Monday, September 12, 2011

That Voo Doo That You Do So Well

I don't know about you, but I think stage magic is cool. It takes so much talent and skill, and even though now we know it's a trick and we think we know how it's done, it's still impressive. To me, it's cool to see someone escape, or make your card appear out of nowhere, or see a rabbit pop out of a hat. I've been to the Magic Castle and sat less than two feet from a performer doing card tricks, and I still can't tell you how he did it. And that is amazing.

I really got hooked, as I'm sure many did, when I saw Houdini, starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. It's a very romantic telling of the life of Houdini, from how he met his wife, Bess, to how he died. But it's so entertaining, especially when you're whatever young age I saw it at, that you just don't care. Tony Curtis is incredibly charming as Houdini, and his relationship with his on and off screen wife is pretty adorable. There's a whole scene where they do a trick where he levitates her on the edge of a broom, and the whole time they're bantering back and forth. It's very sweet and charming, making his dramatic death on stage all the more sad.

Check out this cool straight jacket scene from the movie:

And of course, the real deal:

After seeing the movie, I became pretty interested in magic and the whole era that Houdini lived through. I read an amazing biography on Houdini, The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero, one of the more comprehensive and interesting books on the guy. While it puts forth a hard to believe idea that Houdini was an early CIA agent or spy, the rest of the details and information are fascinating. I had a job where I was able to read while I was working, and I just plowed through that book like there was no tomorrow.

After reading the book, I rewatched the Houdini movie and I realized just how heavily romanticized it was. I kept muttering, "That didn't happen," "That didn't happen," and, "That DEFINITELY didn't happen." But it's still a fun movie and I think an underrated one Tony Curtis' catalog. It's also one he's said to have really enjoyed doing, and he strongly identified with Houdini, both being the children of Jewish immigrants from Brooklyn.

I got a chance to see the Houdini exhibit here in Los Angeles, and it was amazing! It had tons of items that I had read about, including theater posters from the era that are fantastically over the top.
Will he hold out? Can he hold out?

It also featured quite a bit of modern art mixed in, most of which I liked. But there was one piece that just irked me good. It was a lengthy clip of a woman not escaping a straight jacket, but putting it on herself. When you initially watch it, all you think is "Huh, this lady can't pull off the trick. Guess it was really, really hard to do." As it turns out, she fails to get the straight jacket on, throws it on the ground and walks away. Which is, apparently, a feminist way of rejecting masculinity and the masculinity presented by Houdini.

First of all, it really just looks like she can't do the trick. And I'm not judging her for that. Houdini was almost impossibly fit and skilled at what he did, and there are few, man or woman, who can match that. Second of all, the whole video seems to imply that Houdini was some sort of HUGE misogynist, which he just wasn't. He was devoted to his mother, loved Bess (apart from some affairs, but rumor has it she cheated on him as well), and generally just didn't hate on women at all.

*"For my next trick, I'm going to prove that women are incapable of escape and math!"

*Absolutely not an actual quote.

But other than that, the exhibit was fantastic and well worth the visit. It's a traveling exhibit from the Jewish Museum of New York, so if it comes to your city, by all means go!

Also at the exhibit, they played clips from several Houdini movies besides the Tony Curtis one, including one from Fairy Tale: A True Story. The movie is loosely based on the two girls who claimed to have taken photographs of fairies in their garden. Houdini is played by Harvey Keitel in a few brief scenes where he meets the girls and talks with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole) about the photos (Doyle was a believer in the photos and had them published). I thought it was decent movie overall, Keitel and O'Toole are great in their parts, and it does briefly address the feud between Houdini and Doyle over Spiritualism.
I created one of the most logical characters in history, but I'm pretty sure that guy was a wizard.
Also, my mustache is fantastic.

