Burt Wonderstone

Escape what?

wonderstoneThe Incredible Burt Wonderstone begins at the very top of Vonnegut’s Fortune Graph, then quickly dips to the near-bottom and pulls some clever loops.  Thankfully, there’s some nuance.  Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) is at the top of the Las Vegas magician circuit along with his partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi).  The duo perform a ten-year-old act in a theatre named after themselves, and their act is the exclusive property of tight-fisted hotelier Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), who tolerates their show’s repetitive nature as long as they rake in the bucks.  Mixed in with their stage crew is the mature and intelligent Jane (Olivia Wilde), an aspiring magician who looks up to Wonderstone until she realizes what a self-involved, sexist fop he really is.  Out of seemingly nowhere, magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), from the David Blaine/Criss Angel school of street-combing, heavy metal non-magic, appears on the scene and makes everyone wonder whether his act, which involves little more than self-mutilation, is the future of magic.

At this point, does anyone really care about the future of magic?  By “everyone,” I mean the real-life audience of this film, because the characters within are certainly concerned enough.  The great illusionists were the most wonderful novelties of their time, and even magicians like Blaine were enjoyable if you couldn’t figure out his year-one card tricks and could get past the fact that his enthusiastic onlookers were plants, but now, in the Age of Irony, the magic of magic would probably be lost on the Youtube generation, who are all too eager to type “FAKE!” in the comments section before a video even ends.

Burt Wonderstone is a formula screwball-comedy; any strange craft or activity could have been implemented in the place of Vegas magic shows for funny results.  The film does some interesting genre-hopping, however; much of the humor, particularly anything involving Jim Carrey, is dark and visceral (I actually looked away during one of Gray’s street tricks), but then, not five minutes later, we receive family-oriented dialogue about friendship.

With Gray becoming more popular, Wonderstone and Anton decide (with more than a little strong-arming from Doug) to change their act.  This leads to an amusing parody of one of David Blaine’s “stand still in public for a week” spectacles, and for these two, the results are calamitous.  With a friendship and a career in shambles, Wonderstone is reduced to rags (near-bottom of the graph!) and must, as we know he will, bounce back and reignite his career while learning a lesson or two about giving.  The problem at the outset is that he’s a horrible person.  His heightened “accent” makes Everett McGill sound like Morgan Freeman.  He’s also unbelievably bigoted, and tells Jane (who refuses to be either his sexed-up assistant or a one-night stand) that she can never be a famous magician because she’s “a girl.”  He also constantly refers to her as “Nicole,” the name of his previous assistant.  His very sincere apology concerning this behavior later in the film makes one wonder whether he’s just been playing a character his entire life.  He admits that he knew her name the entire time and deliberately objectified and insulted her.  Given the joyless and mechanical way he performs in the beginning (including sex with a groupie played by the multi-talented Gillian Jacobs), could he have been acting this way simply because it’s expected of him?  Worth thinking about.  Regardless, he becomes a much more sympathetic protagonist once he admits he was wrong, stops wearing a platinum blonde wig, and begins speaking like a normal person.  The “romance” between Burt and Jane, though, feels completely dialed-in, and I daresay it was not in the script until a big-name studio got involved.

The sexism chat leads to one of the funniest exchanges in the film.  Burt: “I’m sorry.  Back then, women did not have the same freedoms they have now.”  Jane: “It was a month ago.”

Alan Arkin appears as Rance Holloway, the magician whose home kits inspired Burt to do magic in the first place.  There’s some good era-specific humor when, in the 80s segment, Rance’s commercial states, “I’m Rance Holloway.  You’ve probably seen me on the Merv Griffin show.”  Whomever did Arkin’s makeup for this film should win an Oscar next year. Gandolfini plays the voracious Doug as a straightforward parody of Vegas hoteliers: he opens a billion-dollar resort named after himself (“The Doug”), cannot remember how old his son is, and has even fewer layers to his character than Virgil from True Romance.  Buscemi is hilarious and heartwarming as usual in these comedic roles that he loves, and after watching him for three years on Boardwalk Empire, this role is borderline novel.  Wilde plays Jane as a down-to-earth career woman whose character could have potentially been far more than a love interest (though she does achieve her dream of becoming The Astonishing Jane in the end).  Carrey’s Steve Gray is something else.  Even in middle-age, he’s successfully brought back the material he did in The Mask; a kooky niche character who, despite being crazy, manages to be more than a caricature.  Not much more, but Jim Carrey has effectively returned.  Gray is the quintessential celebrity magician who doesn’t care how his dangerous acts affect children.  Jane asks, after Gray mutilates himself at a birthday party, “What if kids try to copy you?”  Gray answers, “I’ll sue them.  It’s my trick.”  Finally, there’s a great cameo from David Copperfield, the guy who made me love magic shows when I was a kid.  I won’t spoil his involvement in the movie, but I still cannot figure out how he did that “interact with your TV” trick wherein you always end up on the moon.

