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The Top Twenty Movies of 2016 — Part Three!

My list of my Top Twenty Movies of 2016 continues!  Click here for numbers twenty through sixteen and click here for numbers fifteen through eleven.

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10. Sing Street Writer/director John Carney, who wrote and directed the marvelous film Once (which was then made into a Broadway show) returns with another fantastically entertaining music-centered film.  Set in Dublin in 1985, the film tells the story of a lonely boy, Conor, whose getting-divorced parents have moved him into a free Catholic school.  To impress a girl, Raphina, who he meets, Conor tells her that he’s in a band, and asks her to appear in one of their music videos.  When she agrees, Conor must now actually form the band he claimed already existed!  What follows is a lovely coming-of-age story as Conor tries to figure out just who he is and what he wants to be, all the while struggling with a group of newfound musician friends to create music that is actually good.  The romance is sweet, and I adored the film’s focus on the relationship between Conor and his older brother, Brendan.  La La Land has gotten all the attention this year, and I really enjoyed that film, but Sing Street is, I think, the superior musical film.  The music is great, and all of the kids are wonderful and instantly lovable.  It’s hard not to fall in love with these kids and this small-scale story about growing up and creating art.  I certainly did.

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9. Star Trek Beyond This rebooted Star Trek movie series (begun by J.J. Abrams who directed the first two films) hasn’t ever quite gelled into feeling like true Star Trek for me, but damn if Star Trek Beyond doesn’t come close.  Star Trek Beyond is not a perfect movie, but it is nevertheless a very entertaining new Star Trek adventure that is fun and exciting, with a strong focus on character and a firm grip on Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of the future.  New Trek director Justin Lin, working from a script by Simon Pegg (who, of course, also plays Scotty in the film) and Doug Jung succeeded in crafting a terrific new Star Trek stand-alone adventure.  Set several years into the Enterprise’s five-year mission, Beyond was made to feel like a big-screen version of a classic Star Trek episode.  I love that approach, and there is a lot about Star Trek Beyond to enjoy.  It’s fun to get a brand-new story, set on a never-before-seen planet and with lots of never-before-seen aliens.  There’s a wonderful focus on the Enterprise crew, with every member of the ensemble getting fun stuff to do.  In particular, after two movies that emphasized the Kirk-Spock … [continued]

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From the Blu-Ray Shelf: Josh Reviews Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

I enjoyed the first Neighbors. I wouldn’t call it a comedy classic, but it was a very funny film with a great cast. I loved the Seth Rogen-Rose Byrne combo, and all the frat boys (Zac Efron, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jerrod Carmichael) were fun. So I was interested in a sequel, though I missed it in theatres this summer.

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Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising got weak reviews when it was released but I enjoyed it. As with the first Neighbors, this isn’t a brilliant or groundbreaking in any way film, but it’s pretty consistently funny and with a very short run-time (only 92 minutes!) it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

While the first film dealt with Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), young parents and first-time home-owners, dealing with the nightmare of a frat house moving in next door, here in the sequel they are preparing to sell their house but now have to deal with a sorority moving in next door.

On the one hand, that premise is such a clear attempt to reset the characters so they can basically retell the story of the first film that it’s somewhat eye-rolling.  On the other hand, it’s such a natural way to get back to the concept that made the first movie fun, that I can’t really complain.

Sequels are hard, and comedy sequels particularly so. There’s a tension between wanting to tell a new story while also preserving what everyone enjoyed about the first film. So often, what happens is that these sequels basically wind up telling the same story again. When this approach doesn’t work, the result is a film that feels boring and repetitive. So the trick for a sequel is to somehow be both new and familiar at the same time.  And so I sort of have to admire the simple premise of Seth Rogen & Rose Byrne battling a sorority instead of a fraternity.  It feels clever at the same time as it is obvious. This is not genius level comedy film-making, but it works.  The film’s short run-time helps the viewer not have to much time to overthink this obvious set-up.  And the terrific cast mines enough humor out of the fun of seeing these characters back in a similar situation that it all comes together.

Where the film is weak is that the new characters introduced, the young women in the sorority, are not anywhere near as interesting as the boys in the first film. They feel far less well-defined, less interesting.

