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Josh Reviews Avengers: Endgame!

In yet the latest feat of I-can’t-believe-they-did-it, Kevin Feige and the team at Marvel have stuck the landing.  Avengers: Endgame is a deeply satisfying, profoundly moving, and incredibly fun culmination to a decade-plus of movie-making.  They have woven together threads and characters from across an astonishing twenty-tone previous interconnected movies to create something which is oh-so-rare in entertainment: an ending.  Shall we dig in?  (My next several paragraphs will be free of any major spoilers, and I’ll indicate clearly when I start entering major spoiler territory.  But do yourself a favor: go see the film and then meet me back here, OK?)

I have always been impressed by the continuity between the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It’s at the core of why I love these films so much; why, in place of the usual franchise fatigue that sets in after multiple sequels, I only love these Marvel films more with each additional film.  Not only am I bowled over by the boldness of this enterprise, not only am I tickled by the incredible way in which these films emulate the interconnected feel of the Marvel comics I grew up reading (in which you’d often see, say, the FF’s Baxter Building HQ — or its later replacement, “Four Freedoms Plaza,” which was actually their HQ in the eighties when I fell in love with comics in general and Marvel in specific — in the background of a panel in a Spider-Man comic in which Spidey was web-swinging around NYC), but, as I have written about before, the cumulative power of these narratives build and build with each new film.  Because we have been following these characters across so many films across so many years, we invest more deeply in them and their struggles.  And so when we see heroes suffer and fall (as we did in Avengers: Infinity War and as we do again in this film), the impact of those moments is magnified immensely.

But, wow, this film took that continuity even more seriously than I’d ever dared to hope or expect!  Endgame is a love letter to the entire MCU, and the film is remarkable in the way it establishes that EVERY previous film in the MCU is important.  (Endgame is like The Wire: “All the pieces matter.”)  Holy cow, this film retroactively makes Thor: The Dark World — one of the MCU’s lesser entries (though I’ve always thought it’s a more enjoyable film than its reputation would suggest) — retroactively very important to the saga!  (I’ve had many delightful conversations recently with new Marvel fans, brought in by Black Panther or Captain Marvel, who wanted advice on what Marvel films they should watch to … [continued]

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Marvel Triumphs Again With Thor: Ragnarok!

Thor: Ragnarok is the third Thor film, but more importantly it is the incredible seventeenth film in the continuing and expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Looking back over these seventeen films, it is astounding to consider the incredibly high quality that Marvel has been able to deliver film after film after film.  There hasn’t been a single truly bad film in the mix!  Even the weaker films (Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World, The Incredible Hulk) are all perfectly fine and entertaining.  And the recent run of films has been amazing; just this year we have gotten Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2, The Amazing Spider-Man, and now the terrific, hilarious Thor: Ragnarok.

As this film opens, Hela the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) returns, eager to wreak havoc on Asgard and the family of Odin who, she feels, wronged her millennia ago.  Thor’s initial attempt to confront her ends disastrously, as Hela destroys his hammer Mjolnir and banishes Thor to the far corners of the universe.  Thor finds himself on a trash-filled planet ruled by The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who oversees brutal gladiatorial-like competitions between captured aliens.  Thor will need to defeat incredible odds to triumph in the gladiatorial games, then somehow find his way back to Asgard to defeat the unbeatable Hela before she slaughters every last man, woman and child living there.

That all sounds like a very serious, dour story for the film.  But Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, is a marvelously loopy, silly, joy-filled concoction.  It has been widely praised as the funniest Marvel film, and it is definitely in the run for that title.  (I am not sure it is funnier than James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films or Joss Whedon’s Avengers, but it is defintely in the top five.).

I was a little worried, when I started hearing about the light, comedic touch that Mr. Waititi had brought to this film, that it would turn into a farce that wouldn’t have any emotional weight.  But those fears proved unfounded.  Thor: Ragnarok is an exciting action-adventure film that fits smoothly into the continuing story of the Marvel cinematic universe, while also being nearly non-stop hilariously funny.

