Thursday, June 27, 2013

Side Effects

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ann Dowd, Polly Draper, David Costabile, Mamie Gummer
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)
The character Rooney Mara plays in Side Effects is so interesting and complex it's easy to imagine a wide variety of films across different genres that her protagonist could have been the centerpiece of. It just so happens that the one Steven Soderbergh decided to make is a 90's-style psychological thriller. And who would have guessed? He's really good at it. Of course, it's not that much of a surprise. He's good at most things, often impossible to pigeonhole into any specific genre. I had originally intended to label this, his supposed send-off as a feature director, as "smart" or "clever" until further reflection convinced me the story itself is kind of prepostruous. Almost spectacularly so, with twists and turns so far-fetched and convoluted they would never hold up in any cinematic court of law, much less a real one. And yet, Soderbergh brings an artistry to the material that makes it seem incredibly intelligent. It's all in the "how" and by the end I was almost howling with laughter at the events that went down, which, for a change, is actually meant as a sincere compliment.

Mara is Emily Taylor, whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has just recently been released from prison after serving a four year sentence for insider trading. His return and Emily's struggles to adjust to a less opulent lifestyle causes her depression to resurface when she drives her car head-on into a parking garage wall in an apparent suicide attempt. Psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is put in charge of her care, prescribing her a variety of anti-depressants while consulting with her former therapist Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) regarding her history and the best approach to treatment. Seemingly an emotional wreck on meds or off, Emily tries a new experimental drug called Ablixa, which allows her to function normally, aside from one dangerous side effect. This causes another incident where the intended victim this time the isn't herself, causing a controversial ethical and legal dilemma. Then twists and turns come at full force.

Initially the film moves at a deliberate, methodical pace that  practically mirrors the mood of the depressed, withdrawn Emily. Until it doesn't. For a while the movie itself also seems to be on meds as the first hour plays as almost a dream, giving us as good a glimpse as any into what it must be like to be utterly and hopeless to the point of being barely functional. While depression is usually defined as the inability to construct a future, for a while we wonder if this girl's even able to construct a present. She also seems gifted with the most understanding mother-in-law (Ann Dowd) and boss (Polly Draper) on the planet. Then the big event happens and I'll be careful not reveal too much other than a crime is committed that has huge ramifications for every character and calls into question just how responsible a doctor should be held over their patient's actions, as well as how responsible an actual patient is for their own behavior while under the heavy influence of prescription medication. As quickly as screenwriter Scott Z. Burns brings up these issues, he ditches them in favor of going a route that's a bit sillier, but still expertly crafted. And the transition getting there is seamless. The twists and turns aren't exactly shocking when you think back on them and a great deal of what happens stretches credibility even for a legal potboiler, but everything is just too well executed and performed for the viewer not to be totally sucked in.

When it becomes apparent where everything's going, you start to realize how tricky the scenes are to perform and that none of it would have succeeded without Mara's sad, almost other worldly performance that evolves into something else entirely in the film's second half. Some actresses just have that"it" factor. An indescribable presence that can't be described in any way other than an inability for audiences to take their eyes off them whenever they're on screen. She's got it and is able to convey so much with just her face that dialogue hardly even seems necessary during the opening hour. Only when the final credits roll do you realize just how much she had to do without looking like she was doing anything at all and how the original casting choice of Blake Lively (who dropped out before filming) probably wouldn't have fit what Soderbergh was going for because of her accessibility and openness as a movie star type. Mara is much harder to read and far less accessible as an actress, which only serves to help make her more captivating than ever here.

For Law and Zeta-Jones this represents their highest profile roles in some time, with the former basically owning the movie's second half as lead when the focus shifts to Dr. Banks, while Jones chews up and relishes what might be the most  over-the-top, certifiably insane part the usually buttoned-up actress has had yet. Tatum has by far the smallest and briefest role, but following last year's discovery that he's actually a good actor, the floodgates have opened in terms of the types of roles he can play. Despite limited screen time, he's believable in this one.

