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Josh Reviews Ad Astra

At the start of James Gray’s film Ad Astra, we see astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) working on a space platform in low Earth orbit, when a mysterious “surge” destroys the platform and nearly kills him.  As the mysterious power surges continue to range across the planet, threatening to destroy all human civilization, the U.S. Space Command tells Roy that they believe the surges are connected to the Lima Project, an expedition beyond our solar system to search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  The Lima Project was commanded by Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride.  Roy believed that the mission had gone wrong and that Clifford had died, years ago.  Roy is sent on a mission to track down what remains of the Lima Project, and perhaps his father, in order to stop the surges and save the planet.

There’s a lot that I like about Ad Astra, through the film doesn’t quite come together the way I’d hoped.

The film is very quiet and somber.  There is an elegiac tone that hangs over the entire story.  It’s an interesting choice, one that separates the film out from your average sci-fi adventure.  There is an adventure aspect to Roy’s mission, but the film doesn’t treat it as such.  There are a couple of outer-space action sequences — like a fight between moon-rovers speeding across the lunar surface, and an investigation into a derelict spacecraft that turns tragic.  But the film doesn’t lean into the fun or excitement of those sequences.  This film is closer in tone to 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris than it is to, say, Apollo 13.  Although I know some people have found the film to be boring, I didn’t see it that way.  I am all for a sci-fi film that is treated more like an adult drama or character-study than an action-adventure shoot-em-up.

Brad Pitt is terrific as Roy, and what works in the film can mostly be said to rest squarely on his shoulders.  Mr. Pitt’s Roy is really the only character that is at all developed in the film.  We follow this story exclusively through Roy, and the film is so internal to Roy’s character that the absence of other developed characters feels like a conscious choice rather than a mistake (though it does nevertheless feel to me like a mistake; more on this in a moment).  But Mr. Pitt is terrific at bringing us into the story, and allowing us to slowly access what’s going on inside this quiet, stoic military man.  A lot of the film is played in close-up, and his face and eyes do a lot of the heavy-lifting.  It’s a powerful performance and a great use … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Stranger Things Season Three

In Stranger Things season three, we rejoin the kids (and a few heroic adults) of Hawkins, IL in the summer of 1985.  The kids are enjoying summer and the brand new Starcourt Mall that’s been built in their town.  Mike and Eleven are a couple and are inseparable (to the frustration of El’s adopted father Hopper).  Steve is working at the mall’s ice cream shop.  Nancy and Jonathan are working as interns at the Hawkins Post, but Nancy’s desires to be involved in real news reporting are constantly thwarted by the condescending men who work there.  Dustin has just returned from a science camp, and detects a strange Russian transmission on the radio he sets up.  Will is frustrated that the gang seems to be drifting apart, and is alarmed when he begins to feel hints that the Mind Ripper has returned.

Season three of Stranger Things is, overall, a terrific new installment of this loving pastiche of the 1980’s films of Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment, the stories of Stephen King, the films of John Carpenter, and more.  (Click here for my review of season one and here for my review of season two.)  These eight new episodes are fun and exciting.  The story moves along at a rapid clip.  (We don’t get any episode-long digressions in the manner of season two’s much-criticized Eleven adventure “The Lost Sister”.)  I’m pleased to see the story and the characters moving forward.

My main complaint is that I wanted more!  We had to wait over a year between seasons one and two (from July 2016 to October 2017) and almost two whole years between seasons two and three (October 2017 to July 2019).  After so long a wait, I watched these eight new episodes in about a week.  It’s all over and done far too soon to suit me!  I know this is the model these days… and I prefer eight tight episodes to a longer season that drags in the middle.  But it seems to me that, despite how ambitious this show is, they should be able to get us eight new episodes annually.  After waiting almost TWO years for this new batch, it wound up feeling a little anticlimactic to me after so much anticipation.  I hope the Duffer Brothers and Netflix are able to bring us season four on a shorter timetable.

