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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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We’ve reached the end of my list of my Top Twenty Movies of 2016Click here for numbers twenty through sixteen, click here for numbers fifteen through eleven, and click here for numbers ten through six.

And now, my top five favorite movies of 2016!

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5. Hail, Caesar! I can’t believe how ignored this terrific Coen Brothers movie has been!  Set in Hollywood in the 1950′s, the film stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a studio exec and “fixer” who is trying to locate his kidnapped star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), before news of the star’s disappearance can make it into the papers.  Baird’s kidnapping, by a group of disgruntled Communist screenwriters, is only one of the many fires that Mannix has to try to put out as he tries to keep his studio afloat and all of his in-production pictures running smoothly.  Hail, Caesar! is a very silly film, which is a difficult tone to hit, but the Coen Brothers make it look effortless.   The film mines a lot of humor gently skewering the art of making movies and the pomposity of Hollywood egos.  The fall-on-the-floor hysterical scene in which director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) — whose very name is a subtle gag running throughout the film — tries and fails to give a line reading to the dim-bulb cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) could be the funniest single scene in any movie this year.  Josh Brolin is terrific as the serious man (see what I did there?) trying his best to wrangle all the Hollywood crazies surrounding him.  Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Alison Pill, Wayne Knight, Jonah Hill, David Krumholtz, Fisher Stevens, Fred Melamed, Patrick Fischler, Robert Picardo, and even Christopher Lambert (the original Highlander himself!) are all so great in their appearances in the film.  While Hail, Caesar! might not be one of the greatest Coen Brothers films ever (of a caliber with The Big Lebowski, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, or A Serious Man), it is still easily one of the best movies of 2016.  (Click here for my full review.)

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4. Arrival —  When twelve extraterrestrial spaceships appear in different locations around the globe, linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is tasked with finding a way to communicate with the alien life-forms (huge creatures that the human scientists refer to as “heptapods”).  Arrival is a magnificent film, a gorgeous, original, cerebral sci-fi story.  The film has the visual splendor of a big-budget movie, but this is not an action-adventure film, rather this is an intelligent drama that is a fascinating exploration of language and communication.  I was enormously impressed by the way the film … [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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Josh Reviews The Nice Guys

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

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

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

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Josh Reviews The Big Short

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

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

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

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

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

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From the DVD Shelf: The Place Beyond the Pines

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

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

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

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From the DVD Shelf: Drive (2011)

I missed Drive when it was released in 2011, but I was intrigued by everything I read about it and it’s a film that I’ve been hoping for some time to catch up to.

Ryan Gosling plays the enigmatic driver at the center of the film.  (His character is never named in the movie, something that is done so subtly that I never even realized we didn’t know his character’s name until I was sitting down to write this piece.)  In the film’s dynamic opening sequence, we learn that he is a highly-skilled getaway driver, with incredible abilities behind the wheel and a tight set of rules over what he is willing to do and not do when getting involved with various other criminals and their plans.

The driver has apparently led a very solitary life, focused on his work (both legal — as a mechanic and stunt-car driver for the movies — and illegal), but all that changes when sparks fly with his new neighbor, a pretty, wounded mother (Carey Mulligan) whose husband is in prison.  The driver forms a nice bond with this woman, Irene, and her son Benicio.  Then Irene’s husband comes home from prison, and the driver gets involved in a criminal deal that goes from bad to worse.  None of the characters emerge unscathed (physically/emotionally) from the downward spiral of events that follows.

Drive is a movie that you will watch with a tight knot in your stomach.  Right from the beginning, it was quite clear to me that this wasn’t going to be a movie with a happy ending.  I found myself liking both the driver and Irene, and it was torture watching the events unfold, knowing, just knowing, that none of this was going to end well.  That’s a mark of what a skillfully made film this is.  Director Nicolas Winding Refn is masterful at slowly, ever-so-slowly, ratcheting up the tension and tightening the noose.  It’s also fair warning that this is not a film for everyone.  Drive is tough to watch at times.

The film has a sexy/sleezy/cool vibe that I found very intriguing.  It felt reminiscent to me of the tone of some eighties thrillers, particularly the work of Brian De Palma.  Mr. Refn doesn’t utilize any of the Hitchcockian stylistic devices that Mr. De Palma is so well-known for.  No, what I’m talking about is more a matter of tone.  Drive presents us with a world (and a main character) that is at once very cool, and very ugly.  So many of the films of Mr. De Palma walked that same line.  Take the opening credits of Drive — with that throaty ballad playing loud on the soundtrack, and the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Ides of March

November 21st, 2011
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It’s been a while since I’ve seen a good, angry political thriller, so I quite enjoyed George Clooney’s latest directorial feature, The Ides of March. Perhaps thriller is the wrong word, since that word conjures thoughts of films featuring mysteries or action/suspense or damsels in distress.  And while there is an unfortunate damsel in The Ides of March who is subject to a great deal of distress, when I write “thriller” I refer not to the presence of any violent murder in the plot, but rather to the film’s bubbling sense of dread and urgency, which builds to a fierce boil as the story approaches its climax.

George Clooney is a fine actor.  I’ve long held that he — like Brad Pitt — is a far better actor than he needs to be, what with his movie-star looks.  But while Mr. Clooney might be a fine actor, he’s a damn magnificent director.  His first feature, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, remains one of my very favorite films ever (and the movie that cemented my abiding appreciation for the great Sam Rockwell), and his second, Good Night, and Good Luck, is an equally beautiful, confident, urgent piece of work.  There’s a direct line that can be drawn from the beating political heart of Good Night, and Good Luck, about Edward R. Murrow’s stand against McCarthyism, to the Ides of March.

Set during several tumultuous days leading up to the Ohio Democratic primary, The Ides of March stars Ryan Gosling (who blew my mind, back in the day, in The Believer — and, if you’ve never seen it, go out and find that searing film about a young Jewish boy who becomes a neo-Nazi) as Stephen Meyers, the idealistic number two in the campaign of Democratic presidential hopeful Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney).  I’m loathe to reveal any details of the plot, but suffice to say things get a little rough for Stephen and his candidate.  The Ides of March casts its gaze at the dirty back-room political in-fighting that goes on behind the scenes, far away from the bright lights of the network camera crews.  The film clearly has some broad points to make about our modern political races, but the film is first and foremost a gripping dramatic tale.

Ryan Gosling is terrific, charismatic and compelling as Stephen.  He plays the film’s light early scenes with grace and charm, clearly showing us why Stephen has, at a young age, become such a skilled political operator.  When things turn increasingly desperate, Mr. Gosling takes us right down the rabbit hole along with him, and the genius of the film is the way in which we’re forced to wonder, in the final … [continued]