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Josh Reviews A Wrinkle in Time

I loved A Wrinkle in Time when I was a kid.  I remember I had a set of the three (at the time) books in the series by Madeleine L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet.  As I recall, I didn’t much care for A Swiftly Tilting Planet, but the mix of science and fantasy in those first two books thrilled me.  Just recently I read A Wrinkle in Time with my daughters, and they loved it.  It was fun to rediscover the book through their eyes.  They deeply invested in Meg and in her adventure.  For me, I was pleased that the book (which I hadn’t read in close to three decades) held up well.  There were some religious aspects in the novel that I hadn’t recalled and which I found superfluous, and I was a little frustrated by the novel’s abrupt ending, but I was glad to revisit this book and happy that my daughters enjoyed it just as I had.

The book felt ripe for a visual interpretation, and so I looked forward eagerly to Ava DuVernay (Selma)’s film adaptation.  Having now seen it, I can say that the film is… interesting.  There’s a lot to enjoy, but overall I found it to be a bit of a mixed bag.

First off, it’s not what I’d consider a direct adaptation of the book.  Yes, the movie follows the same basic story beats as the book, but whereas, say, the Harry Potter films attempted to bring the story of the novels to screen as faithfully as possible (understanding that, of course, changes have to be made when transforming a novel into a two-hour movie), there were many places in Ms. DuVernay’s adaptation of A  Wrinkle in Time in which it felt to me that Ms. DuVernay and her team used the novel as a jumping-off point for their own ideas.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach.  But the result is a film that feels very distinctly like one filmmaker’s version of a story loosely based on A Wrinkle in Time rather than a faithful adaptation.  (I freely admit that, for most of cinema’s history, that’s what practically ALL movie adaptations of novels were!  But in a post-Harry Potter era, when we have seen how successful those films were, both creatively and financially, I find myself more drawn to projects that are faithful to the source material.)

As an example of what I am talking about, take the film’s depiction of Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which.  Ms. DuVernay has cast three wonderful actresses in the role (Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and Oprah Winfrey), … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Fury

I missed David Ayer’s film Fury when it came out last year, and I’ve been looking forward to catching up with it.  Set in final months of World War II, the film tells the story of a United States tank crew during the Allied invasion of Germany.  Brad Pitt plays “Wardaddy,” the commander of the Sherman tank called “Fury.”  Michael Pena plays “Gordo,” the tank’s driver.  Shia LaBeouf plays the gunner “Bible.”  Jon Bernthal plays “Coon-Ass,” the weapons-loader.  And Logan Lerman plays Norman, the new assistant driver/bow-gunner assigned to “Fury” to replace their comrade “Red,” killed in action immediately prior to the start of the film.

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There is a lot of greatness in the first two-thirds of Fury.  What I enjoyed most about the film is its exploration of WWII tank warfare, and the experiences of the men who lived and fought in the belly of those steel beasts (to borrow a phrase from Henry Jones Sr.).  This is not an area that has been well-mined by many previous films.  David Ayer’s direction is visceral and tense, putting the viewer right in the thick of some harrowing sequences.  The film is exceedingly well-made, with enormous attention to detail in the costumes, sets, props, and most of all the tanks.  Mr. Ayer succeeds in making the tank Fury a full-fledged character in the story, through the accumulation of a million tiny details captured in the film.

The cast is strong, bringing life to the loosely-sketched characters.  One feels that each one of these characters could have been the lead of the film, which is exactly right.  After the greatness of Inglorious Basterds, it’s fun seeing Brad Pitt back in a WWII film.  Though “Wardaddy” is the clear alpha dog of the group (not just because of his position as commander), Mr. Pitt allows this character to show more humanity than did Aldo Raine in Basterds, which is appropriate for the role.  I frickin’ love Michael Pena in the film, an actor who seems to me to be able to do no wrong these days.  (See: Ant Man.)  He’s able to bring humor to the film, while never ever loosing sight of the seriousness that the role calls for.  Shia LaBeouf meanwhile has become something of a joke these days, but he does solid work here.  Jon Bernthal is great as “Coon-Ass.”  He’s a viscous jerk in many ways (his nick-name is not ironic), but Mr. Bernthal also allows the audience to see the human being underneath the bluster.  Finally there is Logan Lerman, who I will love forever based on his tremendous work in The Perks of Being a Wallflower Mr. Lerman has the somewhat thankless role of … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Martian

What a refreshing joy it is to get to see an intelligent, original science-fiction story that is also gorgeous to behold and ferociously entertaining. The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott and written by Drew Goddard, adapting the book by Andy Weir, is a triumph, a gripping story about all that smart human beings can do when they put their minds to it.

