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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2017 — Part Four!

And so we reach the end of my look back at my favorite movies of 2017!  Click here for part one of my list, click here for part two, and click here for part three!  And now, here are my five favorite movies of 2017:

5. The Big Sick The Big Sick, written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon and directed by Michael Showalter, is based on the true story of Kumail and Emily’s relationship.  The first half of the film feels like a romantic comedy, and then things take a dramatic shift when Emily falls into a coma.  This film is deeply emotional and also very, very funny.  It feels like the heir to the great comedic-dramatic films of James L. Brooks (such as Broadcast News, one of my favorites).  Mr. Nanjiani and Ms. Gordon’s script is sharp and deep, able to bring the funny in a big way while also diving deeply into these characters and, particularly, Kumail’s struggles to balance the expectations of his Muslim family with his personal life choices.  It’s a delight to see Mr. Nanjiani step so effortlessly into this leading-man role, while Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are spectacular as Emily’s parents.  The film is as much about them as it is about Kumail and Emily, which is a bold choice and a key ingredient of this film’s greatness.  I love this film dearly.  (Click here for my full review.)

4. Star Wars: The Last Jedi It’s hard to imagine a Star Wars film being underrated, and yet, I have found the on-line anger directed towards Star Wars: The Last Jedi to be quite perplexing.  The film is not perfect.  The mid-movie digression to Canto Bight doesn’t work and feels like a colossal waste of time, and the slow starship chase that forms the spine of the film’s narrative is ridiculous (why the First Order ships couldn’t use light speed to zip in front of the fleeing rebel spaceship is a mystery to me), which weakens the entire film.  And yet, there is so much to love in this film.  First of all, I love the film for constantly defying expectations.  Every time I thought I knew where the film was going, it surprised me.  Sometimes those choices worked and sometimes they didn’t, but while many seem to be frustrated that this is not the Star Wars film they’d expected it to be, I love The Last Jedi for that.  (If you want to watch The Empire Strikes Back, they already made that movie!  So go and watch it!)  I love that The Last Jedi attempts to expand our understanding of the Force.  I love Mark Hamill’s work … [continued]

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Steven Spielberg Triumphs Again With The Post!

In 1971, the New York Times obtained a secret study prepared by the Department of Defense on the history of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1967.  These documents demonstrated that a succession of Presidential administrations had been lying to the U.S. public about the war.  The Times published three articles featuring excerpts from these documents, dubbed the Pentagon Papers, before the Nixon Administration obtained an injunction forcing the Times to cease publication of the Papers.  When the Washington Post obtained the documents, executive editor Ben Bradlee and Post publisher Katharine Graham chose to defy the Nixon Administration and publish the Pentagon Papers in their newspaper.  By taking that action, they threw the future of the Post into question and risked possible jail time in a confrontation with the White House over the principle of freedom of the press that would wind up being decided by the Supreme Court.

The Post would be a magnificent film had it been released at any previous point in Steven Spielberg’s career.  But coming now, at this point in time, it is not just a great film, it is an important one.  The film is set almost forty years ago, and yet it feels like it could be taking place today.  (Change some of the names and you realize that, in fact, it pretty much is.)  The Post depicts a Presidential administration that chooses to deflect criticism by attacking the media, by whipping up public sentiment against the press and taking actions to curtail the very existence of an independent press.  It is striking to see the many way in which the story of the Pentagon Papers and the Nixon White House’s battles against the Washington Post echo the news we are reading about in the newspaper right now.  These philosophical battles for the soul of our nation that are depicted in The Post are taking place, again, right now, whether most Americans realize it or not, and the results will determine the future of our democracy.

The Post mounts a powerful defense for the central importance of a free press.  Both Tom Hanks (as Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (as Katharine Graham) have powerful, emotional moments in the film in which they deliver stirring monologues making this point.  This is a film that every American should see.

But putting all that aside, it’s also just a dang great film.  Mr. Spielberg has taken these historical events and brought them to riveting life, and he has done it without using any showy tricks or dramatic directorial flourishes.  Everything in the film feels quiet and restrained.  Even John Williams’ score — which is excellent, of course — dials down Mr. William’s usual bombast and … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: The Deer Hunter (1978)

A few years ago when I was watching the documentary I Knew it was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (a really incredible short documentary that is well worth checking out — click here for my review), I commented that of Mr. Cazale’s five films, the only one that I hadn’t seen was The Deer Hunter. When Universal decided to release a nice new blu-ray of the film as part of their 100 year anniversary celebration, it seemed like it was finally time for me to remedy that.

