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Catching Up on 2017: Josh Reviews The Deuce Season One

The Deuce is the latest television masterpiece from David Simon (The Wire, Treme, Show Me a Hero) and George Pelicanos (novelist and a key writer on both The Wire and Treme), set primarily around Times Square in the seventies, chronicling the legalization and growth of the porn industry.  This is an eyebrows-raising subject for a TV show, but I am glad I didn’t let that keep me away.  The Deuce is a fantastically rich piece of work, an intimate character piece with a sprawling ensemble that is, in turns, very funny and absolutely heartbreaking.  In other words, just what you’d expect from these two men who were part of the core of creators behind The Wire, which is possibly the greatest TV show ever made.

I’ve been surprised, actually, that I know several people who watched The Deuce and found it to be just mediocre.  I don’t know what show they were watching!  I have heard complaints that the show is too slow, and that nothing jappens.  Those complaints sort of boggle my mind.  Yes, The Deuce is leisurely paced, and yes, the show’s naturalistic approach to story-telling means that there aren’t a ton of Big Dramatic Events packed into every episode.  But The Deuce isn’t that sort of standard television show.  Like all of David Simon’s shows, the focus of the story-telling is fixed, laser-like, on the characters, and the many small events that transpire in their lives.  By that viewpoint, the show is packed with plot.  It’s just small-scale, human drama, rather than the type of big fake drama that makes up a lot of what you see on TV.

Mr. Simon and Mr. Pelecanos have always been masters of this type of detail.  In The Deuce, this manifests in two different main ways.  First, in the way that the show tells it’s over-all “plot”: the story of the explosion of the porn industry in the seventies.  This story isn’t told through a series of BIG dramatic TV moments but, just like in real life, through the accumulation of small events.  Throughout these first eight episodes, the show explores, deeply, many different characters and situations, showing us the burgeoning porn industry at many different levels, from the girls walking the streets, to the pimps, to the guys selling magazines and video reels in sleazy storefronts, to the mob guys who opened the early “massage” parlors, and lots more.  Through this gradual accumulation of detail, the larger story comes into focus.  I love this approach to story-telling.  This is a novelistic approach, which makes sense since many of the show’s key creatuve players are also novelists.

This attention to detail also comes into play, as I … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2017: Josh Reviews Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

April 17th, 2018
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I missed Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri when it was first released, but I was able to finally catch it right before the Oscars. I am glad I did. The film is a fascinating, funny, heart-wrenching character study about a group of flawed men and women in a small town in Missouri and the way a tragedy brings some of them together and pulls some of them apart.

The film is anchored by the fierce, magnetic performance of Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes. Angered by the police’s inability to identify the person who murdered her daughter, Mildred pays for three huge billboards that excoriate the town’s chief of police, Bill Willoughby. There are a lot of great performances in this movie, but without question Three Billboards belongs entirely to Ms. McDormand. She creates in Mildred a towering presence, giving her tremendous strength and endurance while also showing us all the ways that she has been broken and hollowed out by the murder of her daughter. Ms. McDormand is well-served by Martin McDonough’s fantastic script, which allows Mildred to be heroic in her strength while also, at times, despicable in the way she allows hate to drive her to some ugly actions. Ms. McDormand plays every note of the script and the character to absolute perfection. She deserves every accolade she received in the end-of-2017 awards season.

The film could have rested on Ms. McDormand’s performance alone, but what makes it great is that it didn’t. The film is populated by a number of multi-faceted, fascinating characters, brought to life by a wonderful ensemble.

I have been a fan of Sam Rockwell’s ever since Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and he is fantastically compelling as the dim-witted, violent, racist police officer Dixon. This is a tricky role, in that Mr. Rockwell’s comedic skills make Dixon a very funny character at times, even though he is probably the most hateful main character in the film. Mr. Rockwell walks that line perfectly and, just as Ms. McDormand does, allows the audience to see many different sides of Dixon. Some have criticized Mr. McDonough’s film for this character, arguing that the film doesn’t explore the important themes of racism and bigotry that this character introduces in enough depth. Others criticize the film’s ending for giving Dixon a redemption that he doesn’t earn. I didn’t see it that way at all. Without going into spoilers, I will say that I don’t think Dixon is redeemed at the end of the film. I just think that the film, and Mr. Rockwell’s nuanced performance, allows us to see, by the end, the human being inside this pitiable, disgusting man. This is part of what makes Three Billboards[continued]

