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Josh Reviews Stranger Things Season Two!

Like most everybody else, I quite enjoyed the first season of the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things last year.  (Click here for my review.)  But while I enjoyed that first eight-episode installment, by the end of it I wasn’t sure the show could sustain a multi-season run.  Would the show’s eighties-homage nature get old?  More problematically, while the final two episodes of season one were thrilling, I was disappointed by the number of narrative threads left hanging (read to the end of my review to see what I’m talking about); and if the show couldn’t be bothered to resolve these plot holes, it didn’t seem to me like a strong foundation for a lengthy run.

So color me pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed season two of Stranger Things.  While this second season doesn’t have the joy of discovery of this new and unexpected show that was part of what made watching season one so exciting, I actually think season two is a stronger piece of narrative story-telling, compelling from start to finish and with a more tightly plotted story.

I’ve read some complaints that the season starts too slowly, but I didn’t feel that way at all.  I enjoyed the way the show took the time to re-establish the characters and where they all were at, emotionally, a year after the events of the first season.  The obvious question was, why would any of these characters stay in Hawkins, but the show smartly answered that.  (Showing how Joyce Byers and Jim Hopper have become reliant on the scientists at the lab to monitor Will was a clever way to keep the characters tied to Hawkins.)

As always, all of the main kids are terrific, and the show smartly gave each of the main boys their own individual story-line here in season two.  We see that Mike has fallen into something of a depression at the disappearance of Eleven, while Dustin comes to care for a baby monster he nicknames Dart and Lucas begins to fall for the new-girl-in-town, Max.  Season one focused on the search for the missing Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), but that meant that Will wasn’t actually in the show very much.  Here in season two, Will steps to the forefront, and we discover that young Noah Schnapp is a fantastic actor, taking Will on quite a harrowing journey as he begins to succumb to the influence of what the boys nickname the “Mind Flayer” from the Upside Down.  There were more than a few scenes in which I was stunned by how great Mr. Schnapp’s performance was.

The older kids remain very interesting as well in season two.  Though Nancy ended season one in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Stranger Things

Stranger Things, created by the Duffer Brothers, is an eight-episode Netflix mini-series.  Set in Indiana in 1983, the story begins with the disappearance of twelve-year-old boy, Will Byers, in mysterious and possibly supernatural circumstances.  Will’s three best friends Mike, Lucas, and Dustin set out to investigate what happened to their friend.  They soon meet a mysterious, near-mute girl who goes only by the name Eleven who seems to have telekinetic powers.  Does the government facility from which Eleven has apparently escaped have a connection to Will’s disappearance?  Will’s distraught mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) is also desperately searching for her son, and she becomes convinced that she has been able to be in contact with him somehow through the electronics in her house.  Although the town Sheriff, Hopper (David Harbour), who has a past with Joyce, is at first dubious of Joyce’s claims, he gradually becomes convinced that she might be on to something.  Mike’s sister Nancy is going through her own drama, entering a new relationship with Steve Harrington, one of the most popular boys at school.  But when she sees something terrible in the woods behind Steve’s house, she and Will’s weird, outsider brother Jonathan start doing their own looking-into the weird happenings in their small town.

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Stranger Things is a lot of fun, and I very quickly got sucked right into the story being told.  The series is a loving homage to a whole host of influences that many who were kids in the eighties (as I was!) likely have a wonderful warm nostalgic feelings for: Amblin Entertainment and the films of Steven Spielberg, particularly E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial; and also The Goonies, which was directed by Richard Donner and released by Amblin; and also the novels of Stephen King.  There are a lot of common narrative threads that run through those stories, which have been adapted here in Stranger Things: a story set in a small American town with supernatural elements, focuses on a group young kids who come together to go on the adventure.  The combination of a coming-of-age story with some sort of adventure/supernatural/sci-fi element proved a potent combination for so many of those great movies/novels/etc. in the eighties and the combination works every bit as well here in Stranger Things.  The show is filled with lots of little touches that are designed to strike that nostalgia chord in viewers, such as the very distinct font for the show and episode titles in the opening credits, as well as the sight of the boys riding around their small town on their bicycles.  These elements are fun, but luckily they don’t overwhelm the show to become nothing more than reminders of things we’ve seen in other things … [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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“What Kind of Day Has it Been” — Josh Bids Farewell to The Newsroom

I have enormous respect for the talent and skill of Aaron Sorkin.  He has written the screenplay for some of my very favorite movies (A Few Good Men tops the list, but I also love The Social Network, Charlie Wilson’s War, Moneyball, and many others), and he is responsible for two of my very favorite TV shows of all time (Sports Night and The West Wing).  His third TV show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, didn’t connect with viewers or critics and was cancelled after a single season.  When it was announced that Mr. Sorkin was returning to TV with a new show for HBO, this was exciting news.  I was eager to see Mr. Sorkin return to form after the failure of Studio 60, and working with HBO seemed like a match made in heaven.  (Fewer episodes, high production values, and a reputation for prestige productions.  What could possibly go wrong?)

Unfortunately, from the beginning, The Newsroom seemed to repeat many of the mistakes of Studio 60.  While both shows featured some wonderful actors and episodes filled with clever Aaron Sorkin-written verbiage, both shows seemed to be missing that special je ne sais qua that made both Sports Night and The West Wing so magically delicious.