In this case, if you’re entirely sure about what you saw, you overthought it.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone; written by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein; directed by Don Scardino; starring Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, and Jim Carrey.

Stand Up Guys

Black suits you

Walken, Arkin, PacinoImagine a film similar to Superbad, but with male retirees as a target audience.  Now picture the lead characters as people who in their younger days aspired to be Michael Corleone and/or any of the dual-pistol-wielding badasses of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow films.  You’d expect the result to be an amusing admixture somewhere between a crime film and a buddy comedy, right?  If you answered yes, Stand Up Guys will not surprise you, but if you’re still with me so far, you’ll be happy to get exactly what you expect.

The set-up involves Doc (Christopher Walken) ponderously puttering around before picking up Val (Al Pacino), an old criminal accomplice, from prison, where the latter has just finished serving a 28-year sentence for accidentally killing the evil progeny of criminal mastermind Claphands (Mark Margolis), whose name signifies that he…really wants approval, I guess.  The duo hang around Doc’s apartment and deliver some stiff dialogue (skirting Island Syndrome for the first few minutes), and then Val decides he will do some partying to celebrate his release, even though the Doc he once knew is now an old man with old man habits and an early bedtime.  Soon comes the kicker that gets the main story arc moving: Doc has been ordered by Claphands to kill Val posthaste and deliver his body.  Apparently, the SOB wanted Val to serve every minute of his sentence before being dealt the ultimate payback.  Doc, however, (despite not seeing Val for 28 years) is gentler than he once was, and has fond memories of Val, whom he now realizes is his only friend.  Val, it turns out, only did all of this partying because he suspected he was to be killed by Doc, and wonders why his friend hasn’t just gotten it over with already.

The movie is directed by Fisher Stevens, who guest-starred as the ill-fated George Minkowski on LOST.  Stevens structures his movie like any other buddy comedy: through a series of vignettes involving the same protagonists and multiple supporting characters who only appear in their respective segments (I did the same thing with Slices a few years ago, when I was required to follow a set structure, and it’s surprisingly difficult to pull off, namely because you have to justify each segment’s existence in the overall plot; many are inevitably cut).   Claphands breathes down Doc’s neck and makes clear that he must kill Val before 10am or suffer the consequences.  With a full night of freedom left, Doc and Val go on an adventure that begins when Val steals a “sweet-ass” car.  They soon rescue their former getaway driver, Hirsch (Alan Arkin) from a retirement home, and he immediately goes from breathing through an oxygen tank to whipping across the highway at 90+ miles-an-hour.  From here, I got the sense that there were some script revisions concerning how disparate and madcap each mini-adventure would be.  Perhaps Stevens realized he had Walken, Pacino, and Arkin in the same movie, and decided to do everything possible with them.  This leads us to some genre sampling, including Ferrell/Apatow-style screwball comedy (brothel humor, the inevitable old-man-on-Viagra joke, and a pup-tent erection); GoodFellas-era Scorsese black humor (a naked woman is found in the trunk of a stolen car and the gang must decide what to do with her), which leads to a bizarrely lighthearted and totally-played-for-laughs version of the infamous rape-and-revenge genre films (aforementioned woman reveals that she was kidnapped, sexually abused, and released by a gang, and the Stand Up Guys, being stand-up guys, beat the crap out of the gang and allow the woman to do what she will with them afterward); Tarantino-ish table chat scenes (which come off more as deliberate opportunities for these three veteran actors to be onscreen together and play off of each other for longer); and even Hong Kong action for a short time, in a finale that delivers not enough and possibly too much at the same time, but I leave that to you.