While the debate's already underway as to Soderbergh's best film (Contagion gets my vote), there's little doubt this is easily his most fun. He has a very distinctive visual style that really seems to have come into its own in his last few releases and there's mistaking that this very much bares his mark, with a script that matches his cool, clinical aesthetic perhaps more than any of his previous efforts. The direction definitely outweighs the script, as it's easy to imagine a low-rent version of this that would go straight to video on demand or play on cable late at night if it were put in the hands of a less accomplished filmmaker.  It takes real skill to take material that treads similar territory as cheesy thrillers like Jade or Wild Things and turn it into high art but he pulls it off with style to spare. And without Mara in the lead I'm not sure any of it would have been possible, as she conclusively puts to bed any doubts she's the real deal. If Side Effects really is Soderbergh's last feature before retiring (which I don't buy for a second by the way), it'll be hard for anyone to say it wasn't a fun way to go out.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Impossible

Director: J.A. Bayona
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joshlin, Oakley Pendercast
Running Time: 113 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

If you could concoct the perfect formula for a harrowing survival film, the results still probably wouldn't come close to matching what you see in The Impossible, which is based on one family's true story of fighting to survive the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. That I use the word "formula" to describe what's actually a dramatization of real events may seem odd, but it's also entirely accurate. It's both the film's biggest strength and weakness because as we're sucked into the human emotion of the story and its unrelenting depiction of a natural disaster, it's hard not to think our strings are being pulled just a little bit. As a result, it at times feels most like an ultimately uplifting disaster movie elevated by a pair of great performances and a frighteningly realistic depiction of a true event. And while adapting from real-life is often tricky, it's especially challenging in this case since knowing how it all turns out does strip the film of a certain degree of suspense. So Spanish director J.A. Bayona piles on the emotion. And it works. Still, I can't help but think the three things everyone will be talking about when it's over are the tsunami scene itself, the graphic injuries and two jaw-dropping performances, one of which was rightfully nominated. But that turns out to be enough.  

Other than a brief argument on the plane about whether the alarm at home was left on at home, not much time is spent getting to know English physician Maria Bennett (Naomi Watts), her husband, Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their sons, 12 year-old Lucas (Tom Holland), 7 year-old Tomas (Samuel Joslin) and 5 year-old Simon (Oakley Pendergast). But we know enough. They're a seemingly normal, well adjusted family spending their 2004 Christmas vacation in Khao Lak, Thailand. That it could be anyone is exactly the point, and exactly the truth. Maria and Lucas are swept away and separated from the others when the tsunami hits, first struggling to make it to higher ground before searching for medical assistance for a severely injured Maria. Still back at what's left of the hotel, Henry and the little boys must stick together, until he decides to search for his missing wife and son. With Maria fighting for her life and Lucas quickly losing hope, the prospect of a family reunion gets bleaker with each passing day.

The most engaging section of the film is surprisingly not the first forty minutes to an hour when the tsunami hits, but everything that follows it, where we get to see the aftermath of the devastation and everyone scrambling to survive and locate their loved ones. Aside from the unforgettable opening of Clint Eastwood's 2010 film Hereafter, there's never really been a cinematic dramatization chronicling the true events surrounding the Indian Ocean Tsunami, so what we see is revelatory, especially in terms of the type of medical care available and how the locals handle such a crisis. There's a shot of the landscape, or what's left of it, after the storm that's absolutely surreal, calling to mind the wreckage and casualties attached to more recent disasters like Hurricane Sandy. This is that, but times ten.

