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Column Fri Mar 15 2013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, The Call, Koch, Reincarnated & The Bitter Buddha

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The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

It may be PG-13 and the trailers might not inspire you to go see it, but I'll be damned if The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, set in the Vegas magic act scene, isn't remarkably funny in most places. Much of this is thanks to going-for-broke performances by Steve Carell and Jim Carrey, who seems to have rediscovered the physical comedy that put him on the map, while still creating a real character with dark secrets and an even darker ability to come up and go through with nasty, often self-mutilating stunts. Carrey gives the movie an edge it simply wouldn't be capable of with him.

Burt Wonderstone is about a young boy who discovers his love of magic by getting a magic set said to be put out by his favorite television magician, Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). The kid becomes pretty good with the tricks in the box and even manages to find an even dorkier friend to become his partner in illusions. The two grow up to become Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), would-class magicians with a top-billing, sold-out act on the Vegas strip. The only thing more awesome than their act is Burt's ego and the creepy way he seduces women (complete with a souvenir, after-sex photo). Burt manages to chase away on-stage assistants (who all seem to be named Nicole) at an alarming rate, so he grabs one of the show's backstage techs, Jane (Olivia Wilde), to be the new assistant (still calling her Nicole).

But as the years go on, the ticket sales dwindle, due in large part to freakier magicians like Steve Gray (Carrey), who are more like stuntmen with makeup and dyed hair (think David Blaine mixed with Chris Angel). Gray doesn't walk on hot coals; he takes naps on them. He pounds nails in with his forehead. He's a mess, but his gonzo street magic show "Mind Rapist" is very popular, and he's pulling magic fans away from Burt and Anton, which causes friction between the two and their aging act. Things get so bad, that hotel owner Doug (James Gandolfini) threatens to bump them if they don't get edgy fast, and after a failed stunt, the partners break up.

There's a mid-section to Burt Wonderstone that drags a bit. Burt is forced to perform at old-age homes and kids birthday parties, while Anton takes magic to starving children in third-world countries (turns out they'd rather have food and clean water; who knew?). But when the team reunites in hopes of getting their old job back, the film picks up again, thanks in large part to Arkin coming back into the film to help the boys come up with a new closing trick. Veteran television director Don Scardino (including nearly 40 episodes of "30 Rock") keeps things moving, and while some sections and performances work better than others, nothing gets embarrassingly bad. Even when you aren't laughing out loud, you'll probably still be grinning like an idiot.

I'm always shocked and impressed when Buscemi is willing to take a supporting role like this (no one in the film misses the chance to basically call Anton ugly), but he's so good at underplaying the part that he actually makes it even funnier. He's not telling jokes like Carrel and Carrey; Buscemi is just great at great line delivery and expressions that make us laugh. Wilde is good here too as something more than just a pretty face. It turns out Jane has always wanted to be a magician as well, and works hard with Burt at developing her talent. She comes across as much stronger than you might think.

Just as all I ask of horror films is to scare me and maybe add something original to the genre, so do I want silly comedies to be silly in innovative ways and make me laugh. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone accomplishes both is fairly substantial doses, and that surprised and delighted me. It's certainly better than that guttersnipe Identity Thief that you people won't stop throwing your money at.

The Call

And speaking of films that surprised me, let's talk about the new kidnapping thriller The Call from one of my favorite directors, Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Happy Accidents, Session 9 and many great episodes of "Fringe"), who has this remarkable ability to take a tried and true genre and extract some new life into it, whether it be horror, psychological dramas, science fiction, or in this case a serial killer story as seen through the eyes of 911 call center operator Jordan (Halle Berry).

What's remarkable about The Call is that it's essentially staged like a filmed play. On one side of the stage would be Berry, surrounded by computer screens on which she keeps notes, notifies police, sends message to co-workers. One the other side is Casey (Abigail Breslin), a young woman abducted by a proven murderer (Michael Eklund), whom Jordan has dealt with in an opening sequence in which the caller does not survive, partially because of a mistake on Jordan's part. So when Casey is taken, and Jordan realizes it's the same man, she refuses to let this one die.

Were it not for her remarkable turn in Cloud Atlas, this would be one of Berry's best performances in years. Her skill behind those screens as she plays part psychiatrist, part detective, part friend to Casey is impressive. She can't allow herself to get too emotional because that would upset the victim, so Berry is forced to dial it back most of the time but still convey intensity. She has a couple of nice scenes with her policeman boyfriend (Morris Chestnut), but Anderson wisely keeps the romantic distractions to a minimum. Chestnut manages to stay in the film (and be put to better use) by being one of the cops trying to find Casey.

