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I loved M. Night Shyamalan’s film Unbreakable back when it was released in 2000.  I was excited for a superhero film that took superhero films seriously.  (Two decades ago, I could count all the decent superhero movies that had EVER BEEN MADE on one hand.)  I rewatched Unbreakable a few weeks ago, and even when viewed in the context of today’s golden age of superhero films, I think the film holds up well.  It’s got a compelling story, a terrific cast, it’s gorgeously shot (the way Mr. Shyamalan composes the images and stages his scenes is amazing), the dialogue is rich and multi-layered.  It’s great!  It’s still one of my very favorite superhero films.

In my opinion, its only weakness is that it feels like it’s missing its last 30 minutes.  The film is all set-up, but no payoff.  It feels like a perfect first two acts of a film… that is missing act three.  To this day I can’t believe the film ends when David Dunn (Bruce Willis), discovers the truth about what Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson) has been up to.  I was expecting an exciting confrontation between these two opposites to unfold… but instead, Elijah just gives himself up and the film ends!  And so, ever since 2000, I felt that Unbreakable was a film that was crying out for a sequel.  But as the years passed, I had long ago given up hope that one would ever arrive.

Then, out of nowhere, Mr. Shyamalan surprised the world by revealing in the closing scene of his 2016 film Split that it was, in fact, a stealth sequel to Unbreakable!  Since that film was a hit, it allowed Mr. Shyamalan to finally return fully to the world of Unbreakable with his latest film, Glass.

Glass serves as a sequel to both Unbreakable and to Split.  Split’s villainous character, Kevin Wendell Crumb (nicknamed “the Horde”) is still on the loose, and he has kidnapped more young women.  We learn that, in the years since Unbreakable, David Dunn (now nicknamed “the Overseer”) has continued to seek out wrong-doers, assisted by his son Joseph.  David sets out to find and stop Kevin.  When the two meet, they battle to a standstill which is interrupted by the police, who take both men into custody.  They bring David and Kevin to a psychiatric facility, overseen by Dr. Ellie Staple.  Elijah is also being kept there.  Dr. Staple believes that all three men suffer from a mental illness, deluding themselves into thinking that they are super-powered.

I was extremely excited for Glass, but I was also dubious that Mr. Shyamalan would be able to craft a satisfactory sequel.  I loved Mr. Shyamalan’s first three … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 10): The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

Well, I’d certainly heard of The Bonfire of the Vanities, one of the most famous flops in movie history, but I’d never before seen it.  This was one of the movies I was most curious to see as part of my journey through the films of Brian De Palma.  Was the film truly as bad as I’d heard??

In the opening minutes, I thought perhaps the general view of this film was wrong.  The movie opens with a gorgeous opening shot, as we watch a sped-up version of a full day of a city unfold from the point of view atop a tall skyscraper.  It’s a beautiful image and a clever one.  So far so good!  Then we jump into a staggeringly impressive five-minute-long continuous tracking shot.  This jaw-droppingly audacious shot follows a drunk Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) as he staggers in and out of rooms, down hallways, in and out of an elevator, and eventually into an enormous ballroom where he is supposed to be making a speech.  Brian De Palma’s cinematic style and skill is on full display with this sequence.  I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult this must have been to stage and to shoot.  It’s a wonderful sequence, hugely impressive.

The problem is that it has absolutely nothing at all to do with the movie!  This incredible opening sequence makes it feel like the story we’re about to watch is that of Bruce Willis’ character, the author Peter Fallow.  But the film that follows isn’t Fallow’s story at all, it’s that of the hapless rich white finance-guy Sherman McCoy (played by Tom Hanks).  So while I was initially impressed by this opening sequence, as the film progressed I came to see it more and more as a complete waste of time, an empty exhibition of style over substance.

