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Amazon’s series, Modern Love, is based on the New York Times column of the same name.  Each episode of this eight-episode anthology series adapts a specific Modern Love column.  Each episode tells the story of a romance; though the episodes feature different types of love stories featuring characters of different ages, genders, and situations.

I wouldn’t have expected this to be up my alley, but I found myself rather taken by this show.  This isn’t ground-breaking television by any means, but it’s endearingly warm-hearted.  Anthologies can be a tough sell, but I enjoyed the way each episode in this series was completely different.  It helps that the cast they assembled for these eight episodes was quite extraordinary (see more on this below).  At a brisk eight-episodes, the series didn’t overstay its welcome.

Here are my (mostly spoiler-free) thoughts on the series:

Episode 1: “When the Doorman Is Your Main Man” — Cristin Miloti (How I Met Your Mother, the “USS Callister” episode of Black Mirror) plays Maggie, a single young woman living in New York City who has a very close relationship with her building’s doorman, Guzmin (Laurentiu Possa).  This slight tale is a nice intro to the series, though ultimately I found it to be one of the weaker entries.  Both my wife and I thought the show was going to be about Maggie ultimately falling in love with her father-figure of a doorman, an idea that we both found very creepy.  Ultimately the episode went in a different direction (thankfully), but because that’s what we thought was happening for most of the episode’s run-time, it cast a shadow over our enjoyment of the story.

Episode 2: “When Cupid Is a Prying Journalist” — Catherine Keener (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Being John Malkovich) plays Julie, a reporter interviewing a young man, Joshua, played by Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Newsroom), who has started a successful dating app.  Over the course of the interview, Joshua tells Julie tells the story of the woman he loved who he let get away, and Julie tells Joshua a similar story from her own past.  I really liked this episode, and I was particularly taken by Julie’s story of how she reconnected, late in life, with her old flame, played by Andy Garcia.  I liked Julie’s story even more than the “main” story of Joshua and Emma (Caitlin McGee)!  I thought Mr. Garcia and Ms. Keener had terrific chemistry, and I was moved by their melancholy story of missed opportunities.

Episode 3: “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am” — Anne Hathaway (Love & Other Drugs, Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises) plays Lexi, a woman … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Incredibles 2

Back in 2004, Brad Bird’s The Incredibles was a revelation — an extraordinary animated film that was gorgeous and funny and moving.  It was a major change of pace for Pixar (it was their first film with human beings as the main characters), and it was also, in the era before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of the best superhero movies I’d ever seen.  For those of us who knew and loved Brad Bird’s animated film The Iron Giant, it was no surprise that Mr. Bird could create an extraordinary animated film, but still, the delights of The Incredibles are hard to overstate.  Fourteen years later, The Incredibles still stands as one of my favorite Pixar films, AND one of my favorite superhero films.  I was, of course, excited when, after long years of wishes and speculation, it was announced that Mr. Bird and Pixar were finally in serious development on an Incredibles sequel.  But could a sequel made fourteen long years after the original recapture the magic of that first film?

For the most part, I am very happy to report that Incredibles 2 does!!  The first Incredibles still stands as the superior film, but this sequel is a beautiful companion piece, an exciting and very entertaining new chapter for these characters.  It’s a thrill to be able to return to this world.

Although this sequel has been released fourteen years after the original film, it’s set immediately following the climactic battle at the end of the first film, and we get to follow the repercussions of those events on the Incredibles family (the Parrs).  While the family was able to save the day and return to the public eye, the law that bans supers didn’t magically vanish overnight, meaning that the Parrs are continuing to break the law each time they don their costumes and fight crime.  After a battle in a city center with “the Underminer” causes major damage, the “Super relocation” program is permanently ended, meaning that Helen and Bob, along with their kids Violet, Dash, and baby Jack-Jack, are left on their own to figure out where to go and how to make a living.  Enter Winston Deaver, a wealthy super-hero fan who offers to use he and his sister Evelyn’s resources and PR know-how to get the public back on the side or the Supers.  Winston and Evelyn ask Helen to be the front-person for their campaign, leaving Bob to tend to the kids.

There is a lot to love about Incredibles 2.  Despite the long gap between films, I was pleased by how effortlessly the film is able to step back into this world and these characters, and the enjoyably fun and somewhat … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Show Me A Hero

Is there a greater master of television working today than David Simon?  Had he never done anything else of consequence after the triumph that was The Wire (and seriously, if anyone reading these words has never watched that show, you really need to drop everything and remedy that immediately) then he would still be a master of the medium.  While The Wire remains his magnum opus, I was a huge fan of his follow-up show Treme (cut short too soon after four too-short seasons, though I thank the TV gods and HBO for those four seasons that we got) and now Mr. Simon has given us another magnificent piece of work, the six-episode mini-series Show Me a Hero.

