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Click here for part one of my list of my Favorite Movies of 2020, and click here for part two.  And now, let’s dive into my top Five Favorite Movies of 2020!

5. News of the World I wrestled with which 2020 Tom Hanks film I preferred: News of the World or Greyhound.  Ultimately I gave News of the World the higher ranking, but I wonder if I’ll feel differently a year from now.  They’re both great films!  In News of the World, Mr. Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of the Civil War who now eeks out a living by traveling from town to town to read from newspapers for the townspeople’s entertainment and edification.  Captain Kidd winds up entangled with a young girl named Johanna, who was kidnapped from her family years ago and raised among a tribe of Native Americans; now she is alone and Captain Kidd sets out to reunite her with her surviving family members.  The film is adapted from the novel by Paulette Jiles and directed by Paul Greengrass.  I thought the film was a delightful departure for Mr. Greengrass — it’s far more slowly paced and elegiac than the intense dramas and action films for which Mr. Greengrass is best known.  But his skill is on display in every frame of their beautiful, melancholy film.  Tom Hanks gives yet another spectacular performance.  (There’s a scene, late in the film, in which Captain Kidd finally faces the grief he’s buried, and it’s an extraordinary few moments of film.)  This is classical movie-making of the best kind.  (My full review is coming soon.)

4. On the Rocks Sophia Coppola’s latest film stars Rashida Jones as Laura, a woman who begins to suspect that her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is cheating on her.  So Laura enlists the aid of her wealthy, lecherous, “man about town” father, Felix (Bill Murray, reuniting at last with Ms. Coppola for the first time since Lost in Translation), to track Dean and get to the bottom of what’s going on.  On the Rocks is very funny at times — the pairing of Mr. Murray and Ms. Jones yields as much comedic fruit as I’d hoped — while also being a moving, sometimes sad story of the complicated relationship between Laura and her father.  I love how nuanced this film’s storytelling is.  No one is reduced to a simple character, a hero or a villain.  Everyone in this film is imperfect, and Ms. Coppola demonstrates an endearing amount of affection for these broken, flawed people.  I love that about the film.  (My full review is coming soon.)

3. The Vast of Night First-time filmmaker … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2020 — Part Two!

On Monday I began my list of my favorite movies of 2020!  And now, let’s enter my Top Ten:

10. Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary — Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary is exactly what it sounds like — a feature-length look back at the making of 1999’s Galaxy Quest!  It makes me so happy that Galaxy Quest is now getting this type of love.  I have loved Galaxy Quest ever since seeing it in the theater back in 1999, and this documentary (directed by Jack Bennett) was a delight from start to finish.  It’s a joyous celebration of this terrific film, filled with interviews with the entire cast and a deep bench of the behind-the-scenes players who were involved in the creation of this great sci-fi comedy.  If you’re a Galaxy Quest fan, this is a must-watch.  (Click here for my full review.)

9. The 40-Year-Old Version Radha Blank wrote, directed, produced, and stars in this wonderfully off-beat and moving film about a woman named Radha who, despite early success as a playwright, is now, in her forties, feeling lost and unmoored.  Ms. Blank is spectacular in the film.  She’s a tremendous comedic force, and she’s also a very strong dramatic actor.  I love how silly the film is at times, and yet how at the same time, as the film unfolds, it develops into a very deep character study.  Ms. Radha was able to take many autobiographical aspects of her own life and spin them into this beautiful and unusual film.  While the title is a play on Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, this film has nothing to do with Mr. Apatow’s film.  It tells a completely different, very original, story.  I loved it.  (My full review will be coming soon.)  (Above photo by Eric Branco, Courtesy of Sundance Institute.)

8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Adapted from the play by August Wilson, this beautiful and heartbreaking film, from director George C. Wolfe, is set in 1927 and depicts a very contentious day in the life of African-American blues singer Ma Rainey and her band.  The film features the final performance of the late, great Chadwick Boseman, who is absolutely mesmerizing as Levee, the brash young trumpeter in Ma’s band.  (Mr. Boseman was also in Da 5 Bloods, which made part 1 of my best of 2020 list.)  Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey, and it’s a powerhouse of a performance.  The film is gorgeous, compelling, and emotionally wrenching.  (Click here for my full review.)

7. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan Sacha Baron Cohen’s brilliant sequel is hilarious and … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Movies of 2020 — Part One!

I hope you enjoyed my look back at my favorite TV series of 2020!  And now, let’s dive into my favorite movies of 2020:

15. Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story I was a huge fan of The Ren & Stimpy Show back when it first started airing on Nickelodeon in the early nineties.  Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood’s documentary is an insightful, in-depth look back at the creation of this innovative series.  It’s also an exploration of what went wrong, and why the series burned so brightly but for so short a time.  In addition to taking a deep dive into the creation and production of The Ren & Stimpy Show, the documentary contains extensive interview footage Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi, who in recent years has been accused of sexual abuse of two minors.  It’s fascinating and disturbing to hear directly from Mr. Kricfalusi.  Watching this documentary made me very happy, and also very sad.

14.  An American Pickle Seth Rogen plays dual roles as Herschel Greenbaum (frozen in a vat of pickles back in 1919 and awoken in 2020) and his great-grandson Ben Greenbaum.  Watching Seth Rogen play against himself is every bit as fun as you might expect.  It’s a terrific acting performance, and the visual effects are absolutely seamless.  Bravo to director Brandon Trost and his team!  The film is funny, and also, in the end, surprisingly sweet.  I quite enjoyed the way the film embraced the value of Jewish ritual and prayer.  If only the third act was stronger, this film would be much higher on my list.  (The late-in-the-film plot twist in which Herschel started getting into trouble for saying lots of inappropriate-in-2020 things might have seemed funny on paper, but in execution it spoiled my connection with the character and enjoyment of what had been a great film.  The film is still worth seeing — that’s why it’s on my list! — but those third act problems keep it from greatness, in my opinion.)  (Click here for my full review.)

13.  Da 5 Bloods I thoroughly enjoyed Spike Lee’s latest film, in which four Vietnam veterans reunite to travel back to ‘Nam.  Purportedly their mission is to recover and bring home the body of their fallen squad leader, but in fact they’re after a crate of CIA gold that they found and buried back during the war.  The cast is spectacular: Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. are fantastic as the four surviving “Bloods”, and the late great Chadwick Boseman is tremendous, as he always was, as their dead leader “Stormin” Norman.  The Vietnam caper aspect of the story … [continued]

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We’ve arrived at the conclusion of my list of my favorite TV series of 2020!  Click here for part 1 of my list, click here for part two, click here for part three, and click here for part four!  And now, here are my five favorite TV series of 2020:

5. How To with John Wilson This bizarre, beautiful documentary series is hard to describe, and I think it’s best to go into it knowing as little as possible.  Filmmaker John Wilson has created six short masterpieces with this incredible first season.  Each episode purports to explore a different “how to” topic, but inevitably the joy of each episode is in the unexpected (and often deep and moving) digressions from that initial topic.  The series is a love-letter to New York City, and also to our wonderfully weird fellow human beings.  (My full review will be coming soon.)

4. Ted Lasso Jason Sudeikis, working with Bill Lawrence (mastermind behind the wonderful comedy Scrubs), Joe Kelly, and Brendan Hunt, took Mr. Sudeikis’ silly commercial character and turned him into the basis for one of the best new TV comedies I’ve seen in years.  The show is absolutely hilarious; but what makes it great is how soulful it is too, how joyful and life-affirming.  Mr. Sudeikis is absolutely perfect in the leading role as the incredibly up-beat Ted Lasso, an American football coach who, improbably, winds up coaching an English Premiere League football (what Americans call soccer) team.  The entire cast is dynamite.  This is a show in which I almost immediately fell in love with every single one of the main characters: Brendan Hunt as Coach Beard (his Doc Brown impersonation was amazing!!); Hannah Waddingham as team owner Rebecca Welton; Jeremy Swift as Rebecca’s sweet and unassuming assistant Leslie; Phil Dunster as the hot arrogant young super-star Jamie Tartt; Juno Temple as Jamie’s girlfriend Keeley Jones; Brett Goldstein as aging veteran Roy Ken; and Nick Mohammed as Nathan Shelle, the team’s kit man who flourishes under Ted Lasso’s influence.  I love this show!!  I can’t wait for season two!  (My full review will be coming soon.)

