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Josh Reviews Curb Your Enthusiasm: Season Nine!

I thought for sure that we’d seen the end of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but after a hiatus of six years, the longest break in the series’ history (and the longest break I can think of in between series of a show that was not officially cancelled), lo and behold, we got a ninth season of Curb this year!

I thought seasons seven (which gave us a Seinfeld reunion) and eight (with such all-time classics as “Palestinian Chicken”) were among the show’s best.  Sadly I can’t say the same about season nine.  I know some critics have really trashed this season, which I don’t think is warranted.  I still got a lot of enjoyment out of watching each episode of the misanthropic Larry David’s misadventures.  But things were noticeably uneven this year.

Each episode was jammed full of a TON of wonderful ideas.  It’s as if Larry David had been keeping an enormous notebook of ideas for all the years the show was away, and decided to pack several seasons’ worth of ideas into this one season.  But the problem this created was that most episodes felt overstuffed, with great ideas that weren’t given the room to breathe and so were then tossed away too quickly, without having the time needed to build to a proper comedic punchline.

This season’s episodes were, mostly, longer than usual.  Most clocked in at around 35 minutes in length.  But I still felt that the episodes were overstuffed and, at that length, started to feel shaggy.  In a connected problem, for the most part the multiple storylines in each episode didn’t all tie together at the end, as had long been the hallmark of this show (and Seinfeld before it).  And so lots of great jokes or bits would up feeling like throw-away ideas that went nowhere, rather than the way all of the show’s comedic ideas used to weave together by the end of an episode.

Still, this season was packed with so many classic comedic ideas: The “accidental text on purpose”; Larry’s representing himself in court (and “yoo-hoo”ing a judge); “patient-doctor confidentiality”; Larry’s offending an Uber driver having a catastrophic effect on his uber rating (not to mention the whole idea of ranking one’s datability by an Uber-style rating); Larry’s refusal to say “thank you for your service” to a veteran like everyone else automatically does; pants with a short fly; a deep analysis of the face made by a restaurant chef after a patron requests a change to the way a dish is prepared; men’s obsession with opening jars; Larry’s advising a prostitute on her wardrobe; “foisting” a terrible employee on an unsuspecting friend; Larry’s distaste at public displays of affection… and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Disaster Artist

December 25th, 2017
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James Franco’s The Disaster Artist chronicles the making of The Room, the 2003 film that is widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made.  The Disaster Artist is based on Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book of the same name, which depicts the unlikely friendship between the young Sestero and the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau, who would up bankrolling, directing, and starring in The Room, in which Mr. Sestero played a lead part.  The Room was a disastrous flop upon release; showing in one single theatre in L.A. for two weeks.  But gradually, word of mouth began to spread (aided, perhaps, by Mr. Wiseau’s decision to continue paying for the film’s one prominent billboard, featuring a now iconic close-up of his face, for five years!), and eventually the film gained a cult following and became beloved among a certain cadre of fans despite, or perhaps because of, its being so bad.

It’s incredible to me that, a decade after The Room was first screened, there is now a big-budget Hollywood movie telling the behind-the-scenes story of that film’s creation!  But here we are.  James Franco and his team have treated Mr. Wiseau and Mr. Sestero and The Room in a similar manner to how Tim Burton treated Ed Wood in his film of the same name.  There’s no doubt that The Disaster Artist presents Tommy Wiseau as something of a punchline.  If I was Mr. Wiseau, I would not be thrilled with this depiction.  But the film also has a lot of tenderness for Mr. Wiseau and Mr. Sestero, and for anyone who sets out to create art.

I suppose it could be argued that Mr. Wiseau and Mr. Sestero were more interested in becoming stars than in making art.  Those two things are quite different from one another.  But I think a large part of why The Disaster Artist works as well as it does is because of the way the film pulls you into rooting for these weirdos, these outsiders.  Anyone who has ever felt the desire to create art, who has ever felt like an outsider looking in, will find a lot to engage with in this film.

The film is also very, very funny.  Mr. Franco has assembled an incredible cast, and he gives everyone room to shine.

Let’s start with Mr. Franco himself, who is wonderful and hilarious as Tommy Wiseau.  Underneath some subtle prosthetics and an amazing wig (at least, I assume it’s a wig!), Mr. Franco has utterly morphed into Mr. Wiseau.  And then he opens his mouth!  Mr. Franco has done a fantastic job at capturing Mr. Wiseau’s bizarre, unique, unidentifiable accent.  This is an incredible transformation.  But as with the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Score: A Film Music Documentary

I love movies, and I love movie scores.  I’m not sure when I first started to realize that a part of what I loved about movies was their score; and that, beyond that, it was in fact the score that was a critical element of those movies I loved.  It probably began with the Star Trek movies.  I watched those movies over and over, and I soon realized that part of what gave those movies their own distinct identities was the different-style scores written by different composers.  The scores for all six original Star Trek movies (by Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Leonard Rosenman, and Cliff Eidelman) are all amazing, but with very different-style scores, each of which are so distinct but all successful in their own way.  Whatever the origin, I have for years been fascinated with movie scores, and I have many great movie soundtracks on my ipod that I listen to all the time.  I love and am intrigued by movie scores.

Matt Schrader’s wonderful documentary Score: A Film Music Documentary is a fantastic dive into the art of creating film scores.  This film will work for those who know little about this aspect of movie-making, with wonderful sequences that explain the many different steps in creating and recording a score, as well as cleverly put-together explorations of just why great movie scores work as well as they do.  The film will also be a delight for those who already love film scores, showcasing a wonderful array of the many men and women who toil to create this art.

The film contains a wealth of interviews, highlighting an incredible array of talented film score composers.  This isn’t a documentary that only focuses on the most super-famous film composers: John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith and Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann.  Those giants get their due, of course, but Mr. Schrader has created a film that gives lovely spotlights to a staggering array of talented composers, names well-known to film fans like myself but not to the average movie-goer, including: Danny Elfman (the film spotlights his work on Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, and the original Tim Burton Batman), Thomas Newman (the film spotlights his work on The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, and Finding Dory) Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy), Alexandre Desplat (Moonrise Kingdom, Argo), John Debney (Sin City, Spy Kids, and many wonderful scores for episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Brian Tyler (whose work I first discovered on Sci-Fi’s underrated Children of Dune mini-series — a score that I know many of you know and love without knowing it, because several tracks are often used … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Lady Bird

Set in 2002, Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird tells the story of a teenaged girl, Christine (though she prefers to go by “Lady Bird” — her given name in that, as she says in the film, “it was given to me, by me”) growing up in Sacramento.  Lady Bird is desperate to get out of Sacramento, and she has plans to attend a liberal arts college on the East Coast, though the combination of her family’s tight finances and her own poor grades seems like an insurmountable obstacle to that dream.  The film unfolds over the course of Lady Bird’s senior year in high school.  We see her move through two romantic relationships and different friend circles, an often tumultuous relationship with her mother, and an exploration of various interests (such as her involvement in the school’s drama troupe, in which she finds that the only roles she can get are made-up parts like “the tempest” in The Tempest).

I have always enjoyed Greta Gerwig’s work as an actress, but in Lady Bird (her first film in which she is solo-credited as a writer and director) we see the announcement of an extraordinary talent behind-the-camera.  I absolutely adored this film.  It’s a riveting, wonderfully honest look at adolescence-on-the-cusp-of-adulthood.  The film is very funny, and also deeply emotionally affecting.  I was in tears for much of the second half.  I love a great coming-of-age film, and Lady Bird steps instantly into the pantheon.

The film is anchored by yet another incredible performance by Saoirse Ronan (who was so great in Brooklyn).  The film is blunt in depicting how annoying a super-sure-of-themself teenager can be; how selfish and destructive and clueless even a sweet, trying-to-be-good teenager usually is.  This wouldn’t work if the actress playing Lady Bird wasn’t able to win us over with the character’s inner life, with her warmth and the passion with which she feels everything in her day-to-day life.  Ms. Ronan is brilliant in the role, taking what is already a well-written, thoughtfully crafted strong female character and elevating it into an instantly memorable performance that truly sings.  It’s a fantastic piece of work.  And Ms. Ronan’s effortless skill at her accent (masking her natural Irish accent) is quite impressive.

Ms. Ronan is surrounded by a spectacular ensemble of actors, just as Lady Bird’s character is surrounded by a wonderful group of supporting characters who have each been crafted by Ms. Gerwig with attention and love.  After Ms. Ronan, the film’s next stand-out is Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne) as Lady Bird’s mother, Marion.  This is a phenomenal performance, richly textured.  Marion and Lady Bird have an often antagonistic relationship, and Ms. Metcalf plays those dramatic moments with … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Wars: The Last Jedi!

