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Josh Reviews A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

December 11th, 2019
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Late in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, journalist Lloyd Vogel (played by The Americans Matthew Rhys) shows his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) the article he’d written about Fred Rogers.  It’s not really about Mister Rogers, she comments.  Neither is this film, despite the marketing.

But that’s OK.  I still found A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood to be a wonderfully moving piece of work.  In fact, I think the story the film tells is more interesting than what I’d been expecting (basically a live-action version of last year’s spectacular Fred Rogers documentary by Morgan Neville, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?).

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was directed by Marielle Heller and written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, based (loosely) on Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say … Hero?”  (It’s a beautiful article, and after being moved by this film, I found the article and read it and was moved all over again.  Give it a read, why don’t you?  It’s worth your time.)

Tom Hanks stars in the film as Fred Rogers.  This is the kind of casting that sounds perfect on paper.  Of course, who else but Tom Hanks could portray Mister Rogers?  But I was a bit concerned, going in.  Tom Hanks is a marvelous actor, but he’s also very known to me as Tom Hanks.  Just as known to me as Mister Rogers.  Would I be able to forget both Tom Hanks and the real Mister Rogers in order to accept Tom-Hanks-as-Mister-Rogers?  I needn’t have been worried.  Once again, Tom Hanks has dazzled me with the depth and gentleness of his work.  It’s a marvelous performance.  (In a seemingly counterintuitive way, it’s helped, not hindered, by the decision not to make too much effort to actually make Mr. Hanks look like the real Mister Rogers.)

Just as good, if not better, is the wonderful, heartbreaking work done by Matthew Rhys.  After watching The Americans, I’ve become a fan-for-life of Mr. Rhys, and I’ve enjoyed watching him pop up in small roles in recent films such as The Post and Mowgli.  But he takes his work to the next level here, as he charts Lloyd’s slow journey from broken, burdened, and cynical back into life and light.  (Is it a coincidence that Tom Hanks also starred in The Post?  He and Mr. Rhys didn’t share any scenes in that film, but I wonder if they made a connection then.)

At the root of Lloyd’s problems is his bitter estrangement with his father, Jerry, played by Chris Cooper (Lone Star, American Beauty, Adaptation, The Town).  The always-reliable Mr. Cooper brings extraordinary depth and complexity to Jerry.

Susan … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Toy Story 4

I have loved all three previous Toy Story movies.  Toy Story 2 is one of my favorite sequels ever made, and I adored Toy Story 3 as well.  The ending of Toy Story 3 felt like a perfect ending to the series, beautiful and heartfelt.  And so I was a little nervous when Toy Story 4 was announced.  Was Disney/Pixar going to ruin the perfect ending of Toy Story 3 with another installment?

I needn’t have worried.

Once again, the geniuses at Pixar have produced a gorgeous work of art.  Toy Story 4 is beautiful to look at (the animation is extraordinary) and also rich and resonant beyond what I could have imagined.  I loved it.

Set some time after the end of Toy Story 3, Woody and the gang now belong to a young girl named Bonnie.  But whereas Sheriff Woody was, for a long time, Andy’s favorite toy, Bonnie has started leaving him in the closet in favor of other toys she likes more.  To make himself useful, Woody sneaks into Bonnie’s backpack on her first day of kindergarten, where, during an art project time, he sees Bonnie create a new toy she names “Forky” out of a spork, a pipe-cleaner, and other junk.  When Forky comes to life as a brand-new toy, he considers himself trash, rather than a toy, and continually tries to escape Bonnie to throw himself back in the trash.  Woody and the gang, seeing how much Bonnie loves her new creation, consider it their mission to prevent Forky from escaping.  But on a family road trip, Forky gets away from the family’s RV, and Woody chases after him.  Separated from his friends, Woody comes across Bo Peep, who had been given away by Andy’s sister years before.  Bo has been living as a “lost toy” for years, a fate that, at first, horrifies Woody.  This has been his fear for years, a fear that Woody is now forced to confront head-on in a way he never has before.

