Sunday, March 17, 2013

Underwhelming: Burt Wonderstone is boring and tricked me out of my money.

Movie Review: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Director: Don Scardino

Reviewed: 17 March 2013

jamesintexas rating--*

My only requirement in a comedy is that it make me laugh.  Whether that is achieved through complete stupidity of performer or scene ("Dumb and Dumber") or profane ad-libbing ("The 40 Year Old Virgin") or through sheer audacity and boldness ("Borat"), I do not care.  When I go to a comedy, I want to laugh, pure and simple.  And there's the rub with "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," a great title for a film.  The film and its lead performance from Steve Carell are not incredible, and it did not make me laugh.  A film about magicians in Las Vegas with two of the funniest actors of our time did not make me laugh.

After years of magic, childhood friends Burt and Anton (Carell and Steve Buscemi) have grown tired of their Vegas act and of each other.  Sensation Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) appears on the street and dazzles their crowds and their boss with his hard-core street magic, which consists of pain and self-flagellation.  To match Gray's energy, the pair envision a fresh trick, and when the stunt goes awry, the pair break their friendship and separate.  The remainder of the film chronicles the clumsy road back for Wonderstone, as he finds a mentor and becomes one.

TV veteran director Don Scardino has constructed a series of scenes that strung together do not make a complete film.  There is too much going on in this film: the bizarre myopia of Burt who seems to have never wandered out of his Las Vegas Strip hotel; the childlike, loyal partner in magic Anton Marvelton; the buff, thrill-seeking new wave of magician unafraid to bloody or burn his body, Steve Gray; and on and on and on.  Throw in supporting work by Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini, and Olivia Wilde, and the film is brimming with talent.

Yet, it does not work.  The decision to make Burt so unlikeable and without good reason injures the story.  Burt wanders through early scenes, jaded and passionless, but we never see why.  Carell's charm is nonexistent here as a result.  Characters emphasize the importance of old school magic through aphorisms delivered over and over again, yet when it comes time to do real magic in the film, Scardino uses CGI in key moments, undermining the film's own message.  The film careens from scene to scene with little linking it together, and rarely does the film use its Las Vegas backdrop well.  In terms of satirizing a certain kind of stale Las Vegas performer, the film lacks teeth and refuses to go darker than a few booze-fueled conversations between lower-echelon performers at a bar.  Jim Carrey's scene-stealing work as Gray is limited to only a few scenes, and though they all do not work, his ferocious commitment to his character brought most of the rare laughs for me.  Carrey dazzles as a showman with little regard for his own safety.  However, his character fluctuates wildly from scene to scene: nefarious villain to bizarre misanthrope to reckless performance artist.  In truth, Buscemi is the most fun to watch because of his silliness, and the film unwisely drops him for far too long.

I wish that the story was as meticulously constructed as Burt and Anton's costumes and hairstyles.  Everyone involved with "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" tricked me because I had expectations of laughing and enjoying it, and those were dashed by this sloppy, unfunny film.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Nothing ventured, nothing gained: "Oz The Great and Powerful"

Movie Review: Oz The Great and Powerful

Director: Sam Raimi

Reviewed: 11 March 2013

jamesintexas rating--**

"Oz The Great and Powerful" exists as a calibrated commercial attempt to feed off of the reputation of the 1939 classic American film "The Wizard of Oz."  "Oz" is clearly not a filmmaker's personal vision with the stamp of someone in love with the source material.  And, that does not need to be an entirely bad thing if the film is interesting and has a compelling story told in a fresh way.  Sam Raimi's take on the Oz universe starts out promising, but fails to come together, substituting CGI for story and offering strange lead performances which build towards a conventional climax with no room for nuance.

James Franco plays Oz, a bit of a rake and a charlatan, a traveling magician in Kansas who loves them and leaves them before climbing into a marvelous hot air balloon that gets sucked into the center of a tornado.  On the other side, Oz crash-lands and finds himself embroiled in a fight between the denizens of Oz and the machinations of three witches: Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams.  Kunis is Theodora who finds Oz and falls for him, Weisz is Evanora, and Williams is Glinda.  He has several traveling companions that include a talking flying monkey in a bellhop costume named Finley (Zach Braff) and the very breakable China Girl (Joey King).  The film chronicles their journey to the Emerald City and confrontations with the three witches; the fate of the merry old land of Oz hangs in the balance.

