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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Veep Seasons 5 and 6!

Earlier this year, I had a great deal of fun catching up with Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ fantastic show, Veep!  (Click here for my review of seasons 1 & 2, and click here for my review of seasons 3 & 4.)  After the conclusion of season four, the show’s creator and show-runner Armando Iannucci took a step back from running the show.  Taking over as show-runner was David Mandel.  I was a big fan of Mr. Mandel’s work from the later seasons of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm.  (He also ran the brilliant but little-seen six-episode animated series based on Kevin Smith’s Clerks from 2000.  Only two episodes of the show ever aired, but all six were released to DVD and they’re great.  Also, Mr. Mandel’s commentary track for all six episodes, along with Kevin Smith, was just as much fun as the episodes themselves!)

David Mandel would go on to run the three final seasons of Veep.  He did a terrific job, maintaining consistency with what Mr. Iannucci had established as the tone of the show while also allowing his own specific comedic sensibilities to come into play.  The David Mandel seasons of Veep were, I think, even faster-paced that the previous seasons, and the characters all seemed to get even more hilariously awful (as hard as that might be to believe, based on their behavior in seasons one through four).

Under both the Iannucci and Mandel administrations, Veep was a fantastic show.  It’s a biting, devastating satire of the American political system.  It’s a workplace comedy.  It was a fast-paced joke machine, brought to life by an extraordinary comedic ensemble.  Julia Louis-Dreyfus has forever cemented her position as one of the finest comedic actresses of all time; her perfect, unbeatable comedic timing was on display in every second she was on-screen here.  But then look at this deep bench: Tony Hale as Gary; Anna Chlumsky as Amy; Reid Scott as Dan; Matt Walsh as Mike; Sufe Bradshaw as Sue; Timothy Simons as Jonah; Sam Richardson as Richard Splett; Gary Cole as Kent; Kevin Dunn as Ben; Sarah Sutherland as Catherine; Clea DuVall as Marjorie; and Hugh Laurie as Tom James.  Wowsers!!  I love each and every one of those characters, and I could not imagine any other actor bringing any of these roles to life.

OK, let’s dive into seasons five and six…!

At the end of season four, we left Selina Meyer in an electoral college tie for the Presidency.  At the time, that seemed like a stretch to me; a writerly device to keep Selina stuck in the weird middle ground of great-power/no-power that she’d inhabited since the show began.  I still think that way, but I … [continued]

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Amazon’s series, Modern Love, is based on the New York Times column of the same name.  Each episode of this eight-episode anthology series adapts a specific Modern Love column.  Each episode tells the story of a romance; though the episodes feature different types of love stories featuring characters of different ages, genders, and situations.

I wouldn’t have expected this to be up my alley, but I found myself rather taken by this show.  This isn’t ground-breaking television by any means, but it’s endearingly warm-hearted.  Anthologies can be a tough sell, but I enjoyed the way each episode in this series was completely different.  It helps that the cast they assembled for these eight episodes was quite extraordinary (see more on this below).  At a brisk eight-episodes, the series didn’t overstay its welcome.

Here are my (mostly spoiler-free) thoughts on the series:

Episode 1: “When the Doorman Is Your Main Man” — Cristin Miloti (How I Met Your Mother, the “USS Callister” episode of Black Mirror) plays Maggie, a single young woman living in New York City who has a very close relationship with her building’s doorman, Guzmin (Laurentiu Possa).  This slight tale is a nice intro to the series, though ultimately I found it to be one of the weaker entries.  Both my wife and I thought the show was going to be about Maggie ultimately falling in love with her father-figure of a doorman, an idea that we both found very creepy.  Ultimately the episode went in a different direction (thankfully), but because that’s what we thought was happening for most of the episode’s run-time, it cast a shadow over our enjoyment of the story.

