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Star Wars: Episode III

September 30th, 2014
New comics posted daily, Monday through Thursday!

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Josh Reviews Tusk

September 29th, 2014
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I’m a huge fan of Kevin Smith.  I like his movies, and more than that, I like Mr. Smith himself.  He’s a great character and a hilarious story-teller.  There have been some fantastically-packed DVD and blu-ray releases of his earlier films, and sometimes I think the special features are even more fun than the films themselves, as you get to see Mr. Smith and his pals goofing around and having a grand old time.  The commentary tracks for Clerks, Dogma, and Chasing Amy are among the greatest commentary tracks ever recorded.  When Mr. Smith started releasing DVDs of his Q & A performances around the country, I was thrilled.  I think that first An Evening with Kevin Smith two-DVD set is one of my favorite DVDs that I own.  There are two stories in particular — Smith’s recounting of his experiences writing a draft of a Superman film that was never made, and his experience working on a project with Prince (“Chaka mad?”  ”Chaka real mad!!”) — that are two of the funniest things I have ever seen.

But while I still consider myself a big fan, my interest in Mr. Smith’s films has waned, to the point that I actually haven’t seen his last three movies.  I skipped Cop Out because Mr. Smith only directed it, rather than having written the script, and from the trailers I thought it looked extremely unfunny.  I was intrigued when Mr. Smith made Red State, which seemed like a huge divergence from the comedies that he had made to that point.  I will see that film someday, because I am curious, but I’m not that interested in the horror story and so I just haven’t made time to see the film yet.  Then there was Jay and Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie.  I think the animated Clerks TV show is a hugely under-appreciated gem, a hilarious six-episode buried treasure.  Mr. Smith has been talking for years and years about making an animated film, but when it finally arrived I was disappointed to see that it seemed like a totally different creature than the series that I loved.  (It was also missing the involvement of David Mandel, who was a key creative voice on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and who I think is the reason that Clerks: The Animated Series was so amazing.)  Still, I probably would have seen the film, except that it wasn’t released to theatres or DVD, you could only see it if you went to one of Mr. Smith’s traveling roadshow exhibitions of the film, which I wasn’t able to do. (Though it’s now available on demand, so I suspect I’ll check it out eventually.)

Which brings me … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

September 26th, 2014
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I am a huge fan, over-all, of the Jack Ryan film series and I believe this is a character, and a series, that still has quite a lot of gas in its tank.  What a disappointment, then, to watch the latest installment, the rebooted Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and discover a total waste of this franchise’s great potential.

I am a huge, huge fan of The Hunt for Red October.  It’s one of my very favorite films of all-time, a smart, fun thiller with a large scale and grand stakes, and a story that is filled to the brim with wonderfully drawn characters.  I love to imagine what a series of films spun out of Red October would have looked like had Alec Baldwin remained in the role.  Instead, he left the series after that initial installment, and was replaced by Harrison Ford for Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger.  I really like both of those films, though neither achieves the greatness of Red October, and there’s no question that the flavor of the series changed with Harrison Ford as the lead rather than Alec Baldwin.

They painted themselves into something of a narrative corner with the end of Clear and Present Danger, though I certainly think that a smart screenwriter could have found ways to continue telling new Jack Ryan adventures.  Unfortunately, the series seemed to flounder after that third installment, with the producers eventually deciding to reboot with from the ground up, re-casting Ryan with the young Ben Affleck and re-starting the story from zero.  I sort of liked the film that resulted, 2002′s The Sum of All Fears, and while I think it was the weakest of the four Ryan films at that point, it could have been the start of an entertaining new series of films.  Unfortunately those follow-up films never materialized, and the series has been dormant for over a decade.

With Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the studio decided to once again reboot and re-start from the beginning.  Obviously at this point, more than a decade after The Sum of All Fears, recasting the role made perfect sense, and I was excited when I heard that Chris Pine (pretty great as the young Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek films) had landed the role of Ryan.  But I am mystified by Hollywood’s insistance, every time they re-cast a film series these days, on starting over with a new origin story.  Every time they re-cast James Bond, they didn’t re-tell his origin, did they?  No, they just carried on and told a fun new Bond adventure!  (Though, of course, the most recent time they re-cast the role of Bond, they DID start over … [continued]

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Re-reading Captain America: The Winter Soldier — Part III: Civil War & the Death of Captain America!

