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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews The Lobster

In Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Lobster, Colin Farrell stars as David.  Upon discovering that his wife has left him for another man, David checks into a hotel where single people have 45 days to find a life partner, or else they will be transformed into an animal of their own choosing.  David makes friends with two of the other single men there, Robert (John C. Reilly) and John (Ben Wishaw).  Eventually, Ben runs away from the hotel and begins living with the “loners” who live in the woods nearby.  Though the loners forbid any sort of romantic connection between two people, David finds he has feelings for a woman (Rachel Weisz) he meets there.

The Lobster.cropped

The Lobster is an incredibly bizarre film, one that creates a fascinating alternate reality to our own.  Though much of the world of The Lobster looks and sounds just like our own, we are presented with two fanatically extreme versions of society: one in which coupling is so important that failure to do so results in the end of one’s human life, and another in which coupling is absolutely forbidden.  The film is a compelling commentary on societal pressure to find romance and a life-partner.  How critically important to one’s life and happiness is finding a romantic partner?  Why do we, as a society, put so many rules on people’s love lives, on what is expected and what is permitted?  The Lobster is a rich satire that prompts deep questions.

Colin Farrell is terrific in the lead role, marvelously underplaying the character of David.  Mr. Farrell is beautifully naturalistic and honest in his performance.  While the world of The Lobster can feel outlandish at times, Mr. Farrell provides a critical anchoring to the proceedings with his emotional honesty, and his depiction of a man at a crossroads, struggling to figure out who he is and what he wants and whether he feels he has any self-worth.  The film works as well as it does 100% because of Mr. Farrell’s strong performance.  Mr. Farrell is a handsome man who usually exhibits a ferocious, kinetic energy in his performances.  But here, beneath a paunch and glasses and a ridiculous moustache, it’s as if he has drained every ounce of life and energy out of himself in order to bring the sad-sack David to life.  It’s quite spectacular.

John C. Reilly is always great, and he’s a ray of light in this mostly downbeat film.  His character, Robert, is lonely and unhappy, but Mr. Reilly brings a little spark to every one of his line readings that brings a sense of fun and play into what is, when you think about it, a very broken character.  Ben Wishaw (… [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 9): Casualties of War (1989)

Following up on the successful and great The Untouchables, Brian De Palma moved on to another large-scale project: the Vietnam War story Casualties of War.

The film is based on the true events of the “incident on Hill 192” that occurred in 1966, and that were described in a New Yorker article written by Daniel Lang in 1969.  Michael J. Fox stars as Max Eriksson, a young kid serving in Vietnam.  As the film opens, Eriksson’s squad is engaged with a firefight with the Viet Cong in the jungle, and Erikkson falls into a Viet Cong tunnel.  The seasoned sergant Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) helps rescue him.  Soon after, Meserve’s close friend “Brownie” Brown is shot and killed in a Viet Cong sniper attack.  A vengeful Meserve decides to kidnap a local Vietnamese from her village.  He and the other men in the squad drag her out of her home in the middle of the night.  Eriksson objects, but he is the only one in the squad who speaks up and so is ignored.  The men in the squad force the girl to march with them, beating and eventually raping her.  Erikkson continues to object but feels powerless to stop what he is witnessing.

The film’s central focus is on Eriksson’s moral struggle of what to do in this seemingly impossible situation.  This is a grim but compelling hook for a film, one made all the more powerful by the fact that these events did actually occur.

I enjoyed Casualties of War.  I think it’s an important story to tell, and the film’s cast of talented young actors do fine work.  However, the film falls a little short for me in that it feels somewhat fake, somewhat movie-ish.  The film lacks the mythic grandeur of Vietnam War films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, and it also falls short of the you-are-there gritty realism of Oliver Stone’s Platoon.  For all of Brian De Palma’s skill as a director, visually I found that Casualties of War hasn’t aged as well as those other films.  It’s also a rare example of a film in which I felt that some of Mr. De Palma’s stylistic flourishes — which I usually quite enjoy and look out for — weakened the film rather than strengthening it.

One moment that comes to mind is the sequence in the Viet Cong caves early-on in the film.  While the men in Eriksson’s platoon unsuspectingly walk through the jungle, the camera pans down to reveal the network of Viet Cong caves running underneath the service.  Mr. De Palma constructed an elaborate raised set for this sequence, one that resembled … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Guardians of the Galaxy

I had a feeling this one was gonna be good.  I’m glad I was right.

With Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios has blown the doors off of their cinematic universe in a big, big way.  This is a huge movie, filled with crazy alien planets and creatures and hugely original characters and situations.  The opening few minutes takes place on Earth, and then the entire rest of the film takes place in a far-off corner of the galaxy, a one-hundred-percent immersion in fantasy cosmic craziness.  (Man, this is what DC’s Green Lantern should have been like.)  The film is exciting and funny and it looks gorgeous.  I loved pretty much every minute of it.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was born on Earth but was kidnapped and stolen from the planet as a boy.  He grew up among a band of thieves and ragamuffins to become something of a Han Solo type, a roguish scoundrel with a heart of gold.  When hired to find a priceless orb, Quill decides to double-cross his boss, Yondu (Michael Rooker).  But it turns out that the villainous Ronan (Lee Pace) also wants the orb, so he sends his minion Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to obtain it as well.  Gamora also double-crosses her boss, and just as she confronts Quill the two run afoul of Rocket and Groot, two alien mercenaries looking to cash in on a good bounty.  The four all wind up apprehended by the Nova Corps (an intergalactic peace-keeping force) and thrown in jail.  Somehow, these four criminals — soon joined by a fifth, the hulking Drax — find themselves forming a tight bond with one another.  And with the fate of the universe at stake, this motley five-some have to do the thing none of them ever expected to do: become heroes.

Guardians of the Galaxy harkens back to the tone of the first Iron Man, a very silly, goofy sensibility crossed with a great fantasy action-adventure.  Iron Man had stakes, but it was also a whole heck of a lot of fun, and Guardians is exactly the same way.  The film is a riot, but this is not a spoof.  The characters are fleshed out, with fully-realized emotional arcs, and there is weight to the story being told.

Anyone who has been watching Parks and Recreation for the past six years knows that Chris Pratt is a star.  Now the whole world knows it.  Mr. Pratt has been perfectly cast as Peter Quill, the tough space-pirate who is also an innocent boy at heart.  Mr. Pratt absolutely dominates this movie, and he’s magnetic in every scene he’s in, even when standing along-side the ridiculously scene-stealing two-some of Rocket and Groot.  … [continued]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Cyrus

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

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

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

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

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From the DVD Shelf: Walk Hard

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is one of the few films from the past several years that Judd Apatow has had a hand in (he co-wrote the film and was one of its producers), that, despite his involvement, did not receive a lot of love from audiences upon its release.  My own recollection of seeing it in theatres was that it was sort of funny but not fantastic.  However, upon a second viewing on DVD last month, I must say that I have fallen head-over-heels in love with this film!

Walk Hard is, first and foremost, an evisceration of a very specific type of film: the Oscar-bait musical bio-pic (like Ray, Walk the Line, etc.).  In scene after scene after scene, the film mercilessly sends-up every single ridiculous cliche of those types of movies.

We meet young Dewey growing up in a ramshackle farm down South, enjoying an idyllic life.  But a day of fun with his brother (“ain’t nothing horrible gonna happen today!” the doomed tyke promises) ends in tragedy after a machete-fighting accident.  Out of that grief, Dewey discovers his musical ability, playing the blues (“I got the blues… cut my brother in half…”).  A few years later, a nervous Dewey performs at a High School concert.  (Starting here, Dewey is played by John C. Reilly, despite the fact that the character is only 14 in this scene.  As Apatow and Director/co-writer Jake Kasdan note in their DVD commentary, they were interested in poking fun at  “just how young the lead actor THINKS he can play” in these sorts of movies.)   Despite the innocuousness of the pop ballad Dewey performs (entitled “Take My Hand”), the concert erupts into a frenzy of sexualized dancing (as, you know, Rock and Roll is wont to cause).  After being condemned by the local priest (“You think we don’t know what you’re talking about when you say take my hand?!”) and his father (“The wrong kid died!”), Dewey decides to leave home and set out on a musical career.

What follows reads like a crazy check-list of the types of scenes one could expect in these sorts of films, charting our hero’s rise and fall and eventual redemption.  Dewey gets an opportunity to perform his music for a disinterested record company executive (played brilliantly by John Michael Higgins, who proclaims: “You have failed conclusively!  There is nothing that you can do, here in this room, to turn that around!”) but, of course, once Dewey plays one of his own songs (the titular “Walk Hard”), the executive is blown away, as are his Hassidic Jewish backers (Harold Ramis — yes, Harold Ramis — Phil Rosenthal, and Martin Starr in delightfully over-the-top Hassidic get-up … [continued]