Browse the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

Josh Reviews Lion

February 22nd, 2017

The film Lion begins in 1986.  In a poor area of Khandwa, India, a young boy Saroo lives with his mother, younger sister, and older brother Guddu.  One evening when their mother goes to work, young Saroo prevails upon Guddu to allow him to accompany him to a train station where Guddu hopes to find additional work.  But it’s late at night, and Saroo, just a little boy, falls asleep.  When he wakes up later that night, his brother is gone and he is all alone.  He wanders aboard one of the trains parked at the station and again falls asleep.  When he wakes, he discovers that the train is in motion, traveling with him locked aboard for several days until he reaches Calcutta.  Saroo has no idea where he is, in a big city where no one speaks his language.  He survives on his own on the streets for months, before eventually winding up in a large orphanage.  No one there recognizes the name of the town from where where Saroo says he comes.  Eventually, he gets adopted by an Australian couple.  Twenty years later, a grown-up Saroo is studying hotel management in Melbourne when an encounter with some other Indian young people sparks his memories of home.  He begins a years-long quest to discover where he came from, dreaming of someday finding his home and reuniting with his brother and mother, who have lived twenty long years without any idea of what happened to him.

Lion.cropped

Lion is directed by Garth Davis, making his feature film debut, and written by Luke Davies, adapting the book A Long Way Home that Saroo Brierley wrote with Larry Buttrose.  The film is extraordinary, painful to watch at times but also deeply exhilarating and emotionally rich.

I was not prepared for the emotional wallop that this film packs.  The true story that Lion depicts is incredible.  The idea that this five-year-old boy was separated from his family, left to fend for himself in a strange city where he knew no one and didn’t even speak the language, is incredibly wrenching.  It’s also incredibly inspiring that young Saroo was able to survive, never giving in to panic or despair.  The film strikes the same balance when it shifts to older Saroo.  His dreams of his lost family, of his brother returning to the train station to find him gone, are devastatingly sad.  And yet, that Saroo was able to use burgeoning internet technology to painstakingly search the Indian continent, over the span of years, looking for and eventually finding his home is inspiring and heartwarming.  Watching Lion is to get on board an emotional rollercoaster.  I cried a lot.  But when the film arrives … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Moonlight

February 20th, 2017
,

In Barry Jenkins’ riveting, heartbreaking film Moonlight, we follow the journey from childhood to manhood of a gay, African-American boy Chiron.  The film presents Chrion’s story in three parts.  At first, we meet Chiron as a quiet, lonely boy who is bullied by his peers and being raised by a single mother.  Chiron forms a connection with a drug-dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who takes Chiron under his wing.  In the second part, we see Chiron as a high school student, struggling to come to grips with his homosexuality while dealing with his mother, now lost to drug abuse, and the increasingly brutal torment from the other boys at school.  In the third part, we see Chiron as a muscled drug-dealer himself, styled after Juan, who is drawn back to his home town and a re-connection with a childhood friend, Kevin.

Moonlight.cropped

Moonlight is a triumph, a deeply emotional film that is a richly affecting character study of this lost boy, Chiron.  The central question of Moonlight is of Chiron’s identity.  Who is he, at heart, and who will he become?  The three chapters are each titled with one of his names or nicknames (part one is “Little,” part two is “Chiron,” and part three is “Black”).  In a critical scene in the first chapter, Juan tells a story of how he earned the nickname “Blue” as a child.  When Chiron asks him if that’s the name he then went by, Juan responds by saying that you can’t let others define your identity for you.  In that chapter, we see that Chiron as a boy is known as “Little” by the other kids because of his small stature and quiet, gentle nature.  They look down on him, and bully him.  ”Black,” meanwhile, is an affectionate nickname that his friend Kevin gave him.  But in chapter three, the persona of “Black” that Chiron has created seems to be a striking recreation of Juan, the role model who, briefly, meant so much to Chiron as a little boy.  But none of these personas represent who Chiron is as a person; “Black,” the hardened drug-dealer, least of all.  The wrenching question raised by the film, and running across all three chapters, is whether Chiron can somehow navigate the tough circumstances in which he has grown up in order to find himself.  The movie’s ambiguous ending does not allow us any happy, easy answers.

Mahershala Ali has had a hell of a 2016.  He was phenomenal as the villain in Luke Cage, and very solid in a small but important role in Hidden Figures.  But man oh man does he crush it here in this role of Juan.  I’ve been a fan of Mr. … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews Hell or High Water

February 17th, 2017
,

In David Mackenzie’s film Hell or High Water, Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as brothers robbing small banks across Texas, while Jeff Bridges plays the Texas Ranger determined to catch them.  The film explores the poverty rampant across Texas (and so much of the U.S. these days), and as the story develops we understand that the boys are robbing branches of Texas Midland Bank in an effort to get payback for what they see as the wrongs that bank, which is about to foreclose on their late mother’s ranch, has done to them and to others across Texas.

hell-or-high-water.cropped

I was not prepared for what a powerhouse film this would be.  The idea of Robin Hood-like bank-robbers is a familiar one, as is the structure of following both the breaking-the-law bandits and the police officer(s) chasing them.  But there is so much more to Hell and High Water than just that.

First and foremost, the film is a blisteringly angry picture of the state of so many communities these days, feeling left behind my modernity and globalization, and with the gap between the haves and the have-nots widening into a seemingly unbreachable gulf.  But like a well-mannered Southern gentleman, the film doesn’t convey this anger through hysterics or big speeches.  No, so much of the film’s message is conveyed in simple, quiet imagery of the Texas towns in which the film is set, with the “get out of debt” signs everywhere and the striking images of run-down cars and run-down homes.  This is a film with a broken heart, and by the end the audience will feel that too.

Secondly, the film is a wonderful character study.  Both Chris Pine and Ben Foster do the best work of their careers.  Chris Pine first came to my attention — and so everyone else’s — in his role of Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot.  There’s no question that Mr. Pine is a movie star, but Hell or High Water proves that he’s a great ACTOR.  I loved the quiet, understated way he played Toby.  I knew Ben Foster, meanwhile, only from his role of Warren Worthington/Angel from the disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand.  I’d heard that he had developed into a great actor but I don’t think I’ve seen any of his films from the past decade.  But now I know what people meant, because he’s dynamite here as Tanner, Toby’s louder, more reckless brother.  In lesser hands these two characters could have been cliches, but Mr. Pine and Mr. Foster bring them to life with great depth and dignity.  I love their chemistry together.  These brothers are oil and water in many ways, and yet we also … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Live by Night

February 13th, 2017
,

I first became a fan of Ben Affleck from his work in Kevin Smith’s early nineties films, and in particular his so-funny, good-natured participation in the DVD commentary tracks for Mallrats and Chasing Amy (which are, seriously, among the greatest commentary tracks ever recorded).  Mr. Affleck seemed like such a good guy in those commentary tracks that I stuck with him when his career went south, and I was happy when he was able to relaunch himself as a director.  As I have written about multiple times, Gone Baby Gone, which was Mr. Affleck’s directorial debut (and he also co-wrote the film!), is one of my all-time favorite movies.  It was a triumph, a dramatic assertion of Mr. Affleck’s talent as a writer and director.  (Remember also that Mr. Affleck had previously won an Oscar, with Matt Damon, for writing Good Will Hunting.)  I didn’t love The Town, but Argo was terrific.  And so I was hugely excited for Mr. Affleck’s fourth film as a director: Live by Night.  I loved the idea of Mr. Affleck once again adapting a Dennis Lehane novel (as he had done with such success with Gone Baby Gone), and the merging of Mr. Affleck’s fondness for Boston-based crime stories with a big-budget period-piece setting seemed like a terrific match.

LivebyNight.cropped

And so I was bummed that Live by Night left me somewhat cold.  The film looks gorgeous, and has a terrific cast.  There are lots of individual moments and sequences that are terrific.  But it doesn’t hang together as well as it should.  There is too much plot, too many characters, and not enough actual character development.

Mr. Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin.  Though his father (played by Brendan Gleeson) is a police captain, Joe himself comes back from WWI to become a bank-robber.  He falls in love with a beautiful woman, Emma (Sienna Miller), who is the mistress of the head of Boston’s Irish mob.  That all comes crashing down on Joe’s head rather spectacularly.  After several years in prison, Joe goes to work for a rival Italian mobster and moves down to Florida, where he quickly becomes the head of the local bootlegging business.  Joe’s big plans for the end of prohibition soon put him in conflict with his new boss.

I like Mr. Affleck as an actor, but his Joe disappointingly remains a cypher throughout the film.  (This feels more like a script problem than a performance issue.)  I don’t feel I ever got to know or understand this character.  The film hints that his experiences in WWI brought him back to Boston a changed man, but the film never really allows us to understand what’s going on inside … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Hidden Figures

February 3rd, 2017

Hidden Figures, based on the recent book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, tells the true story of three pioneering African-American women: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.  These three remarkable women worked for NASA in the 1960′s and beyond.  Katherine Johnson calculated the launch windows and trajectories for many of the flights for Project Mercury, including Alan Shephard’s first American manned spaceflight in 1961 and John Glenn’s first American orbit of the Earth in 1962.  She was later involved in the moon landings.  Dorothy Vaughan was the first African-American woman to be promoted to being a head of personnel at NASA, and she became a leader in computer programming, mastering the FORTRAN coding language of the early electronic computers at NASA.  Mary Jackson became NASA’s first African-American woman engineer, winning a court case in order to be allowed to take classes at a whites-only school that were necessary in order for her to qualify for that engineer position.

HiddenFigures

The film Hidden Figures tells the story of the friendship between these three African-American women, and chronicles the years between 1957-1962 in which they, and other African-American women, played key roles in the groundbreaking work being done at NASA that resulted in Alan Shephard and Scott Glenn’s historic flights in 1961-62, and eventually in the United States’ winning the race to land on the moon.

This is an incredible story, and a very important one that has been mostly ignored by the many historical accounts of the space race in the sixties.  I’m delighted that Ms. Shetterly’s book, and now this film directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Allison Schroeder and Mr. Melfi, is telling this story.

The power of this true story carries the film, and makes Hidden Figures an enjoyable film even though I often felt the incredible true story was let down by the filmmaking choices.

I saw Hidden Figures soon after seeing Manchester by the Sea, a film that was striking in its naturalism — that film felt so viscerally real, with fully-fleshed-out characters and dialogue that felt honest and realistic to how people really talk and behave.  Hidden Figures, by contrast, felt to me to be full of scenes that felt declarative and fake, scenes whose purpose was to make a point or to ensure the audience understood something, rather than reflecting the way anyone actually would talk or act.  Take an early scene with Mary, in which we see her with a group of engineers testing a capsule in a wind-tunnel.  Mary’s supervisor encourages her to become an engineer, and Mary responds with a very blunt statement, saying something like: “I’m a Negro woman, no one will let me become … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Jackie

February 1st, 2017
,

Natalie Portman stars as Jackie Kennedy in Pablo Larraín’s intimate and moving film Jackie, which chronicles the days immediately following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November, 1963.  The film uses as a framing device an interview of Jackie by Theodore White for Life magazine conducted a week later.  The film occasionally flashes back to Jackie’s life in the White House before the murder of her husband, most notably her famous televised tour of the White House.  But the film’s focus is on Jackie’s experiences in the hours and days immediately following JFK’s assassination.

Jackie.cropped

Natalie Portman is magnificent in the lead role.  She could have easily allowed her costumes to carry the acting load for her, but Ms. Portman is too strong an actress to fall into that biopic trap.  She’s riveting from beginning to end.  As with Daniel Day Lewis’ towering performance in Steven Spielberg’s magnificent film Lincoln, one of the first things that struck me about Ms. Portman’s performance was her depiction of Jackie’s voice.  It wasn’t quite what I’d expected, but it works wonderfully.  I’ve seen other great actors vanish beneath the weight of a faux accent, but here again Ms. Portman is too strong an actress to fall into that trap.  She inhabits the character fully, and the film’s structure gives her a wealth of emotionally rich moments to play.

By focusing its story on Jackie and her experiences in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination, the film finds a narrative power and an emotional intimacy.  It’s devastating to watch Jackie go through this horror, and in watching her pull herself back together after this unimaginable tragedy one cannot be anything less than bowled over by her courage and her strength.  The film’s climax is the moment in which Jackie suggests the concept of the Kennedys as “Camelot,” and this brilliant piece of political myth-making on Jackie’s part is the perfect encapsulation of not just her intelligence, but her fierce will to be the author of her own story.  This was not a woman who was going to allow others to chart her life’s path.

The film’s laser-tight focus on just the few days immediately following the assassination of President Kennedy gives it an entirely different, and more gripping, feel than most prestige bio-pics.  Jackie depicts famous events that shook the United States and that still reverberate today.  And yet, the film is surprisingly intimate.

I can’t vouch for the film’s historical accuracy.  In Jackie, we watch so many intimate moments with the newly-widowed Jackie, moments that I can’t imagine anyone could have known about.  I expect that there’s a lot in this film that was extrapolated by interviews and writings of the time, … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Manchester By The Sea

Casey and Ben Affleck both earned my approbation forever with 2007′s Gone Baby Gone, a magnificent and heartbreaking piece of work.  That film was Ben Affleck’s directorial debut and Casey played the lead role.  If you haven’t seen it, go see it right now.  I’ve been waiting ever since for either Affleck brother to be able to top their incredible work in that film.  (Both have come close once or twice over the years, Ben with Argo and Casey with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.)  A decade later, Casey Affleck might have finally done it with his extraordinary work in the wrenching and deeply moving Manchester By the Sea.

manchester-by-the-sea.cropped

In Kenneth Lonergan’s film, Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler.  When we first meet Lee in the film, he is working as a janitor on the South Shore (Quincy, MA), living a lonely life consisting of brief, mostly-terse interactions with his building’s tenants and picking bar fights.  Then a call summons Lee back to his home on the North Shore, as his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died of a heart attack.

I’d thought the early death of Lee’s brother would be the central tragedy of the film, but no, that’s not really what the film is about at all.  Although the film takes its time in telling us why Lee is known around town as “that” Lee Chandler, we do eventually learn the heartbreaking details of what has turned Lee into such an empty shell of a person.  It is this that is the defining event of the film, and the reason for telling this story.

Casey Affleck is simply remarkable in the role.  He commands the audience’s attention in every moment that he is on-screen (which is almost the entirety of the film’s 137-minute run-time).  As always, Mr. Affleck eschews movie-star histrionics, instead bringing Lee to life through a series of tiny, quiet moments and his gentle, almost mumbling line-delivery.  With every small action or inaction, with his posture and the look in his eyes, Mr. Affleck fully inhabits this deeply broken man.  My favorite moment in the entire film is the quiet scene in which we see Lee stuffing his clothes in a bag and then, almost reverently, carefully wrapping the three objects (I won’t tell you what they are) he picks up off the top of his chest of drawers.  That’s the whole movie right there.

I knew going in that this would be a somber movie and I was fearful that a two-and-a-half movie about grief, however well-crafted, would be a chore.  But the genius of Kenneth Lonergan’s film is how alive it is.  After two-and-a-half hours, when the credits rolled, … [continued]

 

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]

 

Josh Reviews La La Land

In La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his marvelous and intense film Whiplash, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star as two young artists struggling to make it in Los Angeles. Ms. Stone plays Mia, a struggling actress working as a barista, while Mr Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz musician who, soon after we meet him, gets fired from his demeaning (at least that’s how he views it) job playing popular ditties on piano at a restaurant. Mia and Sebastian’s first two interactions don’t go well, but when they meet for a third time, something sparks.

la-la-land.cropped

La La Land is a musical, a rare thing in cinema these days.  A musical is certainly a retro style of film, and Mr. Chazelle leans into that, with aspects of the film such as the opening credits and the closing “the end” title card having the look and feel of Hollywood films from days gone by.  I loved those touches, they work together to help set a tone for this film as something different, something set apart in style from so many of the other movies crowding our multiplexes these days.

The film also has an earnestness that feels retro in this modern cynical age.  This is a film that wears its heart on its sleeve.  Some might find that corny, but I found it to be enormously appealing.  Ms. Stone and Mr. Gosling are able to sell the film’s big emotional beats completely, drawing the audience into their story.

The music in La La Land is great. Right away from the joyous opening number I was captured by the film’s effervescent tone, not to mention the extraordinary film-making skill on display as that complicated opening number, set in the midst of an L.A. traffic jam, appears to unfold in one unbroken take.  That was impressive!

But La La Land works because, even if you were to take all of the wonderful musical sequences out of the movie, you would still be left with a compelling story. Ms. Stone and Mr. Gosling’s shared chemistry and movie-star wattage make you care about these two characters and their relationship. But more than that, I was taken by the film’s meditations on creative struggles, the hardship of the quest for artistic success, and the heart-rending soul-searching that must be done when one has to weigh giving up on one’s artistic dreams for a chance at more attainable every-day goals. Anyone who has ever tried to make art surely knows these struggles. I was captivated by the way in which Mr. Chazelle explored these issues on-screen.

Although I like them both individually, I was not that interested in Ms. Stone and Mr. Gosling’s prior two … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 19): Passion (2012)

I am excited to have finally arrived at the end of my journey through the filmography of master director Brian De Palma.  (Well, the end for now – Mr. De Palma is alive and well, and hopefully has additional films in his future!)  2007′s Redacted was a rough watch — click here for my review of that film, which I strongly disliked.  It’s reception must have shaken Mr. De Palma as well, as he didn’t release another film for five years, until 2012′s Passion.

Passion.cropped

Even though I strongly disliked Redacted, I was excited to dive into Passion, because this film looked like a return to a classic De Palma type of story: an erotically-charged mystery/suspense film.  Passion stars two beautiful women who are also each great actresses: Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams.  Seeing these two women matched with Brian De Palma looked like a recipe for fun, and of course stills like the one I have included above suggested that this film would contain some classic De Palma sexy fun.

I enjoyed Passion, but like so many of the late-career De Palma films, it didn’t quite ever come together as a completely successful film.  The whole thing felt somewhat half-baked to me.

Passion is certainly gorgeous to look at (a welcome relief after the ugly, clumsy-looking Redacted).  The film is sumptuously shot, and I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. De Palma’s many carefully-constructed, often-unusual-looking compositions throughout the film.

Many of Mr. De Palma’s favorite stylistic devices make a welcome return here in this film.  We get a split focus shot early in the film, when boyfriend Dirk (Paul Anderson) is on the couch and Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) is in the mirror, asking about Christine (Rachel McAdams).  We have to wait for a while for a signature De Palma split-screen shot, but when it comes it’s a doozy: a long, continuous shot of a drunk Dirk confronting Christine, while Isabelle watches the opera.  This a wonderfully tense, sexy, suspenseful sequence that continues as Christine showers after her party guests have left, while meanwhile we see someone entering her apartment.  This sequence also cleverly incorporates a classic De Palma P.O.V. device, as the camera shifts to show us the intruder’s point of view as he/she sneaks around Christine’s apartment while, on the other side of the split screen, we continue to follow Christine’s movements.  This is a tour de force sequence and a highlight of the movie.

We also get a series of additional P.O.V. shots from Isabelle’s perspective as her life falls apart: first as she walks to the door when the cops arrive at her apartment, then later when the detective questions her, and then again in the lawyer’s office, and … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Rogue One!

December 16th, 2016
, ,

Let me get this out right at the top: Rogue One is better than The Force Awakens.

For those looking for a spoiler-free review, there you go.

For everyone else, buckle in, let’s go!

StarWarsRogueOne.cropped

I have for years been dreaming of seeing a brand new Star Wars film on the big screen that I could say was great without reservation, and I think that film has finally, finally arrived.

I suspect Rogue One will not be nearly as universally beloved as The Force Awakens.  It is far more adult and sophisticated, and the film goes to some dark, dark places.  This is not a kiddie-focused Star Wars movie, and I love it for that, but I suspect that will hurt the film with general audiences.  I also think that despite the film’s pleasingly simple premise — this is the story of how the rebels captured the Death Star plans that Princess Leia hid in R2D2 in the original Star Wars — I have been shocked by how many friends have asked me, in the past week, “so when is this film set?”  To me, the film’s marketing has been very clear, but I suspect many out there don’t see it as the must-watch continuation of the saga that The Force Awakens was so successfully marketed as.

But I am here to tell you, Rogue One is glorious, a rousing adventure story that packs a devastating emotional punch.  Rogue One grapples with the realities of war and sacrifice in a way that none of the previous Star Wars films have.  The original adventures of Luke, Han, and Leia were something of a fairy tale, but Rogue One shows us the reality behind the fairy tale, the lives and losses of the men and women who struggled in the dirt to set the stage for Luke to save the day in A New Hope.  The film was written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, from a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, and directed by Gareth Edwards.  These are all Star Wars newbies (with the exception of John Knoll — though he hasn’t previously been involved on a story level, Mr. Knoll has been a key creative force in ILM for decades), but together they have crafted a magnificent Star Wars film.

This story is set immediately prior to the opening scene of the original Star Wars movie.  As that move begins, Darth Vader is in hot pursuit of Princess Leia’s small ship, aboard which Vader knows are the stolen Death Star plans.  Rogue One winds the story back a bit, to tell us how the Rebels first discovered the existence of the Death Star, and then how they … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Office Christmas Party

December 14th, 2016

Josh (Jason Bateman) helps run the Chicago-based branch of a tech company, Zenotech, overseen by his friend Clay (T.J. Miller).  The branch is doing OK, but Clay’s rivalry with his sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston), just appointed as the company’s C.E.O., leads her to threaten to close down Clay’s branch if they are not able to land a big new client.  When Josh and Clay and their head of tech Tracey (Olivia Mann)’s pitch to a large financial firm fails, they come up with a last-ditch scheme: they invite the financial firm’s representative Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance) to come to their office Christmas party so that he can bond with them and see how Zenotech is filled with good people with whom he’d want to work.  So, although Carol had announced that the Christmas party was cancelled, seeing it as a waste of money, Clay decides to pull out all the stops and throw the biggest party his company has ever seen.  Of course, lots of things go wrong and the Zenotech office Christmas party quickly grows into a wild bacchanal and ever-escalating chaos.

OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY

There is no ground-breaking comedy in Office Christmas Party, and you can probably spot where all the character-arcs are heading about ten minutes into the film.  But that being said, I nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed the film.  It’s very, very funny, and I was taken by the film’s joyful, everything-will-work-out and everyone-will-come-together-as-a-family spirit.

The film works because of its terrific cast, every single member of which shines.  I had no idea that half of the familiar faces who pop up were in this movie, and I was delighted by every single one of them.

Jason Bateman could play a role like this in his sleep: the nice, decent guy surrounded by a bunch of loony-tunes.  The role might be familiar, but Mr. Bateman is so good at this character-type that it’s hard to complain.  Watching him in this role is like watching an old master at work.  Mr. Bateman is one of the finest comedic straight-men to ever grace the screen.  T.J. Miller’s star has been rising for the past several years (He was solid in 2008′s Cloverfield, his first film, and he’s great on Silicon Valley, which I just started watching), and it’s nice to see him in this big-time leading role.  He’s fantastic as Clay, showing us Clay’s goofball man-boy energy but also his earnest desire to be a good boss who can live up to the idealized image he has of his father, who used to run the company.  I love Mr. Miller’s relationship with Mr. Bateman; you really buy these two as friends.  I also loved Mr. Miller’s relationship with Jennifer Aniston … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Allied

For a long time, Robert Zemeckis was one of my very favorite filmmakers.  There was a phenomenal stretch during which I felt that he was making movies that were aimed directly at me, at the exact things that I most loved.  Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Contact these are spectacular films that I love dearly.  Every one of Mr. Zemeckis’ films from this period are fiercely entertaining; they all have a fantasy/sci-fi/geeky aspect to them (which I love!) but are nevertheless able to be extraordinarily crowd-pleasing.  They  are the work of a director at the top of his game, someone with a mastery of visual effects (the visual effects achievement of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? cannot be understated) who was able to use those skills to great effect.  But then something happened, and Mr. Zemeckis moved into directions that just didn’t interest me.  For quite a number of years, Mr. Zemeckis went down a rabbit hole of films utilizing CGI motion-capture that resulted in a bizarre not-quite-real look that didn’t speak to me.  (I love CGI animation, but the sort-of-real look CGI look that Mr. Zemeckis favored lacked the spark and energy of any of the films of Pixar.)  I did watch Beowulf, which I respected as a technical accomplishment, but isn’t a film I have ever felt the desire to revisit.  I skipped The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol altogether.  I was thrilled when Mr. Zemeckis returned to live-action films with Flight, but for some reason I never actually got around to seeing either Flight or his next film, The Walk.  Maybe someday I’ll catch up to them, but Flight’s mediocre reviews kept me away, compounding this guy who hates flying’s aversion to seeing a film about a terrifying airline experience.  As for The Walk, I love the documentary Man on Wire so much that seeing a fake recreation of those events didn’t feel like a must-watch for me.  Which brings me to Allied, which was, at last, a Robert Zemeckis-directed film that I was excited to see as soon as I first heard about it.  Mr. Zemeckis directing a lavish WWII spy film starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard?  I’m in!

Sadly, the film is far from the triumphant return-to-form for Mr. Zemeckis that I had hoped for.

Allied.cropped

I will say that the film looks gorgeous.  Mr. Zemeckis’ skill as a master of the visual form is still intact.  There is some gorgeous imagery in the film, from the vistas of French Morocco to haunting imagery of London during the Blitz.  The very first shot of the film sticks out in my memory: a beautiful shot across the desert, which subtly shifts … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 18): Redacted (2007)

We’ve arrived at the peunltimate installment of my journey through the films of Brian De Palma!  (Links to all of my reviews can be found at the bottom of this post.)  Though Mr. De Palma’s output has slowed considerably over the last two decades, he quickly followed up 2006′s The Black Dahlia with 2007′s Redacted.

Redacted.cropped

Redacted presents us with a series of vignettes of a group of U.S. soldiers during the Iraq war, assembled from footage filmed by different sources, including a French documentary crew and the hand-held camera of one of the soldiers.  (Although the film is supposed to look like it was assembled from real found footage, everything was in fact shot by Mr. De Palma.)

Redacted is an angry anti-war film, and I respect Brian De Palma for so courageously making a movie fueled by the force of his convictions.

But that’s probably the last nice thing I can say about Redacted.  The film is absolutely awful.  It looks and sounds dreadful, completely amateurish.  I couldn’t believe, as I was watching it, that this film was directed by the master Brian De Palma.  And, yes, I know that much of the film is supposed to be “found footage” filmed by the amateur Private Salazar, but it’s not just that the footage looks amateurish.  It’s everything about the film.  The dialogue is terrible, the editing is choppy, the story is embarrassingly simplistic.  It’s painful.

The opening title cards set up some confusion, suggesting that the events in the film are real when we know they’re not.  And everything that follows feels painfully artificial and fake.  All movies, unless they are documentaries, are fake.  But movies that work have a power to speak to an audience, to affect us emotionally.  Brian De Palma could have attempted to tell a story about U.S. soldiers in Iraq using actual documentary footage.  But he chose not to do that, probably because Mr. De Palma recognized the power of fiction to make a point.  There have been many notable anti-war films that are powerful despite the fact that they are fiction, not documentaries.  So this is a film that COULD have worked, but unfortunately nothing about it does.

The dialogue in the film is eye-rolling awful and obvious, and the performances are almost all equally bad.  The whole film feels so fake that it kept me distant from the story being told.  I never engaged with the story or these characters.  We see an introductory speech from Private Salazar, talking into his camera, claiming that there will be no Hollywood narrative in this film.  But isn’t the whole point of making a fictional film, rather than just showing real documentary footage, to have … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Loving

Jeff Nichols’ film Loving tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving.  In the nineteen fifties, Richard, a white man, and Mildred, a black woman, fall in love and decide to get married.  They get married in Washington, DC, but their home state of Virginia outlaws interracial marriage.  They are arrested twice in Virginia and eventually, to avoid prison, they agree to leave Virginia for twenty-five years, abandoning their families and the lives they had known.  Their case eventually winds up before the Supreme Court, and the landmark 1967 decision Loving vs Virginia would invalidate all laws preventing interracial marriage.

Loving.cropped

This is an important story, and writer/director Jeff Nichols brings it to life with artistry and dignity.  (Mr. Nichols has unbelievably written and directed TWO 2016 films.  Earlier this year saw the release of the sci-fi story Midnight Special, a film that I have not yet seen but one to which I very much hope to catch up before finalizing my end of the year lists.)

Loving is anchored by the phenomenal performances of its two lead actors.  Ruth Negga plays Mildred.  I enjoyed her work on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and apparently she was terrific in the first season of Preacher, which I have not yet seen but hope to), but this performance is leagues beyond what I have seen her do before.  With small gestures, Ms. Negga brings Mildred’s warmth and honesty and integrity to life.  Joel Edgerton, meanwhile, plays Richard.  This is an almost silent performance, as Richard is a man of very few words.  And yet, Mr. Edgerton’s work renders dialogue almost irrelevant, as he’s able to bring the audience right into Richard’s mind and heart.  What a joy it’s been to watch Mr. Edgerton’s work develop over the past decade.  He was wasted (as were much of his fellow cast-members, let’s be honest), in a tiny role as a young Owen Lars in Star Wars Episode II and III.  He was solid in Zero Dark Thirty and terrific in leading roles in Black Mass and Exodus: Gods and Kings, two not-great films in which he, nevertheless, shined.  Comparing his work here in Loving to his role in Exodus shows Mr. Edgerton’s range, as in Exodus he is all blustery talk while here in Loving he is quiet and internal.  The chemistry between Ms. Negga and Mr. Edgerton is wonderful, carrying the film on their shoulders.

Mr. Nichols avoids any Oscar-bait speechifying or other artificial, overly-grand silliness in his film.  There are no overly-caricaturized villains and while it is tough to watch at times, the film avoids the unpleasantness that some films focusing on the Civil Rights struggle of this era dive deeply … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Arrival

As the film Arrival opens, we are introduced to Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist living a quiet, solitary life following the death of her daughter.  That life is shaken when Earth is visited by extra-terrestrial life, with twelve enormous round objects appearing in different locations around the globe.  Dr. Banks is visited by US Army Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker), who tasks her to join a team working to find a way to communicate with the alien life-forms (huge creatures that the human scientists refer to as “heptapods”) within one of the objects/ships.  Dr. Banks is paired up with a physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and together they work to find some way to translate the mysterious, circular shape-based written language of the alien heptapods so that they can discover why the aliens have come to us.

Arrival.cropped

Arrival is a magnificent film, a gorgeous, original, cerebral sci-fi story.  The film has the visual splendor of a big-budget movie, but this is not an action-adventure film, rather this is an intelligent drama that is a fascinating exploration of language and communication.  I was enormously impressed by the way the film was able to take these difficult-to visualize concepts and bring them to glorious visual life.

While the film has a very quiet, elegiac tone throughout most of its run time, don’t mistake my calling the film cerebral to mean that it doesn’t have a heartbeat.  I was very surprised by how emotionally affecting I found Arrival to be, as the film is as much about the emotional internal life of Dr. Banks (Amy Adams’ character) as it is about the scientific story of language and communication.  The developments in the final twenty minutes or so of the film are devastating — heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measure, an extremely difficult balance to achieve — and I find that I have been continually thinking about this film ever since seeing it.

There are some wonderfully mind-bending aspects to the film’s third act, and this is a film I am eager to see again so I can see how it plays knowing where the story winds up.  At first viewing, I was enormously impressed by the careful way in which the story was constructed, with all the different pieces fitting together beautifully in the end.  The film was directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, adapting the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.  Together, this team has crafted an intricate puzzle of a film that was assembled with great skill and craft.

Amy Adams is magnificent in the lead role.  She develops the character of Louise Banks through a lot of small gestures and quiet moments, … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Set more than a half a century before the events of the seven Harry Potter books (and the eight movie adaptations), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them introduces us to a young man named Newt Scamander.  Mr. Scamander was mentioned in the original Harry Potter series as the author of a textbook called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  This film of the same name introduces us to Mr. Scamander as a young man, traveling to New York City with a suitcase full of magical creatures.  When several creatures are accidentally set loose, Mr. Scamander and several new friends — the magic-wielding sisters Tina and Queenie, as well as the No-Maj (non-magical) Jacob Kowalski — set off to recapture them.  All the while, though, a terrible threat haunts New York City…

FantasticBeasts.cropped

I can completely understand the desire to continue the Harry Potter saga beyond the adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter novels.  I can of course see the studios’ financial desire — the eight Harry Potter films were huge money-makers, so of course the studio would want to make more .  But as a fan, I can also understand the desire to tell more stories in this rich universe.  Although the seven books told the story of Harry Potter, and that story has been completed, the wizarding world created by Ms. Rowling — and brought to life on-screen by so many talented craftsmen and women — has such life in it that I can see there being plenty of room for further adventures.  Just as I believe there is room for more Star Wars adventures beyond the story of the Skywalker family (and I am excited to see the first on-screen attempt at this, Rogue One, in just a few weeks!), so too do I believe there is room for additional Harry Potter adventures that don’t involve Harry Potter.

So I have no automatic objection to the notion of a Harry Potter spin-off film.  And this film has been assembled with some key creative people in place to help make this feel like a legitimate expansion of the Harry Potter universe rather than a cheap cash-grab.  First and foremost, the script was written by J.K. Rowling herself.  What better way could there possibly be to ensure that this spin-off is legitimate??  It’s a clever move, and although Ms. Rowling did not write any of the screenplays for the previous Harry Potter films, her work here is strong.  But it’s the legitimacy that her involvement gives Fantastic Beasts that is the most important aspect of her participation, I think.  On the film-making side, Fantastic Beasts is directed by David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter films.  … [continued]

 

From the Blu-Ray Shelf: Josh Reviews Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

I enjoyed the first Neighbors. I wouldn’t call it a comedy classic, but it was a very funny film with a great cast. I loved the Seth Rogen-Rose Byrne combo, and all the frat boys (Zac Efron, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jerrod Carmichael) were fun. So I was interested in a sequel, though I missed it in theatres this summer.

Neighbors-2.cropped

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising got weak reviews when it was released but I enjoyed it. As with the first Neighbors, this isn’t a brilliant or groundbreaking in any way film, but it’s pretty consistently funny and with a very short run-time (only 92 minutes!) it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

While the first film dealt with Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), young parents and first-time home-owners, dealing with the nightmare of a frat house moving in next door, here in the sequel they are preparing to sell their house but now have to deal with a sorority moving in next door.

On the one hand, that premise is such a clear attempt to reset the characters so they can basically retell the story of the first film that it’s somewhat eye-rolling.  On the other hand, it’s such a natural way to get back to the concept that made the first movie fun, that I can’t really complain.

Sequels are hard, and comedy sequels particularly so. There’s a tension between wanting to tell a new story while also preserving what everyone enjoyed about the first film. So often, what happens is that these sequels basically wind up telling the same story again. When this approach doesn’t work, the result is a film that feels boring and repetitive. So the trick for a sequel is to somehow be both new and familiar at the same time.  And so I sort of have to admire the simple premise of Seth Rogen & Rose Byrne battling a sorority instead of a fraternity.  It feels clever at the same time as it is obvious. This is not genius level comedy film-making, but it works.  The film’s short run-time helps the viewer not have to much time to overthink this obvious set-up.  And the terrific cast mines enough humor out of the fun of seeing these characters back in a similar situation that it all comes together.

Where the film is weak is that the new characters introduced, the young women in the sorority, are not anywhere near as interesting as the boys in the first film. They feel far less well-defined, less interesting.

Chloe Grace Moretz feels like good casting on paper as the main new character, Shelby, but I never quite got a bead on her character.  On the one hand, she … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 17): The Black Dahlia (2006)

I’m in the home stretch of my project to watch all the films directed by Brian De Palma!  Following 2002′s Femme Fatale, Mr. De Palma was off the scene for a while until 2006′s The Black Dahlia.  This noir murder-mystery was adapted by Josh Friedman from James Ellroy’s novel, which was itself inspired by the real-life murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947.  Ms. Short’s nude body was found mutilated, and her murder was never solved.

the-black-dahlia.cropped

In the film, set in 1947, L.A.P.D. partners Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and the rookie Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) investigate the murder of Elizabeth Short, who the press soon nicknames “The Black Dahlia” (just as happened in real life).  In their own way, both Lee and Bucky become obsessed with solving Elizabeth Short’s murder.  Bucky learns that Elizabeth was a lesbian who was involved in a porno film.  He meets and then becomes involved himself with one of Elizabeth’s friends (maybe her girlfriend) Madeleine (Hilary Swank).  Meanwhile, Lee becomes increasingly unhinged, which drives a wedge between him and his girlfriend Kay (Scarlett Johanssen), while the sexual tension between Kay and Bucky begins to heat up.  The murder of one young woman threatens to uncover a much larger world of sex and crime in Los Angeles.

The Black Dahlia is probably the strongest film of the last almost-two-decades of Mr. De Palma’s career, his best since 1998′s Snake Eyes.  There’s a lot to enjoy in the film.  I loved the style and atmosphere of this 1947-set mystery.  This feels like a much tighter, focused film than some of the other late-career De Palma films (such as Femme Fatale, about which I recently wrote, and also Passion, about which I’ll be writing soon).  But it’s not perfect, and the film has some unfortunate weaknesses that keep it short of altogether working the way a great film does.

The film starts off strong.  I love the fast-paced opening sequence.  Right away this feels like a differently-styled film for Mr. De Palma.  It moves very quickly, with lots of short scenes.  There’s nothing overly flashy at first in this film, just a tight script, good actors, and solid directing.  Even when he’s restraining himself from his usual stylistic flourishes, Mr. De Palma’s master-level film-making skill is on clear display.  It’s a lot of fun to watch.  For these past several films (Snake Eyes, Femme Fatale) Mr. De Palma has been telling noir-type stories, and it seems right away here in The Black Dahlia that this will again be the case.  (Even though in the end the film turns out a lot different from how I’d expected — more on that later.)  This … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Doctor Strange

In Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the incredibly skilled, and incredibly arrogant, neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange.  Strange is at the top of his field and he knows it.  But his privileged life falls apart after a terrible car accident leaves him unable to use his hands.  As the months go by and attempt after attempt to repair his hands using a variety of increasingly experimental medical procedures all fail, one after another, Strange grows ever-more desperate.  He eventually heads to Kathmandu, chasing a rumor of a man whose crippled legs were healed.  What he finds is a mysterious woman known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who opens Strange’s eyes to an entirely different way of looking at the world.  She also draws Strange into the widening conflict between the followers of her order, who consider themselves the protectors of the world from all manner of mystical threats, and an outcast named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson) whose evil plans might have world-shattering repercussions.

DoctorStrange.cropped

With Doctor Strange (as with last year’s Ant Man), Marvel has backed off of the increasing escalation of their super-hero films (best exemplified by the enormous superhero-battling-superhero epic Captain America: Civil War, a film I really loved) and gone back to what they did so well back in the early days of “Phase One” of their super-hero cinematic universe.  That is, tell a solid origin story of a new character.  Watching Doctor Strange reminded me very much of watching that first Captain America or Thor movie.  I wouldn’t hold up either of those films as the very best of what the Marvel cinematic universe has to offer.  But they are solidly entertaining films, perfectly cast, that take on the seemingly impossible task of bringing an outlandish comic-book character and world to life while making it all look incredibly easy.  Doctor Strange does all of those things.

Let’s start with the perfect casting, because once again Marvel has absolutely nailed, and I mean nailed, the casting of another of their classic heroes.  Benedict Cumberbatch was born to play Dr. Strange, and when he is finally decked out in full Dr. Strange attire at the end of the film (including that classic cape and even the Eye of Agamotto), he looks absolutely perfect.  (I cannot wait to see Cumberbatch’s Strange meet his “facial-hair brother”, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark.)  Mr. Cumberbatch is able to nail Strange’s fierce intelligence and his hauteur, but also allow us to see his nobility and his strength.  In the comics, Dr. Strange is one of the moral pillars of the Marvel Universe, and Mr. Cumberbach takes us there by the end of the film.  (After all the hubub over how the … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Girl on the Train

October 31st, 2016
,

Adapted from the Paula Hawkins novel of the same name, The Girl on the Train tells the story of Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), a divorced alcoholic.  Every day Rachel rides the train to and from New York City, and she has become obsessed with the couple living in a house that she sees every day from her train window during the trip.  To her, this couple represents a perfect, happy relationship, of the type that Rachel longs for.  But one day, Rachel sees the woman kissing another man.  This drives Rachel even deeper into depression, and later that night, after getting completely drunk, Rachel decides to confront the cheating woman.  The next morning she wakes up with no memory of what occurred, but there is blood on her shirt and head, and the woman, Megan, is reported missing.

TheGirlOnTheTrain.cropped

I haven’t read the original novel, so I can only judge The Girl on the Train as a movie.

As a movie, there is a lot about it that works.  Emily Blunt is magnificent in the lead role, and for much of the film I was quite hooked into the mystery of what had transpired.  Unfortunately, I was able to figure it out far earlier than the movie wanted me to, and as the pieces came together I was bummed that there were so many coincidences that, for me, weakened the answers that the film provided as to what had gone down.

I have been a fan of Emily Blunt’s ever since her small role in Charlie Wilson’s War.  She’s been spectacular in film after film since then.  I didn’t love The Devil Wears Prada, but she was terrific in it and very memorable.  She was great in The Adjustment Bureau with Matt Damon, and she was the best thing about Lynn Shelton’s awkward indie Your Sister’s Sister She was perfection in the very funny, and very under-rated, The Five-Year Engagement with Jason Segal, a rare comedy role for her.  She kicked a lot of ass and was riveting in the sci-fi films Looper with Bruce Willis & Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise, and although I was one of the few people who seemed to not have loved Sicario, I was for sure head over heels in love with Ms. Blunt’s leading performance.

She is once again spectacular here in The Girl on the Train as Rachel.  Ms. Blunt completely embodies this mess of a character, keeping the audience thoroughly hooked into her performance even as she, and the film, don’t shy away from depicting many of Rachel’s terrible actions.  This is a character who has been terrible to others and to herself, who you think … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews For The Love of Spock

October 28th, 2016
,

For the Love of Spock is a documentary about Leonard Nimoy that was produced and directed by Mr. Nimoy’s son, Adam Nimoy.  The project was originally intended as an in-depth look at Leonard Nimoy’s iconic character, Mr. Spock, that Adam would create with Leonard’s involvement.  Unfortunately, Leonard Nimoy passed away in February, 2015.  Following his father’s passing, Adam Nimoy adjusted his documentary project to be look back at his father’s work and life, and also to his (Adam’s) own sometimes-fraught relationship with his father.

ForTheLoveOfSpock.cropped

For the Love of Spock is a superb documentary and a wonderful look back at Leonard Nimoy’s life and work.  Of course, the focus of the film is on Leonard Nimoy’s creation of the character of Spock.  The film explores the many decisions that were made early on, by the combination of Leonard Nimoy along with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry as well as the show’s writers and directors, that together created this much-loved character, and the film also explores just what it was about this character, and Leonard Nimoy’s performance, that made Spock such a beloved icon.  As a big-time Star Trek fan, there wasn’t too much new information here for me, but the film was thorough enough and skillfully-enough assembled that I was completely engaged (no pun intended) from start to finish.  And while we get the famous, much-told stories (such as the origin of the Vulcan salute or the Vulcan nerve pinch), the film also digs deeper to share many interesting recollections and anecdotes from the early days of the creation of the original Star Trek TV show, and I relished that look back at the creation of the iconic show.

I was also very interested in the time spent exploring Leonard Nimoy’s background and career pre-Star Trek, as these were areas about which I didn’t know as much.  The film is packed full with wonderful photos and old video clips of a young Leonard Nimoy, and I found those to be hugely enjoyable to see.  It was also interesting to hear stories from some of the people who worked with Leonard Nimoy during his days in the theatre.  (I wish there was some video footage that existed of those performances, as the stories of Mr. Nimoy’s work in the theatre were so tantalizing.)

Everyone you’d hope to hear from in a documentary like this is included.  We get some wonderful interview clips with all of the surviving original Star Trek cast.  There are some particularly great moments with Mr. Nimoy and William Shatner, most drawn from convention footage or some of the retrospective projects that the two men did together later in their careers. We also hear from almost all the … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 16): Femme Fatale (2002)

My journey through the films of Brian De Palma continues!

Following Mr. De Palma’s brief excursion into big-budget sci-fi, his next film returned to him to more familiar ground of crime, mystery, beautiful dames and Hitchcockian double-twists.  I’d never seen Femme Fatale before this De Palma viewing project, and I was interested to see whether this film — whose title seemed to promise a classic sort of De Palma story — would satisfy.

Femme Fatale.cropped

Well, it does and it doesn’t.  There are some great delights in seeing Mr. De Palma return to this somewhat familiar ground, and there’s no question that Femme Fatale gives the master director plenty of opportunities to strut his stuff and demonstrate his extraordinary film-making skills.  But this film’s script just doesn’t have the sharpness of some of Mr. De Palma’s previous, stronger work.  The foundation upon which Mr. De Palma piles his cinematic bells and whistles is somewhat wobbly, and so while the film is fun and certainly held my interest, it doesn’t work as well as Mr. De Palma’s best films.

As the film opens, we see a beautiful, nude woman watching an old noir movie on TV.  In my review of Snake Eyes, I wrote about how it took me until the very end of the film before I realized that the loud, colorful, brash film that I had been watching was in fact a noir, and in that moment I finally understood the film that Mr. De Palma was making.  Here at the start of Femme Fatale, it’s as if Mr, De Palma wants to make sure his intentions are perfectly clear: this is a noir, OK?  Got it?  OK, I’ve got it!  And the beautiful image of a naked woman seen in a reflection is a classic De Palma image.  I love this opening.  I love how skillfully Mr. De Palma plays with the audience, making us wait quite a while before we actually are allowed to see the woman’s face or to hear her speak.  (This is smart, as Rebecca Romijn is competent but not exactly a master actress.  More on this later.)

I’ve noted in so many of these reviews of the films of Mr. De Palma the way he enjoys playing with the notions of watching.  Just as we are watching this movie, so too are so many De Palma characters seen watching others, often through TV or camera screens.  This theme continues to be present here in Femme Fatale.  We see Laure (Rebecca Romijn’s character) watching a noir movie on TV in the film’s opening shot, as I’d just discussed.  We see the cops watching the red carpet on multiple different TV screens.  In a carefully staged and … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews the Extended Version of Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters

October 21st, 2016
, ,

One of the many great things that started to happen with the success of DVDs in the aughts was the proliferation of extended cuts of movies.  I always enjoy checking out an extended cut of a film.  I always find it to be an interesting exploration of an alternate version of a film.  Sometimes, an extended version results in a hugely different film.  Sometimes the changes are significant, and sometimes they are very insignificant.  Sometimes a good film can be made great, or a great film can be made even better.  And sometimes the extended version is dramatically inferior to the original version.  I recently wrote about the extended version of Batman v. Superman, which made a watchable movie (albeit still not a great one) out of the disastrous theatrical version.  I also recently wrote about the extended edition of Ridley Scott’s The Martian.  I adored the theatrical version, and I didn’t think that the minor additions inserted into the slightly-longer extended version made much difference to the film.

Melissa McCarthy;Kristen Wiig;Kate McKinnon;Leslie Jones;Chris Hemsworth

I was intrigued to learn that an extended edition of Paul Feig’s recent reboot of Ghostbusters was being released to DVD & blu-ray.  I enjoyed Mr. Feig’s Ghostbusters, though in my review I commented that often the editing of the film seemed choppy, as if the film had been pared down from a much-longer version.  Would the extended edition address those concerns?  Would it improve the film?  Or would the result be an overly-long, bogged-down version?

