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Josh Reviews Sausage Party

Seth Rogen’s animated film Sausage Party tells a story of the secret inner life had by all of the food items that together inhabit a supermarket.  Seth Rogen plays Frank, a sausage, and Kristen Wiig plays his girlfriend Brenda, a bun.  Together, Frank and Brenda — along with ALL the many other types of food living in the supermarket — yearn to someday be selected by the gods (the people shopping in the supermarket) and taken to the glorious world beyond (beyond, that is, the front doors of the supermarket).  But when a jar of honey mustard is bought and then returned to the supermarket, he comes bearing warnings that everything the food-items believed was a lie, turning Frank and Brenda’s world upside down.

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Sausage Party is a gloriously raunchy, hilarious film.  It takes a Pixar/Disney concept (what if something inanimate — in this case, food products — was actually alive?) and filters it through the dick-and-drugs sensibility that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have honed to such perfection in all of the live-action films they have created together (from Superbad to Pineapple Express to This is the End to The Interview, among others).  Sausage Party feels, in tone, just like all those other great live-action comedies.  But what gives the movie and extra twisted edge is that it’s an animated film.  With the subject matter (about food that is alive), of course animation is the only way to tell this story.  But there’s something just a little bit extra funny and extra transgressive in watching an animated character talk about the type of filthy subject matter that Seth Rogen and co. often talk about in their films.  This gives the movie an extra little frisson that I really loved.

The film boasts a spectacular cast, with many of the wonderfully talented familiar voices who you might expect to run across in a Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg film.  First of all, the lead pairing of Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig is perfect.  Both are absolute perfection, so incredibly funny but also able to sell their characters’ genuine emotional turns.  The movie only works if you’re rooting for this couple to find some way out of their crazy situation, and Mr. Rogen and Ms. Wiig absolutely nail it.  Frank and Brenda are quickly paired up with a bickering Arab-Jew pairing, Kareem Abdul Lavash and Sammy Bagel.  This sounds like a terrible, terrible idea on paper but the characters are so funny, and the emotional journey they go on together so real, that I quickly fell in love with both characters.  David Krumholtz voices the Lavash, while Ed Norton does an impeccable Woody Allen impression as Sammy Bagel; both men deliver genius-level … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Hail, Caesar!

The Coen Brothers have made some dark, violent films, and they have made some light, funny films, and they have made some films that seem to fall somewhere in between.  Their latest, Hail, Caesar!, is for most of it’s run-time one of the Coen Brothers’ lighter, more farcical films, though periodically the movie reminds us that it has something more on its mind than simple silliness.  Hail, Caesar! might, upon some reflection, be considered one of the Coen Brothers’ more minor works, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that this film doesn’t have a lot of fun to offer.

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Set in Hollywood in the 1950’s, the film stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a studio exec and “fixer” who is trying to locate his kidnapped star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), before news of the star’s disappearance can make it into the papers.  Baird’s kidnapping, by a group of disgruntled Communist screenwriters, is only one of the many fires that Mannix has to try to put out as he tries to keep his studio afloat and all of his in-production pictures running smoothly.  The dim-witted Baird, meanwhile, finds himself somewhat taken in by his Communist kidnappers.

Hail, Caesar! is a very silly film.  “Silly” is a tone that is surprisingly difficult for many filmmakers to pull off, but the Coen Brothers have mastered the art of comedic goofiness.  They make it look so easy.  There are a lot of wonderfully funny moments in the film as the Coens gently skewer the art of making movies and the pomposity of Hollywood egos.  And say whatever you want about the film as a whole, but the fall-on-the-floor hysterical scene of effete director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) — whose very name is a subtle gag running throughout the film — trying to give a line reading to the dim-bulb cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is one of the greatest scenes they have ever created in any of their films.  I am not exaggerating.

One of my favorite aspects of Hail, Caesar is the way the film occasionally morphs into one of the popular styles of Hollywood films from the fifties, from Biblical epic to elaborate musical to peppy dance number.  Each one of these sequences is lovingly realized (Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-esque sailor song-and-dance number is particularly terrific) and they bring the film a great spark of energy each time they shift the movie into a different tone.  (Though I will say that while I loved Michael Gambon’s pompous narration at the start of the film, I could have done with a little less of it as the film progressed.)

