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Josh Bids Farewell to The Americans!

I started watching The Americans very soon after I’d finished watching Breaking Bad, and right away from the pilot episode I was struck by the similarity of the set-up: Philip and Elizabeth Jennings had to hide their criminal activities from Stan Beeman, their FBI-agent neighbor, just as Walter White had to hide his criminal activities from Hank Schrader, his DEA agent brother-in law.  Of course, the two shows went in very different directions and turned out to have very different styles of story-telling.  (I loved them both!)  But as The Americans entered its sixth and final season, I wondered to what degree the endgame of the two shows would be similar.  The final run of episodes of Breaking Bad were among the series’ best — once Hank found out the truth about Walt, all bets were off and things got crazy.  Surely Stan would finally discover the Jennings’ secret before the end, right?  When would that happen, and what would happen once that revelation finally occurred??

What’s fascinating to me about this final season of The Americans is the way in which things unfolded not at all like how I’d expected — and yet, somehow, exactly in a way that, upon reflection, makes sense for this show and reflects the type of show this has been since the beginning, and the very specific, methodical way in which creator Joe Weinberg and his partner show-runner Joel Fields have told this story.

Breaking Bad went crazy in those final run of episodes — I found that final half-season to be a visceral, thrilling ride.  I’d expected The Americans to similarly ramp up the pace in this final ten episode season (all its previous seasons have been 13 episodes long), but instead, the show came back as the same show it had always been: a deep-dive into these characters and their lives, both personal and professional; steadily-paced and taking the time to show us all the details.  I was surprised at first that the show was taking so much time in this final run to introduce lots of new characters and situations for the espionage in which Philip and Elizabeth were engaging.  (Well, mostly Elizabeth, since the season began with Philip’s having been out of the game for three years.)  We spent a LOT of time in the early going this season with Sofia and Gennadi (the Russian hockey player) and with the dying artist Erica Haskard.

That’s a risky approach, but as I look back now on this final season, for the most part (and I’ll get to a few concerns in a moment), it worked!  I wasn’t impatient for The Americans to hurry up and get to the “good stuff,” … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Americans Season Five

After the end of The Americans season four, it was announced that the show was being renewed for two additional seasons that would wrap up the story.  I love that, in today’s television landscape, more and more serialized dramas are being allowed the time to end their stories properly, on their own terms.  (Yes, of course great shows are still cancelled before their time, but let’s focus on the positive of the minor miracle that this terrific show, which nonetheless has a relatively small weekly audience, has been allowed to tell a complete story over the course of six seasons.)  If there is any downside of this final two-season extension, it’s that season five has a ton of setup for the final season that hasn’t paid off yet, whereas most earlier seasons felt more complete to me.  That being said, this was still a tense, nail-biting season that I thoroughly enjoyed, and I cannot wait to see how this all wraps up in the final season next year.

We’ve seen plenty of collateral damage before from the work of Soviet spies Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell), but season five of The Americans dug deeply into exploring the impact their work has had on the children in their lives.  Paige (Holly Taylor) has lost her innocence and her sweetness, spending much of this season in something resembling a shell-shocked daze.  (The revelation that she spends many nights sleeping on the floor of her closer was horrifying.)  The episode “Darkroom” showed us plain as day the permanent damage that Pastor Tim was convinced Philip and Elizabeth had done to their daughter.  Meanwhile, after a while in which Henry (Keidrich Sellati) had almost completely dropped out of the show, the character popped back into the foreground this year, suddenly seeming to be far more put-together than his older sister, who previously had always been the best student and the most responsible one.  But looming over all those scenes of a happy Henry, who was excelling in school and finding a great relationship with his friend Chris, was the Sword of Damocles represented by his parents’ secret.  It’s hard to imagine Henry’s life not being destroyed by whatever goes down in the show’s final season.  Then there is Philip’s Russian son Mischa.  The first half of the season spent a lot of time with lonely Mischa’s desperate quest to find the father he never knew, an effort thwarted by Gabriel and the Centre.  This season also introduced us to the young Korean agent Tuan.  At first I just pitied Tuan for all the time the poor, lonely kid had to spend all alone in that house, with his fake parents Philip and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Americans Season Four

While there are many shows that take a while to find themselves, The Americans was strong right out of the gate.  I was hooked very quickly in the first season, and the show has continued to develop and deepen.  The recently concluded fourth season was superb, very possibly the show’s strongest season ever!  (It’s hard to say for sure, because in this era of Peak TV — a term popularized by Hitfix’s amazing television critic Alan Sepinwall — there is so much great TV out there that it is incredibly rare that I have a chance to watch anything twice.  This makes it a lot harder for me to compare and contrast different seasons of shows, because without having an opportunity to re-watch things, it’s harder to remember the specific details of individual episodes or seasons.  Ahh, the curse of too much great TV!)

