Tag Archives: biography

Fascinating True Story of the Man Behind the LSD No-Hitter: NO NO – A DOCKUMENTARY

NO-NO: A DOCKUMENTARY


(4/5)

Pros: Outstanding selection of archival footage; everyone likes a story of redemption right?


Cons: Doesn’t stray much from the typical trajectory of these sorts of stories

On Friday, June 12, 1970, professional baseball player Dock Ellis pitched a(n admittedly ugly) no-hitter in a game between his Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Diego Padres. This is an accomplishment in its own right, but it’s made even more astonishing by the fact that Ellis was under the influence of LSD while playing. Unable to clearly see the opposing batters, Ellis had to rely on reflective tape around the catcher’s fingers to determine the signals being called. At one point during the game, he even recalled hallucinating Richard Nixon working the plate as umpire and imagined rocker Jimi Hendrix swinging his guitar instead of a Padres player ready to bat. Needless to say, while there’s been some dispute about the veracity of the account, the game has gone down in pro sports history, serving as the starting point for 2014’s No No: A Dockumentary, which chronicles the colorful life of the Ellis himself.

Starting off with a trippy intro that relates this most famous story about Ellis, No No continues on by following the man’s career from his early days playing ball around his California neighborhood through various minor league assignments. In the 1960s, the world of professional baseball was quite a different place then it is today – particularly for black players assigned to teams based in the American south. Though he was, for the first time, faced with discrimination, Ellis didn’t stop standing up for his beliefs, and by the time he broke into the majors in 1968 playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was an outspoken proponent of African-American rights (eventually being dubbed the “Muhammad Ali of Baseball” due to his attention-grabbing antics). This caused some problems throughout his playing career, since Ellis frequently got into disputes with team management who didn’t particularly appreciate his challenges to their authority. Still, Ellis won the World Series with the Pirates in 1971, and his solid numbers ensured that he was able to find a home in pro ball, spending time with both New York teams, Oakland and Texas before retiring after the 1979 season.

dockellisposter-e1409184510151-228x300Ellis during his playing career, with trademark hair curlers.


On thing a viewer clearly takes away from this Dockumentary is that Ellis was a bit of a hothead and troublemaker, though for the most part, he seemed to not only know what he was doing, but why he was doing it. One of the key moments in the film occurs when Ellis himself, recorded in the mid-2000s, reads a letter written to him by Jackie Robinson. This letter essentially thanked Ellis for continuing the fight for equal rights for minority players in the world of pro sports, but also warned him about the toll that this fight might have on him. Ellis gets quite emotional while reading the letter, and it’s immediately clear how much the letter and the sentiments it echoed meant to him.

207981_001It’s cool that the filmmakers were able to secure actual interview footage in which Ellis tells his own story; he passed away in 2008 at the age of 63.

This emotional moment comes as a bit of a surprise during the film however since a good deal of No No details the wild lifestyle and heavy drug use that accompanied Ellis’s playing career. In the years after his retirement, Ellis admitted that he never played a game without some sort of drugs – whether they be amphetamines, cocaine, or even LSD – in his system, and one sidepoint in the film is to detail how rampant drugs were in the MLB of the 1970s. Former players interviewed here attest to the fact that uppers like Dexamyl were used by an estimated sixty percent or more of pro ball players because it gave them an edge that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and even after the so-called “greenies” were banned, underground usage continued virtually unabated. Ellis’s substance problems didn’t stop on the field however, and his rampant abuse of alcohol would eventually ruin several of his marriages.

DSCF4591Ellis, center, living it up with teammates.

To be honest, much of the material contained in No No could be taken from any number of athlete or celebrity profiles: many of these folks go down the road to substance abuse when they acquire large amounts of money and have the free time to use it. Some of these stories don’t end up so well, but for every tragic outcome, there’s a positive one and Ellis’s story certainly worked out quiet nicely. Following his retirement, Ellis got clean and began telling his story to audiences who would most be in need of it. Aside from working for the betterment of up-and-coming athletes, Ellis spent a great deal of time working with inmates, and it’s obvious from interviews seen in the film that he viewed his accomplishments in the field of counseling as some of his greatest.

dockellis_large-294x375Always the flashy – and provocative- dresser.


