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Josh Reviews The Gentlemen

The Gentlemen, written and directed by Guy Ritchie, tells a complicated yarn of the interactions among many different players in the London crime scene, from low-level street toughs to the wealthy masterminds overseeing their empires.  Guy Ritchie came onto the scene with two fantastic crime films of this type: Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.  I love both of those films!  While I have enjoyed some of Mr. Ritchie’s big-budget Hollywood work (I really liked the first Sherlock Holmes film he made with Robert Downey, Jr.), I’ve been longing for Mr. Ritchie to return to this type of funny and scary fast-paced crime story that he does so well.  (2008’s RocknRolla was an attempt, but I thought that film was something of a miss.)

While I wouldn’t say that The Gentlemen equals Lock, Stock or Snatch, it’s a very enjoyable romp of a film!  Mr. Ritchie’s fast-paced style is back in full force, and the film is stuffed to overflowing with colorful characters and outrageous circumstances.  The story is somewhat confusing, but it works because of the playful joy with which the entire thing unfolds.  The film is full of fast-paced dialogue and whip-fast jokes.  The narrative is a pleasingly bizarre jumble, complicated by unreliable narrators (especially Hugh Grant’s reporter Fletcher, who tells the story of much of the film’s events) and Mr. Ritchie’s usual creative approach to storytelling.

The film’s cast of weird and dangerous characters is played by a fantastically talented ensemble.  Hugh Grant puts on a thick London accent to play Fletcher, the newspaper investigator who believes he’s discovered his ticket to fortune.  Matthew McConaughey plays Mickey Pearson, the suave and dangerous crime lord.  Charlie Hunnam plays Raymond Smith, Mickey’s right-hand-man and fixer.  Colin Farrell plays Coach, who mentors a group of young wannabe-criminals.  Henry Golding plays Dry Eye, a Chinese gangster looking to make a move on Mickey.  Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) plays Rosalind, Mickey’s wife and a formidable player in her own right.  Jeremy Strong (Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Molly’s Game) plays Matthew, the wealthy businessman looking to purchase Mickey’s empire.  Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes, The World’s End, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) plays Big Dave, editor of a British tabloid with a grudge against Mickey.  And that’s just scratching the surface…!

There’s a lot of bad language and some juvenile humor in the film.  This isn’t a movie for everyone.  It’s been mostly savaged by the critics, but I’m not sure what they were looking for in this film.  This isn’t Citizen Kane.  Not every film need to be!  It’s a pleasingly diverting lark, one that I found to be funny and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Dark Tower

Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series is an extraordinary achievement, a work of breathtaking genius that represents one of my absolute favorite fictional sagas of any medium.  The series consists of seven main novels plus an eighth follow-up novel (The Wind Through the Keyhole), plus a novella (The Little Sisters of Eluria), plus a series of illustrated prequel stories published by Marvel Comics (The Gunslinger Born).  Plus, of course, the Dark Tower novels connect to many, many of the other novels and stories written by Mr. King, from The Shining to The Stand to ‘Salem’s Lot and more.  Many have described The Dark Tower books as unfilmable, impossible to adapt faithfully to the screen.  But I have always disagreed.  I think this marvelously rich, sweeping saga could be extraordinary if adapted properly on TV or in a series of movies.  I continue to believe that The Dark Tower is one of the best-kept secrets of fiction, filled with incredibly original ideas and wonderfully engaging characters.  This series would BLOW PEOPLE’S MINDS if adapted with the same care, attention, love, and budget given to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Sadly, that’s not what has happened.  The movie adaptation of The Dark Tower, directed by Nikolaj Arcel and with a screenplay credited to multiple writers (Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Mr. Arcel), is a disappointingly small-scale, mediocre affair.  The film isn’t horrible.  It has a strong cast, and a few memorable moments.  But it takes this humongous, sprawling story and makes it feel very small.  It takes Mr. King’s wonderful characters and original situations and makes them feel flat and familiar, pale echoes of characters and stories we’ve all seen before in vastly superior movies.

