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When wealthy author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plumer) is found dead in his home, many of his family members and others in his orbit all seem to have a possible motive.  Enter: detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who has been hired to get to the bottom of the whole bloody affair.

Knives Out, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is a ferociously entertaining film, an agreeably funny and twisty whodunnit.

Mr. Johnson’s film is a clever modern version of an Inspector Poirot or Agatha Christie mystery, with a brilliant detective investigating a large cast of characters, each of whom might be a suspect in the crime.  The film is very much of the current day, with conversations about immigration and references to Netflix.  At the same time, it’s a murder mystery in the classic mold, one that can hold its own proudly with the classic stories of this genre.  The film is very funny, but it’s not a spoof.  There is real death, and significant stakes for the characters involved.  And yet, Mr. Johnson effectively maintains a fun, jaunty tone for the film’s entire run-time.  It’s an impressive accomplishment.

The cast is magnificent.  I don’t know what’s going on with Daniel Craig’s accent, but his surprising and unexpected choices continually delighted me throughout the film.  His detective Blanc seems in many ways to be just as loony as the characters he’s investigating; but he proves again and again his skill and attention to detail.  I love how Mr. Craig was able to make this detective character just as interesting as all of the other suspects.  Ana de Armas was dazzling in Blade Runner 2049, and she proves that was no fluke here with her empathetic work here as Harlan’s young nurse, Marta, who suddenly finds herself in an escalatingly crazy situation.

Jamie Lee Curtis is devastatingly sharp and acerbic as Harlan’s oldest daughter, Linda.  It’s a delight to see the great Ms. Curtis back on screen playing such a strong and memorable character.  I don’t think I’ve seen anything Don Johnson has done in almost 20 years, and yet here I am loving his work in HBO’s new Watchmen series, and he was terrific in this film as Linda’s husband Richard.  Chris Evans plays an anti-Steve Rogers character in Ransom, Linda and Richard’s spoiled son.  It’s fascinating to see Mr. Evans use his thousand-watt smile for such a smarmy, selfish character, rather than a noble one.  Michael Shannon’s usual intensity brings interesting colors to the role of Harlan’s youngest — and somewhat desperate — son Walt.  Toni Collette is hilarious as Joni, the ditsy widow of Harlan’s dead son Neil, who runs a fake-sounding lifestyle business that rather resembles … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Spectre

Spectre, Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as Ian Flemming’s James Bond, is not a completely terrible film but it’s a huge missed opportunity for the franchise and is probably the worst of Craig’s four Bond films.  (That’s right, I think Spectre is weaker than Quantum of Solace.)  This film should have been the triumphant and thrilling return of the best and most iconic Bond villains — S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and Blofeld — after forty years on the shelf, but instead it’s a humdrum head-scratcher and I am left wondering what the heck went wrong.

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Spoilers ahead, gang.

One of my favorite things about the Daniel Craig Bond films has been the continuity between the films.  I loved that Quantum of Solace directly picked up on the events of Casino Royale, specifically Bond’s grief at Vesper’s betrayal, as well as bringing back characters such as Mathis and Mr. White, who was revealed to be connected to a criminal organization called Quantum (or perhaps Q.U.A.N.T.U.M.).  (One of my complaints about Skyfall, which I enjoyed but didn’t view as the triumph that most everyone else seemed to, was that it was a stand-alone adventure that didn’t continue the development of Quantum.)

This sort of continuity in the Bond series feels like a radical new idea, but in fact it’s a very old one.  Though the series became famous for each film’s being a totally stand-alone adventure, the original Connery Bond films had a gentle continuity between them.  Characters carried over from one film to another (such as Sylvia Trench) and we gradually got to learn more about S.P.E.C.T.R.E., the criminal organization behind much of Bond’s troubles, and its leader Ernst Stavros Blofeld.

A turning point in the Bond series — and what stands as the series’ greatest missed opportunity (though boy does Spectre give it a run for its money) — is the abandonment of that continuity following the terrific cliffhanger ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  That film under-performed and audiences did not respond well to the newly re-cast Bond, played by George Lazenby.  And so while the follow-up should have been the grand culmination of the story that had been slowly developed over the course of the first six films, an emotional and epic climax to Bond’s fight with S.P.E.C.T.R.E., now taken to an intensely personal level following the murder of Bond’s wife, the producers made the decision to totally abandon that story and quickly do away with Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E.  From that point forward, the films became stand-alone adventures and, following a brief and stupid appearance of a Blofeld-like character in the opening of For Your Eyes Only, that was the last we ever heard of Blofeld and … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Layer Cake

I saw Layer Cake in the theater, probably because I loved Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and so I was excited for another British crime flick, and because the great Colm Meaney (who I had grown to love because of his years portraying Miles Edward O’Brien on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) was in it.  I remember absolutely loving the film, right up to the final minute, which I absolutely hated.  Hated!  The ending totally soured me on the movie.  For quite a while now, particularly after becoming more of a fan of director Matthew Vaughn, I have been wanting to revisit the film to see what I would think of it on a second viewing.  I am pleased that I loved the first 99% of the movie just as much as I did when I first saw it back in 2006. As for the ending?  Well, I’ll get to that in a moment.

Daniel Craig plays a smart, calm British drug dealer.  He’s fairly low-level in the larger scheme of things, but because he is clever, patient, and risk-averse, he has managed to thrive and to build a fortune.  He is ready to get out of the business, but his boss, Jimmy Price, asks him to do him a small favor: find the missing daughter of a fellow crime-boss, Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon).  Meanwhile, a shipment of ecstacy has been stolen from a Serbian drug lord, who has sent an assassin to kill the thieves and return the drugs.  These two events will soon collide, with Daniel Craig’s character stuck right in the middle, forced to bloody his knuckles and to use every ounce of his cleverness to try to navigate the conflicting goals of all of the violent criminals surrounding him in order to get away with his head intact.

Layer Cake is a ferociously entertaining, complex, twisty crime caper.  It’s far more serious than the jokey Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, though there are a few moments of humor in the film.  Layer Cake is a complicated story of double and triple crosses, as a large cast of characters collide, each competing with one another for wealth and power.  The film was written by J.J. Connolly, adapting his own novel, and I love how incredibly dense the film’s story is, daring the audience to keep up with the layers upon layers of twists and turns.

I first became aware of Daniel Craig when I saw his riveting supporting role in Road to Perdition (a vastly underrated movie that I should write more about one of these days).  Layer Cake was Mr. Craig’s first big lead role, and he is … [continued]