Chloe Grace Moretz feels like good casting on paper as the main new character, Shelby, but I never quite got a bead on her character.  On the one hand, she … [continued]

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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 Steve Jobs

The film Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, is divided into three vignettes, each taking place in the moments before Steve Jobs will go on-stage to announce the launch of a new product.  The first vignette is in 1984, at the launch of the Macintosh computer.  The second is in 1988, after Jobs’ ouster from Apple (the company he had co-founded), at Jobs’ presentation of the NeXT computer.  The third and final vignette is in 1988.  Jobs is back at Apple and is about to present the iMac.

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Steve Jobs has a very theatrical feeling, with it’s three-act/three-vignette structure.  Though the film is an original screenplay, written by Aaron Sorkin based on Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of Mr. Jobs, as well as on additional interviews conducted by Mr. Sorkin and the filmmaking team, it feels very much like an adaptation of a play.  The tone reminds me very much of some of the films that David Mamet wrote, adapting his own plays, both because of the very stylized dialogue and also because of the theatrical structure.  (This is on my mind as I just last week watched Mr. Mamet’s 1996 film American Buffalo for the first time, which is an adaptation of Mr. Mamet’s stage play of the same name.)

I sort of love this three-act structure here in Steve Jobs.  The challenge of biopics is that of condensing a subject’s entire life into a two-hour film.  Many biopics over-reach, trying to cram in every major life event of the subject, and wind up feeling bloated and, at the same time, very superficial.  I tend to prefer the approach taken by films like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln that focus in more narrowly on a specific period in the subject’s life.  Here in Steve Jobs, Mr. Sorkin has taken a different, and very clever, approach.  By dividing the film into three sequences at three different points in Mr. Jobs’ life, we are able to get a sense of the over-all ups and downs of his career, while also allowing the film to have a clear focus: on these three momentous events in Mr. Jobs’ life and career.

When watching biopics, or any films based on real-life people and/or events, I often find myself judging the film based on its accuracy to the real-life events.  I hate it when films twist the truth of real-life people or events in order to make what they think is a more palatable story for a movie.  A film like A Beautiful Mind was well-made and well-performed, but it seemed to so clearly gloss over some of the difficult realities of John Nash that I found I had little patience for it.  … [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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The Top 20 Movies of 2014 — Part Two!

We’re exploring my favorite films of 2014!  Click here for part one of my list of The Top 20 Movies of 2014!  And now, onward…

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15.  Life Itself Steve James’ documentary about film critic Roger Ebert is a magnificent love-letter to Mr. Ebert himself, and to his passion: the movies.  The film is a fascinating exploration of Mr. Ebert’s life and career as a movie critic.  We dig into many of Mr. Ebert’s notable film reviews and opinions, and of course there is a lot of great behind-the-scenes details of his relationship with fellow At The Movies critic Gene Siskel.  It’s fascinating to explore Mr. Ebert’s approach to film criticism and to see how that appealed to and/or put off others.  But what makes this documentary extraordinary is that, at the same time as the film tells the story of Mr. Ebert’s life and career, it also follows him and his wife Chaz during the last year or two of Mr. Ebert’s life.  Mr. James and his cameras had impressive access, and we see the extraordinary challenges that Mr. Ebert faced in his last years, as cancer and surgery after surgery left him without the ability to speak, and missing most of the bottom part of his face and jaw.  I’d seen a few photos of Mr. Ebert from those years, but I never understood the depth of what this man went through.  This film presents a wonderfully compelling human story, one that is tragic but also joyful, and it’s all wrapped up in Mr. Ebert’s profound and infectious love for the movies.  (Click here for my original review.)

