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The Tony Blair Trilogy Part II: The Queen

May 14th, 2014
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I saw and enjoyed The Queen when it was released back in 2006, but I had never seen the other two films that Peter Morgan had written about Tony Blair (all of which featured Michael Sheen as Mr. Blair, and the first two of which were directed by Stephen Frears).  Last spring I watched The Deal (click here for my review), and so then I thought it would be fun to re-watch The Queen before moving on to The Special Relationship.  I didn’t think it would take me quite so many months before I had a chance to watch The Queen, but, well, sometimes life gets in the way!

The Queen is set in 1997, in the months following Tony Blair’s election as Prime Minister of England, as well as the death of Princess Diana on August 31, 1997.  While Mr. Sheen as Tony Blair was the focus of The Deal, in many ways Tony Blair is even more front-and-center here in The Queen.  We spend quite a lot of time with this neophyte prime minister, watching him attempt to acclimate to the new high office to which he as been elected.  And yet, the film’s title The Queen is very appropriate, because this film isn’t really about Tony Blair at all.  It is about Queen Elizabeth II.

An investigation into this enigmatic figure — known the world-wide, yet someone so separated from the common folk by her power and position that few outside the royal family could say to know her — would of course be an interesting focus for a film.  But what makes The Queen so clever is the decision to investigate and explore the character of the Queen through the character of Tony Blair.  At the start of the film, Mr. Blair meets the Queen in-person for the first time, and we the audience meet her as well, seeing her through Mr. Blair’s eyes.  The pomp and circumstance surrounding the Queen, the incredibly detailed protocol that governs every interaction with her, is introduced to Mr. Blair and the audience at the same time.  As the film progresses, we grow to know and perhaps to understand her just as Mr. Blair does.  There’s a key moment late in the film in which Mr. Blair gets angry at his staff for their comments about the Queen.  In that moment in which he shows some sympathy and understanding for this woman, so too do we the audience feel that.  It’s an incredibly clever and effective way to structure the story being told.

I can’t really speak to whether anything that we see of the Queen, and the interactions of the other members of the Royal Family, have … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Son of Batman

Well, I have just about given up on these direct-to-DVD DCU animated films.  There have been some great ones over the years (Batman: Under the Red Hood is probably my favorite), but the series has been very hit and miss.  Since Bruce Timm’s departure as mastermind of the series a few years ago, things have gotten particularly wobbly.  Earlier in the year saw the release of Justice League: War, an adaptation of Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s revamped origin of the Justice League, part of DC’s universe-wide total reboot a few years ago that was nicknamed “The New 52.”  I am not a big fan of that reboot of DC’s comic-book universe, I think it has caused more problems than it has solved, and the animated adaptation was just atrocious.  When it was announced that War would be the start of a new continuity between the upcoming animated films, all based on DC’s “New 52″ revamped universe, I was concerned.

The latest DVD, Son of Batman, isn’t nearly as bad as War, but if mediocre is the most I can hope for from these DVDs, it’s probably time for me to stop watching.

Son of Batman adapts Batman & Son, the initial four-part story that kicked-off Grant Morrison’s years-long run on Batman.  I spent quite a while writing about that entire run last year.  Click here for my detailed thoughts on Mr. Morrison’s initial story-line, the source material for this DVD adaptation.  The hook for Mr. Morrison’s tale was his decision to take an old, ignored, generally considered to be out of continuity story (in which Batman and Talia, daughter of villain Ra’s al Ghul, hook up and Talia, without Batman’s knowledge, gives birth to a son), and to bring that story-line into mainstream DC continuity.  In the opening of Mr. Morrison’s tale, Talia shows up in Gotham city with her son, the young Damian.  Bruce takes him in and tries to break the arrogant, spoiled, vicious Damian — who had been trained to kill by the brutal League of Assassins that Talia and Ra’s controlled — and teach him morality.  Meanwhile, Batman fights manbat ninjas and all sorts of other craziness.

The comic is a great story, and since Damian went on to become a hugely popular character, this is a great choice for an animated adaptation.  Now, because the original four issue tale was just the start of a years-long story-line, I can understand how certain changes would have to be made in the adaptation process.  It’d have made sense to trim away a few subplots, and to try to give the story more of a resolution than it had in the comics.  … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2013: The Kings of Summer

February 10th, 2014
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This film didn’t quite make my Best Movies of 2013 list, but it was nevertheless one of my favorites of the many 2013 films I saw in late December as I prepared my end-of-the-year best-of lists.

The Kings of Summer (written by Chris Galletta and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts) is a small film that tells the story of one impactful summer in the lives of three oddball friends.  Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) have been friends for years.  Both of the teenaged boys are miserable in their home-lives, albeit for opposite reasons.  Joe’s single father (Nick Offerman) is domineering and borderline cruel, while Patrick’s parents (played by Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are (to him, at least) cloyingly, nauseatingly loving and over-attentive.  The two boys hatch a crazy scheme to both run away from home and build a house of their own, together, deep in the woods where there parents will be unable to find them.  It seems insane, but the boys go through with it and actually succeed in constructing a ramshackle domicile for themselves out in the woods.  Their new house gets a third house-mate in the form of the skinny, quiet, and very weird boy Biaggio (Moises Arias), who has attached himself to Joe and Patrick.

The film’s bizarre opening scene is extremely memorable.  We see one boy (who we’ll later discover is Biaggio) doing a crazy dance on top of a huge pipeline, while two other two boys (who we’ll later see are Joe and Patrick) provide percussion by banging on the metal pipe.  It’s a gloriously weird scene which really grabbed my attention — how could I not continue watching to determine just what the heck is going on??  It also proved to be a wonderful example of the film’s somewhat comic, very off-kilter tone.

The film is, for the most part, a serious story as the three kids wrestle with growing up, their relationships with their parents, their relationships with girls, and their relationships with one another.  There is also a lot comedy to be found in the misadventures of the boys as their story unfolds.  But my over-all sense of The Kings of Summer is of a film that is delightfully, gloriously weird.  The central conceit — that these boys could actually succeed in building a sort-of house for themselves to secretly live in — is certainly outlandish, and gives the film a sense of being something of a fairy tale.  In my opinion the film’s most endearing quality is the way it dives deeply into the lives of these three boys — Joe, Patrick, and Biaggio — while not shying away from the way in which teenage boys can … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2013: Drew: The Man Behind The Poster

February 3rd, 2014
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There’s a particular kind of nerd who knows the name Drew Struzan.

Being a movie-lover, sci-fi fan, and wannabe-illustrator for as long as I can remember, I knew of Mr. Struzan since an early age.  Prints of his work have adorned by room/apartment/house for years and years!

Mr. Struzan is one of if not the very best movie poster illustrators who ever lived.  Mr. Struzan has illustrated so many iconic movie posters, including all of the Back to the Future films and all of the Indiana Jones films (his awesome teaser poster was the only good thing about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — I had that poster hanging up for months, only to take it down in shame the day after I finally saw the film).  Mr. Struzan illustrated the posters for many of the Star Wars films (one of the posters for the original film, the iconic original Revenge of the Jedi poster, and all of the posters for the Special Edition re-releases and the prequel trilogy) along with posters for John Carpenter’s The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China, for the first four Police Academy films, Steven Spielberg’s Hook, the first Harry Potter film, and Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile (not to mention some glorious work for the DVD release of Mr. Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption.)  And believe me, that list just barely begins to scratch the surface!

Drew: The Man Behind the Poster is a documentary, directed by Erik Sharkey, that explores Mr. Struzan’s life and career and that spends time exploring the work Mr. Struzan did on all of those famous movies that I listed above (and many more). Quite a wealth of filmmakers and actors are interviewed, and while perhaps only a certain slice of nerds know Drew Struzan’s name, it’s cool to see that we are joined by many big-time Hollywood stars who know and love Mr. Struzan’s work.  I have Drew Strzan’s work hanging in my home — so too does George Lucas!!  It’s a lot of fun to see how genuinely giddy, say, Michael J. Fox gets when discussing Mr. Struzan’s work.  Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have a lot to say, as does Harrison Ford, who has been painted by Mr. Struzan a LOT (all of the Indy and Star Wars posters over the years, and, although Mr. Struzan didn’t do the original Blade Runner poster, he has done many paintings connected to that film in the years since, including the iconic image used for the film’s blu-ray release).

Frank Darabont and Guillermo del Toro have a lot to say about their love for Mr. Struzan’s work, and, … [continued]

 

From The DVD Shelf: Your Sister’s Sister (2011)

December 18th, 2013
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I have been really enjoying, recently, the work of Mark Duplass, both in front of and behind the camera.  As a writer/director, working with his brother Jay Duplass, he’s helmed some great films.  I thought Cyrus was good (click here for my review) and I thought Jeff, Who Lives at Home was spectacular (click here for my review).  I’ve also been very impressed with Mr. Duplass as an actor, in films like Greenberg and Zero Dark Thirty, but particularly in the wonderful Safety Not Guaranteed (click here for my review).  And so I was drawn to check out the indie film Your Sister’s Sister, also starring Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt.  I love all three performers, so I was interested to see what this film was all about.

The film starts in an uncomfortable place.  We see a group of friends gathering to remember someone who had died, a year previously.  When Jack (Mark Duplass) makes a bit of an angry mess of things, we understand that it’s his brother who they are remembering.  His friend Iris (Emily Blunt) strongly suggests that he take some time to get ahold of himself and try to find a way to move forward, and she offers to let her stay at her family’s isolated cabin.  When Jack arrives, he’s startled to find someone already there: Iris’ sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt).  Jack is clearly in love with Iris — or at least, strongly attracted to her — a situation complicated by the fact that she is his dead brother’s former girlfriend.  Things get even more complicated when, that first night in the cabin, Jack and Hannah — both drunk and lonely — sleep with one another.  When Iris arrives unexpectedly the next morning, surprising both Jack and Hannah, things come to a head.

Written and directed by Lynn Shelton, Your Sister’s Sister is a wrenching-at-times character study of these three people, each of whom is somewhat broken and lonely.  The film elapses over the course of just a few days, mostly time spent by the three together in the cabin.  It is extremely awkward and painful at times.  I was immediately rooting for Jack and Iris to find a happy ending together, and it’s tough watching them seem to drift further and further apart as the film progresses.

The central situation of the film — the complex romantic entanglement between the three characters — seems a little far-fetched and almost sitcom-y, but the film treats the story incredibly seriously.  As a result, the film has a naturalistic, honest feeling.  That set-up could have been the start of a farcical film filled with goofy mis-understandings and one-liners, but … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

December 13th, 2013
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OK, here’s a quick summary of my thoughts on the Die Hard series.  I think the first Die Hard is one of the best action movies ever made, a practically perfect combination of a wonderful cast, a sharp script, and incredible directing (by John McTiernan).  I have a fond place in my hard for Die Hard 2: Die Harder, because it was such a part of my childhood, but there’s no mistaking that it’s a mis-step, a somewhat joyless and not-that-creative retread of the first film.  I love Die Hard with a Vengeance, the first Die Hard film I saw on the big screen (and the only other Die Hard film, after the original, directed by McTiernan, which is, I think, a key reason why it’s so good).  I think it’s a very funny film that also has tremendous action.  I love the way the film’s story circles back to that of the first film, and this battered, world-weary John McClane feels to me like a welcome return to the McClane of the first film.  I also love Samuel L. Jackson.  To me, those are the only three real Die Hard films.  I found Live Free of Die Hard to be a forgettable, extremely mediocre installment.  I don’t hate it, but it doesn’t at all feel to me like a Die Hard movie, and this character named John McClane who jumps onto wings of fighter jets doesn’t feel at all to me like the John McClane I remember.

When I first read that they were making a fifth Die Hard film, I briefly hoped that they’d learn from the mistakes of the fourth film and get back to what made the series — and the John McClane character — work originally.  It was immediately clear to me, though, that they hadn’t.  I was so underwhelmed by the trailers for A Good Day to Die Hard (and, really, the people from Star Trek should be getting a few cents off of every dollar made from this movie due to that Worf-like title) that I didn’t bother to see the film in theatres.  I could just tell that it would make me angry, so why spend the money?

When the film came out on DVD though, I thought, OK, for curiosity’s sake at least, I should watch the film.  I mean, how could there exist a Die Hard film that I hadn’t seen?

Sadly, my low expectations were met.  A Good Day to Die Hard is significantly worse than the at-least-watchable Live Free or Die Hard.  This is a total catastrophe of a movie, one of the most amateurish, incompetently-made big-budget films I have seen in a good long while.

Right … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Bill Cosby “…Far From Finished”

December 4th, 2013
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The moment I read, months ago, that Bill Cosby would be releasing a new stand-up special, his first in thirty years, I immediately pre-ordered the DVD on Amazon.  I am a huge Bill Cosby fan.  I grew up listening to his records (particularly Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow…Right! and I Started Out as a Child), and I think that Bill Cosby, Himself is far and away the greatest stand-up routine ever put to film.

So I was obviously excited at the prospect of stand-up material from the Cos.  I knew that he’d been continuing to tour and perform over the past several decades.  Jerry Seinfeld’s odyssey to see Cosby in the documentary Comedian is my favorite part of that film.  But I hadn’t ever seen Mr. Cosby perform live, so I didn’t have any real idea what his stand-up was like these days.  Could Cosby, in his late seventies, still be as funny as he was all those decades ago?

Sadly no.  While I enjoyed watching it, Bill Cosby …Far From Finished is no Bill Cosby, Himself, nor does it hold a candle to his earlier records from the sixties or seventies.  The material just isn’t as sharp, and there’s no question that Mr. Cosby has lost a few steps in terms of his delivery.  Particularly in the first half of the special, I felt that he takes a long, long time to tell his stories, far longer than was necessary.  This resulted in my actually being a little bit bored in that first half.  I felt that the material that took him 45-50 minutes to get through could have been told in 20 (and would have been far punchier at that shorter length).  It also results in a moment in which the audience actually gets ahead of Cosby during one of his bits, with several people shouting out the punchline before Cos gets to it, causing him to stop and say to the audience “let ME tell it!”  It’s a funny moment and a deft recovery by Mr. Cosby, but the fact that the audience could get so far ahead of him, that they could so easily spot the punchline, is a mark of the performance’s problems.

There were also a number of times in which Mr. Cosby stumbled a little over his words.  There was just a hint of sloppiness in his story-telling, and at times I felt it hindered him somewhat in delivering his punchlines.  One example that comes to mind is a bit in which Cos is explaining how, while all wives like to consider themselves to be the “best friend” of their husbands, wives are in fact nothing like friends.  He illustrates this … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Peter Jackson reinvented what DVDs could be when he released his extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, a month before the release of The Two Towers in theatres.  I had fallen quite in love with The Fellowship of the Ring after having seen it many, many times in theatres.  (I have never seen a movie more times in theatres than I saw Fellowship.)  I loved the film.  When I read that an extended edition was being released on DVD, I was of course excited.  I had seen (and loved) previous home-video director’s cuts of movies (James Cameron’s Aliens and The Abyss come to mind).  But I was not prepared for how bowled over I would be by the Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring.  I still remember watching it, that first time, and being shocked at how complete a re-edit of the film it was.  This wasn’t just the same movie with a few additional scenes added in.  The entire movie had been re-worked and enhanced.  Particularly in that first 45 minutes, I felt like I was watching a totally different movie, with so many little shots and moments woven into the fabric of the film that I had already loved and known so well.

That Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring quickly became the definitive version of the film for me.  I hardly ever watched the theatrical cut again.  For the next few years, the release of Mr. Jacksons’ Extended Editions of his Lord of the Rings films became a vital part of the experience of anticipating and enjoying these movies, for me.  I anticipated the DVD release of the Extended Editions almost as much as the initial theatrical release, because it seemed to me that it was the Extended Editions that represented the full, true versions of these films.  These days, when I re-watch the films, I only watch the Extended Editions.

And so I was excited when I heard that Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, would be receiving an Extended Edition release of its own.  But I must confess to not being quite as deliriously impatient for this release as I was for the extended LOTR films.  As I wrote in my review of An Unexpected Journey, that film’s theatrical release already felt to me like an Extended Edition.  Not just because of its lengthy run-time, but because of the film’s structure, which seemed to me to be overstuffed with the types of digressions and moments of back-story that characterized the LOTR Extended Editions.  So how much could the film be further Extended?

Not by much, it turns out.  The Extended Edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected [continued]

 

Steve Martin: The Television Stuff

July 2nd, 2013
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Back in January, I had just begun exploring the wealth of material on Shout! Factory’s new 3-DVD set Steve Martin: The Television Stuff, and yet what I had seen easily prompted me to list the set as my second-favorite DVD of 2012 on my Best-of 2012 list.  I took my sweet time watching all of the rest of the marvelous Steve Martin comedic material collected in this set, only recently getting to the end.  And now, after having watched everything, I am even more convinced that this is one of the very best DVD sets I own.

The fine folks at Shout! Factory (and lest you have any cause to doubt the greatness of this wonderful company, let’s remember that these were the people who finally arranged to release Freaks and Geeks on DVD, with every last second of its expensive-t0-license music intact), working with Mr. Martin himself, have pulled together an astounding collection of his comedic work on TV, with material spanning 1976 to 2005.

Disc one contains three of Steve Martin’s TV specials.  The first, and my favorite of the three, is On Location with Steve Martin, an HBO special recorded in October, 1976.  The special is just an hour-long recording of one of Mr. Martin’s stand-up perfromances, and it’s a fantastic glimpse at Mr. Martin’s incredible comedy act that made him a huge star.  The stand-up material is phenomenal, wild and silly and crazy and clever.  I loved it!  The other two specials are sketch comedy shows.  I thought Steve Martin: A Wild and Crazy Guy from 1978 was a little weak, but Steve Martin: Comedy is Not Pretty from 1980 was far stronger.  The opening sketch, titled “El Paso,” is a scream — Mr. Martin acts out Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” entirely with monkeys.  It’s total lunacy.

Disc two contains three more comedy specials.  All Commercials… A Steve Martin Special from 1980 is exactly what it sounds like, an SNL-like sketch special filled entirely with fake commercials.  There are some very funny bits, but also some duds.  Steve Martin’s Best Show Ever from 1981 is much better.  Featuring a number of familiar faces from Saturday Night Live, including Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Gregory Hines, Larraine Newman, and Bill Murray, this is by far the strongest of Mr. Martin’s sketch-comedy specials.  The whole thing feels like a classic Steve Martin-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live, and that’s a very good thing.  Seeing the “Wild and Crazy” Festrunk Brothers visit an art gallery in an attempt to pick up chicks was my favorite sequence of the special (one elevated from great to spectacular by the hilarious appearance of John Belushi in drag as the Czechoslovakian gal … [continued]

 

The Tony Blair Trilogy Part I: The Deal

May 24th, 2013
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The Queen, the 2006 film starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, received a lot of acclaim upon its release, making a big splash at the box office and being nominated for several Academy Awards, among other honors.  I very much enjoyed The Queen when I saw it in theatres in 2006, and so I was intrigued to learn recently that the film was in fact the middle of a trilogy of films, all written by Peter Morgan, that depicted the political career of Tony Blair.  First there was 2003′s The Deal, a film made for British television, written by Mr. Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears.  Then came The Queen, which was also written by Mr. Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears.  Then there came The Special Relationship, which aired on HBO and was written by Mr. Morgan though this time directed by Richard Loncraine, rather than Mr. Frears.  (I have read that Mr. Morgan had intended to direct the film himself, though in the end that didn’t happen.)  In all three films, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was played by Michael Sheen.

I had never seen The Deal nor The Special Relationship, so I decided to first track down The Deal, and then continue to watch the other two films in this informal trilogy.

The Deal tracks the political careers of two rising stars in Britain’s Labour party (the long out-of-power liberal opponents to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative governments in the eighties), Gordon Brown (played by David Morrissey) and Tony Blair (played by Michael Sheen).  In the nineties, after toiling in obscurity for years, the two men and their Labour party find themselves with a chance for a political victory.  And while Gordon Brown had long been presumed the leader-to-be among the Labour party, suddenly Tony Blair was becoming a figure of rising popularity.  Thus the two former allies found themselves at loggerheads as to who would step forward to lead the party and attempt to become the Prime Minister.  The title of “The Deal” refers to an agreement that the two men apparently struck in 1994 in which Mr. Brown would step aside so that Mr. Blair could run in — and eventually win — Parliamentary elections and assume the role of Prime Minister.  Though the film begins in the moments before that fateful 1994 meeting, we then shift back to Mr. Blair’s first meeting with Mr. Brown back in 1983, and we then follow the two men’s political careers over the course of the next decade.

The Deal was made for British audiences, rather than Americans, and at times it assumes a familiarity with British politics that I must admit I do not possess.  However, the … [continued]

 

From The DVD Shelf: Gone Baby Gone (2007)

I immediately fell in love with Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, the first time I saw it in theatres in 2007.  I’ve seen it several times since, and after watching it again a few months ago, I was surprised to realize I’d never written about the film on my site!

The film, adapted by Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard from the novel by Dennis Lehane, is set in Dorchester (a neighborhood of Boston).  A young private eye couple, Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his girlfriend, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) are hired to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, Amanda McCready.  The first two-thirds of the film covers their investigation over the next several days, looking for Amanda.  Patrick and Angie eventually learn that Amanda’s mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), was involved in an attempt to scam drug money from a local drug lord named Cheese.  Working with the police detectives assigned to the case, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton), Patrick and Angie set up up a meeting to trade the stolen money for the kidnapped Amanda.  But the deal goes badly, and the panicked criminals throw Amanda into the water, where she apparently drowns.

That feels like the end of the story, but in fact it’s all just set-up for the film’s third act, in which Patrick and Angie are faced with an impossible moral dilemma.

I absolutely adore this film.  It’s extremely well-made.  The story by Dennis Lehane is extraordinarily compelling, and Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard have crafted a phenomenal adaptation, one that is sharp in all the right ways.  I can’t believe that this film is the work of a first-time director, as Gone Baby Gone looks like it was crafted by someone extremely confident in their abilities.  The movie is tense from start to finish, and Mr. Affleck brings a rich emotional depth and a taut narrative intensity to the whole film, both the scenes of action and violence and the scenes of conversation.  The film is gorgeous, with a rich color palette and beautifully composed shots.  More than that, the story is put together with exquisite skill, as Mr. Affleck takes us through both a complex narrative and a deeply-felt, emotionally harrowing journey without ever losing complete control over his audience, what we are thinking and feeling.  And then, at the end, he leaves us to ponder the film’s ending and to make our own decisions, rather than directing us to what he wants us to think.  I’ll talk more about the film’s powerhouse of an ending in a moment, but for now I’ll just say that it couldn’t have been pulled off by anything less than an exceptional … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2012: Killer Joe (Unrated)

I don’t know what exactly I was expecting when I sat down to watch William Friedkin’s latest film, Killer Joe.  A violent crime caper, I guess.  And that is indeed what I got, though the film is far more twisted and disturbed than I had ever expected.  Whether that is a good or a bad thing depends on your mileage, I guess!

When we first meet the trailer-park-dwelling Chris (Emile Hirsch) and his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), they are plotting the death of Chris’ mother, Ansel’s ex-wife, so they can claim the money from her life-insurance policy.  Chris has heard of a guy, Joe (Matthew McConaughey) — a policeman and also contract-killer — who he thinks they can hire to do the deed.  Chris and Ansel think they can pay Joe with a portion of the insurance money, but Joe demands payment in advance.  Since Chris and Ansel are broke, they obviously can’t pay, so Joe suggests an alternative: let him take Chris’ young sister, Dottie (Juno Temple) as a “retainer.”  Chris and Joe agree, leading to what I thought (wrongly) would be the most disturbing scene in the movie: Joe’s “date” with young Dottie (whose age isn’t specified but who is certainly depicted as a young, innocent girl) that ends up in their having sex.  What follows is a series of double-crosses winding up in a tense confrontation between Joe and Chris, Ansel, and Ansel’s new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) in their trailer-park home, a scene even more horrifying than Joe’s date/seduction of Dottie.

There is much about Killer Joe that is impressive.  The cast is spectacular, each member of the ensemble turning in a fantastic performance.  Matthew McConaughey is the stand-out as the titular Killer Joe.  Mr. McConaughey is absolutely terrific, a true revelation in the role, presenting us with a character who is a stone-cold killer.  In many ways, Joe is completely inhuman, without any seeming semblance of heart or humanity.  He sees what he wants and he takes it, no remorse and no regret.  And yet, Dottie seems to spark a genuine emotion in him.  However repugnant Joe’s advances towards the much-younger Dottie might be (and they are mighty repugnant), one senses that Joe wants to attach himself to Dottie not just because he has lust for a young pretty girl, but because he feels a real connection with her.  That perhaps makes Joe an even more twisted character, but it also makes him a more interesting one.

Emile Hirsch is great as the troubled Chris, but it’s Thomas Haden Church as his father, the beaten-down Ansel, who really impresses.  Mr. Church brings to Ansel a woeful sense of powerful hopelessness, that of a dim … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2012: 21 Jump Street

April 22nd, 2013
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I never watched the TV show 21 Jump Street, and though I was mildly curious about the apparently comedic take on the material in Jonah Hill & Channing Tatum’s 21 Jump Street film, I missed the film in theatres when it was released last spring.  I wasn’t too broken up about that.  But then I was shocked to start noticing 21 Jump Street on quite a few best films of the year lists at the end of 2012.  Had a really great comedy slipped by me?

Well, pardon me for disagreeing with what seems to be the generally accepted viewpoint, but no.

Maybe my hopes had been raised too high after reading so much praise for the film, but while I found 21 Jump Street to be a decently funny film, a comedy classic it is not.

The idea of turning what, to my understanding, was a fairly serious TV show — in which a squad of young-looking cops investigate crimes in schools — into a comedy is an interesting approach.  Perhaps one that is a little disrespectful to the source material, though on the other hand I was pleasantly surprised by the third-act surprise guest appearance in the film that made it clear that the film took place in the same universe as the original show, just set twenty-or-so years later.

I think Jonah Hill has a terrific comedic voice when used well (Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall would be my top two examples) and the idea of pairing him with the tall, buff, movie-star good-looking Channing Tatum is inspired.  The two have a great charisma together, and what works in 21 Jump Street is mostly due to the fun of these two playing off of one another.  (I also was taken by the sweetness inherent in the idea that the jock king of high school and the dorky geek could grow up to be best buds.)

The movie is funny, but rarely did I find it to be laugh-out-loud funny.  It’s a silly action movie, reminiscent of Hot Fuzz in the attempt to combine comedy with an over-the-top, Michael Bay-in- Bad Boys approach to action.  The film is certainly enjoyable but without any particularly brilliant comedic gags or surprises.  The story unfolds as you might expect.  Sent back undercover to high school, Mr. Hill and Mr. Tatum’s characters wind up reliving their own high school days, just from the opposite viewpoint: Mr. Hill’s character is suddenly cool, while Mr. Tatum’s character falls in with the geeks.  The two men start off working together, then have a fight, then reunite in time for an action finish in which they save the day.  It’s a simple story, but then … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2012: The Campaign

In The Campaign, Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a handsome, smugly arrogant Democratic Congressman from North Carolina.  His easy-street string of running unopposed is broken when two corrupt businessmen (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) convince someone to run against him.  That someone is Raymond Huggins, played by Zach Galifianakis.  Raymond is a weird, squirrely little man, and he is chosen because of how simple and easy to manipulate he is.  As the simple Raymond is transformed into a canny political operator, he becomes a real threat to Cam, and the two men soon set out to destroy each other.

After digging deeply into real-world politics with Recount (which chronicled the weeks of indecision following the 2000 Presidential election — click here for my review) and Game Change (which focused on Sarah Palin and the 2008 Presidential campaign — click here for my review), director Jay Roach decided to stick with politics but move into a fictional, more straightly comedic film.  I thought that was a good idea when I first read about The Campaign, but I was disappointed by the execution.  I found The Campaign to be only mildly amusing, far from the laugh-riot I had hoped for from the pairing of Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis.

But even more than that, what dissatisfied me about The Campaign was that — particularly in comparison to the incredibly sharp films Recount and Game Change — I could never quite see the point of The Campaign.  What message does the film have to tell us?  That politicans can be stupid and/or arrogant?  Wow, what a groundbreaking idea!  Had Raymond started out as a fairly normal character, who then was turned into a cruel, selfish politician, that would have been a story-arc.  Not a particularly original or insightful one, but that would have at least shown me that the movie had a point of view, and was commenting on the corrosive effects of the state of politics in 2012 America.  But Raymond starts out the film as a total nutball, equally as weird and unlikable as Will Ferrell’s John Edwards-like Cam Brady, just in a different way.  So… what’s the point  of view of the film?

Which leads me to conclude that the film has absolutely nothing substantial to say about politics, and is just using the political arena as a setting for a funny story.  Coming after Recount and Game Change, that would be a little disappointing to me but still a perfectly reasonable approach to take.  Except that the film isn’t nearly funny enough to make that work.  If The Campaign was intended by Mr. Roach and his team to just be a fun yuk-fest, then in my opinion … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2012: Jeff, Who Lives at Home

In Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Jason Segel plays Jeff, a young man searching for himself.  Jeff seems like an intelligent and affable fellow, but when we meet him we also see that he’s something of a lazy bum, and he still lives in his mother’s basement.  Ed Helms (The Daily Show, The Office) plays Jeff’s brother, Pat.  Pat is successful in all the ways Jeff is not (he has a job and a house and a wife and a car), though as it turns out, Pat’s life isn’t so swell after all (not the least of which because his wife, played by Arrested Development’s Judy Greer, might be cheating on him).  Susan Sarandon plays their mother, Sharon.  The film chronicles one eventful day in the life of this family.  In the morning, Jeff gets a phone call at home that turns out to be a wrong number.  But Jeff, a firm believer in destiny, becomes convinced that the call holds a clue to something he should be doing.  He holds fast to this conviction over the course of the crazy day that follows, in which his and Pat’s lives come crashing together.

This lovely little movie made it onto my Best Movies of 2012 list, and deservedly so.  I love it.  It’s a very funny film, though it’s not a laugh-a-second joke-fest.  The film is sweet and warm, a tough tone to pull off without being sappy, but writers/directors Jay & Mark Duplass give the film enough edge that the story maintains its bite throughout.  The Duplass brothers and their cast also carefully walk the tricky line of likability.  There’s a lot to dislike about all of the main characters — particularly Ed Helms’ Pat — but they are careful to bring enough humanity and, I’ll use this word again, warmth to all of the characters that I quickly found myself falling in love with the whole ensemble.

Everyone in the cast does superlative work, particularly Mr. Segel and Mr. Helms, who both mine their characters’ sorry lives for big laughs without ever turning themselves into simplistic cartoons.  I loved their chemistry together, and the way in which the slothful, jovial Jeff and the prickly, high-strung Pat bounced off of one another throughout the film was a lot of fun to watch. I also really enjoyed Susan Sarandon’s work in the film.  Her character, Sharon, starts off as just the one-note nagging mom to Jeff & Pat, but I was very pleasantly surprised to see that, by the end of the film, Sharon’s story had blossomed into a journey of self-discovery of her own.  Judy Greer and Rae Dawn Chong round out the ensemble cast, and … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2012: Take This Waltz

April 1st, 2013
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I went into Take This Waltz knowing full well that this wasn’t going to be the usual kind of Seth Rogen film.  Frankly, I was excited by that idea!  I have been a big fan of Seth Rogen since his work as a young kid on Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared.  And while I haven’t tired of his adolescent-profane schtick in movies (I am eagerly looking forward, for instance, to This is the End), I am always curious to see a comedic actor take on a more straight dramatic role.

In Take This Waltz, Michelle Williams stars as a young woman named Margot.  Margot is a writer, and as the film opens, we see that she has taken a job writing promotional copy for a Sturbridge village type old-timey recreation town.  While wandering around the town, she meets Daniel, a curious and charming young artist.  Sparks fly between the two, and do so again when they see each other on the plane-ride home.  It turns out Daniel lives on Margot’s street, only a few yards down.  This would be the charming “meet-cute” of a lovely romantic comedy, except for one small problem: Margot is married, to a chef named Lou (Seth Rogen).

I really wanted to like Take This Waltz, and I know this film has been very well-reviewed.  But I must confess to having found it to be a total bore.  After an hour, I was totally emotionally disconnected from the film, and I had a very hard time getting through the second half, probably the hardest time I’ve had finishing any movie in recent memory.

At no point in the film was I able to make any connection, as a viewer, with Margot.  The problems for me started early, as right from the opening scenes I just didn’t get her.  She has all sorts of weird, quirky mannerisms, and she seems so on edge and prickly when we meet her, particularly when Daniel initiates a conversation with her.  I wasn’t at all sure what to make of her.  It wasn’t just that I found her mannerisms unlikable (though I did), it’s that I honestly didn’t understand what the heck was going on with this woman.  It wasn’t clear to me why she was at the park, why she acted so weird around Daniel, and whether she really needed a wheelchair.  You see, it turns out that Margot is uncomfortable traveling so she pretends to need a wheelchair on flights so that she can be cared for and shuttled around by the airline crew.  By the time we got that revelation, only 10-15 minutes into the film, I was starting to sort out who this character was, … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2012: Safety Not Guaranteed

March 15th, 2013
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A group from a Seattle magazine decides to investigate a classified ad that caught their attention: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”  The writer assigned to this little story (Jake Johnson) thinks it’s a joke, but when one of the two interns with him, Darius (Aubrey Plaza), actually meets the man who placed the ad (Mark Duplass), she begins to think there is more to him than just a nut.  Is that just wishful thinking on the part of this isolated young woman, desperate for a friend?

I included Safety Not Guaranteed in my Best Movies of 2012 list, and for good reason.  I was really taken by this small-scale little movie.

I’m a sci-fi fan, so it’s no surprise that my interest was captured by the film’s sci-fi hook, but this isn’t really a science fiction movie at all.  It’s more a character study of this small group of people, each broken in their own way.  (Although I could argue that in the best sci-fi, even films set in outer space with aliens and exploding space-ships, the sci-fi element(s) are tools for exploring drama, be that political ideas or an exploration of characters.  So that’s very much the case here, in which this story of a man who might have built a time-machine is the jumping-off point for this character piece.)

Mark Duplass is terrific, playing his role in a way that allows you to see him as totally sincere or as a total nut-ball as the film progresses.  I’ve been discovering his work as a writer and director over the past few years (I really dug the film Cyrus that he wrote and directed with his brother), but apparently Mr. Duplass is also a very skilled actor.  I bow my head in appreciation of the man’s many talents.  He’s really the anchor of this film — if his performance didn’t work, if he played the role as too kooky or too off-puttingly weird, the film would fall apart.  Instead, he creates a figure of intriguing mystery, one who we — like Audrey Plaza’s character — spend the whole movie trying to get to know and to understand.

Mary Lynn Rajskub (The Larry Sanders Show, 24) and Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm) are fun to see in small cameo roles, and Jake Johnson does great work as Darius’ grade-A asshole co-worker, the lead writer assigned to the story.  But the film really belongs to Aubrey Plaza, who shines in this leading role.  Parks and [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2012: Josh Reviews Chronicle

March 11th, 2013
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I wasn’t much interested in Chronicle when it was first released.  The “found footage” device felt over-played to me, and the footage in the trailers I saw had a low-budget vibe that made me feel like this would be super-heroes done on the cheap.  But I kept reading great things about the film, so I decided to give it a shot. I am so glad I did, because the film is fantastic!

Written by Max Landis and directed by Josh Trank (the two men are both credited with developing the film’s story), Chronicle is the story of three high school kids who gain super-powers.  The three boys don’t generally travel in the same circles.  Andrew and Matt are cousins, but Andrew is a withdrawn, lonely kid with few friends.  Matt seems far more well-adjusted but he’s a teenager too, with plenty of awkwardness and insecurities of his own.  Then there is Steve, a very popular, well-liked kid.  The three boys are very different from one another, but suddenly they find they have an incredible secret to keep together from the world and, as the boys begin developing their powers (which they eventually discover include telekinesis and flight) they become fast friends.  But as their powers grow, and Andrew’s already-tough life grows even more difficult as he continues to suffer abuse from his cruel father and humiliations at school, a schism forms between the trio.  Andrew becomes increasingly angry and withdrawn, and Matt and Steve worry that, with his powers, Andrew could become a danger to himself and others.  Things go badly from there.

Chronicle is a terrific film, a classic case of taking a super-hero story very, very seriously.  There are no costumes or capes or spandex in this film.  I’d say it’s closest companion would be M. Night Shyamalan’s phenomenal and underrated film Unbreakable.  Both films dig deep into the idea of what would really happen if normal people somehow attained super-powers.  But whereas Unbreakable is slow, quiet, and stately, Chronicle is a rock-and-roll version of a super-hero film, fast-moving and, at the end, jaw-droppingly action-packed.

The first half of Chronicle is a lot of fun, as the boys euphorically discover their new-found abilities.  But the film attains its power in the second half, in which Andrew begins a slide into evil and Matt soon realizes that he is going to have to stop his cousin, at all costs.  I love this story-line.  Andrew’s descent into cruelty and villainy is what Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the Dark Side should have been in the Star Wars prequels.  It’s agonizing to watch as the tragedy begins to unfold.  The filmmakers did an incredible job of showing us how life slowly chips … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2012: Josh Reviews Brave

March 3rd, 2013
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Each year, in preparation for my end-of-the-year “Best Of” lists, I watch a lot of movies.  It’s become a bit of a tradition here on the site that, after posting my year-end lists, I write a series of “catching up on insert-the-previous-year-here” posts, reviewing some of the movies that I crammed in at the end of the year, that I hasn’t yet had time to write about individually.  This year was no different, except that I’m a bit delayed in writing about many of those 2012 films I saw at the very end of the year, including Safety Not Guaranteed and Jeff, Who Lives at Home (both of which made it onto my Best Movies of 2012 list), Chronicle, Take this Waltz, Killer Joe, Joe Dies at the End, Paul Williams Not Dead, 21 Jump Street, The Campaign, and more.  So look for reviews of those films in the coming weeks!  Today, I want to talk about Brave.

After an incredible run of absolutely spectacular, perfection-level films, from Finding Nemo to The Incredibles to Ratatouille to WALL-E to Up to Toy Story 3, I was stunned to realize the other day that I had missed the last two Pixar films: Cars 2 and Brave.  Cars was by far my least favorite Pixar film, so I wasn’t that interested in the sequel.  I’d like to watch it at some point, but I haven’t felt any rush.  Brave definitely interested me, but it got very mixed reviews and I was so busy over the summer that by the time I had a chance to try to see it, it was already gone from theatres.  But I was looking to watch it, as soon as the film was released on DVD.

I’m glad I did.  Brave isn’t at the level of those Pixar films I listed above, but it’s still a very clever, very entertaining film.

Why don’t I think it’s as great as those other amazing Pixar films?  Mainly because while those films were each so wonderfully unique, bringing to life a world and a set of characters so totally unlike anything we’d ever seen before, Brave’s set-up feels very familiar.  This is the story of a headstrong princess who doesn’t want to get married.  That’s story-ground that has been pretty well-mined by many previous Disney animated films.  It’s a little surprising to see a Pixar film start from such a familiar place.

But that being said, I love the world that is brought to life in Brave.  Though the basic story set-up is familiar, by setting the story in Scotland we get to explore the flavor of a world that has NOT been explored before in animation.  I found … [continued]

 

Josh Returns to Battlestar Galactica with the Unrated Blu-Ray: Blood & Chrome

February 21st, 2013
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I thought I was long-since finished with the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica but now, three years after the end of the series, comes one final Battlestar Galactica adventure: the direct-to-disc blu-ray of Blood & Chrome.  

A quick history:  I fell head over heels in love with Ronald D. Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica when I first saw the miniseries back in 2003.  I had no interest in the original 1970′s Galactica, but I watched the mini-series because Mr. Moore was a writer whose work I had loved on Star Trek: The Next Generation and especially on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the greatest of the Trek series (and, in many ways, a precursor to many of the ideas, themes, and storytelling devices Mr. Moore would use to such great effect on Galactica).  For a few years there, I felt that Battlestar Galactica was the greatest show on television, and even though I didn’t totally love the show’s final season in 2008-09, I still feel that the show is certainly one of the greatest sci-fi shows ever made, and also one of the best TV shows, of ANY genre, of recent memory.  Despite my love for Galactica, I actually didn’t watch the prequel spin-off, Caprica.  (I saw the show’s pilot and it didn’t grab me, and while the DVDs have been sitting on my shelf for two years now, I have not yet watched them.)  I did very much enjoy the post-series direct-to-DVD movie, The Plan (released in 2010) that went back through the series, showing things from the Cylons’ point of view.

Not long after the release of The Plan came the announcement of Blood & Chrome, another prequel series but, unlike Caprica which was set before the creation of the Cylons, this would be set right smack dab in the middle of the first Cylon War and center on a young William Adama (who, played by Edward James Olmos, was of course the centerpiece of the main Galactica series).  Blood & Chrome has had a crazily complicated history.  First it was going to be a video game, then it was announced it would be a web-series, then it was going to be a TV movie and a pilot for a potential new TV series and then… nothing!  It vanished for two years until the Sy-Fy channel quietly dumped it on the web a few months ago, and scheduled a quick release on DVD and blu-ray.  (You can read more about Blood & Chrome’s tortured path to release here.)

All of this would lead one to suspect that this spin-off is an embarrassment, a failure.  Well, I have no idea what the heck the folks at Sy-Fy were thinking … [continued]

 

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]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Star Trek: Generations (1994)

February 13th, 2013
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Well, a few months ago I reviewed the newly-released complete soundtrack to Star Trek: First Contact, and that immediately made me want to go back and re-watch the film, which I did.  After reviewing the soundtrack to Star Trek: Generations last month, I had the same compulsion!  It was fun to go back and re-watch Star Trek: Generations.

First of all, let me say that I cannot believe that this movie is already almost twenty years old.  That is insane!!

It’s all the more disappointing to consider that almost two decades have passed since the release of Generations because I feel, looking back on it, that the powers-that-be totally screwed up the Next Generation film series, and what began with such promise really fizzled out.  The Next Gen gang never got their truly great big-screen adventure.  I wrote in my soundtrack review that I think that Star Trek: Generations – flawed though it most certainly is — just might be the best of the four Next Gen films.  Perhaps First Contact is better (that film is far more action-packed and intense, though it too is chock-full of problems), but certainly I think the hour-long middle-section of Star Trek Generations – the section after the Enterprise B prologue and before Picard enters the Nexus — is the best representation of the Next Generation TV show on the big screen.  First Contact is fun, but it doesn’t really reflect the tone or style of the Next Generation TV show (not to mention the fact that with a whole new Enterprise, new sets, and new uniforms, it LOOKS very different).  But that middle hour of Star Trek: Generations is Next Gen realized on the big screen in a glorious way, full of exciting new twists and flourishes but very faithful to the TV show, and I love it.

OK, buckle up, let’s dive into my analysis.

The film gets off to a terrific start with a 20-25-minute prologue set at the christening and launch of the Enterprise B. Although I never thought it was necessary for the first Next Gen film to in any way cross over with or even acknowledge Classic Trek adventures — after seven successful years on TV, I felt Next Gen could more than handle its own feature film all on its own — I absolutely love this lengthy prologue section on board the Enterprise B. First of all, it;’s very cool to finally see the “missing” Enterprise realized on-screen.  The Enterprise A was in Star Trek IV-VI, the Enterprise D was the Enterprise of The Next Generation, and we saw the Enterprise C in the classic Next Gen time-travel episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise.”  So we’d never … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews the Animated Adaptation of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Part 2)!

February 11th, 2013
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DC’s series of direct-to-DVD animated films stepped up to the plate big-time, recently, by taking on direct adaptations of two of the greatest comics that DC ever published.  Both were written by Frank Miller.  The first was Batman: Year One (click here for my review of that adaptation) and the second was The Dark Knight Returns.  In 1986, Frank Miller wrote and drew this seminal story, one that has continued to powerfully influence Batman stories in the comics and on film ever since.  On the surface, the plot is simple: following the death of Robin, Bruce Wayne gave up the guise of Batman.  But as Gotham City sinks into crime and despair, Wayne once again picks up the cape and cowl in an attempt to free Gotham of crime.  This is the Last Batman Story that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises so desperately wanted to be.  Mr. Miller’s graphic novel is a work of genius, a brilliant take on Batman elevated by his complex, nuanced storytelling and gorgeous, unconventional artwork and page layouts.  It’s one of my very favorite graphic novels.

To give their adaptation the room to breathe, in a very cool step, Bruce Timm and his team decided to release this adaptation in two parts.  Part One was a very solid effort.  (Click here for my review.)  It’s not a home run — I wish that they had used the voice actors from the original Batman: The Animated Series, and I wish the animation was of a higher quality.  (I recently picked up the blu-ray edition of Batman: Return of the Joker, and I found the animation in that 2000 animated film to be superior to all of the recent direct-to-DVD DC animated projects.  I wonder why that is?)  There were a few key moments that I felt that got wrong in Part I of the adaptation, and it seemed to me that many of the layers in the narrative were lost in favor of a more straight-forward telling of the story.  But I was still very entertained by the pleasingly faithful adaptation.  I thought it was a very solid effort, and even a straight-forward telling of this incredible story is extraordinarily entertaining.  I suspect that anyone who has never read the original graphic novel will be blown away by this grim, intense Batman story.  Those of us who worship the graphic novel will be entertained, though less impressed because for everything the adaptation got right, we are cognizant of the layers that were lost.

Part II of the animated adaptation is pretty much exactly the same.  I was hoping that things would get kicked up a notch, and since that didn’t happen … [continued]

 

And so, at last, we arrive at my final Best of 2012 list!  I hope you enjoyed the rest of my lists.  You can follow these links to see my Top 15 Movies of 2012: click here for part one, here for part two, and here for part three.  Click here for part one of my Top 15 Comic Book Series of 2012, and here for part two.  And finally, you can click here for part one of my Top 10 Episodes of TV of 2012, and here for part two.

And now, my final list: the Top 10 DVDs/Blu-Rays of 2012!

10. Great documentaries for not-so-great films: Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises Both of these films disappointed me when I saw them.  The Dark Knight is an extremely well-made film and a great super-hero epic, but it’s a big let-down after the magnificence that was The Dark Knight.  And Prometheus was just a catastrophe.  Nevertheless, the blu-rays of both films contained terrific feature-length documentaries.  Prometheus’ special features are particularly compelling — the 220-minute documentary “Furious Gods: The Making of Prometheus” (directed by Charles de Lauzirika) is extraordinary.  Is it crazy to be so interested in the behind-the-scenes stories of two films that ultimately disappointed me?  Maybe, but I loved these glimpses behind the curtains.

9. Jay and Silent Bob Get Old: Tea-Bagging in the UK Every few years, Kevin Smith releases a DVD collection of some of his Q&A  sessions, and I always gobble them up.  None have topped the original An Evening With Kevin Smith DVD from 2002, but Mr. Smith’s skill as a spinner-of-yarns is unparalleled, and I adore listening to his lengthy, raunchy, hilarious answers to the audience’s questions about his life, his film-making, and all sorts of other details of his personal life.  (I even saw Mr. Smith live, in Boston, a few years ago!)  This latest DVD is a recording of some of the “Smodcast” podcasts that Mr. Smith recorded with his “hetero life-mate” Jason Mewes, on tour in England.  These shows are nowhere near as great as some of the previous Q&A DVDs — I like Jason Mewes, but I think Mr. Smith is much funnier solo — but these shows are still a lot of fun, and I enjoyed the frank, friendly interplay between Mr. Smith and Mr. Mewes.

8. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 – This animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s seminal comic book from 1986 is one of the best of Bruce Timm’s recent direct-to-DVD animated films.  With solid (though not spectacular) animation and a phenomenal voice cast, I was very impressed … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews American Graffiti (1973)

December 7th, 2012
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Hey, anybody remember when George Lucas was a great filmmaker?

It’s funny, all the recent hullabaloo over the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney has been treated, by most of fandom, as great news. Can you think of another occasion in which the sale of a beloved property from its creator/owner to a huge, soulless corporation was treated with such uniform glee as being GREAT news? This is a testament to how far George Lucas’ reputation has fallen. After living through the massive disappointment that was the prequel trilogy, most Star Wars fans — and I count myself among this list — have come to feel that George Lucas no longer had the ability to make a good Star Wars movie (or, for that matter, a good movie of any kind). Pretty sad, no?

It’s easy, now, to re-write history and take the point of view that George Lucas was NEVER any good and that everything that once seemed great about Star Wars was really because of his collaborators: people like Lawrence Kasdan, Irwin Kershner, and others. But for all that the original Star Wars film seems somewhat simplistic today when compared with the magnificence of The Empire Strikes Back (which, in my opinion, is one of the five greatest movies ever made), I think it’s a silly argument to suggest that the original Star Wars was anything short of a visionary, game-changing masterpiece, and while perhaps George Lucas can’t claim ALL the credit, he surely deserves the lions’ share.

All of this is a lengthy introduction to taking about Mr. Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti. Made five years before Star Wars, this is a marvelous film, one that surely stands as a strong argument in favor of the massive cinematic skills that George Lucas once possessed.

Set in 1962 in Modesta, California, and hugely inspired by Mr. Lucas’ experiences as a teenager, American Graffiti follows a group of kids on one momentous night at the end of their high school years. The kids are all part of the (now almost-forgotten) culture of “cruising” — driving around in their cars, looking for fun and/or trouble. The film plays to Mr. Lucas’ strength, as there are many long stretches with very little dialogue. The story is told primarily through the visuals (Mr. Lucas and his collaborators developed several ingenious ways to shoot the kids in their cars while they were speeding around the roads of Modesto) and the phenomenal rock-and-roll soundtrack.

About that soundtrack: the film has no score — the mood is set entirely through the careful selection of the over-forty songs that make up the soundtrack. (Don’t for a minute believe that Quentin Tarantino invented this technique!) The lack of … [continued]

 

Fifty Years of 007! Josh Reviews Quantum of Solace (2008)

November 9th, 2012
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With Skyfall almost upon us, I’ve re-watched Daniel Craig’s two previous James Bond installments: 2006′s Casino Royale (click here for my review), and now Quantum of Solace. (You can click here to read my original review of the film from when it was released back in 2008.  You can also click here to read my friend Josh Lawrence’s advance review of Quantum of Solace, which I referred to several times in my own original review.)

The film: Quantum of Solace remains a somewhat perplexing film to me.  On the one hand, there’s a lot that is great about the film.  On the other hand, it’s a clear disappointment as a follow-up to the terrific Casino Royale. I’ve now seen the film several times, and in my mind it comes down to the following schism. Quantum of Solace is great in that, like Casino Royale did, it treats Bond seriously, crafting a tale that — while filled with high adventure — feels gritty and “real.”  Most importantly, there is a serious and compelling emotional arc for the character of Bond, as he wrestles with dealing with the emotional fallout of Vesper’s betrayal and death from the end of Casino Royale. That emotional story-line was absent from pretty much every single previous Bond film (let’s not kid ourselves, you know I’m right), and that basically the whole purpose of the film Quantum of Solace is to explore the consequences of the previous film’s ending continues to delight me at every turn.

