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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 Manchester By The Sea

Casey and Ben Affleck both earned my approbation forever with 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, a magnificent and heartbreaking piece of work.  That film was Ben Affleck’s directorial debut and Casey played the lead role.  If you haven’t seen it, go see it right now.  I’ve been waiting ever since for either Affleck brother to be able to top their incredible work in that film.  (Both have come close once or twice over the years, Ben with Argo and Casey with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.)  A decade later, Casey Affleck might have finally done it with his extraordinary work in the wrenching and deeply moving Manchester By the Sea.

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In Kenneth Lonergan’s film, Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler.  When we first meet Lee in the film, he is working as a janitor on the South Shore (Quincy, MA), living a lonely life consisting of brief, mostly-terse interactions with his building’s tenants and picking bar fights.  Then a call summons Lee back to his home on the North Shore, as his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died of a heart attack.

I’d thought the early death of Lee’s brother would be the central tragedy of the film, but no, that’s not really what the film is about at all.  Although the film takes its time in telling us why Lee is known around town as “that” Lee Chandler, we do eventually learn the heartbreaking details of what has turned Lee into such an empty shell of a person.  It is this that is the defining event of the film, and the reason for telling this story.

Casey Affleck is simply remarkable in the role.  He commands the audience’s attention in every moment that he is on-screen (which is almost the entirety of the film’s 137-minute run-time).  As always, Mr. Affleck eschews movie-star histrionics, instead bringing Lee to life through a series of tiny, quiet moments and his gentle, almost mumbling line-delivery.  With every small action or inaction, with his posture and the look in his eyes, Mr. Affleck fully inhabits this deeply broken man.  My favorite moment in the entire film is the quiet scene in which we see Lee stuffing his clothes in a bag and then, almost reverently, carefully wrapping the three objects (I won’t tell you what they are) he picks up off the top of his chest of drawers.  That’s the whole movie right there.

I knew going in that this would be a somber movie and I was fearful that a two-and-a-half movie about grief, however well-crafted, would be a chore.  But the genius of Kenneth Lonergan’s film is how alive it is.  After two-and-a-half hours, when the credits rolled, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Wolf of Wall Street

At seventy-one years old, Martin Scorsese has unleashed upon us a work of towering ambition and accomplishment, with a rabble-rousing energy and anger that far outstrips most films made by filmmakers half his age.  The Wolf of Wall Street is a three hour epic, fiercely entertaining and stomach-churningly upsetting all at the same time.  This is Mr. Scorsese working at the very top of his game, crafting a story that is at once epic in scope and profoundly intimate.  This is a crime saga that stands tall next to Goodfellas and Casino, films that I never thought Mr. Scorsese would be able to equal in the later years of his careeer.  (And yes, like most of the rest of you, I agree that Goodfellas is a stronger film that Casino, but I unabashedly love Casino and find it to be a remarkably under-appreciated masterpiece.)

But whereas Mr. Scorsese’s previous films about the rise and fall of men involved in organized crime always felt, to me, like stories that took place far outside of my personal frame of reference, the genius and power of The Wolf of Wall Street is that Mr. Scorsese has found a crime story that strikes much closer to home, at least for me.  I don’t work on Wall Street, but crime-without-guns seems much closer to the world of my day to day life.  This crime story is mostly populated by men and women who I feel like I could have known.  This particular crime story doesn’t involve bullets and dead bodies, but rather bloodless financial transactions that, nevertheless, affected arguably a far wider number of every-day Americans.  The story is all the more horrifying because of it.

The center of the film is Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort.  Wen the film opens we see Mr. Belfort at his opulent height, but the film quickly flashes back to several years earlier, to a young Mr. Belfort’s first day on Wall Street.  He catches the eye of a senior man in the firm, Mark Hanna (played by Matthew McConaughey).  Hanna takes Belfort out to a booze-filled lunch, and lays out for the young man the fuck-your-clients, earn as much money for yourself as you can principles by which he operates.  We can see Belfort buy in immediately.  (Mr. McConaughey is only in a few scenes at the start of the film, but he is absolutely fantastic, and this lunch scene is astounding.)

