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Josh Reviews The King of Staten Island

In Judd Apatow’s new film, The King of Staten Island, SNL’s Pete Davidson stars as Scott, who lives at home with his widowed mother.  Scott’s father was a firefighter, who died on the job when Scott was young.  Scott is content to live his slacker-ish life, smoking and drinking with his friends and dreaming of someday opening a tattoo shop-slash-restaurant.  But when his far-more put-together sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), goes off to college, and Scott’s mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) starts seeing another firefighter, Ray (Bill Burr), Scott’s life goes into a tailspin.

I’m a huge Judd Apatow fan.  I’ve been a fan ever since watching Paul Feig’s and his brilliant but short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks, and Mr. Apatow’s follow-up (and also short-lived) series Undeclared.  I loved his phenomenal directorial debut film, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and ever since then, a new Judd Apatow film has been a cause for excitement for me.  A hallmark of Mr. Apatow’s work has always been how he has balanced humor with real emotional pathos.  I think Mr. Apatow is one of the best comedic writers working today, and if he rested on that, I’m sure I’d still enjoy his work.  But Mr. Apatow has always used humor as a way of exploring his characters and searching for emotional truths.  This was evident (and important to the success of) the first two films Mr. Apatow wrote & directed, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, two films with an extraordinary laugh-per-second ratio.  With Funny People, Mr. Apatow shifted his approach slightly — his films were still extremely funny, but he grew more willing to allow the humor to take a back-seat for longer stretches in his films, and to allow the explorations of character and dramatic situations to step more into the forefront.  While I admit to a slight preference for his “earlier, funnier” movies, I’ve nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed Funny People, This is 40, Trainwreck, and now The King of Staten Island.  I have commented before how Mr. Apatow has developed, to my mind at least, into this generation’s James L. Brooks.  That is no small praise.

Whereas Mr. Apatow’s earlier work — and Funny People in particular — seemed to draw more from the Mr. Apatow’s personal life experiences, and those of his close friends, it’s been interesting to see how in recent years Mr. Apatow has used his approach to comedy and drama as a way to allow other performers to explore their lives and step into the limelight.  This was the case with Lena Dunham in her HBO show Girls (which Mr. Apatow Executive Produced), with Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, and now with Pete Davidson in The King [continued]

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Josh Reviews Spider-Man: Far From Home

While Avengers: Endgame was an epic, enormous culmination to the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, it was actually Spider-Man: Far From Home that was the official end to Marvel’s “Phase Three” of films.  (Kevin Feige just announced an exciting and weird array of films and TV shows that will make up “Phase Four” — I’ll have more to say, soon, about all of those announcements.)  Serving as something of an epilogue to Endgame and also an exciting tease of the shape of the MCU in the years ahead, Far From Home is a spectacular film.  It’s fun and funny and sweet and emotional and action-packed.  I loved pretty much every single moment of the film.  Marvel is sure making it look easy at this point; I strive to remind myself while watching every single one of these films just how difficult and unusual it is to make these sorts of super-hero films be great.  For Marvel to be succeeding film after film after film is simply extraordinary.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is set after the events of Endgame.  The film spends some time exploring the repercussions of the climactic events of Endgame (more on this below), but for the most part it puts the galaxy-shaking events of Endgame aside to focus on a much smaller-scale story.  Peter Parker and his classmates are going on a school trip to Europe.  Peter is eager to leave the responsibilities of being Spider-Man behind, and to just have fun with his friends.  But Nick Fury has other ideas: the spy-master wants Peter’s help combating a new menace from across the multiverse.  Along the way, Peter meets a new ally: Mysterio, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who is stepping into the void left by the death of you-know-who at the end of Endgame, a responsibility that Peter is resisting taking on.

Far From Home is a fantastic film.  Director Jon Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (all three of who returned to the Spidey franchise after Spider-Man: Homecoming) demonstrate a perfect mastery of tone from start to finish in the film.  Far From Home is a very, very funny film.  The script is great and the talented cast are extremely funny.  There are some huge laughs in the film.  And yet, critically, Far From Home is not just a farce.  There are real stakes in the film.  Not galaxy-shaking stakes like in Endgame.  But for Peter Parker and the other characters in the film, the emotional (and, eventually, physical as well) stakes are very high.  And so the audience is engaged with the film right from the beginning.  We care about these characters and are invested in what happens to them.  This … [continued]

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In yet the latest feat of I-can’t-believe-they-did-it, Kevin Feige and the team at Marvel have stuck the landing.  Avengers: Endgame is a deeply satisfying, profoundly moving, and incredibly fun culmination to a decade-plus of movie-making.  They have woven together threads and characters from across an astonishing twenty-one previous interconnected movies to create something which is oh-so-rare in entertainment: an ending.  Shall we dig in?  (My next several paragraphs will be free of any major spoilers, and I’ll indicate clearly when I start entering major spoiler territory.  But do yourself a favor: go see the film and then meet me back here, OK?)