I love how deeply these Toy Story sequels have explored the very nature of the original premise.  That Forky, made up of pieces of trash, can come to life after Bonnie creates him, leads to all sorts of fascinating questions (as Kristen Schaal’s Trixie says at one point: “I have all the questions”), and the film allows Forky (and the other toys) to explore Forky’s existential dilemma (he considers himself trash, while Woody and co. consider him a toy) in a way that is surprisingly sophisticated for a kids’ film.  (Of course, Pixar’s films have never been solely “kids’ films.”  That’s their magic.)  Tony Hale is magnificent as the innocent and doubt-filled Forky.… [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2017 — Part Four!

And so we reach the end of my look back at my favorite movies of 2017!  Click here for part one of my list, click here for part two, and click here for part three!  And now, here are my five favorite movies of 2017:

5. The Big Sick The Big Sick, written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon and directed by Michael Showalter, is based on the true story of Kumail and Emily’s relationship.  The first half of the film feels like a romantic comedy, and then things take a dramatic shift when Emily falls into a coma.  This film is deeply emotional and also very, very funny.  It feels like the heir to the great comedic-dramatic films of James L. Brooks (such as Broadcast News, one of my favorites).  Mr. Nanjiani and Ms. Gordon’s script is sharp and deep, able to bring the funny in a big way while also diving deeply into these characters and, particularly, Kumail’s struggles to balance the expectations of his Muslim family with his personal life choices.  It’s a delight to see Mr. Nanjiani step so effortlessly into this leading-man role, while Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are spectacular as Emily’s parents.  The film is as much about them as it is about Kumail and Emily, which is a bold choice and a key ingredient of this film’s greatness.  I love this film dearly.  (Click here for my full review.)

4. Star Wars: The Last Jedi It’s hard to imagine a Star Wars film being underrated, and yet, I have found the on-line anger directed towards Star Wars: The Last Jedi to be quite perplexing.  The film is not perfect.  The mid-movie digression to Canto Bight doesn’t work and feels like a colossal waste of time, and the slow starship chase that forms the spine of the film’s narrative is ridiculous (why the First Order ships couldn’t use light speed to zip in front of the fleeing rebel spaceship is a mystery to me), which weakens the entire film.  And yet, there is so much to love in this film.  First of all, I love the film for constantly defying expectations.  Every time I thought I knew where the film was going, it surprised me.  Sometimes those choices worked and sometimes they didn’t, but while many seem to be frustrated that this is not the Star Wars film they’d expected it to be, I love The Last Jedi for that.  (If you want to watch The Empire Strikes Back, they already made that movie!  So go and watch it!)  I love that The Last Jedi attempts to expand our understanding of the Force.  I love Mark Hamill’s work … [continued]

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Steven Spielberg Triumphs Again With The Post!

In 1971, the New York Times obtained a secret study prepared by the Department of Defense on the history of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1967.  These documents demonstrated that a succession of Presidential administrations had been lying to the U.S. public about the war.  The Times published three articles featuring excerpts from these documents, dubbed the Pentagon Papers, before the Nixon Administration obtained an injunction forcing the Times to cease publication of the Papers.  When the Washington Post obtained the documents, executive editor Ben Bradlee and Post publisher Katharine Graham chose to defy the Nixon Administration and publish the Pentagon Papers in their newspaper.  By taking that action, they threw the future of the Post into question and risked possible jail time in a confrontation with the White House over the principle of freedom of the press that would wind up being decided by the Supreme Court.

The Post would be a magnificent film had it been released at any previous point in Steven Spielberg’s career.  But coming now, at this point in time, it is not just a great film, it is an important one.  The film is set almost forty years ago, and yet it feels like it could be taking place today.  (Change some of the names and you realize that, in fact, it pretty much is.)  The Post depicts a Presidential administration that chooses to deflect criticism by attacking the media, by whipping up public sentiment against the press and taking actions to curtail the very existence of an independent press.  It is striking to see the many way in which the story of the Pentagon Papers and the Nixon White House’s battles against the Washington Post echo the news we are reading about in the newspaper right now.  These philosophical battles for the soul of our nation that are depicted in The Post are taking place, again, right now, whether most Americans realize it or not, and the results will determine the future of our democracy.

