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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols, amazingly, wrote and directed not one but two films that were released in 2016.  The second was Loving, a magnificent drama about Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple forbidden from marrying in Virginia, whose case eventually came before the Supreme Court in 1967.  I missed his first 2016 film, Midnight Special, when it was released to theatres earlier in the year, but I was delighted to catch up with it during my end-of-the-year catch-up rush before finalizing my Best Movies of 2016 list.

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Midnight Special tells the story of a young boy, Alton Meyer, who appears to have some sort of special powers.  When the film opens, Alton’s father Roy (Michael Shannon) and friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are in hiding and on the run with Alton.  They seem to be trying to evade both government agents as well as members of a Texas cult in which Roy and Alton were once involved.  As Alton’s condition deteriorates and their pursuers close in, their situation becomes increasingly perilous.

Mr. Nicols’ film throws the audience right into the story in media res.  This is exciting, but also somewhat confusing and I found it took quite a while for me to have any sense of what was going on.  Part of this is on purpose, as Mr. Nichols’ story very slowly and methodically doles out information about Alton’s special nature and his and Roy’s past.  But I found I enjoyed the second half of the film, when I had a better understanding of the players and the stakes, more than I did the more opaque first half.

What I love best about Midnight Special is the tone, one that has a heaping helpful of nostalgia for the great sci-fi/fantasy Amblin Entertainment films of the eighties that involved kids and paranormal events.  But unlike a film such as J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (which I like a lot), which succeeds primarily as an exercise in nostalgia, Midnight Special also has an intensity and hand-held grittiness that made it feel very modern, very of-the-moment.  Mr. Nichols has done great work in striking this balance.

He’s assisted by the wonderful cast he has assembled.  Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel, The Night Before) is always wonderful, and so no surprise he is terrific here as the main adult character.  Mr. Shannon’s intensity is always mesmerizing, and it’s nice to see that quality presented here in a heroic and noble character rather than a villain.  Roy is laser-focused on protecting his son Alton, no matter what happens to himself or anyone else, and Mr. Shannon’s powerful persona is well-harnessed for this character.

Joel Edgerton was one of the two lead … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Night Before

Well, its title is pretty generic and meaningless but other than that I have little bad to say about The Night Before, the fun and funny new raunchy buddy comedy starring Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Anthony Mackie.

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Director Jonathan Levine can pretty much do no wrong in my book,  I adored his film The Wackness (definitely track it down, you won’t regret it) and really dug 50/50 (a film about a guy getting cancer, which seems like an extremely perilous subject around which to center a comedy, but Mr. Levine nailed it.). The dynamic of the friends in 50/50 was a lot of fun, so I loved seeing Mr. Levine reunited with Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt here in this film, and Anthony Mackie (so solid in the last several Marvel films as Sam Wilson) is a great addition to the ensemble.  The three men really sell the idea that these three guys are life-long friends, which is critical to this film’s working as well as it does.

In The Night Before, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) are best friends who, for fifteen years, have always spent Christmas Eve together, partying.  It began as a way for Isaac and Chris to help Ethan get through the death of his parents, and then continued as an ever-escalating tradition of fun and mayhem.  But now, with Isaac about to be a father and Chris achieving fame as a football star, the guys have decided that this will be the final year of their Christmas Eve tradition.  After one final crazy blow-out evening, of course!

The Night Before isn’t a ground-breaking comedy by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a lot of fun.  It’s a sort of cozy slipper sort of comedy, in that it’s fun to see these actors have a vehicle that allows them to bounce off of one another.  There are some home-run sequences of comedy in the film, and also a solid underpinning of character-work that gives the film some weight.  Mr. Levine balances the tone deftly, so that you care enough about the characters to engage in their stories.  But the film thankfully doesn’t get all dewey-eyed and sappy in the third act as some comedies make the mistake of doing.

This deep into Seth Rogen’s career (I’ve been a fan ever since Freaks and Geeks almost two decades ago), it feels perhaps like a step back to have him play a character whose basic story is that he is wigging-out on all sorts of drugs for the whole film.  (The idea in the story is that Isaac is a pretty normal, well-adjusted grown-up.  But on the eve of her giving … [continued]

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Josh Kneels Before Man of Steel

I love Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie from 1978, and for much of my life I thought Superman II was even better.  (My preference has swung back slightly, in recent years, towards the original film.)  Those two movies were a huge part of my childhood, and more than any Superman comic book I have ever read (and I have read a lot), they shaped in my mind the quintessential depiction of Superman.  I stand by my love of Bryan Singer’s homage to the Donner films, 2006’s Superman Returns (has it been that long since Superman Returns came out???  Crazy!!), and I remain bitterly disappointed that we never saw a sequel to that film.

