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Josh Reviews Avenue 5 Season One

Avenue 5 is a sci-fi comedy series created by Veep creator Armando Iannucci.  Set sometime in the future, the show depicts the fallout from an accident aboard the Avenue 5, a space-ship cruise-ship, that turns their five-week cruise into a years-long journey.

I loved Veep and I love sci-fi, so a sci-fi comedy from the creator of Veep was of course something I wanted to see.  The series is funny and I enjoyed watching it.  But it’s not nearly as funny as I’d expected, based on Mr. Iannucci’s involvement and the spectacular cast (that includes Hugh Laurie, Josh Gad, Zach Woods, and many more terrific comedic performers).

Each and every episode made me laugh.  Is that enough to recommend this short (nine half-hour episodes) first season?  Perhaps.  And yet, in almost every episode there was also something that felt somewhat off about the storytelling, as if the many great components of this show weren’t quite clicking together.  A few examples: In the first episode, for quite a while I thought Josh Gad was playing some sort of rock and roll star, a pampered and privileged celebrity aboard the Avenue 5, when in fact he was playing the cruise-line’s owner.  It feels to me like the storytelling should have made that much clearer; and that the show should have given us a reason why the company’s super-rich owner was traveling on board this cruise ship.  Here’s another example: it feels to me like the show should have been able to get a lot more comedic mileage out of the idea that the ships’ head of customer relations, played by Zach Woods, would have a meltdown after the accident hits and his carefully-run cruise ship collapses into chaos.  But that doesn’t really happen, because that character is played as an unhinged loon right from the beginning of the first episode, when we see him being very rude and impatient with the (admittedly demanding and obnoxious) passengers.  So there’s no arc.  Mr. Woods is funny, as always, but it feels like a missed opportunity.

Also, I know the show is a comedy, but it feels like there are too many plot questions the show doesn’t bother to address.  How is it that there is only one engineer on the entire ship (Joe, who meets an untimely demise a few minutes into the first episode) who seems to know anything about how to actually run the ship?  (OK, two engineers: Lenora Crichlow’s Billie is also competent.)  The show could have intended to made an Idiocracy-like point about no one in the near future knowing anything about anything (or how Wall-E, which has a similar premise regarding trouble on an idyllic, futuristic cruiseliner-like … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Into the Unknown: The Making of Frozen II

Not long after I finished watching Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian, my entire family and I watched and enjoyed another Disney+ “making-of” series: the six-episode Into the Unknown: The Making of Frozen II.

This six-episode series, directed by Megan Harding, is an incredibly in-depth look at the last year of production on Frozen II.  (The film itself took many years to make.  This documentary only chronicles the last year, but believe me, there is more than enough material here for a fascinating look into the production of that film.)  This making-of series rivals the very best “making-of” documentaries that I used to love seeing on DVD/blu-ray special features.  (Sadly, those sorts of great special features on discs are all but extinct.  I bought Frozen II on blu-ray for my kids, and it came with a paltry array of short featurettes.  Clearly they were saving the goods for this series.)

I’m a film and animation nerd and I loved watching this, and my daughters who love both Frozen movies also were fascinated by it.  (I’d thought they might be bored, but this very slickly-produced series kept them captivated.)

I’m decently familiar with the process behind the making of Disney films from documentaries such as The Sweat Box (a fascinating, unreleased documentary about the tumultuous process of creating the film that started as Kingdom of the Sun and wound up as The Emperor’s New Groove; Disney tried to prevent the doc’s release but it’s floating around the internet and can be found if you look), Waking Sleeping Beauty, and the great in-depth making of documentaries that, as noted above, used to be on Disney special edition DVDs.  If you’re not, I expect there will be a lot about the process as detailed in this series that will be quite a revelation for you.  Even for me, someone who is decently familiar with this stuff, I loved following this very detailed, step-by-step look at the long, hard process of bringing an animated film to life.