Episode 2: “When Cupid Is a Prying Journalist” — Catherine Keener (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Being John Malkovich) plays Julie, a reporter interviewing a young man, Joshua, played by Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Newsroom), who has started a successful dating app.  Over the course of the interview, Joshua tells Julie tells the story of the woman he loved who he let get away, and Julie tells Joshua a similar story from her own past.  I really liked this episode, and I was particularly taken by Julie’s story of how she reconnected, late in life, with her old flame, played by Andy Garcia.  I liked Julie’s story even more than the “main” story of Joshua and Emma (Caitlin McGee)!  I thought Mr. Garcia and Ms. Keener had terrific chemistry, and I was moved by their melancholy story of missed opportunities.

Episode 3: “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am” — Anne Hathaway (Love & Other Drugs, Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises) plays Lexi, a woman … [continued]

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In yet the latest feat of I-can’t-believe-they-did-it, Kevin Feige and the team at Marvel have stuck the landing.  Avengers: Endgame is a deeply satisfying, profoundly moving, and incredibly fun culmination to a decade-plus of movie-making.  They have woven together threads and characters from across an astonishing twenty-one previous interconnected movies to create something which is oh-so-rare in entertainment: an ending.  Shall we dig in?  (My next several paragraphs will be free of any major spoilers, and I’ll indicate clearly when I start entering major spoiler territory.  But do yourself a favor: go see the film and then meet me back here, OK?)

I have always been impressed by the continuity between the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It’s at the core of why I love these films so much; why, in place of the usual franchise fatigue that sets in after multiple sequels, I only love these Marvel films more with each additional film.  Not only am I bowled over by the boldness of this enterprise, not only am I tickled by the incredible way in which these films emulate the interconnected feel of the Marvel comics I grew up reading (in which you’d often see, say, the FF’s Baxter Building HQ — or its later replacement, “Four Freedoms Plaza,” which was actually their HQ in the eighties when I fell in love with comics in general and Marvel in specific — in the background of a panel in a Spider-Man comic in which Spidey was web-swinging around NYC), but, as I have written about before, the cumulative power of these narratives build and build with each new film.  Because we have been following these characters across so many films across so many years, we invest more deeply in them and their struggles.  And so when we see heroes suffer and fall (as we did in Avengers: Infinity War and as we do again in this film), the impact of those moments is magnified immensely.

But, wow, this film took that continuity even more seriously than I’d ever dared to hope or expect!  Endgame is a love letter to the entire MCU, and the film is remarkable in the way it establishes that EVERY previous film in the MCU is important.  (Endgame is like The Wire: “All the pieces matter.”)  Holy cow, this film retroactively makes Thor: The Dark World — one of the MCU’s lesser entries (though I’ve always thought it’s a more enjoyable film than its reputation would suggest) — retroactively very important to the saga!  (I’ve had many delightful conversations recently with new Marvel fans, brought in by Black Panther or Captain Marvel, who wanted advice on what Marvel films they should watch to … [continued]

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Marvel Triumphs Again with Captain America: Civil War!

Marvel Studios is on a winning streak the likes of which I am hard-pressed to recall (the last decade of Pixar movies is the only thing I can think of that comes close) and Captain America: Civil War is even better than I had dared hope, an extraordinarily HUGE movie with astounding action and powerful emotional beats that pay off story-lines that have been building through the twelve (count ’em, TWELVE) previous Marvel Studios movies ever since 2008’s Iron Man started this whole crazy adventure.  I am a huge fan of the under-appreciated Avengers: Age of Ultron (click here for my review), but a strong case can be made that Civil War is what The Avengers 2 should gave been, a film that embraces the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, putting the characters through a wrenching emotional trial and eventually shattering the team that had come together in 2012’s The Avengers.

