Latest Reviews

Entries in Comedy (104)

Friday
Mar152013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" is a movie that’s easy to like. Its cast is charming, committed and they get into enough interesting antics that it will hold your attention. Unfortunately, it’s also very easy to hate. With frequent comedic dry spells in a somewhat dull script with satire that is anything but timely, the film just lacks that special something. It will certainly muster some laughs out of even the most hardened viewer, mostly due to its willingness to embrace the goofier side of magic, but for every joke it nails, another lands with a thud. It’s easily the most uneven movie of the year so far and is bound to sharply divide critics who have to decide whether or not to give it a recommendation.

Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) was a lonely kid. He didn’t really have any friends, was picked on mercilessly by his peers and his mother was never there for him, to the point where on his birthday, she went to work and didn’t leave him a cake, but rather the ingredients to make one. On that fateful birthday, however, he’s given one gift: a magic set endorsed by famed magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). This changes his life forever and, along with newly formed pal Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), he makes it big and becomes a famous Vegas magician. Unfortunately, a new trend is popping up called street magic. The most famous purveyor of street magic is Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) and he’s stealing Burt and Anton’s patrons. This leads to the closing of their show, a falling out of their friendship and a feud between Burt and Steve. Having never planned for the future, Burt never put away any money and is now broke, so what’s he to do?

The answer to that question is fairly clear, following a narrative trajectory that’s been around since we first started telling stories through moving pictures. If broken down to the most simplistic analysis, "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" a story of the rise and fall and rise again of a popular character with contrived plot turns and obvious, trite romances. But to focus on narrative inconsistencies would be silly with a cast like this. What matters is how often it brings the laughs and when it does, it’s really funny.

In a great example of inspired casting, Jim Carrey steals the show as Steve Gray, the street magician shooting his television show “Brain Rapist,” a clear parody of Criss Angel’s “Mindfreak.” His rubber face and over-the-top antics are a perfect fit for the over-the-top nature of street magic. He, and the writers who wrote the character this way, understand that street magic is all about showmanship and macho posturing and with this knowledge, Carrey creates a character that is as absurd as he is amusing. He amplifies the inherent ridiculousness of street magic tenfold, capturing the essence, albeit exaggerated, of street magicians like Criss Angel. Jim Carrey, in a welcome return to form, saves this movie.

Yet one can’t help but realize that the parody is coming a bit late. With "Mindfreak" having been off the air for three years (and having lost its relevancy far before that) and Criss Angel a speck in our memories, what was the film trying to accomplish? The best satire relates to the present, making a point about something that is happening now and needs to be addressed, from big government decisions to silly pop culture fads. "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" feels like it was written during a week long DVD binge watching session of “Mindfreak” and quickly loses its relevance in a world that has moved on.

Some of its satirical bite, however, is not out of date, like when Anton heads overseas to impoverished countries devoid of food and water to teach kids magic. When asked by a reporter if he’s also bringing food and water, he replies with a smile, “No, just magic.” It’s a great jab at those who travel around the world preaching their own beliefs, be they religious or simply ideological, without providing the actual elements that are truly needed in those areas, but it’s not fleshed out. It’s little more than a side note in a movie that repeatedly shows it has no idea when it has something good going on.

Its best thematic endeavor comes with the idea that magic is, well, magical. It believes strongly that magic can instill a sense of wonder in everyone, from the smallest of tykes to the oldest of adults and it’s right. Magicians, for the brief time an audience is watching them, can make the impossible possible and the film taps into this idea and uses it to bring its characters full circle. Granted, there are better options out there if that theme is all you’re looking for, like the wonderful 2010 documentary, "Make Believe," but the fact that it’s there at all shows that the filmmakers at least had their own childlike wonder, if not passion, for the art of magic. It’s just a shame it’s stuck in such a middling movie.

I suppose at the end of the day, I have to join all the other critics and make a decision on where my opinion falls with "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" and I sadly fall on the side of a non-recommendation. It’s a decision I make with a heavy heart because there is a lot to enjoy here, but it’s impossible to overlook such glaring flaws. It definitely has an audience, though, so if you think you’re in it, go for it. At the very least, you won’t hate it.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone receives 2.5/5

Friday
Oct262012

The Sessions

There are some movies you watch and immediately know that it’s going to receive multiple award nominations from all types of organizations. The Sessions is one of those movies. It’s a deeply human story about life and love and it stars an underrated actor playing a severely crippled man who looks at the world from a different perspective than we’re accustomed to, thus allowing us to see the world that way as well for a brief period of time. It’s one of those movies that is noticeably flawed, but its strengths outweigh its weaknesses so much that the flaws seem negligible. The Sessions is funny, emotional, heartfelt and warm and it’s a must see.