In some respects, the movie completely reinvents the character of Thor, turning the somewhat pompous warrior we have met before into a complete goofball.  It has been clear before now that Chris Hemsworth had strong comedic chops — see his work in the rebooted Ghostbusters as well as the shorts revealing what Thor was up to during Captain America: Civil War.  What Taika Waititi has done is allow Chris Hemsworth to basically play Chris Hemsworth here, rather than the Thor … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Spotlight

December 30th, 2015
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Tom McCarthy’s new film Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team’s investigations, begun in 2001, into the sexual abuse of children by Boston Roman Catholic priests, and by the efforts of the Boston Archdiocese to cover up those incidents of abuse.  The film is riveting and electric.  This film is the All The President’s Men of this generation.

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This is an important story, and Spotlight brings the case to life clearly and dramatically.  The film focuses on the main “Spotlight” team and a few other senior players at the Boston Globe, and while the film develops these characters sufficiently for us to get to know and like them, the film doesn’t distract our attention with digressions into these reporters’ personal lives.  Rather, the film’s portrayal of this story remains squarely focused on the unfolding investigation.  This is exactly the right approach.  The film allows the audience to gradually discover the extent of the scandal along with the reporters.  Their growing disbelief and horror mirrors our own.  I followed this story as it unfolded back in 2002-2003, but the film allowed me to rediscover these events through new eyes.

This is a complicated story, with many different people involved.  And yet the film unfolds with a clarity of story-telling that I found remarkable.  The script by Tom McCarthy (who also directed) and Josh Singer is a tremendous piece of work.  I am sure elements of this complex story have been simplified for this presentation on-screen, and yet the film never feels dumbed down or truncated.  On the other hand, the film never collapses under the weight of too-many-names or too-much complexity.  The audience is able to very clearly follow the reporters’ efforts.  When the big revelations happen, they land effectively and with the impact those discoveries warrant.

The cast is magnificent.  I hardly know where to begin.  Let’s start with the “Spotlight” team.  Michael Keaton’s career resurgence (begun with his extraordinary work in last year’s Birdman) continues here with his work as Walter “Robby” Robinson, the head of the “Spotlight” team.  Holy cow is Mr. Keaton spectacular.  This is not a showy role — none of the roles in this film are (well, with the possible exception of Mark Ruffalo’s one big explosion in the third act) — and yet Mr. Keaton’s wonderfully expressive face and eyes (well-served by some terrific close-up work throughout the film) draw us right in to the impact this unfolding story is having on Robby.

The afore-mentioned Mark Ruffalo plays Michael Rezendes.  Mr. Rezendes is presented as the most dogged investigator on the team, and the one who feels the story the most passionately (both of which seem to have detrimentally … [continued]

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Well, here we are at last.  The brilliant post-credits scene of 2008’s Iron Man (click here for my original review) promised the beginning of a bold experiment by the fledgeling Marvel Studios — launching stand-alone films starring several of their major characters (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America) which would then be followed by all of those characters teaming up in an Avengers movie.  It was a gloriously outrageous idea, one common to comic-books but never before seen in movies.  Marvel Studios was actually planning on making a super-hero crossover film, and one featuring all the same actors who starred in the individual films!  And not only that, but the individual films would actually connect, with story-points and characters overlapping to create a building momentum for the eventual climax in The Avengers.

It was a bold plan, and I am so happy and relieved to report that Marvel Studios has stuck the landing.  Not only does The Avengers work, it works crazily well, and I think it’s the strongest Marvel Studios film since 2008’s Iron Man (and I say that as a big fan of both Thorclick here for my review — and Captain America: The First Avengerclick here for my review).  It’s hard to believe that I live in a world in which a film version of The Avengers actually exists!!  And that it not only exists but that it kicks so much ass makes the whole thing the stuff of beautiful fantasy.

There is surely a huge list of people who must be given credit for the success of this enterprise, but at the top of the list is co-writer and director Joss Whedon.  I am a huge, huge, huge fan of his film Serenity (which he wrote and directed) and that film clearly showed that Mr. Whedon was the perfect man for the job of helming The Avengers. Serenity not only looks amazing, boasting some fantastic visual effects sequences and completely selling the reality of a futuristic, sci-fi world despite being made for a relatively small budget (FAR less than The Avengers).  But more importantly, in that film Mr. Whedon was able to balance nine main characters, giving depth and life to every one of them, presenting them as very different people with different goals and different attitudes and different ways of speaking, and also giving each one of them moments to shine in the course of the film, without one character overshadowing the others.

