The Incredible Burt Wonderstone


Jim Carrey is smirking because Steve Carell is signing a blank check; Steve Buscemi has his doubts that this is at all legal.

Jim Carrey is smirking because Steve Carell is signing a blank check; Steve Buscemi has his doubts that this is at all legal.

(2013) Comedy (New Line) Steve Carell, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini, Jay Mohr, Brad Garrett, David Copperfield, Michael Bully Herbig, Mason Cook, Luke Vanek, Zachary Gordon, Fiona Hale, Joshua Chandler Erenberg, Gillian Jacobs. Directed by Don Scardino

Everyone loves a magician and why not? Their jobs are to instill wonder and mystery in our lives which are mostly lacking in both. And the modern Mecca for magicians is the glory that is the Las Vegas Strip. It is what most magicians aspire to – a long-running show at a major Casino and yet that can be a trap as well.

Burt Wonderstone (Carell) is a Vegas institution. His long-running show at the Aztec casino with partner Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) has run for a decade to packed houses and acclaim galore and to think it all started when he was a kid whose mom gave him a birthday present of a magic kit from renowned Vegas magician Rance Holloway (Arkin).

But times are changing. Burt and Anton’s “magical friendship” has degenerated into mutual loathing. Burt’s ego is bigger than all of the Strip casinos combined and Anton is tired of being treated like a flunky. Their latest assistant Jane (Wilde), whom Burt calls “Nicole” as he does every stage assistant has dreams of her own but Burt thinks of her as disposable eye candy who’s more interested in sleeping with him (which she isn’t). Most importantly, Burt and Anton are playing to half full houses, a fact not lost on casino boss Doug Munny (Gandolfini).

Also not lost on Doug is that there is a street magician named Steve Gray (Carrey) who has a TV show (“Brain Rape”) and far more credibility. He is the self-professed “future of marriage” who sleeps on hot coals, hold his urine for a week or does a card trick in which he pulls the card through a self-inflicted wound on his face. Burt and Anton try a stunt of their own which doesn’t go very well.

This turns out to be the final straw for Anton who quits the act as does Jane. Burt tries to do the act solo but this turns out to be a hideous disaster. It also nets him a pink slip. Reduced to playing big box stores to extol paper towels that make “stains disappear” and in retirement homes (where he meets a now-wizened Rance Holloway), Burt begins to discover what he lost in the big Vegas theater – the wonder and joy of magic. With Jane and Anton behind him, he begins to put together a trick so amazing, so spectacular that nobody’s even thought of it before. But can they pull it off or will their comeback be derailed before it starts?

I will admit to a certain amount of fondness for magic acts and so this was right in my comfort zone. It’s kind of ironic to see Carrey and Carell in this together; some might recall from Bruce Almighty that Carrey was the lead and Carell the scene-stealing support act. Now their roles are reversed. Carrey does some of his best work of his career as the megalomaniacal Steve Gray. Carrey is manic but not so over-the-top that it degenerates into mugging, one of Carrey’s signature sins. Here he channels Criss Angel and David Blaine in equal parts and throws in some Bugs Bunny for good measure. He is fun every moment he’s onscreen.

Carell is a solid performer who can carry a movie on his shoulders but considering the ample support he gets here he can be a little bit more laid back and less forced. He gets a little bit too laidback though and the character disappears at times (which is a neat trick in a movie about magicians). Arkin is as reliable an actor as there is right now and the recently Oscar-nominated Arkin again is amazing.

The movie is sweet to the core and you’ll leave the theater with the warm fuzzies. This isn’t the kind of movie that’s going to bring you any particular insight, nor will it stick with you too long after the credits roll. But it will most likely leave you feeling better coming out than you did going in and that’s a kind of magic all of it’s own.

REASONS TO GO: Sweet natured and inoffensive. Some of Carrey’s best work in recent years.

REASONS TO STAY: Needs more wonder and less muddle. Predictable plot points.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a bunch of dangerous stunts performed here that shouldn’t be tried at home under any circumstances (keeping in mind that most of them are accomplished here by special effects anyway). There’s also a fair amount of bad language, some drug usage and a little bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the Burt Wonderstone character was originally Burt Dickinson.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100; the reviews were pretty mediocre trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wedding Singer

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Gatekeepers

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Submarine


Submarine

Oliver Tate, like many teens, is a bit fuzzy on bathing.

