Movie Review ~ Booksmart


The Facts
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Synopsis: On the eve of their high school graduation, two academic superstars and best friends realize they should have worked less and played more. Determined not to fall short of their peers, the girls try to cram four years of fun into one night

Stars: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jessica Williams, Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Mike O’Brien, Molly Gordon, Billie Lourd, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Victoria Ruesga, Austin Crute, Eduardo Franco, Nico Hiraga

Director: Olivia Wilde

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: We’re right at the crest of the wave where the end of the school year is about to crash into full blown summer and there couldn’t be a better time for a movie like Booksmart to arrive in theaters.  True, being released in the midst of a bevy of bombastic blockbusters might make its chances of doing big business opening weekend a tad slim but this has sleeper hit/future cult classic/definite midnight screening written all over it.  It’s a movie meant to be discovered and then shared, not one you necessarily make an appointment to see.

I’d heard about the film for a while after it received a positive reception at March’s South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX and deliberately avoided watching the trailer or reading anything more about it until I saw it. This is one I wanted to come to on my own without any ideas on what it should be, or pre-conceived notions on what to expect.  The way we are inundated with information on content it’s hard to go in blind to something but thankfully, I was able to come to Booksmart with a blank slate.

So now, after all that talk of going into the movie with little knowledge, of course I’m going to ask you to read a review of what I think about it – makes total sense, right? Really, I won’t be offended if you stop now and come back after you’ve seen the movie.  Seriously – it’s AOK.  But come back!  Promise?

You’re back? Great!  Wasn’t it good?  I know, right?

It’s the last day of school and Molly (Beanie Feldstein, Lady Bird) is ending the school year on top.  She’s class president and set to go to an Ivy League school in the fall.  By keeping her nose to the grindstone and focusing on her studies she has achieved all of the goals she’s set and has her future planned out not only for her but for her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, Beautiful Boy).  We all either knew a Molly in high school or were a Molly so it isn’t hard to completely get this character – and the way she looks down on those that didn’t put the same effort forward in school, or at least the effort she’s deemed worthy.

When Molly finds out that several key people she originally had written off as destined to be losers for life are also moving on to luxe post-high school careers, she realizes she could have had fun all four years of high school and still made it big. Thus begins a quest for Molly and Amy to get their party on by any means necessary, leading them through a seemingly endless night of encounters with oddball characters and a journey of self-discovery before their graduation ceremony the next morning.

Much of Booksmart follows a typical trajectory of high school comedy that feels safe and familiar but the movie is as unpredictable as they come.  You have your stock characters that flow through (jock, tramp, brain, etc) but all are given a neat little bounce by screenwriters Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Katie Silberman (Isn’t it Romantic), and Susanna Fogel.  No one is quite who you expect them to be…and no one ends the film in quite the same way they start out.  Actress Olivia Wilde (The Lazarus Effect) makes her feature directing debut and shows a real knack for establishing a tone and a rhythm for Molly, Amy, and the strange people they find themselves hanging out with over the course of the evening.

Aside from introducing us to a host of interesting characters (and fresh-faced actors), the film is routinely laugh-out-loud funny as the girls find themselves in increasingly bizarre situations. These moments spring forth naturally and the comedy never feels forced, while there is a lot of physical humor there’s quite a bit of verbal banter that elicits laughs.  Audiences are used to being shown what’s funny but it’s rare for a movie to ask them to listen – you’d almost need to see it twice to get all the humor that is thrown in, though I don’t think it would be a hard sell to get people to screen this one a second time.

The movie wouldn’t work at all if the two leads hadn’t had the kind of chemistry they do. As much as romantic chemistry plays a part in convincing viewers that people are in love, chemistry between friends is almost harder to generate because it requires an intimacy that isn’t always physically shown but more emotionally present.  You buy that Feldstein and Dever would be friends in the movie and in real life and while Molly is the more alpha of the two, Amy is no shrinking violet at the end of the day.  We know from the start that Amy is a lesbian and the film wisely starts with the whole “coming out” story long since told – now she’s just finding her way and I appreciated that she was treated like everyone else in the movie looking for love and just as confused as the rest of them.

