Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Call and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Halle Answers the Call, Burt Wonders What Happened

By Jon Gallagher

The Call (Troika Pictures/WWE Studios/Emergency Films, 2013) Director: Brad Anderson. Cast: Halle Berry, Evie Thompson, Abigail Breslin, Roma Maffia, Michael Eklund, Morris Chestnut, and Michael Imperioli. Color, 94 minutes. 

I thought I was going to like this movie because of the previews. It looked interesting.

I thought I was going to like this movie because of the plot. My oldest daughter works as a 911 dispatcher.

I thought I was going to hate this movie because of the producers. The first thing on screen is the WWE logo. Normally, anything Vince McMahon has his hands in, I hate.

I ended up in between.

The movie itself stars Berry, and basically no one else I’ve heard of.  It involves a 911 dispatcher in LA who takes a call from a young girl whose house is being broken into. Jordan (Berry) keeps her on the phone, giving her instructions on how to avoid the intruder, but loses her connection along the line. When the dispatcher calls the girl back, the intruder hears the ringing cell phone, finds the girl, and murders her, all while on the line with the dispatcher.

Flash forward six months. Jordan is now an instructor for new telecommunicators when a similar call comes in. This girl has been kidnapped and is in the trunk of the kidnapper’s car. Jordan takes over the call from an inexperienced dispatcher and tries to save the girl.

The movie is a proverbial roller-coaster ride with the good guys getting a leg up before the bad guy discovers it and sets things back to worse than what they were. It’s a tense filled chase with the cops using everything at their disposal to try and find the kidnapper in time to save Casey’s (Breslin) life.

The first hour of the film is great. There are enough near misses and near solutions to have seasoned thriller lovers rubbing their hands in anticipation of the next hurdle. The problems begin once the police figure out that it’s Michael Foster (Eklund) behind the kidnapping. They try to resolve what’s made him crazy enough to do something like this, but the storyline they settle on is about as believable as little green men parachuting in from Venus. There’s no way I can buy that someone who is this much of a nutcase can lead anything that resembles a normal life with a wife and two kids.

It was almost as if the writers found themselves up against a deadline and took a brilliant first half and ended it with whatever they could throw together at the last minute.

The resolution of the movie, however, is very satisfying.

As the 911 operator, Berry gives a good performance. She manages to bring moviegoers to the edge of their seats several times with facial expressions and eye movement. Maybe more credit should be given to director Anderson than Berry. Breslin also does a good job in the victim’s role. Her panicked dialogue is perfect – not too much and not too little. She is a little strange by the final scenes, but after what she’s gone through, that’s somewhat understandable.

Chestnut plays Berry’s love interest in the film, though I’m not sure why he’s in there. Maffia is a telecommunicator supervisor and is completely wasted in her role. They could have done so much more with her character but chose to insert the lame love interest instead. As a thriller through the first half, I’d give it a solid B. As a horror film during the last 30 minutes, I’d give it a D. Giving some weight to the longer of the two I’d give it a final rating overall as a C+. I’m still having trouble believing that the plot fell off the cliff so fast.
The only thing I can figure out is that 2/3 of the film was produced by one group of people and the 1/3 I didn’t like was done by WWE. If that’s the case, then that makes more sense than the plot.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (New Line, 2013) Director: Don Scardino. Cast: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, James Gandofini, Alan Arkin, Steve Dacri, Paul Daniels, and Jay Mohr. Color, 100 minutes.

The producers are probably still trying to figure out why this movie bombed during its opening weekend at the box office. They bombarded broadcast media with ads. Trailers were shown before almost every movie playing in the multiplexes. The stars were booked on all the talk shows. What happened? How did the lower-budget The Call manage to crush Burt Wonderstone by such a wide margin?

Part of the reason may be the fact that they partnered with several retail outlets including Papa Murphy’s pizza to give out free passes to an advance screening, thinking that word of mouth might spark some box office sales. That might have been the entire reason it bombed.

See, when you have a movie this bad, you DON’T WANT people to see it ahead of time for free. Take their money and RUN! Had the producers seen what a monstrosity they were about to unleash on the world, they might have rethought those free advance passes.

I wasn’t fortunate enough to get a free pass. I say that only because I paid to see this turkey. I thought I was going to see a comedy, given the fact that Carell, Carrey, and Buscemi star, but I ended up with just a dreadful movie that had a few laughable moments.

