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Josh Reviews HBO’s All The Way

The HBO film All the Way, directed by Jay Roach and written by Robert Schenkkan (adapting his play of the same name), is an in-depth look at the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.  Specifically, All the Way focuses on the time between Johnson’s stepping into the Presidency following JFK’s assassination in 1963 and his re-election in 1964, and his long journey during that times working to get Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The film explores President Johnson’s often cantankerous, adversarial manner, and explores his relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other key figures in his administration and in Congress.

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I very much enjoyed All the Way.  Jay Roach has made some wonderful political films in the past (Recount, Game Change), and he continues that win streak here.  I loved the way the film so deeply explores the nuts and bolts of how the sausage gets made in governance.  The film spends a tremendous amount of time following all of the political maneuverings that President Johnson had to do, over the course of such a long period of time, to ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  I suppose some might find that boring, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  (Though I freely admit the film’s lengthy run-time is challenging.  I watched it over two nights, which I think is a good way to enjoy this film, more as a mini-series than as one single long film.)

As I was watching All the Way, I was struck by the ways in which it felt to me like something of a counterpoint to the recent film Selma.  I adored that film, but like many reviewers I was struck by the ways in which that film seemed to minimize the involvement of President Johnson in Dr. King’s attempts to ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  In many ways, Selma cast LBJ in something of a villainous role, as someone obstructing Dr. King’s efforts.  Here in All the Way, it seems like we get a completely different picture.  LBJ is squarely the central heroic figure of this film, and instead it is Martin Luther King, Jr. who feels minimized, and cast in the role of someone who is not so helpful in ensuring the bill’s passage into law, but who is instead someone LBJ has to maneuver to get to do what he wants.  Reality, I suppose, is somewhere in between.

The chief reason to watch this film is to enjoy Bryan Cranston’s fierce, mesmerizing performance as Lyndon B. Johnson.  Mr. Cranston eats up every inch of the role, commanding the screen in his bulldog-like depiction of President Johnson.  This is a bravura, … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews the Final Season of Breaking Bad!

I am certainly late to the Breaking Bad party, having only begun watching the show’s first season on DVD in the days following the airing of the season finale.  All of the hub-bub over the show’s final season finally got me to try the show, and I’ve been slowly watching it on DVD ever since.

Watching Breaking Bad, there is no question that this is one of the best-made television shows in recent memory.  Every aspect of the production of the show is spectacular, though at the top of the list is the writing, spearheaded by creator and show-runner Vince Gilligan.  This show has been a creative triumph in terms of its perfect pacing, and the way it was able to tell a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end, chronicling an every-man’s transformation from timid, emasculated science teacher into a ruthless criminal.  Breaking Bad is a perfectly serialized show, with each episode telling a complete story in and of itself, while also flowing seamlessly into the next episode.  It’s been staggeringly, jaw-droppingly dark and grim.  I cannot believe the places this show has gone.  I truly can’t think of another TV show that has explored such darkness so unflinchingly, and been so ruthless with regards to the terrible fates that have befallen so many of its minor and major characters.

This is what makes Breaking Bad amazing, although it’s also what’s made me often keep the show somewhat at arm’s length, emotionally, as a viewer.  Most of the television shows I have truly loved have always left me desperately eager for the next episode.  And yet Breaking Bad was never like that for me (at least, not until this magnificent final season — more on that in a moment).  As I have written before in my reviews (click here for my thoughts on season one, here for my thoughts on season two, here for my thoughts on season three, and here for my thoughts on season four), there has been so much unrelenting unpleasantness depicted in this show that I often felt I needed a short break after watching each episode before moving on to the next.  And similarly, after completing each of the show’s seasons, I’ve paused for a while to watch other things before diving back into the next season.  As a result, it’s taken me two years to watch this show in its entirety, even though the whole series was available to me almost right from the beginning.

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And so, at last, I have arrived at the final season.  (This production season of 16 episodes — the show’s longest — was aired in two batches of eight episodes each, … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Breaking Bad Season Four

I started watching Breaking Bad a few weeks after its series finale aired, and I’ve been slowly catching up ever since.  Click here for my review of season one, here for my review of season two, and here for my review of season three.

I found season four to be very strong, building nicely on the narrative momentum set up in season three.  It’s fun to see a show at the top of its creative game.  And, because creator and show-runner Vince Gilligan was given the luxury of ending the show at the time and place of his choosing, watching these middle seasons unfold it’s a delight to relax and know that the story is heading somewhere, that it’s all heading towards what I expect to be a mighty crescendo in the show’s final season.  This is a rare privilege for a show-runner, to be able to craft one’s final seasons to build to an ending that comes when you want it to come, and watching season four I could see the creative confidence in every frame of the show.