(2010) Dramedy (Weinstein) Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine, Darren Evans, Osian Cai Dulais, Lily McCann, Otis Lloyd, Elinor Crawley, Steffan Rhodri, Gemma Chan, Melanie Walters, Sion Tudor Owen . Directed by Richard Ayoade

We are for the most part the stars of our own ongoing movie, and often we see ourselves in a different light than how we are actually perceived. The younger we are, often the more pronounced this divide is.

Oliver Tate (Roberts) lives in the Southern Welsh coastal town of Swansea (an amusing note from Oliver preceding the credits on the American release reinforces this) as a 15-year-old boy convinced of his own intelligence and popularity. He imagines a national mourning at his untimely death, and a resurrection to delighted teenage girls, prompting a miasma of hormonal bliss.

When confronted with actual female attraction, in the form of the much cooler and cynical Jordana (Paige) who also has a thing for lighting fires, he adopts a deer in the headlights expression, leading to a kiss which he learns later is meant to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. It backfires and the two are badly bullied with Oliver getting beat up when he gallantly refuses to say publically that his erstwhile lady is a slut. She walks him home and kisses him for real, leading Oliver to determine that she is now, officially, his Girlfriend (capitalized on purpose here).

But all is not sunshine and mince pies. Oliver’s parents are slowly drifting apart, a malaise that has led to a lack of sex (which the ever-spying Oliver determines by the level of the dimmer switch in their bedroom). That malaise is exacerbated by the arrival of new next door neighbor Graham (Considine, in a role that might have gone to Colin Farrell in a bigger budget production) as a would-be new age guru, who also used to be his mom’s Boyfriend. Oliver’s mum Jill (Hawkins) seems disposed towards re-fanning those flames, attending Graham’s lectures slavishly while her husband Lloyd (Taylor) diffidently drowns in depression, a marine biologist sinking into an ocean of emotional dissonance.

Thus Oliver decides he must reverse this trend because a divorce would essentially inconvenience him. However, Jordana is undergoing a crisis of her own – her mum (Walters) is desperately ill and may not survive the surgery she is about to undergo. Oliver decides that Jordana would benefit by his absence (and Oliver is more wrapped up in his own drama in any case) and deserts her at her most crucial moment. Can Oliver reconcile all the relationships around him that are crumbling?

This isn’t your typical teen coming of age movie, at least not by Hollywood standards. Despite being mid-80s set (and with all the pretension that implies), there is an intelligence here that is sorely lacking in the big studio teen movies. The kids here, while they operate essentially independently of their families (as kids that age often do), are still connected with them and are certainly not smarter than their parents although they fancy themselves to be.

Oliver is genuinely fond of his parents and they of him, which is refreshing – the relationship between Oliver and his folks is a complicated one as parent-teen relationships usually are. None of  the protagonists are perfect; they all are flawed in believable ways, from Lloyd’s inertia-challenged existence to Jill’s indecisive neediness to Oliver’s own search for his own niche and his teen-fueled arrogance.

Oliver himself is so prone to doing unintentionally cruel things that at times you get right angry at him until you think “he’s only a boy.” That is the underlying truth about Oliver. His inexperience and his lack of empathy often motivate those cruelties but if you look deep enough, he’s a decent young lad with the potential to be a good man someday. Roberts, whose narration has all the crack-voiced earnestness of a teen trying to fill an adult’s shoes before he is truly ready, is brilliant here.

Hawkins and Taylor, both veterans of English film and television, make a perfect couple. Both on the mousy side, both intellectual and both somewhat permissive in their parental techniques, they seem on the surface to be enabling their spouse’s behaviors but they are in fact well-suited to one another and there is certainly some hope that they’ll work things out (but as the film makes clear, their relationship is on far from stable ground and could go either way). Considine provides comic relief as the libidinous guru who may be self-absorbed but also has a good deal of pain and compassion deep down.

This isn’t a movie for everybody; there are no pat answers and the ending only hints at an uneasy peace; both relationships are fragile and have much work needed to survive, and there are no guarantees that either one will. Still, Oliver for all his posturing is a character you won’t soon forget and perhaps he has enough will to carry both relationships forward. You wind up kind of hoping that he does.

REASONS TO GO: A smart teenage coming-of-age movie blows most of Hollywood’s entries into the subject, not to mention all the smug Disney Channel characters. Directed with an eye towards innovative storytelling.

