September 23, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Directed by: Bennett Miller (“Capote”)
Written by: Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”)

In a world of competitive sports where a power lifter can basically bench press a bulldozer by sticking a syringe his ass cheek, it’s getting harder to believe any athlete is performing on an even playing field nowadays. Even without the roids, there’s always a company out there manufacturing high tops that add six inches to a basketball player’s vertical leap or polyurethane bodysuits that give swimmers increased speed and make Michael Phelps whine. Whatever the case, having an unfair advantage seems to be America’s new favorite pastime.

When it comes to comparing championship teams with teams whose fans wear paper bags over their heads, however, it’s not all about whether 450-ft. homeruns are crushed off the bats of juicers. Sometimes it helps to have a few dollars stored away in the dugout. The idea that a team’s financial status can affect whether they succeed in their sport is examined in “Moneyball,” an exceptionally entertaining look at the true story behind Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and the unconventional route he takes in 2002 to transform his scrappy, penniless team into a competitive ball club. Call it “Bigger, Stronger, Faster, Richer.”

Based on the 2003 book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis, the film follows Billy and his brainiac new assistant GM Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) as they work to keep up with the intimidating payrolls of powerhouse teams like the New York Yankees by signing ball players considered undervalued by rarely-recognized analytical statistics.

If “Moneyball” sounds like a baseball movie for nerds, it is. There are no bottom of the 9th, bases loaded clichés and sports heroics. Instead, Academy Award-winning screenwriters Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) dissect the game into an intriguing underdog story about one man’s belief in changing a good ol’ boy system he feels is outdated. Aficionados of the sport should admire the clubhouse access they get, especially during scenes where Billy builds his team as skillfully as a mathematician solving a proof. Pitt proves his big-league worth in this winning combination of thrilling drama and cynical dialogue.

Directed by Bennett Miller, whose previous film “Capote” won Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar (he plays grumpy A’s manager Art Howe in this one), “Moneyball” is one of the best baseball movies ever made that’s actually not about baseball at all. With the way the game is played today, it’s nice to get something that feels so natural.

John C. Reilly & Jonah Hill – Cyrus

July 10, 2010 by  
Filed under Interviews

In the dark comedy “Cyrus,” John (John C. Reilly) and Cyrus (Jonah Hill) vie for the attention of the same woman – John’s new girlfriend and Cyrus’s mother (Marissa Tomei).

During an interview with me at the 2010 South by Southwest Film Festival in March, Reilly and Hill sat down to talk about Reilly’s singing talents, how Hill was able to make his character funny without getting to creepy, and whether they’ve ever had any luck when it comes to hitting on women.

John, you’ve had to show off you singing abilities in past movies like “Walk Hard,” “Chicago,” and even a bit in “Magnolia.” What was it like to have to forget all that and sing as badly as you possible could in “Cyrus?”

John C. Reilly: I don’t sing in this movie. I don’t think I sing. Do I?

Jonah Hill: Yeah you do. (Singing) Don’t…don’t you want me.

JCR: Oh yeah, that. I forgot that. What movie is this? “Cyrus,” oh yeah.

JH: Great singing scene.

JCR: Well, I tried to sing as best I could without sounding like a professional singer, which my character is not. That was actually a very difficult scene to shoot because it was really embarrassing. All these extras are standing around not reacting and me trying to get people involved in the song. It was like excruciatingly embarrassing, actually.

JH: Yeah, as it is to watch.

JCR: Yeah. You know like the full body sweat? You’re so embarrassed your whole body starts sweating at once. It’s like, “Whew, OK!”

JH: I was so impressed though because John, he’s a professional singer. He’s got like a beautiful voice. So, to me, it’s always impressive when people have good voices, when they attempt to sing badly, you can usually still hear that they have a great voice in it. I thought he was amazing because I’ve heard him sing and he’s incredible. To hear him pull that off and actually sound like he has a bad voice was a really great acting coo on his part.

Jonah, how did you confront this role that could have easily turned more awkward than it already was? I mean, there’s a distinct line between Cyrus and his mom, but how did you manage not to cross the line into total weirdness?

JH: I just kept on thinking, “What would happen if someone tried to take away the thing that was most important to you in the entire world?” What would you do to stop that from happening? Whoever it is, whether it’s your mom or your girlfriend, or your best friend, I just treated Marissa’s character like the most important thing in the world to me and didn’t pay attention that she was my mom. I never let that enter my head. She was just the most important thing in the world to me. I didn’t think, “Oh, it’s my mom” and treat it like that. It just happens to be my mom, which makes it weird.