3. Brockmire season 4 The fourth and final season of this amazing show brought the story and characters to a wonderfully satisfying conclusion.  I love the way these four seasons gave such a rich and complete story-arc to the character of Jim Brockmire, the broken and profane disgraced baseball announcer.  As I have written many times before, this is the part Hank Azaria was born to play.  It’s an incredible comedic performance and an incredible dramatic performance, all in one.  I love how deeply this show is in love with baseball.  … [continued]

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I’m in the middle of my look back at my favorite TV series of 2020!  Click here for part 1 of my list, click here for part two, and click here for part three!  And now, let’s begin my top ten:

10. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Interactive Special – Kimmy vs. the Reverend OK, I’m cheating a bit with this one, since it’s a one-shot movie event and not a series.  But I loved this so much I couldn’t resist.  I was perfectly happy with the original conclusion of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s four-season run, but to get to return to this show and these characters in such a creative, inventive way was pure bliss.  This special utilized the same choose-your-own adventure technology that made the Black Mirror special Bandersnatch so intriguing.  But it turns out that technology was even more effective when used for comedic effect.  There was nearly endless fun to be found exploring the many different interactive choices, many of which took the viewer into bizarre and hilarious comedic digressions.  Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Jane Krakowski, and Carol Kane were as magnificent as always, and Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe shone in important supporting roles.  This was pure joy for me.  (Click here for my full review.)

9. Brooklyn Nine-Nine season 7 — Over the past few years, the often-underrated Brooklyn Nine-Nine has settled in as one of my very favorite TV comedies currently airing.  It’s without question my favorite show airing on a traditional network.  (I’m so happy that NBC rescued this show after Fox cancelled it!!)  The entire ensemble is so strong!  And the guest cast this season was so great — J.K. Simmons, Bradley Whitford, Jason Mantzoukas, Martin Mull, Craig Robinson, Nicole Byer, and so many more popped up to bring even more fun comedic energy to this already-great show.  Brooklyn Nine-Nine is so funny and also so sweet and positive.  I always smile from start-to-finish when watching it.  (Click here for my full review.)

8. Better Things season 4 — Pamela Adlon’s beautiful, unique, amazing show just gets better and better every year — as do the three young actresses (Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, and Olivia Edward) playing Ms. Adlon’s fictionalized daughters on the show.  Better Things is a rich character study, allowing us a peek into the life of Sam (played by Ms. Adlon), her three daughters, her mother Phil, and many of the other women in her life.  The show is focused on exploring the lives of these women; not in a tacky or superficial standard TV sort of way, but through rich, complex, nuanced storytelling.  Each episode is different from the others; the show studiously avoids any … [continued]

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Click here for part 1 of my list of my favorite TV series of 2020, and click here for part two!

15. Curb Your Enthusiasm season 10 — Ok, sure, the best days of Curb Your Enthusiasm seem to be in the past.  And I thought the first few episodes of this season, in which Larry runs afoul of the #metoo movement, were misguided.  But come on: the episode in which Jon Hamm slowly morphs into a Larry David duplicate was an all-time great.  And that was just one of the season’s many comedic delights, which included (but were by no means limited to): Larry’s wearing a MAGA hat in order to prevent people from coming up and chatting with him; Larry’s getting seated in the “ugly section” at a restaurant; Jeff’s being mistaken for Harvey Weinstein; side-sitting, yo-yo-diets, texting while driving, and all sorts of other shenanigans.  (Click here for my full review.)

14. Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian This behind-the-scenes look at the making of The Mandalorian is a lot of fun for a major Star Wars fan like myself.  The series is a delightful mix of after-the-fact roundtable discussions as well as lots of behind-the-scenes footage.  I was particularly delighted by the fourth episode, which took a deep dive into the revolutionary technology utilized to create the astoundingly beautiful and photo-real visual effects of the show, and the eighth episode, which explored all the myriad fun connections to obscure corners of the Star Wars universe that Jon Favreau, Dave Filoni and others incorporated into the show.  (Click here for my full review.)

