Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles

Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles

Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles

Sarah Silverman headlines her very first new HBO comedy special in front of an intimate audience of 39.

Sarah Silverman is a comedian that’s always been around, but an artist I never directly got into by chance. I watched a few episodes of The Sarah Silverman Program, which was too obscure for my taste. But I always enjoyed her cameo in Judd Apatow’s Funny People, Louie and thought she gave an effective supporting performance in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz. I enjoyed clips of her standup onlinebut have not seen her perform a complete comedy hour till now.

The decision to shoot the special at the Largo Comedy Club in front of 39 people is a great one. Silverman never looks far off into the distance or above to a balcony booth. There’s no big giant TV screen of her in the background for the cheap seats. The intimacy of the Largo lends itself for Silverman’s raunchy off-the-wall random tangent comedy, giving her much more freedom to roam from topic to topic without transitions.  “I don’t need segue ways.” Silverman quips,
“The brain doesn’t work that way.”

Some of the joke highlights were a childhood story of how her older sister used to scare her, sin atonement in Christianity and a bit about the Make A Wish foundation. It’s nice how much politically incorrect jokes she gets away with, showing an affable innocent girly  persona can really go a long way to make hard topics durable.

The whole experience is more akin to a live show, as Silverman is able to milk laughs from silences and even counter critique audience reactions when they aren’t up to par. It’s always awkward when comedians do audience interaction in big theater shows and this completely fixes that. The reactions from the 39 people create a more potent, immersive connection to Silverman’s perspective. And making 39 people laugh, after all, is much harder than making 200 people laugh.

The Call by Brad Anderson

The Call by Brad Anderson

The Call by Brad Anderson

When a veteran 911 operator takes a life-altering call from a teenage girl who has just been abducted, she realizes that she must confront a killer from her past in order to save the girl’s life.

The Call is a tense thriller that fully explores and delivers on its premise. Everything feels like it’s happening before us. Solving one problem creates another and time always seems to be running out. I watched this with my family and it was so gripping that they became totally responsive to it. They were covering their eyes, flinching and screaming at the television at different points.

Thriller movie elements aside, director Brad Anderson brings the audience inside the world of police procedures and emergency call centers. It is well researched and minute with its real world details. The things that we don’t like to know or look at in real life crimes and murders are drawn as a source of tension. The stress and emotional detachment that is required in being an emergency operator is incorporated dramatically into the story. Together this washes away the genre conventions of a typical cop film and instead feels like we are looking into the lives of real-life police officers handling crime.

This is not Halle Berry’s most demanding performance but she does effectively transport the audience into her plight. Berry plays a lot of emotions despite being confined at a desk for a majority of the film. It’s a very pronounced performance. Morris Chestnut seems too aware of himself to really convince me of his character. It seems like he’s always detached from his own environment. There’s a bit of a sick pleasure in watching Abigail Breslin being kidnapped because she was so profoundly annoying in Definitely Maybe. That’s probably me being mean. But here, Breslin plays the situation very real. Michael Eklund is convincingly creepy as the scene-stealing villain. The scariest thing about serial killers or murderers in real life is that nobody ever looks like a serial killer. They all appear as normal people and are protected by the benefit of the doubt. Eklund’s character practically shifts the film into horror film territory.

As it moved toward to the finale, even on the very edge of my seat, I was still secretly wishing for something to really wow me at the end. I don’t know if it was because I liked The Machinist and developed an expectation from Brad Anderson. There were about two three ways the story could have finished that would have been fine, but nothing mind-bending. But it did deliver. My secret wish was fulfilled. The finale to The Call is a gutsy, left-turn ending that pulled the rug right under me. As it went to black, my mouth went agape pondering about what the fates of all the characters.

With the current trend of long running two-hour films, any film that has the discipline to wrap up around 90 minutes is praiseworthy. There is no fat to be trimmed here. The Call might be a film that goes unnoticed under the radar with its lower budget and hype. I saw it on DVD myself. It is the tensest movie I’ve seen this year. Hopefully there’s less lag time from now till Brad Anderson’s next project.

The Iceman by Ariel Vromen

The Iceman (film)

The Iceman by Ariel Vromen

The true story of Richard Kuklinski, the notorious contract killer and family man, who has claimed of killing over a hundred victims.

