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Josh Reviews Kong: Skull Island

In 1973, as the United States forces leave Vietnam, a group of soldiers are assigned to what is supposed to be a geological expedition.  Unfortunately, it turns out their mission is at the behest of U.S. government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman), who is attempting to prove his theory that giant monsters exist.  Turns out he’s right, and he has led his unfortunate group to Skull Island, home of King Kong and lots of creatures that are even worse.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film Kong: Skull Island is a fun, clever reinvention of the King Kong mythos.  The film is part Apocalypse Now, part monster movie, part multi-character ensemble drama.  It has some intense action beats and some moments of great comedy.  Skull Island is a robust mixture of a lot of different influences and elements, and somehow it all comes together to create an enjoyable, modern take on King Kong, a character originated in 1933.

I write “modern” take, though I was surprised that the film is actually a period piece.  The prologue is set in 1944, and the rest of the film takes place in 1973.  I love this choice.  The film has a slightly retro look that differentiates it from other recent monster movies, and the post-Vietnam setting winds up being a perfect opportunity for the film to explore some interesting character beats.  (This isn’t a film that dives too deeply into any characters, which is the film’s main weakness, but the post-Vietnam setting is effectively used as a shorthand to help create a bunch of interesting characters even though the film doesn’t really take the time to explore most of them.)

Mr. Vogt-Roberts’ film is gorgeous.  There are some extraordinary visual effects, no surprise.  Kong himself is magnificently realized.  From the trailers, I was uncertain by the decision to make Kong so enormous, but it works in the film.  This behemoth-sized Kong has quite a different feel from Peter Jackson’s 2005 film.  But in this film’s entirely different setting, it works.  Kong is referred to repeatedly as a god, and this mammoth Kong has that feeling.  The CGI effects that brought him to life are terrific, equally effective when we are looking into Kong’s eyes in extreme close-up or watching him throw down with enormous other hideous creatures.  Tremendous credit must go to Terry Notary, whose motion-capture work was the heart of Kong’s performance.  (Mr. Notary has been doing great work at creating characters in fantasy spectacles for many years now.  I first became familiar with his work from watching the behind-the-scenes documentaries on the DVDs of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.)

The film includes a number of sequences of rip-roaring monster mayhem.  The intro to … [continued]

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Josh Reviews 10 Cloverfield Lane

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I feel like 2008’s Cloverfield has been somewhat forgotten and/or dismissed in recent years, but I loved that film when it came out.  Back in 2008 I wasn’t yet fed up with J.J. Abrams’ “mystery box” schtick and it was fun going into seeing that movie without really having any idea what the heck it was about.  That was cool, and the movie didn’t disappoint.  It was a tremendous big-screen experience, with the “found footage” device used to great effect to put the viewer right into the thick of the action.  Subsequent viewings at home can’t live up to that original big-screen presentation, but I’ve watched Cloverfield a few times over the years, including just last month, and I think the film holds up well.  The skill of screenwriter Drew Goddard (who also helped create Netflix’s Daredevil and wrote & directed the great The Cabin in the Woods) and director Matt Reeves (who directed the spectacular Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) created in Cloverfield a fun, thrilling, and gorgeous-to-look-at monster movie.

Cloverfield felt like a completely one-off thing, and so like everyone else I was stunned when news broke a few months ago that J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company was releasing a new film called 10 Cloverfield Lane.  First of all, my cap is off to Mr. Abrams and co. for somehow managing to produce this movie entirely in secret.  They only announced the film’s existence a few months before its release!  I don’t know how they did that, in this day and age.  And, of course, they once again decided to keep almost everything about the movie very secret.  Trailers for 10 Cloverfield Lane didn’t tell much about the film’s story, nor did they reveal whether the film had any connection, other than the title, to 2008’s Cloverfield.  Was this a sequel?  A prequel?  A totally new story?

Here is an example of Mr. Abrams’ secrecy-heavy approach to movie-making really worked for me.  I was intrigued by the mystery around 10 Cloverfield Lane just as I had been with the original Cloverfield.  I had felt burned by Mr. Abrams’ “mystery box” technique in the past, most especially by Star Trek Into Darkness, not only because of everyone involved with the film’s flat-out lying to audiences for months (claiming that Khan was not the villain), but that the film’s story was stupidly structured to keep the identity of Khan a secret until the final 30 minutes, thus defeating the whole idea of bringing back one of Star Trek’s greatest villains.  (Why use Khan if for most of the movie you’re going to have him be pretending to be some other guy??)  But … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Monuments Men

Two of the films George Clooney has directed are among my very favorite films.  I think his debut film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, is probably in my top 20-30 films of all time.  It’s a deliriously clever, mind-bending piece of work, with a dynamite script by Charlie Kaufman and a killer performance by Sam Rockwell in the leading role.  Then there’s Good Night, and Good Luck, a powerful look back at Edward R. Murrow’s challenging of Senator Joseph McCarthy with another killer performance by an actor in the lead role, in this case David Strathairn as Murrow.

