You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Monday, 18 March 2013


A Saturday night trip to the movies with a mate, I've learned, doesn't have to be to see an award worthy prestige pic (like The Master should have been at this years' Oscars) or the newest high-profile Hollywood blockbuster (as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey proved simply to be). It can also be to see an unremarkable action flick, the type of movie that doesn't push the envelope, that usually receives two and a half to three stars in Empire Magazine, as was the case with Parker: entertaining but ultimately forgettable.

This isn't the first time that Parker's appeared in screen, though. Based on a long-running book series by Donald E. Westlake, the definitive incarnation of the monomynous hero was arguably Lee Marvin in the 1967 thriller Point Blank, which sees Marvin's "Walker" shot and left for dead by his criminal partner, only to rise up and seek revenge. Parker's judgement of character evidently hasn't improved with time: Parker follows much the same plot, though it exchanges the fatalistic, pseudo-mythical, film noir vogue of John Boorman's film for something a little less high-minded.

Parker, as played by genre stalwart Jason Statham, is the archetypal conscientious thief, though the characterization hardly walks the dangerous edge of things. His first scene shows him disguised as a priest - white wig, dog collar - as part of a hold-up at the Ohio State Fair, but pausing to win a little girl a stuffed animal at a game of balloon pop. Parker has a code: he always does what he says he's going to do and expects other to do the same. So, when his one-time colleagues drawn down on him in the back of a moving van, he reacts accordingly.

Parker's vengeance takes him all the way to Florida, where the gang is planning their next job, and forces him to seek the help of a down-on-her-luck real estate agent, an ageing-remarkably-well Jennifer Lopez. Any chemistry between them, however, is thwarted by Parker's loyal girlfriend, whose dad, the absurdly gravelly Nick Nolte, is a long-time friend and ally. Parker has also managed to piss off the East Coast mob, who send a vicious hitman to deal with him. Things play out entertainingly enough, but with no particular flair or originality.

Statham is a credible action hero: he has a certain rough-around-the-edges, masculine charm - the role is hardly a stretch for him, though. The Shield's Michael Chiklis and The Wire's Wendell Pierce are the two most memorable members of the pursued, though there not given much by the way of distinguishing features or, indeed, anything to do. The whole plot smacks of Elmore Leonard, but it lacks the edge or charm to truly set it apart from the fodder.

The tonal shifts can also be a bit abrupt, leaping from easy humor to brutal violence, and the whole thing runs out of steam sometime before the final shootout (for more on shootouts, specifically how to "earn" them as a film and what to do with one when you have it, look for my review of Welcome to the Punch, which should be up shortly.)

Verdict: Meh. Despite a promising opening and a committed Statham, you get the stuff that Parker know it's lower common denominator stuff. Worth a look if it's a quiet evening and there's nothing else on, or perhaps after a couple of pints, but nothing really to add the DVD collection. Not great, not terrible, just so-so. **1/4


Stage magic has been something of a gift to cinema in recent years.

2006 saw both Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, based on the book by Christopher Priest, which followed the exploits of rival magicians Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, featuring David Bowie in a cameo as Nikola Tesla, and Neil Burger's The Illusionist, set in fin de siecle Vienna and starring Edward Norton as the eponymous conjurer who seeks to tear his love, Jessica Biel, away from a corrupt nobleman using feats of prestidigitation.

Both were period pieces that investigated the idea of magic and the appeal it holds for us, even though we know intellectually that it's "fake". Neither, however, were particularly funny.

This situation seems to have been remedied by The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Steve Carrell's newest comedy release. It follows two Vegas superstar magicians, Burt Wonderstone and his partner Anton Marvelton (an immensely likeable Steve Buscemi), their falling out and inevitable reconciliation, Burt's fall from the spotlight and the lesson in humility it imparts to him. It's by-the-book stuff, but pretty amusing nonetheless.

Jim Carrey appears as "brain rapist" Steve Gray, a street magician clearly modeled on the likes of Cris Angel, who eschews card tricks in favor of, for instance, self-trepanation. Olivia Wilde plays magician's assistant and inevitable love interest, Jane/Nicola, with James Gandolfini as oblivious casino owner Doug and Alan Arkin as retired magic legend Rance Holloway.

Steve Carrell's Burt is a self-important jerk, all hairspray and teeth whitener, an immaculately preserved Vegas strip waxwork, but we are never given a real sense of how he became like this, though that his loss of love for magic may be responsible. Buscemi's Anton, on the other hand, is a mild-mannered, well-intentioned individual who, at one point, begin a programme to provide magic sets to starving third world orphans in lieu of food and water.