REASONS TO STAY: Oliver’s incompetency in social situations can be grating at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some sexuality involved.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ben Stiller, who co-produced the movie (and has championed it throughout its run) cameos as an actor in an American soap opera that Oliver watches early on in the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: This is mostly available in Art Houses in selected locations such as our own beloved Enzian Theater and should be seen there if possible, but at home is certainly ok if it’s not playing anywhere near you.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Resident Evil: Afterlife

Snowmen


Snowmen

Can you guess which kid farted?

(2010) Family Drama (MPower) Bobby Coleman, Josh Flitter, Ray Liotta, Christopher Lloyd, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Christian Martyn, Doug E. Doug, Demi Petersen, Beverley Mitchell, Jennifer Klekas, Carolina Andrus. Directed by Robert Kirbyson

There are those who believe that the greatest tragedy in life is a life unrealized. We all yearn to make a mark, to accomplish something that will live on long after we’re gone. However, it is admittedly rare for a ten-year-old to think about such things.

Then again, there aren’t many ten-year-olds like Billy Kirkfield (Coleman). Billy loves the snow; loves to build snow forts, snow men and throw snowballs at his friends, and in Silver Lake, Colorado, there is plenty of snow to go around. Unfortunately, Billy doesn’t have a lot of friends. Many of them distanced themselves from him when Billy got cancer. His hair still hasn’t grown back from the chemotherapy, so he wears a wool cap wherever he goes.

When Howard Garvey (Thompson) moves in next door from Jamaica, it turns out to be quite a culture shock for the both of them but they instantly bond over – what else – snowballs. Howard becomes the third member of the outsiders at school, the severely put-upon and timid Lucas (Martyn) being the third. In fact, it’s somewhat fitting that Lucas’ last name is Lamb. The three bond when they discover the body of an 87 year old man in the snowdrift they’re building their snow fort in.

But this is no Stand By Me. The appearance of the dead guy forces Billy to confront his own pending mortality. It appears the cancer has reappeared – nobody is telling him straight out, but his parents have been more affectionate than usual and the hospital is calling every day. Billy knows he doesn’t have long, and he wants to leave a lasting mark before he goes. After some thought and a few less-than-successful attempts at doing something cool, Billy hits upon the idea of setting a world record for most snowmen built in 24 hours.

There are plenty of issues standing in his way, including a vicious bully (Flitter), a less than enthusiastic principal (Mitchell) and his somewhat distant Dad (Liotta), who is trying to pay off the medical bills, run his used car dealership and find some time for his son. Billy is playing his “dying kid” card like a shopaholic with a no-limit credit card, but he doesn’t know how long he has – and the odds are steep against him.

This could easily have been one of those made for Nickelodeon movies in which the kids are smarter than the adults and are plucky and resourceful without breaking a sweat. These kids are far from perfect; their greatest asset is their willingness to take their dream as far as it can take them.

Coleman reminded me a little bit of Sean Astin in The Goonies – not so much facially, but in his enthusiasm and leadership. Not that the two movies are similar – only that the two leads have a lot of similar characteristics, especially in terms of their heart and drive. Coleman also does a good job conveying the anguish he feels when his hat is torn off of him by Jason, exposing his bald head for all to see.

Liotta plays a bit of a cartoon used car salesman with outrageous commercials and a penchant for endless self-promotion, but at the end of the day he’s a good dad, wracked with guilt over what his son is forced to go through. It’s a marvelously affecting performance and reminds us that Liotta can be as good an actor as anyone in the business.

Also of note is a cameo by Christopher Lloyd as the caretaker of the cemetery where the old man whose body the boys found is buried. While the part essentially exists to get the filmmaker’s life lesson across, Lloyd handles it with dignity and surprising restraint. While we all know him for the Reverend Jim on TV and Doc Brown in the movies, he doesn’t necessarily have to overplay to be memorable.

I liked that the movie wasn’t so much a formula family movie, although there were some moments that left me groaning inside (how did Howard, who could barely stand on his skates and on the way across the pond “only” fell tweve times, suddenly turn into a speed skater near the end of the movie for example). However, it’s kind of rare for a family film these days to be thoughtful and unafraid to tackle difficult issues. Too many films in this genre dumb themselves down and go for really lowbrow laughs and to my mind, refuse to respect the intelligence of their audience. Kids may be inexperienced and lack sophistication but that doesn’t make them morons and it’s nice to see a film that doesn’t treat them that way. Here is a family movie worth seeing that wasn’t made by Pixar – now there’s a mark worth leaving behind.

