Virgil Films // 2002 // 240 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 8th, 2012
"Defies what is possible by pushing his body and mind to the limit."
I'll reveal the true secrets of magic for you right here: preparation, memory, and physical dexterity. That's it. Every single crazy trick you've ever seen a magician perform boils down to these three basic components: they've prepared something ahead of your viewing, been able to keep a lot of different things in mind, and had some physical skill to manipulate objects in front of you. Most magicians focus on one of these three domains for their primary power. A performer like David Copperfield obviously relies on preparation to make the Statue of Liberty disappear. Ricky Jay uses his prodigious memory to simultaneously track cards with his hands while maintaining a litany of stage patter on the history of magic. Houdini achieved his miraculous escapes by being able to control and contort his body in surprising ways.
David Blaine got his start with Street Magic, a TV special that was more in the vein of close-up magicians like Penn and Teller and Ricky Jay. That show ran its course, and Blaine decided to take the Houdini route keep the dollars rolling in. This decision led to the specials chronicled here, in David Blaine: Decade of Magic. Vertigo finds Blaine standing on a 100-foot-tall pillar, Drowned Alive finds him submerged in a tank for a week before a world-record breath-holding attempt, and What is Magic? culminates in Blaine's attempts to catch an actual bullet in his teeth.
To me, the best magic special of all time is HBO's Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants. Filmed in a theater in front of a participating audience, Jay performs a series of tricks while offering viewers a history lesson in his conjuring arts. It's a sublime performance dated only by the participants hairstyles, and for me it sets the bar high for any magic special. Having seen Ricky Jay, viewers can understand why I'm not a fan of Street Magic. Though I can't say anything for or against Blaine's close-up skills, the show's decision to focus on the audience reactions instead of Blaine's tricks simply didn't move me. My feeling is that if I wander around with a camera and the world's worst magic trick, I can eventually get enough astonished responses for 60 minutes of television.
However, even I was persuaded when Blaine started taking on endurance challenges. Though I'm sure many of his stunts involve assistance in ways we can't see as the audience, accomplishing things like burying himself alive for days or freezing himself in a block of ice demonstrate that he's got the guts and flair that true magic seems to thrive on.
The only problem is that endurance achievements are not particularly interesting to watch. When Houdini encases himself in a strait jacket and then hangs upside before escaping, there's a short time that viewers had to wait to see the trick performed and marveled at. Standing on top of a pillar for a day and a half is just not fun to look at. Obviously these specials don't just look at the stunts but all the buildup and aftermath. However, there is only so much visual interest to be had. It doesn't help that the filmmakers use every annoying trick in the book to make us get "excited" by Blaine's stunts. There's quick editing, grandiose camera movements, and lots of "tense" music to key us in to how to feel. Since we all know Blaine didn't die in any of these attempts, the suspense is somewhat wasted outside of the sometimes-live coverage Blaine's feats are given.
Of course, I'm obviously not the target audience for this DVD. Blaine obviously has lots of fans, and lots of people tune in to see his specials. This set is really for them, and I have to say it's a handsome package that takes Blaine and his achievements seriously. The three specials are on a single disc, and the set's extras on another. The specials all look like broadcast-quality television, with vivid colors and a decent amount of detail, though they are presented in standard definition 1.33:1 full frame with some additional material from widescreen sources (hence the black bars appear at the top and bottom of the screen). The Dolby 2.0 Stereo audio keep everything balanced, if a bit bombastic. The extras include five bonus bits of video. We get Blaine's talk at a TED conference, as well as a performance of magic in Soweto. There are three more feats included as extras as well: Blaine breaking a world record for breath-holding, going forty-four days without food, and swimming with great white sharks. These two discs are on a plastic tray illustrated with photos of Blaine and are housed inside a cardboard outer sleeve.
For those interested in the later stages of David Blaine's career as an endurance artist, the three specials collected here will be essential, especially in light of the solid extras included here. For those new to Blaine's antics, this set is a good way to experience his endurance-defying performances.
Not for everyone, but Not Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Virgil Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 240 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Illusions
* IMDb: Drowned Alive
* IMDb: Vertigo
* IMDb: What is Magic?