The problem is that, on the other hand, the action-adventure/spy story (basically, all of the events that occupy Bond while he is dealing with these heavy emotional issues) is extremely thin, and falls back on one hoary, weak Bond-movie cliche after another.  After the breath-of-fresh-air that was Casino Royale, it’s a disappointing relapse.

The good: First of all, Quantum of Solace looks dynamite.  It’s a gorgeously filmed movie, filled with exotic locations from around the globe that were beautifully photographed by the cinematography team.  (And I LOVE the playful, differently-styled text graphics on-screen for each different location in the film!  It’s a really nice touch.)

After the rather-talky Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace really ups the action.  The film is packed with action, particularly in the first half, with one inventive set-piece after the next.  There’s the car chase that opens the movie; Bond’s foot-chase of the MI6 traitor in and around the streets and rooftops of Sienna, Italy that culminates in their fight tangled amongst construction scaffolding; the boat chase after Bond rescues Camille (Olga Kurylenko) from General Medrano’s men; the shoot-out at the opera where Quantum’s leaders are meeting; the plane fight over the desert … [continued]

 

Fifty Years of 007! Josh Reviews Casino Royale (2006)

November 2nd, 2012
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So, about a year ago I had an idea that I’d try to watch one or two Bond films a month, starting with Dr. No. I thought this would be a fun way to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Bond franchise in 2012, and a great lead up to the release of the new Bond film.  Well, I wasn’t able to get too far in my efforts!  (But you can click here for my in-depth review of Dr. No, here for From Russia With Love, here for Goldfinger, and here Thunderball.)  I love Bond, and I do intend to continue re-watching the series in order, though it might take me until the NEXT Bond film before I finish!  Meanwhile, with the release of Skyfall fast approaching, I decided to skip ahead and re-watch Daniel Craig’s two previous Bond films: 2006′s Casino Royale and 2008′s Quantum of Solace. Let’s dive into Casino Royale today, and I’ll be back next week with my thoughts on Quantum of Solace. (Then of course I will have my review of Skyfall up as soon as possible!)

The film: Casino Royale really knocked my socks off when it was first released, and it has held up extremely well after multiple viewings in the years since.  This felt to me like the Bond I’d been waiting for — serious and intense, with great action coupled with a compelling (and suitably downbeat) emotional arc for the main characters.  The Bond franchise has been rejiggered before during the transition between Bond actors, but this was the first time the series was ever started over from zero.  (What we like to call a “reboot” these days.)  I tend to despise prequels, and I was worried that Casino Royale was just an ill-fated attempt to cash in on the success of Batman Begins from the previous year.  And while there is no question in my mind that Casino Royale would not exist without the success of Batman Begins, that connection has justifiably been forgotten because the film works so fabulously well.

Bond, James Bond: One thing that never worried me in the days leading up to Casino Royale’s release was the terrific casting of Daniel Craig as James Bond.  That whole kerfuffle over his hair color, etc., just seemed ludicrous to me.  Craig is an absolutely FANTASTIC Bond.  On the one hand, I love the way in which his Bond seems to be, of all the Bonds, the most similar to Connery’s version — the man is, in many ways, a thug.  Craig’s Bond has a brutality and a dangerousness that I don’t think any of the Bonds have had since Connery.  On the other … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews the BBC’s Sherlock Season Two!

October 25th, 2012
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A few weeks ago I wrote about the BBC’s excellent modern-day reinvention of Sherlock Holmes in Season One of their show Sherlock. When the credits rolled on the last episode, I quickly ordered season two from Amazon.

Season Two is of even higher quality than Season One!

With their second series of three episodes (as in Season One, each episode is an hour-and-a-half-long movie), the makers of Sherlock set the bar very high for themselves.  They decided to tackle what are probably the three most famous aspects of the Sherlock Holmes mythos: the professor, the woman, and the hound.

The first episode of Season Two, “A Scandal in Belgravia” (based on the story “A Scandal in Bohemia”) focuses on the woman: that is, Irene Adler, the one woman who was Holmes’ equal.  I absolutely adore the series’ version of Irene.  When we first meet her, we learn that she is a dominatrix who apparently is in possession of some photographs of a member of the Royal Family in, apparently, a compromising position.  But we quickly learn that there is a lot more to Ms. Adler than just being a beautiful blackmailer, and as the episode goes on we (along with Sherlock) are subjected to reversal after reversal, never quite sure where Ms. Adler’s loyalties lie.  In the episode, Irene Adler is played by Lara Pulver, and she is absolutely magnificent.  Yes, it’s true that I, like Holmes, might have been a bit easily smitten seeing as how the lovely Ms. Pulver performs most of her initial scenes with Holmes in the nude, but I was quickly taken by the character’s ferocious intelligence and cunning.  This woman is truly Holmes’ equal, and we’re never quite sure, as the episode progresses, whether Holmes is one step ahead of Adler or whether she is one step ahead of Holmes.

“A Scandal in Belgravia” is the best episode of Season Two, and the best episode of the series so far.  More than any other episode, this one takes place over a lengthy period of time (almost a year, I believe), and as such, it is densely packed with circumstances.  In the opening of the episode, there’s a brilliant montage in which we watch Sherlock and Watson solve a progression of cases.  It’s a terrific, fast-paced series of mystery after mystery (many of them referring to various Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle) that not only serves to show that these two men have now been on many adventures together, but also to show their growing friendship (bizarre though it may be).  If there’s one thing I thought might have been missing from Season One, it’s a development of the friendship between Holmes and … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Jaws (1975)

I’ve picked up a few of Universal’s gorgeous 100 Year Anniversary editions of their most classic films, including Born on the Fourth of July (click here for my review), The Deer Hunter (click here for my review), and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.

What can I possibly write about Jaws that hasn’t already been written?  Its reputation as a masterpiece is solidly deserved, and the film really hasn’t aged a day.  Of course the film is dazzling on blu-ray, crisp and clean.  But more than that, I can’t really point to a single moment in the movie that seems obviously fake or phony.  The visual effects hold up because, unlike many modern blockbusters, Jaws isn’t a film about visual effects.  As the often-told stories go, the mechanical shark Mr. Spielberg had on-site hardly ever worked, forcing the young director to find ingenious ways to shoot around the fake shark and find ways to depict the creature without our actually seeing it (resulting in, for example, the brilliant use of the yellow barrels as a way to suggest the shark’s menacing presence without actually showing it) and to build suspense and horror based on NOT seeing the shark.

But even more than that, Jaws holds up because, visual effects or no visual effects, there is far more to the film (whose screenplay was written by Carl Gottlieb, based on the novel by Peter Benchley) than just the shark.  The film isn’t about the shark.  It’s about characters.  It’s the characters who leave the biggest impression on the viewer — Chief Brody, Hooper, and Quint — not the shark.

Jaws has an interesting structure.  The film is basically divided into two distinct halves.  The first half is set on land, as Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) gradually grows more and more concerned about the shark he believes is menacing the small, picturesque community of Amity Island, where he is the new Chief of Police.  The second half of the film is an entirely different movie, set on board Quint’s raggedy old ship, the Orca, as Brody, Hooper, and Quint set out to chase down and kill the shark.  The brilliance of the film — and, I think, a critical component to its success — is that both halves work equally well.  I love the first half, particularly for its exploration of the many colorful characters of Amity island.  I love the gradual way that we get inside Chief Brody’s head, I love the dynamic between Brody and his wife (Lorraine Gary) and son, I love every moment with Amity’s mayor (played so wonderfully by Murray Hamilton) and the other government officials, I love it all and I don’t want the film … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: The Color of Money (1986)

After watching The Hustler (click here for my review of that 1961 film), I immediately had to watch Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money. This has to be one of the weirdest sequels ever made.  Released twenty-five years after the original film, made by a different director, shot in color as opposed to the original’s black-and-white, The Color of Money is a completely different film than The Hustler. And yet, I was impressed by how connected the two films were, mostly because of the story — which, though set years later, seems to draw a direct line from the end of The Hustler — and, of course, Paul Newman’s reprisal of his classic role as “Fast” Eddie Felson.

Like The Hustler, The Color of Money was adapted from a novel by Walter Tevis.  Following the events of The Hustler, Eddie stopped being a pool shark.  He seems to have made a fine (though not especially successful) life for himself, but when he sees an incredibly talented young pool player, Vincent (played by Tom Cruise), Eddie begins to hunger once again for the action.  He convinces Vincent to let Eddie take him on the road, so he can teach Vincent the pool shark game and hopefully make the both of them a lot of money.

As in The Hustler, the film succeeds primarily because Paul Newman is so fantastic in the role of “Fast” Eddie.  Mr. Newman may be an older man, but he’s still incredibly compelling and charismatic.  You can see in the way he talks, and the way he moves, the powerful young man that “Fast” Eddie once was.  As the film progresses, the narrative keeps the audience in genuine doubt as to whether Eddie still has what it takes to beat the odds and get the score, or whether he’s just a washed up old man with memories of glory.  Mr. Newman’s powerful yet subtle performance allows the audience to envision both possibilities.

The beating heart of The Color of Money, of course, and the film’s whole reason for being, is the pairing of elder statesman Paul Newman with the young Tom Cruise as Vincent.  Mr. Cruise is electric in the role.  Vincent is brash and loud, full of energy and enthusiasm and lust for life, but totally without patience and not exactly possessing of a plethora of brains.  The twenty-four year-old Cruise commands the viewer’s attention, and when he and Paul Newman share the screen (as they do for much of the film’s run-time), their chemistry is palpable and exciting.  It’s a terrific dynamic, and certainly one that helps you understand why the filmmakers felt like a return to “Fast” Eddie and the world of … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: The Hustler (1961)

In this 1961 film, adapted from the novel by Walter Tevis, Paul Newman plays “Fast” Eddie Felson, an incredibly talented pool shark.  He and his partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) have been scamming their way from pool hall to pool hall, with the dream of one day taking on Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason).  Fats is considered the best of the best, and Eddie hopes to beat him and win a big score.  Of course, things don’t quite go as planned, and soon Eddie finds himself broke and directionless.  He meets up with a beautiful but hard-drinking young woman named Sarah, and sparks fly.  Will Fast Eddie try to settle down and make a life with this woman who loves him, or will he return to his hustling ways and attempt another confrontation with Minnesota Fats?

The first 45-50 minutes of The Hustler — the introduction to Eddie and Charlie and that first extended pool game with Minnesota Fats — is absolutely electric.  I don’t know anything about pool, but I was riveted to every moment.  Robert Rossen’s direction is superlative, and the force of personality of Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason is extraordinary.  You don’t need to understand anything about pool — Mr. Rossen makes clear everything you need to know, and the sharp characters draw you in immediately.  It’s marvelous.

Things slow down significantly once that big game of pool is completed.  The film pauses for a significant middle section of the movie in which Eddie meets Sarah and the two fall into a relationship.  After a while I did become invested in the story of these characters’ relationship, but after the high of the pool game it is quite a drop-off in intensity.  (Let’s face-it — I was bored.)  Things do pick up again as the film builds towards its conclusion, and Eddie and Sarah’s courtship is interrupted by events.

Piper Laurie is quite intriguing as Sarah.  Her deep voice and her mannerisms create a rather unique woman.  Sarah is no wallflower — she’s an independent woman who has clearly done a lot of living.  I was fascinated to see how this pretty young lady who “meets cute” with Fast Eddie in a train station is gradually revealed to be as damaged and self-destructive — if not more so! — than is Eddie himself.

Watching The Hustler it is clear why Paul Newman was a super-star for such a long period of time.  The man is electric — a live-wire performer.  He’s incredibly handsome and charismatic, a fully-formed leading man, but not a simplistic pretty-boy.  Take a look into his sharp eyes or take a listen to his  fantastic voice — deep and gravelly — and layers of emotion … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews the Animated Adaptation of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Part 1)!

Released in 1986, Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is one of the most seminal Batman stories ever written, and certainly one of the finest super-hero comic-book stories ever told.  The Dark Knight Returns forever changed the depiction of Batman, and it has been influencing comic book writers and artists not to mention filmmakers ever since.  The dark, gothic look and tone of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) was heavily influenced by The Dark Knight Returns, and the first hour-and-a-half of Christopher Nolan’s similarly-titled The Dark Knight Rises (in which an aging Bruce Wayne, having not been Batman for nearly a decade, puts back on the cape and cowl, attempting to rebuild his body and then doing battle with a muscle-bound terrorist attempting to take control of Gotham City) is nearly a direct adaptation.

That’s a bit of a joke, of course, partly based on my disappointment with The Dark Knight Rises (click here for my review, though my dissatisfaction with the film has grown since I wrote that initial, mostly-positive review), but it’s certainly true that many of the major story-beats from that film were taken directly from The Dark Knight Returns. They even directly took the scene in which two cops, a veteran and a rookie, respond after first seeing Batman again on the night of his return.  (“You’re slowing down?”  ”Relax, kid.  We’re in for a show.”)

I first read The Dark Knight Returns only a few years after it was initially published.  I was WAY too young to read it, not question.  I didn’t understand everything in the story (the twist about Harvey Dent’s psychosis at the end of Book one totally went right over my ten-year-old head) but I was nevertheless gripped by this dark, violent, gripping story.  I have since read The Dark Knight Returns countless times, and it has lost none of its power.  I’ve written about it before on this site, naming it one of my favorite graphic novels of all time.

I was thus very excited and also very nervous when it was announced that Bruce Timm & co. would be adapting this groundbreaking work as their next direct-to-DVD DC Universe animated project.  This is exactly the type of comic source material that I desperately want to see Mr. Timm and his crew adapt — a classic series from the DC pantheon.  But The Dark Knight Returns is so good, so beloved, that the idea of a lame, sub-par adaptation was far worse than the idea of no adaptation at all.

One of my biggest continual complaints with these DC Animated DVDs has been that they’re way too short.  They all seem to be clocking … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews the BBC’s Sherlock Season One

October 3rd, 2012
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Back in 2010, I started hearing about the BBC’s new Sherlock series.  The word was overwhelmingly positive — people seemed to love this new reinvention of the Sherlock Holmes character and mythos, set in modern-day London.  I was interested, but frankly having just recently seen and thoroughly enjoyed Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Junior’s own recent reinvention of Sherlock holmes, in the film Sherlock Holmes (click here for my review), I wasn’t sure I was really all that interested in yet another version of the characters.

Well, I’m kicking myself for resisting for as long as I did, because the BBC’s Sherlock is absolutely magnificent.  If you haven’t yet seen it, I strongly encourage you to seek it out!

Sherlock Season One, like most British TV series, is short.  It consists of three hour-and-a-half-long episodes, each basically a movie in and of itself.  Each episode adapts a different Sherlock Holmes short story.  Sherlock is set in modern-day London, and I found myself continually delighted by the way the writers adapted the Holmes stories to modern-day times, while still preserving the heart of the original stories (as well as their delightful complexities).  It’s great fun to see the way cell-phones, the internet, GPS tracking, and modern-day science and forensics evidence are seamlessly incorporated into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories.  It all works because the makers of this show are focused on preserving the core aspects of the original stories, rather than just jettisoning everything other than the character names.  Instead, it’s as if the writers have asked themselves, how could Conan Doyle have written this story had he been alive today?  Their answers are fiendishly clever.

The two leads are both excellent.  Benedict Cumberbatch has created, in just three episodes, an absolutely iconic portrayal of the great detective.  His Sherlock is an incredibly cold creature, someone who prides himself on not feeling normal emotions and, instead, seeking complete intellectual detachment from his cases.  The show is not afraid to dare the audience to dislike its main character!  But Mr. Cumberbatch always shows us the human heart beating beneath Sherlock’s intelligence and his often cruel demeanor.  Meanwhile, Martin Freeman (Tim from the original British The Office, as well as Arthur Dent from the film adaptation of The Hitchhikers’s Guide to the Galaxy) adds another classic everyman character to his resume with his portrayal of John Watson.  When we first meet him, in the opening scenes of the series, Watson has just returned from military service in Afghanistan (just as the character had in the original stories — a canny bit of serendipity), and he is emotionally lost.  Of course, he eventually crosses paths with Sherlock, and a great partnership … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

I’ve picked up a few of the Universal 100th Anniversary blu-rays that they’ve been releasing this year, highlighting films from the studio’s 100 year history.  Two that I’ve watched recently are Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.  I’ll be back soon to write about Jaws, today I want to write about Born on the Fourth of July.

After re-watching Platoon a few months ago (click here for my review), I knew I wanted to re-watch Born on the Fourth of July soon.  I’d only seen the film once, in college.  My friends and I set about to watch a number of films that we hadn’t ever seen but that we felt were important for us to see, and that brought us to Born on the Fourth of July. My recollection was really enjoying the film, though feeling that it was very intense and difficult to watch in places.  It wasn’t a film I was rushing to see again, because it was a tough story.

Well, there’s no question that Born on the Fourth of July is tough to watch in places, but I’m glad to have re-watched it.  I think it’s a terribly effective film, and one of the greatest anti-war films I’ve ever seen.

Whereas Platoon focused exclusively on the events of a soldier’s one-year tour of duty in Vietnam (based largely upon Mr. Stone’s own experiences), Born on the Fourth of July’s focus is at once more expansive and also far more focused.  Based on the true-life story of Vietnam vet Ron Kovic (and the book he wrote about his experiences), the film follows Ron from his childhood through adulthood.  We see him as a young boy and as an idealistic high school student, fervently accepting the lesson his family, teachers and community taught him about the importance of doing one’s patriotic duty to serve in the military.  We follow Ron through two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he is confronted by the horrors of war and is eventually shot and paralyzed.  We stay with Ron during his horrific experiences in a veterans hospital, his attempt to return to his home and family, his terrible depression about his paralyzation and his feelings of isolation from the world that drive him to drinking and drugs, and eventually down to a brothel in Mexico.  We see how his anger at the anti-war protesters eventually transforms him into an anti-war protester himself.

The power of Born on the Fourth of July is that it is an epic film, but also a profoundly intimate one, focused with laser-sharpness on the experiences of this one young man throughout the fifties, sixties, and … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Crimson Tide (1995)

Earlier this week I wrote about Tony Scott’s 1993 film True Romance. The second part of my little personal Tony Scott in memoriam double-feature was his 1995 film, Crimson Tide. I saw Crimson Tide back in theaters when it was originally released, but I haven never re-watched it since.  I remember being really excited to see it, but I also remember that I was a bit disappointed by the finished film.  It just wasn’t nearly as good as The Hunt for Red October, a submarine film that I adored, and to which I was constantly comparing Crimson Tide in my mind while watching the film.  I’ve never seen Crimson Tide since then, but I know a lot of people who love the film, so I’ve been meaning to re-watch it for quite some time.

The film is better than I remembered it being, but I definitely agree with high school me in thinking that, when compared to the masterful Hunt for Red October, it doesn’t compare favorably.  There’s something a little too simplistic about Crimson Tide, a little too action-movie silly as opposed to truly dramatic.  The film isn’t a check-your-brain-at-the-door piece of Hollywood stupidity, but there are definitely some choices (in the pacing, in the editing, in the music) that indicate that the film wants more to be an exciting action-adventure than a realistic drama.  Now, that’s not necessarily bad — I LOVE a great action adventure!  But that also puts a ceiling on the film’s potential right from the get-go.

The heart of the film is in the conflict between Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington.  Both men are terrifically cast, and the whole film rests on the idea of these two powerhouses colliding with one another in the middle of a potentially world-ending nuclear showdown scenario.  Mr. Hackman plays Captain Ramsey, commander of the U.S. nuclear sub the U.S.S. Alabama (and was it Mr. Scott or Quentin Tarantino, who performed an uncredited re-write on the film’s script, who chose the name Alabama, which was also so memorably the name of Patricia Arquette’s character in True Romance?). Captain Ramsey is an experienced veteran of naval combat, experienced in the ways of war, and conditioned with a fairly simplistic soldier’s mentality of following his orders without question.  Denzel Washington plays the Alabama’s newly-assigned X.O., Lt. Commander Hunter.  Hunter is an intelligent and well-regarded officer, but he’s never been in combat and his analytical approach puts him into immediate conflict with Captain Ramsey.  Things come to a head when the Alabama receives orders to launch a nuclear first-strike on Russian rebels, but then receives another message that is cut off when the sub comes into conflict with a … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: True Romance (1993)

The recent passing of Tony Scott prompted me to pick up two films, both directed by Mr. Scott, that had been sitting for quite a whole on my “to-watch” shelf: True Romance and Crimson Tide. I hadn’t seen True Romance since college, and Crimson Tide since it was originally released back when I was in high school, and I’d long been thinking about re-watching both of them.  As my own personal little memorial to Mr. Scott, I sat down for a fun double-feature last week.

I can’t decide if True Romance’s title is meant to be ironic or genuine.  It’s a jump ball to me.  But the story works either way you look at it.  The movie is a fairy tale, albeit a blood-soaked, crazy, fever-dream of a fairy tale.  It’s totally implausible from the very beginning to the very end, but it’s so endearingly insistent in maintaining a tone of over-the-top madness that it’s hard not to get swept away by the story.  It helps that the two leads, Christian Slater as Clarence and Patricia Arquette as Alabama, are so likable.  You can’t help but root for this crazy couple to survive all the drug-dealers and double-crosses to find themselves a happy ending.  Watching this film, I can understand why Christian Slater was once a big star.  He’s electric in the role, manic and dangerous but with a hundred-watt smile and such a huge amount of cheerful affability that he’s incredibly lovable, even when the movie dares you to turn your back on him.  (We’re not too far into the film before he decides to hunt down and kill a dangerous pimp, spurred on to do so by a vision of Elvis.  You read that right.)  And I’ve never enjoyed Patricia Arquette quite as much as I do in this film.  Yes, she’s written as a comic book nerd’s idea of a perfect woman (sexy and tough and into kung fu triple features), so that of course makes her hard to resist, but she brings so much life to the role.  She’s street-wise but also innocent, naive without being a dim bulb.  Her chemistry with Mr. Slater is magnetic.

True Romance was written by Quentin Tarantino (it was released the year after his directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs), and the film is dripping with Mr. Tarantino’s particular wit and influences.  Like most of Mr. Tarantino’s work, the film is intense and very violent, but also incredibly funny and filled with characters discussing their love of film and music and other geeky things.  Clarence and Alabama meet in the middle of a Sonny Chiba triple feature, what more do I need to tell you?  It’s interesting to see Mr. Tarantino’s … [continued]

 

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]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

After enjoying the newly-released complete soundtrack to Star Trek: First Contact, I decided to re-watch the film itself.  Star Trek: First Contact terribly disappointed me when it was first released (I can’t believe that was over fifteen ago!!).  It’s grown on me in the years since, and I think it’s probably the strongest of the Next Gen films.  (Which indicates the low quality, over-all, of the four Next Gen films.  What a tragic failure of a film franchise.  But I digress.)

When First Contact was originally announced, I was overjoyed.  A big-screen feature film focusing on the Borg seemed to promise the type of epic confrontation with that great group of villains that we’d never gotten to see on the small screen.  (After the amazing two-parter, “The Best of Both Worlds,” we only got a few more glimpses of the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and they always seemed disappointingly small-scale.)  But now, at last, we’d be getting a great Federation-versus-the-Borg story that I’d always wanted to see.  (Something on-screen to match the amazing Federation-versus-the-Borg story I’d already read, in Peter David’s magnificent Star Trek novel Vendetta.)

But that’s not at all what we got with First Contact. Yes, there’s a big battle with the Borg, but it’s just two-minutes long and is quickly dispensed with at the very start of the film.  Instead, the film turns into a time travel story, in which the defeated Borg try to destroy humanity by traveling back in time and disrupting the beginning of humanity’s journey to the stars and the eventual founding of the Federation: Zephram Cochrane’s first warp-flight.

Not only is that a pretty naked attempt on the part of the producers to smush together two previously-popular Star Trek story-devices, the Borg and time-travel, but it is totally contrary to the whole idea of the Borg.  The Borg are great villains because they are merciless and unstoppable.  They don’t strategize, they don’t scheme, they just roll over you like a bulldozer.  If one Borg cube is destroyed, they wouldn’t then use a time-travel plot to destroy humans.  They’d just come back with another cube, and another, and another, until the humans are defeated.

So the whole story of First Contact never made any sense to me, and always seemed like a big-cop out to the fact that, as created, the Borg really were pretty unstoppable bad-guys.

If I can put that aside, which is hard to do, there’s a lot to enjoy about First Contact. There are some great sequences of mounting terror as the Borg gradually assimilate the Enterprise, and I love the idea of the familiar Enterprise turning into a dangerous house of horrors.  (Those … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Mission: Impossible III (2006)

I really enjoyed the Brad Bird-directed fourth installment in Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible series (click here for my review), and that made me want to go back and watch the third installment.  I’d really enjoyed Mission Impossible III back when it was released, and it was great fun to re-watch.

I have some issues with the first Mission: Impossible film, but overall I think it’s pretty successful.  I think the first 40-45 minutes of Mission: Impossible II are pretty great, but then the whole thing collapses into a big awful mess.  The third and fourth M:I films have been far more successful than the first two, in my opinion — J. J. Abrams and Brad Bird have crafted films that are much closer to what I’d like these Mission: Impossible films to be.

Mission: Impossible III represents J. J. Abrams’ theatrical directorial debut, but you’d never know it by watching the film.  The movie looks amazing, and is directed with incredible confidence and grace by Mr. Abrams.  His camera is constantly active — not to the degree that you’re distracted by it, but in a way that throws the audience right into the middle of the visceral action.

And boy is this film action-packed.  I had forgotten just how many spectacular action set-pieces there are in the film.  There’s that helicopter chase through a field of wind-powered turbines.  There’s the complex break-in and kidnapping staged in the middle of the Vatican.  There’s the brutal helicopter and drone attack on the IMF convoy traveling across a bridge.  There’s the death-defying break-in to the skyscraper in Shanghai.  I could go on!  Each of those sequences could be the centerpiece of another action movie, they’re that good.  Each sequence is a delight of twists and suspense, marvelously well-orchestrated by Mr. Abrams and his team.

Although there’s plenty of super-spy craziness in the film, all of the action in Mission: Impossible III feels far more gritty and grounded than that in the first two films.  J.nJ. and his team make clear, right from the start, that they have set out to create a different type of M:I film.  I love the very scary and very intense scene that opens the film (in which we see Ethan Hunt captured and tied to a chair, while Philip Seymour Hoffman counts down ten seconds before he says he will execute Ethan’s wife in front of him).  It’s a terrifying moment, and also a very simple one — just three people and a gun in a darkened room.  It’s not at all the way I’d expect this big-budget, fantasy super-spy movie to open.

The other strength of Mission: Impossible III is that, for the first time … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Out of Sight (1998)

Boy do I absolutely adore Out of Sight. It’s one of those films in whose world I wish I could go on living.  There’s just something so magical about the combination of the script, the direction, the acting, and the whole tone that is created in the film.  When watching Out of Sight, I never want the story to end.  I wish there were ten more films featuring these characters in further adventures.  It’s that good — just a (too short) little slice of perfection.

The film is directed by Steven Soderbergh (it’s by far my favorite Soderbergh film, so far above the dreadful Ocean’s 11 movies as to be laughable), and adapted (by Scott Frank, doing a bang-up job) from the novel by Elmore Leonard.  (Every time I watch this film I say to myself that I need to go read the original novel immediately.  I’m ashamed to say I haven’t yet, but I do look forward to getting to that some day.)

When the film begins, we meet Jack Foley (George Clooney), a man who seems to be at the end of his rope.  So, what is there to do but walk across the street and rob a bank.  He fails, of course, but that’s just the beginning of the story.  Out of Sight has a deliciously twisted narrative, jumping back and forth between different characters and different time periods.  (The joy of discovering, late in the film, just what happened to so royally piss off Jack at the start of the movie is immense.)

George Clooney is absolutely dynamite in the lead role.  It’s a true movie-star performance.  He gives Jack ENORMOUS charisma and likability, even though he’s a thief and a scoundrel.  Mr. Clooney brings a lot of layers to Jack, and I love the way the character is depicted as very smart and adaptable, though not super-humanly perfect.  Jack does screw up, and he makes bad decisions.  But we root for him to succeed every step of the way.

Jennifer Lopez plays U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco, and I would argue that she has never been better on-screen.  Ms. Lopez is sexy and smart, and her chemistry with Mr. Clooney is palpable.  Their first meeting — locked together in the trunk of a stolen car (you just have to watch the film to see how they got into that situation) — remains one of my favorite scenes from any film.  The dialogue bites, but the scene succeeds because Mr. Clooney and Ms. Lopez sell it perfectly.

And how great is the rest of the supporting cast?  There’s Dennis Farina as Karen’s dad.  There’s Ving Rhames as Jack’s partner-in-crime Buddy.  There’s Steve Zahn as the hapless criminal … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Platoon (1986)

After watching The Deer Hunter (click here for my review), I decided to move on to another famous Vietnam war movie that I’d never seen: Platoon.

Oliver Stone wrote and directed the film, based on his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam in 1967-68.  Oliver Stone is an interesting director to me.  I respect his work as a writer and as a director, though I haven’t really seen many of his films.  Maybe one of these days I should do a re-watching project (like my De Palma series which, by the way, I will be getting back to eventually…), but for whatever reason there aren’t that many films in Mr. Stone’s filmography that really interest me.  But Platoon is a movie I have long wanted to see, and the film didn’t disappoint.

Platoon has an interesting structure.  It depicts the one year posting in Vietnam of a young infantryman, Chris (Charlie Sheen), the Oliver Stone stand-in character.  Most of these war movies tend to begin with a sequence in basic training to introduce us to all the characters before they get to the war.  But Platoon skips over all of that.  The film begins the moment the plane carrying Chris and his fellow soldiers touches down in Vietnam, and it ends a year later when Chris steps back onto a plane to take him away.

The film is basically divided into two halves.  The first half is a series of vignettes of Chris’ experiences in ‘Nam: suffering on long marches through the jungle, struggling to stay awake on watch in the pouring rain, being in combat, and dealing with incredible stress and fatigue, not to mention the brutal heat, the disease-carried mosquitoes, the red ants, and many more terribly unpleasant experiences.  As we watch these events unfold, we, like Chris, learn about the experience of the war from the perspective of the infantrymen.  Because these scenes were all based on Oliver Stone’s real experiences, the movie has a powerful verisimilitude.  I  understand, of course, that this is still a Hollywood version of the Vietnam experience, but the events I was watching felt honest and real to me, which I enjoyed and appreciated.  I think it’s why the first half of the film works so well.

We also gradually meet many of the other members of Chris’ platoon, most notably the two very different leaders: the kindly Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) and the vicious, scarred Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger).  Willem Dafoe often plays the villain or the weirdo, so it’s delightful to see him playing the tough but fair Elias, a good man trying to do his best in a tough situation.  Tom Berenger, meanwhile, is a nightmare come … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: The Deer Hunter (1978)

A few years ago when I was watching the documentary I Knew it was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (a really incredible short documentary that is well worth checking out — click here for my review), I commented that of Mr. Cazale’s five films, the only one that I hadn’t seen was The Deer Hunter. When Universal decided to release a nice new blu-ray of the film as part of their 100 year anniversary celebration, it seemed like it was finally time for me to remedy that.

The Deer Hunter is a powerful anti-war film, co-written and directed by Michael Cimino. It concerns the effects of the Vietnam war on a small group of friends from a Pittsburgh steel town. The very long (over three hours) film basically has three distinct sections.

The first act, well over an hour long, depicts a tumultuous day and a half in the life of Mike (Robert de Niro) and his steel-worker buddies. When we meet them, they are finishing a day’s work in the steel mill. They head to a bar to relax, and we learn that that night is Steven (John Savage)’s wedding, an event which the film depicts in geat detail. I don’t recall this lengthy an on-screen wedding celebration since The Godfather. The weddings in both films serve a similar function: slowly introducing us to all of the characters and their relationships.

I love how Mr. Cimino (working from a script he co-wrote with Deric Washburn, which was adapted in part from a script by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Redeker) takes his sweet time with the opening act.  We really live with these characters for a while, and I think that gives the film’s second and third segments that much more power.  We spent time in this opening act learning some character details that don’t really go anywhere in terms of the film’s plot — I’m thinking specifically of the scene with Meryl Streep’s character Linda and her abusive father — but which enrich our understanding of these people and their lives.  The wedding itself takes up a huge chunk of screen-time, but none of it feels extraneous or wasted.  Indeed, the 30-40 minutes we spend at the wedding might be my favorite part of the film!

The film’s second act takes place in Vietnam.  We skip right over all the usual basic training sequences, and also over seeing our characters’ reactions to arriving in Vietnam.  Instead, we jump right into the middle of a harrowing sequence in which Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) are being held captive by a group of Viet Cong soldiers.  The captured American soldiers are forced to play Russian … [continued]

 

Fifty Years of 007! Josh Reviews Thunderball (1965)

Well, my apologies, gang, for the long delay between installments of my look back at all the James Bond films.  I’ve been eager to get back to this Bond re-watching project, but I’ve just found myself busy with other things and continually drawn to other films.  In the months since my last installment (my review of Goldfinger), I’ve had to change the title of this series from (Almost) Fifty Years of 007 to just Fifty years of 007, without the (Almost)!  Yes, we have arrived at the fiftieth anniversary of the first James Bond film, Dr. No. Can you believe that?  But I’m not here to talk about Dr. No. (I did that already — click here for my full review of that first Bond film!)  No, let’s dive into Thunderball:

The film: Thunderball is probably my least favorite of the first batch of James Bond films, starring Sean Connery.  (It’s way better than the later film that featured Mr.Connery’s return, Diamonds Are Forever, and my recollection is that it’s also better than the remake, Never Say Never Again.)  Thunderball isn’t a bad film — no, it’s still a pretty great Bond film and a pretty great film, period.  But for me, it lacks some of the magic of Mr. Connery’s first three Bond films, as well as the next film, You Only Live Twice.

The opening/The music: The film gets off to a rocky start with an opening sequence in which Bond attends the funeral of a SPECTRE operative.  But it turns out the bad guy isn’t dead, he’s just pretending to be one of the mourning old ladies.  Bond spots him, of course, and soon engages in an extended fight sequence with the dressed-as-a-woman SPECTRE agent.  Disregarding the lunacy of the whole set-up (if the SPECTRE agent was just pretending to be dead, why did he attend his own funeral??  Why wasn’t he 10,000 miles away??), the whole Bond versus a dude in drag fight is just ridiculous, and even less compelling than the Bond versus an old lady with a knife in her shoe climax of From Russia With Love. The fight also hasn’t aged well, as there are so many obvious camera tricks (over-cranking the film to speed up the pace, stunt doubles a-plenty) that render the scene silly to the modern viewer.  The whole thing has nothing at all to do with the rest of the film, and is best forgotten altogether.

Things pick up with the terrific theme song, sung by Tom Jones.  I tend to prefer it when the Bond themes are sung by women, but damn if Mr. Jones doesn’t turn in a winner of … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Raging Bull (1980)

Well, after finally watching, for the first time, Martin Scorsese’s seminal 1976 film Taxi Driver (click here for my review), I decided to move on to another gaping hole in my film-watching history: Raging Bull.

I of course knew that Robert De Niro starred in the film as real-life boxer Jake La Motta.  Raging Bull follows Jake’s life for about twenty-five years, from his early days as a lean, hungry-for-a-chance boxer to his middle-age as an over-the-hill, over-weight ex-con.  As was Taxi Driver, Raging Bull is a tour de force acting performance by Robert De Niro.  (It’s amazing to me that the Robert De Niro we see today in the Meet the Parents films is the same man as this incredibly intense, powerful actor seen in these films from three decades ago.)  I suspect everyone reading this blog know the stories of Mr. De Niro’s astonishing weight-gain (during a planned hiatus in filming) so that he could portray with full emotional honesty the fat failure De Motta became after the collapse of his boxing career.  Frankly, it feels to me like a bit of overindulgent actorly nonsense that Mr. De Niro believed the only way he could portray the over-the-hill De Motta was by gaining the weight himself (rather than using any prosthetics).  I could name many great actors who have created AMAZING performances when buried under prosthetics, thus bringing all manner of often-otherworldly characters to incredible light.  And I’m not just talking about actors in sci-fi or fantasy movies.  Yes, there were some tremendous prosthetics-enhanced performances in, say, the Lord of the Rings films (John Rhys-Davies as Gimli comes to mind), but how about Orson Welles in Citizen Kane?? (Read my thoughts on Citizen Kane here.)

Be that as it may, there is something viscerally shocking when we get our first glimpse of the rotund late-in-life La Motta, knowing that the flabby form we’re seeing is Mr. De Niro’s real body.  It’s hard to believe that the lean, well-muscled boxer we saw earlier has transformed into this sorry sight, and even HARDER to believe that one actor made the same transformation in just a few months.

But there’s far more to Mr. De Niro’s performance than just the gimmick of his weight gain.  In fact, in some ways, I think all that focus on the weight gain distracts from what a phenomenally compelling performance Mr. De Niro delivers in the film.  As in Taxi Driver, Mr. De Niro’s intensity reaches out from the screen and grabs the viewer by the throat, forcing you to keep watching him, daring you to look away.  In his own way, the angry, jealous, wife-beating La Motta is just as … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Bored to Death Season 2

After tearing through the first season of HBO’s Bored to Death on DVD (click here for my review), my wife and I couldn’t wait to jump into season 2.  I’m pleased to say the second season was just as much fun as the first!

Picking up just a few months after the end of season one, Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) is still a writer living in Brooklyn who also works as an unlicensed Private Eye (getting clients from his ad on Craigslist).  Though season one ended triumphantly, things have taken something of a turn for the worst for our three heroes here at the start of season two.  Jonathan’s book was rejected by his publisher, and he’s had to take work as a night-school writing teacher (which seems like a drag, though Jonathan seems to enjoy the chance to teach and perhaps inspire other young writers).  Leah (Heather Burns) has broken up with Ray (Zach Galifianakis).  And George (Ted Danson)’s magazine has been bought by a right-wing Christian company, and he’s begun to find himself more and more marginalized by the new management.

The season kicks off with a bang, as the first episode “Escape From the Dungeon!” is absolutely hysterical and showcases everything that is great about the show.  I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the fun, but suffice it to say that the adventure culminates in Jonathan’s having to interrupt George’s meeting with his new Christian parent company while dressed in a full-body black-leather S & M “gimp” suit.  But that’s not even the funniest part!  No, that comes when George leads Jonathan out of the meeting, down the hall to his office (where he hopes to find some tools to help Jonathan out of the S & M suit he’s been locked into), and the two men hold hands while walking down the hallway.  There’s something so funny and so wonderfully sweet about that tiny moment, so in contrast to the insane circumstance we’re watching.  It’s just brilliant.

The rest of the season continues strongly from there.  You’ve gotta love these HBO short seasons — at only eight episodes long, there’s no filler.  Each of the episodes is very strong, filled with great moments.

I was a bit surprised at the show’s slight step into more-serious ground with a subplot in which George is diagnosed with prostate cancer.  It occasionally makes it a bit difficult to enjoy all the fun, but the storyline gives Ted Danson even more room to show just what a phenomenal actor he is.  There’s a scene, late in the season, in which he expresses his fear about the way he could just be “turned off” like a light-switch that is absolutely … [continued]

 

Josh Returns to the DC Animated Universe with Justice League: Doom

Justice League: Doom is the latest direct-to-DVD DC Universe animated feature.  The story is adapted from the “Tower of Babel” story-line that ran through issues #42-46 of JLA back in 1998.  Those original comics were written by Mark Waid and Dan Curtis Johnson and illustrated by Howard Porter, Drew Geraci, Pablo Raimondi, and Steve Scott.  This adaptation was written by the late Dwayne McDuffie.

In the original story, villain Ra’s al Ghul is able to take out the Justice League using strategies specifically tailored to disable or destroy each individual member of the league.  The hook of the story is the revelation of the inside-the-League source from whom Ra’s was able to attain the specific information he needed to create his stratagems.  (Every on-line review I have read of this DVD has spoiled the identity of that member of the Justice League.  I understand the reasons for doing so, since a) most comic-book fans know this story and so know who it was, and b) the identity of that Leaguer is really cool, and the story behind that betrayal is at the heart of this tale and part of what makes this such a great, fascinating story.  But I’m going to try to preserve the surprise for anyone reading this.)

Justice League: Doom is a very, very loose adaptation of the “Tower of Babel” story-line.  Though the central hook remains the same, the villain has changed (here it is the near-immortal Vandal Savage, rather than Ra’s al Ghul), many of the tactics used to attack the League members have been changed, and the villain’s ultimate goal (and his methods for achieving that goal) have changed.  After the very-faithful animated adaptations of Batman: Year One (click here for my review) and All-Star Superman (click here for my review), it came as somewhat of a surprise to me that this adaptation played so fast-and-loose with the source material.  On the one hand, I don’t think the original “Tower of Babel” story was so perfect that any change is a mistake.  Still, I was surprised by the degree to which the story was altered.

First of all, I have no idea why the villain was changed from Ra’s to Vandal Savage.  Why not use Ra’s?  He’s a terrific villain, and his connections to Batman provide a great extra layer of resonance to the “Tower of Babel” story.  (Also, since this DVD used so many of the original voices from Batman: The Animated Series and the Justice League cartoon — more on that in a minute — I would have LOVED to have seen the great David Warner reprise his role of Ra’s, who he voiced so memorably in Batman: [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Taxi Driver (1976)

Can you believe I’d never seen Taxi Driver?

I’m fairly well-seen when it comes to famous films, and I’m a big fan of Martin Scorsese.  But somehow I’d never seen Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. Well, last month I finally saw them both.  I’ll be back next week with my thoughts on Raging Bull, but for now let’s dive into Taxi Driver.

Holy cow, what a great movie!!

The film feels just as potent and dangerous as it must have felt back in 1976.  I was on edge right from the very beginning.  From the first instant we meet lonely, insomniac Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), it’s clear this young man is a time bomb just ticking down the moments until it’s going to explode.  Mr. Scorsese and Mr. De Niro’s partnership has never been more powerful than it was in this film, their focus laser-sharp on the roiling emotions of this lost young man.

Robert De Niro is simply astounding as Travis, jaw-dropingly fierce as the self-descibed “God’s lonely man.”  He seems almost gentle when we first meet him, quietly applying for a job driving a taxi.  When we see him start to somewhat haplessly woo the young campaign-worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), though, it’s more uncomfortable than comic, since it’s clear this isn’t going to end well.  We see a hint of charisma, and an intriguing intensity, when he marches into Palantine’s campaign office to ask Betsy out on a date, and watching that intensity turn brittle and then angry at the world around him is the tragedy of Taxi Driver.

The film is not a war movie, but I found it impossible to watch Taxi Driver without feeling constantly that the film was deeply rooted in the social and psychological ramifications of the Vietnam War.  Travis is a vet, and although his experiences in ‘Nam are never explicitly discussed in the film, to me that piece of backstory flavored everything I was watching unfold.  This character who is a stranger in his own skin, who had difficulty fitting in to society’s expectations, feels similar to the struggle that countless Vietnam veterans must have gone through following their return home.  That Travis also finds himself drawn towards violence feels all the more tragically unsurprising because of his Vietnam experiences.

As was often the case with Mr. De Niro’s early performances, the physicality that he brought to the part was a critical combination with his riveting intensity.  Much has been written, of course, of Mr. De Niro’s dramatic weight gain to depict the late-in-life Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, but in Taxi Driver Mr. De Niro brings exactly the opposite physical presence.  There’s a scene late in the film, … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: The War Room (1993)

April 13th, 2012
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After watching Game Change (click here for my review), I was in the mood for another political film, so I decided to check out the handsome new Criterion Collection blu-ray release of The War Room. This 1993 documentary, directed by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, chronicles Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign.  Specifically, the film focuses on the campaign’s “war room” in Arkansas, headed by Lead Strategist James Carville and Communications Director George Stephanopoulos.

The War Room is an unusual documentary in that there is no narration, and no effort is made to label (with a caption or chiron) or otherwise identify any of the characters on screen.  Some clever editing (of news footage, newspaper headlines, etc.) in the opening minutes provides some back-story and context (giving the viewer a hot-knife-through-butter run-through of Clinton’s victories in the Democratic primaries) and then the film settles into a fly-on-the-wall approach.  Much of the footage in the documentary was filmed in the campaign’s war room in Little Rock, and with a you-are-there approach the filmmakers drop the viewer into the campaign HQ to watch events unfold.

It’s a fascinating approach.  There were certainly occasions when I would have appreciated the occasional extra bit of explanation or identification of a character on screen.  I’m fairly well-versed politically, and I certainly recognized Mr. Carville and Mr. Stephanopoulos, as well as Paul Begala, Dee Dee Myers, Mary Matalin, and others, but there were plenty of other characters who we see on-screen who I didn’t know, and I would have loved for them to have been identified.  On the other-hand, the fly-on-the-wall approach is very visceral and immersive.  There’s something compelling in watching the campaign staff converse and joke and strategize together, without any obvious self-consciousness about being filmed.  It feels alluringly intrusive somehow, like we’re watching something we’re not meant to see.

The filmmakers weren’t given access to Bill Clinton, which forced them to focus on his campaign staff instead, but you don’t miss his presence.  For the one thing, the film is put together in such a way  that what snippets the filmmakers did have of Mr. Clinton are well-integrated into the finished film.  (I’m not sure, though, how they managed to get the candid shots of Mr. Clinton on the phone in a t-shirt that open the film…!)  And for another, Mr. Carville  and Mr. Stephanopoulos are fascinating enough characters that they more than carry the focus of the proceedings.  It’s a hoot to watch them work.  There’s an extended sequence when the campaign staff think they have footage that proves that the Bush campaign was spending money to print Bush/Quayle signs outside of the UUnited States.  That particular political story winds … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: RKO 281 (1999)

Included in the spectacular 70th Anniversary blu-ray set of Citizen Kane (click here for my review, in case you missed it!) is HBO’s 1999 mini-series chronicling the troubled production of Citizen Kane, called RKO 281.  (RKO 281 was the film’s production code — RKO being the name of the studio.)  I think it’s very cool that this film was included in the Kane set, and I was particularly excited because I’ve been wanting to re-watch this HBO film for years.

The film boasts a strong cast.  Liev Schreiber stars as Orson Welles.  I was surprised that Mr. Schreiber eschewed any of the grand Wellesian mannerisms that I’ve seen so many actors playing Welles use (such as Angus Macfadyen in Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rockclick here for my review — or Christian McKay in Me and Orson Wellesclick here for my review).  Liev plays the role very straight — his Orson seems like a normal human being (albeit one who is at times brilliant and at times intensely frustrating, and often both).  As the film progressed, I found myself quite taken with this interpretation.  Mr. Schreiber focuses our attention on Mr. Welles’ struggles to live up to his wunderkind reputation, and he shows us Welles’ incredible stubbornness and his extraordinary command of his skills as an actor.  He also doesn’t hesitate to show the ease with which his interpretation of Welles will use manipulation of all sorts to get what he wants.

John Malkovich plays Orson’s on-and-off buddy Herman Mankiewicz, who worked with Welles on creating the story for Kane and who wrote several drafts of the screenplay (and who would latter struggle with Mr. Welles over who should get the credit for that screenplay).  Mr. Malkovich is great fun in the role, and he has terrific chemistry with Liev Schreiber’s Welles.  The two men are like oil and water, which is what makes their scenes together so much fun.  (It feels to me like there’s been a lot of playing with reality to cast Welles and Mankiewicz as such close friends, but their relationship works in the film so I can’t really complain.)  James Cromwell plays William Randolph Hearst — this was perfect casting.  For the first half of the film Mr. Cromwell doesn’t have much to do other than glower and say nasty things about Welles, but when the focus shifts towards Hearst in the film’s second half, he really gets to dig his teeth into the material.  There are some great scenes in which Hearst results to some ferociously nasty tactics in order to block the release of of Citizen Kane, and Mr. Cromwell is terrific in those scenes in … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Citizen Kane (1941)

The 70th Anniversary blu-ray set of Citizen Kane topped my Best DVDs of 2011 list, even though back in January I was still in the process of making my way through the expansive three-disc set.  Over the last few months I’ve had a great time watching the film, listening to all the commentary tracks, and making my way through all the special features (including the 1995 Oscar-nominated feature-length documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane and HBO’s 1999 film about Kane’s troubled production, RKO 281). Citizen Kane is considered by many to be the best movie ever made, and while it’s not my personal favorite film of all time, it’s a film that I really, really love.  More than seventy years after it was made, Citizen Kane remains a magnificent film, and the blu-ray set is phenomenal.

I feel a bit under-qualified to write about Citizen Kane. The film has been the subject of so much scrutiny and attention over the past seventy years, and film scholars far more knowledgeable than I have written voluminous tomes about the movie.  The two commentary tracks on the blu-ray set, by Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich, are both two-hour-long scholarly dissections of Kane above anything I could hope to write.

I first saw Citizen Kane in a film architecture class I took while at college.  The course was a history of set-design in film, but it was also a history of the movies themselves.  Each week the professor screened several films on the big-screen (using a projector in one of the lecture halls).  I encountered quite a few major films for the first time through that class (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Battleship Potemkin, and many more), and Citizen Kane was among them.  I was smitten with Kane immediately.  I’m sure it helped that my first viewing was on such a large screen, where I could really soak in Orson Welles’ and Gregg Toland’s marvelously innovative cinematography.  I have seen the film many times since then, and I never fail to be impressed and engrossed.  This new blu-ray edition is absolutely gorgeous.  The film is dazzlingly pristine, yet not scrubbed so clean that it loses its character.  (Don’t judge the image quality by the opening few minutes — that newsreel footage is SUPPOSED to look crummy!)

I’m a sci-fi nut and I love big visual effects films, so it’s no surprise that one of my favorite aspects of Citizen Kane is the extraordinary depth and variety of visual effects trickery used by Mr. Welles to create the look of the film.  Citizen Kane is a visual effects movie, make no mistake!  In just the opening shot alone (the slow … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2011: Horrible Bosses

March 27th, 2012
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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]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 6): Body Double (1984)

Wow.  Coming off the one-two punch of Blow Out (click here for my review) and Scarface (click here for my review), two Brain De Palma films that I quite enjoyed, comes 1984′s Body Double. This is a terrible movie, and by far the worst of the six De Palma films I have watched so far.

