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Josh Reviews Dark Phoenix

I still remember how thrilled and excited I was when I saw the final shot of Bryan Singer’s X2 back in 2003.  Jean Grey had sacrificed herself to save the X-Men in the battle at Alkali Lake, and in that final, blink-and-you-missed-it shot, we saw a hint of flame rising from underneath the waters.  That shot was an announcement to all the comic book fans out there that the X-Men movie franchise was about to take on perhaps the greatest of all the X-Men storylines from the comic books: The Dark Phoenix Saga by Chris Claremont and John Byrne.  That storyline played out over the course of many months in the monthly X-Men comic-books back in 1980.  I walked out of the theatre after seeing X2 out of my mind with excitement for seeing this extraordinary story play out on screen.  And then, well… we all know what happened.  Bryan Singer decided to make Superman Returns and Fox hired Brett Ratner to make the terrible third X-Men movie, X-Men: The Last Stand, that took the epic Dark Phoenix Saga and turned it into a subplot in a film telling a story about a potential “cure” for mutants (an idea taken from Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run from 2004).  I thought that film’s bungling of The Dark Phoenix Saga ruined any chance we had of seeing that story successfully told in a movie.  So I was surprised and pleased when the news was announced, two years ago, that Simon Kinberg (who has been a writer and producer involved with the X-Men film franchise for years) would be giving the story another go, featuring the First Class-era cast of younger X-Men characters.  After all this time, would we finally be getting the film adaptation that The Dark Phoenix Saga deserved…?

Well, sigh.  No.

Dark Phoenix isn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared from the lackluster trailers and repeated delays to the film’s release.  It actually has a lot going for it.  I really enjoy this cast, and in particular it’s a delight to see James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender back for one more go-round as Professor X and Magneto.  The film wisely sets Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey as its main focus, and I appreciated Simon Kinberg’s oft-stated goal to focus on intimate character scenes over CGI spectacle.  There are a number of dramatic moments between characters that are very effective, and the film does have a decent amount of exciting action.

But.

Sigh.

Shockingly, the film winds up making a number of the same mistakes that 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand did.

Most importantly, I was quite surprised to discover that Dark Phoenix is really barely more faithful to the original … [continued]

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Star Trek: Available Light

Simon & Schuster/ Pocket Books have been publishing Star Trek novels on a regular basis for as long as I can remember.  (I believe their first one was The Entropy Effect by Vonda N. McIntyre from back in 1981, and they’ve been publishing Trek books consistently ever since.)  But for the last year-plus, that regular schedule was interrupted by behind-the-scenes issues.  (Click here for more details.)  Thankfully, not only has the publishing of new Star Trek books resumed, but they are continuing, uninterrupted, the inter-novel continuity that I have so loved in these Trek books for the last 10-15 years, continuing the stories of these characters beyond the end of the 24th-century-set Trek shows.

The latest novel, Available Light, by Dayton Ward, picks up the threads left by the end of the last several Trek novels.  In David Mack’s Section 31: Control, from 2017, that secret organization was finally defeated, and all of their misdeeds from the past two centuries were made public.  At the end of Mr. Ward’s previous novel, Hearts and Minds, also from 2017, we learned that this release of information included Captain Picard’s involvement in the heretofore secret removal of corrupt Federation President Min Zife (from the climax of the “A Time To…” series of novels from 2004, that were set in the year leading up to the events of Star Trek: Nemesis).

Available Light tells two parallel stories.  One is an exploration of the repercussions, across the Federation, of the exposure of Section 31 and all its actions.  Federation Attorney General Philippa Louvois (from the TNG episode “The Measure of a Man”) and Starfleet Admiral Akaar (born in the Original Series episode “Friday’s Child”, Akaar has been developed into a major character in the last decade of Trek novels) are working together to track down all known and as-yet-unknown Section 31 agents and those starfleet officers who were involved with Section 31.  This includes Admiral William Ross (established as working with 31 in the DS9 episode “Inter Arma Ainem Silent Leges”) as well as Nechayev, Jellico, and Nakamura (all admirals seen on TNG who the novel series has previously established as being connected to 31).