While one could argue that the basic story of redemption contained in No No is pretty familiar, the film certainly benefits from the fact that the person at its heart is an incredibly fascinating character. The various anecdotes revealed in the film are sometimes quite amusing, occasionally cringe-inducing, but always captivating, and a viewer winds up getting a sense that Ellis always fought the good fight even if he went about it in ways that were somewhat unsavory. Directed by Jeff Radice, the film is as wild and colorful as its subject in terms of its look, making nice use of period-flavor music. There’s splendid use of a large quotient of archival footage, including film taken of various games which Ellis participated in, and I was also rather stunned by the amount of candid and press photographs assembled for use here. It’s true that No No contains the usual amount of talking head interviews with former teammates and players, family members, and sports journalists, but I found the film to be more varied in its presentation than many vaguely similar productions, even including animated sequences such as one which relates the story of Ellis’s showdown with opposing player Reggie Jackson.

Screen-Shot-2014-10-10-at-5-02-51-PMPart of the animated sequence from the film, showing Ellis staring down an opposing batter.

It might go without saying that baseball fans will probably enjoy this film the most, but I don’t necessarily think an appreciation of the sport is absolutely required – No No to some extent works equally as well as a chronicle of the ways in which society was changing in the late ‘60s and 1970s. Director Radice does a fine job of framing the events in the events of the film with what was happening outside of pro baseball, a fact which ultimately emphasizes the ways in which Ellis helped draw attention to the plight of minority players and initiate change – for instance, the 1971 Pirates team was the first time that a major league team used an all-black starting lineup in a game. It’s difficult to ignore the fact that No No: A Dockumentary plays out similarly to other films and stories dealing with characters who fall from grace only to pick themselves back up later on: Ellis’s story is virtually identical to the one told by hockey documentary The Unreal Life of Derek Sanderson that just premiered earlier this year on cable. Still, I think there are enough unique and original elements to Dock Ellis’s story to make this slick-looking Dockumentary worthwhile. Check it out if you get the chance.

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2/10: A few accounts of aggressive domestic violence; no onscreen blood.

5/10: Isolated instances of profanity, including the f-bomb.

1/10: Glimpses of scantily clad ladies and some brief innuendo.

5/10: The whole LSD no-hitter thing may give this some appeal to the drug crowd, but it’s more a fairly typical but well-done sports documentary.

“I’m not one of those guys that won 300 games and the Cy Young Award, but I was a guy that was personable, I was controversial, my entire career I was an angry black man. Although I was there playing a dream of a lot of people, but I was angry.”

A Nicely-Composed Portrait of NASCAR Royalty: I AM DALE EARNHARDT

I AM DALE EARNHARDT

(4/5)


Pros: Well-selected archival materials; provides exactly what one would want in a documentary about “the Intimidator”
Cons: Nothing major – though this clearly was produced for and by NASCAR

Roughly 75 minutes in length, the 2015 Spike TV documentary I Am Dale Earnhardt chronicles the life and career of the iconic stock car driver. Born in small town North Carolina, Earnhardt grew up watching his father tear up the local short tracks, learning a level of aggressiveness that would make him one of the most polarizing talents in the world of auto racing. While there was no doubting Earnhardt’s driving ability, his tendency to do anything to win – including spinning out any car in his way – would land him in plenty of hot water throughout his career and bestow on him the nickname of “the Intimidator.” Winning his first points championship in 1980 – just a year after capturing the Rookie of the Year title, Earnhardt went on to six more championships and 76 race wins before being killed in a last-lap accident during NASCAR’s premier event, the Daytona 500 in 2001. Nearly fifteen years after his death, Earnhardt’s legacy still looms large over the sport of stock car racing, and it’s unlikely that that situation will change anytime soon.

Dale and the #3
Dale and his famous #3 car.

Though he’s most identified as being the driver of the black number 3 car, Earnhardt started out as a journeyman driver who went racing primarily to provide for his family. The documentary certainly emphasizes the sacrifices that Earnhardt made in pursuit of his dream, and devotes a lot of time to discussing the hardships that he faced in his life. Knowing this information makes the material relating to his relationship with son Dale Jr., who started his own racing career in the late ‘90s and continues to race today, all the more heartwarming. Another major point of focus in the documentary is on Earnhardt’s talents as a entrepreneur: though perhaps an unlikely public figure, Earnhardt’s business savvy made him one of the most recognizable figures in the world of sport, largely through his own marketing of his “man in black” image.

swagger
Say what you want about his driving style, Dale Earnhardt had swagger.

