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Josh Reviews Vice Principals: Season Two

I quite enjoyed the first season of Danny McBride & Jody Hill’s latest collaboration, Vice Principals.  (Mr. McBride starred in Mr. Hill’s first film, The Foot First Way, and the two co-created Eastbound and Down.)  That first season chronicled the messed-up partnership between the two vice principals of North Jackson High School, Neil Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), working to take down the newly-appointed principal, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), since they both wanted her job.  At the end of the season, it looked like Gamby and Russell had finally defeated their nemesis and driven her away, but then, well, things went in some even crazier directions.

There’s a lot to enjoy in season two of Vice Principals, as long as you don’t mind a plentiful amount of both raunchiness as well as humor borne from extreme awkwardness and uncomfortable situations.  Personally, I preferred the first season, both because I found the balance between laughs and awkward cringes to be tilted a little more towards the laughs, and also because it felt a little more straightforward, narratively, to me.  The show was over-the-top right from the beginning — I believe that it was only in the second episode in which Gamby and Russell burned down Dr. Brown’s house! — but as crazy as it got, I liked the central concept of these two horrible people, Gamby and Russell, united together in pursuit of their shared, very selfish goal.  Without Dr. Brown as a central enemy for these two numb-skulls to work against, season two bounced all over the place.  The individual episodes were mostly strong, but the story as a whole didn’t grab my interest as much as the first season did.  It felt a little like they didn’t quite have enough story to stretch over two full seasons, which is something of a surprise seeing as the show was, from the beginning, designed to run for just these two seasons.  (What a rarity that is, to have a show created right from the beginning with a planned beginning, middle, and end!)

On the other hand, I love the way the show allowed you to sort-of root for these two a-holes in season one, and then turned the tables in season two as they, and the audience, were forced to reckon with what they had done.  That’s careful, crafty storytelling there.  I also want to emphasize that, despite my criticisms, the show in season two still had the ability to make me laugh out loud and gasp in horror at what was unfolding.  I couldn’t look away, even when the characters were at their most distasteful!

Danny McBride is, as always, fantastic as the dim bulb … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Alien: Covenant

Ridley Scott’s Alien (released in 1979 — can you believe it?) is a masterpiece of science fiction/suspense/horror, a near-perfect film that has barely aged a day.  James Cameron’s Aliens (released in 1986) is one of the greatest sequels ever made, a spectacular action/adventure film that took the universe and concepts from Mr. Scott’s film, as well as the character of Ripley, in a thrilling different direction.  The subsequent thirty years have seen one failed attempt after another to create another successful film from this universe.  Even Ridley Scott himself, when he returned to the franchise in 2012 with Prometheus, flamed out spectacularlyPrometheus is a gorgeous-looking film, and there are some wonderful sequences in the film, but on the whole it is a muddled mess, with non-existent characters (with the exception of Michael Fassbender’s android David) and a plot that makes little sense.  (One can still see the skeleton of Jon Spaihts’ original script, which was intended to be a more direct prequel to Alien, which makes the confusing finished film all the more frustrating.)  Remarkably, Mr. Scott has returned to the Alien universe once again with a new film, Alien: Covenant, which is a terrific course-correction from Prometheus.  The film is a sequel to Prometheus, but it’s also far more directly linked to the original Alien (as Prometheus should have been) in a way that brings focus and cohesion to this wandering franchise.  More importantly, unlike Prometheus, Alien: Covenant tells a focused story with interesting characters that is exciting, scary, and terrifying.  The film has its flaws, but it is easily the best film in this eight-film franchise (if you count the two Alien vs. Predator films) since the original two.

A decade after the events of Prometheus, a solar flare damages the colony ship Covenant, and the crew are awakened from hypersleep to effect repairs.  The ship, bearing 2000 colonists, is still seven years away from its destination.  The pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) detects a human signal from an unexplored planet, which appears well suited for human life, even better than the planet the ship was originally heading towards.  The acting captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), decides to investigate.  What they discover is a beautiful world that seems to be devoid of any sentient or animal life.  But several the unwitting Covenant crew-members are soon infected with the Engineers’ black accelerant (as seen in Prometheus) and become hosts to horrible monsters.  However, the most dangerous monster of all might be the planet’s other inhabitant: the android David.

I was incredibly impressed by the way in which Alien: Covenant manages to go a long way towards redeeming the uneven Prometheus, making that film’s wild missteps feel more of a … [continued]

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Let’s continue my look back at The Top Twenty Episodes of TV in 2016!  Last week I presented part one of my list, with numbers twenty through sixteen.  Onward!

