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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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Josh Reviews Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

David Wain and Michael Showalter’s cult classic film Wet Hot American Summer is not a film for which I ever expected to see a sequel made.

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The film did not succeed upon its theatrical release back in 2001.  But then a strange thing happened, which sometimes occurs with films whose style or content fall somewhat outside what one might deem the “mainstream” (and this seems to particularly be the case with comedies): the film slowly began to build a passionate group of fans who love and quote the film endlessly.  At the same time, so many of the performers in the film, who were small-potatoes when it was released, exploded in popularity in the years to come: performers like Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, and many others.  Looking back on the film today, Wet Hot American Summer feels like an incredibly prescient film, one that magically brought together an insanely talented array of performers.

And yet, despite the film’s eventually earning a beloved status amongst many comedy fans, who ever thought that a sequel would ever be made?  What flop ever earns a sequel?  And Wet Hot never felt to me like one of those films that is begging for a sequel.  The film’s story, about the last day of summer camp at Camp Firewood in 1981, felt like a complete story.  And how on earth could all of these now-very-popular and successful performers ever be united?

And even if one dared to dream that perhaps someday some studio could be convinced to front the money to make a sequel for a film that flopped, there are all the other challenges of making a sequel to a comedy.  I could probably write a book analyzing all the reasons why this might be, but for now let’s just cut to the chase to state that making a comedy sequel is incredibly hard.  There are very, very few comedy sequels that are any good.  (Go ahead. Try to name one.)

Somehow, David Wain and Michael Showalter have managed to surmount every single challenge that stood in the way of crafting a satisfying and entertaining sequel to the original film.  I don’t quite know how they did it, but they did!  And so, lo and behold, Netflix’s eight-episode Wet Hot American Summer mini-series is now something that actually exists that I have seen with my own two eyeballs.

Somehow, David Wain and Michael Showalter managed to lure back every single cast-member of note from the original film.  That in itself is a triumph of staggering performers.  To reunite that enormous ensemble, all of whom are big comedy names?  Crazy.  (Along with the names I listed above, back for the mini-series … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I

I’ve never read any of the Hunger Games novels, but of course I knew of the phenomenon and so I was curious to see that first Hunger Games film.  I found it entertaining but rather mediocre.  But I was stunned how much I enjoyed the second film, Catching Fire I thought that film was a huge leap forward from the initial installment, and its cliffhanger ending left me quite eager for the third film.

And so I was a little bummed that Mockingjay Part I felt rather flat to me.  I think it’s a superior film to the first one, but lacks the narrative energy of the second.

The film picks off immediately after the end of Catching Fire.  We’ve seen social unrest lurking around the edge of the dystopian future of the Hunger Games world, but now a full-scale revolution seems about to emerge.  Unlike the first two stories, there is no new Hunger Games competition as the center of this story.  Rather, we follow Katniss as she finds herself the symbol of the revolution being led by the residents of District 13 against President Snow and the capitol.  Katniss never set out to be a revolutionary, she just wanted to save her sister and then find a way to survive herself in the brutal Hunger Games.  Though she recognizes the evil of President Snow’s rule, her primary motivation is to find a way to save her friend Peeta, who was left a prisoner of Snow following the dramatic events of the end of Catching Fire.

I like that this installment doesn’t feel the need to try to somehow ropes Katniss back into another Hunger Games competition.  The scale of the story has grown beyond that, which is exciting.  Here in Mockingjay, the struggle isn’t just for one hero to survive the Games, but instead this story is about the struggle to determine the future of this society itself.  Will the districts continue to allow themselves to be subjugated by the forces of the capitol, or will they find a way to unite and find a new path?  How can fractured, poor, basically unarmed districts possibly overcome the well-armed, technologically superior forces of the capitol?

A story about the mechanics of a populist revolution in a dystopian future sounds like an exciting focus for a film, as does the idea of following Katniss’ journey to becoming an actual participant in the growing revolution.  But I was a little surprised by how dull I found Mockingjay to be.  Not a whole heck of a lot happens in the film.  Really, except for the rescue attempt in the film’s final minutes, has the status quo for Katniss or her … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire improves on the first film in almost every way.  I have never read the books, so I am not evaluating these films based on any comparisons to the original novel.  I thought the first film, released two years ago, was perfectly adequate, a fine adventure story though not very memorable beyond that.  I didn’t find it to be particularly intense or emotional.  My favorite aspect of the film was the ending, which I felt was a wonderfully complex, enigmatic beat on which to end a big budget piece of Hollywood entertainment.  (Click here for my original review.)

