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Josh Reviews Amazon’s Adaptation of Good Omens

This past summer, Amazon released a six-episode adaptation of Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, the wonderful novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  I love the novel.  It’s a deliriously funny, clever romp that reminds me very much of the work of Douglas Adams.  The mini-series, like the novel, charts the unlikely friendship between an angel, Aziraphale, and a demon, Crowley.  When the Antichrist is born on Earth, and the sides of Heaven and Hell ready for war, Aziraphale and Crowley, having grown to quite like life on Earth, realize they have no choice but to work together to try to prevent the end of the world.

In the mini-series adaptation, Michael Sheen plays Aziraphale and David Tennant plays Crowley.  This is genius casting for both characters, and what I liked best about this mini-series was seeing these two characters brought to life so well, and watching them bounce off one another.  Both Mr. Sheen and Mr. Tennant are absolutely perfect, and they both have tremendous comedic timing which is put to good use here.  I loved their scenes together.  I was particularly taken by episode three, “Hard Times,” one of the few times in which the show diverged from the novel, showing us the history of Crowley & Aziraphale’s strange friendship over the centuries, from Noah’s ark through the time of Jesus to the modern day.

This mini-series is one of those curious projects which is incredibly faithful to the source material and yet still, somehow, winds up missing the certain spark that made the source material so special.  The mini-series lacks the comedic pulse of the novel, and its light tone.  Most importantly, the novel is so, so funny, and unfortunately the mini-series isn’t.  It’s a shame, because I was generally impressed with how carefully they adapted the story.  The six-episode length gave the show plenty of time to fit in almost all of the novel’s many twists and turns.  They even included the narration, using the great Frances McDormand to play the narrating voice of God.  This inclusion of the narration is a great example of where the mini-series wound up going just a tad bit astray.  Including the narration — unusual for a TV show to have — allows the mini-series to include many of the book’s best jokes.  But on the other hand, I found the narration slowed down the show and prevented me as an audience member for connecting as deeply with the characters as I might have expected.  The narration kept me at a distance.  And as such, I found the jokes in the narration didn’t land nearly as well as they did in the novel.

The … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Passengers

Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) are members of a colony expedition to a planet, Homestead II, far from Earth.  But something goes wrong and they two alone amongst the 5,000 cryogenically frozen passengers aboard the space ship Avalon are woken from their sleep 90 years early.  As they wrestle with their fate of living out their entire lives alone aboard the ship, a series of cascading technical failures present a far more urgent crisis: if they cannot identify and repair the problem, they and the 5,000 sleeping passengers will die long before the Avalon ever reaches its destination.

Passengers.cropped

That plot description, and all of the pre-release advertising and promotional material for Passengers, leaves out a crucial detail of the story.  I guessed it from the film’s trailer (which I must have seen 10 times since the summer, it seemed to have played before every single movie I saw for the past several months), but the film doesn’t actually treat this as a surprise — this event is presented in a very straightforward manner in the film’s first act.  I don’t want to spoil this for anyone since the filmmakers clearly prefer that audiences go into the film not knowing about this.  However, it is difficult to discuss Passengers without mentioning this event because it is central to the whole story of the film.

So for now, what I can say is that Passengers is not the glossy, mass-appeal film starring two current Hollywood heartthrobs that it is advertised as being.  This central event at the start of the film seems to be intended to spin the story into something far more complex and interesting.  And yet, the film (directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Jon Spaihts) doesn’t seem at all interested in exploring those complexities.  And so Passengers exists in an uncomfortable middle ground.  The film looks absolutely gorgeous, and Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are certainly fun to watch.  But the story remains superficial where it felt to me that it begged for something deeper, something more difficult.  And this superficial, glossy telling of this story actually results in a film that was, for me, disturbing and uncomfortable in a way that I don’t think the filmmakers ever intended.

For those interested in treading into SPOILER TERRITORY, please read on!

All of the film’s promotional material suggested that something went wrong with Jim and Aurora’s cryogenic pods, alone among all the passengers on the Avalon.  And yet that’s not the case at all.  Jim (Chris Pratt) is the only one woken from the malfunction.  After a year of living along on board the ship, he becomes obsessed with the sleeping Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) — a beautiful … [continued]

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The Tony Blair Trilogy Part III: The Special Relationship

May 22nd, 2014
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Following The Deal (click here for my review) and The Queen (click here for my review), Peter Morgan went on to write a third film about Tony Blair, one that, like The Deal and The Queen before it, would also star Michael Sheen as Mr. Blair: the HBO film The Special Relationship.

This is a most bizarre and special trilogy.  The first film, The Deal, was made for British television.  The second film, The Queen, was a huge critical success in the U.S. and saw its star Helen Mirren receive an Academy Award for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II.  The third and final (at least so far!) film, The Special Relationship, aired on HBO.  (I’d love to know the backstory behind that.  After the success of The Queen, I am stunned its follow-up didn’t receive a theatrical release!)

