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Josh Reviews Alien: Covenant

Ridley Scott’s Alien (released in 1979 — can you believe it?) is a masterpiece of science fiction/suspense/horror, a near-perfect film that has barely aged a day.  James Cameron’s Aliens (released in 1986) is one of the greatest sequels ever made, a spectacular action/adventure film that took the universe and concepts from Mr. Scott’s film, as well as the character of Ripley, in a thrilling different direction.  The subsequent thirty years have seen one failed attempt after another to create another successful film from this universe.  Even Ridley Scott himself, when he returned to the franchise in 2012 with Prometheus, flamed out spectacularlyPrometheus is a gorgeous-looking film, and there are some wonderful sequences in the film, but on the whole it is a muddled mess, with non-existent characters (with the exception of Michael Fassbender’s android David) and a plot that makes little sense.  (One can still see the skeleton of Jon Spaihts’ original script, which was intended to be a more direct prequel to Alien, which makes the confusing finished film all the more frustrating.)  Remarkably, Mr. Scott has returned to the Alien universe once again with a new film, Alien: Covenant, which is a terrific course-correction from Prometheus.  The film is a sequel to Prometheus, but it’s also far more directly linked to the original Alien (as Prometheus should have been) in a way that brings focus and cohesion to this wandering franchise.  More importantly, unlike Prometheus, Alien: Covenant tells a focused story with interesting characters that is exciting, scary, and terrifying.  The film has its flaws, but it is easily the best film in this eight-film franchise (if you count the two Alien vs. Predator films) since the original two.

A decade after the events of Prometheus, a solar flare damages the colony ship Covenant, and the crew are awakened from hypersleep to effect repairs.  The ship, bearing 2000 colonists, is still seven years away from its destination.  The pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) detects a human signal from an unexplored planet, which appears well suited for human life, even better than the planet the ship was originally heading towards.  The acting captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), decides to investigate.  What they discover is a beautiful world that seems to be devoid of any sentient or animal life.  But several the unwitting Covenant crew-members are soon infected with the Engineers’ black accelerant (as seen in Prometheus) and become hosts to horrible monsters.  However, the most dangerous monster of all might be the planet’s other inhabitant: the android David.

I was incredibly impressed by the way in which Alien: Covenant manages to go a long way towards redeeming the uneven Prometheus, making that film’s wild missteps feel more of a … [continued]

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Josh Examines the First Trailer for Star Trek: Discovery

Yesterday we got our first real look at the new Star Trek show, Discovery:

There’s a lot that is encouraging and also a lot that is worrisome in that trailer.

I am a huge Star Trek fan, and so the prospect of Trek returning to TV is very exciting for me.  I love the spectacle of the movies, but I believe Trek belongs on TV.  I am excited to see a modern version of a Trek TV show, one that takes advantages of modern story-telling devices and structures (shorter seasons, more serialized storytelling) as well as visual effects tools (what can be accomplished today on a weekly TV budget is incredible).  I’ve been encouraged by some of the behind-the-scenes talent involved in this project (most especially Nicholas Meyer, who is responsible for the very best Trek ever made: he wrote and directed Star Trek II and Star Trek VI, and he wrote all the good stuff in Star Trek IV).  While I hate prequels, if you’re going to make a prequel, the idea of focusing on the era of tensions (and perhaps outright war?) between the Federation and the Klingons in the decade before Kirk seems like a ripe area for stories.  On the other hand, this show has had a rocky path to production, with delay after delay after delay, and the staggeringly disappointing departure of original showrunner Bryan Fuller (a hugely talented showrunner who also has strong Trek experience).  I also hate the fact that the era in which this show is set apparently caused Paramount/CBS to sue and crush the fan film Axanar, that was going to be set in a similar time-period.

Putting all that backstory behind me, I was eager to finally get a glimpse of what this show is going to be!  So, what did I think?

Well… my feelings are very mixed.

What’s good?  Visually, that trailer is gorgeous.  The outer-space special effects and the widescreen vistas are all very impressive, far better-looking than Trek has ever-before looked on TV.  I love the sense we get of Michelle Yeoh as the captain.  In these brief clips she appears to be playing my exact picture of a Starfleet captain: smart and noble and cool under pressure.  I love the line that “Starfleet doesn’t fire first.”  YES — I hope this series emphasizes the values of Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the Star Trek future.  (This is something that’s been somewhat lost in the more action-packed recent Trek films.)  I am interested in the idea that this show will focus, not on the ship’s captain, but on its first-officer.  Sonequa Martin-Green seems interesting in the role, though I was far more taken with Michelle … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2016: Don’t Think Twice

Don’t Think Twice, written and directed by Mike Birbiglia, tells the story of a New York-based improv group, The Commune.  At the beginning of the film, we see that the Commune is made up of a tight-knit group of friends.  They have a terrific camaraderie on-stage and they hang out together off-stage, watching TV together and traveling together.  But when one of their number is hired for Weekend Live, a big-time Saturday Night Live type program, the group fractures into competitiveness and envy.

