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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews The Lobster

In Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Lobster, Colin Farrell stars as David.  Upon discovering that his wife has left him for another man, David checks into a hotel where single people have 45 days to find a life partner, or else they will be transformed into an animal of their own choosing.  David makes friends with two of the other single men there, Robert (John C. Reilly) and John (Ben Wishaw).  Eventually, Ben runs away from the hotel and begins living with the “loners” who live in the woods nearby.  Though the loners forbid any sort of romantic connection between two people, David finds he has feelings for a woman (Rachel Weisz) he meets there.

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The Lobster is an incredibly bizarre film, one that creates a fascinating alternate reality to our own.  Though much of the world of The Lobster looks and sounds just like our own, we are presented with two fanatically extreme versions of society: one in which coupling is so important that failure to do so results in the end of one’s human life, and another in which coupling is absolutely forbidden.  The film is a compelling commentary on societal pressure to find romance and a life-partner.  How critically important to one’s life and happiness is finding a romantic partner?  Why do we, as a society, put so many rules on people’s love lives, on what is expected and what is permitted?  The Lobster is a rich satire that prompts deep questions.

Colin Farrell is terrific in the lead role, marvelously underplaying the character of David.  Mr. Farrell is beautifully naturalistic and honest in his performance.  While the world of The Lobster can feel outlandish at times, Mr. Farrell provides a critical anchoring to the proceedings with his emotional honesty, and his depiction of a man at a crossroads, struggling to figure out who he is and what he wants and whether he feels he has any self-worth.  The film works as well as it does 100% because of Mr. Farrell’s strong performance.  Mr. Farrell is a handsome man who usually exhibits a ferocious, kinetic energy in his performances.  But here, beneath a paunch and glasses and a ridiculous moustache, it’s as if he has drained every ounce of life and energy out of himself in order to bring the sad-sack David to life.  It’s quite spectacular.

John C. Reilly is always great, and he’s a ray of light in this mostly downbeat film.  His character, Robert, is lonely and unhappy, but Mr. Reilly brings a little spark to every one of his line readings that brings a sense of fun and play into what is, when you think about it, a very broken character.  Ben Wishaw (… [continued]

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Josh Reviews Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Set more than a half a century before the events of the seven Harry Potter books (and the eight movie adaptations), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them introduces us to a young man named Newt Scamander.  Mr. Scamander was mentioned in the original Harry Potter series as the author of a textbook called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  This film of the same name introduces us to Mr. Scamander as a young man, traveling to New York City with a suitcase full of magical creatures.  When several creatures are accidentally set loose, Mr. Scamander and several new friends — the magic-wielding sisters Tina and Queenie, as well as the No-Maj (non-magical) Jacob Kowalski — set off to recapture them.  All the while, though, a terrible threat haunts New York City…

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I can completely understand the desire to continue the Harry Potter saga beyond the adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter novels.  I can of course see the studios’ financial desire — the eight Harry Potter films were huge money-makers, so of course the studio would want to make more .  But as a fan, I can also understand the desire to tell more stories in this rich universe.  Although the seven books told the story of Harry Potter, and that story has been completed, the wizarding world created by Ms. Rowling — and brought to life on-screen by so many talented craftsmen and women — has such life in it that I can see there being plenty of room for further adventures.  Just as I believe there is room for more Star Wars adventures beyond the story of the Skywalker family (and I am excited to see the first on-screen attempt at this, Rogue One, in just a few weeks!), so too do I believe there is room for additional Harry Potter adventures that don’t involve Harry Potter.

So I have no automatic objection to the notion of a Harry Potter spin-off film.  And this film has been assembled with some key creative people in place to help make this feel like a legitimate expansion of the Harry Potter universe rather than a cheap cash-grab.  First and foremost, the script was written by J.K. Rowling herself.  What better way could there possibly be to ensure that this spin-off is legitimate??  It’s a clever move, and although Ms. Rowling did not write any of the screenplays for the previous Harry Potter films, her work here is strong.  But it’s the legitimacy that her involvement gives Fantastic Beasts that is the most important aspect of her participation, I think.  On the film-making side, Fantastic Beasts is directed by David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter films.  … [continued]

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Josh Reviews True Detective Season 2

I watched both the first and the second seasons of True Detective several months after they aired.  For season one, after months of reading rapturous praise for the new show, I just had to see what all the fuss was about.  (Click here for my review.)  For season two, after reading critic after critic trash the show, I was deeply curious to see if the sophomore season was truly the train-wreck that everyone was claiming.

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It is not.  True Detective season two is a far cry from the masterpiece that was season one, but it’s not the catastrophe you might have heard it was.  Season two has some deep flaws, but I nevertheless found it to be a wonderfully complex, delightfully grim and nihilistic piece if work. It’s a great noir for television.

