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I’m a nut for science fiction as well as science fact — and so I was instantly excited when I heard that Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) was directing First Man, a film telling the story of Neil Armstrong’s first landing on the moon.  The film’s trailers, when they arrived, got me even more excited.  I am pleased to report that the film does not disappoint.

When First Man is at its best, it is a spectacularly visceral recreation of the Neil Armstrong (and his fellow space pioneers in the Gemini and Apollo programs)’s experience leading up to, and during, the incredible feat of journeying to the moon and returning safely to the Earth.  Time and again, the film is remarkable in the way that it is able to put us right into the lap of Neil Armstrong, allowing us to see what he saw and feel what he might have felt.  We’re right there in the cockpit with Neil at the start of the film when, testing a X-15 rocket plane, he accidentally bounces off of the atmosphere and almost drifts away into space.  In an incredible sequence in the center of the film, we’re right there in the space capsule with Neil and David Scott during the Gemini 8 mission, launching into orbit, successfully locating and docking with the Agena vehicle, and nearly losing their lives when the spacecraft begins to spin out of control.  And, of course, we are there in the Eagle with Neil and Buzz Aldrin when they make their historic landing on the moon.

I have seen a lot of wonderful films about the American space program and the lunar missions, but I’ve never before quite had the discomfiting feeling of claustrophobia and fear of actually strapping into a tin can on top of a rocket, as these brave men did.  First Man was able to pull me from my theatre seat into those experiences.  Mr. Chazelle and his team have impeccably recreated these moments with an extraordinary eye for details that prior films have overlooked.  We can see and feel the tactile reality of the switches in the spacecraft control panels.  We hear and feel the swaying of the platform Neil and Dave Scott walk across in order to board the Gemini 8 capsule.  We hear the groaning of the metal on the spacecraft as it launches, and the booming explosions of the rocket fire that is propelling them airborne at an incredible rate of speed.

I saw First Man on an enormous Imax screen, and I encourage you to do the same.  The visual force of the film is tremendous, and it’s rendered even more effective on the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Justice League!

Warner Brothers and DC’s new film, Justice League, is a milestone in their efforts to chase after the achievements of Marvel’s cinematic universe.  But whereas Marvel’s last decade-worth of films has seen a remarkably cohesive, gradual unfolding and expansion of a universe’s worth of characters and story-lines, DC/Warners’ efforts have been, well, let’s say a little more stumbling.

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was enormously successful, critically and commercially, but those films were a self-contained series.  Once that wrapped up with The Dark Knight Rises, DC/Warners began working to create their own interconnected cinematic universe.  Green Lantern failed, but Man of Steel seemed like a stronger first step, though that film was not quite the smash DC/Warners was likely hoping for, and it met with a mixed reaction from fans and critics.  (Overall I enjoy the film and I like a lot of the visual choices that Zack Snyder and his team made, though the film is undermined by several critical story-choices that don’t work and an ill-conceived ending.)  Whereas Marvel introduced its heroes gradually, though their own solo films, DC/Warners moved to jump-start their shared super-hero universe with 2016’s Batman v. Superman, which was intended to lead into the first part of a two-part Justice League film.  But while it made money, Batman v. Superman was roundly (and accurately) criticized for being an overly-long, overly-dour mess with an incoherent plot and flat characters.  (The extended version actually improves upon many of the film’s flaws, but not nearly enough to consider the film “good.”).  Suicide Squad was supposed to be a hip, fun shot-in-the-arm for DC/Warners’ super-hero film series, but I thought it was even worse than Batman v. Superman.  Only Wonder Woman was a true success, telling a fun, solid story with real characters that connected with the fans.

With their films failing to connect with audiences, DC/Warners began to curtail their ambitious plans that were laid out back in 2014.  Suddenly the two-part Justice League epic became a single film; who knows if we will ever see a sequel, or whether any of the other promised solo films (a Flash film, a Cyborg film, another try at Green Lantern, a solo Batman film starring Ben Affleck, a Man of Steel 2) will ever actually come to be.

