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Josh Reviews Mary Poppins Returns

Set twenty-five years after the original Mary Poppins, the new film Mary Poppins Returns picks up the story of the Banks children, Jane and Michael, now all grown up.  Michael has three children, but his wife has recently passed away.  Jane has basically moved in with him, but still they are having trouble raising the kids and making enough money to make ends meet.  As the film opens, we learn that the bank is about to repossess their family home.  And so the time is ripe for the return of Mary Poppins, who reappears to help bring life and love back to the Banks family.

It requires a certain amount of chutzpah to make a sequel to a film as beloved and iconic as Mary Poppins.  (With 54 years having passed since the release of the original film, is this the longest gap between sequels in film history?)  When I first heard of plans for this sequel, it seemed like a pure cash grab.  I’m impressed, though, by the skill and love that has gone into the making of this new film.  It has elements that work and elements that don’t, but it seems to have been made by people, on both sides of the camera, who wanted to respect and honor the original film.

The best part of this new film is Emily Blunt’s absolutely perfect (in every way) performance as Mary Poppins.  This film would have crashed and burned if they had not been able to find someone who could successfully step into Julie Andrew’s iconic shoes.  Being able to recreate this memorable character while also allowing her to live and breathe again as a true character allowed to be new and different, rather than just a slavish imitation, is a fiendishly difficult task.  Ms. Blunt makes it look effortless.  (I am sure it was the opposite!)  I have been a fan of Ms. Blunt’s ever since Charlie Wilson’s War, and she has been extraordinary in film after film since then (Edge of Tomorrow, The Five-Year Engagement, Looper, Sicario). This might be her toughest role and her greatest accomplishment.  Her singing voice is gorgeous, and she beautifully carries a number of new songs in the film.  More importantly, she captures Mary Poppins’ dignity and her humor, her sternness and the ever-present twinkle in her eye.

I was excited to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work in the film.  I thought it was ingenious to cast him to step into a similar character-type as that so memorably portrayed by Dick Van Dyke in the original film.  Mr. Miranda plays Jack, a London lamplighter and former apprentice of the chimney-sweep Bert played by Mr. Van Dyke … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Girl on the Train

Adapted from the Paula Hawkins novel of the same name, The Girl on the Train tells the story of Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), a divorced alcoholic.  Every day Rachel rides the train to and from New York City, and she has become obsessed with the couple living in a house that she sees every day from her train window during the trip.  To her, this couple represents a perfect, happy relationship, of the type that Rachel longs for.  But one day, Rachel sees the woman kissing another man.  This drives Rachel even deeper into depression, and later that night, after getting completely drunk, Rachel decides to confront the cheating woman.  The next morning she wakes up with no memory of what occurred, but there is blood on her shirt and head, and the woman, Megan, is reported missing.

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I haven’t read the original novel, so I can only judge The Girl on the Train as a movie.

As a movie, there is a lot about it that works.  Emily Blunt is magnificent in the lead role, and for much of the film I was quite hooked into the mystery of what had transpired.  Unfortunately, I was able to figure it out far earlier than the movie wanted me to, and as the pieces came together I was bummed that there were so many coincidences that, for me, weakened the answers that the film provided as to what had gone down.

I have been a fan of Emily Blunt’s ever since her small role in Charlie Wilson’s War.  She’s been spectacular in film after film since then.  I didn’t love The Devil Wears Prada, but she was terrific in it and very memorable.  She was great in The Adjustment Bureau with Matt Damon, and she was the best thing about Lynn Shelton’s awkward indie Your Sister’s Sister She was perfection in the very funny, and very under-rated, The Five-Year Engagement with Jason Segal, a rare comedy role for her.  She kicked a lot of ass and was riveting in the sci-fi films Looper with Bruce Willis & Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise, and although I was one of the few people who seemed to not have loved Sicario, I was for sure head over heels in love with Ms. Blunt’s leading performance.

