Journeys. Movies reviewed: Winter’s Bone, Get Him to the Greek, Cyrus

Watching a movie is like going on a journey, a quest, or a mission. It might show you a different world you might never have had the chance to see on such an intimate level. So today I’m looking at some simple stories that take you on a trek through the woods in the Ozark Mountains, then down a steep hill to a new low level, and then back up again. (The hill I’m referring to is Jonah Hill).

“Winter’s Bone”

Dir: Debra Granik

Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17 year old girl who lives in dirt poor rural Missouri in the Ozarks with her silent mother and two little kids. Her father is nowhere to be seen. Ree is educating the kids on living with zero income – the correct way to shoot a rifle, how to skin a squirrel and pull its guts out, how to make deer stew. (Sarah Palin, eat your heart out; this Ree’s the real thing.) She stops by the highschool, pondering whether to sit in on the childrearing class, or to join the military marchers, parading, in step, with their rifles.

In the old comics, DeBeck’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith lived up in the hills, and used hidden stills to make moonshine and keep it from the revenoo-ers (the tax collectors). Nowadays, they’re more likely to run a lab where they cook up crank (a.k.a. crystal meth) the current drug of choice.

So Ree’s not surprised one day when the Sheriff comes by. Her Dad, Jessup, is missing, awaiting trial. He’s out on a bail bond. None of this is news. But here’s the kicker. He put the house up as collateral for the bond, and if he doesn’t show up for trial, they seize the house, and kick out the family. So, Ree has to find him and bring him in.

Ree’s a Dolly – “bread and buttered”, she says. The Dollys aren’t the nicest family in those parts, but they’re her kin and she has no one else to turn to. So she starts out on a long, scary complicated journey, from relative to relative, trying to find out what happened to him, so she can save her home and family. There are some strange secrets, and creepy, danegerous family members (you half expect a pig farmer Picton peeking out of a barn), and no one is telling her what she wants to know. But Ree knows something “real wrong is going on”.

Winter’s Bone is an excellent, compelling mystery-drama, nicely made on location in the Ozarks with an unknown cast. With the fiddle, banjo and the guitar and mountain folksongs making the soundtrack, it feels as far from Dollyland as you can get. If youliked the great movie “Frozen River”, you’ll love “Winter’s Bone”.

Another movie with a simple journey plot is:

“Get Him to the Greek”

Dir: Nicolas Stoller

But I can’t think of a movie more different.

Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) is a low level record label exec who lives in L.A, with his girlfriend, an over-worked med school grad. He works with stupid toadies promoting awful music. But he gets his first big break. A chance to accompany his childhood hero, the faded rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) from London to appear at the Greek Theatre for his big comeback. Aldous Snow has been on a decade-long bender, existing solely on drugs and alcohol since the colossal failure of his single African Child.

Aaron’s the straight man in this movie. He has to get Aldous to LA on time, at all costs. He quickly finds himself as a personal assistant immersed in an insane world of excess — groupies, self-centred musicians, hotel room trashing, guitar smashing, and previously unheard of drug varieties. He’s forced to endure unforseen levels of humiliation, degradation, pain and suffering, just to get him to the theatre on time.

The movie’s kinda funny, but not that funny. Some of the jokes are drawn out way past their expiry dates. In one scene, Aaron has to consume all the available drugs and alcohol to keep Aldous sober for his TV performance. I get it – that’s funny. But did he have to wear his vomit on his lapel like a corsage for all the scenes that followed? It’s kinda disgusting – like a lot of this movie.

I guess the movie is playing on the absolutely vapidity and vacuousness of the mainstream, commercial music scene, but the movie itself was pretty vapid and excessive. Russell Brand’s a sharp British comic, the character’s good, and Jonah Hill’s not bad either, so they can keep the weak laughs coming, but it’s hard to have any sympathy or affection for either of them. Aside from some very clever lines (Aaron tells his girlfriend “ You’re blackmailing me with your genitals”. And says to his boss “I don’t think you’re a house N-word…”) and a few good scenes, there’s not much there. “Get Him to the Greek” is not a bad comedy, but not a very good one either. Save it for the next time you’re on an airplane – there are better things to see on the ground.

A much better, funnier and more interesting comedy is:

Cyrus

Wri/Dir: Jay and Mark Duplass

John (John C. Reilly) has been on a lonely, depressed tailspin since his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener) dumped seven years before. But now she’s about to get remarried, and she wants him to snap out of it, to live his life. So she takes him to a cocktail party where he starts to guzzle glasses of vodka and red bull. He strikes out with a bunch of women he tries to meet – using the worst conceivable pick up lines – and finally meets someone, Molly, while he’s taking a leak into a potted palm tree. After an impromptu karaoke session to the Human League, and they really it off. So things are looking up.

But Molly is hiding something. He’s been single for seven years, but she’s been single for 22. She spends all her time son Cyrus. They have a special, intimate relationship – she’s home-schooled him since birth, and to say they’re close is an understatement. They do everything together – no secrets. It’s approaching Oedipal proportions. And her son? No, he’s not a child, or an adolescent – he’s an adult now, but still lives at home. It’s Jonah Hill, this time as a rather creepy demon seed. He wears shirts buttoned up to the neck, and doesn’t know how to talk with outsiders.

So when John moves in with her, he’s on thin ice, with both of them competing for Molly’s precious attention. There’s a hilarious scene when the two men start to talk to each other and Cyrus does a musical performance on his Mac. Lots of awkward scenes follow, and then they find themselves as passive-aggressive enemies. Cyrus is devious and manipulative, but so is John. It’s a psychological war, but one that has to be hidden from Molly’s eyes, until it finally explodes into a big confrontation.

Cyrus is a clever, funny, and uncomfortable movie, with lots of improvisation by the small cast. The Duplass brothers take the simple, run-of-the-mill high-concept premise – new boyfriend moves in with girlfriend and her adult son – and make it into an unusual, inventive movie.

My only criticism is what the movie looks like. They tend to use that annoying type of filming I call “paparazzo-style”: jiggly, hand-held camera shots that zoom right in on a character then zoom in even closer. Extreme close ups. The stuff you see on cheap-ass reality shows or gossip shows like TMZ – it makes it look like the cameraman is catching a character when they don’t know they’re being filmed. But Cyrus is a movie – and it’s distracting and irritating; it might work watching youtube on an iPad, but a movie screen is just too big for that.

But that’s small criticism for a very funny and clever adult dark comedy with great improvisations by all four actors.

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