I cannot believe that the same person who directed those two films directed the flat, disappointing The Monuments Men.  (Nor can I believe that the film was written by the same writing team, Mr. Clooney and Grant Heslov, who wrote Good Night, and Good Luck.)

The Monuments Men is based on a true story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program, an effort by the allies to find and safeguard important works of art and culture in danger of being stolen and/or destroyed by the Nazis during WWII.  (The film is based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Heroes, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter.)  The film stars Mr. Clooney, along with Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett.

Based on a fascinating, real-life story, and with such incredible talent in front of and behind the camera, The Monuments Men should have been a hoot.  Instead, puzzlingly, it’s a flat, instantly-forgettable dud.  There’s nothing bad in the film, it’s just that there’s nothing particularly good in the film either.

At no point did I feel any real sense of momentum and adventure in the film.  At no point was I sucked into the drama of the story, of the beat-the-clock chase for hidden artwork before it could be stolen or destroyed.  At no point did the fate-of-the-world drama of the Second World War, within which this small group of Allied officers was operating, bring any sort of life or tension to the film’s story.  Instead, what we get are a series of disconnected, mildly diverting anecdotes with these different characters scattered in different places across Europe.  (Another disappointment for me with the film, though perhaps one that was true-to-life, was that immediately after this great group of actors was assembled at the start of the movie, they’re immediately divided up and seldom seen again all together.  I thought we’d have a lot of fun watching this amazing cast interact with one another, but that was not to be.)

Speaking of the cast, here … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis is another home run from the Coen Brothers.  I found the film to be emotionally wrenching, an unflinching look at the pain, heartbreak, and rejection that so often accompanies the men and women who try to create art (be that music, paintings, film, etc.).  It’s a film that is deeply depressing, and yet I was absolutely entranced by the story that was unfolding before me.

Set in 1961, the film chronicles a tumultuous week in the life of Llewyn Davis, a young folk-singer.  Llewyn is able to scrape together gigs here and there playing his music, but he doesn’t have the money to have a home or even many worldly possessions other than his guitar.  He crashes on the couches of various friends and acquaintances, staying with each host for just a day or two here and there, as long as he can get away with before he gets on their nerves.  Llewyn is a screw-up.  He seems to have bungled most of his personal relationships (and we see him do a significant amount of additional bungling in the week chronicled in the film), and he hasn’t found the musical success he strives for.  I found Llewyn to be a sympathetic figure, even though the Coens seem to relish letting us see just what a self-centered nincompoop he can be.  Writing the other day about American Hustle, I commented that a film can be enjoyable even when anchored by an unlikable character, and I think that Inside Llewyn Davis is a strong example of that particular sub-genre.

I don’t think I’ve ever before seen Oscar Isaac in a film, but I’ll be paying attention from here on out.  Mr. Isaac is phenomenal as the titular Llewyn Davis.  His heavy-lidded eyes seem to reflect back at us uncounted moments of sorrow and disappointment in Llewyn’s life.  Llewyn comments, late in the film, that he’s just so tired, and it’s not simply a lack of a good night’s sleep in a real bed that he is lamenting.  Llewyn is a man who has been beaten down, and Mr. Isaac smartly underplays the role, finding a million quiet ways to show us the heartache that practically pours out of this man at every moment.  This film wouldn’t work if Mr. Isaac didn’t sell his performance, and man does he do a flawless job.  It’s terrific work.

Though this film rests squarely on Oscar Isaac’s shoulders, the corners of Llewyn’s world are brought to life by a wonderful array of supporting performers.  Carrie Mulligan and Justin Timberlake play Jean and Jim, a folk-singing duo who are friendly with Llewyn.  Well, Jim is friendly.  When the film opens, Jean is tremendously … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Argo!

