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Marvel’s Winning Streak Continues with Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2!

Like almost everyone else, I was blown away by Guardians of the Galaxy back in 2014, and I have been eagerly awaiting writer/director James Gunn’s follow-up.  Three years later, it’s here, and it does not disappoint.  Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is visually astounding, extremely funny, and the film finds a way to deepen our understanding of and affection for pretty much every single one of its large cast of characters.  I’m not sure what more anyone could want!

The film picks up a little while after the end of the first film, with the Guardians working as heroes-for-hire (see what I did there?).  But when Rocket double-crosses their golden-skinned, perfect-looking employers called the Sovereign, the Sovereign exact fierce retribution that leaves the Guardian’s ship (the Milano) destroyed and the gang marooned.  To the rescue arrives Ego, the celestial being who is, apparently, Peter Quill’s real father.  Quill soon finds himself torn between his biological father and his adopted family.  Meanwhile, all sorts of other enemies threaten to tear the motley Guardians crew apart.  Gamora’s sister Nebula tracks her down, seeking vengeance.  Rocket and Baby Groot find themselves captured by the Ravagers, who have mutinied against their former Captain Yondu.  And, in the end, once again, the fate of the galaxy rests in their unlikely hands.

Whereas the Marvel cinematic universe has made an art out of creating interconnected films, what’s remarkable about Guardians vol. 2 is how stand-alone it is.  Thanos is mentioned a few times as Gamora and Nebula fight about their shared torturous childhood being raised by that monster, but otherwise Guardians vol. 2 is surprisingly separate from the way the Marvel movies have been building towards Infinity War.  It’s a surprising choice, but it pays off well, allowing this film to be able to dig deeply into this cast of characters without having to sacrifice valuable time towards pitching future movies.

In the paragraph above, I described some of the film’s plot, but in another surprising choice, Guardians vol. 2 is pleasantly light on plot.  For the most part, the structure of this film is something of an extended “hang” with all of the characters who we loved so much in the first Guardians film.  Here, too, this could easily be a weakness, but James Gunn and his team turn it into a strength.  First of all, this cast of actors are so terrific, and they have created such wonderful characters, that it’s a joy just to watch them bounce off of one another.  There are a number of scenes in the film that have a somewhat “shaggy” feel, as if either at the writing stage or the performance stage, Mr. Gunn and this … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Live by Night

February 13th, 2017
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I first became a fan of Ben Affleck from his work in Kevin Smith’s early nineties films, and in particular his so-funny, good-natured participation in the DVD commentary tracks for Mallrats and Chasing Amy (which are, seriously, among the greatest commentary tracks ever recorded).  Mr. Affleck seemed like such a good guy in those commentary tracks that I stuck with him when his career went south, and I was happy when he was able to relaunch himself as a director.  As I have written about multiple times, Gone Baby Gone, which was Mr. Affleck’s directorial debut (and he also co-wrote the film!), is one of my all-time favorite movies.  It was a triumph, a dramatic assertion of Mr. Affleck’s talent as a writer and director.  (Remember also that Mr. Affleck had previously won an Oscar, with Matt Damon, for writing Good Will Hunting.)  I didn’t love The Town, but Argo was terrific.  And so I was hugely excited for Mr. Affleck’s fourth film as a director: Live by Night.  I loved the idea of Mr. Affleck once again adapting a Dennis Lehane novel (as he had done with such success with Gone Baby Gone), and the merging of Mr. Affleck’s fondness for Boston-based crime stories with a big-budget period-piece setting seemed like a terrific match.

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And so I was bummed that Live by Night left me somewhat cold.  The film looks gorgeous, and has a terrific cast.  There are lots of individual moments and sequences that are terrific.  But it doesn’t hang together as well as it should.  There is too much plot, too many characters, and not enough actual character development.