Directed by Jeff Cvitkovic and highlighted by a combination of well-chosen archival footage and photographs, I Am Dale Earnhardt is presented in roughly chronological order and covers the most famous and well-known events from the driver’s storied career. Though I’ve distanced myself from stock car racing over the past fifteen years, I always like seeing footage of how things used to be back in the “good ol’ days” of motorsport. Covering such legendary events as the infamous “pass in the grass,” the 1982 Pocono flip, Earnhardt’s triumph at the ‘98 Daytona 500 after twenty years of trying, and even some of his heated confrontations with other drivers, the documentary was very enjoyable for me personally since I remember when many of these things took place. The dramatic scenes relating to Earnhardt’s fatal accident are quite moving and illustrate just how much he was not only loved by his fans, but respected by the NASCAR community as a whole.

slinking
Slinking out of a destroyed race car after flipping at Pocono.

As might be expected, the documentary also includes substantial commentary from fellow drivers Darrell and Michael Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, and Rusty Wallace, sports reporters Marty Smith and Jack Arute, pop culture figures like actor Michael Rooker (who played a character patterned after Earnhardt in 1990’s Days of Thunder), former MTV VJ Riki Rachtman, and filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, and even Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who today is by far the most popular driver in NASCAR. These interviews compliment the film footage nicely, and I appreciated the fact that the program went a long way toward explaining Dale Earnhardt the man, as he was away from the racetrack. Vintage interviews and conversations with the man himself provide an insight into Earnhardt’s mind, and a viewer really gets a sense of how his most rewarding moments in life took place when he was working on his farm or enjoying the outdoors with friends.

friendships
Despite his fearsome on-track reputation, Earnhardt enjoyed close relationships with many of his competitors.

Ultimately, the fact that Earnhardt was a “country boy” very much like the majority of the NASCAR fan base at the time earned him an incredibly loyal following, and I think one of the more interesting aspects of I Am Dale Earnhardt is the contrast between Earnhardt and other drivers of his era and the ones which populate NASCAR today. Over the past fifteen years, a sport that once was regarded as primarily a “redneck sport” has become much more polished and commercialized – one only has to listen to a contemporary driver interview and notice all the corporate sponsor name-dropping to see how the sport has evolved. Compared to a legitimately hard-nosed driver like Earnhardt who paid his dues and worked hard to get where he was, many of today’s drivers (even the so-called “bad boys” of the sport) seem like crybabies and whiners who have been handed the keys to the kingdom. Furthermore, in today’s high-profile, ultra-competitive motorsport, the team a driver is signed up with seems to matter more than actual driving talent, making it intriguing to ponder whether a rough-around-the-edges personality like Earnhardt would even get a shot at big-league stock car racing – or have a chance to truly shine – if he was trying to break into NASCAR circa 2015.

2015
NASCAR has change significantly since Dale Earnhardt’s death, and I’m not at all convinced that it’s gotten better…

During the film, sports reporter Marty Smith relates a story in the film about how people have exclaimed that they can’t relate to NASCAR drivers in the wake of Dale Earnhardt’s death, which says a lot about this driver and his relationship to his sport. The “old school” nature of stock car racing quickly became extinct once Earnhardt wasn’t around, and NASCAR has never quite been able to compensate for his loss in my opinion. Even if I might complain that the documentary seems to gloss over some parts of the story and over-dramatize others, I Am Dale Earnhardt is in the end, very worthwhile: a treat for Earnhardt fans and a fine starting point for those either new to stock car racing or unfamiliar the driver that was arguably its most iconic personality. It might not have wide-reaching appeal, but this documentary provides precisely what a viewer would want and is right on par with ESPN’s outstanding 30 for 30 series. I’d have no problem recommending it.

