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Catching Up on 2015: Josh Reviews The End of the Tour

I missed The End of the Tour when it was first released last summer, but it was a top priority for me to check out when it was released on DVD/blu-ray.  I usually watch a ton of films in December, trying to catch up on as many films from the previous year as I can, before I write my Best of the Year lists.  I’m glad I caught The End of the Tour in time for it to make my list (it clocked in at number nineteen), but I’ve been remiss in posting a full review.  Time to remedy that.

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Based on the memoir Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky, the film chronicles the days in 1996 that Mr. Lipsky, as a young reporter for Rolling Stone, spent in the company of David Foster Wallace following the release of Mr. Wallace’s enormous novel Infinite Jest.  Mr. Lipsky is envious of everything that Mr. Wallace has, while Mr. Wallace is deeply ambivalent about his burgeoning fame.  The entire film (with the exception of a brief framing device) takes place over the course of the handful of days that these two men spent together as Mr. Lipsky interviewed Mr. Wallace for his Rolling Stone piece.

The film is an engrossing character study of the two men, Wallace and Lipsky, and it is a magnificent showcase for actors Jesse Eisenberg (who plays David Lipsky) and Jason Segel (who plays David Foster Wallace).  Both actors are incredibly talented, and together they are phenomenal.

Jesse Eisenberg has made it his specialty playing characters who are fiercely intelligent and also sort of assholes, and I love how he is not afraid to make his characters seem unlikable to an audience with his choices.  In the film, it’s clear that Mr. Lipsky has enormous respect and admiration for David Foster Wallace, and at the same time also a deep envy for the success that Mr. Wallace has found with his writing (and that Mr. Lipsky, at the time, had not).  Mr. Eisenberg keeps both aspects of Lipsky’s complicated feelings in focus at all times.  As he baits and pushes Mr. Wallace over the course of their extended conversation, it seems as if Mr. Lipsky isn’t sure whether he wants Wallace’s answers to let him down (so that he can feel, in his mind, superior to his idol) or whether instead he wants David Foster Wallace to have the answers that he himself lacks.  Mr. Eisenberg plays this duality brilliantly.  It’s such a human portrayal.  There are times in the film in which Mr. Lipsky’s behavior made me shake my head in disappointment, and other times when I was struck … [continued]

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The Top Twenty Movies of 2015 — Part One!

Overall, I think that 2015 has been a pretty terrific year for movies. Perhaps not as spectacular as originally predicted, though.  In the months leading up to 2015, there were a flurry of articles about how 2015 was going to be insanely, unprecedentedly over-stuffed with exciting new movies.  That didn’t quite happen the way I’d expected.  Some films I’d been highly anticipating proved to be disappointments (SPECTRE, Tomorrowland, Fantastic Four, Jurassic World, Terminator: Genisys, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Kingsman: The Secret Service).  Also, so many interesting films were crammed into release at the very end of the year that several of my anticipated 2015 films won’t be open around where I live until some time in 2016 (films like The Revenant or Legend or Carol or Anomalisa or Listen to Me Marlon).  This glut of end-of-the-year films also meant that while I have been able to see a ton of new movies in the past few weeks, there were several that I didn’t get to (films like Joy, Brooklyn, Trumbo, The Danish Girl, and Sisters).  Still, as I assembled my Best Movies of 2015 list, I found that it was incredibly easy to do.  There were so many movies that I loved in 2015.  I’d expanded my list to twenty films last year, and I could have easily listed thirty films this year!  But twenty feels like plenty, I think.

These are twenty films that I loved deeply, films that spoke to me and that I look forward to revisiting in the years ahead.  There are many other films that I saw and enjoyed in 2015, films such as Tig, I Am Chris Farley, Misery Loves Comedy, Sicario, The Night Before, Spy, Slow West, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Man Up, and many others.  (As usual, I spent a lot of time in the final weeks of 2015 trying to catch up on as many 2015 films as I could that I’d wanted to see but missed.  In the coming weeks I’ll have a lot of “Catching up on 2015” reviews of those films.)  As many films as I saw in 2015, and I saw a lot, there was still, as always, a humongous list of films that I’d wanted to see but missed.  Films such as Beasts of No Nation, Call Me Lucky, Room, Love & Mercy, 99 Rooms, Irrational Man, She’s Funny That Way, True Story, 7 Days in Hell, Do I Sound Gay?, De Palma, Adult Beginners, Irrational Man, and more.  So if you’re wondering why any of those films aren’t on this list, well now you know.

OK, onward!