Mr. Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin.  Though his father (played by Brendan Gleeson) is a police captain, Joe himself comes back from WWI to become a bank-robber.  He falls in love with a beautiful woman, Emma (Sienna Miller), who is the mistress of the head of Boston’s Irish mob.  That all comes crashing down on Joe’s head rather spectacularly.  After several years in prison, Joe goes to work for a rival Italian mobster and moves down to Florida, where he quickly becomes the head of the local bootlegging business.  Joe’s big plans for the end of prohibition soon put him in conflict with his new boss.

I like Mr. Affleck as an actor, but his Joe disappointingly remains a cypher throughout the film.  (This feels more like a script problem than a performance issue.)  I don’t feel I ever got to know or understand this character.  The film hints that his experiences in WWI brought him back to Boston a changed man, but the film never really allows us to understand what’s going on inside … [continued]

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Josh Reviews For The Love of Spock

October 28th, 2016
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For the Love of Spock is a documentary about Leonard Nimoy that was produced and directed by Mr. Nimoy’s son, Adam Nimoy.  The project was originally intended as an in-depth look at Leonard Nimoy’s iconic character, Mr. Spock, that Adam would create with Leonard’s involvement.  Unfortunately, Leonard Nimoy passed away in February, 2015.  Following his father’s passing, Adam Nimoy adjusted his documentary project to be look back at his father’s work and life, and also to his (Adam’s) own sometimes-fraught relationship with his father.

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For the Love of Spock is a superb documentary and a wonderful look back at Leonard Nimoy’s life and work.  Of course, the focus of the film is on Leonard Nimoy’s creation of the character of Spock.  The film explores the many decisions that were made early on, by the combination of Leonard Nimoy along with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry as well as the show’s writers and directors, that together created this much-loved character, and the film also explores just what it was about this character, and Leonard Nimoy’s performance, that made Spock such a beloved icon.  As a big-time Star Trek fan, there wasn’t too much new information here for me, but the film was thorough enough and skillfully-enough assembled that I was completely engaged (no pun intended) from start to finish.  And while we get the famous, much-told stories (such as the origin of the Vulcan salute or the Vulcan nerve pinch), the film also digs deeper to share many interesting recollections and anecdotes from the early days of the creation of the original Star Trek TV show, and I relished that look back at the creation of the iconic show.

I was also very interested in the time spent exploring Leonard Nimoy’s background and career pre-Star Trek, as these were areas about which I didn’t know as much.  The film is packed full with wonderful photos and old video clips of a young Leonard Nimoy, and I found those to be hugely enjoyable to see.  It was also interesting to hear stories from some of the people who worked with Leonard Nimoy during his days in the theatre.  (I wish there was some video footage that existed of those performances, as the stories of Mr. Nimoy’s work in the theatre were so tantalizing.)

Everyone you’d hope to hear from in a documentary like this is included.  We get some wonderful interview clips with all of the surviving original Star Trek cast.  There are some particularly great moments with Mr. Nimoy and William Shatner, most drawn from convention footage or some of the retrospective projects that the two men did together later in their careers. We also hear from almost all the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Guardians of the Galaxy

I had a feeling this one was gonna be good.  I’m glad I was right.

With Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios has blown the doors off of their cinematic universe in a big, big way.  This is a huge movie, filled with crazy alien planets and creatures and hugely original characters and situations.  The opening few minutes takes place on Earth, and then the entire rest of the film takes place in a far-off corner of the galaxy, a one-hundred-percent immersion in fantasy cosmic craziness.  (Man, this is what DC’s Green Lantern should have been like.)  The film is exciting and funny and it looks gorgeous.  I loved pretty much every minute of it.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was born on Earth but was kidnapped and stolen from the planet as a boy.  He grew up among a band of thieves and ragamuffins to become something of a Han Solo type, a roguish scoundrel with a heart of gold.  When hired to find a priceless orb, Quill decides to double-cross his boss, Yondu (Michael Rooker).  But it turns out that the villainous Ronan (Lee Pace) also wants the orb, so he sends his minion Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to obtain it as well.  Gamora also double-crosses her boss, and just as she confronts Quill the two run afoul of Rocket and Groot, two alien mercenaries looking to cash in on a good bounty.  The four all wind up apprehended by the Nova Corps (an intergalactic peace-keeping force) and thrown in jail.  Somehow, these four criminals — soon joined by a fifth, the hulking Drax — find themselves forming a tight bond with one another.  And with the fate of the universe at stake, this motley five-some have to do the thing none of them ever expected to do: become heroes.