This season has two main weaknesses.  First, it’s nearly impossible to follow.  I had praised season one for being unapologetically adult and complicated in its storytelling.  This was a show with a tremendously complex plot, and it didn’t slow down to hold the audience’s hands and explain things.  I loved that about season one, even as I was certain there were details I was missing on a first viewing.  I like a show that will reward multiple viewing.  But I feel that here in season two that has been taken too far to an extreme.  There are so many different characters and agendas in season two, and such a complicated web of plot and circumstance, that I had an enormous amount of difficulty in following it all.

The season’s second, and connected, weakness is its failure to properly identify all of the supporting characters.  There are a lot of background characters who I feel the show, to have worked this season, needed to more clearly define and identify for viewers.  Here’s an example: Frank is upset by Stan’s death in the third episode, “Maybe Tomorrow,” but we never really knew who Stan was or what he meant to Frank.  This is exacerbated in the sixth episode, “Church in Ruins,” when Frank and Jordan visit Stan’s widow and son.  It took me a long while to figure out just who the heck they were visiting.  Vince Vaughn was wonderful in the scene with Stan’s son, but that whole scene would have meant so much more had we had time to care at all about Stan and his death.  This failure to clarify the identities of all of the supporting players really cripples the show when the reveals start to come in the later episodes of the season.  Characters refer to names of characters as if they were supposed to mean something, but I had little to … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Seven Psychopaths

Marty (Colin Farrell) is a Hollywood screenwriter struggling to get going on his next film. His friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell) gives Marty the idea to write a film called Seven Psychopaths. No surprise, Marty quickly finds his life intertwined with that of several real-life psychopaths — seven, it turns out.

With Marty writing a film called Seven Psychopaths based on his experiences with seven psychopaths, while we (the audience) are watching a film called Seven Psychopaths about Marty’s experiences crossing paths with seven psychopaths, we obviously are in for some meta fun.

But sadly, Seven Psychopaths is just a warmed over, less-clever version of Adaptation (click here for my review of that far superior film). Every self-referential trick used by the film feels like something I’ve seen before, done more cleverly.  (And the film even sort of cheats by not giving us seven psychopaths, but only six! We’re supposed to think that is a neat twist, but I thought it was lame.)  Unfortunately, in my opinion the film’s story isn’t interesting enough, nor it’s characters funny enough, to be able to stand on its own if I’m not interested in the overall self-referential premise.  The film boasts a stupendous cast, but everyone feels rather stranded to me.

I really like Colin Farell, and I think he’s a better actor than he is usually given credit for.  He tries gamely to be entertaining, but I was not at all interested in this Hollywood screenwriter’s fantasy of a Hollywood screenwriter — fiercely handsome and able to stand toe to toe with violent sociopaths without backing down. I think Sam Rockwell is one of the best actors working today, but he too struggles and ultimately fails to make his character anything other than a weird collection of tics and characteristics that only come into play when the plot demands. Christopher Walken is fun to watch, and I think his is one of the few characters in the film that I found to be interesting or entertaining, though I suggest one not think too hard about the late-in-the-film revelations about his character. (I found those revelations hard to square with the character as played by Mr. Walken.)  Woody Harrison and Abbie Cornish are also fun, though again I didn’t feel they we able to elevate their characters above two-dimensional plot devices. It’s always fun to see Harry Dean Stanton, so props to the filmmakers for that. Props also for the clever Boardwalk Empire team-up in the opening scene with Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Pitt. That was fun.

But overall, sadly, I found Seven Psychopaths to be very mediocre. It’s not bad, and I suppose if I’d never seen Adaptation I might think … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2011: Horrible Bosses

Horrible Bosses focuses on three average guys, each of whom is beset by a particularly horrible boss.  There’s Nick (Jason Bateman), an advertising executive who works excruciatingly long hours in search of a promotion, only to be shot down at every turn by his supervisor (Kevin Spacey), who delights in the perks of his position (large salary, a huge office) while gleefully forcing Nick to do all the work.  There’s Kurt (Jason Sudekis) whose happy life at a chemical company is overturned when his friendly boss (Donald Sutherland) dies and the company is taken over by his deceased boss’ drug-addicted, profane, selfish son (Colin Farrell).  Then there is Dale (Charlie Day), a dental assistant whose beautiful boss (Jennifer Anniston) harasses him sexually at every turn, even going so far as to threaten to blackmail him in order to force him to have sex with her.  So, left with no other option, the three put-upon men decide that they have no other option: they must band together and kill their bosses.

Horrible Bosses is not generally the type of comedy I’d rush out to see.  From the premise, it’s clear that this is a comedy without much footing in reality.  That the bosses are so outrageously over-the-top evil, and that the three guys come up with such a scheme to get out from under their heels, means that this movie is clearly a cartoon.  Now, that sort of outrageous fantasy can certainly be funny, but my preference is for comedies where the humor and the characters are slightly more grounded in reality.

But I was intrigued to see the film, primarily because of the phenomenal cast.  As an Arrested Development alum, Jason Bateman has my fandom hooked for life, and all of the accompanying players have proven themselves to be strong comedic forces.  And the film was directed by Seth Gordon, who helmed the superlative 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters about the sub-culture of people, world-wide, who compete annually for the top score in Donkey Kong.