13. Star Trek: Lower Decks This animated half-hour Star Trek comedy, exploring the lives of the lower-ranked “lower decks” characters on a Federation starship, is an enjoyable new version of a Star Trek show.  The animation is beautiful, and the show is very funny and packed with endearingly nerdy references to the vast breadth of the Star Trek universe.  It’s a pleasure to be back in the familiar 24th century setting of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, and over the course of this first ten-episode season, I grew to quite enjoy this series’ cast of misfits.  The triumphant inclusion of Captain William T. Riker and the starship Titan in the season’s final moments gave me a lot of joy.  This isn’t exactly the type of new Star Trek show I most want to see (I’d have been more interested in a straight, dramatic telling of most of this season’s stories), but dang if I didn’t grow to appreciate it nonetheless.  Bravo to creator Mike McMahan and his team.  I can’t wait for season two.  (Click here for my … [continued]

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Yesterday I began my look back at my favorite TV series of 2020 by listing a number of 2019 series that I hadn’t actually gotten to see back in 2019.  Now, let’s turn to TV series that actually came out during 2020!

First, as always, I’ll note that while I watched plenty of TV in 2020, there were also lots of shows that interested me that I didn’t get to.  These include, but are not limited to: Raised by Wolves, Little America, The Last Dance, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, The Right Stuff, Moon Base 8, I May Destroy You, Run, Space Force, and Brave New World.  So if you liked one of those shows and wonder why it’s not on my list, now you know.  OK, onward!

Honorable Mentions: 30 Rock: A One-Time Special and A Parks and Recreation Special These two COVID special episodes of two of my all-time favorite series brought me nothing but joy.  They’re not TV “series” so I didn’t feel that I should include them on my final Best-of list, but nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed both of these specials.  It was a delightful, unlooked-for surprise to get to spend a little more time with these beloved characters from these two spectacular TV shows.

21. Marvel 616 — Each episode of this beautifully-produced documentary series on Disney+ explores a different aspect of Marvel history and fandom, shining a spotlight on everything from several current Marvel comic book artists and writers, to fan cosplayers, to the Japanese Spider-Man TV series from the seventies, and more.  (I’ve also gotta give love to the deep-dive of the series’ title, which is a geeky reference that will be way over the head of average fans.  The number 616 has been used occasionally in the comics as the official designation of the Marvel universe within the Marvel multiverse.  This was originated by David Thorpe in a Captain Britain comic book series from the eighties!  Read more here.)

20. The Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom — This Disney+ documentary series explores the animals, and the men and women who care for them, at their Animal Kingdom and Epcot theme parks in Florida.  This is Disney propaganda, make no mistake, but it’s slickly-produced and a delight to watch.

19. His Dark Materials season 2 — This is no Game of Thrones, though I’m sure HBO wishes it was.  The story is too confusing and the characters are not as interesting as they should be.  But nevertheless, this series, based on Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy of novels, is an epic story (clearly made on a huge budget) with a cast of very interesting actors.  It’s fun to watch even though … [continued]

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I’m excited to begin my look back at 2020 with this list of my favorite TV series of 2020!

While I usually like to restrict my lists to TV series that aired new episodes during the previous year, this year I’d like to begin with some Honorable Mentions that didn’t.

The Leftovers — One of my very favorite shows that I watched this year was The Leftovers, which aired on HBO from 2014-2017.  I’d avoided the show previously, because I’d been burned by Damon Lindelof’s previous show, Lost, and because the heavy subject matter of this series felt so dour I wasn’t sure I wanted to put myself through watching it.  But after being cajoled for years by friends and family to give this show a try, I finally did.  I am so glad I did!!  The Leftovers, overseen by Mr. Lindelof and Tom Perrotta (who wrote the novel upon which the first season of the show was based), is a masterpiece.  This three season show is nearly perfect in almost every respect.  It’s breathtakingly original, filled with adventurous storytelling and twists and turns I could never in a million years have predicted, and that left me exhilarated as a viewer.  It’s a deeply moving character piece, filled with incredible characters — so many of whom I quickly grew extremely attached to — played by extraordinary actors.  The series is heartbreaking and emotionally wrenching, but also funny and joyous as well.  It’s dazzlingly original.  I’m so glad to have seen it.  I can’t wait to watch it all through again.  (Click here for my review of The Leftovers season one.)