The film makes what I think is a radically gross misstep in the final act as Berry leaves the call center to seek out Casey herself for ridiculous reasons. While the sequence has an ending I think audiences will probably enjoy (and one I didn't see coming), it breaks the purity of what makes the rest of the film so strong. I'm sure Berry and Anderson thought Jordan earned the right to make that step, but she doesn't. And while it doesn't ruin what is a fairly strong b-movie, it weakens it unnecessarily. Still, The Call has far more pluses than minuses when it comes to its tense pacing, the unbelievable claustrophobia in the trunk with Breslin, and a truly messed-up villain in Eklund. You can't win them all, but you can still win most. The Call is pretty good and for most of the right reasons.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with The Call stars Halle Berry and Morris Chestnut.

Koch

Growing up, as a kid I always through Ed Koch seemed like a good guy, someone who was in on the joke that he wasn't the best looking man, that he used a lot of funny expressions, and that he had a reputation as being immobile on certain issues largely due to pride. Most of the major events I recall making the news about New York in the late 1970s through all of the 1980s (Koch was mayor from 1978 to 1989) always had Koch's face attached to them. He was not a mayor who sat in the corner and let his underlings do his dirty work — or at least he didn't want it to look that way.

The transit strike, the Central Park jogger rape case (Koch's missteps there are chronicled perfectly in The Central Park Five), game-changing work to provide public housing, the near bankruptcy of New York, cleaning up Times Square, and his dreadful mishandling of the early days of the AIDS crisis are all on display in the documentary Koch, and they are discussed with great clarity and enthusiasm by Koch in a series of interviews that serve as the film's narration. (The film was released in New York just days after he recently died.)

Much like during his career, Koch never met an attacker he didn't want to debate, and there are a host of people who have plenty to say about Koch's era as mayor or New York. But the film goes beyond the issues (a little bit) and gives us some insight into his childhood and his life after mayorship. Not surprisingly, first-time director Neil Barsky (a one-time Wall Street Journal reporter) also digs into the rumors that Koch was gay, especially since it became a central point during his first successful run for mayor versus Mario Cuomo (the unofficial Cuomo campaign slogan was "Vote for Cuomo, not the homo"). Koch countered by very publicly dating a woman and won. Until his dying day, he answered questions about his sexuality with a hearty, "It's none of your fucking business" and a smile.

Most documentaries about politicians tend to get a little dry or at least whitewashed, but there's no danger of that in Koch. In fact, I can't remember a time when a filmmaker allowed the detractors of his/her subject to get such a verbal lashing as we see here (unless it's one of those ridiculous propaganda films about whoever the current president might be). Through it all — the criticism, the tough questions, the moments where he clearly knows he did wrong — Koch is wonderfully direct and interesting, and more than likely honest too, in particular about the municipal corruption scandal from which his administration never recovered. Barsky does a great job compiling as complete a picture of Koch will allow him, and the city-altering events in New York during his mayorship tell the rest of the story. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Reincarnated

This documentary that traces the spiritual rebirth of hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg as he travels to Jamaica and is renamed Snoop Lion is a bit bizarre. While I certainly applaud any musical artist that dares to branch out, grow and take chances, it's hard not to watch the film Reincarnated and not wonder if Snoop's journey is sincere or something he has arranged for the camera and director Andy Capper. What I found most interesting about the film is watching Snoop and music producer Diplo create a new musical based for Snoop that incorporates his hip-hop roots with massive doses of Jamaican influence.

But those moments are only a portion of the film, which also delves into Snoop's childhood, gangster lifestyle as a teenager, joining forces with Dr. Dre and Death Row Records, his arrests and his career path thus far, which has had him playing up his image as a drug dealer, gang member and pimp, None of which sits well with some of the elder statesmen in Jamaica, especially Bunny Wailer, one of the original member of Bob Marley and the Wailers, and an elderstatesman who Snoop would very much like to put on his album. And as far as we can see, the album is about peace, love, rebirth, and more weed than you've ever seen in your life.

During the course of Reincarnated (the same name as the resulting album), we get a very cool tour of important musical spots in Jamaican culture, including Trench Town, Tuff Gong Studios, and other spots that Marley and others made important to the region. And with songs like "No Guns Allowed," it seems like Snoop is putting the violent part of his life behind him. So why does a great deal of this film feel staged?