The biggest surprise is how anyone survives something like this, but Watts is heartbreakingly believable in showing us it's possible in what more closely resembles a physically and emotionally exhausting ordeal than an actual acting performance. Maria has just about one of the most gruesome, graphic injuries you can have while remaining alive, and while I never doubted the character would make it, Bayona has to be commended for not shying away from the gore and showing us everything, as difficult as it is to sometimes watch.  That the character's a doctor herself has much less relevance than you'd imagine, as all the victims seem to be at the mercy of little else but circumstance. And the circumstances are dire. The best scenes occur in the makeshift medical facility where survivors try to locate family members amidst the chaos and a frantic, but strong-willed Lucas attempts to help. As good as powerful as Watts is, young Tom Holland is essentially the beating heart of the movie, holding the majority of screen time while Maria is confined to a hospital bed.

That the story isn't as strong or emotionally involving when shifting focus to the dad and the rest of the boys isn't so much a fault as it is a natural progression of events. As the panicked father and husband, McGregor's solid (great even), but his scenes just don't have the visceral pull of Maria and Lucas'. It's at this point that the movie's last act becomes a foregone conclusion and I started looking at my watch, waiting for the inevitable reunion. If you're a screenwriter, what do you do if the true story you're adapting for a Hollywood feature happens to have a Hollywood ending anyway? I guess in this case, if you're screenwriter Sergio Sanchez, you just wouldn't change it because audiences have to go home happy, but there's still this unavoidable feeling of predictability that hangs over the proceedings and hampers the emotional release felt at the end. Still, it's really well done and if I hadn't been told it was a true story going in, there's probably little chance I'd believe it

The biggest controversy might stem from the casting of white movie stars Watts and McGregor as the "Bennetts," and while it's clearly yet another factually inaccurate Hollywood "whitewashing," the practice is sadly nothing new. As far as allegations that the local Asian's experiences were marginalized into supporting roles, if not flat-out ignored, I don't know what to say other than that's mostly true. But this particular story  being told about this family on screen works, even if it may not be the one everyone wants, or is nearly as universal as the advertising would lead you to believe. Fortunately, films aren't (and shouldn't) be judged on those criteria so it's a moot point from where I sit, hardly hampering my appreciation of the work. The Impossible is ultimately a film about the triumph of the human spirit under the worst possible circumstances, and while feel-good elements and predictability wobbly co-exist alongside a horrifying natural disaster, everything eventually adds up to a well-crafted and frequently inspiring viewing experience.                          

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Guilt Trip

Director: Anne Fletcher
Starring: Barbra Streisand, Seth Rogen, Brett Cullen, Adam Scott, Ari Graynor, Colin Hanks, Yvonne Strahovski, Casey Wilson 
Running Time: 95 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Some casting choices just make perfect sense. Barbra Streisand playing Seth Rogen's overbearing mother is one of them, and in the unfairly overlooked The Guilt Trip, the actual execution of it is even better. Unfortunately, the very reason it works is probably why it was so casually dismissed by critics and audiences. Both are talented, likable performers and yet it's still strangely difficult to imagine theses two starring in a creatively successful project together, isn't it? For whatever reason, a perception persists that Rogen's always just playing variations on his stoner persona and that Streisand's merely a singer/celebrity occasionally starring in bad comedies every few years. It's a shame if that kept audiences away because they're both given as good an opportunity here as they've had to disprove it in a well-written movie that's smart, funny and even occasionally touching. This isn't necessarily a 90 minute laugh fest but it gets the job done in ways more ambitious comedies haven't by just simply telling an enjoyable story well. The smile never really left my face the whole time, as everything falls nicely into place with better than expected results. 

Rogen plays Andy Brewster, who's embarking on a cross-country road trip to try to sell his new safe and environmentally friendly cleaning product, Scio-Clean, to retailers in an effort to jump start his sagging career. Before he leaves, he's nagged via voicemail by his well-meaning widowed mother Joyce (Streisand) about everything from his lack of a love life to his diet. But after hearing a story about how a lost teenage love slipped away one summer before she met his dad, Andy plans to secretly track the mystery man down and attempts to stage a surprise reunion in San Francisco. With the hope of enticing some big chain stores in his product and filling a void in his mom's life, he takes her along for his trip, where some suppressed family baggage and a few secrets are dredged up for both.  Arguing non-stop, Andy and Joyce will have to reach some kind of middle ground in understanding one another if they each want to get what they're looking for out of this journey.

