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Josh Reviews King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

I’m not sure why Hollywood keeps insisting on making King Arthur movies.  Is it the allure of a known name, in the way that studios chase after franchises and keep remaking and rebooting series with a recognizable title?  Personally, I have never been all that interested in the King Arthur mythos, and I have not actually seen too many Arthur movies.  The early trailers didn’t make this new version, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, look all that interesting to me.  But I enjoy the work of director Guy Ritchie, and though his films can be hit-or-miss, I am always intrigued to see what he has done with his latest project.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword creates a new mythology, casting the Arthur story as taking place in the midst of a conflict between mages (magicians) and humans.  Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), is able to defeat the villainous mage Mordred.  But soon after, Uther and his wife are murdered by Uther’s brother Vortigern (Jude Law), who takes the crown.  Young Arthur escapes and is raised in a whorehouse in Londinium.  He grows up to be a savvy and tough young man, able to carve out a comfortable niche for himself within the low-level crime taking place in the city.  But when he crosses a group of Vikings under King Vortigern’s protection, he comes under the King’s scrutiny and Vortigern soon discovers Arthur’s true heritage.  Though Arthur initially wants nothing to do with any sort of struggle for the crown, he is soon drawn into the fight.

While I can’t recommend King Arthur: Legend of the Sword as a great movie, neither is it as bad as I had heard.  I found myself entertained by the film, and engaged with the story.  It’s a perfectly fine, fun film.  But neither is it a film that seems to have much reason for existing.  Did we need yet another version of the Arthur story?  What does this film add that we haven’t seen before in other films?  True, this fantasy-epic version of the Arthur story does incorporate a lot of weird new ideas, but while these ideas might be new for the Arthur story, they feel rather derivative of so many other fantasy films from recent years, most specifically Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  (The giant elephants with villain fighters on their back from The Return of the King even make an appearance in King Arthur’s opening sequence!)

What is more genuinely new to the story is taking the fantastical and historical aspects of the story and wrapping it up in Guy Ritchie’s very modern, fast-talking, street-level-crime style of storytelling.  There are a few moments when Mr. … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Hanna!

Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is a young girl who has been raised in total isolation in a frigid, rural setting by her father Erik (Eric Bana).  When we first meet Hanna, it becomes immediately clear that Erik has been training her to be a fierce warrior — tough, smart, and fearless, with a keen tactical mind and skills with all manner of different weaponry.  Erik has apparently been in hiding from government agent Marissa (Cate Blanchett) for years, but now that Hanna has become a teenager she has grown tired of her isolation.  So Erik allows Hanna to let Marissa know where they are hiding, setting young Hanna on a violent collision course with Erik and Marissa’s secret past.

Hanna is a violent, fast-paced thriller.  This story could have been a slow-burn story of intrigue and subterfuge, but while there is no shortage of intrigue and subterfuge in the tale, Hanna is a kinetic, adrenaline-pumping film right from minute one.  The throbbing, techno-beat pumping of the score reminds me of Run Lola Run, and it drives the action scenes forward with at a propulsive pace that is also reminiscent of that terrific German film (read my review here).

This was not exactly the type of movie I expected to see from Joe Wright, the director of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement.  But his second collaboration with Saoirse Ronan is incredibly potent, and Mr. Wright brings extraordinary skill and style to spare to this film.  And truly, Hanna is an exercise in cinematic style from start to finish.  There’s nothing exceedingly unique about the story of spies and their dark secrets, but the execution by Mr. Wright and his team give the film a truly distinct flavor all its own.

They are ably assisted, of course, by the terrifically talented threesome of Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, and Cate Blanchett.  I haven’t seen Atonement, the first film that brought Ms. Ronan national attention a few years ago, but she is a captivating presence here.  There’s a bright intelligence to be seen behind her piercing blue eyes, and she is entirely convincing as the brutal, feral warrior she has been raised to be.  She also completely sells the moments of naive innocence exposed in Hanna when she’s confronted with aspects of the modern world that she’s never before experienced.