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For those of you looking to be kept completely spoiler-free, let me just say that this was a terrific season of a terrific show.  If you’re looking for a new dramatic series to watch, I highly recommend The Americans.  For everyone who is looking to dive into my analysis of The Americans season four: onward!

Last year’s terrific third season of The Americans focused on Paige and the question of when/how Philip and Elizabeth would reveal the truth to her about their identities, and if/when they did, whether they would permit the Centre to begin to develop her as an agent.  I expected that story — and the repercussions of the season three cliffhanger in which Paige spilled the beans to Pastor Tim — to be the main driving story-line of season four.  And so I was surprised — though very pleasantly so! — that, instead, the first half of season four focused on the endgame of Philip’s long relationship with Martha.

Back in season one, the Philip/Martha story-line was my least favorite aspect of the show, mainly because I felt it stretched the boundaries of my plausible belief in the show beyond what I was comfortable with.  I just didn’t understand why Philip and Elizabeth’s kids didn’t question why their dad didn’t come home for multiple nights every week.  As the show developed, and in particular as I was won over by Alison Wright’s tremendous work as poor Martha, I engaged more fully with this story and with Martha’s plight.  Back in season one, I had expected Martha to get killed off or written off fairly quickly, because how long could this story possibly sustain?  But by now, I had been lulled into believing that this status quo would continue until the show’s end.  That, plus the season three Pastor Tim cliffhanger (which made … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews The Americans Season Three!

I loved season one and season two of The Americans, so of course I had to continue ahead with season three.  I am thrilled to have caught up with this great show in advance of the start of season four, which begins soon!

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One of my favorite story-lines from the end of season two was the suggestion that The Centre wanted Philip and Elizabeth to bring their daughter Paige in on their work as spies.  That gave the final episodes of season two a wonderful tension, and I was thrilled that this continued as a major story-line in season three.  With Elizabeth in favor of the idea and Phillip horrified at the notion, this provided a great, natural source of tension between Philip and Elizabeth throughout this season.  It was also nice to see a spotlight shine on Paige (Holly Taylor, who has grown into a terrific young actress).  (Poor Henry didn’t have much to do yet again this season — other than play Strat-O-Matic football with Stan and look at a secret hidden photo of Sandra Beeman — but I’m OK with that.)

When the moment finally arrives late in the season (in the episode “Stingers”) that Paige learns the truth about her parents, it’s a shocking moment, a thrilling turning-point that gave the show with an extra boost of narrative energy that shot it right through to the finale and the delicious cliffhanger with Paige on the phone with Pastor Tim.  The only bit of weirdness that jumped out at me in those final episodes was that I wondered why we never saw Philip or Elizabeth actually take the time to sit with Paige and explain WHY they are spies (that is, why they think the Soviet Union is a better country with a better system than the capitalist United States) and to answer the million questions she seems to have.  Wouldn’t have have been more effective than letting her just stew and wonder on her own?  (It reminded me in a not-great way of Lost, in which the show constantly prevented the characters from taking a minute to have the normal conversation that any rational person would have in those moments, just because they wanted to keep information away from certain characters and the audience.)  But I love that we are now deep enough into the life of The Americans that we can start to see the show upending some of its status quo, most notably the dramatic revelations this season to Paige and Martha.

We’ve seen Elizabeth and Philip do some nasty, nasty things in this series so far, but that didn’t make Philip’s assignment to seduce young Kimmie (the daughter of the head of the … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews The Americans Season Two!

After hearing rave reviews for The Americans for years, I was pleased to finally have a chance to watch season one a few months ago.  I thought it was pretty great (click here for my review) and so didn’t waste too much time before moving on to season two.  The continuing story of Philip and Elizabeth, Russian spies posing as a normal suburban American family in the 1980’s, remains twisty and thrilling and thoroughly enjoyable.

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Season two of The Americans succeeds in addressing my main complaint about season one, which was the ups-and-downs of Philip and Elizabeth’s constantly shifting relationship.  (In season one that relationship felt like a crazy pendulum, with Philip in love with Elizabeth but her hating him in one episode, and then in the next swinging around to Philip hating Elizabeth but her in love with him, and back and forth and back and forth.)  Here in season two, there is still tension in the relationship (which makes sense, as a source of drama for the show), but it felt to me like it unfolded far more smoothly over the course of the season.  It’s also fun, and interesting, to see Philip and Elizabeth in the type of real, emotionally-involved relationship that they both (at different times) seemed to want in season one.  It’s a nice progression for these characters.

In this post Breaking Bad world, many shows have adopted that show’s groundbreakingly speedy way it burned through plot-lines.  For years I was often frustrated how TV shows would generally stick to their status quo, long-past the point when it made sense based on all the stories that had come before.  That’s not much of an issue for most TV shows today, and The Americans is one of the more successful examples of this.  There’s not a lot of fat in this thirteen episode season.  Events unfold fast and furious.

