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February 23rd, 2015
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Catching Up on 2015: Josh Reviews Slow West

In the last several years, Michael Fassbender has shot right up to the top of the list of the finest actors working today.  Like many, I first took notice of Mr. Fassbender in X-Men: First Class.  I was blown away by the masterful way in which Mr. Fassbender took complete ownership of the character of Magneto, who had previously been inhabited so iconically by Sir Ian McKellan.  Since then, Mr. Fassbender has dazzled in films like Prometheus (Mr. Fassbender’s performance as the android David was one of the best elements of that muddled film) and Steve Jobs.  And so I was tickled by the idea of seeing Mr. Fassbender play a cowboy in a Western!

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In Slow West, Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as Jay, a young Scottish boy following the girl he loves to the American West.  It seems that Rose and her father (played by Rory McCann — Sandor Clegane from Game of Thrones!) have been forced to flee Scotland (for a reason that the film gradually reveals), and so Jay has set off after them.  Along the way, Jay encounters the outlaw Silas (Michael Fassbender), who agrees to help Jay track down Rose and her father in exchange for payment.  What Silas knows, and Jay doesn’t, is that a sizable bounty has been placed on Rose and her father’s heads.

Written and directed by John Maclean, Slow West is a tremendously impressive debut film.  The movie is absolutely gorgeous, with nearly every frame filled with staggeringly beautiful views of the American Old West.  That beauty is contrasted by the dangerous and cruel world in which Jay finds himself.  The film seems to take the viewpoint of Silas, who early on describes himself as seeing danger around every corner.  No one who Jay encounters, apparently, is not a threat to him.  The film masterfully creates a feeling of dread, one that grips ever tighter as Jay and Silas get closer to Rose.

Kodi Smit-McPhee continues to impress.  He was great in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as well as in The Road (a movie that shares a lot of similarities with Slow West, come to think of it!  It’s another tale of a boy and a father-figure on a perhaps-doomed road trip through dangerous territory) and he does great work again here.  Mr. Smit-McPhee gives Jay heart and spirit and also intelligence.  Jay is incredibly naive but Mr. Smit-McPhee doesn’t over play that.  Jay is a little bumbling but not entirely hapless.

Mr. Fassbender meanwhile is just as much fun as I had hoped he would be.  In Silas, Mr. Fassbender creates a wonderfully endearing and fascinating character, bringing life to what could have been a … [continued]

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

February 8th, 2016
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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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Josh Reviews The Revenant

After falling head over heels in love with Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) last year, I was delighted to discover that he had another film coming out just a year later.  The Revenant stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, a fur trapper helping guide an expedition for pelts in the early 1800′s.  So after the movie opens, their expedition is attacked by a group of Arikara Native Americans.  Glass and several others survive and attempt to head back to their outpost on foot.  But Glass is mauled by a bear and almost killed.  Fearful of further Indian attack, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) wants to leave Glass behind, and eventually does so, killing Glass’ half Native American son Hawk.  But Glass does not die.  Instead, he drags himself out of his half-buried grave and begins a long trek through the wilderness in pursuit of Fitzgerald.

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As I wrote when compiling my Best Movies of 2015 list, The Revenant didn’t open around me until January, 2016.  So I wasn’t able to see it before finishing my list, but it was top-priority for me to try to see it as soon as I could, and on as big a screen as possible.  I was able to see it last week.

My head is still spinning.

There is no question that The Revenant is exceptionally well-made.  Mr. Inarritu and his collaborators have managed to create a staggeringly powerful, visceral experience, putting the viewer right in the middle of the events unfolding on-screen.  You can’t watch this film at a remove — instead, you are sucked right into the middle of what’s happening.  But while this demonstrates an incredible mastery of filmmaking, the result is an unpleasant, punishing experience as the viewer is pulled inside horror and torment for two and a half hours.  When the credits finally rolled, I was left asking myself, why was this story being told?  Why had I put myself through the unpleasant experience of watching this movie?

