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Josh Reviews the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Interactive Special!

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was one of very my favorite shows for the four seasons it was on Netflix.  The series was hilarious and joyous and pretty much wonderful in every way.  I was happy with the manner in which the fourth and final season wrapped up the series — but I am over-the-moon thrilled that wasn’t the end, and the series has returned for this amazing interactive special!

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Interactive Special: Kimmy vs. the Reverend is magnificent.  I could not be happier with how this came out.  Bravo to director Claire Scanlon and writers Robert Carlock, Tina Fey,  Sam Means, and Meredith Scardino.

The special utilizes the same choose-your-own adventure technology that made the Black Mirror special Bandersnatch so intriguing.  Every few minutes, the episode pauses and allows you, the audience, to choose among several possible actions for the characters to take next.  You make your choice with your remote control, and then the episode seamlessly moves forward down whatever path you’ve chosen.  The result is that there are a myriad different ways the events of Kimmy vs. the Reverend can play out.

This isn’t only fun and intriguing, it’s endlessly funny.  It turns out this interactive technology works even better with a comedy than it does with a drama, because the episode’s writers were able to mine incredible fun from the various possibilities, allowing the characters to do all sorts of crazy, funny, often fourth-wall-breaking activities.  Usually, “alts” to a joke will wind up on the cutting room floor.  Here, different jokes or ways to go with a scene have all be incorporated into the finished product.  It’s sort of genius!

Certain series of choices will take you all the way through to the “end” of the episode, though there are a variety of ways the events can wrap up.  Other choices lead you quickly to dead-ends.  In many ways, these dead ends are even funnier than the “right” choices.  (Often-times, characters will appear on-screen and berate you, the viewer, for the dumb choices you made.)  It’s clear the special’s writers mined maximum fun out of exploring all of these different avenues and dead-ends.

I had a ball playing out the episode the first time through, but I had even more fun going back and exploring some of the alternate paths I hadn’t taken on my first pass.  I have no idea how many total hours of footage were filmed, to create all of the many different paths and choices you can search out.  But I know my wife and I watched and laughed for at least an hour and a half, making our way through several different versions of the episode.

The second time through, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Report

Amazon’s film The Report, written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, depicts the years-long process in which the Senate Intelligence Committee investigated the C.I.A.’s use of torture of detainees after September 11th.  The investigation was led by Daniel Jones, a staffer for Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee.  Mr. Jones worked with a small team for six years on the report, which wound up totaling more than 6,700 pages.  The full unreacted report remains classified to this day, although a 535 page “Executive Summary” was released by Senator Feinstein and the Committee in December, 2014.  The film is partially based on the Vanity Fair article “Rorshach and Awe” by Katherine Eban.

The subject matter of The Report is very challenging.  The film’s first half contains several flashbacks that present instances of the C.I.A.’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which I found extremely difficult to watch, even though the scenes are brief.  On the other hand, the rest of the film mostly depicts subject matter that can be extremely dry.  Daniel Jones worked for years with a small team in a windowless room, reading e-mails and files and other documents.  That’s a hard subject matter to dramatize.  The sequences of committee hearings and political back-room conversations aren’t much easier!  Mr. Burns and his team had quite a challenge to weave this all into something compelling that could sustain an audience’s interest.

I am impressed by what they have done.

Now, be warned: The Report doesn’t have the momentum of a film like Spotlight.  Despite the best efforts of Mr. Burns and his terrific cast, I have to admit that there are portions of this very talky film in which I struggled somewhat to remain focused.  At the other end of the spectrum, as I’d noted above, there were sequences — the flashback to the C.I.A. interrogations — that were extremely unpleasant and tough to get through.

