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Josh Reviews American Gods Season One

A few years ago I read and absolutely loved Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods.  It was weird and wonderful and funny and heartbreaking and I pretty much loved every page.  I was of course interested when I heard that there would be a TV adaptation, and then when when it was announced that Bryan Fuller (whose name I first got to know as a writer on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and who has subsequently created and run several acclaimed shows) would be the show-runner, I was very excited.

The show, like the novel, begins with Shadow: a man released from prison only to discover that his wife has a) cheated on him and b) died while doing so.  At a loss as to what to do with his life, his path crosses with the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday, who convinces Shadow to come work for him as his driver and assistant.  It turns out that Mr. Wednesday just might actually be the god Odin, who is own a mission to gather the many other Old Gods living across the United States to fight back against the New Gods who Wednesday feels are preparing to destroy them.

Mr. Gaiman’s original novel is centered around upon the intriguing notion that anyone who believes something manifests that belief into the actual deity, and their belief and worship gives that deity power.  And so, as immigrants came to America across the centuries, they brought many of their Gods with them.  But now, in a pointed critique of modern American life, the book suggests that we have turned away from those Old Gods and, instead, given form to New Gods who express the things we worship today: media, technology, etc.  This is a delicious idea.  The novel works because it is filled with fascinating concepts and compelling characters — Mr. Gaiman is a master at making each of his characters interesting and unique.

The eight-episode TV adaptation is a mixed bag.  It’s not at all what I would call a success, but there are too many fascinating and compelling ideas and moments in it to consider it a failure, either.  There are scenes in these episodes that count among the most striking and interesting things I have seen on TV in a good long while.  But unfortunately it doesn’t all come together in a satisfying way, as I will attempt to explain.

Let’s start with what works: the cast is fantastic.  I wasn’t at all familiar with Ricky Whittle before seeing him as Shadow here in this series, but he’s great.  He combines the physicality of a tough guy with a gentleness of voice and manner that is perfect for Shadow.  We have to invest … [continued]

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Star Trek Enterprise: Rise of the Federation: Live By The Code

Live By the Code is the fourth book in Christopher L. Bennett’s “Rise of the Federation” series of novels.  Set several years after the end of the fourth and final season of Enterprise, after the end of the Romulan war (chronicled in the Romulan War series of novels by Michael A. Martin and Andy Mangels), this series tells the story of the early years of the United Federation of Planets.  After reading the first three novels in this series (click here for my review of A Choice of Futures, Tower of Babel, and Uncertain Logic), I was eager to catch up with the fourth book.

In this novel, we see that Starfleet finds itself on the verge of a crisis as they continue to confront societies that utilize the Ware technology, as introduced in the previous novel.  (This is a follow-up to ideas introduced in the second-season Enterprise episode “Dead Stop,” in which the Enterprise encountered a fully automated space station that used the brains of sentient beings as its core computer-processors.)  At first our heroes are dead-set on wiping out what they see as technology that viciously preys upon unsuspecting aliens, but when they confront a vast society that appears to exist in equilibrium with the Ware, things immediately grow more complicated.  With the involvement of a faction of Klingons, the newly-formed United Federation of Planets risks finding itself in the midst of a war on multiple fronts.

Live By the Code is a terrific novel, another excellent installment in Mr. Bennett’s “Rise of the Federation” series.  I’m glad to see the Klingons enter this story, even in what amounts to be a relatively minor way.  (From what we know of Trek continuity from this era, the Federation and the Klingon Empire maintained a “cold war” setting for decades.)  I have also been enjoying Mr. Bennett’s extrapolation, in these novels, of the alien technology which he has called the Ware.  We never saw that technology again on Enterprise, after “Dead Stop,” but Mr. Bennett has made quite a meal out of exploring the nature of that technology and its effects on multiple different galactic civilizations.

The novel’s title is clever and appropriate, as the “code” refers to both the alien code of the Ware’s technology, the Klingon code of honor, and Admiral Archer’s efforts to develop for starfleet a code of behavior to govern their actions — the first step towards the noninterference directive that we’ll know in Kirk’s era as the Prime Directive.

