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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 Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation!

August 10th, 2015
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Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible series has always been a somewhat weird franchise.  Rather than having tight continuity between films, every film has felt like it’s own unique one-off adventure, usually very driven by the style of the director.  And so it’s been something of a pleasant surprise to see how smoothly the third, fourth, and now fifth films in the series have fit together, and how much creative energy this series still has even in its fifth installment.

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In Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, Ethan Hunt and his team at the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) find themselves beset by adversaries on all sides.  They face an internal political challenge from CIA chief Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who wants to shut down the IMF.  Meanwhile, Ethan Hunt has been, for months, on the trail of a secret agency known as The Syndicate.  This “anti-IMF” is a cabal of villains aimed at disrupting the global status quo that Hunt and the IMF aim to protect.  Soon Ethan and his handful of friends and allies find themselves all that stands against this terrorist organization.

Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie.  Mr. McQuarrie wrote The Usual Suspects, and he made his directorial debut with Jack Reacher, which also starred Tom Cruise.  I thought that film was a something of a bore (click here for my review, in which I think I was kinder than the film deserved), but I guess second time’s the charm because Rogue Nation is a terrific film, a fast-paced romp that is stuffed full to overflowing with great action and humor and fun, telling a story that is intense and compelling without ever being dour.

The film starts off with a bang, with a whopper of a pre-credits action sequence (see photo above).  This sequence, which involved Tom Cruise actually hanging off the side of a plane in flight, has been hugely promoted in the weeks and months leading up to the film’s release.  What a surprise it was to discover that the whole thing takes place in the very opening minutes of the film!!  Well played, folks.  (This is a nice contrast to the very first Mission: Impossible film, about which I just wrote last week, which spoiled its big action climax in all of its trailers, something I am still sore about to this day.)

The tone is perfect in what I want from a Mission: Impossible film.  There is strong momentum from start-to-finish, as the film moves smoothly from one tremendous action set-piece on to the next.  The action in this film is extraordinary.  There are quite a few spectacular sequences that each might have been … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 13): Mission: Impossible (1996)

Slowly but surely, my journey through the films of Brian De Palma continues!  (If you scroll down to the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to all the other Brian De Palma films I have watched!)

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Mission: Impossible is probably the Brian De Palma film that I have seen the most over the years.  It’s not a perfect film, but it’s damn good, fiercely entertaining and a heck of a lot of fun.  It’s funny to think that Brian De Palma was involved in a “franchise” film, but the marvelous thing about Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible film series is the way that Mr. Cruise has embraced the idea of working with a variety of filmmakers, each with very strong, singular styles, thus giving each M:I film a very distinct feel.  These films are far more different from one another than any other film series I can think of.  I don’t know if that was Mr. Cruise (and his co-producer, Paula Wagner)’s idea right from the beginning, but I love the way it has turned out.  With the fifth Mission: Impossible installment opening this weekend, it seemed perfect for me to take this opportunity to post my thoughts on my recent re-watch of the film that kicked off the series.

I never watched much of the original Mission: Impossible TV show, so even when I first saw this film back in 1996, I wasn’t going in with any pre-conceived notions of what Mission: Impossible was all about.  (So I wasn’t bothered by, say, what a fan of the TV show might see as a sacrilegious treatment, here in the film, of the character of Jim Phelps!) I have always judged these films purely on their strengths and weaknesses as films. And I think Mission: Impossible is pretty strong!

As I commented in my review of Carlito’s Way, it’s clear that Mr. De Palma can achieve tremendous heights when working from a great script.  And Mission: Impossible has a very solid script, one filled with twists and turns and a story that is engaging and exciting while managing to maintain a fairly light, frothy tone.  The screenplay is by David Koepp (who also wrote the great script for Carlito’s Way) and Robert Towne, with a story by Mr. Koepp and Steve Zaillian (another great screenwriter, who wrote films such as Schindler’s List and Moneyball and Gangs of New York and Clear and Present Danger), and having such strong writers in the mix has again proven here to be an important foundation upon which Mr. De Palma can bring his particular cinematic eye and stylistic flourishes.