The Post mounts a powerful defense for the central importance of a free press.  Both Tom Hanks (as Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (as Katharine Graham) have powerful, emotional moments in the film in which they deliver stirring monologues making this point.  This is a film that every American should see.

But putting all that aside, it’s also just a dang great film.  Mr. Spielberg has taken these historical events and brought them to riveting life, and he has done it without using any showy tricks or dramatic directorial flourishes.  Everything in the film feels quiet and restrained.  Even John Williams’ score — which is excellent, of course — dials down Mr. William’s usual bombast and … [continued]

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The Top Twenty Movies of 2015 — Part Three!

What fun this has been, revisiting a great year of movies,  Click here for the numbers twenty to sixteen, and click here for numbers fifteen to eleven.  And now, on to my top ten!

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10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens This was the hardest film to find the right place for on my list. I briefly had it in my top five, and then for a while had it all the way down at number twenty.  This is a film that has me very much of two minds.  There is so much about it that works spectacularly well.  The tone is perfect — this is a Star Wars film that is actually FUN (and funny!) again, a welcome relief after the stiff and dour prequels.  The film is wonderfully paced, carrying the audience along from one great action bit to the next.  The new cast is magnificent, with each actor perfectly chosen, creating a group of new young characters who I can’t wait to follow through additional adventures.  The film looks gorgeous, with beautiful special effects and top-notch work from every production department.  Harrison Ford returns as Han Solo and gives the best performance he’s delivered in two decades.  And yet… there are so many little things about the film that bug me, that don’t work as well as they should.  All of the coincidences and plot-holes.  The muddiness regarding what exactly the situation is with Resistance, the Republic, and the First Order.  The way Han Solo’s final scene works but not nearly as well as it should have worked (something I touched on in both of my articles about the film, and that I’ve been struggling to express to friends when talking about the film.  Thankfully, BirthMoviesDeath’s Devin Faraci absolutely nailed what was frustrating me in this terrific analysis.)  The fact that for the third time the Rebels have to blow up a Death Star-like thing.  This is a film with a lot of imperfections, and yet I do still sort of love it despite how rough around the edges it is.  J.J. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt have brought Star Wars back to life in a big, big way, and for that they have my thanks and appreciation.  (Click here for my original review, and here for my follow-up post.)

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9. Bridge of Spies When Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks work together, you know you’re in for a treat, and Bridge of Spies does not disappoint.  This quiet, intelligent film tells the story of Jim Donovan, a lawyer tasked with defending a Russian spy caught in Brooklyn in 1957 (an act that then  leads to Mr. Donovan’s … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies, the new film from Steven Spielberg, spans events in the Cold War from 1957-1962.  The film opens with the arrest of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy living in Brooklyn, NY.  Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks), a lawyer who primarily deals with insurance, agrees to serve as Abel’s legally required defense.  Despite the wishes of many around him, Donovan attempts to give Abel the best defense he is capable of, and the two men gradually bond.  In 1960, when a U.S. U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured, Donovan finds himself playing negotiator/mediator between the United States and U.S.S.R. governments, as he attempts to arrange a prisoner exchange of Abel for Powers.

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Bridge of Spies is not only a fascinating and compelling film, but, like The Martian (which I reviewed last week), it’s also an important one.  The Martian is set in the future in outer space, and Bridge of Spies is set decades ago during the Cold War, but both are films with important things to say about our world and our culture today.  While The Martian champions the value of science and intelligence, Bridge of Spies champions the importance of the rule of law and the rights that all men and women deserve.  In two critical scenes in the film, Tom Hanks gets to deliver powerfully written and marvelously performed speeches that spell out this message succinctly and effectively.  In the first, after being stopped in the rain by a C.I.A. agent who asserts that there is “no rule-book” in these dangerous times, Donovan counters that the Constitution and the rule of law is their rule-book, and that it is their adherence to the values and rights set out in the Constitution that unites him, a man of Irish descent, with agent Hoffman, a man of German descent, as Americans.  In the second, we hear Donovan argue Abel’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court, declaring that though Abel might be their foe, that what sets America apart is our values and our adherence to those values and the rule of law, even when in conflict with an enemy.  Both scenes are powerful declarations of the principles behind which the film stands, and both, I think, are important messages for Americans to hear today.  The issues we face today are no less difficult that those faced in the fifties and sixties; our enemies around the globe no less fierce and intractable; but that is no excuse to abandon our values and our principles out of expediency or because we believe we have no other choice.

