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Josh Reviews Shazam!

I missed Shazam! when it was released to theatres last year.  I’d been burned out on one bad DC/Warner Brothers live-action movie after another, and while this one looked interesting, I didn’t rush out to see it.  I recently watched the film on blu-ray, and I enjoyed it!

Shazam! tells the story of young Billy Batson, an orphan who has gotten himself booted from one foster family after another.  As a sort of last chance, he is adopted into a group home run by Victor and Rosa Vasquez, with five other orphans.  Billy doesn’t expect to find this new home any more satisfactory than any of his previous ones, but his life takes an unexpected path when he finds himself gifted with incredible powers — and an adult, super-powered new body — by the wizard Shazam.

The idea of a super-hero version of Big is a delicious concept, and this film mines a lot of joy and comedy out of that premise.  My favorite scenes of the film are the ones in which Billy, now in the role of the grown-up super-hero Shazam, and his new step-brother Freddy goof around exploring all the crazy new things this new body can do.  Zachary Levi plays the adult/super-hero version of Billy, and he is spectacular in the way he channels the excitement and enthusiasm of a 14-year-old boy in these incredible circumstances.  I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Levy’s work.  (He was great in season two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.)  But he has perhaps never been more perfectly suited for a role than this one.  Mr. Levi (ably assisted by an awesome-looking super-suit) certainly has the physicality for the role… and his comedic timing is impeccable.  He is so funny and joyous in this role!  His enthusiasm carries the film.

There are two main weaknesses of the film for me.  The main one is that I don’t understand why this movie, telling the story of a kid-turned-superhero, is rated PG-13.  My 10-year-old children were excited to see this movie, and I was excited to watch it with them.  But I found myself wincing at the film’s language and adult-oriented content.  Shazam/Captain Marvel has had a reputation, over the years, as being silly/cheesy/kiddie, so I suppose the filmmakers were concerned about their movie coming off of as being just for kids.  They clearly wanted to make certain people knew this was a “cool” movie aimed at adults.  I can understand that, but I think they overshot the mark somewhat.  I am all for not dumbing-down one’s super-hero movie.  But I think it’s a shame that there’s a lot that’s inappropriate (in my opinion) for younger viewers in the film.  I wish they’d made … [continued]

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Josh Reviews 1917

Sam Mendes’ riveting war film, 1917, takes place over approximately twenty four hours in April, 1917.  The British have discovered that a German retreat isn’t what it looks like but is in fact a trap being set for a large contingent of British soldiers.  With telephone lines cut and no other way to warn the 1600 British troops (the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment) who are about to walk into this trap, two young British soldiers are sent on a desperate mission to cross no-man’s land and tell the Second Battalion to call off their attack before they are annihilated.

Sam Mendes is an incredibly talented director.  I became an instant fan when I saw American Beauty in 1999, and I have enjoyed all of his subsequent films (with the exception of the most recent James Bond film, Spectre, which I thought was a huge letdown).  But, generally, I think Mr. Mendes has an extraordinary eye, and he can be counted on to create beautiful, deeply moving films.  1917 is no exception.

The film is shot to feel as if there is not a single edit made; the entire movie feels like one continuous, uninterrupted shot.  This is an extraordinary achievement, and I was continually impressed by the skill of Mr. Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and their entire team.  This is an extremely cool device; the result is that 1917 is an impressively immersive experience.  It’s a movie best seen on the largest screen possible.  We the audience feel as if we are right there with the two young men, Will and Tom, as they undertake their incredible journey.  The camera glides gracefully through the terrain, staying with the characters, and it’s as if we the audience are right there with them.  I can’t begin to imagine the complexities of staging and performing these lengthy, unbroken sequences.  The movie would have been great without the use of this technique; but it elevates 1917 into something truly special.

George MacKay plays Will Schofield and Dean-Charles Chapman plays Tom Blake, the two men sent on this perilous journey.  Mr. Mendes made the right choice when he chose these two relatively unknown actors to play these roles.  This allows both men to be a type of audience-surrogate “every-man” character into whom the audience can invest.  But both men have strong resumes, and they bring great skill to these performances.  Dean-Charles Chapman played Tommen Baratheon on Game of Thrones (in seasons 4-6), but he’s grown up and I didn’t recognize him at all.  His wide-eyed, boyish face brings an endearing innocence to Tom.  George MacKay’s Will, on the other hand, looks like a young man who has already seen terrible horrors in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Kingsman: The Golden Circle

