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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2020 — Part Two!

On Monday I began my list of my favorite movies of 2020!  And now, let’s enter my Top Ten:

10. Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary — Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary is exactly what it sounds like — a feature-length look back at the making of 1999’s Galaxy Quest!  It makes me so happy that Galaxy Quest is now getting this type of love.  I have loved Galaxy Quest ever since seeing it in the theater back in 1999, and this documentary (directed by Jack Bennett) was a delight from start to finish.  It’s a joyous celebration of this terrific film, filled with interviews with the entire cast and a deep bench of the behind-the-scenes players who were involved in the creation of this great sci-fi comedy.  If you’re a Galaxy Quest fan, this is a must-watch.  (Click here for my full review.)

9. The 40-Year-Old Version Radha Blank wrote, directed, produced, and stars in this wonderfully off-beat and moving film about a woman named Radha who, despite early success as a playwright, is now, in her forties, feeling lost and unmoored.  Ms. Blank is spectacular in the film.  She’s a tremendous comedic force, and she’s also a very strong dramatic actor.  I love how silly the film is at times, and yet how at the same time, as the film unfolds, it develops into a very deep character study.  Ms. Radha was able to take many autobiographical aspects of her own life and spin them into this beautiful and unusual film.  While the title is a play on Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, this film has nothing to do with Mr. Apatow’s film.  It tells a completely different, very original, story.  I loved it.  (My full review will be coming soon.)  (Above photo by Eric Branco, Courtesy of Sundance Institute.)

8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Adapted from the play by August Wilson, this beautiful and heartbreaking film, from director George C. Wolfe, is set in 1927 and depicts a very contentious day in the life of African-American blues singer Ma Rainey and her band.  The film features the final performance of the late, great Chadwick Boseman, who is absolutely mesmerizing as Levee, the brash young trumpeter in Ma’s band.  (Mr. Boseman was also in Da 5 Bloods, which made part 1 of my best of 2020 list.)  Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey, and it’s a powerhouse of a performance.  The film is gorgeous, compelling, and emotionally wrenching.  (Click here for my full review.)

7. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan Sacha Baron Cohen’s brilliant sequel is hilarious and … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2020 — Part One!

I hope you enjoyed my look back at my favorite TV series of 2020!  And now, let’s dive into my favorite movies of 2020:

15. Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story I was a huge fan of The Ren & Stimpy Show back when it first started airing on Nickelodeon in the early nineties.  Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood’s documentary is an insightful, in-depth look back at the creation of this innovative series.  It’s also an exploration of what went wrong, and why the series burned so brightly but for so short a time.  In addition to taking a deep dive into the creation and production of The Ren & Stimpy Show, the documentary contains extensive interview footage Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi, who in recent years has been accused of sexual abuse of two minors.  It’s fascinating and disturbing to hear directly from Mr. Kricfalusi.  Watching this documentary made me very happy, and also very sad.

14.  An American Pickle Seth Rogen plays dual roles as Herschel Greenbaum (frozen in a vat of pickles back in 1919 and awoken in 2020) and his great-grandson Ben Greenbaum.  Watching Seth Rogen play against himself is every bit as fun as you might expect.  It’s a terrific acting performance, and the visual effects are absolutely seamless.  Bravo to director Brandon Trost and his team!  The film is funny, and also, in the end, surprisingly sweet.  I quite enjoyed the way the film embraced the value of Jewish ritual and prayer.  If only the third act was stronger, this film would be much higher on my list.  (The late-in-the-film plot twist in which Herschel started getting into trouble for saying lots of inappropriate-in-2020 things might have seemed funny on paper, but in execution it spoiled my connection with the character and enjoyment of what had been a great film.  The film is still worth seeing — that’s why it’s on my list! — but those third act problems keep it from greatness, in my opinion.)  (Click here for my full review.)

