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Star Wars: Episode III

September 1st, 2014
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Josh Reviews Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

September 1st, 2014

I knew of Elaine Stritch mostly from her spectacular recurring role on 30 Rock as Jack (Alec Baldwin)’s imposing mother.  But that was more than enough to interest me in Chiemi Karasawa’s recent documentary about her, titled Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.

Filmed in 2013 and released in February, 2014 (only a few months before Ms. Stritch sadly passed away in July), the film gives us a look back at her incredible life and career while also following her efforts to launch a new tour, in which she would perform songs by Stephen Sondheim.

At eighty-seven years old, Ms. Stritch was long past the age at which most people should undertake such an enormous endeavor.  And indeed, in the film there are some unsettling moments in which we see Ms. Stritch struggling with her performance — her ability to remember her lines, her ability to hit her notes, and all the stamina needed for such a tour.  These moments are hard to watch.  It is toughest when Ms. Stritch herself is forced to confront the limitations imposed on her by her age.

But the film is also incredibly joyous and life-affirming.  It is incredible to watch this grande old dame fight through her limitations and press onward, not giving up, not giving in and fading away into a quiet retirement.

And, of course the primary joy of the film, and, I would say, the primary reason to watch it, is to get to spend some time with this incredible, irrepressable personality.  Ms. Stritch was perfect casting on 30 Rock, and there is quite a lot of Colleen Donaghy in her.  She is an absolute hoot, saying exactly what she is thinking and not pulling punches with anyone.  It is incredible fun getting to watch her interactions with everyone around her.  (I particularly loved getting to know the woman who has become something of an assistant to Ms. Stritch, after having gotten sucked into the powerful gravity-well of Ms. Stritch’s personality.)

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is a great little film, and a worthy swan-song for this incredible woman who so recently passed away.  For anyone who knew her broadway work, and for any younger fans like me who only got to know her through 30 Rock, this is a film worth seeing.… [continued]

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Josh Reviews Snowpiercer

August 29th, 2014

An attempt to reverse global warming has gone catastrophically wrong, resulting in frigid temperatures covering the entire planet and wiping out almost all life on Earth.  The few survivors of humanity exist inside Snowpiercer, an enormous train on a track that circles the globe once each year.  The product of a wealthy inventor, Snowpiercer is a fully self-contained, self-supporting ecosystem.  But within the train, a strict class system has developed, with the wealthy in the front cars living a life of luxury, while the impoverished are crammed in together in the tail section, living in gulag-like conditions.  Curtis (Chris Evans), assisted by the wizened old man Gilliam (William Hurt), decides to start a revolution, breaking out of the tail section and leading his followers through one train-car after another, on their way to the front and the revered, perpetual-motion engine.

Any time I get to see an original work of science fiction I am happy, and the South Korean film Snowpiercer (adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige) sure is original.  The film reminds me of the wacko-crazy extraordinary visual sensibility of Terry Gilliam.  (is it a coincidence that William Hurt’s character is named Gilliam?  I doubt it.)  The movie is gorgeous, a feast for the eyes, with extraordinary work done by the sets and costume departments.  Each train-car is its own unique, fully-contained world.  Each time Curtis and his fellows enter a new car, so are we the audience drawn into a wonderful new, fully-imagined reality.  It is extraordinary.  (All the more-so considering this was far from a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster.)

I am not sure how much of Snowpiercer is meant to be taken literally.  There are many questions I could ask about the logistics of the reality of this sci-fi world within the train.  But I don’t think we’re meant to ask those questions, and the film is strong enough that I never got bogged down in asking myself those questions.  There is extraordinary power in the simple metaphor of the train’s linear class system.  Like the best sci-fi, Snowpiercer dazzles at creating a world outside of our own, while, at the same time, having so much to say about our present-day reality.

