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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2018 — Part Two!

On Friday I began my list of my Favorite Movies of 2018!  Onwards:

15. The Year of Spectacular Men Madelyn Deutch wrote and stars in The Year of Spectacular Men as an upbeat but somewhat lost young woman, Izzy.  The film co-stars Madelyn’s sister, Zoey Deutch, as Izzy’s far more successful and together younger sister, Sabrina, and it was directed by their mother, Lea Thompson (who also plays Izzy & Sabrina’s mother in a supporting role in the film).  I love that this film is a family affair!  But the joy of discovering that American treasure Lea Thompson is also a great director is only one reason this film is on my list.  I found the movie to be pleasingly endearing; a warm, good-hearted look at a young woman’s fumbling journey towards taking some control of her life as she steps into adulthood.  (Really, I should say the film is about three women’s journeys, because while Izzy is clearly the focus, the film takes the time to flesh out Sabrina and their mom Deb’s stories as well.)  I love how fully-realized all of the women in this film are.  And I also enjoyed that, while none of the many men who Izzy bounces between during the year chronicled by the film are worthy of her (the film’s title is, ahem, sarcastic), I appreciated that they, too, were fleshed out and presented as (mostly) three-dimensional human beings with strengths and weaknesses.  The film is very well-written (there are some very funny sequences!) and I was impressed by the strong acting of both Deutch sisters.  Emotionally honest but never too downbeat, I found the film to be an enjoyable, funny delight.  (My full review is coming soon.)

14. Incredibles 2 Fourteen years after the spectacular first film, we finally got a sequel to The Incredibles!  And while it doesn’t, perhaps, match the fierce originality of that first film, I was pleased by how effortlessly Incredibles 2 was able to draw us right back into this world and these characters.  The film is fast-paced and very funny, with lots of fantastic and entertaining super-heroic derring-do, along with a strong focus on these rich, complex characters.  It’s a delight to get to spend more time with everyone in the Incredibles world, and I was pleased that the film was able to find interesting ways to move each character’s story forward.  The animation is gorgeous, the cast is terrific, and Michael Giacchino’s score is top-notch.  Bring on Incredibles 3…!  (Click here for my full review.)

13. Song of Back and NeckPaul Lieberstein (Toby from The Office) wrote, directed and stars in this wonderfully bizarre and idiosyncratic movie about … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Andy Serkis’ Mowgli

I’ve been following the long path of Andy Serkis’ Mowgli to the screen for years, and I am delighted to have finally seen it via its home on Netflix.  Mr. Serkis began developing this adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s stories (collected in the book All the Mowgli stories) back in 2013.  The script was written by Callie Klowes.  Mr. Serkis undertook the film as his directorial debut (though the project’s delays meant that Mr. Serkis’ second film as director, Breathe, was already released a year ago!).  Production began in 2015, but then it turned out that Disney was working on its own live-action movie based on this same material, Jon Favreau’s new live-action/CGI adaptation of the classic Disney animated film, The Jungle Book.  That film beat Mowgli to release by a long margin, hitting screens in 2016.  (I quite enjoyed it; click here for my review.)  Production delays, coupled with a desire to separate Mowgli’s release from that of Favreau’s The Jungle Book, continued to push back Mowgli’s theatrical debut.  Then, this past summer, Warner Brothers sold Mowgli to Netflix, bypassing a theatrical release and instead launching the film into people’s homes via Netflix.  (Click here for more on Mowgli’s journey to release, and click here for more on the film’s sale to Netflix.)

Mowgli is an enjoyable film, brought to life via gorgeous CGI and featuring a stupendous cast.  (By the way, the film’s promotional materials give the film the stupid subtitle of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.  I’m not sure why they felt the need to tack on that lame, useless subtitle.  Was it because they were planning on sequels, which would each be called Mowgli but with a different subtitle?  I’m pleased that, when the title appears in the actual film, it’s just called Mowgli, with no subtitle.  So that’s how I’ll be referring to this film in this review.)

Andy Serkis basically created an entirely new form of screen acting with his performance as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Mr. Serkis has become a master of performance capture, which allows actors’ performance on set to guide the work of the CGI artists who will later craft the appearance of the CGI character who will ultimately appear on screen.  Mowgli is a phenomenal showcase for Mr. Serkis’ skill.  Working as director and guiding his talented cast, Mr. Serkis has created a very unique-looking film, in which every frame of the film is filled with remarkable CGI characters who are nevertheless fully inhabited by and guided by the flesh-and-blood performers.