Based on a true story, John Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, a handicapped man who has suffered from polio since the age of six. As he says, he isn’t exactly paralyzed. He still feels sensations, but his muscles have become so weak that he can’t move anything. He’s a deeply spiritual man (at one point he says he has to be spiritual because living the way he must would be unbearable without having someone to blame) and one day he seeks out the advice of Father Brendan (William H. Macy). He explains to him that, even though he knows it’s forbidden in the Bible, he wants to have sex. He knows his disease only gives him a limited amount of time to live and he wants to experience all that life has to offer before departing. Surprisingly, Father Brendan gives him his blessing, so Mark sets up some appointments with a sex surrogate, Cheryl Greene (Helen Hunt), who teaches him about physical love.

Hollywood movies these days put a strange importance on sex, perhaps because society has dictated its. Most movies look at it from a childish viewpoint, as something that all men must do, lest they remain a virgin, an arbitrary sexual term that bears no real weight. The Sessions looks at it from a decidedly different and refreshing viewpoint. Despite being the main protagonist’s central goal, sex isn’t treated like an immature necessity, but rather as a pleasurable experience, just one of many that we humans are able to enjoy. Mark hasn’t had many experiences like it and it’s not so much the sex he wants, but that he simply wants to feel something. He wants to feel alive for a brief (sometimes very brief) period of time. One beautiful scene shows Mark’s thoughts as he partakes in sexual activity, but they aren’t filled with lustful desire like some may expect. Instead, he’s picturing running on the beach and feeling the sand beneath his toes, the rush of a waterfall as it flows through his fingers and running his hands through a loved one’s hair. This wondrous scene simultaneously devalues the notion of sexual importance in the typical societal sense and brings to light its real importance as a special, intimate feeling that we take for granted.

Also refreshing is the film’s stance on Catholics or, for that matter, religion in general. Father Brendan, for example, isn’t a vindictive oppressor like many men-of-the-cloth representations, but rather a sympathetic man who understands that basic human needs and desires sometimes outweigh biblical interpretations. He’s initially hesitant to give his approval, as I imagine any priest would be, but he doesn’t let scripture cloud his judgment. Not once is there a statement in favor of or against his decision, but in the end, he does what he knows is right, even if that means going against his faith. That’s not to say The Sessions takes a stance on faith either—it seems neither for nor against it—it merely exists as a personality trait of the characters within the story.

Despite his handicap, Mark is never treated as lesser. He’s as complex a human being as anyone in the movie, perhaps more so given his humorous outlook on life in spite of his predicament. The movie uses his handicap as a means for comedy at times (the image of a fully naked woman sitting on a crippled man’s face is surprisingly amusing), but it never feels mean spirited because he does the same thing. He jokes about himself and sometimes relates those jokes to God, whom he says must have a “wicked sense of humor” to keep him on Earth with such a disease. He’s a lively and passionate man that you can’t help but care about not out of pity, but because he’s a genuinely wonderful person.

Where The Sessions fails the most is in its worthless side stories, most notably the one involving Cheryl’s home life. Her troubled private existence is so incredibly thin and barely explored that it fails to bring forth even the slightest bit of compassion from the viewing audience. There are numerous other little missteps as well that threaten to derail the movie, but the central story and performance are so good, so touching, so life affirming that in retrospect, it hardly matters. The Sessions is practically guaranteed to receive some well-deserved awards nominations in the coming months, including a Best Actor nod for John Hawkes, who gives what may be the best performance of his career. This is one that’s well worth sitting down for.

The Sessions receives 4.5/5

Friday
Oct122012

Here Comes the Boom

It has become far too easy to dismiss Kevin James movies. If his name is attached to it, one can fairly reason that they should be expecting lots of fat-guy-fall-down jokes and slapstick humor of all kinds. If there’s a painful part of the body someone could take damage to, chances are James will endure that pain. Looking through his filmography is like watching a painfully unfunny highlight reel of what amounts to the lowest form of comedy. His best movie, one could argue, is 2005’s Hitch, but not because it’s an outstanding film; it was just nice enough to give us a script and an idea, regardless of how mundane they were. His latest, however, breaks his trend of unwatchable disasters. Here Comes the Boom is certainly not high art, but then again, it never claims to be.

James plays Scott Voss, a high school Biology teacher whose love for the job has dwindled over the years. He doesn’t really do all that much for his school because of it, but he’s soon called to action when the school announces budget cuts and that they’re getting rid of the music program, run by the high spirited and loving Marty Streb, played by Henry Winkler. The school is short $48,000 and at the end of the year, the man will lose his job, but Scott decides to take matters into his own hands. He wrestled in school when he was younger and was actually pretty good, so he decides to take up mixed martial arts after learning some fighters earn $10,000 just for losing—besides, the two sports can’t be all that different. Also a teacher of an evening citizenship class, Scott eventually employs his student Niko, an ex-MMA fighter played by Bas Rutten, to train him and save the school.