FADING GIGOLO

14.  Fading Gigolo John Turturro has created the best Woody Allen film in well over a decade!  This film, written and directed by Mr. Turturro, who also stars alongside Woody Allen, totally took me by surprise.  It’s rare to see Woody Allen appear in a film he didn’t write and direct, and it’s wonderful to see Woody give such a fantastic performance, full of life and joy and comedic zest.  Murray (Woody Allen) and Fioravante (John Turturro) are friends.  Murray’s used book store has closed, and he finds himself at something of loose ends.  When his dermatologist (Sharon Stone) mentions that she and her girlfriend (Sofia Vergara) might be looking for a man with whom they can have a ménage à trois, Murray offers to set them up with his friend Fioravante, for a modest finder’s fee, of course.  Fioravante requires some convincing, but eventually agrees to go along.  Thus begins an Murray’s unlikely career as a gigolo, and Fioravante’s as a male prostitute!  Everyone seems happy, but things get more serious when Murray encounters … [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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And so, at last, we arrive at my final Best of 2013 list!  I hope you all enjoyed the rest of my lists.  Click here for part one of The Top 15 Movies of 2013, and here for part two and here for part three.  Click here for part one of The Top 10 Episodes of TV of 2013, and here for part two.  Click here for part one of The Top 15 Comic Book Series of 2013, and here for part two.

And now, without any further delay, let’s dive into my list of the Top Ten DVDs/Blu-Rays of 2013:

10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower Had I seen this film in 2012 when it was released, it surely would have made it onto my Best Movies of 2012 list.  Since I missed including this touching, heartbreaking film on that list last year, I sort of had to find a way to cheat and include it on one of my Best of 2013 lists!  This film has stuck with me deeply since I saw it.  It’s surely one of the greatest coming-of-age stories I have ever seen, masterfully adapted for the screen by Steven Chbosky, based on his own novel of the same name (which I now desperately need to read).  Each one of the kids in the film is portrayed by a phenomenal actor/actress: Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, Emma Watson, Mae Whitman, and a score of others, not to mention some great adults in supporting roles such as Paul Rudd, Joan Cusack, Dylan McDermott, and Kate Walsh.  No child should have to go through what Charlie has to go through in this story, but should god forbid that happen, I hope he/she is blessed with friends as wonderful as Sam, Patrick, and their gang.  And while I referred to “cheating” a moment ago by including this film on this DVD list, the blu-ray is in fact phenomenal, with some great behind-the-scenes stuff and two magnificent commentaries, one by Mr. Chbosky alone and one by Chbosky and all the kids.  (Click here for my original review.)

9. The Dark Knight Returns Part 2 & The Flashpoint Paradox These two direct-to-DVD animated DCU projects were both very strong.  At the start of the year we got the second half of the animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s Batman masterpiece, The Dark Knight Returns.  Published in 1986, this dark, psychological tale is the seminal “Last Batman Story,” in which an aged Bruce Wayne once again dons the cape and cowl in an attempt to reclaim a Gotham City without hope.  Mr. Miller’s work has been heavily mined for inspiration by … [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: Take This Waltz

I went into Take This Waltz knowing full well that this wasn’t going to be the usual kind of Seth Rogen film.  Frankly, I was excited by that idea!  I have been a big fan of Seth Rogen since his work as a young kid on Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared.  And while I haven’t tired of his adolescent-profane schtick in movies (I am eagerly looking forward, for instance, to This is the End), I am always curious to see a comedic actor take on a more straight dramatic role.

In Take This Waltz, Michelle Williams stars as a young woman named Margot.  Margot is a writer, and as the film opens, we see that she has taken a job writing promotional copy for a Sturbridge village type old-timey recreation town.  While wandering around the town, she meets Daniel, a curious and charming young artist.  Sparks fly between the two, and do so again when they see each other on the plane-ride home.  It turns out Daniel lives on Margot’s street, only a few yards down.  This would be the charming “meet-cute” of a lovely romantic comedy, except for one small problem: Margot is married, to a chef named Lou (Seth Rogen).

I really wanted to like Take This Waltz, and I know this film has been very well-reviewed.  But I must confess to having found it to be a total bore.  After an hour, I was totally emotionally disconnected from the film, and I had a very hard time getting through the second half, probably the hardest time I’ve had finishing any movie in recent memory.

