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Column Fri Jun 04 2010
Get Him to the Greek
Easily the funniest film of the year so far, Get Him to the Greek also manages to capture elements of the present-day music industry by dropping its hero, Aldous Snow (Russell Brand, reprising his Forgetting Sarah Marshall character persona), directly into the epicenter of the music scene. And it's this level of authenticity that results in many of the laughs before a single joke is told. Wisely enough, writer-director Nicholas Stoller and producer Judd Apatow take their approach with Knocked Up (remember, Katherine Heigl worked for E!, putting her in close proximity to a parade of famous faces). Aldous is on every TV show from MTV to the "Today Show" and is seen in the company of singers from Pink to Christina Aguilera (and that's just in the first five minutes of the movie). The filmmakers establish early that anything is possible and anyone might show up.
Now normally I'm not a fan of a string of cameos passing for comedy, but anyone who dares step in front of these cameras does not come out unscathed on the other side. Right off the bat, I have to give credit to three people with brief appearances in Get Him to the Greek: "Showbiz Tonight's" Brooke Anderson, "Today's" Meredith Vieira, and Metallica's Lars Ulrich. The two chat show anchors pull off incredibly tough scenes, one opposite Aldous and his lady love and superstar singer Jackie Q (Rose Byrne, brilliantly channeling a mash-up of Fergie and Lily Allen), and the other Aldous and record company peon Aaron Green (Jonah Hill, not playing his Sarah Marshall character). As for Ulrich, the things that Aldous says to him are too dead on and rude to ruin here.
One of the film's true surprises for many will be the dead-on comic timing of one Mr. Sean "P. Diddy" Combs as record exec and Aaron's boss Sergio, who has a handful of the film's best lines and perhaps best represents why the record business is so reprehensible and awesome. While searching for a multi-million-dollar idea to save his label, Sergio tags self-confessed Snow fanatic Aaron to fly to London, pick up Snow, and make it to L.A.'s Greek Theatre in three days. Yes, this is a road picture, but one of the greatest in recent memory. Aaron has what he thinks is a break-up fight with his resident girlfriend Daphne (Elisabeth Moss), so when he meets Aldous for the first time, he assumes he's single even thought he misses Daphne terribly. Even before the film kicks in, we love this couple. They are adorable together, even if their interests and ideas about the future are disparate.
After years of his brand of celibacy and sobriety, Aldous is fully off the wagon, partying like 10 Keith Richards, and dragging a mildly terrified Aaron along for the ride. I still find it weird that Hill is playing a different character than the cabana boy/mega fan from Sarah Marshall. It wouldn't have taken much of an adjustment in the script to make the two characters the same guy — not that it matters. Even in Superbad, Hill has never cut so completely loose as he does under the tutelage of Aldous Snow. And he's damn funny as he spends most of the film drunk, high, exhausted or vomiting.
I have yet to grow even a little tired of Brand's style of comedy. He delivers some of the most shocking dialog in a very matter-of-fact manner. He's always thinking on his feet, and if for no other reason I love Get Him to the Greek for the promise of a DVD set loaded with outtakes of Brand doing his thing. Hell, the original trailer for the film has two or three clips that aren't in the final cut.
The film has so many highlights that it's difficult to pick a favorite, except it's not. The Vegas party sequence may seem obvious, but it puts just about every Vegas party scene in a movie to shame. College fraternities around the nation will be rolling Jeffries and nailing fur to the wall after this movie comes out. The scene also showcases just why Combs is so damn good in this movie, and it gives us a taste of Aldous' bastard of a father (the priceless Colm Meaney).
Really the only times when Get Him to the Greek doesn't quite pull it offare in its more serious moments in the film's final act. Aldous is a stone-cold drug addict with a messed up life both before and after that was the case. There is a weird, ham-handed approach to a resolution to his troubles that just doesn't quite work, but it still results in some laughs and a great concert (I noticed Jason Segel did contribute some new music to the film — yay!). A lot of people have said this movie is Brand's unofficial remake of My Favorite Year, starring Peter O'Toole. Between that reference point and his upcoming remake of Arthur, at least Brand is borrowing from some of the great comic actors Britain had to offer. I don't have a single problem with it. Plus, O'Toole could never have stroked the furry walls with the same level of commitment Brand has.
