\

Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

Josh Reviews The Report

Amazon’s film The Report, written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, depicts the years-long process in which the Senate Intelligence Committee investigated the C.I.A.’s use of torture of detainees after September 11th.  The investigation was led by Daniel Jones, a staffer for Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee.  Mr. Jones worked with a small team for six years on the report, which wound up totaling more than 6,700 pages.  The full unreacted report remains classified to this day, although a 535 page “Executive Summary” was released by Senator Feinstein and the Committee in December, 2014.  The film is partially based on the Vanity Fair article “Rorshach and Awe” by Katherine Eban.

The subject matter of The Report is very challenging.  The film’s first half contains several flashbacks that present instances of the C.I.A.’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which I found extremely difficult to watch, even though the scenes are brief.  On the other hand, the rest of the film mostly depicts subject matter that can be extremely dry.  Daniel Jones worked for years with a small team in a windowless room, reading e-mails and files and other documents.  That’s a hard subject matter to dramatize.  The sequences of committee hearings and political back-room conversations aren’t much easier!  Mr. Burns and his team had quite a challenge to weave this all into something compelling that could sustain an audience’s interest.

I am impressed by what they have done.

Now, be warned: The Report doesn’t have the momentum of a film like Spotlight.  Despite the best efforts of Mr. Burns and his terrific cast, I have to admit that there are portions of this very talky film in which I struggled somewhat to remain focused.  At the other end of the spectrum, as I’d noted above, there were sequences — the flashback to the C.I.A. interrogations — that were extremely unpleasant and tough to get through.

But the power of this incredibly important and relevant story shone through.  And the terrific cast was a huge factor in bringing this story to life successfully.  Adam Driver is fantastic in the lead role as Daniel Jones.  This is the least flashy role I have ever seen Mr. Driver play.  There’s not a single moment of the type of explosive energy that has characterized many of his best roles, from Adam in Girls to Kylo Ren in the Star Wars sequel trilogy.  This is a very internal performance.  Mr. Driver keeps all of his energy tightly bottled up.  And yet, his charisma shines through his stillness.  Daniel is like a coiled spring throughout the film, and that intensity blazing forth behind Mr. Driver’s eyes kept me, as a viewer, riveted … [continued]

Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

Josh Reviews Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Walking out of J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015, I was thrilled.  It felt like a joyous return to the fun spirit of the original Star Wars films, something the dour, talky Prequels felt like they’d forgotten.  But after a little time thinking about it, the film’s flaws (it’s derivative nature, and its myriad story and plot problems) started to become apparent.  I found watching Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to be a remarkably similar experience.  The film is a fun thrill ride.  It kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time.  The tone is spot-on, and wow, the film is visually stunning.  The Rise of Skywalker was hugely enjoyable to watch on a big screen with a packed crowd.  But it lacks the depth and thematic weight of the best Star Wars.  In contrast to The Last Jedi (a film that, while flawed, is one that I’ll fiercely defend), this isn’t a film with much of anything to say.  And it contains many of the same third-act nonsensical plot problems that The Force Awakens has.

OK, let’s dig in!  Before we begin, though, two programming notes.  First, my Star Wars t-shirt design is available at Woot for only TWO MORE DAYS!  It’ll be up for sale through Tuesday night only.  Please support this site by clicking through and making a purchase!  It’s a great gift for any Star Wars super-fan in your life.  Second, the other way to support this site is to take advantage of my being an Amazon affiliate.  This means that if you click through to Amazon from any of the links on this site, I’ll get a tiny percentage of the price of any purchase you make on Amazon for the next 24 hours.  You can use the Amazon banner ad at the top of the home page, or any specific Amazon link within one of my blog.  You don’t have to purchase the specific item I linked to!  Just use one of my links to get to Amazon, and then purchase whatever you normally would.  If all the readers of this site would just click through to Amazon through one of my links, whenever you do your shopping, it’d be a huge help towards keeping the lights on here.

OK, back to The Rise of Skywalker!  There are spoilers ahead, so I recommend stopping here if you haven’t yet seen the film, and coming back to read this after you do.

The Rise of Skywalker exhibits the same tendency seen in The Force Awakens to give us the-same-but-bigger rather than anything new.  In The Force Awakens, we got another Death Star but now this one was … [continued]

Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

Josh Reviews Star Wars: The Last Jedi!