Honorable Mentions: Selma[continued]

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Josh Reviews 30 Minutes or Less

In the new film 30 Minutes or Less, Jesse Eisenberg plays Nick, an affable though fairly hapless pizza boy.  Aziz Ansari plays Chet, Nick’s closest friend.  The two have been buddies for years, though Chet seems to have figured out his life (we can see that he has a steady job and a nice, clean apartment) in a way that the aimless Nick clearly has not.  But what finally threatens to drive a wedge between the two friends is Nick’s infatuation with Chet’s sister Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria).  Meanwhile, another pair of buddies are concocting a scheme that will turn Nick and Chet’s lives upside down.  Danny McBride plays Dwayne, a frustrated, gun-loving loser living in his father’s basement, while Nick Swardson plays his loyal follower, Travis.  Dwayne’s father, “the Major” (played by Fred Ward), is wealthy after winning the lotto, but he seems to have no interest in passing any of his money on to his son Dwayne.  Spurred on by a suggestion made by a topless dancer (Bianca Kajlich) with whom he is infatuated, Dwayne devises a plan to hire a hit-man (Michael Pena) to kill the Major.  How will he get the money to pay this hit-man?  By strapping a bomb to the chest of a sucker, who Dwayne can then coerce into ribbing a bank for him.  Enter: Nick the pizza-boy, and the movie is off.

When I was a kid, I remember there being a lot of action-comedies — movies like Lethal Weapon that were very funny, but that were also serious action films (rather than just farces).  It doesn’t seem to me that there are too many movies in that style these days, so it was fun to see a group of filmmakers make the attempt to create that sort of movie.  The way in which 30 Minutes or Less throws a lot of crazy comedy into what is, when you think about it, a pretty terrifying story (and one which seems to be based on a real-life event that ended with the poor pizza delivery man being killed), really caught my attention.  Though there’s no action in 30 Minutes or Less that’s on par with the Richard Donner-directed Lethal Weapon, the film is definitely cut from that type of cloth, and that’s a compliment.  (I haven’t seen Lethal Weapon in years, so I have no idea if it holds up, but I have very fond memories of that film from my youth.)

In a similar way, 30 Minutes or Less feels, to me, like the type of movie that The Pineapple Express wanted to be.  I quite enjoyed The Pineapple Express (click here for my review), but I did feel … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Roger Dodger (2002)

In the biting, acid film Roger Dodger, Campbell Scott stars as Roger, a handsome, well-off, and very arrogant New York advertising executive who seems able to use his sharp tongue to talk any women he wants into having sex with him.  One day his 16 year-old nephew, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) shows up in his office.  Nick is in town looking at Columbia, and while he’s there he wants his smooth-with-the-ladies uncle to teach him how to talk to women.  Although he’s at first put-off by the idea of having to deal with this kid, Roger quickly agrees to school Nick in That Which He Knows Best, and the two begin a crazy night that will take them all over the city and in and out of the lives of several fascinating and beautiful women.

I don’t know what on earth prompted me to rent this film on DVD five or six years ago, but it really blew me away as a unique, hard-to-define, I can’t quite believe what I’m watching film.  I’ve been meaning to see it again for ages.

Written and directed by Dylan Kidd, Roger Dodger is an extraordinarily well-written and well-made film that demonstrates the skill of an artist in his prime.  (I really want to know what the heck Mr. Kidd has been up to since 2002!!  I wish he’d made six movies in that time!)  The script is exquisite, with rat-a-tat dialogue that is fiercely intelligent, funny, and very biting.  If you told me that David Mamet had scripted this film, I would easily believe it.

Right away from the opening scene it’s clear that this is a movie unlike many others.  The film opens with a lengthy post-meal conversation over drinks and smokes between Roger and his friends.  In between some light banter with the people around the table, Roger unloads a lengthy monologue describing how he feels that evolution and technology are combining to gradually render the male species obsolete.  Roger’s dialogue demonstrates his keen intelligence and verbal skill, and also his arrogance and his close-minded, gender-focused worldview.  The scene is shot in a fascinating style that Mr. Kidd will utilize throughout the film.  There are never any master shots used (wide shots that show us the setting for a scene and where all of the characters are in relation to one another).  Instead, the scene plays out through a series of close-ups, filmed with a hand-held shaky cam that is continually moving around and observing the central characters through visual obstacles (over the shoulder of another character, obstructed by a glass or a table center-piece, etc.).  It’s a bit disorienting, but also extraordinarily vibrant and energizing, and a terrific way to … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: The Squid and the Whale (2005)

After watching Noah Baumbach’s film Greenberg last month (click here for my review), I thought it’d be fun to re-watch the first film of his that I ever saw: 2005’s The Squid and the Whale.

I’m not sure what prompted me to rent this film 4-5 years ago.  Possibly the great, intriguing title, or maybe the DVD’s well-designed cover art.  Whatever it was, I remember really being impressed with the power of this funny, sad story.  I was excited to see it again last week!

The Squid and the Whale is set in Brooklyn in the 1980’s.  Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline play Walt and Frank Berkman, two boys whose parents, played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, are going through a divorce.  It’s a coming-of-age story, as the two boys struggle to deal with the dissolution of their once-stable family-unit.  Needless to say, the process is difficult on them both, though the two boys react in entirely different ways.

I can imagine that description of the film’s being about a painful divorce makes it sound like it would be a real slog to get through, but the story of the film (which Mr. Baumbach both wrote and directed) is told with a very light tough.  There are some scenes that are difficult and hard to watch, no mistake, but for the most part the film is rather a good deal of fun.  Throughout the story, Mr. Baumbach maintains a great deal of affection for all of the characters (even when they behave badly), and he’s able to mine a great deal of humor from their quirks and antics.  At certain moments, the film is very funny.

