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Josh Reviews Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later!

I like David Wain’s 2001 film Wet Hot American Summer, but I absolutely adored the 2015 Netflix miniseries First Day of Camp.  The success of that endeavor clearly inspired creators David Wain and Michael Showalter to come back for another go.  The new miniseries, Ten Years Later, plays out the premise hinted at by the epilogue of the 2001 film, the idea that these camp friends would reunite ten years later to see how they’d all changed. While I don’t think this second mini-series has quite the laugh-per-minute ratio that First Day of Camp did, I can say that I quite enjoyed Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later.  It’s a pleasure spending more time with this crazy band of characters and these incredible comedic performers.

Although it was made a decade-and-a-half after the original film, the previous mini-series (Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp) was set BEFORE the film, on the first day of the 1981 summer camp season (while the film had depicted the last day).  I was endlessly amused by the sight of these forty-something actors playing even younger versions of the characters they’d all played back in 2001.  Expanding to an eight-episode mini-series allowed the series to let all the characters — played by this incredible array of very funny and talented actors — to shine, allowing all sorts of crazy comedic digressions that I found endlessly entertaining.  I also liked how David Wain and Michael Showalter used the expanded format to amp-up the lunacy of the story.  The original film is a crazy exaggeration of what actually goes on at summer camps (even what actually went on in the more out-of-control environment of many 1980’s summer camps, when the film is set), but the mini-series went way beyond that, bringing in government conspiracies, falling satellites, hand-to-hand combat, and all sorts of other nuttiness.  It all worked perfectly, a very-rare example of a sequel made years later that was as-good-as, if not better, than the original!

And so, having loved First Day of Camp, I was of course excited for another return to Camp Firewood.  David Wain and Michael Showalter have crafted another very entertaining show.  This eight-episode mini-series format works great for this sort of loose ensemble piece.  There is a LOT to enjoy here in Ten Years Later, with an extraordinarily talented ensemble clearly having a lot of fun.

There were, though, a few wobbly aspects of this second mini-series.  While I was impressed by how they got everyone from the original film back for First Day of Camp, the structure of Ten Years Later indicates that they might have had a little more trouble making the schedules of all these … [continued]

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Marvel’s Winning Streak Continues with Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2!

Like almost everyone else, I was blown away by Guardians of the Galaxy back in 2014, and I have been eagerly awaiting writer/director James Gunn’s follow-up.  Three years later, it’s here, and it does not disappoint.  Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is visually astounding, extremely funny, and the film finds a way to deepen our understanding of and affection for pretty much every single one of its large cast of characters.  I’m not sure what more anyone could want!

The film picks up a little while after the end of the first film, with the Guardians working as heroes-for-hire (see what I did there?).  But when Rocket double-crosses their golden-skinned, perfect-looking employers called the Sovereign, the Sovereign exact fierce retribution that leaves the Guardian’s ship (the Milano) destroyed and the gang marooned.  To the rescue arrives Ego, the celestial being who is, apparently, Peter Quill’s real father.  Quill soon finds himself torn between his biological father and his adopted family.  Meanwhile, all sorts of other enemies threaten to tear the motley Guardians crew apart.  Gamora’s sister Nebula tracks her down, seeking vengeance.  Rocket and Baby Groot find themselves captured by the Ravagers, who have mutinied against their former Captain Yondu.  And, in the end, once again, the fate of the galaxy rests in their unlikely hands.

Whereas the Marvel cinematic universe has made an art out of creating interconnected films, what’s remarkable about Guardians vol. 2 is how stand-alone it is.  Thanos is mentioned a few times as Gamora and Nebula fight about their shared torturous childhood being raised by that monster, but otherwise Guardians vol. 2 is surprisingly separate from the way the Marvel movies have been building towards Infinity War.  It’s a surprising choice, but it pays off well, allowing this film to be able to dig deeply into this cast of characters without having to sacrifice valuable time towards pitching future movies.

In the paragraph above, I described some of the film’s plot, but in another surprising choice, Guardians vol. 2 is pleasantly light on plot.  For the most part, the structure of this film is something of an extended “hang” with all of the characters who we loved so much in the first Guardians film.  Here, too, this could easily be a weakness, but James Gunn and his team turn it into a strength.  First of all, this cast of actors are so terrific, and they have created such wonderful characters, that it’s a joy just to watch them bounce off of one another.  There are a number of scenes in the film that have a somewhat “shaggy” feel, as if either at the writing stage or the performance stage, Mr. Gunn and this … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Guardians of the Galaxy

I had a feeling this one was gonna be good.  I’m glad I was right.

With Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios has blown the doors off of their cinematic universe in a big, big way.  This is a huge movie, filled with crazy alien planets and creatures and hugely original characters and situations.  The opening few minutes takes place on Earth, and then the entire rest of the film takes place in a far-off corner of the galaxy, a one-hundred-percent immersion in fantasy cosmic craziness.  (Man, this is what DC’s Green Lantern should have been like.)  The film is exciting and funny and it looks gorgeous.  I loved pretty much every minute of it.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was born on Earth but was kidnapped and stolen from the planet as a boy.  He grew up among a band of thieves and ragamuffins to become something of a Han Solo type, a roguish scoundrel with a heart of gold.  When hired to find a priceless orb, Quill decides to double-cross his boss, Yondu (Michael Rooker).  But it turns out that the villainous Ronan (Lee Pace) also wants the orb, so he sends his minion Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to obtain it as well.  Gamora also double-crosses her boss, and just as she confronts Quill the two run afoul of Rocket and Groot, two alien mercenaries looking to cash in on a good bounty.  The four all wind up apprehended by the Nova Corps (an intergalactic peace-keeping force) and thrown in jail.  Somehow, these four criminals — soon joined by a fifth, the hulking Drax — find themselves forming a tight bond with one another.  And with the fate of the universe at stake, this motley five-some have to do the thing none of them ever expected to do: become heroes.

Guardians of the Galaxy harkens back to the tone of the first Iron Man, a very silly, goofy sensibility crossed with a great fantasy action-adventure.  Iron Man had stakes, but it was also a whole heck of a lot of fun, and Guardians is exactly the same way.  The film is a riot, but this is not a spoof.  The characters are fleshed out, with fully-realized emotional arcs, and there is weight to the story being told.

Anyone who has been watching Parks and Recreation for the past six years knows that Chris Pratt is a star.  Now the whole world knows it.  Mr. Pratt has been perfectly cast as Peter Quill, the tough space-pirate who is also an innocent boy at heart.  Mr. Pratt absolutely dominates this movie, and he’s magnetic in every scene he’s in, even when standing along-side the ridiculously scene-stealing two-some of Rocket and Groot.  … [continued]

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Josh Reviews American Hustle

There’s no question in my mind that David O. Russell is a terrifically skilled director, and it’s been interesting seeing how his recent films have been able to blend his idiosyncratic sensibilities with a slightly more mainstream approach.  I had some problems with Silver Linings Playbook but over-all I really enjoyed the film (click here for my review), and I absolutely adored The Fighter (click here for my review).  And so it was that I entered into American Hustle with my expectations very high.  Mr. Russell had assembled a phenomenal cast, and the reviews had been near-rapturous.

But I must confess that while I found the film to be extremely well-made, I didn’t find it to be nearly as enjoyable as I had expected.  I thought the film, at two hours and 9 minutes, felt FAR longer to me than the three-hour The Wolf of Wall Street, which I saw only a few days before (click here for my review).

But let’s start with what I felt was good about the film.  The cast is indeed fantastic, and what’s particularly fun is the way almost all of the leads are playing against type.  Visually, all of these actors have changed their looks, and I’m not just talking about the humor of seeing these performers all dolled up in seventies get-up (though indeed the clothes in the film are fantastic).  I’m talking about Christian Bale, who played a super-hero, slouched over with a big gut and an outrageous comb-over.  I’m talking about handsome leading man Bradley Cooper’s jheri curl.  I’m talking about the sexed-up look of Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence.  But more than their physical transformations was how well each and every one of these actors inhabited these characters.

The stand-out is Christian Bale, who absolutely vanishes into the role of con-man Irving Rosenthal.  Mr. Bale is magnetic in the role, drawing us into the scheming mind of this rather pathetic figure.  The physicality of Mr. Bale’s transformation hooks us into the character, but it is Mr. Bale’s gripping charisma that keeps us locked into this man’s story.  Bradley Cooper nails a very different kind of pathetic as the out-of-his-league FBI man, Richard DiMaso.  Mr. Cooper takes us right into the desperate ambition at DiMaso’s heart.  The first woman in Irving Rosenthal’s life who we meet in the film is Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams.  The two meet at a party, and each one quickly realizes that they have met a peculiar sort of soul-mate in the other.  Sydney gets involved in Irving’s small-time scams, pretending to be a British aristocrat, thus lending a convincing legitimacy to Irving’s scams.  But after a while … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: The Place Beyond the Pines

I didn’t see director Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 film, Blue Valentine, though I certainly read about it when it came out.  (The film got a lot of acclaim, and also a lot of ink due to its NC-17 rating.)  It’s a film I am interested in seeing one of these days, but for whatever reason it’s never been too high on my list, always bumped in favor of other films I choose to see instead.  However, Mr. Cianfrance’s follow-up film that was released earlier this year, The Place Beyond the Pines, immediately struck me as a film I wanted to make it my business to see.  Sometimes it’s obvious why I want to see a film or don’t want to see one, but with this, I’m not entirely sure what grabbed me about it.  Until I saw it a few weeks ago, I never really knew much of anything about what the film was about.  I was intrigued by the top-shelf cast, which includes Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Ray Liotta, Eva Mendes, Harris Yulin (such an indelible part of my childhood from his role in Ghostbusters II),  Mahershala Ali (who I loved in The 4400 and who was also great in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button),  Bruce Greenwood (JFK!  Captain Pike!), Rose Byrne, and Dane DeHaan (so memorable in Chronicle).  I also think I was intrigued by the tone of what looked like a tense little character study/ crime story… and for sure I was grabbed by the mysterious title.

