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Josh Reviews Mike Reiss’ New Book: Springfield Confidential

January 18th, 2019
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Mike Reiss has been one of the key creative voices behind The Simpsons since almost the beginning.  Along with his writing partner Al Jean, he was a part of the now-legendary original Simpsons writers room assembled by Sam Simon.  Mr. Reiss and Mr. Jean stepped into the role of show-runner for The Simpsons seasons three and four, two years that represent a creative high-point for the show. (No joke, these two seasons are nearly flawless, filled with gems such as “Homer at the Bat,” Black Widower,” “Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk,” “Flaming Moe’s,” “A Streetcar Named Marge,” “Homer the Heretic” (which might be my all-time favorite Simpsons episode), “Mr. Plow,” “Marge vs. the Monorail,” and so many more!!)

Mr. Reiss’s new book, co-written by Mathew Klickstein, is a memoir of his life, with a strong focus on The Simpsons.  The book is called Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons.  It’s a fun read for hard-core Simpsons fans as well as newbies.

Mr. Reiss and Mr. Jean left The Simpsons after season 4 to create and run their own show, The Critic, starring Jon Lovitz.  (That show’s failure, first at ABC and then at FOX, seems to have been more due to politics among network executives more than a critical or commercial failure of the show itself.  That’s certainly Mr. Reiss’ story, as described amusingly (and somewhat heartbreakingly!) in the chapter of this book devoted to The Critic, but it’s a story I have heard and read backed up by Jon Lovitz, James L. Brooks, and others in many other interviews and articles over the years.)

In the intervening years, Mr. Reiss and Mr. Jean would return sporadically to The Simpsons, writing terrific episodes such as “The Springfield Files” (which is the very funny X-Files crossover episode) and “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious” (the Mary Poppins episode which is an all-time classic).  The pair went their separate ways when, for season thirteen, Al Jean returned to his role of showrunner on The Simpsons (a position which he has, incredibly, held for almost two decades, until this day).  Mr. Reiss, meanwhile, has gone on to create the show Queer Duck and write for the Ice Age films. He has written plays and seventeen children’s books, including How Murray Saved Christmas. He also co-wrote The Simpsons Movie (as part of the all-star group of current and former Simpsons writers assembled by James L. Brooks) and has served as a part-time consultant and producer for The Simpsons.  (Mr. Reiss describes in his book his working about one day a week for The Simpsons.  I believe this continues to this day, though I’m not certain.)

Springfield Confidential is a brisk, fun … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

January 16th, 2019
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I adored “Choose Your Own Adventure” books as a kid.  I was totally hooked on them, reading them over and over.  In this seemingly endless series (many of which were written by R. A. Montgomery), every few pages you, the reader, would be presented with a choice as to what the main character (you) should do, and then you’d be directed to the page to turn to based on which choice you made.  As a result, there were many different ways the stories could play out.  Many of the endings resulted in the main character meeting an unfortunate end.  But perhaps, if you kept trying, you’d find a way to survive and make it through to a happy ending.

I’d never have dreamed that such a thing could be possible, but somehow, Black Mirror has found a way to replicate the feel of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book as a TV show, with the special, feature-length episode “Bandersnatch.”

Black Mirror is, of course, the spectacular anthology series created and run by Charlie Brooker.  It’s a modern-day Twilight Zone, with a focus on stories that explore how technology unchained can lead to tragic results.  (Click here for my review of the two original British seasons, and click here for my review of Netflix’s third season.  I actually still haven’t finished watching the fourth Netflix season, which was released about a year ago — life has gotten in the way!! — but when “Bandersnatch” came out, I jumped into watching it right away.)

“Bandersnatch” was written by Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade.  Set in 1984, “Bandersnatch” tells the story of a young man named Stefan (Fionn Whitehead, who was the lead in Dunkirk), who is working on his own to create a Choose Your Own Adventure style computer game, based on a book he loved called Bandersnatch.  He brings the idea to a computer game company called Tuckersoft, where he meets the head of the company Mohan Thakur (Asim Chaudhry) as well as his idol, the famous video-game creator Colin (Will Poulter, from Son of Rambow, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Revenant). 

