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Josh Reviews Sicario

As Sicario opens, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) raid a house in Arizona looking for kidnapping victims, only to discover that hidden inside the walls of the house are the gruesome remains of dozens of dead victims of the drug cartels.  Kate agrees to be reassigned to a team of men hunting the cartels, despite the shadowy nature of some of the men involved, including Matt (Josh Brolin), who Kate suspects is a CIA agent, and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) a man who seems to have inside knowledge of the cartels.  Kate is taken off-guard that the team’s first mission takes them outside the U.S. and to Juarez, Mexico to extradite a prisoner.  On the way out, they find themselves in a violent shootout with cartel men in the middle of a crowded bridge.  Kate has found herself suddenly surrounded in a world of terrible violence and increasingly murky morality, as the actions of Matt and Alejandro and their team seem to be of questionable legality at best.  To what end will she allow herself to go in pursuit of the cartel head-honchos?  Just what sorts of means will justify their ends?

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Sicario is a tense thrilled that had me quite on the edge of my seat for much of its run-time.  I like the way the film throws the audience into the story, not giving us (or Kate, our main character) much chance to catch our breath or to get our bearings.  I enjoyed the murky moral questions that the film, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by Denis Villeneuve, raises.

But I didn’t quite love the film the way so many other reviewers seemed to.  Throughout the film I found myself repeatedly scratching my head as to why Matt (Josh Brolin) behaves like such a dick to Kate, and why she tolerates that behavior.  Sicario is a film whose story only really works if you accept the notion that Matt will withhold key information from Kate until late in the third act, and that Kate will continue to go along with what’s happening without insisting on someone giving her a straight answer.  Part of my brain can accept this, thinking that people go along with all sorts of things when they want to fit in and look like a good, agreeable person to their bosses in an effort to get ahead.  I can see this being even more of an issue in Kate’s case, a woman who, despite the film showing us her smarts and competence, is nonetheless the lone woman among all these alpha dog males.  On the other hand, the other part of my brain recognizes the withholding … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice is a wonderful film, funny and engaging, a gloriously bizarre journey through a world of drugs and crime and real estate (and dentistry) in 1970’s Los Angeles.

Adapted from a novel by Thomas Pynchon (which I now desperately want to read), the film was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the masters of cinema working today.  Joaquin Phoenix (who was also the star of Mr. Anderson’s last film, The Master) plays “Doc,” a druggie private eye.  One night, an ex-flame, Shasta, surprises Doc in his home and asks for his help unravelling a kidnapping plot centered on her wealthy new lover, real-estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann.  Doc agrees to help, but soon after Shasta herself disappears, and Doc finds himself sucked down a twisty rabbit hole of crosses and double-crosses.

Inherent Vice reminded me a lot of The Big Lebowski.  Both have the same balance of humor and drama, and both center on a drugged-out private eye trying to get to the bottom of a twisty mystery.  The film also has some echoes of Chinatown, in the way that a small mystery eventually sheds light on a larger plot concerning the history of Los Angeles.  But make no mistake, Inherent Vice is a wholly original creation.  It is unique and delightfully weird.

Joaquin Phoenix kills it in the title role.  He is perfect as Doc, striking exactly the right tone.  He’s hysterical, but Doc always remains a serious character with whom the audience can engage.  Mr. Phoenix gives Doc an innocence and nobility that is incredibly sweet and endearing.  Because of this, one completely roots for Doc to succeed as he tries to navigate a world of slippery, deceitful characters.  I can’t believe that Mr. Phoenix isn’t in more conversations for a 2014 best actor Oscar.  This is a fantastic role, one of the best performances of his career.

Katherine Waterston has a star-making performance as Shasta.  She actually has very little screen-time, but she has a few critical scenes, and she needs to be enough of a power in those scenes for her presence to resonate throughout the rest of the film as the object of Doc’s quest.  In this Ms. Waterston succeeds wildly (and not just because of one striking scene of jaw-dropping nudity).  Ms. Waterston is incredible in the role, creating a fully-realized character in just a few minutes, and more than holding her own with Joaquin Phoenix.  This is an actress I will be paying attention to in the future.

The film is jammed-full of wonderful actors who each appear in small roles as Doc’s quest takes him all over the world of nineteen-seventies Los Angeles.  Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Sin City: Dame to Kill For

For me, growing up, Frank Miller was one of the gods of comic books.  He seemed to be a master of the form of a super-hero comic-book, crafting some of the finest mainstream super-hero comic-book stories I had ever read (his long run on Daredevil; Batman: Year One; The Dark Knight Returns; and many others) before moving into less-mainstream, even more interesting work (Ronin, Give Me Liberty, and of course Sin City).  I loved Sin City as a kid.  It was a potent distillation both of Mr. Miller’s incredible drawing style (boiled down into deceptively simple black-and-white with bold shapes and brush-strokes) as well as his writing.  Plus, it had that edge of transgression (Violence!  Nudity!) that made it impossible for a kid to resist.

