\

Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

Josh Reviews The Deuce: Season Two

Because (or perhaps despite) The Wire ruining television for me forever (because nothing will ever be as good), I am a forever fan of writer and showrunner David Simon, and I will follow him to whatever projects he undertakes.  I have never once regretted it.  The Deuce, which Mr. Simon created along with George Pelecanos (a crime-writer who wrote many episodes of The Wire and Treme), is his latest masterpiece.

It’s an unlikely subject for a great TV show: the lives of sex workers and the growth of the pornography business in the seventies and eighties.  That sounds naughty and more than a little unpleasant.  But I should never have doubted.  Mr. Simon and Mr. Pelecanos, and their extraordinary team of collaborators, have brought all of their craft to bear on telling this story.  The Deuce is one of my favorite shows on TV these days.  I loved season one, and I thought season two was equally compelling.

As is Mr. Simon’s usual approach, the show’s focus is at once laser-fine and also expansive.  Mr. Simon and his team are once again telling a story about the state of a modern American city (in this case, New York, as opposed to The Wire’s Baltimore) and, even more than that, about modern American society.  They are doing this by focusing on one very specific topic.  For The Wire, it was the drug trade, for The Deuce, it is porn. But within this narrow area of focus, the show’s scope is wonderfully, deliriously broad, depicting characters involved in porn/sex in all sorts of different ways, from all sorts of different socio-economic strata. The Deuce is about whores and pimps, sure, but it’s also about cops and politicians, high-level mobsters and low-level street toughs, bar owners and bartenders, the people running sex parlors and the people answering the phones at those parlors, porn stars and also porn producers and directors and editors and agents… not to mention the wives (and mistresses) and children of all of these people… and I have barely scratched the surface.

I wouldn’t have thought I’d be at all interested in a show about porn, but I am obsessed with it because these characters are all so wonderful.  I can’t believe how large the ensemble is on The Deuce!  And, even more than that, I can’t believe how many characters are so important to the show.  On The Wire, “all the pieces mattered.”  Mr. Simon and Mr. pelicans and their collaborators continue to follow that philosophy, but on Treme and now here on The Deuce, that has subtly transformed from a statement about plot to one about character.  Every one of the show’s humongous array of characters … [continued]

Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

Catching Up on 2017: Josh Reviews The Deuce Season One

The Deuce is the latest television masterpiece from David Simon (The Wire, Treme, Show Me a Hero) and George Pelicanos (novelist and a key writer on both The Wire and Treme), set primarily around Times Square in the seventies, chronicling the legalization and growth of the porn industry.  This is an eyebrows-raising subject for a TV show, but I am glad I didn’t let that keep me away.  The Deuce is a fantastically rich piece of work, an intimate character piece with a sprawling ensemble that is, in turns, very funny and absolutely heartbreaking.  In other words, just what you’d expect from these two men who were part of the core of creators behind The Wire, which is possibly the greatest TV show ever made.

I’ve been surprised, actually, that I know several people who watched The Deuce and found it to be just mediocre.  I don’t know what show they were watching!  I have heard complaints that the show is too slow, and that nothing jappens.  Those complaints sort of boggle my mind.  Yes, The Deuce is leisurely paced, and yes, the show’s naturalistic approach to story-telling means that there aren’t a ton of Big Dramatic Events packed into every episode.  But The Deuce isn’t that sort of standard television show.  Like all of David Simon’s shows, the focus of the story-telling is fixed, laser-like, on the characters, and the many small events that transpire in their lives.  By that viewpoint, the show is packed with plot.  It’s just small-scale, human drama, rather than the type of big fake drama that makes up a lot of what you see on TV.

Mr. Simon and Mr. Pelecanos have always been masters of this type of detail.  In The Deuce, this manifests in two different main ways.  First, in the way that the show tells it’s over-all “plot”: the story of the explosion of the porn industry in the seventies.  This story isn’t told through a series of BIG dramatic TV moments but, just like in real life, through the accumulation of small events.  Throughout these first eight episodes, the show explores, deeply, many different characters and situations, showing us the burgeoning porn industry at many different levels, from the girls walking the streets, to the pimps, to the guys selling magazines and video reels in sleazy storefronts, to the mob guys who opened the early “massage” parlors, and lots more.  Through this gradual accumulation of detail, the larger story comes into focus.  I love this approach to story-telling.  This is a novelistic approach, which makes sense since many of the show’s key creatuve players are also novelists.