Guardians of the Galaxy harkens back to the tone of the first Iron Man, a very silly, goofy sensibility crossed with a great fantasy action-adventure.  Iron Man had stakes, but it was also a whole heck of a lot of fun, and Guardians is exactly the same way.  The film is a riot, but this is not a spoof.  The characters are fleshed out, with fully-realized emotional arcs, and there is weight to the story being told.

Anyone who has been watching Parks and Recreation for the past six years knows that Chris Pratt is a star.  Now the whole world knows it.  Mr. Pratt has been perfectly cast as Peter Quill, the tough space-pirate who is also an innocent boy at heart.  Mr. Pratt absolutely dominates this movie, and he’s magnetic in every scene he’s in, even when standing along-side the ridiculously scene-stealing two-some of Rocket and Groot.  … [continued]

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Spielberg In The Aughts: The Terminal (2004)

You might have thought that Tom Hanks had a crazy accent in Catch Me If You Can, but that was merely a prelude to the ludicrously silly sort-of-Slovic voice that Mr. Hanks puts on for his role as Viktor Novorski in Steven Spielberg’s 2004 film, The Terminal.

Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) has just arrived to New York City from the Eastern European country of Madeupistan.  Er, excuse me, Krakozia.  Unfortunately, his country undergoes a military coup while Navorski is in the air.  By the time he arrives in New York City, all relations between the United States and Krakozia have been severed, and due to a variety of legal permutations, Mr. Navorski is unable to enter the U.S. but is similarly unable to return to Krakozia.  In short, he finds himself stuck, indefinitely, in the airport.

Let the comic hijinks commence!

I commented in my review of Catch Me If You Can on my feeling, when I first saw the film back in 2002, that it was a surprisingly slight film for Mr. Spielberg to make.  That probably caused me to dismiss the film a little too quickly at the time.  Well, if Catch Me If You Can is slight, then The Terminal is practically nonexistent.

That sounds harsh, which isn’t my intention.  There’s certainly some fun to be had in The Terminal. It’s just that while Catch Me If You Can was a light, fun film, it did have a pretty dramatic emotional core.  The Terminal sort-of shoots for that as well, but there’s just not much there.  What’s left is a fun, frothy film, but one without a whole heck of a lot to say.

(My wife thought that Viktor’s predicament — in which he is forced to go to some extreme lengths in order to adapt to survive the stranded situation in which he finds himself — reminded her of Mr. Hanks’ role in Cast Away.  I’d never thought of The Terminal in that way, but she’s right!  The difference, of course, is that The Terminal doesn’t have any of the dramatic underpinnings of Cast Away.  That’s putting it mildly!)

The Terminal has a fairly episodic structure.  Through a variety of vignettes, we see Viktor adapt to his crazy situation and somehow make for himself a remarkably pleasant life living in the airport.  He gradually bonds with several of the other off-beat but kind airport employees — played by Chi McBride (Boston Public), Diego Luna (Y tu mama tambien, Milk), Gupta Rajan (just as entertaining here as he was in The Royal Tenenbaums), and a pre-Star Trek Zoe Saldana (and, by the way, it’s a riot to … [continued]

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Josh reviews Avatar!

December 21st, 2009
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An indeterminate number of years in the future, mankind has ravaged the Earth and is forced to turn to alternative sources of energy.  By far the best is the ore nicknamed “unobtanium” (talk about a macguffin) that has been discovered on the alien world called Pandora.  Unfortunately, Pandora is home to a bunch of pesky natives, the Na’vi, who don’t take kindly to the shiploads of humans arriving on their planet with their giant bulldozers.  So the company supervising the mining sub-contracts the Marines to protect their workers and, if necessary, destroy any belligerent Na’vi.

