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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Rudo Y Cursi


Rudo Y Cursi

Hee Haw was never like this.

(Sony Classics) Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Guillermo Fracella, Dolores Heredia, Adriana Paz, Jessica Mas, Salvador Zerboni. Directed by Carlos Cuaron

When you have nothing, it follows you have nothing to lose. That’s not the way life really works, however – there is always something to lose.

Tato (Bernal) and Beto (Luna) Verdusco are a pair of brothers living in the small impoverished Mexican village of Tlachatlan, whose economy revolves mainly around the banana plantation. Their mother has had a succession of husbands, each one a loser in some way shape or form. Tato dreams of becoming rich and famous as a singer; Beto is more of a realist, having a wife (Paz) and child that he must support, which he is content to do as the assistant to the assistant foreman on the banana plantation.

They are both gifted soccer players and play on the local team on weekends. One fateful day, the expensive sports car of Batuta (Fracella), the best talent scout in Mexican soccer, breaks down in Tlachatlan on the day of a local game. Unable to get the local repair shop to move faster than the average snail, Batuta and the first in a series of gorgeous girlfriends decide to watch the game to alleviate the boredom.

He’s pleasantly surprised at the play of the brothers, each of whom has the talent to be a big star in the Mexican First Division of soccer. Unfortunately, Batuta can only take one of the brothers with him. As to which one he brings with him, it all boils down to a penalty kick.

It turns out the lucky brother is Tato, a forward with a scoring touch, leaving Beto angry and frustrated – pro soccer had been his dream, not Tato’s and Beto can’t help feeling cheated  by life. His wife Tona (Paz) is trying to help make ends meet by becoming a salesperson for a dietary supplement whose befits are murky at best. However, eventually when a club needs a goaltender, Batuta is able to bring Beto up for his own shot at the brass ring.

Both boys want to build a beachside home for their mother, but a is usually the case when those in abject poverty come into wealth, the money gets squandered, Beto on high stakes poker games, Tato on Maya (Mas), the beautiful supermodel and television personality that Tato is dating.

The two brothers wind up on rival teams, each brother having been given a nickname – Tato is Cursi (which can be translated as corny) and Beto is Rudo, which critics have translated as tough; that’s not quite the case. The word in Spanish implies a certain lack of manners or temprament. It’s not quite “Rude” which you might think it is, but it’s pretty close.

Over the past decade, Mexican cinema has really started to take off thanks to directors like Cuaron, whose brother directed the stunning Y Tu Mama Tambien (which Carlos wrote and Luna and Bernal starred in). Rather than playing rich kids exploring rural Mexico as was the case in the prior film, this time Bernal and Luna – who are actual childhood friends, part of the reason that their chemistry works so well together – are from a rural background, exploring the bright lights of the big city.

While soccer is a central theme to the movie, it remains a bit of a metaphor. The Beautiful Game is a ticket out of poverty, just as pro sports are here in the States. There, as here, there is a mystique to the lifestyle of the pro athlete. The fans in Mexico are a bit more rabid than you can imagine, however. For example, when Cursi goes on an extended scoring slump, he is given death threats by zealous fans – just before they ask him for his autograph.

Luna and Bernal have an uncommon chemistry that only comes from being close friends for a good long time. They have an easygoing rapport that descends into verbal shorthand from time to time; like any pair of brothers, their fights are more vicious than those between strangers and yet when push comes to shove, they are there for each other.

There is a lot of quirky humor here. When Cursi gets the big singing break he’s looking for, he chooses to do a norteno version of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” which would lead anyone to tell him not to quit his day job. The music video he makes for his song borders on the surreal.

Like most good cinema, there’s an element of the morality play here but the filmmakers choose not to hit you over the head with it. The movie pokes gentle fun at obsessions and dreams, and on the difference between the rural and the urban. The humor breaks down in places and descends from zaniness into silliness (the difference between the two is subtle yet profound), but has its heart in the right place. This is the kind of movie that could only be made in Mexico and it captures the sensibility and humor that seems to be in the DNA of the Mexican people.

WHY RENT THIS: A slice of Mexican life, well directed and with a wry sense of humor that permeates it like a good mole sauce.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Descends into silliness in some places.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of foul language as well as some sexuality and drug use. Not that your kids are itching to see subtitled films, but you should probably think twice before showing it to them – this isn’t Goal.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the soccer teams and their players that appear in the movie are fictional, although some of the action is filmed in actual Mexican Division I soccer stadiums.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a karaoke version of Cursi’s hit single on the Blu-Ray edition if you want to sing along.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Life is Hot in Cracktown

Yonkers Joe


Yonkers Joe

A new kind of Rat Pack.