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Following the events of Age of Ultron, Cap has been training and leading a team of Avengers consisting of himself, the Falcon, the Black Widow, the Scarlet Witch, and the Vision.  As Captain America: Civil War opens, we find that Avengers team hot on the trail of Crossbones (the mangled ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Brock Rumlow from Captain America: The Winter Soldier).  As the try to stop Crossbones from obtaining a deadly biological weapon, a fight breaks out in the crowded streets of Nigeria.  Though the Avengers successfully stop Crossbones and his mercenaries, a tragic accident leaves a dozen civilians dead.  This proves to be the last straw for a world that has suffered from a series of increasingly-escalating super-hero/super-villain battles (as seen in the previous twelve Marvel movies).  Over a hundred nations band together to create the Sokovia Accords (named after the nation destroyed by Ultron in the climactic fight of Age of Ultron), declaring that the Avengers will no longer be an autonomous entity but now one governed by a UN-appointed supervising panel.  Tony Stark, desperate to find some way to prevent future civilian deaths and ensure that the Avengers remain a force for good across the world, supports the accords.  Captain America, worried that the international politics at play might prevent him and other super-heroes from acting whenever they feel it is necessary in order to save lives, opposes them.  This philosophical debate becomes more urgent when Cap’s former partner and best friend Bucky Barnes, now the brainwashed hit-man code-named the Winter Soldier (as seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) resurfaces and is apparently responsible for the murder of hundreds at the signing of the Sokovia Accords.  Tony begs Cap to let the world’s governments handle the subsequent manhunt but Cap refuses to … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Spotlight

Tom McCarthy’s new film Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team’s investigations, begun in 2001, into the sexual abuse of children by Boston Roman Catholic priests, and by the efforts of the Boston Archdiocese to cover up those incidents of abuse.  The film is riveting and electric.  This film is the All The President’s Men of this generation.

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This is an important story, and Spotlight brings the case to life clearly and dramatically.  The film focuses on the main “Spotlight” team and a few other senior players at the Boston Globe, and while the film develops these characters sufficiently for us to get to know and like them, the film doesn’t distract our attention with digressions into these reporters’ personal lives.  Rather, the film’s portrayal of this story remains squarely focused on the unfolding investigation.  This is exactly the right approach.  The film allows the audience to gradually discover the extent of the scandal along with the reporters.  Their growing disbelief and horror mirrors our own.  I followed this story as it unfolded back in 2002-2003, but the film allowed me to rediscover these events through new eyes.

This is a complicated story, with many different people involved.  And yet the film unfolds with a clarity of story-telling that I found remarkable.  The script by Tom McCarthy (who also directed) and Josh Singer is a tremendous piece of work.  I am sure elements of this complex story have been simplified for this presentation on-screen, and yet the film never feels dumbed down or truncated.  On the other hand, the film never collapses under the weight of too-many-names or too-much complexity.  The audience is able to very clearly follow the reporters’ efforts.  When the big revelations happen, they land effectively and with the impact those discoveries warrant.

The cast is magnificent.  I hardly know where to begin.  Let’s start with the “Spotlight” team.  Michael Keaton’s career resurgence (begun with his extraordinary work in last year’s Birdman) continues here with his work as Walter “Robby” Robinson, the head of the “Spotlight” team.  Holy cow is Mr. Keaton spectacular.  This is not a showy role — none of the roles in this film are (well, with the possible exception of Mark Ruffalo’s one big explosion in the third act) — and yet Mr. Keaton’s wonderfully expressive face and eyes (well-served by some terrific close-up work throughout the film) draw us right in to the impact this unfolding story is having on Robby.

The afore-mentioned Mark Ruffalo plays Michael Rezendes.  Mr. Rezendes is presented as the most dogged investigator on the team, and the one who feels the story the most passionately (both of which seem to have detrimentally … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

David Wain and Michael Showalter’s cult classic film Wet Hot American Summer is not a film for which I ever expected to see a sequel made.

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The film did not succeed upon its theatrical release back in 2001.  But then a strange thing happened, which sometimes occurs with films whose style or content fall somewhat outside what one might deem the “mainstream” (and this seems to particularly be the case with comedies): the film slowly began to build a passionate group of fans who love and quote the film endlessly.  At the same time, so many of the performers in the film, who were small-potatoes when it was released, exploded in popularity in the years to come: performers like Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, and many others.  Looking back on the film today, Wet Hot American Summer feels like an incredibly prescient film, one that magically brought together an insanely talented array of performers.