Despite his skills, though, young Belfort finds himself out of work after the terrible day on Wall Street in October, 1987, that resulted in the firm that employed him (L.P. Rothschild) shutting its doors.  With no Wall Street firms looking to hire stockbrokers, Belfort finds himself … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Spectacular Now

I am a sucker for a good coming of age story, and this season has seen a couple of excellent ones.  I was over the moon about The Way Way Back (click here for my review) and I was equally smitten by James Ponsoldt’s new film The Spectacular Now.  It’s a beautiful, powerful story about two young people finding themselves in the closing days of their high school years.

In the film, Miles Teller plays Sutter.  He’s a good looking, fast-talking, confident high school senior.  Sutter is the king of his high school hill.  He’s a popular guy with a pretty girlfriend.  He loves to party and to have a good time, and he’s never really thought about aspiring to anything beyond that.  But when his girlfriend breaks up with him, Sutter finds it harder than he’d expected for his nothing-can-bother-me, it’s-all-good attitude to keep out the pain.  Suddenly his hardy-partying ways seem less like the antics of a fun-loving high school kid and more like a crutch.  It’s after one-such night of drinking that Sutter finds himself passed out on the lawn of his classmate Aimee (Shailene Woodley).  Aimee is sweet and kind and smart, and as something of a bookworm she is not at all in Sutter’s social circle.  The two begin an unexpected friendship, and soon — to surprise of both of their sets of friends — they begin dating.

From that point, I was expecting the film to go in one of two directions.  Either we’d get the story of the special girl who makes the boy into a better man, or the story of the innocent girl who is seduced by the appeal of the bad egg, almost allowing him to ruin her life before she sees the error of her ways.  But The Spectacular Now, luckily, is a much more nuanced film than that. The film doesn’t go down such expected directions, and though there are aspects of both of those ideas I just mentioned in the film’s story, the heart of the film lies in the many, often unexpected ways in which Sutter and Aimee affect one another.  Some of those changes are positive, while others are more up for debate, and the film is surprisingly deft at not drawing judgments and allowing the audience to make their own evaluations.  (I am thinking specifically of the way Aimee starts drinking once she begins seeing Sutter.  I was all ready for that to lead her down a dark road, and while there is not question that there are some ways in which she is negatively affected by her new taste for alcohol, the film has a more nuanced perspective on her new … [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]

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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 Super 8

J.J. Abrams’ new film, Super 8, is an unabashed love-letter to the late ’70s and early ’80s films directed by Steven Spielberg and, as such, seems like it was designed from top-to-bottom to tickle every movie-loving funny-bone in my body.  I’m sure I’m not alone.  Super 8 has some narrative problems that prevents it from ever reaching the heights of the great Spielberg-directed films it was designed to emulate, but that doesn’t stop it from being a rousingly entertaining film of a type that we really don’t see too much of anymore.

It’s the summer of 1979, and Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just recently lost his mother to a terrible accident in the factory where she worked.  As the school-year ends, he finds solace in the project he’s working on with his friends: filming a make-shift zombie movie on a super 8 camera.  Somehow, Charles (Riley Griffiths), the boy directing and masterminding the film, has convinced a girl, Alice (Elle Fanning) to play a part in their movie.  Joe is immediately smitten, but his father (Kyle Chandler) forbids him from having anything to do with her, due to a bitter feud with her father.  One night, after having all snuck out to film a scene of their movie, the boys and Alice witness a terrible train derailment.  Soon after, all sorts of mysterious events begin happening in their small town, and the military arrives to supervise the investigation of the train-wreck.  As things escalate, the boys begin to suspect that something terrible was released when the train crashed, and the super 8 footage they shot that night might hold a vital clue.

It’s interesting that I began that description of Super 8 by writing about some of the character story-lines in the film, rather than the monster-on-the-loose sci-fi story.  That’s because where Super 8 succeeds — and succeeds brilliantly — is in creating several wonderfully layered character story-lines (several of which I have only hinted at in my above summation) that engage the audience and pull at one’s heart-strings.  It’s on the monster side of things where the film wobbles a bit, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Many of Steven Spielberg’s early films were told from the point-of-view of a child or children (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is the best example), and like that film, Super 8 spends a lot of time fleshing out the characters and personalities of the different kids who form the main cast of characters.  I’ve read several reviews that commented on how Mr. Abrams and his team echoed the device used in E.T. of allowing the kids to be constantly talking over one another in the film, the way real … [continued]