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Josh Reviews Mute, the Second Film in Duncan Jones’ “Moon Trilogy”

I was blown away by Moon, Duncan Jones’ 2009 directorial debut.  It’s a fantastic original sci-fi film, featuring Sam Rockwell in a terrific leading performance.  (Well, actually multiple terrific leading performances… watch the movie!)  Unfortunately, I haven’t been nearly as taken by the follow-up films directed by Mr. Jones that I have seen, such as Source Code and Warcraft.  In 2018, Mr. Jones’ film Mute was released on Netflix.  I was excited.  I’m always interested in original sci-fi premises, and the film looked like it had an incredible cast.  Even better, Mr. Jones described Mute as a “spiritual sequel” to Moon, and so of course I was eager too see what that meant.  But Mute’s reviews were atrocious, and for one reason or another I never caught up with the film until recently.

The titular mute is Leo, played by Alexander Skarsgard.  Leo was horribly mangled in a boating accident as a boy, rendering him unable to speak.  He works as a bartender in a futuristic Berlin, and is in a relationship with one of the waitresses at the bar, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh).  When Naadirah vanishes, Leo begins a relentless hunt through the scuzzy underbelly of the city in an attempt to find her.  This brings him into contact with Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd), an AWOL American G.I. working as a surgeon for a local crime-boss, as well as Bill’s scumbag friend and fellow surgeon Duck (Justin Theroux), and many other sketchy and dangerous characters.

I really wanted to like this film; I was hoping that it’s bad reputation was unearned.  It’s definitely not a catastrophe, but unfortunately in the end I felt it was a misfire.  It just didn’t work for me, though there was a lot that I enjoyed.

I loved the film’s imaginative futuristic setting: the cool, gritty, dirty, Blade Runner-esque future Berlin.  The film and all of its sets/locations were beautifully well-designed.  The world-building is top-notch.  The film is set in an unnamed near-future year, and I loved that what we saw of Berlin was futuristic but at the same time very real and grounded.  That was very cool.  This is a much larger-scale film than Moon, and it’s fun to see Mr. Jones and his team stretch their wings to bring this sci-fi setting to life.  I’m sure this film was made on a budget that’s a fraction of a big studio epic, and Mr. Jones and his team really made the most of their resources.  The film looks great.

The film’s cast is strong.  Alexander Skarsgard cuts an imposing and memorable figure as Leo.  Mr. Skarsgard’s expressive face helps us bring us inside this silent and closed-off character.  Paul Rudd … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Who Are You, Charlie Brown?

August 26th, 2021

Who Are You, Charlie Brown? is a lovely short documentary on Apple TV+, exploring the life of Charles Schultz and the development of his classic Peanuts comic strip and its characters.  The documentary was produced by Ron Howard & Brian Grazer’s Imagine Documentaries and directed by Michael Bonfiglio.

The film is narrated by Lupita Nyong’o, whose beautiful voice is guides us through a concise summary of the life and career of Charles Schultz, the man everyone called “Sparky”.  The film features some great archival interviews with Mr. Schultz himself, and a wealth of new interviews.  It’s interesting and insightful to hear from many of the people who knew and worked with Mr. Schultz, including his widow Jean.  It’s also great fun to hear from an array of successful creative people who loved Peanuts, including Drew Barrymore, Al Roker, Kevin Smith, Billie Jean King, Paul Feig, Ira Glass, Chip Kidd, Lynn Johnston (writer/artist of For Better or For Worse, an iconic comic strip in its own right and a woman who deserves her own documentary feature) and many others.

To my surprise, the documentary aspects of this film were intercut with a new animated Charlie Brown story, in which he struggles to write a school essay answering the question of “Who am I?”.  I quite enjoyed these animated sequences.  The animation style was modern but simple, with beautiful backgrounds and smooth animation.  The animation had a modern look but it was also very much in the style of the classic Charlie Brown animated specials that I loved watching when I was a kid.  The characters and sound effects matched my memory of those old cartoon specials.  They did a great job blending a modern approach with the classic “feel” of those old animated specials.  And I must admit I was surprised by how happy I felt seeing all of the classic Peanuts gang brought to (animated) life again!

My complaint about the film is that it’s too short, and far more superficial than I had hoped.  The actual film is only about fifty-some minutes long, and with all of the animated segments that doesn’t leave much time to actually dig too deeply into Mr. Schultz’s remarkable life and career.  Time and again I’d be enjoying a sequence and then it would end and we’d cut back to an animated segment; as much as I enjoyed those animated segments, I really wish we’d been able to spend more time exploring Mr. Schultz and the development of Peanuts.  For instance, the film only spends about a minute on the classic Peanuts animated specials.  I’d have loved to have learned more about how they came about; how involved was Mr. Schultz in their production; … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Justice Society: World War II

August 23rd, 2021
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In the latest DC animated direct to DVD/blu-ray film, Justice Society: World War II, the Flash winds up zapped from present day back to World War II. There he encounters the Justice Society, a group of superheroes led by Wonder Woman who are fighting alongside the Allies in Europe.

I thought this was a solid, if perhaps unspectacular, film.  I liked the WWII setting.  That was a fun departure from the usual tone of these DC animated films, and there were some cool combat set pieces.  I particularly enjoyed the initial big battle in a smashed French village.  Have I seen that sort of thing before, in Band of Brothers and many other WWII films?  Yes, for sure.  But it was still very well executed with some exciting action animation and gorgeous backgrounds.

From the film’s title and cover art, I wasn’t expecting this to be a Flash story!  So that was a surprise, but not an unpleasant one.  Matt Bomer (who previously voiced Clark Kent/Superman in the 2013 animated film Superman: Unbound)  was great as the voice of Barry/Flash, and the filmmakers did a nice job exploring Barry’s character through this story. That first picnic scene with Iris did a nice job at depicting the basic conflict between Barry’s superhero life and private life.  And I was pleased to see Iris depicted as a person of color, as she often has been on TV and film recently.

I enjoyed that Wonder Woman was such a major character in the film. I really dug Stana Katic’s voice work as Diana.  It’s interesting how several recent DC stories, across different media, have embraced the idea that Diana was around decades before the “present day” of the DCU.  (In the 2017 Wonder Woman feature film, Diana entered man’s world during World War I; the most recent “Infinite Frontier” relaunch of the DC comic book continuity has taken the same approach.)  It’s fun to see Diana kicking ass during WWII.  I like that this film embraced the idea of Diana as a warrior and a leader.  I love seeing the character in such a central role, and depicted with such strength.

I also enjoyed seeing the other Justice Society characters depicted on-screen: Hourman, Black Canary, Hawkman, etc.  We didn’t get to know any of these characters that well, but they were interesting enough for the screen time they got.

I really enjoyed Chris Diamantopoulos (Silicon Valley) as Steve Trevor.  I loved the film’s depiction of the dynamic between Steve and Wonder Woman.

The film was a little choppy, particularly in the opening minutes.  The opening credits were created in a very reto, old-school style, which I liked.  Then we … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Wrath of Man

Wrath of Man is the latest film directed by Guy Ritchie.  Jason Statham stars as the man nicknamed “H,” a security guard for an armored truck company.  In the film’s opening sequence, we see a group of armed men attack and rob one of the company’s trucks, leaving two guards and one bystander dead.  As the story unfolds, we see that this crew is continuing to target the company’s trucks, but the mysterious “H” seems up for the challenge…

I was immediately taken by Guy Ritchie’s first two films: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.  I still love those films even today; I rewatch them every few years and always enjoy them.  For two decades I’ve been waiting for Mr. Ritchie to make a film that can equal either of them.  For the most part I’ve been disappointed.  Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed some of Mr. Ritchie’s adventures in big-budget, mass-audience entertainment — I think Sherlock Holmes is his most successful film of that type — but I’ve been longing for years for him to make another great, gritty, funny crime film.  I thought Mr. Ritchie’s 2020 film, The Gentlemen, was his best film in years and very enjoyable (even with its flaws).  I was excited to see Mr. Ritchie’s latest film, Wrath of Man, but for the most part, I thought this film was a dud.

I wish it were otherwise, but I found very little of interest to me in the film.  There’s a lot of well-staged action and violence, so if you like that sort of thing, you’ll find that to enjoy.  But I felt the film was high on juvenile cuss-words and violence but low on witty dialogue or anything resembling character development.  There’s a dark, grim, dour vibe to the whole undertaking that I didn’t find that engaging.

In specific, I found the first 20-or-so minutes of the film to be terribly off-putting.  I was not engaged by the macho tough guys on screen or their juvenile name-calling, and the nihilistic violence was not my cup of tea.  Also, I found the the brooding soundtrack to be extremely oppressive.  I actually thought the film got more interesting in its second half, but I almost stopped watching after that first twenty-to-thirty minutes.  (Honestly, if Guy Ritchie’s name hadn’t been on this film, I might have.)

I think Jason Statham has terrific movie-star presence, and he can be a very entertaining leading man.  I loved him in Lock, Stock and Snatch.  I’ve particularly enjoyed when he’s been allowed to show some humor on screen, such as in his role in the Melissa McCarthy film Spy.  I was excited to see him … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Suicide Squad

August 11th, 2021
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Five years after the first disappointing Suicide Squad film from DC/Warner Brothers comes another attempt at the property, the similarly-titled The Suicide Squad, written and directed by James Gunn.  It’s sort of crazy to me that DC/Warner Brothers can’t or won’t make another Superman movie, but somehow we’ve gotten two Suicide Squad movies in five years.  Someone explain that to me?  Anyways… after a (thankfully brief) falling out with Disney, James Gunn — who so skillfully wrote and directed the first two Guardians of the Galaxy films — left Marvel for DC, where he took the reins of this franchise.  And, lo and behold, he’s managed to create the film we should have gotten five years ago.  The Suicide Squad is delightfully, gloriously profane and violent and silly and ridiculous and juvenile and I thought it was pretty terrific.

Look, is this a great movie?  I don’t think so.  Is this the type of superhero film I’d ideally like to see?  No, the Marvel epics like Avengers: Infinity War are more my cup of tea.  I sort of wish I had been able to watch Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3 this week, instead of a second Suicide Squad movie.

But The Suicide Squad delivers on exactly what this type of movie should be.  James Gunn seemed to understand precisely what movie to make from this concept: super-villains recruited for a (maybe) good cause.  The Suicide Squad is very funny, it’s filled with violent action and mayhem, and it’s populated by an array of bizarre and compelling characters drawn from the obscure corners of the DC universe, many of whom die terribly before the closing credits roll.  Really, what more could I ask?

Right from the terrific opening scenes I knew that I was in good hands with James Gunn and this movie.  The film opens with a very funny and dark moment featuring a character played by Michael Rooker (Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy), along with a bird and a ball.  We then get some quick, concise exposition that introduces us to the first group of characters.  (This is in marked contrast to the very awkward prolonged opening of the 2016 Suicide Squad, which felt like it introduced the characters and situation three different times.)  Then we jump right into a wild, ultra violent action scene that is fun and crazy and also clearly sets up the premise of the expendable Suicide Squad and just how ruthless their boss Amanda Waller can be.  And, with that, we’re off to the races.

The Suicide Squad can be seen and enjoyed without having seen the 2016 film, or any other recent DC/Warner Brothers film for that matter.  At the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Batman: Soul of the Dragon

Batman: Soul of the Dragon is one of the most interesting DC animated direct-to-DVD/blu-ray films to come down the pike in the past several years.  This out of continuity story features Bruce Wayne/Batman and other (relatively obscure) DC characters in a 1970’s style martial arts action movie.  It’s a hoot!

The story is set in the seventies.  Bruce Wayne is just beginning his crimefighting career in Gotham City.  As the film opens, we meet Richard Dragon, an ass-kicking James Bond type, albeit one who uses martial arts.  Richard is on the trail of an evil secret snake cult called Kobra.  It turns out that Kobra is seeking the key to an ancient evil, one that is connected to Richard and Bruce’s shared past as younger men, when they trained together in the secret city of Nanda Parbat.  Also at Nanda Parbat, years ago, were Lady Shiva and Ben Turner (Bronze Tiger).  The four surviving students of their dead sensei must now reunite to combat this rising menace.

Soul of the Dragon is enjoyably dripping with seventies vibe!  The music, the outfits, the locations, all combine to give this movie a wonderfully retro feel.  I love how the film was able to incorporate aspects of Denny O’Neil’s classic martial arts DC comics from the seventies, as well as other movies from that era.

The film feels far more like a classic James Bond spy film than it does a superhero adventure, and I love it for that!  The movie wisely keeps Batman and the other characters in their civilian clothes for most of the movie.  It’s a great choice, one of many stylistic aspects that sets this animated film apart from the usual way these DC animated films play out.

That Bond movie approach is front and center right from the start of the film’s terrific opening sequence, a very James Bond-like opening in which Richard Dragon fights bad guys and then parachutes onto a yacht with girls in bikinis.  I thought that was hilarious and a great way to open the movie.

I liked that Richard Dragon, more than Bruce Wayne/Batman, was the main character in the film.  (Actually, there’s part of me that wishes Batman wasn’t in this movie at all, and that Richard could have been 100% the lead.  I understand they need Batman’s involvement to market these animated films, and I do love all the Batman/Bruce Wayne stuff in the movie.  Still, it would have been interesting to have allowed Richard, along with Shiva and Ben Turner, to carry the movie on their own.)  Richard Dragon is a cool character, and Mark Dacascos is very strong in the role.  I quite liked every member of the film’s … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Black Widow

The Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have finally returned, after their longest hiatus since the earliest days of the MCU, with Black Widow!  I have not yet ventured back into a movie theater, but I was delighted to be able to watch Black Widow on Disney+.  Marvel’s Phase 4 was supposed to launch with this film back in May 2020, but it was of course delayed by the pandemic.  This Black Widow solo film shines a long-awaited spotlight on Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, and it’s another strong outing from the fine folks at Marvel.  (Beware minor spoilers in this review — to go into the film completely unspoiled, you should watch the film first and then read this review!)

The film is set after the dissolution of the Avengers at the end of Captain America: Civil War, and before the events of Avengers: Infinity War.  I was wondering if the film would open with a framing sequence set after the events of Infinity War/Endgame (the “present” of the MCU, though I believe that Endgame takes place in 2023), but I was impressed that the filmmakers evidently thought that wasn’t necessary and that the audience would be able to quickly figure out this film’s place in the MCU timeline.

We’ve gotten hints in previous films, especially in Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, about Natasha’s past as a Russian assassin who has a lot of “red on her ledger”.  It’s exciting to finally get to explore her backstory in more detail here.  I wasn’t expecting the film to open with a set-up reminiscent of the wonderful TV show The Americans, in which we see Natasha and her sister Yelena as young kids living in Ohio with “parents” who are actually undercover Russian agents.  I loved that whole opening sequence and the great car/plane chase sequence it builds to.  That was a great way to open the film!

I was a little dubious of Scarlett Johansson’s casting as Natasha Romanoff back when she first appeared way back in Iron Man 2.  Ms. Johansson is a great actress, but she seemed so American to me that she felt miscast, and that film didn’t make the best use of her.  But I loved her immediately in The Avengers, right from that wonderful introductory scene when Coulson interrupts her on the phone when she’s undercover… and then the terrific next scene when she makes contact with Bruce Banner.  Suddenly the character seemed to come into focus, and I’ve enjoyed following her story through the films, building to her very moving sacrifice in Avengers: Infinity War.  I was sorry to see her go!  Thankfully, Marvel decided to give a gift to the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews In the Heights

I watched In the Heights on HBO Max and I loved it!  The film was directed by John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians), based on the musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda.  I’ve never seen the musical on stage, and I have been very excited to see this film version ever since it was announced.  It did not disappoint!

In the Heights follows a momentous handful of days in the lives of many denizens, young and old, of the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City.  Anthony Ramos, who played John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Hamilton, steps into the starring role here as Usnavi de la Vega, a young man dreaming of returning to the spot in the Dominican Republic from where his family originated.  I loved Mr. Ramos in Hamilton, of course, but he blew me away with his fantastic work as the lead here.  Mr. Ramos effortlessly carries the audience through the story of the film.  He’s a remarkably engaging performer, and I immediately connected with Usnavi’s “who am I?” dilemma.

Shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Ramos stand two fantastic young women.  Melissa Barrera plays Vanessa, who works in the neighborhood salon but dreams of becoming a designer on her own.  It’s immediately clear that Usnavi has a huge crush on Vanessa; with a little help from young Sonny, Usnavi asks Vanessa out on a date.  But how can they start a relationship when Usnavi is planning on leaving the country?  Leslie Grace plays Nina Rosario; seen as a neighborhood success story, Nina is returning after her first semester at Stamford University, but Nina is embarrassed to admit she felt like an outsider at Stamford and doesn’t want to go back.  Both women turn in star-making performances here.  That’s something of a misnomer, actually, since both women have already had lengthy careers.  But I expect/hope that their work in this film will take them to new heights.  Both Ms. Barrera and Ms. Grace are fantastic singers and dancers, but more importantly they both imbue their characters with tremendous soul and depth.

Those three characters form the central trio of the film, but one of my favorite aspects of In the Heights was how large and well-developed the main ensemble was.  I love that the film explores the stories of many different people within the neighborhood, at different stages of their lives.  Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton, Kong: Skull Island) is fantastic as Usnavi’s best friend Benny, who was in a relationship with Nina before she left town to go to school.  Mr. Hawkins has a gorgeous singing voice, and I really enjoyed his character.  Olga Merediz is fantastic as Abuela Claudia, the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Without Remorse

June 14th, 2021

I was very excited when it was first announced that Michael B. Jordan would be starring in a feature adaptation of Tom Clancy’s novel Without Remorse.  I recently watched the film, streaming on Amazon Prime.  It’s a solid mid-level action movie, but I must confess that I had hoped for better.

I’ve never read Mr. Clancy’s novel, but from what I know of the book, this film seems to have completely reinvented the story.  Michael B. Jordan plays John Kelly, a Navy SEAL who, as the film opens, is involved with his team in the dangerous rescue of a captured CIA operative.  Kelly and his team believe they’re rescuing the CIA agent from Syrians, but the group turn out to be Russian military.  In revenge, the Russians hunt down and kill most of Kelly’s team, and also his pregnant wife.  Kelly is grievously injured but survives, and with the help of his friend Karen Greer (whose uncle is Jack Ryan’s friend Jim Greer), he sets out to find the Russians.  Greer wants to stop a potentially violent group, while Kelly is out for revenge…

Michael B. Jordan is, as always, great.  He has a magnetic charisma that commands the screen.  His physical presence is impressive, but more impressive is how he can bring a rich inner life to the characters he portrays.  What works in Without Remorse is mostly a credit to Mr. Jordan.  He’s inspired casting for this character (who will become John Clark, an important character in the Tom Clancy universe).  The force of his personality pulled me, as an audience member, into the film.  He elevates what is otherwise just a so-so action movie.

There’s a lot of plot in this film, but I didn’t feel it came together in a way that made much sense, or that felt natural and smooth.  I found a lot of problems.  We don’t get to know Kelly’s team well enough at the start of the film for their deaths to carry much weight.  On the other hand, I was extremely bummed by the murder of Kelly’s pregnant wife.  In 2021, haven’t we moved beyond the idea of having a woman’s murder be used as the inspiring incident for a male hero?  Enough of that already.  The film eventually builds to the idea that someone is trying to provoke the United States and Russia into war, which is a sort of hokey James Bond villain premise that the movie never really sells.  (Also, the identity of the behind-the-scenes villain is painfully easy to guess.)

The cast is solid but I didn’t feel the characters were developed as deeply as I’d hoped.  I loved Jodie Turner-Smith’s work as Karen Greer, and I … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The New Mutants

The New Mutants film, directed by Josh Boone and written by Mr. Boone and Knate Lee, was originally filmed back in 2017.  It was meant to be a spin-off of Fox’s X-Men film series, telling the story of a group of teenagers trapped in a hospital for young mutants whose powers are out of control.  But the film’s release date was rescheduled multiple times, and there were lots of rumors in the press about plans for reshoots to adjust the direction and tone of the film.  (To the best of my understanding, those reshoots never happened.)  Then the X-Men series flamed out (with the very bad Dark Phoenix film).  Then Disney bought Fox.  Then the pandemic happened.  The film was finally released to theaters last summer, at the end of August, 2020.  I certainly wasn’t going to a movie theater during a pandemic, but a few months back I caught up with the film on streaming.

I wish I could report that this was a misunderstood film whose release was bungled, but I’m afraid I found it as mediocre as I’d expected it to be.  At the same time, the film isn’t the catastrophe one might have expected for a major studio movie that was buried for several years.  Josh Boone & co. clearly had a very specific vision for this film: to take these superhero characters and put them into a horror movie setting.  While the X-Men movies tended to be large-scale big-budget spectacles, The New Mutants was designed to be a very small-scale story, with a small cast in a confined setting, set very much in a real-world environment (with no super-hero costumes to be found).  I can understand the appeal of those ideas.  And it’s not impossible that this could have worked.

But as executed, I found The New Mutants to be underwhelming.  It’s disappointing to see these great comic book characters brought to the screen in this small-scale, low-budget way.  I might have been happy with this interpretation twenty years ago.  But now, after twenty-plus amazing MCU movies, it bums me out to see great super-hero characters depicted in this manner.  It feels as if the filmmakers didn’t have faith in the original characters and concepts, and so they felt they had to strip away all the super-hero, comic-book trappings.  That’s a disappointment.

But it still could have worked, if the character dramas were compelling and interesting.  Unfortunately, while I loved the cast (more on this in a moment), I didn’t find too much to grab hold of in the film.  The characters felt thinly sketched to me.  I didn’t lock into any of their stories or arcs nearly as deeply as I’d hoped.… [continued]

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Josh Reviews Godzilla vs. Kong

April 14th, 2021

Well, I have to admit to at least being somewhat impressed that the folks at Legendary powered through and made their monster-movie crossover, despite the somewhat lackluster box office performance of the previous movies in the series.  For myself, I thought Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla was OK, and I really dug 2017’s Kong: Skull Island; but I thought 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters was terrible.  But here we are, at the big smack-down between Godzilla and Kong.  Godzilla vs. Kong is fun to watch, but wowsers, the movie is eye-rollingly dumb.

For a movie called Godzilla vs. Kong, there isn’t nearly as much Godzilla versus Kong fighting as I’d expected.  The film makes us wait quite a while for their first tussle (a fight in the middle of the ocean that ends in a weirdly inconclusive way).  However, I did quite enjoy their big third act smackdown in the middle of Hong Kong.

This is a big-budget visual effects spectacle, and the film looks great.  Both Kong and Godzilla look terrific on screen; the CGI is very realistic.  I had an easy time accepting that these two huge crazy monsters actually exist.  There’s quite a lot of CGI carnage when the monsters battle.  I was impressed with the scale of the film, and I had fun watching these two famous movie monsters go at it.  When the movie pushes the boring human characters to the rear and lets Kong and Godzilla tussle, it’s a lot of fun!

The realization of Kong is my favorite aspect of the film.  I really like the look of Kong here.  He looks a lot older and more grizzled than he did in Skull Island.  (This film is set half a century later, so that makes sense.). Kong is insanely ginormous, but I guess that was needed so that he could match up against Godzilla.  I can go with with it.  Most importantly, Kong feels like a real character in a way that none of the human beings in the film actually do!

The movie has a great cast, though sadly none of them are given anything to do.  This film isn’t quite as ridiculously dumb as Godzilla: King of the Monsters… but it’s nevertheless disappointingly populated with one-dimensional characters and nonsensical plot twists.

The best character in the film is the deaf young girl Jia, played by Kaylee Hottle.  This young child actor is phenomenal; so emotive and naturalistic!  I was bowled over.  Rebecca Hall plays  Dr. Ilene Andrews, a Monarch scientist who’s been looking after Kong.  I love Ms. Hall, and she’s a charismatic on-screen presence, but we never really get to know her character at all.  Why is she … [continued]

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Josh Reviews On the Rocks

Sofia Coppola’s latest film, On the Rocks, stars Rashida Jones as Laura, a woman who begins to suspect that her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is cheating on her.  So Laura enlists the aid of her wealthy, playboy-like father, Felix, to track Dean and get to the bottom of what’s going on.  Felix is played by Bill Murray, reuniting at last with Ms. Coppola for the first time since Lost in Translation.  This was one of my favorite movies of 2020!

On the Rocks is very funny.  The pairing of Mr. Murray and Ms. Jones yields as much comedic fruit as I’d hoped.  At the same time, On the Rocks is also a moving, sometimes sad story of the complicated relationship between Laura and her father.  I love how nuanced this film’s storytelling is.  No one is reduced to a simple character, a hero or a villain.  Everyone in this film is imperfect, and Ms. Coppola demonstrates an endearing amount of affection for these broken, flawed people.  I love that about the film.

Both Rashida Jones and Bill Murray are absolutely delightful in the film.  I love their chemistry with one another.  The film really takes off when the two of them are on-screen together, bouncing off one another.  Thankfully, the film’s loose, leisurely pace gives them plenty of time together to play.

This is not a film that is very heavy on plot.  In less-skilled hands that might have resulted in a boring, meandering story.  But what Ms. Coppola has created is a wonderfully engaging character study of these two imperfect people, and the many layers of their relationship with one another.  The film avoids the type of Big Dramatic plot twists or surprises that you might expect to see.  There are a few crazy situations, but for the most part the movie is pleasurably grounded in what feels like real life.

The film sings because of the performances of its two leads.  Bill Murray is magnetic; his charm and charisma show us how Felix has been able to dance his way so successfully through life.  (One of my favorite scenes in the film is the way Felix is able to almost effortlessly turn around what begins as a tense interaction with a policeman.  What’s unspoken yet omnipresent is that things might have played out very differently for Laura, a woman of color, had her wealthy white father not been there.)  And yet Ms. Coppola doesn’t allow Bill Murray’s likability to ever let Felix all the way off the hook for his bad behavior, the ripples of which Laura is clearly still struggling with.  Felix has left significant damage in his wake; and yet, at the same time, there’s … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Greyhound

April 7th, 2021
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Earlier this week I reviewed News of the World, one of two great Tom Hanks films released in the latter part of 2020.  The other was Greyhound.  Based on the 1955 novel The Good Shepherd by C. S. Forester, the film depicts several terrifying days in the middle of the Atlantic during World War II.  Mr. Hanks plays Commander Ernest Krause, who has been assigned to captain the Fletcher-class destroyer the USS Keeling (whose radio call sign is “Greyhound”).  Their mission: escort a fleet of 37 Allied supply ships across the Atlantic to England.  However, for several days, the fleet is out of range of air support, during which they are terrifyingly menaced by a pack of German submarines.

Greyhound is a taut, intense thriller.  It was one of my favorites of 2020!  This is a nail-biter of a film.  I was on the edge of my seat throughout this film’s short run-time.  It’s only 91 minutes long!  I can’t remember the last mainstream drama or action film that was so short.  It’s a nice change of pace, and the film zips along entertainingly.

Tom Hanks is spectacular, as always.  He imbues Commander Krause with an endearing nobility.  (This is yet another in the list of strong leaders of men who Mr. Hanks has played in his career.)  Mr. Hanks’ skill at bringing complete verisimilitude to his characters serves him well here.  It’s Mr. Hanks’ focused commitment to the role that draws in the audience and makes us fully believe the reality of the intense and dangerous situation in which the crew of the Greyhound find themselves.

I loved how thoroughly the film (written by Mr. Hanks, and directed by Aaron Schneider) immerses the viewer in the jargon and atmosphere of this ship at war.  We’re thrown right into the middle of the story, and the film doesn’t stop to hold your hand and spell out exactly what everything means and how it works.  Nevertheless, the storytelling is crisp and clear.  I didn’t know all of the terminology, but I was never confused about what was happening.  Mr. Hanks has not written too many films, but when he does he consistently demonstrates a confident hand, and Greyhound is no exception.

Mr. Schneider and his team did a great job of realistically recreating the world of this film — the ships, the uniforms, the props, etc. — on a relatively low budget (around $50 million).  The film looks great and it never felt fake or stage-bound to me.  There are a handful of expansive, presumably CGI shots that show us the geography of the fleet of Allied ships, but for the most part the film keeps us in just … [continued]

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Josh Reviews News of the World

In News of the World, Tom Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of the Civil War who now eeks out a living by traveling from town to town to read from newspapers for the townspeople’s entertainment and edification.  Captain Kidd winds up entangled with a young girl named Johanna, who was kidnapped from her family years ago and raised among a tribe of Native Americans; now she is alone and Captain Kidd sets out to reunite her with her surviving family members.  This was one of my favorite movies of 2020!

News of the World was adapted from the novel by Paulette Jiles and was directed by Paul Greengrass, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Luke Davies.  I thought the film was a delightful departure for Mr. Greengrass.  It’s far more slowly paced and elegiac than the intense dramas and action films for which Mr. Greengrass is best known (The Bourne films, Green Zone, Captain Phillips).  But Mr. Greengrass’ skill is on display in every frame of this beautiful, melancholy film.  His eye for composition is well evident.  This is a gorgeous film to look at; the vistas of the American frontier are dazzling.  Mr. Greengrass’ skill at character drama are front and center.  And he remains an expert at crafting an action sequence, such as the tense mid-movie shoot-out between Tom Hanks’ character, Captain Kidd, and the three criminals who try to steal Johanna away from him.

There’s nothing earth-shatteringly surprising or original in the film’s story.  I’ve seen many previous versions of this story, in which a tough older man gradually bonds with a younger child thrust into his care.  And yet I was pleased by how well the film drew me into this tale, despite the familiarity of its overall structure.  I quite enjoyed this film; I was invested in these characters’ story.

A good deal of the credit must go to the strong two main actors.  Let’s start with the great Tom Hanks, who gives yet another spectacular performance.  Now, admittedly, this isn’t exactly groundbreaking territory for Mr. Hanks; he’s played the grizzled guy with a heart of gold before.  But the power of his charisma and persona shine through the screen in a way that is quite remarkable.  And when Mr. Hanks really brings it, there are few who can match him.  I’m thinking in particular of a scene, late in the film, in which Captain Kidd finally faces the grief he’s buried.  It’s an extraordinary few moments of film.  That scene stuck with me long after I’d finished watching this movie.

Helena Zengel plays Johanna.  She’s gotten a lot of acclaim for her performance (including being nominated for a Golden … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Vast of Night

April 1st, 2021

In a small New Mexico town in the 1950’s, on a night in which most of the town is gathered in the local gymnasium for a basketball game, the young switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick), and her friend, local radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz ), hear a mysterious sound that they come to believe is extra-terrestrial.  In the time it takes for the basketball game to be played, Fay and DJ find themselves drawn into a tense adventure, as they seek to uncover the truth of what’s been happening in their town.

I was completely blown away by this film!  (I listed it as one of my favorite films of 2020!!)  First-time filmmaker Andrew Patterson has exploded onto the scene with this wonderful sci-fi drama.   Mr. Patterson also co-wrote the film (under the pseudonym James Montague), along with Craig W. Sanger.

The film was made for a tiny budget (less than a million dollars), and it is beautifully simple, featuring a very small cast.  But Mr. Patterson and his team have stretched their resources with incredible skill to create a wonderfully fully-realized film that feels much larger than it actually is.  This is a completely professional-looking, polished piece of work.  If you’d told me this was made for $50 million for a studio, I’d have believed you.

Mr. Patterson’s camera-work and technical virtuosity is impressive.  The film is structured around a series of lengthy takes that are visually stunning and that also do a terrific job at ratcheting up the tension.  Time after time, I found myself giddy with delight as I realized that I was watching what looked like an extremely lengthy, uncut take.  The film opens with a jaw-dropping sequence in which we watch DJ walk through the packed school gymnasium, as the basketball game is about to begin, moving throughout the crowd and jumping in and out of various conversations.  I was astounded watching this sequence unfold, as I started to realized we hadn’t yet seen a cut.  It’s a bold announcement of the film’s ambitions, and things only get more impressive from there.  In particular, there’s one tracking shot that moves through a huge stretch of the town that absolutely blew me away.  (I’m sure there was some hidden editing in that shot and some of those others, but I was looking carefully and, if they were there, the edits were flawlessly hidden.)

The film’s two young stars, Ms. McCormick (who plays Fay) and Mr. Horowitz (who plays DJ), rise to the challenge of having to perform in these long, theater-like takes.  There’s one especially stunning sequence in which Ms. McCormick performs a lengthy sequence, all alone, while she’s working the switchboard; I had … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Palm Springs

In Palm Springs, written by Andy Siara and directed by Max Barbakov, Andy Samberg stars as Nyles, a man who, we quickly discover, has been trapped in a Groundhog Day style time loop.  Nyles has been living the same day over and over and over.  That day happens to be the wedding of Tala and Abe, and Nyles is there because his girlfriend Misty is a bridesmaid.  Nyles has already arrived at the point that we saw Bill Murray get to in the middle of Groundhog Day — he’s already lived this day uncounted times, and he’s become resigned to his fate that he will continue reliving that day forever.  But then something changes: Nyles hooks up with the bride’s sister Sarah (Cristin Miloti), and she winds up stuck in the time-loop with him!  Things get crazier from there.

Who knew how much I would love yet another riff on Groundhog Day?  Last year I fell in love with the Groundhog Day type story of Russian Doll.  When I first heard about Palm Springs, I am pretty sure I gave a mental eye-roll.  Yet another Groundhog Day riff??  I was already surprised that I’d enjoyed Russian Doll as much as I did.  There was no way I’d be into still another play on Groundhog Day, was there?

And yet, Palm Springs is an absolute delight!   I was completely surprised by how much I loved this film.  (I listed it as my #2 favorite film of 2020!!)

First off, the film is very, very funny.  As it did in Groundhog Day, this concept proves a fertile ground for comedy.  And yet, while the basic set-up is similar, I was pleased that Palm Springs takes this story in very different directions than Groundhog Day did.  The film is perfectly paced; the story unfolds in a delightfully pleasing manner.  The film has a number of fun twists and turns that kept me guessing throughout (and that I will not spoil here in this review).  This is a film best viewed without knowing much about its story beyond the basic premise.

I will say that I was pleased that Palm Springs proved to be as rich a character piece as Groundhog Day did.  This is not an empty farce.  Palm Springs is a very funny comedy, but it’s also a great character piece that explores these two damaged people, Nyles and Sarah.  The events in the film have real emotional stakes for them.  This is a quality in almost all of my favorite comedies.  I think having some dramatic weight to the story enhances the comedy.

Andy Samberg and Cristin Miloti are both terrific in the lead roles.  I’m sure it’s … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Snyder Cut of Justice League!

Let’s start here: I’m a Zack Snyder fan.  I was blown away by his adaptation of 300 when it was released in 2006, and I’m a staunch defender of his adaptation of Watchmen (especially the super-long “Ultimate Cut”) which, while flawed, is still a heck of a great movie.  I’ve been a little colder on his DC movies.  There was a lot that I loved about Man of Steel, though it demonstrated a worrisome lack of understanding of the characters (particularly Superman himself, and also Pa Kent) and it bungled its ending.  Batman v. Superman was a mess (though the longer extended cut is far more watchable).  Whatever you think of those films, and of the original theatrical cut of Justice League (which I liked, by the way — oh, it’s a huge mess and the seams of Mr. Whedon’s mid-production reworking of the film are painfully obvious, but I enjoyed it and appreciated the lighter touch of the film after the overly dour Batman v. Superman), I think it’d be difficult to deny that Zack Snyder was poorly treated by Warner Brothers.  I have always thought it a shame that he’d been working for years on those DC universe films, and that he’d actually filmed most of Justice League, but that he wasn’t able to complete the film and, instead, it was mostly rewritten and reshot by another filmmaker.  I was always dubious that the rumored “Snyder Cut” of Justice League was some sort of buried masterpiece.  Remember, Mr. Snyder’s Batman v. Superman was not a good movie.  But I’ve always been curious as to what he originally intended for the film, and I was thrilled to learn that, with the backing of HBO Max, he was finally being allowed to complete his original vision for Justice League.

In evaluating the Snyder Cut of Justice League, one must first make clear that there is no way that this four-hour behemoth is what would have been released to theaters had Mr. Snyder been allowed to complete his film as originally intended.   He certainly would have edited this film down, tightening up the scenes and eliminating the bloat.  This might have been a long film — far longer than Joss Whedon’s zippy Justice League theatrical cut was — but it clearly wouldn’t have looked anything like this.  For this release on HBO Max, Mr. Snyder seems to have taken the approach of including anything and everything that he filmed.  This feels more like an “assembly cut” of the film — a standard practice in which an editor assembles all of the scenes shot for the film, in order, at which point the editor and director begin their work … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Midnight Sky

The Midnight Sky stars George Clooney (who also directed the film) as a grizzled scientist left alone at an arctic research station after an environmental catastrophe has devastated the globe.  After a while, he discovers that he is not as alone as he’d thought: a young girl has secretly stayed behind at the station along with him.  Together, the two must face a perilous journey in an attempt to warn a crew of astronauts, returning to Earth, of the danger that awaits them.

The Midnight Sky was written by Mark L. Smith (who wrote The Revenant and is one of many different people who were at one time attached to write the as-yet-unmade fourth Star Trek film for J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot studios), adapting the novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton.  (I have not read that novel, so I am judging The Midnight Sky based on the film, alone.)  The brief description I wrote above is one that appeals to me, and I am always excited for a new original sci-fi film.  I loved the first two films George Clooney directed (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck), and while in my opinion none of his subsequent films have been nearly as good, I know he has skills as a director and I was excited to see what he could do with a sci-fi story.  And yet, unfortunately, I must report that I found The Midnight Sky to be a huge disappointment.

The film started off well!  I really enjoyed the mysterious set-up; I love that the film doesn’t hold our hand to spell out what exactly is going on.  We’re forced to catch up with events as we see the evacuation of the research station, and see that George Clooney’s character (who we later find out is named Augustine) has stayed behind for reasons that at first are unclear.  I really dug this almost wordless early-going, as we watch the story unfold as basically a silent film.  We follow Augustine’s life alone at the station and, then, the events that unfold after he discovers the young girl (whose name we learn is Iris), who appears mute.  George Clooney is a far better actor than his movie-star celebrity might lead one to believe; he’s incredibly compelling to watch in these early scenes.  And I quite enjoyed the silent work of Caoilinn Springall, the young actress who plays Iris.  These sections are also beautifully directed by Mr. Clooney, who finds some compelling and eerie visuals in these scenes of two people alone amidst the cold technology of the base and the arctic expanse that surrounds them.

But then the film starts cutting away from Augustine … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Da 5 Bloods

March 17th, 2021
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In Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee’s 2020 film, four Vietnam veterans (played byDelroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isaiah Whitlock, Jr.) reunite to travel back to ‘Nam.  Purportedly their mission is to recover and bring home the body of their fallen squad leader, but in fact they’re after a crate of CIA gold that they found and buried back during the war.  I was extremely taken by this film.  (It was one of my favorite movies of 2020!)

First of all: what a cast.  Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. are each absolutely fantastic as the four surviving “Bloods”.  Delroy Lindo plays Paul, who on the surface seems like the most haunted of the men by his experiences in the war.  Mr. Lindo’s blazing intensity is extremely well-used in the film.  As an audience member I was fearful both for and of Paul from the first moment I laid eyes on him, and wow does Mr. Lindo just crush several key monologues in the film.  I fell in love with Clarke Peters in The Wire and then again in (the beautiful, brilliant, vastly underseen) Treme, and he is marvelous as always here as Otis.  Otis seems to have made most of the arrangements for this return visit to Vietnam, and some of those arrangements seem like they might have been a little sketchy.  Mr. Peters’ innate likability plays nicely against the suspicions the film’s plot raises about Otis.  Norm Lewis plays Eddie, who seems to be the most financially successful of the Bloods, though he is still committed to this mission back into the jungle with his friends (for reasons we discover).  I love how Mr. Lewis makes Eddie the Blood who seems the most out of his element, back in the jungles of ‘Nam.  Then there is Isaiah Whitlock, Jr.; if the movie did nothing more other than to give him a new opportunity to say “sheeeee-it” on film (something which made this fan of The Wire supremely happy), then dayyenu!  That would have been enough.  But he’s got a lot of fun things to do in the film; he might just have been the Blood I most wanted to see get out of this situation intact!  (Though, seriously: that “sheeeee-it” is reason alone to see this film!)  Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Lovecraft Country) is very solid as Paul’s grown-up son David, who finagles his way into being a part oof the men’s mission.

The late, great Chadwick Boseman is tremendous, as he always was, as the Bloods’ dead leader “Stormin” Norman.  Mr. Boseman isn’t in too many scenes, but his role is critical.  We need … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Raya and the Last Dragon

Menaced by the Druun (seemingly unstoppable evil entities that turn people to stone), the once-prosperous, peaceful nation of Kumandra has fractured into five bitterly divided, isolated tribes: Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail.  What little hope still existed could be found in the orb containing the spirit of the last of a once mighty, magical race of dragons.  But when young Raya, the daughter of the chief of the Heart tribe, trusts the wrong person, catastrophe strikes and the orb is shattered.  Years later, Raya is desperately seeking to reassemble the pieces of the shattered orb, to find a way to restore harmony to her broken world.

I very much enjoyed Raya and the Last Dragon!  It’s a pleasure to see Disney Animation continuing to operate at the height of their powers.  (They’ve been on an excellent run of movies this past decade!)  The film is an exciting adventure story, with a pleasing balance of fun action and rich characters, set in a delightfully well fleshed-out original world.  The animation is gorgeous, and the voice-cast is top-notch.  It’s hard to ask for more!

It’s a pleasure to see a Disney film that so richly embraces Southeast Asian culture.  The world of Raya and the Last Dragon is an invented fantasy, but weaving through it on many levels are influences from our real-world Southeast Asia.  The film is led by Kelly Marie Tran as Raya, Disney’s first princess (and the story makes sure to clarify that Raya is a princess) of Southeast Asian descent.  Raya was written by Vietnamese-American screenwriter Qui Nguyen and Malaysian screenwriter Adele Lim.

Kelly Marie Tran (so great as Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and so unfairly cast to the side in The Rise of Skywalker) is tremendous in the lead role as Raya.  There’s so much energy and charisma in her vocal performance.  We see Raya’s toughness and her intelligence… and also her deep wells of caring and humanity, even though she has built walls around herself.  Raya is a wonderfully fun, interesting, complex Disney heroine.  For years now Disney has been doing a great job at giving toughness, intelligence, and agency to its female heroines (in Moana, in Frozen, in Wreck-It Ralph, etc.), and Raya is a terrific addition to that lineage.

Then there is Awkwafina, who blew me away as the voice of the Dragon Sisu.  For the first few minutes, this energetic, sassy, wise-talking dragon felt like Mushu (From Mulan) redux, but very quickly Awkwafina made Sisu entirely her own.  She’s very funny in the role, but what really impressed me was the tender soul she was able to give to this silly character.  The buddy-comedy interactions … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The 40-Year-Old Version

February 24th, 2021

Radha Blank wrote, directed, produced, and stars in in The 40-Year-Old Version, a film that I loved and included on my list of my favorite movies of 2020.  This wonderfully off-beat and moving film centers on a fictionalized Radha Blank.  Despite her early success as a playwright, now that Radha is in her forties, she is feeling lost and unmoored.  Things start to change when she unexpectedly finds herself drawn into the word of hip-hop and rhyming, and she starts performing under the name RadhamMUSPrime (a name that made this long-time Transformers fan smile).

While the movie’s title is a play on Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, this film has nothing to do with Mr. Apatow’s film.  It tells a completely different, original story.  (Actually, the title is my least favorite aspect of the film.  This is such a deeply unique film, I think the derivative title does it a disservice.  I can understand why they might have thought the title would help get this movie noticed — and very likely it did!! — but I think it does a poor job of conveying what this wonderful film is all about.)

Ms. Blank is spectacular in the film.  She’s a tremendous comedic force, and she’s also a very strong dramatic actor.  The film allows both sides of her to shine.  There are some terrifically goofy, silly comedic moments in the story, particularly in the first half, and I was immediately taken by how wonderfully Ms. Blank played those moments.  She’s very funny!  And then I was impressed again when she was able to pivot into more soulful, contemplative moments.

Those tonal shifts can be challenging, and there were some moments in the first half hour in which I found myself wondering what kind of movie this was going to turn out to be.  But in the end, I wound up loving both aspects of the film.  I love how silly the film is at times, and yet how at the same time, as the film unfolds, it’s a delight to see how it develops into a very deep character study.  I love Ms. Blank’s boldness in creating a film that would be so audacious in pushing both areas, the silliness and the drama.  She clearly wasn’t afraid to shift between those very different tones.  The result is a film that is a remarkable showcase for her talents in both areas.

The film feels deeply personal.  The story is fictional,  but Ms. Radha was able to take many autobiographical aspects of her own life and spin them into this story.  When artists create and play characters who have the same name as they do in real life, it invites speculation … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story

February 18th, 2021

I vividly remember discovering The Ren & Stimpy Show, back when it first started airing on Nickelodeon in 1991.  I was already a huge animation fan, but this hilarious, disgusting, absolutely bonkers cartoon blew my mind.  I loved it immediately.  I watched those initial six episodes over and over again.   Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood’s documentary Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story is an insightful look back at the creation of this innovative series.  It’s also an exploration of what went wrong, and why the series burned so brightly but for so short a time.  The documentary also addresses the predatory behavior of Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi, a topic about which I was shocked to learn.

Even as a kid, I wondered how the heck this insane cartoon ever got on the air.  I was thrilled that this documentary finally told that story!  Through a multitude of interviews with many of the people involved in the creation and production of The Ren & Stimpy Show, this documentary carefully tracks the show’s development.  I was endlessly fascinated by this section of the documentary!  I love that this story was told through the voices of the men and women who were there, rather than relying on a narrated voice-over.  The documentary contains extensive interview footage with the series’ creator John Kricfalusi, as well as so many others: Bob Camp (whose name I also knew as a kid from The Ren & Stimpy Show’s credits), Lynn Naylor, many of the other animators and production staff-members at Spumco Studios, voice actor Billy West (who voiced Stimpy), Nickelodeon executive Vanessa Coffey, and more.  It’s endlessly interesting to hear from all of these different people!  The documentary is fun and funny; it’s fascinating and jauntily paced and edited so things never get boring even as we get to dive into the details of the very difficult production of Ren & Stimpy.

Just as I immediately recognized the brilliance of The Ren & Stimpy Show as a kid, I also was very soon after aware that something clearly wasn’t quite right behind the scenes.  After those first six episodes aired — and made such a huge splash — it was very strange that no new episodes came for almost an entire year!  (Even those first six episodes didn’t air weekly.  If I’m remembering correctly, there was a wait of about a month between episodes four and five, and then another wait of several months between episodes five and six!)  In between, Nickelodeon just kept re-running the episodes, over and over again.  I was happy to re-watch them endlessly, but also frustrated and confused as to why there weren’t more.  Happy [continued]

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Josh Reviews Tenet

I’ve been a huge Christopher Nolan film ever since watching Memento back in 2000.  I think that Tenet is the first Nolan film since 2002’s Insomnia that I didn’t see on the big screen.  I desperately wanted to, of course, but I didn’t think it wise to go to a theater during the COVID-19 pandemic.  I was sad to miss seeing Tenet in a theater, but I was excited to catch up to it when it was released on streaming.  Sadly, after so much anticipation, I was disappointed by Tenet.  The film is gorgeous to look at, but I found it almost incomprehensible and nearly-impossible to follow.

Mr. Nolan has always impressed me with his mastery of the craft of filmmaking.  He seems to know just how to create beautiful and memorable imagery on screen.  As his career has continued, he’s been working on films of a larger-and-larger scale, and it’s been exciting to see how Mr. Nolan has been able to bring his visions to life in increasingly epic ways.  At the same time, I’ve always loved how playful and creative Mr. Nolan’s stories were with the basic structure of film and its depiction of time.  This was central to the excitement of Memento (in which we followed Leonard Shelby’s story both backwards and forwards), and has woven through many of his subsequent films.

At first, Tenet seemed like a natural extension of these ideas with which Mr. Nolan has been playing for two decades.  In the film, we learn that technology exists to reverse the direction of entropy on an object, or even a human being.  This enables that object or person to move backwards through time.  That’s a cool idea, and once I knew that was the central concept of the film, I immediately assumed that Mr. Nolan would apply that idea to the overall structure of the film as well.  I was excited to see how that would play out.

Many of Mr. Nolan’s films have incorporated mysteries into their structure.  Many of his films hold back key information from the audience until late in the game.  (Again, looking back at Memento, we see that approach to storytelling, as the film withholds certain critical information about Leonard until the very end, which, when revealed, completely changes how we understand all of the events we’d witnessed to that point.)  But, for me, Tenet fails because it holds back so much information that I didn’t have anything to hold onto while watching the film.  Even though the viewer is missing critical information for much of Memento’s run-time, we know enough about what’s going on, and about Leonard himself, to be able to enjoy and follow the film.  … [continued]

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Josh Reviews One Night in Miami

February 8th, 2021
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I only just recently finished listing my favorite movies of 2020, and already I’ve seen one of the first great movies of 2021: One Night in Miami.