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is not at all the film that I expected it to be.  It is very different from The Force Awakens, but a satisfying continuation of the story that film began.  The film is exciting, suspenseful, and emotional.  It is funny and it is heartbreaking.  It is weird and not afraid to take narrative digressions or even just a split-second moment to explore around the edges of this vast, wonderful Star Wars universe.  It is visually gorgeous, brought to life by some of the very best special effects you can hope to see.  It digs deep into Star Wars lore and connects to some of the most beloved moments of this saga, while also being unafraid to chart new courses and introduce new characters, worlds, and situations.  It is also too long, with a middle section that sags dreadfully.  But its third act is magnificent in a way that allows almost all sins to be forgiven.  The Last Jedi is not better than Rogue One, which I consider to be the pinnacle of modern Star Wars films (any film made after the Original Trilogy).  The Last Jedi is confounding at times, but also staggeringly glorious at others.  Kathleen Kennedy is three for three with the new Star Wars films created under her tenure as head of Lucasfilm.  Considering how even George Lucas himself struggled so mightily with his prequel trilogy, this is something of a minor miracle.

Whereas all previous Star Wars sequels have picked up the story a significant amount of time after the events of the previous film, The Last Jedi begins immediately after the end of The Force Awakens.  The First Order has learned the location of the Resistance’s hidden base and dispatched Star Destroyers to annihilate it, sending Poe, Finn, Leia, and the rest of the Resistance on the run.  Meanwhile, Rey has found Luke Skywalker, but the grizzled old man Luke has become has shut himself off from the Force and refuses to train her.  Desperate to understand her place in the galaxy-shaking events unfolding around her, Rey finds an unexpected connection with… Kylo Ren, the man who was once Ben Solo.

The Last Jedi shares certain broad-strokes story beats with The Empire Strikes Back.  Both films begin with an Imperial assault on a hidden rebel base that sends our heroes on the run; both depict a young Jedi seeking out an old master to be trained in the ways of the Force; both feature our heroes scattered for most of the run-time; both end with the heroes battered and the villains still a threat.

But beyond those surface similarities, The Last Jedi[continued]

Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols, amazingly, wrote and directed not one but two films that were released in 2016.  The second was Loving, a magnificent drama about Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple forbidden from marrying in Virginia, whose case eventually came before the Supreme Court in 1967.  I missed his first 2016 film, Midnight Special, when it was released to theatres earlier in the year, but I was delighted to catch up with it during my end-of-the-year catch-up rush before finalizing my Best Movies of 2016 list.

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Midnight Special tells the story of a young boy, Alton Meyer, who appears to have some sort of special powers.  When the film opens, Alton’s father Roy (Michael Shannon) and friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are in hiding and on the run with Alton.  They seem to be trying to evade both government agents as well as members of a Texas cult in which Roy and Alton were once involved.  As Alton’s condition deteriorates and their pursuers close in, their situation becomes increasingly perilous.

Mr. Nicols’ film throws the audience right into the story in media res.  This is exciting, but also somewhat confusing and I found it took quite a while for me to have any sense of what was going on.  Part of this is on purpose, as Mr. Nichols’ story very slowly and methodically doles out information about Alton’s special nature and his and Roy’s past.  But I found I enjoyed the second half of the film, when I had a better understanding of the players and the stakes, more than I did the more opaque first half.

What I love best about Midnight Special is the tone, one that has a heaping helpful of nostalgia for the great sci-fi/fantasy Amblin Entertainment films of the eighties that involved kids and paranormal events.  But unlike a film such as J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (which I like a lot), which succeeds primarily as an exercise in nostalgia, Midnight Special also has an intensity and hand-held grittiness that made it feel very modern, very of-the-moment.  Mr. Nichols has done great work in striking this balance.

He’s assisted by the wonderful cast he has assembled.  Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel, The Night Before) is always wonderful, and so no surprise he is terrific here as the main adult character.  Mr. Shannon’s intensity is always mesmerizing, and it’s nice to see that quality presented here in a heroic and noble character rather than a villain.  Roy is laser-focused on protecting his son Alton, no matter what happens to himself or anyone else, and Mr. Shannon’s powerful persona is well-harnessed for this character.

