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Josh Reviews Tully

Tully marks the third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody.  Their first film together, Juno, got a lot of (well-deserved) acclaim, but I liked their second film — Young Adult, starring Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt — even more!  It’s been a delight following their collaboration through these three movies, and I hope they continue to make lots more films together!

In Tully, Charlize Theron is again the lead, this time as Marlo, a harried mother of two who, when the film opens, is pregnant with her third child (who was unplanned).  Marlo loves her kids and her husband (Drew, played by Ron Livingston), but she already seems to be at her wit’s end even before entering the gauntlet of the sleepless-nights-filled experience of parenting a newborn.  At the instistence of her brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), Marlo eventually relents and hires a night nurse, Tully (Mackenzie Davis), and things begin to change for Marlo almost immediately.

Tully is an interesting film. It’s extremely well-made, though I respect the craft on display a little more than I actually loved the film.  Part of that is because of how unflinchingly honest the film is about the unglamorous parts of parenting.  The film spends a great deal of time highlighting the minutae of being a parent of young children, the sort of stuff you seldom see portrayed on screen.  Even for those of us who have not suffered from the sort of emotional distress that Marlo goes through over the course of the film, or had to deal with a child with the needs that her son has, there is a lot to recognize here, and it is painful!  Watching Marlo deal with all of these harries and hassles of day-to-day life, and slowly crumble under the weight of it all, is (intentionally) tough to sit through.  So there are long stretches of Tully that are not exactly a fun watch.  However, my main hesitation about the film is connected to what happens in the final ten-ish minutes.  I will get into this a little later in this review.

First, let’s lavish some praise on the cast.  Mr. Reitman is a great director and Ms. Cody is a grat writer, and there is no question that these two have an electric alchemy.  They seem to balance each other’s strengths.  Each of their three collaborations has had a distinct energy and tone.  But for me, when Tully really sings it is because of the terrific cast.

Charlize Theron once again demonstrates that she is a fantastic actress.  (Those of us who saw Young Adult and Mad Max: Fury Road, among many other great performances by Ms. Theron, already know … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Vacation

National Lampoon’s Vacation was a film I loved dearly when I was a kid.  It was so funny and raunchy and felt a little bit dangerous to my young self.  (I probably saw it at a younger age than I should have, though on the other hand perhaps that was the perfect age at which to have watched it!)  The film captured Chevy Chase at the height of his comedic powers.  I never felt any of the sequels were able to recapture that magic of the original, though Christmas Vacation came the closest.

While I always loved Vacation, I never felt the movie was so pure or perfect that a reboot was objectionable.  Quite the contrary, I think the concept is elastic enough that it should/could be able to support multiple iterations.  (This is as opposed to, say, Ghostbusters, which I am very unhappy to see being rebooted/remade.  I love Paul Feig and he has assembled a marvelous cast, but I wish they had made an original film and called it something else.  But I digress.)

Vacation.cropped

This latest Vacation starts off on the right foot for this particular film fan by not being a reboot, but rather an in-continuity sequel to the earlier films.  Ed Helms plays Rusty Griswold, the now-adult son of Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold.  Rusty wants to create a memorable, bonding experience for his family so he decides to recreate the road-trip to Wally World on which his dad took his family decades before.  This is a great idea for the film, in that it allows the movie to have basically the same structure as the original film, while also allowing the story to be filled with all-new hi-jinks.

Unfortunately, while I certainly laughed a lot while watching Vacation, it’s not a particularly clever comedy.  Many of the jokes, while funny, are fairly obvious and rather low-brow.  (I have nothing against gross-out humor — as an example, the diarrhea sequence in Bridesmaids is a classic piece of comedy gold — but the bathing-in-sewage sequence in this film doesn’t feel to me to have anything approaching that sort of originality.)  And sadly most of the film’s very best jokes were spoiled in the trailers.  (Any fun that “Griswold Springs” sequence might have had was ruined because I knew exactly where that whole bit was going from the first second, because I’d seen the pay-off in all the trailers.  So that whole five-plus minutes of the movie became totally boring to me.)