But the power of this incredibly important and relevant story shone through.  And the terrific cast was a huge factor in bringing this story to life successfully.  Adam Driver is fantastic in the lead role as Daniel Jones.  This is the least flashy role I have ever seen Mr. Driver play.  There’s not a single moment of the type of explosive energy that has characterized many of his best roles, from Adam in Girls to Kylo Ren in the Star Wars sequel trilogy.  This is a very internal performance.  Mr. Driver keeps all of his energy tightly bottled up.  And yet, his charisma shines through his stillness.  Daniel is like a coiled spring throughout the film, and that intensity blazing forth behind Mr. Driver’s eyes kept me, as a viewer, riveted … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Curb Your Enthusiasm Season 10

We had to wait a long time between the eighth and ninth seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm (over five years), and when that ninth season of Curb finally arrived, I felt the show had lost its way somewhat.  It was still extremely funny, and jam-packed with wonderful and crazy ideas.  But the longer-running episodes felt shaggier, and more hit-and-miss.  Plots didn’t fit together with the clockwork precision of earlier Curb (and, of course, Seinfeld).  It still made me happy, but I felt the show’s best days were behind it.  I’m thankful that we only had to wait two years between the ninth and tenth seasons of Curb.  This tenth season isn’t a reinvention of the show; it’s stronger than season nine, I think, but I doubt anyone would argue this is one of the best seasons of the show.  Still, not being as good as the best seasons of one of the best TV shows ever made is not a crime!!  I really enjoyed this season, and I think this show still has a lot of life left in it.  There was plenty that didn’t quite work here in season ten, but there was so much to enjoy it’s hard for me to really complain.  Let’s dig in…

The first three episodes of the season had me very concerned.  Those episodes focused primarily on Larry’s running afoul of the #metoo movement.  The idea that the ornery, prickly Larry of Curb — who also happens to be a wealthy, privileged, older white man — would find himself the subject of ire from the #metoo movement is an idea with a lot of merit.  However, I felt those first few episodes made the mistake of drifting into mockery of the #metoo movement.  There’s a subtle but critical difference between mining comedy from that movement (and Larry’s being made a target of it), versus belittling the movement and the women who accuse men of misdeeds, and I think the show was on the wrong side of that line.  The women who were accusing Larry of misconduct were depicted as buffoonish and ridiculous, which I think was a big mistake.  I don’t think this was a good look for the show.  Frankly, I didn’t find it funny; I found it almost unpleasant.

Thankfully, the show moved away from those stories, and the main season-long story-line wound up being the far more interesting (and far better basis for great comedy) story of Larry’s feud with coffee-store owner Mocha Joe (Saverio Guerra), leading to Larry’s opening up a “spite store” — his own coffee shop, Latte Larry’s, right next door to Mocha Joe’s.  The whole idea of a “spite store” is brilliant.  Who hasn’t ever … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Amazon’s Adaptation of Good Omens

This past summer, Amazon released a six-episode adaptation of Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, the wonderful novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  I love the novel.  It’s a deliriously funny, clever romp that reminds me very much of the work of Douglas Adams.  The mini-series, like the novel, charts the unlikely friendship between an angel, Aziraphale, and a demon, Crowley.  When the Antichrist is born on Earth, and the sides of Heaven and Hell ready for war, Aziraphale and Crowley, having grown to quite like life on Earth, realize they have no choice but to work together to try to prevent the end of the world.

In the mini-series adaptation, Michael Sheen plays Aziraphale and David Tennant plays Crowley.  This is genius casting for both characters, and what I liked best about this mini-series was seeing these two characters brought to life so well, and watching them bounce off one another.  Both Mr. Sheen and Mr. Tennant are absolutely perfect, and they both have tremendous comedic timing which is put to good use here.  I loved their scenes together.  I was particularly taken by episode three, “Hard Times,” one of the few times in which the show diverged from the novel, showing us the history of Crowley & Aziraphale’s strange friendship over the centuries, from Noah’s ark through the time of Jesus to the modern day.

