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Josh Reviews Kong: Skull Island

In 1973, as the United States forces leave Vietnam, a group of soldiers are assigned to what is supposed to be a geological expedition.  Unfortunately, it turns out their mission is at the behest of U.S. government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman), who is attempting to prove his theory that giant monsters exist.  Turns out he’s right, and he has led his unfortunate group to Skull Island, home of King Kong and lots of creatures that are even worse.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film Kong: Skull Island is a fun, clever reinvention of the King Kong mythos.  The film is part Apocalypse Now, part monster movie, part multi-character ensemble drama.  It has some intense action beats and some moments of great comedy.  Skull Island is a robust mixture of a lot of different influences and elements, and somehow it all comes together to create an enjoyable, modern take on King Kong, a character originated in 1933.

I write “modern” take, though I was surprised that the film is actually a period piece.  The prologue is set in 1944, and the rest of the film takes place in 1973.  I love this choice.  The film has a slightly retro look that differentiates it from other recent monster movies, and the post-Vietnam setting winds up being a perfect opportunity for the film to explore some interesting character beats.  (This isn’t a film that dives too deeply into any characters, which is the film’s main weakness, but the post-Vietnam setting is effectively used as a shorthand to help create a bunch of interesting characters even though the film doesn’t really take the time to explore most of them.)

Mr. Vogt-Roberts’ film is gorgeous.  There are some extraordinary visual effects, no surprise.  Kong himself is magnificently realized.  From the trailers, I was uncertain by the decision to make Kong so enormous, but it works in the film.  This behemoth-sized Kong has quite a different feel from Peter Jackson’s 2005 film.  But in this film’s entirely different setting, it works.  Kong is referred to repeatedly as a god, and this mammoth Kong has that feeling.  The CGI effects that brought him to life are terrific, equally effective when we are looking into Kong’s eyes in extreme close-up or watching him throw down with enormous other hideous creatures.  Tremendous credit must go to Terry Notary, whose motion-capture work was the heart of Kong’s performance.  (Mr. Notary has been doing great work at creating characters in fantasy spectacles for many years now.  I first became familiar with his work from watching the behind-the-scenes documentaries on the DVDs of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.)

The film includes a number of sequences of rip-roaring monster mayhem.  The intro to … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Night Manager

The Night Manager is a six-episode mini-series based on the novel by John le Carré.  The adaptation was directed by Susanne Bier (who just won an emmy for her work directing this mini-series) and written by David Farr (a writer who also worked on the British TV show Spooks, called MI:5 here in the U.S.).

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Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) is a former soldier who now works as the night manager at a fancy hotel in Cairo.  One night, the beautiful mistress of a powerful Egyptian man gives Jonathan evidence that her husband is involved in arms sales to terrorists.  Jonathan manages to pass this info on to an old friend in the British military, but this action winds up getting the woman, with whom Jonathan has fallen in love, killed.  Jonathan flees Cairo, adopts a new name, and tries to forget everything that happened and begin a new live in isolation in Switzerland.  But a chance encounter brings Jonathan face to face with the man he believes responsible for his lover’s death: the wealthy British CEO Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie).  Believing that this man who purports to be a social justice warrior is actually someone who profits off of death and destruction across the globe, Jonathan agrees to work with an outsider British intelligence officer in an attempt to infiltrate Richard Roper’s organization and bring him down.

As can be expected from a story based on the work of John le Carré, The Night Manager is a wonderfully tense, twisty spy caper.  It takes a little while for the story to get moving, but once Jonathan has come face to face with Roper and begun to earn his trust and get inside his operation, the show really comes to life.  The charisma and chemistry between Mr. Hiddleston and Mr. Laurie is tremendous, and it’s great fun watching these two intelligent men cagily circle one another.  This sort of story only works if you believe that a) the mole is smart enough and clever enough to have a chance to actually succeed in infiltrating the bad guy’s operation without getting immediately found out, and b) that the bad guy is smart enough and clever enough to be fully capable of discovering what the hero is really up to, thus giving the story exciting dramatic tension.  The Night Manager succeeds on both counts wonderfully.

