Mini Reviews (August 2013)
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, The Thing, Jobs, The Spectacular Now, Lee Daniels' The Butler
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (August 10/13)
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone casts Steve Carell as the title character, a pompous magician who experiences a fall from grace after his partner (Steve Buscemi's Anton Marvelton) leaves him - with Burt's subsequent efforts at reinventing himself as a solo act complicated by the arrival of a hot new performer (Jim Carrey's Steve Gray) on the scene. It's an appealing premise that is, in the movie's early stages, employed to breezy and thoroughly entertaining effect by director Don Scardino, with the film's briskly-paced atmosphere heightened by charismatic performances and a smattering of laugh-out-loud funny instances of comedy. It's just as clear, however, that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone slowly-but-surely loses its luster as it progresses, as the narrative is, to an increasingly troublesome degree, infused with hackneyed, conventional elements that effectively wreak havoc on the movie's momentum - with the unconvincing, shoehorned-in romance between Burt and his much younger assistant (Olivia Wilde's Jane) certainly the most apt example of this. The script, which seems to have emerged directly from a well-worn template, forces Burt to learn a series of lessons before the end credits roll, and it subsequently becomes more and more difficult to work up any interest in or enthusiasm for the character's predictable antics. By the time the unreasonably outlandish finale rolls around, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has definitively established itself as a serious disappointment that squanders its setup and talented cast - which is too bad, really, given the potential of the movie's decidedly unique storyline.
The Thing (August 11/13)
A misguided and generally worthless prequel, The Thing details the chaos that ensues at an Antarctica-based research site after an alien craft (and alien creature) are found frozen beneath the surface. There's little doubt that The Thing, before it devolves into an unwatchable mess, starts out with a fair amount of promise, as filmmaker Matthijs van Heijningen Jr does a decent job of separating the proceedings from its (vastly superior) 1982 predecessor - with, especially, scripter Eric Heisserer's decision to immediately introduce the extra-terrestrial entity striking all the right notes (ie the movie isn't, at the outset, merely a carbon-copy of John Carpenter's superb original). It's just as clear, though, that even in its early stages The Thing doesn't entirely work, as the movie has been suffused with a bland, cookie-cutter feel that grows more and more problematic as time progresses - with the most troublesome example of this the utterly one-dimensional nature of the various characters (ie none of these people, ultimately, are even remotely as intriguing or compelling as any of the first film's protagonists). The viewer's inability to form a rooting interest in the characters makes it awfully difficult to care once they come under attack, and it goes without saying that the survivors' paranoia-fueled exploits in the movie's second half are especially interminable and uninvolving. Far more disastrous are the laughable, low-rent computer-generated effects, as such elements have been integrated into the narrative with an artlessness that's nothing short of astonishing - which, in turn, ensures that the film's fright-based sequences are devoid of both energy and suspense. It's finally impossible to label The Thing as anything more than a hopelessly misbegotten piece of work, with the movie's abject failure all-the-more apparent when one compares it to its masterful and downright iconic predecessor.
Jobs (August 12/13)
Jobs details the life and times of Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs (Ashton Kutcher), with the movie exploring the dynamic visionary's early days as a struggling student and eventually progressing through to his creation (and subsequent loss of) Apple. Despite its seemingly foolproof subject matter, Jobs, for much of its disastrously overlong running time, comes off as a generic and hopelessly stale biopic that seems to have emerged directly from a template for such movies - with Matt Whiteley's paint-by-numbers screenplay containing most of the attributes that one associates with the genre (ie the film even transpires entirely in flashback after opening with an older Jobs presenting the first iPod). The underwhelming atmosphere is perpetuated by an erratic narrative that grows more and more repetitive as time goes by, with Whiteley's decision to hop from one milestone in Jobs' career to the next resulting in a midsection that couldn't possibly be less interesting. Far more problematic is director Joshua Michael Stern's refusal (or inability) to transform the title character into a sympathetic (or even compelling) figure, as Stern, working from Whiteley's surface-level script, generally avoids delving too deeply into Jobs' personal life and instead focuses on his work persona - which ensures that Jobs, for the most part, comes off as an arrogant, self-centered taskmaster with few redeeming qualities. (Kutcher's competent yet standoffish performance only exacerbates this feeling.) And while the film admittedly does contain a few effective sequences - eg the nascent Apple team's encounter with their first investor (Dermot Mulroney's Mike Markkula) - Jobs' hackneyed sensibilities prevent it from connecting with the viewer in any real sense and it's ultimately difficult to understate the movie's colossal failure as both a biopic and a piece of entertainment.
The Spectacular Now (August 23/13)
Based on the book by Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now details the unlikely friendship (and eventual relationship) that ensues between two almost diametrically-opposed high schoolers: Miles Teller's charismatic, heavy-drinking Sutter and Shailene Woodley's reserved, studious Aimee. Filmmaker James Ponsoldt does a superb job of immediately setting The Spectacular Now apart from its thematically-similar brethren, as the movie, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, boasts a naturalistic, down-to-earth feel that's heightened by the stellar work of the various actors - with, in particular, Teller and Woodley infusing their respective characters with an easy authenticity that proves impossible to resist. The palpable chemistry between the pair certainly plays an instrumental role in the movie's success, and it's ultimately hard to deny that Sutter and Aimee deserve to be ranked alongside cinema's most engrossing, appealing teenaged couples. (They are, impressively enough, reminiscent of Say Anything...'s Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court.) And although Ponsoldt has infused the proceedings with a number of thoroughly engrossing sequences, The Spectacular Now is, by and large, is rarely able to establish itself as more than just a compulsively watchable little drama - with the movie's deliberate pace often preventing the viewer from wholeheartedly embracing the spare narrative (ie the film isn't generally quite as engrossing as the performances). It's nevertheless impossible to rank the film as anything other than a superior story about young love, with the optimistic ending, which stands in sharp contrast to the novel's downbeat finale, ensuring that The Spectacular Now concludes on an unexpectedly emotional note.
Lee Daniels' The Butler (August 31/13)
Lee Daniels' The Butler follows the title character, Forest Whitaker's Cecil Gaines, as he serves under eight American Presidents over a period of several decades, with the setup employed primarily as a springboard for an exploration of the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s and '70s. Filmmaker Lee Daniels has infused Lee Daniels' The Butler with an unabashedly old-fashioned sensibility that's reflected in most of its attributes, which does ensure that, for a little while, the inherently compelling subject matter is exploited to maximum effect - with Whitaker's solid turn matched by an eclectic group of periphery performers (including Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr, and Terrence Howard). (And this is to say nothing of the various folks playing the Commander in Chief, with Robin Williams' Dwight D. Eisenhower and Alan Rickman's Ronald Reagan standing out as highlights.) The film's compulsively watchable vibe proves to be short lived, however, as scripter Danny Strong begins to emphasize the comparatively less-than-engrossing exploits of Cecil's rebellious son, Louis (David Oyelowo). Whitaker's character is increasingly relegated to the sidelines, as Daniels and Strong devote much of the film's midsection to the battle for equality among African Americans - with the narrative's one-track-mindedness growing more and more tedious as time progresses. (It doesn't help, either, that Strong pads out the proceedings with a number of palpably useless subplots, including the possible infidelity of Cecil's wife and other similarly pointless asides.) The ensuing lack of momentum paves the way for a second half that wavers between mildly engaging to flat-out interminable, with the heartfelt final stretch, as a result, unable to pack the emotional punch that Daniels is obviously striving for - which ultimately cements Lee Daniels' The Butler's place as a terminally underwhelming curiosity.