This mini-series is one of those curious projects which is incredibly faithful to the source material and yet still, somehow, winds up missing the certain spark that made the source material so special.  The mini-series lacks the comedic pulse of the novel, and its light tone.  Most importantly, the novel is so, so funny, and unfortunately the mini-series isn’t.  It’s a shame, because I was generally impressed with how carefully they adapted the story.  The six-episode length gave the show plenty of time to fit in almost all of the novel’s many twists and turns.  They even included the narration, using the great Frances McDormand to play the narrating voice of God.  This inclusion of the narration is a great example of where the mini-series wound up going just a tad bit astray.  Including the narration — unusual for a TV show to have — allows the mini-series to include many of the book’s best jokes.  But on the other hand, I found the narration slowed down the show and prevented me as an audience member for connecting as deeply with the characters as I might have expected.  The narration kept me at a distance.  And as such, I found the jokes in the narration didn’t land nearly as well as they did in the novel.

The … [continued]

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Josh Bids Farewell to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt!

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Tina Fey’s 30 Rock nearly as much as I did.  (That first season, it was Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip that was the “behind-the-scenes at an SNL-like show” that I was most interested in.  But Studio 60 was gone by the end of the year, whereas the joys of watching Jane Krakowski say “the Rural Juror” cemented my love for 30 Rock.)  When 30 Rock ended, I was eager to watch Ms. Fey and Robert Carlock’s follow-up series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  Right from the beginning I knew that Kimmy was something special.  I wish the series had run as long as 30 Rock.  Sadly, these final six episodes conclude Kimmy Schmidt’s fourth season and, it seems, the series.  (However, rumors of a follow-up Netflix movie persist, so hope springs eternal!)

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a wonderfully endearing, original creation.  I feel like the show has been under-appreciated while it was around; I hope and expect that its renown will grow in the years ahead.  The show is hilarious.  It’s as stuffed-full with jokes as the very best TV comedies of the modern era, shows like The Simpsons, Arrested Development, and the previously-mentioned 30 Rock.  This is a show with gags piled upon gags piled upon gags.  (For one tiny example, just look at the fake titles of the kids’ books around Kimmy in the image above!)

At the same time, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is an unwaveringly positive, life-affirming show.  The show believes fully in its core messages of niceness and positivity.  Kimmy herself is one of the most positive, joyful lead characters on a TV series in recent memory, and the show has gotten a lot of mileage out of showing how Kimmy’s unbreakable core of moral strength and sunniness have positively affected every character with whom she interacts.  I love that about the show.

This season, the show has focused itself on the issues of how women are treated in today’s society.  This has always been an aspect of the show, as the premise is about how Kimmy and other women were kidnapped and half captive by the Reverend (Jon Hamm, in a hilarious and disturbing series of guest appearances).  So this show has always dealt with how women are (mis)treated by men.  But, energized by today’s #MeToo movement, the show has found a new energy in addressing those issues head-on.  This finale batch of episodes dealt with a number of stories that explored those issues in different ways.  Most primarily, there was Kimmy’s transition into becoming the J.K. Rowling-like author of a fantasy book series called “The Legends of Greemulax,” which was all about teaching boys how … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season Four Part One!

I’ve enjoyed Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt right from the get-go, and I’m bummed that this fourth season has been announced as the last.  (I am hoping that rumors of a concluding movie aren’t just wishful thinking!)  This fourth season so far shows that the show remains at the top of its comedic game.

Unlike the previous three seasons, this fourth season has been broken up by Netflix into two parts.  The first six episodes are available now, with the concluding episodes not coming until January, 2019.  On the one hand, I hate having to wait so many more months for the concluding episodes!!  On the other, though, I could get behind this sort of release pattern for more streaming shows.  The way so many shows work now, we get all 10 or 13-ish episodes of a season dropped on the same day, and for the shows I love I often wind up watching them all very quickly.  I’m not the type of person to binge a whole season in a day or two, but particularly if we’re only talking about half-hour episodes, I could easily get through a season in a week.  Then I have to wait a whole year (or more!!) for additional episodes.  That long wait between seasons is painful.  So I don’t think I would mind if more shows started breaking up their seasons into two or three smaller groups of episodes to drop at different points during the year.  But I digress…