REASONS TO GO: Heart-warming without being sickly sweet, with some fine performances from the young actors.

REASONS TO STAY: There are a couple of moments that nearly jump the shark.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter may be a bit much for smaller children and there is a scene near the end that might be too intense for younger kids but perfectly fine for kids ten and up – and a good jumping-off point for a dialogue about death for kids who may have experienced the loss of a loved one or a friend.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film, which was runner-up for the Audience Award at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, was based on Kirbyson’s experiences growing up in Winnipeg.

HOME OR THEATER: If you can see it in a theater, by all means do – however, chances are you’ll have to wait for a home video release.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Kinyarwanda

Dragonball: Evolution


Dragonball: Evolution

Chow Yun Fat has had it with script revisions.

(20th Century Fox) Justin Chatwin, Chow Yun Fat, James Marsters, Emmy Rossum, Jamie Chung, Eriko Tamura, Joon Park, Texas Battle, Ernie Hudson, Ernie Duk Kim . Directed by James Wong

In the 80s and 90s Japan cranked out an amazing amount of animated material called anime that made it to American shores, mostly terribly dubbed and hard for Western audiences to follow. Some of it was best left forgotten but some of it became cultural phenomena particularly amongst pre-adolescent boys.

Goku (Chatwin) is a bit of an outcast, a young high school student who has few friends. He lives with his grandfather (Kim), a martial arts master who teaches his grandson how to fight, then forbids him to fight with those who pick on him. Goku is also smitten by a beautiful Asian girl, Chi-Chi (Chung) who invites him to a party.

The party happens to fall on Goku’s 18th birthday. His grandfather gives him a special gift; a Dragon Ball, one of seven in the entire world. Assembling the seven supposedly gives the wielder one wish that can be fulfilled. Goku kind of pooh-poohs the thought and sneaks out to the party.

While there, he is attacked by bullies and decides to stand up for himself instead of walking away. He doesn’t actually hit anybody, but he cleverly avoids blows until he has managed to beat his assailants, winning the admiration of Chi-Chi. However, Goku senses that something is terribly wrong and runs home to find his house destroyed and his grandfather dying. The old man’s dying words is to seek out Master Roshi.

In the wreckage there is an intruder, a beautiful woman named Bulma (Rossum) who is seeking the Dragon Balls for her own reasons. She has, however, an invaluable aid – a device that detects the energy signatures of the Dragon Balls.

This will come in handy because someone else is also seeking out the objects; an alien called Lord Piccolo (Marsters), who was imprisoned below the Earth by the creation of the Dragon Balls and now seeks to resurrect his bestial henchman Ozaru and finish the job of destroying the Earth which he had very nearly accomplished thousands of years before.

Roshi (Fat) knows more about the Dragon Balls than anyone alive and is a mighty martial artist in his own right, having trained Goku’s grandfather despite seemingly being much younger. The three, accompanied by a young thief named Yamcha (Park) are in a race to find the Dragon Balls before Lord Piccolo does. Hanging in the balance is the fate of the Earth (cue suspenseful music).

What to say about this movie? Visually, it can be pretty spectacular. The fight scenes are well-staged and Chatwin and his fellow actors are highly likable – or in Marsters case, highly hissable. The filmmakers made an effort to make the action and characters a little more relatable for general audiences.

Unfortunately, in doing so they made some serious changes to the Dragon Ball mythology that is sure to really piss off the fans of the original series. They also make the plot overly complicated and full of inconsistencies and logical flaws that will make you shake your head, and unexplained holes that will make your head spin around on your neck until it detaches and shoots into space like a bottle rocket, exploding when it reaches its apogee.

Basically, the only reason to see this is because its eye candy. It’s a really good looking movie with some thought put into the special effects and action scenes. It’s too bad the same amount of thought didn’t go into the script. This might have been a really good movie if they had done so.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the fight sequences and special effects are pretty nifty. The movie is a new take on the original anime material, and tries to bring it to a more mature audience.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overall the movie is a little bit bland and a little nonsensical. Those who aren’t fans of the original will probably not go flocking to it based on this.

FAMILY VALUES: Cartoonish violence and mild language concerns make this acceptable for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script for the movie sat on the shelf for years, until the writer’s strike forced Fox to film some scripts they already had. X-Files: I Want to Believe was another project that happened in the same fashion.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition has a game, and the DVD and Blu-Ray editions both have a couple of Fox Movie Channel specials that aired when the movie got its theatrical release.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)

Charlie Bartlett


Charlie Bartlett

Charlie and his mom sing the theme song from Harold and Maude.