She is once again spectacular here in The Girl on the Train as Rachel.  Ms. Blunt completely embodies this mess of a character, keeping the audience thoroughly hooked into her performance even as she, and the film, don’t shy away from depicting many of Rachel’s terrible actions.  This is a character who has been terrible to others and to herself, who you think … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Sicario

As Sicario opens, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) raid a house in Arizona looking for kidnapping victims, only to discover that hidden inside the walls of the house are the gruesome remains of dozens of dead victims of the drug cartels.  Kate agrees to be reassigned to a team of men hunting the cartels, despite the shadowy nature of some of the men involved, including Matt (Josh Brolin), who Kate suspects is a CIA agent, and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) a man who seems to have inside knowledge of the cartels.  Kate is taken off-guard that the team’s first mission takes them outside the U.S. and to Juarez, Mexico to extradite a prisoner.  On the way out, they find themselves in a violent shootout with cartel men in the middle of a crowded bridge.  Kate has found herself suddenly surrounded in a world of terrible violence and increasingly murky morality, as the actions of Matt and Alejandro and their team seem to be of questionable legality at best.  To what end will she allow herself to go in pursuit of the cartel head-honchos?  Just what sorts of means will justify their ends?

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Sicario is a tense thrilled that had me quite on the edge of my seat for much of its run-time.  I like the way the film throws the audience into the story, not giving us (or Kate, our main character) much chance to catch our breath or to get our bearings.  I enjoyed the murky moral questions that the film, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by Denis Villeneuve, raises.

But I didn’t quite love the film the way so many other reviewers seemed to.  Throughout the film I found myself repeatedly scratching my head as to why Matt (Josh Brolin) behaves like such a dick to Kate, and why she tolerates that behavior.  Sicario is a film whose story only really works if you accept the notion that Matt will withhold key information from Kate until late in the third act, and that Kate will continue to go along with what’s happening without insisting on someone giving her a straight answer.  Part of my brain can accept this, thinking that people go along with all sorts of things when they want to fit in and look like a good, agreeable person to their bosses in an effort to get ahead.  I can see this being even more of an issue in Kate’s case, a woman who, despite the film showing us her smarts and competence, is nonetheless the lone woman among all these alpha dog males.  On the other hand, the other part of my brain recognizes the withholding … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Edge of Tomorrow

July 7th, 2014
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While humanity wages a bitter war against a race of alien invaders nicknamed the Mimics, Major William Cage works for the military as a television-friendly recruiter, encouraging young men and women to enlist in the fight.  But when he finds himself assigned to the front, Cage panics and tries to bribe his way out of his orders.  This backfires spectacularly, resulting in his being stripped of his rank and assigned to a unit of front-line grunts.  Despite his protestations, he’s strapped into an exo-suit, a complex piece of military hardware he hasn’t a clue how to operate, and is dropped into the thick of the counter-offensive against the aliens.  But the offensive is a catastrophe, the human forces are wiped out, and Cage is killed.  Then Cage wakes up and it’s the morning of that day, the day of the offensive.  He lives the whole day again only to find himself once again killed by the aliens.  And then he wakes up again back at the start of that same day.  Over and over again.

Based on the Japanese novel All You Need is Kill, the film Edge of Tomorrow (written by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth, and directed by Doug Liman) is very much a sci-fi version of Groundhog Day.  This is something of a double-edged sword, because while the idea of an action-packed, hard sci-fi version of Groundhog Day is a tantalizing idea and a juicy hook, it also gives the film’s structure a bit of a feeling of been-there, done that.  Groundhog Day is a phenomenal film, and I don’t think any film could tell that particular story any better than it does.

Luckily, while Edge of Tomorrow also tells the story of a self-centered jerk who learns to become a better man while living the same day over and over and over again, it’s different enough that, to me, it succeeds in standing on its own two feet as its own story.

In this film, the survival of humanity rests in Cage’s hands, as he must find a way to not only understand what is happening to him but also to use that to in some way defeat the seemingly unbeatable aliens.  That gives the film a narrative momentum, and it means that the intensity continues to raise after each of Cage’s repeated deaths after deaths after deaths.  It also means that, whereas in Groundhog Day the explanation for Phil’s being trapped in a time-loop was unimportant, here it is of critical importance that Cage discovers what is happening to him and why, and how he can find a way to control it.