Jesse Eisenberg is excellent as Walt Berkman.  This is a fully-formed performance, and one can easily see why he went on to such high-profile roles in the past few years (in films like Zombieland and The Social Network).  Equally impressive is Owen Kline as his younger brother, Frank.  According to imdb, Owen has only appeared in one short film in the years since The Squid and the Whale, and that’s too bad because he’s really terrific in this film, honest and natural.

But in my mind it’s Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney who make the strongest impact.  Both of those incredibly talented actors have put in impressive performances in a number of great films, but it’s their roles here that always stick out in my mind as among their most memorable.  Jeff Daniels’ character, Bernard, is quite a prick — arrogant about his literary knowledge and jealous and threatened when his wife gets her first taste of success.  But his struggles are so wonderfully human that I … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Social Network

It’s hard for me to a recall another film that has so bravely allowed its lead character to come off as so completely unlikable.  In The Social Network‘s power-house of a first scene, Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is clearly presented to us as a Grade-A, prime-cut jackass.  It’s a hell of a way to start a movie!

As you are all probably aware, this arrogant Harvard undergrad is the man who will go on to become the billionaire creator of Facebook.  Based on Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaire, The Social Network follows Mark from his days at Harvard through the world-wide explosion of Facebook and the eventual lawsuits brought against him by several former Harvard classmates, including the young man who had once been his closest friend.

There has been some questioning of the accuracy of The Social Network, but screenwriter Aaron Sorkin defends the film.  He told Entertainment Weekly: “If we know what brand of beer Mark was drinking on a Tuesday night in October seven years ago when there were only three other people in the room, it should tell you something about how close our research sources were to the subject and to the events.”  Producer Scott Rudin makes similar statements: “You can’t make untrue statements about someone without running the risk of getting sued.  Look around and notice that nobody has sued us.”

While of course I myself have no idea about whether events truly unfolded the way they are depicted in The Social Network, I can say that the film FEELS real to me.  All of the characters in the film — including Mark Zuckerberg — are depicted in a three-dimensional way.  There aren’t easy heroes and villains in the film — most of the characters seem likable and unlikable at different points in the narrative, just as real human beings are.  (This, to me, is in contrast to a film like A Beautiful Mind, in which it seemed so clear to me as a viewer that the filmmakers had shaved away any unlikable aspects to John Nash in order to create a more heroic lead for the film.)

But knowing that the parties involved strongly dispute just what went down over the course of the creation of Facebook, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin cleverly decided to embrace that ambiguity with the film’s structure.  As we watch events unfold chronologically, the film regularly cuts forward in time to the depositions in the two lawsuits eventually brought against Zuckerberg.  In those scenes, we see the participants debate and argue about the moments that we, the viewers, just saw occur.  This is a really smart way to allow the film … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Adventureland

Set in 1987, Adventureland takes place over the course of one summer in the life of James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), just out of college, whose dreams of traveling Europe with his friends have been dashed by his family’s financial problems.  Seeking a summer job instead, Jesse quickly discovers that his degree in literature doesn’t really qualify him for any sort of employment back home in Pittsburgh.  Thus, he winds up working at Adventureland, a somewhat tired old local amusement park.

Jesse befriends Joel (Martin Starr, who, as with most of the talented alumni of Freaks and Geeks, I would happily watch in anything), an intellectual loner, and quickly becomes smitten with the mysterious Em (the terrific, beguiling Kristen Stewart).  The self-contained universe of Adventureland is fleshed out by a variety of other interesting, quirky characters: park owners Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig), handsome park mechanic Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), Jesse’s not-as-funny-as-he-thinks-he-is childhood friend Frigo (Matt Bush), the flirty Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), and many others.

Taking place in the eighties, Adventureland is a “period piece,” but it never beats you over the head with obvious references.  Rather, the movie uses the setting to lend the story a sweetly nostalgic feel.  I love the care with which the movie explores the sub-culture of the summer staff experience at Adventureland, with all of its unique peculiarities.  I’ve never worked at an amusement park, but I certainly have spent many summers working at a summer camp.  And while the specifics of my summer camp jobs didn’t resemble in any way the specifics of working at Adventureland, I did really connect with the way the film captured the way in which these summer jobs can be transformative experiences for young people, and the way a short summer can be an epic of highs and lows and experiences of all kinds.  I have warm feelings for my summer camp experiences, and the film creates a similarly warm glow around Jesse’s experiences, even the painful ones.

Credit writer/director Greg Mottola (who also directed Superbad) with doing a terrific job in setting that tone.  The film is funny, but I wouldn’t call it a comedy.  However, the shifts from humor to drama never feel out-of-place.  Rather the film feels like a true-to-life picture of the ups and downs of a kid’s summer.  I never seem to get tired of a good coming-of-age story, and this is definitely a winner in that category.

The film only makes one teensy tiny misstep, in my mind.  I don’t want to spoil anything about the ending, but suffice it to say there’s a dramatic moment between two characters in the rain that is the only moment in … [continued]