It seems to me that The Newsroom had two main faults from the outset.  Number one, the shows’s central device, of being set several years in the past so that we could see the show’s characters report real-life news stories, never really worked.  It removed a lot of tension from the show, because we knew how all of these events turned out.  It also resulted in the show’s having a feeling of smug superiority as we watched these characters do a better job reporting these events than any actual reporters did, often leaping ahead to conclusions far faster than anyone had done at the time.  This often felt unrealistic, as the benefit of hindsight allowed Mr. Sorkin to write his characters as being consistently ahead of the curve.  While I loved the bold political point Mr. Sorkin made in the season one finale, in which he (through the voice of Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy) accused the Tea Party of being the American Taliban, I often found the show to be a very preachy polemic.  (The West Wing was a very liberal show, but I rarely felt that show to be preachy.)

The second, and more serious, problem with The Newsroom was that I really didn’t care about any of its characters.  When the show began, I was struck by how derivative all of the show’s characters and relationships were of the far better, far … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Newsroom Season Two

The two-hour finale of The Newsroom season two, “Election Night” Parts I & II, were in my opinion probably as good as the show has ever been in its two short seasons on HBO (ten episodes in season one, only nine in season two).  This is good news and bad, as on the one hand I quite enjoyed these two episodes, while on the other hand I think The Newsroom remains the weakest of all four of Aaron Sorkin’s TV shows.  (Yes, my feeling right now is that this show is weaker than the much-criticized Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, though I have never re-watched Studio 60′s single season, so I readily admit that perhaps absence has made my heart grow a tad fonder for that show without good reason.)

In The Newsroom season two, Aaron Sorkin took a different approach than he did in season one.  While the show continued to be set in and around the real history of  2011 and 2012, allowing the characters to be involved with actual news-stories and political events, this season Mr. Sorkin crafted a season-long story-arc that was focused on a completely fictional event: the news-team’s discovery of an operation called Genoa, in which US troops used illegal Sarin gas during an operation in Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, as was made immediately clear in a framing sequence right at the start of the season two premiere, the story that News Night (the fictional news show featured on The Newsroom) reported about Genoa wound up being completely false, a huge journalistic screw-up that threatened to end all of our characters’ careers.

This story-line was hit and miss for me.  On the one hand, I loved the idea of a season-long story-arc.  While I enjoyed the device in season one of having the fictional show take place in and around real-life events, by the end of that initial season I was tired of Mr. Sorkin’s approach to those events, because usually they were used to make his News Night characters appear smarter thany all of the real-life journalists who reported those events.  It seemed a little too much to me.  I am all for TV characters being idealized — and that certainly worked perfectly in Mr. Sorkin’s greatest TV triumph, The West Wing — but in this case it seemed like all of the characters on The Newsroom were just a little too good, a little too perfect, for the show to be at all realistic.  It’s easy to criticize the media, looking back two-to-three years late with 20-20 hindsight, and making his characters super-perfect robbed the show, in my opinion, of some of its story-telling strength.

So I was excited by the story-telling … [continued]

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Fifty Years of 007! Josh Reviews Quantum of Solace (2008)

With Skyfall almost upon us, I’ve re-watched Daniel Craig’s two previous James Bond installments: 2006’s Casino Royale (click here for my review), and now Quantum of Solace. (You can click here to read my original review of the film from when it was released back in 2008.  You can also click here to read my friend Josh Lawrence’s advance review of Quantum of Solace, which I referred to several times in my own original review.)

The film: Quantum of Solace remains a somewhat perplexing film to me.  On the one hand, there’s a lot that is great about the film.  On the other hand, it’s a clear disappointment as a follow-up to the terrific Casino Royale. I’ve now seen the film several times, and in my mind it comes down to the following schism. Quantum of Solace is great in that, like Casino Royale did, it treats Bond seriously, crafting a tale that — while filled with high adventure — feels gritty and “real.”  Most importantly, there is a serious and compelling emotional arc for the character of Bond, as he wrestles with dealing with the emotional fallout of Vesper’s betrayal and death from the end of Casino Royale. That emotional story-line was absent from pretty much every single previous Bond film (let’s not kid ourselves, you know I’m right), and that basically the whole purpose of the film Quantum of Solace is to explore the consequences of the previous film’s ending continues to delight me at every turn.

The problem is that, on the other hand, the action-adventure/spy story (basically, all of the events that occupy Bond while he is dealing with these heavy emotional issues) is extremely thin, and falls back on one hoary, weak Bond-movie cliche after another.  After the breath-of-fresh-air that was Casino Royale, it’s a disappointing relapse.

The good: First of all, Quantum of Solace looks dynamite.  It’s a gorgeously filmed movie, filled with exotic locations from around the globe that were beautifully photographed by the cinematography team.  (And I LOVE the playful, differently-styled text graphics on-screen for each different location in the film!  It’s a really nice touch.)

After the rather-talky Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace really ups the action.  The film is packed with action, particularly in the first half, with one inventive set-piece after the next.  There’s the car chase that opens the movie; Bond’s foot-chase of the MI6 traitor in and around the streets and rooftops of Sienna, Italy that culminates in their fight tangled amongst construction scaffolding; the boat chase after Bond rescues Camille (Olga Kurylenko) from General Medrano’s men; the shoot-out at the opera where Quantum’s leaders are meeting; the plane fight over the desert … [continued]