I've seen this film twice already (the second time was to hear the jokes I laughed over the first time), and I can't wait to see it again. If there is a movie god — and I believe there is — he will pair Brand and Hill together again many more times. It's clear that they have a much better sense of each other in Greek, and you can see them testing each other's limits because they trust the other to live and die for the sake of laughs. It's such a rare thing to see this kind of abandon, but when it happens, it's beautiful.
Have you ever loved a movie so much that talking about it after seeing it actually lessens the experience? Me either, but I've heard rumors of people that feel that way...not me....other people. Still, after spending the better part of the last month or so talking with other about how fantastic, entertaining, and loaded with great old-school techno-paranoia Splice is, I've actually gotten kind of weary of chatting it up. Now is the time when all the crying about remakes and sequels of horror franchises can cease for one weekend (and hopefully beyond that), because beginning today there is horror film in theaters loaded with characters you don't know, ideas that haven't been explored quite like this, and a groovy new monster for us to obsess over, and her name is Dren.
Splice comes courtesy of director Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Cypher) and his co-writers Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor. And you should bow at their feet if you're ever lucky enough to meet them. Much like he did with Cube, Natali has given us a minimalist world — very few sets or characters — and you don't miss the excess. And he acknowledges the world we live in and the dangers of unbridled experimentation in corporate-run labs. He knows that if a monster ever terrorizes our world, it will not come from deep beneath the sea, set loose by nuclear testing or an underground earthquake; nor will it come from outer space. It will be man made, and it may not seem that scary at first.
Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play married researchers Clive and Elsa who are under the gun to perfect an alternative to stem cells for the company they work for. To spare themselves the grief of the controversy surrounding stem cell research, Clive and Elsa have created two globulous creatures (named Fred and Ginger) from splicing various animal DNA together into the perfect petri dish of usable materials. The KNB effects house might have earned their money just on these creatures alone, but Elsa gets restless and decides she wants to do something that borders not only on the unethical but the illegal before the company forces them to change the direction of their work. She Splices in a little human DNA (hers actually) and out comes a slug that eventually grows legs and a head and a tail and arms. And this new form of life (which they name Dren) is aging and evolving at an accelerated rate, eventually turning into a nearly human-looking life (played by French actress Delphine Chaneac, with slightly manipulated facial features).
What's beautiful about Splice is that Natali doesn't waste these two fantastic actors by making them play two-dimensional characters. Each comes to this story with baggage, especially Elsa, who had an abusive upbringing and very strong thoughts about having children. There is no room for doubt that Dren is a baby substitute, but she also takes on the role of domesticated pet, prisoner, and (gulp) object of desire. If you've heard any of the specifics about Splice then you've probably heard about "the sex scene." You may have even heard that audiences laugh during this scene. Guess what, chucklehead? You're supposed to laugh at that scene. It's absurd. Humor is a huge part of this film, almost as much as horror and junk science. There's never a question that Natali's take on this material is deeply influenced by the works of David Cronenberg, a director who never forgot to inject gallows humor into his toxic mix of social commentary, the perverse and the horrific — all of which are featured prominently here as well.
Splice is so exquisitely self-contained, it could almost be adapted into a play, with maybe three main sets, and as a result there's a real immediate and intimate feel to everything. My favorite scenes all take place in a barn converted into a lab/living space for Dren. A lot of sick shit goes down there, and when I think of this movie, I think of that place, which goes from feeling like home to becoming a cage rather quickly. My future nightmares thank the filmmakers in advance for the new setting. And so the time has come for fans of horror — real horror, horror with a brain in its fucking head — to unite and flock to see a movie designed just for them. The female cocktail crowd got to rally around Sex and the City 2 last weekend, and now it's your turn to make Splice a destination. This is a film made to be seen by great, reactive crowds (which I know scares many of you, but you have to trust me on this). This is the last sentence, and as soon as you're done reading it, leave to go see Splice. Bye.
To read my exclusive interview with Splice director and co-writer Vincenzo Natali, go to Ain't It Cool News.
I make a concerted effort to see as many modern French films in a given year as I possibly can, and I'm not entirely sure why or when this obsession began. I like the very naturalistic feel many of them bring to storytelling, and their almost 100 percent insistence that things not wrap themselves up in a nice bow by the end of whatever story is being told. That kind of abrupt anti-climax happens so often, I get rattled when a plot actually does end in a more conventional manner, as if that director is being overtly contrary. Or maybe I just love the pretty ladies, the brooding men and the sexy accents.