Raimi mirrors the original film by filming in black and white only until the Wizard travels to Oz, and there are some pretty moments of twisted trees and curling mountains, hints of Tim Burton.  Several actors reappear in Oz after being introduced in Kansas, some through voice work.  One of the major special effects at the end really works well, re-introducing a key moment from the original film, making a comment on the power of movie-making itself.  However, the film fails on multiple levels despite its fine pedigree.

A major criticism that I have is that Franco's Wizard has a major epiphany which Raimi has to play as a surprise, not as a development of character because the behavior is not grounded in any sort of evidence from the character himself.  He changes, but we never see what prompts that change, robbing the scene of its power.  As for the witches, Raimi struggles to balance all three of them, giving them rather dull personalities with little shading.  Glinda, for example, played by one of the great actresses of our time, Michelle Williams, comes off as wooden and obtuse.  Weisz should have stolen multiple scenes, and the capable, Academy Award-winning actress has little to do with an underwritten character with few juicy lines.  Compared to Charlize Theron's delicious work in "Snow White and The Huntsman," Weisz simply does not stand out or inspire fear.  Kunis's character should be the most tragic of all but comes across merely as the most immature.  There is a potentially strong concept here--that the Wizard falls in love (or simply, lust) with all three witches and his attempts to pursue them have unintended, disastrous consequences--but Raimi is making a PG film here, so any logic that goes beyond "She's mad because he left her once" is not included.  The Munchkins are also given very little to do.  Jokes fall flat, are repeated, still fall flat.  At times, Franco seems to be overacting, over-emoting with his face and gestures, yet that makes sense given his character's showy, performative nature.  For much of the film, Franco struggles to find his eye-line with CGI monkey Finley or China Girl, reminding me of Liam Neeson struggling to talk to Jar-Jar Binks in "Star Wars: Episode One-The Phantom Menace."  In both films, the attempt to show something immense ruins the fun of seeing something small done well, and the weight of what we already know as an audience is insurmountable.  There, Lucas was doling out hints and echoes purposefully; here, Raimi is constrained by what he is allowed to show and what he is forbidden to reference (Where are the ruby slippers?).

The Land of Oz is a powerful place rendered in a way that still haunts me from the 1939 film: ugly trees that throw their apples, poppy fields that cast a spell, imposing castles with chanting guards, and the throne room with its eerie smoke.  The image of Dorothy skipping down the road with Toto and companions is as iconic as any in American cinema.  It seems a shame to make a film involving Oz that shies away from making any memorable music and cares little about making one memorable scene or sequence beyond Glinda's fog (pretty cool!) and flying monkeys (even more scary than the original).  "Oz The Great and Powerful" is potentially exciting and probably great fun for young people, though the universe of the musical "Wicked" makes a better impression.  The fault lies not in Franco or the witches or the voice work.  Rather, I think Raimi's commercial instincts to deliver a PG film simplified the story, reduced complex characters to simple emotions, and hesitated in doing anything truly weird or amazing.  One can only wonder what a visionary unafraid of weirdness or darkness like  Guillermo del Toro can have done with Oz.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Soderbergh as Magician, McConaughey as Dionysus, and Tatum as Adonis.

Movie Review: Magic Mike

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Reviewed: 9 March 2013

jamesintexas rating--***/12

"Magic Mike" promises one thing and delivers another, and watching Steven Soderbergh manipulate his audience is one of the year's great cinematic pleasures.  Billed as the male-stripper movie with beefcake posters of stars Channing Tatum, Joseph Mangianello, and Matthew McConaughey, "Magic Mike" offers a slight commentary on our collapsing financial economy as well as the moving journey of one man trying to find his way.  Tatum's titular Mike recruits and mentors young former college football player Adam (Alex Pettyfer), bringing him into the fold of the underworld of Tampa's nightlife.  Mike stars in the all-male revue led by Dallas (McConaughey, a revelation) and Mike proves himself a virtuoso onstage and a saavy businessman with aspirations beyond pleasing the hordes of adoring, screaming female fans.  With its June, July, August title cards, "Magic Mike" offers a vicarious look into the ephemeral industry of skin and the commodification of flesh, with incredible dance sequences punctuating the film every twenty minutes or so.