Perhaps because he knew that he was involved in a big-budget film intended to appeal … [continued]

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The Top 20 Movies of 2014 — Part One!

2014 was a fantastic year for movies.  I had so many films that I wanted to make mention of in my end-of-the-year best-of list, that I’ve decided to expand my usual Top 15 list into a Top 20.  Cheating?  Perhaps!  But it’s all in the service of spreading love for a great group of terrific films, so I hope you’ll forgive me.

Even with a Top Twenty list, there are still plenty of great films that I saw in 2014 that didn’t make this list: They Came Together, Gone Girl, Interstellar, Noah, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, Harmontown, Neighbors, Snowpiercer, Chef, A Million Ways to Die in the West, The Fault in Our Stars, The One I Love, Obvious Child, and lots more.

There were also plenty of 2014 movies that interested me but that I just didn’t have a chance to see.  These include, but are by no means limited to: Selma and Inherent Vice (neither of which had yet opened near me when I wrote this list), Whiplash, Foxcatcher, Rosewater, Fury, St. Vincent, Nightcrawler, Laggies, Big Hero 6, The Homesman, Force Majeure, Only Lovers Left Alive, Men Women & Children, and plenty of others.

With those caveats out of the way, let’s begin!

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Honorable Mention: Her This was technically a 2013 film but, like Selma and Inherent Vice this year, it did not open near me until well into 2014, so it wasn’t until late January 2014 that I saw it.  Had I been able to see it before writing my Best of 2013 list, it certainly would have been high on that list.  I wasn’t sure whether or not I should include it on this year’s list, so I’ve settled for giving it an “Honorable Mention”.  This gorgeous, gentle, heartbreaking story from writer/director Spike Jonze is mesmerizing, a fascinating piece of speculative fiction in which we see a vision of a society not very far removed from our own.  Joaquin Phoenix is wonderfully affecting as Theodore, a lonely man who has just been divorced from the woman he thought was the love of his life.  He purchases a new OS (Operating System), and gradually finds himself falling in love with this A.I. (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) who is with him everywhere he goes.  Is Theodore retreating dangerously from real life into fantasy?  Or is this a beautiful story of a man and a woman falling in love with the essence of each other’s character, entirely separate from any physical attraction?  That’s up to the viewer to decide.  Me, I was touched and intrigued by this a beautiful, unique film.  (Click here for my original review.)… [continued]

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Josh Reviews Oblivion

May 1st, 2013
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Oblivion, the new sci-fi movie from director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) and starring Tom Cruise, comes very close to greatness.  Tantalizingly close.  It’s a shame, then, that the film falls short, that its reach exceeds its grasp.

I don’t want to tell you too much about the plot.  You’re better off going into the movie absolutely cold.  I will tell you that the film is set in the future, after Earth has been devastated by war with an alien race.  Humanity won and the aliens were defeated, but at the cost of the planet being rendered uninhabitable.  Humans have abandoned Earth to settle on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.  Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, a soldier/repair-man, one of the last humans left on Earth.  His job, along with his partner Vica (Andrea Riseborough), is to tend to the mechanical drones that are extracting the last of the planet’s resources.

Oblivion gets off to a rocky start with an impenetrable, exposition-filled opening monologue by Tom Cruise’s character, Jack.  Mr. Cruise tells us, via voice-over, all sorts of information about the backstory and the story’s history, but two seconds after his monologue was over I had forgotten all of it.  I was paying attention, but so early in the story — not yet knowing anything about the characters or the world they’re living in — it was all just words, meaningless to me without context.  I found it to be a terribly clumsy way to start the film.  That backstory would have been better communicated through the unfolding of the story.  Much of what Mr. Cruise tells us in that opening voice-over is made obvious by the next 30-45 minutes of the film, in which the film shows us the world and situation of Jack and Vica, without needing to explain everything.  And the film actually includes a much more sensible moment for all of that exposition about a third of the way in, when Jack (Cruise) discovers another human, Julia (Quantum of Solace’s Olga Kurylenko).  We get a scene of exposition, set at the dinner table, in which Jack explains things to Julia (and the audience), basically repeating everything he said in the opening!  So why have that opening monologue at all?

