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Josh Reviews A United Kingdom

A United Kingdom tells the true story of the marriage between Sir Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams.  The two meet at university in London in 1947, and sparks quickly fly between them.  But Seretse is the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland, and the political ramifications of his marrying a white woman are enormous.  Seretse’s uncle Tshekedi Kham, who was acting ruler of Bechuanaland until Seretse returned home, insists that Seretse annul the marriage. Meanwhile, Ruth’s father refuses to have anything more to do with her, because she had married a black man.  And the British Government, who at the time controlled Bechuanaland as a protectorate, bow to pressure from Apartheid South Africa — who objected to the interracial marriage — and exile Seretse, preventing him from returning home to be with his now-pregnant wife.

A United Kingdom.cropped

This is a fascinating true story. I feel about A United Kingdom similarly to how I felt about Hidden Figures, in that this extraordinary true story deserves a better movie.

The main reason to see A United Kingdom, other than to learn about this amazing true story, is to bask in the wonderful performances of David Oyelowo as Seretse and Rosamund Pike as Ruth.  Both actors do terrific work, and they have a lovely chemistry together.

Mr. Oyelowo is working in a similar key as he was in Selma, in which he was extraordinary as Martin Luther King Jr.  He is just as good here, playing the charismatic Seretse.  The characters are different, of course, but the similarities are striking, particularly when Mr. Oyelowo, as Seretse, launched into several moments of stirring oration in the second half of the film.  I love seeing Mr. Oyelowo deliver a speech.

I’ve been a fan of Ms. Pike’s ever since Die Another Day, a terrible Bond movie in which she was nonetheless terrific.  I’ve enjoyed seeing Ms. Pike’s recent run of high-profile roles, and she effortlessly carries her half of this movie.  She’s skillfully able to draw the audience into her character.  The film tells a fairly simple story, at its heart — Ruth is the “every-girl” swept up in a larger adventure when she falls in love with a king.  Ms. Pike is able to find the emotional truth in her scenes, and to breathe life into her story.

The problem with A United Kingdom is that the movie is fairly flat.  There’s not much excitement or dramatic tension in the film.  When you compare the film to Selma, it falls far short.  A United Kingdom has none of the riveting drama that film had in spades.  I enjoyed the early goings-on in which Ruth and Seretse meet and fall in love.  But then the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews A Most Violent Year

In the ripping crime yarn A Most Violent Year, Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, the owner of a Brooklyn-based oil company.  As the film opens, in 1981, Abel and his friend and attorney, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), have just secured a great deal: the purchase of an enormous fuel terminal near the East River which will give Abel an enormous leg up on his competitors.  But as Abel’s company has grown, so too have his troubles.  His oil trucks are being hijacked (likely at the hand of one of his competitors) costing him an enormous sum of money and problems with the Teamsters who represent his drivers, and his company is being investigated by the State government for criminal activities.  Abel’s wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), pushes Abel to fight violence with violence, but Abel has prided himself on not being a criminal like Anna’s father.  As Abel’s situation grows increasingly desperate, what will he be forced to do?

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

First of all, wow, who knew that Oscar Isaac would be in basically everything I’ve watched this month??  Mr. Isaac grabbed hold of my attention with both hands back when I first saw Inside Llewyn Davis (click here for my review), but in the past few weeks he has blown me away with his work in Show Me a Hero (click here for my review) and Ex Machina (click here for my review) and now A Most Violent Year.  (And, of course, Mr. Isaac also has a major role in the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens!!)  Mr. Isaac’s power as an actor is demonstrated with full force with his tremendous work here in A Most Violent Year.  This is a movie-star performance.  This film rises because of Mr. Isaac’s commanding work, in pretty much every scene of the film.  Mr. Isaac has created a hugely compelling character in Abel, a smart and magnetic personality whose talent and charisma has taken him far from his humble immigrant origins… perhaps too far?  As I watched A Most Violent Year, I was captivated in wondering where the film, and Abel’s story, was going.  Would Abel prove to be the hero of the piece… or the villain?

A Most Violent Year was written and directed by J.C. Chandor.  I didn’t realize until after watching the film that Mr. Chandor had also written and directed the terrific 2013 film All is Lost, the near-silent movie starring Robert Redford, about a man alone at sea in escalatingly calamitous circumstances.  (Click here for my review.)  Wow, Mr. Chandor is clearly an enormous talent.  This is a filmmaker to whom I will be paying very close attention from now on!… [continued]

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Josh Reviews Selma

February 18th, 2015
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Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, tells the story of several critical months in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, leading up to the voting rights marches from Montgomery to Selma that took place March 7-25, 1965.