Mr. Whedon brings the same deft touch to The Avengers. The greatest pleasure of the film isn’t just that the characters are all appearing in the same film (though just the … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Zodiac: The Director’s Cut (2007)

After having such a good time re-watching David Fincher’s films Se7en (click here for my review) and Fight Club (click here for my review), I decided to take another look at Zodiac.

It was Zodiac that cemented David Fincher in my mind as one of the most amazing directors working today.  I knew he was associated with Alien 3, but that he had that film taken away from him.  (I have a warm spot in my heart for the third Alien film, even though I still see it as a total betrayal of everything that made James Cameron’s Aliens so great.)  I knew he had directed Se7en and Fight Club, but while I immediately recognized that both of those films were clearly made by people with an enormous amount of skill, neither was a film I really loved.  (I have since come to really, really dig Fight Club, but that first time I saw it I think I was a bit overwhelmed by it.)

Something about Zodiac really intrigued me when it was released, but despite that I never got to see it in theatres.  It was only when the film was released on DVD that I tracked it down and watched it.  (I own the Director’s Cut DVD.  This is the version I’m reviewing now, and the only one I’ve ever seen, so I can’t compare it to the theatrical version.)

It blew me away, and I am still in love with it when re-watching it now.

Every frame of the film feels like the result of an incredible amount of focus and creative effort.  It’s clear that an extraordinary amount of detail was pored into the sets, the costumes, the cars, the props, everything, all guided by the skilled eye of a visionary director: David Fincher.  Set over several decades, Zodiac beautifully captures the feel of the different eras, both through subtly altering the look of key sets (like the San Francisco Chronicle office set) and through some stunning visual effects shots (such as a shot made to look like a time-lapse reconstruction of the building of the Transamerica Pyramid).

Speaking of the film’s visual effects, the DVD’s top-notch special features reveal that Zodiac is awash in incredibly subtle, absolutely photo-realistic visual effects that were used to recreate key real locations in the San Francisco area from the ’60s and ’70s.  Most notably, in my mind, is the corner of Washington and Cherry at which the Zodiac killer murdered an unfortunate cab-driver.  The scene when inspectors Toschi and Armstrong arrive at Washington and Cherry to investigate the murder is a tense scene, but when watching it I didn’t give one thought … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Shutter Island

And so we come at last to the final installment (for now, at least!) of my “Catching Up on 2010” series, in which I’ve been writing about all of the 2010 films that I watched in my very busy January attempt to catch up on as many of the 2010 films that I’d missed as possible.

Martin Scorcese’s new film, Shutter Island, didn’t much interest me when it came out last summer.  But it was a new Scorsese picture, so it automatically had my attention.  I never got around to seeing it in theatres, but I was able to catch up to it on DVD last month.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a US Marshall dispatched, along with his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), to investigate the disappearance of an inmate at Shutter Island, a mental hospital for the criminally insane located off the coast of Massachusetts.  The woman, Rachel, seems to have vanished without a trace from within her locked cell.

Right away from the beginning of the film, I was a bit put off by the over-wrought score.  Every beat in those early moments was punctuated by bombastic, creepy music that seemed to state loudly, just in case we missed it, that SHUTTER ISLAND IS EVIL and something REALLY BAD is going on there!  I felt that the dour overcast skies, the deranged-looking inmates, the imposing architecture, and the unfolding story would have been more than sufficient to establish a suitably fearsome, unsettled vibe, which is clearly what Mr. Scorsese was going for in those opening scenes.  I didn’t think there was any need for the over-the-top score to shove that in our faces.

But once the plot began to unfold I thought the film settled down into a nice rhythm.  There are some great actors at play in this film, and I enjoyed watching the mysteries of the story develop and deepen.  I was also quite struck by the backstory given to Mr. DiCaprio’s character, Teddy.  It turns out that he was involved in the liberation of a concentration camp at the end of WWII, and he is haunted by the atrocities he witnessed — as well as the reprisals against the German soldiers of the camp that he participated in.  That particular story point caught me off-guard.  I had no idea that the Holocaust played any part in the story of Shutter Island.  (The trailers wisely left that tid-bit out.)  I was intrigued by this revelation of Teddy’s back-story.  It indicated to me that perhaps there was far more going on in Shutter island than just a ghost story, and that Mr. Scorsese and his collaborators (including Laeta Kalogridis, adapting Dennis Lehane’s novel) had … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews The Kids Are All Right

January 27th, 2011
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In Lisa Cholodenko’s film The Kids Are All Right, we meet Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), a loving lesbian couple who have been raising two kids together: Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson).  Their lives aren’t perfect, but over-all it’s a stable, happy family unit.  But when Laser convinces Joni to help him find their biological father (though Nic gave birth to Joni and Jules gave birth to Laser, they share the same sperm donor), the foundations of the family are shaken.

