For his next astounding feat, Appellate Judge Dan Mancini will cut the word count of this review in half.
Our reviews of The 5 Lives Of Criss Angel Mindfreak (published January 29th, 2010), Criss Angel Mindfreak: Halloween Special (published November 29th, 2006), Criss Angel Mindfreak: The Best of Seasons 1 and 2 (published June 4th, 2008), Criss Angel Mindfreak: The Complete Season Four (published January 21st, 2009), Criss Angel Mindfreak: The Complete Season Six (published January 22nd, 2011), Criss Angel Mindfreak: The Complete Season Three (published January 31st, 2008), and Criss Angel Mindfreak: The Complete Season Two (published June 27th, 2007) are also available.
MINDFREAK: \Mind*freak\, n1: a modern day mystifier who utilizes skills beyond the category of magic. 2: the result of something incomprehensible. 3: Supernatural. 4: Criss Angel.
If David Blaine is the old-timey stage magician reinvented as a mumbling, street-bound, Starbucks barista-style slacker, then Criss Angel is the old-timey stage magician with a rock star veneer of tousled hair, chiseled abs, chunky Doc Martens, and bling. He looks like the kind of guy who beats up Starbucks baristas and steals their mousy girlfriends just because he can. Like Blaine, Angel eschews the glitzy stages, Liberace-esque costumery, sprayed coiffures, flamboyant hand gestures, and sequined female assistants of David Copperfield and his ilk in favor of sleight of hand and death-defying stunts performed in the seemingly uncontrolled environment of the street.
Though he's been around since the late '90s, Angel rose to national prominence in the world of magic with a 2003 television special called Supernatural. It was successful enough to convince the suits at A&E to add Mindfreak—a 30-minute weekly show—to their 2005 line-up. This two-disc set offers all 15 episodes of the show's first season:
I've probably made too much of the Angel/Blaine rivalry for the sake of crafting an entertaining opening for this review, but there really is a parallel in the performers' deconstruction of traditional stage magic. One could say that Angel and Blaine are the direct descendents of Penn and Teller (minus the irreverence), but in truth, each is chasing after the massive pop culture appeal of that most famous of illusionists and escape artists, Harry Houdini. Angel's earthy, street-bound tricks and stunts are a self-conscious attempt to return to the earthy and often street-bound tricks and stunts with which Houdini enthralled audiences of the early 20th century. A product of the early 21st century, the earthiness of Angel's magic is all carefully constructed, of course, but if you're willing to suspend disbelief it works incredibly well. Mindfreak will leave you asking, "How'd he do that?" And isn't that the only true mark of success for a magic show?
Though Angel is a street magician, his street happens to be the Las Vegas strip, so his shtick feels slightly more grounded in traditional magic showmanship than Blaine's, in spite of the postmodern façade. As the titles above indicate, each episode of the show centers around one astounding and often dangerous (or so it seems) "demonstration," padded if necessary by more traditional sleight of hand tricks performed among bystanders milling about in and around the Aladdin casino where Angel is based. Mindfreak cleverly uses reality show conventions to draw us into Angel's illusions. Whether he's lighting himself on fire, levitating strangers, burying himself alive, or hanging beneath a helicopter from flesh-piercing hooks, the stunts themselves amount to about five minutes of the show's 23-minute running time. Most of the rest of the 18 minutes are comprised of talking head interviews with Angel discussing the mind/body/spirit discipline required to pull off his tricks. His demeanor is almost comically sober and self-congratulatory. Magic historian Richard Cohn, and magicians and Mindfreak consultants Johnny Thompson and Luke Jermay join the fun by providing us with a history of the trick Angel is attempting, as well as assurances of its dangers. We also get copious amounts of Criss's brothers J.D. and Costa, his mother, and his "girl" JoAnn, wringing their hands, biting their lips, furrowing their brows, and wishing aloud that Criss will decide not to go through with his latest crazy scheme. Guest stars like magician Lance Burton, Rob Zombie, Mandy Moore, and Korn lead singer Jonathan Davis also show up for various episodes to express their disbelief at Angel's death-defying bravery. It's all part of the show but, again, effective if one is willing to play along.
Perhaps most cleverly, Angel uses failure to heighten the show's drama. In the "Buried Alive" episode, Criss and guest star Rob Zombie watch video footage from the 1980s of a San Francisco escape artist who died when the Lucite coffin in which he'd buried himself was crushed by the weight of the dirt and concrete piled and poured atop it. In the "Superhuman" episode, Criss's initial attempts to lift the front end of a Las Vegas cab off of the ground with his bare hands are unsuccessful. The crowd is stunned and worried until Criss digs deeps and gets the job done. Similarly, the pain of being lifted by the hooks piercing the flesh of his back in "Body Suspension" appears at first to be too severe until Angel rallies his mind, body, and spirit.
From MTV's The Real World to network shows like Survivor and American Idol, we've been conditioned for over a decade now in the conventions of TV shows pretending to present unvarnished reality. Mindfreak's adhering to those conventions—its delicate mix of stunts, talking head interview segments, and cinema verité-style moments of Angel and his crew cruising the Aladdin—sells the magic and drama. If this DVD set has a weakness, it's that watching the episodes back-to-back tends to expose Angel's use of those conventions. If you're going to purchase Criss Angel: Mindfreak: The Complete Season One, I recommend you watch an episode a week. Doing so will help to sustain the magic.
A&E's presentation of the show leaves little room for complaint. The full screen transfer is as good as the source, which is to say not as good as a big-budget film but still clear, detailed, and loaded with bold colors as one would expect of a television show shot with high-end video equipment in 2005. The stereo audio is beefy and crystal clear.
In addition to the 15 episodes of the show, this two-disc set includes a solid menu of extras. Disc One contains commentaries by Criss Angel for the "Buried Alive" and "Body Suspension" episodes. Angel is casual and conversational, but those hoping he reveals the stunts' secrets will be disappointed. Mostly, the tracks add another layer to the reality show veneer as Angel reiterates the challenges and dangers involved in the two demonstrations.
Disc Two contains three interactive illusions: Card Force, Mental Yarn, and Book Test. They're all fairly basic and obvious magic tricks, but they're well executed for an interactive DVD feature (they worked on me, anyway). "Inside the Mind of Criss Angel" is a 12-minute interview in which the magician discusses his influences, his place in the world of magic, and the production of Mindfreak. There is also a photo gallery with 19 production pictures, as well as a text-based biography of Angel. The final extra is a DVD-ROM feature called "3 Mindfreaks." A sampling from Angel's book, 55 Mindfreaks, it's a group of pdf files that explain how to reproduce three of the magician's illusions.
In a post-modern culture numbed by elaborate computer-generated special effects, and savvy to the use of images to manipulate the hearts and minds of audiences, creating a compelling hour-long television special is challenge enough for a professional magician. That Criss Angel has produced fifteen episodes of a weekly series that manage to entertain (provided they're not consumed in large doses) is quite an achievement. Angel's no Houdini (who is?), and it's difficult to tell whether he's parodying magicians' pseudo-spirituality or actually takes himself seriously. Either way, his stunts and illusions are surprisingly fun to watch. The sparkling image and sound, and decent offering of extras on this DVD will please fans of Mindfreak, and maybe even reality TV junkies.
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• Commentaries by Criss Angel on Two Episodes
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