John, we see how socially awkward you can be during the party scene when you’re talking to girls. How good were you at flirting and making small talk in real life when you were single and trying to meet women?

JCR: I was not good. I was not good at it. I would always have to become friends with people first and kind of go at it that way. I was never somebody who could go in with the right line or talk to strangers very well. I got better at it since I had to do it more for work. But as a young person, I was concerned about seeming phony. I remember when I finished acting school a lot of people were like, “You gotta work it. You gotta like schmooze.” I was like, “Ugh, that sounds just so phony and terrible!” I think it’s just a journey that you take. You grow and you learn how to open up to people and be confident in yourself. I think it was more about my confidence when I was younger.

What about you Jonah?

JH: I always think about what you were saying, like if you had to “schmooze” or “schmoozing” or flirting or hitting on a girl. It’s one of those things, if you could ever see a video of yourself doing it you would blow your brains out because it would be so uncomfortable to watch yourself put yourself through that and lose all yourself respect.

JCR: And that’s…

JH: …what you watch in this movie. (Laughs) Thank God you have a lovely wife and a family. You don’t have to worry about that anymore.


July 9, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marissa Tomei
Directed by: Jay and Mark Duplass (“Baghead”)
Written by: Jay and Mark Duplass (“Baghead”)

If anyone remembers Jonah Hill’s voluptuous role in the 2006 comedy “Grandma’s Boy,” it would be hard to imagine him playing a character any more attached to a teat (in this case literally) than he was for a majority of his screen time in that movie.

But in Jay and Mark Duplass’ “Cyrus,” Hill manages to do just that. Although he’s not hanging from a breast like a little piglet in this one, his awkward albeit loving fixation on his mother is more than enough to make even Sigmund Freud blush. In “Cyrus,” the Duplass brothers give us a modern and hilarious take on the Oedipus complex analyzed in dark-comedy form. For the Duplasses, it’s the first mainstream-ish movie of their careers.

Taking the advice from his ex-girlfriend Jamie (Catherine Keener), borderline desperate John (John C. Reilly) decides it might be time to move on with his life after their breakup seven years ago. Revealing just how socially incompetent he is at a party, John is somehow charming enough to get the attention of Molly (Marissa Tomei) before the night ends despite his best attempts to be oafish and a bit creepy.

When John decides to surprise Molly by visiting her house, he is a bit shocked to learn that her sensitive 21-year-old son Cyrus (Hill) still lives at home and clings to his mother (also his best friend) like a jumbo-sized baby. Although John wants to cut the cord, Cyrus is unwilling to allow a new man to come into his mom’s life. To make sure he won’t take a backseat to his mom’s new love interest, Cyrus makes it his mission to sabotage their relationship until John concedes his place in the peculiar love triangle.

While the Duplass brothers stick to the “mumblecore” genre they helped pioneer with their first two films “The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead,” the duo has a lot more to work with in “Cyrus.” The positive results of an increased budget and casting more established talent is evident with Reilly, Hill, and Tomei leading the way. The film, however, still comes down to the unique and talky narrative and odd characterizations the Duplasses are able to deliver.

Most impressive is how the Duplass brothers take their time with “Cyrus.” There is never a sense of eagerness most mainstream comedies of this nature have to get to the next gag or joke. Instead, it all flows without exaggeration, which is very effective especially with Reilly and Hill riffing off one another in perfect sync.

If you can handle the weird, incestuous atmosphere that lingers throughout, “Cyrus” is a must-see summer comedy that doesn’t fit the broad summer comedy mold by any means. The Duplasses have transitioned well into the big leagues and have done so, it seems, on what made them such a delight to begin with.