With so many memorable performances in the movie, from Billie Lourd’s (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) scene-stealing party girl to Skyler Gisondo (Vacation) as a try-hard looking to impress Molly, it seems wrong to single out just one actor but Feldstein is the true breakout star of Booksmart.  Ably holding her own against Bette Midler on the Broadway stage in Hello, Dolly! two years ago and proving a good foil for Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird (a role quite similar to Molly) in 2017, Feldstein finally steps fully into the spotlight and earns her place in the sun.  As much as Molly deserves to be taken down a notch or suffer through an embarrassing situation…if it weren’t for Feldstein’s irrepressible charm you’d be ready to push her off a cliff but instead you completely get where she’s coming from.

If we must talk negatives, I can drudge up a few. Personally, I wasn’t a fan of the soundtrack to this (sorry/not sorry) or an unnecessary subplot involving a teacher-student relationship and that’s what ultimately keeps the movie from being in the true upper echelon of high school comedies. Even that being said, Booksmart almost instantly earns a right to walk the hallowed halls of high school fame.  It’s fun, it’s riotously funny, and I enjoyed having absolutely no clue how it would end — that’s saying a lot for a genre comedy that’s been done many times before.

Movie Review ~ Love the Coopers

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When four generations of the Cooper clan come together for their annual Christmas Eve celebration, a series of unexpected visitors and unlikely events turn the night upside down, leading them all toward a surprising rediscovery of family bonds and the spirit of the holiday

Stars: Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Ed Helms, Diane Keaton, Jake Lacy, Anthony Mackie, Amanda Seyfried, June Squibb, Marisa Tomei, Olivia Wilde

Director: Jessie Nelson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: Hold on a sec, allow me to get into full Ebenezer Scrooge mode because have I got a whopper of a turkey for you. Normally, I truly feel like the last two months of the year are, as the song says, the most wonderful time of the year. It’s a time to reunite with family, practice being ok with giving instead of receiving, and hauling out classic holiday films made more enjoyable on snowy days and chilly nights. Arriving like a lump of coal in a moldy old fruitcake, Love the Coopers is not only the worst holiday film in recent memory but one of the worst offerings of 2015. Yes, I’m counting the endless TV movies featuring a department store Santa Claus helping an exasperated female executive find love with a burly man we all know is perfect for her.

Picture a movie where every single character is miserable. They don’t like their family, they can’t stand their friends, they basically hate their lives. Now imagine its set during Christmas and filled with every lame joke in the holiday handbook, from family secrets spilling out during a disastrous dinner table scene to irascible old fogies that turn wise when the movie needs a moral.

Screenwriter Steven Rogers (who, after viewing his credits on IMDb, seems to specialize in saccharine nonsensical dramedies) sketches the film as an ensemble affair with multiple storylines playing out (more like wearing out) during one jam packed day.

There’s Eleanor (Olivia Wilde, The Lazarus Effect), who’d rather hang out at the airport bar than head home, befriending a military man (Jake Lacy, Carol, the only bright spot in the movie) before convincing him to come home with her and pretend to be her boyfriend. Ruby (Amanda Seyfried, Lovelace), a diner waitress that feels a kinship with the cantankerous old coot (Alan Arkin, Indian Summer) that frequents her section. Hank (Ed Helms, Vacation) is trying to find a way to tell his estranged wife (Alex Borstein, A Million Ways to Die in the West) that he’s lost his job and can’t afford to buy presents for their kids. Emma (Marisa Tomei, Trainwreck) is a kleptomaniac taken on the longest drive in the history of ever by a policeman with a Big Secret (Anthony Mackie, Pain & Gain).

Then we have Diane Keaton (And So It Goes) and John Goodman (Argo) as the heads of the family who can’t seem to get out of the rut they’ve been wallowing in for years. Keaton seems resigned to live in the shadow of a career that’s left her in the dust and Goodman must have needed the money to buy clothes in light of his recent weight loss. Oh…and I can’t leave out June Squibb (Nebraska, in a role I’m sure Betty White turned down) as a forgetful aunt that’s just a set-up for various sight gags and fart jokes. There’s also a narrator to the film, a device employed not only as an opportunity for a famous comedian to provide a voice for but to be a part of a twist reveal that most awake audience members will figure out early on.