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(Please beware some spoilers as I dig into my thoughts on season four, friends.  If you haven’t yet watched this season of this show, you probably want to stop reading here.)

Season four picks up right from the terrific cliffhanger that ended season three, with Gus and Mike ready to terminate Walt and Jesse with extreme prejudice, a pickle the boys only wriggle out of with Jesse’s murder of chemist Gale so that Gus once again needs them to cook their product for him.  The season premiere, “Box Cutter,” is a hell of an episode, tense and twisty, and a great way to kick off the season.  I’d commented in my review of season three that I enjoyed that the show seemed to be taking its time with the development of new villain Gus Fring, and I was glad to see that continue throughout season four, which is basically structured as one long duel of wits between Walt and Gus.  Gus, played so memorably by Giancarlo Esposito, is an incredible character, one of the most iconic TV villains of all time.  He’s a phenomenal foil for Walt, just as fierce and intelligent as Walt is.  As the season progresses, it’s fascinating to see just how similar Walt is to Gus, as our hero slides further into anti-hero.  (I was stunned to learn at the end of the season that it was Walt, not Gus, who was responsible for the poisoning of young Brock.  Can I still root at all for Walt after that?  We’ll see when I move on to season five…!)  I was very happy that … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Breaking Bad Season 3

I am slowly, slowly getting caught up with Breaking Bad!  Click here for my review of season one and here for my review of season two.

Much has been written about the way the Breaking Bad burns through story-lines, taking plot-lines that other shows would drag out for years and dispensing with them in just a few episodes.  In watching season three I was struck by how much less that was the case than in the first two seasons.  I found season three to be far more leisurely paced than I was used to the show being.  I like this adjustment!   Don’t get me wrong, there is a LOT of plot and circumstance crammed into season three, but I was pleased that the show took a little more time than before to explore these characters and situations.

Prime example: the finale of season one introduced a new big bad drug-lord, Tuco.  But he was dispensed with by the end of season two’s second episode.  In similar fashion, at the end of season two we met Gus the Chicken Man.  But rather than knocking him off quickly, I was pleased that the show kept this character around throughout all of season three and, presumably, now into season four.  Season three was a little more of a slow burn than previous seasons.

I disliked the plane crash ending of season two, and was eager for that to be forgotten about and for the show to move on.  And while I was pleased that, with the season three premiere, the show was indeed moving on, in hindsight I am glad they didn’t just totally ignore such a major event and that there were some references made to the plane crash and to the tragic fates of Jane and Donald (John DeLancie).  (I was thrilled to see that Walt’s involvement in Jane’s death wasn’t ignored, and that it became such an important plot point in the episode “Fly.”  I really thought Walt was going to spill the beans to Jesse in that episode!!!  I suspect this isn’t over…)

The show takes its sweet time in bringing Walt and Jesse back together at the beginning of season three.  While I was a little impatient for that inevitable event to happen, keeping them apart for a while makes sense following the events at the end of season two.  I am glad the show didn’t rush the two back together in the premiere, and I thought the exploration of Jesse’s grief and guilt following the death of his girlfriend Jane at the end of season two was the most compelling story-line we had seen for the character thus far.

I loved the continued involvement, throughout the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Breaking Bad: Season Two

Yes, I know I am hugely late to the party on Breaking Bad.  Just as everyone was getting excited about the finale of the show, my wife and I were just starting to watch it from the beginning.  I enjoyed season one, though I found the show hard to watch at times because of how unhappy so many of the characters were.  Still, I recognized it as very well-made television, and I was eager to move on to season two.  (Click here for my review of season one.)

I enjoyed season two just as I had season one, though it took me far longer to get through the thirteen-episode season than I had expected.  There is no question that it’s a unique, bold show, one that is the product of a team of extraordinarily talented people.  But man I found it hard to watch.  So much so that after watching the first few episodes of the season I stopped, and it took me a while to get back into it to finish out the season.

I am sure this is not news to anybody, but Breaking Bad is a very bleak show.  That is part of what makes it so compelling and bold, but it also for me makes the show tough to get through.  I watched many of the episodes with my stomach twisted all in knots as  terrible thing after terrible thing happens to (and by) the main characters in the show.  It is rough.