The film would have been far stronger had that opening monologue been removed, and the audience just dropped into the story.  Because, after that dreadful opening, the next 45-minutes or so of the film are absolutely fabulous.  We follow Jack Harper through what turns out to be an eventful day, learning about him, his routine, the perils that he faces, and his relationship with his partner Vica.  Without any exposition, just through the visuals and the action, … [continued]

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News Around the Net!

Well, I had less-than-happy things to say last week about the teaser posters for Star Trek into Dark Knight (ahem, Into Darkness) and Man of Steel. But both films have shut me up for now by unveiling pretty awesome teaser trailers, first Trek and now Man of Steel:

http://youtu.be/KVu3gS7iJu4

That’s a pretty fantastic trailer.  I’m not wild about having to sit through Superman’s origin yet again, but so far it looks like it’s being presented with class, and with some new imagery.  I am a bit surprised that this Zack Snyder Superman trailer is so light on action.  I had assumed that the reason to hire Zack Snyder to direct your Superman picture would be so it’d be chock-full of great super-hero/super-villain punch-em-ups.  But so far both trailers for Man of Steel have struck the same reverential tone as Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. I loved Superman Returns (I know, I am the only one) so this doesn’t bother me, it’s just a bit surprising.

Here’s another awesome trailer, for Guillermo del Toro’s long-awaited next film.  It seems to be about giant monsters fighting giant robots.  I am there.

I am not a huge kaiju fan, but I did grow up watching Tranzor Z on American TV (a Japanese cartoon about a huge robot piloted by a young boy who controlled the robot from a control-ship in the robot’s head) so I’m down with the whole people-controlling-huge-robots-to-fight-evil sub-genre.  And with del Toro at the helm, I think we’re assured of some spectacular action and weirdness.

Here’s another interesting trailer, for Oblivion:

OK, Tom Cruise is playing Wall-E and Morgan Freeman is playing Morpheus, but that could be interesting.  Original sci-fi = good.  From the director of Tron: Legacy = worrisome.  We’ll see…

With The Hobbit so close I can taste it, here’s a great article on the ways in which J.R.R. Tolkien pulled a George Lucas and ret-conned his original version of The Hobbit after writing The Lord of the Rings.

Sticking with Peter Jackson for a moment, this is very pleasant news that he is still planning on directing a second Tintin film!  (The plan was always that Steven Spielberg would direct the first film with Peter Jackson producing, and then they would swap roles for the second film.  But with Mr. Jackson working on The Hobbit for the past few years, I had thought that plan had been abandoned.  I loved the first Tintin so I’d be delighted to see a sequel…!)

Someone made a bookshelf shaped like the Guardian of Forever??  Why is this not in my home right now???

That’s all for me today, my friends.  Sorry the Skyfall cartoons have been a bit … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: The Color of Money (1986)

After watching The Hustler (click here for my review of that 1961 film), I immediately had to watch Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money. This has to be one of the weirdest sequels ever made.  Released twenty-five years after the original film, made by a different director, shot in color as opposed to the original’s black-and-white, The Color of Money is a completely different film than The Hustler. And yet, I was impressed by how connected the two films were, mostly because of the story — which, though set years later, seems to draw a direct line from the end of The Hustler — and, of course, Paul Newman’s reprisal of his classic role as “Fast” Eddie Felson.

Like The Hustler, The Color of Money was adapted from a novel by Walter Tevis.  Following the events of The Hustler, Eddie stopped being a pool shark.  He seems to have made a fine (though not especially successful) life for himself, but when he sees an incredibly talented young pool player, Vincent (played by Tom Cruise), Eddie begins to hunger once again for the action.  He convinces Vincent to let Eddie take him on the road, so he can teach Vincent the pool shark game and hopefully make the both of them a lot of money.

As in The Hustler, the film succeeds primarily because Paul Newman is so fantastic in the role of “Fast” Eddie.  Mr. Newman may be an older man, but he’s still incredibly compelling and charismatic.  You can see in the way he talks, and the way he moves, the powerful young man that “Fast” Eddie once was.  As the film progresses, the narrative keeps the audience in genuine doubt as to whether Eddie still has what it takes to beat the odds and get the score, or whether he’s just a washed up old man with memories of glory.  Mr. Newman’s powerful yet subtle performance allows the audience to envision both possibilities.