But ultimately, while there are certainly a lot of laughs in Horrible Bosses, the film never really grabbed me.  Part of this might be personal preference.  As I wrote above, I tend to be less into films where the characters are such caricatures.  Though there are certainly plenty of films that would fit that description, such as Bruno, that I absolutely love.  So maybe there’s more to it than that.  There’s just nothing terribly original or memorable in Horrible Bosses. There are some funny moments and some good laughs, but for me the film faded quickly from my memory.  Even a few days later I had trouble recalling the details … [continued]

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Spielberg in the Aughts: Minority Report (2002)

When I first saw Steven Spielberg’s film  Minority Report in theatres back in 2002 (the only time I’d seen the film until I watched it again on DVD last week), I remember it becoming startlingly clear to me that the man has trouble with the endings of his films.

I recognize that the present-day epilogues to Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan are overloaded with schmaltz and are completely unnecessary to the story, but I’ve never been bothered by those endings (the way others have been, most famously William Goldman, who eviscerated Saving Private Ryan in his famous review).  I was so emotionally engaged with the stories and characters in both of those films that I was not bothered with their endings (even though the logical part of my brain did realize that Mr. Spielberg was laying the emotion on a bit thickly).  But as I wrote last week, I thought the final 25 minutes of A.I. were abominable and possibly the worst 25 minutes Steven Spielberg had ever put to film.  The ending of Minority Report isn’t quite at that level of jaw-dropping terribleness, but I think the first hour and 45 minutes of the film are a very solid, dark sci-fi thriller that is completely undone by the last 35 minutes or so.

At first, Minority Report kept me very engaged.  It’s easy and popular to hate on Tom Cruise these days, but I think he’s a far better actor than he gets credit for, and he’s an engaging lead here.  Mr. Cruise plays the generically-named Tom Anderton, the top-cop at the new Pre-Crime division that has been set up in Washington, DC.  Using three “pre-cogs” (psychics kept under sedation), the Pre-Crime team are able to intercept murders before they happen.  After six years of operation, in which the team has virtually eliminated homicides in DC, a national referendum has been set to determine whether Pre-Crime divisions will be set up in other cities across the U.S.  In advance of this, John and his team are under investigation by Federal Agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell).  Everything goes to hell when the psychics predict that John himself is about to commit a homicide.  He goes on the run, determined to prove his innocence, but finds himself setting in motion events that might undermine the legitimacy of the entire Pre-Crime unit.

For that first hour and 45 minutes, Minority Report is a solid, gritty little film.  It goes to some surprisingly grim places.  There’s an early scene in which we learn that apparent super-cop John Anderton is actually a rather broken man.  With the rain falling outside, John sits in the dark in his cluttered apartment, watching holographic projections … [continued]

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2009 Catch-Up: Josh Reviews Crazy Heart

Last week I wrote about Moon, one of the 2009 films that I hasn’t succeeded in catching before the switch-over to the Year We Make Contact.  Today I’m here to write about another 2009 film that I’m glad I found a chance to see before getting too far into 2010: Crazy Heart.

Jeff Bridges plays “Bad” Blake, a once-great country singer who, through a combination of bad luck and his own hard-living, has been reduced to singing in bowling alleys.  Bad is a pretty pathetic figure when we first encounter him in the film, pulling up to his latest small-town gig in his battered old pick-up truck and dumping out a jug full of his urine.  But drunk and washed-up though he may be, when he starts to perform we can see the embers of his greatness.  Until he has to run outside to puke, that is.

It’s not too hard to guess that, over the course of the film, Bad will be able to claw his way up to some small form of redemption.  But the pleasures of Crazy Heart aren’t in any big dramatic plot twists or emotional epiphanies.  They’re in the way that, through a million small choices, Jeff Bridges brings this broken-down man to fully-realized life.  Bad isn’t really a cliched scoundrel-with-a-heart-of-gold.  He makes a lot of poor choices, and we see him fully live up to the name he has taken for himself.  But Mr. Bridges brings such humanity to the performance that one somehow can’t help rooting for Bad nonetheless.  Can anyone deny that Jeff Bridges is one of our finest actors working today?

Maggie Gyllenhaal is solid, as she always is.  But I was really pleasantly surprised by Colin Farrell’s excellent work as Bad’s former protege Tommy Sweet.  It’s a very well-written part.  Tommy is talked about a lot in the film before we ever see him on-screen.  While Bad has hit hard times, Tommy has become a country music super-star.  I was expecting fireworks when these two finally met up in the film, but I was really pleased that the film went in another direction.  There’s friction between the two, but also reservoirs of affection.  I was quite taken with Mr. Farrell’s work, giving Tommy the arrogance one might expect of an on-the-rise mega-talent, but also a deep core of loyalty to his former mentor.  I’ve always been a big fan of Colin Farrell (I even love him in Daredevil!), and between this and his role in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (read my review here), it’s nice to see him getting some decent roles these days.

Crazy Heart has a heck of a soundtrack, featuring an array … [continued]