Incredibly, this entire special Black Mirror episode plays out as an interactive experience for the viewer.  Every few minutes (and even more frequently at times), you are prompted on screen to make a decision as to what Stefan should do.  You make your choice via your remote control, and then the film unfolds based upon that choice.  Just like in a real Choose Your Own Adventure book, sometimes those choices take you out of the story quickly, as things unfold poorly for poor … [continued]

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Let’s start with the long-awaited look at the new Hellboy film:

There’s a lot to take in here.  I’m excited for this film, though not nearly as blown away by this first teaser as I’d hoped.  David Harbour’s Hellboy is quite different in look and personality from Ron Perlman’s near-perfect version and, well, it takes some getting used to.  There are moments in this trailer where Mr. Harbour inhabits HB to perfection — such as his delivery of “he’s an asshole” late in the trailer.  But other moments — like his first appearance in the trailer, gesticulating wildly and shouting “I’m on your side!” — that feel a little too over-the-top silly, and where the make-up and prosthetics didn’t look quite as convincing as I’d hoped.  The tone of the trailer isn’t gothic majesty, but hip, fast-paced humor.  That’s not necessarily a bad tone for a Hellboy story, just not quite what I’d expected.  I’m intrigued to see lots of glimpses of what look like story-points from the Darkness Calls saga from the comics (which I discussed at length here).  I caught shots of the “Wild Hunt,” and Nimue.  I grinned wildly when I saw Gruguach (the large pig-creature)!  The saga that stretched from Darkness Calls through The Fury in the comics was a high-point of the long-running Hellboy series, and this could make a cool movie.  I am hoping for a winner with this one…!

I’ve been a reader of Bill Hunt’s The Digital Bits website for about two decades, and I find Mr. Hunt to be one of if not the very best writers covering home entertainment, DVDs, blu-rays, etc.  Last week he published a pessimistic editorial declaring the beginning of the end for physical media.  It’s a great read, albeit a depressing one.  I wish I could disagree with any of Mr. Hunt’s points.  I am a collector, and I love physical media.  Many people ask me why I bother, in the age of streaming.  I love streaming, and I stream movies and TV shows all the time via Netflix, Amazon prime, Verizon Fios On Demand, etc.  But physical media has many advantages over streaming.  Here’s a great editorial by Mr. Hunt from a few months ago explaining why.  Here are the three reasons that are the most important to me:  1) Special features — I love in-depth special features, making-of documentaries, deleted scenes, bloopers, etc.  It’s no coincidence that in recent years as streaming (which comes without those bells and whistles) has risen in popularity, the quality of great DVD/blu-ray special features has dramatically declined.  2) Higher quality and fewer interruptions — My wife and I have streamed a number of movies … [continued]

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The Office’s Rainn Wilson Shines in the Final “Short Trek” Short Film!

Although I was very lukewarm on the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, I have been extremely impressed with all four of the “Short Trek” short films that have been released over the last few months, as a lead-up to Discovery season two.  They stuck the landing with “The Escape Artist,” which focuses on Harry Mudd.  This charismatic scoundrel appeared in two Original Series episodes, played by Roger C. Carmel, and he also appeared in two Discovery season one episodes, where he was played by The Office’s Rainn Wilson.  Mr. Wilson returns in this Mudd-centric short film, which he also directed!

In “The Escape Artist,” we see that Mudd has been captured by a Tellarate bounty hunter, who is eager to claim the reward that Starfleet has put out for Mudd’s capture.  As Mudd attempts to cajole and scheme his way out of this situation, the short keeps flashing back to Mudd in a variety off similarly sticky situations.

I really like Rainn Wilson and thought he was a great actor to reprise the role of Mudd on Discovery, but I didn’t love the way Discovery portrayed Mudd.  On the Original Series, Mudd was a con-man and a thief, but a mostly jovial one… whereas on Discovery, Mudd was a lot more vicious, to the point of being a murderer.  “The Escape Artist” bridges those two versions of Mudd nicely.  This Mudd feels cleverer and more of a threat that the Original Series Mudd, but we get back to a more fun, good-natured Mudd who is more about scheming to get the good life for himself than he is about causing harm to others.  This is cleverly done.

This short is very funny, which I was glad to see!  The writing was sharp, and played well to Mr. Rainn’s comedic strengths.  Mr. Rainn is great in this role, and this short film gave him his best showcase yet.  I’m also very impressed by the skills demonstrated by Mike McMahan in his script for this short.  Not everyone can write comedy, and not everyone can write for Star Trek, and combining the two is even harder.  But McMahan strikes a perfect tone.  (Mr. McMahan is also apparently overseeing the comedic Star Trek animated series, “Lower Decks,” that is in development.  This short gives me hope for that project.  Mr. McMahan also has a very funny twitter account, @tng_s8, that imagines — with a twisted comedic bent — what Star Trek: The Next Generation season 8 might have looked like.)