I’ve been a fan of Ben Affleck’s ever since I first listened to his hilarious and endearing contribution to the raucous DVD commentary track for Kevin Smith’s Mallrats. (Seriously, track it down and give it a listen — it’s one of the best commentary tracks I’ve ever heard, second only to the track that same gang recorded for the original Criterion Collection DVD of Kevin Smith’s follow-up film, Chasing Amy.) I’ve always found Mr. Affleck to be an earnest, engaging performer, capable of nimbly balancing comedy and drama.  Yes, he appeared in quite a number of terrible, terrible films, but that’s more a critique of his choices rather than his skills.  But whereas Mr. Affleck has, in my opinion, always been a strong actor, he has proven to be a truly spectacular director.  His first film, Gone Baby Gone, is a phenomenal film, one of my favorites of the last decade.  I wasn’t quite as taken with The Town (click here for my review), but with the stunningly magnificent Argo, Mr. Affleck has solidified his reputation as one of the strongest directors working today.  I do not believe I am exaggerating.

Based on the true story, declassified by President Clinton in the late nineties, Argo is set during the Iranian hostage crisis.  Unbeknownst to the Iranians (but, to quote Spaceballs, knownst to us), six American embassy staff-members were able to escape and found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador.  After months in hiding, the Iranians are beginning to close in on them.  C.I.A. “exfil” (exfiltration) specialist Tony Mendez is brought in to find a way to safely bring the six Americans out of Iran.  He concocts a loony-sounding scheme in which he will enter Iran and then help the six pose as a Canadian film crew scouting desert locations for a sci-fi film, Argo. Using their new covers, the plan is for Mendez and the six to walk, in broad daylight, right into the Iranian airport and fly out of the country to safety.  It’s an crazy, insane story, all the more crazy and insane because the whole thing is true.

The film is riveting, and Mr. Affleck’s direction (ably assisted by a tight screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on a 2007 Wired article by Joshuah Bearman) is fantastic.  It’s great to see Mr. Affleck moving out of the Boston location that was so central to his first two films, and I was extremely impressed with the way the he and his team were able to recreate 1970’s Iran, Washington, DC, and Hollywood.

The film’s opening immediately sets the stage for the story, and the intense tone for this true-life tale.  In the opening … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Sweatbox, the Documentary the Walt Disney Company Doesn’t Want You to See!!

April 6th, 2012
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Remember the Walt Disney Company’s 40th animated feature, released in 2000, called Kingdom of the Sun? It was an epic tale set in the Inca empire about a selfish king who briefly switches places with a poor farmer who happens to look just like him, and an evil magician with a plot to block out the sun.  The film featured the voices of David Spade, Owen Wilson, Eartha Kitt, Carla Gugino, and Harvey Fierstein, as well as six songs written for the film by Sting.

No?  You don’t remember seeing that movie?

That’s because after three years of work, Disney management decided to completely rework the film, throwing out much of the material they had created (along with all six songs recorded by Sting).  The film that was ultimately released to theatres was called The Emperor’s New Groove, and featured the voices of David Spade, John Goodman, Eartha Kitt, Wendie Malick and Patrick Warburton, with two entirely different Sting songs in the film (“Perfect World,” performed by Tom Jones, and “My Funny Friend and Me”, which played over the closing credits).

The long, torturous process by which Kingdom of the Sun became The Emperor’s New Groove was captured in Trudie Styler and John-Paul Davidson’s amazing but long-shelved documentary The Sweatbox. In addition to being a filmmaker, Trudie Styler happens to be Sting’s wife.  When he agreed to be involved with the music for the film, he got the studio to agree to allow his wife to document the process.  She got a lot more than she bargained for.

The first thirty-to-forty minutes of The Sweatbox unfolds as one might expect any in-depth look at the making of an animated film to go.  We spend a lot of time with the film’s lead director, Roger Allers, who was a star at the studio after his work co-directing The Lion King, which had become a huge financial and critical success.  We meet various other key personnel on the Disney animation team — the co-director Mark Dindal, the producers, the lead animators tasked with bringing to life the film’s main characters, and more.  Meanwhile, we follow Sting and his collaborator David Hartley as they work to write and record six songs for the film.

Then, about forty minutes in, we witness the fateful day in which an early story-boarded cut of the film is screened for the heads of Disney Feature Animation, Thomas Schumacher and Peter Schneider.  They hate the film, declare that it is not working, and begin a process of totally scrapping and reinventing huge chunks of the story.  Characters are totally changed (the villager Pacha changes from a teenaged boy who looks just like the king into a heavyset married … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Artist

January 18th, 2012
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Well, I was already a big, big fan of star Jean Dujardin and director Michael Hazanavicius from their two OSS:117 French-language James Bond parody films, Cairo Nest of Spies (click here for my review) and Lost in Rio (click here for my review).  Now, after seeing the two men’s jump into “serious” movie-making with the beautiful, heartfelt film The Artist, my opinion of those two artists has only grown.

