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So… has there been some Star Wars news this week…?

Well, let me just say this, which I’m sure I’ll be repeating over and over again ad nauseam between now and Dec 18, 2015.  I would love nothing more than to see a great new Star Wars movie in a theatre at some point during the rest of my life.  I would be delighted and thrilled for Episode VII to be that movie.  I am rooting for it.

Although there are a billion ways for it to go wrong and turn our embarrassing, I like the idea of the original trio of Luke, Han, and Leia (Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher) being involved in the movie.

I am cautiously optimistic that J.J. Abrams is the right director for the film.  I think J.J. understand how to balance nostalgia with telling a fresh story; I think he has a good cinematic eye; and I think he has the muscle in Hollywood to make the movie he wants to make.  On the other hand, his last film was the execrable Star Trek Into Darkness.  So that’s a problem.

There are some really exciting names in the new cast just announced.  John Boyega was phenomenal in Attack the Block.  Oscar Isaac was phenomenal in Inside Llewyn Davis.  Domhnall Gleeson was phenomenal in About Time.  Andy Serkis is the new god of 21st century big-budget fantasy film-making.  (I assume he’ll be playing a mo-cap creature, but I’d be equally happy if he’s performing as himself in the film.)  Max Von Sydow was absolutely BORN to be in a Star Wars movie.  Adam Driver is a surprising choice — I think he’s a terrific actor, but he has a very “modern” feel that I have a hard time imagining translating into a Star Wars movie, but I can hold my judgment for now.  (Interestingly enough, he shared a scene — a GREAT scene — with Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis!)  Like the rest of America, I have no idea who Daisy Ridley is (just that she has a cool name), but I look forward to finding out.

So, so far, I am cautiously optimistic about Star Wars: Episode VII.  This is not a film I think needs to be made.  But since they’re making it, I hope to hell it’ll be great.  Right now, I have plenty of reasons to worry (none of us have to imagine what a terrible Star Wars movie looks like — we’ve all already seen it), but also plenty of reasons to hope.  We’ll all know for sure in just a year and a half.

In other news…

This is a fantastic [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Drive (2011)

I missed Drive when it was released in 2011, but I was intrigued by everything I read about it and it’s a film that I’ve been hoping for some time to catch up to.

Ryan Gosling plays the enigmatic driver at the center of the film.  (His character is never named in the movie, something that is done so subtly that I never even realized we didn’t know his character’s name until I was sitting down to write this piece.)  In the film’s dynamic opening sequence, we learn that he is a highly-skilled getaway driver, with incredible abilities behind the wheel and a tight set of rules over what he is willing to do and not do when getting involved with various other criminals and their plans.

The driver has apparently led a very solitary life, focused on his work (both legal — as a mechanic and stunt-car driver for the movies — and illegal), but all that changes when sparks fly with his new neighbor, a pretty, wounded mother (Carey Mulligan) whose husband is in prison.  The driver forms a nice bond with this woman, Irene, and her son Benicio.  Then Irene’s husband comes home from prison, and the driver gets involved in a criminal deal that goes from bad to worse.  None of the characters emerge unscathed (physically/emotionally) from the downward spiral of events that follows.

Drive is a movie that you will watch with a tight knot in your stomach.  Right from the beginning, it was quite clear to me that this wasn’t going to be a movie with a happy ending.  I found myself liking both the driver and Irene, and it was torture watching the events unfold, knowing, just knowing, that none of this was going to end well.  That’s a mark of what a skillfully made film this is.  Director Nicolas Winding Refn is masterful at slowly, ever-so-slowly, ratcheting up the tension and tightening the noose.  It’s also fair warning that this is not a film for everyone.  Drive is tough to watch at times.

The film has a sexy/sleezy/cool vibe that I found very intriguing.  It felt reminiscent to me of the tone of some eighties thrillers, particularly the work of Brian De Palma.  Mr. Refn doesn’t utilize any of the Hitchcockian stylistic devices that Mr. De Palma is so well-known for.  No, what I’m talking about is more a matter of tone.  Drive presents us with a world (and a main character) that is at once very cool, and very ugly.  So many of the films of Mr. De Palma walked that same line.  Take the opening credits of Drive — with that throaty ballad playing loud on the soundtrack, and the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews This is 40

I’m an enormous Judd Apatow fan.  I’m proud to say that I watched and loved Freaks and Geeks (the criminally cancelled-before-its time TV show created by Paul Feig and executive-produced by Mr. Apatow) back when it originally aired.  Same goes with Undeclared, Mr. Apatow’s equally-great-but-nevertheless-also-painfully-cancelled follow-up show.  I think The 40 Year-Old Virgin is one of the funniest comedies I have ever seen in my life, and Knocked Up is almost as great.  I have mixed feelings about Funny People. (Click here for my original review.)  I love the ambition behind the film, and I love how personal a film it feels like it was for Mr. Apatow, even though I acknowledge that there is a lot about the film that doesn’t completely work.  When I wrote about Funny People, I commented that it felt like Mr. Apatow was aspiring to create a James L. Brooks film, one that is funny but also personal and emotional.  I think he succeeded — Funny People feels very much to me like a James L. Brooks film, and that is a huge compliment.  In the film’s emotional honesty, in its ability to land a screamer of a punch-line, and also in the shaggy nature of its narrative, Funny People has a lot in common with Mr. Brooks’ work.