The beating heart of The Color of Money, of course, and the film’s whole reason for being, is the pairing of elder statesman Paul Newman with the young Tom Cruise as Vincent.  Mr. Cruise is electric in the role.  Vincent is brash and loud, full of energy and enthusiasm and lust for life, but totally without patience and not exactly possessing of a plethora of brains.  The twenty-four year-old Cruise commands the viewer’s attention, and when he and Paul Newman share the screen (as they do for much of the film’s run-time), their chemistry is palpable and exciting.  It’s a terrific dynamic, and certainly one that helps you understand why the filmmakers felt like a return to “Fast” Eddie and the world of … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

I’ve picked up a few of the Universal 100th Anniversary blu-rays that they’ve been releasing this year, highlighting films from the studio’s 100 year history.  Two that I’ve watched recently are Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.  I’ll be back soon to write about Jaws, today I want to write about Born on the Fourth of July.

After re-watching Platoon a few months ago (click here for my review), I knew I wanted to re-watch Born on the Fourth of July soon.  I’d only seen the film once, in college.  My friends and I set about to watch a number of films that we hadn’t ever seen but that we felt were important for us to see, and that brought us to Born on the Fourth of July. My recollection was really enjoying the film, though feeling that it was very intense and difficult to watch in places.  It wasn’t a film I was rushing to see again, because it was a tough story.

Well, there’s no question that Born on the Fourth of July is tough to watch in places, but I’m glad to have re-watched it.  I think it’s a terribly effective film, and one of the greatest anti-war films I’ve ever seen.

Whereas Platoon focused exclusively on the events of a soldier’s one-year tour of duty in Vietnam (based largely upon Mr. Stone’s own experiences), Born on the Fourth of July’s focus is at once more expansive and also far more focused.  Based on the true-life story of Vietnam vet Ron Kovic (and the book he wrote about his experiences), the film follows Ron from his childhood through adulthood.  We see him as a young boy and as an idealistic high school student, fervently accepting the lesson his family, teachers and community taught him about the importance of doing one’s patriotic duty to serve in the military.  We follow Ron through two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he is confronted by the horrors of war and is eventually shot and paralyzed.  We stay with Ron during his horrific experiences in a veterans hospital, his attempt to return to his home and family, his terrible depression about his paralyzation and his feelings of isolation from the world that drive him to drinking and drugs, and eventually down to a brothel in Mexico.  We see how his anger at the anti-war protesters eventually transforms him into an anti-war protester himself.

The power of Born on the Fourth of July is that it is an epic film, but also a profoundly intimate one, focused with laser-sharpness on the experiences of this one young man throughout the fifties, sixties, and … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Mission: Impossible III (2006)

I really enjoyed the Brad Bird-directed fourth installment in Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible series (click here for my review), and that made me want to go back and watch the third installment.  I’d really enjoyed Mission Impossible III back when it was released, and it was great fun to re-watch.

I have some issues with the first Mission: Impossible film, but overall I think it’s pretty successful.  I think the first 40-45 minutes of Mission: Impossible II are pretty great, but then the whole thing collapses into a big awful mess.  The third and fourth M:I films have been far more successful than the first two, in my opinion — J. J. Abrams and Brad Bird have crafted films that are much closer to what I’d like these Mission: Impossible films to be.

Mission: Impossible III represents J. J. Abrams’ theatrical directorial debut, but you’d never know it by watching the film.  The movie looks amazing, and is directed with incredible confidence and grace by Mr. Abrams.  His camera is constantly active — not to the degree that you’re distracted by it, but in a way that throws the audience right into the middle of the visceral action.