It doesn’t help that the next 45 minutes or so of the film, after that crazy five-minute tracking shot, contain some of the most haplessly amateurish filmmaking of Mr. De Palma’s career (at least what I have seen of it so far).  When we first meet Sherman McCoy, it’s in a painfully failed comedic sequence in which he is trying to sneak out of his apartment that he shares with his wife, Judy (Kim Cattrall) so he can call his mistress Maria (Melanie Griffith).  Sherman uses taking the dog for a walk as his excuse, but the dog doesn’t go out in the rain, so then we cut to Sherman dragging his unconscious dog through the rain.  It’s supposed to be funny but it is so painfully unfunny that I just winced.  Between this and the entirety of Wise Guys (click here for my review[continued]

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Josh Reviews Sin City: Dame to Kill For

For me, growing up, Frank Miller was one of the gods of comic books.  He seemed to be a master of the form of a super-hero comic-book, crafting some of the finest mainstream super-hero comic-book stories I had ever read (his long run on Daredevil; Batman: Year One; The Dark Knight Returns; and many others) before moving into less-mainstream, even more interesting work (Ronin, Give Me Liberty, and of course Sin City).  I loved Sin City as a kid.  It was a potent distillation both of Mr. Miller’s incredible drawing style (boiled down into deceptively simple black-and-white with bold shapes and brush-strokes) as well as his writing.  Plus, it had that edge of transgression (Violence!  Nudity!) that made it impossible for a kid to resist.

I enjoyed Robert Rodriguez’s 2005 film Sin City, which adapted three of Mr. Miller’s Sin City yarns: The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill, and That Yellow Bastard.  The film wasn’t perfect.  I thought it moved too fast, not giving the stories enough of a chance to breathe.  I also thought that in places Mr. Rodriguez was too literal in mimicking Mr. Miller’s comic-book panels for the screen in a way that weakened the film.  Example: early in the film, Marv is being cornered by the police, so he busts through his door before they can come in and arrest him.  Mr. Miller drew that like Marv exploding through the door, and it’s a great panel.  But in the film, where Mr. Rodriguez copies that image exactly, it feels like Marv set off a bomb on the door, or like he’s a super-human like Superman.  I don’t think Marv is a super-hero.  He doesn’t have super-powers.  He’s just an incredibly tough lug.  A more naturalistic moment of him breaking down the door would have worked better for me than the super-hero-like explosion we got.  There are lots of little examples like this all through the film.  It’s a question of taste, I guess.  You don’t want to remove all of the craziness and idiosyncrasies of Mr. Miller’s stories, but when translated so literally there were a number of moments that would up reading as too comic-book-silly to me, in a way that undercut the threat and drama of the story being told in the film.

On the other hand, the genius of Mr. Rodriguez’s film, and the reason I loved it as much as I did, was the way he really did bring Mr. Miller’s comic book panels to life.  Making extensive use of computer-generated effects, Mr. Rodriguez created extraordinarily simplified looks to the sets and characters in a way that exactly, and I mean exactly, mimicked Mr. Miller’s drawings.  The whole film was … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

December 13th, 2013
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OK, here’s a quick summary of my thoughts on the Die Hard series.  I think the first Die Hard is one of the best action movies ever made, a practically perfect combination of a wonderful cast, a sharp script, and incredible directing (by John McTiernan).  I have a fond place in my hard for Die Hard 2: Die Harder, because it was such a part of my childhood, but there’s no mistaking that it’s a mis-step, a somewhat joyless and not-that-creative retread of the first film.  I love Die Hard with a Vengeance, the first Die Hard film I saw on the big screen (and the only other Die Hard film, after the original, directed by McTiernan, which is, I think, a key reason why it’s so good).  I think it’s a very funny film that also has tremendous action.  I love the way the film’s story circles back to that of the first film, and this battered, world-weary John McClane feels to me like a welcome return to the McClane of the first film.  I also love Samuel L. Jackson.  To me, those are the only three real Die Hard films.  I found Live Free of Die Hard to be a forgettable, extremely mediocre installment.  I don’t hate it, but it doesn’t at all feel to me like a Die Hard movie, and this character named John McClane who jumps onto wings of fighter jets doesn’t feel at all to me like the John McClane I remember.

When I first read that they were making a fifth Die Hard film, I briefly hoped that they’d learn from the mistakes of the fourth film and get back to what made the series — and the John McClane character — work originally.  It was immediately clear to me, though, that they hadn’t.  I was so underwhelmed by the trailers for A Good Day to Die Hard (and, really, the people from Star Trek should be getting a few cents off of every dollar made from this movie due to that Worf-like title) that I didn’t bother to see the film in theatres.  I could just tell that it would make me angry, so why spend the money?

When the film came out on DVD though, I thought, OK, for curiosity’s sake at least, I should watch the film.  I mean, how could there exist a Die Hard film that I hadn’t seen?

Sadly, my low expectations were met.  A Good Day to Die Hard is significantly worse than the at-least-watchable Live Free or Die Hard.  This is a total catastrophe of a movie, one of the most amateurish, incompetently-made big-budget films I have seen in a good long while.

