Death Defying Acts - Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes

Death Defying Acts Reviews

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July 8, 2015
It is strange how much effect an ending has over someone's view of a film. It makes sense: the last glimpse of the cinematic world you have entered should be your final memory of it. As the steadily-paced crescendo of the characters' lives, the climax approaches in the ever-nearing horizon and then you crash straight into the sun with a reaction. And as Gillian Armstrong's troupe were all gathered onscreen, consisting of Saoirse Ronan's feisty Benji, Catherine Zeta-Jones' driven mother Mary, Timothy Spall's calculating Sugarman, and Guy Pearce's haunted Harry Houdini, at the point of impact, we reach it. The spellbinding climactic message scorches for an instant then is left branded upon the film: the only magic you never expect is love.

This climax however brings forth vomit. It is plain now that Armstrong's world was worth the visit, clambering the streets and rooftops of inner-city Edinburgh with the wide-eyed Benji and being moved by both sides to the Houdini character, but the culmination of the script won't satisfy anyone after more than the schmaltzy romance this becomes. It may have been possible that the characters themselves don't want the film to be a romantic affair, because they certainly go out of their way for anything but romance, especially Zeta-Jones and Pearce.

What they probably were seeking to be in was a story about the ins and outs of magic and illusion, exemplified in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige or Neil Burger's The Illusionist, both released within a year of Death Defying Acts's release. The central question of whether or not magic is real, and whether it makes a difference either way, was a trend here which either Tony Grisoni or Brian Ward had focused on due to the success of, or in keeping with, those films. Armstrong certainly enjoys the focus on the magic behind the curtain, with telling shots lingering on the backstage actions and reactions of Mary and Benji McGarvie at their pseudo-psychic act. However, that theme appears swiftly to be answered by the existence of the red-headed spectre who haunts Benji throughout, implying a supernatural element beyond the audience's understanding, juxtaposing anything and everything explained by the film's script.

More pressingly than a lousy answer to the spiritualism question supposedly at the film's core is the lacklustre romance between Zeta-Jones and Pearce. This does not seem a problem with the actors: granted that further chemistry would have aided the issue, Zeta-Jones and Pearce are very well-rounded in their portrayals of their characters. Zeta-Jones' Mary is a sober spiritualist performer, who expresses her primary concern for her daughter's safety with telling looks and the slightest of embraces, and Pearce's Houdini is a tormented Jekyll figure seeking solace from his mother's sudden death, hiding (or Hyding?) behind his own illusion as an anarchist showman against the laws of nature itself. Both actors understand the forced nature of the romance, and shots where they are contractually obliged to kiss and embrace as if they were on the cover of a penny-romance feel just as mismatched for them as it looks to an audience.

No-one can take full responsibility for the shoddy romance: the script is crafted well with telling and implicit character introductions; Haris Zambarloukos' cinematography tracks the Edinburgh skyline with such grace that he cannot be the one to squish Zeta-Jones and Pearce together in such an ill-fitting manner (as proven by his work on Steven Knight's Locke six years later); and Armstrong had worked with an 11 year old Kirsten Dunst on Little Women, so she would understand how to get a genuine performance out of any and all actors. Why this romantic plot (and it is more central than a sub-plot to the film) exists when it is so out of character, when the entire cast and crew knows it, seems almost like it had appeared from thin air like a coin behind an ear.

Gratefully on top of the icing-drowned cake, there are some cherries. All eyes are on Ronan for most of the film, an incredible talent beyond her years (and only a month younger than me!). Timothy Spall is still the only actor in the English-speaking world who can convey every emotion differently through slight and distinct scowls better than Harrison Ford. The relationship of distrust but near-admiration between the two characters forms an interesting piece of background drama, particularly highlighted in a lovely Jaws reference when Benji emulates every one of Sugarman's social rituals at a private ball. Armstrong commands the world of early 20th century Edinburgh in a way that appears period without falling into period drama stereotypes: things feel 'wee' but never twee.