Joel Edgerton was one of the two lead … [continued]

Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

Josh Reviews Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

I don’t remember a time in my life in which I didn’t know about and love Star Wars.  I was a little kid when the original films came out, and by the time I really remember it, Star Wars was already a complete thing.  Three films: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.  I read lots of articles about Star Wars as a kid and I of course knew the story that George Lucas had at one time pictured a Star Wars saga consisting of nine films… and obviously I was aware that those three Star Wars films that had been made were numbered Episode IV, V, and VI, but it didn’t seem like there was any prospect of additional Star Wars on the horizon.  I just accepted that, and I was all right with that.  Those three films painted a complete story, and I was satisfied.

I still remember the excitement when word trickled out that George Lucas was actually going to go ahead and make his fabled prequel films.  Like, I think, almost every Star Wars fan on the planet, I was hugely excited to see the backstory fleshed out.  A chance to see the Jedi in their prime?  To learn about what the heck the Clone Wars were?  And to finally discover just how the Emperor and Darth Vader were able to destroy the Jedi?  It was tantalizing.  Well, we all know how that turned out.  Watching Episode I in theatres that opening night was the most crushingly disappointing cinematic experience of my life.  I’d never really considered the possibility that the movie wouldn’t be great.  Episode II felt like a step forward at the time but that film has aged terribly.  There’s a lot that I like about Episode III — it’s the only prequel film that I can say I enjoyed — but it was too little, too late.  To me, the prequels are best forgotten.

And so, again, in my mind that was it.  George Lucas didn’t seem interested in making any additional Star Wars films, and after the disappointment of the prequels I was totally fine with that.  The Star Wars story was finished.

And then Mr. Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney and immediately the announcement was made that Episode VII was in development.  I of course followed those developments with great interest.  While I can’t say I was surprised that the decision was made to make more Star Wars films, I truly never expected to see Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher ever again reprise their roles on-screen.  I was stunned when that was announced, and even now after seeing The Force Awakens I am still … [continued]

Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

Josh Reviews This is Where I Leave You

October 27th, 2014
,

This is Where I Leave You is written by Jonathan Tropper, adapting his book of the same name, and directed by Shawn Levy, who has directed many popular comedic films, none of which I have ever had any interest in seeing.  (These films include the two Cheaper By the Dozen films, the Steve Martin Pink Panther remakes, the Night at the Museum movies, and others.)  But I was intrigued by This is Where I Leave You because of the phenomenal cast and the interesting premise, and my wife really enjoyed the book on which it is based.

When their father dies, the four Altman children learn that his last wish was that they all return home to sit shiva together for him.  (Sitting shiva is a seven day-long Jewish ritual of mourning.)  Though the family is not Jewishly observant and are estranged from one another, they all agree to do so.  The film follows the seven days during which the Altman family-members are forced to interact with one another under one roof for the first time in many years.

Each member of the family has their problems.  Judd (Jason Bateman) has just discovered that his wife has been sleeping with his boss for the past year.  Wendy (Tina Fey) is trying to handle two young children without much help from her distant businessman husband, and she still carries a torch for the boy who grew up across the street.  The eldest brother, Paul (Corey Stoll), feels that he has carried the family business without any help from his siblings, and also is carrying a lot of tension with his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) because they are having trouble conceiving a child.  The youngest brother, Philip (Adam Driver), is the irresponsible baby of the family, and he’s currently dating a wealthy therapist, Tracy (Connie Britton), who is much older than he is.  These characters are joined by their non-Jewish mother, Hillary (Jane Fonda); Penny (Rose Byrne), the girl who used to have a crush on Judd; Judd’s unfaithful wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer); Judd’s former friend and boss, the loudmouthed D.J. Wade (Dax Shepard); Horry (Timothy Olyphant), the boy next door who years ago suffered a brain injury; and the Altmans’ neighborhood friend who has now become a rabbi, Charles Grodner (Ben Schwartz), who can’t seem to shake his unfortunate childhood nickname of “Boner.”

Just look at those names.  This film boasts an extraordinary ensemble of actors.  I wish they were in a better movie.