(Magnolia) Chazz Palminteri, Christine Lahti, Tom Guiry, Michael Lerner, Linus Roache, Michael Rispoli, Roma Maffia, Frank John Hughes. Directed by Robert Celestino

Cheating at games of chance is almost as old as games of chance are themselves. If there’s a way to beat the system, someone will look for it and quite likely find it.

In a digital age of computer software and round-the-clock camera surveillance in casinos, Yonkers Joe (Palminteri) is a bit of a dinosaur. He hustles small-time card games and dice games, hiding cards in his clothes and switching out regular dice for loaded ones. His fast hands have made him a living over the years, but the truth is that he’s a small-time hustler who dreams of the big score but that score is so out of his reach that it might as well be at the top of Mt. Everest.

He and his pals Stanley (Lerner) and Teddy (Roache) hang out together, talking about what small level cons they can pull and reminiscing about the good old days. Joe’s girl Janice (Lahti) is also around, part of the life but moving away from it. She has come to realize that she’ll never be more than a small time cheat, and wants more out of her life, pressed-on nails and gaudy costume jewelry aside.

Into the mix comes Joe’s son Joe Jr. (Guiry), who has Down’s Syndrome and has been institutionalized most of his life. Now word comes that his unruly behavior and the fact he is approaching his 21st birthday means that he will have to leave the facility he’s in before he can be transferred to the adult facility that he’s scheduled to move into. His options are extremely limited, and the one that is least palatable to either him or his father but the only one that is realistically open to them is that Joe Jr. must move in with his dad, who views his progeny as some kind of divine retribution for all the petty acts of criminal behavior he’s engaged in over his lifetime.

When Joe figures out a way to fool the “eye in the sky” surveillance cameras at a Vegas casino to slip loaded dice into a game, he knows he has to try, but with his son’s difficult behavior causing friction between him and Janice, can he pull off the score he was meant to make?

I really wanted to like this movie a lot more than I did, but did not mainly because it’s a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand you have the con movie, which is a somewhat more realistic version of con movies like The Sting and works very nicely. Palminteri is brilliant in a role that is right in his comfort zone; a tough guy whose facade has some hard-to-ignore cracks in it. These are the kind of roles that make you appreciate how good an actor he is.

Unfortunately, you also have the whole subplot of the relationship between him and his son. I’m not trying to knock Guiry, who does as well as can be expected with a role that is basically underwritten, but the scenes involving his character bring the movie to a screeching halt. The two stories seem at odds with each other. While director Celestino has said (at the Q&A session at the Tribeca Film Festival where this premiered) that the movie is about the character taking responsibility and letting people into his life, the strange thing is that those are the elements that were the least successful.

The scenes where Joe and his gang are working their magic are the best in the movie, and the most fascinating. These “mechanics” as Joe refers to himself as, are a dying breed and being given a glimpse into their world is like seeing something that may soon be gone forever, and you feel a sense of gratitude that at least we got a chance to witness a dying art form.

Kudos have to go to Lahti, an actress who mostly works in television but is amazing no matter what medium she’s in. She plays Janice as worldweary, a woman who has been betrayed by her own dreams but still hopes for better things. A different actress might have highlighted the brassier elements of the character, but Lahti, while embracing that side of Janice, doesn’t dwell on it, making the character seem far more accessible.

Celestino did extensive research into mechanics and casino security, making the movie feel much more authentic. Unfortunately, the Joe Jr. sequences seem forced and manipulative, adding a kind of second rate Rain Man into the mix. I think it would have been a much better movie if they had jettisoned that aspect of the movie and instead focused in on the adult characters; that’s a movie I would have been shouting from the rooftops for all to go see. As it is, this is a flawed but ultimately watchable movie that those who like movies about cons and cheats are going to want to check out.

WHY RENT THIS: Palminteri and Lahti are two of America’s most underrated actors, and they fill their roles with style. The con job material is fascinating.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The relationship between Joe and his son just reeks of forced melodrama; the movie would have been much better without it.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is, as you might expect, pretty colorful. There are also some sexual references as well as an attempted rape which might be unsettling to some.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Palminteri actually learned the moves performed in the film and became adept at it; all of the dice and card moves shown in the film were performed by Palminteri and not a stunt double.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a feature on the technical advisor John “Fast Jack” Farrell, who dubs himself the “Last of the Mohicans,” and another where Celestino demonstrates the dice and card moves used in the film.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Salt