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I’m a nut for science fiction as well as science fact — and so I was instantly excited when I heard that Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) was directing First Man, a film telling the story of Neil Armstrong’s first landing on the moon.  The film’s trailers, when they arrived, got me even more excited.  I am pleased to report that the film does not disappoint.

When First Man is at its best, it is a spectacularly visceral recreation of the Neil Armstrong (and his fellow space pioneers in the Gemini and Apollo programs)’s experience leading up to, and during, the incredible feat of journeying to the moon and returning safely to the Earth.  Time and again, the film is remarkable in the way that it is able to put us right into the lap of Neil Armstrong, allowing us to see what he saw and feel what he might have felt.  We’re right there in the cockpit with Neil at the start of the film when, testing a X-15 rocket plane, he accidentally bounces off of the atmosphere and almost drifts away into space.  In an incredible sequence in the center of the film, we’re right there in the space capsule with Neil and David Scott during the Gemini 8 mission, launching into orbit, successfully locating and docking with the Agena vehicle, and nearly losing their lives when the spacecraft begins to spin out of control.  And, of course, we are there in the Eagle with Neil and Buzz Aldrin when they make their historic landing on the moon.

I have seen a lot of wonderful films about the American space program and the lunar missions, but I’ve never before quite had the discomfiting feeling of claustrophobia and fear of actually strapping into a tin can on top of a rocket, as these brave men did.  First Man was able to pull me from my theatre seat into those experiences.  Mr. Chazelle and his team have impeccably recreated these moments with an extraordinary eye for details that prior films have overlooked.  We can see and feel the tactile reality of the switches in the spacecraft control panels.  We hear and feel the swaying of the platform Neil and Dave Scott walk across in order to board the Gemini 8 capsule.  We hear the groaning of the metal on the spacecraft as it launches, and the booming explosions of the rocket fire that is propelling them airborne at an incredible rate of speed.

I saw First Man on an enormous Imax screen, and I encourage you to do the same.  The visual force of the film is tremendous, and it’s rendered even more effective on the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Terminator: Genisys

In my review of Jurassic World, I commented that the problem with all of the disappointing sequels to the great Jurassic Park is that they’ve basically been the exact same movie retold over and over again.  The Terminator has also had disappointing sequel after disappointing sequel, but for the exact opposite reason.  Both Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator: Salvation, and now Terminator: Genisys have gone in wildly different directions.  Each has been a (failed) attempt to kick-start a new trilogy of Terminator films. Rather than being frustrating because these films feel like the same film over and over again, they are frustrating because they are so all-over-the-place, removing any sense of narrative flow or continuity from this series.  Neither Terminator 3, Terminator: Salvation, nor Terminator: Genisys are absolutely terrible.  There are some good ideas and good moments in all three films.  But none of them are able to come anywhere close to James Cameron’s amazing original two films.

The best thing I can say about Terminator: Genisys?  It’s not as horrible as its title.

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Terminator: Genisys actually has a decent idea at its core.  The film begins by showing us what we never got to see in James Cameron’s original films: the day John Connor and his resistance defeated Skynet, found the time displacement center, and sent Kyle Reese back in time to save John’s mother Sarah Connor from death at the hands of a Terminator.  Kyle is prepared by John to encounter the Sarah who we met in the first film: an innocent waitress with no idea of the danger she’s in or her importance to the future.  But when Kyle arrives back in 1984, he discovers that the timeline has been changed and a T-1000 is there waiting for him.  Now it’s Kyle who has to be rescued by Sarah — not the damsel in distress he was expecting but a tough warrior-woman (reminiscent of Linda Hamilton’s depiction of the character in T2) — who has been raised since youth by another Terminator to prepare for this day.