I am definitely not someone who things that all good TV should be simple and happy.  Quite the opposite!  I already love and respect Breaking Bad for its incredible quality and its breath-taking freshness.  I am just being honest that I have a tough time watching it!!  (As I noted in my review of season one, I felt this way, to a much lesser degree, about the early seasons of Mad Men, but I eventually grew to fall totally in love with that show and its characters.  I am curious to see if the same thing winds up happening to me with Breaking Bad.)

One thing that immediately impressed me about the show is the way it never let’ the views off the hook by skipping over anything in a way that would let the audience say, OK, well, they did such-and-such and I don’t need to think about why or how, they just did it.  No, instead the show always digs deeply into the details.  For instance, season one ended with Walter and Jesse making a deal with the drugs-dealer Tucco.  I had expected season two to pick up the story weeks or months later, with the boys … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Breaking Bad Season One

I’ve been wanting to start watching Breaking Bad since it first started.  I never watched Malcolm in the Middle, but it seemed clearly to me that Bryan Cranston was a great actor, and seeing him in a dramatic role was appealing.  And as a die-hard X-Files fan, I of course knew the name of Breaking Bad show-runner Vince Gilligan as one of the best writers from that show.  But for whatever reason, I just never got around to watching Breaking Bad, and as the seasons went on I knew that starting from the beginning would require an ever-increasing time commitment.  It’s sort of funny, then, that I finally took the plunge and watched season one just as all the hoopla was happening around the broadcast of the show’s final episodes.

In case anyone doesn’t know, Breaking Bad tells the story of high school chemistry teacher Walter White, who has been living a sad, fairly pathetic life.  His discovery that he has lung cancer, which might only allow him a few years more to live, sets about a profound internal crisis in Walt that eventually leads to his pairing up with a young druggie named Jessie, to together cook and sell crystal meth.  Walt, at first, knows nothing about the drug world or the criminal element, but he knows everything about chemistry, making him an extraordinarily skilled cook of crystal.  As the seven episode first season progresses, we see the timid Walt take his first steps into the “dark side” and, in so doing, suddenly develop a spine and a courage he never knew he had.  So what if it is illegal and his brother-in-law heads up the local DEA?

The first seven-episode season of Breaking Bad is terrific, everything I had hoped it would be.  The pilot episode is tremendous, a strong statement as to what sort of show this was going to be, something intense and dark and original.  Sometimes plots can be wobbly, with the filmmakers unsure of exactly what show they are making, and/or burdened by a lot of boring character exposition.  But the pilot episode of Breaking Bad is magnificent, focusing right in on the character of Walter White and taking its time in introducing us to all the misery in his life BEFORE he learns of his cancer diagnosis.  That’s a smart storytelling choice.  Walt’s main problem isn’t his cancer — it’s everything else that has gone wrong in his life.  The pilot is intense and gripping, and of course it gives us the the now-iconic image of Walt with no pants, in just a shirt, boots, and his tighty-whiteys, holding a gun.

The next two episodes, “Cat’s in the Bag…” and “… And the … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Drive (2011)

I missed Drive when it was released in 2011, but I was intrigued by everything I read about it and it’s a film that I’ve been hoping for some time to catch up to.

Ryan Gosling plays the enigmatic driver at the center of the film.  (His character is never named in the movie, something that is done so subtly that I never even realized we didn’t know his character’s name until I was sitting down to write this piece.)  In the film’s dynamic opening sequence, we learn that he is a highly-skilled getaway driver, with incredible abilities behind the wheel and a tight set of rules over what he is willing to do and not do when getting involved with various other criminals and their plans.

The driver has apparently led a very solitary life, focused on his work (both legal — as a mechanic and stunt-car driver for the movies — and illegal), but all that changes when sparks fly with his new neighbor, a pretty, wounded mother (Carey Mulligan) whose husband is in prison.  The driver forms a nice bond with this woman, Irene, and her son Benicio.  Then Irene’s husband comes home from prison, and the driver gets involved in a criminal deal that goes from bad to worse.  None of the characters emerge unscathed (physically/emotionally) from the downward spiral of events that follows.

Drive is a movie that you will watch with a tight knot in your stomach.  Right from the beginning, it was quite clear to me that this wasn’t going to be a movie with a happy ending.  I found myself liking both the driver and Irene, and it was torture watching the events unfold, knowing, just knowing, that none of this was going to end well.  That’s a mark of what a skillfully made film this is.  Director Nicolas Winding Refn is masterful at slowly, ever-so-slowly, ratcheting up the tension and tightening the noose.  It’s also fair warning that this is not a film for everyone.  Drive is tough to watch at times.