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is not at all the film that I expected it to be.  It is very different from The Force Awakens, but a satisfying continuation of the story that film began.  The film is exciting, suspenseful, and emotional.  It is funny and it is heartbreaking.  It is weird and not afraid to take narrative digressions or even just a split-second moment to explore around the edges of this vast, wonderful Star Wars universe.  It is visually gorgeous, brought to life by some of the very best special effects you can hope to see.  It digs deep into Star Wars lore and connects to some of the most beloved moments of this saga, while also being unafraid to chart new courses and introduce new characters, worlds, and situations.  It is also too long, with a middle section that sags dreadfully.  But its third act is magnificent in a way that allows almost all sins to be forgiven.  The Last Jedi is not better than Rogue One, which I consider to be the pinnacle of modern Star Wars films (any film made after the Original Trilogy).  The Last Jedi is confounding at times, but also staggeringly glorious at others.  Kathleen Kennedy is three for three with the new Star Wars films created under her tenure as head of Lucasfilm.  Considering how even George Lucas himself struggled so mightily with his prequel trilogy, this is something of a minor miracle.

Whereas all previous Star Wars sequels have picked up the story a significant amount of time after the events of the previous film, The Last Jedi begins immediately after the end of The Force Awakens.  The First Order has learned the location of the Resistance’s hidden base and dispatched Star Destroyers to annihilate it, sending Poe, Finn, Leia, and the rest of the Resistance on the run.  Meanwhile, Rey has found Luke Skywalker, but the grizzled old man Luke has become has shut himself off from the Force and refuses to train her.  Desperate to understand her place in the galaxy-shaking events unfolding around her, Rey finds an unexpected connection with… Kylo Ren, the man who was once Ben Solo.

The Last Jedi shares certain broad-strokes story beats with The Empire Strikes Back.  Both films begin with an Imperial assault on a hidden rebel base that sends our heroes on the run; both depict a young Jedi seeking out an old master to be trained in the ways of the Force; both feature our heroes scattered for most of the run-time; both end with the heroes battered and the villains still a threat.

But beyond those surface similarities, The Last Jedi[continued]

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Star Trek: The Original Series Gets the Series Finale it Always Deserved in “To Boldly Go” Part 2!

Star Trek: Continues is a fan-made enterprise (see what I did there?) begun five years ago in an attempt to create the never-made fourth season of the Original Series.  In the past five years, Vic Mignogna and his fantastic team of collaborators have created eleven full-length episodes of classic Star Trek.  These eleven episodes have been a remarkable achievement: staggeringly professionally-made episodes that look and feel exactly, and I mean exactly, like classic episodes of the Original Series. In many cases, they have looked even BETTER!  Not every episode was a home run, and there were a few spots where the creators’ fannish enthusiasm outpaced their abilities.  But the craftsmanship and skill on display in every frame of every episode was extraordinary.  Star Trek Continues is the product of deep love for Star Trek, and as such I love it enormously.  With their tenth and eleventh episodes, “To Boldly Go” parts 1 & 2, Vic Mignogna and his team are not only bringing their fan-series to a close, but they are also attempting to give the Original Series (cancelled by NBC after three seasons) the proper send-off it never got.

Picking up right where the previous episode left off, the Enterprise and the Romulan vessel (commanded by the Romulan Commander from “The Enterprise Incident”) confront the cadre of superhumans who have been enhanced by passage through the galactic barrier (just as Gary Mitchell and Elizabeth Dehner were in the Original Series’ second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) and commandeered a starship.  Even the Enterprise and Romulans together prove no match for the super-powered “Espers,” who disable the Enterprise and set a course for Earth, ready to wreak havoc and take control of the Federation.

As with Part one, this finale is packed with surprises and fun Star Trek connections.  This is a fast-paced, action-packed episode that also peppers in some wonderful character moments for members of the Enterprise crew.  The excellent script by sci-fi novelist Robert J. Sawyer and James Kerwin (Vic Mignogna also has a story credit) strikes an excellent balance.

Once again, the visuals are extraordinary.  The starship battles are extremely well-realized.  These CGI effects are far beyond what the Original Series ever showed us, and yet the effects feel like they perfectly belong in an Original Series episode.  This is because the shot compositions have been carefully considered to recreate the look and feel of Original Series shots, and the Enterprise and the other ships move exactly right.  They don’t zip around like Star Wars ships; they move with the grace and elegance that these ships should have.  It is a delight to see the classic Enterprise depicted so beautifully.

This episode proves a wonderful … [continued]

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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]