The film is well-cast.  Ed Helms is a solid choice as the lead.  He plays Rusty as a familiar Ed Helms character — well-meaning but dim, with an undercurrent of desperation — but it works for who … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2013: Drinking Buddies

Written and directed by Joe Swanberg, Drinking Buddies has a phenomenal cast and a great premise.  Set in the world of micro-breweries, the film charts the romantic, beer-fueled entanglements of four friends.  Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) work together at a small craft brewery, and the two have a tight friendship and a wonderful flirtatious energy.  To the audience it is immediately clear that these two would be a fantastic match.  But both are seeing other people.  Luke has a long-time girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick), while Kate has recently started dating a slightly older man, Chris (Ron Livingston).  Will a weekend the four spend together up at Chris’ family’s cottage in the woods solidify or shatter these various friendships and romantic relationships?

Drinking Buddies is a very different movie than I was expecting it to be, and while that is totally on me, I had a hard time shaking that dissatisfaction as I watched the film.  I was expecting a raucous, fun comedy — the film equivalent of a happy-go-luck, booze-filled night out with buddies.  But the film is a far more serious, painful story of unfulfilling relationships.  It’s the film equivalent of the sad, lonely morning after.

As a rich character study, the film succeeds wildly.  And don’t get me wrong, there are definitely some laughs.  But for most of the run-time the film is an unflinchingly honest, often-painful look at a series of flawed people who are all flailing about, trying to figure out what (and who) they want.  I spent the movie rooting for Luke and Kate to realize that they are perfect for one another, but if you go in expecting the type of happy ending that romantic comedies will provide, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

Personally, I have strongly mixed feelings about this.  I love that Drinking Buddies eschews the usual, stupid romantic comedy plot-developments.  And I applaud Mr. Swanberg’s creation of a film that is far more honest and real.  In that he succeeded with great skill.  But damn would I have preferred a little more lightness, a little more happiness, particularly in the ending.

The cast is uniformly phenomenal.  Anna Kendirck and Ron Livingston are, I feel, reliably great.  (I just wish Mr. Livingston was in more of the film.  Of the four leads, he gets by far the least amount of screen time.)  While Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson are certainly big names and very successful actors at this point, I have never clicked in to their previous performances the way I did with both of them in this film.  Well, I did quite enjoy Mr. Johnson in Safety Not Guaranteed (click here for my review), but … [continued]

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Josh Reviews HBO’s Adaptation of Game Change

Back in 2008, Jay Roach directed the excellent HBO movie Recount, which covered the incredible-but-true contested 2000 Presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.  (I wrote briefly about Recount here.)  Just a few weeks ago, HBO premiered another political film directed by Mr. Roach: Game Change, an adaptation of the book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin about the 2008 Presidential election.

The film is excellent.  I’m a junkie for political films and documentaries, and I was absolutely gripped by Game Change. Mr. Roach and writer Danny Strong (who also wrote Recount) are able to bring the ins and outs of the political maneuverings of a campaign to life, mostly by focusing (as did Mr. Heilemann and Mr. Halperin) on the outsize characters involved.

The huge change that Mr. Roach and Mr. Strong made, in their adaptation, was to focus their film almost exclusively on the McCain/Palin side — specifically on the story of Sarah Palin.  Whereas the book Game Change also spent a huge amount of time detailing the Obama campaign and the fierce primary battle between Mr. Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the film Game Change spends almost zero time with the Democrats.  Because the picture that the film paints of Sarah Palin is an extremely negative one, that unfortunately results in Game Change’s feeling totally lopsided to me.  I loved that Recount was balanced between the Democrat and Republican sides, constantly shifting viewpoints from one campaign team to the other.  Game Change misses that.  While I understand narratively the reason for focusing on Ms. Palin — she’s without question the most fascinating figure from the campaign, and there was clearly enough story about her alone to fill up a two-hour movie — I can see this film being off-putting to anyone with a Republican viewpoint.