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15. Brooklyn 99: “9 Days” (season three, episode twelve, aired on 1/19/16) – Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) and Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) get the mumps and are quarantined together for nine days.  “9 Days” has one of the most ridiculous premises of any episode of Brooklyn 99, and yet, somehow, it also manages to be one of the funniest.  The Peralta-Holt pairing has always been comedy gold for the show, and this episode really lets Mr. Samberg and Mr. Braugher go at it, assisted by some comically over-the-top make-up effects to depict their mumps-swollen faces.  Gems in this episode include watching the two men discuss their testicular pain, hearing Holt yell “CASE” as Jake tumbles to the ground, and this exchange: Amy: “I’m immune to stuff you haven’t even heard of.”  Holt: “But not immune to braggadocio.”  I enjoyed seeing The Office’s Oscar Nuñez pop up as the doctor who gives Jake & Holt their diagnosis, and I loved Boyle’s description of Rosa as having a “motorcycle helmet for a heart,” as well as his advice on grief: “Real men don’t cry for more than three days.”  And let’s not forget Gina’s comment that: “C-minus is the perfect grade. You pass, but you’re still hot.”  Also: the name of Amy’s trivia team is “Trivia Newton-John”?!  Genius!

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14. Luke Cage: “DWYCK” (season one, episode nine, released on 9/30/16) – This episode, late in the run of the first season of Luke Cage, came at a time in which the Netflix show seemed to be spinning its wheels, stretching time to fill out the 13 episode run by having Luke (Mike Colter) and Claire (Rosario Dawson) inexplicably leave town while the bad guys wreak havoc in order to track down the doc who had a hand in Luke’s super-hero origin.  While I didn’t have much patience for that story development, it allowed room for this episode’s welcome and wonderful spotlight on Misty Knight (Simone Missick), the NYPD officer who has been Luke’s friend and also his most dogged enemy.  I have always loved the character of Misty from the comic books, and I never thought we’d ever get to see this wonderful character appear on-screen, let alone as perfectly realized as she was on this show.  Ms. Missick was a revelation, phenomenal at bringing this strong, honest African-American woman to life.  This episode begins with Misty on suspension, having lost her cool when Claire was in police custody.  Over the course of the episode, we follow Misty’s grilling by a … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Vice Principals Season One!

I remember reading about The Foot Fist Way, the 2006 low-budget film directed by Jody Hill and starring Danny McBride.  It got a lot of positive press and so I tracked it down and saw it during the film’s limited run in theatres.  It was very funny and very uncomfortable.  This seems to be the combination of feelings that Mr. Hill and Mr. McBride have continued to pursue over the course of all of their fruitful collaborations.  Honest admission: I totally missed Eastbound and Down (their previous television collaboration) — the first season has been sitting on my DVD shelf for years but for some reason (not lack of interest) I’ve never gotten to it.  Someday.  But ever since The Foot Fist Way I have been paying attention to the work of these two.  Jody Hill directed Observe and Report, a deeply weird and deeply unsettling comedy starring Seth Rogen, and of course Danny McBride has been killing it in a variety of comedic roles in films over the past decade, including Tropic Thunder, Pineapple Express, Your Highness, 30 Minutes or Less, This is the End, and many more.  The two reunited for the two-season HBO show, Vice Principals.

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In Vice Principals, Danny McBride plays Neal Gamby, while Walton Goggins plays Lee Russell.  Both men are Vice Principals at North Jackson High School, and they each believe that they should be promoted to principal when the school’s long-standing leader, Principal Welles (played by Bill Murray in a note-perfect cameo in the first episode) retires.  However, the school board decides to bring in someone else entirely to be the new principal: college professor Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory).  Shocked by this turn of events, Vice Principal Gamby and Vice Principal Russell agree to team up to take down Dr. Brown.

This nine-episode first season (the show is reportedly structured to run for only two nine-episode seasons, with the second season coming some time next year) is, exactly as I had expected, powerfully funny and also profoundly uncomfortable.  This is a raunchy, pull-no-punches show, and this tone is certainly not for everyone.  But I loved it.  I had a great time watching these first nine episodes and I can’t wait to see what sort of craziness the back half brings.

