Film Review – The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 19th March 2013.

I’ve always been a little dubious when it comes to movie titles that consist of a character’s name. For every Erin Brockovich there’s a Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. For every Michael Clayton, there’s a Mr Deeds.

Blame Adam Sandler. He certainly cornered the market on this, starting with Billy Madison, his finest comedic turn in my opinion, and then Happy Madison. It’s all downhill from there but that’s another column.

And so it was with a little trepidation that I experienced The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Steve Carell stars as the titular Las Vegas magician whose act has became stale. A split with his long time stage partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) and the growing popularity of newcomer street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) forces Wonderstone out of his luxurious casino apartment and onto the streets. With the help of veteran magician Rance Halloway (Alan Arkin), the man who inspired him to become an illusionist, Wonderstone must rediscover his roots to win back his place onstage at Ballys.

Carell is a gifted comedic actor but I’ve never been convinced that he can carry a film on his own. Smartly, he surrounds himself with a fantastic supporting cast. Most recently seen in the brilliant HBO series Boardwalk Empire as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, Steve Buscemi reminds us that he can do comedy too with a scene stealing turn as Wonderstone’s naive offsider. Alan Arkin is one of the best character actors working today and shines as a disgruntled retired magician. And Jim Carrey is all abs and tattoos as the sinewy unhinged Steve Gray, a thinly veiled clone of street magician Criss Angel.

But the true stars of this movie are the crazy wigs. Carell, Carey and Buscemi are regularly upstaged by their Copperfield-tastic rugs.

Screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley also penned Horrible Bosses, a comedy with a nasty streak that starred Jason Bateman and Kevin Spacey. This time, they hold back on the black humour in favour of sight gags and slapstick.

Director Don Scardino is a veteran TV comedy director best known for his work on 30 Rock, and handles proceedings with a solid but unremarkable style.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has enough gags to keep you tittering throughout its 100 minute running time. Unfortunately, most of them are featured in the trailer. The best laugh of the film comes right at the end of the film. I won’t spoil it except to say that it is worth the wait.

You could do worse than this flick for your hard earned movie dollars. I just don’t think we’ll be talking about it in a few years. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a solid but unremarkable comedy. Only time will tell if it will be remembered as a successful movie named after its lead character.

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Published in: on June 6, 2012 at 07:39  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Jucy

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 15th November 2011.

At first glance of the poster, it would be very easy to dismiss Jucy as just another zany low brow Aussie comedy, along the lines of the atrocious You and Your Stupid Mate (2005), however, this new womance (the opposite of bromance) has a strong heart beating behind the humour and may well be the undiscovered (for now) gem of the year.

Directed by Brisbanite Louise Alston (All My Friends are Leaving Brisbane) and scripted by her husband, Stephen Vagg, Jucy is very loosely based on the lives of its stars Francesca Gasteen and Cindy Nelson.

Lucy (Gasteen) and Jackie (Nelson) are two twentysomething outsiders drifting through life. Working together at a Brisbane video store, the best friends are known collectively as “Jucy”. Shunned by their friends in the local amateur theatre group, both set goals to improve their lives and become more acceptable to the mainstream. That is, Lucy aims to get herself a decent job and Jackie wants a boyfriend.

Of course, their paths become complicated by both being cast in a local production of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and soon the girls’ friendship is at risk of being torn apart.

Best friends on and off the screen, Gasteen and Nelson have a fabulous chemistry. Both providing input into the script, their banter is incredibly natural and honest, with hilarious results. Any initial expectations of two dimensional sketch comedy caricatures are swept away by believable depictions of funny but flawed characters.

Also impressive is rising actor Ryan Johnson in a supporting comedic role as a self-important wannabe thespian who fakes addictions for attention. It has recently been announced that Johnson has joined the cast of US legal drama Fairly Legal.

Jucy is not just played for laughs. Adding a little bitter to the sweetness is the depiction of Jackie’s mental illness. Coming off her medication mid-plot, her situation spirals even further out of control. Inspired by actress Nelson’s real life struggle, the resolution to this plot strand is ambiguous and one of the few elements of the film that misfires.