And boy is this film action-packed.  I had forgotten just how many spectacular action set-pieces there are in the film.  There’s that helicopter chase through a field of wind-powered turbines.  There’s the complex break-in and kidnapping staged in the middle of the Vatican.  There’s the brutal helicopter and drone attack on the IMF convoy traveling across a bridge.  There’s the death-defying break-in to the skyscraper in Shanghai.  I could go on!  Each of those sequences could be the centerpiece of another action movie, they’re that good.  Each sequence is a delight of twists and suspense, marvelously well-orchestrated by Mr. Abrams and his team.

Although there’s plenty of super-spy craziness in the film, all of the action in Mission: Impossible III feels far more gritty and grounded than that in the first two films.  J.nJ. and his team make clear, right from the start, that they have set out to create a different type of M:I film.  I love the very scary and very intense scene that opens the film (in which we see Ethan Hunt captured and tied to a chair, while Philip Seymour Hoffman counts down ten seconds before he says he will execute Ethan’s wife in front of him).  It’s a terrifying moment, and also a very simple one — just three people and a gun in a darkened room.  It’s not at all the way I’d expect this big-budget, fantasy super-spy movie to open.

The other strength of Mission: Impossible III is that, for the first time … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (and the Dark Knight Rises Prologue!!)

I’ve really enjoyed all three Mission: Impossible films, though none of them quite reached perfection in my mind.  Probably my favorite part of all three films is the first 30 minutes of the first one, where we got to see an awesome team of super-spies engaged in some really fun, twisty covert operations.  Then, of course, they all get killed off and the film (and the sequels) turns into the Tom Cruise super-hero show.  J.J. Abrams’ third installment was a big step back in the right direction, but even in that film I felt the team was too-quickly sidelined.

What a delight it is to report, then, that I think the latest installment, Ghost Protocol, is the strongest film in the series so far!  I saw the film in huge, glorious IMAX, which is how I highly recommend that you see it as well.  People are all atwitter about 3-D these days, but I think that seeing a film in IMAX represents a far more immersive experience than the often-distracting 3-D effects.  (Although I did just see Martin Scorsese’s new film, Hugo, in wonderful 3-D — check back here on Wednesday for my full review).  Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible film takes full advantage of the huge canvas that IMAX has to offer.

I’ve long-worshipped Brad Bird, from his work on The Simpsons to his amazing animated films The Iron Giant (GO SEE IT right now, you won’t regret it), The Incredibles, and Ratatouille.  Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is Mr. Bird’s live-action directorial debut, and it represents a triumphant announcement of an incredible talent.

The action in this film is phenomenal.  Ghost Protocol is alive with action, from start-to-finish.  This film MOVES.  There are so many gleefully inventive set-pieces that I hardly know where to begin.  There’s the opening break-out from a Russian prison, with the film’s playful withholding of the identity of the man being rescued.  There’s the fiendishly clever way the IMF team infiltrates the Kremlin.  (I LOVE the screen employed by Ethan and Benji in the hallway.)  Then there’s the gangbusters sequence in which Ethan (Tom Cruise) is forced to scale the exterior of the tallest skyscraper in Dubai.  In the trailers, I actually thought that scene looked rather silly.  But in the film I found it to be a bravura sequence of phenomenal special effects and mounting tension.  Here is where seeing the film in IMAX really pays off.  There’s a terrific shot in which Ethan steps out of the window onto the side of the building.  Suddenly the camera follows him out, and we the viewers are right there vertiginously hanging off the building right along with him.  As the sequence escalates and things … [continued]

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Spielberg in the Aughts: War of the Worlds (2005)

In 2005 Steven Spielberg returned to sci-fi with his version of H. G. Wells’ famous story from 1898, War of the Worlds.

Not surprisingly, rather than being a period piece, Mr. Spielberg set his adaptation in the present day.  Tom Cruise reunited with Spielberg to star as Ray Ferrier, an affable but cocky guy separated from his wife (played by the beautiful Miranda Otto, who played Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings).  When she and her new husband go away for the weekend, Ray has to look after their two children: Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning).  Despite his efforts, he finds that he has trouble connecting to either one of his kids.  Then aliens attack.

