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Josh Reviews Spider-Man: Far From Home

While Avengers: Endgame was an epic, enormous culmination to the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, it was actually Spider-Man: Far From Home that was the official end to Marvel’s “Phase Three” of films.  (Kevin Feige just announced an exciting and weird array of films and TV shows that will make up “Phase Four” — I’ll have more to say, soon, about all of those announcements.)  Serving as something of an epilogue to Endgame and also an exciting tease of the shape of the MCU in the years ahead, Far From Home is a spectacular film.  It’s fun and funny and sweet and emotional and action-packed.  I loved pretty much every single moment of the film.  Marvel is sure making it look easy at this point; I strive to remind myself while watching every single one of these films just how difficult and unusual it is to make these sorts of super-hero films be great.  For Marvel to be succeeding film after film after film is simply extraordinary.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is set after the events of Endgame.  The film spends some time exploring the repercussions of the climactic events of Endgame (more on this below), but for the most part it puts the galaxy-shaking events of Endgame aside to focus on a much smaller-scale story.  Peter Parker and his classmates are going on a school trip to Europe.  Peter is eager to leave the responsibilities of being Spider-Man behind, and to just have fun with his friends.  But Nick Fury has other ideas: the spy-master wants Peter’s help combating a new menace from across the multiverse.  Along the way, Peter meets a new ally: Mysterio, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who is stepping into the void left by the death of you-know-who at the end of Endgame, a responsibility that Peter is resisting taking on.

Far From Home is a fantastic film.  Director Jon Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (all three of who returned to the Spidey franchise after Spider-Man: Homecoming) demonstrate a perfect mastery of tone from start to finish in the film.  Far From Home is a very, very funny film.  The script is great and the talented cast are extremely funny.  There are some huge laughs in the film.  And yet, critically, Far From Home is not just a farce.  There are real stakes in the film.  Not galaxy-shaking stakes like in Endgame.  But for Peter Parker and the other characters in the film, the emotional (and, eventually, physical as well) stakes are very high.  And so the audience is engaged with the film right from the beginning.  We care about these characters and are invested in what happens to them.  This … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Silicon Valley Season Five!

I was somewhat late to the party with Silicon Valley, but I loved the show when I started watching it last year, and I quickly devoured the first four seasons.  I was so happy that I didn’t have too long to wait before season five.  As the season begins, the Pied Piper gang are hard at work on bringing Richard’s “new internet” idea to life, and they are once again locked in competition with Gavin Belson’s Hooli, who is working on a very different type of technology, Gavin’s “signature box 3”.

Season five of Silicon Valley represents an interesting point in the life of the show.  There was a comedic and creative spark to the first several seasons that isn’t quite present now — that joy of discovery of the “new” is gone now (at least for me), as the show has settled into a comfortable middle-age.  The narrative wheel-spinning is somewhat more pronounced than it was in the early years, as the show has to keep this gang of misfits struggling and failing (in order to preserve the basic set-up of the show), in a way that can feel somewhat frustrating after five years of watching these characters and wanting them to succeed.

On the other hand, this latest batch of eight episodes is fantastic, filled with some truly great and very funny comedic moments.  I love these characters at this point (even a “villain” like Gavin Belson), and it remains great fun to be in these characters’ company and to follow their continuing misadventures.  So while the show might not feel quite as fresh as it once did, there is clearly still plenty of comedic life left in this show and its premise and characters.

At only eight episodes long, season five of Silicon Valley is the shortest season since the first year (seasons two, three and four had ten episodes each), and so the season zips along at a fast clip and doesn’t outstay its welcome.  Quite the contrary, at the end of episode eight I was bummed that there weren’t more episodes to watch immediately!!

T.J. Miller was written off the show at the end of season four.  This concerned me when the news broke, as Mr. Miller had been a key member of the ensemble.  It’s usually a bad sign when main characters leave TV shows, “rats leaving a sinking ship” and all, and the show that remains is often not quite the same.  But I must say, while I loved Mr. Miller on this show, I didn’t miss him at all.  Season five still has a large and highly-skilled ensemble, and so there were plenty of characters and story-lines to more than carry … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Silicon Valley Season Three

I really loved the first two seasons of Silicon Valley, a show chronicling the long road that a young engineer Richard Hendricks and his team of co-workers and friends face in trying to successfully navigate the business and technological challenges of creating and successfully releasing their new platform. (Click here for my review of season one, and here for my review of season two.)  Season three sees the show continuing to operate in peak form.  (Yes, I know I am still behind — season four aired this past spring — but I am working to get caught up!)  If anything, Silicon Valley has gotten even better as we have spent more time with Ricard and the Pied Piper team. The show remains extremely funny and clever, and with a short season of only ten half-hour episodes, it never overstays its welcome.