The second half of the book is a wonderful tale of an encounter with new alien races and a mystery in space in the classic Star Trek style.  The Enterprise-E, continuing their new mission of deep-space exploration, encounters an enormous alien spacecraft, damaged and operating under low power.  The spacecraft seems designed to house an enormous population, but no life forms are aboard.  Meanwhile, a group of salvagers have laid claim to the vessel.  But the Enterprise crew soon discovers that the original inhabitants … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Latest DC Animated Film: Justice League vs. the Fatal Five

The latest direct to blu-ray DC animated film, Justice League vs. the Fatal Five, is a relatively small-scale adventure arriving on the scene without too much to get your average fan excited.  It’s not an adaptation of a famous comic book story, and on the surface there doesn’t appear to be much that is extra exciting or epic about this super hero team versus super villain team battle.  And yet, I really enjoyed it!  Justice League vs. the Fatal Five is one of the strongest DC animated films to come out in years!

The film was overseen by Bruce Timm, who for years masterminded the terrific DC animated series and films.  I love having his voice back involved with a new DC animated film, and it’s a joy to see his iconic character designs back in use.  Even better than that, this film features the return of a number of the classic voice actors from Bruce Timm’s previous DC animated series: Kevin Conroy as Batman, Susan Eisenberg as Wonder Woman, and George Newbern as Superman!  And, even better than THAT, this film is in continuity with Mr. Timm’s previous series!  (It doesn’t directly connect to anything that came before, but it is clearly set in that universe, taking place several years after the finale of Justice League Unlimited.  This is very cool, because while these actors have occasionally been used in the various DC animated films from the past decade, those have all been stand-alone tales set in their own continuity.)

It is a joy to see these characters, illustrated in this style, and voiced by these amazing actors again.  And the soundtrack gets in on the fun too, occasionally quoting the memorable themes from the previous Bruce Timm animated shows.  We hear the theme from Superman: The Animated Series when Supes first appears and saves the kid, and we hear the Justice League theme when the heroes assemble in Portland, and again later at the JL museum in the future timeline.  This made me very happy!

The film focuses on a small group of heroes: in addition to the big three (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman), the film gives us Mr. Terrific, Star Boy (from The Legion of Super Heroes), Jessica Cruz (a relatively new Green Lantern, created by Geoff Johns & Ethan van Sciver in 2014), and Miss Martian.

The main characters are Jessica (Green Lantern) and Thomas (Star Boy).  It’s fun to see these new-to-the-animated-universe characters, and the film digs deeply into their individual stories.  Both are neuroatypical characters, and it’s a delight to not only see these types of characters on-screen, but even better to see them portrayed in such a positive manner.  Thomas is trapped … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Atlanta Season Two: Robbin’ Season

I was a few years late, but recently I finally caught up with the first season of Donald Glover’s show Atlanta.  It was every bit as fantastic as I’d heard!  (Click here for my full review.)  I didn’t waste any time before moving on to season two, which I enjoyed just as much as season one.

Atlanta Season Two is subtitled Robbin’ Season.  The first episode kicks off with a lengthy sequence of the robbery of a fast-food joint.  This vignette features characters we haven’t met before and won’t see again, but it sets the tone for this thematically rich and endlessly compelling and original season of television.  Darius explains to the audience soon after that robberies increase in the lead-up to the annual holiday season, because “everyone got to eat.”  As the season unfolds, we witness several more literal robberies (Al is ripped off by his long-time drug connect, and in a later episode is held up at gunpoint by three fans on the side of the road; Tracy brazenly steals a pair of shoes from a mall shoe-store; Al’s barber engages in a series of escalating grifts; the gang all get their gear destroyed, and Earn has his laptop stolen, after a college campus performance goes wary).  But more than that, we see many of the show’s characters, particularly Earn, pushed to the brink of desperation by their need to eat, to find a way to keep their heads above water as the world seems to conspire against them.  Atlanta can be a very funny show, but the reason it’s a great show is because of its complexity and depth.

The season started off in a fairly low-key manner, with a series of episodes that were fun and funny and caught us up with the gang in the time that had passed since the end of season one.