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Show Me a Hero is based on the 1999 book of the same name written by Lisa Belkin.  The story, taking place between 1987 and 1994, follows the fight to desegregate Yonkers.  A Federal Judge, Leonard Sands, had ruled that Yonkers was required to construct 200 units of public housing on the white, more-affluent side of the Saw Mill Parkway.  This became a huge issue in the city, with many of the white population protesting this decision.

Show Me a Hero’s main protagonist is Nick Wasicsko, a young Yonkers city council member who was able to unseat the long-term Yonkers mayor, Angelo Martinelli, because Nick makes an issue of the fact that Martinelli had voted not to appeal the judge’s decision.  However, once he takes office, it becomes clear to Nick that there is no viable legal challenge to the judge’s ruling.  Nick, a former lawer, believes in the rule of law, and as such eventually becomes a supporter of enforcing the judge’s decision.  This is an extremely unpopular move in Yonkers.  The show follows the many years during which this argument raged in the courts, in the city council chambers, and on the streets of Yonkers.

The show presents us with a vast array of characters from all sides of the issue and from many different social strata.  This has always been a hallmark of Mr. Simon’s work.  It was one of the most remarkable aspects of The Wire, and its a huge component to the success of Show Me a Hero.  Throughout the six episodes we meet the Yonkers city-level politicians who support and oppose the housing initiative.  We meet the citizens leading the protest movement.  We meet Judge Sands and the architects and lobbyists pushing the housing initiative.  We meet many African-American families who will, when the new housing project finally becomes a reality, choose to apply to live in the new units.  Mr Simons and co-writer William F. Zorzi show great compassion for all of … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Charlie Kaufman wrote Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (one of my very favorite films, and the film that made me forever a fan of Sam Rockwell), Adaptation (click here for my review), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He also wrote the 2008 film Synecdoche, New York, which he also directed.  (To this day, that is the first and only film Mr. Kaufman has directed.)  Based on Mr. Kaufman’s pedigree, I was of course eager to see Synecdoche, New York when it was released.  But I missed it in theatres, and when I read mixed reviews of the film, my enthusiasm to see it dimmed a bit.  It remained on my list of movies-I-want-to-see, but that is a very LONG list, and so it was only last month when I finally sat down to watch Mr. Kaufman’s movie.

Synecdoche, New York is a very bizarre film.  It is very difficult, at times, to watch (both because of the somewhat confusing narrative but also because I found much of the film’s subject matter to be incredibly depressing).  But it is also very funny in places, and I found the film’s wonderfully weird, almost dreamlike structure to be quite unique and engaging.

From the very beginning, the film is constantly, subtly playing with the idea of what is reality.  At first it seems like we’re watching a sad, quiet relationship drama, not unlike many other small-budget indie films.  We can see that the marriage between the playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his painter wife Adele (Catherine Keener) is crumbling.  But, without fanfare, in the early scenes there are several blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments when the film seems to slip into Caden’s head, and what we see on-screen is not reality but rather what Caden is thinking and feeling.  I’m thinking, most notably, of several amusing instances in which Caden imagines himself in the middle of whatever he is watching on TV.

As the film progresses, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur.  After Adele leaves Caden and heads to London without him, we see Caden reading a magazine, and he comes across a spread in the magazine all about Adele.  At first I assumed that was a moment of fantasy, in which Caden was imagining Adele being completely happy and successful without him in London.  (It must be fantasy, because how could she have a lengthy article written about her only a week after she went to London?)  But later scenes caused me to question my interpretation of that scene.  The sit-up-and-take notice moment, for me, came a few minutes later (about 30 minutes into the film).  We see Caden meet Hazel (Samantha … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Cyrus

In the film Cyrus, written and directed by Jay & Mark Duplass, John C. Reilly stars a John, a pretty pathetic fellow whose self-confidence is not improved by the news that his ex-wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener), is about to re-marry.  Jamie convinces John to join her and her fiancee at a friend’s party.  To John’s great surprise, he actually winds up hitting it off with a beautiful woman named Molly (Marisa Tomei).  They go on a couple of dates, all of which go very well.  Molly seems wonderful.  But when he notices that Molly never seems willing to spend a whole night at his place, John begins to wonder if she’s married, or if she’s hiding some other secret from him.  When he follows her home one day, he discovers what that secret is: her 21-year-old son, Cyrus.  Molly has raised Cyrus by herself, and neither has ever been able to separate from the other.  He still lives with her, but that’s the least of it!  To call their relationship co-dependant would be a dramatic understatement, and John is forced to wonder whether he can ever fit into the life that those two have created for each other.

I’d read some rave reviews about Cyrus when it played at festivals earlier this year.  Even though it’s release to theatres fizzled this past summer, I was eager to watch it on DVD.  I’d read that this was a black comedy, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the weirdness on display in this film!!  It certainly goes to some places I did not expect.  There’s a lot that I enjoyed about the film, though I can’t really say that it all worked for me.