Get Him to the Greek

June 4, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Russell Brand, Jonah Hill, Rose Byrne
Directed by: Nicholas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”)
Written by: Nicholas Stoller (“Yes Man”)
What happens when you take the most irritating character from the very funny 2008 comedy “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and create a spin-off movie just for him? While a first impression of actor Russell Brand’s narcissistic British rock star Aldous Snow might be as grating as an Emerson, Lake & Palmer track (shudder), he actually grows on you in the new film “Get Him to the Greek.” And even if he doesn’t, you’ll be laughing too hard to care.
In the film, Brand reprises his role as a less-sober version of Aldous, lead singer of the popular band Infinite Sorrow, who has since fallen off the wagon when his life begins to spiral out of control. His latest pretentious song “African Child” is receiving some critical backlash (its called “the worst thing to happen to Africa since the Apartheid”) and his Victoria Beckham-esque girlfriend Jackie Q (Rose Byrne) has dumped him.
His career is all but over until lowly record company minion Aaron Green (Jonah Hill, who was also in “Sarah Marshall,” but played a different character) suggests to his high-strung boss Sergio Roma (Sean Combs in a scene-stealing role) that booking Aldous for a 10-year anniversary concert at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles is just the thing the record label needs to make some serious cash.
To make it happen, Aaron must fly to London to pick up the fried musician, escort him to N.Y. for some press and then to L.A. for the performance. But when Aaron arrives, Aldous becomes much more interested in partying hard than getting on the flight. When he promises Aaron the time of his life, the concert at the Greek falls a few slots down on the priority list as the two make a mad dash cross country in a riotous road-trip comedy.

As a raunchy, hard R-rated flick, “Greek” resembles some of the more recently successful foul-mouthed comedies of the past few years including “Superbad” and “Knocked Up.” Director Judd Apatow, who seems to have his hand in most of these movies in some form or another, serves as producer on this one.

Brand, who might be viewed as a one-trick pony, gives Aldous more of a human element here that would not have fit well in “Sarah Marshall.” Most of the comedy does work because his character is so reprehensible at times, but the cockiness is balanced out nicely by some surprisingly genuine scenes that deal with depression and loneliness. Also there to keep Brand from going overboard is Hill, who over the last six years has become a comedic genius. His timing, subtle delivery, and overall likeability are taking him places.

While a film like “Almost Famous” might have romanticize what it would be like to spend some time on the road with musicians, “Greek” does the opposite. It takes the rock star lifestyle into extreme territory. It’s only halfway through the year, but “Get Him to the Greek” is the most side-splitting comedy to hit theaters thus far.

How to Train Your Dragon

March 26, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Gerard Butler
Directed by: Dean DeBlois (“Lilo & Stich”) and Chris Sanders (“Lilo & Stitch”)
Written by: Dean DeBlois (“Lilo & Stich”) and Chris Sanders (“Lilo & Stitch”)

While most animation studios will probably be restless until June when Pixar unleashes the goliath that is “Toy Story 3,” that doesn’t mean any of them should raise their white flag just yet.

Sure, Pixar might still be considered the leader in its field (it’s picked up the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature the last three years in a row), but over the last few years other animation studios are getting the hint: no matter how spellbinding the computer-generated characters are, the narrative also has to be first-rate.

While DreamWorks Animation has had its ups and downs since branching off as its own entity in 2004,  the studio proved to have the talent necessary to deliver something as invigorating as 2008’s “Kung Fu Panda.” Of course, the “Shrek” franchise is still the studio’s moneymaker, so when something comes along like “How to Train Your Dragon,” a series of British children’s books that could possibly spawn a new string of movies, it’s not surprising that DreamWorks heads wanted to make sure they got the first one just right.

And to be quite honest, these fire-breathers definitely have some bite.

In “Dragon,” one of the books in a series written by Cressida Cowell, geek-for-hire Jay Baruchel (“She’s Out of My League”) lends his voice to the lead character, Hiccup, a scrawny little Viking who doesn’t look like his burly father Stoic (Gerard Butler) or any of the other savage warriors that make up his colony.

Hiccup might dream to one day slay a dragon (they’re apparently as rampant as roaches and destroy everything) but without the upper body strength to lift a sledgehammer or do anything else that makes a Viking a conquering force in medieval times, Hiccup is better left to tinker with his brainy inventions and teenage self-consciousness. He is, however, able to prove that enthusiasm is just as important as talent when he does the impossible and captures his own dragon.

Despite doing it in an unconventional way (and without anyone noticing his feat), Hiccup has done more that just bring down the beast; he has netted the most feared and mysterious dragons in all of the land: the Night Fury. This is one of the treats in “Dragon.” Not all of the dragons are designed in the same mold. Adapting Cowell’s story, directors/writers Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders give each breed of dragon their own distinct traits and personalities.

As Hiccup bonds with his new friend, who he names Toothless, he realizes dragon are not the horrible creatures Vikings thought they were. When the colony decides they should allow Hiccup his chance to demonstrate his warrior spirit by going through dragon training, which will later lead to making his first kill, he finds himself at a crossroad.

Now, with a deeper understanding of the species, Hiccup must find a way to make his father proud without bringing harm to the misunderstood dragons. With a team of misfit Viking peers training beside him, including love interest Astrid (America Ferrera), it’s only a matter of time before Hiccup’s secret becomes far too massive for him to keep silent.