But some scientists, lead by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), would prefer to find a diplomatic solution to the escalating violence with the Na’vi.  As such, they have constructed artificial Na’vi avatars — fully lifelike and functional Na’vi bodies that can be controlled by a human mind.  The idea is that these Avatars will be able to assimilate into the Na’vi culture better than a human ever could — learning about them, and hopefully eventually being able to reach an understanding with them.  Tom Sully was one of the highly-trained humans who had been preparing to control an Avatar, but when he is killed, the company must turn to his twin brother, Jake.  (Since the Avatars are apparently created specifically to match the genetics of their individual human controller, only Jake can substitute for his brother.)  Jake, a Marine who has lost the use of his legs, is excited by the chance to be useful again, and even more overwhelmed by the sensations of controlling a Na’vi body, through which he can at last walk (not to mention run, jump, etc.).  Things get even better for Jake when the mutilated Colonel Quaritch, who supervises the Marines on Pandora, approaches Jake with an offer: if Jake will feed him all the tactical information he gains about the Na’vi during his Avatar’s time amongst them (which the Colonel can use to wipe the Na’vi out once and for all), the Colonel will see that the military pays for the expensive medical procedures necessary to restore Jake’s legs.

Of course, once Jake’s Avatar actually gets accepted into Na’vi society, things become a lot more complicated, morally, for Jake, and he finds himself caught between two societies that are rapidly heading for a collision.

Avatar brings with it an enormous amount of hype and expectation — almost more than any movie could possibly live up to.  It’s the first narrative feature film from Director James Cameron since the extraordinary success of Titanic back in 1997.  Mr. Cameron has directed some of the most influential sci-fi films ever made (and also some of the very best): Aliens, Terminator, T2, The [continued]

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Death in the Shadow of New Life — Josh reviews J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek!

It’s been a long road.  After walking disgustedly out of the opening weekend screening of the catastrophically terrible Star Trek: Nemesis back in December, 2002, I knew that Trek was at a low point.  It seemed uncertain what, if any, future the franchise had after the release of that bomb and the subsequent cancellation of the last Trek TV show, Enterprise.  Then, about 3 years ago, word came that a new Trek film was in the works.  Gradually news began to leak out, some very exciting, some rather worrying, and I soaked up every tidbit with great anticipation, some nervousness, and extremely high hopes that one day Star Trek could be great again.  A few hours ago, I watched the result of J.J. Abrams and his team’s efforts: the simply-titled Star Trek.

Abrams and his brain-trust — consisting of Damon Lindeloff (one of the top minds behind Lost) and screen-writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman — dared to do what no man has done before: to re-cast the iconic roles of the Original Series characters.  As everyone knows by now, instead of creating new characters and situations and moving the Star Trek universe forward beyond the adventures of Picard-Sisko-Janeway-etc., they decided to go back and tell an Original Series story, with new actors playing younger versions of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and all the other familiar characters.  This was an incredibly risky move.  While similiar “how it all began” prequels such as Batman Begins and Casino Royale worked well, audiences had already become accustomed to seeing lots of different actors take on the roles of Batman and James Bond.  But could someone other than William Shatner play Kirk?  Could someone other than Leonard Nimoy play Spock?

Although sadly this film fails in some powerfully annoying ways (more on that in a few moments), I am happy to report that, in this respect — that is, in regards to the viability of rebooting and recasting Star Trek — the film succeeds magnificently.  Bravo to the choice of talented actors selected to be the new command team of the Enterprise — there is not a weak link in the bunch.  None of the actors resorts to mimicry, and yet they all, somehow, truly manage to embody their characters!

Let’s start with Chris Pine as James Tiberius Kirk.  He’s got the swagger, he’s got the arrogance, and yet he’s able to also convey a tremendous likability.  You can see that this is a man that others will follow.  The film doesn’t shy away from the “lady-killer” aspects of Kirk’s persona, but Pine never crosses the line into camp or, on the other hand, into boorishness.  Rather, there’s terrific fun to had … [continued]