Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Movie Review: Cyrus

And now everyone, time to breath that collective sigh of fresh air. "Cyrus" has arrived. It's a comedy that's not too ridiculous, and a drama that's not too, well, overly dramatic; it's just right. But then again, it's also ever so wrong.

"Cyrus" is a little less of the screwball comedy you might've been hoping for. It's humor is dark and very, very awkward. Cyrus, the man of the movie, isn't even the main character. Rather, it's John (John C. Reilly). John has been divorced from his ex-wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener), for seven years. While Jamie has happily recovered, John remains alone and devastated. After Jamie convinces him to go out one night, he meets Molly (Marisa Tomei).

At first, Molly seems perfect. She's made John the happiest he's been in years. But something must be wrong. Yep, there's a problem. Molly has a grown son, the titular Cyrus (Jonah Hill). Cyrus was home schooled and he maintains a too-close-for-comfort relationship with his mother. He's prone to panic attacks, and behind his sweet cover, he's quite the sociopath.

Cyrus is no fan of John. He wants his mother back, and he'll do anything to do so. John needs Molly, but he'll have to get by Cyrus first.

"Cyrus" is not quite the movie I was expecting. I don't mean this in a bad way. I mean that it's more genuine, and more emotionally moving than I ever thought it would be. It handles a lot of characters that walked a thin line between character and caricature. Yet, each one fell into the former category. Despite the title, each character is handled with similar care, and each get their own sort of moment to stand out.

It might be emotional with all of the various character revelations. But don't get me wrong, "Cyrus" is better comedy than almost anything that's come out in some time. The laughs sometimes come from the dialogue, which often seems improvised. But it really derives from every character, and to truly get the humor of the film, you must become invested in the characters.

The story of "Cyrus" is bettered further by excellent acting. After a string of great comedic performances, Reilly returns to more dramatic form, while bringing in much comedic voice. He brings to his role some extra awkwardness, as well as this often child-like sense of vulnerability. Yes, you could totally see how this is the same actor from "Step Brothers." Just think of it as another great comedic actors bending their comic acts into dramatic territory. Think of Adam Sandler in "Punch Drunk Love," or Ben Stiller in "Greenberg."

Someone who manages to be even better is Hill. Yes, he's that good. Like Reilly, he packs in so much awkwardness. But his performance is also so dark, and so haunted. The point of his character is that his true motives are so hidden. He manages to be so sheltered, yet at times so open and honest. At times, he's creepy beyond belief. Other times, you feel like you just want to sit down with him and sympathize. And the other great performance comes from Tomei. Between this, "My Cousin Vinny," and "The Wrestler," she proves she can play any character.

"Cyrus" embodies the newer genre known as Mumblecore. It's basically exactly what the word suggests: quiet, and delightfully aimless. For a dialogue driven film, it certainly contains a handful of quiet moments that suggest much more beyond the surface. So please, pay very close attention to those facial expressions. You might see a smile, but look closer, and maybe you'll see much suppressed anger.

The Duplass Brothers have mastered a style of both extreme awkwardness and a dominant feeling of being uncomfortably real. You can see that by their very odd yet innovative camera style. The camera never quite stays still. Even when focusing on one character, it still jiggles around and constantly goes in and out of focus.

It is also worth noting how the film's title character isn't even given a first person perspective. However, he may very well be the main character. Perhaps the film is about how all of these different people see "Cyrus." Or maybe it's about how Cyrus's horrible actions cause people's lives to fall apart. One thing is certain though: his character is too mysterious, and his inner workings too creepy, to be given a first person voice. It's more entertaining to try and understand his thoughts and motives as the rest of the characters do.

As you watch more and more movies, even when watching a good one, you still get a sense that you can take past films as precedent and know exactly where the movie you're watching is headed. "Cyrus" is resistant to that. It's not trying to impress, and it's not even trying to get you to like the characters. That comes out of your own opinion. It doesn't even end on a note of certainty. There is a feeling of certainty that we know what will happen to the characters next, but we don't need to see it. It will just...happen.

