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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 Office Christmas Party

December 14th, 2016
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Josh (Jason Bateman) helps run the Chicago-based branch of a tech company, Zenotech, overseen by his friend Clay (T.J. Miller).  The branch is doing OK, but Clay’s rivalry with his sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston), just appointed as the company’s C.E.O., leads her to threaten to close down Clay’s branch if they are not able to land a big new client.  When Josh and Clay and their head of tech Tracey (Olivia Mann)’s pitch to a large financial firm fails, they come up with a last-ditch scheme: they invite the financial firm’s representative Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance) to come to their office Christmas party so that he can bond with them and see how Zenotech is filled with good people with whom he’d want to work.  So, although Carol had announced that the Christmas party was cancelled, seeing it as a waste of money, Clay decides to pull out all the stops and throw the biggest party his company has ever seen.  Of course, lots of things go wrong and the Zenotech office Christmas party quickly grows into a wild bacchanal and ever-escalating chaos.

OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY

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

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

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

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Josh Reviews X-Men: Apocalypse

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

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“What Kind of Day Has it Been” — Josh Bids Farewell to The Newsroom

I have enormous respect for the talent and skill of Aaron Sorkin.  He has written the screenplay for some of my very favorite movies (A Few Good Men tops the list, but I also love The Social Network, Charlie Wilson’s War, Moneyball, and many others), and he is responsible for two of my very favorite TV shows of all time (Sports Night and The West Wing).  His third TV show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, didn’t connect with viewers or critics and was cancelled after a single season.  When it was announced that Mr. Sorkin was returning to TV with a new show for HBO, this was exciting news.  I was eager to see Mr. Sorkin return to form after the failure of Studio 60, and working with HBO seemed like a match made in heaven.  (Fewer episodes, high production values, and a reputation for prestige productions.  What could possibly go wrong?)

Unfortunately, from the beginning, The Newsroom seemed to repeat many of the mistakes of Studio 60.  While both shows featured some wonderful actors and episodes filled with clever Aaron Sorkin-written verbiage, both shows seemed to be missing that special je ne sais qua that made both Sports Night and The West Wing so magically delicious.

It seems to me that The Newsroom had two main faults from the outset.  Number one, the shows’s central device, of being set several years in the past so that we could see the show’s characters report real-life news stories, never really worked.  It removed a lot of tension from the show, because we knew how all of these events turned out.  It also resulted in the show’s having a feeling of smug superiority as we watched these characters do a better job reporting these events than any actual reporters did, often leaping ahead to conclusions far faster than anyone had done at the time.  This often felt unrealistic, as the benefit of hindsight allowed Mr. Sorkin to write his characters as being consistently ahead of the curve.  While I loved the bold political point Mr. Sorkin made in the season one finale, in which he (through the voice of Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy) accused the Tea Party of being the American Taliban, I often found the show to be a very preachy polemic.  (The West Wing was a very liberal show, but I rarely felt that show to be preachy.)

The second, and more serious, problem with The Newsroom was that I really didn’t care about any of its characters.  When the show began, I was struck by how derivative all of the show’s characters and relationships were of the far better, far … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Newsroom Season Two

The two-hour finale of The Newsroom season two, “Election Night” Parts I & II, were in my opinion probably as good as the show has ever been in its two short seasons on HBO (ten episodes in season one, only nine in season two).  This is good news and bad, as on the one hand I quite enjoyed these two episodes, while on the other hand I think The Newsroom remains the weakest of all four of Aaron Sorkin’s TV shows.  (Yes, my feeling right now is that this show is weaker than the much-criticized Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, though I have never re-watched Studio 60′s single season, so I readily admit that perhaps absence has made my heart grow a tad fonder for that show without good reason.)

In The Newsroom season two, Aaron Sorkin took a different approach than he did in season one.  While the show continued to be set in and around the real history of  2011 and 2012, allowing the characters to be involved with actual news-stories and political events, this season Mr. Sorkin crafted a season-long story-arc that was focused on a completely fictional event: the news-team’s discovery of an operation called Genoa, in which US troops used illegal Sarin gas during an operation in Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, as was made immediately clear in a framing sequence right at the start of the season two premiere, the story that News Night (the fictional news show featured on The Newsroom) reported about Genoa wound up being completely false, a huge journalistic screw-up that threatened to end all of our characters’ careers.

This story-line was hit and miss for me.  On the one hand, I loved the idea of a season-long story-arc.  While I enjoyed the device in season one of having the fictional show take place in and around real-life events, by the end of that initial season I was tired of Mr. Sorkin’s approach to those events, because usually they were used to make his News Night characters appear smarter thany all of the real-life journalists who reported those events.  It seemed a little too much to me.  I am all for TV characters being idealized — and that certainly worked perfectly in Mr. Sorkin’s greatest TV triumph, The West Wing — but in this case it seemed like all of the characters on The Newsroom were just a little too good, a little too perfect, for the show to be at all realistic.  It’s easy to criticize the media, looking back two-to-three years late with 20-20 hindsight, and making his characters super-perfect robbed the show, in my opinion, of some of its story-telling strength.

So I was excited by the story-telling … [continued]

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The Newsroom Returns For Season Two

Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom has returned for season two, and I have seen the first two episodes.  If you loved season one, I think you will love season two. And if you hated season one, I think you will hate season two.  Because not much has changed.

For me, I find myself caught in the middle.  There is quite a lot to appreciate about The Newsroom.  The production values of the show are tremendous — the series looks absolutely gorgeous — and each episode is replete with phenomenal Aaron Sorkin banter and bon mot that is so unique and so unlike any other dialogue you will find on TV.

At yet the show also remains frustrating, in that — shocking for an Aaron Sorkin TV show — I find myself staggeringly unattached to, and almost actively disinterested in, any of the main characters on screen.  After his wonderful dialogue, I have found one of Mr. Sorkin’s greatest skills to be the way he is able to combine the main topic of his show (politics, sports, television production, etc.) with screwball comedy and romantic story lines, in which many of his main characters find themselves caught longing to be with the person they are not with.  This has been a key aspect of audience engagement with Mr. Sorkin’s shows, I think, as we have rooted for Casey (Peter Krause) and Dana (Felicity Huffman) to get together, and for Josh & Donna and Charlie & Zoey and Sam Seaborn & Mallory and Toby & Andrea and C.J. & Danny and even for Matt (Matthew Perry) and Harriet (Sarah Paulson).

But I don’t particularly like or root for any of the characters on The Newsroom.  Well, that’s a little harsh.  I do quite enjoy the character of Will McAvoy.  I think Jeff Daniels is dynamite as the show’s lead.  He is able to make Will endearing even though the character often behaves like a prick (or, as MacKenzie colorfully describes him in episode two of season two, “a douchebag”).  But I am not all that taken with the low-boil romantic tension between Will and MacKenzie, and I am painfully bored by the Jim and Maggie (Allison Pill) storyline.

In the first episode of season two, when we see the two of them stealing longing looks at one another while seated at their desks across their crowded workspace, my wife turned to me and said “It’s just like The Office!”  Except that Jim Harper is no Jim Halpert.  And Maggie Jordan is definitely no Pam Beesly.  One of my favorite moments in episode two of season two was when Maggie’s former best friend Lisa absolutely eviscerates Maggie for her terrible behavior.  It’s a satisfying … [continued]