“Houdini” begins with a striking image of the escape artist Harry Houdini (Adrien Brody) perched on a bridge, shackled, as he works up the nerve to jump into the icy water below. The first sound we hear is a ghostly woman’s voice whispering, “Harry, can you hear me?” We have no idea where the voice is coming from or what the words mean, but it immediately establishes a dreamlike quality for this ambitious miniseries (Monday, 8 p.m., History Channel).
“Dreamlike” is an appropriate tone for a biopic that attempts to psychoanalyze Houdini, the one-of-a-kind phenomenon from the early 20th century. It gets inside his head to figure out why he risked his life to amaze his audiences: dangling from skyscrapers in a straitjacket, immersing himself upside down in a “Chinese Water Torture Cell,” and the other creative stunts we still remember him for.
While the first 90 minutes are perfectly realized, the second half sags. Like its predecessor, the 1953 Tony Curtis movie of the same name, “Houdini” unwisely starts making stuff up. Drawing on the thinnest evidence, it fabricates a spy career for its hero and a marijuana habit for his wife, Bess (Kristen Connolly). It also strains to pin his untimely death on the phony mediums he dedicated himself to exposing.
But don’t bail out before the last scene, following the funeral. Having been inside his head, we know that Houdini ultimately desired to escape from death itself.
Friday, 8:30 p.m. (PBS)
“Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning” tells the story of the photographer best known for documenting the Great Depression, most notably the iconic image of suffering she called “Migrant Mother.” Lange was a bohemian artist who shunned conventional family life (much to her children’s dismay) to immerse herself in her work. With funding from the New Deal, she fearlessly walked through shantytowns, dust storms and waterfront strikes to put a face on the Depression’s miseries. People had never seen such beautifully composed photographs of grim reality.
The documentary is directed and narrated by Lange’s granddaughter, Dyanna Taylor, who organizes it around black-and-white footage of Lange putting together a one-woman show for the Museum of Modern Art in 1964. In her old age, Lange herself proves to be an intriguing camera subject, given to grand pronouncements about her art. “Beauty appears when one feels deeply,” she says. “It is an act of total attention.”
I recommend giving total attention to this irresistible documentary.
Friday, 8 p.m. (Animal Planet)
You can practically smell the sawdust in this reality series about twin brothers who run a California wood-carving business. Actually, the phrase “wood carving” doesn’t really do it justice. The Daniels boys salvage enormous redwoods, then use enormous chainsaws to shape them into mind-blowing play structures. This is whittling on an epic scale.
You can’t help but hold your breath waiting for someone to lose a limb as the brothers play with their dangerous equipment. As one of their crew members says when chopping down a 20,000-pound tree, “In this situation, a lot of things can go wrong.”
Ya think? CV
Dean Robbins is a syndicated TV columnist from Madison, Wis. He graduated from Grinnell College. See more of his work at www.thedailypage.com