The last film director Jessie Nelson released was I Am Sam in 2001 and it’s painfully obvious the dormant decade between the two films wasn’t spent in a graduate film school seeing that the film is an awkward mix of false emotional peaks and ill-conceived bits of comedy that makes the running length feel neverending. The tipping point for me was a dreadful family sing-a-long with Helms and Arkin strumming away at their guitars without the vaguest hint of knowing irony. Another particularly painful passage was the aforementioned police car ride where Tomei tries to psychoanalyze stoic cop Mackie, leading to a left-field admission that’s not only offensive but downright tacky.

Love the Coopers seems destined to be that awful holiday entertainment that that one good friend of yours (hopefully not a loved one) claims to be their ‘favorite’ film and forces you to watch with them. Take my advice and resist the urge to bask in the glow of doing something kind for others and think only of yourself…and stay far away from this stinker.

Movie Review ~ The Lazarus Effect

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of medical students discover a way to bring dead patients back to life.

Stars: Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Sarah Bolger, Evan Peters, Donald Glover, Ray Wise, Amy Aquino

Director: David Gelb

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 83 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  The last film director David Gelb helmed was the well-received Jiro Dreams of Sushi from 2011, a documentary about a legendary sushi master and his heir-apparent.  Bereft of any creative pulse, The Lazarus Effect sees Gelb go from sushi to turkey in one fell swoop because the only thing that needs reviving at the end of this cheap-o effort are the audiences.  Not that Gelb and company don’t try to keep you awake by introducing a host of loud noises and seizure inducing flickering lights at random points along the way…but it’s best to sleep with one eye open so you can make a break for the door by the time the credits roll.

In an unnamed research facility on an unnamed college campus, two scientists (Mark Duplass, Tammy and Olivia Wilde, People Like Us) and their assistants (Donald Glover, The To Do List and Evan Peters, X:Men – Days of Future Past) are joined by a co-ed (Sarah Bolger) filming a documentary on their research.  Strangely (and maybe thankfully), given Gelb’s documentary past and aside from some grainy opening footage there’s none of that hand-held camera nonsense until the film reaches its hyperactive finale when the camera swoops around like it’s been tethered to a ceiling fan.

The scientists are working on a formula to re-animate dead animals…all because they eventually want to be able to “give doctors more time” to heal near-death human patients.  The first of many scientific miscalculations, the reasoning behind the research comes across more like the movie pitch it most certainly is.  Even Duplass and Wilde seem to have trouble making it through relaying their theories of resurrection without cracking a smile.

Now is a good time to really break down how much The Lazarus Effect will remind you of other movies:

Like Flatliners, the film is about a motley crew of apparently brilliant minds making a whole host of stupid decisions and pausing occasionally to talk about what’s on “the other side” and musing about what death really means.  Like Lucy, there are discussions about brain activity, how much of our brain we actually use, and what access to all of our potential would do to a person’s psyche.  Like Re-Animator and Bride of Re-Animator, the experimenters become the experimented when fate deals the kind of blow that necessitates speeding up the testing process and moving to human trials.  And like Hollow Man, the finale is a cat-and-mouse game where the group is locked in a lab and picked off one by one.

Screenwriters Luke Dawson & Jeremy Slater have Frankenstein-ed their script with so many other ideas that the only interesting thing about the movie becomes matching up the plot points to previously released films.  Eventually, the filmmakers totally give up and increase the volume and amount of times the lights are turned off.  Seriously, at one point I thought that the evil at work was simply an energy conservationist because the scariest thing they do is turn the lights off at the most inopportune times.

Sometimes in knock-off films like this some fun can be had in some well-crafted moments of bloody gore.  I get the feeling the movie was edited down to PG-13 territory because the way that the violence is cut away from suggests post-op censoring of the ickier bits.  There’s nary a drop of blood spilled and death either occurs off-screen or in a non-invasive method such as a twisted neck.