Real-Life Days of Thunder Racing Rivalry Plays Out in RUSH

RUSH

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(4/5)

Pros: Awesome racing sequences; nice attention to detail and historical accuracy; compelling drama

Cons: Ending was a bit on the soft side; selection of popular music on the soundtrack could have been better

Having been a fan of Formula 1 for decades, it’s always struck me as surprising and unfortunate that this form of auto racing, easily the most popular in the world, has never quite caught on in the United States for one reason or another. While NASCAR drivers typically circle around painfully similar tracks week in and week out, F1 travels to some of the most challenging and varied courses the world has to offer, with most every race playing out as high drama – particularly for those familiar with the intricacies of the sport. With the construction of the America’s first purposely built F1 circuit (Austin, TX’s Circuit of the Americas, which opened in 2012), Formula 1 appears to have finally gotten some sort of foothold in the United States, and over the past couple of years there have been a handful of films dealing with the sport.

ferraris
A sampling of Ferrari’s Formula 1 machines from over the years, from clunky bombs to jet planes on wheels.

Ron Howard’s 2013 feature Rush operates in roughly the same manner as the excellent 2010 straight documentary (which chronicled the man perhaps rightfully regarded as the best F1 driver in history) in that it focuses its attention on Formula 1’s past and plays like a biography dealing with two of the most legendary names in the sport. The film opens by introducing two young and hungry race drivers working their ways up through the ranks of Formula 3 in Europe. Almost immediately, there’s a sharp contrast between a carefree British driver named and perfectionist Austrian named : the two clash instantly on the track and a rivalry which eventually stretched across the globe was born. Flash forward several years and the pair of drivers have made their way into Formula 1, the most prestigious, high-tech, and outright dangerous form of auto racing in the world. Lauda has landed on F1’s biggest and most famous team Ferrari, while Hunt has struggled in driving for smaller and more cash-strapped organizations. Going into 1976, Hunt lands a spot on the McLaren team, arguably the “best of the rest” in the world of F1, and this sets up an epic and extremely dramatic fight for the points championship with Lauda. The main body of Rush documents this season and the ramifications it had for all parties concerned.

real life
Real life Hunt (left) and Lauda.

Howard’s film plays a bit like Days of Thunder if it was more realistic and based on actual historical events, with the brash, playboy James Hunt serving as the “Cole Trickle” type character while the wily and calculating Lauda seems like the grizzled veteran “Rowdy Burns.” Written by Peter Morgan, Rush emphasizes the differences between its main characters throughout, and details the frequently tense on-and off-track interactions that defined the relationship between Lauda and Hunt and the men themselves. A viewer really gets the idea that these guys may not at all have liked each other (at least initially), but they had to respect one another when both were piloting what amounted to a bomb on wheels that was traveling some 150 miles per hour around twisting and turning racetracks while only being inches apart. Acting from Chris Hemsworth (as Hunt) and Daniel Brühl (as Lauda) is outstanding: the two actors not only have a wonderfully compelling rapport with one another, but really seem to have identified and accentuated the true nature of their characters. It’s interesting to note that Morgan’s script and Howard’s direction seem most often to take the standpoint of Lauda, the character who comes across as the “villain” at the onset of the film. Though Hunt appears to be living the life that every male race fan would dream of, it seems like part of the goal of the film is to suggest that Lauda’s story is actually the more heroic, uplifting, and ultimately triumphant.

in the film
The pair as depicted in the film: Chris Hemsworth (left) as Hunt, and Daniel Brühl as Lauda.

Even if F1 is the most high-tech racing found in the world, in the 1970s, it was incredibly dangerous. The film drives home this point right from the beginning with the declaration that “twenty-five drivers start every year in Formula 1 and each year, two of them die,” and that statement is absolute fact. The racing scenes in Rush capture the “shake, rattle, and roll” – and overwhelming noise – of auto racing in a gritty and absolutely mesmerizing manner, and never quite allow the viewer to forget that these drivers are often quite literally teetering on the brink of life and death. The film visualizes several extremely nasty accidents (the moment early in the film where driver Francois Cevert is decapitated at Watkins Glen, though somewhat low-key in how it’s presented, really reinforces the dangers of the sport) and eventually, there are some incredibly harrowing scenes here. Midway through 1976, Lauda is horrifically burned in an accident at the German Grand Prix while leading the points standings, and the scenes relating to his medical treatments are excruciating to watch. His eventual return to the sport in just a few weeks later stands as the story’s almost obligatory “overcoming the odds” angle, but the script also takes time to point out that there are things more important than winning.