These latest episodes of Kimmy Schmidt continue the style begun by Tina Fey’s great show 30 Rock of super-fast-paced comedy, with tons and tons of jokes crammed into every minute of every episode.  (I often have to go back and rewatch a scene because there were so many jokes on top of jokes that I missed many of them the first time through.)  Kimmy has also continued 30 Rock’s somewhat fantastical approach to reality, unafraid of bizarre and very silly digressions.  I loved those qualities in 30 Rock, and I love them in Kimmy.  

While Kimmy might not quite be able to match the comedic highs of 30 Rock (and no character on Kimmy can top the powerhouse comedic creation of Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy), I’ve come to love all of the Kimmy main characters more than I ever quite connected to any member of the 30 Rock ensemble.  Top of the list is Ellie Kemper’s Kimmy.  The indefatigably sunny Kimmy is not only an evergreen fountain of comedy, but also a character for whom it is impossible not to root.  She’s a wonderful anchor for the show, and she gives the whole enterprise an uplifting, good-for-the-soul feeling.  It’s easy to take Ms. Kemper’s … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season Three

I fell very quickly in love with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in its first season.  While the show shared a certain comedic rhythm with Tina Fey’s previous show 30 Rock, I loved Kimmy Schmidt for its unique premise, wonderful characters, and, most of all, for Kimmy herself, a wonderfully positive, upbeat female character.  (Click here for my review of season one.)  I enjoyed the second season as well, which was unafraid to dig deep and explore the darkness inherent in the show’s premise of Kimmy as a kidnapping survivor.  (Click here for my review.)

Kimmy Schmidt season three feels a little more scattershot than the previous two seasons.  There were times, particularly in the early-going, in which it felt as if the writers were straining somewhat to find new situations for the show’s characters.  But the season took off for me with episode six, “Kimmy is a Feminist!”, which culminates in an insane and hilarious farce in which Jacqueline attempts to keep Russ’ brother Duke (Josh Charles) attracted to her without actually cheating with him, while Titus pretends to be Jacqueline’s gay best friend Flouncey McGoo who also has a thing for her.  (It’s complicated!)  I am a sucker for those sorts of madcap farcical situations (Frasier in its best years was a master at this sort of thing), and that episode had me on the floor.

What this season might lack in narrative cohesion it made up for in the continuing joy of watching these crazy characters bounce from one nutty situation to the next.  The show’s fast-paced style is a virtue, as before one might begin to tire of one situation the show is already on to the next one.  And no other show television packs as many gags per second of screen time as does Kimmy Schmidt.

Ellie Kemper is, once again, brilliant in the lead role.  Kimmy Schmidt is a perfect melding of actor and role.  I enjoyed the way the show has allowed us to occasionally see the very human cracks in Kimmy — she hits a low point at the end of this season — while never losing sight of her inherent goodness and unbreakable, sunny core.

Tituss Burgess just gets better and better as Titus Andromedon, and I was pleased at all the wonderfully nutty stuff the writers gave Mr. Burgess to play this year.  His attempting to play a “bro” lusting after Jacqueline in episode six was a highlight for me, but I also enjoyed his battle of wits with a gas-station attendant (Ray Liotta) in “Kimmy Pulls Off a Heist!”, and the collapsing of his relationship with cruise-ship mentor-turned-rival Dionne Warwick (played to a T by Maya … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Baby Driver!

I have enormous love for all of writer/director Edgar Wright’s collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, from their fantastic TV show Spaced to their trilogy of films Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End.  Though actually, I have to admit that my absolute favorite Edgar Wright film is his criminally underrated 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which I adore with all my heart.  That Edgar Wright has not directed a film since that 2010 release is a crime.  And so I was more than a little excited for his new film, Baby Driver.