At no point in the film was I able to make any connection, as a viewer, with Margot.  The problems for me started early, as right from the opening scenes I just didn’t get her.  She has all sorts of weird, quirky mannerisms, and she seems so on edge and prickly when we meet her, particularly when Daniel initiates a conversation with her.  I wasn’t at all sure what to make of her.  It wasn’t just that I found her mannerisms unlikable (though I did), it’s that I honestly didn’t understand what the heck was going on with this woman.  It wasn’t clear to me why she was at the park, why she acted so weird around Daniel, and whether she really needed a wheelchair.  You see, it turns out that Margot is uncomfortable traveling so she pretends to need a wheelchair on flights so that she can be cared for and shuttled around by the airline crew.  By the time we got that revelation, only 10-15 minutes into the film, I was starting to sort out who this character was, … [continued]

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Have you seen the fake Arrested Development shows that have been popping up around Netflix?  (Mock Trial with J. Reinhold, anyone?)  Brilliant!!

I have long ago lost all faith in M. Night Shyamalan, but my goodness this trailer for his new sci-fi film, After Earth, looks terrific:

“Fear is the mind-killer.”  Heh heh.

Here’s a trailer for the new end-of-the-world comedy, This is the End, featuring Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, and a heck of a lot of other very funny people (Paul Rudd, Michael Cera, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Mindy Kaling, and more), apparently all playing themselves:

In a similar end-of-the-world vein, here’s the first photo from Simon Pegg’s The World’s End, re-teaming him with Nick Frost and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz).

Steve Carrell and Jim Carrey are dueling Las Vegas magicians?  And the film also stars Steve Buscemi and Alan Arkin?  OK, I’m in!  Here’s the trailer for The Incredible Burt Wonderstone:

Well, I wrote about the first one-minute “announcement” teaser for the new Star Trek film, Star Trek into Dark Knight (ahem, I mean, Into Darkness), and I wrote about the nine-minute IMAX preview that was shown before The Hobbit. But I didn’t write about the first full official teaser trailer that was released a week or so ago:

That’s because there’s not that much more to say.  There’s not much in here that’s too terribly different than what we saw in the announcement teaser.  It’ll be interesting to see the full context of Pike’s ominous declaration that “there’s not an ounce of humility” in Kirk.  Pike was Kirk’s biggest champion in the first film, and while I agree that the Kirk we saw in that film DIDN’T have an ounce of humility in him — he thought he was the smartest/toughest guy in the room at the beginning of the film and all the way through — it’ll be interesting to see how/why Pike changes his view.  I hope this results in some growth and mellowing for this version of Kirk.  The Captain Kirk I remember was definitely an alpha male, but that didn’t often tip over into outright arrogance.

Boy, for five seasons of Lost I thought Damon Lindeloff was the MAN.  Then came that last season of Lost. And Prometheus. And so I think it’s good news that he will not be returning to script the Prometheus sequel (if that ever actually gets made).

I’ve got lots and lots of new movie reviews coming soon, my friends!  See you back here soon!… [continued]

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The Top 15 Movies of 2011 — Part One!

So last year I really struggled to come up with my Top 10 Movies list.  I had a hard time finding ten films that I felt were really GREAT.  What a difference a year makes!  This year there were so many films that I loved that I wanted to include on my list that, for the first time, I decided to expand my Top 10 list to a Top 15 List!  AND I cheated even more and made my number 15 a three-way-tie!

I thought 2011 was a really terrific year for movies, and there were a lot of great films that didn’t make it onto this list.  I really enjoyed Moneyball, 50/50, The Ides of March, Like Crazy, The Descendants, 30 Minutes or Less, Your Highness, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2, The Rum Diary, The Muppets, Midnight in Paris, and Our Idiot Brother, but they didn’t make the cut in this strong year.  (Follow the links to read my reviews of those films.)  But, wow, those films could have been on my Top 10 list and that would have been a really strong Top 10 list, one that would have held up quite well in comparison to my previous years’ Top 10 lists!  That’s how good a year this was.

I saw a lot of films in 2011, and particularly in the last month I’ve crammed in a lot of movie-watching, trying to catch up on all the 2011 films I wanted to see.  There are a lot of films that I saw in the last few weeks that I didn’t think warranted inclusion on this list, but about which I’ll be writing reviews on this site in the coming weeks.  These include My Idiot Brother, The Help, Tree of Life, Horrible Bosses, and more.  So you can look for those reviews soon.