I feel the same way about This is 40. The film is very funny and is filled with a ton of throw-away hysterical lines laced throughout the dialogue as well as complete comedic sequences (Pete and Debbie’s drugged-out weekend away; Pete’s confrontation with an angry school-mom played by Melissa McCarthy), both of which are a mark of Mr. Apatow’s strongest work.  But it’s also a film with a strong emotional through-line, and a difficult one at that.  Pete and Debbie are married with two kids, but as much as they seem to love one another they also are at in a point in their lives together when they drive each another crazy.  They each have personal issues they are wrestling with, they have financial problems, and they struggle to raise their kids well while still having some semblance of a life of their own.  They are often quick to snipe at one another and to put one another down.  There are still sparks between them, and they have a long history together, and two kids they are trying to bring up, but can their marriage survive the pressures (both external and self-imposed) that they put on it?

These are weighty issues for a comedy film to grapple with, and for the most part the film avoids easy answers.  The film also wisely avoids the simplistic emotional arc of most romantic comedies, instead taking … [continued]

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News Around the Net

I have had to reevaluate my opinion of Adam Carolla after listening to his marvelous interview (well-over an hour long) with the great Albert Brooks.  This is a MUST-LISTEN, friends.

Attorney General Eric Holder has challenged David Simon to produce a sixth season of The Wire??  That is awesome.

This expose on the dramatically underlit images found at many big-chain Boston-area movie theaters is very frustrating to read.  Every time I read about an amazing theatre chain like the Alamo Drafthouse, I wish there were better movie theatres in my area.

I need to own this poster.

This is a great article about when to show Star Wars to one’s kids.  I’m going to face this dilemma in a few years!  The follow-up piece is great, too: when to show the Indiana Jones films to one’s kids!

Io9 has weighed in on the 10 Best Star Trek Episodes.  It’s an interesting list.  I’m thrilled by how well-represented Deep Space Nine is, but having an episode of Voyager on the list really nullifies any credence the writer might have.  And “The Void” of all episodes?  Decent, but I could name about a hundred Trek episodes from the other series that are superior.  For my own list of my favorite Star Trek episodes of all time, click here.

I am very excited by the report that the phenomenal comic book series 100 Bullets just might become a TV show on Showtime100 Bullets is one of the finest comic book series of recent memory.  Click here for my thoughts on the series.  Now, I’m not holding my breath for this proposed TV show to actually happen, but damn would it be cool…

In my review of Super 8 last week, I mentioned that I felt the monster in the film (directed by J.J. Abrams) was quite similar to the monster from Cloverfield (produced by J.J. Abrams).  Don’t agree with me?  Then check this out.  Case closed, I think!… [continued]

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Guest Blogger Ethan Kreitzer Reports on Albert Brooks’ Book Reading in NYC!

May 17th, 2011

My friend Ethan Kreitzer had the pleasure of seeing the great Albert Brooks at a book reading in New York City last week.  Mr. Brooks was there to promote his new book, 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America.  Ethan was kind enough to send in the following report:

Albert Brooks was awesome.

First of all, he didn’t do a book reading – he talked about the book and the writing process but didn’t give up spoilers and didn’t just blandly read a chapter. He then said he was going to cut his prepared stuff short so he could take as many questions as people had.

From the start, Mr. Brooks was funny.  After the events person at Barnes & Noble introduced him, Brooks said “that introduction was the ‘about the author’ page from my book… I’m glad you grabbed the right book and not a John Grisham novel” – then he pointed to an empty “RESERVED” chair in the front row and said “by the way, that seat is for Elijah.”  He said it’s his first book reading on this tour and it’s been almost 40 years since he’s done a live appearance in New York City. He said he opened at Madison Square Garden for Blood, Sweat and Tears in 1973. And then said “Blood and Sweat were nice but Tears was a real asshole.” He said he’ll be signing at the end of the presentation and Q&A and he does autograph impressions so he can sign as Bill Clinton or something if anybody prefers that.