Hail, Caesar!’s main film-within-a-film, the Roman epic in which Baird … [continued]

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Josh Reviews 22 Jump Street

I enjoyed 21 Jump Street but not nearly as much as many others seemed to.  I remember reading rave reviews of the film, and I saw it on several best-of-the-year lists.  I’m not sure what others saw in the film that I didn’t.  I thought it was an amusing diversion but not much more than that. (Click here for my original review.)  Still, I was interested when I heard that Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum were reuniting for a sequel.  Their chemistry was the best part of the first film, and I was curious to see where they’d take things in a second installment.

I wasn’t blown away by 22 Jump Street, though I certainly had a good time watching it.  This is not a very clever comedy but it’s funny and good-natured enough that it’s hard to find too much fault with it for being the dumb comedy it clearly is setting out to be.

The film takes a smart approach to being a comedy sequel in that it goes out of its way to repeatedly poke fun at the very idea of a comedy sequel.  I like this self-referential, tongue in cheek attitude, and it gives the film an endearing sense of playfulness.  Even though they make this same joke way too many times.

In fact, the film has two main jokes, each of which it pounds into the ground through repetition followed by more repetition.  Those two jokes are 1) the idea that they’re making fun of being a sequel in which everyone just wants the exact same story of the first film told again, and 2) the idea that the arc of Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum)’s relationship, their “bromance,” is just like the arc of a love affair between a man and a woman.  Both ideas are funny and good fodder for humor.  But both also grow tiresome when the movie makes the hundredth joke about each of them.  We get it guys!!!  We get it!!

Nick Offerman and Ice Cube return from the first film and both have a lot of fun with their scenes, especially Ice Cube who is a hoot.  There are a few new actors of note in this installment, particularly Amber Stevens as Maya, Schmidt’s new love-interest.  I wish she had more of an actual character to play.  Jillian Bell kills it as Maya’s roommate from hell.  She has one scene in particular with Jonah Hill, in which the two can’t seem to decide if they want to beat the shit out of one another or to make out, that is on its own a reason to go see this movie.

The funniest part of the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Wolf of Wall Street

At seventy-one years old, Martin Scorsese has unleashed upon us a work of towering ambition and accomplishment, with a rabble-rousing energy and anger that far outstrips most films made by filmmakers half his age.  The Wolf of Wall Street is a three hour epic, fiercely entertaining and stomach-churningly upsetting all at the same time.  This is Mr. Scorsese working at the very top of his game, crafting a story that is at once epic in scope and profoundly intimate.  This is a crime saga that stands tall next to Goodfellas and Casino, films that I never thought Mr. Scorsese would be able to equal in the later years of his careeer.  (And yes, like most of the rest of you, I agree that Goodfellas is a stronger film that Casino, but I unabashedly love Casino and find it to be a remarkably under-appreciated masterpiece.)

But whereas Mr. Scorsese’s previous films about the rise and fall of men involved in organized crime always felt, to me, like stories that took place far outside of my personal frame of reference, the genius and power of The Wolf of Wall Street is that Mr. Scorsese has found a crime story that strikes much closer to home, at least for me.  I don’t work on Wall Street, but crime-without-guns seems much closer to the world of my day to day life.  This crime story is mostly populated by men and women who I feel like I could have known.  This particular crime story doesn’t involve bullets and dead bodies, but rather bloodless financial transactions that, nevertheless, affected arguably a far wider number of every-day Americans.  The story is all the more horrifying because of it.

The center of the film is Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort.  Wen the film opens we see Mr. Belfort at his opulent height, but the film quickly flashes back to several years earlier, to a young Mr. Belfort’s first day on Wall Street.  He catches the eye of a senior man in the firm, Mark Hanna (played by Matthew McConaughey).  Hanna takes Belfort out to a booze-filled lunch, and lays out for the young man the fuck-your-clients, earn as much money for yourself as you can principles by which he operates.  We can see Belfort buy in immediately.  (Mr. McConaughey is only in a few scenes at the start of the film, but he is absolutely fantastic, and this lunch scene is astounding.)