Mr. Spielberg, along with writers Josh Friedman and David Koepp, have chosen to take us through the story of an alien apocalypse through the eyes of these three “every-person” characters.  We witness the horrific events of the invasion through their eyes, as they struggle to survive.  While that’s not exactly a ground-breaking choice, I think it’s an effective way to structure the film.  We don’t have a sense, until the very end, of what exactly is happening — who the invaders are, what they want, or what the governments of the world are doing to fight back — and that only adds to the tension and terror of the film.  Ray and his kids are swept up in cataclysmic phenomena, and so are we as the audience.

There are some extraordinary visual effects sequences in War of the Worlds.  This big-budget sci-fi film was clearly made by a director who is a master of his craft, ably assisted by a huge assortment of talented artists, designers, and visual effects wizards.  Ray’s initial encounter with a tripod — and his frantic flight away from it while the monstrosity tears across city blocks and vaporizes other terrified civilians — is a tour de force sequence that make clear that Spielberg & co. meant business with this story.  The tripods’ attack on the ferry, the battle on the hilltop towards the end of the film… these are extarordinarily well-realized sequences, dark and violent and intense.

I love that, in many respects, Steven Spielberg chose to make a much grimmer film than is his usual practice.  There’s not a lot of fun to be had in War of the Worlds, nor are there many rah-rah crowd-cheering action moments (of the type found in, say, Independence Day).

But somehow, War of the Worlds still leaves me a bit cold.  I can’t say it’s a movie that I can get too excited about.  Is the problem that the film is TOO grim?  Or … [continued]

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The third film in my EZ Viewing movie marathon is Tropic Thunder! (Click here to read about film one: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), and here to read about film two: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.)

Tropic Thunder knocked my socks off when I first saw it!  (Click here for my original review.)  It’s so fearless and so, so funny, right from the first frame to the very last.

Ben Stiller (who also co-wrote and directed the film) stars as Tugg Speedman.  Though he was once a hugely successful action-movie star, Tugg’s recent effort at more serious fare (“Simple Jack”) was met with disdain, so he decides to appear in the war film Tropic Thunder.  The film (within the film) is an adaptation of the Vietnam experiences of the hook-handed veteran John “Four-Leaf” Tayback.  Along with Tugg, the film stars the method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), the comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and the rapper Alpha Chino (Brandon T. Jackson).  This pampered assemblage of prima-donnas has trouble getting anything done, so the frustrated director (Steve Coogan) decides to drop his actors in the middle of the jungle, in an attempt to capture some “real” drama.  Chaos ensues.

The cast is stupendous.  The stand-out, of course, is Robert Downey Jr., portraying “a dude pretending to be a dude disguised as some other dude.”  He came in for some criticism when the film was released, not only for his performance as a white actor pretending to be a black man, but also for the “full retard” speech he gives to Ben Stiller’s character.  But I think that Downey Jr. is pure genius in the role – and that speech happens to be screamingly funny.  The point of his performance – and, indeed, the point of the entire film – is to skewer how seriously actors take themselves.  (It’s funny – not long after seeing this film for the first time, I found myself re-watching the amazing WWII mini-series Band of Brothers.  It’s an astonishing mini-series.  When I finished, I watched some of the special features – but after having seen Tropic Thunder, I could not take at all seriously any of the actors patting themselves on the back for how much the conditions of the shoot really rivaled the experience of really being in combat!!)

But the rest of the ensemble is also phenomenal.  Stiller is great in the lead role – he’s just likable enough that you sort of root for him, even though he’s a total loony-tune.  (LOVE that he likes to watch Classic Star Trek on his ipod, though!!)  Jack Black is perfectly cast as Portnoy, and … [continued]

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Spielberg in the Aughts: Minority Report (2002)

When I first saw Steven Spielberg’s film  Minority Report in theatres back in 2002 (the only time I’d seen the film until I watched it again on DVD last week), I remember it becoming startlingly clear to me that the man has trouble with the endings of his films.