I am glad to have seen The Place Beyond the Pines, because the film really blew me away.  It was not at all the movie I thought it would be.  Usually that spells disappointment, but in this case The Place Beyond the Pines wound up being a far more epic, far more thoughtful film than I’d thought it would be.  The film is dour, and wrenching to watch.  This isn’t a very crowd-pleasing film — I can see why it barely made a blip at the box office.  I loved it, and I am not sure it’s a film I ever necessarily want to see again!  But I am delighted to have seen it and extraordinarily impressed by the work of everyone involved.

The film begins by introducing us to Luke (Ryan Gosling).  The first several minutes of the film are a phenomenally well-crafted introduction to the character.  At first, all we see of him is a well-muscled, tattooed torso, flipping a knife open and shut at rapid speed.  Then we follow him from the back of his head as he walks out of his room (or trailer, hard to tell) and through a crowd … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Silver Linings Playbook

Nothing in the plot description of Silver Linings Playbook really caught my attention, but the fact that it was written (adapted from the novel by Matthew Quick) and directed by David O. Russell automatically made the film something I was interested in.  I don’t love all of Mr. Russell’s films, but they’re all very interesting and unique, and I really dug his last film, The Fighter (click here for my review).  I was very pleasantly surprised to find Silver Linings Playbook to be just as enjoyable as The Fighter. The two films have a similar feel in that Mr. Russell has crafted a film that feels honest and filled with Mr. Russell’s quirky style, but also just on the right side of mainstream-crowd-pleasing.  That’s a very difficult balance to strike, and I am impressed by the skill with which Mr. Russell and his team have been able to again walk that line.

In the film, Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a young man with bipolar disorder.  At the start of the film, he is released from a mental hospital into the care of his parents.  It seems that several months prior, Pat had an “incident” caused by a confrontation with his wife (an event that is gradually explored over the course of the film).  Pat is eager to return to his old life and to patch things up with his wife, but it’s clear that he has mental and emotional issues that will not be so easy to resolve.  At a dinner with some friends, Pat meets a young widow named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence).  It’s clear that Tiffany has plenty of issues of her own, though sparks immediately fly between her and Pat.  The crux of Silver Linings Playbook is the burgeoning friendship between Pat and Tiffany, and the question of whether the two of them can each get over what is going on in their own heads in order to form a successful, stable relationship with the other.

That description sounds pretty dreary and heavy (which is a large part why the film didn’t immediately interest me when I first heard about it), but Mr. Russell maintains a light touch with the material throughout.  While the film is not what I’d call a comedy, it is quite humorous, and there’s a playfulness to the proceedings that I found very endearing and engaging.  The movie is dramatic enough that we become invested in Pat and Tiffany and we feel their ups and downs, but the movie is light enough that we don’t get too bogged down in Oscar-baiting seriousness.  (And there are a few really big laughs, none better or more-earned than the moment towards the end in which … [continued]

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Summer Movie Catch-Up: Josh Reviews The Hangover

August 17th, 2009
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Try as I might, I must admit that my expectations do sometimes color my opinions about a movie that I see.  Occasionally I go into a film with very low expectations — and even if the movie is mediocre, I come out pleased because it was better than I expected.  Conversely, if I go into a film with very high expectations, if it falls below those expectations I can come out disappointed, even if in hindsight I can recognize that the film really isn’t that bad.

Well, after weeks of people telling me that The Hangover was a comedic triumph, maybe my expectations just got raised a bit to high because, when I finally saw it a few weeks ago, I didn’t really think it was all that.

Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) head to Vegas with with their good buddy Doug (Justin Bartha) to celebrate Doug’s impending marriage.  Cut to the next morning, when the guys wake up in a trashed hotel room with no memory of what transpired the night before, and discover that Doug is missing. The film follows their increasingly frantic efforts to reconstruct the events of that hedonistic night and locate their buddy in time for the wedding.

I really shouldn’t be too much of a grouch — much of The Hangover is very, very funny.  But I guess that after the past several years of so many brilliant Apatow-style comedies, in which no matter how lunatic the situations (such as a 40 year-old virgin getting his chest waxed), everything is still grounded in relatably human characters and situations, I have sort of tired of movies based on outlandish wacky comedy premises.

The film’s greatest strength is the terrific chemistry between Cooper, Helms, and Galifianakis.  Each is a great actor and comedian in his own right, and together they have a deliriously nutty energy.  There are far worse ways to spend two hours than watching these three lovable numbskulls bounce off of one another.

Still, while The Hangover was a fun two hours in a movie theatre, I can’t imagine that this will be a film I wind up revisiting too often in the future.  (Whereas I am already eager to see the much-less-well-thought-of Funny People again on DVD.)… [continued]