Hound dog faced Duplass is hardly the picture of the driven researcher he’s supposed to be playing.  Changing his intentions every ten minutes because the script tells him to, there’s a missed opportunity to give the character an edge so Duplass just sits on the middle of the fence for most of the picture.  Wilde is his Mozart-loving fiancé and research partner…though he never seems to sleep in the same bed as her as evidenced in three shots of her sleeping in the middle of a bed in the house they share.  It’s a strange thing to get hung-up on, I know, but it serves as an example of the lack of attention to detail from Gelb.  With a little over an hour to tell the story, there’s not time for much character development so the rest of the cast is hardly worth mentioning (though Bolger is perhaps the best of the bunch).

Between a heap of scientific mumbo-jumbo and sleepy performances by its B-grade cast, the only thing you could put in the pro column for The Lazarus Effect would be that it’s short (83 minutes…including a credit sequence that’s better looking than anything else onscreen) and goes by relatively quickly.  Made by Blumhouse Productions (The Purge, Insidious, Sinister) for the low fee of 5 million (yes, that’s now considered a low sum), the film likely won’t have any trouble making that money back from knee-jerk audiences merely in the mood for a cheap thrill.

Movie Review ~ Her

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that’s designed to meet his every need.

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Pratt

Director: Spike Jonze

Rated: R

Running Length: 126 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: At first glance I wasn’t sure what to make of Her.  After all, a Spike Jonze written/directed film starring the unpredictable Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) about a man that falls in love with a computer program could, without question, have gone either way.  Even looking over the rest of the cast from Rooney Mara to Amy Adams to Olivia Wilde and especially Scarlett Johansson, (all actresses I like but don’t love) I couldn’t tell if this would wind up being another awards buzz movie I’d be forced to slog through and defend my overall opinion to hoity-toity critics or a new twist in the romance genre.

It was with a certain delight, then, that I emerged from Her so totally refreshed by its unconventional romance and stimulated by its two unlikely leads.  Too often critics are eager to toss out the term “modern romance” when describing a film that portrays a love story without large flights of fancy but what Jonze has created here is a futuristic romance without a lot of extra bells and whistles or spaceships to Mars.

In the future as imagined by Jonze (and not that far off the mark, I believe) we’re all even more interconnected to the world with our activity on the web downloadable and programmable leaving little to the imagination.  Fashion wise, I’m sorry to say that Jonze (who also had a hand in Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa) believes we’ll all be wearing high waisted wool pants, too…frightening.

Employed to write letters from loved ones that don’t have the time to do it themselves, Phoenix finds just the right words to make his clients and their addressees happy.  In his own personal life, however, he’s not so lucky in love.  Recently divorced and not yet ready to go back on the market he’s intrigued by the latest in tech must-haves…an advanced operating system that’s tailored to cater to him specifically.  After a brief set-up filtered through a typical Jonze-ian questionnaire, Phoenix is introduced to the one woman that will truly change his life…Samantha.

Scarlet Johansson (Don Jon) wasn’t the original actress cast to be the voice of Samantha…that would be Samantha Morton who was on the set every day with Phoenix to film his scenes.  When the film was completed, Jonze discovered that Morton’s voice didn’t fit exactly with the rest of the film and Morton being the pro she was agreed.  Johansson was brought in to redub Morton’s work without ever going through the live on-set emotion Morton and Phoenix shared.

Knowing this, it’s remarkable at how in tune Johansson and Phoenix are in the film and the buzz surrounding Johansson being the first actress to be nominated for an Oscar for voice-only work isn’t that unwarranted.  Her take on Samantha is grounded, curious, playful, and understanding…never resorting to breathy cooing or attempts at seduction…as a computer program, she’s not designed for that…so the eventual feelings she starts to develop for Phoenix are lovely and genuine.

Phoenix too grapples with the knowledge that he’s falling for his operating system.  Knowing that she’ll never be a real person and recognizing that she may be the best thing to ever happen to him he walks a fine line between a fantasy that can never be and the reality of his burgeoning love for her.  It’s a high-wire relationship that Jonze, Phoenix, and Johansson handle with the greatest of care.