This is a powerhouse of a film, absolutely riveting.  The film wisely eschews the birth-to-death approach of a biopic, instead focusing just on one period of time during the life on its subject.  (Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln recently used this approach, to similarly strong effect.)

The film is anchored by the staggeringly great performance of David Oyelowo as Dr. King.  I’ve been a fan of Mr. Oyelowo ever since his great work, as a younger man, on the early seasons of Spooks (called M.I.5 here in the U.S.).  He’s had great supporting roles in a number of films in recent years, including Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  It’s thrilling to see him step into the big leagues with this performance.  Mr. Oyelowo is mesmerizing in the role.  He brings a level of honest humanity to this portrayal of Dr. King, a critical element in allowing the performance and the film to breathe, and to not feel like simply a worshipful paean to a legend.  At the same time, Mr. Oyelowo is able to capture every ounce of Dr. King’s charisma and his persuasive power.  Mr. Oyelowo delivers several speeches in the film, and they are all absolutely magnificent — most particularly the one that closes the film.

The film wastes no time, as it opens, in setting the stage for the story and conveying to the audience all that was at stake.  As we see Dr. King accept the Nobel Peace Prize, we also see an African American woman, Annie Lee Cooper, attempt to register to vote in Selma, Alabama, only to be denied by the white registrar of voters; and in Birmingham, Alabama, we see four children killed in the bombing of the 16th Baptist Church.  This film had its hooks in me right from those opening scenes, and it never let go right up through the end.

Selma is a period piece, but it feels rivetingly of the now.  This is not a dull, dry presentation of historical facts; the film is alive with a passion and an anger that is devastatingly powerful.  I have singled out Mr. Oyelowo for praise, deservedly so, but the entire ensemble is very strong, and the film is very well-crafted by director Ava DuVernay.  We get to know and care about a number of different characters, and we see the story unfold through their eyes as well as through those of Dr. King.

If the film has a weakness, it is … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Jack Reacher

I’ve never read any of the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Childs, so I didn’t come into the film Jack Reacher sharing the pre-conceived upset that many Reacher fans had at the casting of the very short Tom Cruise as the 6’5″ tank of a man described in the books.  I did go into the film thinking that the title of Jack Reacher was very stupid and not nearly as cool as that of the book from which the film’s story was adapted: One Shot.  (I guess the filmmakers wanted to emulate the huge success that was the John Carter of Mars adaptation John Carter…)  I was mostly interested in seeing Jack Reacher because it was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote the script for The Usual Suspects.

Overall, I felt the film was a decently entertaining crime flick, well-made though not particularly memorable.

At the start of the film, we see a sniper ruthlessly murder five pedestrians on a sunny day in Philadelphia.  The police are easily able to apprehend the shooter, a young man named James Barr, who upon capture insists that he will only speak with Jack Reacher.  Reacher (Tom Cruise), once a military police officer in the army, has left the service and dropped off the grid entirely.  Luckily, for reasons that are made clear as the film progresses, Reacher is aware of what has happened and arrives on the scene, saving anyone the impossible task of locating him.  He doesn’t feel he is needed, but the defense attorney Helen (Rosamund Pike) convinces him to assist her investigation.  The two soon discover that a fierce crime-lord known only as the Zec (Werner Herzog) is involved, as well as possibly someone in the D.A.’s office.

Tom Cruise is solid in the lead role.  He gives Reacher a more dour attitude than many of his previous action-hero roles (like Ethan Hunt), and that feels like the right choice.  Mr. Cruise is pretty convincing kicking ass in the film, and I wasn’t bothered by his height in the role whatsoever.  His handsome face and innate charm help convey Reacher’s power, and why he is so effective at getting people to do what he wants, even though he lacks almost every social grace.

I’ve been a fan of Rosamund Pike ever since her great work in the otherwise-very-mediocre Bond film Die Another Day.  I think she’s a terrific screen presence, and she is perfectly good as the noble defense attorney Helen, though the character is pretty thin.  Reacher does most of the real investigative work, and unfortunately Helen is relegated to being a damsel in distress by the end of the film.

The film’s piece of genius … [continued]