Josh… the film critic?!

Geek, Review

I’ve been a movie fan for all my life, dating back to when my university professor-mom would screen films on a bedsheet in our living room. Years later, when I was a college student, I took a number of film criticism classes, most notably one focusing on movies about the Vietnam War (which was a special passion of mine). I wrote a number of papers about those flicks. Then, in the early 1990s, I actually published some movie reviews, in the progressive weekly In These Times.

Recently, I stumbled across some of those old reviews and papers, which I’ve added to the "And…" section of my website. It’s funny, even though only half the reviews I wrote back in ’91/’92 got published, I really got into the whole "film critic" thing, and spent just as much time on the pieces  I knew would never see print — just for the fun of it. That was a period in my life when I was searching for my true creative outlet, having temporarily given up comics in disgust (before I discovered the wonderful — and lucrative! ;-> — world of alternative comix). I distinctly recall the passion I felt about film criticism. I loved unpacking the films, trying to read their subtext, judging their socio-political relevance — essentially treating them as works of art and not just "entertainment." The whole enterprise seemed like a big puzzle, and if I could twist my brain into enough loops, I could figure it all out: the films, the world, my life. No "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" for me — I pretentiously thought of myself as a critic; not a reviewer.

Of course, looking back on these pieces now, I fear they suffer from an overdose of PC moralism (I did go to Oberlin in the late 1980s, after all!). Nevertheless, I still feel they contain some degree of insight, and thus seem worth sharing. (The pieces on Full Metal Jacket, Eating, and Star Trek VI are probably the most interesting of the lot.) 

So if you’ve got a hankering to read about a random selection of almost-20-year-old movies, take a look…

TOP TEN MOVIES of… 1991?

Geek, Review

I just found this in some old computer files, so in homage to the de riguer tradition of year-end top ten lists, here are my…

TEN BEST FILMS OF 1991! (compiled in 1991, when I was 24 years old)

Barton Fink (dir. by Joel Coen)
Cape Fear (dir. by Martin Scorsese)
Cyrano de Bergerac (dir. by Jean-Paul Rappeneau)
Dead Again (dir. by Kenneth Branagh)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (dir. by Nicholas Meyer)
The Silence of the Lambs (dir. by Jonathan Demme)
The Double Life of Veronique (dir. by Krzysztof Kieslowski)
Thelma and Louise (dir. by Ridley Scott)
Truly, Madly, Deeply (dir. by Anthony Minghella)

I fancied myself a bit of a film critic back then, and even published a couple of reviews in the lefty weekly In These Times. All the same, my tastes were fairly unsophisticated  (as they still are now!), tending toward the mainstream.

Some of these films I hardly remember anymore, not having seen them in 16 years. But some – Silence of the Lambs and Thelma and Louise, for example — are considered modern classics. At least one film, Barton Fink, has not in my mind stood the test of time. I’m a big Coen Bros. fan, but that particular film doesn’t do for me what it did back then. (To give Sari her props, she hated it at the time!) And as a kid who grew up during the Cold War, I still love Star Trek VI, with its un-subtle allusion to Gorbachev and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

And, just to be fair, here are what I considered the…


Blowback (dir. by Marc Levin)
Defending Your Life (dir. by Albert Brooks)
Delusion (dir. by Carl Colpaert)
The Doors (dir. by Oliver Stone)
Eating (dir. by Henry Jaglom)
The Fisher King (dir. by Terry Gilliam)
Green Card (dir. by Peter Weir)
Jungle Fever (dir. by Spike Lee)
The Last Boy Scout (dir. by Tony Scott)
Regarding Henry (dir. by Mike Nichols)

What’s notable about this list is how many bad films there are by good directors. Oliver Stone, Terry Gilliam, Peter Weir, Spike Lee, Mike Nichols — they’ve all directed many great films. But none of these are them! (And Tony Scott deserves mention just because his brother made the top ten list for that year, while he made the bottom ten.)

Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist

Comics, Plug

A hoops buddy of mine is co-producer of the new documentary Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, which is getting its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, starting this weekend. Also, the movie review show, “Reel Talk,” featuring Jeffrey Lyons & Alison Bailes, will be featuring Portrait of a Sequential Artist on this Saturday’s show, at 10 a.m. on NYC channel 4 (NBC). Word is that Lyons and Bailes loved the film! So if you can’t get tickets to the festival, be sure to check out “Reel Talk” for an advance peek of what is sure to be a fascinating study of the one of the most important cartoonists of all time.

Frank & I are going to the movies!


Frank Miller has invited me to a special IMAX screening of 300 tonight. I guess he didn’t read my review of Sin City! Nevertheless, I’m excited. I’ve never seen a feature on an IMAX screen before. And the after-party promises to be good. Like last time, I’m taking my friend Dani as my date, and we’re both hoping we don’t run into the “decrepit inker” again, though things seem to be looking up for him as I saw his work on a rather high-profile new DC title recently.

I’m a huge fan of historical fiction, particularly about the Hellenic Era, having grown up reading Mary Renault. So the subject matter of 300 — King Leonidas of Sparta’s last stand vs. Xerxes and the Persian Army — is right up my alley. I wasn’t particularly taken with Miller’s take on it in the original 300 comics, however, so my expectations for the movie are fairly low.

Which means I’ll probably enjoy myself!