I also have to point out that the show is running into trouble because the show’s narrative timeline is unfolding far more slowly than the production schedule of actually making the show.  Season one took place in November 1983, season two took place in October 1984, and season three is only 9 months later, in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Premiere of Watchmen

Watchmen, the 1986-87 mini-series/graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is probably the single greatest comic book story ever made.  The collected graphic novel was selected as one of Time Magazine’s 100 greatest English-language novels of the past century.  (I waxed poetic about the themes of Watchmen here.)  The long considered unadaptable story was adapted into a film by Zack Snyder in 2009.  I quite enjoyed that film and think it’s very underrated, even while I acknowledge that Mr. Snyder failed to incorporate much of the subtext and meaning that made the story so powerful.  (I think the film’s “Ultimate Cut” is a far superior version.  That much-longer version combines an Extended Cut of the film with the animated Tales of the Black Freighter sequences.  If you’re going to watch the Watchmen film, the “Ultimate Cut” is unquestionably the way to go.)

Now Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) has brought Watchmen to TV, in a nine-episode new series for HBO.  Mr. Lindelof and his team have taken a fascinating and unexpected approach.  This Watchmen show is not an adaptation of the comic.  Rather, it is a new story set in the world of the Watchmen comic, taking place thirty-plus years after those events.  I have watched the series premiere, and I thought it was thrilling and shocking.  I was completely gripped; so right now I am all-in on this new version and very excited to see where this goes.

This first episode of Watchmen contains a number of small touches that tell us that we’re in the same universe as the original Watchmen comic-book, but this first episode presents us with an entirely new story and new characters.  The episode opens with a riveting sequence, set in Tulsa in 1921.  We’re thrust right in the middle of the Tulsa Race Massacre, a horrifying explosion of racial violence and one of the worst riots in U.S. history.  (I’m embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing about this horrible incident and I had to read up on it after the episode.  I feel a little bit better that creator Damon Lindelof admitted — in this wonderfully in-depth interview conducted by Alan Sepinwall — that he too knew little about this massacre when he first came across the story.)  This is not at all how I expected a Watchmen TV show to begin!  It’s only the first of many wonderfully surprising and unexpected choices made by Mr. Lindelof, and it’s a fantastic opening to the show.  (In a separate article by Mr. Sepinwall, who is one of my very favorite TV reviewers, Mr. Sepinwall makes the astute observation that this opening also presents us with … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Joker

October 23rd, 2019
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Joker, directed by Todd Phillips and written by Mr. Phillips and Scott Silver, tells the origin of the famous Batman villain, the Joker.  However, this take on the Joker is almost entirely divorced from the Batman comic mythos, and it is also completely separate from all of the recent DC Universe films from Warner Brothers.  This stand-alone tale tells the story of a loner named Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who longs to be a star on the late-night television show of Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro.  Arthur lives with his ailing mother and struggles to get work as a performing clown.  The film charts his descent into madness and violence, and the chaos stirred up in his wake.

Joker represents an interesting and somewhat unusual approach to take, and frankly I am of two minds about it.  I am all-in on a serious, adult take on superheroes.  I loved Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, which were dead-serious in their approach to Batman and his world.  Joker is an even deeper dive into the psychological underpinnings of a Batman character, the titular Joker.  I love that about the film, and I think it succeeds in presenting a very disturbing look at this character and how he might have emerged in a world that feels very much like our own.  On the other hand, just as I wasn’t interested in a movie about Spider-Man villain Venom in which Spider-Man didn’t appear (I skipped 2019’s Venom), while watching Joker I found myself often thinking that this felt like only half a film.  As much as I was enjoying the journey towards the creation of the Joker, I often felt like I was missing the Batman side of the story.

The strongest aspect of the film is Joaquin Phoenix’s tremendously compelling work as Arthur Fleck.  Mr. Phoenix paints a viscerally gripping picture of a slowly disintegrating man.  There is not a whiff of cartoonishness or over-the-top stylization in this performance.  Mr. Phoenix plays things totally, hauntingly real.  Even in an otherwise grounded superhero film, there’s usually the point in which the hero or villain makes the choice to put on a costume, and we’re in the land of fantasy.  But Joker never goes there.  Arthur Fleck never transforms into what you’d expect a super-villain to look like.  This is the film’s power.  As we see this man break, and slip into delusion and violence, it’s all the more painful because it all feels real.  Mr Phoenix’s performance is terrifying and unhinged.  I have often complimented Mr. Phoenix for the way he adjusts his physicality for his different roles; that skill is on impressive display here, as he has somehow contorted his … [continued]

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Catching Up On 2018: Josh Reviews Song of Back and Neck

Wait, what, I never got around to posting a review of one of my favorite films of 2018?  Time to remedy that immediately!  I’m talking about Song of Back and Neck, the small, sweet, funny, weird film written by, directed by, and starring Paul Lieberstein (Toby from The Office).  

