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I’m excited to begin my look back at 2020 with this list of my favorite TV series of 2020!

While I usually like to restrict my lists to TV series that aired new episodes during the previous year, this year I’d like to begin with some Honorable Mentions that didn’t.

The Leftovers — One of my very favorite shows that I watched this year was The Leftovers, which aired on HBO from 2014-2017.  I’d avoided the show previously, because I’d been burned by Damon Lindelof’s previous show, Lost, and because the heavy subject matter of this series felt so dour I wasn’t sure I wanted to put myself through watching it.  But after being cajoled for years by friends and family to give this show a try, I finally did.  I am so glad I did!!  The Leftovers, overseen by Mr. Lindelof and Tom Perrotta (who wrote the novel upon which the first season of the show was based), is a masterpiece.  This three season show is nearly perfect in almost every respect.  It’s breathtakingly original, filled with adventurous storytelling and twists and turns I could never in a million years have predicted, and that left me exhilarated as a viewer.  It’s a deeply moving character piece, filled with incredible characters — so many of whom I quickly grew extremely attached to — played by extraordinary actors.  The series is heartbreaking and emotionally wrenching, but also funny and joyous as well.  It’s dazzlingly original.  I’m so glad to have seen it.  I can’t wait to watch it all through again.  (Click here for my review of The Leftovers season one.)

For the first several months of 2020, I found myself watching quite a number of terrific 2019 shows that I hadn’t gotten to by the time I wrote my 2019 lists.  Here are some of my favorites:

Russian Doll — This Groundhog Day remix was gloriously terrific.  It was emotional and moving and also riotously funny.  It featured a dazzlingly compelling lead performance by Natasha Lyonne (who co-created the series with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler).  I loved the complex, twisty-turny narrative, and I was delighted by how well all the pieces fit together in the end.  I loved how uplifting this often-times dark show was, in the end.  This was one of the very best shows I watched in 2020.  (Click here for my full review.)

Undone — This deliriously fun and weird animated series, created by Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, is a beautiful, complex character study of a deeply broken young woman, and at the same time it is a gloriously mind-bending sci-fi tale.  Like Russian Doll, I found Undone to be both deeply … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Luther

Idris Elba (The Wire) stars as DCI (Detective Chief Inspector) John Luther in the BBC television series Luther.  Luther is a brilliant investigator but he always seems to tread right up (and sometimes over) to the boundary separating a by-the-book police officer with someone willing to step over into the dark side and do whatever he feels it takes to see the guilty punished.  Five short series (seasons) of Luther have been released since 2010.  The series was created by Neil Cross, who has written every episode.  Over the past several months, I slowly made my way through the series.  I thought Idris Elba’s performance in the lead role was phenomenal, though the unrelenting bleakness of the show made it difficult at times to get through.

Idris Elba’s extraordinary work as Stringer Bell in The Wire made me an instant fan, and I’ve enjoyed his work in a variety of projects ever since.  He’s been great as Heimdall in Thor and a variety of subsequent Marvel movies, and his work has always impressed even in otherwise mediocre movies (such as Pacific Rim, Star Trek Beyond, Prometheus, and American Gangster).  His presence as the lead in Luther is what made me want to watch the show, and there’s no question that it’s his intense, live-wire of a performance that is the best thing about it.  Mr. Elba’s presence dominates the screen in a way that few actors can manage.  The series provides a fantastic showcase for his talents.  The show’s storytelling is 100% focused on Luther.  There are some wonderful actors in supporting roles, but none of those characters are very fleshed out.  This is the Luther show, through and through.  Mr. Elba’s passion and magnetism sucks the viewer right in, and you travel with him through these stories.  He is tremendous, start-to-finish.

In the past decade-plus, we’ve seen a lot of great shows about charismatic but deeply messed-up male leads.  (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Shield, Boardwalk Empire, and many more.)  Luther fits squarely into that mold.  It can a bit of a tiresome structure for a show; it’s one that I don’t think has aged well since the series premiered in 2010.  My interest has waned in that type of show, and there were times when I felt Luther teetered on the edge of becoming a show I didn’t want to watch.  But Mr. Elba’s magnificent performance always pulled me back in.  I loved this character and ultimately I wanted to follow his journey!

