November 11, 2008

Death Defying Acts


Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): **½

Australian director Gillian Armstrong has had an interesting career in which she's tackled various genres (musical: Starstruck; wartime: Charlotte Gray; prison break/love story: Mrs Soffel; family dramas: High Tide, The Last Days of Chez Nous; classic adaptation: Little Women); all, except the latter classic, handled in her own interestingly off-kilter manner. Yet Armstrong has not made as immense an impression since her first big film – My Brilliant Career, which helped launch the international careers (one brilliant, the other very good) of Judy Davis and Sam Neill.

Here comes this talented director again, this time with a rather lavishly budgeted story that tracks the nearing of the end of Harry Houdini's career and the further burnishing of his legend. Death Defying Acts offers Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the lead roles and Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) and Timothy Spall lending their usual fine support, so you can’t fault the film for lack of star presence. It is generally quite beautiful to look at and written (by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward) and directed with enough flair to keep you going.

What is finally missing -- and becomes apparent early on -- is a strong enough central concept. Instead it gives us a mash-up of the usual hooey about spiritualism and prescience (is it real or is it not?), Freudian mother fixation and a so-so love story. Still, as time-wasters go, this one has its moments, many of which are visual treats. Pearce is interesting, as always (though one continues to wish that he will eventually again find that magical combo: a good role in a good movie), while Zeta-Jones is surprisingly warm and real in a mostly underwritten role.

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Posted by cphillips at November 11, 2008 10:41 AM
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