Tag Archives: movies

Magic Monday ~ History Channel’s Houdini

MagicMonday

I like Mondays. On Monday, I am refreshed from the weekend and exhilarated by the possibilities of the week ahead. I also like magic. I like its history, its intersection with technology, and its crafty use of human nature.  I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

A year ago, I had a Saturday Cinema post about various screen incarnations of Harry Houdini. Last Monday and Tuesday, the History Channel broadcasted their mini-series and I figured I’d give it my Cinematic Houdini treatment and a general review.

Houdini 2014.jpg

“Houdini 2014”
Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Houdini (2014)
Adrien Brody – 6’1″

  • What it’s got: Houdini as a kid growing up in the small town of Appleton, WI (except it wasn’t a small town), including his brother Theo. Royal performances for everyone in Europe, including Rasputin. Bess threatening to leave due to the dangerous tricks; Harry having affairs, including little bit of bondage for the 50 Shades set, a biting comment from Bess about marrying a Jew. Most of the signature tricks, including disappearing an elephant (except that’s not how it was done at all).  Engineer Jim Collins (except Jim Collins wasn’t an American). A nod to Houdini’s film career. The Halloween curse. The gut punch.
  • What it’s missing: Houdini’s other siblings–it was a big family. “Mundane” jobs before becoming a performer. Martin Beck. Needles. The Scotland Yard challenge. Houdini’s interaction with other magicians. Houdini and Hardeen (his brother Theo) working together to keep imitators to a minimum. The Houdinis inability to have children.

The History Channel’s Houdini includes quite a few things that haven’t been seen in a Houdini biopic, but gets so many things very wrong. John Cox at Wild About Harry has a two part post of fact-checking (night one, night two) that goes in-depth about inaccuracies. The general reaction to the mini-series has been mixed within the realm of Houdini-philes. On one hand, there’s a level of disappointment and even rage at what the History Channel is portraying as truth. On the other, most are also happy that Houdini is getting some play in a nice, medium-to-big-budget manner. The movie is nice looking, though the writing is somewhat flat and I don’t think Adrien Brody quite has the angry-short-man ego to pull off Houdini.

I’m not a fan of Houdini, but when reading about  turn-of-the-20th-century magic, he is inescapable. There is also a certain amount of embellishment that occurs when magicians set down their biographies. I’ve seen several comments along the lines of, “This is schlock, wouldn’t Houdini love it?” I think he would definitely love what a Salon writer is calling the Houdini-Industrial Complex. What bugged *me* about this biopic is something that bugs me in general about what writers (and maybe especially screenwriters) sometimes decide to dramatize. This movie goes for low-hanging fictional fruit.

The biggest example in Houdini is the portrayal of Houdini’s wife, Bess. By all accounts, Bess was supportive of her husband’s career. But the easy dramatic beat is: Bess is upset by Harry doing dangerous escapes, but Harry *needs* to do dangerous tricks. Conflict ensues. To me, there are at least two other angles. A.) Bess didn’t act in the cliched way you’d expect from a wife and didn’t have a problem with Harry doing dangerous things. Or, B.) The tricks really weren’t dangerous. Do we deep down think that Houdini risked his life so often, or that maybe he was, you know, a professional magician who created the illusion of peril? That’s harder to write.

There’s plenty of drama in Houdini’s life. He grew up in poverty and was determined not to live so as an adult (but didn’t blame his father for those humble beginnings). He was an organizing *and* divisive force in the magic community. He had his own motion picture company, which became a bit of a thorn in his side. Like most magicians of the era, he faced having to make the change from vaudeville to a bigger stage–something he did quite well. (Until the elephant scene in Houdini, I hadn’t realized how much I was looking forward to seeing the trick in some fashion. With visions of the enormous New York Hippodrome in my head, I was disappointed that the TV version involved a circus ring and some silliness with gauze on poles.)

Houdini is far from being my favorite magician and Houdini is far from being my favorite movie about him.

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What Am I Reading?

