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Josh Reviews Shazam!

I missed Shazam! when it was released to theatres last year.  I’d been burned out on one bad DC/Warner Brothers live-action movie after another, and while this one looked interesting, I didn’t rush out to see it.  I recently watched the film on blu-ray, and I enjoyed it!

Shazam! tells the story of young Billy Batson, an orphan who has gotten himself booted from one foster family after another.  As a sort of last chance, he is adopted into a group home run by Victor and Rosa Vasquez, with five other orphans.  Billy doesn’t expect to find this new home any more satisfactory than any of his previous ones, but his life takes an unexpected path when he finds himself gifted with incredible powers — and an adult, super-powered new body — by the wizard Shazam.

The idea of a super-hero version of Big is a delicious concept, and this film mines a lot of joy and comedy out of that premise.  My favorite scenes of the film are the ones in which Billy, now in the role of the grown-up super-hero Shazam, and his new step-brother Freddy goof around exploring all the crazy new things this new body can do.  Zachary Levi plays the adult/super-hero version of Billy, and he is spectacular in the way he channels the excitement and enthusiasm of a 14-year-old boy in these incredible circumstances.  I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Levy’s work.  (He was great in season two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.)  But he has perhaps never been more perfectly suited for a role than this one.  Mr. Levi (ably assisted by an awesome-looking super-suit) certainly has the physicality for the role… and his comedic timing is impeccable.  He is so funny and joyous in this role!  His enthusiasm carries the film.

There are two main weaknesses of the film for me.  The main one is that I don’t understand why this movie, telling the story of a kid-turned-superhero, is rated PG-13.  My 10-year-old children were excited to see this movie, and I was excited to watch it with them.  But I found myself wincing at the film’s language and adult-oriented content.  Shazam/Captain Marvel has had a reputation, over the years, as being silly/cheesy/kiddie, so I suppose the filmmakers were concerned about their movie coming off of as being just for kids.  They clearly wanted to make certain people knew this was a “cool” movie aimed at adults.  I can understand that, but I think they overshot the mark somewhat.  I am all for not dumbing-down one’s super-hero movie.  But I think it’s a shame that there’s a lot that’s inappropriate (in my opinion) for younger viewers in the film.  I wish they’d made … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Animated Adaptation of Superman: Red Son

The direct to blu-ray/DVD DC animated film Red Son is an adaptation of the three-issue mini-series by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett.  That “Elseworlds” story asks the tantalizing premise: what if young Kal-El had been raised in communist Russia rather than in the American mid-west?  (It also has an irresistibly clever title.)  I can see why the team at Warner Brothers Animation decided to adapt this story.  I am pleased that this animated film (scripted by the great J.M. DeMatteis, who wrote some of my favorite comic books back in the eighties and nineties) is an enjoyable adaptation!

The idea of seeing what would happen when the noble Kal-El was raised with very different values than an American farm-boy is a great one, and the film gets a lot of mileage out of that premise.  It’s a lot of fun to see this alternate history of the DC universe play out, and to see the characters interact with real-life figures from history such as Stalin and JFK.  The animation is, as usual for these animated DC films, good albeit not great.  The voice cast is very strong.  Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, Captain Lorca in Star Trek: Discovery) is fun as this Russian-accented, Communist version of Superman, and Amy Acker (Angel, Alias, The Cabin in the Woods, Much Ado About Nothing) is fantastic as Lois Lane.  Diedrich Bader (Veep, Better Things) is perfectly cast as Lex Luthor; he brings a perfect amount of oily arrogance to Lex.  Phil Morris (Seinfeld, Smallville) is great as Jimmy Olsen — I love seeing a black Jimmy Olsen in this film!!  Singer/songwriter Paul Williams (who also was so great voicing the Penguin back on Batman: The Animated Series) is perfectly obsequious as Brainiac, and it’s a delight to hear Phil LaMarr reprise his role from the animated Justice League show as John Stewart.

The film opens with a cleverly retro, Cold War inspired opening-titles sequence.  I love that the film maintained the period setting of the original comic, and that, like the comic, the story unfolds over many years.  The story beings in 1946 and continues through the following decades.  It’s wild to see Lois Lane smoking in the scenes set in the fifties!  (I’m shocked that this was permitted in a 2020 animated film.)