With a new director, Francis Lawrence, at the helm, I am delighted to report that here in the sequel, the story of The Hunger Games has been elevated to the level they were clearly aiming for with the first film.  This is a film with wonderful visual effects and a riveting action/adventure story, but one that is grounded in compelling personal stories and, more intesting even than that, a larger story of a society ruled by the very top .001 percent, while the vast majority, the downtrodden, are on the verge of deciding that they are not going to take it anymore.  This story of a people’s revolution in a dystopian future is riveting (far more interesting to me than the Hunger Games competition itself in the film).  The very best sci-fi presents us with a warped but familiar version of a world that could be our own, and there is much about the story of Catching Fire that is extraordinarily of the moment.  Now, I don’t want to overstate things — Catching Fire is certainly not one of the best sci-fi films I have ever seen.  But I found it to be extremely rich and complex a piece of entertainment, with a depth that I wasn’t anticipating based on the first film.

The best decision made by the film-makers (and I assume this was the case with the original novel as well) is the amount of time spent in the first half exploring the repercussions of the events of the first film, both on Katniss Everdeen herself and on the society as a whole.  I loved the first half of this film.  I was hugely surprised by how long it took for Katniss and the other victors to wind up back in the Hunger Games competition.  That first half of the film sets the stakes, both for Katniss personally and for the world around her.  I like that Katniss is not presented as a super-hero.  She is scarred by the events of the first film, haunted by nightmares, and she is not eager to become … [continued]

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Josh Bids Farewell to 30 Rock

February 15th, 2013
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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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Josh Reviews The Hunger Games

I came into the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ hit novel The Hunger Games without having read any of the novels.  So my comments on the film will not contain any reflections on the film’s successes or failures as an adaptation of the source material.  My review will simply address whether the movie stands or falls on its own, as a film.

In that respect, I found Gary Ross’ film The Hunger Games to be a very entertaining, if rather unremarkable, adventure tale.

For a film adapted from an apparently family-friendly young-adult novel, I was pleasantly surprised by how intense and grim the film was.  While the film keeps the gore almost entirely off-camera, there is still quite a lot of violence, and I found the fights to be very energetic and engaging.  The final bit of hand-to-hand combat atop a ship was especially gripping.  Now, I’ve read Battle Royale, the Japanese manga published from 2000-2005 that tells a far more graphic, violent version of a similar story (schoolchildren forced to fight to the death).  So, compared to that, The Hunger Games is hopelessly tame.  But, that being said, I was impressed by the adult approach taken to the material.  I didn’t feel things were softened in order to appeal to a four-quadrant demographic.

That adult approach taken by Gary Ross and his team was clear throughout the film, and was the most appealing aspect of the movie for me.  This is an A-level adaptation, one in which a lot of care has clearly been taken to bring the world to life, and a lot of money spent to make it all look great.  The cast is spectacular across the board.  I loved Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone (click here for my review), and I thought she was also great in X-Men: First Class (click here for my review) and in Like Crazy (click here for my review).  After seeing her gripping performance in Winter’s Bone, playing Katniss Everdeen seems like a walk in the park for Ms. Lawrence, but that’s not to short-change her abilities.  She’s in almost every scene of the film (and, indeed, the few scenes that shift from Katniss’ perspective all seemed extraneous to me) and she absolutely anchors the story, giving the audience a character to invest in and root for.

Woody Harrelson is marvelous as Haymitch, the drunk survivor of a previous Hunger Games competition who is assigned to mentor Katniss.  Mr. Harrelson brings a world of pain and backstory to his performance — you can see it in his eyes, in the way he holds Katniss and her fellow “tribute” Peeta at arms length — that made … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2011: Our Idiot Brother

In the film Our Idiot Brother, Paul Rudd plays the titular idiot, Ned Rochlin.  Ned is an extremely sweet, well-meaning goofball, but he has an uncanny knack for wreaking unintentional havoc on the lives of everyone he encounters — along with his own!  When we first meet him, he’s being busted for selling pot to a police officer — who solicited him IN UNIFORM!  It’s a great introduction to Ned, because not only do we see that he is pretty naive and clueless, but we also see clearly his inherent decency.  He takes pity on the officer who comes to him with a sob story of how tough his life has been, which is why Ned agrees to sell him some pot.  Paul Rudd brings his 100-watt smile and every ounce of his powerful likability to the role, and it’s a great fit for his particular charms and skilled comedic mannerisms.