Questions for THE DEPARTED


So I saw Scorsese’s new film The Departed this weekend. Overall, I really enjoyed it. It was a kind of a cartoonish throwback to the macho, violent movies of the 80s and 90s that seemed to dominant theatres. I was fascinated with those films when I was in my 20s but felt over-saturated by them into my 30s. Also, seeing them in many ways through Sari’s eyes over the years made me see how myopic, cheap, and manipulative they could be. Nonetheless, there were definitely some terrific, lasting films from that era (many of them made by Scorsese).

Anyway, there was something fun about revisiting those films through The Departed. Plus, how can you resist that cast: DiCaprio, Nicholson, Damon, Martin Sheen, Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, and Vera Farmiga!? DiCaprio was particularly good at playing the tortured but well-meaning guy who just never gets a break. I was surprised at how powerful a performance he gives, especially in scenes he shares with heavyweights like Nicholson. Jack is pure Jack, gnashing up the screen in his best late-career devil-may-care way. (Sari summed him up perfectly in characterizing him as part algae and part wolf!) And Farmiga is excellent too as the only female character of note and in a very tough, pivotal role! The movie works really well in reminding us how similar the macho brotherhoods of cops & criminals are, while ratcheting up the action and suspense to the blood-soaked conclusion.

But that’s where I have some concerns and questions, and which I’d like to address after the cut…

Reputable Influencer


A little over a year ago, my buddy Rob Walker wrote an article about word-of-mouth or “buzz” marketing, in which people recommend commercial products to people — for free. In other words, they act as shills to their friends and loved ones just to feel “part” of something. Unfathomable.

So, last week I received an email out of the blue, from a movie studio rep who had come across my recent post about zombie flicks. Seems his company was putting out a (presumably) straight-to-DVD zombie flick, and, yep, he wanted me to help him. But this is the best part: having read my post, he labeled me a “reputable influencer.” Is that too awesome for words?!?

Anyway, without offering to show me the movie (let alone compensate me in any way), he asked me to plug the flick on my blog. He didn’t respond to my request for clarification, so… Sorry, guy.

I guess I’m just an asshole — a Reputable Influencer Asshole.

Think I should print up T-shirts?

Zombies and Planning for the Apocalypse


I was never a horror movie fan as a kid, but lately I’ve become attracted to them, specifically to zombie movies. I’d seen George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead some years ago, but recently I took in the sequels Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. I also saw two British takes on the genre, the hilarious but gruesome Sean of the Dead and 28 Days Later. Oh yeah, and I caught a viewing of the low-budget classic, Evil Dead, tho’ I don’t know if that counts as a zombie flick.

I’m very interested in the use of zombies as a societal metaphor: about racism & xenophobia, about commercialism, and militarism. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which takes place in a shopping mall, is particularly noteworthy in this regard. His films seem to strike that perfect balance of being straight-ahead horror and carrying a social message without being heavy-handed or didactic. And they’re weird as hell!

Obviously, recent events have put me in the zombie frame of mind: Y2K, 9/11, Islamic fundamentalism, George Bush, bird flu, and Hurricane Katrina, to name a few. I grew up in the 80s during the baroque era of the Cold War, fearful of mutually assured destruction and nuclear winter — but I was never as afraid, or fatalistic, as I have felt in the last 5–6 years. 9/11 is what really set it off; I often feel like I have some form of PTSD because of that. But it’s the irrationality of the present moment that’s really scary. And zombies are the ultimate representation of irrationality.

Coincidentally, a couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran a piece (in, of all places, the Sunday “Styles” section) all about how zombies are “hot” again. I thought the piece had some good observations about the phenomenon — and made me feel very “cutting edge”:

The Senses: Smell


I wandered through the video store, passing the only other customers, two firefighters from the station around the corner. They were both sporting those heavy insulated pants, held up by suspenders. As I walked by, firefighter #1 asked #2, “Hey, what’s Sin City about?”

FF#2: “Oh, we saw that already. Me and Joe’s crew saw that back at the house last week. It was good.”

FF#1: “Oh, okay.”

I passed on by, sneering at #2’s appraisal of the film, and after a short while, found the movie I’d been looking for.

When I arrived at the counter to pay, the store employee, a stocky bottle-blonde in her early 30s, wasn’t there. She was back with the firemen, helping them find a flick. As they worked their way back to the counter, she was explaining that, believe it or not, she wasn’t Italian, but actually “Slovakian.”

New York’s Bravest settled in next to me at the counter, and the clerk offered them her recommendation, Jarhead, explaining that though it wasn’t technically a “war movie,” it was close enough.

[It struck me as weird and yet somehow completely appropriate that New York City firefighters, with probably one of the world’s most stressful, adrenaline-laded jobs, had a taste for war movies. I could just see them lounging around the firehouse, jazzing to the fear and violence, waiting for that bell to ring, summoning them to the next three-alarmer.]

Firefighter #1 asked her if she’d seen Jarhead, and she demurred: “Oh no, I haven’t seen any of ’em. I hate movies.”

FF#1: “You work at a video store and you don’t like to watch movies? Do you like to go to the movies? You like ’em then?”

Bottle-blonde: “No, I’m a terrible date! I either fall asleep or I walk out.”

As I listened to firefighter #1 striking out, I sniffed the air. I thought I smelled something. It smelled like something was burning!

And then I realized: the firefighters’ clothes — probably especially those rubber pants — stank of smoke.