As I always do, before I dive into my lists I want to mention the films I wanted to see, but never got to: A Dangerous Method, Shame, The Debt, Drive, Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, Larry Crowne, Beginners, The Trip. So if you loved one of those films and want to know why they’re not included on my list — well, now you know.  Hopefully I’ll get to track down some/all of those films in the near future.  (They’re all on my Netflix queue, so all I need is time!)

15.  Marvel’s Summer Movies: Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and X-Men: First ClassI do love me a good super-hero movie, and this summer mighty Marvel gave us three of ’em, each one a really terrific, fun … [continued]

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Josh Reviews 50/50

October 21st, 2011
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In 50/50, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a young man who is diagnosed with cancer.  (His physician gives him a 50/50 chance of survival, hence the title of the film.)  While his relationship with his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) is rocked by this news, Adam finds surprising strength from his buddy Kyle (Seth Rogen).  50/50 was written by Will Reiser and, as has been widely reported, is based on Mr. Reiser’s real-life experience of being diagnosed with cancer in his twenties, and his friendship with Seth Rogen.

Balancing comedy and drama in a film can be a very tricky thing, especially when true-live events come into play.  I thought about this issue last month after watching 30 Minutes or Less, a film about a young pizza boy (played by Jesse Eisenberg) who is kidnapped and has a bomb strapped to his chest, at which point he is forced to rob a bank to get money for his kidnapper.  That situation actually happened to a poor fellow back in 2003 (although the filmmakers claimed not to have been inspired by that incident).  Still, the parallel with real life events (that ended tragically) give the film a tension that runs throughout.  Sometimes I felt that helped the film, in that the story-line felt dangerous in a way that kept me engaged.  Other times I felt that hurt the film, in that it occasionally felt hard to laugh too hard at events that I know, in real life, ended up in a death.

Over-all I enjoyed 30 Minutes or Less, but compared to 50/50 that film feels like a fairy trivial, superficial lark of a movie.  50/50 aims for something deeper, and while it doesn’t always succeed, I really enjoyed the filmmakers’ ambition in crafting a story that is very, very funny, while also tackling some serious issues about mortality and friendship.

Yes, 50/50 is a comedy about cancer.  I suspect that topic kept many people away from this film, but I’m glad I saw it.  The film was directed confidently by Jonathan Levine (who also helmed the little-seen film The Wackness which I really loved), and more than just the presence of Seth Rogen reminds me of the work of Judd Apatow.  The focus on the friendship between guys, and the willingness of the film to mine comedy from tough real-life situations are all aspects I’ve really enjoyed in Mr. Apatow’s work.  50/50 is able to find that tricky balance of tone, allowing us to laugh along with the story while also engaging with the characters and their struggles.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been on quite a hot-streak lately (in films such as (500) Days of Summer and Inception[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]

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Josh Reviews The Green Hornet

January 24th, 2011
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Some movies are so bad that they are soul-crushingly painful.  It kills me when I sit down in a movie theatre with great hope and anticipation for a new film, only to watch my dreams slowly shatter as the turd-on-film unfolds.  I’m not talking about films that disappoint, I’m talking about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull spirit-demolishing catastrophes.  These films are just sad.

Then there are the films that are also terrible, but in a different way that makes them laughably ridiculous (as opposed to shoot-me-now painful).  These are the films that are so over-the top bonkers, so wrong-headedly BAD, that you just can’t help but laugh at the madness you’re watching on display.

The Green Hornet definitely fits into the latter category.

I didn’t have high hopes for this film, but I have great respect for the talents involved (including Seth Rogen, who I’ve found hysterical ever since Freaks and Geeks, and director Michel Gondry, who helmed the amazingly beautiful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and so I had some interest in checking out what they had done with the pulp story of the Green Hornet.

Wowzers.  This film is so unbelievably terrible right from the first scene that it’s jaw-dropping.