The fact that The Special Relationship wasn’t shown in theatres, and that Stephen Frears, who had directed the first two films, don’t return to direct this one, led me to worry that perhaps The Special Arrangement was a lesser offering.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  I found The Special Arrangement to be absolutely marvelous, fascinating and entertaining.

The film covers a large span of time.  It opens in the days before Mr. Blair became Prime Minister (so some-time in the middle of The Deal), then shifts to show us Mr. Blair’s first day in office (these events were also depicted in The Queen).  The film then moves forward and chronicles the next several years in which Mr. Blair served as Prime Minister while Bill Clinton was President of the United States, ending shortly after the end of Mr. Clinton’s second term.

The term “the special relationship” has often been used to describe the close relation ship between the Unites States and the United Kingdom.  This film explores the relationship between the two countries and between the two young, charismatic, center-left politicians who had found themselves, in the Nineties, in control of their respective countries after a lengthy period of Conservative leadership: Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.  Every bit as important to the story of the film are their wives: Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair.  The complex dynamic between all four players of the two power couples forms the center of the film’s narrative.

I was fascinated by the way the film charts the arc of, in particular, the relationship between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.  When the film opens, Tony Blair comes across as somewhat naive and inexperienced, in awe of the polished Clinton and his prowess on the world stage.  We see that Mr. Clinton plays a critical role in helping … [continued]

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The Tony Blair Trilogy Part II: The Queen

I saw and enjoyed The Queen when it was released back in 2006, but I had never seen the other two films that Peter Morgan had written about Tony Blair (all of which featured Michael Sheen as Mr. Blair, and the first two of which were directed by Stephen Frears).  Last spring I watched The Deal (click here for my review), and so then I thought it would be fun to re-watch The Queen before moving on to The Special Relationship.  I didn’t think it would take me quite so many months before I had a chance to watch The Queen, but, well, sometimes life gets in the way!

The Queen is set in 1997, in the months following Tony Blair’s election as Prime Minister of England, as well as the death of Princess Diana on August 31, 1997.  While Mr. Sheen as Tony Blair was the focus of The Deal, in many ways Tony Blair is even more front-and-center here in The Queen.  We spend quite a lot of time with this neophyte prime minister, watching him attempt to acclimate to the new high office to which he as been elected.  And yet, the film’s title The Queen is very appropriate, because this film isn’t really about Tony Blair at all.  It is about Queen Elizabeth II.

An investigation into this enigmatic figure — known the world-wide, yet someone so separated from the common folk by her power and position that few outside the royal family could say to know her — would of course be an interesting focus for a film.  But what makes The Queen so clever is the decision to investigate and explore the character of the Queen through the character of Tony Blair.  At the start of the film, Mr. Blair meets the Queen in-person for the first time, and we the audience meet her as well, seeing her through Mr. Blair’s eyes.  The pomp and circumstance surrounding the Queen, the incredibly detailed protocol that governs every interaction with her, is introduced to Mr. Blair and the audience at the same time.  As the film progresses, we grow to know and perhaps to understand her just as Mr. Blair does.  There’s a key moment late in the film in which Mr. Blair gets angry at his staff for their comments about the Queen.  In that moment in which he shows some sympathy and understanding for this woman, so too do we the audience feel that.  It’s an incredibly clever and effective way to structure the story being told.

I can’t really speak to whether anything that we see of the Queen, and the interactions of the other members of the Royal Family, have … [continued]

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The Tony Blair Trilogy Part I: The Deal

The Queen, the 2006 film starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, received a lot of acclaim upon its release, making a big splash at the box office and being nominated for several Academy Awards, among other honors.  I very much enjoyed The Queen when I saw it in theatres in 2006, and so I was intrigued to learn recently that the film was in fact the middle of a trilogy of films, all written by Peter Morgan, that depicted the political career of Tony Blair.  First there was 2003’s The Deal, a film made for British television, written by Mr. Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears.  Then came The Queen, which was also written by Mr. Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears.  Then there came The Special Relationship, which aired on HBO and was written by Mr. Morgan though this time directed by Richard Loncraine, rather than Mr. Frears.  (I have read that Mr. Morgan had intended to direct the film himself, though in the end that didn’t happen.)  In all three films, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was played by Michael Sheen.

I had never seen The Deal nor The Special Relationship, so I decided to first track down The Deal, and then continue to watch the other two films in this informal trilogy.