13.  Da 5 Bloods I thoroughly enjoyed Spike Lee’s latest film, in which four Vietnam veterans reunite to travel back to ‘Nam.  Purportedly their mission is to recover and bring home the body of their fallen squad leader, but in fact they’re after a crate of CIA gold that they found and buried back during the war.  The cast is spectacular: Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. are fantastic as the four surviving “Bloods”, and the late great Chadwick Boseman is tremendous, as he always was, as their dead leader “Stormin” Norman.  The Vietnam caper aspect of the story … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was adapted from the play by August Wilson.  Set in 1927, it depicts a very contentious day in the life of African-American blues singer Ma Rainey and her band.  They’re recording Ma Rainey’s music in Chicago for a white record producer, as arranged by her white agent.  As the day winds on, the tensions rise between the members of Ma’s band and also between Ma and the two white men overseeing the session.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is beautiful and heartbreaking.  Director George C. Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson have done a terrific job adapting August Wilson’s play for this film.  The film retains the feeling of a theatrical experience.  The theatrical rhythm of the dialogue has been thankfully preserved.  And the fact that the film basically takes place in only two rooms belies its theatrical origins.  But this film never felt like a dry, limited adaptation, a pale reflection of what might have been more lively on the stage (the way films adapted from plays can sometimes be).  Mr. Wolfe and his collaborators have beautifully brought this story and these characters to life on the screen in a way that works perfectly as a movie.

Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey, and it’s a powerhouse of a performance.  Ms. Davis’ fiery charisma commands the screen with her presence.  At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of Ma.  After just recently watching Mank, at first I wasn’t wild to be watching what seemed to be another story of a misbehaving, over-entitled, selfish “artist”.  But there’s a lot more to this character, and one of the best delights of this film is the way the story very slowly peels back the layers of Ma Rainey until we understand what’s really going on.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is sadly the final performance of the late, great Chadwick Boseman.  And what a performance it is.  Mr. Boseman is absolutely mesmerizing as Levee, the brash young trumpeter in Ma’s band.  Levee is a hot young turk with tremendous energy and enthusiasm, and he seems to have the musical skills to back up his ego.  But there’s anger underneath Levee’s beaming smile, and a hunger for more than he has.  Mr. Boseman gets to deliver two crucial monologues in the film, and they are both showstoppers.  I don’t believe Mr. Boseman was ever better, and that’s saying something.  His work here is a bravura performance that only twists the knife of anguish over this great artist who passed away at far too young an age.

The entire ensemble is terrific.  Glynn Turman (Baltimore mayor Royce on The Wire) is fiercely compelling as Toledo, the soft-spoken piano player who’s the old … [continued]

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I know, intellectually, that Marvel Studios’ incredible streak of great movies is going to end sometime.  It has to.  No win streak can continue indefinitely.  But it didn’t end this past weekend, as Marvel Studios released Black Panther, a fantastic addition to their ever-expanding Cinematic Universe.  Black Panther is, incredibly, the eighteenth film in this interconnected movie universe.  It still boggles my mind that there exists an eighteen-movies-and-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe.  And what’s even more impressive is just how terrific all of these films have been.  There isn’t a true stinker in the bunch.  (The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 are, I think, the two least successful films, and even both of those have a lot to enjoy in them.)  The last several films in particular have been fantastic, and Black Panther continues that streak of excellence.

Picking up after the death of his father King T’Chaka in Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther opens with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returning home to Wakanda to claim his position as king.  Wakanda is a technological paradise, though they use their technology to hide that fact from the rest of the world.  When the vicious thief and weapons merchant Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who killed the parents of T’Challa’s close friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), resurfaces, T’Challa leads a team consisting of Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of the fierce female Wakandan fighting force the Dora Milaje, and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s former flame who believes that Wakanda must engage with the outside world, to capture Klaue.  That mission goes awry when they discover that Klaue is in league with a young man named Eric (Michael B. Jordan), a black-ops soldier who calls himself Killmonger, and who has a secret connection to the Wakandan royal family.  Killmonger challenges T’Challa for the throne of Wakanda, and the once-peaceful nation threatens to split into civil war.

Black Panther is fantastic.  It fits squarely into the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also standing completely on its own and having its own unique style.  The film references Captain America: Civil War, but you absolutely don’t have to have seen that film to enjoy this one.  And while many fans thought that the one not-yet-seen Infinity Stone (which will surely come into play in this summer’s Avengers: Infinity War) would appear in this film, I was happy that didn’t happen.  Black Panther didn’t need that additional baggage — it’s better for this film to be able to tell its own, complete story.  (If that final Infinity Stone is indeed hidden in Wakanda, as many fans guess, I am glad they held that reveal for Infinity War.)

Director Ryan Coogler (Creed) has crafted a magnificent film, … [continued]

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Marvel Triumphs Again with Captain America: Civil War!