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Stray Bullets

April 13th, 2018

Back in 1995, David Lapham (working with his wife Maria Lapham) released the first issue of his independently-published, black-and-white comic book series, Stray Bullets.  I wish I could remember why I bought it.  I believe it was because I was familiar with Mr. Lapham’s work on the early Valiant universe comic books, produced in collaboration with Jim Shooter.  That first issue BLEW ME AWAY.  It was a shockingly grim story about two guys in a car with a dead body in the trunk.  Mr. Lapham’s black-and-white art was incredible, but it was the writing that grabbed me by the guts and didn’t let go.  In just 27 pages, Mr. Lapham brilliantly developed the characters, and crafted an intense noir crime story of unravelling mayhem.  I was immediately hooked.

That first issue was amazing, but it was the second issue that was even more mind-blowing.  I thought that first issue was grim, but I was not prepared for issue #2’s story of young Virginia Applejack and a Halloween evening gone horribly wrong.  I had thought that issue #2 would continue issue #1’s story, but Mr. Lapham set the tone for the series by shifting to tell an unconnected (well, actually, it would eventually be shown to be connected, but more on that in a moment) story with entirely new characters.  The way Mr. Lapham was able to develop these characters in each one-issue short story, to allow us to care so deeply about them so quickly, was amazing.  And these stories — wow.  So shattering emotionally.  Mr. Lapham’s stories expressed a dark worldview that was horrifying, but immediately gripping.

I have been following Stray Bullets ever since.

The series was published (somewhat sporadically), from 1995 through issue #40 in 2005.  Then, tragically, and with only one issue left in the current storyline, the series disappeared.  In interviews over the years I would read about Mr. Lapham’s hopes to return to the series, but as the years went by I began to lose hope.

Then, in 2014, a miracle.  Mr. Lapham relaunched the series through Image Comics.  He released the long-awaited issue #41, and started a new Stray Bullets mini-series called “The Killers.”  That ran eight issues, and was immediately followed up by “Sunshine and Roses,” a “mini-series” that has run a staggering 33 issues so far and shows no sign of stopping.  Despite the long hiatus, Mr. Lapham has not missed a beat.  His art style has changed somewhat (fewer heavy blacks on the page), but it’s still amazing, and his writing is as incredible as ever.  Mr. Lapham has picked right back up with all of the characters we loved and feared, and begun introducing a number of fantastic new … [continued]

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Gamma — Original Sin

For the last several years, David R. George III has been the author primarily responsible for continuing the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine story in Pocket Books’ continuing series of novels.  Mr. George has crafted a thrilling series of books that, read together, form a fantastic, rich saga that explores interstellar politics and personal drama in the classic Deep Space Nine fashion.

Mr. George’s latest Deep Space Nine novel, Original Sin, follows Captain Benjamin Sisko and the crew of the U.S.S. Robinson on their mission of exploration in the Gamma Quadrant.  In previous novels, we’d seen that Sisko had taken a position as captain of the Galaxy-class Robinson, and , with his wife Kassidy and their daughter Rebecca on board, had set off with the crew of the Robinson on an extended mission of exploration.  But three months into their mission in the Gamma Quadrant, the Robinson is disabled by a group of mysterious aliens, who kidnap nearly a hundred of the children on board, including Rebecca.  As the frantic parents on board seek to recover their missing children, Ben and Kassidy are forced to wonder whether these events connect to the time, years earlier, when Rebecca was kidnapped by a religious fanatic on Bajor…

This novel’s title, Original Sin, is preceded by another title: Gamma. I wonder if the idea is for Gamma to be the title of a continuing series?  I would love to see future Deep Space Nine: Gamma novels that continue to follow the adventures of Captain Sisko and the crew of the Robinson as they explore the Gamma Quadrant.  We’ll see if that comes to pass!

While I liked the idea of telling an all-new adventure of exploration, I was surprised and delighted to see that a significant chunk of this novel was set several years in the past of the Trek novels’ current continuity, telling the story of the kidnapping of Rebecca Sisko by an Ohalavaru zealot on Bajor.