For the first several months of 2020, I found myself watching quite a number of terrific 2019 shows that I hadn’t gotten to by the time I wrote my 2019 lists.  Here are some of my favorites:

Russian Doll — This Groundhog Day remix was gloriously terrific.  It was emotional and moving and also riotously funny.  It featured a dazzlingly compelling lead performance by Natasha Lyonne (who co-created the series with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler).  I loved the complex, twisty-turny narrative, and I was delighted by how well all the pieces fit together in the end.  I loved how uplifting this often-times dark show was, in the end.  This was one of the very best shows I watched in 2020.  (Click here for my full review.)

Undone — This deliriously fun and weird animated series, created by Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, is a beautiful, complex character study of a deeply broken young woman, and at the same time it is a gloriously mind-bending sci-fi tale.  Like Russian Doll, I found Undone to be both deeply … [continued]

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Part 3 of Josh’s Review of Star Trek: Discovery Season Three!

Click here for my overview of Star Trek: Discovery season 3, and click here for the beginning of my episode-by-episode review.  And now, let’s dive back in and wrap up my analysis of the season!

Episode 7 — Unification III — Well, they had me with the cheeky title (which harks back to TNG’s “Unification” two-parter), and the rest of the episode was pretty solid as well!  I like the idea that Vulcan and Romulus did finally achieve Spock’s dream of unification, and that Vulcan is now known as Ni’Var.  It’s interesting to see this joined Vulcan/Romulan society is on the outs with the Federation (they left the Federation 100 years ago).  It makes sense that Spock’s sister might be a figure of some importance to them.  It’s interesting to see Ethan Peck as Spock again… and of course it was a delightful surprise to see a clip of Leonard Nimoy as Spock (from “Unification II”) — though, of course, that’s also a continuity problem because there’s no way there could have been a recording of Picard’s conversation with Spock on Romulus.  I like the idea that the Qowat Milat (the brutally honest Roman warrior-nuns from Picard) were essential for the Vulcan-Romulus reunification.

I liked seeing Burnham and Book together.  I liked their sweet post-coital conversation early in the episode.  It’s a fun surprise to see Burnham’s mom again, now somehow a Qowat Milat.  I don’t understand the time-travel plot mechanics of how this could be, nor the character reasons of why a time-travel scientist would become a monk on Vulcan, but it’s always great to see The Wire’s Sonja Sohn again.  I like the scenes between Burnham and her mom.

But I HATE when the show has Burnham’s mom wonder how much of who Spock became was because of who his sister was.  This is really insulting and undermining to the character of Spock, and represents an absurd attempt of elevating the importance of Michael Burnham.  I like Burnham!  She’s an interesting character all on her own!  The show doesn’t need to suggest that she’s also responsible for making Spock into the great character he was!  That’s so silly and unnecessary.  It has the reverse effect intended and, for me, totally undermines the Burnham character.  It frustrates me that in this episode, yet again, Michael and her feelings are at the center of an event of galactic import.

Also: why have all of the scientists on Vulcan, who HAD all of the info from the mysterious SB-19 data, thought for a CENTURY that the Burn started on Vulcan… while Burnham discovers in two seconds that that’s not what happened??  That’s so silly!  It makes the Vulcans look … [continued]

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Part 2 of Josh’s Review of Star Trek: Discovery Season Three!

Yesterday I posted my review of the third season of Star Trek: Discovery.  Today I’m back with a more detailed episode-by-episode analysis.  Let’s dive in!

Episode 1 — That Hope is You, part 1 — For the most part I quite enjoyed this season premiere.  I like the decision to focus solely on Michael Burnham, with no appearances from any other Discovery character.  That’s unusual for Trek, and I like the focus that gave to this episode.  I enjoyed our initial glimpses of this far future into which Michael (and the series) has jumped.  I liked the enigmatic “searching for signals” opening.  I liked the chase through the ruins of starships in orbit of the planet onto which Burnham crashes.  I loved the beautiful vistas of this alien world.  (The location shooting combined with high-quality CGI effects created a very memorable new alien planet.)  I really enjoyed meeting Book (though I hate that his name is a rip-off of a beloved character from Firefly) and his crashed ship was beautifully realized.  I’m glad Burnham sent the time-travel suit away, so she and the show can’t easily return to that magical get-out-of-plot-problems device again.  (Though I’m confused where/when Burnham sent the suit?)  The “Mercantile” trading post looked cool.  I liked seeing Andorians and Orions, and I liked hearing mention of the Gorn.  I loved seeing an alien of the same species as Morn from DS9!