Far more than in Favreau’s The Jungle Book, the design of the animal characters here in Mowgli[continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Catches Up With Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings

I missed Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings when it was released back in December, 2014, and the film’s dismal reviews kept me from rushing to watch it on DVD or streaming.  But there was no way I could altogether skip a new film from Ridley Scott, one of the greatest directors working today.  After recently re-watching Mr. Scott’s brilliant adaptation of The Martian (actually, the new Extended Cut of that film, about which I might write more soon) I decided the time had come to give Exodus: Gods and Kings a try.

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The film is a sort of action-adventure version of the Exodus story from the Bible.  When the film opens, we meet Moses (Christian Bale) as a young adult, the happy adopted son on the Pharaoh of Egypt.  He and his brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are close and, in one of the film’s opening sequences, they ride off to war together on behalf of their father, the Pharaoh.  But a prophecy given by one of the Pharaoh’s priests threatens the bond between the half-brothers Moses and Ramses.  When Moses agrees to do a favor for his brother by taking on a thankless assignment to visit the city of Hebrew slaves, he begins to discover his true heritage.  You pretty much know how the story unfolds from there.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is an interesting movie.  It’s certainly not entirely successful, but neither is it the train-wreck catastrophe I had expected from all the original reviews.

What’s most curious about the film is the way that Mr. Scott (and the phalanx of screenwriters credited on the film) have taken the Biblical Moses story and reshaped it into, well, into Gladiator (Mr. Scott’s very successful 2000 film starring Russell Crowe).  The whole set-up is almost exactly the same.  Two almost-brothers have been raised by a powerful king.  The brothers begin the story close, but a wedge is driven between them when it turns out that the king favors his adopted almost-son over his flesh and blood heir.  Said adopted son is a cunning warrior and noble and honest to a fault.  After the death of the king, the actual son assumes power, and very soon after an attempt is made on the life of the noble almost-son, who survives when everyone believes him dead and is driven into exile.  Eventually, events conspire to bring the brothers back together in a confrontation that will result in the ultimate defeat of the now power-mad actual brother.

Am I exaggerating?  That description is almost exactly the story of both Gladiator and Exodus: Gods and Kings.

The funny thing is, while much of what we see in Exodus: Gods and Kings has been dramatically … [continued]

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Josh Reviews American Hustle

There’s no question in my mind that David O. Russell is a terrifically skilled director, and it’s been interesting seeing how his recent films have been able to blend his idiosyncratic sensibilities with a slightly more mainstream approach.  I had some problems with Silver Linings Playbook but over-all I really enjoyed the film (click here for my review), and I absolutely adored The Fighter (click here for my review).  And so it was that I entered into American Hustle with my expectations very high.  Mr. Russell had assembled a phenomenal cast, and the reviews had been near-rapturous.

But I must confess that while I found the film to be extremely well-made, I didn’t find it to be nearly as enjoyable as I had expected.  I thought the film, at two hours and 9 minutes, felt FAR longer to me than the three-hour The Wolf of Wall Street, which I saw only a few days before (click here for my review).

But let’s start with what I felt was good about the film.  The cast is indeed fantastic, and what’s particularly fun is the way almost all of the leads are playing against type.  Visually, all of these actors have changed their looks, and I’m not just talking about the humor of seeing these performers all dolled up in seventies get-up (though indeed the clothes in the film are fantastic).  I’m talking about Christian Bale, who played a super-hero, slouched over with a big gut and an outrageous comb-over.  I’m talking about handsome leading man Bradley Cooper’s jheri curl.  I’m talking about the sexed-up look of Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence.  But more than their physical transformations was how well each and every one of these actors inhabited these characters.

The stand-out is Christian Bale, who absolutely vanishes into the role of con-man Irving Rosenthal.  Mr. Bale is magnetic in the role, drawing us into the scheming mind of this rather pathetic figure.  The physicality of Mr. Bale’s transformation hooks us into the character, but it is Mr. Bale’s gripping charisma that keeps us locked into this man’s story.  Bradley Cooper nails a very different kind of pathetic as the out-of-his-league FBI man, Richard DiMaso.  Mr. Cooper takes us right into the desperate ambition at DiMaso’s heart.  The first woman in Irving Rosenthal’s life who we meet in the film is Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams.  The two meet at a party, and each one quickly realizes that they have met a peculiar sort of soul-mate in the other.  Sydney gets involved in Irving’s small-time scams, pretending to be a British aristocrat, thus lending a convincing legitimacy to Irving’s scams.  But after a while … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Dark Knight Rises

Although I really enjoyed Batman Begins, I wasn’t quite prepared for just how spectacular the follow-up, The Dark Knight, was going to be.  I didn’t expect it, and that film knocked me flat.  I’ve revisited The Dark Knight several times in the last few years (I just wrote about it last week!) and I continue to be dazzled by its grim majesty.