The movie makes a number of smart choices that are almost bound to overlooked because of how simple and entirely predictable the premise appears to be from the onset. What is a complete surprise is just how funny it is. There's actually very little gross-out humor, with most of the laughs coming from the fact that Andy can't stand his overbearing mother and is mostly trying to set her up with this guy to get her out of his life. What makes this a bit sad is that his situation might actually be far worse than hers and director Anne Fletcher and screenwriter Dan Fogelman do a commendable job balancing that notion with many of the lighter, relatable moments in the mother-son dynamic. You'd figure that watching this guy constantly arguing with his mom would get tiresome after a while, but it doesn't, mostly because the co-stars work so well together and there are actually more than a few welcome surprises. The first of which comes in the film's handling of Andy's cleaning product. The writing's really smart here because while his presentations are painfully bad, but they fail the way most horrible pitches would in reality, as he continuously bores prospective buyers to tears with scientific and technical jargon. And when Joyce chimes in with her unsolicited tips on how he can improve it (like changing it's horrible name), it's actually common sense advice that seems like it's coming from a sane, intelligent person instead of a comedy caricature. But we also understand why Andy's stubborn pride and insecurity get in the way of him taking it.

That the filmmakers feels no need to shoehorn in a love interest for Andy comes as a relief. In fact, he and his mom's encounter with his high school sweetheart (Yvonne Strahovski) and her husband (Colin Hanks) is handled pretty well, as is a sub-plot involving a potential cowboy suitor (a terrific Brett Cullen) for Joyce during an entertaining steak eating contest. Yes, Barbra Streisand competes in a steak eating contest. All of this should be standard hit-or-miss comedy fare but together Rogen and Streisand are able to elevate it. Of course, the time will eventually come when Joyce discovers the true intention of Andy taking her on this trip and, without giving away too much, I liked how the movie gives these two the ending we want them to have but doesn't do it in an obviously schmaltzy way. Both get exactly what they're looking for, just not how they expected to find it. There's also a great cameo from Adam Scott that's a lot more dramatic than you'd expect given the circumstances.

Rogen is reliably gold at playing a schlubby man-boy who has to grow up, but this is one of the smarter projects he's done it in. When the material is good it's sometimes easy to overlook just how welcome a presence he is on screen. In the hands of another actor it's easy to imagine Andy coming off as a crude sociopath, which obviously wouldn't have been right for this. But it's his chemistry with Streisand that really brings out the best in both, as the legendary entertainer is really on point here, turning in a charmingly comedic performance. It's just the right vehicle for her and she doesn't disappoint, making Joyce just annoying and overbearing enough, but not so annoying that she crosses into the realm of crass unlikablity. In all the nagging, she subtly makes sure we can tell Joyce's intentions are genuine and that's a big difference maker in what kind of movie this becomes. I don't even know what to say about the fact that Streisand received a Worst Actress Razzie nomination for this other than it's mean and disgusting, with its only possible motivation being to stick it to a big star. That's not funny at all. It's just cruel, and maybe even a bit irresponsible when you take into account the current state of the movie industry. Although, it's important to remember that we're talking about an "organization" that once nominated Stanley Kubrick for worst director so it's difficult to take anything they do seriously. The truth is that if Streisand was nominated for a supporting Globe or Oscar for this performance, few would have reason to complain. She's that good.

