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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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The Top Twenty Episodes of TV in 2016 — Part Four!

We’re at the end of my look back at the best TV of 2016!  Click here for numbers twenty through sixteen, and click here for numbers fifteen through eleven, and click here for numbers ten through six.

And now, here are my Top Five Episodes of TV in 2016:

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5. Sherlock: “The Abominable Bride” (aired on 1/5/16) – I was tickled by the idea of taking Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s modern-day interpretations of Sherlock Holmes and setting them in the Victorian era from which the Holmes stories originated.  Had this been an entirely out-of-continuity caper — as I thought it would be, going into the episode — I’d have been happy.  But I was delighted to discover that, instead, this story connected directly to the cliffhanger ending of season three, and allowed us to explore the idea of Sherlock’s “mind palace” that was first raised back in the season two finale.  This episode was filled with many fun little moments, from Mrs. Hudson’s complaining that John never gives her any lines in his stories to the 19th century version of Holmes and Watson’s first meeting (as originally depicted in “A Study in Pink”).  And things got suitably mind-bending as the episode progressed and the story began jumping more frequently between the Victorian setting (happening inside Sherlock’s brain) and the modern-day events on board the plane, with Moriarty’s apparent return from the dead presenting a frightening new threat.  I adore this series and, if we couldn’t get a full three-episode new season of Sherlock in 2016, this one-off was a fine substitute.  (By the way, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the recently-aired season four of Sherlock soon!!)

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4. The X-Files: “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” (season ten, episode three, aired on 2/1/16) – I had hoped and dreamed for years that The X-Files, one of the great, unfinished stories of the modern pop-culture landscape, would one day be given the conclusion that once-great show so dearly deserved.  I rejoiced at the announcement of a new six-episode run (a superior format to a movie, in my mind, for the show’s return), though the relaunched show wound up mostly disappointing me.  With this one notable exception.  Darin Morgan wrote four episodes during the original X-Files run, and they were among the very best episodes the show ever did.  “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” is without question my favorite episode of the entire series.  And so I was ecstatic when I learned that Mr. Morgan would be writing one of these six new X-Files episodes.  He directed this episode, too, and boy did he not let me down.  This episode is so joyous, so funny and so … [continued]

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The Top Twenty Movies of 2016 — Part Three!

My list of my Top Twenty Movies of 2016 continues!  Click here for numbers twenty through sixteen and click here for numbers fifteen through eleven.

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10. Sing Street Writer/director John Carney, who wrote and directed the marvelous film Once (which was then made into a Broadway show) returns with another fantastically entertaining music-centered film.  Set in Dublin in 1985, the film tells the story of a lonely boy, Conor, whose getting-divorced parents have moved him into a free Catholic school.  To impress a girl, Raphina, who he meets, Conor tells her that he’s in a band, and asks her to appear in one of their music videos.  When she agrees, Conor must now actually form the band he claimed already existed!  What follows is a lovely coming-of-age story as Conor tries to figure out just who he is and what he wants to be, all the while struggling with a group of newfound musician friends to create music that is actually good.  The romance is sweet, and I adored the film’s focus on the relationship between Conor and his older brother, Brendan.  La La Land has gotten all the attention this year, and I really enjoyed that film, but Sing Street is, I think, the superior musical film.  The music is great, and all of the kids are wonderful and instantly lovable.  It’s hard not to fall in love with these kids and this small-scale story about growing up and creating art.  I certainly did.

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9. Star Trek Beyond This rebooted Star Trek movie series (begun by J.J. Abrams who directed the first two films) hasn’t ever quite gelled into feeling like true Star Trek for me, but damn if Star Trek Beyond doesn’t come close.  Star Trek Beyond is not a perfect movie, but it is nevertheless a very entertaining new Star Trek adventure that is fun and exciting, with a strong focus on character and a firm grip on Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of the future.  New Trek director Justin Lin, working from a script by Simon Pegg (who, of course, also plays Scotty in the film) and Doug Jung succeeded in crafting a terrific new Star Trek stand-alone adventure.  Set several years into the Enterprise’s five-year mission, Beyond was made to feel like a big-screen version of a classic Star Trek episode.  I love that approach, and there is a lot about Star Trek Beyond to enjoy.  It’s fun to get a brand-new story, set on a never-before-seen planet and with lots of never-before-seen aliens.  There’s a wonderful focus on the Enterprise crew, with every member of the ensemble getting fun stuff to do.  In particular, after two movies that emphasized the Kirk-Spock … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Doctor Strange

In Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the incredibly skilled, and incredibly arrogant, neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange.  Strange is at the top of his field and he knows it.  But his privileged life falls apart after a terrible car accident leaves him unable to use his hands.  As the months go by and attempt after attempt to repair his hands using a variety of increasingly experimental medical procedures all fail, one after another, Strange grows ever-more desperate.  He eventually heads to Kathmandu, chasing a rumor of a man whose crippled legs were healed.  What he finds is a mysterious woman known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who opens Strange’s eyes to an entirely different way of looking at the world.  She also draws Strange into the widening conflict between the followers of her order, who consider themselves the protectors of the world from all manner of mystical threats, and an outcast named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson) whose evil plans might have world-shattering repercussions.

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With Doctor Strange (as with last year’s Ant Man), Marvel has backed off of the increasing escalation of their super-hero films (best exemplified by the enormous superhero-battling-superhero epic Captain America: Civil War, a film I really loved) and gone back to what they did so well back in the early days of “Phase One” of their super-hero cinematic universe.  That is, tell a solid origin story of a new character.  Watching Doctor Strange reminded me very much of watching that first Captain America or Thor movie.  I wouldn’t hold up either of those films as the very best of what the Marvel cinematic universe has to offer.  But they are solidly entertaining films, perfectly cast, that take on the seemingly impossible task of bringing an outlandish comic-book character and world to life while making it all look incredibly easy.  Doctor Strange does all of those things.

Let’s start with the perfect casting, because once again Marvel has absolutely nailed, and I mean nailed, the casting of another of their classic heroes.  Benedict Cumberbatch was born to play Dr. Strange, and when he is finally decked out in full Dr. Strange attire at the end of the film (including that classic cape and even the Eye of Agamotto), he looks absolutely perfect.  (I cannot wait to see Cumberbatch’s Strange meet his “facial-hair brother”, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark.)  Mr. Cumberbatch is able to nail Strange’s fierce intelligence and his hauteur, but also allow us to see his nobility and his strength.  In the comics, Dr. Strange is one of the moral pillars of the Marvel Universe, and Mr. Cumberbach takes us there by the end of the film.  (After all the hubub over how the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Black Mass

Black Mass tells the story of Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, the Boston crime boss who, for twenty years, was allowed to operate and consolidate power in Boston by the local branch of the FBI because of Bulger’s secret role as an FBI informant, helping the FBI work against the Italian mafia.  The film, directed by Scott Cooper and written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, is based on the 2001 book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill.

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Black Mass is a solid crime flick.  The film follows a fairly familiar rise-and-fall-of-the-criminal story-arc that you will recognize if you’ve ever seen a movie of this type before.  There’s none of the exciting originality found in the work of, say, crime-master Martin Scorsese.  But don’t sell Black Mass short just because it’s not as great as a movie made by one of the most brilliant masters of this genre!  It’s an intelligently made drama/thriller that I enjoyed.

Johnny Depp is in the lead role as Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, and wow, I had just about given up on Johnny Depp’s ever actually acting in a film again (as opposed to the clownish make-up-laden shenanigans he’s been up to for the past decade or so).  OK, this role is heavily dependent on make-up, too, but still, this feels to me like the first real, honest performance Mr. Depp has given in a long time, and it’s a delight to see.  Jimmy is a monster, but Mr. Depp keeps the performance very restrained and internal.  Just watch his eyes — cold and calculating and hard.  I am happy to say that I have once again enjoyed a Johnny Depp performance.

But what surprised me about the film is that, in the end, it’s not really about Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger at all.  Johnny Depp is great, but Jimmy doesn’t have much of a character arc in the film.  He’s a scary psychopathic bastard when we first meet him, and he’s a scary psychopathic bastard at the end of the movie.  No, the film is really about Jimmy’s childhood friend from Southie, now FBI agent, Jack Connolly, played magnificently by Joel Edgerton.  It’s Jack who is at the heart of the film, coming up with a scheme that he felt would allow him to honor his personal code of loyalty to his friend from the neighborhood while also advancing within the FBI, a scheme that takes him far… until it all falls apart.  Mr. Edgerton is terrific, compelling and horrifying and empathetic all at once.  The film stakes at a clear position that Jack wasn’t a patsy taken advantage of by Jimmy, … [continued]

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I hope you’ve all been enjoying my journey back through the great TV of 2014!  Click here for part one of my list, numbers fifteen through elevenClick here for part two of my list, numbers ten through six.