Houdini was a steadfast skeptic, while Doyle was a firm believer in Spiritualism, a loose collection of beliefs that focused primarily on contacting ghosts and performing seances. Many people turned to it in the wake of World War I, including Doyle, who lost his son and several other members of his family. He even believed that Houdini himself was truly "magical" and capable of materializing and demateriliazing to perform his escapes. Houdini felt that it was all essentially a scam, preying on grieving people and using the simple trickery he often performed to produce communications from the spirit world. He traveled around debunking these seances and exposing the tricks of the trade.

The Secret Life of Houdini has a fantastic quote from Houdini after he performed a "psychic" trick for Doyle, which I thought was both interesting and a little heartbreaking that he had to put it so bluntly to his friend:

“Sir Arthur, I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion; I have been working at it, on and off, all winter. I won't tell you how it was done, but I can assure you it was pure trickery. I did it by perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along these lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily 'supernatural,' or the work of 'spirits,' just because you cannot explain them. This is as marvelous a demonstration as you have ever witnessed, given you under test conditions, and I can assure you that it was accomplished by trickery and by nothing else. Do, therefore, be careful in future, in endorsing phenomena just because you cannot explain them. I have given you this test to impress upon you the necessity of caution, and I sincerely hope that you will profit by it."

Doyle had his wife perform a seance for Houdini where his beloved mother supposedly wrote a letter to him in English. Too bad that Houdini's mom couldn't write in English and barely spoke it to begin with. This, among many other arguments about Spirtualism, led to the failure of their friendship and they became bitter enemies.

The history lesson is over, but if you paid attention, a lot of that information will come in to play very shortly.

One of the other clips they played at the exhibit was from a movie I had never heard of called Death Defying Acts, starring Guy Pearce. They showed a clip of Pearce doing the Chinese Water Torture escape. First I thought "How on earth did I miss this? I thought I was a Houdini super fan! Oh, how I've failed!"

Then I thought, "Guy Pearce is a good head taller than Houdini." I told my friend as much, and she replied "Well, Tony Curtis can't play Houdini forever!"

After that, I further thought, "Wait a minute, why haven't I seen or heard of this? That can't possibly be a good sign..."

Here is the plot description from IMDb:
"During Harry Houdini's tour of Britain in 1926, the master escapologist enters into a passionate affair with a Scottish psychic. The psychic and her daughter attempt to con Houdini during a highly publicized séance to contact his mother whose death has haunted him for many years. However all does not go to plan..."

Oh boy. Oh dear. If I thought the Tony Curtis movie was inaccurate, I can't even imagine what this one would be like. It sounds pretty cheesy, in a romantic melodrama sort of way. Especially considering how much of a skeptic Houdini was. If this movie tries to imply that he experienced some supernatural event not too long before his death (he died on Halloween in 1926) I'd like to refer the filmmakers to the quote above. And also, where the hell is Bess in all that? She was always, always with him (except that time he nailed Jack London's wife).

So this brings me to my first ever Oh My God, Rewind That! two parter! I will rent Death Defying Acts from Netflix and report back. Was it good? Was it bad? Was it so bad that it swung back around to good? Was it so utterly frustrating in its inaccuracy and conjecture that it resulted in my yelling at a TV for two hours?

Find out after I mail back Highlander, which will undoubtedly be a post unto itself!

Will it be a death defying act to watch this movie?
Also, ta-da! Full circle from all that information presented earlier!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Piss On You, I Work For Mel Brooks!

I have had a life long love of Mel Brooks movies. I'm not sure when I first saw a Mel Brooks movie, but it might have been Robin Hood: Men in Tights in the theater with my dad and brother. It sticks out in my mind because I remember asking "What's a chastity belt?" and my dad replying "NOTHING!" as we left the theater.

How dare you take your daughter to this sir!
(Just kidding dad!)

After that, I must have seen Dracula: Dead and Loving It and Spaceballs, all much more kid friendly in their way. (Sidenote: Bill Pullman will always be either Lonestar or the President to me, no matter what he does). I may have started with the newer stuff, but it was seeing the classics when I was a pre-teen/teenager that hooked me into Mel Brooks for life.