September 24th, 2014
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After having so thoroughly enjoyed the second Captain America film, The Winter Soldier (click here for my review), I have been re-reading Ed Brubaker’s lengthy run on the Captain America comic-book series that inspired the film.  Click here for part I of my re-read, and click here for part 2.

Civil War (Captain America #22-24) — Captain America #22 represents a dramatic change for the Captain America series as, between the last page of issue #21 and the first page of issue #22, Steve Rogers/Captain America ceased to be the main character in his own comic book series.  Instead, Cap’s main story was being told in the big Marvel universe cross-over mini-series Civil War, written by Mark Millar and pencilled by Steve McNiven.  In that series, a battle between super-heroes and super-villains winds up killing over 600 civilians, resulting in the passage of the Superhero Registration Act, requiring all super-heroes to reveal their identities and be licensed by the government.  Tony Stark leads these efforts, but Captain America opposes them, feeling the law curtains important American freedoms.  The super-hero community splits down the middle.  S.H.I.E.L.D. and Tony Stark begin hunting down and imprisoning any super-heroes who refuse to register, resulting in Cap and his allies going into hiding.  Civil War is a terrific mini-series that would have repercussions for years to come.

In the main Cap title, the story focused on Sharon Carter, who as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent suddenly finds herself on the opposing side of Steve Rogers, the man she loves.  This is a great twist in the story, and it’s great to see Mr. Brubaker take the time to explore these ripple effects of the main story being told in Civil War.  (Anyone not reading Civil War would find themselves terribly confused, though.)  These cross-over issues have a lot of additional goodies as well. In addition to the focus on Sharon, Bucky also steps back into center stage.  Bucky is on the run from both S.H.I.E.L.D. and the other super-heroes, but with a powerful ally: Nick Fury, who is also on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D. and the rest of the world.  Nick was a major player in Mr. Brubaker’s early Captain America issues, but he dropped away between issues as the result of goings-on in other Marvel Universe titles.  I love seeing Nick back in play here, and the pairing of him and Bucky/the Winter Soldier is inspired.

In these issues we also spend a lot of time with the bad guys, as we see Lukin/the Red Skull recruit a number of allies, classic Captain America villain characters Dr. Faustus and Arnim Zola.  When reading these issues originally I remember thinking that these subplots … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Jodorowsky’s Dune

September 22nd, 2014
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The history of the movies is filled with wonderfully intriguing projects that never got made.  A few years back I wrote about the wonderful documentary Lost in La Mancha, which told the tale of Terry Gilliam’s failed attempt at making a Don Quixote film starring Johnny Depp.  (That project collapsed a few days into filming.)  Now, another great documentary has come along to explore another tantalizing Hollywood what-if story.

Back in 1975, director Alejando Jodorowsky got the rights to adapt Frank Hebert’s Dune.  Dune is, in my opinion, one of the greatest science-fiction novels of all time, a fascinatingly complex epic about religion and politics and ecology.  Mr. Jodorowsky spent two years developing the film adaptation, working with such talents as H.R. Giger and Jean Giraud (the French illustrator known as Moebius) on the designs, and with a cast lined up that included Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, David Carradine, and Mick Jagger.  Mr. Jodorowsky and his team created a phone-book sized volume containing lavishly-illustrated storyboards for the entire epic film that they planned to create.  Sadly, just before filming on the project was scheduled to commence, the financing fell through and the film collapsed.  Several years later, Dino De Laurentiis acquired the rights, resulting in the 1984 Dune film directed by a young David Lynch.

That film, while entertaining, is deeply flawed and a poor adaptation of Mr. Herbert’s great novel.  For decades, sci-fi fans have wondered just what sort of film Mr. Jodorowsky might have made from the material.  This richly detailed and engrossing documentary by Frank Pavich explores that question.  Mr. Pavich has assembled an impressively deep array of interviews to tell the story of this film-that-might-have-been.  We hear from so many of the men and women who were involved in the production, including producer Michel Seydoux; designers and phenomenal talents H.R. Giger, Dan O’Bannon, and Chris Foss; we hear from other filmmakers such as director Nicholas Winding Refn and Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz; and we hear from some film-critics such as Devin Faraci and Drew McWeeny (both of whom are wonderful on-line writers whose work I link to often) who help give context to the story.