Creator and star Donald Glover’s Earn was clearly the main character of season one, but in season two Earn took a step back to let others into the spotlight.  (Earn hardly appeared at all in a three-episode stretch in the middle of the season.)  Al (Paper Boi), played by Brian Tyree Henry, really stepped into focus for me this season.  We got to get to know Al much deeper this year.  We saw his struggle to “keep it real” at the same time as his star is rising.  (We see this most powerfully in “Woods,” in which Al argues with the young woman he is hanging out with over her manipulation of social media to increase her fame; in that same episode, Al’s attempt to walk home like a normal person gets him stuck in an increasingly terrible … [continued]

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Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism

Mike Mignola has been one of my favorite comic book artists for decades, and I have also fallen in love with his writing and storytelling skills through his Hellboy universe of comics, which Mr. Mignola has guided for twenty-five years (and which consistently tops my annual Best Comic Book Series of the year lists, as it did this year).  Mr. Mignola has collaborated with author Christopher Golden on many of the best Hellboy comics (most notably an extended series of B.P.R.D. miniseries).  The two men have also co-authored two amazing and wonderful illustrated novels: Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire and Joe Golem and the Drowning City.  I highly recommend them both!!!  I recently discovered that the two had collaborated on a third novel — actually, a novella, published in 2012, called Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism.  How had I missed this??

In the final months of World War II, a new priest arrives at the convent of San Domenico in a small town in Sicily.  The town has been battered by war, and the nuns at the convent have become the overseers of an orphanage, caring for the dozens of children left orphaned by the war.  The young priest, Father Gaetano, wrestles with his responsibility to teach these traumatized children about God.  How can he convey God’s love to these kids, who the horror or war has left angry and lost?  Inspired by the clown puppet that nine-year-old Sebastiano clings to as his only and best friend in the world, Father Gaetano decides to use puppets to teach his young charges their catechism.  And then, well… I will spoil nothing!

This novella is phenomenal.  I think its is Mr. Mignola and Mr. Golen’s finest collaboration!!  (And that’s saying something.)

Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism reminded me, in the best possible way, of the Spanish-language work of Guillermo del Toro, especially his film The Devil’s Backbone.  The novella, like that film — and like all of the best fantasy stories — has a fantasy element, but the story and the characters are so strong that the story could conceivably be compelling and interesting even without the fantasy element.

I was immediately captivated by the strong sense of setting, of time and place, that Mr. Mignola and Mr. Golden were able to create, and by their wonderful characters.  They do a delightful job fleshing out the various children (especially Sebastiano) as well as the various nuns.  And I was particularly taken by the attention paid to Father Gaetano.  I loved how they explored this man and his humanity, attempting to step into his role, not just as Father and leader to the nuns (many of whom were much … [continued]

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Ragna Rok: The Hellboy Saga Draws to a Close!

For twenty-five years, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics have been one of my very favorite comic book series.  This series has expanded from an occasionally-published series of mini-series and short stories to a vast universe of stories, with multiple interconnected stories chronicling over 100 years of the history of these characters and this universe.  This is my favorite currently-published comic book series!  I cannot recommend it highly enough.  (If you’re new to the Hellboy universe, you can dip your toes into the water with the Hellboy Omnibus vol. 01: Seed of Destruction, a relatively inexpensive lengthy collection of the first several Hellboy mini-series.)

Several years ago, I spent a long time re-reading the entire saga from the very beginning, and writing about it. In 2017 I checked in with the saga again, and in early 2019 I did the same.

In recent months, Mr. Mignola and his collaborators shocked me by, well, apparently bringing the entire twenty-five-years-long shebang to a conclusion!  In today’s age of hype-hype-hype, this ending caught me very much by surprise!  (Hellboy fans who aren’t all the way caught up: please beware SPOILERS in this blog post!)

B.P.R.D. The Devil You Know “Ragna Rok” #14-15 (2019) — Well, wow.  The whole Hellboy saga finally comes to an end, and events that have been hinted at in prophecies and visions for almost the entire twenty-five year run of this saga (so far) finally come to pass.  It’s a shockingly downbeat ending, in which most of our heroes die, and in fact almost every human being on the planet dies!  Yowza!

I’m conflicted, because on the one hand it is incredibly cool and satisfying to see this long-running story-line reach an ending.  As I have written about on this blog beforehand, there are precious few examples of when a long-running fictional saga is able to be brought to a strong ending, at a time and place of the creator(s)’s choosing.  It’s special when it happens.

I am impressed that Mr. Mignola and co. stuck to their guns and followed through on the long-running hints that this story was not going to end well for most of our characters.  In most stories like this, you’d expect the heroes to find a way to save the day in the end.  But not here.  It’s impressive to me that they delivered this dour ending.