"Cyrus" is as real and funny as the people you know, or the people you never wanted to know. It proves that a raunchy joke, or a grown man standing in nothing but a t-shirt and holding a giant knife, can be funny and sophisticated. Oh, and I'll emphasize once again that it's weird. However, it's the kind of weirdness that feels so unique. More directors should be like the Duplass Brothers: not afraid of throwing away Hollywood convention in order to tell a perfectly good story.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Movie Review: Winter's Bone

For a moment, let's take the word 'hillbilly' out of our dictionary. Let's also take the word 'hick' out, and all those other words. Let's just call them, well, people. For the sake of understanding, and truly appreciating "Winter's Bone" at least.

"Winter's Bone" is a nice little movie. Well, not nice in the sense that it's at all happy or uplifting. Just in the sense that it feels like a movie that is rarely released at this time of year.

"Winter's Bone" is not much about big events or big thrills, it's just about people and a story. The film takes place in an extremely remote area of the Missouri Ozarks in a small, tightly knit community. 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is quite a story. She's forced to take care of her ailing, pill-addicted mother and two younger siblings.

Why does she have to do this? Ree's father is a meth cooker on the run from the law. He's expected to appear in court, so he puts his house up for bond. This means that Ree and the family, already money troubled enough, will be forced to live on the street. Or in there case, the woods. As protector, Ree now must find her father, and save what remains of her family. The results aren't pretty.

"Winter's Bone" is nothing like what your expectations would have you believe it to be. It's set up like a thriller. It's lit up like a horror film. Yet, it's simply a character study. It's an examination of how people react to a crumbling society and deteriorating morals. The story is strangely told in such a simple way, yet in that simplicity lies a deep complexity.

Every good character study needs good actors, and "Winter's Bone" has just that. Here, Lawrence is basically expected to hold down the fort. Just as Ree carries the weight of her family's sins and shortcomings on her shoulders, she carries much of the film. She projects a style that is never panicked, and never over-the-top. She shows much and ambivalence, and even more realism. An excellent supporting performance comes from John Hawkes as Teardrop. He turns this character into a sometimes frightening, and always unpredictable, ball of rage.

"Winter's Bone" might just be one of the best made films I've seen in a while. The cinematography is nothing short of masterful. Every shot looks drained of color, and devoid of the goodness in life. It helps feed into the film's great usage of the Missouri landscape. Those patches of snow, the sagging trees, and of course that lake in the film's shocking climax all contribute to the establishing mood excellently.

All of this reminded me much of the recent "Frozen River," which coincidentally told a similar story of people in the country fighting for survival. I could pinpoint several other films this one reminded me of. That country band that played as Ree is violently abused might bring up bad memories of "Deliverance" (especially that banjo). And though this might be a stretch, the lake scene had a very similar vibe to the one that marked Fredo's end in "The Godfather: Part II."

At times the film even feels like a novel. I guess it's something with the rhythm and feel of the conversations. No surprise there, it was adapted from one.

All I can say about "Winter's Bone" is that it's not the movie you'd expect to see in theaters everyday. It's the kind of film that should be going into, and then getting released from, Sundance more often. Even at its darkest parts, there is always the optimistic spirit of the struggle for survival. Not to mention, an amazing view of humans at their most self-sufficient.

"Winter's Bone" is one of those films that forces us to forget about all of our thoughts and stereotypes of other people and see a new perspective on life first hand. No matter where one comes from, life can be hard, and we can all somehow connect because we all have our struggles. Though, not everyone has to deal with severed hands.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Movie Review: Toy Story 3

How rare it is to find a sequel that's not looking to sell a new toy line, or even another three sequels. How nice it is when a sequel would rather continue telling a story, than capitalize off of it. That rare day has come with "Toy Story 3."

Then again, this should've been expected by this point. Pixar cemented its status as the greatest animation creator since Walt Disney years ago and they proved they could handle sequels when "Toy Story 2" was released 11 years ago.