But the main story-teller of this documentary film is Alejandro Jodorowsky himself.  Mr. Jodrowsky’s is the main voice of the film, and as the movie progresses we hear him tell, in his own words and in incredible detail, the story of the Dune film that he had planned.  We hear what attracted him to the story of Dune and what sort of film he hoped to create.  We hear of his enormous ambition to create a film with a strong spiritual message, one that would affect audiences powerfully.  Mr. … [continued]

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Let’s begin today with these fantastic clips from The Simpsons Live, the recent Simpsons musical extravaganza at The Hollywood Bowl featuring Conan O’Brien, Jon Lovitz, Hank Azaria, and others.  These clips are amazing.

Prepare to lose several hours from your day perusing this ranking of the 114 greatest characters from The West Wing.  The ranking is ridiculous, but the character write-ups are great and the videos accompanying many of the write-ups are phenomenal, wonderful highlights of some of the best moments from that great show.

This is awesome: What Star Trek the original series would have looked like in widescreen.  Check out how gorgeous that 48-years-old television show looks!!  Unbelievable!!

Speaking of Star Trek, with the amazing HD remastering project of Star Trek: The Next Generation nearly completed (the seventh and final season comes out on blu-ray in December), I am desperate for CBS to do the same with Deep Space Nine, my favorite of the Trek TV series.  I really mean desperate.  Bill Hunt from the phenomenal web-site The Digital Bits has an excellent editorial on the topic, addressing this question of whether or not CBS will take the plunge and remaster DS9.  When I first started buying blu-rays, as astounded as I was by the picture and sound quality, I looked at my vast collection of DVDs and vowed to myself that I wouldn’t go out and re-buy blu-rays of films I already owned on DVD.  Many years later, and I am proud of myself for sticking with that vow, almost 100%.  With one huge glaring exception.  I have bought every single blu-ray set of a Star Trek TV show released so far.  The Original Series, The Next Generation, and Enterprise.  I am such a huge Trek fan that I just couldn’t resist.  The improved picture quality was irresistible.  Even more so were the INCREDIBLE special features on Next Gen and Enterprise, produced by Roger Lay, Jr. and Robert Meyer Burnett.  (Those special features really set the standard for what I wish EVERY great TV show or movie had on their DVDs/blu-rays: exhaustive documentaries made with love, along with lots of other fun stuff including deleted scenes and out-takes.)  CBS, I am ready to give you my money!!  PLEASE release a re-mastered version of DS9, and DOUBLE PLEASE let Mr. Lay & Mr. Burnett continue their efforts to finally produce substantial making-of special features for this, the greatest of the Trek TV shows!! #ds9onblurayplease

Hitfix’s Drew McWeeny has released another phenomenal installment of his series Film Nerd 2.0, in which he discussed his approach to guiding his two young sons through the world of media, when and how he introduces them to … [continued]

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Re-reading Captain America: The Winter Soldier — Part II: Twenty-first Century Blitz!

September 17th, 2014
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After enjoying the second Captain America film, The Winter Soldier, I decided to go back and re-read the comic-books that had inspired the film.  Click here for my thoughts on the beginning of writer Ed Brubaker’s long run on Captain America, illustrated so gorgeously by Steve Epting.

Those first fourteen issues represent a brilliant reinvention of the Captain America comic-book series, in which Mr. Brubaker figured out exactly how to tell a classic, potent Captain America story for the modern day.  I think Mr. Brubaker’s characteriziation of Steve Rogers/Captain America is absolutely perfect, giving us a man who is unceasingly heroic and noble but one who still feels the burden of his past and who remains somewhat not-at-home in the modern-day world.  I love how closely Mr. Brubaker tied Cap to S.H.I.E.L.D., giving us a Cap who in many ways was basically the greatest Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. who ever was, and allowing Mr. Brubaker to tell super-hero stories that also felt like spy stories, with all the darkness and complexity you’d expect from that type of tale.  (This tone, just as much as the plot of the Winter Soldier resurrection arc, was clearly a huge influence on the second Cap film.)  I love the way Mr. Brubaker structured his stories, often telling parallel tales between the present-day action and Cap & Bucky’s exploits back in WWII.  And, of course, I was impressed by the way Mr. Brubaker pulled off the resurrection of Bucky, the one comic-book character I never ever thought they’d bring back.  What could have been cheesy was instead the basis for a complex, thrilling, years-long story.

All of this would have been moot had Mr. Bubaker not been so capably assisted by his partner Steve Epting, who did the best work of his career as the main illustrator for those first 14 issues.  I truly don’t think super-hero comic-book illustration gets any better than the work that Mr. Epting did in that initial run.  Just gorgeous, staggering work.