What drags the episode down is the usual Discovery plot problems.  Why can’t the bad-guys track transporters through water??  Why does Book’s ship have enough power to cloak the entire huge vessel but not to beam over to Mercantile?  Also, why does the man seen in the opening have a box with the unqiue-to-Discovery emblem (the split arrowhead design that was never seen before this show) as opposed to the standard Starfleet symbol?  It doesn’t make any sense that this man (who we’ll learn is a Starfleet officer) would have that only-ever-seen-on-Discovery emblem (which, according to this very show, was declared a forever secret by Starfleet in the 23rd century).  It’s laziness by the props department… perhaps combined with an arrogance in declaring that this show’s visual choices should outweigh all previous Trek history.  It’s the same sort of arrogance I saw in Picard, in which we saw, for example, a future Starfleet that didn’t contain a single recognizable starship design — instead, every single ship was a generic Picard redesign.  It’s a missed opportunity.

Episode 2 — Far From Home — After an episode with Burnham, it was fun to step away from Burnham for an entire episode (the first time in the show’s history!) to catch up with the rest … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Trek: Discovery Season Three!

I am an enormous Star Trek fan.  Of all the many stories and franchises that I love (in movies, TV shows, novels, and comic books), I don’t think there is any that I love more than Star Trek.  And yet, as a Trek fan, I have been suffering for many years, waiting for good new Star Trek to arrive.  I love The Original Series, and I grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Starting with season three of TNG (which still stands as one of the greatest seasons of Trek ever made), I was spoiled by regular new Trek that just got better and better, through the seven seasons of TNG and then the seven seasons of Deep Space Nine (which still stands as my very favorite of all the Trek series.)  I expected Trek to continue to get greater, and yet, after the finale of DS9 in May 1999, I have repeatedly been disappointed.  The final two TNG movies (Insurrection and Nemesis) disappointed.  The next two spin-off shows, Voyager and Enterprise, both disappointed.  (Although Enterprise did finally find its legs in the middle of season three.  The end of season three, followed by season four, were terrific, the best Trek in years.  Sadly the show was cancelled at the end of season four.)  The true successor to DS9 was Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, which built upon DS9 in almost every way.  The three J.J. Abrams Trek movies disappointed.  (The first one is enjoyable, but it gets a lot wrong and is full of lazy plot-holes and contrivances that drive me nuts.  Star Trek Into Darkness is an abomination before the Lord, and Star Trek Beyond is forgettable.)  I was excited for the potential of Trek’s long-awaited return to TV, but the first season of Discovery was terrible and the second season wasn’t much better.  Picard started strong but tumbled into ridiculousness.  The animated comedy Lower Decks has been a sole bright light (I found it mostly delightful), but that’s not really what I’m looking for in Trek.  I went into Discovery season three with very low expectations, but also, as always, hope in my heart that maybe the show had course-corrected.

Well, I’ll say this: I didn’t hate it!

That represents a huge improvement over Discovery seasons one and two… though this series is so far below the quality of almost any Trek series from the Original Series through to Enterprise that it’s sort of hard to believe… and in fact I really don’t consider this to be Star Trek at all.

What’s good in Discovery: season three?  Well, at the end of season two, the series jumped … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was adapted from the play by August Wilson.  Set in 1927, it depicts a very contentious day in the life of African-American blues singer Ma Rainey and her band.  They’re recording Ma Rainey’s music in Chicago for a white record producer, as arranged by her white agent.  As the day winds on, the tensions rise between the members of Ma’s band and also between Ma and the two white men overseeing the session.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is beautiful and heartbreaking.  Director George C. Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson have done a terrific job adapting August Wilson’s play for this film.  The film retains the feeling of a theatrical experience.  The theatrical rhythm of the dialogue has been thankfully preserved.  And the fact that the film basically takes place in only two rooms belies its theatrical origins.  But this film never felt like a dry, limited adaptation, a pale reflection of what might have been more lively on the stage (the way films adapted from plays can sometimes be).  Mr. Wolfe and his collaborators have beautifully brought this story and these characters to life on the screen in a way that works perfectly as a movie.

Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey, and it’s a powerhouse of a performance.  Ms. Davis’ fiery charisma commands the screen with her presence.  At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of Ma.  After just recently watching Mank, at first I wasn’t wild to be watching what seemed to be another story of a misbehaving, over-entitled, selfish “artist”.  But there’s a lot more to this character, and one of the best delights of this film is the way the story very slowly peels back the layers of Ma Rainey until we understand what’s really going on.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is sadly the final performance of the late, great Chadwick Boseman.  And what a performance it is.  Mr. Boseman is absolutely mesmerizing as Levee, the brash young trumpeter in Ma’s band.  Levee is a hot young turk with tremendous energy and enthusiasm, and he seems to have the musical skills to back up his ego.  But there’s anger underneath Levee’s beaming smile, and a hunger for more than he has.  Mr. Boseman gets to deliver two crucial monologues in the film, and they are both showstoppers.  I don’t believe Mr. Boseman was ever better, and that’s saying something.  His work here is a bravura performance that only twists the knife of anguish over this great artist who passed away at far too young an age.

The entire ensemble is terrific.  Glynn Turman (Baltimore mayor Royce on The Wire) is fiercely compelling as Toledo, the soft-spoken piano player who’s the old … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Mank

David Fincher’s latest film, Mank, tells the story of Herman Mankiewicz, the man who wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane along with Orson Welles.  Mank depicts the weeks in 1940 during which the alcoholic Mank worked on the Kane screenplay, while being almost completely bed-ridden due to his recovery from a broken leg.  The film also flashes back throughout the thirties to show the arc of Mank’s relationships with the wealthy power-broker William Randolph Hearst and Hearst’s young movie-star wife, Marion Davies, both of whom were mercilessly lampooned in Kane.  

Mank is, in many ways, an incredible film.  It’s certainly been made with extraordinary craft and attention to detail.  There’s a lot to love and respect here.  And yet, I must confess that the film left me somewhat unsatisfied.  After a first viewing, I don’t feel that Mank holds up with the best of Mr. Fincher’s many great films (from Seven to Zodiac to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to The Social Network and more).

Let’s start with what’s good.  The film looks amazing.  Mr. Fincher has an incredible eye, and the layers of period detail in Mank are extraordinary.  There is so much for the eye to drink in, in every single frame.  Mr. Fincher & Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt shot Mank in beautiful, lush black and white, just like Kane.  Their mastery of the mise-en-scène, and of light and shadow, equals Welles’.  This is a beautiful film.

I loved the way the film has been structured to resemble Citizen Kane.  Both the fractured narrative and the visual style are reminiscent of Kane.  The film’s credits have a 1940’s vibe to them.  The scene-setting chirons are written as if they’re establishing locations from a film script.  I love these levels of detail.

The script, written by Mr. Fincher’s father Jack Fincher, is sharp.  I like the flashback structure, and there is some incredibly snappy dialogue throughout.

Gary Oldman plays Mank, and as always, Mr. Oldman is absolutely magnificent.  He commands the screen; his charisma and force of personality break right through.  Mr. Oldman’s performance is my favorite thing about this film.

In fact, the entire cast is strong.  Amanda Seyfried is very impressive as Marion Davies.  I love how thoroughly Ms. Seyfried, and the film’s script, humanizes Ms. Davies.  I could imagine a version of this film in which Ms. Davies had been played as an oversized joke (sort of how she was depicted in Kane), but Ms. Seyfried plays Marion as a relatively likable, normal, centered young woman (despite the world of opulence she strides through).  I liked her Brooklyn twang.  I really enjoyed following the arc of Marion’s friendship with Mank over the course of the film.  … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Soul

January 6th, 2021
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Pixar’s latest masterpiece is Soul, which was released to Disney+ late last month.  In the film, Jamie Foxx plays Joe Gardner, a middle-aged African American man who teaches music to kids in New York City.  Joe lives and breathes music, and dreams of becoming a successful jazz musician himself.  On the day Joe finally achieves his long sought-after big break, he accidentally falls down a manhole.  And dies.  And an entirely new journey begins.