The biggest problem with the movie, for me, was the first twenty-or-so minutes before we meet Cyrus.  The film takes this time to establish John as a character.  I understand that we need to learn that he’s lonely and odd, because we need to understand why he doesn’t head for the hills at the first whiff of weirdness between Molly & Cyrus.  The filmmakers need to show us that John is a man pretty desperate for love and companionship, and that is what causes him to stick things out and try to fight for Molly’s affections.  But, boy, I think the Duplass brothers went WAY too far over the top in presenting John as such an extraordinarily pathetic loser in those opening scenes.  Those sequences are just PAINFUL to watch — I didn’t find any humor in those scenes, they just made me squirm.

The film comes to life, though once we meet Cyrus.  Jonah Hill has come a long way since the first movie he appeared in … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Adaptation (2002)

I was extraordinarily taken with Adaptation when I first saw it in theatres back in 2002, but I hadn’t seen it since.  I had been waiting for there to be a follow-up to the initial bare-bones DVD with nary a single special feature (save the film’s theatrical trailer) — if ever there was a film that left me desperate for a behind-the-scenes peek at just how the film came to be, it’s this one — but no special edition DVD ever arrived.  Shame!  Still, when I saw the disc in the five dollar bin at Newbury Comics a few months ago, I couldn’t resist.

Adaptation centers on screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s struggles with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel, The Orchid Thief.  How can he possibly make a movie out of the plot-free novel about flowers, without selling out by employing tired Hollywood cliches of action sequences and characters falling in love and learning important life lessons?

The above two-sentence summary really fails to do the film’s weird, complex, sprawling narrative justice.  The film swims deliriously in-and-out of real life events.  Adaptation is of course written by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who really was hired to adapt The Orchid Thief only to find himself totally stymied in his attempts, and he really did decide to write himself into his screenplay (Adaptation is the film that resulted), as does the Charlie in Adaptation.  Still with me?  And yet much of Adaptation is pure fiction — Charlie Kaufman doesn’t really have a twin brother Donald (despite Donald’s name being listed in the film’s credits, a clever touch), and of course none of the insanity at the end of the film with Susan Orleans and her subject Laroche (in which drugs and murder come into play) has any basis in reality.

I can only laugh and wonder what the real Susan Orleans thought of this sort-of adaptation of her novel, or of her depiction in the film.  Former executive Valerie Thomas (played in the film by Tilda Swinton), told Variety: “I’m 10 pages in, and suddenly realize, ‘Oh my God, I’m in this.’”  That Variety article goes on to comment that Ms. Thomas got off easy in the film, though perhaps they’re forgetting the scene in which Charlie masturbates to the thought of her having sex with him.

Nicolas Cage turns in one of his finest performances ever (well, two of his finest performances ever, actually), in the dual role of Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald.  It is astonishing to me how completely Mr. Cage is able to create and inhabit two entirely different characters despite their identical features.  Cage’s Charlie is depressed, anxious, and self-loathing, whereas Donald is happy, outgoing, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Where The Wild Things Are!

I’ve been reading about Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s deservedly beloved children’s book Where The Wild Things Are for a long time — years, now — and I am so thrilled to be able to report that the finished film which has finally been unveiled for the world to see is every bit as wonderful as I could have hoped.

Quite a lot has been written about this film’s torturous path to the big screen.  A few weeks ago I posted a link to this lengthy piece from the New York Times that charted the almost decade-long journey of Mr. Jonze to bring this film to life.  I remember reading the post from CHUD (Cinematic Happenings Under development) that the Times article refers to in its opening paragraph.  Click here to read that article, from February 20, 2008, in which Devin Farici broke the story that executives at Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures were seriously considering abandoning Mr. Jonze’s version and entirely reshooting the film.

Thank the movie gods that that moment of crisis for the film came and went, and Mr. Jonze was able to bring his vision to completion.

The result is a delightfully unique, idiosyncratic film, truly unlike any other childrens book adaptation I have ever seen.

The film is enormously epic, a visual feast, but it is also astonishingly intimate.  Right from the very beginning (with the wonderfully messed-with opening titles which lead into Max’s wild rumpus with his dog), Mr. Jonze puts the viewers right in the face, and the mind, of young Max.  Max (played by Max Records) is clearly a very imaginative, creative little boy.  He also seems to be extraordinary lonely and, like any nine-year-old who doesn’t yet know how to express all of the feelings roiling around inside of him, he is prone to terrible outbursts.

This early, pre-Wild Things section of the film is an intriguing — and very, very clever — elaboration upon Mr. Sendak’s original book.  In Tim Burton’s film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he added a flashback that fleshed out Willy Wonka’s backstory (a sad childhood with his terrible father) that I felt was ridiculous and completely out of place.  But these early scenes with Max, in which we get to know him and understand his situation and why he feels the way he does, are wonderful and, I would argue, totally critical to the film’s success.  We need to understand who Max is, and why he is ultimately driven to run away from his family and escape (for a time) into fantasy.