Despite his skills, though, young Belfort finds himself out of work after the terrible day on Wall Street in October, 1987, that resulted in the firm that employed him (L.P. Rothschild) shutting its doors.  With no Wall Street firms looking to hire stockbrokers, Belfort finds himself … [continued]

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Josh Reviews This is the End

In This is the End, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, James Franco, Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride play themselves, attending a housewarming party at James Franco’s new home, a party this is unfortunately interrupted by, well, the end of the world.  Co-written and co-directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen (based on the fake trailer Jay and Seth vs. The Apocalypse, written by Mr. Goldberg, Mr. Rogen, and Jason Stone — click here to watch),the result is a hilarious horror/comedy that careens from humor drawn from the familiar Apatow source of stoner buddies hanging out (a scene early in the film in which Jay and Seth argue over the merits of a gluten-free diet is a particular stand-out) to full-on special-effects end-of-the-world horror craziness.

This is a film that shouldn’t work.  One might expect it to be indulgent and boring, or to collapse under the weight of a small-budget film reaching for a mega-budget epic scale.  But instead, I found This is the End to be a crazy, rollicking delight, funny and endearing from start to finish.

After having watched this group of comedic actors work together so many times before, in so many different combinations and permutations… after having watched them grow up on screen (like many, I have been watching a lot of these guys since Paul Feig & Judd Apatow’s masterful Freaks and Geeks in 1999)… and after having watched so many DVD special features in which we see these guys goofing off and palling around, it’s easy for viewers to feel like we know all of these guys as if they were our own friends.  Of course, they’re not our friends, and we don’t really know them.  But in having all of these actors play themselves (rather than characters with different names who just so happen to fit into each of their established comedic personas), This is the End cannily plays on the audience’s pre-existing connection to these guys, and our presumed knowledge of them.  We already know and love this group of fellas, so the movie doesn’t need to waste any time developing their characters.  We can jump right into the story.

It’s fun to watch a movie that feels like we’re seeing what these guys are really like when they hang out.  Even though of course this isn’t what they’re really like — even here, playing characters with their own names, none of these actors are really playing themselves.  They are playing comically exaggerated versions of themselves.  It’s like the difference between real-life Larry David and the Larry David we see on Curb Your Enthusiasm.  The film finds a magical sweet spot in presenting versions of these characters that, upon consideration, are … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2012: 21 Jump Street

I never watched the TV show 21 Jump Street, and though I was mildly curious about the apparently comedic take on the material in Jonah Hill & Channing Tatum’s 21 Jump Street film, I missed the film in theatres when it was released last spring.  I wasn’t too broken up about that.  But then I was shocked to start noticing 21 Jump Street on quite a few best films of the year lists at the end of 2012.  Had a really great comedy slipped by me?

Well, pardon me for disagreeing with what seems to be the generally accepted viewpoint, but no.

Maybe my hopes had been raised too high after reading so much praise for the film, but while I found 21 Jump Street to be a decently funny film, a comedy classic it is not.

The idea of turning what, to my understanding, was a fairly serious TV show — in which a squad of young-looking cops investigate crimes in schools — into a comedy is an interesting approach.  Perhaps one that is a little disrespectful to the source material, though on the other hand I was pleasantly surprised by the third-act surprise guest appearance in the film that made it clear that the film took place in the same universe as the original show, just set twenty-or-so years later.

I think Jonah Hill has a terrific comedic voice when used well (Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall would be my top two examples) and the idea of pairing him with the tall, buff, movie-star good-looking Channing Tatum is inspired.  The two have a great charisma together, and what works in 21 Jump Street is mostly due to the fun of these two playing off of one another.  (I also was taken by the sweetness inherent in the idea that the jock king of high school and the dorky geek could grow up to be best buds.)

The movie is funny, but rarely did I find it to be laugh-out-loud funny.  It’s a silly action movie, reminiscent of Hot Fuzz in the attempt to combine comedy with an over-the-top, Michael Bay-in- Bad Boys approach to action.  The film is certainly enjoyable but without any particularly brilliant comedic gags or surprises.  The story unfolds as you might expect.  Sent back undercover to high school, Mr. Hill and Mr. Tatum’s characters wind up reliving their own high school days, just from the opposite viewpoint: Mr. Hill’s character is suddenly cool, while Mr. Tatum’s character falls in with the geeks.  The two men start off working together, then have a fight, then reunite in time for an action finish in which they save the day.  It’s a simple story, but then … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Moneyball!

November 2nd, 2011
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Is anyone else as amused as I am by how closely Brad Pitt, in the new baseball film Moneyball, resembles Robert Redford in the classic baseball film The Natural (click here for my review)?  It’s spooky, man!