And now, the conclusion.  Here are my five favorite episodes of TV of 2014:

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5. Sherlock: “The Sign of Three” (season 3, episode 2, aired on 1/5/14) — Each hour-and-a-half-long installment of the BBC’s brilliant Sherlock series is an event in and of itself, as each episode is really it’s own movie.  All three episodes of the show’s third season (or series, as those in the U.K. prefer) were strong, but it was the middle one, “The Sign of Three,” with which I was particularly taken.  The set-up is pure gold: it’s John (Martin Freeman) and Mary’s wedding, and Sherlock Holmes is the best man.  Combine Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch)’s usual discomfort in normal polite society with a mystery regarding an attempted murder and you have a classic episode.  I love the structure of the episode.  Almost the entire run-time is structured around Sherlock’s bizarre, weird, funny, awkward, rambling Best Man toast to Watson.  In addition to the main mystery, we get tantalizing glimpses into a number of Sherlock & Watson’s other cases; we get an oh-so-brief return of the wonderful Irene Adler; we get suspense and comedy (I adore the flashback reveal of Sherlock’s intimidation of Mary’s friends and family) and so much more.  I was pleased by the balance between mystery/suspense and the show’s joy in exploring its characters and watching them play.  This episode leans more strongly towards the latter, and it works because of how sharply written the show is, and the incredible talent of all the performers, most particularly, of course, the incredibly talented duo of Mr. Freeman & Mr. Cumberbatch.  Gold.  (Click here for my review of Sherlock series three.)

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4. Game of Thrones: “The Lion and the Rose” (season 4, episode 2, aired on 4/13/14) — Game of Thrones episodes usually jump all over the fantasy world of the Seven Kingdoms and beyond, usually only spending a few minutes at a time in one location, and with a certain set of characters, before leaping elsewhere.  As the show has gone on and its cast of characters has grown ever more sprawling, this narrative structure has begun to chafe with some fans.  I’m not one of them, but I do nevertheless cherish the show’s habit of using the penultimate episode of the season to tell an important story in just a single location.  (This was most notably done in season two’s “Blackwater,” though this season’s “The Watchers on the Wall” was also … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Sherlock Season 3!

I fell in love, last year, with the BBC’s modern-day reinvention of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock, when I watched the first two seasons on DVD.  Starring Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch, the show is a dynamic, clever spin on the Holmes mythos.  (Click here for my review of season 1, and here for my review of season 2.)  It’s been a long wait for season 3 (even longer for everyone who watched season 2 when it originally aired), and I was thrilled to have this great show back.  (Albeit briefly!  The show’s unique structure is that each season consists of only three hour-and-a-half long episodes.  I love that the show-runners focus on just telling three great stories each season rather than stretching things out.  Still, it’s hard not to wish for more!!)

Here are my thoughts on Sherlock season three:

“The Empty Hearse” — The first episode has the unenviable task, first and foremost, of resolving last season’s cliffhanger satisfactorily.  At the end of “The Reichenback Fall” we saw Sherlock apparently fall to his death.  In the two years since that show aired, fans have speculated endlessly as to how Sherlock could have possibly survived.  I suspect that the show’s ever-growing popularity combined with the unexpectedly long hiatus between seasons (caused primarily by the very busy schedules of stars Cumberbatch and Freeman) caused the fan-focus on that cliffhanger to have grown far more intense than the show-runners intended.  After so long, it’s hard to imagine their spinning a suitably satisfactory resolution without it feeling like a cheat, and, indeed, I don’t think they did.  I am of a mixed mind concerning the approach they took, that of showing us various possible answers without actually revealing which was the real one.  On the one hand, I think it’s a clever way to play with the audience’s expectations, and to deflect too much scrutiny being placed on the one “real” answer to the cliffhanger riddle.  On the other hand, it still feels like something of a cop-out to me.  I will say that Mr. Cumberbatch’s delivery of the line “You know my methods, John” (in response to Watson’s pushing Sherlock for the true answer as to how he survived) is magnificent and goes a long way towards justifying this approach to resolving the cliffhanger.