The Dark Knight is so good that it immediately puts its sequel in an unenviable position of having to equal or top a masterpiece.  The Dark Knight Rises is not at the level of The Dark Knight — it’s rather unrealistic to hope that it would be.  It is definitely more flawed than its predecessor.  But it is a ferociously entertaining film, smart and serious and with bold intentions, and it brings Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy to a sure-footed conclusion.

The Dark Knight Rises is a huge film — it’s scope is far larger than the previous two films, as are its ambitions.  The film is set over a period of many months (which I love, as it really gives the story and the characters room to breathe).  Crazy, crazy stuff happens in and to Gotham City in the second half of the film.  Sure, the Joker terrorized the city in The Dark Knight, but what happens to Gotham in the film’s second half takes the scope of this tale to a whole other level.

The main ensemble continues to shine.  All the main surviving characters from the previous two films return and each gets his time in the spotlight.  Michael Caine’s Alfred gets some big emotional scenes, and the great Mr. Caine is, as always, tremendously effective.  More than ever before, Alfred is the heart of this film, and the lone anchor keeping Bruce Wayne tethered to some sort of reality.  Morgan Freeman returns as Lucius Fox.  He gets a great “Q” scene early in the film, and I was pleased that Lucius stayed involved in the story as Bane’s grip on Gotham city tightens as the film progresses.

Gary Oldman is spectacular, once again, as Commissioner Gordon.  I got a bit worried at first when Gordon gets sidelined to a hospital bed — in both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight I wished there was more of Gordon.  (The whole Gordon-pretending-to-be-dead bit in the middle of The Dark Knight is one of that film’s only mis-steps.)  But luckily the Commish gets a lot of meaty scenes in the film’s second half.  Gary Oldman just IS Commissioner Gordon at this point — he is absolute perfection in the role.  When the Batman film series is inevitably rebooted, I suspect this is going to prove to … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews The Dark Knight (2008)

My excitement is building for The Dark Knight Rises, which opens today!  I hope to be seeing it soon, and of course I’ll be posting my thoughts right here as soon as I do.  In the mean-time, let’s continue my look back at Christopher Nolan’s previous two Bat-films. Last week I wrote about Batman Begins. Of course, after re-watching that film, I was eager to dive right back into Christopher Nolan’s first Bat-sequel, The Dark Knight.

I have written about The Dark Knight before on this site.  Here is my original review of the film, which I wrote soon after having my brains blown out the back of my head by my first viewing of this magnificent film.  I stand by my rapturous review.  Having now seen the film several times, I think it has held up extremely well.  When I first saw it, I was continually shocked by the film’s plot developments, but even knowing what is going to happen I think the film still totally works.  In fact, knowing what is to come, there’s a powerful sense of additional dread watching the story unfold.  You know it’s not going to end happily.

I have read this film described as “Batman Loses” and that pretty much sums up the story.  Bruce Wayne gets smacked around for pretty much the entirety of the film’s long run-time.  This is the way a super-hero sequel should be.  Once you’ve established your super-heroic character, you need to really stack the deck against him/her.  It needs to be nearly IMPOSSIBLE to conceive of a way that your hero can overcome these tremendous odds, and boy oh boy does The Dark Knight do that in spades.

Key to this, of course, is the incredible success of Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker.  Everyone went crazy, back in 1989, for Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, and rightfully so.  It’s a spectacular performance, and one that was long-deemed un-toppable.  But Mr. Ledger’s work absolutely blows Mr. Nicholson out of the water.  This Joker is DANGEROUS in a way that Nicholson’s never really was.  Ledger’s Joker is creepy and weird and scary.  He clearly has a brilliant tactical mind (a point driven home by the film’s terrific opening sequence, an intricately-orchestrated robbery of a mob-controlled bank) but also a wild unpredictability.  Pretty much every single Joker scene in this film is instantly iconic, from his magic trick making a pencil disappear, to his various stories about how he got his scars, to his taunting of Batman in the police station’s interrogation room, to his conversation with a scarred Harvey Dent in his hospital room.