Anyways, Moneyball is adapted from the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis.  The book (which I have never read, but it’s been on my to-read for a while now and has been bolted up to the top of that list after I watched the terrific film adaptation) elaborates upon the technique of sabermetrics, a type of baseball statistical analysis that focuses on in-game performance as opposed to other intangibles (like leadership, heart, etc.).  The book, and the film, focuses on the Oakland A’s 2002 season, and on their General Manager Billy Beane, who was one of the early adopters/pioneers of this strategy.

I’ve always loved baseball, but these days with my incredibly busy life I don’t follow the game with anything approaching the passion and devotion I did as a kid.  Growing up as a die-hard Mets fan, I listened to almost every single game on the radio (WFAN New York) and when I couldn’t (like when I was away at summer camp) I would voraciously devour the box scores (which my parents would faithfully mail to me several times a week).  Moneyball is a fantastic film and, more than that, it’s a fantastic baseball film, and it really brought me back to my days as a kid analyzing, with my friends, the ins and outs of every game and every player.  The film really made me miss those days!!

Baseball is a magical sport, and has always fascinated me the way no other professional sport does.  Although one aspect of Moneyball is to debunk many of the assumptions of the game (and to reveal the inherent unfairness in which certain ball-clubs with enormous payrolls — cough Yankees cough — can spend their way to victory after victory, leaving the small-market teams in the dust), the film also pours over with a love for baseball and a fascination with its complexities and mysteries.  The sequence, late in the film, chronicling the A’s incredible win-streak from the 2002 season is thrilling, an incredibly-realized reminder of the powerful pull of baseball at its best.  It’s as good a celluloid love-letter to the game as I’ve ever seen.

I also really love the scene in Mr. Beane’s office right before the trade deadline, in which he works the phones, wheeling-and-dealing to acquire the players he thinks he needs.  All that talk of trades is a bit inside baseball (to use a very appropriate metaphor), steeped … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Cyrus

In the film Cyrus, written and directed by Jay & Mark Duplass, John C. Reilly stars a John, a pretty pathetic fellow whose self-confidence is not improved by the news that his ex-wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener), is about to re-marry.  Jamie convinces John to join her and her fiancee at a friend’s party.  To John’s great surprise, he actually winds up hitting it off with a beautiful woman named Molly (Marisa Tomei).  They go on a couple of dates, all of which go very well.  Molly seems wonderful.  But when he notices that Molly never seems willing to spend a whole night at his place, John begins to wonder if she’s married, or if she’s hiding some other secret from him.  When he follows her home one day, he discovers what that secret is: her 21-year-old son, Cyrus.  Molly has raised Cyrus by herself, and neither has ever been able to separate from the other.  He still lives with her, but that’s the least of it!  To call their relationship co-dependant would be a dramatic understatement, and John is forced to wonder whether he can ever fit into the life that those two have created for each other.

I’d read some rave reviews about Cyrus when it played at festivals earlier this year.  Even though it’s release to theatres fizzled this past summer, I was eager to watch it on DVD.  I’d read that this was a black comedy, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the weirdness on display in this film!!  It certainly goes to some places I did not expect.  There’s a lot that I enjoyed about the film, though I can’t really say that it all worked for me.

The biggest problem with the movie, for me, was the first twenty-or-so minutes before we meet Cyrus.  The film takes this time to establish John as a character.  I understand that we need to learn that he’s lonely and odd, because we need to understand why he doesn’t head for the hills at the first whiff of weirdness between Molly & Cyrus.  The filmmakers need to show us that John is a man pretty desperate for love and companionship, and that is what causes him to stick things out and try to fight for Molly’s affections.  But, boy, I think the Duplass brothers went WAY too far over the top in presenting John as such an extraordinarily pathetic loser in those opening scenes.  Those sequences are just PAINFUL to watch — I didn’t find any humor in those scenes, they just made me squirm.

The film comes to life, though once we meet Cyrus.  Jonah Hill has come a long way since the first movie he appeared in … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh reviews Get Him To The Greek

I’m a big, big fan of Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  That film really took me by surprise — it’s a very, very funny film, but also one that is remarkably endearing.

