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Josh Reviews Season Five of Black Mirror

I think the first six episodes of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s haunting anthology series that explores the many (mostly negative) ways in which technology has and will continue to affect our lives, are a triumph of television.  I love all six of those original UK-produced episodes.  I’m thrilled that the series has found a new life on Netflix, and I’ve quite enjoyed the new Netflix episodes as well, even though I’ve fallen a bit behind on the show.  (There is so much great TV being made these days, it’s hard to keep up!)  I thought that Bandersnatch, the 2018 Black Mirror special that utilized a choose-your-own-adventure type interface to create an interactive experience with the viewer at home, was spectacular.  I’ve recently caught up with the three new episodes released this past summer, and they’re all strong new installments of the series.

Striking Vipers Anthony Mackie (who plays the Falcon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) stars as Danny, who has a comfortable suburban life with his wife Theo (Nicole Beharie) and their young son.  Danny is reunited at his birthday party with his old friend Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who played Black Manta in Aquaman and is also part of the cast of HBO’s new Watchmen series), who gives him a new video game as a birthday present.  The game is Striking Vipers X, a new virtual reality version of the fighting game the two used to play when they were young.  Now the two can actually inhabit the characters they used to play on a screen: Danny as the buff Lance and Karl as the hyper-sexualized Roxette.  With the VR world, Danny and Karl start having sex in the form of their characters.  The intense sensation of sex within the game begins to make everything else in their real lives feel lesser, and Danny and Karl struggle differently with how to respond.

Striking Vipers was wrenching to watch.  Despite the fantastical aspect of the VR video game, this is a pretty grounded story about a marriage in trouble and two men questioning their sexuality.  The actors are all very strong.  The lead trio of Anthony Mackie, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Nicole Beharie are all terrific, and bring so much humanity to this story.  It was painful watching them all suffer.  This was the hardest-to-watch episode of this trio of new episodes, because the drama felt so real to me.

The depiction of the video-game world come to life in the Striking Vipers game was amazing, a perfect extrapolation of what one of those classic street-fighting video games would look like in the virtual world.  The visuals were very cool.  Pom Klementieff (Mantis from Guardians of [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 Sherlock Season Four!

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ wonderful series Sherlock returned in 2017 for a three-episode series four.   I have adored this series, a modern-day reinterpretation of the Sherlock Holmes stories, since the beginning.  I admire its intelligence and sophistication and the way the series has allowed us to fall in love with these wonderfully bizarre characters.

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As always, three episodes feels like far too little after such a long wait for new installments.  Because of such a long wait between series (or seasons, in American parlance), and because we get so few new episodes each time, I feel like the producers put an impossible amount of pressure on themselves to make each of the rare new episodes perfect.

Well, none of the new episodes in series four are perfect, and there is a plot twist at the end of the first episode that I didn’t care for at all, and that colored this whole new series in an unfavorable way for me.  But these three new episodes remain wonderfully entertaining, impressively-crafted pieces of television entertainment.  The third episode is probably the most ambitious episode the series has ever done, with an extraordinary scope and amazing production design.

This is a darker season of the show than we’ve seen before. Generally, this show has been able to be fun while also maintaining true dramatic stakes for all the characters.  The plot twist at the end of episode one, though, throws all that out the window.  While I understand the show-runners’ desire to shake up the status quo and not just keep doing the same things, and while I was ultimately satisfied with how the story begun in that terrible moment resolves itself by the end of episode three, I felt that event unbalanced this season to a degree that bothered me.  It was hard to find much joy in Sherlock after that moment.  The writers clearly understood that and went there anyways.  For me, personally, I wish they’d have made a different choice.

OK, let’s take a deeper dive into these three episodes! Beware SPOILERS ahead.

The Six Thatchers We get several engaging mysteries in this episode.  First is the mystery of the college student found dead in a car in his parents’ driveway, despite his being abroad at the time and in fact having Skyped with his father at the moment he was apparently killed.  Then there is the titular mystery of a series of apparently unconnected crimes linked only by the commonality that a statue of Margaret Thatcher was destroyed in each instance.  Then there is the more important-to-the-series exploration of the backstory of John Watson’s wife Mary’s mysterious past, and the apparent resurrection of her former soldier/assassin partner … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Spectre

Spectre, Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as Ian Flemming’s James Bond, is not a completely terrible film but it’s a huge missed opportunity for the franchise and is probably the worst of Craig’s four Bond films.  (That’s right, I think Spectre is weaker than Quantum of Solace.)  This film should have been the triumphant and thrilling return of the best and most iconic Bond villains — S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and Blofeld — after forty years on the shelf, but instead it’s a humdrum head-scratcher and I am left wondering what the heck went wrong.

Spectre.cropped

Spoilers ahead, gang.

One of my favorite things about the Daniel Craig Bond films has been the continuity between the films.  I loved that Quantum of Solace directly picked up on the events of Casino Royale, specifically Bond’s grief at Vesper’s betrayal, as well as bringing back characters such as Mathis and Mr. White, who was revealed to be connected to a criminal organization called Quantum (or perhaps Q.U.A.N.T.U.M.).  (One of my complaints about Skyfall, which I enjoyed but didn’t view as the triumph that most everyone else seemed to, was that it was a stand-alone adventure that didn’t continue the development of Quantum.)

This sort of continuity in the Bond series feels like a radical new idea, but in fact it’s a very old one.  Though the series became famous for each film’s being a totally stand-alone adventure, the original Connery Bond films had a gentle continuity between them.  Characters carried over from one film to another (such as Sylvia Trench) and we gradually got to learn more about S.P.E.C.T.R.E., the criminal organization behind much of Bond’s troubles, and its leader Ernst Stavros Blofeld.

A turning point in the Bond series — and what stands as the series’ greatest missed opportunity (though boy does Spectre give it a run for its money) — is the abandonment of that continuity following the terrific cliffhanger ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  That film under-performed and audiences did not respond well to the newly re-cast Bond, played by George Lazenby.  And so while the follow-up should have been the grand culmination of the story that had been slowly developed over the course of the first six films, an emotional and epic climax to Bond’s fight with S.P.E.C.T.R.E., now taken to an intensely personal level following the murder of Bond’s wife, the producers made the decision to totally abandon that story and quickly do away with Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E.  From that point forward, the films became stand-alone adventures and, following a brief and stupid appearance of a Blofeld-like character in the opening of For Your Eyes Only, that was the last we ever heard of Blofeld and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the BBC’s Sherlock Season Two!

A few weeks ago I wrote about the BBC’s excellent modern-day reinvention of Sherlock Holmes in Season One of their show Sherlock. When the credits rolled on the last episode, I quickly ordered season two from Amazon.

Season Two is of even higher quality than Season One!

With their second series of three episodes (as in Season One, each episode is an hour-and-a-half-long movie), the makers of Sherlock set the bar very high for themselves.  They decided to tackle what are probably the three most famous aspects of the Sherlock Holmes mythos: the professor, the woman, and the hound.

The first episode of Season Two, “A Scandal in Belgravia” (based on the story “A Scandal in Bohemia”) focuses on the woman: that is, Irene Adler, the one woman who was Holmes’ equal.  I absolutely adore the series’ version of Irene.  When we first meet her, we learn that she is a dominatrix who apparently is in possession of some photographs of a member of the Royal Family in, apparently, a compromising position.  But we quickly learn that there is a lot more to Ms. Adler than just being a beautiful blackmailer, and as the episode goes on we (along with Sherlock) are subjected to reversal after reversal, never quite sure where Ms. Adler’s loyalties lie.  In the episode, Irene Adler is played by Lara Pulver, and she is absolutely magnificent.  Yes, it’s true that I, like Holmes, might have been a bit easily smitten seeing as how the lovely Ms. Pulver performs most of her initial scenes with Holmes in the nude, but I was quickly taken by the character’s ferocious intelligence and cunning.  This woman is truly Holmes’ equal, and we’re never quite sure, as the episode progresses, whether Holmes is one step ahead of Adler or whether she is one step ahead of Holmes.

“A Scandal in Belgravia” is the best episode of Season Two, and the best episode of the series so far.  More than any other episode, this one takes place over a lengthy period of time (almost a year, I believe), and as such, it is densely packed with circumstances.  In the opening of the episode, there’s a brilliant montage in which we watch Sherlock and Watson solve a progression of cases.  It’s a terrific, fast-paced series of mystery after mystery (many of them referring to various Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle) that not only serves to show that these two men have now been on many adventures together, but also to show their growing friendship (bizarre though it may be).  If there’s one thing I thought might have been missing from Season One, it’s a development of the friendship between Holmes and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the BBC’s Sherlock Season One

Back in 2010, I started hearing about the BBC’s new Sherlock series.  The word was overwhelmingly positive — people seemed to love this new reinvention of the Sherlock Holmes character and mythos, set in modern-day London.  I was interested, but frankly having just recently seen and thoroughly enjoyed Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Junior’s own recent reinvention of Sherlock holmes, in the film Sherlock Holmes (click here for my review), I wasn’t sure I was really all that interested in yet another version of the characters.

Well, I’m kicking myself for resisting for as long as I did, because the BBC’s Sherlock is absolutely magnificent.  If you haven’t yet seen it, I strongly encourage you to seek it out!

Sherlock Season One, like most British TV series, is short.  It consists of three hour-and-a-half-long episodes, each basically a movie in and of itself.  Each episode adapts a different Sherlock Holmes short story.  Sherlock is set in modern-day London, and I found myself continually delighted by the way the writers adapted the Holmes stories to modern-day times, while still preserving the heart of the original stories (as well as their delightful complexities).  It’s great fun to see the way cell-phones, the internet, GPS tracking, and modern-day science and forensics evidence are seamlessly incorporated into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories.  It all works because the makers of this show are focused on preserving the core aspects of the original stories, rather than just jettisoning everything other than the character names.  Instead, it’s as if the writers have asked themselves, how could Conan Doyle have written this story had he been alive today?  Their answers are fiendishly clever.

The two leads are both excellent.  Benedict Cumberbatch has created, in just three episodes, an absolutely iconic portrayal of the great detective.  His Sherlock is an incredibly cold creature, someone who prides himself on not feeling normal emotions and, instead, seeking complete intellectual detachment from his cases.  The show is not afraid to dare the audience to dislike its main character!  But Mr. Cumberbatch always shows us the human heart beating beneath Sherlock’s intelligence and his often cruel demeanor.  Meanwhile, Martin Freeman (Tim from the original British The Office, as well as Arthur Dent from the film adaptation of The Hitchhikers’s Guide to the Galaxy) adds another classic everyman character to his resume with his portrayal of John Watson.  When we first meet him, in the opening scenes of the series, Watson has just returned from military service in Afghanistan (just as the character had in the original stories — a canny bit of serendipity), and he is emotionally lost.  Of course, he eventually crosses paths with Sherlock, and a great partnership … [continued]