When Mr. Brooks talked about the book he said he realized he needed to make it a novel and not a screenplay because he had ideas about what he wanted to write and knew that with the kind of budget he gets for his movies he could never afford to film any of these things. He said that because he writes and directs his films, he’s become like a savant accountant knowing exactly how much every scene will cost and he’s always self-editing himself to move scenes indoors and to “write cheaper.”

I did ask a question. I asked if he used improv in his movies and, specifically, if he came up with having Garry Marshall say “Santy Claus” in Lost in America. He said that he writes his scripts mostly via transcription and actually acts out the scenes so he knows what characters are going to say. He doesn’t want actors changing things and it’s too expensive to just let the cameras roll. He said that he did come up with “Santy Claus” and that Garry Marshall had never acted and had no idea if he was … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Defending Your Life (1991)

And so at last my little tour through the early films of Albert Brooks  concludes.  (Feel free to check out my reviews of Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), and Lost in America (1985).)  Defending Your Life is probably the Albert Brooks movie that I’ve seen the most — but still, it had been many years since my last viewing, so it was great fun to take another look at the film.

In a brisk opening (a model of efficient story-telling), we’re introduced to Daniel Miller, a mid-level executive who, although he seems to be doing well enough at work that he’s able to buy himself an expensive car to celebrate his birthday, seems to live a fairly lonely life.  While taking his new car out for a spin, Daniel gets distracted and winds up driving directly into a bus.  When he next opens his eyes, he’s in Judgment City, and the movie is off.

Judgment City isn’t heaven or hell, as it’s explained to Daniel — it’s a way-station in which the recently dead are judged to see if they’re ready to move on to the next stage of their existence, or if their souls need to be sent back down to Earth for another go.  Everyone has an opportunity to defend their life in a courtroom-like setting (though Daniel is repeatedly told that it’s not really a trial) before the final decision is made.

The tag-line of Defending Your Life is “the first true story of what happens after you die.”  One of my friends is fond of saying that he fervently hopes that that is true.  There is something appealing, I must agree, to the notion that we’ll all have an opportunity to defend our lives — the actions we took, the choices we made — in the afterlife.  Though he and I aren’t quite sure we agree with Mr. Brooks’ depiction, in this film, that whether one has overcome one’s fear is really the most important question on which one’s life should be judged.  It’s an interesting perspective, and it certainly provides for some fine drama in this film, but I tend to think that there are other, better ways in which one’s merit could be evaluated.  I’m sure there are some quite fearless people out there who are also complete jerks!

It’s a credit to Mr. Brooks’ ambitions that he has created a comedic film that can also prompt such serious questions and thought.  Defending Your Life is certainly a comedic film, though as always Mr. Brooks isn’t afraid to  let several minutes pass without any big punchlines.

The best source of laughs in the film is probably Rip Torn, wonderfully cast … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Real Life (1979)!

Back in May, after watching Albert Brooks’ 1985 film Lost in America, I wrote that I planned on re-watching his 1991 film Defending Your Life the next week.  Well, time got away from me, and I do still hope to find the time to re-watch that great film soon.  But a few weeks ago, when the mood struck me to again sample an Albert Brooks film, I decided instead to hunt down the last remaining film by Mr. Books that I hadn’t yet seen: Real Life, from 1979.

After having written, directed, and starred in several short films for Saturday Night Live during its early years, Mr. Brooks moved to the big screen with his debut film, Real Life.  He plays film director Albert Brooks (not for the last time), who, in the film, has seized upon an amazing idea: the subject of his next movie will be real life.  Rather than filming a movie with fake characters portrayed by actors and actresses acting out a fake story, he will choose one average American family and film their lives for a year.  Out of that footage he’ll be able to craft a movie more exciting and dramatic than any other motion picture, and it will have something that none of them do: it will be REAL.

Needless to say, Brooks’ “perfect” American family soon turns out to be anything but, and the family’s struggles to maintain their normal lives in the face of constant monitoring by film cameras — not to mention Mr. Brooks’ difficulties at avoiding any interference in their lives — lead to things quickly dissolving into chaos.

I always thought that Albert Brooks was a little bit ahead of his time, but this 1979 film is remarkably prescient in predicting today’s American fascination with “reality TV.”  In Real Life, Mr. Brooks was able to portray both the seduction of being constantly on display before others, as well as the inherent horror of such a situation.  He was also able to predict, with pinpoint accuracy, the way the act of filming someone’s actions will, without fail, cause subtle (or gross) alterations in that individual’s behavior.  (Call it the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Reality Television.)

Amongst the cast, the standout is Charles Grodin.  Mr. Grodin is at the top of his game as Warren Yeager, the beleaguered patriarch of Mr. Brooks’ perfect family.  Grodin is able to be sympathetic and rather pitiable all at the same time.

