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Josh Reviews Passengers

Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) are members of a colony expedition to a planet, Homestead II, far from Earth.  But something goes wrong and they two alone amongst the 5,000 cryogenically frozen passengers aboard the space ship Avalon are woken from their sleep 90 years early.  As they wrestle with their fate of living out their entire lives alone aboard the ship, a series of cascading technical failures present a far more urgent crisis: if they cannot identify and repair the problem, they and the 5,000 sleeping passengers will die long before the Avalon ever reaches its destination.


That plot description, and all of the pre-release advertising and promotional material for Passengers, leaves out a crucial detail of the story.  I guessed it from the film’s trailer (which I must have seen 10 times since the summer, it seemed to have played before every single movie I saw for the past several months), but the film doesn’t actually treat this as a surprise — this event is presented in a very straightforward manner in the film’s first act.  I don’t want to spoil this for anyone since the filmmakers clearly prefer that audiences go into the film not knowing about this.  However, it is difficult to discuss Passengers without mentioning this event because it is central to the whole story of the film.

So for now, what I can say is that Passengers is not the glossy, mass-appeal film starring two current Hollywood heartthrobs that it is advertised as being.  This central event at the start of the film seems to be intended to spin the story into something far more complex and interesting.  And yet, the film (directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Jon Spaihts) doesn’t seem at all interested in exploring those complexities.  And so Passengers exists in an uncomfortable middle ground.  The film looks absolutely gorgeous, and Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are certainly fun to watch.  But the story remains superficial where it felt to me that it begged for something deeper, something more difficult.  And this superficial, glossy telling of this story actually results in a film that was, for me, disturbing and uncomfortable in a way that I don’t think the filmmakers ever intended.

For those interested in treading into SPOILER TERRITORY, please read on!

All of the film’s promotional material suggested that something went wrong with Jim and Aurora’s cryogenic pods, alone among all the passengers on the Avalon.  And yet that’s not the case at all.  Jim (Chris Pratt) is the only one woken from the malfunction.  After a year of living along on board the ship, he becomes obsessed with the sleeping Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) — a beautiful … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 2

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 picks up the story mere moments after Part 1 left off.  Peeta has been rescued but he has been brainwashed to hate Katniss.  The rebels are escalating the fight against the tyrannical President Snow, beginning to strike hard at his military installations and close in on the capitol.  Katniss Everdeen has become the symbol of the rebellion, and she finds herself caught between her role as a figurehead (and therefore the rebellions’ leaders’ desires to keep her safe and use her only in a P.R. role to rally the people) and her hatred of Snow and desire to hunt him down and kill him.


I have never read any of the Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins.  I went to see the first film mostly because my wife, who had read the books, really wanted to see it.  I found the film to be OK, not terrible but not great.  I was far more impressed with the second film, Catching Fire.  I was surprised how much I dug that film.  Unfortunately, looking back, that was the high point of the film series for me.  I was underwhelmed by Mockingjay Part 1.  And while my wife and I felt we wanted to see Part 2 to see how it all wrapped up, neither of us was all that desperate to see it.  As a result, we waited weeks, until the movie was almost gone from theatres, before checking it out.

Whereas Katniss Everdeen was a hero in the first film, strong and moral and courageous, I was surprised by how stuck-in-a-rut the character has been ever since then.  One of the things I liked most about Catching Fire was that it explored the ramifications of Katniss’ surving that first Hunger Games.  She wasn’t able to just walk away from those horrific events — she was deeply scarred.  That worked in Catching Fire.  But three films later, Katniss’ indecision and inaction has proven very boring for me.  I like the heroes in these sorts of films to feel human — not like unbeatable, impervious super-humans — but I’m surprised by how stuck in the mud Katniss has proven to be.  It’s a weird choice.

I don’t want to spoil the film’s ending, but the last thirty minutes are the strongest part of the movie, and clearly the whole reason for telling this story.  I didn’t care one whit about which boy Katniss was going to wind up with, but I loved the developments in that last thirty minutes about the results of the rebellion and the future of Panem.  Those were some neat ideas.

