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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 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.


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 Thor: The Dark World

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

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

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

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From the DVD Shelf: Your Highness

In the DVD’s special features, Zooey Deschannel describes the film Your Highness as a dirty version of The Princess Bride, and I’d say that’s as good a description as any for this very profane, very funny fantasy film.

I won’t call it a spoof, because Your Highness isn’t out to make fun of the conventions of fantasy films.  Rather, Your Highness is an unabashed fantasy adventure, albeit one in which the main character is totally out of place in this sort of film!  That’s the genesis of the film’s comedy.

Danny McBride plays Prince Thadeous, a pampered, cowardly fellow who has been forever living in the shadow of his more heroic brother, Prince Fabious (a perfectly-cast James Franco).  Fabious is the sort of young hero who is usually at the heart of these sorts of tales, but it’s Thadeous who is thrust into the spotlight when his brother’s fiancee Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel) is kidnapped by the evil wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux).

The film is a terrific spotlight for Mr. McBride’s specific brand of foul-mouthed, man-child energy.  He’s enormously endearing even while being extraordinarily selfish and crude.  Mr. Franco also is given a real chance to shine in the role, reminding me of the exquisite comedic chops he displayed back in Freaks and Geeks. Fabious could have been a boring straight-man character, but Mr. Franco brings a gleeful energy and over-the-top chippiness to all of his scenes, making Fabious just as entertaining as his brother.

I’ve never heard of Rasmus Hardiker before, but he’s quite funny as Thadeous’ faithful man-servant Courtney, who dutifully accompanies Thadeous and Fabious on their quest.  Equally entertaining is the great Toby Jones’ as Fabious’ far-less-faithful servant Julie.  Director David Gordon Green comments, in the special features, at how he thought the comedy would work best if the ridiculous elements were surrounded by the best, most serious actors he could find — the actors who would be cast in the “serious” version of this film — and watching Toby Jones, Charles Dance (most recently seen as Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones), and Damian Lewis (Lt. Winters from Band of Brothers) act their hearts out in the film only makes the story’s lunacy that much crazier.

Speaking of acting their hearts out, Justin Theroux knocks it out of the park as the wizard Leezar.  Mr. Theroux has popped up, as an actor, in places as disparate as Zoolander, Miami Vice, John Adams, Parks and Recreation, and (most notably to me) as the Werner Herzog-esque host of the Tropic Thunder faux making-of documentary DVD special feature Rain of Madness (click here to learn more about what the heck I’m talking about).  He’s also a solid … [continued]

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Although Thor doesn’t come close to equalling some of the amazing super-hero films we’ve been blessed with over the past several years (the first Iron Man, which kicked off this current run of inter-connected Marvel films, The Dark Knight, the first two X-Men films, and the first two Spider-Man films), it is a WAY better film version of the character of Thor and his mythos than I EVER would have imagined possible.

Despite by being a huge comic book fan and a Marvel Zombie since I was a kid, I never read the Thor comic regularly.  I always thought Thor was great as part of the ensemble of The Avengers, but his solo title never captured my interest.  And when Marvel announced, after the huge success of Iron Man, that they were working on a film version of Thor (as part of a series of films that would build up to The Avengers), I was dubious.  The recent Marvel films had worked so well in large part because they were fairly grounded.  Sure, Iron Man wound up with two guys in huge metal suits punching each other, but the filmmakers and the actors took pains to ground the story in the real world (and to give the characters human, real-world motivations and emotions).  I think that was a big part of the film’s success.  Same goes with the Spidey films and the X-Men films (which, for example, cast off most of the more colorful aspects of the comics — like the yellow spandex costumes).

But Thor? The Thor comic books are all about a big guy who is ACTUALLY A NORSE GOD and speaks in archaic language (a lot of “thees” and “thous”) and who has crazy adventures with other gods or god-like characters.  How could that possibly be achieved in a film that wouldn’t feel painfully small-scale (without the budget or the resources to properly achieve the epic scale of Thor’s cosmic adventures as seen in the comics) and/or feel totally ridiculously silly.

And yet, somehow, director Kenneth Branagh managed to pull off a film that, for the most part, works really well and is enjoyable both as a film in its own right and as a key stepping-stone towards The Avengers.  This is an impressive achievement and a pretty fun time at the movies!

As with Iron Man, the film’s biggest success lies in it’s casting.  There are other things that one can pick at about Thor (and I will of course do so momentarily), but I think the casting is pretty much spot-on perfect.  Chris Hemsworth (so great as James T. Kirk’s doomed dad in the opening scenes of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek[continued]

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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Black Swan

I’m not really sure quite how to put this so I’ll just go ahead and say it:

Black Swan freaked me the fuck out.

And I pretty much loved every second of it.

The one-two punch of The Fountain and The Wrestler have made me a big, big fan of Darren Aronofsky, and with Black Swan he’s pretty much made me a fan for life.  Black Swan is one of the most viscerally engaging experiences I’ve had in a movie theatre in quite a while.  The film is intense and erotic and gruesome and it grabbed me by the guts and never let go.  It only squeezed harder as the film built to the absolutely wonderfully madcap insane final twenty-or-so minutes.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is cast as the lead in her theatre company’s new production of Swan Lake.  The company’s director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), knows that Nina has the technical perfection to play the White Swan half of the role, but he worries that her dancing is too cold, too polished, for her to embody the more sensual Black Swan half.  As Nina pushes herself harder and harder to satisfy Thomas, things start to fall apart for her in a big way.