And then there are genuine cinematic adventurers like Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, Amelie, A Very Long Engagement), who has done something rather remarkable with his latest work, Micmacs. He has taken his love of what goes on behind and beneath the surface world and combined it with an almost fairy tale-like story loaded with intrigue, visual glory, dark humor, a freak show fascination, and wheelbarrows of fun. Along for the journey is the gifted French comic actor Dany Boon, who I first remember digging in Joyeux Noel and The Valet from the mid-2000s. Boon is more expressive with just his face than most actors are with every part of their body flailing and their voice booming through the audience. He would have been a hit in the silent film era, and there are long stretches of Micmacs that are dialog-free, as if to emphasize his gifts.
The story opens with Bazil (Boon) nearly getting blown up by a land mine in the Moroccan desert. Back home, video store clerk Bazil gets shot in the head during a scuffle on the street outside his establishment. The doctors must leave the bullet in his brain or risk death, so Bazil lives a life where any stressful or overly active situation leaves him feeling a little rattled (he literally has to shake his head furiously to snap back to the real world). What's most interesting to Bazil is the land mine and the shell casing of the bullet in his head both have very distinct company logos on them, and when he spots their corporate headquarters right next to each other, he decides to go after the firms that can't seem to keep a handle on its weaponry. After losing his home and job, Bazil falls in with a group of friendly men and women who dwell underground and have built a jaw-droppingly awesome home for themselves, filled with inventions, machinations, toys, and an assortment of characters who seem born to find each other.
The schemes that this group comes up with to break into these buildings and find those responsible for putting weapons in the hands of the wrong people are thrilling, inventive and hysterical. Jeunet maintains his familiar rusty tint on this world he's created, especially the aboveground settings. But it's very clear that he is far more interested in the life underground than our boring world. Underground is where the action and color come together so beautifully. Each of Bazil's new friends have their own special ability and talent. Micmacs could be seen as a movie about a superhero team finding its leader and its purpose, and it's a real easy film to settle into and let the fun just blow over you. I don't necessarily think this is Jeunet's best work — I still think Lost Children holds that title — but I do welcome the return to a type of filmmaking that he hasn't tackled in quite some time, with some new surprises thrown into the mix. And in Boon, Jeunet has a new playmate to elevate the performances and the quality of his movie. Micmacs is meant to please all of the senses — and, yes, there are times when I felt like I could smell the world in which this movie was taking place. Nothing about this movie feels like work; it's a breezy effort that still has enough angst to make it stable and grounded. I believe we call this type of movie a gem, a perfect stand-alone effort that sits solidly in your mind as a thing you're glad was made and you got to see. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Metropolis: All New Restoration
I've had many great moments watching films over the years. I'm not necessarily talking about just seeing great movies, but thanks to great event screenings in Chicago or dozens of trips to Austin or living in a New York City for a couple of years, I've had access to some great "event" screenings that make the film we're watching all the more special. But right now, I'm hard pressed to think of a place I would rather have been last Friday than sitting in the same screening room with Roger Ebert watching the most complete version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis in existence. By sheer coincidence, he and I rode up the elevator together to the Chicago screening room, and without any prompting from me, Roger flashed two thumbs up accompanied by an unprecedented look of excitement, to which I responded, "No one is more excited to see this than you, is there?" This may or may not be true, but at that moment, it was undeniable.
At this point in history, 83 years after the film first screened in Berlin, Metropolis is an experience that defies conventional reviewing. If you're as voracious a fan as Mr. Ebert and I are, loving this movie has been a sometimes frustrating practice since we've all known that at one time more of the film existed than we were seeing. Like many folks in my age range, my first exposure to Metropolis was what has come to be called the Giorgio Moroder version — a color-tinted version with a synthed-out score courtesy of the music producer. It was screened at Ain't It Cool News' Butt Numb-a-Thon last December, and I'd forgotten how much I'd always loved it, primarily because prints are almost impossible to come by these days. Seeing it recently also reminded me that there was actually unseen footage included in that cut.
The next cut I distinctly remember being radically different was from about 10 years ago, and with a running time of about two hours, I think most of us had given up hope that what was reported to be a 2.5-hour-plus complete version would ever surface. And then came the rumblings from Argentina about a 16mm print that set film historians, geeks, and anyone who had ever been touched or influenced by Metropolis on fire. The recovered footage is easy to spot in the context of this new cut — the restoration team of the Murnau Foundation has done God's work repairing this film and placing the new footage back where it belongs. And while it's scratchy and faded, it's still utterly watchable. I seem to recall that the title cards for this new version are translated from the original screenplay this time around and have not been rewritten in any way.
