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Josh Reviews Justice League!

Warner Brothers and DC’s new film, Justice League, is a milestone in their efforts to chase after the achievements of Marvel’s cinematic universe.  But whereas Marvel’s last decade-worth of films has seen a remarkably cohesive, gradual unfolding and expansion of a universe’s worth of characters and story-lines, DC/Warners’ efforts have been, well, let’s say a little more stumbling.

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was enormously successful, critically and commercially, but those films were a self-contained series.  Once that wrapped up with The Dark Knight Rises, DC/Warners began working to create their own interconnected cinematic universe.  Green Lantern failed, but Man of Steel seemed like a stronger first step, though that film was not quite the smash DC/Warners was likely hoping for, and it met with a mixed reaction from fans and critics.  (Overall I enjoy the film and I like a lot of the visual choices that Zack Snyder and his team made, though the film is undermined by several critical story-choices that don’t work and an ill-conceived ending.)  Whereas Marvel introduced its heroes gradually, though their own solo films, DC/Warners moved to jump-start their shared super-hero universe with 2016’s Batman v. Superman, which was intended to lead into the first part of a two-part Justice League film.  But while it made money, Batman v. Superman was roundly (and accurately) criticized for being an overly-long, overly-dour mess with an incoherent plot and flat characters.  (The extended version actually improves upon many of the film’s flaws, but not nearly enough to consider the film “good.”).  Suicide Squad was supposed to be a hip, fun shot-in-the-arm for DC/Warners’ super-hero film series, but I thought it was even worse than Batman v. Superman.  Only Wonder Woman was a true success, telling a fun, solid story with real characters that connected with the fans.

With their films failing to connect with audiences, DC/Warners began to curtail their ambitious plans that were laid out back in 2014.  Suddenly the two-part Justice League epic became a single film; who knows if we will ever see a sequel, or whether any of the other promised solo films (a Flash film, a Cyborg film, another try at Green Lantern, a solo Batman film starring Ben Affleck, a Man of Steel 2) will ever actually come to be.

Meanwhile, following Batman v. Superman’s critical drubbing, reports came out about efforts to rework and reshape Justice League, in an attempt to inject some of the lightness and optimism that has proven so successful with the Marvel films.  (The degree to which Zack Snyder, who directed Man of Steel, Batman and Superman, and Justice League, was on board with these changes is somewhat … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Terminator: Genisys

In my review of Jurassic World, I commented that the problem with all of the disappointing sequels to the great Jurassic Park is that they’ve basically been the exact same movie retold over and over again.  The Terminator has also had disappointing sequel after disappointing sequel, but for the exact opposite reason.  Both Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator: Salvation, and now Terminator: Genisys have gone in wildly different directions.  Each has been a (failed) attempt to kick-start a new trilogy of Terminator films. Rather than being frustrating because these films feel like the same film over and over again, they are frustrating because they are so all-over-the-place, removing any sense of narrative flow or continuity from this series.  Neither Terminator 3, Terminator: Salvation, nor Terminator: Genisys are absolutely terrible.  There are some good ideas and good moments in all three films.  But none of them are able to come anywhere close to James Cameron’s amazing original two films.

The best thing I can say about Terminator: Genisys?  It’s not as horrible as its title.

TerminatorGenisys.cropped

Terminator: Genisys actually has a decent idea at its core.  The film begins by showing us what we never got to see in James Cameron’s original films: the day John Connor and his resistance defeated Skynet, found the time displacement center, and sent Kyle Reese back in time to save John’s mother Sarah Connor from death at the hands of a Terminator.  Kyle is prepared by John to encounter the Sarah who we met in the first film: an innocent waitress with no idea of the danger she’s in or her importance to the future.  But when Kyle arrives back in 1984, he discovers that the timeline has been changed and a T-1000 is there waiting for him.  Now it’s Kyle who has to be rescued by Sarah — not the damsel in distress he was expecting but a tough warrior-woman (reminiscent of Linda Hamilton’s depiction of the character in T2) — who has been raised since youth by another Terminator to prepare for this day.