One year, for my birthday party, we rented a bunch of movies and I insisted that one of them be Blazing Saddles. I had heard from my next door neighbor that it was amazing, and I thought it would be cool to share it with all my friends at the slumber party.

We had the pizza, the cake, and started the movie marathon with other comedies, and possibly a horror flick. Then, as everyone but me started dozing off, we put in Blazing Saddles. I was almost always the one kid who didn't fall asleep with everyone else (on the flip side, I was the last kid awake in the morning).

The movie started, and I remember laughing almost the entire time. I was so disappointed that no one else was awake with me to share in the incredible hilarity. Of course some of the jokes and references flew over my head, but most of it was just killing me.

"You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know... morons"

Mongo punching the horse. Madeline Khan. "Someone's gotta go back and get a shitload of dimes!" "Hey, where all the white women at?" "Give the governor harrumph!" "Excuse me while I whip this out." "That's Hedley." And the list goes on. I could practically do the movie from memory.

I thought my laughter would wake the others up for sure, but everyone was sleeping like logs on the pull out couch. The next morning, when I finally woke up, I had everyone rewatch it with me, and the gang was on board. My best friend and I adore "The French Mistake."

Why is everyone sleeping through this?!

Not too long after that, Halloween rolled around and I was having a get together with friends to watch movies (yes, those are the only kind of parties I know how to throw). My parents, in a surprisingly common co-effort to have me watch certain movies, picked up Young Frankenstein along the way.

"What is this?" I asked

"It's a comedy, you'll like it." I popped it in at the party.

And boy did I. I am still torn between wanting to be Teri Garr or Madeline Khan when I grow up.

Sometimes kids, it pays to listen to your parents.

Frau Blucher. Marty Feldman. Gene Wilder yelling. Abby Normal. "I thought I told you never to interrupt me while I'm WORKING." "'What knockers!' 'Thank you doctor.'" "Oh hello, would you like a roll in ze hay? Roll, roll, roll in ze hay!"

I think this might be my favorite moment in the movie though.

Hell, this one too:

My senior year of high school, I got to take a class that studied literature and film, and one of the final projects was a director study. I wrote a proposal and got to cover Mel Brooks, which meant I got to sit around and watch even more Mel Brooks movies for homework. While watching The Producers in the living room one night, I remember my dad saying, "Doing homework with you is fun!"

In case you're wondering, I got an A even though I played "Springtime for Hitler" in its entirety as the conclusion to my presentation.

It remains a goal of mine to be able to legitimately say "Piss on you, I work for Mel Brooks!" at some point in my life.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

It's Just So Sad!

Several of my friends adored Josh Hartnett when we were teenagers. I'm not sure who I was giddy for at the time, but I wasn't a fan. I just didn't get it. Where was the pizzazz, the personality?

Eh, I'm not that excited.

I liked Ben Affleck a little more at the time, so I was willing to check out Pearl Harbor when the posse got together one summer afternoon to head to the movies.

Oh, that Affleck.

I didn't really care for the movie. I had the same problem with Pearl Harbor that I did with Titanic. I was ultimately more interested in what was going on around the main characters than the characters themselves.

However, the silly love triangle between Affleck, Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale resulted in the most incredible overreaction I've ever seen in my life.

To refresh your memory, Kate Beckinsale dates Ben Affleck before the events of Pearl Harbor. She thinks he dies during the attack and seeks solace in the arms of his best friend, Josh Hartnett, and gets pregnant with his baby. Somehow, Affleck comes back, everything is more or less forgiven, they go off on the Doolittle raids in Japan with Alec Baldwin, where Josh Hartnett dies. Affleck returns to Beckinsale with the bad news, and they raise Josh Hartnett's son together as their own.

Right around the 2:30 mark is when my friend completely lost it. She started crying really hard as the image flowed and the credits rolled. (Apologies if the audio is too low, that's how the link came. Plus, do you really want to hear the malarkey that Michael Bay wrote?)

With a huge sob and a sniffle, she exclaimed, "He him!!" We started to leave the theater, but the tears were a-flowing like you wouldn't believe.