I have always been impressed by the continuity between the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It’s at the core of why I love these films so much; why, in place of the usual franchise fatigue that sets in after multiple sequels, I only love these Marvel films more with each additional film.  Not only am I bowled over by the boldness of this enterprise, not only am I tickled by the incredible way in which these films emulate the interconnected feel of the Marvel comics I grew up reading (in which you’d often see, say, the FF’s Baxter Building HQ — or its later replacement, “Four Freedoms Plaza,” which was actually their HQ in the eighties when I fell in love with comics in general and Marvel in specific — in the background of a panel in a Spider-Man comic in which Spidey was web-swinging around NYC), but, as I have written about before, the cumulative power of these narratives build and build with each new film.  Because we have been following these characters across so many films across so many years, we invest more deeply in them and their struggles.  And so when we see heroes suffer and fall (as we did in Avengers: Infinity War and as we do again in this film), the impact of those moments is magnified immensely.

But, wow, this film took that continuity even more seriously than I’d ever dared to hope or expect!  Endgame is a love letter to the entire MCU, and the film is remarkable in the way it establishes that EVERY previous film in the MCU is important.  (Endgame is like The Wire: “All the pieces matter.”)  Holy cow, this film retroactively makes Thor: The Dark World — one of the MCU’s lesser entries (though I’ve always thought it’s a more enjoyable film than its reputation would suggest) — retroactively very important to the saga!  (I’ve had many delightful conversations recently with new Marvel fans, brought in by Black Panther or Captain Marvel, who wanted advice on what Marvel films they should watch to … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Spider-Man: Homecoming!

Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies are fantastic, and they deserve an enormous amount of credit for helping launch our current golden age of super-hero films.  So I knew a good Spider-Man movie could be made!!  But boy it had been a while.  Spider-Man 3 was a huge disappointment, and then Sami Raimi was never given a chance to redeem himself when the series was taken away from him and rebooted.  The two Amazing Spider-Man films were a mess, filled with shoddy characterizations and flagrant attempts to build a franchise that never materialized.  They are a case study in the perils of studios desperately wanting to create a “universe” without actually focusing on making good movies.  Then the miraculous happened: Sony (who controlled the rights to Spider-Man) and Marvel reached an unprecedented agreement to allow Marvel studios to incorporate Spider-Man into the Marvel cinematic universe!  It is easy to forget how incredible it is that this actually happened.  The new version of Spider-Man was introduced in Captain America: Civil War, and every moment with the character was pretty much perfect.  Would Marvel be able to carry this success forward into a Spider-Man solo film, the first Spidey film set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

In a word: YES.  Spider-Man: Homecoming is everything I’d hoped it would be.  It is a fantastic presentation of the Spider-Man character, incredibly faithful to the character while also presenting us with a lot of new scenarios and characters from within the Spider-Man mythos, rather than falling into the trap of just being a third movie version of the character’s familiar origin and other stuff we have seen plenty of times before.  The film also fully embraces its place in the Marvel Cinematic universe, giving us all sorts of fun connections and moments without overshadowing the film’s strong, clear-eyed focus on Spidey/Peter Parker himself.

The film takes place immediately after the events of Civil War.  (In a brilliant montage, we see a quick recap of those events, from Peter Parker’s perspective.)  Peter is already Spider-Man (as just noted above, the film wisely avoids retreading his origin), and he feels flush from his involvement in Civil War and the cool new Spidey-suit that Tony Stark gave him in that film.  He feels he is ready to be an Avenger, but Tony keeps him at arm’s length, urging him to leave the big superhero stuff to the big superheroes, and to instead just be a “friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man.”  (A brilliant reference to a classic Spider-Man phrase.)  That proves difficult for Peter, who feels full of desire to prove himself and to use his powers for good.  But this fifteen-year-old hero might be in over his head … [continued]

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Marvel Triumphs Again with Captain America: Civil War!

