Death Defying Acts
The Weinstein Company // PG // $19.98 // October 28, 2008
Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted November 13, 2008
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It's hard enough for magic-based films The Prestige and The Illusionist to fight mono-a-mono for moviegoers attention without Death Defying Acts, Gillian Armstrong's like-minded drama, mingling in the mix. Neil Berger's visually entrancing sepia-stained Illusionist kept a more grounded, simple potency, while Christopher Nolan's work of lavish theatrics and multifaceted themes contorts and tortures minds abound. Arguments spark over which film is superior, though many, including myself, see them as equal efforts at different capacity levels. Death Defying Acts, on the other hand, offers no competition to either. It concentrates more on the fictional "what if" romantic drama waving within the life of one of history's great magicians, Harry Houdini. With Guy Pearce in the lead, it sounds compelling; when in action, however, it's a chemistry-free, dull trick that fails at cloaking a vapid romance with a handful of weighty performances.

The Film:

Death Defying Acts actually concentrates on the story of an impoverished mother-daughter psychic duo, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones (Traffic) as Mary McGarvie and Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) as Benji, in a cluttered township within early 1900s Scotland. They struggle nightly to pay for food and upkeep, relying on thievery and trickery amid an almost burlesque-style show to lure in and entrance their crowds into believing in their "powers". Eventually they catch word that the famous "escapologist" and magician, Houdini, (Guy Pearce, The Proposition) is offering a prize of $10,000 to any psychic who can venture into his past and re-create his deceased mother's last words. When they discover that he'll be nearby, the mother-daughter pair prepares themselves for the performance of their lives as they get swept up in Houdini's world of disbelief and disproving of false mystics.

Little Women director Gillian Armstrong's film relies heavily on and exploits the notion that magic becomes nothing more than a series of rudimentary tricks used by profiteers to fool the crowds, which becomes one of Death Defying Acts' biggest issues. When thoughts surround Harry Houdini, the man who popularized the Chinese Water Torture Cell, they instantly gravitate towards a sense of the impossible; here, he's stripped of his miraculous capacities and offers a realistic light, instead coughing up blood and removing a girdle-like support directly after one of his daring "absorb any punch" performances. Practical viewers in our modern era know that Houdini couldn't just withstand shot after shot without suffering the consequences, but painting him as little more than a marketing piece shares a lot in common with a magician revealing all his secrets to his audience -- a feeling that mixes respect and jaded deception. Pragmatism leaks into the picture, crafting an odd environment where very little can be whimsical in a dizzying world of sleight-of-hand and contortion.

Maybe that's the reason that Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones couldn't muster up any chemistry between the two of them: there's no magic in the air. Pearce's Houdini, though, is a masterful rendering; the Memento star embodies the bulky, gruff ambiance about the magician in surprising fashion, especially after spending plenty of time in the gym after his emaciated Factory Girl portrayal of Andy Warhol. But he's a supportive element here, though he steals the spotlight; Zeta-Jones, though performed with as much competency as she can muster, is miscast in the lead as the Scottish psychic con-artist / thief. She sells the performer aspects of her character well, as well as the conflicted mother, but her holistic presence as a disjointed mystic comes across as awkward -- though still carrying a hint of flavor.

As the two grow closer and Houdini begins to succumb to the Mary's alluring ways, they've got to portray a connection beyond mere acquaintance, which just doesn't work. Pearce and Zeta-Jones perform their roles with enough gravitas and seasoned essence, but they cannot cover up the fact that there's zilch in the spark department between them -- which causes the suitably photographed, subtly convincing intrigue within Death Defying Acts to dissipate into its foggy atmosphere. With this faded interest, the momentum of the picture's enveloping drama also slows to molasses levels.

This is a shame, because there's plenty to feel partial to in Armstrong's not-so-magical magic drama. Imagery becomes an intriguing element. For one, the weakening of magic's potency does have a significant effect; it makes the intrigue of potential mystic elements seem all the more mysterious, which can be seen through the image of unlocking a trunk to reveal the past, as well as the presence of blood. Likewise, several characters in the film find themselves staring out through the water torture chamber into an open abyss. It becomes a metaphor for drowning in one's own consumption, highlighted heavily by the saturation of individuals -- Houdini, Mary MacGarvie, an angel -- that swim around Benji as she struggles in the containment vessel.

