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.

Reservoir Dogs

You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize

In celebration of twenty years of filmmaking on the part of Quentin Tarantino (and the upcoming release of his newest film, Django Unchained, which I’m tempted to dodge family holiday obligations in order to see), I was finally able to see Reservoir Dogs, a film that has topped my list for the better part of a decade, in the theatre for the first time.  Instead of the theatre’s usual shameless ads and blockbuster trailers, viewers were shown the original trailers for Quentin’s previous films (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, etc.) and a bunch of Tarantino trivia.  There were also ads for a new Tarantino Blu-Ray box set, but as Miramax hasn’t yet realized that not everyone has/needs/wants a Blu-Ray player, I tuned out.  The VHS-DVD transition was organic and took decades.  Stop trying to force the next magic discs on us; forcibly rendering the current generation of technology obsolete creates endless waste and yard-sale fodder (plus you’re expediting the takeover of the machines).

It occurs to me that despite my years-long love of Reservoir Dogs, I have yet to write a word about it.  I’m not sure what I can say that hasn’t been said in the past twenty years, but it would seem that in a case like this, people want to know if an old movie “holds up.”  Of course it does, dummy.  But this has also been a big year for anniversaries and re-releases and general love for the cinema (look at the Oscar winners from February): with the somber 100-year anniversary of the Titanic sinking, the film holding its namesake was screened in theatres for the first time since I was in eighth grade.  With twenty years of Quentin behind a camera, we get to see ‘Dogs and Pulp Fiction in the theatre again.  The best part of the overall experience, maybe, was that several moviegoers around me had not seen the film.  They knew Quentin’s name, they’d probably been told that filmmaking was forever changed after his first two films, they’d heard of Mr. Blonde, but hadn’t actually sat through what Quentin once referred to as his equivalent of Kubrick’s The Killing and what many consider to be the greatest independent film of all time.  The reactions, which included gasps, cackles, and plenty of audible occurrences of  “jeeeeezus” said it all.

Reservoir Dogs is a heist film without a heist.  We begin in a diner, with a bunch of guys in identical black suits – Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino), and Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker) – eating breakfast and hashing over the meaning of Madonna songs.  The exceptions to the suits are the two “bosses”: Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn).  The “diner scene,” as it’s known, has come to be one of the most quotable sequences in film history.  I’ll spare you direct quotes (because your friends surely haven’t), but the scene remains a diamond of screenwriting that sets a precedent for the rest of the movie: dialogue, not contrivance, deepens characters and pushes scenes forward.  Buscemi’s legendary “tipping” vignette is something few of us can avoid thinking about while computing gratuity at a restaurant.

I have always considered Reservoir Dogs to be two separate films.  The diner scene (i.e. everything before George Baker’s “Little Green Bag” and the famous slow-motion walk under the opening credits) is one film, whose attack, rising action, conflict, and resolution are all composed and accomplished through dialogue.  Then, we’ve got a relentless crime film.  Keitel’s character, Mr. White (arguably the only character with any sort of conscience, and I include the police characters in that statement) drags a gut-shot Mr. Orange into a warehouse where Joe, the boss, has instructed everyone to rendezvous.  After Mr. Pink arrives, we learn (through dialogue) that something went wrong with what was supposed to be a simple, two-minute robbery.  An employee set off the alarm, Mr. Blonde executed several innocent people, Mr. Orange was shot by a civilian during the getaway, a legion of police showed up out of nowhere, and Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue were killed.  Most of this, at least at the outset, is not shown, and we are left to imagine the horrific events.  White and Pink deduce that someone in the group must be a rat (i.e. an undercover cop).  White rules out Orange, who is slowly dying from his wound, and doubts that Joe knew anything about the setup.  Mr. Blonde, who casually arrives drinking soda from a paper cup, dismisses their theory, dodges questions about why he became a psychopath at the jewelry store, and reveals that he has kidnapped a police officer (Kirk Baltz), whom the trio savagely beat for information (and also out of boredom, as they are to wait for Joe and Nice Guy Eddie to meet them for further instruction).

Through a series of flashbacks that play like the three acts of a stage drama (complete with titles over a black screen), we witness Joe’s recruitment of Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, and Mr. Orange, each of which reveal something else about where the story is headed.  The film’s events (in the present) are pushed along by accidents and severe mistakes, which turns the film into a comedy of errors that is anything but funny (as much as we may laugh and grin at the amusing dialogue).  The biggest mistake since the initial heist happens when Eddie decides to leave Mr. Blonde alone with the unconscious Mr. Orange and the tied-up cop.  This gives way to the iconic “ear-cutting scene,” which many exclusively remember Mr. Blonde (and Madsen) for, and which rendered “Stuck in the Middle with You” virtually unlistenable without picturing Blonde’s sadistic antics.