The story is leisurely paced but that works well in allowing us to gradually discover these characters and the world they live in.  Once Jonathan is in and the screws start to tighten, I was thoroughly hooked.  Six episodes feels like the perfect length for this story.  It’s long enough to allow for greater complexity, and a more … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Crimson Peak

A new film by Guillermo del Toro is always a source of great excitement for me.  Add to that the idea of Mr. del Toro, a master of horror and fantasy, involved in a haunted house movie?  Delicious.  Crimson Peak has not been successful at the box office, which is a shame because it is a great film, original, clever, gorgeously made, and with some wonderful performances, particularly by the lead trio of Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain.  While the film does not approach the quality of Mr. del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s nonetheless a terrific film and a wonderful story.

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Young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) has been raised by her businessman/architect father after the death of her mother when she was just a girl.  Edith dreams of being a writer, but has thus far found only rejection.  Though she has a friendship with a handsome young physician (Charlie Hunnam), she finds herself wooed by a visiting British aristocrat, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who has come to America looking for Edith’s father to invest in his inventions.  But Sir Thomas and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), are hiding a secret, one which will threaten Edith’s life when she joins Sir Thomas and Lucille back in their ancient mansion home, nicknamed Crimson Peak by the locals.

What I love most about the films of Guillermo del Toro is the way that each is an utterly original creation and a fully realized fantasy world.  Each film of Mr. del Toro’s is a peek (no pun intended) into an entirely original universe, with its own rules and unique characters and situations, into all of which Mr. del Toro digs deeply.  Each of his films benefits from an enormous amount of thought and care paid to the world-building of that particular story.  I love this feeling of stepping into a fully-realized universe of the film, one which exists beyond the boundaries of the particular story being told in that film.

Mr. del Toro is also a master at tying the fantastic elements of his stories to real, human characters, who are always the center of his films, no matter how wonderful the ghosts or monsters or other fantasy creations in the film are.  (As much as I enjoyed seeing Mr. del Toro operate with the first huge budget of his career with Pacific Rim, that film stumbled because it lacked Mr. del Toro’s usual sharp focus on character.)  Though Crimson Peak is also a decently-budgeted film (it is listed on-line at a budget of $55 million, which is a lot more money than many of Mr. del Toro’s earlier films but a tiny pittance compared to most big-budget blockbusters … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Thor: The Dark World

The sprawling cinematic epic that Marvel Studios has been crafting, ever since 2008’s Iron Man, rolls on with the very strong installment Thor: The Dark World.  One might have been forgiven for thinking that perhaps, after the unprecedented movie super-hero crossover that was The Avengers, the return to solo superhero stories might be a letdown.  But with the fun Iron Man Three (click here for my review) and now with the confident, bold Thor: The Dark World, Marvel is continuing an impressive streak of successful films, and continuing to expand the canvas of their super-hero universe.

At the start of Thor: The Dark World, Loki has been returned to Asgard in chains (following his defeat in The Avengers) and Thor — accompanied by his stalwart comrades-in-arms the Warriors Three and the lady Sif — has been busy putting down revolts across the nine realms (an apparent result of Loki’s destruction of the bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge that linked Asgard to the other realms, at the end of the first Thor).  All is well, except that Thor longs to return to the side of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) on Earth.  His father disapproves, but when Jane is put in peril by her discovery of an ancient evil, Thor rushes to her rescue.  That doesn’t prove to be as simple as he had hoped, as Jane has become linked to a powerful weapon that the evil Malekith plans to use to destroy the nine realms and return the universe to the state of dark and lifelessness that existed before the universe as we know it was created.  After Malekith launches a devastating attack on Asgard itself, Thor is once again put at odds with his father, Odin, and forced to turn to none other than his disgraced, treacherous brother Loki for help.