The Deal tracks the political careers of two rising stars in Britain’s Labour party (the long out-of-power liberal opponents to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative governments in the eighties), Gordon Brown (played by David Morrissey) and Tony Blair (played by Michael Sheen).  In the nineties, after toiling in obscurity for years, the two men and their Labour party find themselves with a chance for a political victory.  And while Gordon Brown had long been presumed the leader-to-be among the Labour party, suddenly Tony Blair was becoming a figure of rising popularity.  Thus the two former allies found themselves at loggerheads as to who would step forward to lead the party and attempt to become the Prime Minister.  The title of “The Deal” refers to an agreement that the two men apparently struck in 1994 in which Mr. Brown would step aside so that Mr. Blair could run in — and eventually win — Parliamentary elections and assume the role of Prime Minister.  Though the film begins in the moments before that fateful 1994 meeting, we then shift back to Mr. Blair’s first meeting with Mr. Brown back in 1983, and we then follow the two men’s political careers over the course of the next decade.

The Deal was made for British audiences, rather than Americans, and at times it assumes a familiarity with British politics that I must admit I do not possess.  However, the … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, and Valkyrie

I know some people who can’t stand to see a movie a second time — they think “been there, done that, I’d rather see something new.”  I certainly don’t have anything against seeing something new, but I’m also someone who loves seeing movies for a second time — and, if it’s a good movie, seeing it many more times after that!  (I’m the same way with books, comic books, etc. — I love re-reading stories that I enjoyed multiple times.)

I find that my feelings upon watching a film for a second time often vary wildly from the experience of seeing it originally.  I can absorb the film without all the baggage of hype, my anticipation, etc.  I can also more accurately judge the movie for what it is, rather than what I had hoped it would be or was expecting it would be.

During September I had a chance to take a second look at three films that I really enjoyed during last year’s Oscar rush of films (in late December 2008).  Did my feelings about them change, for better or for worse, upon a second viewing?  Read on!

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — read my original review here.  Benjamin Button was one of my very favorite movies from last year (it ranked as no. 6 on my list of my favorite films from 2008) and, if anything, I was even more in awe of it the second time around.  The film is magnificent.  It is one of those special collaborations where every single element works just perfectly, from the gorgeous sets and costumes, to the jaw-dropping visual effects (that create fully-realized environments from France to Russia to a tug-boat in the middle of the Pacific, not to mention the completely convincing creation and de-aging of Benjamin Button himself that is as wonderful a combination of makeup, prosthetics, and incredible CGI as I have ever seen), to the wonderful performances by Brad Pitt (who proves in every film he’s in why he is so deserving of his movie-star fame), Cate Blanchett, and a wonderful array of other talented actors.  Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac) knows how to incorporate cutting-edge visual effects into a film without ever letting those effects overpower the film, and he knows how to tell a deeply emotional tale without ever veering into schmaltz.  As I said: magnificent.  (I also had the fun of watching this film on Blu-Ray, and let me say that my jaw was on the floor at the clarity of the images, the colors, everything.  As the enclosed booklet notes, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was created in the digital realm without ever … [continued]

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Howard/Nixon

December 17th, 2008
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I love movies, and I am fascinated by politics, so it’s no surprise that I am always up for a good political movie.  And make no mistake, Ron Howard’s latest film, Frost/Nixon, is a very good political movie.

Adapted by Peter Morgan from his own play (which attracted notice in London in 2006 and on Broadway in 2007) and directed by Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon details the May, 1977 interviews of former president Richard M. Nixon by British TV personality David Frost.  

Right away the movie gains points in my book by allowing the two leads from the play to reprise their roles.  Michael Sheen, who came to many movie-goers’ attention (including my own) portraying Tony Blair in The Queen (also written by Peter Morgan), creates a compelling portrait of David Frost.  Sheen’s Frost is an intensely likable, charismatic man who has achieved great success but who we can see hungers for something more.  At first that is just his quest to nab the next Big Fish for an interview subject, but over the course of his efforts to make the Nixon interviews happen, we see that morph into a search for something a little more serious.  Then there is Frank Langella as Mr. Nixon.  Believe it or not, I first encountered Langella in a terrific three-episode guest-starring role in the second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  His intense gaze and deep voice were gripping, and I was quite intrigued, subsequently searching out many of his other performances.  His films don’t always interest me but as an actor he seldom disappoints, embodying roles as disparate as Perry White in Superman Returns or William Paley in Good Night, and Good Luck.  Langella’s Nixon is the polar opposite of Sheen’s Frost in terms of appearance and temperament, but he is a powerhouse.  The moments when the full force of his personality break loose are an incredible thing to watch.

I was surprised and intrigued by  the way the film was structured as a faux documentary, continually cutting back to the actors, in their roles, being interviewed as we would expect to see in a real documentary.  I have not seen the original play, so I can’t speak to what changes or adjustments were made in crafting the film.  But as a film, it is compelling.  Frost/Nixon is a very talky movie, but that is not a weakness.  I am always enraptured by films that are able to create dramatic tension from simple conversations.  The pay-off in this film is not an action sequence or a stand-off with guns — it is when these two men finally sit down and talk.  

I should also mention the rest of the impeccably … [continued]