The film is a fictionalized version of what might have happened on the night in February, 1965, when Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Malcolm X, and Sam Cooke were together celebrating after Clay’s defeat of Sonny Liston, a moment captured in a famous photograph.  It’s a fascinating exploration of these four complex, charismatic men.  There’s a lot of joy and drama to be found in imagining what these four men might have had to say to one another, and how they might have bounced off of one another.

One Night in Miami was directed by Regina King.  Ms. King is a spectacular actress.  (Most recently I’ve been blown away by her work in Watchmen and the second season of The Leftovers.)  This film proves she’s a skilled director as well.  This is her feature film directorial debut, but you’d never know it.  There’s a confident simplicity to the way the film is staged.  Most of this movie is just a bunch of guys talking in a small hotel room, but Ms. King ensures the film always has a life to it, and a strong visual energy that gives her four incredible leading men plenty of room to shine.  The film was written by Kemp Powers, adapting his own play.  Mr. Powers has had a heck of a year; he also co-directed and co-wrote Pixar’s terrific film Soul.  

The film is a phenomenal showcase for the four extraordinary actors who Ms. King has assembled for the main roles.

Kingsley Ben-Adir is magnetic as Malcolm X.  Malcolm X has often been reduced by (white) historical retellings to a simplistic antithesis to Martin Luthor King, Jr.; I love how this film allows him to live and breathe as a real, multi-faceted human being.  I love how the film, and Mr. Ben-Adir’s performance, doesn’t shy away from mining humor from his straight-laced, even nerdy qualities (it’s pretty funny how he wants to celebrate Cassius Clay’s major victory with some ice cream in his tiny hotel room; and I loved how obsessed we see Malcolm be regarding his camera), while also giving him moments of compelling oratory in which his powerful charisma bursts forth.

Aldis Hodge (Hidden Figures, the wonderful “Calypso” Star Trek short film) is dynamite as football star Jim Brown, who is just around the point in which he’d transition into making movies.  (I just recently watched the 1968 film The Split, in which Jim Brown starred.  He was by far the best part of the film!!)  Mr. Hodge portrays … [continued]

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Click here for part one of my list of my Favorite Movies of 2020, and click here for part two.  And now, let’s dive into my top Five Favorite Movies of 2020!

5. News of the World I wrestled with which 2020 Tom Hanks film I preferred: News of the World or Greyhound.  Ultimately I gave News of the World the higher ranking, but I wonder if I’ll feel differently a year from now.  They’re both great films!  In News of the World, Mr. Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of the Civil War who now eeks out a living by traveling from town to town to read from newspapers for the townspeople’s entertainment and edification.  Captain Kidd winds up entangled with a young girl named Johanna, who was kidnapped from her family years ago and raised among a tribe of Native Americans; now she is alone and Captain Kidd sets out to reunite her with her surviving family members.  The film is adapted from the novel by Paulette Jiles and directed by Paul Greengrass.  I thought the film was a delightful departure for Mr. Greengrass — it’s far more slowly paced and elegiac than the intense dramas and action films for which Mr. Greengrass is best known.  But his skill is on display in every frame of their beautiful, melancholy film.  Tom Hanks gives yet another spectacular performance.  (There’s a scene, late in the film, in which Captain Kidd finally faces the grief he’s buried, and it’s an extraordinary few moments of film.)  This is classical movie-making of the best kind.  (My full review is coming soon.)

4. On the Rocks Sophia Coppola’s latest film stars Rashida Jones as Laura, a woman who begins to suspect that her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is cheating on her.  So Laura enlists the aid of her wealthy, lecherous, “man about town” father, Felix (Bill Murray, reuniting at last with Ms. Coppola for the first time since Lost in Translation), to track Dean and get to the bottom of what’s going on.  On the Rocks is very funny at times — the pairing of Mr. Murray and Ms. Jones yields as much comedic fruit as I’d hoped — while also being a moving, sometimes sad story of the complicated relationship between Laura and her father.  I love how nuanced this film’s storytelling is.  No one is reduced to a simple character, a hero or a villain.  Everyone in this film is imperfect, and Ms. Coppola demonstrates an endearing amount of affection for these broken, flawed people.  I love that about the film.  (My full review is coming soon.)

3. The Vast of Night First-time filmmaker … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2020 — Part Two!

On Monday I began my list of my favorite movies of 2020!  And now, let’s enter my Top Ten:

10. Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary — Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary is exactly what it sounds like — a feature-length look back at the making of 1999’s Galaxy Quest!  It makes me so happy that Galaxy Quest is now getting this type of love.  I have loved Galaxy Quest ever since seeing it in the theater back in 1999, and this documentary (directed by Jack Bennett) was a delight from start to finish.  It’s a joyous celebration of this terrific film, filled with interviews with the entire cast and a deep bench of the behind-the-scenes players who were involved in the creation of this great sci-fi comedy.  If you’re a Galaxy Quest fan, this is a must-watch.  (Click here for my full review.)

9. The 40-Year-Old Version Radha Blank wrote, directed, produced, and stars in this wonderfully off-beat and moving film about a woman named Radha who, despite early success as a playwright, is now, in her forties, feeling lost and unmoored.  Ms. Blank is spectacular in the film.  She’s a tremendous comedic force, and she’s also a very strong dramatic actor.  I love how silly the film is at times, and yet how at the same time, as the film unfolds, it develops into a very deep character study.  Ms. Radha was able to take many autobiographical aspects of her own life and spin them into this beautiful and unusual film.  While the title is a play on Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, this film has nothing to do with Mr. Apatow’s film.  It tells a completely different, very original, story.  I loved it.  (My full review will be coming soon.)  (Above photo by Eric Branco, Courtesy of Sundance Institute.)

8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Adapted from the play by August Wilson, this beautiful and heartbreaking film, from director George C. Wolfe, is set in 1927 and depicts a very contentious day in the life of African-American blues singer Ma Rainey and her band.  The film features the final performance of the late, great Chadwick Boseman, who is absolutely mesmerizing as Levee, the brash young trumpeter in Ma’s band.  (Mr. Boseman was also in Da 5 Bloods, which made part 1 of my best of 2020 list.)  Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey, and it’s a powerhouse of a performance.  The film is gorgeous, compelling, and emotionally wrenching.  (Click here for my full review.)

7. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan Sacha Baron Cohen’s brilliant sequel is hilarious and … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2020 — Part One!

I hope you enjoyed my look back at my favorite TV series of 2020!  And now, let’s dive into my favorite movies of 2020:

15. Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story I was a huge fan of The Ren & Stimpy Show back when it first started airing on Nickelodeon in the early nineties.  Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood’s documentary is an insightful, in-depth look back at the creation of this innovative series.  It’s also an exploration of what went wrong, and why the series burned so brightly but for so short a time.  In addition to taking a deep dive into the creation and production of The Ren & Stimpy Show, the documentary contains extensive interview footage Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi, who in recent years has been accused of sexual abuse of two minors.  It’s fascinating and disturbing to hear directly from Mr. Kricfalusi.  Watching this documentary made me very happy, and also very sad.

14.  An American Pickle Seth Rogen plays dual roles as Herschel Greenbaum (frozen in a vat of pickles back in 1919 and awoken in 2020) and his great-grandson Ben Greenbaum.  Watching Seth Rogen play against himself is every bit as fun as you might expect.  It’s a terrific acting performance, and the visual effects are absolutely seamless.  Bravo to director Brandon Trost and his team!  The film is funny, and also, in the end, surprisingly sweet.  I quite enjoyed the way the film embraced the value of Jewish ritual and prayer.  If only the third act was stronger, this film would be much higher on my list.  (The late-in-the-film plot twist in which Herschel started getting into trouble for saying lots of inappropriate-in-2020 things might have seemed funny on paper, but in execution it spoiled my connection with the character and enjoyment of what had been a great film.  The film is still worth seeing — that’s why it’s on my list! — but those third act problems keep it from greatness, in my opinion.)  (Click here for my full review.)

13.  Da 5 Bloods I thoroughly enjoyed Spike Lee’s latest film, in which four Vietnam veterans reunite to travel back to ‘Nam.  Purportedly their mission is to recover and bring home the body of their fallen squad leader, but in fact they’re after a crate of CIA gold that they found and buried back during the war.  The cast is spectacular: Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. are fantastic as the four surviving “Bloods”, and the late great Chadwick Boseman is tremendous, as he always was, as their dead leader “Stormin” Norman.  The Vietnam caper aspect of the story … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was adapted from the play by August Wilson.  Set in 1927, it depicts a very contentious day in the life of African-American blues singer Ma Rainey and her band.  They’re recording Ma Rainey’s music in Chicago for a white record producer, as arranged by her white agent.  As the day winds on, the tensions rise between the members of Ma’s band and also between Ma and the two white men overseeing the session.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is beautiful and heartbreaking.  Director George C. Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson have done a terrific job adapting August Wilson’s play for this film.  The film retains the feeling of a theatrical experience.  The theatrical rhythm of the dialogue has been thankfully preserved.  And the fact that the film basically takes place in only two rooms belies its theatrical origins.  But this film never felt like a dry, limited adaptation, a pale reflection of what might have been more lively on the stage (the way films adapted from plays can sometimes be).  Mr. Wolfe and his collaborators have beautifully brought this story and these characters to life on the screen in a way that works perfectly as a movie.

Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey, and it’s a powerhouse of a performance.  Ms. Davis’ fiery charisma commands the screen with her presence.  At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of Ma.  After just recently watching Mank, at first I wasn’t wild to be watching what seemed to be another story of a misbehaving, over-entitled, selfish “artist”.  But there’s a lot more to this character, and one of the best delights of this film is the way the story very slowly peels back the layers of Ma Rainey until we understand what’s really going on.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is sadly the final performance of the late, great Chadwick Boseman.  And what a performance it is.  Mr. Boseman is absolutely mesmerizing as Levee, the brash young trumpeter in Ma’s band.  Levee is a hot young turk with tremendous energy and enthusiasm, and he seems to have the musical skills to back up his ego.  But there’s anger underneath Levee’s beaming smile, and a hunger for more than he has.  Mr. Boseman gets to deliver two crucial monologues in the film, and they are both showstoppers.  I don’t believe Mr. Boseman was ever better, and that’s saying something.  His work here is a bravura performance that only twists the knife of anguish over this great artist who passed away at far too young an age.

The entire ensemble is terrific.  Glynn Turman (Baltimore mayor Royce on The Wire) is fiercely compelling as Toledo, the soft-spoken piano player who’s the old … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Mank

David Fincher’s latest film, Mank, tells the story of Herman Mankiewicz, the man who wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane along with Orson Welles.  Mank depicts the weeks in 1940 during which the alcoholic Mank worked on the Kane screenplay, while being almost completely bed-ridden due to his recovery from a broken leg.  The film also flashes back throughout the thirties to show the arc of Mank’s relationships with the wealthy power-broker William Randolph Hearst and Hearst’s young movie-star wife, Marion Davies, both of whom were mercilessly lampooned in Kane.  

Mank is, in many ways, an incredible film.  It’s certainly been made with extraordinary craft and attention to detail.  There’s a lot to love and respect here.  And yet, I must confess that the film left me somewhat unsatisfied.  After a first viewing, I don’t feel that Mank holds up with the best of Mr. Fincher’s many great films (from Seven to Zodiac to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to The Social Network and more).

Let’s start with what’s good.  The film looks amazing.  Mr. Fincher has an incredible eye, and the layers of period detail in Mank are extraordinary.  There is so much for the eye to drink in, in every single frame.  Mr. Fincher & Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt shot Mank in beautiful, lush black and white, just like Kane.  Their mastery of the mise-en-scène, and of light and shadow, equals Welles’.  This is a beautiful film.

I loved the way the film has been structured to resemble Citizen Kane.  Both the fractured narrative and the visual style are reminiscent of Kane.  The film’s credits have a 1940’s vibe to them.  The scene-setting chirons are written as if they’re establishing locations from a film script.  I love these levels of detail.

The script, written by Mr. Fincher’s father Jack Fincher, is sharp.  I like the flashback structure, and there is some incredibly snappy dialogue throughout.

Gary Oldman plays Mank, and as always, Mr. Oldman is absolutely magnificent.  He commands the screen; his charisma and force of personality break right through.  Mr. Oldman’s performance is my favorite thing about this film.

In fact, the entire cast is strong.  Amanda Seyfried is very impressive as Marion Davies.  I love how thoroughly Ms. Seyfried, and the film’s script, humanizes Ms. Davies.  I could imagine a version of this film in which Ms. Davies had been played as an oversized joke (sort of how she was depicted in Kane), but Ms. Seyfried plays Marion as a relatively likable, normal, centered young woman (despite the world of opulence she strides through).  I liked her Brooklyn twang.  I really enjoyed following the arc of Marion’s friendship with Mank over the course of the film.  … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Soul

January 6th, 2021
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Pixar’s latest masterpiece is Soul, which was released to Disney+ late last month.  In the film, Jamie Foxx plays Joe Gardner, a middle-aged African American man who teaches music to kids in New York City.  Joe lives and breathes music, and dreams of becoming a successful jazz musician himself.  On the day Joe finally achieves his long sought-after big break, he accidentally falls down a manhole.  And dies.  And an entirely new journey begins.

I adored Soul.  As is often the case with Pixar films, Soul deals with some very heavy subjects.  (The film’s extended opening sequence reminded me somewhat of the opening of Up.  It’s not as much of an immediate tear-jerker, but it reminded me of that bravura sequence in the way that the film is very up-front about the challenging, adult issues it will be tackling.)  And yet the magic of Soul — as seems to always the case for Pixar — is that the film is never for a second dour or dreary.  It’s moving and emotional and adult… but it’s also joyful and funny and clever.  I love how skillfully the film strikes that balance!  And so Soul can be enjoyed by kids while also being enjoyed at an entirely different levels by adults.

I’d mentioned Up, but if Soul reminds me of anything, it’s Inside Out.  No surprise, Pete Docter directed both films.  Like Inside Out, Soul is compelling in the way it’s created a fascinating, delightful, fully fleshed-out universe exploring an aspect of our unknowable universe.  In Inside Out, the movie created an entire universe and mythology around the inner workings of a person’s thoughts and feelings.  Here in Soul, Mr. Docter and his team have done the same thing around our souls, and what happens after one dies (and before one is born).  I love the thought that has been put into every aspect of this universe.  This is a film that will reward multiple viewings.  The world created in Soul is distinct and original while also feeling insightful and universal.

Soul is notable for being the first Pixar film to focus on an African-American character.  It’s a delight.  Jamie Foxx is marvelous as Joe.  All of Mr. Foxx’s many talents are utilized in the role — his charisma, his comedic chops, his dramatic skills, and his musical abilities.  The film was co-directed and co-written by Kemp Powers, and he and his collaborators have done a terrific job fleshing out Joe and his African-American character friends and family members.  (Many of the promotional materials for this film on Disney+, including an episode of the Inside Pixar series, explore Mr. Kemp’s contributions to the film.  They’re worth a look if you’re interested in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Wonder Woman 1984

December 28th, 2020
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Wonder Woman 1984 picks up the story of Diana/Wonder Woman many decades after her first film (which was set in 1918).  Diana is living a solitary, lonely life, helping people when she can while keeping her existence as a superhuman among mortals a secret.  Joy returns to her world when Steve Trevor, her true love who sacrificed himself at the end of the first film, mysteriously returns to life.  His resurrection appears to be tied to the powerful dream-stone which failed oil tycoon Max Lord uncovers.  Max wants to use the powers of the stone to grant himself the life of fame and fortune he’s always wanted, but the wish-granting powers of the stone, once unleashed, begin to wreak havoc upon the world.  Also tied up in this story is Barbara Minerva, whose wish allows her to become the confident, powerful woman she’s always wanted to be; and who does not want to allow Diana to undo anything the stone has done.

Wonder Woman 1984 is an entertaining sequel to 2017’s first Wonder Woman film.  I found a lot to enjoy in the film.  But it’s uneven, and the unsuccessful Barbara Minerva aspect of the story — which I’ll discuss in more detail in a moment — serves as an anchor that keeps the movie from greatness.  Wonder Woman 1984 is nowhere near the greatness of most of the Marvel Studios films we’ve been lucky to have been enjoying for the past several years, though it’s far stronger than most of the DCU films from the past several years.  If the goal of this film was to tell an entertaining story that would allow you to spend more enjoyable time with Diana and Steve, two characters you liked from the first film, then Wonder Woman 1984 succeeds.  But this is certainly not a sequel that goes beyond the original film, adding complexities and depth to the characters and the world (the way truly great sequels do).

Most of the best aspects of Wonder Woman 1984 come down to my two favorite elements of the first Wonder Woman film: Gal Gadot and Chris Pine.  Ms. Gadot proves that her strong performance in the first Wonder Woman was not a fluke.  She is, once again, absolutely spectacular as Wonder Woman.  She has the physicality that the character needs — strong and beautiful — but more importantly she’s able to embody all of the critical qualities of Diana from the comics.  She shows us Diana’s kindness and her soulfulness.  She is able to play Diana as an innocent and yet also as someone with a spine of absolute steel when it comes to what she knows is right.  The film’s best choice is … [continued]

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Zoom Horror Short Film: Full Disclosure

December 4th, 2020
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My friend, filmmaker Michael Strode, has made a short horror film shot over Zoom about a virtual drinks call that goes… poorly.

It’s called Full Disclosure, and it’s a super-fun slice of scary/silly awesomeness.

You can watch it right now:

Enjoy!  Have a great weekend, everyone!!… [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Interactive Animated Film Batman: Death in the Family

December 2nd, 2020
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Batman: Death in the Family is the new animated film from DC/Warner Brothers.  For the first time for DC Animation, the film is presented as an interactive experience, with the viewer having several opportunities to choose the fate of the characters, using one’s remote control, as the story unfolds.

The film is based, of course, on Batman: A Death in the Family, the four-issue storyline that ran through Batman #426-429 in 1988.  That story was written by Jim Starlin (creator of Thanos for Marvel) and illustrated by Jim Aparo (one of the most iconic Batman artists of all time) and Mike DeCarlo, with incredibly iconic covers by Mike Mignola.  The end of issue #428 is memorable for asking readers to call a 1-900 number to determine whether Jason Todd, the second Robin after the original Dick Grayson, would live or die.  Fans narrowly voted for him to die, and so he did in the final issue.

I started reading Batman comics soon afterward.  A Death in the Family is one of the first collected editions I ever owned.  (I still have my beat-up, much-re-read copy!)  The events of that story, and the death of Jason Todd, had ripple effects that were felt for years in the DC universe.  In many ways, those ripples are still being felt today.

Seeing as the original comic had a “choose your own adventure” feel to it, with the 1-900 number call-in, this story is a cool choice to use as the basis for an interactive film.  The interactive experience works fairly well.  It’s cool to be able to play a role in deciding how the story unfolds.  Once you get to the end of the story-path you’ve chosen to follow, the disc helpfully provides a simple menu which allows you to easily retrace your steps and to choose different paths.  I appreciated that a lot.

Netflix has pioneered this approach with its two interactive movies, the Black Mirror special Bandersnatch and the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt movie, Kimmy vs. the Reverend.  As much fun as Death in the Family is, it pales somewhat in comparison to those Netflix films.  While the branching options worked well on my blu-ray, there was a longer pause between options than there was in the Netflix specials, which somewhat interrupted the smooth flow of the story.  More importantly, there are far fewer points of choice in Death in the Family than there were in either Netflix special.

That’s my biggest disappointment with this film, actually.  It is advertised, correctly, as a short film.  Most paths through the story offer the viewer between three to seven points of choice, for a total run-time of around twenty minutes.  What we get … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary

November 30th, 2020
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Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary is exactly what it sounds like — a feature-length look back at the making of 1999’s Galaxy Quest!  It makes me so happy that Galaxy Quest is now getting this type of love.  I love Galaxy Quest, and this documentary was a delight from start to finish.  It’s a joyous celebration of this terrific film.  Never Surrender is available to watch right now on Amazon Prime video!

I am not a late arrival to Galaxy Quest love.  Although the film didn’t make much of an impact at the box office when it was originally released, I saw it in theaters and immediately loved it.  I got it immediately, and long before others started describing it as the best Star Trek movie never made, I was saying that to anyone who would listen.  Galaxy Quest is a very funny comedy but it is also an exciting adventure films with real stakes, both physical and emotional.  It’s a spoof of Star Trek but it’s one done with love, not empty mockery, and in its second half the film transforms into a true, exciting Star Trek-style adventure!  These are very difficult balances to strike — that the film manages them so perfectly is the secret to its greatness.  Galaxy Quest is a film I have revisited regularly over the years, and I still find it as delightful now as I did back then.

It makes me so happy that director Jack Bennett and his team share this Galaxy Quest love!!  That love is on full display throughout every frame of this documentary.  Mr. Bennett was able to get the entire Galaxy Quest cast to participate: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Justin Long, Sam Rockwell, Tony Shalhoub, Daryl Mitchell, Enrico Colantoni, Missi Pyle, Rainn Wilson, Patrick Breen, Jed Rees, and more.  I loved how extensively we got to hear from the dilm’s director, Dean Parisot, as well as writer Robert Gordon.  We also get to hear from many of the film’s other key behind-the-camera players, including producer Mark Johnson, executive producer Elizabeth Cantillon, set decorator Linda DeScenna, costume designer Albert Wolsky, visual effects artists Bill George, Shane Mahan, and Mark “Crash” McCreery, editor Don Zimmerman, composer David Newman (whose Galaxy Quest main theme is brilliant) and more.

It sure seems, from the film, that Galaxy Quest is held as dear by the film’s cast and crew as it is by the fans.  That is fun to see.

Speaking of the fans, the film shines a spotlight on several Galaxy Quest fans.  Many of them are famous names!  We get to hear from Star Trek stars Brent Spiner and Will Wheaton; writers/show-runners Damon Lindeloff (Lost, The [continued]

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Josh Reviews Todd McFarlane: Like Hell I Won’t

The documentary Todd McFarlane: Like Hell I Won’t shines a spotlight on the incredible career of superstar comic book artist Todd McFarlane.

Todd McFarlane shot to super-stardom in the late eighties when he took over as the artist of Marvel’s The Amazing Spider-Man comic book series.  His incredibly unique and dynamic illustrations won him legions of fans, as well as the ire of many editors and older comic-book pros who didn’t care for his break-all-the-rules approach to comic book illustration.  I remember clearly discovering Mr. McFarlane’s work on Amazing Spider-Man and being absolutely blown away.  I eagerly followed him when Marvel gave him his own brand-new Spider-Man book to write and draw (a book whose first issue smashed all previous sales records, selling 2.5 million copies).  In the nineties, Mr. McFarlane and a group of other superstar Marvel artists broke away to form their own company, Image.  This was an industry-shaking event at the time, and Image continues to thrive to this day.  At Image, Mr. McFarlane created his own new super-hero, Spawn.  That comic continues to be published today, recently publishing its three hundredth issue, a record-breaking number for an independently-published, creator-owned comic book.  (Dave Sim’s Cerebus was published for 300 issues.  No other series has even come close… though Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon, another Image book, is getting there…!)  I followed Mr. McFarlane to Spawn in 1992 when the series began, and I read the series for about 50 issues.  (Ultimately, I didn’t love Mr. McFarlane’s writing, and the series didn’t hold my interest after the excitement of the initial few years.)

Mr. McFarlane is one of the most famous and successful comic book artists of all times.  He’s notable not just for his incredible art skills, but for his role in creating Image, a place where comic-book artists could create and own their own projects (as opposed to doing work-for-hire jobs for Marvel or DC).  Mr. McFarlane has succeeded in expanding his character, Spawn, into a movie and a TV show, and he is the CEO of McFarlane Toys, a company that revolutionized the collectible toy market.  Mr. McFarlane has long has a reputation for his forward-thinking and his deep stubbornness, characteristics that have contributed to his successes and also gotten him into trouble over the years.

He’s a terrific subject for a documentary, and I was eager to learn more about his life and work in this film.

I enjoyed Todd McFarlane: Like Hell I Won’t.  I appreciated seeing the curtain pulled back (somewhat) on Mr. McFarlane’s life.  It was fun getting to see his offices; getting to see him work on illustrating comic book pages (I was interested to see that draws using both traditional … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Parker (2013)

I’ve had a fun time watching the many films based on Donald E. Westlake (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark)’s Parker Character.  I really enjoyed 1967’s Point Blank (click here for my review) and 1968’s The Split (click here for my review).  I thought 1973’s The Outfit was a step down, though I did still enjoy the film.  (Click here for my review.)  I thought 1983’s Slayground was a dud.  (Click here for my review.)  I enjoyed the 2006 Director’s Cut of Payback (which was released theatrically in 1999), though wow, was it dark!  (Click here for my review.)  And now we’ve arrived at 2013’s Parker, starring Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez.

I remember seeing trailers for this film when it came out, but I ignored them because Parker looked like yet another generic Jason Statham action vehicle.  I actually quite like Mr. Statham as an actor!  I thought he was a hoot in Guy Ritchie’s early films like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, and he is hilarious in Paul Feig’s 2015 film Spy.  But I haven’t been interested by the many bland-looking action films he’s been putting out for the past decade or so.  Similarly, I know Jennifer Lopez can be a terrific actor.  I think she’s spectacular in Out of Sight, for instance.  I just haven’t been interested in most of the films she’s been in lately.  So while I skipped Parker back in 2013, I was curious to give the film a chance now.  They actually let the filmmakers use the Parker name!  Did that give reason to hope the film had merit??

Parker is adapted from the novel Flashfire.  Jason Statham stars as Parker.  When the film opens, he’s working with a crew in a heist, robbing a state fair.  As usual in these Parker stories, he winds up double-crossed and left for dead.  But he survives, and sets to hunting down his former crew to get revenge.  He tracks them down to Palm Beach, Florida, where they’re working on their next big job.  While undercover, Parker’s path crosses with Leslie (Jennifer Lopez), a smart, capable real estate agent who is desperate to get out of her unfortunate situation.  (She’s heavily in-debt and stuck living with her mother.)  Leslie figures out that the under-cover Parker isn’t the wealthy Texan he claims to be, and the two work together to take down Parker’s former crew and get away with the loot.

Parker isn’t bad.  It’s better than I expected.  The cast is strong, and there are some well-executed sequences.  But it’s also not as good as it could have/should have been.  The … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Memory: The Origins of Alien

November 16th, 2020

Memory: The Origin of Alien is a feature-length film chronicling the making of Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 film Alien, as well as a deep-dive exploration into its origins and its themes.  The film was directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, and features extensive interviews with many of the men and women involved with the production of Alien, as well as numerous scholars and authors who appear to have devoted quite a lot of thought to the film!

I’m a huge fan of Alien, and I was immediately interested when I heard of this documentary film’s existence.  At the same time, the Alien Quadrilogy box-set of DVDs or blu-rays boast some of the very best making-of documentaries that I’ve ever seen.  The discs feature hours of special features, lovingly created by Charles de Lauzirika.  Those documentaries are amazing, filled with insight into almost every detail of the Alien’s production.  I love them so much.  (For a full review of the Alien Quadrilogy, and an in-depth look at the special features, check out this review by Bill Hunt at thedigitalbits.com.  It’s worth noting, for Alien fans, that the Alien 3 documentaries on the original Alien Quadrilogy DVD set were censored by Fox, with about 21 minutes cut out.  This was mostly footage dealing with director David Fincher’s frustrations.  On the blu-ray set, renamed the Alien Anthology, all of the footage has been restored.  FYI, that set is currently available for at a great price at Amazon.)

So while I was interested in this new documentary, I wondered how much there was left to learn about Alien!

In some ways, not very much.  But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy watching Memory!

Memory sets out to be something very different than Mr. Lauzirika’s documentaries, which were focused on exploring the details of the making of the film, from pre-production through production through post-production.  Don’t get me wrong, Memory does spend some time on the action production of Alien.  In particular, there’s a lengthy sequence exploring the iconic chest-burster sequence, with a ton of wonderful behind-the-scenes footage showing the effort that went into creating that scene.  I loved that.  But Memory is more interested in digging deep into the film’s influences, into all of the disparate elements that came together in Dan O’Bannon’s original script that was the foundation of the film.  And Memory is also interested in exploring the film’s themes and meaning, and so the documentary spends a lot of time allowing us to hear lovers of this film dig deeply into what it’s all about and why it struck such a chord in so many people.  And so the result is that Memory is pleasingly and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Superman: Man of Tomorrow

November 11th, 2020
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The new DC/Warner Brothers direct-to-DVD/blu-ray animated film, Superman: Man of Tomorrow, is a new beginning for this series.  Man of Tomorrow is a stand-alone tale, but I suspect it’s designed to be the start of a new series of animated films.  Man of Tomorrow is an entertaining (if not-exactly groundbreaking) new version of the origin of Superman and his first adventure in Metropolis.

For several years now, ever since The Flashpoint Paradox and Justice League: War, DC/Warner brothers have been producing a series of animated films set in a connected continuity.  As I have written about previously, while I love the idea of a connected series of films, I think these past few years’ worth of films have been mediocre at best.  I haven’t been wowed by the animation or the story-telling (which I found to be, far too often, juvenile and rather dumb).  But that series seems to have come to an end with the previous animated film, Justice League Dark: Apokolips War.  I enjoyed Apokolips War, but I’m very happy for that series to be over and for these animated films to find a new direction.

Not only does Man of Tomorrow appear to start the story over from zero, with a new version of Superman’s arrival in Metropolis, but it is stylistically very different.  The animation style and character designs are completely new.  This is a great choice, and I’m quite taken with this new animation style!  In my mind, the be-all-and-end-all of DC animation is the Bruce Timm style that originated with Batman: The Animated Series.  That’s the one to beat, and, let’s be honest, Man of Tomorrow doesn’t.  But it does represent, in my opinion, an enormous leap forward from the style of animation these DC animated films had been using for the past several years.  The character designs and poses felt much more pleasingly naturalistic to my eyes.  The designs are simple enough that they animate very smoothly.  The thick black outlines around the characters took me a little getting used to, but I think it all worked very well.  I’m impressed!

The story of Superman’s initial arrival to Metropolis has been told many ways and many times, in the comics, in movies, and in various TV shows.  There’s nothing in Man of Tomorrow that feels wildly groundbreaking.  Some of the choices feel sort of random, such as the inclusion of Lobo as a main character.  That felt to me like the producers just wanted to include a popular character who hadn’t been featured in any of the recent animated films, rather than his being there because he makes sense in the story of Superman’s first big adventure.

That being said, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Robert Zemeckis’ Adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches

Robert Zemeckis’ new film adaptation of The Witches is now available on HBO Max.  The pedigree of this film had me immediately excited.  Robert Zemeckis is, of course, the director of some of my favorite films (the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Contact).  I adore Roald Dahl’s original novel.  The film’s screenplay was written by Mr. Zemeckis, Kenya Barris (mastermind behind Black-ish), and Guillermo del Toro (a master of horror who is one of my favorite directors working today, responsible for such great films as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water).  On the other hand, Mr. Zemeckis’ films haven’t connected with me in recent years; I haven’t really enjoyed his new movies since the one-two 2000 punch of What Lies Beneath and Cast Away.  What would I think of The Witches?

I liked it!  The film is a fun, all-ages tale.  It’s very competently made, with lovely visual effects and very likable characters to guide us through the tale.

Is The Witches a masterpiece?  No.  It doesn’t have the pop of startling originality that most of Guillermo del Toro’s films possess.  The adult aspects of most of Mr. del Toro’s work have been rounded off (the violence, the scares) — but how could they not have been?  This is an adaptation of a kids’ story!  So I’m not saying that’s the wrong choice.  But the film doesn’t grab me as viscerally as most of Mr. del Toro’s work does.  Nor is there anything in the film nearly as memorable as what can be found in Robert Zemeckis’ best films from the eighties and nineties (such as the movies I listed in the first paragraph, above).  So one should enter into The Witches with measured expectations.  That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the film.  It’s easily Mr. Zemeckis’ best film in almost two decades.

The cast is terrific.  I love the choice to center the story on an African-American family.  Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures, The Shape of Water) is spectacular as Grandma.  (Whereas in Roald Dahl’s novel Grandma was from Norway, here she is from Alabama.  The change works very well.)  Ms. Spencer’s charisma and her comedic chops make her the perfect fit for this tough, smart, maternal figure.  I loved watching her.  Young Jahzir Kadeem Bruno is great as Grandma’s grandson, the boy (whose name is never given in the book, nor the movie!) who finds himself on this adventure with the witches.  And I was delighted that Chris Rock voiced an older version of the boy!  I was not expecting Chris Rock’s voice to be the first voice I’d hear in this adaptation of … [continued]

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The Parker Films: Payback Director’s Cut (1999/2006)

November 4th, 2020
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We’re in the home-stretch of my journey to watch the films based on Donald E. Westlake (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark)’s Parker Character.  I really enjoyed 1967’s Point Blank (click here for my review) and 1968’s The Split (click here for my review).  I thought 1973’s The Outfit was a step down, though I did still enjoy the film.  (Click here for my review.)  Sadly I thought 1983’s Slayground was a dud.  (Click here for my review.)  Now we’ve arrived at Payback, which was released theatrically in 1999.

The film has an interesting history.  It was written and directed by Brian Helgeland, who wrote the (fantastic) script for L.A. Confidential (which was directed by Curtis Hanson).  But the film released to theaters in 1999 was not really Mr. Helgeland’s film.  After the studio objected to his cut, Payback was significantly re-written (by Terry Hayes) and re-shot (by John Myhre).  I remember, vaguely, seeing the film in theaters.  I recall thinking it was mediocre.  Years later, in 2006, Mr. Helgeland was given the opportunity to restore his original vision, and his Director’s Cut was released to DVD in 2006.  I’ve heard for years that this Director’s Cut was a far superior version of the film, and I was excited for the opportunity to arrive at this stop in my journey through the Parker films.

To my surprise, it brought me full circle because Payback, like 1967’s Point Blank, is an adaptation of the first Parker novel, The Hunter.  It’s fascinating to see that story depicted through Mr. Helgeland’s unique eye.  The Payback Director’s Cut bears a number of similarities to Point Blank, but it’s also a very different film, which I was pleased to see.

The basic plot is similar: after a successful heist, the Parker character (once again given a different name: this time it’s Porter) is betrayed by the woman he loves (Lynn) and his partner (Val).  They leave him for dead, but he survives and eventually returns to town, looking for payback and the money he’s owed.  But Val has used that money to repay a debt to the Outfit, the criminal enterprise in the city.  So Porter soon finds himself up not just against Val but the forces of the Outfit.

I quite enjoyed the Director’s Cut of Payback.  However, whoof, I can understand why the studios was reluctant to release this version of the film.  This is a DARK, tough, ugly film.  I was surprised by how violent and unlikable the early Parker films allowed the Parker character to be, but wowsers, this one has them all beat.  When Porter gets back into town and finds his … [continued]

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Josh Reviews An American Pickle

November 2nd, 2020
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In HBO Max’s An American Pickle, Seth Rogen plays dual roles as Herschel Greenbaum and his great-grandson Ben Greenbaum.  In 1919, Herschel and his wife Sarah leave the shtetl of Schlupsk (fleeing Russian Cossacks) and emigrate to the United States.  Herschel gets a menial job at a pickling factory, but unfortunately falls into a vat of pickles and winds up preserved until present day, when he awakens and meets his great-grandson Ben, a freelance app developer.  The film was written by Simon Rich, based on his 2013 short story “Sell Out”, and directed by Brandon Trost.

Seth Rogen is a delight playing Herschel and Ben.  Mr. Rogen is a talented comedic performer, but he’s also demonstrated that he can be a solid dramatic actor, and he does a terrific job here at creating these two very distinct characters.  Baked into the film’s premise is the fun inherent in seeing Mr. Rogen play against himself, and the simple sight gag of seeing Seth as 1919 Herschel sharing the screen with 2020 Ben is very funny.  Thankfully Mr. Rogen and the film dig a little deeper than that, and they allow us to get to know both men in a pleasingly substantial way.

I was at first concerned that Herschel would be treated as little more than a joke; a feature-length version of the great sight gag in Annie Hall when Alvy Singer, played by the very-secular Woody Allen, imagined himself as a bearded Orthodox Jew when surrounded by Annie Hall’s extremely NOT Jewish family.  Seeing Seth Rogen, a performer who has a similar reputation as a very secular Jew, decked out as the bearded Herschel, is indeed very funny.  But the film works because they made the important and critical choice not to treat Herschel as a joke.  (For the most part — I’ll get back to this in a moment.)  Yes, Herschel is wowed by modern life and technology in 2020, and yes, the film mines a lot of comedy out of, say, Herschel’s amazement at the existence of a seltzer-maker.  But we see that he adapts quickly, and that his 1900’s-era approach to life actually serves him quite well.  His determination and creativity enable him to able to find success in 2020 in a way that Ben is not!  That’s a smart way to go with the story — not to mock the out-of-time Herschel, but rather to use him to illuminate the ways in which Ben, a man of 2020, has gotten stuck.

I thought the first half of the film was terrific.  It was very funny and with a strong dramatic underpinning that drove me to invest in Herschel and Ben’s stories.  I thought the film lost … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Borat Subsequent Moviefilm!

October 26th, 2020
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I was surprised and delighted when news broke, only a few weeks ago, that Sacha Baron Cohen had secretly filmed a Borat sequel!  In an age of internet spoilers and movie studios who spend months to years hyping their upcoming films, that any movie could be created in secret — let alone a sequel to a hit film like the original Borat — is very exciting.  And just like that, the Borat sequel (full title: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) is available on Amazon!

The Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is terrific.  It’s hilarious and terrifying in equal measure, which is precisely what was intended.  It doesn’t have the shocking impact of that first Borat film — how could it?  Once we’ve seen that transgressive character and how Mr. Cohen used him to expose bigotry and close-mindedness, it’s hard to duplicate the power that first viewing had.  Also, while laughing to the Borat sequel at home is fun, watching the film any home can’t compare to the electric experience of watching that first film in a theater, and hearing and feeling everyone’s shocked reactions when, say, Borat and his “producer” Azamat (Ken Davitian) wrestled nude in public.

I’d never expected a Borat sequel would be possible, precisely because of the impact that first film made.  Borat was now a widely-known character, so how could Mr. Cohen use him any more?  The new film addresses this, with several early sequences showing people recognizing Mr. Cohen as Borat.  Somehow, though, Mr. Cohen was able to find people who were, apparently, unfamiliar with the character.  Additionally, he and his team utilized a strategy of often having Borat in other disguises.  There’s a certain meta humor to be found in Mr. Cohen playing Borat playing another character.  And there’s no question that was an effective tactic in being able to get people to talk to Mr. Cohen in an unsuspecting way.  The downside is that it makes Borat Subsequent Moviefilm feel a little more episodic, a little more like an assembly of different sketches, than that first film did.  But careful editing and the clever assembly of scenes that stitch together the large prank sequences makes it all work in a pleasingly cohesive way.  (Director Jason Woliner has done a great job, stepping into the shoes of original Borat director Larry Charles.)

Mr. Cohen’s pranks on famous public figures such as Mike Pence and Rudy Giuliani have made headlines, and there’s no question that those sequences in the film are showstoppers.  (Mr. Cohen crashed Mr. Pence’s speech at CPAC in February 2020, dressed up as Trump with a blonde woman thrown over … [continued]

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The Trial of the Chicago 7, written & directed by Aaron Sorkin (mastermind behind Sports Night & The West Wing, writer of such terrific films as A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Steve Jobs, Moneyball, and Charlie Wilson’s War, and the writer/director of the underrated Molly’s Game) tells the story of the seven men (really eight, counting Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panthers) who were put on trial by the U.S. government following the violence between the Chicago Police and the anti-war and counter-culture protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.  The film is a story about members of our government using their political power to try to destroy their enemies.  It’s about how our criminal justice system can be twisted by bad-faith actors to be used as a weapon against against our citizenry.  And it’s about men and women protesting what they see as the wrongs of our society and being met by anger and violence from the police.  In short, this is not only a critical history lesson that’s important for every American — it’s also a film that is very much about what is happening in the United States of America today in 2020.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is phenomenal.  It’s riveting.  It’s funny and it’s horrifying.  It’s a film that will make you angry — it’s designed to do so — but it’s not a depressing slog.  Mr. Sorkin’s skill with dialogue ensures that almost every single scene is so brilliantly written that you’ll be dazzled by the word-play.  His skill with structure ensures that he is able to dramatize a trial that went on for month after long month is presented in such a way that, when watching the film unfold, you’re carried along with the drama of the story.  The film that is jam-packed with characters and plot points, but Aaron Sorkin’s stills as a writer and director ensures that none of this ever becomes overwhelming or confusing or, worst of all, boring.  (The film’s opening sequence, which introduces us to a wealth of characters and backstory in a mile-a-minute series of walk-and-talk scenes that somehow manage to be clear, concise, and fun, is magnificent, and gave me confidence that I was in good hands with this film.)

The cast is absolutely extraordinary.  One of the film’s greatest strengths is how well we’re allowed to get to know all eight defendants in the trial, how they’re each well-developed as distinct and interesting characters.  (OK, six of the eight.  We don’t spend too much time with Lee Weiner, played by Noah Robbins (Zach on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) or John Froines, played by Daniel … [continued]

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Josh’s Guide to Great Geeky Gifts — Part One!

October 12th, 2020
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October 13-14 is Amazon’s Prime Day, in which they trumpet all sorts of great discounted deals across their site.  Personally, I enjoy hunting through their deals and I almost always make some great purchases each year when this comes around.  So I thought this might be a fun excuse to assemble a list of awesome geeky gifts that might interest readers of this site either as something fun to get for themselves, or as great potential gift ideas for your friends and loved ones!

Full disclosure: as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.  That means that if you click through to Amazon from any of the links on this site, I’ll get a tiny percentage of the price of ANY purchase you make on Amazon for the next 24 hours.  You don’t have to purchase the specific item I linked to!  Just use one of my links to get to Amazon, and then purchase whatever you normally would.  So please, allow me to ask: when you’re thinking about doing some online shopping, please click through to Amazon through one of my links.  It’d be a huge help to allowing this website to continue!  Thank you!

Today, in Part One of my list, I’ll be suggesting some great movies in 4K, some of my favorite extended cuts of movies, and some great complete series sets of TV shows.  Onward:

Great Movies in 4K

If you love movies and you love physical media, here are some great films available in beautiful 4K:

The Goonies — One of my all-time favorite films, looking more beautiful than ever.

Superman: The Movie — It’s still one of the best super-hero movies ever made.  I have bought many different versions of this film on home video over the years.  I haven’t yet taken the plunge for this new 4k edition, but I am sorely tempted!

The Prestige — My favorite Christopher Nolan movie (you read that right) in the most beautiful home-video format possible.

Ex Machina — A gloriously twisty sci-fi film that is currently a steal at $10 for the 4K version!! (No guarantees how long that price will last.)  Click here for my full review of the film.

The Hunt for Red October — By far the best Tom Clancy adaptation in any media.  I love this film so much.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind — One of Steven Spielberg’s greatest films, and one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made.

 

Great Extended Cuts of Great Movies:

Blade Runner: The Final Cut — The best version of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece.

Watchmen: Ultimate Cut — Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore & Brian Bolland’s classic comic … [continued]

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The Parker Films: Slayground (1983)

October 5th, 2020
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I’m continuing my look at the films based on Donald E. Westlake (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark)’s Parker Character.  I really enjoyed 1967’s Point Blank (click here for my review) and 1968’s The Split (click here for my review).  I thought 1973’s The Outfit was a step down, though I did still enjoy the film.  (Click here for my review.)  The next Parker film I watched was 1983’s Slayground, based on the 14th Parker novel with the same name.  Unfortunately, I thought this one was a major dud.

It’s fun seeing a young, virile Peter Coyote (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Sphere, Erin Brockovich, The 4400) in the leading role as the Parker character.  (As usual, the character has a different name: in this film, he’s called Stone.)  (That’s a lot better name than Earl Macklin given to Robert Duvall in The Outfit!)  Mr. Coyote’s glorious nineteen-eighties hair is a sight to behold.  Mr. Coyote does his best, and watching him at work in his prime was, for me, the most enjoyable aspect of this film.  Unfortunately, he can’t elevate the material out of B-movie-land.  It also doesn’t help that he’s given a bizarrely un-dangerous wardrobe, with lots of puffy sweaters.  This is a much gentler Parker character than we’ve seen in the three previous Parker films I watched.  He seems to care a lot more about the woman in his life than any of the other Parkers did.  (Though the film does a poor job of fleshing out her character.)

In most of the other Parker films, the story revolves around Parker getting betrayed or otherwise screwed over during a heist; and then Parker needs to get revenge.  In this film, what goes wrong during the crime is that the twitchy get-away driver accidentally crashes into a civilian’s car and kills a little girl.  The person looking for revenge is her angry father, who eventually sends a hit-man after Parker (Stone).  It’s an ugly plot-twist that Stone is complicit in the death of a child.  (It’s not Stone’s direct fault, but it happened during a crime he was committing.)  This has the effect of taking any fun this crime film might have had right out of the film.  The girl’s death casts an ugly pall over the entire story, in my opinion.  Now, a somber, elegiac story about a criminal whose life takes a terrible turn because of a tragedy like this might have been an interesting film.  But that’s not at all the type of film this is trying to be.  And so I think that is the biggest miscalculation in a film that seems to be filled with miscalculations.

Because … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Mulan

September 23rd, 2020

Because we don’t plan on going to a movie theatre any time in the near future, my family was delighted that Disney opted to release their live-action remake of Mulan on Disney+.  Yes, the additional $30 fee on top of the cost of our Disney+ subscription was steep.  But that was still far less of an expense than taking our family of four to see Mulan in a theater, and I understand the realties of Disney’s desire to make back as much money as they can on this film.  While we all agreed that the original, animated Mulan was superior to this new version in almost every way, every member of my family nevertheless quite enjoyed this new version.

As I have written before, I am not a fan of Disney’s proclivity of remaking their animated films into live-action versions.  There’s not much that excites me, creatively, about this idea, and even when I have enjoyed the remake, I can’t think of a single time when I thought the remake was better than the animated original.

Interestingly, while many of Disney’s previous remakes hewed very closely to the animated original, this new Mulan is quite different from the animated version.  The main beats of the story are the same, but so many other aspects of the film’s story and characters are different.  This is an interesting choice.  On the one hand, I like this idea in principle because trying something new seems to me to have the potential to bring some excitement and creative energy into a remake that would be missing in a more slavishly faithful version.  On the other hand, there’s so much of the wonderful original Mulan that wasn’t broken, and so watching the new film there were a number of times when I wondered why they strayed from what had previously worked so well.  That’s not to say the changes are bad.  Most of the different paths this film goes down work just fine.  The result is an enjoyable film and a different version of the Mulan story.

They’ve assembled a wonderful cast for this new Mulan.  Let’s begin with Yifei Liu, who plays Mulan herself.  She’s very enjoyable in the lead role, soulful and compelling.  Mulan can be a very internal character — even more so in this version, because she doesn’t have her sidekick Mushu to talk with throughout the film — but Ms. Liu is terrific at showing us Mulan’s emotional depths so that the audience can clearly follow where her thoughts and heart are, throughout her journey.  She’s also able to handle the action side of the role extremely convincingly.

Tzi Ma (24, Arrival) brings a wonderful soulfulness and wisdom … [continued]

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The Parker Films: The Outfit (1973)

September 14th, 2020
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I’m continuing continuing my look at the films based on Donald E. Westlake (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark)’s Parker character.  Click here for my review of 1967’s Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin, an adaptation of the Parker novel The Hunted.  Click here for my review of 1968’s The Split, starring Jim Brown.  Now we come to 1973’s The Outfit, starring Robert Duvall!

The Outfit is based on the Westlake novel of the same name.  Robert Duvall plays the Parker role, though once again they don’t call the character Parker — in this film, he’s Earl Macklin.  After getting released from prison, Macklin discovers his brother has been killed, and he only narrowly escapes the hitman hired to kill him.  It seems the bank that the brothers robbed was an operation run by the Outfit, the nickname given to a large criminal organization.  (Back in Point Blank, they called it the Syndicate.)  So Macklin recruits his old comrade in crime Cody (Joe Don Baker) and starts hitting one Outfit operation after another in a quest for retribution, as well as the quarter million he feels he’s owed for his trouble.

I enjoyed The Outfit, mostly for the fun of seeing the young, virile Robert Duvall and Joe Don Baker in their primes!  But the film is a step down in quality, in my opinion, from Point Blank and The Split.  It’s a little shaggier, a little less tense, a little less compelling.

The overwrought soundtrack hurts the film.  It’s too on the nose.  For example: right off the bat, the film opens with super-dramatic music playing over shots of a car driving.  The music makes it seem like a Big Dramatic Moment, but nothing is really happening.   It’s off-putting.  Only a few minutes later, we see Macklin getting out of prison and there’s extremely cliche harmonica music playing on the soundtrack, and I knew we were in trouble.

Robert Duvall is always great, and it’s fun to see him in a man-of-action leading roll.  I wish the script gave him more depth of character to play.  It worked for Lee Marvin (and also Jim Brown) to play mostly silent tough guys, but the Macklin character is less compelling.  Part of this is the fault of the weak script, but also I think Duvall is the wrong actor for this type of role.  I know he’s so good, that watching the film I kept wishing he had more meaty stuff to play.  But that being said, even in a mediocre film, Duvall elevates the material.  He’s magnetic on screen.