J.M. DeMatteis added some modern social commentary into the film (that wasn’t so much present in the original comic).  For the most part, it works.  In the first Lois-Superman scene, Superman presents several critiques of the United States that are (intentionally) quite relevant to 2020.  I liked seeing that.  It’s also certainly no accident that … [continued]

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Josh Reviews His Dark Materials Season One

Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials was originally published between 1995-2000.  The first book, The Golden Compass, had previously been adapted into a mediocre movie back in 2007.  Now, the BBC and HBO have adapted that first book, The Golden Compass, into an eight-episode TV series.  I recently read the His Dark Materials novels for the first time and was interested to see HBO’s adaptation.  I enjoyed it!

I must confess, first off, that while I enjoyed reading the His Dark Materials novels, I wouldn’t consider myself a huge fan.  There was a lot that I liked about the books.  I loved the complexity of the world-building.  I enjoyed the strongly-formed characters.  I appreciated that Mr. Pullman had a lot to critique about organized religion, though I do not nearly share what seems like his deep dislike/mistrust of all religion.  Additionally, I sometimes felt those criticisms of religion, and what felt like an atheistic worldview, got in the way of the story for me.  I also sometimes felt the books were a bit too complicated for their own good, with characters coming and going at rapid speed, whereas I would have enjoyed spending more time with them and getting to know them better.  But I loved what an original and unique series this was, and I was surprised how adult in tone it was.  I was certainly excited to see what this might look like translated on screen.

HBO has clearly spared no expense with their production of His Dark Materials.  (I’d imagine that HBO is quite eager to find their next Game of Thrones…)  This series looks incredible.  There are a huge number of different locations in the series, and each one is beautifully realized.  I never felt claustrophobic or that I was watching actors on cheap sets.  No, this world felt huge and immersive.  This is the epic canvas this story deserves.  There’s all sorts of epic action — fighting armored bears, flying zombie-things called Cliff Ghasts, witches, and more — and it all looks great.  (The character animation on the bears, in particular, is magnificent.)

And then there are the daemons.  One of the hardest aspects of bringing this story to life on screen must surely have been the daemons that every character in Lyra’s world possesses; an animal bonded to each human being.  These talking animals, each with a distinct personality of their own, could only be brought to life through top-notch (and surely expensive) visual effects.  I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it was to create and realize all of the many different daemons seen throughout this first season.  I’d suspected the show would try to find ways to avoid showing … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Re-Edited Fourth Season of Arrested Development

The first three seasons of Arrested Development still stand tall among the greatest comedy TV shows ever made.  Last year I re-watched those three seasons in their entirety, and they remain brilliant, with a dense layering of joke upon joke upon joke unlike any other TV show I’ve ever seen.  Back in the days in which the idea of original programming Netflix was a wild idea, I was overjoyed that Netflix announced the resurrection of Arrested Development, which had been ill-treated by Fox and cancelled way before its time.  When that fourth season of the show finally arrived on Netflix, though, back in 2013, it was something of a disappointment.

I enjoyed watching the new Netflix episodes, make no mistake.  I think the fourth season is better than its dismal critical reputation would have you believe.  But there’s no question that the series was a shadow of its former self.  There were a lot of problems with that fourth season, the main issue being that scheduling issues with the large main cast meant they could only film a handful of scenes all together.  To get around this, creator/showrunner Mitch Hurwitz & co. structured the season so that each episode focused on a single character.  Unfortunately, in my opinion, these characters that worked so well together as an ensemble didn’t function nearly as well on their own.   Many of them went from funny to annoying when we were stuck following them for an entire lengthy episode.  (The length was also a problem — many of the installments ran far longer than a standard twenty-two-ish minute half-hour comedy; some installments were as long as forty minutes, and that felt way too long to me.)

Around the time when the fifth season arrived, in 2018, Netflix released a completely re-edited version of season four, with the new subtitle “Fateful Consequences.”  Instead of fifteen lengthy episodes each focusing on a single member of the Bluth family, Mitch Hurwitz & co. did a ground-up remix of the entire season, reassembling it into twenty-two normal-length (approx. 22 minutes) episodes, with many if not all Bluth family members appearing in each episode.  Footage has been completely re-arranged.  Scenes from the cutting room floor have been restored.  Ron Howard has recorded completely new narration.