The film does not disappoint.

The titular Baby Driver is played by Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars).  Baby is a young man who has found himself in the position of being a getaway driver for a cadre of criminals and reprobates.  He has tinnitus and is a great lover of music, so he is almost always listening to music on his ear buds as a way to drown out the ringing in his ears and, perhaps, to keep him safely isolated from the big bad world around him.  Baby’s float-through approach to his life is rattled when he meets and begins to fall in love with a young waitress named Debora (Lily James).  The two young lovebirds hatch a plan to leave town and the lives they hate, but Baby finds it harder than he expected to get out from under the thumb of the big bad men for whom he works.

Oh man did I love this movie!  Edgar Wright has concocted a fiercely entertaining rush of a film, with every instant of screen-time packed to the gills with great music, exciting action sequences, and witty dialogue.

Mr. Wright has assembled an incredible ensemble of actors for his film, and he rewards his cast by giving each one of them a ton of fun stuff to do, allowing them each to create extraordinarily memorable characters in whatever amount of time they have on-screen.

Kevin Spacey plays Doc, the man-with-the-plan who comes up with all the criminal schemes and assembles the team.  It’s a great role for Mr. Spacey, who is terrific at playing loquacious characters with an edge of danger.  Mr. Spacey also allows us a tiny glimpse at the beating heart beneath the polished facade, which only emphasizes Doc’s dangerousness.  Jon Hamm plays Buddy, the confident, smooth-with-the-ladies man of action.  It’s fun (and sort of endearing) to see Mr. Hamm try to play scruffy-looking.  Mr. Hamm’s performance is fun in the first half but really comes alive in the second half when his character is pushed into some tight corners.  Eiza González plays … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Angie Tribeca Season Two!

Last spring I devoured the first ten-episode season of Rashida Jones’ Angie Tribeca, a wonderfully clever, gloriously silly show.  In my review of season one I compared Angie Tribeca to a modern-day version of Police Squad.  The show follows a team of homicide detectives but it’s not really a police procedural parody.  It’s more like the show uses the framework of a police procedural to cram in as many crazy, often-very-random jokes as humanly possible.  I loved that first season and so I was delighted that only a few months later a second ten-episode season was released on TBS.

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Unironic silliness can be hard to achieve, but Angie Tribeca nails it.  The show is a riot, chock full of absurdity and craziness, puns and sight-gags and slapstick and wordplay and lots more.  The jokes are piled high, with gags coming fast and furious.  This is a show that makes me laugh a lot.

Once again, Rashida Jones plays the titular Angie Tribeca, a Los Angeles homicide detective.  The whole gang from season one is back, including Hayes MacArthur as Angie’s partner Giles, Jere Burns as their boss (and my favorite character on the show) Lt. Atkins, Deon Cole as DJ Tanner (a great Full House joke), Andree Vermeulen as medical examiner Dr. Scholls (come on, all of these character names are so great!), and Alfred Molina as Dr. Edelweiss.

Rashida Jones is, as always, terrific in the lead role.  Alfred Molina’s one-scene-per-episode is always a highlight, allowing the great Mr. Molina to act increasingly crazy to enormous comedic effect.  I commented above that Jere Burns as Lt. Atkins is my favorite character on the show, and though he has fierce competition from Mr. Molina’s Dr. Edelweiss, I stand by that assessment.  I have fallen in love with Mr. Burns’ crazy deadpan, half-yelling delivery.  It’s amazing.

Season two had an incredible parade of amazing comedic guest stars.  Jon Hamm, Busy Phillips, Heather Graham, Mary McCormack, Maya Rudolph, Newsradio’s Vicki Lewis, Saul Rubinek, and many more familiar faces all appear in season two and are so, so funny.  I also have to highlight Noah Wylie and Eriq La Salle, who pop up in a brilliant E.R. reunion in “Organ Trail.”  But my favorite cameo of the season has to be Kevin Pollak’s appearance as the punchline to a brilliant A Few Good Men joke in “Beach Blanket Sting-O.”