The film also reminded me of Apocalypse Now, as with each train-car Curtis’ group passes through, it’s as if they are on their own Heart of Darkness journey down the river into the unknown.  Just like Willard (Martin Sheen’s character in Apocalypse Now), Curtis finds at the end f his journey a figure of complex, ambiguous morality.  And just like for Willard, it is left to Curtis to make the final moral judgment as to whether this individual can be permitted to remain alive.… [continued]

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Josh Sees a Rough Cut of Star Trek Phase II: The Holiest Thing

August 27th, 2014

Despite the lack of good “official” Star Trek these days, I think it’s a great time to be a Star Trek fan.  I have written often about several incredibly high-quality Star Trek fan productions, including Star Trek Continues and Star Trek Axanar.  But the first, and still in my mind the best, is Star Trek Phase II.  They have produced, over the last decade, nine full-length episodes of what could have been the never-made fourth season of the Original Series.  These episodes have all been terrifically entertaining and of an astounding high quality.  By their third episode, “To Serve All My Days,” the Phase II team was creating episodes that looked and felt totally professional, incredibly close to “real” Star Trek.  (They were also attracting the involvement of real Trek professionals, including Walter Koenig in “To Serve All My Days” and George Takei in the next episode, “World Enough and Time.”)

I feel like the Phase II group has been a little bit overshadowed recently by other Trek fan projects.  The group Star Trek Continues have set out to do exactly the same thing that Phase II undertook a decade ago, that is to create the never-made fourth season of the Original Series, and they have surged past Phase II in productivity, releasing three complete (and high quality) episodes in the last year.  (Click here for my review of their first episode, “Pilgrim of Eternity”, here for my review of their second episode, “Lolani”, and here for my review of their third episode, “The Fairest of Them All”.) Then there is Star Trek Axanar, a group setting out to make a feature film that will tell the story of Garth of Izar (from the Original Series episode “Whom Gods Destroy”) and his victory over the Klingons in the Four Years War (years before the events of The Original Series).  I raved about this project recently, praising their twenty-minute “Prelude to Axanar” short film for its incredibly high-quality, professional look, and for the astounding array of professional actors they attracted to fill out the roles.

Meanwhile, Phase II seems to have hit some speed-bumps.  They announced a big relaunch last summer, but they are still sitting on several episodes that have been filmed over the past several years.  They announced that their next episode, “The Holiest Thing,” would be released last February, then delayed it on the planned day of release.  What at first seemed like a delay of just a few days or weeks has stretched into months, with no sign of the episode in sight.  Now the Phase II team have said they won’t be releasing it next at all, instead bumping up … [continued]

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Josh Reviews A Most Wanted Man

August 25th, 2014

Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a German spymaster who leads a small counter-terrorism group in Hamburg that seeks to develop intelligence sources within the Muslim community.  Gunther has been investigating a wealthy local Muslim man, Dr. Abdullah, on the suspicion that his charitable organizations hide a front for funneling money to terrorists.  When a Czechen refugee, Issa Karpov, enters Hamburg illegally in an attempt to access his father’s money, Gunther believs he might have found the key to exposing Dr. Abdullah.  But he must navigate the competing interests of the many foreign intelligence services also operating in Hamburg, including the Americans, and play all the pieces on his board just right in order to capture the “barracuda” he is hunting for.

Adapted from the John Le Carre novel of the same name, A Most Wanted Man is a deliciously twisty, dark little tale of spies in the post 9/11 world.  It features a magnificent performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in what I believe is his final starring role.  Mr. Hoffman is astounding, and the act of watching this film makes his recent loss only more painful.  How can it be that this phenomenally talented, vibrant actor has been taken from us?  What a tragedy.  Mr. Hoffman has played spies before, but his work here is 180 degrees away from his loud, hysterically funny role as Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War.  Gunther Bachmann is a quiet man.  He is pale and unassuming, and has a gentle way with his co-workers.  But we can see that has steel behind his eyes.  He is fierce in his pursuit of his suspects, and he clearly has incredible talent for putting the million tiny pieces of an investigation together in order to hook his targets.  He drinks too much, he smokes too much, he lives alone, and he seems to have been discredited by something in his past that went down in Berlin (though one tantalizing scene suggests the possibility that is only a smokescreen).  In many ways, Gunther is more bureaucrat than James Bond, but we see his fierce intelligence and craft in every move he makes, both behind a desk and in the field.  What a performance.  Mr. Hoffman commands the screen in every scene he is in.  When the film ends, the feeling that overwhelmed me more than anything was regret at not getting to see what happens next, not getting to spend more time with this fascinating character and this marvelous actor.