Rather than start directly where it last left off, "Toy Story 3" takes place in the present day. Andy is now 18 and heading off to college. He hasn't played with any of his toys in years. While he means to keep them stored in the attic, the toys end up being donated to a day care center by accident. What seems at first like paradise with a benevolent bunch of toys, including Lotso (Ned Beatty) and Ken (Michael Keaton), turns into a living hell for deserted toys. The mission, once again, is to get back to Andy.

Despite being locked up in a chest for years, the toys haven't changed at all. Woody (Tom Hanks) remains the most loyal friend in the world. Buzz (Tim Allen) still believes he's a real space cadet. Jesse, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Rex, Hamm, and even the little red monkeys, are all still there. And let the nostalgia begin.

When the original "Toy Story" was released in 1995, it ushered in an era of computer animation. It's incredible to see how far the genre has come since then with the characters that started it. By this point, "Toy Story 3" doesn't even look like it was created on a computer. It might as well have been shot on real Hollywood sets. Well, it might just look even more real than that.

"Toy Story 3" also has the benefit of 3D. That's right, I said benefit. The only other movie I've seen that's benefited from 3D is "Avatar" (the wine cork scene from "The Final Destination" doesn't count). What works with the 3D in "Toy Story 3" is that its not gimmicky. Nothing pops out at you. The characters and settings pop out of the screen organically. If more filmmakers could harness 3D in appropriate ways like this, then I might just hop on board.

"Toy Story 3" certainly doesn't hide behind its visuals. Who needs them with a story this good? The movie might be a slightly basic variation of the first two (toys get lost, toys try to get back from Andy), but that doesn't mean it's not original. Most sequels usually lazily ripoff their predecessors. Pixar is too good for that.

Not only does the story feel fresh, but so does every individual moment. That's another rarity. For example, "Shrek 2" tried to teach important lessons like its predecessor. Yet, they were basically the same as the original, and therefore felt nowhere near as effective. However, every little poignant moment in "Toy Story 3" feels so new.

And once again, Pixar proves it amazing ability to bring human qualities to the nonhuman. Sure, its not too hard to feel sympathetic for a fish, or even a kind rat. But making the audience care for inanimate objects is no easy task. Once again, this task is pulled off perfectly. What we see is that a toy can be just as good a friend as any person.

To classify "Toy Story 3" as a kids' movie would be a gross inaccuracy. It is a family movie, meaning any member of a family, at any age, will get something out of this movie. Children will learn the value of friendship and commitment. They will also get an exciting story. Teens and adults might even get a more enriched experience. Some of the humor involves a keen sense of observation, and some film knowledge (spot the "Cool Hand Luke" reference). This movie should finally teach the haters that animation is not purely kiddie junk.

Now, I'm going to do something I don't normally do. Rather than discuss "Toy Story 3" for what makes it such a great movie, I'm going to discuss what this movie means to me. The "Toy Story" series will always hold a special place in my heart, and this sequel certified it. How amazing it is that the creators coincided Andy's life with both the beginning of mine, and my entry into adulthood. Pixar doesn't always deal much with its human characters, but Andy's college angst feels too familiar. "Toy Story 3" made me want to rediscover my childhood.

This also helped make every character even more meaningful to me. There is a moment toward the end, which I obviously won't fully reveal. It was handled so maturely, and it's so dark, that I'm shocked the studio didn't alter it. Yet, it shows us the unbreakable friendship between the toys. After all these years, they're still together. After all these years, I still want to be a part of their journey.

As a friend lamented once the movie ended, "'Toy Story 3' represents the end of my childhood."* Pixar bookmarked the start and end of my childhood. It was one of the first movies I remember seeing, and one of the last ones I'll see before I walk down graduation isle. As the film's conclusion showed, it's not just about the end of one phase of life, but the beginning of a new one. And if this new beginning might also signal more time with Woody, Buzz, and the gang, then count me in.

*Quote attributed to Reverend Doctor Eric H. Wessan

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Movie Review: The A-Team

I hate the existence question. This is when a critic ponders why the movie being reviewed even exists. Every movie has a purpose, whether it is to entertain, provoke thought, or simply steal your money. However, when it comes to remakes of old TV shows, I feel it is totally appropriate to ask, "why must this exist?"