Also great: Joe Don Baker!  To be honest, I’ve often found his persona to be something of a joke to me in … [continued]

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The Parker Films: The Split (1968)

September 2nd, 2020
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I’m continuing my look at the films based on Donald E. Westlake (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark)’s Parker character.  Click here for my review of 1967’s Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin, an adaptation of the Parker novel The Hunted.  One year later, Jim Brown starred in The Split, adapted from the seventh Parker novel, called The Seventh.

At its core, the skeleton of The Split isn’t so different from Point Blank.  The Parker character (here called, somewhat inexplicably, McClain) plans and executes a clever score, only to get betrayed and forced to work hard to 1) survive 2) get revenge and 3) get back his cut of the money.  But despite those superficial similarities, I was pleased that The Split is actually quite different from Point Blank in tone and structure.  For example, in place of Point Blank’s flashback chronology, The Split unfolds in a very straightforward manner.  And the betrayal and its fallout don’t go down until the final 25-ish minutes of the film, thus representing a third-act twist rather than the inciting incident of the film.

Like Point Blank, The Split is a tight, taut thriller.  It’s lean and mean.  As I commented in my review of Point Blank, they don’t really make movies like this anymore: mean movies about mean people who are criminal professionals.  Unlike Point Blank, though, which is a revenge story right from the beginning, The Split unfolds more like a cool adventure.  There’s more of a sense of fun to the film.  We go on quite a ride as we follow McClaine & co. on their robbery of a football game, and it’s all enhanced by Quincy Jone’s hip music and Jim Brown’s calm, cool charm.

I love Jim Brown in the title role!  Mr. Brown was a football player who then became an actor.  The film is carefully structured in a way that doesn’t force him to stretch too much.  Casting him in the terse, mostly silent Parker role was a good choice.  But that’s not to take away from his strong performance!  Mr. Brown has a powerful natural charisma that shines through.  I thought he was an effective leading man, and I had no trouble rooting for him as the film unfolded.

They wisely surrounded Mr. Brown with a terrific ensemble.  I love the time the film spends developing the crew that Mclain pulls the heist with.  They’re each interesting, memorable characters.  Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple) plays the driver, Kifka.  ErnestBorgnine (From Here to Eternity, The Wild Bunch, McHale’s Navy) plays the tough-guy fighter, Clinger.  Donald Sutherland (The Dirty Dozen, Animal House, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, A Time to Kill, the Hunger Games films) … [continued]

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The Parker Films: Point Blank (1967)

August 26th, 2020
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Recently I read Darwyn Cooke’s four magnificent graphic novel adaptations of the Parker novels written by Donald E. Westlake under the pseudonym Richard Stark.  The late, great Darwyn Cooke was a master of the comics form (his New Frontier miniseries, which retold the story of the DC universe as a period piece beginning in the nineteen thirties, is a masterpiece), and his beautiful, faithful adaptation of four Parker novels (The Hunter, The Score, The Outfit, and Slayground) are not to be missed.  Donald Westlake wrote 24 novels featuring his Parker character, and over the decades quite a few of them have been adapted into films.  Over the years, I have read a lot about many of these films.  (Primarily in the wonderful back-pages of the crime comics written by Ed Brubaker and illustrated by Sean Phillips, such as Criminal.)  I decided it was time to take a look at some of those films, so I decided to start with the first (and, having now seen many of them, what I think is the greatest) of the Parker adaptions: 1967’s Point Blank.

Point Blank is a (pretty faithful) adaptation of the Parker novel The Hunter.  Lee Marvin stars as the Parker character (renamed Walker here because apparently Mr. Westlake refused permission for these film adaptations to use the Parker name).  When the film opens, Walker is being released from prison.  Years earlier, Walker and another criminal named Mal Reese had pulled off a heist for a lot of money, but Reese betrayed and shot Walker, leaving him for dead.  Now Walker is back and out for revenge, as well as his $93,000 cut of the money.  But Reese used that money to pay back the debt he owed to a crime organization referred to as the Syndicate.  Reese is now an official in that Syndicate, meaning that Walker has to go up against not only Reese, but this entire criminal organization.

I really enjoyed this film!  Its reputation as a classic is well-earned.  This is a tightly-plotted, tense and taut noir story.  It’s very minimalist, with sparse dialogue and scenes that are short and to the point.  There’s no extraneous mucking about or time-wasting anywhere to be found.

Lee Marvin is great as Walker.  He plays this “tough silent-type” character so well.  His chiseled-from-granite face suits this character to a T.  It’s a very restrained, internal performance.  But, wow, Mr. Marvin is totally convincing and scary as this thief who should not be messed with.

The film sticks fairly closely to the structure of Mr. Westlake’s novel.  I love that they maintained the out of order chronology of the book.  It gives the film a very modern sensibility.  The two … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The King of Staten Island

In Judd Apatow’s new film, The King of Staten Island, SNL’s Pete Davidson stars as Scott, who lives at home with his widowed mother.  Scott’s father was a firefighter, who died on the job when Scott was young.  Scott is content to live his slacker-ish life, smoking and drinking with his friends and dreaming of someday opening a tattoo shop-slash-restaurant.  But when his far-more put-together sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), goes off to college, and Scott’s mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) starts seeing another firefighter, Ray (Bill Burr), Scott’s life goes into a tailspin.

I’m a huge Judd Apatow fan.  I’ve been a fan ever since watching Paul Feig’s and his brilliant but short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks, and Mr. Apatow’s follow-up (and also short-lived) series Undeclared.  I loved his phenomenal directorial debut film, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and ever since then, a new Judd Apatow film has been a cause for excitement for me.  A hallmark of Mr. Apatow’s work has always been how he has balanced humor with real emotional pathos.  I think Mr. Apatow is one of the best comedic writers working today, and if he rested on that, I’m sure I’d still enjoy his work.  But Mr. Apatow has always used humor as a way of exploring his characters and searching for emotional truths.  This was evident (and important to the success of) the first two films Mr. Apatow wrote & directed, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, two films with an extraordinary laugh-per-second ratio.  With Funny People, Mr. Apatow shifted his approach slightly — his films were still extremely funny, but he grew more willing to allow the humor to take a back-seat for longer stretches in his films, and to allow the explorations of character and dramatic situations to step more into the forefront.  While I admit to a slight preference for his “earlier, funnier” movies, I’ve nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed Funny People, This is 40, Trainwreck, and now The King of Staten Island.  I have commented before how Mr. Apatow has developed, to my mind at least, into this generation’s James L. Brooks.  That is no small praise.

Whereas Mr. Apatow’s earlier work — and Funny People in particular — seemed to draw more from the Mr. Apatow’s personal life experiences, and those of his close friends, it’s been interesting to see how in recent years Mr. Apatow has used his approach to comedy and drama as a way to allow other performers to explore their lives and step into the limelight.  This was the case with Lena Dunham in her HBO show Girls (which Mr. Apatow Executive Produced), with Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, and now with Pete Davidson in The King [continued]

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Josh Reviews Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Despite my having a very negative opinion of most of the recent DC/Warner Brothers films, including the dreadful Suicide Squad (which is where Margot Robbie’s version of Harley Quinn first appeared), I was interested in seeing Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.  I loved that audacious title, I was impressed by the strong mostly-female cast they’d assembled, and I thought the trailers looked promising.  But I didn’t manage to find time to get to a theater during the film’s first few weeks of theatrical release, and then the COVID pandemic rendered all thought of going to a movie theatre an impossibility for me.  I did, though, recently get a chance to watch Birds of Prey on blu-ray, and I was delighted!  I thought the film was terrific fun; a ripping adventure yarn with a pleasingly loose, tongue-in-cheek tone.  This film deserves to be seen by a wider audience!

Birds of Prey picks up Harley Quinn’s story a ways after Suicide Squad, after getting abandoned by the Joker.  At first depressed, Harley begins to see the upside of beginning a new life out from under the Joker’s thumb.  However, she quickly discovers that she also no longer has the protection that being the Joker’s girlfriend afforded her, thus now making her fair game for any criminal or lowlife she has ever pissed off.  Harley’s story soon intersects with that of several other powerful women: G.C.P.D. detective Renee Montoya; Dinah Lance, singer and driver for the crime lord Roman Sionis; young pickpocket Cassandra Cain; and Helena Bertinelli, the Huntress, who has made it her life’s mission to hunt down and kill every gangster who was involved with her family’s murder.

Writer Christina Hodson and director Cathy Yan have created a very entertaining and original film.  It’s fantastic to see two women at the helm of this female-focused film, and both Ms. Hodson and Ms. Yan demonstrate their tremendous skill in spades.  I hope they both have long careers ahead of them.  Birds of Prey has a sense of style and tone that is unique among the DC/Warner Brothers films of recent years.  It is the tone that is the most critical, as this is an intense and serious and very adult film that is also a lot of fun and playfully loose.  Many films try and fail to strike that balance, but Ms. Yan and Ms. Hodson make it look easy.

Birds of Prey demonstrates a wonderfully playful attitude throughout, beginning with the funny and irreverent animated opening sequence.  I knew I was in for a fun ride after seeing that opening!  Birds of Prey is structured to bring the audience into Harley Quinn’s loopy and off-kilter … [continued]

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Josh Review the DC Animated Film: Apokolips War

August 6th, 2020
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Justice League Dark: Apokolips War seems to be the finale of the “New 52” style continuity of animated films that began with 2014’s Justice League: War Here in Apokolips War, the story circles back around to Darkseid (who was the main villain in Justice League: War — his attack on Earth is what led to the formation of the Justice League in that story).  Superman has decided to finally take the battle to Darkseid, and leads the Justice League in an attack on Darkseid’s home planet of Apokolips.  The attack fails, and in response, Darkseid attacks Earth again and slaughters most of the DC universe heroes.  A crippled Superman teams up with John Constantine and a motley crew of other unlikely heroes in a desperate attempt to retake the Earth and defeat Darkseid once and for all.

I quite enjoyed Apokolips War — far more than I’d been expecting to!

While in general I love the idea of a continuity between these DC animated films — I am a huge fan of long-form story-telling in any media, from novels to comic books to TV shows to movies — I have not been a huge fan of this series.  There have been some fun stories here and there, and I have loved seeing the connections between the films.  But overall, I think the tone of these films has been off — they’ve tried to be “mature” and “adult” (and many have been rated PG-13, even R), but I’ve found the sex and cursing in the films to be pretty juvenile.  True adult storytelling would be complex themes and characters, but there hasn’t been nearly enough of that to suit me.  The animation has been OK but not great, and I have not been a fan of the character-designs (which, in my opinion, have given us some very weird-looking characters).

So I haven’t loved this series nearly as much as I’d hoped I would when it started… but if Apokolips War is indeed the grand finale, it is a very satisfying conclusion.  Even when judged purely as a stand-alone adventure, there’s a lot here to enjoy.

It was fun to see so many different characters incorporated into this adventure.  In addition to the entire Justice League, we also get to see all of the members of the Teen Titans as well as the Justice League “Dark”, the loose band of supernatural heroes including John Constantine. Zatanna, and others.  (This movie was given the Justice League Dark heading in its title, which is a curious choice.  John Constantine is the central character, but if this is indeed the finale of this animated movie series, I was surprised they didn’t use the more … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Shazam!

I missed Shazam! when it was released to theatres last year.  I’d been burned out on one bad DC/Warner Brothers live-action movie after another, and while this one looked interesting, I didn’t rush out to see it.  I recently watched the film on blu-ray, and I enjoyed it!

Shazam! tells the story of young Billy Batson, an orphan who has gotten himself booted from one foster family after another.  As a sort of last chance, he is adopted into a group home run by Victor and Rosa Vasquez, with five other orphans.  Billy doesn’t expect to find this new home any more satisfactory than any of his previous ones, but his life takes an unexpected path when he finds himself gifted with incredible powers — and an adult, super-powered new body — by the wizard Shazam.

The idea of a super-hero version of Big is a delicious concept, and this film mines a lot of joy and comedy out of that premise.  My favorite scenes of the film are the ones in which Billy, now in the role of the grown-up super-hero Shazam, and his new step-brother Freddy goof around exploring all the crazy new things this new body can do.  Zachary Levi plays the adult/super-hero version of Billy, and he is spectacular in the way he channels the excitement and enthusiasm of a 14-year-old boy in these incredible circumstances.  I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Levy’s work.  (He was great in season two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.)  But he has perhaps never been more perfectly suited for a role than this one.  Mr. Levi (ably assisted by an awesome-looking super-suit) certainly has the physicality for the role… and his comedic timing is impeccable.  He is so funny and joyous in this role!  His enthusiasm carries the film.

There are two main weaknesses of the film for me.  The main one is that I don’t understand why this movie, telling the story of a kid-turned-superhero, is rated PG-13.  My 10-year-old children were excited to see this movie, and I was excited to watch it with them.  But I found myself wincing at the film’s language and adult-oriented content.  Shazam/Captain Marvel has had a reputation, over the years, as being silly/cheesy/kiddie, so I suppose the filmmakers were concerned about their movie coming off of as being just for kids.  They clearly wanted to make certain people knew this was a “cool” movie aimed at adults.  I can understand that, but I think they overshot the mark somewhat.  I am all for not dumbing-down one’s super-hero movie.  But I think it’s a shame that there’s a lot that’s inappropriate (in my opinion) for younger viewers in the film.  I wish they’d made … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Animated Adaptation of Superman: Red Son

The direct to blu-ray/DVD DC animated film Red Son is an adaptation of the three-issue mini-series by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett.  That “Elseworlds” story asks the tantalizing premise: what if young Kal-El had been raised in communist Russia rather than in the American mid-west?  (It also has an irresistibly clever title.)  I can see why the team at Warner Brothers Animation decided to adapt this story.  I am pleased that this animated film (scripted by the great J.M. DeMatteis, who wrote some of my favorite comic books back in the eighties and nineties) is an enjoyable adaptation!

The idea of seeing what would happen when the noble Kal-El was raised with very different values than an American farm-boy is a great one, and the film gets a lot of mileage out of that premise.  It’s a lot of fun to see this alternate history of the DC universe play out, and to see the characters interact with real-life figures from history such as Stalin and JFK.  The animation is, as usual for these animated DC films, good albeit not great.  The voice cast is very strong.  Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, Captain Lorca in Star Trek: Discovery) is fun as this Russian-accented, Communist version of Superman, and Amy Acker (Angel, Alias, The Cabin in the Woods, Much Ado About Nothing) is fantastic as Lois Lane.  Diedrich Bader (Veep, Better Things) is perfectly cast as Lex Luthor; he brings a perfect amount of oily arrogance to Lex.  Phil Morris (Seinfeld, Smallville) is great as Jimmy Olsen — I love seeing a black Jimmy Olsen in this film!!  Singer/songwriter Paul Williams (who also was so great voicing the Penguin back on Batman: The Animated Series) is perfectly obsequious as Brainiac, and it’s a delight to hear Phil LaMarr reprise his role from the animated Justice League show as John Stewart.

The film opens with a cleverly retro, Cold War inspired opening-titles sequence.  I love that the film maintained the period setting of the original comic, and that, like the comic, the story unfolds over many years.  The story beings in 1946 and continues through the following decades.  It’s wild to see Lois Lane smoking in the scenes set in the fifties!  (I’m shocked that this was permitted in a 2020 animated film.)

J.M. DeMatteis added some modern social commentary into the film (that wasn’t so much present in the original comic).  For the most part, it works.  In the first Lois-Superman scene, Superman presents several critiques of the United States that are (intentionally) quite relevant to 2020.  I liked seeing that.  It’s also certainly no accident that … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Old Guard

Netflix’s new film The Old Guard is an adaptation of the terrific comic book series of the same name by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández.  Charlize Theron stars as Andy (short for Andromache), a warrior who is thousands of years old.  She and a small group of fellow immortals have found one another and now work together as an elite combat unit who take on impossible missions when no one else can help.  But in the twenty-first century, it’s become increasingly difficult for these immortals to hide their existence from the world…

The Old Guard is a fun action-adventure film.  I love the concept, and the film has been very faithfully adapted from the first mini-series of the comic.  (This makes sense as The Old Guard’s creator and author Greg Rucka is also the sole credited screenwriter on the movie!)  The film was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees).  It’s awesome to see a woman of color given the helm of a comic book adaptation.  I think Ms. Prince-Bythewood does a great job with the adaptation; the film has terrific action but is also nicely centered on the characters.

The cast is top-notch.  Charlize Theron is perfectly cast as the immortal warrior Andy.  I’ll probably never love Ms. Theron more in an action role than I did her spectacular work in Mad Max: Fury Road, but it’s not really her fault that every other action role she takes can’t quite live up to Furiosa.  Ms. Theron is great here!  She nails the physicality of the role — she’s fantastic in all the action sequences (And I’m so glad that they gave Andy her very-specific weapon from the comics) — and more importantly, she’s able to bring Andy’s crushing world-weariness to life.  She plays the “I’m gettin’ too old for this shit” attitude perfectly, giving weight to the burden Andy carries without becoming too dour (which would have sunk the film).

KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) is fantastic as Nile, a U.S. marine in Afghanistan who — after getting killed on patrol and then coming back to life — is sucked into Andy & co.’s crazy world.  Nile is the audience surrogate character, as it’s through her that we discover this story.  This could have been a boring, flat character in less capable hands, but Ms. Layne makes Nile the beating heart of the story; even more than Charlize Theron’s Andy.  Ms. Layne is terrific in exploring the shock and horror that Nile feels at discovering that she has forever lost her old “normal” life.  If future sequels lean even more heavily on Nile, I’d be delighted.

Matthias Schoenaerts … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Report

Amazon’s film The Report, written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, depicts the years-long process in which the Senate Intelligence Committee investigated the C.I.A.’s use of torture of detainees after September 11th.  The investigation was led by Daniel Jones, a staffer for Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee.  Mr. Jones worked with a small team for six years on the report, which wound up totaling more than 6,700 pages.  The full unreacted report remains classified to this day, although a 535 page “Executive Summary” was released by Senator Feinstein and the Committee in December, 2014.  The film is partially based on the Vanity Fair article “Rorshach and Awe” by Katherine Eban.

The subject matter of The Report is very challenging.  The film’s first half contains several flashbacks that present instances of the C.I.A.’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which I found extremely difficult to watch, even though the scenes are brief.  On the other hand, the rest of the film mostly depicts subject matter that can be extremely dry.  Daniel Jones worked for years with a small team in a windowless room, reading e-mails and files and other documents.  That’s a hard subject matter to dramatize.  The sequences of committee hearings and political back-room conversations aren’t much easier!  Mr. Burns and his team had quite a challenge to weave this all into something compelling that could sustain an audience’s interest.

I am impressed by what they have done.

Now, be warned: The Report doesn’t have the momentum of a film like Spotlight.  Despite the best efforts of Mr. Burns and his terrific cast, I have to admit that there are portions of this very talky film in which I struggled somewhat to remain focused.  At the other end of the spectrum, as I’d noted above, there were sequences — the flashback to the C.I.A. interrogations — that were extremely unpleasant and tough to get through.

But the power of this incredibly important and relevant story shone through.  And the terrific cast was a huge factor in bringing this story to life successfully.  Adam Driver is fantastic in the lead role as Daniel Jones.  This is the least flashy role I have ever seen Mr. Driver play.  There’s not a single moment of the type of explosive energy that has characterized many of his best roles, from Adam in Girls to Kylo Ren in the Star Wars sequel trilogy.  This is a very internal performance.  Mr. Driver keeps all of his energy tightly bottled up.  And yet, his charisma shines through his stillness.  Daniel is like a coiled spring throughout the film, and that intensity blazing forth behind Mr. Driver’s eyes kept me, as a viewer, riveted … [continued]

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How to Start Watching (And Fall in Love with) Star Trek — Part Two!

Yesterday I posted part one of this, possibly (probably!) the most important blog series I will ever write!  It’s my guide to how to start watching (and fall in love with) Star Trek!

Yesterday I suggested that a newbie begin by watching a select group of episodes from the Original Series.  I listed fifteen stand-out episodes.  My general recommendation is to move on to the movies at that point… but for anyone who’s really digging the Original Series, I also listed about 20 more episodes that you could watch and enjoy before diving into the film series.

(Interlude: But what about The Animated Series?  Many people don’t know this exists, but from 1973-74, twenty-two episodes were made of a half-hour, animated version of Star Trek!  The animation was done on the cheap, but the series was overseen by talented Original Series Trek writer D.C. Fontana, and many other key Original Series people were involved behind the scenes.  In my opinion, this is absolutely canonical Trek.  It’s aimed for kids, but there are still a number of very watchable episodes in the mix.  For newbies, I recommend skipping this and moving straight on to the films, but its something you might want to revisit at some point.  If you want to watch just one episode to get a taste for the series, I’d recommend “Yesteryear,” which in my mind is the clear stand-out of the series.)

And now, on to the original six Star Trek films!

For a newbie, my advice is to skip Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  This is somewhat painful for me, because I have a lot of love in my heart for this film.  There is a lot that is interesting and enjoyable in this film, but there’s no question that it’s a misfire.  The tone is off.  It’s a very cerebral, intellectual story — which I like, actually, but it’s missing the warmth that Trek should have, and large chunks of it are, let’s admit it, boring.  TMP, made in 1979, was far more influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey than by Star Wars.  Actually, I love the boldness of that very unusual choice, but it results in a film that is somewhat unsatisfying and, for long stretches, dull.  The visuals shift between amazing (I love the redesign of the Enterprise, with the story reason being that the ship was refitted following the conclusion of the five-year mission — the refit Enterprise is my favorite spaceship design of all time; how’s that for a bold statement!!) and terrible (whoa boy are the new uniforms horrific).

(If you do watch TMP, the best version is the Director’s Edition, made in 2001.  This was one of … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Brittany Runs a Marathon

In Amazon Studios’ film Brittany Runs a Marathon, Jillian Bell (The Night Before, Office Christmas Party) stars as Brittany, a single young woman living in New York.  Brittany is happy with her party-going lifestyle, but when she sees a doctor (as part of a scheme to score a prescription to Adderall), she gets the surprising news that she is unhealthy and needs to lose weight.  Initially resistant to the idea, Brittany gradually begins to experiment by going for a run.  To her great surprise, she gets into it, and eventually meets two new friends: Seth (a new dad who is embarrassed about his lack of physical fitness) and Catherine (Brittany’s wealthy neighbor).  The three challenge each other to run the New York City Marathon.

Jillian Bell has always impressed me with her comedic timing, and it’s a delight to see her step into a leading role here in this film.  She is fantastic.  She’s effortless with her mastery of comedy, killing in both the film’s big comedic set-pieces and tiny small moments alike.  But she’s also completely convincing and painful in the film’s dramatic sequences.  I hope this film proves to be a strong boost for Ms. Bell’s continuing career.

The film is very funny, but it’s also grounded in the drama of Brittany’s often-painful, often-failed journey to grow up.  There are some tough-to-watch moments in the film, as we see Brittany make bad choices at times, often taking several steps back after she’s taken a step forward.  The film’s “hook” is about her quest to lose weight by running, but thankfully Brittany’s weight isn’t really what the film is about.  As the story unfolds, and we get to know Brittany as a person, we gradually discover — as she does — the damaged places within her, and the steps she needs to take in order to heal.  Brittany has an almost pathological inability to accept help from others; she interprets offers of friendship and support as pity, and so lashes out whenever someone in her life reaches out to her.  This is the true journey Brittany is on in the film.  Her weight loss is just a side-effect.  I’m pleased that the film has this depth to it.  Balancing comedy and drama is difficult, and many films fail in the attempt.  But I enjoyed both aspects of Brittany Runs a Marathon, the comedic moments and the dramatic character arcs.

Michaela Watkins (Wanderlust, In a World…, They Came Together) plays Brittany’s neighbor Catherine.  Ms. Watkins is a brilliant comedic performer; this is a mostly straight dramatic role, but she is fantastic nevertheless.  Brittany looks down her nose at Catherine, who she sees … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Dolemite is My Name

April 1st, 2020
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Dolemite is My Name, directed by Craig Brewer and written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, stars Eddie Murphy as performer Rudy Ray Moore, who portrayed the character of Dolemite in his stand-up routine and several “blaxploitation” films.  The film charts Rudy’s joruney from struggling comic to his creation of his Dolemite character, and eventually his independent production of the first Dolemite film in 1975.

I loved this film! I’m a little surprised it hasn’t gotten more acclaim!

Eddie Murphy is electric in the title role as Rudy Ray Moore, the man who created the character of Dolemite for himself in his stand-up comedy act and, eventually, in a series of movies.  I thought it was fsacinating the way the film allowed us to follow Rudy as he struggles to find his voice, and a niche for himself in show-business.  It’s only when he develops the persona of the raunchy, brash Dolemite that his career takes off.  After a successful tour, Rudy gets the idea to create a film starring himself as Dolemite.  When the studios turn down his plans, Rudy decides to make the film on his own.

There have been some great films made previously about an amateurish movie production (most recently James Franco’s The Disaster Artist); I love those types of stories, of a creative person struggling to bring his vision into reality.  Dolemite is My Name truly ignites when it dives into that aspect of Rudy’s life.  I loved the film’s exploration of the many trials and tribulations of actually creating a low-budget film.  This was very cool to see!

But there was plenty beyond that in the film to enjoy; I found the entire run-time of Dolemite is My Name to be an absolute delight.

It’s rare when Eddie Murphy appears in a truly great role on-screen these days, but when he does — as he does here — he reminds us that his comedic timing and charismatic energy cannot be equalled.  Mr. Murphy is on-fire in this film.  That old Eddie Murphy charisma is on full display.  He’s electric whenever he’s on screen!  Mr. Murphy was so funny, but he also nailed all of the film’s dramatic scenes in a way that made it look very easy.  This is a fantastic performance.

Mr. Murphy surrounded himself with an insanely funny and talented cast.  To his credit, he clearly did not have any problem giving funny scenes to the other members of this ensemble!  For instance: I never suspected that Wesley Snipes could be this funny.  Mr. Snipes is a riot as the arrogant and affected D’Urville Martin, who Rudy finagles into directing the film.

Keegan-Michael Key plays the intellectual, academic author Jerry Jones, … [continued]

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Viewing Recommendations For Your Coronavirus Isolation!

March 16th, 2020

I hope everyone reading this is healthy and doing OK managing the social and economic fallout of the Coronavirus pandemic.  I am not a doctor (cue the Dan Goor production company “Not a doctor!” soundbite seen at the end of every Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode), so I thought, how can help in my own small way?  The answer: by being your one-stop source for viewing and entertainment recommendations!

Let’s dig in with some ideas for great movies to watch that you might not have seen.

Note #1: None of these movies are virus or pandemic-themed.

Note #2: I’m not going to list super-famous movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark here; I’ve tried to dig a little deeper with my recommendations…

 

Comedies:

In a World… For the past several years, this little movie has been one of my go-to recommendations.  Written, directed, and starring Lake Bell, she plays a young woman trying to get into the movie trailer voice-over business.  The film is sweet and funny and a very interesting look into this aspect of movie-making: the voice-overs for movie trailers.  (Click here for my full review.)

Late Night This comedy/drama came out this past summer; Mindy Kaling wrote it and stars as a young woman who gets hired as the only non-white-male on the writing staff of a late-night talk show (whose host is played by Emma Thompson).  (Click here for my full review.)

The Way Way Back A beautiful, sweet, funny coming-of-age story.  A teenager finds solace from his home life in a part-time summer job at a local, small-time water park, and a friend and almost-father-figure in the park’s amiable manager (played by Sam Rockwell, who is terrific).  I have a sweet spot for the specific sub-culture of summer jobs and how impactful that can be for young people.  (Click here for my full review.)

Adventureland Another terrific coming-of-age movie set in the context of a summer job; this one is about a post-college young man who discovers that his degree in literature doesn’t really qualify him for any sort of employment back home in Pittsburgh, so he winds up working at Adventureland, a somewhat tired old local amusement park.  The cast is amazing: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Ryan Reynolds, and more.  (Click here for my full review.)

The Big Sick Comedian Kumail Nanjiani co-wrote this film with his wife, Emily V. Gordon; and he also stars in this very funny, and also dramatic, film that tells the real story of how Emily fell into a coma soon after the two started dating.  (Click here for my [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Gentlemen

The Gentlemen, written and directed by Guy Ritchie, tells a complicated yarn of the interactions among many different players in the London crime scene, from low-level street toughs to the wealthy masterminds overseeing their empires.  Guy Ritchie came onto the scene with two fantastic crime films of this type: Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.  I love both of those films!  While I have enjoyed some of Mr. Ritchie’s big-budget Hollywood work (I really liked the first Sherlock Holmes film he made with Robert Downey, Jr.), I’ve been longing for Mr. Ritchie to return to this type of funny and scary fast-paced crime story that he does so well.  (2008’s RocknRolla was an attempt, but I thought that film was something of a miss.)

While I wouldn’t say that The Gentlemen equals Lock, Stock or Snatch, it’s a very enjoyable romp of a film!  Mr. Ritchie’s fast-paced style is back in full force, and the film is stuffed to overflowing with colorful characters and outrageous circumstances.  The story is somewhat confusing, but it works because of the playful joy with which the entire thing unfolds.  The film is full of fast-paced dialogue and whip-fast jokes.  The narrative is a pleasingly bizarre jumble, complicated by unreliable narrators (especially Hugh Grant’s reporter Fletcher, who tells the story of much of the film’s events) and Mr. Ritchie’s usual creative approach to storytelling.

The film’s cast of weird and dangerous characters is played by a fantastically talented ensemble.  Hugh Grant puts on a thick London accent to play Fletcher, the newspaper investigator who believes he’s discovered his ticket to fortune.  Matthew McConaughey plays Mickey Pearson, the suave and dangerous crime lord.  Charlie Hunnam plays Raymond Smith, Mickey’s right-hand-man and fixer.  Colin Farrell plays Coach, who mentors a group of young wannabe-criminals.  Henry Golding plays Dry Eye, a Chinese gangster looking to make a move on Mickey.  Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) plays Rosalind, Mickey’s wife and a formidable player in her own right.  Jeremy Strong (Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Molly’s Game) plays Matthew, the wealthy businessman looking to purchase Mickey’s empire.  Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes, The World’s End, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) plays Big Dave, editor of a British tabloid with a grudge against Mickey.  And that’s just scratching the surface…!

There’s a lot of bad language and some juvenile humor in the film.  This isn’t a movie for everyone.  It’s been mostly savaged by the critics, but I’m not sure what they were looking for in this film.  This isn’t Citizen Kane.  Not every film need to be!  It’s a pleasingly diverting lark, one that I found to be funny and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews 1917

Sam Mendes’ riveting war film, 1917, takes place over approximately twenty four hours in April, 1917.  The British have discovered that a German retreat isn’t what it looks like but is in fact a trap being set for a large contingent of British soldiers.  With telephone lines cut and no other way to warn the 1600 British troops (the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment) who are about to walk into this trap, two young British soldiers are sent on a desperate mission to cross no-man’s land and tell the Second Battalion to call off their attack before they are annihilated.

Sam Mendes is an incredibly talented director.  I became an instant fan when I saw American Beauty in 1999, and I have enjoyed all of his subsequent films (with the exception of the most recent James Bond film, Spectre, which I thought was a huge letdown).  But, generally, I think Mr. Mendes has an extraordinary eye, and he can be counted on to create beautiful, deeply moving films.  1917 is no exception.

The film is shot to feel as if there is not a single edit made; the entire movie feels like one continuous, uninterrupted shot.  This is an extraordinary achievement, and I was continually impressed by the skill of Mr. Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and their entire team.  This is an extremely cool device; the result is that 1917 is an impressively immersive experience.  It’s a movie best seen on the largest screen possible.  We the audience feel as if we are right there with the two young men, Will and Tom, as they undertake their incredible journey.  The camera glides gracefully through the terrain, staying with the characters, and it’s as if we the audience are right there with them.  I can’t begin to imagine the complexities of staging and performing these lengthy, unbroken sequences.  The movie would have been great without the use of this technique; but it elevates 1917 into something truly special.

George MacKay plays Will Schofield and Dean-Charles Chapman plays Tom Blake, the two men sent on this perilous journey.  Mr. Mendes made the right choice when he chose these two relatively unknown actors to play these roles.  This allows both men to be a type of audience-surrogate “every-man” character into whom the audience can invest.  But both men have strong resumes, and they bring great skill to these performances.  Dean-Charles Chapman played Tommen Baratheon on Game of Thrones (in seasons 4-6), but he’s grown up and I didn’t recognize him at all.  His wide-eyed, boyish face brings an endearing innocence to Tom.  George MacKay’s Will, on the other hand, looks like a young man who has already seen terrible horrors in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Rocketman

Rocketman tells the story of the life and career of Elton John, starting with his humble beginnings as a boy named Reginald Dwight, being raised by his mother and grandmother in Britain in the ‘50s.  Reggie’s piano skills quickly become apparent, and when he connects with song-writer Bernie Taupin, they form a friendship and a creative partnership that will last for decades.

Rocketman was written by Lee Hall and Directed by Dexter Fletcher, who worked on this film soon after helping to complete 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

The film leans into Elton John’s colorful public persona. My favorite sequences in the film were those when the film stepped outside of the box of a conventional musical bio-pic structure, and embraced a musical-fantasy element.  I enjoyed the song-and-dance numbers (an early sequence at a fair set to Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting was a highlight of the film for me) as well as the film’s framing device (in which an outrageously-attired Elton tells the story of his life, gradually stripping off pieces of his costume as we get closer to seeing the real Reggie inside).

But the film’s weakness is that, despite those trappings, it still hews fairly closely to the familiar structure of a musical bio-pic.  The film has a predictable structure of Elton’s rise and then his unhappy struggles and fall.  (I had a similar complaint regarding Bohemian Rhapsody.  And as was the case with Bohemian Rhapsody, I enjoyed the fun first half of Rocketman far more than the more somber second half.)

Taron Egerton is terrific as Elton John/Reginald Dwight.  Just like Rami Malek’s ferocious performance was, in my opinion, the main reason to see Bohemian Rhapsody, so too is Mr. Egerton’s charismatic turn here the best aspect of Rocketman.  I enjoyed Mr. Egerton’s work in the two Kingsman films (which were directed by Matthew Vaughn, who produced Rocketman), but I didn’t know he had this type of performance in him!  This is a star-making turn.  Mr. Egerton is electric with Elton John’s charisma and energy.  He also, apparently, did all of his own singing in the film!  That is amazing, because there is a lot of singing in the film (no surprise), and Mr. Egerton does a fantastic job in singing so many of Elton John’s famous songs.  (Much credit must also be given to the film’s musical director Giles Martin — son of the famous Beatles producer George Martin — who did a terrific job incorporating so much of Mr. Elton’s great music throughout this film.)

Mr. Fletcher has assembled a terrific supporting cast.  Jamie Bell (King Kong) is great as Bernie Taupin, who wrote the lyrics for most of Elton’s songs.  … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody tells the story of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury.  We follow Freddie all the way from when he was a nobody, working at an airport hauling luggage, through Queen’s meteoric rise, and on to his early death of AIDs at age 45.  I’d read a lot about this film last year; I’d heard it was a solid film, despite all the behind-the-scenes turmoil of its making (in which credited director Bryan Singer was apparently removed from the film late in production, with the film completed by Dexter Fletcher).

I quite enjoyed Bohemian Rhapsody!  Freddie Mercury has a very interesting life story; he’s a great subject for a film.  I had no idea, for example, that his real name was, Farrokh Bulsara, and that his family were Indian Zoroastrians!

This film succeeds primarily because of Rami Malek’s exuberant, exhilarating performance as Freddie Mercury.  Mr. Malek’s passion for this character and this project really shows through.  Freddie Mercury was such a unique figure, with such a distinct voice, that I’d have thought it’d be an enormous challenge to portray him on film, and yet Mr. Malek thoroughly inhabits Mr. Mercury on screen.  It’s quite astounding, doubly so because Mr. Malek (despite the fake teeth and various hairstyles used in the film) doesn’t really look much of anything like Mr. Mercury.  And yet, he FEELS like Mr. Mercury.  Mr. Malek is incredibly magnetic on screen.  This is a full-throated, movie-star caliber performance.  I have been a fan of Mr. Malek’s ever since his strong work in the Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks miniseries The Pacific; but this work is several large steps above above anything I have ever seen him do before.

This film is packed with so much fun music.  They have done a great job weaving a ton of classic Queen songs into the film, beautifully recreated by the cast.  When we hear Freddie sing in the film, it’s apparently a collaboration between Rami Malek and singer Marc Martel.  The result is really great!  This is one of the most impressive aspects of Mr. Malek’s overall performance.

The film culminates in a lengthy recreation of Queen’s 1985 performance at the Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium.  This sequence is a bit indulugent (it’s longer than in needs to be), but I can easily forgive that indulgence because the sequence has been so skillfully created.  The filmmakers clearly went to a lot of trouble and expense to mount this recreation of this enormous live concert.  The film’s cast/band is at the top of their game, brilliantly recreating this iconic Queen performance.  It’s a joyous, exhilarating conclusion to the film.

My main complaint about Bohemian Rhapsody is that it sticks rather closely … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Uncut Gems

February 17th, 2020
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In Uncut Gems, a fantastic film written and directed by Josh and Benny Safdie (the script was also co-written by Ronald Bronstein), Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a jewelry store owner in the Diamond District in New York City.  He is buried in debts, but the fast-talking Howard has a series of plans within plans to get the better of everyone who is after him and to get a big payday.  It all revolves around an opal — a special, valuable rock — that Howard has recently acquired.  He plans to sell the opal at auction in order to score the money he needs to pay off his debts and finally hit the big time.  But it’s not going to be nearly as simple as Howard hopes…

Adam Sandler is absolutely electrifying in this film.  I have enjoyed Mr. Sandler’s previous turns in more serious films (Punch-Drunk Love, Spanglish, Funny People), but his work here is head and shoulders above anything I’ve ever seen him do before.  In Howard, Mr. Sandler has created a rich, unique, instantly memorable character.  Howard is a scum-bag, but Mr. Sandler plays the role with such empathy, and a twinkle in his eye, so that I found myself rooting for Howard throughout the film, even while cringing as he made one ill-advised decision after another.

The rest of the cast was super.  Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta) is Howard’s fast-talking equal as Demany, whose job seems to be finding big spenders and convincing them to come into howard’s store to spend a lot of money.  Idina Menzel is a study in frustration as Dinah, Howard’s much put-upon wife who seems like she might finally be ready to jettison him.  It was an unexpected surprise to see the great Judd Hirsch (looking a heck of a lot like Uncle Leo from Seinfeld) as Gooey, Howard’s well-off father-in-law.  Julia Fox plays Julia, the beautiful young woman working in Howard’s shop, with whom he is having an affair.  (I loved how important Julia wound up being in the film’s climax!)  Possibly the biggest surprise in the cast for me was just how great Kevin Garnett was, playing himself!  I appreciated how well-developed all of these people caught in Howard’s orbit were.

The film is a magnificent exercise in sustained tension.  From practically the first moment until the last, the Safdie brothers skillfully ratchet the tension up and up and up.  I can’t recall another film quite like this!  (Perhaps only certain extended sequences from Quentin Tarantino films.)  It’s an incredibly stressful experience watching this movie!!  And, at the same time, so much fun!!

A lot of credit for this must go to the spectacular and unusual … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Booksmart

February 14th, 2020
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Booksmart depicts the last 24 hours of high school for best friends Molly and Amy.  The two girls have worked hard in high school and gotten into good colleges.  But when Molly realizes that the party-loving classmates she always looked down on were also able to get into good colleges, without sacrificing fun the way she and Amy did, she is horrified.  She decides that she and Amy have to have some fun on their last night before graduation, so they make a plan to attend fellow classmate Nick’s house-party.  But getting there won’t be as easy as they think, and a wild night of shenanigans ensues.

Booksmart is the first film directed by Olivia Wilde (Tron: Legacy, Cowboys & Aliens, Drinking Buddies, Her).  Ms. Wilde has done a terrific job; you’d never know this is her first feature.  She’s able to get tremendous performances out of her ensemble of young actors.

Beanie Feldstein was terrific in Neighbors 2 and Lady Bird, and she does a great job in her co-leading role here.  She’s very funny, and she is excellent at playing super-intense.  Her performance here skirts the edge of being a bit one-note with her self-superior attitude in the film’s early going, but Ms. Feldstein is always able to keep this character funny and real.

The film’s biggest discovery, for me at least, was co-lead Katlyn Dever as Amy.  Wow, I was bowled over by how great Ms. Dever was in the film.  Whereas Ms. Feldstein was playing something of a caricature (albeit a very funny one), Ms. Dever’s Amy felt incredibly real.  I really admired her subtle, naturalistic performance.  For much of the film, Ms. Dever’s Amy is the straight-person to Ms. Feldstein’s Molly, but when the time comes, Ms. Dever kills in some comedic moments in the film’s second half.  And both she and Ms. Feldstein are fantastic in a wrenchingly intense argument the two girls have late in the film.  (That moment is an interesting gear-shift from raunchy comedy into real drama.  It’d be easy to screw up, but Ms. Wilde and her actors sell the moment, and make it into one of the most memorable moments of the film for me.)  I love that Amy’s sexual orientation is treated as a complete non-issue by the film, and all of the characters in it.

Ms. Wilde has assembled a strong supporting cast.  I wish they were all better fleshed out, as I’d have loved to have been allowed to get to know these kids surrounding Molly and Amy on a deeper level in the film.  But the cast does solid work with what they’re given.  Billie Lourd (who has popped … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Prospect

February 5th, 2020
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Prospect is a brilliant, low-budget sci-fi film, written and directed by Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell.  When the film begins, a teenaged girl named Cee (Sophie Thatcher) and her father (Jay Duplass) are dropped off on a jungle-filled planet.  Cee’s father is prospecting gems that he is able to extract from the flesh-like pods that are found — if one knows where to look — on that planet.  But Cee and her father are not alone on this alien world, and they soon run afoul of two ruffians who are also prospecting for gems.  When things turn ugly, Cee finds herself forced to pair up with one of them, Ezra (Pedro Pascal), in order to try to survive… but she knows that Ezra cannot be trusted…

Prospect is a magnificent achievement, a wonderfully original sci-fi story.  The film looks fantastic; I am staggered at how Mr. Earl & Mr. Caldwell and their team were able to execute this film without the resources of a big studio behind them.  I don’t know how they did it.  There are space-ships and alien worlds and it all looks great.  Nothing in the film looks cheap or unconvincing.

I love the retro, tactile, analog feel to all of the sci-fi elements in the film (the ships, the atmospheric suits, the tech).  It reminds me, in a very positive way, of the look and feel of Ridley Scott’s original Alien film.  (I’m also reminded of Duncan Jones’ wonderful film Moon, another fantastic original low-budget sci-fi film.)

The film has a very small cast, and each actor excels.  Sophie Thatcher is spectacular as the main character, Cee.  Ms. Thatcher is in pretty much every moment of the film, and she effortlessly carries the film’s story on her shoulders.  We experience the events of the film through her eyes.  Cee is smart and tough but still very much a kid.  I am glad the film doesn’t require her to do anything too super-heroic.  She remains a believable young girl throughout, even as she’s incredibly brave and heroic.  This is a great role, and a great performance.  I’ll be paying close attention to what Ms. Thatcher does next.

Pedro Pascal was great in Game of Thrones, and he’s made quite a splash this year as the lead of The Mandalorian.  He’s terrific as Ezra.  I love this character.  He’s written to be just like Mal Reynolds from Firefly, using flowery, archaic language (no one else in the film speaks like this), and he has that Han Solo-like mix of danger and good-humor.  His sounding so much like Mal Reynolds made me laugh — I have to assume it’s intentional.  The combination of the unusual dialogue … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Fast Color

Fast Color made my list of my favorite movies of 2019.  It’s a beautiful story of a young woman, Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who has been living on her own for years but who finally returns home to her mother (Lorraine Toussaint) and young daughter.  Ruth is in desperate circumstances: afflicted by powerful seizures that can literally shake the ground around her, hunted by a mysterious group of alleged scientists, and pursued by the local sheriff (David Strathairn).  It seems that all the women in Ruth’s family, going back many generations, are gifted (or cursed) with a special power, but something has gone dreadfully wrong for Ruth.

Fast Color is an absolute delight.  It didn’t get a wide release, but I exhort readers of this site to track it down and check it out.  (It’s available to stream for free with Amazon Prime.)

This is a story about people with super-powers, but it’s not like anything I’ve seen before in a film.  This isn’t an action-adventure film, it’s a small-scale character drama, focusing on three generations of powerful African American women: Ruth, her mother Bo, and her daughter Lila.  I love seeing the idea of super-heroes filtered through this very different type of film, this very personal character drama.

Directed and co-written (with her husband Jordan Horowitz, who produced La La Land) by Julia Hart, the film features three fantastic performances by three incredible women.  I really enjoyed Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance in Black Mirror (she was in “San Junipero,” the stand-out episode of season three), and she’s phenomenal in the central role here.  We can see that Ruth is damaged, but the film takes its time in allowing us to peel back the layers and to discover her full story.  Ms. Mbatha-Raw’s performance is beautiful, as she show’s us Ruth’s fierceness and her determination, and also her fear and her shame.  I thought Lorraine Toussaint was fantastic as Vee, the major antagonist of the second season of Orange is the New Black, and I loved her work here as Ruth’s mother Bo.  Bo and Ruth start the film in a difficult place; there’s a schism in their relationship.  Bo is tough with Ruth.  This didn’t surprise me, because I was mainly familiar with Ms. Toussaint’s work as an almost villain on Orange is the New Black.  But I was delighted that the film gradually opened up Bo’s character and history as the story unfolded, just as it did for Ruth.  Ms. Toussaint’s performance gradually morphs into that of a beautiful, fiercely warm mother bear.  The climax rests almost entirely on Bo’s bravery and strength, and it’s a wonder to behold.  I also loved the surprise of … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2019 — Part Four!

We have arrived at the conclusion of my list of my favorite movies of 2019!  Please click here to read numbers twenty through sixteen, click here for numbers fifteen through eleven, and click here for numbers ten through six.  And now, without further delay, here are my FIVE FAVORITE movies of 2019:

5. The Irishman The Irishman tells the story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who was a hitman for the Bufalino crime family.  Frank claims to have been the man who killed Jimmy Hoffa.  The film chronicles decades of Frank’s life, from his first involvement with the Bufalino family, through his close friendship with Hoffa, and eventually through Hoffa’s death and the long, lonely years of the rest of Frank’s life.  It is an absolute delight to see Robert De Niro and Al Pacino together on-screen in so many deliciously meaty scenes in this film.  Both men turn in strong performances, and their on-screen chemistry together is everything you’d want it to be.  But Joe Pesci, who hasn’t been seen on-screen in years, absolutely steals the movie right out from under them in his role as Russell Bufalino, a powerful mob figure who becomes Frank’s mentor.  Mr. Pesci is so great!!  I loved the film’s interwoven structure of flashbacks within flashbacks, as we follow Frank and the other characters across the decades.  I was very impressed with the CGI and makeup effects used to age and de-age Mr. De Niro, Mr. Pesci, and others.  For the most part, that work was seamless.  Even in those few moments in which the visual effects trickery doesn’t quite work, I admired the film’s ambition in telling this broad story.  I know some have complained that the film is too long, and that the last half-hour drags, but I loved that last half-hour!  Those final sequences were critical to the film — we need to see the fall-out from Frank’s violent life.  I didn’t find the ending boring at all; I thought it was the most moving part of the film.  What a delight that the master Martin Scorsese is still creating films as epic and engaging as this one!  (Click here for my full review.)

4. Knives Out When wealthy author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plumer) is found dead in his home, many of his family members and others in his orbit all seem to have a possible motive. Enter: detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who has been hired to get to the bottom of the whole bloody affair.  I have so much love in my heart for this film!!  Knives Out, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is a ferociously entertaining film, a delightfully funny and twisty … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2019 — Part Two!

Yesterday I began my look back at my favorite movies of 2019!  Shall we continue…?

15. Brittany Runs a Marathon In Amazon Studios’ film, Jillian Bell (The Night Before, Office Christmas Party) stars as Brittany, a single young woman living in New York who, after seeing a doctor (as part of a scheme to score a prescription to Adderall), gets the surprising news that she is unhealthy and needs to lose weight.  Initially resistant to the idea, Brittany gradually begins to experiment by going for a run.  To her great surprise, she gets into it, and eventually sets a goal of running the New York City Marathon.  Written and directed by Paul Downs Colaizzo, this film is very funny while also packing some serious dramatic weight in the grounded drama of Brittany’s often-painful, often-failed journey to grow up.  Brittany’s weight isn’t really what the film is about.  As the story unfolds, and we get to know Brittany as a person, we gradually discover — as she does — the damaged places within her, and the steps she needs to take in order to heal.  That’s the true journey Brittany is on in the film.  Jillian Bell has always impressed me with her comedic timing, and it’s a delight to see her step into a leading role here in this film.  Michaela Watkins (Wanderlust, In a World…, They Came Together), Utkarsh Ambudkar (Brockmire), Lil Rel Howery, and Micah Stock all kill in their supporting roles.  I’m really glad to have seen this film!  (My full review is coming soon.)