Once again, Spielberg and Hanks prove to be a winning combination.  Hank’s … [continued]

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Peril at Sea Double Feature Part II: Captain Phillips

November 22nd, 2013
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Last week I decided one intense man-faces-death-at-sea movie just wasn’t enough for me.  After watching Robert Redford’s harrowing performance in All is Lost (click here for my review), I went and saw Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips.

Tom Hanks plays the titular captain in this based-on-a-true-story of the shipping boat that was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009, eventually resulting in the ship’s captain being held hostage by the pirates in their lifeboat before ultimately being rescued by navy SEALS.

I’ve read a little bit of questioning as to how true-to-the-facts this heroic portrayal of Captain Phillips is.  Perhaps wisely, Mr. Greengrass avoided opening this film with the standard “based-on-a-true-story” text caption or something similar.  That, and the tremendous skill with which this nail-biter of a thriller has been crafted, allowed me to sit back and enjoy the film without spending the whole run-time questioning it’s veracity.  (It should also be noted that Mr. Greengrass has strongly defended the accuracy of his film.)

Paul Greengrass has become extraordinarily skilled at creating intensely suspenseful, almost documentary-feeling thrillers (that are either based on real events, or that feel like they COULD have been).  He’s so good at this, in fact, that the are quite a few of his films that I have chosen not to see, because they just seemed too tough to watch.  (For example, though I am sure it was made with tremendous craft, I can’t imagine a scenario in which I would ever consider watching United 93.  It just seems too painful.)

But I love Tom Hanks, and his involvement made me push aside any worries that this movie would be too stomach-churning for me to see.  I’m glad I did, because Captain Phillips is a very skillfully-made film.  It’s every bit as edge-of-your-seat intense as I had expected, and contains some wonderful performances.

In particular, I was quite taken by the work of the men playing the four main Somali pirates.  All four are extraordinary.  These non-actors perform better than most highly-paid Hollywood superstars.  Their work is extraordinary, so real and so immediate.  In addition to their strong work, I credit perfect casting and great direction by Mr. Greengrass to help fine and hone such wonderful performances.

Then there is Tom Hanks, so is so good so consistently that he makes it look easy.  For much of the film Mr. Hanks keeps his performance very reined in.  his Captain Phillips is a strong, confident man, but also internal, not prone to demonstrative speeches or big emotional explosions.  (The sharp scrip by Billy Ray, based on the book by Captain Phillips himself and Stephan Talty, is a significant factor.)  Probably my favorite piece of performance from Mr. … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: From the Earth to the Moon

In 1998, HBO aired From the Earth to the Moon, a twelve-part mini-series produced by Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Michael Bostick.  The series chronicled the Apollo program, the massive American space-flight initiative that ran from 1961-1975 and which resulted in the first human being landing on the moon.

I am a nut for all things related to space-travel, so I eagerly devoured From the Earth to the Moon when it originally aired.  I have re-watched the series all the way through several times in the intervening years, and most recently re-watched it with my wife last month (who had never seen it before).  Although the series has nowhere near the intensity of Tom Hanks’ later HBO historical mini-series Band of Brothers and The Pacific, it still holds up as a phenomenal work of television, electrifying and informative.