The Deer Hunter is a powerful anti-war film, co-written and directed by Michael Cimino. It concerns the effects of the Vietnam war on a small group of friends from a Pittsburgh steel town. The very long (over three hours) film basically has three distinct sections.

The first act, well over an hour long, depicts a tumultuous day and a half in the life of Mike (Robert de Niro) and his steel-worker buddies. When we meet them, they are finishing a day’s work in the steel mill. They head to a bar to relax, and we learn that that night is Steven (John Savage)’s wedding, an event which the film depicts in geat detail. I don’t recall this lengthy an on-screen wedding celebration since The Godfather. The weddings in both films serve a similar function: slowly introducing us to all of the characters and their relationships.

I love how Mr. Cimino (working from a script he co-wrote with Deric Washburn, which was adapted in part from a script by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Redeker) takes his sweet time with the opening act.  We really live with these characters for a while, and I think that gives the film’s second and third segments that much more power.  We spent time in this opening act learning some character details that don’t really go anywhere in terms of the film’s plot — I’m thinking specifically of the scene with Meryl Streep’s character Linda and her abusive father — but which enrich our understanding of these people and their lives.  The wedding itself takes up a huge chunk of screen-time, but none of it feels extraneous or wasted.  Indeed, the 30-40 minutes we spend at the wedding might be my favorite part of the film!

The film’s second act takes place in Vietnam.  We skip right over all the usual basic training sequences, and also over seeing our characters’ reactions to arriving in Vietnam.  Instead, we jump right into the middle of a harrowing sequence in which Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) are being held captive by a group of Viet Cong soldiers.  The captured American soldiers are forced to play Russian … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale

It’s very possible that John Cazale has the greatest batting average of any actor in history.  He only appeared in five films, but they were, in order: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. It’s an amazing streak of five phenomenal performances in five phenomenal films, although that only emphasizes the tragedy of Mr. Cazale’s death at the incredibly young age of 42.

Anyone in the cult of The Godfather, like me, already knows the name John Cazale.  He, of course, plays the sweet but hapless Fredo, brother of Michael (Al Pacino) and Sonny (James Caan).  Although not one of the big-star names in the film (like the afore-mentioned Mr. Pacino and Mr. Caan, along, of course, with Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall), Mr. Cazale’s work as Fredo is absolutely amazing.  He creates, in Fredo, a role of enormous depth and sophistication.  Fredo is a character who is, on the one hand, all surface — he’s unable to hide his thoughts and feelings the way his brother Michael can — though Mr. Cazale brings enormous soul to the character and shows us deep layers of emotion and feelings behind his amazingly expressive eyes.

Those eyes are often commented upon by those who loved and admired Mr. Cazale in the documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, directed by Richard Shephard.  The film is aimed at introducing movie fans to this incredibly talented, yet sadly somewhat forgotten, actor.

Even at the time, Mr. Cazale’s talents were often overlooked.  The film points out that, while the five films he starred in were nominated for a total of 44 Academy Awards (quite a haul!), Mr. Cazale himself was never nominated.  And in a sad scene early in the documentary, we see pedestrians in New York City asked to identify Mr. Cazale from a picture of him as Fredo from The Godfather. While many are able to recall the name of his character, not one knew Mr. Cazale’s name.  (I always wonder if scenes like these in films aren’t the result of judicious editing to make the point that the filmmakers want, but in this case I have no doubt that most people have never heard John Cazale’s name.)

The film spends a few minutes giving us some insight into Mr. Cazale’s background and childhood, but for the most part it focuses on his work in his five films.  A plethora of actors and directors — including Francis Ford Coppola (who directed Mr. Cazale in the first three films in which he appeared), Sidney Lumet (who directed him in his fourth film, Dog Day Afternoon), Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Robert … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Adaptation (2002)

I was extraordinarily taken with Adaptation when I first saw it in theatres back in 2002, but I hadn’t seen it since.  I had been waiting for there to be a follow-up to the initial bare-bones DVD with nary a single special feature (save the film’s theatrical trailer) — if ever there was a film that left me desperate for a behind-the-scenes peek at just how the film came to be, it’s this one — but no special edition DVD ever arrived.  Shame!  Still, when I saw the disc in the five dollar bin at Newbury Comics a few months ago, I couldn’t resist.