Meanwhile, following Batman v. Superman’s critical drubbing, reports came out about efforts to rework and reshape Justice League, in an attempt to inject some of the lightness and optimism that has proven so successful with the Marvel films.  (The degree to which Zack Snyder, who directed Man of Steel, Batman and Superman, and Justice League, was on board with these changes is somewhat … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Game of Thrones Season Four

I keep waiting for Game of Thrones to stumble, but so far show-runners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have continued on an impressive winning streak, with each season successfully building on what came before.  I wondered, in my review of season three, how the show would continue after it seemed like all of the main characters who I had been rooting for had been killed off.  I knew the show would go on, but I worried that I wouldn’t be as invested in the continuing narrative as I had been.  Thankfully, this didn’t wind up being an issue for me at all.  Season four gave us ten episodes filled to the brim with extraordinary drama on a small and large scale, and an array of incredible moments that I still cannot quite believe all happened in one ten-episode season.  There are some SPOILERS ahead in this review, friends, so beware!

Season four had so many spectacularly gasp-inducing and/or nail-bitingly suspenseful moments.  Joffrey & Margaery’s wedding.  Tyrion’s trial.  The Mountain versus Oberyn Martell.  Brienne of Tarth versus the Hound.  Arya’s laughter at the news of Lyssa’s death.  Mance Rayder’s army’s attack on the Wall and the Battle at Castle Black.  The revelation that Littlefinger’s role in the death of John Arryn, and as such the start of the whole Game of Thrones story.  Our first glimpse of Braavos.  Sword-wielding skeletons.  And so much more.  Did all of this really happen in just one season??

As I have written before in my previous Game of Thrones reviews, I have not yet read any of George R. R. Martin’s novels.  I am definitely interested in doing so, but I am enjoying the show so much that I don’t want to read the books until the show is finished.  That might sound weird, but I can’t recall the last time I have been this gripped by a TV show, one that has been able to so consistently thrill me with the story’s unpredictable twists and turns and with so many shocking deaths.  I don’t want to be spoiled by the books!  I want to continue to enjoy this show without having any fore-knowledge of what is going to happen next.

While there is a lot that is great about Game of Thrones, my favorite thing about the show is this way that it is able to continually shock me.  As I noted above, I worried about a decrease in my investment in the story and characters following The Red Wedding and other events of season 3, but if anything I have become even more invested in what happens to my favorite (surviving) characters.  As an example let’s take two moments from the season … [continued]

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“You Know Nothing, Jon Snow” — Josh Reviews Game of Thrones Season 3!

It seems like the third season of Game of Thrones began just a few minutes ago and now, ten pretty terrific episodes later, it’s over and the long, long wait until next spring and the next season begins.

Overall, season 3 of Game of Thrones was another phenomenal season of this spectacular show.  I have found the first three seasons of the show to be remarkable consistent in style and quality.  If you really made me list my favorites, I’d say that season 1 still remains my favorite season of the show, with season 3 coming in just a hair better than season 2.  (By the way, friends, as I often do, I will try to avoid any outright spoilers in this review, but I can’t avoid discussing certain plot twists when discussing the season, so please be warned.  There be spoilers here!!)

In season 2, my two biggest complaints were how uninteresting I found the stories of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen.  I had loved both characters in season 1, but in season 2 it felt like both of their stories were just treading water.  Their stories felt totally disconnected from all of the other story-lines in the show, and I found it hard to really care about what was happening to them.  I was pleased that, in season 3, both characters were given far better story-lines.  I loved watching the evolution of Jon Snow’s relationship with the wildling Ygritte.  The actress playing Ygritte (Rose Leslie) is dynamite, and I felt Jon Snow’s character came to life when paired up with her.  Suddenly I cared about Jon Snow again, because I was invested in his relationship with this girl.  Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, I was also more interested in Deanerys again, mostly because they managed to incorporate some great visual effects sequences and some fun action into her story.  I loved getting to see her dragons wreak havoc in episode 4, “And Now His Watch is Ended” when they destroyed Astopor, and I also loved getting to see Sir Jorah, Grey Worm, and Daario kick some ass at Yunkai in episode 9, “The Rains of Castamere.”  I also loved the return of Ser Barristan (last seen in season 1 being unceremoniously shown the door by Cersei and Joffrey).

Speaking of “The Rains of Castamere,” that shocking episode is, of course, the heart of season 3, and I suspect one’s feeling about that episode will affect one’s over-all judgment of the season.  The Red Wedding (which I had heard mentioned, but about which I remained, thankfully, totally unspoiled) arrived and quite a few of the show’s most beloved characters were brutally massacred.  It was an incredibly shocking, brutal turn … [continued]

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Game of Thrones Returns!