What’s fun about the mini-series is that each episode has it’s own style and rhythms.  Obviously there is continuity from one episode to the next, as the stories have to fit together chronologically to tell the story of the developing Apollo program.  But each episode was written and directed by different individuals, and the creative team clearly took great pains to give each hour its own specific feel.  The first episode, for instance, titled “Can We Do This?” (which has to cover a lot of ground in setting up the story and summarizing the entire Mercury program — which was the focus of the superlative film The Right Stuff) is separated into a series of individually titled chapters — basically little vignettes that together paint a larger picture.  The third episode, “We Have Cleared the Tower,” is presented as the work of a documentary crew which was filming the preparations for the Apollo 7 mission.  Episode 5, “Spider,” (one of my favorite episodes of the mini-series) shifts the focus to the incredible amount of work done by all of the designers and engineers who constructed the lunar module.  Episode 10, “Galileo was Right,” focuses on all of the archaeological work that the astronauts had to accomplish (and the extraordinary amount of prep work that they needed to put in in order to do so).  These are just a few examples.  It’s a very clever strategy, as it keeps each episode fresh and new for the viewer.

There are a lot of visual effects throughout the series, and for the most part the quality is high.  There are several sequences of space-flight and Earth orbit that are very beautiful.  But this area is where the seams of this 1998 production show a bit.  I’m sure that today’s technology would have allowed for the creation of far more elaborate special effects.  … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Toy Story 3!

It’s not that the folks at Pixar are incapable of making a bad movie.  (I, for one, never cared for Cars.)  It’s just that it’s so very very rare that they do.  But after watching the marvelous Toy Story 3, it’s easy to believe that Pixar can do no wrong.

It’s been eleven long years since Toy Story 2.  One can perhaps be forgiven for doubting that even the mad geniuses at Pixar could recapture the magic of Toy Story after such a long hiatus.  But I am pleased to report that Toy Story 3 continues Pixar’s powerful winning streak.  It might not be quite the masterpiece that Toy Story 2 is (that film still stands as one of my all-time favorite movies), but I found it to be relentlessly entertaining and deeply moving.

At the end of Toy Story 2, Woody and the gang gave up the possibility of a lifetime of preservation (behind glass in a toy museum in Japan) in favor of a few more years being played with by Andy.  Toy Story 3 follows that decision through to its painful, inevitable conclusion.  Yes, Woody, Buzz and friends got a few more years being loved by Andy — but at the beginning of this film, he is all grown up and heading to college.  This leaves the toys facing the prospect of either years of storage in an attic, or being taken out with the trash.  Both prospects are devastating to the toys, whose main desire is to be played with and loved by a child.

Pixar could have easily kept Andy — and the rest of the characters — forever frozen in an ageless state, like Peter Pan or Bart Simpson.  I could easily imagine Pixar making sequel after sequel featuring the gang’s adventures in Andy’s room, without feeling the need to allow real-world issues like the realities of time and aging to intrude on the fun.  God bless the folks at Pixar, then, for not taking that route, and instead grappling head-on with the tough questions raised by the end of Toy Story 2.  The result is a film that — while still absolutely hilarious in parts — I found to be surprisingly melancholy.  This is not a criticism, it is a powerful complement.  The artists at Pixar haven’t created another simplistic, cookie-cutter franchise-extender.  They’ve produced a poignant fable that wrestles with issues that have no easy solution.

That statement leads me to consider (as I have many times since walking out of the theatre), the film’s marvelous ending.  (I’m going to be vague here, to try to avoid major spoilers — but nevertheless, please beware.)  I gladly admit that … [continued]

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Josh Enjoys a Double-Feature of Toy Story & Toy Story 2 in Glorious 3-D!!

October 12th, 2009
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Last week I had the pleasure of taking in a double-feature of Toy Story and Toy Story 2, re-done in beautiful 3-D.  What a glorious time in a movie theatre!