But Our Idiot Brother isn’t just about Ned, the idiot.  It’s also about the “Our” in the title — that being Ned’s three sisters, played by Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, and Emily Mortimer.  The three women are extraordinarily well-cast, and this assemblage of comedic and dramatic powerhouses is a huge part of what gives Our Idiot Brother it’s charm.

Elizabeth Banks plays Miranda.  She’s a fast-talking, city-living journalist for Vanity Fair. She’s struggling to make her breakthrough at the magazine, and isn’t above using some unscrupulous methods to do so.  She and her neighbor Jeremy (Adam Scott, so brilliant on Party Down and these days on Parks and Recreation) are clearly perfect for one another, though Ned is the only one of the three of them who can see that.  Zooey Deschanel plays Natalie, whose hippie lifestyle involves her living in a commune-style apartment with her girlfriend, Cindy (Rashida Jones, just as much fun and as brilliantly cast as the actresses playing the three sisters) and several other roommates.  Emily Mortimer plays Liz, a stay-at-home mom married to Dylan (Steve Coogan, with his smarminess turned up to eleven, which of course only makes him more entertaining), a documentary filmmaker who is cheating on her with the Russian dancer who is the subject of his latest film.

All three women (four, if you could Rashida Jones’ Cindy, and we really should) are fascinating, strong, sharply-drawn characters.  The film wouldn’t work if they weren’t as interesting as they all are.  These women are all fully-realized people, with strengths and flaws.  As Ned bounds into their lives, his unflinching honesty results, with unswerving consistency, in overturning the carefully-constructed patterns of each of their lives.

Our Idiot Brother is very funny, but there are dramatic aspects to the story as well, and director … [continued]

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Spielberg in the Aughts: Catch Me If You Can (2002)

When I began this project of rewatching the last decade-and-a-half’s worth of films directed by Steven Spielberg, I was hoping that I’d discover (or rediscover) some great films that I had perhaps dismissed too easily when I originally saw them in theatres.  I wondered if watching the films now, years later and separated from the hype and expectations that came with their original theatrical releases, would allow me to appreciate them more and perhaps cause me to re-evaluate my original opinions.

So far, though, that hasn’t happened.  I’ve enjoyed (for the most part), re-watching The Lost World, Amistad, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and Minority Report, but for all four films my opinions have remained almost exactly what they were when I first saw them.  (In a nutshell: mediocre, good, horrible, mediocre.)  But then, this week, I arrived at Catch Me If You Can.  I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed this flick!

Based on the autobiography of Frank Abergnale, Jr. (and co-written by Stan Redding), Catch Me If You Can tells the story of Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young man who, for years, successfully conned people into thinking he was an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, and who forged millions of dollars worth of checks.

Mr. Spielberg skillfully strikes a deft balance with the tone of the film.  There are some great moments of humor to be found in the tale (I particularly loved Hanratty’s knock-knock joke), and over-all the film has a fun, light tone.  And yet, at its core, Catch Me If You Can is really a profoundly sad story.  To me, the relationship between Frank and his father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) is the back-bone of the film, and it is heartbreaking.  In Frank Jr. we see a young man who, for all of his experiences, is still basically a child, looking for his father’s approval and desperately hoping to find a way to return his life to his idealized vision of how things used to be — with him, his father, and his mother all living happily together in a nice suburban house.  Frank Sr., meanwhile, has seen his business slowly fail (in the film we see him continually dogged by the IRS, and one assumes, despite Frank Sr.’s repeated claims, that this is not without good reason) and his wife leave him, but he is too proud to admit when he needs help and too angry at the government (and the society that allowed him to fail) to push his son to stop the increasingly elaborate con that he’s spinning.

Mr. Walken’s unique line-delivery can make him a ripe subject for parody.  For me, his one scene in Pulp [continued]

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Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen Make a Pretty Great Movie

In the new comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno, we witness the interesting collision of two comedy worlds.