And yet, despite the film’s eventually earning a beloved status amongst many comedy fans, who ever thought that a sequel would ever be made?  What flop ever earns a sequel?  And Wet Hot never felt to me like one of those films that is begging for a sequel.  The film’s story, about the last day of summer camp at Camp Firewood in 1981, felt like a complete story.  And how on earth could all of these now-very-popular and successful performers ever be united?

And even if one dared to dream that perhaps someday some studio could be convinced to front the money to make a sequel for a film that flopped, there are all the other challenges of making a sequel to a comedy.  I could probably write a book analyzing all the reasons why this might be, but for now let’s just cut to the chase to state that making a comedy sequel is incredibly hard.  There are very, very few comedy sequels that are any good.  (Go ahead. Try to name one.)

Somehow, David Wain and Michael Showalter have managed to surmount every single challenge that stood in the way of crafting a satisfying and entertaining sequel to the original film.  I don’t quite know how they did it, but they did!  And so, lo and behold, Netflix’s eight-episode Wet Hot American Summer mini-series is now something that actually exists that I have seen with my own two eyeballs.

Somehow, David Wain and Michael Showalter managed to lure back every single cast-member of note from the original film.  That in itself is a triumph of staggering performers.  To reunite that enormous ensemble, all of whom are big comedy names?  Crazy.  (Along with the names I listed above, back for the mini-series … [continued]

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Arrested Development Lives! Josh Reviews Season Four

“I think movies are dead.  Maybe it’s a TV Show.”

For three wonderful, beautiful shortened seasons on FOX that aired from 2003-2006, Mitchell Hurwitz and an extraordinary team of writers and performers spun comedic gold out of the misadventures of the spoiled, selfish, oblivious Bluth clan.  (I describe them as shortened seasons because only season 1 was a full season of 22 episodes.  Season 2 consisted of 18 episodes, while season 3 was only 13.)  Arrested Development stands, without a doubt, as one of the finest television shows ever made, absolutely hilarious but also fiendishly brilliant in its complicated structure of long-running gags, subtle call-backs, and jokes piled upon jokes piled upon jokes.  It certainly ranks among my very favorite TV series of all time.  (I know some who feel that season 3 was a small drop in quality from seasons 1 and 2, and while that might be true, it meant that the series went from being solid-gold perfection to being merely genius and hilarious.)

Fans like me were crushed when the show was cancelled after that truncated third season, and dreamed that the show’s final scene (in which Maeby pitches the idea of a TV show about her crazy family to Ron Howard, who dismisses the idea but then muses “maybe a movie…”) might some-day become a reality.  I never believed we would ever see any more Arrested Development, so like everyone else I was delighted and stunned when the news broke that, while plans for a movie were still in-the-works, the show would be returning on Netflix for fifteen brand new episodes.  Not only were we actually going to get more Arrested Development, but rather than a two-hour movie we’d be getting fifteen new episodes??  Phenomenal!!

I tried to moderate my expectations, but as the day of the show’s release on Netflix grew nearer (as I suspect everyone reading this knows, Netflix released all 15 episodes of season 4 all at once), I found my excitement building to great heights.  I resolved not to rush watching all of the episodes all at once, but to try to space them out.  (This was made easier by how insanely busy I have been lately, meaning that I couldn’t have watched all 15 episodes that first weekend, even if I’d wanted to!!)

Having now finished watching season 4, I can report that while this Netflix season is without a doubt the weakest season of the show — it really doesn’t hold a candle to any of the three original FOX seasons, even the often-maligned season 3 — I still found it to be terrifically entertaining.  There was, of course, the level at which it was just a thrill and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Adjustment Bureau!