For proof of this, I turn to "The A-Team." No reason, really. Studio must've needed a script quickly and didn't feel like coming up with a new idea. This movie is a result of Hollywood's continued lack of ingenuity.

"The A-Team" reminded me a lot of those times when you walk up to a group of kids and one of them says some weird word. Once everyone starts laughing you say, "what's so funny?" Then, some kid responds by saying "inside joke." You feel uncomfortable not understanding what is going on and even more annoyed that some joke is so important that it can't be shared with the rest of the world.

This leads us to the film's opening. Even though it introduces every single character, there still seems to be something lacking from the backstory. The only way to truly understand what is going on is to have seen the 80s TV series. But who has time for that?

Anyway, our film begins somewhere around the American-Mexican border. While under some intense kidnapping conditions, we meet the team. There's the cigar smoking Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson), the wily Lt. Peck (Bradley Cooper), mentally disturbed Murdock (Sharlto Copley), and conflicted killer B.A. Baracus (Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson).

That whole opening scene becomes pretty much pointless, as the film suddenly transitions eight years later from Mexico to Iraq (I guess director Joe Carnahan thought it went better, since both places have sand). Despite so many successful missions, nobody in the military trusts the A-Team because, hey, this is a Hollywood action film. The team is sent on a covert mission to stop some bad business involving counterfeiting Iraqi money. They are setup for murdering a general and wrongfully imprisoned. The rest of the film is them proving their innocence and finding the real bad guys.

What follows is a fairly ridiculous assault on the brain. If the explosions don't get you, then the extremely twisted (and not in a good way) story lines will. "The A-Team" wants to be a film that relies on twists for good storytelling. The only problem is that it relies on many rather than a few. Sometimes, they occur so closely together that they get tangled. Other times, they just seem to have no reason to be there, except to be really annoying.

Not only does it try to handle so many twists, but it also tries to tackle so many stories. It wants to be both a continuation of the show and an origin story. I can't speak for how it made fans feel, but all I can say for people new to this story is that it left us in the dark. Should this film even be taken as a serious drama, or a comedy?

At this point, I shouldn't really expect much story. However, I do expect some production value. While the film certainly looked like it had a budget, it doesn't look like much of it was used wisely. The film opts for the typical, shaky-cam shot action sequences. Why do action directors love shaky-cam? It creates more nausea than thrills. Have we become so A.D.D. that even a shot that lasts more than two seconds feels long?

Most of the action feels like video game violence. Everything else is so poorly edited that it often feels more like an extended trailer than a feature length film. It just puts "A-Team" into part of this horrible trend of mainstream movies that seem to be marketing products and sequels over actual stories.

What continues to annoy me about the film is some of its underlying smugness. That's probably because of Carnahan, who also directed "Smokin' Aces." "Smokin' Aces" did Tarantino much worse than it actually thought. Likewise, "A-Team" does corny 80s action much worse than it thinks.

Despite this litany of problems, the film manages to find a few bright spots in the ensemble. Neeson and Cooper just seem to be playing Neeson and Cooper. While it's hard to ever complain about Neeson's acting, it's time for Cooper to find a new character. But it was the other half of the team that was most engaging. This is only Copley's second performance, but he already knows what kind of an actor he wants to be. He brought to Murdock the same dimwitted charm that made Wikus both so likable and hatable in "District 9." Jackson does a great job playing Mr. T about as well as Mr. T ever could. His character is also the closest the film comes to creating a sort of satire of a certain archetype.

What "The A-Team" ultimately represents is a death of creativity in Hollywood. It also shows that the moviegoing audience has suddenly lost interest in good ideas. Why couldn't the inspired take on 80s action in "MacGruber" take hold but the uninspired mess based on an 80s TV show could? For those looking for just a good throwaway experience, this is your movie. For those wanting action with a little more watchability, "Inception" is just a few weeks away.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Movie Review: Splice

Some movies are too weird for their own good. Other movies find ways to be good through all the weirdness. "Splice" balances on the line between these two.