Lauda’s crash at the Nürburgring. Warning: Graphic.

To an extent, Rush is more effective as a dramatic film than as a pure action picture, but the action scenes that are here are absolutely fantastic. Editing throughout the piece is very crisp and purposeful, seeming to alternate between focusing on the humans in the midst of the action and on the mechanical beasts that they are attempting to wrangle. Camera angles during the picture frequently place the viewer right among the race participants, and we often seem to be on the verge of banging wheels with either Lauda or Hunt ourselves. I noticed a few times when the digital effects looked a bit jerky (especially during one key racing sequence), but I really appreciated the attention to historical accuracy in terms of depicting the race cars and courses of the 1970s. It was really cool for me, as a fan of F1, to see these vintage cars in action around tracks that haven’t been used in years – the epitome of which is the immense and unbelievably hazardous Nürburgring. The occasional use of on-screen graphics does a fine job of establishing the basic facts relating to this story, and the film’s sense of pacing is excellent since it seems to focus just the right amount of time on the home lives of the characters without becoming sappy or boring. Hans Zimmer provides a typically pulse-pounding and rousing music score for the story to play out in front of, and even if I thought the selection of popular music was a bit on the cheesy side, these tunes solidify the setting in which the story takes place very well.

thrill of victory
Like most sports dramas, Rush has plenty of triumph and tragedy.

Though the film takes a few liberties with its telling of the story and seems to add intensity to the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda that may not have actually existed, to me Rush seemed fairly accurate which is commendable in itself. Considering how compelling this film is both for its technical aspects and for its dramatic storyline, I’d have to call it one of the honestly better films I’ve seen in a while and a return to form for director Howard, whose career has been up-and-down in recent years. Admittedly, I probably enjoyed this film more than most simply due to the fact that I recognized the names, places, cars, and circumstances being discussed, but I think most viewers would get caught up in this intriguing story if they gave this film a chance. Despite the fact that it operates in a generally similar manner to just about every other sports biography or drama that’s out there, I’d have to call this simply outstanding cinema. Check it out if you get a chance.

uh oh


Widescreen Blu-ray from Universal includes a selection of deleted scenes, a piece focusing on director Ron Howard’s approach to the film, a multi-part “making of” feature, and a trio of documentary segments dealing with the real life story behind the film. A very nice video package overall.


6/10 : Shows the dangerous side of auto racing without flinching; some of the scenes dealing with Lauda’s medical treatments are very disturbing and graphic.


7/10 : A healthy dose of profanity, featuring many f-bombs and occasional crude remarks.


5/10 : Sexual situations pop up several times during the film and occasionally include brief glimpses of topless nudity.


5/10 : Though this would be a must for fans of F1, it comes across as a fairly typical, if more hard-hitting than usual, sports movie.


“Happiness is the enemy. It weakens you. Puts doubt in your mind. Suddenly, you have something to lose…”

Trailer:

An Epic Portrait of American Royalty: THE ROOSEVELTS: AN INTIMATE HISTORY

THE ROOSEVELTS: AN INTIMATE HISTORY on PBS

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(4/5)

Pros: Well-researched; strong presentation; very educational

Cons: Undeniably “dry” when compared to most modern documentaries

The latest in a string of epic documentaries produced for public television (i.e. PBS) by filmmaker Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is a seven-part, roughly fourteen-hour series premiering in September 2014 that chronicles the history of one of America’s most important political dynasties from a period in the mid-1800s until Eleanor Roosevelt’s death in 1962. Starting off by examining the roots of the family in New York State, The Roosevelts’ premiere episode, entitled “Get Action,”goes on to detail how Theodore Roosevelt rose to power in the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. A viewer starts to realize through the program that Theodore’s rise to political prominence was rather unlikely: after suffering from physical limitations early on in life, Theodore eventually had to work through several tragedies that occurred early on in his political career. All the while the documentary tells the story of how Theodore began a life of adventure in the American west to get his wits back about him after the deaths of his first wife and mother on the same day in 1884, Burns also devotes time to explaining the early life of Theodore’s cousin Franklin Delano, who was born into a different branch of the family. “Get Action” finishes with Theodore taking over the presidency of the United States after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, a situation that would not only have a profound effect on the country but also on Theodore’s younger cousin who now saw proof that perseverance and hard work could pay off…