The film's shifts in tone are occasionally startling: every time Carrey's Gray appears on-screen things get uncomfortable, which is perhaps the point. Carrey seems to be having something of a year of reinvention with his upcoming appearance in Kick-Ass 2 as a heavily prostheticized former-mob-lieutenant-turned superhero suggesting a continued willingness to take supporting roles.

Wilde's Jane is cute and impassioned, if somewhat underwritten, while Gandolfini coasts by on his physical presence and New Jersey accent. Arkin's Holloway is lively enough, though he's mostly there to provide a mentor figure (he doesn't have a patch on Dodgeball's Patches O'Houlihan). The film initially seems set to satirize the whole Vegas lifestyle - Burt and Anton start their act dancing around on stage to Abracadabra by the Steve Miller Band - but it settles for just the gags. 

With Now You See Me, a thriller about illusionists who carry out bank heists seemingly mid performance, it seems our fascination with stage magic isn't going anywhere. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is cheesy, (mostly) good-hearted fun - it doesn't have the sense of anarchy that accompanied Anchorman, but it's fairly entertaining for a family-friendly flick.

Verdict: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone may not take many risks or have a great deal to say, but it's a great example of middle-of-the-road entertainment. It's amusing rather than being hilarious, but it does feature a cameo by David Copperfield ("I'm not your friend.") ***

Tuesday, 5 March 2013


ar·bi·trage  (är'b-träzh')
n. The purchase of securities on one market for immediate resale on another market in order to profit from a price discrepancy.
It's from this practice that Nicholas Jarecki's new film gains its title, and its protagonist, hedge-fund manager Robert Miller, played by Richard Gere, a career. A billionaire, he rides around Manhattan in chauffeured limousines, has business lunches at expensive restaurants, and has the staff pick up presents for his family: in short, he defines The One Percent. However, unbeknownst to his family and colleagues, Miller has made a catastrophic investment that has put his company deep in the hole. Borrowing money from an acquaintance in order to survive an audit, he is attempting to sell Miller Investments to a major film whose CEO is not above playing dirty in order to cut the asking price. The title may be seen to refer to the balancing act that Miller is forced to pull, the leveraging and buying out, literal and otherwise, just to keep it all from going under, himself included.

However, the crisis point for Miller comes when he falls asleep at the wheel and flips the car while driving back from a secret rendezvous. His tempestuous French mistress, Julie, passenger in the vehicle, is killed while Miller receives only a collection of superficial injuries. Rather than risk drawing attention to his recent illicit dealings, Miller flees the scene. Jarecki presents the film as more or less a straight thriller as Miller struggles to stop his ordered world from crumbling around him. Susan Sarandon plays Miller's pragmatic wife, Ellen, and Brit Marling his daughter and protege, Brooke, whose investigations into an on-the-book $450 million shortfall leads her towards uncovering her father's deception as the proverbial chickens begin coming home to roost.

With Tim Roth making an appearance as dogged NYPD detective, Byer - who has a working-class chip on his shoulder about forcing the wealthy to account - and Nate Parker as Jimmy Grant, Miller's only black connection, son of a former employee, whom he calls on for a ride and whose loyalty puts him in trouble with the law, it feels, at times, a bit like an episode of 'Law & Order'. The ethical dilemmas of Miller's situation are never truly explored. Gere portrays Miller as a talented but amoral professional and a bit of a creep, a man who claims he does what he does out of responsibility whilst simultaneously seeking a way out of the self-admitted "1,000 years" jail-time hanging over his head. To this extent, the rest of the cast simply orbit around him, which is a shame given their caliber.

It's lucky then that Gere's performance is impressive: he manages to make you sympathize with Miller's plight, to understand that he is stuck playing a role. Waxing nostalgic to his wife about the $3 all-you-can-eat buffets they enjoyed during the early days of their courtship, it becomes clear that Miller is, for all its luxuries, a victim of his former success. Though its understated nature was always unlikely to garner Oscar buzz, Gere elevates the piece to something more than a by-the-numbers rich-man-done-bad narrative. There's a nice moment of ironic justice towards the end as Miller is forced to once more don the mask of the great man that those closest to him have already seen fatally slip. It's just a shame that, given last years' 'Margin Call' and real-life stories such as Enron, ARBITRAGE couldn't find more to say about the world in which Miller operates.

Verdict: A well-made, serviceable thriller with a stand-out performance from Gere, arguably his most compelling since Internal Affairs back in 1990. With more focus on significance and less on incident, it could have been great instead of merely good.