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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews Hell or High Water

February 17th, 2017
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In David Mackenzie’s film Hell or High Water, Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as brothers robbing small banks across Texas, while Jeff Bridges plays the Texas Ranger determined to catch them.  The film explores the poverty rampant across Texas (and so much of the U.S. these days), and as the story develops we understand that the boys are robbing branches of Texas Midland Bank in an effort to get payback for what they see as the wrongs that bank, which is about to foreclose on their late mother’s ranch, has done to them and to others across Texas.

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I was not prepared for what a powerhouse film this would be.  The idea of Robin Hood-like bank-robbers is a familiar one, as is the structure of following both the breaking-the-law bandits and the police officer(s) chasing them.  But there is so much more to Hell and High Water than just that.

First and foremost, the film is a blisteringly angry picture of the state of so many communities these days, feeling left behind my modernity and globalization, and with the gap between the haves and the have-nots widening into a seemingly unbreachable gulf.  But like a well-mannered Southern gentleman, the film doesn’t convey this anger through hysterics or big speeches.  No, so much of the film’s message is conveyed in simple, quiet imagery of the Texas towns in which the film is set, with the “get out of debt” signs everywhere and the striking images of run-down cars and run-down homes.  This is a film with a broken heart, and by the end the audience will feel that too.

Secondly, the film is a wonderful character study.  Both Chris Pine and Ben Foster do the best work of their careers.  Chris Pine first came to my attention — and so everyone else’s — in his role of Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot.  There’s no question that Mr. Pine is a movie star, but Hell or High Water proves that he’s a great ACTOR.  I loved the quiet, understated way he played Toby.  I knew Ben Foster, meanwhile, only from his role of Warren Worthington/Angel from the disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand.  I’d heard that he had developed into a great actor but I don’t think I’ve seen any of his films from the past decade.  But now I know what people meant, because he’s dynamite here as Tanner, Toby’s louder, more reckless brother.  In lesser hands these two characters could have been cliches, but Mr. Pine and Mr. Foster bring them to life with great depth and dignity.  I love their chemistry together.  These brothers are oil and water in many ways, and yet we also … [continued]

 

We’ve reached the end of my list of my Top Twenty Movies of 2016Click here for numbers twenty through sixteen, click here for numbers fifteen through eleven, and click here for numbers ten through six.

And now, my top five favorite movies of 2016!

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5. Hail, Caesar! I can’t believe how ignored this terrific Coen Brothers movie has been!  Set in Hollywood in the 1950′s, the film stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a studio exec and “fixer” who is trying to locate his kidnapped star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), before news of the star’s disappearance can make it into the papers.  Baird’s kidnapping, by a group of disgruntled Communist screenwriters, is only one of the many fires that Mannix has to try to put out as he tries to keep his studio afloat and all of his in-production pictures running smoothly.  Hail, Caesar! is a very silly film, which is a difficult tone to hit, but the Coen Brothers make it look effortless.   The film mines a lot of humor gently skewering the art of making movies and the pomposity of Hollywood egos.  The fall-on-the-floor hysterical scene in which director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) — whose very name is a subtle gag running throughout the film — tries and fails to give a line reading to the dim-bulb cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) could be the funniest single scene in any movie this year.  Josh Brolin is terrific as the serious man (see what I did there?) trying his best to wrangle all the Hollywood crazies surrounding him.  Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Alison Pill, Wayne Knight, Jonah Hill, David Krumholtz, Fisher Stevens, Fred Melamed, Patrick Fischler, Robert Picardo, and even Christopher Lambert (the original Highlander himself!) are all so great in their appearances in the film.  While Hail, Caesar! might not be one of the greatest Coen Brothers films ever (of a caliber with The Big Lebowski, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, or A Serious Man), it is still easily one of the best movies of 2016.  (Click here for my full review.)

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4. Arrival —  When twelve extraterrestrial spaceships appear in different locations around the globe, linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is tasked with finding a way to communicate with the alien life-forms (huge creatures that the human scientists refer to as “heptapods”).  Arrival is a magnificent film, a gorgeous, original, cerebral sci-fi story.  The film has the visual splendor of a big-budget movie, but this is not an action-adventure film, rather this is an intelligent drama that is a fascinating exploration of language and communication.  I was enormously impressed by the way the film … [continued]

 

The Top Twenty Movies of 2016 — Part Two!

On Wednesday I began my list of my Top Twenty Movies of 2016! Let’s continue:

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15. Weiner It’s remarkable that this film exists.  For some reason, disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner allowed a documentary crew full access to himself, his family, and his political team during his campaign for the Democratic nomination to be the Mayor of New York City in 2013.  Weiner’s attempt at political resuscitation came crashing down around his ears in spectacular fashion when, a few weeks into the campaign, new sexting scandals came to light.  The film is a you-can’t-look-away story of personal and professional catastrophe, and there’s something mesmerizing about it.  It’s a fascinating how-the-sausage-is-made look behind the scenes of a modern political campaign, and a devastating story of a very flawed man destroying himself.  It’s exhilarating and terrifying, funny and deeply sad.  Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg have crafted a remarkable film that has so much to say about the political and human realities of our current age.