Tom Cruise is great in the film.  As always, Mr. Cruise … [continued]

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From The DVD Shelf: Your Sister’s Sister (2011)

December 18th, 2013
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I have been really enjoying, recently, the work of Mark Duplass, both in front of and behind the camera.  As a writer/director, working with his brother Jay Duplass, he’s helmed some great films.  I thought Cyrus was good (click here for my review) and I thought Jeff, Who Lives at Home was spectacular (click here for my review).  I’ve also been very impressed with Mr. Duplass as an actor, in films like Greenberg and Zero Dark Thirty, but particularly in the wonderful Safety Not Guaranteed (click here for my review).  And so I was drawn to check out the indie film Your Sister’s Sister, also starring Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt.  I love all three performers, so I was interested to see what this film was all about.

The film starts in an uncomfortable place.  We see a group of friends gathering to remember someone who had died, a year previously.  When Jack (Mark Duplass) makes a bit of an angry mess of things, we understand that it’s his brother who they are remembering.  His friend Iris (Emily Blunt) strongly suggests that he take some time to get ahold of himself and try to find a way to move forward, and she offers to let her stay at her family’s isolated cabin.  When Jack arrives, he’s startled to find someone already there: Iris’ sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt).  Jack is clearly in love with Iris — or at least, strongly attracted to her — a situation complicated by the fact that she is his dead brother’s former girlfriend.  Things get even more complicated when, that first night in the cabin, Jack and Hannah — both drunk and lonely — sleep with one another.  When Iris arrives unexpectedly the next morning, surprising both Jack and Hannah, things come to a head.

Written and directed by Lynn Shelton, Your Sister’s Sister is a wrenching-at-times character study of these three people, each of whom is somewhat broken and lonely.  The film elapses over the course of just a few days, mostly time spent by the three together in the cabin.  It is extremely awkward and painful at times.  I was immediately rooting for Jack and Iris to find a happy ending together, and it’s tough watching them seem to drift further and further apart as the film progresses.

The central situation of the film — the complex romantic entanglement between the three characters — seems a little far-fetched and almost sitcom-y, but the film treats the story incredibly seriously.  As a result, the film has a naturalistic, honest feeling.  That set-up could have been the start of a farcical film filled with goofy mis-understandings and one-liners, but … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Looper

It’s always a great delight to see an original sci-fi film.  We were all excited for Prometheus this past summer, but while that big-budget, mega-hyped film was a dud (click here for my review), I was positively thrilled by Rian Johnson’s new film, Looper.

The year is 2044.  Time travel has not yet been invented, but it will be.  The mob of the future uses the outlawed technology of time-travel to dispose of people they want out of the way.  They just send them back in time, where a hit-man, called a Looper, is there waiting to shoot them as soon as they appear.  The Looper then disposes of the body, and all is well.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a Looper, Joe, whose careful life unravels when he fails to kill a target sent back from the future — who turns out to be himself, thirty years older (and played by Bruce Willis).  Joe’s mob bosses will kill him if he doesn’t kill his older self (“closing his loop”), so Young Joe sets out after Old Joe, who meanwhile has a plan to make a key change to his history.

It’s a delicious set-up, one that is only enhanced by the fantastic casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as different-aged versions of the same character.  There’s some great prosthetic work that reshapes Mr. Gordon-Levitt’s face just slightly, to make him more resemble Bruce Willis.  (It’s particularly noticeable when you see him in profile.)  Both men are fantastic, and I loved watching the two of them go at it.  In particular, it’s great to see Bruce Willis in a bona-fide good action movie again.  The man is just awesome playing a bad-ass in an action movie, and he plays everything with just enough of a twinkle in his eye to keep the audience hooked into his performance.  One of my favorite aspects of the film was the way the story keeps shifting the audience’s sympathies back and forth between Young Joe and Old Joe.  It’s very clever.

Mr. Gordon-Levitt and Mr. Willis are far and away the anchors of the movie, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the high-wattage of the supporting cast.  Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Emily Blunt, Garret Dillahunt, Piper Perabo all do fantastic work in their roles.  Jeff Daniels in particular is great fun as the man sent from the future to run the Looper organization in the present-day.

For such a relatively low-budget film ($30 million dollars, from what I have read), the film looks dynamite.  From the trailers I expected the film to be set in present-day, but instead the film’s present-day is 2044, with the future era (when time-travel exists) 30 … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Five-Year Engagement

In the opening scenes of The Five-Year Engagement, Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) get engaged after having been dating for exactly a year.  They seem perfect for one another, and the engagement is quickly followed by a movie-perfect sweet/off-color engagement party.  Bring on the wedding, right?  Well, as you can tell from the title, not quite.  Violet gets accepted into a post-doc at the University of Michigan, so the couple decide to put off the wedding-planning temporarily to move from sunny San Francisco to cold, wintry Michigan.  The movie isn’t called The Two-Year Engagement, so obviously further obstacles spring up in Tom and Violet’s path.