Danny McBride has made a career out of playing this type of character: a profane, low-watt-bulb man-child who comes off as loud and blustery but is sweet and insecure on the inside.  Neal Gamby feels like the apotheosis of these character traits; this is the most Danny McBride character Danny McBride has ever played.  It’s great fun — and often stomach-churningly painful — to watch.  Watching … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Sausage Party

Seth Rogen’s animated film Sausage Party tells a story of the secret inner life had by all of the food items that together inhabit a supermarket.  Seth Rogen plays Frank, a sausage, and Kristen Wiig plays his girlfriend Brenda, a bun.  Together, Frank and Brenda — along with ALL the many other types of food living in the supermarket — yearn to someday be selected by the gods (the people shopping in the supermarket) and taken to the glorious world beyond (beyond, that is, the front doors of the supermarket).  But when a jar of honey mustard is bought and then returned to the supermarket, he comes bearing warnings that everything the food-items believed was a lie, turning Frank and Brenda’s world upside down.

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Sausage Party is a gloriously raunchy, hilarious film.  It takes a Pixar/Disney concept (what if something inanimate — in this case, food products — was actually alive?) and filters it through the dick-and-drugs sensibility that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have honed to such perfection in all of the live-action films they have created together (from Superbad to Pineapple Express to This is the End to The Interview, among others).  Sausage Party feels, in tone, just like all those other great live-action comedies.  But what gives the movie and extra twisted edge is that it’s an animated film.  With the subject matter (about food that is alive), of course animation is the only way to tell this story.  But there’s something just a little bit extra funny and extra transgressive in watching an animated character talk about the type of filthy subject matter that Seth Rogen and co. often talk about in their films.  This gives the movie an extra little frisson that I really loved.

The film boasts a spectacular cast, with many of the wonderfully talented familiar voices who you might expect to run across in a Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg film.  First of all, the lead pairing of Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig is perfect.  Both are absolute perfection, so incredibly funny but also able to sell their characters’ genuine emotional turns.  The movie only works if you’re rooting for this couple to find some way out of their crazy situation, and Mr. Rogen and Ms. Wiig absolutely nail it.  Frank and Brenda are quickly paired up with a bickering Arab-Jew pairing, Kareem Abdul Lavash and Sammy Bagel.  This sounds like a terrible, terrible idea on paper but the characters are so funny, and the emotional journey they go on together so real, that I quickly fell in love with both characters.  David Krumholtz voices the Lavash, while Ed Norton does an impeccable Woody Allen impression as Sammy Bagel; both men deliver genius-level … [continued]

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Josh Reviews This is the End

In This is the End, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, James Franco, Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride play themselves, attending a housewarming party at James Franco’s new home, a party this is unfortunately interrupted by, well, the end of the world.  Co-written and co-directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen (based on the fake trailer Jay and Seth vs. The Apocalypse, written by Mr. Goldberg, Mr. Rogen, and Jason Stone — click here to watch),the result is a hilarious horror/comedy that careens from humor drawn from the familiar Apatow source of stoner buddies hanging out (a scene early in the film in which Jay and Seth argue over the merits of a gluten-free diet is a particular stand-out) to full-on special-effects end-of-the-world horror craziness.

This is a film that shouldn’t work.  One might expect it to be indulgent and boring, or to collapse under the weight of a small-budget film reaching for a mega-budget epic scale.  But instead, I found This is the End to be a crazy, rollicking delight, funny and endearing from start to finish.

After having watched this group of comedic actors work together so many times before, in so many different combinations and permutations… after having watched them grow up on screen (like many, I have been watching a lot of these guys since Paul Feig & Judd Apatow’s masterful Freaks and Geeks in 1999)… and after having watched so many DVD special features in which we see these guys goofing off and palling around, it’s easy for viewers to feel like we know all of these guys as if they were our own friends.  Of course, they’re not our friends, and we don’t really know them.  But in having all of these actors play themselves (rather than characters with different names who just so happen to fit into each of their established comedic personas), This is the End cannily plays on the audience’s pre-existing connection to these guys, and our presumed knowledge of them.  We already know and love this group of fellas, so the movie doesn’t need to waste any time developing their characters.  We can jump right into the story.