Song of Back and Neck is a wonderfully bizarre and idiosyncratic movie about a sweet, mousy man named Fred Trolleycar (Paul Lieberstein) who suffers from debilitating chronic back pain.  His journey to deal with that pain leads Fred to some delightfully unexpected places.  The film takes some wonderfully weird turns that I don’t want to spoil.  But I will say that the film allows Fred to form a strange and surprising connection with music (the “Song” in the film’s title does connect to some of what actually happens in the film, though not in the way you’d probably expect) as he goes on this journey that results in his facing some of the psychological wounds that he had tried to bury.

The film is loosely based by Mr. Lieberstein’s own personal experiences with back pain, and how he addressed what he discovered were the psychological underpinnings of his affliction.  I’m not sure I quite buy any of that, but Mr. Lieberstein makes a strong case for the truth behind his own personal experiences in this wonderful, lengthy in-depth interview on Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show, which is where I first discovered that this movie existed.  (Mr. Pollak’s wonderful, and deeply missed podcast led me to a number of great little films last year that I never would have known about, such as Jenna Laurenzo’s Lez Bomb.)

I was taken by this film right from the wonderfully funny opening sequence, in which we see the crazy lengths that Fred has to go through in order to get dressed and out the door in the morning.  The story that follows is funny and sad and sweet and moving.  I wouldn’t call this film a comedy, per se, but it is very, very funny at times.  It’s not a straight-up drama, either, though the film has some touching and painful dramatic moments.  There’s a slightly fantastical twist that the film takes at one point, but it’s all very grounded in the reality of life for real, every-day people.  It’s weird, but it all works.

Mr. Lieberstein is terrific in the leading role.  I always loved his performance as sad-sack Toby on The Office, and it’s fantastic to see Mr. Lieberstein in the center-ring spotlight of his own movie.  I also knew, by paying attention to the credits on The Office, that Mr. Lieberstein was clearly a terrific writer, and it’s fascinating to see … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The New Breaking Bad Netflix Movie: El Camino!

I am thrilled that Breaking Bad creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan has made such a thrilling return to the world of the series with El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which Mr. Gilligan wrote and directed!  I loved every minute of this surprisingly deep dive back into this universe and these characters, and the long-awaited and well-deserved focus on Aaron Paul’s character of Jesse Pinkman.

Breaking Bad is without question one of the great television achievements of all time.  Vince Gilligan and his astoundingly talented team of collaborators were able to craft a magnificent character study of a hugely flawed middle-aged white American man, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), charting his transformation from mild-mannered high school science teacher into a criminal overlord and monster.  (“From Mr. Chips to Scarface,” as goes the phrase often used by the folks behind the show.)  The show was breathtaking in the way it plumbed the worst depths of Walter White (and many of those around him).  The show could mount a viscerally exciting action sequence and also be very funny, but most of all it was heartbreaking.  A carefully structured, serialized show, Breaking Bad ended at a time of Mr. Gilligan’s choosing, and the phenomenal final season brought the show to a nearly perfect ending.

I was completely satisfied with the five seasons of Breaking Bad.  And yet, in the years since the finale, the show’s universe has expanded.  Mr. Gilligan and Peter Gould launched a prequel spin-off series, Better Call Saul.  To my enormous surprise, not only is the show great, I think it has grown to equal and possibly even surpass Breaking Bad!  I am completely captivated and I eagerly await the coming fifth season.

As Better Call Saul has progressed, gradually catching up to the timeline of Breaking Bad, I’ve been wondering whether Saul will ever directly cross over with events from the original show.  Many Breaking Bad characters have appeared on Saul (beyond Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmantraut, the show’s two lead characters, both of whom originated on Breaking Bad).  But would we eventually get to see the events of Breaking Bad from the perspective of Saul’s characters like Jimmy and Mike and Kim?  Might we even actually see Walt or Jesse appear on the show?  Better Call Saul’s post-Breaking Bad “Cinnabon Gene” sequences also have served to hint that the show might eventually move beyond the timeline of the events of Breaking Bad, and perhaps show us more of other Breaking Bad characters’ final fates.

