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Josh Reviews A Simple Favor

In Paul Feig’s 2018 film, A Simple Favor, we follow the unlikely friendship between tight-laced, goody-two-shoes single mom Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) and the mysterious, dynamic, sexy Emily (Blake Lively).  When Emily disappears one day without a trace, the determined Stephanie sets out to find her, only to get drawn into a web of twists and turns, lies and murder.  The film was written by Jessica Sharzer, and it’s based on the novel of the same name by Darcey Bell.

I’m a huge fan of Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy).  He’s a master of comedy, but A Simple Favor represented his first foray into drama in quite some time.  Still, those of us who knew and loved Freaks and Geeks have always known that Mr. Feig could handle drama just as skillfully as he could handle comedy.

Still, for the first twenty-or-so minutes of A Simple Favor, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a film I would like at all.  I found Stephanie to be so over-the-top annoying that I wasn’t sure I could take watching this character for an entire film.  But I should not have doubted Ms. Kendrick’s skill as an actress or Mr. Feig’s careful hand on the wheel.  Once Stephanie meets and befriends Blake Lively’s Emily, the film takes the first of many right-hand-turns, and the story quickly started to heat up.

This is a film that constantly kept me guessing.  I was never sure what was going to happen next or what type of movie this was going to be.  It’s so rare that I can be surprised by a movie these days!  I loved that about A Simple Favor.

I was also impressed by Mr. Feig’s deft handling of tone.  There is comedy in A Simple Favor — some very funny moments, in fact, such as Stephanie’s encounter with fashion mogul Dennis Nylon, or her supremely uncomfortable conversation with a private eye while dressed in one of Emily’s sleek black dresses.  But at heart this is a mystery/thriller, and those aspects work like gangbusters.  It’s what sucked me into the film, even though at first I wasn’t sure this was a film I’d be into.  The mystery works great, and the film’s twists and turns are fun and surprising.

Both Ms. Kendrick and Ms. Lively are fantastic.  The two are dynamite on screen together.  Their oil-and-water combination is a hoot to watch.  It’s a credit to their work that they made me believe that these two supremely different women could perhaps become friends, which is key to the film’s story working.  I wrote above that I was annoyed by Anna Kendrick’s depiction of Stephanie for the … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2018 — Part One!

I hope you enjoyed my list of my Favorite Episodes of TV of 2018!  (Click here for part one, click here for part two, and click here for part three.)

And now, let’s dive into my list of my Twenty Favorite Movies of 2018!

I did a lot better this year about seeing all the movies I’d wanted to see than I did in getting to all of the TV shows I wanted to watch.  Still, there were a lot of movies that looked great that I just didn’t get to, including: Operation Finale; The Other Side of the Wind; They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead; Love, Simon; Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot; The Sisters Brothers, The Front Runner, If Beale Street Could Talk, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and more.  So if you want to know why those films don’t appear on my list, now you do.

I also want to begin by mentioning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which would surely have made my Best of 2017 list had I seen it it time, but I didn’t get to see it until well into 2018.  Click here for my full review.

OK, here we go:

Honorable Mention: Annihilation — Alex Garland’s follow-up to the brilliant Ex Machina is flawed, but I admire its huge ambition.  I love that this film is a cerebral sci-fi story, one that is filled with tension without ever devolving into a shoot-em-up.  This is speculative fiction at its best, one that sets up an intriguing sci-fi mystery and then allows its characters to explore and investigate that premise.  I love the cast of female leads, each of whom is terrific: Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny.  (Oscar Isaac and Benedict Wong are also pretty great in the film’s two main supporting male roles.)  This is a film that is deeper than it might at first seem, as its story can be seen as an allegory for depression, self-destruction, and mental illness.  This film was mostly ignored this year (though it did make Barack Obama’s list of his favorite 2018 films!!), but it’s definitely worth a look.  (Click here for my full review.)

20. Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind Marina Zenovich’s documentary, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, is a fascinating and funny look back at the life and career of Robin Williams.  The film is somber at times, as we explore some of the troubles Mr. Williams faced over the course of his life.  His too-early death hangs over the whole film like a shadow.  But the film is also very very funny, giving lots of time for … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2013: Drinking Buddies

Written and directed by Joe Swanberg, Drinking Buddies has a phenomenal cast and a great premise.  Set in the world of micro-breweries, the film charts the romantic, beer-fueled entanglements of four friends.  Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) work together at a small craft brewery, and the two have a tight friendship and a wonderful flirtatious energy.  To the audience it is immediately clear that these two would be a fantastic match.  But both are seeing other people.  Luke has a long-time girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick), while Kate has recently started dating a slightly older man, Chris (Ron Livingston).  Will a weekend the four spend together up at Chris’ family’s cottage in the woods solidify or shatter these various friendships and romantic relationships?

Drinking Buddies is a very different movie than I was expecting it to be, and while that is totally on me, I had a hard time shaking that dissatisfaction as I watched the film.  I was expecting a raucous, fun comedy — the film equivalent of a happy-go-luck, booze-filled night out with buddies.  But the film is a far more serious, painful story of unfulfilling relationships.  It’s the film equivalent of the sad, lonely morning after.

As a rich character study, the film succeeds wildly.  And don’t get me wrong, there are definitely some laughs.  But for most of the run-time the film is an unflinchingly honest, often-painful look at a series of flawed people who are all flailing about, trying to figure out what (and who) they want.  I spent the movie rooting for Luke and Kate to realize that they are perfect for one another, but if you go in expecting the type of happy ending that romantic comedies will provide, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

Personally, I have strongly mixed feelings about this.  I love that Drinking Buddies eschews the usual, stupid romantic comedy plot-developments.  And I applaud Mr. Swanberg’s creation of a film that is far more honest and real.  In that he succeeded with great skill.  But damn would I have preferred a little more lightness, a little more happiness, particularly in the ending.

The cast is uniformly phenomenal.  Anna Kendirck and Ron Livingston are, I feel, reliably great.  (I just wish Mr. Livingston was in more of the film.  Of the four leads, he gets by far the least amount of screen time.)  While Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson are certainly big names and very successful actors at this point, I have never clicked in to their previous performances the way I did with both of them in this film.  Well, I did quite enjoy Mr. Johnson in Safety Not Guaranteed (click here for my review), but … [continued]

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Josh Reviews 50/50

October 21st, 2011
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In 50/50, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a young man who is diagnosed with cancer.  (His physician gives him a 50/50 chance of survival, hence the title of the film.)  While his relationship with his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) is rocked by this news, Adam finds surprising strength from his buddy Kyle (Seth Rogen).  50/50 was written by Will Reiser and, as has been widely reported, is based on Mr. Reiser’s real-life experience of being diagnosed with cancer in his twenties, and his friendship with Seth Rogen.

Balancing comedy and drama in a film can be a very tricky thing, especially when true-live events come into play.  I thought about this issue last month after watching 30 Minutes or Less, a film about a young pizza boy (played by Jesse Eisenberg) who is kidnapped and has a bomb strapped to his chest, at which point he is forced to rob a bank to get money for his kidnapper.  That situation actually happened to a poor fellow back in 2003 (although the filmmakers claimed not to have been inspired by that incident).  Still, the parallel with real life events (that ended tragically) give the film a tension that runs throughout.  Sometimes I felt that helped the film, in that the story-line felt dangerous in a way that kept me engaged.  Other times I felt that hurt the film, in that it occasionally felt hard to laugh too hard at events that I know, in real life, ended up in a death.

Over-all I enjoyed 30 Minutes or Less, but compared to 50/50 that film feels like a fairy trivial, superficial lark of a movie.  50/50 aims for something deeper, and while it doesn’t always succeed, I really enjoyed the filmmakers’ ambition in crafting a story that is very, very funny, while also tackling some serious issues about mortality and friendship.

Yes, 50/50 is a comedy about cancer.  I suspect that topic kept many people away from this film, but I’m glad I saw it.  The film was directed confidently by Jonathan Levine (who also helmed the little-seen film The Wackness which I really loved), and more than just the presence of Seth Rogen reminds me of the work of Judd Apatow.  The focus on the friendship between guys, and the willingness of the film to mine comedy from tough real-life situations are all aspects I’ve really enjoyed in Mr. Apatow’s work.  50/50 is able to find that tricky balance of tone, allowing us to laugh along with the story while also engaging with the characters and their struggles.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been on quite a hot-streak lately (in films such as (500) Days of Summer and Inception[continued]

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Josh Reviews Scott Pilgrim vs. the World!