I expected this Winter Soldier story to be a fairly contained tale, but after originally reading those first 14 issues, it became clear that although Mr. Brubaker had wrapped up some story-threads, he had a much longer tale in mind.  Those early issues were just the tip of the iceberg of a sprawling epic that Mr. Brubaker had planned.  It’s been huge fun to re-read.  Let’s continue onward, shall we?

Red is the Darkest Color/Collision Course (Captain America #15-17) — Mike Perkins steps in as the artist for these three issues.  Issue #15 doesn’t feature Captain America at all, instead focusing solely on the villain Crossbones and his attempt to deprogram a young woman he knew to … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black: Season 2

My wife and I tore through the first season of Orange is the New Black in about a week last October.  (Click here for my review.)  It’s been a long wait for season two!

There are some shows that build gradually to popularity (like Seinfeld), while others explode onto the scene right out of the gate (like Lost). For that latter type of show, the second season can be quite a challenge for the men and women behind the scenes at the show.  There’s a huge challenge to match the excitement and success of that first hit season.  Often, the particular alchemy that made a show successful can be hard to define, even for the key creative people who worked on it, and it can be a harder than expected challenge to capture that lightning in a bottle.  I’ve seen many shows have a great first season and then stumble.

So I was curious, a year later, whether the second season of Orange is the New Black would be able to maintain the quality of the first year.

For me, there’s no question that, watching season two, some of my initial excitement for the show had worn off.  There wasn’t that same thrill at the originality of the premise, nor that same sense of discovery of this new show and all its wonderfully rich characters.  But, of course, that’s to be expected.  The real question is, with that first blush of enthusiasm past, did the second season of Orange is the New Black have as much enjoyment to offer as the first?

I think it did, and watching this second season unfold I was interested to see some of the ways in which creator Jenji Kohan and her fellow creative voices were starting to position the show and its characters for the possibility of a long run.  Some of those ways were a little too writerly obvious.  For instance, early in the season Piper commits perjury in an effort to protect her on-again/off-again flame Alex Voss, which leads to the possibility of an extended prison sentence for her.  This was a little too on the nose for me.  (If she commits more crimes, she can spend more years in the prison, so we can have more seasons of the show!)  But other adjustments were far more clever.

It’s become clear to me, in watching the second season, that the show’s main weakness is that its main character — the white, privileged Piper Chapman — is possibly the least interesting character on the show.  I found her love-her/hate-her ups-and-downs with Alex to be increasingly annoying as the season wore on.  (Something which Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) enjoyably called her towards … [continued]

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Batman: Assault on Arkham

September 12th, 2014
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I have soured recently on the DC Animated direct-to-DVD/blu-ray releases, and I’m afraid their latest release, Batman: Assault on Arkham, does little to change my general impression that this line of animated films has lost its way.

This film had a few things going for it off the bat (no pun intended).  One, it was a separate tale from the new continuity of animated films (begun in the horrible Justice League: War and continued in the not quite as bad but still not that good Son of Batman).  It also featured the return of a few of the classic voice actors from Batman: The Animated Series and the Bruce Timm-run shows that followed, most notably the great Kevin Conroy as Batman (for me, THE definitive voice of Batman) and also C.C.H. Pounder as Amanda Waller.

On the downside, this film was set in the continuity of the Arkham video games, something in which I have little interest.  I am pleased to say that the film totally stands on its own — there weren’t any points where I was confused or felt that I needed to have played those games in order to understand the story.  On the other hand, I wonder if this story would mean more to people who had played the games, since for me I was left rather cold.

Assault on Arkham is interesting in that the story is told, not from Batman’s point of view, but that of the villains.  The Suicide Squad is a group of villains who have been assembled by Amanda Waller to undertake black-op, off-the-books missions.  In this case, they need to break into Arkham Asylum in order to recover the Riddler’s question-mark-shaped cane, in which he has hidden valuable data he stole from Ms. Waller.  (This whole concept of using unstable super-villains to do your dirty-work seems crazy to me, but the Suicide Squad has long been a popular concept in the DC comics.)

I like the idea of a Batman story told from the point of view of the villains, I just wish the villains were more interesting.  (Assault at Arkham pales unfavorably to the last season of Justice League Unlimited, which also spent a lot of time telling stories about the villains.  The penultimate episode of that show ONLY featured the villains, and it was phenomenal, one of the best episodes of the series.  I can’t say the same for Assault on Arkham.)

I also have the same complaint I have had about the last few animated films, in that it has some bad language and some sexual content/references that are supposed to feel adult but to me just feel out of place and juvenile.  … [continued]