It’s hard to separate politics from one’s thoughts about Game Change, because Ms. Palin is such a polarizing figure.  Those who love her will dismiss this film as character assassination.  Those who hate her will see this film as proof that they were right.  I don’t believe this film will change many minds.

Certainly, the notion that the Sarah Palin presented in this film might have been one heart-beat away from the Presidency is horrifying.  The main story-arc of the film is the way that the key members of John McCain’s campaign, particularly Mr. McCain’s chief campaign strategist Steve Schmidt and senior campaign advisor Nicolle Wallace, became convinced that Ms. Palin was shockingly ignorant and potentially dangerous.  For the most part, I was familiar with the events covered by the film so wasn’t terribly stunned by any of the plot developments.  But one thing that I’d never … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Adaptation (2002)

I was extraordinarily taken with Adaptation when I first saw it in theatres back in 2002, but I hadn’t seen it since.  I had been waiting for there to be a follow-up to the initial bare-bones DVD with nary a single special feature (save the film’s theatrical trailer) — if ever there was a film that left me desperate for a behind-the-scenes peek at just how the film came to be, it’s this one — but no special edition DVD ever arrived.  Shame!  Still, when I saw the disc in the five dollar bin at Newbury Comics a few months ago, I couldn’t resist.

Adaptation centers on screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s struggles with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel, The Orchid Thief.  How can he possibly make a movie out of the plot-free novel about flowers, without selling out by employing tired Hollywood cliches of action sequences and characters falling in love and learning important life lessons?

The above two-sentence summary really fails to do the film’s weird, complex, sprawling narrative justice.  The film swims deliriously in-and-out of real life events.  Adaptation is of course written by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who really was hired to adapt The Orchid Thief only to find himself totally stymied in his attempts, and he did decide to write himself into his screenplay (Adaptation is the film that resulted), as does the Charlie in Adaptation.  Still with me?  And yet much of Adaptation is pure fiction — Charlie Kaufman doesn’t really have a twin brother Donald (despite Donald’s name being listed in the film’s credits, a clever touch), and of course none of the insanity at the end of the film with Susan Orleans and her subject Laroche (in which drugs and murder come into play) has any basis in reality.

I can only laugh and wonder what the real Susan Orleans thought of this sort-of adaptation of her novel, or of her depiction in the film.  Former executive Valerie Thomas (played in the film by Tilda Swinton), told Variety: “I’m 10 pages in, and suddenly realize, ‘Oh my God, I’m in this.”  That Variety article goes on to comment that Ms. Thomas got off easy in the film, though perhaps they’re forgetting the scene in which Charlie masturbates to the thought of her having sex with him.

Nicolas Cage turns in one of his finest performances ever (well, two of his finest performances ever, actually), in the dual role of Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald.  It is astonishing to me how completely Mr. Cage is able to create and inhabit two entirely different characters despite their identical features.  Cage’s Charlie is depressed, anxious, and self-loathing, whereas Donald is happy, outgoing, and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Dinner For Schmucks!

Hoo boy, this one was disappointing.

I’m a big fan of both Steve Carell and Paul Rudd, and I thought Dinner For Schmucks had a premise that was so weird it seemed to promise good comedy.  Rudd plays Tim, who is trying desperately to climb the ladder at the private equity firm at which he works.  When one of his ideas sparks the attention of his boss (the always-great Bruce Greenwood), Tim gets an invite to his boss’ annual dinner.  But this isn’t just any dinner: each guest must bring, as their guest, the biggest idiot they can possibly find.  The purpose, simply, is for the rich hosts to mock the unfortunate souls gathered for the meal.  When Tim accidentally hits the socially awkward, dead-mice-collecting taxidermist Barry (Steve Carell) with his car, he seems to have found the perfect guest to bring along.