Which brings me, of course, to Harvey … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Batman Begins (2005)

With Christopher Nolan’s third and apparently final Batman film only weeks away, I thought it would be fun to go back and re-watch his first two Bat-films.

Having seen so many great super-hero films in the years since 2005, it’s easy to forget just how impressive Mr. Nolan’s achievement was with Batman Begins. Finally, here was a filmmaker ready to bring to movie-screens the character of Batman that I have loved for so long in the comics, and to treat that character seriously.  I love Tim Burton’s Batman, but while that’s a great film, it’s not in my mind a great depiction of the character of Batman.  Then, of course, the later films descended into ridiculousness and camp.  In the minds of many in the public, the Batman they knew was still the Adam West Pow! Book! Zap! version.

But Mr. Nolan took Batman seriously, and he and co-writer David S. Goyer set about to dig into the character of Batman: who he is an how he came to be.  (Comic fans know, of course, that I am paraphrasing a chapter title from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s seminal four-part story Batman: Year One, to this day the definitive origin story of Batman and a text from which Mr. Nolan and Mr. Goyer borrowed liberally for their screenplay for Batman Begins.)

The genius of Batman Begins is that you don’t spend the whole movie just waiting for Bruce Wayne to put on the cape and cowl.  The details of Mr. Wayne’s adolescence, as depicted in the film, are rich and fascinating, and fully hold the audience’s attention for the first two-thirds of the movie.  Indeed, it’s the final third, in which Wayne finally becomes Batman, that is the weakest part of the film, but I’ll get to that in a few moments.

I love how well-thought-out and focused the film’s script is.  Mr. Nolan and Mr. Goyer seized on the idea of fear as central to Batman and Bruce Wayne.  I love how the film, and the characters, continually return to that idea.  Ducard (Liam Neason) constantly needles young Bruce Wayne on the subject, exhorting him to identify and conquer his fear.  The choice of the Scarecrow as one of the film’s villains further plays into this subject.  That’s smart screenwriting.  They didn’t just choose a random villain, they chose one who really meshed with the story being told.

Speaking of villains, I love Liam Neeson’s role in the film.  Yes, Liam Neeson has played this type of mentor character many, many times before.  Yes, when he and Bruce Wayne are training with swords on a frozen lake I can easily imagine him with a lightsaber in his hand instead … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews The Fighter

When I first heard about The Fighter, I thought “here we go again, yet another boxing movie.”  But then I realized that, though I could certainly list a TON of boxing movies, I haven’t actually seen that many of them.  I’m not at all interested in the “sport” of boxing, and though I definitely enjoy some dark, downbeat films, I’m not a big fan of a lot of violence or gore in movies.  All of which means that it’s rare for me to want to go see a boxing film.

But something about The Fighter sparked some interest in me.  Perhaps it was the cast, or perhaps it was the story of Mark Wahlberg’s years-long effort to bring the real-life story of boxer Micky Ward to life.  Whatever the reason, I’m glad I decided to see the film, because it is absolutely terrific.

Mark Wahlberg has turned in some strong performances over the past few years (even when he’s in films that I don’t really like, such as The Other Guys).  He was, for instance, absolutely brilliant in The Departed (click here for my review).  Born in Dorchester, MA, it’s clear that Mr. Wahlberg felt a strong connection to the scrappy fighter from Lowell, MA, and that shows through every moment of the performance.  Mr. Wahlberg is completely believable as a welterweight boxer, but he also brings an endearing gentleness to the portrayal.  His Micky is soft-spoken and desperately eager to please.  It’s fascinating to me that the film’s narrative arc rests on Micky learning to actually be a little bit selfish and make a decision that will do right for HIM, rather than for his mother, sisters, or brother.

Speaking of his brother (really his half-brother), as good as Mark Wahlberg is as Micky Ward, this movie absolutely 100% belongs to Christian Bale and his performance as Dicky Eklund.  Dicky was once a great boxer and “the pride of Lowell,” but now he’s a crack-addicted shambles of a man who’s convinced himself that training his brother to fight will be his road to a comeback.  Mr. Bale’s performance is mesmerizing.  Dicky is a whirlwind of tics and energy that threatens to fly apart any room or situation that he’s in.  We can see the echoes of his charisma that once made him a local hero, and that perhaps also explains why his loved ones tolerate his behavior.  And his smile.  Oh, his smile is devastating.  It conveys such warmth from the heart of this man-child, but it’s also devastatingly sad and pathetic as we quickly see what a self-destructive force Dicky has become.