Adaptation centers on screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s struggles with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel, The Orchid Thief.  How can he possibly make a movie out of the plot-free novel about flowers, without selling out by employing tired Hollywood cliches of action sequences and characters falling in love and learning important life lessons?

The above two-sentence summary really fails to do the film’s weird, complex, sprawling narrative justice.  The film swims deliriously in-and-out of real life events.  Adaptation is of course written by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who really was hired to adapt The Orchid Thief only to find himself totally stymied in his attempts, and he really did decide to write himself into his screenplay (Adaptation is the film that resulted), as does the Charlie in Adaptation.  Still with me?  And yet much of Adaptation is pure fiction — Charlie Kaufman doesn’t really have a twin brother Donald (despite Donald’s name being listed in the film’s credits, a clever touch), and of course none of the insanity at the end of the film with Susan Orleans and her subject Laroche (in which drugs and murder come into play) has any basis in reality.

I can only laugh and wonder what the real Susan Orleans thought of this sort-of adaptation of her novel, or of her depiction in the film.  Former executive Valerie Thomas (played in the film by Tilda Swinton), told Variety: “I’m 10 pages in, and suddenly realize, ‘Oh my God, I’m in this.’”  That Variety article goes on to comment that Ms. Thomas got off easy in the film, though perhaps they’re forgetting the scene in which Charlie masturbates to the thought of her having sex with him.

Nicolas Cage turns in one of his finest performances ever (well, two of his finest performances ever, actually), in the dual role of Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald.  It is astonishing to me how completely Mr. Cage is able to create and inhabit two entirely different characters despite their identical features.  Cage’s Charlie is depressed, anxious, and self-loathing, whereas Donald is happy, outgoing, … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Defending Your Life (1991)

And so at last my little tour through the early films of Albert Brooks  concludes.  (Feel free to check out my reviews of Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), and Lost in America (1985).)  Defending Your Life is probably the Albert Brooks movie that I’ve seen the most — but still, it had been many years since my last viewing, so it was great fun to take another look at the film.

In a brisk opening (a model of efficient story-telling), we’re introduced to Daniel Miller, a mid-level executive who, although he seems to be doing well enough at work that he’s able to buy himself an expensive car to celebrate his birthday, seems to live a fairly lonely life.  While taking his new car out for a spin, Daniel gets distracted and winds up driving directly into a bus.  When he next opens his eyes, he’s in Judgment City, and the movie is off.

Judgment City isn’t heaven or hell, as it’s explained to Daniel — it’s a way-station in which the recently dead are judged to see if they’re ready to move on to the next stage of their existence, or if their souls need to be sent back down to Earth for another go.  Everyone has an opportunity to defend their life in a courtroom-like setting (though Daniel is repeatedly told that it’s not really a trial) before the final decision is made.

The tag-line of Defending Your Life is “the first true story of what happens after you die.”  One of my friends is fond of saying that he fervently hopes that that is true.  There is something appealing, I must agree, to the notion that we’ll all have an opportunity to defend our lives — the actions we took, the choices we made — in the afterlife.  Though he and I aren’t quite sure we agree with Mr. Brooks’ depiction, in this film, that whether one has overcome one’s fear is really the most important question on which one’s life should be judged.  It’s an interesting perspective, and it certainly provides for some fine drama in this film, but I tend to think that there are other, better ways in which one’s merit could be evaluated.  I’m sure there are some quite fearless people out there who are also complete jerks!

It’s a credit to Mr. Brooks’ ambitions that he has created a comedic film that can also prompt such serious questions and thought.  Defending Your Life is certainly a comedic film, though as always Mr. Brooks isn’t afraid to  let several minutes pass without any big punchlines.

The best source of laughs in the film is probably Rip Torn, wonderfully cast … [continued]

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“So, do you love me, or what?” Josh reviews Manhattan (1979)!

I’ve been reading Drew McWeeny’s writings about film for, oh, probably a decade now.  I first found his work when he wrote for Aintitcoolnews.com, though these days he has a terrific blog over at Hitfix.com.  The dude has some sharp opinions, and while I’m not always in agreement with him, I can always count on his pieces being interesting & insightful, to say the least.  I’m a big fan.  Drew recently started a series called “The Basics,” in which he writes about a film that he considers one of the “essentials” — a film that anyone who takes film seriously should see — and then another, younger writer, William Goss, writes a response.  To read more about this series, click here and then here.