Much like the fictitious cleaning product at the movie's center, The Guilt Trip's bad title and poor marketing kept the public away from something that's actually very good. Once they saw the commercials they thought they saw the entire movie. And who can blame them?  In begging for laughs, most mainstream comedies these days reach for the lowest common denominator so it was almost inevitable that a funny, heartwarming story that the entire family can enjoy would fall through the cracks. But here's something even sadder: It's not even that great. It simply does what it needs to  do while keeping a consistent tone. We used to get comedies like this all the time. Now they're practically an endangered species. Or maybe I've just seen too many bad ones. Either way, critics should partially shoulder the blame, as all of them somehow found a way to get on the same page with this and still be completely wrong. Luckily, it doesn't happen often. The best thing to do going into The Guilt Trip is forget everything you've heard or read and just approach it with an open mind.                        

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Arrested Development (Season 4)

Creator: Michell Hurwitz
Starring: Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat, Tony Hale, David Cross, Jeffrey Tambor, Jessica Walter, Ron Howard, Isla Fisher, Terry Crews
Original Airdate: 2013

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

All the addictive elements that made Arrested Development so brilliant and groundbreaking when its three universally acclaimed, but ratings-challenged seasons first aired on Fox, is also what ultimately led to its cancellation in 2006. Creator Mitch Hurwitz predicted our addiction to serialized storytelling years before it actually arrived and the bitter feelings surrounding its cancellation only seemed to grow worse when we realized it possibly could have thrived in an era of DVR's and Netflix. Back then viewers just weren't ready for a comedy series that dense and complex, requiring them to do some work--and maybe some rewatching--to pick up on all the inside jokes, call-backs and references.

It's Netflix's Arrested Development
The single-camera format and incorporation of rare for its time devices such as narration, flashbacks and archival footage demanded and rewarded a long term commitment, but made ratings success an impossibility. It may have only lasted three seasons but what it accomplished during them felt richer and more developed than any longer running comedy series to air before or since. More importantly, it was a show made for binge viewing before we even knew what that meant. The question was never if it would come back, but when, and whether we'd want it to with the risk that it may not be at the same level of quality. New episodes would be compared to what's arguably TV's all-time greatest comedy series. Not the most enviable position to be in if you're a writer.

It turns out the biggest revelation coming out of AD's fourth season streaming on Netflix is that it doesn't feel like it's back. At least in the form we knew. Forget about catching up on the first three seasons in preparation, because, with few exceptions, it really is a completely fresh start. And I've decided that's okay because much as the show revolutionized comedy TV when it first aired, it's doing it all over again in a new way, albeit with decidedly more mixed results. Reaction to the new episodes from fans and critics have been all over the map and that feels right. The first few episodes are really rough, and almost downright shocking in how much they diverge from the AD we all knew and loved. But the deeper you go, the more sense it makes and the funnier it gets, making it the only season of the show youll have to watch twice in order to fully grasp what's happening. Ridiculously dense and even more ambitious, it makes the most complicated season of Lost seem almost straightforward by comparison.

Trying to explain the narrative of the season would be a fool's errand but fans remember exactly where we left off in 2006 when Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) escaped with his son George Michael (Michael Cera) on Gob's (Will Arnett) yacht, fleeing his dysfunctional family for good and leaving overbearing, alcoholic matriarch Lucille (Jessica Walter) to deal with the legal fallout from her role in the Bluth Company's accounting scandal. Of course, as the responsible, likable one, Michael can never truly escape his family or resist bailing them out, so the biggest, most jarring development for fans occurs in the first episode ("Flight of the Phoenix") when we discover the past 7 years haven't treated him well. A failed real estate venture and the shame surrounding his family has derailed his personal and professional life to the point that he's pathetically dorming with his son at college (much to George Michael's embarrassment) while taking classes online.
Michael Bluth falls on hard times in "Flight of the Phoenix"
Considering much of the series' initial creative success hinged on Bateman playing straight man to the craziness and infantility surrounding him, this decision is easily the season's boldest and most polarizing. If nothing else, it pushes and challenges the actor (who appears in every episode) in a way he wasn't before, proving he's basically capable of anything the writers throw at him.  After being the solid anchor for his troubled family for years, it's now Michael who needs something from them that can help turn his fortunes around. Each character gets their own episode, with a few getting more than that, as we're clued in on the details of what happened to "a family whose future was abruptly cancelled." All the intersecting events eventually come to a head on a Bluth-created holiday known as "Cinco de Quatro."

