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From the Blu-Ray Shelf: Josh Reviews Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

I enjoyed the first Neighbors. I wouldn’t call it a comedy classic, but it was a very funny film with a great cast. I loved the Seth Rogen-Rose Byrne combo, and all the frat boys (Zac Efron, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jerrod Carmichael) were fun. So I was interested in a sequel, though I missed it in theatres this summer.

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Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising got weak reviews when it was released but I enjoyed it. As with the first Neighbors, this isn’t a brilliant or groundbreaking in any way film, but it’s pretty consistently funny and with a very short run-time (only 92 minutes!) it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

While the first film dealt with Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), young parents and first-time home-owners, dealing with the nightmare of a frat house moving in next door, here in the sequel they are preparing to sell their house but now have to deal with a sorority moving in next door.

On the one hand, that premise is such a clear attempt to reset the characters so they can basically retell the story of the first film that it’s somewhat eye-rolling.  On the other hand, it’s such a natural way to get back to the concept that made the first movie fun, that I can’t really complain.

Sequels are hard, and comedy sequels particularly so. There’s a tension between wanting to tell a new story while also preserving what everyone enjoyed about the first film. So often, what happens is that these sequels basically wind up telling the same story again. When this approach doesn’t work, the result is a film that feels boring and repetitive. So the trick for a sequel is to somehow be both new and familiar at the same time.  And so I sort of have to admire the simple premise of Seth Rogen & Rose Byrne battling a sorority instead of a fraternity.  It feels clever at the same time as it is obvious. This is not genius level comedy film-making, but it works.  The film’s short run-time helps the viewer not have to much time to overthink this obvious set-up.  And the terrific cast mines enough humor out of the fun of seeing these characters back in a similar situation that it all comes together.

Where the film is weak is that the new characters introduced, the young women in the sorority, are not anywhere near as interesting as the boys in the first film. They feel far less well-defined, less interesting.

Chloe Grace Moretz feels like good casting on paper as the main new character, Shelby, but I never quite got a bead on her character.  On the one hand, she … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Kick-Ass 2

September 2nd, 2013
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The first Kick-Ass film was something of a minor miracle.  It’s hard to believe it actually exists.  (Click here for my original review.)  That anybody ever thought Mark Millar & John Romita’s profane, hyper-violent riff on super-heroes was suitable source material for a movie sort of boggles my mind.  That the movie actually got made is incredible.  And that it managed to be so damn GOOD — filled with tremendous performances by a hugely talented cast (including big names like Nic Cage and Mark Strong and break-out roles for newcomers Aaron Johnson and Chloe Grace Moretz) — is positively astounding.

So just the existence of the first film is amazing.  When they announced a sequel, I could hardly believe it.  As news started to break of the great actors they were adding to the ensemble — including Jim Carrey — my excitement grew.

I’m bummed, then, to report that Kick-Ass 2 is a dud.  There is some fun to be had, but for the most part the film wastes one opportunity after another.

The first Kick-Ass was centered on the question: why has no one ever tried to actually be a super-hero?  Why do people want to be Michael Jordan or Paris Hilton, but not Spider-Man?  Young Dave Lizewski, a lonely kid, decides to become a super-hero, and immediately finds himself embroiled in a world of craziness.  Kick-Ass 2 picks up soon after the end of the first film.  Kick-Ass’ take-down of the D’Amico crime family has prompted a wave of imitators, and soon Kick-Ass finds himself part of a real-life super-hero team, led by a former mob enforcer calling himself Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey).  Unfortunately, Kick-Ass has also inspired a number of people to become super-villains, including his former friend, the now orphaned Chris D’Amico (Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse).  Trouble ensues.

Tone is a tricky thing.  It’s an elusive quality that can make or break a film.  The first Kick-Ass was in some respects a parody of comic-book super-hero conventions, but it also was a super-hero movie intended to excite an audience the way they best super-hero films can.  The movie was comedic, but not a spoof. There was intense, high-octane action and real character arcs.  It was a fun, goofy movie, but also one where the peril and stakes felt real for the main characters.

Sadly, the biggest problem with Kick-Ass 2 is that it totally fails to find that tone that worked so well in the first film, that balance between comedy and compelling action and drama.  One approach I could have imagined the sequel to have taken — particularly with the addition of Jim Carrey to the ensemble — would be … [continued]

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Josh Bids Farewell to 30 Rock

I know I’m a little late on this one, but things have been busy, so I’ve finally caught up with the final episodes of 30 Rock.

It’s hard to believe we’ve arrived at the end of the seventh season of this funny little show that I never expected to run more than one or two years.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought that this TV show about the behind-the-scenes life of an SNL-like TV show would get trounced by the much higher profile OTHER TV show about the behind-the-scenes life of an SNL-like TV show that NBC launched back in 2006.  That would be Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and while I think that show was somewhat underrated (no question it was a disappointment, coming after the brilliance of Sports Night and The West Wing, but I would have loved to have seen where Mr. Sorkin would have taken the series), after only a few weeks of the 2006 television season, it was clear to me which show was superior.

