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Josh Reviews Waking Sleeping Beauty

August 21st, 2017
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Waking Sleeping Beauty is a 2009 documentary film, masterminded by Don Hahn and Peter Schneider, that tells the story of Disney animation’s return to prominence in the late eighties and early nineties with the huge successes of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.  This is an extraordinary documentary, created by two men who were right in the thick of Disney animation in those days.  As such, it is an incredible insider’s view of what went down, and it’s a remarkably honest, no-holds-barred telling of the story.  For anyone with any interest in Disney animation, this film is a must-see.

Back in the 1980’s, Disney animation was pretty much dead.  As the documentary opens, Disney’s over-budget production of The Black Cauldron (1985) is released to crickets and loses the studio a ton of money.  The animation department is moved into what is little more than an abandoned warehouse.  Former Disney animator Don Bluth’s new company (at which he employs many other former Disney animators) releases An American Tail in 1986 to great success, out-grossing Disney’s release that year of The Great Mouse Detective.

But gradually a series of events sets in motion important changes in the animation department and Disney over-all.  Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney resigns from the board and eventually steps into the role of chairman of the animation department.  Michael Eisner is hired as Disney chairman and Frank Wells is hired as President.  Mr. Eisner then hires Jeffrey Katzenberg as head of film production, and as such Mr. Katzenberg is directly involved in the production of all new animated features.  The film does not shy away from presenting the controversial moves made by Mr. Eisner and Mr. Katzenberg specifically, two powerful men who did not seem to mind throwing a few elbows.  But the film also highlights all that they did right, and the actions they took to help lift Disney out of the doldrums.

Across the board, Waking Sleeping Beauty is remarkably honest about the struggles and challenges faced by Disney animation during those years.  This isn’t a glossy, everyone was always happy retelling of these events.  (Considering this documentary was released by Disney, this is fairly astounding!)  Some of the film’s most fascinating bits concern the arguments, large and small, that went into the making of these movies, and the many interpersonal squabbles that erupted among these hard-working and talented men and women.

The film spends a lot of time exploring the production of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, two films that were both enormous successes and together represented a huge turning point for Disney animation.  The documentary emphasizes the contributions of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who wrote the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Dark Tower

Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series is an extraordinary achievement, a work of breathtaking genius that represents one of my absolute favorite fictional sagas of any medium.  The series consists of seven main novels plus an eighth follow-up novel (The Wind Through the Keyhole), plus a novella (The Little Sisters of Eluria), plus a series of illustrated prequel stories published by Marvel Comics (The Gunslinger Born).  Plus, of course, the Dark Tower novels connect to many, many of the other novels and stories written by Mr. King, from The Shining to The Stand to ‘Salem’s Lot and more.  Many have described The Dark Tower books as unfilmable, impossible to adapt faithfully to the screen.  But I have always disagreed.  I think this marvelously rich, sweeping saga could be extraordinary if adapted properly on TV or in a series of movies.  I continue to believe that The Dark Tower is one of the best-kept secrets of fiction, filled with incredibly original ideas and wonderfully engaging characters.  This series would BLOW PEOPLE’S MINDS if adapted with the same care, attention, love, and budget given to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Sadly, that’s not what has happened.  The movie adaptation of The Dark Tower, directed by Nikolaj Arcel and with a screenplay credited to multiple writers (Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Mr. Arcel), is a disappointingly small-scale, mediocre affair.  The film isn’t horrible.  It has a strong cast, and a few memorable moments.  But it takes this humongous, sprawling story and makes it feel very small.  It takes Mr. King’s wonderful characters and original situations and makes them feel flat and familiar, pale echoes of characters and stories we’ve all seen before in vastly superior movies.

The film is not a direct adaptation of Mr. King’s first Dark Tower novel, The Gunslinger Instead it’s a mishmash of characters and plot points from all seven of the main Dark Tower novels.  This is the type of approach that was, for decades, standard for a Hollywood adaptation of a beloved genre property.  But in 2017, in a post-Harry Potter world (in which all seven novels were faithfully and lovingly adapted into individual movies), in a world in which we have seen how creatively and financially successful the Marvel Cinematic universe has been in faithfully adapting the Marvel characters to the screen, this is a crushingly disappointing decision.

Now, let me be clear, I don’t immediately object to not beginning a Dark Tower film series with a direct adaptation of The Gunslinger.  That novel is the shortest and weirdest of the series, and many of the ideas that … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Baby Driver!

I have enormous love for all of writer/director Edgar Wright’s collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, from their fantastic TV show Spaced to their trilogy of films Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End.  Though actually, I have to admit that my absolute favorite Edgar Wright film is his criminally underrated 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which I adore with all my heart.  That Edgar Wright has not directed a film since that 2010 release is a crime.  And so I was more than a little excited for his new film, Baby Driver.

The film does not disappoint.