Once again this season puts Richard and his friends and co-workers through a roller-coaster ride of small successes and huge failures.  It’s always one step forward and two steps back with this crew and this show.  It can be a bit frustrating at times for the audience, since by this point we’ve grown to love these characters and want to see them succeed.  But the show is so consistently funny that it’s hard to complain.  Plus, watching these bumbling nerds on their Sisyphian journey is what this show is all about!

Stephen Tobolowsky’s “Action” Jack Barker was a phenomenal addition to the show’s cast this season.  Jack provided a great new foil for Richard.  I loved seeing how the show tweaked its own status quo by installing Jack as the new C.E.O. and nemesis for Richard; briefly moving the gang out of Ehrlich’s house and into spacious new offices; and setting up Jack’s “box” scheme as something for the Pied Piper folks to struggle against.  These were great story-lines that kept the Piep Piper team as underdogs while allowing the show to explore some different situations.

The show’s main ensemble was running on all cylinders at this point.  Thomas Middleditch, T.J. Miller, Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani and Zach Woods are a murderers row of incredible actors and comedians.  They own these characters at this point, and each had plenty of opportunities to shine in season three.  I was a little disappointed that season 2 seemed to sideline Amanda Crew’s character Monica, and so I was glad that she was a little more involved here in season three.  (Though I am intrigued as to why the show’s creators seem to have dropped any hint of a romantic attraction between Richard and Monica.  I thought that was a sweet aspect of season one, but it’s vanished from season … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Spider-Man: Homecoming!

Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies are fantastic, and they deserve an enormous amount of credit for helping launch our current golden age of super-hero films.  So I knew a good Spider-Man movie could be made!!  But boy it had been a while.  Spider-Man 3 was a huge disappointment, and then Sami Raimi was never given a chance to redeem himself when the series was taken away from him and rebooted.  The two Amazing Spider-Man films were a mess, filled with shoddy characterizations and flagrant attempts to build a franchise that never materialized.  They are a case study in the perils of studios desperately wanting to create a “universe” without actually focusing on making good movies.  Then the miraculous happened: Sony (who controlled the rights to Spider-Man) and Marvel reached an unprecedented agreement to allow Marvel studios to incorporate Spider-Man into the Marvel cinematic universe!  It is easy to forget how incredible it is that this actually happened.  The new version of Spider-Man was introduced in Captain America: Civil War, and every moment with the character was pretty much perfect.  Would Marvel be able to carry this success forward into a Spider-Man solo film, the first Spidey film set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

In a word: YES.  Spider-Man: Homecoming is everything I’d hoped it would be.  It is a fantastic presentation of the Spider-Man character, incredibly faithful to the character while also presenting us with a lot of new scenarios and characters from within the Spider-Man mythos, rather than falling into the trap of just being a third movie version of the character’s familiar origin and other stuff we have seen plenty of times before.  The film also fully embraces its place in the Marvel Cinematic universe, giving us all sorts of fun connections and moments without overshadowing the film’s strong, clear-eyed focus on Spidey/Peter Parker himself.

The film takes place immediately after the events of Civil War.  (In a brilliant montage, we see a quick recap of those events, from Peter Parker’s perspective.)  Peter is already Spider-Man (as just noted above, the film wisely avoids retreading his origin), and he feels flush from his involvement in Civil War and the cool new Spidey-suit that Tony Stark gave him in that film.  He feels he is ready to be an Avenger, but Tony keeps him at arm’s length, urging him to leave the big superhero stuff to the big superheroes, and to instead just be a “friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man.”  (A brilliant reference to a classic Spider-Man phrase.)  That proves difficult for Peter, who feels full of desire to prove himself and to use his powers for good.  But this fifteen-year-old hero might be in over his head … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Silicon Valley Season Two!

I am way behind on Silicon Valley (which is currently airing its fourth season), but after watching season one last month, I quickly plowed ahead into season two.  I’m pleased at how smoothly the show entered its second season, maintaining an impressive consistency with the great season one.  This show is every bit as funny, fascinating, and filled with hilarious and painful frustrations for all of its characters as it was in its terrific initial season.