Cate Blanchett is touch as nails and entirely unlikable as Marissa, which of course is exactly what the role calls for.  Ms. Blanchett dials back her charisma to create, in Marissa, a woman who is clearly a shell of a human being, totally devoted to her job and her pursuit of secrets that has become her whole life.  She’s a great villain.… [continued]

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Spielberg in the Aughts: Munich (2005)

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

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

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

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

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

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Summer Movie Catch-Up: Josh Reviews Funny People

I read somewhere a reviewer refer to Judd Apatow’s new film, Funny People, as his “James L. Brooks movie.”  Well, if James L. Brooks isn’t making James L. Brooks movies anymore (his last film was 2004’s Spanglish, which not coincidentally was also the last time, before Funny People, that I enjoyed a movie starring Adam Sandler), then I for one am more than happy to see Judd Apatow fill the void!

I’ve been hearing a lot of disappointment from people who have seen Funny People.  I suppose if one goes in expecting the laugh-a-minute experience of The 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up, one would be disappointed.  There is a lot of very funny humor in Funny People, but also some lengthy stretches without any laughs at all.  This would be a big problem if what was happening in those laugh-free-zones wasn’t compelling — but I found everything to be VERY compelling.  Funny People is a much more adult, nuanced film than Mr. Apatow’s first two movies, and while I positively ADORED those first two films, I am also thrilled to see him exploring some deeper territory here.

Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a wildly successful comedian and star of many hugely popular and sort-of-juvenile, well, Adam Sandler-type movies.  Despite his success, he is all alone in his huge mansion (except for his house-keeping staff, of course), and struggling to deal with the news that he has been diagnosed with a form of leukemia.  Seth Rogen plays Ira Wright, a young man trying to break into the brutally tough world of stand-up comedy.  Their paths cross one evening when George drops by a comedy club where Ira is waiting to perform, and Ira quickly gets sucked up into George’s orbit.  Ira is star-struck by getting to spend time with his idol, and desperate to taste some of the massive fame to which George has become inured, and George — though he’d never admit it — is lonely and looking for some sort of companionship, having driven away all of his former friends, girlfriends, and family.

Rogen and Sandler are both at the top of their games, creating fully believable, lived-in characters that feel completely real.  I have often said that I really like Adam Sandler’s comedy, but that I can’t stand his movies.  This remains true for me.  But I have really enjoyed the few films in which Sandler has actually tried to ACT — films like Spanglish, and Punch-Drunk Love.  In those movies, I was quite impressed that Sandler could actually create a real, sympathetic character, and he does similarly high-quality work here.  Rogen too turns in probably his most … [continued]

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Death in the Shadow of New Life — Josh reviews J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek!

It’s been a long road.  After walking disgustedly out of the opening weekend screening of the catastrophically terrible Star Trek: Nemesis back in December, 2002, I knew that Trek was at a low point.  It seemed uncertain what, if any, future the franchise had after the release of that bomb and the subsequent cancellation of the last Trek TV show, Enterprise.  Then, about 3 years ago, word came that a new Trek film was in the works.  Gradually news began to leak out, some very exciting, some rather worrying, and I soaked up every tidbit with great anticipation, some nervousness, and extremely high hopes that one day Star Trek could be great again.  A few hours ago, I watched the result of J.J. Abrams and his team’s efforts: the simply-titled Star Trek.

Abrams and his brain-trust — consisting of Damon Lindeloff (one of the top minds behind Lost) and screen-writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman — dared to do what no man has done before: to re-cast the iconic roles of the Original Series characters.  As everyone knows by now, instead of creating new characters and situations and moving the Star Trek universe forward beyond the adventures of Picard-Sisko-Janeway-etc., they decided to go back and tell an Original Series story, with new actors playing younger versions of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and all the other familiar characters.  This was an incredibly risky move.  While similiar “how it all began” prequels such as Batman Begins and Casino Royale worked well, audiences had already become accustomed to seeing lots of different actors take on the roles of Batman and James Bond.  But could someone other than William Shatner play Kirk?  Could someone other than Leonard Nimoy play Spock?

Although sadly this film fails in some powerfully annoying ways (more on that in a few moments), I am happy to report that, in this respect — that is, in regards to the viability of rebooting and recasting Star Trek — the film succeeds magnificently.  Bravo to the choice of talented actors selected to be the new command team of the Enterprise — there is not a weak link in the bunch.  None of the actors resorts to mimicry, and yet they all, somehow, truly manage to embody their characters!