14. Doctor Sleep I’m really bummed this film didn’t do better at the box office, because Doctor Sleep is a terrific film, a satisfying adaptation of Mr. King’s novel (a sequel to The Shining) and also a satisfying sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film of The Shining.  Written and directed by Mike Flanagan, I was continually pleased and delighted by this film.  I thought it was a wonderful character study and also a thrilling supernatural yarn, and I was impressed by the many clever ways in which the film slightly tweaked the Doctor Sleep novel’s story so as to maintain continuity with Mr. Kubrick’s film.  Ewan McGreggor is terrific as the lead, an all-grown-up Daniel Torrance whose life after the events of The Shining has not been easy.  At the edge of losing his life to alcoholism, the film (and Mr. King’s novel) is as much the story of Dan’s clawing his way back to humanity and a life as it is about a battle with supernatural forces.  Kyliegh Curran is terrific as the young girl, Abra, whose … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2019 — Part One!

I hope you enjoyed my list of my favorite TV series of 2019!  And now, on to my list of my twenty favorite movies of 2019 — here we go…!

20. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker I debated whether or not to include The Rise of Skywalker on this list.  The film has so many flaws.  I don’t like how simplistic and predictable it is.  I don’t like how it undoes many of the things I loved about The Last Jedi (putting Kylo Ren back in the mask, saying that Rey DOES have a familial connection to a famous Star Wars character after all, and, most damningly, totally sidelining Rose Tico).  I don’t like how dumb and nonsensical the Emperor’s plan is.  On the other hand, there is still a lot that I enjoyed about this film.  I loved the renewed focus on the trio of Rey-Finn-Poe.  I loved the clever way Leia was incorporated into the film’s story despite the tragic passing of Carrie Fisher.  I loved Adam Driver’s continued amazing work as Kylo Ren.  I thought the film was visually stunning.  I thought John Williams’ score (his final Star Wars score ever…?) was beautiful.  I loved the Han-Kylo scene.  I had a lot of fun sitting in the theatre and being carried along by the film’s rollicking pace.  Despite it’s many flaws, I’m sure this is a film that I will rewatch many times in the future — probably, in all honesty, more times than many other films on this list.  So I figured The Rise of Skywalker needed to be included.  (Click here for my full review.)

19. It: Chapter Two — Like The Rise of Skywalker, It: Chapter Two is flawed.  The film is too long, and it doesn’t pack the emotional punch or the scares that the first film did.  And yet, I think that critics were way too hard on this film.  I quite enjoyed it.  The casting of the adult versions of the Losers’ Club was absolutely perfect.  Better than I could have dreamed: James McAvoy as Bill, Jessica Chastain as Beverly, Bill Hader as Richie, James Ransone as Eddie, Isaiah Mustafa as Mike, Jay Ryan as Ben, and Andy Bean as Stanley.  Wow!  The best moments in the film are the scenes (such as their epic reunion over Chinese food) when that ensemble was all together.  Additionally, of course, Bill Skarsgård returned as Pennywise, as deliriously weird and horrific as he was in Chapter One.  It’s exciting to see Stephen King’s brilliant novel brought to life as skillfully as it was here.  (Click here for my full review.)

18. Joker Todd Phillips’ Joker isn’t … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Irishman

Martin Scorsese’s Netflix film The Irishman is a thrilling delight, demonstrating that Mr. Scorsese continues to work at the absolute top of his game.  You may think that Mr. Scorsese had said everything that needed to be said about crime and gangsters in his earlier films such as Goodfellas and Casino, but The Irishman gripped me from the first frame to the last.  The film is three and a half hours in length, which one might think is indulgent.  Perhaps it is!  But I enjoyed every minute of those three and a half hours and would gladly have watched a few hours more.

The Irishman is based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses, by Charles Brandt, which tells the story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who was a hitman for the Bufalino crime family.  (Although Mr. Scorsese’s film adaptation has only been referred to as The Irishman in its promotional materials, I was intrigued to see the actual film also included the subtitle I Heard You Paint Houses at the beginning.)  The facts of Mr. Sheeran’s claims in Mr. Brandt’s book have been disputed.  The film presents Frank’s version of the story.  Is this the truth?  I don’t know.  But it’s a hell of a story!

One of the best aspects of The Irishman is the way it finally brings Robert De Niro and Al Pacino together.  The two were both in The Godfather Part II, but they never shared a scene.  Michael Mann’s Heat teased a De Niro and Pacino team-up, though the two men only actually had one scene together.  (It’s probably the best scene in the movie.)  I never saw 2008’s Righteous Kill, and from what I’ve read and heard, that’s probably for the best.  Here in The Irishman, we get a true De Niro-Pacino team-up.  The two men are together for a huge chunk of the middle of the movie, and their pairing is every bit as exciting as I’d hoped.  Both men are terrific.  Mr. De Niro’s Frank Sheeran is an eager-to-please yes-man who, at the same time, is capable to enormous casual brutality.  Mr. Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa is a charismatic fast-talker who is tough and nails and unwilling to compromise.  The film takes its time in painting the origins of the fast friendship between the two men, as well as the eventual breaking of that friendship.

The key third player in the film is Joe Pesci.  Mr. Pesci hasn’t been in a new film in years, but, wow, he was every bit as great as DeNiro and Pacino… maybe even better!  Mr. Pesci plays Russell Bufalino, the powerful head of a mafia crime family who takes a shine for De Niro’s Frank.  … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Walking out of J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015, I was thrilled.  It felt like a joyous return to the fun spirit of the original Star Wars films, something the dour, talky Prequels felt like they’d forgotten.  But after a little time thinking about it, the film’s flaws (it’s derivative nature, and its myriad story and plot problems) started to become apparent.  I found watching Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to be a remarkably similar experience.  The film is a fun thrill ride.  It kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time.  The tone is spot-on, and wow, the film is visually stunning.  The Rise of Skywalker was hugely enjoyable to watch on a big screen with a packed crowd.  But it lacks the depth and thematic weight of the best Star Wars.  In contrast to The Last Jedi (a film that, while flawed, is one that I’ll fiercely defend), this isn’t a film with much of anything to say.  And it contains many of the same third-act nonsensical plot problems that The Force Awakens has.

OK, let’s dig in!  Before we begin, though, two programming notes.  First, my Star Wars t-shirt design is available at Woot for only TWO MORE DAYS!  It’ll be up for sale through Tuesday night only.  Please support this site by clicking through and making a purchase!  It’s a great gift for any Star Wars super-fan in your life.  Second, the other way to support this site is to take advantage of my being an Amazon affiliate.  This means that if you click through to Amazon from any of the links on this site, I’ll get a tiny percentage of the price of any purchase you make on Amazon for the next 24 hours.  You can use the Amazon banner ad at the top of the home page, or any specific Amazon link within one of my blog.  You don’t have to purchase the specific item I linked to!  Just use one of my links to get to Amazon, and then purchase whatever you normally would.  If all the readers of this site would just click through to Amazon through one of my links, whenever you do your shopping, it’d be a huge help towards keeping the lights on here.

OK, back to The Rise of Skywalker!  There are spoilers ahead, so I recommend stopping here if you haven’t yet seen the film, and coming back to read this after you do.

The Rise of Skywalker exhibits the same tendency seen in The Force Awakens to give us the-same-but-bigger rather than anything new.  In The Force Awakens, we got another Death Star but now this one was … [continued]

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Josh Reviews A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

December 11th, 2019
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Late in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, journalist Lloyd Vogel (played by The Americans Matthew Rhys) shows his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) the article he’d written about Fred Rogers.  It’s not really about Mister Rogers, she comments.  Neither is this film, despite the marketing.

But that’s OK.  I still found A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood to be a wonderfully moving piece of work.  In fact, I think the story the film tells is more interesting than what I’d been expecting (basically a live-action version of last year’s spectacular Fred Rogers documentary by Morgan Neville, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?).

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was directed by Marielle Heller and written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, based (loosely) on Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say … Hero?”  (It’s a beautiful article, and after being moved by this film, I found the article and read it and was moved all over again.  Give it a read, why don’t you?  It’s worth your time.)

Tom Hanks stars in the film as Fred Rogers.  This is the kind of casting that sounds perfect on paper.  Of course, who else but Tom Hanks could portray Mister Rogers?  But I was a bit concerned, going in.  Tom Hanks is a marvelous actor, but he’s also very known to me as Tom Hanks.  Just as known to me as Mister Rogers.  Would I be able to forget both Tom Hanks and the real Mister Rogers in order to accept Tom-Hanks-as-Mister-Rogers?  I needn’t have been worried.  Once again, Tom Hanks has dazzled me with the depth and gentleness of his work.  It’s a marvelous performance.  (In a seemingly counterintuitive way, it’s helped, not hindered, by the decision not to make too much effort to actually make Mr. Hanks look like the real Mister Rogers.)

Just as good, if not better, is the wonderful, heartbreaking work done by Matthew Rhys.  After watching The Americans, I’ve become a fan-for-life of Mr. Rhys, and I’ve enjoyed watching him pop up in small roles in recent films such as The Post and Mowgli.  But he takes his work to the next level here, as he charts Lloyd’s slow journey from broken, burdened, and cynical back into life and light.  (Is it a coincidence that Tom Hanks also starred in The Post?  He and Mr. Rhys didn’t share any scenes in that film, but I wonder if they made a connection then.)

At the root of Lloyd’s problems is his bitter estrangement with his father, Jerry, played by Chris Cooper (Lone Star, American Beauty, Adaptation, The Town).  The always-reliable Mr. Cooper brings extraordinary depth and complexity to Jerry.

Susan … [continued]

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When wealthy author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plumer) is found dead in his home, many of his family members and others in his orbit all seem to have a possible motive.  Enter: detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who has been hired to get to the bottom of the whole bloody affair.

Knives Out, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is a ferociously entertaining film, an agreeably funny and twisty whodunnit.

Mr. Johnson’s film is a clever modern version of an Inspector Poirot or Agatha Christie mystery, with a brilliant detective investigating a large cast of characters, each of whom might be a suspect in the crime.  The film is very much of the current day, with conversations about immigration and references to Netflix.  At the same time, it’s a murder mystery in the classic mold, one that can hold its own proudly with the classic stories of this genre.  The film is very funny, but it’s not a spoof.  There is real death, and significant stakes for the characters involved.  And yet, Mr. Johnson effectively maintains a fun, jaunty tone for the film’s entire run-time.  It’s an impressive accomplishment.

The cast is magnificent.  I don’t know what’s going on with Daniel Craig’s accent, but his surprising and unexpected choices continually delighted me throughout the film.  His detective Blanc seems in many ways to be just as loony as the characters he’s investigating; but he proves again and again his skill and attention to detail.  I love how Mr. Craig was able to make this detective character just as interesting as all of the other suspects.  Ana de Armas was dazzling in Blade Runner 2049, and she proves that was no fluke here with her empathetic work here as Harlan’s young nurse, Marta, who suddenly finds herself in an escalatingly crazy situation.

Jamie Lee Curtis is devastatingly sharp and acerbic as Harlan’s oldest daughter, Linda.  It’s a delight to see the great Ms. Curtis back on screen playing such a strong and memorable character.  I don’t think I’ve seen anything Don Johnson has done in almost 20 years, and yet here I am loving his work in HBO’s new Watchmen series, and he was terrific in this film as Linda’s husband Richard.  Chris Evans plays an anti-Steve Rogers character in Ransom, Linda and Richard’s spoiled son.  It’s fascinating to see Mr. Evans use his thousand-watt smile for such a smarmy, selfish character, rather than a noble one.  Michael Shannon’s usual intensity brings interesting colors to the role of Harlan’s youngest — and somewhat desperate — son Walt.  Toni Collette is hilarious as Joni, the ditsy widow of Harlan’s dead son Neil, who runs a fake-sounding lifestyle business that rather resembles … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Film Adaptation of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep

After revisiting The Shining and then reading Mr. King’s sequel novel, Doctor Sleep, I was eager to see the film adaptation, written and directed by Mike Flanagan.  The film, like the novel, picks up the story of Dan Torrance, decades after the tragic events at the Overlook Hotel.  Dan has spent years struggling with the trauma he suffered as a child, and he has often viewed his supernatural abilities (his “Shine”) as more of a curse than a gift.  But at last he has found peace, living a quiet life in a quiet New Hampshire town, working at the local nursing home/hospice.  But his peaceful life is threatened when he befriends a young local girl, Abra, with a Shine more powerful than his ever was.  Abra’s shine has made her the target of the True Knot, a group of immortal vampire-types who consume the Shine of young children as a way to extend their own lives.  Dan must now embrace and use his Shine as he never has before, if he is going to be able to help Abra and try to defeat this evil which has marked the two of them as their next victims.

I really enjoyed Mr. King’s novel, and I was extremely pleased and satisfied by this film adaptation!  The film has apparently been a box office disappointment, which is a shame, because it’s a terrific film, a satisfying adaptation of Mr. King’s novel and also a satisfying sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film.

Mr. Flanagan’s film takes the difficult path of attempting to be both a faithful adaptation of Mr. King’s novel Doctor Sleep, as well as a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining, which diverged from Mr. King’s novel The Shining in a number of ways.  I was continually pleased and delighted by the ways in which the film slightly tweaked the Doctor Sleep novel’s story so as to maintain continuity with Kubrick’s film.  Here’s a great example: the novel contains a scene, early on, set very soon after the events of The Shining, in which Dick Halorann teaches young Danny how to create a locked box in his mind, in which he can trap the ghosts and other horrors that are drawn to him because of his Shine.  This is a critical scene, because Dan will use this ability throughout the story.  But the film is faced with a challenge: how to have that scene, when Dick was killed off in Stanley Kubrick’s film!  (He survived in the original novel.)  Cleverly, the film presents this scene with a twist at the end: only Danny can see and hear Dick.  The implication is that Dick in this scene is a ghost.  … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Animated Wonder Woman: Bloodlines

Wonder Woman: Bloodlines is the latest direct-to-DVD/blu-ray DC animated film.  Set in the “New 52”-style continuity begun with 2014’s Justice League: War, this film is a welcome focus on Wonder Woman.  We begin with a retelling of her origin, and her departure from Themyscira with Steve Trevor.  After returning with Steve and his friend Etta Candy to Washington, DC, Diana goes to live with a professor, Dr. Julia Kapatelis, who specializes in ancient cultures.  Dr. Kapatelis’ daughter, Vanessa, grows jealous of the perfect Diana, believing that she can never equal Diana in her mother’s eyes.  Years later, Vanessa grows to blame Diana for her mother’s death, and she takes up with a group of super-villains who are plotting to locate and destroy Themyscira.

It’s great to see Wonder Woman headline one of these animated films.  Back when this animated film series began, a solo Wonder Woman film was one of the earliest projects made.  I quite liked that 2009 solo film; I’d have loved to have seen follow-up adventures with that spectacular voice cast (Keri Russell as Diana and Nathan Fillion as Steve Trevor).  In the past decade, I don’t think we’ve gotten any additional DC animated films with a female character in the lead role.  While this version of Wonder Woman (voiced by Rosario Dawson) has appeared in many of the films in this “New 52” animated continuity, it’s nice to see her given the spotlight here in Bloodlines.

This film is solid though not spectacular.  It’s a fun adventure with some interesting emotional stakes, as we follow Diana and Vanessa’s fraught sisterly relationship.  I like the idea of making that relationship the focal point for the story.

There are two main problems.  The first is that I think the film tries to do way too much in its short (fewer than ninety minutes) run-time.  Not only do we get appearances from many of Wonder Woman’s rogues gallery (Cheeta and Giganta and Dr. Poison and Dr. Cyber and more), we also get a retelling of Wonder Woman’s origin before the main adventure begins.  That was a head-scratching decision for me.  Those opening ten minutes are a perfectly fine, entertaining cliff’s notes version of Wonder Woman’s first encounter with Steve Trevor and her decision to leave Themyscira.  But why did we need it?  No only have we gotten to see this origin in prior animated films, we also saw in in the 2017 live-action Wonder Woman film.  Is there anyone watching this film who doesn’t know Wonder Woman’s origin?  Clearly the filmmakers were worried there would be.  Their aim with this film seems to have been to create a definitive Wonder Woman story, complete with her origin … [continued]

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Checking into the Overlook Hotel: Josh Looks Back at The Shining

The recent release of the film adaptation of Doctor Sleep (which I thought was great!!  My full review is coming soon!!). the sequel to The Shining, made me feel like it was time to look back at The Shining.  And so I started with Stephen King’s novel, which I’d never before read!  I’m a huge Stephen King fan, but somehow I’d never read this, one of his most well-known novels.  And so last month I decided to remedy that, reading the novel before then rewatching Stanley Kubrick’s famous film adaptation from 1980.

I was not at all surprised to find that I loved Mr. King’s novel.  It’s interesting: while I have read many of Mr. King’s Books, The Shining feels to me like the most “Stephen King” novel of all the Stephen King novels I have ever read.  By that I mean that The Shining seems to be a perfect combination of all of the characteristics I’d most expect from a Stephen King novel: a gripping character story that involves horror both from a human source and with a supernatural bent.

I’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s film several times, so I was decently familiar with the broad strokes of the story.  (Equally as memorable: The Simpsons’ brilliant parody in Treehouse of Horror V, from 1994.  But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post…)  And yet, when reading the book, I was as gripped by the story as if I was completely unfamiliar with it.  Mr. King’s writing is so propulsive.  It grips the reader right in the guts and pulls you right along.  The Shining is a very internal novel, with a great deal of time spent inside the heads of the main characters Danny, Jack, and Wendy.  And yet it’s never slow or boring.  One of my favorite aspects of Stephen King’s writing is how folksy it is, how conversational, how easily it engages with the reader.  Reading a Stephen King novel, I always feel as if Mr. King is right in front of me, telling me the story, spinning me the yarn.  His writing doesn’t have the formality or distance that prose from a lesser hand might sometimes have.

After finishing the novel, I rewatched the film.  It was great fun to see where the film followed the novel faithfully, and where it diverged.

There’s no question that Stanley Kubrick’s film is a masterpiece.  Right from the opening, in which we follow those magnificent, long tracking shots as the camera glides over the water, eventually finding the Torrence’s lone car as it travels along a windy road, while the camera follows from overhead, the film announces itself as something special, something important, something different and unexpected.  Those long tracking shots … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The King of Comedy

Recently, as part of my preparation for the new Joker film, I re-watched Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film The King of Comedy.  In the film, Robert De Niro stars as Rupert Pupkin, a wannabee comedian who becomes obsessed with the famous late-night talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis).  After an encounter with Mr. Langford, Rupert begins to dream that the two are good friends and comedic peers.  When he is rejected from appearing on Jerry’s TV show, Rupert and a fellow Jerry-obsessed young woman, Masha (Sandra Bernhard), concoct a plan to kidnap Jerry.

Rewatching this film, what struck me most was how much this film reminded me of the comedies of awkwardness that would become so popular several decades later, comedies such as Ricky Gervais’ The Office (and, to a somewhat lesser extend, the American version as well).  The King of Comedy is often wrenchingly painful to watch, as we endure witnessing Rupert’s increasingly awkward encounters with the people he encounters.  (The sequence in which Rupert and the woman he sees as his true love, Rita, arrive unannounced at Jerry’s house and refuse to leave is a masterpiece of social awkwardness.)  It’s fascinating how much this film presaged a major movement in comedy that would arrive quite a few years afterwards.

Mr. Scorsese and Mr. De Niro have collaborated to depict several examples of dangerous, damaged men.  Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver is probably their most famous example, but I found Rupert Pupkin to be as scary and unnerving as Travis.  Rupert presents a little more normally — though, really, is his wearing a white linen suit outfit on all occasions any less bizarre than Travis’ angry young man gear?  Rupert certainly presents a more jovial facade.  But from the first time Rupert appears on screen, it was clear that this man is a bomb waiting to go off.  This depiction of a lonely young man, someone who is socially awkward and without much regular human contact (friends, family), someone who believes he is “owed” more than what he actually has in life, as a powder keg waiting to blow is frightening familiar and potent when viewed in today’s world.  I think we’re far more aware of the existence and danger of this sort of toxic male figure than we were back in 1983.  So here is another way in which the film feels remarkably prescient and ahead of its time.

Jerry Lewis is perfectly cast as Jerry Langford, the object of Rupert (and Masha)’s longing and obsession.  He’s perfectly believable as this famous comedian.  His entire persona plays into this role; almost no acting is required.  Who better than Jerry Lewis to depict this character who we see affected … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Ad Astra

At the start of James Gray’s film Ad Astra, we see astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) working on a space platform in low Earth orbit, when a mysterious “surge” destroys the platform and nearly kills him.  As the mysterious power surges continue to range across the planet, threatening to destroy all human civilization, the U.S. Space Command tells Roy that they believe the surges are connected to the Lima Project, an expedition beyond our solar system to search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  The Lima Project was commanded by Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride.  Roy believed that the mission had gone wrong and that Clifford had died, years ago.  Roy is sent on a mission to track down what remains of the Lima Project, and perhaps his father, in order to stop the surges and save the planet.

There’s a lot that I like about Ad Astra, through the film doesn’t quite come together the way I’d hoped.

The film is very quiet and somber.  There is an elegiac tone that hangs over the entire story.  It’s an interesting choice, one that separates the film out from your average sci-fi adventure.  There is an adventure aspect to Roy’s mission, but the film doesn’t treat it as such.  There are a couple of outer-space action sequences — like a fight between moon-rovers speeding across the lunar surface, and an investigation into a derelict spacecraft that turns tragic.  But the film doesn’t lean into the fun or excitement of those sequences.  This film is closer in tone to 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris than it is to, say, Apollo 13.  Although I know some people have found the film to be boring, I didn’t see it that way.  I am all for a sci-fi film that is treated more like an adult drama or character-study than an action-adventure shoot-em-up.

Brad Pitt is terrific as Roy, and what works in the film can mostly be said to rest squarely on his shoulders.  Mr. Pitt’s Roy is really the only character that is at all developed in the film.  We follow this story exclusively through Roy, and the film is so internal to Roy’s character that the absence of other developed characters feels like a conscious choice rather than a mistake (though it does nevertheless feel to me like a mistake; more on this in a moment).  But Mr. Pitt is terrific at bringing us into the story, and allowing us to slowly access what’s going on inside this quiet, stoic military man.  A lot of the film is played in close-up, and his face and eyes do a lot of the heavy-lifting.  It’s a powerful performance and a great use … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Joker

October 23rd, 2019
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Joker, directed by Todd Phillips and written by Mr. Phillips and Scott Silver, tells the origin of the famous Batman villain, the Joker.  However, this take on the Joker is almost entirely divorced from the Batman comic mythos, and it is also completely separate from all of the recent DC Universe films from Warner Brothers.  This stand-alone tale tells the story of a loner named Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who longs to be a star on the late-night television show of Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro.  Arthur lives with his ailing mother and struggles to get work as a performing clown.  The film charts his descent into madness and violence, and the chaos stirred up in his wake.

Joker represents an interesting and somewhat unusual approach to take, and frankly I am of two minds about it.  I am all-in on a serious, adult take on superheroes.  I loved Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, which were dead-serious in their approach to Batman and his world.  Joker is an even deeper dive into the psychological underpinnings of a Batman character, the titular Joker.  I love that about the film, and I think it succeeds in presenting a very disturbing look at this character and how he might have emerged in a world that feels very much like our own.  On the other hand, just as I wasn’t interested in a movie about Spider-Man villain Venom in which Spider-Man didn’t appear (I skipped 2019’s Venom), while watching Joker I found myself often thinking that this felt like only half a film.  As much as I was enjoying the journey towards the creation of the Joker, I often felt like I was missing the Batman side of the story.

The strongest aspect of the film is Joaquin Phoenix’s tremendously compelling work as Arthur Fleck.  Mr. Phoenix paints a viscerally gripping picture of a slowly disintegrating man.  There is not a whiff of cartoonishness or over-the-top stylization in this performance.  Mr. Phoenix plays things totally, hauntingly real.  Even in an otherwise grounded superhero film, there’s usually the point in which the hero or villain makes the choice to put on a costume, and we’re in the land of fantasy.  But Joker never goes there.  Arthur Fleck never transforms into what you’d expect a super-villain to look like.  This is the film’s power.  As we see this man break, and slip into delusion and violence, it’s all the more painful because it all feels real.  Mr Phoenix’s performance is terrifying and unhinged.  I have often complimented Mr. Phoenix for the way he adjusts his physicality for his different roles; that skill is on impressive display here, as he has somehow contorted his … [continued]

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Catching Up On 2018: Josh Reviews Song of Back and Neck

Wait, what, I never got around to posting a review of one of my favorite films of 2018?  Time to remedy that immediately!  I’m talking about Song of Back and Neck, the small, sweet, funny, weird film written by, directed by, and starring Paul Lieberstein (Toby from The Office).  

Song of Back and Neck is a wonderfully bizarre and idiosyncratic movie about a sweet, mousy man named Fred Trolleycar (Paul Lieberstein) who suffers from debilitating chronic back pain.  His journey to deal with that pain leads Fred to some delightfully unexpected places.  The film takes some wonderfully weird turns that I don’t want to spoil.  But I will say that the film allows Fred to form a strange and surprising connection with music (the “Song” in the film’s title does connect to some of what actually happens in the film, though not in the way you’d probably expect) as he goes on this journey that results in his facing some of the psychological wounds that he had tried to bury.

The film is loosely based by Mr. Lieberstein’s own personal experiences with back pain, and how he addressed what he discovered were the psychological underpinnings of his affliction.  I’m not sure I quite buy any of that, but Mr. Lieberstein makes a strong case for the truth behind his own personal experiences in this wonderful, lengthy in-depth interview on Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show, which is where I first discovered that this movie existed.  (Mr. Pollak’s wonderful, and deeply missed podcast led me to a number of great little films last year that I never would have known about, such as Jenna Laurenzo’s Lez Bomb.)

I was taken by this film right from the wonderfully funny opening sequence, in which we see the crazy lengths that Fred has to go through in order to get dressed and out the door in the morning.  The story that follows is funny and sad and sweet and moving.  I wouldn’t call this film a comedy, per se, but it is very, very funny at times.  It’s not a straight-up drama, either, though the film has some touching and painful dramatic moments.  There’s a slightly fantastical twist that the film takes at one point, but it’s all very grounded in the reality of life for real, every-day people.  It’s weird, but it all works.

Mr. Lieberstein is terrific in the leading role.  I always loved his performance as sad-sack Toby on The Office, and it’s fantastic to see Mr. Lieberstein in the center-ring spotlight of his own movie.  I also knew, by paying attention to the credits on The Office, that Mr. Lieberstein was clearly a terrific writer, and it’s fascinating to see … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The New Breaking Bad Netflix Movie: El Camino!

I am thrilled that Breaking Bad creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan has made such a thrilling return to the world of the series with El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which Mr. Gilligan wrote and directed!  I loved every minute of this surprisingly deep dive back into this universe and these characters, and the long-awaited and well-deserved focus on Aaron Paul’s character of Jesse Pinkman.

Breaking Bad is without question one of the great television achievements of all time.  Vince Gilligan and his astoundingly talented team of collaborators were able to craft a magnificent character study of a hugely flawed middle-aged white American man, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), charting his transformation from mild-mannered high school science teacher into a criminal overlord and monster.  (“From Mr. Chips to Scarface,” as goes the phrase often used by the folks behind the show.)  The show was breathtaking in the way it plumbed the worst depths of Walter White (and many of those around him).  The show could mount a viscerally exciting action sequence and also be very funny, but most of all it was heartbreaking.  A carefully structured, serialized show, Breaking Bad ended at a time of Mr. Gilligan’s choosing, and the phenomenal final season brought the show to a nearly perfect ending.

I was completely satisfied with the five seasons of Breaking Bad.  And yet, in the years since the finale, the show’s universe has expanded.  Mr. Gilligan and Peter Gould launched a prequel spin-off series, Better Call Saul.  To my enormous surprise, not only is the show great, I think it has grown to equal and possibly even surpass Breaking Bad!  I am completely captivated and I eagerly await the coming fifth season.

As Better Call Saul has progressed, gradually catching up to the timeline of Breaking Bad, I’ve been wondering whether Saul will ever directly cross over with events from the original show.  Many Breaking Bad characters have appeared on Saul (beyond Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmantraut, the show’s two lead characters, both of whom originated on Breaking Bad).  But would we eventually get to see the events of Breaking Bad from the perspective of Saul’s characters like Jimmy and Mike and Kim?  Might we even actually see Walt or Jesse appear on the show?  Better Call Saul’s post-Breaking Bad “Cinnabon Gene” sequences also have served to hint that the show might eventually move beyond the timeline of the events of Breaking Bad, and perhaps show us more of other Breaking Bad characters’ final fates.

But I never in my wildest dreams expected that Vince Gilligan would one day mount a full-on Breaking Bad sequel.  And yet, here we are with El Camino: A Breaking Bad [continued]

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Josh Reviews IT: Chapter Two

September 16th, 2019
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Stephen King’s It is a magnificent novel, complex and horrifying and wonderfully memorable.  The novel tells two interwoven stories: of how the Loser’s Club discovered and fought a horrifyingly evil entity in the small town of Derry in 1957-58, and how they returned to the town 27 years later as adults to once again confront that evil in 1984.  In adapting the novel for film, the filmmakers made the fascinating choice to have the first film tell the kids’ half of the story, with the sequel devoted to the adults’ half of the tale.  (They also cleverly updated the time-frame of the first film, It: Chapter One, to 1989, so that the sequel film could tell the second half of the story in the present day.)  I loved the first It film from 2017.  (Shockingly, I liked it a LOT more than the disappointing adaptation of The Dark Tower, which had been the film I was anticipating far more.)  And so I have been very eager to see how the sequel film, focusing on the adult versions of the characters, would come off!

For the most part, I quite enjoyed It: Chapter Two!  I think it’s a worthy sequel to the first film.  The first film was stronger, mostly because I think the kids’ half of the story is the more interesting half.  The “coming of age” aspect of the kids’ story lends that part of the tale a little more emotional resonance.  I also think this sequel, at two hours and 45 minutes in length, was too long.  It sagged in the middle somewhat.  But that being said, this is a skillfully-made film.  The cast is fantastic, and the film manages to be a lot of fun and also very scary and also quite moving.  It’s tough for a film to accomplish all of that!

The best aspect of It: Chapter Two is the cast.  They have assembled a perfect, and I mean PERFECT, cast to play the adult versions of the kids we met in Chapter One.  James McAvoy plays Bill.  Mr. McAvoy is an amazing actor and a big-time movie star (I’ve been a fan ever since the Sci-Fi Channel’s mini-series adaptation of Dune Messiah) and he’s fantastic as the leader of the “Loser’s Club.”  Jessica Chastain plays Beverly, and she brings such depth and strength to the role of Bev.  Bill Hader plays the funny, fast-talking Richie, and I can’t think of a better actor to play this role.  James Ransone (Ziggy Sobotka from The Wire!) plays Eddie, and while Mr. Ransone isn’t the movie-star that the first three actors I’ve listed are, he is absolute perfection as the adult Richie.  Not only does … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Jon Favreau’s remake of The Lion King

It seems like it was just a few weeks ago that I was writing about the live-action remake of Aladdin, and stating that I don’t see any creatively interesting rationale behind Disney’s current predilection for remaking so many of their classic animated films in live-action. (There’s clearly a financial reason, as these films seem like a good way to make money off of pre-existing, beloved properties.)  The original animated films Aladdin and The Lion King are magnificent, among Disney’s very best.  So what is to be gained from remaking them in live action?

I don’t have an answer to that (again, other than money in Disney’s coffers), but while I don’t think either of these new remade films have much of a reason to exist, I enjoyed Join Favreau’s new version of The Lion King even more than I enjoyed Guy Ritchie’s remake of Aladdin!

Mr. Favreau first dipped his toes into these waters with his CGI-remake of The Jungle Book, which I thought was a visual marvel.  Mr. Favreau has gone even further with The Lion King, pushing the boundaries of technology and visual effects.

It’s a mistake to call this a live-action remake of The Lion King, because this new version doesn’t feature any human beings.  (The Jungle Book was mostly CGI, but the boy playing Mowgli was real.)  This new film has been created with astonishing, cutting-edge motion-capture and CGI work.  The result is incredible.  The film looks entirely photo-real, despite the fact that it features an ensemble cast of talking animals.  The world of The Lion King has been brought to astounding, beautiful life.  You easily believe that these talking animals are real.  It’s astonishing… and very cool to see the iconic animated locations of the original film (such as Pride Rock) brought to the screen in a way that makes it look like those places really exist.

The original Lion King features some iconic and memorable vocal performances.  Recasting this film could not have been easy… but Mr. Favreau and his team made all the right choices.  JD McCrary plays young Simba, while Donald Glover plays adult Simba… and Shahadi Wright Joseph plays young Nala, while Beyoncé Knowles-Carter plays adult Nala.  All four actors are perfect.  They give different interpretations of these characters than the original actors did, and yet at the same time they all sounded absolutely perfect for Simba and Nala to me.

I thought the hardest voices to recast would be Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella as Timon and Pumbaa.  And yet Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen might be my favorite performers in the new film!  They make Timon and Pumbaa entirely their own, while still allowing the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Spider-Man: Far From Home

While Avengers: Endgame was an epic, enormous culmination to the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, it was actually Spider-Man: Far From Home that was the official end to Marvel’s “Phase Three” of films.  (Kevin Feige just announced an exciting and weird array of films and TV shows that will make up “Phase Four” — I’ll have more to say, soon, about all of those announcements.)  Serving as something of an epilogue to Endgame and also an exciting tease of the shape of the MCU in the years ahead, Far From Home is a spectacular film.  It’s fun and funny and sweet and emotional and action-packed.  I loved pretty much every single moment of the film.  Marvel is sure making it look easy at this point; I strive to remind myself while watching every single one of these films just how difficult and unusual it is to make these sorts of super-hero films be great.  For Marvel to be succeeding film after film after film is simply extraordinary.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is set after the events of Endgame.  The film spends some time exploring the repercussions of the climactic events of Endgame (more on this below), but for the most part it puts the galaxy-shaking events of Endgame aside to focus on a much smaller-scale story.  Peter Parker and his classmates are going on a school trip to Europe.  Peter is eager to leave the responsibilities of being Spider-Man behind, and to just have fun with his friends.  But Nick Fury has other ideas: the spy-master wants Peter’s help combating a new menace from across the multiverse.  Along the way, Peter meets a new ally: Mysterio, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who is stepping into the void left by the death of you-know-who at the end of Endgame, a responsibility that Peter is resisting taking on.

Far From Home is a fantastic film.  Director Jon Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (all three of who returned to the Spidey franchise after Spider-Man: Homecoming) demonstrate a perfect mastery of tone from start to finish in the film.  Far From Home is a very, very funny film.  The script is great and the talented cast are extremely funny.  There are some huge laughs in the film.  And yet, critically, Far From Home is not just a farce.  There are real stakes in the film.  Not galaxy-shaking stakes like in Endgame.  But for Peter Parker and the other characters in the film, the emotional (and, eventually, physical as well) stakes are very high.  And so the audience is engaged with the film right from the beginning.  We care about these characters and are invested in what happens to them.  This … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Men in Black: International

I really enjoyed the first Men in Black film, made back in 1997.  It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a lot of fun to watch.  But none of the sequels have ever lived up to the potential of this series’ wonderful premise (of a secret group of men and women whose job it is to protect the Earth from extra-terrestrials who mean us harm).  Over the last twenty-plus years, there have been various wild attempts to re-start this franchise, but none of them have ever quite worked the way they should have.  This fourth film, Men in Black: International, is no exception.

I was excited to see a new Men in Black film, and I loved the idea of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson stepping in as the series’ new leads.  The two of them had terrific comedic chemistry in Thor: Ragnarok, and I was eager to see them re-teamed.

But, unfortunately, I found little of interest in Men in Black: International.

The film is amiable enough, but for an action comedy it is really not very funny (there were like five jokes in the whole film that made me laugh), and for a sci-fi adventure it’s very small-scale and small-looking.  (Godzilla: King of the Monsters demonstrated the same near-incompetent story-telling, but at least that film was gorgeous to look at, a humongous big-budget spectacle.  I feel bad to be disrespecting the many people who I’m sure worked very hard on this movie, but Men in Black: International looks to me like it was made on the cheap.)

The story-telling in this film is stunningly amateurish, which continually cuts the movie off at the knees.

What do I mean by that?  Well, let’s start with how, in my opinion, the film totally fails to properly set up the story or the two leads.

We learn in the early-going that Tessa Thompson’s character Molly discovered the truth about the Men in Black as a kid, and that she has been trying to become a part of their organization ever since.  Then we see that she has a terrible job at a call center, and yet that she has somehow been able to track spacecraft in Earth’s vicinity on her work computer.  What?  How??  The film can’t be bothered to do the work to actually show us how Molly could achieve that — thus laying important pipe regarding her skills and her smarts.  Instead, she just somehow magically has this information on her computer at work.  Then, once she locates and sneaks into MIB headquarters, she’s quickly accepted as a probationary agent by Agent O (Emma Thompson), and sent on a mission to London because there is a “problem” … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Toy Story 4

I have loved all three previous Toy Story movies.  Toy Story 2 is one of my favorite sequels ever made, and I adored Toy Story 3 as well.  The ending of Toy Story 3 felt like a perfect ending to the series, beautiful and heartfelt.  And so I was a little nervous when Toy Story 4 was announced.  Was Disney/Pixar going to ruin the perfect ending of Toy Story 3 with another installment?

I needn’t have worried.

Once again, the geniuses at Pixar have produced a gorgeous work of art.  Toy Story 4 is beautiful to look at (the animation is extraordinary) and also rich and resonant beyond what I could have imagined.  I loved it.

Set some time after the end of Toy Story 3, Woody and the gang now belong to a young girl named Bonnie.  But whereas Sheriff Woody was, for a long time, Andy’s favorite toy, Bonnie has started leaving him in the closet in favor of other toys she likes more.  To make himself useful, Woody sneaks into Bonnie’s backpack on her first day of kindergarten, where, during an art project time, he sees Bonnie create a new toy she names “Forky” out of a spork, a pipe-cleaner, and other junk.  When Forky comes to life as a brand-new toy, he considers himself trash, rather than a toy, and continually tries to escape Bonnie to throw himself back in the trash.  Woody and the gang, seeing how much Bonnie loves her new creation, consider it their mission to prevent Forky from escaping.  But on a family road trip, Forky gets away from the family’s RV, and Woody chases after him.  Separated from his friends, Woody comes across Bo Peep, who had been given away by Andy’s sister years before.  Bo has been living as a “lost toy” for years, a fate that, at first, horrifies Woody.  This has been his fear for years, a fear that Woody is now forced to confront head-on in a way he never has before.

I love how deeply these Toy Story sequels have explored the very nature of the original premise.  That Forky, made up of pieces of trash, can come to life after Bonnie creates him, leads to all sorts of fascinating questions (as Kristen Schaal’s Trixie says at one point: “I have all the questions”), and the film allows Forky (and the other toys) to explore Forky’s existential dilemma (he considers himself trash, while Woody and co. consider him a toy) in a way that is surprisingly sophisticated for a kids’ film.  (Of course, Pixar’s films have never been solely “kids’ films.”  That’s their magic.)  Tony Hale is magnificent as the innocent and doubt-filled Forky.… [continued]

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Josh Reviews Godzilla: King of the Monsters

July 10th, 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is pretty much exactly what I’d expected it would be: fun but dumb.

The film is a sequel to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla.  I enjoyed that film, though I didn’t love it the way many others did at the time.  I thought it was a very well-made film and I respected its ambition, but I didn’t connect with any of the sprawling cast of characters as deeply as I’d thought I should have.  The result was a film that felt rather superficial to me.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, directed by Michael Dougherty, unfortunately moves further in that direction.  They’ve assembled a terrific cast, but we didn’t get nearly deeply enough into any one character’s story to suit me.  And so, while I thought the film was fun, I didn’t care about any of these characters.  I think for these sorts of monster movies to succeed, you have to care about the characters who you are following through these crazy situations.  But here, I really didn’t, and so I didn’t engage with the film in any sort of deep way.

There’s an interesting germ of an idea in the story of the main dysfunctional family.  Kyle Chandler plays Dr. Mark Russell and Vera Farmiga plays Dr. Emma Russell, while Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown plays their daughter, Madison.  Their family was torn apart when Madison’s brother was killed in one of the Godzilla battles from the first film.  Mark descended into alcoholism and he and Emma split up.  Emma dove into her work, trying to find a way to communicate with (and perhaps control) the “Titans” (Godzilla and the other giant monsters — what the 2014 Godzilla film referred to as MUTOs).  When she and Madison are kidnapped by terrorists seeking to use Emma’s tech for their own nefarious purposes, Mark is drawn back into Monarch (the organization we’ve seen in Godzilla and also Kong: Skull Island, whose mission is to document and deal with these giant creatures) in an attempt to rescue them.  But Madison soon discovers that her mother has been drawn into very dark places, and she realizes that what she thought she knew about her estranged parents might have been very wrong.

That’s an interesting story around which to hang a crazy monster adventure.  But the problem is that we don’t spend nearly enough time actually getting to know and care about any of these characters.  From the trailers, I’d thought Millie Bobby Brown’s Madison would be a very important character.  I would have loved a version of this film that was told through her eyes, with our following the story through her experiences.  But Madison is a very … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Late Night

In Late Night, written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra, Ms. Kaling stars as Molly Patel, a young woman hired as the only woman on the all-white-male writing staff of a late-night talk.  That talk show is run by multi-decade late-night veteran Katherine Newbury, played by Emma Thompson.

Late Night is a terrific film.  Ms. Kaling’s script is very funny, while also containing well-developed characters who go through true dramatic arcs.  Ms. Kaling herself is a winning lead.  Molly is a heroic character, bravely pushing her way into the white-male-dominated comedy-writing world without losing her sense of self.  At the same time, Ms. Kaling allows Molly to look occasionally foolish and to be endearingly flawed and imperfect.

But it’s Emma Thompson on whose shoulders the film truly rests, and the great Ms. Thompson delivers a powerhouse performance as Katherine Newbury.  Katherine, like Molly, had to force her way into a white-male-dominated world.  She’s been at the top of the pack for decades, but now her show is losing viewers and she finds herself on the edges of relevance, as her new network head (Amy Ryan) moves to take her show away from her.  Katherine goes on a compelling journey in the film, as she is forced to take stock of her life and her career, the choices she’s made and their repercussions.  The film doesn’t pull its punches, and Ms. Thompson is able to completely inhabit this woman and take the audience along on this story.  Ms. Thompson’s charisma and energy also allows us to see exactly why Katherine has been a late-night star for decades.  This is a terrific performance.  Ms. Kaling and Ms. Thompson have sparkling chemistry; the best scenes in the film are the ones with just the two of them.

The rest of the ensemble is very strong.  The Wire’s Amy Ryan is perfect in her handful of scenes, and Ms. Ganatra and Ms. Kaling have populated Katherine Newbury’s writers’ room with a terrific ensemble of actors.  Veeps Reid Scott is terrific as Tom, the head monologue writer who is at first disdainful and threatened by Mindy’s presence in the writer’s room.  He’s very funny, while also allowing Tom to have a core of humanity.  Denis O’Hare is also note-perfect as Brad, Katherine’s right-hand man and show-runner, who is the one to hire Molly but more out of a desire to make Katherine’s show as great as it can be rather than out of any sort of idealistic stance.  Paul Walter Hauser (who was great in his appearances on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Max Cassella, John Early, and Hugh Dancy are all fun and funny.  I love how the film was … [continued]

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Catching Up On 2018: Josh Reviews Holmes & Watson

In my “Catching up on 2018” posts, I review films that I saw in my busy end-of-the-year rush to catch up with as many movies from 2018 that I’d missed.

Good lord!  What is the behind-the-scenes story that explains this dud?

Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly are both comedic geniuses, and, prior to this misfire, their partnership has wielded comedic gold (see: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby; Step Brothers; Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues).  While I think there have been a few too many reinterpretations of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson in recent years (see: the two Robert Downey Jr. films Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; the acclaimed BBC series Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman; the Elementary TV series with Lucy Liu; the wonderful old-Sherlock Holmes movie Mr. Holmes, starring Sir Ian McKellan… shall I go on?), the idea of Mr. Ferrell and Mr. Reilly taking on these two iconic characters seemed like an idea with some merit.

So what happened?

I found Holmes & Watson to be mostly a bore.  There are a few funny moments (I thought the idea of an autopsy scene version of the infamous Ghost pottery-wheel love scene was inspired), but for the most part the movie felt like it was struggling to find its way.

The central characters were surprisingly muddled.  Will Ferrell’s Sherlock Holmes seems to be both a buffoon and a genius at the same time, and the combination doesn’t work smoothly.  Mr. Reilly’s Watson, meanwhile, seems just as stupid, if not more so, that Mr. Ferrell’s Holmes… except for the times when he seems to occasionally be aware of Holmes’ buffoonery.  I’m all for an anything-for-a-joke approach, but 1) I think these sorts of movies only work if the jokes are hung around strong characters who you understand and, if not care about, are at least clearly-defined and interesting enough to want to follow for two hours, and 2) if you’re going to focus on jokes at the expense of character development, those jokes had damn well better be funny!

There are all sorts of weird off-notes in the film, which to me show the film’s struggles to find a tone that works.  The movie begins with a sad flashback to Sherlock Holmes’ lonely childhood, which is distinctly unfunny.  It feels like the type of opening to a character-based film that wants to create some pathos around its characters, and to therefore solicit the audience’s empathy.  But after this prologue, the film never develops the Holmes character beyond a one-note joke, so that opening feels like it came from a different movie.

I was equally off-put by the end of … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Disney’s Live-Action Remake of Aladdin

Let me say two things right at the top about Disney’s new live-action remake of their animated classic, Aladdin.  First, I’m just not sure I see much of any creatively interesting rationale behind Disney’s current penchant for remaking so many of their classic animated films in live-action.  (There’s clearly a financial reason, as these films seem like a good way to make money off of pre-existing, beloved properties.)  Two, as an enormous fan of Guy Ritchie’s early films (I hold Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels very close to my heart, and I really love Snatch as well), adapting Disney animated films is really not the type of project I wish he was working on.  But, that all being said, I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this new version of Aladdin when I saw it with my kids recently.  The film is fun and funny and gorgeous to look at.

After the prologue, we’re introduced to Aladdin and most of the main characters in a beautiful extended tracking show that takes us all through the nooks and crannies of Agrabah.  It’s a gorgeous shot that really shows off this new film’s production values: the sets, the costumes, the props, and the CGI artistry.  I was impressed.  It was a cool shot and a great way to bring us into the story.  (I love how well-realized Agrabah is in this new film.)

The cast of the film is strong.  I thought Naomi Scott was the film’s standout as Jasmine.  She was completely convincing and earnest in the role, critical qualities, and she has a stupendous singing voice.  Mena Massoud was also strong as Aladdin.  This is a tough role to play in live-action.  It’s easier for the animated Aladdin to be cute and bumbling while still being believable; that’s a harder balance to strike in live-action.  Then there was Will Smith, ably stepping into the big blue shoes of the late, great Robin Williams.  I was very dubious about Mr. Smith’s casting in the role, and the film’s early photos and trailers did not impress.  But, wow, I was really bowled over by how great Will Smith was!  He channels a lot of what Robin Williams brought to the role, while also easily making it his own.  Mr. Smith has the musical chops to own the songs, he’s able to be very funny and, most importantly, also channel the Genie’s sweetness and sincerity.  I thought he was terrific.  I was also very impressed by the CGI work that enabled the very-human Mr. Smith to have a lot of the fast-moving shape-changing whimsy of the animated version.  I really wasn’t sure the film could pull that off, but … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Dark Phoenix

I still remember how thrilled and excited I was when I saw the final shot of Bryan Singer’s X2 back in 2003.  Jean Grey had sacrificed herself to save the X-Men in the battle at Alkali Lake, and in that final, blink-and-you-missed-it shot, we saw a hint of flame rising from underneath the waters.  That shot was an announcement to all the comic book fans out there that the X-Men movie franchise was about to take on perhaps the greatest of all the X-Men storylines from the comic books: The Dark Phoenix Saga by Chris Claremont and John Byrne.  That storyline played out over the course of many months in the monthly X-Men comic-books back in 1980.  I walked out of the theatre after seeing X2 out of my mind with excitement for seeing this extraordinary story play out on screen.  And then, well… we all know what happened.  Bryan Singer decided to make Superman Returns and Fox hired Brett Ratner to make the terrible third X-Men movie, X-Men: The Last Stand, that took the epic Dark Phoenix Saga and turned it into a subplot in a film telling a story about a potential “cure” for mutants (an idea taken from Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run from 2004).  I thought that film’s bungling of The Dark Phoenix Saga ruined any chance we had of seeing that story successfully told in a movie.  So I was surprised and pleased when the news was announced, two years ago, that Simon Kinberg (who has been a writer and producer involved with the X-Men film franchise for years) would be giving the story another go, featuring the First Class-era cast of younger X-Men characters.  After all this time, would we finally be getting the film adaptation that The Dark Phoenix Saga deserved…?

Well, sigh.  No.

