Video Verdict: ‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,’ ‘Phantom’

Steve Carell gets magical in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.”

Steve Carell gets magical in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.”

This week’s home video releases are anchored by a Cold War drama starring Ed Harris and a mainstream comedy featuring Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi and Jim Carrey.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

2 stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language
Warner Brothers
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

It’s amusing to watch Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi strut around in jeweled costumes, tossing their lion-mane hair to and fro. It’s also funny to watch Jim Carrey play an over-the-top Criss Angel wannabe. Sadly, these are the only highlights in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” a slow, humdrum comedy that would have worked better as a 10-minute sketch than a feature film.

Because the performers are charismatic, director Don Scardino is able to milk a few laughs from the tepid, committee-written screenplay, but that’s hardly an endorsement. “Burt Wonderstone” is one of those largely joyless comedies that never hits stride, mostly because the characters are underwritten.

Burt (Carell) and his best friend Anton (Buscemi) are bullied kids who overcome their social problems by learning magic and becoming a huge, Siegfried-and-Roy-like act in Las Vegas. Alas, Burt forgets his humble beginnings, gets in a fight with Anton and destroys the good thing they’ve got going. In short order, he is out of a job, out of cash and begging his assistant, Jennifer (Olivia Wilde), for a place to stay.

Burt is determined to make a comeback, but this seem unlikely because audiences are leaning toward the unorthodox stunts of a manic street magician named Steve Gray (Carrey). The plotting is routine, and the fact that Burt spends much of the movie acting like a pompous jerk isn’t as funny as Scardino seems to think.

The already strong cast gets a lift from supporting actors Alan Arkin, Jay Mohr and the recently deceased James Gandolfini. But, as good as these folks are, they can’t sell the illusion that “Burt Wonderstone” is worth seeing.

Extras on the DVD are limited to a gag reel. The Blu-ray release also has deleted scenes and several behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Phantom

2 stars
Rated R for violence
20th Century Fox
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

Done well, submarine movies are intense affairs that keep viewers glued to the screen as characters play breathtaking games of cat-and-mouse. Done poorly, they turn out like “Phantom.”

Despite a first-rate cast led by Ed Harris and David Duchovny, “Phantom” not only lacks the tension of better sub movies, it’s downright boring. Much of the problem was in the conception. Written and directed by Todd Robinson, the film claims a basis in fact. In reality, it’s a wildly speculative fable inspired by the 1968 disappearance of Russian sub K-129.

Robinson’s story is set during the height of the Cold War and it focuses on a Soviet captain named Demi (Ed Harris) who is given one final, top-secret mission. From the outset, he and his first mate, Alex (William Fichtner), are troubled by the presence of a high-ranking KGB operative named Bruni (David Duchovny). Shortly after setting sail, their concerns are validated when Bruni reveals that the submarine is armed with a cloaking device, and that he expects Demi to sail close enough to U.S. targets to unleash the vessel’s nuclear payload.

This revelation pits Demi and his loyal crew against Bruni and a group of KGB plants. The setup is dramatic, but Robinson never fully exploits it.

The movie’s best moments occur when the sub is forced into confrontations with other vessels, but the showdowns offer nothing new. In fact, the most successful moments are borrowed from better movies, including the similar “Hunt for Red October.”

Worse yet is “Phantom’s” depiction of Soviet life. Although the characters are Russian, Robinson allows the actors to use Western accents. That, in itself, is OK, but their mannerisms and conduct are also Westernized, making the project seem off kilter. Since there is little actual history in this supposedly truth-based drama, Robinson would have been better off making his crew American and abandoning every attempt to tie the project to reality. That way, he might have come up with the type of fresh ideas “Phantom” is sorely lacking.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include several making-of features and a filmmakers’ commentary.

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“The Call”: Thriller starring Halle Berry as Jordan Turner, a 911 operator trying to help an abducted teen (Abigail Breslin) escape from a kidnapper. The stakes increase when Jordan realizes the girl is the captive of a killer she’s confronted before. Directed by Brad Anderson (“Happy Accidents,” “The Machinist”).

“Shoah”: The Criterion Collection offers a new, high-definition restoration of director Claude Lanzmann’s seminal, nine-and-a-half-hour documentary about the Holocaust. The movie uses no archival footage, instead relying on first-person testimony from survivors, former Nazis and others who witnessed the atrocities. This release is special because it includes three additional Lanzmann films: “A Visitor from the Living,” “Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.” and “The Karski Report.”

“Upside Down”: Quirky science fiction film about star-crossed lovers (Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst) who live in twinned worlds possessing alternate gravity fields. Written and directed by Juan Solanas.

“A Place at the Table”: Documentary film examining America’s hunger problem. Directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush. Actor Jeff Bridges (founder of the End Hunger Network) is prominently featured in the movie.

“CSI – NY” – The Final Season: Last 17 episodes of the long-running CBS drama about forensic scientists solving crimes in New York City. Gary Sinise, Sela Ward, Carmine Giovinazzo, Anna Belknap, Robert Joy, A.J. Buckley, Hill Harper and Eddie Cahill star.

“The Rambler”: Offbeat drama about an ex-convict (Dermot Mulroney) who takes a cross-country journey in hopes of improving his life. Written and directed by Calvin Reeder.

“Todd & the Book of Pure Evil” – The Complete Second Season: This Canadian horror-comedy didn’t receive a third-season renewal, but the creators are working on an animated movie that will wrap everything up. In the meantime, fans can revisit the last 13 episodes with this DVD set. The series centers on high school students who attempt to undo the damage of a book that grants wishes in evil, unexpected ways.

“Dead Souls”: Horror film about a young man (Jesse James) who inherits a farm with a terrifying history. Bill Mosely, Magda Apanowicz and Geraldine Hughes also star. Directed by Colin Theys.

“Pusher”: English thriller about a drug dealer (Richard Coyle) who gets in hot water with a ruthless crime lord. Bronson Webb, Agyness Deyn and Zlatko Buric also star. Directed by Luis Prieto.

– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at forrest@forresthartman.com.

1 Comment

Filed under Video Verdict

One response to “Video Verdict: ‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,’ ‘Phantom’

  1. I’m a big sub movie fan, saw Phantom recently. Well worth the wait of a number of years for a good submarine movie. More please :-)

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