Well, somewhere in between.  Ultimately I feel about this extended version of Ghostbusters pretty much the same way I did about the extended version of The Martian.  The additions are good but not essential.  The longer cut is not significantly better than the theatrical cut, but it works and certainly doesn’t do any harm to the film.

There’s no question that the best thing about this new extended edition is that the editing feels smoother and less choppy than the theatrical cut.  There’s a more natural cutting back-and-forth between the characters and story-lines in this longer version.  We get to see more of Rowan, in his human form, before he comes face-to-face with the Ghostbusters, which helps establish his character as the villain.  One of my complaints about the film, originally, is that because the villain exists in three different forms — as the nebbishy Rowan, as the mind-controlled Kevin, and finally as the giant Ghostbusters logo come-to-life — and because none of these forms are on-screen for all that long, the villain didn’t make much of an impact for me.  These additional scenes of Rowan (played by Neil Casey) helped that for me.

I was surprised that Charles Dance’s character, … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 15): Mission to Mars (2000)

My journey through all the films of Brian De Palma continues!  (Scroll down to the bottom to see links to all of my previous reviews.)  Following 1998′s Snake Eyes, a film with a poor critical reputation that I don’t think is at all deserved, we come to Mission to Mars, a film that also has a poor critical reputation.  But whereas I unabashedly love Snake Eyes, I can’t quite say the same for Mission to Mars.  It’s nowhere near as terrible as many people like to say it is, but nonetheless it doesn’t quite work.

Mission to Mars.cropped

Gary Sinese (re-teaming with Brian De Palma following his role in Snake Eyes) plays Jim McConnell, an astronaut whose wife has recently been killed.  His friends head off on the first manned mission to Mars, but when tragedy strikes a rescue/recovery mission is organized with Jim’s involvement, along with his friend Commander Woody Blake (Tim Robins), Blake’s wife Terri Fisher (Connie Nielson), and Phil Ohlmeyer (Jerry O’Connell).

It’s interesting to see Mr. De Palma’s style applied to a sci-fi film.  Mr. De Palma’s eye and style give Mission to Mars a different feel than your average big-budget sci-fi flick.  There’s a lot to enjoy about the film.  While the story isn’t that sophisticated, the mystery of what happened to the original crew on Mars is enough to hold my interest throughout the film.  Similarly, none of the characters are that interesting or complex, but there’s enough movie-star charisma on display — between the afore-mentioned Gary Sinese, Tom Robbins, Connie Nielson, and Jerry O’Connell, plus also Don Cheadle, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and others — to keep the audience hooked in.  However, I dearly miss the sharp work that David Koepp did on the screenplays of Mr. De Palma’s last three films (Carlito’s Way, Mission: Impossible, and Snake Eyes).  (I groaned when, during the hull breach situation, Tim Robbins’ character says: “Come on, people, let’s work the problem,” a direct and obvious rip-off from Apollo 13.  Not the script’s finest moment.)

Both The Bonfire of the Vanities and Snake Eyes opened with a lengthy single-take tracking shot designed to introduce the characters and setting, and so too does this film, as we meet all of the main characters at a BBQ party before the original mission to Mars’ launch.  This device feels a little cliche for Brian De Palma at this point, so not nearly as effective as before (nor does it have the jaw-dropping audaciousness of Snake Eyes’ opening shot that somehow involved thousands of extras in the boxing arena), but it’s still fun to see and a neat method of introducing us to all the main characters.

In terms of signature … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 14): Snake Eyes (1998)

September 30th, 2016
, ,

A few years ago I decided to start watching all of the films directed by Brian De Palma.  He’d always struck me as a very interesting director, one who had helmed a variety of very different films, and about whom there seemed to be a strong split in critical opinion.  I knew that there were several De Palma films that I had seen and enjoyed, and many more that I had not seen but was curious about.  And so my “Days of De Palma” series began.  It’s taken me far longer than I’d expected to make my way through Mr. de Palma’s filmography, I kept getting distracted and moving onto other things, but I never gave up and I am happy to say that, as I write this, I have completed my viewing project.  Now all that remains is for me to write about this last stretch of films!  Let’s begin with Snake Eyes.

Snake Eyes

I believe that Mission: Impossible was the first Brian De Palma film that I ever saw in theatres, back in 1996.  I really liked that film, and so when Mr. De Palma’s follow-up film, Snake Eyes, was released, I remember being eager to see it.  The film was something of a critical dud, but my recollection of seeing it in a theater was being really blown away by it.  I hadn’t seen the film in the two decades since, and so as I was making my way through this “Days of De Palma” viewing project this was the film I was most eager to revisit.

Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) is a fast-talking Atlantic City police detective.  His best friend is US Navy Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinese).  Rick considers himself the master of his town, a mover and shaker who is buddy-buddy with everyone important and always knows the score, but that certainty is shattered when the Secretary of Defense is assassinated under Rick’s nose at a boxing max.  Rick struggles with increasing desperation to unravel the complicated mess that he has found himself smack in the middle of, but it’s possible he never had a chance.

I know this film doesn’t have a great reputation, but I don’t understand that at all.  Watching this film again I enjoyed it every bit as much as I had originally twenty years ago.

First of all, David Koepp’s script is terrific, a nice taut, twisty mystery.  I have commented before that I believe Mr. De Palma is at his best when working from a strong script (I think blame for most of Mr. De Palma’s stinkers can be laid at the feet of those films’ poor scripts) so it’s great to see Mr. De Palma working here on … [continued]

 

Tales From the Blu-Ray Shelf

Not long after checking out the extended cut of Batman v. Superman (click here for my review on this “Ultimate Edition”), I decided to watch the recently-released-to-disc extended cut of Ridley Scott’s The Martian.  I adored that film when it was released (and it was my second favorite film of 2015), and Ridley Scott has released some wonderful extended directors’ cuts of his films (most notably, as I mentioned in that Batman v. Superman review, Mr. Scott’s magnificent extended version of Kingdom of Heaven, which transformed a disastrous failure into a near-masterpiece), so I was curious to see this extended version of a film I already loved.

Whereas some extended editions transform a film, the extended version of The Martian is only very marginally different than the theatrical version.  It’s about ten minutes longer, but the vast majority of the additions are subtle extensions to previously-existing scenes; an extra line of dialogue here, an extra beat there.  The only completely-new sequence that I noticed was a brief bit (taken from the book) in which we see Mark Watney working to finish the science experiments that his crew-mates left behind when they aborted the mission.  These additions are nice and allow the story to breathe a bit, but they don’t substantially change the film.  I am not sure what my preferred version of The Martian will be going forward; I suspect it might be the slightly-more-concise theatrical cut.

The blu-ray of the extended cut also has a more substantial set of special features than the original blu-ray/DVD release.  Charles de Lauzirika has, for years, been creating extraordinarily in-depth “making-of” features for the DVD/blu-ray releases of Ridley Scott’s films.  This new blu-ray features the expected complete “making-of” documentary that I was surprised was missing from the original release; albeit one that is shorter than usual for Mr. Lauzirika’s usual work for Mr. Scott (running about an hour and ten minutes).  It’s a wonderful documentary, though one that doesn’t ever get quite as in-depth as those Mr. Lauzirika has created for some of Mr. Scott’s other films.

Speaking of which, a few weeks ago I watched Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings for the first time (click here for my review).  While that film was a failure, the blu-ray release contained an extraordinary, two-and-a-half-hour “making-of” documentary by Mr. Lauzirika.  I am surprised that Exodus, which was a dud, has such an elaborate “making-of” documentary while The Martian, which was a far more successful film, has a less-substantial one.  It’s weird.  Regardless, watching the “making-of” documentary for Exodus is arguably more fun than watching the film itself.  It’s fascinating (and a little sad) to see the incredible effort that so many … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews HBO’s All The Way

The HBO film All the Way, directed by Jay Roach and written by Robert Schenkkan (adapting his play of the same name), is an in-depth look at the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.  Specifically, All the Way focuses on the time between Johnson’s stepping into the Presidency following JFK’s assassination in 1963 and his re-election in 1964, and his long journey during that times working to get Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The film explores President Johnson’s often cantankerous, adversarial manner, and explores his relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other key figures in his administration and in Congress.

all-the-way.HBO.cropped

I very much enjoyed All the Way.  Jay Roach has made some wonderful political films in the past (Recount, Game Change), and he continues that win streak here.  I loved the way the film so deeply explores the nuts and bolts of how the sausage gets made in governance.  The film spends a tremendous amount of time following all of the political maneuverings that President Johnson had to do, over the course of such a long period of time, to ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  I suppose some might find that boring, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  (Though I freely admit the film’s lengthy run-time is challenging.  I watched it over two nights, which I think is a good way to enjoy this film, more as a mini-series than as one single long film.)

As I was watching All the Way, I was struck by the ways in which it felt to me like something of a counterpoint to the recent film Selma.  I adored that film, but like many reviewers I was struck by the ways in which that film seemed to minimize the involvement of President Johnson in Dr. King’s attempts to ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  In many ways, Selma cast LBJ in something of a villainous role, as someone obstructing Dr. King’s efforts.  Here in All the Way, it seems like we get a completely different picture.  LBJ is squarely the central heroic figure of this film, and instead it is Martin Luther King, Jr. who feels minimized, and cast in the role of someone who is not so helpful in ensuring the bill’s passage into law, but who is instead someone LBJ has to maneuver to get to do what he wants.  Reality, I suppose, is somewhere in between.

The chief reason to watch this film is to enjoy Bryan Cranston’s fierce, mesmerizing performance as Lyndon B. Johnson.  Mr. Cranston eats up every inch of the role, commanding the screen in his bulldog-like depiction of President Johnson.  This is a bravura, … [continued]

 

Josh Actually Doesn’t Hate the Extended “Ultimate Edition” of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice!

So, yeah, I wrote a pretty scathing review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and also of the DC follow-up film Suicide Squad.  I wouldn’t have imagined that I’d be in any sort of rush to watch Batman v Superman again any time soon (or even ever).  But when I read that Warner Brothers was releasing a new cut of Batman v. Superman (I’m just refusing to keep writing out Dawn of Justice, OK?) with almost thirty minutes added into the film, I found that, despite myself, I was intrigued.  Thirty minutes is a lot of additional footage.  Was it possible that this longer cut salvaged the mess that I had seen in the theatre?  I doubted that this was a Kingdom of Heaven situation (in which a truncated to the point of being almost nonsensical version was released to theatres and was rightfully savaged by critics as being terrible; and then when Ridley Scott’s much-longer director’s cut was released to DVD we all discovered that the film was, lo and behold, almost a masterpiece), but was there a chance this longer version might salvage the film?  I was dubious but, like Fox Mulder, I wanted to believe.

batman-v-superman-ultimate-edition.cropped

Well, I am pleased to report that the “Ultimate Edition” of Batman v Superman is actually, wait for it, not entirely terrible!  It is actually sort of almost OK.

Most of the major flaws of Zack Snyder’s film remain.  The film almost completely misunderstands the characters of both Batman and Superman, turning Superman into a dopey, wishey-washy moron and Batman into a criminal-murdering crazy-person.  The film’s version of Lex Luthor is lame and criminally disappointing.  The way glimpses of all the Justice League characters are inartfully shoehorned into the movie is painful, and Batman’s long dream/vision/whatever of a future in which Darkseid controls Earth and Superman is his lackey is head-scratchingly confusing and totally out of place stuck in the middle of the film.  The entire extended climax is a disaster, in which Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman don’t talk to one another at all while spending an inordinate amount of time punching an ugly, horrible CGI creation and Superman sacrifices himself for no reason when Wonder Woman (who doesn’t happen to be deathly allergic to Kryptonite) could have easily killed Doomsday with that spear.

But the new material provides a lot of useful connective tissue for the film’s various interwoven stories, and at last I can understand what Zack Snyder’s vision was for the film: a dark, complex epic that attempted to blend the ultra-serious and “grounded” approach that Christopher Nolan used so successfully in his trilogy of Batman films with more of an embrace of large-scale super-powers … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews the Animated Adaptation of Batman: The Killing Joke

Released in 1988, Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland is widely considered a masterpiece, one of the greatest Batman/Joker stories ever told. And yet, over the last few years I have noticed something of a critical re-approximation of the work, with many finding fault with the story, primarily because of the degrading act perpetuated upon Barbara Gordon, and the way that act is used primarily to drive the actions of the male characters (Batman and the Joker) rather than in any way exploring the impact if that act on Barbara herself.

This is a perfectly valid criticism of The Killing Joke, and I can understand why some reject the tale entirely.  For myself, I can still appreciate the story in the context in which it was made, going on almost thirty years ago now, and I can appreciate the incredible artistry of the writing and gorgeous illustration work, even as I freely admit to being troubled, as a modern reader, by certain aspects of the story.

The decision to adapt the story for an animated DVD/blu-ray raised my eyebrows, because the not-for-children content of The Killing Joke is central to the story.  Recognizing that, the folks at Warner Animation made the decision to not pull any punches in the adaptation and allow it to earn an R rating.  I must confess that I am somewhat torn about this.  On the one hand, I have long been a champion of the idea that comics, and animation, do not have to be limited to being media for children.  I love the idea of an animated film embracing adult ideas and concepts.  On the other hand, The Killing Joke is so controversial, and such a product of its time, that I wonder whether it was really the best idea as a subject for an adaptation?  To be honest I am not entirely sure where I come down on this question.

Batman The Killing Joke animated.cropped

Unfortunately, this animated adaptation of The Killing Joke is something of a mess.  To address the criticisms of the original story’s treatment of Batgirl, the filmmakers made the very curious decision to add a lengthy prologue — forty minutes long, almost half the length of the whole feature! — that focuses on Batgirl.  In theory I understand why this is done, but in execution it fails almost completely.  The actual content of this forty minute prologue has problems (which I will discuss in a moment) but the biggest problem is that this sequence — which feels like a full episode of Batman the Animated Series tacked on at the beginning of the story — totally unbalances the film as a whole.  The events of the prologue don’t have any … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Sausage Party

Seth Rogen’s animated film Sausage Party tells a story of the secret inner life had by all of the food items that together inhabit a supermarket.  Seth Rogen plays Frank, a sausage, and Kristen Wiig plays his girlfriend Brenda, a bun.  Together, Frank and Brenda — along with ALL the many other types of food living in the supermarket — yearn to someday be selected by the gods (the people shopping in the supermarket) and taken to the glorious world beyond (beyond, that is, the front doors of the supermarket).  But when a jar of honey mustard is bought and then returned to the supermarket, he comes bearing warnings that everything the food-items believed was a lie, turning Frank and Brenda’s world upside down.

SausageParty.cropped

Sausage Party is a gloriously raunchy, hilarious film.  It takes a Pixar/Disney concept (what if something inanimate — in this case, food products — was actually alive?) and filters it through the dick-and-drugs sensibility that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have honed to such perfection in all of the live-action films they have created together (from Superbad to Pineapple Express to This is the End to The Interview, among others).  Sausage Party feels, in tone, just like all those other great live-action comedies.  But what gives the movie and extra twisted edge is that it’s an animated film.  With the subject matter (about food that is alive), of course animation is the only way to tell this story.  But there’s something just a little bit extra funny and extra transgressive in watching an animated character talk about the type of filthy subject matter that Seth Rogen and co. often talk about in their films.  This gives the movie an extra little frisson that I really loved.

The film boasts a spectacular cast, with many of the wonderfully talented familiar voices who you might expect to run across in a Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg film.  First of all, the lead pairing of Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig is perfect.  Both are absolute perfection, so incredibly funny but also able to sell their characters’ genuine emotional turns.  The movie only works if you’re rooting for this couple to find some way out of their crazy situation, and Mr. Rogen and Ms. Wiig absolutely nail it.  Frank and Brenda are quickly paired up with a bickering Arab-Jew pairing, Kareem Abdul Lavash and Sammy Bagel.  This sounds like a terrible, terrible idea on paper but the characters are so funny, and the emotional journey they go on together so real, that I quickly fell in love with both characters.  David Krumholtz voices the Lavash, while Ed Norton does an impeccable Woody Allen impression as Sammy Bagel; both men deliver genius-level … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Catches Up With Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings

I missed Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings when it was released back in December, 2014, and the film’s dismal reviews kept me from rushing to watch it on DVD or streaming.  But there was no way I could altogether skip a new film from Ridley Scott, one of the greatest directors working today.  After recently re-watching Mr. Scott’s brilliant adaptation of The Martian (actually, the new Extended Cut of that film, about which I might write more soon) I decided the time had come to give Exodus: Gods and Kings a try.

exodus-gods-kings.cropped

The film is a sort of action-adventure version of the Exodus story from the Bible.  When the film opens, we meet Moses (Christian Bale) as a young adult, the happy adopted son on the Pharaoh of Egypt.  He and his brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are close and, in one of the film’s opening sequences, they ride off to war together on behalf of their father, the Pharaoh.  But a prophecy given by one of the Pharaoh’s priests threatens the bond between the half-brothers Moses and Ramses.  When Moses agrees to do a favor for his brother by taking on a thankless assignment to visit the city of Hebrew slaves, he begins to discover his true heritage.  You pretty much know how the story unfolds from there.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is an interesting movie.  It’s certainly not entirely successful, but neither is it the train-wreck catastrophe I had expected from all the original reviews.

What’s most curious about the film is the way that Mr. Scott (and the phalanx of screenwriters credited on the film) have taken the Biblical Moses story and reshaped it into, well, into Gladiator (Mr. Scott’s very successful 2000 film starring Russell Crowe).  The whole set-up is almost exactly the same.  Two almost-brothers have been raised by a powerful king.  The brothers begin the story close, but a wedge is driven between them when it turns out that the king favors his adopted almost-son over his flesh and blood heir.  Said adopted son is a cunning warrior and noble and honest to a fault.  After the death of the king, the actual son assumes power, and very soon after an attempt is made on the life of the noble almost-son, who survives when everyone believes him dead and is driven into exile.  Eventually, events conspire to bring the brothers back together in a confrontation that will result in the ultimate defeat of the now power-mad actual brother.

Am I exaggerating?  That description is almost exactly the story of both Gladiator and Exodus: Gods and Kings.

The funny thing is, while much of what we see in Exodus: Gods and Kings has been dramatically … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews HBO’s Confirmation

August 23rd, 2016

HBO’s movie Confirmation brings to life the story of Clarence Thomas’ 1991 confirmation hearings to replace Thurgood Marshall on the U.S. Supreme Court, and Anita Hill’s allegations that Judge Thomas had sexually harassed her when they worked together at the department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  Televised hearings held before the Senate Judiciary Commission, including testimony by both Judge Thomas and Professor Hill, gripped the nation.  HBO’s film Confirmation is a riveting reenactment of the drama and turmoil surrounding this very public confrontation between Judge Thomas and Professor Hill.

Confrmation.kerrywashington.cropped

I well remember the days in 1991 in which this drama played out on televisions and in newspapers across the nation, and Confirmation skillfully draws the viewer back into the middle of this wrenching debate.  I imagine that few who will watch this movie will enter it without preexisting opinions regarding the veracity of Professor Hill’s accusations.  Wisely understanding this, the makers of Confirmation (the film was written by Susannah Grant and directed by Rick Famuyiwa) made a game attempt at presenting the story from both Judge Thomas and Professor Hill’s side.  The film cuts back and forth between the two throughout its run-time, and avoids painting either character as too dastardly a villain, though in the end it does appear to me that the filmmakers were siding with Professor Hill.  (I will freely admit, here, that my sympathies as well lie firmly with Professor Hill.)  Watching Confirmation unfold, my heart broke anew for what Professor Hill went through over the course of this very public spectacle which ended with Judge Thomas’ confirmation.

Kerry Washington is magnificent in the role, bringing great courage and dignity to the role of Anita Hill.  Playing a well-known public figure can be difficult, but Ms. Washington rises to the challenge, skillfully bringing her depiction of Professor Hill to life and making the character her own.  At the same time, when the film eventually arrives at Professor Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ms. Washington has the enormous challenge of performing a real-life scene that so many of us remember so well, while still seeming natural in her performance.  Ms. Washington hits this out of the park, and the sequences of Professor Hill’s testimony are a highlight of the movie.

Wendell Pierce (so beloved to fans of The Wire and Treme) is equally incredible as Judge Thomas.  Mr. Pierce had, in my opinion, an even greater challenge than did Ms. Washington, in his attempt to bring to life this depiction of the very private Judge Thomas.  In all the world, only Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill know whether Professor Hill’s accusations were true, and as I commented above this film does not … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Suicide Squad

Following the disappointment of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie that I found to be overly dour and grim and dull (and, even more problematically, filled with almost nonsensical plotting and paper-thin characters), I thought Suicide Squad looked like a breath of fresh air for the burgeoning DC movie-verse, fun and anarchic.  Sadly, the film has almost all of the exact same problems as Batman v. Superman: the plot makes little sense, the characters are underdeveloped, and the whole thing reeks of desperation to be cool and adult, while failing to be either.  I actually think Batman v. Superman is better than Suicide Squad — something I can’t believe I am writing.  Oy vey!

SuicideSquad.cropped

Created by John Ostrander in the eighties (actually, recreated, as there was a previous Silver Age version of the concept) (and I was happy to see that Mr. Ostrander got a fun shout-out in the third act of the film), the idea behind Suicide Squad is that government operative Amanda Waller (played here by Viola Davis) has gathered a group of meta-human super-villains and attempts to coerce them into doing good on the government’s behalf as a way to commute their sentences (and avoid getting blown up by the bombs she’s had implanted in their necks).  Here in the film, the DC world has been shaken by the arrival, and then departure, of Superman, which lends context to Amanda Waller’s desperation to have some meta-humans she can control.  Of course, the idea of trying to control these super-powered crazies is probably a bad idea.

I am somewhat shocked that this obscure property has made it to the big screen, so in this I applaud DC/Warners for having the guts to dig this deeply into the wonderful history of DC Comics.  I never really expected to see Harley Quinn in live-action on-screen, let alone Deadshot or Katana.  While I think DC/Warners are shooting themselves in the foot by rushing to create a shared cinematic universe — in slavish imitation of what Marvel Studios has done so well — without taking the time to carefully develop each property individually, which has been Marvel’s (very successful) strategy, I must admit that it’s also sort of cool that this new slate of DC movies are dropping us into a universe fully in motion.  Man of Steel was a new origin story for Superman, but Batman v. Superman presented us with a Batman who had been in operation for decades and already had a Robin killed, and a Wonder Woman who had been around since WWI at least, while also suggesting the existence of many other super-humans (all the other members of what will be the Justice League.)  Here … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Paul Feig’s Rebooted Ghostbusters!

Let’s cut right to the chase: the original Ghostbusters is one of the all time great movies, definitely in my top ten.  Paul Feig’s rebooted Ghostbusters can’t hold a candle to the original.  But this new film is still a ton of fun, very funny and very enjoyable from start to finish.  Mr. Feig is one of the great comedy directors working today, and mixed with this tremendous cast he ‘s created a great movie that is funny and exciting.  Ignore the haters who were all bent out of shape at the idea of an all-female Ghostbusters: this is a solid movie that is definitely worth seeing.

Ghostbusters.cropped

The idea of rebooting/remaking one of the all-time great movies is a foolhardy one.  I have been saying that for years, ever since rumors of a new Ghostbusters began floating around.  Remake BAD movies that you can improve upon!  Why hobble yourself by forcing audiences to compare your new movie, at every turn, to one of the greatest movies of all time?  It just seems insane to me.

Equally insane?  The crazy, misogynistic anger that has been out there, across the internet, at the idea of an all-female Ghostbusters.  What year is this??  Who cares whether the new Ghostbusters are male or female or whatever??  The questions should be: are they funny?  Does this new cast have a great dynamic together?  Do they create interesting new characters who you care about and root for?  Those are the questions that you should be asking.  And by the way, the answer to all three of those questions is YES, which is why this new Ghostbusters works as well as it does.

But getting back to my original point, I have been saying all along, and I still feel this way now after having seen the new Ghostbusters, that rather than remaking one of the all-time-great films, I’d have preferred had Paul Feig and this cast come together to make an original film.  That would have been more interesting to me, and in my opinion it would have given this project a better chance for greatness (rather than my constantly thinking about, while watching it, the ways in which it falls short of the original Ghostbusters).

However, that being said, this is probably as good a version of a rebooted Ghostbusters as I can imagine seeing.  I have a few quibbles, of course, but overall the movie works very, very well.  The cast is great.  The jokes work.  The visual effects are terrific.  The film successfully walks a fine line between telling the familiar type of story we expect from a rebooted Ghostbusters film while also finding some new twists and new spins to put on … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Independence Day: Resurgence

July 14th, 2016

I distinctly remember the experience of seeing Independence Day in a movie theatre, twenty years ago.  That film was a triumph of marketing, and I was super-pumped to see what had been hyped as a big-budget sci-fi epic.  I was somewhat disappointed by the finished product, particularly the egregiously stupid “let’s just plug our laptop into alien technology to defeat them all” ending, but I also really enjoyed the experience of seeing that film in a packed theatre.  I had a heck of a fun time watching the movie, laughing and cheering along with the crowd, even as I was very well aware that the actual film wasn’t living up to my expectations.

A sequel seemed like a foregone conclusion, but to my surprise one never arrived.  As the years passed, I assumed one never would.  But since 2016 seems to be the year of sequels to movies made more than a decade ago (from Star Wars: The Force Awakens to Finding Dory), I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this was the year than a second Independence Day film finally arrived.

IndependenceDayResurgence.cropped

I didnt have high hopes for Independence Day: Resurgence (and by the way, what a bland, almost meaningless title that is), and the film met those expectations.  The film is very, very flat.  There are almost no surprises in the story, and not a lot of humor or excitement.  Quite a lot of stuff happens in the film, but none of it really engaged me in any way as a viewer.  This is somewhat surprising, because while the first film had a pretty stupid story and rather one-dimensional characters, what it succeeded at tremendously was in grabbing the audience and being a fun, popcorn-eating rollercoaster ride.  This sequel lacks any of that energy.

The film has a strong cast, but no one is given anything approaching a character to play.  While I can easily list the film’s many characters, I would be hard pressed to describe to you any sort of drama or arc or development that any character goes through.  Jeff Goldblum’s David and his father, Judd Hirsch’s Julius, have sort of drifted apart and sort of make up by the end?  Liam Hemsworth’s Jake and Jessie Usher’s Dylan had a fight years ago because Jake was reckless in training, but make up by the end?  Is there anything else?  I wasn’t walking into an Independence Day movie expecting serious adult drama or any sort of realistically interesting sci-fi story.  But it’s as if director Roland Emmerich (who was also one of a host of credited writers on the film) totally forgot how to create characters that would be in any way interesting and so … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews The BFG

I adored the work of Roald Dahl as a kid, and The BFG was in heavy rotation for me for many years.  The idea of a movie adaptation of that terrific book was exciting, and that it would be helmed by Steven Spielberg — probably the greatest director working today — was even more tantalizing.

BFG.cropped

And so I was somewhat surprised that this big-screen version of The BFG left me rather underwhelmed.  This feels to me like a minor work from Mr. Spielberg.  It’s not head-poundingly frustrating like The Lost World or A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.  Rather, it’s just that the film feels very slight.  There are moments of greatness, but over-all I found The BFG to be somewhat boring.  I don’t think I’ve ever before felt that way about a Steven Spielberg film.

Although Mr. Spielberg has made many movies that feature children, and that are about childhood, it could be that this is the first Spielberg movie that is aimed so squarely at children in the audience.  I can imagine kids being thrilled by the film, but for me as an adult I found it very simplistic, without too much to capture my interest.  There are some lovely ideas in the film and some beautiful sequences (certainly the dream-catching sequence alone, in which the BFG takes Sophie to the underwater/underground magical realm in which one can chase and catch dreams as one would fireflies, is magnificent), but the story moves along without too much depth of character or too many surprises.  What played as a fantastical left-hand turn into craziness in Mr. Dahl’s original book — in which Sophie decides to elicit the help of the Queen of England to help her and the BFG solve their problems — plays in the movie like an amusing but almost distracting digression from the main story.

I was so excited that this adaptation of The BFG represented the final collaboration between Mr. Spielberg and the late, great Melissa Mathison (who wrote E.T.), and so I’m sad to report that I wasn’t as delighted as I’d expected to be by the film’s script.

The one time I was truly moved by the film was in the final moments.  In that bittersweet ending the film finally hit, for me, the emotions that I felt it had been striving for the whole time.  I wish there had been a little more of that emotional resonance in everything that had come before.

Ruby Barnhill, who plays young Sophie, the orphan girl who discovers and befriends the BFG, is lovely in the film.  She spends much of the film interacting with a CGI make-believe giant, and yet despite that she’s able to give a very … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Finding Dory

July 4th, 2016
,

Finding Nemo was a terrific movie, great fun and deeply emotional.  It came towards the beginning of an incredible run of original Pixar films that would go on to include The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up.  I adore the universe that was created in Finding Nemo, and it always felt to me to be perfectly complete in and of itself.  This was not a movie that ever felt to me that it was crying out for a sequel.

And so when I learned that, thirteen years after Nemo, Pixar would be releasing a sequel called Finding Dory, I was intrigued and also a little nervous.  The idea of seeing more of these characters and this world was tantalizing.  Dory, voiced so marvelously by Ellen DeGeneres, was a highlight of Nemo, and so a film focusing on her felt like a natural idea.  And yet, to come back and make a sequel so many years later — how often has that ever been successful?

FindingDory.cropped

The very best sequels — and I would count Pixar’s earlier efforts Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 among this number — wind up feeling inevitable.  It’s as if, once you see these additional chapters, they become integral parts of the story that was begun by the original film.

I can’t quite say that Finding Dory reaches that level.  Finding Nemo remains a beautifully perfect, complete creation all its own.  That being said, Finding Dory is a beautiful and very entertaining film, fun and funny and exciting and emotional, just as I would expect from the mad geniuses at Pixar.

The film delves deeply into the character of Dory, the forgetful blue tang introduced in Nemo.  How did she get to where she was when Marlin encountered her in Finding Nemo?  What was her childhood like, and what happened to her parents/family?

When Finding Dory works, it is a devastatingly powerful metaphor for raising a child with a disability.  The film spends a lot of time in flashback with a young Dory and her parents (voiced marvelously by Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton).  The animators at Pixar outdid themselves in creating an unbelievably cute design for the young, huge-eyed Dory, a move that only compounds the pain of the moment you know is coming when young Dory will get separated from her parents and, even worse, will forget them.  It’s heartbreaking, and as a dramatic core of the film I was impressed by well the Pixar team were able to come up with something that felt of equal weight to the massacre of Marlin and Nemo’s family that opened Finding Nemo, thus giving this sequel a strong reason for being.  One of the most profoundly sad … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Jungle Book

When Jon Favreau shifted from directing smaller character-based films (like Made) to larger, more special-effects-driven films, he at first did so with a strong attachment to using traditional practical effects over CGI.  (I never saw 2005′s Zathura, but I well remember all of the pre-release interviews with Mr. Favreau in which he spoke of his love for the power of practical effects.)  Both Iron Man and Iron Man 2 featured some incredible CGI effects, but I think the effects in both films worked as well as they did because they were skillfully combined with many practical effects, thus creating an immersive illusion for the audience.  And so it’s fascinating now to see how Mr. Favreau approached the creation of The Jungle Book, a film that, other than the performance of one young boy, has been almost entirely created in the digital realm, including all the animal characters and all of the jungle settings.  This approach, overseen by Mr. Favreau and clearly involving the hard work of hundreds of artists and technicians, has resulted in an extraordinary achievement.

TheJungleBook.cropped

Just like the Disney animated version, this new The Jungle Book tells the story of the young boy Mowgli.  As a baby, he is orphaned in the jungle, but the panther Bagheera saves him and brings him to be raised by a pack of wolves led by Akela and Raksha.  This “man cub” grows up in the jungle.  But when the vicious tiger Shere Khan threatens the wolves for protecting him, Mowgli decides to leave the jungle and allows Bagheera to escort him to the nearby man village.  But Shere Khan will not give up his vendetta so easily.

I don’t have any strong attachment to Disney’s animated The Jungle Book.  I remember liking it as a kid, but it’s not one of the Disney movies that I watched over and over, and it’s been well over twenty years since I have seen it last.  I remember the basic story and some of the songs and not much beyond that.  So while Disney studio’s modern desire to create live-action remakes of seemingly all of their classic animated films puzzles me, I was totally open to a new version of this story.

And to call this a live-action remake is somewhat disingenuous, because, as noted above, other than the real boy Neel Sethi as Mowgli, this is an almost entirely animated film.  It’s just that it has been animated using cutting-edge CGI techniques, rather than traditional hand-drawn animation.

The result is astounding.  Mr. Favreau and his team have crafted an almost perfectly photo-real creation.  You completely believe that you are in the jungles of India, not a studio in Hollywood.  And each and every … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews X-Men: Apocalypse

The X-Men film franchise began with such promise but it’s been a big mess for quite a while now.  Bryan Singer’s 2000 X-Men film launched the golden age of super-hero films that we’re still living in.  No one had ever before brought a super-hero team to life on screen.  Mr. Singer was able to distill the head-spinningly complicated X-Men mythology into a movie with adult, complex themes that still contained a boat-load of super-hero fun.  The near-perfect cast brought the X-Men characters, and their universe, to glorious life.  That film was quickly followed up by the 2003 sequel, X2.  That film hasn’t aged so well, but at the time many/most saw it as a brilliant expansion of the world of the first film.  With its fan-pleasing ending (depicting the death of Jean Grey and final-shot tease of her return/resurrection of the Phoenix), I thought we were on the verge of an epic, multi-film saga that would continue for years.  Sadly, that never was.  Bryan Singer left to do Superman Returns and Fox, unwilling to wait, hired Brett Ratner to helm the disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand.  Rather than continuing with an ongoing series of X-Men films, Fox seemed unwilling or unable to see past that initial trilogy, and it quickly became clear that the studio had no idea what to do with the property.  There was talk for a while of a series of individual X-Men: Origins spin-off films, though the only one that actually got made was the dreadful X-Men Origins: Wolverine Years past, and eventually the planned X-Men Origins: Magneto film morphed into the prequel film X-Men: First Class.  I hate prequels and when announced this seemed to me like a bizarre step backwards for the franchise, but I was surprised by how great the film, directed by Matthew Vaughn, wound up being.  I would have been happy to follow this fun new cast through a new trilogy helmed by Mr. Vaughn, but once again the series changed tracks as Mr. Vaughn stepped away and Bryan Singer returned to direct X-Men: Days of Future Past.  While I would have loved to have seen a more-faithful adaptation of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s classic story — one of the defining X-Men stories — I loved the way that film was structured to combine Bryan Singer’s original X-Men cast with Matthew Vaughn’s First Class cast.  Days of Future Past was very solid, but what made me love the film was the final five minutes, in which we see that the events of the film have re-set the timeline of the X-Men films, giving a sweet happy ending to the cast and characters who had begun in 2000′s … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Nice Guys

Shane Black has been partially responsible for quite a few movies that I have loved (boy, twenty years ago I thought Lethal Weapon was one of the greatest movies ever made), but it was 2005′s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which Mr. Black wrote and directed) that made me a forever fan of his work.  (And also of Robert Downey Jr.  And Michelle Monaghan.  It’s a pretty amazing movie and if you’ve never seen it you really need to go watch it immediately.)  I loved seeing Mr. Black working in big-budget-blockbuster land with the terrific Iron Man Three, but when I learned that he was working on another buddy-cop mystery/action flick, I was very excited.  The Nice Guys does not disappoint.  In fact, it is a triumph, a spectacular work of adult filmmaking that is thrilling and ferociously funny.

TheNiceGuys

In LA in 1977, a mostly drunk private eye named Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is asking around for a girl named Amelia, who has hired a thug named Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to beat up Holland to get him off her trail.  And thus is a beautiful friendship formed.  March and Healy eventually wind up working together in an attempt to locate the now-truly-missing Amelia, while unraveling a bizarre multiple-murder case involving porn and politics and the automobile industry.

The Nice Guys is a delight from start to finish.  Mr. Black has long since proven himself as the master of the buddy comedy film, and in Holland and March he has delivered a wonderful new set of characters.  Both Mr. Gosling and Mr. Crowe are phenomenal, each perfectly cast and each moving out of their usual serious-dramatic personas to deliver some killer comedy.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen either actor play a character quite like these two, and they are each so deliciously great.  The Nice Guys works because it is joyous fun watching these two bounce off one another.  Ryan Gosling is a riot as the nervous, cowardly, hard-drinking March, a man content to drift through life while making the least possible bit of effort towards anything.  And yet, March is a brilliant detective when he wants to be, and we can see that his love for his young daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) is real.  Mr. Gosling is given some incredibly juicy comedy bits throughout the film, and he nails each one perfectly.  He also — ably abetted by Mr. Black’s sharp script — paints a picture of the tragedy that broke Holland without ever overplaying that note.  Mr. Crowe, meanwhile, is equally perfect as Healy, a man used to using his fists rather than his brains, but who for some reason finds himself driven to protect the young … [continued]

 

Marvel Triumphs Again with Captain America: Civil War!

Marvel Studios is on a winning streak the likes of which I am hard-pressed to recall (the last decade of Pixar movies is the only thing I can think of that comes close) and Captain America: Civil War is even better than I had dared hope, an extraordinarily HUGE movie with astounding action and powerful emotional beats that pay off story-lines that have been building through the twelve (count ‘em, TWELVE) previous Marvel Studios movies ever since 2008′s Iron Man started this whole crazy adventure.  I am a huge fan of the under-appreciated Avengers: Age of Ultron (click here for my review), but a strong case can be made that Civil War is what The Avengers 2 should gave been, a film that embraces the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, putting the characters through a wrenching emotional trial and eventually shattering the team that had come together in 2012′s The Avengers.

Captain-America.Civil-War.cropped

Following the events of Age of Ultron, Cap has been training and leading a team of Avengers consisting of himself, the Falcon, the Black Widow, the Scarlet Witch, and the Vision.  As Captain America: Civil War opens, we find that Avengers team hot on the trail of Crossbones (the mangled ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Brock Rumlow from Captain America: The Winter Soldier).  As the try to stop Crossbones from obtaining a deadly biological weapon, a fight breaks out in the crowded streets of Nigeria.  Though the Avengers successfully stop Crossbones and his mercenaries, a tragic accident leaves a dozen civilians dead.  This proves to be the last straw for a world that has suffered from a series of increasingly-escalating super-hero/super-villain battles (as seen in the previous twelve Marvel movies).  Over a hundred nations band together to create the Sokovia Accords (named after the nation destroyed by Ultron in the climactic fight of Age of Ultron), declaring that the Avengers will no longer be an autonomous entity but now one governed by a UN-appointed supervising panel.  Tony Stark, desperate to find some way to prevent future civilian deaths and ensure that the Avengers remain a force for good across the world, supports the accords.  Captain America, worried that the international politics at play might prevent him and other super-heroes from acting whenever they feel it is necessary in order to save lives, opposes them.  This philosophical debate becomes more urgent when Cap’s former partner and best friend Bucky Barnes, now the brainwashed hit-man code-named the Winter Soldier (as seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) resurfaces and is apparently responsible for the murder of hundreds at the signing of the Sokovia Accords.  Tony begs Cap to let the world’s governments handle the subsequent manhunt but Cap refuses to … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2015: Josh Reviews Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

April 29th, 2016
,

Back in December, before finalizing my Best of 2015 lists, I watched a ton of movies, trying to catch up on 2015 films I’d missed.  I’ve been writing about them in this “Catching up on 2015″ series of blogs, and I believe I have now finally arrived at the last of those 2015 films that I’d seen but not yet reviewed.

MeAndEarlAndTheDyingGirl.cropped.ver2

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, written by Jesse Andrews (based on his 2012 novel of the same name) and directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, tells the story of the year of friendship between High School seniors Greg (Thomas Mann), Earl (RJ Cyler), and Rachel (Olivia Cooke).  Greg’s strategy for surviving High School has been to try to float between all of the school cliques, without ever joining nor alienating any group, though he finds himself breaking many of his personal rules over the course of his eventful Senior Year.  Though Greg and Earl have been friends for years, working together on a bizarre project to film short reenactments of many of their favorite movies, Greg initially only talks to Rachel when forced to by his parents, who feels sorry for Rachel and her mom when Rachel is diagnosed with cancer.  What begins as an obligation eventually blossoms into a friendship, with brings with it some of the types of connections, and complications, that Greg had been trying so hard to avoid.

I enjoyed this film.  It has a very idiosyncratic tone that I found appealing, and the performances of the three teen-aged leads are all terrific.  But I can’t say that I loved this film, and I think that’s because I felt somewhat held at arm’s length by it.  I didn’t feel that I got to know any of the characters, particularly Earl or Rachel, as well as I had expected I would.  Now, part of that might be on purpose, as one of the film’s best and most emotional scenes comes at the very end, when Greg discovers something about Rachel’s bedroom that floors him, suggesting that perhaps he never knew her as well as he’d thought.  But I would have enjoyed getting inside each of these three kids in a way that I didn’t feel the film ever really allowed me to do.

I also have a strong objection to a plot twist involving a choice that Rachel makes in the third act.  I don’t want to spoil everything by getting too specific, but for me it took the wind completely out of my sails.  Up until that point, I thought I had been watching a sweet but sad story about kids growing up and learning to somehow deal with the unavoidable tragedies of which … [continued]

 

Catching Up With DC Animation: Bad Blood and Justice League vs Teen Titans

OK, quick summary: I fell in love with Batman: The Animated Series when it first premiered back in the nineties.  Bruce Timm and Paul Dini forever defined Batman and so many of his supporting characters for me.  I believe that Kevin Conroy is the best actor to ever portray Batman on-screen, and Mask of the Phantasm is my third favorite Batman movie of all time (after The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Begins).  I watched and enjoyed all of Bruce Timm’s subsequent DC universe animated shows: Superman, Batman Beyond, and Justice League.  After a somewhat rocky first season, Justice League (later renamed Justice League Unlimited) became, for me, the finest superhero show (animated or otherwise) that I have ever seen, with sophisticated story-telling, a note-perfect voice cast, and gorgeous animation.  When it was announced that Bruce Timm would oversee a new line of aimed-at-adults, direct-to-DVD/blu-ray animated movies, I was super-excited.  But while there have been a few high points (most notably their adaptation of Batman: Under the Red Hood), these animated films have been extremely hit-or-miss.  A few years ago Bruce Timm left the project, and the new team decided to switch from one-off story-telling to developing a continuity between the animated films (a decision that I loved), while basing this new continuity on DC Comic’s latest revamp of their universe, nicknamed “The New 52″ (a decision that I was not wild about).  Disappointingly, I have not at all cared for the first four DVD-movies set in this new animated continuity.  But I quite enjoyed last year’s animated release, Justice League: Gods and Monsters, in which Bruce Timm returned to tell an alternate-universe story of his own creation.  So what did I think of the latest two animated films that have come out in the past few months?

Batman-Bad-Blood.cropped

Batman: Bad Blood steps right into the continuity begun by Justice League: War, Son of Batman, Justice League: Throne of Atlantis, and Batman vs Robin It’s decently entertaining, I suppose, but it’s clear that this current wave of animated DC universe films is just not speaking to me at all.  There are some good bits in Bad Blood, but like the other films I found much of it to be humorless and somewhat dull, and I just don’t like this tone.  The opening of the story introduces the current DC Comics version of Batwoman, Kathy Kane, to the animated universe as she is witness to what looks like the death of Batman.  This forces former Robin, now Nightwing Dick Grayson, to become Batman, partnering up with the current Robin, Damian Wayne.  The two former sidekicks are joined by Batwoman and also the new character … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews 10 Cloverfield Lane

April 18th, 2016
,

10-cloverfield-lane.cropped

I feel like 2008′s Cloverfield has been somewhat forgotten and/or dismissed in recent years, but I loved that film when it came out.  Back in 2008 I wasn’t yet fed up with J.J. Abrams’ “mystery box” schtick and it was fun going into seeing that movie without really having any idea what the heck it was about.  That was cool, and the movie didn’t disappoint.  It was a tremendous big-screen experience, with the “found footage” device used to great effect to put the viewer right into the thick of the action.  Subsequent viewings at home can’t live up to that original big-screen presentation, but I’ve watched Cloverfield a few times over the years, including just last month, and I think the film holds up well.  The skill of screenwriter Drew Goddard (who also helped create Netflix’s Daredevil and wrote & directed the great The Cabin in the Woods) and director Matt Reeves (who directed the spectacular Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) created in Cloverfield a fun, thrilling, and gorgeous-to-look-at monster movie.

Cloverfield felt like a completely one-off thing, and so like everyone else I was stunned when news broke a few months ago that J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company was releasing a new film called 10 Cloverfield Lane.  First of all, my cap is off to Mr. Abrams and co. for somehow managing to produce this movie entirely in secret.  They only announced the film’s existence a few months before its release!  I don’t know how they did that, in this day and age.  And, of course, they once again decided to keep almost everything about the movie very secret.  Trailers for 10 Cloverfield Lane didn’t tell much about the film’s story, nor did they reveal whether the film had any connection, other than the title, to 2008′s Cloverfield.  Was this a sequel?  A prequel?  A totally new story?

Here is an example of Mr. Abrams’ secrecy-heavy approach to movie-making really worked for me.  I was intrigued by the mystery around 10 Cloverfield Lane just as I had been with the original Cloverfield.  I had felt burned by Mr. Abrams’ “mystery box” technique in the past, most especially by Star Trek Into Darkness, not only because of everyone involved with the film’s flat-out lying to audiences for months (claiming that Khan was not the villain), but that the film’s story was stupidly structured to keep the identity of Khan a secret until the final 30 minutes, thus defeating the whole idea of bringing back one of Star Trek’s greatest villains.  (Why use Khan if for most of the movie you’re going to have him be pretending to be some other guy??)  But … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

April 1st, 2016
,

Well, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t the catastrophe that I’d thought it would be based on the terrible trailers, but that doesn’t mean it’s anything approaching a good movie.  The film is fun to watch, in a brain-dead sort of way.  Seeing Batman and Superman (and Wonder Woman) on screen together is certainly a thrill, but the movie is such a disjointed mess, such a blatant advertisement for the next ten DC universe super-hero movies that Warner Brothers wants to make, that it barely functions as a movie despite (or because of?) its lengthy run-time.

batman-v-superman.cropped

Let’s start with what the film does well.  Let’s not forget what a groundbreaking thing it is to have Superman and Batman on screen together.  In this age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe it’s easy to forget that no one has ever done what Marvel has so successfully done, creating a shared universe in which the super-hero characters can team up together in one another’s movies.  This is still a pretty cool thing.  A Batman/Superman crossover movie has been talked about for a while now — and Warner Brothers came very, very close to making one about a decade ago (I believe a billboard for that aborted project can be seen in the Will Smith I am Legend film) but it’s never actually happened until now.  This sort of crossover is commonplace for comic book fans, but seeing it happen in a live-action movie is still pretty exciting.  I love seeing these characters together (and wish that they were actually together more in this long movie, but wait, let’s hold my litany of complaints for another few paragraphs), and it’s great fun seeing Clark Kent use his super-powers to listen in on Bruce Wayne’s earpiece communications with Alfred, or to see Batman and Superman slug it out underneath the bat-signal.