Dont Think Twice.cropped

I haven’t seen comedian Mike Birbiglia’s first film, Sleepwalk with Me, though it’s been on my to-watch list for years.  Having now seen and enjoyed his second feature, Don’t Think Twice, I know I need to seek out Sleepwalk with Me without delay!  I knew of Mike Birbiglia from his stand-up comedy, and his (terrific) recurring role on Orange is the New Black.  That plus the stupendous cast Mr. Birbiglia assembled for Don’t Think Twice made this a film I was sure to track down in my end-of-2016 rush to see as many 2016 movies as I could before crafting my end-of-the-year “best-of” lists.

There is a lot of comedy in Don’t Think Twice, but this film isn’t really a comedy.  It’s an honest, painful-at-times look at the way that competition and envy can get in the way of art, and of human relationships.  Don’t Think Twice allows you to see the trainwreck-that-is-coming a mile away, which heightens its impact when it eventually arrives.  I spent much of the movie wishing the characters wouldn’t all behave the way they do.  I have great respect for how honest and human a story Mr. Birbiglia (who wrote and directed the film, in addition to starring in it) has created, how attentive he is to the way people talk and behave.

I love comedy and improv, and so I thoroughly enjoyed the behind-the-curtain glimpses Mr. Birbiglia’s film gives us to this world.  It’s thrilling getting to see the group perform on-stage, particularly at the beginning when we see them really on-fire, completely in-sync with one another.  It’s heartwarming to see the bonds of camaraderie formed by the members of this particular secret society, and heartbreaking to see how hard their lives are, having to work terrible low-level day-jobs and struggling to have enough money to live and to have a venue in which they can perform, all the while dreaming of fame and stardom on a show like Weekend Live.  

The cast is extraordinary.  Mr. Birbiglia kills it in the lead role, showing us all the ways in which his character Miles is an excellent improv artist but limited in other ways.  There’s something endearing about the way that Miles … [continued]

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News Around the Net

May 12th, 2017

This is a fascinating article about Marvel godfather Stan Lee.  It’s a very level-headed examination of everything that he has contributed to the extraordinary pantheon of incredible characters that is Marvel, as well as the criticisms that have been leveled against him by some of his collaborators over the years.  For any comic book fans out there, this is a must-read.

Can this be true?  We’re getting a new Hellboy movie, albeit an R-rated reboot starring David Harbour (Stranger Things)??  Wow, I don’t know what to say!  I enjoyed Guillermo del Toro’s two Hellboy films, and while I didn’t feel either one quite captured everything I love about Mike Mignola’s amazing Hellboy comic book series, they were solidly entertaining films.  I am disappointed at the thought that Mr. del Toro won’t be able to complete his story with a Hellboy 3.  I am also not sure how I feel about recasting Hellboy. I understand why they’d feel they need to do that if they are starting over, and I think David Harbour is terrific.  But man, Ron Perelman IS Hellboy.  It’s hard to imagine anyone other than him playing this character.  Still, news of a potential new Hellboy film is very exciting indeed.

It’s a mystery to me why Sony has been so radio silent on their upcoming Dark Tower film.  It doesn’t bode well for a movie that I desperately want to be good.  Here, at last, is the first trailer:

That’s not a bad trailer!  There’s a lot to like.  Hearing Idris Elba recite the Gunslingers’ mantra is amazing.  I love the various Stephen King easter eggs hidden throughout (notice that photo on the psychiatrist’s desk of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, as well as Jake and Roland walking through the ruins of Pennywise’s circus from It), which is a nice way of cinematically capturing one of the key ideas from the Dark Tower novels, that many of Stephen King’s stories are connected together by the Dark Tower.  And holy cow, is that David Palmer as Roland’s father???  Genius!!!  There are some visual choices I don’t love (like Roland’s guns glowing a sci-fi blue at one point), and I am still very worried by the way they have combined elements from all the Dark Tower books rather than more faithfully adapting the first one.  But I continue to hope.