1914
Teddy (left) and FDR (right) in 1914.

Much like earlier Ken Burns documentaries, The Roosevelts relies on various sources and archival materials to tell its story. While the series does feature omniscient narration (provided by the always reliable Peter Coyote) and has the expected group of “talking head” historians who offer their two cents in analyzing the events taking place in the ongoing narrative, Burns and writer Geoffrey C. Ward often rely on actual first-hand accounts written by the subjects of the documentary themselves which are recited by a group of actors (including Paul Giamatti who portrays Theodore, Edward Herrmann who voices Franklin, and Meryl Streep as Eleanor). This technique goes a long way in making the production seem like it is, as advertised, an “intimate history:” the viewer often is told the story right from the horse’s mouth as it were, and the insight into various well-known and not-so well-known historical events is undeniably fascinating. This series certainly seems like a “peek behind the curtain” of a much-revered and admired family.

rough riders
In its explanation of Teddy’s action during the Spanish-American War, the series includes several detailed battle descriptions – fascinating stuff.

Along with these anecdotes, Burns also provides a wealth of archival images that speak to the amount of research and work that went into this production. Including both iconic, instantly recognizable images and ones taken from more private collections, these photographs are perhaps best in their ability to help establish the setting that this documentary is attempting to chronicle. This seems an important aspect of the production to me, since the period discussed in this series is one that few (if any) people would have first-hand knowledge about. Obviously, technology changed immensely from the time that Theodore Roosevelt was leading the so-called “Rough Riders” in Cuba to the period in which Pearl Harbor was bombed thus entering the United States into the Second World War, and I would anticipate that the format of the series may change slightly as it progresses to include more vintage film elements over static images. Either way, Burns does include contemporary scenes from time to time to make this production a bit more digestible to modern audiences used to a more flashy production.

FDR
FDR – a voice of reason during a period of national crisis

That last statement is indicative of one criticism I might have about this documentary. By 2014, after having worked on numerous productions of this nature, Burns’ documentary formula is pretty well-established and seems bland compared to the more vibrant, modern documentary style. In many ways, The Roosevelts could be seen as a rather “dry,” old-fashioned documentary: it’s precisely the type of no-nonsense production that I recall having to watch in school on many occasions (this same basic format was used for Burns’ Civil War for instance). Additionally, even if Burns’ selection of music is perfectly acceptable given the subject matter he’s covering, the format of having an actor reading journal entries over distant, dramatic music almost becomes cheesy in context of modern film making and/or documentary technique. To put it simply, this type of thing would be likely to put some younger viewers and maybe even older audiences to sleep: the production as a whole seems almost lackadaisical in terms of its mood and forward momentum.

Eleanor
Eleanor, who redefined the role of the “First Lady.”

It’s a good thing then that the amount and quality of information presented in this film is truly outstanding. While I’m no presidential scholar, I certainly have at least a passing familiarity with various aspects of American history, and I found that this documentary provided a ton of information that I hadn’t been aware of or had forgotten over time. There’s also some interesting food-for-thought provided in the form of inevitable comparisons that could be made between the times when Theodore and FDR were president (and the era between their two presidencies) and the modern age. I found several quotes and analysis by the historians to be especially fascinating in a modern context: Theodore’s declaration to “never let party zeal obscure [his] sense of right and decency” is a statement that I would scoff at coming from the mouths of one of today’s politicians. In an era where congressional approval ratings are in the single digits and politicians (at best) seem too caught up in personal gain and cronyism, it seems outrageous that genuine altruists of the Roosevelt variety would be elected to office – or not be corrupted beyond recognition if they did.

teddy
Teddy Roosevelt: Big game hunter, warmonger, and Imperialist?