"Splice" is the latest film from Vincenzo Natali. Natali has the name of a great horror director, and he could just become one. I have never seen any of his previous works, but "Splice" shows that he knows this genre, and the several other ones that the film navigates.

"Splice" is infatuated with low angle, and usually subjective, shots. One of the best choices it makes is opening through the blurry, confused eyes of a newborn. This is no newborn, this is the birth of a new species. This is a creation from scientists (and lovers) Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley). The two figured out how to isolate the DNA of various types of animals and morph them into one, new species. The new species is active, healthy, and can even produce medicinal milk. It turns out to be both a scientific and economic wonder.

Clive and Elsa want to take their experiment to the next level: they want to add human DNA. However, the company isn't looking for scientific breakthroughs, but rather profit, and forces them to continue research on the milk the new creature produces. They go ahead with their experiment anyway. The result is a creature with the face of a human, the body of a small kangaroo, and the skin of a salamander. The clone, named Dren, starts off sweet and innocent enough. Then she turns, quite literally, into a monster.

The film is proceeded by some noteworthy shots, a few corny lines, and a few great thrills. It is a mixture of scientific intrigue and fictional ridiculousness. Despite some flaws, "Splice" is still miles ahead of most sci-fi films released in recent years. It draws upon, rather than steals from, classics.

On that note, the thing I enjoyed most about "Splice" is how inspired it was. Natali is a film lover's filmmaker. The slow, creeping doom that occurs alongside the speedy development of the creature feels right out of "Alien." A later scene involves a chase through a dark, snowy, forest reminiscent to the frozen maze chase that occurs in "The Shining." At one point, a character even shouts "It's alive!" just like Rosemary mistakenly shouted in joy in "Rosemary's Baby." It might just sound like I'm merely throwing out every film reference I can to look cool, but I'm actually throwing out compliments. Natali doesn't just know great films, but he knows what makes them so great. And those things influence his work in the best way.

Don't get the impression from this that Natali's work is nothing but a lot of pop culture reference. He is also a great director for individual reasons. The sci-fi works great because he understands how the sci-fi genre operates. The horror aspects work especially well because he understands how to create real thrills. As usual, it is not about the gore. What is crucial is atmosphere. He can create a moment of suspense either threw loud, overbearing music, or pure silence. One of the most impressive ways that he creates an environment of dread is through very tiny details. The most significant is a light swaying back and forth overhead, as the couple waits to see if there creation has survived.

"Splice" also displays some impressive cinematography. It contributes to the atmosphere as much as the sound and music. Best of all, it doesn't rely on an unnecessary large amount of shaky cam to try and frighten the viewer. Any horror you might feel comes organically.

As I am not Natali, I can't say what his true goal was with "Splice." If it was simply to thrill us and weird us out, then mission accomplished. But if he was looking for something even deeper, which I suspect he was, then he just missed the mark.

At times, I thought "Splice" was going for the "Brave New World" message that there's a line in science, and sometimes we just shouldn't toy too much with our own DNA. Then there's also this whole thing about how science is being ruined by corporate greed. These are themes that have been explored again and again, and I wish "Splice" did it in a slightly more original, and even more three-dimensional way.

The reason these two things don't work so well might just be because of the weakest aspect of the film: the writing. All of the arguments about the place of science and moral judgement just sound contrived. Such eloquent directing could've used much more eloquent writing.

While I obviously appreciated this film as a thriller, I wish Natali had gone and made it a little more satirical. There is one moment in the film (you'll know it when you see it), that's so gruesome and unexpected that it ends up being uncomfortably hilarious. Some might find it horrifying, others might find it to be the most genius moment in the entire film.

"Splice" certainly isn't your average sci-fi horror film, as Natali certainly isn't your average director. And even though the film falters on several points, it's hard not to recommend "Splice." After having to sit through "Robin Hood" and endless "Sex and the City 2" ads, any actual story is welcome.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Movie Review: La Dolce Vita

When one thinks of the most iconic images in cinema, what comes to mind might be an odd extra terrestrial flying over the moon in a bicycle. Or Humphrey Bogart giving up the one thing he loves on a misty tarmac. Or Janet Leigh meeting a particularly grisly end while taking a shower.