Even so, the show surprised me by how quickly the Nina Sergeevna/Stan Beeman story-line unraveled in the latter half of the season.  I enjoyed the introduction of Oleg Igorevich Burov at the start of this season as a new challenge for Nina and, eventually, a third player in her complicated romantic relationships.  Once he started blackmailing Stan, it felt like that brought new life to the Nina-Stan story-line, and so I was surprised by how quickly that plot moved forward in the latter half of the season.  That’s not a complaint, it made for exciting TV.  Once Stan got backed into a corner, I think he made the only choice he could, and so I guess there wasn’t much farther that story could go.  Still, I love Nina — she might be my favorite character … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews The Americans: Season One

I’ve been reading praise for The Americans for several years now, so I’m glad to have finally found the time to dive in myself with their first thirteen-episode season.  The Americans stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, a husband-and-wife pair who own a travel agency and who live with their two kids in the suburbs of Washington, DC in the early eighties.  Except that Elizabeth and Philip aren’t actually the average American suburbanites they pretend to be.  They are Russian moles, deep-cover secret agents who have been living a lie for twenty years.

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The Americans is every bit as good as I’d heard it would be.  The series is a great nail-biter of a suspense tale while also being a wonderful character study of these two fascinating people, spies who have been living a lie for most of their adult lives.

Having just finished a long project of watching Breaking Bad from start-to-finish (click here for my review of Breaking Bad’s final season), I was taken aback when the pilot episode of The Americans seemed to set up a premise remarkably similar to that of Breaking Bad.  When FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his family move in right across the street from the Jennings, I felt like I was right back to watching Walter White’s cat-and-mouse game with DEA agent Hank Schrader.  Luckily, after the pilot that sense of familiarity faded as The Americans took its story in different directions.

I’ve never watched Felicity, Keri Russell’s breakout TV show, though I’ve enjoyed her work here and there (in films like Mission: Impossible III and Waitress and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes).  But I’ve never seen her as fiercely inhabit a character as she does here with Elizabeth.  She is dynamite in the show, beautiful and complex.  It’s as much fun watching Elizabeth kick ass as it is to watch her struggle with her conflicted feelings towards her undercover “husband” Philip and her occasional beau Gregory (Derek Luke, written out of the series far too soon for my tastes) and fence verbally with her KGB handler Claudia (Margo Martindale, absolutely wonderful).

I wasn’t familiar with Matthew Rhys prior to watching this show, but he’s terrific, every bit Keri Russell’s equal.  I love watching these two characters together.  The best scenes of the show are when these Elizabeth and Philip are together — either working together or bitterly tearing each other down — which is why The Americans works as well as it does.  I am fascinated by the relationship between these two characters.  In this first season, the show dives deeply into the complex relationship between Elizabeth and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I have been troubled by the popularization, over the past several years, of the idea of a “reboot” as a way to keep franchises evergreen and continually making money for the corporations that own them.  I think there are times when a reboot is foolishly chosen whereas a continuation would have been preferable (Exhibit A: the Spider-Man films).  And there are lots of examples of Hollywood choosing to remake a great or well-liked film as a lazy way of capitalizing on a familiar brand rather than daring to create something new or original.  This usually results in a lame, lesser version of the original (See: Robocop, Total Recall, I could go on…)

But not all reboots are bad.  I loved Christopher Nolan’s reboot of Batman in Batman Begins, and while it is too early to tell whether the again-rebooted Batman we’ll see in Batman V. Superman will be any good, I think Warner Brothers has the right idea in giving us a new version of Batman rather than trying to keep telling stories in continuity from the end of Mr. Nolan’s Batman Trilogy.  (I love Joseph Gordon Levitt, but thank goodness the rumors — following the release of The Dark Knight Rises — that he would star in a new movie as Batman proved to be false.)

Which brings me to Planet of the Apes.  I have always been a HUGE fan of the original five films.  That first Planet of The Apes from 1968 is a true classic, a fantastic film that holds up extremely well today.  The four sequels that were then churned out in short succession (basically one a year!!) are increasingly bad, but I still love them.  Even though the budgets shrank and they had to come up with increasingly ludicrous ways to continue the series, I am always impressed by the creativity shown in the ways they found to continue the story, by the ambition on display in the way they continued to incorporate social allegory into the film’s stories, and by just how much innocent goofy fun can be had when watching the films today.  I love them all.

The other nice thing about the original five films is how complete they feel as a series.  The fifth film cleverly wrapped the story back around to the first film, giving the five films together the feel of a complete saga.  I never felt that this series cried out for a continuation or a reboot.   Tim Burton’s idiotic attempt to remake/reboot the series is best forgotten, and strong evidence for the pitfalls in trying to remake/re-envision a famous film series.