Though, wow, it was sometimes hard, because I found the show’s unending horror to be difficult to stomach.  First of all, every episode is about some sort … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Molly’s Game

Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of the book Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker by Molly Bloom.  Molly trained to be a competitive skier, but when an injury ended her sports career, she found herself adrift.  A job as an assistant eventually led her to become responsible for setting up a high stakes poker game.  Molly became the manager of that weekly game, which developed into her managing her own business and multiple games frequented by movie stars and other extremely wealthy individuals.  But it all came crashing down when Molly was arrested and charged with money laundering and running an illegal sports gambling operation.

I first became a fan of Aaron Sorkin’s watching The West Wing, which still stands as one of the finest TV series ever made (at least the first four seasons which Mr. Sorkin masterminded).  I then went back and devoured Sports Night (which, if you’ve never seen, you need to run, don’t walk, and watch immediately), and I have been a faithful fan ever since, following Mr. Sorkin through his subsequent shows (all of which I have enjoyed, even though none have come close to The West Wing or Sports Night) and, of course, all of his fantastic movie work.  Mr. Sorkin has scripted some of my very favorite movies, including A Few Good Men (which I just recently rewatched for the umpteenth time, and it holds up SO WELL), An American President (say it with me, folks: “this is a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up.  My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I AM the President”), Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs.  (I love ALL of those films.)  Mr. Sorkin wrote Molly’s Game and the film is his directorial debut.

I really enjoyed this film.  I don’t know if any of what is depicted in the film is true to Molly Bloom’s real life and experiences.  But the Molly Bloom who is the main character in this film is a spectacular character, one who is very much of this particular moment.  This is the story of a strong woman who is surrounded by arrogant, domineering men, and who sets out to be her own woman and make her own way, as unorthodox as the path she chooses might be.  It’s an inspiring tale, frankly!  Is any of this true?  Is Molly Bloom actually this strong, principled woman, or is this mythologizing bullshit?  I don’t know, and the movie is so good that I don’t care.  Some based-on-real-life movies fall apart for me once I start questioning … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2017 — Part Three!

Click here for part one of my list of my favorite movies of 2017, and click here for part two!  And now, onwards into my TOP TEN:

10. It 2017 brought two Stephen King adaptations that I was super-excited about.  Sadly, The Dark Tower was a dud, but It was even better than I had dared hope.  The film is very scary and filled with the sorts of nightmare-inducing imagery that you might expect.  But the reason the movie works as well as it does is that, just as the original novel did, it takes the time to develop every one of the seven kids who are involved in the story, so that by the end you know and care about every single one of them.  There isn’t a weak link in this remarkable assemblage of child actors.  I am almost sorry that the sequel will feature these characters as adults (the original novel tells two parallel stories, but this first film adaptation wisely chose to only tell the half of the story set when the kids were thirteen), because I’d love to see lots more movies with this cast!  Like all the best fantasy or sci-fi stories, the fantastical elements in It are an allegory.  It is a story about growing up, about that moment in which one leaves childhood behind and takes that first, tentative step into adulthood and the wider world beyond.  I was hooked into this film from the first frame until the last.  (Click here for my full review.)

9. Baby Driver  That Edgar Wright has not directed a film since his vastly-underrated 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a crime against humanity, a fact reinforced by how terrific his long-awaited return to cinemas, Baby Driver, is.  This is a fiercely entertaining rush of a film, with every instant of screen-time packed to the gills with great music, exciting action sequences, and witty dialogue.  The cast is spectacular (Jon Hamm is a stand-out), the dialogue is razor-sharp, and the film’s score is magnificent, a marvelous array of music that comes together to create a distinct world and vibe for the film.  The main character Baby’s identity is wrapped up in the music he listens to (particularly when working as a get-away driver for criminals) and the music he makes, and so too is Baby Driver the film completely of a piece with the music in its score.  And who knew Edgar Wright could direct action so well??  The car-chase action in the film is extraordinary, visceral and thrilling.  Baby Driver is pure cinematic joy from start to finish.  (Click here for my full review.)