What makes this early section of the film work, is Mr. Jonze (and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers)’s care to … [continued]

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“Rock Me Sexy Jesus!” — Josh Reviews Hamlet 2

Hamlet 2 tells the story of frustrated actor-turned-high school drama teacher Dana Marschz (a nearly-unpronounceable last name, for which I was eager to learn the correct spelling by watching the film’s end credits) played by Steve Coogan (so funny this past summer in Tropic Thunder).  Dana is not-dissimilar to Christopher Guest’s Corky St. Clair (from the terrific film Waiting For Guffman) although rather more pathetic (and more prone to accidentally flashing his genitals).  Even in teaching, Dana is struggling to find success.  He only has two loyal students, and the school plays that he supervises (such as a recent stage version of Erin Brockovich) are continually savaged by the school paper’s young drama critic.

Things go from bad to worse when the school decides to cut most of its electives, filling Dana’s drama class with an unruly mob of kids who have no desire to be there.  But Dana is inspired to write a new play — a musical sequel to Hamlet that will correct that play’s downer ending — and sets out to get all of his kids involved.  What follows is a sort-of-insane mish-mash of inspiring-teacher movies (Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dangerous Minds) with kids-coming-together-to-create-a-musical films.

The movie is all over the place.  It’s at its best when it allows Mr. Coogan to depict his slow-burn desperation to connect with the kids in his class.  There are also a number of amusing digressions, such as Dana’s encounter with Elisabeth Shue (playing herself), who has decided to give up acting in favor of life as a nurse; explorations of his home-life with his bitter wife Brie (the very funny Catherine Keener) and their new tenant Gary (David Arquette, who is hysterical in his nearly-silent role); and the appearance of civil liberties lawyer Cricket Feldstein (a fast-talking Amy Poehler).

There are also some stretches of the movie that don’t quite work, and a lot of jokes that are weird but not necessarily all that funny.  More problematically, there were times when, even in a ridiculous movie like this, I wished the characters had been fleshed out a little bit more.  There wasn’t that much depth given to most of the new students in Dana’s class, and I didn’t really believe that they would ever willingly decide to participate in Dana’s play.  That’s a key transition that the film needs to make, both for the plot and for all the character story-lines, and the fact that I don’t think it worked hurt the film for me.

But in the end, a film called Hamlet 2 lives or dies on the ultimate performance of the titular play itself — and let me tell you, those … [continued]

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What Just Happened?

Having recently read the book What Just Happened? by Hollywood producer Art Linson, I was naturally intrigued to find out that a movie based on the book was about to be released to theatres.  (Albeit rather under the radar, as no one I know of has heard of the film.)

Well, the film What Just Happened (without the question mark that was in the book title), directed by Barry Levinson, was indeed released last month.  It stars Robert DeNiro, Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro, Catherine Keener, and Ribun Wright Penn.  And it’s directed by Barry Levinson, who helmed Diner, Good Morning Vietnam,  Rain Man, and Wag the Dog.  With such talent behind and in front of the camera, it’s somewhat disappointing to realize that the film is just mediocre.

The book What Just Happened? takes place over the course of several years in the life of Art Linson, during which he worked as a producer for 20th Century Fox and produced one bomb after another.  (Not intentionally, mind you!)  The film What Just Happened takes several of the best stories from the book and works them into the fictionalized tale of a week in the life of Hollywood producer Ben (DeNiro), trying to stay afloat as he deals with weasely agents, egomaniacal stars, and his own personal problems. 

There is certainly fun to be had in the film.  DeNiro is great, as always.  He invests Ben with a certain good humor and even — dare I say it? — some dignity.  He’s just a lot of fun to watch, as he subsumes the tough-guy persona he’s so often played on screen beneath Ben’s schlubby skin.  (I could almost imagine the part being played by Woody Allen.)  And Bruce Willis is a riot in the Alec Baldwin role.  While producing The Edge, Linson had a famous enounter with Alec Baldwin who, though he had been cast as the young hunky photographer in the film, showed up overweight and with a mountain-man beard that he refused to shave.  Well, no surprise, that conflict is a central one in the film, and the scene where De Niro confronts Willis is a gem.

But the movie isn’t quite the laugh riot I was expecting.  Levinson has often demonstrated as strong an interest in the dramatic storylines in his films as with the comedic elements.  In his best work, he’s able to balance the two to produce something really powerful.  Here, the drama and the comedy don’t quite mesh.  There are long stretches of the film without much to laugh about, but those dramatic stretches didn’t have the impact that I’d imagine Levinson intended, at least not for me.  I never became … [continued]