I’m always intrigued, but a bit worried, when I hear that another Philip K. Dick story is being turned into a movie.  Many adaptations of Mr. Dick’s work have been pretty horrid, and even the ones that are great (such as Total Recall and Blade Runner) tend to diverge pretty far from the source material.  But the promise of one of Mr. Dick’s short stories being used as the basis for the script, along with an intriguingly talented cast, piqued my interest in the new film, The Adjustment Bureau.

Matt Damon plays David Norris, a young, hot-shot rising-star politician who, nevertheless, has just lost the race for the New York Senate seat.  In the moments before he’s to give his concession speech, he meets a beautiful young dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt) in the bathroom.  She’s hiding out from security in the men’s room because she just crashed a wedding in the same building.  Sparks immediately fly between the two, and she inspires David to give a surprising off-the-cuff speech that  almost immediately begins to revive his political career.  When the two meet again soon thereafter, bumping into one another on a city bus, it’s clear that they have a powerful connection.  But almost immediately David finds himself confronting a mysterious group of men who seem determined to keep the two apart.  These men are the Adjustment Bureau.  They claim to be the instruments of a higher power, helping to keep people on their proper paths.  They warn David that he and Elise are not fated to be together, and that if he does not let her go, the consequences will be disastrous for them both.

For a film based on a story by Philip K. Dick (his 1954 tale Adjustment Team), the film is actually surprisingly light on the science fiction.  It’s really more of a fantasy about belief and faith and fate than it is a sci-fi adventure.  That’s not in any way a criticism.  The film incorporates the fantastic with a fairly light touch, keeping the focus squarely on David’s real-world emotions and his struggle to find a way out of the impossible situation in which he finds himself.

The glimpses we were given into how the Adjustment Bureau functions were fun — just tantalizing enough to leave us intrigued but not bogged down by exposition.  I loved the look of their books (which map individuals’ destinies), and I thought that their system of traveling incredible distances in the blink of an eye through doors that they could turn into portals across the globe was cool (even if the thunder of this device was stolen slightly by Monsters, Inc. — still, Mr. Dick’s story came … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Season One of Mad Men!

I was excited, last month, to finally sample one of the best-reviewed new shows of the past several years: Mad Men.  No surprise, Steph and I made pretty short work of the 13-episode first season on DVD.

Mad Men depicts the lives of the men and women who work at Sterling Cooper, a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the early 1960’s.  It’s a tough business, but one in which the successful have the opportunity to taste great wealth and privilege.  It’s also a rapidly changing world, as social mores shift and the concepts of traditional “family values” and the strictly defined roles of men and women begin to adjust.  

Mad Men is notable for its sharply-written dialogue and its extraordinary ensemble of actors.  Jom Hamm plays the lead character, Don Draper, a enormous success both as an ad man in the office and with the women in his life, although as the season progresses he finds himself struggling to cope with the secrets of his past and to adjust to the new world of the 60’s.  The aforementioned women in Don’s life include his wife Betty (January Jones), who is devoted to Don but also beginning to chafe at the edges of her housewife life, and Rachel Menken, one of the few Jewish clients of Sterling Cooper to whom Don finds himself immediately attracted.  Much of Mad Men focuses on the hierarchical structure of the Sterling Cooper ad agency.  There are the men on top, like Don and Roger Sterling (the absolutely terrific John Slattery, a real stand-out).  There are the younger executives beneath them, looking to get ahead in any way that they can.  These include Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis), Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Stanton), Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) and the head of the design department, Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt).  Then there are the secretaries.  The show’s pilot takes us through the first day at work of Don’s new secretary Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss, Zoey Bartlet from The West Wing).  One of the first people she meets is the queen bee of the office, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks, a familiar face to fans of Firefly).  The complex interactions between these characters (along with a variety of supporting players and guest stars), each fighting in some way against the confines of his/her job and obligations, each looking for some way to get ahead, and each flawed in his/her own way, make up the meat of the show’s drama.

Of course, along with the talented writers and actors, we must also praise the amazing production team for the great success of the show.  From the sets, to the wardrobe, to the hairstyles and make-up, Mad [continued]