I have enjoyed the very clever ways in which Mr. Bennett’s “Rise of the Federation” novels have been exploring how all the aspects of the peaceful, beneficent Federation that we know from … [continued]

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Catching up on 2017: Josh Reviews All The Money in the World

In 1973, teenager Paul Getty, grandson of the wealthy J. Paul Getty, was kidnapped in Italy.  Paul’s grandfather J. Paul Getty was considered to be not only the richest man on the planet but perhaps the richest man who had ever lived.  And so, the kidnappers thought they could get a small fortune in exchange for young Paul’s return.  Ridley Scott’s film All the Money in the World chronicles these dramatic events, including Paul’s ordeal and the plight of his mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams).  With J. Paul Getty unwilling to pay the ransom, Gail was caught between navigating the kidnappers’ demands and her obstinate father-in-law, hoping to find a way to bring her son back alive.

I quite enjoyed All the Money in the World.  I included it on my list of my favorite movies of 2017!  It is a riveting, well put-together drama.  I love watching Ridley Scott’s expansive fantasy or sci-fi films — Mr. Scott can create fully-realized fantasy films like no other — but a film like this reminds us that Mr. Scott is equally adept at crafting entertaining films set in our real world, without the exciting sci-fi trappings.

This film made big news in the weeks before its release because of Mr. Scott’s decision to completely remove Kevin Spacey from the film and reshoot all of his scenes with Christopher Plummer in the role.  This would have been an arduous process in any situation, but even more so because all of this went down just a month before the film’s release.  That Mr. Scott was able to so massively rework his film mere weeks before its worldwide release is an extraordinary accomplishment.  The reshoots and re-editing were done perfectly seamlessly.  You would never know that a huge chunk of this finished film was created in reshoots.

What is even more amazing is that Christopher Plummer is the best thing about this movie!  His performance is incredible; I am not exaggerating to say that the main reason to see this movie is to see Mr. Plummer’s fierce work in the role.  He commands the screen every second he appears.  Every character in the film lives and acts in Getty’s shadow.  Mr. Plummer’s performance makes this real.  He creates in the elderly J. Paul Getty a fearsome, tough-as-nails presence.  It’s extraordinarily compelling.

Michelle Williams is great as Gail Harris, the mother of the kidnapped boy.  Ms Williams shows us her core of toughness, as she finds herself caught between the kidnappers demanding money and J. Paul Getty, who refuses to pay the ransom.  It’s an impossible position, and the film has great empathy for this woman.  Ms Williams’ strong work allows us to feel this … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Series Finale of Star Wars Rebels!

It is an incredibly rare thing these days for a popular ongoing story, in whatever medium — but particularly film or TV — to be given the opportunity for a proper ending.

This is something I have written about a lot on this site.  Generally franchises are either struck down before their time (by cancellation or some other situation) or continue long past their prime until they gradually peter out.  I doubt Star Wars will ever have an ending; not in my lifetime anyway.  It did once: the saga began with Star Wars and ended with Return of the Jedi.  I am thankful that Star Wars has expanded far beyond those original three films, and look forward to many future Star Wars movies as well as adventures in a variety of other media.  But the downside is, I doubt this enormous franchise will now ever get a true ending.

Back when George Lucas and Dave Filoni launched the first Star Wars animated TV series, The Clone Wars, I was intrigued and excited by the potential for stories that would expand upon the much-dreamed-about Clone Wars, a galaxy-shaking event first referenced in the original Star Wars (when Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke that he fought with his father in the Clone Wars), that was, shockingly to me, basically skipped over in the time-jump between the end of Episode II and the opening of Episode III.  And, indeed, while The Clone Wars animated series had some shaky episodes, over-all it fulfilled that promise of bringing to life the many, many stories that together made up this galaxy-wide conflict.  But pretty early on, a lot of fans, myself included, began to be consumed with speculation as to how the series would end.  What would happen to the many characters introduced in the series, most of whom we never saw in the Original Trilogy?  What would become of the Clone Troopers that we were following throughout the show?  And, above all, what would happen to the young girl, Ahsoka Tano, introduced in the show as Anakin’s Jedi apprentice?  Yoda told Luke that “when gone am I, the last of the Jedi will you be,” so that meant Ahsoka couldn’t be around during the Original Trilogy, right?  Would the show really kill her off?  If not, what would be her fate?

