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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2020 — Part Two!

On Monday I began my list of my favorite movies of 2020!  And now, let’s enter my Top Ten:

10. Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary — Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary is exactly what it sounds like — a feature-length look back at the making of 1999’s Galaxy Quest!  It makes me so happy that Galaxy Quest is now getting this type of love.  I have loved Galaxy Quest ever since seeing it in the theater back in 1999, and this documentary (directed by Jack Bennett) was a delight from start to finish.  It’s a joyous celebration of this terrific film, filled with interviews with the entire cast and a deep bench of the behind-the-scenes players who were involved in the creation of this great sci-fi comedy.  If you’re a Galaxy Quest fan, this is a must-watch.  (Click here for my full review.)

9. The 40-Year-Old Version Radha Blank wrote, directed, produced, and stars in this wonderfully off-beat and moving film about a woman named Radha who, despite early success as a playwright, is now, in her forties, feeling lost and unmoored.  Ms. Blank is spectacular in the film.  She’s a tremendous comedic force, and she’s also a very strong dramatic actor.  I love how silly the film is at times, and yet how at the same time, as the film unfolds, it develops into a very deep character study.  Ms. Radha was able to take many autobiographical aspects of her own life and spin them into this beautiful and unusual film.  While the title is a play on Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, this film has nothing to do with Mr. Apatow’s film.  It tells a completely different, very original, story.  I loved it.  (My full review will be coming soon.)  (Above photo by Eric Branco, Courtesy of Sundance Institute.)

8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Adapted from the play by August Wilson, this beautiful and heartbreaking film, from director George C. Wolfe, is set in 1927 and depicts a very contentious day in the life of African-American blues singer Ma Rainey and her band.  The film features the final performance of the late, great Chadwick Boseman, who is absolutely mesmerizing as Levee, the brash young trumpeter in Ma’s band.  (Mr. Boseman was also in Da 5 Bloods, which made part 1 of my best of 2020 list.)  Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey, and it’s a powerhouse of a performance.  The film is gorgeous, compelling, and emotionally wrenching.  (Click here for my full review.)

7. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan Sacha Baron Cohen’s brilliant sequel is hilarious and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was adapted from the play by August Wilson.  Set in 1927, it depicts a very contentious day in the life of African-American blues singer Ma Rainey and her band.  They’re recording Ma Rainey’s music in Chicago for a white record producer, as arranged by her white agent.  As the day winds on, the tensions rise between the members of Ma’s band and also between Ma and the two white men overseeing the session.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is beautiful and heartbreaking.  Director George C. Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson have done a terrific job adapting August Wilson’s play for this film.  The film retains the feeling of a theatrical experience.  The theatrical rhythm of the dialogue has been thankfully preserved.  And the fact that the film basically takes place in only two rooms belies its theatrical origins.  But this film never felt like a dry, limited adaptation, a pale reflection of what might have been more lively on the stage (the way films adapted from plays can sometimes be).  Mr. Wolfe and his collaborators have beautifully brought this story and these characters to life on the screen in a way that works perfectly as a movie.

Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey, and it’s a powerhouse of a performance.  Ms. Davis’ fiery charisma commands the screen with her presence.  At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of Ma.  After just recently watching Mank, at first I wasn’t wild to be watching what seemed to be another story of a misbehaving, over-entitled, selfish “artist”.  But there’s a lot more to this character, and one of the best delights of this film is the way the story very slowly peels back the layers of Ma Rainey until we understand what’s really going on.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is sadly the final performance of the late, great Chadwick Boseman.  And what a performance it is.  Mr. Boseman is absolutely mesmerizing as Levee, the brash young trumpeter in Ma’s band.  Levee is a hot young turk with tremendous energy and enthusiasm, and he seems to have the musical skills to back up his ego.  But there’s anger underneath Levee’s beaming smile, and a hunger for more than he has.  Mr. Boseman gets to deliver two crucial monologues in the film, and they are both showstoppers.  I don’t believe Mr. Boseman was ever better, and that’s saying something.  His work here is a bravura performance that only twists the knife of anguish over this great artist who passed away at far too young an age.