(MGM) Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey Jr., Hope Davis, Kat Dennings, Tyler Hilton, Mark Rendall, Dylan Taylor, Megan Park, Jeff Epstein. Directed by Jon Poll

One of the curses of humankind is our ability to forget as adults just how difficult it is to be a teenager. We forget what it means to be ignored. We forget what it is like to be unheard.

Charlie Bartlett (Yelchin) would seem to have an ideal teen life. He comes from money – a lot of it – and while his father is nowhere to be seen (his absence isn’t explained until near the end of the movie and giving you any detail about where he is would ruin the movie), his mother (Davis) is around, so to speak. She is popping pills and booze like there’s no tomorrow, so Charlie pretty much gets to do what he wants.

Predictably, what he wants is to rebel against authority and he gets kicked out of private school after private school until there are none left. The only alternative is (gulp) public school. Charlie approaches his new school with all the regard of a convict examining death row. His fears are soon realized. Charlie, hopelessly ill-equipped for public school survival, wears a tie and jacket to school and carries a briefcase. He might as well walk up to the school bully and announce “I’d like you to kick my ass at your earliest convenience.” Said bully, in the person of Murphy Bivens (Hilton), obliges him regularly.

Charlie’s mom, believing that her son could use a little guidance, sends him off to a battery of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and counselors, who prescribe him a variety of drugs. Charlie hits upon the idea of distributing these to the student body through his new pal and business partner Bivens, who recognizes a good business deal when he sees it.

Charlie also soon realizes his contact with psychiatrists and such have given him a little knowledge of the subject, and his status as a teenager gives him further insight into the teen condition. Soon, he begins having therapy sessions in the school bathroom and the kids, eager to be listened to by anyone, are lining up to vent.

Charlie also develops an attraction for Susan Gardner (Dennings), a pretty and surprisingly well-adjusted girl who returns his affections. This doesn’t sit well with her dad (Downey), who is as crappy a father as you are likely to see in a movie – when he isn’t drowning his sorrows in the study. You see, Susan’s dad has a thankless, nearly impossible job – he’s the principal at the school attended by Susan and Charlie.

Naturally, Charlie’s little enterprise doesn’t sit well with the powers that be and soon things come to a head. Charlie’s struggles against authority and authority’s tendency to react poorly to a challenge to that authority may land Charlie in deeper trouble than he has ever been in before.

Most teen comedies these days seem to revolve around unpopular guys trying to score with girls way, way, way out of their league. The bulk of them are raunchy and sexy, so it is somewhat refreshing to encounter a comedy aimed at teens that actually treats them with some respect rather than as hormone-crazed infants. Charlie is a fleshed out character who, while sharing a great deal in common with Ferris Bueller, still manages to be one of the most memorable 17-year-olds I’ve seen onscreen in awhile.

It doesn’t hurt to have one of the best actors of his generation to play off of, and Downey as usual delivers. He has a fairly thankless role that doesn’t require very much of him until near the end of the movie, but when the time comes for Downey to shine, he does with a vengeance. Yelchin is not a bad actor in his own right when he gets a good role, and he has one here and he makes the most of it. Sure, sometimes Charlie is arrogant and foolish but what teenager isn’t?

Yeah, there are some definite flaws here. For one thing, the adults are entirely unsympathetic on a nearly universal level; I understand the need to reinforce that kids feel un-listened to but I think that if you’re going to give kids credit to be smarter onscreen, give them the credit offscreen to be able to understand that not all adults are insensitive to their needs.

Still, this is a movie that has some ideas to share and while they aren’t always successful, director Poll and his team are successful enough to allow me to recommend this to teenagers unreservedly and to adults somewhat less so – certainly adults aren’t the target audience here, but those seeking out some insight into the teen psyche could benefit from a viewing.

WHY RENT THIS: An insightful theme that hits the mark from time to time. Terrific performances from Yelchin and Downey.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Like many movies meant to appeal to teens, adults are seen nearly uniformly as unsympathetic and/or flat-out stupid. Script is uneven despite the best intentions of the writers.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of rough language, some drug usage and brief nudity make this unsuitable for children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hope Davis, who plays Anton Yelchin’s mom here, also played his mom in the 2001 film Hearts in Atlantis.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The bathroom confessional scenes are re-created by the cast and crew.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Race to Witch Mountain