This attention to detail also comes into play, as I … [continued]

Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Batman Begins (2005)

With Christopher Nolan’s third and apparently final Batman film only weeks away, I thought it would be fun to go back and re-watch his first two Bat-films.

Having seen so many great super-hero films in the years since 2005, it’s easy to forget just how impressive Mr. Nolan’s achievement was with Batman Begins. Finally, here was a filmmaker ready to bring to movie-screens the character of Batman that I have loved for so long in the comics, and to treat that character seriously.  I love Tim Burton’s Batman, but while that’s a great film, it’s not in my mind a great depiction of the character of Batman.  Then, of course, the later films descended into ridiculousness and camp.  In the minds of many in the public, the Batman they knew was still the Adam West Pow! Book! Zap! version.

But Mr. Nolan took Batman seriously, and he and co-writer David S. Goyer set about to dig into the character of Batman: who he is an how he came to be.  (Comic fans know, of course, that I am paraphrasing a chapter title from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s seminal four-part story Batman: Year One, to this day the definitive origin story of Batman and a text from which Mr. Nolan and Mr. Goyer borrowed liberally for their screenplay for Batman Begins.)

The genius of Batman Begins is that you don’t spend the whole movie just waiting for Bruce Wayne to put on the cape and cowl.  The details of Mr. Wayne’s adolescence, as depicted in the film, are rich and fascinating, and fully hold the audience’s attention for the first two-thirds of the movie.  Indeed, it’s the final third, in which Wayne finally becomes Batman, that is the weakest part of the film, but I’ll get to that in a few moments.

I love how well-thought-out and focused the film’s script is.  Mr. Nolan and Mr. Goyer seized on the idea of fear as central to Batman and Bruce Wayne.  I love how the film, and the characters, continually return to that idea.  Ducard (Liam Neason) constantly needles young Bruce Wayne on the subject, exhorting him to identify and conquer his fear.  The choice of the Scarecrow as one of the film’s villains further plays into this subject.  That’s smart screenwriting.  They didn’t just choose a random villain, they chose one who really meshed with the story being told.

Speaking of villains, I love Liam Neeson’s role in the film.  Yes, Liam Neeson has played this type of mentor character many, many times before.  Yes, when he and Bruce Wayne are training with swords on a frozen lake I can easily imagine him with a lightsaber in his hand instead … [continued]

Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Adaptation (2002)

I was extraordinarily taken with Adaptation when I first saw it in theatres back in 2002, but I hadn’t seen it since.  I had been waiting for there to be a follow-up to the initial bare-bones DVD with nary a single special feature (save the film’s theatrical trailer) — if ever there was a film that left me desperate for a behind-the-scenes peek at just how the film came to be, it’s this one — but no special edition DVD ever arrived.  Shame!  Still, when I saw the disc in the five dollar bin at Newbury Comics a few months ago, I couldn’t resist.

Adaptation centers on screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s struggles with adapting Susan Orlean’s novel, The Orchid Thief.  How can he possibly make a movie out of the plot-free novel about flowers, without selling out by employing tired Hollywood cliches of action sequences and characters falling in love and learning important life lessons?

The above two-sentence summary really fails to do the film’s weird, complex, sprawling narrative justice.  The film swims deliriously in-and-out of real life events.  Adaptation is of course written by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who really was hired to adapt The Orchid Thief only to find himself totally stymied in his attempts, and he did decide to write himself into his screenplay (Adaptation is the film that resulted), as does the Charlie in Adaptation.  Still with me?  And yet much of Adaptation is pure fiction — Charlie Kaufman doesn’t really have a twin brother Donald (despite Donald’s name being listed in the film’s credits, a clever touch), and of course none of the insanity at the end of the film with Susan Orleans and her subject Laroche (in which drugs and murder come into play) has any basis in reality.

I can only laugh and wonder what the real Susan Orleans thought of this sort-of adaptation of her novel, or of her depiction in the film.  Former executive Valerie Thomas (played in the film by Tilda Swinton), told Variety: “I’m 10 pages in, and suddenly realize, ‘Oh my God, I’m in this.”  That Variety article goes on to comment that Ms. Thomas got off easy in the film, though perhaps they’re forgetting the scene in which Charlie masturbates to the thought of her having sex with him.