I love the cable model of short seasons presented all in one burst, as opposed to the network model of 24-or-so episodes strung out over a whole year.  But boy, sometimes it is really hard to wait for the many months between seasons of those cable shows!!  After an excruciating wait, my favorite show on TV these days has returned — Game of Thrones season three launched this past Sunday!

It’s fantastic being back in this world, and season three’s premiere, “Valar Dohaeris,” is a strong return for the show.  Over the course of the hour, we check back in with many of our characters (though many major characters are absent.  I guess we’ll have to wait until next week to see Arya, Theon Greyjoy, Jamie & Brienne, and Hodor & the little Stark kids who fled from Winterfell at the end of last season).

Right away, the premiere episodes addressed two major gripes I had with the end of last season.  First of all, I was very disappointed that, after getting quite a lot of development over the course of season 2, Bronn was totally absent from the season 2 finale!!  That was a real head-scratcher to me, and I have been left for months to wonder about his fate.  (I have not yet read any of George R.R. Martin’s books, and at this point, I don’t plan to until the TV series is done.  I am relishing not knowing where this story is going, and I don’t want to lose that.)  So I was delighted to see Bronn reintroduced very early in the season 3 premiere, and I was happy that he got several very nice scenes in the episode.  I am glad his friendship/partnership with Tyrion will continue, at least for now.

Secondly, I was very pleased to see the return of the pirate captain Salladhor Saan.  There was a whole big scene in season two in which Davos brokered a deal for Salladhor and his men to fight with Stanis Baratheon.  And then, we never saw him again!  That really made me wonder why the heck they had wasted our time showing Davos and Stannis’ meeting with the pirate captain in the first place.  So I was very pleased to see the character re-enter the story.  That was a pleasant surprise.

There was quite a lot to enjoy in this episode.  I was thrilled to see the return of the old, former Captain of the King’s Guard Barristan Selmy.  That was a great surprise, and I am intrigued to see where this heretofore minor character is going to go. That Daenerys just loves to collect washed-up old soldiers, doesn’t she?  Ser Jorah better watch out!  Speaking … [continued]

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Josh Reviews John Carter

Buckle up, my friends, I have a lot to say.

I adore Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars books, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting the film adaptation of the first book, A Princess of Mars, for quite a while now.  I’ve also been mystified — as I have written about several times in the past few months — by the staggeringly abysmal marketing campaign of this film.  From the stupidly truncated title, to the bland, boring posters, to the weird trailers that studiously avoided ANY reference to the word “Mars” (thus rendering them incomprehensible to anyone who didn’t already know the story), the whole thing felt like the studio was running away from the sci-fi pulpiness of source material.  Which made me wonder, why make the film at all?  The involvement of Pixar’s Andrew Stanton (making his live-action directorial debut) gave me some hope, but I was very, very dubious when sitting down in the theater to see this film.

There is a lot that John Carter gets very, very right.  There are also a number of very unfortunate mis-steps.  The result is a film that is far from great but also far, far better than the ad-campaign would have you suspect.  I feel sorry for the filmmakers that their movie has been so brutally maligned in the press as a huge flop.  The bad press will almost certainly keep anyone on the fence away from seeing the film (thus ensuring the film’s status as a major money-loser), which is a shame, and I think it’s doubly unfortunate that a big, sci-fi spectacle that has actually been made with some intelligence is going to be seen as a major failure, thus lessening the chances of getting future great sci-fi films made, while meanwhile they’ll continue to churn out Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.

Let’s start with what’s good:

Tar Tarkas is absolutely perfect.  Perfectly voiced by Willem Dafoe, and brought to life via stunning CGI effects, this fierce Jeddak of the Tharks who befriends John Carter is, to me, the heart of the story.  I feel the filmmakers HAD to get Tars right in order for the film to succeed, and man did they nail it.  Reading the books, the existence of the Tharks — a multi-armed, huge green race of Martian aliens — seemed to me to be one of the biggest obstacles in anyone ever translating the story to the screen, but I found the depiction of the Tharks to be amazing.  The filmmakers wisely made a few tweaks to Burroughs’ descriptions (these Tharks have four arms, rather than six, and while they are much taller than humans they are not quite as humongous as in the book) … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I was absolutely taken with the 1979 BBC miniseries adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Sir Alec Guiness, which I watched just a few weeks ago.  It was terrific preparation for the equally wonderful feature film adaptation of John le Carré’s spy novel, starring Gary Oldman and a phenomenally robust ensemble.