Marvel Studios is on a winning streak the likes of which I am hard-pressed to recall (the last decade of Pixar movies is the only thing I can think of that comes close) and Captain America: Civil War is even better than I had dared hope, an extraordinarily HUGE movie with astounding action and powerful emotional beats that pay off story-lines that have been building through the twelve (count ’em, TWELVE) previous Marvel Studios movies ever since 2008’s Iron Man started this whole crazy adventure.  I am a huge fan of the under-appreciated Avengers: Age of Ultron (click here for my review), but a strong case can be made that Civil War is what The Avengers 2 should gave been, a film that embraces the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, putting the characters through a wrenching emotional trial and eventually shattering the team that had come together in 2012’s The Avengers.

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Following the events of Age of Ultron, Cap has been training and leading a team of Avengers consisting of himself, the Falcon, the Black Widow, the Scarlet Witch, and the Vision.  As Captain America: Civil War opens, we find that Avengers team hot on the trail of Crossbones (the mangled ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Brock Rumlow from Captain America: The Winter Soldier).  As the try to stop Crossbones from obtaining a deadly biological weapon, a fight breaks out in the crowded streets of Nigeria.  Though the Avengers successfully stop Crossbones and his mercenaries, a tragic accident leaves a dozen civilians dead.  This proves to be the last straw for a world that has suffered from a series of increasingly-escalating super-hero/super-villain battles (as seen in the previous twelve Marvel movies).  Over a hundred nations band together to create the Sokovia Accords (named after the nation destroyed by Ultron in the climactic fight of Age of Ultron), declaring that the Avengers will no longer be an autonomous entity but now one governed by a UN-appointed supervising panel.  Tony Stark, desperate to find some way to prevent future civilian deaths and ensure that the Avengers remain a force for good across the world, supports the accords.  Captain America, worried that the international politics at play might prevent him and other super-heroes from acting whenever they feel it is necessary in order to save lives, opposes them.  This philosophical debate becomes more urgent when Cap’s former partner and best friend Bucky Barnes, now the brainwashed hit-man code-named the Winter Soldier (as seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) resurfaces and is apparently responsible for the murder of hundreds at the signing of the Sokovia Accords.  Tony begs Cap to let the world’s governments handle the subsequent manhunt but Cap refuses to … [continued]

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Catching Up On 2013: Josh Reviews 42

As has become my habit in recent years, during the final few weeks of December and the first few weeks of January, before writing my Best of the Year lists, I try to catch up on as many of the films I wanted to see during the year but for whatever reason missed.  I’ll be posting my reviews of these films in a series of “Catching Up On 2013” posts, and of course I hope you enjoyed my Best Movies of 2013 list!

Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, 42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to ever play baseball in the Major Leagues.  (42 was, of course, the number that Jackie Robinson wore on his uniform.)  The film focuses on two seasons: 1947, Mr. Robinson’s first season playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the previous year, 1946, in which Mr. Robinson played for the Dodgers’ farm team, the Montreal Royals.

The film centers on Robinson’s struggle to overcome staggering racism from his teammates, other baseball players, many fans, and others.  It also focuses on the relationship and eventual friendship that formed between Robinson and the Dodgers’ gruff owner Branch Rickie, the man who chose to bring Jackie to the big leagues.

That relationship was my favorite aspect of the film, mostly because of a fantastic performance by Harrison Ford.  (And when was the last time I got excited about a Harrison Ford performance???  OK, just last week I wrote that I really loved Mr. Ford’s cameo in Anchorman 2, but that hardly counts.  I have argued before on this site that you need to go back twenty years, to 1994’s Clear and Present Danger, to find a really great Harrison Ford performance, and I stand by that.)  But somehow, Mr. Ford came alive in this role, really biting into the character of this curmudgeon with a heart of gold. It’s nice to see Harrison Ford, at 71 years of age, actually playing a character who is meant to come across as old.  Under a lot of makeup and with the crotchety voice that Mr. Ford puts on, Branch Rickie comes close to being a caricature, but the performance stays on the right side of that line and becomes, instead, a really fun character.

Chadwick Boseman does a fine job in the lead role of Jackie Robinson.  This is a very heroic depiction of Jackie, a and the film doesn’t really show us any flaws that the real Mr. Robinson might have had.  That limits, somewhat, the material that Mr. Boseman has to play, but nevertheless I thought he turned in a very strong performance that on the one hand lived up to this … [continued]