However, there is not enough to firmly root the film away from its descent into the pulp romance it never should have been. There is no problem with its twisting of history, indeed great films have played on the truth such as John Sturges' The Great Escape with Steve McQueen on a motorbike chase or Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds with Hitler's more 'cinematic' death, and the creation of 'new history' plays to the film's strengths. But the soppy nature of the plot's developments, not to mention the possibility of a Houd-oedipal complex, jars the narrative towards that vomit-inducing climax. Love, as it turns out, is the one kind of magic that Houdini never really needed in this film.
½ May 25, 2015
Ok. An interesting story but not much more.
March 3, 2015
I a didn't Mind It. Wasn't Sure Of How The Themes Were Trying To Come Together But Guy Pierce Just Acts His Part SomWell He Holds The Story Being Told Together...But It Need Some Better Pacing As It Gets Boring.
½ January 29, 2014
Mildly passable to Houdini enthusiasts (yet ultimately pointless, given its fictional roots) "Death Defying Acts" tells the tale of romance between the grand escape artist/magician and a charlatan out to take his money. Pearce plays Houdini as a belligerent yet smooth-as-silk huckster, with Jones' Scottish accent in overdrive as the phone psychic. Completely made-up, it's anyone's guess why someone as genuinely interesting and alluring as Houdini would need additional stories crafted on from scratch. Not horrible so much as bland.
½ October 29, 2013
Actually, & surprisingly, I kinda like it.
Only a small footnote: Saoirse Ronan did "wow" me once. The more films of her I have watched however, the more I think she's just trying too hard sometimes, & almost starts getting annoying.
October 6, 2013
I'll admit, Harry Houdini deserved a better film to remind the world of him but I guess not all films have to be award winners.
½ July 7, 2013
Houdini udlover en belønning til den,der kan fortælle ham, hvad hans mors sidste ord var, og fupmagersken Mary McGarvie sætter sig for at snøre udbryderkongen. Lyder lovende, men historien er simpelthen for tynd til at fylde filmen ud, så det hele kommer til at hænge på kemien mellem Pearce og Zeta-Jones, og den er stort set fraværende. Gode præstationer af alle, inklusive Timothy Spall og Saoirse Ronan, men det er skønne spildte kræfter.
Super Reviewer
½ May 15, 2013
This seemed destined for a main stream release and it has all the features of a generally popular film. For some reason, it never got that full Hollywood treatment so only a few of us got to see this mediocre gem with few shining parts.
½ April 26, 2013
Houdini's mission to debunk fake spiritualists is hijacked by this wholly fraudulent love story. There's not a moment in the film that feels honest and uncontrived.
½ December 24, 2012
Not bad. It was very different and i couldn't decide what was going to happen next which was a nice change.
½ October 10, 2012
Deathly disappointing. Quite the waste of talent.
August 5, 2012
Catherine Zeta Jones effortlessly drained my enjoyment of things. Well done her. The bitch.
Cameron W. Johnson
Super Reviewer
August 2, 2012
Forget Houdini, this film itself is real magic, because it made cultural distinctions disappear into thin air. As if it wasn't difficult enough to tell the difference between the English and Australians, they go off and co-produce a film together, and as if it wasn't difficult enough to tell the difference between the Scottish and Irish (Seriously, where did the distinctly Scottish growl go?), they actually went out and got an Irish to play Scottish. Well, in all fairness, it is Saoirse Ronan, and Scottish really is the closest she's gotten to Irish, yet that didn't stop her from winning at the Irish Film and Television Award. Shoot, she just claimed her fifth IFTA in a row, so I don't know if anything can stop her, except maybe "City of Ember", and even then, she still won Best "Supporting" Actress of 2008 for this film. Either she's the Katharine Hepburn of the IFTAs or Ireland seriously needs to get better performers domestically if they're having to stretch to their Irish talents' international work, in which they don't even stay Irish. Well, outside of the US, I suppose that any country will find it difficult to find a talented performer who isn't working internationally under a different accent, because the modern film industry has more foreigners pretending to be a part of the culture they've been hired into than Texas. Of course, let's not seal up the borders quite yet, because there are plenty of foreigners who do so well at other accents, among other things when it comes to acting, as this film further proves, which isn't to say that the talents behind the world of movie magic can make this film's faults disappear.