The breakout star of the film was, of course, Russell Brand’s rock star Aldous Snow.  Snow was a delirously lunatic creation — a jovial, high-life-living, self-absorbed maniac of a musician who stole every scene of the movie that he was in.  Many of those scenes co-stared Jonah Hill, who had a small role as a hapless waiter who idolized Aldous.

Get Him to the Greek is a feature-length attempt to recapture the energy of Mr. Brand and Mr. Hill’s interactions in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  Russell Brand repises his role of Aldous Snow, while Mr. Hill portrays a new character: Aaron Green, a young music executive.  Aaron has come up with an idea for Pinnacle Records, the company at which he works: in an attempt to revitalize Aldous Snow’s career, and their flagging record sales, they’ll schedule a concert at the Greek Theater in LA on the ten-year anniversary of Aldous’ previous triumphant performance at that venue.  All that Aaron needs to do is to ensure that the hard-living musician arrives at the theater on time to perform.

It’s a familiar set-up, and one can see the road-map for the film’s story a mile away.  Clearly, Aaron is going to have a lot of frustrating moments trying to keep Aldous en route to the theater, and one can also reasonably expect the straight-laced Aaron to be tempted and perhaps at first overwhelmed by the singer’s partying lifestyle.  Perhaps Aldous might also learn some lessons in responsibility from Aaron.

And that, in a nutshell, is the movie.  So don’t expect Get Him to the Greek to turn any comedy film tropes on their ear.  Nevertheless, I was quite taken by the film’s relentlessly entertaining nature.  Director and co-writer Nicholas Stoller has assembled some amazing comedic performers, and he pretty much lets them all cut loose and bounce off of one another for the duration of the film.  There are plenty of scenes that seem to go one for longer than they should, and plenty of scenes that don’t really serve much of a purpose in the film’s story.  But I didn’t mind terribly, because it’s a lot of fun watching these characters interact with one another, and I enjoyed the time we got to spend in their world.

Brand and Hill are reliably hilarious.  For me the biggest surprise was Rose Byrne, who knocks it out of the park as Aldous’ former musical partner and lover Jackie Q, who is now living with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich (who ahas a … [continued]

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Summer Movie Catch-Up: Josh Reviews Funny People

I read somewhere a reviewer refer to Judd Apatow’s new film, Funny People, as his “James L. Brooks movie.”  Well, if James L. Brooks isn’t making James L. Brooks movies anymore (his last film was 2004’s Spanglish, which not coincidentally was also the last time, before Funny People, that I enjoyed a movie starring Adam Sandler), then I for one am more than happy to see Judd Apatow fill the void!

I’ve been hearing a lot of disappointment from people who have seen Funny People.  I suppose if one goes in expecting the laugh-a-minute experience of The 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up, one would be disappointed.  There is a lot of very funny humor in Funny People, but also some lengthy stretches without any laughs at all.  This would be a big problem if what was happening in those laugh-free-zones wasn’t compelling — but I found everything to be VERY compelling.  Funny People is a much more adult, nuanced film than Mr. Apatow’s first two movies, and while I positively ADORED those first two films, I am also thrilled to see him exploring some deeper territory here.

Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a wildly successful comedian and star of many hugely popular and sort-of-juvenile, well, Adam Sandler-type movies.  Despite his success, he is all alone in his huge mansion (except for his house-keeping staff, of course), and struggling to deal with the news that he has been diagnosed with a form of leukemia.  Seth Rogen plays Ira Wright, a young man trying to break into the brutally tough world of stand-up comedy.  Their paths cross one evening when George drops by a comedy club where Ira is waiting to perform, and Ira quickly gets sucked up into George’s orbit.  Ira is star-struck by getting to spend time with his idol, and desperate to taste some of the massive fame to which George has become inured, and George — though he’d never admit it — is lonely and looking for some sort of companionship, having driven away all of his former friends, girlfriends, and family.

Rogen and Sandler are both at the top of their games, creating fully believable, lived-in characters that feel completely real.  I have often said that I really like Adam Sandler’s comedy, but that I can’t stand his movies.  This remains true for me.  But I have really enjoyed the few films in which Sandler has actually tried to ACT — films like Spanglish, and Punch-Drunk Love.  In those movies, I was quite impressed that Sandler could actually create a real, sympathetic character, and he does similarly high-quality work here.  Rogen too turns in probably his most … [continued]