The longest and most well-crafted of the flashback acts belongs to Mr. Orange, who is revealed to be the informant after gunning down Blonde in defense of the cop, and contains the only story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-a-story I’ve ever seen done on film (Inception doesn’t count).  The story plays out violently, yet controlled, when the others discover Orange’s identity, and the final smash-cut to the credits and Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” leaves the audience fatigued, somber, and still thinking.  Consider the fact that in 2012, the most expensive of indie films (the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas) can only accomplish two of those.

The film’s violence is the primary struggle of the film’s detractors, aside from the rough and unapologetic language.  It’s not because of gratuity or the sheer amount of red Kool-Aid seen smeared all over the backseat of Mr. White’s car and the floor of the warehouse; it’s because the violence is portrayed in such a realistic and disturbing way.  Here, we do not have James Bond twirling around and gracefully blasting supervillains over bridges with only a hole in the enemy’s shirt to indicate damage taken.  Here, people bleed when shot, the wrong people die, and the cops aren’t the good guys – in fact, without police involvement, no one would have been injured (much less killed) in the heist.  An anecdote told by an L.A. Sheriff in Mr. Orange’s flashback in which he finds humor in verbally brutalizing and threatening to kill a “stupid fucking citizen” still haunts me more than most of the shooting.  The film’s realism is also bolstered by the fact that there are very few, if any, reshoots and retakes.  Most of the shots are long and wide.  Buscemi, speaking at 100mph, stumbles over lines and loses his breath.  Tierney, bookending his career as a crime actor, repeats lines and thinks so hard about what he wants to say that we’re not sure he’s actually acting.  The lack of jump cuts makes us forget that we’re watching a scripted film and not just a bunch of guys in a room trying to find their way out of a life-and-death predicament.

To those who count the film’s disturbing portrayal of violence as rendering the film somehow unwatchable, I’ll say this: you should not be comfortable while watching Reservoir Dogs.  Not at any point.  Not even when you know what’s coming.  I’ve seen this movie dozens of times, and I have yet to eat during it or to find amusement in the in-and-of-itself facts of what happens.  Discomfort during a movie like this, the act of looking away when a guy has his face slashed by a straight razor, might be a glimmer of hope in disguise: perhaps we are not completely desensitized to blood and gore and murder, not when it’s shown to us as it actually exists.  I called out the violence of Cloud Atlas for being gratuitous and unnecessary, but in that case it’s done for a different reason – Reservoir Dogs is not an action epic nor a film during which to cheer; it offers more than violent spectacle.  There are no stylish flourishes during shootouts.  There’s cinematic artwork involved.  There’s something you can take away besides fatigue, but you’ll have to decide for yourself what that is.

Reservoir Dogs is a 101 course on film structure, and its re-release will net a few new fans for Quentin (not that he’s got a deficiency).  The re-release is also a breath of cool air for those of us who just want to see a higher ratio of good films to disappointments when we go to the theatre; for the rest, maybe it’s a nudge into the correct queue line.  All that’s left is for the corporate theatres to mimic this event and put a serious damper on all the shameless advertising.  Blu-Rays reign supreme?  Tell that bullshit to the tourists.

Reservoir Dogs (1992); written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, and Michael Madsen.   

Rampart

No plan survives contact with the enemy

The above statement proves all too true when Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) tries to talk with his daughters near the ending of Oren Moverman’s Rampart.  Everyone in this film seems to have a plan, the fundamental fibers of which have begun deteriorating long before the beginning of the story.

Dave Brown is a bad guy.  He’s a Los Angeles police officer in the wake of the Rampart scandal, determined to retain his job despite the laundry list of allegations against him for everything you can think of, including unnecessary brutality, to which we bear firsthand witness.  He lives next door to his two ex-wives, sisters who each have a daughter by Brown.  This makes his daughters both sisters and first cousins; when the younger daughter asks if she is “inbred,” Brown responds, “I married your moms consecutively, not concurrently.  It’s all perfectly legal and up to insurance industry standards.”  I can’t help but wonder how the sisters (played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), both married to Brown within such a short time frame, get along so famously and nearly always stick together when it comes to issues involving him.  Perhaps their lives have reached such a low point – not to mention a point at which nothing can surprise them – that acceptance is the only fallible response.