But here’s the thing: for the film’s subversion … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I

I’ve never read any of the Hunger Games novels, but of course I knew of the phenomenon and so I was curious to see that first Hunger Games film.  I found it entertaining but rather mediocre.  But I was stunned how much I enjoyed the second film, Catching Fire I thought that film was a huge leap forward from the initial installment, and its cliffhanger ending left me quite eager for the third film.

And so I was a little bummed that Mockingjay Part I felt rather flat to me.  I think it’s a superior film to the first one, but lacks the narrative energy of the second.

The film picks off immediately after the end of Catching Fire.  We’ve seen social unrest lurking around the edge of the dystopian future of the Hunger Games world, but now a full-scale revolution seems about to emerge.  Unlike the first two stories, there is no new Hunger Games competition as the center of this story.  Rather, we follow Katniss as she finds herself the symbol of the revolution being led by the residents of District 13 against President Snow and the capitol.  Katniss never set out to be a revolutionary, she just wanted to save her sister and then find a way to survive herself in the brutal Hunger Games.  Though she recognizes the evil of President Snow’s rule, her primary motivation is to find a way to save her friend Peeta, who was left a prisoner of Snow following the dramatic events of the end of Catching Fire.

I like that this installment doesn’t feel the need to try to somehow ropes Katniss back into another Hunger Games competition.  The scale of the story has grown beyond that, which is exciting.  Here in Mockingjay, the struggle isn’t just for one hero to survive the Games, but instead this story is about the struggle to determine the future of this society itself.  Will the districts continue to allow themselves to be subjugated by the forces of the capitol, or will they find a way to unite and find a new path?  How can fractured, poor, basically unarmed districts possibly overcome the well-armed, technologically superior forces of the capitol?

A story about the mechanics of a populist revolution in a dystopian future sounds like an exciting focus for a film, as does the idea of following Katniss’ journey to becoming an actual participant in the growing revolution.  But I was a little surprised by how dull I found Mockingjay to be.  Not a whole heck of a lot happens in the film.  Really, except for the rescue attempt in the film’s final minutes, has the status quo for Katniss or her … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire improves on the first film in almost every way.  I have never read the books, so I am not evaluating these films based on any comparisons to the original novel.  I thought the first film, released two years ago, was perfectly adequate, a fine adventure story though not very memorable beyond that.  I didn’t find it to be particularly intense or emotional.  My favorite aspect of the film was the ending, which I felt was a wonderfully complex, enigmatic beat on which to end a big budget piece of Hollywood entertainment.  (Click here for my original review.)

With a new director, Francis Lawrence, at the helm, I am delighted to report that here in the sequel, the story of The Hunger Games has been elevated to the level they were clearly aiming for with the first film.  This is a film with wonderful visual effects and a riveting action/adventure story, but one that is grounded in compelling personal stories and, more intesting even than that, a larger story of a society ruled by the very top .001 percent, while the vast majority, the downtrodden, are on the verge of deciding that they are not going to take it anymore.  This story of a people’s revolution in a dystopian future is riveting (far more interesting to me than the Hunger Games competition itself in the film).  The very best sci-fi presents us with a warped but familiar version of a world that could be our own, and there is much about the story of Catching Fire that is extraordinarily of the moment.  Now, I don’t want to overstate things — Catching Fire is certainly not one of the best sci-fi films I have ever seen.  But I found it to be extremely rich and complex a piece of entertainment, with a depth that I wasn’t anticipating based on the first film.

The best decision made by the film-makers (and I assume this was the case with the original novel as well) is the amount of time spent in the first half exploring the repercussions of the events of the first film, both on Katniss Everdeen herself and on the society as a whole.  I loved the first half of this film.  I was hugely surprised by how long it took for Katniss and the other victors to wind up back in the Hunger Games competition.  That first half of the film sets the stakes, both for Katniss personally and for the world around her.  I like that Katniss is not presented as a super-hero.  She is scarred by the events of the first film, haunted by nightmares, and she is not eager to become … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Silver Linings Playbook

Nothing in the plot description of Silver Linings Playbook really caught my attention, but the fact that it was written (adapted from the novel by Matthew Quick) and directed by David O. Russell automatically made the film something I was interested in.  I don’t love all of Mr. Russell’s films, but they’re all very interesting and unique, and I really dug his last film, The Fighter (click here for my review).  I was very pleasantly surprised to find Silver Linings Playbook to be just as enjoyable as The Fighter. The two films have a similar feel in that Mr. Russell has crafted a film that feels honest and filled with Mr. Russell’s quirky style, but also just on the right side of mainstream-crowd-pleasing.  That’s a very difficult balance to strike, and I am impressed by the skill with which Mr. Russell and his team have been able to again walk that line.