A low budget affair, Jucy was shot in just fourteen days. Real locations in Brisbane such as Trash Video and The Arts Theatre were used, as well as the house that Gasteen and Nelson share in real life. Shot in digital with a Panasonic P2 camera, the suburbs have never looked better.

Australian cinematic offerings of late have centred on big, sweeping, historical stories. It is refreshing to be equally as drawn into a smaller story involving average folk.

Jucy has recently been licenced to a US distributor to be available through Amazon.com and Walmart. One has to wonder what your average American will make of this little Aussie film.

Jucy will mostly appeal to female audiences but there are certainly plenty of laughs for the guys too. Stephen Vagg has seemingly managed to capture how women talk when men are not around. Well at least I think he has.

Louise Alston’s apt direction wisely puts the characters before the jokes ensuring that the audience laughs along with the protagonists more often than at them.

Stars Gasteen and Nelson make an appealing comic duo and have the potential to be breakout stars. Let’s hope they continue to work together.

Jucy is currently screening in Orange and is highly recommended for anyone seeking a little home grown respite from fighting robots and toy commercial cinema.

Published in: on November 21, 2011 at 07:15  Leave a Comment  
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Eighties remakes suck…but if you really have to, remake these

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 1st November 2011.

There’s nothing new under the sun. This year has seen the release of eighties remakes, Footloose and Fright Night. Both films have enjoyed moderate box office success and mixed critical reviews, but ultimately, one has to wonder why a remake was necessary.

With a prequel to the 1980 classic The Thing also hitting screens this month, plus a troubled reworking of Red Dawn likely to finally see the light of day this year, it seems all bets are off.

So here are my picks for eighties classics to be remade, even though I think it’s a bad idea.

Number 5 is alive! Despite starring Steve Guttenberg and having a shameful Indian stereotype character played by white actor Fisher Stevens (Birdy Num Nums anyone?), Short Circuit (1986) is great fun. Johnny 5, a military prototype robot, gets struck by lightning and develops self awareness. Permanently stuck is wise cracking mode, Johnny learns about life as he goes on the run from the bad guys with charisma vacuum Guttenberg and Ally Sheedy in tow. A poor sequel was produced in 1988 with only Fisher Stevens and Number 5 returning.

Have you ever left a yogurt in the fridge for so long that it becomes an evil entity that wants to take over your body? That is pretty much the premise of The Stuff (1985). Miners discover sweet tasting goo seeping out of the ground and decide to mass market it as a dessert (as you do). Of course, the goo is alive and has the power to turn the good folk of America into zombies. Only an industrial espionage expert hired by a rival ice cream company can save the day. I know it’s not exactly Hamlet but conceptually The Stuff is pretty good, er, stuff.

John Cusack was a staple in eighties teen comedies and two of his classics deserve a reboot. The Sure Thing (1985) stars Cusack as a young man who embarks on a road trip across America to hook up with a bikini clad blonde. Bad luck pairs him with uptight classmate Allison (Daphne Zuniga). Chaos ensues. Will he get to meet the girl of his dreams or will the mismatched travelling couple fall in love? I’m sure you can guess.

Better Off Dead (1985), also stars Cusack as a teen who loses his fickle girlfriend to a fellow skiing rival. Depressed, he tries unsuccessfully to kill himself. Pursued throughout the film by a paperboy (I want my two dollars!) and two very funny Asian revheads who seem to be waiting to race him at every traffic light, Cusack has to get his skiing mojo back as he falls for the pretty foreign exchange student next door.

In the eighties, two-for-one vouchers could often be found on promotional bottles of a particular brand of cordial (the one my dad picks the fruit for). These vouchers were only good for whatever film was being pushed at the time, and this is how I got to see my final pick, The Boy Who Could Fly (1986).

Teenager Milly meet Eric, an autistic boy. Both have lost a parent or parents and they soon become friends. After a series of strange events, Milly comes to the conclusion that Eric might have strange powers. Can Eric really fly? Have you read the title of the film?

On paper, none of these films sound worthy of a remake. However, like the original Footloose and Fright Night, they each contain a particular energy, attitude and innocence unique to the eighties and this cannot be replicated by CGI, 3D or any Kevin Bacon wannabe. But if we must disturb the graves of classic eighties cinema, you could do far worse.