It’s not unusual to see Kevin James fall down and get hit, but most of the time, it’s contextually inappropriate, a lazy ploy to garner a cheap laugh, but in Here Comes the Boom, the constant abuse he takes comes from the inherent violence of the sport itself. Aside from one early moment where he crawls through an open window and crashes to the floor, the slapstick is kept to a minimum. The most obvious attempt at forced slapstick humor comes when his trainer kicks a medicine ball in disgust through a gym and it hits someone in the head, though even then, even when the movie is taking the low road, you can take solace in the fact that it’s not James subjecting himself to such embarrassments. In Here Comes the Boom, he keeps his head held high and his pride intact, which results in him flexing his acting skills instead of his uncanny ability to absorb damage. While by no means an award winner, he’s quite good here and crafts a sympathetic character who longs to do the right thing.

Although characters like him are a dime a dozen in the movies, it’s the timeliness of his intentions that resonate the most. In a time when the public school system seems to be getting worse and worse by the day, it’s refreshing to see a film that portrays a teacher (or, more specifically, teachers) who actually care enough about their students and co-workers to stand up and fight for them, in this case literally. This is a guy who ends up finding meaning in his life by helping others. Sure, his transition from uncaring, disgruntled teacher to high school hero is obvious from the get go (as is his eventual relationship with the school nurse, Bella, played by Salma Hayek), but it would be disingenuous of me to say I didn’t care about what he was doing or that I wasn’t rooting for him to win.

Here Comes the Boom clearly wants you to feel that way, but it tries far too hard, piling on so much cheese that the actual film reel starts to smell. Supposedly touching moments are so overbearing to the point of uncomfortableness; only the talented Henry Winkler manages to pull them off. His love for music and his desire to share that love with others is infectious and heartwarming. When he opens up to Scott near the end, it’s actually kind of moving. Of course, this moving moment wouldn’t have come had it not been for the horribly contrived twist that strips Scott of all the money he had made up to that point, forcing him to win the final match to save the music program and Marty’s job, so it’s a give and take.

But what it amounts to is perhaps Kevin James’ greatest starring role. That may be faint praise when compared to the atrocities he’s subjected us to in the past, but this is a good step towards maturity. Here Comes the Boom has meaning, heart, a radiant Salma Hayek and a very much missed Henry Winkler. It’s also a good showcase for  how James can carry a movie when not relegated to bodily harm and gross-out humor. It’s certainly a mixed film and it’s barely recommendable, but the fact that it’s recommendable at all is cause for celebration.

Here Comes the Boom receives 2.5/5

Friday
Sep282012

Pitch Perfect

If there is ever going to be a movie that is going to make a cappella cool, it’s Pitch Perfect. In fact, it exists in a world where a cappella is the cool thing to do. The popularity pyramid is distorted from reality, to the point where those who are able to sing harmoniously alongside others are at the top. One hilarious scene shows the leader of the Treble Makers, a college a cappella group, shun a nerd trying to join the group just before matching pitch with his comrades. Such desire for acceptance into an a cappella group may seem silly now, but it won’t after watching the movie. Pitch Perfect is lively, funny, moving and just plain fun. If it doesn’t make you want to sing afterwards, you’re probably a metalhead.

The film begins at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella in New York. The all-female Borden Bellas are competing in the event against their all male rivals, the Treble Makers. Despite a solid show, one of them ends up getting sick on stage, effectively ruining their chances at winning. Flash forward a bit and a new school year has arrived. The two girls remaining on the team, Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (Anna Camp), are dying to get another shot at that championship and decide to hold tryouts. Eventually, they band together a ragtag group of girls, including the free spirited Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), who calls herself that so people won’t have to call her it behind her back and aspiring DJ, Beca (Anna Kendrick), who is only joining because her father has agreed to personally help move her to LA to achieve her dreams if she sticks with school for one year and participates in college events. There’s only one rule these girls must follow: do not sleep with a member of the Treble Makers. If they do, they’re off the team. It seems a simple enough rule to follow, but the charms of Jesse (Skylar Astin) may make it harder than anticipated.

What follows is fairly predictable fodder. The narrative and thematic correlation between this and something like Step Up is hard to miss—the film even has the equivalent of a dance-off, where competing singers meet to show each other up vocally—but what Pitch Perfect proves is just how vital a good cast is. Just as a terrible cast can effectively ruin a good script, a great cast can elevate a clichéd one, which is precisely what happens here. Kendrick is her usual adorable self and she gives a performance that is simultaneously hardened and vulnerable. Her character isn’t someone who is likely to earn friends on her own due to her stubborn attitude, but as she performs with the Borden Bellas, she comes to appreciate those around her, with all of their flaws and differences. This all comes forth despite her initial disinterest in a cappella. It’s easy to understand why she comes around and opens up to the group; they’re all so interesting and likable (well, almost all of them) that it would seem silly not to. In particular, Rebel Wilson is fantastic. She is absolutely hilarious here and manages to steal each scene she’s in, despite a supporting role.

