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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The Runaways


The Runaways

Joan Jett loves rock and roll; Cherie Currie loves the lifestyle.

(2010) Musical Biography (Apparition) Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon, Danielle Riley Keough, Scout Taylor-Compton, Tatum O’Neal, Stella Maeve, Brett Cullen, Alia Shawkat, Johnny Lewis, Hannah Marks, Jill Andre. Directed by Floria Sigismondi

The world of rock and roll is a harsh one, full of broken promises and shattered dreams. Every so often, a performer or a band will break through and change things; on other occasions, a performer or a band will succumb to the excesses of the industry. Sometimes, a performer or a band will do both.

Joan Jett (Stewart) is a young girl who idolizes Suzi Quatro and Keith Richards. She’s an adept guitarist but nobody will take her seriously and she longs to be in a rock and roll band. She meets Kim Fowley (Shannon), a fixture on the Sunset Strip in the 1970s-era Los Angeles when this all took place. Fowley sees himself as an acute judge of talent and a canny promoter who understands what sells. He longs to be a major player in the music business, something he is not at the time. He likes Jett’s look and her dream of  fronting an all-woman rock band – there were none at the time that had any success, although in pop music the girl groups of the 60s (Martha and the Vandellas and over in Motown the Supremes) had met with success. However, these were women who projected a certain safe and virtuous image. Fowley – and Jett – wanted danger and subversion. Fowley hooked up Jett with Sandy West (Maeve), a drummer. The two began practicing together but the band needed fleshing out.

Cherie Currie (Fanning) is Bowie-obsessed and performs one of his songs dressed just like him at a school talent show, getting booed by her audience and flipping them off in retaliation. Her home life is falling apart at the seams – her dad (Cullen) is an alcoholic, spiraling slowly to an inevitable end and her mom (O’Neal) has fled to Indonesia to escape, leaving her with her twin Marie (Keough) as essentially sole support. Fowley discovers her and brings her to his trashy trailer to perform with the band. At first Cherie is stiff and hesitant but with Fowley pushing her/abusing her into the right attitude, her natural performing talent, sexuality and charisma come to the fore. “It’s not women’s lib,” Fowley crows, “Its women’s libido!” The remaining spots in the band are filled up with guitarist Lita Ford (Taylor-Compton) and bassist Robin Wolf (Shawkat).

The group plays a series of gigs in a series of depressing dives before Fowley gets them signed to a major label. A song, “Cherry Bomb” becomes a minor hit (although it becomes a big one in Japan) and the band begins to headline gigs and support major acts in stadiums. They go to Japan where they are mobbed by rabid fans and all of a sudden this group of young girls – all in their mid-teens at the time – suddenly are cursed with the success of the rock and roll lifestyle; plenty of sex, plenty of drugs, and not so much rock and roll. Eventually, the curse of success will overcome the band, with internal musical differences and Currie’s drug habit proving to be too much for the band to survive.

Director Sigismondi makes her feature debut here after mostly directing music videos, as well as working in fine arts (she’s a talented photographer and sculptor as well) and to her credit she makes the most of a very little. She manages to capture the look and feel of both the L.A. suburbs in the 70s (I should know – that’s where I lived at the time) and the decadent scene on the Sunset Strip.

I’ve been a big fan of Fanning for a long time and she doesn’t disappoint here. She captures the nature of the vulnerable and sometimes lost Currie nicely, showing her as clay to be molded by Fowley and drifting off-course, prey to the temptations of the road. As her family life disintegrates, she becomes more and more lost. The movie to a large extent focuses most on Currie (but to be fair, she did write the biography that the movie is based on) and Fanning handles the load nicely.

Stewart, best known as the angst-ridden Bella Swan in the Twilight franchise is surprisingly rough-edged here, showing the force-of-nature strength of Jett but also her bisexual tendencies. There is a fairly lurid make-out scene between Jett and Currie which comes off as exploitative, but given the nature of the band and the era, kind of makes sense as something like it would appear in a 70s “B” movie, which this closely resembles in tone. Stewart shows more range here than she has previously, forcing me to revise my opinion of her as a somewhat one-note actress. I look forward to seeing more from her along these lines.

Shannon is a terrific actor who has one Oscar nomination to his credit and has the chops to garner more of the same should he get the right roles. This one is not, but he does capture the manic and manipulative nature of Fowley who yearned to be a mover and a shaker, but whose claim to fame would always be this band. He often claimed he assembled the Runaways both conceptually and practically, a claim he has backed off from in recent years. Shannon is riveting in the part, capturing both the yin and the yang of Fowley who could be supportive one moment and abusive the next.

In fact, in many ways this movie sugarcoats the Runaways story, leaving out allegations of sexual and physical abuse around the band. It also leaves out the backstory of the rest of the band (in the case of Ford, at the real Lita’s request) in focusing on the two leads. The filmmakers do a disservice to the band in essentially portraying them as a two-woman creative team (in reality, West and Ford co-wrote most of the songs with Jett and Fowley). While it’s true Jett and Currie were the heart and soul of the band, it would have been nice to include more of the rest of the band’s story in the movie, particularly that of West who passed away from lung cancer just prior to the beginning of filming.