(The extraordinary high esteem in which I held Christian Bale’s performance as … [continued]

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“If you are listening to this, you are the resistance” — Josh Reviews Terminator: Salvation

Bottom line on Terminator: Salvation — It’s not as good a Terminator movie as I would have hoped for, but don’t believe the reviews, it’s not nearly the catastrophe you’ve been lead to believe it is.

Ever since James Cameron’s original masterpiece The Terminator (made in 1984, can you believe it??), we’ve been teased by glimpses of the post-Judgment Day future war against the machines.  With Terminator: Salvation, we’re finally being given a movie that is set entirely (except for a short prologue) in this post-apocalyptic world.  

The year is 2018, and things are looking pretty grim for mankind.  Most surviving humans are just focused on their own survival, but several small, rag-tag groups of resistance fighters are attempting to fight back against the machines.  John Connor is amongst them, but while his mother’s messages to him have provided him with valuable guidance, this John Connor has not yet become the leader of the resistance (nor has he sent his buddy Kyle Reese back in time).  Reese, meanwhile, is not yet a member of the resistance — he’s just a tough teenager trying to survive.  While Connor and Reese get a lot of screen-time, surprisingly, neither one of them is really the main character of the film.  That would be death-row inmate Marcus Wright, who signs his body over to Cyberdyne systems in 2003 and then wakes up in 2018 in a Skynet lab.

The way I see it, the film has three major weaknesses:

1.  Clearly this is a film written with the intention of focusing on a new character (Marcus Wright).  But when Christian Bale signed on to play John Connor, his role was significantly expanded.  The result is a movie that is split rather unevenly between those two characters and their storylines.  The film aspires to be an epic war-movie, telling multiple interweaving stories… but instead winds up losing the audience’s focus by not giving us a clear character in whose story we can emotionally invest.  Similarly to the way I can watch J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movie and see clearly the way the character of old Spock was shoe-horned into the movie (Imagine that movie’s plot without old Spock — it would be NO DIFFERENT.   Kirk gets ejected onto the ice planet, finds Scotty, and utilizes Scotty’s engineering expertise to get himself beamed back to the Enterprise), I can clearly see how this film was not originally intended to focus on John Connor.  That explains why, despite Connor being in a lot of action scenes, he doesn’t have any real story-line in the film.  This isn’t a movie about his rise to the leadership of the rebellion, or about him running away from or facing … [continued]

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The Dark Knight Returns: Spoiler-Free Review!

I am almost speechless.

For the past two and a half hours I had my brains pretty much blown out the back of my head by the The Dark Knight in IMAX.

This is a SPECTACULAR film.

It is dense. It is dazzling. And boy oh boy it is dark. It is SHOCKINGLY dark — not in terms of gore but in terms of how brutal it is towards all of the major characters in the film. I’ve heard people compare this sequel to The Empire Strikes Back (sort of the geek Mount Olympus in terms of a sequel), and one way the two are very much alike is that both films are not afraid to pretty much beat the hell out of “our heroes,” both physically and emotionally, for pretty much the entire running time.

This is a Batman story. And the best Batman stories, in my opinion, are the downbeat ones. But the Batman movies to this point, even the very excellent Batman Begins, have always seemed to be rather afraid to veer too far away from the happy ending. In the films we’ve seen previously, Bruce Wayne and co. always seem to be able to find fairly painless ways out, narratively, of the troubles they find themseves in. But not here. Time after time in The Dark Knight, our characters are faced with difficult situations and impossible choices, and no easy exit is presented to them. This makes for an extraordinarily compelling film.

There’s great action in this movie, no question. But this movie isn’t driven by action set pieces. It is driven by STORY, and by CHARACTER. The scenes that I can’t stop thinking about aren’t the car chases (they are awesome) or the fight scenes (they are bone-crunching). Its moments like the scene in which Batman and Jim Gordon must confront a deranged, hopeless man with a gun to the head of an innocent. Or Bruce Wayne’s dinner with Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent. Or the Joker talking about his scars. Those are the scenes that are staying with me long after the lights went up in the theatre. And it is those sorts of intense emotional moments that propel the plot forward, rather than just fight scenes leading to more fight scenes.

Its a long movie, but I was on the edge of my seat right from the opening bank heist through to the absolutely note-perfect ending. Seeing the movie in huge, loud, glorious IMAX certainly enhanced that, but I simply cannot imagine anyone watching this movie in any sort of movie theatre not being intensely gripped by this film. I suppose some might complain that the film is too downbeat. But for … [continued]