While I dislike the idea of erasing the events of the first two films, I can get behind this idea as a way to tell more Terminator stories when things had seemed pretty wrapped up by the end of the second film.  (All three subsequent sequels have really had to struggle to continue the story beyond the end of T2, in which Sarah and John destroyed Skynet before it could be born, thus preventing Judgment Day and the destruction of mankind.)  Indeed, the most fun to be had in Terminator: Genisys is the way the film, in the first half-hour, recreates so many iconic moments from … [continued]

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Catching Up! Josh Reviews Whiplash, The One I Love, and A Million Ways to Die in the West

I’m catching up with reviews of movies I’ve seen over the past several months!  Onward:

Whiplash (2014) — Every bit as compelling as I’d heard.  Miles Teller first came to my attention in the excellent film The Spectacular Now (click here for my review), which made me eager to see his follow-up work.  He shines in writer/director Damien Chazelle’s film, playing Andrew, a drum student looking to stand out at an elite music conservatory in New York.  Andrew catches the eye of the brutally tough instructor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), who invites him to join his studio band.  What seems at first like great fortune for Andrew sours as we the audience experience, along with Andrew, the vicious way in which Fletcher pushes the student musicians who idolize him.  The film is a fascinating exploration of a teacher-student relationship and the tough questions of where is the line between a teacher taking someone with the potential for greatness and pushing him/her hard to achieve that greatness, versus crossing the line into abuse.  These are thorny questions, and the film leaves a lot of room for an audience to reach their own conclusions, which I enjoyed.  There is some spectacular music in the film, which is a delight.  But the real reason to see this film is to relish J. K. Simmons’ barn-busting performance.  Mr. Simmons grabs every iota of the viewer’s attention every second he is on screen.  It’s a bravura performance and deserving of every ounce of praise that Mr. Simmons has received.  This is a great film.

The One I Love (2014) — This is a delightfully weird film, an indie relationship film with a sci-fi twist.  Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss play Ethan and Sophie, a married couple having trouble in their marriage.  Their therapist (Ted Danson) recommends that they visit a place he knows, where they can have a romantic weekend together.  When they arrive there, they find the estate has a mysterious cottage in which they each encounter what appears to be an idealized version of the other.  But these doppelgängers only appear when either Ethan or Sophie are in the cottage alone — they vanish if both Ethan and Sophie enter together.  While at first their instinct is to flee the estate, eventually Ethan and Sophie agree to stay for the remainder of their weekend and see where these interactions with these idealized versions of one another go.  Things get twister from there but I fear I have already told you too much.  The One I Love is an intriguing investigation of a troubled relationship, using the sci-fi device as a hook into the story.  Both Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Party Down Season Two!

Last month I wrote about the terrific first season of Party Down. I wasted little time in devouring the show’s second season, as well.  Sadly, these two short seasons represent the entire run of the show, but I can’t recommend them highly enough to you.

To re-cap, Party Down focuses on the sad-sack employees of Party Down, a small Hollywood catering business.  Pretty much every single one of the Party Down staff are wannabe actors, hoping for their big break while toiling away at a menial job they detest.  The genius of the show’s structure is that every episode is set at a different Party Down event/party.  So each episode becomes its own self-contained little movie, with totally different locations and guest-stars.  It’s a brilliant structure for a TV show, and one that could have provided endless story-telling opportunities.  Sadly that was not to be.

Season two of Party Down begins a few months after the end of season one.  Ron (Ken Marino)’s Soup R Crackers franchise has failed, and he slinks back to Party Down as a depressed, angry slacker.  With Henry (Adam Scott) now team leader, the first few episodes of the season revels in the reversal-of-roles.  (Now Ron is the difficult one, and Henry is the exasperated boss trying to keep him and the rest of their motley crew in line.)

The only major cast change is that Jane Lynch had left the series (to appear in Glee), so season two introduces us to a new character Lydia (Megan Mullally).  Ms. Mullally is phenomenal as the loopily deranged Hollywood mom, trying to guide her pre-teen daughter to super-stardom.  The show’s creators wisely chose to create an entirely different character from Lynch’s Constance.  While I missed Jane Lynch, of course, Megan Mullally is so entertaining that I quickly accepted her addition to the cast.

Season two of Party Down again blesses us with some terrific guest-stars.  J.K. Simmons, Joey Lauren Adams, and Kristen Bell all return from season one.  Dave (Gruber) Allen (guidance counselor Jeff Rosso on Freaks and Geeks) gives a memorable turn as a sci-fi author having a brush with Hollywood.  But the season’s best guest star, and the star of arguably the season’s best episode, is Steve Guttenberg.  That’s right, Police Academy’s Steve Guttenberg.  In the episode “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday,” Mr. Guttenberg hires the Party Down crew to cater his birthday.  But his friends throw him a surprise party the day before, and he forgets to cancel the booking.  So when Party Down shows up at his house, Mr. Guttenberg (playing himself) decides to invite the gang into his house to have a party with him.  It’s a crazy premise, but the half-hour … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Party Down (Season One)!