I’ve been enjoying Jason Segel’s work ever since Freaks and Geeks. It’s hard to believe that the weird, gangly kid who the networks refused to cast as the lead in Judd Apatow’s follow-up series, Undeclared, despite Mr. Apatow’s championing of him (and who, as a result, Mr. Apatow snuck into episode after episode in the supporting role of Eric, Lizzie’s stalkerish ex-boyfriend) has over the last few years become a big-screen leading man.  I’ve never stopped being a big fan of his work.  In project after project, Mr. Segel can always be counted on to bring a certain oddball weirdness to all of his characters, but that weirdness is usually tempered by an inherent innocence and goodness.  He’s a fearless performer (yes, Mr. Segel is naked at times on-screen in this film, as he often is) and one not afraid to dive deeply into the well of psychosis.  My favorite section in the film is Tom’s descent into depression, as his two-years in Michigan slides into four and he becomes increasingly bitter about the chef-career he gave up for Violet.  Tom gets weird, and hairy (he sports a hysterical wild-man beard-thing), and obsessed with hunting, and the whole thing comes very, very close to being off-putting, but I thought it was an absolute riot.

The Five-Year Engagement is the third film directed by Nicholas Stoller.  His first film was the absolutely brilliant Forgetting Sarah Marshall (click here for my brief review), which he co-wrote with Jason Segel (who also appeared in the film, in his first major starring role).  Mr. Stoller also directed the sort-of sequel Get Him to the Greek (click here for my review), and he co-wrote The Muppets with Jason Segel (click here for my review).  So clearly Mr. Segel and Mr. Stoller are a well-oiled machine, and The Five-Year Engagement, while not quite as great as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, is a pretty terrific film that benefits greatly from their strong partnership.

It’s also a film that is unabashedly bizarre.  It’s a comedy, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Adjustment Bureau!

I’m always intrigued, but a bit worried, when I hear that another Philip K. Dick story is being turned into a movie.  Many adaptations of Mr. Dick’s work have been pretty horrid, and even the ones that are great (such as Total Recall and Blade Runner) tend to diverge pretty far from the source material.  But the promise of one of Mr. Dick’s short stories being used as the basis for the script, along with an intriguingly talented cast, piqued my interest in the new film, The Adjustment Bureau.

Matt Damon plays David Norris, a young, hot-shot rising-star politician who, nevertheless, has just lost the race for the New York Senate seat.  In the moments before he’s to give his concession speech, he meets a beautiful young dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt) in the bathroom.  She’s hiding out from security in the men’s room because she just crashed a wedding in the same building.  Sparks immediately fly between the two, and she inspires David to give a surprising off-the-cuff speech that  almost immediately begins to revive his political career.  When the two meet again soon thereafter, bumping into one another on a city bus, it’s clear that they have a powerful connection.  But almost immediately David finds himself confronting a mysterious group of men who seem determined to keep the two apart.  These men are the Adjustment Bureau.  They claim to be the instruments of a higher power, helping to keep people on their proper paths.  They warn David that he and Elise are not fated to be together, and that if he does not let her go, the consequences will be disastrous for them both.

For a film based on a story by Philip K. Dick (his 1954 tale Adjustment Team), the film is actually surprisingly light on the science fiction.  It’s really more of a fantasy about belief and faith and fate than it is a sci-fi adventure.  That’s not in any way a criticism.  The film incorporates the fantastic with a fairly light touch, keeping the focus squarely on David’s real-world emotions and his struggle to find a way out of the impossible situation in which he finds himself.

The glimpses we were given into how the Adjustment Bureau functions were fun — just tantalizing enough to leave us intrigued but not bogged down by exposition.  I loved the look of their books (which map individuals’ destinies), and I thought that their system of traveling incredible distances in the blink of an eye through doors that they could turn into portals across the globe was cool (even if the thunder of this device was stolen slightly by Monsters, Inc. — still, Mr. Dick’s story came … [continued]