I wouldn’t be at all interested in a thirty-five-plus years later sequel to Blade Runner if not for the fact that’s it’s being directed by The Arrival’s Dennis Villeneuve.  Also, this new trailer is pretty spectacular:

I love the whole vibe: the imagery, the music.  Is it possible this movie is going to be good…??… [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Daily Show (The Book)

It would be difficult to overstate my love for Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.  Week in and week out, for years, I turned to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show for edification and humor.  (It’s no coincidence that I continually kept putting The Daily Show atop my annual lists of the best television of the year.)  My first thought after most major news stories became: I can’t wait to see what Jon Stewart is going to do with this.  I know I’m not alone in that.  Mr. Stewart’s show was one of the most important television shows of the past several decades.  I don’t think I am exaggerating to state that not only did it shape the comedy world, but that it also helped shape our political discourse.  (There were plenty of times when I wish that Mr. Stewart’s point of view had been MORE impactful on the American political situation, but that says more about the sad state of our politics than it does about Mr. Stewart and his program.)

Chris Smith’s The Daily Show (The Book) is an extraordinary retelling of the history of The Daily Show.  The book begins with a prologue recap of The Daily Show’s conception and launch on Comedy Central, with Craig Kilborn as host and Lizz Winstead at the helm.  But then Mr. Kilborn signed with CBS, and the book picks up the story on page one with the courting and eventual hiring of Jon Stewart.  (Jon: “At the time, I was obviously making my mark in such films as Wishful Thinking and Dancing with Architecture, or Dancing About…  Oh, no.  They ended up calling it something else.  Playing by Heart, I think it was.”)  The book then meticulously charts Mr. Stewart’s subsequent eighteen years as host of The Daily Show. 

The book is told in an oral history format.  So rather than Mr. Smith’s summarizing his interviews in his own words, the book presents the commentary and recollections of everyone he spoke to in their own words, with only the very occasional piece of narrative connective tissue inserted to give some context to what is being discussed.  This format works spectacularly well.  Mr. Smith has done an extraordinary job, collecting new interviews with a staggering array of the men and women involved with The Daily Show over the years in all capacities.  We hear from literally every single person you would want to hear from in a project like this.  We hear from the correspondents, we hear from various guests, we hear from the writers and production staff, we hear from the leadership of Comedy Central, and on and on.  And, most importantly, at every point in the story, we … [continued]

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Marvel’s Winning Streak Continues with Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2!

Like almost everyone else, I was blown away by Guardians of the Galaxy back in 2014, and I have been eagerly awaiting writer/director James Gunn’s follow-up.  Three years later, it’s here, and it does not disappoint.  Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is visually astounding, extremely funny, and the film finds a way to deepen our understanding of and affection for pretty much every single one of its large cast of characters.  I’m not sure what more anyone could want!

The film picks up a little while after the end of the first film, with the Guardians working as heroes-for-hire (see what I did there?).  But when Rocket double-crosses their golden-skinned, perfect-looking employers called the Sovereign, the Sovereign exact fierce retribution that leaves the Guardian’s ship (the Milano) destroyed and the gang marooned.  To the rescue arrives Ego, the celestial being who is, apparently, Peter Quill’s real father.  Quill soon finds himself torn between his biological father and his adopted family.  Meanwhile, all sorts of other enemies threaten to tear the motley Guardians crew apart.  Gamora’s sister Nebula tracks her down, seeking vengeance.  Rocket and Baby Groot find themselves captured by the Ravagers, who have mutinied against their former Captain Yondu.  And, in the end, once again, the fate of the galaxy rests in their unlikely hands.

Whereas the Marvel cinematic universe has made an art out of creating interconnected films, what’s remarkable about Guardians vol. 2 is how stand-alone it is.  Thanos is mentioned a few times as Gamora and Nebula fight about their shared torturous childhood being raised by that monster, but otherwise Guardians vol. 2 is surprisingly separate from the way the Marvel movies have been building towards Infinity War.  It’s a surprising choice, but it pays off well, allowing this film to be able to dig deeply into this cast of characters without having to sacrifice valuable time towards pitching future movies.