I enjoyed Robert Rodriguez’s 2005 film Sin City, which adapted three of Mr. Miller’s Sin City yarns: The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill, and That Yellow Bastard.  The film wasn’t perfect.  I thought it moved too fast, not giving the stories enough of a chance to breathe.  I also thought that in places Mr. Rodriguez was too literal in mimicking Mr. Miller’s comic-book panels for the screen in a way that weakened the film.  Example: early in the film, Marv is being cornered by the police, so he busts through his door before they can come in and arrest him.  Mr. Miller drew that like Marv exploding through the door, and it’s a great panel.  But in the film, where Mr. Rodriguez copies that image exactly, it feels like Marv set off a bomb on the door, or like he’s a super-human like Superman.  I don’t think Marv is a super-hero.  He doesn’t have super-powers.  He’s just an incredibly tough lug.  A more naturalistic moment of him breaking down the door would have worked better for me than the super-hero-like explosion we got.  There are lots of little examples like this all through the film.  It’s a question of taste, I guess.  You don’t want to remove all of the craziness and idiosyncrasies of Mr. Miller’s stories, but when translated so literally there were a number of moments that would up reading as too comic-book-silly to me, in a way that undercut the threat and drama of the story being told in the film.

On the other hand, the genius of Mr. Rodriguez’s film, and the reason I loved it as much as I did, was the way he really did bring Mr. Miller’s comic book panels to life.  Making extensive use of computer-generated effects, Mr. Rodriguez created extraordinarily simplified looks to the sets and characters in a way that exactly, and I mean exactly, mimicked Mr. Miller’s drawings.  The whole film was … [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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Josh Reviews Men in Black 3

It’s been ten years since the last Men in Black film.  (Men in Black 2 came out in 2o02, and the first Men in Black came out back in 1997.)  That’s a long, long time for a movie series to lie fallow.  Is there an example of a sequel to a film franchise being released after such a long dry spell in which the new sequel was any good?  I’m hard-pressed to think of one, though I can think of many examples where the opposite was true, and the long-awaited sequel disappointed fans terribly.  The Godfather Part III.  Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen either of the first two Men in Black films.  I remember quite liking the first one, and being disappointed by the second.  I was excited by the prospect of a third film being made, because I definitely feel the concept still has plenty of juice, but I was dubious as to whether they could capture lighting in a bottle after so much time.  Well, to summarize, Men in Black 3 isn’t nearly as good as I had hoped, but it’s not as bad as I had feared (or as I’d heard it was).  It’s an entertaining film, though a frustrating one.  The concept of the film is solid, and with that story idea and these performers, there is a great film in there somewhere.  Men in Black 3 isn’t it, though.

As I just wrote, the central concept of the film is strong, and I can see why this story lured all the major players (stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones and director Barry Sonnenfeld) back to the table.  A vicious bad-guy who Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) had put away forty years previously breaks out of prison and uses a time machine to go back in time and kill K in the past.  Agent J (Will Smith) must travel back to 1969 to save the life of the young Agent K, played in the past by Josh Brolin.

The problem (well, there are many problems with the film, but let’s start with this one) is that the first section of the film, set in the present day, is absolutely terrible.

Let’s start with the prologue, in which Boris the Animal breaks out of the MIB’s prison on the moon, and begins his plan for vengeance against Agent K.  Director Barry Sonnenfeld doesn’t seem to have any idea how to stage this sequence.  It has a weird, goofy tone.  In my opinion, if the filmmakers wanted to set up Boris as a real threat to our … [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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Josh Reviews Milk

January 16th, 2009
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I often find myself slightly dubious of “important” movies.  You know the type — big, epic movies with SOMETHING TO SAY, that have a habit of coming out late in December in order to be best positioned for maximum Oscar hype.  It is especially difficult to think about these movies after having seen Tropic Thunder, which so thoroughly skewers the pomposity of actors setting out to make IMPORTANT films.

Don’t let such thoughts dissuade you from going to see Gus Van Sant’s Milk.  Harvey Milk, portrayed by Sean Penn in the film, was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States.  In 1977, after several failed attempts, he was elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.  Unfortunately, only a year later Harvey was shot and killed, along with San Francisco’s mayor George Moscone, by another member of the Board, Dan White.

Van Sant’s film begins when Harvey, along with his new boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco, a familiar face from Freaks and Geeks and the Spider-Man films), moves out to San Francisco in an attempt to find a better life than his in-the-closet existence in New York City.  We follow Harvey as he gradually gets sucked into the world of politics, realizing the great importance in having a gay man in a position of authority.  We, along with Harvey, experience the tribulations of the gay community, from the persecution they were feeling from the city’s police to the increasing concern about the anti-gay ordinances being proposed and passed in San Francisco and elsewhere around the country.  