This film’s biggest success is its depiction of Batman.  I absolutely love Ben Affleck in the role.  I think it’s a great choice that, rather than re-tell the Batman origin yet again, instead the filmmakers decided to give us an old, grizzled Batman, one who has already been operating in the shadows for years before Superman’s arrival on the scene.  This is a brand-new movie version of Batman, and it works like gangbusters.  Director Zack Snyder has borrowed heavily from the depiction of an old Batman in Frank Miller’s iconic, wonderful “last Batman story” from 1986, The Dark Knight Returns.  This is not a version of Batman that I ever expected to see on-screen, and I love it.  It makes a lot of sense to contrast a bitter Batman with the more noble, idealistic Superman (except that this movie’s near-total betrayal of the … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2015: Josh Reviews The Overnight

March 28th, 2016

In writer/director Patrick Brice’s bizarre 2015 comedy, The Overnight, Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) are a young couple who have just moved to LA.  When Alex takes his & Emily’s young son to a local park, he starts chatting with another father, Kurt (Jason Schwartzman).  Kurt quickly invites Alex and Emily to come to he and his wife Charlotte (Judith Godreche)’s house for dinner.  Alex is somewhat put-off by Kurt’s forwardness but also excited at the idea of making a new friend, and so he accepts the invitation.  But what he and Emily think will be a relatively short dinner turns into an all-night long experience that is the core of the movie’s story.

TheOvernight.cropped

At this point, after Party Down and Parks and Rec, I will pretty much follow Adam Scott anywhere.  I was intrigued by the cast of Mr. Scott along with Jason Schwartzman and Orange is the New Blacks Taylor Schilling.  And, indeed, the main pleasure of The Overnight is watching those the four main cast-members bounce off of one another.  (I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Godreche before seeing this film, but she holds her own well with the other three.)  The movie solely focuses on these four characters, and so all the actors get a lot to play with as their characters go through the wild events of the evening.  Jason Schwartzman’s Kurt is particularly memorable, a new spin on the array of intelligent, eccentric weirdos that Mr. Schwartzman has made a career out of playing.  Taylor Schilling plays a lot of the same notes here as she does in Orange is the New Black, but she’s clearly having fun in the role and she’s able to strike the right tone of skepticism and curiosity in Emily.  But it is Adam Scott’s endearing, naturalistic work that holds the movie together, particularly when things start to get really crazy in the film’s second half.  Alex’s character takes some off-kilter turns as the film progresses, but Mr. Scott is able to sell every moment and make it look easy.

There are some interesting character-arcs that run through The Overnight, and also some big laughs.  But primarily, the comedy in the film is of the type based on extreme awkwardness.  This is a film that you will watch through your hands covering your face at times, as the awkwardness builds to near-unbearable levels.  Personally, this is not a style of comedy that speaks to me all that much.  Your mileage may vary.  There’s also some, um, prosthetic-enhanced male nudity in the later part of the film that shifts the movie over from comedy/farce into bizarre-indie territory.  I think some people will enjoy the film’s frankness … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2015: Josh Reviews The End of the Tour

I missed The End of the Tour when it was first released last summer, but it was a top priority for me to check out when it was released on DVD/blu-ray.  I usually watch a ton of films in December, trying to catch up on as many films from the previous year as I can, before I write my Best of the Year lists.  I’m glad I caught The End of the Tour in time for it to make my list (it clocked in at number nineteen), but I’ve been remiss in posting a full review.  Time to remedy that.

The-end-of-the-tour.cropped

Based on the memoir Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky, the film chronicles the days in 1996 that Mr. Lipsky, as a young reporter for Rolling Stone, spent in the company of David Foster Wallace following the release of Mr. Wallace’s enormous novel Infinite Jest.  Mr. Lipsky is envious of everything that Mr. Wallace has, while Mr. Wallace is deeply ambivalent about his burgeoning fame.  The entire film (with the exception of a brief framing device) takes place over the course of the handful of days that these two men spent together as Mr. Lipsky interviewed Mr. Wallace for his Rolling Stone piece.

The film is an engrossing character study of the two men, Wallace and Lipsky, and it is a magnificent showcase for actors Jesse Eisenberg (who plays David Lipsky) and Jason Segel (who plays David Foster Wallace).  Both actors are incredibly talented, and together they are phenomenal.

Jesse Eisenberg has made it his specialty playing characters who are fiercely intelligent and also sort of assholes, and I love how he is not afraid to make his characters seem unlikable to an audience with his choices.  In the film, it’s clear that Mr. Lipsky has enormous respect and admiration for David Foster Wallace, and at the same time also a deep envy for the success that Mr. Wallace has found with his writing (and that Mr. Lipsky, at the time, had not).  Mr. Eisenberg keeps both aspects of Lipsky’s complicated feelings in focus at all times.  As he baits and pushes Mr. Wallace over the course of their extended conversation, it seems as if Mr. Lipsky isn’t sure whether he wants Wallace’s answers to let him down (so that he can feel, in his mind, superior to his idol) or whether instead he wants David Foster Wallace to have the answers that he himself lacks.  Mr. Eisenberg plays this duality brilliantly.  It’s such a human portrayal.  There are times in the film in which Mr. Lipsky’s behavior made me shake my head in disappointment, and other times when I was struck … [continued]

 

Catching up on 2015: The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?

March 11th, 2016
,

Back in the mid-nineties, Tim Burton came very close to directing a Superman movie, to be titled Superman Lives, that would have starred Nicolas Cage in the title role.  This is one of the great cinematic what-ifs.  What on Earth would a Tim Burton Superman movie have been like?  What would Nic Cage have been like as Superman?  The mind boggles.

thedeathofsupermanlives.cropped

That image, above, is one of the few images that had been made public about the planned film.  It’s pretty ludicrous-looking, and seems like strong evidence that Nic Cage would have been horribly miscast as Superman.  Much of the rest of what little I — and most other fans — knew of this aborted project was Kevin Smith’s hilarious story of his year-long experience writing a few drafts of a script for the film.  If you haven’t seen this, from An Evening with Kevin Smith, this is a must watch.  (Sorry for the Spanish subtitles and the story being split into two parts, but this was the best I could find on youtube.  But seriously, settle in and watch this:)

But in the documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? filmmaker Jon Schnepp sought to dig deeper and to uncover as much as he could of the behind-the-scenes story of this film that never was.  The documentary has two goals: First, to tell the story of the development and eventual cancellation of this planned film.  Second, to try to reconstruct as complete as possible a look at what the film would have been.

Both aspects are fascinating.  I always love behind-the-scenes stories, and the twisted path of Superman Returns is a particularly juicy Hollywood story.  It’s a compelling story, and Mr. Schnepp has assembled most of the key players in the film’s production to help tell it.  I particularly enjoyed getting to see producer Jon Peters attempt (not entirely successfully) to rebut Kevin Smith’s depiction of him as a deranged lunatic.  All of the film’s screenwriters get a chance to tell their stories (including Kevin Smith, who retells many of the stories that he told so memorably in the above clip from An Evening with Kevin Smith).  What was most impressive to me was that Mr. Schnepp got Tim Burton to sit down for a lengthy interview, to describe in-depth the story of his involvement with the planned film and also his intentions for the film.

Just as Jodorowsky’s Dune (a magnificent documentary that I reviewed here) sought to reconstruct filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s planned but never-made film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, so too does this film attempt to reconstruct what Superman Returns would have been like.  Mr. Schnepp’s detective work is impressive.  This is a film … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Hail, Caesar!

The Coen Brothers have made some dark, violent films, and they have made some light, funny films, and they have made some films that seem to fall somewhere in between.  Their latest, Hail, Caesar!, is for most of it’s run-time one of the Coen Brothers’ lighter, more farcical films, though periodically the movie reminds us that it has something more on its mind than simple silliness.  Hail, Caesar! might, upon some reflection, be considered one of the Coen Brothers’ more minor works, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that this film doesn’t have a lot of fun to offer.

HailCaesar.cropped

Set in Hollywood in the 1950′s, the film stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a studio exec and “fixer” who is trying to locate his kidnapped star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), before news of the star’s disappearance can make it into the papers.  Baird’s kidnapping, by a group of disgruntled Communist screenwriters, is only one of the many fires that Mannix has to try to put out as he tries to keep his studio afloat and all of his in-production pictures running smoothly.  The dim-witted Baird, meanwhile, finds himself somewhat taken in by his Communist kidnappers.

Hail, Caesar! is a very silly film.  ”Silly” is a tone that is surprisingly difficult for many filmmakers to pull off, but the Coen Brothers have mastered the art of comedic goofiness.  They make it look so easy.  There are a lot of wonderfully funny moments in the film as the Coens gently skewer the art of making movies and the pomposity of Hollywood egos.  And say whatever you want about the film as a whole, but the fall-on-the-floor hysterical scene of effete director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) — whose very name is a subtle gag running throughout the film — trying to give a line reading to the dim-bulb cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is one of the greatest scenes they have ever created in any of their films.  I am not exaggerating.

One of my favorite aspects of Hail, Caesar is the way the film occasionally morphs into one of the popular styles of Hollywood films from the fifties, from Biblical epic to elaborate musical to peppy dance number.  Each one of these sequences is lovingly realized (Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-esque sailor song-and-dance number is particularly terrific) and they bring the film a great spark of energy each time they shift the movie into a different tone.  (Though I will say that while I loved Michael Gambon’s pompous narration at the start of the film, I could have done with a little less of it as the film progressed.)

Hail, Caesar!’s main film-within-a-film, the Roman epic in which Baird … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Brooklyn

February 22nd, 2016

There were so many interesting movies released in the final weeks of 2015 that I couldn’t possible see them all, try as I might.  Brooklyn was definitely on my list, but I wasn’t able to get to it before writing my end-of-the-year Best Movies of 2015 list.  But it remained high on my want-to-see list, and I’m glad that I was able to catch it a few weeks ago.  It’s marvelous, and it would have surely made my list had I seen it in time.

Brooklyn.cropped

The film was written by Nick Hornby (who wrote the novels High Fidelity and About a Boy), adapting the novel of another writer, Colm Tóibín, and it was directed by John Crowley.  Brooklyn stars Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey (her name is pronounced ay-lish), a young Irish woman who emigrated to the United States in the early nineteen-fifties, looking for a better life.  The film follows the hardship of this transition, and her eventual adjustment as she settles into life in a new country.  Eventually, she even finds love with a young Italian plumber, Tony (Emory Cohen).  However, a tragedy forces Eilis to return to Ireland, where she catches the eye of another young man, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), and finds herself caught between her old life and her new one.

Brooklyn is a gorgeous film, sweet and very moving.  The film eschews big dramatic movements for a softer pace and a more gentle, realistic look at the life of a young woman and the choices that she makes.  I loved it dearly.

I’ve always admired Saoirse Ronan’s work as an actress, though she has often appeared in films that didn’t interest me very much.  (Though she killed it in the little-seen Hanna.)  Brooklyn is a tremendous showcase for her, and she absolutely crushes it.  She is in almost every scene of the movie, and her work is extraordinary.  Eilis is a very quiet girl, and so Ms. Ronan has to convey so much of Eilis’ internal life through simply her face, a challenging acting task that she makes look so very easy.  It’s hard for an audience not to fall in love with this young woman, just as both Tony and Jim do.  In lesser hands, Eilis could easily have been a blank cipher, but Ms. Ronan opens herself up so that we can see Eilis’ inner life, her hopes and her dreams and her fears.  This is phenomenal work.

The two men in Eilis’ life are also terrific.  You know, as the Harry Potter film adaptations progressed I, like many, was quite taken by the three main leads (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint).  And yet now, looking back a … [continued]

 

Catching up on 2015: In the Heart of the Sea

The director of Apollo 13 has a fan in me for life, and so a new Ron Howard film is always going to attract my attention.  The idea of Mr. Howard directing a film telling the “true” story behind the book Moby Dick is an interesting hook.  There are moments of greatness in In The Heart of the Sea but, unfortunately, the film never really came together for me.

InTheHeartOfTheSea.cropped

In the Heart of the Sea begins with a framing sequence set in 1850, in which young writer Herman Melville (Ben Wishaw) visits Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the elderly survivor of the whaling ship Essex.  Mr. Melville wants to learn the truth of the terrible fate that befell the Essex and her crew, so that he can use the story as the basis for a new novel he is working on.  Thomas grudgingly begins to tell his story, and we flash back to 1820.  Chris Hemsworth plays Owen Chase, the dashing whaler who has been promised a captaincy on his next voyage.  Unfortunately, the money-men for whom he works have instead appointed Owen to serve as first mate for Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a man with little whaling experience but who comes from an influential family.  The two men clash immediately, a situation exacerbated as months pass at sea with little sign of whales.  The Essex eventually travels far out to sea, following rumors of whale-sightings.  Far away from any assistance, they encounter an enormous white whale that quickly proves to be more than a match for the crew of the Essex.

Right away, In The Heart of the Sea has a major structural problem.  The framing device sets up the film as the story of Thomas Nickerson, a young boy on board the Essex.  But as soon as the main body of the film begins, telling us the story of the Essex in 1820, the main character is clearly Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth’s character).  He’s one hundred percent the hero of the story and the focus of the film.  Young Thomas Nickerson is just a minor supporting character.  Now, perhaps this story could have worked as Thomas’ recollections of the powerful, charismatic men who led the Essex.  But that’s not how the story is structured at all.  These events aren’t told from Thomas’ perspective.  Right from the beginning, we get to see scenes that Thomas wasn’t in any way involved or present for, such as Owen’s last hours with his wife, or Owen’s behind-closed-doors meetings with the bankers who financed the Essex’s expedition.

So the whole structure of the film doesn’t really work at all!  I found that hugely distracting as I was watching the film.  I truly … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2015: Josh Reviews Slow West

In the last several years, Michael Fassbender has shot right up to the top of the list of the finest actors working today.  Like many, I first took notice of Mr. Fassbender in X-Men: First Class.  I was blown away by the masterful way in which Mr. Fassbender took complete ownership of the character of Magneto, who had previously been inhabited so iconically by Sir Ian McKellan.  Since then, Mr. Fassbender has dazzled in films like Prometheus (Mr. Fassbender’s performance as the android David was one of the best elements of that muddled film) and Steve Jobs.  And so I was tickled by the idea of seeing Mr. Fassbender play a cowboy in a Western!

SlowWest.cropped

In Slow West, Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as Jay, a young Scottish boy following the girl he loves to the American West.  It seems that Rose and her father (played by Rory McCann — Sandor Clegane from Game of Thrones!) have been forced to flee Scotland (for a reason that the film gradually reveals), and so Jay has set off after them.  Along the way, Jay encounters the outlaw Silas (Michael Fassbender), who agrees to help Jay track down Rose and her father in exchange for payment.  What Silas knows, and Jay doesn’t, is that a sizable bounty has been placed on Rose and her father’s heads.

Written and directed by John Maclean, Slow West is a tremendously impressive debut film.  The movie is absolutely gorgeous, with nearly every frame filled with staggeringly beautiful views of the American Old West.  That beauty is contrasted by the dangerous and cruel world in which Jay finds himself.  The film seems to take the viewpoint of Silas, who early on describes himself as seeing danger around every corner.  No one who Jay encounters, apparently, is not a threat to him.  The film masterfully creates a feeling of dread, one that grips ever tighter as Jay and Silas get closer to Rose.

Kodi Smit-McPhee continues to impress.  He was great in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as well as in The Road (a movie that shares a lot of similarities with Slow West, come to think of it!  It’s another tale of a boy and a father-figure on a perhaps-doomed road trip through dangerous territory) and he does great work again here.  Mr. Smit-McPhee gives Jay heart and spirit and also intelligence.  Jay is incredibly naive but Mr. Smit-McPhee doesn’t over play that.  Jay is a little bumbling but not entirely hapless.

Mr. Fassbender meanwhile is just as much fun as I had hoped he would be.  In Silas, Mr. Fassbender creates a wonderfully endearing and fascinating character, bringing life to what could have been a … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Revenant

After falling head over heels in love with Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) last year, I was delighted to discover that he had another film coming out just a year later.  The Revenant stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, a fur trapper helping guide an expedition for pelts in the early 1800′s.  So after the movie opens, their expedition is attacked by a group of Arikara Native Americans.  Glass and several others survive and attempt to head back to their outpost on foot.  But Glass is mauled by a bear and almost killed.  Fearful of further Indian attack, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) wants to leave Glass behind, and eventually does so, killing Glass’ half Native American son Hawk.  But Glass does not die.  Instead, he drags himself out of his half-buried grave and begins a long trek through the wilderness in pursuit of Fitzgerald.

TheRevenant.cropped

As I wrote when compiling my Best Movies of 2015 list, The Revenant didn’t open around me until January, 2016.  So I wasn’t able to see it before finishing my list, but it was top-priority for me to try to see it as soon as I could, and on as big a screen as possible.  I was able to see it last week.

My head is still spinning.

There is no question that The Revenant is exceptionally well-made.  Mr. Inarritu and his collaborators have managed to create a staggeringly powerful, visceral experience, putting the viewer right in the middle of the events unfolding on-screen.  You can’t watch this film at a remove — instead, you are sucked right into the middle of what’s happening.  But while this demonstrates an incredible mastery of filmmaking, the result is an unpleasant, punishing experience as the viewer is pulled inside horror and torment for two and a half hours.  When the credits finally rolled, I was left asking myself, why was this story being told?  Why had I put myself through the unpleasant experience of watching this movie?

When I describe watching The Revenant as observing a mastery of filmmaking, I am not exaggerating.  The skill on display in every single gorgeous frame of this film is absolutely astounding.  From the movie’s very first scenes, it was clear to me that I was not watching an ordinary film.  The Native American attack sequence that kicks off the film is staggeringly brutal and extraordinarily immersive.  This sequence would be the highlight of most films, but for Mr. Inarritu it is just the opening gambit.  As Mr. Inarritu’s camera glides through the scenes, panning in 360 degrees and weaving in and around all of the characters and the crazy action that was unfolding, I was … [continued]

 

The Top Twenty Movies of 2015 — Part Four!

And so we arrive, at last, at my five favorite movies of 2015.  Click here for part one of my list, numbers twenty through sixteenClick here for part two of my list, numbers fifteen through elevenClick here for part three of my list, numbers ten through six.

And now, my five favorite movies of 2015!

InsideOut.cropped

5. Inside Out Another triumph from Pixar, this hugely original film explores the inner workings of the mind of an eleven-year-old girl.  I am blown away by how magnificently well thought-out the film is, how carefully considered every detail is.  The film is a complete fantasy, and yet it’s a remarkably sophisticated presentation of the way the emotions inside a young girl might actually work!  This is genius-level filmmaking here, with brilliant philosophical ideas wrapped in a deeply moving adventure tale.  The film is elevated into the stratosphere by its magnificent casting, with the absolute perfect actor chosen to represent each of Riley’s five main emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), & Disgust (Mindy Kaling).  The film is very funny and also absolutely heart-breaking.  (Has the great Richard Kind ever been better than he is here is Bing-Bong?)  Inside Out is a master class in the how animation can be best utilized to tell a remarkable story, a story that couldn’t possibly be told any other way.  (Click here for my original review.)

Avengers.AgeofUltron.02.cropped

4. Avengers: Age of Ultron I can’t believe how under-rated and under-appreciated is Joss Whedon’s spectacular follow-up to the smash hit that was 2012′s The Avengers.  Yes, Age of Ultron doesn’t have the never-been-done-before thrill of that first huge super-hero crossover film, which was the culmination of Marvel Studios’ Phase One, bringing together all the characters from the proceeding individual films.  (This was something that had never, ever been done before, a fact easily forgotten now that Marvel’s model is being widely imitated by every studio in Hollywood.)  It’s incredible to me that now, only a few short years after The Avengers, the extraordinary achievement that is Age of Ultron is being dismissed as ho-hum.  Just look at pretty much any frame of this film and marvel (pun definitely intended) at how amazing is it how Joss Whedon and his team have brought all of these wonderful characters to life on film!  Who ever would have thought such a thing would happen?  Who ever would have thought we’d ever see the famous comic-book villain Ultron depicted on film (brought so brilliantly to life in the film by James Spader)?  Or The Vision???  (Paul Bettany’s performance combined with note-perfect make-up effects and CGI made it feel … [continued]

 

The Top Twenty Movies of 2015 — Part Three!

What fun this has been, revisiting a great year of movies,  Click here for the numbers twenty to sixteen, and click here for numbers fifteen to eleven.  And now, on to my top ten!

StarWars.ForceAwakens.vaderhelmet.cropped

10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens This was the hardest film to find the right place for on my list. I briefly had it in my top five, and then for a while had it all the way down at number twenty.  This is a film that has me very much of two minds.  There is so much about it that works spectacularly well.  The tone is perfect — this is a Star Wars film that is actually FUN (and funny!) again, a welcome relief after the stiff and dour prequels.  The film is wonderfully paced, carrying the audience along from one great action bit to the next.  The new cast is magnificent, with each actor perfectly chosen, creating a group of new young characters who I can’t wait to follow through additional adventures.  The film looks gorgeous, with beautiful special effects and top-notch work from every production department.  Harrison Ford returns as Han Solo and gives the best performance he’s delivered in two decades.  And yet… there are so many little things about the film that bug me, that don’t work as well as they should.  All of the coincidences and plot-holes.  The muddiness regarding what exactly the situation is with Resistance, the Republic, and the First Order.  The way Han Solo’s final scene works but not nearly as well as it should have worked (something I touched on in both of my articles about the film, and that I’ve been struggling to express to friends when talking about the film.  Thankfully, BirthMoviesDeath’s Devin Faraci absolutely nailed what was frustrating me in this terrific analysis.)  The fact that for the third time the Rebels have to blow up a Death Star-like thing.  This is a film with a lot of imperfections, and yet I do still sort of love it despite how rough around the edges it is.  J.J. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt have brought Star Wars back to life in a big, big way, and for that they have my thanks and appreciation.  (Click here for my original review, and here for my follow-up post.)

Bridge of Spies.sm

9. Bridge of Spies When Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks work together, you know you’re in for a treat, and Bridge of Spies does not disappoint.  This quiet, intelligent film tells the story of Jim Donovan, a lawyer tasked with defending a Russian spy caught in Brooklyn in 1957 (an act that then  leads to Mr. Donovan’s … [continued]

 

The Top Twenty Movies of 2015 — Part Two!

Yesterday I began my list of the Top Twenty Movies of 2015, listing numbers twenty through sixteen.  Now, on with my list!

Celebrity Sightings In New York City - July 16, 2014

15. Trainwreck A perfect vehicle for Amy Schumer (who wrote the film, in addition to starring in it) and a wonderful combination of her very specific comedic sensibilities with those of director Judd Apatow, it’s no surprise that Trainwreck was a breakout hit for Ms. Schumer.  That a raunchy comedy can have a woman as the lead shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is.  The film is hugely funny and elevated by a spectacular cast including Bill Hader, Colin Quinn, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park, a who-knew-he-could-be-so-funnt LeBron James, and many more.  But the film is Ms. Schumer’s show and she crushes it from start to finish.  Trainwreck would be higher on my list if it didn’t fall into a few romantic-comedy cliches in the third act, but it’s hard to criticize a film that is so joyously funny and filthy.  (Click here for my original review.)

MissionImpossible.RogueNation.cropped

14. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation I still can’t believe how much better this film wound up being that this year’s James Bond installment Spectre Both films are about our super-spy hero uncovering a super-secret criminal organization that, it turns out, is responsible for most of the acts of terror happening around the world.  Both are globe-hopping action-adventure stories, both feature our hero assisted by a small cadre of allies and meeting a woman who shares the adventure.  And yet Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation crushes Spectre in every way.  I just re-watched Rogue Nation last week, and I was again bowled over by what a fun, thrilling roller-coaster-ride it was.  Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie has a perfect command of tone, creating a film that is a ridiculously entertaining romp that also has serious physical and emotional stakes for our heroes.  The film is gorgeous to look at and extremely well-edited.  The action sequences are spectacular.  That Tom Cruise hanging-off-an-airplane stunt that opens the film got everyone’s attention, and rightly so.  The sequence is magnificent.  (And once again an example of this Mission: Impossible film out-Bonding Bond, as this opening action sequence — a Bond-movie trademark — is far more memorable than anything in Spectre.)  But there are so many other amazing action sequences in the film, from the extraordinary opera fight, to the underwater break-in, to that last big shoot-out-and-chase through the streets of London, and don’t forget my favorite: the escalatingly crazy car-and-motorcycle chase in-and-around Morocco.  Making great use of the ensemble from the last two M:I films (including Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Ving Rhames) … [continued]

 

The Top Twenty Movies of 2015 — Part One!

Overall, I think that 2015 has been a pretty terrific year for movies. Perhaps not as spectacular as originally predicted, though.  In the months leading up to 2015, there were a flurry of articles about how 2015 was going to be insanely, unprecedentedly over-stuffed with exciting new movies.  That didn’t quite happen the way I’d expected.  Some films I’d been highly anticipating proved to be disappointments (SPECTRE, Tomorrowland, Fantastic Four, Jurassic World, Terminator: Genisys, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Kingsman: The Secret Service).  Also, so many interesting films were crammed into release at the very end of the year that several of my anticipated 2015 films won’t be open around where I live until some time in 2016 (films like The Revenant or Legend or Carol or Anomalisa or Listen to Me Marlon).  This glut of end-of-the-year films also meant that while I have been able to see a ton of new movies in the past few weeks, there were several that I didn’t get to (films like Joy, Brooklyn, Trumbo, The Danish Girl, and Sisters).  Still, as I assembled my Best Movies of 2015 list, I found that it was incredibly easy to do.  There were so many movies that I loved in 2015.  I’d expanded my list to twenty films last year, and I could have easily listed thirty films this year!  But twenty feels like plenty, I think.

These are twenty films that I loved deeply, films that spoke to me and that I look forward to revisiting in the years ahead.  There are many other films that I saw and enjoyed in 2015, films such as Tig, I Am Chris Farley, Misery Loves Comedy, Sicario, The Night Before, Spy, Slow West, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Man Up, and many others.  (As usual, I spent a lot of time in the final weeks of 2015 trying to catch up on as many 2015 films as I could that I’d wanted to see but missed.  In the coming weeks I’ll have a lot of “Catching up on 2015″ reviews of those films.)  As many films as I saw in 2015, and I saw a lot, there was still, as always, a humongous list of films that I’d wanted to see but missed.  Films such as Beasts of No Nation, Call Me Lucky, Room, Love & Mercy, 99 Rooms, Irrational Man, She’s Funny That Way, True Story, 7 Days in Hell, Do I Sound Gay?, De Palma, Adult Beginners, Irrational Man, and more.  So if you’re wondering why any of those films aren’t on this list, well now you know.

OK, onward!

Honorable Mentions: Selma[continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 2

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 picks up the story mere moments after Part 1 left off.  Peeta has been rescued but he has been brainwashed to hate Katniss.  The rebels are escalating the fight against the tyrannical President Snow, beginning to strike hard at his military installations and close in on the capitol.  Katniss Everdeen has become the symbol of the rebellion, and she finds herself caught between her role as a figurehead (and therefore the rebellions’ leaders’ desires to keep her safe and use her only in a P.R. role to rally the people) and her hatred of Snow and desire to hunt him down and kill him.

HungerGames.MockingjayPart2.cropped

I have never read any of the Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins.  I went to see the first film mostly because my wife, who had read the books, really wanted to see it.  I found the film to be OK, not terrible but not great.  I was far more impressed with the second film, Catching Fire.  I was surprised how much I dug that film.  Unfortunately, looking back, that was the high point of the film series for me.  I was underwhelmed by Mockingjay Part 1.  And while my wife and I felt we wanted to see Part 2 to see how it all wrapped up, neither of us was all that desperate to see it.  As a result, we waited weeks, until the movie was almost gone from theatres, before checking it out.

Whereas Katniss Everdeen was a hero in the first film, strong and moral and courageous, I was surprised by how stuck-in-a-rut the character has been ever since then.  One of the things I liked most about Catching Fire was that it explored the ramifications of Katniss’ surving that first Hunger Games.  She wasn’t able to just walk away from those horrific events — she was deeply scarred.  That worked in Catching Fire.  But three films later, Katniss’ indecision and inaction has proven very boring for me.  I like the heroes in these sorts of films to feel human — not like unbeatable, impervious super-humans — but I’m surprised by how stuck in the mud Katniss has proven to be.  It’s a weird choice.

I don’t want to spoil the film’s ending, but the last thirty minutes are the strongest part of the movie, and clearly the whole reason for telling this story.  I didn’t care one whit about which boy Katniss was going to wind up with, but I loved the developments in that last thirty minutes about the results of the rebellion and the future of Panem.  Those were some neat ideas.

But here’s the thing: for the film’s subversion … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Big Short

Back in 2010, Adam McKay wrote and directed the film The Other Guys, starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg.  I found the film to be mediocre, but one of my favorite things in the movie was the end credits, which featured animated graphics presenting many upsetting statistics related to the 2008 financial meltdown.  It felt random and not-at-all-connected to the movie I’d just watched, but on its own that end-credits sequence was terrific and very powerful.

I guess this has been a topic that has been on Mr. McKay’s mind for some-time, because that random end-credits bit has blossomed into his latest film, The Big Short.  This film is a triumph, a movie that is equal parts funny and heartbreaking, bringing to life many of the complicated details behind the financial collapse in 2008.

TheBigShort.cropped

Mr. McKay is mostly down as a writer and director of comedies such as the two Anchorman films and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  It might at first seem like an unusual move for him to helm a drama about the financial collapse, but as it turns out Mr. McKay is the perfect man for the job.  His comedic sensibilities bring a tremendous amount of wit and life to The Big Short.  Mr McKay fills the film with funny and creative filmmaking choices that keep the film lively and the audience engaged.  Characters break the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience; there are random interludes (such as The Wolf of Wall Street’s Margot Robbie in a hot tub, definitely a winner) in which random celebrities use different methods/analogies to explain certain aspects of the intricate banking terms and issues being discussed in the film; and lots more.  These varied techniques and approaches give the film a propulsive creative energy and help Mr. McKay make the points he is trying to make.

And make no mistake, Mr. McKay and his team have a lot they want to say.  The Big Short is very funny at times, but this is an angry film that is designed to get its audience angry.  The financial meltdown of 2008 was not, Mr. McKay argues, an unavoidable tragedy, but an event that a) was caused by the greed, short-sightedness, and corruption of many, and b) was in fact predicted by a few lone voices who nobody listened to.  The Big Short tells the story of several of those lone voices in the years and months leading up to the 2008 collapse.

The film’s cast is spectacular.  Ryan Gosling has never been funnier than he is here as the fast-talking, uber-confident trader Jared Venett.  While Adam McKay is a man usually associated with comedies who is dipping his … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Creed

January 4th, 2016

I don’t have any attachment to the Rocky series.  In fact, the only Rocky film I have ever seen is the very first one, the 1976 original.  I loved it, but I never had any burning desire to continue on to watch all the sequels.  When I first read about Creed, I wasn’t interested.  But I’ve really enjoyed the work of Michael B. Jordan (cast here in the lead role as Adonis Johnson Creed), and over the past month I have seen review after review heaping incredible amounts of praise on the film.  And I must admit that the film’s trailers made it look great, something of interest to a non-Rocky-fan like me.  I finally decided that I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about.  I was not disappointed, and that’s putting it mildly.  Creed is phenomenal, a rich and resonant film that actually got me quite choked up in a few places.  Holy shit, I can’t believe the seventh film in this boxing franchise made me cry!!

Creed.cropped

Michael B. Jordan, as I’ve already noted, plays Adonis.  When we meet him, Adonis is using the last name of Johnson, but we quickly learn that he’s the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers in the first several Rocky films).  Adonis has a good life.  He has a loving mother, a nice house and a good job.  But in his heart he wants to be a boxer like his father, even though in most other ways he tries to deny everything about his father, most particularly his famous last name.  Adonis moves to Philadelphia to track down his father’s rival and friend, Rocky, begging Rocky to coach him.  Rocky has tried to put his life in boxing behind him, living a quiet life running a small restaurant (named after Adrian).  Rocky initially refuses, but Adonis persists, and eventually Rocky begins to warm up to him, agreeing to help.

The over-all plot of this film is familiar, but it works because that familiar structure is used to tell a surprisingly emotional story about the relationship forged between these two men, Adonis and Rocky, and the powerful demons they each still carry with them.

Sylvester Stallone is magnificent in the film.  I can’t believe how good he is.  Writer/director Ryan Coogler (the script was co-written by Aaron Covington) has crafted a perfect role for Mr. Stallone, putting Rocky into the Mickey role as Creed’s wizened, elder-statesman trainer.  It’s a brilliant idea, and Mr. Stallone absolutely kills it.  He plays Rocky with such sadness and loneliness that he makes it impossible for the audience not to root for the big galoot.

After seeing Star Wars: The [continued]

 

Josh Reviews the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

January 1st, 2016
,

Last december’s theatrical release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (click here for my review) brought to a close not only the three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but also Peter Jackson’s decade-and-a-half-long exploration of the Tolkien universe that began with the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings back in 2001.  And yet, for me, neither saga would be complete until nearly a full year later, with the release of the Extended Edition of The Battle of the Five Armies.  Ever since my mind was blown by the Extended Edition DVD release of Fellowship in 2002, my feeling has been that I have not yet seen the final, definitive version of any of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films until watching the Extended Edition.  The Extended Editions of the three Lord of the Rings films have become, for me, unquestionably the definitive versions of those films.  Whenever I re-watch the films, I watch the Extended Editions.  While the changes and additions made to the Extended Editions of the Hobbit films haven’t been as dramatic or as essential as those made to The Lord of the Rings, nevertheless I also feel that these Extended Editions of the Hobbit are also the definitive versions of these films.

TheHobbit.FiveArmies.Extended.02.cropped

The Extended Edition of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies adds a number of wonderful short sequences to the film.  One of the earliest changes I noticed was in Dol Goldur, when we are treated to a cool bit of an Orc general trying to cut off Gandalf’s finger — because Gandalf is revealed as wearing one of the three Rings of Power given to the Elf Lords.  All three Extended Editions of the Hobbit films have added in some references to the Rings of Power — it’s almost like a special subplot running through the Extended Editions — which I love because it better connects the Hobbit films to The Lord of the Rings.

Most of the other additions to the film take place during the titular Battle of the Five Armies.  There is a lot of extra attention given to all the Dwarves in Thorin’s company.  After developing those Dwarves over two films, I was surprised by how little many of the Dwarves had to do in the theatrical cut of The Battle of the Five Armies.  That is nicely fixed here in the Extended Edition.  We get to see Bofur (James Nesbitt) taking control of a huge Troll and wreaking havoc; we get to see Bombur (Stephen Hunter) using his girth to great effect in the battle; we even get to see Bifur (William Kircher) lose the ax that had … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Spotlight

December 30th, 2015

Tom McCarthy’s new film Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team’s investigations, begun in 2001, into the sexual abuse of children by Boston Roman Catholic priests, and by the efforts of the Boston Archdiocese to cover up those incidents of abuse.  The film is riveting and electric.  This film is the All The President’s Men of this generation.

Spotlight.cropped

This is an important story, and Spotlight brings the case to life clearly and dramatically.  The film focuses on the main “Spotlight” team and a few other senior players at the Boston Globe, and while the film develops these characters sufficiently for us to get to know and like them, the film doesn’t distract our attention with digressions into these reporters’ personal lives.  Rather, the film’s portrayal of this story remains squarely focused on the unfolding investigation.  This is exactly the right approach.  The film allows the audience to gradually discover the extent of the scandal along with the reporters.  Their growing disbelief and horror mirrors our own.  I followed this story as it unfolded back in 2002-2003, but the film allowed me to rediscover these events through new eyes.

This is a complicated story, with many different people involved.  And yet the film unfolds with a clarity of story-telling that I found remarkable.  The script by Tom McCarthy (who also directed) and Josh Singer is a tremendous piece of work.  I am sure elements of this complex story have been simplified for this presentation on-screen, and yet the film never feels dumbed down or truncated.  On the other hand, the film never collapses under the weight of too-many-names or too-much complexity.  The audience is able to very clearly follow the reporters’ efforts.  When the big revelations happen, they land effectively and with the impact those discoveries warrant.

The cast is magnificent.  I hardly know where to begin.  Let’s start with the “Spotlight” team.  Michael Keaton’s career resurgence (begun with his extraordinary work in last year’s Birdman) continues here with his work as Walter “Robby” Robinson, the head of the “Spotlight” team.  Holy cow is Mr. Keaton spectacular.  This is not a showy role — none of the roles in this film are (well, with the possible exception of Mark Ruffalo’s one big explosion in the third act) — and yet Mr. Keaton’s wonderfully expressive face and eyes (well-served by some terrific close-up work throughout the film) draw us right in to the impact this unfolding story is having on Robby.

The afore-mentioned Mark Ruffalo plays Michael Rezendes.  Mr. Rezendes is presented as the most dogged investigator on the team, and the one who feels the story the most passionately (both of which seem to have detrimentally … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Hateful Eight in 70mm!

December 28th, 2015
,

This past weekend I was delighted to have the opportunity to enjoy Quentin Tarantino’s new film, The Hateful Eight, in its 70mm “Roadshow” presentation.  More details on this limited special version of the film can be found here.

the-hateful-eight.cropped

Mr. Tarantino made the unusual decision to shoot The Hateful Eight in Ultra Panavision 70, a long-out-of-use format that uses 70mm film to capture an exceptionally wide image (in the very wide aspect ratio of 2.76:1).  This is a far wider image than the standard widescreen movie image.  While an adjusted, digital version of the film is being released to theatres in January, for a few weeks The Hateful Eight is being released in a special “Roadshow” format, in the intended aspect ratio, and on 70mm film.  This version of the film has been slightly extended by Mr. Tarantino, incorporating some longer takes of certain scenes.  (More details can be found here.)  It also includes an overture at the start of the film and an intermission in the middle.  Audience members also received a cool over-sized playbook for the film as a souvenir.

I loved this presentation of the film.  Everything about the “Roadshow” was designed to make the experience of going to the film feel special, like an event.  This was very cool.  And I was quite fascinated by watching a film in this super-wide format.  The format allowed Mr. Tanantino, working with cinematographer xx, to create some very gorgeous, very unusual compositions.

And so how was the film itself?

It was excellent.

Now, this isn’t one of Mr. Tarantino’s greatest works.  In many respects, it is a far simpler film than most of Mr. Tarantino’s other movies.  There is little of the complicated, jumbled chronology of many of Mr. Tarantino’s earlier films, nor is this film as jam-packed full of plot and incident as many of this other films.  The Hateful Eight unfolds at a far more leisurely pace than most of Mr. Tarantino’s films.  The story is, in many respects, far simpler.  And it basically only takes place in two locations — inside a horse-drawn coach and then, for the rest of the film, inside “Minnie’s Haberdashery” in the middle of a blizzard.

But I sort of loved the simplicity of the film, the way Mr. Tarantino allowed the story to slowly unfold, and the characters to slowly unwrap themselves, over the course of the film’s almost three-hour run-time.  No one, and I mean no one, can wring suspense out of dialogue the way Mr. Tarantino can.  I love the way he slowly tightens the screws on the characters and the audience, and as the film progresses the tension builds and builds and builds.  When the … [continued]

 

More Thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

December 23rd, 2015
,

Well, my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens has generated a lot of interesting feedback, and as friends have been seeing the film over the last several days I’ve had a number of fascinating conversations, digging deeply into the film.

Sometimes I find that if I write a review immediately after seeing a film, after a few days thinking about it my opinions can shift or change.  But in this case that hasn’t happened.  I still find myself feeling very much the same way about the The Force Awakens as I did when I walked out of the theatre.  I had a great time seeing the film, and there’s a lot that I loved about it.  At the same time, I’m bugged by some of the story-telling choices, some of which feel are conscious choices by the filmmakers that I happen to disagree with, and others of which feel like mistakes that the filmmakers did not intend.  Bottom line: the film is far better than I had suspected it would be, though not the triumph that I had secretly (and perhaps not-so-secretly) hoped for.

I stand by everything I wrote in my review.  Though, after continuing to think about and talk about the film, I find that despite my lengthy initial review I still have more to say.  And so, some additional thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

StarWars.ForceAwakens.HanSoloChewbacca.cropped

The thing that most bugs me about the film is some of those story-telling blunders that start to accumulate in the second half.  There are too many coincidences in the film.  (Han just happens to bring Rey and Fin to the place where Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber has been kept?  A super-Force-strong girl, an old man with the location of Luke Skywalker, AND the Millennium Falcon are ALL on the same planet??)  Too many things in the film are hinted at and not explained.  (Who is the old man at the beginning of the film?  Why did Luke Skywalker create a map if he didn’t want to be found?  Why did that old man have a piece of it?  Why did the Empire have the rest?  Why was Artoo asleep for so many years and how/why did he re-awaken (should this film have been called The Droid Awakens?) at the end?)

I’m particularly mystified as to why the filmmakers did not more clearly establish the political situation in the galaxy.  Has a New Republic been re-established, as we’d all suspected it would have been following the events of Return of the Jedi?  Does this Republic control most of the galaxy?  Why would the destruction of five or six planets cripple the New Republic?  We’re not meant to think those five … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau

December 21st, 2015

I’m always fascinated by movie “what-if” stories and behind-the-scenes tales.  It’s fascinating to discover how a great film got made, and it’s equally if not more fascinating to discover how a terrible film got made.  How could so much money be spent, with so many people involved and working so hard, on a film that winds up being such a total stinker?  Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau is a tale of a film in the latter category.  It’s the behind-the-scenes saga of the making of the 1993 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer.  That film, despite the sizable for the time budget and the involvement of two huge (and incredibly talented) actors, could be one of the worst movies ever made.  Lost Soul, on the other hand, directed by David Gregory, is a wonderful peek behind the curtain at the hard-to-believe shenanigans that went on during the making of the film, including the firing of the director Richard Stanley soon after filming had begun.

LostSoul.01.cropped

Lost Soul focuses on the story of Richard Stanley.  The South African writer/director had started to get some notice in the early nineties with his low-budget horror films Hardware and Dust Devil.  Mr. Stanley then began working on an adaptation of H.G. Welles’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau for New Line Cinema.  As he recounts in Lost Soul, Mr. Stanley had seen and enjoyed many aspects of the previous attempts to adapt Moreau to film, but he had never been entirely satisfied and so became passionate about spearheading a new adaptation.  The project was conceived as a relatively low-budget affair costing less than ten million dollars.

What follows is a saga of escalating chaos and a fascinating exploration of why Hollywood turns out so many bad movies each year.  True, the making of most films is not as catastrophe-filled as this doomed version of Moreau, but one can see in the Hollywood logic that helped send Richard Stanley’s Moreau off the rails the echo of many other bad decisions leading to the creation of many other bad movies.

In this case, New Line got excited by the originally small-scale project and started looking to attach big stars. This ballooned the scale of the project as now the budget had to be dramatically increased to pay for those stars, and now once you had a larger-budget film the scale of everything else had to be increased in turn because now this was a major film for the studio.  This completely changes the dynamic of the film and, even in pre-production, resulted in alterations to the planned film designed to address the ideas … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

December 18th, 2015
,

I don’t remember a time in my life in which I didn’t know about and love Star Wars.  I was a little kid when the original films came out, and by the time I really remember it, Star Wars was already a complete thing.  Three films: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.  I read lots of articles about Star Wars as a kid and I of course knew the story that George Lucas had at one time pictured a Star Wars saga consisting of nine films… and obviously I was aware that those three Star Wars films that had been made were numbered Episode IV, V, and VI, but it didn’t seem like there was any prospect of additional Star Wars on the horizon.  I just accepted that, and I was all right with that.  Those three films painted a complete story, and I was satisfied.

I still remember the excitement when word trickled out that George Lucas was actually going to go ahead and make his fabled prequel films.  Like, I think, almost every Star Wars fan on the planet, I was hugely excited to see the backstory fleshed out.  A chance to see the Jedi in their prime?  To learn about what the heck the Clone Wars were?  And to finally discover just how the Emperor and Darth Vader were able to destroy the Jedi?  It was tantalizing.  Well, we all know how that turned out.  Watching Episode I in theatres that opening night was the most crushingly disappointing cinematic experience of my life.  I’d never really considered the possibility that the movie wouldn’t be great.  Episode II felt like a step forward at the time but that film has aged terribly.  There’s a lot that I like about Episode III — it’s the only prequel film that I can say I enjoyed — but it was too little, too late.  To me, the prequels are best forgotten.

And so, again, in my mind that was it.  George Lucas didn’t seem interested in making any additional Star Wars films, and after the disappointment of the prequels I was totally fine with that.  The Star Wars story was finished.

And then Mr. Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney and immediately the announcement was made that Episode VII was in development.  I of course followed those developments with great interest.  While I can’t say I was surprised that the decision was made to make more Star Wars films, I truly never expected to see Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher ever again reprise their roles on-screen.  I was stunned when that was announced, and even now after seeing The Force Awakens I am still … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Best of Enemies

December 16th, 2015

Best of Enemies is a fascinating documentary that tells the story of the ten live debates on ABC in 1968 between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal.  The film is a riveting examination of this lightning-rod moment in American television and politics, one whose reverberations are still clearly being felt today.

best_of_enemies-01.cropped

In 1968, ABC was a third-place network, and they found themselves looking for a way to save money on their coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions.  And so, for the first time ever, ABC decided not to run continuous live coverage of the convention, instead cutting away periodically for a series of live debates between Mr. Buckley Jr., a Conservative, and Mr. Vidal, a liberal.  The result was a series of fierce debates between these two men who not only stood on polar opposite sides of the American political spectrum but who also, apparently, shared a deep antipathy for one another.  This antipathy exploded in a shocking moment in which, after Mr. Vidal called Mr. Buckley Jr. a crypto-Nazi, Mr. Buckley Jr. called Mr. Vidal a queer.  All on live television.

Best of Enemies, directed skillfully by Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville, is a wonderful examination of those ten debates and the events leading up to them.  The film gives us a concise but thorough background to the social issues roiling through the United States during those months of 1968.  Even more interesting — and critical to the story being told by the documentary — is that the film explores the background and political views of both men, Vidal and Buckley Jr.  Both men led fascinating lives, and I found it to be incredibly absorbing watching the film chronicle all the events that led the two men to their confrontation in the 1968 debates.

The film is well structured, jumping into footage from the debates fairly early (as opposed to making us wait until late in the film, only after having gotten all the backstory).  Instead, the film cleverly takes us through each of the ten debates sequentially, pausing between each debate to fill in more and more of the backstory.  By the time we get to the shocking name-calling late in the film, at that point we have a full picture of who these two men are, and of their individual passions that led them to that ugly confrontation.

The story of the film is told in three ways.  Number one, we hear from a terrific assembly of the men and women who were close to Mr. Vidal and Mr. Buckley, and to the events of the debate.  (I loved hearing from Dick Cavett and the late Christopher Hitchens, and I was particularly fascinated to hear … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Steve Jobs

The film Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, is divided into three vignettes, each taking place in the moments before Steve Jobs will go on-stage to announce the launch of a new product.  The first vignette is in 1984, at the launch of the Macintosh computer.  The second is in 1988, after Jobs’ ouster from Apple (the company he had co-founded), at Jobs’ presentation of the NeXT computer.  The third and final vignette is in 1988.  Jobs is back at Apple and is about to present the iMac.

Steve Jobs.01.cropped

Steve Jobs has a very theatrical feeling, with it’s three-act/three-vignette structure.  Though the film is an original screenplay, written by Aaron Sorkin based on Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of Mr. Jobs, as well as on additional interviews conducted by Mr. Sorkin and the filmmaking team, it feels very much like an adaptation of a play.  The tone reminds me very much of some of the films that David Mamet wrote, adapting his own plays, both because of the very stylized dialogue and also because of the theatrical structure.  (This is on my mind as I just last week watched Mr. Mamet’s 1996 film American Buffalo for the first time, which is an adaptation of Mr. Mamet’s stage play of the same name.)