In the paragraph above, I described some of the film’s plot, but in another surprising choice, Guardians vol. 2 is pleasantly light on plot.  For the most part, the structure of this film is something of an extended “hang” with all of the characters who we loved so much in the first Guardians film.  Here, too, this could easily be a weakness, but James Gunn and his team turn it into a strength.  First of all, this cast of actors are so terrific, and they have created such wonderful characters, that it’s a joy just to watch them bounce off of one another.  There are a number of scenes in the film that have a somewhat “shaggy” feel, as if either at the writing stage or the performance stage, Mr. Gunn and this … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews Green Room

May 5th, 2017

Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner) are four teenagers in a punk band.  Almost completely out of money, they take a gig playing at a what turns out to be a ramshackle neo-Nazi skinhead bar deep in the woods of Oregon.  On their way out of the gig, Sam realizes she left her cell-phone back in the green room.  When Pat goes back to get it, he sees that there has just been a murder in the room.  The Nazis quickly lock the band-mates in the room, along with a friend of the dead girl, Amber (Imogen Poots), and call the bar’s owner, the apparent leader of that group of neo-Nazis, Darcy (Patrick Stewart).  What follows is an exercise in excruciating tension as the band-mates, trapped in the room with Nazi skinheads all around them, try to find some way out of their impossible predicament.

Green Room.cropped

Green Room was written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, who has crafted a true nail-biter of a film.  Mr. Saulnier slowly turns the screws on his characters, and the audience, until the tension is almost unbearable.  This is a tough film to watch — intentionally so.  The suspense is stomach-churning, and there are some moments of tough violence.  The film is a master class in suspense.  Mr. Saulnier cleverly confines the majority of the film to that one run-down bar and, in particular, to the one shoddy green room in which the band-mates find themselves trapped.  It’s a smart approach that pays off dividends.

Mr Saulnier has assembled a terrific cast of young people to play the kids trapped in the green room. The late Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) is wonderful as Pat.  Only Mr. Anton’s stardom hints that this particular band-member will step into center stage as the film progresses.  Mr Anton brings an innocence and sweetness to this punk rocker that is critical.  Watching this performance, I was once again flabbergasted and devastated that Mr. Yelchin is no longer with us.  What a tragedy.

I’ve been a fan of Alia Shawkat since Arrested Development, and she’s great here in a completely serious role as band-member Sam.  Ms. Shawkat is completely alive and present in the role; she brings a great energy and naturalism to her performance.

Then, of course, there is Patrick Stewart as the boss Nazi Darcy.  Mr. Stewart subsumed his usual kindly, father-figure persona to create a fearsome monster, one of the all-time great movie villains.  Darcy doesn’t have a shred of decency or human kindness in him.  To him, the kids in the band are just a problem that has to be made to go away, by any means necessary.  He … [continued]

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Catching up with Astro City

May 3rd, 2017

I can’t believe that Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is twenty years old! The series remains one of the finest superhero comic books ever created. Begun in the nineties, after a dreary decade of grim, deconstructionist superhero stories had dominated the industry — sub-par attempts to imitate the great works of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns from the mid-eighties — Kurt Busiek began his project to do exactly the opposite.

In his introduction to the first Astro City collected edition, Life in the Big City, Mr. Busiek himself explained his goal: “The superhero genre has historically been limited to adventure thrillers, action stories that can be sold easily to boys in their teen years or younger.  But that’s a self-imposed, market-driven limitation, not any sort of creative limitation of the genre… I’ve long been fascinated by the question of what else happens in the worlds the superheroes inhabit; what life is like for the guy who points upward and declaims: ‘Look!  Up in the sky!’”  Mr. Busiek continues: “One thing I didn’t want to do is to take the superhero story and make it ‘realistic’ — which is odd, since that’s become the quickie shorthand description of Astro City… Well, no.  No, it isn’t.  We’ve got trolls living underground in Astro City.  We’ve got time travelers reweaving the future.  We’ve got fantastic technology, mystical creatures, alien contact and powerful, violent, destructive beings by the double handful — and in Astro City history, they’ve been around for decades, without turning the world into something unrecognizable from our own perspective… I like the absurd, unrealistic glory of the superhero genre, and I want to see it as a place of gods and aliens and super-science and talking gorillas and ordinary people like you and me, all dealing with metaphor run amok, coping not with what logical effect it all has, but with the emotional effect.”  Finally, Mr. Busiek states: “For the past decade… the prevalent mode for “serious” superhero creators has been deconstruction.  The superhero has been dissected, analyzed and debunked, his irrationalities held up to the light to show them for the unworkable Rube Goldberg machines they are, so that it’s almost become impossible to present a superhero who does what he does without being emotionally unstable, incapable of dealing with reality without “acting out” his psychoses and obsessions.  But it strikes me that the only real reason to take apart a pocket watch, or a car engine, aside from the simple delight of disassembly, is to find out how it works.  To understand it, so that you can put it back together again better than before, or build a new one that goes beyond what the old model could … [continued]

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