Friday, 28 March 2008

Catherine Zeta-Jones in Death Defying Acts


Catherine Zeta-Jones and Guy Pearce in ¡°Death Defying Acts.¡±[Cineseoul]
Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a scam artist touting a show around Edinburgh¡¯s creaky music halls in 1926 with her 13-year-old daughter, Benji (Saoirse Ronan).
As mystic Princess Kali, McGarvie cons audiences into believing she can contact the ¡°other side¡± using her exotic psychic powers.
It¡¯s mumbo-jumbo, of course, but she and Benji, her ¡°dusky disciple,¡± convince one poor sap in a packed theater that they are channeling his dead wife.
In actuality, it is a setup, but the scene outlines the science vs. superstition theme central to the story when real-life escapologist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) arrives in the Scottish capital.
The American showman is offering $10,000 to any psychic, clairvoyant or seer in town who can reveal the exact words his dying mother spoke before she died. The challenge is not just about the money: The successful psychic will prove beyond doubt that an afterlife exists.
McGarvie and her psychic sidekick Benji take up the challenge, breaking into Houdini¡¯s hotel room and theater dressing room to hunt for clues.
But guess what? Houdini falls in love with McGarvie, a plot development so unlikely that the characters themselves seem confused.
This is a shame, because if I have seen and liked two similar films ¡ª Christopher Nolan¡¯s ¡°The Prestige¡± (2006) and Neil Burger¡¯s ¡°The Illusionist¡± (2006) ¡ª and thought DDA might prove comparable. It didn¡¯t. Both the 2006 movies are better scripted and, well, more interesting. Both films boast finales that were surprising, whereas Death Defying Acts splutters to a low-key conclusion.
I don¡¯t mind ambiguous endings or to be left pondering ¡°What happens next?¡± as the curtain falls, as in Alexander Payne¡¯s ¡°Sideways¡± (2004). A good film wraps things up or leaves you wanting more. It¡¯s that simple.
But DDA just left me confused. If I was to leave the theater in a less than grumpy mood, I needed to know if McGarvie, or at least Benji, really does have the gift of so-called second sight, and whether Houdini believed in Benji¡¯s theatrical seizure as she apparently channeled his mother.
But what really twisted my nonexistent beard is the decision to select the ¡°love story¡± plot option, which only served to highlight a dearth of imagination at the writers¡¯ meeting.
This decision throws up too many unanswerables. Did Houdini really love McGarvie, or was it just a sick mother-love infatuation? What did he want from McGarvie?
And despite a strong cast, Benji is the only character who matures in an interesting way, revealing conflict as she learns that adults lose the child¡¯s gift to imagine.
In fact, Ronan, who upstaged the entire cast of ¡°Atonement¡± as Briony, is the best element in this film. There are roles as yet unwritten that this gifted actress will flesh out over the next few years.

Death Defying Acts
Drama, Romance, Thriller / English
97 min.
Now playing
By Michael Gibb Features Editor []

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