I adored Soul.  As is often the case with Pixar films, Soul deals with some very heavy subjects.  (The film’s extended opening sequence reminded me somewhat of the opening of Up.  It’s not as much of an immediate tear-jerker, but it reminded me of that bravura sequence in the way that the film is very up-front about the challenging, adult issues it will be tackling.)  And yet the magic of Soul — as seems to always the case for Pixar — is that the film is never for a second dour or dreary.  It’s moving and emotional and adult… but it’s also joyful and funny and clever.  I love how skillfully the film strikes that balance!  And so Soul can be enjoyed by kids while also being enjoyed at an entirely different levels by adults.

I’d mentioned Up, but if Soul reminds me of anything, it’s Inside Out.  No surprise, Pete Docter directed both films.  Like Inside Out, Soul is compelling in the way it’s created a fascinating, delightful, fully fleshed-out universe exploring an aspect of our unknowable universe.  In Inside Out, the movie created an entire universe and mythology around the inner workings of a person’s thoughts and feelings.  Here in Soul, Mr. Docter and his team have done the same thing around our souls, and what happens after one dies (and before one is born).  I love the thought that has been put into every aspect of this universe.  This is a film that will reward multiple viewings.  The world created in Soul is distinct and original while also feeling insightful and universal.

Soul is notable for being the first Pixar film to focus on an African-American character.  It’s a delight.  Jamie Foxx is marvelous as Joe.  All of Mr. Foxx’s many talents are utilized in the role — his charisma, his comedic chops, his dramatic skills, and his musical abilities.  The film was co-directed and co-written by Kemp Powers, and he and his collaborators have done a terrific job fleshing out Joe and his African-American character friends and family members.  (Many of the promotional materials for this film on Disney+, including an episode of the Inside Pixar series, explore Mr. Kemp’s contributions to the film.  They’re worth a look if you’re interested in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Third and Final Season of The Leftovers

After several years during which several of my friends repeatedly beseeched me to watch The Leftovers, I finally gave it a chance.  I’m so glad I did.  The show is a masterpiece.  It’s a deep character study; a riveting meditation on grief and loss; and a thrillingly ambitious narrative in which I found myself repeatedly, joyously bowled over by how impossible to predict it was.  I enjoyed the first season and I thought the second season was even stronger.

The first season was set three years after the mysterious Sudden Departure, an event in which 2% of the world’s population vanished.  That season was set in the small town of Mapleton, NY, and as we followed many of the town’s denizens, the show explored the myriad ways in which this dramatic event damaged each of their lives, whether they’d lost a close family member to the Departure or not.  The second season expanded the show’s focus to a new location: Jarden, Texas, a town nicknamed “Miracle” because not a single member of the town Departed.  That terrific second season showed us a little more of the (extremely messed-up) state of the world, while at the same time drilling down even more intimately into the emotional lives of the show’s characters.  For this third and final season, the show expanded even further, while at the same time continuing to give us the riveting, tightly-focused P.O.V. episodes that had proven so critical to the show’s emotional power in the first two seasons.  Once again, I am impressed at the continued world-building of the universe in which The Leftovers takes place, and the power of the intimate explorations of these characters.

This third and final season was even shorter than the first two seasons (only eight episodes instead of the previous ten).  I wish there were far more.  But as with the previous seasons, these eight episodes were extremely well-structured to tell the story that the makers of this show (overseen by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta) set out to tell.  There was nary a stinker in the bunch.  (Which, again, has been the case from the beginning.  I don’t think there was a single bad episode in the entire run of this show.  That’s an extraordinary achievement!)  And, once again, I was impressed by the boldness of the storytelling.  In a shorter-than-ever season, I’d never have predicted they’d devote an entire episode to a supporting character who, while important, had never before gotten a lot of screen time!  (That’d be Scott Glenn as Kevin Senior.  His third episode spotlight was a highlight of the season for me.)

As with my previous reviews, I want to dive into the details of this … [continued]