As much as the historians interviewed in the program to an extent do seem to be offering up near-endless praise to the subjects of the documentary, they aren’t afraid to point out flaws in the Roosevelts either. A significant amount of time is paid in the first episode to the notion that Theodore may not only have been somewhat mentally unstable, but also a bit of a warmonger who “reveled in gore.” Additionally, the observation that Teddy was an outright Imperialist isn’t necessarily a flattering one, yet may explain a few things about American foreign policy that are still relevant today. The film also doesn’t ignore the fact that Eleanor and Franklin were (gulp!) related – or shy away from discussing FDR’s extramarital activities. In the end, though the series sometimes seems pretty warm and fuzzy, it appears to present an accurate and fairly objective portrait.

three subjects

Even if it’s not the most flashy thing I’ve ever seen, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is quite riveting and compelling for what it is, and would be about a must for those seriously interested in the American presidency or the country’s history in general. The series as a whole is exceedingly well put-together – the editing of Paul Barnes is extraordinary in its ability to juggle the stories of three different family members (Teddy, FDR, and Eleanor) at any given time, and the program presents a veritable smorgasbord of facts and archival material. As good as the early episodes have been, I can only imagine the series would get better as it goes along and covers seemingly more significant (and more well-known) segments in the lives of its subjects. One of Ken Burns’ most admirable talents as a documentarian is that he makes comprehensive and indeed almost exhaustive analyses of historical subjects tolerable for mainstream audiences, and I’d have to say that he’s come up with another winner here. It might not impress younger viewers, but this sober and all-encompassing series is undoubtedly excellent.

“One Way or Another, We All Want to Escape…” HOUDINI: The Miniseries

HOUDINI on The History Channel

(2/5)

Pros: Nice photography; sharp-looking production

Cons: Very crudely made, with a frankly horrible script and sloppy direction

After what’s seemed like a media blitzkrieg in recent weeks, History Channel unveiled the first installment of its two-part biographical miniseries Houdini on Monday, September 1, 2014. Considering all the hype, the finished product seems both rushed and dubious in terms of its presentation of the world’s most famous magician and illusionist. Born Erich Weisz in Budapest, Austria-Hungary in 1874 and immigrating to the United States so that his father could become the rabbi of a congregation in Wisconsin, Weisz took up the name of “Harry Houdini” (a sort of homage to French magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin) and became a traveling magician on the carny circuit, debuting as a magician in 1891. By the end of the decade, Houdini (married to a fellow performer named Bess who had taken over as his assistant) had gained fame for his ability to escape from handcuffs and jail cells, often staging these demonstrations publicly.

houdini, the man
Houdini, the man…

The Houdini miniseries chronicles the major events of the magician’s life, starting with a haphazard retelling of his childhood. From here, the narrative skips around a bit and focuses largely on the development and execution of Houdini’s trademark escapes, including ones where he escaped from the inside of a steel milk container, from inside a safe, and even from a “Chinese Water Torture Chamber” while being suspended upside-down. This first episode also devotes time to detailing the relationship between Houdini and his wife Bess, but this is one of the areas where the program seems to go a little astray.


…and a progression of screen representations. Adrien Brody on far right.

In my mind, the writer here (Nicholas Meyer, perhaps best known as the writer and/or director of several of the Star Trek films) has taken some pretty extensive liberties in telling this story – and seems to have had an ulterior motive to reveal the secrets behind as many magic tricks as possible, thus violating the cardinal rule of magicians. Houdini seems heavily dramatized to the point where one could make a strong case for this being a presentation of revisionist history. Officially based on Bernard C. Meyer’s 1976 book Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait, Nicholas Meyer’s script very much plays out in that sort of manner, more focused on what’s going on in Houdini’s head than on accurately portraying the events of his life. This tactic becomes especially noticeable during a few scenes (which will undoubtedly interest students of Freud) in which Houdini’s father intrudes on the narrative as a threatening figure. Personally, I found these attempts to delve into Houdini’s mindset to be thoroughly distracting: a sequence in which Houdini attempts to “catch” a bullet fired from a musket in his teeth becomes hilariously overblown when the German soldier shooting the firearm suddenly transforms into a hallucination of Houdini’s father. Subtlety is not one of this film’s strong points.

on stage
Wife Bess (Kristen Connolly) and Houdini (Adrien Brody) on stage.