Milk is an important film, particularly in light of California’s proposition 8 and similar laws that were voted on in the last election.  But what makes the film work is that it is not a polemic — it is not IN YOUR FACE about its connections to today’s America.  There’s no framing device taking place in modern day, there’s no big speech at the end about the importance of gay rights.  The connection to today’s issues are clear, so Van Sant wisely realizes that the movie doesn’t have to over-state those points — they are perfectly obvious to the audience.  Instead, Van Sant sets out to tell a personal story, about Harvey Milk, a man who doesn’t dream of climbing the heights of of political power but who slowly comes to realize that, for the gay community and for himself, he has no choice but to get involved.  

I have to admit that, while I respect his abilities, I have never been an enormous fan of Sean Penn.  He is an actor of great power, there is no question, but for whatever reason I haven’t usually … [continued]

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Dubya and his Daddy

Despite some terrific trailers that had me excited, most of the reviews I’ve read of Oliver Stone’s W. were decidedly mediocre.  Nevertheless, I was very curious, so I decided that I needed to see the film for myself.

And I’m glad I did — I found the movie to be tremendously entertaining!  As you’ve all heard by now (this is the one element of the film that most critics have been excited about), Josh Brolin is terrific as George W. Bush.  Brolin walks the fine line between imitating the President and inhabiting him.  This isn’t just Will Ferrell playing Dubya on SNL.  Not to knock Mr. Ferrell (who is a comic genius!!) but Brolin brings powerful life to his performance.  And this is critical, because Stone is asking the audience to spend two hours with this man who, ultimately, the movie evaluates as a failure.  That could make for very unpleasant viewing!  But Brolin, along with Stone, is able to balance the humor and the intense gravity of the situations throughout the film.

Stone has an interesting task in helming a biography of a sitting President, without the benefit of a decade or so of hindsight.  Most thinking Americans have their own opinions and evaluations of George W. Bush (I know I do), but it’ll be interesting to see how we look back on this man in 20-30 years.  Stone’s hypothesis (along with screenwriter Stanley Weiser) is that Bush is a man always chasing after his father’s approval, and always falling short.  Is this the truth?  It’s hard for me to say, but Stone certainly crafts a compelling case.

As George Herbert Walker Bush, James Cromwell (L.A. Confidential, Babe: Pig in the City, The Green Mile, and of course he’s also Jack Bauer’s papa) is a towering figure, and the strained relationship between these two men is the centerpiece of the film.  We feel the elder Bush’s love for his son, but more strongly do we feel his profound disappointment.  Many of the reviews I’ve read expressed some surprise that Stone’s film wasn’t more critical of George W Bush.  I’m not sure what movie those reviewers were watching, because to me this film is an evisceration of Dubya.  No, he’s not protrayed as a complete incompetent caricature.  But to me the figure-person for the audience, and for Stone, is George Herbert Walker Bush.  When he evaluates his son as a failure, that to me is what we the audience are supposed to feel — that evaluation is the statement of the film.  As I said, in that respect it feels like an evisceration.  As the film reminds us towards the end, this isn’t just a game — real people’s … [continued]

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Burn After Reading

There are a few writer/directors whose new films, which we seem to get on a pleasingly regular basis, are always a must-see for me.  I’m thinking about talents like Woody Allen, David Mamet, and the Coen Brothers.  With artists like that, I know that a new film will always be interesting.  Sometimes I might love what I see, sometimes I might be disappointed, sometimes I might be indifferent —  but I always know that what I’m watching will be a unique, personal vision.

I’ve been a bit of a late-comer to the films of the Coen Brothers.  Their first film I saw was Fargo, soon after it came out in 1996, but I didn’t quite “get it” back then.  I think it wasn’t until a few years later when I first saw The Hudsucker Proxy on tape in college that I really started to take notice of these filmmakers.  (I just re-watched Hudsucker last week, and it remains one of my absolute favorite films.  More on this below.)

It always seems for me that the Coen Brothers films that everyone likes, I don’t — and the ones that get passed over are the ones I really dig.  Everyone went crazy about O Brother Where Art Thou?, but I found it to be a dull, rather obvious take on the storylines of The Odyssey.  Conversely, I think I’m one of the few people on Earth who really dug the screwball comedy and rat-tat-tat dialogue of George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Intolerable Cruelty.  And as for No Country for Old Men, which got such acclaim last year… I was thoroughly engrossed in the film for most of its run-time, but ultimately I felt it just didn’t earn the message given by its title, and Tommy Lee Jones’ monologue in the last scene.  What was it about the death of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) that so affected Sheriff Bell (Tommy lee Jones)?  For a man who had clearly been involved in other cases that involved murder and death, what was it about this particular event that shook the Sheriff so deeply?  The film’s title — No Country for Old Men — and the way the end of the film focuses on Tommy Lee Jones, while we never get to see Llewelyn’s tragic end, indicates that the film was really the Sheriff’s story, not Llewelyn’s.  But I, as a viewer, was invested in Llewelyn!  And having the end of his story cut off by the finale (we never see Llewelyn’s final confrontation with Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh) really pulled me out of my enjoyment of the film.

Which brings me to Burn After Reading, the newest film written … [continued]