I sort of love this three-act structure here in Steve Jobs.  The challenge of biopics is that of condensing a subject’s entire life into a two-hour film.  Many biopics over-reach, trying to cram in every major life event of the subject, and wind up feeling bloated and, at the same time, very superficial.  I tend to prefer the approach taken by films like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln that focus in more narrowly on a specific period in the subject’s life.  Here in Steve Jobs, Mr. Sorkin has taken a different, and very clever, approach.  By dividing the film into three sequences at three different points in Mr. Jobs’ life, we are able to get a sense of the over-all ups and downs of his career, while also allowing the film to have a clear focus: on these three momentous events in Mr. Jobs’ life and career.

When watching biopics, or any films based on real-life people and/or events, I often find myself judging the film based on its accuracy to the real-life events.  I hate it when films twist the truth of real-life people or events in order to make what they think is a more palatable story for a movie.  A film like A Beautiful Mind was well-made and well-performed, but it seemed to so clearly gloss over some of the difficult realities of John Nash that I found I had little patience for it.  … [continued]

 

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.

TheNightBefore.cropped

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]

 

Josh Reviews Fury

November 23rd, 2015
, ,

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.

Fury.cropped

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]

 

Josh Reviews Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films!

November 13th, 2015
,

Towards the end of Mark Hartley’s spectacular documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, Richard Kraft sums up the entire story of the company: “Cannon’s legacy will be the insane stories of how that many movies got made, during a very specific period of time, by two guys who had no business doing any of it.”

Electric Boogaloo.Cannon Films.cropped

The name Cannon Films strikes a huge nostalgic chord in me from my childhood years in the eighties.  It’s not an entirely favorable recollection, as I most know Cannon for its involvement in the dismal Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.  That Superman film was one of the first times as a kid that I started to discern that not all movies were created equal.  It was clear to me right away that something was “off” about Superman IV, that the sequel wasn’t as great as the previous Superman films that I loved so much.  (As a kid I detected the flaws in Superman IV even before I started to question Superman III.)  I started to wonder why that mighty have been, and after doing some reading about the film in magazines, in the days/months after the film’s release, it became clear that the new producers of the series, Cannon, had tried to make the film on the cheap and the results showed on screen.

Nevertheless, I have always held a warm spot in my heart for the cheesy low-budget craziness of Cannon films.  And so I was hugely excited when I first heard of Mark Hartley’s documentary.

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films does not disappoint.  The film is a spectacularly thorough, and tremendously entertaining, look back at the Cannon Group.

The Cannon story centers on the two men who ran the company from 1979 until 1989: Israeli cousins Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus.  These two men, particularly Menachem, were big personalities and quite idiosyncratic in the world of Hollywood.  Everyone interviewed for the film — and the film boasts an enormously impressive array of interview subjects — seems to have a story about Menachem.  And almost everyone in the film seems to relish showing off their personal imitation of Menachem — his distinct Israeli accent and his brash personality.  The film is stuffed to overflowing with outlandish, hard-to-believe stories of Menachem and of the crazy, seat-of-the-pants way in which the Cannon Group operated.

ElectricBoogaloo.Golan-and-Globus.cropped

Many of the subjects interviewed for the film seem to have liked Menachem and Yoram, and many strongly disliked them.  It is hard to argue that Cannon succeeded in making many movies that were any good.  But what I enjoyed about the documentary is that Mark Hartley clearly has an affection for Cannon … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Sicario

As Sicario opens, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) raid a house in Arizona looking for kidnapping victims, only to discover that hidden inside the walls of the house are the gruesome remains of dozens of dead victims of the drug cartels.  Kate agrees to be reassigned to a team of men hunting the cartels, despite the shadowy nature of some of the men involved, including Matt (Josh Brolin), who Kate suspects is a CIA agent, and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) a man who seems to have inside knowledge of the cartels.  Kate is taken off-guard that the team’s first mission takes them outside the U.S. and to Juarez, Mexico to extradite a prisoner.  On the way out, they find themselves in a violent shootout with cartel men in the middle of a crowded bridge.  Kate has found herself suddenly surrounded in a world of terrible violence and increasingly murky morality, as the actions of Matt and Alejandro and their team seem to be of questionable legality at best.  To what end will she allow herself to go in pursuit of the cartel head-honchos?  Just what sorts of means will justify their ends?

Sicario.cropped

Sicario is a tense thrilled that had me quite on the edge of my seat for much of its run-time.  I like the way the film throws the audience into the story, not giving us (or Kate, our main character) much chance to catch our breath or to get our bearings.  I enjoyed the murky moral questions that the film, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by Denis Villeneuve, raises.

But I didn’t quite love the film the way so many other reviewers seemed to.  Throughout the film I found myself repeatedly scratching my head as to why Matt (Josh Brolin) behaves like such a dick to Kate, and why she tolerates that behavior.  Sicario is a film whose story only really works if you accept the notion that Matt will withhold key information from Kate until late in the third act, and that Kate will continue to go along with what’s happening without insisting on someone giving her a straight answer.  Part of my brain can accept this, thinking that people go along with all sorts of things when they want to fit in and look like a good, agreeable person to their bosses in an effort to get ahead.  I can see this being even more of an issue in Kate’s case, a woman who, despite the film showing us her smarts and competence, is nonetheless the lone woman among all these alpha dog males.  On the other hand, the other part of my brain recognizes the withholding … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews A Most Violent Year

In the ripping crime yarn A Most Violent Year, Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, the owner of a Brooklyn-based oil company.  As the film opens, in 1981, Abel and his friend and attorney, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), have just secured a great deal: the purchase of an enormous fuel terminal near the East River which will give Abel an enormous leg up on his competitors.  But as Abel’s company has grown, so too have his troubles.  His oil trucks are being hijacked (likely at the hand of one of his competitors) costing him an enormous sum of money and problems with the Teamsters who represent his drivers, and his company is being investigated by the State government for criminal activities.  Abel’s wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), pushes Abel to fight violence with violence, but Abel has prided himself on not being a criminal like Anna’s father.  As Abel’s situation grows increasingly desperate, what will he be forced to do?

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

First of all, wow, who knew that Oscar Isaac would be in basically everything I’ve watched this month??  Mr. Isaac grabbed hold of my attention with both hands back when I first saw Inside Llewyn Davis (click here for my review), but in the past few weeks he has blown me away with his work in Show Me a Hero (click here for my review) and Ex Machina (click here for my review) and now A Most Violent Year.  (And, of course, Mr. Isaac also has a major role in the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens!!)  Mr. Isaac’s power as an actor is demonstrated with full force with his tremendous work here in A Most Violent Year.  This is a movie-star performance.  This film rises because of Mr. Isaac’s commanding work, in pretty much every scene of the film.  Mr. Isaac has created a hugely compelling character in Abel, a smart and magnetic personality whose talent and charisma has taken him far from his humble immigrant origins… perhaps too far?  As I watched A Most Violent Year, I was captivated in wondering where the film, and Abel’s story, was going.  Would Abel prove to be the hero of the piece… or the villain?

A Most Violent Year was written and directed by J.C. Chandor.  I didn’t realize until after watching the film that Mr. Chandor had also written and directed the terrific 2013 film All is Lost, the near-silent movie starring Robert Redford, about a man alone at sea in escalatingly calamitous circumstances.  (Click here for my review.)  Wow, Mr. Chandor is clearly an enormous talent.  This is a filmmaker to whom I will be paying very close attention from now on!… [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Crimson Peak

A new film by Guillermo del Toro is always a source of great excitement for me.  Add to that the idea of Mr. del Toro, a master of horror and fantasy, involved in a haunted house movie?  Delicious.  Crimson Peak has not been successful at the box office, which is a shame because it is a great film, original, clever, gorgeously made, and with some wonderful performances, particularly by the lead trio of Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain.  While the film does not approach the quality of Mr. del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s nonetheless a terrific film and a wonderful story.

Crimson Peak.cropped

Young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) has been raised by her businessman/architect father after the death of her mother when she was just a girl.  Edith dreams of being a writer, but has thus far found only rejection.  Though she has a friendship with a handsome young physician (Charlie Hunnam), she finds herself wooed by a visiting British aristocrat, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who has come to America looking for Edith’s father to invest in his inventions.  But Sir Thomas and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), are hiding a secret, one which will threaten Edith’s life when she joins Sir Thomas and Lucille back in their ancient mansion home, nicknamed Crimson Peak by the locals.

What I love most about the films of Guillermo del Toro is the way that each is an utterly original creation and a fully realized fantasy world.  Each film of Mr. del Toro’s is a peek (no pun intended) into an entirely original universe, with its own rules and unique characters and situations, into all of which Mr. del Toro digs deeply.  Each of his films benefits from an enormous amount of thought and care paid to the world-building of that particular story.  I love this feeling of stepping into a fully-realized universe of the film, one which exists beyond the boundaries of the particular story being told in that film.

Mr. del Toro is also a master at tying the fantastic elements of his stories to real, human characters, who are always the center of his films, no matter how wonderful the ghosts or monsters or other fantasy creations in the film are.  (As much as I enjoyed seeing Mr. del Toro operate with the first huge budget of his career with Pacific Rim, that film stumbled because it lacked Mr. del Toro’s usual sharp focus on character.)  Though Crimson Peak is also a decently-budgeted film (it is listed on-line at a budget of $55 million, which is a lot more money than many of Mr. del Toro’s earlier films but a tiny pittance compared to most big-budget blockbusters … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies, the new film from Steven Spielberg, spans events in the Cold War from 1957-1962.  The film opens with the arrest of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy living in Brooklyn, NY.  Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks), a lawyer who primarily deals with insurance, agrees to serve as Abel’s legally required defense.  Despite the wishes of many around him, Donovan attempts to give Abel the best defense he is capable of, and the two men gradually bond.  In 1960, when a U.S. U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured, Donovan finds himself playing negotiator/mediator between the United States and U.S.S.R. governments, as he attempts to arrange a prisoner exchange of Abel for Powers.

Bridge of Spies.sm

Bridge of Spies is not only a fascinating and compelling film, but, like The Martian (which I reviewed last week), it’s also an important one.  The Martian is set in the future in outer space, and Bridge of Spies is set decades ago during the Cold War, but both are films with important things to say about our world and our culture today.  While The Martian champions the value of science and intelligence, Bridge of Spies champions the importance of the rule of law and the rights that all men and women deserve.  In two critical scenes in the film, Tom Hanks gets to deliver powerfully written and marvelously performed speeches that spell out this message succinctly and effectively.  In the first, after being stopped in the rain by a C.I.A. agent who asserts that there is “no rule-book” in these dangerous times, Donovan counters that the Constitution and the rule of law is their rule-book, and that it is their adherence to the values and rights set out in the Constitution that unites him, a man of Irish descent, with agent Hoffman, a man of German descent, as Americans.  In the second, we hear Donovan argue Abel’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court, declaring that though Abel might be their foe, that what sets America apart is our values and our adherence to those values and the rule of law, even when in conflict with an enemy.  Both scenes are powerful declarations of the principles behind which the film stands, and both, I think, are important messages for Americans to hear today.  The issues we face today are no less difficult that those faced in the fifties and sixties; our enemies around the globe no less fierce and intractable; but that is no excuse to abandon our values and our principles out of expediency or because we believe we have no other choice.

Once again, Spielberg and Hanks prove to be a winning combination.  Hank’s … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

October 28th, 2015

Douglas Tirola’s new documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon tells the story of the rise (and eventual decline) of the brilliant, hugely influential humor magazine The National Lampoon.  The film follows its origins as a Harvard magazine, to its early days as a national magazine, to the eventual expansion of its humor empire to include a radio show, stage shows, and so much more.

NationalLampoon.cropped

The National Lampoon was the origin of so much of modern comedy.  Its irreverent, take-no-prisoners-in-pursuit-of-a-joke style of humor that could shift from sophisticated political satire to raunchy sex jokes was the precursor of Saturday Night Live and everything that then spun out from SNL.  I was endlessly fascinated, watching this documentary, to see just how much of the style of SNL — as well as how many of its early performers and writers — came from The National Lampoon.

This documentary is tremendous fun, an endlessly intriguing peek at so many of the outrageous — and hugely talented — men and women who started the Lampoon and helped take it to greatness.  There are a lot of juicy inside stories of what went on during those drug-fueled days, which are fascinating to hear about.  More important than that, the documentary is hugely funny.  Most of the people being interviewed — and Mr. Tirola has managed to get an impressively deep array of personalities on camera, both famous faces like Chevy Chase and many of the writers and artists who I had never heard of, but who were intergral to to the Lampoon’s success — are very funny, and so of course they tell very funny stories.  On top of that, Mr. Tirola very creatively brings a lot of great Lampoon material to the screen.  We get to see a wealth of still-images of famous Lampoon covers and interior cartoons and photos.  Many of those images are brought to life on-screen with some simple but effective animation that gives those iconic — and very funny — images an extra bit of life on-screen.  It’s an effective technique, extremely well-executed.

Mr. Tirola also has been able to get access to an impressive wealth of behind the scenes photos, and of recordings of many of those early Lampoon radio shows and stage performances.  There is some phenomenal material here that most people have never ever seen, and this material is the best draw in a documentary that is stuffed full of great stuff.  I couldn’t believe how many famous names in comedy got their start with the Lampoon, and there is some great material in the film highlighting their early work.  I was particularly taken by footage of a very young Christopher … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Ex Machina

October 26th, 2015
,

In Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina, Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a young programmer for Bluebook (a company that, in the world of the film, is the world’s most popular search engine).  Caleb wins a contest to spend a week with the company’s brilliant and reclusive young CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac).  It turns out that Nathan has chosen Caleb to give the Turing test to an artificial intelligence he has created, Ava (Alicia Vikander), to determine if she is truly sentient.

Ex Machina.cropped

Ex Machina is extraordinary, a riveting piece of speculative fiction and an engrossing closed-door character study.  In the best possible way, it feels like a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone or, to pick a more event example, of the brilliant British TV series Black Mirror.  (Click here for my review of that brilliant and horrifying show that explores ways in which, in the near future, advances in technology might dramatically impact the nature of our lives.)

I just wrote about Oscar Isaac, who was so compelling in Inside Llewyn Davis, in my review of Show Me a Hero.  Here Mr. Davis is again, in an entirely different role from either of those two characters, yet once again absolutely brilliant.  I love the way he has crafted Nathan, someone who looks and feels totally different from the cliche image of a brilliant recluse inventor that one might have expected.  Mr. Isaac plays Nathan as a bulldog, a gruff, blunt man who likes to push and confront.  And yet we also can see his brilliance — this man’s arrogance is not unearned — as well as the insecurity that lies underneath his bluster.  I love every choice that Mr. Isaac and writer/director Alex Garland have made.  I love the look of the character — bald head and scruffy beard — that is so unusual and striking and yet makes perfect sense for a character not used to much human contact.  I love that when we first see him he is working out in sweaty clothes.  Most of all I love the intensity and force of personality that Mr. Isaac brings to the character.  We can understand how this man became as hugely wealthy as he did, and, like Caleb, we are both impressed by and slightly fearful of this unpredictable man.  It’s an incredible performance.

Domhnall Gleeson has been doing great work, these past few years, playing the “everyman” in a variety of science fiction stories, from a terrific episode of the afore-mentioned Black Mirror to the sci-fi romance About Time.  He’s tremendous in this film as the character through whom the audience experiences this story.  This is a far harder role than it might seem … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Martian

October 19th, 2015
, ,

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.

TheMartian.cropped.02

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]

 

Josh Reviews Kevin Pollak’s Misery Loves Comedy

As I have written about multiple times, I am a huge fan of Kevin Pollak’s amazing podcast Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show, in which Mr. Pollak sits down for extended (and I mean extended — most of the interviews are about two hours long) conversations with comedians and actors to talk about their lives, their careers, and their craft.  It’s a delicious inside baseball sort of conversation, a delight for a comedy nerd like me.  Mr. Pollak has proven to be a remarkably talented interviewer, able to be very funny while also asking very insightful, probing questions of his guests.

Over the years, as a regular viewer/listener of the show, it’s clear that there have been certain topics that Mr. Pollak has proven to be particularly interested in exploring with his guests, areas of conversation to which Mr. Pollak seems to return, again and again, with his various guests.  Two of these have become the basis for Mr. Pollak’s new documentary film: first, what is it that makes these comedians/performers first decide to spend their lives entertaining others (what Mr. Pollak amusingly calls “hey look at me disease”) and second, is it true that to be truly funny one needs to have a deep well or sadness and/or trauma in one’s life?

Misery Loves Comedy.01.cropped

Mr. Pollak’s new film, Misery Loves Comedy, is a big bold underline under these favorite themes of Mr. Pollack’s.  It feels like a summary of all of those interviews.

The film boasts a staggering array of talent.  Just look at some of these people who appear in the documentary: Jimmy Fallon, Tom Hanks, Kevin Smith, Judd Apatow, Janeane Garofalo, Whoopi Goldberg, Christopher Guest, Stephen Merchant, Larry David, Jason Alexander, Jim Gaffigan, Lewis Black, Penn Jillette, Richard Lewis, Maria Bamford, James L. Brooks, Andy Richter, Robert Smigel, Alan Zweibel, Jim Norton, Amy Schumer, Jon Favreau, Sam Rockwell, Bobby Cannavale, Matthew Perry… and that’s just scratching the surface.  Mr. Pollak’s connections in the comedy world serve this film well.  I was continually impressed by the A-level talent featured, and also by the inclusion of some great and fascinating lesser-known people.

Misery Loves Comedy.02.cropped

Larry David’s interview appears to be the one interview in the film that was taken directly from his appearance on Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show.  All the other interviews appear to have been newly-recorded for the film.

The film is very, very funny, as you might expect from such a spectacular assemblage of funny people.  And it also succeeds in digging into some of the more serious questions that Mr. Pollak is clearly interested in exploring.  I was fascinated to hear Freddie Prinze Jr. talk about his father’s suicide, and Kevin Smith has a great story about how he feels comedy saved … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Black Mass

Black Mass tells the story of Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, the Boston crime boss who, for twenty years, was allowed to operate and consolidate power in Boston by the local branch of the FBI because of Bulger’s secret role as an FBI informant, helping the FBI work against the Italian mafia.  The film, directed by Scott Cooper and written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, is based on the 2001 book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill.

Black Mass.cropped

Black Mass is a solid crime flick.  The film follows a fairly familiar rise-and-fall-of-the-criminal story-arc that you will recognize if you’ve ever seen a movie of this type before.  There’s none of the exciting originality found in the work of, say, crime-master Martin Scorsese.  But don’t sell Black Mass short just because it’s not as great as a movie made by one of the most brilliant masters of this genre!  It’s an intelligently made drama/thriller that I enjoyed.

Johnny Depp is in the lead role as Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, and wow, I had just about given up on Johnny Depp’s ever actually acting in a film again (as opposed to the clownish make-up-laden shenanigans he’s been up to for the past decade or so).  OK, this role is heavily dependent on make-up, too, but still, this feels to me like the first real, honest performance Mr. Depp has given in a long time, and it’s a delight to see.  Jimmy is a monster, but Mr. Depp keeps the performance very restrained and internal.  Just watch his eyes — cold and calculating and hard.  I am happy to say that I have once again enjoyed a Johnny Depp performance.

But what surprised me about the film is that, in the end, it’s not really about Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger at all.  Johnny Depp is great, but Jimmy doesn’t have much of a character arc in the film.  He’s a scary psychopathic bastard when we first meet him, and he’s a scary psychopathic bastard at the end of the movie.  No, the film is really about Jimmy’s childhood friend from Southie, now FBI agent, Jack Connolly, played magnificently by Joel Edgerton.  It’s Jack who is at the heart of the film, coming up with a scheme that he felt would allow him to honor his personal code of loyalty to his friend from the neighborhood while also advancing within the FBI, a scheme that takes him far… until it all falls apart.  Mr. Edgerton is terrific, compelling and horrifying and empathetic all at once.  The film stakes at a clear position that Jack wasn’t a patsy taken advantage of by Jimmy, … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews I Am Chris Farley

September 10th, 2015

After watching Tig (the lovely documentary about comedian Tig Notaro that I just reviewed), it was fun to move on to another documentary about a talented comedian, albeit one who died far too young.

Saturday Night Live: The Best of Chris Farley

I am Chris Farley, directed by Brent Hodge & Derik Murray, is a loving look back at the too-short life of the incredibly talented Chris Farley.  The film covers a lot of ground, chronicling Chris’ childhood and how he got the bug for performing, his time at Second City (the famous Chicago-based improv group), his rise to super-stardom as a cast-member on Saturday Night Live, his forays into movies (mostly accompanied by David Spade) and, of course, his untimely death.

I felt the tone of this documentary was just exactly right.  There’s no question that this is a loving look back at the life of Chris Farley, and the film is generally light and very, very funny.  We get a lot of sweet and funny reminiscences about Chris from so many of the people who loved him, and a liberal dose of actual clips of Chris performing which are, of course, hysterical.  The film doesn’t shy away from covering the darker sides of Chris’ life.  That wouldn’t have been honest had they glossed over those aspects of his life.  But the filmmakers never allow those elements of Chris Farley’s story to consume the film.

I was impressed by the enormous array of people interviewed for the film.  The filmmakers are to be commended for finding people from all areas of Chris’ life.  We hear from everyone one could expect or hope to hear from, such as David Spade, of course, and many other SNL stars.  The film gives a lot of time to Chris’ brother, Kevin Farley, allowing him in many ways to provide the backbone of the film’s narrative of Chris’ life.  But we hear from so many other people, too!  There are some really deep cuts here.  We hear from Chris’ high school drama teacher, for goodness sake! The result is a film that feels very thorough in its look back at Chris’ life.

It’s very sweet to see, as one watches the film, just how many people loved Chris and seem so happy to talk about him and to share their stories of him.  The film is filled with great stories.  The are some obvious choices — of course, there had to be some discussion of the “Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker” SNL sketch — and also so many other great anecdotes that I’d never heard.  (And in one of my favorite moments in the film, we get to hear from the actual Matt Foley!!  Who knew that Chris had used the … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Tig

September 8th, 2015

I first heard of comedian Tig Notaro back in 2012.  I was on a list on Louie C.K.’s web-site, after I had purchased the stand-up routine he had made available on his site.  And so I received the mass e-mail sent out announcing that one could now download a new stand-up routine called “Live” (not L-eye-ve is in a live performance, but live as in not to die) by Tig Notaro.  Apparently, in the span of a very short period of time, Tig’s mother had fallen down, hit her head, and died, and then Tig found out that she had cancer in both her breasts and was very likely going to die.  She then went on-stage at Largo and performed a stand-up routine in which she talked about these experiences.  According to Louie, and you can read his full original post here, “I can’t really describe it but I was crying and laughing and listening like never before in my life.”

Tig.cropped

At the time I was intrigued, though I have to admit I didn’t immediately download Tig’s set.  A recording of a woman talking about finding out she was about to die?  It sounded too grueling to put myself through.  I did though revisit my initial judgment, as word of Tig’s set spread around the internet and I started reading over and over again what a magnificent piece of performance it had been.  I’m glad I came around, because it truly is a phenomenal piece of work, heartfelt and wrenching but also devastatingly funny and cathartic.

Ashley York and Kristina Goolsby’s new Netflix documentary, simply called Tig, chronicles the comedian’s experiences leading up to that fateful night’s performances, and also follows her through the the next year or so of her life.

It’s a lovely film, a wonderful portrait of this unique artist and a fascinating look into the events leading up to her astonishing, wave-producing stand-up performance that night at Largo, and the effect that hour on-stage had on her career and her life.

I was fascinated (and horrified) to learn that the list of difficulties that had befallen Tig in the months before her fateful stand-up set were even more than I had heard, as she had also had to battle through a devastating bacterial infection that had done terrible damage to her digestive tract.  (Tig has thankfully recovered from that, and after a double masectomy she also appears to currently be healthy, with her cancer in remission.)

I was also fascinated and intrigued to learn of the troubles Tig faced after her stand-up performance that made her famous.  While that performance shot her into a new level of success and public prominence, Tig then faced … [continued]

 

Josh Enjoys the Rogue Cut of X-Men: Days of Future Past

I quite enjoyed the theatrical version of X-Men: Days of Future Past.  (Click here for my original review.)  Let me be clear, I lament how much of the classic comic-book story, by Chris Claremont & John Byrne, was jettisoned for the film.  I would so dearly love to some day see a more direct adaptation of that classic X-Men story for the big screen.  But I loved the idea of using the hook of that story-line as a way to merge the original cast of Bryan Singer’s X-Men films from a decade and a half ago with the new, younger First Class versions.  That’s a genius idea.  I thought the film worked well on its own — not spectacular, but very solid — as a super-hero adventure flick, and I absolutely adored the final few minutes which served as a tremendous course-correction on the mis-steps the franchise took with Brett Ratner’s misguided and flawed X-Men: The Last Stand. 

When the film was released, there was a lot written on-line about how Anna Paquin’s Rogue had been cut from the film.  Apparently, to keep the film’s run-time at a manageable level, an entire subplot featuring her character was cut from the film, and in the theatrical cut Ms. Paquin only appeared as Rogue for a brief instant in the final moments of the film.  That brief appearance was satisfactory for me, but of course I was curious to see what had been cut out.

X-Men-DaysofFuturePast.RogueCut.cropped

I am delighted to report that the extended “Rogue Cut” of Days of Future Past that has recently been released to blu-ray is a wonderful enhancement of the film.  The Rogue subplot has been restored to the film, but I was surprised by how many other great little bits and moments had also been edited into the film.  Pretty much all of these moments are great, and as such I feel pretty confident that this will be my preferred version of the film to watch from now on.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this “Rogue Cut” is not a radical alteration to the theatrical version.  The changes are far more subtle than some of the more famous directors cuts that are out there, such as the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings films, or, say, the directors cuts of James Cameron’s Aliens or The Abyss.  (By the way, if you’ve never seen those directors cuts, track them down immediately!!) The most dramatic change to the film is, no surprise, the sequences involving Rogue, which are nicely well-woven into the extended version.  The main element of this restored subplot is the mid-movie mission that the aged Magneto (Ian McKellan) leads to rescue Rogue … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Mr. Holmes

In Bill Condon’s magnificent new film, Mr. Holmes, Sir Ian McKellan stars as an elderly Sherlock Holmes.  Now 93 years old, Holmes has long-since retired and lives far from London (and 221B Baker Street) in a quiet, rural farmhouse.  Holmes’ main occupation has become raising bees, and his only two companions are his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker).  The once-brilliant Holmes now struggles with a fading memory.  At Roger’s prodding, he attempts to reconstruct the details of his final case, the one whose resolution drove him to abandon his profession as a detective.

Mr.Holmes.cropped

Mr. Holmes is a masterpiece, a beautiful story of the later years of a former legend.  The film cleverly treats Holmes as if he were a real person (rather than a fictionalized character), about whom his partner John Watson wrote many books, and explores what might have happened to this brilliant mind when beset by old age.  I am reminded of the cleverness of the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, which make the case that a story’s ending becomes happy or sad based on where you choose to end the telling.  If you stop reading The Lord of The Rings at the end of the last chapter of The Return of the King, then the story has, for the most part, a happy ending.  But if you continue through the appendices and read more about the lives of the characters, through to their later years and their deaths, then the end of the tale becomes far more heartbreaking.  Such is the case here with Mr. Holmes, as the film (based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, by Mitch Cullin) takes the story of Sherlock Holmes past the years of his adventures as a detective to see what the man might have been like at the end of his very long life.

The result is a gorgeous, delicate story, a wonderful character piece that is anchored by a mesmerizing performance by Ian McKellan.  Sherlock Holmes feels like a role that Mr. McKellan was born to play.  He brings great gravitas and intelligence to the role of Holmes, while also gently allowing the audience to see the man’s beating heart, his loneliness and creeping sadness at the devolution of his faculties.  It’s an extraordinary, riveting performance, one that had my attention completely glued to the screen.  It’s great fun seeing director Bill Condon reunited with Mr. McKellan, with whom he collaborated back in 1998 with Gods and Monsters (a terrific film that I really need to re-watch one of these days).  It makes me happy to see Mr. Condon freed from directing Twilight movies and back to … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

August 28th, 2015
,

There is nothing particularly revelatory about Guy Ritchie’s new film version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a nineteen-sixties TV show now reinvented for the big screen.  Of the two films released this summer that are based on nineteen-sixties TV shows about spies, I definitely preferred Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.  That’s a much larger-scale film, a more exhilaratingly fun adventure and also a story than manages to better balance tongue-in-cheek silliness with some actual narrative weight and stakes for the characters.  But while The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a smaller-scale film, it is not without its charms and doesn’t deserve to be ignored in this busy season of big loud summer movies.

TheManFromUNCLE.cropped

Though the film tries to pack in a lot of crosses and double-crosses, its basic story is fairly simple.  In 1963, with the Cold War in full swing, a handsome and debonair CIA agent, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), and a tough as nails KGB agent, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), are forced to work together to stop a group of former Nazis from building their own nuclear weapon.

That’s a great hook for a story, and I quite enjoyed Mr. Cavill (who played Clark Kent/Superman in Warner Brothers’ recent Man of Steel and what looks to be a plethora of upcoming Justice League films) and Mr. Hammer (so memorable in The Social Network) in their co-leading roles.  Since this film opened with weak box office numbers, I have read some sniping on-line that neither Mr. Cavill nor Mr. Hammer were capable of carrying a film.  But frankly, I think the two men were the two most successful elements of the movie.  Whenever the two men shared the screen I felt the film came to life, while I got bored whenever the story strayed from them for too long.  Mr. Cavill certainly has the looks to play an American version of James Bond, and I enjoyed his sardonic line delivery.  Mr. Hammer, meanwhile, plays the film with a sort of crazy Rocky and Bullwinkle Russian accent, but it totally worked for me.  It’s silly, but just the right kind of silliness for a story like this one.

Alicia Vikander has been getting positive press for her work as Gaby Teller, the young woman whom Solo extracts from East Berlin in order to help with the mission, and rightly so.  She’s a lot of fun in the film and able to hold her own quite well with her two male co-stars.  I just wish that Gaby had more of a fleshed-out character in the film.  I liked the revelations about her that come in the second half of the film, and how they make Gaby a more critical player in … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Fantastic Four

August 26th, 2015
,

I’ve been a fan of the Fantastic Four ever since I first started reading comic books as a kid.  The FF was the first super-hero comic book I ever followed monthly, and I’ve been reading it on and off ever since.  I long to someday see a faithful adaptation of the FF on-screen.  Sadly, Fox’s latest attempt is, for the most part, another mis-fire.

FantasticFour.2015.cropped

It’s a shame, because there are many good elements to Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four (though maybe I shouldn’t call the film “Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four,” seeing as how the director publicly disassociated himself with the film just days prior to its release).  Reacting against Tim Story’s two light and silly (and very unfaithful to the comics) films from a decade ago, this latest version of the FF is a far more serious film.  I like that approach.  But even what works in the film is hindered for me by its being so far removed from the source material of the comics.  There is almost nothing of the familiar Fantastic Four characters in this film.  Where Mr. Trank and his team drew from the comics, they drew not from the classic characters but from the “ultimate universe” reboot of the FF from about a decade ago.  That’s not actually a bad move, since that rejiggered version of the FF’s origin (written by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar) has a lot of good qualities that make more sense when setting the FF’s origin in the modern era rather than the nineteen sixties.  But then the film goes in directions all its own, and although the characters have the names of the familiar FF heroes, the characterizations and look of the characters are way off from what is familiar to readers of the comics.  Had we not gotten the last decade of Marvel Studios movies, in which we have seen that these Marvel superheroes can be adapted incredibly faithfully, while still working as films, I might like this version of the FF a lot more.  This approach feels more in line with the way Bryan Singer tackled the X-Men back in 2000.  (And I’ll note that even that film felt, to me, far more faithful to the comics, even though the costumes were all different.)  But now it’s 2015, and we’ve seen that even incredibly “comic-booky” characters and concepts (like Captain America, Thor, and the Guardians of the Galaxy) can be brought to life so faithfully on screen.  I dearly wish to someday see the classic FF characters realized in a movie.  I want to see those classic FF uniforms, not the ugly “containment suits” of this film.  That’s just one example, but it’s a damning … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Vacation

National Lampoon’s Vacation was a film I loved dearly when I was a kid.  It was so funny and raunchy and felt a little bit dangerous to my young self.  (I probably saw it at a younger age than I should have, though on the other hand perhaps that was the perfect age at which to have watched it!)  The film captured Chevy Chase at the height of his comedic powers.  I never felt any of the sequels were able to recapture that magic of the original, though Christmas Vacation came the closest.

While I always loved Vacation, I never felt the movie was so pure or perfect that a reboot was objectionable.  Quite the contrary, I think the concept is elastic enough that it should/could be able to support multiple iterations.  (This is as opposed to, say, Ghostbusters, which I am very unhappy to see being rebooted/remade.  I love Paul Feig and he has assembled a marvelous cast, but I wish they had made an original film and called it something else.  But I digress.)

Vacation.cropped

This latest Vacation starts off on the right foot for this particular film fan by not being a reboot, but rather an in-continuity sequel to the earlier films.  Ed Helms plays Rusty Griswold, the now-adult son of Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold.  Rusty wants to create a memorable, bonding experience for his family so he decides to recreate the road-trip to Wally World on which his dad took his family decades before.  This is a great idea for the film, in that it allows the movie to have basically the same structure as the original film, while also allowing the story to be filled with all-new hi-jinks.

Unfortunately, while I certainly laughed a lot while watching Vacation, it’s not a particularly clever comedy.  Many of the jokes, while funny, are fairly obvious and rather low-brow.  (I have nothing against gross-out humor — as an example, the diarrhea sequence in Bridesmaids is a classic piece of comedy gold — but the bathing-in-sewage sequence in this film doesn’t feel to me to have anything approaching that sort of originality.)  And sadly most of the film’s very best jokes were spoiled in the trailers.  (Any fun that “Griswold Springs” sequence might have had was ruined because I knew exactly where that whole bit was going from the first second, because I’d seen the pay-off in all the trailers.  So that whole five-plus minutes of the movie became totally boring to me.)

The film is well-cast.  Ed Helms is a solid choice as the lead.  He plays Rusty as a familiar Ed Helms character — well-meaning but dim, with an undercurrent of desperation — but it works for who … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Trainwreck

I’m a huge Judd Apatow fan.  Have been ever since I fell in love with Freaks and Geeks back in 1999.  I adore that show, and its equally criminally underrated follow-up Undeclared.  (Important note: Paul Feig was the co-creator of Freaks and Geeks.)  When Judd Apatow found big-screen success with the brilliant The 40 Year-Old Virgin, I was thrilled.  I love that movie and I watched it a lot in those first few years after it came out.  It seemed like a perfect distillation of everything I’d enjoyed about those two failed TV shows.  Knocked Up was just as much fun, but then came Funny People and This is 40.  There is a lot to enjoy about both of those films.  I think they’re far better than many reviewers gave them credit for being.  But even I must admit that both of those films are a little bit too long, and perhaps a little bit too indulgent.

And so I was excited when the news came that Mr. Apatow’s fifth film as a director would be the first one he wasn’t writing himself.  Trainwreck was written by and stars Amy Schumer.  I loved the idea of Mr. Apatow’s voiced being combined with that of another strong comedian.  That seemed like a good recipe for success and a nice change of pace for Mr. Apatow.

Trainwreck did not disappoint.  Amy Schumer hits a huge home-run with her work in the film, creating a wonderfully raunchy, extremely funny comedy.

Celebrity Sightings In New York City - July 16, 2014

Amy Schumer plays Amy, an attractive thirty-something woman who has a nice life working for a trashy mens magazine and partying in New York City.  She’s a serial dater who enjoys having a good time, and she looks down her nose a bit at her sister who is married with a stepson.  When Amy gets roped into doing an assignment for her magazine interviewing a sports doctor, Aaron (Bill Hader), she is shocked to find out she actually likes this relatively normal, together, professional guy.  Can she possibly hold down a stable, monogamous relationship?

The over-all story beats in Trainwreck are fairly predictable, with the film’s big idea being that it’s the woman who is the immature one who loves to go to parties and get drunk and/or stoned and date lots of different people.  This would have felt a tad more ground-breaking a few years ago before Bridesmaids, but I certainly don’t think that one female-centric film means that whole idea is over-done.  I hope we continue to see many great female-driven comedies in the future!!  So let’s be clear: while I like the idea of a raunchy Judd Apatow comedy focused on a female character, there’s far more to … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation!

August 10th, 2015
,

Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible series has always been a somewhat weird franchise.  Rather than having tight continuity between films, every film has felt like it’s own unique one-off adventure, usually very driven by the style of the director.  And so it’s been something of a pleasant surprise to see how smoothly the third, fourth, and now fifth films in the series have fit together, and how much creative energy this series still has even in its fifth installment.

MissionImpossible.RogueNation.cropped

In Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, Ethan Hunt and his team at the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) find themselves beset by adversaries on all sides.  They face an internal political challenge from CIA chief Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who wants to shut down the IMF.  Meanwhile, Ethan Hunt has been, for months, on the trail of a secret agency known as The Syndicate.  This “anti-IMF” is a cabal of villains aimed at disrupting the global status quo that Hunt and the IMF aim to protect.  Soon Ethan and his handful of friends and allies find themselves all that stands against this terrorist organization.

Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie.  Mr. McQuarrie wrote The Usual Suspects, and he made his directorial debut with Jack Reacher, which also starred Tom Cruise.  I thought that film was a something of a bore (click here for my review, in which I think I was kinder than the film deserved), but I guess second time’s the charm because Rogue Nation is a terrific film, a fast-paced romp that is stuffed full to overflowing with great action and humor and fun, telling a story that is intense and compelling without ever being dour.

The film starts off with a bang, with a whopper of a pre-credits action sequence (see photo above).  This sequence, which involved Tom Cruise actually hanging off the side of a plane in flight, has been hugely promoted in the weeks and months leading up to the film’s release.  What a surprise it was to discover that the whole thing takes place in the very opening minutes of the film!!  Well played, folks.  (This is a nice contrast to the very first Mission: Impossible film, about which I just wrote last week, which spoiled its big action climax in all of its trailers, something I am still sore about to this day.)

The tone is perfect in what I want from a Mission: Impossible film.  There is strong momentum from start-to-finish, as the film moves smoothly from one tremendous action set-piece on to the next.  The action in this film is extraordinary.  There are quite a few spectacular sequences that each might have been … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 13): Mission: Impossible (1996)

Slowly but surely, my journey through the films of Brian De Palma continues!  (If you scroll down to the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to all the other Brian De Palma films I have watched!)

mission-impossible-1996-tom-cruise.cropped

Mission: Impossible is probably the Brian De Palma film that I have seen the most over the years.  It’s not a perfect film, but it’s damn good, fiercely entertaining and a heck of a lot of fun.  It’s funny to think that Brian De Palma was involved in a “franchise” film, but the marvelous thing about Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible film series is the way that Mr. Cruise has embraced the idea of working with a variety of filmmakers, each with very strong, singular styles, thus giving each M:I film a very distinct feel.  These films are far more different from one another than any other film series I can think of.  I don’t know if that was Mr. Cruise (and his co-producer, Paula Wagner)’s idea right from the beginning, but I love the way it has turned out.  With the fifth Mission: Impossible installment opening this weekend, it seemed perfect for me to take this opportunity to post my thoughts on my recent re-watch of the film that kicked off the series.

I never watched much of the original Mission: Impossible TV show, so even when I first saw this film back in 1996, I wasn’t going in with any pre-conceived notions of what Mission: Impossible was all about.  (So I wasn’t bothered by, say, what a fan of the TV show might see as a sacrilegious treatment, here in the film, of the character of Jim Phelps!) I have always judged these films purely on their strengths and weaknesses as films. And I think Mission: Impossible is pretty strong!

As I commented in my review of Carlito’s Way, it’s clear that Mr. De Palma can achieve tremendous heights when working from a great script.  And Mission: Impossible has a very solid script, one filled with twists and turns and a story that is engaging and exciting while managing to maintain a fairly light, frothy tone.  The screenplay is by David Koepp (who also wrote the great script for Carlito’s Way) and Robert Towne, with a story by Mr. Koepp and Steve Zaillian (another great screenwriter, who wrote films such as Schindler’s List and Moneyball and Gangs of New York and Clear and Present Danger), and having such strong writers in the mix has again proven here to be an important foundation upon which Mr. De Palma can bring his particular cinematic eye and stylistic flourishes.

Perhaps because he knew that he was involved in a big-budget film intended to appeal … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Ant Man!

July 20th, 2015
, ,

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.

Ant-Man-Michael-Douglas.cropped

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]

 

Josh Reviews Terminator: Genisys

July 15th, 2015
,

In my review of Jurassic World, I commented that the problem with all of the disappointing sequels to the great Jurassic Park is that they’ve basically been the exact same movie retold over and over again.  The Terminator has also had disappointing sequel after disappointing sequel, but for the exact opposite reason.  Both Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator: Salvation, and now Terminator: Genisys have gone in wildly different directions.  Each has been a (failed) attempt to kick-start a new trilogy of Terminator films. Rather than being frustrating because these films feel like the same film over and over again, they are frustrating because they are so all-over-the-place, removing any sense of narrative flow or continuity from this series.  Neither Terminator 3, Terminator: Salvation, nor Terminator: Genisys are absolutely terrible.  There are some good ideas and good moments in all three films.  But none of them are able to come anywhere close to James Cameron’s amazing original two films.

The best thing I can say about Terminator: Genisys?  It’s not as horrible as its title.

TerminatorGenisys.cropped

Terminator: Genisys actually has a decent idea at its core.  The film begins by showing us what we never got to see in James Cameron’s original films: the day John Connor and his resistance defeated Skynet, found the time displacement center, and sent Kyle Reese back in time to save John’s mother Sarah Connor from death at the hands of a Terminator.  Kyle is prepared by John to encounter the Sarah who we met in the first film: an innocent waitress with no idea of the danger she’s in or her importance to the future.  But when Kyle arrives back in 1984, he discovers that the timeline has been changed and a T-1000 is there waiting for him.  Now it’s Kyle who has to be rescued by Sarah — not the damsel in distress he was expecting but a tough warrior-woman (reminiscent of Linda Hamilton’s depiction of the character in T2) – who has been raised since youth by another Terminator to prepare for this day.

While I dislike the idea of erasing the events of the first two films, I can get behind this idea as a way to tell more Terminator stories when things had seemed pretty wrapped up by the end of the second film.  (All three subsequent sequels have really had to struggle to continue the story beyond the end of T2, in which Sarah and John destroyed Skynet before it could be born, thus preventing Judgment Day and the destruction of mankind.)  Indeed, the most fun to be had in Terminator: Genisys is the way the film, in the first half-hour, recreates so many iconic moments from … [continued]

 

Pixar Triumphs Again with Inside Out!

July 7th, 2015
, ,

The mad geniuses at Pixar have outdone themselves once again with their latest film.  Inside Out is magical, hugely entertaining and absolutely heartbreaking.

InsideOut.cropped

The film gives life to the emotions inside of eleven-year-old Riley.  Inside her head we see the manifestations of her emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), & Disgust (Mindy Kaling).  The five emotions “run” Riley from a control room inside her head.  For the first eleven years of her life, Joy has been in charge.  But when Riley’s family moves suddenly from the Mid-West to San Francisco, her emotions are thrown into upheaval.

Pixar has always been great at world-building in their films, and Inside Out may be the finest example of this yet.  Everything about the film, and its exploration of the inner workings of the mind of an eleven-year-old girl, is so clever and well thought-out.  It’s obvious just what an incredible amount of time and attention have gone into creating the world of this film.  Every detail is so carefully considered, and the film constantly delights as we see its depiction of the different emotions and characteristics (“goof-ball island”) of a child, how memories are created and stored and referenced and eventually lost, and so much more.  I am stunned by how clever it all is.  This is all a total fantasy and yet, it all works perfectly!  Maybe this really IS how the insides of our minds actually work!!

Inside Out also, for me, represents something of an apotheosis in Pixar’s approach of making films that work for kids but are also aimed at adults.  Inside Out is absolutely a film for adults, so much so that I’m actually uncertain what kids will make of it.  This is not in any way a criticism, in fact, it makes me love Inside Out all the more.  This is unapologetically a film aimed at adults, and what a delight it is to see an American animated film (and one released by Disney, no less!) aimed so squarely at adults and not kids!  Pixar has danced in these waters before.  The opening few minutes of Up (which, like Inside Out, was directed by Pete Docter) are absolutely made for adults and not kids.  But then that film did shift into all-ages territory, a step that Inside Out never really makes.

The comparison with the opening minutes of Up is appropriate because, like those scenes, I found much of Inside Out to be absolutely heartbreaking.  Maybe I’m at just the right age, as a parent of young girls, to be hit by this film, but man did the second half of this film hit me like a sledgehammer.  I cried … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Jurassic World

June 28th, 2015

jurassicworld.cropped

I was excited when I first heard about Jurassic World.  I absolutely adore the first Jurassic Park.  I think it’s one of Steven Spielberg’s very best films.  (Click here for my thoughts on Jurassic Park’s 3-D re-release, and here for an earlier review when I was re-watching various middle-career Spielberg films.)  I love the world of that film so much that every time I re-watch it, it continues to leave me hungry for further exploration of that world.  Neither of the two sequels satisfied me (I think The Lost World is one of the worst films Steven Spielberg has ever made, and I like Jurassic Park III a lot but feel it ends much too abruptly — it’s a solid film missing the last twenty minutes).  This makes Jurassic Park a franchise I am eager to see additional sequels to, because I want to see another great Jurassic Park movie and I haven’t yet.

When I read that they were returning to this series after more than a decade away, I was excited because I thought for sure that meant they had a new idea for this series, a way to better the two mediocre sequels we’d already gotten.

Unfortunately I was wrong, they had exactly the same idea.

One of the inherent problems with all three Jurassic Park sequels is that they have all, basically, told exactly the same story as the first film.  This latest sequel, Jurassic World, is in fact the closest in structure to that first film, in that it’s about a theme park of dinosaurs where the dinosaurs get loose.

But I’ve seen that story already.  And each of these re-tellings — including this latest, Jurassic World — just wind up being a pale shadow of that first film.

On a superficial level, there are a lot of things to like about Jurassic World.  The film certainly looks great.  There are some gorgeous visual effects, and some really wonderful sequences of dinosaur mayhem.  I like the idea of the twist on the original film that while that park was still under construction, the park we see in Jurassic World is a fully-operational, top-of-the-line theme park that is open for business.  I love the design of the park and its rides and everything we see of John Hammond’s original vision come to life as an actual theme park island.  That is all very cool.

But the problem with Jurassic World is that the characters are both incredibly, unbelievably, jaw-droppingly stupid or totally flat and uninteresting, or both.  The magic of that first Jurassic Park was its wonderful characters.  Within the framework of an exciting adventure story were interesting, fun, complex characters … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 12): Carlito’s Way (1993)

Slowly but surely, my journey through the films of Brian De Palma continues!  (If you scroll down to the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to all the other Brian De Palma films I have watched!)

Carlito'sWay.cropped

As I have discovered, Brian De Palma’s career seems to unfold in waves.  He hits big with some great films, then sinks back into the depths with some bad films, then he rises again.  After the stinkers of The Bonfire of the Vanities (a huge flop) and Raising Cain, the great De Palma of old returns with a vengeance in Carlito’s Way, one of his very strongest films.  I’d only seen this film once before, about two decades ago.  I remembered enjoying it, and I was pleased on this re-watch that it was even better than I’d remembered.