Whereas all ten episodes in season one were pretty much stand-alone installments, here in season two they have opted for a different tack.  Each episode does still have it’s own distinct, usually outlandish murder investigation, but the whole season is linked together by several running story-lines, including Angie’s split from Giles (and a … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season Two!

I adored the first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and so of course I was hugely excited for the second season.  Thankfully it does not disappoint!

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The series was originally developed by Tina Fey for NBC, as a follow-up to her recently-completed show 30 Rock NBC however, demonstrating the great wisdom of broadcast networks, declined to air the show even after the first thirteen-episode season had been completed.  Fortunately Netflix came to the rescue, releasing the first season and commissioning a second.

For anyone not in the know, the series stars Ellie Kemper as Kimmy, a young woman who, at the start of the series, has just been rescued from 15 years of being held in captivity by a crazy Reverend.  Just as her unrelentingly positive attitude allowed her to survive for fifteen years as a “mole-woman,” Kimmy’s spirit drives her to move to New York to attempt to create a new life for herself.  There, she surrounds herself with a wonderful cadre of weirdos and wackos, all of whom at first find Kimmy’s naive positivity to be out of place in cynical New York, but who eventually find themselves touched and inspired by her good nature.

The show is a riot, a perfect continuation of the fast-paced, gag-a-second style that Ms. Fey and her team had developed on 30 Rock.  It’s a show that is willing to embrace actual character-based story-telling (this second season features a surprisingly in-depth examination of the psychological damage that even the eternally-positive Kimmy must have suffered during her captivity) while also being able to be very, very silly.  This balance of tone is why the show works, and it’s a testament to the incredible writing and the show’s tremendous cast.

Ms. Kemper continues to show that this is the part she was born to play.  She’s marvelous in the lead role, able to effortlessly show how Kimmy has become the center of gravity for all of her friends and acquaintances.  She brings such sweetness to Kimmy, and wow can she hit a joke out of the park.  Titus Burgess is equally as perfect and iconic as Titus Andromedon.  This is a character who could so easily be a one-note flamboyant gay joke, but Mr. Burgess plays the part with such sincerity that he’s able to give Titus tremendous depth and heart while continuing to behave terribly and, yes, to play up some very flamboyantly gay, somewhat stereotypical characteristics.  Possibly the best contribution that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has made to our society is it’s giving a regular platform to the great Carol Kane, who is so perfect and such endless fun as Kimmy and Titus’ brash, elderly landlady Lillian Kaushtupper.  Every moment Ms. Kane … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season One

Tina Fey and Robert Carlock have followed up the magnificent 30 Rock with another wonderfully unique, funny, sweet creation: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  The show was developed for NBC who, for some unfathomable-to-me decision, passed on the show after the entire thirteen-episode first season had been completed.  Thankfully Netflix rode to the rescue to release the first season (and commissioned a second one!).

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Ellie Kemper (The Office, Bridesmaids) stars as the titular Kimmy Schmidt who, when the show begins, has just been rescued from 15 years of captivity underground, where she was held along with three other women by an apocalyptic cult leader.  Ready to start a new life, she moves to New York City where she finds an apartment to share with the jovial, wannabe-Hollywood star Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) and a job as a nanny for the wealthy, neurotic Jacqueline Vorhees (30 Rock veteran Jane Krakowski).

What’s so remarkable about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is its tone.  The show manages to pull off an unapologetically positive, upbeat vibe, something very rare in a post-Seinfeld era of snarky comedies.  Note: I am not criticizing all snarky comedies, and I think Seinfeld is one of the greatest TV shows ever made.  But what a refreshing delight it is to watch a comedy that manages to be very funny and also so life-affirming and upbeat.  As we get to know Kimmy over the course of these first thirteen episodes, we see that her positive outlook on life has made her spirit “unbreakable”, and the show shows us how her sunny disposition is able to positively affect those around her.  This is a very sweet idea for a show, and it’s impressive that Ms. Fey & Mr. Carlock and their team are able to pull this off so smoothly.  (I love that all of the show’s episode titles end with a jovial exclamation point!)