We talked her down and she was able to laugh it off, admitting that she probably overreacted. But never before or since have I seen someone burst into tears that badly during a movie (except that time I watched Selena at a slumber party, but that's a whole 'nother post).

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Button Mash!

I've never been a very good video game person. I like playing them, but I'm really quite terrible at them. Whenever I played Golden Eye on Nintendo 64 with my neighbors, I would be routinely killed in multi-player because I just couldn't master the whole camera movement vs person movement aspect. I couldn't even beat levels in Zelda and the Ocarina of Time without major assists from a step by step guidebook telling me exactly how to do certain things, and even then I got frustrated and just quit. Maybe the buttons on the controller and I just don't connect.

And, like most kids born in the 80s, I played Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo (my house) and Super Nintendo (my neighbor's house). And like most kids, I came across the Super Mario Brothers movie at some point in my life.

Super Mario Bros is not a good movie. Even Bob Hoskins, respected actor and star of the movie, came out and said it is hands down the worst thing he's ever done.

I'm not sure exactly when I saw this movie, but I know I saw it on cable. Ah, the perks of being a kid with cable and lax parents. You can watch just about anything (Tank Girl anyone?).

I remember being a little confused and a little bored by the whole thing. And also a little scared by Dennis Hopper. He was super creepy in the film, with the weird white-blond sort of corn rows, not to mention the lizard tongue they gave him.

I think, the better question might be, when is Dennis Hopper not creepy and/or scary?

The other thing I remember, and probably the weirdest part, was not the lack of cohesion in the movie, or how terrible it was as a video game adaptation, but the fact that I had a little crush on John Leguizamo.

Yes, this guy.

Now, allow me to explain myself. In the movie, he was young, cute, and he seemed so nice and genuinely concerned about rescuing the girl. To my seven year old brain, I was thinking "Wow, what a nice guy. I really like him. He's so nice!"

He saved the princess!

Overall though, it's still a terrible movie, John Leguizamo crush or no. There is so much weirdness running through the whole movie, from lizard people led by Dennis Hopper to something about fungus taking over the city, that even as a kid, I remember thinking "There's no fungus in the video game, what is this?" It was not, as so many other movies in my childhood were, one that ended up with a lot of repeat viewings.

I think the look on his face here kind of sums up the viewing experience as a whole.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

It's Good To Be Back

Well, it's been admittedly way too long since I last posted, but I think it's time I get back in the swing of things.

I'm moving to a new apartment, and as I was packing up my extensive and over flowing DVD collection, I remembered that when I moved to California, I set aside a selection of DVDs that were essentially "comfort" DVDs. They were mostly comedies, a few musicals and the occasional drama or mafia movie that I loved watching and rewatching. They were nice and familiar, and provided an odd sense of stability when it came to moving at least once a year or so, not having a real bed (a mattress on the floor is just not the same), and facing a fair amount of job uncertainity for the better part of living here. The box contained classics like Young Frankenstein, Wayne's World, Goodfellas, Moulin Rogue, and a funky little movie called The Big Tease.

The Big Tease is a faux documentary about Scottish hair dresser Crawford Mackenzie (aka Craig Ferguson, my favorite late night host) who comes to Los Angeles thinking he was invited to compete in a hair cutting competition, is mistaken, and then works his way in to be the champion.

It's very funny, very silly, and I'm not lying when I say it always makes me feel better about living in L.A. Crawford is so optimistic and never stops trying to get his dream that you can't help but feel better and pretty good about your chances.

I mean, look how happy he is!

If he can do it, why can't I? If he can prance in his underwear in a fancy hotel, I can too! Until recently, I had some shaky times here in L.A. where I doubted my chances of making it. But when I'd get home, I'd pop that in the ole lap top and smile.

So if you're down, you're in a new city (L.A. or otherwise), and need a good laugh, I recommend The Big Tease.

I concede that this story may not be especially funny, but it is true. And it's a kick off to more regular updates on my fond memories of movies, tv and otherwise.