Kevin Smith has been making raunchy comedies since his black-and-white, made-for-no-money-whatsoever debut film Clerks.  Although his subsequent films (Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Jersey Girl, and Clerks II) have varied somewhat in tone (as well as quality), Kevin Smith has established a distinctive (and, for those of us who love his work, tremendously enjoyable) style to his films.  He has an ensemble of actors who have appeared regularly (Jason Mewes, Ben Affleck, Jeff Anderson, and many other familiar faces), and there’s a distinct cadence to his wonderful dialogue, which can be counted on to be chock full of obscure pop culture references, vulgarity and frank discussions of all-things sexual.  

It might not be so apparent, but Kevin Smith’s dialogue-focused films, featuring a lot of young people having one gloriously off-color conversation after another, were once quite ground-breaking.  (I can’t think of any movie, before Clerks, that had anything remotely similar to the famous “how many dicks did you suck” conversation.)  But in recent years it has been the films coming out from the Judd Apatow troupe (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, etc.) that have been taking up all of the comedy limelight, and pushing the envelope forward.  (Clerks is raunchy, but to me at least, Superbad is WAY raunchier.  Go ahead and re-watch the first five minutes of that movie and tell me I’m wrong.)

While everyone (myself included) has been singing the praises of Judd Apatow and everyone else involved in this recent wave of highly successful comedies, I don’t think quite enough attention has been paid to just how influenced these films have been by Kevin Smith’s work.  And so, as one watches Zack and Miri Make a Porno unfold, there is a lot of enjoyment to be found from the comedy circle completing itself, as we find so many familiar faces from the Apatow movies now starring in Kevin Smith’s latest film.  

The two headliners are, of course, Seth Rogen (who appeared in both Apatow TV series Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, had a supporting role in The 40 Year Old Virgin, starred in Knocked Up, and co-wrote and co-starred in Superbad), and Elizabeth Banks (the “junk in the trunk” girl from The 40 Year Old Virgin who has been all over the place this year, most recently in W. and Role Models).  While several Smith regulars also appear in Zack and Miri, such as Jason Mewes (finally playing a character other than Jay) and Jeff Anderson (Randall from Clerks and … [continued]

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Dubya and his Daddy

Despite some terrific trailers that had me excited, most of the reviews I’ve read of Oliver Stone’s W. were decidedly mediocre.  Nevertheless, I was very curious, so I decided that I needed to see the film for myself.

And I’m glad I did — I found the movie to be tremendously entertaining!  As you’ve all heard by now (this is the one element of the film that most critics have been excited about), Josh Brolin is terrific as George W. Bush.  Brolin walks the fine line between imitating the President and inhabiting him.  This isn’t just Will Ferrell playing Dubya on SNL.  Not to knock Mr. Ferrell (who is a comic genius!!) but Brolin brings powerful life to his performance.  And this is critical, because Stone is asking the audience to spend two hours with this man who, ultimately, the movie evaluates as a failure.  That could make for very unpleasant viewing!  But Brolin, along with Stone, is able to balance the humor and the intense gravity of the situations throughout the film.

Stone has an interesting task in helming a biography of a sitting President, without the benefit of a decade or so of hindsight.  Most thinking Americans have their own opinions and evaluations of George W. Bush (I know I do), but it’ll be interesting to see how we look back on this man in 20-30 years.  Stone’s hypothesis (along with screenwriter Stanley Weiser) is that Bush is a man always chasing after his father’s approval, and always falling short.  Is this the truth?  It’s hard for me to say, but Stone certainly crafts a compelling case.

As George Herbert Walker Bush, James Cromwell (L.A. Confidential, Babe: Pig in the City, The Green Mile, and of course he’s also Jack Bauer’s papa) is a towering figure, and the strained relationship between these two men is the centerpiece of the film.  We feel the elder Bush’s love for his son, but more strongly do we feel his profound disappointment.  Many of the reviews I’ve read expressed some surprise that Stone’s film wasn’t more critical of George W Bush.  I’m not sure what movie those reviewers were watching, because to me this film is an evisceration of Dubya.  No, he’s not protrayed as a complete incompetent caricature.  But to me the figure-person for the audience, and for Stone, is George Herbert Walker Bush.  When he evaluates his son as a failure, that to me is what we the audience are supposed to feel — that evaluation is the statement of the film.  As I said, in that respect it feels like an evisceration.  As the film reminds us towards the end, this isn’t just a game — real people’s … [continued]