Three disc set for hardcore Houdini fans only
By G. Michael Dobbs
A new supernatural "dramedy" and a set of films starring one of the greatest names in American entertainment are in this week's DVD review column.
There is an ongoing trend in the marketing of American films that if the production has both comedy and dramatic elements you play up the comedy. I've written about this phenomenon when it comes to animated productions and the same can be said about the comedy-drama "Ghost Town."
This film was released earlier this year and made little impression at the box office. I wonder if audiences, thinking they were going to see an outrageous comedy, were put off by a film is essentially a drama and a little romance.
British comedy superstar Ricky Gervais plays Bertram Pincus, a rather hateful dentist who prefers stuffing cotton into his patient's mouths rather than having to exchange pleasantries with them. His life changes when he dies for seven minutes during a routine colonoscopy.
The outcome of this event is that he can see ghosts and when the undeparted spirits of Manhattan learn this they call seek him out to do them a favor. Pincus has as little desire to deal with the dead as he does with the living until one persistent spirit played by Greg Kinnear convinces him he needs to stop his widow from marrying a human rights lawyer.
What complicates matters is the fact that the woman lives in Pincus' building and he has been quite rude to her. A further complication is that Pincus begins to allow himself to actually be interested in Gwen, played by Tea Leoni.
The film subtly shifts gears into a drama as Pincus pursues Gwen in his own tentative way. A big surprise in the plot toward the film's climax will provide a twist that you won't be able to anticipate.
Gervais became known to American audiences through the original production of "The Office," in which he nailed the characterization of one of the worst bosses in the history of employment. His anti-social dentist is far away from that role and he is successful is doing something different.
"Ghost Town" strikes all of the right notes to produce a satisfying film that straddles genres.
Well worth your time, the DVD of "Ghost Town" also has the usual type of extras including a blooper reel that would indicate Gervais is the easiest performer to break up currently working in film today.
Houdini The Movie Star
Kino on Video sent me this three disc set earlier this year and I recently moved it to the top of the pile as I've been reading a fascinating biography of one of this nation's greatest live entertainers.
I have to admit to being one of those magic struck kids who was awed by the reputation of a man who died at age 48 in 1926. Harry Houdini, magician, escape artist and crusader against fake mediums, is one of those historical figures who I think is instantly intriguing.
This lavish set features almost every shred of Houdini on film. It includes promotional films Houdini made himself of his amazing straitjacket escapes while hanging upside down over city streets to the feature films and serials he made.
The idea behind Houdini's films was to present his type of showmanship on the big screen and the stories were designed to feature Houdini performing stunts and escapes that made him a star.
The problem is that watching Houdini's stage act must have been far more exciting than seeing these action movies that seek to somehow shoehorn in a reason for an escape trick.
This Kino set brings together restored versions of Houdini's films that have unavailable to fans for decades. The set includes the complete serial "The Master Mystery," which has the distinction of being the first film with a robot; "Terror Island," "The Man from Beyond," "Haldane of the Secret Service" and the only existing fragment of "The Grim Game."
Although I'm a fan of the serial, I found "The Master Mystery" to be awfully convoluted and slow moving even for a film from 1919. "The Man from Beyond" also suffers from pacing problems, although its premise is interesting. Houdini plays a man who has been frozen in the Artic, has been revived and is pursuing his love, who has been reincarnated.
"Terror Island" is a lot of fun with Houdini starring as a millionaire inventor who uses his private submarine to hunt for treasurer and save the heroine's father from pirates and hostile natives.
"Haldane of the Secret Service" has the King of the Handcuffs, as he was often billed, as a member of law enforcement chasing drug smugglers. Of all the films it is definitely the most tedious to sit through with an overly complex plot and relatively little action.
And that's the problem. An entertainer such as Houdini relied on creating an exciting persona on stage. On film, his lack of acting ability is a real detriment anytime he isn't performing a stunt.
I wish I could whole-heartedly recommend this package. It's beautifully done with a great set of notes and some fascinating extras, but it is for hardcore magic and silent film buffs only.