A Most Wanted Man is a very quiet film.  There is one foot-chase, but don’t go into this film expecting action.  Everything in this film is quiet, subdued.  The film doesn’t glamorize espionage, rather it … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Boyhood

August 21st, 2014

The stunt concept behind Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood would make it worthy of note even if the end result wasn’t all that compelling.  In an audacious, jaw-droopingly cool years-long undertaking, director Richard Linklater and his cast (including Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and young Ellar Coltrane) shot for a few weeks a year for twelve years (you read that right) to create a film that followed the journey to maturity of a young boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane).

All the more so, then, am I ready to shout from the rooftops in praise of this film, because what Mr. Linklater and his talented collaborators have created is a film that is staggeringly beautiful, an emotionally rich journey that is unlike any other film I have ever seen.  The film is over two and a half hours long, but I felt it blew by in mere moments, and I would have gladly watched another two and a half hours without complaint.

One might expect a film shot in small segments over the course of twelve years to feel choppy and episodic.  But I was delighted by how smoothly the film works as a whole.  The story-telling and the editing are masterful.  Each sequence flows smoothly into the next, carrying the audience along with the flow of these people’s lives.

Mr. Linklater and his team chose incredibly well in casting young Ellar Coltrane (merely 7  years old when the project began in 2002) as Mason.  Mr. Coltrane is incredible, and I found his performance to be as convincing and open and honest when he was seven as when he was eighteen.  Whenever I praise the work of a child actor I have to reserve half the praise for his/her director.  (Same goes with criticism.  I don’t blame Jake Lloyd for The Phantom Menace, I blame George Lucas.  But I digress.)  So bravo to Mr. Linklater for finding such a remarkable young man, and for the care with which he worked with him over the course of twelve years, in order to draw out such a remarkable performance.  And bravo to Mr. Coltrane himself.  If he never makes another film, this will always stand as a remarkable acting performance.  But I hope very much that this young man will make many, many more films.

Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are both wonderful as Mason’s parents.  They are as fully-developed, interesting characters as Mason himself, and I appreciated that the film takes the time to flesh out the both of them as much as it does Mason.  I love how neither parent is idealized.  We see both Olivia’s (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr.’s (Ethan Hawke) flaws and weaknesses front and center.  But we also see … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Bad Words

August 15th, 2014

I don’t believe that Jason Bateman’s directorial debut, Bad Words, got much of a theatrical release, and that is a shame because the film is absolutely dynamite, a crackling concoction of a dark, dark comedy.

Mr. Bateman stars as Guy Trilby, a forty-year-old man who exploits a loophole in the rules of the National Quill Spelling Bee competition so that he can enter.  It seems that, because he never graduated the eighth grade, he can compete, and so Guy begins a quest to defeat child after child and be crowned champion of the National Bee.

If that premise, which involves a grown man competing against children and doing his darnedest to crush their dreams (and those of their usually-overbearing parents) sounds like an amusing premise, then this is a movie for you.  I found it to be absolutely hysterical.  The film has a transgressive edge to it, and it takes a certain demented glee in mining humor from Guy’s absolutely inappropriate interactions with all of these eighth-graders.  But this isn’t a mean-spirited movie, and the comedy stays on the right side of the boundary of good taste, at least in my opinion.

Most importantly: Bad Words is very, very funny.  The film has a biting, sharp script by Andrew Dodge.  I love that the story drops us right into the middle of Guy’s Spelling Bee quest, his plan already fully-formed.  The film opens with a very funny, attention-grabbing prologue in which we see Guy competing in a Bee.  After that opening, I expected the story to flash back by a few weeks or months to tell us just what this guy was up to and how he got to this crazy place.  But no, to my delight the film just keeps moving forward, and it’s only gradually, as we watch this crazy story unfold, that we learn more about Guy’s background and just what the heck he is up to.

Jason Bateman will probably never have a better role than that of Michael Bluth on Arrested Development, but boy this is up there.  On Arrested, Mr. Bateman usually played the straight man.  But here he gets to cut loose and bring Guy Trilby to life in all of his maladjusted glory.  Mr. Bateman taps into some sort of evil inner glee in all the scenes in which we see him torturing his fellow Spelling Bee participants (and their parents), and this gives the film a crazy, I-can’t-believe-I’m-watching-this energy.  (While, as I noted above, always managing to stay on what I felt was the right side of acceptability in terms of what an audience could find humor with and still somewhat sympathize with Guy as our main character.)