But I never in my wildest dreams expected that Vince Gilligan would one day mount a full-on Breaking Bad sequel.  And yet, here we are with El Camino: A Breaking Bad [continued]

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Josh Reviews the New “Short Treks” Star Trek Short Film: “Q & A”

October 14th, 2019
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Last year in the months leading up to the launch of the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, CBS All Access posted a series of four Star Trek short films, which they nicknamed “Short Treks.”  In the months leading up to the start of the new Picard series, it looks like they’re doing the same, with a new round of six new short films.  The first one, “Q & A”, was recently released.  It depicts Spock’s first day on board Christopher Pike’s Enterprise (prior to the events of the original Star Trek pilot, “The Cage,” as well as the events of Discovery’s second season), in which he and Number One get trapped in a turbolift together.

I love the idea of these “Short Treks” as a way to give us vignettes set across the Star Trek universe, in different times and different locations.  The Star Trek universe is vast and deep, and there are so many wonderful areas and settings and characters to be mined for new stories.  One of the most fan-favorite aspects of Discovery’s second season was the way they incorporated Christopher Pike (now played by Anson Mount) and Spock (now played by Ethan Peck) as important characters, so the idea of returning to those characters and setting makes sense for this first new “Short Trek.”  Discovery season two also recast the role of Pike’s first officer, Number One (played by Majel Barrett in “The Cage” and by Rebecca Romijn in her brief appearances on Discovery).  I was bummed that Number One had so little to do on Discovery, so I was pleased that she and Spock would be the focus of this new short film.

But I wasn’t as taken with “Q & A” as I was with the four previous “Short Treks,” and I found it vastly inferior to Michael Chabon’s previous effort, the beautiful “Calypso” (which represents possibly the best 15-ish minutes of new official Star Trek in a decade).

The short is cute, with some nice banter between Spock and Number One as they while away the hours stuck in the turbolift.  But I didn’t find the banter to be nearly as funny or interesting as I’d expected, nor that revelatory for either of their characters.  We never got to know Number One that well in “The Cage,” but the Number One in this short strikes me as a very different character than the woman we saw in “The Cage.”  The Number One of “Q & A” is surprisingly snarky, and I just don’t buy that this stiff, buttoned down woman would ever start singing in front of a man who she’d just met that day.  The short is supposed to … [continued]

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News Around the Net

Two exciting new Star Trek trailers dropped this week!  First up is this look at Picard:

This is a very solid trailer.  Lots to get excited about here.  The production values of this show look spectacular, which makes me happy.  (On the other hand, Discovery also had terrific production values, but that show disappointed me again and again.)  I love the glimpses of Starfleet Headquarters, and the holographic projection of the Enterprise D!  I love the glimpse of Data — and he’s painting!  Nice nod to TNG continuity.  (And also, apparently a confirmation of my theory that Data in this show would only be appearing in Picard’s memories/dreams.  Note that Data is wearing the TNG-era uniform, and not the later uniform of the movies, or what we see of current Starfleet uniforms in the Picard era.)  It’s also exciting to see Riker and Troi, though actually that was the aspect of the trailer that I was least into.  I am not wild about the idea that Riker and Troi have retired to the woods.  Why is everyone from the TNG an old hermit now?  Jonathan Frakes is still vital and working despite his age here in the 21st century (he’s a fantastic director) — so wouldn’t Riker all the more so still be in the thick of things in the 24th century?  I want Riker to be (finally) in command of a starship!  But there is lots here that makes me happy.  I really hope the show is good.

Discovery also dropped a trailer for their third season:

This is also a great trailer.  I’m intrigued for to see this depiction of 1,000 years ahead in Star Trek’s future.  I’ve always wanted these Trek shows to go forward in time, not backwards… and I’ve also often thought that a cool premise for a future-set Trek show would be the depiction of the re-establishment of the Federation after some sort of catastrophe.  That sorts of seems to be what we’re getting here, and I am intrigued.  I love the glimpse of a version of the Federation emblem (albeit with what looks like far fewer stars on it).  I love Burnham’s various new looks.  I love seeing what looks like the return of Craft, from the terrific Short Treks short film “Calypso”, written by Michael Chabon.  I’m VERY intrigued by the appearance of Trills, as well as the symbiont pools — a deep-cut reference to Deep Space Nine!  I don’t have much expectation that I will ever love this show… but hope springs eternal.  (And I continually remind myself that neither Next Generation nor Deep Space Nine were much good for their first two seasons, either…)

I think this … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Fleabag!

