Monday, June 21, 2010

Toy Story 3 (****)

Directed by Lee Unkrich


There's something poignant about the end of an era. For anyone born after 1985, the Toy Story films certainly feel like an era, cataloging times in our lives like snapshots. The first two, released in 1995 and 2000, respectively, were dazzling exhibitions in visual wonder and heartfelt characters. So, I guess it seems obvious that the sequel to two films that meant so much to me when I was a child would cause me to enter with some fearful trepidation. How could they possibly make a film that was on equal with the other two? Isn't one good sequel a miracle in itself? So, why try again? I'm glad they did.

All of the usual crew of toys are back: the hapless hero Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), the cantankerous Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) & his wife Mrs. Potato Head (Estelle Harris), the wrongheaded, but witty piggy-bank Hamm (Jon Ratzenberger), the vapidly adorable Barbie (Jodi Benson), the emotionally-insecure dino Rex (Wallace Shawn), the loyal, Southern-drawled Slinky Dog (Blake Clark), the foolhardy cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), and of course, the even-keeled leader (and Andy's favorite toy), cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks). Yeah, everybody's back, but their loyal owner Andy is getting ready to move off to college and the toys' lives seem to be in limbo. As Andy's mother coldly states, there are only three options: stored up in the attic, donated to the day care center, or worst of all, thrown out in the trash.

After a miscommunication between Andy and his mother, the toys end up getting shipped off to the day care center, where they are welcomed with open arms by the various toys that are already there. They're greeted by the hug-prone teddy bear Lotso (Ned Beatty), who happens to be the adorned patriarch of the toys there and is always followed by an ominously dim-witted baby doll with a lazy eye. The super-metro Ken (voiced delightfully by Michael Keaton) gives the gang a tour of the place (and falls in love with Barbie in the process), while the gang discover that they'll be staying in the next room--with the toddlers.

Everything seems great at first (finally they'll be played with!), until they realize how rambunctious and messy those young toddlers can be. They're slobbered on, colored on, thrown across the room, and by the end of the day, they realize they've been hoodwinked. In an attempt to be moved to the other room, Lotso less generous side becomes much more apparent, and the gang must find a way to escape and get back to Andy, or else they'll face a life of being miscared for and eventually thrown away. Can they make it out of this perilous prison together?

There's plenty of laughs spread around in this film. Watching Mr. Potato Head fit his body parts into a soft tortilla shell was one of the funniest moments in any of the films. I guess ten years is enough time to make these characters fresh comically. Like seeing Buzz Lightyear's settings get accidentally reset into Spanish; or Woody's tea party with a method-acting stuffed hedgehog named Mr. Pricklepants (voiced by Timothy Dalton). In a screenplay scribed by the Oscar winning Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine), this group of misfit toys has never seemed more charming or endearing.

In the vain of all the Toy Story films, though, it is the seamless blend between the funny and the serious that makes this movie so special. I'm sure this will break all kinds of records in the box office as thousands of kids drag their parents along for the ride, but I'm sure the adults will find a much richer film then expected. After all, this was not a movie created for children. It seems obvious that this is a film made more for former children; those who grew up with Woody and Buzz, now making their way toward adulthood like Andy does in the film. There was such an eerie connection between this film and my own life, and I can't be the only one.

It all leads up to a final fifteen minutes that I'll dare anyone to watch without shedding a tear. I'm never a fan of neat endings, but this film manages to conclude the entire trilogy in a way that's poignant without being sentimental, and satisfying without being contrived. I feel comfortable walking away from this film and knowing that it is the end, and you get a sense that the filmmakers feel the same way. By the end, even if everything wasn't perfect (Lotso's treachery is not completely convincing; and did they have to wear out "The Claw"?), you're glad they've all made it to this point.

It's come to that we expect this kind of excellence from Pixar (The Incredibles, WALL-E, Finding Nemo), but I certainly don't take it for granted. I can say comfortably that this is the greatest "part three" in any film trilogy, which is kind of like being the tallest midget, but I say that because despite my love for everything Toy Story I simply expected it to become watered down, like all sequels that take ten years to make. But this is not. This is excellent storytelling and filmmaking at its most basic levels, and the best film of the year so far.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Get Him To The Greek (***)

Written and Directed by Nicholas Stoller


The list of exceptional spin-offs is pretty exclusive, but you'd have to etch Get Him To The Greek on that tablet. Borrowing a few characters from 2008's Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Greek is a cheery, sometimes dreary rock & roll comedy that has its even collection of laughs and thrills, while still managing to contain complete, interesting characters. Not bad when one of your lead actors is Puff Daddy.

When Aaron (Jonah Hill) is offered the job of escorting rocker bad boy Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) from England to the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, he doesn't think twice. You see, Aaron has been a fan of Snow and his band Infant Sorrow all his life so the chance to spend time with one of his idols seems like a no-brainer. Aaron is commissioned by his record executive boss Sergio (Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs) to pick Aldous up from England, fly him to New York to perform on the Today Show, and then next to Los Angeles for his show at the Greek.

Unfortunately, Aldous is no longer the show-stopping act he used to be. The last album he recorded, entitled 'African Child', was instantaneously considered the worst album ever made, and the stress from that led him to relapse back into alcoholism and drug addiction after seven years of sobriety. Meanwhile, his ex-wife Jackie Q (Rose Byrne) has hit it big with her recording career. When Aaron arrives in England, he's surprised to learn that Aldous' life consists simply of substance abuse, casual sex, and a few moments of sober melancholy that Aldous quickly tries to escape.

It becomes obvious that it is hard to keep Aldous on any kind of schedule. Airport arrivals are delayed by intense parties and drug rendezvous, and all the while Aaron does his best to wrangle Aldous and keep him happy at the same (all with Sergio breathing erratically down his back). Aaron also has issues with his longtime girlfriend Daphne (Elisabeth Moss), whose domineering attitude and dominating work schedule has started to create a divide between them. On his journey with Aldous, Aaron debates where his life is truly headed when he becomes slightly enticed by rock & roll life that Aldous introduces him to.

Another comedy from the Apatow brand, Greek still has an abundance of true laughs. The screenplay gives new life to the phrase "stroke the wall" (though I'm not totally sure that was a phrase many people were using to begin with). Sure, the comedy is borderline immature, since most of the jokes hinge on sex and drugs. But in a rock & roll movie, the other two have to find their way in somehow. The comedic timing and chemistry between Brand and Hill allow the film to feel elevated while still including sight gags with vomit and dildos.

I could have probably done without the enormous number of celebrity cameos (Lars Ulrich? really?), which was probably the main thing that screamed "I'm capitalizing off of the success of another film!". Greek contains nowhere near the amount of dense emotion or true sincerity that Forgetting Sarah Marshall had, but what it lacks in cleverness, it makes up in learning curves that would seem much more contrived if left in the hands of actors and filmmakers less in control of their screenplay. It helps that Infant Sorrow's songs are well-produced and helpful to the plot, rather than musical hanger-ons.

Russell Brand's Aldous Snow is probably fascinating enough to merit his own movie, but part of me prefers him in the smaller doses of Sarah Marshall. Both Brand and Hill have excellent moments that reveal more to the characters then I would have imagined, and Rose Byrne's supporting turn as the vain rock star's wife adds so much energy and humor in such small doses. Even Diddy has his moments. Get Him To The Greek is probably one of the weaker Apatow films, but that's not exactly the greatest insult you can heap onto a film. In the end, it's a great showcase for Brand and his rollicking brand of comedy.