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Josh Reviews Allied

For a long time, Robert Zemeckis was one of my very favorite filmmakers.  There was a phenomenal stretch during which I felt that he was making movies that were aimed directly at me, at the exact things that I most loved.  Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Contact these are spectacular films that I love dearly.  Every one of Mr. Zemeckis’ films from this period are fiercely entertaining; they all have a fantasy/sci-fi/geeky aspect to them (which I love!) but are nevertheless able to be extraordinarily crowd-pleasing.  They  are the work of a director at the top of his game, someone with a mastery of visual effects (the visual effects achievement of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? cannot be understated) who was able to use those skills to great effect.  But then something happened, and Mr. Zemeckis moved into directions that just didn’t interest me.  For quite a number of years, Mr. Zemeckis went down a rabbit hole of films utilizing CGI motion-capture that resulted in a bizarre not-quite-real look that didn’t speak to me.  (I love CGI animation, but the sort-of-real look CGI look that Mr. Zemeckis favored lacked the spark and energy of any of the films of Pixar.)  I did watch Beowulf, which I respected as a technical accomplishment, but isn’t a film I have ever felt the desire to revisit.  I skipped The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol altogether.  I was thrilled when Mr. Zemeckis returned to live-action films with Flight, but for some reason I never actually got around to seeing either Flight or his next film, The Walk.  Maybe someday I’ll catch up to them, but Flight’s mediocre reviews kept me away, compounding this guy who hates flying’s aversion to seeing a film about a terrifying airline experience.  As for The Walk, I love the documentary Man on Wire so much that seeing a fake recreation of those events didn’t feel like a must-watch for me.  Which brings me to Allied, which was, at last, a Robert Zemeckis-directed film that I was excited to see as soon as I first heard about it.  Mr. Zemeckis directing a lavish WWII spy film starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard?  I’m in!

Sadly, the film is far from the triumphant return-to-form for Mr. Zemeckis that I had hoped for.

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I will say that the film looks gorgeous.  Mr. Zemeckis’ skill as a master of the visual form is still intact.  There is some gorgeous imagery in the film, from the vistas of French Morocco to haunting imagery of London during the Blitz.  The very first shot of the film sticks out in my memory: a beautiful shot across the desert, which subtly shifts … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Night Before

Well, its title is pretty generic and meaningless but other than that I have little bad to say about The Night Before, the fun and funny new raunchy buddy comedy starring Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Anthony Mackie.

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Director Jonathan Levine can pretty much do no wrong in my book,  I adored his film The Wackness (definitely track it down, you won’t regret it) and really dug 50/50 (a film about a guy getting cancer, which seems like an extremely perilous subject around which to center a comedy, but Mr. Levine nailed it.). The dynamic of the friends in 50/50 was a lot of fun, so I loved seeing Mr. Levine reunited with Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt here in this film, and Anthony Mackie (so solid in the last several Marvel films as Sam Wilson) is a great addition to the ensemble.  The three men really sell the idea that these three guys are life-long friends, which is critical to this film’s working as well as it does.

In The Night Before, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) are best friends who, for fifteen years, have always spent Christmas Eve together, partying.  It began as a way for Isaac and Chris to help Ethan get through the death of his parents, and then continued as an ever-escalating tradition of fun and mayhem.  But now, with Isaac about to be a father and Chris achieving fame as a football star, the guys have decided that this will be the final year of their Christmas Eve tradition.  After one final crazy blow-out evening, of course!

The Night Before isn’t a ground-breaking comedy by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a lot of fun.  It’s a sort of cozy slipper sort of comedy, in that it’s fun to see these actors have a vehicle that allows them to bounce off of one another.  There are some home-run sequences of comedy in the film, and also a solid underpinning of character-work that gives the film some weight.  Mr. Levine balances the tone deftly, so that you care enough about the characters to engage in their stories.  But the film thankfully doesn’t get all dewey-eyed and sappy in the third act as some comedies make the mistake of doing.

This deep into Seth Rogen’s career (I’ve been a fan ever since Freaks and Geeks almost two decades ago), it feels perhaps like a step back to have him play a character whose basic story is that he is wigging-out on all sorts of drugs for the whole film.  (The idea in the story is that Isaac is a pretty normal, well-adjusted grown-up.  But on the eve of her giving … [continued]

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Josh Has Seen The Interview!

I was very concerned and very disappointed when news broke that, because of the threats made by the terrorists/criminals who hacked Sony, the studio was pulling The Interview from its scheduled Christmas release.  Click here to read a terrific editorial on the topic from Drew McWeeny at Hitfix.com, and click here to read a wonderful piece by, of all people, George R. R. Martin.  I agree with the views expressed in both articles one hundred percent.  Suffice to say, the idea that a foreign government can decide what we can or cannot see here in the United States is a scary concept indeed.

Though I was bummed not to get to see The Interview on the big screen, I was happy that Sony did wind up making the film available for streaming.  After a week of limited availability, the film is now more easily viewed on-line.  (I watched it using Amazon Prime streaming.)

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I suspect you all know what the film is about.  James Franco plays celebrity talk-show host Dave Skylark.  He’s achieved fame and fortune interviewing celebrities and other pop-culture figures.  (In one of the film’s early scenes, we see him stumble into a ratings bonanza when Eminem reveals a tantalizing piece of personal information in a live interview.)  Seth Rogen plays Aaron Rapoport, Dave’s best friend and the show’s producer.  When it is revealed that North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un watches Skylark’s show, Aaron is able to arrange for Dave to travel to North Korea to conduct the first live, globally-broadcast interview with the dictator.  But before Dave & Aaron depart for North Korea, they are visited by two C.I.A. agents who insist that they assassinate Kim Jong-un while they are in his presence for the interview.

It’s crazy how much political furor this film has caused, considering that this is not a very politically-minded film.  Yes, it plays with the hot potato topic of North Korea and Kim Jong-un, but this film is not really a political satire.  It has some points to make about the cruelty of Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship, but a political statement is not the purpose of this film.  No, this is a goofy, raunchy, buddy comedy that just happens to be wrapped up in this political setting.

I don’t want to dismiss the political setting of the film, because making this comedy about the assassination of a real-live world leader is a huge part of the movie’s ballsy charm.  What a wild, insane idea for a movie.  I am dazzled by the craziness of co-writers Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, and director Dan Sterling, in using North Korea as the backdrop for their story.  And the film doesn’t shy away … [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]