Dark Phoenix isn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared from the lackluster trailers and repeated delays to the film’s release.  It actually has a lot going for it.  I really enjoy this cast, and in particular it’s a delight to see James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender back for one more go-round as Professor X and Magneto.  The film wisely sets Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey as its main focus, and I appreciated Simon Kinberg’s oft-stated goal to focus on intimate character scenes over CGI spectacle.  There are a number of dramatic moments between characters that are very effective, and the film does have a decent amount of exciting action.

But.

Sigh.

Shockingly, the film winds up making a number of the same mistakes that 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand did.

Most importantly, I was quite surprised to discover that Dark Phoenix is really barely more faithful to the original … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Latest DC Animated Film: Justice League vs. the Fatal Five

The latest direct to blu-ray DC animated film, Justice League vs. the Fatal Five, is a relatively small-scale adventure arriving on the scene without too much to get your average fan excited.  It’s not an adaptation of a famous comic book story, and on the surface there doesn’t appear to be much that is extra exciting or epic about this super hero team versus super villain team battle.  And yet, I really enjoyed it!  Justice League vs. the Fatal Five is one of the strongest DC animated films to come out in years!

The film was overseen by Bruce Timm, who for years masterminded the terrific DC animated series and films.  I love having his voice back involved with a new DC animated film, and it’s a joy to see his iconic character designs back in use.  Even better than that, this film features the return of a number of the classic voice actors from Bruce Timm’s previous DC animated series: Kevin Conroy as Batman, Susan Eisenberg as Wonder Woman, and George Newbern as Superman!  And, even better than THAT, this film is in continuity with Mr. Timm’s previous series!  (It doesn’t directly connect to anything that came before, but it is clearly set in that universe, taking place several years after the finale of Justice League Unlimited.  This is very cool, because while these actors have occasionally been used in the various DC animated films from the past decade, those have all been stand-alone tales set in their own continuity.)

It is a joy to see these characters, illustrated in this style, and voiced by these amazing actors again.  And the soundtrack gets in on the fun too, occasionally quoting the memorable themes from the previous Bruce Timm animated shows.  We hear the theme from Superman: The Animated Series when Supes first appears and saves the kid, and we hear the Justice League theme when the heroes assemble in Portland, and again later at the JL museum in the future timeline.  This made me very happy!

The film focuses on a small group of heroes: in addition to the big three (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman), the film gives us Mr. Terrific, Star Boy (from The Legion of Super Heroes), Jessica Cruz (a relatively new Green Lantern, created by Geoff Johns & Ethan van Sciver in 2014), and Miss Martian.

The main characters are Jessica (Green Lantern) and Thomas (Star Boy).  It’s fun to see these new-to-the-animated-universe characters, and the film digs deeply into their individual stories.  Both are neuroatypical characters, and it’s a delight to not only see these types of characters on-screen, but even better to see them portrayed in such a positive manner.  Thomas is trapped … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Amazing Documentary About Star Trek Deep Space Nine: “What We Left Behind”

On Monday night I had the pleasure to see, on the big screen, the extraordinary documentary What We Left Behind, looking back at my favorite of the Star Trek shows, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  The documentary was directed by Ira Steven Behr, who was the show-runner of DS9 for most of its run, and David Zappone.  It’s a glorious love-letter to the show, to the men and women who worked so hard to create it, and to the fans who loved it (and love it still).

Deep Space Nine is easily my favorite of the Star Trek shows.  I realize it’s hard to argue that any Trek show can top the Kirk/Spock/McCoy Original Series, and if I was ranking the Trek shows in order of importance, clearly the Original Series would be on top.  I love the Original Series.  And I love TNG (Star Trek: The Next Generation, the first spin-off) dearly.  But Deep Space Nine is my favorite.  To me it is by far the most interesting and complex of all the Trek series.  The show was unafraid to feature complicated storylines and complicated, morally grey characters.  The show delved far more deeply into its characters than any of the other Trek shows.  (As someone in the documentary astutely notes, the least-developed DS9 character was far more developed, by the end of the show’s seven-season run, than any character on TNG.)  Many fans were turned off by DS9′s being set on a space-station rather than a starship like all the other Trek shows (before and after).  But that unchanging location quickly became a virtue.  Rather than jumping to a new planet and new characters/situations each week, DS9 stayed in one place, and so was able to dig deeply into its setting and its characters, developing an extraordinarily deep bench of beloved and richly-developed supporting characters and long-running storylines.  The show’s characters were complex and messy and flawed, and it developed a long-running story of interstellar conflict (the Dominion War) that was thrilling and complex and unlike any story Trek had ever told before (or since).  The show was groundbreaking in its continuity in a way that many (fans and the studio) found off-putting at the time, but that I always loved, and that laid the path for all of today’s heavily-serialized shows.  And it is almost always overlooked (a point Mr. Behr makes at one point in the doc) for how groundbreaking it was for having an African American in the lead role, and for its deep bench of characters played by African American men and women.  The show was great back when it aired and it holds up remarkably well today.  (Sadly, no subsequent Star Trek[continued]

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In yet the latest feat of I-can’t-believe-they-did-it, Kevin Feige and the team at Marvel have stuck the landing.  Avengers: Endgame is a deeply satisfying, profoundly moving, and incredibly fun culmination to a decade-plus of movie-making.  They have woven together threads and characters from across an astonishing twenty-one previous interconnected movies to create something which is oh-so-rare in entertainment: an ending.  Shall we dig in?  (My next several paragraphs will be free of any major spoilers, and I’ll indicate clearly when I start entering major spoiler territory.  But do yourself a favor: go see the film and then meet me back here, OK?)

I have always been impressed by the continuity between the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It’s at the core of why I love these films so much; why, in place of the usual franchise fatigue that sets in after multiple sequels, I only love these Marvel films more with each additional film.  Not only am I bowled over by the boldness of this enterprise, not only am I tickled by the incredible way in which these films emulate the interconnected feel of the Marvel comics I grew up reading (in which you’d often see, say, the FF’s Baxter Building HQ — or its later replacement, “Four Freedoms Plaza,” which was actually their HQ in the eighties when I fell in love with comics in general and Marvel in specific — in the background of a panel in a Spider-Man comic in which Spidey was web-swinging around NYC), but, as I have written about before, the cumulative power of these narratives build and build with each new film.  Because we have been following these characters across so many films across so many years, we invest more deeply in them and their struggles.  And so when we see heroes suffer and fall (as we did in Avengers: Infinity War and as we do again in this film), the impact of those moments is magnified immensely.

But, wow, this film took that continuity even more seriously than I’d ever dared to hope or expect!  Endgame is a love letter to the entire MCU, and the film is remarkable in the way it establishes that EVERY previous film in the MCU is important.  (Endgame is like The Wire: “All the pieces matter.”)  Holy cow, this film retroactively makes Thor: The Dark World — one of the MCU’s lesser entries (though I’ve always thought it’s a more enjoyable film than its reputation would suggest) — retroactively very important to the saga!  (I’ve had many delightful conversations recently with new Marvel fans, brought in by Black Panther or Captain Marvel, who wanted advice on what Marvel films they should watch to … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Hellboy

April 22nd, 2019
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Mike Mignola’s Hellboy is one of my very favorite comic book characters.  Over the past 25 years, the comic book universe surrounding this big red paranormal investigator has grown and deepened into a fantastically fun and complex epic-scale saga.  The various Hellboy-universe comic books continually top my list of my favorite comic book series each year, and I have written extensively about these amazing comics here on the site.  I loved the two Hellboy movies directed by Guillermo del Toro.  Neither is perfect, and while there are aspects of the comic-book series and the characters that they get exactly right, there are also many instances in which the movies are less a faithful adaptation of the comics and more a version of the comics filtered through Guillermo del Toro’s particular vision.  But a Guillermo del Toro version of Hellboy is a spectacular thing, and there are so many aspects of those two movies that are just so wonderful, in particular Ron Perlman’s absolute perfect embodiment of the title character.  The ending of the second film, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, seemed to set the stage for a trilogy-capping third film, and it’s one of the great cinematic disappointments that this third film never materialized.  I was disappointed when I heard that they’d be rebooting the Hellboy film series, but I also saw potential in the idea of a more faithful adaptation of the comic book source material, and I thought the casting of Stranger Things David Harbour as Hellboy was a great idea.  So, how was the finished film?

It’s a disappointment, honestly.  There are a lot of interesting moments and ideas in the film, certain concepts and scenes that work great.  But for every moment that works, it feels like there are three that are huge missed opportunities, and I didn’t feel that the film came together into a coherent and enjoyable whole.

Hellboy feels, frankly, like a B-movie.  There are several reasons for this:

First, the film is overstuffed with over-the-top gore and violence that is cartoonishly silly.  When I saw The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time, I was completely unprepared for the intensity of the violence.  I wasn’t expecting so much blood and violence in a fantasy movie!  That intensity elevated the movie; it showed that this was a movie to be taken seriously, one with real dramatic heft.  But here, in Hellboy, the blood and gore feels to me like it makes the movie LESS serious.  The over-the-top crazy violence feels silly and juvenile to me, like a teenager’s idea of “yeah, cool!!” but not something to be taken seriously.

The entire film feels … [continued]

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Catching Up On 2018: Josh Reviews Lez Bomb

April 3rd, 2019
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Jenna Laurenzo wrote, directed, and stars in the film Lez Bomb.  She plays a young woman, Lauren, who is planning on coming out to her parents when she is home with them for Thanksgiving.  But as the various family members arrive for the Thanksgiving meal, one event after another keeps finding a way to interfere with the conversation Lauren wants to have with her parents.

I heard about this film when Jenna Laurenzo appeared on Kevin Pollak’s terrific podcast Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show.  Ms. Laurenzo was funny and heartfelt on the podcast, and so I was intrigued to track down this film that she had labored so hard to create.

Mr. Laurenzo was able to assemble a formidable cast for her film.  Kevin Pollak plays her father; Steve Guttenberg (yes, that Steve Guttenberg!) plays her uncle Mike; and Bruce Dern and Cloris Leachman play her grandparents.  Wow!  Bravo to Ms. Laurenzo for attracting such talent to her film!  She provides a nice showcase for these actors.  Kevin Pollak is very naturalistic and comfortable in the role of her dad; he’s always fun to watch, and he is very funny in a key scene in the car with the boy, Austin, who he thinks is Lauren’s boyfriend.  And, please, can someone make a whole movie with Bruce Dern and Cloris Leachman together?  They both killed in every second they were on screen, and they were great together.

I love seeing films that are the singular vision of a dedicated creator, and it’s impressive to me that Ms. Laurenzo wrote, directed, and starred in this film.  That’s a fantastic achievement.  I hope this film serves as a calling card to allow her to continue to work and create in Hollywood.

The rest of the cast, consisting mostly of actors who I didn’t recognize, are all strong.  I was particularly taken with Deirdre O’Connell’s work as Lauren’s mom.  I also enjoyed Brandon Micheal Hall as Lauren’s friend and roommate Austin, Caitlin Mehner as Lauren’s girlfriend Hailey, and Elaine Hendrix and Rob Moran as Lauren’s aunt and uncle Maggie and Ken.

In her podcast conversation with Kevin Pollak, Ms. Laurenzo spoke at length about the core of the film’s story, and how hard it can be to come out, even in today’s day and age.  There is a heartfelt personal story at the core of Lez Bomb that I found very appealing.  Where the film falls down, though, is in its extreme over-reliance on lame sitcom-ish contrivances.  As the film played out, I often found myself rolling my eyes as crazy situation piled upon crazy situation to delay Lauren’s coming-out announcement until the end of the film.  By the time we arrived at … [continued]

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Catching up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe After Captain Marvel!

March 20th, 2019

I have had three different people come to me in the past few days with the exact same question.  They’d seen Captain Marvel and loved it, but they’d never seen a single other Marvel movie.  Excited by Captain Marvel (and the Avengers: Endgame tease at the end of the film)  they wanted to know: what should they watch next in order to get caught up?

What a great question!  I’ve had a lot of fun considering what advice to give them.

The interconnected Marvel Universe is an extraordinary creation.  An incredible TWENTY-ONE (Endgame will be number twenty-two) interconnected films that build upon one another and together make up this extraordinary ongoing story.  There has never before been a series of interconnected films as vast and as well-made as this one.  It’s a delight and I get very excited at the thought of new fans discovering the MCU after having gotten hooked by Captain Marvel.  (By the way, the exact same thing happened last year after Black Panther.)

The good news is: you can’t go wrong wherever you decide to start.  Because one of the crazy miracles of the MCU is that THERE ISN’T A STINKER IN THE BUNCH.  I mean it! Twenty-one movies without a bomb!  It’s incredible.  The worst of the Marvel movies (I’d probably put Iron Man 2 at the bottom of the list) is perfectly fine and entertaining.

Part of me wants to tell people to just start at the beginning (with 2008’s Iron Man) and watch the whole twenty-plus film series all the way through.  But I understand that is too much for most people!!  And so, after much debate and consideration, here is my advice on how to get caught up on the MCU post Captain Marvel and to properly ready yourself for the grand finale of Avengers: Endgame, coming next month.

I think the best approach to entering and enjoying the MCU is to start with the first few stand-alone movies that led to that first big Avengers crossover. These are, in order:

Iron Man
Captain America: The First Avenger
Thor
Avengers

This first wave of films will introduce you to all the main characters and build up to the first huge crossover film, Avengers, which still stands as one of the very best of the Marvel movies.  (I included Thor, which is probably the weakest of any of the films I will recommend here, but it’s still very good and it’s important to the larger story.  The one early pre-Avengers stand-alone film that I skipped on this list is The Incredible Hulk, because it’s mediocre, and because they recast Bruce Banner after that film and it’s proven, in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Captain Marvel

Hi friends!  Before we continue with my Captain Marvel review, a quick note.  Perhaps you’ve noticed the Amazon links in my posts for the past few weeks.  MotionPicturesComics.com is now an Amazon affiliate.  I ask your help to please support MotionPicturesComics.com by clicking through one of our Amazon links whenever you need to shop!  We’ll receive a small percentage from ANY product you purchase from Amazon within 24 hours after clicking through.  You DON’T have to purchase the product I’ve linked.  Just click through any link on this site over to Amazon and purchase whatever you normally would.  We’ll receive a small percentage, and that will help pay for keeping this website up and running.  Thank you for your help and support!

It’s been a long time coming, but here, at last, is the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film focusing on a solo female super-hero!  (Last year’s Ant Man and the Wasp featured Evangeline Lilly as the Wasp, though she shared title billing with Paul Rudd’s Ant Man.)  Brie Larson stars as Carol Danvers.  When the movie opens, Carol, known as Viers, is serving as a super-powered soldier for the Kree, an intergalactic race at war with the shape-shifting Skulls.  Carol/Viers has no memory of her past prior to six years ago, when she awoke after a crash and was rescued by the Kree soldier Yon-Vogg (Jude Law).  When their unit is ambushed by Skulls, Carol winds up trapped, alone, on Earth, where she discovers that she had a past here.  She meets up with Nick Fury, a young (two-eyed) agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the two team up to attempt to discover Carol’s past and the secret that so many seem to be after.

Captain Marvel is great fun.  It’s a delight to see this strong, powerful female super-hero brought to life on-screen, and Brie Larson is great in the role.  The secret ingredient to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s success has been the impeccable casting of its main characters, and the win streak continues here with Brie Larson.  Ms. Larson absolutely looks the part, but far more importantly is the way this Oscar-winning actress is able to handle the film’s emotional beats.  In fact, she’s at her best in the film’s quiet moments, interacting with characters like Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), or Maria’s young daughter Monica (Akira Akbar).

The film takes place in 1995, before all of the other Marvel Cinematic Universe films, and so in many respects it serves as an origin story of sorts for the MCU, and there are lots of fun connections to be found.  Samuel L. Jackson gets his largest role yet in the MCU as a younger version of … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Reign of the Supermen

Earlier in the year, DC/Warner Brothers released The Death of Superman, an adaptation of the famous story-line that ran through the Superman comic-books in the nineties.  (This was actually the second pass at an animated adaptation of this story, as the very first of this continuing series of direct-to-DVD/bly-ray DC animated films was also a take on the “Death of Superman” story, called Superman: Doomsday.)  This new version of The Death of Superman ended with the death of Superman at the end of his battle with Doomsday in the center of Metropolis.  (Click here for my review!)  This latest animated film, Reign of the Superman, concludes the story.  This film adapts the long “Reign of the Supermen” storyline running through the four regular Superman comic books after Superman’s death, chronicling four new Superman-like characters who arrived at the scene, leaving the citizens of Metropolis (and comic fans) to wonder: which one was the real Superman?  Were any of them?

This film is a solid if unspectacular conclusion to the story.  It fits smoothly with The Death of Superman as two halves of one longer film.  As readers of this blog know, I haven’t been blown away by many of these recent animated DC films.  They’re missing the magic that Bruce Timm, Paul Dini & co. brought to the DC animated shows from the nineties and aughts.  Reign of the Supermen and The Death of Superman both are part of the continuity that has been running through these animated films for the past few years, based on “The New 52” reboot of the DC comic-book universe a few years back.  These films are far stronger than the first few movies in this new series (which I thought were terrible).  Both of these two new films (The Death of Superman and now Reign of the Supermen) are enjoyable to watch.  But they’re not at the level of amazing that I long for these films to be.

The “Reign of the Supermen” storyline ran through multiple comic-book series for many months.  It’s a huge amount of story, and as such, it’s no surprise that they have done a tremendous amount of editing and condensing to squeeze this story into a relatively short (less than an hour-and-a-half) film.  For the most part, I think they’ve done a good job at boiling the story down to its critical elements.  We get to spend a decent amount of time with the four new Supermen, before the truth about who’s-who is revealed.  (Of the four, the “Eradicator” Superman gets short shrift.)  They totally eliminate the whole aspect of the destruction of Coast City from the film.  This didn’t surprise me, both … [continued]

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I loved M. Night Shyamalan’s film Unbreakable back when it was released in 2000.  I was excited for a superhero film that took superhero films seriously.  (Two decades ago, I could count all the decent superhero movies that had EVER BEEN MADE on one hand.)  I rewatched Unbreakable a few weeks ago, and even when viewed in the context of today’s golden age of superhero films, I think the film holds up well.  It’s got a compelling story, a terrific cast, it’s gorgeously shot (the way Mr. Shyamalan composes the images and stages his scenes is amazing), the dialogue is rich and multi-layered.  It’s great!  It’s still one of my very favorite superhero films.

In my opinion, its only weakness is that it feels like it’s missing its last 30 minutes.  The film is all set-up, but no payoff.  It feels like a perfect first two acts of a film… that is missing act three.  To this day I can’t believe the film ends when David Dunn (Bruce Willis), discovers the truth about what Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson) has been up to.  I was expecting an exciting confrontation between these two opposites to unfold… but instead, Elijah just gives himself up and the film ends!  And so, ever since 2000, I felt that Unbreakable was a film that was crying out for a sequel.  But as the years passed, I had long ago given up hope that one would ever arrive.

Then, out of nowhere, Mr. Shyamalan surprised the world by revealing in the closing scene of his 2016 film Split that it was, in fact, a stealth sequel to Unbreakable!  Since that film was a hit, it allowed Mr. Shyamalan to finally return fully to the world of Unbreakable with his latest film, Glass.

Glass serves as a sequel to both Unbreakable and to Split.  Split’s villainous character, Kevin Wendell Crumb (nicknamed “the Horde”) is still on the loose, and he has kidnapped more young women.  We learn that, in the years since Unbreakable, David Dunn (now nicknamed “the Overseer”) has continued to seek out wrong-doers, assisted by his son Joseph.  David sets out to find and stop Kevin.  When the two meet, they battle to a standstill which is interrupted by the police, who take both men into custody.  They bring David and Kevin to a psychiatric facility, overseen by Dr. Ellie Staple.  Elijah is also being kept there.  Dr. Staple believes that all three men suffer from a mental illness, deluding themselves into thinking that they are super-powered.

I was extremely excited for Glass, but I was also dubious that Mr. Shyamalan would be able to craft a satisfactory sequel.  I loved Mr. Shyamalan’s first three … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2018 — Part Four!

We’ve reached the end of my list of my Favorite Movies of 2018!  Click here for part one of my list, and click here for part two, and click here for part three.

5. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? —  Like so many of my generation, I grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  The moral and life lessons of Fred Rogers’ television program for children have stayed with me, and are deeply woven into my being.  I knew this, but watching Morgan Neville’s incredible documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I was struck anew by the lessons that Mr. Rogers taught me and so many other kids like me.  The film is a heartwarming (and also, at times, sad) look back at Mr. Rogers’ life and his life’s work: using the medium of television to educate children.  The film allows us to hear from Fred Rogers himself, via archival footage (such as clips from his famous testimony before Congress in 1969) and generous helpings of scenes from the show.  Even better, the film brings together many of the men and women who knew and worked with Mr. Rogers, and they each have fascinating and insightful stories to tell.  Watching the film, I felt a profound sense that something important had been lost from our culture with the passing of Fred Rogers and his children’s television program.  Our world needs more teachers and leaders out there focusing on the values of kindness, of understanding, and of love.  (Click here for my full review.)

4. Mission: Impossible — Fallout I am sort of bowled over at how great this FIFTH Mission: Impossible movie is!  Writer-Director Christopher McQuarrie (returning to helm his second-in-a-row Mission film, the first time the same director returned for the next Mission film in the series) has crafted a triumph of fun pop action-adventure filmmaking.  It’s a delight from start to finish, filled with terrific characters, a tightly-woven plot (that actually, for the most part at least, makes sense), and some of the most outrageously bonkers action sequences I have ever seen.  Tom Cruise is tremendous as always, and I love how well this film allowed the IMF team (Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Alec Baldwin) to play together.  I was delighted that they brought back Michelle Monaghan, drawing to a close story-threads that were begun back in M:I-III.  Henry Cavill’s brute-force CIA operative was a fantastic foil for Cruise’s Ethan Hunt.  But this film is all about the astounding action sequences: the halo-jump sequence over Paris; the brutal fist-fight in a bathroom; the prison-van breakout sequence; the motorcycle-and-car chase across Paris; and, of course, the gonzo helicopter chase in the film’s climax (in … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2018 — Part Three!

I hope you’re enjoying my journey through my Favorite Movies of 2018!  Click here for part one of my list, and click here for part two.

10. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs This latest film from the Coen Brothers consists of six short-stories, all set in the Old West.  I thought the film was marvelous — it’s weird and funny and heartbreaking… and did I say weird?  The film’s heart beats with the Coen Brothers’ uniquely off-kilter sensibility.  I can see how it might strain the patience of someone looking for a more standard, traditionally structured narrative film.  But I loved pretty much every minute of it.  Each one of the six stories surprised me, and I loved how easily the film shifted gear from whimsy to melancholy and back again.  The cast was amazing:  Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, Stephen Root, Harry Melling, Jefferson Mays, Tyne DalyBrendan GleesonSaul Rubenik, Chelcie Ross, and Jojo O’Neill each did fantastic work in their (mostly small) roles.  I love what a unique film this is.  I am thrilled that Netflix supported the Coen Brothers in following their vision to create it.  (Click here for my full review.)

9. Green BookGreen Book is a warm fable the likes of which is a little out of style these days, but I was captivated by this sweet, funny story of the unlikely friendship formed between two very different men of different races and different social strata: Mahershala Ali as the musician Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as his driver, Tony Vallelonga.  The film is anchored by the tremendous performances of its two leading men.  Mr. Ali embodies Don Shirley’s incredible core of strength and dignity as he struggles daily against vicious prejudice and pushes back against those ignorant attitudes.  Meanwhile, Mr. Mortensen bowled me over, yet again, with his incredible ability to transform his voice and his entire physicality to inhabit the role of the dim but well-meaning Tony.  There has been backlash against this film recently for misrepresenting who Don Shirley was and not involving the Shirley family in the making of the film.  I’d probably have ranked this film higher on my list if I felt it was more accurate to the true story.  These accusations, if true, are troubling, but even when I thought this film was based more strongly on a true story, it was clear to me when watching it that I was watching a Hollywood fairy-tale rather than historical fact.  I am OK with that.  The story depicted in the film remains moving and powerful, and with an … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2018 — Part Two!

On Friday I began my list of my Favorite Movies of 2018!  Onwards:

15. The Year of Spectacular Men Madelyn Deutch wrote and stars in The Year of Spectacular Men as an upbeat but somewhat lost young woman, Izzy.  The film co-stars Madelyn’s sister, Zoey Deutch, as Izzy’s far more successful and together younger sister, Sabrina, and it was directed by their mother, Lea Thompson (who also plays Izzy & Sabrina’s mother in a supporting role in the film).  I love that this film is a family affair!  But the joy of discovering that American treasure Lea Thompson is also a great director is only one reason this film is on my list.  I found the movie to be pleasingly endearing; a warm, good-hearted look at a young woman’s fumbling journey towards taking some control of her life as she steps into adulthood.  (Really, I should say the film is about three women’s journeys, because while Izzy is clearly the focus, the film takes the time to flesh out Sabrina and their mom Deb’s stories as well.)  I love how fully-realized all of the women in this film are.  And I also enjoyed that, while none of the many men who Izzy bounces between during the year chronicled by the film are worthy of her (the film’s title is, ahem, sarcastic), I appreciated that they, too, were fleshed out and presented as (mostly) three-dimensional human beings with strengths and weaknesses.  The film is very well-written (there are some very funny sequences!) and I was impressed by the strong acting of both Deutch sisters.  Emotionally honest but never too downbeat, I found the film to be an enjoyable, funny delight.  (My full review is coming soon.)

14. Incredibles 2 Fourteen years after the spectacular first film, we finally got a sequel to The Incredibles!  And while it doesn’t, perhaps, match the fierce originality of that first film, I was pleased by how effortlessly Incredibles 2 was able to draw us right back into this world and these characters.  The film is fast-paced and very funny, with lots of fantastic and entertaining super-heroic derring-do, along with a strong focus on these rich, complex characters.  It’s a delight to get to spend more time with everyone in the Incredibles world, and I was pleased that the film was able to find interesting ways to move each character’s story forward.  The animation is gorgeous, the cast is terrific, and Michael Giacchino’s score is top-notch.  Bring on Incredibles 3…!  (Click here for my full review.)

13. Song of Back and NeckPaul Lieberstein (Toby from The Office) wrote, directed and stars in this wonderfully bizarre and idiosyncratic movie about … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2018 — Part One!

I hope you enjoyed my list of my Favorite Episodes of TV of 2018!  (Click here for part one, click here for part two, and click here for part three.)

And now, let’s dive into my list of my Twenty Favorite Movies of 2018!

I did a lot better this year about seeing all the movies I’d wanted to see than I did in getting to all of the TV shows I wanted to watch.  Still, there were a lot of movies that looked great that I just didn’t get to, including: Operation Finale; The Other Side of the Wind; They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead; Love, Simon; Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot; The Sisters Brothers, The Front Runner, If Beale Street Could Talk, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and more.  So if you want to know why those films don’t appear on my list, now you do.

I also want to begin by mentioning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which would surely have made my Best of 2017 list had I seen it it time, but I didn’t get to see it until well into 2018.  Click here for my full review.

OK, here we go:

Honorable Mention: Annihilation — Alex Garland’s follow-up to the brilliant Ex Machina is flawed, but I admire its huge ambition.  I love that this film is a cerebral sci-fi story, one that is filled with tension without ever devolving into a shoot-em-up.  This is speculative fiction at its best, one that sets up an intriguing sci-fi mystery and then allows its characters to explore and investigate that premise.  I love the cast of female leads, each of whom is terrific: Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny.  (Oscar Isaac and Benedict Wong are also pretty great in the film’s two main supporting male roles.)  This is a film that is deeper than it might at first seem, as its story can be seen as an allegory for depression, self-destruction, and mental illness.  This film was mostly ignored this year (though it did make Barack Obama’s list of his favorite 2018 films!!), but it’s definitely worth a look.  (Click here for my full review.)

20. Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind Marina Zenovich’s documentary, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, is a fascinating and funny look back at the life and career of Robin Williams.  The film is somber at times, as we explore some of the troubles Mr. Williams faced over the course of his life.  His too-early death hangs over the whole film like a shadow.  But the film is also very very funny, giving lots of time for … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The newest film from the Coen Brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is available for viewing on Netflix.  The film consists of six short-stories, all set in the Old West.  I thought the film was marvelous — it’s weird and funny and heartbreaking… and did I say weird?  The film’s heart beats with the Coen Brothers’ uniquely off-kilter sensibility.  I can see how it might strain the patience of someone looking for a more standard, traditionally structured narrative film.  But I loved pretty much every minute of it.

The first short is the The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (from which the movie draws its name), and I think it’s my favorite of the six.  Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Syriana, The Incredible Hulk) is perfect as the titular singing gunslinger, delivering possibly the best performance of his career.  He’s funny and vicious and sad.  It’s a great role and he kills it.  This short perfectly sets the tone for the entire film.  It looks like a Western, but this isn’t your average Western.  I love how Buster talks right too the audience; I love his singing; and I love the quickly-escalating looniness of the ending.  Also: David Krumholtz (Serenity, The Deuce) and Clancy Brown (Highlander, The Shawshank Redemption, and the best voice of Lex Luthor ever, appearing in many of Bruce Timm’s DC animated series) pop up in small roles!

In the second short, Near Algodones, James Franco plays a cowboy who finds himself facing the hangman’s noose, twice, after a bank robbery attempt goes awry.  This is probably the slightest of the six shorts, but it’s still a solid enough little yarn.  James Franco is great in the mostly-silent role of a cowboy with pretty lousy luck, and the great Stephen Root (Newsradio, Office Space) is a hoot as the nutty pots-and-pans-wearing bank teller who is just too smart to be bested.  (I love the “first time?” punchline at the end, expertly delivered by Mr. Franco.)

Meal Ticket is the grimmest of the six shorts.  Liam Neeson plays an old man who runs a traveling theatre show, in which an armless and legless man, played by Harry Melling, recites dramatic monologues to mostly-uninterested crowds.  This is a sad story with an unpleasant ending, and it seems curiously perverse to cast Mr. Neeson, an actor with one of the most magnificent voices in Hollywood, in a mostly-silent role.  After the fun of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, these next two shorts had me a little unsettled.  But things take an upswing with short number four.  (And I do think that Meal Ticket is a very well-made short story.  It’s just so … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Roma

January 7th, 2019
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Alfonso Cuarón’s new film, Roma, released on Netflix, follows approximately a year in the life of a young woman, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who serves as a maid for a family in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in the 1970’s.  The film is based on Mr. Cuarón’s memories of his childhood and the woman who helped raise him (along with his biological mother).  Mr. Cuarón has said that the film “is autobiographical, in the sense that 90% of the scenes come out of my memory.”

Roma is a lush, beautiful film, gorgeously shot, and deeply moving.  Mr. Cuarón has crafted a beautiful peek into the life of this woman, Cleo, who is a slightly fictionalized version of the woman who clearly meant so much to him as a child.  Ms. Aparicio, who plays Cleo, has shockingly never acted before.  This is astonishing, because her performance is incredible.  She’s heartfelt, warm, and impressively naturalistic.  Cleo doesn’t have a tremendous amount of dialogue in the film, and therefore so much of the story has to play out across her face, and in her eyes.  This would defeat many talented actors.  But Ms. Aparicio is incredibly effective at bringing us into Cleo’s inner life and heart.  It’s an astonishing performance, and one that I give both Ms. Aparicio and Mr. Cuarón tremendous credit for creating together.

I love that this film is a salute to this type of woman who was so important to so many families’ lives, and yet is so easily overlooked.  (I love the scene in which we see Cleo doing the family’s laundry up on the roof, and then the camera tilts upwards and we see so many other woman just like her, doing similar work atop all the other buildings of the neighborhood.)  There are many unsettling moments in the film in which we see Cleo looked down upon or talked down to.  And yet, every frame of the film makes clear that she is an integral part of this family that she lives with and works for.  Of the woman who inspired Cleo, Mr. Cuarón has said that “we end up becoming part of her family, or she becoming part of our family.”  That’s a beautiful sentiment, and by the time we arrive at the ending, the film has driven that point home with power and beauty.

Mr. Cuarón has proven himself capable of crafting extraordinarily large-scale fantasy-spectacle films.  Many consider Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which Mr. Cuarón directed, to be one of the strongest of the Potter films.  (I like it a lot, though personally I think that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the best of the films.)  … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Mary Poppins Returns

Set twenty-five years after the original Mary Poppins, the new film Mary Poppins Returns picks up the story of the Banks children, Jane and Michael, now all grown up.  Michael has three children, but his wife has recently passed away.  Jane has basically moved in with him, but still they are having trouble raising the kids and making enough money to make ends meet.  As the film opens, we learn that the bank is about to repossess their family home.  And so the time is ripe for the return of Mary Poppins, who reappears to help bring life and love back to the Banks family.

It requires a certain amount of chutzpah to make a sequel to a film as beloved and iconic as Mary Poppins.  (With 54 years having passed since the release of the original film, is this the longest gap between sequels in film history?)  When I first heard of plans for this sequel, it seemed like a pure cash grab.  I’m impressed, though, by the skill and love that has gone into the making of this new film.  It has elements that work and elements that don’t, but it seems to have been made by people, on both sides of the camera, who wanted to respect and honor the original film.

The best part of this new film is Emily Blunt’s absolutely perfect (in every way) performance as Mary Poppins.  This film would have crashed and burned if they had not been able to find someone who could successfully step into Julie Andrew’s iconic shoes.  Being able to recreate this memorable character while also allowing her to live and breathe again as a true character allowed to be new and different, rather than just a slavish imitation, is a fiendishly difficult task.  Ms. Blunt makes it look effortless.  (I am sure it was the opposite!)  I have been a fan of Ms. Blunt’s ever since Charlie Wilson’s War, and she has been extraordinary in film after film since then (Edge of Tomorrow, The Five-Year Engagement, Looper, Sicario). This might be her toughest role and her greatest accomplishment.  Her singing voice is gorgeous, and she beautifully carries a number of new songs in the film.  More importantly, she captures Mary Poppins’ dignity and her humor, her sternness and the ever-present twinkle in her eye.

I was excited to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work in the film.  I thought it was ingenious to cast him to step into a similar character-type as that so memorably portrayed by Dick Van Dyke in the original film.  Mr. Miranda plays Jack, a London lamplighter and former apprentice of the chimney-sweep Bert played by Mr. Van Dyke … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse!

Is it possible that I just saw the very best Spider-Man movie ever?  I think I did!  I have huge love for Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films, and the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming was also terrific.  But, my friends, I think we may have a new champion!

The animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse tells the story of Miles Morales.  Miles is a young man from Brooklyn, son of an African American father and a Puerto Rican mother.  His life is turned upside down after witnessing the death of Spider-Man, revealed to the world as Peter Parker.  With Spider-Man out of the way, it seems there is no one who can stop the Kingpin’s evil schemes.  So Miles steps to the plate, assisted by an unlikely team of Spider-allies from across the multiverse…

I am blown away by how amazing Into the Spider-Verse is.  Don’t dismiss it because it’s animated!  This is an extraordinary piece of work.  It is hilarious and joyous, while also frequently attaining an emotional richness far beyond what is found in most blockbuster films.  The animation is gorgeous, approaching genius-level in creativity.  This film works in every possible way.  I truly couldn’t have asked for anything more.

Miles Morales, the African American/Puerto Rican Spider-Man, was created by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli.  For a long while, this character appeared in Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe, an offshoot of the main Marvel universe that allowed creators to rethink many of Marvel’s most popular characters.  (However, following the events of 2015’s Secret Wars crossover, Miles was brought over to the main Marvel universe.)  I’ve been a huge fan of the Miles character ever since issue one.  (Which was, technically, Ultimate Fallout #4.  Don’t question my nerd credentials!)  I am beyond thrilled to finally see Miles brought to life on-screen!  I never quite thought I’d see this day.

Not only is Miles finally appearing in a movie, but his story has been adapted in such a faithful manner!  I am blown away!  The Miles in Into the Spider-Verse is 100% the comic-book version created by Mr. Bendis and Ms. Pichelli.  They got the character absolutely perfect here.  I can’t believe how many great Miles storylines from the comics, many of which unfolded over the course of years, were incorporated into the film!  For instance, I was delighted that Miles’ complicated relationships with his father and his uncle Aaron was such an important part of the film.  And they even found a way to use the story of Miles’ friendship with the Spider-Gwen character!  Wow!

I was so excited when this film was announced, but then, when I learned of the Spider-Verse title, I was worried that Miles would wind up getting … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Outlaw King

December 26th, 2018
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In Netflix’s new film The Outlaw King, actor Chris Pine reunites with 2016’s Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie for this tale of Robert the Bruce’s rebellion against the British in the 1300’s.  The film opens with the surrender of several Scottish lords, including Robert, to the English King Edward I.  While this seems like it could be the end of the violence between the English and the Scots, after seeing a riot over the display of the body of Scottish rebel William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and his family begin planning another revolt.  The film follows the path of this revolt, and Roberts’ being crowned King of the Scots.

I was a little dubious when I first saw Netflix’s omnipresent ads for this new film.  I’m a big fan of Chris Pine’s, but he has always felt to me like a very contemporary actor.  Would he be believable in this period-piece?  And could he pull off a Scottish accent without sounding silly?  But I loved Hell or High Water, so I decided to give The Outlaw King a try.

I’m glad I did, because I quite enjoyed the film!  This isn’t groundbreaking cinema.  There have been many compelling period piece films before, filled with drama and/or action, and I wouldn’t say that The Outlaw King adds anything hugely notable to the genre.  I find Mel Gibson somewhat distasteful these days, but for pure rousing entertainment, his film Braveheart is superior to The Outlaw King if you’re looking to just watch one movie about a Scottish rebellion against the English.

But don’t let that keep you away from The Outlaw King.  I was quite taken by this film, quickly engaged by the story and characters.  The cast is very solid, and there’s plenty of engrossing drama, a little humor, and much fierce violence.  I quite enjoyed it!

Robert the Bruce appeared in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (which told a slightly fictionalized version of William Wallace’s rebellion against the English), where he was played quite memorably by Angus Macfadyen.  In Braveheart, Robert wasn’t portrayed in a very positive light.  But here in The Outlaw King, which picks up the story following Wallace’s capture and execution, Robert is the hero.

As I wrote above, I had questions, going in, as to whether Chris Pine was the right choice to anchor this film, but Mr. Pine’s strong work in the film put all my questions quickly to rest.  I thought he was great!  His Scottish accent worked for me (and the film served him well by making the choice to keep the usually-verbose Mr. Pine rather quiet and reserved through much of the film), and his energy and charisma shone through as Robert, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Andy Serkis’ Mowgli

I’ve been following the long path of Andy Serkis’ Mowgli to the screen for years, and I am delighted to have finally seen it via its home on Netflix.  Mr. Serkis began developing this adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s stories (collected in the book All the Mowgli stories) back in 2013.  The script was written by Callie Klowes.  Mr. Serkis undertook the film as his directorial debut (though the project’s delays meant that Mr. Serkis’ second film as director, Breathe, was already released a year ago!).  Production began in 2015, but then it turned out that Disney was working on its own live-action movie based on this same material, Jon Favreau’s new live-action/CGI adaptation of the classic Disney animated film, The Jungle Book.  That film beat Mowgli to release by a long margin, hitting screens in 2016.  (I quite enjoyed it; click here for my review.)  Production delays, coupled with a desire to separate Mowgli’s release from that of Favreau’s The Jungle Book, continued to push back Mowgli’s theatrical debut.  Then, this past summer, Warner Brothers sold Mowgli to Netflix, bypassing a theatrical release and instead launching the film into people’s homes via Netflix.  (Click here for more on Mowgli’s journey to release, and click here for more on the film’s sale to Netflix.)

Mowgli is an enjoyable film, brought to life via gorgeous CGI and featuring a stupendous cast.  (By the way, the film’s promotional materials give the film the stupid subtitle of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.  I’m not sure why they felt the need to tack on that lame, useless subtitle.  Was it because they were planning on sequels, which would each be called Mowgli but with a different subtitle?  I’m pleased that, when the title appears in the actual film, it’s just called Mowgli, with no subtitle.  So that’s how I’ll be referring to this film in this review.)

Andy Serkis basically created an entirely new form of screen acting with his performance as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Mr. Serkis has become a master of performance capture, which allows actors’ performance on set to guide the work of the CGI artists who will later craft the appearance of the CGI character who will ultimately appear on screen.  Mowgli is a phenomenal showcase for Mr. Serkis’ skill.  Working as director and guiding his talented cast, Mr. Serkis has created a very unique-looking film, in which every frame of the film is filled with remarkable CGI characters who are nevertheless fully inhabited by and guided by the flesh-and-blood performers.

Far more than in Favreau’s The Jungle Book, the design of the animal characters here in Mowgli[continued]

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Josh Reviews Creed II

December 20th, 2018
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I am not a huge Rocky fan.  I’d seen and enjoyed the original Rocky, but to this day I’ve never seen any of the sequels.  I wouldn’t have expected that I’d even have gone to see a Rocky spin-off, let alone that I’d have enjoyed it.  But I was blown away by Ryan Coogler’s Creed (written by Mr. Coogler and Aaron Covington), a film that I found to be thrilling and deeply moving.  It was one of my favorite films of 2015.  (Click here for my full review.)  And so I was excited to find myself seated in the theatre recently, ready to enjoy Creed II, my first-ever Rocky-movie sequel!  So, what did I think?  Does Creed II live up to the original?

Well, no.  But it’s still a well-made, solidly enjoyable film.

It’s a delight to get to spend two more hours with all of these characters, and to see how their lives have progressed following the events of the first film.  I love this extraordinary cast, and I love these characters.  There’s some solid emotional drama and some engaging boxing action.  The film looks great and is clearly made with great craft across all departments.  Creed II is a fine film.

But the first Creed was transcendent.  It was deeply moving, to the point that I cried several times while watching it for the first time.  It felt like a staggeringly original work, at the same time as it fit smoothly into the larger Rocky franchise.  (That’s an extraordinarily tricky bit of business.)  There’s nothing in Creed II that reached anywhere near the emotional high-points that I found in the first Creed.  There’s nothing that came close to moving me the way the first film did.

I want to emphasize: there is not a single thing in Creed II that is bad!  It’s a very well-made, enjoyable movie!  But it doesn’t transcend the franchise and the boxing-movie genre the way the first Creed did for me.

What a cast this film has.  The number one reason to see Creed II is to enjoy the work of this great ensemble.  Let’s begin with Michael B. Jordan, who is once again spectacular as the main character, Adonis Creed.  What a compelling performer this young man is; what a extraordinarily talented actor — clearly one of the finest actors of his generation.  One might have forgiven Mr. Jordan for “phoning it in” a bit in this sequel, now that he has shot to stardom over the past few years.  But Mr. Jordan is fully engaged, and delivers another riveting, emotional performance as Creed, a skilled boxer wrestling with his family’s history and struggling to find his identity … [continued]

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Josh Has Seen a SNEAK PEEK of AQUAMAN!

December 17th, 2018
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Over the weekend I had a chance to see a SNEAK PEEK of the latest big new DC Universe movie: Aquaman!

While rumor has it that Warner Brothers won’t be continuing with this current iteration of the interconnected DC movie universe following the less-than-stellar reception of Justice League, they did move forward on Aquaman, starring Jason Momoa, who played the character in Justice League.  I have not been impressed with the last few years worth of DC movies.  Other than Wonder Woman (which was terrific), these films since Man of Steel, which have attempted to copy Marvel Studio’s enormously successful model of an interconnected universe, have been mediocre at best and more-often-than-not atrocious (cough Suicide Squad cough).  But I’ve been impressed by the trailers for Aquaman — they looked fun and excitingly large in scale — and the early word was positive.  So what did I think?

I really really wanted to love this movie, I went in with an open heart and an open mind.  But OY!  Aquaman is another big swing and a miss for DC/Warner Brothers.

To continue with my baseball analogy, the film represents a big swing at the plate for DC/Warners.  The scale of this movie is ENORMOUS.  Aquaman is a character who has often been treated as a joke, but DC/Warners threw everything they had at this film.  I respect the film’s ambition.  This is a BIG BUDGET movie and they clearly spared no expense in bringing this project to life.

The best thing I can say is that the film looks gorgeous.  I love the design and look of the many, many underwater settings and species.  I loved the look of all the many different types of Atlantean armor, from the royal garb of King Orm to the mostly white armor of the Atlantean shock troops, to the red armor of the squad of commandos sent after Aquaman and Mera late in the film.  I loved all the underwater ships, from Mera’s sleek cruiser to King Orm’s enormous palace-ship.  I adored the look of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis itself, a futuristic city-scape that was a riot of color.  I loved all of the crazy sea-creatures, from the large sea-fish-like creatures we see soldiers riding into battle (and that Aquaman commandeers at one point, in a nice nod to his silly depiction on the Super Friends cartoon) to the humongous guardian of the Trident macguffin later on in the film.  I’m not sure I understand why the Atlanteans mutated into different species after Atlantis fell into the sea, but I liked the look of the different underwater tribes/creatures.  The film’s climax gives us some crazy-huge underwater battles between all … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Green Book

Set in 1962, the film Green Book tells the story of the eight weeks that African-American jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Italian-American Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) spent on the road together.  The out-of-work Tony was hired as Don Shirley’s driver, as Shirley’s jazz trio embarked on a tour of the Deep South.  Tony’s assignment, from Don’s record label, was to make sure that Don made it to each of his pre-booked dates, and to take care of any trouble that might arise along the way.  The men at first seem like oil and water, but as their weeks on the road progress, they eventually strike up an unlikely friendship.

The film is based on a true story, and the screenplay was written by Tony’s son Nick Vallelonga, along with Peter Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie.  The film’s title refers to the Negro Motorist Green Book, a handbook used by African-American travelers in that era

Green Book is a warm fable the likes of which is a little out of style these days, and I suppose one could find fault with the film for the way it follows very familiar beats.  You know from minute one that the very different Tony and Don will overcome their initial mutual dislike, and very different ethnic and class backgrounds, to become friends by the time the end-credits role.  Trust me, I’m not spoiling anything by revealing that here in the opening paragraphs of my review.

But while it’s story-beats might feel a little familiar, I found Green Book to be a delight, primarily because of the exceptional work of the two lead actors.

I have been a fan of Mahershala Ali’s since his days as the best part of The 4400 (a sci-fi show that was never quite as good as I’d hoped it would be).  Mr. Ali has been doing consistently great work for years, but he’s really shot into the spotlight recently with his amazing work in Moonlight and a fun recurring role on the first season of Netflix’s Luke Cage.  He’s terrific here as Don Shirley.  What I love about this film, and Mr. Ali’s performance, is that they have avoided the stereotype of the perfect, angelic African-American character.  Don Shirley is not Hoke (from Driving Miss Daisy).  No, Don Shirley is… well, an uptight prick.  He’s an extraordinarily talented, genius-level musician, but he’s also stuck-up, curt, isolated and lonely.  This is not an easy-to-like character.  Mr. Ali’s work (and the strong script), however, allow us to understand him and empathize with him as we gradually learn more about who Don Shirley is and why he is that way.  We see his daily struggles against vicious prejudice and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

I quite liked the first Fantastic Beasts film.  I enjoyed being back in the world of Harry Potter (what has now been dubbed “The Wizarding World”), and I thought the film was fun if a little slight.  (It was a gentler, more meandering tale than the last few Harry Potter films, which were darker and more intense.)  I wouldn’t say I LOVED the film, but I was eager for the story to continue in the next of five planned films.

The trailers for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald were intriguing, but also raised some alarm bells for me.  This new film looked a lot more epic and a lot darker than the first Fantastic Beasts — this excited me.  The trailers played up this film’s connections to the broader Harry Potter mythology — Dumbledore, Hogwarts, the human form of Nagini, etc.  This also excited me.  But mostly absent from the trailers were the foursome who were the focus of the first Fantastic Beasts film: the sisters Tina and Queenie, the “No-Maj” Jacob Kowalski, and Newt Scamander himself.  This worried me.  Was this second film abandoning these characters?  I doubted it would, but then I worried that they would they be in the film but overshadowed by all of the more exciting mythology, the Dumbledore-versus-Grindelwald stuff.  Would Newt & co. be unnecessary and boring in their own film?  Would I wish that Dumbledore was the main character, rather than Newt?

Having now seen the film, I can say a few things:

First off, I quite enjoyed it.  I thought it was, overall, a stronger film than I’d been expecting based on the early reviews.

Second, the film feels very much of a piece with the first Fantastic Beasts film.  I’d worried this film was going to be a major course correction from the first film, but in fact it continues nicely from the first Fantastic Beasts in terms of tone and style.

Third, I had expected that the film would be structured with Newt & co. going on a series of adventures that I’d find somewhat entertaining but not as much fun as the “good stuff” of the mythology revelations and spectacle that I expected in the film’s climax.  In fact, I was very taken by the film’s first three-fourths, and all of that adventuring by Newt & co., while I found the film’s last thirty-or-so minutes to be head-spinningly confusing, overstuffed with exposition describing IMPORTANT REVELATIONS that I felt weren’t sufficiently explained nor were their repercussions sufficiently explored (the latter being a task, presumably, held for the next film).