When Disney bought Lucasfilm, they cancelled the Clone Wars show after its fifth season (out of a planned eight), meaning fans never got answers to any of their questions.  This was extraordinarily disappointing at the time.  And so, when a new Disney-owned Star Wars animated show launched, Rebels, I must admit I had a chip on my shoulder about it.  For this kids-focused show they … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Star Wars Rebels: Season Four

Tonight, Star Wars Rebels will draw to a close with the three-part finale.  I am super-excited, and I am very much hoping that Dave Filoni and his team can draw this story to a proper close.  So far, season four of Star Wars Rebels has been ferociously entertaining, filled with exciting action-adventure, great character work, and a fantastic attention to detail in the way the stories have explored previously unseen corners of the Star Wars universe, while also connecting these stories and these characters more closely to the films, particularly the original Star Wars, whose events take place only a short while after these episodes.

When Rebels first began, I was still smarting over the cancellation of the previous Star Wars animated series, The Clone Wars, before that series could reach its planned conclusion.  (I still hope that, someday, those stories will see the light of day.)  When the new show, Rebels, first began, I was put off by what looked like the show’s more kid-friendly focus, and I wasn’t immediately taken by the new cast of young characters.  That first season was a little shaky, but by season one’s final episodes I could begin to glimpse the show that Rebels would become.  Rebels roared out of the gate at the start of season two, featuring Darth Vader as the main villain and presenting us with perhaps the best canonical on-screen version of the in-his-prime, fully evil Vader that we hadn’t really seen since 1981’s The Empire Strikes Back.  I was also delighted that the show began to reintroduce characters and storylines that had been left hanging by the cancellation of Clone Wars.  Season three expanded and deepened this corner of the Star Wars universe.  I was delighted by the connections to Rogue One (bringing in the character of Saw Gerrera, voiced by Forest Whitaker), and thrilled to see Grand Admiral Thrawn, a memorable character from Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire novels (that helped carry the torch for Star Wars fandom in the post-Return of the Jedi, pre-Prequel years), finally brought to on-screen, canonical life.

Season Four was incredibly enjoyable from start to finish.  It was satisfying to see how far these characters had progressed over the course of these four seasons, and fun to see the skillful way that show-runner Dave Filoni and his team were able to be able to weave back together a variety of story threads that had run through the show since the beginning.

The season kicked off by bringing the story of Sabine’s family and the planet Mandalore, including threads that had begun back in The Clone Wars, to fruition.  The Mandalore stuff hasn’t been my favorite aspect of Rebels, but I … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Comic Book Series of 2017 — Part Two!

Yesterday I posted the beginning of my list of my fifteen favorite comic book series of 2017!  Here now is my top five:

5. Kill or Be Killed (by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips) — Dylan is a normal young man who gets sick and sees the devil in his dreams; the devil tells him that he will die unless he kills one person every month.  Is this series a fantasy story, or is this a depiction of one person’s descent into dementia and murder?  I’m not sure!  The story works perfectly either way.  It’s an intimate character study and a stomach-clenching look at how one apparently regular person can become a murderer.  Mr. Brubaker and Mr. Phillips have become one of comic’s most unbeatable teams.  I’ve been following their incredible collaborations ever since Image Comics’ Sleeper.  Kill or Be Killed is another triumph, a dark, edge-of-your-seat page-turner.

4. Saga (by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples) — This wild and crazy, funny and deeply moving sci-fi fantasy adventure continues to surprise and delight me at every turn.  Mr. Vaughan is a Joss Whedon-level master at creating characters that we fall in love with, and then putting them (and therefore the audience!) through torturous hell.  There’s no other comic book out there that is anything like Saga, with its roller-coaster-ride style of storytelling, merging an overwhelming amount of stunningly original ideas and concepts with rich character arcs.  Saga is funny and weird and terrifying and heartbreaking.  Fiona Staple’s gorgeous artwork never disappoints, and is evidence, panel-after-panel and page-after-page, that she is one of the very best illustrators working in this business.  This Saga only gets richer and more emotionally wrenching with every issue.  I adore it.  (And the back-of-the-book letters page is the best in comics today.)

3. Lazarus (by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark and others) — In the future, the planet has regressed into an almost feudal system, with several warring families controlling the planet.  The young woman named Forever is the “Lazarus” of the Carlye family, her family’s ultimate warrior/protector. Lazarus is an incredible example of world-building, as Mr. Rucka and Mr. Lark have put enormous effort into fleshing out every detail of this world they have created.  With each and every issue, more fascinating pieces of this world come to light, an enormously entertaining journey of discovery for the audience.  And yet Lazarus works as well as it does not just because of the depth of this world that has been created, but because of the array of wonderful characters who inhabit that world.  I love Lazarus for the politics and combat, but I also love it for the coming-of-age story of Forever herself, and … [continued]

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Josh’s Favorite Comic Book Series of 2017!