The moment of clarity came several episodes into the first season of 30 Rock, when they introduced the subplot of Jenna’s starring in a movie with an impossible-to-pronounce title: The Rural Juror.  I remember laughing so hard at that joke, and it was my first glimpse of the absurd comedic heights to which 30 Rock would often reach.  The other key moment for me, in that first season, was Paul Reuben’s brilliantly deranged guest appearance as an inbred Austrian prince (in episode ten, “Black Tie”).  Not only was this the first of many brilliant guest-star appearances from big comedy names (is there any show in recent memory that has had more success in integrating famous guest-stars in such clever, funny ways?), but it was a big step away from a show concerned with the “reality” at life behind the scenes of a TV show, and into a world of silliness where, as long as it was funny, anything could happen.

It took the show a little while to find its feet, true, but not that long.  The key for me was the switch in Jack and Liz’s relationship.  In the pilot, Jack was introduced as the obstacle for Liz, who was the hero of the show.  Jack was the non-creative money-man who cared nothing about television, imposing his will over NBC and over Liz.  But it was only a few episodes in (right around the time when they first introduced Dennis Duffy, one of the show’s magnificent coterie of recurring characters) when the writers shifted their relationship to one of mentor-mentee.  This was key, as Jack and Liz’s weird friendship and eventual … [continued]

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Click here for part one of my Top 15 Movies of 2011 list, numbers fifteen through eleven, and here for part two, featuring numbers ten through six. Buckle up, now, as it’s time for the home stretch, the best of the best (at least in my humble opinion) of 2011!

5.  Young Adult Juno writer and director Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman re-team for a deliciously dark comedy about a twisted, pretty-much irredeemably terrible young woman named Mavis Gary (a magnificent Charlize Theron) who returns to the small hometown she left years before, in an attempt to win back her old jock boyfriend (Patrick Wilson). He’s married with a young baby, but so what?  During her week back in town, Mavis bumps into another high school classmate, the nerdy, disabled Matt (Patton Oswalt). The two strike up a weird sort-of friendship, and the way the arc of that pairing avoids any of the typical movie cliche ways that those sorts of relationships usually unfold on-screen is only one way in which this movie is unremittingly awesome.  The running gag about the way Mavis wakes up each morning, the terrific chemistry between Ms. Theron and Mr. Oswalt, and that pitch-perfect ending are just a few others.  A phenomenal film.  (Click here for my full review.)

4.   The Adventures of TintinShould anyone be surprised that the team-up of cinematic titans Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson produced gold?  This deliriously joyful, madcap adventure is non-stop pulpy fun from start-to-finish.  The film just zips on by, one incredible sequence after another, with Mr. Spielberg showing us once again how he is an absolute master at staging an action scene and assembling a crowd-pleasing adventure film.  The animation is gorgeous, the voice-work is impeccable (highlighted by another brilliant performance by the great Andy Serkis — I also praised his work in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, when I wrote about that film earlier on this list), and when the closing credits ran I couldn’t believe the film was over already.  This one is going to get a lot of play in my household in the coming years, of that I have no doubt.  I can’t wait for the sequel, in which Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Jackson will apparently switch roles (so that Mr. Spielberg will produce the film and Mr. Jackson will direct).  (Click here for my full review.)

3.  BridesmaidsKirsten Wiig and co-writer Annie Mumolo, working with brilliant comedy director Paul Feig (creator of Freaks of Geeks), producer Judd Apatow, and a tremendous cast of women, hit every note exactly perfectly in this comedic home-run.  The film is … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Hugo (3-D)

Martin Scorsese isn’t exactly the first name I think of when I think about family-friendly adventure films, but with Hugo, the master proves once and again his incredible control of the medium of film, no matter the genre.  Hugo is a breathtaking work of genius, and I found myself enraptured by the film’s propulsive energy and the exuberant love for film and, indeed, for all works of art, that pores out of every frame of the movie.

The Hugo in Hugo (adapted from from The Adventures of Hugo Cabret, which was written and illustrated by Brian Selznick) is a young boy living in the walls of a Paris train-station in the 1930’s.  His parents are dead, and the uncle who adopted him is a drunkard who eventually abandoned him.  But not before teaching young Hugo how to mind all of the clocks in the station, a task which Hugo has secretly continued to do.  All the while he has scrounged tools and supplies to work on repairing a broken automata (an elaborate wind-up figure), which he and his father were working on together before his father’s death.  When Hugo is caught, mid-theft, by the crochety old man who runs a small toy booth in the station, Hugo agrees to work for him to repay what he has stolen.  He is quickly befriended by the intelligent, well-read young girl, Isabelle, in the man’s care.  The bond between Hugo and Isabelle grows as they start to realize that the old man, whom she refers to as Papa Georges, hides secrets of his own, including a possible connection to Hugo’s automata.

In my first paragraph I described Hugo as a family-friendly film, but don’t take that to mean that the film is childish or simplistic.  Quite the contrary, I found Hugo to be richly layered and nuanced.  There is fun adventure to be had as the tale unfolds, but also great sadness and melancholy.  (If you’re looking for something to compare it to, in tone, I would direct you to Pixar’s Up.)

Right from the opening frames, the film is gorgeous.  Mr. Scorsese uses visual effects with extraordinary aplomb.  The opening shots juxtapose the gorgeous city-scape of 1930’s Paris with the complex gears and inner mechanisms of a clock, and the sequence is thrilling and clever.  The environment of the city, and of the city-within-the-city that the train station represents, is brought to fully-realized, teeming life.  I don’t know where the beautiful costumes and sets end and the computer-generated effects begin, and that’s just the way I like it.  Every frame of the film is packed with fascinating imagery — if my eye ever wandered from the main action, there was always … [continued]