Friday, March 15, 2013

Give much more than slight-of-hand applause to ‘Burt Wonderstone’

By Steve Crum

There is a great deal more than magic and laughs to The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. It also says a hatful of bunnies about audiences and the pervasive, decadent state of entertainment in our society. The fact is many of us have regressed to a gullible, Honey Boo Boo leering bunch. Presto chango, and this Wonderstone comedy touches on that very bar-lowering through one of the wittiest, original, and downright hilarious scripts in years. Add a super cast, headed by Steve Carell. 

TIBW is directed by Don Scardino, a name fresh to feature films but veteran to dozens of TV series, 30 Rock among them. He and screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley have fashioned a story centering on trust and brotherly love between two Las Vegas magicians. The illusionists, Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton, are deftly played by Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi. After 10 years as headliners at the same hotel, their act has grown repetitive and stale due to Burt's sexist and demanding demeanor.

In the film’s opening scenes, Burt is shown to be a bullied loner in grade school. That changes when he receives a Rance Holloway Magic Kit as a present. Holloway (Alan Arkin) explains the magic tricks inside the box via a VHS tape, and Burt’s life immediately changes. He performs magic tricks at school and becomes a popular spectacle of sorts, acquiring fellow classmate Anton as both an admirer and magician’s assistant. 

Years pass, and things have gone very well for the two, who now share top billing in Vegas. Unfortunately, thanks to Burt’s demeaning comments and actions, their female assistant quits. Making magic matters worse is the street magician, Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), who performs on the sidewalk outside their hotel. Gray’s act is more “Jackass” sadism than magic illusion. (See opening paragraph regarding the dumbing-down of audiences.) 

Hotel/casino owner Doug Munny (James Gandofini), aptly named, pressures his headliners to change the act, since receipts mirror a change in audience taste from sublime illusion to ridiculous bloodletting.  

Enter Olivia Wilde’s Jane, a magician’s assistant who divides her loyalties between the two acts. Factor in the now retired Holloway, wiling away in a senior citizen home. Without divulging anymore, I have to applaud the ensemble cast for their extraordinary comedic acting. Jim Carrey’s work is his best in years; Steve Buscemi is both sympathetic and funny; and Alan Arkin’s curmudgeonly role fits perfectly. 

A friend recently said to me that this Wonderstone movie should indicate whether or not Carell made the right decision to leave The Office and pursue a film career. After this terrific performance as well as successes in films over the past two years, Carell is definitely big box office. 

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is mostly predictable, but the finale is unique--and hilarious--to the max. Admitting such, I have to include myself as enjoying sadistic humor, at least to a degree. Hey, I am still a Three Stooges fan. 
GRADE on a scale of A to F: A-
The film's trailer isn't magical, but it covers basic territory:

Friday, March 8, 2013

‘Oz’ may not be ‘Wizard of,’ but viewing is storybook stunning

By Steve Crum

Seventy-four years after the fact, that being 1939’s opening of The Wizard of Oz, much of the movie magic is realized again in Oz the Great and Powerful. What a stunner it is. 

Presumptuously speaking, this new take (a prequel) is/will be a modern classic. Director Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Spider-Man) is in his fantasy-adventure element here, creating an Oz world for the new millennium: ultra-colorful, storybook sets, and spectacular 3D. (If a 3D showing is available, go for it.) L. Frank Baum, author of the original novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, would surely be proud of this incarnation.

The storyline, by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, tends to follow Baum’s book more than MGM’s Judy Garland take. Still, there are numerous lifts and references from the ’39 movie, despite MGM’s (now Warner’s) copyright protocols. For one, the opening sequence of Oz TGP is framed in conventional non-widescreen, and in black and white. (Studio hype describes it as “sepia,” but it really is not.) Set in a traveling circus during 1905, somewhere in Kansas, central character Oscar Diggs (a surprisingly effective James Franco) is a disreputable sideshow magician who literally takes flight (a balloon) to escape bodily harm. Enter an MGM-looking tornado that whisks the top-hatted Diggs away to the widescreen, vibrantly colorful Land of Oz. 

Crash-landing safely, he is immediately mistaken by good witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) as the prophesied Wizard who is expected to rule as King of Oz. Diggs’ con man persona sees it as an opportunity to grab the kingdom’s gold and return home. Two evil witches, Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), will do their nastiest to prevent the declared wizard from surviving even a day. Cue the needle-toothed, flying baboons!

There is one flying monkey in this movie, a cuddly, sympathetic, and funny kind. The animated “Finley” is voiced by Zach Braff. 

The plot is predictable to those familiar with the 1939 movie, which should be 99% of the audience. So expect an ultimate battle between the Wizard and the bloodthirsty witches, attacks by airborne simians, and singing Munchkins. The vertically challenged folks sing and dance to a brief and forgettable song, which is definitely not a  reprise of something from Arlen and Yarburg’s 1939 score. No copyright infringement here. In other words, do not expect a hint of Over the Rainbow anywhere in this movie.

As in The Wizard of Oz, actors perform as different characters in both settings. For example, Joey King is both the girl in a wheelchair in Kansas during Diggs’ magic act, and the voice of  the computer generated China Girl during the Oz part of the film. Incidentally, China Girl provides a real plus to the film, a major character not included in the ’39 story. By the same token, do not expect seeing a man of tin, a shaking lion, or scatterbrained scarecrow in the new story. (Dorothy meets them later, on her own terms.) 

There is a sideways homage to Dorothy, however. During a Kansas scene, Diggs’ girlfriend Annie (MIchelle Willams, who also plays the good witch) jilts him by saying she is engaged to a guy named John Gale. Hmm, could he be related to our Dorothy aka Dorothy Gale? Maybe Anne will eventually be nicknamed “Em” as in Auntie Em? Maybe the next Oz flick will cover that territory. 

Action sequences, set design, and interactions between live actors and digital images are top notch. James Franco, essentially playing a Johnny Depp-type role, handles the whimsical wizard role very well. 

If you do see Oz the Great and Powerful on a 3D screen, expect river fairies to spit in your face (I literally flinched backwards) and butterflies hovering overhead. The effects are that good. 

Check out the name of the circus, Baum Brothers, since it obviously refers to author L. Frank Baum. Also notice Evanora’s witch makeup, which is slightly different than Hamilton’s witch look in 1939. Due to legalities, the 2013 witch has no facial wart, and her skin color is a shade different green. 

It is no surprise that actor Bruce Campbell has a cameo (Winkie the Gate Keeper), since his friend and mentor, Sam Raimi, has for years cast him in small roles in all his movies. It’s a director thing, you see.
GRADE on a scale of A to F: A-
We're off to see the film's trailer!: