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Josh Reviews Better Things Season Two!

I loved the first season of Pamela Adlon’s show Better Things, and the recently-concluded second season was every bit as fantastic.  I feel like this show has been flying under the radar for many people, and that’s a shame.  It’s one of the best currently-running TV shows out there.

Pamela Adlon plays Sam Fox, a working but not super-famous actress, raising three girls on her own.  Better Things is fictional, but it draws heavily from Ms. Adlon’s real-life as a working but not super-famous actress raising three girls on her own.  The show is incredibly rich, focusing deeply on exploring the lives of Pam, her three daughters, and also Pam’s mother Phil who lives next-door to them.  Better Things can be very funny, and also absolutely heartbreaking.  It’s a marvelously heartfelt, idiosyncratic show that is truly unlike anything else on TV these days.

As I discussed in my review of season one, the show has a remarkably playful approach to narrative.  Better Things rejects all the usual ways that you would expect stories to play out on a TV show, both within a single episode and over the course of the season.  Some episodes explore a single story over the course of a half-hour episode, while other episodes are composed of a series of vignettes (that might be connected thematically or emotionally, but whose stories have little to do with one another).  Some episodes are plot-heavy, while others feel more like a “slice of life” exploration without much significant plot.  Several episodes early-on this season focus on Sam’s beginning a new romantic relationship.  I expected this to be a story that would run through the entire season, but after a few episodes that focused on this new man in Sam’s life, this story was completely pushed aside, with most of the major subsequent developments in the relationship happening off-screen.  It’s a fascinating approach, one that in less-skilled hands might have been frustrating.  But part of the greatness of Better Things is the way it explores aspects of people’s lives that TV shows usually skip over or ignore.  (I will never forget the extended sequence in season one of Sam silently walking around her house, starting up at her smoke alarms trying to determine which one is beeping because its battery needs to be changed.  Who hasn’t done that??  And yet, that’s not something I have ever before seen on a TV show!)

I love that Better Things features so many fascinating, strong but flawed female characters.  I love that the show is more interested in getting inside what makes each of them tick than it is in following usual TV-show story-arcs.  Each of the main women in this show … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Coco

December 6th, 2017

In Pixar’s latest masterpiece, Coco, we meet Miguel, a young boy growing up in a small Mexican town. His family are all shoemakers, and the expectation is that Miguel will follow in their footsteps (pun sort-of intended) and take up the family profession. But Miguel secretly longs to be a musician, like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz. This is Miguel’s big secret from his family, because many years ago Miguel’s great great grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband, and so ever since the family has refused to allow any music into their homes or their lives. When, on Día de Muertos (the Day of the Dead), Miguel sneaks out and steals a guitar in an attempt to enter a local music competition, he becomes cursed and trapped with his ancestors in the Land of the Dead.

That simplified plot description does not do justice to this subtle, sophisticated story.  Coco is a magnificent film, deeply moving and visually spectacular in the way that Pixar seems to make look so effortless. The film is filled with richly drawn characters who you will quickly grow to love and care deeply about. There were several moments in the film’s third act that had me in tears.  I am left to once again marvel at the rich world that the artists at Pixar are able to create with each of their films.

What at first seems like a fairly boiler-plate story about a child longing to spread his wings and escape the confines put upon him by his family quickly blossoms into a far more complex story.  Until we get to the end, the film avoids finding easy villains.  Both sides in Miguel’s argument with his family have merit.  His desire to express himself artistically is understandable, and as the film unfolds we also grow to sympathize with and understand both why his family has turned their backs on music, and also on the importance with which they hold honoring their elders and preserving their family traditions.

For an all-ages film, Coco does not shy away from addressing death, a topic one seldom sees incorporated into a movie like this!  And yet, death is a central through-line of the film.  Coco takes place on the Day of the Dead, and the deaths of several different characters in the film provide key plot points and emotional moments.  While the film does envision a life beyond death (more on that in a moment), the idea that all who live shall die is at the core of the film’s story.  This is a brave choice for a big-budget Disney/Pixar movie!  I am surprised and impressed.

Coco creates an entire universe and mythology out of the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Stranger Things Season Two!

Like most everybody else, I quite enjoyed the first season of the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things last year.  (Click here for my review.)  But while I enjoyed that first eight-episode installment, by the end of it I wasn’t sure the show could sustain a multi-season run.  Would the show’s eighties-homage nature get old?  More problematically, while the final two episodes of season one were thrilling, I was disappointed by the number of narrative threads left hanging (read to the end of my review to see what I’m talking about); and if the show couldn’t be bothered to resolve these plot holes, it didn’t seem to me like a strong foundation for a lengthy run.

So color me pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed season two of Stranger Things.  While this second season doesn’t have the joy of discovery of this new and unexpected show that was part of what made watching season one so exciting, I actually think season two is a stronger piece of narrative story-telling, compelling from start to finish and with a more tightly plotted story.

I’ve read some complaints that the season starts too slowly, but I didn’t feel that way at all.  I enjoyed the way the show took the time to re-establish the characters and where they all were at, emotionally, a year after the events of the first season.  The obvious question was, why would any of these characters stay in Hawkins, but the show smartly answered that.  (Showing how Joyce Byers and Jim Hopper have become reliant on the scientists at the lab to monitor Will was a clever way to keep the characters tied to Hawkins.)

As always, all of the main kids are terrific, and the show smartly gave each of the main boys their own individual story-line here in season two.  We see that Mike has fallen into something of a depression at the disappearance of Eleven, while Dustin comes to care for a baby monster he nicknames Dart and Lucas begins to fall for the new-girl-in-town, Max.  Season one focused on the search for the missing Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), but that meant that Will wasn’t actually in the show very much.  Here in season two, Will steps to the forefront, and we discover that young Noah Schnapp is a fantastic actor, taking Will on quite a harrowing journey as he begins to succumb to the influence of what the boys nickname the “Mind Flayer” from the Upside Down.  There were more than a few scenes in which I was stunned by how great Mr. Schnapp’s performance was.

The older kids remain very interesting as well in season two.  Though Nancy ended season one in … [continued]

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Taking a Deep Dive into the Avengers: Infinity War Trailer!

December 1st, 2017
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Howsabout that new Avengers: Infinity War trailer, huh?

That’s a great trailer.  I feel as excited as I did during the months of anticipation for the first Avengers film, wondering whether Marvel would be able to pull off this grand experiment and succeed in their unprecedented super-hero crossover film.  Boy, did they.  The Avengers was a fantastic film, a terrific payoff to the stories woven through that first wave of solo films.  It satisfied fans and was an enormous global blockbuster.

We’re only a few years later, but at this point we are so much deeper into this interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Thor: Ragnarok was the seventeenth Marvel Studios film, and Avengers: Infinity War will be the nineteenth.  How crazy is that?  We are so far beyond any comparisons to any other film franchise.  Infinity War promises to draw together the tapestry of this massive film saga.  (There are still several films left in Marvel’s “Phase Three” of films, but by the time we arrive at the as-yet-untitled fourth Avengers film in 2020, Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige promises what we’ve “never seen in superhero films: a finale.”)

Just look at all the characters in this trailer!  Pretty much every Avenger is glimpsed, along with Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, the Black Panther, and, in that fantastic tease of a final shot, the Guardians of the Galaxy.  If you thought seeing the handful of original Avengers teaming up was cool, Marvel is telling us, just wait until you see ALL these characters team up in Infinity War!

Of course, we don’t know yet when or even if all these characters will ever actually appear on screen together, but this trailer hints at several exciting new character pairings, from Bruce Banner and Tony Stark hanging with Doctor Strange and Wong to, of course, Thor bumping into the Guardians.

I have been wondering how closely this film will hew to the classic Infinity Gauntlet story from the comics (written by Jim Starlin and illustrated by George Perez and Ron Lim).  Thanos already HAS all of the Infinity Stones (they were called Infinity Gems in the comics) by the time the Infinity Gauntlet story begins.  I have been assuming that this first Infinity War movie will actually me more of an adaptation of Thanos Quest, the two-part story that came before the Infinity Gauntlet, in which Thanos wreaked havoc across the galaxy in his quest to acquire all of the Infinity Gems.  We see hints of that in this trailer, as in several shots of Thanos we see him with only two of the Stones in his gauntlet.  The purple one looks to be the Power Stone which we last saw being given … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Murder on the Orient Express

November 28th, 2017
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Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is the latest film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel.  Mr. Branagh also stars as detective Hercule Poirot, who finds himself enmeshed in a complicated murder mystery while traveling from Istanbul to London on board the titular Orient Express.  When the criminal Samuel Ratchett is killed, there appear to be a plethora of suspects on board the high-class train, and the finicky detective Poirot must sort through the clues to find the killer.

I have been a fan of Kenneth Branagh, as both an actor and a director, ever since Dead Again.  Mr. Branagh might not be the most showy or edgy of directors, but I have usually found his films to be solidly entertaining, and Murder on the Orient Express is no exception.  The film is a joyful little puzzle from beginning to end.  This is not terribly innovative or boundary-pushing cinema, but it’s comfortably enjoyable like a favorite cushy chair.  Many of the beats of the film feel familiar — not only is this the fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel, but much about the story has been imitated by other films — but Mr. Branagh manages to keep things feeling fresh.  I feel like maybe I am damning Mr. Branagh with faint praise, and I don’t mean to.  With his steady hand at the helm, he has assembled an endearingly fun spin on Ms. Christie’s most-famous story.

Perhaps Mr. Branagh’s greatest achievement in the film is the way he is able to wrangle the film’s large, and very famous, cast.  The cast is extraordinary: Olivia Colman, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, and several other talented supporting players.  Almost any of these movie stars could have been the lead of their own film.  I have seen many other movies sink under the weight of so many stars.  Yet Mr. Branagh was able to balance all of these actors and their characters beautifully.  This could have easily felt like a film without any real characters, just Hollywood stars hobnobbing.  However, Mr. Branagh was able to achieve the benefit of casting all of these talented performers; since most of the film’s ensemble of characters have only a few scenes that spotlight them, these actors’ movie-star charisma is able to, in most cases, flesh out a full character despite their limited screen-time.

It’s great to see Michelle Pfeiffer given such a meaty role to play, and Ms. Pfeiffer is terrific.  She doesn’t appear in many films these days; it’s nice to see that she’s still got it.  Judi Dench can play haughty arrogance like nobody’s business, and I … [continued]

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News Around the Net!

November 22nd, 2017

I have often described my precise level of nerdery as follows: I have been to many Star Trek conventions, but I have never dressed up in a costume at a Star Trek convention.  (I am not in any way mocking cosplayers!!  I am just using that as an example of where my nerd-ness lies.)  But I might now have to use a new example.  I am not just a TV fan, but I am a fan of TV critics!  For instance, I quite enjoy the writing of TV critic Alan Sepinwall (I just reviewed his book!!) and I read his reviews several times a week.  BUT I never in my wildest dreams considered tracking him down and asking him to officiate at my wedding!!!  Well, two TV fans did.  Click here for the full story, and to watch a video of Mr. Sepinwall’s TV-reference-filled speech at the wedding.  I found the whole thing to be adorable and hilarious.

Mr. Sepinwall’s co-writer on TV: The Book, Matt Zoller-Seitz, recently conducted a wonderful interview with comedian Patton Oswalt, in which they discuss Mr. Oswalt’s new stand-up special, the tragic death of his wife last year, and a lot of other fascinating and heartbreaking stuff.  (Mr. Zoller-Seitz’s wife also died unexpectedly at a young age, about a decade ago.)  Click here to give it a read.

As readers of this blog surely know, I am a huge Star Trek fan, and Deep Space Nine is my very favorite of all the Trek series.  These photos from a Variety photo-shoot that reunited may members of the show’s expansive cast are absolutely wonderful.  God I miss that show.

I guess that I am one of the few people who really loved Zack Snyder’s film version of Watchmen, and I especially adore the super-long DVD/blu-ray director’s cut that incorporates lots more footage and also the complete animated Tales of the Black Freighter sequences.  So I’m not really itching for another take on this material, in the form of the Damon Lindeloff-led HBO series adaptation.  Still, I like what Mr. Lindeloff has to say about it.  I guess we’ll see…

On a similar note, after six Peter Jackson-directed Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movies, do we really need another take on Tolkien?  It’s hard to get super-excited at the prospect of Amazon’s spending two hundred and fifty million dollars on a multi-season Tolkien TV epic.  I’d rather see an expensive, expansive adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, or Frank Herbert’s Dune, or any of another classic, not-yet-adapted (or not-yet-adapted-WELL) series rather than another visit to the world of Tolkien.  The announcement promises that this won’t be a re-do of The Hobbit or … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Justice League!

Warner Brothers and DC’s new film, Justice League, is a milestone in their efforts to chase after the achievements of Marvel’s cinematic universe.  But whereas Marvel’s last decade-worth of films has seen a remarkably cohesive, gradual unfolding and expansion of a universe’s worth of characters and story-lines, DC/Warners’ efforts have been, well, let’s say a little more stumbling.