I loved Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons comic-book mini-series The Secret Service, a delicious send-up of classic sixties-era James Bond spy capers.  I was a little less taken with Matthew Vaughn’s film adaptation, Kingsman: The Secret Service.  Mr. Vaughn is a terrific director (I love Layer Cake despite my dislike of its ending, and X-Men: First Class is one of the better X-Men films), and he had already made a movie adapting a Mark Millar comic-book series that was as good as, if not better than, the original.  (That would be Kick-Ass, a great comic and a great movie.)  But I thought Mr. Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service film muddled some of the original comic’s best jokes and ideas, and I found the anal sex joke in the final minute to be very distasteful.  But, I really like Matthew Vaughn and I like the idea of this series — taking the fun of those Classic Bond gadgets-and-babes adventures and bringing them into the modern era — so I was curious to see Mr. Vaughn’s second whack at this property.  (I must admit, I never expected to see a sequel, so I was intrigued to see what Mr. Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman had cooked up.)

At the very start of Kingsman: The Golden Circle, the Kingsman agency is mostly wiped out by a new enemy.  The surviving Kingsmen agents — young Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the Q-like “Merlin” (Mark Strong), and the miraculously resurrected after getting shot in the head in the first movie “Galahad” (Colin Firth) are forced to turn to their fellow spy agency, the U.S.-based Statesmen, for help.  The dapper British gentlemen spies and their cowboy-esque American counterparts together attempt to outwit the drug-lord Poppy (Julianne Moore) and her plan to unleash a deadly virus across the United States.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a fun time in the movie theatre though, like the first film, I once again feel Mr. Vaughn and his team have somewhat missed the mark.  The film’s strength and its weakness is that every single element feels dialed up to eleven.  The film is packed to overflowing with one crazy, outlandish sequence after another, and few characters are elevated above caricature.  (Seriously, is this the way Matthew Vaughn sees Americans???)  Some of these crazy sequences are fun, but it all gets to be a bit too much after a while.  (Like the first film, I think this sequel is about ten-twenty minutes too long.)

The cast comes to play, and the reason the film works as well as it does is this terrific cast.  Taron Egerton is very solid as the young super-spy Eggsy.  He steps effortlessly into … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Kingsman: The Secret Service

I was thrilled when I head that Matthew Vaughn would be directing an adaptation of Mark Millar & Dave Gibbons’ wonderful comic book series, The Secret Service.  I adored the original comic, and I had loved Matthew Vaughn’s previous adaptation of a Mark Millar-written comic-book: Kick-Ass.  (Click here for my original review.)  That Matthew Vaughan would be adapting another Mark Millar comic book was very exciting to me.  As the release of the film adaptation grew closer, my excitement only grew.  I felt that I was privy to a secret that few knew.  I couldn’t wait to see movie-goers, who were unaware of the comic, have their heads spun by this deliriously profane, violent twist on the James Bond mythos.

But while I have read a lot of glowing reviews of Kingsman: The Secret Service, I found myself disappointed.  It felt like all the elements of a great film were there.  I love the central hook of the story.  (Both the idea of playing with the cliches of the James Bond films as well as the notion of a guy-centric, violent take on My Fair Lady.)  The casting of the film was spectacular, most notably the genius idea of casting Colin Firth in the role of the fearsome British super-spy.  The film looks great, and there are some terrific moments in the movie.

But I never felt the film quite lived up to the potential of its premise.  It didn’t capture the fun of the jaw-dropping twists and turns of the original comic, nor did it live up to it’s central idea as a spin on the concept of the James Bond-like super-spy.

I think my biggest over-all complaint is that the film is overly convoluted.  It felt like the filmmakers took the fairly simple, straightforward premise of the original comic and complicated-it-up with a lot of unnecessary meandering.  Here are two examples.  First, it’s a predictable idea that, in this sort of film, the mentor is eventually going to get pushed aside by the story so that the young protege can save the day.  In the film, that happens TWICE.  Colin Firth is introduced as the super-spy agent Galahad, mentor to the young Eggsy (Taron Egerton).  But then he falls into a coma, and Eggsy is left on his own in a dangerous world.  But then Galahad gets better, and so he and Eggsy can partner up again.  But then Galahad is again knocked out of play so that Eggsy can be the lone hero for the climax.  Why give us this same plot twist twice?? Consider also the film’s introduction.  In the comic book, the series opens with a James Bond-type agent attempting to rescue celebrity … [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 John Carter

Buckle up, my friends, I have a lot to say.