September 17th, 2010
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Let me say right up front that I found Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to be an enormously fun, engaging, original movie, and I am really bummed that the film has been so poorly received at the American box office.  After a summer filled with so many lazy, lowest-common-demoninator money-grab movies, here at last is a movie stuffed to overflowing with wit and creativity and heart.  Too bad so few people have seen it!!

Based on the series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley (which I’ll admit that, despite my love of comics, I have never read), Scott Pilgrim vs. the World tells of story of Scott, a young, lonely twenty-something kid looking for someone to love (who will hopefully love him back).  The film is bold in making Scott to be rather unlikable when we first meet him.  We quickly learn that he’s been in a number of failed relationships, and that he doesn’t seem to have been too gentle to the girls he broke up with once he decided that they weren’t his one true love.  There’s been some back-lash against Michael Cera in recent days, and several of his films have crashed-and-burned (Year One was a mess, and did anyone see Youth in Revolt?), but he’s very well cast in the lead role of Scott Pilgrim.  He has the acerbic edge that allows us to see how he could easily be a jerk to the girls he’s dated, but he also has enough warmth and humor and gentleness that we still wish him well and want to follow him on his adventures in the film.

And Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is certainly more of an adventure than the Juno/Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist type opening might have you believe.  When Scott meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), he immediately finds himself deeply infatuated with her, and the two begin to date.  This is when Scott learns that, to date Ramona, he must battle and defeat her Seven Evil Exes.

If that synopsis is starting to sound like the premise of a video-game more than a movie, then you’re right!  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is positively drowning in a clear love for video-games.  The film does contain the increasingly elaborate and energetically staged superhero vs. supervillain fights (mirroring the increasingly challenging levels of a video game) that the premise seems to promise, but there’s much more to it then that.  Starting with the ingeniously revamped opening title-cards (in which the studio logos are presented in a pixellated version that looks like what you’d see after dropping a few quarters into an arcade game), practically every frame of the film is filled with creative … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Up in the Air

Director Jason Reitman continues his winning streak with his third film (after Thank You For Smoking and Juno), Up in the Air.

George Clooney (continuing to prove that he is a far better actor than you might think a fellow with his movie-star good looks and fame would need to be) plays Ryan Bingham, a man whose job is to fire employees at companies whose bosses don’t have the desire or the guts to do so themselves.  Every day, Ryan flies to a different city, back-and-forth across the United States, to fire different people from a different company.  It’s a job that most would probably find tremendously distasteful.  But Ryan loves it.  It’s not that he gets pleasure from firing people.  (Actually, he’s quite skilled at helping newly-fired employees get over the shock and anger of being fired — and by someone they’ve never met, to boot — and he seems to enjoy the moments of human connection when he’s able to help one of those unfortunate souls find some shred of a silver lining to their situation.)  It’s more that he loves the unattached, free-as-a-bird lifestyle that his constantly-traveling ways allow him.

Ryan relishes having no ties.  His apartment (that he barely sees) is completely empty and unadorned.  He isn’t married, doesn’t have any kids, and is distant from his family.  While most Americans would probably side with me in hating the experience of flying, Ryan loves it.  He relishes having frequent flyer cards and valued customer status at airlines, car-rental organizations, and hotels across the country that enable him to zip in and out (cutting ahead of the rest of us poor folks waiting in endless lines) with just the swipe of a gold card.  He loves staying in hotels, he loves having a drink in airport VIP lounges, he loves flying.  In Ryan’s mind, he is entirely free.

Ryan’s perfect-to-him life is shifted, though, by two developments.  One is positive: at a hotel bar one evening, he strikes up a conversation with a beautiful woman who, it turns out, is just as much of a travel-junkie as he is.  The woman is Alex, played by the luminous Vera Farmiga (Matt Damon’s girlfriend in The Departed), and she and Ryan seem to immediately realize that they have each found a special connection with the other.  The other change is much more negative to Ryan: an ambitious young woman named Natalie (Anna Kendrick), newly hired by his company, has developed a system in which Ryan and his peers can fire people without every leaving their company headquarters.  Instead of paying enormous sums to fly back and forth across the country, they could instead use today’s modern web-cam … [continued]