When I describe watching The Revenant as observing a mastery of filmmaking, I am not exaggerating.  The skill on display in every single gorgeous frame of this film is absolutely astounding.  From the movie’s very first scenes, it was clear to me that I was not watching an ordinary film.  The Native American attack sequence that kicks off the film is staggeringly brutal and extraordinarily immersive.  This sequence would be the highlight of most films, but for Mr. Inarritu it is just the opening gambit.  As Mr. Inarritu’s camera glides through the scenes, panning in 360 degrees and weaving in and around all of the characters and the crazy action that was unfolding, I was … [continued]

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Star Trek Lives! Josh Reviews “The Holiest Thing”

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For over a decade, Star Trek: New Voyages has been a fan-produced effort to create new full-length episodes of the Original Series, a never-made fourth season of the classic show. (The series began under the name Star Trek: New Voyages, then switched to be called Star Trek: Phase II for several years, and now they seem to be back to using the New Voyages title.)  I have been a fan and supporter of this fan-made group since I saw their second official episode, released in 2006, in which Walter Koenig reprised his role of Pavel Chekov, an enormous coup did this fan-made series.

Last month New Voyages released their tenth episode, “The Holiest Thing.”  I have been reading about this episode for years now.  (I actually reviewed a rough cut of this episode that was released to the project’s Kickstarter backers, about a year and a half ago.)  “The Holiest Thing” was supposed to have been released back in February, 2014, but was cancelled at the last minute so the production team could continue polishing the episode.  It’s been a long two-years wait.  I am pleased that the final, completed version has at last seen the light of day.  To my relief it is an improvement on the rough cut in almost every way.

This episode tells the never-before-seen story of how Captain Kirk and Dr. Carol Marcus first met and fell in love.  (Dr. Marcus’ one-and-only canonical main-timeline on-screen appearance was, of course, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.)  The Enterprise arrives at the planet Lapus III, to check in with the terraforming project overseen by Dr. Marcus.  As she and Scotty tour the facility in a shuttlecraft, an enormous explosion destroys the research facility, killing everyone present except for Scotty and Dr. Marcus.  Is young Dr. Marcus responsible for the deaths of her entire team?

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“The Holiest Thing” is a leisurely paced tale.  There is a mystery component as Kirk, Spock and Dr. Marcus work to uncover the truth about what went wrong with her terraforming project.  But the focus of the episode is on the love story between Kirk and Dr. Marcus.  Both Brian Gross (as Captain Kirk) and Jacy King (as Carol Marcus) do strong work.  Ms. King is especially good, a pleasant surprise since so much of the episode rests on her shoulders.  I like this version of a young Carol Marcus.  She is smart, persistent, and take-charge, but she’s also clearly young and perhaps in a little over her head.  (This is a far stronger depiction of Carol than the one we got in the terrible Star Trek Into Darkness.)

The rough cut of this episode suffered from terrible sound problems … [continued]

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The Top Fifteen Comic Book Series of 2015 — Part Two

And so we come to it at last, my final Best of 2015 list!

A few days ago I began listing my Fifteen Favorite Comic Book Series of 2015, listing numbers fifteen through six.

Here now are my Top Five:

5. Velvet (by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting) – What if Moneypenny was actually a former double-oh agent, now assigned to a desk at HQ but forced back into the field by a terrible betrayal?  That’s the brilliant hook of Mr. Brubaker and Mr. Epting’s phenomenal spy yarn Velvet.  The year is 1973, and Velvet Templeton has been, for eighteen years, the secretary and right-hand woman for the Director of Arc-7, a super-secret British organization of spies.  When their best agent (think James Bond) is murdered on assignment, Velvet finds herself framed for the deed and on the run from everyone she once trusted.  Velvet is a rich conspiracy thriller and a loving homage to the mystique of sixties-era James Bond adventures  Mr. Brubaker’s twisty story constantly has me guessing, trying to put the pieces together (just like Velvet herself is doing).  Mr. Epting’s art, meanwhile, is jaw-droppingly astounding, filled with incredible period detail.  I don’t know how he does it.  I love this book and, as I wrote last year, I desperately need it to come out more frequently.

