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I’m a nut for science fiction as well as science fact — and so I was instantly excited when I heard that Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) was directing First Man, a film telling the story of Neil Armstrong’s first landing on the moon.  The film’s trailers, when they arrived, got me even more excited.  I am pleased to report that the film does not disappoint.

When First Man is at its best, it is a spectacularly visceral recreation of the Neil Armstrong (and his fellow space pioneers in the Gemini and Apollo programs)’s experience leading up to, and during, the incredible feat of journeying to the moon and returning safely to the Earth.  Time and again, the film is remarkable in the way that it is able to put us right into the lap of Neil Armstrong, allowing us to see what he saw and feel what he might have felt.  We’re right there in the cockpit with Neil at the start of the film when, testing a X-15 rocket plane, he accidentally bounces off of the atmosphere and almost drifts away into space.  In an incredible sequence in the center of the film, we’re right there in the space capsule with Neil and David Scott during the Gemini 8 mission, launching into orbit, successfully locating and docking with the Agena vehicle, and nearly losing their lives when the spacecraft begins to spin out of control.  And, of course, we are there in the Eagle with Neil and Buzz Aldrin when they make their historic landing on the moon.

I have seen a lot of wonderful films about the American space program and the lunar missions, but I’ve never before quite had the discomfiting feeling of claustrophobia and fear of actually strapping into a tin can on top of a rocket, as these brave men did.  First Man was able to pull me from my theatre seat into those experiences.  Mr. Chazelle and his team have impeccably recreated these moments with an extraordinary eye for details that prior films have overlooked.  We can see and feel the tactile reality of the switches in the spacecraft control panels.  We hear and feel the swaying of the platform Neil and Dave Scott walk across in order to board the Gemini 8 capsule.  We hear the groaning of the metal on the spacecraft as it launches, and the booming explosions of the rocket fire that is propelling them airborne at an incredible rate of speed.

I saw First Man on an enormous Imax screen, and I encourage you to do the same.  The visual force of the film is tremendous, and it’s rendered even more effective on the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Vice Principals: Season Two

I quite enjoyed the first season of Danny McBride & Jody Hill’s latest collaboration, Vice Principals.  (Mr. McBride starred in Mr. Hill’s first film, The Foot First Way, and the two co-created Eastbound and Down.)  That first season chronicled the messed-up partnership between the two vice principals of North Jackson High School, Neil Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), working to take down the newly-appointed principal, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), since they both wanted her job.  At the end of the season, it looked like Gamby and Russell had finally defeated their nemesis and driven her away, but then, well, things went in some even crazier directions.

There’s a lot to enjoy in season two of Vice Principals, as long as you don’t mind a plentiful amount of both raunchiness as well as humor borne from extreme awkwardness and uncomfortable situations.  Personally, I preferred the first season, both because I found the balance between laughs and awkward cringes to be tilted a little more towards the laughs, and also because it felt a little more straightforward, narratively, to me.  The show was over-the-top right from the beginning — I believe that it was only in the second episode in which Gamby and Russell burned down Dr. Brown’s house! — but as crazy as it got, I liked the central concept of these two horrible people, Gamby and Russell, united together in pursuit of their shared, very selfish goal.  Without Dr. Brown as a central enemy for these two numb-skulls to work against, season two bounced all over the place.  The individual episodes were mostly strong, but the story as a whole didn’t grab my interest as much as the first season did.  It felt a little like they didn’t quite have enough story to stretch over two full seasons, which is something of a surprise seeing as the show was, from the beginning, designed to run for just these two seasons.  (What a rarity that is, to have a show created right from the beginning with a planned beginning, middle, and end!)

On the other hand, I love the way the show allowed you to sort-of root for these two a-holes in season one, and then turned the tables in season two as they, and the audience, were forced to reckon with what they had done.  That’s careful, crafty storytelling there.  I also want to emphasize that, despite my criticisms, the show in season two still had the ability to make me laugh out loud and gasp in horror at what was unfolding.  I couldn’t look away, even when the characters were at their most distasteful!

Danny McBride is, as always, fantastic as the dim bulb … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Kong: Skull Island

In 1973, as the United States forces leave Vietnam, a group of soldiers are assigned to what is supposed to be a geological expedition.  Unfortunately, it turns out their mission is at the behest of U.S. government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman), who is attempting to prove his theory that giant monsters exist.  Turns out he’s right, and he has led his unfortunate group to Skull Island, home of King Kong and lots of creatures that are even worse.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film Kong: Skull Island is a fun, clever reinvention of the King Kong mythos.  The film is part Apocalypse Now, part monster movie, part multi-character ensemble drama.  It has some intense action beats and some moments of great comedy.  Skull Island is a robust mixture of a lot of different influences and elements, and somehow it all comes together to create an enjoyable, modern take on King Kong, a character originated in 1933.

I write “modern” take, though I was surprised that the film is actually a period piece.  The prologue is set in 1944, and the rest of the film takes place in 1973.  I love this choice.  The film has a slightly retro look that differentiates it from other recent monster movies, and the post-Vietnam setting winds up being a perfect opportunity for the film to explore some interesting character beats.  (This isn’t a film that dives too deeply into any characters, which is the film’s main weakness, but the post-Vietnam setting is effectively used as a shorthand to help create a bunch of interesting characters even though the film doesn’t really take the time to explore most of them.)