Based on the novels Carlito’s Way and After Hours by Judge Edwin Torres, the film tells the story of Carlito, a Puerto Rican criminal played by Al Pacino.  After having been released from prison, Carlito attempts to stay on the straight and narrow but finds himself increasingly drawn back into the world of crime.  The slow dissolution of his relationship with his lawyer and former best-friend, David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) leads to a turning point in Carlito’s life.

While the idea of Al Pacino as a Puerto Rican is a little silly, I absolutely adore Mr. Pacino in this sort of epic crime story.  It’s a genre that well-suits Mr. De Palma as well.  And while this film doesn’t quite reach the heights of the two men’s previous collaboration, Scarface, Carlito’s Way is a terrific crime saga, with a wonderful cast and some iconic set-pieces.  David Koepp’s screenplay is terrific.  It’s clear that De Palma is at his best with a strong screenwriter.  In a film like this, Mr. De Palma’s striking visual style is able to elevate a great story to create a compelling, top-notch film.

The film kicks off with a striking opening as we see, in black-and-white, that Pacino’s Carlito has been shot.  The music is a bit overwrought but it gives the introduction a suitably epic feel.  This feels like the follow-up to The Untouchables.  Forget those terrible movies in between!!

There are so many sequences in the film that are elevated by Mr. De Palma’s cinematic style.  I love the tense shoot-out in the bar, early in the film, after Carlito accompanies his young nephew (played by John Ortiz, who was so great last year in The Drop) to a drug-deal that goes wrong.  This is a great sequence because there is very little cinematic trickery.  It’s just A-level filmmaking, as Mr. De Palma slowly and carefully … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Spy!

At this rate, I want Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy to never stop making movies together.

Ms. McCarthy killed in Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids, and then she stepped up into a co-starring role in Mr. Feig’s follow-up film, The Heat.  In Spy, Ms. McCarthy and writer/director Feig reunite for a third film together, and once again the collaboration proves to be absolutely golden.

Spy.02.cropped

Melissa McCarthy plays Susan Cooper.  She’s the CIA operative who, from her desk at Langley, serves as the voice in the ear of suave, handsome, James Bond-esque super-spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law).  But when Fine is killed on a mission to recover a rogue nuclear bomb, Susan finds herself thrust into the field, forced to go undercover to befriend the woman who killed Fine, Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) in an attempt to locate the bomb before it can be sold to terrorists.

For a long time, Paul Feig (who created Freaks and Geeks and ran the show along with Judd Apatow) felt like something of a secret to comedy fans.  So it’s been a delight to see him achieve big-time success these past few years since Bridesmaids.  I hope this run continues for him for a long time!!!  (I am NOT excited by the idea of a Ghostbusters sequel/remake, but if anyone can make that interesting, it’s Paul Feig, so I am at least curious to see what he’s cooking up.)  There is some sort of magic when he collaborates with Melissa McCarthy.  Mr. Feig seems to know exactly how to use her, crafting characters for her that play right to her best comedic strengths.

What’s great about McCarthy in this role is that Susan Cooper isn’t a bumbling idiot.  She’s smart and loyal and tough.  This isn’t the story of a dour housewife transforming into a super-spy, which would have been the predictable route to go in a movie like this.  I was impressed that Paul Feig (who wrote the film in addition to directing) chose to tell a different story.  When we first meet Susan, we can already see her great qualities.  It’s Fine and her superiors at the CIA who don’t see them.  What happens in the film is that Susan is finally given an opportunity to show what she’s really capable of.  I love that.

Ms. McCarthy is so, so funny.  She’s equally as adept at physical comedy (there is a close-quarters fight in a dirty kitchen that is absolutely magnificent) and verbal comedy (in the early scenes when she’s just sitting at a desk and talking into Fine’s ear, she is still hilarious).  She and the film do fall back on a few familiar tricks — at one point, when … [continued]

 

Catching Up! Josh Reviews Whiplash, The One I Love, and A Million Ways to Die in the West

I’m catching up with reviews of movies I’ve seen over the past several months!  Onward:

Whiplash (2014) – Every bit as compelling as I’d heard.  Miles Teller first came to my attention in the excellent film The Spectacular Now (click here for my review), which made me eager to see his follow-up work.  He shines in writer/director Damien Chazelle’s film, playing Andrew, a drum student looking to stand out at an elite music conservatory in New York.  Andrew catches the eye of the brutally tough instructor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), who invites him to join his studio band.  What seems at first like great fortune for Andrew sours as we the audience experience, along with Andrew, the vicious way in which Fletcher pushes the student musicians who idolize him.  The film is a fascinating exploration of a teacher-student relationship and the tough questions of where is the line between a teacher taking someone with the potential for greatness and pushing him/her hard to achieve that greatness, versus crossing the line into abuse.  These are thorny questions, and the film leaves a lot of room for an audience to reach their own conclusions, which I enjoyed.  There is some spectacular music in the film, which is a delight.  But the real reason to see this film is to relish J. K. Simmons’ barn-busting performance.  Mr. Simmons grabs every iota of the viewer’s attention every second he is on screen.  It’s a bravura performance and deserving of every ounce of praise that Mr. Simmons has received.  This is a great film.

The One I Love (2014) – This is a delightfully weird film, an indie relationship film with a sci-fi twist.  Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss play Ethan and Sophie, a married couple having trouble in their marriage.  Their therapist (Ted Danson) recommends that they visit a place he knows, where they can have a romantic weekend together.  When they arrive there, they find the estate has a mysterious cottage in which they each encounter what appears to be an idealized version of the other.  But these doppelgängers only appear when either Ethan or Sophie are in the cottage alone — they vanish if both Ethan and Sophie enter together.  While at first their instinct is to flee the estate, eventually Ethan and Sophie agree to stay for the remainder of their weekend and see where these interactions with these idealized versions of one another go.  Things get twister from there but I fear I have already told you too much.  The One I Love is an intriguing investigation of a troubled relationship, using the sci-fi device as a hook into the story.  Both Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss … [continued]

 

Looking Back at Mad Max!

I am in almost physical agony that I haven’t yet seen Mad Max: Fury Road.  I cannot believe that George Miller has returned to make another Mad Max film, THIRTY YEARS after the last film.  And what’s more amazing is how spectacular it looks.  I need to see this thing, and I hope to make that happen this week.

But, meanwhile, in the past month I’ve had a great time re-watching George Miller’s first three Mad Max films.  I love them all, even the hugely-flawed Beyond Thunderdome.  These were movies I watched a lot in high school with my friends, and re-watching them now they were definitely tinged with a pleasant nostalgia for me.  But more than that, there’s no question in my mind that Mad Max and The Road Warrior are truly great films, and important ones as well.

I’ll also comment that, re-watching these films for the first time in a while, it was interesting to watch Mel Gibson again.  I try very hard to separate a performer’s artistic work (behind the camera or in front of it) from what he/she might be like in real life, but for the past decade I have had a truly hard time bringing myself to watch Mel Gibson on screen.  I have found his Anti-Semitic outbursts to be so distasteful that they have colored my feelings about him to such a tremendous degree that I’ve found myself almost totally disinterested in watching him on screen any more.  Mel Gibson has made some films that I used to love — not just Mad Max, but also Braveheart and Lethal Weapon and others.  But it has been many years since I have gone back to watch any of them.  I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but that’s just the way it’s been for me.  I simply haven’t had an interest in re-watching any of those films.  So it felt a little odd for me at first, re-watching these three Mad Max films, but for better or for worse I was pleased that I was very quickly able to forget about Mel Gibson the man and just relax into my pure enjoyment of these films.  (It probably helps that Mr. Gibson speaks very little, particularly in the first two films!)

Mad Max (1979) – I know that many people prefer The Road Warrior, but for me, the first Mad Max will always be the best (especially now that American audiences can enjoy it in its original, undubbed version).  George Miller’s film was made for almost no money by a bunch of inexperienced young men, and despite or perhaps because of that the film has a brazen, take-no-prisoners mad-cap ambition that I absolutely … [continued]

 

Catching Up! Josh Reviews Powers Season One, Star Wars The Clone Wars “Bad Batch”, and Batman vs Robin

On my desk I keep a list of the various movies and TV shows that I’ve watched that I intend to write about here on the site.  Lately that list has been growing very long!  I have fallen somewhat behind on my blogging.  So I’m going to try a new format here and post some “Catching Up” blogs in the coming weeks, with short reviews of some of the stuff I’ve seen.  Let’s dive in!

Powers Season One – For fifteen years Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming’s Powers has been one of my favorite indie comic books.  For about that long, Powers has been “in development” in Hollywood for a movie or TV adaptation.  It looked like it would never happen, but then miraculously the series became the initial TV show produced by Sony’s Playstation network.  It seemed to me like a perfect fit.  The show would have the freedom to faithfully adapt Mr. Bendis & Mr. Oeming’s profane, sexy, violent, weird, wonderful series.  I was very excited.  But I’m sorry to say that this first season of ten episodes disappointed me.  I wrote about my initial lukewarm reaction here, and unfortunately the series never improved much for me.

Powers should be edgy, it should be cool, and above all else it should have the wonderfully witty & gritty dialogue that Mr. Bendis is justifiably famous for.  But I found the show to have none of those things.  It was stiff.  It was cheap looking.  Shockingly cheap-looking.  The sets looked like sets and what few super-heroic moments we saw were painfully primitive.  (I mean, the wire-work was just horrendously awkward.)  But I could forgive that if the series told a cool story.  Sadly it did not.  The show has a great ensemble of actors but there was never a moment when I felt that the show ever truly came alive and took flight.  There was little momentum from episode to episode.  With the involvement of the talented Mr. Bendis and crime-writer Charlie Huston, I was excited to see a ten-episode super-hero murder mystery.  But that never really came together.  The murder of big-time super-hero Olympia that kicked off the series, was quickly forgotten about in place of a lot of boring soap opera between former friends Walker, Johnny Royale, and Wolfe.  There was never any momentum to the show, just a lot of dithering about and back-and-forth between these flat characters.  Hardly any character actually DID anything.  Worst of all was that the comic’s central relationship, that between partners Walker and Deena Pilgrim, felt ignored by the show.  Deena herself was marginalized in the second half of the season, and that was a big disappointment.  Who’d … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Avengers: Age of Ultron!

Avengers.AgeofUltron.cropped

Marvel Studios is on a winning streak the likes of which I have rarely seen.  (The only recent comparison I can draw is Pixar’s incredible run from Ratatouille in 2007 through Toy Story 3 in 2010.)  Right before seeing The Avengers: Age of Ultron, one of my friends sent me a ranking of all of Marvel’s movies.  In response I created my own ranking (which I might publish on this site one of these days).  The bottom two films on my list were Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk.  What’s astonishing is that each of the rest of the eight Marvel films on the list were all pretty great films that I loved a lot — and even those bottom two films were pretty enjoyable!  There really isn’t a true failure in the mix!  Over the past eight years, since 2008′s Iron Man, Marvel has done what had not only never been done before, but really never even conceived of before: they’ve created a vast cinematic universe of interlocking films, with characters and story-lines flowing from film to film in an epic continuing saga.  What’s even more incredible is that, at this point, they make the whole thing look so damn easy!  It’s astounding.  I know Marvel is going to stumble one of these days, but for now I am sitting back and loving every minute of this ride.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron is an amazing film.  I loved it.  Watching this film I had a huge grin on my face for the entire run time.  There are so many reasons this film could have been bad.  Sequels are hard and usually disappoint.  In addition to all of the main Avengers characters, this film introduced a number of new characters and we’ve all seen superhero films (particularly sequels — I’m looking at you, Spider-Man 3) collapse under the weight of too many characters.  Whereas The Avengers was the culmination of the first run of Marvel films, Age of Ultron needs to set up the next several years of story-lines, and that could easily have made the film feel unwieldy and unsatisfying (the fate that befell Iron Man 2).

But thanks to the incredible skill and talent of writer-director Joss Whedon and his astounding team of collaborators (overseen by Marvel Studios mastermind Kevin Feige, the guiding force behind all of these Marvel movies), Age of Ultron soars.  It’s a long-movie but it never drags, it is hugely enjoyable from start to finish.  It’s got enormous, staggeringly gigantic action sequences that astound, but it’s also deeply routed in character with some wonderful moments for every one of the film’s sprawling cast.  It’s serious and tense but it also … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 11): Raising Cain (1992)

Slowly but surely, my journey through the films of Brian De Palma continues!  (If you scroll down to the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to all the other Brian De Palma films I have watched!)

Sandwiched in between two high-profile Brian De Palma films that I had never before seen, The Bonfire of the Vanities and Carlito’s Way, was this film that I had never heard of.  A horror film directed by De Palma and starring John Lithgow?  I was intrigued!

At the start of Raising Cain we meet Dr. Carter Nix (John Lithgow), who is at a playground with his daughter, Amy.  When his wife, Jenny (Lolita Davodovich) is late to pick them up, Carter and Amy accept a ride home from another mom at the playground.  On the ride home, when the mom laughs at one of Carter’s suggestions regarding child-rearing, Carter loses control and murders her!  Yikes, this film doesn’t take long before taking a sharp turn into weirdness.  Things get far nuttier from there.  Carter’s wife, Jenny, begins to suspect something is amiss with him and, meanwhile, resumes an affair with a hunky former patient, Jack (Steven Bauer).  This turns her into a target for Carter, who we (and Jenny) discover has been twisted by the psychological experiments of his father into a creature with multiple personalities, many of them violent and disturbed.

There’s a core of a good idea for a horror film at the heart of that story, but I found Raising Cain to be pretty terrible.  It’s stunning to me how Brian De Palma seems to bounce from crafting truly excellent, masterful films (Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables) to such horrendous, amateurish misfires (Wise Guys, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and now this).  It’s fascinating!  I am not sure I have an explanation for this inconsistency in Mr. De Palma’s work.  I will say that I think he is much better off directing scripts written by other, stronger writers.  Mr. De Palma wrote the script for Raising Cain himself, and I think that is part of the problem with this film.

There is not much that I found to be good in Raising Cain.  The story is mostly laughable, rather than scary.  John Lithgow is a great actor, but he is entirely stranded by the script and direction.  His portrayal of Carter’s multiple personalities didn’t work for me at all.  I found it all to be incredibly silly as Mr. Lithgow would adopt different accents and costumes to portray the different sides of Carter’s broken mind.  Again, I can see this working in theory, but the execution fails.  It’s surprising, because John Lithgow is … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Kingsman: The Secret Service

I was thrilled when I head that Matthew Vaughn would be directing an adaptation of Mark Millar & Dave Gibbons’ wonderful comic book series, The Secret Service.  I adored the original comic, and I had loved Matthew Vaughn’s previous adaptation of a Mark Millar-written comic-book: Kick-Ass.  (Click here for my original review.)  That Matthew Vaughan would be adapting another Mark Millar comic book was very exciting to me.  As the release of the film adaptation grew closer, my excitement only grew.  I felt that I was privy to a secret that few knew.  I couldn’t wait to see movie-goers, who were unaware of the comic, have their heads spun by this deliriously profane, violent twist on the James Bond mythos.

But while I have read a lot of glowing reviews of Kingsman: The Secret Service, I found myself disappointed.  It felt like all the elements of a great film were there.  I love the central hook of the story.  (Both the idea of playing with the cliches of the James Bond films as well as the notion of a guy-centric, violent take on My Fair Lady.)  The casting of the film was spectacular, most notably the genius idea of casting Colin Firth in the role of the fearsome British super-spy.  The film looks great, and there are some terrific moments in the movie.

But I never felt the film quite lived up to the potential of its premise.  It didn’t capture the fun of the jaw-dropping twists and turns of the original comic, nor did it live up to it’s central idea as a spin on the concept of the James Bond-like super-spy.

I think my biggest over-all complaint is that the film is overly convoluted.  It felt like the filmmakers took the fairly simple, straightforward premise of the original comic and complicated-it-up with a lot of unnecessary meandering.  Here are two examples.  First, it’s a predictable idea that, in this sort of film, the mentor is eventually going to get pushed aside by the story so that the young protege can save the day.  In the film, that happens TWICE.  Colin Firth is introduced as the super-spy agent Galahad, mentor to the young Eggsy (Taron Egerton).  But then he falls into a coma, and Eggsy is left on his own in a dangerous world.  But then Galahad gets better, and so he and Eggsy can partner up again.  But then Galahad is again knocked out of play so that Eggsy can be the lone hero for the climax.  Why give us this same plot twist twice?? Consider also the film’s introduction.  In the comic book, the series opens with a James Bond-type agent attempting to rescue celebrity … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Selma

February 18th, 2015

Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, tells the story of several critical months in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, leading up to the voting rights marches from Montgomery to Selma that took place March 7-25, 1965.

This is a powerhouse of a film, absolutely riveting.  The film wisely eschews the birth-to-death approach of a biopic, instead focusing just on one period of time during the life on its subject.  (Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln recently used this approach, to similarly strong effect.)

The film is anchored by the staggeringly great performance of David Oyelowo as Dr. King.  I’ve been a fan of Mr. Oyelowo ever since his great work, as a younger man, on the early seasons of Spooks (called M.I.5 here in the U.S.).  He’s had great supporting roles in a number of films in recent years, including Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  It’s thrilling to see him step into the big leagues with this performance.  Mr. Oyelowo is mesmerizing in the role.  He brings a level of honest humanity to this portrayal of Dr. King, a critical element in allowing the performance and the film to breathe, and to not feel like simply a worshipful paean to a legend.  At the same time, Mr. Oyelowo is able to capture every ounce of Dr. King’s charisma and his persuasive power.  Mr. Oyelowo delivers several speeches in the film, and they are all absolutely magnificent — most particularly the one that closes the film.

The film wastes no time, as it opens, in setting the stage for the story and conveying to the audience all that was at stake.  As we see Dr. King accept the Nobel Peace Prize, we also see an African American woman, Annie Lee Cooper, attempt to register to vote in Selma, Alabama, only to be denied by the white registrar of voters; and in Birmingham, Alabama, we see four children killed in the bombing of the 16th Baptist Church.  This film had its hooks in me right from those opening scenes, and it never let go right up through the end.

Selma is a period piece, but it feels rivetingly of the now.  This is not a dull, dry presentation of historical facts; the film is alive with a passion and an anger that is devastatingly powerful.  I have singled out Mr. Oyelowo for praise, deservedly so, but the entire ensemble is very strong, and the film is very well-crafted by director Ava DuVernay.  We get to know and care about a number of different characters, and we see the story unfold through their eyes as well as through those of Dr. King.

If the film has a weakness, it is … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice is a wonderful film, funny and engaging, a gloriously bizarre journey through a world of drugs and crime and real estate (and dentistry) in 1970′s Los Angeles.

Adapted from a novel by Thomas Pynchon (which I now desperately want to read), the film was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the masters of cinema working today.  Joaquin Phoenix (who was also the star of Mr. Anderson’s last film, The Master) plays “Doc,” a druggie private eye.  One night, an ex-flame, Shasta, surprises Doc in his home and asks for his help unravelling a kidnapping plot centered on her wealthy new lover, real-estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann.  Doc agrees to help, but soon after Shasta herself disappears, and Doc finds himself sucked down a twisty rabbit hole of crosses and double-crosses.

Inherent Vice reminded me a lot of The Big Lebowski.  Both have the same balance of humor and drama, and both center on a drugged-out private eye trying to get to the bottom of a twisty mystery.  The film also has some echoes of Chinatown, in the way that a small mystery eventually sheds light on a larger plot concerning the history of Los Angeles.  But make no mistake, Inherent Vice is a wholly original creation.  It is unique and delightfully weird.

Joaquin Phoenix kills it in the title role.  He is perfect as Doc, striking exactly the right tone.  He’s hysterical, but Doc always remains a serious character with whom the audience can engage.  Mr. Phoenix gives Doc an innocence and nobility that is incredibly sweet and endearing.  Because of this, one completely roots for Doc to succeed as he tries to navigate a world of slippery, deceitful characters.  I can’t believe that Mr. Phoenix isn’t in more conversations for a 2014 best actor Oscar.  This is a fantastic role, one of the best performances of his career.

Katherine Waterston has a star-making performance as Shasta.  She actually has very little screen-time, but she has a few critical scenes, and she needs to be enough of a power in those scenes for her presence to resonate throughout the rest of the film as the object of Doc’s quest.  In this Ms. Waterston succeeds wildly (and not just because of one striking scene of jaw-dropping nudity).  Ms. Waterston is incredible in the role, creating a fully-realized character in just a few minutes, and more than holding her own with Joaquin Phoenix.  This is an actress I will be paying attention to in the future.

The film is jammed-full of wonderful actors who each appear in small roles as Doc’s quest takes him all over the world of nineteen-seventies Los Angeles.  Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, … [continued]

 

What fun this has been, looking back at all of the amazing movies from 2014!  Click here for part one of my list of the Best Movies of 2014, numbers twenty through sixteen.  Click here for part two, numbers fifteen through eleven.  Click here for part three, numbers ten through six.

And now, at last, it’s time to draw this list to a close with my five favorite films of 2014.  Here we go:

DawnApes.01.cropped

5. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes I dearly love every film in the Planet of the Apes series, even the terrible ones.  (Though the least said about Tim Burton’s disappointing entry, the better.)  But I was bowled over by the greatness of Dawn, the eighth Planet of the Apes film and the second in the rebooted prequel series.  What a rare thing it is to see a sequel with such ingenuity, such creativity, such narrative power.  Director Matt Reaves has come in and crafted an astounding piece of speculative fiction.  Ten years after the events of the last Apes film, a plague has wiped out most of humanity.  Caesar and his apes have crafted for themselves a utopian civilization, deep in the woods of San Francisco.  But when a small group of humans wanders into Caesar’s community, the struggling human community and the developing ape community find themselves on a collision course, and Caesar’s belief that the apes are naturally superior to the flawed humans leads him to the precipice of a disastrous misjudgment.  Yes, this is a film that features talking apes, but Dawn is a rich human drama with Shakespearean levels of emotional complexity and power.  When everything goes to hell in the third act, it is tragic.  Andy Serkis does some of the best work of his career as Caesar, bringing such pathos, such richness of feeling to this ape character.  The mad geniuses at Weta Workshop and all the countless visual effects artists and crafts-people who brought the visual effects of this world to life have outdone themselves, creating one of the most impressive visual effects achievements I have ever seen.  Those apes look so real it is staggering.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a spectacular achievement, and I can’t wait to see where this series goes from here.  (Click here for my original review.)

GuardiansoftheGalaxy.cropped

4. Guardians of the Galaxy What was it I said back when writing about Captain America: The First Avenger about Marvel Studios making it look easy?  They took a comic book team fairly obscure even to comic book fans, one that has not been able to ever support its own comic book series for very … [continued]

 

The Top 20 Movies of 2014 — Part Two!

We’re exploring my favorite films of 2014!  Click here for part one of my list of The Top 20 Movies of 2014!  And now, onward…

LifeItself.Siskel&Ebert.cropped

15.  Life Itself Steve James’ documentary about film critic Roger Ebert is a magnificent love-letter to Mr. Ebert himself, and to his passion: the movies.  The film is a fascinating exploration of Mr. Ebert’s life and career as a movie critic.  We dig into many of Mr. Ebert’s notable film reviews and opinions, and of course there is a lot of great behind-the-scenes details of his relationship with fellow At The Movies critic Gene Siskel.  It’s fascinating to explore Mr. Ebert’s approach to film criticism and to see how that appealed to and/or put off others.  But what makes this documentary extraordinary is that, at the same time as the film tells the story of Mr. Ebert’s life and career, it also follows him and his wife Chaz during the last year or two of Mr. Ebert’s life.  Mr. James and his cameras had impressive access, and we see the extraordinary challenges that Mr. Ebert faced in his last years, as cancer and surgery after surgery left him without the ability to speak, and missing most of the bottom part of his face and jaw.  I’d seen a few photos of Mr. Ebert from those years, but I never understood the depth of what this man went through.  This film presents a wonderfully compelling human story, one that is tragic but also joyful, and it’s all wrapped up in Mr. Ebert’s profound and infectious love for the movies.  (Click here for my original review.)

FADING GIGOLO

14.  Fading Gigolo John Turturro has created the best Woody Allen film in well over a decade!  This film, written and directed by Mr. Turturro, who also stars alongside Woody Allen, totally took me by surprise.  It’s rare to see Woody Allen appear in a film he didn’t write and direct, and it’s wonderful to see Woody give such a fantastic performance, full of life and joy and comedic zest.  Murray (Woody Allen) and Fioravante (John Turturro) are friends.  Murray’s used book store has closed, and he finds himself at something of loose ends.  When his dermatologist (Sharon Stone) mentions that she and her girlfriend (Sofia Vergara) might be looking for a man with whom they can have a ménage à trois, Murray offers to set them up with his friend Fioravante, for a modest finder’s fee, of course.  Fioravante requires some convincing, but eventually agrees to go along.  Thus begins an Murray’s unlikely career as a gigolo, and Fioravante’s as a male prostitute!  Everyone seems happy, but things get more serious when Murray encounters … [continued]

 

The Top 20 Movies of 2014 — Part One!

2014 was a fantastic year for movies.  I had so many films that I wanted to make mention of in my end-of-the-year best-of list, that I’ve decided to expand my usual Top 15 list into a Top 20.  Cheating?  Perhaps!  But it’s all in the service of spreading love for a great group of terrific films, so I hope you’ll forgive me.

Even with a Top Twenty list, there are still plenty of great films that I saw in 2014 that didn’t make this list: They Came Together, Gone Girl, Interstellar, Noah, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, Harmontown, Neighbors, Snowpiercer, Chef, A Million Ways to Die in the West, The Fault in Our Stars, The One I Love, Obvious Child, and lots more.

There were also plenty of 2014 movies that interested me but that I just didn’t have a chance to see.  These include, but are by no means limited to: Selma and Inherent Vice (neither of which had yet opened near me when I wrote this list), Whiplash, Foxcatcher, Rosewater, Fury, St. Vincent, Nightcrawler, Laggies, Big Hero 6, The Homesman, Force Majeure, Only Lovers Left Alive, Men Women & Children, and plenty of others.

With those caveats out of the way, let’s begin!

Her.02.cropped

Honorable Mention: Her This was technically a 2013 film but, like Selma and Inherent Vice this year, it did not open near me until well into 2014, so it wasn’t until late January 2014 that I saw it.  Had I been able to see it before writing my Best of 2013 list, it certainly would have been high on that list.  I wasn’t sure whether or not I should include it on this year’s list, so I’ve settled for giving it an “Honorable Mention”.  This gorgeous, gentle, heartbreaking story from writer/director Spike Jonze is mesmerizing, a fascinating piece of speculative fiction in which we see a vision of a society not very far removed from our own.  Joaquin Phoenix is wonderfully affecting as Theodore, a lonely man who has just been divorced from the woman he thought was the love of his life.  He purchases a new OS (Operating System), and gradually finds himself falling in love with this A.I. (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) who is with him everywhere he goes.  Is Theodore retreating dangerously from real life into fantasy?  Or is this a beautiful story of a man and a woman falling in love with the essence of each other’s character, entirely separate from any physical attraction?  That’s up to the viewer to decide.  Me, I was touched and intrigued by this a beautiful, unique film.  (Click here for my original review.)… [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2014: Josh Reviews Wish I Was Here

January 9th, 2015
, ,

I enjoyed Garden State, the first film written and directed by Zach Braff, when it was released back in 2004.  I’m surprised it took Mr. Braff so long before making a second film.  Wish I Was Here caused something of a stir when Mr. Braff funded the project through kickstarter.  I can’t say I agree with the criticisms leveled at Mr. Braff.  I applaud him for trying to make this film the way he wanted to make it, without studio interference.  The public chose to support him by backing his kickstarter campaign, so what’s the problem?  If people hadn’t been interested, then the kickstarter wouldn’t have been successful.  I wanted to see the film but missed it during its limited theatrical release.  I was happy to catch up with it on streaming video a few weeks ago.

WishIWasHere.cropped

Just as Garden State depicted the struggles of a lost, lonely twenty-something, Wish I Was Here depicts an equally lost thirty-something.  Zach Braff plays Aiden Bloom.  He has a beautiful wife (Kate Hudson) and two great kids, but Aiden is just as adrift in life as was Andrew Largeman (Mr. Braff’s character in Garden State).  He’s struggling to find work as an actor.  Though his kids are enrolled in an Orthodox Jewish day school, he doesn’t feel any connection to Judaism or to G-d.  He bickers with his brother (Josh Gad) and, at the start of the film, learns that his father (Mandy Patinkin) is dying of cancer.

When I first heard the film’s title, Wish I Was Here, I braced myself to expect a navel-gazing exercise in young white self-pity.  But I found the film to be surprisingly affecting.  There are some big emotions in the film, but it works.  The movie is gentle and playful and heart-felt without crossing over into saccharine self-obsession.  Mr. Braff has crafted a lovely ensemble piece, filled with compelling characters, each of whom is struggling in some way to find their place in the world and to connect with their fellow family-members.

The ensemble cast is impressive.  Mandy Patinkin in particular is a joy as Aiden’s father, Gabe.  Gabe is a willful patriarch who can be difficult, but Mr. Patinkin plays him with a quiet gentleness.  This character could have been a one-dimensional caricature, but Mr. Patinkin keeps his performance honest and reined in.  This is great work from a great actor.  Aiden’s two kids are played by Pierce Gagnon (who was great in Looper) and Joey King, and they’re both terrific.  I always give the director huge credit whenever I see a great child-actor performance on screen, so bravo to Mr. Braff for a great eye for casting and great work with these … [continued]

 

Josh Has Seen The Interview!

I was very concerned and very disappointed when news broke that, because of the threats made by the terrorists/criminals who hacked Sony, the studio was pulling The Interview from its scheduled Christmas release.  Click here to read a terrific editorial on the topic from Drew McWeeny at Hitfix.com, and click here to read a wonderful piece by, of all people, George R. R. Martin.  I agree with the views expressed in both articles one hundred percent.  Suffice to say, the idea that a foreign government can decide what we can or cannot see here in the United States is a scary concept indeed.

Though I was bummed not to get to see The Interview on the big screen, I was happy that Sony did wind up making the film available for streaming.  After a week of limited availability, the film is now more easily viewed on-line.  (I watched it using Amazon Prime streaming.)

TheInterview.02.cropped

I suspect you all know what the film is about.  James Franco plays celebrity talk-show host Dave Skylark.  He’s achieved fame and fortune interviewing celebrities and other pop-culture figures.  (In one of the film’s early scenes, we see him stumble into a ratings bonanza when Eminem reveals a tantalizing piece of personal information in a live interview.)  Seth Rogen plays Aaron Rapoport, Dave’s best friend and the show’s producer.  When it is revealed that North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un watches Skylark’s show, Aaron is able to arrange for Dave to travel to North Korea to conduct the first live, globally-broadcast interview with the dictator.  But before Dave & Aaron depart for North Korea, they are visited by two C.I.A. agents who insist that they assassinate Kim Jong-un while they are in his presence for the interview.

It’s crazy how much political furor this film has caused, considering that this is not a very politically-minded film.  Yes, it plays with the hot potato topic of North Korea and Kim Jong-un, but this film is not really a political satire.  It has some points to make about the cruelty of Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship, but a political statement is not the purpose of this film.  No, this is a goofy, raunchy, buddy comedy that just happens to be wrapped up in this political setting.

I don’t want to dismiss the political setting of the film, because making this comedy about the assassination of a real-live world leader is a huge part of the movie’s ballsy charm.  What a wild, insane idea for a movie.  I am dazzled by the craziness of co-writers Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, and director Dan Sterling, in using North Korea as the backdrop for their story.  And the film doesn’t shy away … [continued]

 

Catching Up On 2014: Josh Reviews The Skeleton Twins

January 5th, 2015
,

The Skeleton Twins is a remarkably accomplished first feature film from director/co-writer Craig Johnson.  (Actually, I guess it’s his second film, officially, as his thesis film True Adolescents was released as a feature, according to wikipedia.)  I am impressed that this young director was able to attract such an incredible cast to his film.  It’s a testament to how great the script is (co-written with Mark Heyman).

SkeletonTwins.cropped

Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader star as the titular Skeleton Twins, Maggie and Milo.  The two have been estranged for ten years.  As the film opens, we find them both considering suicide, but it’s Milo who manages to actually make the attempt.  He survives, and Maggie invites/insists that he stay with her and her husband Lance (Luke Wilson) while he recovers.

Both Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are absolutely phenomenal in the film.  Their friendship and previous working relationship pays off in spades as their chemistry, playing siblings in the film, is astounding.  Both actors are, of course, best known for their comedic chops.  But both prove themselves, here, to be terrific dramatic performers as well.  Ms. Wiig beautifully underplays Maggie, keeping her movements quiet and low-key.  But she brings a huge depth of feeling to the character, and there are a number of scenes in which Ms. Wiig’s stillness is able to convey a world of emotions.  At first, Maggie seems far more together than Milo, but we quickly see in Ms. Wiig’s eyes that this is not at all the case.  Mr. Hader is equally impressive.  I’ve never seen him play a character like this before.  Mr. Hader has some fun with some of Milo’s gay eccentricities, but he never turns Milo into a caricature.  This is a fully realized character, and Mr. Hader brings the audience into the decade of disappointment and heartbreak that has left the struggling Milo feeling lost and alone in the world.

But what’s best about the film is how alive things get every time that Ms. Wiig and Mr. Hader are on screen together.  They are magic.  The two share some very funny scenes, and also some incredibly sad, serious moments.  Whatever the tone, the central relationship between these siblings, as brought to life by these performers, rings true, and it’s the beating heart of the film.

The Skeleton Twins is very funny at times, though the film’s subject matter is very serious indeed.  Craig Johnson and his team are incredibly deft at balancing the tone of the film.  The comedy doesn’t undermine the drama, it helps support it, giving the audience moments of relief and release and also cementing these two broken characters as people who we care about and are invested in.  Look, … [continued]

 

Catching Up On 2014: Josh Reviews Obvious Child

December 31st, 2014
, ,

Sometimes an actor will have a role, small or large, in a TV show or movie that I love so much, that for me the glow of that work will follow them in my mind, making me always interested in their future work.  And so it is that Jenny Slate’s role as Mona-Lisa Saperstein on Parks and Recreation had me intrigued when I first read about Obvious Child, in which Ms. Slate plays the lead role.

ObviousChild.cropped

This is a difficult film to describe in some ways.  There is some romance and there is some comedy, but thank heaven I would not describe this as a romantic comedy.  There is some serious drama in the film, but that drama sits right next to the comedy.  This is a film not afraid to shift wildly in tone from scene to scene.  I can’t quite say that it all works for me, but there’s certainly a lot about this weird little film that I enjoyed.

Jenny Slate plays Donna Stern, a Jewish girl in her late twenties who works at a going-out-of-business independent bookstore and who also performs at night as a stand-up comic.  After discussing her boyfriend one night in her act, he dumps her in the comedy club bathroom.  This leads Donna to fall into something of a bad spiral, but after a particularly bad drunken performance, Jenny meets Max (Jake Lacy), a nice handsome guy.  The two have a fun, drunken one-night stand, after which Donna discovers that she is pregnant.  I’ve already told you more than I should — most descriptions of this film that I have read take you even further into the story and I’d rather leave it here.

Jenny Slate is terrific in the film, bringing an endearing, chatty energy to the role.  She has a strong naturalism to her performance, and she brings what feels to me like a unique voice to a film leading role.  She (and the film) do not shy away from a crude joke or a bad word, and that is putting it mildly.  It’s interesting, the film begins with one of Donna’s stand-up performances, and neither my wife nor I found it at all funny.  It was more awkwardly off-putting than funny.  I didn’t really care for any of Donna’s stand-up work in the film.  I don’t think that was necessarily what the filmmakers wanted an audience-member to feel, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the character of Donna and Ms. Slate’s work in bringing her to life.  It’s fun seeing a vibrant young woman brought to life on screen in a way that doesn’t feel overly “safe” or sanitized for all audiences.  This is a character who could … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2014: Josh Reviews Locke

December 29th, 2014
,

I am hard at work on assembling my end-of-the-year Best of 2014 lists, and as part of that process, at this time of year I tend to engage in a fun ritual of trying to catch up with as many of that year’s films that I missed but wanted to see that I can.

Locke.cropped

Which brings me to Locke, which I’d been reading about for months and was delighted to finally get a chance to see!  This film, written and directed by Steven Knight (who also wrote the screenplay for Eastern Promises, a great, weird film) has a very compelling and unique structure.  The film features only one actor on screen: Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke.  In the opening minutes of the film, we see Mr. Locke leave his work at a construction site, get into his car, and start driving.  The entire rest of the film takes place while Mr. Locke drives.  We never leave this car with Locke.  The narrative of the film unfolds as Locke makes and receives a series of phone calls.  When Mr. Locke got into his car at the start of the film, he had a job and a happy wife.  Very quickly, both of those things are put into jeopardy, and as Locke makes his drive (to a destination that you need to watch the film to discover) and conducts these phone calls, we watch as he tries, with increasing desperation, to keep his entire life from splintering apart.

The film is worth seeing primarily to witness a tour de force performance by Tom Hardy.  My first introduction to Mr. Hardy was in the abysmal Star Trek: Nemesis, but boy, what an astounding actor he has become.  Mr. Hardy is absolutely riveting in this film.  The film works because of him.  Though we hear other actors’ voices on the phone, it is Mr. Hardy who we are watching, unflinchingly, for an hour and a half.  He commands the audience’s attention.  I love his voice in the film.  I am not sure if this is Mr. Hardy’s natural speaking voice.  I don’t think it is, though I suspect it is closer to his natural accent that some of the other voices he has put on in recent films (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, The Drop, etc…).  His voice is wonderfully hypnotic here.  Mr. Hardy plays Locke with a quiet gentleness, and it’s impressive in the way that the actor and the character uses his voice to quietly discuss, demand, cajole, plead, and otherwise attempt to successfully bring others around to his point of view.

It’s difficult to imagine how a film in which we are watching the same character in … [continued]

 

There and Back Again: Josh Reviews The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies!

Endings are a difficult thing.  Sticking the landing of a long-form story is perilously challenging, and I’m sure we can all think of plenty of examples of failed endings, whether we’re talking about TV shows (Seinfeld and Lost both come to mind) or to movie trilogies (as the years pass, I become more and more disappointed by The Dark Knight Rises).

I am very pleased to report, then, that Peter Jackson’s third and final Hobbit film, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, is an excellent conclusion to his Hobbit trilogy.  This film isn’t going to make anyone who disliked the first two Hobbit films change their mind, but if you did enjoy those films I suspect you will love this one.  I feel pretty confident in stating that it is the strongest of the three Hobbit theatrical editions.  (Like Mr. Jackson’s LOTR films, the first two Hobbit films were both improved by their Extended Editions, so a complete comparison of all three films isn’t really possible until next year when we get to see the extended version of The Battle of the Five Armies.  But in terms of the theatrical experience of the three Hobbit films, I think this one wins by a fairly wide margin.)

One of the reasons why?  This is the shortest of the three Hobbit theatrical editions.  (It’s also, unless I am mistaken, the shortest of the theatrical editions of all six of Mr. Jackson’s Middle Earth films.)  This helps a lot, as the biggest problem of the first two Hobbit films was a sense of bloat.  I don’t condemn those first two films for that the way so many reviewers have, but I certainly think those films were far longer than they needed to be, especially in their theatrical form.

But this film moves, boy.  It’s got the best pacing of all three Hobbit films.  For all that I enjoyed those two films, they both felt LONG.  But this film roars by.

We begin with a great James Bond-like pre-credits action sequence in which ol’ Smaug is dealt with.  I’d wondered how much of a factor Smaug would wind up being in this film.  The answer is not much, as he’s dispatched with fairly quickly.  It works, but I will admit to having expected a but more.  I felt like this sequence was missing a little something.  Maybe more of Smaug’s dialogue?  Smaug was surprisingly silent for the first several minutes of this sequence.  I’d expected him to be gloating or boasting as he attacked Lake Town.  It’s remarkable how Smaug comes to life once he finally speaks.  Credit to Benedict Cumberbatch for how much his voice clearly was a critical … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 10): The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

Well, I’d certainly heard of The Bonfire of the Vanities, one of the most famous flops in movie history, but I’d never before seen it.  This was one of the movies I was most curious to see as part of my journey through the films of Brian De Palma.  Was the film truly as bad as I’d heard??

In the opening minutes, I thought perhaps the general view of this film was wrong.  The movie opens with a gorgeous opening shot, as we watch a sped-up version of a full day of a city unfold from the point of view atop a tall skyscraper.  It’s a beautiful image and a clever one.  So far so good!  Then we jump into a staggeringly impressive five-minute-long continuous tracking shot.  This jaw-droppingly audacious shot follows a drunk Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) as he staggers in and out of rooms, down hallways, in and out of an elevator, and eventually into an enormous ballroom where he is supposed to be making a speech.  Brian De Palma’s cinematic style and skill is on full display with this sequence.  I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult this must have been to stage and to shoot.  It’s a wonderful sequence, hugely impressive.

The problem is that it has absolutely nothing at all to do with the movie!  This incredible opening sequence makes it feel like the story we’re about to watch is that of Bruce Willis’ character, the author Peter Fallow.  But the film that follows isn’t Fallow’s story at all, it’s that of the hapless rich white finance-guy Sherman McCoy (played by Tom Hanks).  So while I was initially impressed by this opening sequence, as the film progressed I came to see it more and more as a complete waste of time, an empty exhibition of style over substance.

It doesn’t help that the next 45 minutes or so of the film, after that crazy five-minute tracking shot, contain some of the most haplessly amateurish filmmaking of Mr. De Palma’s career (at least what I have seen of it so far).  When we first meet Sherman McCoy, it’s in a painfully failed comedic sequence in which he is trying to sneak out of his apartment that he shares with his wife, Judy (Kim Cattrall) so he can call his mistress Maria (Melanie Griffith).  Sherman uses taking the dog for a walk as his excuse, but the dog doesn’t go out in the rain, so then we cut to Sherman dragging his unconscious dog through the rain.  It’s supposed to be funny but it is so painfully unfunny that I just winced.  Between this and the entirety of Wise Guys (click here for my review[continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I

December 3rd, 2014

I’ve never read any of the Hunger Games novels, but of course I knew of the phenomenon and so I was curious to see that first Hunger Games film.  I found it entertaining but rather mediocre.  But I was stunned how much I enjoyed the second film, Catching Fire I thought that film was a huge leap forward from the initial installment, and its cliffhanger ending left me quite eager for the third film.

And so I was a little bummed that Mockingjay Part I felt rather flat to me.  I think it’s a superior film to the first one, but lacks the narrative energy of the second.

The film picks off immediately after the end of Catching Fire.  We’ve seen social unrest lurking around the edge of the dystopian future of the Hunger Games world, but now a full-scale revolution seems about to emerge.  Unlike the first two stories, there is no new Hunger Games competition as the center of this story.  Rather, we follow Katniss as she finds herself the symbol of the revolution being led by the residents of District 13 against President Snow and the capitol.  Katniss never set out to be a revolutionary, she just wanted to save her sister and then find a way to survive herself in the brutal Hunger Games.  Though she recognizes the evil of President Snow’s rule, her primary motivation is to find a way to save her friend Peeta, who was left a prisoner of Snow following the dramatic events of the end of Catching Fire.

I like that this installment doesn’t feel the need to try to somehow ropes Katniss back into another Hunger Games competition.  The scale of the story has grown beyond that, which is exciting.  Here in Mockingjay, the struggle isn’t just for one hero to survive the Games, but instead this story is about the struggle to determine the future of this society itself.  Will the districts continue to allow themselves to be subjugated by the forces of the capitol, or will they find a way to unite and find a new path?  How can fractured, poor, basically unarmed districts possibly overcome the well-armed, technologically superior forces of the capitol?

A story about the mechanics of a populist revolution in a dystopian future sounds like an exciting focus for a film, as does the idea of following Katniss’ journey to becoming an actual participant in the growing revolution.  But I was a little surprised by how dull I found Mockingjay to be.  Not a whole heck of a lot happens in the film.  Really, except for the rescue attempt in the film’s final minutes, has the status quo for Katniss or her … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Chef

I’m a big fan of Jon Favreau the actor/performer, and I’ve also become a big fan of Jon Favreau the director.  It’s easy to forget, now that the Marvel movies have become such a successful juggernaut, just what a minor miracle the original Iron Man was.  That movie was far from a sure thing, and the reason it took off was mainly because of Mr. Favreau’s consummate skill at balancing the movie’s tone.  The story was exciting, with real dramatic and emotional stakes, while also being an unabashedly fun, funny romp that was a hugely enjoyable ride for the audience.  Few directors could have pulled that off, and I give all the credit in the word to Mr. Favreau for his accomplishment.  Every time you enjoy a new Marvel movie, you should thank Mr. Favreau for his work on the film that got the whole ball rolling.

But ever since 2008′s Iron Man, I can’t saw that I’ve been bowled over by Mr. Favreau’s work.  Iron Man 2 was underwhelming, and it has aged particularly poorly.  Cowboys & Aliens was a mess, an enormous waste of a great premise and a stellar cast.  But I’ve remained a fan of Mr. Favreau, interested in his work.  I want to enjoy his films.  And so I was intrigued when I heard about Chef, which Mr. Favreau wrote and directed, in addition to starring in.  This seemed like an appealing step back into the type of film Mr. Favreau used to be involved in, a film more like Swingers — a smaller-scale, more personal story with humor and with heart.

I am pleased to report that Chef is exactly that.  This isn’t a film that is going to set the world on fire, and it’s a film that, in some ways, feels just a little bit retro. But it’s endearing in the good-natured way the film wears its heart on its sleeve.  It’s got a great cast and a strong premise, and while there are no big surprises in the film, that’s fine by me as I quite enjoyed the small tale being told.

In the film, Mr. Favreau plays Carl Casper, a talented chef working at a successful California restaurant.  He’s a workaholic, and his family life has suffered.  He is also starting to feel stymied by the business-oriented owner of his restaurant, Riva (Dustin Hoffman).  Carl prepares an elaborate menu for the evening when a well-read food blogger (played by Oliver Platt) is visiting the restaurant, but Riva insists that he serve their regular menu of old favorites.  Not surprisingly, this earns Carl a lousy review.  Carl responds poorly, starting a twitter war with the blogger and eventually getting … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 9): Casualties of War (1989)

Following up on the successful and great The Untouchables, Brian De Palma moved on to another large-scale project: the Vietnam War story Casualties of War.

The film is based on the true events of the “incident on Hill 192″ that occurred in 1966, and that were described in a New Yorker article written by Daniel Lang in 1969.  Michael J. Fox stars as Max Eriksson, a young kid serving in Vietnam.  As the film opens, Eriksson’s squad is engaged with a firefight with the Viet Cong in the jungle, and Erikkson falls into a Viet Cong tunnel.  The seasoned sergant Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) helps rescue him.  Soon after, Meserve’s close friend “Brownie” Brown is shot and killed in a Viet Cong sniper attack.  A vengeful Meserve decides to kidnap a local Vietnamese from her village.  He and the other men in the squad drag her out of her home in the middle of the night.  Eriksson objects, but he is the only one in the squad who speaks up and so is ignored.  The men in the squad force the girl to march with them, beating and eventually raping her.  Erikkson continues to object but feels powerless to stop what he is witnessing.

The film’s central focus is on Eriksson’s moral struggle of what to do in this seemingly impossible situation.  This is a grim but compelling hook for a film, one made all the more powerful by the fact that these events did actually occur.