Craig Wasson plays Jake Scully, a down-on-his luck actor who just can’t seem to catch a break.  He gets fired from the movie he’s working on, then catches his girlfriend sleeping with another guy.  Things start to look up, though, when a fellow actor tells Jake that he can stay in the swank house in which he’s been house-sitting.  The house’s best feature?  The sexy housewife next-door, who likes to do an erotic dance in her lingerie, in plain view of the window, every night at the same time.  After several nights watching her, Jake becomes somewhat obsessed, eventually spending an afternoon following the woman all around the city.  His infatuation turns to frantic concern, though, when he starts to suspect that someone else has been following her, and is out to do her harm.

Body Double is basically an R-rated retelling of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. That actually sounds like it could be a decently entertaining idea, but I found Body Double to be a complete bore from start to finish.

The film’s biggest problem is that Craig Wasson is a totally uninteresting milquetoast character.  Part of that is the fault of the script, which wastes no chance to portray Jake as a total loser.  But Mr. Wasson’s performance is just terrible.  There’s a scene, early on, after he discovers his girlfriend having sex with another guy, when Jake heads to a bar to have a drink.  He starts drinking heavily and barking at the bartender.  The implication is that Jake has hit the bottle before, and I guess we’re supposed to think that this is a darker guy, with more internal demons, than we’ve heretofore suspected.  But Jake’s sudden turn into grumpy drunkenness, rather than giving extra layers to the character, just comes of as laughably ridiculous.  It’s like a kid pretending to be a tough guy.

Things don’t get better from there, and whether I was watching Jake floundering through the weirdest acting class I’ve ever seen or making puppy-dog eyes at the beautiful woman next-door, I was totally disconnected from the character.

Body Double is supposed to be an erotic thriller, but as with all of Mr. De Palma’s films I found the sex and nudity to be totally over-done to the point of silliness.  I could imagine the film containing some creepy/sexy scenes of a guy … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 5): Scarface (1983)

And so at last we arrive, in my journey through the films of Brian De Palma, to one of his films which I had already seen: Scarface. I watched this film several times back when I was in college, though I don’t think I’ve seen it much, if at all, in the last decade.

Just as I felt that Blow Out (click here for my review) was a large leap forward for Mr. De Palma from his earlier films, Scarface represents another huge jump in his prowess as a filmmaker.  Of all the De Palma films which I have seen so far, Scarface is the one that has aged the best.  There are a few moments when the somewhat over-wrought soundtrack dates the film, for me, but otherwise this movie feels just as vital and dynamic as a film made this year, rather than one that is almost three decades old.

Scarface is a live-wire of a film — a visceral, go-for-the-gut primal scream of a movie, filled with all the passion and excesses of it’s main characters.  But for a film that was shocking at the time of its release for its graphic violence, I must say I found Scarface to be the most restrained of all the De Palma movies I have watched so far, at least until the lunatic orgy of violence at the film’s climax.

Scarface, restrained?  OK, I realize that might seem to be an absurd comment, but hear me out.  Yes, Scarface is incredibly violent.  But my major complaint about Mr. De Palma’s films so far in my viewing project has been that there has been so much extreme content (mostly of the sexual/nudity variety) that seemed totally gratuitous to me.  I think those films would have been stronger films had some of the gauzy shower scenes, for example, been cut out, because those scenes just make me laugh or shake my head, pulling me out of the movie I was watching.

But in Scarface, I don’t feel the violence is gratuitous, at least not until the very end.  Let’s take one of the film’s most shocking scenes: Tony Montana’s botched money-for-dope exchange in a Miami hotel room which results in a bloodbath.  When I think of Scarface, I think of this scene even more than the “say hello to my little friend” climax.  It made an enormous impact on me when I first saw the film, and even knowing exactly what’s coming when I watch it now, I still find it to be incredibly gripping — tense and horrifying.  It’s terribly violent, but let me make two points.  One, the scene is not actually as on-the-screen gruesome as you might remember.  … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2011: The Guard

March 14th, 2012
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I had pretty much finished putting together my Best Films of 2011 list when I saw The Guard, but the film was so good that I had to rework my list to add it in!  I noted in my list that The Guard was the last addition, and that I’d be writing more about the film soon.  That time has come!

This little Irish film was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, and features Brendan Gleeson in the role of his career as the Irish Garda (policeman) Gerry Boyle.  Gerry has created a fine if unremarkable life for himself as the apparent master of a teensy little corner of Ireland.  He knows the people — both his fellow cops and the various criminals — and he knows the land.  But much larger problems land on his doorstep when a gang of drug-smugglers arrive, leading to murders and the involvement of the FBI, personified by the by-the-book agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle).  The two wildly different men are oil and water, but they must pool their efforts in order to stop the bad guys.

Yes, it’s a buddy-cop movie, but a deliriously unique, off-color one!

Mr. Gleeson commands the screen with his presence.  The gruff, profane, incredibly un-PC Doyle is an astounding creation, and without question one of the finest acting performances of the year.  (No surprise, Mr. Gleeson was entirely ignored by the Academy.)  But who cares about the Oscars — we have this film and what more do we need.  Mr. Gleeson is an absolute riot to watch — Doyle is blunt and to the point, always saying what he’s thinking no matter how many feathers he ruffles.  In fact, he positively delights in the ruffling of feathers — the more the merrier, particularly if he’s dealing with anyone who could be considered an authority figure.  He says some completely outrageous things in the film — particularly to the African-American Agent Everett.  But the twinkle in Mr. Gleeson’s eye makes clear that Doyle is only saying those things to get a reaction out of whoever he’s speaking to.  It’s his way of testing the measure of the people around him, be they cop or criminal.  He’s a small-town hick, but he’s more than happy to play up that cliche image of himself if it serves his purpose.  He is honest and noble, but willing to bend the rules of procedure without a second thought in order to do what he feels is right.  Doyle is a magnificent character, and Mr. Gleeson has never been better.

Don Cheadle has the far less showy job as the straight-man, but although his is a quieter, more subtle performance, it’s integral … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2011: Our Idiot Brother

March 12th, 2012
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In the film Our Idiot Brother, Paul Rudd plays the titular idiot, Ned Rochlin.  Ned is an extremely sweet, well-meaning goofball, but he has an uncanny knack for wreaking unintentional havoc on the lives of everyone he encounters — along with his own!  When we first meet him, he’s being busted for selling pot to a police officer — who solicited him IN UNIFORM!  It’s a great introduction to Ned, because not only do we see that he is pretty naive and clueless, but we also see clearly his inherent decency.  He takes pity on the officer who comes to him with a sob story of how tough his life has been, which is why Ned agrees to sell him some pot.  Paul Rudd brings his 100-watt smile and every ounce of his powerful likability to the role, and it’s a great fit for his particular charms and skilled comedic mannerisms.

But Our Idiot Brother isn’t just about Ned, the idiot.  It’s also about the “Our” in the title — that being Ned’s three sisters, played by Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, and Emily Mortimer.  The three women are extraordinarily well-cast, and this assemblage of comedic and dramatic powerhouses is a huge part of what gives Our Idiot Brother it’s charm.

Elizabeth Banks plays Miranda.  She’s a fast-talking, city-living journalist for Vanity Fair. She’s struggling to make her breakthrough at the magazine, and isn’t above using some unscrupulous methods to do so.  She and her neighbor Jeremy (Adam Scott, so brilliant on Party Down and these days on Parks and Recreation) are clearly perfect for one another, though Ned is the only one of the three of them who can see that.  Zooey Deschanel plays Natalie, whose hippie lifestyle involves her living in a commune-style apartment with her girlfriend, Cindy (Rashida Jones, just as much fun and as brilliantly cast as the actresses playing the three sisters) and several other roommates.  Emily Mortimer plays Liz, a stay-at-home mom married to Dylan (Steve Coogan, with his smarminess turned up to eleven, which of course only makes him more entertaining), a documentary filmmaker who is cheating on her with the Russian dancer who is the subject of his latest film.

All three women (four, if you could Rashida Jones’ Cindy, and we really should) are fascinating, strong, sharply-drawn characters.  The film wouldn’t work if they weren’t as interesting as they all are.  These women are all fully-realized people, with strengths and flaws.  As Ned bounds into their lives, his unflinching honesty results, with unswerving consistency, in overturning the carefully-constructed patterns of each of their lives.

Our Idiot Brother is very funny, but there are dramatic aspects to the story as well, and director … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 4): Blow Out (1981)

After some delay (sorry about that!) we return to my Days of De Palma series, exploring the films of Brian De Palma!

Much has been written about the way in which Brian De Palma’s films feel heavily influenced by the work of Alfred Hitchcock.  Already in my De Palma viewing project, I have seen the ways in which this is so.  But Mr. De Palma’s 1981 film, Blow Out, isn’t so much a Hitchcock film as it is a more lurid, mainstream re-telling of Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent 1974 film The Conversation.

In Blow Out, John Travolta (who had a very small role in Mr. De Palma’s film Carrie) plays Jack Terry, who works as a sound-guy on shlocky B-grade movies.  One evening, Jack is out on a bridge recording sound (they need better “wind” for their horror picture) when he witnesses a terrible car accident, in which a vehicle careens off the road and into the water.  Jack dives in and rescues a woman, Sally (Nancy Allen, in yet another De Palma film after Carrie and Dressed to Kill), but the driver perishes.  When said driver is revealed to be a popular Presidential candidate, his people urge Jack to forget he was ever there and never speak to anyone about the woman in the car, so as not to sully the now-dead politician’s reputation.  The story the press reports is that the candidate’s car suffered a fatal blow-out which caused it to crash off the road, but Jack’s sound-recording of the event leads him to suspect that he can hear a gunshot the instant before the blow-out — meaning the man was murdered.

The start of the film had me very worried.  The film begins with a long point-of-view shot of a stalker lurking outside some sort of women’s dormitories.  We’re given just the sort of cheap thrills and gratuitous nudity that has so bugged me in Mr. De Palma’s films so far.  Of course, this dorm is filled with women having sex, women frolicking in their underwear in full view of the windows, a woman lying on a couch masturbating, women showering, etc.  The whole thing is eventually revealed to be a movie within-the-movie — we’re actually watching the cheesy horror film that Jack and his boss are working on.  It’s supposed to be a joke, but the gag would be a lot funnier if this sort of gratuitous exploitation wasn’t EXACTLY the sort of stuff Mr. De Palma’s films have been jam-packed with, up to this point!

Luckily, things pick up from there.  Blow Out contains some of the most effectively tense sequences of any of Mr. De Palma’s films that I have seen … [continued]

 

Catching up on 2011: The Help

March 7th, 2012
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In preparing to write my Top 15 Movies of 2011 list, I made an effort to watch as many 2011 films as I possibly could.   I’ve already written about many of those movies here on the site, but there were many that I saw that I haven’t had a chance to write about yet.  I’ll be trying to remedy that with my “Catching up on 2011″ series this week and next.

Let’s start with The Help, the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s acclaimed novel.

As I’m sure most of you know, the novel and the film depict the lives of several African American maids working in wealthy white homes in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s.  The story is set in motion when the young, white Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan returns home to Jackson after finishing college.  After several years away, Skeeter is able to see her town in a new light, and she finds herself shocked at the way the African American “help” is treated by her friends and neighbors, and even by her own mother.  Skeeter’s path eventually crosses with two fascinating African American women, Aibilene Clark (played by Viola Davis) and her friend Minny Jackson (played by Octavia Spencer).

I haven’t read the novel, so my evaluation of The Help is based entirely on the film.  For the most part, I found the movie, which was adapted and directed by Ms. Stockett’s friend Tate Taylor, to be entertaining albeit a bit slight.  There is no question that the story of the generations of African American women who worked as maids/house-keepers/etc. to affluent white families in the South is an important subject.  And I respect the desire by Ms. Stockett and the filmmakers to try to wrap that story in as entertaining a package as possible, so that while we’ll hopefully feel the emotion of the story, we won’t be too depressed by too “heavy” a presentation of the subject-matter.

But I think the filmmakers erred in going a bit too far into the light and fluffy side of town.  (And while it seems to me this is likely a flaw of the source material, as I wrote before I can’t say for sure having not read the book.)  For instance (and there are some small spoilers ahead, but even I knew of this plot twist before watching the movie, without having read the book), there’s the whole matter of the shit-pie that Minny baked for Hilly (played in the film by Bryce Dallas Howard).  Quite a lot of the film’s story hangs on that event, as Hilly’s desire to cover it up is the leverage that Minny and the maids have over her.  But the event is such … [continued]

 

Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Next Level

March 5th, 2012
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I own every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation on DVD.  So does that make me a sucker for purchasing Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Next Level, a three-episode sampler blu-ray disc of the series’ conversion to high definition?  Well, probably.  But I just couldn’t resist checking out the series’ much-ballyhooed blu-ray high-definition upgrade.  And I was not disappointed!!

Some back-story: Many wondered whether Star Trek: The Next Generation would ever see a blu-ray release, and if it did, what sort of a mess it would look like.  Because while the show was shot on film (which of course contains the resolution necessary to look dynamite on blu-ray), Next Gen was edited on video and the special effects were created on video in standard-def.  To up-convert that standard-definition footage would most likely look, well, probably pretty darn dismal.  So CBS and Paramount have decided to take a radically unprecedented step.

A team lead by Michael and Denise Okuda (vidual effects geniuses who have been involved with Star Trek since all the way back to “Encounter at Farpoint,” the pilot episode of Next Gen) have gone back to the original film elements (which, thank heavens, have all been preserved and meticulously archived by Paramount) to re-edit all of the episodes from the ground up and re-composite every single one of the visual effects sequences (every outer-space shot, every transporter beam, every phaser, etc. etc. etc.) in high definition.  The amount of work that will be needed to do that for each and every one of the 176 episodes of Next Gen is mind-boggling.  (For more information on this process, click here for a great interview with Michael and Denise Okuda or here for a detailed blog entry by Michael Okuda.)

Trek fans know that The Original Series was already released on blu-ray a few years back.  That was apparently a much easier job because the episodes were shot on film and edited on film, meaning that the completed, edited episodes could then be scanned at high-def for the blu-ray release.  (That’s in contrast to Next Gen that was edited on VIDEO and so the actual episodes only existed in standard-def.)  Before the blu-ray release, the Okudas were also involved in a project to upgrade the Original Series episodes with new, snazzy CGI effects.  (These revamped episodes were shown in syndication for about a year, before the blu-ray release.)

For that project, the Okudas and their team had carte blanche to create entirely new visual effects.  So whereas an episode from 1967 might have used the same stock shot of the U.S.S. Enterprise five times, for the revamped versions those shots would be replaced with five new, … [continued]

 

Days of Terrence Malick (Part 4): The Tree of Life (2011)

Yes, yes, I know my “Days of De Palma” series has been missing for several weeks.  Rest assured, I’ve already seen and written about several more Brian De Palma films, and those reviews will be posted on the site for the next several Fridays in a row.  But for now, as part of my “Catching up on 2011″ project, it’s time at last to circle back to my “Days of Terrence Malick” series to write about his 2011 film The Tree of Life.

Click here for “Days of Terrence Malick” Part 1: The Thin Red Line (1998), here for Part 2: Badlands (1973), and here for Part 3: Days of Heaven (1978).

The Tree of Life is about, well, that’s sort of hard to say.  The bulk of the film chronicles the life of an American family living in Texas in the 1950s.  Brad Pitt plays the stern father of three boys, and Jessica Chastain (having quite a break-out year after also starring in The Help) plays his wife, the sensitive, loving mother.  We also get glimpses of one of those boys as an adult, played by Sean Penn.  We also witness the creation of the world and an extensive sequence set in the time of the dinosaurs… as well as the apparent ultimate destruction of the Earth and a possible glimpse into the afterlife.

I feel like I might sound somewhat dismissive of the film in the way I wrote that plot summary, and that’s not really fair.  The Tree of Life is a staggeringly beautiful film, and a staggeringly original one.  I can’t think of any other film I’ve ever seen in my life that is at all similar to this film (except perhaps some of Mr. Malick’s prior films).  Narrative and character development are apparently inconsequential to Mr. Malick.  The entire film, start-to-finish, is a montage.  Mr. Malick weaves imagery and sound together in the way of an artisan working an enormous loom.  The film has a stream-of-consciousness feel to it, in the fashion of memories that slide together in one’s mind as one thought leads to another recollection leads to another, with no regard for chronological consistency or continuity.  What a bizarre, wonderfully unique way to make a movie!  When The Tree of Life delights it’s in realizing what a unique creation one is watching unfold, and allowing oneself to be swept along by the river of gorgeous imagery of life (and death).

But while The Tree of Life is beautiful and original and transporting, I also found it to be deathly dull and incredibly frustrating.  I really had to force myself to keep watching during the last hour.  I was enjoyably … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Bored to Death Season 1!

What a terrific show!

I feel like I’ve been discovering a wealth of TV show genius on DVD recently: Party Down (click here for my review of season 1, and here for my review of season 2), Louie (click here for my review of season 1), Boardwalk Empire (I am making my way through season 1) and now Bored to Death!

Created by Jonathan Ames (who also wrote or co-wrote all of the episodes), the series stars Jason Schwartzman as a fictionalized Jonathan Ames, Zach Galifianakis, and Ted Danson.  The trio are marvelous, and the wonderful way those three marvelous actors inhabit their three characters, and the way the three totally different men are drawn together over the course of the season provides the heart of the show and the main reason why I found it so enjoyable.

Jason Schwartzman plays Jonathan Ames.  Like the show’s creator with the same name, he is a writer living in Brooklyn.  Unlike the show’s creator, boredom crossed with a mounting desperation at his inability to start work on his second novel prompts this Jonathan Ames to post an ad on Craigslist advertising himself as an unlicensed detective.  To his surprise, he begins getting calls from people asking for his help.  To his even greater surprise, he finds himself throughly enjoying this new persona he’s able to create for himself, and the fact that, in his bumbling way, he’s actually passably good at being a Private Eye!

Ted Danson plays Jonathan’s mentor, George Christopher.  The wealthy, dapper George is the editor of a prominent New York Magazine.  I was blown away by Mr. Danson’s performance — he might be my very favorite aspect of this series.  I of course loved Mr. Danson’s work on Cheers back in the day, and more recently he’s been entertainingly acerbic on Curb Your Enthusiasm.  But, hang onto your butts, George Christopher may just be his best role.  Am I overstating things?  Well, probably.  But Mr. Danson is lovable and hysterical as George, a man who is on the one hand at the height of the New York City intellectual elite, but also incredibly childish — innocent and filled with child-like glee at everything that Jonathan is involved in.  Mr. Danson brings incredible joie de vivre to every scene he plays, and it’s quite beguiling.

The final third of this trifecta is made up of Zach Galifianakis as Ray, Jonathan’s schlubby comic book artist Ray.  Ray is as much a man-child as George (and, I suppose, as Jonathan himself), though far less successful, and with far less self-confidence.  Where George is suave, Ray is a bull in a china shop.  But he, too, … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Louie Season One

February 13th, 2012
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I discovered the comedian Louis C.K. when he appeared in a recurring role during the second season of Parks and Recreation, and I fell in love with his work after watching his concert film, Hilarious. I’ve subsequently devoured all of his stand-up comedy CDs that I could get my hands on.  I knew that Louis C.K. had a show on FX, as well, and as as I started reading the rave reviews for the show’s second season over the past few months, I knew that this was something I had to track down.  I’m so pleased that I did!

The structure of Louie resembles that of early Seinfeld episodes.  Louis C.K. plays Louie, a fictionalized version of himself: a divorced stand-up comedian with two kids.  The narrative of each episode is punctuated with several clips from Louie’s stand-up routines, which usually have a tangential connection to the stories being told.

But Louie is a far weirder concoction than Seinfeld, and I love it for that.  For one thing, whereas Seinfeld became known for it’s densely plotted, clockwork-like stories, many episodes of Louie barely have any plot to speak of.  Episodes often consist of two or three extended vignettes that have entirely nothing to do with one another.  It’s bizarre, and quite off-putting to anyone weaned on the familiar rhythms of the sitcom.  But the technique is so determinedly idiosyncratic that I find it makes the show extremely endearing.

Louie is, often, extremely hilarious.  In particular, I find Louis C.K.’s stand-up bits to be phenomenal.  These stand-up routines (and they’re usually lengthier, meatier bits than the short snippets of stand-up seen in Seinfeld episodes) tend to be the highlight of the episodes for me.  But the show is unafraid to have extended sequences that are not funny at all.  Sometimes that’s because we’re watching something serious (such as the lengthy conversation, right at the start of the second episode, between Louie and his friends as to whether it’s OK for him to use the word “faggot” in his stand-up routine).  Sometimes it’s because we’re watching something teeth-grindingly awkward (such as some of Louie’s failed dating experiences).

The show doesn’t shy away from digging deeply into serious issues.  The episode “God” is a notable example, in which we watch an extended flashback of a brutally unpleasant experience young Louie had at a Catholic religious school.  By the way, this episode is particularly notable for the way in which we see the real Louis C.K. throwing traditional notions of structure right out the window.  The flashback sequence takes up almost the entire run-time of the episode, which is a surprising and unusual choice.  The episode also raised some eyebrows for Louis’ casting of … [continued]

 

The Top 10 DVDs/Blu-Rays of 2011!

Click here for my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2011: part one, part two, and part three, and here for my list of the Top 15 Comic Book Series of 2011: part one, and part two.

Now let’s dig into my list of the Top 10 DVDs/Blu-Rays of 2011!

10.  The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret: Series One As a huge fan of Arrested Development, this six-episode IFC series that reunited Will Arnett (Gob Bluth) and David Cross (Tobias Funke) was something of a disappointment.  More agonizingly awkward than actually funny, it’s on this list because that fact that this weird, short little series exists at all on DVD is one of the reasons that I love this format!  I had missed this series when it aired on IFC, so I was so pleased that it was released on DVD.  The show isn’t without merit, but it’s nowhere near the genius of the late, great (and now possible resurrected!) Arrested Development.

9.  Marvel’s super-hero movie blu-rays: Thor, Captain America: The First Adventure, and X-Men: First Class I praised these three Marvel super-hero movies in my list of the Top 10 Movies of 2011, and I was equally taken by their blu-ray releases.  Not only do all three films look absolutely gorgeous on blu-ray, but all three are accompanied by some fairly in-depth featurettes exploring all aspects of the films’ production.  None of these are super-elaborate special editions, and I do wish that, for all of these films, the featurettes had been edited together into one longer, comprehensive making-of documentary.  But these are very, very solid releases, with a lot for fans of these films to dig into.  Extra props for the wonderful “Marvel One-Shot” shorts included on the Thor and Captain America discs, that further connect the Marvel films leading up to The Avengers.

8.  Louie: Season 1 I’d been reading about this show for a while, and having now finally watched the season one set I can say that this show deserves all the praise it’s been getting, and more.  In it’s structure, the show resembles Seinfeld: clips of Louie C. K. performing stand-up are intercut with vignettes of his life.  But in other respects the show is the exact opposite of Seinfeld.  Whereas on Seinfeld all of the story-lines would wind up beautifully dovetailing by the end, on Louie the individual scenes on the show often have little or nothing to do with one another.  We’ll watch a seven-minute sequence of Louie and his buddies playing poker, and then after some more stand-up we’ll shift to an entirely different scene … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2011: Midnight in Paris

January 13th, 2012
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At this point in Woody Allen’s amazing career (and whether you love or loathe the filmmaker himself, you must acknowedge that the man’s writing and directing a film a year for the last forty-some odd years is an amazing achievement) I think that my level of enjoyment of his new films rests largely on which side of the familiar I feel his new films land.

Many critics object to the been-there, done-that feel that they get from Woody’s films these days. And I certainly feel that way myself, sometimes. But, on the other hand, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a great artist continuing to explore certain themes or ideas throughout his work. Painters do that, as do musicians, so why not filmmakers?

Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris, opens to a gorgeous montage of images of Paris, set to a piece of jazz music. This is a device that Mr. Allen has used before in his films, most notably in the opening to Manhattan (click here for my review of that seminal film), in which we’re presented with a montage of images of New York City, set to a wonderful piece of music by George Gershwin. Watching the opening of Midnight in Paris, one might sigh and say, “been-there, done-that, this is just the same as the opening of Manhattan.” But, despite the similarity, I still loved this device as a way to open the film. It felt like a stylistic echo of Mr. Allen’s previous work in a way that was like spoons fitting comfortably together in a drawer, rather than repetition done by an artist out of ideas. (It helps that the images of Paris in the opening to Midnight in Paris are so beautiful, and the jazz music so wonderful.)

On the other hand, when we’re presented with scenes, in the early part of the film, in which we meet Gil (Owen Wilson)’s shrewish wife Inez (Rachel McAdams) who is hassling him about his pursuit of “artistic integrity” and who thinks he should just relax and take the easy pay-check (that his Hollywood screenwriting job affords), or when the two argue about Paul (Michael Sheen), with whom Inez is enchanted but who Paul dismisses as an airhead intellectual, I felt that we were on the BAD side of the familiar.

I’ve seen those character types, and those arguments, time and time again in Woody Allen’s films, and I was disappointed to see those same “talking points” returned to here. These character dynamics were interesting to me in Woody’s films from thirty years ago, but now, to me, they feel played out. I would have rather seen Mr. Allen push himself a little … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979)

January 6th, 2012
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I’m very excited for the new film adaptation, starring Gary Oldman, of John le Carré’s 1974 spy novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. (I haven’t seen the film yet, but really hope to get to it soon.)  But the release of this new film adaptation spurred me to at last track down something that had been on my “to-watch” list for years: the BBC’s 1979 six-part television adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring none other than Sir Alec Guinness in the lead role as George Smiley.

(I wrote six parts because that was how the show was presented in the DVD that I have.  I am aware that the show was aired in seven parts on the BBC, and re-edited into six parts for the American release back in 1980.  I actually didn’t know that until reading up on the mini-series after I’d watched it and, while watching it, I didn’t notice anything that would have lead me to suspect that the series had been re-edited.  Nothing seemed to be truncated, and the end-points of each of the six episodes felt natural to me.  In hindsight, the film-purist part of me wishes I’d seen the original British seven-part version, but the six-part American version certainly worked for me so I have no complaints.)

George Smiley is a getting-on-in-years British intelligence expert who was forced out of the British secret intelligence service (which all the characters refer to as “the circus”) following a power-play in which his mentor, the head of the agency who was known as Control, was pushed out.  But Smiley is brought back into the game when a government official becomes aware of the existence of a possible mole deep within the Circus.  It turns out that Control had been aware of the existence of the mole, and had narrowed down the possibilities to five suspects, nicknamed “tinker,” “tailor,” “soldier,” “poorman,” and “beggarman” (from the words of a British children’s rhyme).  Smiley is given the near-impossible task of spying on the spy-masters.  He must infiltrate the circus and uncover the identity of the mole, all under the noses of the current head officers of the circus, any of whom could be the mole.

I absolutely adored this mini-series, but it’s not for the casual viewer.  One has to pay very close attention to the story to suss out who everyone is and what exactly is happening.  Although it’s very languidly paced, the mini-series doesn’t stop to hold the viewer’s hand to explain who the different characters are, or what the heck they’re talking about.  All of the information you need to understand the story is there, but the viewer has to do a lot of the work to … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 3): Dressed to Kill (1980)

Click here for my thoughts on Carrie (1976) and here for my thoughts on The Fury (1978)!

Well, one thing’s for sure: the opening of Dressed to Kill isn’t one I’m going to be forgetting any time soon.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but an extended shower scene featuring full frontal nudity of the lead character (played by Angie Dickinson, though apparently the actual nude body on display was that of a body double) who, after getting herself nice and soaped up, begins masturbating and is then surprised and raped.

Oh, it all turns out to be a dream, but it’s an eye-opening sequence and that’s putting it mildly.  In my review of Carrie, I commented that I felt the opening shower scene was totally gratuitous and really weakened what was otherwise a strong start to the film.  Well, this opening shower scene is WAY more graphic (in terms of the nudity shown), and while it feels a bit more of a piece with the erotic thriller that follows, it still feels totally gratuitous.  In mean, it isn’t even an event that actually HAPPENS in the film, it’s just a dream!  I suppose one could suggest that the dream is an introduction to the weird sexual inner life of Angie Dickinson’s character, Kate.  And the concept of dreams and the line between fantasy and reality is a major theme of the film.  But it’s hard to argue that this opening isn’t just a way to start one’s movie off with a bang and titillate the audience.  I guess that’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but (and I made the same comment about Carrie), it makes it hard to take the rest of the movie seriously.

Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is a wealthy housewife unsatisfied by her husband.  She admits her desire to have an affair to her psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), and eventually does pick up an unnamed guy in a museum.  I’m reluctant to spoil what happens next, so I’ll just say that a spree of sex-related murders begins, and eventually a call-girl, Liz (Nancy Allen, returning from Carrie) and Kate’s young son, Peter (Keith Gordon) team up to try to stop the killer.

Angie Dickinson is terrific in the film, with her star-wattage turned up high.  She’s electric in her early scene in Dr. Elliott’s office, and also in the extended near-wordless sequence in which she picks up a guy (or allows herself to be picked up) in the museum.  It’s great fun to see Michael Caine in the film, and he brings great dignity and presence to the role of Dr. Elliott.  Having these two movie-stars in the film really elevates the often … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Party Down Season Two!

December 26th, 2011
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Last month I wrote about the terrific first season of Party Down. I wasted little time in devouring the show’s second season, as well.  Sadly, these two short seasons represent the entire run of the show, but I can’t recommend them highly enough to you.

To re-cap, Party Down focuses on the sad-sack employees of Party Down, a small Hollywood catering business.  Pretty much every single one of the Party Down staff are wannabe actors, hoping for their big break while toiling away at a menial job they detest.  The genius of the show’s structure is that every episode is set at a different Party Down event/party.  So each episode becomes its own self-contained little movie, with totally different locations and guest-stars.  It’s a brilliant structure for a TV show, and one that could have provided endless story-telling opportunities.  Sadly that was not to be.

Season two of Party Down begins a few months after the end of season one.  Ron (Ken Marino)’s Soup R Crackers franchise has failed, and he slinks back to Party Down as a depressed, angry slacker.  With Henry (Adam Scott) now team leader, the first few episodes of the season revels in the reversal-of-roles.  (Now Ron is the difficult one, and Henry is the exasperated boss trying to keep him and the rest of their motley crew in line.)

The only major cast change is that Jane Lynch had left the series (to appear in Glee), so season two introduces us to a new character Lydia (Megan Mullally).  Ms. Mullally is phenomenal as the loopily deranged Hollywood mom, trying to guide her pre-teen daughter to super-stardom.  The show’s creators wisely chose to create an entirely different character from Lynch’s Constance.  While I missed Jane Lynch, of course, Megan Mullally is so entertaining that I quickly accepted her addition to the cast.

Season two of Party Down again blesses us with some terrific guest-stars.  J.K. Simmons, Joey Lauren Adams, and Kristen Bell all return from season one.  Dave (Gruber) Allen (guidance counselor Jeff Rosso on Freaks and Geeks) gives a memorable turn as a sci-fi author having a brush with Hollywood.  But the season’s best guest star, and the star of arguably the season’s best episode, is Steve Guttenberg.  That’s right, Police Academy’s Steve Guttenberg.  In the episode “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday,” Mr. Guttenberg hires the Party Down crew to cater his birthday.  But his friends throw him a surprise party the day before, and he forgets to cancel the booking.  So when Party Down shows up at his house, Mr. Guttenberg (playing himself) decides to invite the gang into his house to have a party with him.  It’s a crazy premise, but the half-hour … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 2): The Fury (1978)

My journey back through the films of Brian De Palma continues!  Click here for my thoughts on Carrie.

Two years after Carrie, Mr. De Palma directed The Fury, another story of telekinetic teenagers.  But while the initial description of the film does sound a bit like more of the same, The Fury is actually quite different from Carrie in terms of tone and execution.

Carrie was focused on the telekinetic teenager in question.  It was very much a coming-of-age story (albeit a very bizarre, horrific one!)  But The Fury is more of an espionage story.  And while we do follow the telekinetic girl Gillian (Amy Irving) throughout the story, I felt the main character — and the heart of the film — was the adult character, Peter.  In the film’s opening, Peter’s son, Robin (who we learn has telekinetic abilities) is kidnapped by mysterious men who try to kill Peter (and, indeed, Robin believes they succeed).  Throughout the rest of the story, we follow Peter in his increasingly desperate attempts to locate his son.

Peter is played by Kirk Douglas, and he’s terrific in the film.  We don’t learn a lot about Peter’s background, but he clearly has experience and training in the military.  The script doesn’t give Peter too much character — the story is far more concerned with the plot mechanics of twists and double-crosses, rather than character development — but Mr. Douglas’ performance fills in all the blanks we need.  He plays Peter’s friendly charm and charisma, as well as the tough-as-nails, willing-to-do-whatever-it-takes side of him.  He’s a ton of fun to watch, and frankly whenever the film cut away from Peter’s story I was impatient for it to get back to him.

That’s not to criticize Amy Irving (returning from Carrie), who is lovely and endearing as Gillian.  In the movie’s early-going, Gillian discovers that she possesses unusual gifts.  She eventually winds up checking into the Paragon Clinic, a boarding house devoted to young people with special abilities (shades of Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters!).  The clinic’s director (Charles Durning) seems friendly, but it is soon revealed that he has connections to the shady operative (John Cassavetes) who arranged for Robin’s kidnapping.

I enjoyed watching this non-super-hero take on kids with special powers unfold, and I enjoyed how the script and (by John Farris, adapting his novel) and Mr. De Palma’s direction treated the story seriously, without camp.  As I wrote above, The Fury is structured like a spy/suspense film, and I think that was a very successful choice.  (This distinction is made clear right from the film’s opening, an energetically staged assault on an Israeli beach designed to mask the effort to … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 1): Carrie (1976)

I’ve often enjoyed here, on the site, taking some time to watch or, in some cases, re-watch, a series of films by the same director.  One of my very first blogs on the site was a look back at several of the films of David Mamet, and more recently I re-watched the last decade and-a-half of the films of Steven Spielberg (click here for my reviews of AI: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal, The War of the Worlds, and Munich) and took a look back at the first three films by director Terrence Malick (click here for my reviews of The Thin Red Line, Badlands, and Days of Heaven).

I’ve decided now to turn to a prolific director whose films are very well-known, and yet somehow I’ve only seen a few of them: Brian De Palma.  Of his lengthy filmography, I’d only ever seen Scarface, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible, Snake Eyes, and Mission to Mars. There are a ton of other famous films, directed by Mr. De Palma, that I’ve been meaning to see for years: Carrie, Blow Out, Casualties of War, Carlito’s Way, Femme Fatale, and more.  So I was excited by the opportunity to finally check out those films.  I was also intrigued by Mr. De Palma’s reputation, in that he seems to be a filmmaker who some love, while others loathe.  Personally I didn’t yet have a strong opinion on Mr. De Palma, having seen so few of his films.  That’s about to change.

I decided to start with one of Mr. De Palma’s most famous films, and the one I had been most wanting to finally check out: Carrie.

The film is based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name.  Sissy Spacek (just three years older than she was in Badlands) stars in what might be her most famous role as young Carrie White.  Raised by her single mom, a religious fanatic (Piper Laurie, dialing the crazy all the way to eleven), Carrie has lived a sheltered life.  Now, as a teenager, she is almost completely clueless as to the simple social realities of how to connect with the other kids at school, and in the movie’s still-shocking opening, Carrie is horrified when she has her first period in the school gym’s shower.  Carrie has no idea what is happening to her, and in the film’s first step into weirdness, that traumatic incident provides the spark that ignites Carrie’s burgeoning telepathic powers.

The opening scene in the girls’ locker room encapsulates everything that works, and doesn’t work, about this film.  Stephen King’s original idea, of taking the terror … [continued]

 

Days of Terrence Malick (Part 3): Days of Heaven (1978)

Ok, so it took me a little longer than I’d anticipated to get to the next installment in my “Days of Terrence Malick” series, looking back at the films of this acclaimed director.  Re-watching The Thin Red Line (read my review here) made me want to watch the two films that Mr. Malick made in the 1970′s: Badlands (read my review here) and Days of Heaven. Both films are considered masterpieces by many, and I was eager to finally see them.

In Days of Heaven, a young and very handsome Richard Gere plays Bill, a poor worker forced to flee his steel-mill job in Chicago after he knocks down his boss in a moment of anger.  So he and his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and young sister (Linda Manz) hop a train out of the city.  The threesome eventually find themselves in the Texas panhandle, where they find work (along with hundreds of other migrant laborers) in the wheat fields of a wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard, who I’ll always associate with his role as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff).  The farmer takes a liking to Abby, and Bill urges her to move in with him, so that the three of them can take advantage of the farmer’s wealth.  Needless to say, things don’t turn out well for anyone involved.

There is very little dialogue in Days of Heaven. At times it feels like a silent movie, or a tone poem in which the beautiful imagery is called upon to carry the weight of the story.  There are moments in Days of Heaven in which Mr. Malick is able to harness the awesome power of cinema to create some truly breathtaking moments, all the more notable for their near-total lack of dialogue or narrative exposition.  There are long stretches in which the film lets the absolutely gorgeous shots of the rural Texas landscape carry the viewer along, and I found myself endlessly fascinated by the scenes showing the men and women hard at work harvesting wheat.  Those moments have a poetic beauty that surprised me.  Then, most notably, there is the sequence, late in the film, in which a fire spreads through the farmer’s wheat fields, eventually building to a mighty conflagration.  The escalation of this sequence is incredible and terrifying, a bravura achievement.

And yet so much of the film feels to me as if Mr. Malick was purposely trying to make his film difficult to understand.  I continually found myself struggling to understand the dynamics between the characters, or the simple set-ups of what was going on.  Bill and Abby make a decision, in the early minutes of the film, to pretend that … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Attack the Block

November 23rd, 2011
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I’d been reading about Joe Cornish’s directorial debut, the British sci-fi/horror/comedy film Attack the Block, all year.  The low-budget film was a hit on the festival circuit, and was trumpeted by several of my favorite on-line film reviewers, notably Drew McWeeny at Hitfix.com and Devin Faraci at badassdigest.com.  It received a U.S. theatrical release, but sadly came and went from theatres pretty quickly.  When the film was released on blu-ray last month, I was excited to track it down.

The film is terrific, and I’d wager that if you enjoyed UK-based action/comedies such as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels or Layer Cake, then you’ll really dig Attack the Block.

The titular “block” refers to a low-income housing unit in Kennington, England.  The film’s main characters are a small band of kids from the block who try to escape their lives of poverty and boredom at home by wreaking havoc on the streets.  When we first meet them, they’re egging on their leader, Moses (John Boyega in a star-making role), to beat an unidentifiable creature to death.  Then they mug Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a young single nurse who also lives in the block.  It’s the start of a fine evening for the boys, until an alien invasion spoils all their fun.  Yep, turns out the creature they beat to death was a little alien, who has a lot of angry friends.

The genius of Attack the Block is the way it marries sci-fi alien invasion movie conventions with the street-level young-tough humor of Guy Ritchie’s early films.  Generally these types of alien invasions strike New York City, not a run-down English inner city.  But, of course, watching these street hudlums face an alien apocalypse is the deliriously clever premise of the film, and the source of all the fun.

Not that Attack the Block is all fun and games.  In fact, the early-going isn’t that funny at all.  The gang’s mugging of Sam is an unsettling sequence, not the type of scene you’d expect to find in a film with comedy on its mind.  But writer/director Joe Cornish cleverly sets the stakes of the film to be very high right from the beginning.  This is a world in which bad things happen.  That mugging scene demonstrates that the characters in this film face real peril, thus escalating the dramatic tension.  It also gives a real character-arc to the boys in Moses’ gang.  I intensely disliked the boys at first, but absolutely grew to love them by the end.  It’s a pretty impressive achievement of story-telling, and is a critical reason that the films works as well as it does.

The other is in the way in which, while the … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Party Down (Season One)!

November 9th, 2011
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Wow!  Add this series to the list of brilliant, cancelled-before-their-time TV shows!

I don’t think I even heard of Party Down during the two seasons it was on the air, on Starz, in 2009-10.  But every now and then, since it’s cancellation, I’d hear or read a mention of it, mostly in connection to being a prior great role of Adam Scott’s, who I’ve been so enjoying as Ben Dywer on the terrific Parks and Recreation.  A sale on Amazon lead me to buy the first season on DVD, and I was blown away!  I’m already almost finished with season two, and deep in mourning that there are no more episodes of this fantastic show!

The series focuses on Party Down, a fairly low-quality Hollywood catering company, staffed primarily by out-of-work actors and actresses.  The show is a true ensemble, but if I had to identify a lead character it would be Adam Scott as Henry.  Henry was once a struggling actor whose big break came on a commercial, saying the catch phrase “Are we having fun yet?”.  Sadly, that break-out role also destroyed his career, forever type-casting him as the “are we having fun yet?” guy.  His dreams pretty much crushed, Henry is fairly rudderless when we first meet him, having sworn off acting, but not sure what he should do with his life instead of that.

He’s hired to work with Party Down by an old friend, Ron, played by Ken Marino.  The two used to party together, back in the day, but Ron partied too hard and too long.  He’s sworn off all booze and drugs now, and he sees his job as Party Down team leader as a stepping-stone towards his dream of one day owning a Soup ‘R Crackers franchise.  While everyone else treats their gigs catering with Party Down with apathy or downright loathing, Ron takes things totally seriously, leading to a lot of (very funny) butting heads with his team of misfits.  Ron is so sincere, he’s pretty impossible not to love.

The only part of working for Party Down that is remotely appealing for Henry is the presence of Casey, played by Lizzy Caplan.  Although Casey is married when we first meet her in the pilot, the show wisely avoids any prolonged will-they-or-won’t-they Ross/Rachel tension by immediately getting the two together.  Casey is struggling mightily to succeed as a stand-up comic, and though she’s been pretty beaten down by rejection she sees right through Henry’s “I don’t care anymore” attitude.  Lizzy Caplan had a very small role in Freaks and Geeks, but I recognized her most from her role as Marlena in Cloverfield.  She’s absolutely dynamite here, tough and … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Mimic (The Director’s Cut)

I had previously seen Mimic once, back when it was originally released to theatres in 1997.  I think I went to see it because the trailers looked interestingly creepy, and because I had so enjoyed Charles S. Dutton in Alien 3.  (I still think that Mr. Dutton is one of the best aspects of that sadly misguided Alien sequel.)  I remember thinking Mimic was OK, but it wasn’t a film I was ever drawn to re-watch.

Years later, when I began to discover the films of Guillermo del Toro, and I realized that he had directed Mimic, I began to think it might be interesting to go back and re-watch the film.  That desire to rediscover an early del Toro film was counteracted by what I’d periodically read or hear, in interviews with Mr. del Toro, about how difficult an experience making Mimic was for him, and how many of the decisions represented in the finished film did not at all represent his intentions.

I started hearing rumors, a few years ago, about a possible director’s cut of Mimic, and so I was thrilled when this was finally released to DVD and blu-ray this past summer!  It’s rare — and so always a cause for celebration — to see a filmmaker given an opportunity to go back and try to restore a film that was taken away from them (I’m thinking of the Richard Donner version of Superman II as one example — click here for my review).  As Mr. del Toro describes in the DVD’s special features, there were many things that he had wanted to film but was unable to, so many aspects of his original plans for the film are not represented in this new director’s cut.  What he has done is to go back and trim out much of the second-unit footage that was included in the original edit, footage which he did not direct.  He was also able to re-incorporate into the film many scenes and plot-threads that had been excised from the theatrical cut.  The result, Mr. del Toro describes, is a film that is as close to “his” as we’re ever going to get.

Mimic is, at its heart, a B-movie.  (The plot does involve bugs that grow to mimic humans!)  Mr. del Toro readily admits that in his commentary, and he discusses how his filmmaking strategy has always been to elevate B-movie ideas by taking them 100% seriously and applying as much care as he possibly can in the telling of those stories.  It’s a technique that has served Mr. del Toro very well.  Mimic, though, even in this new director’s cut, never really breaks out of it’s B-movie essence.  … [continued]

 

Days of Terrence Malick (Part 2): Badlands (1973)

OK!  As I wrote about last week, after re-watching Terrence Malick’s 1998 WWII film The Thin Red Line, I decided the time had come for me to track down Mr. Malick’s first two films, both of which had gotten so much acclaim when they were released back in the ’70s.  The first of these was Badlands, Mr. Malick’s debut film which he wrote and directed.

Set in the 1950′s, Badlands centers on two main characters: Kit and Holly.  Holly, played by Sissy Spacek, is a fifteen year-old girl living with her father in a quiet South Dakota town.  Her life changes forever when she meets Kit (played by a ferocious, impossibly young Martin Sheen).  Kit is the epitome of cool to her: he is quiet and enigmatic, he’s older (Kit is twenty-five), and he looks and dresses sort of like James Dean.  What’s clear to the audience, though not to Holly, is that something is definitely off about this young man.  During the scene in which we first meet him, working his route as a garbage-collector, Kit seems socially awkward and more than a little weird.  But what I did not see coming was Kit’s tendency towards violence.  That tendency explodes when Holly’s father forbids Kit from seeing her, and only grows from there.  Once Holly finds herself in Kit’s orbit, she gets swept up in an American odyssey of violence and murder.

That sounds like the plot of an exciting action film, but Mr. Malick was after something entirely different.  Badlands is as quiet and weird a film as Kit is as a character.  There is not an inordinate amount of dialogue in the film, and what little there is is fairly banal stuff, not really connected to the incredible events that are transpiring.  Both Kit and Holly are rather still, quiet, almost passive characters.  (Somewhat paradoxically, Kit’s passivity only lasts until he picks up his shotgun.)  Though Kit and Holly are the main characters, the film does not go out of its way to get us to like, or even to sympathize at all with, either one of them.  That cold, almost dispassionate way in which Mr. Malick’s film presents the events we watch unfold is quite striking, and part, I think, of what makes this such a unique piece of work.

Even on the battered version of the film I watched (the image on the old DVD I got from Netflix was a far cry from the gorgeous, newly-restored image of the Criterion Collection’s blu-ray release of The Thin Red Line!), I still found Badlands to be a beautifully shot film.  Mr. Malick’s camera takes the time to explore the incredible vistas of the American … [continued]

 

The “Extended Cut” of Green Lantern Still Stinks

October 31st, 2011
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I was really disappointed by this summer’s Green Lantern.  I had high hopes for the epic space adventure promised by the trailers, but what we got instead was a lame, Earth-bound mess.  (Read my full review here.)

I wondered if the “Extended Cut” of the film released on DVD and blu-ray would address any of my criticisms of the film.  Sometimes I find that extended versions of films can really flesh out the stories and characters in a way that alters my opinion of a film that I had previously disliked.  Sadly, that is not the case here.

Basically, the only change made to Green Lantern in this new, longer version is an extended flashback, set at the beginning of the film, in which we get to see Hal, Carol, and Hector as kids, and we witness firsthand the death of Hal’s test-fighter pilot.  It’s a great sequence, and never should have been excised from the film.  It’s a much more coherent way of presenting this important back-story than the laughably ridiculous Airplane!-style stress-induced flashbacks that Hal gets, in the theatrical version, when trying to out-maneuver Ferris Airlines’ new pilot-less drones when we first meet him.  It also enables us to start the movie by sympathizing with Hal, which is far better than starting the movie thinking he’s a jerk the way we do in the theatrical cut.

After watching that long new introductory sequence, I was jazzed — this movie is already a whole lot better, I thought!  Sadly, if there were any further changes or extensions to the film after that point, I didn’t notice them.  The rest of the film is as turgid as before.  They even left-in the ridiculous flashbacks in Hal’s test-flight early in the film!!  That makes that whole sequence even MORE stupid than it was in the theatrical cut, when at least the flashbacks were presenting us with some new information.  In this version, we just saw ALL of those scenes literally minutes beforehand!!  Having to sit through those scenes again is beyond stupid.

But Green Lantern is afflicted by this sort of ham-handed story-telling from start-to-finish.  Take the whole introduction to the film, and the escape of Parallax (the film’s main villain).  We hear, in prologue, all about the Green Lantern Corps and about their great enemy, Parallax, who only the great Green Lantern Abin Sur was able to defeat, and imprison in something called “the Lost Sector.”  First of all, as much as I loved Geoffrey Rush’s voice in the narration, and the cool sci-fi imagery on display, I think telling the audience everything we need to know about the villain right off the bat deflates all … [continued]

 

Days of Terrence Malick (Part 1): The Thin Red Line (1998)

Terrence Malick directed two highly acclaimed films in the 1970′s (Badlands and Days of Heaven, neither of which I’ve seen, but I plan to remedy that soon — more on this later), and then he dropped out of sight for twenty years.  Mr. Malick finally returned to the world of filmmaking in 1998 with the release of The Thin Red Line, his lengthy adaptation of James Jones’ novel, set during the battles of Guadalcanal during World War II.

I had previously seen The Thin Red Line once, in theatres back in 1998.  It had nowhere near the effect on me that Steven Spielberg’s WWII film, Saving Private Ryan (which had been released earlier that year) did.  (I still remember my shell-shocked, emotionally drained reaction after seeing Saving Private Ryan in the theatre.  My friends and I sat silently in our seats for a good while after the film ended, and it took a while into the car-ride home before we began to unwind a bit and find ourselves able to discuss the film we’d seen.  These days I am well aware of the film’s narrative weaknesses and tendencies towards over-emotionalities, but I still bow before Mr. Spielberg’s skill in crafting a film that, upon my initial viewing, on the big-screen, left me so emotionally devastated.  The only other film that’s affected me quite that way, when seeing it for the first time on the big screen, was Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.)

But even though I didn’t have anything like that reaction upon seeing The Thin Red Line for the first time back in 1998, I remember thoroughly enjoying the film.  I was entranced by the gorgeous imagery and beguiled by the dense, inter-weaving inner monologues of countless characters, each sharing some of their own insight and reflections on the conflict and on larger issues of human nature and mankind.

When the Criterion Collection released a new blu-ray edition of The Thin Red Line, I was eager to see the film again.  The blu-ray, no surprise, looks and sounds absolutely immaculate.  The barrage of imagery in what I once read described as Mr. Malick’s “tone-poem” remains as sumptuously gorgeous as I remembered.  The juxtaposition of the jaw-droppingly beautiful landscapes and imagery of animals and nature with the unspeakably brutal realities of human conflict during war gives the film a potent and heart-rending thematic punch.

I do find myself wishing, though, that the film’s dense ideas and philosophical musings — not to mention the sheer amount of filmmaking mastery on display as one watches the film’s gorgeous imagery unfold — could have been melded with a narrative that was more effectively coherent.  Because we’re constantly jumping around from character … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews the Animated Adaptation of Batman: Year One!