I was really quite taken with this film.  I think it’s an interesting story filled with complex, human characters, and all of the lead actors give terrific performances.  I was ultimately dissatisfied with where the narrative wound up (more on that later), which lessens the film’s total impact slightly for me, but it’s still a very solid, enjoyable, aimed-at-adults movie.

I’ve been complaining a lot recently about films with one-dimensional characters.  I don’t mind films having heroes and villains, and likable and unlikable characters.  I simply tend to prefer films where the characters aren’t completely black and white.  (Ex. This father is a TOTAL JERK with no redeeming qualities.)  So major props to writer/director Ms. Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg for crafting a story filled with truly human characters.  No one in The Kids Are All Right is a total saint.  The characters have positive qualities and some negative ones as well.  Likable characters make some bad decisions.  It’s thrillingly refreshing.

This top-notch material is elevated by a wonderful cast.  Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are both phenomenal as Nic and Jules.  These characters felt completely REAL to me, and their relationship felt equally honest.  It’s sweet and messy and complicated and feels really true.  I like that we get to see the two sharing some tender moments, as well as the times when they seem completely distant from one another.

Equally wonderful are the two kids.  Mia Wasikowska was one of the few good things in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (read my review here), and it’s delightful to see her looking and acting like a real human being without all of that accompanying Tim Burton weirdness.  Ms. Wasikowska is able to bring to life Joni’s innocence, as well as to her growing temptation to leave her childhood behind and step into the trappings of an adult.  Josh Hutcherson is also strong as her brother Laser (pronounced Lazer).  He’s already begun to push at the boundaries of conformity and acceptable behavior, but Mr. Hutcherson keeps reminding us of Laser’s good-natured side as well (a product, one can assume, of the strong upbringing he’s received from his two moms).

Then there is Paul … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Where The Wild Things Are!

October 19th, 2009
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I’ve been reading about Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s deservedly beloved children’s book Where The Wild Things Are for a long time — years, now — and I am so thrilled to be able to report that the finished film which has finally been unveiled for the world to see is every bit as wonderful as I could have hoped.

Quite a lot has been written about this film’s torturous path to the big screen.  A few weeks ago I posted a link to this lengthy piece from the New York Times that charted the almost decade-long journey of Mr. Jonze to bring this film to life.  I remember reading the post from CHUD (Cinematic Happenings Under development) that the Times article refers to in its opening paragraph.  Click here to read that article, from February 20, 2008, in which Devin Farici broke the story that executives at Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures were seriously considering abandoning Mr. Jonze’s version and entirely reshooting the film.

Thank the movie gods that that moment of crisis for the film came and went, and Mr. Jonze was able to bring his vision to completion.

The result is a delightfully unique, idiosyncratic film, truly unlike any other childrens book adaptation I have ever seen.

The film is enormously epic, a visual feast, but it is also astonishingly intimate.  Right from the very beginning (with the wonderfully messed-with opening titles which lead into Max’s wild rumpus with his dog), Mr. Jonze puts the viewers right in the face, and the mind, of young Max.  Max (played by Max Records) is clearly a very imaginative, creative little boy.  He also seems to be extraordinary lonely and, like any nine-year-old who doesn’t yet know how to express all of the feelings roiling around inside of him, he is prone to terrible outbursts.

This early, pre-Wild Things section of the film is an intriguing — and very, very clever — elaboration upon Mr. Sendak’s original book.  In Tim Burton’s film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he added a flashback that fleshed out Willy Wonka’s backstory (a sad childhood with his terrible father) that I felt was ridiculous and completely out of place.  But these early scenes with Max, in which we get to know him and understand his situation and why he feels the way he does, are wonderful and, I would argue, totally critical to the film’s success.  We need to understand who Max is, and why he is ultimately driven to run away from his family and escape (for a time) into fantasy.

What makes this early section of the film work, is Mr. Jonze (and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers)’s care to … [continued]