I enjoyed Casualties of War.  I think it’s an important story to tell, and the film’s cast of talented young actors do fine work.  However, the film falls a little short for me in that it feels somewhat fake, somewhat movie-ish.  The film lacks the mythic grandeur of Vietnam War films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, and it also falls short of the you-are-there gritty realism of Oliver Stone’s Platoon.  For all of Brian De Palma’s skill as a director, visually I found that Casualties of War hasn’t aged as well as those other films.  It’s also a rare example of a film in which I felt that some of Mr. De Palma’s stylistic flourishes — which I usually quite enjoy and look out for — weakened the film rather than strengthening it.

One moment that comes to mind is the sequence in the Viet Cong caves early-on in the film.  While the men in Eriksson’s platoon unsuspectingly walk through the jungle, the camera pans down to reveal the network of Viet Cong caves running underneath the service.  Mr. De Palma constructed an elaborate raised set for this sequence, one that resembled … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I have written many times before on this site about how amazing Peter Jackson’s Extended Editions of the Lord of the Rings films were.  Mr. Jackson and his team reinvented the whole idea of both a director’s cut of a film, and DVD behind-the-scenes special features.  Both had existed before, but both were refined in a new way with the Extended Edition DVD sets.  Watching that first Extended Edition for The Fellowship of the Ring all those years ago was a revelation — a hugely different, more expansive cut of a film that I’d already loved, accompanied by exhaustively extensive behind-the-scenes features that took the viewer through every stage of the making of the film.  Through the years of the release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it quickly came to be that I didn’t feel the experience of enjoying each new film was complete until the release of the Extended Editions.  The theatrical version became just a rough draft of the final version, the Extended Edition DVD.  In the years since the release of The Return of the King, I have gone back to revisit those three LOTR films many times, but I have only watched the Extended Editions.  Those have become the definitive versions of the films for me.

With the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, I commented in my initial review that the lengthy theatrical version already felt like an Extended Edition, both because of its length and the way the film wasn’t focused so tightly on Bilbo, but rather filled with all sorts of digressions and expansions that I had come to associate with the Extended Editions of the LOTR films.  The Extended Edition of An Unexpected Journey was only twelve minutes longer than the theatrical version.  I liked the Extended Edition, but it wasn’t nearly the all-new experience that the three Extended LOTR films were for me.  But while I liked the Extended Edition of An Unexpected Journey, I was head-over-heels in LOVE with the behind-the-scenes features, the two discs-worth of Appendices.  Those two discs managed to surpass even the already amazing LOTR Extended Editions.  With a whopping NINE hours of special features, they were incredibly in-depth and yet never dull or boring.  Watching the Appendices, it I felt like I got to actually experience some of what it was like making the film.  Seeing the incredible love and effort that hundreds upon hundreds of men and women had put into the film made me love that first Hobbit film even more than I already did.  (Click here for my full thoughts on the Extended Edition of An Unexpected Journey.)

The Extended Edition of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug feels … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Birdman

Let me cut right to the chase: this film is phenomenal!

In Birdman, Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson.  Riggan was once a world-famous Hollywood super-star who played the super-hero Birdman in three wildly successful films.  But he made waves by refusing to return to the role for Birdman 4.  In the years since, his career has gone into the toilet.  Now, Riggan is funding with his own money a play that he wrote and is starring in, adapting a Raymond Carver story.  Riggan hopes this play will give him the success and critical acclaim that he has long been striving for.  But, of course, things are going from bad-to-worse as the unstable Riggan and his troupe careen towards opening night, and Riggan begins to feel the pressure of what he sees as his last chance.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) follows Riggan through the final few days of previews leading up to his play’s opening night.  The film is shot to look as if it was one continuous, unbroken shot.  The entire film.  Let me say that again: the entire film is structured to look and feel like one continuous, unbroken shot.  This is not only an astounding, jaw-dropping technical accomplishment, it’s a device that gives the film an enormous, vigorous energy.  This, combined with the visceral, hand-held (or made to look like hand-held) camera-work, in which the camera is constantly flying along right behind Riggan and the other characters, and the film’s propulsive, amazing jazz-drum score, give Birdman an incredible edge-of-your-seat energy from start to finish that is unlike any other film I can recall.

I saw 21 Grams back in 2003 and it was clear to me that Alejandro González Iñárritu was an incredibly skilled director.  And yet, while I immensely respected Mr. Iñárritu’s skills, the film was such a dour affair that it’s not a movie I was ever interested in revisiting.  Though his follow-up, Babel, was critically acclaimed, I avoided seeing it for the same reason: it just felt like too much unpleasant misery for me.  What a 180-degree switch Mr. Iñárritu has made with Birdman!  This film benefits from every ounce of his significant technical competence, while also being incredibly fun and joyous.

Which is weird, because when you think about it, Birdman is actually a pretty sad story.  But I found it to be a film that was alive with joy.  Alive is a great word.  This film is alive, positively pulsing with energy in every moment.  You the viewer feel like you’re right there with Riggan and the other characters, bouncing back and forth through the tiny back-stage theatre corridors right along with them.  The camerawork is amazing.  Thinking about the … [continued]

 

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]

 

Josh Reviews Gone Girl

November 7th, 2014
,

The idea of a movie adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel Gone Girl probably wouldn’t have been something that, on its own, would pique my interest, but the involvement of director David Fincher immediately put the project on my radar.  I have been a fan of Mr. Fincher’s ever since Alien 3 (a film that I feel is a terrible Alien sequel but that, if considered on its own as a stand-alone sci-fi/horror film, is a gorgeous and haunting piece of work).  The magnificent and terrifying Zodiac (a vastly underrated film) cemented Mr. Fincher in my mind as one of the finest directors working today, and I have been following his films eagerly ever since.

In Gone Girl, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns home on the day of his five-year wedding anniversary to discover an empty house and signs of a struggle.  His wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), is missing.  The police begin an investigation, led by Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens).  Suspicion falls upon Nick, and as the story becomes a media sensation (because Amy was the subject of a series of well-known children’s books written by her parents called Amazing Amy) public opinion turns dramatically against him.  Nick, continuing to profess his innocence, eventually hires a high-profile defense attorney, Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), who specializes in high-profile media cases.  The circus continues to escalate.

The hook of the film, of course, is the twisty mystery of what happened to Amy Elliott-Dunne.  While that is compelling, as the film progresses, we see that there is far more to the story of this film than a simple who-dunnit.  As we watch, the film slowly pulls back the layers of the onion of the story of Nick and Amy.  Scene by scene, moment by moment, layer upon layer are slowly revealed of both Nick and Amy’s relationship as well as the events of the fateful day of Amy’s disappearance.  About half-way through the film, we learn the answer to the mystery.  It is the film’s best trick that the story gets only more interesting once the central mystery is solved.  (That is an impressive narrative feat.  I have high praise for Gillian Flynn, who wrote the screenplay adapting her own novel.)

The cast of Gone Girl is spectacular.  I’ve always been a fan of Ben Affleck, and I think he’s a far better actor than he often demonstrates, hindered by his often poor choice of films in which to appear.  In the past few years, he’s been getting much well-deserved acclaim as a director.  (His first film, Gone Baby Gone, is one of my favorite films of the past decade.)  So it’s fun to see Mr. Affleck really shine here as an … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 8): The Untouchables (1987)

My journey through the films of Brian De Palma rolls on!

After the one-two punch of 1984′s Body Double and 1986′s Wise Guys, both of which were terrible, I would imagine that Brian De Palma needed a hit.  Well, he got one with 1987′s The Untouchables.

Set in the 1930′s during the later years of prohibition, The Untouchables tells the story of honest cop Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his small group of “untouchables” who worked to free Chicago from the control of crime-lord Al Capone (Robert De Niro).  (The film is very loosely inspired by the TV series with the same name that ran from 1959-1963.  Both were based on the book The Untouchables written by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley.)  Ness assembles a small team of partners: tough Irish-American cop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery); the young hot-headed Italian-American rookie George Stone (Andy Garcia); and the accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith).  Together they take on corrupt cops and Capone’s mobsters.

Wow, what a treat it is to see Brian De Palma finally working with an A-level script!!  David Mamet’s script is lean and tight, chock full of memorable lines.  (“You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. THAT’S the Chicago way.”)  Combined with a great cast and Mr. De Palma’s skill as a visual stylist, and you have all the ingredients for a crowd-pleasing hit.

The main cast is dynamite.  In one of his earliest lead roles, a young Kevin Costner is terrific as the idealistic Ness.  His character is a little one-dimensional, but in this sort of broad-strokes story it works.  Mr. Costner’s genuine movie-star charisma carries him, and provides a strong anchor for the story.

Sean Connery delivers one of the most memorable performances of his career as Malone.  It helps that he gets most of the movie’s best lines.  In his great book A Pound of Flesh: Perilous Tales of How to Produce Movies in Hollywood, producer Art Linson describes how the shock to the audience of killing off movie-star Sean Connery in the middle of the movie was hugely important to the movie’s impact.  It’s funny, that sort of thing doesn’t really register with me, today, when I watch the film, but I will say that the fight in Malone’s home that leads to his death is a thrilling sequence in the film, hugely enhanced by Mr. De Palma’s point-of-view camerawork.  More on that in a moment.

Andy Garcia is great as Stone.  Like Ness and, frankly, all of the characters, the youth and tough Stone (his name is Stone, … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma (Part 7): Wise Guys (1986)

Hello!  And so, after a delay of nearly two years, we arrive at the film that nearly derailed my “Days of De Palma” series: 1986′s Wise Guys.  I’m not exactly sure why I avoided watching this film for so long.  I’d never seen the film before and I knew next-to-nothing about it.  (I’d never even heard of it before starting work on this De Palma series.)  There was just something about what little I knew about the film that made me think it would be dumb.  My movie “Spidey-Sense” was going off.  So without realizing I was doing it, I kept putting off and putting off watching this film.

But last month I decided the time had come to return to my “Days of De Palma” series and complete my journey through Mr. De Palma’s filmography.  And so I buckled down and popped Wise Guys into my DVD player.

The Italian Harry Valenti (Danny DeVito) and the Jewish Moe Dickstein (Joe Piscopo) are best buddies who are extremely small-time mobsters.  The two men live next door to one another, do everything together, and even have very similar morning routines.  They’re technically in the mob, but they are the smallest of small fries in the criminal undertakings run by mob boss Anthony Castelo (Dan Hedaya).  Their job doesn’t consist of much more than starting Castelo’s car to make sure it won’t explode before Mr. Castelo gets in.  One day Harry and Moe are assigned to place a bet at the racetrack on behalf of their boss.  Harry is convinced he knows which horse will win, and he convinces Moe that they should place Castelo’s money on that horse, and then split the winnings.  Unfortunately, Mr. Costelo had fixed the race, and so by not betting on the horse Costelo told them to bet on, Harry & Moe wind up costing him tens of thousands of dollars.  The two men must flee from the vengeful Castelo and his goons, especially the huge and vicious Frank “The Fixer” Acavano.

Unfortunately, Wise Guys is even worse than I feared it would be.  The film is a catastrophe, through and through.  It’s supposed to be a goofy comedy, but this is one of the most un-funny films I have ever seen.  You can see the flop sweat.  The whole thing is, frankly, embarrassing.

I knew we were in for trouble early on, in the scene in which poor Harry is sent outside to start Mr. Castelo’s car.  Everyone is convinced the car will explode, and Frank is scared out of his wits.  When the people in the neighborhood see that Frank is heading out to start the car, they all flee.  In what is supposed … [continued]

 

Days of De Palma Returns!

I am a sucker for series.  Whether we’re talking about novels, comic-books, TV shows, or movies, I love long-form story-telling.  When it comes to stories, I love continuity rather than one-offs.  I’m also something of a collector/completist at heart.  These qualities combine to give me a special joy in reading or watching different works that share some sort of connection, whether it be of theme or a common creator.  Often when I read or watch something, I like to continue on and read or watch similar works, or other works by the same artists/creators.  Recently I was reading some Hellboy/B.P.R.D. comic-books by Mike Mignola, and I was seized by a desire to go back and re-read the entire series from the beginning.  (Thus launching my Great Hellboy Re-Reading Project series of blogs.)

A couple years back, I re-watched Terrence Malick’s WWII film The Thin Red Line after picking it up on a beautiful Criterion Edition DVD.  Re-watching it made me curious to go back and see some of Mr. Malick’s earlier films, the ones that earned him such acclaim.  And so I launched a brief series of blogs which I called “Days of Terrence Malick” (playing with the title of one of Mr. Malick’s famous films, Days of Heaven).  I watched and wrote about The Thin Red Line, Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Tree of Life.

I had fun with that series, and decided it would be fun to launch another, similar series, watching or re-watching the films of another filmmaker.  After batting around some ideas, I settled on Brian De Palma.  Mr. De Palma seemed a good choice as he was a filmmaker of some note, but also one about whom people’s opinions are often split, so it’d be fun to see where my thoughts landed.  I had seen several De Palma films that I was eager to revisit, and there were many other famous films of his that I had never seen.  I figured it’d be fun to dive into his lengthy filmography and write about the films as I went, and at the end I’d have defined my opinion about Mr. De Palma’s work over-all.

I wrote about six of Mr. De Palma’s movies: Carrie (1976); The Fury (1978); Dressed to Kill (1980); Blow Out (1981); Scarface (1983) and Body Double (1984).

But then the series hit something of a snag.  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what happened.  I got busy with other things, and watching the next De Palma film kept getting pushed back and back and back on my “to-do” list.  It probably didn’t help that I wasn’t that excited about watching the next de Palma … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews This is Where I Leave You

October 27th, 2014

This is Where I Leave You is written by Jonathan Tropper, adapting his book of the same name, and directed by Shawn Levy, who has directed many popular comedic films, none of which I have ever had any interest in seeing.  (These films include the two Cheaper By the Dozen films, the Steve Martin Pink Panther remakes, the Night at the Museum movies, and others.)  But I was intrigued by This is Where I Leave You because of the phenomenal cast and the interesting premise, and my wife really enjoyed the book on which it is based.

When their father dies, the four Altman children learn that his last wish was that they all return home to sit shiva together for him.  (Sitting shiva is a seven day-long Jewish ritual of mourning.)  Though the family is not Jewishly observant and are estranged from one another, they all agree to do so.  The film follows the seven days during which the Altman family-members are forced to interact with one another under one roof for the first time in many years.

Each member of the family has their problems.  Judd (Jason Bateman) has just discovered that his wife has been sleeping with his boss for the past year.  Wendy (Tina Fey) is trying to handle two young children without much help from her distant businessman husband, and she still carries a torch for the boy who grew up across the street.  The eldest brother, Paul (Corey Stoll), feels that he has carried the family business without any help from his siblings, and also is carrying a lot of tension with his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) because they are having trouble conceiving a child.  The youngest brother, Philip (Adam Driver), is the irresponsible baby of the family, and he’s currently dating a wealthy therapist, Tracy (Connie Britton), who is much older than he is.  These characters are joined by their non-Jewish mother, Hillary (Jane Fonda); Penny (Rose Byrne), the girl who used to have a crush on Judd; Judd’s unfaithful wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer); Judd’s former friend and boss, the loudmouthed D.J. Wade (Dax Shepard); Horry (Timothy Olyphant), the boy next door who years ago suffered a brain injury; and the Altmans’ neighborhood friend who has now become a rabbi, Charles Grodner (Ben Schwartz), who can’t seem to shake his unfortunate childhood nickname of “Boner.”

Just look at those names.  This film boasts an extraordinary ensemble of actors.  I wish they were in a better movie.

Don’t get me wrong, This is Where I Leave You isn’t bad.  It’s just extremely middle-of-the-road.   This is a movie that feels very designed to be appealing to as wide an audience as possible.  I wish that … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Drop

October 22nd, 2014
,

Written by Dennis Lehane (adapting his own short story), The Drop is an extraordinary crime story, one that is hugely compelling and brutally tough.  I loved it.

Tom Hardy plays Bob, the bartender at a small dive in Brooklyn called Cousin Marv’s.  Marv, played by James Gandolfini, doesn’t really own the bar — it’s owned by the mob, and the bar serves as a “drop” where money can be deposited to be laundered.  Marv was once a power player, but now he operates on the fringes.  Bob doesn’t seem to be involved much with any criminal activity, though he’s certainly aware of what happens at Cousin Marv’s bar.  One night two young punks rob the bar.  The mobsters who own the place put pressure on Cousin Marv and Bob to recover their money.  Meanwhile, Bob has begun a tentative relationship with a neighborhood girl, Nadia (Noomi Rapace), after he finds a beaten-up dog in her garbage can and the two start caring for the dog together.  But Nadia has a violent ex-boyfriend who isn’t happy about another man hanging out with the woman who he still considers to be his girl.

These might seem like familiar story tropes, but in the film they are fantastically compelling and unfold in original ways.  The film is an electrifying slow burn, with the tension slowly ratcheting up and up and up until it is nearly unbearable.  I watched the entire last half-hour or so of the film from the edge of my seat.  You spend the whole film knowing that things are going to turn ugly, and you also spend the whole film wondering just how these stories are going to connect.  When they do, it’s an incredible pay-off.

The cast is magnificent.  James Gandolfini is unforgettable in his final major role, playing a man past his prime who is desperate to recapture the moment, now long in the fast, when he was somebody.  Cousin Marv is not Tony Soprano, but he has ambitions to be.  Watching Mr. Gandolfini work in the film twists the knife of his tragic loss.  What a shame this phenomenal actor is gone.

Noomi Rapace has always had something of an otherworldly quality to her, and while I have enjoyed her work before this is the first role in which I really connected to her.  Nadia is as much an enigma to the audience as she is to Bob.  We don’t quite know, until the end, exactly what her play is or what secrets she may be hiding.  And yet, she is as irresistibly compelling to the audience as she is to Bob.  Ms. Rapace brings great humanity to the role, giving Nadia a rich inner life and … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Tusk

September 29th, 2014
,

I’m a huge fan of Kevin Smith.  I like his movies, and more than that, I like Mr. Smith himself.  He’s a great character and a hilarious story-teller.  There have been some fantastically-packed DVD and blu-ray releases of his earlier films, and sometimes I think the special features are even more fun than the films themselves, as you get to see Mr. Smith and his pals goofing around and having a grand old time.  The commentary tracks for Clerks, Dogma, and Chasing Amy are among the greatest commentary tracks ever recorded.  When Mr. Smith started releasing DVDs of his Q & A performances around the country, I was thrilled.  I think that first An Evening with Kevin Smith two-DVD set is one of my favorite DVDs that I own.  There are two stories in particular — Smith’s recounting of his experiences writing a draft of a Superman film that was never made, and his experience working on a project with Prince (“Chaka mad?”  ”Chaka real mad!!”) — that are two of the funniest things I have ever seen.

But while I still consider myself a big fan, my interest in Mr. Smith’s films has waned, to the point that I actually haven’t seen his last three movies.  I skipped Cop Out because Mr. Smith only directed it, rather than having written the script, and from the trailers I thought it looked extremely unfunny.  I was intrigued when Mr. Smith made Red State, which seemed like a huge divergence from the comedies that he had made to that point.  I will see that film someday, because I am curious, but I’m not that interested in the horror story and so I just haven’t made time to see the film yet.  Then there was Jay and Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie.  I think the animated Clerks TV show is a hugely under-appreciated gem, a hilarious six-episode buried treasure.  Mr. Smith has been talking for years and years about making an animated film, but when it finally arrived I was disappointed to see that it seemed like a totally different creature than the series that I loved.  (It was also missing the involvement of David Mandel, who was a key creative voice on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and who I think is the reason that Clerks: The Animated Series was so amazing.)  Still, I probably would have seen the film, except that it wasn’t released to theatres or DVD, you could only see it if you went to one of Mr. Smith’s traveling roadshow exhibitions of the film, which I wasn’t able to do. (Though it’s now available on demand, so I suspect I’ll check it out eventually.)

Which brings me … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

September 26th, 2014
, ,

I am a huge fan, over-all, of the Jack Ryan film series and I believe this is a character, and a series, that still has quite a lot of gas in its tank.  What a disappointment, then, to watch the latest installment, the rebooted Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and discover a total waste of this franchise’s great potential.

I am a huge, huge fan of The Hunt for Red October.  It’s one of my very favorite films of all-time, a smart, fun thiller with a large scale and grand stakes, and a story that is filled to the brim with wonderfully drawn characters.  I love to imagine what a series of films spun out of Red October would have looked like had Alec Baldwin remained in the role.  Instead, he left the series after that initial installment, and was replaced by Harrison Ford for Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger.  I really like both of those films, though neither achieves the greatness of Red October, and there’s no question that the flavor of the series changed with Harrison Ford as the lead rather than Alec Baldwin.

They painted themselves into something of a narrative corner with the end of Clear and Present Danger, though I certainly think that a smart screenwriter could have found ways to continue telling new Jack Ryan adventures.  Unfortunately, the series seemed to flounder after that third installment, with the producers eventually deciding to reboot with from the ground up, re-casting Ryan with the young Ben Affleck and re-starting the story from zero.  I sort of liked the film that resulted, 2002′s The Sum of All Fears, and while I think it was the weakest of the four Ryan films at that point, it could have been the start of an entertaining new series of films.  Unfortunately those follow-up films never materialized, and the series has been dormant for over a decade.

With Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the studio decided to once again reboot and re-start from the beginning.  Obviously at this point, more than a decade after The Sum of All Fears, recasting the role made perfect sense, and I was excited when I heard that Chris Pine (pretty great as the young Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek films) had landed the role of Ryan.  But I am mystified by Hollywood’s insistance, every time they re-cast a film series these days, on starting over with a new origin story.  Every time they re-cast James Bond, they didn’t re-tell his origin, did they?  No, they just carried on and told a fun new Bond adventure!  (Though, of course, the most recent time they re-cast the role of Bond, they DID start over … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Jodorowsky’s Dune

September 22nd, 2014
,

The history of the movies is filled with wonderfully intriguing projects that never got made.  A few years back I wrote about the wonderful documentary Lost in La Mancha, which told the tale of Terry Gilliam’s failed attempt at making a Don Quixote film starring Johnny Depp.  (That project collapsed a few days into filming.)  Now, another great documentary has come along to explore another tantalizing Hollywood what-if story.

Back in 1975, director Alejando Jodorowsky got the rights to adapt Frank Hebert’s Dune.  Dune is, in my opinion, one of the greatest science-fiction novels of all time, a fascinatingly complex epic about religion and politics and ecology.  Mr. Jodorowsky spent two years developing the film adaptation, working with such talents as H.R. Giger and Jean Giraud (the French illustrator known as Moebius) on the designs, and with a cast lined up that included Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, David Carradine, and Mick Jagger.  Mr. Jodorowsky and his team created a phone-book sized volume containing lavishly-illustrated storyboards for the entire epic film that they planned to create.  Sadly, just before filming on the project was scheduled to commence, the financing fell through and the film collapsed.  Several years later, Dino De Laurentiis acquired the rights, resulting in the 1984 Dune film directed by a young David Lynch.

That film, while entertaining, is deeply flawed and a poor adaptation of Mr. Herbert’s great novel.  For decades, sci-fi fans have wondered just what sort of film Mr. Jodorowsky might have made from the material.  This richly detailed and engrossing documentary by Frank Pavich explores that question.  Mr. Pavich has assembled an impressively deep array of interviews to tell the story of this film-that-might-have-been.  We hear from so many of the men and women who were involved in the production, including producer Michel Seydoux; designers and phenomenal talents H.R. Giger, Dan O’Bannon, and Chris Foss; we hear from other filmmakers such as director Nicholas Winding Refn and Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz; and we hear from some film-critics such as Devin Faraci and Drew McWeeny (both of whom are wonderful on-line writers whose work I link to often) who help give context to the story.

But the main story-teller of this documentary film is Alejandro Jodorowsky himself.  Mr. Jodrowsky’s is the main voice of the film, and as the movie progresses we hear him tell, in his own words and in incredible detail, the story of the Dune film that he had planned.  We hear what attracted him to the story of Dune and what sort of film he hoped to create.  We hear of his enormous ambition to create a film with a strong spiritual message, one that would affect audiences powerfully.  Mr. … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Sin City: Dame to Kill For

For me, growing up, Frank Miller was one of the gods of comic books.  He seemed to be a master of the form of a super-hero comic-book, crafting some of the finest mainstream super-hero comic-book stories I had ever read (his long run on Daredevil; Batman: Year One; The Dark Knight Returns; and many others) before moving into less-mainstream, even more interesting work (Ronin, Give Me Liberty, and of course Sin City).  I loved Sin City as a kid.  It was a potent distillation both of Mr. Miller’s incredible drawing style (boiled down into deceptively simple black-and-white with bold shapes and brush-strokes) as well as his writing.  Plus, it had that edge of transgression (Violence!  Nudity!) that made it impossible for a kid to resist.

I enjoyed Robert Rodriguez’s 2005 film Sin City, which adapted three of Mr. Miller’s Sin City yarns: The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill, and That Yellow Bastard.  The film wasn’t perfect.  I thought it moved too fast, not giving the stories enough of a chance to breathe.  I also thought that in places Mr. Rodriguez was too literal in mimicking Mr. Miller’s comic-book panels for the screen in a way that weakened the film.  Example: early in the film, Marv is being cornered by the police, so he busts through his door before they can come in and arrest him.  Mr. Miller drew that like Marv exploding through the door, and it’s a great panel.  But in the film, where Mr. Rodriguez copies that image exactly, it feels like Marv set off a bomb on the door, or like he’s a super-human like Superman.  I don’t think Marv is a super-hero.  He doesn’t have super-powers.  He’s just an incredibly tough lug.  A more naturalistic moment of him breaking down the door would have worked better for me than the super-hero-like explosion we got.  There are lots of little examples like this all through the film.  It’s a question of taste, I guess.  You don’t want to remove all of the craziness and idiosyncrasies of Mr. Miller’s stories, but when translated so literally there were a number of moments that would up reading as too comic-book-silly to me, in a way that undercut the threat and drama of the story being told in the film.

On the other hand, the genius of Mr. Rodriguez’s film, and the reason I loved it as much as I did, was the way he really did bring Mr. Miller’s comic book panels to life.  Making extensive use of computer-generated effects, Mr. Rodriguez created extraordinarily simplified looks to the sets and characters in a way that exactly, and I mean exactly, mimicked Mr. Miller’s drawings.  The whole film was … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Dear Mr. Watterson

September 5th, 2014

The materials for Joel Allen Schroeder’s film Dear Mr. Watterson describe it as “a documentary film about the impact of the best comic strip in the history of the universe.”  That’s a funny line, but also accurate, as I do believe that Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes is probably the finest comic strip that I have ever read.

I first discovered Calvin & Hobbes years ago, when my parents bought me Something Under the Bed is Drooling, the first Calvin & Hobbes collection.  I am not sure how they knew about Calvin & Hobbes — the strip was in its early days; I believe at the time there were only two collections available, maybe three — but I applaud and am grateful for their good taste.

Like millions of readers worldwide, I was immediately hooked, and for the decade that followed I read Calvin & Hobbes religiously in the paper, cutting out and saving my favorite strips, while also of course collecting the book-sized collections every year-or-so when they were published.  The quality of Mr. Watterson’s writing and his artwork were both unparalleled, and together, as every fan knows, they were magic.  Motion Pictures exists because of Bill Watterson and Calvin & Hobbes, and I know that many, many, many more of today’s syndicated comic strips and web-comics are similarly the result of the influence of Mr. Watterson’s brilliant cartoon.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that when I read about Dear Mr. Watterson, a documentary about Calvin & Hobbes, I was interested.

Joel Allen Schroeder’s film is a sweet love-letter from a super-fan to the maker of his favorite comic strip.  The film, though, is far from revelatory when it comes to the story of Mr. Watterson himself or the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip.  I was hoping for more of an exploration of Mr. Watterson’s life and career, and how it was that he developed this extraordinary comic strip.  But the film is very superficial in that respect, and it doesn’t tell us anything that I’d wager even a fairly casual fan of the strip wouldn’t know.  (There’s a whole bit in which Mr. Schroeder goes to look at some original Calvin & Hobbes cartoons, and is amazed that they were drawn larger than the final printed panels appeared in the newspaper.  Well duh!  I know I’m an artist, but surely most people know that the original comics are drawn larger than they are printed, right?  I was rolling my eyes at that.  Don’t go into this film expecting revelations any deeper than that.)

I tend to enjoy documentaries in which the documentarian is a part of the story of the film, but in this … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

September 1st, 2014

I knew of Elaine Stritch mostly from her spectacular recurring role on 30 Rock as Jack (Alec Baldwin)’s imposing mother.  But that was more than enough to interest me in Chiemi Karasawa’s recent documentary about her, titled Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.

Filmed in 2013 and released in February, 2014 (only a few months before Ms. Stritch sadly passed away in July), the film gives us a look back at her incredible life and career while also following her efforts to launch a new tour, in which she would perform songs by Stephen Sondheim.

At eighty-seven years old, Ms. Stritch was long past the age at which most people should undertake such an enormous endeavor.  And indeed, in the film there are some unsettling moments in which we see Ms. Stritch struggling with her performance — her ability to remember her lines, her ability to hit her notes, and all the stamina needed for such a tour.  These moments are hard to watch.  It is toughest when Ms. Stritch herself is forced to confront the limitations imposed on her by her age.

But the film is also incredibly joyous and life-affirming.  It is incredible to watch this grande old dame fight through her limitations and press onward, not giving up, not giving in and fading away into a quiet retirement.

And, of course the primary joy of the film, and, I would say, the primary reason to watch it, is to get to spend some time with this incredible, irrepressable personality.  Ms. Stritch was perfect casting on 30 Rock, and there is quite a lot of Colleen Donaghy in her.  She is an absolute hoot, saying exactly what she is thinking and not pulling punches with anyone.  It is incredible fun getting to watch her interactions with everyone around her.  (I particularly loved getting to know the woman who has become something of an assistant to Ms. Stritch, after having gotten sucked into the powerful gravity-well of Ms. Stritch’s personality.)

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is a great little film, and a worthy swan-song for this incredible woman who so recently passed away.  For anyone who knew her broadway work, and for any younger fans like me who only got to know her through 30 Rock, this is a film worth seeing.… [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Snowpiercer

August 29th, 2014
,

An attempt to reverse global warming has gone catastrophically wrong, resulting in frigid temperatures covering the entire planet and wiping out almost all life on Earth.  The few survivors of humanity exist inside Snowpiercer, an enormous train on a track that circles the globe once each year.  The product of a wealthy inventor, Snowpiercer is a fully self-contained, self-supporting ecosystem.  But within the train, a strict class system has developed, with the wealthy in the front cars living a life of luxury, while the impoverished are crammed in together in the tail section, living in gulag-like conditions.  Curtis (Chris Evans), assisted by the wizened old man Gilliam (William Hurt), decides to start a revolution, breaking out of the tail section and leading his followers through one train-car after another, on their way to the front and the revered, perpetual-motion engine.

Any time I get to see an original work of science fiction I am happy, and the South Korean film Snowpiercer (adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige) sure is original.  The film reminds me of the wacko-crazy extraordinary visual sensibility of Terry Gilliam.  (is it a coincidence that William Hurt’s character is named Gilliam?  I doubt it.)  The movie is gorgeous, a feast for the eyes, with extraordinary work done by the sets and costume departments.  Each train-car is its own unique, fully-contained world.  Each time Curtis and his fellows enter a new car, so are we the audience drawn into a wonderful new, fully-imagined reality.  It is extraordinary.  (All the more-so considering this was far from a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster.)

I am not sure how much of Snowpiercer is meant to be taken literally.  There are many questions I could ask about the logistics of the reality of this sci-fi world within the train.  But I don’t think we’re meant to ask those questions, and the film is strong enough that I never got bogged down in asking myself those questions.  There is extraordinary power in the simple metaphor of the train’s linear class system.  Like the best sci-fi, Snowpiercer dazzles at creating a world outside of our own, while, at the same time, having so much to say about our present-day reality.

The film also reminded me of Apocalypse Now, as with each train-car Curtis’ group passes through, it’s as if they are on their own Heart of Darkness journey down the river into the unknown.  Just like Willard (Martin Sheen’s character in Apocalypse Now), Curtis finds at the end f his journey a figure of complex, ambiguous morality.  And just like for Willard, it is left to Curtis to make the final moral judgment as to whether this individual can be permitted to remain alive.… [continued]

 

Josh Reviews A Most Wanted Man

August 25th, 2014

Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a German spymaster who leads a small counter-terrorism group in Hamburg that seeks to develop intelligence sources within the Muslim community.  Gunther has been investigating a wealthy local Muslim man, Dr. Abdullah, on the suspicion that his charitable organizations hide a front for funneling money to terrorists.  When a Czechen refugee, Issa Karpov, enters Hamburg illegally in an attempt to access his father’s money, Gunther believs he might have found the key to exposing Dr. Abdullah.  But he must navigate the competing interests of the many foreign intelligence services also operating in Hamburg, including the Americans, and play all the pieces on his board just right in order to capture the “barracuda” he is hunting for.

Adapted from the John Le Carre novel of the same name, A Most Wanted Man is a deliciously twisty, dark little tale of spies in the post 9/11 world.  It features a magnificent performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in what I believe is his final starring role.  Mr. Hoffman is astounding, and the act of watching this film makes his recent loss only more painful.  How can it be that this phenomenally talented, vibrant actor has been taken from us?  What a tragedy.  Mr. Hoffman has played spies before, but his work here is 180 degrees away from his loud, hysterically funny role as Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War.  Gunther Bachmann is a quiet man.  He is pale and unassuming, and has a gentle way with his co-workers.  But we can see that has steel behind his eyes.  He is fierce in his pursuit of his suspects, and he clearly has incredible talent for putting the million tiny pieces of an investigation together in order to hook his targets.  He drinks too much, he smokes too much, he lives alone, and he seems to have been discredited by something in his past that went down in Berlin (though one tantalizing scene suggests the possibility that is only a smokescreen).  In many ways, Gunther is more bureaucrat than James Bond, but we see his fierce intelligence and craft in every move he makes, both behind a desk and in the field.  What a performance.  Mr. Hoffman commands the screen in every scene he is in.  When the film ends, the feeling that overwhelmed me more than anything was regret at not getting to see what happens next, not getting to spend more time with this fascinating character and this marvelous actor.

A Most Wanted Man is a very quiet film.  There is one foot-chase, but don’t go into this film expecting action.  Everything in this film is quiet, subdued.  The film doesn’t glamorize espionage, rather it … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Boyhood

August 21st, 2014
,

The stunt concept behind Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood would make it worthy of note even if the end result wasn’t all that compelling.  In an audacious, jaw-droopingly cool years-long undertaking, director Richard Linklater and his cast (including Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and young Ellar Coltrane) shot for a few weeks a year for twelve years (you read that right) to create a film that followed the journey to maturity of a young boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane).

All the more so, then, am I ready to shout from the rooftops in praise of this film, because what Mr. Linklater and his talented collaborators have created is a film that is staggeringly beautiful, an emotionally rich journey that is unlike any other film I have ever seen.  The film is over two and a half hours long, but I felt it blew by in mere moments, and I would have gladly watched another two and a half hours without complaint.

One might expect a film shot in small segments over the course of twelve years to feel choppy and episodic.  But I was delighted by how smoothly the film works as a whole.  The story-telling and the editing are masterful.  Each sequence flows smoothly into the next, carrying the audience along with the flow of these people’s lives.

Mr. Linklater and his team chose incredibly well in casting young Ellar Coltrane (merely 7  years old when the project began in 2002) as Mason.  Mr. Coltrane is incredible, and I found his performance to be as convincing and open and honest when he was seven as when he was eighteen.  Whenever I praise the work of a child actor I have to reserve half the praise for his/her director.  (Same goes with criticism.  I don’t blame Jake Lloyd for The Phantom Menace, I blame George Lucas.  But I digress.)  So bravo to Mr. Linklater for finding such a remarkable young man, and for the care with which he worked with him over the course of twelve years, in order to draw out such a remarkable performance.  And bravo to Mr. Coltrane himself.  If he never makes another film, this will always stand as a remarkable acting performance.  But I hope very much that this young man will make many, many more films.

Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are both wonderful as Mason’s parents.  They are as fully-developed, interesting characters as Mason himself, and I appreciated that the film takes the time to flesh out the both of them as much as it does Mason.  I love how neither parent is idealized.  We see both Olivia’s (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr.’s (Ethan Hawke) flaws and weaknesses front and center.  But we also see … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Bad Words

August 15th, 2014
,

I don’t believe that Jason Bateman’s directorial debut, Bad Words, got much of a theatrical release, and that is a shame because the film is absolutely dynamite, a crackling concoction of a dark, dark comedy.

Mr. Bateman stars as Guy Trilby, a forty-year-old man who exploits a loophole in the rules of the National Quill Spelling Bee competition so that he can enter.  It seems that, because he never graduated the eighth grade, he can compete, and so Guy begins a quest to defeat child after child and be crowned champion of the National Bee.

If that premise, which involves a grown man competing against children and doing his darnedest to crush their dreams (and those of their usually-overbearing parents) sounds like an amusing premise, then this is a movie for you.  I found it to be absolutely hysterical.  The film has a transgressive edge to it, and it takes a certain demented glee in mining humor from Guy’s absolutely inappropriate interactions with all of these eighth-graders.  But this isn’t a mean-spirited movie, and the comedy stays on the right side of the boundary of good taste, at least in my opinion.

Most importantly: Bad Words is very, very funny.  The film has a biting, sharp script by Andrew Dodge.  I love that the story drops us right into the middle of Guy’s Spelling Bee quest, his plan already fully-formed.  The film opens with a very funny, attention-grabbing prologue in which we see Guy competing in a Bee.  After that opening, I expected the story to flash back by a few weeks or months to tell us just what this guy was up to and how he got to this crazy place.  But no, to my delight the film just keeps moving forward, and it’s only gradually, as we watch this crazy story unfold, that we learn more about Guy’s background and just what the heck he is up to.

Jason Bateman will probably never have a better role than that of Michael Bluth on Arrested Development, but boy this is up there.  On Arrested, Mr. Bateman usually played the straight man.  But here he gets to cut loose and bring Guy Trilby to life in all of his maladjusted glory.  Mr. Bateman taps into some sort of evil inner glee in all the scenes in which we see him torturing his fellow Spelling Bee participants (and their parents), and this gives the film a crazy, I-can’t-believe-I’m-watching-this energy.  (While, as I noted above, always managing to stay on what I felt was the right side of acceptability in terms of what an audience could find humor with and still somewhat sympathize with Guy as our main character.)

The great Kathryn … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Life Itself

August 13th, 2014

It’s hard to imagine anyone who loves movies not being taken by Life Itself, Steve James (Hoop Dreams)‘s biopic of film critic Roger Ebert.  The film opens with a delightful quote from Mr. Ebert, in which he remarks on the power of movies to help one understand a little bit more about different people in different situations, describing movies as a “machine that generates empathy.”   What a delightful and fascinating point of view.  I was already a fan of Mr. Ebert’s work going into this documentary, but that quote reinforced not only what a terrific writer Mr. Ebert was, but also what an insightful perspective he had on cinema, this art-form that so many of us love so much.  I love the movies, and I have never heard my love of the movies framed in this manner.  The moment I heard Mr. Ebert’s words I was in full agreement, nodding my head at the way he had pinpointed a very important idea.

Based somewhat on Mr. Ebert’s memoir of the same title, Life Itself traces the life and career of Roger Ebert.  We explore how he discovered writing and his love of journalism, his early days as movie critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, and of course the film digs deeply into his long, sometimes-turbulent partnership with rival Chicago film-critic Gene Siskel.  The film takes the time to dwell on some of Mr. Ebert’s many notable film reviews and to explore other aspects of his professional life, while also giving us insight into his personal life.  We hear some entertaining stories from his earlier, hard-partying days, learn about his journey into sobriety, and see his late-in-life marriage to the love of his life, Chaz.

All of this is fascinating stuff and wonderfully interesting and enjoyable to learn.  But what sets Life Itself apart from a more standard biographical film about this film critic is the incredible access Mr. James had to Mr. Ebert in the difficult last year-or-so of his life.  In 2002 and 2003, Mr. Ebert was diagnosed with cancer, and between 2003 and 2008, he underwent multiple surgeries in an effort to remove the cancer and repair the damaged tissue in his jaw.  Mr. Ebert, the famous television movie-reviewer, lost the power of speech entirely, and eventually his entire lower jaw had to be removed.  (I still vividly remember this shocking Esquire magazine photograph that revealed to the world Mr. Ebert’s new face.)  Mr. Ebert lived like that for many years, using a computer to communicate and continuing to write.  Indeed, Mr. Ebert developed an extraordinary web-presence and the movie-reviews he posted on his blog were must-reads for movie fans across the globe, including myself.

Mr. James … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Guardians of the Galaxy

I had a feeling this one was gonna be good.  I’m glad I was right.

With Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios has blown the doors off of their cinematic universe in a big, big way.  This is a huge movie, filled with crazy alien planets and creatures and hugely original characters and situations.  The opening few minutes takes place on Earth, and then the entire rest of the film takes place in a far-off corner of the galaxy, a one-hundred-percent immersion in fantasy cosmic craziness.  (Man, this is what DC’s Green Lantern should have been like.)  The film is exciting and funny and it looks gorgeous.  I loved pretty much every minute of it.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was born on Earth but was kidnapped and stolen from the planet as a boy.  He grew up among a band of thieves and ragamuffins to become something of a Han Solo type, a roguish scoundrel with a heart of gold.  When hired to find a priceless orb, Quill decides to double-cross his boss, Yondu (Michael Rooker).  But it turns out that the villainous Ronan (Lee Pace) also wants the orb, so he sends his minion Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to obtain it as well.  Gamora also double-crosses her boss, and just as she confronts Quill the two run afoul of Rocket and Groot, two alien mercenaries looking to cash in on a good bounty.  The four all wind up apprehended by the Nova Corps (an intergalactic peace-keeping force) and thrown in jail.  Somehow, these four criminal — soon joined by a fifth, the hulking Drax — find themselves forming a tight bond with one another.  And with the fate of the universe at stake, this motley five-some have to do the thing none of them ever expected to do: become heroes.

Guardians of the Galaxy harkens back to the tone of the first Iron Man, a very silly, goofy sensibility crossed with a great fantasy action-adventure.  Iron Man had stakes, but it was also a whole heck of a lot of fun, and Guardians is exactly the same way.  The film is a riot, but this is not a spoof.  The characters are fleshed out, with fully-realized emotional arcs, and there is weight to the story being told.

Anyone who has been watching Parks and Recreation for the past six years knows that Chris Pratt is a star.  Now the whole world knows it.  Mr. Pratt has been perfectly cast as Peter Quill, the tough space-pirate who is also an innocent boy at heart.  Mr. Pratt absolutely dominates this movie, and he’s magnetic in every scene he’s in, even when standing along-side the ridiculously scene-stealing two-some of Rocket and Groot.  … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Jersey Boys

August 4th, 2014
,

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story didn’t make much of a splash when it was released back in 2007, but it think it’s a hysterical, brilliant skewering of the musical biopic genre.  It makes it hard to take any of these sorts of films seriously ever again after having seen it.  While watching Jersey Boys, Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the successful Broadway show, I found myself often thinking back to Walk Hard.  Jersey Boys isn’t bad.  It’s a competently made, enjoyable film.  But it’s so by the numbers, so formulaic in the way it hits all of the usual musical biopic cliche scenes — all the cliches so ruthlessly exposed in Walk Hard, right down to an ending set many years later at an awards show — that I found myself wishing I was watching Walk Hard, which at east had a sense of humor about the whole thing!

Jersey Boys tells the story of the rise and fall of the Four Seasons.  The film’s focus is on Frankie Valli, born Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, a nice kid from Jersey with a unique, gorgeous voice.  As the film unfolds we watch Frankie’s early struggles, the band’s breakthrough and enormous successes, and then the problems that tore the group apart.

Periodically, one of the characters will stop in the middle of the scene to address the audience.  I love that device (from what I have read, this was taken from the stage show).  The movie always comes to life when one of the characters stops the proceedings to give us his insight.  I wish it happened more often, or that the rest of the film had an ounce of the fun and playfulness that we see in those moments.

The best aspect of this film is the music.  Those Four Seasons songs were hits for a reason.  It’s huge fun to hear them recreated here, and the four actors cast as the Four Seasons sure do have their musical chops.  (Three of the four leads also appeared in the Broadway show.).   (I wonder why they didn’t hire the fourth!)

But while all of the leads are talented musically, I never found myself that invested in any of their characters.  This is the fault of the script and the directing, I feel.  All four of the Jersey Boys remain pretty one-dimensional throughout the film.   I was particularly disappointed in how superficial a portrayal we wound up getting of Frankie Valli.  I like the actor (a dead ringer for a young John Travolta), but his character is flat.  Frankie is presented as a nice, good boy in the beginning, and he is presented like that all the way through.  It feels like something of … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I have been troubled by the popularization, over the past several years, of the idea of a “reboot” as a way to keep franchises evergreen and continually making money for the corporations that own them.  I think there are times when a reboot is foolishly chosen whereas a continuation would have been preferable (Exhibit A: the Spider-Man films).  And there are lots of examples of Hollywood choosing to remake a great or well-liked film as a lazy way of capitalizing on a familiar brand rather than daring to create something new or original.  This usually results in a lame, lesser version of the original (See: Robocop, Total Recall, I could go on…)

But not all reboots are bad.  I loved Christopher Nolan’s reboot of Batman in Batman Begins, and while it is too early to tell whether the again-rebooted Batman we’ll see in Batman V. Superman will be any good, I think Warner Brothers has the right idea in giving us a new version of Batman rather than trying to keep telling stories in continuity from the end of Mr. Nolan’s Batman Trilogy.  (I love Joseph Gordon Levitt, but thank goodness the rumors — following the release of The Dark Knight Rises – that he would star in a new movie as Batman proved to be false.)

Which brings me to Planet of the Apes.  I have always been a HUGE fan of the original five films.  That first Planet of The Apes from 1968 is a true classic, a fantastic film that holds up extremely well today.  The four sequels that were then churned out in short succession (basically one a year!!) are increasingly bad, but I still love them.  Even though the budgets shrank and they had to come up with increasingly ludicrous ways to continue the series, I am always impressed by the creativity shown in the ways they found to continue the story, by the ambition on display in the way they continued to incorporate social allegory into the film’s stories, and by just how much innocent goofy fun can be had when watching the films today.  I love them all.

The other nice thing about the original five films is how complete they feel as a series.  The fifth film cleverly wrapped the story back around to the first film, giving the five films together the feel of a complete saga.  I never felt that this series cried out for a continuation or a reboot.   Tim Burton’s idiotic attempt to remake/reboot the series is best forgotten, and strong evidence for the pitfalls in trying to remake/re-envision a famous film series.

But then came 2011′s Rise of the Planetof the Apes.  It had a dumb title, … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews 22 Jump Street

July 14th, 2014

I enjoyed 21 Jump Street but not nearly as much as many others seemed to.  I remember reading rave reviews of the film, and I saw it on several best-of-the-year lists.  I’m not sure what others saw in the film that I didn’t.  I thought it was an amusing diversion but not much more than that. (Click here for my original review.)  Still, I was interested when I heard that Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum were reuniting for a sequel.  Their chemistry was the best part of the first film, and I was curious to see where they’d take things in a second installment.

I wasn’t blown away by 22 Jump Street, though I certainly had a good time watching it.  This is not a very clever comedy but it’s funny and good-natured enough that it’s hard to find too much fault with it for being the dumb comedy it clearly is setting out to be.