Additionally, I was surprised and impressed by how much of the behind-the-scenes stress and struggle that went into shaping Frozen II into its final form was present in this Disney-approved documentary series.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a very polished version of events in which pretty much everyone looks good.  I’d expect nothing less from an official Disney creation.  But despite that, the documentary manages to nevertheless spend a lot of time exploring the challenged faced by the filmmakers and the stress of living up to the incredible success of the first Frozen film.  It’s fascinating to see the hard work spent on entire sequences and songs that wind up getting dropped entirely.  (We get to see … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is the latest film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel.  Mr. Branagh also stars as detective Hercule Poirot, who finds himself enmeshed in a complicated murder mystery while traveling from Istanbul to London on board the titular Orient Express.  When the criminal Samuel Ratchett is killed, there appear to be a plethora of suspects on board the high-class train, and the finicky detective Poirot must sort through the clues to find the killer.

I have been a fan of Kenneth Branagh, as both an actor and a director, ever since Dead Again.  Mr. Branagh might not be the most showy or edgy of directors, but I have usually found his films to be solidly entertaining, and Murder on the Orient Express is no exception.  The film is a joyful little puzzle from beginning to end.  This is not terribly innovative or boundary-pushing cinema, but it’s comfortably enjoyable like a favorite cushy chair.  Many of the beats of the film feel familiar — not only is this the fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel, but much about the story has been imitated by other films — but Mr. Branagh manages to keep things feeling fresh.  I feel like maybe I am damning Mr. Branagh with faint praise, and I don’t mean to.  With his steady hand at the helm, he has assembled an endearingly fun spin on Ms. Christie’s most-famous story.

Perhaps Mr. Branagh’s greatest achievement in the film is the way he is able to wrangle the film’s large, and very famous, cast.  The cast is extraordinary: Olivia Colman, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, and several other talented supporting players.  Almost any of these movie stars could have been the lead of their own film.  I have seen many other movies sink under the weight of so many stars.  Yet Mr. Branagh was able to balance all of these actors and their characters beautifully.  This could have easily felt like a film without any real characters, just Hollywood stars hobnobbing.  However, Mr. Branagh was able to achieve the benefit of casting all of these talented performers; since most of the film’s ensemble of characters have only a few scenes that spotlight them, these actors’ movie-star charisma is able to, in most cases, flesh out a full character despite their limited screen-time.

It’s great to see Michelle Pfeiffer given such a meaty role to play, and Ms. Pfeiffer is terrific.  She doesn’t appear in many films these days; it’s nice to see that she’s still got it.  Judi Dench can play haughty arrogance like nobody’s business, and I … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Live Action Beauty and the Beast

I am not sure what to make of Disney Studios’ apparent desire to remake every single one of their animated films into a live action version. I wasn’t interested in Cinderella, nor did I see 101 Dalmatians.  I did see Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, as I was drawn by the CGI spectacle, and I quite enjoyed it.  When I heard that a live action Beauty and the Beast was in the works, I had some interest because I love the original animated film.  (I remember going to see it when it first came out, on a trip with a high school film class, and being blown away by the film.)  So I was intrigued by the idea of a new version, but also as perplexed as I am any time Hollywood decides to remake a great film.  I can understand remaking bad movies, in an attempt to spin a failed concept or execution into a more successful undertaking, but what is to be gained by remaking an already great movie?

This new version of Beauty and the Beast is an interesting exploration of that question.  On the one hand, I freely admit that this new version is terrific.  I have a lot of great things to say about it, all of which I will get into in just a moment.  But is it better than the original film?  Not in my opinion.  It’s just different.  It’s an extraordinarily well-crafted piece of work, and I had a heck of a lot of fun watching it on a humongous IMAX screen.  But after seeing it, I have been wondering, what was the point?  Why did so many people work so hard for so many years just to remake an already great film?

Perhaps I should say “recreate” rather than “remake,” as this new Beauty and the Beast hews extremely faithfully to the original film.  There are a few tweaks here and there.  They delved a little bit more into the Beast and Belle’s backstories; they changed the character of Belle’s father Maurice a bit; they tweaked Belle’s involvement with the other villagers; they gave the Beast a new song; etc.  But whereas The Jungle Book was a far more complete reinvention of the story, one that took full advantage of what modern CGI can do, this film uses modern CGI not to reinvent the original movie but rather to recreate it as faithfully as they could.  What changes have been made to the original film’s story are entirely superficial.  (I read a LOT in the press, in advance of this film’s release, about the changes made to Belle’s backstory, how she was now more of a fighter for the other … [continued]