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Josh Reviews Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse!

Is it possible that I just saw the very best Spider-Man movie ever?  I think I did!  I have huge love for Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films, and the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming was also terrific.  But, my friends, I think we may have a new champion!

The animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse tells the story of Miles Morales.  Miles is a young man from Brooklyn, son of an African American father and a Puerto Rican mother.  His life is turned upside down after witnessing the death of Spider-Man, revealed to the world as Peter Parker.  With Spider-Man out of the way, it seems there is no one who can stop the Kingpin’s evil schemes.  So Miles steps to the plate, assisted by an unlikely team of Spider-allies from across the multiverse…

I am blown away by how amazing Into the Spider-Verse is.  Don’t dismiss it because it’s animated!  This is an extraordinary piece of work.  It is hilarious and joyous, while also frequently attaining an emotional richness far beyond what is found in most blockbuster films.  The animation is gorgeous, approaching genius-level in creativity.  This film works in every possible way.  I truly couldn’t have asked for anything more.

Miles Morales, the African American/Puerto Rican Spider-Man, was created by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli.  For a long while, this character appeared in Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe, an offshoot of the main Marvel universe that allowed creators to rethink many of Marvel’s most popular characters.  (However, following the events of 2015’s Secret Wars crossover, Miles was brought over to the main Marvel universe.)  I’ve been a huge fan of the Miles character ever since issue one.  (Which was, technically, Ultimate Fallout #4.  Don’t question my nerd credentials!)  I am beyond thrilled to finally see Miles brought to life on-screen!  I never quite thought I’d see this day.

Not only is Miles finally appearing in a movie, but his story has been adapted in such a faithful manner!  I am blown away!  The Miles in Into the Spider-Verse is 100% the comic-book version created by Mr. Bendis and Ms. Pichelli.  They got the character absolutely perfect here.  I can’t believe how many great Miles storylines from the comics, many of which unfolded over the course of years, were incorporated into the film!  For instance, I was delighted that Miles’ complicated relationships with his father and his uncle Aaron was such an important part of the film.  And they even found a way to use the story of Miles’ friendship with the Spider-Gwen character!  Wow!

I was so excited when this film was announced, but then, when I learned of the Spider-Verse title, I was worried that Miles would wind up getting … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Jurassic World

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I was excited when I first heard about Jurassic World.  I absolutely adore the first Jurassic Park.  I think it’s one of Steven Spielberg’s very best films.  (Click here for my thoughts on Jurassic Park’s 3-D re-release, and here for an earlier review when I was re-watching various middle-career Spielberg films.)  I love the world of that film so much that every time I re-watch it, it continues to leave me hungry for further exploration of that world.  Neither of the two sequels satisfied me (I think The Lost World is one of the worst films Steven Spielberg has ever made, and I like Jurassic Park III a lot but feel it ends much too abruptly — it’s a solid film missing the last twenty minutes).  This makes Jurassic Park a franchise I am eager to see additional sequels to, because I want to see another great Jurassic Park movie and I haven’t yet.

When I read that they were returning to this series after more than a decade away, I was excited because I thought for sure that meant they had a new idea for this series, a way to better the two mediocre sequels we’d already gotten.

Unfortunately I was wrong, they had exactly the same idea.

One of the inherent problems with all three Jurassic Park sequels is that they have all, basically, told exactly the same story as the first film.  This latest sequel, Jurassic World, is in fact the closest in structure to that first film, in that it’s about a theme park of dinosaurs where the dinosaurs get loose.

But I’ve seen that story already.  And each of these re-tellings — including this latest, Jurassic World — just wind up being a pale shadow of that first film.

On a superficial level, there are a lot of things to like about Jurassic World.  The film certainly looks great.  There are some gorgeous visual effects, and some really wonderful sequences of dinosaur mayhem.  I like the idea of the twist on the original film that while that park was still under construction, the park we see in Jurassic World is a fully-operational, top-of-the-line theme park that is open for business.  I love the design of the park and its rides and everything we see of John Hammond’s original vision come to life as an actual theme park island.  That is all very cool.

But the problem with Jurassic World is that the characters are both incredibly, unbelievably, jaw-droppingly stupid or totally flat and uninteresting, or both.  The magic of that first Jurassic Park was its wonderful characters.  Within the framework of an exciting adventure story were interesting, fun, complex characters … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2013: Drinking Buddies

Written and directed by Joe Swanberg, Drinking Buddies has a phenomenal cast and a great premise.  Set in the world of micro-breweries, the film charts the romantic, beer-fueled entanglements of four friends.  Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) work together at a small craft brewery, and the two have a tight friendship and a wonderful flirtatious energy.  To the audience it is immediately clear that these two would be a fantastic match.  But both are seeing other people.  Luke has a long-time girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick), while Kate has recently started dating a slightly older man, Chris (Ron Livingston).  Will a weekend the four spend together up at Chris’ family’s cottage in the woods solidify or shatter these various friendships and romantic relationships?

Drinking Buddies is a very different movie than I was expecting it to be, and while that is totally on me, I had a hard time shaking that dissatisfaction as I watched the film.  I was expecting a raucous, fun comedy — the film equivalent of a happy-go-luck, booze-filled night out with buddies.  But the film is a far more serious, painful story of unfulfilling relationships.  It’s the film equivalent of the sad, lonely morning after.