On the other hand, I wish this final run of issues hadn’t felt so rushed.  The combination of Laurence Campbell’s scratchy writing and Scott Allie’s occasionally staccato writing style didn’t quite work for me as well as I’d hoped.  HUMONGOUS, series-shattering events happened in these final issues, but none of it landed as … [continued]

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“And Now Our Watch is Ended” — Josh Bids Farewell to Game of Thrones

Looking back on eight seasons of Game of Thrones, I am in awe of what creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have been able to accomplish.  They brought the novels of George R. R. Martin’s to glorious life, hooking me deeply into the stories and characters.  It’s been a while since I have been so emotionally invested in a TV show.

In the early seasons, I wondered how long the show could sustain itself.  But the series grew and grew, becoming emotionally richer as it went on, not to mention ever-more visually impressive. The show smashed every expectation I ever had for what a fantasy TV show could deliver on a TV budget.  Game of Thrones gave us a visually stunning movie every single week.  Having not read George R. R. Martin’s novels, the show continually blew me away with its total disregard for storytelling conventions, killing off characters and having the good guys defeated and humiliated and destroyed at every turn.  Again and again and again, this series surprised and shocked me, and I loved it for that.  And I loved the (surviving) characters more and more with each passing episode.  Here in the final season, I was deeply invested in what would happen to these characters, hoping that some of them would find a happy ending.

Overall I have thoroughly enjoyed this final season, even though I think the show has stumbled in some of its storytelling choices.  These final six episodes have each been HUGE, filled with series-altering events, both small-scale interpersonal moments and enormous fantasy sequences of armies and zombies and dragons.  To say I was gripped would be an enormous understatement.  Watching this final season has ben a rollercoaster, and I mean that as an enormous compliment.  What a ride this has been.  Rarely have I been this captivated by a TV show.  The week-long wait between episodes has been torture.

The biggest failing of this final season was that, despite the extra-long episodes, it feels to me like there was far too much story jammed into these six episodes.  My favorite episode was episode #2, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” which was entirely focused on our characters at Winterfell, waiting through the night for the final battle with the Night King’s forces.  I loved that the show took the time to pause and let us enjoy these characters.  That episode was filled with scene after scene of amazing, wonderful character beats that paid off years of storytelling.  It was amazing.  But often in the other five episodes, I felt that events blew by too fast for them to have the impact they should have had.  This was most problematic in terms of … [continued]

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News Around the Net!

A blu-ray of the amazing documentary What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which I reviewed on Wednesday, is now available for pre-order at Amazon!

Have you heard about the kids at North Bergen High School in New Jersey who adapted Alien for the stage?  The full recording is now available to watch, and it is so fun:

Wait, Avengers: Endgame ISN’T actually the end of the MCU?  Heh.  Here’s a new trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home:

That looks great.  I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming, and I’m eager for more of the MCU’s Spider-Man.  I’m intrigued by Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio, presented in the trailer as a good guy!  It’d be fun if the film does something different with Mysterio, but since I’m not seeing evidence of another villain in the film, I’m assuming he becomes evil by the end… we’ll see what surprises the film has in store.  (I’m intrigued by the references to the multiverse, which suggests the film is somewhat based on how Brian Michael Bendis used the character in his Ultimate Spider-Man comic-book series.  This also, of course, makes me think of the phenomenal Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  Is it possible that Far from Home will connect to Spider-Verse somehow?  That’d be fun.)  The film, thankfully, seems like it won’t ignore the events of Endgame, though I remain worried, as I wrote in my Endgame review, as to how this and other future MCU films can possible deal satisfactorily with the fallout from the “five years later” jump.  Far From Home director Jon Watts has good things to say about being excited to explore the fallout from Endgame in his film… so we’ll see how this all plays out…!

Here’s our first trailer for It: Chapter Two:

That’s a great trailer!  I love the choice to present that long scene.  I loved It: Chapter One and this sequel has a fantastic cast, including Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, and James McAvoy.  I can’t wait.

I’m not sure the new Watchmen series for HBO, overseen by Damon Lindeloff, is anything close to a good idea.  But I must admit to being intrigued by the notion of carrying the story forward beyond the events of the graphic novel by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons.  This first trailer is interesting, even though I don’t have much of a clue what’s going on:

I’m disappointed that Angie Tribeca has been cancelled.  I’m not shocked, as this show seems to have been flying completely under most everyone’s radar.  Personally, I loved the first three seasons (click here for my review of season one) and I’ve been enjoying season 4 so … [continued]

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