It seems that 3-D is really starting to be embraced by the studios.  There have been a number of big 3-D releases in the past year, with a LOT more on the horizon.  (Personally I’m looking forward to James Cameron’s Avatar and, further in the future, Steven Spielberg & Peter Jackson’s collaboration on Tintin.)  I’ve skipped most of the recent 3-D films since they really didn’t interest me.  I did see Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf (from 2007), and while the 3-D was cool, it still made my head hurt at times, and the film itself (minus the excitement of the 3-D effects) was entirely forgettable.  After that I stayed away from 3-D films until I saw Pixar’s Up this summer (read my review here), which was magnificent.  The film itself was wonderful, and the gorgeous visuals were only enhanced by the beautiful, immersive 3-D.

Pixar’s big release for summer 2010 will be the long-awaited Toy Story 3, which will be presented in 3-D.  To build some anticipation for the film, Disney and Pixar have re-done the first two Toy Story films in 3-D, and released them to theatres for a limited 2-week engagement this month.

Even without the 3-D, it was an enormous pleasure to re-watch those two films.  I really liked the first Toy Story, and I was bowled over by Toy Story 2 when it came out — I thought it was endlessly clever, quite effectively emotional, and also totally hysterical.  The Toy Story “Toy Box set” (containing both films plus a third disc filled with special features) was one of the very first DVDs I ever bought, and I watched Toy Story 2 several times those first few years.

So while I know Toy Story 2 really well, it had been quite a while since I had last seen the first Toy Story.  I was really pleasantly surprised by how well it holds up.  There are moments when it is clear how far Pixar’s animation has progressed (the fur on Sid’s dog, for instance, is pretty much just a solid shape, as opposed to the dynamic fur effects we’d see later on with Sulley and the Abominable Snowman a few years later in Monsters, Inc.), but over-all the animation holds up wonderfully.  The characters move naturally and — more importantly — really feel ALIVE as opposed to being just nicely-rendered CGI constructs.  This is helped by the genius voice-casting.  Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are absolutely perfect in the roles, and their … [continued]

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It’s been a busy month here, but that hasn’t stopped me from checking out a bunch of DVDs recently, new and old:

The Conversation — Released in 1974, this masterpiece was written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.  Gene Hackman stars as twitchy, secretive surveillance specialist Harry Caul, whose life is up-ended by a seemingly-innocuous conversation that he is hired to record.  Confidently directed by Coppola at the height of his abilities, the film is a perfect study of a slow burn as we watch Hackman’s character gradually fall to pieces.  This is Hackman’s film, without question, but it’s also fun to see the great John Cazale (Fredo in The Godfather) and an incredibly young Harrison Ford in supporting roles.  The film is also notable for the contributions of master editor Walter Murch (American Graffiti, Apocalypse Now) who created an incredible sound-scape that plays with sound and dialogue in some incredibly inventive ways.  The bravura opening sequence, in which Caul and his team records the titular conversation, is staggering — like Caul, we attempt to follow the couple and their conversation, but keep getting distracted by people talking, music playing, and a myriad of other background noises, with the conversation itself flittering in and out of our perception.  It’s really quite astonishing.  Everybody loves The Godfather these days, but I feel that The Conversation is a film that has fallen out of the popular consciousness.  Do yourself a favor and help remedy that by checking out this brilliant film!

Band of Brothers — Speaking of masterpieces, there is this 2001 HBO miniseries executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.  Adapted from the book by Stephen Ambrose, the series follows the men of Easy Company (of the US Army 101st Airborne Division) from their training in 1942 through to the end of the second world war.  I have watched this series through four times now since it was released, and each time I watch it I am just as over-come by the power of the story of these extraordinary heroes.  The production quality of this mini-series is unbelievable — each episode is really its own mini-movie.  The vistas are stunningly beautiful, and the action is gut-wrenchingly intense.  There are few movies. let alone TV shows, that are able to stage combat sequences with as much ferocity.  Over the ten episodes we follow and grow to love an enormous ensemble of characters: Damian Lewis as Richard Winters, Ron Livingston as Lewis Nixon, Donnie Wahlberg as Carwood Lipton, Scott Grimes as Donald Malarkey, Michael Cudlitz as “Bull” Randleman, James Madio as Frank Perconte, Neal McDonough as “Buck” Compton, Frank John … [continued]