Movie Review: Tucker & Dale vs Evil

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 18th October 2011.

Think about the storyline for your average horror film. Does this sound familiar? A group of nubile college students heads out to the woods for a camping trip. On the way they insult two hillbillies, who then proceed to extract revenge by killing off the promiscuous teens one by one. Yep, it’s pretty much the framework for a whole raft of slasher movies.

What if you reversed the concept, following the film from the hillbillies’ perspective? Except this time, the yokels are simple but friendly folk, and the teenagers are familiar with the rules of horror movies. Every good natured move the hillbillies make is interpreted by the teenagers as an attempt on their lives, and one by one they meet their demise through a series of hilarious mishaps.

Sounds like the perfect horror comedy. And it possibly is. The film’s title is Tucker & Dale vs Evil and it has just hit Australian DVD and blu-ray shelves after a difficult birth that saw it come extremely close to a theatrical release and possibly become a major hit.

Alan Tudyk, one of my favourite actors, stars as Tucker. You might remember Tudyk as the popular character Wash from the short lived Joss Whedon sci-fi western series, Firefly, and the subsequent big screen film, Serenity.  As Dale, you have rising actor Tyler Labine, who was most recently seen as chimp handler Robert Franklin in this year’s surprise hit, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Also starring as college student and love interest Allison is Katrina Bowden, best known as the cute but dim Cerie in TV sitcom 30 Rock. A solid cast for sure.

The director is Eli Craig, making his feature film debut. His short film, The Tao of Pong, is available on YouTube and is great fun.

Filmed in 2009 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, the completed film premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival to cheering audiences. A subsequent screening at the prestigious South by Southwest in Austin, Texas also received a rapturous response.

A mainstream distributor became interested in the project and put the film through a test screening which resulted in overwhelmingly positive figures. Thinking that it was all a mistake, the distributor held a second screening which came back with similar results.

The final obstacle in the US film release process is the booking of movies by the cinema chain owners. Unfortunately, based on one screening, a major chain didn’t think it had potential and turned it down. And with that, Tucker & Dale vs Evil missed out on a major US cinema release. It premiered in Australia last week as a direct-to-DVD title.

I have a tendency to support the underdog, and after reading about the film’s history, I immediately rushed out to buy a copy. And I have to say that it doesn’t disappoint. Deliciously gory and hilarious at the same time, the film is a refreshing take on a worn genre.

Tucker & Dale vs Evil deserves mainstream attention. It is an absolute shame that the latest The Not-So-Final Final Destination chapter is taking up cinema screens when a much smarter and deserving film is relegated to the small screen. I guess it happens all the time.

So gather a bunch of friends, find the biggest TV that you can, buy (and don’t download) Tucker & Dale vs Evil and have yourself a great night in.

Published in: on October 18, 2011 at 22:10  Leave a Comment  
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Novelty Acts: are we laughing at them or with them?

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 2nd August 2011.

I’m not really a fan of talent shows on television. I haven’t watched a single second of the current season of Australia’s Got Talent. I suppose I don’t really fit the demographic for buying records from fourteen year old singing prodigies. If I do have to watch American Idol or such shows, I prefer to sit through the first few episodes which cover the initial audition process. There is something quite fascinating to me about those talentless contestants who face the audition panel with nothing but an overwhelming sense of self-belief.

Do these wannabes truly think that they have a talent that they must share with the world? Surely they can’t be completely delusional. Hasn’t someone taken them aside and told them the ugly truth? “Look mate, I don’t really know how to tell you. You can’t sing / dance / play the gumleaf.”

Every now and then, one of these “gifted” performers slips through the net of good taste and becomes a star of sorts. A novelty single or album gets quickly released. Someone makes a buck, usually the manager or producer, the performer’s fifteen seconds or so of fame expires and we all move on. We were all in on the joke. They weren’t. Or were they?

William Hung rose to infamy when he auditioned for the third season of American Idol in 2004 with an off-tempo and off-key rendition of Ricky Martin’s She Bangs, prompting an uncomfortable situation where the judges had to stifle their laughter and present some level of constructive criticism. When informed by Simon Cowell that he really had little to offer in the way of talent, Hung replied, “Um, I already gave my best, and I have no regrets at all.”