As with all the “Short Trek” short films, I’m impressed with the visual scale and scope of this short!  These four shorts seem to have been getting more and more ambitious … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

January 9th, 2019
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The newest film from the Coen Brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is available for viewing on Netflix.  The film consists of six short-stories, all set in the Old West.  I thought the film was marvelous — it’s weird and funny and heartbreaking… and did I say weird?  The film’s heart beats with the Coen Brothers’ uniquely off-kilter sensibility.  I can see how it might strain the patience of someone looking for a more standard, traditionally structured narrative film.  But I loved pretty much every minute of it.

The first short is the The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (from which the movie draws its name), and I think it’s my favorite of the six.  Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Syriana, The Incredible Hulk) is perfect as the titular singing gunslinger, delivering possibly the best performance of his career.  He’s funny and vicious and sad.  It’s a great role and he kills it.  This short perfectly sets the tone for the entire film.  It looks like a Western, but this isn’t your average Western.  I love how Buster talks right too the audience; I love his singing; and I love the quickly-escalating looniness of the ending.  Also: David Krumholtz (Serenity, The Deuce) and Clancy Brown (Highlander, The Shawshank Redemption, and the best voice of Lex Luthor ever, appearing in many of Bruce Timm’s DC animated series) pop up in small roles!

In the second short, Near Algodones, James Franco plays a cowboy who finds himself facing the hangman’s noose, twice, after a bank robbery attempt goes awry.  This is probably the slightest of the six shorts, but it’s still a solid enough little yarn.  James Franco is great in the mostly-silent role of a cowboy with pretty lousy luck, and the great Stephen Root (Newsradio, Office Space) is a hoot as the nutty pots-and-pans-wearing bank teller who is just too smart to be bested.  (I love the “first time?” punchline at the end, expertly delivered by Mr. Franco.)

Meal Ticket is the grimmest of the six shorts.  Liam Neeson plays an old man who runs a traveling theatre show, in which an armless and legless man, played by Harry Melling, recites dramatic monologues to mostly-uninterested crowds.  This is a sad story with an unpleasant ending, and it seems curiously perverse to cast Mr. Neeson, an actor with one of the most magnificent voices in Hollywood, in a mostly-silent role.  After the fun of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, these next two shorts had me a little unsettled.  But things take an upswing with short number four.  (And I do think that Meal Ticket is a very well-made short story.  It’s just so … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Roma

January 7th, 2019
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Alfonso Cuarón’s new film, Roma, released on Netflix, follows approximately a year in the life of a young woman, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who serves as a maid for a family in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in the 1970’s.  The film is based on Mr. Cuarón’s memories of his childhood and the woman who helped raise him (along with his biological mother).  Mr. Cuarón has said that the film “is autobiographical, in the sense that 90% of the scenes come out of my memory.”

Roma is a lush, beautiful film, gorgeously shot, and deeply moving.  Mr. Cuarón has crafted a beautiful peek into the life of this woman, Cleo, who is a slightly fictionalized version of the woman who clearly meant so much to him as a child.  Ms. Aparicio, who plays Cleo, has shockingly never acted before.  This is astonishing, because her performance is incredible.  She’s heartfelt, warm, and impressively naturalistic.  Cleo doesn’t have a tremendous amount of dialogue in the film, and therefore so much of the story has to play out across her face, and in her eyes.  This would defeat many talented actors.  But Ms. Aparicio is incredibly effective at bringing us into Cleo’s inner life and heart.  It’s an astonishing performance, and one that I give both Ms. Aparicio and Mr. Cuarón tremendous credit for creating together.

I love that this film is a salute to this type of woman who was so important to so many families’ lives, and yet is so easily overlooked.  (I love the scene in which we see Cleo doing the family’s laundry up on the roof, and then the camera tilts upwards and we see so many other woman just like her, doing similar work atop all the other buildings of the neighborhood.)  There are many unsettling moments in the film in which we see Cleo looked down upon or talked down to.  And yet, every frame of the film makes clear that she is an integral part of this family that she lives with and works for.  Of the woman who inspired Cleo, Mr. Cuarón has said that “we end up becoming part of her family, or she becoming part of our family.”  That’s a beautiful sentiment, and by the time we arrive at the ending, the film has driven that point home with power and beauty.