Though few ever seem to bring up the image of Anita Eckberg, in a long black dress, seductively waltzing through the waters of Trevi Fountain. It is not just the image itself that is so awe-inspiring, but rather the culmination of sounds, feelings, and events leading up to this very moment. For a director I once found to be cold and somewhat overly obsessed with his own work, Federico Fellini takes much of the same things I once found cold and smug and turns them into true emotion and beauty in "La Dolce Vita."

"La Dolce Vita" is about both everything and nothing at the same time. In a close to three hour running time, it accomplishes so little, yet every second feels earned.

While plot isn't the film's number one concern, there certainly is one. Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) is a gossip writer who drives a tiny convertible on his constant life on the road. While he seems content with his on-the-go lifestyle, he often longs for a day when he can settle down. Yet, he is discontent with his suicidal but caring lover, Emma (Yvonne Furneaux). So, he embarks on affairs with the beautiful Maddelena (Anouk Aimee) and the free spirited Swedish-American actress Sylvia (Ekberg). It is during his affair with Sylvia that he goes from a chaotic life of his own rules, to a total indulgence in, well, the sweet life.

Before this, the only other Fellini film I had viewed was "8 1/2." That film is usually considered Fellini's masterpiece. It was mesmerizing for around 90 minutes, and then it just went nowhere fast. "La Dolce Vita" is very similar to "8 1/2" in that it contains a wandering narrative. Yet, this narrative seems more grounded in reality, and makes an even more interesting point about life.

Fellini's point seems to be capturing life itself. There are so many strange yet fascinating rituals and events captured. Besides the waltz in Trevi Fountain, there are other great sights such as the pilgrimage to the site of the Virgin Mary and the circus acts that take place inside a lively nightclub. Random occurrences like these are not sidesteps away from the actual story, but rather things that make the story even better.

There are moments in "La Dolce Vita" where everything is glaringly self-aware. It knows that in the end, it is a film. It doesn't do this through winks, but merely by experiencing what is on screen. It might make you jitter a little bit to see an Italian Neorealist film that mentions Neorealism in it, or to see the giant lights set up from a film crew, probably facing the actual crew of the film.

Fellini is one of those directors that's so great simply because he understands how to work a camera and put a film together. He knows how one little object, or one little beat, can have a ripple effect and change the entire course of a film. Once again, take a look at the Trevi Fountain scene. It is not just the visual that you won't forget, but the those soft plucks of the harp. It all amounts to an underlying beauty and perfection. The power of the gods flows through the waters and transforms Sylvia into a goddess figure with a hypnotic nature.

The title "La Dolce Vita" carries both bitter ironies and bitter truths. Marcello lives both everyone's dream, and everyone's nightmare. He feels he can do whatever he pleases, because he has no one to tell him otherwise. It is not so much traveling he is addicted to but isolation. That's what makes his story all the more haunting.

The rest of the characters are as fascinating as the locations. The rest of the cast is constantly changing, yet each is presented well enough that their quirks and personalities are fully understood. Each one seem to become a part of Marcello's collective consciousness. Throughout the film, many comment that he has no heart. He is more like a blank slate, collecting ideas and pieces of personality through all of the people he encounters.

I don't want to give away the ending of the film, only briefly discuss it. Though I wouldn't be giving away the end of a story, but the end of a character development. Let's just say it ends at an odd moment, one that feels a little like "The Old Man and the Sea." The rest of the conclusion is told through gusts of wind and crashing waves. Like Hemingway, Fellini can tell a story and bring to the surface all of his themes through a few simple, yet extremely meaningful images. The emotions that are never stated, yet are so palpable, in the conclusion will not leave you once the credits roll.

