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Houdini (Blu-ray Review)

9 Oct, 2014 By: John Latchem

$26.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray
Not rated
Stars Adrien Brody, Kristen Connolly, Evan Jones.

Harry Houdini was a fascinating guy. The legendary illusionist and escape artist is often thought of now in mythical terms, with a name often synonymous with the concept of a magic act. His antics would go on to inspire countless performers in the generations to come, including most of the marquis acts in Las Vegas.

While Houdini is often considered the prototype for such performances, he certainly wasn’t the first to come along, drawing inspiration from a number of illusionists famous in his day (he even crafted his name from famed 19th century magician Robert Houdin).

Adrien Brody gives an aggressive, in-your-face performance as the famed magician, dominating the screen on the verge of obnoxiousness but never quite crossing the line as he explores what motivated the man to perform an escalating series of dangerous stunts, such as escaping from chains in an icy river, or hanging upside-down in a straight-jacket above a public street.

Born Ehrich Weiss, Houdini was a relentless showman, as is made perfectly clear in this two-part History Channel miniseries that aired in September. He spent his life determined to impress the two main women in his life, his mother, Cecilia, and his wife, Bess (Kristen Connolly).

The screenplay by Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), based on a book by his father, is a bit too heavy on narration (by Houdini) even as it guides viewers through a chronological recap of Houdini’s life. It begins with young Ehrich and his brother, Dash (who would go on to become an accomplished illusionist in his own right), forming their own stage act after becoming fascinated by magic at a carnival show.

Later, with the help of his wife and assistant Jim Collins (Evan Jones), Houdini would have to find new ways to dazzle audiences distracted by the growing influence of movies. The film unveils the secrets of his greatest escapes with the aid of some unsettling visual effects that reveal the degree of physical abuse to which Houdini subjected his body.

But the more fascinating aspects of the miniseries deal with Houdini working as an American spy on a European tour before World War I.

Equally interesting is the depiction of the the twilight of his career, when, angrier and bitter after the death of his mother, Houdini turned toward debunking fraudulent clairvoyants and spiritualists, including the wife of “Sherlock Holmes” creator Arthur Conan Doyle. This earned him a number of enemies, and may have played a role in his death on Halloween in 1926 following an ill-timed punch to the gut (throughout his career, Houdini allowed people to punch him in the stomach as part of his shtick to demonstrate his iron constitution).

The Blu-ray includes a few behind-the-scenes featurettes that try to gauge the impact Houdini had on the entertainment of today, and how ahead of his time he was in his efforts of self-promotion.

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