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Josh Reviews The Third and Final Season of The Leftovers

After several years during which several of my friends repeatedly beseeched me to watch The Leftovers, I finally gave it a chance.  I’m so glad I did.  The show is a masterpiece.  It’s a deep character study; a riveting meditation on grief and loss; and a thrillingly ambitious narrative in which I found myself repeatedly, joyously bowled over by how impossible to predict it was.  I enjoyed the first season and I thought the second season was even stronger.

The first season was set three years after the mysterious Sudden Departure, an event in which 2% of the world’s population vanished.  That season was set in the small town of Mapleton, NY, and as we followed many of the town’s denizens, the show explored the myriad ways in which this dramatic event damaged each of their lives, whether they’d lost a close family member to the Departure or not.  The second season expanded the show’s focus to a new location: Jarden, Texas, a town nicknamed “Miracle” because not a single member of the town Departed.  That terrific second season showed us a little more of the (extremely messed-up) state of the world, while at the same time drilling down even more intimately into the emotional lives of the show’s characters.  For this third and final season, the show expanded even further, while at the same time continuing to give us the riveting, tightly-focused P.O.V. episodes that had proven so critical to the show’s emotional power in the first two seasons.  Once again, I am impressed at the continued world-building of the universe in which The Leftovers takes place, and the power of the intimate explorations of these characters.

This third and final season was even shorter than the first two seasons (only eight episodes instead of the previous ten).  I wish there were far more.  But as with the previous seasons, these eight episodes were extremely well-structured to tell the story that the makers of this show (overseen by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta) set out to tell.  There was nary a stinker in the bunch.  (Which, again, has been the case from the beginning.  I don’t think there was a single bad episode in the entire run of this show.  That’s an extraordinary achievement!)  And, once again, I was impressed by the boldness of the storytelling.  In a shorter-than-ever season, I’d never have predicted they’d devote an entire episode to a supporting character who, while important, had never before gotten a lot of screen time!  (That’d be Scott Glenn as Kevin Senior.  His third episode spotlight was a highlight of the season for me.)

As with my previous reviews, I want to dive into the details of this … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Leftovers Season Two

I thoroughly enjoyed season one of The Leftovers.  I thought season two was even better.  I know I’m several years late to the party here, but at this point I am all-in on this show!

I’d been warned that the first season of The Leftovers might be tough to get through, because of the incredibly heavy, sad subject matter, but that seasons two and three were terrific and paid off one’s investment on the show.  On the one hand, having seen the first two seasons at this point, so far I agree with that assessment.  On the other hand, what’s impressive is how creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta have managed to gently tweak the show without turning it into something else entirely.  This is still, unquestionably, the same show.  And I’m starting from a place in which I LOVED season one, even while I freely admit that it was hard to watch at times.  Season two isn’t suddenly all light and frothy!  There are still some tremendously wrenching, sad things that happen this season.  The show’s characters are, once again, put through an emotional wringer.  (As is the audience!)  And yet, the tone has been subtly adjusted, and I found more joy and humor in the show this season, to balance the grief and the horror.  I also found myself hooked even more deeply by the show’s twisty, absolutely impossible-to-predict-what’s-coming-next storytelling.  So that made this season even more riveting for me, as I felt compelled to zoom quickly onto the next episode after ending the previous one.

(I’m going to dive into this season now, so please beware SPOILERS beyond this point.  If you’ve never seen the show before, all you need to know now is that I am a convert and I highly recommend this series to you… and I think it’s best that you stop reading here to avoid having any of the show’s wonderful storytelling surprises ruined for you.)

I commented in my review of season one that I loved how unpredictable the show’s storytelling was.  That was exponentially even more the case here in season two, and the opening episode is one of the best examples of that.  There was so much craziness in the season one finale, and I couldn’t wait to see what was next for all of the show’s characters.  I’m not sure how I expected the second season to begin, but an extended flashback to caveman (and cavewoman) times was definitely NOT it!  And yet, I was absolutely delighted by that completely out-of-left-field opening.  I love how bizarre and confusing it was, while at the same time how beautifully it summed up so many of the show’s themes and explorations … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Girl on the Train

Adapted from the Paula Hawkins novel of the same name, The Girl on the Train tells the story of Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), a divorced alcoholic.  Every day Rachel rides the train to and from New York City, and she has become obsessed with the couple living in a house that she sees every day from her train window during the trip.  To her, this couple represents a perfect, happy relationship, of the type that Rachel longs for.  But one day, Rachel sees the woman kissing another man.  This drives Rachel even deeper into depression, and later that night, after getting completely drunk, Rachel decides to confront the cheating woman.  The next morning she wakes up with no memory of what occurred, but there is blood on her shirt and head, and the woman, Megan, is reported missing.

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I haven’t read the original novel, so I can only judge The Girl on the Train as a movie.