I also appreciated the episode’s focus, not so much on the mechanics of Sherlock’s survival, but on the emotional impact his feigning death would have had on his friends and allies, particularly Watson.  I was not expecting the show to emulate our real-time two-year wait for more episodes by jumping ahead two years following Sherlock’s apparent death, but I loved that approach and felt it led … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The years during which we saw the release of Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings remains one of the best cinematic experiences of my lifetime, and I don’t expect that to be equaled any-time soon.  Those three films are magnificent, but my memories of the years in which that trilogy was released encompasses not just the films themselves, but all of the excitement and anticipation and speculation, from the first-time I saw that initial teaser trailer (via a very slow download on my dial-up modem) that teased the three-film adaptation (that slow shot at the end, showing the entire fellowship, and gradually revealing the three-year release schedule for the three films, is so fantastic!!), through the release of each film and its subsequent extended edition, and of course all all of the same excitement in the years between the films, awaiting the next installment.

Peter Jackson’s first film in his three-part adaptation of The Hobbit, titled The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was criticized by many but I think it’s a very strong, under-appreciated film.  I have seen the film several times, in the past year, and I stand by my original review.  The second installment, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, is very much of a piece with that first film.  The Desolation of Smaug improves on its predecessor in that, while one could accuse An Unexpected Journey of being occasionally slow or unwieldy as it was getting the story going, The Desolation of Smaug is a much faster-paced film, with far more emphasis on adventure and spectacle.

While I loved The Desolation of Smaug, there is no question that both of these Hobbit films are a far cry from the incredible quality of Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy.  What made the LOTR films great cinema, rather than just being great fantasy/adventure films or being great adaptations, was the powerful emotional punch of the stories they told.  I am not ashamed to share that all three of those LOTR movies contained moments that brought me to tears when I first saw them in theatres.  In The Fellowship of the Ring, it was Sam’s declaration, in the elvish boat at the end, that he’d made a promise not to abandon Frodo.  In The Two Towers, it was the haunting glimpse into Arwen’s lonely fate that awaited her even if everything that she hoped for came to pass.  In The Return of the King, it was pretty much every moment that came after Aragorn’s statement, to the four kneeling Hobbits, that: “my friends… you bow to no one.”  (I’ve seen The Return of the King many times since that first viewing, and while … [continued]

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Click here to read part one of my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2012, in which I listed numbers 15-11.  Now, onward!

10. Looper In this smart, original sci-fi flick written and directed by Rian Johnson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe.  Joe is a Looper, someone paid to kill guys the mob from thirty-years in the future send back in time to get whacked, long before the law might be looking for their bodies or any evidence of the crime.  One day, the guy sent back in time for Joe to kill turns out to be Joe himself, now played by Bruce Willis.  Old Joe gets away from Young Joe, and things spiral out of control from there.  Bruce Willis hasn’t been this much fun to watch in an action movie in years, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is terrific as well.  I loved watching these two play off of one another.  Emily Blunt (making her second appearance on my Best of 2012 list, as she also starred in The Five-Year Engagement) and Paul Dano and Jeff Daniels are all fun in supporting roles.  This is a twisty sci-fi tale that is mind-bending without ever losing sight of the character drama at the heart of the story. (Click here for my original review.)

9. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Though not the masterpiece that the three original Lord of the Rings films were, this first of Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is still a ferociously entertaining fantasy adventure.  At nearly three hours in length, this film is stuffed to the gills with extraordinary sights and thrills, with characters and with circumstance.  Martin Freeman is wonderful as Bilbo Baggins (inheriting the role from Ian Holm who played Bilbo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and who actually reprises his role as “Old Bilbo” in one of this film’s many prologues), a great every-man anchor to the story.  He’s great, and I also loved seeing lots more of Ian McKellan, who reprises his role as Gandalf and is magnificent as ever as the gruff, temperamental wizard.  The film is filled with many great new characters (all of the Dwarves) as well as the welcome return of many familiar faces from the original trilogy (Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Christopher Lee as Saruman, and of course Andy Serkis as Gollum).  The “riddles in the dark” scene with Gollum alone makes this film worth seeing, but there are so many other wonderful moments, from the long opening scene in Bag End with all of the dwarves (highlighted by Richard Armitage as Thorin and the other Dwarves singing the somber “Misty Mountains” … [continued]