After the relatively small-scale first Thor movie, which was mostly set in a tiny Midwestern town, I was delighted by how broadly Thor: The Dark World opened up the canvas of the story.  We get to explore quite a number of the nine realms in this film, and a huge chunk in the middle is set entirely on Asgard, which is a lot of fun.  Veteran TV director Alan Taylor (who, most recently, has helmed some spectacular episodes of Game of Thrones) sure knows how to get the most bang for his buck, because Thor: The Dark World looks HUGE.  I was very impressed by the visual effects that brought all of the realms and creatures and space-ships to life.  (Yes, I said space-ships.  There is a lot of sci-fi cosmic craziness in this film, mixed in with all the fantasy.  This feels very true to … [continued]

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Well, here we are at last.  The brilliant post-credits scene of 2008’s Iron Man (click here for my original review) promised the beginning of a bold experiment by the fledgeling Marvel Studios — launching stand-alone films starring several of their major characters (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America) which would then be followed by all of those characters teaming up in an Avengers movie.  It was a gloriously outrageous idea, one common to comic-books but never before seen in movies.  Marvel Studios was actually planning on making a super-hero crossover film, and one featuring all the same actors who starred in the individual films!  And not only that, but the individual films would actually connect, with story-points and characters overlapping to create a building momentum for the eventual climax in The Avengers.

It was a bold plan, and I am so happy and relieved to report that Marvel Studios has stuck the landing.  Not only does The Avengers work, it works crazily well, and I think it’s the strongest Marvel Studios film since 2008’s Iron Man (and I say that as a big fan of both Thorclick here for my review — and Captain America: The First Avengerclick here for my review).  It’s hard to believe that I live in a world in which a film version of The Avengers actually exists!!  And that it not only exists but that it kicks so much ass makes the whole thing the stuff of beautiful fantasy.

There is surely a huge list of people who must be given credit for the success of this enterprise, but at the top of the list is co-writer and director Joss Whedon.  I am a huge, huge, huge fan of his film Serenity (which he wrote and directed) and that film clearly showed that Mr. Whedon was the perfect man for the job of helming The Avengers. Serenity not only looks amazing, boasting some fantastic visual effects sequences and completely selling the reality of a futuristic, sci-fi world despite being made for a relatively small budget (FAR less than The Avengers).  But more importantly, in that film Mr. Whedon was able to balance nine main characters, giving depth and life to every one of them, presenting them as very different people with different goals and different attitudes and different ways of speaking, and also giving each one of them moments to shine in the course of the film, without one character overshadowing the others.

Mr. Whedon brings the same deft touch to The Avengers. The greatest pleasure of the film isn’t just that the characters are all appearing in the same film (though just the … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2011: Midnight in Paris

At this point in Woody Allen’s amazing career (and whether you love or loathe the filmmaker himself, you must acknowedge that the man’s writing and directing a film a year for the last forty-some odd years is an amazing achievement) I think that my level of enjoyment of his new films rests largely on which side of the familiar I feel his new films land.

Many critics object to the been-there, done-that feel that they get from Woody’s films these days. And I certainly feel that way myself, sometimes. But, on the other hand, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a great artist continuing to explore certain themes or ideas throughout his work. Painters do that, as do musicians, so why not filmmakers?

Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris, opens to a gorgeous montage of images of Paris, set to a piece of jazz music. This is a device that Mr. Allen has used before in his films, most notably in the opening to Manhattan (click here for my review of that seminal film), in which we’re presented with a montage of images of New York City, set to a wonderful piece of music by George Gershwin. Watching the opening of Midnight in Paris, one might sigh and say, “been-there, done-that, this is just the same as the opening of Manhattan.” But, despite the similarity, I still loved this device as a way to open the film. It felt like a stylistic echo of Mr. Allen’s previous work in a way that was like spoons fitting comfortably together in a drawer, rather than repetition done by an artist out of ideas. (It helps that the images of Paris in the opening to Midnight in Paris are so beautiful, and the jazz music so wonderful.)

On the other hand, when we’re presented with scenes, in the early part of the film, in which we meet Gil (Owen Wilson)’s shrewish wife Inez (Rachel McAdams) who is hassling him about his pursuit of “artistic integrity” and who thinks he should just relax and take the easy pay-check (that his Hollywood screenwriting job affords), or when the two argue about Paul (Michael Sheen), with whom Inez is enchanted but who Paul dismisses as an airhead intellectual, I felt that we were on the BAD side of the familiar.

I’ve seen those character types, and those arguments, time and time again in Woody Allen’s films, and I was disappointed to see those same “talking points” returned to here. These character dynamics were interesting to me in Woody’s films from thirty years ago, but now, to me, they feel played out. I would have rather seen Mr. Allen push himself a little … [continued]

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A Steven Spielberg Double-Feature Part II — War Horse

And now for the second-half of my Steven Spielberg double-feature — War Horse. (Click here for my review of The Adventures of Tintin.)