The great Kathryn … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Life Itself

August 13th, 2014

It’s hard to imagine anyone who loves movies not being taken by Life Itself, Steve James (Hoop Dreams)‘s biopic of film critic Roger Ebert.  The film opens with a delightful quote from Mr. Ebert, in which he remarks on the power of movies to help one understand a little bit more about different people in different situations, describing movies as a “machine that generates empathy.”   What a delightful and fascinating point of view.  I was already a fan of Mr. Ebert’s work going into this documentary, but that quote reinforced not only what a terrific writer Mr. Ebert was, but also what an insightful perspective he had on cinema, this art-form that so many of us love so much.  I love the movies, and I have never heard my love of the movies framed in this manner.  The moment I heard Mr. Ebert’s words I was in full agreement, nodding my head at the way he had pinpointed a very important idea.

Based somewhat on Mr. Ebert’s memoir of the same title, Life Itself traces the life and career of Roger Ebert.  We explore how he discovered writing and his love of journalism, his early days as movie critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, and of course the film digs deeply into his long, sometimes-turbulent partnership with rival Chicago film-critic Gene Siskel.  The film takes the time to dwell on some of Mr. Ebert’s many notable film reviews and to explore other aspects of his professional life, while also giving us insight into his personal life.  We hear some entertaining stories from his earlier, hard-partying days, learn about his journey into sobriety, and see his late-in-life marriage to the love of his life, Chaz.

All of this is fascinating stuff and wonderfully interesting and enjoyable to learn.  But what sets Life Itself apart from a more standard biographical film about this film critic is the incredible access Mr. James had to Mr. Ebert in the difficult last year-or-so of his life.  In 2002 and 2003, Mr. Ebert was diagnosed with cancer, and between 2003 and 2008, he underwent multiple surgeries in an effort to remove the cancer and repair the damaged tissue in his jaw.  Mr. Ebert, the famous television movie-reviewer, lost the power of speech entirely, and eventually his entire lower jaw had to be removed.  (I still vividly remember this shocking Esquire magazine photograph that revealed to the world Mr. Ebert’s new face.)  Mr. Ebert lived like that for many years, using a computer to communicate and continuing to write.  Indeed, Mr. Ebert developed an extraordinary web-presence and the movie-reviews he posted on his blog were must-reads for movie fans across the globe, including myself.

Mr. James … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Breaking Bad: Season Two

August 11th, 2014

Yes, I know I am hugely late to the party on Breaking Bad.  Just as everyone was getting excited about the finale of the show, my wife and I were just starting to watch it from the beginning.  I enjoyed season one, though I found the show hard to watch at times because of how unhappy so many of the characters were.  Still, I recognized it as very well-made television, and I was eager to move on to season two.  (Click here for my review of season one.)

I enjoyed season two just as I had season one, though it took me far longer to get through the thirteen-episode season than I had expected.  There is no question that it’s a unique, bold show, one that is the product of a team of extraordinarily talented people.  But man I found it hard to watch.  So much so that after watching the first few episodes of the season I stopped, and it took me a while to get back into it to finish out the season.

I am sure this is not news to anybody, but Breaking Bad is a very bleak show.  That is part of what makes it so compelling and bold, but it also for me makes the show tough to get through.  I watched many of the episodes with my stomach twisted all in knots as  terrible thing after terrible thing happens to (and by) the main characters in the show.  It is rough.

I am definitely not someone who things that all good TV should be simple and happy.  Quite the opposite!  I already love and respect Breaking Bad for its incredible quality and its breath-taking freshness.  I am just being honest that I have a tough time watching it!!  (As I noted in my review of season one, I felt this way, to a much lesser degree, about the early seasons of Mad Men, but I eventually grew to fall totally in love with that show and its characters.  I am curious to see if the same thing winds up happening to me with Breaking Bad.)

One thing that immediately impressed me about the show is the way it never let’ the views off the hook by skipping over anything in a way that would let the audience say, OK, well, they did such-and-such and I don’t need to think about why or how, they just did it.  No, instead the show always digs deeply into the details.  For instance, season one ended with Walter and Jesse making a deal with the drugs-dealer Tucco.  I had expected season two to pick up the story weeks or months later, with the boys … [continued]