Carell and Buscemi play childhood friends who have turned their childhood hobby into a dazzling magic show that headlines a Las Vegas casino. On stage, they’re bored after having done the same show with the same tricks and the same lines night after night after night. Off stage they are at each other’s throats, arguing about any little thing that comes up. Burt Wonderstone (Carell) is the more suave and sophisticated of the two, obsessed with himself, women, and material possessions. Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) is the dim-witted, along-for-the-ride sidekick who lends very little to either the partnership or the movie.

Enter Steve Gray (Carrey), a young (not really) street performer who doesn’t so much do magic as he does stunts (walking or sleeping on hot coals, holding his urine for a week, etc.) much like David Blaine or Criss Angel. Gray’s star is rising while Burt and Anton’s are falling. After trying to do a similar endurance stunt and failing miserably, the team breaks up and the two go their separate ways.

Burt finds he’s broke due to extremely bad investments and extravagances, and has to fend for himself, hiring himself out as a store magician (pitching paper towels) and (gasp) a birthday party magician. Along the way, the duo’s assistant, Jane (Wilde) keeps running into Burt. She had been one of the few female assistants who had been able to resist Burt’s charm and/or bed, which, of course, tell us where they’ll end up eventually.

While down and out, the owner of a casino announces that he’ll be building a new one and hosting a competition for the headlining act. Gray, after interrupting Burt’s performance at a birthday party for the owner’s 10-year old son, plans to win the contract and the oodles of money that go with it. Burt, Anton, and now Jane must work together to create an illusion that will be bigger and better than whatever Gray dreams up.

I had several problems with the movie. First, it wasn’t funny. If they were going to use comedic actors, and go over the top with some of the characterizations like they did, then the lines and the gags should be funny. There were a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, but few and far between.

Second, only ONE of the characters was a sympathetic character. Wilde did an excellent job at creating empathy for her Jane character, but that was it. I didn’t care if Burt Wonderstone starved, if Anton Marvelton got lost in a jungle, or if Steve Gray turned out medium-rare. I just didn’t care about their characters.

Third, and maybe it’s because I’ve spent a good portion of my life earning money as a professional magician, I didn’t like the commentary that it was trying to make. As a magician, I’m not impressed with the guys who can turn women into tigers or who make jet planes appear and disappear. If you’ve got enough money to build the props (or have them built for you), you can accomplish anything on stage. The true magician is the one who can take innocent looking objects and turn them into things of wonder. 

A spongeball that disappears or appears at will from an empty hand (Dacri) or a routine involving a cup and a ball (Daniels) are much more impressive to watch than a guy who stands aside while assistants wheel huge boxes (that do all the work) on and off stage. And if you think that doing birthday parties isn’t a profitable gig, don’t tell that to magicians like Silly Billy (who has fun and rakes in well over $100,000 per year).

The movie seemed to be a commentary written by magicians for magicians on the current state of magic. The problem here is that magicians already know this and agree; there’s no need to preach to the choir. The general public doesn’t care.

I was also offended, not as a magician, but as a person, by the name given to Carrey’s character: Steve Gray, Brain Rapist. It was an obvious take off on Criss Angel, Mindfreak, but done in worse and very poor taste.

Arkin appears in the movie as an aging magician who used to sell magic kits to youngsters (much like Marshall Brodien or Mark Wilson) and is wonderful in his role. He’s not sympathetic, necessarily, but very likable. David Copperfield makes a brief cameo and served as a consultant (Copperfield, by the way, is a very accomplished sleight of hand artist and can do the kinds of things that impress me… he doesn’t need the big boxes).

For those asking, I’m not sure the Burt and Anton characters are based on actual magicians. They weren’t flashy enough to be Siegfried and Roy. Lance Burton and Mac King both headline shows individually and were friends back in Louisville before making it big, but they don’t perform as a team. There’s always Penn and Teller, but Teller never talks on stage (off stage you can’t shut the man up), but I don’t see them in these two characters at all. 

As for a grade, I’ll give it a D.  It wasn’t as horrid as Good Day to Die Hard, but I wasn’t entertained in the least. I don’t think kids will be entertained either. Most of those around me leaving the theater were talking about how disappointed they were. Forget owning it on DVD when it comes out, and it won’t even be one that I would want to rent. If I want to be depressed and laugh every once in a while, I’ll just study my checkbook register.

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