It might just be that Snoop isn't experienced at talking about his feelings, and that's fine. But there's a sequence when he visits the elders of the Niyabinghi people and he's drawn into a call-and-response in which he looks really awkward and uncomfortable. At most of the places of significance that he goes, he simply shows up, repeats "Rastafari" about 50 times and smokes weed with whoever is around at the time. Looks like fun, but it's not interesting filmmaking.

I'll admit, I know a little bit about Snoop's career — its peaks and valley — and it's interesting watching this film and putting certain major events (the death of his friend Tupac Shakur, the murder for which he was put on trial, getting married and having kids) into perspective. But I get that most rap artists are playing a character — a version of themselves that's a little meaner, tougher, more worldly than they actually are. I have a feeling that Snoop Lion is a character that Snoop is trying on for a while. He wears it well, don't get me wrong. But this is a type of theater, and we are all players in the reincarnation. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Bitter Buddha

If there was ever a time when 52-year-old comedian Eddie Pepitone was going to break through into what passes for the mainstream, it's now. And there is no better case for him doing so than director Steven Feinartz's documentary about Pepitone, The Bitter Buddha. I first became aware of Eddie's value as a comic actor during his appearances on "The Sarah Silverman Program," a couple of shots on "Community," and a bunch of featured appearances on "Conan." And if you didn't blink, you might have caught him in The Muppets as a postman.

But his true gifts come to light during his live act, in which his exquisitely worded rants almost feel like a volatile mixture of a sociopath's manifesto and a hobo's suicide note — a combination that manifests itself in Pepitone's physical appearance as well. His five-days-a-week web series "Puddin'" is simply one of the most consistently funny things I've ever seen, and it's attracted some fairly high-profile celebrity guest appearances, who add to the depravity.

As The Bitter Buddha reveals, the pain that fuels Pepitone's act and persona comes from a very real place, and his ability to transform into a very thoughtful and caring man is matched only by his rarely leaving a psychological foundation built on self-hatred. And somehow learning all of this about him makes us love him more.

Not surprisingly, a host of edgier comics line up to sing Pepitone's praises. Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis, Paul F. Tomkins, Marc Maron, Paul Provenze, Todd Barry, Todd Glass and more talk up the strange career path Pepitone has taken (by choice or not) and what a master monologist he is. He doesn't so much tell jokes as he does talk in long, raging sentences that reveal a window to the world that is both obscured by cracks yet crystal clear. He sees people and situations for what they are and strips them down on stage to their ugly, self-centered core. He also reads his tweets, which, when strung together, seem like they are those of a drooling mental patient with a great sense of humor.

One comic refers to Pepitone as "the guitarist that all the other guitarists go see," and that seems about the best way to understand his influence. He's like one of those punk bands that never quite got famous but inspired dozens of other bands that went on to sell millions. He's comedy's Sonic Youth. He's angrier and more unbalanced than the rest, which is both his greatest gift and has likely held his career back until now.

But by far the greatest moments in The Bitter Buddha are those surrounding Eddie's return to New York for a big showcase performance. The show itself is important, but for Eddie, it's a chance to reconnect with his father, who I'm fairly certain had never seen him perform to that point. Eddie's confidence is clearly on the brink of collapse at both the prospect of his father being in his audience and the very real possibility that his dad may decide not to show up. Either way, Pepitone is guaranteed to be an emotional wreck come showtime, and it's a fascinating process to watch.

You can't help but watch Pepitone on stage and off and immediately start to form opinions about his mental makeup. What damage was done to him when he was younger? What motivates and fuels him? What terrifies him, both in the world and in his day-to-day life? And of course, what makes him happy, smile, or laugh? Following Pepitone around for months, Feinartz answers some of the questions, while leaving a few parts of the man's life a fun mystery.

I don't remember a film about a comedian getting quite this deep before, while still providing so many laughs. Even his friends seem baffled at times by Eddie's decisions, but there is something undeniably irresistible, and for that we can be grateful. Just kick back and enjoy the awkward chuckles. The film will have a single screening in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, March 15 at 9:30pm. As an added bonus, the The Bitter Buddha's subject, comedian Eddie Pepitone, and director, Steven Feinartz, will be on hand to do a post-screening Q&A.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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