Right … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Looper

It’s always a great delight to see an original sci-fi film.  We were all excited for Prometheus this past summer, but while that big-budget, mega-hyped film was a dud (click here for my review), I was positively thrilled by Rian Johnson’s new film, Looper.

The year is 2044.  Time travel has not yet been invented, but it will be.  The mob of the future uses the outlawed technology of time-travel to dispose of people they want out of the way.  They just send them back in time, where a hit-man, called a Looper, is there waiting to shoot them as soon as they appear.  The Looper then disposes of the body, and all is well.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a Looper, Joe, whose careful life unravels when he fails to kill a target sent back from the future — who turns out to be himself, thirty years older (and played by Bruce Willis).  Joe’s mob bosses will kill him if he doesn’t kill his older self (“closing his loop”), so Young Joe sets out after Old Joe, who meanwhile has a plan to make a key change to his history.

It’s a delicious set-up, one that is only enhanced by the fantastic casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as different-aged versions of the same character.  There’s some great prosthetic work that reshapes Mr. Gordon-Levitt’s face just slightly, to make him more resemble Bruce Willis.  (It’s particularly noticeable when you see him in profile.)  Both men are fantastic, and I loved watching the two of them go at it.  In particular, it’s great to see Bruce Willis in a bona-fide good action movie again.  The man is just awesome playing a bad-ass in an action movie, and he plays everything with just enough of a twinkle in his eye to keep the audience hooked into his performance.  One of my favorite aspects of the film was the way the story keeps shifting the audience’s sympathies back and forth between Young Joe and Old Joe.  It’s very clever.

Mr. Gordon-Levitt and Mr. Willis are far and away the anchors of the movie, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the high-wattage of the supporting cast.  Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Emily Blunt, Garret Dillahunt, Piper Perabo all do fantastic work in their roles.  Jeff Daniels in particular is great fun as the man sent from the future to run the Looper organization in the present-day.

For such a relatively low-budget film ($30 million dollars, from what I have read), the film looks dynamite.  From the trailers I expected the film to be set in present-day, but instead the film’s present-day is 2044, with the future era (when time-travel exists) 30 … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Moonrise Kingdom

I know some people who don’t care for the peculiar stylization of Wes Anderson’s films, but I am an enormous fan of his work, and the arrival of a new Wes Anderson film is always a cause for excitement for me.  I particularly adored Mr. Anderson’s most recent film, Fantastic Mr. Fox (click here for my review).  I loved it almost as much as The Royal Tenenbaums, which still stands as my favorite Wes Anderson film, though Fantastic Mr. Fox is very, very close.  I was a little worried that, coming off of that great film, Moonrise Kingdom might be something of a let-down (in the way that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was somewhat disappointing to me after Tenenbaums, though I have subsequently come to really enjoy that film).  But such was not at all the case.  Moonrise Kingdom is magnificent.

The film tells the tender story of the young love that blooms between two twelve-year-olds, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), who decide to run away from their respective homes together.  Sam is an orphan, who doesn’t seem to be loved by his new foster parents and who is ostracized in the Khaki Scout troop in which he finds himself a member.  Suzy’s parents are still alive, but distant from her, wrapped up in their own failing marriage.  Susy’s discovery that the mother is having an affair proves difficult for the young girl to make peace with.  So Sam and Suzy make plans to set off on an adventure together.

The two kids are both fantastic.  There are times when the performances of the young actors might feel a little stilted, but the two kids are both so genuine and honest that it’s hard to complain.  Sam and Suzy are very different from one another, but the connection that forms between them is a magical one, and young Mr. Gilman and Ms. Hayward bring their childhood romance to beautiful, heart-rending life.  The film wouldn’t work if these two weren’t believable, and let me say that the film works very well indeed.

The adults in their lives are just as wonderfully fascinating, if not more so!  Bruce Willis has been stuck in “Bruce Willis” mode for a while now, so I was shocked by how great he is as the sad, lonely police captain on the small New England island on which the story is set.  It’s a very tender, restrained performance, and it’s absolutely wonderful in every respect.  Equally great is Edward Norton as the earnest leader of Sam’s Khaki Scout troop.  Scout Master Ward is an adult, but he’s another great child-at-heart Wes Anderson creation, more at home in his life as a … [continued]

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An Evening with Kevin Smith at the House of Blues in Boston!