I recognize that the present-day epilogues to Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan are overloaded with schmaltz and are completely unnecessary to the story, but I’ve never been bothered by those endings (the way others have been, most famously William Goldman, who eviscerated Saving Private Ryan in his famous review).  I was so emotionally engaged with the stories and characters in both of those films that I was not bothered with their endings (even though the logical part of my brain did realize that Mr. Spielberg was laying the emotion on a bit thickly).  But as I wrote last week, I thought the final 25 minutes of A.I. were abominable and possibly the worst 25 minutes Steven Spielberg had ever put to film.  The ending of Minority Report isn’t quite at that level of jaw-dropping terribleness, but I think the first hour and 45 minutes of the film are a very solid, dark sci-fi thriller that is completely undone by the last 35 minutes or so.

At first, Minority Report kept me very engaged.  It’s easy and popular to hate on Tom Cruise these days, but I think he’s a far better actor than he gets credit for, and he’s an engaging lead here.  Mr. Cruise plays the generically-named Tom Anderton, the top-cop at the new Pre-Crime division that has been set up in Washington, DC.  Using three “pre-cogs” (psychics kept under sedation), the Pre-Crime team are able to intercept murders before they happen.  After six years of operation, in which the team has virtually eliminated homicides in DC, a national referendum has been set to determine whether Pre-Crime divisions will be set up in other cities across the U.S.  In advance of this, John and his team are under investigation by Federal Agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell).  Everything goes to hell when the psychics predict that John himself is about to commit a homicide.  He goes on the run, determined to prove his innocence, but finds himself setting in motion events that might undermine the legitimacy of the entire Pre-Crime unit.

For that first hour and 45 minutes, Minority Report is a solid, gritty little film.  It goes to some surprisingly grim places.  There’s an early scene in which we learn that apparent super-cop John Anderton is actually a rather broken man.  With the rain falling outside, John sits in the dark in his cluttered apartment, watching holographic projections … [continued]

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From The DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews A Few Good Men (1992)

A Few Good Men is one of those movies that I saw countless times in the nineties, to the point that I knew the film so well that it bored me. But then I stopped watching it, and when I decided to pop the film into my DVD player earlier this month, it had been many years since I’d last seen it.

While there are a few moments that haven’t aged well, overall I found A Few Good Men to still be a powerhouse of a film – just phenomenally entertaining.

This film is part of Rob Reiner’s astounding run of films – This is Spinal Tap (1984), The Sure Thing (1985), Stand By Me (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), When Harry Met Sally (1989). Has any other director had such a run of such phenomenal films, one after another? And what’s really astounding is how different they all are from one another – different genres, different styles. It’s unbelievable how good all of those films are (and how well they all hold up to this day).

Take a director at the top of his game, and mix him with a screenplay by the brilliant Aaron Sorkin (adapting his own play), and you have a recipe for an amazing film. As with much of the work of Mr. Reiner and Mr. Sorkin, the story has a strong dramatic core – but it is also filled with a lot of humor.

It’s fun to watch this movie now and to see just how young Tom Cruise and Demi Moore are in this film. Cruise is just great – you can see his star-power shining through, bright and strong, in his protrayal of hot-shot young lawyer Daniel Kaffee. Moore is a little flatter, but still does well in the role of the stiff Lt. Cdr. Joe Galloway. I think this is one of her best performances. I feel the same way about Kevin Bacon. I tend to think that he’s a much better actor than Demi Moore, and there are certainly plenty of other films in which I’ve really enjoyed his performance. But still, I would argue that his role in A Few Good Men is one of his very best. I love the way he plays his relationship with Cruise’s Kaffee. There’s deep friendship, but also some rivalry and antagonism, between the two young men. In the hands of less-skilled actors, the relationship could have so easily tipped over to one side or the other – but Cruise and Bacon walk that fine line perfectly. I find their characters’ interplay to be endlessly fascinating, and one of the secret treasures of this film.

The great Kevin Pollack is amazing, as he … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, and Valkyrie

I know some people who can’t stand to see a movie a second time — they think “been there, done that, I’d rather see something new.”  I certainly don’t have anything against seeing something new, but I’m also someone who loves seeing movies for a second time — and, if it’s a good movie, seeing it many more times after that!  (I’m the same way with books, comic books, etc. — I love re-reading stories that I enjoyed multiple times.)