As a rich character study, the film succeeds wildly.  And don’t get me wrong, there are definitely some laughs.  But for most of the run-time the film is an unflinchingly honest, often-painful look at a series of flawed people who are all flailing about, trying to figure out what (and who) they want.  I spent the movie rooting for Luke and Kate to realize that they are perfect for one another, but if you go in expecting the type of happy ending that romantic comedies will provide, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

Personally, I have strongly mixed feelings about this.  I love that Drinking Buddies eschews the usual, stupid romantic comedy plot-developments.  And I applaud Mr. Swanberg’s creation of a film that is far more honest and real.  In that he succeeded with great skill.  But damn would I have preferred a little more lightness, a little more happiness, particularly in the ending.

The cast is uniformly phenomenal.  Anna Kendirck and Ron Livingston are, I feel, reliably great.  (I just wish Mr. Livingston was in more of the film.  Of the four leads, he gets by far the least amount of screen time.)  While Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson are certainly big names and very successful actors at this point, I have never clicked in to their previous performances the way I did with both of them in this film.  Well, I did quite enjoy Mr. Johnson in Safety Not Guaranteed (click here for my review), but … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2012: Safety Not Guaranteed

A group from a Seattle magazine decides to investigate a classified ad that caught their attention: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”  The writer assigned to this little story (Jake Johnson) thinks it’s a joke, but when one of the two interns with him, Darius (Aubrey Plaza), actually meets the man who placed the ad (Mark Duplass), she begins to think there is more to him than just a nut.  Is that just wishful thinking on the part of this isolated young woman, desperate for a friend?

I included Safety Not Guaranteed in my Best Movies of 2012 list, and for good reason.  I was really taken by this small-scale little movie.

I’m a sci-fi fan, so it’s no surprise that my interest was captured by the film’s sci-fi hook, but this isn’t really a science fiction movie at all.  It’s more a character study of this small group of people, each broken in their own way.  (Although I could argue that in the best sci-fi, even films set in outer space with aliens and exploding space-ships, the sci-fi element(s) are tools for exploring drama, be that political ideas or an exploration of characters.  So that’s very much the case here, in which this story of a man who might have built a time-machine is the jumping-off point for this character piece.)

Mark Duplass is terrific, playing his role in a way that allows you to see him as totally sincere or as a total nut-ball as the film progresses.  I’ve been discovering his work as a writer and director over the past few years (I really dug the film Cyrus that he wrote and directed with his brother), but apparently Mr. Duplass is also a very skilled actor.  I bow my head in appreciation of the man’s many talents.  He’s really the anchor of this film — if his performance didn’t work, if he played the role as too kooky or too off-puttingly weird, the film would fall apart.  Instead, he creates a figure of intriguing mystery, one who we — like Audrey Plaza’s character — spend the whole movie trying to get to know and to understand.

Mary Lynn Rajskub (The Larry Sanders Show, 24) and Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm) are fun to see in small cameo roles, and Jake Johnson does great work as Darius’ grade-A asshole co-worker, the lead writer assigned to the story.  But the film really belongs to Aubrey Plaza, who shines in this leading role.  Parks and [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Paper Heart (2009)

January 15th, 2010
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Charlyne Yi (who you might recognize from Knocked Up) doesn’t really believe in the concept of falling in love.  She’s not sure such a thing as love truly exists — and if it does, she’s not sure it’s something that she’s capable of.  So she sets out with her friend, director Nicholas Jasenovec, to film a documentary about love.  The two travel across the U.S., interviewing all sorts of everyday people (along with the judge in a divorce court, an Elvis who marries folks in Vegas, Seth Rogen, and a few other not-quite-so-everyday folks) about their thoughts regarding true love.  Things get more complicated when, while filming the documentary, Yi meets Michael Cera at a friend’s party, and the two hit it off and begin dating (an awkward process captured on camera by the documentary crew).  Do her interviews with people — or her burgeoning relationship with Michael Cera — change Yi’s feelings about love?

If Yi’s happening to fall into a relationship with Michael Cera while at the same time filming a documentary about love seems like a wild coincidence to you, then you’d be right!  Because things aren’t quite what they seem.  The interviews that Yi conducts are absolutely real.  But the Nicholas Jasenovec that we see on-camera isn’t actually the Nicholas Jasenovec who directed this film — it’s an actor, Jake M. Johnson!  And while Michael Cera and Charlyne Yi did date, their courtship as we see it was staged for the camera.

What we’re left with is a rather bizarre hybrid film.  The movie is constantly bouncing back-and-forth from the real footage (the interview segments, which are like much more in-depth versions of all the couples we see telling their how-they-met stories from When Harry Met Sally) to the staged footage (of Yi and Cera, and of Yi and Johnson/Jasenovec).  What’s really intriguing is the way the film doesn’t hesitate to make clear to us that that footage is staged — or, at the very least, manipulated.  Almost every time that we might find ourselves drawn in to Yi & Cera’s story, the film draws our attention to the artificiality of those moments.  (In one scene, we see Yi and Cera playfully interacting on a beach, and then beginning to walk hand-in-hand down the shore-line.  It’s a tender moment… until we see Johnson/Jasenovec run into the frame wondering if perhaps they could do another take.  In another scene in Yi’s apartment, we see her first kiss with Cera… and then the camera pulls out to see a camera-man and a sound-guy perched on the next couch, recording the moment.)  Even the interview footage is played with, as we often cut away from the people … [continued]