Nearly everything is told out of chronological order, sometimes making it difficult to distinguish an event that's happening in the present from a flashback. And it's an adjustment getting used to Ron Howard's narrator explaining copious amounts of plot detail and narrative exposition to get us up to speed. Gone from the show are the days where random jokes would come rapid-fire at a mile a minute and you'd have to worry about blinking in fear you'd miss an absurd inside sight gag. Well, there's still some of that, but it's spread wider throughout the course of the season as something you may have noticed in the second or third episode will pay off in the tenth. In this sense, you have to give the writers credit. It would have been easy to fall back on the same successful jokes (and there are still a few), but they came up with completely new ones at the risk of alienating their core fanbase. About as many work as don't, but there's an unmistakable difference in the type of humor, as it's less laugh-out-loud funny and subtler, letting the audience fill in the blanks. But as it wears on, it's apparent some of the jokes are as strong as the ones in the show's original run. It just takes a while to get there.

The writing has definitely lost a step or two, an issue at times unflatteringly highlighted by the extended, character-focused format which seems almost intentionally made for Netflix binge viewing. Without commercials to pad the running time, the show's a good ten to twelve minutes longer, which can seem more like an enternity when trudging through the first few episodes focusing on George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) and Lindsay Bluth-Funke (an unrecognizable Portia de Rossi). Of course, the problem is that some of these characters are better to build episodes around than others, as the show evolves into something slower paced and darker in tone. As expected, there's a noticeably smaller budget, which isn't really that big an issue when you this show was never dependent on expensive effects begin with. Just about the only time it's distractingly obvious is when they try to digitally insert actors into scenes with each other, which serves as another argument against this new, but seemingly unavoidable character-based format  

An injured Tobias Funke with wife Lindsay
The George, Sr. episodes ("Borderline Personalities," "Double Crossers") are especially problematic, if only in just how convoluted they are and how few laughs they offer. Much like everything else, it does eventually come together, but this is the one sub-plot where viewers are unlikely to care. Of course, Tambor is once again spot-on doing double duty as George and his twin brother Oscar but his scheme involving a corporate sweat lodge retreat and the building of a wall never seems to click. It's almost as if they didn't know what to do with George once his legal problems were over, and for the first time, the twin gag actually feels a little forced.  You know you're in trouble when even guest star John Slattery as a hippie anesthesiologist can't even save these.

Lindsay's episodes ("Indian Takers," "Red Hairing") try to return her to her to disingenuous activism roots but instead she's at the center of one of the season's most unfunny gags, as the formerly edgy and materialistic Lindsay character is softened to the point that she's almost nice and normal now. But at least de Rossi proves to be a good sport for letting them joke about her plastic surgery, which otherwise would have been a giant elephant in the room. The George Sr./Lindsay episodes are the only ones that truly drag in a big way, compounded by the fact they come at the start, creating a palpable fear of disappointment for a series that once spoiled us for three years straight without a single clunker.

It's around episode 4 or 5 when the show starts to show shades of its former glory, but a good enough argument can be made that it takes even longer. Hurwitz's plan starts to present itself, the puzzle pieces fall into place and his layout of the season as kind of a Rubik's cube starts making some more sense. The potential movie deal with Ron Howard (fantastic as himself) and Imagine entertainment about the Bluth family that was teased in the third season/series finale starts taking shape, giving Michael a new job as producer ("The B. Team") and injecting the rest of the remaining episodes a greater sense of purpose and unity. New jokes start paying off and everything seems to flow better as it chugs along. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the two actors who really knock it out of the park (again) are David Cross as "never nude" and aspiring actor Dr. Tobias Funke and Arnett as master illusionist and womanizer Gob.