And make no mistake, the show is very funny.  Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt possesses the fast-paced loopiness and quotability that made 30 Rock so endearing, as well as that show’s ability to dive deeply into a gag.  As an example: Titus’ “Pinot Noir” music video from episode six, “Kimmy Goes to School!” is a triumph, and one of the best things I have seen on TV all year.

The show represents a star-making turn for Ellie Kemper.  Ms. Kemper has demonstrated her comedic chops on TV (The Office) and on film (Bridesmaids), but in Kimmy she has found her greatest role so far.  Ms. Kemper is tremendous in the role, able to sell both Kimmy’s toughness and her sweet innocence.  She’s able to play both the straight-woman (particularly in any scene with Tituss Burgess or Jane … [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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Josh Reviews Larry David’s Clear History

September 20th, 2013
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I don’t know why I didn’t watch Larry David’s HBO film Clear History the second it first aired on HBO.  Maybe the generic ads, or the even more generic title, neither of which gave me any idea of what the film was actually about?  But I knew I couldn’t resist a new project from Larry David — and many of the key creative minds he partners with on Curb Your Enthusiasm, including Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer — for long!

In Clear History, Mr. David stars as Nathan Flomm, a happy, shaggy-haired marketing wiz who works for an up-and-coming electric car company run by Will Haney (Jon Hamm).  When Nathan objects to the name Will chooses for their new car — the Howard — they get in a fight and Will leaves the company, agreeing to sell back all his shares in the company.  When the Howard proves to be an enormous success, Nathan realizes that he has lost out on a fortune.  Humiliated, he changes his name to Rolly DaVore and creates a new, modest life for himself on Martha’s Vineyard, where he works as the aide to an old woman.  For ten years he is happy there, until Will and his new young wife Rhonda (Kate Hudson) buy a house on the Vineyard.  Nathan feels he has to leave his life on the Vineyard and move somewhere else, but when he realizes in a chance encounter with Will that his former boss and partner doesn’t recognize him (now shorn of his long hair and beard and looking like, well, like Larry David), Nathan decides to stay and plot revenge against his nemesis.

Mr. David has recruited a top-notch cast to work with him on this HBO movie.  Jon Hamm is a great straight-man, and there is something magical about the pairing of this handsome, very not-Jewish leading-man with Larry David’s crabby, irascible, very-Jewish persona.  I only wish the film’s plot didn’t necessitate the two men for being almost entirely separated from one another after the events of the prologue!  The biggest shock to me in the cast was an almost unrecognizable Michael Keaton, who plays the testy demolitions-expert who Nathan hires to blow up Will’s new house.  Under an elaborate make-up job and sporting a thick crusty seaman accent, Mr. Keaton is a revelation, absolutely hilarious in every scene he is in.  Danny McBride is great as Rolly’s jovial best-friend in his new life on the Vineyard, though I wish Mr. McBride had a larger role in the story.  After a few promising early scenes, he is pretty much sidelined.  Also featured in the film are Liev Schreiber, Philip Baker Hall (Seinfeld’s Library Investigator … [continued]

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“Not Great, Bob!” Josh Reviews Mad Men Season 6

Yes, I know the sixth season of Mad Men wrapped up a few months ago already, but it’s taken me a little while to catch up with this, the penultimate season of the show.  What a fantastic season of television.

I have written before that I enjoyed Mad Men from the beginning, and always respected the hell out of it as a tremendously well-crafted show, but it wasn’t until around the fourth season when I really fell in love with the show.  The characters were all a little too unlikable, a little too off-putting for me at first.  But somewhere along the way I found myself growing quite attached to all of the flawed, selfish, insensitive bastards at Sterling Cooper (and then Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and then SCDPCGC…).  And now I can’t get enough of watching these oh-so-human characters, and I am saddened that we only have one more season to spend with them.  (Matthew Weiner has stated repeatedly in interviews that season seven will be the show’s last.)