The film has a sexy/sleezy/cool vibe that I found very intriguing.  It felt reminiscent to me of the tone of some eighties thrillers, particularly the work of Brian De Palma.  Mr. Refn doesn’t utilize any of the Hitchcockian stylistic devices that Mr. De Palma is so well-known for.  No, what I’m talking about is more a matter of tone.  Drive presents us with a world (and a main character) that is at once very cool, and very ugly.  So many of the films of Mr. De Palma walked that same line.  Take the opening credits of Drive — with that throaty ballad playing loud on the soundtrack, and the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Argo!

I’ve been a fan of Ben Affleck’s ever since I first listened to his hilarious and endearing contribution to the raucous DVD commentary track for Kevin Smith’s Mallrats. (Seriously, track it down and give it a listen — it’s one of the best commentary tracks I’ve ever heard, second only to the track that same gang recorded for the original Criterion Collection DVD of Kevin Smith’s follow-up film, Chasing Amy.) I’ve always found Mr. Affleck to be an earnest, engaging performer, capable of nimbly balancing comedy and drama.  Yes, he appeared in quite a number of terrible, terrible films, but that’s more a critique of his choices rather than his skills.  But whereas Mr. Affleck has, in my opinion, always been a strong actor, he has proven to be a truly spectacular director.  His first film, Gone Baby Gone, is a phenomenal film, one of my favorites of the last decade.  I wasn’t quite as taken with The Town (click here for my review), but with the stunningly magnificent Argo, Mr. Affleck has solidified his reputation as one of the strongest directors working today.  I do not believe I am exaggerating.

Based on the true story, declassified by President Clinton in the late nineties, Argo is set during the Iranian hostage crisis.  Unbeknownst to the Iranians (but, to quote Spaceballs, knownst to us), six American embassy staff-members were able to escape and found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador.  After months in hiding, the Iranians are beginning to close in on them.  C.I.A. “exfil” (exfiltration) specialist Tony Mendez is brought in to find a way to safely bring the six Americans out of Iran.  He concocts a loony-sounding scheme in which he will enter Iran and then help the six pose as a Canadian film crew scouting desert locations for a sci-fi film, Argo. Using their new covers, the plan is for Mendez and the six to walk, in broad daylight, right into the Iranian airport and fly out of the country to safety.  It’s an crazy, insane story, all the more crazy and insane because the whole thing is true.

The film is riveting, and Mr. Affleck’s direction (ably assisted by a tight screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on a 2007 Wired article by Joshuah Bearman) is fantastic.  It’s great to see Mr. Affleck moving out of the Boston location that was so central to his first two films, and I was extremely impressed with the way the he and his team were able to recreate 1970’s Iran, Washington, DC, and Hollywood.

The film’s opening immediately sets the stage for the story, and the intense tone for this true-life tale.  In the opening … [continued]

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Josh Reviews John Carter

March 20th, 2012
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Buckle up, my friends, I have a lot to say.

I adore Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars books, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting the film adaptation of the first book, A Princess of Mars, for quite a while now.  I’ve also been mystified — as I have written about several times in the past few months — by the staggeringly abysmal marketing campaign of this film.  From the stupidly truncated title, to the bland, boring posters, to the weird trailers that studiously avoided ANY reference to the word “Mars” (thus rendering them incomprehensible to anyone who didn’t already know the story), the whole thing felt like the studio was running away from the sci-fi pulpiness of source material.  Which made me wonder, why make the film at all?  The involvement of Pixar’s Andrew Stanton (making his live-action directorial debut) gave me some hope, but I was very, very dubious when sitting down in the theater to see this film.

There is a lot that John Carter gets very, very right.  There are also a number of very unfortunate mis-steps.  The result is a film that is far from great but also far, far better than the ad-campaign would have you suspect.  I feel sorry for the filmmakers that their movie has been so brutally maligned in the press as a huge flop.  The bad press will almost certainly keep anyone on the fence away from seeing the film (thus ensuring the film’s status as a major money-loser), which is a shame, and I think it’s doubly unfortunate that a big, sci-fi spectacle that has actually been made with some intelligence is going to be seen as a major failure, thus lessening the chances of getting future great sci-fi films made, while meanwhile they’ll continue to churn out Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.

Let’s start with what’s good:

Tar Tarkas is absolutely perfect.  Perfectly voiced by Willem Dafoe, and brought to life via stunning CGI effects, this fierce Jeddak of the Tharks who befriends John Carter is, to me, the heart of the story.  I feel the filmmakers HAD to get Tars right in order for the film to succeed, and man did they nail it.  Reading the books, the existence of the Tharks — a multi-armed, huge green race of Martian aliens — seemed to me to be one of the biggest obstacles in anyone ever translating the story to the screen, but I found the depiction of the Tharks to be amazing.  The filmmakers wisely made a few tweaks to Burroughs’ descriptions (these Tharks have four arms, rather than six, and while they are much taller than humans they are not quite as humongous as in the book) … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews the Animated Adaptation of Batman: Year One!