Rampart is not presented as a film with a plot as much as a mulligan of vignettes and sideplots meticulously woven together to await their respective inevitable results.  What we might consider the major meat of the story involves Brown facing sanctions and possible forced retirement for a suspicious shooting set up by a former gangster simply named Hartshorn, played by convincing old-timer Ned Beatty.  As all of the Hartshorns in America are related, I naturally wanted to root for him, but the film makes that a bit difficult.  In the face of the allegations, Brown repeatedly tries to talk his way out of trouble using the wit, crude humor, and pretense of intelligence that got him so far on the force (for example, we learn early in the film that he often makes up quotes from nonexistent court cases in order to illustrate points to police rookies).  However, it is clear from the get-go that he has no chance of charming assistant district attorney Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver), agent Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube), and politician Bill Blago (Steve Buscemi).  When the womanizing Brown meets a lawyer named Linda (Robin Wright, the Princess Bride herself), a conflict blooms in that it would be much more beneficial for her to work against him.  When she attempts to discuss feelings vs. professionalism and the reality of the situation with him, he cannot get past the fact that she will not simply do as he says.

The movie would be over in a hurry (or quickly shift focus to the domestic conflicts only) if Brown wasn’t so desperate to keep his job as a police officer, despite everyone knowing he’s a loose cannon.  Why is staying a cop the most important thing?  “Because I am a hard-charging, dutiful motherfucker and I want to explicate the LAPD’s somewhat hyperbolized misdeeds with true panache regardless of my alleged transgressions,” he says with pretentious, self-conscious eloquence in front of a group of big-shots who know he has no respect for them.  The story, then, represents a series of struggles, perhaps a two-way struggle against a river that runs both ways: Brown is not going to convince his superiors, who are more concerned with the public embarrassment the force has become because of him than with the fact that he’s beaten and killed countless unarmed people for the hell of it, and he’s not going to make any headway with his daughters, who are young, but old enough to know he’s an all-around ne’er-do-well.

The scenes showcasing Brown’s shady dealings with Hartshorn include some great tough-guy dialogue, most often seen in movies we might now think of as fossilized (Bogart, Mitchum, John Wayne) and more recent movies that seem to know they’re gangster movies (Reservoir Dogs, for instance), but it seems to work organically here:

Brown: “Look, if this was the gang fucks, I don’t mind.  Generic criminal scum, bogus lawsuit settlement scum, press scum – I can deal with scum.  But if this is Rampart, LAPD, some fucking girly politician setting me up as a shit-magnet to take the heat off the fucking scandal, I gotta go deep into this.”

Hartshorn: “Lookit, what can I do?  I am just a law-abiding retiree enjoying his golden years.”

Brown: “Fuck you with the Mickey Cohen routine, old man.  You’ve got your fingers in more department pie than any active cop I know.  Now, milk your contacts.  I’ve got cash left from the Harris job – thanks for that, by the way.”

Hartshorn: “You could just stop, um, beating people up.”

The more touching parts of the film involve Brown’s attempts to reconcile (or, as far as we’re concerned, to develop an anything-but-antagonistic relationship) with his older daughter, Helen (Brie Larson), who smokes, dyes her hair, and is dating another girl.  She also has a deep knowledge of her father’s treatment of his family, and needs only a television to see what he’s been doing elsewhere.  When she treks far from home to see what he’s up to at work, he asks, “How’s school?”  She answers, “It sucks.  It’s full of candyass future fags and dykes like me,” adding that these are Brown’s own words.  “You’re a dinosaur,” she says.  “You’re a classic racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womanizer,  a chauvinist, a misanthrope, homophobic, clearly, or maybe you just don’t like yourself.”  As an audience, we cannot help but admit that this is what we’ve been thinking since square one, and root for our protagonist as we might, we know that if he were a real person, we would ostracize him the same as everyone else.  This argument takes place beautifully and ingeniously framed between two very different trees growing from the same soil, one bare and ragged (the one closest Dave) and the other, closest Helen, covered with sturdy bark, leaves and ivy.