"La Dolce Vita" is not just a film lover's film, but film in its purest form. Through the lavish dance numbers, parties, and debauchery, a point emerges. Fellini seems less interested in capturing a story than he is in capturing the beauty of the moving image.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Movie Review: Get Him to the Greek

Hollywood loves sequels. They love it. They're a little too in love though. If Hollywood wants to continue banking off of franchise-worthy films, they should consider spin-offs over sequels. "Get Him to the Greek" shows that perhaps individual characters, and not entire plots, were meant to be seen again.

"Get Him to the Greek" uses the 2008 instant classic "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" as its starting point. It pulls away Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), the self-absorbed English rocker. Snow still exists in the same universe as "Sarah Marshall." After the success of such songs as "Do Something" and "Inside of You," his career was almost totally destroyed after the failure of the accidentally offensive "African Child." And don't worry, you will get your music video.

Snow also got married and divorced. After seven years of being sober, he took up drinking and drugs once again. Across the pond and an entire land mass over, Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) is a rising executive at a record label with a doctor girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) that he rarely has time to share a moment with. Green is what Hill's character in "Sarah Marshall" (who is totally different) would have become if Snow actually ever listened to his demo.

But the music business is changing. Green's boss Sergio (Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs), who is always mad about something, wants a game changer. Green suggests the winning idea: bringing back Snow to do a show at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. The only catch is, Green has to get him himself and bring him from London to New York to Los Angeles in just 72 hours. Basically, it's a good set-up that makes room for even better jokes.

The humor of "Get Him to the Greek" stems from a mixture of awkwardness and over-the-top gags. Sometimes, these two styles interact with one another. The awkwardness works because the actors play the characters that way, and the slapstick works because it's well directed.

Yet, the one comedic aspect of "Get Him to the Greek" that could be considered close to brilliant is its satire of the music world and entertainment industry in general. Snow's songs are always laced with innuendos. At another moment, Sergio plays the music he thinks will sell right now. It's basically just a string of curse words, but it sounds nearly identical to modern mainstream rap. Satire is at its best when it seems too ridiculous to be true, but too truthful to be just a joke.

Like most of the other films in the Apatow oeuvre (Judd produced this), there is a strong reliance on the actors. And the actors deliver. This is Hill's first true lead performance (in "Superbad" I'd say it was a co-leading performance), and with it he proves that he's more than just the creepy guy in the background who does cringe-worthy things. What this kind of comedy needs to work (besides good jokes) is relatable characters. Green's uptight nature feels genuine and not forced. Hill works to make him not only likable, but also hatable. He's nice when he should be, and extremely selfish when he should be. Moss is essentially playing Peggy from "Mad Men" yet she adds a dash of humor to it which makes it very effective.

So Hill may be a great leading man, but there are two absolute scene stealers here. I thought from the time I first saw "Sarah Marshall" that Aldous Snow was a character worthy of his own movie, and he finally got it. He is transformed from ex-druggy musician to a character worthy of being in "Spinal Tap." Some might call Brand's performance effortless, because he is essentially playing himself. However, I enjoy performances like that because what it really means is that no other actor could play this character. It belongs distinctly to someone.

Brand makes the character real by adding little distinct features to him such as a pretentious way of pronouncing words and an even more pretentious walk. While his character is a huge jerk most of the time, there are little moments that make him seem relatable. Making a caricature relatable is what should be defined as fine acting.

I agree with many who are saying that Diddy's Sergio deserves a movie of his own. His character is too big, bloated, and hilarious for one film. Diddy channels the angry boss role flawlessly. His performance reminded me of a variation of Malcolm Tucker from "In the Loop" with less of a good reason for being so angry all of the time.

"Get Him to the Greek" is written and directed by Nicholas Stoller. Like he also displayed in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," Stoller has this amazingly rare talent of creating a huge ensemble full of three dimensional characters.

While some of the backstories in "Greek" certainly don't feel as original as the ones in "Sarah Marshall," they no less bring understanding to the characters. And why, do you ask, is backstory so important in a comedy? Because it's easier to laugh with people you like than people you despise. Green could've been nothing more than a selfish, cold businessman. Snow could've been nothing more than a self-absorbed and emotionless rock star. Yet, "Greek" is better than that. It doesn't need to stoop down to that level.