"Magic Mike" is not all flash and style.  The film has substance, and in particular, the film's ending counters everything that conventional films have taught us to believe about big endings.  Instead, Soderbergh focuses on a quiet epiphany, an important change in a character's core philosophy.  And that choice is set against the backdrop of the aging Dallas and his crew of performers.  McConaughey's Dallas runs his crew of dancers with a ferocity of focus both funny and riveting.  A scene with him in short shorts teaching a new dancer the ropes is one of the year's best.  His performance is the most memorable with its philosophical ranting, its explanation of the rules of the house to the rowdy women.  "But, I think I see a lot of rule-breakers here tonight," McConaughey purrs at the adoring crowd, using his physicality and charisma to the utmost.  Pettyfer brings less to the table as "The Kid" probably by both design and by performance.  Olivia Munn and Cody Horn play less fully realized characters who offer differing perspectives on Mike's life choices.

Soderbergh brings his own take and style on this story, complete with the sorts of artsy angles, red and blue colored lenses, and jump cuts that make this clearly a Soderbergh film.  He wisely shoots the dance sequences broadly, giving us a sense of the stage and the crowd, allowing his performers to use the space with their bodies.  And similarly, Soderbergh creates space in his story for Mike to lose his way and find it.  There is another movie in here, one that paints Dallas as more malevolent and the conflict with Mike as more overt.  However, I think Soderbergh paints lightly here, making Mike see Dallas as a potential future for himself, not necessarily as an adversary but more the Ghost of Christmas Future.  The result is an affecting, funny, and marvelously entertaining film with more than enough grinding and dancing to satisfy some audiences, in addition to a surprising amount of heart.  There is a significant degree of difficulty in crafting this film that Soderbergh embraces.  Well-done.

Side Effects include Frustration, Apathy, and Inconsistency.

Movie Review: Side Effects

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Reviewed: 9 March 2013

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

In his newest film "Side Effects," director Steven Soderbergh depicts a world run amuck by greedy pharmaceutical companies, a populace heavily medicated by a litany of unpronounceable drugs, and the dangerous synergy of business and medicine in a modern film noir-horror film. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, sans Lisbeth Salander's edginess) opens the film as the stalwart wife of a jailed inside trader, Martin (Channing Tatum).  Emily is a fragile woman prone to depression, and a recent patient of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).  Dr. Banks has the perfect life, practice, family, and professional career, all ripe for a fall.  A drug prescribed by Dr. Banks may have led to a disastrous crime with far-reaching consequences.

What begins as a potential psychological study, complete with Soderberghian colored lenses, oblique angles, and dazzling camera work shifts midway through into a more conventionally shot crime thriller, complete with big reveals.  I enjoyed the rug being pulled out from under me; for half of the movie, I was thinking it was one thing, and then it was another.  Mara and Law are fine here, though Law's performance seems edited in a way to make Dr. Banks's spiral out of control less believable and less emotionally powerful.

Soderbergh seems to have things to say about our modern age, the New York City high-end world of self-medication, and the melding of profit and medicine.  But why doesn't the film work as well as it should?  Soderbergh's style, a detachment from the characters, an icy remove, lingers over the film.  The mystery may be teased out more than intricately explained, and some characters' behavior just radically shifts without warning.  The film offers diminishing returns; the longer it goes on, the less powerful and interesting it is.  I think the innovative camera work disappears as the film progresses.  I see Soderbergh working here in the vein of the classic noir "Double Indemnity," but perhaps his cast just cannot pull it off?  Law's panic never seems believable, so the stakes remain low.

Medicines dominate our television screens with their quick solutions for complex problems, and the world of prescribing drugs is rife with corruption and collusion.  Soderbergh's ending, though entertaining, is troubling in its positing of the hero.  There are no heroes in this film.  I sincerely hope that this is not Steve Soderbergh's last film.  From "Traffic" to "Out of Sight", from "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" to "Magic Mike," Soderbergh's work endures as some of the most interesting, well-cast, and artful of our era.  It would be a shame to see him go out with "Side Effects."

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Oscar Nominated Short Films, 2012

Director: Bryan Buckley

Reviewed: 3 March 2013
jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Asad injects magical realism and lightness into the heaviest of subjects: war-torn Somalia with gun-toting subjects.  A young boy struggles to bring a fish back to his village and change his reputation.  Unusual and surprisingly powerful and funny as well.