Season six was a hell of a season. First and foremost, the stories this year fulfilled the promise of the closing shot of season five, in which it looked like Don Draper was up to his old tricks again.  Indeed he was, spending much of this season involved in a new affair — with his downstairs neighbor, no less!  Linda Cardellini (Freaks and Geeks’ Lindsay Weir, all grown up!!) was a tremendous addition to the Mad Men ensemble as Sylvia Rosen, Don’s new mistress.  Finally here was a woman who could say no to Don Draper.  Seeing Don get dumped (in “Man With a Plan”) was a first for the series, a great moment in a season filled with great moments.

The standout event of the season was, of course, the shocking merger of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with their competitors Cutler Gleason and Chaough in the middle of the season (in the final moments of “For Immediate Release”).  Suddenly everything I thought the season was going to be about, and where I thought the stories were headed, changed completely.  I adored that plot-twist, and it gave a terrific narrative thrust to the back half of the season as we got to watch the chaos that seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time merger unleashed.

There were some great new characters this year.  I already mentioned Linda Cardellini’s terrific work as Sylvia Rosen, and I also loved seeing the always-great Brian Markinson in a terrific role as her brilliant but cuckolded surgeon husband, Dr. Arnold Rosen.  Mr. Markinson’s scenes with Jon Hamm’s Don Draper really crackled.  I was also terrifically impressed by Harry Hamlin’s great work as Jim Cutler, the Roger Sterling of Cutler, Gleason … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Town

October 22nd, 2010
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I was blown away by Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, and so I was of course eager to see his second film: The Town.  While I don’t think it’s nearly as strong as Gone Baby Gone, The Town is as an engaging and confident sophomore effort from Mr. Affleck, and definitely worth your time.

As with Gone Baby Gone, The Town is set in Boston (in this case, specifically, Charlestown).  In both films, one of Mr. Affleck’s primary accomplishments has been in bringing that Boston setting to life to the degree that the film’s story is indelibly linked with the Boston location.  By shooting in Boston, by casting naturalistic actors (as well as a variety of local non-actors), and by a million other details that Mr. Affleck and his team get just right, the streets of Boston become the film’s beating heart.

In addition to directing and co-writing the film (“It’s going to be awfully tough to walk away from this one,” Mr. Affleck told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show last month, referring to his triple-threat role), Mr. Affleck stars as Doug, a hardened young man who works for a sand and gravel company breaking rocks — that is, when he’s not robbing Charlestown banks with his crew.  In the heist that opens the film, Doug’s close friend (the two are practically brothers) Jem briefly takes the young bank manager, Claire, hostage in order to have some insurance in case the cops show up earlier than expected.  They let her go, but Jem worries that she could incriminate them, so Doug agrees to discreetly find out what she knows.  He arranges to accidentally bump into her at the laundromat, but quickly finds himself drawn to this young woman who, to Doug, represents his idealized vision of a life outside of The Town.

That doesn’t stike me as a terribly original hook for a film (troubled guy falls for a girl who makes him, you know, want to be a better man), and nothing in the narrative of The Town feels especially surprising.  This, to me, is the main reason why I didn’t find The Town to be nearly as gripping as the edge-of-your-seat, where-the-heck-is-this-all-going narrative of Gone Baby Gone.  I haven’t read Chuck Hogan’s novel, Prince of Thieves, on which The Town is based, but I can’t imagine it’s as strong a source material as was the novel by Dennis Lehane that was adapted for Gone Baby Gone.

But, OK, though The Town isn’t as good as Gone Baby Gone, it’s still a very well-made and entertaining thriller.

Mr. Affleck is a way better actor than he’s usually given credit for, and … [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]