OK, let’s dig in.

I was pleased that, contrary to how the film was being advertised, the big-four … [continued]

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I’m a nut for science fiction as well as science fact — and so I was instantly excited when I heard that Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) was directing First Man, a film telling the story of Neil Armstrong’s first landing on the moon.  The film’s trailers, when they arrived, got me even more excited.  I am pleased to report that the film does not disappoint.

When First Man is at its best, it is a spectacularly visceral recreation of the Neil Armstrong (and his fellow space pioneers in the Gemini and Apollo programs)’s experience leading up to, and during, the incredible feat of journeying to the moon and returning safely to the Earth.  Time and again, the film is remarkable in the way that it is able to put us right into the lap of Neil Armstrong, allowing us to see what he saw and feel what he might have felt.  We’re right there in the cockpit with Neil at the start of the film when, testing a X-15 rocket plane, he accidentally bounces off of the atmosphere and almost drifts away into space.  In an incredible sequence in the center of the film, we’re right there in the space capsule with Neil and David Scott during the Gemini 8 mission, launching into orbit, successfully locating and docking with the Agena vehicle, and nearly losing their lives when the spacecraft begins to spin out of control.  And, of course, we are there in the Eagle with Neil and Buzz Aldrin when they make their historic landing on the moon.

I have seen a lot of wonderful films about the American space program and the lunar missions, but I’ve never before quite had the discomfiting feeling of claustrophobia and fear of actually strapping into a tin can on top of a rocket, as these brave men did.  First Man was able to pull me from my theatre seat into those experiences.  Mr. Chazelle and his team have impeccably recreated these moments with an extraordinary eye for details that prior films have overlooked.  We can see and feel the tactile reality of the switches in the spacecraft control panels.  We hear and feel the swaying of the platform Neil and Dave Scott walk across in order to board the Gemini 8 capsule.  We hear the groaning of the metal on the spacecraft as it launches, and the booming explosions of the rocket fire that is propelling them airborne at an incredible rate of speed.

I saw First Man on an enormous Imax screen, and I encourage you to do the same.  The visual force of the film is tremendous, and it’s rendered even more effective on the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Annihilation

I have a huge amount of love for Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina, which he also wrote.  If you haven’t seen that film, I exhort you to track it down immediately.  It’s a riveting piece of speculative fiction, with extraordinary performances by Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, and Domhnall Gleeson.  I was excited to see Mr. Garland’s follow-up film, Annihilation, which he also wrote (adapting the novel by Jeff VanderMeer) and directed.  From the trailers, Annihilation looked like a larger-scale production than Ex Machina.  I was curious to see what Mr. Garland would do with a larger canvas (and budget) at his disposal.

I was concerned, though, by reports of behind-the-scenes trouble before the film’s release.  Apparently a poor test screening gave Skydance production (who co-financed the film along with Paramount) cold feet, and eventually the worldwide release for the film was truncated and certain distribution rights were sold to Netflix.  More details are here.  Mr. Garland expressed some disappointment at the Netflix deal, since he’d made the film to be seen in cinemas (but that’s a better result than the film getting re-edited over his objection).

After all this tumult, and after seeing wildly mixed reviews for the film, I was very curious to finally get to see it myself!

Immediately, I can see why this film had some people worried.  It’s a very bizarre film, and it does not unfold in the audience-pleasing manner that most wide-release sci-fi films do.

I’m somewhat lukewarm on the film myself.  There is a lot that I like about the film.  I respect the ambition of this cerebral story, and I love the cast of fantastic women.  It’s a gripping film, but in the end I didn’t feel the story came together the way that I’d hoped that a mystery-based film like this would.

This is a very different type of story than Ex Machina, but what the two films have in common is that both are very intellectual pieces of science fiction.  These are not shoot-em-up action-adventure sci-fi films.  Both are stories that begin in our “real” world and explore, thoughtfully and logically, what might unfold in the face of specific spectacular occurrences.  (I consider both films to be more speculative fiction than science fiction.)  But whereas Ex Machina was very contained — most of the scenes in the film are conversations between two characters, set in indoor rooms — Annihilation is a more expansive story.

Natalie Portman stars as Lena.  As the film opens, her military husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year.  One day Kane unexpectedly shows up at their house, but he has been mysteriously changed.  As Lena digs into what befell … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

September 28th, 2018

Perhaps the best movie I saw this past summer was Morgan Neville’s wonderful look at the life and work of Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Like so many of my generation, I grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  The moral and life lessons of Fred Rogers’ television program for children have stayed with me, and are deeply woven into my being.  I knew this, but watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I was struck anew by the lessons that Mr. Rogers taught me and so many other kids like me.

The documentary film is a heartwarming (and also, at times, sad) look back at Mr. Rogers’ life and his life’s work: using the medium of television to educate children.  The film allows us to hear from Fred Rogers himself, via archival footage (such as clips from his famous testimony before Congress in 1969) and generous helpings of scenes from the show.  Even better, the film brings together many of the men and women who knew and worked with Mr. Rogers.  We hear from many of the men and women who knew and worked with him, in front of and behind the camera, and they each have fascinating and insightful stories to tell.

Watching the film, I was struck by the power of Mr. Rogers’ moral teachings.  The film devotes significant time to lessons that Mr. Rogers wove into his TV show.  For example, the film spends time discussing the episode in which Fred Rogers invited African-American François Clemmons, who played a friendly neighborhood police officer on the show, to wash his feet in the same small pool that he (Mr. Rogers) was using.  (That clip from the show is presented, in the film, along with actual clips of African Americans being chased out of a whites-only swimming pool.  It’s a powerful reminder of just how bold Mr. Rogers’ show truly was at the time.)

I particularly enjoyed the attention the film gives to an analysis of Fred Rogers’ pedagogical approach to education.  Most often this is explained best by Mr. Rogers himself, in archival interview footage.  I found it fascinating to listen to him discuss the ways he used his show to help teach kids to feel comfortable with their full spectrum of feelings, from happiness to sadness to anger.  One moment that stuck with me is when he compares talking to kids about their feelings with playing the piano — some key changes are easy, while some are hard.  I found this to be a striking piece of insight, one of many in the film.

But the film does not set out to canonize Fred Rogers as a perfect saint.  In an uncomfortable moment, one of his … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Predator

I’m an optimist, and someday I hope to see a new, truly great Star Trek movie in the theatres.  Someday, I hope to see a new, truly great Alien movie in the theatres.  And someday, I hope to see a new, truly great Predator movie in the theatres.

This sure as heck ain’t it.

The original Predator, from 1987, is a bad-ass, violent action movie with a sci-fi twist.  It was directed by John McTiernan, in the era in which Mr. McTiernan could do no wrong.  (He also directed Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, two nearly perfect films that I adore.)  I love Predator — it’s got great characters, great action, and a great villain.  It holds up pretty well.  And it has spawned a heck of a lot of sequels, though sadly none of them have succeeded in being more then a relatively pale imitation of that first film.  1990’s Predator 2 is a truly bizarre sequel, transporting the series into the future (an at-the-time futuristic 1997 Los Angeles) and replacing the action-star Arnold Schwarzenegger with a very hyper Danny Glover as the lead.  At the time, it was a disappointment, and it’s hard to argue that the film is all that good, but relative to the films that followed, I now consider Predator 2 to be somewhat underrated!  In a film-fan in-joke, a sequence inside a Predator ship in Predator 2 showed an Alien skull, from the Alien franchise, on the Predator’s trophy wall.  That inspired a wonderful series of Aliens vs. Predator comic-books by Dark Horse Comics, which owned the comic-book rights to both franchises, and that in turn inspired two Alien vs. Predator films in 2004 and 2007, neither of which really lived up to the potential of the premise.  Then, in 2010, Robert Rodriguez produced another straight-up Predator sequel, called Predators (a fun nod to the Alien sequel, Aliens), that was directed by Nimród Antal.  I enjoyed the film’s efforts to do something new with the Predator franchise (such as setting the film on an alien planet as opposed to here on Earth), but in the end I didn’t find it particularly memorable.

And so now here we are with yet another attempt to relaunch the franchise with The Predator.  When I read that Shane Black was writing and directing this film, I was ecstatic.  Mr. Black is an incredible talent.  He wrote and directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys, two films that I absolutely love.  (He also wrote and directed Iron Man Three, which was pretty great too!)  And he has a connection to Predator in that he appeared as an actor in the first … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Death of Superman Animated Film

Back in 2007, when DC/Warner Brothers began their series of direct-to-DVD animated films, the first project they tackled was an adaptation of the 1992-93 “Death of Superman” storyline from the comics.  That animated film, Superman: Doomsday, was very entertaining and still stands as one of my favorite of the now thirty-plus DC animated films.  A decade later, DC/Warner Brothers have returned to that well with another adaptation of this famous story-line, this time in an extended two-part film.  So what did I think of the recently-released part one, The Death of Superman?

It’s actually quite good!  I’m pleasantly surprised.  First off, I wasn’t that excited for a second adaptation of this storyline.  The first animated film, as I just mentioned above, was great, and the “Death of Superman” story from the comics is far from my favorite Superman story.  Additionally, this new animated adaptation is set in the “New 52” inspired continuity that has been connecting most of the past several years’ worth of DC’s animated films, and while I love the idea of a continuity between these films, I don’t love many of the creative decisions at the heart of this “New 52” style.  (And, indeed, DC’s 2014 “New 52” relaunch of its comic book universe has, only four years later, already been mostly abandoned.)  So none of this had me exactly chomping at the bit for this new film.

But I’m happy to say, it’s a very entertaining film and a very competently-made adaptation of this storyline.

When this project was first announced, I’d assumed that it would be designed as a more-faithful adaptation of the original source material, as opposed to the first animated adaptation that took a lot of liberties with the story and condensed a year’s worth of plot from across multiple Superman titles into a less-than-ninety minute film.  But, surprisingly, this new adaptation has reconfigured the source material almost as much as the first film did!  First off, as I’d noted above, the story been adjusted to fix into the “New 52” inspired continuity of these recent animated films, which necessitated a number of changes to the story as well as the look of all the characters.  And while a two-part film will surely be able to get into a lot more detail than the original done-in-one animated adaptation, there was still a great deal of condensing that needed to be done to fit this sprawling story into a film.  (Part two looks like it will include a lot more of the “Reign of the Supermen” storyline from the comics, in which various Superman-doppelgangers appeared on the scene following Supey’s death.  Superman: Doomsday skipped all of that, so I’m excited to see part two … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind

August 20th, 2018
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The new HBO documentary, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, is a fascinating and funny look back at the life and career of Robin Williams.  If you’re a fan of comedy, and/or the work of Mr. Williams, I can’t imagine your not enjoying this film from director Marina Zenovich.

I’ve loved Robin Williams’ work for as long as I can remember.  He was a giant, an extraordinarily creative and original comedian and also a fantastic actor in all sorts of films — comedies and dramas.  As a kid I had a cassette tape with a recording of his electric, hilarious 1986 concert at the Met (“A Night at the Met”), which I listened to over and over again.  That was my introduction to Mr. Williams stand-up work, which I followed voraciously.  I particularly loved all of the Comic Relief specials that he did with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg.  Mr. Williams’ film work was always of interest to me, as well, and while he was certainly in a lot of bad movies, he was also in quite a number of terrific films which I have returned to repeatedly over the years, films like Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poets Society and The Birdcage.

Come Inside My Mind follows Mr. Williams’ life and career.  There’s a lot of ground to cover, but the film is skillfully edited so that it feels very in-depth while still moving along at a brisk pace.  There wasn’t anything major that I felt the film skipped, which is an impressive accomplishment for a documentary that clocks in at less than two hours.

The film is often somber, as we explore some of the troubles Mr. Williams faced over the course of his life.  And, of course, his too-early death hangs over the whole film like a shadow.  That being said, the film is also very very funny, giving lots of time for archival clips of Mr. Williams’ comedy — both from his stand-up work and also his performances on TV and in film — from throughout his life.  Sometimes documentaries about comedians take themselves too seriously and become somber and grim affairs, but Come Inside My Mind does not fall into that trap.  I love how jam-packed the film is with incredible, hilarious clips of Mr. Williams’ work.  We cover all the well-known bases you’d expect the film to cover, and also some surprisingly deep cuts.  (I was delighted that the film spends a lot of time of Mr. William’s hilarious, ad-libbed reactions to losing the 2003 Critics’ Choice award to a tie between Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis.)

One of the things that sets this documentary apart is its extensive use of Mr. Williams’ own … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

I saw Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom well over a month ago, but I’ve avoided writing about it until now because my basic reaction to the movie can be boiled down mostly to:

Ugh.

I had a bad feeling about this film from the very first trailer.  I love the original Jurassic Park, and ever since that movie (which was released way back in 1993), I’ve been hoping (in vain) for a good sequel.  I didn’t care much for The Lost World or Jurassic Park III.  I was excited to see the series relaunched with Jurassic World, but while that movie was visually impressive and had a terrific cast, I thought it pretty much stunk.  And so I didn’t have high hopes for a Jurassic World sequel, but I dared to hope that a different director (J. A. Bayona replaced Colin Trevorrow) could do something better with this franchise and these strong actors.

Nope.  Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is worse than Jurassic World, and is, to me, the low point for this franchise.

As the movie opens, we learn that the Jurassic Park island, Isla Nublar, is apparently home to an active volcano that threatens to explode and wipe out all of the dinosaurs.  Just pause a moment to chew on that ludicrous idea.  So, you’re saying that the companies behind the original Jurassic Park, and the enormous multi-bazillion-dollar costing Jurassic World theme park we saw in the last film, built those parks on an island with an active VOLCANO???  That is the most insane, ludicrous idea in this entire movie series about cloned dinosaurs repeatedly running amok.  This concept makes clear that the people making this movie do not care one whit for telling a story with any intelligence or plot sense.  That realization immediately shut me off to this film.  This story set-up is staggeringly insulting to the audience.  And the film doesn’t get any better from there.

Turns out our main heroes, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen (Chris Pratt), are going on a rescue mission to save the dinosaurs from their exploding island.  This immediately makes these two main characters look even more idiotic than they did in the previous film (in which, for example, Owen demonstrated the hubris of the villains of every other Jurassic Park film, thinking he could tame and control velociraptors).  Every previous Jurassic Park film has emphasized the dangers of allowing dinosaurs to escape from the island.  So why is this now a good idea here in this movie?  Heck, even in this very movie, Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm returns in a cameo to make clear that allowing the dinosaurs loose is a terrible idea!!  The film tries in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the HBO Adaptation of Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is one of my very favorite books.  The novel, written in 1953, is every bit as relevant today as it was all those decades ago when it was first published.   When I first heard that HBO was working on a new adaptation, featuring Michael B. Jordan (Creed, Black Panther) and Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water, Midnight Special, The Night Before, Man of Steel), I was very excited to see it!

Michael B. Jordan plays the fireman Guy Montag, a man whose job it is to burn books.  In the world of Fahrenheit 451, firemen don’t put out fires, they start them.  (Even more frightening: in the sanitized history available to Guy and his fellow citizens, they don’t believe this has ever been different.)  Guy loves his job, and he’s good at it.  But as the story unfolds we discover that, perhaps, Guy harbors secret doubts about what he does.  Michael Shannon plays Captain Beatty, Montag’s fire chief and father figure.  Sofia Boutella plays Clarisse, a young woman who informs to Beatty on those hiding books, but there’s more to her than meets the eye.  After she and Guy cross paths, Guy is inspired to make some dangerous decisions, decisions that put him on a collision course with Captain Beatty and that will change his life forever.

I quite enjoyed this HBO adaptation!  It’s got a nice visual sense, and it’s a decently faithful adaptation of the novel.

The film is anchored by three terrific performances by its leads.  Michael B. Jordan is inspired casting as Guy.  Guy is a bit of an everyman cipher in the book (even his name is generic, I believe intentionally so on Mr. Bradbury’s part), but Mr. Jordan fills him with a rich inner life.  He is great at playing Guy as the fierce true believer in book-burning, and he’s also great at showing us the conflicted Guy.  We follow this story through Guy’s eyes, and for the adaptation to work we have to be right there with Guy as the illusions he has so carefully constructed for himself slowly collapse, one by one.  Mr. Jordan takes us carefully along every step of this journey.  It’s a fierce, compelling, emotional performance.

Speaking of fierce and compelling, I am also incredibly impressed by the brilliant idea of casting Michael Shannon as Captain Beatty.  Mr. Shannon’s intensity is perfectly served by this role.  Captain Beatty is the head Nazi in what we see of this world, and Mr. Shannon shows us his terrifying power.  But Mr. Shannon also keeps his performance very human and small-scale, and his work, and the smart script, allows us … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Incredibles 2

Back in 2004, Brad Bird’s The Incredibles was a revelation — an extraordinary animated film that was gorgeous and funny and moving.  It was a major change of pace for Pixar (it was their first film with human beings as the main characters), and it was also, in the era before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of the best superhero movies I’d ever seen.  For those of us who knew and loved Brad Bird’s animated film The Iron Giant, it was no surprise that Mr. Bird could create an extraordinary animated film, but still, the delights of The Incredibles are hard to overstate.  Fourteen years later, The Incredibles still stands as one of my favorite Pixar films, AND one of my favorite superhero films.  I was, of course, excited when, after long years of wishes and speculation, it was announced that Mr. Bird and Pixar were finally in serious development on an Incredibles sequel.  But could a sequel made fourteen long years after the original recapture the magic of that first film?

For the most part, I am very happy to report that Incredibles 2 does!!  The first Incredibles still stands as the superior film, but this sequel is a beautiful companion piece, an exciting and very entertaining new chapter for these characters.  It’s a thrill to be able to return to this world.

Although this sequel has been released fourteen years after the original film, it’s set immediately following the climactic battle at the end of the first film, and we get to follow the repercussions of those events on the Incredibles family (the Parrs).  While the family was able to save the day and return to the public eye, the law that bans supers didn’t magically vanish overnight, meaning that the Parrs are continuing to break the law each time they don their costumes and fight crime.  After a battle in a city center with “the Underminer” causes major damage, the “Super relocation” program is permanently ended, meaning that Helen and Bob, along with their kids Violet, Dash, and baby Jack-Jack, are left on their own to figure out where to go and how to make a living.  Enter Winston Deaver, a wealthy super-hero fan who offers to use he and his sister Evelyn’s resources and PR know-how to get the public back on the side or the Supers.  Winston and Evelyn ask Helen to be the front-person for their campaign, leaving Bob to tend to the kids.

There is a lot to love about Incredibles 2.  Despite the long gap between films, I was pleased by how effortlessly the film is able to step back into this world and these characters, and the enjoyably fun and somewhat … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Ant Man and the Wasp

July 10th, 2018
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2015’s Ant Man was a delight; a fun, relatively low-stakes romp in which Kevin Feige’s Marvel Studios team demonstrated yet again that they could bring an obscure (at least to non-fans) comic book character to gloriously vibrant life on-screen.  The new 2018 sequel, Ant Man and the Wasp, is more of the same in the best possible way.  After the enormous, universe-shaking Infinity War, this is a palate-cleaning change of pace, a light, funny adventure that I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe films have been unfolding in something close to real time, and so as this new film opens, we check back in with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) two years after having been arrested for helping Captain America against Iron Man’s pro-registration forces in Captain America: Civil War.  It turns out that Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) are quite pissed at Scott, because Scott’s very public siding with Cap put them on the wrong side of the law due to their association with him.  And so while Scott has been serving house arrest for two years, Hank and Hope have been on the run, attempting to piece together the tech necessary to attempt a rescue of Janet van Dyne, Hank’s wife and Hope’s mother, who vanished into the “quantum realm” thirty years ago when she shrank super-small small in an act of heroism.  Hank and Hope’s efforts hit a snag at a critical junction when they find themselves beset by the super-powered “Ghost” on one side, who is after their tech for reasons unknown, and the criminal Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) on the other, who is after their tech in order to make millions on the black market.  And so Scott has to choose between loyalty to his friends who need his help, and his responsibility to his family, especially his young daughter, who needs her father to stay out of prison.

As with the first film, director Peyton Reed (working this time from a script writtem by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer & Gabriel Ferrari) has crafted a very fun, funny, light adventure film.  Thankfully, Mr. Reed and his team have not tried to match the intense fate-of-the-universe tone of Avengers: Infinity War, and have instead had the confidence to continue with the low-key style that worked so well in the first Ant Man film.  I love that the stakes in this sequel are so low — arguably the lowest they have been in any Marvel Cinematic Universe film so far.  The events of this film really only matter to the lives of the handful of main characters.  There isn’t even a token … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Solo!

Solo takes place in the years prior to the original Star Wars, when the galaxy is still under the thumb of the Empire.  Young Han and his friend Qi’ra (pronounced like Kira, which makes me think of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) have grown up in the slums of Corellia, scrounging a meager existence as thieves for an alien criminal called Lady Proxima.  When an escape attempt goes awry, Han manages to hitch a ride off-planet, but Qi’ra is left behind.  Han vows to return for her, but his plan to join the Imperial navy and become a pilot is thwarted when he’s kicked out of the flight academy for, as he puts it, having a mind of his own.  The result is that Han winds up as a Stormtrooper grunt, fighting the Empire’s wars in the dirt of a nameless world.  But when Han discovers a group of thieves, led by a man named Tobias Beckett, hidden among the Imperials, he sees at last his ticket to freedom.  And so the story of Solo begins.

Ever since plans were first announced, years ago, for a Young Han Solo movie, I thought it was a bad idea.  As a rule I am not a fan of prequels — I’d prefer the story go forward rather than backwards.  And while Rogue One, for instance, expanded upon a part of the Star Wars story about which I was eager to know more (just how DID the rebels get their hands on the Death Star plans in the first place?), I have never craved to know what Han Solo was like as a kid or young man.  The beauty of the character as introduced in the original Star Wars is that I feel we knew everything we needed to know about him.  What was interesting to me was not where he’d been, but how his crossing paths with Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Leia Organa would change his life, and vice versa.

Having seen Solo, I still feel that way.  This is not a movie that needs to exist.  I have never needed to know the origin of Han’s blaster, or those dice on the Millennium Falcon, or how Han got the last name “Solo,” or exactly how and why Han first met Chewie, or how Han acquired the Falcon from Lando, etc.

That being said, though, I was pleased by how much I enjoyed Solo.  It’s a fun, fast-paced movie with some great action, some nice character work, and lots fun connections to the broader Star Wars saga.  I still think the basic concept of the film is a bad idea, but if Lucasfilm was going to make a Young Han … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Deadpool 2

I feel about Deadpool 2 about the same way I felt about the first Deadpool: it’s a lot of fun and extremely well-made for what it is — a Mad Magazine version of a superhero movie.  That’s a compliment, as I hold Mad Magazine in the highest regard.  Twelve-year-old me didn’t think there was anything funnier than Mad Magazine, and I bet I’d have thought the same about these two Deadpool films.  They’re not exactly what I’m looking for in a superhero movie these days — a little too juvenile, a little too raunchy — but if you enjoyed the first Deadpool, I suspect you will love the sequel.  (Personally, I think I actually liked this sequel more than the original, which I was lukewarm on.)

Ryan Reynolds is again terrific in the lead role, and I love the way his Deadpool continues to be Bugs Bunny-like agent of chaos in the film (albeit an R-rated one!), unable to be destroyed and constantly commenting on everything going on around him.  The fast-talking Mr. Reynolds is very, very funny as this character.

Josh Brolin plays Cable, a super-soldier from the future come back in time to kill a super powered young Mutant before he wreaks havoc in the future.  Mr. Brolin is terrific, a great straight-man against Mr. Reynolds’ lunacy as Deadpool.  (Between this and his role as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, Mr. Brolin is king of the superheroes this summer!!)  He also looks the part: the character-design of Cable in this film is perfect, a fantastic distillation of Cable’s iconic design (while losing some of the crazier aspects of the way the character is sometimes drawn in the comics).  Mr. Brolin is so great as Cable that I sort of wish he was playing the character in a “real,” straight X-Men film as opposed to this silly one!!

The rest of the cast is strong.  Morena Baccarin, Karan Soni, T.J. Miller, Brianna Hildebrand, Stefan Kapičić, and Leslie Uggams all return from the first film and all have some fun stuff to do.  (Well, mostly. SPOILER ALERT FOR THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH.  The film makes the unfortunate choice to write out Morena Baccarin’s character early-on, which strikes me as incredibly lazy.  Attention writers:  a strong, smart, funny woman COULD have been incorporated into this film’s story!  It’s cheap and lazy, and a waste of the great Ms. Baccarin, that her character was “fridged” so quickly.  (Google “women in refrigerators” if you don’t know what I mean when I refer to that unfortunate comic book trope.) They do sort of undo this in the closing credits, so I hope that if there is a Deadpool 3, Ms. Baccarin … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Tully

Tully marks the third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody.  Their first film together, Juno, got a lot of (well-deserved) acclaim, but I liked their second film — Young Adult, starring Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt — even more!  It’s been a delight following their collaboration through these three movies, and I hope they continue to make lots more films together!

In Tully, Charlize Theron is again the lead, this time as Marlo, a harried mother of two who, when the film opens, is pregnant with her third child (who was unplanned).  Marlo loves her kids and her husband (Drew, played by Ron Livingston), but she already seems to be at her wit’s end even before entering the gauntlet of the sleepless-nights-filled experience of parenting a newborn.  At the instistence of her brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), Marlo eventually relents and hires a night nurse, Tully (Mackenzie Davis), and things begin to change for Marlo almost immediately.

Tully is an interesting film. It’s extremely well-made, though I respect the craft on display a little more than I actually loved the film.  Part of that is because of how unflinchingly honest the film is about the unglamorous parts of parenting.  The film spends a great deal of time highlighting the minutae of being a parent of young children, the sort of stuff you seldom see portrayed on screen.  Even for those of us who have not suffered from the sort of emotional distress that Marlo goes through over the course of the film, or had to deal with a child with the needs that her son has, there is a lot to recognize here, and it is painful!  Watching Marlo deal with all of these harries and hassles of day-to-day life, and slowly crumble under the weight of it all, is (intentionally) tough to sit through.  So there are long stretches of Tully that are not exactly a fun watch.  However, my main hesitation about the film is connected to what happens in the final ten-ish minutes.  I will get into this a little later in this review.

First, let’s lavish some praise on the cast.  Mr. Reitman is a great director and Ms. Cody is a grat writer, and there is no question that these two have an electric alchemy.  They seem to balance each other’s strengths.  Each of their three collaborations has had a distinct energy and tone.  But for me, when Tully really sings it is because of the terrific cast.

Charlize Theron once again demonstrates that she is a fantastic actress.  (Those of us who saw Young Adult and Mad Max: Fury Road, among many other great performances by Ms. Theron, already know … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling

I’ve been a huge fan of Garry Shandling for as long as I can remember.  Mr. Shandling was a genius-level stand-up comedian, and he masterminded two of the greatest television shows ever made: It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show.  It was Larry Sanders that made me a forever fan of Mr. Shandling’s, and that drove me to go back and discover the rest of his amazing work.  I’ve spent uncounted hours watching old clips of Mr. Shandling on the stand-up circuit and on The Tonight Show, and I have watched and rewatched The Larry Sanders Show many times.  (“It was a back tooth, Hank,” might be one of the funniest lines ever spoken on a TV comedy.)  When Mr. Shandling passed away in 2016, it was a huge loss.

I have also been a huge fan of Judd Apatow’s for quite some time, ever since Freaks and Geeks (the amazing series created by Paul Feig and produced by Mr. Apatow back in 1999-2000).  I continue to adore Freaks and Geeks to this day, and I have rewatched those eighteen near-perfect episodes many times.  I also loved Mr. Apatow’s follow-up TV show, Undeclared (also killed before its time after one fantastic season), and I have followed his movie career avidly:  The 40 year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, This is 40, and Trainwreck.  Mr. Apatow has also shown his talents as a skilled and prolific producer, helping to shepherd projects such as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Superbad, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Pineapple ExpressWalk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, Bridesmaids, Wanderlust, The Five-Year Engagement, The Big Sick and many more!  That is quite a list of incredible comedic films with which Mr. Apatow has been involved, no?

Mr. Apatow wrote for The Larry Sanders Show and eventually served as a co-executive producer.  In many interviews over the years, it’s been clear how much of a mentor Garry Shandling was to him.  Mr. Apatow’s appearance on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, filmed not long after Mr. Shandler’s death, is almost more about Garry Shandling than it is about Mr. Apatow himself!

And so I was not at all surprised when I read that Mr. Apatow was working on a documentary film about Garry Shandling.  As a huge fan of both comedic talents, I was excited to see what Mr. Apatow would create.

The result, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, is a behemoth: an almost five-hour film, shown in two parts on HBO.  But I’m here to tell you, I could have watched … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay

In the latest direct-to-DVD/blu-ray DC Animated movie, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay, we’re presented with the latest incarnation of the Suicide Squad.  Amanda Waller dispatches her Task Force X (the “Suicide Squad”) to obtain for her a mystical “Get out of Hell free” card that allows anyone who perishes while holding the card to have all of their sins forgiven, no matter how dastardly.  This iteration of the squad is, as always, made up of villains — this time the team consists of Deadshot, Bronze Tiger, Harley Quinn, Killer Frost, Captain Boomerang, and Copperhead.  Over the course of the movie, they cross paths with many other villains from the DC universe, including Vandal Savage, Professor Zoom, Two Face, Count Vertigo, and Professor Pyg.

I don’t have anywhere near as deep a love for the DC Universe as I do for the Marvel Universe, and so I’m not nearly attached to this group of supporting DC Universe characters as I might have been to a corresponding group of Marvel villains.  I’ve always thought the Suicide Squad was an interesting concept in the comics, but I’m only passingly familiar with John Ostrander’s well-regarded run on the title from the eighties.  (Mr. Ostrander created the modern iteration of the Suicide Squad.)  This animated movie is the third movie version of this concept that we’ve gotten in the past few years.  There was the live-action film, of course, which I thought was a big mess, and we also got a prior animated version in 2014’s Batman: Assault on Arkham.  Frankly, I haven’t really loved ANY of these versions!

This new animated movie is not in continuity with Assault on Arkham… but while the details are different, overall I found this version of the Suicide Squad to be quite similar to that version, so much so that I’m not sure why they didn’t just make this film a sequel to Assault on Arkham.  I guess they wanted this new film to be a part of the new continuity of the past few years’ of DC animated films, a version based on DC’s “New 52” reboot of their universe.  (As reboot that has already been abandoned by the comics, which makes these new animated films feel curiously behind the times.)

There are elements of Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay that work, but its tone is all over the place.  Sometimes the film feels like it wants to be a tongue-in-cheek play on violent crime capers.  There are some moments when the film is edited to resemble an old “Grindhouse” B-movie; moments which are silly and loose even as they are hyper-violent.  The whole premise of a “Get out of Hell free” card is … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Ready Player One, is an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s popular novel of the same name.  (Full disclosure: I have not read the novel, and so I will be judging Ready Player One fully on its strengths and weaknesses as a movie.)  The story is set in 2045, in which much of the United States has devolved into slums called the “stacks” (because cars and trailers are stacked one atop another, with people living inside).  The world stinks, and much of the population has retreated into the virtual reality world called “the Oasis,” in which they can be anything and do anything.  (Though even within the Oasis, some of what you can do remains limited by your finances.)  Following the death of the Oasis’ creator, James Halliday, almost the entire world has become caught up in a competition to attain three keys that Halliday has hidden in the Oasis.  Whoever can win the game and obtain all three keys will become the new owner of the Oasis.  Seventeen year-old Wade Watts, who calls himself Parzival inside the Oasis, is one of the millions of people searching for the keys.  Wade and his friends, who include Aech and Art3mis, are trying to beat the corporation IOI, which is throwing all of its money and employees towards the cause of capturing ownership of the Oasis.

I wasn’t that impressed by the trailers for Ready Player One, but a new Steven Spielberg film always demands my attention.  I’m glad to have seen it, but this isn’t top-tier Spielberg in my opinion.  Mr. Spielberg has assembled a talented cast and the film boasts some visually pleasing sequences.  But I wasn’t as captivated by the world (of the movie or of the Oasis) as I’d hoped to be, and over-all I found the story and the characters to be rather superficial.

I really liked all three of the main young leads.  Tye Sheriden was good but underused as Scott Summers/Cyclops in the last X-Men movie, X-Men: Apocalypse.  He’s better utilized here, and I can start to see why he’s being tapped as a leading man.  Mr. Sheriden has a good-natured, easy charisma that is endearing.  It’s easy and automatic for the audience to root for this character, even though by the time I got to the end of the film I realized that I hadn’t really gotten to know Wade at all.  He seems like a good kid, but why does he deserve to win the contest for the Oasis more than others?  Ready Player One is a sci-fi version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and while that is an idea that has potential, it’s also a fairly simplistic notion … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Isle of Dogs

I adored Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson’s first foray into stop-motion animation from back in 2010, and so for quite some time I have been anticipating the release of his follow-up, Isle of Dogs, which Mr. Anderson wrote and directed.  The film is set in Japan in the near future, when fears of a dog flu virus lead to all dogs being outlawed and sent to “trash island.”  When a young boy, Atari, journeys to trash island to search for his dog, Spots, he befriends a pack of dogs that includes Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray) King (Bob Balaban), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum).  Together, they seek to reunite Spots and Atari, and also, along the way, they just might wind up defeating the dog-hating Mayor Kobayashi and overturning the ban on man’s best friend.

There is a lot to love about Isle of Dogs, and I throughly enjoyed the experience of watching this beautifully-crafted fable-like story unfold.  The film is also, unfortunately, burdened by some issues of cultural appropriation and sensitivity which have weighed on me as I have considered the film after walking out of the theater.

Let’s start with what’s great.  Although many American audiences think of animation as being for kids only (and I was shocked that there were some families with very young kids who were in my screening — good lord, those kids/parents must have been horrified if they went in expecting a G-rated Disney-type story!!), Isle of Dogs is unabashedly aimed at adults.  I referred to the film, in the previous paragraph, as a “fable,” because, for me, the film had that feeling.  Even beyond the fact that most of the film’s characters are talking dogs, the film has an aspect of exaggeration that made it feel, to me, almost like a fairy tale.  And yet, beautifully combined with that structure to the story, was a film featuring many wonderfully nuanced and sophisticated characters and relationships.  Just as was the case in Fantastic Mr. Fox, here in Isle of Dogs the main focus of the story is on the journey of these characters.

Just like Mr. Anderson’s live-action work, Isle of Dogs is filled to overflowing with a wonderful array of characters, played by extremely talented comedic and dramatic actors.  Bryan Cranston is magnificent as Chief, an angry, loner “stray” dog who, over the course of the story, gradually learns to open himself up to friendship and companionship.  This is a fantastic dramatic performance, full stop.  Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and the Jeff Goldblum are each fantastic as the members of the pack who follow (and often bicker with) Chief.  They’re each so funny, and they each … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Avengers: Infinity War!

Once again, the wizards at Marvel Studios have pulled off the near-impossible: seamlessly weaving together characters and story-threads from the previous EIGHTEEN Marvel Studios movies into an epic, compelling super-hero extravaganza that is fun, funny and heartbreaking in equal measure.  The years-long win-streak that Marvel Studios has been on is so far beyond unprecented that I am running out of words with which to describe it.  Avengers: Infinity War is pretty much everything I wanted it to be.

Avengers: Infinity War, like all the previous Marvel Studios films, certainly can be viewed and judged on its own.  The makers of these Marvel films never forget to allow each movie to stand on its own two feet.  But its emotional heft, like that of so many of the recent Marvel films, most notably Captain America: Civil War, comes from the way the film moves forward and pays off story-lines and character-arcs that have be developing over the course of so many of these previous eighteen movies.

Primarily, of course, this film finally brings together the story of the Infinity Stones, so many of which have been popping up throughout this film series.  For instance, we have followed the Space Stone — also referred to as the Tesseract — from the Red Skull’s possession in Captain America: The First Avenger, to the hands of S.H.I.E.L.D. and then Loki and then the Asgardians in The Avengers, back to the hands of Loki at the end of Thor: Ragnarok… and now into the hands of Thanos in this film’s opening sequence, which follows immediately from the end credits sequence of Ragnarok in which the spaceship of surviving Asgardians was intercepted by Thanos.

It’s great fun to finally see all of the stories of these different Infinity Stones finally come together in this film as Thanos tracks them down, one by one, across the universe.  (Although the details have been changed, I was pleased that this movie’s structure borrows as much from Jim Starlin’s Thanos Quest story as it does from his more famous Infinity Gauntlet series.  The original Infinity Gauntlet story opens with Thanos already in full possession of all six Infinity Gems, as they were called in the comics.  It was the two-part Thanos Quest miniseries that told of how Thanos managed to acquire all the stones and, in a wise choice, it is that story which forms the basic structure of this film.)

But beyond that, this film is packed with moments that reward the attentive viewers of this series.  When a character mentions that Thanos devastated Xandar in order to get the Power Stone, that has meaning if you remember getting to know that world in the … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2017: Josh Reviews Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

April 17th, 2018
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I missed Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri when it was first released, but I was able to finally catch it right before the Oscars. I am glad I did. The film is a fascinating, funny, heart-wrenching character study about a group of flawed men and women in a small town in Missouri and the way a tragedy brings some of them together and pulls some of them apart.

The film is anchored by the fierce, magnetic performance of Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes. Angered by the police’s inability to identify the person who murdered her daughter, Mildred pays for three huge billboards that excoriate the town’s chief of police, Bill Willoughby. There are a lot of great performances in this movie, but without question Three Billboards belongs entirely to Ms. McDormand. She creates in Mildred a towering presence, giving her tremendous strength and endurance while also showing us all the ways that she has been broken and hollowed out by the murder of her daughter. Ms. McDormand is well-served by Martin McDonough’s fantastic script, which allows Mildred to be heroic in her strength while also, at times, despicable in the way she allows hate to drive her to some ugly actions. Ms. McDormand plays every note of the script and the character to absolute perfection. She deserves every accolade she received in the end-of-2017 awards season.

The film could have rested on Ms. McDormand’s performance alone, but what makes it great is that it didn’t. The film is populated by a number of multi-faceted, fascinating characters, brought to life by a wonderful ensemble.

I have been a fan of Sam Rockwell’s ever since Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and he is fantastically compelling as the dim-witted, violent, racist police officer Dixon. This is a tricky role, in that Mr. Rockwell’s comedic skills make Dixon a very funny character at times, even though he is probably the most hateful main character in the film. Mr. Rockwell walks that line perfectly and, just as Ms. McDormand does, allows the audience to see many different sides of Dixon. Some have criticized Mr. McDonough’s film for this character, arguing that the film doesn’t explore the important themes of racism and bigotry that this character introduces in enough depth. Others criticize the film’s ending for giving Dixon a redemption that he doesn’t earn. I didn’t see it that way at all. Without going into spoilers, I will say that I don’t think Dixon is redeemed at the end of the film. I just think that the film, and Mr. Rockwell’s nuanced performance, allows us to see, by the end, the human being inside this pitiable, disgusting man. This is part of what makes Three Billboards[continued]

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Josh Reviews A Wrinkle in Time

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

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

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

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

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Josh Reviews Pacific Rim: Uprising

March 29th, 2018
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I wasn’t expecting that much from Pacific Rim: Uprising, and yet, the film still managed to underwhelm me.  The film isn’t bad; it’s perfectly unoffensive yet instantly forgettable.

I was super-excited for the first Pacific Rim, back in 2013.  Any new film from Guillermo del Toro is cause for excitement, and the film’s giant-robots-fighting-giant-monsters concept looked delicious.  And yet, I didn’t love that first film.  It was gorgeous-looking, beautifully designed and conceptualized; the action was tremendous; the cast was great. And yet I found the characters to be flat and the story-arcs superficial and predictable, so I didn’t invest in the story nearly as deeply as I felt I should have.

I was surprised when a sequel was announced, as the first film was not much of a hit.  (Apparently it made money overseas.)  But I was excited by the potential for a second film to take this great concept and take another swing at doing it justice.  When it was announced that Guillermo del Toro would not be directing, I was bummed, and as glimpses of the sequel started to be released (posters, trailers, etc.), I was not that taken by what I saw.  Still, I had hope.

The sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising is set ten years after the first film and centers around Jake (John Boyega), the son of Idris Elba’s character from the first film.  Jake used to be a Jaeger (those are the giant monster-fighting robots) pilot, but he washed out.  Now he is drawn back into things and forced to mentor a group of younger cadets, including the young technical wizard Amara (Cailee Spaeny).  The world thought that the Kaiju (the giant monsters) threat was finished, but, wouldn’t you know it, that didn’t turn out to be the case.

There are a lot of characters in this film, but the film completely fails to allow the auidence to get to know or care about them, at all.  John Boyega is great, as always, and he does his best to elevate every scene he’s in.  He is loose and funny and a pleasure to watch.  But his character-arc is painfully thin.  It’s clear from the first second of the film that Jake has a heart of gold and that not only will he quickly be drawn back into the Jaeger program but that he will save the day in the end.  There is nothing remotely surprising or interesting to be found.  (Mr. Boyega’s charming turn as a leading man is failed by the film around him in almost exactly the same way that Charlie Hunnam’s performance was failed by the first Pacific Rim.  It’s weird!!)  But at least Mr. Boyega is fun to watch and … [continued]

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Catching up on 2017: Josh Reviews All The Money in the World

In 1973, teenager Paul Getty, grandson of the wealthy J. Paul Getty, was kidnapped in Italy.  Paul’s grandfather J. Paul Getty was considered to be not only the richest man on the planet but perhaps the richest man who had ever lived.  And so, the kidnappers thought they could get a small fortune in exchange for young Paul’s return.  Ridley Scott’s film All the Money in the World chronicles these dramatic events, including Paul’s ordeal and the plight of his mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams).  With J. Paul Getty unwilling to pay the ransom, Gail was caught between navigating the kidnappers’ demands and her obstinate father-in-law, hoping to find a way to bring her son back alive.

I quite enjoyed All the Money in the World.  I included it on my list of my favorite movies of 2017!  It is a riveting, well put-together drama.  I love watching Ridley Scott’s expansive fantasy or sci-fi films — Mr. Scott can create fully-realized fantasy films like no other — but a film like this reminds us that Mr. Scott is equally adept at crafting entertaining films set in our real world, without the exciting sci-fi trappings.

This film made big news in the weeks before its release because of Mr. Scott’s decision to completely remove Kevin Spacey from the film and reshoot all of his scenes with Christopher Plummer in the role.  This would have been an arduous process in any situation, but even more so because all of this went down just a month before the film’s release.  That Mr. Scott was able to so massively rework his film mere weeks before its worldwide release is an extraordinary accomplishment.  The reshoots and re-editing were done perfectly seamlessly.  You would never know that a huge chunk of this finished film was created in reshoots.

What is even more amazing is that Christopher Plummer is the best thing about this movie!  His performance is incredible; I am not exaggerating to say that the main reason to see this movie is to see Mr. Plummer’s fierce work in the role.  He commands the screen every second he appears.  Every character in the film lives and acts in Getty’s shadow.  Mr. Plummer’s performance makes this real.  He creates in the elderly J. Paul Getty a fearsome, tough-as-nails presence.  It’s extraordinarily compelling.

Michelle Williams is great as Gail Harris, the mother of the kidnapped boy.  Ms Williams shows us her core of toughness, as she finds herself caught between the kidnappers demanding money and J. Paul Getty, who refuses to pay the ransom.  It’s an impossible position, and the film has great empathy for this woman.  Ms Williams’ strong work allows us to feel this … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Molly’s Game

Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of the book Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker by Molly Bloom.  Molly trained to be a competitive skier, but when an injury ended her sports career, she found herself adrift.  A job as an assistant eventually led her to become responsible for setting up a high stakes poker game.  Molly became the manager of that weekly game, which developed into her managing her own business and multiple games frequented by movie stars and other extremely wealthy individuals.  But it all came crashing down when Molly was arrested and charged with money laundering and running an illegal sports gambling operation.

I first became a fan of Aaron Sorkin’s watching The West Wing, which still stands as one of the finest TV series ever made (at least the first four seasons which Mr. Sorkin masterminded).  I then went back and devoured Sports Night (which, if you’ve never seen, you need to run, don’t walk, and watch immediately), and I have been a faithful fan ever since, following Mr. Sorkin through his subsequent shows (all of which I have enjoyed, even though none have come close to The West Wing or Sports Night) and, of course, all of his fantastic movie work.  Mr. Sorkin has scripted some of my very favorite movies, including A Few Good Men (which I just recently rewatched for the umpteenth time, and it holds up SO WELL), An American President (say it with me, folks: “this is a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up.  My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I AM the President”), Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs.  (I love ALL of those films.)  Mr. Sorkin wrote Molly’s Game and the film is his directorial debut.

I really enjoyed this film.  I don’t know if any of what is depicted in the film is true to Molly Bloom’s real life and experiences.  But the Molly Bloom who is the main character in this film is a spectacular character, one who is very much of this particular moment.  This is the story of a strong woman who is surrounded by arrogant, domineering men, and who sets out to be her own woman and make her own way, as unorthodox as the path she chooses might be.  It’s an inspiring tale, frankly!  Is any of this true?  Is Molly Bloom actually this strong, principled woman, or is this mythologizing bullshit?  I don’t know, and the movie is so good that I don’t care.  Some based-on-real-life movies fall apart for me once I start questioning … [continued]

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I know, intellectually, that Marvel Studios’ incredible streak of great movies is going to end sometime.  It has to.  No win streak can continue indefinitely.  But it didn’t end this past weekend, as Marvel Studios released Black Panther, a fantastic addition to their ever-expanding Cinematic Universe.  Black Panther is, incredibly, the eighteenth film in this interconnected movie universe.  It still boggles my mind that there exists an eighteen-movies-and-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe.  And what’s even more impressive is just how terrific all of these films have been.  There isn’t a true stinker in the bunch.  (The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 are, I think, the two least successful films, and even both of those have a lot to enjoy in them.)  The last several films in particular have been fantastic, and Black Panther continues that streak of excellence.

Picking up after the death of his father King T’Chaka in Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther opens with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returning home to Wakanda to claim his position as king.  Wakanda is a technological paradise, though they use their technology to hide that fact from the rest of the world.  When the vicious thief and weapons merchant Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who killed the parents of T’Challa’s close friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), resurfaces, T’Challa leads a team consisting of Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of the fierce female Wakandan fighting force the Dora Milaje, and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s former flame who believes that Wakanda must engage with the outside world, to capture Klaue.  That mission goes awry when they discover that Klaue is in league with a young man named Eric (Michael B. Jordan), a black-ops soldier who calls himself Killmonger, and who has a secret connection to the Wakandan royal family.  Killmonger challenges T’Challa for the throne of Wakanda, and the once-peaceful nation threatens to split into civil war.

Black Panther is fantastic.  It fits squarely into the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also standing completely on its own and having its own unique style.  The film references Captain America: Civil War, but you absolutely don’t have to have seen that film to enjoy this one.  And while many fans thought that the one not-yet-seen Infinity Stone (which will surely come into play in this summer’s Avengers: Infinity War) would appear in this film, I was happy that didn’t happen.  Black Panther didn’t need that additional baggage — it’s better for this film to be able to tell its own, complete story.  (If that final Infinity Stone is indeed hidden in Wakanda, as many fans guess, I am glad they held that reveal for Infinity War.)

Director Ryan Coogler (Creed) has crafted a magnificent film, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Cloverfield Paradox

February 16th, 2018
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I love both of the first two Cloverfield films.  I think they’re both terrific, and underrated.  (Click here for my review of Cloverfield, and here for my review of 10 Cloverfield Lane.)  I was super-excited when I heard that a third Cloverfield movie was in the works, and I love that J.J. Abrams and his team have figured out yet another stunt for surprising audiences with the release of the film — in this case, a Super Bowl trailer that announced that the full film was available for viewing immediately after the game on Netflix.  Well done.

As with the first two Cloverfield films, the secrecy surrounding The Cloverfield Paradox is a big part of the experience of watching it, so I won’t say too much.  I can tell you that the film is set in the near future, when the Earth is running out of energy.  The astronauts on board a space station are working on a project to construct an enormous particle accelerator to create energy in an effort to save human civilization.  Suffice to say, something goes terribly wrong.

I was really primed to enjoy this film, but sadly, I found The Cloverfield Paradox to be a dud.  It’s a shame, because all the ingredients are there for a terrific film.  I love the set-up.  I am always excited about an original sci-fi story, and I particularly like sci-fi films set in a realistic near-future like this one.  (There’s just something I dig about that sort of futuristic-but-plausible setting for a sci-fi adventure story.).  I love the look of the film — the design of the space-station, the look of the costumes and the props, all of that is great.  And the cast… wow.  The cast is phenomenal.  Just look at this ensemble: Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who starred in the best episode of Black Mirror’s first Netflix season), David Oyelowo (Selma, A United Kingdom, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), Daniel Brühl (Inglorious Basterds, Captain America: Civil War), John Ortiz (American Gangster, The Drop, Kong: Skull Island), Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids, This is 40, Molly’s Game), Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero, House of Flying Daggers), Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2), and Aksel Hennie (The Martian).  That is an incredible cast!!

For the first 45-ish minutes of The Cloverfield Paradox, I was enjoying the film.  It was exciting and suspenseful and weird.

