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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: Gladiator; Hell’s Half Acre; The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

DVD PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC

Gladiator (Also Blu-ray) (Three Discs)  (Three and a Half  Stars)

U.S.: Ridley Scott, 2000. (Warner Bros.)

The Roman Empire falls for Russell Crowe. And Hollywood on Oscar night fell for his movie.

Was Gladiator‘s Best Picture Oscar  deserved? Well, to be finicky about it,  probably not. Still, in many respects,  Crowe’s coliseum show is  as sweeping and entertaining a   historical adventure epic as you‘ll usually find on a DVD or Blu-ray player  —   and classier in the visual department than, say, Braveheart. (Of course it is; Ridley Scott was the  director.)

The story is essentially the same one (or very similar to the one) that director Anthony Mann and screenwriters Ben Barzman and Philip Yordan (a longtime black list victim and his longtime front) told in their 1964 Samuel Bronston-produced epic, The Fall of the Roman Empire (the movie that might have led to the fall of the Bronston Empire), but with more changes and more fictionalization.

Crowe is the warrior/gladiator/hero Maximus, stripped of rank and honor, and made to follow in the sfoosteps of Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. (The equivalent character in Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire, played by Stephen Boyd, is general/hero Livius.) But Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen and Richard Harris play the same roles (loony emperor Commodus, statuesque heroine Lucilla and the meditative Marcus Aurelius) that Christopher Plummer, Sophia Loren and Alec Guinness did for Fall. The rest of the cast is stellar, noble and Roman (well, more stellar, noble and British, actually) as well: including Derek Jacobi, David Hemmings, Oliver Reed (who died in mid-film) and Djimon Hounsou.

Crowe’s Maximus broods and fights and rights wrongs. But — and no amount of spoiler alerts will obscure it —  Rome will finally bite the dust — only to rise and fall again, centuries hence, for Fellini and Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita (a better movie).

The Fall of the Roman Empire was underrated and Gladiator a little overrated, but both of them are  entertaining ways to catch some well-dressed imperial  history, especially if you don’t have the time to read Gibbon‘s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (and you probably don’t). Hail Crowe. Hail Phoesnix. And Rest in Peace, if possible, Oliver Reed.

Extras: Extended footage; Commentary with Scott and Crowe.

Hell’s Half Acre  (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S., John H. Auer, 1954 (Olive).

 

From Rio Cheapo Studio Republic — the movie home on the range for Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and, for many years, John Wayne — comes a complex, pleasing little noir with a neat cast, set in Hawaii, written by veteran noir novelist Steve Fisher and helmed by Republic’s Hungarian émigré crime thriller specialist, John H. Auer (City that Never Sleeps).

It’s not bad. Fisher’s dense plot centers on popular Honolulu bar owner-with-a-dark-past Chet Chester (Wendell Corey in an atypical lead role). Pitted against Chet are partners in crime Roger Kong and Slim (Philip Ahn, Robert Costa), and they unlock a chain of violence when Chet’s girlfriend (Nancy Gates) shoots one of his nemeses, and is later herself killed. Complicating things further: the sudden re-appearance of Donna (Evelyn Keyes), who claims to be Chet’s WW2-era wife, and the mother of his son — and who long believed him a casualty in the Pearl Harbor attack, under another name. Both honor and moolah are at stake here, and Corey’s Chet is a bit like one of Jean-Pierre Melville’s characters — a gangster with class. Chet also has an interesting somewhat Melvillean friendship with the charming local cop, Police Chief Dan (Keye Luke).

Steve Fisher wrote the Hollywood noir novel “I Wake Up Screaming” and his script is smarter than the B-thriller norm, full of twists and offbeat characters, including Elsa Lanchester as Lida, a gabby lady cab driver, Marie Windsor as Rose, another sultry Windsor dame, Jesse White as a hood appropriately named Tubby, and , playing a sleazy informer, Leonard Strong. Hell’s Half-Acre — which boasts noiresque visuals, terse dialogue and crisp action — is no classic. But it’s a nifty Republic time-killer.

 

 

THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE (Two Stars)

U. S.: Don Scardino, 2013 (New Line Home Video)

 

They may call Steve Carell ” The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” the title character in his new movie, but he‘s really part of a team. Carell and Steve Buscemi play, not very comfortably a pair of fancy pants superstar Las Vegas magicians in this mostly misfiring comedy—roles that should have been slices of cake for both of them, but wind up looking and playing like Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis leftovers.

Garbed  in Liberace-style glad rags and weirdo cascading hairdos, Carell and Buscemi prance and kvetch and diss each other, but obviously, unfunnily. Carell’s Burt is the egomaniac/jerk of the two; Buscemi’s Anton Marveltone is the nice guy who vanishes last.  In the movie — crudely directed and callously written, these two ace comedians  are impersonating a kind of Siegfried and Roy team without the wild animals — and Siegfried and Roy (whose highly lucrative act was cut short by a tiger accident), were probably funnier. The movie tries, even goes a little Freudian. Partners since  suburban school days, when they were the geeks who got picked on, the ex-buddies are now two post-David Copperfield professional illusionists  who boast of their “Magical Friendship,“ and use it as an ad slogan — but, really, after decades together, hate each other‘s guts.

Las Vegas show biz is a big fat juicy target and the costars  do their best with the material — and so does Jim Carrey as guerilla and indie TV street illusionist amd self-proclaimed “brain rapist” named Steve Gray. As much as these players (Carell, Buscemi and Carrey) have made me laugh in the past, it wasn’t too long before I wanted them to make the movie disappear.