The entire ensemble is terrific.  Glynn Turman (Baltimore mayor Royce on The Wire) is fiercely compelling as Toledo, the soft-spoken piano player who’s the old … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Suicide Squad

Following the disappointment of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie that I found to be overly dour and grim and dull (and, even more problematically, filled with almost nonsensical plotting and paper-thin characters), I thought Suicide Squad looked like a breath of fresh air for the burgeoning DC movie-verse, fun and anarchic.  Sadly, the film has almost all of the exact same problems as Batman v. Superman: the plot makes little sense, the characters are underdeveloped, and the whole thing reeks of desperation to be cool and adult, while failing to be either.  I actually think Batman v. Superman is better than Suicide Squad — something I can’t believe I am writing.  Oy vey!

SuicideSquad.cropped

Created by John Ostrander in the eighties (actually, recreated, as there was a previous Silver Age version of the concept) (and I was happy to see that Mr. Ostrander got a fun shout-out in the third act of the film), the idea behind Suicide Squad is that government operative Amanda Waller (played here by Viola Davis) has gathered a group of meta-human super-villains and attempts to coerce them into doing good on the government’s behalf as a way to commute their sentences (and avoid getting blown up by the bombs she’s had implanted in their necks).  Here in the film, the DC world has been shaken by the arrival, and then departure, of Superman, which lends context to Amanda Waller’s desperation to have some meta-humans she can control.  Of course, the idea of trying to control these super-powered crazies is probably a bad idea.

I am somewhat shocked that this obscure property has made it to the big screen, so in this I applaud DC/Warners for having the guts to dig this deeply into the wonderful history of DC Comics.  I never really expected to see Harley Quinn in live-action on-screen, let alone Deadshot or Katana.  While I think DC/Warners are shooting themselves in the foot by rushing to create a shared cinematic universe — in slavish imitation of what Marvel Studios has done so well — without taking the time to carefully develop each property individually, which has been Marvel’s (very successful) strategy, I must admit that it’s also sort of cool that this new slate of DC movies are dropping us into a universe fully in motion.  Man of Steel was a new origin story for Superman, but Batman v. Superman presented us with a Batman who had been in operation for decades and already had a Robin killed, and a Wonder Woman who had been around since WWI at least, while also suggesting the existence of many other super-humans (all the other members of what will be the Justice League.)  Here … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Ender’s Game

I read Orscon Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game when I was in college, and I loved it.  I was intrigued by the character of Ender, and captured by the tough, brutal world Mr. Card had created. I of course kept reading and, though I know I am in the minority on this one, I loved Mr. Card’s exceedingly weird, lengthy follow-up novel, Speaker For the Dead.  That books feels like it is a part of a whole different series than Ender’s Game.  It’s got to be one of the most bizarre sequels I have ever encountered, in that it takes the story in an entirely different direction.  While Speaker For the Dead is something of a letdown for people looking for a follow-up to the events of Ender’s Game, I think it’s a pretty great sci-fi novel when taken on its own.  I read Mr. Card’s next two Ender’s books, Xenocide and Children of the Mind, but by the end of that fourth book I had lost interest.  When Mr. Card returned to the timeframe and setting of Ender’s Game with a new series of novels, I was intrigued, but while Ender’s Shadow has been sitting on my bookshelf for about a decade, I have never gotten around to reading it.

I have been rooting for Ender’s Game to be made into a film since I first read it, almost twenty years ago.  But paradoxically, as the film adaptation finally became a reality over the last year or two, my enthusiasm dimmed.  I am not a fan of director Gavin Hood (although the world seems to disagree with me, I did not like his film Tsotsi, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a catastrophe of epic proportions), and the involvement of Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman (whose scripts for J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek films have been poor, and their work on the Transformers films and Cowboys and Aliens has also been unfortunate in the extreme) worried me.  So I did not enter the film adaptation of Ender’s Game with a lot of hope.

In some ways, then, I was pleasantly surprised that the bulk of the film is actually pretty good.  There is a lot of the middle of the film that I quite enjoyed.  However, the problem is that the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes are incredibly ham-handed and amateurish, and as a result leave the film crippled, just a mildly diverting adventure as opposed to the powerful sci-fi tale that this story should be.