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14. 10 Cloverfield Lane Somehow J.J. Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot, was able to create this film almost entirely in secret, only announcing it’s existence a few months before its release.  That’s an incredible magic trick all its own in today’s internet spoiler era, but even putting all of that aside and judging the film strictly on it’s own two feet, this is a great movie that really hit me in my movie-going sweet spot.  For much of the film’s run-time, it’s a gripping character piece and exercise in escalating tension.  Michelle, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs the World) wakes up after a car accident to find herself locked in an underground bunker with Howard (John Goodman) and a young man, Emmett (John Gallagher).  Howard is a survivalist who tells Michelle that a deadly virus or nerve agent has been released by a foreign attack and that, if she leaves the bunker, she will die.  Is he telling the truth or is he lying?  Is Howard Michelle’s savior or a terrible villain?  Dan Trachtenberg’s film (written by the great Drew Goddard) keeps turning the screws on Michelle and the audience, and it’s a magnificent thing to watch.  All three main actors are fantastic, 100% invested in this story and these roles.  Then there are the film’s final twenty minutes, which are absolutely bonkers and yet absolutely perfect.  I love the idea that Bad Robot will be periodically releasing Cloverfield films, creating a movie anthology series of weird and suspenseful tales.  I loved 2008′s Cloverfield, and this new film — which totally stands on its own and yet also feels 100% “of a piece” with the first Cloverfield[continued]

 

Josh Reviews Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

September 18th, 2015
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David Wain and Michael Showalter’s cult classic film Wet Hot American Summer is not a film for which I ever expected to see a sequel made.

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The film did not succeed upon its theatrical release back in 2001.  But then a strange thing happened, which sometimes occurs with films whose style or content fall somewhat outside what one might deem the “mainstream” (and this seems to particularly be the case with comedies): the film slowly began to build a passionate group of fans who love and quote the film endlessly.  At the same time, so many of the performers in the film, who were small-potatoes when it was released, exploded in popularity in the years to come: performers like Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, and many others.  Looking back on the film today, Wet Hot American Summer feels like an incredibly prescient film, one that magically brought together an insanely talented array of performers.

And yet, despite the film’s eventually earning a beloved status amongst many comedy fans, who ever thought that a sequel would ever be made?  What flop ever earns a sequel?  And Wet Hot never felt to me like one of those films that is begging for a sequel.  The film’s story, about the last day of summer camp at Camp Firewood in 1981, felt like a complete story.  And how on earth could all of these now-very-popular and successful performers ever be united?

And even if one dared to dream that perhaps someday some studio could be convinced to front the money to make a sequel for a film that flopped, there are all the other challenges of making a sequel to a comedy.  I could probably write a book analyzing all the reasons why this might be, but for now let’s just cut to the chase to state that making a comedy sequel is incredibly hard.  There are very, very few comedy sequels that are any good.  (Go ahead. Try to name one.)

Somehow, David Wain and Michael Showalter have managed to surmount every single challenge that stood in the way of crafting a satisfying and entertaining sequel to the original film.  I don’t quite know how they did it, but they did!  And so, lo and behold, Netflix’s eight-episode Wet Hot American Summer mini-series is now something that actually exists that I have seen with my own two eyeballs.

Somehow, David Wain and Michael Showalter managed to lure back every single cast-member of note from the original film.  That in itself is a triumph of staggering performers.  To reunite that enormous ensemble, all of whom are big comedy names?  Crazy.  (Along with the names I listed above, back for the mini-series … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

September 26th, 2014
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I am a huge fan, over-all, of the Jack Ryan film series and I believe this is a character, and a series, that still has quite a lot of gas in its tank.  What a disappointment, then, to watch the latest installment, the rebooted Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and discover a total waste of this franchise’s great potential.

I am a huge, huge fan of The Hunt for Red October.  It’s one of my very favorite films of all-time, a smart, fun thiller with a large scale and grand stakes, and a story that is filled to the brim with wonderfully drawn characters.  I love to imagine what a series of films spun out of Red October would have looked like had Alec Baldwin remained in the role.  Instead, he left the series after that initial installment, and was replaced by Harrison Ford for Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger.  I really like both of those films, though neither achieves the greatness of Red October, and there’s no question that the flavor of the series changed with Harrison Ford as the lead rather than Alec Baldwin.

They painted themselves into something of a narrative corner with the end of Clear and Present Danger, though I certainly think that a smart screenwriter could have found ways to continue telling new Jack Ryan adventures.  Unfortunately, the series seemed to flounder after that third installment, with the producers eventually deciding to reboot with from the ground up, re-casting Ryan with the young Ben Affleck and re-starting the story from zero.  I sort of liked the film that resulted, 2002′s The Sum of All Fears, and while I think it was the weakest of the four Ryan films at that point, it could have been the start of an entertaining new series of films.  Unfortunately those follow-up films never materialized, and the series has been dormant for over a decade.

With Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the studio decided to once again reboot and re-start from the beginning.  Obviously at this point, more than a decade after The Sum of All Fears, recasting the role made perfect sense, and I was excited when I heard that Chris Pine (pretty great as the young Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek films) had landed the role of Ryan.  But I am mystified by Hollywood’s insistance, every time they re-cast a film series these days, on starting over with a new origin story.  Every time they re-cast James Bond, they didn’t re-tell his origin, did they?  No, they just carried on and told a fun new Bond adventure!  (Though, of course, the most recent time they re-cast the role of Bond, they DID start over … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Star Trek Into Darkness

I enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot (click here for my review), though not nearly as much as most of the rest of the world seemed to.  I loved seeing Star Trek brought to life, finally, under the big-budget it always deserved, and I was incredibly impressed by how successful they were at recasting the iconic roles, something which I had believed to be impossible.  But the script was a mess, full of plot holes you could fly a Constitution class starship through.

Star Trek Into Darkness is more of the same.  The film is gorgeous to look at, epic in scale and realized with extraordinary skill and craftsmanship.  The cast is terrific, every single member of the ensemble is great, and getting to once again watch Spock and Bones bicker and a million other little moments of interaction between the members of the classic Enterprise crew is a delight.

Sadly though, this film’s story is even more nonsensical than the previous film’s was.  It’s catastrophically bad.  Star Trek Into Darkness is not only hugely inconsistent with Star Trek canon (even when you take into account the “alternate universe” setting of his rebooted film series), but it is also inconsistent with its own story-telling and narrative logic.  Even when you forget all previously established Star Trek lore, and only consider this film’s story on its own, it is wildly inconsistent and contradictory.

I am not going to reveal every beat of the movie in this review, but I will be heavy with SPOILERS as I dig deep into the film’s problems.  So if you’re going to see Star Trek Into Darkness, I suggest you hold off on reading this review until you’ve seen the film, then come back here and we can see where we agree or disagree.

The film’s opening sequence encapsulates much of what works and what fails in J.J. Abrams’ two Star Trek films.  The Enterprise crew is attempting to contain a volcano explosion that threatens to wipe out the pre-industrial inhabitants of an alien planet.  Things go wrong immediately, with Spock trapped inside the active volcano while Kirk and McCoy are being chased by the angry natives.  Things quickly build to a classic Prime Directive conundrum in which the only way to save Spock is to break the Prime Directive and reveal the existence of the Enterprise to the natives.  This is an extraordinary sequence, as beautifully realized a Star Trek action scene as I have ever seen.  It’s incredibly fast-paced, as we bounce between the Kirk/McCoy chase scene to action inside the volcano with Spock and Sulu/Uhura on an Enterprise shuttlecraft.  The visual effects are gorgeous, the action and suspense are compelling, … [continued]

 

Death in the Shadow of New Life — Josh reviews J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek!

It’s been a long road.  After walking disgustedly out of the opening weekend screening of the catastrophically terrible Star Trek: Nemesis back in December, 2002, I knew that Trek was at a low point.  It seemed uncertain what, if any, future the franchise had after the release of that bomb and the subsequent cancellation of the last Trek TV show, Enterprise.  Then, about 3 years ago, word came that a new Trek film was in the works.  Gradually news began to leak out, some very exciting, some rather worrying, and I soaked up every tidbit with great anticipation, some nervousness, and extremely high hopes that one day Star Trek could be great again.  A few hours ago, I watched the result of J.J. Abrams and his team’s efforts: the simply-titled Star Trek.

Abrams and his brain-trust — consisting of Damon Lindeloff (one of the top minds behind Lost) and screen-writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman — dared to do what no man has done before: to re-cast the iconic roles of the Original Series characters.  As everyone knows by now, instead of creating new characters and situations and moving the Star Trek universe forward beyond the adventures of Picard-Sisko-Janeway-etc., they decided to go back and tell an Original Series story, with new actors playing younger versions of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and all the other familiar characters.  This was an incredibly risky move.  While similiar “how it all began” prequels such as Batman Begins and Casino Royale worked well, audiences had already become accustomed to seeing lots of different actors take on the roles of Batman and James Bond.  But could someone other than William Shatner play Kirk?  Could someone other than Leonard Nimoy play Spock?

Although sadly this film fails in some powerfully annoying ways (more on that in a few moments), I am happy to report that, in this respect — that is, in regards to the viability of rebooting and recasting Star Trek — the film succeeds magnificently.  Bravo to the choice of talented actors selected to be the new command team of the Enterprise — there is not a weak link in the bunch.  None of the actors resorts to mimicry, and yet they all, somehow, truly manage to embody their characters!

Let’s start with Chris Pine as James Tiberius Kirk.  He’s got the swagger, he’s got the arrogance, and yet he’s able to also convey a tremendous likability.  You can see that this is a man that others will follow.  The film doesn’t shy away from the “lady-killer” aspects of Kirk’s persona, but Pine never crosses the line into camp or, on the other hand, into boorishness.  Rather, there’s terrific fun to had … [continued]