But there is one bond that these two share: they’re outcasts.  Even after Brown has alienated every possible character in the story, that fact cannot change.  We don’t get the sense that Helen’s mother and aunt are any more gay-friendly than Brown, but only because they don’t seem to care about much of anything too deeply (how else can their casual living situation be explained?).  When his exes decide it’s time to sell the house and move, Brown desperately tries to stop this.  Why?  Is this just further proof of his unwillingness to accept change, or does he really see potential for reconciliation?  For love, even?  The final scene of the film seems to speak to this: after all of his schemes have failed, he trespasses on what was once his own property and spies on Helen, who sits on the porch with a cigarette, experiencing what looks like a peaceful moment.  Brown does this earlier in the film, watching Helen with her girlfriend and perhaps noticing how happy she looks; after the way she acts around him, it may come as a shock to him that she even has the ability to smile.  As she sits on the porch smoking, she seems to notice him in the bushes, and he makes no attempt to hide.  After a few seconds of wordless and expressionless eye contact, the two part ways, with Brown leaving and making his way back to his squad car, which will probably not be his for much longer (along with everything else), the camera lens seeming to crack apart with reds, blues, and combination shots of Brown’s face.  Was Helen happy to see him?  Do either of them recognize their potential as father and daughter?  Is there any hope of getting that back once the family disappears from Brown’s life?  The film leaves it up to our scrutiny of Helen’s facial expressions and body language, and it’s a very rewarding scene (albeit not absolute by any means) to watch over and over again.

Rampart is a difficult film.  I’m writing about it nearly two months after seeing it.  It’s a film you must see for Woody Harrelson’s performance and its expert treatment of an ensemble cast, and it deserves an Oscar for the former, but in my experience, it’s also a film you must see, think about in great detail, rewatch parts of, try not to think about for awhile, then come back and face, just like Brown must do with Helen in the end.

Rampart (2012); written by James Ellroy and Oren Moverman; directed by Oren Moverman; starring Woody Harrelson, Brie Larson, Robin Wright, and Ned Beatty.

Rage

Show business kids makin’ movies of ’emselves…

As much as I enjoy the little featurettes on Rage, Sally Potter’s latest effort, the term “naked cinema” has yet to be defined for me – whether that is because I suddenly find myself a victim of the times and think the absence of a Wikipedia article means a term has no definition, I couldn’t say.  I’m going to venture a guess, though: it means something more than a “cheap movie.”  Rage was made with only $1 million (a phrase I still snicker at when I hear it spoken aloud – “only one million dollars”), and I assume the lion’s share  went to the actors.  If hats didn’t give me headaches, I would wear one and subsequently take it off to this stellar cast of accomplished performers for snubbing expensive jobs they surely could have taken in favor of being involved in a truly ambitious artistic project.

Potter states that “we…live in a culture that is kind of fetishizing fake confessions in the form of reality TV, confessions made for an effect, or to get famous or whatever…I tried to go back to an earlier lineage of confession, which is a kind of…lifting off, if you like, of a mask.”  This film is fully comprised of confessional interviews, supposedly filmed by a high school blogger calling him/herself Michelangelo (yes, it’s important to note that the gender is never revealed; don’t just assume it’s a male).  Michelangelo, a silent, off-stage presence, spends seven days behind the scenes at a fashion show, witnessing a murder-mystery in progress while the key players share their musings with the camera (and quite often share too much).

The colorful ensemble includes appearances by Jude Law as a drag queen named Minx; Steve Buscemi as Frank, a homeless photographer; Judi Dench as Mona, a pessimistic fashion journalist; the gorgeous Lily Cole (who has grown on me) as Lettuce Leaf, an exaggerated version of herself; Eddie Izzard as Tiny Diamonds, the owner of the fashion company; Simon Abkarian as Merlin, a master fashion designer and blowhard extraordinaire; Patrick J. Adams as Dwight Angel, a young, bigoted marketing exec who happens to be ignorant of his own racial insensitivity; David Oyelowo as Homer, a “detective” straight out of a blaxploitation film; and John Leguizamo as Jed, Tiny’s coffee-addicted bodyguard.

For a film almost completely devoid of a traceable story arc, it is impressive to find two sideplots alongside the documentary/murder-mystery (though the first is more of a “side subject”): 1) the creation of a new fragrance, simply called “M,” which leads to insight from several characters about what “M” stands for, resulting in characters “saying more than they’re saying;” and 2) Lettuce Leaf needs to “get away” from the barbarous stress of being in the studio, and asks Michelangelo if she can come home with him/her.  The final shots of the film, quite different from anything previous, are touching, gorgeous, and…shucks.  Just see it.

Rage is a film for the film enthusiast, the writer, and the minimalist.  It’s a film entirely comprised of dialogue, dismissing the importance of plot and resolution, revolving completely around characters and their immediate emotions.  It’s a murder mystery with no possible solution.  It’s a satire of the fashion industry, and more so a satire of reality TV and its dedicated viewers who gawk hopelessly as their idols, people who have done nothing and are nothing, weep and whine about silly, grandiose, arbitrary schlock, and the camera zooms in for a deliberate closeup.

Rage (2009); written and directed by Sally Potter; starring Lily Cole, Jude Law, Judi Dench and Steve Buscemi.

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