I’ve got to hand it to the filmmakers for having the guts to go with Dinner For Schmucks as their title.  (I’m not quite sure how that one got approved by the MPAA while Kevin Smith’s buddy cop film A Pair of Dicks had to be re-titled Cop Out — do the suits not know what the word schmuck means?)  But that title is about the only edgy element to be found in this broad, obvious comedy.

There aren’t any real, human characters to be found in this film.  Despite being one of the two male leads, I didn’t feel like we really got to know Rudd’s character Tim at all.  He likes his girlfriend and wants to get ahead in business.  What else did we learn over the course of the film?  Tim is painfully middle-of-the-road — not nice enough of a person to be someone we really sympathize with while watching the film, nor enough of a jerk to have any sort of character arc in the movie.  Then there is Carell’s Barry, who’s a big giant goofy cartoon, full of all sorts of bizarre manners and idiosyncracies.  I guess it’s all supposed to be funny, but it didn’t really tickle my funny-bone.

Director Jay Roach has been involved in some very funny movies (such as Austin Powers films), but it seems that lately he’s tended to make overly simplistic, broad comedies (such as the Meet the Parents films), and Dinner For Schmucks exacerbates that trend.  The set-ups for the gags are tired and obvious.  Hey, two characters have the same phone, I wonder if they’re going to get mixed up?  Hey, Tim has an important lunch, I wonder if Barry is going to screw that up?  Hey, now would be the worst moment for Tim’s girlfriend Julie (the beautiful Stephanie Szostak) to show up, … [continued]

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It’s been a busy month here, but that hasn’t stopped me from checking out a bunch of DVDs recently, new and old:

The Conversation — Released in 1974, this masterpiece was written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.  Gene Hackman stars as twitchy, secretive surveillance specialist Harry Caul, whose life is up-ended by a seemingly-innocuous conversation that he is hired to record.  Confidently directed by Coppola at the height of his abilities, the film is a perfect study of a slow burn as we watch Hackman’s character gradually fall to pieces.  This is Hackman’s film, without question, but it’s also fun to see the great John Cazale (Fredo in The Godfather) and an incredibly young Harrison Ford in supporting roles.  The film is also notable for the contributions of master editor Walter Murch (American Graffiti, Apocalypse Now) who created an incredible sound-scape that plays with sound and dialogue in some incredibly inventive ways.  The bravura opening sequence, in which Caul and his team records the titular conversation, is staggering — like Caul, we attempt to follow the couple and their conversation, but keep getting distracted by people talking, music playing, and a myriad of other background noises, with the conversation itself flittering in and out of our perception.  It’s really quite astonishing.  Everybody loves The Godfather these days, but I feel that The Conversation is a film that has fallen out of the popular consciousness.  Do yourself a favor and help remedy that by checking out this brilliant film!

Band of Brothers — Speaking of masterpieces, there is this 2001 HBO miniseries executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.  Adapted from the book by Stephen Ambrose, the series follows the men of Easy Company (of the US Army 101st Airborne Division) from their training in 1942 through to the end of the second world war.  I have watched this series through four times now since it was released, and each time I watch it I am just as over-come by the power of the story of these extraordinary heroes.  The production quality of this mini-series is unbelievable — each episode is really its own mini-movie.  The vistas are stunningly beautiful, and the action is gut-wrenchingly intense.  There are few movies. let alone TV shows, that are able to stage combat sequences with as much ferocity.  Over the ten episodes we follow and grow to love an enormous ensemble of characters: Damian Lewis as Richard Winters, Ron Livingston as Lewis Nixon, Donnie Wahlberg as Carwood Lipton, Scott Grimes as Donald Malarkey, Michael Cudlitz as “Bull” Randleman, James Madio as Frank Perconte, Neal McDonough as “Buck” Compton, Frank John … [continued]