As a movie, there is a lot about it that works.  Emily Blunt is magnificent in the lead role, and for much of the film I was quite hooked into the mystery of what had transpired.  Unfortunately, I was able to figure it out far earlier than the movie wanted me to, and as the pieces came together I was bummed that there were so many coincidences that, for me, weakened the answers that the film provided as to what had gone down.

I have been a fan of Emily Blunt’s ever since her small role in Charlie Wilson’s War.  She’s been spectacular in film after film since then.  I didn’t love The Devil Wears Prada, but she was terrific in it and very memorable.  She was great in The Adjustment Bureau with Matt Damon, and she was the best thing about Lynn Shelton’s awkward indie Your Sister’s Sister She was perfection in the very funny, and very under-rated, The Five-Year Engagement with Jason Segal, a rare comedy role for her.  She kicked a lot of ass and was riveting in the sci-fi films Looper with Bruce Willis & Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise, and although I was one of the few people who seemed to not have loved Sicario, I was for sure head over heels in love with Ms. Blunt’s leading performance.

She is once again spectacular here in The Girl on the Train as Rachel.  Ms. Blunt completely embodies this mess of a character, keeping the audience thoroughly hooked into her performance even as she, and the film, don’t shy away from depicting many of Rachel’s terrible actions.  This is a character who has been terrible to others and to herself, who you think … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Iron Man 3!

Iron Man was a magical film, a movie that caught a very specific, crazy sort of lightning in a bottle.  I remember seeing it in a theater that very first time and realizing immediately that it was something special.  It was intense and bad-ass but also incredibly funny and light-hearted.  The special effects were terrific, the character arcs were compelling, the ending was magnificent and the post-credits epilogue blew my mind, promising a whole new universe of possibilities (one that I still find it hard to believe came to such spectacular fruition with The Avengers).  Yes, I remember seeing Iron Man for the first time (click here for my original review), and I also vividly remember seeing it for the second time, about 24 hours later, because it was a movie I just had to see again, immediately.

The filmmakers stumbled with Iron Man 2, a listless film that seemed to re-tread a lot of the same ground the first film had covered, while at the same time promising us hints at other story-lines and characters (S.H.I.E.L.D., the Black Widow, Howard Stark) that would only come to fruition in future films.  (Click here for my original review of Iron Man 2.)  But I am pleased to report that Iron Man 3 (or Iron Man Three, as written in the closing credits — and good god do I love that) is a triumphant return to form, a thrilling, action-packed romp that is a true sequel to the first film and a rollicking, riveting start to the Marvel movie universe’s Phase Two.  It’s not as perfect as Iron Man — there are a bunch of niggling plot holes that bug me, which I’ll discuss at the very end of this review — but it’s a pretty terrific super-hero adventure film, one that I hope to see again very soon.

Although the heroes won the day in The Avengers, Tony Stark is shaken by how close he came to death during the big battle in New York City.  Faced with the existence of aliens, not to mention super-soldiers, gamma-irradiated behemoths, and Asgardian deities, Tony has had to face the brutal truth that he’s just a mortal human being in a metal suit.  He’s tried to find solace and comfort by building new Iron Man suit after new suit, trying to prepare himself for any eventuality, to give himself some sort of guarantee that he’ll be able to protect himself and Pepper, the woman he loves.  When his buddy Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, returning to the role of Happy even though he’s no longer behind the camera as the film’s director) is injured by a terrorist attack by the mysterious … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Wanderlust!

In Wanderlust, George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston) find their New York lifestyle overturned when George’s firm goes under and Linda’s depressing documentary about penguins gets rejected by HBO.  With no jobs  and no way to afford their apartment (tiny though it might be), the two are forced to leave the city so George can get a job working for his brother, Rick (Ken Marino).  On the way, though, a small mishap (involving an encounter with a wine-drinking nudist played by Joe Lo Truglio and their car flipping over), they’re forced to spend the night at a place called Elysium.  At first George and Linda assume Elysium is a rural bed and breakfast, though they quickly discover it’s a commune (or “intentional community” as the denizens call it) inhabited by an eclectic bunch of free-spirited men and women.  They’re oddballs, but they all seem to have achieved a certain peace and happiness that George and Linda have never known.  Is this a better lifestyle for them than the hustle and bustle of big-city modern life?

Wanderlust was directed by David Wain (who also directed the very funny Role Models) and written by Mr. Wain and Ken Marino.  I really enjoyed Role Models, and as I mentioned in Monday’s post I’ve become a huge fan of Ken Marino based on his work in Party Down. So I was interested in Wanderlust, and the film’s stellar cast was an added bonus.

The film did not disappoint.  There’s nothing dramatically revelatory in the movie, and I can’t say that mining humor from the hippie lifestyle is a particularly original idea.  But I found Wanderlust to be a very funny, weird, and even sweet film, one that I quite enjoyed.

Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston are both strong in the lead roles.  Neither actor strays too far from his/her comfort zone character type, but in a way that works for the film as we start from a place of feeling like we know and like these two people.  Both George and Linda are normal enough characters that they work as audience surrogates when they encounter all of the weirdness at Elysium.  But Mr. Rudd and Ms. Aniston are also skilled enough comedic performers that they’re able to give George and Linda some surprising weirdness of their own, whether it’s George’s increasingly insane way of motivating himself in the mirror before trying to have sex with the beautiful Eva (Malin Akerman), or Linda’s strategy for halting the groundbreaking for a casino that certain businessmen are trying to construct on Elysium’s land.

But while Mr. Rudd and Ms. Aniston are strong leads, the film rises or falls depending on how funny and interesting the … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Your Highness

In the DVD’s special features, Zooey Deschannel describes the film Your Highness as a dirty version of The Princess Bride, and I’d say that’s as good a description as any for this very profane, very funny fantasy film.

I won’t call it a spoof, because Your Highness isn’t out to make fun of the conventions of fantasy films.  Rather, Your Highness is an unabashed fantasy adventure, albeit one in which the main character is totally out of place in this sort of film!  That’s the genesis of the film’s comedy.

Danny McBride plays Prince Thadeous, a pampered, cowardly fellow who has been forever living in the shadow of his more heroic brother, Prince Fabious (a perfectly-cast James Franco).  Fabious is the sort of young hero who is usually at the heart of these sorts of tales, but it’s Thadeous who is thrust into the spotlight when his brother’s fiancee Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel) is kidnapped by the evil wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux).

The film is a terrific spotlight for Mr. McBride’s specific brand of foul-mouthed, man-child energy.  He’s enormously endearing even while being extraordinarily selfish and crude.  Mr. Franco also is given a real chance to shine in the role, reminding me of the exquisite comedic chops he displayed back in Freaks and Geeks. Fabious could have been a boring straight-man character, but Mr. Franco brings a gleeful energy and over-the-top chippiness to all of his scenes, making Fabious just as entertaining as his brother.

I’ve never heard of Rasmus Hardiker before, but he’s quite funny as Thadeous’ faithful man-servant Courtney, who dutifully accompanies Thadeous and Fabious on their quest.  Equally entertaining is the great Toby Jones’ as Fabious’ far-less-faithful servant Julie.  Director David Gordon Green comments, in the special features, at how he thought the comedy would work best if the ridiculous elements were surrounded by the best, most serious actors he could find — the actors who would be cast in the “serious” version of this film — and watching Toby Jones, Charles Dance (most recently seen as Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones), and Damian Lewis (Lt. Winters from Band of Brothers) act their hearts out in the film only makes the story’s lunacy that much crazier.

Speaking of acting their hearts out, Justin Theroux knocks it out of the park as the wizard Leezar.  Mr. Theroux has popped up, as an actor, in places as disparate as Zoolander, Miami Vice, John Adams, Parks and Recreation, and (most notably to me) as the Werner Herzog-esque host of the Tropic Thunder faux making-of documentary DVD special feature Rain of Madness (click here to learn more about what the heck I’m talking about).  He’s also a solid … [continued]

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The third film in my EZ Viewing movie marathon is Tropic Thunder! (Click here to read about film one: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), and here to read about film two: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.)

Tropic Thunder knocked my socks off when I first saw it!  (Click here for my original review.)  It’s so fearless and so, so funny, right from the first frame to the very last.

Ben Stiller (who also co-wrote and directed the film) stars as Tugg Speedman.  Though he was once a hugely successful action-movie star, Tugg’s recent effort at more serious fare (“Simple Jack”) was met with disdain, so he decides to appear in the war film Tropic Thunder.  The film (within the film) is an adaptation of the Vietnam experiences of the hook-handed veteran John “Four-Leaf” Tayback.  Along with Tugg, the film stars the method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), the comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and the rapper Alpha Chino (Brandon T. Jackson).  This pampered assemblage of prima-donnas has trouble getting anything done, so the frustrated director (Steve Coogan) decides to drop his actors in the middle of the jungle, in an attempt to capture some “real” drama.  Chaos ensues.

The cast is stupendous.  The stand-out, of course, is Robert Downey Jr., portraying “a dude pretending to be a dude disguised as some other dude.”  He came in for some criticism when the film was released, not only for his performance as a white actor pretending to be a black man, but also for the “full retard” speech he gives to Ben Stiller’s character.  But I think that Downey Jr. is pure genius in the role – and that speech happens to be screamingly funny.  The point of his performance – and, indeed, the point of the entire film – is to skewer how seriously actors take themselves.  (It’s funny – not long after seeing this film for the first time, I found myself re-watching the amazing WWII mini-series Band of Brothers.  It’s an astonishing mini-series.  When I finished, I watched some of the special features – but after having seen Tropic Thunder, I could not take at all seriously any of the actors patting themselves on the back for how much the conditions of the shoot really rivaled the experience of really being in combat!!)

But the rest of the ensemble is also phenomenal.  Stiller is great in the lead role – he’s just likable enough that you sort of root for him, even though he’s a total loony-tune.  (LOVE that he likes to watch Classic Star Trek on his ipod, though!!)  Jack Black is perfectly cast as Portnoy, and … [continued]