Saturday, March 30, 2013

THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE (2013)

Written by John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein


Directed by Don Scardino


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA  March 18, 2013 6:00PM


Who doesn't love a magician?

With their ability to captivate audiences as they seemingly defy gravity, amaze with spectacular optical illusions and razzle-dazzle their shows in flashy costumes, magicians appear perfect to build an entertaining film around.

"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone", a surprisingly limp comedy which stars Steve Carrell as the title character, an old-school Las Vegas illusionist who has fallen out of favor as an edgy, street magician (played with gusto by Jim Carrey) uses dangerous stunts to draw in crowds.This should have been a lot of fun considering the top comedic talent attached but the film fails to conjure up many laughs.

As a little boy, Burt was unpopular and bullied but one day, he receives as a birthday present that changes his life. The gift is a Rance Holloway magic kit and after watching the master magician's instructions (played by Alan Arkin) on a VHS tape, Burt develops a skill for performing tricks. Unfortunately, this doesn't help make him more popular but he does make a new friend, Anton Marvelton, a fellow outsider and together they work on creating their own illusions.

Years later, the two have become a successful magic act; The Incredible Burt (Carrell) and The Marvelous Anton (Steve Buscemi) performing on the Vegas strip in a casino run by Doug Munny (James Gandolfini). While Anton has remained down to Earth, Burt has become an egotistical, self-centered monster. After another stage assistant quits in disgust due to Burt's boorish behavior, he simply pulls Jane (Olivia Wilde), a production assistant, to fill the costume.

As the duo suffers from career boredom, petty squabbling and a dwindling audience, they discover that Steve Gray (Carrey) is the changing face of illusionists as he uses shocking, gross-out theatrics to entertain. Despite Anton's attempt to come up with a trick to help make their show seem hip, Burt remains delusional and uncooperative which causes them to split-up. Unable to make his solo act work and fired from the casino, Burt winds up performing tricks at a local nursing home where he discovers his childhood idol, Rance Holloway resides. The master magician only seems to be there to remind Burt why he loved sawing a lovely lady in half in the first place.

The director, Don Scardino (as well as the writers of the script) comes from situation comedies which explains part of the problem with "Burt Wonderstone" as the plot feels disjointed with many scenes rushed as if they were making room for commercials. It doesn't help that most of the stale jokes would even be rejected for a sitcom. However, Mr. Scardino has directed many episodes of one of my favorite television programs, "30 Rock" a highly manic and clever comedy with the humor flying at such a fast clip that it's hard to catch your breath. So it's hard to understand what happened to this film as it lacks coherence and the energy drags.

Buried under an unflattering bouffant of bottle-blond hair and sequined pantsuits, Mr. Carrell attempts to reshape his well-known screen persona of a tightly-wound, nice-guy to play a pompous, womanizing wind-bag but it's not a really a comfortable fit. The actor seems restricted as he's unsure how to make The Incredible Burt believable (or funny) as he goes quickly from obnoxious jerk to a somewhat more enlightened individual. The supporting performers are unable to shine as they're not given much to do beyond reacting to the dueling magicians, so it should be no surprise that Jim Carrey is the highlight in this comedy. Although his appearance is brief, he manages to deliver the few laughs available as his Steve Gray, (a Cris Angel/ David Blaine mash-up) is willing to do anything to his body, no matter how extreme or insane, to accomplish the ultimate illusion.

A broad comedy like, "Anchorman" (which helped propel Steve Carrell in to the spotlight) took us in to the world of warring news anchors and delivered some unexpected comic gold and "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" where the battle between the glitzy, over-the-top showmanship of magicians of the past against the edgy, rock-n-roll style of today's performers seems full of promise and should have been able provide some truly funny moments. Unfortunately, this film is formulaic and not fully realized. By the time we finally reach the wan conclusion, Poof! "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" has completely disappeared from memory.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

STOKER (2013)

Written by Wentworth Miller


Directed by Park Chan-wook


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. March 1. 2013  9:20PM



Park Chan-wook is the acclaimed and highly influential South Korean filmmaker who is best known for three of his most popular, "Old Boy", "Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance" and "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" that has been referred to as the Vengeance Trilogy. These films, commanding a mesmerizing visual style and shocking violence, are in various stages of being remade for an English-speaking audience but the director himself has delivered his first feature in a language other than his own native tongue.