The cast gives good performances. Michael Shannon brings gravitas to the Iceman. It’s impressive how much life he’s breathed into a role that is so oblique and intimidating. The audience never really knows what is going on inside his head, but a threatening violence is communicated underneath his dead calm demeanor. It’s an engaging scary performance. Winona Ryder is good in the role of Kuklinski’s wife Deborah but the potential of the role isn’t explored to the fullest. The real-life Kuklinski did hit his wife and broke her nose several times. Unfortunately for Ryder, it is not explored in the film. Kuklinski’s wife in the film suspects something is wrong but is scared to pry, which is contrary to her real-life counterpart had no idea what was going on at all. This was all probably changed to create more character likability for Kuklinski, more on that later. Chris Evans gets to transform and do some character acting as the Iceman’s assassin partner Mr. Freezy. Evan seems to be reveling in this part, it’s probably a breath of fresh air from having doing the recent Marvel films. James Franco also shows up in a fun cameo role.

The story, however, fails to rise above the sum of its parts. One particular aspect of dramatic filmmaking is for the story to be compelling, the audience generally has to empathize and root for its protagonist. It’s hard to feel that for Richard Kuklinksi because he is fully aware of his actions. Kuklinksi was an effective killer from his lack of compassion for people. He gave zero thought to murder and that’s what made him scary. But director Ariel Vromen tries to insert the idea that Kuklinski had empathy and struggled with balancing his antisocial behavior with the safety of his family. This is only touched upon and never fully explored. But perhaps there was nothing behind the real Iceman’s psychosis, maybe he just did not have empathy. The truth is Vromen doesn’t know more than we do and the film is only working on pure speculation. . So it is soft pedaling solely for dramatic purposes, Vromen should have just taken narrative liberties and just fully presented his own take of what happened.

Perhaps it’s not even Vromen’s fault, dramatic film was probably not the proper format for this story. I recommend everybody see the 1992 HBO documentary The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer. Watching Richard Kuklinski recount his own story was a much more compelling and shocking experience. The Iceman, by comparison, seems relatively watered down and this isn’t a story that should be toned down.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone by Don Scardino

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone by Don Scardino

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone by Don Scardino

When a street magician’s stunts begins to make their show look stale, superstar magicians Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton look to salvage on their act and their friendship.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, for a lack of a better comparison, is akin to a by-the-numbers Will Ferrell comedy, that it is about a cocky professional at the top of his game, who falls from grace and must learn to be humble again. Character act dumber than they would realistically seem. Unlike many Will Ferrell comedies, this film actually focuses more on character, even though they often act inconsistently to serve the comedic gags. I don’t have a big problem with this, but it’s that kind of movie.

It’s important when showing a magic trick onscreen, unless there’s something more interesting going on in the plot (i.e. The Prestige), that it includes the audience to be a part of the spectacle as well. The film does this with by presenting a few magic tricks in-camera which genuinely give the “Hey, how did he do that?” sensation. But again to serve the random comedy, some of the tricks don’t make sense. It’s the kind of thing you laugh at when you see it, but the moment you think about it again, it completely falls flat. The awe of the in-camera tricks fare better in comparison.

Steve Carell is funny in his over-the-top theatrical voice and bleached bombastic wigs and carries the film well.  Jim Carrey is a fun antagonist but I am scratching my head about his role. I wonder what drew Jim Carrey to the role as it seems he’s played similar roles before. . Carrey’s magician is reminiscent of Fire Marshall Bill from In Living Color. It seems too small of a part to really explore anything acting wise and they could have gave him something more special to do. Watching Carell and Carrey’s scenes, they all seem to be following the script and I wonder how much they were allowed to veer off from script. Steve Buscemi is a central role to the arc of the story and the film unfortunately forgets this. They could have used more of him as well.

The script was shopped around for many years before it was produced. Unfortunately, the material is a little out-of-date. Comedy does rot after all. Celebrity magicians just do not seem relevant now as they were years ago. I am semi-aware that the three lead magician characters are meant as a parody of actual real-life magicians, but I don’t know who they are specifically drawing from. So unless you are a magic fan, it feels like there’s a layer of humor that we all do not have access to.

The final resolution to Burt Wonderstone’s conflict is funny, but it is a politically incorrect cheat that also betrays the heart of the protagonist. The antagonist is also done away in a deus ex machina fashion that feels too easy. This would be acceptable for a short comedy sketch, but for a theatrical film it feels lazy. To think about it seriously, the ending actually betrays the integrity of magic and stage performance.

Do I care? Not really. If The Incredible Burt Wonderstone didn’t star Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve Busemi and Alan Arkin, I probably would have turned it off. But lying down watching it on my laptop for 100 minutes was the right way to experience it. I laughed, but probably would never watch it again.  It’s not incredible, but good enough.