So is the rediscovered footage worth getting excited about? Most of it is. There's an entire subplot involving The Thin Man (the button-up heavy played by Fritz Rasp) following Georgy, Worker 11811, who trades places with Gustav Fröhlich's idealistic Freder, the son of Metropolis' leader, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). The journey of Georgy is fascinating, as he is immediately sucked into the life of a privilege and excess. But most of what is restored are small moments (sometimes nothing more than reaction shots) that add up to tell a more complete tale. But there's a Freder nightmare sequence, more backstory about the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), and perhaps my favorite series of additions — an extended look at the children's rescue from the flooding of Metropolis' underground city. And if memory serves, there's also quite a bit more mad ranting and gyrating from the robot Maria (Brigitte Helm). Yes, there's something for everybody.
But the changes to Metropolis are not limited to found scenes simply being dropped in where they belong. Since the Argentine print was complete, previous edits of the film (which involved a lot of educated guessing) can now be placed in the proper order. And with once-small supporting characters now fleshed out significantly in many cases, we realize that Metropolis is actually several fully realized storylines being told in parallel. This is especially evident when it comes to the story of Josaphat, the elder Fredersen's assistant (played by Theodor Loos), who is fired early in the film but becomes a key player in the workers' revolution.
I sat there in wide-eyed, slack-jawed disbelief watching this complete Metropolis unfold before me, and just when I thought "OK, well that shot or scene wasn't too crucial," the film would reveal some new element that seemed so essential that it actually made me angry I had gone so long without it. But like every truly great film, this viewing made me appreciate the scenes that had been there from my first viewing as much as the new material. That image of the machine transforming into an angry god swallowing up workers like so many sacrificial lambs still gives me chills. And Brigitte Helm's performance is almost too big and perfect for any screen to contain. The way she can appear sweet and innocent in one scene as the real Maria, and then transform into the twist-faced, bodice-ripping robot Maria is astonishing. I'd like to see any of the last five Oscar-winning best actresses try something so bold and maniacal.
You're either excited about this or you're not. You are either prepared to take the journey to wherever this restored film is playing near you or you're not. And if you're not, I can't believe you've read this far. So I'm going to guess you care deeply about this discovery and this singular moment in film history. Roger Ebert called it this re-release "The most important film event of the year!" before he even saw it, but it doesn't take someone with his expertise in cinema to know this. Metropolis is a film you must see and acknowledge as a masterpiece before you can even attempt to gain access to the riches of filmed science fiction. The influence and impact this film had on movies that came after it are impossible to count, although I'm guessing that many of your favorite sci-fi works involving a city of the future were touched in some way by this movie. But that's not necessarily a reason to see it. No, you should see Metropolis because it's a powerful work by a great director. Amen. The end. The complete Metropolis opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
I dare you to go see Marmaduke. Seriously, I fucking dare you. But here's the caveat if you accept my dare: you can't buy your tickets online. What I'm really daring you is to go up to another human being behind a ticket seller's window, look them square in the eye, and ask them for a ticket to Marmaduke without laughing or dropping your gaze in humiliation. Because if you can do that, you have stones of iron. And here's the thing: don't give me that bullshit line about "It's Marmaduke. What did you expect?" You know what I expect? I expect that any movie in this day and age that is greenlit and given millions of dollars to shoot and do what is clearly some halfway-decent, talking-animal special effects at least fucking try a little bit. I'm not asking for much, just something resembling an effort, so that I don't get mad at all of the other micro-budget works that didn't get made because Marmaduke was crying out for a big-screen version.
As one character in the film puts it, "to rub margarita salt in the wound," this film seriously shits on the careers of some somewhat viable talent, beginning with Owen Wilson. Say what you want about the dude's film role choices over the years, but he starred in a surprisingly well-liked and well-made work called Marley and Me not long ago, a heartfelt movie about owners and their troublesome dog. I don't know a soul who didn't cry during that one. So to lend his voice to the title character in this dungheap is an offense to anyone who was truly touched by Marley and Me.
