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Catching Up On 2018: Josh Reviews Song of Back and Neck

Wait, what, I never got around to posting a review of one of my favorite films of 2018?  Time to remedy that immediately!  I’m talking about Song of Back and Neck, the small, sweet, funny, weird film written by, directed by, and starring Paul Lieberstein (Toby from The Office).  

Song of Back and Neck is a wonderfully bizarre and idiosyncratic movie about a sweet, mousy man named Fred Trolleycar (Paul Lieberstein) who suffers from debilitating chronic back pain.  His journey to deal with that pain leads Fred to some delightfully unexpected places.  The film takes some wonderfully weird turns that I don’t want to spoil.  But I will say that the film allows Fred to form a strange and surprising connection with music (the “Song” in the film’s title does connect to some of what actually happens in the film, though not in the way you’d probably expect) as he goes on this journey that results in his facing some of the psychological wounds that he had tried to bury.

The film is loosely based by Mr. Lieberstein’s own personal experiences with back pain, and how he addressed what he discovered were the psychological underpinnings of his affliction.  I’m not sure I quite buy any of that, but Mr. Lieberstein makes a strong case for the truth behind his own personal experiences in this wonderful, lengthy in-depth interview on Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show, which is where I first discovered that this movie existed.  (Mr. Pollak’s wonderful, and deeply missed podcast led me to a number of great little films last year that I never would have known about, such as Jenna Laurenzo’s Lez Bomb.)

I was taken by this film right from the wonderfully funny opening sequence, in which we see the crazy lengths that Fred has to go through in order to get dressed and out the door in the morning.  The story that follows is funny and sad and sweet and moving.  I wouldn’t call this film a comedy, per se, but it is very, very funny at times.  It’s not a straight-up drama, either, though the film has some touching and painful dramatic moments.  There’s a slightly fantastical twist that the film takes at one point, but it’s all very grounded in the reality of life for real, every-day people.  It’s weird, but it all works.

Mr. Lieberstein is terrific in the leading role.  I always loved his performance as sad-sack Toby on The Office, and it’s fantastic to see Mr. Lieberstein in the center-ring spotlight of his own movie.  I also knew, by paying attention to the credits on The Office, that Mr. Lieberstein was clearly a terrific writer, and it’s fascinating to see … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season Six

A little over a year ago, at the end of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s fifth season, the show was cancelled by FOX.  I was so sad to read that news!  For me, it was a wake-up call as to how much I’d grown to love this show.  I didn’t realize how much I loved Brooklyn Nine-Nine until, suddenly, it was gone.  But then, miraculously, it wasn’t!  NBC rescued the show, picking it up for an eighteen-episode sixth season.  These things don’t usually happen!  Despite fan outcries when their shows are cancelled, it’s very rare for a show to actually find another home after a cancellation.  So the simple fact of the existence of a sixth season of the show was quite a gift.  I’d have been happy with almost anything.  What we got, stunningly, was by far the best season of the show so far!

The season began by quickly resolving the season five cliffhanger over whether or not Captain Holt was promoted to commissioner.  The season-opener was good, but it was the second episode that really caught my attention.  “Hitchcock & Scully” gave the focus to the two oafish supporting characters, showing us a flashback to when they were young and effective detectives.  It was a genius concept — showing us that the dumb and lazy dup were once muscled eighties action-star officers — and executed marvelously.  From that point on, I thought this season was on fire.

We got fantastic continuations of many of the series’ annual traditions.  Craig Robinson returned as Doug Judy, the “Pontiac Bandit,” in “A Tale of Two Bandits,” in which Nicole Byer also appeared as Doug Judy’s sister, Trudy Judy.  Mrs. Beyer was so funny!  (She also killed on her one-off appearance on The Good Place last season, in an episode that aired only a few weeks before this one, as a very jovial lady in the Good Place.)  I hope she appears again in the future!  In “Cinco de Mayo,” the gang’s Halloween Heist competition was moved to Cinco de Mayo in order to take the stress off of Terry, who was preparing for his Lieutenant’s exam.  (Because this new season didn’t begin airing on NBC until well after Halloween, this was a clever way to continue this annual tradition!). In the season finale, “Suicide Squad,” we get to see an alliance of many of the show’s (villainous) guest stars, including the Vulture (Dean Winters), Madeline Wuntch (Kyra Sedgwick), and C.J. Stentley (Ken Marino).

In recent years, the show has occasionally dipped its toes into more dramatic territory.  This season saw a few examples of that.  In “He Said She Said,” Amy reveals the harassment that she suffered coming up as a … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Late Night

In Late Night, written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra, Ms. Kaling stars as Molly Patel, a young woman hired as the only woman on the all-white-male writing staff of a late-night talk.  That talk show is run by multi-decade late-night veteran Katherine Newbury, played by Emma Thompson.

Late Night is a terrific film.  Ms. Kaling’s script is very funny, while also containing well-developed characters who go through true dramatic arcs.  Ms. Kaling herself is a winning lead.  Molly is a heroic character, bravely pushing her way into the white-male-dominated comedy-writing world without losing her sense of self.  At the same time, Ms. Kaling allows Molly to look occasionally foolish and to be endearingly flawed and imperfect.

But it’s Emma Thompson on whose shoulders the film truly rests, and the great Ms. Thompson delivers a powerhouse performance as Katherine Newbury.  Katherine, like Molly, had to force her way into a white-male-dominated world.  She’s been at the top of the pack for decades, but now her show is losing viewers and she finds herself on the edges of relevance, as her new network head (Amy Ryan) moves to take her show away from her.  Katherine goes on a compelling journey in the film, as she is forced to take stock of her life and her career, the choices she’s made and their repercussions.  The film doesn’t pull its punches, and Ms. Thompson is able to completely inhabit this woman and take the audience along on this story.  Ms. Thompson’s charisma and energy also allows us to see exactly why Katherine has been a late-night star for decades.  This is a terrific performance.  Ms. Kaling and Ms. Thompson have sparkling chemistry; the best scenes in the film are the ones with just the two of them.

The rest of the ensemble is very strong.  The Wire’s Amy Ryan is perfect in her handful of scenes, and Ms. Ganatra and Ms. Kaling have populated Katherine Newbury’s writers’ room with a terrific ensemble of actors.  Veeps Reid Scott is terrific as Tom, the head monologue writer who is at first disdainful and threatened by Mindy’s presence in the writer’s room.  He’s very funny, while also allowing Tom to have a core of humanity.  Denis O’Hare is also note-perfect as Brad, Katherine’s right-hand man and show-runner, who is the one to hire Molly but more out of a desire to make Katherine’s show as great as it can be rather than out of any sort of idealistic stance.  Paul Walter Hauser (who was great in his appearances on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Max Cassella, John Early, and Hugh Dancy are all fun and funny.  I love how the film was … [continued]