The titular Baby Driver is played by Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars).  Baby is a young man who has found himself in the position of being a getaway driver for a cadre of criminals and reprobates.  He has tinnitus and is a great lover of music, so he is almost always listening to music on his ear buds as a way to drown out the ringing in his ears and, perhaps, to keep him safely isolated from the big bad world around him.  Baby’s float-through approach to his life is rattled when he meets and begins to fall in love with a young waitress named Debora (Lily James).  The two young lovebirds hatch a plan to leave town and the lives they hate, but Baby finds it harder than he expected to get out from under the thumb of the big bad men for whom he works.

Oh man did I love this movie!  Edgar Wright has concocted a fiercely entertaining rush of a film, with every instant of screen-time packed to the gills with great music, exciting action sequences, and witty dialogue.

Mr. Wright has assembled an incredible ensemble of actors for his film, and he rewards his cast by giving each one of them a ton of fun stuff to do, allowing them each to create extraordinarily memorable characters in whatever amount of time they have on-screen.

Kevin Spacey plays Doc, the man-with-the-plan who comes up with all the criminal schemes and assembles the team.  It’s a great role for Mr. Spacey, who is terrific at playing loquacious characters with an edge of danger.  Mr. Spacey also allows us a tiny glimpse at the beating heart beneath the polished facade, which only emphasizes Doc’s dangerousness.  Jon Hamm plays Buddy, the confident, smooth-with-the-ladies man of action.  It’s fun (and sort of endearing) to see Mr. Hamm try to play scruffy-looking.  Mr. Hamm’s performance is fun in the first half but really comes alive in the second half when his character is pushed into some tight corners.  Eiza González plays … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Dunkirk

In May of 1940, German forces had trapped the British Expeditionary Force, along with French and Belgian soldiers, along the northern French coast.  The Allied troops pulled back to Dunkirk, but efforts at evacuation were at first thwarted by the German Luftwaffe.  In what came to be known as the miracle of Dunkirk, the British navy, assisted by hundreds of small civilian merchant vessels, evacuated over 300,000 Allied soldiers from Dunkirk back to England.  Christopher Nolan’s film, Dunkirk, follows three parallel stories: the soldiers trapped on the Dunkirk beach (the “mole”), a civilian sailor and two young boys who have set off to Dunkirk to assist the evacuation effort, and an RAF (Royal Air Force) Spitfire pilot in combat with the Luftwaffe.

Dunkirk is a powerful film, riveting in its depiction of this evacuation effort.  Dunkirk is the story of a retreat, but it is as visceral and engaging a war film as ever I have seen, filled with depictions of the best and worst of humanity, of heroism and of cowardice in the fate of terror.

There is very little dialogue in Dunkirk.  Mr. Nolan has crafted what I might call a tone poem of a film.  The power of the story is conveyed by the performances, by the extraordinary visuals, by the crafty editing, and by the score.

It’s a cold film, one that often keeps its audience at a distance.  This is the polar opposite of, say, Steven Spielberg’s approach in Saving Private Ryan.  Mr. Spielberg and John Williams are experts at tugging on the heartstrings.  Mr. Nolan (and his collaborator on the music Hans Zimmer — more on Mr. Zimmer’s work in a moment) take the exact opposite approach.  They avoid any hint of sentimentality and schmaltz.  There are many ways in which this could have failed.  There are times when the nearly-silent Dunkirk reminds me of The Thin Red Line, a film which I love in places but which, ultimately, I feel does not succeed.  But where that film stumbled, Mr. Nolan is able to pull together all of the elements of his film in a way that works beautifully, using an unusual approach to achieve a resonant thematic and emotional power.

Mr. Nolan and his frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer have, over the course of their films together, often gotten very experimental in their scores, frequently utilizing tones and sounds rather than traditional thematic elements.  Dunkirk feels to me like the culmination of these efforts.  This score uses an auditory illusion called a “Shepard tone” to develop an ever-increasing intensity.  A “Shepard tone” gives the impression of an infinitely ascending tone, thus seeming to build and build and build without ever giving the audience … [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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Josh Reviews Catastrophe Season Three

July 19th, 2017
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I absolutely adored the first two seasons (or series, in the British parlance) of Catastrophe, which I tore through in short order last year.  (Click here for my review of season one, and click here for my review of season two.)  I have been waiting with great anticipation for more episodes, and the six-episode third season did not disappoint!

Catastrophe tells the story of Sharon (played by Sharon Horgan) and Rob (played by Rob Delaney), who hook up for a weekend of passionate sex when Rob is in England on business.  When they discover Sharon is pregnant, Rob decides to move to England and he and Sharon try to make a go of being a couple.  The first six-episode season chronicled the nine months of Sharon’s pregnancy, while the second season jumped ahead a few years to show Sharon and Rob as parents to two young kids.

This third season picks up right after the end of season two, in which Rob has discovered that Sharon secretly had a pregnancy test, afraid that a drunken hookup when she was pissed at Rob had resulted in her getting pregnant.  (It didn’t.)  The show makes quite a meal out of Rob and Sharon’s dancing around one another in the opening episode of this season, with each having knowledge the other doesn’t think they have.  It’s painful but very, very funny.

Which is a great description of the show as a whole!  All of the characters in Catastrophe are flawed, and the situations they encounter are painfully real and human.  At the same time, the genius of the show is the way it’s able to be howlingly funny at the same time!