Back in 1986, Frank Miller turned the comics world on its ear with the release of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.  This four-issue prestige-format limited series, which Mr. Miller wrote and pencilled (with inks by Klaus Janson and gorgeous colors by Lynn Varley), told the story of a bitter, middle-aged Bruce Wayne.  In Miller’s story, Bruce had retired from being Batman following the death of Jason Todd (the second Robin, who was actually killed in-continuity in the Batman books a year or so later in the “A Death in the Family” story-line).  But disgusted by the cess-pool of crime and corruption that Gotham City has become, Bruce puts back on the cape and cowl and resumes his one-man war against crime, leading to his final confrontation with the Joker and, ultimately, with Superman, who is now in the employ of the U.S. Government.  Violent, gorgeous, and compelling, The Dark Knight Returns blew my mind when I read it (at far too young an age, back in 1988), and it still stands today as one of the finest comic book stories ever made (and certainly as one of the very best Batman stories ever told).

One might have thought that such a work could never be equaled, but the following year, in 1987, Frank Miller returned to Batman and told a story that is as good — if not even better — than The Dark Knight Returns.  For four issues in the regular Batman comic (#404-407), Mr. Miller and David Mazzucchelli retold Batman’s origin in the story called Batman: Year One.  Whereas The Dark Knight Returns was a huge, epic saga, Batman: Year One is a street-level, entirely stripped down Batman story.  In fact, the genius of the story is that it isn’t really Bruce Wayne’s story at all.  The focus is on a young James Gordon, as he attempts to survive his first year on the force in Gotham City.  Batman: Year One is a tough, violent, gritty tale, populated by the corrupt and the broken.  Even our heroes, Bruce Wayne and James Gordon, are presented as being far from perfect — but their heroism derives from their striving to battle past their flaws and imperfections and attempt to do the best they can in a city without hope.  It’s one of Frank Miller’s very best-written tales, and David Mazzucchelli’s art continually takes my breath away with its gorgeous stylization (the man knows how to spot blacks better than pretty much anyone else in the business) and astonishing detail.

Like The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One sits at the very top of the heap of comic book story-lines.  It’s been mined for inspiration by several of … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

October 24th, 2011
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As you’re probably aware, back in 2010 Conan O’Brien’s stint as host of the Tonight Show was unceremoniously cut short when he refused to comply with NBC’s plan to move the Tonight Show to 12:05 AM in order to give Jay Leno back the 11:30 PM time-slot.  After just seven months as the Tonight Show host, Conan was out.  (The whole crazy business was chronicled in the book The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy, by Bill Carter, which I reviewed here.)  Conan eventually started a new late-night show on TBS, though his agreement with NBC prevented him from appearing on television until his new show launched in the fall of 2010.

So in the intervening months, Mr. O’Brien and his crew of writers and producers launched the “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television” tour, a mad-cap series of live shows all across the country.  The documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, directed by Rodman Flender, chronicles the tumultuous several months of the tour.

Having been unable to get tickets to any of the sold-out shows, I was first and foremost interested in a glimpse at what the shows were like.  In that, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop delivers in spades.  Throughout the film we get to see a lot of hysterical footage of the live shows — the song parodies, the big production numbers, the comedy bits with visiting guest-stars (like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert), and more.

But the film is far more than that.  It’s a compelling warts-and-all depiction of Conan O’Brien at a very stressful point in his life.  The film highlights Conan’s incredible work ethic and easy charisma, both of which helped to make him such a successful entertainer.  We also see how difficult he could be, at times, to work with (such as in the much-written about scene in which he mercilessly mocks 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer without any apparent justification, or in the many times we see him be curt with his assistant, Sona, among other examples).  Mr. Flender told the New York Times that he said to Conan, before beginning the project: “I don’t want this to be U2 Rattle and Hum. I don’t want to deify you. I want this to be honest.”

And honest the film is.  But Mr. Flender’s documentary isn’t out to get notice just by depicting a big star at its worst.  Mr. Flender is clearly a fan of Conan’s (in addition to their being friends since the two were at Harvard together), and over-all Conan comes off as a hard-working performer trying hard to make the best of a tough situation.  Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Zodiac: The Director’s Cut (2007)

September 28th, 2011
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After having such a good time re-watching David Fincher’s films Se7en (click here for my review) and Fight Club (click here for my review), I decided to take another look at Zodiac.

It was Zodiac that cemented David Fincher in my mind as one of the most amazing directors working today.  I knew he was associated with Alien 3, but that he had that film taken away from him.  (I have a warm spot in my heart for the third Alien film, even though I still see it as a total betrayal of everything that made James Cameron’s Aliens so great.)  I knew he had directed Se7en and Fight Club, but while I immediately recognized that both of those films were clearly made by people with an enormous amount of skill, neither was a film I really loved.  (I have since come to really, really dig Fight Club, but that first time I saw it I think I was a bit overwhelmed by it.)

Something about Zodiac really intrigued me when it was released, but despite that I never got to see it in theatres.  It was only when the film was released on DVD that I tracked it down and watched it.  (I own the Director’s Cut DVD.  This is the version I’m reviewing now, and the only one I’ve ever seen, so I can’t compare it to the theatrical version.)

It blew me away, and I am still in love with it when re-watching it now.

Every frame of the film feels like the result of an incredible amount of focus and creative effort.  It’s clear that an extraordinary amount of detail was pored into the sets, the costumes, the cars, the props, everything, all guided by the skilled eye of a visionary director: David Fincher.  Set over several decades, Zodiac beautifully captures the feel of the different eras, both through subtly altering the look of key sets (like the San Francisco Chronicle office set) and through some stunning visual effects shots (such as a shot made to look like a time-lapse reconstruction of the building of the Transamerica Pyramid).

Speaking of the film’s visual effects, the DVD’s top-notch special features reveal that Zodiac is awash in incredibly subtle, absolutely photo-realistic visual effects that were used to recreate key real locations in the San Francisco area from the ’60s and ’70s.  Most notably, in my mind, is the corner of Washington and Cherry at which the Zodiac killer murdered an unfortunate cab-driver.  The scene when inspectors Toschi and Armstrong arrive at Washington and Cherry to investigate the murder is a tense scene, but when watching it I didn’t give one thought … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews The Sting (1973)

September 26th, 2011
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This was a fun one!  Last week I watched The Sting, the 1973 film starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman, for the first time.  I’m a big fan of David Mamet’s con-man films (like House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner click here for my thoughts on those films and several more by the great Mr. Mamet), so it was fun to go back and watch this terrific Best Picture-winning film.

Robert Redford plays Hooker, a street-tough grifter who, one day, working with his partner Luther (Robert Earl Jones — and yes, I did recognize his voice so I wasn’t surprised to look him up on-line and discover that he was James Earl Jones’ father!) scam a mob runner out of a lot of cash.  This, of course, brings all sorts of heat down on the pair.  Hooker winds up in Chicago, and tracks down a man he’s heard is the master of the long con: Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman).  Together, the two hatch down a scheme to take down one of Chicago’s major gansters: Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).

It’s easy to see why the pairing of Robert Redford and Paul Newman made this film such a hit back in 1973.  The two movie-stars are in top form, and the film gives these two charismatic and handsome actors plenty of room to play.  There were a few moments when I felt Mr. Redford laid it on a bit too thick in his portrayal of the young, stubborn Hooker, but for the most part he’s an engaging lead, and his charisma is potent.  Mr. Newman is an absolute pleasure to watch from start-to-finish, absolutely smooth as silk as the seasoned confidence man.   Mr. Newman is able to convey enormous intelligence and cunning behind Gondorff’s poker-face, and the first time we see Gondorff in action (during the poker-game on the train), it’s clear that he’s a master at his trade, played by a real master of his trade!

Robert Shaw is probably most famous for playing Quint from Jaws, but I’ll always think of him as Donald Grant from From Russia With Love (click here for my review) and also as Mr. Blue from The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three (click here for my review). He is absolutely fabulous as the mean, take-no-prisoners gangster Lonnegan.  Mr. Shaw puts on an Irish brogue that might not be entirely convincing, but which I loved nonetheless.  This man plays the bad-guy like nobody’s business, and he presents a real, credible threat to Hooker and Gondorff.

Hooker and Gondorff surround themselves with a cadre of fellow con-men in order to pull off the scheme, and I particularly … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Cradle Will Rock (1999)

Last week I wrote about the disappointingly mediocre Me and Orson Welles, and I commented that the film covered familiar ground as Cradle Will Rock, the 1999 film written and directed by Tim Robbins.  After writing that blog post, I realized that it had been years since I’d last seen Cradle Will Rock, and I was in the mood to give it another viewing.

Set in 1937, Cradle Will Rock focuses on the tumultuous production of the musical written by Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), directed by Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen) and funded by the Federal Theatre Project, a division of the depression-era Work Progress Administration that helped bring theatre to millions of people nation-wide.  The play Cradle Will Rock depicted the struggles of working-class union members, and as such was seen as extremely controversial by some.  But the sprawling story of Tim Robbins’ film covers far more than just the production of that one play.  It also tells the story of the artist Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades)’s creation of an enormous mural for Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) that was destroyed when Mr. Rockefeller disapproved of the left-leaning imagery of the mural.  We also see an elderly ventriloquist’s struggles in the face of the demise of vaudeville, the House Un-American Activities Commission’s assault on the Federal Theatre Project, and more.  Through all these stories, Cradle Will Rock tells the stories of artists struggling in the face of economic depression, and the collision between art and politics.

Mr. Robbins has assembled an incredible, enormous ensemble for his film.  Each one of these characters could be the headliner in a film focusing solely on them.  (If I have any criticism about Cradle Will Rock, it’s that it might have been nice to have spent some more time with some of these characters, had the film had a narrower focus.  But they’re each so good, and their characters’ stories so interesting, that I can’t really complain.)

When the film opens, we meet Olive (Emily Watson), a beautiful young singer who has been forced to sleep in movie theatres because she is broke and homeless.  She eventually finds work as a stagehand in Orson Welles’ production of Cradle Will Rock. Mr. Welles is portrayed by Angus Macfadyen.  It’s a much broader, comical portrayal that that of Christian McKay in Me and Orson Welles, and watching these two films in such short succession I found that I preferred Mr. McKay’s portrayal.  But that’s no knock against Mr. Macfadyen, who is still one of the best things about Cradle Will Rock. He is a hoot as Orson, loud and vivacious and argumentative and brilliant.  It’s a really fun performance to watch.  He bounces beautifully … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

September 16th, 2011
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Charlie Kaufman wrote Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (one of my very favorite films, and the film that made me forever a fan of Sam Rockwell), Adaptation (click here for my review), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He also wrote the 2008 film Synecdoche, New York, which he also directed.  (To this day, that is the first and only film Mr. Kaufman has directed.)  Based on Mr. Kaufman’s pedigree, I was of course eager to see Synecdoche, New York when it was released.  But I missed it in theatres, and when I read mixed reviews of the film, my enthusiasm to see it dimmed a bit.  It remained on my list of movies-I-want-to-see, but that is a very LONG list, and so it was only last month when I finally sat down to watch Mr. Kaufman’s movie.

Synecdoche, New York is a very bizarre film.  It is very difficult, at times, to watch (both because of the somewhat confusing narrative but also because I found much of the film’s subject matter to be incredibly depressing).  But it is also very funny in places, and I found the film’s wonderfully weird, almost dreamlike structure to be quite unique and engaging.

From the very beginning, the film is constantly, subtly playing with the idea of what is reality.  At first it seems like we’re watching a sad, quiet relationship drama, not unlike many other small-budget indie films.  We can see that the marriage between the playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his painter wife Adele (Catherine Keener) is crumbling.  But, without fanfare, in the early scenes there are several blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments when the film seems to slip into Caden’s head, and what we see on-screen is not reality but rather what Caden is thinking and feeling.  I’m thinking, most notably, of several amusing instances in which Caden imagines himself in the middle of whatever he is watching on TV.

As the film progresses, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur.  After Adele leaves Caden and heads to London without him, we see Caden reading a magazine, and he comes across a spread in the magazine all about Adele.  At first I assumed that was a moment of fantasy, in which Caden was imagining Adele being completely happy and successful without him in London.  (It must be fantasy, because how could she have a lengthy article written about her only a week after she went to London?)  But later scenes caused me to question my interpretation of that scene.  The sit-up-and-take notice moment, for me, came a few minutes later (about 30 minutes into the film).  We see Caden meet Hazel (Samantha … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Me and Orson Welles (2009)

September 14th, 2011
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In Me and Orson Welles, directed by Richard Linklater, high school student Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) somehow finds himself cast in a small role in Orson Welles (Christian McKay)’s 1937 production of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre.  As the brash, brilliant, egocentric Welles struggles to realize his vision for the production, Richard enters a master class in theatre and life as he struggles to hold his own in the production while also finding himself attracted to Mr. Welles’ pretty, driven young assistant Sonja (Claire Danes).

Whenever Me and Orson Welles focuses on Mr. Welles, and his efforts to mount his production called Caesar, the film soars.  Christian McKay is wonderful as Welles.  He commands the screen whenever he is on it, just as the real Orson Welles did.  As Welles, Mr. McKay is dynamic, funny, and outrageous — an oversized personality, bursting at the seams with brilliance and ego.  There’s an element of caricature in the performance, but it never falls over into silly parody.  Mr. McKay shows us the beating, human heart of the man — his failings, and his burning desire to succeed in his endeavors despite all the obstacles in his way.  It’s an incredible performance, and I hope that Mr. McKay goes on to have a long, successful career.

I was fascinated by the film’s glimpses into Welles’ production: the way he turned constraints into creative devices (choosing to set the film in modern day because he didn’t have money for costumes), and I thrilled to the glimpses we were given into the staging of certain scenes and Mr. Welles and his actors’ debates as to how to bring certain moments from the play to life (such as the death or the poet Cinna).  He ensemble of actors in the film who portray Welles’ ensemble at the Mercury Theatre are very strong (James Tupper, Eddie Marsan, Ben Chaplin, Leo Bill, and more) and could each almost be the lead of their own film.

Unfortunately, where the film falls flat is in the story of the main character, Richard, played by Zac Efron.  While I’m certainly not a fan of Mr. Efron’s (I’ve never seen High School Musical or any of his work), I not a hater, either.  I was eager to see what this young actor/musician could do in this serious role.  Sadly, he’s just terrible.  Mr. Efron plays his scenes with an arrogant smirk that caused me to have an immediate, visceral dislike for his character.  Throughout the film, it’s impossible to tell when Richard is being genuine or when he’s just spinning lies to get the girl or to get a job.  (When Richard first meets Orson Welles, he clearly lies through his … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Fight Club (1999)

September 5th, 2011
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After re-watching David Fincher’s 1995 film Se7en (click here for my review), I couldn’t resist taking another look back at Fight Club.  As with Se7en, I had seen Fight Club only once before.  I’d really enjoyed it, but because of the violence and the extraordinarily down-beat tone, I’d never been driven to revisit it.

The first thing that struck me upon re-watching the film is that, while the film is just as violent and anti-social as I’d remembered, it’s also incredibly funny.  Maybe my shock at the brutal, casual violence that runs through the film had blinded me to this when I first saw it, or maybe I’d just forgotten.  But Fight Club is very, very funny.  Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk (which I really need to read one of these days), the script by Jim Uhls (which was apparently rewritten by an uncredited Andrew Kevin Walker, who also wrote Se7en) is very sharp.  Fight Club is a tough, take-no-prisoners social satire.  The film has quite a lot to say about our commercial society, and the way advertising holds so many of us in its thrall.  (I love the pan, in the film, of the main character’s apartment, when we can suddenly see on-screen the labels for each purchased-from-a-magazine item of furniture.)

Through the character of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the audience is swept along in the appeal of this society-rejecting rebel.  Tyler has abandoned commercialism and the accepted ideals of how we should be living our life.  Rather than a fancy, well-furnished apartment, he prefers to live in squalor in an abandoned, decrepit building.  When he discovers this do-what-you-want, live-how-you-want lifestyle, Edward Norton’s character (and, by extension, the audience) finds it to be incredibly freeing.  With no one living within a mile of him and Tyler, the two can do whatever they want, whether that’s hitting broken bottles with golf clubs or beating the snot out of one another.

The film — and Tyler — slowly drags Edward Norton and the audience along into weirder and weirder places.  At first, the idea of a fight club — where men find themselves by engaging in brutal one-on-one fistfights — might be horrifying.  But Tyler — happy, sexy, joyous Brad Pitt — is able to sell it to Edward Norton’s character, and to us, as a way to throw off the smothering curtain of “civilized” behavior.  There’s an appeal there that Norton’s character grabs ahold of with both arms, and which the audience can understand.

The fun of the film, of course, is the way Tyler Durden’s behavior eventually causes the viewer to question, and perhaps (or maybe I should write “hopefully”) ultimately reject … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Se7en (1995)

I saw Se7en on the big screen back in 1995, and it freaked the hell out of me.  I’m not sure what prompted me to go see it in the first place, but I know that I was entirely unprepared for the brutal film that unfolded before my eyes.  It was tough, shocking stuff, and while I really respected the film I never felt any desire to go back and watch it again.

Almost a decade and a half later, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Social Network have cemented my opinion of David Fincher as one of the finest American directors working today.  With the release of Se7en on blu-ray, I thought it would be interesting to give the film another look.

Even so many years later, Se7en remains as punishing a movie-watching experience as it was back in 1995.  There is some truly vile, stomach-turning stuff on display in the film.  Some of which we see on-screen (I remember my first glimpse of that horribly obsese corpse — the first murder victim discovered at the start of the movie — from 1995, and I found it just as unsettling the second time around), and some of which is just discussed (such as the terrible fate of the prostitute).  But the two blend together into an almost unrelenting parade of horrors, from the first frame to the very last.

All of which, of course, was certainly the intention of David Fincher and his collaborators.  Watching the film, today, I can step back a bit from what I’m watching on-screen to recognize the extraordinary skill on display by the filmmakers.  On crisp blu-ray, Se7en is absolutely beautiful in its unremitting ugliness.  The filmmakers have created a word of unending gloom, from the seemingly never-ending rain in the unnamed city in which the action takes place to the sickly yellow light of Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman)’s refrigerator.  The oppressive urban decay and the constant rain remind me distinctly of Blade Runner, and there’s even a great shot of Brad Pitt running across a street and jumping over cars, his weapon drawn, while the rain continues to pour down, that is a direct quotation of an iconic shot of Harrison Ford from that film.  But Mr. Fincher and his team have gone beyond homage to create a distinctly real, potent environment that is unique to this film.  This city breathes and sweats, and we (and the film’s characters) feel it as an oppressive force.  In Se7en, the city is as much the enemy as the serial-murdering John Doe.

Mr. Fincher has come to be well-known for his meticulous attention to detail, and that is on fine display throughout … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Roger Dodger (2002)

August 22nd, 2011
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In the biting, acid film Roger Dodger, Campbell Scott stars as Roger, a handsome, well-off, and very arrogant New York advertising executive who seems able to use his sharp tongue to talk any women he wants into having sex with him.  One day his 16 year-old nephew, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) shows up in his office.  Nick is in town looking at Columbia, and while he’s there he wants his smooth-with-the-ladies uncle to teach him how to talk to women.  Although he’s at first put-off by the idea of having to deal with this kid, Roger quickly agrees to school Nick in That Which He Knows Best, and the two begin a crazy night that will take them all over the city and in and out of the lives of several fascinating and beautiful women.

I don’t know what on earth prompted me to rent this film on DVD five or six years ago, but it really blew me away as a unique, hard-to-define, I can’t quite believe what I’m watching film.  I’ve been meaning to see it again for ages.

Written and directed by Dylan Kidd, Roger Dodger is an extraordinarily well-written and well-made film that demonstrates the skill of an artist in his prime.  (I really want to know what the heck Mr. Kidd has been up to since 2002!!  I wish he’d made six movies in that time!)  The script is exquisite, with rat-a-tat dialogue that is fiercely intelligent, funny, and very biting.  If you told me that David Mamet had scripted this film, I would easily believe it.

Right away from the opening scene it’s clear that this is a movie unlike many others.  The film opens with a lengthy post-meal conversation over drinks and smokes between Roger and his friends.  In between some light banter with the people around the table, Roger unloads a lengthy monologue describing how he feels that evolution and technology are combining to gradually render the male species obsolete.  Roger’s dialogue demonstrates his keen intelligence and verbal skill, and also his arrogance and his close-minded, gender-focused worldview.  The scene is shot in a fascinating style that Mr. Kidd will utilize throughout the film.  There are never any master shots used (wide shots that show us the setting for a scene and where all of the characters are in relation to one another).  Instead, the scene plays out through a series of close-ups, filmed with a hand-held shaky cam that is continually moving around and observing the central characters through visual obstacles (over the shoulder of another character, obstructed by a glass or a table center-piece, etc.).  It’s a bit disorienting, but also extraordinarily vibrant and energizing, and a terrific way to … [continued]

 

Ape Management Part 6: Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001)

My friends and I discovered the Planet of the Apes films in college.  We’d taken to visiting the local rental store, trying to fill in the gaps in our movie-watching histories.  Basically, we rented films that we felt we really SHOULD see, since we considered ourselves movie-fans.  When we realized that none of us had seen Planet of the Apes, we decided to give that a viewing.  Suffice it to say, we LOVED it, in all its silly/serious glory.  When we realized that there were actually FOUR MORE Planet of the Apes films, we decided, well, we’d better watch them all too!  We had a great deal of fun watching the entire series, and the Apes films quickly became the movies we were prone to throw on, late at night, when in need of some entertainment.

So back in 2000/2001, when we heard that there was actually going to be a NEW Planet of the Apes film, and that it was going to be a big-budget version helmed by Tim Burton (a filmmaker we all held in high esteem), we were pretty much blown away with excitement and anticipation.  Though we were well out of college by then, several of us gathered together on opening weekend, to take in this new Apes film together.

Sigh.

I don’t think any of us HATED Tim Burton’s film, but we were pretty underwhelmed by what we saw.  I had such a dim view of Mr. Burton’s movie that, despite being a huge fan of the Apes series, and despite the many times I have re-watched the original five Apes films during the subsequent decade, I have never once been driven to sit down and watch Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes film again.

But I’d been having so much fun, recently, re-watching all of the Apes films in preparation for the new Apes movie that I decided, what the heck, it’s been ten years, let’s give Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes film another go.  Maybe now, removed from all of the hype and my built-up expectations, I’d think more highly of this film.

No such luck.  Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes is pretty much exactly the dud I remembered it being.

Things get off to a bad start right a way with a lugubrious opening credits sequence in which the camera slowly floats around an ornate object extreme close-up.  Gradually the camera pulls back, and we see it’s an ape helmet.  I thought this was cool when Mr. Burton did that with the Bat-Signal during the opening credits of Batman, but here it felt boring — been there, done that.

Things pick up somewhat during the sequence that … [continued]

 

Ape Management Part 5: Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

We have made it, at last, to the fifth and final film in the original Planet of the Apes series!  (Click here for my review of Planet of the Apes, here for my review of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, here for my review of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and here for my review of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.)

Though released only a year after 1972′s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, this final installment is set ten years after the events of that film.  In the intervening years, two key events have transpired: Caesar (Roddy McDowell)’s revolution of the apes has succeeded, and much of the planet has been laid waste by nuclear war.  The mute apes we saw in Conquest have now all gained the ability to speak (though whether this is due to education by Caesar and friendly humans, or to mutation from the nuclear radiation, is never clarified).  In a fairly primitive, jungle village, we see apes and humans living together, though tensions between the two species continue to run high.  A gorilla general named Aldo opposes Caesar’s wish for peaceful co-habitation and plots to kill all of the humans and take control of the ape society.  Caesar, meanwhile, is distracted by a quest to learn about his parents (the deceased Cornelius and Zira) by traveling into the radioactive Forbidden Zone and accessing the video-tape archives stored there.  Will Caesar and his new society be undone by the violent gorillas, or by the mutated remnants of human society living in the Forbidden Zone?

After the society-shattering events of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Battle for the Planet of the Apes seems fairly small in scale.  This is the cheapest-looking of the five original Apes films.  I can imagine that, by this point, the law of diminishing returns had set in, and this film probably had a smaller budget than its predecessors.  Battle also tells, to me, a far less interesting story than did Conquest. Whereas Conquest of the Planet of the Apes still stands today as a pretty shocking, envelope-pushing film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes covers pretty familiar ground: tension between the different species of apes, danger from radioactive mutants, and a few peaceful apes and humans who just want to find a way to get along.

That’s not to say that Battle for the Planet of the Apes is entirely without merit.  The film still boasts an admirable willingness to address some interesting, thorny issues in the way that the very best science fiction does: by presenting real-world issues in a different setting, the better to make … [continued]

 

Ape Management Part 4: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

I’m entering the home stretch of my journey back through the Planet of the Apes film, as I’ve just taken in the fourth installment: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes! Click here for my thoughts on Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and Escape From the Planet of the Apes.

After the silliness of Escape From the Planet of the Apes, this fourth Apes film shifts back into serious mode.  VERY serious.  Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is, I think, by far the most grim and down-beat of all five original Apes films.

Which is not to say it isn’t also chock full of silly and ridiculous things.  Like the incident, at the start of the film, which sets the whole movie’s events in motion.  Kindly Armando (Ricardo Montalban) has secretly been raising Milo (who has choosen the name Caesar), the child of Cornelius and Zira.  All is well.  That is, until Armando decides, for no reason that I can fathom, to take Caesar right into the middle of a large human city.  Here, we see that in the years since the last film, mankind has begun to domesticate and enslave apes, forcing them to serve a servants and menial laborers.  Caesar is, of course, horrified by what he sees.  He promptly stirs up trouble, and finds himself on the run while Armando is arrested.  But why oh why did Armando take him on his little tour of the big city filled with enslaved apes, in the first place???  It boggles my mind.

Anyways, after a lengthy opening sequence that shows us all the horrible things the humans are doing to the apes, we follow Caesar as he finds himself mistaken for an ordinary ape and treated just like all the others.  But Caesar quickly gains control of the situation, and begins fomenting a revolution of all the apes, urging them to rise up and overthrow their human masters.

The film ends with a lengthy, violent sequence as we witness the fateful night that Caesar leads the apes in their successful revolution.  It’s a pretty shocking climax to the film.  The movie doesn’t pull any punches in depicting both the vast number of apes who are killed by the fearful humans, as well as the way many humans are brutally murdered by the throngs of rampaging apes.  We’re a long way from the scenes of Apes going shopping and sipping grape-juice plus in Escape From the Planet of the Apes! All of these films have had tragic endings, but I think this ending is the most brutal one of the whole series.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is … [continued]

 

Ape Management Part 2: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1969)

Last week I began my project to re-watch all five original Planet of the Apes movies by re-watching the original Planet of the Apes from 1967.  Today, we move to discuss the first sequel: 1969′s Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

For whatever reason, Charlton Heston only participates in this sequel in a very limited role.  We see him in reused footage from Planet of the Apes at the start of the film, and in a handful of new shots, and then not again until the end of the film.  But somehow, shockingly, I don’t find myself missing him all that much.

In Chuck’s place, we meet a new protagonist: Brent (played by James Franciscus).  Brent is pretty much the exact same character as Taylor.  He’s a human from modern time who was catapulted through time and space to crash land on the Planet of the Apes.  (The film postulates that he was sent on a rescue mission to find Taylor and his crew, who never returned home.  But the first film told us that, due to the time dilation effects of space-travel, Taylor and his team weren’t supposed to have returned to Earth until 700 years after they left!  So I’m not quite sure when/why a rescue mission would have been sent after them, but whatever…)  Brent even LOOKS like a dead ringer for Taylor!  This is the type of thing that would usually have me groaning in agony at the stupidity of it all, but somehow when I watch this film I always find myself liking Brent — in many ways, even more than Taylor.  Mr. Franciscus’ performance has none of the scene-chewing histrionics that made Mr. Heston’s work in the original film so memorable, but in some respects that actually helps the story.  Brent seems like a much nicer fellow than Taylor, and he certainly acts more like one would imagine an astronaut would.  Mr. Franciscus isn’t a BIG STAR like Mr. Heston, but he does a fine job carrying the film’s story on his shoulders.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes expands on the world of the first film by playing up the differences between the different types of apes: the conservative, political-minded Orangatuns, the weaker, scientifically-focused Chimpanzees, and the war-like Gorillas.  I find this concept intriguing and it allows for a hint of the social commentary that was such a primary aspect of the first film’s narrative, though the idea that there are just three ape personality types is rather simplistic.

And, anyways, this installment — with its radioactive mutants and their perilous forbidden zone — is clearly far more of a pulp adventure than the first film.  Oh, yes, there are … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: From the Earth to the Moon

In 1998, HBO aired From the Earth to the Moon, a twelve-part mini-series produced by Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Michael Bostick.  The series chronicled the Apollo program, the massive American space-flight initiative that ran from 1961-1975 and which resulted in the first human being landing on the moon.

I am a nut for all things related to space-travel, so I eagerly devoured From the Earth to the Moon when it originally aired.  I have re-watched the series all the way through several times in the intervening years, and most recently re-watched it with my wife last month (who had never seen it before).  Although the series has nowhere near the intensity of Tom Hanks’ later HBO historical mini-series Band of Brothers and The Pacific, it still holds up as a phenomenal work of television, electrifying and informative.

What’s fun about the mini-series is that each episode has it’s own style and rhythms.  Obviously there is continuity from one episode to the next, as the stories have to fit together chronologically to tell the story of the developing Apollo program.  But each episode was written and directed by different individuals, and the creative team clearly took great pains to give each hour its own specific feel.  The first episode, for instance, titled “Can We Do This?” (which has to cover a lot of ground in setting up the story and summarizing the entire Mercury program — which was the focus of the superlative film The Right Stuff) is separated into a series of individually titled chapters — basically little vignettes that together paint a larger picture.  The third episode, “We Have Cleared the Tower,” is presented as the work of a documentary crew which was filming the preparations for the Apollo 7 mission.  Episode 5, “Spider,” (one of my favorite episodes of the mini-series) shifts the focus to the incredible amount of work done by all of the designers and engineers who constructed the lunar module.  Episode 10, “Galileo was Right,” focuses on all of the archaeological work that the astronauts had to accomplish (and the extraordinary amount of prep work that they needed to put in in order to do so).  These are just a few examples.  It’s a very clever strategy, as it keeps each episode fresh and new for the viewer.

There are a lot of visual effects throughout the series, and for the most part the quality is high.  There are several sequences of space-flight and Earth orbit that are very beautiful.  But this area is where the seams of this 1998 production show a bit.  I’m sure that today’s technology would have allowed for the creation of far more elaborate special effects.  … [continued]

 

Ape Management Part 1: Planet of the Apes (1967)

I am a big, big fan of the original five Planet of the Apes films (released between 1967 and 1973).  They’re so marvelously ambitious and earnest and, at the same time, so laughably silly, that I’ve always held a great fondness for the series.  While all four sequels represent a steep drop in quality from the original Charlton Heston-starring film, the sequels go in such bizarre, unexpected directions, and they’re so filled with their own charmingly quirky touches, that I find an enormous amount to enjoy in all of them.  (I am not afraid to admit, gentle reader, that my enjoyment of all five of these films is assisted, and sometimes enhanced by, the consumption of generous quantities of grape-juice-plus while watching them.)  With the I-can’t-believe-it’s-really-happening arrival of a new Planet of the Apes film this summer (the ridiculously titled — and that’s saying something for this film series — Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco), it seemed a suitable excuse to go back and revisit the five original films.  (I might re-watch Tim Burton’s 2001 Apes film — which I’ve only seen one time — as well, I haven’t decided yet.)

So let’s begin with the first and the best: the original Planet of the Apes from 1967.  Charlton Heston plays Taylor (not sure if that’s his first or last name), an astronaut who leads a deep-space mission that goes terribly awry — their ship is knocked off-course and crash-lands on a planet where Apes are the dominant species and humans are just mute savages and slaves.  (“It’s a madhouse!”)  Heston’s comrades quickly meet unfortunate ends, but Taylor himself befriends two brilliant and inquisitive chimpanzees: Zira (played by Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell).  He also befriends (if that’s what they’re calling it these days — wakka wakka!) a beautiful human girl (played by Linda Harrison) whom he decides to name Nova.  When Taylor’s ability to speak is discovered, he is put on trial by the incredulous ape leaders (including Dr. Zaius, played by Maurice Evans) who cannot believe that a human is capable of speaking the way apes can.  Taylor is eventually freed, and despite Dr. Zaius’ warning (“Don’t look for it, Taylor!  You may not like what you find.”) sets out into the “Forbidden Zone” in order to discover how it came to be that apes took over the planet.  What he discovers brings him to his knees, and has become an indelible image in our pop-culture ever since.  Just in case you didn’t know the surprise ending of the film, it’s spoiled on the DVD box cover art.  (And just in case you missed it on the front cover, the image … [continued]

 

(Almost) Fifty Years of 007! Josh Reviews Goldfinger (1964)

I’m only three films into my year-long (if not longer) project to revisit all 22 James Bond films, and I’ve already arrived at my very favorite Bond movies, and one of my very favorite films of all-time: Goldfinger.

The film: The greatness of Goldfinger lies in how the film contains everything that is iconic and wonderful about the Bond series, side-by-side with moments that are outrageously jaw-droppingly dated and unintentionally hilarious.  The film features an incredible theme song; gorgeous, ridiculously-named women; a compelling villain; a menacing henchman; an Aston Martin, gadgets, deathtraps, and great action.  The film lives and breathes a tone of “cool” — that unique 1960′s vibe and the allure of a hero who is never without a quip, a fancy drink, and a three-piece suit.  The script is fast-paced and very witty, stuffed-full of very funny bon mot.  Then, of course, there are the moments that are astoundingly out of date and quite unintentionally laughable: Bond’s casual sexism (never more on display than in this film), weak special effects, and, of course, that terry-cloth robe.  But rather than hurting my enjoyment of the film, there’s something so innocent about those flaws that they actually enhance my enjoyment!  I can enjoy myself just as much laughing at something the filmmakers wanted the audience to laugh about (like Felix’s good-natured resignation at how his friend James can always be found preoccupied by “a drink or a dame”) as I can laughing at those moments that were definitely NOT intended to be funny (like the over-the-top miming done by the actors playing the hoods as they’re being gassed by Goldfinger).  There’s literally not a single moment in Goldfinger that I don’t love.

The opening/The music: This is the first time that a Bond film began with an opening sequence that had absolutely nothing to do with the main plot of the film.  It’s basically just a fun action set-piece designed to draw the audience into the film.  (This would become a common device used by a majority of the Bond films to follow.)  Even though I’ve seen Goldfinger countless times, I often still forget just how jam-packed the opening sequence is with iconic, often imitated moments.  There’s the scene in which Bond pulls off his wet-suit to reveal a perfectly pressed white tuxedo underneath (mimicked by Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies), or the moment when Bond sees an attacker reflected in the eyes of the woman he’s kissing (imitated in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery).  There’s a great fight scene (my wife felt sorry for the girl, when Bond uses her as a shield against the attacking thug, but I always thought the implication was that

[continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Cronos (1993)

I really enjoyed the two Hellboy movies directed by Guillermo del Toro, and the exquisite Pan’s Labyrinth made me a fan of his for life.  Last year I tracked down his 2001 Spanish-language horror film The Devil’s Backbone, which I really enjoyed (you can read my review here), and I was delighted when, a few months ago, the fine folks at the Criterion Collection released a beautiful new edition of Mr. del Toro’s 1993 debut film, Cronos.

Jesus Gris is an elderly antiques dealer.  One day in his shop with his granddaughter Aurora, he discovers an ancient, scarab-shaped amulet hidden in an old relic.  The amulet turns out to be a powerful device that offers its user the promise of immortality — but at a great cost.  When Jesus inadvertently allows the scarab to prick him, he quickly finds himself drawn into a nightmare in which his humanity seems to rapidly spiral out of his reach.

Cronos is an impressive achievement for a first-time writer and director.  (Mr. del Toro wrote the script in addition to directing the film.)  While it’s clear that many of the ideas and stylistic techniques that Mr. del Toro would hone in his future films are, as yet, unpolished, Cronos is still a very competently made horror film.  There are some genuine scares in the film, and some suitably gross makeup effects.  But Cronos isn’t just a film designed to make you jump or squirm.  As with much of Mr. del Toro’s work, there’s a fascinating, original story that drives the film.  The kindly Jesus’ descent into, well, into events that I won’t spoil for you here, is tragic because of Mr. del Toro’s skill at establishing characters who you really care about.  I’m also continually impressed by the originality of Mr. del Toro’s stories and designs.  The scarab device and the other creatures and effects in the film are all singularly unique creations that aren’t in any way derivative of other films or other stories.  I was totally surprised when, late in the film, it becomes apparent that this story is actually Mr. del Toro’s take on a familiar genre of horror.  But because his approach to that genre was so new and clever, I wasn’t able to predict where the film was going at all.  Even in his first film, it’s clear that Guillermo del Toro possesses an unparalleled imagination, and the skill to bring his unique imaginings to the screen.

As with The Devil’s Backbone, I wasn’t at all bothered by having to watch this Spanish-lamguage film using the subtitles.  The story and imagery are so strong that the subtitles weren’t an impediment at all to my engagement … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008)

June 3rd, 2011
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After watching and enjoying Lost in La Mancha last month, I was in a documentary kind of mood, so I decided to track down a film I remembered reading really positive reviews about upon its release: Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!

This is a really crazy film!!

This documentary chronicles the Australian film scene of the 1970′s and 1980′s.  During those years, a large group burgeoning filmmakers in Australian produced scores of what some would consider “exploitation” films — meaning low-budget films filled with a ton of sex and violence.  Written and directed by Mark Hartley, Not Quite Hollywood delves into the development and spread in popularity of these films and filmmakers.  The documentary is divided into sections focusing on different types of these Ozploitation films — the sex-comedies, the horror films, etc. — while also spotlighting many of the directors, actors, and actresses who worked on these films.

Sometimes you watch a documentary and it’s clear that, while the film is interesting, it’s pieced together from interviews with just a few subjects.  Not this film.  There are literally HUNDREDS of people who have been interviewed for this film.  It’s clear that Mr. Hartley and his team did an extraordinary amount of work to track down so many of the people with stories to tell about the making of these Australian films.  No stone was left un-turned.  It’s impressive, and at times a bit overwhelming!  The film is edited at an extraordinarily rapid clip — with quick interview snippets running one after the other, often-times running over (or sharing a split-screen with) clips from the many films being discussed.  I can’t remember ever seeing a documentary that unfolds at such an energetic pace.  The result is a film that feels as crazy, unhinged, and FUN as the films being discussed!

And boy, there are some crazy films being discussed.  Other than the Mad Max films, I haven’t seen a single one of the many, many films spotlighted in Not Quite Hollywood.  On the one hand, watching this documentary makes me want to track some of these films down!  On the other hand, it’s a tremendous amount of fun watching this only-the-best-bits summations of all of these wacky films, and I’m not sure they’d be quite as much fun at full-length.  As with the interviews, Mr. Hartley and his team have assembled an extraordinarily vast collection of clips from all sorts of these crazy-looking Australian films.  I should warn you: there’s a LOT of nudity in these clips, and also a lot of crazy, bloody scenes of horror.  But it all seems so silly and good-natured (yes, even the horror has such a childish spatterific … [continued]

 

DC Animated Update

It’s been a while since I’ve chimed in with my thoughts on the recent direct-to-DVD DC Universe animated films!  Here are my thoughts on the last three releases:

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse – Coming hot off the heels of what I consider to be the strongest film in this series so far, the grim and intense Batman: Under the Red Hood (read my review here) comes this, by far the worst film so far.  This one is pretty much a total, unwatchable catastrophe.  Despite what the title and cover art might have you believe, this isn’t a story about Darkseid (one of the best Superman villains) at all.  It’s really the latest version of the Supergirl story (adapted from Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner’s story which did not interest me when it was published and still does not interest me now).  Now don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against Supergirl!  I loved the character on Bruce Timm’s animated Superman and Justice League shows.  But this desperate-to-be-hip reinterpretation has always smacked of desperation to me, and shoe-horning in Darkseid and his minions just robs those great characters of the focus they deserve.  Darkseid and the New Gods mythos were presented with far greater success in the afore-mentioned Superman and Justice League animated series.  This is just a sub-par retread of ground that has already been covered.  Skip this one at all costs, gang.

Superman/Shazam!  The Return of Black Adam — In addition to re-presenting the three DC Universe universe shorts that appeared on the three prior DVDs (with commentary tracks that are interesting but really should have been included on the original releases), this DVD collection includes the new Superman/Shazam short.  I say “short,” but it’s a good deal lengthier than the previous three shorts.  At almost 25 minutes, this is much more the length of an episode of one of the DC animated series.  And, indeed, this short feels just exactly like we’re watching a long-lost episode of one of those Bruce Timm DC Universe animated series.  That’s both good and bad.  It’s good in that the quality of the story-telling and the animation is high.  I find origin stories to be a little tiring, but I like this version of the Shazam/Captain Marvel mythos and I thought everything was presented in an effectively succinct, to-the-point way.  But it’s bad in that this felt pretty much like just another episode.  There wasn’t anything that jaw-dropping to see, and the story never reached anything near the apocalyptic heights glimpsed in the DVD’s terrific cover painting.  Also, as with the Darkseid stuff in the previous DVD, I felt that all of this had been done before, and better, in the old … [continued]

 

From The DVD Shelf: The Natural (1984)

I have fond memories of watching The Natural with my father as a kid, but it’s been quite a number of years since I’d seen it last.  When I saw a blu-ray of the film on-sale at Amazon for just a few bucks, I snatched it up.  What fun it was to revisit this fine film!

In Barry Levinson’s 1984 ode to baseball and Americana, Robert Redford plays Roy Hobbs.  As a young man he is clearly gifted with amazing skills at the game of baseball, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that can stand in his way to become the best ball-player to ever play the game.  But one moral mis-step cuts his dreams short.  Roy gets a second chance sixteen years later, when as a middle-aged rookie he comes back to the majors to help a losing ball-club on it’s quest for the pennant.

There’s a dramatic through-line to the film, of course, but The Natural really is a fairy-tale.  That had always been by recollection of the film, but I was still surprised, re-watching it now, just how prominent those fairy-tale aspects of the film are.  Watching the film, you might notice that the dangerous females all wear black, while the honest, noble heroine wears white.  But it cuts deeper than that.  The film is, at essence, a morality play.  It’s clear that we’re meant to understand that young Roy Hobbs is struck down by the woman in black not out of some random chance, but because he chose to break faith with his girlfriend back home (Glenn Close).  Then, later in the film, during his come-back season, when he takes up with the duplicitous Memo (Kim Basinger), his seeming invincibility at the plate suddenly ends.  In the world of The Natural, only the morally true can succeed.

I found this puzzling as a kid (I didn’t really understand why one moment Roy Hobbs could hit nothing but home runs, while the next he was striking out, and I was totally befuddled by the motivations of the woman in black), while now as an adult I find it to be endearingly sweet.  Such a simplistic, moral story could collapse into silliness, but the film is carried along by strong direction by Barry Levinson and some great performances by a high-wattage cast.

At the top, of course, is Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs.  Other than Christopher Reeves’ performance as Superman in the late seventies and early eighties, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with such a striking representation of truth, justice, and the American way.  The performance works because Mr. Redford — as did Mr. Reeves — plays the role with such straight-faced honesty and enthusiasm, with … [continued]

 

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]

 

From the DVD Shelf: The Squid and the Whale (2005)

March 25th, 2011
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After watching Noah Baumbach’s film Greenberg last month (click here for my review), I thought it’d be fun to re-watch the first film of his that I ever saw: 2005′s The Squid and the Whale.

I’m not sure what prompted me to rent this film 4-5 years ago.  Possibly the great, intriguing title, or maybe the DVD’s well-designed cover art.  Whatever it was, I remember really being impressed with the power of this funny, sad story.  I was excited to see it again last week!

The Squid and the Whale is set in Brooklyn in the 1980′s.  Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline play Walt and Frank Berkman, two boys whose parents, played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, are going through a divorce.  It’s a coming-of-age story, as the two boys struggle to deal with the dissolution of their once-stable family-unit.  Needless to say, the process is difficult on them both, though the two boys react in entirely different ways.

I can imagine that description of the film’s being about a painful divorce makes it sound like it would be a real slog to get through, but the story of the film (which Mr. Baumbach both wrote and directed) is told with a very light tough.  There are some scenes that are difficult and hard to watch, no mistake, but for the most part the film is rather a good deal of fun.  Throughout the story, Mr. Baumbach maintains a great deal of affection for all of the characters (even when they behave badly), and he’s able to mine a great deal of humor from their quirks and antics.  At certain moments, the film is very funny.

Jesse Eisenberg is excellent as Walt Berkman.  This is a fully-formed performance, and one can easily see why he went on to such high-profile roles in the past few years (in films like Zombieland and The Social Network).  Equally impressive is Owen Kline as his younger brother, Frank.  According to imdb, Owen has only appeared in one short film in the years since The Squid and the Whale, and that’s too bad because he’s really terrific in this film, honest and natural.

But in my mind it’s Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney who make the strongest impact.  Both of those incredibly talented actors have put in impressive performances in a number of great films, but it’s their roles here that always stick out in my mind as among their most memorable.  Jeff Daniels’ character, Bernard, is quite a prick — arrogant about his literary knowledge and jealous and threatened when his wife gets her first taste of success.  But his struggles are so wonderfully human that I … [continued]

 

(Almost) Fifty Years of 007! Josh Reviews Dr. No (1962)

It is absolutely unbelievable to me that it has been nearly FIFTY YEARS since the release of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, back in 1962.

(I don’t think the 1954 television version of Casino Royale counts.)

Let me say right at the outset that I am an enormous James Bond fan.  My enthusiasm for the film series began when I was in college.  After a bunch of my friends and I went to see Goldeneye in theatres, and enjoyed the heck out of it, we decided to go back and start re-watching all of the earlier films.  Over the next several years, a group of us became quite fanatical about the Bond films, watching and re-watching them all the time (often — I will admit, gentle reader — in various stages of intoxication).

But time passes, and I realized the other day that, while I’ve watched the two Daniel Craig Bond films several times, it had been quite a number of years since I’d seen most of the earlier films.  So I’ve decided to go back to the beginning, and re-watch the series in order.  I’m not going to rush things.  I’m not commiting to watching a film a week or anything like that.  Like a fine bottle of 1953 Dom Perignon (which is probably a lot harder to come by today that it was when James expressed his preference for it back in 1962), this is a series that should be savored!

The film: What a pleasure it was to re-watch Dr. No.  It’s astonishing to me how well-made the film is.  Despite its age, I think it holds up remarkably well.  It’s a taut action thriller, one that takes its time to develop the story without ever losing any of the fun or the tension.  Dr. No is a much smarter film than much of what passes for action movies these days.  But it’s also very fast-paced, keeping the film interesting to a modern audience.  (A number of participants on the wonderful commentary track on the DVD comment on the groundbreaking nature of Dr. No‘s editing.  It might not seem fast-paced to us today, but the filmmakers took great pains to cut the film in a manner that would keep the story zipping along.  I think that’s a big reason why the film still works so well today.)

Dr. No was made on a tiny budget, but you’d never know it.  I continually find myself amazed by the broad canvas of the film — it takes place in countless different locations and sets, and everything looks convincingly real to my eyes.  I’ll discuss this further later in my review, but the impressive set … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Lost in La Mancha (2002)

March 14th, 2011
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In August of 2000, director Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Twelve Monkeys) began work on his film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, an adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ famous novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, starring Johnny Depp, Vanessa Paradis and Jean Rochefort.

You don’t recognize the name of that movie?  You don’t remember ever seeing it in theatres?  You’re having trouble finding it on Netflix?

That’s because the film does not exist.  Despite years of preparation by Mr. Gilliam, months of pre-production (in which sets were constructed, props were created, costumes were made), and several days of actual shooting on the film with the main cast, an accumulation of catastrophes resulted in production being suspended, and ultimately halted indefinitely.  Despite all the work that had been done and the money that had been spent and the film footage already in the can, the movie was never finished.

Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe thought that they were filming a behind-the-scenes featurette for the eventual DVD release of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.  When the project fell apart, they decided to edit together the footage that they had shot to create a look at a movie that almost was but wasn’t.  The result is Lost in La Mancha.

For anyone interested in film, this documentary is a must-see.  It’s a fascinating case-study of the fiendish complexity of mounting a film production and the many, many things that can go wrong, thus sending a project undertaken with the best of intentions by all parties involved hurtling screamingly off the rails.

I wish I could say it’s shocking to me that acclaimed director Terry Gilliam has had so much trouble, over the years, finding funding and support for many of his projects.  Sadly it’s not shocking at all.  But it does remain bitterly disappointing.  Mr. Gilliam is one of the finest directors working today — a true film visionary in every sense of the world.  I might not love all of his films (they’re all so idiosyncratic and weird that some appeal to me far more than others), but all of them are clearly the work of a master craftsmen.  And yet, while most of Mr. Gilliam’s films probably possess behind-the-scenes stories of debates and battles over budgets and content and many other aspects of the making of the films, at least at the end of the day those movies exist!

It’s pretty sad that, despite literally years of working on his Don Quixote movie (at one point in pre-production, Mr. Gilliam comments with a smile that he’s been on the project for about a decade) that was, in many ways, a passion project for … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Rushmore (1998)

Although I’m a huge fan of Wes Anderson, somehow I had only seen Rushmore – the film that broke him through to a larger audience — one single time.  I saw it on VHS back in 1999 or 2000.  I didn’t know a thing about Wes Anderson at the time, I just knew it was a Bill Murray comedy that had been well-reviewed when it came out.  But since my idea of a great Bill Murray comedy was something like Ghostbusters or Groundhog Day, I was totally unprepared for Rushmore.  I didn’t like it at all.

Thinking back on it, I think the problem was that I was expecting a totally different kind of movie.  I didn’t know quite what to make of Mr. Anderson’s little film.  It was a much more somber, sad film than anything I would readily describe as a “comedy.”  I do remember laughing at a few points — particularly the mid-movie montage in which Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman’s characters try to destroy one another — but those moments were few and far between.  It also probably didn’t help that I was watching the movie on a tiny little TV screen, late at night when I was exhausted.

For years now I’ve been thinking that I really should go back and revisit Rushmore.  It’s GOT to be a better film than I remember it being, I thought!  After watching Wes Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, last year (click here for my review), I was all set to re-watch Rushmore.  But somehow, months passed, and I never got to it.

But last month, finally, I did!

As I expected, I thought much, much more highly of Rushmore this time.  I still think that The Royal Tenenbaums is far and away Wes Anderson’s greatest film (though The Fantastic Mr Fox certainly would give it a run for its money — click here for my review of that film), but I quite enjoyed Rushmore, and I can see why it was such a critical darling upon its release in 1998.