I’m not kidding.  RIGHT FROM THE FIRST SCENE this movie is awful.  That first scene shows us Seth Rogen’s character, Britt Reid, as a child, being berated  by his father (played by Tom Wilkinson).  I guess this scene is supposed to show us the complicated father-son relationship between these two, and also perhaps instill in us some sympathy for young Britt.  But the scene does neither because it’s so over-the-top in every single respect as to be ludicrous.  Tom Wilkinson — one of the finest actors working today — plays Britt’s father James, and he has never been worse in a film.  He’s stiff and forced to spout silly, over-the-top dialogue that hits us over the head with the idea that he’s a jerk who is insensitive to his son.  Meanwhile the music is going full-bore ominous, there’s a crazy sound effect when James pops the head off his son’s toy, and right there I was shifting in my seat thinking “uh oh.”  Everything is dialed up to eleven.  James isn’t just a jerk, he’s a JERK with capital letters who is completely, one-dimensionally horrible to his kid.  The music is over-the-top.  The sound-effects are over-the-top.

And the WHOLE MOVIE is just like that scene.

Oh, sure, there are some jokes that are funny.  I mean, you can’t have Seth Rogen on screen for two hours and not laugh occasionally.  But the ratio of jokes that hit to jokes that miss is … [continued]

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Summer Movie Catch-Up: Josh Reviews Funny People

August 14th, 2009
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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]

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Josh Reviews Observe and Report

April 20th, 2009
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About two-thirds of the way through Observe and Report, the new film written and directed by Jody Hill (who also wrote & directed the criminally under-seen The Foot-Fist Way), one character observes to another: “I thought this would be funny, but it’s just kinda sad.”  A more perfect summation of this film, I could not imagine.

Seth Rogen stars as Mall-Cop (excuse me, Director of Mall Security) Ronnie Barnhardt, who sees himself as top dog in the kingdom that is his mall.  Ronnie is completely smitten by Brandi (Anna Farris), who works in the cosmetics department of one of the mall’s department stores.  Brandi, of course, wants nothing to do with him.  But when a pervert prowling the mall’s parking lot exposes himself to Brandi, Ronnie sees his moment to be a hero by solving the case and catching the pervert.  The two other major players in the story are Ray Liotta as the police detective assigned to the case (of whom Ronnie is immediately suspicious and dismissive), and Ronnie’s “right-hand man” Dennis (played magnificently by the almost totally unrecognizable Michael Pena).

I knew going in that this wasn’t going to be a laugh-a-minute comedy like Seth Rogen’s other recent films (The Forty-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, etc.).  Nevertheless, I was caught somewhat off guard by just how sad this story is.  Not sad in terms of being a get-out-your-handkerchief type of film.  This isn’t The Pianist or anything like that.  But rather than being laugh-inducing, I found watching that most of the exploits of Ronnie Barnhardt were just rather pathetic and sad.  If that’s what the film-makers were going for (and it very well might be) then bravo, mission accomplished.  But I can’t say that I got an enormous amount of enjoyment out of watching the movie.

Even the moments when I really laughed during the film weren’t moments of clever dialogue or humorous situations, but more from Borat-style “I can’t believe I’m watching this” shocks, such as Ronnie and Dennis’ brutal crack-down on the group of kids skateboarding in the mall’s parking-lot, or Ronnie’s chase after the pervert in the film’s climax.  Again, this isn’t necessarily a negative.  It just wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

This is a film that, as I think about it now, I RESPECT more as a well-made film, and one that is very brave for going to some extraordinarily dark places, as opposed to a film that I really LIKED.  If I can’t recommend it whole-heartedly, it’s mostly because some of those dark places that the film visits aren’t so much fun to watch!  On the other hand, Observe and Report is certainly a unique film, not … [continued]

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Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen Make a Pretty Great Movie

In the new comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno, we witness the interesting collision of two comedy worlds.

Kevin Smith has been making raunchy comedies since his black-and-white, made-for-no-money-whatsoever debut film Clerks.  Although his subsequent films (Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Jersey Girl, and Clerks II) have varied somewhat in tone (as well as quality), Kevin Smith has established a distinctive (and, for those of us who love his work, tremendously enjoyable) style to his films.  He has an ensemble of actors who have appeared regularly (Jason Mewes, Ben Affleck, Jeff Anderson, and many other familiar faces), and there’s a distinct cadence to his wonderful dialogue, which can be counted on to be chock full of obscure pop culture references, vulgarity and frank discussions of all-things sexual.  