4. James Bond (by Warren Ellis and Jason Masters) – One of the few 2015 comic book series that was better than Brubaker & Epting’s Bond-inspired saga is Warren Ellis and Jason Masters’ take on the actual double-oh-seven himself!  I’d never have expected to see the phenomenally talented Warren Ellis writing a licensed comic book series, but it’s a match made in heaven.  This James Bond series doesn’t feel like any other licensed comic book series that I have ever read.  This comic is brutal, take-no-prisoners story-telling.  I love Mr. Ellis’ depiction of Bond as a merciless “blunt instrument” of Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  And Jason Masters’ art is extraordinary, with clean crisp lines that nevertheless manage to incorporate a staggering amount of detail into every panel.  It’s perfect for this series.  I love this team continues chronicling the adventures of James Bond 007 for many more years to come.

3. The Fade Out (by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips) – The latest collaboration between Mr. Brubaker and Mr. Phillips, the best team in comics, is a riveting whodunnit set in Hollywood of the nineteen-forties.  Hollywood screenwriter and drunk Charlie Parrish wakes up one morning to find himself in a room with the dead body of  young starlet Valeria Sommers.  As the story unfolds, Charlie finds himself in the middle of an ugly story whose tendrils stretch … [continued]

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I’m excited to wrap up by Best of 2015 lists with my look back at my Fifteen Favorite Comic Book Series of 2015!

There were a TON of amazing comic books that I read in 2015 that didn’t make this list.  Powers by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming.  Trees by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard, and Injection by Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey.  Nameless by Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham.  Chrononauts by Mark Millar and Sean Gordon Murphy, Huck by Mark Millar and Rafael Albuquerque, MPH by Mark Millar and Duncan Fegredo, and Starlight by Mark Millar and Goran Parlov.  Guardians of the Galaxy by Brian Michael Bendis and Valerio Schiti.  Justice League by Geoff Johns and Jason Fabok.  Batman by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo.  Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, and We Stand on Guard by Brian K. Vaughan and Steve Skroce.  Black Magic by Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott.  And so many more.

Also, there are several series that I have fallen way behind on, and so I am waiting to find the time to go back and do a major re-read to catch up on these titles.  These series include Stray Bullets by David Lapham, Astro City by Kurt Busiek and Brent Eric Anderson and Jesus Merino and others.  The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra and Ryan Browne, and East of West by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta.  Had I been up-to-date on these titles, I have no doubt that they would all be on this list, and probably very high on it.

OK, onward!

15.  Groo and Friends (by Mark Evanier & Sergio Aragones) – I’ve been reading Groo since I was a kid, when the series was published for a long run under Marvel’s Epic imprint.  Somehow, Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones are able to keep making the continuing adventures of the witless barbarian and his faithful dog companion thoroughly entertaining, even after all these years.  There aren’t too many truly great humor comics out there, but Groo is always dependable, and the dazzlingly intricate illustrations by Sergio Aragones are always a feast for my eyes.  This twelve-issue miniseries (a very long run for a Groo tale these days) was great fun.

14. The X-Files Season 10/Season 11 (by Joe Harris and Matthew Dow Smith and others) – I have always considered The X-Files to be one of the great unfinished stories in the modern entertainment landscape, and so I was excited for this series which was designed to be a tenth season for the show.  About mid-way through this year that tenth season concluded and an eleventh season began.  The series has been fun, though … [continued]

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News Around the Net!

I’ll have a lot to say about the long-anticipated return of The X-Files very soon.  In the meanwhile, here is a fantastic 45 minute interview with X-Files creator Chris Carter and writers Glen and Darin Morgan, who were key writers on the show who returned to write episodes of the revived series.  Great stuff.