Jason Schwartzman turns in a star-making performance as the Max Fischer — an overachiever who has founded countless school clubs and written and directed a series incredibly elaborate plays but who, nevertheless, is in danger of flunking out of Rushmore Academy.  Max strikes up a friendship with Herman Blume (Bill Murray) a rich local businessman who finds that he likes the eccentric Max far more than his own “popular” sons.  The two men are both lost and lonely, and they’re able to find deep common ground between them, despite their age difference.  That is, until they both fall in … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews OSS 117: Lost in Rio

Last spring I wrote about OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies, a French parody of the Sean Connery era James Bond films.  I really liked the movie — I thought it was a spot-on Bond parody and very, very silly — and so I was very excited to watch the 2009 sequel: Rio Ne Repond Plus.  (The English subtitle is Lost in Rio.)

Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, French secret service agent code-named OSS 117, is assigned a new case: to track down and pay-off an ex-Nazi, Professor von Zimmel,  who has a list of French collaborators from WWII.  Hubert is quickly intercepted by a group of Mossad agents, who want von Zimmel captured and brought back to Israel for trial.  So Hubert reluctantly teams up with Israeli colonel Dolores Kulechov.  They decide to locate von Zimmel by using his son, but quickly find themselves beset by double-agents, masked wrestler/hit-men, groovy hippies, and a lot of Nazis.

Once again, Jean Dujardin plays Hubert.  The over-the-top Francophonic Hubert is arrogant, racist, and misogynistic.  But in an endearing way!  Well, fairly endearing.  Lost in Rio pushes the humor of the series even further outside the bounds of political correctness than the last installment did.  For the most part, the boundary-pushing humor works, because Mr. Dujardin imbues Hubert with such happy cluelessness that he’s hard to dislike.  And the film is pretty clear that it is Hubert himself who is the buffoon, and the subject of our laughter.

The key to this is for the film to ensure that Hubert, rather than any of the people he mocks or puts down, is the primary idiot in every scene.  He can laugh about how useless his female partner is, but since we can clearly see her being extraordinarily brave and heroic, we know that the joke is on Hubert.  The only major mis-step of the film, for me, was the running subplot about the various Chinese hit-men chasing after Hubert all being hard to understand.  Hubert’s jokes about their accents are a little less funny because the actors portraying the hit-men DO all speak in a sort of silly accent.  The film wants us to laugh a little at the Chinese hit-men, not just at Hubert himself, and I think that’s a mistake.

But over-all, the film is extremely funny.  There’s a lot of pleasure to be had from the continued tweaking of Bond-era styles, from Hubert’s wardrobe — which includes a tiny blue Goldfinger-esque terry cloth robe — to the insanely over-the-top use of split-screens in certain sequences.  Some of the humor is very low-brow physical, while some is clever word-play.  (There’s an Au Revoir, Les Enfants joke that … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews The Killer Inside Me

February 28th, 2011
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In The Killer Inside Me, Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of the novel by Jim Thompson, Casey Affleck stars as Texas sheriff’s deputy Lou Ford.  At first, he seems like the good-natured heroic main character of the film.  ”Around here, if you’re not a man and a gentleman, you’re nothing,” Lou intones in a monologue that opens the film.  My initial reaction was that Lou was describing the way he tries to live his life — the importance of striving to be a gentleman.  The reality, as we quickly learn, is much darker.  Lou is certainly not a gentleman and barely even a human being.  His statement reflects his cold, blunt knowledge of that fact.

The Killer Inside Me is worth watching purely for the phenomenal lead performance of Casey Affleck.  I am continually amazed by Mr. Affleck’s insistence on taking on challenging, outside-of-the-mainstream roles, and also for his extraordinary versatility as an actor.  He can play straight comedy in the Ocean’s Eleven films, a heroic but conflicted lead character in Gone Baby Gone, and then the most horrible type of evil in this film.  It’s an extraordinary range for an actor to display, and with each film Mr. Affleck seems to get better and better.  In The Killer Inside Me, one can’t help but be captivated as Mr. Affleck reveals layer upon deeper layer of the cruel, horrible individual who Lou Ford really us.  It’s a raw, electrifying performance, and one from which you really can’t look away.

The rest of the film is a little more difficult to praise.  The film is outrageously violent, and there are several extremely gruesome and graphic depictions of Lou Ford’s violence towards women that verge on the nauseating.  I don’t have a strong stomach for violence in films, I will readily admit, and this film really pushed me to my limits.  It’s not that there is constant violence throughout the film — it’s more that there are several instances of intense, terrible violence.  In particular, one female character meets a shocking demise about of a third of the way into the film.  It’s a stunning moment — not only because I had expected that character to stick around for the rest of the film, but also because of the extraordinarily painful, extended, right-on-camera depiction of her death.  It’s really rough stuff.  I don’t think the violence is necessarily gratuitous — I do understand what Mr. Winterbottom was intending to accomplish — but it’s so tough to watch that in many ways those moments pull me right out of the story I’m watching unfold.

Though what really cripples the film, for me, is the loony left-turn that the narrative takes in the final … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews The Ghost Writer

While I try not to let a filmmaker’s personal life interfere with my enjoyment of their work, I must admit that I didn’t exactly feel a burning desire to rush out and see the latest Roman Polanski film, 2010′s The Ghost Writer. However, while Mr. Polanski’s somewhat sordid past did give me pause, I must of course acknowledge his tremendous skills as a filmmaker.  So, in that respect, his involvement in The Ghost Writer also piqued my interest in the film.  I wondered what sort of spin Mr. Polanski had brought to a story that looked, on the surface, like a pretty run-of-the-mill thriller.  This push-pull on my interest resulted in my passing on the film in theatres, but adding it to my Netflix queue once it came out on DVD.

(And that, my friends, is a little extra free-of-charge insight into how my brain works!)

In the film, Ewan McGregor plays the titular ghost writer.  (Interestingly enough, his character’s actual name is never given.)  He’s a professional author, hired to help famous people complete their memoirs/autobiographies/etc.  The ghost writer’s services are called into play, at the start of the film, to help beleaguered British politician Adam Lang.  Mr. Lang, once the British Prime Minister, is now under fire for allegedly allowing suspected terrorists to be tortured while he was the PM.  That, plus the untimely death of his last ghost writer, has put a wrinkle in the progress of his upcoming book.  With the political scandal reaching fever pitch, the book’s publisher is desperate to get the book completed and on the shelves in great haste, and so Ewan McGregor’s character is dispatched to the Lang compound to begin work immediately.

Except, no surprise, things quickly become very complicated for the ghost.  He finds himself faced with Mr. Lang, a politician under siege, who seems extraordinarily affable at times and yet reluctant to open up about himself or his past; Lang’s wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), who seems sympathetic but also extremely tightly-wound; and a growing mystery about Adam Lang’s past and what may or may not have happened to his ghost writer predecessor.

Pierce Brosnan was widely-praised for his performance as Adam Lang, and rightly so.  He brings all the charisma and bluster of a great politician to the fore, while also hinting at a dangerous edge that just might lie right below the surface.  He constantly keeps the audience guessing as to whether he’s a noble politician beset by pernicious enemies, or whether Adam Lang is in fact a much more sinister character.  Speaking of keeping the audience guessing, so too does the wonderful Olivia Williams (Dollhouse, Rushmore) as his wife Ruth.  She is wonderfully creepy … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Greenberg

February 21st, 2011
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I was really captivated by The Squid and the Whale when I first saw it, and I think that first viewing made me interested for life in whatever future projects writer/director Noah Baumbach would undertake.  I was bummed to have missed Greenberg when it was released to theatres last year, but was happy to catch up with it on DVD last month.

Ben Stiller plays the titular Greenberg: Roger Greenberg.  A tightly-wound fellow, Roger Greenberg has returned to Los Angeles after many years away (and, apparently, a brief stay in a mental institution).  While his wealthy brother, Phillip (Chris Messina) is out of town with his family, Roger has moved into his large house.  While Phillip has given Roger some projects as an ostensible reason for his visit (namely to use his carpenter skills to build a new doghouse for the family pet), it’s clear that the main reason for his stay is to somehow find himself again, and perhaps to return some stability to his life.

Though the film is called Greenberg, the movie opens by allowing us to spend a significant amount of time with a young woman named Florence (played by Greta Gerwig).  She is Phillip Greenberg’s assistant/nanny, and she’s assigned with taking care of some household chores in the family’s absence, and also to assist Roger if he needs help.  It’s that last assignment that proves tricky.  Though there’s a spark of attraction between the two, the young, cheerful Florence doesn’t quite know what to make of the occasionally depressed, always difficult forty year-old Roger.

As always, director and co-writer Noah Baumbach (he shares story credit with his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh) is able to mine a lot of comedy from the painfully awkward collisions of slightly-damaged people.  Well, in this case, I think it’s fair to say that Roger Greenberg is more than just slightly damaged.  Mr. Baumbach and Mr. Stiller make brave choices in allowing their lead character to be extraordinarily unlikable at times.  The film is very funny on occasions, and much of that humor is derived from Greenberg’s neuroses (such as his proclivity for writing long letters of complaint to any agency or business that has offended him in the slightest).  But the film is also tough to watch at times.  Greenberg’s insecurities cause him to lash out at those people trying (perhaps against their better judgment) to be in his life.  In particular, he’s terribly cruel to Florence at several points in the film, in a way that really dares the audience to give up on this character.

But somehow — and this is really a testament to Mr. Baumbach’s skill as a writer/director — we never quite do, and

[continued]

 

Yesterday I began listing my Top 10 DVDs/Blu-Rays of 2010.  Here’s the rest of my list!

5. Batman: Under the Red HoodBruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series knocked me for a loop when I first saw it back in the ’90s, and I’ve been a huge fan of his many DC Universe animated projects in the years since.  The recent series of animated DVDs that he’s been masterminding have been a bit hit-or-miss, but this film (adapting a storyline from the Batman comics written by Judd Winick) is really tremendous.  The story has a GREAT hook: Batman’s life is uprooted when he discovers that the new crime-lord in Gotham City just might be his former partner, Robin.  What unfolds is a surprisingly dark, surprisingly violent tale.  Whenever Mr. Timm returns to Batman, I’m a happy camper, but this grim little film really grabbed me.  I think it’s a particularly great depiction of the Dark Knight Detective.  A superlative voice cast (including Bruce Greenwood, Neal Patrick Harris, Jensen Ackles, Jason Isaacs, and Futurama’s John Di Maggio) is just the icing on the cake.  (Click here for my original review.)

4. Family Guy: It’s a Trap! The folks at Family Guy conclude their trilogy of extended episodes parodying the three original Star Wars films with this warped version of Return of the Jedi. The animation is absolutely gorgeous (it’s shocking that I would write that about an episode of Family Guy, but believe me, it’s true.  These artists have painstakingly recreated shot after shot from Return of the Jedi. Their version of the Battle for the Second Death Star is astounding).  The jokes are very funny.  (I was particularly taken with their depiction of the speeder-bike chase sequence, but on tricycles.)  It’s Family Guy Star Wars.  What more could I ask for?  (Click here for my original review.)

3. Grindhouse (Blu-Ray) – I was very afraid that this would never see the light of day, but at last one can now own the original theatrical version of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s double-feature, complete with all of the fake trailers.  I love the extended versions of the two films that were released on DVD a few years back, but I’ve been aching to be able to experience what I saw (and so loved) in theatres back in 2007.  Ignore the nay-sayers — this film is genius, and it is phenomenally entertaining viewing.  It’s not for everyone (there’s a lot of sex and violence), but damn do I think it’s a lot of fun.

2. Apocalypse Now: Full Disclosure (Blu-Ray) Apocalypse Now is one of my favorite films.  I didn’t … [continued]

 

The Top 10 DVDs/Blu-Rays of 2010 — Part One!

Earlier this week I posted my list of my Top 10 Movies of 2010!  (Click here for part one and here for part two.)  Here now is my list of my Top 10 DVDs/Blu-Rays of 2010:

First, the DVDs that might have made this list had I had the time to watch them.  My to-watch DVD shelf has been getting a bit backed-up lately.  As a result, there are several DVDs and DVD sets that I am really excited about, but that I haven’t had a chance to watch.  These include: The Red Riding Trilogy, the new edition of The Bridge on the River Kwai, the Criterion Collection edition of Guillermo del Toro’s film Cronos, the Criterion Collection edition of The Thin Red Line, and Parks and Recreation Season 2 (which I watched when it aired but I’m eager to revisit!).  OK, now on to my list:

10. Scott Pilgrim vs the World (Blu-Ray) – This was my favorite film of 2010, and the Blu-Ray release rocked pretty hard as well.  First of all, it’s an absolutely GORGEOUS presentation of the film.  Second, the DVD is totally awash in incredible special features.  I’m a nut for DVD special features, but this disc tested even my endurance (in the best possible way).  There’s a phenomenal, in-depth making-of documentary, but there are also a ton of deleted and extended scenes, bloopers, featurettes spotlighting the film’s music, visual effects, casting, fight-training, pre-production, and so-much more.  It’s a magnificent presentation of a magnificent film.  (Click here for my original review of the film.)

9. Clerks (Blu-Ray) — This is a great film and it looks great on Blu-Ray, but the reason it’s on this list is because this disc includes the 2004 documentary film Oh, What a Lovely Tea Party.  I’ve been reading about this documentary for years, but it’s never been released on any home-video format, until now.  It’s a funny and fascinating fly-on-the-wall look at the making of Kevin Smith’s film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.  Now, you might be asking yourself, what is a documentary about Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back doing on the Blu-Ray of Clerks? Well, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, which is why this disc is in the bottom half of my top ten list, rather than the top half.

8. The Pacific (Blu-Ray) — This was a gift from my brother and his wife, and what a gift!  I consider Band of Brothers to be one of the finest television series ever created, so obviously I was eagerly anticipating Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s take on the war in the Pacific.  In many ways, … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews The Kids Are All Right

January 27th, 2011
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In Lisa Cholodenko’s film The Kids Are All Right, we meet Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), a loving lesbian couple who have been raising two kids together: Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson).  Their lives aren’t perfect, but over-all it’s a stable, happy family unit.  But when Laser convinces Joni to help him find their biological father (though Nic gave birth to Joni and Jules gave birth to Laser, they share the same sperm donor), the foundations of the family are shaken.

I was really quite taken with this film.  I think it’s an interesting story filled with complex, human characters, and all of the lead actors give terrific performances.  I was ultimately dissatisfied with where the narrative wound up (more on that later), which lessens the film’s total impact slightly for me, but it’s still a very solid, enjoyable, aimed-at-adults movie.

I’ve been complaining a lot recently about films with one-dimensional characters.  I don’t mind films having heroes and villains, and likable and unlikable characters.  I simply tend to prefer films where the characters aren’t completely black and white.  (Ex. This father is a TOTAL JERK with no redeeming qualities.)  So major props to writer/director Ms. Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg for crafting a story filled with truly human characters.  No one in The Kids Are All Right is a total saint.  The characters have positive qualities and some negative ones as well.  Likable characters make some bad decisions.  It’s thrillingly refreshing.

This top-notch material is elevated by a wonderful cast.  Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are both phenomenal as Nic and Jules.  These characters felt completely REAL to me, and their relationship felt equally honest.  It’s sweet and messy and complicated and feels really true.  I like that we get to see the two sharing some tender moments, as well as the times when they seem completely distant from one another.

Equally wonderful are the two kids.  Mia Wasikowska was one of the few good things in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (read my review here), and it’s delightful to see her looking and acting like a real human being without all of that accompanying Tim Burton weirdness.  Ms. Wasikowska is able to bring to life Joni’s innocence, as well as to her growing temptation to leave her childhood behind and step into the trappings of an adult.  Josh Hutcherson is also strong as her brother Laser (pronounced Lazer).  He’s already begun to push at the boundaries of conformity and acceptable behavior, but Mr. Hutcherson keeps reminding us of Laser’s good-natured side as well (a product, one can assume, of the strong upbringing he’s received from his two moms).

Then there is Paul … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Flipped

January 26th, 2011
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Back in June I posted a trailer for Rob Reiner’s new film, Flipped, and I wondered if, at last, Rob Reiner (the mastermind behind This is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, and A Few Good Men) had broken his long dry streak and finally directed a good new film. Unfortunately Flipped was only in theatres for about five seconds, so I never got to see it — but I was happy to have a chance to catch it on DVD.

And I am happy to report that the film represents a strong return to form for Mr. Reiner!

Adapted from the book by Wendelin Van Draanen, Flipped tells the story of Bryce Loski and Juli Baker.  When Bryce is seven, his family moves into the house across the street from Juli’s.  She immediately develops a crush on him, while he finds her attentions to be annoying in the extreme.  By the eight grade, though, Bryce finally begins to see what’s so special about Juli… at the same time as she starts to think that maybe Bryce isn’t the amazing kid she always thought he was.

While I wouldn’t argue that Flipped is of a level with the amazing films listed above that Mr. Reiner directed earlier in his career, it’s a really fun, sweet film that I quite enjoyed.  Mr. Reiner has always had the ability to craft what one might call “family” films that avoid the simplicity and schmaltz so prevalent in “all-ages” types of films, and that skill is on fine display here.  Flipped isn’t edgy, it isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s an extremely well-crafted little story that I found to be really endearing.

The film employs a device (which, I gather, was a main hook of the original book) of continually switching back and forth between Bryce’s & Juli’s perspectives.  We see event unfold narrated by Bryce, and then the film cuts back and we see the same events from Juli’s perspective.  As the film began I wondered if that device wouldn’t get tedious, but in Mr. Reiner’s skilled hands nothing of the sort happens.  He knows exactly how to cut the footage so that he shows us just enough, on the second run-through, of what we need to know without boring the audience by replaying every single second, and the narrative is so-cleverly crafted that our second viewing of the events always shows us something we hadn’t learned before.  (With one notable exception.  Towards the end of the film there’s a scene in which Bryce is talking to a friend about Juli in the library, and although we don’t see her at the time, I found it … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Winter’s Bone

I’m always intrigued by the idea of world-building in film.  Whether we’re talking about fantasy worlds a long time ago and far, far away, or the depiction of distinct real-life settings or time-periods, when I watch a movie I love to be immersed in a fully-realized universe in which the story takes place.  In some movies, the setting is barely mentioned and basically irrelevant to the story.  In others, the setting becomes almost a key character in the story, and the filmmakers expend great time and skill in bringing that particular universe of the story to vibrant life.

Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik and written by Ms. Granik and Anne Rosellini (adapting the novel by Daniel Woodrell), definitely falls into the latter category.  The story is set in the Ozarks, a rural area of Missouri.  I have no idea if the world of the Ozarks as depicted in this film bears any connection to real life (I assume that it does, but I certainly can’t verify that myself), but whether it does or not, I have found it difficult to shake the picture of this downtrodden community that Ms. Granik has created in her film.

Winter’s Bone focuses on Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), a 17 year-old girl who has assumed the role of caretaker for her family (a sick mother and two younger siblings) in the absence of her father, a meth cooker who has vanished — either dead or on the run for the law.  Though she harbors a dream of joining the army and leaving her home behind, when we first meet Ree she seems to have settled impressively well into her role as head of the family.  She exhibits great responsibility and maturity in taking care of everything that needs to be done, without complaint, and she gives enormous amounts of care to her mom and siblings.  But her precariously-balanced existence is thrown into grave jeopardy when the local Sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) informs her that her missing father (Jessup) had put up their house and all their possessions as bond. If he doesn’t show up to his court date, Ree and her family will lose everything.  With her back up against the wall, Ree begins trying to locate her father by making inquiry with her neighbors — most of whom seem to be related to her in some way, and most of whom seem to be involved in the same criminal activities that her father was.  They are proudly defiant of the law and as such refuse to help Ree track down her father.  With the clock ticking, the young girl feels her options waning.

I’ve read reviews of this film that describe it as depicting … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Easy A

January 19th, 2011
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If there was any doubt in your mind that Emma Stone is a bona fide movie star, that should be erased by Easy A.  She’s clearly a vibrant, intelligent, beautiful young woman, and she’s very engagingly watchable.  She has no trouble carrying this film on her young shoulders.

Unfortunately, other than watching Ms. Stone dig her teeth into her first starring role, I found precious little to enjoy in this movie.

The biggest problem is that, as talented as Ms. Stone clearly is, she’s just way too vibrant, intelligent, and beautiful a young woman to be believable as the totally unnoticed zero that she claims she is in the film’s opening monologue.  Much of the plot of the film depends on our accepting Olive (Emma Stone’s character) as a lonely looser, but nothing in her scenes on-screen leads me to buy that reality!  The problem is not contained just with Ms. Stone.  As the film progresses, we get to meet the young man who’s the real object of her affection: the boy she nicknames “Woodchuck Todd” (Penn Badgley).  I guess he’s also supposed to be something of an oddball, since he doesn’t seem to hang out with the “in” crowd kids, and he’s apparently the school’s mascot (a woodchuck, hence the nickname).  Except that when we see him without his shirt (which is often), Mr. Badgley is clearly an extraordinarily handsome, well-built fellow who looks more like the football team’s star quarterback than the goofy team mascot.  As with Ms. Stone, he’s entertaining, but I just don’t buy him in the role.

The rest of the actors supposedly playing high school kids all look equally too old and too good-looking to really be high school kids.  Look, maybe I’m spoiled by my devotion to Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Greeks, a show where the high school kids ALL ACTUALLY LOOKED LIKE HIGH SCHOOL KIDS!!  Easy A certainly isn’t the first movie or TV show to cast older, more impossibly beautiful people in the role of high school kids.  But it seems particularly egregious here.  (It doesn’t help, by the way, that the film features Joan Jett’s song “Bad Reputation” on the soundtrack at a key moment.  I can’t help but compare your movie to the brilliant Freaks and Geeks when you ACTUALLY USE FREAKS AND GEEKS’ THEME SONG IN YOUR FILM!!  Sheesh!!)

But while I didn’t believe Emma Stone to be a lonely, unseen kid, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t really enjoy watching her in the role.  She truly is a lot of fun, and when the movie works it works because of her charisma.  She effortlessly takes on the lead role.

I also really enjoyed the scenes … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Despicable Me

January 18th, 2011
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Despicable Me seemed like a movie that I’d really dig.  It’s an animated film about dueling super-villains, which is a great hook, and it features a spectacular voice cast: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Jack McBrayer, Danny McBride, and more.

Boy, what a disappointment!

First of all, despite what the trailers indicated, the film isn’t about dueling super-villains at all.  Jason Segel’s character Vector, who is presented in the trailer and in the opening scenes of the film as a rival for Steve Carell’s villain Gru, hardly factors into the story at all until the very end.  Instead, the plot of the film really focuses on Gru’s adopting three cute little girls (as part of one of his dastardly plans), but instead of manipulating them he grows fond of the girls and discovers that he can be a great dad.

Blech!

Boy oh boy, this film failed on pretty much every level for me.  It’s more interested in cutesy-moments (whether featuring the three oh-so-cute little girls or the oh-so-adorable little yellow “minions” that work for Gru) than actual jokes.  There are a few funny moments, but they’re few and far between.

The plot, as it were, is very thin.  The idea that Gru could adopt those three girls is more ludicrous than any of the super-villain hi-jinks in the film.  There are a few perfunctory scenes with the girls in their orphanage, run by a cruel woman named Miss Hattie (Kristen Wiig), which are clearly only in the film to minimize the horror of the idea of this bizarre man being allowed to adopt three innocent little girls.  (“Hey, at least he’s not as bad as SHE is,” we’re supposed to think!)  Then the film attempts to mine some drama from Vector kidnapping the girls at the end, but there’s no tension because he’s clearly no match for Gru.  After the opening scenes, the film has tried to mine laughs from Vector being presented as a total doofus.

The film doesn’t even really bother to explore the premise that it sets up — a world where there are apparently no super-heroes and super-villains are allowed to operate with impunity.  Where are the heroes?  How does society react to the free reign these villains apparently have?  Are there other villains out there besides Gru and Vector?  How did Gru create his minions?  I could go on and on.  Compare this to the fully-relized universe created in Pixar’s super-hero film, The Incredibles.  Not only did that movie feature three-dimensional characters and a compelling story-line, but it also managed to really explore the world being presented.  We learned about the effect that the heroes … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale

January 14th, 2011
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It’s very possible that John Cazale has the greatest batting average of any actor in history.  He only appeared in five films, but they were, in order: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. It’s an amazing streak of five phenomenal performances in five phenomenal films, although that only emphasizes the tragedy of Mr. Cazale’s death at the incredibly young age of 42.

Anyone in the cult of The Godfather, like me, already knows the name John Cazale.  He, of course, plays the sweet but hapless Fredo, brother of Michael (Al Pacino) and Sonny (James Caan).  Although not one of the big-star names in the film (like the afore-mentioned Mr. Pacino and Mr. Caan, along, of course, with Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall), Mr. Cazale’s work as Fredo is absolutely amazing.  He creates, in Fredo, a role of enormous depth and sophistication.  Fredo is a character who is, on the one hand, all surface — he’s unable to hide his thoughts and feelings the way his brother Michael can — though Mr. Cazale brings enormous soul to the character and shows us deep layers of emotion and feelings behind his amazingly expressive eyes.

Those eyes are often commented upon by those who loved and admired Mr. Cazale in the documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, directed by Richard Shephard.  The film is aimed at introducing movie fans to this incredibly talented, yet sadly somewhat forgotten, actor.

Even at the time, Mr. Cazale’s talents were often overlooked.  The film points out that, while the five films he starred in were nominated for a total of 44 Academy Awards (quite a haul!), Mr. Cazale himself was never nominated.  And in a sad scene early in the documentary, we see pedestrians in New York City asked to identify Mr. Cazale from a picture of him as Fredo from The Godfather. While many are able to recall the name of his character, not one knew Mr. Cazale’s name.  (I always wonder if scenes like these in films aren’t the result of judicious editing to make the point that the filmmakers want, but in this case I have no doubt that most people have never heard John Cazale’s name.)

The film spends a few minutes giving us some insight into Mr. Cazale’s background and childhood, but for the most part it focuses on his work in his five films.  A plethora of actors and directors — including Francis Ford Coppola (who directed Mr. Cazale in the first three films in which he appeared), Sidney Lumet (who directed him in his fourth film, Dog Day Afternoon), Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Robert … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Cyrus

In the film Cyrus, written and directed by Jay & Mark Duplass, John C. Reilly stars a John, a pretty pathetic fellow whose self-confidence is not improved by the news that his ex-wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener), is about to re-marry.  Jamie convinces John to join her and her fiancee at a friend’s party.  To John’s great surprise, he actually winds up hitting it off with a beautiful woman named Molly (Marisa Tomei).  They go on a couple of dates, all of which go very well.  Molly seems wonderful.  But when he notices that Molly never seems willing to spend a whole night at his place, John begins to wonder if she’s married, or if she’s hiding some other secret from him.  When he follows her home one day, he discovers what that secret is: her 21-year-old son, Cyrus.  Molly has raised Cyrus by herself, and neither has ever been able to separate from the other.  He still lives with her, but that’s the least of it!  To call their relationship co-dependant would be a dramatic understatement, and John is forced to wonder whether he can ever fit into the life that those two have created for each other.

I’d read some rave reviews about Cyrus when it played at festivals earlier this year.  Even though it’s release to theatres fizzled this past summer, I was eager to watch it on DVD.  I’d read that this was a black comedy, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the weirdness on display in this film!!  It certainly goes to some places I did not expect.  There’s a lot that I enjoyed about the film, though I can’t really say that it all worked for me.

The biggest problem with the movie, for me, was the first twenty-or-so minutes before we meet Cyrus.  The film takes this time to establish John as a character.  I understand that we need to learn that he’s lonely and odd, because we need to understand why he doesn’t head for the hills at the first whiff of weirdness between Molly & Cyrus.  The filmmakers need to show us that John is a man pretty desperate for love and companionship, and that is what causes him to stick things out and try to fight for Molly’s affections.  But, boy, I think the Duplass brothers went WAY too far over the top in presenting John as such an extraordinarily pathetic loser in those opening scenes.  Those sequences are just PAINFUL to watch — I didn’t find any humor in those scenes, they just made me squirm.

The film comes to life, though once we meet Cyrus.  Jonah Hill has come a long way since the first movie he appeared in … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

January 10th, 2011
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Before I finalize my Best of 2010 lists (which will be coming in a few weeks), I’ve been trying to catch up on some of the movies/TV shows/comics/etc. that I’d missed during the past very busy twelve months.  One of the films that I was bummed to have never gotten to was the recent documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.  I was able to watch the film on DVD, and it is fantastic.  (I have a feeling this might have just bumped another film off of my Best Movies of 2010 list!  We’ll see…)

Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, the film follows a year in the life of the 77 year-old working comedian.  For so many people these days, Joan Rivers is basically a joke — a nasty woman criticizing people on the red carpet line while herself looking pretty hideously plastic as a result of inordinate amounts of plastic surgery.  Being a big comedy fan — and, in particular, stand-up comedy — I’m actually fairly familiar with her early work, when she was a pretty sharp, hysterical comic.  But I still had the same perception of her, these days, as most.  I had respect for the comedian she’d been, but that only made it more painful these days to see her hocking gawdy items on QVC.

But after watching Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, it’s clear that I didn’t know Joan Rivers at all.  The film does an incredible job at humanizing Ms. Rivers.  Not by glossing over her faults — no, the film pulls no punches when it comes to moments when she doesn’t appear in the best of light.  But in many respects this warts-and-all presentation of Joan Rivers forces audiences to look at her and her work in a new light, and to reconsider our caricaturish perceptions of her.

Most importantly, the film emphasizes what a vibrant, FUNNY comic she still is.  The film contains some terrific clips from her glory-days on the stand-up circuit and, of course, some of her appearances on The Tonight Show, but it also contains generous clips from many of Ms. Rivers’ current stand-up gigs, and she is a RIOT.  Crude, unflinching, and hysterical.  (After the film was over, my wife Steph and I turned to each other and said, “boy, it’d be fun to go see her perform live!”)  I was totally unprepared to laugh at any Joan Rivers material post 1980.

The year chronicled by the film (2008-09) was a fascinating year for Ms. Rivers, containing many low points (her disappointment at the criticisms leveled at her play after performances in London; her decision to part company with her long-time manager) and … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews the original TRON (1982)

December 20th, 2010
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Before seeing the new, big-budgeted sequel Tron: Legacy, being released this week by the Walt Disney Company, I decided that I really needed to go back and watch the 1982 original.

That proved a little more difficult than I had anticipated!  I’d assumed that Disney would cash in on the building excitement by releasing a snazzy new DVD/blu-ray edition of the film in advance of Tron: Legacy‘s release, but that didn’t happen.  (There’s speculation that Disney was afraid that people would watch the dated 1982 Tron and get turned off on the idea of seeing the new film.)  Either way, the decade-old previous DVD edition is out-of-print and apparently fiendishly hard to get a hold of.  Thank heaven for my phenomenal local video store, the Video Underground.  They had a copy of Tron, and though it took me a few visits until it was finally in, I was ultimately able to rent the film.

I’ve seen Tron a few times before, but it had been quite a while since my last viewing, so I was excited to give it a whirl.

Jeff Bridges (yes, that Jeff Bridges) stars as Flynn, a brilliant but sort of slackerish computer programmer who has recently been fired from Encom, a large computer company.  Flynn has been trying to hack into Encom’s computer systems, in an attempt to prove that the new head of the company, Ed Dillinger (David Warner), stole his work as part of his rise to power.  Unbeknownst to Flynn and the rest of the world (but, as Mel Brooks would say, knownst to us), in taking over the company, Dillinger has allowed an emergingly-sentient computer program, the Master Control Program, to take control of all of the company’s systems and begin a process of taking over other powerful computer systems across the globe.  Meanwhile, Flynn’s ex-girlfriend Lora (Cindy Morgan), and her new boyfriend Alan (Bruce Boxleitner), both of whom still work for Encom, learn that Dillinger has discovered Flynn’s hacking attempts, and they try to warn Flynn to stop what he’s doing.  But Flynn convinces them that Dillinger needs to be stopped, so the three of them break into Encom in an attempt to find the evidence Flynn needs to bring Dillinger down.

All of that is really just set-up for when the Master Control Program zaps Flynn with a laser and digitizes him, sending his conscience into the mainframe of the system itself.  There Flynn learns that, inside the world of the computers he has spent his days and nights programming, exists an entire universe of life.  Programs that he and others have written as lines of data exist here as individuals, trying their best … [continued]

 

Spielberg in the Aughts: War of the Worlds (2005)

In 2005 Steven Spielberg returned to sci-fi with his version of H. G. Wells’ famous story from 1898, War of the Worlds.

Not surprisingly, rather than being a period piece, Mr. Spielberg set his adaptation in the present day.  Tom Cruise reunited with Spielberg to star as Ray Ferrier, an affable but cocky guy separated from his wife (played by the beautiful Miranda Otto, who played Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings).  When she and her new husband go away for the weekend, Ray has to look after their two children: Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning).  Despite his efforts, he finds that he has trouble connecting to either one of his kids.  Then aliens attack.

Mr. Spielberg, along with writers Josh Friedman and David Koepp, have chosen to take us through the story of an alien apocalypse through the eyes of these three “every-person” characters.  We witness the horrific events of the invasion through their eyes, as they struggle to survive.  While that’s not exactly a ground-breaking choice, I think it’s an effective way to structure the film.  We don’t have a sense, until the very end, of what exactly is happening — who the invaders are, what they want, or what the governments of the world are doing to fight back — and that only adds to the tension and terror of the film.  Ray and his kids are swept up in cataclysmic phenomena, and so are we as the audience.

There are some extraordinary visual effects sequences in War of the Worlds.  This big-budget sci-fi film was clearly made by a director who is a master of his craft, ably assisted by a huge assortment of talented artists, designers, and visual effects wizards.  Ray’s initial encounter with a tripod — and his frantic flight away from it while the monstrosity tears across city blocks and vaporizes other terrified civilians — is a tour de force sequence that make clear that Spielberg & co. meant business with this story.  The tripods’ attack on the ferry, the battle on the hilltop towards the end of the film… these are extarordinarily well-realized sequences, dark and violent and intense.

I love that, in many respects, Steven Spielberg chose to make a much grimmer film than is his usual practice.  There’s not a lot of fun to be had in War of the Worlds, nor are there many rah-rah crowd-cheering action moments (of the type found in, say, Independence Day).

But somehow, War of the Worlds still leaves me a bit cold.  I can’t say it’s a movie that I can get too excited about.  Is the problem that the film is TOO grim?  Or … [continued]

 

EZ Viewing: Airplane!

December 10th, 2010
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The fifth and final film in my EZ Viewing movie marathon is Airplane! (Click here to read about film one: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), here to read about film two: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, here to read about film three: Tropic Thunder, and here to read about film four: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.)

The spoof film from which all other spoof-films pay homage (and to which they all pale in comparison).  I find this film just as uproariously funny today as when I first saw it as a kid (though perhaps for different reasons).  Every single inch of this film is funny.  There are jokes piled upon jokes piled upon jokes.  (A few years ago I was able to see Airplane! on the big screen at a midnight showing at a local Boston theatre, and for the first time I could read some of the titles on the magazines in the airport newsstand.  All were funny, of course!)

Loosely based on the 1957 film Zero Hour (which one of the filmmakers once referred to as “the serious version of Airplane!”), the film was written by Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker.  They would go on to write and direct many other funny movies, but I don’t think any of their later efforts ever topped Airplane!.

The cast is amazing.  David Zucker commented that “the trick was to cast actors like Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges.  These were people, who up to that time, had never done comedy. We thought they were much funnier than the comedians of that time were.”  He was right — how funny are those four men in this movie???  They’re all pretty much perfect.  The film is filled with cameos.  Many of those faces aren’t that familiar to audiences today, but I don’t think anyone will ever forget Barbara Billingsley (from Leave it to Beaver) as the jive-speaking passenger.   In his original review of the film, Roger Ebert helpfully listed many of the film’s small roles and the films that their inclusion were parodying: “The movie exploits the previous films for all they’re worth. The passenger list includes a little old lady (like Helen Hayes in Airport), a guitar-playing nun (like Helen Reddy in Airport 1975), and even a critically ill little girl who’s being flown to an emergency operation (Linda Blair played the role in Airport 1975).”

And, of course, there’s Robert Hayes and Julie Hagerty in the lead roles.  They have to do a lot of heavy lifting in order to keep what little story the film has moving forward through … [continued]

 

EZ Viewing: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

December 9th, 2010
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The fourth feature in my EZ Viewing movie marathon is Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog!  (Click here to read about film one: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), here to read about film two: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and here to read about film three: Tropic Thunder.)

This is one of my very favorite things ever.  It’s a super-villain musical!!  (Click here to read my original review.)

Only 45 minutes long (the series was originally created as three 15-minute-long internet shorts), Neil Patrick Harris (TV’s Doogie Howser, M.D. – and also now a lead on How I Met Your Mother) stars as the titular Dr. Horrible.  He’s a fairly pathetic loser, desperate to be taken seriously and accepted into the Evil League of Evil.  Unfortunately, his schemes keep getting foiled by the heroic and handsome Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion – Mal from Firefly).  In his personal life, the good doctor has an enormous crush on the pretty girl-next-door, Penny (Felicia Day) who he keeps bumping into at the Laundromat.  Will he ever be able to defeat Captain Hammer and speak to Penny???

The ridiculously-talented Joss Whedon created and Wrote Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog along with his brothers Jed and and Zack Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen during the WGA strike.  Mr. Whedon told NY Magazine: “I was in meetings with companies to make deals to create stuff for the Internet, in a cheaper fashion — but still on a grander scale than Dr. Horrible — but nothing was going. Nothing was going! So I did something I should’ve done a long time before — I took matters into my own hands.”

He elaborated to TV Guide’s Matt Roush: “”I was really sick of not doing things. I’d been writing movies nobody was making. I got tired of that. And even though I had this series (Fox’s Dollhouse) coming up, we were on strike—and well, I thought we were going to hold out a little bit longer—but it just felt right.”

Whedon funded the project himself.  He commented: “Freedom is glorious… The fact is, I’ve had very good relationships with studios, and I’ve worked with a lot of smart executives. But there is a difference when you can just go ahead and do something.” As a web show, there were fewer constraints imposed on the project, and Whedon had the “freedom to just let the dictates of the story say how long it’s gonna be. We didn’t have to cram everything in–there is a lot in there–but we put in the amount of story that we wanted to and let the time work around that. We … [continued]

 

EZ Viewing: Tropic Thunder!

The third film in my EZ Viewing movie marathon is Tropic Thunder! (Click here to read about film one: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), and here to read about film two: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.)

Tropic Thunder knocked my socks off when I first saw it!  (Click here for my original review.)  It’s so fearless and so, so funny, right from the first frame to the very last.

Ben Stiller (who also co-wrote and directed the film) stars as Tugg Speedman.  Though he was once a hugely successful action-movie star, Tugg’s recent effort at more serious fare (“Simple Jack”) was met with disdain, so he decides to appear in the war film Tropic Thunder.  The film (within the film) is an adaptation of the Vietnam experiences of the hook-handed veteran John “Four-Leaf” Tayback.  Along with Tugg, the film stars the method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), the comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and the rapper Alpha Chino (Brandon T. Jackson).  This pampered assemblage of prima-donnas has trouble getting anything done, so the frustrated director (Steve Coogan) decides to drop his actors in the middle of the jungle, in an attempt to capture some “real” drama.  Chaos ensues.

The cast is stupendous.  The stand-out, of course, is Robert Downey Jr., portraying “a dude pretending to be a dude disguised as some other dude.”  He came in for some criticism when the film was released, not only for his performance as a white actor pretending to be a black man, but also for the “full retard” speech he gives to Ben Stiller’s character.  But I think that Downey Jr. is pure genius in the role – and that speech happens to be screamingly funny.  The point of his performance – and, indeed, the point of the entire film – is to skewer how seriously actors take themselves.  (It’s funny – not long after seeing this film for the first time, I found myself re-watching the amazing WWII mini-series Band of Brothers.  It’s an astonishing mini-series.  When I finished, I watched some of the special features – but after having seen Tropic Thunder, I could not take at all seriously any of the actors patting themselves on the back for how much the conditions of the shoot really rivaled the experience of really being in combat!!)

But the rest of the ensemble is also phenomenal.  Stiller is great in the lead role – he’s just likable enough that you sort of root for him, even though he’s a total loony-tune.  (LOVE that he likes to watch Classic Star Trek on his ipod, though!!)  Jack Black is perfectly cast as Portnoy, and … [continued]

 

EZ Viewing: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

The second film in my EZ Viewing movie marathon is Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country!

I respect J.J. Abrams for what he accomplished with his Star Trek reboot.  (Click here for my review.)  I enjoyed the flick, and am thrilled that Trek is exciting and “cool” again.  But THIS — Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country — is my kind of Star Trek: dark, sophisticated, and adult.  This vies with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for the position of my favorite Star Trek film, depending on my mood.

An ecological disaster on the Klingon homeworld leads them to make the first gesture of peace towards the United Federation of Planets, their bitter enemies for so many decades.  Captain Kirk and the Enterprise are sent to escort the Klingon chancellor to a peace conference on Earth, but a brutal assassination sends the two galactic super-powers once again hurtling towards war.

Star Trek VI is a serious, dark film.  Yes, there is some action/adventure to be had, but for the most part it’s a rather somber film.  The film is brave in presenting our hero, Captain Kirk, in a pretty unsympathetic light: Kirk is still filled with anger at the death of his son at the hands of the Klingons (in Star Trek III), and is shown to be remarkably cold and callous at the prospect of the terrible fate about to befall their empire.  “Let them die,” he quietly tells a shocked (and disappointed) Spock, early in the film.  I love this portrayal of Kirk – it’s a very human depiction of this heroic character, and it gives Kirk a real journey to go on over the course of the film that has nothing to do with warping across the galaxy.  It’s a potent, emotional core to the film.

Trek VI has an incredibly smart, literate script.  The film is filled with references to literature and history.  Some of those are obvious (such as the Shakespeare-spouting Klingon villain, General Chang) while others are much more subtle.  (One of my favorite moments is when, during Kirk and McCoy’s trial on the Klingon homeworld, General Chang angrily shouts at them “Don’t wait for the translation!  Answer me now!”  This, of course, is a nod to Adlai Stevenson’s speech to the UN during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)  Even the film’s title, I probably don’t need to point out to you, is a reference to a famous line in Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech.  The film’s central story – the prospect of peace between long-time enemy super-powers, and what that means for the “Cold Warriors” so used to hating their enemies – was inspired by the … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Murder By Decree (1979)

December 3rd, 2010

After watching Time After Time, the 1979 film in which H.G. Welles matches wits with Jack the Ripper (read my review here), I decided to move on to another film in which a towering literary figure confronts Jack the Ripper.  I’m speaking of Murder by Decree, which interestingly enough was also released in 1979.  In this case, the hero is not H.G. Welles (real-life author of fiction) but rather (famous fictional creation) Sherlock Holmes.

Whereas Time After Time had a decidedly tongue-in-cheek tone, Murder By Decree is deadly serious.  As a result, I think the film has aged far better than did Time After Time.  I know I certainly found it to be far more engaging.

It helps that the film stars Christopher Plummer — one of the finest actors of this generation — in the lead role of Sherlock Holmes.  Mr. Plummer is positively spectacular.  He brings tremendous intelligence and dignity to the role of Holmes.  But he also brings a lot of humor and easy humanity to the character.  Plummer’s Holmes is a relaxed figure, confident in his abilities without becoming arrogant, and without losing any of his joie de vivre.  We can see that this Holmes truly enjoys life, whether he’s being challenged by a tough case or just teasing his partner Watson about the way he eats his peas.  Speaking of Watson, James Mason is equally wonderful in that supporting role.  This Watson is no bumbling idiot.  While he might be no match, intellectually, for Holmes, Mason’s Watson clearly is able to hold his own in the partnership.  The two old men (and it’s interesting to see the characters both presented as such almost elderly gentlemen, particularly after the recent successful film version with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law — read my review here) have a tight bond and an easy friendship.  I’m sorry that this film is the two actors’ only pairing in these roles!  I would have loved to have seen Plummer and Mason continue as these characters for a series of films.

In this Holmes pastiche, a group of frightened merchants beg Holmes to investigate the series of brutal murders that have been happening in the Whitechapel district of London.  For some reason the police, usually eager to partner with the intelligent investigator, have been reluctant to involve Holmes in the cases.  But as the murders continue, Holmes quickly becomes wrapped up in the quest to stop the man nicknamed Jack the Ripper.

Murder By Decree has a very literate, intelligent script.  I am not an expert in the Jack the Ripper murders, but I was impressed by the degree to which the filmmakers stuck … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Time After Time (1979)

November 26th, 2010
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For years, Star Trek fans spoke of the odd-numbered curse that afflicted the Trek movies.  The odd-numbered films (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and Star Trek V: The Voyage Home) seemed markedly inferior to the even-numbered ones (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country).  True Trek fans, though, knew that there was nothing supernatural at play.  The simple fact is that the even-numbered Trek films were of a higher quality because those were the three Trek films that benefitted from the involvement of Nicholas Meyer.

This talented filmmaker wrote and directed Star Trek II and Star Trek VI (the two darkest and most adult entries in the franchise) and was heavily involved with scripting Star Trek IV (by far the most commercially successful film in the saga until J.J. Abrams’ recent Trek reboot).  The commentary on the DVD of Star Trek IV reveals that Mr. Meyer basically wrote every scene of the film that takes place back in 1986 (while Harve Bennett scripted the opening and closing scenes set in the 23rd century).  Basically, this means that Nicholas Meyer wrote the bulk of the film!  (Mr. Meyer states in the DVD features that the first line of his part of the movie is Spock’s wonderfully deadpan comment that “judging by the pollution content in the atmosphere, we have arrived in the latter half of the 20th century.”  Such a good line!)

As an enormous fan of Mr. Meyer’s work in the Star Trek universe, I have long wanted to check out his 1979 film, Time After Time.  For years I’ve been hearing about this film that Mr. Meyer directed, featuring H.G. Welles travelling through time to combat Jack the Ripper.  (Though somehow in my head I had gotten the idea — which has been my impression for YEARS now! — that it was Sherlock Holmes traveling through time, not Welles… go figure…)  But, while well-received at the time, Time After Time is a pretty forgotten film these days, and my personal “must-watch” list of movies is pretty long, so it took me until last month to get to see the film.

I know this film has some fervent fans, but I can’t really say that it’s an undiscovered treasure.  Time After Time was clearly made with a lot of love and care, and there certainly is a lot to enjoy in the film, but over-all I must say that it hasn’t aged terribly well.

In 1893 London, H.G. Welles (Malcolm McDowell) unveils his newest creation to his stunned dinner companions: a time machine.  Welles intends to … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh reviews Get Him To The Greek

I’m a big, big fan of Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  That film really took me by surprise — it’s a very, very funny film, but also one that is remarkably endearing.

The breakout star of the film was, of course, Russell Brand’s rock star Aldous Snow.  Snow was a delirously lunatic creation — a jovial, high-life-living, self-absorbed maniac of a musician who stole every scene of the movie that he was in.  Many of those scenes co-stared Jonah Hill, who had a small role as a hapless waiter who idolized Aldous.

Get Him to the Greek is a feature-length attempt to recapture the energy of Mr. Brand and Mr. Hill’s interactions in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  Russell Brand repises his role of Aldous Snow, while Mr. Hill portrays a new character: Aaron Green, a young music executive.  Aaron has come up with an idea for Pinnacle Records, the company at which he works: in an attempt to revitalize Aldous Snow’s career, and their flagging record sales, they’ll schedule a concert at the Greek Theater in LA on the ten-year anniversary of Aldous’ previous triumphant performance at that venue.  All that Aaron needs to do is to ensure that the hard-living musician arrives at the theater on time to perform.

It’s a familiar set-up, and one can see the road-map for the film’s story a mile away.  Clearly, Aaron is going to have a lot of frustrating moments trying to keep Aldous en route to the theater, and one can also reasonably expect the straight-laced Aaron to be tempted and perhaps at first overwhelmed by the singer’s partying lifestyle.  Perhaps Aldous might also learn some lessons in responsibility from Aaron.

And that, in a nutshell, is the movie.  So don’t expect Get Him to the Greek to turn any comedy film tropes on their ear.  Nevertheless, I was quite taken by the film’s relentlessly entertaining nature.  Director and co-writer Nicholas Stoller has assembled some amazing comedic performers, and he pretty much lets them all cut loose and bounce off of one another for the duration of the film.  There are plenty of scenes that seem to go one for longer than they should, and plenty of scenes that don’t really serve much of a purpose in the film’s story.  But I didn’t mind terribly, because it’s a lot of fun watching these characters interact with one another, and I enjoyed the time we got to spend in their world.

Brand and Hill are reliably hilarious.  For me the biggest surprise was Rose Byrne, who knocks it out of the park as Aldous’ former musical partner and lover Jackie Q, who is now living with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich (who ahas a … [continued]

 

Spielberg In The Aughts: The Terminal (2004)

You might have thought that Tom Hanks had a crazy accent in Catch Me If You Can, but that was merely a prelude to the ludicrously silly sort-of-Slovic voice that Mr. Hanks puts on for his role as Viktor Novorski in Steven Spielberg’s 2004 film, The Terminal.

Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) has just arrived to New York City from the Eastern European country of Madeupistan.  Er, excuse me, Krakozia.  Unfortunately, his country undergoes a military coup while Navorski is in the air.  By the time he arrives in New York City, all relations between the United States and Krakozia have been severed, and due to a variety of legal permutations, Mr. Navorski is unable to enter the U.S. but is similarly unable to return to Krakozia.  In short, he finds himself stuck, indefinitely, in the airport.

Let the comic hijinks commence!

I commented in my review of Catch Me If You Can on my feeling, when I first saw the film back in 2002, that it was a surprisingly slight film for Mr. Spielberg to make.  That probably caused me to dismiss the film a little too quickly at the time.  Well, if Catch Me If You Can is slight, then The Terminal is practically nonexistent.

That sounds harsh, which isn’t my intention.  There’s certainly some fun to be had in The Terminal. It’s just that while Catch Me If You Can was a light, fun film, it did have a pretty dramatic emotional core.  The Terminal sort-of shoots for that as well, but there’s just not much there.  What’s left is a fun, frothy film, but one without a whole heck of a lot to say.

(My wife thought that Viktor’s predicament — in which he is forced to go to some extreme lengths in order to adapt to survive the stranded situation in which he finds himself — reminded her of Mr. Hanks’ role in Cast Away.  I’d never thought of The Terminal in that way, but she’s right!  The difference, of course, is that The Terminal doesn’t have any of the dramatic underpinnings of Cast Away.  That’s putting it mildly!)

The Terminal has a fairly episodic structure.  Through a variety of vignettes, we see Viktor adapt to his crazy situation and somehow make for himself a remarkably pleasant life living in the airport.  He gradually bonds with several of the other off-beat but kind airport employees — played by Chi McBride (Boston Public), Diego Luna (Y tu mama tambien, Milk), Gupta Rajan (just as entertaining here as he was in The Royal Tenenbaums), and a pre-Star Trek Zoe Saldana (and, by the way, it’s a riot to … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Andy Barker, P.I.: The Complete Series!