When I first saw the trailer for War Horse, I dismissed it almost immediately.  Something about the swelling music and the dramatic shots edited together rubbed me the wrong way, as if the trailer was screaming for us to understand that THIS IS A SERIOUS (read: Oscar-bait) FILM!!  Equally unappealing to me was that, on the other hand, what appeared to be a story about the adventures of a miraculous horse seemed to be to be incredibly silly and childish.  If the words “a Steven Spielberg film” hadn’t been in there, I would have immediately resolved not to see the film.

But there’s just no way that I can miss seeing a new film by Steven Spielberg on the big screen, and I’m glad that I didn’t write this film off because War Horse, while not a masterpiece, is a very solid film and a much different type of story than I was expecting.

The weakest part of the film is the first thirty minutes or so.  That’s the part of the film that is most like what I feared the movie would be.  A boy forms a miraculous bond with a beautiful horse, and then that amazing horse plows the field that everyone declared was impossible to plow.  Now, I’m no farmer, but the film presents us with two pieces of information that every character accepts as fact:  that, a) the horse Joey is far too small to be a plow horse of any kind, and that b) the rocky field is considered to be un-plowable by even the biggest, best plow-horse.  So, of course, Joey is able to plow the field, which brings us right into fantasy-land.  I was worried.

But then World War I breaks out, and the boy, Albert, loses his horse to a young man going off to war, and the film really begins.  I was worried that War Horse was going to be the adventures of this amazing horse at war.  Luckily, though, with one small exception (the scene in which it seems that Joey volunteers to pull the heavy artillery, in order to spare another, injured horse), the film is not about the heroic actions of an anthropomorphized heroic horse.  Rather, Joey is the vehicle for telling a series of different vignettes about World War I.  As Joey passes from owner to owner, and the war progresses, we meet various different characters on all sides of the conflict (British, French, and German) and so are presented with stories covering a wide range of the spectrum of experiences … [continued]

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Although Thor doesn’t come close to equalling some of the amazing super-hero films we’ve been blessed with over the past several years (the first Iron Man, which kicked off this current run of inter-connected Marvel films, The Dark Knight, the first two X-Men films, and the first two Spider-Man films), it is a WAY better film version of the character of Thor and his mythos than I EVER would have imagined possible.

Despite by being a huge comic book fan and a Marvel Zombie since I was a kid, I never read the Thor comic regularly.  I always thought Thor was great as part of the ensemble of The Avengers, but his solo title never captured my interest.  And when Marvel announced, after the huge success of Iron Man, that they were working on a film version of Thor (as part of a series of films that would build up to The Avengers), I was dubious.  The recent Marvel films had worked so well in large part because they were fairly grounded.  Sure, Iron Man wound up with two guys in huge metal suits punching each other, but the filmmakers and the actors took pains to ground the story in the real world (and to give the characters human, real-world motivations and emotions).  I think that was a big part of the film’s success.  Same goes with the Spidey films and the X-Men films (which, for example, cast off most of the more colorful aspects of the comics — like the yellow spandex costumes).

But Thor? The Thor comic books are all about a big guy who is ACTUALLY A NORSE GOD and speaks in archaic language (a lot of “thees” and “thous”) and who has crazy adventures with other gods or god-like characters.  How could that possibly be achieved in a film that wouldn’t feel painfully small-scale (without the budget or the resources to properly achieve the epic scale of Thor’s cosmic adventures as seen in the comics) and/or feel totally ridiculously silly.

And yet, somehow, director Kenneth Branagh managed to pull off a film that, for the most part, works really well and is enjoyable both as a film in its own right and as a key stepping-stone towards The Avengers.  This is an impressive achievement and a pretty fun time at the movies!

As with Iron Man, the film’s biggest success lies in it’s casting.  There are other things that one can pick at about Thor (and I will of course do so momentarily), but I think the casting is pretty much spot-on perfect.  Chris Hemsworth (so great as James T. Kirk’s doomed dad in the opening scenes of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek[continued]