The legacy of the Runaways is undeniable; Joan Jett remains a rock and roll icon, an inspiration to young female rockers everywhere. It’s a bit of a crying shame that they remain largely unknown here and those who do know them mostly know them for “Cherry Bomb,” their signature hit. They were certainly much more than that, and anyone who has seen their Showtime documentary (which includes some incendiary performance footage) will attest to that. The movie picks up part of their essence – enough to make it worth seeing. I just wish we would have gotten a little bit more of it.

WHY RENT THIS: An authentic recreation of the time and the scene. Surprisingly gritty performances from Stewart and Fanning. Shannon shows a good deal of charisma.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie leaves out a good deal of information, and fictionalizes or trivializes the group’s achievements.

FAMILY VALUES: There are occasionally graphic depictions of teen sex and drug use, as well as a whole lot of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jackie Fox, the actual bass player for the Runaways, declined to give the producers of the film the rights to her life story so a fictional character was introduced to be the Runaways bassist (and ironically, has no lines in the film); Lita Ford also declined to give her rights to the producers, but did meet with Scout Taylor-Compton prior to filming and declared that even if the film was awful, Taylor-Compton at least did her character justice.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.7M on a $10M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: A Single Man

Afghan Star


Afghan Star

Randy Jackson found Lema's performance "pitchy."

(Zeitgeist) Habib Amiri, Setara Husseinzada, Rafi Naabzada, Lema Sahar, Hamid Sakhizada, Massoud Sanjer, Daoud Sediqi, Tahir Shaqi, Fazi Hadi Shinwari. Directed by Havana Marking

The fallout from the War on Terror continues to wreak havoc on those countries that it has touched. After years of totalitarian rule by the Taliban, Afghanistan is finally beginning to turn the corner and modernizing, loosening ridiculous strictures laid on that country in the name of religion. For example, it was a crime under Taliban rule to listen to music or broadcast musical content on television.

A charismatic young television producer named Daoud Sediqi caught a glimpse of the British show Pop Idol (the American version of which is American Idol) and thought it would be something worth bringing to Afghanistan. Normally, I’d be making some joke about war crimes here, but the broadcasting of that show would prove to have a profound effect on the country.

This documentary, made by British filmmakers, captures a season of the show and its effect on Afghanistan. While the Taliban is gone, its supporters still wield enormous power, particularly in the Kandahar district. Death threats for those who go against the strict rules of the Imams is not uncommon.

Afghanistan also has a number of different ethnic groups, all more or less at each other’s throats. Sediqi was hoping that the voting would cross ethnic lines but in truth it hasn’t up to now. The program set up a cell phone voting program which would tend to favor younger and more open-minded voters, although in all honesty the results were still more or less along ethnic lines.

In fact, the four finalists – whom the documentary focuses on – were from different ethnic groups. There’s Rafi, who has the slick, charismatic and handsome look that would make him at home on our own version of the show. Hamid is a more polished vocalist from a professional group; he is from the marginalized Hazara ethnic group and he hopes his success will shine a spotlight on the plight of the Hazara. Setara is a fiery young woman from Herat whose last appearance on the show involves dancing and allowing her scarf to slip, both major no-no’s for the chaste Islamic woman. Lema is also a woman, also from a conservative region of Afghanistan whose music lessons, had the Taliban discovered them, would have led to her immediate execution.

That the documentary exists at all is a tribute to the resilience of the Afghans. Footage early on from the 1980s shows that the country had at least a passing interest in modern Western music, although that was abruptly and brutally cut short by the ascension of the Taliban.

This is not about the music competition and quite frankly, unless you’re a BIG fan of Afghan music, you’re probably not going to care who wins so much. In fact, the drawback here is that the music is mostly along traditional Afghani lines and those less open-minded sorts are going to dislike it pretty intensely. For my part, I found the music okay, not being a particular expert in the particular art form. All I can say is that I liked most of it.

Can you imagine what American Idol would be like if Kelly Clarkson would have had to go into hiding for dancing during her performance, or if Sanjaya had been making a political statement just by entering? It’s an amazing juxtaposition between two different cultures, where contestants in one thrive on popularity and the ability to sell records, compared with contestants who want to perform because they finally have been allowed a forum to. How exciting it is to see a voice which has been silenced for so long to finally be given its chance to shine?

WHY RENT THIS: A very compelling look at modern Afghan culture, particularly on the clash between traditional Islam and Western influences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The “pop” music of the show is actually fairly traditional music from the various Afghan ethnic groups and some may not find it to their liking.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the subject matter is on the mature side, but otherwise should be suitable for nearly everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the official United Kingdom submission for the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film for 2010. It did not, however, receive a nomination.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interview with director Havana Marking detailing the difficulties in making this documentary.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Kick-Ass