Wow!  Add this series to the list of brilliant, cancelled-before-their-time TV shows!

I don’t think I even heard of Party Down during the two seasons it was on the air, on Starz, in 2009-10.  But every now and then, since it’s cancellation, I’d hear or read a mention of it, mostly in connection to being a prior great role of Adam Scott’s, who I’ve been so enjoying as Ben Dywer on the terrific Parks and Recreation.  A sale on Amazon lead me to buy the first season on DVD, and I was blown away!  I’m already almost finished with season two, and deep in mourning that there are no more episodes of this fantastic show!

The series focuses on Party Down, a fairly low-quality Hollywood catering company, staffed primarily by out-of-work actors and actresses.  The show is a true ensemble, but if I had to identify a lead character it would be Adam Scott as Henry.  Henry was once a struggling actor whose big break came on a commercial, saying the catch phrase “Are we having fun yet?”.  Sadly, that break-out role also destroyed his career, forever type-casting him as the “are we having fun yet?” guy.  His dreams pretty much crushed, Henry is fairly rudderless when we first meet him, having sworn off acting, but not sure what he should do with his life instead of that.

He’s hired to work with Party Down by an old friend, Ron, played by Ken Marino.  The two used to party together, back in the day, but Ron partied too hard and too long.  He’s sworn off all booze and drugs now, and he sees his job as Party Down team leader as a stepping-stone towards his dream of one day owning a Soup ‘R Crackers franchise.  While everyone else treats their gigs catering with Party Down with apathy or downright loathing, Ron takes things totally seriously, leading to a lot of (very funny) butting heads with his team of misfits.  Ron is so sincere, he’s pretty impossible not to love.

The only part of working for Party Down that is remotely appealing for Henry is the presence of Casey, played by Lizzy Caplan.  Although Casey is married when we first meet her in the pilot, the show wisely avoids any prolonged will-they-or-won’t-they Ross/Rachel tension by immediately getting the two together.  Casey is struggling mightily to succeed as a stand-up comic, and though she’s been pretty beaten down by rejection she sees right through Henry’s “I don’t care anymore” attitude.  Lizzy Caplan had a very small role in Freaks and Geeks, but I recognized her most from her role as Marlena in Cloverfield.  She’s absolutely dynamite here, tough and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Up in the Air

Director Jason Reitman continues his winning streak with his third film (after Thank You For Smoking and Juno), Up in the Air.

George Clooney (continuing to prove that he is a far better actor than you might think a fellow with his movie-star good looks and fame would need to be) plays Ryan Bingham, a man whose job is to fire employees at companies whose bosses don’t have the desire or the guts to do so themselves.  Every day, Ryan flies to a different city, back-and-forth across the United States, to fire different people from a different company.  It’s a job that most would probably find tremendously distasteful.  But Ryan loves it.  It’s not that he gets pleasure from firing people.  (Actually, he’s quite skilled at helping newly-fired employees get over the shock and anger of being fired — and by someone they’ve never met, to boot — and he seems to enjoy the moments of human connection when he’s able to help one of those unfortunate souls find some shred of a silver lining to their situation.)  It’s more that he loves the unattached, free-as-a-bird lifestyle that his constantly-traveling ways allow him.

Ryan relishes having no ties.  His apartment (that he barely sees) is completely empty and unadorned.  He isn’t married, doesn’t have any kids, and is distant from his family.  While most Americans would probably side with me in hating the experience of flying, Ryan loves it.  He relishes having frequent flyer cards and valued customer status at airlines, car-rental organizations, and hotels across the country that enable him to zip in and out (cutting ahead of the rest of us poor folks waiting in endless lines) with just the swipe of a gold card.  He loves staying in hotels, he loves having a drink in airport VIP lounges, he loves flying.  In Ryan’s mind, he is entirely free.

Ryan’s perfect-to-him life is shifted, though, by two developments.  One is positive: at a hotel bar one evening, he strikes up a conversation with a beautiful woman who, it turns out, is just as much of a travel-junkie as he is.  The woman is Alex, played by the luminous Vera Farmiga (Matt Damon’s girlfriend in The Departed), and she and Ryan seem to immediately realize that they have each found a special connection with the other.  The other change is much more negative to Ryan: an ambitious young woman named Natalie (Anna Kendrick), newly hired by his company, has developed a system in which Ryan and his peers can fire people without every leaving their company headquarters.  Instead of paying enormous sums to fly back and forth across the country, they could instead use today’s modern web-cam … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Extract

September 28th, 2009
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So let’s get this out of the way:  Office Space is one of the greatest films ever made.  Just a phenomenal movie.  Writer/Director Mike Judge’s second film, Idiocracy, was much, much weaker (although not so horrible that it deserved the way it was basically dumped direct-to-DVD by 20th Century Fox).  Judge’s new film, Extract, falls somewhere in between those two films in terms of quality.