The humans in Marmaduke actually fare worse than the voice actors. I sat in the deadly silent screening looking at Lee Pace and the previously reliable Judy Greer (as well as the baffling presence of William H. Macy), wondering which one would fire their agent first for thinking this was the career move to make. I felt worst for Greer, who is such a smart and funny actor, even in subpar material. But watching her in this movie is like watching a fish tossed up on land, twitching, gaping for air, and eventually dying on the cold, hard ground. Dog voices are provided by the likes of Emma Stone, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Steve Coogan, Fergie, Kiefer Sutherland, Sam Elliott and a couple of Wayans. Sadly, Stone is the only one even registering an effort. And if you really want a master's class in shitty voice acting, look no further than George Lopez as the film's sole cat character, Carlos.
The only member of the production whose career will remain unfazed is director Tom Dey, who has given us such legendary works as Shanghai Noon, Showtime and Failure to Launch. His career has been shit for 10 years, so nothing in Marmaduke could harm it. The terrible, terrible screenplay (Tim Rasmussen and Vince Di Meglio) is what sealed the deal for me. It is one cliche after another. There isn't an original thought or joke or life lesson anywhere to be found in the script. The dialog is so unnatural and stiff that it feels as if it were written on cue cards minutes before the cameras started rolling. These actors are simply too good to deliver these shit lines in any kind of believable manner, and so they don't even make the effort. Poop jokes, fart jokes, doggie puns all abound, and very little else of substance. No, I wasn't expecting the greatest American movie in decades, but just something, anything that resembles trying would have been appreciated. I think most of the people who worked on Marmaduke are embarrassed to have done so; I was certainly embarrassed to tell people I'd seen it. Marmaduke can eat my bone.
The flaw in this somewhat intriguing and partially true story of a young Hasidic man named Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg) who gets involved in drug trafficking ecstasy from Amsterdam into America is that the film doesn't focus on the most interesting character. Sure, the rise and fall of Sam is unique because of the way he looks, talks and dresses, but we've seen this sort of rise-and-fall story before told in the context of other cultures. The stories are virtually the same; only the prayers and the Yiddish are different.
After a failed attempt at an arranged marriage (Sam's parents are not well off and he is unclear about whether he wants to study to be a rabbi), Sam questions the path his life seems certain to take. It doesn't help that the devil on his shoulder telling him there's a whole other world out there lives right next door in the far more interesting guise of Yosef (Justin Bartha, the missing groom-to-be in The Hangover), older brother of Sam's best friend. Yosef recruits young Hasidic Jews in need of some cash to act as couriers, but in Sam he sees something more intelligent. He also sees a great salesman who can do his own share of recruiting for the drug ring, run by an Israeli dealer named Jackie (Danny Abeckaser).
Anytime Yosef is on screen, he's the most fascinating guy in the room. Bartha's at least as strong an actor as Eisenberg, but that's not the issue. Yosef has fallen so far from his Orthodox roots that he's be cast out by his family (Sam is soon to follow), has started cutting deals on the side, and has become something of a drug addict himself. He's a far more tragic and compelling character than Sam, and I wish the film had spent more time exploring his torment and trajectory.
There's no getting around the fact that Jesse Eisenberg is the real deal as an actor. In the last year or so I've seen him in five films (including Adventureland, Zombieland, Solitary Man, The Living Wake), and he's gone so far beyond being some kind of Michael Cera clone. Anyone who still thinks that isn't paying attention or isn't bothering to see some of the smaller films he's done lately, including Holy Rollers. The guy is a solid actor, and I can't wait to see him later this year in David Fincher's The Social Network, about the founder of Facebook. In Holy Rollers, he is so convincing as a spiritually torn man driven by a need to break free from his father's bonds but also do something that impresses his family. First-time feature director Kevin Asch does a respectable job laying the groundwork for this operation and for making things look and feel authentic both in the Hasidic community and the club scene Sam is drawn into.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention how much I enjoyed the performance of Ari Graynor as Jackie's girlfriend, who does a good job hiding her intelligence, but is in many ways second in command whether Jackie knows it or not. She flirts with Sam to draw him into their circle, and although she is a fallen Jew herself, he falls for her something fierce. Also keep an eye out for the all-grown-up Hallie Kate Eisenberg (Bicentennial Man, and Jesse's sister) as Sam's sister, who seems to be the only member of the Gold family willing to say to Sam that his actions are tearing the family apart. Holy Rollers is a good movie that might have been great is we had been given a bit more insight into Sam to understand why he made such a drastic turn in his life, or if the focus of the movie had been in the Yosef character, who is just so much more fucked up that you can't help but be drawn to him so you don't miss that moment when he self destructs completely. This is a noble effort that comes close to mark more often than not. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.