I find that my feelings upon watching a film for a second time often vary wildly from the experience of seeing it originally.  I can absorb the film without all the baggage of hype, my anticipation, etc.  I can also more accurately judge the movie for what it is, rather than what I had hoped it would be or was expecting it would be.

During September I had a chance to take a second look at three films that I really enjoyed during last year’s Oscar rush of films (in late December 2008).  Did my feelings about them change, for better or for worse, upon a second viewing?  Read on!

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — read my original review here.  Benjamin Button was one of my very favorite movies from last year (it ranked as no. 6 on my list of my favorite films from 2008) and, if anything, I was even more in awe of it the second time around.  The film is magnificent.  It is one of those special collaborations where every single element works just perfectly, from the gorgeous sets and costumes, to the jaw-dropping visual effects (that create fully-realized environments from France to Russia to a tug-boat in the middle of the Pacific, not to mention the completely convincing creation and de-aging of Benjamin Button himself that is as wonderful a combination of makeup, prosthetics, and incredible CGI as I have ever seen), to the wonderful performances by Brad Pitt (who proves in every film he’s in why he is so deserving of his movie-star fame), Cate Blanchett, and a wonderful array of other talented actors.  Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac) knows how to incorporate cutting-edge visual effects into a film without ever letting those effects overpower the film, and he knows how to tell a deeply emotional tale without ever veering into schmaltz.  As I said: magnificent.  (I also had the fun of watching this film on Blu-Ray, and let me say that my jaw was on the floor at the clarity of the images, the colors, everything.  As the enclosed booklet notes, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was created in the digital realm without ever … [continued]

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Thundering Pineapple Mummies

Well, the summer is winding down, but I’m taking advantage of the lull to catch up on some movies!  Here’s what I’ve seen lately:

Tropic Thunder — Just saw this tonight, and let me tell you it is phenomenal.  Ben Stiller stars in and directed this tale of a group of self-absorbed hollywood actors filming a big-budget Vietnam action-adventure movie called Tropic Thunder who, through a ludicrous series of circumstances, wind up in an actual Vietnam action-adventure.  (Hmmm, that description makes it sound sort of like Space Camp, but rest assured that it is not.)  The movie is hilarious, and I mean every scene is hilarious.  The cast is terrific.  Ben Stiller is Tugg Speedman, the action movie star looking for some respectability after the flop of his oscar-bait role as the mentally challenged Simple Jack…and Stiller plays forlorn self-absorbtion to a tee.  Jack Black plays drug-addled Jeff Portnoy, known for playing all the roles (in a variety of fat-suits) in the obese family movie series The Fatties.  As you’ve probably read by now, Robert Downey Jr. keeps his summer of success rolling (after Iron Man) with his portrayal of Kirk Lazarus, an actor so devoted to Method that he, well, transforms himself into a black man to play African-American Sgt. Osiris.  Those are the stars, but there are so many other juicy roles that are very winningly embodied by a variety of other talents.  Brandon T. Jackson plays rapper-turned-actor Alpha Chino (I laughed and laughed at that rapper name), and Jay Baruchel (so great as the lead in the great-but-cancelled Judd Apatow TV series Undeclared) is the requisite baby-faced soldier, Kevin Sandusky.  Danny McBride (who’s also having quite a summer, with the long-awaited release of his feature film The Foot Fist Way a few months ago, as well as his role in The Pineapple Express) is the somewhat psychotic pyrotechnics expert Cody.  Steve Coogan (Coffee and Cigarettes, Tristan Shandy, and the upcoming Hamlet 2) plays the desperate director Damien Cockburn trying to get his spoiled stars to behave.  Nick Nolte is genius playing… well pretty much himself, or at least the world’s perception of Nick Nolte, as the addled “Four Leaf,” the man who wrote the book Tropic Thunder being adapted by these Hollywood dim-wits.  And, of course, I cannot forget Tom Cruise, under a you-need-to-see-it-to-believe-it bald cap and hairy chubby suit, playing the gleefully profane studio mogul financing the production.  OK, do you want to see this movie yet??  Let me just add that this film is also enhanced by a trio of fake trailers even more enjoyable than the ones in Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse from last year.  (Speaking … [continued]