8. [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Dark Tower

Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series is an extraordinary achievement, a work of breathtaking genius that represents one of my absolute favorite fictional sagas of any medium.  The series consists of seven main novels plus an eighth follow-up novel (The Wind Through the Keyhole), plus a novella (The Little Sisters of Eluria), plus a series of illustrated prequel stories published by Marvel Comics (The Gunslinger Born).  Plus, of course, the Dark Tower novels connect to many, many of the other novels and stories written by Mr. King, from The Shining to The Stand to ‘Salem’s Lot and more.  Many have described The Dark Tower books as unfilmable, impossible to adapt faithfully to the screen.  But I have always disagreed.  I think this marvelously rich, sweeping saga could be extraordinary if adapted properly on TV or in a series of movies.  I continue to believe that The Dark Tower is one of the best-kept secrets of fiction, filled with incredibly original ideas and wonderfully engaging characters.  This series would BLOW PEOPLE’S MINDS if adapted with the same care, attention, love, and budget given to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Sadly, that’s not what has happened.  The movie adaptation of The Dark Tower, directed by Nikolaj Arcel and with a screenplay credited to multiple writers (Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Mr. Arcel), is a disappointingly small-scale, mediocre affair.  The film isn’t horrible.  It has a strong cast, and a few memorable moments.  But it takes this humongous, sprawling story and makes it feel very small.  It takes Mr. King’s wonderful characters and original situations and makes them feel flat and familiar, pale echoes of characters and stories we’ve all seen before in vastly superior movies.

The film is not a direct adaptation of Mr. King’s first Dark Tower novel, The Gunslinger Instead it’s a mishmash of characters and plot points from all seven of the main Dark Tower novels.  This is the type of approach that was, for decades, standard for a Hollywood adaptation of a beloved genre property.  But in 2017, in a post-Harry Potter world (in which all seven novels were faithfully and lovingly adapted into individual movies), in a world in which we have seen how creatively and financially successful the Marvel Cinematic universe has been in faithfully adapting the Marvel characters to the screen, this is a crushingly disappointing decision.

Now, let me be clear, I don’t immediately object to not beginning a Dark Tower film series with a direct adaptation of The Gunslinger.  That novel is the shortest and weirdest of the series, and many of the ideas that … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Jungle Book

When Jon Favreau shifted from directing smaller character-based films (like Made) to larger, more special-effects-driven films, he at first did so with a strong attachment to using traditional practical effects over CGI.  (I never saw 2005’s Zathura, but I well remember all of the pre-release interviews with Mr. Favreau in which he spoke of his love for the power of practical effects.)  Both Iron Man and Iron Man 2 featured some incredible CGI effects, but I think the effects in both films worked as well as they did because they were skillfully combined with many practical effects, thus creating an immersive illusion for the audience.  And so it’s fascinating now to see how Mr. Favreau approached the creation of The Jungle Book, a film that, other than the performance of one young boy, has been almost entirely created in the digital realm, including all the animal characters and all of the jungle settings.  This approach, overseen by Mr. Favreau and clearly involving the hard work of hundreds of artists and technicians, has resulted in an extraordinary achievement.


Just like the Disney animated version, this new The Jungle Book tells the story of the young boy Mowgli.  As a baby, he is orphaned in the jungle, but the panther Bagheera saves him and brings him to be raised by a pack of wolves led by Akela and Raksha.  This “man cub” grows up in the jungle.  But when the vicious tiger Shere Khan threatens the wolves for protecting him, Mowgli decides to leave the jungle and allows Bagheera to escort him to the nearby man village.  But Shere Khan will not give up his vendetta so easily.

