Man 3

Much Ado About Nothing is smack-dab in the middle, being my least favorite adaptation of my favorite Shakespeare play.

Now You See Me has the top spot because, while it has it’s flaws, it’s a movie directly up my alley. And I appreciate it for its non-franchise, low-ish budget chutzpah. Currently, of the five, it’s made the most money domestically. Not bad for a magic heist.

Iron Man 3 might be the exact opposite. I like superhero movies, but I realize that my tolerance for their formula has run thin. After an enjoyable, well-made The Avengers, I was disappointed to find a poorly-written mess.

Sadly, the same goes for Pacific Rim. It was a beautiful movie, as should be expected from Guillermo del Toro, but the writing is achingly bad.

File:TheLoneRanger2013Poster.jpgWhich brings me to The Lone Ranger, a movie that been pretty much universally panned.

As a kid, I watched The Lone Ranger reruns. The daring-do appealed to me. As well as the Lone Ranger’s awesome horse. And while I might have claimed (up until the 2000s) that I didn’t like Westerns, I probably did own a white hat, ranger badge, and bright silver plastic six-shooters at one time. From the trailer, I thought the movie looked like a lot of fun. I was dubious that it would actually be good, but it looked fun.

I was going to skip watching it in the theater after seeing Now You See Me and Much Ado because I figured it was going to be one of those big stupid-money summer movies. Of course, after opening weekend, that was obviously not the case.  What went wrong with it? I had to see for myself.

The writing: The movie’s primary flaw is that it’s uneven. We start out with an aged Tonto telling a young boy the story of his life. He is not a reliable narrator. If you think about The Lone Ranger as a tall tale, as American folklore, it’s wackyness works. Unfortunately, the movie also feels the need to be too earnest too often. Both John Reid and Tonto are seeking revenge, against the background of Big Railroad. The movie never quite finds its balance. Some parts run a little long.

Tonto: Johnny Depp, faintly a Native American, plays Tonto. Tonto in this version of the mythos is a bit, well, Johnny Depp. *I* don’t have a problem with this. This Tonto, at least in his own telling, is a bit of a bad ass. He’s also understandably unbalanced; there is a reason for his madness. And if we’re going to raise issues of the suitability of actors to play certain roles, should Idris Elba play Heimdall? Should Jaimie Alexander play Sif (known for her golden hair)?

The franchise: The Lone Ranger isn’t a franchise known by 18-25 year-olds. The “reboot” is probably a little too radical for viewers older than myself. The Depp/Bruckheimer/Verbinski franchise has probably suffered from Pirate fatigue. Armie Hammer plays a great straight man, but he’s not a draw.  And Westerns are a hard sell, more so when you add comedy into the mix. $215M was a bloated budget for a genre that doesn’t historically pull those kinds of numbers.

Bottom Line: I enjoyed The Lone Ranger. I understood it’s heightened folklore feel. I liked it’s running jokes. It is a beautiful movie and the leads are very agreeable. At the end of the day, it comes down to this: I don’t think I’ve grinned so hard during a movie as when The William Tell Overture kicked up during the incredibly over-the-top train fight, an action sequence that was much more entertaining than the train fight in Skyfall. And I was still grinning in the parking lot, and on the way home, and I’m grinning even as I write this.

Saturday Cinema ~ Ghost Stories as Mysteries

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While I don’t believe in ghosts, I do love a good ghost story. In particular, I like ghost stories that are mysteries at heart, and the spirits are pieces of the puzzle to be solved. Ghost in this sort of story may be scary, but usually don’t really wish harm upon the living, aside from seeing justice done. I was tempted to call these “old-fashioned” ghost stories, but what’s fashion for my culture isn’t fashion in another. While revenant stories seem new-fangled to me, the kaidan that are the basis of much of J-horror are old-fashioned in Japanese culture. J-horror sensibility has been prevalent in 2000s, so I was surprised to find a “good old-fashioned” ghost story from 2011.

File:TheAwakening2011Poster.jpgThe Awakening (2011) – Directed by Nick Murphy; Starring Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Isaac Hempstead Wright, and Imelda Staunton.