Saoirse Ronan is rather good here as Benji, displaying a playful departure from her sharp-as-nails demeanor in Atonement. She adds a sense of flip-flopping childhood innocence and jadedness, which comes in handy with a film so entrenched in the persistent Where Mary McGarvie has Benji to play off of, Houdini must rely on Mr. Sugarman for a similar dynamic. Timothy Spall brings him to life in much the same manner as his roles in Sweeney Todd and The Last Samurai -- earnest and blunt, but with edges that stretch to both warm-heartedness and virulence. They help to add solid character punch underneath the growingly bland melodrama between Houdini and McGarvie.

But even steady supportive performances and ample visual conception, all crowding around a solid performance from its pseudo-lead, can't rescue Death Defying Acts from the confines of its own chemistry-less banality. It tries to find uniqueness in being a historical concoction resting between its preceding influences, but it only succeeds as a showcase for talent and not as an involving romantic drama focusing on the sparse flickers of honesty within trickery and manipulation. Chalk it up as an ineffective, admirable romantic effort and admire Armstrong's Houdini show for the scattered splashes of rich characterization that it conjures.

The DVD:

Genius Products and the Weinstein Company brings Death Defying Acts to home video in a standard keepcase presentation featuring a rendition of the film's posterart as the cover. It utilizes a series of strikingly beautiful menu shots, showing that a lot of care was spend in making this DVD experience a lush one. Unlike some of Genius Products' other presentations -- and as previously believed -- Death Defying Acts is not in the Miriam Collection, so no spine number is present

The Video:

As it makes certain to preserve the visual achievements in Armstrong's film, Genius Products' visual transfer for Death Defying Acts looks great in its 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. Colors are bold and solid at most points, while the level of detail can be striking at times. Black levels touch on the grayish-bluish side a few times with a bit of noisy buzzing -- similarly to a few backdrop shots that embody the same kind of mosquito noise -- but they rarely swallow up details, as shown through boards seen against houses and crowd details in darkly-lit auditoriums. It's a very solid transfer with plenty of detail and color saturation to make this visual presentation quite appealing.

The Audio:

Equally as outstanding is Death Defying Acts' Dolby 5.1 presentation, which really stretches its arms and legs out across the full soundstage. Not a word escapes unheard, nor a note of the score. The lower-frequency channels move with the music quite well, while also handling mid-range clanks and thuds with admirable strength. There's quite a few unique sound effects in the film, like popping light bulbs, clanging of chains, and many aquatic sounds. This Dolby track handles them all with surprising strength, which creates an enjoyable-sounding atmosphere. English SDH and Spanish optional subtitles are available, but this 5.1 track is the only audio option.

The Extras:

Commentary with Director Armstrong and Producer Marian MacGowan:
Highly insightful, this rapid-fire, exceedingly-detailed commentary chronicles every ounce of nuance that the film has to offer. One of the biggest compliments that you can give to a commentary track is that it makes you appreciate the film even more than you already did, which this one undoubtedly does. Armstrong covers production design, shooting locations, costume rendering, detail, and art department construction, all the while with her producer over to the side working more as a moderator and name memory for Armstrong. There's also plenty of concentration on the fact and fiction balance in the film, such as the true locations of Houdini's psychic searches and the real way that he died. It's a great listen.

Making of Death Defying Acts:
Working as a pretty standard, near-30 minute assembly featurette, topics are covered in this piece that range from Guy Pearce's inspiration and preparation for his role as Houdini to Catherine Zeta-Jones' history as a dancer. Interview time is taken with the cast and crew, jumping from highlight after highlight in pretty standard, back-patting fashion.

Also included is an anamorphic Theatrical Trailer.


Final Thoughts:

Death Defying Acts has charisma and distinction to its advantage, but it lacks the core development and believability -- especially the bland connection between Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones -- to boost up its romantic whims. Supporting performances and attractive photography try to mask these problems, but ultimately the bland rhythm latches a weight onto its ankle that cannot be shaken. It's still an attractive, amiable enough drama that worth a Rental for Pearce's performance as Houdini amid stellar production design.

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