I don’t have any strong attachment to Disney’s animated The Jungle Book.  I remember liking it as a kid, but it’s not one of the Disney movies that I watched over and over, and it’s been well over twenty years since I have seen it last.  I remember the basic story and some of the songs and not much beyond that.  So while Disney studio’s modern desire to create live-action remakes of seemingly all of their classic animated films puzzles me, I was totally open to a new version of this story.

And to call this a live-action remake is somewhat disingenuous, because, as noted above, other than the real boy Neel Sethi as Mowgli, this is an almost entirely animated film.  It’s just that it has been animated using cutting-edge CGI techniques, rather than traditional hand-drawn animation.

The result is astounding.  Mr. Favreau and his team have crafted an almost perfectly photo-real creation.  You completely believe that you are in the jungles of India, not a studio in Hollywood.  And each and every … [continued]

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Star Trek…Lives?

May 23rd, 2016

As I have often lamented here on this blog, it’s been a dark time for Star Trek fans.  The Next Generation movie series sputtered to a halt with the dreadful Star Trek: Nemesis in 2002, and there hasn’t been a Trek series on TV in over a decade, since the cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise in May 2005.  Since then, the only official on-screen new Trek adventures have been J.J. Abrams’ enjoyable but flawed reboot of Star Trek in 2009, and the abomination that was Star Trek Into Darkness in 2013.

Fans like me have found joy, and a Trek fix, in sources such as Pocket Books’ wonderful continuing series of Star Trek novels, which tell a sophisticated interconnected saga of stories that feature characters from all of the 24th century-set Trek shows (click here for my review of the novels Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Sacraments of Fire and Ascendance, by David R. George III); and in fan-made projects such as Star Trek: New Voyages (which was for a while called Star Trek: Phase II) and Star Trek: Continues, both of which are spectacular fan-made projects to create new episodes of original Kirk/Spock/McCoy Original Series adventures (click here for my review of Star Trek: New Voyages’ latest episode, “The Holiest Thing,” and click here for my review of Star Trek: Continues’ latest episode, “Divided We Stand”).

The past few days have presented me with a few glimmers of hope that maybe, just maybe, we might be getting some quality “official” on-screen new Trek adventures in the near future.

First was this brief tease of the new Trek series that is being made for the CBS Digital platform:

There’s nothing great in that teaser, but it does reinforce that this series is actually getting made, which feels like good news to me.  With the series being helmed by Bryan Fuller (a man with actual Trek experience, having worked on both Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and who then went on to become a very well-respected show-runner of shows like Hannibal) and with the involvement by Nicholas Meyer (the man most single-handedly responsible for my very favorite Star Trek installments, having written and directed Star Trek II and Star Trek VI, and who wrote all of the 20th-century-era sections of Star Trek IV), I have a high hopes for this new show.  Many fans have seized on this teaser trailer’s reference to “new crews” (plural) as perhaps confirmation of the intriguing rumor that this new Trek show would be an anthology, with different stories set in different eras of Trek history.  That’s a very cool idea and if done well it could be incredible.  I am excited to … [continued]

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The Dark Tower, Ghostbusters, and News Around the Net!

So, it looks like the long-gestating film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series is finally, actually happening!  I am thrilled by the casting of Idris Elba as Roland Deschain and Matthew McConaughey as the Man in Black.  (And extra points to Mr. Elba for his great Dark Tower joke on twitter, confirming his casting!)  Those two are both perfectly cast.  (And if Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul actually gets cast as Eddie Dean — a part he was BORN to play — this film will have absolute perfect casting.)  I am concerned, though, by the rumors that the Dark Tower film is not going to be a direct adaptation of Mr. King’s first Dark Tower novel, The Gunslinger, but rather some sort of mishmash of several later books in the series.  Dark Tower fan Quint at aintitcoolnews has posted an in-detail look at the direction in which it looks like this Dark Tower film’s script is going to go.  I can understand why the filmmakers might want to make these changes, but in a world in which we’ve gotten such faithful book-by-book adaptations of the Harry Potter and Hunger Games novels, I am disappointed that the Dark Tower films aren’t taking that same approach.  So, for now, consider me excited but nervous.  A bad Dark Tower film would be heartbreaking.