As with most Albert Brooks films, Real Life is a riot.  The sequence in which veterinarian Warren Yeager attempts to save an injured horse is a knock-out.  But, also as with most Albert Brooks films, there’s also an … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Lost in America (1985)

After re-watching Albert Brooks’ film Modern Romance a few weeks ago (read my review here), I decided the time had come to revisit some of his other films.  I started by tracking down Lost in America, his 1985 film that, somehow, I had never seen.

Mr. Brooks (who also directed and co-wrote the film, with Monica Johnson) stars as David Howard.  After failing to get a promotion at work — one that he’d been working towards for years — he tells off his boss in spectacular fashion (the explosion is just as much fun as you might think) and gets fired.  So he convinces his wife Linda, played by Julie Hagerty (Elaine Dickinson from Airplane!) to quit her boring job as well.  They sell their house, liquidate their stocks, buy a Winnebago and set out to roam America and find themselves.  Unfortunately, their first stop is in Las Vegas and, after only one night, they’ve lost all their money.  Left with only $800 to their name, David and Linda have to try to find jobs in the small, midwestern town in which they find themselves.

In my humble opinion, Albert Brooks wrote and directed far too few films.  So it was a great delight to get to discover, for the first time, an Albert Brooks film that I’d never seen.  Lost in America certainly isn’t my favorite Brooks film (that would be Modern Romance), but there’s a lot to appreciate here.  There’s a lot of comedy today that wrings laughs from awkward, painful moments (the original British The Office comes to mind), but Mr. Brooks was pushing those boundaries thirty years ago.  For a “comedy,” there’s a lot of real, human moments to be found in Lost in America (and in all his films, really!).

It’s clear from the film’s opening scene — a slow, slow pan through David & Linda’s home, while a Larry King interview with film critic Rex Reed plays on an out-of-sight radio — that we’re in the hands of a filmmaker with great skill.  It’s a very meta choice to start one’s film with a lengthy monologue from Rex Reed talking about films, and it indicates that Mr. Brooks was after more than just a few yuks.  Lost in America tells the story two people who both find themselves trapped in their lives — trapped by their go-nowhere jobs, by the expectations that they put upon themselves about what they “should” be doing, about the house they “should” be living in, and so forth.  It’s a situation in which, one presumes, many middle-class folk find themselves in at one point or another in their lives.  There’s a strong aspect of “wish-fulfillment” … [continued]

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“She’s always right” — Josh Reviews Modern Romance (1981)

Drew McWeeny (who has a terrific blog over at Hitfix.com) has a series called “The Basics,” in which he writes about a film that he considers one of the “essentials” — a film that anyone who takes film seriously should see — and then another, younger writer, William Goss, writes a response.  To read more about this series, click here and then here.  Recently he and Mr. Goss invited other writers to get involved in their film conversations.  Since the last film under discussion was Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), I was really excited to chime in.  (Here’s Mr. McWeeny’s piece about Manhattan.  Here’s what Mr. Goss wrote, and here’s what I had to say.)

Now Mr. McWeeny is writing about Albert Brooks’ 1981 film Modern Romance. What a terrific choice!  It had been a few years since I had last seen the film, so I was happy to have an excuse to pull it off my DVD shelf and give it a viewing.

The great Albert Brooks (who also directed and co-wrote the film) plays Robert Cole, one one the most neurotically messed-up characters I’ve ever seen captured on film.  As the movie opens, Robert breaks up with his girlfriend Mary (Kathryn Harrold, who I always think of as Francine from The Larry Sanders Show).  From her reaction it is clear that this has happened before, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that this opening-scene break-up doesn’t exactly break that cycle.

Modern Romance is very leisurely paced, with long scenes that aren’t in a rush to get to the punchline.  But don’t let that lead you to think that the film isn’t funny.  Quite the contrary, it is hysterical.  This is one of the most quotable comedies that I know.  It might be my favorite Albert Brooks movie, and that’s mostly because of the script’s tremendous wit.

In his review, Mr. McWeeny comments that he loves the way that Mr. Brooks isn’t afraid to digress in the film.  That pretty well sums up one of the strongest aspects, in my opinion, of Modern Romance.  My very favorite moments in the film are the ones that have nothing at all to do with Robert’s on-again off-again cycle with Mary.  I’m talking about the glimpses at Robert’s job as a film editor, working on a lousy-looking science-fiction picture.  That the film takes ten minutes to present us with a scene that’s all about how editing works (as Robert makes an edit to the sci-fi film that he feels strengthens the suspense of a scene) is just wonderful to me.  It helps, of course, that the greatly-missed Bruno Kirby … [continued]