With their latest installment, Drew opened the door for others to chime in with their opinion.  Since the film in question is Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan, I jumped at the chance to share my two cents!

I am an enormous Woody Allen fan.  I have seen every one of his films (with one exception, Interiors, a situation that I’m sure I’ll remedy someday, but I must confess to not being in any rush), and many of them I have seen too many times to count.  But while I recognize that Manhattan is one of Woody’s most well thought-of films, I’ve actually only seen it one time, about 15 years ago.  I remember enjoying it, but I didn’t think it was of the level with what I would consider to be Mr. Allen’s masterpieces, films like Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Bananas, etc.  (It probably didn’t help that I watched Manhattan less than a month after first seeing Annie Hall, a film that absolutely blew me away and that remains easily one of my top ten favorite films of all time.)

So, prompted by this “The Basics” series, I was excited to go back and re-watch Manhattan.  Would my opinion of the film change?

Filmed in gloriously beautiful black and white, Manhattan follows several good-natured but lost urbanites as they try to find some measure of love and happiness.  Woody Allen plays Isaac, a television comedy writer unhappy with his job who dreams of writing a novel.  When we meet Isaac, he’s involved with a much, much younger woman: the 17 year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway).  Meanwhile, his married best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is having an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton).  While Isaac and Mary strongly dislike one another when they first meet (at an awkward encounter in a museum), they gradually strike up a friendship and ultimately start seeing each other.

None of the elements of that … [continued]

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The Top 10 Movies of 2009 — Part Two!

Yesterday I began my list of my Top 10 Movies of 2009!  Let’s continue, shall we?

5.  Inglourious Basterds — Quentin Tarantino demonstrates, once again, that no one can wring more nail-biting tension out of simple conversation than he can.  What I thought would be  a simple men-on-a-mission story wound up being a much more complex, intriguing tale.  Filled with astounding, unforgettable performances (Brad Pitt as the tough-talking Aldo Raine, Melanie Laurent as the fiercely intelligent Shosanna Dreyfus, and of course Christopher Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, one of the most unforgettable film villains of the past decade) and some great Tarantino touches (yep, that is a Samuel L. Jackson voice-over at one point), the film is ridiculously compelling.  And that ending.  Ho boy.  Read my full review here.

4.  District 9 — With a budget reportedly in the ballpark of 30 million dollars (which, if my information is correct, is about a third of what was spent on the Alec Baldwin/Meryl Streep comedy It’s Complicated), first-time director Neill Blomkamp fashioned one of the most gripping sci-fi tales I have ever seen.  The film is set in Johannesburg, almost thirty years after an enormous alien spacecraft appeared over the city.  The aliens, nicknamed “prawns,” have been settled in slum-like conditions in a refugee camp called District 9.  When the corporation MNU bows to public pressure to remove the aliens from the vicinity of Johannesburg, the hapless Wikus Van De Merwe (who participates in the forced evictions) finds his life turned upside-down.  As a sci-fi fan I am always looking for smart, original new works of sci-fi, and this film has both qualities in spades.  With jaw-dropping special effects (I am amazed at how well the alien “prawns” are brought to life), a career making performance by Sharlto Copley (who plays Wikus), some terrific action, and edge-of-your seat intensity from start to finish, District 9 is a magnificent and haunting creation.  Read my full review here.

3.  Fantastic Mr. Fox — A deliriously fantastic combination of Roald Dahl’s story (about a family of foxes menaced by three vicious farmers) and director Wes Anderson’s unique sensibilities, Fantastic Mr. Fox feels to me like the film Mr. Anderson has always wanted to make.  He has filled the movie with his specific style — detail-filled sets and precise, stage-like staging — and the foxes are a classic addition to Mr. Anderson’s repertoire of wonderfully idiosyncratic, somewhat disfunctional families.  The script is complex and sophisticated (with characters who all possess strengths as well as character flaws, and no easy answers to their dilemmas in sight), and the voice-actors (including George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Fantastic Mr. Fox

Having watched Fantastic Mr. Fox, the phenomenal new stop-motion animated film from director Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and The Darjeeling Limited), I am almost forced to reconsider all of his previous (also wonderful) films.