 

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is as much of a dud as its own title , which suggests  a bad imitation radio serial. “Incredible” isn’t the word — and even though the overheated adjective is meant to suggest Wonderstone’s overheated ego, it’s too much of a bad thing. Which is exactly what the movie is — with its deliberately sadistic gags about sweatboxes,  violence, self-mutilation and cute-little-puppy-abuse. The school kid prologue starts out with Burt being bullied. Naturally Burt and Anton, the two misfits, bond, and their destiny is locked when Burt receives two birthday gifts from his absent mom: a box of cake mix, and a  larger box containing Rance Holloway’s Magic Kit. The kit is a spell-it-yourself prestidigitation package, with video, fronted  by Burt’s idol, Rance (played, in the show’s best performance, by Alan Arkin).

Soon the two buddies are two little Houdinis. In ten  years or so, they’re successful blonde, long-haired illusionists in Vegas, and in a few more years, they have their own showcase, sponsored by Vegas godfather Doug Munny (James Gandolfini). But their magical friendship begins to fray. A new  crazy young rival appears: Jim Carrey as Steve Gray, another blondie whose tricks are unwholesome and whose style is heavy metal, seasoned with masochism. So the two magical chums split up, and their brilliant and beautiful young assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) has also had  enough of self-styled stud Burt and finally leaves, and the theatre flops and Incredible Burt, who’s been an incredible asshole, is eventually reduced to doing magic acts at the local retirement home, where he runs into…. (I give you three guesses, No, make that one guess.)

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone  has a snappy good premise. But it’s  unimaginative  execution, and its queasy-making  jokes sometimes make you feel  like as if you were trapped in a hat stuffed with rabbits, squealing and suffocating, or  maybe demanding their money back. It’s an ugly show with ugly jokes, a sadistic comedy that tries to juggle surprisingly mean-spirited and unsurprisingly raunchy humor with sentimental slop. But sometimes you feel bad about laughing at those jokes — like Steve Gray’s crushed puppy gag or the one where he drills a hole in his head. (Scenes like these make the Three Stooges look like crushed puppies.)

You have to have style, real  wicked style,  to bring off jokes like that, and the funny (or unfunny) thing about Incredible Burt is that the actors have the style, but the movie doesn’t. The director (Don Scardino of  “30 Rock”) and the writers (Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Dale of Horrible Bosses), seemed to me to be deeply disconnected from the great hot or cool center of what‘s funny. Also, the photography is too smudgy, the sets blah. The movie which should look garish at the beginning, and a little seedy  afterward, instead looks pretty seedy all the way though.

The trouble with getting hot, as an actor, is that you may get overused — and that‘s the sense you get in a lot of Steve Carell‘s performance. Buscemi plays in his humbler, less assertive  mode, and stays out of trouble. But Carrey, given some of the most nauseating and painful-looking gags imaginable — as if The Farrelly Brothers had been hired for a Saw movie — faces them head on, showing raw guts, if nothing else. Olivia Wilde plays a pretty cliché. Gandolfini (wasted in one of his last roles) does his evil grin bit. And we already gave Arkin his kudo. Thank God he didn’t have to drill a hole in his head to get it.

 

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“I suddenly couldn’t say anything about some of the movies. They were just so terrible, and I’d already written about so many terrible movies. I love writing about movies when I can discover something in them – when I can get something out of them that I can share with people. The week I quit, I hadn’t planned on it. But I wrote up a couple of movies, and I read what I’d written, and it was just incredibly depressing. I thought, I’ve got nothing to share from this. One of them was of that movie with Woody Allen and Bette Midler, Scenes From a Mall. I couldn’t write another bad review of Bette Midler. I thought she was so brilliant, and when I saw her in that terrible production of ‘Gypsy’ on television, my heart sank. And I’d already panned her in Beaches. How can you go on panning people in picture after picture when you know they were great just a few years before? You have so much emotional investment in praising people that when you have to pan the same people a few years later, it tears your spirits apart.”
~ Pauline Kael On Quitting

“My father was a Jerome. My daughter’s middle name is Jerome. But my most vexing and vexed relationship with a Jerome was with Jerome Levitch, the subject of my first book under his stage and screen name, Jerry Lewis.

I have a lot of strong and complex feelings about the man, who passed away today in Las Vegas at age 91. Suffice to say he was a brilliant talent, an immense humanitarian, a difficult boss/interview, and a quixotic sort of genius, as often inspired as insipid, as often tender as caustic.

I wrote all about it in my 1996 book, “King of Comedy,” which is available on Kindle. With all due humility, it’s kinda definitive — the good and the bad — even though it’s two decades old. My favorite review, and one I begged St. Martin’s (unsuccessfully) to put on the paperback jacket, came from “Screw” magazine, which called it “A remarkably fair portrait of a great American asshole.”

Jerry and I met twice while I was working on the book and spoke/wrote to each other perhaps a dozen times. Like many of his relationships with the press and his partners/subordinates, it ended badly, with Jerry hollering profanities at me in the cabin of his yacht in San Diego. I wrote about it in the epilogue to my book, and over the years I’ve had the scene quoted back to me by Steve Martin, Harry Shearer, Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette. Tom Hanks once told me that he had a dinner with Paul Reiser and Martin Short at which Short spent the night imitating Jerry throwing me off the boat.

Jerry was a lot of things: father, husband, chum, businessman, philanthropist, artist, innovator, clown, tyrant. He was at various times in his life the highest-ever-paid performer on TV, in movies, and on Broadway. He raised BILLIONS for charity, invented filmmaking techniques, made perhaps a dozen classic comedies, turned in a terrific dramatic performance in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” and left the world altered and even enhanced with his time and his work in it.

That’s an estimable achievement and one worth pausing to commemorate.

#RIP to Le Roi du Crazy

~ Biographer Shawn Levy on Jerry Lewis on Facebook