Season two picks up right after Pied Piper’s unexpected victory in “Tech Crunch” at the end of season one.  While that victory saved the company, that burst of success has quickly led to scores of new problems.  With Peter Gregory’s passing, Richard and his team have to look elsewhere for funding, which is how they find themselves in bed with the fast-talking, self-centered, expensive-car-driving Russ Hanneman.  Meanwhile, Hooli C.E.O. Gavin Belson sues Richard, claiming that Richard developed Pied Piper while still working for Hooli and that, as such, Hooli owns Richard’s compression algorithm.

Season two is a blast, hugely funny and filled with lots of great moments.  It’s also heartbreaking, as we watch Richard and his well-meaning group of friends and co-workers at Pied Piper running up against hurdle after hurdle after hurdle.  Season two makes clear that one of the main themes of the show is about how almost-impossible it is to actually succeed at creating a new tech start-up.  Far from idealizing this process, the meat of the show’s story-telling comes from exploring the many agonies and humiliations that anyone pursuing this goal has to go through.  It’s tough to watch how Richard’s every little victory soon turns into an even larger problem, but this is a central aspect of the show’s story-telling.

The death of actor Christopher Evan Welch, who played Pied Piper’s financial backer Peter Gregory in season one, was a huge loss to the show, and in my review of season one I wondered at how the show would replace him.  At first, in season two, it seemed that they chose to replace him by creating a female version of him: Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer).  Ms. Bream seemed to be just as socially awkward and abrupt as Peter Gregory was.  It made for some very funny scenes, but I admit to being somewhat disappointed that the show would replace the great character of Peter Gregory with one so similar.  I wonder if the show-runners had the same realization, because while at first it seemed that Laurie Bream would step right into Peter Gregory’s role in the show, the third episode introduced Chris Diamantopoulos as Russ Hanneman, a very different type of boss for Richard and co.  While Russ at … [continued]

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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Silicon Valley Season One!

Quite a few friends have recommended Silicon Valley to me, but for one reason or another it took me a while to find the time to start watching the show.  I am sorry I waited so long, because now I am hooked!

Silicon Valley.season 1.cropped

Created by Mike Judge (Office Space), John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, the series follows the trials and tribulations of a group of Silicon Valley programmers involved in a small start-up company.  Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) is a small fry working for a huge Google-like company called Hooli.  Like many in Silicon Valley, in his side time Richard is working on an app, which he calls Pied Piper.  It’s intended as a music app, but in creating it Richard has also created a potentially revolutionary compression algorithm.  This attracts the interest of Hooli founder Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), who offers Richard ten million dollars for his app.  It also attracts the interest of venture capitalist Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch), who offers Richard a much-smaller $200,000 investment in exchange for a five-percent ownership in Pied Piper.  Richard passes on the easy money from Gavin and takes Peter Gregory’s offer, excited by the chance to build his own company.  As the series progresses, we see Richard discover that it’s a lot harder than he thinks.

I love shows and movies that explore a particular sub-culture, and Silicon Valley is a wonderful exploration of the intersection of technology and business in this particular corner of the U.S.  This is a show that I suspect people who really know this world will dig for its attention to detail, while also being completely accessible to anyone (like me) who doesn’t know much of anything about this sort of thing.

The show is fantastic, absolutely hilarious and filled with wonderful, compelling characters.  Every member of the ensemble could carry his/her own show.  As Pied Piper’s nervous, frazzled new C.E.O., Thomas Middleditch is fantastic.  I could see a less interesting version of this show in which Richard was the straight person, surrounded by all the weirdos he has to work and live with.  But Mr. Judge & co., along with Mr. Middleditch, have made Richard just as interestingly flawed and bizarre as all the other characters in the show!  But, importantly, they’ve also given him an honesty and a earnestness that makes you want to root for this character.

T. J. Miller (Cloverfield, Deadpool, Office Christmas Party) goes big, and then bigger, as Erlich, the blustery, full-of-himself owner of the incubator where Richard and his co-workers live and work.  Erlich got rich when his own app was sold for millions, and so now he fancies himself as a wise mentor … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Party Down (Season One)!

Wow!  Add this series to the list of brilliant, cancelled-before-their-time TV shows!