I was excited, though, by the news that Zack Snyder would be directing a new Superman film, working with the Batman Begins team of Christopher Nolan (serving as producer) and writer David S. Goyer.  I love both 300 and Watchmen (particularly the super-long Ultimate Cut of Watchmen) — I think they’re both terrific adaptations of very difficult-to-adapt comic books — and so I was eager to see what Mr. Snyder could do when playing in the bigger sandbox of the Superman mythos.  I suspected he could bring a new energy to  the depiction of Superman on film, and his involvement certainly promised an increase in the action quotient (something that even I admit was sorely lacking in Superman Returns).  

My enthusiasm for the Superman reboot dipped when I heard that they were planning on re-telling Superman’s origin.  That seemed silly to me, as Superman has probably the most famous origin of any comic book character ever.  Why waste time re-telling, yet again, an origin story that everyone on the planet already knows?  Just cut to the chase and tell a great Superman story!  My enthusiasm grew again when the first trailers for Man of Steel began to surface.  I was dazzled by the visual spectacle, and really started to get excited for what seemed to be a very different depiction of Superman on film.

I just left an IMAX screening of Man of Steel, and I am delighted to report that Mr. Snyder and his team have delivered on that promise.  They have threaded the difficult needle of delivering a dramatic reinterpretation of the character and his origin, while at the same time presenting us with a depiction that is, without question, iconically Superman.

The film opens with Jor-El on Krypton, and we spend a lot more time on Krypton than I would have expected.  I loved every second, and almost wish we had a whole film set on Krypton, chronicling the breaking of the friendship between Jor-El and Zod.  (The idea that Jor-El and Zod … [continued]

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2008 Catch-Up: Josh Reviews Gran Torino and Revolutionary Road!

February 11th, 2009
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When I wrote my Top 10 Movies of 2008 list, I began by listing the many movies that I hadn’t yet had a chance to see.  Well, even though 2008 is well behind us, I’ve been trying to catch up on some of the films that I missed.  (I’ve had some time to do so, since these days it is apparently anathema to Hollywood to release any decent new movies during January or February.  Am I wrong??)

Below are two films that were on my missed-in-2008 list.  There were certainly elements of both that I enjoyed, but neither of them would have made my Best of 2008 list even if I had seen them in time.

Gran Torino — Clint Eastwood is a pretty amazing guy.  The man is in his seventies, and he is putting out new films at a pace to rival Woody Allen.  He released two films that he directed in 2008, Changeling and Gran Torino.  For Gran Torino, in addition to directing, he also starred (for the first time since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby), produced, and worked on the soundtrack.  Eastwood plays retired Korean war veteran Walt Kowalsky, a sort of Dirty Harry meets Archie Bunker figure, a man almost gleeful in his anger and constant use of racial slurs.  As you might expect, over the course of the film the lovable fellow underneath shines through, and he learns some valuable lessons and teaches some to others (in this case, a pair of neighborhood kids).

The biggest pleasure of Gran Torino is watching Mr. Eastwood growl his way through every scene.  There’s a surprising amount of humor in the middle section of the film, and his comic timing is impeccable.  (I would love to see how his growls and grimaces were spelled out in the screenplay.  Did someone actually type out “grrr” for those moments, or was that all Clint?)  Eastwood cast a number of non-actors in the roles of the local kids, and although there are some spots of dodgy acting (such as Thao’s supposed moment of rage at a climactic moment when Walt locks him in his basement to stop him from confronting the local gang), for the most part the kids are quite compelling.  The biggest weakness of the film is its one-dimensionality.  If you stopped the film after the first 10 or so minutes, and then wrote down on a notepad what you think will happen to all of the characters, I’d wager you’d be able to pretty accurately predict the remainder of the film.  There just aren’t any surprises as the story-lines unfold.  And the characters themselves are all pretty one-note.  Take Walt’s ridiculous family, for example.  They’re one-dimensional buffoons,

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