Aside from Phoenix, the rest of the cast is filled out primarily with females.  Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Side Effects) plays Phoenix’s ex-wife and their frigid lunch meeting counters nicely with Phoenix’s flashback memories of their loving earlier life together.  Popping up in a brief cameo is Wilde (Rush) as a first date for Phoenix that goes south pretty quickly…I’ll say it again that Hollywood hasn’t yet found the right way to use Wilde.  Though she has less than a quarter of the screen time than she does in American Hustle, Amy Adams has a much greater impact here as a residential acquaintance and former flame of Phoenix that understands his current situation more than he/we think.

Make no mistake, though, that the movie belongs to Phoenix and Johansson.  After a while, I forgot that Samantha was just a voice and we never actually “see” her in the film.  The way that Jonze has filmed the movie and the way that Phoenix and Johansson run with the material make for a classic romance with its peaks and valleys of joy and heartache.

Her easily made my list for Best of 2013.  In a future world perhaps years away from our own when it’s hard to make a live connection with someone, Phoenix finds a love that can never be returned but finds himself thrilled and reenergized.  You’ll thrill right along with him.

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Movie Review ~ Rush (2013)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A biography of Formula 1 champion driver Niki Lauda and the 1976 crash that almost claimed his life. Mere weeks after the accident, he got behind the wheel to challenge his rival, James Hunt.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Stephen Mangan, Christian McKay, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Jamie de Courcey, Pierfrancesco Favino, Natalie Dormer

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: The most exciting thing about Rush is not the impeccably staged Formula 1 racing sequences, or seeing star Chris Hemsworth turn in a strong performance that doesn’t require a superhero costume, or finding a fresh new star on the rise. No, while Rush has all of the above mentioned they are mere bonus points when compared to how the film represents a return to fine form for director Ron Howard.

After a small misstep with middling The Dilemma and turning in too literal adaptations of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons the director has returned to the kind of filmmaking that put him on the map in the first place. Rush is very much in league with Howard’s work on Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, capturing a time and place that zoom off the screen – a period drama that doesn’t feel stuck in the past.

I didn’t have much knowledge of the world of Formula 1 racing before the movie and I don’t have a much more after – but the more swerves around being an introduction to the sport in favor of illustrating the rivalry of two very different men with the same competitive spirit.

Australian Hemsworth (The Cabin in the Woods, Snow White & The Huntsman, Marvel’s The Avengers) plays Brit racer James Hunt with a frat boys wink and a playboy’s good looks. When we first meet him he’s as reckless off the track as he is on…clearly not taking the sport as seriously as his colleagues would like. He talks a big game and usually delivers…until he meets his match in the form of Austrian Niki Lauda (Spanish star Daniel Brühl).

Lauda may not have Hunt’s good looks or affable charm but what he lacks in that department he more than makes up with an understanding of racing and what it takes to win. He’s not shy about speaking his mind no matter who he offends…his only focus is winning and he’ll drive over anyone that gets in his way. That doesn’t sit too well with Hunt and the men find themselves at odds at every turn.

The first half of the film is a well staged introduction to the two men as they come into their own in the racing world of the late 70’s. On an international stage with races all over the world we follow Hunt and Lauda as they go through the paces of their races and see how they are always looking in their mirrors to see what race position they’re in. Howard keeps the races moving ever forward, sometimes showing the full race and other times showing just the end stats.

The second half of the film focuses on the effects after a devastating accident and shows how the course of both Lauda and Hunt’s careers takes a turn that will test the resolve and willpower of the two men. Brühl and Hemsworth are both strong in their interpretations of these racers with Brühl acting as a semi-narrator of the piece. We get the chance to peel back some of the layers and gain some insight into what makes these men tick…what drives them to put their lives at risk race after race.

Howard has enlisted cinematographer Anthony Dodd Mantle, a frequent collaborator with Danny Boyle (he won an Oscar for his work on Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire). Also lensing Boyle’s recent Trance, Mantle brings a hyper kinetic energy to the film most notably in well filmed racing sequences that never lose the audience who can sometimes be forgotten by filmmakers just interested in showboating their technique. His shots are clever, clear, and spot on the right choice for this type of film.

Aside from Brühl and Hemsworth, the film is notable for introducing Romanian actress Alexandra Maria Lara to US audiences. Howard really made a find here because this actress is a fascinating addition to the already strong cast. Though her part is mostly relegated to the supportive wife of Niki, Lara finds some special moments in the script from Frost/Nixon writer Peter Morgan to make her own – it’s a performance that really stuck with me and here’s hoping we see more of her soon.