It’s taken me longer than I’d hoped to get these all ready, but I’m excited to (finally!) wrap up my Best of 2017 lists with my look back at my Fifteen Favorite Comic Book Series of 2017!

15. The Black Monday Murders (by Jonathan Hickman and Tomm Coker) — Jonathan Hickman and Tomm Coker have crafted a fascinating alternate history in which a group of dark occultists have control of all of the world’s financial institutions.  I am blown away by the depth and complexity of this twisted world that has been created.  Mr. Hickman’s writing, and his usual assortment of info-graphics, are dense with information and back-story.  It’s great fun to try to puzzle everything out.  And Mr. Corker’s art — WOW.  This is extraordinary work, beautifully rich and detailed.  This story is a gripping mystery and a thrilling piece of speculative fiction.  I can’t wait to see where this all goes.  (This series would be a LOT higher on my list if it came out more frequently.)

14. Batman: Creature of the Night (by Kurt Busiek and John Paul Leon) — This bizarre tale is set in the “real world” in which a young comic-book fan named Bruce Wainwright suffers a terrible tragedy, and then apparently manifests a Batman-like creature to strike vengeance upon evil-doers.  I’m not sure where the story is going, but the first two issues of this mini-series (each of which have been 48 pages long, and square-bound) have been amazing.  As always, Kurt Busiek is able to create rich, fully-realized human characters about whom you grow to care deeply, and John Paul Leon’s art is absolutely extraordinary.  I adore both of these men’s work so much.

13. Marvel’s Star Wars Comics — It is extremely rare for a licensed comic book series to be good.  Dark Horse Comics published some great Alien comic books back in the day, and back when they held the Star Wars license they also published some great Star Wars comics…and also some bad ones.  There was a period in the eighties when DC Comics’ Star Trek comic book series, written by Peter David, was pretty terrific… and Warren Ellis’ run last year on Dynamite’s James Bond comic series was extraordinary.  But these examples are few and far between!!  Most comic-book versions of established movies or TV series wind up being lame shadows of the original works.  But somehow, shockingly, Marvel Comics’ Star Wars series have been pretty great!  That’s doubly impressive considering that Marvel has been publishing a TON of different Star Wars series, mini-series, and one-shots, set all across the Star Wars universe and timeline.  There have been a few weak links (I was excited for the Mace … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Molly’s Game

Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of the book Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker by Molly Bloom.  Molly trained to be a competitive skier, but when an injury ended her sports career, she found herself adrift.  A job as an assistant eventually led her to become responsible for setting up a high stakes poker game.  Molly became the manager of that weekly game, which developed into her managing her own business and multiple games frequented by movie stars and other extremely wealthy individuals.  But it all came crashing down when Molly was arrested and charged with money laundering and running an illegal sports gambling operation.

I first became a fan of Aaron Sorkin’s watching The West Wing, which still stands as one of the finest TV series ever made (at least the first four seasons which Mr. Sorkin masterminded).  I then went back and devoured Sports Night (which, if you’ve never seen, you need to run, don’t walk, and watch immediately), and I have been a faithful fan ever since, following Mr. Sorkin through his subsequent shows (all of which I have enjoyed, even though none have come close to The West Wing or Sports Night) and, of course, all of his fantastic movie work.  Mr. Sorkin has scripted some of my very favorite movies, including A Few Good Men (which I just recently rewatched for the umpteenth time, and it holds up SO WELL), An American President (say it with me, folks: “this is a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up.  My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I AM the President”), Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs.  (I love ALL of those films.)  Mr. Sorkin wrote Molly’s Game and the film is his directorial debut.

I really enjoyed this film.  I don’t know if any of what is depicted in the film is true to Molly Bloom’s real life and experiences.  But the Molly Bloom who is the main character in this film is a spectacular character, one who is very much of this particular moment.  This is the story of a strong woman who is surrounded by arrogant, domineering men, and who sets out to be her own woman and make her own way, as unorthodox as the path she chooses might be.  It’s an inspiring tale, frankly!  Is any of this true?  Is Molly Bloom actually this strong, principled woman, or is this mythologizing bullshit?  I don’t know, and the movie is so good that I don’t care.  Some based-on-real-life movies fall apart for me once I start questioning … [continued]

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