Quite a number of years ago, now, after a fantastic initial run of novels set after the events of the series finale of Deep Space Nine, the book series hit a dry spell for a while.  Some sort of behind the scenes problem led to a lengthy delay between the release of new novels.  Meanwhile, following the success of the DS9 relaunch books, Pocket Books began a Next Gen relaunch series, set after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis.  That initial run of Next Gen novels culminated in David Mack’s fantastic Destiny trilogy of novels, depicting the Borg’s final, full-scale assault on the Alpha Quadrant.  Destiny featured characters from all of the 24th-century-set Trek shows: Next Gen, DS9, and Voyager.  That trilogy of novels … [continued]

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Josh Reviews A Wrinkle in Time

I loved A Wrinkle in Time when I was a kid.  I remember I had a set of the three (at the time) books in the series by Madeleine L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet.  As I recall, I didn’t much care for A Swiftly Tilting Planet, but the mix of science and fantasy in those first two books thrilled me.  Just recently I read A Wrinkle in Time with my daughters, and they loved it.  It was fun to rediscover the book through their eyes.  They deeply invested in Meg and in her adventure.  For me, I was pleased that the book (which I hadn’t read in close to three decades) held up well.  There were some religious aspects in the novel that I hadn’t recalled and which I found superfluous, and I was a little frustrated by the novel’s abrupt ending, but I was glad to revisit this book and happy that my daughters enjoyed it just as I had.

The book felt ripe for a visual interpretation, and so I looked forward eagerly to Ava DuVernay (Selma)’s film adaptation.  Having now seen it, I can say that the film is… interesting.  There’s a lot to enjoy, but overall I found it to be a bit of a mixed bag.

First off, it’s not what I’d consider a direct adaptation of the book.  Yes, the movie follows the same basic story beats as the book, but whereas, say, the Harry Potter films attempted to bring the story of the novels to screen as faithfully as possible (understanding that, of course, changes have to be made when transforming a novel into a two-hour movie), there were many places in Ms. DuVernay’s adaptation of A  Wrinkle in Time in which it felt to me that Ms. DuVernay and her team used the novel as a jumping-off point for their own ideas.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach.  But the result is a film that feels very distinctly like one filmmaker’s version of a story loosely based on A Wrinkle in Time rather than a faithful adaptation.  (I freely admit that, for most of cinema’s history, that’s what practically ALL movie adaptations of novels were!  But in a post-Harry Potter era, when we have seen how successful those films were, both creatively and financially, I find myself more drawn to projects that are faithful to the source material.)

As an example of what I am talking about, take the film’s depiction of Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which.  Ms. DuVernay has cast three wonderful actresses in the role (Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and Oprah Winfrey), … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Good Place: Season Two

I didn’t watch the first season of The Good Place last year.  But when season two began in the fall, I wondered, why am I not watching this new show by Mike Schur, who has been behind so many other great shows that I have loved (particularly Parks and Recreation)??  So I went back and started streaming season one, and I immediately fell in love with this wonderful comedic creation.  I tore through season one and loved every minute.  That first season’s delicious twist ending was fantastic, and made me so happy that I wouldn’t have to wait a year before watching season two!  I am pleased that the second season was just as fantastic as that first year.  The Good Place is easily one of my very favorite shows currently on TV.

So much of season one was structured to build up to that wonderful twist at the end of the year.  And so I had to wonder, would the new season be able to top that?  What would the show look like now that we knew the truth behind the situation that Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) had found themselves in?

This post-twist season two could have easily felt like a let-down, but the miracle of what Mr. Schur and his collaborators have created here is that, post-twist, this second season wound up feeling even more fun and crazy than ever before!  This season burnt through plot like few shows I have ever seen — in this respect, it reminded me of Breaking Bad in its prime.  Eleanor and co. figured out what was up with Michael’s “reboot” of the Good Place by the end of the two-part season premiere, while the second episode (the best episode of the season — it made my “Best TV of 2017” list) burnt through hundreds of years of in-show continuity!!  While season one was a slow burn building up to that end-of-the-year twist, season two was a fast-paced roller-coaster, in which the show completely transformed itself almost every single episode.

That amazing second episode, “Dance Dance Resolution,” showed just how daring and inventive Mr. Schur and his writers were capable of being. I think it was that episode, even more than Michael’s laugh at the end of season one, that sealed my love for this show.

The main ensemble continued to be just as fantastic in season one as they were in season two.  Ted Danson continues to prove how effortlessly incredible he is.  This man is a master of the sitcom form.  He allows Michael to be both villainous and empathetic, and oh-so funny.  It’s fantastic work.  Michael has … [continued]