I came across this movie this movie while doing research on mediums and spiritualist debunkers. The main character, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), is a debunker. The first ten minutes of the film are on-line, a scene that includes Cathcart exposing a medium. It definitely endeared the film to me. A “professional” ghost hunter, she is asked to investigate the death of a boy at a country boarding school. He reportedly died of fear, sacred to death by the resident ghost. There is of course more than meets the eye to the boarding house and Cathcart’s motives for ghost busting. I was a little worried when she breaks out the 1920s version of  EMF meters and the like, but those things aren’t what the movie is about.

The Awakening was written by director Nick Murphy and Stephen Volk, the writer behind the totally gonzo Gothic (1986), the more recent the UK series Afterlife (about a psychology professor investigating a medium), and half-dozen other ghost-related projects. Clearly, he has an interest in this type of story. The plot spools out a decent pace, providing a good number of chills and twists. The production is lovely, as you’d expect from BBC Films, and the actors are top-notch. I find that I really like Rebecca Hall in just about any role (which makes me all the more disappointed in Iron Man 3–Mayra Hansen was a character with not much to do). The Awakening is a solid ghost mystery and definitely a pleasant surprise.

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File:Lady in White (poster).jpegFive more of my favorite ghost mysteries (that mostly fit the criteria):

  • The Changling (1980)
  • Lady in White (1988)
  • The Sixth Sense (1999)
  • Stir of Echos (1999)
  • The Others (2001)

Saturday Cinema ~ Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

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File:MuchAdo.jpgMuch Ado About Nothing (2012) – Directed by Joss Whedon, Starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, and most of the rest of the Whedon Universe.

Yesterday, we trekked up to Scottsdale to watch Much Ado on the only screen where it’s showing in the Phoenix metro (at the moment, that I know of; here’s hoping for a wider release later in the year). Much Ado About Nothing is my favorite Shakespeare comedy. Joss Whedon is one of my favorite directors.  There was no way I wasn’t going to like this movie.

Filmed on location in his home during a break while editing Avengers, Whedon puts together a pretty good film. Shot in black and white, it exchanges the Italian providence of Messina for a palatial Santa Monica home. The house’s architecture and the surrounding property is put to excellent use. I was amused by how many early scenes were shot in the kitchen. After all, isn’t that were most parties end up? The adaptation mostly pulls off a modern setting while retaining the language of the play in a slightly abridged version. Don John and his cronies arrived zip-tied. Why? It doesn’t matter. Shakespeare never explains either aside from Don John being “a plain-dealing villain,” played with proper malevolence by Sean Maher.

Beatrice and Benedick’s past is more explicitly illustrated to give their current sparring more weight. This mostly works. I found Alexis Denisof’s Benedick a little uneven. His shift from lady-killer to love’s fool is maybe too extreme. Both Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant (in the adaptations I’ve seen) give Benedick a more inherent ridiculousness that makes the character’s shift more natural. I have to give Denisof credit though for doing his Act 2, scene 3 soliloquy while on a morning jog.

In general, Whedon’s adaptation is less jolly than Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film or Josie Rourke’s 2011 stage adaptation (available through Digital Theatre). Denisof and Amy Acker have some nice physical comedy moments, but other than the eavesdropping scenes, they are both somewhat staid. Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry is the most reserved I’ve seen; I could have done with a touch more 80s super-cop from him and Tom Lenk as his sidekick Verges. The standout of the cast for me was Clark Gregg’s Leonato. Without even a on-stage, but mostly non-speaking wife/mother (like in Rourke’s presentation), Gregg’s Leonato and Jillian Morgese’s Hero have an us-against-the world feel about them; that maybe Leonato was wronged by his wife, leaving him to bring up his daughter as best he could. When Hero is accused, Gregg’s Leonato is first disappointed and then angry, and it’s this disappointment that breaks Hero’s heart. At least that’s my take on it. It could be that I’m indulging in a little to much extra reading into the performance.

This is the most Wheadon-y Shakespeare possible. All of Joss Whedon’s TV series contain labyrinthine and melodramatic love stories and that’s what Much Ado About Nothing has in spades. While it’s not may favorite adaptation of the play, I enjoyed myself.