I don’t think I even heard of Party Down during the two seasons it was on the air, on Starz, in 2009-10.  But every now and then, since it’s cancellation, I’d hear or read a mention of it, mostly in connection to being a prior great role of Adam Scott’s, who I’ve been so enjoying as Ben Dywer on the terrific Parks and Recreation.  A sale on Amazon lead me to buy the first season on DVD, and I was blown away!  I’m already almost finished with season two, and deep in mourning that there are no more episodes of this fantastic show!

The series focuses on Party Down, a fairly low-quality Hollywood catering company, staffed primarily by out-of-work actors and actresses.  The show is a true ensemble, but if I had to identify a lead character it would be Adam Scott as Henry.  Henry was once a struggling actor whose big break came on a commercial, saying the catch phrase “Are we having fun yet?”.  Sadly, that break-out role also destroyed his career, forever type-casting him as the “are we having fun yet?” guy.  His dreams pretty much crushed, Henry is fairly rudderless when we first meet him, having sworn off acting, but not sure what he should do with his life instead of that.

He’s hired to work with Party Down by an old friend, Ron, played by Ken Marino.  The two used to party together, back in the day, but Ron partied too hard and too long.  He’s sworn off all booze and drugs now, and he sees his job as Party Down team leader as a stepping-stone towards his dream of one day owning a Soup ‘R Crackers franchise.  While everyone else treats their gigs catering with Party Down with apathy or downright loathing, Ron takes things totally seriously, leading to a lot of (very funny) butting heads with his team of misfits.  Ron is so sincere, he’s pretty impossible not to love.

The only part of working for Party Down that is remotely appealing for Henry is the presence of Casey, played by Lizzy Caplan.  Although Casey is married when we first meet her in the pilot, the show wisely avoids any prolonged will-they-or-won’t-they Ross/Rachel tension by immediately getting the two together.  Casey is struggling mightily to succeed as a stand-up comic, and though she’s been pretty beaten down by rejection she sees right through Henry’s “I don’t care anymore” attitude.  Lizzy Caplan had a very small role in Freaks and Geeks, but I recognized her most from her role as Marlena in Cloverfield.  She’s absolutely dynamite here, tough and … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Invention of Lying

The story of The Invention of Lying, as you’ve probably figured out from the trailers, unfolds in a universe almost identical to our own.  Except that, in this world, no human being has ever told a lie.  Ricky Gervais plays a rather Ricky Gervais-like character named Mark Bellison, an affable fellow who has not found himself particularly lucky with his advancement at work or with his love life.  And yet, as the film unfolds, something extraordinary finally happens to him — in a moment of desperation, something shifts in his brain and he tells a lie.

Things spiral a little bit out of control from there.

I’ve read and heard some negative reactions to this film, but don’t you believe them!  The Invention of Lying is a wonderful film, one of my favorites of the year.

The film is being sold as a comedy, and indeed, it is a very funny film.  Ricky Gervais (who, in addition to starring in the film co-wrote and co-directed it with Matthew Robinson) is a riot, and he brings a lot of whimsy to every aspect of the movie.  (There’s a particularly wonderful opening narration by Mr. Gervais that kicks off the film on exactly the right note.)  Supporting Mr. Gervais are a number of talented comedians who are along for the ride, such as Tina Fey (30 Rock), Louis C.K. (currently knocking ’em dead in a recurring guest role on Parks and Recreation), Jeffrey Tambor (The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development) as well as a number of familiar funny faces in small cameos, such as Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks), Christopher Guest (Spinal Tap, Waiting For Guffman), Jason Bateman (Arrested Development) and The Daily Show vets Nathan Corddry and John Hodgman.

But while The Invention of Lying is a very funny film, I don’t really consider it to be a comedy.  Rather, I think of it as a fascinating piece of speculative fiction.  What the film does is to take a central idea (in this case, a world where no one has ever told a lie), and explore in great depth what that world would actually be like.  No one can lie — what would that mean for all of the daily, casual interactions we have with one another?  What would that mean for dating?  How about advertising?  Or writing?  (Gervais’ character is a screenwriter, and the film’s depiction of a screenwriter’s job in a world where fiction does not exist is just one of the many clever little touches that brings this parallel universe to life.)