I adore Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars books, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting the film adaptation of the first book, A Princess of Mars, for quite a while now.  I’ve also been mystified — as I have written about several times in the past few months — by the staggeringly abysmal marketing campaign of this film.  From the stupidly truncated title, to the bland, boring posters, to the weird trailers that studiously avoided ANY reference to the word “Mars” (thus rendering them incomprehensible to anyone who didn’t already know the story), the whole thing felt like the studio was running away from the sci-fi pulpiness of source material.  Which made me wonder, why make the film at all?  The involvement of Pixar’s Andrew Stanton (making his live-action directorial debut) gave me some hope, but I was very, very dubious when sitting down in the theater to see this film.

There is a lot that John Carter gets very, very right.  There are also a number of very unfortunate mis-steps.  The result is a film that is far from great but also far, far better than the ad-campaign would have you suspect.  I feel sorry for the filmmakers that their movie has been so brutally maligned in the press as a huge flop.  The bad press will almost certainly keep anyone on the fence away from seeing the film (thus ensuring the film’s status as a major money-loser), which is a shame, and I think it’s doubly unfortunate that a big, sci-fi spectacle that has actually been made with some intelligence is going to be seen as a major failure, thus lessening the chances of getting future great sci-fi films made, while meanwhile they’ll continue to churn out Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.

Let’s start with what’s good:

Tar Tarkas is absolutely perfect.  Perfectly voiced by Willem Dafoe, and brought to life via stunning CGI effects, this fierce Jeddak of the Tharks who befriends John Carter is, to me, the heart of the story.  I feel the filmmakers HAD to get Tars right in order for the film to succeed, and man did they nail it.  Reading the books, the existence of the Tharks — a multi-armed, huge green race of Martian aliens — seemed to me to be one of the biggest obstacles in anyone ever translating the story to the screen, but I found the depiction of the Tharks to be amazing.  The filmmakers wisely made a few tweaks to Burroughs’ descriptions (these Tharks have four arms, rather than six, and while they are much taller than humans they are not quite as humongous as in the book) … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2011: The Guard

I had pretty much finished putting together my Best Films of 2011 list when I saw The Guard, but the film was so good that I had to rework my list to add it in!  I noted in my list that The Guard was the last addition, and that I’d be writing more about the film soon.  That time has come!

This little Irish film was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, and features Brendan Gleeson in the role of his career as the Irish Garda (policeman) Gerry Boyle.  Gerry has created a fine if unremarkable life for himself as the apparent master of a teensy little corner of Ireland.  He knows the people — both his fellow cops and the various criminals — and he knows the land.  But much larger problems land on his doorstep when a gang of drug-smugglers arrive, leading to murders and the involvement of the FBI, personified by the by-the-book agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle).  The two wildly different men are oil and water, but they must pool their efforts in order to stop the bad guys.

Yes, it’s a buddy-cop movie, but a deliriously unique, off-color one!

Mr. Gleeson commands the screen with his presence.  The gruff, profane, incredibly un-PC Doyle is an astounding creation, and without question one of the finest acting performances of the year.  (No surprise, Mr. Gleeson was entirely ignored by the Academy.)  But who cares about the Oscars — we have this film and what more do we need.  Mr. Gleeson is an absolute riot to watch — Doyle is blunt and to the point, always saying what he’s thinking no matter how many feathers he ruffles.  In fact, he positively delights in the ruffling of feathers — the more the merrier, particularly if he’s dealing with anyone who could be considered an authority figure.  He says some completely outrageous things in the film — particularly to the African-American Agent Everett.  But the twinkle in Mr. Gleeson’s eye makes clear that Doyle is only saying those things to get a reaction out of whoever he’s speaking to.  It’s his way of testing the measure of the people around him, be they cop or criminal.  He’s a small-town hick, but he’s more than happy to play up that cliche image of himself if it serves his purpose.  He is honest and noble, but willing to bend the rules of procedure without a second thought in order to do what he feels is right.  Doyle is a magnificent character, and Mr. Gleeson has never been better.

Don Cheadle has the far less showy job as the straight-man, but although his is a quieter, more subtle performance, it’s integral … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I was absolutely taken with the 1979 BBC miniseries adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Sir Alec Guiness, which I watched just a few weeks ago.  It was terrific preparation for the equally wonderful feature film adaptation of John le Carré’s spy novel, starring Gary Oldman and a phenomenally robust ensemble.