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was enormously successful, critically and commercially, but those films were a self-contained series.  Once that wrapped up with The Dark Knight Rises, DC/Warners began working to create their own interconnected cinematic universe.  Green Lantern failed, but Man of Steel seemed like a stronger first step, though that film was not quite the smash DC/Warners was likely hoping for, and it met with a mixed reaction from fans and critics.  (Overall I enjoy the film and I like a lot of the visual choices that Zack Snyder and his team made, though the film is undermined by several critical story-choices that don’t work and an ill-conceived ending.)  Whereas Marvel introduced its heroes gradually, though their own solo films, DC/Warners moved to jump-start their shared super-hero universe with 2016’s Batman v. Superman, which was intended to lead into the first part of a two-part Justice League film.  But while it made money, Batman v. Superman was roundly (and accurately) criticized for being an overly-long, overly-dour mess with an incoherent plot and flat characters.  (The extended version actually improves upon many of the film’s flaws, but not nearly enough to consider the film “good.”).  Suicide Squad was supposed to be a hip, fun shot-in-the-arm for DC/Warners’ super-hero film series, but I thought it was even worse than Batman v. Superman.  Only Wonder Woman was a true success, telling a fun, solid story with real characters that connected with the fans.

With their films failing to connect with audiences, DC/Warners began to curtail their ambitious plans that were laid out back in 2014.  Suddenly the two-part Justice League epic became a single film; who knows if we will ever see a sequel, or whether any of the other promised solo films (a Flash film, a Cyborg film, another try at Green Lantern, a solo Batman film starring Ben Affleck, a Man of Steel 2) will ever actually come to be.

Meanwhile, following Batman v. Superman’s critical drubbing, reports came out about efforts to rework and reshape Justice League, in an attempt to inject some of the lightness and optimism that has proven so successful with the Marvel films.  (The degree to which Zack Snyder, who directed Man of Steel, Batman and Superman, and Justice League, was on board with these changes is somewhat … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Star Trek: Discovery Mid-Season Finale: “Into The Forest I Go”

The first batch of Star Trek: Discovery episodes came to a close with the mid-season finale, episode nine, “Into the Forest I Go.”  The Klingon “Ship of the Dead” arrives at Pahvo, and Burnham and Tyler sneak aboard in an attempt to locate critical information required to allow Federation starships to penetrate the Klingon cloaking device.  As part of the plan, Stamets is pushed to the breaking point, utilizing the Discovery’s Spore Drive to execute 130 jumps in short succession.

As has been consistently the case with Discovery so far, there is a lot to like in this episode and also a lot that is incredibly frustrating.

Let’s start with the good.  The character stuff between Burnham and Tyler is terrific.  The tender scene between the two of them on the couch in Tyler’s quarters, in which he haltingly finds his way to admit the way he was tortured and sexually abused by the Klingons, is touching and tender.  It’s interesting to see the show embrace this aspect of Tyler’s back-story that had been suggested but not explicitly stated unto this point.

(Of course, that tender scene — which tells us everything we needed to know without getting too explicit with the details — is soon after followed by Tyler’s nightmare-flashback which gives us the Klingon nudity that no one was asking for.  So much for subtlety.  Also, as I have been writing for several weeks now, it’s hard to engage in the Tyler-Burnham relationship when it’s been clear that Tyler is the Klingon Loq in disguise, so none of this was genuine.  This episode suggests that Tyler/Loq is a sleeper agent who doesn’t remember being Loq.  I wish the show had laid its cards in the table and allowed us to follow Loq/Tyler’s story as it unfolded, rather than trying to keep all this as a surprise.  Had I known all along that Tyler really did believe himself to be a human prisoner of war, I would have engaged more deeply with that tragic story, as opposed to doubting every scene that the character was in because I believed him to be Loq telling lies.)

It’s nice to see the Klingon-Discovery stories intersect for the first time since the two-part premiere, and we get some nice Discovery-Klingon combat (both of the outer space and Mekleth variety).  The production values of this show continue to be extraordinary.  It’s great to see Star Trek looking so well-produced on TV!!  The sets are fantastic, and the visual effects are terrific.  There are some particularly gorgeous visual effects shots this week.  My favorite is the scene when you see Kol and the other Klingons on their bridge, while through the … [continued]

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