While many of the elements are familiar, “Dragon” is a lively family action-comedy that shines especially when both Vikings and dragons share the screen. Whether it’s Hiccup and Toothless creating a friendship or the “Gladiator”-like sequences of fire-breathing dragons and risk-taking teenage Vikings fight it out on the battleground, “Dragon” is a neat adventure.

The 3-D animation also works in “Dragon” especially for those exhilarating scenes where Hiccup and his pet dragon sail across the infinite sky like the protagonists in “Avatar.” It’s a sight to behold for children and adults alike who are tired of unoriginal animation that barely flutters off the ground.

The Invention of Lying

October 6, 2009 by  
Filed under CineStrays

Starring: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Jonah Hill
Directed by: Ricky Gervais (debut) and Matthew Robinson (debut)
Written by: Ricky Gervais (TV’s “Extras”) and Matthew Robinson (debut)

Ricky Gervais is a comedic genius. Even if you’re not a fan of the BBC comedy show “Extras,” take a look at last year’s highly underrated comedy “Ghost Town.”  Still, with his first attempt at writing and directing for the big screening, Gervais still has his work cut out for him. He does fairly well with “The Invention of Lying,” but seems to be grasping for straws for most of the runtime. In the film, Gervais plays Mark Bellison, a man who tells the world’s first lie and in turn becomes a sort of prophet for mankind. Overall, “Lying” is surprisingly controversial on the religious front, occasionally funny, and riddled with plot holes big enough to march an entire fleet of atheists through.

Funny People

July 31, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann
Directed by: Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up”)
Written by: Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up”)

It’s been satisfying to watch the evolution of Adam Sandler over the last 15 years. While he started off as a mostly juvenile comedian whose popular five-year stint on “Saturday Night Live” propelled him into films like “Billy Madison,” “Happy Gilmore,” and “The Waterboy,” Sandler has grown into this oddly mature actor who is slowly learning that there is a lot more he can offer moviegoers than the jibber-jabber most mainstream fans flock to the theaters to see.

In “Funny People,” Sandler take a step forward in his career by taking a step back to recognize the fresh comedy that director Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up”) has brought to Hollywood in the last few years. While Sandler’s best years are still ahead of him, it’s a testament to him as an actor to be receptive to the younger generation of talented showmen who are hungry for the same things he was at twenty-something years old.

Sandler continues working on his dramatic acting chops (although he’s already done a noteworthy job so far with films like “Reign Over Me,” “Spanglish,” and especially “Punch-Drunk Love”) by returning to where it all started for him as a performer back in the 80’s: stand-up comedy.

In “Funny People,” Sandler plays George Simmons, a famous comedic actor who has taken full advantage of his wealth and celebrity, but is still searching for that special something (or someone) to make him truly happy. George has to come to terms with the idea that this will never happen when he is diagnosed with a rare terminal disease and given an eight percent chance to live if he begins to take experimental drugs.

Along with fighting his illness, George starts focusing more on his stand-up routine. He immerses himself in the improv club lifestyle where up-and-comers are hoping to be discovered. When he hears a set by aspiring comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), who shares an apartment with a pair of much more successful roommates (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman), he hires him to write a few jokes for an upcoming corporate gig.

They’re business relationship soon turns more personal when George confides in Ira about his sickness and the regrets he has in life, the most specific being his breakup 11 years ago with Laura (Leslie Mann), the only woman who ever truly loved him.

Just as soon as George begins to accept the fact that his life will soon end, he is hit with an emotional blitz. The experimental drugs have cured him of his disease. “What the fuck do we do now?” George tells Ira as he tries to wrap his head around the miracle he is experiencing.

“Funny People” is a giant leap into something different for Apatow who knows how to combine vulgarities and compassion and have the outcome make sense. Here, he skirts the boundaries of inappropriateness with jokes about male genitalia (Apatow is probably one of the very few writers who can say 100 of these and make them all sound different) but never loses focus of the mature narrative he has crafted.

While the third act doesn’t really match the first part of the film thematically, Apatow attempts to make up for the lack of funny moments and muddled characterizations in the homestretch with an ambitious message about family, which doesn’t come across as totally realistic. Still, the imperfections in parts of the story are shadowed by the wittiness Apatow is known for. “Funny People” may not be his best film of the bunch, but it proves there’s plenty of reason to anticipate his next assertive move in the industry.

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