Unconvincing chemistry and lacklustre plot let this movie do
z hayes | TX | 11/07/2008
(2 out of 5 stars)
""Death Defying Acts" is not a movie biography of Harry Houdini. Instead, it takes a small thread and weaves it into a full-length movie. The story here centers around mother-daughter con artists Mary McGarvie [Catherine Zeta-Jones] and her street smart daughter Benji [Saoirse Ronan whose claim to fame is from the movie Atonement]who barely eke out a living in Edinburgh, Scotland. They put on shows at the local theatre, where they play exotic characters that are able to foretell the future [having done research beforehand on the history of someone in the audience, usually by pickpocketing an object belonging to said person]. When the pair find out that Harry Houdini [Guy Pearce] is coming to Edinburgh and is paying out a 10,000 reward to anyone who can 'divine' his mother's last words written in a letter only known to him, they decide to con him. I'm not sure if the romance part was based on actual events but Houdini was a member of a Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize to any psychic who could successfully prove paranormal abilities. The prize however was never collected in real life.
Well, things get complicated when Mary and Houdini get emotionally drawn to each other and the rest of the story deals with the consequences as well as Benji's attempts to get her mother focused on the main prize.
Frankly, I was rather disappointed with this movie - I felt that the mother-daughter chemistry was far from credible, as the pair simply didn't click, and Zeta-Jones even at her 'shabbiest' seemed utterly unconvincing as a down-on-her-luck woman. Her role in this movie definitely lacked 'meatiness' in terms of substance [she dolls up well enough but that's all that she did really well here as there was no real character development]. As to the romance thread in the movie, somehow the leads here lacked chemistry as well and their romance for what's its worth came across as unconvincing.
The one character that I felt was really well-done was Timothy Spall as Houdini's manager. He knows from the beginning that MacGarvie and Benji are con artists and tries to protect Houdini from them and from Houdini himself [sensing the emotional attachment between Houdini and Mary].
The production values are decent enough - I did like the opening scene where Pearce actually performs an underwater stunt. But such outstanding and memorable scenes are few and far between.
On the whole, this is not a bad movie, neither is it a great movie - there are just too many flaws that pull it down into mediocrity. As far as recent period dramas go, I'd recommend movies like The Illusionist, The Prestige and Perfume:Story of a Murderer, for ambience, plot intrigue and thrills."
Fairy Tale Riff
Luminoso | Austin, TX USA | 11/20/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"If you're looking for a hard facts or a psychologically insightful bio of the great Houdini, then Death Defying Acts will disappoint. DDA is more a tea cake of a film, selecting odds and ends of facts from the life of the master illusionist and mixing them into a sweet, "what-if" confection.
Houdini did, in fact, mount an active campaign to debunk spiritualists and the Mary McGarvie of this film may have been suggested by a real life American psychic, "Margery" - one of Houdini's prime targets. Hardly the struggling single mother of this film, Margery Crandon was the popular wife of a Boston physician. DDA is full of similar juxtapositions of fact with fantasy that make for a gently told story which I found pleasant to watch, but neither gripping, nor illuminating.
Within the context of the script, the principal actors are excellent, but as I write this I can't help imagining what it would be like to see Pearce, Jones, Ronan and Spall in a "real-life" version of the Houdini story. One that probed the core of a man desperate for recognition, redemption, and resurrection. All four of these actors certainly have the juice for a film with that kind of edge!
Technically, DDA is uneven. In some instances the selection of locations and dressing of the sets is an early 20th Century enthusiasts dream. In others, the sets looked rather economically built. Beautifully filmed and edited crowd scenes are interspersed with some truly dull tracking shots and unimaginative cutting.
All that said... I enjoyed the film for what it was - a fantasy - and I'll watch it again. Probably several more times. So, if you're in need of an escape or a sweet taste of the guilty pleasure variety, this film fits that category perfectly!"
A Satisfying Mixture of Fact Embellished with Fiction
Grady Harp | Los Angeles, CA United States | 10/31/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Gillian Armstrong makes fine movies: she is a director who knows how to tell stories and enhance what appears on the surface to be reality with a healthy dose of fantasy. Her sense of pacing and image creation adds substance to her tales that sometimes border on bizarre.
DEATH DEFYING ACTS uses the character of Harry Houdini as the stimulus of to tell a story about the folk of Edinburgh, Scotland at a time when stage shows were embraced much the way America was using vaudeville - an escape from the rather dreary state of living to a world of entertainment and love of magic. Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) survive in Edinburgh by picking pockets not merely for cash but for information to use in their act in the little theaters. Mary does exotic dances then uses her 'gifts' to see into the 'other world' of people in the audience ( Benji does the investigative work and is the prompter for the séance like acts Mary performs). Their idol is Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) and when they learn Houdini is coming to Edinburgh to 'perform', they discover Houdini is promising $10,000 to anyone who can prove they have the ability to look into the future (or past). Houdini's manager Sugarman (Timothy Spall) arranges Houdini's water tank escape acts and other acts of 'magic', and when Mary and Benji arrange to meet Houdini, Sugarman is aware they are charlatans. How Mary and Benji work their way into Houdini's belief system and love life with their con game forms the meat of the sparing.
The atmosphere of the film is well captured by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos who understands who to balance the mire of the streets of 1926 Edinburgh with the gorgeous fantasies used during Houdini's escape acts. The musical score by Cezary Skubiszewski is a terrific mixture of Scottish tunes and instruments with solid melodramatic mood music. Pearce, Zeta-Jones, Spall and Ronan turn in excellent performances. This is an unjustly overlooked film that, while not being a masterpiece, serves up a fine story well told. Grady Harp, October 08"