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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 Wanderlust!

In Wanderlust, George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston) find their New York lifestyle overturned when George’s firm goes under and Linda’s depressing documentary about penguins gets rejected by HBO.  With no jobs  and no way to afford their apartment (tiny though it might be), the two are forced to leave the city so George can get a job working for his brother, Rick (Ken Marino).  On the way, though, a small mishap (involving an encounter with a wine-drinking nudist played by Joe Lo Truglio and their car flipping over), they’re forced to spend the night at a place called Elysium.  At first George and Linda assume Elysium is a rural bed and breakfast, though they quickly discover it’s a commune (or “intentional community” as the denizens call it) inhabited by an eclectic bunch of free-spirited men and women.  They’re oddballs, but they all seem to have achieved a certain peace and happiness that George and Linda have never known.  Is this a better lifestyle for them than the hustle and bustle of big-city modern life?

Wanderlust was directed by David Wain (who also directed the very funny Role Models) and written by Mr. Wain and Ken Marino.  I really enjoyed Role Models, and as I mentioned in Monday’s post I’ve become a huge fan of Ken Marino based on his work in Party Down. So I was interested in Wanderlust, and the film’s stellar cast was an added bonus.

The film did not disappoint.  There’s nothing dramatically revelatory in the movie, and I can’t say that mining humor from the hippie lifestyle is a particularly original idea.  But I found Wanderlust to be a very funny, weird, and even sweet film, one that I quite enjoyed.

Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston are both strong in the lead roles.  Neither actor strays too far from his/her comfort zone character type, but in a way that works for the film as we start from a place of feeling like we know and like these two people.  Both George and Linda are normal enough characters that they work as audience surrogates when they encounter all of the weirdness at Elysium.  But Mr. Rudd and Ms. Aniston are also skilled enough comedic performers that they’re able to give George and Linda some surprising weirdness of their own, whether it’s George’s increasingly insane way of motivating himself in the mirror before trying to have sex with the beautiful Eva (Malin Akerman), or Linda’s strategy for halting the groundbreaking for a casino that certain businessmen are trying to construct on Elysium’s land.

But while Mr. Rudd and Ms. Aniston are strong leads, the film rises or falls depending on how funny and interesting the … [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 Paul!

It seems to me like Paul, the new film from Simon Pegg & Nick Frost, has been flying far under the radar.  That’s too bad, because the two men (who, along with Edward Wright, were responsible for Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz) just might be the finest comedy duo working today.  They’re each great individually, but there’s something magical that happens when the two get together.  Paul doesn’t reach the comedic heights of Shaun of the Dead, but it’s pretty great nonetheless.

Pegg plays Graeme and Frost plays Clive, two geeky Brits who have traveled to the US to attend the San Diego Comic-Con and then take a driving tour of the locations of famous UFO sightings.  The last thing they expect is to actually encounter a real-live extra-terrestrial: the fast-talking, good-times-loving alien named Paul who is on the run from mysterious government forces.  Will the nerds be able to help Paul escape the men in black and meet up with the space-ship sent to take him home?

The movie hits the geek jokes a bit hard in the early-going (making fun of the costume-wearing crazies who attend Comic-Con is a pretty easy joke) but the film quickly settles into a nice rhythm… and then builds towards a frenetic, hilarious finish.  I like comedies that are also able to get audiences to invest in the adventure story being told (I hold up Ghostbusters as a prime example of this), and I was quite pleased by how engaged I was by the film in the third act, when the chase was really on.

Although I missed Edgar Wright, it’s hard to complain with someone as talented as Greg Mottola at the helm.  Mr. Mottola directed Superbad and Adventureland (a vastly underrated film that I just re-watched last week and loved as much as the first time I saw it).  The man is a keen comedy director, giving his cast room to play but also keeping the film moving at a fast clip.

One could play a fun game connecting the dots from Mr. Mottola’s past work to see how he assembled such a terrific ensemble to surround Frost and Pegg.  From Superbad, he brought in Seth Rogen.  Mr. Rogen voices the alien Paul, and it’s brilliant, inspired casting.  Once you hear Mr. Rogen’s voice emanating from the short, big-headed alien, you know what type of a film you’re in for.  Rogen really sinks his teeth into the role, and his line delivery is impeccable.

By the way, I should also note that the visual effects work on Paul himself are incredible.  This isn’t a movie that I expected to dazzle me with state-of-the-art visual effects, but … [continued]