November 15th, 2010
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Andy Richter has headlined two terrific but quickly-cancelled TV series.  A few years after the demise of Andy Richter Controls the Universe (which was cancelled after FOX aired 14 of the 19 episodes produced), Mr. Richter stepped into the lead of Andy Barker, P.I. on NBC.  The peacock network cancelled that show after a mere six episodes.

After waiting years for both series to see the light of day on DVD, I was overjoyed when both Andy Richter Controls the Universe AND Andy Barker, P.I. were released in complete series sets late last year!  (Click here to read my recent review of the DVD set of Andy Richter Controls the Universe.)

Andy Barker, played by Mr. Richter, is a mild-mannered accountant who has just opened up his own office on the second floor of a small mid-western strip-mall.  What Andy doesn’t realize is that the previous tenant of that office space was a private eye.  When a mysterious damsel arrives at his office door, seeking help finding her husband (she thinks the office still belongs to that of an investigator), Andy finds himself drawn into the world of crime.  No one is more surprised than he to discover that he actually enjoys working as a private eye, and that he’s pretty good at it as well!  Thus begins his career as the world’s first accountant/P.I.

I found Andy Richter to be just as engaging and entertaining a series lead here as he was in Andy Richter Controls the Universe.  Andy Barker is far less zany than the character of Andy Richter was — while much of the comedy in Andy Richter Controls the Universe was mined from the crazy imagination of the character Andy Richter, the joke in Andy Barker, P.I. is just how honestly wholesome and white-bread Andy Barker is.  This could be a really boring character, but the actor Andy (Richter) imbues the character Andy (Barker) with an enormous amount of heart and likability.  Plus, Mr. Richter has just enough of a gleam in his eye that we can tell that his Andy Barker isn’t just an average boring accountant (no offense to any accountants out there!) — something that is highlighted by just how much fun Andy Barker is clearly having when he dips his toes into the world of criminal investigations.

Andy Barker, P.I. has just as wonderful an ensemble of actors as did Andy Richter Controls the Universe.  If anything, this show displays an even greater assemblage of talents!  The late, great Harve Presnell played Lew Staziak, the private eye into whose office Andy has moved.  In the pilot, I thought this character was a one-off portrayal (as Andy tracks … [continued]

 

Spielberg in the Aughts: Catch Me If You Can (2002)

When I began this project of rewatching the last decade-and-a-half’s worth of films directed by Steven Spielberg, I was hoping that I’d discover (or rediscover) some great films that I had perhaps dismissed too easily when I originally saw them in theatres.  I wondered if watching the films now, years later and separated from the hype and expectations that came with their original theatrical releases, would allow me to appreciate them more and perhaps cause me to re-evaluate my original opinions.

So far, though, that hasn’t happened.  I’ve enjoyed (for the most part), re-watching The Lost World, Amistad, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and Minority Report, but for all four films my opinions have remained almost exactly what they were when I first saw them.  (In a nutshell: mediocre, good, horrible, mediocre.)  But then, this week, I arrived at Catch Me If You Can.  I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed this flick!

Based on the autobiography of Frank Abergnale, Jr. (and co-written by Stan Redding), Catch Me If You Can tells the story of Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young man who, for years, successfully conned people into thinking he was an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, and who forged millions of dollars worth of checks.

Mr. Spielberg skillfully strikes a deft balance with the tone of the film.  There are some great moments of humor to be found in the tale (I particularly loved Hanratty’s knock-knock joke), and over-all the film has a fun, light tone.  And yet, at its core, Catch Me If You Can is really a profoundly sad story.  To me, the relationship between Frank and his father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) is the back-bone of the film, and it is heartbreaking.  In Frank Jr. we see a young man who, for all of his experiences, is still basically a child, looking for his father’s approval and desperately hoping to find a way to return his life to his idealized vision of how things used to be — with him, his father, and his mother all living happily together in a nice suburban house.  Frank Sr., meanwhile, has seen his business slowly fail (in the film we see him continually dogged by the IRS, and one assumes, despite Frank Sr.’s repeated claims, that this is not without good reason) and his wife leave him, but he is too proud to admit when he needs help and too angry at the government (and the society that allowed him to fail) to push his son to stop the increasingly elaborate con that he’s spinning.

Mr. Walken’s unique line-delivery can make him a ripe subject for parody.  For me, his one scene in Pulp [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Andy Richter Controls the Universe: The Complete Series!

November 8th, 2010
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One of the many, many great TV shows that aired briefly on FOX before being cancelled well-before-its-time was Andy Richter Controls the Universe.  This short-lived show, which aired in 2002-03, was Andy Richter’s first TV series effort after leaving The Late Show with Conan O’Brien.

I loved this show when it originally aired, and I’ve been hoping for years now that the show would someday get released on DVD.  That day has finally arrived!  Readers of this site might recall that I gave the complete series DVD set of Andy Richter Controls the Universe a brief mention in my list of the Best DVDs of 2009.  I purchased this set at the end of 2009 and hadn’t had a chance to watch it yet when I wrote my Best of 2009 list, so I didn’t feel like I could include it, but I did want to make mention of how extraordinarily pleased I was that this set had finally been released.

Once the summer ended, I had a chance to, at last, make my way through this DVD set.  All nineteen episodes of the series have been included — including, to my surprise and pleasure, five installments that FOX never aired.  (Four of which are really, really funny.)

While some of the series’ playful story-telling techniques — such as the quick-edits, the voice-overs, and the regular shifts into fantasy sequences — don’t quite have the innovative quality that they had back in 2002, I’m pleased to report that Andy Richter Controls the Universe has aged very well.  I found the show just as funny and enjoyable as I had remembered.

Andy Richter is a terrific comedic lead.  His fearlessness that was so often utilized to comedic effect on The Late Show (this is the man, after all, who once famously wandered naked onto the set of The Today Show) is well-suited to this show’s flights of fancy.  A lot of laughs are mined from the crazy things we see Andy doing in his mind’s eye, whether that be arriving to work dressed only in women’s lingerie or diving out his office window or prancing about in a suit made from shredded documents.  Andy is able to come across as a fairly normal “everyman,” while still maintaining his comedic edge.  He’s also lovable enough to make the audience want to watch his adventures every week.

Mr. Richter is surrounded by a strong ensemble.  James Patrick Stuart plays Andy’s best friend Kieth, a man so good looking that life has been incredibly easy for him.  In unskilled hands, this could have been a really annoying character, but Mr. Stuart brings a surprising amount of sweetness to the role … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Insomnia (2002)

There’s no question in my mind that Christopher Nolan is one of the best directors working today.  There’s only one of his films that I haven’t seen (his first — Following — and I do hope to remedy that situation soon), and I have thoroughly enjoyed every other movie he’s made.  His worst film is probably Batman Begins, and I think that’s a pretty damn good film!

Contrary to my previous statement, my sense is that the general consensus about Mr. Nolan is that Insomnia, his follow-up to Memento, is his weakest film.  But I remember enjoying Insomnia back in 2002, and I really loved it when watching it again on blu-ray last week.

Insomnia is a remake of a 1997 Swedish film of the same name starring Stellan Skarsgard and directed by Eric Skjoldbjaerg.  I’ve never seen the original Insomnia, though I understand that it’s pretty well thought of.  I realize that, had I seen it, it’s possible that I might be as dubious of a remake as I am of the recently-released re-do of Let The Right One In (the new American version is titled simply Let Me In).  But having not seen the original, I am free to judge Mr. Nolan’s version exclusively by its own merits — and it’s quite excellent.

Al Pacino plays beleaguered L.A. homicide detective Will Dormer.  The L.A. police department has been rocked by allegations of misconduct, and Dormer believes that the I.A. investigators are ultimately after him.  In the midst of that, Dormer and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) are dispatched to a tiny Alaskan town to investigate the murder of a teen-aged girl.  Heading up the local investigation is a young, well-meaning cop named Elie Burr (Hilary Swank).  She clearly worships Detective Dormer, and he seems to appreciate her enthusiasm.  But the case is a difficult one, and Detective Dormer soon finds himself stymied by his main suspect, a local author named Walter Finch (Robin Williams).  As the film progresses, Dormer gradually unravels, his struggles with the case exacerbated by his persistent insomnia (caused perhaps by the fact that, because of how far North as the Alaskan town is, the sun never sets during this season – or, perhaps by Dormer’s growing guilt over the mistakes of his past and a terrible event that happens soon after arriving in Alaska).

This was a high-profile role for Hilary Swank, coming as it did not long after her Academy Award-winning role in Boys Don’t Cry (1999).  Ms. Swank is solid if unspectacular in the film.  The real superstars of Insomnia are Al Pacino and Robin Williams.

Though unquestionably one of the greatest actors of our time, I’ve often felt that … [continued]

 

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]

 

“No force on Earth or Heaven could get me on that island” — Josh takes a look back at Jurassic Park III

After re-watching Jurassic Park (click here for my review) and The Lost World (click here for my review) last month (as part of my look back at the last decade-and-a-half’s worth of films directed by Steven Spielberg) I figured, what the heck, why not take another look at Jurassic Park III (executive produced by Mr. Spielberg and directed by Joe Johnston).

While not as bad as I’d remembered, like The Lost World this third Jurassic Park film is a pale reflection of the first one.

In some respects, I think I like Jurassic Park III better than the second installment.  Whereas The Lost World was slow and rambling — with a story that was all over the place — Jurassic Park III has a much leaner, meaner narrative: a group of people crash on the island and must find a way to survive long enough to reach the coast where rescue hopefully awaits.  That’s a simple hook, and I think it serves the film well.  The story gets going quickly, and from there moves right along like gangbusters straight through to the end.  There’s an intensity and sense of danger that I felt the second film was completely missing.

There are also some terrific action set-pieces.  Here is where Joe Johnston’s background in the world of visual effects serves him well.  We finally get to see some Pterodactyls (teased by the first two films), and they’re worth the wait — the whole sequence in the Pterodactyl cage is a tense, exciting adventure.  I also love the Spinosaur/T-Rex fight early in the film (shades of the King Kong/T-Rex fight, I felt, but that amused me rather than annoying me), as well as the Spinosaur attack on the river, in the rain, that takes place late in the film.

Whereas The Lost World chose — mistakenly, I think — to focus entirely on Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm, this third film wisely returns the focus to Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant.  I love Mr. Neill in this role, and it’s great to see him back front-and-center in this film.

Unfortunately, despite those strengths, there’s also quite a lot of weaknesses to Jurassic Park III, things that keep the film squarely mediocre in my mind.

First of all, other than Sam Neill, I think the film’s ensemble is pretty weak.  One of the key components to the first film’s success was how many great characters there were in the piece — and the great actors chosen to portray them.  But like The Lost World, while the lead character in Jurassic Park III is interesting and sympathetic, the rest of the ensemble is flat.  I love William … [continued]

 

Spielberg in the Aughts: A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Now that we’ve arrived at 2001′s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, I can finally start calling this series looking back at the recent films of Steven Spielberg by the original title I’d thought up: “Spielberg in the Aughts.”  (My first thought, last month, was that I’d look back at the last decade of Mr. Spielberg’s films, none of which I’d ever revisited after seeing them in theatres — but then I realized there were several of his films from the ’90s that I wanted to revisit, too, while I was at it!  Click here for my review of Jurassic Park, here for my review of The Lost World, and here for my review of Amistad.) 

I hated A.I.: Artificial Intelligence when I saw it in theatres.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  I thought the first three-fourths of the movie — right up to the point when Haley Joel Osment’s David finds himself trapped underwater staring at the Blue Fairy but unable to reach her — was a solid if somewhat dour sci-fi film.  But then the movie kept going.  I felt those last 25 minutes-or-so were the worst 25 minutes that Steven Spielberg had ever committed to film.  Those 25 minutes were so bad that, for me, they entirely destroyed the film.

So what did I think, a decade later?

Well, after nearly ten years of having the thought in my head that the final 25 minutes of A.I. were the worst 25 minutes of film that Steven Spielberg had ever shot, those 25 minutes had been quite built up in my mind, so not surprisingly they didn’t quite live up to the heights of awfulness that I had remembered.  Also, after having seen the entirety of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I can no longer state with certainty that the end of A.I. represents the worst 25 minutes that Steven Spielberg has ever put on film. 

But I will say that I still thought the ending was entirely awful on almost every level.

The basic plot of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence was developed, over many years, by Stanley Kubrick.  As the story goes, Mr. Kubrick worked on the film for years — and often discussed the project with his friend Steven Spielberg — but for a variety of reasons never actually made the movie.  Following his death, Mr. Spielberg got involved with the project in an attempt to realize this unfinished work that Mr. Kubrick had begun.

As a movie-fan back in 2001, I was ecstatic that Steven Spielberg (the man who made E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) was returning, at long-last, to sci-fi.  I was intrigued … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

October 15th, 2010
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After re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird last month, I couldn’t resist re-watching the famous film adaptation from 1962 starring Gregory Peck.  I’d seen the film before, many years ago, but I hardly remembered it.  After having devoured Harper Lee’s magnificent novel, reminding myself in the process of what an amazing achievement in literature it is, I was eager to take another look at the film.

Sadly, whereas re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird only elevated it further in my mind, I found myself fairly disappointed by the film version.

It’s a fairly faithful adaptation.  Almost all of the key characters and scenes from the novel are present in the film.  Events are slightly re-organized, and the time-frame is condensed (the film takes place over a single year, from one summer to the next, while the novel is spread out over two years and three summers), but nothing major is left out.  Yet the whole thing seems sort of flat and lifeless.  The familiar scenes are all there, but they’re drained of much of the emotional context that I felt in the book.

Where the film really fell down, for me, was in the performances of the kids.  Frankly, I just didn’t care for any of the three child actors chosen to play Scout, Jem, and Dill.  I have written often on this blog that I think the failure or success of child actors rests on how they are handled by the director, so I don’t just fault the kids.  I also acknowledge that standards and styles of performance were quite different in the 1960′s than they are today.  One can’t expect to see the type of viscerally honest performance by a child actor such as Max Records as Max in Spike Jonze’s recent adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are (click here for my review of that amazing film) in a movie from that era.  But whatever the reason, I just didn’t feel the performances of the three kids.  It felt like three kids acting out scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird, rather than my believing that I’m watching three real characters interact.

Where the film didn’t disappoint me, though, was in Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch.  Although he’s been in a number of other famous, well-made films, Mr. Peck has become indelibly linked with Atticus, and after thirty seconds on screen one can see why.  Mr. Peck is perfectly cast.  With his deep voice and large frame, Mr. Peck is powerfully believable both as an erudite lawyer as well as the town’s best sharp-shooter, and he embodies all the wiseness and kindness of an ideal father figure.  While I felt that the kids (and several other … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Amistad (1997)

My revisitation of the last decade-and-a-half of the films of Steven Spielberg continues!  I’ve already looked at Jurassic Park and The Lost World, which brings me now to 1997′s Amistad.

In an attempt to recapture the magic of 1993 (in which he released two films in a single year, the dramatic historical film Schindler’s List as well as the crowd-pleasing action spectacle Jurassic Park), in 1997 Mr. Spielberg released both the Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World as well as the historical epic Amistad

In 1839 a group of African slaves broke free aboard the Spanish slave ship Amistad and killed most of the crew.  When they were intercepted by an American naval vessel, the slaves were imprisoned and brought to trial.  A group of abolitionists became aware of the case, and hired a young, inexperienced lawyer named Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) to take the case.  Mr. Baldwin was forced to retry the case multiple times, as the politics of a nation heading towards Civil War bestowed upon this small case an enormous weight in the potential fate of the nation.  Ultimately, the case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court, where former president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) assisted Mr. Baldwin in arguing for the release of the Amistad slaves.

As is often the case, Mr. Spielberg assembled a talented group of actors to embody the characters in the film.  Mr. McConaughey does a fine job as the jovial, slightly naive lawyer Baldwin.  The role doesn’t feel like much of a stretch for him (particularly after playing a lawyer the year before as the lead in 1996′s A Time to Kill), but he reins in some of his more over-the-top mannersisms which allows him to fit well into this historical drama.  Fresh off of The Lost Word, Pete Postlewaite pops up again as an equally unlikable fellow — this time, he’s the lawyer assigned to prosecute the Amistad case.  Stellan Skarsgard and Morgan Freeman play the abolitionists who are drawn to help the Amistad slaves.  Though neither has much to do in the film, both make the most of their small parts.  Other familiar, talented members of the cast include Nigel Hawthorne as President Martin van Buren, David Paymer (The Larry Sanders Show, State and Main) as Secretary Forsythe, Xander Berkeley (24) as the presidential advisor Hammond, Anna Paquin (X-Men, True Blood) as Queen Isabella, and I was pleasantly surprised that I had forgotten that Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, Spartan) has a fairly substantial role as the translator who assists Mr. Baldwin in communicating with the Amistad slaves.

But the two standouts of Amistad are Djimon Hounsou as … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: The Lost World (1997)

Last week I began my look back at the last decade-and-a-half of Steven Spielberg films with Jurassic Park.  Now my project to revisit all of the films that Mr. Spielberg has made since 1993 — films that, with the exception of Saving Private Ryan, I have only seen once — continues with Mr. Spielberg’s 1997 Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World.  (I’ll be calling this series Spielberg in the Aughts, but I can’t really use that title for a film made in 1997…!)

I remember being very disappointed with this film when I saw it back in 1997.  It was the first time I had gone to see a Steven Spielberg film in theatres and come out disappointed.  (But not the last…)  So when I watched this film on DVD, I was curious to see if I liked it any more now, so many years later and divorced from all the hype of the time.

In a word: no.

I will say that The Lost World looks great.  Mr. Spielberg and his frequent collaborator, genius-level cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, have darkened their palette this time out.  Whereas the first Jurassic Park was quite bright for much of it’s run-time, The Lost World has a much more shadowy look to it, and that is effective at adding a layer of spookiness and mystery to the proceedings.  The dinosaur CGI effects still look pretty great.  One of the few scenes that takes place in bright daylight is the introduction to Pete Postlewaite’s great white hunter Roland Dembo and his team, as they attempt to capture a number of dinosaurs in the midst of a high-speed run across a plain.  There are no shadows in which to hide dodgy effects, but none are needed — ILM’s CGI creatures (combined with some top-notch work from Stan Winston’s animatronic workshop) look fabulous.

But that’s pretty much the only good thing I can say about The Lost World.  I found the story to be a mess, and the characters flat and uninvolving.  From the get-go, The Lost World was operating at a disadvantage to its predecessor, Jurassic Park, because its source material was much weaker.

I still remember being blown away when I first read Michael Crichton’s novel, Jurassic Park (well-before the movie came out), and I was so excited when the news broke that he was working on a sequel book.  But I was underwhelmed by The Lost World when the novel was released.  It just didn’t seem anywhere near as interesting as the first.  Wisely, Mr. Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp chose to jettison much of the source material — but what they came up with in its place … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Alice in Wonderland (2010)

October 1st, 2010
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I once considered Tim Burton one of my very favorite directors, but recent years have changed that somewhat for me.  I still think he’s an extraordinary talent who has given us some incredible films, but since 1999′s Sleepy Hollow, in my opinion Mr. Burton has directed two mediocre films (Big Fish and Sweeney Todd) and two absolutely terrible films (Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

When I first heard that Mr. Burton would be directing an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, I thought at first that that was an inspired idea — that the weirdness of Alice in Wonderland would be a great match for Mr. Burton’s bizarre sensibilities.  But when I started seeing trailers for the film, I thought it looked terrible.  The glimpses I got of Johnny Depp’s totally wacky portrayal of the Mad Hatter didn’t interest me, the design of the film looked garish, and it seemed to me that the dark terror of Sleepy Hollow had been replaced by lowest-common-denominator all-ages pap.  For the first time that I could ever remember, here was a new Tim Burton film that I was not interested in seeing.  Once I started to read the poor reviews (and, in particular, the on-line eviscerations of the 3-D conversion), I decided to pass on seeing the film in theatres.

But, you know, it’s a new Tim Burton movie!  Even though it didn’t look like a film I would enjoy, I do admit to remaining sort of curious to see what Mr. Burton had come up with.  Was the film really as bad as it looked to me in the trailers, and as I’d read?  When I saw the film in the “new releases” section of my local video store, I decided to rent it so I could see for myself.

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is not a total catastrophe.  There are some bits and pieces of the film that I liked.  But as you could probably tell from my recent cartoons, I found the whole thing to be exceedingly mediocre, and quite a disappointment coming from the talented Tim Burton.

The film started off well.  I quite liked Mia Wasikowska’s performance as Alice.  She’s certainly quirky enough to feel right at home as the lead in a Tim Burton film, but her Alice also felt recognizably vulnerable and human.  Her trip down the rabbit-hole and entrance into Wonderland was sufficiently weird and spooky, and I quite liked the build-up of hints that this wasn’t Alice’s first trip to Wonderland.  That was a surprising choice on Mr. Burton’s part (and that of screenwriter Linda Woolverton), but I really dug it.  I liked … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Jurassic Park (1993)

1993 was a banner year for Steven Spielberg.  That year saw the release of two films that he directed: Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park.  Both were phenomenally good, though two more different films I can scarcely imagine.  To my younger self, those dual accomplishments in 1993 embedded Steven Spielberg in my mind as a director at the top of his game who could pretty much do no wrong.  If he could succeed at making both a potent, emotional historical drama, as well as a nail-biting sci-fi action spectacle, then the man could do anything.

I remember very clearly when I first saw Jurassic Park on the big screen.  It scared the hell out of me!  That seems sort of silly now, but I wasn’t prepared at the time for how intense a film it was.  Seeing it projected on the big screen, I was totally blown away by the visual effects, and also by the incredible sound.  Jurassic Park is one of the first films that really made me think about the sound design.  I think it was the incredible sound-scape that contributed to the intensity of the film as much as the amazing imagery.

Watching Jurassic Park, today, on DVD, the film doesn’t have anywhere near that intensity.  It does, however, hold up rather well.  The CGI effects that were so ground-breaking at the time still look great.  That’s a pretty amazing achievement — I’m sure you don’t have to think too hard to come up with a lengthy list of films whose visual effects were groundbreaking at the time but are pretty laughable today — and it’s a testament to the quality work done by all the artists involved with the film.  It’s pretty amazing to me how well-made the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park are.  There wasn’t a single shot that jumped out at me as being silly or fake-looking.  This is important in allowing the film to retain its effectiveness, even almost twenty years later.  It’s critical that the dinosaurs work as believable creatures — otherwise I think you’d be plucked right out of the story.

But the reason why Jurassic Park still works today isn’t just about the dinosaurs — it’s also about how carefully and successfully Mr. Spielberg (and screenwriters David Koepp and Michael Crichton, adapting Mr. Crichton’s novel) establish a believable, interesting ensemble of characters to hang the story around.  It takes almost a full hour of the film before the dino-mayhem really begins.  That time is well-used, as we get to know and care about the folks who are about to be terrorized.

Sam Neillhas never been better than as Dr. Alan Grant, the paleontologist hero of the film.  He’s ornery … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews An Education (2009)

September 27th, 2010
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I saw a lot of movies in 2009, but one of the films that I missed was An Education.  I’ve been meaning to remedy that for a while, ever since the film was released on DVD, and I finally had a chance to watch it earlier this month.  It’s a great film, which I thoroughly enjoyed right up until the final 3-4 minutes.  (I’ll get to that in a minute.)

Carey Mulligan plays Jenny, a sixteen year-old girl who lives with her parents outside of London in the 1960′s.  She is studying hard at an all-girls school in the hopes of being accepted to Oxford the following year.  One rainy day, while walking home from school, she meets David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming, wealthy man who is a great deal older than she.  Jenny is impressed by his lifestyle, and his interest in and knowledge of art and music.  David’s charm seduces Jenny’s parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) almost as much as it does Jenny — her mother and father are so excited at the prospect of their daughter marrying such a well-off, intelligent and cultured fellow that they allow themselves to be blinded to the potential downsides of the relationship.

An Education is a fairly small-scale, intimate character study (that’s a compliment, not a criticism), and as such it is carried on the strength of its ensemble cast.  (Though a strong script from the great Nick Hornby helps too!)  That the actors assembled are SO strong is probably why the film was met with such acclaim upon its release last year.  Carey Mulligan knocks it out of the park in her first major leading role.  She brings a fierce intelligence as well as a believable vulnerability to the role of Jenny, a young woman on the verge of a larger education about life than she was expecting.  Peter Sarsgaard is equally compelling as David.  Anyone who’s ever seen a movie before can probably surmise that there’s more to this seemingly charming man than meets the eye, but Mr. Sarsgaard’s compelling performance makes one understand why Jenny (and her parents) can fall for him.

Speaking of Jenny’s parents, Alfred Molina is stupendous as her father.  As with all the actors in the ensemble, he avoids cliche or over-simplification in his performance.  He’s a comic stick-in-the-mud at many points in the film, particularly in the early-going (complaining about listening to Jenny’s practicing her cello, or protesting that he doesn’t want to drive so far to hear a concert), but he also clearly cares for his daughter and is concerned for her well-being.  As his wife, Cara Seymour has the far-less showy role, but she also brings great strength … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Adaptation (2002)

I was extraordinarily taken with Adaptation when I first saw it in theatres back in 2002, but I hadn’t seen it since.  I had been waiting for there to be a follow-up to the initial bare-bones DVD with nary a single special feature (save the film’s theatrical trailer) — if ever there was a film that left me desperate for a behind-the-scenes peek at just how the film came to be, it’s this one — but no special edition DVD ever arrived.  Shame!  Still, when I saw the disc in the five dollar bin at Newbury Comics a few months ago, I couldn’t resist.

Adaptation centers on screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s struggles with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel, The Orchid Thief.  How can he possibly make a movie out of the plot-free novel about flowers, without selling out by employing tired Hollywood cliches of action sequences and characters falling in love and learning important life lessons?

The above two-sentence summary really fails to do the film’s weird, complex, sprawling narrative justice.  The film swims deliriously in-and-out of real life events.  Adaptation is of course written by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who really was hired to adapt The Orchid Thief only to find himself totally stymied in his attempts, and he did decide to write himself into his screenplay (Adaptation is the film that resulted), as does the Charlie in Adaptation.  Still with me?  And yet much of Adaptation is pure fiction — Charlie Kaufman doesn’t really have a twin brother Donald (despite Donald’s name being listed in the film’s credits, a clever touch), and of course none of the insanity at the end of the film with Susan Orleans and her subject Laroche (in which drugs and murder come into play) has any basis in reality.

I can only laugh and wonder what the real Susan Orleans thought of this sort-of adaptation of her novel, or of her depiction in the film.  Former executive Valerie Thomas (played in the film by Tilda Swinton), told Variety: “I’m 10 pages in, and suddenly realize, ‘Oh my God, I’m in this.”  That Variety article goes on to comment that Ms. Thomas got off easy in the film, though perhaps they’re forgetting the scene in which Charlie masturbates to the thought of her having sex with him.

Nicolas Cage turns in one of his finest performances ever (well, two of his finest performances ever, actually), in the dual role of Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald.  It is astonishing to me how completely Mr. Cage is able to create and inhabit two entirely different characters despite their identical features.  Cage’s Charlie is depressed, anxious, and self-loathing, whereas Donald is happy, outgoing, and … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Defending Your Life (1991)

And so at last my little tour through the early films of Albert Brooks  concludes.  (Feel free to check out my reviews of Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), and Lost in America (1985).)  Defending Your Life is probably the Albert Brooks movie that I’ve seen the most — but still, it had been many years since my last viewing, so it was great fun to take another look at the film.

In a brisk opening (a model of efficient story-telling), we’re introduced to Daniel Miller, a mid-level executive who, although he seems to be doing well enough at work that he’s able to buy himself an expensive car to celebrate his birthday, seems to live a fairly lonely life.  While taking his new car out for a spin, Daniel gets distracted and winds up driving directly into a bus.  When he next opens his eyes, he’s in Judgment City, and the movie is off.

Judgment City isn’t heaven or hell, as it’s explained to Daniel — it’s a way-station in which the recently dead are judged to see if they’re ready to move on to the next stage of their existence, or if their souls need to be sent back down to Earth for another go.  Everyone has an opportunity to defend their life in a courtroom-like setting (though Daniel is repeatedly told that it’s not really a trial) before the final decision is made.

The tag-line of Defending Your Life is “the first true story of what happens after you die.”  One of my friends is fond of saying that he fervently hopes that that is true.  There is something appealing, I must agree, to the notion that we’ll all have an opportunity to defend our lives — the actions we took, the choices we made — in the afterlife.  Though he and I aren’t quite sure we agree with Mr. Brooks’ depiction, in this film, that whether one has overcome one’s fear is really the most important question on which one’s life should be judged.  It’s an interesting perspective, and it certainly provides for some fine drama in this film, but I tend to think that there are other, better ways in which one’s merit could be evaluated.  I’m sure there are some quite fearless people out there who are also complete jerks!

It’s a credit to Mr. Brooks’ ambitions that he has created a comedic film that can also prompt such serious questions and thought.  Defending Your Life is certainly a comedic film, though as always Mr. Brooks isn’t afraid to  let several minutes pass without any big punchlines.

The best source of laughs in the film is probably Rip Torn, wonderfully cast … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Real Life (1979)!

Back in May, after watching Albert Brooks’ 1985 film Lost in America, I wrote that I planned on re-watching his 1991 film Defending Your Life the next week.  Well, time got away from me, and I do still hope to find the time to re-watch that great film soon.  But a few weeks ago, when the mood struck me to again sample an Albert Brooks film, I decided instead to hunt down the last remaining film by Mr. Books that I hadn’t yet seen: Real Life, from 1979.

After having written, directed, and starred in several short films for Saturday Night Live during its early years, Mr. Brooks moved to the big screen with his debut film, Real Life.  He plays film director Albert Brooks (not for the last time), who, in the film, has seized upon an amazing idea: the subject of his next movie will be real life.  Rather than filming a movie with fake characters portrayed by actors and actresses acting out a fake story, he will choose one average American family and film their lives for a year.  Out of that footage he’ll be able to craft a movie more exciting and dramatic than any other motion picture, and it will have something that none of them do: it will be REAL.

Needless to say, Brooks’ “perfect” American family soon turns out to be anything but, and the family’s struggles to maintain their normal lives in the face of constant monitoring by film cameras — not to mention Mr. Brooks’ difficulties at avoiding any interference in their lives — lead to things quickly dissolving into chaos.

I always thought that Albert Brooks was a little bit ahead of his time, but this 1979 film is remarkably prescient in predicting today’s American fascination with “reality TV.”  In Real Life, Mr. Brooks was able to portray both the seduction of being constantly on display before others, as well as the inherent horror of such a situation.  He was also able to predict, with pinpoint accuracy, the way the act of filming someone’s actions will, without fail, cause subtle (or gross) alterations in that individual’s behavior.  (Call it the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Reality Television.)

Amongst the cast, the standout is Charles Grodin.  Mr. Grodin is at the top of his game as Warren Yeager, the beleaguered patriarch of Mr. Brooks’ perfect family.  Grodin is able to be sympathetic and rather pitiable all at the same time.

As with most Albert Brooks films, Real Life is a riot.  The sequence in which veterinarian Warren Yeager attempts to save an injured horse is a knock-out.  But, also as with most Albert Brooks films, there’s also an … [continued]

 

From The DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews A Few Good Men (1992)

A Few Good Men is one of those movies that I saw countless times in the nineties, to the point that I knew the film so well that it bored me. But then I stopped watching it, and when I decided to pop the film into my DVD player earlier this month, it had been many years since I’d last seen it.

While there are a few moments that haven’t aged well, overall I found A Few Good Men to still be a powerhouse of a film – just phenomenally entertaining.

This film is part of Rob Reiner’s astounding run of films – This is Spinal Tap (1984), The Sure Thing (1985), Stand By Me (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), When Harry Met Sally (1989). Has any other director had such a run of such phenomenal films, one after another? And what’s really astounding is how different they all are from one another – different genres, different styles. It’s unbelievable how good all of those films are (and how well they all hold up to this day).

Take a director at the top of his game, and mix him with a screenplay by the brilliant Aaron Sorkin (adapting his own play), and you have a recipe for an amazing film. As with much of the work of Mr. Reiner and Mr. Sorkin, the story has a strong dramatic core – but it is also filled with a lot of humor.

It’s fun to watch this movie now and to see just how young Tom Cruise and Demi Moore are in this film. Cruise is just great – you can see his star-power shining through, bright and strong, in his protrayal of hot-shot young lawyer Daniel Kaffee. Moore is a little flatter, but still does well in the role of the stiff Lt. Cdr. Joe Galloway. I think this is one of her best performances. I feel the same way about Kevin Bacon. I tend to think that he’s a much better actor than Demi Moore, and there are certainly plenty of other films in which I’ve really enjoyed his performance. But still, I would argue that his role in A Few Good Men is one of his very best. I love the way he plays his relationship with Cruise’s Kaffee. There’s deep friendship, but also some rivalry and antagonism, between the two young men. In the hands of less-skilled actors, the relationship could have so easily tipped over to one side or the other – but Cruise and Bacon walk that fine line perfectly. I find their characters’ interplay to be endlessly fascinating, and one of the secret treasures of this film.

The great Kevin Pollack is amazing, as he … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews John Adams (2008)

June 21st, 2010
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I can’t believe it took me this long to get to the 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams!

This seven-episode miniseries introduces us to John Adams as a prominent lawyer in Boston, defending the British soldiers who shot and killed several Americans in the so-called “Boston Massacre.”  Throughout the rest of the series, we follow John Adams’ long and eventful life through the American Revolution and the fifty years of American history that follow.

This miniseries is a monumental achievement.  Each episode is truly a mini motion picture.  (And not so “mini” at that — most episodes run WELL over an hour in length.)  The production design, the costumes, the sets, and the visual effects that filled in the environment beyond the sets all combine to create an astonishing recreation of pre-and-post-Revolutionary America.

I happen to be fascinated by the American Revolution, ever since taking a class back at Brown with the scholar Gordon Wood (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, as well as one of the writers quoted by young Will Hunting in the “how about ‘dem apples” scene of Good Will Hunting), and I really enjoyed seeing that period of history brought to such vivid life.  Based on the book John Adams by David McCullough (another extraordinary writer and historian), the miniseries is filled to overflowing with fascinating historical details both large (for instance, I had no idea that Mr. Adams spent so much time abroad, working to garner international support for the fledgling nation during its revolutionary conflict with Britain) and small (I was intrigued to observe the changing fashion in wigs of American intellectuals and politicians).

The sprawling cast is top-drawer.  The series is headlined by several “big name” actors who are, to no one’s surprise, quite terrific — but the cast is also filled out by some very talented lesser-known faces.  The series rests, of course, on the performances of Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams.  The two are absolutely wonderful, capturing the fierce intelligence and stubbornness of both Adamses, as well as the tender love that they shared throughout their lives.  I wasn’t expecting this miniseries to present a portrait of such a strong marriage, but that is a strong through-line to the story.  David Morse creates an exceptional George Washington (ably assisted by some terrific hair and make-up).  Morse’s Washington might be the most idealized character in the piece, but this ideal come to life is so much fun to watch that I have no complaints.

The biggest surprise of the miniseries, for me, was the quiet, underplayed performance of Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson.  I can’t speak to the … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Virtuality, the “lost” 2009 pilot from Battlestar Galactica mastermind Ronald D. Moore!

June 7th, 2010

During the production of the final season of Battlestar Galactica, word broke that show-runner Ronald D. Moore was developing a two-hour pilot to a new sci-fi TV series for Fox called Virtuality.  This was exciting news.  Mr. Moore is an extraordinary writer, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since noticing that I always liked the episodes he wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine better than any of the others.  Then came Battlestar Galactica, a series which — despite the problems I have with its final season — stands definitively as one of the best dramas of recent memory (and certainly one of the finest sci-fi series ever made).  With BSG winding down, I was very pleased to hear that Mr. Moore was developing a new series (in addition to the Battlestar prequel Caprica, which was in the works at around the same time.)

But then, sadly, Virtuality went nowhere.  The pilot was produced, but Fox decided not to go forward with a series.  The pilot was aired once last summer, and that was that.

Recently, a DVD of that pilot episode was released, and having seen it I now have one more reason to hate the Fox network.  Seriously, Fox has created and then cancelled so many great shows that it’s crazy (Arrested Development, Firefly, The Tick, Futurama, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Undeclared, I could go on and on…).

Virtuality introduces the story of the twelve men and women who crew the experimental space-ship Phaeton.  It’s the near future, and the Phaeton has been launched on a ten-year journey to explore a nearby star-system, Eridani.  Shortly after launch, the mission turns from one of exploration into something much more critical, as environmental catastrophes begin wracking Earth.  The mission to Eridani now represents the best hope for the survival of the human race.  Complicating matters somewhat is that the conglomerate funding the mission is paying for the massive undertaking by recording all of the footage of the mission — and the going-on of the Phaeton‘s crew — and presenting that footage as a reality show to viewers back on Earth.  The pressure of having cameras constantly monitoring their every move adds, as you can imagine, to the tension level of the crew.

To combat that, the Phaeton comes equipped with extraordinarily sophisticated virtual reality systems for the crew.  On their off-duty time, crew-members can put on a VR visor and enter a completely three-dimensional and life-like computer-created environment.  (Star Trek fans recognize the familiar concept of the Holodeck.)  However, even this recreational device soon becomes problematic for the Phaeton crew, as one by … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006)

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies is a French film that lovingly parodies the 1960′s Sean Connery era James Bond films.  It got very little play here in the U.S., but if you’re a fan of the Connery Bond films then this movie is not to be missed.

OSS 117 actually began as a serious series of spy novels and films in the 1950′s (predating Ian Fleming’s secret agent by several years).  However, Cairo, Nest of Spies is anything but serious.  Now, this film isn’t total insane lunacy like the Austin Powers films.  Rather, this film represents a gentler form of parody.  In many respects, the filmmakers have lovingly recreated the world of 1960′s James Bond — through the sets, the costumes, the colors, the score, etc.  But when it comes to the story, everything is nudged several directions towards the silly.

Jean Dujardin stars as the titular OSS 117, Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath.  He’s a well-dressed, highly-trained secret agent, able of besting a skilled foe in hand-to-hand combat and wooing any lovely lady he sets his sights on.  Sound familiar?  But he’s also rather dim, ludicrously devoted to France’s president, and totally condescending to any culture and religion that is not French.  Dujardin is a riot, and the film succeeds primarily because he’s able to walk the tightrope between being an imbecile, but a lovable one.  He’s able to handle witty reparte as well as broad physical humor (the pose he strikes any time he fires his weapon made me laugh every time).

It can be challenging for a comedic film to work even when watched with subtitles, but despite that I still found Cairo, Nest of Spies to be very, very funny.  I’m sure there were a few jokes that would have worked better if I spoke fluent French, but not many.  It helps that many of the film’s best gags are visual ones.  My favorite moment: a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag about OSS 117′s bed-hair when he wakes up in his suite about mid-way through the film. (Though I will comment that I was disappointed that there were several spelling mistakes in the subtitles.  That’s unfortunately amateurish.)

This is an obscure film, but for a Bond nut like myself I am so glad to have seen it.  To any fellow Bond-fanatics out there, I highly recommend you track this down.  (And luckily, a sequel has already been made — OSS 117: Lost in Rio.  It hasn’t been released yet here in the States, but I eagerly await its arrival…)… [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh reviews Let the Right One In (2008)

May 28th, 2010
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I’m behind the eight-ball on this one, I know.  Movie-related web-sites across the web have been showering praise on this small-budget Swedish vampire film for the past two years, but I only recently got around to seeing it.  It’s just as terrific as I’d heard.

Oskar is a twelve-year old boy whose parents are separated.  He doesn’t seem to have any friends, at least not any that we see, and he’s terribly bullied by a trio of boys from school.  Oskar likes to hang-out by himself in the courtyard of the building where he lives with his mother.  One night, he meets a girl, Eli, who has just moved into the building.  The two form a gentle friendship.  Of course, once we see Eli’s father/guardian Hakan murder a man in the woods and drain him of his blood, it’s clear that Eli hides a terrible secret.

That plot could easily describe a film that played into a whole lot of dumb, horror-movie cliches, but I was delighted that nothing could be further from the truth.  Director Tomas Alfredson, working from a screenplay by John Ajvide Lindqvist (adapting his own novel) has crafted a surprisingly gentle, tender film that is at once sweet and chilling.  Let the Right One In unfolds through a series of small, quiet scenes.  It’s a very still movie (though that stillness is punctuated by a few moments of intense violence).  The way the camera lingers on the frozen, snow-covered landscape reminds me in some ways of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, and also in the way the M. Night Shyamalan was unafraid, in his early films (like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable) to let a quiet long shot tell the story.

All of this would be irrelevant were not the film’s two leads, Kare Hedebrant as Oskar, and Lina Leandersson as Eli, so spectacularly good.  There is no over-acting to be found in this film.  Both Hedebrant and Leandersson are able to express a world of character through their small, underplayed facial expressions, often without speaking a word.  (Or when, as is often the case in real life, the words they are speaking fail to convey what’s really going on in their hearts and minds.)  Whenever I see great performances by child actors, I always credit the director as much as the actors themselves, and so kudos to Mr. Alfredson for drawing such restrained, naturalistic performers out of his stars.

I am not a big horror fan, but Let The Right One In quickly won me over.  I’m so glad to have finally given it a shot.  It’s hard to believe that one could describe a vampire movie as tender, but this one is.  I … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Lost in America (1985)

After re-watching Albert Brooks’ film Modern Romance a few weeks ago (read my review here), I decided the time had come to revisit some of his other films.  I started by tracking down Lost in America, his 1985 film that, somehow, I had never seen.

Mr. Brooks (who also directed and co-wrote the film, with Monica Johnson) stars as David Howard.  After failing to get a promotion at work — one that he’d been working towards for years — he tells off his boss in spectacular fashion (the explosion is just as much fun as you might think) and gets fired.  So he convinces his wife Linda, played by Julie Hagerty (Elaine Dickinson from Airplane!) to quit her boring job as well.  They sell their house, liquidate their stocks, buy a Winnebago and set out to roam America and find themselves.  Unfortunately, their first stop is in Las Vegas and, after only one night, they’ve lost all their money.  Left with only $800 to their name, David and Linda have to try to find jobs in the small, midwestern town in which they find themselves.

In my humble opinion, Albert Brooks wrote and directed far too few films.  So it was a great delight to get to discover, for the first time, an Albert Brooks film that I’d never seen.  Lost in America certainly isn’t my favorite Brooks film (that would be Modern Romance), but there’s a lot to appreciate here.  There’s a lot of comedy today that wrings laughs from awkward, painful moments (the original British The Office comes to mind), but Mr. Brooks was pushing those boundaries thirty years ago.  For a “comedy,” there’s a lot of real, human moments to be found in Lost in America (and in all his films, really!).

It’s clear from the film’s opening scene — a slow, slow pan through David & Linda’s home, while a Larry King interview with film critic Rex Reed plays on an out-of-sight radio — that we’re in the hands of a filmmaker with great skill.  It’s a very meta choice to start one’s film with a lengthy monologue from Rex Reed talking about films, and it indicates that Mr. Brooks was after more than just a few yuks.  Lost in America tells the story two people who both find themselves trapped in their lives — trapped by their go-nowhere jobs, by the expectations that they put upon themselves about what they “should” be doing, about the house they “should” be living in, and so forth.  It’s a situation in which, one presumes, many middle-class folk find themselves in at one point or another in their lives.  There’s a strong aspect of “wish-fulfillment” … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh reviews The Cat’s Meow (2001)

It’s funny — although I acknowledge that Peter Bogdanovich is a significant, influential director, I must admit with some embarrassment that I’ve seen very few of his films.  Many of his ground-breaking films from the ’70s remain, as-yet-unseen, on my lengthy “to-watch” list: The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc?, Paper Moon, etc.  I actually know Mr. Bogdanovich more as a knowledgeable film historian (his audio commentary on the DVD of Citizen Kane, for example, is magnificent and enlightening) than I do as a director.

But I’m a big fan of a film that he made in 2001, The Cat’s Meow.  The film is based on Hollywood whispers (“the whisper told most often”) about the events of a fateful boat cruise hosted by legendary media mogul William Randolph Hearst in 1924 that (might have) resulted in the untimely death of director Thomas Ince.

As the film tells the tale, W.R. Hearst invited an assemblage of show-biz folks (and a few gossip-writers) to join him on a yacht cruise in celebration of Mr. Innes’ birthday.  One of the guests was Charlie Chaplin (played by comedian Eddie Izzard), who may or may not have been involved at the time with Hearst’s very young starlet wife, Marion Davies (played by Kirsten Dunst).  (Of course, Hearst’s relationship with Marion Davies was most famously depicted — not in a positive light — in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which resulted in Hearst’s attempts to block that film’s release.)  Though the weekend was supposed to be a fun getaway, it seems that almost every guest on Hearst’s yacht arrived with their own agenda.  The fun of the film is in watching these powerful Hollywood personalities bounce off one another, as each guests’s true ambitions bubble just below the surface.

There’s a lot of humor to be found in the film, although it shouldn’t be mistaken for a farce.  The Cat’s Meow is actually a pretty sad story — this boat cruise did not have a happy ending for many of its guests.

Mr. Bogdanovich assembled an interesting mix of actors for the film.  I really enjoyed Eddie Izzard’s performance as Chaplin.  He doesn’t really look like Chaplin, but still, the casting is inspired.  Izzard really nails the charisma of Chaplin, without falling into mimicry.  It seems to me that Kirsten Dunst isn’t that well thought of as a serious actress, but I thought she was terrific here as Davies.  Unlike Mr. Izzard, she really does look the part — and she brought a surprising amount of soul to the performance.  (You’ll have a lot more empathy for Marion Davies when watching The Cat’s Meow than when watching Citizen Kane!)  Edward Herrmann (whom my … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews The TV Set (2006)

May 3rd, 2010
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As with Death at a Funeral (which I reviewed last month), The TV Set is a film that I’ve been wanting to see ever since it was released.  It was one of those films that sounded really interesting to me, and was very well-reviewed, but I just never got around to catching it.  I keep a little notebook with a long LOOONG list of all the movies that I want to see someday.  Any time I read about a film that sounds interesting, I add it to the list.  I’ve been very busy lately, but I’m really happy that I’ve been able to cross some great films off of that to-watch list lately, thanks to Netflix!

The TV Set stars David Duchovny as Mike Klein, a TV writer.  Mike has written and sold a script for a new TV pilot called The Wexley Chronicles, and over the course of the film we follow the process of casting and filming the pilot from Mike’s well-liked script.

I am a big fan of television, and as a result, The TV Set is difficult to watch at times.  That’s because this film dissects, with surgical precision, why so much television is so terrible.  Written and directed by Jake Kasdan (Orange County, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) and produced by Judd Apatow, the film is based on Apatow and Kasdan’s experiences making the brilliant-but-quickly-cancelled TV series Freaks and Geeks.  Over the course of the film we, along with poor Mike, watch with horror as the network takes his script — which they liked because of its originality — and, through a thousand small compromises that they force Mike to make, set about to eliminate all of the project’s uniqueness in order to create something that will offend no-one and appeal to the widest audience possible.  The process is summed up in an awkward confrontation between Mike and the network head-honcho Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), in which she tells him flat-out: “originality scares me.”

The cast is superb.  Duchovny is perfect as the talented but also sort of sad-sack Mike.  We can see, in his eyes, the quiet desperation with which Mike is trying to hold on to his vision for the project, and the anguish that each little compromise causes him.  Sigourney Weaver kills as the tough, take-no-prisoners Network boss Lenny.  She is a riot, and to describe Lenny as a formidable presence would be a grand understatement.  Ioan Gruffudd (Horatio Hornblower from USA’s series, and perfectly cast but then stranded by the execrable Fantastic Four movies) plays Lenny’s right-hand man Richard, brought over from England to head up the network’s TV development.  Whereas Lenny only cares about … [continued]

 

“She’s always right” — Josh Reviews Modern Romance (1981)

Drew McWeeny (who has a terrific blog over at Hitfix.com) has a series called “The Basics,” in which he writes about a film that he considers one of the “essentials” — a film that anyone who takes film seriously should see — and then another, younger writer, William Goss, writes a response.  To read more about this series, click here and then here.  Recently he and Mr. Goss invited other writers to get involved in their film conversations.  Since the last film under discussion was Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), I was really excited to chime in.  (Here’s Mr. McWeeny’s piece about Manhattan.  Here’s what Mr. Goss wrote, and here’s what I had to say.)

Now Mr. McWeeny is writing about Albert Brooks’ 1981 film Modern Romance. What a terrific choice!  It had been a few years since I had last seen the film, so I was happy to have an excuse to pull it off my DVD shelf and give it a viewing.

The great Albert Brooks (who also directed and co-wrote the film) plays Robert Cole, one one the most neurotically messed-up characters I’ve ever seen captured on film.  As the movie opens, Robert breaks up with his girlfriend Mary (Kathryn Harrold, who I always think of as Francine from The Larry Sanders Show).  From her reaction it is clear that this has happened before, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that this opening-scene break-up doesn’t exactly break that cycle.

Modern Romance is very leisurely paced, with long scenes that aren’t in a rush to get to the punchline.  But don’t let that lead you to think that the film isn’t funny.  Quite the contrary, it is hysterical.  This is one of the most quotable comedies that I know.  It might be my favorite Albert Brooks movie, and that’s mostly because of the script’s tremendous wit.

In his review, Mr. McWeeny comments that he loves the way that Mr. Brooks isn’t afraid to digress in the film.  That pretty well sums up one of the strongest aspects, in my opinion, of Modern Romance.  My very favorite moments in the film are the ones that have nothing at all to do with Robert’s on-again off-again cycle with Mary.  I’m talking about the glimpses at Robert’s job as a film editor, working on a lousy-looking science-fiction picture.  That the film takes ten minutes to present us with a scene that’s all about how editing works (as Robert makes an edit to the sci-fi film that he feels strengthens the suspense of a scene) is just wonderful to me.  It helps, of course, that the greatly-missed Bruno Kirby … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story

April 28th, 2010
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The new documentary Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story tells two interwoven stories: one is an overview of British comedian Eddie Izzard’s life-story, while the other is a more detailed look at the process by which, in 2003, he crafted an entirely new stand-up routine (that would eventually become his world-wide Sexie tour) from scratch.

While fun and interesting, Believe is more the sort of thing that one might expect to see as a special feature on one of Mr. Izzard’s DVDs, as opposed to a documentary feature that stands on its own.  This isn’t really a warts-and-all sort of presentation — Mr. Izzard is presented in an almost uniformly positive light.  Although perhaps that was not the intention of the filmmakers, in the end the film functions more as a promotional piece for Mr. Izzard than it does as a true documentary.