Mr. Cuarón has proven himself capable of crafting extraordinarily large-scale fantasy-spectacle films.  Many consider Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which Mr. Cuarón directed, to be one of the strongest of the Potter films.  (I like it a lot, though personally I think that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the best of the films.)  … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Mary Poppins Returns

Set twenty-five years after the original Mary Poppins, the new film Mary Poppins Returns picks up the story of the Banks children, Jane and Michael, now all grown up.  Michael has three children, but his wife has recently passed away.  Jane has basically moved in with him, but still they are having trouble raising the kids and making enough money to make ends meet.  As the film opens, we learn that the bank is about to repossess their family home.  And so the time is ripe for the return of Mary Poppins, who reappears to help bring life and love back to the Banks family.

It requires a certain amount of chutzpah to make a sequel to a film as beloved and iconic as Mary Poppins.  (With 54 years having passed since the release of the original film, is this the longest gap between sequels in film history?)  When I first heard of plans for this sequel, it seemed like a pure cash grab.  I’m impressed, though, by the skill and love that has gone into the making of this new film.  It has elements that work and elements that don’t, but it seems to have been made by people, on both sides of the camera, who wanted to respect and honor the original film.

The best part of this new film is Emily Blunt’s absolutely perfect (in every way) performance as Mary Poppins.  This film would have crashed and burned if they had not been able to find someone who could successfully step into Julie Andrew’s iconic shoes.  Being able to recreate this memorable character while also allowing her to live and breathe again as a true character allowed to be new and different, rather than just a slavish imitation, is a fiendishly difficult task.  Ms. Blunt makes it look effortless.  (I am sure it was the opposite!)  I have been a fan of Ms. Blunt’s ever since Charlie Wilson’s War, and she has been extraordinary in film after film since then (Edge of Tomorrow, The Five-Year Engagement, Looper, Sicario). This might be her toughest role and her greatest accomplishment.  Her singing voice is gorgeous, and she beautifully carries a number of new songs in the film.  More importantly, she captures Mary Poppins’ dignity and her humor, her sternness and the ever-present twinkle in her eye.

I was excited to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work in the film.  I thought it was ingenious to cast him to step into a similar character-type as that so memorably portrayed by Dick Van Dyke in the original film.  Mr. Miranda plays Jack, a London lamplighter and former apprentice of the chimney-sweep Bert played by Mr. Van Dyke … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Deuce: Season Two

Because (or perhaps despite) The Wire ruining television for me forever (because nothing will ever be as good), I am a forever fan of writer and showrunner David Simon, and I will follow him to whatever projects he undertakes.  I have never once regretted it.  The Deuce, which Mr. Simon created along with George Pelecanos (a crime-writer who wrote many episodes of The Wire and Treme), is his latest masterpiece.

It’s an unlikely subject for a great TV show: the lives of sex workers and the growth of the pornography business in the seventies and eighties.  That sounds naughty and more than a little unpleasant.  But I should never have doubted.  Mr. Simon and Mr. Pelecanos, and their extraordinary team of collaborators, have brought all of their craft to bear on telling this story.  The Deuce is one of my favorite shows on TV these days.  I loved season one, and I thought season two was equally compelling.

As is Mr. Simon’s usual approach, the show’s focus is at once laser-fine and also expansive.  Mr. Simon and his team are once again telling a story about the state of a modern American city (in this case, New York, as opposed to The Wire’s Baltimore) and, even more than that, about modern American society.  They are doing this by focusing on one very specific topic.  For The Wire, it was the drug trade, for The Deuce, it is porn. But within this narrow area of focus, the show’s scope is wonderfully, deliriously broad, depicting characters involved in porn/sex in all sorts of different ways, from all sorts of different socio-economic strata. The Deuce is about whores and pimps, sure, but it’s also about cops and politicians, high-level mobsters and low-level street toughs, bar owners and bartenders, the people running sex parlors and the people answering the phones at those parlors, porn stars and also porn producers and directors and editors and agents… not to mention the wives (and mistresses) and children of all of these people… and I have barely scratched the surface.

I wouldn’t have thought I’d be at all interested in a show about porn, but I am obsessed with it because these characters are all so wonderful.  I can’t believe how large the ensemble is on The Deuce!  And, even more than that, I can’t believe how many characters are so important to the show.  On The Wire, “all the pieces mattered.”  Mr. Simon and Mr. pelicans and their collaborators continue to follow that philosophy, but on Treme and now here on The Deuce, that has subtly transformed from a statement about plot to one about character.  Every one of the show’s humongous array of characters … [continued]

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