I’d been hearing about Fleabag for years, ever since the first season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s show was released back in 2016.  The acclaim for the show’s second season, released this past March, bumped the show up higher on my (lengthy) to-watch list.  About a week or two before Ms. Waller-Bridge cleaned up at the Emmy Awards, I finally wised up and started watching.  Thank goodness!  I tore through the show and was done with the two six-episode seasons in less than a week.  I’m sorry I waited so long to watch the show and equally regretful that I devoured all of the episodes so quickly, because this show is phenomenal.  It’s quickly become the TV show I am most evangelical about these days.  I think it’s an absolutely brilliant accomplishment.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge created the show (based on her one-woman play).  She wrote every episode, and stars as Fleabag, the unnamed woman at the center of the story.  (Ms. Waller-Bridge has suggested that the name refers to the messy reality underneath the main character’s put-together exterior; the character is never actually referred to by the nickname “Fleabag” on-screen.)  To tell you too much about the show would be to spoil its many wonderful surprises and layers.  Suffice to say, Ms. Waller-Bridge’s character is a bit of a mess, a young woman who owns her own cafe but who is drowning in debt and floundering in her personal life.  Ms. Waller-Bridge is magnificent in the role; funny and heartbreaking and immediately captivating for the audience.  She invites us into her life and we dive in with enthusiasm.

That’s one of the keys to the show.  Ms. Waller-Bridge’s character often speaks directly to us, the TV viewer watching at home.  We’re her confidantes; her secret friends.  It’s a device that pays off emotional dividends, as we are drawn in to her life and her story and are made, in many ways, a part of that story.  It’s also the set-up for many, many magnificent jokes.  Ms. Waller-Bridge can get more comedic mileage out of a quick glance into the camera than anyone since Johnny Carson.

Fleabag achieves the impressive tightrope-balance of being incredibly, extraordinarily, astoundingly funny — fall-off your seat funny — while also gradually building to be a story of great depth and emotion.  (Although they are very different types of shows, I am reminded of Catastrophe, which strikes a similar balance in tone.  The two shows also share a ribald, very raunchy sense of humor.)  I can’t believe that a show exists that, in only two short seasons (each consisting of six half-hour episodes), can be at the same time so hilarious and so poignant.  I was deeply moved by … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Premiere of Stumptown!

Stumptown is a magnificent comic book series written by Greg Rucka and illustrated by first Matthew Southworth and then Justin Greenwood.  It centers on Dex Parios, a private investigator in Portland, Oregon.  The series has been published periodically between 2009 and 2016 (though I continue to hope for new installments…).  I was excited when I heard that the series was being turned into a TV show for ABC starring How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders in the lead role!

I watched the first episode, and I was pleased!  It wasn’t flawless, but it was an entertaining hour of television and I think the series has a lot of potential.

This first episode is a loose adaptation of the comic book’s first story-line, “The Case of the Girl Who Took her Shampoo (But Left her Mini)”.  Dex is broke and owes the local casino, run by the Confederated Tribes of the Wind Coast, $11,000.  The head of the casino offers to wipe out Dex’s debt if Dex will help find her granddaughter, who has gone missing.  Dex agrees, and quickly finds herself in a world of trouble she didn’t expect.

The comic’s first issue opens with Dex getting shot, and then the story flashes back to retrace the steps of what happened.  This episode takes a similar approach, though it borrows a scene from a later Stumptown story, in which Dex gets thrown in the truck of a car by two coffee-loving goons.  This opening sequence of the show is terrific — probably the best part of the episode.  It’s very funny (the goons start singing along to the Neil Diamond song playing on Dex’s car’s broken tape-player) and then turns into a terrific action sequence, as Dex breaks out of the trunk and attempts to subdue the two guys, while the car careens out of control through traffic, leading to the car’s taking a huge jump off of a bridge (which is also a callback to a famous moment from the comic).  The show then flashes back, as the comic did, to show us how Dex got locked in that trunk in the first place.

What follows is a decently compelling mystery.  I love that Dex actually finds the missing girl, Nina, fairly quickly — but that turns out to be just part of the larger story.  That’s a clever twist.  This first episode has a lot of ground to cover, introducing the whole cast and Dex’s world, while also telling this mystery/investigation story.  It’s all done fairly well.

Cobie Smulders is well-cast as Dex.  I think she’s a strong choice to carry the show.  She’s beautiful and she can kick ass, and she has the acting chops … [continued]