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Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, one of the crew-members of a mission to Mars sometime in the near future.  An unexpectedly fierce storm forces the crew to abort the mission and evacuate the planet.  An accident during the evacuation separates Watney from his crew-mates, who believe him to have been killed.  But he survives, and awakens soon after to find himself stranded, the only human being on the planet.  The soonest a manned mission could return to rescue him is years away (assuming he could even find a way to let NASA know he’s alive, a seeming impossibility with his transmitter destroyed by the storm), and though the astronauts’ habitat on the Martian surface remains intact, it was only equipped for a planned thirty-day stay on the planet.

It is an extraordinary delight to watch a movie that champions science and intelligence.  The Martian is a movie about everything that human beings are capable of accomplishing, and it is glorious to behold.  This is an important movie in a culture that too often seems to look down on people of intelligence and learning.  The Martian makes the case for the value of brain-power.  Of exploration.  Of the way that knowledge and intelligence can, to quote Star Trek (another sci-fi story that values intelligence, science, and optimism) “turn death into a fighting chance to live.”

Actually, watching The Martian, I was continually reminded of a wonderful quote by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.  Speaking of the ethos behind Trek, Roddenberry explained that “ancient astronauts didn’t build the pyramids.  Human beings built them!  Because they’re clever and they work hard!”  Star Trek was a show that championed those values, that argued that mankind would find a way to put aside our differences, to work together to solve our problems and create a utopian — not dystopian — future society. That’s what I love about Star Trek, and that’s what I love about The Martian, a film that embodies exactly the same philosophy.

It all starts with the script, which is extraordinary.  I haven’t yet read the book by Andy Weir, but it’s clear that I need to do so immediately.  Drew Goddard (who wrote Cloverfield, directed and co-wrote The Cabin in the Woods, and was a key creative player in the early days of Netflix’s Daredevil series) … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Ant Man!

Marvel’s Ant Man seems to have had the most tumultuous development process of any of the Marvel Studios films so far.  Or, at least, its behind-the-scenes dirty laundry has been the most public.  Edgar Wright spent years developing the film for Marvel, but then when the project was finally, officially put on Marvel’s Phase Two slate, he walked away from the film.  Many wondered if the film was still worth making without Edgar Wright at the helm.

Well, I am pleased to report that director Peyton Reed, working from a screenplay credited to Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish (who were involved with Ant Man’s first iteration) as well as Paul Rudd and Adam McKay (who got involved once Mr. Wright left and Mr. Reed took over), has succeeded in crafting a wonderful addition to the Marvel cinematic universe.  It’s a far smaller-scale film than any of the other Phase Two films, but it works.  There’s some lovely character work and a nice dollop of humor, some cool concepts and fun visual effects, and a lot of clever nods to the wider Marvel cinematic universe.  This is a film that feels very much of a piece with the solo films that kicked off Marvel’s Phase One, films like Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor.  Just like with those films, I was originally dubious that those very comic-booky characters could succeed as movies, but once again Marvel Studios has proven me wrong.

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The greatest strength of the Marvel movies so far, and the secret to their success, has been the films’ impeccable casting, and Ant Man continues that trend.  I love the concept that this film features two characters who have been in costume as the hero Ant Man from the comics — Hank Pym and Scott Lang — with the hook here that Hank Pym was Ant Man many years ago, but has long-since retired.  Michael Douglas is perfect as the now-elderly Hank Pym, a man far past his physical prime but someone whose mind is still sharp.  He brings wonderful gravitas to the character, and to the film as a whole.  His sincerity gives the sometimes-wacky shenanigans of the film an important grounding in reality.  Mr. Douglas is tasked with carrying a lot of the film’s exposition, but Mr. Douglas makes those verbose speeches sing the way few others could.  And he absolutely nails one of the most important scenes in the film, the flashback that he narrates in which he finally reveals the secret of what happened to Janet van Dyne (an important character from the comics who is missing/presumed dead in the film).