The film, directed by Tomas Alfredson (who also directed the fantastic, creepy Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In) is a delightfully taut, twisty tale of spies and spy-masters.  I was stunned by how much of the story from the six-hour miniseries made it into the two-hour film.  The script by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan is stuffed full to overflowing with plot and incident, but the film never feels rushed.  In fact, under Mr. Alfredson’s steady hand, the story unfolds at a carefully measured pace.  As in the mini-series, the scope of the story builds gradually, as scene after scene of conversation (often between men who we, the audience, don’t quite know who they are, talking about things that we’re not sure we quite understand) accumulates and comprehension gradually dawns on the audience as it does on George Smiley himself.

This is a spy story, but it is not an action film.  It is very much a drama, and a drama in which the tension is drawn not from gunplay or chase-sequences, but from quiet conversations in dark rooms.  I’ve read many rave reviews of this film in which the reviewers commented that the film was good on first viewing, but GREAT on second viewing, at which time you could really understand who everything was and what was going on.  I certainly was glad to have watched the mini-series before seeing the film, as that enabled me to follow the story without any confusion right from the beginning.  (It also gave me the delight of seeing characters and scenes from the mini-series reprised and reinterpreted by these new performers.)  I certainly don’t think one has to have seen the mini-series, nor have any prior knowledge of the film or the story, to be able to really enjoy this film.  But it helps!  This is a movie that is built for repeat viewings.  The film (like the mini-series before it) does not spoon-feed the audience any information.  There’s little-to-no exposition to spell-out who people are or what their relationships are to one another.  You need to figure those things out for yourself.  In this way, the film draws in the audience, and puts you, in a way, into George Smiley’s investigative shoes.  As in the mini-series, I found this for-the-attentive-viewer style of story-telling to be tremendously compelling.

Smiley, so memorably portrayed by Sir Alec Guinness … [continued]

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The “Extended Cut” of Green Lantern Still Stinks

I was really disappointed by this summer’s Green Lantern.  I had high hopes for the epic space adventure promised by the trailers, but what we got instead was a lame, Earth-bound mess.  (Read my full review here.)

I wondered if the “Extended Cut” of the film released on DVD and blu-ray would address any of my criticisms of the film.  Sometimes I find that extended versions of films can really flesh out the stories and characters in a way that alters my opinion of a film that I had previously disliked.  Sadly, that is not the case here.

Basically, the only change made to Green Lantern in this new, longer version is an extended flashback, set at the beginning of the film, in which we get to see Hal, Carol, and Hector as kids, and we witness firsthand the death of Hal’s test-fighter pilot.  It’s a great sequence, and never should have been excised from the film.  It’s a much more coherent way of presenting this important back-story than the laughably ridiculous Airplane!-style stress-induced flashbacks that Hal gets, in the theatrical version, when trying to out-maneuver Ferris Airlines’ new pilot-less drones when we first meet him.  It also enables us to start the movie by sympathizing with Hal, which is far better than starting the movie thinking he’s a jerk the way we do in the theatrical cut.

After watching that long new introductory sequence, I was jazzed — this movie is already a whole lot better, I thought!  Sadly, if there were any further changes or extensions to the film after that point, I didn’t notice them.  The rest of the film is as turgid as before.  They even left-in the ridiculous flashbacks in Hal’s test-flight early in the film!!  That makes that whole sequence even MORE stupid than it was in the theatrical cut, when at least the flashbacks were presenting us with some new information.  In this version, we just saw ALL of those scenes literally minutes beforehand!!  Having to sit through those scenes again is beyond stupid.

But Green Lantern is afflicted by this sort of ham-handed story-telling from start-to-finish.  Take the whole introduction to the film, and the escape of Parallax (the film’s main villain).  We hear, in prologue, all about the Green Lantern Corps and about their great enemy, Parallax, who only the great Green Lantern Abin Sur was able to defeat, and imprison in something called “the Lost Sector.”  First of all, as much as I loved Geoffrey Rush’s voice in the narration, and the cool sci-fi imagery on display, I think telling the audience everything we need to know about the villain right off the bat deflates all … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Green Lantern!

Well, we’ve had two very solid super-hero films so far this summer, Thor (click here for my review) and X-Men: First Class (click here for my review), and while neither were quite as perfect as I might have hoped, I found both to be very solidly entertaining films.  But with Green Lantern, sadly, we have our first big super-hero swing-and-a-miss of the summer.