But as the film progressed, it became clear that the story did not make any sense, and that the … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2017 — Part Four!

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

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

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

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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2017 — Part Two!

Click here for part one of my list of my Favorite Movies of 2017!  Let’s continue…

15. Coco Once again, the mad geniuses at Pixar have crafted a film that is fun, visually stunning, and emotionally complex.  The “hook” of the film is young Miguel’s accidental journey into the Land of the Dead, and the film creates an entire universe and mythology out of the idea of death and the afterlife with as much care, creativity, and attention to detail that we saw in Inside Outs creation of the world inside a young girl’s head.  But why this film, like so many of Pixar’s films, is so impressive is how emotionally rich it is.  There were a number of moments in the third act that had me in tears.  I love that this is an original story, and I love the way that Lee Unkrich and his team were able to develop and explore all of these fascinating characters over the course of this relatively short film.  The film surprised me again and again.  This is yet another winner from Pixar.  (Click here for my full review.)

14. Dunkirk Like all of Christopher Nolan’s films, Dunkirk is crafted with the precision of a Swiss Watch.  I love the way that the film is divided into three different sections, depicting the conflict at Dunkirk from the perspective of characters on land, at sea, and in the air, and I am bowled over by how perfectly those three stories, which take place over differing amounts of time, slowly slide into chronological synch as the film builds to its conclusion.  It’s an extraordinary narrative feat.  I was impressed with how Mr. Nolan stripped away most of the dialogue in the film, resulting in a near-silent movie which relies mostly on its gorgeous and haunting visuals — along with a unique score — to tell the story.  Dunkirk is a cold film, with none of the sentimentality that one might expect in a war movie.  It’s a bold approach, one that makes Dunkirk an unusual and unexpected film.  I love those choices, and the result is a singularly impressive and moving piece of work.  (Click here for my full review.)

13. Alien: Covenant A vastly underrated film that, sadly, failed to find an audience.  I stand by my conviction that Alien: Covenant is the third-best film in the entire Alien franchise (bested only, of course, by the original two films: Alien and Aliens).  The film is a sequel to Prometheus, but it’s also far more directly linked to the original Alien (as Prometheus should have been) in a way that brings focus and … [continued]

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I hope you enjoyed my look back at my Favorite Episodes of TV of 2017!  And now, let’s turn to my Favorite Movies of 2017

As always, there were far more great movies released this year than I had time to see.  Movies that looked great but that I missed include: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Get Out, Phantom Thread, Darkest Hour, I Tonya, Wind River, Logan Lucky, Professor Marsten and the Wonder Women, The Lost City of Z, Downsizing, Atomic Blonde, and many more.  So if you’re wondering why any of those movies aren’t on my list, now you know.

Before we begin, I should start by mentioning two incredible 2016 movies that I saw in January 2017, after I had already written my Best Movies of 2016 list:  Lion and Moonlight.  Moonlight, in particular, is a masterpiece that surely would have been in my TOP FIVE of 2016 had I seen it in time.

And now, without any further delay, let’s dive into my list of my Favorite Movies of 2017:

Honorable Mention: Logan Hugh Jackman’s swan song as Wolverine brought a satsifying close to his nearly two decades playing the character.  Throwing aside the usual look and feel of a superhero movie, director James Mangold chose instead to make a dark, grim R-rated drama that shocked me with its intensity and its violence.  I loved their choices in making a very different kind of X-Men film, one with no colorful costumes or grandiose musical themes.  This is a drama focused tightly on its characters, and both Hugh Jackman as Logan and Patrick Stewart as Professor X (in which will also likely be his final appearance in the role) give what is probably their very best performances as these characters.  Long-running series rarely get a definitive ending; when one comes, as it did here, it is very special.  (Click here for my full review.)

20. Battle of the Sexes This story of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs’ 1973 tennis match is an enjoyable, beautifully-made recreation of the dramatic events surrounding this televised battle of the genders.  It is also a riveting, very much of this specific time and place film that has a lot to say about equality today.  I was pleasantly surprised that Battle of the Sexes was as much about the struggles of gays and lesbians to live open, free lives as it was about female liberation and the struggle for equality between the sexes.  Both Emma Stone and Steve Carrell are terrific, wonderfully portraying these famous people while also bringing true life to their performances, rather than just giving a robotic act of recreation.  I wasn’t expecting … [continued]

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Steven Spielberg Triumphs Again With The Post!

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

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

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

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

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Josh Reviews Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond

January 17th, 2018
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Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton is a new documentary by Chris Smith that documents Jim Carrey’s process of remaining entirely in-character as Andy Kaufman (as well as Kaufman’s abusive alter-ego, Tony Clifton) during the entirety of the making of Milos Forman’s 1999 bio of Andy Kaufman, Man on the Moon.

I have always been fascinated by Andy Kaufman, and I quite like Mr. Forman’s film Man on the Moon.  Jim Carrey’s performance as Mr. Kaufman in the film is spectacular.  He is brilliantly able to inhabit the character, perfectly recreating many famous on-screen moments from Mr. Kaufman’s life (his appearances on Saturday Night Live, Taxi, and more).  It’s an amazing act of recreation, as Mr. Carrey is able to modulate his voice and his physicality in order to nearly-perfectly recreate Mr. Kaufman.  The film is made by Mr. Carrey’s performance.

Throughout the film’s production, Mr. Carrey apparently hired a team to film behind-the-scenes footage, in an effort to produce a promotional material for the film that would be more interesting than the boring EPKs (Electronic Press Kits) that usually accompany a film’s release.  But the footage has remained unseen, until now.  Mr. Smith’s documentary Jim & Andy presents an extraordinary amount of this incredible footage, intercut with an in-depth interview with Jim Carrey conducted last year.  Ninety-five percent of the film is from those two sources: the twenty-year-old behind-the-scenes footage and this present-day interview with Mr. Carrey.  (We also get a generous amount of clips from Man on the Moon itself, as well as some great archival footage of both Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Carrey from throughout their careers.)

This behind-the-scenes footage is incredible.  I had heard rumors that Mr. Carrey had refused to step out of character during the months of making Man on the Moon, and this footage supports that.  It is… wow.  It is pretty jaw-dropping.  At one point in the film, Mr. Carrey recollects that he was told that Universal would not at the time allow any of the behind-the-scenes footage to be released because they didn’t want people to think that Mr. Carrey was an asshole.  I can see what they were worried about.

I cannot imagine how tough this must have been for the men and women working with Mr. Carey on the making of Man on the Moon.  Mr. Carey as Andy Kaufman was clearly difficult to deal with, as this footage makes clear, but Mr. Kaufman as Tony Clifton was absolutely horrible and abusive to everyone around him.  There are a lot of moments in which we see poor Milos Forman struggling to keep the peace and keep his film … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro’s latest masterpiece, The Shape of Water, is set in the early sixties.  Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute woman who works as a janitor at a government installation.  Her routine, lonely life is shaken when she discovers that the scientists and military officers at the base have captured a monster: a humanoid amphibian creature whose ability to survive the pressures of the deep they believe holds the key to the U.S.’s successfully mastering the hostile conditions of outer space.  Elisa gradually develops a connection with the monster, and when she fears that the military is going to kill him, she hatches a plan with her friends, fellow janitor Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor artist Giles (Richard Jenkins), to attempt to free him.

I adore the films of Guillermo del Toro, and The Shape of Water is a return to the near-perfection of Mr. del Toro’s best Spanish-language works such as Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) and The Devil’s Backbone.  Once again, Mr. del Toro has crafted a gorgeous fantasy film that is grounded in real-life settings with fully-realized, rich characters, and with a fantastically memorable new monster creature.  

The Shape of Water belongs to Sally Hawkins, who is magnificent as the mute, lonely Elisa.  Mr. del Toro and co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor have created a beautifully drawn character, and Ms. Hawkins knocks the role out of the park with her deeply emotional, affecting performance.  And all without speaking a single word!  Without any dialogue or “internal monologue” narration, Ms. Hawkins and Mr. del Toro are nevertheless successful in creating a film that is focused on Elisa’s inner life.  It is her emotions, and her actions, that drive the film.  This is a very clever approach, and yet one that could have been fiendishly difficult to achieve.  Yet Ms. Hawkins’ phenomenal work makes this all sing.  This is an incredible performance, and it is worth seeing this film just to watch what Ms. Hawkins is able to achieve.

Mr. del Toro’s films always show an enormous affection for the fantasy/monster creatures.  Each of his films contain wonderfully detailed, well-thought-out and beautifully-realized new monster/creatures, and the amphibious creature in The Shape of Water is a wonderful addition to Mr. del Toro’s filmography.  Mr. del Toro’s frequent collaborator, Doug Jones, does an extraordinary job in bringing this creature to life.  Although the creature, like Elisa, does not speak a word in the film, the gorgeous makeup/prosthetics design, combined with Mr. Jones’ incredible performance, communicate exactly what this creature is thinking and feeling.  I have seen many talented actors whose performance was lost under elaborate prosthetics or makeup, but Mr. Jones is a master at this sort of … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Disaster Artist

December 25th, 2017
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James Franco’s The Disaster Artist chronicles the making of The Room, the 2003 film that is widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made.  The Disaster Artist is based on Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book of the same name, which depicts the unlikely friendship between the young Sestero and the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau, who would up bankrolling, directing, and starring in The Room, in which Mr. Sestero played a lead part.  The Room was a disastrous flop upon release; showing in one single theatre in L.A. for two weeks.  But gradually, word of mouth began to spread (aided, perhaps, by Mr. Wiseau’s decision to continue paying for the film’s one prominent billboard, featuring a now iconic close-up of his face, for five years!), and eventually the film gained a cult following and became beloved among a certain cadre of fans despite, or perhaps because of, its being so bad.

It’s incredible to me that, a decade after The Room was first screened, there is now a big-budget Hollywood movie telling the behind-the-scenes story of that film’s creation!  But here we are.  James Franco and his team have treated Mr. Wiseau and Mr. Sestero and The Room in a similar manner to how Tim Burton treated Ed Wood in his film of the same name.  There’s no doubt that The Disaster Artist presents Tommy Wiseau as something of a punchline.  If I was Mr. Wiseau, I would not be thrilled with this depiction.  But the film also has a lot of tenderness for Mr. Wiseau and Mr. Sestero, and for anyone who sets out to create art.

I suppose it could be argued that Mr. Wiseau and Mr. Sestero were more interested in becoming stars than in making art.  Those two things are quite different from one another.  But I think a large part of why The Disaster Artist works as well as it does is because of the way the film pulls you into rooting for these weirdos, these outsiders.  Anyone who has ever felt the desire to create art, who has ever felt like an outsider looking in, will find a lot to engage with in this film.

The film is also very, very funny.  Mr. Franco has assembled an incredible cast, and he gives everyone room to shine.

Let’s start with Mr. Franco himself, who is wonderful and hilarious as Tommy Wiseau.  Underneath some subtle prosthetics and an amazing wig (at least, I assume it’s a wig!), Mr. Franco has utterly morphed into Mr. Wiseau.  And then he opens his mouth!  Mr. Franco has done a fantastic job at capturing Mr. Wiseau’s bizarre, unique, unidentifiable accent.  This is an incredible transformation.  But as with the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Score: A Film Music Documentary

I love movies, and I love movie scores.  I’m not sure when I first started to realize that a part of what I loved about movies was their score; and that, beyond that, it was in fact the score that was a critical element of those movies I loved.  It probably began with the Star Trek movies.  I watched those movies over and over, and I soon realized that part of what gave those movies their own distinct identities was the different-style scores written by different composers.  The scores for all six original Star Trek movies (by Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Leonard Rosenman, and Cliff Eidelman) are all amazing, but with very different-style scores, each of which are so distinct but all successful in their own way.  Whatever the origin, I have for years been fascinated with movie scores, and I have many great movie soundtracks on my ipod that I listen to all the time.  I love and am intrigued by movie scores.

Matt Schrader’s wonderful documentary Score: A Film Music Documentary is a fantastic dive into the art of creating film scores.  This film will work for those who know little about this aspect of movie-making, with wonderful sequences that explain the many different steps in creating and recording a score, as well as cleverly put-together explorations of just why great movie scores work as well as they do.  The film will also be a delight for those who already love film scores, showcasing a wonderful array of the many men and women who toil to create this art.

The film contains a wealth of interviews, highlighting an incredible array of talented film score composers.  This isn’t a documentary that only focuses on the most super-famous film composers: John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith and Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann.  Those giants get their due, of course, but Mr. Schrader has created a film that gives lovely spotlights to a staggering array of talented composers, names well-known to film fans like myself but not to the average movie-goer, including: Danny Elfman (the film spotlights his work on Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, and the original Tim Burton Batman), Thomas Newman (the film spotlights his work on The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, and Finding Dory) Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy), Alexandre Desplat (Moonrise Kingdom, Argo), John Debney (Sin City, Spy Kids, and many wonderful scores for episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Brian Tyler (whose work I first discovered on Sci-Fi’s underrated Children of Dune mini-series — a score that I know many of you know and love without knowing it, because several tracks are often used … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Lady Bird

Set in 2002, Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird tells the story of a teenaged girl, Christine (though she prefers to go by “Lady Bird” — her given name in that, as she says in the film, “it was given to me, by me”) growing up in Sacramento.  Lady Bird is desperate to get out of Sacramento, and she has plans to attend a liberal arts college on the East Coast, though the combination of her family’s tight finances and her own poor grades seems like an insurmountable obstacle to that dream.  The film unfolds over the course of Lady Bird’s senior year in high school.  We see her move through two romantic relationships and different friend circles, an often tumultuous relationship with her mother, and an exploration of various interests (such as her involvement in the school’s drama troupe, in which she finds that the only roles she can get are made-up parts like “the tempest” in The Tempest).

I have always enjoyed Greta Gerwig’s work as an actress, but in Lady Bird (her first film in which she is solo-credited as a writer and director) we see the announcement of an extraordinary talent behind-the-camera.  I absolutely adored this film.  It’s a riveting, wonderfully honest look at adolescence-on-the-cusp-of-adulthood.  The film is very funny, and also deeply emotionally affecting.  I was in tears for much of the second half.  I love a great coming-of-age film, and Lady Bird steps instantly into the pantheon.

The film is anchored by yet another incredible performance by Saoirse Ronan (who was so great in Brooklyn).  The film is blunt in depicting how annoying a super-sure-of-themself teenager can be; how selfish and destructive and clueless even a sweet, trying-to-be-good teenager usually is.  This wouldn’t work if the actress playing Lady Bird wasn’t able to win us over with the character’s inner life, with her warmth and the passion with which she feels everything in her day-to-day life.  Ms. Ronan is brilliant in the role, taking what is already a well-written, thoughtfully crafted strong female character and elevating it into an instantly memorable performance that truly sings.  It’s a fantastic piece of work.  And Ms. Ronan’s effortless skill at her accent (masking her natural Irish accent) is quite impressive.

Ms. Ronan is surrounded by a spectacular ensemble of actors, just as Lady Bird’s character is surrounded by a wonderful group of supporting characters who have each been crafted by Ms. Gerwig with attention and love.  After Ms. Ronan, the film’s next stand-out is Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne) as Lady Bird’s mother, Marion.  This is a phenomenal performance, richly textured.  Marion and Lady Bird have an often antagonistic relationship, and Ms. Metcalf plays those dramatic moments with … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is the latest film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel.  Mr. Branagh also stars as detective Hercule Poirot, who finds himself enmeshed in a complicated murder mystery while traveling from Istanbul to London on board the titular Orient Express.  When the criminal Samuel Ratchett is killed, there appear to be a plethora of suspects on board the high-class train, and the finicky detective Poirot must sort through the clues to find the killer.

I have been a fan of Kenneth Branagh, as both an actor and a director, ever since Dead Again.  Mr. Branagh might not be the most showy or edgy of directors, but I have usually found his films to be solidly entertaining, and Murder on the Orient Express is no exception.  The film is a joyful little puzzle from beginning to end.  This is not terribly innovative or boundary-pushing cinema, but it’s comfortably enjoyable like a favorite cushy chair.  Many of the beats of the film feel familiar — not only is this the fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel, but much about the story has been imitated by other films — but Mr. Branagh manages to keep things feeling fresh.  I feel like maybe I am damning Mr. Branagh with faint praise, and I don’t mean to.  With his steady hand at the helm, he has assembled an endearingly fun spin on Ms. Christie’s most-famous story.

Perhaps Mr. Branagh’s greatest achievement in the film is the way he is able to wrangle the film’s large, and very famous, cast.  The cast is extraordinary: Olivia Colman, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, and several other talented supporting players.  Almost any of these movie stars could have been the lead of their own film.  I have seen many other movies sink under the weight of so many stars.  Yet Mr. Branagh was able to balance all of these actors and their characters beautifully.  This could have easily felt like a film without any real characters, just Hollywood stars hobnobbing.  However, Mr. Branagh was able to achieve the benefit of casting all of these talented performers; since most of the film’s ensemble of characters have only a few scenes that spotlight them, these actors’ movie-star charisma is able to, in most cases, flesh out a full character despite their limited screen-time.

It’s great to see Michelle Pfeiffer given such a meaty role to play, and Ms. Pfeiffer is terrific.  She doesn’t appear in many films these days; it’s nice to see that she’s still got it.  Judi Dench can play haughty arrogance like nobody’s business, and I … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Justice League!

Warner Brothers and DC’s new film, Justice League, is a milestone in their efforts to chase after the achievements of Marvel’s cinematic universe.  But whereas Marvel’s last decade-worth of films has seen a remarkably cohesive, gradual unfolding and expansion of a universe’s worth of characters and story-lines, DC/Warners’ efforts have been, well, let’s say a little more stumbling.

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was enormously successful, critically and commercially, but those films were a self-contained series.  Once that wrapped up with The Dark Knight Rises, DC/Warners began working to create their own interconnected cinematic universe.  Green Lantern failed, but Man of Steel seemed like a stronger first step, though that film was not quite the smash DC/Warners was likely hoping for, and it met with a mixed reaction from fans and critics.  (Overall I enjoy the film and I like a lot of the visual choices that Zack Snyder and his team made, though the film is undermined by several critical story-choices that don’t work and an ill-conceived ending.)  Whereas Marvel introduced its heroes gradually, though their own solo films, DC/Warners moved to jump-start their shared super-hero universe with 2016’s Batman v. Superman, which was intended to lead into the first part of a two-part Justice League film.  But while it made money, Batman v. Superman was roundly (and accurately) criticized for being an overly-long, overly-dour mess with an incoherent plot and flat characters.  (The extended version actually improves upon many of the film’s flaws, but not nearly enough to consider the film “good.”).  Suicide Squad was supposed to be a hip, fun shot-in-the-arm for DC/Warners’ super-hero film series, but I thought it was even worse than Batman v. Superman.  Only Wonder Woman was a true success, telling a fun, solid story with real characters that connected with the fans.

With their films failing to connect with audiences, DC/Warners began to curtail their ambitious plans that were laid out back in 2014.  Suddenly the two-part Justice League epic became a single film; who knows if we will ever see a sequel, or whether any of the other promised solo films (a Flash film, a Cyborg film, another try at Green Lantern, a solo Batman film starring Ben Affleck, a Man of Steel 2) will ever actually come to be.

Meanwhile, following Batman v. Superman’s critical drubbing, reports came out about efforts to rework and reshape Justice League, in an attempt to inject some of the lightness and optimism that has proven so successful with the Marvel films.  (The degree to which Zack Snyder, who directed Man of Steel, Batman and Superman, and Justice League, was on board with these changes is somewhat … [continued]

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Marvel Triumphs Again With Thor: Ragnarok!

Thor: Ragnarok is the third Thor film, but more importantly it is the incredible seventeenth film in the continuing and expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Looking back over these seventeen films, it is astounding to consider the incredibly high quality that Marvel has been able to deliver film after film after film.  There hasn’t been a single truly bad film in the mix!  Even the weaker films (Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World, The Incredible Hulk) are all perfectly fine and entertaining.  And the recent run of films has been amazing; just this year we have gotten Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2, The Amazing Spider-Man, and now the terrific, hilarious Thor: Ragnarok.

As this film opens, Hela the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) returns, eager to wreak havoc on Asgard and the family of Odin who, she feels, wronged her millennia ago.  Thor’s initial attempt to confront her ends disastrously, as Hela destroys his hammer Mjolnir and banishes Thor to the far corners of the universe.  Thor finds himself on a trash-filled planet ruled by The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who oversees brutal gladiatorial-like competitions between captured aliens.  Thor will need to defeat incredible odds to triumph in the gladiatorial games, then somehow find his way back to Asgard to defeat the unbeatable Hela before she slaughters every last man, woman and child living there.

That all sounds like a very serious, dour story for the film.  But Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, is a marvelously loopy, silly, joy-filled concoction.  It has been widely praised as the funniest Marvel film, and it is definitely in the run for that title.  (I am not sure it is funnier than James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films or Joss Whedon’s Avengers, but it is defintely in the top five.).

I was a little worried, when I started hearing about the light, comedic touch that Mr. Waititi had brought to this film, that it would turn into a farce that wouldn’t have any emotional weight.  But those fears proved unfounded.  Thor: Ragnarok is an exciting action-adventure film that fits smoothly into the continuing story of the Marvel cinematic universe, while also being nearly non-stop hilariously funny.

In some respects, the movie completely reinvents the character of Thor, turning the somewhat pompous warrior we have met before into a complete goofball.  It has been clear before now that Chris Hemsworth had strong comedic chops — see his work in the rebooted Ghostbusters as well as the shorts revealing what Thor was up to during Captain America: Civil War.  What Taika Waititi has done is allow Chris Hemsworth to basically play Chris Hemsworth here, rather than the Thor … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

October 27th, 2017
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Recently I reviewed Kingsman: The Golden Circle.  I thought the first Kingsman movie was mediocre, and I wasn’t expecting a sequel to ever get made, but when one was, I went to see it because I was curious to see whether they’d done better with a second whack at the material.  I had a very similar experience with Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.  I like Tom Cruise and love Christopher McQuarrie, and the two made a terrific Mission: Impossible movie together, but their collaboration on the first Jack Reacher film was somewhat disappointing to me.  It’s a perfectly fine film, just dour and without anything particularly memorable in it (other than Werner Herzog’s perfectly gonzo turn as the bad guy).  Although the film was clearly intended to be the start of a franchise, I never actually expected to see a sequel get made.  When Never Go Back was released, I was curious to see how they did with another attempt at the material.  The film was reviewed poorly and left theaters quickly before I ever had a chance to see it, but I remained interested in giving it a go and finally found the time to watch it a few weeks ago.

In the film, we see that the former military policeman, now drifter and good-deeds-doer Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) has established an over-the-phone friendship with Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who holds Reacher’s former position.  The loner Reacher returns to Washington, DC, with the intention of finally meeting Major Turner in the face and taking her out to dinner, but he arrives just in time to discover that she’s been arrested for espionage, and a plot is afoot to murder her in prison.  So he breaks her out and the two go on the run together, along with a young girl named Sam (Danika Yarosh), who is also in danger because her mother recently submitted a paternity suit to the military, claiming Reacher is her father.  (Because of this apparent connection to Reacher, the bad guys want to kill her to get to him.)

Oy vey.  I can see why this film did not make much of a mark when it was released last year.

I like the basic idea of pairing Jack Reacher up with a female fellow officer who is just as tough as he is.  Rather than his being worlds tougher and smarter than everyone else around him, as he was in the first movie, it’s a strong idea to match him up with someone who is his equal, and a female at that.  And I happen to think Cobie Smulders is terrific, and I was excited to see her in this major leading … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Blade Runner: 2049

October 16th, 2017
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Let me get right to it: Blade Runner: 2049 is a masterpiece, a worthy sequel to Ridley Scott’s iconic original film.  I would not have imagined it possible, but here it is.  Blade Runner: 2049 is as mysterious and thoughtful and enigmatic as the original, asking deep questions about the nature of humanity and about our relationship with technology.  The film is visually stunning and richly emotional.  I saw it in glorious IMAX and it absolutely blew me away.

The original Blade Runner took place in the apocalyptic far future: the year 2019.  (It’s funny how that is now right around the corner!!)  This sequel takes place 30 years later, and introduces us to a new Blade Runner, “K” (Ryan Gosling).  Just like Harrison Ford’s Deckard was, K is a cop tasked with hunting down “replicants” (synthetic people) hiding within society.  His mission to track down and kill a replicant named Sapper (Dave Bautista) at first seems routine, but then he discovers a box buried next to a dead tree outside Sapper’s home.  Hidden in that box is something that blows K’s life out of its precise orbit, a secret that threatens to unravel all human society, and that sends K on a search for Rick Deckard, who has been missing for thirty years…

For many years I’d been reading rumors and talk of a sequel to Blade Runner, and I always thought it was a bad idea.  On the one hand, the ending of Ridley Scott’s original film is so enigmatic that a sequel seems like a natural thing, as there still seemed to be so much story yet to be told.  And yet, that original film is such a unique and mysterious concoction that trying to recapture its magic felt to me like a fool’s errand, and I was not in any rush to have a sequel give definitive answers to the many wonderful and thought-provoking questions raised by that first film.  Nor did I want to see the cerebral and intelligent Blade Runner turned into a dumb action-adventure movie, which seemed to me the likely path a sequel would take.  Making a successful sequel three decades after the original movie seemed doomed to failure.  (True, Harrison Ford just recently starred into another thirty-years-later sequel, a small movie you might have heard of called Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and that was a success, but Star Wars actually feels to me like an easier film to sequalize.  Mr. Ford’s previous return to an iconic character many years later, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, was horrendous.)

The only reason I was excited about Blade Runner: 2049, was that it was being directed by … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Kingsman: The Golden Circle

I loved Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons comic-book mini-series The Secret Service, a delicious send-up of classic sixties-era James Bond spy capers.  I was a little less taken with Matthew Vaughn’s film adaptation, Kingsman: The Secret Service.  Mr. Vaughn is a terrific director (I love Layer Cake despite my dislike of its ending, and X-Men: First Class is one of the better X-Men films), and he had already made a movie adapting a Mark Millar comic-book series that was as good as, if not better than, the original.  (That would be Kick-Ass, a great comic and a great movie.)  But I thought Mr. Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service film muddled some of the original comic’s best jokes and ideas, and I found the anal sex joke in the final minute to be very distasteful.  But, I really like Matthew Vaughn and I like the idea of this series — taking the fun of those Classic Bond gadgets-and-babes adventures and bringing them into the modern era — so I was curious to see Mr. Vaughn’s second whack at this property.  (I must admit, I never expected to see a sequel, so I was intrigued to see what Mr. Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman had cooked up.)

At the very start of Kingsman: The Golden Circle, the Kingsman agency is mostly wiped out by a new enemy.  The surviving Kingsmen agents — young Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the Q-like “Merlin” (Mark Strong), and the miraculously resurrected after getting shot in the head in the first movie “Galahad” (Colin Firth) are forced to turn to their fellow spy agency, the U.S.-based Statesmen, for help.  The dapper British gentlemen spies and their cowboy-esque American counterparts together attempt to outwit the drug-lord Poppy (Julianne Moore) and her plan to unleash a deadly virus across the United States.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a fun time in the movie theatre though, like the first film, I once again feel Mr. Vaughn and his team have somewhat missed the mark.  The film’s strength and its weakness is that every single element feels dialed up to eleven.  The film is packed to overflowing with one crazy, outlandish sequence after another, and few characters are elevated above caricature.  (Seriously, is this the way Matthew Vaughn sees Americans???)  Some of these crazy sequences are fun, but it all gets to be a bit too much after a while.  (Like the first film, I think this sequel is about ten-twenty minutes too long.)

The cast comes to play, and the reason the film works as well as it does is this terrific cast.  Taron Egerton is very solid as the young super-spy Eggsy.  He steps effortlessly into … [continued]

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Josh Reviews It!

September 20th, 2017
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Stephen King’s lengthy novel It is a masterpiece, a rich, expansive saga that is horrifying and deeply moving in equal parts.  It is one of the finest novels I have ever read.  I was dubious that a film adaptation could satisfactorily distill this complex novel into a two-hour movie, but somehow Andy Muschietti’s film manages this near-insurmountable task with an impressive degree of skill and grace and class.

In the summer of 1987, a group of seven twelve-year-olds in the small town of Derry, Maine, discover a terrible evil within their town.  These seven kids each struggle with difficult home lives and vicious local bullies.  But those terrors pale before the monster that seems to be a part of their town, a creature that can take the form of their greatest fears and that often manifests itself in the form of a horrifying clown.

The fantasy and horror elements of the novel It are compelling, but what makes the novel such a riveting page-turner is the way Stephen King brings each and every one of the book’s large ensemble of characters to such rich, fully-realized life, most particularly the six boys and one girl in the “Loser’s Club” who find themselves the only ones capable to fighting this terrifying evil.

The film adaptation works because of how well it is able to do the same thing.  You need to love these kids, and I was impressed by how well the film accomplished that goal.  All seven young actors are phenomenal.  Absolutely phenomenal.

Jaeden Lieberher plays Bill” Denbrough, whose younger brother’s murder at the hands of It is the story’s inciting incident.  Mr. Lieberher was terrific last year as the super-powered boy in Midnight Special, but this is a far more involved role.  He’s perfect as the honest, sensitive but haunted Bill.  Jeremy Ray Taylor plays the heavy, lonely Ben Hanscom.  The idea of the sweet, fat outsider kid is somewhat cliche at this point, but Mr. Taylor brings such warmth and genuine open-heartedness to the role that he is perfection as Ben.  You cannot help but love this kid.  Sophia Lillis is amazing as Beverly Marsh, the one girl in the Losers’ Club.  It’s hard not to fall in love with Bev in the book, as Bill and Ben both do, and Ms. Lillis’ performance inspires the same feelings of affection, as I found myself rooting for Bev more than even any of the boys.  Bev in the book and the film is different from the boys not because of her gender, but because she is the one of the group who is first aware that she is beginning to leave her childhood behind.  This leaves her feeling even … [continued]

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Josh Enjoys Seeing Close Encounters of the Third Kind Back on the Big Screen!

September 13th, 2017
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About a week after seeing the new 3D release of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, I got to see one of the 40th anniversary screenings of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  I can’t believe this film is forty years old!!!  Close Encounters is one of my very favorite Steven Spielberg movies, and one of my favorite movies altogether. Getting to see it — for the very first time! — on the big screen, as it was meant to be seen, was a thrill!

I love that Close Encounters is NOT an action/adventure like most of Steven Spielberg’s movies are.  Close Encounters is a more cerebral drama, and a surprisingly dark one at that.  As an adult, the unpleasantness of Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) and Ronnie (Teri Garr)’s marriage is more painful than it is funny, and that the film ends with Roy’s having never reconciled with his wife and kids, and possibly never seeing them again, is almost shocking as the ending of a big-budget Steven Spielberg film.  I love Close Encounters for that.  I love it for its messiness, both literally in the way characters are constantly talking over from one another and for the surprisingly realistic mess of Roy and Ronnie’s house, and also for its messiness of storytelling in that not everything is explained or wrapped up in a bow at the end of the film.  But most of all I love the film for being an intelligent sci-fi drama, rather than a shoot-em-up.

While some of the forty-year-old visual effects in the film look a little dated, over-all I was very pleasantly surprised how well the effects held up on the big screen!  These old-style visuals were executed with tremendous care and artistry, and the vast majority of the film’s special effects looked dynamite.  What an achievement that these visual effects still look so great forty years later.  The mothership’s arrival at the end was suitably awe-inspiring, as it is supposed to be.  I’d only ever seen those moments before on TV.  Seeing the enormous mothership appear above Devil’s Tower on a huge screen was amazing.  (For more info on the effort that went into the film’s HD restoration, click here.)

There is a lot of memorable, haunting imagery in Close Encounters.  Seeing the film on the big screen emphasizes what an incredible job Steven Spielberg did directing this film.  The shot compositions are incredible.  I’ll never forget the images of Roy staring at the shaving cream in his hand; or the shot of Roy in front of the huge mountain he has created in his house, as Devil’s Tower appears on his small TV (see below); of the image of Barry’s mother Jillian … [continued]

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Josh Enjoys Seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day Back on the Big Screen!

As I have written here before, I love the idea of revival showings of great classic movies.  It is a special treat to get to see a terrific older movie back on the big screen, where it belongs!  I wish this was done more often.  It’s a pleasure whenever a studio gets behind this sort of thing.  In the past two weeks I was delighted by the chance to see two wonderful movies back on the big screen: a new 3D version of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and a 40th Anniversary showing of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Both were fantastic!

Let’s start with T2, which I saw first.  I didn’t need a 3D conversion; I would have jumped at the chance to see this blockbuster back on the big screen in its original form.  But that being said, the 3D was fun.  The 3D conversion was done exceedingly well.  No surprise, since it was overseen by James Cameron, who launched the modern wave of 3D films (a wave that has already mostly died out) with Avatar in 2009.  The 3D is subtly done, adding depth to the image without ever being distracting.  The new 3D effects are most exciting in the brief “future war” sequence at the start of the film; it’s a ton of fun to see the Terminator robots and all the exploding ships and trucks in 3D.

I love T2, and it’s incredible how well this 1991 film holds up more than twenty-five years after its release.  It’s a great story, with vivid characters and spectacular action.  This could be Arnold Schwarzenegger’s greatest performance (though I am also partial to his work in True Lies, another great James Cameron film).  Some of the story beats are a little cliche twenty-five years later, but I still found this story of a killer robot learning to care for a human boy to be remarkably affecting.  Linda Hamilton is terrific as this hardened version of Sarah Connor (a far cry from the waitress damsel in distress she played in the first film).  I know some people don’t love Edward Furlong’s work as John Connor, but I think he does a great job at embodying this young nineteen-nineties kid.  And the action — wow.  There are few directors better at crafting extraordinary action sequences than James Cameron.

I was pleasantly surprised by how well this film’s groundbreaking-at-the-time CGI effects held up, projected on the big screen, twenty-five years later.  Often times I find that films that are the most cutting-edge can age poorly, as their pioneering effects are improved upon by other films and filmmakers who stand on their shoulders.  I was worried that, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Big Sick

August 24th, 2017
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The Big Sick, written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon and directed by Michael Showalter, is based on the true story of Kumail and Emily’s relationship.  As the film opens, the two meet at one of Kumail’s shows and begin to date, and while they are clearly compatible, Kumail (who plays himself in the film) keeps the relationship a secret from his Pakistani family, who are attempting to arrange a marriage for Kumail with a Pakistani woman.  When Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) discovers this and Kumail admits that he is not sure they have a future together, she leaves him.  This seems like the end of their relationship, but soon after Emily takes ill and unexpectedly is placed in a medically induced coma.  Kumail, called to the hospital by one of Emily’s friends, signs the permission form, and remains at the hospital at Emily’s side.  The second half of the film chronicles this experience, alongside Emily’s parents (played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).

That sounds like the makings of a Very Serious Drama.  But while The Big Sick is a very emotionally engaging film, and one that deals with a number of serious topics, the magic of the movie is that it is also extremely funny throughout, telling the story with an enchantingly light touch.  I loved it.

I have been a fan of Kumail Nanjiani’s ever since I discovered his The X-Files Files podcast a few years back, and he is consistently hilarious on Silicon Valley.  The Big Sick is a tremendous showcase for Mr. Nanjiani, and it’s exciting to see him crush it.  This is a very personal story, being so directly inspired by Mr. Nanjiani and Ms. Gordon’s actual experiences, and Mr. Nanjiani proves to be an extremely engaging lead.  He conveys an enormous likability that helps carry the audience through the film even when we see Kumail make some very poor choices in the film.  Mr. Nanjiani is an expert comedian, and he is so funny throughout the film, bringing every punchline to life.  What’s even more impressive is how well he is able to sell the dramatic moments.

Zoe Kazan steps into the role of Emily, and she’s great.  I had seen Ms. Kazan in a few roles here and there (Me and Orson Welles and Revolutionary Road), but I was not that familiar with her work.  She has great chemistry with Mr. Nanjiani and does a great job at conveying the spark between the two of them.  Her work in the first half of the film is strong enough to keep Emily alive as a character in the second half, when she is put into a coma and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Waking Sleeping Beauty

August 21st, 2017
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Waking Sleeping Beauty is a 2009 documentary film, masterminded by Don Hahn and Peter Schneider, that tells the story of Disney animation’s return to prominence in the late eighties and early nineties with the huge successes of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.  This is an extraordinary documentary, created by two men who were right in the thick of Disney animation in those days.  As such, it is an incredible insider’s view of what went down, and it’s a remarkably honest, no-holds-barred telling of the story.  For anyone with any interest in Disney animation, this film is a must-see.

Back in the 1980’s, Disney animation was pretty much dead.  As the documentary opens, Disney’s over-budget production of The Black Cauldron (1985) is released to crickets and loses the studio a ton of money.  The animation department is moved into what is little more than an abandoned warehouse.  Former Disney animator Don Bluth’s new company (at which he employs many other former Disney animators) releases An American Tail in 1986 to great success, out-grossing Disney’s release that year of The Great Mouse Detective.

But gradually a series of events sets in motion important changes in the animation department and Disney over-all.  Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney resigns from the board and eventually steps into the role of chairman of the animation department.  Michael Eisner is hired as Disney chairman and Frank Wells is hired as President.  Mr. Eisner then hires Jeffrey Katzenberg as head of film production, and as such Mr. Katzenberg is directly involved in the production of all new animated features.  The film does not shy away from presenting the controversial moves made by Mr. Eisner and Mr. Katzenberg specifically, two powerful men who did not seem to mind throwing a few elbows.  But the film also highlights all that they did right, and the actions they took to help lift Disney out of the doldrums.

Across the board, Waking Sleeping Beauty is remarkably honest about the struggles and challenges faced by Disney animation during those years.  This isn’t a glossy, everyone was always happy retelling of these events.  (Considering this documentary was released by Disney, this is fairly astounding!)  Some of the film’s most fascinating bits concern the arguments, large and small, that went into the making of these movies, and the many interpersonal squabbles that erupted among these hard-working and talented men and women.

The film spends a lot of time exploring the production of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, two films that were both enormous successes and together represented a huge turning point for Disney animation.  The documentary emphasizes the contributions of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who wrote the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Dark Tower

Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series is an extraordinary achievement, a work of breathtaking genius that represents one of my absolute favorite fictional sagas of any medium.  The series consists of seven main novels plus an eighth follow-up novel (The Wind Through the Keyhole), plus a novella (The Little Sisters of Eluria), plus a series of illustrated prequel stories published by Marvel Comics (The Gunslinger Born).  Plus, of course, the Dark Tower novels connect to many, many of the other novels and stories written by Mr. King, from The Shining to The Stand to ‘Salem’s Lot and more.  Many have described The Dark Tower books as unfilmable, impossible to adapt faithfully to the screen.  But I have always disagreed.  I think this marvelously rich, sweeping saga could be extraordinary if adapted properly on TV or in a series of movies.  I continue to believe that The Dark Tower is one of the best-kept secrets of fiction, filled with incredibly original ideas and wonderfully engaging characters.  This series would BLOW PEOPLE’S MINDS if adapted with the same care, attention, love, and budget given to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Sadly, that’s not what has happened.  The movie adaptation of The Dark Tower, directed by Nikolaj Arcel and with a screenplay credited to multiple writers (Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Mr. Arcel), is a disappointingly small-scale, mediocre affair.  The film isn’t horrible.  It has a strong cast, and a few memorable moments.  But it takes this humongous, sprawling story and makes it feel very small.  It takes Mr. King’s wonderful characters and original situations and makes them feel flat and familiar, pale echoes of characters and stories we’ve all seen before in vastly superior movies.

The film is not a direct adaptation of Mr. King’s first Dark Tower novel, The Gunslinger Instead it’s a mishmash of characters and plot points from all seven of the main Dark Tower novels.  This is the type of approach that was, for decades, standard for a Hollywood adaptation of a beloved genre property.  But in 2017, in a post-Harry Potter world (in which all seven novels were faithfully and lovingly adapted into individual movies), in a world in which we have seen how creatively and financially successful the Marvel Cinematic universe has been in faithfully adapting the Marvel characters to the screen, this is a crushingly disappointing decision.

Now, let me be clear, I don’t immediately object to not beginning a Dark Tower film series with a direct adaptation of The Gunslinger.  That novel is the shortest and weirdest of the series, and many of the ideas that … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Baby Driver!

I have enormous love for all of writer/director Edgar Wright’s collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, from their fantastic TV show Spaced to their trilogy of films Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End.  Though actually, I have to admit that my absolute favorite Edgar Wright film is his criminally underrated 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which I adore with all my heart.  That Edgar Wright has not directed a film since that 2010 release is a crime.  And so I was more than a little excited for his new film, Baby Driver.

The film does not disappoint.

The titular Baby Driver is played by Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars).  Baby is a young man who has found himself in the position of being a getaway driver for a cadre of criminals and reprobates.  He has tinnitus and is a great lover of music, so he is almost always listening to music on his ear buds as a way to drown out the ringing in his ears and, perhaps, to keep him safely isolated from the big bad world around him.  Baby’s float-through approach to his life is rattled when he meets and begins to fall in love with a young waitress named Debora (Lily James).  The two young lovebirds hatch a plan to leave town and the lives they hate, but Baby finds it harder than he expected to get out from under the thumb of the big bad men for whom he works.

Oh man did I love this movie!  Edgar Wright has concocted a fiercely entertaining rush of a film, with every instant of screen-time packed to the gills with great music, exciting action sequences, and witty dialogue.

Mr. Wright has assembled an incredible ensemble of actors for his film, and he rewards his cast by giving each one of them a ton of fun stuff to do, allowing them each to create extraordinarily memorable characters in whatever amount of time they have on-screen.

Kevin Spacey plays Doc, the man-with-the-plan who comes up with all the criminal schemes and assembles the team.  It’s a great role for Mr. Spacey, who is terrific at playing loquacious characters with an edge of danger.  Mr. Spacey also allows us a tiny glimpse at the beating heart beneath the polished facade, which only emphasizes Doc’s dangerousness.  Jon Hamm plays Buddy, the confident, smooth-with-the-ladies man of action.  It’s fun (and sort of endearing) to see Mr. Hamm try to play scruffy-looking.  Mr. Hamm’s performance is fun in the first half but really comes alive in the second half when his character is pushed into some tight corners.  Eiza González plays … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Dunkirk

In May of 1940, German forces had trapped the British Expeditionary Force, along with French and Belgian soldiers, along the northern French coast.  The Allied troops pulled back to Dunkirk, but efforts at evacuation were at first thwarted by the German Luftwaffe.  In what came to be known as the miracle of Dunkirk, the British navy, assisted by hundreds of small civilian merchant vessels, evacuated over 300,000 Allied soldiers from Dunkirk back to England.  Christopher Nolan’s film, Dunkirk, follows three parallel stories: the soldiers trapped on the Dunkirk beach (the “mole”), a civilian sailor and two young boys who have set off to Dunkirk to assist the evacuation effort, and an RAF (Royal Air Force) Spitfire pilot in combat with the Luftwaffe.

Dunkirk is a powerful film, riveting in its depiction of this evacuation effort.  Dunkirk is the story of a retreat, but it is as visceral and engaging a war film as ever I have seen, filled with depictions of the best and worst of humanity, of heroism and of cowardice in the fate of terror.

There is very little dialogue in Dunkirk.  Mr. Nolan has crafted what I might call a tone poem of a film.  The power of the story is conveyed by the performances, by the extraordinary visuals, by the crafty editing, and by the score.

It’s a cold film, one that often keeps its audience at a distance.  This is the polar opposite of, say, Steven Spielberg’s approach in Saving Private Ryan.  Mr. Spielberg and John Williams are experts at tugging on the heartstrings.  Mr. Nolan (and his collaborator on the music Hans Zimmer — more on Mr. Zimmer’s work in a moment) take the exact opposite approach.  They avoid any hint of sentimentality and schmaltz.  There are many ways in which this could have failed.  There are times when the nearly-silent Dunkirk reminds me of The Thin Red Line, a film which I love in places but which, ultimately, I feel does not succeed.  But where that film stumbled, Mr. Nolan is able to pull together all of the elements of his film in a way that works beautifully, using an unusual approach to achieve a resonant thematic and emotional power.

Mr. Nolan and his frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer have, over the course of their films together, often gotten very experimental in their scores, frequently utilizing tones and sounds rather than traditional thematic elements.  Dunkirk feels to me like the culmination of these efforts.  This score uses an auditory illusion called a “Shepard tone” to develop an ever-increasing intensity.  A “Shepard tone” gives the impression of an infinitely ascending tone, thus seeming to build and build and build without ever giving the audience … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Spider-Man: Homecoming!

Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies are fantastic, and they deserve an enormous amount of credit for helping launch our current golden age of super-hero films.  So I knew a good Spider-Man movie could be made!!  But boy it had been a while.  Spider-Man 3 was a huge disappointment, and then Sami Raimi was never given a chance to redeem himself when the series was taken away from him and rebooted.  The two Amazing Spider-Man films were a mess, filled with shoddy characterizations and flagrant attempts to build a franchise that never materialized.  They are a case study in the perils of studios desperately wanting to create a “universe” without actually focusing on making good movies.  Then the miraculous happened: Sony (who controlled the rights to Spider-Man) and Marvel reached an unprecedented agreement to allow Marvel studios to incorporate Spider-Man into the Marvel cinematic universe!  It is easy to forget how incredible it is that this actually happened.  The new version of Spider-Man was introduced in Captain America: Civil War, and every moment with the character was pretty much perfect.  Would Marvel be able to carry this success forward into a Spider-Man solo film, the first Spidey film set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

In a word: YES.  Spider-Man: Homecoming is everything I’d hoped it would be.  It is a fantastic presentation of the Spider-Man character, incredibly faithful to the character while also presenting us with a lot of new scenarios and characters from within the Spider-Man mythos, rather than falling into the trap of just being a third movie version of the character’s familiar origin and other stuff we have seen plenty of times before.  The film also fully embraces its place in the Marvel Cinematic universe, giving us all sorts of fun connections and moments without overshadowing the film’s strong, clear-eyed focus on Spidey/Peter Parker himself.

The film takes place immediately after the events of Civil War.  (In a brilliant montage, we see a quick recap of those events, from Peter Parker’s perspective.)  Peter is already Spider-Man (as just noted above, the film wisely avoids retreading his origin), and he feels flush from his involvement in Civil War and the cool new Spidey-suit that Tony Stark gave him in that film.  He feels he is ready to be an Avenger, but Tony keeps him at arm’s length, urging him to leave the big superhero stuff to the big superheroes, and to instead just be a “friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man.”  (A brilliant reference to a classic Spider-Man phrase.)  That proves difficult for Peter, who feels full of desire to prove himself and to use his powers for good.  But this fifteen-year-old hero might be in over his head … [continued]

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Josh Reviews War For the Planet of the Apes!

It is a major cinematic miracle that the rebooted Planet of the Apes series is as great as it is.  It would be oh so easy to get this series completely wrong.  (See: Tim Burton’s Ape Lincoln.)  I remain staggered that someone ever had the idea to basically use the fourth film in the original five-film Apes series from the seventies as the basis for a reboot, and flabbergasted that a major studio actually let that film get made.  And that it actually turned out to be good?  Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a great film, and the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was a masterpiece, one of the finest pieces of speculative fiction in recent memory.

Director Matt Reeves, returning from Dawn, brings the story to a conclusion with War For the Planet of the Apes.  Set some time after Dawn, we see the remnants of the American military, led by the enigmatic Colonel (Woody Harrelson), attempting to hunt down and destroy Caesar (Andy Serkis)’s colony of intelligent apes.  While the bulk of the colony attempts to flee beyond the Colonel’s reach, Caesar and his closest allies (the chimpanzee Rocket, the gorilla Luca, and the orangutan Maurice) set out to hunt down the Colonel in an attempt to end the ape-human conflict forever.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes remains the true magnum opus of this series.  That film’s richly emotional meditation on humanity, on peace and war, and on mercy and hate, is an extraordinary achievement that War is not ever able to top, in my opinion.  Nevertheless, I found War For the Planet of the Apes to be quite spectacular.  This is no dumb summer blockbuster.  War For the Planet of the Apes wrestles with complicated themes that most CGI-packed big-budget movies steer well clear of.  It is a deeply satisfying conclusion to this three-film saga, paying off characters who have become wonderfully developed over the course of the series.  (The film certainly leaves the door open to future installments, and I would be very happy to see this series continue well into the future.  But if the series ends here, it has come to a fine ending.)

If the film makes any mis-steps, it might just be that title.  Both Rise and Dawn ended with some terrific ape-versus-human carnage, and with a title like War For the Planet of the Apes, I expected this movie to escalate the action right from the get-go.  But War For the Planet of the Apes is not a bombastic action-adventure movie.  Instead, the film is a somber, elegiac tale of broken, near-desperate characters (ape and human) trying desperately to find … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews The Lobster

In Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Lobster, Colin Farrell stars as David.  Upon discovering that his wife has left him for another man, David checks into a hotel where single people have 45 days to find a life partner, or else they will be transformed into an animal of their own choosing.  David makes friends with two of the other single men there, Robert (John C. Reilly) and John (Ben Wishaw).  Eventually, Ben runs away from the hotel and begins living with the “loners” who live in the woods nearby.  Though the loners forbid any sort of romantic connection between two people, David finds he has feelings for a woman (Rachel Weisz) he meets there.

