The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

Incredible Burt WonderstoneThe Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Release Date: March 15, 2013

Director: Don Scardino

Stars: Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Olivia Wilde

Runtime: 100 min

Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) was that one kid who always got picked on growing up. Then he received the Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) magic kit for his birthday and… well, nothing changed with the bullying aspect. Though, he gained inspiration and a lifelong friend out of it, the person who will be soon be known as Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). Burt wants to become a magician and that’s just what he does.

Skip ahead to when they’ve been a headlining act in Vegas for ten years. A new street performer, Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), comes on the scene and, in retrospect, makes Burt and Anton’s show feel extremely stale, especially because they’ve been doing the same old shit for the past ten years. The only thing that sometimes changes is the pretty assistant that helps them. In order to become popular again, Burt and Anton must learn to settle their differences and Burt must discover again what made him fall in love with magic in the first place.

The plot is really all about learning to adjust and be a more flexible person, something that Burt really needs to learn. It’s successful on that meaningful level. The audience can feel for the characters because all of us would like to see Burt and Anton be successful again and settle their differences, but the point of this isn’t to be meaningful. At all. It’s essentially a buddy comedy of meeting half-way, and Burt and Anton’s climb back to the top.

There aren’t too many characters, and they’re all developed in a mostly general way. Burt is just a selfish sex-fiendish magician who should learn to become more selfless, Anton is Burt’s magic partner who puts up with his nonsense, Jane (Olivia Wilde) is a former assistant of Burt and Anton who’s an aspiring magician herself; Rance is a magic veteran who Burt finds a friend in; Doug (James Gandolfini) is the traditional Las Vegas self-centered hotel owner; and Steve Gray is the ridiculous Criss Angel-esque street performer, who even has a show called Brain Rapist.

Everyone is good in their roles but, as expected, Jim Carrey is the real scene-stealer. He gets some of the biggest laughs, and does some of the nastiest gags. He’s playing a bit of a loony bird, and that’s what he does best. This just goes to show that Carrey can be much better than Carell when they’re in the same film, and I’d pick Bruce Almighty over Evan Almighty almost any day.

The movie is just a really silly way to show how far these actors would go for a laugh. They do cool magic tricks, silly stunts, hit-and-miss gags (most hit), and dress up in funky costumes and wigs. It’s somewhat quotable, too, but the hilarious stunts are the most memorable. Even when the film isn’t that funny, the movie tries, and that’s easy to respect. The only part that is easy to hate is really the beginning, because of two extremely annoying kids – Mason Cook (though, he might still be hated because the only other flick he’d be most associated with is Spy Kids: All the Time in the World) and Luke Vanek – thankfully, the characters grow up fairly quickly, and they’re the thing I would just like to forget completely.

Alas, a fair amount of the material won’t stick in people’s memories. Most could remember the best laughs come December, but the rest of the feature will feel a lot like a disappearing act from one’s memory.

In a nutshell: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone isn’t as magical as it might seem to promise, but it’s fairly satisfying and it offers a funny experience with a great premise and a silly story. It knows it’s silly, so it embraces it and takes it for a ride. While a fair deal of it isn’t extremely memorable, the solid performers make me want to give a recommendation. There’s nothing incredible that makes it worth the watch in theaters, but I’d recommend at least giving it a chance when it comes out on home media.

73/100

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Killing Them Softly (2012)

Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly

Release Date: November 30, 2012

Director: Andrew Dominik

Stars: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins

Runtime: 97 min

Tagline: In America, you’re on your own

Note: I love the idea of a good mob flick. I have a large list of ones I have to check out, including ‘Goodfellas’ (cue the gasp); and in all honesty, this is my second mafia related film (I think). The first being ‘Road to Perdition’. But I loved this. Enjoy the review. 

Ah. Hitmen meet the economy; they go together like peanut butter and jelly.

Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is an enforcer hired to restore order after three dumb guys, who think they’re smart, rob a mob-protected card game, causing the local criminal economy to collapse.