The supporting cast includes Vanessa Ferlito (!), who I haven’t seen since Death Proof, and whose effortless natural strength (not to mention her wonderful Italian attitude, a woman after my own heart) can steal any show, even when performing with these guys.  Julianna Margulies plays Nina, a doctor and the daughter of Hirsch, who gets a bit more screen time than most of the supporting women.  Lucy Punch, who also appeared in Grindhouse, plays Wendy, the proprietor of the brothel (previously owned by her mother, the former romantic partner of Val), and has a warm presence in the movie until a somewhat ludicrous scene involving Arkin’s character, which would be funny if not for how obligatory it seems – the “feeble old man happens to be a sex god” joke has worn out for me, sorry.  It’s old hat and reliably disrespectful to the women involved.

Perhaps most interesting among the supporting characters is Alex (Addison Timlin), a waitress who happens to be working at the diner (and busing the exact table at which the group sits) every time they come in over the course of nearly 24 hours.  She’s young, pretty, and loves chatting with Doc, who sits in her section every single morning.  She appears as a sort of mystical character, is always at the perfect calm, and is the only character who can draw out the softer details of Doc’s character, and thus convinces us to sympathize with him throughout (not that Walken’s acting doesn’t do a good enough job).  Her true identity is, like most things in this story, what you would expect, but the film’s adherence to structure is what keeps it from skirting farce (despite a Surprise Demise in the middle of the story and the aforementioned finale).

Al Pacino needs to choose his roles carefully now, and acting with Walken and Arkin again is a good one.  His voice is gravely and despondent.  He knows time is running out, and his more emotional scenes hit home, in spite of the fact that the “ticking timer” trope is shopworn and synthetic.  It means something to us only when it means something to the characters, and there’s a good sense of urgency here thanks to the secondary situation: not only does Val only have a few hours to live, but he and Doc only have a few hours to rekindle their friendship.  Walken, who had a good year in 2012, continues to play roles he’s comfortable in, but that don’t bring him into the territory of self-parody.

Throughout the story, characters reminisce for the sake of depth and exposition.  It’s worth noting that when the guys reminisce about their back-in-the-day criminal escapades, it’s nowhere near as interesting as when they (and other characters) reminisce about meaningful memories together.

A few bafflers: why/how does Claphands, a criminal mastermind with tons of money, keep his office in a building that looks condemned?  Why does he only seem to have two henchmen?  Why aren’t his henchmen imposing?  If he only has two non-imposing henchmen and his fortress is in the middle of the (nameless) city, why is Doc so petrified of him?  Why are the owners of the “sweet-ass” car, who are purportedly so tough and infamous that they don’t even lock their car because no one would be dumb enough to steal it, a bunch of wiry white dudes who end up easily pushed over?  Why is Alex trusting enough to go alone to a stranger’s apartment?  Again, it goes back to why most things in this movie happen: because it’s necessary to the film’s House of Cards plot, which would collapse should one detail be altered.  If you’re involved in the story and willing to go with it, none of this is very distracting.

The film’s title is one of those Road Sign Game opportunities.  Place punctuation, and the whole meaning changes, and you don’t feel bad about it because the words didn’t make much sense in the first place (remember “No, U turn”?).  Stand Up Guys doesn’t refer to the name of their gang; it’s a term referring to a responsible person, which Val claims to be, and which Doc certainly strives to be.  Do they succeed?  If you don’t think so, you can always call it Stand Up, Guys!  They do sit around a lot.

Stand Up GuysStand Up Guys (2013); written by Noah Haidle; directed by Fisher Stevens; starring Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, and Vanessa Ferlito.

Argo

A great American what?

The unfortunate part of Argo is its timing.  The suspicion and mistreatment with which the film’s American characters are met in Iranian airports is the exact treatment Middle-Eastern folks receive in American airports now.  Additionally, the Iranians are portrayed as bloodthirsty animals just waiting to unleash gunfire on anyone revealed to be American “spies.”  Their well-documented fascination with American movies and culture is touched upon; however, these scenes are brief and stylistically backwards, making a group of Iranian soldiers seem like, for lack of a better term, dummies.  There’s also an added dramatization in which armed revolutionaries chase an escaping airplane down a runway, which sounds worse than it is.