In the film, Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a young man with bipolar disorder.  At the start of the film, he is released from a mental hospital into the care of his parents.  It seems that several months prior, Pat had an “incident” caused by a confrontation with his wife (an event that is gradually explored over the course of the film).  Pat is eager to return to his old life and to patch things up with his wife, but it’s clear that he has mental and emotional issues that will not be so easy to resolve.  At a dinner with some friends, Pat meets a young widow named Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence).  It’s clear that Tiffany has plenty of issues of her own, though sparks immediately fly between her and Pat.  The crux of Silver Linings Playbook is the burgeoning friendship between Pat and Tiffany, and the question of whether the two of them can each get over what is going on in their own heads in order to form a successful, stable relationship with the other.

That description sounds pretty dreary and heavy (which is a large part why the film didn’t immediately interest me when I first heard about it), but Mr. Russell maintains a light touch with the material throughout.  While the film is not what I’d call a comedy, it is quite humorous, and there’s a playfulness to the proceedings that I found very endearing and engaging.  The movie is dramatic enough that we become invested in Pat and Tiffany and we feel their ups and downs, but the movie is light enough that we don’t get too bogged down in Oscar-baiting seriousness.  (And there are a few really big laughs, none better or more-earned than the moment towards the end in which … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Hunger Games

I came into the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ hit novel The Hunger Games without having read any of the novels.  So my comments on the film will not contain any reflections on the film’s successes or failures as an adaptation of the source material.  My review will simply address whether the movie stands or falls on its own, as a film.

In that respect, I found Gary Ross’ film The Hunger Games to be a very entertaining, if rather unremarkable, adventure tale.

For a film adapted from an apparently family-friendly young-adult novel, I was pleasantly surprised by how intense and grim the film was.  While the film keeps the gore almost entirely off-camera, there is still quite a lot of violence, and I found the fights to be very energetic and engaging.  The final bit of hand-to-hand combat atop a ship was especially gripping.  Now, I’ve read Battle Royale, the Japanese manga published from 2000-2005 that tells a far more graphic, violent version of a similar story (schoolchildren forced to fight to the death).  So, compared to that, The Hunger Games is hopelessly tame.  But, that being said, I was impressed by the adult approach taken to the material.  I didn’t feel things were softened in order to appeal to a four-quadrant demographic.

That adult approach taken by Gary Ross and his team was clear throughout the film, and was the most appealing aspect of the movie for me.  This is an A-level adaptation, one in which a lot of care has clearly been taken to bring the world to life, and a lot of money spent to make it all look great.  The cast is spectacular across the board.  I loved Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone (click here for my review), and I thought she was also great in X-Men: First Class (click here for my review) and in Like Crazy (click here for my review).  After seeing her gripping performance in Winter’s Bone, playing Katniss Everdeen seems like a walk in the park for Ms. Lawrence, but that’s not to short-change her abilities.  She’s in almost every scene of the film (and, indeed, the few scenes that shift from Katniss’ perspective all seemed extraneous to me) and she absolutely anchors the story, giving the audience a character to invest in and root for.

Woody Harrelson is marvelous as Haymitch, the drunk survivor of a previous Hunger Games competition who is assigned to mentor Katniss.  Mr. Harrelson brings a world of pain and backstory to his performance — you can see it in his eyes, in the way he holds Katniss and her fellow “tribute” Peeta at arms length — that made … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Like Crazy

If Like Crazy is playing anywhere near you, I really encourage you to seek out this wrenching little film.