"Get Him to the Greek" lacks some of the finer points of its predecessor, yet I find few things here I could really complain about. In a summer season that has so far been pretty tepid, "Greek" seems less interested in trying to sell something to you and more interested in actually trying to give you a good time at the movies. At that I say, it nobly succeeds.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

TV Review: Skins

I never thought I'd say this, but the world has found a new "Freaks and Geeks." The late, great show has found its self reincarnated in the British show "Skins." It's "Freaks and Geeks," uncensored.

"Skins" is so different from most shows today portraying high schoolers in its realism and dimensionality. It follows a large group of friends at a British high school, with each one getting their moment in the sun. There's Tony (Nicholas Hoult), the cocky, obnoxious pretty boy. Tony's best friend is Sid (Mike Bailey). Sid lacks the confidence of his best friend. He's both the kind of guy everyone defines simply as "nice," and the kind of guy who cares less about his own problems than everyone else does.

Sid is also deeply in love with Tony's girlfriend, Michelle (April Pearson), who wonders whether or not there's an emotional being under her boyfriend's sleaziness. Sid might love Michelle, but he is constantly pursued by Cassie (Hannah Murray), an insecure but sweet girl with eating issues.

The rest of the important players include immature Chris (Joseph Dempsie), kind and musically gifted Jal (Larissa Wilson), and Anwar (Dev Patel), a Muslim grappling with his religious identity, so much so that it leads him to troubles with his gay friend Maxxie (Mitch Hewer).

The rest of the story typically just involves the teens navigating through a world of teenage angst. That could involve screwy relationships, embattled friendships, school work, and drugs. But then it also arches out to broader, everyday issues, like how to cope with getting hit by a car while trying to confess your love for someone.

"Skins" is one of those shows that wants to give every member of its large ensemble time to reveal their stories. Yes, it's about redemption. Yet, not every character will immediately receive redemption in their assigned episodes. When one character is given an episode, it is their chance to realize their flaws and maybe think of how to change them later on. On "Skins," redemption is never just given; it has to be earned.

Despite the fact that most of the characters get to redeem themselves, that doesn't mean everyone is necessarily likable. Unlike most modern American shows, "Skins" doesn't push to make any of its characters likable. In fact, some of them could be considered detestable. Yet, that's what makes them human; not every person has the ability to be a totally great human being of any sort.

Unlike many high school stories, "Skins" is not just about its teens. The plot stretches into the lives of teachers and parents. When we see the lives of the parents, we are allowed to experience both the anger and angst that is passed down to the children, and through this we get an even more complex and detailed character study. Basically, everyone has a problem.

"Skins" is most engaging with its fascinating characters. It also manages to grab attention with its unique storytelling devices, the kinds that are atypical for this type of show. Many episodes will end right in the middle of an action, denying its audience of seeing the one action the episode has built up to. It's a way of saying that the final action doesn't matter; it's the path the character took to get their that truly matters.

At other times, the show might even break the fourth wall. In the final moments of season one, rather than having a huggy-kissy moment, "Skins" opts for a very "Magnolia" moment. I won't tell you how, because that would ruin the strange magic to it.

One extremely noticeable thing about "Skins" is how wildly uncensored it is, and sometimes how casually, yet seriously, it tackles some of its more controversial subjects. But hey, maybe swearing and partying are just casual hobbies for kids. Another thing that makes "Skins" great is that it never cuts corners or tries to be a clean version of reality. While it might heighten reality at times (like the episode where they go to Russia, or that whole ordeal with the submerged car), it never veers from its intended vision.

Whenever I review TV shows, I often look at them from the perspective of film. That is, the ones that have episodes that seem cinematic in quality. "Skins" has made me realize that that simply isn't what makes a show great.

While most episodes of "Skins" can work as self-contained stories, this overall story could never work as a film. The character development that takes place could happen over several seasons, not 90 minutes or so. It's amazing how we're not only how deep the show goes, but how many characters it is able to so fully develop. "Skins" will impress not by gags and gimmicks, but simply by a deep and detailed fascination with how people behave.