"The Final Countdown" to Gob's most spectacular illusion yet.
Of all the episodes, Tobias's ("A New Start," "Smashed") are by far the funniest and come closest to capturing the magic of the show's original run without directly recreating it. Whether he's showing up at a methadone addiction group for his method acting class, accidentally getting busted on a To Catch a Predator-style program, or putting together a musical stage production of the Fantastic Four with rehab patients, nearly everything involving Tobias is comic gold with Cross so earnestly selling the most absurd situations with a goofy cluelessness. Thankfully, Gob's just as sleazy and over-the-top as ever, staging his most elaborately ridiculous "illusion" yet, finding himself trapped in an endless "roofie cycle" and reigniting an old feud with a bitter rival ("Colony Collapse", "A New Attitude"). He also has this huge nervous breakdown scene that's so bizarre and transfixing it defies any conventional description, proving that the series is still capable of perfection when you least expect it.

Of the main main players, Lucille and hook-handed "mother boy" Buster (Tony Hale) are probably the most underutilized, though the latter's single episode ("Off The Hook"), in which he attempts to break away from his domineering mother, is the season's darkest and creepiest, actually playing out out the most disturbing aspects of their relationship that were only implied during the first two seasons. It also leads to Ron Howard's best pop culture reference as narrator. Buster's appearances are primarily limited to only he and Lucille's episode ("Queen B."), making Hale the odd man out and sidelining him with far less screen time than many of the guest stars.

But it's Michael Cera who who brings everything he gained on the big screen back with him to deepen and expand his portrayal of George-Michael in "It Gets Better," which isn't only the best written episode of the season, but an absolute joy to watch from start to finish. Creating the "anti-social network," a fake piracy software program called "Fakeblock," George Michael finds himself entangled in a few giant lies that cause a rift with his father and Cera's astounding in how he keeps the character the same "nice kid" he was while adding dimensions and maturity that make him even funnier.

A reunited George Michael and Maeby
The nature of the relationship between he and his dad (always a strong component of the show) is much more intriguing now that the character is older and there are more directions to go with it. It's work Cera couldn't have done 7 years ago and the one glaring improvement made on a show where no improvements seemed possible. The George Michael greatness even extends into his rebellious "cousin" Maeby's (Alia Shawkat) surprisingly entertaining episode ("SeƱoritis"), which answers the big question of what became of their semi-incestuous sort of romantic friendship. That reunion doesn't disappoint, and with all the problems with scheduling actors we can at least be thankful they have plenty of scenes together and pick up exactly where they left off. It was near the top of the list of details Hurwitz had to get right, and he nails it, as George Michael and Maeby's weird bond remains just as warm, awkward and hilarious as it was.

AD jump-started the now popular TV trend wherein guest stars can be just as important to the story as the main cast. Anticipation was high and they've done a pretty good job keeping a lid on which favorites would be returning, as well as the size and nature of their roles. A moment comes in the first few minutes of the first episode that convinced me everything was going to be alright and the season would probably work. I smiled and laughed uncontrollably as a bruised, desperate Michael climbed the Bluth Company stair car and proceeded to intentionally induce the vertigo of Lucille Austero (Liza Minnelli), the show's most valuable and hilarious recurring character.

A big surprise is just how much Lucille 2 we get, with her role greatly expanded to the point that she may as well be considered a regular. Her impact is felt in some way through every episode, as Lucille 1's kooky social rival seems to have her hands in all the family business this time around, with Minnelli again proving just how skilled she is at delivering this material. And if that wasn't enough, there's also a great sub-plot involving her rehab clinic, "Austerity," run by her bizarre younger brother Argyle (Tommy Tune) who in just his few outlandish appearances makes an impression that somehow rivals hers in sheer hilarity. Of all the new characters introduced, he feels like the one who most needs to come back.    