The movie stars Anton Yelchin (who played Chekov in J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot) and Felicity Jones (getting a tremendous amount of acclaim, and deservedly so, for this breakout role) as a young couple who meet at university in L.A. and quickly fall crazily in love.  Jacob (Yelchin) is an aspiring furniture designer, and Anna (Jones) is a writer.  The two immediately spark to one another, and Anna chooses to stay the summer in L.A. rather than returning home to London.  But overstaying her VISA gets her into trouble when she does eventually return home to London, and she finds herself barred from re-entering the United States.  The bulk of Like Crazy follows Jacob and Anna struggling to maintain a connection during the months and eventually years that follow, when, despite their efforts, they are unable to get Anna’s travel ban lifted.

I could imagine that plot summary being written about a big-budget Hollywood romantic film, with two super-stars in the lead roles, in which the separation of the two characters leads to silly hi-jinks (Maybe they experiment with phone sex!) and eventually to big heart-felt moments (A dramatic speech!  A kiss in the rain!) scored to pop songs or to rousing orchestral music.  Thankfully, none of that is found anywhere near Like Crazy.

The film is presented in a stripped-down fashion, with the focus tight on the two lead characters.  The camerawork keeps us often intimately close to these two people, and the story is unflinching in its sometimes brutal exploration of the painful emotional truths of love and relationships.

Like Crazy was made on a shoe-string budget.  In an interview, the 28 year-old director, Drake Doremus, said that the entire film cost only $250,000, and was filmed entirely on a $1,500 camera.  The shoot lasted only a few weeks, and the scenes were mostly improvised by the two actors.  Working from a detailed 50-page outline, created by Mr. Doremus, the actors developed the scenes, and the details of their relationship, through the process of filming the movie.

It’s clear to me that the film benefitted extraordinarily from the aesthetic choices necessitated by such an on-the-cheap, on-the-fly process of filmmaking.  I really connected to the movie’s unadorned technique, and the fly-on-the-wall, almost voyeuristic position into which we, as the viewers, are placed, as we watch this couple struggle through their long-distance relationship.  The film asks tough questions of the characters, and their responses to the situations in which they were placed felt very real to me, very emotionally true.  Both Jacob and Anna are presented as likable … [continued]

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Josh Reviews X-Men: First Class!

I was beginning to think I’d never get to see another great X-Men movie!

I’m a big, big fan of Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films.  I think they’re pretty much perfect, the first two steps in what seemed like an epic cinematic saga.  When the final shot of X2 tantalized viewers with the promise of the Dark Phoenix saga (probably the single greatest X-Men storyline ever), I was overcome with gleeful anticipation.  I think I’m still recovering from the disappointment at how badly the film series fumbled things from there.  The studio rushed X-Men 3 into production with another director, as a big up-yours to Bryan Singer, who had been hired to direct Superman: Returns.  X-Men 3 has a decent first 45 minutes or so but then things totally collapse, and the brutally awful handling of the Phoenix storyline was crushingly disappointing.  And in the years since, the only new X-Men movie we’ve gotten is the abysmally terrible X-Men Origins: Wolverine (share the pain and read my review here).

When I heard that they were finally putting together a new X-Men film, and that it was a prequel, I was not pleased.  I really hate prequels, as readers of this blog are probably aware.  I think it’s a lazy approach to story-telling, and I’d always rather see a story move FORWARD rather than circle back upon itself.  That we’ve been so deluged with prequels these past few years makes me absolutely crazy.  Why do I want to see the young versions of characters I love?  I want to see the experienced versions of these characters, in their prime, kicking ass and going on new adventures.  Why has that seemingly been so difficult for the masterminds behind the X-Men film franchise?  Can no one in Hollywood think past a trilogy?  X-Men 3 was flawed, but it still made a TON of moola.  Hire some new writers and get to work on X-Men 4! Of all the franchises in the world, the X-Men seems like the easiest no-brainer in the bunch.  There are SO MANY great characters and story-lines in the comics to choose from.  Is Patrick Stewart getting too expensive?  No problemo!  The comics were constantly writing Professor X out of the stories for long periods of time.  Let’s see the films adapt some of the great X-Men stories from the eighties, in which Prof X was gone and Magneto tried to reform and take over the X-Men.  That would be awesome!  It just seems so simple to me — we should be getting brand new X-Men films every 2-3 years, like clockwork.

But, obviously, that hasn’t happened.  Just one god-awful Wolverine solo flick and a prequel.  … [continued]

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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]