Paul Rudd, meanwhile, is also terrific as the new young hero of … [continued]

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Josh Reviews 30 Minutes or Less

In the new film 30 Minutes or Less, Jesse Eisenberg plays Nick, an affable though fairly hapless pizza boy.  Aziz Ansari plays Chet, Nick’s closest friend.  The two have been buddies for years, though Chet seems to have figured out his life (we can see that he has a steady job and a nice, clean apartment) in a way that the aimless Nick clearly has not.  But what finally threatens to drive a wedge between the two friends is Nick’s infatuation with Chet’s sister Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria).  Meanwhile, another pair of buddies are concocting a scheme that will turn Nick and Chet’s lives upside down.  Danny McBride plays Dwayne, a frustrated, gun-loving loser living in his father’s basement, while Nick Swardson plays his loyal follower, Travis.  Dwayne’s father, “the Major” (played by Fred Ward), is wealthy after winning the lotto, but he seems to have no interest in passing any of his money on to his son Dwayne.  Spurred on by a suggestion made by a topless dancer (Bianca Kajlich) with whom he is infatuated, Dwayne devises a plan to hire a hit-man (Michael Pena) to kill the Major.  How will he get the money to pay this hit-man?  By strapping a bomb to the chest of a sucker, who Dwayne can then coerce into ribbing a bank for him.  Enter: Nick the pizza-boy, and the movie is off.

When I was a kid, I remember there being a lot of action-comedies — movies like Lethal Weapon that were very funny, but that were also serious action films (rather than just farces).  It doesn’t seem to me that there are too many movies in that style these days, so it was fun to see a group of filmmakers make the attempt to create that sort of movie.  The way in which 30 Minutes or Less throws a lot of crazy comedy into what is, when you think about it, a pretty terrifying story (and one which seems to be based on a real-life event that ended with the poor pizza delivery man being killed), really caught my attention.  Though there’s no action in 30 Minutes or Less that’s on par with the Richard Donner-directed Lethal Weapon, the film is definitely cut from that type of cloth, and that’s a compliment.  (I haven’t seen Lethal Weapon in years, so I have no idea if it holds up, but I have very fond memories of that film from my youth.)

In a similar way, 30 Minutes or Less feels, to me, like the type of movie that The Pineapple Express wanted to be.  I quite enjoyed The Pineapple Express (click here for my review), but I did feel … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Observe and Report

About two-thirds of the way through Observe and Report, the new film written and directed by Jody Hill (who also wrote & directed the criminally under-seen The Foot-Fist Way), one character observes to another: “I thought this would be funny, but it’s just kinda sad.”  A more perfect summation of this film, I could not imagine.

Seth Rogen stars as Mall-Cop (excuse me, Director of Mall Security) Ronnie Barnhardt, who sees himself as top dog in the kingdom that is his mall.  Ronnie is completely smitten by Brandi (Anna Farris), who works in the cosmetics department of one of the mall’s department stores.  Brandi, of course, wants nothing to do with him.  But when a pervert prowling the mall’s parking lot exposes himself to Brandi, Ronnie sees his moment to be a hero by solving the case and catching the pervert.  The two other major players in the story are Ray Liotta as the police detective assigned to the case (of whom Ronnie is immediately suspicious and dismissive), and Ronnie’s “right-hand man” Dennis (played magnificently by the almost totally unrecognizable Michael Pena).

I knew going in that this wasn’t going to be a laugh-a-minute comedy like Seth Rogen’s other recent films (The Forty-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, etc.).  Nevertheless, I was caught somewhat off guard by just how sad this story is.  Not sad in terms of being a get-out-your-handkerchief type of film.  This isn’t The Pianist or anything like that.  But rather than being laugh-inducing, I found watching that most of the exploits of Ronnie Barnhardt were just rather pathetic and sad.  If that’s what the film-makers were going for (and it very well might be) then bravo, mission accomplished.  But I can’t say that I got an enormous amount of enjoyment out of watching the movie.

Even the moments when I really laughed during the film weren’t moments of clever dialogue or humorous situations, but more from Borat-style “I can’t believe I’m watching this” shocks, such as Ronnie and Dennis’ brutal crack-down on the group of kids skateboarding in the mall’s parking-lot, or Ronnie’s chase after the pervert in the film’s climax.  Again, this isn’t necessarily a negative.  It just wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

This is a film that, as I think about it now, I RESPECT more as a well-made film, and one that is very brave for going to some extraordinarily dark places, as opposed to a film that I really LIKED.  If I can’t recommend it whole-heartedly, it’s mostly because some of those dark places that the film visits aren’t so much fun to watch!  On the other hand, Observe and Report is certainly a unique film, not … [continued]