The first trailer for Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters film was released last week:

As many others on the internet have already commented, it’s not a great trailer.  I like the visual “look” of what we see here, but this trailer didn’t make me laugh once.  I’m also confused as to whether this film is a sequel to the previous two Ghostbusters films, or a reboot?  I’d assumed it was a reboot, but the text in the opening of the trailer seems to suggest otherwise.  Is that just the studio’s marketing department trying to remind audiences of this franchise’s legacy?  The rest of the trailer certainly looks like the story has been rebooted from scratch, but we don’t see enough to tell for sure.  So I am confused.  (Personally, I would LOVE for this film to be a sequel rather than a reboot.  But I suspect that’s not the case.)

Meanwhile, an enterprising fan re-cut a far snappier version of this trailer that is worth checking out:

In other news…

One of my friends sent me this great article that expresses an idea that has been a theme of my writing about movies: that a major criteria for evaluating the success or failure of a film should be its rewatchability.  This is a terrific article and I wholeheartedly agree with this notion.

Holy cow, SNL’s Jay Pharaoh … [continued]

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Analyzing Our First Look at Star Trek Beyond

December 25th, 2015

Amidst all the hubub over Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I have been remiss in commenting on the first teaser trailer for Star Trek Beyond that dropped last week!

Star Trek Beyond (should there be a colon in there?) is the third film set in J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Trek universe.  However, J.J. is not returning to direct this third film (he’s been a little busy with that other movie sequel with Star in its title), nor are any of the other co-writers of the last two Trek films (Damon Lindelof, Robert0 Orci, and Alex Kurtzman) returning.  Instead, Justin Lin (director of the third through sixth Fast and Furious films) is directing, and the script has been written by Simon Pegg (who also, of course, plays Scotty in this rebooted Trek series) and Doug Jung.

I enjoyed 2009’s Star Trek I thought it got everything right except the script, which was a little too simplistic and a little too full of plot holes.  But the cast was spectacular, and most importantly the tone was perfect.  The film had stakes but felt like a FUN adventure.  It also looked gorgeous.  I didn’t care for all the design choices — and in particular I thought the Enterprise looked terrible, ugly and unbalanced — but it was exciting to see a Star Trek film realized with a big budget that the series had never before seen.  2012’s Into Darkness, however, was an abomination, a really terrible film that missed on almost every level.  And so I am fine with this latest Trek film having an entirely new creative team at the helm.  True, the idea of a Fast and Furious director at the helm of a Trek film doesn’t feel like a great fit to me, but Justin Lin has described himself as a Star Trek fan and has said a lot of the right things in interviews, and so I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  And Simon Pegg is definitely a hard-core Trek fan who knows his stuff, so that gives me hope.

So, how about this first teaser trailer?

I liked it!  I liked it a lot more than a lot of others across the internet seemed to.

Yes, setting the trailer for a Star Trek film to a Beastie Boys song seems wrong.  I agree.  I like my Trek stately and serious.  There’s something sort of silly about setting a Trek trailer to a Beastie Boys song.  It makes one worry that the tone of this new film will be all wrong, that it’s just going to be a dumb action/adventure and not the sort of more cerebral, thoughtful adventure that is what I … [continued]

