(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: That's Show Biz

Magicians and ventriloquists may be considered by some to inhabit the lower rungs of the show business ladder, but that doesn't give pause to the diverse group of aspirants on display in two new documentaries, Dumbstruck and Make Believe (both opening today in Los Angeles). While one is more accomplished than the other, they make a fascinating "double feature."

Dumbstruck (playing exclusively at Landmark's Regent Theatre, where writer-director Mark Goffman, producer Lindsay Goffman and Dan Horn, one of the ventriloquists featured, will be appearing at select opening weekend shows) follows five voice-throwing puppeteers. They are a 14-year old white boy who operates a black dummy; a six-foot-five woman who has been ostracized by her family; a cruise ship performer with a failing marriage (Horn, who Arizona readers may recognize from his days on The Wallace and Ladmo Show); a former Miss Ohio, whose mother bemoans "She always played with the little puppets; I thought it would end as she got older"; and Terry Fator, the rare success to score a $100 million contract at a Las Vegas resort.

While the filmmakers do a good job showcasing their subjects' talents, I found the movie a bit lacking in exploring their personal lives and motivations. Wilma, the plus-sized former security guard turned ventriloquist, shares "I can say things that I can't say as myself or I'd get fired or beat up" so long as she has her puppet in hand. That's about as far as Dumbstruck goes, though, in revealing what keeps these people devoted to their craft against numerous obstacles. Similarly, we are told Horn's wife is planning to divorce him due to his long periods away from her and their family, but we never hear his wife's or kids' perspective firsthand. We also don't learn what grievance Wilma's family has against her, so the film serves as an accessory to the proverbial "elephant in the room."

On the other hand, Make Believe (which won prominent awards at last year's LA and Austin Film Festivals) more than satisfies with its multi-layered approach to an assortment of teenaged, wannabe magicians from the US, Japan and South Africa. They converge at the 2009 World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas, referred to as "the Magic Olympics," where superstar illusionist Lance Burton will ultimately name one of them Teen World Champion. We see their performances in full, and also meet the young people's friends, family members, classmates and mentors.

"Magic is borderless," according to the impressive Hiroki Hara, an 18-year old Japanese contestant. One-half of a poverty-stricken duo from Cape Town says, "With magic, we're trying to find out who we are as a person." And Bill Koch, a 19-year old magician-musician from Ohio, shares his mantra: "The goal is excellence, nothing less." Such wisdom "from the mouths of babes" could put many older performers in the entertainment industry to shame. Make Believe also provides viewers a rare inside look at LA's famed Magic Castle, with openly gay board member and actor Neil Patrick Harris making a brief appearance.

Make Believe, by the proficient filmmaking team behind 2007's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and beautifully shot by Richard Marcus, reaches deep into its magic hat and pulls out a treasury of human and show business revelations. Especially when viewed in conjunction with Dumbstruck, I gained a greater appreciation for those willing to risk all for their respective craft... including the risk of being christened a misfit in our modern, high-tech entertainment world.

Reverend's Ratings:
Dumbstruck: B-
Make Believe: A

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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