Which is not to say that it’s not a worthwhile promotional piece!  I enjoyed the look at Mr. Izzard’s life — particularly his grueling efforts at creating a name for himself as a performer and, eventually, a stand-up comedian.  It’s an astonishing tale, frankly, of Mr. Izzard’s stubborn persistence in the face of overwhelming odds, and through an impressive array of recovered footage (of Mr. Izzard’s years performing on the street, as well as a number of his early days working the stand-up circuit) it is fascinating to see him slowly develop his comedic style and rock-star glam persona.  (It’s a hoot to watch his early break-out performance of the “wolves” sketch in plain men’s slacks and a garish baggy shift.)  These are the best aspects of the film.  When Mr. Izzard returns to his childhood home and gets teary-eyed reminiscing about his mother, I must confess that I checked out.

In the other half of the film, we see Mr. Izzard travel from gig to gig in small venues across England as he struggles to develop all-new material for his 2003 show (having committed to use NONE of his old jokes) before the launch of his scheduled world tour.  This part of the film is also wonderfully filled with actual footage (rather than talking-head reminisces).  Apparently Mr. Izzard had all of his workshop gigs recorded, and it’s neat to watch him struggle and stammer his way through those early gigs, slowly beating his material into a polished shape.

A similar story was told in the terrific documentary, Comedian, which chronicled Jerry Seinfeld’s efforts to create an entirely new act in the year after the end of his show (and his subsequent commitment to retire all of his old material).  Comedian is a much more polished film, and I think did a better job of showing how … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh reviews the original Death at a Funeral (2007)

April 23rd, 2010
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I’ve been wanting to see Death at a Funeral ever since it was first released (back in 2007), so it’s a funny coincidence that it arrived in my home (via Netflix) the same week that the American remake (featuring a predominantly African-American cast) opened in theatres.

The remake has gotten some decent reviews, but trust me, friends — after watching the phenomenal original version you’ll have absolutely no interest in any other take on this material.

Directed by the great Frank Oz (the voice of Miss Piggy & Yoda and the director of films including Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, In & Out, and Bowfinger), Death at a Funeral features a mostly British cast.  Matthew Macfadyen (MI5, Pride & Prejudice, Frost/Nixon) plays Daniel, who is attempting to arrange the funeral for his father.  Friends and family are gathering for what is supposed to be a quiet, dignified funeral service at Daniel’s parents’ home.  Of course, you can be assured that an escalating series of lunacy quickly unfolds.  Death at a Funeral is a classic farce, and there’s great joy in watching the filmmakers carefully set up all of the dominoes, in the first 30-45 minutes of the film, that they will spend the rest of the movie knocking over to hilarious effect.

This film is a RIOT.  Mr. Macfadyen is great as the straight man trying desperately to hold things together.  He’s surrounded by a terrific ensemble, including Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent) as an old friend of Daniel’s father with a big secret; Andy Nymen & Ewam Bremner as two of Daniel’s fairly hapless friends; Keeley Hawes as Daniel’s wife Jane (and, seeing as she played Zoe Reynolds in MI5, it’s great fun seeing her paired again with Mr. Macfadyen); Rupert Graves as Daniel’s more-successful writer brother Robert; and many more talented actors & comedians.  But the film belongs to Alan Tudyk (Wash from Firefly) who plays Simon, the nervous fiancee of Martha (Daisy Donovan), Daniel’s cousin.  At the start of the film, Daisy gives Simon what she thinks is a Valium to calm him down.  Of course, the pill isn’t a Valium at all, but a much, er, stronger concoction.  Now, that might sound like a hackneyed comedy set-up, and maybe it is.  But you’re really not prepared for the insanity that Mr. Tudyk unleashes in the film once the drugs that Simon has taken take effect.  This is  one of the great comedic performances of all time, and one of the primary reasons that I’m recommending this film so strongly.

I don’t really understand why Hollywood has chosen to remake an English-language film that was released in the … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Homicide (1991)

One of my earliest posts on this blog was a look back through the films of David Mamet.  One of the films I wasn’t able to review at the time was Homicide, because it was shockingly unavailable on DVD.  Late last year, though, the fine folks at the Criterion Collection thankfully stepped in to remedy that situation, releasing Homicide in a lovely new DVD set (which made my list of the Top 10 DVDs of 2009).

Joe Mantegna plays Jewish homicide detective Bobby Gold.  When the FBI screws up the manhunt for a suspect, Randolph (Ving Rhames), in whose case Bobby was originally involved, Bobby and his partner Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy) are tasked with finding the missing man.  But on the way to a key meeting in the investigation, Bobby stops to help two young beat cops who have found the body of a murdered woman in a convenience store.  It turns out that the elderly Jewish woman had owned the store in the tough neighborhood for decades, and the local kids think she was murdered because of rumors that she kept a fortune hidden in her basement.  When Bobby finds himself assigned to this new murder case, he is is frustrated by what he sees as a distraction from his priority: the pursuit of Randolph.  But quickly the case begins to get under his skin and leads Bobby to confront long-buried questions about his own Jewish identity.

Written and directed by David Mamet, Homicide stars many Mamet regulars (Mantegna and Macy, along with Ricky Jay, Rebecca Pidgeon, and many other familiar faces) and features his distinct, fast-paced, rough and tumble dialogue and a twisty-turny plot in which the story that you think is unfolding in the film’s opening minutes turns out to be merely a feint, as Mamet has other intentions with his tale.

For, despite its title, Homicide really isn’t a police procedural at all.  Yes, Bobby’s investigation into the murder of the elderly Mrs. Klein is the backbone of the story, but that’s not really what the film is about.  Rather, Homicide is a story about identity.  Over the course of the film, Bobby Gold is forced to address deep-rooted questions about how he defines himself.

According to The 50 Greatest Jewish Movies, by Kathryn Bernheimer (published by Birch Lane Press, 1998): “Mamet, who admits he has always felt like an outsider and acknowledges a great longing to belong, has said the story was inspired by his experience as an American Jew growing up not feeling sufficiently Jewish or American.  Like many of his previous films, Homicide deals with what Mamet calls ‘problems of reconciliation and self-worth’.”

When we first meet Bobby … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

I well remember my reaction upon watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time, many years ago.  The star-child appeared, and the end credits rolled, and I turned to my brother and started laughing.  ”What the heck was THAT???”  I had no idea what to make of any of the ponderous weirdness that I had just seen, and I wondered what exactly I had missed.

But even during that first viewing it was clear that there was something special about 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it’s a film that stayed with me.  I found myself driven to revisit the film (several times, in fact, over the years), and to read the novel by Arthur C. Clarke (which, interestingly, was written concurrently with the production of the film).  I can think of few other films about which my opinion has so dramatically changed based on subsequent viewings.  Each time I watched 2001 I found myself enjoying it more and more.  As I peeled back the layers of the onion of the film, to use a familiar but handy analogy, what was once perplexing obtained profound meaning.

It is a challenge to provide a summary of 2001.  If you’ve seen the film, no summary is necessary, and if you haven’t, I’d hate to spoil anything.  I can tell you that the film is divided into several distinct sections.  The movie opens in primordial times (“the dawn of man”) and then jumps forward to the year 2001, when a strange object is discovered on the surface of the moon.  That discovery leads (for reasons I’ll not detail here) to an expedition towards Jupiter.  The experimental space-ship Discovery is crewed by Frank Poole and Dave Bowman, and the computer HAL 9000.  Things go awry.  The final segment of the film is the most perplexing, and the reason for the film’s tag-line “the ultimate trip.”

Right from its opening scenes, it is clear that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a science-fiction film unlike most other science-fiction films.  This is a cerebral undertaking, one that is concerned with posing some BIG QUESTIONS for the audience.  The film spans the entire history of human-kind — that should give you a good idea of Mr. Kubrick & Mr. Clarke’s ambitions!!

In terms of “plot,” there’s not too much that actually happens in 2001.  This, I think (along with the ending, which we’ll get to in a few moments) is one of the chief reasons that this film might not work for many casual viewers.  To say that the movie is leasurely paced would be an enormous understatement.  Events unfold very slowly, and the movie is filled with stately, long shots in which … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Hot Fuzz (2007)

March 17th, 2010
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I consider Shaun of the Dead to be a near-flawless work of comedic genius.  I’m not a fan of Zombie movies, but that didn’t stop me from falling head-over-heels in love with the bizarre, comedic creation of Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright.  Shaun of the Dead lead me to seek out Pegg & Wright’s first collaboration: the 14-episode British TV series Spaced.  (Read my review here.)  Somehow, though, I had completely missed Pegg & Wright’s 2007 release: the feature film Hot Fuzz.  Oh, I knew of Hot Fuzz, and I had wanted to see it for some time.  I just hadn’t gotten around to it until now.

In Hot Fuzz, Simon Pegg plays the tough, no-nonsense London cop Nicholas Angel.  He takes his job extraordinarily seriously, and he’s extraordinarily good at what he does.  So good, in fact, that the rest of the London police department hates him, and so they arrange to have him transferred out of London and to the sleepy little British town of Sanford.  Poor Angel doesn’t know quite what to do with himself in his bucolic, crime-free new home.

As was the case in Shaun of the Dead and Spaced, Pegg’s character is paired up with Nick Frost.  Mr. Frost plays Danny Butterman, the bumbling but well-meaning police officer with whom Angel is partnered in Sanford.  But while Pegg & Frost’s characters were, in their two prior collaborations, presented as life-long best-mates, here in Hot Fuzz the two take an immediate dislike to one another.  Well, Angel takes an immediate dislike to Butterman.  Butterman, though, idolizes Angel, who he looks up to as a “big city” tough-guy cop like he knows from the movies.  It’s a great pleasure to watch Pegg and Frost paired up yet again.  The two have a terrific chemistry, and they just dominate any scenes that they’re in together.  It’s fun to see them play characters who have, at first, a more antagonistic relationship towards one another.

Hot Fuzz is a very funny film.  Pegg and Frost are extraordinary natural comedians, and the film is filled with a number of other top-notch comedic actors.  There’s a great bit of business early on in the film in which we meet Angel’s supervisors in the London police department, played by Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy, and Steve Coogan.  Jim Broadbent is a lot of fun as the jolly inspector Frank Butterman, Danny’s father and the head of the police department in Sanford.  But my favorite performance belongs to former James Bond Timothy Dalton, who is absolutely hilarious as the dashingly good-looking, possibly sinister Sanford super-market owner.  What perfect casting, and Dalton absolutely knocks the role right out … [continued]

 

2009 Catch-Up: Josh Reviews The Hurt Locker

March 4th, 2010
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After months and months of reading praise for Kathryn Bigelow’s film The Hurt Locker, I finally was able to see the film on DVD.  (Once again, thank you Netflix!)  I am extremely pleased to report that, for me, the film lived up to its hype.

In the bravura opening sequence, we meet Delta Company, an elite unit of the U.S. Army serving in Iraq.  Delta Company consists of the men who get called in to disarm and/or detonate I.E.D.s (Improvised Explosive Devices) and all manner of other sorts of explosives before they can kill any U.S. servicemen/woman or others.  The tense, harrowing first few minutes of the film tell us everything we need to know about the incredible bravery and ability of the men of Delta Company who we’ll be following through the film, the excruciatingly difficult task that they are called upon to deal with every single day, and the high fatality rates of their assignments.

The Hurt Locker focuses on three men in Delta Company.  Anthony Mackie plays Sgt. JT Sanborn — a tough, by-the book officer of great professionalism.  Brian Geraghty plays Specialist Owen Eldridge, the youngest member of the team.  Eldridge struggles with the weight of the life-and-death assignments that he must take on every day, but we never see those concerns affect his performance in the field.  Then there is Staff Sgt. William James, played by Jeremy Renner in a phenomenal, star-making performance.  SSG James is assigned to head up Delta Company after the death of their previous field leader.  James is an extraordinarily talented officer, but we quickly learn that he is not one for by-the-book procedures.  This brings him into conflict with Sgt. Sanborn, who judges James to be reckless and dangerous.  Young Eldridge finds himself caught somewhat in the middle.

That could be the plot of a great movie, but The Hurt Locker isn’t really a drama about conflict within a military unit.  Though we see evidence of that conflict that I have just described over the course of the story, The Hurt Locker isn’t concerned with typical Hollywood war-movie character arcs or story-lines.  Rather, director Kathryn Bigelow has created a film whose main purpose, it seems to me, is to put the viewer right in the middle of the intense, every-moment-could-be-your-last job that these men serving in Iraq have been given.  Through careful direction, tight editing, and above all stupendous acting, The Hurt Locker consists of one nail-biting sequence after another.

The film is episodic in nature.  In less capable hands this could be a weakness, undermining the narrative thrust that a successful film needs to achieve.  But under the sure guidance of Ms. Bigelow, the episodic structure of the … [continued]

 

2009 Catch-Up: Josh Reviews Moon

Though 2009 is well in the past, I’m still trying to find time to watch those 2009 films that I missed (some of which I listed when writing my Best Films of 2009 list).  At the top of my I-really-wanted-to-see-it-but-never-did list from 2009 was Duncan Jones’ little sci-fi film, Moon.

When I say “little,” I am referring only to the budget (5 million dollars).  Because in no other way is Moon a “little” film.  No, Moon is a phenomenal achievement, and it surely would have made my Best Films of the Year list had I seen it in time.

It’s the near future, and the great Sam Rockwell (Galaxy Quest, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Frost/Nixon) plays Sam Bell, working alone in a small helium-3 mining station on the moon.  His only companion is the station’s computer, Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey, perfectly cast).  Sam is nearing the end of his three-year contract and is anticipating his return to Earth and to his family.  Of course, it’s not going to be that simple.

I’ve barely said anything about the film’s story, but I really think that’s for the best.  This is a film best appreciated going in cold, without knowing any of the plot twists.  Suffice it to say, when a distracted Sam crashes one of the station’s small rovers, he unwittingly sets into motion a chain of events that leads to things quickly going more and more awry in his once-efficient little moon station.

Moon is an acting tour-de-force for Sam Rockwell.  With the exception of a few other people glimpsed briefly on computer monitors, Sam is the only character on screen for the entire film.  But he dominates the screen so thoroughly that I didn’t even really consider that fact until well after the film had ended.  Mr. Rockwell has always been known for bringing a particularly idiosyncratic brand of humanity to the flawed array of characters he has portrayed on screen, and his Sam Bell in this film is a spectacular example.  Once the plot gets going, Sam’s ordered life starts to fall down around his ears, and the way Mr. Rockwell brings to life his increasing desperation, and also his surprising inner reservoirs of strength, is wonderful.  Shame on the Academy for not nominating this spectacular acting performance!!

Writer/director Duncan Jones jokes in the DVD’s special features that the most recent example of an “indie” sci-fi movie that he can think of is Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, which was made for around 50 million dollars. Moon was made for 5 million.  To say that my jaw was on the floor when I learned that this movie was made for such a miniscule … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Roger & Me (1989)

February 24th, 2010
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After watching Michael Moore’s latest (and last?) film, Capitalism: A Love Story (read my review here), I started thinking about his previous movies. Despite my enjoyment of his work, I realized that I’d never actually seen his very first film: Roger & Me.

Hello, Netflix!

Released in 1989 (though Mr. Moore was working on the film for several years prior to that), Roger & Me is an unflinching look at the devastating effect that the shutdown of several General Motors factories (eventually resulting in the firing of approx. 80,000 workers) had on Moore’s home-town of Flint, Michigan.

As Mr. Moore admits on the DVD’s commentary track, he not only had never made a movie before Roger & Me, but he knew very little about what went into making movies. But he (and a small team of partners) taught themselves everything they needed to know (about filming, sound, editing, etc.) over the course of assembling their film. This gives Roger & Me a raw, unpolished, feel which, to my mind, wound up working in Mr. Moore’s favor in enhancing the film’s effectiveness. This isn’t a slick-looking documentary. This feels like a film put together by a bunch of average folks, trying to address a situation that they felt passionately about.  That passion is another key to the film’s strength.

Right from the beginning, Mr. Moore is a major (perhaps THE major) character in his film. Roger & Me opens with a montage of Mr. Moore’s home-movies, as he introduces himself in voice-over and describes his early years growing up in Flint. Mr. Moore’s on-screen involvement in his films has by now grown tiresome to some, but here his presence helps ground the film as a whole. Moore grew up in Flint, his father (and, it turns out, many other members of his extended family) worked for GM. At one point in the film, following a sheriff’s deputy evicting people from their homes who couldn’t pay their rent after having been laid off by GM, Moore discovers that one of the young men being evicted is someone he went to high school with. This is a personal story for Mr. Moore, about HIS community, and his anger and frustration at the way GM abandoned Flint underline every frame of the film.  This lends the over-all film a gravity that a more polished but less-personal film would have lacked, I think.

As always, it can be hard to separate a discussion of one of Mr. Moore’s films from a discussion of his politics. The central question of what sort of responsibility a corporation has to its employees (and the communities in which the corporation grew prosperous) is a thorny one, and … [continued]

 

“So, do you love me, or what?” Josh reviews Manhattan (1979)!

February 19th, 2010
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I’ve been reading Drew McWeeny’s writings about film for, oh, probably a decade now.  I first found his work when he wrote for Aintitcoolnews.com, though these days he has a terrific blog over at Hitfix.com.  The dude has some sharp opinions, and while I’m not always in agreement with him, I can always count on his pieces being interesting & insightful, to say the least.  I’m a big fan.  Drew recently started a series called “The Basics,” in which he writes about a film that he considers one of the “essentials” — a film that anyone who takes film seriously should see — and then another, younger writer, William Goss, writes a response.  To read more about this series, click here and then here.

With their latest installment, Drew opened the door for others to chime in with their opinion.  Since the film in question is Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan, I jumped at the chance to share my two cents!

I am an enormous Woody Allen fan.  I have seen every one of his films (with one exception, Interiors, a situation that I’m sure I’ll remedy someday, but I must confess to not being in any rush), and many of them I have seen too many times to count.  But while I recognize that Manhattan is one of Woody’s most well thought-of films, I’ve actually only seen it one time, about 15 years ago.  I remember enjoying it, but I didn’t think it was of the level with what I would consider to be Mr. Allen’s masterpieces, films like Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Bananas, etc.  (It probably didn’t help that I watched Manhattan less than a month after first seeing Annie Hall, a film that absolutely blew me away and that remains easily one of my top ten favorite films of all time.)

So, prompted by this “The Basics” series, I was excited to go back and re-watch Manhattan.  Would my opinion of the film change?

Filmed in gloriously beautiful black and white, Manhattan follows several good-natured but lost urbanites as they try to find some measure of love and happiness.  Woody Allen plays Isaac, a television comedy writer unhappy with his job who dreams of writing a novel.  When we meet Isaac, he’s involved with a much, much younger woman: the 17 year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway).  Meanwhile, his married best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is having an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton).  While Isaac and Mary strongly dislike one another when they first meet (at an awkward encounter in a museum), they gradually strike up a friendship and ultimately start seeing each other.

None of the elements of that … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Contact (1997)

I thoroughly enjoyed Robert Zemeskis’ Contact when it was first released in 1997.  For years now, it’s been a movie that I’ve been eager to add to my DVD collection, but I was holding off for a better special edition than the bare-bones DVD release from ’97.  It’s been a long wait, but when Contact was finally re-released on disc in a jazzed-up new edition — and on blu-ray, no less — I eagerly snatched it up.

Based on Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact tells the story of Ellie, a young girl whose interest in science and astronomy are fanned by her father.  Through much of the early parts of the film, we follow Ellie’s development as a scientist and her growing fascination with the search for signs of extra-terrestrial life.  It’s a search that increasingly comes to seem like a fool’s errand as, over the years, all of the sources of funding for that research dry up.  If that was the end of the story, of course, there wouldn’t be much of a movie.  Needless top say, Ellie and her team do eventually discover a signal that appears to be extra-terrestrial in origin, and their quest to unlock its meaning leads Ellie on an astounding journey and brings mankind to an incredible turning point.

I’ll stop my summary there, even though I have really only covered the first thirty-or-so minutes of the film.  For me, the most compelling aspect of Contact is watching the story unfold and gradually become bigger and bigger.  I still remember my pleasure in seeing the film for the first time and thinking to myself, with great delight, “just how far are they going to take this??”  Even having seen the film and knowing what’s coming coming, I still find the story to be terrifically engaging.

I am an enormous sci-fi fan.  Sadly, the vast majority of sci-fi films seem to revolve around menacing aliens and action-adventure hi-jinks.  Now, I’m all for a good action movie, and there have certainly been plenty of action/adventure sci-fi films that I have thoroughly enjoyed.  But I love that Contact is a much more cerebral story, one in which the science of the tale is just as important as the narrative’s twists and turns.  It’s also a story that is centered by the character of Ellie’s emotional journey, and that is what gives the film its power.

Jodie Foster is quite compelling as Dr. Ellie Arroway.  She brings a fierce commitment and intensity to the role.  Foster is an actor who always seems to be thinking — you can see it in her eyes — and that is key for her performance as this brilliant and driven woman.  I love … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Away We Go (2009)

February 10th, 2010
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Burt and Verona (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) are expecting their first child.  When they learn that Burt’s parents are moving away, they realize that they have nothing tying them to Denver any longer.  (Verona’s parents have passed away.)  So Burt & Verona decide to travel around the country, visiting various friends and family-members in an attempt to find a new place to live that they think will be a good place to raise their baby.  What at first seems like a fun adventure turns dispiriting rapidly as they discover that everyone they visit has fairly crazy ideas about parenting.

Written by Dave Eggers (author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) & his wife Vendela Vida and directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, The Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road), Away We Go is a quirky film filled with quirky characters.  Your tolerance for that approach to creating characters will determine how annoying you find this to be as the movie progresses.  The characters are, for the most part, painted in pretty broad, caricature-esque strokes.  They are funny and painful and sad, but not all that deep.  I really enjoyed the individual performances of the actors playing the various folks who Burt & Verona visit  – Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton, Chris Messina, and Melanie Lynskey (who, by the way, had a heck of a year in 2009 with this film along with her roles in The Informant! and Up in the Air) — so much that this trend didn’t really bother me too much until I sat back and thought about the film afterwards.

In my review of Woody Allen’s 2009 film, Whatever Works, I described my frustration at the enormous condescension that Mr. Allen’s screenplay seemed to be showing towards every character in the film with the exception of the Woody Allen stand-in character played by Larry David.  I felt the same sort of condescension here.  Burt and Verona are presented as the only sane characters in an entirely insane world.  Burt’s parents (played by Catherine O’Hara & Jeff Daniels) might be hysterical (I’d like to see a whole movie about these two!), but they and are jaw-droppingly self-centered and, shockingly, have no apparent interest in their grandchild-on-the-way.  Verona’s friend Lily (Janney) is crass and her husband (Gaffigan) is a buffoon.  Burt’s cousin LN (that’s not a typo) and her husband Roderick are bizarre hippie-intellectuals who have sex in the same bed where their children sleep and breastfeed other people’s babies.  Burt & Verona’s friends Tom & Munch are by far the most normal of the bunch, but even they have their problems (which I won’t spoil here).  I … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Before seeing his latest film, The Lovely Bones, I thought it fitting to seek out a gaping hole in my Peter Jackson viewing filmography: his 1994 film, Heavenly Creatures.  I’ve been hearing/reading about this film since the lengthy pre-release build-up to The Fellowship of the Ring.  (By the way: Wow!  It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a decade since Fellowship, which was released in 2001!!)  Heavenly Creatures seems to be rather well thought-of, and since the Lord of the Rings films have made me a life-long Pater Jackson fan, it seemed crazy that I had never seen this movie.  It’s a situation I was happy to remedy last month.

Heavenly Creatures tells the true-life story of the friendship between two young New Zealand girls in 1953/4.  Melanie Lynskey plays Pauline.  An artistic, shy introvert, she is friendless and miserable at the Catholic school which she attends.  Her world changes, though, when Juliet Hulme, played by Kate Winslet, arrives at her school.  Juliet is from a wealthy family, and her travels with (and without) her parents make her seem extraordinarily worldly to Pauline.  Like Pauline, she is artistic and bucks authority, but Juliet more outgoing and brazen.  The two bond almost instantly.  Deep friendships like these happen between schoolgirls all the time across the globe, with less tragic outcomes.  But here, the increasingly unhappy home lives of each of the girls pushes them to become more dependent upon one another’s company, and they begin to withdraw more and more deeply into their shared fantasies.  Feeding off one another, those escapist fantasies soon take a terrible turn.

Heavenly Creatures is the first screen role of both Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet.  It’s no surprise that this proved to be a star-making turn for Ms. Winslet, as she displays terrific abilities and assurance for such a young actress (not to mention great beauty).  As for Ms. Lynskey, I was delighted to realize that this was her first screen role as well.  She’s nowhere near as well-known as Kate Winslet, but if you were an avid movie-goer in 2009 then I’d wager you’ve enjoyed her work.  (She had key roles in Away We Go, The Informant!, and Up in the Air.)

Heavenly Creatures is an interesting film.  I found it to be a bit hard to get into, at first.  There was something about the first 45 minutes that kept me, as a viewer, from being sucked in to the story.  I wasn’t sure if it was the script, the acting, or the directing, but everything seemed a bit “stagey” and over-wrought (filled with dramatic zooms and music that didn’t seem to quite fit the proceedings).  With a … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews the Director’s Cut of American Gangster

January 20th, 2010
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Sometimes I get DVDs and I watch them immediately, devouring the movie and the special features within 24 hours.  Sometimes I’ll get a DVD and, for one reason or another, it will sit on my shelf for months and months.  Such was the case with the Director’s Cut of Ridley Scott’s 2007 film, American Gangster.

I enjoyed American Gangster when I first saw it in theatres.  I didn’t love it the way I love some of Scott’s other films (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, and the vastly underrated Kingdom of Heaven), but I quite liked it, and when I saw that an extended version of the film was available on DVD in early 2008, I snapped it up.  I’ve really enjoyed the extended versions of several others of Ridley Scott’s films, most particularly the extended version of the afore-mentioned Kingdom of Heaven, which is a revelation in contrast to the theatrical release, so I was excited to see this new version of American Gangster.  But, for whatever reason, I just never got around to watching the DVD until recently.

American Gangster tells two parallel stories.  One half of the film is about Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington.  The movie opens with the death of Frank’s mentor, the powerful Harlem drug-dealer Bumpy Johnson.  Frank marshals his keen intellect and all that he learned from Bumpy in order to take control of the Harlem drug scene.  His boldest move was to travel to Southeast Asia in order to purchase heroin straight from the source, enabling him to bypass all the other crime-figure “middle managers” and sell a more powerful product at cheaper prices than his competition.  That coup, combined with his patience and his near-fanatical focus on avoiding the spotlight, enabled him to amass an extraordinary amount of power and money all while operating under the noses of what local law enforcement officials weren’t on the take.

Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts, a New Jersey cop with a fierce sense of honesty.  In an infamous story depicted early in the film, he finds a million dollars in cash but turns it over to his superiors in the department rather than keeping it for himself.  In contrast to those qualities, his personal life is a disaster, and when the film opens his wife (the wonderful Carla Gugino) has decided to divorce him.  Richie eventually gets himself involved with (and becomes a key figure in leading) the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, where his investigative skills and a decent amount of luck puts him on the trail of Frank Lucas.

American Gangster is a film dancing on the edge of greatness.  Washington and Crowe both turn in powerhouse performances, and … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Paper Heart (2009)

January 15th, 2010
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Charlyne Yi (who you might recognize from Knocked Up) doesn’t really believe in the concept of falling in love.  She’s not sure such a thing as love truly exists — and if it does, she’s not sure it’s something that she’s capable of.  So she sets out with her friend, director Nicholas Jasenovec, to film a documentary about love.  The two travel across the U.S., interviewing all sorts of everyday people (along with the judge in a divorce court, an Elvis who marries folks in Vegas, Seth Rogen, and a few other not-quite-so-everyday folks) about their thoughts regarding true love.  Things get more complicated when, while filming the documentary, Yi meets Michael Cera at a friend’s party, and the two hit it off and begin dating (an awkward process captured on camera by the documentary crew).  Do her interviews with people — or her burgeoning relationship with Michael Cera — change Yi’s feelings about love?

If Yi’s happening to fall into a relationship with Michael Cera while at the same time filming a documentary about love seems like a wild coincidence to you, then you’d be right!  Because things aren’t quite what they seem.  The interviews that Yi conducts are absolutely real.  But the Nicholas Jasenovec that we see on-camera isn’t actually the Nicholas Jasenovec who directed this film — it’s an actor, Jake M. Johnson!  And while Michael Cera and Charlyne Yi did date, their courtship as we see it was staged for the camera.

What we’re left with is a rather bizarre hybrid film.  The movie is constantly bouncing back-and-forth from the real footage (the interview segments, which are like much more in-depth versions of all the couples we see telling their how-they-met stories from When Harry Met Sally) to the staged footage (of Yi and Cera, and of Yi and Johnson/Jasenovec).  What’s really intriguing is the way the film doesn’t hesitate to make clear to us that that footage is staged — or, at the very least, manipulated.  Almost every time that we might find ourselves drawn in to Yi & Cera’s story, the film draws our attention to the artificiality of those moments.  (In one scene, we see Yi and Cera playfully interacting on a beach, and then beginning to walk hand-in-hand down the shore-line.  It’s a tender moment… until we see Johnson/Jasenovec run into the frame wondering if perhaps they could do another take.  In another scene in Yi’s apartment, we see her first kiss with Cera… and then the camera pulls out to see a camera-man and a sound-guy perched on the next couch, recording the moment.)  Even the interview footage is played with, as we often cut away from the people … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Whatever Works (2009)

I read all the bad reviews when Woody Allen’s latest film was released this past summer.  But I was dubious.  Larry David starring in a Woody Allen film seemed like a genius idea, to me.  How could a combination of those two neurotic, grumpy Jewish comedians not yield something at least remotely interesting?

Well, go rent Whatever Works and find out.

Or better yet, trust me, DON’T.

Whatever Works is a catastrophe of epic proportions and one of the worst films I have seen in a long, long time.  After 30-40 minutes of the film had elapsed, I was already supremely bored, and only sheer force of will (and the hope — ultimately dashed — that maybe something funny was just around the corner) allowed me to finish the film.  It is certainly one of the worst Woody Allen films I have ever seen.  (Celebrity has always been, in my mind, Woody’s worst film — though now it has strong competition.)

Larry David plays Boris Yelnikoff (as Woody Allen a character name as you’ll ever find), a man described as a genius physicist but who we mainly see as an irritated complainer hanging out in his bathrobe in and around Grennich Village.  Unhappy in life and love and convinced (as so many Woody Allen protagonists are) that life is meaningless and that he is surrounded by an unending parade of idiots and incompetents, Boris spends much of the film vacillating between miserable and merely unhappy.

One night a beautiful homeless Southern girl, Melody (played by Evan Rachel Wood), follows Boris home.  Despite her stunning beauty, Boris is entirely uninterested in her (and indeed spends much of his time berating her for her stupidity).  He does, though, take some pity on her and allows her to stay with him in his apartment.  Then, in one of the most staggering and unconvincing plot twists I have ever seen in a movie (and I have seen a lot of movies with space aliens and time travel), Melody falls in love with Boris and the two get married.

The above paragraph summarizes the entire first half of the film, all of which seems to be nothing more then a lengthy set-up for what was, I supposed, intended to be a hilarious comedy of culture-shock when Melody’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) and, later, her father (Ed Begley Jr.) show up in New York looking for her.  While the movie does, briefly come to something-approaching-life for a few minutes following Ed Begley Jr.’s introduction into the film (at about the one hour mark), it’s far-too-little and far-too-late.

Woody Allen’s movies have often been characterized by some condescension to non-Manhattenites, but Whatever Works is overflowing with it, … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Coraline (2009)

January 4th, 2010
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I missed Coraline in theatres when it was released back in February of 2009, so I was thrilled to finally have a chance to watch this wonderful film on DVD last month.

Adapted from a novel by Neil Gaiman (a legend among comic-book fans for his beautiful series The Sandman), Coraline is the story of a precocious, lonely little girl named (you guessed it) Coraline.  She and her parents move into a new house, and the energetic and creative girl is soon left to her own devices as her parents busy themselves with their work and the business of setting up a new home.  Her parents are not the over-the-top hateful, neglectful sort that one sometimes finds in children’s fantasy films, but both seem overworked and overtired, and are unable to give Coraline the attention she craves.

Things seem to change for Coraline when she discovers a tiny secret door in her room that leaves her into a parallel world filled with happier doppelgangers of everyone in her life.  Her “other-mother” and “other-father” are cheerful and incredibly attentive to Coraline’s desires, cooking her enormous delicious meals and putting her to sleep in a beautifully decorated bedroom.  True, the buttons that these “other-folk” seem to have instead of eyes are weird, but so what?

You can probably guess that this idyllic other-world has a scary dark-side hidden not-too-far underneath all the wonder, and soon Coraline must use all of her wits to save herself and her family.

Coraline is a jaw-dropping, gorgeous wonder of stop-motion animation.  The fantasy tone with an undertone of great creepiness brings to mind Tim Burton’s exercises in this genre (The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride), but Coraline has a look and style all its own.  Co-writer and director Henry Selick and his talented team of artists and technicians have brought every tiny detail of this world to life, and they quickly prove as capable of capturing the loneliness of an empty, old house as they are at the fantastic merriment of a performance of circus mice in the other-world that beguiles Coraline (at least temporarily).  Each frame of this film is stuffed-to-overflowing with glorious eye-candy.  But I am happy to report that the “just how did they do that?” wonderment of this life-long animation fan quickly faded into the background as I stopped thinking about the technical aspects of the film and just found myself swept along in the ride.

The voice-cast acquits themselves well.  There are some famous names in the mix (Dakota Fanning voices Coraline, Teri Hatcher is her mother and John Hodgman is her father) but no one overshadows the material.  Each actor is a fine fit with … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, the Latest DCU Animated Adventure!

OK, we’re getting closer!

We’re now six films into DC Comics and Warner Bros.’ exciting new endeavor to launch high-quality direct-to-DVD animated films masterminded by Bruce Timm, one of the key creative forces behind the amazing Batman: The Animated Series from the 90′s.  In my review of the fourth film, Wonder Woman, I wrote that I enjoyed the effort but that I was disappointed that, to that point, the DVD series wasn’t turning out as I had hoped.  I wrote:

The original announcement had seemed to indicate that the series would focus more on adaptations of classic comic stories as opposed to this sort of one-off origin story that isn’t based on any specific source material.  This is the sort of thing that most of the live-action super-hero films do, creating a new story that is sort of a “melange” of various bits of story-lines and background from the many years of the character’s history.  It’s not what I was hoping for from these DVDs.  (To my dismay, the preview included on the Wonder Woman disc seems to indicate that the next DVD, a Green Lantern adventure, will be exactly this same type of not-based-on-anything-specific tale.)  Where is my epic animated adaptation of The Great Darkness Saga?  Or Batman: Year One?  Or Kingdom Come?  How cool would that be?

I never got around to writing about Green Lantern: First Flight, which was released earlier this year.  It turned out to be a much stronger film than Wonder Woman, but it was exactly the type of totally-new, one-shot story that Wonder Woman was.  The latest animated film, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, is an entirely different breed of cat.  Like the first two DVDs (Superman: Doomsday and Justice League: The New Frontier), this is a direct adaptation of a comic book storyline: specifically, the first six issues of Superman/Batman, by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness, released in 2003/4.  I love that we’re back to a direct adaptation of a specific comic book tale.  THIS is the direction in which I want to see this DVD series continue to go.

Other than my philosophical support of its premise, is Superman/Batman: Public Enemies actually any good?  Well, it definitely is, though like the rest of these new DVDs it does not match the heights of any of Bruce Timm’s animated DCU series (Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League, etc.).

The story is simple:  Lex Luthor has been elected President of the United States.  He uses the discovery of an enormous fragment of Kryptonite that is on-course to impact with Earth (to what would be sure to be devastating consequences for the planet) as an excuse to … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Spaced (The Complete Series)

A little over a year ago, I wrote that I was excited to have begun watching the newly-released (and long-anticipated) DVDs of Spaced: The Complete Series.  Well, I can’t believe how long it took me a while to finally finish the set (despite there only being two seasons of seven episodes each, Steph and I decided to draw out our viewing to savor the enjoyment — we didn’t want the series to end!), but I’ve finally done so.

I am happy to report that the series is every bit as wonderful and weird as I’d been hearing for all these years!!

Spaced was a short-lived British TV show that had two seasons (or “series,” as they like to call them across the pond) of seven episodes each (with the first batch coming out in 1999 and the second in 2001).  It was written by and starred Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and now Scotty in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek) and Jessica Hynes, and was directed by Edgar Wright.

Simon and Jessica played Tim and Daisy, two mismatched North Londoners who pretend to be married in order to qualify for renting an affordable flat that they both had their eye on.  The series follows the misadventures of Tim and Daisy and their small and bizarre group of friends: the military-loving Mike, the delightfully daft Twist, the depressed conceptual artist Brian, and Tim and Daisy’s droll, alcoholic landlady Marsha.

What’s so wonderful about the series is the way that it doesn’t idealize the lives of these sort-of-lost (mostly) young people.  This isn’t Friends, where everyone is perky and lives in extraordinarily large and beautiful apartments.  Tim and Daisy are both unendingly lazy and unambitious, and their flat is endearingly small and believably cluttered.

But the series isn’t depressing — rather, it is a ridiculous amount of fun.  Though each character is filled with quirks, they all quickly become surprisingly lovable, and it is great fun watching them go through their little day-to-day adventures.  Also, the series is practically built around an ever-increasing number of rapid-fire references to (and parodies of) a wide variety of movies, TV shows, and all sorts of other aspects of sci-fi, comic books, and lots more geeky stuff.  The closest thing I could compare all of this silliness to is the fantasy sequences found in Scrubs — though the fantasies here are much more elegantly done and more intricately woven into the narrative.  It is great fun spotting all of the little winks and nods included in each episode.  (There’s even an homage-o-meter included as a special feature on the DVDs.)  Some of the references are a little dated … [continued]

 

And They Have a Plan!

November 4th, 2009
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As with Monday’s post, today’s blog contains SPOILERS for many plot twists of the spectacular Battlestar Galactica series, so be warned!  If you haven’t seen the series (or if you’re in the midst of watching it on DVD but haven’t made it to the end yet), then I hope you enjoy today’s hi-LARious Inglourious Basterds cartoon, and then c’mon back on Friday for my review of The Invention of Lying.

OK, all the rest of you BSG fans still with me?  Then let’s dive in.

Starting with the very first episode of the first season, “33,” each installment of BSG (for the first few years) began with the words (say ‘em with me now):

The Cylons were created by man.  They rebelled.  They evolved.  They look and feel human,  Some are programmed to think they are human.  There are many copies.  And they have a plan.

It was that last line, “and they have a plan,” that was the most intriguing to me — and, ultimately, the most frustrating.  Throughout the early episodes of the show we watched our heroes in the ragtag fleet attempting to flee their destroyed worlds, all the while being dogged by Cylon attack forces as well as various Cylon agents within the fleet.  The bold declaration that “they have a plan” implied that there was more going on than we knew — a larger, over-arching goal towards which the Cylons were working (beyond, apparently, the simple extermination of humanity).  The glimpses we got of the Cylons (mostly through the adventures of Helo, trapped with an Eight on “Cylon-Occupied Caprica”) furthered this notion.

But as the series progressed, and we began to spend more time with the Cylon characters and get to know their histories and the distinct personalities of the different models (and sometimes the differences between Cylons of the same model number), it started to seem that there was no larger plan to speak of.  By the time we got to the New Caprica arc (the high-point of the show, in my mind), it seemed that the Cylons were just as confused and uncertain as the humans.  This provided for fascinating storytelling and the bringing of commendable depth to the “villain” characters, but it also seemed to me to be in contradiction to the bold, declarative statement that “they have a plan.”

While I have complaints about the final season of the show (click here for my thoughts on the finale), one of the plot developments that I most enjoyed was the development of Cavill, played so menacingly by the great Dean Stockwell (Quantum Leap).  As the back-story of the Final Five Cylons was (confusingly) played out, we learned … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, and Valkyrie

I know some people who can’t stand to see a movie a second time — they think “been there, done that, I’d rather see something new.”  I certainly don’t have anything against seeing something new, but I’m also someone who loves seeing movies for a second time — and, if it’s a good movie, seeing it many more times after that!  (I’m the same way with books, comic books, etc. — I love re-reading stories that I enjoyed multiple times.)

I find that my feelings upon watching a film for a second time often vary wildly from the experience of seeing it originally.  I can absorb the film without all the baggage of hype, my anticipation, etc.  I can also more accurately judge the movie for what it is, rather than what I had hoped it would be or was expecting it would be.

During September I had a chance to take a second look at three films that I really enjoyed during last year’s Oscar rush of films (in late December 2008).  Did my feelings about them change, for better or for worse, upon a second viewing?  Read on!

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — read my original review here.  Benjamin Button was one of my very favorite movies from last year (it ranked as no. 6 on my list of my favorite films from 2008) and, if anything, I was even more in awe of it the second time around.  The film is magnificent.  It is one of those special collaborations where every single element works just perfectly, from the gorgeous sets and costumes, to the jaw-dropping visual effects (that create fully-realized environments from France to Russia to a tug-boat in the middle of the Pacific, not to mention the completely convincing creation and de-aging of Benjamin Button himself that is as wonderful a combination of makeup, prosthetics, and incredible CGI as I have ever seen), to the wonderful performances by Brad Pitt (who proves in every film he’s in why he is so deserving of his movie-star fame), Cate Blanchett, and a wonderful array of other talented actors.  Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac) knows how to incorporate cutting-edge visual effects into a film without ever letting those effects overpower the film, and he knows how to tell a deeply emotional tale without ever veering into schmaltz.  As I said: magnificent.  (I also had the fun of watching this film on Blu-Ray, and let me say that my jaw was on the floor at the clarity of the images, the colors, everything.  As the enclosed booklet notes, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was created in the digital realm without ever … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Waltz With Bashir

September 25th, 2009
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I saw a lot of films in 2008 — but, of course, there were many that I wanted to see but just didn’t get to.  (I listed several when I compiled my list of the Best Movies of 2008.)  Of the films that I missed, the one I was most bummed about was Waltz With Bashir.

For almost a year now I’ve been hearing and reading about what a success this film is.  Well, last month I finally had an opportunity to watch Ari Folman’s magnificent “animated documentary” (as he refers to the film on the DVD’s special features).  It is a beautiful, haunting, truly unique film.

A meeting at a bar with one of his former comrades from the Israeli army prompts Mr. Folman to realize that he has no memories of his time fighting in the Lebanon War of 1982.  Despite that lack of concrete memories, he finds himself increasingly haunted by a bizarre image that he dreams about — of him, and several other Israeli soldiers, emerging naked from the water, watching flares illuminate a deserted Lebanese city block.  Trying to determine the meaning of that image, and to sort out exactly where he was and what he did during the war, Mr. Folman travels around Israel, and beyond, meeting up with several surviving comrades from the war and listening to their stories.

The film is structured around these interviews/conversations.  (These are almost all real interviews with real people, who voice themselves — with just two exceptions, according to the DVD features — in the film.)  Why then, you might be wondering, is the project animated?  Why didn’t Mr. Folman simply film and then edit together these interviews the way most documentarians do?  Within the answer to that question lies the film’s surprising power.  Folman and his team use animation as a way to recreate, before our eyes, what the interview subjects are describing, whether that be their best recollection of events that they lived through, or the dreams that they’ve had in the years since.

While certainly there is an attempt, on Mr. Folman’s part, to educate himself (and his audience) about the events of the Lebanese War — and, specifically, the massacre of Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Lebanese Phalangist fighters — there is so much more going on in this film than just a recreation of those events.  Waltz With Bashir represents a soldier’s attempt to come to grips with actions that he might have taken — or allowed others to take — or even just witnessed — during war-time.  As such, this could be a film about almost any conflict.  Yes, over the course of the … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Diabolique (1954)

September 21st, 2009
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My wife borrowed the French movie Diabolique from her step-father, but after reading the description on the back of the case, which described the film as “an acknowledged influence on Psycho,” she decided that it would probably be too scary to watch.  I, however, had never seen the film, and was intrigued enough by what I’d heard about it to give the DVD a spin.

Diabolique (which is apparently the film’s title in the U.S., although the title card of the film itself reads Les Diabolioques — “The Devils”) was made in 1954 by acclaimed French director Henri-Georges Clouzot.  The film is in black-and-white, and is in French (with English subtitles).

Christina and Nicole are an unlikely pair.  Christina is married to the cruel Michel Delasalle, who runs a fairly shoddy boarding school for boys.  Nicole is one of the teachers, and is also Michel’s mistress.  Christina and Nicole have bonded over their mutual hatred of Michel, who is vicious in his treatment of them both.  Ultimately, the two women hatch a plan to escape their troubles by murdering Michel.  While being sure to carefully cover their tracks, they carry out the grisly deed and dump Michel’s body in the school’s swimming pool.  Their hope is that Michel’s corpse will soon be found, and people will assume that he committed suicide.  But when the pool is drained soon after by the school’s groundskeeper, the body is gone.

Part of the charm, for me, in watching older movies often has to do with the leisurely pace at which they unfold, and Diabolique is no different.  The film takes its time, introducing the small group of teachers at Mr. Delasalle’s sad little school, and allowing us to see exactly why Christina and Nicole feel that murder is their only escape from their current situations.  But the pacing of the film is also, to me, its greatest flaw.  The real fun of the film doesn’t start until the pool is emptied and the two women realize that Michel’s body has vanished.  The mystery of just-what-is-going-on, and the two women’s descent into fearful paranoia as they grow convinced that somehow Michel is not actually dead, is the real heart of the film.  But it takes quite a long time (over an hour) to get to that point — a little too long, for my tastes.

That being said, I quite enjoyed the film.  It’s a pretty grim little tale, filled with characters who are either cruel or hopeless or both.  The actors are all fairly naturalistic — there’s none of the stilted “Hollywood-speak” that one can find sometimes in older films.  The photography is also very well done — the black-and-white imagery is … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Bottle Rocket (1996)

September 16th, 2009
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I walked into Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums totally unprepared for the idiosyncratic work of genius I was about to see.  I had seen Rushmore on video a year or so earlier, but I’d gone in expecting a goofy Bill Murray comedy and so didn’t quite know what to make of the film I actually saw.  While Rushmore had gotten a lot of acclaim upon its release, the film didn’t exactly blow my skirt up (to borrow one of my favorite lines from True Lies).  But I’ll watch Gene Hackman in almost anything, and the rest of the ensemble cast of Tenenbaums looked intriguing, so I decided to check out the film when it came out in theatres.  I was absolutely blown away by what I saw: the film was emotional and very, very funny, but even more than that, every frame seemed to be absolutely unique, unlike any other film I’d ever seen before.  This was the work of an accomplished, singular filmmaker.

The Royal Tenenbaums remains my favorite film by Wes Anderson, but I’ve also quite enjoyed The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (a much-underrated film that I have really grown to like upon repeat viewings) and The Darjeeling Limited.  Despite my appreciation of those films, though, I had never sought out Mr. Anderson’s first film: Bottle Rocket.  There’s no particular reason for that — I wasn’t avoiding seeing it — it’s just a film that I never got around to watching.  But when the Criterion Collection (always known for their high-quality presentations of notable films) released Bottle Rocket on DVD last spring, I knew I had to take the plunge.

Bottle Rocket focuses primarily on the friendship between three young men: Anthony (Luke Wilson), Dignan (Owen Wilson), and Bob (Robert Musgrave).  The three guys — Dignan in particular — harbor aspirations of becoming master criminals.  When we meet them at the start of the film, though, they’re pretty hapless.

Bottle Rocket isn’t strong on plot, exactly.  That’s not to say that nothing happens in the film — quite a lot happens, actually.  But there isn’t really a strong dramatic through-line to the events — the movie feels more like a series of vignettes.  That hurts the pacing of the film somewhat, but adds to the naturalism of the story.  These three friends aren’t typical movie-heroes caught up in BIG DRAMATIC events.  They’re just sort-of hapless schmoes trying their best to figure out their own lives and find their way in the world.  And therein lies the movie’s charm.

The two Wilson brothers and Robert Musgrave all turn in strong performances — especially Owen Wilson, whose character of Dignan is a truly unique creation.  … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews the new Director’s Cut of Watchmen

September 7th, 2009
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Even before Watchmen was released in theatres, director Zach Snyder made clear, in interviews, that we’d be seeing his longer Director’s Cut released on DVD/Blu-Ray before too terribly long.  

Well, Watchmen: The Director’s Cut is indeed now available for all to see, and I am happy to report that it’s quite excellent.

This Director’s Cut isn’t a total reinvention of the film.  The film unfolds as it did in its theatrical form.  There are no revelatory story-lines or spectacular action sequences added back in.  This Director’s Cut isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about Mr. Snyder’s adaptation of the comic book masterpiece by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.  If the film didn’t grab you in the theatres (and if you’re reading this while thinking to yourself, “twenty-four extra minutes added on to a film that was already two and a half hours??  No thanks!!”) then nothing I’m going to write here will cause you to think any differently.  But if you were as taken with the theatrical version as I was (check out my original review here), then this new extended version is a delight.

As I wrote above, the film hasn’t been dramatically re-edited (the way, for example, the first half-hour of The Fellowship of the Ring was entirely re-worked in Peter Jackson’s magnificent extended edition), and there’s no “Wow!  What a cool sequence that they’ve restored to the film!” moment (such as the astounding revised ending of James Cameron’s Director’s Cut of The Abyss).  No, what has been added back into the film are a lot of little moments, little bits of texture to the story from the original comic book.  Scenes now start a few moments earlier, or end a few moments later.  Many of the characters now get a few extra moments.  Bits of background detail are added.  These accumulate to result in a film that is a bit more leisurely paced than the theatrical version, but where the world of the story has been a little more fleshed out.  

One of the very first changes is also the most perplexing one, and really the only change I objected to.  There’s a little button added on to the scene where Rorschach investigates the Comedian’s apartment, after his murder.  Now, as Rorschach is leaving, a cop finds him in the apartment, and tries to shoot him.  For some reason, the bullets don’t seem to connect with Rorschach, and when the cop looks back at him, he is gone.  Whereas most of the rest of the additions in this new cut result in the re-incorporation of small moments or details from the original graphic novel, this addition is a complete invention of the filmmakers, and it … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Empire of the Sun

Last month I wrote about discovering and really enjoying, in college, some films from what I consider to be Steven Spielberg’s “middle period,” in which he began moving from the crowd-pleasing adventure films that he did so well (epitomized by Raiders of the Lost Ark) to more serious dramatic material (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, etc.)  Rewatching The Color Purple for the first time in a decade, I found that there was still a lot to enjoy, though in some ways I felt the film was a bit simplistic.  (Click here for my full review.)