Houdini plays out as if Meyer and director Uli Edel (whose filmmaking career has been all over the place since the genuinely excellent German-made 1983 coming of age film Christiane F.) are making this into one big, painfully predictable soap opera. I’m not by any stretch an expert on Houdini’s personal life, but for him to have stereotypically strained relationships with both his wife and his father seems like it may be a stretch – a gimmick invented just for the purpose of making this miniseries more melodramatic. Similarly questionable is the script’s decision to devote a substantial amount of time to the idea that Houdini may have been a spy working for the U.S. government during his tours of Europe in the early twentieth century. This idea has become more popular in recent years following works like William Kalush and Larry Sloman’s The Secret Life of Houdini published in 2007. In my estimation, such claims are rather far fetched: focusing a significant (or really, any) amount of time on them in this History Channel biopic suggests that there’s not a whole lot in Houdini that a viewer can really take at face value.

major excapes
Houdini chronicles all the major events of the magician’s life, but there’s no vitality to the piece.

Another major issue I had was the fact that there is extensive use of voiceover in this film – the Houdini character is constantly explaining himself in monologue to the camera. This makes the whole program seem sloppy in terms of its construction – especially when one factors in the relatively high number of montages that exist. Meyer and in turn, director Edel appear to be telling the story in about as lazy and convenient a manner as possible, with little creativity or inspiration. As is the case with many modern films, Edel relies on a string of CGI visuals to distract a viewer into believing he’s watching something that’s better than it actually is. Though the computer graphics allow the viewer to see the inner workings of various locks as Houdini manipulates their gears and pins and also allow for breathtaking views of the skylines of New York City, London, and Berlin circa 1900, during a few moments in this first episode, Houdini borders on being downright laughable due to its soap opera theatrics. The bathroom confrontation between Houdini and his wife (in which he screams about her kissing another man while she urges him to “stop being dramatic” – advice that screenwriter Meyer should have followed himself) and a scene in which Houdini showers his mother with gold coins are ludicrous and very nearly unintentionally hilarious in the manner they’re set-up onscreen. It’s not difficult to see why Edel hasn’t gotten much work in the United States since he fumbled his way through 1993’s Body of Evidence – a film whose sole reason for existence was to feature Madonna naked as much as humanly possible.

prepping
Houdini, Jim Collins (played by Evan Jones) and Bess prepare the straight-jacket escape.

One might have hoped that Academy Award winner Adrien Brody would have known better than to star in this thing, but here he is, playing Houdini as a sort of pompous, self-affected and disturbed genius with a bit of an Oedipus complex. The very pretty Kristen Connolly playing Bess comes across as the typical, long suffering wife, a portrayal that doesn’t seem particularly accurate. There’s a constant hostility between these two characters that makes neither of them the least bit likable, in turn making the whole of the first part of Houdini a definitive downer to watch. A variety of mostly unknown actors fill out the remainder of the roles here, with Evan Jones perhaps having the most to do as Jim Collins, who worked behind the scenes to design Houdini’s illusions. Generally speaking, the actors in this film were fine, it was the script that they were given – and the presentation of that script – that wound up being problematic.

the real houdini
The real Houdini preparing for a near-fatal dive off the Queen Street Bridge in Melbourne, Australia. This scene both begins and ends part one of the mini-series.

Though the attention to period detail was generally well-done and the production had some nicely-constructed individual sequences (one of the aspects I liked the most were slickly edited moments in which Houdini’s “life flashes before his eyes”), the first half of Houdini, taken as a whole, was disappointing and clearly focused on style over substance. I’ve often pointed out that it’s most unfortunate that pieces like this have to be rather dubious in terms of their historical accuracy: the information presented in this miniseries would represent the only information many viewers are likely to get about Houdini, hence, this crowd would now view the greatest magician the world has ever known as a womanizer with father issues and a horrible home life. I suppose I really shouldn’t be all that shocked that Houdini would turn out to be a somewhat (or is it mostly?) sensationalized biopic that, with its occasionally frenzied editing scheme, use of “pulse-pounding music,” and fractured, clumsy narrative, seems tailor-made for the ADHD generation (a crowd that would probably enjoy it).  Clearly, this miniseries (like most of the “educational” programs on television nowadays) is designed to hook viewers with flash and pizazz while not necessarily being all that historically accurate or educationally sound. Still, even as the edutainment piece is quite obviously is, Houdini seems sketchy at best; sure, it’s a handsome production, but I might be inclined to skip it entirely.