Let’s start with the opening, which is just a mess of heavy-handed exposition and choppy scenes.  Rather than focusing on letting us get to know this smart, intense, weird boy Ender, … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Out of Sight (1998)

Boy do I absolutely adore Out of Sight. It’s one of those films in whose world I wish I could go on living.  There’s just something so magical about the combination of the script, the direction, the acting, and the whole tone that is created in the film.  When watching Out of Sight, I never want the story to end.  I wish there were ten more films featuring these characters in further adventures.  It’s that good — just a (too short) little slice of perfection.

The film is directed by Steven Soderbergh (it’s by far my favorite Soderbergh film, so far above the dreadful Ocean’s 11 movies as to be laughable), and adapted (by Scott Frank, doing a bang-up job) from the novel by Elmore Leonard.  (Every time I watch this film I say to myself that I need to go read the original novel immediately.  I’m ashamed to say I haven’t yet, but I do look forward to getting to that some day.)

When the film begins, we meet Jack Foley (George Clooney), a man who seems to be at the end of his rope.  So, what is there to do but walk across the street and rob a bank.  He fails, of course, but that’s just the beginning of the story.  Out of Sight has a deliciously twisted narrative, jumping back and forth between different characters and different time periods.  (The joy of discovering, late in the film, just what happened to so royally piss off Jack at the start of the movie is immense.)

George Clooney is absolutely dynamite in the lead role.  It’s a true movie-star performance.  He gives Jack ENORMOUS charisma and likability, even though he’s a thief and a scoundrel.  Mr. Clooney brings a lot of layers to Jack, and I love the way the character is depicted as very smart and adaptable, though not super-humanly perfect.  Jack does screw up, and he makes bad decisions.  But we root for him to succeed every step of the way.

Jennifer Lopez plays U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco, and I would argue that she has never been better on-screen.  Ms. Lopez is sexy and smart, and her chemistry with Mr. Clooney is palpable.  Their first meeting — locked together in the trunk of a stolen car (you just have to watch the film to see how they got into that situation) — remains one of my favorite scenes from any film.  The dialogue bites, but the scene succeeds because Mr. Clooney and Ms. Lopez sell it perfectly.

And how great is the rest of the supporting cast?  There’s Dennis Farina as Karen’s dad.  There’s Ving Rhames as Jack’s partner-in-crime Buddy.  There’s Steve Zahn as the hapless criminal … [continued]

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Catching up on 2011: The Help

In preparing to write my Top 15 Movies of 2011 list, I made an effort to watch as many 2011 films as I possibly could.   I’ve already written about many of those movies here on the site, but there were many that I saw that I haven’t had a chance to write about yet.  I’ll be trying to remedy that with my “Catching up on 2011” series this week and next.

Let’s start with The Help, the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s acclaimed novel.

As I’m sure most of you know, the novel and the film depict the lives of several African American maids working in wealthy white homes in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s.  The story is set in motion when the young, white Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan returns home to Jackson after finishing college.  After several years away, Skeeter is able to see her town in a new light, and she finds herself shocked at the way the African American “help” is treated by her friends and neighbors, and even by her own mother.  Skeeter’s path eventually crosses with two fascinating African American women, Aibilene Clark (played by Viola Davis) and her friend Minny Jackson (played by Octavia Spencer).

I haven’t read the novel, so my evaluation of The Help is based entirely on the film.  For the most part, I found the movie, which was adapted and directed by Ms. Stockett’s friend Tate Taylor, to be entertaining albeit a bit slight.  There is no question that the story of the generations of African American women who worked as maids/house-keepers/etc. to affluent white families in the South is an important subject.  And I respect the desire by Ms. Stockett and the filmmakers to try to wrap that story in as entertaining a package as possible, so that while we’ll hopefully feel the emotion of the story, we won’t be too depressed by too “heavy” a presentation of the subject-matter.

But I think the filmmakers erred in going a bit too far into the light and fluffy side of town.  (And while it seems to me this is likely a flaw of the source material, as I wrote before I can’t say for sure having not read the book.)  For instance (and there are some small spoilers ahead, but even I knew of this plot twist before watching the movie, without having read the book), there’s the whole matter of the shit-pie that Minny baked for Hilly (played in the film by Bryce Dallas Howard).  Quite a lot of the film’s story hangs on that event, as Hilly’s desire to cover it up is the leverage that Minny and the maids have over her.  But the event is such … [continued]