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Marvel Studios is on a winning streak the likes of which I have rarely seen.  (The only recent comparison I can draw is Pixar’s incredible run from Ratatouille in 2007 through Toy Story 3 in 2010.)  Right before seeing The Avengers: Age of Ultron, one of my friends sent me a ranking of all of Marvel’s movies.  In response I created my own ranking (which I might publish on this site one of these days).  The bottom two films on my list were Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk.  What’s astonishing is that each of the rest of the eight Marvel films on the list were all pretty great films that I loved a lot — and even those bottom two films were pretty enjoyable!  There really isn’t a true failure in the mix!  Over the past eight years, since 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel has done what had not only never been done before, but really never even conceived of before: they’ve created a vast cinematic universe of interlocking films, with characters and story-lines flowing from film to film in an epic continuing saga.  What’s even more incredible is that, at this point, they make the whole thing look so damn easy!  It’s astounding.  I know Marvel is going to stumble one of these days, but for now I am sitting back and loving every minute of this ride.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron is an amazing film.  I loved it.  Watching this film I had a huge grin on my face for the entire run time.  There are so many reasons this film could have been bad.  Sequels are hard and usually disappoint.  In addition to all of the main Avengers characters, this film introduced a number of new characters and we’ve all seen superhero films (particularly sequels — I’m looking at you, Spider-Man 3) collapse under the weight of too many characters.  Whereas The Avengers was the culmination of the first run of Marvel films, Age of Ultron needs to set up the next several years of story-lines, and that could easily have made the film feel unwieldy and unsatisfying (the fate that befell Iron Man 2).

But thanks to the incredible skill and talent of writer-director Joss Whedon and his astounding team of collaborators (overseen by Marvel Studios mastermind Kevin Feige, the guiding force behind all of these Marvel movies), Age of Ultron soars.  It’s a long-movie but it never drags, it is hugely enjoyable from start to finish.  It’s got enormous, staggeringly gigantic action sequences that astound, but it’s also deeply routed in character with some wonderful moments for every one of the film’s sprawling cast.  It’s serious and tense but it also … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Thor: The Dark World

The sprawling cinematic epic that Marvel Studios has been crafting, ever since 2008’s Iron Man, rolls on with the very strong installment Thor: The Dark World.  One might have been forgiven for thinking that perhaps, after the unprecedented movie super-hero crossover that was The Avengers, the return to solo superhero stories might be a letdown.  But with the fun Iron Man Three (click here for my review) and now with the confident, bold Thor: The Dark World, Marvel is continuing an impressive streak of successful films, and continuing to expand the canvas of their super-hero universe.

At the start of Thor: The Dark World, Loki has been returned to Asgard in chains (following his defeat in The Avengers) and Thor — accompanied by his stalwart comrades-in-arms the Warriors Three and the lady Sif — has been busy putting down revolts across the nine realms (an apparent result of Loki’s destruction of the bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge that linked Asgard to the other realms, at the end of the first Thor).  All is well, except that Thor longs to return to the side of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) on Earth.  His father disapproves, but when Jane is put in peril by her discovery of an ancient evil, Thor rushes to her rescue.  That doesn’t prove to be as simple as he had hoped, as Jane has become linked to a powerful weapon that the evil Malekith plans to use to destroy the nine realms and return the universe to the state of dark and lifelessness that existed before the universe as we know it was created.  After Malekith launches a devastating attack on Asgard itself, Thor is once again put at odds with his father, Odin, and forced to turn to none other than his disgraced, treacherous brother Loki for help.

After the relatively small-scale first Thor movie, which was mostly set in a tiny Midwestern town, I was delighted by how broadly Thor: The Dark World opened up the canvas of the story.  We get to explore quite a number of the nine realms in this film, and a huge chunk in the middle is set entirely on Asgard, which is a lot of fun.  Veteran TV director Alan Taylor (who, most recently, has helmed some spectacular episodes of Game of Thrones) sure knows how to get the most bang for his buck, because Thor: The Dark World looks HUGE.  I was very impressed by the visual effects that brought all of the realms and creatures and space-ships to life.  (Yes, I said space-ships.  There is a lot of sci-fi cosmic craziness in this film, mixed in with all the fantasy.  This feels very true to … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Pacific Rim!

The first feature film adaptation of Hellboy back in 2004 was my introduction to Guillermo del Toro.  I have subsequently watched all of his films (except Blade 2 — I just have absolutely no interest in those Wesley Snipes Blade films) and pretty much loved every one of them.  Through the magic of DVDs/blu-rays, it has been great fun to track Mr. del Toro’s progression from his smaller-scale Spanish films, Cronos (click here for my review) and The Devil’s Backbone (click here for my review) to a slightly larger budget and canvas with Hellboy, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (click here for my review), and the magnificent Pan’s Labyrinth, which right now stands tall as my very favorite of Mr. del Toro’s films.