Jason Bateman plays Joel, the sad-sack owner of a small plant that produces flavored almond extract.  His wife (Kristen Wiig) doesn’t want to sleep with him, he lives next door to an extraordinarily annoying neighbor (David Koechner), and his factory workers are all, well, morons.  To make matters worse, Joel’s plans to sell the plant are put into jeopardy by a freak accident that causes an unfortunate injury to his plant’s wannabe-floor manager, the fairly-clueless Step (Clifton Collins Jr.), AND Joel has just mistakenly hired a money-chasing con artist (Mila Kunis) who is after the money that Step will probably make if he sues Joel’s company.  Oh, and Joel really needs to stop listening to the terrible advice doled out by his bar-tender, Dean (a very hairy Ben Affleck).

What follows is an amusing look into the lives of a group of powerfully ordinary Americans, most of whom are either very unhappy or very dim.  I enjoyed the film, but it’s not at all the laugh-riot I was expecting from Mike Judge and a cast of that pedigree.

The beauty of Office Space is that, while most of the main characters are unhappy (as they are in Extract), we completely feel for them in their unhappiness because of all the cubicle bullshit that we see they have to put up with on a daily basis.  Furthermore, while exaggerated, all of that office-life nonsense rings true.  That core of truth is, I think, critical in the audience being swept along by all of the silliness that then transpires in the film.  But much of the set-up of Extract feels slightly false to me.  For instance, the major issue between Joel and his wife (that she won’t have sex with him after 8 PM, and he can never get home before then) is good for a few laughs but also seems rather ridiculous.  Kristen Wiig plays Suzie as a decent person who does seem to like her husband — so it seems like the type of thing that they could easily work out with a simple conversation.  Of course, if they did, there’d be no movie, but I’m always bothered when I notice characters only acting a certain way because that’s what the plot demands.

Still, there is some good fun to be … [continued]

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Josh Reviews I Love You, Man!

In I Love You, Man, Paul Rudd plays Peter Klaven, an LA real estate agent who discovers, after getting engaged to his girlfriend Zooey (Rashida Jones), that he doesn’t really have any male friends he could ask to be his groomsmen.  With some help from Zooey and his brother Robbie (SNL‘s Andy Samberg), Peter embarks on a series on “man-dates” to try to find some guy friends.  After a bizarre but amusing encounter at one of his open houses, Peter strikes up a friendship with Sydney Fife (Jason Segal).  Not suprisingly, this new friendship quickly throws much of the rest of Peter’s life into disarray.

The success (and high quality — the two don’t always go hand-in-hand, you know!) of Judd Apatow’s films (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up) have really sparked a wave of truly excellent comedies in a similar style.  But while these could have all wound up being pale imitations of Apatow’s films, it has been quite remarkable to see actors from his ensembles continue to work together and collaborate with other talented actors, writers, and directors to produce additional high quality films. I Love You, Man is certainly a prime example of this.

Directed by John Hamburg (who directed several episodes of Apatow’s brilliant TV series Undeclared, as well as the film Along Came Polly, which I must admit to having had no interest in seeing) and written by Hamburg and Larry Levin (who wrote the classic Keith Hernandez episode of Seinfeld, “The Boyfriend”), I Love You, Man feels very similar in tone to me to Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which was released last year at almost exactly this time, and which also starred Paul Rudd and Jason Segal.  (Sarah Marshall was produced by Judd Apatow, although I Love You, Man was not.)  Both films have a real sweetness to them, while also being uproariously funny.  That blend of sweetness with fierce comedy is, to me, a big part of what I referred to a moment ago as the “Apatow style.”  Another mark of that style is a loose, almost improvisational feel to a lot of the comedy and the dialogue (Paul Rudd’s lengthy, intensely hilarious riff on the phrase “slapping the bass” in I Love You, Man is a prime example of what I’m talking about).

Of course, a big part of the “Apatow style” has also been the growing ensemble of brilliant actors who have filled out his films.  Rudd and Segal have both appeared in many previous Apatow works (Segal was in Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, Rudd was in The 40 Year Old Virgin, and both appeared in Knocked Up), … [continued]