Saturday, September 20, 2014
HOUDINI (2014- U.S.)
Our special guest reviewer Stephen M. Jones provides an emotional rant (slightly edited) and original illustration for the new HOUDINI movie. A more sober review will follow shortly after the blu-ray release in October. Enjoy.
D: Uli Edel. History Channel's two-part HOUDINI mini-series is a mixed bag that is entertaining enough but will severely date within 10-15 years.The narrative and structure of both episodes is very over-the-top and slightly annoying- a typical production of the 21st century with a sprinkling of cheap SYFY channel-style CGI throughout. The editing and pacing, especially during the tense or suspenseful moments, is appropriate and more stylish than what you might expect of a cable production of this sort.
The flow and structure of Nicholas Meyer's (SEVEN-PERCENT SOLUTION, INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS) script is superior to the complete work of fiction that was the 50's biopic starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Each scene is centered around a specific magic illusion (or a close representation of that trick) that triggers a flurry of flashbacks to an inspirational or emotional event. While much of the plot is fact-based but melded with myth, only on a few occassions does Meyer completely make stuff up; like Harry' wife Bess (Kristen Connolly) puffing a joint, Houdini's seduction by Margery the medium (Megan Dodds), Houdini’s career falter after 1914 (a plot device to pump up the drama?) or the depiction of Harry and Bess’s relationship as increasingly rocky as his career soars. Their marital struggles are evident throughout both episodes but was supposedly quite the opposite according to real life accounts.
I’m disappointed that they didn’t spend more time on Houdini’s successful film career. Instead it's conveyed that he hated movies and held a grudge against Charlie Chaplin. His movie work is only briefly referenced via a newspaper headline. What really angers me is the program's “hidden” meaning behind Houdini’s death. His demise is depicted as the tragic result of a curse put on him by disgruntled mediums for his disbelief in the afterlife. A sort of revenge for his not believing in ghosts. To me that kind of pisses on his serious work to expose mediums as rightful frauds and basically concludes he was wrong. The first episode also got carried away with a recent conspiracy theory promoting the idea that Houdini was a WW1 spy who aided the U.S. in bringing down political regimes. This gives the entire first episode the feeling that you're watching a bizarre 007 spin off. The real tragedy is that most viewers will come away believing this spy scenario as fact.
Adrien Brody wasn’t exactly a smart casting choice for Houdini. Brody seems to play the same character in all of his roles and is a very middle of the road kind of actor. His portrayal of Houdini is okay - he’s likable. But he looks physically nothing like Houdini who was short and stocky with a wide face. Brody is too tall with a boney narrow face and a long lanky body and more suitable for The Shadow than the famous escape artist. From all accounts, people who met Houdini said he was a very intense personality and everything about him said he was an entertainer. Brody doesn’t project this strongly enough with his monotone voice, plain emotions and gestures.
John Debney's (SIN CITY, IRON MAN 2) music is absolute garbage as it follows the “300 trend” of using contemporary styles to set the mood and tone of a story that takes place in the early 20th century. The horribly composed and arranged bombastic, sterile synthesizer-ladened techno score comes off real pretentious. Some cues are literally just electronic noises mixed too loud and often competing with the dialogue. I don’t understand this new trend that utilizes trendy music for a period piece movie! It’s not cool, clever, or creative at all. Just because it’s “totally not what you’d expect” doesn't mean it works. If you’re going to go for this stupid “artistic license” at least use good music. Even the upcoming John Adams special, promoted during commercial breaks, has a Rolling Stones soundtrack. That I can live with because the ‘Stones’ aren’t some 30 year-old messing around on a laptop trying to make “cool” and “edgy” computer music. Although in this case it isn't the proverbial "young dude", it's a composer who has cranked out some great scores in his day. HOUDINI would have been better served with a traditional orchestral score instead of this awful new direction that'll be the main cause for this production's soon to be out-dated style.
All in all, HOUDINI was handled oddly as far as cast, music and plot choices. Although it could've been A LOT WORSE it nevertheless remains entertaining, suspenseful and worthy of a few repeat viewings.
It's okay to come out Adrien, Stephen's done venting.