The film is not a direct adaptation of Mr. King’s first Dark Tower novel, The Gunslinger Instead it’s a mishmash of characters and plot points from all seven of the main Dark Tower novels.  This is the type of approach that was, for decades, standard for a Hollywood adaptation of a beloved genre property.  But in 2017, in a post-Harry Potter world (in which all seven novels were faithfully and lovingly adapted into individual movies), in a world in which we have seen how creatively and financially successful the Marvel Cinematic universe has been in faithfully adapting the Marvel characters to the screen, this is a crushingly disappointing decision.

Now, let me be clear, I don’t immediately object to not beginning a Dark Tower film series with a direct adaptation of The Gunslinger.  That novel is the shortest and weirdest of the series, and many of the ideas that … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Interstellar

When it was first announced that Christopher Nolan would be making an original science-fiction film as his next project, featuring a top-shelf cast and utilizing a blockbuster-sized budget, I was quickly atwitter with visions of a masterpiece.  After much anticipation, Interstellar has arrived, and while it might not be quite a masterpiece, it is a delightfully ambitious, smart, and entertaining piece of filmmaking.

In the near future, a terrible blight has destroyed crops world-wide, shattering the status quo and pushing much of the world back to the levels of subsistence farming.  Coop (Matthew McConaughey) was once a test pilot, but now he’s a farmer and a single parent caring for his two kids, Murph and Fox, with the help of his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow).  But when Coop and Murph stumble across a secret base in the desert that houses what remains of NASA, their lives change forever.  Coop’s former mentor Professor Brand (Michael Caine) is spearheading a project that could represent humanity’s last hope.  They’ve discovered a wormhole in orbit of Saturn, and have been secretly launching expeditions through that wormhole in search of habitable planets to which they could relocate what’s left of humanity.  They have one ship left, but no one to pilot it.  If Coop accepts, he might be able to save the lives of his children who would otherwise likely perish on the sickening Earth.  But if he goes on the mission, the effects of relativity will cause his children to be grown by the time he returns.

There is a lot to love about Interstellar.  First and foremost, I am always thrilled to see an original piece of science-fiction that isn’t connected to a franchise.  I’m even more excited when said science-fiction, rather than being an action-adventure shoot-em-up, tries to be a more serious-minded piece of speculative fiction.  Interstellar is 100% in that mold.  Christopher Nolan and his team have set out to create a smart piece of science fiction in the best tradition of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Smart is the key word here.  Not only is the film aimed at smart audience-members (this is not a dumbed-down fantasy), but even better, the film’s whole story is about the importance of science, and of smart people continuing to push the bounds of exploration and human knowledge.  I love that about the film.  Shockingly, in this day and age, so often it seems that intelligence and science are seen as things to be mocked or dismissed.  Interstellar will have none of that.  One of the most striking scenes in the film come fairly early on (long before we get to the incredible outer-space sequences in the film’s second half) in which Coop … [continued]

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Late to the Party: True Detective Season One

It took me a while to find the time to watch True Detective — I’d been interested in the show ever since I first read about it but was so busy last Winter/Spring that it took me a few months to get to it — but holy cow was it worth the wait.  I was absolutely dazzled by this dense, dark noir, brought to life with gorgeous cinematography, brilliant actors, and a rich, complex script.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the first season of True Detective follows the difficult partnership of Louisiana detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrison) and “Rust” Cohle (Matthew McConaughey).  The show’s story unfolds simultaneously in two timelines.  In 1995, we see Hart and Cohle investigate the murder of Dora Kelly Lange, who is found displayed in a ritualistic fashion, bound and posed with a “crown” of antlers on her head.  In 2012, long after their partnership dissolved in acrimony, Hart and Cohle are questioned, separately, about the events of their investigation.

I was blown away right from minute one by this incredible production.  The story is incredibly complex, as we follow Hart & Coehle’s labyrinthine murder investigation while also trying to puzzle out many other questions about what happened to these characters and the others in their orbit in the years between 1995 and 2012.  While the central murder mystery is a compelling hook for the series, what really engages the viewer are the characters. I am hard-pressed to recall such an in-depth character study that I have ever before seen on TV.  Over the course of these eight episodes, we dig deeply into these two incredibly complicated, rich characters of Hart and Coehle.