Saturday Cinema ~ Magic Movies

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My life in the past few months has been a big Baader-Meinhof of magic. While I have been seeking out texts and other media related to magic, I’ve also been tripping over the subject. Here are a couple recent cinematic stumblings.

Now You See Me posterNow You See Me (2013) – Directed by Louis Leterrier, Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Mélanie Laurent, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco with Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. I included the entire main cast there because just look at it. What a great cast!

A few months ago when I first saw the trailer for Now You See Me, I was a little disappointed. This summer is filled with movies I want to see. Trying to scheme my way into one more seemed pretty unreasonable, not matter how magic-packed this film looked. (If my income were substantially higher or ticket prices were substantially cheaper, I’d go to the movies every weekend.) If it came out in September or October, well, I figured my chance of seeing it in a theater was better. Then Iron Man 3 happened. I am perhaps overly unhappy with that film and, in true over-reaction style, it’s put me off of big budget blockbusters for the moment. That’s not to say Now You See Me doesn’t have a budget (IMDB put it at $75 million), but I’ve come to appreciate any movie that can pull off effects and still stay under the $100M mark.

This is going to be a biased review. I like magic. I like heist films. Put the two together and I have a peanut-butter-and-chocolate situation. This is going to be something I like even if the ingredients aren’t that good. Or, to belabor the metaphor, even if the ingredients are great but in the wrong proportions.

The characters, mostly, are a lot of fun. The interplay between Woody Harrelson and pick-a-character-any-character is one of the movie’s stranger points. Michael Caine and Dave Franco aren’t given a whole lot to do other than being the rich English guy and the fourth wheel on the tricycle respectively. Mark Ruffalo is generally grumpy, Morgan Freeman is generally enigmatic, and Mélanie Laurent is generally French. Luckily, these are all things that these actors do well.

The plot felt like it could have been a little tighter and a little clearer. After the second bank robbery, there is a bit of a shift in the attitudes of characters and the feel of the movie that probably could have been explained. Then, of course, there’s the magic. By and large, the tricks seemed reasonable, but again, some of the details could have been cleaned up to make the movie stronger. For example, one illusion is done with mirrors. After reading Hiding the Elephant, yes, I can see how you *might* be able to do that with mirrors, but it would be a more complex thing. For me, it would have been cool if there had been some actual magic history worked into the plot, but I guess that’s why I’m writing the book I’m writing.

Now You See Me is not perfect. In fact, it’s far from perfect. But it is ambitious and non-franchise and I left the theater satisfied with how I had spent my money.

Hugo posterHugo (2011) – Directed by Martin Scorsese, Starring Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, and Chloë Grace Moretz.

When this movie came out, I knew nothing about the book by Brian Selznick and thought it was an odd choice for Martin Scorsese to direct. It was a kid’s story. Set in France. No rock & roll. No New York. Actually, worse, I had a misconception about the story. I thought it was the sort of light, fluffy, middle-grade fantasy that was trying hard to be on the same level as Philip Pullman books with aspirations of C. S. Lewis.

I’m not unhappy when I’m wrong.

At the end of the 19th and in the early decades of the 20th century, there was a great interplay between magic and technology. After all, what is magic but giving an audience what they don’t expect to see or hear? This is exactly what radio, movies, and TV did. Hugo is a story that weaves together one of  the technical props of late 1800s’ magic- –the automaton– -with the coming technology of the motion picture. Georges Méliès was a magician before he was first prolific writer, director, and actor of film. Once I realized what this story’s deep plot was about, the preservation of film history, of course it was a project that Martin Scorsese would direct!

It is a beautiful film. Near the beginning there is  a patented Scorsese one-shot of Hugo moving through a giant clock at the Gare Montparnasse railway station. Let me repeat that. A one-shot. Through a clock. The acting is great. Ben Kingsley even looks like Georges Méliès. After seeing him a couple weeks before in Iron Man 3 (he is the best thing in that movie), I was reminded how good of an actor he is. Second best actor in this film: Chloë Grace Moretz. I hope she avoids all the nastiness of growing up in the movie industry and continues to give great performances no matter what she’s in. Sacha Baron Cohen is ridiculous, but the writing allows him to be more than a cartoon villain.