If I have any quibble with season three, it’s that just as in season two, it is hard sometimes to watch these characters I have grown to love be so unhappy.  Back in season one, both Sharon and Rob were scared and sometimes lost, but they weren’t as put upon by life as we have seen them be in seasons two and three.  That gave season one a fun and a lightness that the subsequent seasons have somewhat lost.  But on the other hand, the show has gotten to a deeper place, which is impressive considering the short run-time of these seasons.  The subtlety with which season three explored the impact of Rob’s falling off the wagon was impressive.  There’s no simplistic, comedic drunkenness here.  Rob is, for the most part (things get worse as the season progresses), a functional alcoholic, and I don’t recall ever seeing that explored in as honest a way on TV as it is here.  I like that, early in the season, we … [continued]

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Josh Reviews War For the Planet of the Apes!

It is a major cinematic miracle that the rebooted Planet of the Apes series is as great as it is.  It would be oh so easy to get this series completely wrong.  (See: Tim Burton’s Ape Lincoln.)  I remain staggered that someone ever had the idea to basically use the fourth film in the original five-film Apes series from the seventies as the basis for a reboot, and flabbergasted that a major studio actually let that film get made.  And that it actually turned out to be good?  Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a great film, and the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was a masterpiece, one of the finest pieces of speculative fiction in recent memory.

Director Matt Reeves, returning from Dawn, brings the story to a conclusion with War For the Planet of the Apes.  Set some time after Dawn, we see the remnants of the American military, led by the enigmatic Colonel (Woody Harrelson), attempting to hunt down and destroy Caesar (Andy Serkis)’s colony of intelligent apes.  While the bulk of the colony attempts to flee beyond the Colonel’s reach, Caesar and his closest allies (the chimpanzee Rocket, the gorilla Luca, and the orangutan Maurice) set out to hunt down the Colonel in an attempt to end the ape-human conflict forever.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes remains the true magnum opus of this series.  That film’s richly emotional meditation on humanity, on peace and war, and on mercy and hate, is an extraordinary achievement that War is not ever able to top, in my opinion.  Nevertheless, I found War For the Planet of the Apes to be quite spectacular.  This is no dumb summer blockbuster.  War For the Planet of the Apes wrestles with complicated themes that most CGI-packed big-budget movies steer well clear of.  It is a deeply satisfying conclusion to this three-film saga, paying off characters who have become wonderfully developed over the course of the series.  (The film certainly leaves the door open to future installments, and I would be very happy to see this series continue well into the future.  But if the series ends here, it has come to a fine ending.)

If the film makes any mis-steps, it might just be that title.  Both Rise and Dawn ended with some terrific ape-versus-human carnage, and with a title like War For the Planet of the Apes, I expected this movie to escalate the action right from the get-go.  But War For the Planet of the Apes is not a bombastic action-adventure movie.  Instead, the film is a somber, elegiac tale of broken, near-desperate characters (ape and human) trying desperately to find … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews The Lobster

In Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Lobster, Colin Farrell stars as David.  Upon discovering that his wife has left him for another man, David checks into a hotel where single people have 45 days to find a life partner, or else they will be transformed into an animal of their own choosing.  David makes friends with two of the other single men there, Robert (John C. Reilly) and John (Ben Wishaw).  Eventually, Ben runs away from the hotel and begins living with the “loners” who live in the woods nearby.  Though the loners forbid any sort of romantic connection between two people, David finds he has feelings for a woman (Rachel Weisz) he meets there.

The Lobster.cropped

The Lobster is an incredibly bizarre film, one that creates a fascinating alternate reality to our own.  Though much of the world of The Lobster looks and sounds just like our own, we are presented with two fanatically extreme versions of society: one in which coupling is so important that failure to do so results in the end of one’s human life, and another in which coupling is absolutely forbidden.  The film is a compelling commentary on societal pressure to find romance and a life-partner.  How critically important to one’s life and happiness is finding a romantic partner?  Why do we, as a society, put so many rules on people’s love lives, on what is expected and what is permitted?  The Lobster is a rich satire that prompts deep questions.

Colin Farrell is terrific in the lead role, marvelously underplaying the character of David.  Mr. Farrell is beautifully naturalistic and honest in his performance.  While the world of The Lobster can feel outlandish at times, Mr. Farrell provides a critical anchoring to the proceedings with his emotional honesty, and his depiction of a man at a crossroads, struggling to figure out who he is and what he wants and whether he feels he has any self-worth.  The film works as well as it does 100% because of Mr. Farrell’s strong performance.  Mr. Farrell is a handsome man who usually exhibits a ferocious, kinetic energy in his performances.  But here, beneath a paunch and glasses and a ridiculous moustache, it’s as if he has drained every ounce of life and energy out of himself in order to bring the sad-sack David to life.  It’s quite spectacular.

John C. Reilly is always great, and he’s a ray of light in this mostly downbeat film.  His character, Robert, is lonely and unhappy, but Mr. Reilly brings a little spark to every one of his line readings that brings a sense of fun and play into what is, when you think about it, a very broken character.  Ben Wishaw (… [continued]

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