Green Lantern isn’t terrible, and there are certainly a lot of things that work in the film.  But it’s very, very mediocre, and it’s painful to see the potential for a much better film that was squandered.

What works?  The film is, for the most part, well-cast.  Ryan Reynolds does a fine job as Hal Jordan.  He certainly looks the part, and there are moments (such as his desperate, through-gritted-teeth declaration of the Green Lantern oath late in the film) that really made me believe in him as Green Lantern.  The voice actors chosen to portray the alien members of the GL Corps (most notably Geoffrey Rush as Tomar Re and Michael Clarke Duncan as Killowog) are spot-on, and Mark Strong is absolute perfection as Sinestro.

But all are completely wasted in the film!  Let’s begin with Hal Jordan, who is barely a character.  The film wants him to be Tony Stark from Iron Man (the self-centered asshole with incredible abilities who eventually learns to see beyond himself and his own ego to become a hero), but his character arc is so barely sketched in as to be laughable.  It all seemed very predictable and perfunctory to me.  I never felt that we really got to know Hal Jordan at all — who he is and why he behaves the way he does.  (And, no, the painfully on-the-nose flashback during Hal’s test flight at the start of the film didn’t do it for me.  That sequence seemed right out of Airplane!, and that’s not a good thing!)  When he stepped into the role of a hero, it didn’t feel earned the way that Tony Stark’s transition did in the first Iron Man film.

Speaking of Iron Man, the whole vibe of Green Lantern felt totally derivative of that film.  The movie desperately wanted to be hip and cool while also telling a fairly earnest super-hero story, just like the first Iron Man, but Green Lantern was never able to find that tone.

I had thought, from the trailers, that Green Lantern was going to be a cosmic adventure film.  That the film opens in space, and keeps cutting back to events taking place in space (rather than starting with human Hal Jordan and staying with him until he discovered Abin … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Kick-Ass!

April 19th, 2010
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“Why do you think nobody’s ever tried to be a superhero before?  You’d think all these guys talking about it online every day, at least one would give it a try.  Not everybody gets to be a rock star, but it doesn’t stop people buying guitars.  Jesus, man.  Why do people want to be Paris Hilton and nobody wants to be Spider-Man?”

That is the question posed by teenager Dave Lizewski to his friends in the fantastic new film Kick-Ass.  Originally an eight-issue comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. (read my review of the comic here), Kick-Ass the comic was juvenile, profane, hyper-violent, and absolutely wonderful.  I am pleased to report that the film adaptation directed by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Stardust)is equally juvenile, profane, and hyper-violent, and also equally wonderful.

Kick-Ass is the story a strange, lonely kid who seizes upon a crazy idea: to become the world’s first real-life super-hero.  Dave Lizewski doesn’t have any super-powers; he doesn’t have a large inheritance that he can use to buy incredible gadgets; he doesn’t really have any special skills at all.  But he’s not going to let that stop him.  What unfolds is a quickly-escalating spiral of chaos, as Dave finds himself neck-deep in a bloody struggle between crime-lord Frank D’Amico (played by the great Mark Strong, who it seems to me can do no wrong after his great performances recently in Stardust, Body of Lies, and Sherlock Holmes) and two real-life super-heroes, Big Daddy (Nic Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz).

The casting in this film is superb.  Nobody plays a bad-guy better than Mark Strong these days, and Chloe Moretz has found herself an extraordinary break-out role.  Speaking of break-out roles, bravo to the filmmakers for their casting of Aaron Johnson as Dave Lizewski.  This relative unknown absolutely kills in the part.  I was also really thrilled to see Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad) well-used here as Chris D’Amico.  Again, perfect casting, and its nice to see Mintz-Plasse in a different sort of role that nonetheless takes advantage of his bizarre geekiness.

We’re living in a good time for comic book fans, as Hollywood seems to be getting the message that faithful adaptations of great comic books is a wiser strategy than complete reinventions.  (Then again, Mark Millar’s terrific comic book Wanted, about super-villains who have successfully taken over the world, was completely mangled into an Angelina Jolie vehicle about assassins who take their orders from a magical loom, and that movie made hundreds of millions of dollars, so maybe I’m being hopelessly naive.)  But I look at a film like Watchmen, and I look at a film … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Sherlock Holmes!

Ever since Snatch back in 2000 I’ve been waiting for Guy Ritchie’s next great film.  Finally, just squeaking in before the close of the decade, it has arrived: Sherlock Holmes.