The film takes a smart approach to being a comedy sequel in that it goes out of its way to repeatedly poke fun at the very idea of a comedy sequel.  I like this self-referential, tongue in cheek attitude, and it gives the film an endearing sense of playfulness.  Even though they make this same joke way too many times.

In fact, the film has two main jokes, each of which it pounds into the ground through repetition followed by more repetition.  Those two jokes are 1) the idea that they’re making fun of being a sequel in which everyone just wants the exact same story of the first film told again, and 2) the idea that the arc of Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum)’s relationship, their “bromance,” is just like the arc of a love affair between a man and a woman.  Both ideas are funny and good fodder for humor.  But both also grow tiresome when the movie makes the hundredth joke about each of them.  We get it guys!!!  We get it!!

Nick Offerman and Ice Cube return from the first film and both have a lot of fun with their scenes, especially Ice Cube who is a hoot.  There are a few new actors of note in this installment, Particularly Amber Stevens as Maya, Schmidt’s new love-interest.  I wish she had more of an actual character to play.  Jillian Bell kills it as Maya’s roommate from hell.  She has one scene in particular with Jonah Hill, in which the two can’t seem to decide if they want to beat the shit out of one another or to make out, that is on its own a reason to go see this movie.

The funniest part of the … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews They Came Together

They Came Together was released to select theaters on June 27, but it never opened anywhere around me.  However, I was pleased to discover that the film is available to watch on VOD through iTunes and amazon.  Right now, from the comfort of your own home!  Just click here and watch!

You really should, too, because this send-up of romantic comedies by director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, Wanderlust) is fantastic and boasts an extraordinary ensemble of comedic performers.  The film stars Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler and also features Ed Helms, Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Jason Mantzoukas, Cobie Smulders, Christopher Meloni, Jack McBrayer, Michaela Watkins, Ken Marino, Melanie Lynskey, and many other fantastic men and women who you’ll probably recognize.  I cannot believe this film is not getting a wide release!  (Is the I-can’t-believe-they-got-away-with-it dirty title holding the film back??)

They Came Together tells the story of the torturous path to romance followed by made-for-one-another couple Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler).  I really don’t want to tell you anything more than that, because the fun of the film is watching hapless Joel and Molly stumble through every single cliche romantic comedy plot-twist that you could possibly think of.

It’s really quite brilliant.  There are some very specific references (I myself was very taken by the film’s version of the trip to meet the wealthy Christian in-laws from Annie Hall) and also a lot of more generalized messing around with the types of scenes we have all seen a million times in romantic comedies.  (The way Joel and his brother each give a tender “thanks” to one another after a heart-felt moment had me in stitches.)  There’s some nerdy clever humor in the film and also some very low-brow, silly humor.  There are a few very literal scenes that would have felt at home in Airplane! (such as the moment in which Joel and his bartender go through a “you can say that again” routine about ten times).  There are also some extremely random digressions (such as a stunningly bizarre sequence in which Joel’s boss is unable to unzip his super-hero Halloween costume when he has to go to the bathroom).  Not every one of these jokes lands, but there are always about ten more jokes coming right on its heels, so I found myself laughing pretty consistently throughout.

The film has a playful, anything-for-a-laugh approach that at times can make the film’s narrative feel choppy, but which I found quite endearing.  There’s one moment when we suddenly discover that Molly has a young son, which provides a great opportunity to get this film’s silly version of the classic romantic comedy moment in which … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Edge of Tomorrow

July 7th, 2014
,

While humanity wages a bitter war against a race of alien invaders nicknamed the Mimics, Major William Cage works for the military as a television-friendly recruiter, encouraging young men and women to enlist in the fight.  But when he finds himself assigned to the front, Cage panics and tries to bribe his way out of his orders.  This backfires spectacularly, resulting in his being stripped of his rank and assigned to a unit of front-line grunts.  Despite his protestations, he’s strapped into an exo-suit, a complex piece of military hardware he hasn’t a clue how to operate, and is dropped into the thick of the counter-offensive against the aliens.  But the offensive is a catastrophe, the human forces are wiped out, and Cage is killed.  Then Cage wakes up and it’s the morning of that day, the day of the offensive.  He lives the whole day again only to find himself once again killed by the aliens.  And then he wakes up again back at the start of that same day.  Over and over again.

Based on the Japanese novel All You Need is Kill, the film Edge of Tomorrow (written by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth, and directed by Doug Liman) is very much a sci-fi version of Groundhog Day.  This is something of a double-edged sword, because while the idea of an action-packed, hard sci-fi version of Groundhog Day is a tantalizing idea and a juicy hook, it also gives the film’s structure a bit of a feeling of been-there, done that.  Groundhog Day is a phenomenal film, and I don’t think any film could tell that particular story any better than it does.

Luckily, while Edge of Tomorrow also tells the story of a self-centered jerk who learns to become a better man while living the same day over and over and over again, it’s different enough that, to me, it succeeds in standing on its own two feet as its own story.

In this film, the survival of humanity rests in Cage’s hands, as he must find a way to not only understand what is happening to him but also to use that to in some way defeat the seemingly unbeatable aliens.  That gives the film a narrative momentum, and it means that the intensity continues to raise after each of Cage’s repeated deaths after deaths after deaths.  It also means that, whereas in Groundhog Day the explanation for Phil’s being trapped in a time-loop was unimportant, here it is of critical importance that Cage discovers what is happening to him and why, and how he can find a way to control it.

Tom Cruise is great in the film.  As always, Mr. Cruise … [continued]

 

“What’s the Last Thing You Remember?” Josh Reviews X-Men: Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film, released in 2000, was a revelation, proof to me that the complex, wonderful world of comic book super-heroes could indeed be brought to life on-screen in a fun, serious way.  There had been some great comic book movies before X-Men, of course.  Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) was and still remains a magnificent interpretation of the character, and I’ve always loved the flawed but still great Superman II (1980).  Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) also was a fun film that had a huge cultural impact.  But while those films were great, even as a kid they seemed to me like totally different versions of the characters I knew and loved.  These were the “movie” versions of those characters.  They were fun, but not at all like the “real” characters.  I also recognized early-on that, while all of those films had moments of grandeur and lots of visual-effects magic, they were severely constrained by the limits of physical reality.  The sprawling stories and epic nature of my favorite comic book series were far beyond the reach of any movie adaption.

Then came Bryan Singer’s X-Men, and suddenly the impossible seemed possible.  Mr. Singer and his team (including screenwriter David Hayter and many other uncredited writers who were involved with the finished screenplay) took the X-Men, possibly the most sprawling and epic of all the different comic-book series and universes, and brought them to life in a way that on the one hand preserved their complexity (the film is jam-packed with different characters, each with their own back-story and power-set and motivation) while also boiling down the decades of comic-book story-lines into simplified versions that worked on screen.  2000′s X-Men took the property seriously (more seriously than some of the various bad X-Men spin-off comic-books over the years had done), anchoring the story in Magneto’s past as a survivor of the Holocaust.  (The decision to open the film with a prologue set in Auschwitz is an incredibly gutsy move, and is I think a critical key to the film’s success, because that scene gives a weight to Magneto’s point of view.)

Almost a decade-and-a-half later, it’s easy to look back at X-Men and see everything that the film got wrong.  We’ve been blessed with some incredibly faithful comic book adaptations lately.  Looking at how well the Marvel Studios films have brought their characters to life, we can look back at X-Men and bemoan the dull, Matrix-inspired leather look to all the characters.  While the film nailed Wolverine, Professor X, and Magneto, we can complain about the characterizations that missed the mark (Storm, Cyclops).  We can comment how small-scale X-Men is, how it lacks in any real crazy … [continued]

 

The Tony Blair Trilogy Part III: The Special Relationship

May 22nd, 2014

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]

 

The Tony Blair Trilogy Part II: The Queen

May 14th, 2014
,

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]

 

Josh Reviews Noah — Part Two!

Yesterday I began my review/analysis of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah.  Let’s dive back in!

At the end of part 1, I was talking about how I enjoyed that Darren Aronofsky didn’t shy away from depicting the presence of God and miracles in his film.  In talking about miraculous things in the movie, I have to talk again about the Watchers.  I love the Watchers so much.  They’re hugely unexpected, easily the most fantastical aspect of a movie that is filled with miraculous goings-on.  The Watchers represent a hugely creative, original way to depict these divine beings.  The combination of the story-telling with the great visual effects meant that I truly believed in these creatures, and I loved the way Mr. Aronofsky created distinct, different personalities for several of the Watchers.  These creatures felt real, and I cared about them.  I felt sympathy for them when the story is told of their harsh punishment by God (one of several times in which the film impressively does not shy away from allowing us to question God’s harsh judgments), and I was quite invested in their final fates.  I also thought the creatures had a wonderful visual “look” that really impressed me.

In the film, as in all of Torah, there are no easy answers, and this elevates Noah far beyond most ordinary Biblical films and other historical/fantasy epics.  That’s another reason, by the way, that I often have no patience for the re-telling of Biblical stories in movies or on TV, because I find people shy away from the complexities and instead present a simple, one-dimensional understanding of the story.  The world was evil and so god destroyed it, end of story, there’s no question that was the right thing to do.  But if you believe these events happened (and even if you don’t, but still think of the Bible as a central religious text), you MUST wrestle more deeply with this story.  Was the death of all life on the planet truly necessary?  Were there no innocents whatsoever outside of Noah’s family?  Did all the children really have to die?  What about all of the animals other than the two-of-each species that were saved on board the ark?  Why did they all deserve to die?

These are deep, troubling questions, and ethical, thinking people must wrestle with these questions.  Even if all of the Bible was total fantasy, I would argue that these stories would STILL have value, as stories that must be wrestled with in order for each of us to find our own moral values, and our opinions of right and wrong (whether our conclusions be an understanding of the actions God is depicted as taking, or a … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Noah

Holy cow I was absolutely blown away by Darren Aronofsky’s Noah.  Settle in and get comfortable, because we have lots to discuss as I attempt to dig into my reactions to this film.  I thought my previous post, my analysis of the ultimately disappointing The Amazing Spider-Man 2, was voluminous, but this review got so lengthy I decided to split it into two parts, with part 2 coming tomorrow.

I wasn’t that impressed with the bombastic trailers for Noah, which made the film look like a superficial attempt to cross the Bible with The Lord of the Rings.  But I think Darren Aronofsky is a very talented filmmaker, and I had been reading for years how Noah was his passion project, so I was interested in seeing it. I must admit that I’ve never seen Pi, though it’s been on my must-watch-soon list for years.  But with The Fountain, The Wrestler, and Black Swan, Mr. Aronofsky has written & directed an impressive series of films, each of which is visually stunning and thematically complex and engaging.

Having now seen Noah, I can understand why this was a film that Mr. Aronofsky has wanted to make for years.  I can understand how, once he began to develop this very particular interpretation of the famous story from the Bible, he felt he just HAD to get it on screen.

I have never, ever seen anyone approach a filmed version of a Bible/Torah story (whether for movies or TV) in this fashion.  Religion has an important place in my life, but I find that I have zero patience for the usual depiction of Bible stories on screen.  They tend to have a boring sameness and schmaltzy piety that doesn’t capture my interest.  But with Noah, Mr. Aronofsky has shattered the usual the usual approach to depicting these stories.

First of all, he has approached the texts from Torah with great reverence and attention to detail.  Nearly all of the most surprising and unusual aspects of the film are taken from actual p’sukim (verses) of Torah.  Take, for instance, the Watchers, arguably the most fantastical element of the film.  These are enormous rock creatures that are revealed to be fallen angels who, as punishment for disobeying God, have been encrusted with the muck of the Earth.  I believe this is Mr. Aronofsky’s way of explaining Genesis 6:4, a verse immediately before the beginning of the flood story that refers to Nephilim, divine beings who existed on Earth.  Even more interestingly, there is the entire last third of the film, which is structured as an elaborate way to explain Genesis 9:20-27, a bizarre and enigmatic epilogue to the Noah story in … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Amazing Spider-Man 2

May 4th, 2014
,

Get comfy, folks, we have a lot to discuss with this one.

When The Amazing Spider-Man 2 works, it works very, very well.  There are aspects of this film that are truly amazing (pun very much intended).  And when The Amazing Spider-Man 2 doesn’t work, and boy are there a lot of times when it doesn’t work, it is horrendous.  If this film was just terrible from start-to-finish I could more easily write it off and ignore it, but there’s enough that is great that the aspects of the film that fail are hugely frustrating, one enormous missed opportunity after another.

To re-cap, Sam Raimi directed a trio of Spider-Man movies (starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst).  The first two were incredible, thrilling super-hero films in their own right and, to me, pretty much a note-perfect way of bringing the character of Spider-Man to life on screen.  The films had some flaws (for example, in the first film, having the faces of both Spider-Man and the Green Goblin hidden behind inexpressive masks impacted the drama of their scenes together), but in tone they GOT it.  In particular, both films have terrific endings.  I loved that, in the first film, Peter Parker DOESN’T get the girl.  And in the second film, after Peter and Mary Jane are finally brought together, the pain and fear we glimpse in Mary Jane’s eyes in that final shot is spectacular, a wonderfully complex and enigmatic way to end the film.  Unfortunately, Spider-Man 3 stunk big-time, as Rami famously fought with the studio, and the result was an over-bloated, nonsensical mess.  At that point, the studio decided they didn’t want to continue paying Raimi, Maguire, and Dunst’s big salaries, so they rebooted the series with a new cast and a new origin.  I would have preferred for them to not have started over again from zero.  Just re-cast the series and tell us some new, great Spider-Man adventures!  But that’s not what happened.  The result was The Amazing Spider-Man (click here for my review), a very mediocre film that had moments of greatness but over-all was forgettable.

I had been hoping that this sequel would be able to take what worked about The Amazing Spider-Man and and improve about what didn’t, but unfortunately this deeply flawed film only cements this rebooted Spider-Man series as an over-all disappointment.  This film is a big-time swing-and-a-miss.

So what works?

Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy.  Ms. Stone is perfectly cast.  She looks the part (and I loved the way her outfits in the film perfectly capture the classic Gwen Stacy look, especially that iconic white overcoat), and more importantly she breathes spectacular life into the character.  We can … [continued]

 

Milius

April 23rd, 2014

Directed by Zak Knutson and Joey Figueroa, the new documentary Milius shines a spotlight on a fascinating character, the screenwriter and director John Milius.  In the seventies, Milius was part of a tight group of friends and filmmakers — including George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg – who were about to revolutionize movie-making.  Milius found great success early-on as the screenwriter of the first two Dirty Harry movies.  He wrote the screenplay for Apocalypse Now, and he wrote Quint’s famous and powerful monologue about the U.S.S. Indianapolis in Jaws.  He eventually began directing films as well, and he wrote and directed Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn.

This documentary is a fascinating and well-researched look at Mr. Milus’ life and career.  The early sections of the film chart Milus’ youth and how he discovered a love of film when his asthma washed him out of the military.  We dive deeply into the friendship between film-school buddies Lucas, Coppola, and Spielberg, and we get some great stories from the making of Mr. Milius’ films.

But, of course, what’s really great about Milius is the look at the character of John Milius himself.  Mr. Milius is a man about whom there are a lot of legends in Hollywood.  This big, bearded, bear of a man was well-known as a garrulous raconteur and outspoken personality.  He was said to be opinionated and stubborn, a gun-toting, motorcycle-riding right-winger.  (Rumor has it that John Goodman’s performance as Walter in The Big Lebowski was based directly on Milius.  Mr. Goodman denies that in the film, though one of my favorite moments in the documentary is when Mr. Milius’ kids laughingly recount seeing that movie for the first time and being stunned by the apparent recreation of their dad.)

The documentary is filled with great stories about John Milius.  We hear the famous tale of him pulling a gun on a studio exec during a meeting, and many others.  While I knew the famous story of Mr. Milius’ writing Quint’s speech for Jaws, I was also interested to learn how many other films he’d done uncredited script-doctoring for.  Most notably, it seems that Mr. Milius is responsible for many of Sean Connery’s best speeches in The Hunt for Red October.  Who knew??

It’s fascinating to watch the many interview subjects express different opinions as to whether the character that Milius presented to the world was really who he was or just that, a character he was putting on.

I was very impressed by the wealth of Hollywood power-players interviewed for the film.  Many well-known names appear to talk about Milius, including George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Martin … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Grand Budapest Hotel

April 21st, 2014
,

Ever since seeing The Royal Tenenbaums in theatres and being absolutely blown away, I’ve been a big fan of Wes Anderson.  Over the last few years, the filmmaker has been on a particularly special, can’t-do-any-wrong winning streak.  I thought Fantastic Mr. Fox was his strongest film since The Royal Tenenbaums (click here for my original review), then I fell just as deeply in love with Moonrise Kingdom (click here for my review), and now I’m here to tell you that his latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is an equally magnificent concoction.

The film chronicles the bond that forms between Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes), the refined concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel — an expensive hotel high in the mountains of the fictional European nation of Zubrowka — and the young lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori).  The young Zero idolizes Gustav, who takes the lobby boy under his wing.  Gustav is a master of his profession, with a sixth sense as to how to provide his customers with what they need before they even realize they need it.  He also has a habit of sleeping with the wealthy, elderly women who frequent the hotel.  When one of his paramours, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, under some impressive old-age make-up) dies, she leaves much of her estate to Gustav in her will (including, most notably, a beloved family heirloom, the painting called “Boy with Apple”).  This, of course, irritates her nasty children, who conspire to cause much trouble for the concierge.  

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a delightful romp, filled with a lot of humor and some terrific set-pieces.  The film is a historical drama and a murder mystery and a chase film and a prison break story and much more, all at once.  It’s also a surprisingly winsome, bittersweet piece of nostalgia for an idealized world that has passed.  The film is structured as a series of stories within stories, a structure than not only gives the film a bit of mind-bending fun but also emphasizes the nostalgic nature of the story being told.  We’re reminded repeatedly that the world of Gustav H. no longer exists, and that drapes the story in a layer of sadness, no matter how much fun we’re having as we watch his adventures.  I love the extra bit of emotional power that gives to the proceedings, and I was particularly taken by the specific note upon which Mr. Anderson chose to end the film.  It’s a surprisingly somber moment, and I loved it.

Wes Anderson has developed a very distinct visual style, and part of the secret of the success of his last several films in particular has been how well … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Captain America: The Winter Soldier

April 7th, 2014
, ,

As Marvel Studios impresses yet again with another high quality super-hero film, one that honors and respects the source material while also being accessible to newbies and entertaining as a film in its own right, it’s easy to forget what a miracle this is.  There are so many ways that a character like Captain America could have been done so wrong.  Really, it’s so simple to imagine a million different terrible, pain-inducing versions of a Captain America movie.  So once again, bravo to Marvel mastermind Kevine Feige and his huge team of collaborators for giving life to another dynamite film.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not perfect, but it’s a rollickingly entertaining film that I think would be fun for kids and adults alike.  After The Avengers (click here for my review), I wondered if I could ever again be satisfied by these heroes’ solo films, but with the one-two-three punch of Iron Man Three (click here for my review), Thor: The Dark World (click here for my review), and now Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I must say with no small degree of admiration that so far Marvel’s Phase Two (the films taking place after The Avengers and leading up to the next Avengers film, The Avengers: Age of Ultron) has been far more consistent than the much-admired Phase One.

Having been awoken in the twenty-first century, Captain America has continued to fight the good fight as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., but the array of cloak-and-dagger missions has left Steve Rogers feeling somewhat dissatisfied.  When he learns of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new plan to use advanced technology and weaponry to take their strategy of eliminating threats before they happen to a whole new level, his dissatisfaction turns to distrust.  Soon Captain America finds himself on-the-run, a fugitive from S.H.I.E.L.D., and facing a powerful new enemy in the form of the Winter Soldier, a cybernetically-enhanced mercenary with a shocking tie to Cap’s past.

In a dramatic and savvy tonal shift from Captain America: The First Avenger’s nostalgic, pulp adventure tone, this sequel is a super-hero movie meets political thriller.  This is a really smart way to thrown Cap into a whole new kind of adventure in which the character’s inherent honesty and nobility is forced to confront the sticky complexity of twenty-first century threats to our freedom.  I loved this aspect of the film, and only wish the script had dug a little deeper into those shades of grey before spelling out for us exactly who the bad guys are.

Chris Evans is again fantastic as Steve Rogers/Captain America.  Probably the most important key to the success of all these Marvel movies has been … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2013: The Bling Ring

March 31st, 2014
,

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, The Bling Ring is loosely based on the true story of a group of California teenagers who, in 2008-09, robbed the homes of a number of Hollywood celebrities including Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson, and others.

Marc is a quiet boy, a new student at a California high school.  He makes friends with a girl, Rebecca, and the two of them start committing small crimes, from breaking into parked cars to, eventually, breaking into the house of one of Marc’s out-of-town acquaintances.  They realize they can do the same thing to the homes of celebrities by simply using the internet to determine when they’ll be out of town.  They and a group of other girls start breaking into the homes of various celebrities and stealing some of their clothes, shoes, jewelry, and more.  Eventually the crimes are reported and a media frenzy grows around “The Bling Ring.”

I’ve enjoyed all of Sofia Coppola’s films that I have seen, though there is a coldness I’ve found to most of them, a distance between the audience and the characters/events on-screen.  I find that I like her movies intellectually more than I love them.  I respect them as the works of a talented filmmaker, more than I feel an emotional attachment to them.  I found that to be very much the case with The Bling Ring.  I never quite found myself engaged with the characters on screen, though I thought the performances by the actors were all very solid, and I was fascinated by the film’s many potent critiques of today’s media-obsessed culture.

The film is a fascinating commentary on the way our culture is obsessed with celebrity.  Marc and Rebecca and their friends want to be like the celebrities they worship, and don’t see anything morally wrong about breaking into their homes and stealing their stuff.  These celebrities are in the public eye, therefore they belong, in a way, to these kids.  Paris Hilton’s things are already their things.  They (the kids) have a perfect right to waltz into these celebrities’ homes and take their things.  This is the idea of napster writ large.  These things are ours, we don’t have to pay for them.  We already own them.  More than that, we are ENTITLED to them.

These issues of celebrity and their public/private lives is also all tangled up with these kids’ connection to social media.  They follow these celebrities and learn all about them, including tracking their comings and goings, using the internet and social media.  Then, after breaking into their homes and stealing their stuff, they post photos of themselves on facebook wearing the stolen items.  These kids don’t think twice about … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2013: Drinking Buddies

March 28th, 2014

Written and directed by Joe Swanberg, Drinking Buddies has a phenomenal cast and a great premise.  Set in the world of micro-breweries, the film charts the romantic, beer-fueled entanglements of four friends.  Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) work together at a small craft brewery, and the two have a tight friendship and a wonderful flirtatious energy.  To the audience it is immediately clear that these two would be a fantastic match.  But both are seeing other people.  Luke has a long-time girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick), while Kate has recently started dating a slightly older man, Chris (Ron Livingston).  Will a weekend the four spend together up at Chris’ family’s cottage in the woods solidify or shatter these various friendships and romantic relationships?

Drinking Buddies is a very different movie than I was expecting it to be, and while that is totally on me, I had a hard time shaking that dissatisfaction as I watched the film.  I was expecting a raucous, fun comedy — the film equivalent of a happy-go-luck, booze-filled night out with buddies.  But the film is a far more serious, painful story of unfulfilling relationships.  It’s the film equivalent of the sad, lonely morning after.

As a rich character study, the film succeeds wildly.  And don’t get me wrong, there are definitely some laughs.  But for most of the run-time the film is an unflinchingly honest, often-painful look at a series of flawed people who are all flailing about, trying to figure out what (and who) they want.  I spent the movie rooting for Luke and Kate to realize that they are perfect for one another, but if you go in expecting the type of happy ending that romantic comedies will provide, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

Personally, I have strongly mixed feelings about this.  I love that Drinking Buddies eschews the usual, stupid romantic comedy plot-developments.  And I applaud Mr. Swanberg’s creation of a film that is far more honest and real.  In that he succeeded with great skill.  But damn would I have preferred a little more lightness, a little more happiness, particularly in the ending.

The cast is uniformly phenomenal.  Anna Kendirck and Ron Livingston are, I feel, reliably great.  (I just wish Mr. Livingston was in more of the film.  Of the four leads, he gets by far the least amount of screen time.)  While Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson are certainly big names and very successful actors at this point, I have never clicked in to their previous performances the way I did with both of them in this film.  Well, I did quite enjoy Mr. Johnson in Safety Not Guaranteed (click here for my review), but … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews 300: Rise of an Empire

March 26th, 2014

Im preparation for seeing 300: Rise of an Empire, I recently went back and re-watched Zack Snder’s film 300 for the first time in a while.  While 300 might not be a GREAT film, I do continue to love it.  I’m impressed by Zack Snyder’s creativity in creating an extraordinarily faithful adaptation of Frank Miller’s original graphic novel.  While many of the stylistic devices used by Mr. Snyder are now overly familiar, when 300 was first released I found them to be incredibly original and inventive, a delightful way to bring the extraordinary images of Frank Miller’s panels to life on a movie screen.  Rather than trying to make this story more realistic, Mr. Snyder leaned heavily into the fantasy of Mr. Miller’s graphic novel.  Every frame of 300 has been manipulated digitally to create an exaggerated, fantastical world for this crazy story.  The result is absolutely gorgeous, and a movie that, in my mind, remains a rather unique and wonderful creation.

It’s not a film for everyone, that’s for sure.  There’s an overload of sex and violence that I could see being off-putting to many.  I also think the film is slightly troubling in its embrace of the Spartans (as presented in the film, I’m not going to analyze the story’s historical accuracy) and their brutal warrior creed.  This society that is presented in the film as an idealized, heroic nation is, frankly, quite horrifying to me.  These are a people who kill any baby they find slightly imperfect, who take male children from their mothers to indoctrinate them into a culture of war and violence, and who aspire to nothing more than a Klingon-like “beautiful death” in battle.  This is a hard group of people to root for!  (This was an issue with Mr. Miller’s original story as well.)  But I still find it impossible not to get swept up in the big, crazy, fantastical epic that is the film.

As much as I enjoy 300, it’s not a movie I ever felt cried out for a sequel.  And even if a sequel might once have been appealing, as the release of 300: Rise of an Empire drew near, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the time for a sequel had passed.  It’s been eight years since the release of Zack Snyder’s 300, and, as I noted above, many of the stylistic devices he used in the film (the slow-motion, the speed-ramping, the digital manipulation of the imagery) have now become overused to the point of irrelevancy.

Additionally, while 300 was a direct adaptation of a graphic novel, the story for this sequel is entirely new.  The story is credited to be based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Monuments Men

March 19th, 2014
,

Two of the films George Clooney has directed are among my very favorite films.  I think his debut film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, is probably in my top 20-30 films of all time.  It’s a deliriously clever, mind-bending piece of work, with a dynamite script by Charlie Kaufman and a killer performance by Sam Rockwell in the leading role.  Then there’s Good Night, and Good Luck, a powerful look back at Edward R. Murrow’s challenging of Senator Joseph McCarthy with another killer performance by an actor in the lead role, in this case David Strathairn as Murrow.

I cannot believe that the same person who directed those two films directed the flat, disappointing The Monuments Men.  (Nor can I believe that the film was written by the same writing team, Mr. Clooney and Grant Heslov, who wrote Good Night, and Good Luck.)

The Monuments Men is based on a true story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program, an effort by the allies to find and safeguard important works of art and culture in danger of being stolen and/or destroyed by the Nazis during WWII.  (The film is based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Heroes, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter.)  The film stars Mr. Clooney, along with Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, and Cate Blanchett.

Based on a fascinating, real-life story, and with such incredible talent in front of and behind the camera, The Monuments Men should have been a hoot.  Instead, puzzlingly, it’s a flat, instantly-forgettable dud.  There’s nothing bad in the film, it’s just that there’s nothing particularly good in the film either.

At no point did I feel any real sense of momentum and adventure in the film.  At no point was I sucked into the drama of the story, of the beat-the-clock chase for hidden artwork before it could be stolen or destroyed.  At no point did the fate-of-the-world drama of the Second World War, within which this small group of Allied officers was operating, bring any sort of life or tension to the film’s story.  Instead, what we get are a series of disconnected, mildly diverting anecdotes with these different characters scattered in different places across Europe.  (Another disappointment for me with the film, though perhaps one that was true-to-life, was that immediately after this great group of actors was assembled at the start of the movie, they’re immediately divided up and seldom seen again all together.  I thought we’d have a lot of fun watching this amazing cast interact with one another, but that was not to be.)

Speaking of the cast, here … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Her

March 17th, 2014
, ,

There’s no doubt in my mind that Spike Jonze is one of the very finest filmmakers working today.  Like most of the rest of the world, I was quite taken by his loopy first film, 1999′s Being John Malkovich (I can’t believe it came out so long ago — I need to find the time to see that great film again some-time soon!), and I loved Adaptation even more (click here for my review).  But it was his 2009 adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are that shot my appreciation of Mr. Jonze’s skills into the stratosphere.  I absolutely adored that film (click here for my review), and I named it as my very favorite film of the year.  I was so taken by Mr. Jonze’s singular vision in adapting that story.  I can’t imagine any other director creating such a remarkably tender, poignant piece of work.

So I’ve obviously been looking forward to Mr. Jonze’s next film for some time.  And while Her might not have been, for me, at the level of Where the Wild Things Are, I still found it to be a riveting piece of work, and another gorgeous, emotional film from this talented director.  (And writer.  Mr. Jonze also wrote the film, his first time as a solo-screenwriter.)

Set in the not-too-distant-future, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore.  Theodore seems a nice young man, and he is a talented writer who does well at his small-time job.  But he is lonely.  Taken by an advertisement he sees for a new operating system with an artificial intelligence, Theodore purchases the system and finds that his life quickly begins to be changed by the vivacious new personality in his life (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who names herself Samantha.  Theodore and Samantha’s bond gradually becomes more intimate, and the film charts the course of the relationship between the two.

I was quite struck by the gentle love story Mr. Jonze has created with this film.  There’s a sci-fi hook (“Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his cell phone!”) and there is certainly some commentary in the film about the direction of our electronics-obsessed culture.  Will our technology help connect us to one another, or make us more distant from each other?  This is not a “message” film, but Theodore’s job (writing intimate letters to loved ones from people who can’t or won’t write them themselves) is a powerful statement as to where Mr. Jonze might stand on that particular debate.  Even more striking than that are several memorable long-shots, scattered throughout the film, in which we see crowds of people moving (down streets, through halls), with everyone’s eyes glued to their phone/mobile … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Philomena

February 28th, 2014

Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, the film Philomena tells the based-on-a-true-story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an elderly Irish woman.  Fifty years earlier, she became pregnant as a young girl and was sent to an Irish Catholic convent.  She delivered the baby, and was forced to work in the convent for several years to pay off her debt, while the nuns gave her son up for adoption without her consent.  Philomena has longed her whole life to be reunited with her son, but the nuns in the convent have claimed to be unable to help her locate her boy.  Circumstances lead Philomena’s path to cross with that of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a politician who was recently forced out of his government job.  Martin decides to write an article about Philomena and, to further that article, he sets out to help her find her son.  The film chronicles their efforts, and the unlikely friendship that develops between the pair.

The film adaptation was written by Mr. Coogan and Jeff Pope, and directed by Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, The Deal, The Queen).  It’s a lovely piece of work that manages to balance an endearing sense of good-humor and light-heartedness with the quite terrible story of Philomena’s past.  Stephen Frears’ work has often demonstrated his ability to  balance humor with a compelling dramatic story, and his light touch proves to be exactly the right approach to this material.

Of course, the film is anchored by the terrific performance of the two leads: Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.  Mr. Coogan is an exquisite master of making arrogant self-centeredness extremely amusing and likable.  Ms. Dench, meanwhile, is similarly able to mine enormous humor from Philomena’s innocence and boundless optimism, while also able to effortlessly portray Philomena’s powerful heartbreak at the long-ago loss of her son.

Both are able to be extremely funny without ever undercutting the inherent drama and pathos of the story being told.  I was also pleased that the film resists the urge to make them two buddy-buddy too quickly, and avoids the usual narrative shorthand of having each character change the other for the better.  There’s no “you make me want to be a better man” sort of speech, thank goodness.  Martin Sixsmith continues to be his prickly self right up to the end of the movie, and Philomena similarly maintains her optimism and idiosyncrasy.  But the two do affect one another, they are each able to help the other, and their relationship does wind up mattering to them both.  The film walks this fine line rather effortlessly, investing the audience in the two characters’ relationship without laying on … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2013: The Kings of Summer

February 10th, 2014
,

This film didn’t quite make my Best Movies of 2013 list, but it was nevertheless one of my favorites of the many 2013 films I saw in late December as I prepared my end-of-the-year best-of lists.

The Kings of Summer (written by Chris Galletta and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts) is a small film that tells the story of one impactful summer in the lives of three oddball friends.  Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) have been friends for years.  Both of the teenaged boys are miserable in their home-lives, albeit for opposite reasons.  Joe’s single father (Nick Offerman) is domineering and borderline cruel, while Patrick’s parents (played by Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) are (to him, at least) cloyingly, nauseatingly loving and over-attentive.  The two boys hatch a crazy scheme to both run away from home and build a house of their own, together, deep in the woods where there parents will be unable to find them.  It seems insane, but the boys go through with it and actually succeed in constructing a ramshackle domicile for themselves out in the woods.  Their new house gets a third house-mate in the form of the skinny, quiet, and very weird boy Biaggio (Moises Arias), who has attached himself to Joe and Patrick.

The film’s bizarre opening scene is extremely memorable.  We see one boy (who we’ll later discover is Biaggio) doing a crazy dance on top of a huge pipeline, while two other two boys (who we’ll later see are Joe and Patrick) provide percussion by banging on the metal pipe.  It’s a gloriously weird scene which really grabbed my attention — how could I not continue watching to determine just what the heck is going on??  It also proved to be a wonderful example of the film’s somewhat comic, very off-kilter tone.

The film is, for the most part, a serious story as the three kids wrestle with growing up, their relationships with their parents, their relationships with girls, and their relationships with one another.  There is also a lot comedy to be found in the misadventures of the boys as their story unfolds.  But my over-all sense of The Kings of Summer is of a film that is delightfully, gloriously weird.  The central conceit — that these boys could actually succeed in building a sort-of house for themselves to secretly live in — is certainly outlandish, and gives the film a sense of being something of a fairy tale.  In my opinion the film’s most endearing quality is the way it dives deeply into the lives of these three boys — Joe, Patrick, and Biaggio — while not shying away from the way in which teenage boys can … [continued]

 

Catching Up on 2013: Drew: The Man Behind The Poster

February 3rd, 2014
,

There’s a particular kind of nerd who knows the name Drew Struzan.

Being a movie-lover, sci-fi fan, and wannabe-illustrator for as long as I can remember, I knew of Mr. Struzan since an early age.  Prints of his work have adorned by room/apartment/house for years and years!

Mr. Struzan is one of if not the very best movie poster illustrators who ever lived.  Mr. Struzan has illustrated so many iconic movie posters, including all of the Back to the Future films and all of the Indiana Jones films (his awesome teaser poster was the only good thing about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — I had that poster hanging up for months, only to take it down in shame the day after I finally saw the film).  Mr. Struzan illustrated the posters for many of the Star Wars films (one of the posters for the original film, the iconic original Revenge of the Jedi poster, and all of the posters for the Special Edition re-releases and the prequel trilogy) along with posters for John Carpenter’s The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China, for the first four Police Academy films, Steven Spielberg’s Hook, the first Harry Potter film, and Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile (not to mention some glorious work for the DVD release of Mr. Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption.)  And believe me, that list just barely begins to scratch the surface!

Drew: The Man Behind the Poster is a documentary, directed by Erik Sharkey, that explores Mr. Struzan’s life and career and that spends time exploring the work Mr. Struzan did on all of those famous movies that I listed above (and many more). Quite a wealth of filmmakers and actors are interviewed, and while perhaps only a certain slice of nerds know Drew Struzan’s name, it’s cool to see that we are joined by many big-time Hollywood stars who know and love Mr. Struzan’s work.  I have Drew Strzan’s work hanging in my home — so too does George Lucas!!  It’s a lot of fun to see how genuinely giddy, say, Michael J. Fox gets when discussing Mr. Struzan’s work.  Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have a lot to say, as does Harrison Ford, who has been painted by Mr. Struzan a LOT (all of the Indy and Star Wars posters over the years, and, although Mr. Struzan didn’t do the original Blade Runner poster, he has done many paintings connected to that film in the years since, including the iconic image used for the film’s blu-ray release).

Frank Darabont and Guillermo del Toro have a lot to say about their love for Mr. Struzan’s work, and, … [continued]

 

Catching Up On 2013: Josh Reviews 42

As has become my habit in recent years, during the final few weeks of December and the first few weeks of January, before writing my Best of the Year lists, I try to catch up on as many of the films I wanted to see during the year but for whatever reason missed.  I’ll be posting my reviews of these films in a series of “Catching Up On 2013″ posts, and of course I hope you enjoyed my Best Movies of 2013 list!

Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, 42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to ever play baseball in the Major Leagues.  (42 was, of course, the number that Jackie Robinson wore on his uniform.)  The film focuses on two seasons: 1947, Mr. Robinson’s first season playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the previous year, 1946, in which Mr. Robinson played for the Dodgers’ farm team, the Montreal Royals.

The film centers on Robinson’s struggle to overcome staggering racism from his teammates, other baseball players, many fans, and others.  It also focuses on the relationship and eventual friendship that formed between Robinson and the Dodgers’ gruff owner Branch Rickie, the man who chose to bring Jackie to the big leagues.

That relationship was my favorite aspect of the film, mostly because of a fantastic performance by Harrison Ford.  (And when was the last time I got excited about a Harrison Ford performance???  OK, just last week I wrote that I really loved Mr. Ford’s cameo in Anchorman 2, but that hardly counts.  I have argued before on this site that you need to go back twenty years, to 1994′s Clear and Present Danger, to find a really great Harrison Ford performance, and I stand by that.)  But somehow, Mr. Ford came alive in this role, really biting into the character of this curmudgeon with a heart of gold. It’s nice to see Harrison Ford, at 71 years of age, actually playing a character who is meant to come across as old.  Under a lot of makeup and with the crotchety voice that Mr. Ford puts on, Branch Rickie comes close to being a caricature, but the performance stays on the right side of that line and becomes, instead, a really fun character.

Chadwick Boseman does a fine job in the lead role of Jackie Robinson.  This is a very heroic depiction of Jackie, a and the film doesn’t really show us any flaws that the real Mr. Robinson might have had.  That limits, somewhat, the material that Mr. Boseman has to play, but nevertheless I thought he turned in a very strong performance that on the one hand lived up to this … [continued]

 

The Top 15 Movies of 2013 — Part Three!

Click here for part one of my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2013, and click here for part two!  And now, let’s complete my list:

The_Wolf_of_Wall_Street

5. The Wolf of Wall Street This is a very polarizing film.  I’ve had a lot of debates with folks ever since I published my very positive review of the film.  I stand by every word I wrote.  This is Martin Scorsese back at the very top of his game, telling a raucously entertaining but also fiercely angry story about Wall Street scumbags.  This is an epic film, three hours long, but I felt that it flew by and felt like a film half its run-time, so engaged was I by the story unfolding before me.  There are some spectacular performances in this film, particularly a very, very funny Jonah Hill and an absolutely magnetic Leonardo DiCaprio, using every watt of his charisma to show us how this man, Jordan Belfort, rose from nothing to become a man of huge wealth, all on the backs of others.  This is a film that might offend some, as Mr. Scorsese and his team don’t flinch away from showing us the sex-and-drugs-fueled antics of Jordan and his cronies.  How great is it that 71-year-old Martin Scorsese is still making movies that can push people’s buttons!  Personally, I was spellbound by the bravura filmmaking on display.  (Click here for my original review.)

GRAVITY

4. Gravity Speaking of bravura filmmaking: Alfonso Cuaron’s thrilling survival story in outer space is a visual effects extravaganza, gloriously beautiful and dazzlingly ambitious.  Mr. Cuaron’s filmmaking is beyond anything I have ever seen before, taking full advantage of the 3-D to pull the audience right into the middle of the story.  Watching this story unfold in IMAX 3-D was a riveting experience.  Mr. Cuaron’s lengthy, seemingly uninterrupted takes are incredibly inventive and impressive from a filmmaking aspect, but they’re not just empty cinematic exercises — they give this fantastical, sci-fi story a you-are-right-there-in-the-middle-of-it reality that is extraordinary.  All of this would be useless, though, were not this sci-fi story balanced by a small-scale, deeply personal tale of one woman’s struggle to find a reason for living again in the wake of grief, and were it not anchored by Sandra Bullock’s gripping, gritty performance (and great supporting work from George Clooney).  This is a marvelously original movie that pushed the boundaries of cinema while also telling a heart-pumpingly engaging story.  I loved it.  (Click here for my original review.)

MuchAdoAboutNothing.cropped

3. Much Ado About Nothing Joss Whedon’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, filmed on a low budget over twelve days in Mr. Whedon’s … [continued]

 

The Top 15 Movies of 2013 — Part Two!

Yesterday I began my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2013!  Click here for part one.

AP Film Review Iron Man 3

10. Iron Man Three Like Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man Three was a fun film that not only served as an effective sequel to its particular series, but also as a follow-up to The Avengers and a further expansion of the over-all Marvel movie universe.  More importantly even than that, Iron Man Three told an exciting action/adventure story that was deeply rooted in the stories of the characters, and that (after the somewhat disappointing Iron Man 2) successfully returned to the light, funny-but-still-telling-a-serious-story tone that the first Iron Man film nailed so dramatically.  As a fanatical fan of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, I was thrilled to see the reunion of Robert Downey Jr. with Shane Black, who directed and co-wrote this film.  There seems to be a wonderful magic that occurs when those two men work together.  Also, Ben Kingsley’s work as The Mandarin could be one of the best supporting performances in a Marvel Studios movie so far.  So great.  And the post-credits scene?  Perfection.  (Click here for my original review.)

This-Is-The-End.01.cropped

9. This is The End Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared made me fall in love with the work of Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, and with many of the tremendously talented young performers who have appeared over and over again in Mr. Apatow’s work, and also over the years in many other projects of their own.  These guys have been in a lot of great films, and also, occasionally, in some lesser films in which they have coasted a bit on the audience’s fondness for their characters.  This is The End takes perfect advantage of that fondness, resulting in an absolutely hilarious, madcap story of this group of friends (Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, and Craig Robinson, all playing themselves) attempting to survive the end of the world.  There’s a lot of energy at the start of the film from all of the famous cameos (including but not limited to: Michael Cera, Paul Rudd, Aziz Ansari, David Krumholtz, Mindy Kaling, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Martin Starr), and of course from the fun of watching all of those famous people die horribly.  But the film gets even better once we wind up with just this group of boys, trapped together in the ruins of James Franco’s house.  These guys have a lot of fun at one another’s expense, and the film continually surprised me with its crazy comedic digressions, from the Be Kind, Rewind-style home-made Pineapple Express 2 trailer to The Exorcism of Jonah Hill.  Other than … [continued]

 

The Top 15 Movies of 2013 — Part One!

Hello, everyone!  I have been working very hard over the past several weeks to prepare all of my annual Best of 2013 lists!  First up: my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2013!

I saw a lot of movies in 2013, and in particular, over the past month-or-so I have been scrambling to see not only all of the big end-of-the-year releases, but also to try to catch up on as many 2013 movies that I had missed as possible.  Even so, there are still a number of 2013 films that I just wasn’t able to find the time to see, including but not limited to: Saving Mr. Banks, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Only God Forgives, Short Term 12, Stories We Tell, Prince Avalanche, Nebraska, Rush, Under The Skin, and more.  I also have yet to see Spike Jonze’s new film Her, which hasn’t been released here in the Boston area as of this writing.  (It opened in NYC and LA at the very end of December, but wasn’t released anywhere else until this week.  Though many people included Her on their end-of-the-year best-of lists, I sort of feel like, if I enjoy it, it should go on 2014′s list!  But we’ll see.)  So, anyways, if you loved one of those films and wish it was on my list, my apologies!

There were a lot of movies that I enjoyed in 2013 that didn’t make this list.  These include: Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, All is Lost, Man of Steel, The Heat, Elysium, Machete Kills, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Frances Ha, The Kings of Summer, 42, The Bling Ring, and others.  (That last bunch of films were among the many movies I watched in the last few weeks, as part of my “Catching Up on 2013″ project.  I hope to post reviews of all those films, and more, on the site in the coming weeks.)

But for now, without any further delay, let’s dive into my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2013!

Drew.TheManBehindThePoster.01

15. Drew: The Man Behind the Poster This is the very last film I saw, just last week, before making my final decisions about this list.  It’s a documentary about the extraordinarily-talented Drew Struzan, one of if not the very best movie poster illustrators who ever lived.  Mr. Struzan has illustrated so many iconic movie posters: for all of the Back to the Future films, for all of the Indiana Jones films, and for many of the Star Wars films (one of the posters for the original film, the iconic original Revenge of the Jedi poster, and all of the posters … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

January 13th, 2014
,

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire improves on the first film in almost every way.  I have never read the books, so I am not evaluating these films based on any comparisons to the original novel.  I thought the first film, released two years ago, was perfectly adequate, a fine adventure story though not very memorable beyond that.  I didn’t find it to be particularly intense or emotional.  My favorite aspect of the film was the ending, which I felt was a wonderfully complex, enigmatic beat on which to end a big budget piece of Hollywood entertainment.  (Click here for my original review.)

With a new director, Francis Lawrence, at the helm, I am delighted to report that here in the sequel, the story of The Hunger Games has been elevated to the level they were clearly aiming for with the first film.  This is a film with wonderful visual effects and a riveting action/adventure story, but one that is grounded in compelling personal stories and, more intesting even than that, a larger story of a society ruled by the very top .001 percent, while the vast majority, the downtrodden, are on the verge of deciding that they are not going to take it anymore.  This story of a people’s revolution in a dystopian future is riveting (far more interesting to me than the Hunger Games competition itself in the film).  The very best sci-fi presents us with a warped but familiar version of a world that could be our own, and there is much about the story of Catching Fire that is extraordinarily of the moment.  Now, I don’t want to overstate things — Catching Fire is certainly not one of the best sci-fi films I have ever seen.  But I found it to be extremely rich and complex a piece of entertainment, with a depth that I wasn’t anticipating based on the first film.

The best decision made by the film-makers (and I assume this was the case with the original novel as well) is the amount of time spent in the first half exploring the repercussions of the events of the first film, both on Katniss Everdeen herself and on the society as a whole.  I loved the first half of this film.  I was hugely surprised by how long it took for Katniss and the other victors to wind up back in the Hunger Games competition.  That first half of the film sets the stakes, both for Katniss personally and for the world around her.  I like that Katniss is not presented as a super-hero.  She is scarred by the events of the first film, haunted by nightmares, and she is not eager to become … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis is another home run from the Coen Brothers.  I found the film to be emotionally wrenching, an unflinching look at the pain, heartbreak, and rejection that so often accompanies the men and women who try to create art (be that music, paintings, film, etc.).  It’s a film that is deeply depressing, and yet I was absolutely entranced by the story that was unfolding before me.

