His ability to escape from handcuffs, strait-jackets and water tanks is legendary - breaking the shackles of his past proved more challenging. HISTORY's Houdini follows the world-renowned master of escape's transformation from immigrant into the world's first superstar. Driven, disciplined and actively chasing the American Dream, Houdini constantly pushed his physical limits to accomplish feats of strength that amazed audiences in an age of spectacle. And though they saw what he wanted them to see, his reality was more elusive than his escapes.
The History Channel has been getting into the original series game for a few years now to compete with the other networks who are getting great ratings and money with their original programming. While History Channel's projects haven't had the same success as some of their rivals' programming, they've still had a fair share of decent success and awards recently. Their most recent endeavor was a two part mini-series that covers the life of one of the most mysterious men on the planet. That person was Erich Weiss, but you would know him as Harry Houdini, one of the most famous magicians to ever grace the stage.
There have been a lot of films, television shows, documentaries, and books dedicated to the life of Houdini, and I'm guessing you're asking, "Is this the ultimate tale of the legendary performer?" The short answer is no. While you'll find some interesting and entertaining things to see in this mini-series, it spends a whole lot of time in the inner psyche of Houdini, rather than showing him performing his illusions. Don't get me wrong, it shows that too, but it's more about Harry trying to find that confidence and assurance from his parents, who never gave him the love he wanted. This project has an interesting background to it as well.
Nicholas Meyer wrote the screenplay based on his father Dr. Bernard C. Meyer's book 'Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait'. In fact that would be the perfect title for this TV show, but I imagine people wouldn't tune in if they knew it was more of a psycho-analysis of the magician rather than a magic show. And if you're unfamiliar with Nicholas Meyer, he wrote and directed 'Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan' along with a few other 'Star Trek' films. And the director of the series is a german man named Uli Edel, who in addition to a bevy of german films, made 'Body of Evidence', the Razzy award winning film that starred Madonna and Willem Dafoe. Needless to say, it's an interesting crew.
This two part series centers on Erich Weiss (Adrien Brody), who later changes his name to Harry Houdini. It covers him from childhood all the way to his death and most everything in between. Edel and Meyer give us short glimpses into Houdini's sad childhood, where his mother and father never really gave him any assurance that they loved him, especially his rabbi father. When Houdini was young, he witnessed a magician in a traveling carnival and immediately knew that is what he wanted to do. He practiced and ended up getting a job as an assistant to a magician at a traveling circus.
Through montages and quick scenes, we see Houdini become the world famous magician we have all come to know. But in the mean time, we travel into his inner psyche, via flashbacks and tons of voice narration as Houdini tries to gain that appreciation from his family. The bulk of the series takes place when he is an adult and after he meets his future wife Bess (Kristen Connolly), which he almost immediately marries her after their meeting. We also get to see his famous meeting with his new long time friend Jim Collins (Evan Jones), who is the man responsible for creating these elaborate illusion set pieces.
This mini-series even touches quite a bit on when the secret service and MI5 hired Houdini on elaborate spy missions across the globe. But when Houdini's mother dies, Houdini became obsessed with trying to contact her through spirit mediums. One of these mediums was the wife of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the man who wrote Sherlock Holmes). This where Houdini became hell-bent on exposing the fraud that comes with these spirit mediums and became less interested in his bigger tricks. But soon after this time, he went back to simple stage magic and developed a trick where he let his fans and spectators punch him in the stomach, which was the thing that killed him.
This 'Houdini' series has a lot of good things going for it. Brody is fantastic as Houdini, and him being a magician himself growing up, he took to performing the illusions very well. Connolly does a good job here too. But the script is filled with too much fat and too much time is spent on Houdini's issue with his parents rather than his illusions and mysterious illusions. Although, the filmmakers gives us some glimpses into how he did some of his illusions, this story is more about a trip to the psychiatrist with the famous magician than it is to be in the first row of one of his shows. And despite some of its very cheesy scenes, 'Houdini' still has some entertaining moments, but then it's gone in a flash.
'Houdini' comes with an excellent 1080p HD transfer presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The overall image looks striking most of the time. Despite some of the CG effects looking low budget, which comes across soft in the visual department, the rest of the image looks very sharp. The detail is quite vivid and strong. Director Uli Edel loves his extreme closeup cams, because there are a lot of those shots used in this mini-series, which gives up some amazing detail in the actor's faces with wrinkles, makeup blemishes, scars, and individual hairs showing up nicely. Props and costumes looks great as well with some fine textures and stitching.
There is a good amount of depth with the background sets and items that show off great detail. Colors are very well-saturated and balanced and simply pop off screen. The glamorous costumes really pop and shine throughout. Skin tones are very natural and the black levels run deep and inky. When the heavier CG effects come into play, that's when problems arise. The picture goes softer than I'd like to see and the effects comes across as silly and low budget. There is some minor video noise, but not other compression problems were detected, leaving this video presentation with great marks.
This release comes with a lossless DTS-HD 5.1 audio mix. Over all, this is a good track. I don't think this mix will win any awards or will fully immerse you in Houdini's life 100% of the time, but it gets the job done. Sound effects are lively and robust most of the time, however some seem softer than others and vice versa. It was a little odd, but it wasn't too distracting. The crowd noises at Houdini's shows sounded realistic and good as they were amazing and shouting. And there was a sound that was kind of like a "spider-sense" where Houdini could focus in on what people were saying when he was performing, which was quite nice.
Other ambient noises and sound effects came across quite well through the surrounds. Dialogue was always crystal clear and easy to follow, and free of any pops, cracks, and hissing. There was some good directionality here as well. The score was wonderful and always added to each emotion in the series, while not drowning out any of the dialogue and sound effects. The LFE is great and the dynamic range is very wide, I just wouldn't expect to rattle you out of your seats.
Houdini the Greatest (HD, 4 Mins.) - A short yet good promo reel with interviews with the cast and crew, some on set footage and behind the scenes reels. It also has some cool archival footage and photos of the real Houdini.
The Real Houdini (HD, 3 Mins.) - Some additional archival footage and photos of the real Houdini.
The Great Escapes (HD, 4 Mins.) - Adrien Brody discusses some of Houdini's life and illusions.
Cheating Death (HD, 4 Mins.) - A cool little featurette that shows Adrien Brody working with the different illusions he performed for the role.
This mini-series of 'Houdini' is not the ultimate look at the magician's life. There are so many other books and projects out there that give a better account of what his life was like, but this series in particular wanted to focus more on his inner psyche more than his illusions. It became a little dull at times, but when the action kicks in, it was highly entertaining. It's just a bit too cheesy and overly melodramatic much of the time. That being said, Adrien Brody just owns this Houdini role and it's worth seeing him play this part. The video and audio are both great and the few short extras are decent. The difference between the extended and original broadcast versions is around 30 minutes of footage. The extended version is the one you should watch if you want the full experience. If you're a fan of the magician, you'll want to check this out, but others may want to rent this one first.