Mr. Anderson’s work has always been characterized by an extraordinarily stylized look to his sets and staging.  (The Royal Tenenbaums, my favorite of Mr. Anderson’s films, must be considered a triumph of art direction amongst its many other great qualities.)  Now it seems to me that Mr. Anderson has always been approaching his movies as if they were animated films: pouring never-ending attention into the creation of the artificial worlds that his characters inhabit.  (In animation, this is of course necessary: there are no “standing sets” to use – everything must be designed from the ground up.)

Or maybe I should put it this way: in stop-motion animation, Mr. Anderson has found a perfect stylistic vehicle for his particular idiosyncratic method of storytelling.

Adapted from a book by Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox focuses on a family of foxes who enter into an escalating feud with three cruel farmers: Boggis, Bunce, and Bean.  What is remarkable is that this animated fox family is just as fully-realized as any of the clans seen in Mr. Anderson’s previous films.  Each character is filled with flaws and with strengths.  Each feels, well, human!  George Clooney voices the title character, Mr.  Fox, who is inventive and fearless… but also dangerously reckless and oblivious to the walls he is inadvertently building up between him and his son.  Jason Schwartzman plays his son, Ash, a teenaged (in fox-years) boy who idolizes his father but, sensing that he is not going to get the approval he seeks, has withdrawn into teenaged “this is all stupid” rebellion (that includes the wearing of bizarre outfits).  Meryl Streep is the patient mother of the brood who deeply loves her husband yet must admit, in a powerful moment late in the film, that she never should have married him.

Does this sound like your every-day animated film so far?

It’s just amazing, really, how Mr. Anderson (working with co-writer Noah Baumbach, who wrote and directed the magnificent film The Squid and the Whale) has shaped Roald Dahl’s tale into a film whose character drama fits perfectly in with the rest of Anderson’s filmography.  But he has done so without losing the charm and heart of Mr. Dahl’s original tale – particularly when it comes to bringing to life the increasingly escalating lunacy (and violence) of Mr. Fox’s back-and-forth feud with the farmers.

I haven’t even mentioned the enormous ensemble that surrounds … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Julie and Julia

October 5th, 2009
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Here’s how not to get me excited about a film: start it off by trailers for Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All by Myself, Roland Emmerich’s latest disaster flick 2012, Rob Marshall’s latest musical Nine, and about five other movies that you could not pay me enough to go see.  Ugh.

Luckily, our feature presentation of Julie and Julia turned out to be rather more entertaining than those dreadful trailers.

Julie and Julia is adapted from “My Life in France,” Julia Child’s posthumously published autobiography, and “Julie & Julia,” New Yorker Julie Powell’s book about her attempt to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s famous cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in 365 days.  The film intercuts the stories of the two women as they each find themselves through cooking.

We first meet Julia Child (Meryl Streep) living in Paris in the 1940’s.  She is married to Paul (Stanley Tucci), an American diplomat, and trying to decide just what she “should dooooo” with her time.  Make hats?  Play bridge?  Her love of French food prompts her to take a cooking class, which she quickly masters.  Gradually she comes upon the idea (working with two fellow chefs) to create a cookbook of French recipes designed for Americans, and the movie charts her multi-year struggle to write, and then find a publisher for, this lengthy tome.

We first meet Julie Powell (Amy Adams) living in Queens in 2002 and working a terrible cubicle job (which seems to involve dealing with insurance claims from the families of 9/11 victims).  Looking for some sort of direction, she seizes upon the idea of cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s cookbook and blogging about the results (her Julie/Julia blog project).

Both lead actresses in this film are quite magnificent.  Meryl Streep absolutely nails Julia Child, starting with that distinct voice and including the way she carries herself — her Julia dominates every room that she’s in.  I’m not quite certain how much this “with malice towards none” depiction of Julia squares with the genuine article (and indeed, it’s hard to square this version with the Julia who later in life was dismissive of Julie Powell’s blog, a moment seen in the film only from Julie’s perspective), but Mrs. Streep certainly captures how I have always imagined Julia based on watching her on TV.  As for Amy Adams, she is, as always, a delight, whether conveying Julie’s quiet desperation, early in the film, sitting at a table with her far-more successful college chums, or her great delight all the times we see her getting one of Julie’s recipes just right.

I’ve read a lot of critics (including A.O. Scott of the … [continued]