This is also a film that, gasp, actually has something to say, and I … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Walk Hard

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is one of the few films from the past several years that Judd Apatow has had a hand in (he co-wrote the film and was one of its producers), that, despite his involvement, did not receive a lot of love from audiences upon its release.  My own recollection of seeing it in theatres was that it was sort of funny but not fantastic.  However, upon a second viewing on DVD last month, I must say that I have fallen head-over-heels in love with this film!

Walk Hard is, first and foremost, an evisceration of a very specific type of film: the Oscar-bait musical bio-pic (like Ray, Walk the Line, etc.).  In scene after scene after scene, the film mercilessly sends-up every single ridiculous cliche of those types of movies.

We meet young Dewey growing up in a ramshackle farm down South, enjoying an idyllic life.  But a day of fun with his brother (“ain’t nothing horrible gonna happen today!” the doomed tyke promises) ends in tragedy after a machete-fighting accident.  Out of that grief, Dewey discovers his musical ability, playing the blues (“I got the blues… cut my brother in half…”).  A few years later, a nervous Dewey performs at a High School concert.  (Starting here, Dewey is played by John C. Reilly, despite the fact that the character is only 14 in this scene.  As Apatow and Director/co-writer Jake Kasdan note in their DVD commentary, they were interested in poking fun at  “just how young the lead actor THINKS he can play” in these sorts of movies.)   Despite the innocuousness of the pop ballad Dewey performs (entitled “Take My Hand”), the concert erupts into a frenzy of sexualized dancing (as, you know, Rock and Roll is wont to cause).  After being condemned by the local priest (“You think we don’t know what you’re talking about when you say take my hand?!”) and his father (“The wrong kid died!”), Dewey decides to leave home and set out on a musical career.

What follows reads like a crazy check-list of the types of scenes one could expect in these sorts of films, charting our hero’s rise and fall and eventual redemption.  Dewey gets an opportunity to perform his music for a disinterested record company executive (played brilliantly by John Michael Higgins, who proclaims: “You have failed conclusively!  There is nothing that you can do, here in this room, to turn that around!”) but, of course, once Dewey plays one of his own songs (the titular “Walk Hard”), the executive is blown away, as are his Hassidic Jewish backers (Harold Ramis — yes, Harold Ramis — Phil Rosenthal, and Martin Starr in delightfully over-the-top Hassidic get-up … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Adventureland

Set in 1987, Adventureland takes place over the course of one summer in the life of James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), just out of college, whose dreams of traveling Europe with his friends have been dashed by his family’s financial problems.  Seeking a summer job instead, Jesse quickly discovers that his degree in literature doesn’t really qualify him for any sort of employment back home in Pittsburgh.  Thus, he winds up working at Adventureland, a somewhat tired old local amusement park.

Jesse befriends Joel (Martin Starr, who, as with most of the talented alumni of Freaks and Geeks, I would happily watch in anything), an intellectual loner, and quickly becomes smitten with the mysterious Em (the terrific, beguiling Kristen Stewart).  The self-contained universe of Adventureland is fleshed out by a variety of other interesting, quirky characters: park owners Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig), handsome park mechanic Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), Jesse’s not-as-funny-as-he-thinks-he-is childhood friend Frigo (Matt Bush), the flirty Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), and many others.

Taking place in the eighties, Adventureland is a “period piece,” but it never beats you over the head with obvious references.  Rather, the movie uses the setting to lend the story a sweetly nostalgic feel.  I love the care with which the movie explores the sub-culture of the summer staff experience at Adventureland, with all of its unique peculiarities.  I’ve never worked at an amusement park, but I certainly have spent many summers working at a summer camp.  And while the specifics of my summer camp jobs didn’t resemble in any way the specifics of working at Adventureland, I did really connect with the way the film captured the way in which these summer jobs can be transformative experiences for young people, and the way a short summer can be an epic of highs and lows and experiences of all kinds.  I have warm feelings for my summer camp experiences, and the film creates a similarly warm glow around Jesse’s experiences, even the painful ones.

Credit writer/director Greg Mottola (who also directed Superbad) with doing a terrific job in setting that tone.  The film is funny, but I wouldn’t call it a comedy.  However, the shifts from humor to drama never feel out-of-place.  Rather the film feels like a true-to-life picture of the ups and downs of a kid’s summer.  I never seem to get tired of a good coming-of-age story, and this is definitely a winner in that category.

The film only makes one teensy tiny misstep, in my mind.  I don’t want to spoil anything about the ending, but suffice it to say there’s a dramatic moment between two characters in the rain that is the only moment in … [continued]