Johnny Amato (a.k.a., Squirrel; portrayed by Vincent Curatola) is the so-called mastermind behind the heist of a mob-protected card game. He enlists the assistance of Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), and the plan is seemingly golden. The host of this card game is Markie Trattman, a man who hosted another card game in the past, and he then robbed his own card game. Due to that, card games went away for a little while. Now they’re back. The local criminal bosses believe that if this one gets robbed, Markie will have to be behind it. That’s what makes these three dumb guys believe that this is a foolproof plan.

Because of all this, Jackie Cogan gets called in to restore a little order to this imperfect local economy.

The film opens with Frankie (Scoot McNairy) walking down a rundown street, and the film cuts between a politician speaking (Obama or George W., possibly) and him. The wording constantly gets off. This is both stylish and artistic, but it will get irritating to the impatient viewer. It becomes known that this film is set when George W. Bush was still leader of the free world, and America was in an economic crisis. The card game being robbed doesn’t particularly assist the local criminal economy in any way.

In that way, this is both a story of violence and despair, and a compelling and complex social commentary of 2008 America in the midst of one of the worst financial situations since the Great Depression. The concepts in Killing Them Softly are complex, but they aren’t hard to comprehend. The film suggests that America is not a place where one could easily raise their kids. It is not a community, it is a business. However, these concepts of economics and capitalism are not subtly explored. The political voice-over speeches are practically right in your face, as if they’re 3D. Though, this barely bothered me.

Jackie Cogan is an awesome character who is filled with philosophy and mystery. Though, he isn’t the only interesting character in this. There is also Frankie and Russell, who may be a little dim-witted, but they are nonetheless good characters. Russell is often really there just for comedic relief, and he is also a representation of the stupid people of America. Frankie may be sort of dumb, but he is much smarter than Russell. Both the characters are good enough to carry the film for their scenes. In fact, they practically carry the film for the first twenty minutes – with a little help from Curatola and Liotta. These actors remind us that a film can be good, even when Pitt isn’t onscreen. Also, Brad Pitt entering the screen to the sound of Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” is the perfect touch.

Brad Pitt, as usual, is a booming screen presence. Put him next to Richard Jenkins’ character, he’s cool and he has a mysterious bravado. Speaking of Richard Jenkins’ character, his name is never revealed. He is just the middle man of crime who pays Cogan. Though the question of who Jenkins works for is left unanswered. That is one of the pleasant ambiguities and mysteries of the film.

Though, put Pitt next to James Gandolfini’s character of Mickey (another hit man called in by Cogan to help out with killing the twerps), he’s nothing special. Only because he’s listening to Mickey talk his ear off. Mickey’s character hardly fascinated me.  He talks too much, and he doesn’t kill enough. Don’t get me wrong, Gandolfini’s a great screen presence. I just wasn’t digging the character. So don’t you tell Gandolfini to put out a contract on my head. I don’t want to die, man. I’m just telling it how it is.

Scoot McNairy has proved to audiences that he is a solid supporting presence (Exhibit A: this; and Exhibit B: Argo) and also a good leading man presence (as shown in 2010’s Monsters). I look forward to more performances by this promising actor.

The story, the cinematography and the editing are the real highlights of the film. There are a few other vividly cool editing sequences, that leave me feeling impressed. There’s one scene where Pitt is firing a gun in the rain in a slow-motion sequence, that is stunning. It’s vividly cool, and is worth the watch simply for that. Don’t stay for just that, though. This is one of the best films of the year!

There is a whole load of killing, but not as much as it seems to promise. In that way, the advertising is sort of deceiving. That’s okay, though, the other things that it never promises make up for it. There’s a fair share of soft, but brutal, killing to satisfy all, even though the kills are far between each other. The social commentary it offers is also profound. Sometimes it gets talky, but it is never uninteresting. The film has its fair share of intensity. The soundtrack is great and the atmosphere it offers is one of the most unique of the year. The writing is great, and the actors are great. They don’t disappoint one bit. There’s enough violence, and enough politics and economics to leave both crime movie lovers and scholars with a smile on their faces by the time the end credits roll. Just don’t expect non-stop carnage, and you’ll be good.

90/100