Set in 1961, the film chronicles a tumultuous week in the life of Llewyn Davis, a young folk-singer.  Llewyn is able to scrape together gigs here and there playing his music, but he doesn’t have the money to have a home or even many worldly possessions other than his guitar.  He crashes on the couches of various friends and acquaintances, staying with each host for just a day or two here and there, as long as he can get away with before he gets on their nerves.  Llewyn is a screw-up.  He seems to have bungled most of his personal relationships (and we see him do a significant amount of additional bungling in the week chronicled in the film), and he hasn’t found the musical success he strives for.  I found Llewyn to be a sympathetic figure, even though the Coens seem to relish letting us see just what a self-centered nincompoop he can be.  Writing the other day about American Hustle, I commented that a film can be enjoyable even when anchored by an unlikable character, and I think that Inside Llewyn Davis is a strong example of that particular sub-genre.

I don’t think I’ve ever before seen Oscar Isaac in a film, but I’ll be paying attention from here on out.  Mr. Isaac is phenomenal as the titular Llewyn Davis.  His heavy-lidded eyes seem to reflect back at us uncounted moments of sorrow and disappointment in Llewyn’s life.  Llewyn comments, late in the film, that he’s just so tired, and it’s not simply a lack of a good night’s sleep in a real bed that he is lamenting.  Llewyn is a man who has been beaten down, and Mr. Isaac smartly underplays the role, finding a million quiet ways to show us the heartache that practically pours out of this man at every moment.  This film wouldn’t work if Mr. Isaac didn’t sell his performance, and man does he do a flawless job.  It’s terrific work.

Though this film rests squarely on Oscar Isaac’s shoulders, the corners of Llewyn’s world are brought to life by a wonderful array of supporting performers.  Carrie Mulligan and Justin Timberlake play Jean and Jim, a folk-singing duo who are friendly with Llewyn.  Well, Jim is friendly.  When the film opens, Jean is tremendously … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews American Hustle

There’s no question in my mind that David O. Russell is a terrifically skilled director, and it’s been interesting seeing how his recent films have been able to blend his idiosyncratic sensibilities with a slightly more mainstream approach.  I had some problems with Silver Linings Playbook but over-all I really enjoyed the film (click here for my review), and I absolutely adored The Fighter (click here for my review).  And so it was that I entered into American Hustle with my expectations very high.  Mr. Russell had assembled a phenomenal cast, and the reviews had been near-rapturous.

But I must confess that while I found the film to be extremely well-made, I didn’t find it to be nearly as enjoyable as I had expected.  I thought the film, at two hours and 9 minutes, felt FAR longer to me than the three-hour The Wolf of Wall Street, which I saw only a few days before (click here for my review).

But let’s start with what I felt was good about the film.  The cast is indeed fantastic, and what’s particularly fun is the way almost all of the leads are playing against type.  Visually, all of these actors have changed their looks, and I’m not just talking about the humor of seeing these performers all dolled up in seventies get-up (though indeed the clothes in the film are fantastic).  I’m talking about Christian Bale, who played a super-hero, slouched over with a big gut and an outrageous comb-over.  I’m talking about handsome leading man Bradley Cooper’s jheri curl.  I’m talking about the sexed-up look of Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence.  But more than their physical transformations was how well each and every one of these actors inhabited these characters.

The stand-out is Christian Bale, who absolutely vanishes into the role of con-man Irving Rosenthal.  Mr. Bale is magnetic in the role, drawing us into the scheming mind of this rather pathetic figure.  The physicality of Mr. Bale’s transformation hooks us into the character, but it is Mr. Bale’s gripping charisma that keeps us locked into this man’s story.  Bradley Cooper nails a very different kind of pathetic as the out-of-his-league FBI man, Richard DiMaso.  Mr. Cooper takes us right into the desperate ambition at DiMaso’s heart.  The first woman in Irving Rosenthal’s life who we meet in the film is Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams.  The two meet at a party, and each one quickly realizes that they have met a peculiar sort of soul-mate in the other.  Sydney gets involved in Irving’s small-time scams, pretending to be a British aristocrat, thus lending a convincing legitimacy to Irving’s scams.  But after a while … [continued]

 

“Who the hell is Julius Caesar? You know I don’t follow the NBA!” Josh Reviews Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Comedy sequels are incredibly hard.  Don’t believe me?  Name your top five favorite comedy sequels.  Go.  Having trouble coming up with five?  Having trouble coming up with ONE great comedy sequel?  I rest my case.  (For the record, I have some love for Ghostbusters 2, The Naked Gun 2 1/2, and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, though all three of those films are, in my opinion, markedly inferior to their predecessors.)  Adding to the challenge of a successful Anchorman 2 is the long decade that has passed since the first film’s release.  In that ten years, the modestly successful Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy has grown ino a huge cult hit, beloved by many and joyfully quoted ad nauseam. Now that the longed-for-by-fans sequel has finally arived, it is hard to imagine any actual filming living up to all those expectations built up over the last decade.

I didn’t enter into Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues with too much of an attachment to the first film, which might make me something of a rarity.  Truth be told, I didn’t much care for Anchorman the first time I saw it.  While its pleasures and sublime silliness have grow on me over the years (I laughed quite a lot when I re-watched the film last week, in preparation for seeing the sequel), and I certainly think it’s a very funny film, I wouldn’t rank it amongst my favorite comedies.  My tastes tend to range towards the goofy comedies of my youth (films like Airplane!, Fletch, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, National Lampoon’s Vacation, The Naked Gun, LA Story, etc).  I also unabashedly love the work of Mel Brooks (particularly Young Frankenstein, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Spaceballs), Albert Brooks (particularly Modern Romance), Christopher Guest (particularly A Mighty Wind), Kevin Smith (Clerks through Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) and Judd Apatow and Mr. Apatow’s circle of collaborators (including films like Superbad, I Love You, Man, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Tropic Thunder).   I love Monty Python (particularly The Holy Grail) and Woody Allen (particularly Annie Hall, Bananas, Zelig, and Crimes and Misdemeanors, though I could go on).  I love Waking Ned Devine and My Blue Heaven and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Aristocrats (the most profane film ever made) and Bull Durham and The Frisco Kid and Shaun of the Dead and High Fidelity.  Have I established my comedy leanings sufficiently?  Even among the sillier films headlined by Will Ferrell (which I tend to enjoy, though not as much as any of the other films I have just listed), I have always found Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby to be a far funnier film than the … [continued]

 

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]

 

Josh Reviews About Time

December 25th, 2013
,

When he turns 21, a nice British boy named Tim is told the family secret by his father: all the men in their family can travel in time.

I’m not generally a big fan of romantic comedies, but I was quite taken by the lovely, sweet trailer for About Time, and certainly writer/director Richard Curtis’ name interested me.   I think Four Weddings and a Funeral (written by Mr. Curtis) is a fantastic film, and the sci-fi hook of About Time caught my attention.

I quite enjoyed the film.  I think the trailer did a good job, actually, at capturing the small-scale but very sweet nature of the story.  Don’t go in expecting any complicated sort of time-travel shenanigans.  There’s really very little time-travel-related plot in the film at all.  Anyone who has seen or read a time-travel story is surely expecting, from the moment Tim’s dad tells him about his ability to travel in time, to see Tim go back in time and inadvertently screw up something big in his life.  And, indeed, that happens around the half-way point in the film.  But it’s a minor point in the film, and they don’t even show us how Tim unravels his mistake.  The film just cuts to a new scene and Tim has already gone back and returned things to normal.  As if I’d had any doubts, that moment made clear to me that the sci-fi mechanics are not at all Mr. Curtis’ concern.  Instead, he is using that hook to tell a story that examines the life of this young man and the people in his life, and to convey some simple (but powerful) lessons about slowing down and enjoying your life.

There’s definitely a big geeky part of me that wonders about how exactly the mechanics of the time travel in the film works, and that wishes that Mr. Curtis had better fleshed out the “rules.”  (For instance, sometimes when Tim travels back in time it seems like he is somehow inhabiting his own body at that moment in his past.  But other times he seems to just appear, looking like his future self, somewhere in the past where younger Tim couldn’t have been.  So aren’t there some-times two Tims running around in the same time period, and couldn’t that cause problems?  Also, although it’s established that Tim can’t travel forward in time from his present day, sometimes when he travels to the past he has to then “jump” forward to get back to his present day, while other times he just seems to catch up to himself from when he jumped.  Here again I start to wonder whether there couldn’t sometimes be a problem with two Tims … [continued]

 

From The DVD Shelf: Your Sister’s Sister (2011)

December 18th, 2013
, ,

I have been really enjoying, recently, the work of Mark Duplass, both in front of and behind the camera.  As a writer/director, working with his brother Jay Duplass, he’s helmed some great films.  I thought Cyrus was good (click here for my review) and I thought Jeff, Who Lives at Home was spectacular (click here for my review).  I’ve also been very impressed with Mr. Duplass as an actor, in films like Greenberg and Zero Dark Thirty, but particularly in the wonderful Safety Not Guaranteed (click here for my review).  And so I was drawn to check out the indie film Your Sister’s Sister, also starring Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt.  I love all three performers, so I was interested to see what this film was all about.

The film starts in an uncomfortable place.  We see a group of friends gathering to remember someone who had died, a year previously.  When Jack (Mark Duplass) makes a bit of an angry mess of things, we understand that it’s his brother who they are remembering.  His friend Iris (Emily Blunt) strongly suggests that he take some time to get ahold of himself and try to find a way to move forward, and she offers to let her stay at her family’s isolated cabin.  When Jack arrives, he’s startled to find someone already there: Iris’ sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt).  Jack is clearly in love with Iris — or at least, strongly attracted to her — a situation complicated by the fact that she is his dead brother’s former girlfriend.  Things get even more complicated when, that first night in the cabin, Jack and Hannah — both drunk and lonely — sleep with one another.  When Iris arrives unexpectedly the next morning, surprising both Jack and Hannah, things come to a head.

Written and directed by Lynn Shelton, Your Sister’s Sister is a wrenching-at-times character study of these three people, each of whom is somewhat broken and lonely.  The film elapses over the course of just a few days, mostly time spent by the three together in the cabin.  It is extremely awkward and painful at times.  I was immediately rooting for Jack and Iris to find a happy ending together, and it’s tough watching them seem to drift further and further apart as the film progresses.

The central situation of the film — the complex romantic entanglement between the three characters — seems a little far-fetched and almost sitcom-y, but the film treats the story incredibly seriously.  As a result, the film has a naturalistic, honest feeling.  That set-up could have been the start of a farcical film filled with goofy mis-understandings and one-liners, but … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The years during which we saw the release of Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings remains one of the best cinematic experiences of my lifetime, and I don’t expect that to be equaled any-time soon.  Those three films are magnificent, but my memories of the years in which that trilogy was released encompasses not just the films themselves, but all of the excitement and anticipation and speculation, from the first-time I saw that initial teaser trailer (via a very slow download on my dial-up modem) that teased the three-film adaptation (that slow shot at the end, showing the entire fellowship, and gradually revealing the three-year release schedule for the three films, is so fantastic!!), through the release of each film and its subsequent extended edition, and of course all all of the same excitement in the years between the films, awaiting the next installment.

Peter Jackson’s first film in his three-part adaptation of The Hobbit, titled The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was criticized by many but I think it’s a very strong, under-appreciated film.  I have seen the film several times, in the past year, and I stand by my original review.  The second installment, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, is very much of a piece with that first film.  The Desolation of Smaug improves on its predecessor in that, while one could accuse An Unexpected Journey of being occasionally slow or unwieldy as it was getting the story going, The Desolation of Smaug is a much faster-paced film, with far more emphasis on adventure and spectacle.

While I loved The Desolation of Smaug, there is no question that both of these Hobbit films are a far cry from the incredible quality of Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy.  What made the LOTR films great cinema, rather than just being great fantasy/adventure films or being great adaptations, was the powerful emotional punch of the stories they told.  I am not ashamed to share that all three of those LOTR movies contained moments that brought me to tears when I first saw them in theatres.  In The Fellowship of the Ring, it was Sam’s declaration, in the elvish boat at the end, that he’d made a promise not to abandon Frodo.  In The Two Towers, it was the haunting glimpse into Arwen’s lonely fate that awaited her even if everything that she hoped for came to pass.  In The Return of the King, it was pretty much every moment that came after Aragorn’s statement, to the four kneeling Hobbits, that: “my friends… you bow to no one.”  (I’ve seen The Return of the King many times since that first viewing, and while … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

December 13th, 2013
,

OK, here’s a quick summary of my thoughts on the Die Hard series.  I think the first Die Hard is one of the best action movies ever made, a practically perfect combination of a wonderful cast, a sharp script, and incredible directing (by John McTiernan).  I have a fond place in my hard for Die Hard 2: Die Harder, because it was such a part of my childhood, but there’s no mistaking that it’s a mis-step, a somewhat joyless and not-that-creative retread of the first film.  I love Die Hard with a Vengeance, the first Die Hard film I saw on the big screen (and the only other Die Hard film, after the original, directed by McTiernan, which is, I think, a key reason why it’s so good).  I think it’s a very funny film that also has tremendous action.  I love the way the film’s story circles back to that of the first film, and this battered, world-weary John McClane feels to me like a welcome return to the McClane of the first film.  I also love Samuel L. Jackson.  To me, those are the only three real Die Hard films.  I found Live Free of Die Hard to be a forgettable, extremely mediocre installment.  I don’t hate it, but it doesn’t at all feel to me like a Die Hard movie, and this character named John McClane who jumps onto wings of fighter jets doesn’t feel at all to me like the John McClane I remember.

When I first read that they were making a fifth Die Hard film, I briefly hoped that they’d learn from the mistakes of the fourth film and get back to what made the series — and the John McClane character — work originally.  It was immediately clear to me, though, that they hadn’t.  I was so underwhelmed by the trailers for A Good Day to Die Hard (and, really, the people from Star Trek should be getting a few cents off of every dollar made from this movie due to that Worf-like title) that I didn’t bother to see the film in theatres.  I could just tell that it would make me angry, so why spend the money?

When the film came out on DVD though, I thought, OK, for curiosity’s sake at least, I should watch the film.  I mean, how could there exist a Die Hard film that I hadn’t seen?

Sadly, my low expectations were met.  A Good Day to Die Hard is significantly worse than the at-least-watchable Live Free or Die Hard.  This is a total catastrophe of a movie, one of the most amateurish, incompetently-made big-budget films I have seen in a good long while.

Right … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Peter Jackson reinvented what DVDs could be when he released his extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, a month before the release of The Two Towers in theatres.  I had fallen quite in love with The Fellowship of the Ring after having seen it many, many times in theatres.  (I have never seen a movie more times in theatres than I saw Fellowship.)  I loved the film.  When I read that an extended edition was being released on DVD, I was of course excited.  I had seen (and loved) previous home-video director’s cuts of movies (James Cameron’s Aliens and The Abyss come to mind).  But I was not prepared for how bowled over I would be by the Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring.  I still remember watching it, that first time, and being shocked at how complete a re-edit of the film it was.  This wasn’t just the same movie with a few additional scenes added in.  The entire movie had been re-worked and enhanced.  Particularly in that first 45 minutes, I felt like I was watching a totally different movie, with so many little shots and moments woven into the fabric of the film that I had already loved and known so well.

That Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring quickly became the definitive version of the film for me.  I hardly ever watched the theatrical cut again.  For the next few years, the release of Mr. Jacksons’ Extended Editions of his Lord of the Rings films became a vital part of the experience of anticipating and enjoying these movies, for me.  I anticipated the DVD release of the Extended Editions almost as much as the initial theatrical release, because it seemed to me that it was the Extended Editions that represented the full, true versions of these films.  These days, when I re-watch the films, I only watch the Extended Editions.

And so I was excited when I heard that Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, would be receiving an Extended Edition release of its own.  But I must confess to not being quite as deliriously impatient for this release as I was for the extended LOTR films.  As I wrote in my review of An Unexpected Journey, that film’s theatrical release already felt to me like an Extended Edition.  Not just because of its lengthy run-time, but because of the film’s structure, which seemed to me to be overstuffed with the types of digressions and moments of back-story that characterized the LOTR Extended Editions.  So how much could the film be further Extended?

Not by much, it turns out.  The Extended Edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected [continued]

 

Peril at Sea Double Feature Part II: Captain Phillips

November 22nd, 2013
, ,

Last week I decided one intense man-faces-death-at-sea movie just wasn’t enough for me.  After watching Robert Redford’s harrowing performance in All is Lost (click here for my review), I went and saw Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips.

Tom Hanks plays the titular captain in this based-on-a-true-story of the shipping boat that was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009, eventually resulting in the ship’s captain being held hostage by the pirates in their lifeboat before ultimately being rescued by navy SEALS.

I’ve read a little bit of questioning as to how true-to-the-facts this heroic portrayal of Captain Phillips is.  Perhaps wisely, Mr. Greengrass avoided opening this film with the standard “based-on-a-true-story” text caption or something similar.  That, and the tremendous skill with which this nail-biter of a thriller has been crafted, allowed me to sit back and enjoy the film without spending the whole run-time questioning it’s veracity.  (It should also be noted that Mr. Greengrass has strongly defended the accuracy of his film.)

Paul Greengrass has become extraordinarily skilled at creating intensely suspenseful, almost documentary-feeling thrillers (that are either based on real events, or that feel like they COULD have been).  He’s so good at this, in fact, that the are quite a few of his films that I have chosen not to see, because they just seemed too tough to watch.  (For example, though I am sure it was made with tremendous craft, I can’t imagine a scenario in which I would ever consider watching United 93.  It just seems too painful.)

But I love Tom Hanks, and his involvement made me push aside any worries that this movie would be too stomach-churning for me to see.  I’m glad I did, because Captain Phillips is a very skillfully-made film.  It’s every bit as edge-of-your-seat intense as I had expected, and contains some wonderful performances.

In particular, I was quite taken by the work of the men playing the four main Somali pirates.  All four are extraordinary.  These non-actors perform better than most highly-paid Hollywood superstars.  Their work is extraordinary, so real and so immediate.  In addition to their strong work, I credit perfect casting and great direction by Mr. Greengrass to help fine and hone such wonderful performances.

Then there is Tom Hanks, so is so good so consistently that he makes it look easy.  For much of the film Mr. Hanks keeps his performance very reined in.  his Captain Phillips is a strong, confident man, but also internal, not prone to demonstrative speeches or big emotional explosions.  (The sharp scrip by Billy Ray, based on the book by Captain Phillips himself and Stephan Talty, is a significant factor.)  Probably my favorite piece of performance from Mr. … [continued]

 

Peril at Sea Double-Feature Part I: All is Lost

Last week I took in not one, but two intense stories featuring great peril at sea: All is Lost and Captain Phillips.

Today I am here to talk about All is Lost.  The film is a fascinating exercise in technique, as it depicts only one single human being on camera from start to finish: Robert Redford as the never-named protagonist.  The movie opens when Robert Redford’s character awakens aboard his small but nice boat, out at sea.  A Chinese shipping container has bumped up against Redford’s boat, puncturing the hull.  Mr Redford is able to extricate his boat from the lost shipping container, and quite ingeniously he is able to make a decent repair of the hole in his vessel.  But it turns out that the water that came into his boat through the hole has fried his computer and radio, and indeed all the boat’s electronics.  A terrible storm that comes a few days later takes his situation from bad to worst, and soon Mr. Redford’s character is in a desperate struggle for survival, alone at sea.

All is Lost is very well-crafted and extraordinarily well-directed.  The film is haunting in its austere beauty and intense, you-are-there no-frills realism.  I am very impressed by the work of writer/director J.C. Chandor (whose work I was unfamiliar with prior to seeing this film).  All is Lost is a bold undertaking of style and format, but while those aspects provide an intriguing hook for the film, the movie is more than just an interesting exercise.  It breathes as a complete, viscerally-affecting story.

All of that is because of the incredible skill of Robert Redford.  Mr. Redford is the reason to see this movie.  At 77 years of age, Mr. Redford is still an actor of tremendous skill, and this is a powerhouse of a performance.  Not only is he the only person on-screen for the entire run-time of the movie, but after a short opening monologue that we hear over blackness at the very start of the movie, there are less than ten lines of dialogue in the whole rest of the film.  The entire story of the movie plays almost completely over Mr. Redford’s face, and in his eyes.  It is wonderful.

One of the film’s stylistic quirks that I alluded to above is that the story starts at the exact moment that Mr. Redford’s character’s ordeal begins, and ends the moment that ordeal ends.  This is a very interesting approach.  By telling us nothing of Mr. Redford’s life before the accident that punctures a hole in his boat, the film keeps much of his character and his past a secret from us.  This focuses us in on the intense experience … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Ender’s Game

November 18th, 2013

I read Orscon Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game when I was in college, and I loved it.  I was intrigued by the character of Ender, and captured by the tough, brutal world Mr. Card had created. I of course kept reading and, though I know I am in the minority on this one, I loved Mr. Card’s exceedingly weird, lengthy follow-up novel, Speaker For the Dead.  That books feels like it is a part of a whole different series than Ender’s Game.  It’s got to be one of the most bizarre sequels I have ever encountered, in that it takes the story in an entirely different direction.  While Speaker For the Dead is something of a letdown for people looking for a follow-up to the events of Ender’s Game, I think it’s a pretty great sci-fi novel when taken on its own.  I read Mr. Card’s next two Ender’s books, Xenocide and Children of the Mind, but by the end of that fourth book I had lost interest.  When Mr. Card returned to the timeframe and setting of Ender’s Game with a new series of novels, I was intrigued, but while Ender’s Shadow has been sitting on my bookshelf for about a decade, I have never gotten around to reading it.

I have been rooting for Ender’s Game to be made into a film since I first read it, almost twenty years ago.  But paradoxically, as the film adaptation finally became a reality over the last year or two, my enthusiasm dimmed.  I am not a fan of director Gavin Hood (although the world seems to disagree with me, I did not like his film Tsotsi, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a catastrophe of epic proportions), and the involvement of Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman (whose scripts for J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek films have been poor, and their work on the Transformers films and Cowboys and Aliens has also been unfortunate in the extreme) worried me.  So I did not enter the film adaptation of Ender’s Game with a lot of hope.

In some ways, then, I was pleasantly surprised that the bulk of the film is actually pretty good.  There is a lot of the middle of the film that I quite enjoyed.  However, the problem is that the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes are incredibly ham-handed and amateurish, and as a result leave the film crippled, just a mildly diverting adventure as opposed to the powerful sci-fi tale that this story should be.

Let’s start with the opening, which is just a mess of heavy-handed exposition and choppy scenes.  Rather than focusing on letting us get to know this smart, intense, weird boy Ender, … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

November 14th, 2013
, ,

After making The Avengers, Joss Whedon got a bunch of his friends and frequent collaborators together and, over 12 days and working in and around his own house, shot a black-and-white adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.  I missed this when it was very briefly released in theatres this past summer, but had a copy in my hands the week it came out on DVD.  What a delightful, joy-filled film!  This is a magnificent adaptation — a wonderfully funny, dramatic, and romantic concoction.

I must admit that Much Ado About Nothing has never been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.  I always find myself far more interested in his tragedies and histories than I am in his comedies.  But under Joss Whedon’s hand this story of love and deceit comes to life, and I was quickly rather completely enraptured by the story being told.

The great joy of the film is seeing so many familiar televison faces (almost all of them from various Joss Whedon shows) doing Shakespeare.  And they are all, to the last, extraordinarily impressive!!

The two leads, Beatrice and Benedick, are played by Amy Acker (Angel and Dollhouse) and Alexis Denisof (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse), and both are marvelous, easily carrying the weight of these major roles.  Ms. Acker is a great beauty and a fiercely talented actor, someone who well-deserves to be the lead in LOTS of movies. She is particularly nimble with the dialogue, and her performance of the “if only I were a man” speech is powerful.  Alexis Denisof is equally engaging.  I was particularly impressed by how well he was able to play the comedic side of the rcharacter.  The scene in which he preens himself outside, doing all sorts of outlandish stretches in an effort to impress Beatrice, is one of the biggest laughs in the film.

There are an incredible number of talented performers in the film, each of whom shines in many different ways.  I was particularly impressed with Reed Diamond’s work as Don Pedro.  I was immediately taken by how facile Mr. Diamond was with the dialogue.  It’s extraordinarily impressive how well he was able to speak the words and to bring their meaning to life, in an incredibly naturalistic way.  (Watching the special features, it turns out he went to Juilliard and has been waiting his whole life to have an opportunity to play Shakespeare.  Well done, sir, you hit this one out of the park.)

I was also extremely taken by Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk’s work as the bumbling inspector pair Dogberry and Verges.  The two men are HILARIOUS together, a terrific comedy team.  Nathan Fillion doesn’t seem quite as … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Thor: The Dark World

The sprawling cinematic epic that Marvel Studios has been crafting, ever since 2008′s Iron Man, rolls on with the very strong installment Thor: The Dark World.  One might have been forgiven for thinking that perhaps, after the unprecedented movie super-hero crossover that was The Avengers, the return to solo superhero stories might be a letdown.  But with the fun Iron Man Three (click here for my review) and now with the confident, bold Thor: The Dark World, Marvel is continuing an impressive streak of successful films, and continuing to expand the canvas of their super-hero universe.

At the start of Thor: The Dark World, Loki has been returned to Asgard in chains (following his defeat in The Avengers) and Thor — accompanied by his stalwart comrades-in-arms the Warriors Three and the lady Sif — has been busy putting down revolts across the nine realms (an apparent result of Loki’s destruction of the bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge that linked Asgard to the other realms, at the end of the first Thor).  All is well, except that Thor longs to return to the side of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) on Earth.  His father disapproves, but when Jane is put in peril by her discovery of an ancient evil, Thor rushes to her rescue.  That doesn’t prove to be as simple as he had hoped, as Jane has become linked to a powerful weapon that the evil Malekith plans to use to destroy the nine realms and return the universe to the state of dark and lifelessness that existed before the universe as we know it was created.  After Malekith launches a devastating attack on Asgard itself, Thor is once again put at odds with his father, Odin, and forced to turn to none other than his disgraced, treacherous brother Loki for help.

After the relatively small-scale first Thor movie, which was mostly set in a tiny Midwestern town, I was delighted by how broadly Thor: The Dark World opened up the canvas of the story.  We get to explore quite a number of the nine realms in this film, and a huge chunk in the middle is set entirely on Asgard, which is a lot of fun.  Veteran TV director Alan Taylor (who, most recently, has helmed some spectacular episodes of Game of Thrones) sure knows how to get the most bang for his buck, because Thor: The Dark World looks HUGE.  I was very impressed by the visual effects that brought all of the realms and creatures and space-ships to life.  (Yes, I said space-ships.  There is a lot of sci-fi cosmic craziness in this film, mixed in with all the fantasy.  This feels very true to … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

November 8th, 2013

I am endlessly fascinated by coming-of-age stories, and I don’t think I’m alone.  I adore this sub-genre of movies, and when done right, I find these sorts of movies to be emotionally gripping.  I have seen a number of great coming-of-age films recently, as it happens, including The Spectacular Now (click here for my review), which I just wrote about earlier this week, and this past summer’s superlative The Way Way Back (click here for my review).  I missed The Perks of Being a Wallflower last year when it was released, but it’s been at the top of my radar and, now that I have seen it, I can easily say that it easily shoots up towards the top of my list of some of the best coming-of-that movies that I have ever seen.

I found The Perks of Being a Wallflower to be deeply moving, profound and powerful.  I loved it.

The film chronicles the tumultuous freshman year of high school of Charlie (Logan Lerman).  Charlie is a sweet, bright, quiet kid.  Something tragic has happened to him the previous year — at first we don’t know what — but Charlie is trying his best to be happy and to fit in.  Sadly, he enters his freshman year of high school with apparently no friends, and in the early scenes of the film we can feel his profound loneliness.  But then, after an almost chance encounter, Charlie finds himself practically adopted by two seniors — step-siblings Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson).  At first these two have no idea the effect that their simple act of kindness has on Charlie, but as they get to know him they quickly grow to love their bright, clever, sensitive young new friend.  Charlie, meanwhile, is transformed by his friendship with Patrick and Sam and finds, in their small group of off-beat friends, a circle of people with whom he feels he belongs, something it seems that he has never before experienced.  The road towards the end of the school year is not easy for Charlie or Patrick or Sam, but each winds up affecting the other in often-surprising, deeply powerful ways.

The film is based on the 1999 novel by Stephen Chbosky, and incredibly Mr. Chbosky has not only written the film adaptation, he directed it too.  I can’t believe this film is the work of a first-time filmmaker.  It is incredibly well-made, not just gorgeous to look at, but what an actors’ showcase.  Mr. Chbosky has assembled a remarkable young cast, and he has drawn incredibly wonderful performances from each and every one of them.

All three of the main actors are just staggeringly great, an … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: The Place Beyond the Pines

I didn’t see director Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 film, Blue Valentine, though I certainly read about it when it came out.  (The film got a lot of acclaim, and also a lot of ink due to its NC-17 rating.)  It’s a film I am interested in seeing one of these days, but for whatever reason it’s never been too high on my list, always bumped in favor of other films I choose to see instead.  However, Mr. Cianfrance’s follow-up film that was released earlier this year, The Place Beyond the Pines, immediately struck me as a film I wanted to make it my business to see.  Sometimes it’s obvious why I want to see a film or don’t want to see one, but with this, I’m not entirely sure what grabbed me about it.  Until I saw it a few weeks ago, I never really knew much of anything about what the film was about.  I was intrigued by the top-shelf cast, which includes Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Ray Liotta, Eva Mendes, Harris Yulin (such an indelible part of my childhood from his role in Ghostbusters II),  Mahershala Ali (who I loved in The 4400 and who was also great in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button),  Bruce Greenwood (JFK!  Captain Pike!), Rose Byrne, and Dane DeHaan (so memorable in Chronicle).  I also think I was intrigued by the tone of what looked like a tense little character study/ crime story… and for sure I was grabbed by the mysterious title.

I am glad to have seen The Place Beyond the Pines, because the film really blew me away.  It was not at all the movie I thought it would be.  Usually that spells disappointment, but in this case The Place Beyond the Pines wound up being a far more epic, far more thoughtful film than I’d thought it would be.  The film is dour, and wrenching to watch.  This isn’t a very crowd-pleasing film — I can see why it barely made a blip at the box office.  I loved it, and I am not sure it’s a film I ever necessarily want to see again!  But I am delighted to have seen it and extraordinarily impressed by the work of everyone involved.

The film begins by introducing us to Luke (Ryan Gosling).  The first several minutes of the film are a phenomenally well-crafted introduction to the character.  At first, all we see of him is a well-muscled, tattooed torso, flipping a knife open and shut at rapid speed.  Then we follow him from the back of his head as he walks out of his room (or trailer, hard to tell) and through a crowd … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Machete Kills

October 28th, 2013
,

First of all, let me put your mind at ease.  I know you were all worried, but even though Machete Kills represents a dramatic expansion of the Machete mythos, I promise that you will be able to understand all of the film’s complexities even if you haven’t seen the first film.

Heh.

It’s pretty hard to believe that this silly, bloody, ridiculous, so-over-the-top-you-can’t-even-see-the-top-anymore movie actually exists.  Like Machete himself, the bad-ass Mexican who cannot be killed, this silly concept just won’t die and has somehow evolved from a jokey fake trailer into two full motion pictures with the promise of a third.

Machete began life as one of several fake trailers in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse, a joyful (and vastly underrated) salute to the exploitation films they both grew up loving.  People responded so well to the trailer than Mr. Rodriguez decided to expand the concept into a full feature-length film: 2010′s Machete.  The film was a fascinating exercise in reverse-engineering a movie, because rather than starting from zero, Mr. Rodriguez decided to make Machete be the actual movie from which their fake trailer had theoretically been assembled.  Meaning that they created a narrative that stitched together all of the random crazy shots in the trailer, which had been created without ever intending for those shots to actually cohere into an real full-length movie’s story.  Machete was not exactly great cinema, but I found it to be a very fun romp, filled to overflowing with tongue-in-cheek mayhem, violence, and sexy girls.  (Click here for my review.)

And now, somehow, that film has spawned a sequel: Machete Kills.  Without the constraints of having to work backwards from a pre-exisiting trailer, Machete Kills is a more linear movie, without the all-over-the-place feel of its predecessor.  Which isn’t to say the film makes a single lick of sense.  The story gleefully defies any sort of logic or sanity, it’s just an unabashed excuse for Mr. Rodriguez to squeeze in all sorts of crazy action scenarios.  The film opens with Machete (Danny Trejo) and Sartana (Jessica Alba) on the trail of some evil-doers.  I was surprised to see Jessica Alba’s character in the film, as I sort of figured she’d be ignored in the sequel, because Machete works best as a loner.  Well, I wasn’t too far wrong, because the bust goes bad and, yadda yadda yadda, spoiler alert, pretty soon Machete is a lone wolf once again.  But he’s quickly roped back into action, when the President of the United States (Charlie Sheen, amusingly credited in the film as Carlos Estevez) assigns him to track down a Mexican revolutionary threatening to launch a missile at Washington.  Machete quickly finds … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Gravity

October 25th, 2013
,

I had seen and enjoyed director Alfonso Cuaron’s 2001 film Y Tu Mama Tambien and 2004′s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but it was 2006′s extraordinary Children of Men that made me a fan of Mr. Cuaron’s for life.  Like so many, I have been eagerly awaiting Mr. Cuaron’s next film for the past seven years.

Gravity was worth the wait.

I went in with high hopes, but I was still deeply impressed by this mesmerizing film.  It is, first and foremost, an extraordinary visual achievement.  To call Gravity gorgeous is to not begin to scratch the surface of the film’s beauty.  Each frame of the film is a work of art, dipping the audience into a world of extraordinary beauty up in orbit of the Earth.  The immensity of the canvas in which the story is set — the staggering beauty and also the cold, quiet isolation of space — gives the film’s survival story an epic feel.   I doff my proverbial cap towards the hundreds of artists and animators who worked to bring this vision of space to life.

In Children of Men, Mr. Cuaron dazzled with his use of long, uninterrupted takes.  Enhanced by cleverly hidden edits and visual effects, there were extended sequences in that film — some over ten minutes in length — in which it appeared that the camera never cut.  I found the effect to be mesmerizing, giving one the sense of being right there in the story with the characters.  With the removal of the language of editing that we have become so accustomed to, the film felt less like watching a movie and more like we were witnessing real events happening right there in front of our eyes.  That effect has been taken many giant steps further in Gravity, in which huge chunks of the film elapse without any obvious cuts.  Mr. Cuaron’s gently moving camera not only pulls the audience into the story, but is also used extremely cleverly to simulate the effect of zero-gravity on his actors.

The film’s opening sequence is a bold announcement of the power of this stylistic device.  The first image we see in the film is a profoundly beautiful image of the Earth from space. It’s a long time before we see anything else, but gradually a small speck becomes the shuttle docked to the Hubble space telescope, effecting repairs.  The camera rolls around the image, pulling us close and then pulling away, a dramatic counterpoint to George Clooney’s astronaut Matt Kowalski’s zipping round and round the shuttle and telescope, as he tests a new jet-pack.  It’s an extraordinary scene, a dazzling visual sequence that makes the mind boggle when considering how … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews The Spectacular Now

I am a sucker for a good coming of age story, and this season has seen a couple of excellent ones.  I was over the moon about The Way Way Back (click here for my review) and I was equally smitten by James Ponsoldt’s new film The Spectacular Now.  It’s a beautiful, powerful story about two young people finding themselves in the closing days of their high school years.

In the film, Miles Teller plays Sutter.  He’s a good looking, fast-talking, confident high school senior.  Sutter is the king of his high school hill.  He’s a popular guy with a pretty girlfriend.  He loves to party and to have a good time, and he’s never really thought about aspiring to anything beyond that.  But when his girlfriend breaks up with him, Sutter finds it harder than he’d expected for his nothing-can-bother-me, it’s-all-good attitude to keep out the pain.  Suddenly his hardy-partying ways seem less like the antics of a fun-loving high school kid and more like a crutch.  It’s after one-such night of drinking that Sutter finds himself passed out on the lawn of his classmate Aimee (Shailene Woodley).  Aimee is sweet and kind and smart, and as something of a bookworm she is not at all in Sutter’s social circle.  The two begin an unexpected friendship, and soon — to surprise of both of their sets of friends — they begin dating.

From that point, I was expecting the film to go in one of two directions.  Either we’d get the story of the special girl who makes the boy into a better man, or the story of the innocent girl who is seduced by the appeal of the bad egg, almost allowing him to ruin her life before she sees the error of her ways.  But The Spectacular Now, luckily, is a much more nuanced film than that. The film doesn’t go down such expected directions, and though there are aspects of both of those ideas I just mentioned in the film’s story, the heart of the film lies in the many, often unexpected ways in which Sutter and Aimee affect one another.  Some of those changes are positive, while others are more up for debate, and the film is surprisingly deft at not drawing judgments and allowing the audience to make their own evaluations.  (I am thinking specifically of the way Aimee starts drinking once she begins seeing Sutter.  I was all ready for that to lead her down a dark road, and while there is not question that there are some ways in which she is negatively affected by her new taste for alcohol, the film has a more nuanced perspective on her new … [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Don Jon

October 14th, 2013
,

Don Jon is written, directed by, and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  It’s a great film and I love watching something that feels like a unique, singular voice (as opposed to the movie-by-committee sameness found in so much Hollywood product).  This has been a great season for debut films by actors who have taken it upon themselves to write and direct a film in which they would also star — just recently I was bowled over by Lake Bell’s film In a World… (click here for my review).

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Jon, a buff, confident young Italian-American stud who is so successful with the ladies that his buddies have nicknamed him the Don.  Jon and his pals have a regular routine of looking for women out at nightclubs, and the Don has a streak of successfully scoring with girls the guys rate to be an 8 or higher.  One night, they spy a fabled “dime” — the gorgeous Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) — and while Jon is able to flirt successfully with her, to his surprise she doesn’t let him take her home.  Not one to give up, Jon asks around and is able to figure out her last name, contact her via facebook, and ask her out on a date.  She agrees and the date goes well, but even then, again to his surprise, she won’t let him sleep with her.  The two begin seeing one another regularly, and it looks like for the first time Jon has found a girl he loves, one he’s even willing to bring home to meet his parents (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly).  Everything seems to be going great until Barbara discovers Jon watching porn, and realizes that he watches porn constantly.

There’s a scene about halfway through the film in which Barbara angrily confronts Jon about his porn watching, when he retorts to her that the porn he loves is no different than the Hollywood romantic films that she loves.  Both give the viewer an unrealistic, and perhaps unfair, set of expectations as to what love and relationships should ideally be.  Now, I don’t happen to agree with Jon’s perspective that porn and romantic comedies are the same thing, but the film has an interesting time exploring the ways in which there are similarities between the fantasies that both create.  Prior to their big argument, we have heard Jon lament, in voice-over earlier in the film, that even though he has a lot of sex — and always with absolutely beautiful girls — the sex is never as perfect as what he sees in his videos.  We have also seen Barbara walk out of a movie, on a date with Jon, awestruck by … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Drive (2011)

I missed Drive when it was released in 2011, but I was intrigued by everything I read about it and it’s a film that I’ve been hoping for some time to catch up to.

Ryan Gosling plays the enigmatic driver at the center of the film.  (His character is never named in the movie, something that is done so subtly that I never even realized we didn’t know his character’s name until I was sitting down to write this piece.)  In the film’s dynamic opening sequence, we learn that he is a highly-skilled getaway driver, with incredible abilities behind the wheel and a tight set of rules over what he is willing to do and not do when getting involved with various other criminals and their plans.

The driver has apparently led a very solitary life, focused on his work (both legal — as a mechanic and stunt-car driver for the movies — and illegal), but all that changes when sparks fly with his new neighbor, a pretty, wounded mother (Carey Mulligan) whose husband is in prison.  The driver forms a nice bond with this woman, Irene, and her son Benicio.  Then Irene’s husband comes home from prison, and the driver gets involved in a criminal deal that goes from bad to worse.  None of the characters emerge unscathed (physically/emotionally) from the downward spiral of events that follows.

Drive is a movie that you will watch with a tight knot in your stomach.  Right from the beginning, it was quite clear to me that this wasn’t going to be a movie with a happy ending.  I found myself liking both the driver and Irene, and it was torture watching the events unfold, knowing, just knowing, that none of this was going to end well.  That’s a mark of what a skillfully made film this is.  Director Nicolas Winding Refn is masterful at slowly, ever-so-slowly, ratcheting up the tension and tightening the noose.  It’s also fair warning that this is not a film for everyone.  Drive is tough to watch at times.

The film has a sexy/sleezy/cool vibe that I found very intriguing.  It felt reminiscent to me of the tone of some eighties thrillers, particularly the work of Brian De Palma.  Mr. Refn doesn’t utilize any of the Hitchcockian stylistic devices that Mr. De Palma is so well-known for.  No, what I’m talking about is more a matter of tone.  Drive presents us with a world (and a main character) that is at once very cool, and very ugly.  So many of the films of Mr. De Palma walked that same line.  Take the opening credits of Drive — with that throaty ballad playing loud on the soundtrack, and the … [continued]

 

From the DVD Shelf: Star Trek: Insurrection

September 27th, 2013
,

I recently picked up Crescendo Record’s release of Jerry Goldsmith’s complete score for Star Trek: Insurrection.  I’ll have thoughts to share on that soundtrack soon, but after listening to the CD several times I decided it was high time to re-watch Insurrection, a film I hadn’t seen for several years.

Star Trek: Insurrection is the third of the four movies made with the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  The Enterprise is drawn into a region of space nicknamed the Briar Patch (due to the stellar phenomena that makes travel in the region treacherous), because Data — on assignment on a planet within the Briar Patch — has apparently gone rogue and attacked a Starfleet research team.  It it turns out that Data has uncovered an ugly truth about the Starfleet mission in the Briar Patch.  Although officially sanctioned by the Federation Council and supervised by an admiral on-sight, the Starfleet team — working with some local thugs called the Son’a — plans to forcibly remove a peaceful people called the Ba’ku from their planet, so that they can harvest the incredible rejuvenating power of the metaphasic radiation found within the planet’s rings.  Picard and his crew take up arms to stop them.

Insurrection is generally considered one of the worst of the Star Trek films (and it definitely was near the bottom of my list when I recently ranked all the Star Trek films from worst to best), but there really isn’t anything all that awful about Insurrection.  The film’s biggest crime is that it is a trifle, a fairly light, low-key adventure.  Had Insurrection been a two-part episode of the Next Generation TV show, I think we would consider it very solid.  But this trite little adventure is not at all what Trek fans like me were looking for in a big-screen movie.  When we were only getting a new adventure every few years — and considering that, although the studio seemed supportive of the Trek franchise, there was no guarantee that they’d get to produce movies indefinitely (indeed, the lukewarm business that Insurrection did nearly derailed the Next Gen movie franshcise completely) — fans wanted their Trek movie installments to be BIG, IMPORTANT stories that felt worthy of the big-screen canvass.  These adventures needed to depict critical moments in the lives of our characters, and also hopefully be a story with an epic scale and, you know, the fate of the galaxy at issue.

Insurrection is none of those things.  It’s a very small scale, low-significance adventure.  The whole thing is a big mis-step, seemingly right from its initial conception.

It’s a shame, because coming off of the success of Star Trek: First Contact, the Next [continued]

 

Josh Reviews Elysium

September 23rd, 2013
, ,

I was blown away by District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut (which he also wrote).  (Click here for my original review.)  That film — and Mr. Blomkamp himself — felt to me like it came out of nowhere.  I was dazzled by its combination of visual effects spectacle (made, even more impressively, for a tiny budget) and social conscience.  This appeared to be the emergence of a bold new voice in science fiction, and I was eager to see what Mr. Blomkamp would do next.

Four years later, his follow-up film was released: Elysium.  It’s fun to see Mr. Blomkamp working with a much higher budget and a cast of stars (including Matt Damon and Jodie Foster), and while Elysium isn’t as surprising and impactful as was District 9, it’s still a top-notch sci-fi spectacle with some heartfelt things to say about class and wealth in the world today.

Elysium is set almost 150 years in the future (2154, to be exact), but the film’s power comes from its depiction of a world that — while featuring technology far beyond that of today’s world, most notably a huge outer-space habitat, called Elysium, where the super-rich dwell in peace and quiet — doesn’t feel too terribly far removed from our own.  The divide between the richest few and the other 99% (if not 99.9999%) of humanity has widened into an unbreachable gulf — in this case, the literally unbreachable gulf between the slum-like planet Earth and the floating space-station of Elysium.  But while the existence of a huge space-station might seem like something from a hard-to-imagine future, the idea of an ossification of the divide between the rich and everyone else on the planet feels all-too-possible.  The film’s story focuses on the desperation and helplessness felt by that enormous under-class, knowing that a whole universe of health and happiness lies tantalizingly outside of their reach.

Matt Damon plays Max, a former thief who works a grunt job in a manufacturing plant.  Max’s life is rough (though when we see him walk to work through the slums in which he lives, it’s apparent that he’s lucky to have a job).  Max’s tough life takes a turn for the tragic when an accident in the plant exposes him to a lethal dose of radiation.  This could be cured by a few moments in the healing med-bays found up on Elysium, but stuck on Earth, without access to that medical technology, Max will be dead in five days.  Out of options, Max strikes a deal with the smuggler Spider — he’ll help Spider in a job to steal valuable information from the head of the plant at which he works (literally from … [continued]

 

Josh Ranks the Star Trek Movies — Part 2!

September 16th, 2013
,

On Wednesday I began ranking the Star Trek films, from worst to best.  Here is the rest of my list, numbers 4-1.  These are, by far, my favorite Star Trek films.  These films are not only head and shoulders above the seven other Trek films in quality, but all four of them rank among my very favorite films, period.  Here we go:

4. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – Until J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot, I believe Star Trek IV was not only the most successful Star Trek film, it was also the one most well-known and liked by non-fans.  (The latter went hand-in-hand with the former, obviously!)  While I prefer the intensity of Star Trek II and III, it is undeniable how much fun the lighter Star Trek IV is.  Particularly in the decades since, when we have seen how badly the other two light/funny Star Trek films (Star Trek V and Insurrection) have stumbled, the success of Star Trek IV is even more impressive.  There is no question that the film is a joyous romp, with a lot of big laughs.  Even more impressive is that this comedic adventure is wedded not only to a film with real stakes — both physical and emotional — for our characters, but also that like the best episodes of the original series, this was a story with a strong message (in this case, about environmentalism).  The script is incredibly tight, with even throwaway lines (like Spock’s comment “judging by the pollution content of the Earth’s atmosphere, we appear to have arrived in the latter part of the twentieth century”) being so sharp and funny.  There are great moments for the entire ensemble cast (something many of the Trek films have struggled with), and one classic moment after another.  Also impressive: despite being designed to appeal to a wider audience than the usual Star Trek film, the movie is steeped in Trek lore.  Not only does the film take the time to explore the repercussions of the events of the previous film (with the terrific “there will be no peace as long as Kirk lives!” scene in the Federation Council, something we’d never before seen), but we get the return of Sarek, Amanda, and Saavik (albeit only briefly, my biggest regret with the film).  (I wrote a lot more about Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home here.)

3. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock – I think this is the most under-rated of all the Star Trek films.  I adore Star Trek III!  It’s a terrific adventure, and a terrific continuation of everything that was great about Star Trek II.  I love how of-a-piece … [continued]

 

Josh Ranks the Star Trek Movies From Worst to Best

September 11th, 2013
,

Quite a lot of websites picked up the story of how, at a recent Star Trek convention, fans ranked the twelve Trek films from worst to best.  Badass Digest’s Devin Faraci wrote a terrific piece on the ranking, sharing his thoughts on all the films.  It’s a hoot to read, and well worth your time.  There were a few things out of wack in the fan ranking (Star Trek: First Contact is better than The Undiscovered Country??  Madness!!) but for the most part it’s a decent ranking of the films.

Here is my personal ranking of the Trek films, from worst to best:

12. St