Back in 1986, Frank Miller turned the comics world on its ear with the release of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.  This four-issue prestige-format limited series, which Mr. Miller wrote and pencilled (with inks by Klaus Janson and gorgeous colors by Lynn Varley), told the story of a bitter, middle-aged Bruce Wayne.  In Miller’s story, Bruce had retired from being Batman following the death of Jason Todd (the second Robin, who was actually killed in-continuity in the Batman books a year or so later in the “A Death in the Family” story-line).  But disgusted by the cess-pool of crime and corruption that Gotham City has become, Bruce puts back on the cape and cowl and resumes his one-man war against crime, leading to his final confrontation with the Joker and, ultimately, with Superman, who is now in the employ of the U.S. Government.  Violent, gorgeous, and compelling, The Dark Knight Returns blew my mind when I read it (at far too young an age, back in 1988), and it still stands today as one of the finest comic book stories ever made (and certainly as one of the very best Batman stories ever told).

One might have thought that such a work could never be equaled, but the following year, in 1987, Frank Miller returned to Batman and told a story that is as good — if not even better — than The Dark Knight Returns.  For four issues in the regular Batman comic (#404-407), Mr. Miller and David Mazzucchelli retold Batman’s origin in the story called Batman: Year One.  Whereas The Dark Knight Returns was a huge, epic saga, Batman: Year One is a street-level, entirely stripped down Batman story.  In fact, the genius of the story is that it isn’t really Bruce Wayne’s story at all.  The focus is on a young James Gordon, as he attempts to survive his first year on the force in Gotham City.  Batman: Year One is a tough, violent, gritty tale, populated by the corrupt and the broken.  Even our heroes, Bruce Wayne and James Gordon, are presented as being far from perfect — but their heroism derives from their striving to battle past their flaws and imperfections and attempt to do the best they can in a city without hope.  It’s one of Frank Miller’s very best-written tales, and David Mazzucchelli’s art continually takes my breath away with its gorgeous stylization (the man knows how to spot blacks better than pretty much anyone else in the business) and astonishing detail.

Like The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One sits at the very top of the heap of comic book story-lines.  It’s been mined for inspiration by several of … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: From the Earth to the Moon

In 1998, HBO aired From the Earth to the Moon, a twelve-part mini-series produced by Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Michael Bostick.  The series chronicled the Apollo program, the massive American space-flight initiative that ran from 1961-1975 and which resulted in the first human being landing on the moon.

I am a nut for all things related to space-travel, so I eagerly devoured From the Earth to the Moon when it originally aired.  I have re-watched the series all the way through several times in the intervening years, and most recently re-watched it with my wife last month (who had never seen it before).  Although the series has nowhere near the intensity of Tom Hanks’ later HBO historical mini-series Band of Brothers and The Pacific, it still holds up as a phenomenal work of television, electrifying and informative.

What’s fun about the mini-series is that each episode has it’s own style and rhythms.  Obviously there is continuity from one episode to the next, as the stories have to fit together chronologically to tell the story of the developing Apollo program.  But each episode was written and directed by different individuals, and the creative team clearly took great pains to give each hour its own specific feel.  The first episode, for instance, titled “Can We Do This?” (which has to cover a lot of ground in setting up the story and summarizing the entire Mercury program — which was the focus of the superlative film The Right Stuff) is separated into a series of individually titled chapters — basically little vignettes that together paint a larger picture.  The third episode, “We Have Cleared the Tower,” is presented as the work of a documentary crew which was filming the preparations for the Apollo 7 mission.  Episode 5, “Spider,” (one of my favorite episodes of the mini-series) shifts the focus to the incredible amount of work done by all of the designers and engineers who constructed the lunar module.  Episode 10, “Galileo was Right,” focuses on all of the archaeological work that the astronauts had to accomplish (and the extraordinary amount of prep work that they needed to put in in order to do so).  These are just a few examples.  It’s a very clever strategy, as it keeps each episode fresh and new for the viewer.

There are a lot of visual effects throughout the series, and for the most part the quality is high.  There are several sequences of space-flight and Earth orbit that are very beautiful.  But this area is where the seams of this 1998 production show a bit.  I’m sure that today’s technology would have allowed for the creation of far more elaborate special effects.  … [continued]