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

April 17th, 2018

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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The Top 15 Movies of 2013 — Part Three!

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


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


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


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

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Josh Reviews The Way Way Back

After a summer of moderately disappointing blockbusters, my favorite film of the season so far is a delightful little gem of a flick, The Way Way Back!

I love a good coming of age movie, and in particular I am a sucker for films that focus on the specific sub-culture of kids taking summer-season jobs.  I have worked all my life at a wonderful summer camp, and I think there’s a special romance to the live-your-whole-life-in-the-span-of-eight-weeks experience that everyone who, while a teenager, held one of those summer jobs can understand.  I loved the film Adventureland (click here for my review) for the way it captured that magical way in which kids can grow up over the course of a summer, and The Way Way Back captures that same sort of magic.

Duncan (Liam James) is a quiet boy whose mother, Pam (Toni Collette) is divorced.  When we first glimpse Duncan, we see him relegated to the “way way back,” the backwards-facing seat of Pam’s boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell)’s station wagon.  Duncan and Pam will be spending the summer at Trent’s beach house, along with Trent’s daughter Steph (Zoe Levin).  Since Steph wants nothing to do with him, Duncan is trapped with his mom and Trent and all of Trent’s friends, including the talky, boozy Betty (Allison Janney); Kip (Rob Corddry) and his flirtatious wife Joan (Amanda Peet).  Eventually Duncan finds solace in a part-time job at a local, small-time water park, and a friend and almost-father-figure in the park’s amiable manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell).

One might misconstrue the title to mean that The Way Way Back is a period piece (like Adventureland, set in the 1980’s, was), but it’s not.  We occasionally see ipods and modern-looking cell phones.  But in the very best possible way, The Way Way Back is dressed in nostalgia and memory, as if we are Duncan looking back, years later, on this summer that profoundly affected him.  The film doesn’t pull any punches in the way that adults can, whether meaning to or not, be terribly cruel to kids.  But the film also doesn’t wallow in that misery (in the way that, say, the great but dour and hard for me to watch The Ice Storm does).  There’s a warmth to the film that I connected to in a powerful way.

Liam James is incredibly effective as Duncan.  This is a young actor I have never seen before, but I will take notice of him now.  He brings a great naturalism to his performance.  He doesn’t over-play the role.  He’s quiet and inward in the way that many 14-year-old boys are.  He sells a few big moments, and all of the many little … [continued]