December 3rd, 2010
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I’m a big, big fan of Kevin Smith.  I love the man’s flicks (Chasing Amy and Dogma are my favorites, but I’m also very partial to the lunacy of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), but some of my favorite of his projects are not actually his films.  I hold great, enormous amounts of love for the six-episode Clerks cartoon, and I think the commentary tracks for Mallrats and Chasing Amy are pretty much two of my favorite things ever — to say that they are endlessly entertaining is to undersell their greatness.  But probably my favorite thing that Mr. Smith has ever been involved with is An Evening with Kevin Smith.

This two-DVD set was released back in 2002, and contains lengthy excerpts from a series of six Q & A sessions that Mr. Smith conducted at a variety of colleges.  Kids ask questions, and Smith answers.  That’s it.  Those were the shows, and that’s the DVD.  That might sound like it could be dry, but I can’t put into words just how fascinating and insightful and hilarious the result is.  Smith reveals himself on the DVD as one of the best tellers of ripping yarns on planet Earth.  He’ll take what sounds like a simple question and turn it into an extended anecdote that will have you on your knees with laughter.  I have watched An Evening with Kevin Smith through many, many times, and at one point or another I’ve made pretty much everyone I know listen to Smith’s Superman Returns and Prince stories.  So funny.  (Chaka mad?  Chaka REAL mad!)

I also, of course, devoured the two DVD follow-ups that presented later Q & A sessions — the very cleverly titled An Evening with Kevin Smith 2: Evening Harder, and A Threevening with Kevin Smith.  (Click here to read my review of the Threevening DVD.)  When I read that Mr. Smith was coming to Boston to conduct one of these Q & A sessions, I immediately snapped up tickets to go!

The show — held this past Thursday night at the House of Blues in Boston — was as phenomenal as I’d hoped.  Things started off really well, when Smith took a fan’s simple question about whether the criteria by which he judges his success has changed at all over the years and launched into a very funny forty-minute monologue of anecdotes within anecdotes in which he discussed his current obsession with pot, the time he smoked pot with Seth Rogen after finishing up Zach and Miri Make a Porno, a recent pot experience with his wife Jen, and the very first disastrous time that he and Jen smoked pot … [continued]

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What Just Happened?

Having recently read the book What Just Happened? by Hollywood producer Art Linson, I was naturally intrigued to find out that a movie based on the book was about to be released to theatres.  (Albeit rather under the radar, as no one I know of has heard of the film.)

Well, the film What Just Happened (without the question mark that was in the book title), directed by Barry Levinson, was indeed released last month.  It stars Robert DeNiro, Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro, Catherine Keener, and Ribun Wright Penn.  And it’s directed by Barry Levinson, who helmed Diner, Good Morning Vietnam,  Rain Man, and Wag the Dog.  With such talent behind and in front of the camera, it’s somewhat disappointing to realize that the film is just mediocre.

The book What Just Happened? takes place over the course of several years in the life of Art Linson, during which he worked as a producer for 20th Century Fox and produced one bomb after another.  (Not intentionally, mind you!)  The film What Just Happened takes several of the best stories from the book and works them into the fictionalized tale of a week in the life of Hollywood producer Ben (DeNiro), trying to stay afloat as he deals with weasely agents, egomaniacal stars, and his own personal problems. 

There is certainly fun to be had in the film.  DeNiro is great, as always.  He invests Ben with a certain good humor and even — dare I say it? — some dignity.  He’s just a lot of fun to watch, as he subsumes the tough-guy persona he’s so often played on screen beneath Ben’s schlubby skin.  (I could almost imagine the part being played by Woody Allen.)  And Bruce Willis is a riot in the Alec Baldwin role.  While producing The Edge, Linson had a famous enounter with Alec Baldwin who, though he had been cast as the young hunky photographer in the film, showed up overweight and with a mountain-man beard that he refused to shave.  Well, no surprise, that conflict is a central one in the film, and the scene where De Niro confronts Willis is a gem.

But the movie isn’t quite the laugh riot I was expecting.  Levinson has often demonstrated as strong an interest in the dramatic storylines in his films as with the comedic elements.  In his best work, he’s able to balance the two to produce something really powerful.  Here, the drama and the comedy don’t quite mesh.  There are long stretches of the film without much to laugh about, but those dramatic stretches didn’t have the impact that I’d imagine Levinson intended, at least not for me.  I never became … [continued]