Into every movie a little rain must fall and in the performance category the two weak leaks are a badly miscast Olivia Wilde (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, People Like Us). One of the only Americans in the cast, she dons not only a blonde wig but a poor British accent to play Suzy Miller, wife of James Hunt. Though her first scene hints at a fiery performance to come, there’s not enough meat from the script or from Wilde to make much of an impression which is disappointing because Wilde is a good actress but her choices lately haven’t landed like they should. Same goes from Christian McKay as the owner of Hunt’s racing team. Sporting a pudgy fat suit (I hope it was a fat suit) and a foppish accent straight from a Benny Hill sketch, McKay seems to have walked in from the aforementioned Benny Hill skit and forgot he was in a drama.

Those two performances aside, Howard fills the other characters and extras with actors that look like they really are from the late 70’s thanks to costume designer Julian Day’s restrained 70’s attire. The music from Hans Zimmer is typically solid and the overall production design from Mark Digby allows the audience to become enveloped with the era with rolling their eyes at yet another pair of flowered bell-bottoms.

Rush is a strong entry for Howard (The Paper, Backdraft, Parenthood, Splash, Gung Ho, Far and Away) and a welcome return of a director that I’ve missed in the last few years because Howard is a great storyteller and a strong filmmaker. Wisely being released after the big boom of summer blockbusters, Rush has the potential to be a sleeper hit for the fall and rightfully so. It’s a skillfully made biopic that should have audiences on the edge of their seats.

The Silver Bullet ~ Her

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Synopsis: A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly-purchased operating system that’s designed to meet his every need.

Release Date:  December 18, 2013

Thoughts: The fourth feature film from director Spike Jonze looks like it’s traveling in the same universe that his first film, Being John Malkovich, exists in.  Though I feel like the whole man-falls-for-a-woman-he-can’t-have angle has been done to death, making said woman part of a futuristic operating system and truly unattainable may get some mileage for Jonze and star Joaquin Phoenix (The Master).  Phoenix has never been quite the accessible Hollywood star that everyone seems to want him to be but this preview reveals a softer side to his out-there persona.  With a quartet of A-list Hollywood actresses on board as well, early positive word-of-mouth for Her has been strong and its studio recently moved up the release date to take advantage of awards season.  We’ll see if Jonze has another quirky winner on his hands (Adaptation) or another troubled (but ultimately respectable) experiment like his last film, Where the Wild Things Are.

The Silver Bullet ~ Rush

Rush

Synopsis: A biography of Formula 1 champion driver Niki Lauda and the 1976 crash that almost claimed his life. Mere weeks after the accident, he got behind the wheel to challenge his rival, James Hunt.

Release Date:  September 20, 2013

Thoughts: What I’ve always enjoyed about the films of Ron Howard is that even though they may not all be winners (I’m looking at you EdTV), he at least likes to keep things interesting where genre is concerned.  No stranger to historical biopics (A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon were helmed with grace), Howard sets his sights on the racetrack for this 70’s set look into Formula 1 racing to tell the story of two rivals bound for glory.  While I’m not yet convinced that Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods, Snow White and the Huntsman) has the chops to pull off a leading role, I trust in Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen) to deliver a movie that handle a few dangerous curves.

Movie Review ~ The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a street magician’s stunt begins to make their show look stale, superstar magicians Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton look to salvage on their act – and their friendship – by staging their own daring stunt

Stars: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini, Jim Carrey, Jay Mohr, Michael Bully Herbig

Director: Don Scardino

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  It’s debatable but I’d argue that the best sleight of hand that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone performs is making laughs vanish for 110 minutes.  In my review of the trailer for the comedy, I predicted that the film was “either going to soar to great heights or crash and burn in terrible fashion” and while the movie isn’t a total write-off thanks to a few decent performances, it’s a largely forgettable film that vanishes from memory before you reach your car.