But then came 2011’s Rise of the Planetof the Apes.  It had a dumb title, … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Mission: Impossible III (2006)

I really enjoyed the Brad Bird-directed fourth installment in Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible series (click here for my review), and that made me want to go back and watch the third installment.  I’d really enjoyed Mission Impossible III back when it was released, and it was great fun to re-watch.

I have some issues with the first Mission: Impossible film, but overall I think it’s pretty successful.  I think the first 40-45 minutes of Mission: Impossible II are pretty great, but then the whole thing collapses into a big awful mess.  The third and fourth M:I films have been far more successful than the first two, in my opinion — J. J. Abrams and Brad Bird have crafted films that are much closer to what I’d like these Mission: Impossible films to be.

Mission: Impossible III represents J. J. Abrams’ theatrical directorial debut, but you’d never know it by watching the film.  The movie looks amazing, and is directed with incredible confidence and grace by Mr. Abrams.  His camera is constantly active — not to the degree that you’re distracted by it, but in a way that throws the audience right into the middle of the visceral action.

And boy is this film action-packed.  I had forgotten just how many spectacular action set-pieces there are in the film.  There’s that helicopter chase through a field of wind-powered turbines.  There’s the complex break-in and kidnapping staged in the middle of the Vatican.  There’s the brutal helicopter and drone attack on the IMF convoy traveling across a bridge.  There’s the death-defying break-in to the skyscraper in Shanghai.  I could go on!  Each of those sequences could be the centerpiece of another action movie, they’re that good.  Each sequence is a delight of twists and suspense, marvelously well-orchestrated by Mr. Abrams and his team.

Although there’s plenty of super-spy craziness in the film, all of the action in Mission: Impossible III feels far more gritty and grounded than that in the first two films.  J.nJ. and his team make clear, right from the start, that they have set out to create a different type of M:I film.  I love the very scary and very intense scene that opens the film (in which we see Ethan Hunt captured and tied to a chair, while Philip Seymour Hoffman counts down ten seconds before he says he will execute Ethan’s wife in front of him).  It’s a terrifying moment, and also a very simple one — just three people and a gun in a darkened room.  It’s not at all the way I’d expect this big-budget, fantasy super-spy movie to open.

The other strength of Mission: Impossible III is that, for the first time … [continued]

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Animation Update! Josh reviews the final Futurama adventure and DC’s new Wonder Woman film!

Two rather high-profile new direct-to-DVD animation projects have been released recently — but are they worth your time and hard-earned dollars?  Well read on, true believers!

Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder — And so, once again, we bid farewell to Futurama.  Matt Groening’s lunatic sci-fi series was brutally cancelled by Fox back in 2003 after only four seasons.  Luckily, after several long years of waiting, the series was resurrected for a series of four direct-to-DVD feature-length animated films, of which this is the last.  While these new movies haven’t quite reached the high-points of the series’ best episodes (I’m thinking about episodes such as The Farnsworth Parabox, Roswell That Ends Well, Love and Rocket, War is the H-Word, Amazon Women in the Mood, The Bird-bot of Ice-Catraz, The Problem with Popplers, or The Day the Earth Stood Stupid), they have been very, very good.  The strongest, in my opinion, was The Beast with a  Billion Backs, in which David Cross (Arrested Development, Mr. Show) plays the alien Yivo who attempts to mate with every creature in the universe, while the weakest was Bender’s Game (as I found the extended fantasy sequence in the middle of the film to be a bit dull).

Into the Wild Green Yonder contains all the crazy zaniness, wild side-stories, and obscure sci-fi references that I have come to expect from the series.  The plot is almost beside the point, but I will attempt a summation.  The story begins on Mars, where the construction of a new Mars Vegas is disrupted by a band of eco-feminists.  Pretty soon Fry has been declared the savior of the universe by a bunch of telepaths wearing aluminum foil hats, Bender arouses the wrath of the mobster Don-Bot for making out with his wife, Leela goes under-cover with the feminists, and it all builds to a massive space-ship battle in the middle of an intergalactic mini-golf course.

The DVD is very solid — the animation is GORGEOUS, as always.  The story, despite some digressions, works well as a movie.  There are very few lulls between big laughs.  As for the ending — well, the original Futurama series was cancelled without any time to produce a final episode, so with this being the final DVD (for now, at least — hope always springs eternal that these will have proven profitable enough for more to be on the way!), fans wondered if we’d get some sort of “finale” to the over-all story.  Well, I think they got things just right.  The last scene is just terrific, with some nice closure that doesn’t close the door on further adventures.  And the very last shot?  Perfection.

If this is … [continued]