A desperate Michael propositions Lucille Austero
Also among the returning favorites are the Bluth's bumbling attorney Barry Zuckerkorn (Henry Winkler), George Sr.'s former secretary and mistress Kitty Sanchez (Judy Greer), the notoriously plain George Michael ex Ann Veal (Mae Whitman), magician Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller), lawyer Bob Loblaw (Scott Baio), screenwriter and former prison warden Stefan Gentles (James Lipton), acting coach Carl Weathers and Andy Richter as themselves, follically challenged Stan Sitwell (Ed Begley, Jr.) and his daughter Sally (Christine Taylor), a heavily aged, completely unrecognizable Steve Holt (!) (Justin Wade Grant) and a lot more.

It ends up being the new faces who, for better or worse, have the biggest impact on the season. The idea of Michael unknowingly getting involved with Ron Howard's "illegitimate daughter" Rebel Alley is a good one, but Isla Fisher just never seems right for the role despite how hard she tries. Maybe the problem is that she does always seems like she's trying, which is an occupational hazard in the AD universe where random spontaneity rules the day. Charlize Theron's mentally handicapped Rita was admittedly a tough act to follow, but part of me thinks casting Bryce Dallas Howard as herself in Fisher's place with Michael not knowing her identity would have been far funnier and better suited to the meta comedy the show specializes in. Instead, Fisher comes off as if she's performing in a traditional sitcom, which this definitely isn't. What saves her is being sandwiched between the two strongest storylines, and Bateman and Cera, who are clearly the MVP's.

Terry Crews fares pretty well as Herman Cain-like conservative politician, Herbert Love, who's in cahoots with George Sr. in his building of the wall and takes a romantic liking to Lindsay. Unfortunately, those are the season's two weakest sub-plots, so his game performance is mostly done a disservice. Maria Bamford is a memorably goofy addition as Tobias's meth-addicted girlfriend DeBrie while Chris Diamantopolous is buried in nonsense as Lindsay's love interest, the "face blind" ostrich farmer Marky Bark. The stunt casting of Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen as a young Lucille and George Sr. in flashbacks has generated a lot of discussion, and while the execution of it never really works and Rogen just phones it in, Wiig actually seems to have studied Jessica Walters, impressively incorporating many of the actress's mannerisms into the performance.

Guest star Isla Fisher as Rebel Alley.
So now we know. Everyone was wondering what Arrested Development would look and feel like if it ever came back and here's our answer. Fans hoping for the return can probably be split into two camps. Those who demanded it maintain the same exact tone, style and quality of the original episodes and others who just wanted the characters come out for a curtain call or reunion special. What we got was closer to the latter, which is fine, but if Hurwitz and company plan to keep going with this (and right now it looks like they are), I'm not sure they can successfully continue this approach without making some changes. The episodes definitely need to be shorter and tighter and there was too much reliance on the narration, which likely stemmed from the need to catch viewers up on 7 years worth of backstory for eight main characters. There's a lot potential here if they play their cards right and plenty of open-ended storylines to be continued in another season or movie. The finale ("Blockheads") is basically a cliffhanger.

While I can certainly understand the fact that the well deserved boost these actors' careers got as a result of the series made scheduling impossible, it's also easy to sympathize with fans who may feel this shouldn't have been attempted unless the entire cast was available at once. Actors need to pay the bills with other projects but I'm still not sure how I feel about the series being treated as a gig everyone does on the side, as there's no question not having an the entire ensemble together limited the creative possibilities. But within those limits, they came up with something truly inspired and original, refusing to rely on the old stand-bys (no Banana Stand!) in favor of expanding the universe and tweaking its format for new kinds of laughs. Like the Bluths themselves, it's kind of a mess, but with an undertaking this ambitious, that was inevitable. Compared to its previous incarnation, it's tough not to view this new more binge-friendly AD as somewhat of a disappointment. But, honestly, anything would have been. What matters most is that it's still more clever and innovative than any comedy currently on TV.