The film has been deemed dull by many, and quite frankly, I disagree to a certain extent, surprised to find that the film is consistently eventful, if not pretty entertaining, which I suppose leaves this film to stand as a testament to the idea that engagement value and entertainment value don't always go hand-in-hand. Again, the film is lively in both writing and production, but when it comes to atmosphere, while the direction doesn't severely contradict the livliness of the film's production and writing to the point of rendering the final bland middling and bland, Gillian Armstrong doesn't spark up this film as much as he should, for although the film's being produced and structured in a mostly entertaining fashion obviously graces the effort with a certain fair degree of engagement value, Armstrong doesn't draw enough juice from the film's substance to keep engagement value consistent, let alone to deliver on things that he seriously needs to deliver on. One of the most notable aspects that Armstrong slips up on is the key chemistry between Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones, for although our leads are strong enough for you to feel some sense of moderate spark, Armstrong doesn't entirely breathe enough romance in the air for you to fully lock into the relationship, let alone its complexities. The film's central relationship is one built on one-sided genuine romantic and one-sided ulterior motivation (And women call us men pigs) that soon finds itself battled back by ensuing emotional attachment (Okay, I guess you gals aren't all that bad), and that is a potentially engrossing relationship that's presented in a workmanlike fashion, though one that doesn't quite bite as deeply as it should, which is something that you can say about a lot of aspects in this film, as Armstrong is clearly comfortable with his own vision to the point to rendering his vision's execution a touch awkward and too workmanlike for the third party, thus leaving such other missteps as more than a couple of cliches to be brought more to attention. Really, there's not much to complain about other than what seems minor, but really, in cases such as these, minor missteps can make quite a bit of difference. The film doesn't transcend terribly far above merely decent, for although the concept and production is so strong, Armstrong's limited oomph and the resulting pronunciation of certain bland faults within this all-too come-and-go runtime of just over 90 minutes doesn't give the final product enough time or opportunity to build extensive impact, thus leaving it to run the risk of falling to the level of its director: workmanlike. However, as I said, the film's ascent to genuinely good, while slight, is still accomplished, for although Armstrong's direction stands to have more punch to it, this is still a strong enough concept and production for the film to reward, especially seeing as how it has enough strengths to back up its promises just a bit more often than not.

Haris Zambarloukos' photography isn't radiant, though it is strong, boasting a consistently handsome glow to compliment more than a few moments of clever, slick staging that, of course, feeds what livliness there is in the film. What further sparks a fair degree of livliness in this film is, of course, the production value, for although this recreation of 1920s Britain isn't especially upstanding, it does establish the setting neatly and believably, while capturing the tone and, with the help of the aforementioned fine cinematography and energetic score work by Cezary Skubiszewski, creating a constant charm that keeps the film from descending to dull, a state many unjustly accuse this film of resting upon. Still, the film's fair amount of sprightliness goes not only brought to life by the inspiration in the production, but also the inspiration in Tony Grisoni's and Brian Ward's screenplay, which also isn't especially upstanding, partially because it's consistently tainted with the conventions that, when pronounced by Gillian Armstrong's workmanlike direction, aid in this film's nearly collapsing as generally workmanlike itself, yet remains surprisingly rather tight, with few, if any limp spots and few, if any hurried spots, as well as many high points in dialogue, humor and set piece conception that keep the film spiced up a bit and a fair distance away from limping out in pacing. With all of my complaints about Gillian Armstrong's direction not having enough bite, it definately has ambition that may haze Armstrong's final execution, but breathes into this film quite a bit of additional charm that, when married with the inspiration in the production and writing, keeps the more relatively tamed moments of the film to really win you over, and when it comes to the deeper aspects that Armstrong doesn't quite have the oomph to handle, it's still hard to not find yourself at least a little bit engaged, partially because of the script's, not especially knockout, but decent handling of the tonal shifts and establishments, and partially because of the cast, which obviously has more charmers than dramatics, yet provides a myriad of colorful personalities, whether they be primary, secondary or even tertiary, with the primaries, of course, standing out the most. Young Saoirse Ronan, like she always had before this film and continues to do to this day, steals the show, quite certainly not being presented with enough material to warrant award considerations (Except maybe at the IFTAs, because she's about the best supporting Irsh actress they could find), but still nailing that Scottish accent and incorporating her typical adorable charm to sustain your attention until we finally find that all-too rare occasion in which Ronan is presented with strong acting material to play up fairly decently. Still, as much as it's hard to not love the little rascal, whether when she's delivering charmingly or dramatically, this is grown-up time, and leads Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones don't let you forget that, as Zeta-Jones convinces as this sly but struggling con artist, while Pearce charms, if not compels in his charismatic and sometimes dramatically inspired portrayal of the legendary escape artist, and when these two charismas meet, while their sparks go all-but washed out by Armstrong's limited inspiration, they still have enough spark between them, nevertheless, to keep the central relationship going on a workmanlike level, when really, it's the individual sparks within our leads that catch your attention the most. The final product deserves better than what Gillian Armstrong is providing, for although his direction is really never poor, it doesn't really sink its teeth too deeply into you, yet with fine production, writing and acting, the film's own bite is supported just enough to leave an impression, as well as the final product a generally rewarding one.