This “glass half full” attitude somehow struck a chord with audiences, despite the fact that in terms of singing ability Hung had no glass in the first place, and William was signed to a record deal. What followed was three, that’s three, albums of Hung murdering perfectly innocent pop covers. Inspiration, Hung for the Holidays and Miracle: Happy Summer from William Hung are all CDs worth listening to… once, and would all make wonderful additions to your coaster collection.

Hung’s misplaced belief in his singing prowess is evident in the fact that he clearly recorded three albums of unfamiliar songs with little or no rehearsal, and all probably in one take.

Speaking of one take wonders, have you sampled the vocal stylings of New Zealand’s own Wing? Born in Hong Kong, 51 year old Wing has never let a lack of talent stop her from making records, twenty of them to date. From Andrew Lloyd Webber to AC/DC, Michael Jackson to Abba, Wing has recorded them all in her unique offbeat vocal style (think cats fighting outside your bedroom window).

As Wing’s notoriety spread via the internet, she became the subject of a South Park episode and was invited to perform at a BBC Radio One music festival in the UK in 2008. She later toured the US, even playing the famous Birdland Jazz Club in New York City.

For around US$15, Wing will phone you up and personally sing you a song. It is already on my Christmas wish list.

Throughout all of Wing’s recordings and performances, there is not a single hint that it may be all a gag. Regardless of the song, Wing performs it seriously. What won’t be serious though, is your reaction. Make sure you check out her performances on YouTube.

Wing has truly made a little go a long way, and has had a remarkable career so far, especially for a novelty act. And that I suppose is my point, do Wing and William Hung know that they are novelty acts? Is self-belief, or even self-delusion, enough? Are we laughing at them, or is the joke on us? I guess we’ll never know. The only certainty is that I shouldn’t have admitted to owning William Hung albums.

http://wingmusic.co.nz

http://www.williamhung.net

Published in: on August 14, 2011 at 09:03  Leave a Comment  
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Weird Al Rules

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 19th July 2011.

It’s hard to believe but pop satirist and accordion player, “Weird Al” Yankovic, released his 13th album, Alpocalypse, this year. With more than 12 million records sold over a career spanning 35 years, Yankovic has mostly outlasted and in some cases, outsold, the pop music artists that were the basis for his amusing parodies.

Born Alfred Matthew Yankovic in 1959 (he turns 52 this year), “Weird Al’ released his first official single on Capitol Records in 1976. It was a parody of The Knack’s My Sharona, reworked as My Balogna. This was followed by Another One Rides the Bus, a send up of Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust. From there, as they say, the rest is history.

Yankovic’s career particularly benefitted from the emergence of MTV in the early eighties. His hilarious music video for Eat It, a parody of Beat It by one hit wonder Michael Jackson, was virtually a shot-for shot remake of the original clip and was placed on high rotation, becoming one of Al’s biggest selling singles.

No-one seemingly was safe from Weird Al’s focus. Major acts such as Madonna (Like a Surgeon), Nirvana (Smells Like Nirvana), Green Day (Canadian Idiot), Red Hot Chilli Peppers (Bedrock Anthem) and Michael Jackson (a second parody, Fat) were satirised alongside flash in the pan acts such as Coolio (Amish Paradise), The Presidents of the United States of America (Gump), Billy Ray Cyrus (Achy Breaky Song) and The Offspring (Pretty Fly for a Rabbi).

In the USA, permission is not required to record a parody of a song, however, Yankovic generally seeks permission from the original artist before working his magic. Many recording acts consider it an honour to be satirised by Al. His latest single, a spin on Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, entitled Perform This Way (the video is fantastic, check it out on YouTube) was initially refused permission by her management. When Gaga, reportedly a huge fan, found out that a decision had been made without consulting her, Weird Al was given the go ahead.

Not everyone wants the Yankovic treatment though. Vegetarian Paul McCartney did not want Live and Let Die to become Chicken Pot Pie. James Blunt’s management didn’t like the idea of You’re Beautiful being made into You’re Pitiful.