Though star Carell has done fairly well so far in his film career, he’s not known for taking on any roles that offer any real stretch opportunities.  I enjoyed his work in Dan in Real Life and Crazy, Stupid, Love but his work here falls into the Evan Almighty and Get Smart area…that is to say buffoonery.  In Wonderstone he’s one half of a Las Vegas magic act that seems to be sending up Siegfried and Roy grandiosity and David Copperfield (who also cameos) illusion. 

When we meet the younger Wonderstone in an enjoyable prologue, he’s a bullied child with an absentee mother who has him bake his own birthday cake.  After he receives a Rance Howard Magic Kit, he finds his passion and a partner in Anton – soon they are headlining their own show in Vegas and over the next decade they rake in the audiences along with the dough.  Trouble is, their act is stale and with a new generation wanting more bang for their buck their show becomes old hat.  It doesn’t help that Burt has become a misogynistic d-bag and Anton (a woefully untapped Buscemi) his punching bag.

For a boy that was bullied so much as a child, it’s an odd transition to have Burt become so unloving and harsh to his friends that support him.  It’s also not very fun to watch as Carell spends the first half of the movie with a put-upon snooty-toot accent and an array of sequined costumes.  When Burt and Anton find themselves without a show and not on speaking terms, Burt takes a job at a senior center for retired Las Vegas performers and that’s where he meets his idol since childhood…Rance Howard. 

As Rance, Arkin pretty much walks away with the movie as he is prone to do (and get Oscar nominated like he did in Argo) when given a character he can do something with.  Though thinly written, Arkin puts a nice shine on the grizzled magician to provide the film with its most dependable laughs.  The same can’t be said for Carrey as a Criss Angel/David Blaine style street magician whose tricks/stunts become more grotesque and dangerous as the movie progresses.  On complete auto-pilot, Carrey resurrects his Ace Ventura mannerisms to decidedly ho-hum results. 

Wilde is so shoe-horned into this film I’m wondering if her entire character wasn’t added after the film was completed to give Carell a ludicrous love interest.  Only called upon to say some of the more straight-forward dialogue that other characters couldn’t say, Wilde is totally lost at sea and knows it.  Gandolfini’s meatball head has nearly been swallowed by his shoulders and Mohr turns in one of the least funny performances in a comedy ever.

I have a quick note about the magic in the film.  I still hold to the belief that magic in movies is incredibly hard to pull off because most of us deal with a suspension of disbelief that prevents us from really buying into the magic we’re seeing on screen.  Though the film really isn’t about magic tricks, the few that are there are staged in such a way that indicates the filmmakers want us to think they’ve pulled off a great trick…when they really just positioned the camera in such a way that we can’t see what’s really happening. 

Director Scardino is known for directing television series and hasn’t made a feature film in over a decade, made painfully obvious by a dramatic lack of any sort of pacing beyond half hour increments.  The film is probably twenty minutes too long and strains to reach an ending so unbelievable I kept waiting for it to be some elaborate dream sequence.  The script by John Francis Daley/Jonathan Goldstein feels a tad selfish…giving too much to Carell and ignoring some nice comedic opportunities (a senior center for retired Las Vegas performers has so much potential that is totally wasted…where are the old ladies in showgirl costumes??)

If you’re a Carell or Carrey fan chances are you’re looking forward to this one and I say more power to you.  You’ll probably get what you came for but nothing more…sometimes that’s enough.  For this reviewer, I wish the filmmakers could hvae Zim Zala-Bim-ed their way into a better movie.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

incredible_burt_wonderstone

Synopsis: Magician Burt Wonderstone splits from his longtime stage partner after a guerrilla street magician steals their thunder. By spending some time with his boyhood idol, Burt looks to remember what made him love magic in the first place.

Release Date:  March 15, 2013

Thoughts: Here’s an example of a movie that’s either going to soar to great heights or crash and burn in terrible fashion.  Judging from the preview, the jury’s still out on which direction it will go.  It certainly has a game cast that has the combined talents to make this iffy material work.  Speaking of the material, is it just me or does this seem like a rejected idea from a sketch on Saturday Night Live?  A director who hasn’t helmed a major motion picture guiding A-list stars always makes me pause – so here’s hoping that the screenplay by John Francis Daley/Jonathan Goldstein (Horrible Bosses) has the laughs in it that the trailer promises.