Buzkashi Boys
Director: Sam French

Reviewed: 3 March 2013
jamesintexas rating--****

Afghanistan looks centuries old as a young boy struggles with his destiny as the son of a blacksmith.  The boy and his best friend climb the decaying, bombed out buildings of Kabul, staring out on a starkly beautiful landscape.  The film feels cold, but the performances are strong, especially the young boys.  The sport of buzkashi was brutally painful to watch, as was the idea of a young boy coming to terms with his destiny.  Haunting and elegiac.

Director: Shawn Christensen

Reviewed: 3 March 2013
jamesintexas rating--**1/2

My least favorite of the nominees, "Curfew" stars director Christensen and chronicles a young suicidal man and his babysitting of his niece.  The emotions are not as strongly rendered, and the territory seems familiar when juxtaposed against the other four films.

Death of a Shadow
Director: Tom Van Avermaet
Reviewed: 3 March 2013
jamesintexas rating--***1/2

A strangely dark film about a photographer of death taking place in World War One.  In order to free himself, a young soldier must photograph moments of death, capturing the shadows of the dying for a bizarre collection.  A young woman shows up, and complications ensue.  I like the colors (yellow and black) and feeling of this film.

Director: Yan England

Reviewed: 3 March 2013
jamesintexas rating--***

"Henry" feels intensely sad in its focus: dementia in an older man as he retraces his love affair with his wife.  I was struck by its stylistic choices that resembled "The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" with lights fading out of scenes, mirroring memory loss.  It was well-done and haunting.

Sleepwalk with Me: Birbiglia's Solopsism

Movie Review: Sleepwalk with Me

Director: Mike Birbiglia and Seth Barrish

Reviewed: 3 March 2013

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

Mike Birbiglia plays a version of himself named Matt Pandamiglio in this comedy, and I think part of my problem with it is its sketchiness.  As a stand-up comedian suffering from sleepwalking, Birbiglia is fine as he narrates the film, starring in every scene.  Birbiglia surrounds himself with a strong cast and then allows them to do next to nothing.  Carol Kane, Lauren Ambrose, and James Rebhorn are wasted here.  He doesn't allow Ambrose as his girlfriend Abby to play a real character.  His relationships with others are difficult to navigate.  Therefore, he shortcuts his film of any real emotion when there are conflicts.

I liked the portrayal of stand-up comedy and life on the road, especially with turns from Wyatt Cenac and Marc Maron.  I like some of Birbiglia's comedy, but in general, he does not make me laugh.  That is difficult for me in a comedy.  He films some interesting dream sequences as his sleepwalking becomes more and more out of control.  I think I wanted to see more of the ending of the movie, instead of the process leading up to the end.  There is tremendous drama in his struggle to overcome this.  I just do not think the movie fully works.

To Live and Die in LA: End of Watch

Movie Review: End of Watch

Director: David Ayer

Reviewed: 3 March 2013

jamesintexas rating--***

Chemistry in a film is a quality that is difficult to define and quantify.  Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena have it.  They play two LAPD officers, patrolling the mean streets of South Central, risking their lives and busting gang members.  Gyllenhaal's Brian Taylor is brash and confident and wields a movie camera, documenting his experiences.  Pena's Mike Zavala is his partner, and the two are like brothers, caught up in the adrenaline-rush, high-wire act that is their day-to-day existence.

The film is talky and laugh-out-loud funny.  And slow.  It takes its time and does not immediately reveal where it is going.  In the film, Ayer almost apologetically gets the plot rolling about sixty minutes into the film after we have seen multiple scene after scene of Pena and Gyllenhaal joking and laughing, rescuing children from burning buildings, viewing horrific crimes, and crossing the cartel.  There is a gang member with a spooky name (Big Evil) who carefully plans a horrific gun battle with the cops.  There are tangential female characters that are given short shrift.  The film veers off the rails by the end, becoming maudlin and nonsensical, completing shifting in tone.

But, it is funny.  And violent.  And scary.  And I recommend it.  On the strength of Pena and Gyllenhaal's chemistry in a squad car together, I recommend it.  Not a perfect movie.  But, what a ride.