Marvel Studios is on a winning streak the likes of which I am hard-pressed to recall (the last decade of Pixar movies is the only thing I can think of that comes close) and Captain America: Civil War is even better than I had dared hope, an extraordinarily HUGE movie with astounding action and powerful emotional beats that pay off story-lines that have been building through the twelve (count ’em, TWELVE) previous Marvel Studios movies ever since 2008’s Iron Man started this whole crazy adventure.  I am a huge fan of the under-appreciated Avengers: Age of Ultron (click here for my review), but a strong case can be made that Civil War is what The Avengers 2 should gave been, a film that embraces the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, putting the characters through a wrenching emotional trial and eventually shattering the team that had come together in 2012’s The Avengers.

Captain-America.Civil-War.cropped

Following the events of Age of Ultron, Cap has been training and leading a team of Avengers consisting of himself, the Falcon, the Black Widow, the Scarlet Witch, and the Vision.  As Captain America: Civil War opens, we find that Avengers team hot on the trail of Crossbones (the mangled ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Brock Rumlow from Captain America: The Winter Soldier).  As the try to stop Crossbones from obtaining a deadly biological weapon, a fight breaks out in the crowded streets of Nigeria.  Though the Avengers successfully stop Crossbones and his mercenaries, a tragic accident leaves a dozen civilians dead.  This proves to be the last straw for a world that has suffered from a series of increasingly-escalating super-hero/super-villain battles (as seen in the previous twelve Marvel movies).  Over a hundred nations band together to create the Sokovia Accords (named after the nation destroyed by Ultron in the climactic fight of Age of Ultron), declaring that the Avengers will no longer be an autonomous entity but now one governed by a UN-appointed supervising panel.  Tony Stark, desperate to find some way to prevent future civilian deaths and ensure that the Avengers remain a force for good across the world, supports the accords.  Captain America, worried that the international politics at play might prevent him and other super-heroes from acting whenever they feel it is necessary in order to save lives, opposes them.  This philosophical debate becomes more urgent when Cap’s former partner and best friend Bucky Barnes, now the brainwashed hit-man code-named the Winter Soldier (as seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) resurfaces and is apparently responsible for the murder of hundreds at the signing of the Sokovia Accords.  Tony begs Cap to let the world’s governments handle the subsequent manhunt but Cap refuses to … [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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“I’m Still Here.” — Josh Reviews The Wrestler

February 13th, 2009
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Every so often, we get to witness a magical synthesis between actor and role that takes a quality piece of material and elevates it to something really special.  Mickey Rourke burst onto the movie scene in the early eighties in films such as Body Heat and Diner.  But if you’ve heard or read anything about The Wrestler, then you probably know all about his subsequent fall from grace.  He started to gain a reputation for mis-behaving on set — showing up late, not learning his lines — and then he quit acting in order to become a professional boxer.  After a brutal four years (which resulted in the destruction of his movie-star good lucks) he returned to acting, only to appear in bomb after bomb.  (You can visit his imdb profile to check out the long list of films he appeared in in the nineties and early aughts that I guarantee you’ve never heard of.)

In The Wrestler, Rourke stars as Randy “the Ram” Robinson.  In the eighties, he was an enormously successful wrestler.  But those days are long past, and when we meet Randy in the opening scenes of The Wrestler, he has become “an old, broken-down piece of meat” (as he describes himself later in the film).  His face and his body have been battered by decades of wrestling, he needs a hear-ing aid to hear properly, and he devours pain-killers to manage his constant-pain.  He still wrestles, but mostly before light crowds in school gymnasiums.  His days of glory are just a memory.

What we know of Rourke’s life over the past two decades inevitably colors our perspective of the Ram.  Rourke doesn’t even need to say anything — just a look at his broken face says it all.  Although the details are different, in many ways Rourke’s story IS that of the Ram’s, to such a degree that it is impossible to imagine any other actor in the role.  This gives a powerful, additional level of resonance to the story.

But Rourke doesn’t rest on his personal similarities with his character.  In every scene, in every moment, in every little look and gesture, he uses his acting abilities — which are still quite formidable — to create an iconic performance.  The Ram is an enormous mountain of a man — yet also a figure of surprising gentleness, which we see in the way he interacts with the neighborhood kids, in his kindness to his fans, and in the way he reaches out to his estranged daughter.  But he is also prone to making bad decisions, and consistently tripping up his own good efforts at creating or maintaining relationships with others.

The Ram’s closest personal … [continued]