Revenge plays an important component in "Stoker", a well-plotted but fairly standard mystery thriller that is elevated due to the highly, inventive camera work, off-kilter framing, non-linear editing and unconventional story-telling. This film is busy, as your eyes (and mind) are worked overtime by all of the strange and twisted imagery but unlike his previous works, all of the camera trickery feels more like a distraction as none of it is enough to properly draw you into this story. "Stoker" lacks any true suspense, emotion or passion as if something was lost in the translation.

India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), a young girl of wealth and privilege, was always a teenager with a sullen, haunted demeanor but after the recent loss of her beloved father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney) who perished under mysterious circumstances, she has become even more withdrawn. Her mother, Evelyn (played with usual brilliance by Nicole Kidman) is beside herself due to her estranged husband's death and the difficult relationship with her daughter which has deteriorated further. So now, she is rarely seen without a glass of wine in her hand to help drown her sorrows.

A stranger arrives at their doorstep in the form of Charlie (Matthew Goode), the younger brother of Richard. Although he had never been previously mentioned and was unable to ever make contact due to his extensive travels abroad however, Charlie is now ready to become a part of the family during their time of need. The lonely Evelyn welcomes him, inviting the handsome, long-lost relative to stay as long as he would like but India is far more cautious as she keeps her distance. Determined to win her affections, Charlie relentlessly pursues his niece, using his icy charm to connect with her in a way no one else has been able. In turn, he draws India out of her shell, awakening her carnal desires and a dark ferocity that leads to some jeopardous trouble for some high-school bullies who tormented her because of her quirky nature.

At times, "Stoker" brings to mind the work of David Lynch with it's offbeat rhythms, a perverse, sexual tension and the vivid dreamlike images. Although this film is far more lucid than anything that director has ever crafted but what Mr. Lynch is able to communicate successfully, like in "Blue Velvet", is a sense of warmth and sentiment with his distinctive eccentric vision which is lacking in "Stoker". Hitchcock seems to have been an influence to the script written by actor, Wentworth Miller (under the alias, "Ted Foulke"), who you might recall from the television show, "Prison Break" and was voted one of the ten best unproduced screenplays back in 2010. This story enters in to a darker, more erotic area that Hitch could barely even hint at back in his day but doesn't feel particularly innovative as it uses the classic horror formula while adding very little to be stimulating.

I found it slightly amusing that the main characters in this U.S. based story are played by non-Americans as Mr. Goode is British while the ladies (including an appearance by recent Oscar nominee, Jacki Weaver who pops up briefly as a very concerned aunt) are all Aussies but despite that minor quibble, these actors do not fail to be completely convincing in their roles. Ms Wasikowska has been building quite an impressive resume with some memorable recent turns in such films as "Jane Eyre", "The Kids Are Alright" and the title character in Tim Burton's vibrant version of "Alice In Wonderland". Here, the young actress brings a quiet, creepy intensity to her part as the troubled teenager while conveying a feverish passion buried inside, unsure of how to properly express. It seems like she is following in Ms Kidman's footsteps, who has had a long, successful career of playing her share of edgy, whacked-out characters. While many of her films might not have always worked commercially, the actress has always managed to stand out with a fiercely committed performance as she has done here. Although he comes across as quite dashing but there is something not quite right about Uncle Charlie and Mr. Goode perfectly reveals a sense of danger that is barely contained behind his faint smile and glassy-eyed stare.

While more muted than what is usually expected by this filmmaker, "Stoker" still delivers a moody atmosphere with plenty of lurid chills, thanks to some lively performances but would have benefited greatly by digging further past the surface to capture more of an actual human element to these stylishly, gruesome proceedings.