But it’s been quite a while since Mr. Del Toro has helmed a new film.  He spent years developing The Hobbit films with Peter Jackson, only to withdraw from being their director when it seems that the films would never emerge from legal limbo.  He then turned to the development of what he described as a dream project, an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, but after about another year pursuing that project, it too fell through.  Ironically, the Peter Jackson-directed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey made it to theaters before Mr. del Toro’s new film.

That new film is Pacific Rim.  It is a movie that comes tantalizingly close to greatest, but unfortunately falls short.

Pacific Rim is a movie about giant monsters fighting giant robots.  If that premise excites you, then despite the film’s flaws, you are going to enjoy this movie — particularly if you see it on the largest movie theater screen possible.  If that premise sounds boring to you, then this is a movie you should skip.

Pacific Rim brings to big-budget life the Japanese genre of Kaiju — big monsters.  Godzilla would be the most famous Kailua, but there are many many Kaiju films featuring many many different Kaiju.  Clearly Guillermo del Toro was a fan, because what he  has done is create a love letter to this type of film, taking the b-movie “man in suit” concepts and translating them to big-budget action spectacle.  I have read a few breathless internet reviews of Pacific Rim that compare the scale of the world-building in the film to that of Star Wars.  I like Pacific Rim, but I think that’s way over the top.  However, Pacific Rim does remind me of Star Wars in the way that both films have taken old-fashioned, b-movie concepts, re-mixed them, and brought them to life using cutting-edge special effects.

In the world of Pacific Rim, a mysterious … [continued]

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Although Thor doesn’t come close to equalling some of the amazing super-hero films we’ve been blessed with over the past several years (the first Iron Man, which kicked off this current run of inter-connected Marvel films, The Dark Knight, the first two X-Men films, and the first two Spider-Man films), it is a WAY better film version of the character of Thor and his mythos than I EVER would have imagined possible.

Despite by being a huge comic book fan and a Marvel Zombie since I was a kid, I never read the Thor comic regularly.  I always thought Thor was great as part of the ensemble of The Avengers, but his solo title never captured my interest.  And when Marvel announced, after the huge success of Iron Man, that they were working on a film version of Thor (as part of a series of films that would build up to The Avengers), I was dubious.  The recent Marvel films had worked so well in large part because they were fairly grounded.  Sure, Iron Man wound up with two guys in huge metal suits punching each other, but the filmmakers and the actors took pains to ground the story in the real world (and to give the characters human, real-world motivations and emotions).  I think that was a big part of the film’s success.  Same goes with the Spidey films and the X-Men films (which, for example, cast off most of the more colorful aspects of the comics — like the yellow spandex costumes).

But Thor? The Thor comic books are all about a big guy who is ACTUALLY A NORSE GOD and speaks in archaic language (a lot of “thees” and “thous”) and who has crazy adventures with other gods or god-like characters.  How could that possibly be achieved in a film that wouldn’t feel painfully small-scale (without the budget or the resources to properly achieve the epic scale of Thor’s cosmic adventures as seen in the comics) and/or feel totally ridiculously silly.

And yet, somehow, director Kenneth Branagh managed to pull off a film that, for the most part, works really well and is enjoyable both as a film in its own right and as a key stepping-stone towards The Avengers.  This is an impressive achievement and a pretty fun time at the movies!

As with Iron Man, the film’s biggest success lies in it’s casting.  There are other things that one can pick at about Thor (and I will of course do so momentarily), but I think the casting is pretty much spot-on perfect.  Chris Hemsworth (so great as James T. Kirk’s doomed dad in the opening scenes of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek[continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews the Director’s Cut of American Gangster

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]

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“What d’you think we are? Gangsters?” — Josh Reviews RocknRolla

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]