My favourite song on every Weird Al album is his polka medley. This is where he takes a dozen or so chart hits at the time of recording and recreates them as a thigh slapping, lederhosen friendly polka, complete with tubas and piano accordions. As my high school’s resident DJ in the early 90’s, I’d quite often turn school dances into Octoberfest by playing Yankovic’s Polka Your Eyes Out.

I had the pleasure of catching Weird Al’s live show earlier this year from the front row of the Enmore Theatre. More of a live theatrical performance than a concert, Al changed costume between almost every song. This meant that there were long gaps between tunes, which were filled with amusing videos, but after a while it became clear that the show was far from spontaneous. His band was amazing, with some members being with Al from the beginning of his career. Their ability to reproduce almost any style of music was uncanny.

With a career almost as long as my life so far, “Weird Al” Yankovic will hopefully be around to poke fun at the ultra serious music industry for many years to come. When the funniest thing in music these days is Justin Bieber, it is good to know that the Clown Prince of Pop is around.

Published in: on August 14, 2011 at 08:53  Leave a Comment  
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Comedy comes to our shores

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 12th October 2010.

Comedy enthusiasts are set for a memorable couple of months ahead as several comic legends hit our shores for tours. With average ticket prices easily over the $100 mark, none of the tours will be a cheap night out, however, the calibre of the comedians almost certainly justifies the cost of a ticket or three.

Robin Williams will embark on his first ever stand-up tour of Australia in November. The Weapons of Self Destruction tour has already sold out three nights at the Sydney Entertainment Centre with a fourth show now on sale. Considering the modest set-up costs for a comedian as opposed to say, a Pink concert, Mr Williams is set for a decent payday.

No stranger to our shores, having visited Australia numerous times to promote his films, Robin was most recently in Sydney in February to record the voice of Ramon and Lovelace for Happy Feet 2. During this time, he made an impromptu stand-up appearance at The Sugarmill Hotel, much to the delight of the surprised audience members.

Whilst Mork’s recent films have been awful, in particular RV, Old Dogs and Licence to Wed, there is no denying his filmography, which includes his Oscar winning turn in Good Will Hunting, as well as memorable performances in The Fisher King, Mrs Doubtfire, Dead Poets Society, Insomnia and er, FernGully: The Last Rainforest. Of course, my favourite Robin Williams performance is as the titular spinach loving sailor is Robert Altman’s bizarre megaflop musical Popeye. I yam what I yam.

The Big Yin, Billy Connolly, will perform three shows at the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House and then two nights at the Hordern Pavillion in February / March next year. It has been six years since Connolly graced our stages so The Man tour will be an absolute treat for fans.

With a career in stand-up spanning over thirty years, Billy is at his most interesting to me when he extends his range to dramatic roles. Recent memorable turns include a priest with a dark past in The X-Files: I Want to Believe and Noah MacManus in The Boondock Saints movies.

Hopefully Billy will stick to comedy during his shows and not be flogging ING financial management products as he can so often be found doing on Australian TV.

 Star of the Deuce Bigalow movies, Rob Schneider, was set to tour Australia for the first time in November, however, due to “unforseen scheduling conflicts” will now play in February for two nights at the Enmore Theatre. With a filmography mostly based on supporting and character roles for Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison productions, Rob’s brand of comedy may not be to everyone’s taste.

Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher will be bringing her Wishful Drinking show to Sydney this month. Based on her memoir of the same name, this one woman show is a self-deprecating look at her life so far. With a history that includes electroshock therapy, celebrity parents, scandal, addiction, bipolar disorder and Ewoks, this intimate look at a life lived in the spotlight will be hilarious and sobering at the same time.

Unfortunately for local comedians and fans, The World’s Funniest Island event which was to be held over two days on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour this coming weekend has been cancelled due to a “sponsorship shortfall”. With over 200 acts now left in the lurch, including Michael Winslow, Will Anderson, The Umbilical Brothers and Kath and Kim, this may well be the death knell for the comedy festival in Sydney.

With a strong Aussie dollar against the greenback, touring Oz is even more financially profitable and profitable for international artists. Let’s hope the favourable exchange rate will entice other comedy legends such as Sam Kinison, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, George Carlin and Peter Sellers to our shores. Boom boom.