To conclude this act, director Gillian Armstrong takes a much too workmanlike approach, not being firm enough in his bite to really drive home consistent entertainment value, thus tainting such key aspects as the leads' chemistry, pronouncing such subtle but, in the long run, piercing faults as conventions and leaving the overall film to run the risk of collapse into a state of merely workmanlike, yet the final product ultimately escapes from such a fate, shaking loose through fine cinematography and production designs, freeing itself through tight, snappy and altogether fairly strong writing, and finally surfacing as genuinely more compelling than not through a myriad of colorful performances, the most colorful of which being by leads Guy Pearce, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Saoirse Ronan, thus leaving "Death Defying Acts" to stand as a thoroughly entertaining and ultimately satisfying show, even if the magic isn't without a few holes.

3/5 - Good
½ June 12, 2012
A very enjoyable historical romance, with a good performance from Guy Pearce (how often do we get to say that these days?). I had been told to expect something boring and lifeless, but this certainly was none of those things. A fine film, and a pleasure to watch; you're not going to get a masterpiece here, but if you enjoy this sort of thing, it's quite nice.
June 3, 2012
Houdini has guilt and wants to remove his guilt of not being at the time when mother died. He thinks that a good clairvoyant can get spirits. What follows is the love story between Catherine Zeta Jones and Guy Pierce which is very uninspiring. But the entire set up the young actress playing Benji and the format of screenplay is well done. A movie worth watching
½ March 9, 2012
Period romantic drama set in 1926 which sees a touring Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) arrive in Edinburgh and announce a prize of $10,000 for anyone who can correctly guess his late mother's dying words - part of an ongoing crusade against con artists posing as mystics and mediums. Houdini wants to be remembered for more than just performing stunts and tricks - or so he says - there's an ulterior motive hidden under the surface. Things become even more complicated however when he falls for Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) - a local conwoman who along with her daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) takes up the challenge. On paper this looks like a pretty decent drama, however, while it is well shot and well acted, it just doesn't work and I'm really struggling to put into words an explanation as to why. It just seems distant somehow, like you never become attached to the characters nor invested in what becomes of them. You're never made to care, which in a drama is a big problem. An almost comically daft ending doesn't help, nor do the dodgy Scottish accents.
March 6, 2012
I don't like Houdini! The man, from what I know of him.
Guy Pierce makes some nice interesting films.
I thought I wouldn't get to think of Guy Pierce as Houdini, but after the first half hour I accepted him, though having said that, in the last half hour I snapped out of it & again saw Guy Pierce!
Not sure what the film is trying to say to us, but as I see it, the girl predicts Houdini's death, which turns out to be a self fulfilling prophecy, suggesting thast perhaps houdini didn't brace for the punch that killed him as subconciously he thought it was time for him to die.
An interesting enough film.
Oh yeah & we knew the young girl wasn't Scottish, her accent was way too clear, like that of somebody who's been taught diction! haha
January 27, 2012
The opening scene was interesting, but it goes downhills from there. Can't actually feel the chemistry between the actors and actresses, and the plot just makes no sense at all.
½ January 20, 2012
awesome period piece/bio-pic
January 4, 2012
Not entirely sure what the intended message was, but the acting was great.
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