As you’re all probably very well aware, Sherlock Holmes stars Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson, and represents Mr. Ritchie’s reinvention of the Holmes mythos.  Though perhaps reinvention is entirely the wrong word, as in many respects Ritchie & his collaborators have stripped away a lot of the baggage that the character has accumulated over the years (and over many, many, many film and TV depictions) and brought Holmes & co. a lot closer to their original literary origins in the prose of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I am most pleased to report that this new film is an absolute delight.

Let’s begin with the cast.  Robert Downey Jr. is perfectly cast as Holmes.  The intelligence, roguish arrogance, and manic energy that Mr. Downey Jr. has brought to his best roles is in full evidence here.  His Holmes is a man just-on-the-edge of psychosis.  He thinks so much faster than the ordinary man that, when his intellect is not engaged by a difficult case, he hits a wall of boredom that borders on desperation.  Downey’s depiction brings this almost dangerous aspect of Holmes’ personality to the forefront — one never knows quite what this man is going to do next.

A lot of reviews have, I felt, needlessly spoiled the clever way in which Mr. Ritchie & his collaborators have brought to life Holmes’ faster-than-belief thought processes, so I won’t go into detail here.  I’ll just say that it’s an engaging device that serves as an excellent storytelling tool.  It also connects this version of Holmes to the world of the super-hero (I’m reminded of the visual method in which Sam Raimi illustrated Peter Parker’s faster-than-the-eye Spider-Sense in the first Spider-Man film) and this is not a complaint.  With his incredible intellect, Holmes is a super-hero in many ways, and the way in which Ritchie & co. don’t shy away from these pop connections is part of what makes the film so relentlessly entertaining.  But more on that in a minute.

Jude Law is also perfect as Watson.  I’ve always respected Jude Law as an actor, but frankly it’s been quite a while since I was really taken by one of his performances.  (I might have to go all the way to his standout role in the otherwise terrible A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.)  Law’s Watson is no goofball, no bumbling idiot as the character has often been played.  Rather, Law’s Watson is tough, intelligent, persistent, and incredibly loyal to his friend Holmes — a man … [continued]

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“What d’you think we are? Gangsters?” — Josh Reviews RocknRolla

Writer/director Guy Ritchie’s films Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch rank among my favorite movies.  Both are incredibly clever, unique movies characterized by hysterical rat-a-tat dialogue and complex, interweaving plots filled to the brim with bizarre, violent, charismatic characters (most of whom are rather shady in nature).  And yet, despite my love for those two movies, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen a Guy Ritchie film.  Swept Away (2002), starring his then-wife Madonna, didn’t interest me, and the critical drubbing it received didn’t inspire me to rush out and see it.  I was interested in seeing Revolver (2005), but I missed in in theatres, and the negative reviews that that film also received have contributed to my always choosing other movies to rent when visiting the video store.  But I was very pleased to recently have a chance to watch RocknRolla (released last year, in 2008).

RocknRolla has an incredibly complex plot that I’m not even going to begin to try to explain.  I’ll just tell you that it follows the intersecting lives and capers of figures at a variety of levels in the London underworld, from minor thieves like One Two (Gerard Butler, from 300), Mumbles (Idris Elba from The Wire), and Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy, much more entertaining here than he was in Star Trek: Nemesis), boss Lenny (Tom Wilkinson, from Batman Begins, Michael Clayton, In the Bedroom, and a lot of other great films) and his loyal right-hand man Archie (played by Mark Strong, who I’d never believe, if not for imdb, is the same actor who played Jordanian intelligence official Hani Salaam in Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies), rock star Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell), music promoters Roman (Jeremy Piven) and Mickey (Ludacris), foreign mobster Uri (Karel Roden) and his accountant Stella (Thandie Newton) and many, many other characters.

As with Lock, Stock and Snatch, the fun of the movie comes from listening to the terrific, joke-a-minute dialogue, and watching the talented ensemble of actors bringing all of their wonderful characters, each of whom could have a movie all their own, to life.

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel that RocknRolla hung together as a complete film as well as those other two movies did.  As much as I enjoyed the enormous ensemble, I felt at times that there were too many characters, with too much going on.  RocknRolla doesn’t really have a main character, and I think that is the crux of the problem.  The closest thing would be Gerard Butler as One Two, and Butler is really terrific as the charismatic but slightly dim criminal.  But his character drops out of the movie for long stretches of time, … [continued]