But I suppose the big question is: how is the singing? To put is simply, it’s fantastic. The chosen songs are all toe tappers and they work perfectly within the context of what the performers intend to do, showcasing their highs and (occasionally) their lows. There’s something mesmerizing about how every sound you remember from the original song, from the drums to the guitars to everything in between, is recreated without instruments and through the mouths of those singing. One of the best scenes, that highlights the fascination of a cappella, comes during an early audition. Each performer sings a certain part of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” from full out lyrics to simple beats, and their auditions are spliced together to form one musical whole. The structure of this sequence is flat out brilliant and even if you don’t like the actual song, you’ll be impressed by its implementation.

Pitch Perfect is just flat out fun, though that’s not to say it doesn’t have its problems. It gets a bit grating at times with a cappella plays-on-words, like a ca-excuse me and a ca-awesome, and it goes completely off the rails about two-thirds of the way through with an extremely out of place puke scene that rivals a similar scene in Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Team America: World Police. As if the prolonged upchucking wasn’t enough, one of the characters then falls into it and, instead of getting up in disgust, makes an angel. You also have to sit through a few painfully overdramatic plot turns, but sticking with Pitch Perfect proves to be a fulfilling and inspiring experience. It may follow a narrative trajectory explored by countless dance movies before it, but this time it’s handled with care by the filmmakers and performed by actors who can actually do what their profession implies.

Pitch Perfect receives 4/5

Friday
Sep212012

Liberal Arts

Writer/director Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts begins with a quote from Ecclesiastes: “He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” It’s a true statement—knowledge leads to insight, insight leads to truth and truth is too often a sad and frustrating thing—but the movie never really capitalizes on this idea. The characters wax poetic about romantic literature and things of the like, but to say they’re somehow knowledgeable in any way is somewhat of a stretch. Only Radnor’s second film, Liberal Arts is just as misguided and unfocused as his first attempt, Happythankyoumoreplease, but that movie benefited from some substantial laughs and sizeable emotions whereas Liberal Arts doesn’t contain much feeling at all and its laughs are sparse. While I wouldn’t say it’s substantially worse, it doesn’t quite reach the level of Happythankyoumoreplease, and that was worth only a mild recommendation.

The story revolves around Jesse Fisher (Radnor), a 35 year old New Yorker who is asked to visit his old college where one of his favorite professors, Professor Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), is hosting his retirement party. While there, he meets a 19 year old sophomore named Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who begins to develop feelings for him. Perhaps unluckily, Jesse begins to reciprocate the feeling, but the age difference puts him at a crossroad. Should he take a chance on Zibby or continue his lonely stroll through life?

If there’s one thing you can deduce about Josh Radnor from watching Happythankyoumoreplease and Liberal Arts, it’s that he has a big heart. He’s drawn towards heavily flawed characters, people who may not make the right decisions or say the best things, but he gives them redeeming qualities and you come to connect with them because of it. There’s a sense of optimism in his films, where even the saddest people can find happiness and any challenge can be overcome. In what seems like an increasingly cynical world, his view on life, love and friendship is refreshing. The problem is all in his approach.

Just like Happythankyoumoreplease, Liberal Arts is overburdened with inconsequential side stories that have no relevance to the main plot. Regardless of their positive intentions, their superfluous nature is readily apparent. For instance, there’s an entire subplot revolving around the Professor as he second guesses his decision to retire. Teaching was his entire life and now that it’s gone, he realizes he has nothing else. His early breakdown during his retirement speech is both forced and unnecessary and his character arc is shallow. Similarly, there’s a young student named Dean (John Magaro) who Jesse runs into on his journey who has his own emotional problems. He’s a loner and a manic depressive who is there solely to make viewers feel something, regardless of how manufactured it may be.

You then, of course, have the new indie film character archetype: a crazy, prophetic, seemingly all-knowing guru with a quirky outlook on life named Nat (Zac Efron) who shows up only when Jesse’s tangled emotions need realigning. Every one of his moments are horribly contrived, but it’s indicative of the film as a whole. Radnor overloads his film with insignificant characters like these and he tries to find meaning everywhere, but he instead loses much of what he could have had with a more focused effort.

That’s not to say Radnor doesn’t have talent. He does, and you can see it in many areas in both his films. The dialogue is sharp, clever and sometimes profound and he always gets the best out of his performers—the beautiful, charming and talented Elizabeth Olsen, in particular, raises the movie above its typical humdrum rom-com material—but he too often succumbs to cinematic ADD and loses his focus. It’s like he heard the term “bigger is better” as a child and it engrained in his head, translating over to his feature films. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that, sometimes, less is more.

Liberal Arts receives 2/5