While I dislike the idea of erasing the events of the first two films, I can get behind this idea as a way to tell more Terminator stories when things had seemed pretty wrapped up by the end of the second film.  (All three subsequent sequels have really had to struggle to continue the story beyond the end of T2, in which Sarah and John destroyed Skynet before it could be born, thus preventing Judgment Day and the destruction of mankind.)  Indeed, the most fun to be had in Terminator: Genisys is the way the film, in the first half-hour, recreates so many iconic moments from … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I have been troubled by the popularization, over the past several years, of the idea of a “reboot” as a way to keep franchises evergreen and continually making money for the corporations that own them.  I think there are times when a reboot is foolishly chosen whereas a continuation would have been preferable (Exhibit A: the Spider-Man films).  And there are lots of examples of Hollywood choosing to remake a great or well-liked film as a lazy way of capitalizing on a familiar brand rather than daring to create something new or original.  This usually results in a lame, lesser version of the original (See: Robocop, Total Recall, I could go on…)

But not all reboots are bad.  I loved Christopher Nolan’s reboot of Batman in Batman Begins, and while it is too early to tell whether the again-rebooted Batman we’ll see in Batman V. Superman will be any good, I think Warner Brothers has the right idea in giving us a new version of Batman rather than trying to keep telling stories in continuity from the end of Mr. Nolan’s Batman Trilogy.  (I love Joseph Gordon Levitt, but thank goodness the rumors — following the release of The Dark Knight Rises — that he would star in a new movie as Batman proved to be false.)

Which brings me to Planet of the Apes.  I have always been a HUGE fan of the original five films.  That first Planet of The Apes from 1968 is a true classic, a fantastic film that holds up extremely well today.  The four sequels that were then churned out in short succession (basically one a year!!) are increasingly bad, but I still love them.  Even though the budgets shrank and they had to come up with increasingly ludicrous ways to continue the series, I am always impressed by the creativity shown in the ways they found to continue the story, by the ambition on display in the way they continued to incorporate social allegory into the film’s stories, and by just how much innocent goofy fun can be had when watching the films today.  I love them all.

The other nice thing about the original five films is how complete they feel as a series.  The fifth film cleverly wrapped the story back around to the first film, giving the five films together the feel of a complete saga.  I never felt that this series cried out for a continuation or a reboot.   Tim Burton’s idiotic attempt to remake/reboot the series is best forgotten, and strong evidence for the pitfalls in trying to remake/re-envision a famous film series.

But then came 2011’s Rise of the Planetof the Apes.  It had a dumb title, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow has directed some terrific films.  I’m a sucker for Strange Days (the futuristic sci-film from 1995, written by James Cameron and starring Ralph Fiennes) and The Hurt Locker (click here for my review) was terrific, but I’d say with Zero Dark Thirty she has made her masterpiece.

Based on true events (though to what extent the film is completely factually accurate seems to be a subject of much debate — more on that in just a minute), the film begins on September 11th, 2001. Over a black screen, we hear intercut bits of dialogue — mostly phone calls — of panicked people on that terrible day.  The film takes us through the long hunt for Osama bin Laden until May 2, 2011 — almost a full decade later — when he was shot and killed in a Pakistani compound by US forces.  The focus of the film is on a woman named Maya (we never learn her last name), played by Jessica Chastain.  A CIA operative, when we first meet her in 2003, she has been assigned to the US embassy in Pakistan, with her focus being the hunt for bin Laden.  In several difficult-t0-watch early sequences in the film, Maya observes a fellow operative, Dan (Jason Clarke), torturing a detainee with suspected ties to al-Qaeda.  One tidbit of information that he mentions turns into the breadcrumb that Maya spends years following, trying in many different ways to turn a potential hint of a lead into something concrete.

The film is an incredibly complex piece of work.  For almost three full hours, we live with Maya through the myriad twists and turns of the CIA’s investigations during their hunt for bin Laden.  The film piles on the details, not in a confusing way but rather in a way that illuminates the insanely daunting needle-in-a-haystack nature of the search.  Kathryn Bigelow’s patient, taut direction works in perfect concert with Mark Boal’s dense, sophisticated script to bring all these details to life and to make them sing.  It is in the accumulation of details, in the way the film thrusts us into the head-spinningly complex web of secrets and doubts in which Maya and her fellow CIA investigators must live as they push forward their work, that the film weaves its magic and the story gains its power.

This is not a film for someone not willing to pay attention.  The movie does not spell everything out for the audience.  (I was reminded of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in the way the film throws around names and terminology without bothering to explain things, immersing the audience in the jargon of this world.)  There are many characters in … [continued]