It’s fun to watch a movie that feels like we’re seeing what these guys are really like when they hang out.  Even though of course this isn’t what they’re really like — even here, playing characters with their own names, none of these actors are really playing themselves.  They are playing comically exaggerated versions of themselves.  It’s like the difference between real-life Larry David and the Larry David we see on Curb Your Enthusiasm.  The film finds a magical sweet spot in presenting versions of these characters that, upon consideration, are … [continued]

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Josh Reviews 30 Minutes or Less

In the new film 30 Minutes or Less, Jesse Eisenberg plays Nick, an affable though fairly hapless pizza boy.  Aziz Ansari plays Chet, Nick’s closest friend.  The two have been buddies for years, though Chet seems to have figured out his life (we can see that he has a steady job and a nice, clean apartment) in a way that the aimless Nick clearly has not.  But what finally threatens to drive a wedge between the two friends is Nick’s infatuation with Chet’s sister Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria).  Meanwhile, another pair of buddies are concocting a scheme that will turn Nick and Chet’s lives upside down.  Danny McBride plays Dwayne, a frustrated, gun-loving loser living in his father’s basement, while Nick Swardson plays his loyal follower, Travis.  Dwayne’s father, “the Major” (played by Fred Ward), is wealthy after winning the lotto, but he seems to have no interest in passing any of his money on to his son Dwayne.  Spurred on by a suggestion made by a topless dancer (Bianca Kajlich) with whom he is infatuated, Dwayne devises a plan to hire a hit-man (Michael Pena) to kill the Major.  How will he get the money to pay this hit-man?  By strapping a bomb to the chest of a sucker, who Dwayne can then coerce into ribbing a bank for him.  Enter: Nick the pizza-boy, and the movie is off.

When I was a kid, I remember there being a lot of action-comedies — movies like Lethal Weapon that were very funny, but that were also serious action films (rather than just farces).  It doesn’t seem to me that there are too many movies in that style these days, so it was fun to see a group of filmmakers make the attempt to create that sort of movie.  The way in which 30 Minutes or Less throws a lot of crazy comedy into what is, when you think about it, a pretty terrifying story (and one which seems to be based on a real-life event that ended with the poor pizza delivery man being killed), really caught my attention.  Though there’s no action in 30 Minutes or Less that’s on par with the Richard Donner-directed Lethal Weapon, the film is definitely cut from that type of cloth, and that’s a compliment.  (I haven’t seen Lethal Weapon in years, so I have no idea if it holds up, but I have very fond memories of that film from my youth.)

In a similar way, 30 Minutes or Less feels, to me, like the type of movie that The Pineapple Express wanted to be.  I quite enjoyed The Pineapple Express (click here for my review), but I did feel … [continued]

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The third film in my EZ Viewing movie marathon is Tropic Thunder! (Click here to read about film one: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), and here to read about film two: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.)

Tropic Thunder knocked my socks off when I first saw it!  (Click here for my original review.)  It’s so fearless and so, so funny, right from the first frame to the very last.

Ben Stiller (who also co-wrote and directed the film) stars as Tugg Speedman.  Though he was once a hugely successful action-movie star, Tugg’s recent effort at more serious fare (“Simple Jack”) was met with disdain, so he decides to appear in the war film Tropic Thunder.  The film (within the film) is an adaptation of the Vietnam experiences of the hook-handed veteran John “Four-Leaf” Tayback.  Along with Tugg, the film stars the method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), the comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and the rapper Alpha Chino (Brandon T. Jackson).  This pampered assemblage of prima-donnas has trouble getting anything done, so the frustrated director (Steve Coogan) decides to drop his actors in the middle of the jungle, in an attempt to capture some “real” drama.  Chaos ensues.

The cast is stupendous.  The stand-out, of course, is Robert Downey Jr., portraying “a dude pretending to be a dude disguised as some other dude.”  He came in for some criticism when the film was released, not only for his performance as a white actor pretending to be a black man, but also for the “full retard” speech he gives to Ben Stiller’s character.  But I think that Downey Jr. is pure genius in the role – and that speech happens to be screamingly funny.  The point of his performance – and, indeed, the point of the entire film – is to skewer how seriously actors take themselves.  (It’s funny – not long after seeing this film for the first time, I found myself re-watching the amazing WWII mini-series Band of Brothers.  It’s an astonishing mini-series.  When I finished, I watched some of the special features – but after having seen Tropic Thunder, I could not take at all seriously any of the actors patting themselves on the back for how much the conditions of the shoot really rivaled the experience of really being in combat!!)

But the rest of the ensemble is also phenomenal.  Stiller is great in the lead role – he’s just likable enough that you sort of root for him, even though he’s a total loony-tune.  (LOVE that he likes to watch Classic Star Trek on his ipod, though!!)  Jack Black is perfectly cast as Portnoy, and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Up in the Air

Director Jason Reitman continues his winning streak with his third film (after Thank You For Smoking and Juno), Up in the Air.