The Lobster.cropped

The Lobster is an incredibly bizarre film, one that creates a fascinating alternate reality to our own.  Though much of the world of The Lobster looks and sounds just like our own, we are presented with two fanatically extreme versions of society: one in which coupling is so important that failure to do so results in the end of one’s human life, and another in which coupling is absolutely forbidden.  The film is a compelling commentary on societal pressure to find romance and a life-partner.  How critically important to one’s life and happiness is finding a romantic partner?  Why do we, as a society, put so many rules on people’s love lives, on what is expected and what is permitted?  The Lobster is a rich satire that prompts deep questions.

Colin Farrell is terrific in the lead role, marvelously underplaying the character of David.  Mr. Farrell is beautifully naturalistic and honest in his performance.  While the world of The Lobster can feel outlandish at times, Mr. Farrell provides a critical anchoring to the proceedings with his emotional honesty, and his depiction of a man at a crossroads, struggling to figure out who he is and what he wants and whether he feels he has any self-worth.  The film works as well as it does 100% because of Mr. Farrell’s strong performance.  Mr. Farrell is a handsome man who usually exhibits a ferocious, kinetic energy in his performances.  But here, beneath a paunch and glasses and a ridiculous moustache, it’s as if he has drained every ounce of life and energy out of himself in order to bring the sad-sack David to life.  It’s quite spectacular.

John C. Reilly is always great, and he’s a ray of light in this mostly downbeat film.  His character, Robert, is lonely and unhappy, but Mr. Reilly brings a little spark to every one of his line readings that brings a sense of fun and play into what is, when you think about it, a very broken character.  Ben Wishaw (… [continued]

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Josh Reviews Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four

July 3rd, 2017
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Back in the early nineties, long before our modern age of high-quality, big-budget, prestigious superhero films, a German film producer named Bernd Eichinger acquired the rights to Marvel’s Fantastic Four. Despite the FF being one of the biggest names in the Marvel Comics sandbox, the rights were acquired for a piddly sum (reportedly around $250,000), and no major studio was interested in the project. So Mr. Eichinger’s company, Constantin, partnered with Roger Corman to produce the film. Mr. Corman was the master of schlocky, low-budget sci-fi and fantasy films, and together they agreed to a budget of one million dollars for the project (a large sum by Mr. Corman’s standards but tiny for major action-adventure films, even of the day). The film was written, filmed and edited. But it was never released.

Marty Langford’s documentary Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four tells the story of the film’s origin, its production and post-production, and the machinations that eventually resulted in its being buried, and the prints destroyed.

I love cinematic what-if stories (such as Jodorosky’s Dune or Lost in La Mancha, a look at Terry Gilliam’s many failed attempts to create a Don Quixote adaptation), and Mr. Langford’s documentary is a fascinating look back at a film that almost was. Whereas Alejandro Jodorosky’s adaptation of Dune was stopped mere weeks before production, and Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was halted after a few days of production, Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four adaptation (directed by Oley Sassone), was fully shot and edited and ready to be released to theatres. And yet, it never was.

From what Mr. Langford is able to unravel, Avi Arad, who was involved in bringing the X-Men and Spider-Man to the big screen in 2000 and 2002, was working on a big-budget version of the Fantastic Four, and he worried that the release of a low-budget ruin would make the title into a joke for the public and ruin his chances at a successful big-budget release. So he apparently struck a deal with Constantin and Roger Corman to buy the film from them, and have all the prints destroyed.

Doomed! is a very enjoyable look and the life and death of this film. Mr. Langford has scored interviews with all of the film’s participants, from the director to the cast to many of the behind the scenes creatives and even Roger Corman himself. (The only major player not interviewed is Avi Arad, who was reportedly the main force behind the film’s eventual burial. I can fully understand why Mr. Arad might not want to participate in this film!) Through the documentary, we follow this Fantastic Four film’s inception and production. Mr. … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Teen Titans: The Judas Contract

Teen Titans: The Judas Contract is the latest DC Animated direct-to-DVD/blu-ray film.  It adapts the famous Judas Contract story-line by Marv Wolfman and George Perez from The New Teen Titans in 1984.  In the early eighties, Wolfman and Perez’s Teen Titans was an enormous smash hit for DC Comics, rivaling Marvel’s X-Men in popularity.  The Judas Contract is one of the most well-known stories from the run, in which the young Titan Terra is revealed to have been working with the villain Deathstroke to learn the Titans’ secrets in order to destroy them.

This new animated film is a direct sequel to last year’s Justice League vs. Teen Titans That film introduced this version of the Titans into the “New 52” continuity of the past few years’ worth of DC animated films.  I enjoyed this version of the team introduced in that film, with an amalgam of characters from the classic Wolfman/Perez run (Starfire, Raven, and Beast Boy, with Cyborg and Nightwing making brief appearances) combined with characters from more recent versions (the current Blue Beetle and the Damian Wayne Robin).  Justice League vs. Teen Titans was a loose adaptation of Wolfman and Perez’s Terror of Trigon story, which delved into the origin of the young heroine Raven.  This new film focuses exclusively on the Titans, without feeling the need to shoehorn in the Justice League, and dives directly into The Judas Contract, perhaps the most famous Teen Titans storyline ever.

Overall, I was very satisfied by this adaptation.  When this series of direct-to-DVD/blu-ray animated DC films began a decade ago, The Judas Contract was one of the first storylines that was rumored to be adapted.  But year after year, it never happened.  It’s great to see that, so many years later, this adaptation has finally gotten made, and that it’s far better than most of the other very mediocre recent animated films have been.  This isn’t anywhere as good as the great Bruce Timm/Paul Dini collaborations from years ago, but it’s a solidly entertaining story with good characters and interesting conflict.  The voice cast is great, and the animation is solid if not spectacular.  The film has an adult edge, but it avoids the worst of the juvenile cursing-and-sex masquerading as “sophisticated” elements of the recent DC animated films.  I liked it quite a bit.

The film makes a LOT of changes to the original story, in order to fit it into the continuity of these new DC animated films.  But I was impressed by how faithfully the film stayed to the major beats of the original story.  Most of the best moments from the original story find their way into the movie somehow.  The Judas Contract, as … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Wonder Woman

Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is a delight, a thrilling spectacle whose heart is 100% in the right place, focusing on a hero who is fierce and brave, a skilled warrior, who nevertheless prizes loyalty and love above all else.  It’s hard to believe it’s taken so long for a Wonder Woman movie to get made (or for any female super-hero, for that matter, to have an opportunity to headline their own big-budget film) (and no, I’m not forgetting about the dismal Elektra or Catwoman, try though I might).  It’s fantastic that this movie exists, and even more exciting that it’s so great, washing away the stink of Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad.  Yes, the movie has flaws (most notably the lame CGI punch-fest of an ending), but what works far outshines any chinks in the armor.

DC and Warner Brothers, clearly jealous of the success that Marvel Studios has had with their interconnected cinematic universe, tried to jump-start a DC universe with Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad.  Rather than having the patience to introduce their characters one-by-one in their own films, before then building to a crossover film (like Marvel’s The Avengers), Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad threw the audience into an already-existing universe in media res.  Had the films been good, that approach might have been an exciting way to differentiate the DC films from the Marvel ones.  It might have been cool to jump into a DC universe that was already well-underway, with lots of backstory and characters for us to discover.  But sadly, both Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad stunk, with nonsensical plots and nonexistent characters.  They were also painful in their desperate desire to be “adult.”  It’s interesting to imagine a DC cinematic universe in which Man of Steel had been followed up, not with those two turkeys, but with Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman.  The one-two-punch of those films would have left me chomping at the bit to see where the DC universe would go from there.

Wonder Woman has a brief framing sequence that acknowledges the wider DC movie universe, but thankfully the rest of the film is a completely stand-alone story that stands on its own two feet as opposed to being an advertisement for future adventures.  (Part of me wishes even that short framing sequence wasn’t in the film, though I can understand why DC/Warner Brothers wanted it there.)

I applaud whoever had the courage to make this film a period piece, rather than setting it in the modern day.  And setting the film in WWI, rather than WWII, is even better.  This gives the film a flavor and texture that differentiates it from so many … [continued]

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Josh Reviews King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

I’m not sure why Hollywood keeps insisting on making King Arthur movies.  Is it the allure of a known name, in the way that studios chase after franchises and keep remaking and rebooting series with a recognizable title?  Personally, I have never been all that interested in the King Arthur mythos, and I have not actually seen too many Arthur movies.  The early trailers didn’t make this new version, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, look all that interesting to me.  But I enjoy the work of director Guy Ritchie, and though his films can be hit-or-miss, I am always intrigued to see what he has done with his latest project.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword creates a new mythology, casting the Arthur story as taking place in the midst of a conflict between mages (magicians) and humans.  Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), is able to defeat the villainous mage Mordred.  But soon after, Uther and his wife are murdered by Uther’s brother Vortigern (Jude Law), who takes the crown.  Young Arthur escapes and is raised in a whorehouse in Londinium.  He grows up to be a savvy and tough young man, able to carve out a comfortable niche for himself within the low-level crime taking place in the city.  But when he crosses a group of Vikings under King Vortigern’s protection, he comes under the King’s scrutiny and Vortigern soon discovers Arthur’s true heritage.  Though Arthur initially wants nothing to do with any sort of struggle for the crown, he is soon drawn into the fight.

While I can’t recommend King Arthur: Legend of the Sword as a great movie, neither is it as bad as I had heard.  I found myself entertained by the film, and engaged with the story.  It’s a perfectly fine, fun film.  But neither is it a film that seems to have much reason for existing.  Did we need yet another version of the Arthur story?  What does this film add that we haven’t seen before in other films?  True, this fantasy-epic version of the Arthur story does incorporate a lot of weird new ideas, but while these ideas might be new for the Arthur story, they feel rather derivative of so many other fantasy films from recent years, most specifically Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  (The giant elephants with villain fighters on their back from The Return of the King even make an appearance in King Arthur’s opening sequence!)

What is more genuinely new to the story is taking the fantastical and historical aspects of the story and wrapping it up in Guy Ritchie’s very modern, fast-talking, street-level-crime style of storytelling.  There are a few moments when Mr. … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews Midnight Special

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

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

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

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

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

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

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

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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews Warcraft

I have no attachment to or even any knowledge of the game Warcraft.  I have never played the game, in any of its incarnations.  But I was interested in the film version because of the involvement of Duncan Jones at the helm.  Mr. Jones directed Moon, a fantastic tiny-budget sci-fi film from 2009 starring Sam Rockwell.  That film made me a forever fan of Mr. Jones, and I was curious to see how he’d interpret the massive game canvas of Warcraft.

Warcraft.cropped

The film tells the origin of a conflict between humans and Orcs on the fantasy world of Azeroth.  As the film opens, we follow Orc clan-leader Durotan and his pregnant mate Draka as they, and other Orc warriors, flee their dying world.  Their powerful leader Gul’dan uses his magic to transport the Orc horde from their dying world to the lush Azeroth.  There they face that world’s protectors, including King Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), Protector Medivh (Ben Foster), the warrior Lothar (Travis Fimmel), and the young mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer).  But not all Orcs are evil and not all humans have Azeroth’s best interests at heart.

This is a tough film to unpack. I love the enormous ambition on display in every frame.  This film wants to be a spectacular fantasy epic.  It is stuffed full of characters and places and creatures, all of whom have complicated names and back-stories.  The look of the film is full-on fantasy epic, with elaborate costumes and props and sets and settings, many of which are enhanced by extensive CGI effects.  There are enormous vistas and expansive CGI fantasy cities and locations.  There are incredible creatures and and lots of magical super-powers.

It’s all, as I just commented, incredibly impressive in the scope of its ambition.  Unfortunately, I can’t say that the film works at all.  I don’t have any pre-existing knowledge of Warcraft, the characters or backstory.  I am someone who loves sci-fi and fantasy, and my eyes don’t glaze over when it comes to crazy names and fantasy settings.  But this movie overwhelmed me.  It was all “too much of a muchness” (to quite the great Ira Steven Behr, one of the main writers behind the best seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine).  There were just too many characters, too many locations, too many hard-to-say and harder-to-remember long, very fantasy-sounding names.  Far too much was thrown at the audience far too fast, without giving us strong enough characters to be able to hold onto and invest in.

This film’s problems emphasize for me the successful way Peter Jackson launched his Lord of the Rings trilogy.  That film is an enormous fantasy canvas, stuffed full … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Alien: Covenant

Ridley Scott’s Alien (released in 1979 — can you believe it?) is a masterpiece of science fiction/suspense/horror, a near-perfect film that has barely aged a day.  James Cameron’s Aliens (released in 1986) is one of the greatest sequels ever made, a spectacular action/adventure film that took the universe and concepts from Mr. Scott’s film, as well as the character of Ripley, in a thrilling different direction.  The subsequent thirty years have seen one failed attempt after another to create another successful film from this universe.  Even Ridley Scott himself, when he returned to the franchise in 2012 with Prometheus, flamed out spectacularlyPrometheus is a gorgeous-looking film, and there are some wonderful sequences in the film, but on the whole it is a muddled mess, with non-existent characters (with the exception of Michael Fassbender’s android David) and a plot that makes little sense.  (One can still see the skeleton of Jon Spaihts’ original script, which was intended to be a more direct prequel to Alien, which makes the confusing finished film all the more frustrating.)  Remarkably, Mr. Scott has returned to the Alien universe once again with a new film, Alien: Covenant, which is a terrific course-correction from Prometheus.  The film is a sequel to Prometheus, but it’s also far more directly linked to the original Alien (as Prometheus should have been) in a way that brings focus and cohesion to this wandering franchise.  More importantly, unlike Prometheus, Alien: Covenant tells a focused story with interesting characters that is exciting, scary, and terrifying.  The film has its flaws, but it is easily the best film in this eight-film franchise (if you count the two Alien vs. Predator films) since the original two.

A decade after the events of Prometheus, a solar flare damages the colony ship Covenant, and the crew are awakened from hypersleep to effect repairs.  The ship, bearing 2000 colonists, is still seven years away from its destination.  The pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) detects a human signal from an unexplored planet, which appears well suited for human life, even better than the planet the ship was originally heading towards.  The acting captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), decides to investigate.  What they discover is a beautiful world that seems to be devoid of any sentient or animal life.  But several the unwitting Covenant crew-members are soon infected with the Engineers’ black accelerant (as seen in Prometheus) and become hosts to horrible monsters.  However, the most dangerous monster of all might be the planet’s other inhabitant: the android David.

I was incredibly impressed by the way in which Alien: Covenant manages to go a long way towards redeeming the uneven Prometheus, making that film’s wild missteps feel more of a … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2016: Don’t Think Twice

Don’t Think Twice, written and directed by Mike Birbiglia, tells the story of a New York-based improv group, The Commune.  At the beginning of the film, we see that the Commune is made up of a tight-knit group of friends.  They have a terrific camaraderie on-stage and they hang out together off-stage, watching TV together and traveling together.  But when one of their number is hired for Weekend Live, a big-time Saturday Night Live type program, the group fractures into competitiveness and envy.

Dont Think Twice.cropped

I haven’t seen comedian Mike Birbiglia’s first film, Sleepwalk with Me, though it’s been on my to-watch list for years.  Having now seen and enjoyed his second feature, Don’t Think Twice, I know I need to seek out Sleepwalk with Me without delay!  I knew of Mike Birbiglia from his stand-up comedy, and his (terrific) recurring role on Orange is the New Black.  That plus the stupendous cast Mr. Birbiglia assembled for Don’t Think Twice made this a film I was sure to track down in my end-of-2016 rush to see as many 2016 movies as I could before crafting my end-of-the-year “best-of” lists.

There is a lot of comedy in Don’t Think Twice, but this film isn’t really a comedy.  It’s an honest, painful-at-times look at the way that competition and envy can get in the way of art, and of human relationships.  Don’t Think Twice allows you to see the trainwreck-that-is-coming a mile away, which heightens its impact when it eventually arrives.  I spent much of the movie wishing the characters wouldn’t all behave the way they do.  I have great respect for how honest and human a story Mr. Birbiglia (who wrote and directed the film, in addition to starring in it) has created, how attentive he is to the way people talk and behave.

I love comedy and improv, and so I thoroughly enjoyed the behind-the-curtain glimpses Mr. Birbiglia’s film gives us to this world.  It’s thrilling getting to see the group perform on-stage, particularly at the beginning when we see them really on-fire, completely in-sync with one another.  It’s heartwarming to see the bonds of camaraderie formed by the members of this particular secret society, and heartbreaking to see how hard their lives are, having to work terrible low-level day-jobs and struggling to have enough money to live and to have a venue in which they can perform, all the while dreaming of fame and stardom on a show like Weekend Live.  

The cast is extraordinary.  Mr. Birbiglia kills it in the lead role, showing us all the ways in which his character Miles is an excellent improv artist but limited in other ways.  There’s something endearing about the way that Miles … [continued]

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Marvel’s Winning Streak Continues with Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2!

Like almost everyone else, I was blown away by Guardians of the Galaxy back in 2014, and I have been eagerly awaiting writer/director James Gunn’s follow-up.  Three years later, it’s here, and it does not disappoint.  Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is visually astounding, extremely funny, and the film finds a way to deepen our understanding of and affection for pretty much every single one of its large cast of characters.  I’m not sure what more anyone could want!

The film picks up a little while after the end of the first film, with the Guardians working as heroes-for-hire (see what I did there?).  But when Rocket double-crosses their golden-skinned, perfect-looking employers called the Sovereign, the Sovereign exact fierce retribution that leaves the Guardian’s ship (the Milano) destroyed and the gang marooned.  To the rescue arrives Ego, the celestial being who is, apparently, Peter Quill’s real father.  Quill soon finds himself torn between his biological father and his adopted family.  Meanwhile, all sorts of other enemies threaten to tear the motley Guardians crew apart.  Gamora’s sister Nebula tracks her down, seeking vengeance.  Rocket and Baby Groot find themselves captured by the Ravagers, who have mutinied against their former Captain Yondu.  And, in the end, once again, the fate of the galaxy rests in their unlikely hands.

Whereas the Marvel cinematic universe has made an art out of creating interconnected films, what’s remarkable about Guardians vol. 2 is how stand-alone it is.  Thanos is mentioned a few times as Gamora and Nebula fight about their shared torturous childhood being raised by that monster, but otherwise Guardians vol. 2 is surprisingly separate from the way the Marvel movies have been building towards Infinity War.  It’s a surprising choice, but it pays off well, allowing this film to be able to dig deeply into this cast of characters without having to sacrifice valuable time towards pitching future movies.

In the paragraph above, I described some of the film’s plot, but in another surprising choice, Guardians vol. 2 is pleasantly light on plot.  For the most part, the structure of this film is something of an extended “hang” with all of the characters who we loved so much in the first Guardians film.  Here, too, this could easily be a weakness, but James Gunn and his team turn it into a strength.  First of all, this cast of actors are so terrific, and they have created such wonderful characters, that it’s a joy just to watch them bounce off of one another.  There are a number of scenes in the film that have a somewhat “shaggy” feel, as if either at the writing stage or the performance stage, Mr. Gunn and this … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews Green Room

May 5th, 2017

Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner) are four teenagers in a punk band.  Almost completely out of money, they take a gig playing at a what turns out to be a ramshackle neo-Nazi skinhead bar deep in the woods of Oregon.  On their way out of the gig, Sam realizes she left her cell-phone back in the green room.  When Pat goes back to get it, he sees that there has just been a murder in the room.  The Nazis quickly lock the band-mates in the room, along with a friend of the dead girl, Amber (Imogen Poots), and call the bar’s owner, the apparent leader of that group of neo-Nazis, Darcy (Patrick Stewart).  What follows is an exercise in excruciating tension as the band-mates, trapped in the room with Nazi skinheads all around them, try to find some way out of their impossible predicament.

Green Room.cropped

Green Room was written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, who has crafted a true nail-biter of a film.  Mr. Saulnier slowly turns the screws on his characters, and the audience, until the tension is almost unbearable.  This is a tough film to watch — intentionally so.  The suspense is stomach-churning, and there are some moments of tough violence.  The film is a master class in suspense.  Mr. Saulnier cleverly confines the majority of the film to that one run-down bar and, in particular, to the one shoddy green room in which the band-mates find themselves trapped.  It’s a smart approach that pays off dividends.

Mr Saulnier has assembled a terrific cast of young people to play the kids trapped in the green room. The late Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) is wonderful as Pat.  Only Mr. Anton’s stardom hints that this particular band-member will step into center stage as the film progresses.  Mr Anton brings an innocence and sweetness to this punk rocker that is critical.  Watching this performance, I was once again flabbergasted and devastated that Mr. Yelchin is no longer with us.  What a tragedy.

I’ve been a fan of Alia Shawkat since Arrested Development, and she’s great here in a completely serious role as band-member Sam.  Ms. Shawkat is completely alive and present in the role; she brings a great energy and naturalism to her performance.

Then, of course, there is Patrick Stewart as the boss Nazi Darcy.  Mr. Stewart subsumed his usual kindly, father-figure persona to create a fearsome monster, one of the all-time great movie villains.  Darcy doesn’t have a shred of decency or human kindness in him.  To him, the kids in the band are just a problem that has to be made to go away, by any means necessary.  He … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews Sing Street

May 1st, 2017
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In Dublin in 1985, Conor is a quiet boy whose getting-divorced parents have moved him into a free Catholic school.  In this rough new school, Conor is lonely and bullied.  When he meets a beautiful girl, Raphina, Conor tries to impress her by telling her that he’s in a band, and he asks her to appear in one of their music videos.  When she agrees, Conor must now actually form the band he claimed already existed!  What follows is a lovely coming-of-age story as Conor tries to figure out just who he is and what he wants to be, all the while struggling with a group of newfound musician friends to create music that is actually good.

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Writer/director John Carney, who wrote and directed the marvelous film Once (which was then made into a Broadway show) returns with another fantastically entertaining music-centered film.  La La Land has gotten all the attention this year, and I really enjoyed that film, but Sing Street is, I think, the superior musical film.

Like Once, Sing Street is an endearingly low-budget, low-frills affair, with nary a famous movie-star in sight.  The only well-known actor in the film is Aidan Gillen (The Wire, Game of Thrones), who has a small role as Conor’s father.  But this isn’t a story that needs big swooping crane shots or famous movie-stars.  In fact, it’s perhaps more-effective as a far smaller-scale undertaking; the film’s rough edges give it a ramshackle charm.

Mr. Carney has assembled a wonderful cast of mostly unknown young actors.  I love all of these kids!  (And it’s great to see a film about teenagers in which the kids actually look and act like teenagers!!)  Ferdia Walsh-Piro is great in the lead role as Conor, with a gentleness and an earnestness that shines through the screen.

Conor’s best mate in the film is Eamon ( Mark McKenna), a talented musician.  I love the way the film depicts Conor and Eamon’s collaborating to write songs.  In the early going, I thought the film’s story was heading towards a feud between these two budding musicians for control over the direction of the band, with Eamon’s perhaps feeling that Conor’s infatuation with Raphina was a distraction.  That would have been an expected route for the story to take — thank heaven Mr. Carney didn’t go in that direction.  I love that the film depicts such a strong, unbroken friendship between these two boys.

The romance between Conor and Raphina (Lucy Boynton) is sweet and nicely underplayed, without too many BIG DRAMATIC MOMENTS.

I was surprised by the degree to which the film focused on Conor’s relationship with his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor).  Brendan was a terrific character, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project

Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project is a 2007 documentary film, focusing on comedian Don Rickles.  I’d wanted to see this film ever since it came out, but for one reason or another I’d never gotten around to it.  It’s a great irony to me that I finally watched this film last month, less than a week before Mr. Rickles passed away.

The film, directed by the great John Landis, is a wonderful portrait of an incredible comedian and artist.  Mr. Rickles is, of course, known as perhaps the greatest “insult” comic of all time, a comedian whose act is largely reliant on poking fun, mercilessly, at his audience.  Mr. Rickles’ material could easily be considered offensive or politically incorrect, but the enigma of Mr. Rickles was how people were not generally offended — how, in fact, people seemed to love being cut down by him!  Mr. Landis’ film looks back at Mr. Rickles’ life and work, giving us generous footage of the talented Mr. Rickles in action as well as a wealth of stories from those who knew him (and/or were made fun of by him at one point or another).

Mr. Landis himself pops up at the very beginning of the film, but then he steps back and allows his footage to do the talking.  As the film reconstructs the story of Don Rickles’ career in film, TV, and on stage, we see a wonderful array of archival material showing us Mr. Rickles’ work from across the decades.  These clips are often accompanied by fascinating commentary by Mr. Rickles’ co-workers.  (How great is the footage of Clint Eastwood talking about Mr. Rickles’ film work??)  In particular, I truly enjoyed the clips of Mr. Rickles on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.  It’s very endearing to see the playful bond the two men shared on-camera.

We also get to see significant footage from Mr. Rickles’ Las Vegas act from the mid-aughts when the film was being put together.  (I don’t believe Mr. Rickles had ever before allowed his stage show to be recorded.)  It’s incredible to see the way the elderly Mr. Rickles would burst into life the moment he stepped on stage.

The film is packed with famous faces, and it’s a lot of fun hearing from the likes of Bob Newhart, Sidney Poitier, Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal, Penn Jillette, Roger Corman, Richard Lewis, Larry King, Chris Rock, the Smothers Brothers, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, and many, many more.  I also love that the film also cuts back to Mr. Rickles himself to give his (usually dismissive) response to their commentary.  It’s good for a film about a very funny man to be put together with its own sense … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

April 10th, 2017
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In Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Andy Samberg stars as Conner Friel.  Conner used to be “Kid Conner” in a popular three-person group, the Style Boyz, along with Lawrence “Kid Brain” Dunn (Akiva Schaffer) and Owen “Kid Contact” Bouchard (Jorma Taccone).  But the group broke up, and while two of the boys faded into obscurity, Andy Samberg’s “Kid Conner” morphed himself into Conner4Real and became a global superstar.  But while Conner is on the top of the world at the start of the film, as you can imagine, things are about to come crashing down around the ears of the oblivious, self-absorbed and self-obsessed superstar.

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This film didn’t make much of an impact when it was released this year, but I thought it was terrific.  This is Spinal Tap is the first and last word on fake, funny music documentaries, but Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping finds a lot of places to mine for big laughs in this parody of modern pop silliness.

I’m not that familiar with the Lonely Island team, but all three members do great work here in this film.  Andy Samberg has demonstrated his movie-star chops in films like Celeste and Jesse Forever, and these days he is doing fantastic work every week on the terrific Brooklyn 99.  He’s effortless in bringing Conner to life.  Mr. Samberg is incredibly skilled at playing charming and self-absorbed, and his comedic timing is incredible.  I was less familiar with the other two members of the Lonely Island team, but both Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone do absolutely terrific work.  They’re both so funny and so invested in their characters.  All three men have an extraordinary chemistry together, and Popstar works as well as it does because of the wonderful rapport that the three leads have with one another.  It’s a pleasure to see them on screen together.

Beyond the three leads, there is a wealth of spectacular comedic actors who appear in supporting roles.  This film’s cast is a king’s ransom of riches.  Tim Meadows is slyly hysterical as Conner’s manager, while Sarah Silverman plays it very deadpan as Conner’s publicist.  Bill Hader gets big laughs in a few small scenes as a bumbling roadie.  The great Joan Cusack only has a few moments as Conner’s mom, but boy is it great to see her on-screen as always.  Imogen Poots is fun as Conner’s girlfriend Wednesday, and Justin Timberlake kills as Conner’s chef.  Will Arnett, Will Forte, Maya Rudolph, Kevin Nealon, Mike Birbiglia, Chelsea Peretti, and many other familiar faces pop up throughout the film.

Then there are also a million famous faces from the music world who all appear as themselves.  Snoop Dogg, Questlove, RZA, 50 Cent, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Live Action Beauty and the Beast

I am not sure what to make of Disney Studios’ apparent desire to remake every single one of their animated films into a live action version. I wasn’t interested in Cinderella, nor did I see 101 Dalmatians.  I did see Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, as I was drawn by the CGI spectacle, and I quite enjoyed it.  When I heard that a live action Beauty and the Beast was in the works, I had some interest because I love the original animated film.  (I remember going to see it when it first came out, on a trip with a high school film class, and being blown away by the film.)  So I was intrigued by the idea of a new version, but also as perplexed as I am any time Hollywood decides to remake a great film.  I can understand remaking bad movies, in an attempt to spin a failed concept or execution into a more successful undertaking, but what is to be gained by remaking an already great movie?

This new version of Beauty and the Beast is an interesting exploration of that question.  On the one hand, I freely admit that this new version is terrific.  I have a lot of great things to say about it, all of which I will get into in just a moment.  But is it better than the original film?  Not in my opinion.  It’s just different.  It’s an extraordinarily well-crafted piece of work, and I had a heck of a lot of fun watching it on a humongous IMAX screen.  But after seeing it, I have been wondering, what was the point?  Why did so many people work so hard for so many years just to remake an already great film?

Perhaps I should say “recreate” rather than “remake,” as this new Beauty and the Beast hews extremely faithfully to the original film.  There are a few tweaks here and there.  They delved a little bit more into the Beast and Belle’s backstories; they changed the character of Belle’s father Maurice a bit; they tweaked Belle’s involvement with the other villagers; they gave the Beast a new song; etc.  But whereas The Jungle Book was a far more complete reinvention of the story, one that took full advantage of what modern CGI can do, this film uses modern CGI not to reinvent the original movie but rather to recreate it as faithfully as they could.  What changes have been made to the original film’s story are entirely superficial.  (I read a LOT in the press, in advance of this film’s release, about the changes made to Belle’s backstory, how she was now more of a fighter for the other … [continued]

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Days of De Palma: Conclusions

A while back, I decided it would be fun to watch through the filmography of Brian De Palma.  I had previously seen a number of films directed by Mr. De Palma, such as Scarface, Mission: Impossible, The Untouchables, and Snake Eyes.  I’d enjoyed those films, but it had been a while since I’d last seen any of them.  I knew that Mr. De Palma was a controversial filmmaker, loved by some critics and movie fans, and dismissed by others.  I was eager to make a judgment for myself, and also to watch some famous films (like Blow Out) that I had never before seen.

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It took me a while longer than I’d thought to finish this project.  But I’m glad I stuck with it.  I had quite a lot of fun making my way through Mr. De Palma’s impressively varied filmography.  While I quickly discovered that Mr. De Palma has a variety of stylistic devices that he enjoys employing in many/most of his films (long, uncut tracking shots; deep focus shots, in which characters in both the foreground and the background ate both in focus; and P.O.V. shots), I was even more impressed to learn that he did not limit himself to any one type of genre.  More than almost any other filmmaker I can think of, Mr. De Palma allowed himself to direct a vast array of different types of movies: science fiction stories, gangster stories, period pieces, horror/thrillers, goofy comedies, and more.  I don’t think Mr. De Palma was entirely successful in all of these different genres (I did not have much patience for his supposed “comedies” like Wise Guys), but I was incredibly impressed at his exploration of different types of movies.

Very quickly in to this project, it was clear to me that Mr. De Palma possessed a phenomenal mastery of the cinematic form.  His ability to incorporate creative, innovative shot-design, editing techniques, and other unusual stylistic devices (such as those I listed in the previous paragraph) into every one of his films blew me away.  (This was clear to me right away in Carrie In Noah Baumbach’s wonderful documentary De Palma, Mr. De Palma recounts how the studio was mystified by the complicated panning shot Mr. De Palma had set up to establish the bucket of blood up in the rafters.  Why was he taking so much time to set up such a bizarre, elaborate shot?  Why not just cut to a quick shot of the bucket of blood?  But Mr. De Palma’s genius lay in his understanding of how this long, complicated tracking shot would allow the audience to fully understand the geography of the room, who was where and what … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Kong: Skull Island

In 1973, as the United States forces leave Vietnam, a group of soldiers are assigned to what is supposed to be a geological expedition.  Unfortunately, it turns out their mission is at the behest of U.S. government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman), who is attempting to prove his theory that giant monsters exist.  Turns out he’s right, and he has led his unfortunate group to Skull Island, home of King Kong and lots of creatures that are even worse.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film Kong: Skull Island is a fun, clever reinvention of the King Kong mythos.  The film is part Apocalypse Now, part monster movie, part multi-character ensemble drama.  It has some intense action beats and some moments of great comedy.  Skull Island is a robust mixture of a lot of different influences and elements, and somehow it all comes together to create an enjoyable, modern take on King Kong, a character originated in 1933.

I write “modern” take, though I was surprised that the film is actually a period piece.  The prologue is set in 1944, and the rest of the film takes place in 1973.  I love this choice.  The film has a slightly retro look that differentiates it from other recent monster movies, and the post-Vietnam setting winds up being a perfect opportunity for the film to explore some interesting character beats.  (This isn’t a film that dives too deeply into any characters, which is the film’s main weakness, but the post-Vietnam setting is effectively used as a shorthand to help create a bunch of interesting characters even though the film doesn’t really take the time to explore most of them.)

Mr. Vogt-Roberts’ film is gorgeous.  There are some extraordinary visual effects, no surprise.  Kong himself is magnificently realized.  From the trailers, I was uncertain by the decision to make Kong so enormous, but it works in the film.  This behemoth-sized Kong has quite a different feel from Peter Jackson’s 2005 film.  But in this film’s entirely different setting, it works.  Kong is referred to repeatedly as a god, and this mammoth Kong has that feeling.  The CGI effects that brought him to life are terrific, equally effective when we are looking into Kong’s eyes in extreme close-up or watching him throw down with enormous other hideous creatures.  Tremendous credit must go to Terry Notary, whose motion-capture work was the heart of Kong’s performance.  (Mr. Notary has been doing great work at creating characters in fantasy spectacles for many years now.  I first became familiar with his work from watching the behind-the-scenes documentaries on the DVDs of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.)

The film includes a number of sequences of rip-roaring monster mayhem.  The intro to … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews Weiner

March 24th, 2017

For some, inexplicable-to-me reason, back in 2013, disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner allowed a documentary crew full access to himself, his family, and his political team during his campaign for the Democratic nomination to be the Mayor of New York City.  Mr. Weiner’s attempt at political resuscitation came crashing down around his ears in spectacular fashion when, a few weeks into the campaign, new sexting scandals came to light. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s incredible documentary chronicles Mr. Weiner’s entire campaign, from the declaration of his candidacy in May, 2013, to his ignominious finish in September, 2013, in which he wound up in fifth place in the New York Democratic primary, having received only 4.9% of the vote.

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It’s remarkable that this film exists.  That Mr. Weiner would allow these cameras into his life and office and home, AND that he would continue to allow it after the second sexting scandal broke, is somewhat mind-boggling.  Mr. Kriegman and Ms. Steinberg’s cameras were given incredible access throughout the campaign.  The result is a film that is an intimate, you-can’t-look-away story of personal and professional catastrophe.  There’s something quite mesmerizing about it.  It’s a fascinating how-the-sausage-is-made look behind the scenes of a modern political campaign, and a devastating story of a very flawed man destroying himself.  It’s exhilarating and terrifying, funny and deeply sad.

Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg have crafted a remarkable film that has so much to say about the political and human realities of our current age.  Anthony Weiner strikes me as a man of great talent and charisma who was undone by his own failings, his hubris and his ego and his addiction to technology.  When Mr. Weiner was a young, on-the-rise star of the democratic party, his youth and his ability to connect with voters, and his use of social media technology like twitter, were critical skills in his toolbox that he wielded to great success.  That same social media technology was intimately involved in his fall.  (It’s hard not to draw a connection between Anthony Weiner’s twitter obsession, for good and for ill, and that of our current President.)  And what a fall.  After the tremendous humiliation of the initial scandal that forced Mr. Weiner to resign from Congress and remain in what he calls in the film “a defensive crouch” for two years, this second humiliation and abject failure is hard to believe and unpleasant to watch.  Whether you agree or disagree with Mr. Weiner’s political leanings, his public disgrace as chronicled in this film is gruesome to behold.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Weiner is not just the film’s inside-look at Anthony Weiner himself, but also at his then-wife Huma Abedin.  As … [continued]

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Josh Reviews A United Kingdom

A United Kingdom tells the true story of the marriage between Sir Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams.  The two meet at university in London in 1947, and sparks quickly fly between them.  But Seretse is the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland, and the political ramifications of his marrying a white woman are enormous.  Seretse’s uncle Tshekedi Kham, who was acting ruler of Bechuanaland until Seretse returned home, insists that Seretse annul the marriage. Meanwhile, Ruth’s father refuses to have anything more to do with her, because she had married a black man.  And the British Government, who at the time controlled Bechuanaland as a protectorate, bow to pressure from Apartheid South Africa — who objected to the interracial marriage — and exile Seretse, preventing him from returning home to be with his now-pregnant wife.

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This is a fascinating true story. I feel about A United Kingdom similarly to how I felt about Hidden Figures, in that this extraordinary true story deserves a better movie.

The main reason to see A United Kingdom, other than to learn about this amazing true story, is to bask in the wonderful performances of David Oyelowo as Seretse and Rosamund Pike as Ruth.  Both actors do terrific work, and they have a lovely chemistry together.

Mr. Oyelowo is working in a similar key as he was in Selma, in which he was extraordinary as Martin Luther King Jr.  He is just as good here, playing the charismatic Seretse.  The characters are different, of course, but the similarities are striking, particularly when Mr. Oyelowo, as Seretse, launched into several moments of stirring oration in the second half of the film.  I love seeing Mr. Oyelowo deliver a speech.

I’ve been a fan of Ms. Pike’s ever since Die Another Day, a terrible Bond movie in which she was nonetheless terrific.  I’ve enjoyed seeing Ms. Pike’s recent run of high-profile roles, and she effortlessly carries her half of this movie.  She’s skillfully able to draw the audience into her character.  The film tells a fairly simple story, at its heart — Ruth is the “every-girl” swept up in a larger adventure when she falls in love with a king.  Ms. Pike is able to find the emotional truth in her scenes, and to breathe life into her story.

The problem with A United Kingdom is that the movie is fairly flat.  There’s not much excitement or dramatic tension in the film.  When you compare the film to Selma, it falls far short.  A United Kingdom has none of the riveting drama that film had in spades.  I enjoyed the early goings-on in which Ruth and Seretse meet and fall in love.  But then the … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years

March 15th, 2017
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The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years is a new documentary by Ron Howard, focusing on The Beatles’ whirlwind years spent touring all over the globe between 1962 and 1966.  I’m a huge Beatles fan, so I was immediately interested in this film, even as I wondered whether this documentary would have anything new to say.  I’ve been a Beatles fan all my life, and I’ve read a number of books and seen a lot of Beatles documentaries, including the extraordinarily thorough multi-part Beatles Anthology, so I’m pretty well-versed in Beatles lore.  And yet I was gripped by this film from the first moment to the last.  Part of this is the magic of The Beatles themselves, but it’s also a testament to the work done by Ron Howard and his team.

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There is, of course, a lot of familiar, famous footage included in the film.  Some of the concert footage, some of the interviews, are well-known to Beatles fans.  But there is also a surprising amount of great stuff I hadn’t seen before.

What’s particularly notable about the film is the way Mr. Howard and his team focused in on the Beatles touring performances, presenting a wealth of footage chronologically so as to take us step-by-step through the Beatles’ various tours.  This is a fascinating approach, and it captures for the audience a taste of the feeling of being on that insane ride.

We get to hear from Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr in new interviews, while John Lennon and George Harrison are represented through older interview footage.  The new interviews are great, with some substantial new insight, and I was happy with the way the older footage and sound-bytes were used to make certain that John and George were represented in the film equal to Paul and Ringo.

There are also some great new interviews with famous Beatles fans, including Curtis Hanson, Elvis Costello, Whoopi Goldberg, and Sigourney Weaver. These aren’t just “hey look it’s a celebrity!” sound-bytes.  No, these interviews were well-chosen as each of the celebrities speaking has an interesting story to tell or something substantial to contribute to the film and the chronicle of events that Mr. Howard is weaving.  Some of these celebrity interview moments were, surprisingly, among my favorite moments in the film!  (I don’t know how they found that shot of a young Sigourney in the crowd at one of the Beatles’ concerts, but someone deserves a raise.)

I also have to highlight the phenomenal sequence in which various snippets of studio chatter were edited together to chart the development of the song Eight Days A Week.  Those were a super-cool few minutes, and a great peek into the … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 20): De Palma (2015)

I feel like Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary De Palma was made just for me.

As I was finishing my lengthy “Days of De Palma” project of watching all of the films directed by Brian De Palma, I learned of the existence of this documentary.  Oh my god!  How perfect!  I decided I needed to wait until I finished my re-watch project before I’d watch the documentary, but as soon as I finished watching 2012’s Passion (the final film released, so far, by Mr. De Palma), I immediately turned to this documentary.  To say that I loved it would be an enormous understatement.

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This documentary, simply titled De Palma, is unlike almost any other documentary I have ever seen.  There’s no array of talking-head interview subjects, no fancy graphics, no complicated narrative.  The set-up is deceptively simple.  The documentary is just an extended interview with Mr. De Palma, who is sitting and talking directly into the camera.  The interview looks like it was filmed on two or three different occasions.  Mr. De Palma talks a little bit about his background and upbringing, but for the most part De Palma is simply a film-by-film retrospective of Mr. De Palma’s long and storied career.  Film by film, in chronological order, we move through Mr. De Palma’s filmography.  We watch clips from the films and listen to Mr. De Palma’s many fascinating stories about the making of those films.

That’s it!  That’s the whole documentary!  It’s like the ultimate DVD special feature for a (nonexistent) box-set collecting all of Mr. De Palma’s movies.

What a perfect, extraordinary film for me to watch after having just watched all of Mr. De Palma’s movies!!

This film was amazing.  It works because a) Mr. De Palma has made so many great movies over the years, and b) because Mr. De Palma turns out to be a wonderful storyteller.  It is a tremendous joy listening to him spin yarn after yarn as he recounts his experiences, good and bad, in Hollywood.  The film feels intimate, like Mr. De Palma is a good friend and we’re just sitting around together, shooting the shit and reminiscing.

The film is filled to overflowing with fantastic stories about Mr. De Palma’s experiences over the course of his career.  We learn that he and George Lucas cast Carrie and Star Wars together.  We hear a terrific story about a young De Palma having to find a way to work with the great Orson Welles who was unable or unwilling to learn his lines.  We learn that events in Dressed to Kill were inspired by Mr. De Palma’s actual experiences, as a young man, of learning that his father was cheating and … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews The Neon Demon

In Nicolas Winding Refn’s film The Neon Demon, Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a sixteen year-old pretending she’s nineteen, looking to make it as a model in Los Angeles.  Jesse’s beauty renders all of the men around her smitten and all of the women around her jealous. Things don’t end well.

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The Neon Demon is a truly bizarre film, gorgeous to look at but empty of character depth or anything resembling a narrative arc.

There is a plethora of memorable, gorgeous imagery in the film. Mr. Refn and cinematographer Natasha Briaer can compose a staggeringly beautiful frame.  There is imagery in this film that has stuck with me in the days since I saw it.  For that alone Mr. Refn and his team are certainly deserving of praise.

It’s interesting to me that this film about fashion and the fixation on beautiful women, and the idea of a woman as a beautiful image and little more, is itself a film filled to overflowing with beautiful imagery but one that stubbornly refuses to allow us access into any of the characters. I assume this was by design, which for me renders the film an interesting intellectual exercise but not a film that I really enjoyed.  I wish we’d been allowed to know or understand what was going on beneath the surface of Jesse (Elle Fanning), Ruby (Jenna Malone), Sarah (Abbey Lee, from Mad Max Fury Road) or Gigi (Bella Heathcote).  The film keeps all of them at a distance, as beautiful but unknowable objects.

There is a dreamy, hallucinogenic air to the film.  It is hard to know what is real and what is fantasy.  (The Neon Demon reminds me in this respect somewhat of Black Swan. Both are about women competing in an intense field that focuses on a near-unattainable perfection of beauty, and both feature twists into unreality and hallucination.  But where Black Swan succeeded both as an interesting character study and as a riveting thriller, The Neon Demon is neither.)

Elle Fanning has come a long way from Super 8; her acting skill and movie-star charisma has only grown.  She is well-cast in the lead role, and there are some moments of incredible performance that show us what a talent she is.  For instance, there’s a moment at a photo-shoot when the inexperienced Jesse is asked to undress by a photographer she wants to impress.  We watch the whole scene play out on Ms. Fanning’s face in extreme close-up, as she goes through a range of emotions, and it is quite extraordinary.

As I noted above, the film is filled with riveting imagery.  That opening shot of Jesse at a photo shoot, lying in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Logan

March 6th, 2017
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It’s hard to believe that Hugh Jackman has been playing the character of Wolverine for almost twenty years now.  Mr. Jackman’s casting was one of the many minor miracles that made Bryan Singer’s original X-Men film from 2000 such a wonderful revelation.  It’s easy these days to bash Mr. Singer’s work on the X-Men franchise.  His latest X-Men film, X-Men Apocalypse, was a big misfire, and with Marvel Studios showing how successfully faithful adaptations of their characters can translate to the screen, it’s easy to slam the ways Mr. Singer’s X-Men films have, for the most part, eschewed many of the familiar tropes and story-lines from the comics.  But let’s not forget what a revelation that first X-Men film was, how thrilling it was to see these comic-book characters treated more like speculative fiction than superhero fantasy, with complex, fully-fleshed-out characters and real-world settings.  It blew my mind when I first saw it, and I still think that first film holds up well today.  Mr. Singer’s eye for casting was amazing, and it’s exciting to see two of those perfectly-cast actors, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, bring these characters’ stories to a close two decades later, here in James Mangold’s dark, violent, riveting new film Logan.

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Logan, set in 2029, shows us a world in which mutants have all but vanished from the Earth.  The X-Men are gone (their ultimate fate a tragedy gradually hinted at as the film unfolds).  Logan is no longer the Wolverine.  He’s a physical wreck, his healing factor no longer able to restore his body from all the grievous injuries it has sustained over the years, no longer able to save Logan from being slowly poisoned from within by the adamantium bonded to his bones.  Logan lives a day-to-day existence as a driver, trying to earn enough money needed for the drugs he needs for Professor X.  Xavier, in possession of the most powerful mutant mind on the planet, is slowly succumbing to dementia, and without drugs to keep him subdued, his seizures could kill everyone around him.  Logan and the former mutant-hunter Caliban care for Professor X as best as they can, hidden away in an isolated stretch of desert.  When Logan learns of the existence of a young, mute mutant girl, the Professor urges him to help her escape the men chasing after her.  The Professor sees a chance for them to once again take action to help mutants and to make the world a better place, but Logan sees only the potential for more death and terror.  Eventually, they are given no choice in the matter, and events build from there to the film’s gutsy ending.

Logan is extraordinary, an intense, … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2016: Deadpool

I skipped Deadpool when it was released in theatres earlier this year.  I was impressed that Ryan Reynolds had gotten his passion project made, and super-impressed that Fox had the guts to release an R-rated superhero film (and, even more, one that was directly connected to their X-Men film franchise).  And yet, I’d never been much of a fan of the Deadpool character (I am an old enough comic book geek that I was reading and bought Deadpool’s first appearance in New Mutants #98 when it was first published back in 1991) and it didn’t look like the humor of the film was up my alley.  So I passed.  Still, I’d heard such good things about the film that, towards the end of 2016 as I tried to catch up with as many notable films of the year as possible, I decided to give it a try.

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I certainly enjoyed the film, and having watched it I am even more impressed that Ryan Reynolds and director Tim Miller were able to get this profane, violent super-hero film made.  But I also see that my earlier instincts were correct, and the violent and profane tone of the film wasn’t one that really spoke to me.  There were certainly plenty of jokes in the film that made me laugh — either because they were just plain funny, or because I was so shocked and impressed that such an envelope-pushing moment had made it into the film — but also just as many moments that fell flat for me.  All the violence and cursing and references to masturbation felt juvenile.  While I can see why so many people love this film, it’s not really for me.

There is no question that this is a near-perfect depiction of the comic book character.  Deadpool looks (the costume is spectacular) and sounds great (Ryan Reynolds truly was born to play this character).  His fourth-wall-busting address-the-audience nature has been preserved, thankfully, and the film is just as over-the-top violent and crazy as his best comic-book adventures.  There aren’t many second-chances in show business, so after the character was so spectacularly botched in the no good, horrible, very bad X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it’s pretty magical that, so many years later, Ryan Reynolds was given the opportunity to reprise the character and to do it right.

Right from the very silly opening credits (and bravo on the reference to Deadpool creator Rob Liefeld right there at the top), the filmmakers set the tone that this was going to be a very silly, borderline disrespectful take on a superhero film.  What’s impressive about Tim Miller’s achievement is that he is able to marry that tone with a film that … [continued]

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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.

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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]

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Josh Reviews Moonlight

February 20th, 2017
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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.

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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]

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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews Hell or High Water

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.

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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]

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Josh Reviews Live by Night

February 13th, 2017
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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.

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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]

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Josh Reviews Hidden Figures

February 3rd, 2017
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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.

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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]

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Josh Reviews Jackie

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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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Josh Reviews Passengers

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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 ea