The film, directed by Tomas Alfredson (who also directed the fantastic, creepy Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In) is a delightfully taut, twisty tale of spies and spy-masters.  I was stunned by how much of the story from the six-hour miniseries made it into the two-hour film.  The script by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan is stuffed full to overflowing with plot and incident, but the film never feels rushed.  In fact, under Mr. Alfredson’s steady hand, the story unfolds at a carefully measured pace.  As in the mini-series, the scope of the story builds gradually, as scene after scene of conversation (often between men who we, the audience, don’t quite know who they are, talking about things that we’re not sure we quite understand) accumulates and comprehension gradually dawns on the audience as it does on George Smiley himself.

This is a spy story, but it is not an action film.  It is very much a drama, and a drama in which the tension is drawn not from gunplay or chase-sequences, but from quiet conversations in dark rooms.  I’ve read many rave reviews of this film in which the reviewers commented that the film was good on first viewing, but GREAT on second viewing, at which time you could really understand who everything was and what was going on.  I certainly was glad to have watched the mini-series before seeing the film, as that enabled me to follow the story without any confusion right from the beginning.  (It also gave me the delight of seeing characters and scenes from the mini-series reprised and reinterpreted by these new performers.)  I certainly don’t think one has to have seen the mini-series, nor have any prior knowledge of the film or the story, to be able to really enjoy this film.  But it helps!  This is a movie that is built for repeat viewings.  The film (like the mini-series before it) does not spoon-feed the audience any information.  There’s little-to-no exposition to spell-out who people are or what their relationships are to one another.  You need to figure those things out for yourself.  In this way, the film draws in the audience, and puts you, in a way, into George Smiley’s investigative shoes.  As in the mini-series, I found this for-the-attentive-viewer style of story-telling to be tremendously compelling.

Smiley, so memorably portrayed by Sir Alec Guinness … [continued]

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Spielberg in the Aughts: Munich (2005)

I’m here at last with the long-delayed final installment of my Spielberg in the Aughts series with a look at Mr. Spielberg’s 2005 film, Munich. This was pretty much the only Spielberg film from the last decade-and-a-half that I’d unabashedly loved when I first saw it in theatres, and I’m pleased that I found the film to be just as strong when re-watching it last month.

In September, 1972, eleven Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich were held hostage and eventually murdered by members of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist group.  Following those terrible events, the film postulates that an Israeli Mossad agent named Avner (Eric Bana) is asked to lead a small, secret group of Israeli agents assigned to hunt down and assassinate the men who the Israelis hold responsible for the Black September plot.

I think that Munich is one of, if not the most, mature and emotionally devastating films that Steven Spielberg has ever made.  There’s no question that Mr. Spielberg is one of our preeminent masters of the pop crowd-pleasing adventure film, and he’s also shown great skill at tackling more serious topics in films like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Amistad, and more.  In all of those films, though, the lines between good and evil were very clearly drawn.  What fascinates me about Munich, and what gives the film a power equal to if not surpassing those films I just named, is that this story is all about shades of gray.  There are no clearly defined heroes or villains in this film, and while one might enter the film with pre-established sympathies for either the Israeli or the Palestinian side in these events, the film wisely avoids painting either side as entirely heroic or entirely villainous.

As Avner and his team set about tracking down and killing their assigned targets, we see not only how Avner and his men (who each begin the assignment with varying degrees of idealism and toughness) begin to feel the mental and moral effects of their bloody work, but also how their actions — however justified they (and some audience members) might feel them to be — serve to extend the cycle of violence.  When Avner’s team kills a target, it’s not long before another terrorist group strikes back against Israeli targets, and so on and so forth.

Note that the film’s making a point about how violence serves only to beget violence is a subtly — but critically — different message than saying that the actions of this Israeli team are entirely without justification.  I don’t think the film gives that message at all.  I remember reading some criticisms of this film, from Jewish … [continued]