Mr. Vogt-Roberts’ film is gorgeous.  There are some extraordinary visual effects, no surprise.  Kong himself is magnificently realized.  From the trailers, I was uncertain by the decision to make Kong so enormous, but it works in the film.  This behemoth-sized Kong has quite a different feel from Peter Jackson’s 2005 film.  But in this film’s entirely different setting, it works.  Kong is referred to repeatedly as a god, and this mammoth Kong has that feeling.  The CGI effects that brought him to life are terrific, equally effective when we are looking into Kong’s eyes in extreme close-up or watching him throw down with enormous other hideous creatures.  Tremendous credit must go to Terry Notary, whose motion-capture work was the heart of Kong’s performance.  (Mr. Notary has been doing great work at creating characters in fantasy spectacles for many years now.  I first became familiar with his work from watching the behind-the-scenes documentaries on the DVDs of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.)

The film includes a number of sequences of rip-roaring monster mayhem.  The intro to … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Vice Principals Season One!

I remember reading about The Foot Fist Way, the 2006 low-budget film directed by Jody Hill and starring Danny McBride.  It got a lot of positive press and so I tracked it down and saw it during the film’s limited run in theatres.  It was very funny and very uncomfortable.  This seems to be the combination of feelings that Mr. Hill and Mr. McBride have continued to pursue over the course of all of their fruitful collaborations.  Honest admission: I totally missed Eastbound and Down (their previous television collaboration) — the first season has been sitting on my DVD shelf for years but for some reason (not lack of interest) I’ve never gotten to it.  Someday.  But ever since The Foot Fist Way I have been paying attention to the work of these two.  Jody Hill directed Observe and Report, a deeply weird and deeply unsettling comedy starring Seth Rogen, and of course Danny McBride has been killing it in a variety of comedic roles in films over the past decade, including Tropic Thunder, Pineapple Express, Your Highness, 30 Minutes or Less, This is the End, and many more.  The two reunited for the two-season HBO show, Vice Principals.

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In Vice Principals, Danny McBride plays Neal Gamby, while Walton Goggins plays Lee Russell.  Both men are Vice Principals at North Jackson High School, and they each believe that they should be promoted to principal when the school’s long-standing leader, Principal Welles (played by Bill Murray in a note-perfect cameo in the first episode) retires.  However, the school board decides to bring in someone else entirely to be the new principal: college professor Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory).  Shocked by this turn of events, Vice Principal Gamby and Vice Principal Russell agree to team up to take down Dr. Brown.

This nine-episode first season (the show is reportedly structured to run for only two nine-episode seasons, with the second season coming some time next year) is, exactly as I had expected, powerfully funny and also profoundly uncomfortable.  This is a raunchy, pull-no-punches show, and this tone is certainly not for everyone.  But I loved it.  I had a great time watching these first nine episodes and I can’t wait to see what sort of craziness the back half brings.

Danny McBride has made a career out of playing this type of character: a profane, low-watt-bulb man-child who comes off as loud and blustery but is sweet and insecure on the inside.  Neal Gamby feels like the apotheosis of these character traits; this is the most Danny McBride character Danny McBride has ever played.  It’s great fun — and often stomach-churningly painful — to watch.  Watching … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Agent Carter: Season One

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I had high hopes for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. when it launched last year.  The idea of a Marvel TV show was of course of interest to me, but what really excited me was that, as opposed to the various DC Comics superhero shows over the years, this new Marvel TV show would be set in continuity with the Marvel movie universe.  It seems like a total no-brainer of an idea, and yet, nothing like this had ever been done before.  I was super-excited.

And yet, right from the pilot, I was underwhelmed.  Despite the involvement of some great talent both in front of and behind the camera (particularly the show-runner husband-and-wife team of Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, of whom I have been a far for years), the show seemed surprisingly lifeless.  The characters were dull, the writing was flat, and the episodic structure did not engage me.  Things picked up a little towards the end of the season, when the series’ story-lines took a major turn in connection with the revelations about S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  The first half of this second season has seen the show continue to improve, and I’ve enjoyed the way the show has utilized elements of the mythology of the Inhumans, a classic group of Marvel Comics characters.  But I still think the show is surprisingly mediocre, lacking either the fun or the edge-of-your-seat intensity I was hoping for.

I was excited to hear that Marvel would be launching a second TV series (a mini-series of sorts to fill the time-slot during Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mid-season hiatus) that would allow Hayley Atwell to reprise her role as Peggy Carter from Captain America: The First Avenger.  I loved everything about that idea.  Ms. Atwell was marvelous as Peggy — she was one of the best things about that first Cap film.  I felt there was still a lot of life left in that character, and I loved the notion of seeing what happened to her in the years following the loss of Cap.  I also loved the idea of a period-piece show; that seemed like a lot of fun, and something unusual for a superhero TV show.  And considering the revelations in Captain America: The Winter Soldier about the nature of S.H.I.E.L.D., suddenly a show about the origins of S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed ripe with potential.  We’d seen that this premise had juice in the wonderful Peggy Carter one-shot short film attached to the DVD of Iron Man Three.  Frankly, the only thing that had me worried was the mediocre quality of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — would Agent Carter be of just as middling a level of quality?

Well, … [continued]