In The Artist, Mr. Dujardin stars as George Valentin, a super-star of the silent film era.  At the premiere of one of his films, a young woman, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), accidentally bumps into him and the two are photographed together.  This is Peppy’s first blush with stardom, and that brief bit of exposure helps land her a bit part as an extra in a film, and from there her career begins to skyrocket.  Mr. Valentin’s career, unfortunately, is on the opposite trajectory, as the advent of movies with sound (“talkies”) dooms a silent-film stars like himself.  The film follows several years in the lives of Mr. Valentin and Ms. Miller, and the way that the two characters keep bouncing back into one another’s orbit.

The Artist isn’t just a film about the silent film era.  It is, itself, a silent film.  The film begins by throwing us right into what is, after a few fun-filled minutes, revealed to be Mr. Valentin’s latest silent film, A Russian Affair. But even after that film-within-a-film ends, The Artist continues to be, with just a few (very, very cleverly-used exceptions), a silent film.  There is no dialogue and there are no sound effects, just a rousing, gorgeous score by Ludovic Bource (who just a few days ago won a Golden Globe for his score for this film).  One might imagine that a full-length silent film, in today’s era, might stretch an audience’s patience.  But I did not find that to be at all the case.  The film is beautiful, emotional, and very, very funny, and I found myself completely swept along in the story.

Enormous credit for that, of course, goes to the lead actors.  Mr. Dujardin is an incredibly skilled performer.  He’s incredibly handsome, and his movie-star good-looks serve him well in this role as an enormous movie-star.  His comic skills were on fine display in the OSS:117 films, and are well-utilized here.  Mr. Dujardin has an infectious smile, and when he unleashes it it’s clear why his character was such a big star in the silent era, and of course it also draws in the modern audience watching from their seats in the theatre.  But I was also quite taken by how well Mr. Dujardin sells the dramatic … [continued]

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Double Feature Club!

My brother Dave had the great idea, recently, to start a Double Feature Club.  This is a movie-version of a book club, in which a group of friends will gather, approximately once a month, to enjoy a Double Feature on a certain theme.

Dave hosted the first installment last week — two movies starring Jeff Bridges: Arlington Road and The Big Lebowski.

Arlington Road (1999) — Jeff Bridges plays Michael Faraday (no connection to the time-traveling Daniel Faraday on Lost), a widowed college history professor who teaches courses on terrorism in America.  He becomes friends with new neighbors, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack).  However, he grows increasingly suspicious of Oliver, and when he begins looking into Oliver’s background he becomes convinced that Oliver is plotting a terrorist act on American soil.

Arlington Road is a nice taught thriller that has a dynamite twist ending.  It really stunned me when I first saw it in theatres back in ’99.  Because movies like these, with twist endings, tend to lose something upon repeat viewings… and also because the film is, frankly, quite a downer, I’d never re-watched it in the years since.  I was very curious, now, to see how the film held up.  

No surprise, it loses a lot of its power once you know the ending.  However, there is still fun to be had in watching the film through while knowing the end, and seeing how that knowledge colors scenes that you’d previously thought of differently.  The plot holds up pretty well to scrutiny.  In a post 9-11 world, this story about the fear of terrorism, and possibility of hidden dangers even among our suburban neighbors, has a lot of extra weight.  The film is completely colored by that now, but I don’t think that’s altogether a bad thing.

The main joy of the film is watching Bridges slowly unravel as Faraday becomes more and more obsessed with his neighbors.  Robbins and Cusack are also a blast, alternately playing friendly & gregarious and very, very creepy.  

The Big Lebowski (1998) — Jeff Bridges is Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, a stoned LA lay-about who gets mixed up in a Chandler-esque tale of intrigue and mistaken identity.  I’d loved this film back in college, but it had been years since I’d seen it last.  As with Arlington Road, I was eager to see how well this film held up.  

Well, I am pleased to say that it remains ferociously entertaining.  Bridges is just terrific as The Dude, conveying an eminently likable slacker/stoner without laying on the shtick too thickly.  As always in a film by the Coen Brothers, our lead is surrounded by an ensemble of … [continued]