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Josh Reviews Fleabag!

I’d been hearing about Fleabag for years, ever since the first season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s show was released back in 2016.  The acclaim for the show’s second season, released this past March, bumped the show up higher on my (lengthy) to-watch list.  About a week or two before Ms. Waller-Bridge cleaned up at the Emmy Awards, I finally wised up and started watching.  Thank goodness!  I tore through the show and was done with the two six-episode seasons in less than a week.  I’m sorry I waited so long to watch the show and equally regretful that I devoured all of the episodes so quickly, because this show is phenomenal.  It’s quickly become the TV show I am most evangelical about these days.  I think it’s an absolutely brilliant accomplishment.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge created the show (based on her one-woman play).  She wrote every episode, and stars as Fleabag, the unnamed woman at the center of the story.  (Ms. Waller-Bridge has suggested that the name refers to the messy reality underneath the main character’s put-together exterior; the character is never actually referred to by the nickname “Fleabag” on-screen.)  To tell you too much about the show would be to spoil its many wonderful surprises and layers.  Suffice to say, Ms. Waller-Bridge’s character is a bit of a mess, a young woman who owns her own cafe but who is drowning in debt and floundering in her personal life.  Ms. Waller-Bridge is magnificent in the role; funny and heartbreaking and immediately captivating for the audience.  She invites us into her life and we dive in with enthusiasm.

That’s one of the keys to the show.  Ms. Waller-Bridge’s character often speaks directly to us, the TV viewer watching at home.  We’re her confidantes; her secret friends.  It’s a device that pays off emotional dividends, as we are drawn in to her life and her story and are made, in many ways, a part of that story.  It’s also the set-up for many, many magnificent jokes.  Ms. Waller-Bridge can get more comedic mileage out of a quick glance into the camera than anyone since Johnny Carson.

Fleabag achieves the impressive tightrope-balance of being incredibly, extraordinarily, astoundingly funny — fall-off your seat funny — while also gradually building to be a story of great depth and emotion.  (Although they are very different types of shows, I am reminded of Catastrophe, which strikes a similar balance in tone.  The two shows also share a ribald, very raunchy sense of humor.)  I can’t believe that a show exists that, in only two short seasons (each consisting of six half-hour episodes), can be at the same time so hilarious and so poignant.  I was deeply moved by … [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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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews The Lobster

In Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Lobster, Colin Farrell stars as David.  Upon discovering that his wife has left him for another man, David checks into a hotel where single people have 45 days to find a life partner, or else they will be transformed into an animal of their own choosing.  David makes friends with two of the other single men there, Robert (John C. Reilly) and John (Ben Wishaw).  Eventually, Ben runs away from the hotel and begins living with the “loners” who live in the woods nearby.  Though the loners forbid any sort of romantic connection between two people, David finds he has feelings for a woman (Rachel Weisz) he meets there.

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The Lobster is an incredibly bizarre film, one that creates a fascinating alternate reality to our own.  Though much of the world of The Lobster looks and sounds just like our own, we are presented with two fanatically extreme versions of society: one in which coupling is so important that failure to do so results in the end of one’s human life, and another in which coupling is absolutely forbidden.  The film is a compelling commentary on societal pressure to find romance and a life-partner.  How critically important to one’s life and happiness is finding a romantic partner?  Why do we, as a society, put so many rules on people’s love lives, on what is expected and what is permitted?  The Lobster is a rich satire that prompts deep questions.

Colin Farrell is terrific in the lead role, marvelously underplaying the character of David.  Mr. Farrell is beautifully naturalistic and honest in his performance.  While the world of The Lobster can feel outlandish at times, Mr. Farrell provides a critical anchoring to the proceedings with his emotional honesty, and his depiction of a man at a crossroads, struggling to figure out who he is and what he wants and whether he feels he has any self-worth.  The film works as well as it does 100% because of Mr. Farrell’s strong performance.  Mr. Farrell is a handsome man who usually exhibits a ferocious, kinetic energy in his performances.  But here, beneath a paunch and glasses and a ridiculous moustache, it’s as if he has drained every ounce of life and energy out of himself in order to bring the sad-sack David to life.  It’s quite spectacular.

John C. Reilly is always great, and he’s a ray of light in this mostly downbeat film.  His character, Robert, is lonely and unhappy, but Mr. Reilly brings a little spark to every one of his line readings that brings a sense of fun and play into what is, when you think about it, a very broken character.  Ben Wishaw (… [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Night Manager

The Night Manager is a six-episode mini-series based on the novel by John le Carré.  The adaptation was directed by Susanne Bier (who just won an emmy for her work directing this mini-series) and written by David Farr (a writer who also worked on the British TV show Spooks, called MI:5 here in the U.S.).

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Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) is a former soldier who now works as the night manager at a fancy hotel in Cairo.  One night, the beautiful mistress of a powerful Egyptian man gives Jonathan evidence that her husband is involved in arms sales to terrorists.  Jonathan manages to pass this info on to an old friend in the British military, but this action winds up getting the woman, with whom Jonathan has fallen in love, killed.  Jonathan flees Cairo, adopts a new name, and tries to forget everything that happened and begin a new live in isolation in Switzerland.  But a chance encounter brings Jonathan face to face with the man he believes responsible for his lover’s death: the wealthy British CEO Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie).  Believing that this man who purports to be a social justice warrior is actually someone who profits off of death and destruction across the globe, Jonathan agrees to work with an outsider British intelligence officer in an attempt to infiltrate Richard Roper’s organization and bring him down.

As can be expected from a story based on the work of John le Carré, The Night Manager is a wonderfully tense, twisty spy caper.  It takes a little while for the story to get moving, but once Jonathan has come face to face with Roper and begun to earn his trust and get inside his operation, the show really comes to life.  The charisma and chemistry between Mr. Hiddleston and Mr. Laurie is tremendous, and it’s great fun watching these two intelligent men cagily circle one another.  This sort of story only works if you believe that a) the mole is smart enough and clever enough to have a chance to actually succeed in infiltrating the bad guy’s operation without getting immediately found out, and b) that the bad guy is smart enough and clever enough to be fully capable of discovering what the hero is really up to, thus giving the story exciting dramatic tension.  The Night Manager succeeds on both counts wonderfully.

The story is leisurely paced but that works well in allowing us to gradually discover these characters and the world they live in.  Once Jonathan is in and the screws start to tighten, I was thoroughly hooked.  Six episodes feels like the perfect length for this story.  It’s long enough to allow for greater complexity, and a more … [continued]