I’ll be working on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, at least until a late-week trip to Omaha. I’ll probably only take my Kindle with and both of the former are physical copies. I don’t know what I’ll read ebook-wise. It seems too early to read the two ARCs I have planned for R.I.P.. I had a slow start with Kavalier & Clay, but it turned into compulsive reading over the weekend. For Deal Me In, I have a second Janet Berliner story, which I’m not really looking forward to.

What Am I Writing?

On the cusp of 15,000 words on In Need of Luck. Eric’s been working hard on PHYSICa, so I’ve been on my own a bit more than previously. He gave the first 14K a read-through last week. So far, so good, aside from one or two things that will get rewritten.

Saturday Cinema ~ R.I.P. Edition, Vol. 2

Ticket3This week: Reviews of three old-school horror movies. All are on Martin Scorsese’s list of 11 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time; completely coincidental that I watched them recently.

File:Nightofthedemonposter.jpgNight of the Demon (1957), also known as Curse of the Demon, Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Starring Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, and Niall MacGinnis

A couple of weeks ago I found out that episodes of Harlan Ellison’s Watching are available on YouTube. If you’re unfamiliar with Ellison, he’s very opinionated. When the Sci-Fi Channel first began broadcast back in 1992-ish, “Harlan Ellison’s Watching” was a 3-5 minute segment at the end of their sci-fi related news show. (This was obviously long before it was Syfy and when it still had predominantly speculative fiction programming.) During episode two, Harlan relates a list of near-forgotten gems. One of those is Night of the Demon.

Based on the M.R. James story “Casting the Runes,” Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) is cursed on the eve of a conference to expose a witch cult while investigating the death of a fellow skeptic. Andrews plays Holden with unexpected dry wit, but it’s Niall MacGinnis that steals the show acting-wise. I’m not sure I’ve encountered too many villains as truly menacing as MacGinnis’s Karswell. And he does it with subtlety. No scenery chewing occurs. It’s also a wonderfully shot movie. There are some beautiful parallels between modern architecture and pagan ruins. The only place the movie falters is in showing the demon. The effect isn’t very good and it undercuts the psychological aspect of the plot. As it happens there was quite a bit of controversy about showing the demon. The wrong choice was made, but still a worthwhile film.

File:Thehaunting1963.pngThe Haunting (1963), Directed by Robert Wise, Starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, and Richard Johnson

The Haunting has a couple of things in common with Night of the Demon. Both are based on classic works of suspense and horror. While I haven’t read “Casting the Runes” yet and can’t vouch for it, The Haunting is based quite faithfully on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, a frequent re-read for me. Plot-wise, both play with the notion of psychology vs. the supernatural as Eleanor, a woman with a great number of personal demons, navigates her independence and a very bad house. The Haunting is also shot in black and white. While lacking the vistas of London and rural England, Wise shoots Hill House from skewed angles that make rooms unfamiliar every time we see them; not forgetting the very inventive and affective special effects.

File:Changeling ver1.jpgThe Changeling (1980), Directed by Peter Medak, Starring George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere and Melvyn Douglas.

This is a movie that my friend Tania introduced to me in college. I hadn’t seen it in quite a while, but I remembered it being one of those great old-style ghost-story-mysteries that seem to be prevalent in the 1980s. What I had forgotten is how down-right unsettling this movie is.

After the death of his wife and daughter in a traffic accident, composer John Russel (George C. Scott) accepts a teaching position in Seattle and rents a historical Victorian mansion that houses the secrets of an influential family. George C. Scott is so likeable in this movie. He’s heartbroken and struggling to get on with life and the escalating disturbances in the house seem incredibly unfair. Yet, Russel is intrigued and, well, chivalrous. He takes it as his duty to figure out this mystery instead of simply moving out of the house. The very end of the movie is maybe a tad bit over the top, but the meat of the haunting is disturbing as only a child ghost can be. I watched this movie on my computer and listened to it through headphones. There’s a whole level of eerie noises that I had never noticed when watching in a dorm room.

rip8perilonscreenTake a gander at all the R.I.P. reviews!

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.