As a film, Argo is drama 101.  Its structure is simple and effective, and its narrative is complete.  There is a stigma revolving around Ben Affleck, as though he’s somehow the successful hack of the current Hollywood generation; sure, his acting is sometimes pretty flat, but he’s a good filmmaker.  He knows the ropes of a realistic drama.  Argo is a movie that is allowed to be two hours – it vibrates with a sort of quiet that renders its scenes tense and thrilling without the contrived insertion of fight scenes and villains.

The narrative, based on a true story, follows Tony Mendez (Affleck) as he is pressured by the CIA to come up with a solution to a problem: Islamic “extremists” have taken over the U.S. embassy in retaliation for the country’s support of the recently deposed Shah Pahlavi.  Six of the embassy staff escape capture, however, and end up virtual hostages of Iran as they are housed in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) with little hope of escape.  Mendez and his supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) will team with renowned Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and fictional movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), and together they will create extensive marketing for a fake Star Wars knockoff.  The six hostages will take on the identities of the movie crew after Mendez makes contact with them in Tehran, and with the CIA’s help, will board a commercial aircraft out of Iranian airspace.

As this is a film, the plan must not be an instant success, but Affleck’s dramatic license is not as egregious as it may have been in other hands. Immediate problems include the fact that the extremists are re-piecing the shredded documents from the abandoned embassy, which means they’ll soon discover the identities of the six missing staff and be able to recognize them on sight.  Additionally, Taylor’s housekeeper, Sahar (Sheila Vand), who does not speak English, may be onto the identities of Taylor’s six “house guests,” and Taylor and Mendez fear who she might tell.

The film’s action, though evenly paced and quiet, is climactic, particularly when the plan is put into motion and the six hostages plus Mendez are out in the open, attempting to make their way through the airport.  A slew of real footage from the crisis is used, particularly in the beginning, almost in an attempt to say, “Look how close to real life we made this movie look!” but which doesn’t distract from the story for long.  In the end, we see some photos of the real people next to the actors who played them, voiced over by a speech from the real-life Jimmy Carter (whom Affleck wisely decided not to have appear as a character in the film), all except Mendez, since Affleck seems to have been rightfully embarrassed/ashamed about casting himself, rather than a Latino actor, in the role of the hero.

In fact, Mendez is really the only character we don’t get to know very well.  Carter refers to him as a “great American” for what he sacrifices to get his people out of Iran.  Why does he go so far to do this?  The mission is classified, so he’s not doing it to impress his estranged fiance’ (Taylor Schilling) and son.  He’s (thankfully) not a staunch patriot, as we see him sleeping through the morning news reports and wrestling with his supervisors (mainly Cranston’s character) about which technique they should use to stage the escape.  As a bad acting instructor would ask, what’s his motivation?  Affleck’s Mendez reaches Boring Hero status by the time the mission begins.  As author Clint McCown would tell you, “it happened in real life” is no excuse in fiction.

Goodman and Arkin play the most enjoyable characters and provide some truly funny moments, including industry-savvy-yet-accessible Hollywood banter, in a film so awash in its own seriousness.  Goodman’s character at one point quotes Karl Marx’s line about tragic history repeating itself as farce, and cites this quote as belonging to “Marx,” after which Arkin replies, “Groucho said that?”

The would-be breakthrough character in the film is Sahar, who despite the paranoia of Mendez and Taylor, actually protects the hostages and the mission at the risk of being killed by interrogators who fanatically support the Ayatollah.  Of course, since this is a Hollywood movie, the misunderstood foreigner with a heart of gold must, as a rule, be played by a beautiful girl in her early twenties, but the inclusion of a sympathetic Iranian character (with her own ambitions, despite how little they may be touched upon) is a positive gesture.

Best Picture buzz already surrounds Argo.  It won the Toronto Film Festival, which has predicted BP at the Oscars for the past five years.  Due to its (in)convenient timing, the film may slide into home, beating out Lincoln and Les Miserables, the other shoo-in nominees, and it may deserve it (over the other nominees, that is – not over every film that came out this year).  Argo may be a bullet-for-bullet example of what a screenplay is supposed to look like, but there’s also a heart there.  I’d have appreciated it if the heart wasn’t so glowingly red-white-and-blue, but it’s there all the same.

Argo (2012); written by Chris Terrio; directed by Ben Affleck; starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, and Alan Arkin.