I love that J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot team stunned everyone last week with the release of a trailer for a movie no one knew anything about, 10 Cloverfield Lane, to be released in just two months, in March!  Check it out:

I well remember the fun when the original Cloverfield was announced and we all struggled to figure out what the heck the deal was with this movie no one seemed to know anything about.  I feel like the film is not well thought of these days, but I absolutely loved the experience of seeing Cloverfield in the theatre — I thought it was very intense and a lot of fun.  I’m excited that the Bad Robot team has once again produced a Cloverfield film under everyone’s noses.  It’s so hard to do anything in secret these days!  I think that J.J. Abrams’ well-known “mystery box” philosophy has often been misused (flat-out lying to everyone for months by saying that Khan would not be the villain of Star Trek Into Darkness comes to mind), but I do love the idea of being totally surprised by a film.  Will 10 Cloverfield Lane have any actual story connection to the first Cloverfield?  Or are they just using Cloverfield as a nickname for a film made in secret and designed to surprise audiences?  Frankly I’d be happy either way.  That first trailer looks great and I am jazzed to see this film.

Why do I love Judd Apatow?  Sit back and watch his hilarious and profane introduction of Amy Schumer at the Critics Choice Awards, in which he veers off-script to slam the Golden Globes for putting The Martian in the comedy category:

How funny is that??  Love that dude.

Here are some interesting teases at the planned fifth season of Arrested Development.

I’m digging Star Wars Rebels and this preview for the second half of season two is terrific.  I’m especially jazzed by the glimpses, in the final seconds of the trailer, of the much-looked-forward-to confrontation between Ahsoka and Darth Vader (her former master).  This has been a moment fans have anticipated ever since Ahsoka was first introduced as a young padawan of Anakin Skywalker in the very first episode of the Clone Wars cartoon, back in 2008.  I hope this does not disappoint!

This is cool: HBO On-Demand is now offering what they’re calling The Godfather Epic[continued]

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The Top Fifteen Episodes of TV in 2015 — Part Three!

Last week I listed by Top Twenty Movies of 2015.  (Click here for part one of my list, numbers twenty through sixteen.  Click here for part two of my list, numbers fifteen through elevenClick here for part three of my list, numbers ten through six.  Click here for part four of my list, numbers five through one.)

This week I began listing my Top Fifteen Episodes of TV in 2015.  (Click here for part one of my list, numbers fifteen through elevenClick here for part two of my list, numbers ten through six.)

And now, my Top Five Episodes of TV in 2015:

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5. Daredevil: “Cut Man” (season one, episode two, released on 4/10/15) – I really, really loved the first season of Netflix’s Daredevil show.  It was a bold announcement of the type of Marvel show that Netflix would be creating, something far darker, more complex, and more adult than almost every other super-hero TV show out there.  This, the show’s second episode, is filled with greatness.  I was particularly taken by the conclusion in this episode of the flashbacks, begun in episode one, of the death of Matt’s dad Battlin’ Jack Burdock, and the repercussions of the accident that blinded Matt but gifted him with super-normal powers.  I love this show’s depiction of the relationship between Jack (wonderfully well-played by John Patrick Hayden) and his young son Matt.  This enhances the gut-punch of the moment we all know is coming when Jack gets killed.  I like that the show takes the time to develop Jack, as his presence will continue as a shadow over Matt Murdock for the rest of the season.  I also enjoy the way this episode introduces Claire (Rosario Dawson) and begins to develop her relationship with Matt in the present day.  But the reason this episode is on this list is because of the magnificent one-take action sequence that closes the episode.  This incredible action set-piece absolutely blew me away.  In one long, slow take, the camera slowly glides down a long, dingy corridor, as Matt Murdock battles his way to rescue the young girl being help captive in the room at the end of the hall.  The sequence is a triumph of staging and stunts, as Daredevil and an array of bad-guys crash in and out of rooms, in and out of doors, sometimes in view of the camera and sometimes not, as Daredevil fights his way down that hallway.  (It’s also a triumph of sound-editing as there are times when we can’t see what’s going on in the rooms beyond the corridor, but the soundtrack tells us everything we need to know.)  … [continued]