Right from the beginning, Mr. Aronofsky and his team establish a creepy vibe for the film.  Nina is clearly an extremely tightly wound creature, so one immediately knows that the pressure of the starring role might be trouble.  This concern is only magnified when we’re given a glimpse of her home life.  Nina still lives with her mother (played by Barbara Hershey), and it’s clear that the two have a very weird relationship in which Nina seems to be extraordinarily infantilized.  For example, her little room is decked out with stuffed animals and other pink, frilly things as if she were as seven year-old girl.  There’s a great scene in which Nina is reluctant to eat a cake that her mom has bought her to celebrate her being given the lead role in Swan Lake, and her mom’s extreme reaction to this minor rejection clearly indicates that this co-dependant relationship is fraught with problems.

As the tension and pressure on Nina builds, things get creepier and weirder.  The film really plays with the notions of reality.  We never quite know if what we’re seeing is real or just in Nina’s head.  There are a few really quick, subtle visual effects shots that are dropped in at just the right moments to give the audience (and Nina!) a jolt.  Mr. Aronofsky’s camerawork also serves to keep the audience on our toes.  We’re continually pushed right up close to the characters’ faces.  The cinematography really keeps the … [continued]

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Attack of the Phantom! Josh has seen a brilliant fan edit of Star Wars: Episode II!

Earlier this year I wrote about The Phantom Edit of Star Wars: Episode I.  Michael Nichols was a fan of Star Wars who, like sane people world-wide, was tremendously disappointed with Episode I when it was released in 1999.  While the rest of us just whined to our friends, Mr. Nichols set out to see if some thoughtful re-editing of the material could shape a more successful film out of Episode I’s lengthy, bloated run-time.  As I discussed at length in my review, in my opinion Mr. Nichols succeeded wildly.  On the one hand, the film is still Episode I, and there’s only so much one can do with that story that, really didn’t need to be told.  On the other hand, by skillfully tightening up scenes, removing large swaths of dull and useless exposition, and cutting down much of the juvenile humor, Nichols was able to craft a much more dynamic narrative from the film.

When I read that he had also taken a pass at Episode II, I was ecstatic.  I was able to get my hands on his fan-edit last month, and as with his Phantom Edit of Episode I, I enjoyed it thoroughly!

Once again, Mr. Nichols demonstrates how a small trim (by removing just one line of dialogue) can really change the feeling of a scene for the better.  Let me give two examples.  In the opening sequence, after Amidala lands her ship on Coruscant, her bodyguard Captain Typho jogs up to her and says “We made it.  I guess I was wrong, there was no danger after all.”  Then, of course, Amidala’s ship explodes.  Typho’s dumb line takes all the air out of the scene — instead of it being a SHOCK when Amidala’s ship is destroyed, the audience is primed for something bad to happen by Typho’s ridiculous declaration.  So Nichols just snips out Typho’s line.  The queen lands her ship, steps onto the platform, and then BOOM.  Much more exciting moment.  Example number two takes place soon after, when Amidala enters Chancellor Palpatine’s office.  Yoda gives her a creepy greeting: “Seeing you alive brings warm feelings to my heart.”  OK, ew.  That bizarre line slams that scene to a halt, in my mind, as the audience tries to not think about what else of Yoda’s is warmed by seeing Natalie Portman.  So Nichols eliminates the line.  Amidala enters, and gets right down to business.  Much better.

As in his cut of Episode I, Nichols also removes most of the more juvenile and dumbed-down elements of the story.  Do you remember, with pain, all of the ridiculousness of C-3PO getting his head placed on the body of … [continued]

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Unlearn What You have Learned: Looking back on Star Wars: Episode I

There’s a weird phenomenon that affects me sometimes (and I know I’m not alone in this) where I so fall in love with a story, or a group of characters, that I will watch those characters even in something really really bad.

I know Star Trek V is a terrible movie.  Terrible.  The story is weak (A search for God?  Spock suddenly has a half-brother?), the special effects are terrible (the ending really suffers…and compare the Bird of Prey shots with the much superior effects in Star Trek III made several years earlier), and the beloved characters are treated very poorly (Uhura’s “fan dance,” Scotty knocking himself out in an Enterprise corridor, navigators Checkov and Sulu getting lost in the woods, and, oh yeah, Kirk, Spock, and Bones singing “row, row, row your boat”).  And yet I so love those characters, that every now and then I’ll watch Star Trek V, somehow hoping that this time I’ll find something I sort of like about it.

This is also what happens with me and Episode I.  I’ve probably seen the movie 6 or 7 times now.  (About every 2 or 3 years I’ll make my way through all the Star Wars movies, usually in the order they were made:  Episodes IV-VI, and then I-III.)  And always I sort of hope that maybe this time I’ll be able to focus on the positives about Star Wars: Episode I.  The visuals are, mostly, pretty sweet.  I like Watto.  Darth Maul is cool.  The climactic three-way lightsaber battle is pretty dynamite.

But its hard to get over just how boring the movie is.  For a movie called Star WARS, there’s not a heck of a lot of action to be had.  Just a lot of talking.  There’s a terrific assemblage of actors – a far stronger ensemble, I would argue, than in the OT.  Ewan McGreggor.  Qui-Gon Jin.  Natalie Portman.  Terrence Stamp.  Ian McDiarmid.  These are fine actors, and they are WASTED.  And that’s what’s most frustrating to me about Episode I (and, frankly, the entire prequel trilogy). It just seems like such a wasted opportunity.  I wanted to see more of the Jedi in their prime – kicking ass and taking names.  I wanted to learn more about the Sith.  (In one of Darth Maul’s few lines of dialogue, he speaks of having his revenge against the Jedi.  Revenge for what?  What happened between the Jedi and the Sith thousands of years ago?  How did the Sith now return?)  Most of all, I just wanted another fun, exciting chapter in the space adventure series that I grew up loving.

And it still sort of bums me out that that’s … [continued]