The casting of friends Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaighey was inspired.  I’m sure it helped the show get made that these two big stars were attached.  But the show works because both men turn in incredible performances, among the very best of their two careers.

It’s amazing how Woody Harrelson once used to be so indelibly defined as the goofily simple, naive Woody Boyd from Cheers.  It’s impressive that he has managed to avoid being type-cast by that iconic role.  Martin Hart is about as far from Woody Boyd as you can get.  Mr. Harrelson is incredible in bringing this arrogant, dick-swinging tough-guy to life.  Marty Hart is a train wreck of a man, and he does some pretty despicable things, but Mr. Harrelson never loses sight of the character’s humanity, and his force of personality is magnetic.

Speaking of magnetic, there is Matthew McConaughey’s home-run of a performance as the withdrawn, mysterious Rusty Cohle.  Rust is just as damaged an individual as Marty is, perhaps even more so.  Whereas the audience thinks … [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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Catching Up on 2012: Killer Joe (Unrated)

I don’t know what exactly I was expecting when I sat down to watch William Friedkin’s latest film, Killer Joe.  A violent crime caper, I guess.  And that is indeed what I got, though the film is far more twisted and disturbed than I had ever expected.  Whether that is a good or a bad thing depends on your mileage, I guess!

When we first meet the trailer-park-dwelling Chris (Emile Hirsch) and his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), they are plotting the death of Chris’ mother, Ansel’s ex-wife, so they can claim the money from her life-insurance policy.  Chris has heard of a guy, Joe (Matthew McConaughey) — a policeman and also contract-killer — who he thinks they can hire to do the deed.  Chris and Ansel think they can pay Joe with a portion of the insurance money, but Joe demands payment in advance.  Since Chris and Ansel are broke, they obviously can’t pay, so Joe suggests an alternative: let him take Chris’ young sister, Dottie (Juno Temple) as a “retainer.”  Chris and Joe agree, leading to what I thought (wrongly) would be the most disturbing scene in the movie: Joe’s “date” with young Dottie (whose age isn’t specified but who is certainly depicted as a young, innocent girl) that ends up in their having sex.  What follows is a series of double-crosses winding up in a tense confrontation between Joe and Chris, Ansel, and Ansel’s new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) in their trailer-park home, a scene even more horrifying than Joe’s date/seduction of Dottie.

There is much about Killer Joe that is impressive.  The cast is spectacular, each member of the ensemble turning in a fantastic performance.  Matthew McConaughey is the stand-out as the titular Killer Joe.  Mr. McConaughey is absolutely terrific, a true revelation in the role, presenting us with a character who is a stone-cold killer.  In many ways, Joe is completely inhuman, without any seeming semblance of heart or humanity.  He sees what he wants and he takes it, no remorse and no regret.  And yet, Dottie seems to spark a genuine emotion in him.  However repugnant Joe’s advances towards the much-younger Dottie might be (and they are mighty repugnant), one senses that Joe wants to attach himself to Dottie not just because he has lust for a young pretty girl, but because he feels a real connection with her.  That perhaps makes Joe an even more twisted character, but it also makes him a more interesting one.

Emile Hirsch is great as the troubled Chris, but it’s Thomas Haden Church as his father, the beaten-down Ansel, who really impresses.  Mr. Church brings to Ansel a woeful sense of powerful hopelessness, that of a dim … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Amistad (1997)

My revisitation of the last decade-and-a-half of the films of Steven Spielberg continues!  I’ve already looked at Jurassic Park and The Lost World, which brings me now to 1997’s Amistad.

In an attempt to recapture the magic of 1993 (in which he released two films in a single year, the dramatic historical film Schindler’s List as well as the crowd-pleasing action spectacle Jurassic Park), in 1997 Mr. Spielberg released both the Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World as well as the historical epic Amistad.