George Clooney (continuing to prove that he is a far better actor than you might think a fellow with his movie-star good looks and fame would need to be) plays Ryan Bingham, a man whose job is to fire employees at companies whose bosses don’t have the desire or the guts to do so themselves.  Every day, Ryan flies to a different city, back-and-forth across the United States, to fire different people from a different company.  It’s a job that most would probably find tremendously distasteful.  But Ryan loves it.  It’s not that he gets pleasure from firing people.  (Actually, he’s quite skilled at helping newly-fired employees get over the shock and anger of being fired — and by someone they’ve never met, to boot — and he seems to enjoy the moments of human connection when he’s able to help one of those unfortunate souls find some shred of a silver lining to their situation.)  It’s more that he loves the unattached, free-as-a-bird lifestyle that his constantly-traveling ways allow him.

Ryan relishes having no ties.  His apartment (that he barely sees) is completely empty and unadorned.  He isn’t married, doesn’t have any kids, and is distant from his family.  While most Americans would probably side with me in hating the experience of flying, Ryan loves it.  He relishes having frequent flyer cards and valued customer status at airlines, car-rental organizations, and hotels across the country that enable him to zip in and out (cutting ahead of the rest of us poor folks waiting in endless lines) with just the swipe of a gold card.  He loves staying in hotels, he loves having a drink in airport VIP lounges, he loves flying.  In Ryan’s mind, he is entirely free.

Ryan’s perfect-to-him life is shifted, though, by two developments.  One is positive: at a hotel bar one evening, he strikes up a conversation with a beautiful woman who, it turns out, is just as much of a travel-junkie as he is.  The woman is Alex, played by the luminous Vera Farmiga (Matt Damon’s girlfriend in The Departed), and she and Ryan seem to immediately realize that they have each found a special connection with the other.  The other change is much more negative to Ryan: an ambitious young woman named Natalie (Anna Kendrick), newly hired by his company, has developed a system in which Ryan and his peers can fire people without every leaving their company headquarters.  Instead of paying enormous sums to fly back and forth across the country, they could instead use today’s modern web-cam … [continued]

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Thundering Pineapple Mummies

Well, the summer is winding down, but I’m taking advantage of the lull to catch up on some movies!  Here’s what I’ve seen lately:

Tropic Thunder — Just saw this tonight, and let me tell you it is phenomenal.  Ben Stiller stars in and directed this tale of a group of self-absorbed hollywood actors filming a big-budget Vietnam action-adventure movie called Tropic Thunder who, through a ludicrous series of circumstances, wind up in an actual Vietnam action-adventure.  (Hmmm, that description makes it sound sort of like Space Camp, but rest assured that it is not.)  The movie is hilarious, and I mean every scene is hilarious.  The cast is terrific.  Ben Stiller is Tugg Speedman, the action movie star looking for some respectability after the flop of his oscar-bait role as the mentally challenged Simple Jack…and Stiller plays forlorn self-absorbtion to a tee.  Jack Black plays drug-addled Jeff Portnoy, known for playing all the roles (in a variety of fat-suits) in the obese family movie series The Fatties.  As you’ve probably read by now, Robert Downey Jr. keeps his summer of success rolling (after Iron Man) with his portrayal of Kirk Lazarus, an actor so devoted to Method that he, well, transforms himself into a black man to play African-American Sgt. Osiris.  Those are the stars, but there are so many other juicy roles that are very winningly embodied by a variety of other talents.  Brandon T. Jackson plays rapper-turned-actor Alpha Chino (I laughed and laughed at that rapper name), and Jay Baruchel (so great as the lead in the great-but-cancelled Judd Apatow TV series Undeclared) is the requisite baby-faced soldier, Kevin Sandusky.  Danny McBride (who’s also having quite a summer, with the long-awaited release of his feature film The Foot Fist Way a few months ago, as well as his role in The Pineapple Express) is the somewhat psychotic pyrotechnics expert Cody.  Steve Coogan (Coffee and Cigarettes, Tristan Shandy, and the upcoming Hamlet 2) plays the desperate director Damien Cockburn trying to get his spoiled stars to behave.  Nick Nolte is genius playing… well pretty much himself, or at least the world’s perception of Nick Nolte, as the addled “Four Leaf,” the man who wrote the book Tropic Thunder being adapted by these Hollywood dim-wits.  And, of course, I cannot forget Tom Cruise, under a you-need-to-see-it-to-believe-it bald cap and hairy chubby suit, playing the gleefully profane studio mogul financing the production.  OK, do you want to see this movie yet??  Let me just add that this film is also enhanced by a trio of fake trailers even more enjoyable than the ones in Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse from last year.  (Speaking … [continued]