But I found myself quite mesmerized by Empire of the Sun when I re-watched it last month (also for the first time in about ten years).  This is a dramatically under-rated movie, and a strong piece of Mr. Spielberg’s over-all filmography.

Young Jim Graham is a spoiled British schoolboy, living with his parents in great luxury in Shanghai in 1941.  When the Japanese invade, he is separated from his parents in the chaotic evacuation of British citizens and is left to his own devices to try to survive in the dangerous war-time world.

Whereas I found The Color Purple to have a bit too much schmaltz, Empire of the Sun is surprisingly tough in its depiction of Jim’s four-year ordeal in war-torn China.  Although the film centers on a young boy (as do many of Spielberg’s films — see ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, AI: Artificial Intelligence, etc.), this is — for the most part — a tough, honest film.  There are moments of Spielbergian romanticization — mostly having to do with Jim’s fascination with airplanes — but I found those to be moving scenes that furthered my emotional connection with the story being told, rather than distracting me from the reality of Jim’s situation.

That’s a tough balance to find — but when he’s at the top of his game, no one is better at finding that balance than Steven Spielberg.  And he does fine work here.  There are long stretches of the film without any dialogue, propelled by the gorgeous and haunting imagery (and a lush but not overly intrusive score by John Williams).  When there is dialogue, it’s tight, well-written stuff penned by Tom Stpppard (Brazil, Shakespeare in Love).

Spielberg is well known — and rightfully so — for his skill in getting strong performances from his child actors, and Empire of the Sun is a stand-out in that department.  Jim is played by a young Christain Bale (who’s been having quite a moment, playing Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins & the Dark Knight as well as a variety of other high-profile roles in films such as … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Cloverfield

In one of my very first posts for this site, I mentioned that I’d really enjoyed Cloverfield when I saw it on the big screen, but I wondered how it would hold up to a second viewing (especially on a TV screen as opposed to on an enormous movie theatre screen).

I was eager to find out, so I scooped up Cloverfield on DVD when it came out, about a year ago.  But, for some reason, that DVD sat on my shelf, unwatched.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe other films just caught my attention.  Maybe I didn’t want to discover that the film didn’t work on a second viewing.

But a few weeks ago I finally decided to pop in that DVD.  And you know what?  I am pleased to report that I enjoyed the film just as much as I did the first time I saw it!

The first 10-15 minutes of the film could be the start of any type of urban dramedy.  A group of friends gather in an NYC loft to throw a good-bye party for one of their friends, Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is leaving town for a new job in Japan.  Through some fun banter we begin to get a sense of the dynamic between the group of friends, and learn hints at a romance that went wrong between Rob and Beth (Odette Yustman).  Then the power cuts out, they see a huge explosion across the city skyline, and the party-goers rush out of the building in a panic only to see the severed head of the Statue of Liberty smash into the street.

Then, you know, things get worse from there.

The conceit of the film is that one of the friends, Hud (T.J. Miller), who was filming the good-bye party as a favor, winds up capturing on his digital video camera the entire nightmarish scenario that follows.  The entire movie is seen from the point of view of his camera.  This is an enormous conceit, to be sure, and certainly there are a few times in the film where you might find yourself wondering, “I can’t believe he still has the camera on!”  But I think the filmmakers do a pretty credible job at maintaining credibility to this idea throughout the film.  (And, interestingly enough, while on my first viewing I did find myself evaluating, from scene to scene, whether I could really believe that Hud would have been able to capture what I was seeing, on this second viewing I didn’t think about that at all.  I totally accepted the scenario.)

I have to praise the filmmakers, camera-men, editors, etc., for the skill with which the shots were created and … [continued]

 

“Can I cook, or can’t I?” Josh continues his look at the new Blu-Ray release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

July 24th, 2009
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When I purchased a Blu-Ray player last year, I promised myself that I wouldn’t go out and re-purchase all the great movies that I own on DVD when they’re released on Blu-Ray.  This has been an easy promise to keep, mostly because DVDs played in my Blu-Ray player look FANTASTIC.

But when I read about the new restoration being done to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (one of my absolute favorite films — just take a look back at Wednesday’s post if you don’t believe me) for it’s release on Blu-Ray, I had to take the plunge.

I must admit, somewhat sheepishly, that this is actually the THIRD time I have bought a copy of Star Trek II.  I held off on buying the original bare-bones DVD release from 2000, preferring instead to buy the two-disc “Special Collector’s Edition” when it was released in 2002.  Unfortunately, while I enjoyed all the special features on that DVD, the version of the film included was a new Director’s Cut.  It was neat to see some additional scenes (which I hadn’t seen for years and years, ever since catching an extended TV version of the film in a hotel room once as a kid), but many of the additions were clunky and disruptive to the pitch-perfect pace of the theatrical film.  So of course I went out and picked up a copy of that first bare-bones DVD, so I could have the theatrical version to watch.

So what did I think of this new version?  Was it worth paying to own The Wrath of Khan for a third time?

Absolutely.  The movie looks FANTASTIC on Blu-Ray.  The colors are bright and vibrant (check out the main viewscreen graphics during the opening Kobayashi Maru sequence, for example), and the dark backgrounds and shadows in many of the scenes (this is a DARK movie!) are deep and rich.  The sound is terrific — the dialogue is all crystal-clear, and James Horner’s magnificent scores (one of the best movie scores EVER) is given a lot of weight and heft.

I am not an expert in things like film grain or other aspects of the restoration of old movies, but let me give you one example that, for me, highlights the excellent work done to clean up this film for its Blu-Ray release.  In every home video release of Star Trek II that I have ever seen (including both DVDs that I own), there has always been some distracting dirt or grain or something over the scene of the Enterprise leaving drydock.  There’s one shot in particular — a view of the Enterprise from behind, in which the Big E’s nacelle fills most of … [continued]

 

“KHAAAAANNNN!!!!” Josh relishes the new Blu-Ray release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan!!

July 22nd, 2009
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I’m a big Star Trek fan.

OK, that’s probably an enormous understatement.

There has been a LOT of Trek released over the years, and while there have been some missteps (I’m looking at you, Star Trek: Nemesis), there is so much of it that I love so dearly.  The antics and new, big ideas of the original series.  The space-opera writ large of the six original Trek movies.  The serious and cerebral Star Trek: The Next Generation (which is the series I grew up on).  The dense, dark, and sophisticated Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (especially seasons 4-7).  I can even find some things to enjoy in Star Trek: Enterprise (particularly in the final two seasons).

But for me, when I think of Star Trek, I think of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  This is the pinnacle of what Star Trek can and should be.  This is the masterpiece that I keep hoping will someday be re-captured by a new Trek adventure.  (J.J. Abrams’ new film came the closest any new Trek has come in almost 20 years, but his film is still but a shadow of Khan.)

Is there anyone reading this who doesn’t know the plot?  In the Original Series episode “Space Seed,” Captain James T. Kirk accidentally revived the charismatic megalomaniac, Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), and 70 of his followers, all genetically enhanced supermen who had conquered a quarter of planet Earth centuries ago during the 1990s and then put themselves into cryogenic freeze when their empire fell.Khan tried to seize the Enterprise in an attempt to restore his empire, and when he failed, Kirk marooned him and his crew on the deserted planet Ceti Alpha VI.  Now, 15 years later, Khan and what’s left of his people manage to capture another ship (the ill-fated U.S.S. Reliant) and attempt to take lethal revenge on the now Admiral Kirk.

Why it’s great:Allow me to quote liberally from the sadly-now-defunct web-site dvdjournal.com’s review of Star Trek II on DVD: “Thank the heavens for The Wrath of Khan, which saved Star Trek from itself.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture was an artistic and dramatic failure.  Nonetheless, the box office tallies were strong, so Paramount gambled on the notion that another film could amortize the first’s enormous cost overruns and prove that the studio really did have a cash cow on its hands.  After all, in show business a movie doesn’t have to be good as long as it’s profitable.But lo and behold, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was good. Really, really good.  Twenty years, seven movies, and four franchise TV series later, reasoned consensus still regards it as … [continued]

 

Attack of the Phantom! Josh has seen a brilliant fan edit of Star Wars: Episode II!

July 6th, 2009
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Earlier this year I wrote about The Phantom Edit of Star Wars: Episode I.  Michael Nichols was a fan of Star Wars who, like sane people world-wide, was tremendously disappointed with Episode I when it was released in 1999.  While the rest of us just whined to our friends, Mr. Nichols set out to see if some thoughtful re-editing of the material could shape a more successful film out of Episode I’s lengthy, bloated run-time.  As I discussed at length in my review, in my opinion Mr. Nichols succeeded wildly.  On the one hand, the film is still Episode I, and there’s only so much one can do with that story that, really didn’t need to be told.  On the other hand, by skillfully tightening up scenes, removing large swaths of dull and useless exposition, and cutting down much of the juvenile humor, Nichols was able to craft a much more dynamic narrative from the film.

When I read that he had also taken a pass at Episode II, I was ecstatic.  I was able to get my hands on his fan-edit last month, and as with his Phantom Edit of Episode I, I enjoyed it thoroughly!

Once again, Mr. Nichols demonstrates how a small trim (by removing just one line of dialogue) can really change the feeling of a scene for the better.  Let me give two examples.  In the opening sequence, after Amidala lands her ship on Coruscant, her bodyguard Captain Typho jogs up to her and says “We made it.  I guess I was wrong, there was no danger after all.”  Then, of course, Amidala’s ship explodes.  Typho’s dumb line takes all the air out of the scene — instead of it being a SHOCK when Amidala’s ship is destroyed, the audience is primed for something bad to happen by Typho’s ridiculous declaration.  So Nichols just snips out Typho’s line.  The queen lands her ship, steps onto the platform, and then BOOM.  Much more exciting moment.  Example number two takes place soon after, when Amidala enters Chancellor Palpatine’s office.  Yoda gives her a creepy greeting: “Seeing you alive brings warm feelings to my heart.”  OK, ew.  That bizarre line slams that scene to a halt, in my mind, as the audience tries to not think about what else of Yoda’s is warmed by seeing Natalie Portman.  So Nichols eliminates the line.  Amidala enters, and gets right down to business.  Much better.

As in his cut of Episode I, Nichols also removes most of the more juvenile and dumbed-down elements of the story.  Do you remember, with pain, all of the ridiculousness of C-3PO getting his head placed on the body of … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: The Color Purple

The Color Purple, released in 1985, finds director Steven Spielberg at an interesting point in his career.  After having directed the first two Indiana Jones films as well at E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial in the early eighties, Spielberg apparently had a desire to move towards more weighty, dramatic material.  But his “serious” films of the late eighties (The Color Purple, along with Empire of the Sun and Always) didn’t meet with an enormous amount of critical acclaim (compared to his successes in the nineties with films such as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan).  But, in college, I decided I wanted to take a look at those “middle period” Spielberg films, and I was quite pleasantly surprised by their quality.  It’s been a while since I’ve last seen those films, though, so when I spotted The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun in the discount DVD bin at my local Newbury Comics, I snatched them both up.

I haven’t had a chance to get to Empire of the Sun yet, but my wife and I watched The Color Purple last month.  It wasn’t quite as good as I had remembered it, but I still think it’s a better film than people tend to think.

Adapted from the novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple tells the life story of an African American woman, Celie.  Growing up in turn-of-the-century Georgia, the poor girl struggles through hardship after hardship.  She is raped by her father as a young girl, and gives birth to two children who he takes from her.  She is married off to a cruel local farmer (Danny Glover), who beats her and forcibly separates her from her beloved sister, Nettie.  Later in life she forms an unexpected friendship with her husband’s mistress, the vivacious singer Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), who sets Celie on a path towards finally coming out of her shell and finding some happiness for herself.

The Color Purple is notable for some terrific performances from some well-known actors who, looking back on the film now, are unbelievably young here.  Whoopie Goldberg, in one of her very first screen appearances, plays Celie, and she is fantastic — soulful and full of life, even though she has very little dialogue in the film.  Whoopie is a talented comedian, but I have found that I’ve always preferred her in straight dramatic roles, and this is no exception.  Danny Glover doesn’t often play the “bad guy” in films, but he does a great job here as the monstrous Albert.  He cuts quite a menacing figure.  Oprah Winfrey appears, also in one of her first screen appearances, as the vivacious and strong-willed Sofia.  Her performance is … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Walk Hard

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is one of the few films from the past several years that Judd Apatow has had a hand in (he co-wrote the film and was one of its producers), that, despite his involvement, did not receive a lot of love from audiences upon its release.  My own recollection of seeing it in theatres was that it was sort of funny but not fantastic.  However, upon a second viewing on DVD last month, I must say that I have fallen head-over-heels in love with this film!

Walk Hard is, first and foremost, an evisceration of a very specific type of film: the Oscar-bait musical bio-pic (like Ray, Walk the Line, etc.).  In scene after scene after scene, the film mercilessly sends-up every single ridiculous cliche of those types of movies.

We meet young Dewey growing up in a ramshackle farm down South, enjoying an idyllic life.  But a day of fun with his brother (“ain’t nothing horrible gonna happen today!” the doomed tyke promises) ends in tragedy after a machete-fighting accident.  Out of that grief, Dewey discovers his musical ability, playing the blues (“I got the blues… cut my brother in half…”).  A few years later, a nervous Dewey performs at a High School concert.  (Starting here, Dewey is played by John C. Reilly, despite the fact that the character is only 14 in this scene.  As Apatow and Director/co-writer Jake Kasdan note in their DVD commentary, they were interested in poking fun at  ”just how young the lead actor THINKS he can play” in these sorts of movies.)   Despite the innocuousness of the pop ballad Dewey performs (entitled “Take My Hand”), the concert erupts into a frenzy of sexualized dancing (as, you know, Rock and Roll is wont to cause).  After being condemned by the local priest (“You think we don’t know what you’re talking about when you say take my hand?!”) and his father (“The wrong kid died!”), Dewey decides to leave home and set out on a musical career.

What follows reads like a crazy check-list of the types of scenes one could expect in these sorts of films, charting our hero’s rise and fall and eventual redemption.  Dewey gets an opportunity to perform his music for a disinterested record company executive (played brilliantly by John Michael Higgins, who proclaims: “You have failed conclusively!  There is nothing that you can do, here in this room, to turn that around!”) but, of course, once Dewey plays one of his own songs (the titular “Walk Hard”), the executive is blown away, as are his Hassidic Jewish backers (Harold Ramis — yes, Harold Ramis — Phil Rosenthal, and Martin Starr in delightfully over-the-top Hassidic get-up … [continued]

 

Josh Relives the Adventures of Young Indiana Jones

One of my earliest posts for this blog last year was a list of a bunch of DVDs on my “to-watch” shelf that I hoped to get to some time in the near future.  One item on that list was the first set of DVDs collecting The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones.

Well, it took me quite a while, but I am pleased to report that almost a year later I have made my way through that DVD set!  (It’s the first of three sets that collect the entire run of the series.)

The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones was a TV series that ran, somewhat sporadically, from 1992-1996.  Alternating episodes would follow the adventures of 10 year-old Indy (played by Corey Carrier), and teen-aged Indy (played by Sean Patrick Flanery).  In each episode, Indy would find himself in adventures in varying parts of the globe, each time running into many real-life historical figures, Forest Gump style.  ABC cancelled the series after its second season in 1993, but the USA network picked it up and aired a number of new episodes in two-hour mini-movie formats until 1996.

For the 1999 release of the series on VHS, the entire series was re-edited chronologically, with each episode paired with the next one in sequence to form a two-hour mini-movie (similar to the way the episodes were aired on USA).  In so doing, all of the framing device scenes with a very Old Indy (93 year-old Indy was played by George Hall) that used to start and end each episode were completely removed.  These are the versions that have been released on DVD.  Also in 1999, Lucas, ever one to re-name his work (Star Wars eventually becomes Episode IV: A New Hope; Raiders of the Lost Ark eventually becomes Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark), at this point also changed the name of the series from The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles to The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones.  (And thank heaven for wikipedia for that little tidbit.  Writing this whole review I kept writing The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, but I could see that the title on the DVDs was The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones.  I had no idea why I kept getting the title wrong!  Well, it’s because I always knew this show as The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles! Sheesh!)

(By the way, here’s another amusing tidbit.  Does anyone but me remember how, when this series was released on VHS in 1999 in the form of 22 mini-movies, each labeled “chapter 1″ through “chapter 22,” Lucas also re-released the Indy movie trilogy, labeling the movies “chapter 23″ through” chapter 25″??  This … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: The Departed

As with Charlie Wilson’s War (which I wrote about on Wednesday), The Departed is a movie whose DVD has been sitting on my shelf for a while now, waiting for me to revisit it (after really enjoying my first viewing when I saw it in theatres).  I am pleased to say I enjoyed the film during its second viewing as much as I did during its first.

The Departed is a sprawling film that focuses on two young men who are, in many ways, the mirror opposites of one another.  Leonardo DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan, a state cop assigned to infiltrate the mob run by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), while Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan, one of Costello’s men who is assigned to infiltrate the state police.  The film deftly follows their two stories, as each one works to make a name for himself in his new world, all the while scrambling to stay one step ahead of discovery.  William Monahan’s script is taut and smart, giving DiCaprio and Damon plenty of great character material to work with, while also fashioning a throughly entertaining, twisty narrative.  (I am becoming an enormous fan of Mr. Monahan’s writing, by the way.  In addition to his work in The Departed, I thoroughly enjoyed his script for Ridley Scott’s criminally-underrated Kingdom of Heaven.)

As good as Damon and DiCaprio are, though, they almost have the movie stolen right out from under them by Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg, who are both absolutely magnificent playing two gleefully profane Boston detectives.  Martin Sheen is a great father figure as Police Captain Queenan, and Jack Nicholson — well, he’s Jack!  Completely over-the-top but somehow still believable as the dangerous Costello.

Having lived in both Providence and Boston, I really enjoyed the film’s focus on the distinct flavors of those two great cities.  I love movies that dig into a particular subculture, whether that’s a documentary such as Spellbound or Wordplay, or a movie like Adventureland (which I reviewed here) that captures the life of kids working a summer job at an amusement park.  So it’s no great surprise that I was tickled by The Departed‘s focus on life in Providence and Boston, two cities that are both quite different than, say, New York.  Now, I can’t really vouch for the veracity of the depiction of the crime families of those two towns, but I can say that I think Mr. Scorsese and his collaborators really captured the unique FEEL of those two cities.  

This is a big story being told, taking place over many years and with a lot of characters and a lot of narrative twists and turns.  It is … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Charlie Wilson’s War

June 17th, 2009
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Picked this up off the DVD shelf recently, and I must say I enjoyed it as thoroughly as I did when I saw it in theatres last year.  In his review of the film for the New York Times, A.O. Scott described Charlie Wilson’s War as “more of a hoot than any picture dealing with the bloody, protracted fight between the Soviet Army and the Afghan mujahedeen has any right to be.”  I must say that I entirely agree!

Tom Hanks plays Charlie Wilson, a representative from Texas’ Second Congressional District to the U.S. House of Representatives.  Hanks imbues this good ol’ boy with an inordinate amount of charm, whether he’s flirting with women in a hot-tub or debating the intricacies of Constitutional law with a constituent.  Charlie quickly finds common purpose with short-fused, take-no-nonsense C.I.A. operative Gust Avrakotos, played with great vigor by Philip Seymour Hoffman.  (His opening scene, in which he viciously tells off his boss at the C.I.A., is an absolute riot.)  Hoffman’s Gust is the polar opposite of Charlie — ornery, blunt, and poorly-dressed.  But the two find a strange sort of kinship in their realization of the importance of defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan.

While Hanks and Hoffman get most of the fun (and most of the film’s best lines), the supporting cast is superb as well.  Julia Roberts is beautiful and imposing as the wealthy Joanne Herring; Amy Adams is sassy and smart as Charlie’s assistant Bonnie Bach (though I do wish she had a bit more to do in the film); and I don’t want to forget the delightful Ned Beatty (forever known to my generation as Lex Luthor’s oafish henchman Otis from the Richard Donner Superman movies).

But the real stars of the film are writer Aaron Sorkin and director Mike Nichols.  These two gentlemen know comedy, and they know drama, and they know how to combine the two.  Sorkin’s script is filled with memorable lines (my favorite being Charlie’s response to Joanne’s question as to why Congress is saying one thing and doing nothing: “tradition, mostly”) and the rat-tat-tat dialogue exchanges that he is famous for, but not in a way that overwhelms the story being told.  And Nichols’ direction gives the film a light, enjoyable tone, while not shying away from some difficult questions that any look at the U.S.’s actions during this period must lead to.  This is a film with a clear point to make about today’s political realities, but the filmmakers are confident enough not to hit you over the head with it.  Most importantly, Nichols and the skilled actors with whom he is working are able to create fully-realized characters to populate the film, not one-dimensional … [continued]

 

“Rock Me Sexy Jesus!” — Josh Reviews Hamlet 2

June 12th, 2009
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Hamlet 2 tells the story of frustrated actor-turned-high school drama teacher Dana Marschz (a nearly-unpronounceable last name, for which I was eager to learn the correct spelling by watching the film’s end credits) played by Steve Coogan (so funny this past summer in Tropic Thunder).  Dana is not-dissimilar to Christopher Guest’s Corky St. Clair (from the terrific film Waiting For Guffman) although rather more pathetic (and more prone to accidentally flashing his genitals).  Even in teaching, Dana is struggling to find success.  He only has two loyal students, and the school plays that he supervises (such as a recent stage version of Erin Brockovich) are continually savaged by the school paper’s young drama critic.

Things go from bad to worse when the school decides to cut most of its electives, filling Dana’s drama class with an unruly mob of kids who have no desire to be there.  But Dana is inspired to write a new play — a musical sequel to Hamlet that will correct that play’s downer ending — and sets out to get all of his kids involved.  What follows is a sort-of-insane mish-mash of inspiring-teacher movies (Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dangerous Minds) with kids-coming-together-to-create-a-musical films.

The movie is all over the place.  It’s at its best when it allows Mr. Coogan to depict his slow-burn desperation to connect with the kids in his class.  There are also a number of amusing digressions, such as Dana’s encounter with Elisabeth Shue (playing herself), who has decided to give up acting in favor of life as a nurse; explorations of his home-life with his bitter wife Brie (the very funny Catherine Keener) and their new tenant Gary (David Arquette, who is hysterical in his nearly-silent role); and the appearance of civil liberties lawyer Cricket Feldstein (a fast-talking Amy Poehler).

There are also some stretches of the movie that don’t quite work, and a lot of jokes that are weird but not necessarily all that funny.  More problematically, there were times when, even in a ridiculous movie like this, I wished the characters had been fleshed out a little bit more.  There wasn’t that much depth given to most of the new students in Dana’s class, and I didn’t really believe that they would ever willingly decide to participate in Dana’s play.  That’s a key transition that the film needs to make, both for the plot and for all the character story-lines, and the fact that I don’t think it worked hurt the film for me.

But in the end, a film called Hamlet 2 lives or dies on the ultimate performance of the titular play itself — and let me tell you, those … [continued]

 

“What d’you think we are? Gangsters?” — Josh Reviews RocknRolla

June 10th, 2009
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Writer/director Guy Ritchie’s films Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch rank among my favorite movies.  Both are incredibly clever, unique movies characterized by hysterical rat-a-tat dialogue and complex, interweaving plots filled to the brim with bizarre, violent, charismatic characters (most of whom are rather shady in nature).  And yet, despite my love for those two movies, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen a Guy Ritchie film.  Swept Away (2002), starring his then-wife Madonna, didn’t interest me, and the critical drubbing it received didn’t inspire me to rush out and see it.  I was interested in seeing Revolver (2005), but I missed in in theatres, and the negative reviews that that film also received have contributed to my always choosing other movies to rent when visiting the video store.  But I was very pleased to recently have a chance to watch RocknRolla (released last year, in 2008).

RocknRolla has an incredibly complex plot that I’m not even going to begin to try to explain.  I’ll just tell you that it follows the intersecting lives and capers of figures at a variety of levels in the London underworld, from minor thieves like One Two (Gerard Butler, from 300), Mumbles (Idris Elba from The Wire), and Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy, much more entertaining here than he was in Star Trek: Nemesis), boss Lenny (Tom Wilkinson, from Batman Begins, Michael Clayton, In the Bedroom, and a lot of other great films) and his loyal right-hand man Archie (played by Mark Strong, who I’d never believe, if not for imdb, is the same actor who played Jordanian intelligence official Hani Salaam in Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies), rock star Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell), music promoters Roman (Jeremy Piven) and Mickey (Ludacris), foreign mobster Uri (Karel Roden) and his accountant Stella (Thandie Newton) and many, many other characters.

As with Lock, Stock and Snatch, the fun of the movie comes from listening to the terrific, joke-a-minute dialogue, and watching the talented ensemble of actors bringing all of their wonderful characters, each of whom could have a movie all their own, to life.

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel that RocknRolla hung together as a complete film as well as those other two movies did.  As much as I enjoyed the enormous ensemble, I felt at times that there were too many characters, with too much going on.  RocknRolla doesn’t really have a main character, and I think that is the crux of the problem.  The closest thing would be Gerard Butler as One Two, and Butler is really terrific as the charismatic but slightly dim criminal.  But his character drops out of the movie for long stretches of time, … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews American Teen

June 3rd, 2009
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In 2006, documentary film-maker Nanette Burstein and her team followed several teenagers through the course of their Senior Year of High School in Warsaw, Indiana.  While a number of students applied to participate, the final film focuses on five kids, who seem to fit into typical Breakfast-Club style stereotypes.  (”I grew up watching John Hughes movies, and the inspiration I had for this movie was to find these fictional teen narratives in real life,” Burstein said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.)

There is The Jock: Colin Clemens, the star of Warsaw High’s basketball team who is hoping to receive a basketball scholarship and afraid that, without the money to pay for college, he’ll have to enter the Army if he doesn’t receive one.  There is The Princess: Megan Krizmanich, a pretty, popular girl who is at the head of the pack of the social life at Warsaw High.  There is The Geek: Jake Tusing, a nerd with bad acne and a bad haircut, who loves video-games and is desperately looking to get a girlfriend.  There is The Heartthrob: Mitch Reinholt, who is popular and good-looking; he’s friends with Megan and plays on the basketball team with Colin.  Finally there is The Rebel: Hannah Bailey, who dreams of being an artist and a film-maker, who plays in a band and openly despises life in Warsaw and hopes to move out to California after graduation.

What is most fascinating about American Teen (and what prompted a flurry of articles upon the film’s release last year), are the questions it raises about the degree to which the kids do or don’t perform for the cameras that they must know are recording them, and what that says about the lives of teenagers today in the world of facebook, myspace, youtube,  and reality television.  There are a number of times during the film when you can see clearly that the kids are wearing microphones.  And yet, they seem to behave as if they are entirely unaware that the cameras are observing them.  I have no doubt the kids were coached about not looking into the cameras, but there are moments in the film when we see the cameras capture very intimate moments (an almost-hookup, a breakup, etc.) as well as moments of  teenage cruelty (such as Megan and her friends planning and executing a vicious prank).  This of course raises the question of whether the kids altered their behavior for the cameras.  On the one hand, it seemed that they didn’t — that the cameras quickly became a ubiquitous part of their lives, and that they carried on behaving the way they ordinarily would.  As the New York Times observed (in the [continued]

 

“I definitely did not touch your woo-woo!” — Josh Reviews Choke

May 15th, 2009
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Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) is a sex-addict who works at Colonial Dunsboro, an 18th-century re-enactment village.  He’s also a con-man whose routine is to pretend he is choking in a restaurant and then befriend the person who rescues him, ultimately hitting that unsuspecting “hero” up for a handout.  Oh yes, and after reading the diaries of his dying mother, he begins to suspect that he might be a clone of Jesus Christ.  Or, at least, a half-clone.

What a marvelously bizarre movie!!

At this point I’ve become convinced that I will watch Sam Rockwell in anything.  I first noticed him in Galaxy Quest, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind has become one of my favorite movies.  He’s even great is smallish supporting roles, as he was in Frost/Nixon.  The energetic way in which Rockwell embodies Victor gives this film its life.  Adapted from a novel by Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), the movie could very easily have become a dour, joyless affair.  But Rockwell’s Victor is just so entertaining to watch, even when he is being a total jackass, that he carries the viewer without any complaint through some of the movie’s rougher patches.  

The supporting cast is equally phenomenal.  Brad William Henke (currently wondering what lies in the shadow of the statue on Lost) is hysterical as Victor’s somewhat dim friend Denny.  Anjelica Houston’s performance here reminds me of the similarly mysterious and flawed mother figure that she played in The Darjeeling Limited the year before, but that’s not a criticism.  She’s especially compelling in the flashback scenes, where we see how her particular brand of craziness sent Victor down the road to becoming the screwed-up fellow he is when we meet him.  Gillian Jacobs breathes a lot of heart and soul into her small role as Beth/”Cherry Daquiri.”  She is also, I might add, stunningly beautiful.  Speaking of beautiful, I found myself completely smitten (as is Victor) by Kelly MacDonald (Gosford Park, No Country for Old Men) as Paige Marshall, who Victor meets at the private hospital where his mother is being treated.  I can really believe that she is the individual who can shake Victor out of the terrible rut that his life has become.  

Choke deals quite frankly with sex and a lot of sexual situations.  In some indie movies I find that frankness to be a bit uncomfortable, but here the subject matter is treated with just enough of a touch of humor that I went along quite eagerly for the ride.  There’s a lot of weirdness to be found in Choke, and Victor’s habit of imagining the people he’s interacting with naked is just one small part of this!  … [continued]

 

“I got mad love for you, shorty. That’s on the real.” — Josh Reviews The Wackness

May 13th, 2009
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I saw this terrific movie on DVD last month, during the same week that I saw the lovely new film Adventureland (read my full review here), and although the settings are extremely different, I was struck by the similarities between the two films.  Both are “period pieces” set a few years back, and both tell coming-of-age stories, set over the course of a particularly transformative summer.

The Wackness takes place in New York City during the summer of 1994.  Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) has just graduated high school and is spending the summer hanging around the city and making money selling pot.  When we first meet him he’s in the office of Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Ben Kingsley), who is Luke’s psychiatrist and also one of his best clients.  At a post-graduation party, Luke reconnects with Dr. Squires’ daughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), one of his class-mates but someone with whom he has had little interaction (because, as Luke puts it later in the film, she is “mad out of [his] league”).  

The hip-hop music and lingo of 1994 are an enormous part of the film, something which writer/director Jonathan Levine has recreated with great care.  I can’t vouch for his accuracy, but the music and the unique, specific “street-talk” really give the film a vibrant pulse and a distinct feel.

Over the course of the summer, Lucas has to grow up in many ways — he is faced with the ups and downs of his first real relationship and his exposure to the failings and imperfections of the adults around him.  Dr. Squires goes through similar emotional turmoil.  He sees in Luke many of the opportunities that he feels he has missed in life, and he has to face up to the sad, empty shell that his marriage (to his wife Kristen, played quietly by Famke Janssen) has become.  That description of a troubled adult and a troubled youth learning from one another and changing for the better sounds terribly cliche (I’ve seen Good Will Hunting and a hundred similar movies, as I’m sure have you), but The Wackness manages to deftly steer clear of predictable developments and movie-happy “I’ve grown and learned a lesson” endings.  It is also surprisingly funny.

Credit goes not only to writer/director Levine but also to his terrific cast.  Josh Peck is quite compelling as Luke Shapiro.  He makes the role his own, bringing life to Luke and embodying him with specific quirks and characteristics that make him a pretty unique movie young-adult lead.  Sir Ben Kingsley, under a terrifically ridiculous mop of hair, is similarly magnificent as the bizarre Dr. Squires.  His friendship with Luke is the beating heart of the film, and the … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

May 4th, 2009
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In March, 1977, filmmaker Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown) was arrested and charged with raping a 13 year-old girl at the home of his friend, Jack Nicholson (who was out of town at the time).  Polanski eventually agreed to a plea bargain and pled guilty to one felony count of illegal sex with a 13 yea-old girl.  In early 1978, before a sentence could be imposed, Polanski fled the country, never to return.

The above three sentences about sums up what I knew about this famous case.  (In all honesty, I probably didn’t even know quite that much before watching this film!)  What is most fascinating about the recent documentary by Marina Zenovich, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, is that the issue the film focuses on isn’t the act that Polanski committed, but rather on what happened afterwards.  

What actually occurred at Jack Nicholson’s house isn’t the subject of much debate, apparently.  There is a little bit of a “he said, she said” back-and-forth at the start of the film, as Zenovich compares and contrasts Polanski’s version of the story with that of the girl (Samantha Geimer).  There are a few important details on which they differ.  But Polanski does not deny having sex with the girl, nor does she seem to suggest that he forced himself on her.  The film does not spend a lot of time trying to defend Mr. Polanski’s actions, and rightly so.  Whether the sex was consentual or not, Polanski’s actions in sleeping with a 13 year-old girl were abhorrent.  

No, the focus of the film is on the even more shocking events that transpired after Polanski was arrested.  Ms. Zenovich lays out, in great detail, the ways in which the escalating chaos of the media circus and the publicity-hungry judge assigned to the case waylaid any attempt at justice.  Through a lively mix of fascinating archival footage from a whole host of sources and a wonderful array of insightful new interviews that Ms. Zenovich conducted with almost every single key figure in the case, including Samantha Geimer herself, viewers are walked through the stunningly tortured legal process as the case unfolded.  

The most fascinating elements of the film are the new interviews with Polanski’s lawyer, Douglas Dalton, and the Assistant D.A. who lead the case for the prosecution, Roger Gunson.  Both men come across as remarkably intelligent, honest men, and both are very candid in their interviews.  One might expect a film like this to demonize one side or the other, falling back on easy caricatures such as a depiction of Polanski the sadist defended by his showboating lawyer… or the stiff-laced DA blinded by self-righteousness.  But Zenovich resists any such … [continued]

 

“All of this has happened before…” Josh Reviews Caprica!

It is 58 years “before the fall.”  Life on the twelve colonies is peaceful and prosperous — especially on Caprica.  And yet, amongst the elite of society, there is decadence and decay.  The new direct-to-DVD movie Caprica focuses on the patriarchs of two families.  Daniel Greystone (Eric Stoltz) is a wealthy inventor — part Bill Gates, part Steve Jobs — who seems to have everything he wants in life.  But his artificial intelligence project is at a stand-still, and he’s in danger of losing his military contract to a rival company.  Joseph Adama (Esai Morales) is a lawyer, struggling to balance his desire to find his own way in life with his obligations to the crime family that helped pay for his education.  A terrible tragedy that involves both Daniel and Joseph’s daughters brings the two of them together and sets in motion events that will eventually lead to the creation of the Cylons… and 58 years later, the near-annihilation of the human race.

This Caprica direct-to-DVD project is something of a weird entity.  As the pilot for a TV show that we won’t get to see until 2010, Caprica isn’t a complete movie in and of itself — it’s more of a tease for what we’ll eventually get to see next year.

Despite whatever complaints I have with Battlestar Galactica‘s final run of episodes (and you can read my thoughts in more detail here), there certainly was a tremendous high of excitement and anticipation just a few months ago as the final hours of BSG were broadcast.  I wonder if Ron Moore and the makers of Caprica wouldn’t have been wiser to hold off on showing their pilot until next year, to let the memory of BSG fade and to build more anticipation for new stories within that universe.  As it is, it’s very difficult not to compare Caprica to that intense final run of episodes of BSG, and I think Caprica pales in comparison.

For better or for worse, Caprica is an entirely different type of show than BSG.  Whereas Galactica was intense and action-packed, Caprica is much colder, much more leisurely paced.  There’s one explosion (and it’s a doozy — one of the most dramatic moments of the pilot), but other than that Caprica‘s focus is not on action-adventure but on drama.  Now, that’s not a bad thing, necessarily.  You can have very compelling television without space-ship battles… and if Caprica had set out to be just like BSG, it would probably would have wound up being derivative and lame.

I remember when Star Trek: The Next Generation launched back in 1987.  In its first few seasons, the writers (for the … [continued]

 

“Que Es Un Fantasma?” Josh Reviews The Devil’s Backbone!

I really enjoyed his two Hellboy films, but it was the beautiful, wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth that made me a fan of Guillermo del Toro for life.

Since I think so highly of his recent films, I decided it was high time that I sought out some of his older works.  Which lead me to The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro’s Spanish-language film from 2001.

As was Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone is set during the Spanish Civil War.  As the movie opens, a twelve-year-old orphan named Carlos is left at an orphanage in the middle of nowhere.  As Carlos struggles to settle in to his new home and find his place amongst the boys there (some of whom are friendly, and some of whom are cruel) and the stern adults (all of whom have their own stories and their own problems), he discovers what he believes to be “the one who sighs,” the ghost of a missing boy named Santi.  As the Spanish Civil War lurches towards its conclusion, the plight of everyone at the orphanage becomes more dire, and the terrible secrets of what happened to Santi at last come to light.

Del Toro is a master at combining emotional, character-driven stories with a touch of the fantastic.  Pan’s Labyrinth might be his masterpiece in this area (so far), but The Devil’s Backbone gives that film quite a run for its money.  Right from it’s opening moments it is gripping and genuinely creepy.  This isn’t a film that is all about special effects or big “money shots” of monsters and creatures.  No, it’s a story about desperate people in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.  The supernatural element is almost secondary — which, to me, is what makes that supernatural element so effective when it enters the story.

As I watched this film it became clear to me that del Toro has quite a way with child actors.  Just as Ivana Baquero was so terrific as Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth, young Fernando Tielve is quite compelling here as Carlos.  So much of the film’s story rests on his shoulders, and he is just terrific. And he’s not alone.  There’s a large group of boys of varying ages at the orphanage, all of whom are very engaging.  The kids all feel real, and each boy has a distinct character and personality.  This is quite a feat.

I am not a fan of horror films, generally.  Scary, violent movies are a dime a dozen these days at one’s local cineplex.  But don’t dismiss The Devil’s Backbone because of all those other terrible films.  This is a terrific, engaging, unique story, and one that I can’t wait to watch again.

In the mean-time, … [continued]

 

“Amongst Horrors Must I Dwell” — Josh Reviews the Tales of the Black Freighter!

March 30th, 2009
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“Delirious, I saw that hell-bound ship’s black sails against the yellow Indies sky, and knew again the stench of powder, and men’s brains, and war.”

So begins the Tales of the Black Freighter, the famed “comic within a comic” from Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons.  It’s one of my favorite elements of the graphic novel, and also one of the most bizarre (which might be why I like it so much!).  Starting in the very first panel of Watchmen‘s third chapter, and then recurring periodically throughout the remainder of the story, the horrific narrative of this pirate comic (being read by a young boy hanging out by a street-corner news-stand) weaves in and out of the larger story being told.

In the Black Freighter story, we follow the ordeal of the lone survivor of a sailing ship that has been ambushed and destroyed by the pirates of the Black Freighter.  Fearing that the pirates’ next target is his home of Davidstown, where his wife and children live, the survivor (whose name is never given) goes to desperate efforts to make his way home before the Black Freighter arrives.  Needless to say, things don’t go well.

In my review of the Zack Snyder’s movie adaptation of Watchmen, I wrote how I found it hard to believe that I was actually watching a Watchmen movie.  Who’d have believed that this brilliant, violent, weird graphic novel had ever been made into a film — and, even more incredibly, one so faithfully translated from the source material??  Well, as much as I had doubted that a Watchmen movie would ever come to be, it was positively inconceivable to me that Tales of the Black Freighter would EVER be included in such an adaptation.  In bringing such a large and complex work as Watchmen to the screen, surely the first thing to be done would be to determine what elements could be jettisoned, and surely the Black Freighter digressions would be at the top of that list!

And, indeed, the version of Watchmen released to theatres last month did not, in fact, include the Tales of the Black Freighter.  But, bless their hearts, Snyder and his team did actually adapt the Tales of the Black Freighter.  In order to capture the “comic within a comic” and differentiate it from the rest of the movie, they made the savvy choice to create it using animation.  And so the twenty minute Tales of the Black Freighter short film came to be.  It was released to DVD this past week, and it will be edited back into the Watchmen movie for a super-duper special edition DVD to come.  

So how is … [continued]

 

Animation Update! Josh reviews the final Futurama adventure and DC’s new Wonder Woman film!

Two rather high-profile new direct-to-DVD animation projects have been released recently — but are they worth your time and hard-earned dollars?  Well read on, true believers!

Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder — And so, once again, we bid farewell to Futurama.  Matt Groening’s lunatic sci-fi series was brutally cancelled by Fox back in 2003 after only four seasons.  Luckily, after several long years of waiting, the series was resurrected for a series of four direct-to-DVD feature-length animated films, of which this is the last.  While these new movies haven’t quite reached the high-points of the series’ best episodes (I’m thinking about episodes such as The Farnsworth Parabox, Roswell That Ends Well, Love and Rocket, War is the H-Word, Amazon Women in the Mood, The Bird-bot of Ice-Catraz, The Problem with Popplers, or The Day the Earth Stood Stupid), they have been very, very good.  The strongest, in my opinion, was The Beast with a  Billion Backs, in which David Cross (Arrested Development, Mr. Show) plays the alien Yivo who attempts to mate with every creature in the universe, while the weakest was Bender’s Game (as I found the extended fantasy sequence in the middle of the film to be a bit dull).

Into the Wild Green Yonder contains all the crazy zaniness, wild side-stories, and obscure sci-fi references that I have come to expect from the series.  The plot is almost beside the point, but I will attempt a summation.  The story begins on Mars, where the construction of a new Mars Vegas is disrupted by a band of eco-feminists.  Pretty soon Fry has been declared the savior of the universe by a bunch of telepaths wearing aluminum foil hats, Bender arouses the wrath of the mobster Don-Bot for making out with his wife, Leela goes under-cover with the feminists, and it all builds to a massive space-ship battle in the middle of an intergalactic mini-golf course.

The DVD is very solid — the animation is GORGEOUS, as always.  The story, despite some digressions, works well as a movie.  There are very few lulls between big laughs.  As for the ending — well, the original Futurama series was cancelled without any time to produce a final episode, so with this being the final DVD (for now, at least — hope always springs eternal that these will have proven profitable enough for more to be on the way!), fans wondered if we’d get some sort of “finale” to the over-all story.  Well, I think they got things just right.  The last scene is just terrific, with some nice closure that doesn’t close the door on further adventures.  And the very last shot?  Perfection.

If this is … [continued]

 

Rain of Madness: The best part of Tropic Thunder on DVD!

March 16th, 2009

Tropic Thunder was one of my favorite films of last year.  It made my Top 10 Movies of 2008 list, and you can click here to read my original review.

The two-disc special edition DVD is pretty snazzy.  It contains a pretty thorough series of featurettes that cover many of the aspects of creating the film (shaping the script, casting, the visual effects, etc.).  There is also an extended, director’s cut version of the film with a lot of new material added in.  (This is neat, although in my opinion this longer, slower version is inferior to the original theatrical cut.  That the theatrical version is not included on this DVD is disappointing.)

But let’s not focus on the negatives.  The highlight of the DVD, and the thing that I want to bring to your attention, is a special feature called Rain of Madness.

Some background: As you all probably know, Tropic Thunder is a parody of a number of different war films, including Francis Ford Coppola’s sprawling Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now.  Quite a lot of the imagery in Tropic Thunder is clearly inspired by that film, specifically the helicopter attack opening sequence.

Several years after Apocalypse Now was released, Coppola’s wife Eleanor was involved in the creation of a documentary about the making of that film called Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.  It chronicled the numerous and mounting problems that beset Coppola during the production of Apocalypse Now – problems that lead to his, basically, falling apart.

Seeing as Tropic Thunder is a parody of Apocalypse Now, Ben Stiller and his company had the inspired idea to create a “behind the scenes” look at the making of Tropic Thunder (that is, the fictional Tropic Thunder film within the film) that is itself a parody of Hearts of Darkness. You with me?  The result is this brilliant little DVD special feature entitled Rain of Madness. It features a TON of new footage that focuses on director Damien Cockburn (played by Steve Coogan)’s descent into madness during the trying first few, um, day of filming Tropic Thunder.  There is a lot of hysterical new material included (scenes shot specifically for this fake documentary) including a series of Cockburn’s passive-aggressive battles with star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), and Kirk Lazarus as Sgt. Osiris (Robert Downey Jr.) coming down with P.P.S.T. (Post Platoon Stress Disorder) and melting down completely during a visit with the real Osiris’ family.

But the parody goes even further.  The faux documentary is narrated by a fake pretentious German documentarian named Jan Jurgen, a biting satire of Warner Herzog.  Have any of you ever seen Grizzly Man?  It’s a documentary … [continued]

 

DVD Shelf!

It’s been a busy month here, but that hasn’t stopped me from checking out a bunch of DVDs recently, new and old:

The Conversation — Released in 1974, this masterpiece was written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.  Gene Hackman stars as twitchy, secretive surveillance specialist Harry Caul, whose life is up-ended by a seemingly-innocuous conversation that he is hired to record.  Confidently directed by Coppola at the height of his abilities, the film is a perfect study of a slow burn as we watch Hackman’s character gradually fall to pieces.  This is Hackman’s film, without question, but it’s also fun to see the great John Cazale (Fredo in The Godfather) and an incredibly young Harrison Ford in supporting roles.  The film is also notable for the contributions of master editor Walter Murch (American Graffiti, Apocalypse Now) who created an incredible sound-scape that plays with sound and dialogue in some incredibly inventive ways.  The bravura opening sequence, in which Caul and his team records the titular conversation, is staggering — like Caul, we attempt to follow the couple and their conversation, but keep getting distracted by people talking, music playing, and a myriad of other background noises, with the conversation itself flittering in and out of our perception.  It’s really quite astonishing.  Everybody loves The Godfather these days, but I feel that The Conversation is a film that has fallen out of the popular consciousness.  Do yourself a favor and help remedy that by checking out this brilliant film!

Band of Brothers — Speaking of masterpieces, there is this 2001 HBO miniseries executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.  Adapted from the book by Stephen Ambrose, the series follows the men of Easy Company (of the US Army 101st Airborne Division) from their training in 1942 through to the end of the second world war.  I have watched this series through four times now since it was released, and each time I watch it I am just as over-come by the power of the story of these extraordinary heroes.  The production quality of this mini-series is unbelievable — each episode is really its own mini-movie.  The vistas are stunningly beautiful, and the action is gut-wrenchingly intense.  There are few movies. let alone TV shows, that are able to stage combat sequences with as much ferocity.  Over the ten episodes we follow and grow to love an enormous ensemble of characters: Damian Lewis as Richard Winters, Ron Livingston as Lewis Nixon, Donnie Wahlberg as Carwood Lipton, Scott Grimes as Donald Malarkey, Michael Cudlitz as “Bull” Randleman, James Madio as Frank Perconte, Neal McDonough as “Buck” Compton, Frank John … [continued]

 

Star Trek: Of Gods and Men

March 6th, 2009
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In case you haven’t figured this out by now, I am an enormous Star Trek fan.  But I have lamented before on this site that, for a number of years now, there haven’t been any new Star Trek TV shows or movies to entertain me.  (And frankly, I wasn’t that wild about the last two Trek movies OR the last two Trek TV series, so it’s been even LONGER since I was able to enjoy any consistently GREAT official, live-action Trek.)  However, I have been really digging Pocket Books’ recent Star Trek novel releases (just recently I reviewed the spectacular trilogy Star Trek: Destiny)… and there has been some UN-official Trek product out there to enjoy, as well, like the terrific fan series Star Trek: Phase II (which I discussed here, and I reviewed its most recent episode, “Blood and Fire” Pt. I, here).  

Today I’d like to discuss another notable Star Trek fan production, albeit one with a pretty remarkable pedigree — Star Trek: Of Gods and Men.

Inspired by the success and near-professional quality of Star Trek: Phase 2, director Tim Russ (who played Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager) and his team have assembled a group of film professionals to produce this feature-length project (which was originally released on-line in three 30-minute installments).  In front of the camera, Star Trek: Of Gods and Men stars a rather remarkable assemblage of former Star Trek actors: Walter Koenig (Pavel Chekov), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), Alan Ruck (Captain John Harriman of the Enterprise B from Star Trek: Generations), Grace Lee Whitney (Janice Rand), J.G. Hertzler (Martok from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Garrett Wang (Ensign Kim from Star Trek: Voyager), Ethan Phillips (Neelix from Star Trek: Voyager), Cirroc Lofton (Jake Sisko from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Chase Masterson (Leeta from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), and many others.  

A number of the above actors (like Koenig, Nichols, and Ruck) reprise their roles from the shows, while others play entirely new characters (Hertzler, Wang, Lofton, Masterson, etc.).  Either way, one of the great joys of this film is getting to see this terrific group of actors again on screen, interacting with one another and a lot of other familiar faces from the different Trek series.  Special props to actor Gary Graham, who has played a variety of roles on the different Trek series (most notably Vulcan Ambassador Soval on Enterprise) for his dynamic turn as Chekov’s partner Ragnar — it’s a small role, but it’s one of the most compelling performances of the film.

But without question the stars of the film are Koenig, Nichols, and Ruck, and … [continued]

 

Three Films by the Coen Brothers

February 27th, 2009
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I often get obsessed with watching movies linked by a certain theme — sometimes I like to track down different films featuring a particular actor, or different films by a certain director.  A few months ago, for example, I wrote about my exploration of the films of David Mamet.  Over the past few months I’ve written about several films by the Coen Brothers, Burn After Reading, The Hudsucker Proxy, and, more recently, The Big Lebowski.  No surprise, my great enjoyment of those two flicks prompted me to seek out several other Coen Brothers films.

Blood Simple (1985) — I had never seen this film before, and I was bowled over — it is phenomenal!  Despite being the Coen Brothers’ first film, it is now, without question, one of my favorites of their work.  A Texan bartender named Ray (John Getz) launches into an affair with Abby (Frances McDormand, terrific in her first role).  Unfortunately, her jealous husband Marty (Dan Hedaya), who is also Ray’s boss, finds out and hires a hit-man (M. Emmet Walsh) to get rid of them both.  What transpires is a tale of spreading ripples of crime and chaos.  As in most films by the Coen Brothers, the twisty tale of mistakes and double-crosses is engaging, but also subordinate to the fun with all of the unique, colorful characters filling out the film.  Dan Hedaya (Cheers, The Usual Suspects) hasn’t appeared in many movies lately, but his angry, scenery-chewing turn here reminds me of why I love watching him so much.  And the great M. Emmet Walsh (Serpico, The Jerk, Blade Runner, and so many other great films) simply dominates every scene he’s in.  This film is a blast.

Miller’s Crossing (1990) — This might be the first Coen Brothers film that I ever saw, and as such, I’ve always had fond memories of it.  (I love gangster movies, so that helps, too).  It had been a while since I’d last seen it, and I wasn’t sure how well the film would hold up.  I am pleased to report that it holds up mighty well, indeed!  The film follows Tom Reagan (Ga