In 1839 a group of African slaves broke free aboard the Spanish slave ship Amistad and killed most of the crew.  When they were intercepted by an American naval vessel, the slaves were imprisoned and brought to trial.  A group of abolitionists became aware of the case, and hired a young, inexperienced lawyer named Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) to take the case.  Mr. Baldwin was forced to retry the case multiple times, as the politics of a nation heading towards Civil War bestowed upon this small case an enormous weight in the potential fate of the nation.  Ultimately, the case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court, where former president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) assisted Mr. Baldwin in arguing for the release of the Amistad slaves.

As is often the case, Mr. Spielberg assembled a talented group of actors to embody the characters in the film.  Mr. McConaughey does a fine job as the jovial, slightly naive lawyer Baldwin.  The role doesn’t feel like much of a stretch for him (particularly after playing a lawyer the year before as the lead in 1996’s A Time to Kill), but he reins in some of his more over-the-top mannersisms which allows him to fit well into this historical drama.  Fresh off of The Lost Word, Pete Postlewaite pops up again as an equally unlikable fellow — this time, he’s the lawyer assigned to prosecute the Amistad case.  Stellan Skarsgard and Morgan Freeman play the abolitionists who are drawn to help the Amistad slaves.  Though neither has much to do in the film, both make the most of their small parts.  Other familiar, talented members of the cast include Nigel Hawthorne as President Martin van Buren, David Paymer (The Larry Sanders Show, State and Main) as Secretary Forsythe, Xander Berkeley (24) as the presidential advisor Hammond, Anna Paquin (X-Men, True Blood) as Queen Isabella, and I was pleasantly surprised that I had forgotten that Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, Spartan) has a fairly substantial role as the translator who assists Mr. Baldwin in communicating with the Amistad slaves.

But the two standouts of Amistad are Djimon Hounsou as … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Contact (1997)

I thoroughly enjoyed Robert Zemeskis’ Contact when it was first released in 1997.  For years now, it’s been a movie that I’ve been eager to add to my DVD collection, but I was holding off for a better special edition than the bare-bones DVD release from ’97.  It’s been a long wait, but when Contact was finally re-released on disc in a jazzed-up new edition — and on blu-ray, no less — I eagerly snatched it up.

Based on Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact tells the story of Ellie, a young girl whose interest in science and astronomy are fanned by her father.  Through much of the early parts of the film, we follow Ellie’s development as a scientist and her growing fascination with the search for signs of extra-terrestrial life.  It’s a search that increasingly comes to seem like a fool’s errand as, over the years, all of the sources of funding for that research dry up.  If that was the end of the story, of course, there wouldn’t be much of a movie.  Needless top say, Ellie and her team do eventually discover a signal that appears to be extra-terrestrial in origin, and their quest to unlock its meaning leads Ellie on an astounding journey and brings mankind to an incredible turning point.

I’ll stop my summary there, even though I have really only covered the first thirty-or-so minutes of the film.  For me, the most compelling aspect of Contact is watching the story unfold and gradually become bigger and bigger.  I still remember my pleasure in seeing the film for the first time and thinking to myself, with great delight, “just how far are they going to take this??”  Even having seen the film and knowing what’s coming coming, I still find the story to be terrifically engaging.

I am an enormous sci-fi fan.  Sadly, the vast majority of sci-fi films seem to revolve around menacing aliens and action-adventure hi-jinks.  Now, I’m all for a good action movie, and there have certainly been plenty of action/adventure sci-fi films that I have thoroughly enjoyed.  But I love that Contact is a much more cerebral story, one in which the science of the tale is just as important as the narrative’s twists and turns.  It’s also a story that is centered by the character of Ellie’s emotional journey, and that is what gives the film its power.

Jodie Foster is quite compelling as Dr. Ellie Arroway.  She brings a fierce commitment and intensity to the role.  Foster is an actor who always seems to be thinking — you can see it in her eyes — and that is key for her performance as this brilliant and driven woman.  I love … [continued]