Nicolas Cage turns in one of his finest performances ever (well, two of his finest performances ever, actually), in the dual role of Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald.  It is astonishing to me how completely Mr. Cage is able to create and inhabit two entirely different characters despite their identical features.  Cage’s Charlie is depressed, anxious, and self-loathing, whereas Donald is happy, outgoing, and … [continued]

Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

2009 Catch-Up: Josh Reviews Crazy Heart

Last week I wrote about Moon, one of the 2009 films that I hasn’t succeeded in catching before the switch-over to the Year We Make Contact.  Today I’m here to write about another 2009 film that I’m glad I found a chance to see before getting too far into 2010: Crazy Heart.

Jeff Bridges plays “Bad” Blake, a once-great country singer who, through a combination of bad luck and his own hard-living, has been reduced to singing in bowling alleys.  Bad is a pretty pathetic figure when we first encounter him in the film, pulling up to his latest small-town gig in his battered old pick-up truck and dumping out a jug full of his urine.  But drunk and washed-up though he may be, when he starts to perform we can see the embers of his greatness.  Until he has to run outside to puke, that is.

It’s not too hard to guess that, over the course of the film, Bad will be able to claw his way up to some small form of redemption.  But the pleasures of Crazy Heart aren’t in any big dramatic plot twists or emotional epiphanies.  They’re in the way that, through a million small choices, Jeff Bridges brings this broken-down man to fully-realized life.  Bad isn’t really a cliched scoundrel-with-a-heart-of-gold.  He makes a lot of poor choices, and we see him fully live up to the name he has taken for himself.  But Mr. Bridges brings such humanity to the performance that one somehow can’t help rooting for Bad nonetheless.  Can anyone deny that Jeff Bridges is one of our finest actors working today?

Maggie Gyllenhaal is solid, as she always is.  But I was really pleasantly surprised by Colin Farrell’s excellent work as Bad’s former protege Tommy Sweet.  It’s a very well-written part.  Tommy is talked about a lot in the film before we ever see him on-screen.  While Bad has hit hard times, Tommy has become a country music super-star.  I was expecting fireworks when these two finally met up in the film, but I was really pleased that the film went in another direction.  There’s friction between the two, but also reservoirs of affection.  I was quite taken with Mr. Farrell’s work, giving Tommy the arrogance one might expect of an on-the-rise mega-talent, but also a deep core of loyalty to his former mentor.  I’ve always been a big fan of Colin Farrell (I even love him in Daredevil!), and between this and his role in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (read my review here), it’s nice to see him getting some decent roles these days.

Crazy Heart has a heck of a soundtrack, featuring an array … [continued]

Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Away We Go (2009)

Burt and Verona (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) are expecting their first child.  When they learn that Burt’s parents are moving away, they realize that they have nothing tying them to Denver any longer.  (Verona’s parents have passed away.)  So Burt & Verona decide to travel around the country, visiting various friends and family-members in an attempt to find a new place to live that they think will be a good place to raise their baby.  What at first seems like a fun adventure turns dispiriting rapidly as they discover that everyone they visit has fairly crazy ideas about parenting.

Written by Dave Eggers (author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) & his wife Vendela Vida and directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, The Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road), Away We Go is a quirky film filled with quirky characters.  Your tolerance for that approach to creating characters will determine how annoying you find this to be as the movie progresses.  The characters are, for the most part, painted in pretty broad, caricature-esque strokes.  They are funny and painful and sad, but not all that deep.  I really enjoyed the individual performances of the actors playing the various folks who Burt & Verona visit  — Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton, Chris Messina, and Melanie Lynskey (who, by the way, had a heck of a year in 2009 with this film along with her roles in The Informant! and Up in the Air) — so much that this trend didn’t really bother me too much until I sat back and thought about the film afterwards.

In my review of Woody Allen’s 2009 film, Whatever Works, I described my frustration at the enormous condescension that Mr. Allen’s screenplay seemed to be showing towards every character in the film with the exception of the Woody Allen stand-in character played by Larry David.  I felt the same sort of condescension here.  Burt and Verona are presented as the only sane characters in an entirely insane world.  Burt’s parents (played by Catherine O’Hara & Jeff Daniels) might be hysterical (I’d like to see a whole movie about these two!), but they and are jaw-droppingly self-centered and, shockingly, have no apparent interest in their grandchild-on-the-way.  Verona’s friend Lily (Janney) is crass and her husband (Gaffigan) is a buffoon.  Burt’s cousin LN (that’s not a typo) and her husband Roderick are bizarre hippie-intellectuals who have sex in the same bed where their children sleep and breastfeed other people’s babies.  Burt & Verona’s friends Tom & Munch are by far the most normal of the bunch, but even they have their problems (which I won’t spoil here).  I … [continued]