Hugo was considered a flop. It’s a slowly paced film about history. I can kind of understand why this didn’t tear up the box office. At an hour in, I was surprised that only an hour had passed. I wasn’t unhappy about that, but it made me do a double take. Adult me really liked this movie. Ten-year-old me probably would have liked it too because I’ve always been interested in special effects and movie history since The Making of ‘Star Wars’. For the general, movie-watching public? Don’t be afraid to get your feet wet with some historical fiction. Even if there are kids involved. This is a Martin Scorsese movie after all.

Saturday Cinema ~ Tales from the Queue, pt. 2

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Five movies that I recently watched:

Nick and Nora PosterNick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008) – Directed by Peter Sollett, Starring Michael Cera & Kat Dennings. Not really on my TBW list, but I saw that it was on Crackle and hadn’t seen it, so I watched it. It was sweet and predictable in that teen comedy kind of way. Happily, not overly crude. Occasionally, I felt my age and thought, “That is not a safe situation.” Michael Cera and Kat Dennings are excellent. I worried that the soundtrack, full of bands I don’t care for a lot, would bug me but it worked very well.

Collector posterThe Collector (1965) – Directed by William Wyler, Starring Terence Stamp & Samantha Eggar. Not the 2009 horror film, but a 1965 suspense drama based on a novel by John Fowles. It is a 1960s movie, which means it moves at a certain pace and requires patience. Terrance Stamp is handsome and awkwardly charming and down right creepy in the role as a collector of many things. Samantha Eggar definitely holds her own in this basically two character film. Truly, I did not expect this film to end the way it did.

Flight posterFlight (2012) – Directed by Robert Zemeckis, Starring Denzel Washington. The plane crash is one of the most tense action sequences I’ve seen in a long time. Unlike some big summer flicks I could name, the characters are actually in peril. Oh, I’ve seen the trailer; I know that the outcome is relatively good, but I don’t know the specifics and that is…uncomfortable. I’d say that Washington was robbed of an Oscar, but he *is* upstaged by a plane, bottles, and John Goodman.

Django Unchained posterDjango Unchained (2012) – Directed by Quentin Tarantino, Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio. I had been looking forward to this movie, mostly because I wanted to see Leonardo DiCaprio be mustache-twirlingly evil. He doesn’t do enough villain roles, if you ask me. What I did not expect was how great Christoph Waltz’s performance is. I was not a fan of his character in Inglorious Basterds so I had kind of shrugged off his winning a second Oscar for Dr. King Schultz. Shame on me. Unfortunately when given the budget, Tarantino is unrestrained with his gore and violence, and I don’t think he’s particularly good at it. The artfulness of Reservoir Dog or Pulp Fiction feels like it was born from a need to be judicious with the squibs and fake blood.

Total Recall posterTotal Recall(2012) – Directed by Len Wiseman, Starring Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale & Jessica Biel. I liked the nods to the original, especially the traveling women who will be gone for two weeks and the very insistent, helpful computer voices (though I did miss the Johnny cabs). It’s not a bad movie, really, but it sort of made me want to go pull half a dozen other movies off my shelves:

  • Blade Runner (1982) – Thirty years later and there still aren’t many films that can do a crumbling futuristic city better.
  • Total Recall (1990) – Obviously.
  • Strange Days (1995) – There’s kind of a swarmy below-boards aspect to Rekall in this version that reminds me of Strange Days. Plus, Strange Days has the single most successful incident of a character info-dumping ever.
  • The Fifth Element (1997) – Flying cars! Milla Jovovich! (Btw, I had a tough time telling Kate Beckinsale & Jessica Biel apart…)
  • The Bourne Identity (2002) – If you’re going to have an uber-trained super-spy with memory loss, these are the cinematic shoes you’re going to have to fill.
  • Phone Booth (2002) – Colin Farrel in a better role. (Although the hand phone in Total Recall is a nice effect.)