It might not be so apparent, but Kevin Smith’s dialogue-focused films, featuring a lot of young people having one gloriously off-color conversation after another, were once quite ground-breaking.  (I can’t think of any movie, before Clerks, that had anything remotely similar to the famous “how many dicks did you suck” conversation.)  But in recent years it has been the films coming out from the Judd Apatow troupe (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, etc.) that have been taking up all of the comedy limelight, and pushing the envelope forward.  (Clerks is raunchy, but to me at least, Superbad is WAY raunchier.  Go ahead and re-watch the first five minutes of that movie and tell me I’m wrong.)

While everyone (myself included) has been singing the praises of Judd Apatow and everyone else involved in this recent wave of highly successful comedies, I don’t think quite enough attention has been paid to just how influenced these films have been by Kevin Smith’s work.  And so, as one watches Zack and Miri Make a Porno unfold, there is a lot of enjoyment to be found from the comedy circle completing itself, as we find so many familiar faces from the Apatow movies now starring in Kevin Smith’s latest film.  

The two headliners are, of course, Seth Rogen (who appeared in both Apatow TV series Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, had a supporting role in The 40 Year Old Virgin, starred in Knocked Up, and co-wrote and co-starred in Superbad), and Elizabeth Banks (the “junk in the trunk” girl from The 40 Year Old Virgin who has been all over the place this year, most recently in W. and Role Models).  While several Smith regulars also appear in Zack and Miri, such as Jason Mewes (finally playing a character other than Jay) and Jeff Anderson (Randall from Clerks and … [continued]

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Thundering Pineapple Mummies

Well, the summer is winding down, but I’m taking advantage of the lull to catch up on some movies!  Here’s what I’ve seen lately:

Tropic Thunder — Just saw this tonight, and let me tell you it is phenomenal.  Ben Stiller stars in and directed this tale of a group of self-absorbed hollywood actors filming a big-budget Vietnam action-adventure movie called Tropic Thunder who, through a ludicrous series of circumstances, wind up in an actual Vietnam action-adventure.  (Hmmm, that description makes it sound sort of like Space Camp, but rest assured that it is not.)  The movie is hilarious, and I mean every scene is hilarious.  The cast is terrific.  Ben Stiller is Tugg Speedman, the action movie star looking for some respectability after the flop of his oscar-bait role as the mentally challenged Simple Jack…and Stiller plays forlorn self-absorbtion to a tee.  Jack Black plays drug-addled Jeff Portnoy, known for playing all the roles (in a variety of fat-suits) in the obese family movie series The Fatties.  As you’ve probably read by now, Robert Downey Jr. keeps his summer of success rolling (after Iron Man) with his portrayal of Kirk Lazarus, an actor so devoted to Method that he, well, transforms himself into a black man to play African-American Sgt. Osiris.  Those are the stars, but there are so many other juicy roles that are very winningly embodied by a variety of other talents.  Brandon T. Jackson plays rapper-turned-actor Alpha Chino (I laughed and laughed at that rapper name), and Jay Baruchel (so great as the lead in the great-but-cancelled Judd Apatow TV series Undeclared) is the requisite baby-faced soldier, Kevin Sandusky.  Danny McBride (who’s also having quite a summer, with the long-awaited release of his feature film The Foot Fist Way a few months ago, as well as his role in The Pineapple Express) is the somewhat psychotic pyrotechnics expert Cody.  Steve Coogan (Coffee and Cigarettes, Tristan Shandy, and the upcoming Hamlet 2) plays the desperate director Damien Cockburn trying to get his spoiled stars to behave.  Nick Nolte is genius playing… well pretty much himself, or at least the world’s perception of Nick Nolte, as the addled “Four Leaf,” the man who wrote the book Tropic Thunder being adapted by these Hollywood dim-wits.  And, of course, I cannot forget Tom Cruise, under a you-need-to-see-it-to-believe-it bald cap and hairy chubby suit, playing the gleefully profane studio mogul financing the production.  OK, do you want to see this movie yet??  Let me just add that this film is also enhanced by a trio of fake trailers even more enjoyable than the ones in Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse from last year.  (Speaking … [continued]