Let’s start with Chris Pine as James Tiberius Kirk.  He’s got the swagger, he’s got the arrogance, and yet he’s able to also convey a tremendous likability.  You can see that this is a man that others will follow.  The film doesn’t shy away from the “lady-killer” aspects of Kirk’s persona, but Pine never crosses the line into camp or, on the other hand, into boorishness.  Rather, there’s terrific fun to had … [continued]

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How to edit a movie, starring The Incredible Hulk

In the weeks before Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk opened this summer, there were a lot of stories on-line and in various entertainment magazines about a dispute over the editing of the film between Marvel and star Edward Norton (who played Bruce Banner).  As the tale was told, Norton was fighting for a longer cut of the film that would include more character development, while Marvel wanted a leaner, more action-packed version.  

Ultimately, it seems that the latter is what was released to theatres.  And while I found the film to be fairly enjoyable, it certainly didn’t blow my skirt up the way Iron Man had the month before.  I also found it to be inferior to Ang Lee’s weirder, more cerebral 2003 movie The Hulk.  

But I was intrigued to read that the DVD of the new Incredible Hulk movie would include a significant number of deleted scenes (almost 45 minutes worth).  That’s not the same as having an extended cut of the film to judge, but I was still very curious to check out all of that additional footage to see if I felt those scenes’ inclusion would have strengthened the film.

Well (and I’m not sure if this is good or bad), with just a few exceptions I must report that they would not have.  What we have here is a fascinating study in film-editing.  There isn’t one scene, amongst the deleted footage, that is a complete “thank god they cut that” clunker.  Everything is good, and interesting.  There’s an opening opening to the film in which Bruce Banner tries (unsuccessfully) to kill himself; scenes that show us more of the life Bruce made for himself on the run in Brazil, including how he created the science set-up in his apartment; several additional scenes with Betty’s new boyfriend Leonard (whose presence on-screen suffered the most in the theatrical cut); several scenes with General Ross which shed some more light on why he was so focused on capturing Banner, etc. etc.  It’s all decent stuff.  

Probably the best scene is a monologue by Ross, in which he describes his awe at having seen a glimpse of god (in his encounters with the Hulk), and he compares himself to those great men throughout history who have dared to grasp such power for the good of mankind.  It’s a great moment of acting, and it makes his character a bit less of an evil-for-no-reason villain, while also making him even scarier as we glimpse his passionate dedication to the cause.

And yet, none of these scenes really would have added much of anything to the movie as a whole.  Is it sort of neat to see how Bruce made his … [continued]

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“They only lack the light to show the way”

As an addendum to my list of my five favorite super-hero movies posted at the start of this week, here are three super-hero movies that I consider to be tremendously under-rated:

Superman Returns — I just don’t understand the almost universal apathy or even dislike towards Bryan Singer’s Superman relaunch. I love that this film has a somber, melancholy feel to it. I love that the story creates complicated character conflicts (the Clark-Lois-Superman-Richard love tangle) that aren’t easily resolved by the end of the film. (I was SHOCKED that Richard lived through the movie — and I really respect the filmmakers for not killing him off, thus providing an easy way for Lois and Clark/Superman to get back together.) I also love reverence the filmmakers showed for Richard Donner’s Superman movie — it really tickles me all the times the movie refers to Donner’s films, both visually (the design of the Fortress of Solitude, the use of Brando as Jor-El), and in the echoing of lines of dialogue in the script (such as Superman’s “statistically speaking, its still the safest way to travel,” and the reprise of Jor-El’s message to his son: “You will make my strength your own. You will see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father and the father… the son.”) The film has weaknesses — there’s not enough action, and Lex Luthor’s plot is pretty stupid. But watch again the plane crash sequence in which Superman reveals his return to the world, and tell me that’s not a magnificent moment of pop-fantasy magic. I’d love to get a sequel to this film to see where Singer takes the story from here, so I hope Warner gets around to making one.

Daredevil — Here’s another movie that I seem to be the only one who likes. As with Superman Returns, there are weaknesses to this film, like some embarassingly dodgy CGI effects. But there’s so much that I enjoy about this movie. I love how down-beat it is. I love how the filmmakers differentiate Daredevil from a more selflessly heroic character like Spider-Man. (This is epitomized by the scene on the rooftop between Matt Murdock/Daredevil and Elektra, in which he hears someone in trouble — but when Elektra asks him to stay with her, he does. Peter Parker would never make that choice — and I love that.) Speaking of Murdock/Daredevil, I know that its a popular sport to make fun of Ben Affleck, but I actually find him to be extremely watchable as Matt Murdock. And the rest of the cast is strong as well — Michael Clarke Duncan, Joe Pantoliano, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell, … [continued]