Don’t get me wrong, This is Where I Leave You isn’t bad.  It’s just extremely middle-of-the-road.   This is a movie that feels very designed to be appealing to as wide an audience as possible.  I wish that … [continued]

Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

Josh Reviews Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis is another home run from the Coen Brothers.  I found the film to be emotionally wrenching, an unflinching look at the pain, heartbreak, and rejection that so often accompanies the men and women who try to create art (be that music, paintings, film, etc.).  It’s a film that is deeply depressing, and yet I was absolutely entranced by the story that was unfolding before me.

Set in 1961, the film chronicles a tumultuous week in the life of Llewyn Davis, a young folk-singer.  Llewyn is able to scrape together gigs here and there playing his music, but he doesn’t have the money to have a home or even many worldly possessions other than his guitar.  He crashes on the couches of various friends and acquaintances, staying with each host for just a day or two here and there, as long as he can get away with before he gets on their nerves.  Llewyn is a screw-up.  He seems to have bungled most of his personal relationships (and we see him do a significant amount of additional bungling in the week chronicled in the film), and he hasn’t found the musical success he strives for.  I found Llewyn to be a sympathetic figure, even though the Coens seem to relish letting us see just what a self-centered nincompoop he can be.  Writing the other day about American Hustle, I commented that a film can be enjoyable even when anchored by an unlikable character, and I think that Inside Llewyn Davis is a strong example of that particular sub-genre.

I don’t think I’ve ever before seen Oscar Isaac in a film, but I’ll be paying attention from here on out.  Mr. Isaac is phenomenal as the titular Llewyn Davis.  His heavy-lidded eyes seem to reflect back at us uncounted moments of sorrow and disappointment in Llewyn’s life.  Llewyn comments, late in the film, that he’s just so tired, and it’s not simply a lack of a good night’s sleep in a real bed that he is lamenting.  Llewyn is a man who has been beaten down, and Mr. Isaac smartly underplays the role, finding a million quiet ways to show us the heartache that practically pours out of this man at every moment.  This film wouldn’t work if Mr. Isaac didn’t sell his performance, and man does he do a flawless job.  It’s terrific work.

Though this film rests squarely on Oscar Isaac’s shoulders, the corners of Llewyn’s world are brought to life by a wonderful array of supporting performers.  Carrie Mulligan and Justin Timberlake play Jean and Jim, a folk-singing duo who are friendly with Llewyn.  Well, Jim is friendly.  When the film opens, Jean is tremendously … [continued]

Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

With the simple title of Lincoln, one might expect the new film from Steven Spielberg to be an all-encompassing biopic of the life of our famous stovepot-hat-wearing former President.  However, quite cunningly, Mr. Spielberg and screenwriter (and acclaimed playwright) Tony Kushner (basing their work in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) chose instead to focus on a very short period — about two months — at the end of Lincoln’s life, in which he endeavored to bring the Civil War to a close and to pass the 13th Ammendment, abolishing slavery in the United States of America.

It’s an ingenious choice, and as a result Lincoln stays far away from many of the familiar beats of the biopic. The film is one-part character study, allowing us to spend time getting to know this most iconic of men, and one-part peek behind the curtain to see how the sausage of politics gets made — or, at least, how it did back in 1865.

The film is thrilling, and the way Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Kushner made a two-and-a-half hour story about how an amendment gets passed into such an edge-of-your seat piece of entertainment is absolutely astonishing.  The script is terrific.  The film has a huge ensemble (I’ll get back to this in a minute), but it’s never overwhelming, never confusing.  We’re introduced to a breadth of characters each of whom has a distinct personality and point of view and each of whom helps, in a small way, to illuminate the story being told.  Through these characters we are brought into the world of the bitterly divided America of 1865, still caught in the final throes of Civil War, and we are given keen insight into the political process of the day.  We see all the different points of view on the amendment, we learn why these different individuals hold these different points of view, and we see in intricate detail the work done by Mr. Lincoln and his team (several of whom are exceedingly grudging temporary allies) to, step by tiny step, move the pieces into place in their attempt to pass this momentous piece of legislation.  This The West Wing: 1865, and I don’t mean that to belittle the film in any way but rather as a huge compliment.  Lincoln is exciting and humorous and tragic, filled with colorful figures and eager to show the audience the nuts and bolts of our political process, warts and all.

All of this, of course, is anchored and elevated (if I may mix my metaphors) by the astonishing performance of Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.  I cannot believe this is the … [continued]