What an incredible idea!  Has anything like this ever been done?  An ENTIRE SEASON of a TV series, completely re-edited from the ground up?

This re-edited version of Arrested Development season four is VASTLY SUPERIOR to the original version.  There is no question in my mind that this is what the fourth season should have looked like all along; if it had, I think people would have thought a lot better of the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Into the Unknown: The Making of Frozen II

Not long after I finished watching Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian, my entire family and I watched and enjoyed another Disney+ “making-of” series: the six-episode Into the Unknown: The Making of Frozen II.

This six-episode series, directed by Megan Harding, is an incredibly in-depth look at the last year of production on Frozen II.  (The film itself took many years to make.  This documentary only chronicles the last year, but believe me, there is more than enough material here for a fascinating look into the production of that film.)  This making-of series rivals the very best “making-of” documentaries that I used to love seeing on DVD/blu-ray special features.  (Sadly, those sorts of great special features on discs are all but extinct.  I bought Frozen II on blu-ray for my kids, and it came with a paltry array of short featurettes.  Clearly they were saving the goods for this series.)

I’m a film and animation nerd and I loved watching this, and my daughters who love both Frozen movies also were fascinated by it.  (I’d thought they might be bored, but this very slickly-produced series kept them captivated.)

I’m decently familiar with the process behind the making of Disney films from documentaries such as The Sweat Box (a fascinating, unreleased documentary about the tumultuous process of creating the film that started as Kingdom of the Sun and wound up as The Emperor’s New Groove; Disney tried to prevent the doc’s release but it’s floating around the internet and can be found if you look), Waking Sleeping Beauty, and the great in-depth making of documentaries that, as noted above, used to be on Disney special edition DVDs.  If you’re not, I expect there will be a lot about the process as detailed in this series that will be quite a revelation for you.  Even for me, someone who is decently familiar with this stuff, I loved following this very detailed, step-by-step look at the long, hard process of bringing an animated film to life.

Additionally, I was surprised and impressed by how much of the behind-the-scenes stress and struggle that went into shaping Frozen II into its final form was present in this Disney-approved documentary series.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a very polished version of events in which pretty much everyone looks good.  I’d expect nothing less from an official Disney creation.  But despite that, the documentary manages to nevertheless spend a lot of time exploring the challenged faced by the filmmakers and the stress of living up to the incredible success of the first Frozen film.  It’s fascinating to see the hard work spent on entire sequences and songs that wind up getting dropped entirely.  (We get to see … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian

I loved the first season of The Mandalorian on Disney+, and I cannot wait for season two!  To help bide the time, Disney+ has released an eight-episode behind-the-scenes look at The Mandalorian, called Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian.  (It’s a wordy title that doesn’t really explain what the show actually is.  I wonder if they are planning future Disney Gallery shows looking at the making of other Disney+ series?)

The series is a mix of behind-the-scenes footage and new roundtable interviews with Jon Favreau (who created and executive produced The Mandalorian, in addition to writing six of the eight episodes) and Dave Filoni (mastermind of the animated series The Clone Wars and Rebels and executive producer of The Mandalorian; he also wrote one episode and directed two of them) and a variety of the men and women who were in key creative positions on the show.  Literally — it’s a group of people sitting around a round table and talking about the show.  We see a group of the directors (including Rick Famuyiwa, Deborah Chow, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Taika Waititi), the actors (including Pedro Pascal, Gina Carano, and Carl Weathers), and other behind-the-scenes people (including ILM’s John Knoll and Richard Bluff, animation director Hal Hickel, and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy).

The first few episodes started out a little slow.  I loved hearing these people talk about Star Wars (episode two ends with a show-stopper of a five-minute monologue by Dave Filoni, expounding upon his interpretation of events in The Phantom Menace), but the conversation seemed light on actual details of the making of The Mandalorian.  Things picked up dramatically for me in episode four, “Technology,”
which took a deep dive into the revolutionary technology utilized to create the astoundingly beautiful and photo-real visual effects of the show.  This episode completely blew my mind.  I was already impressed by the gorgeously beautiful, movie-quality visual effects on the show.  I am even more in awe now of the genius-level creative breakthroughs they utilized to make those effects happen.  That episode alone is a must-watch for anyone who enjoyed The Mandalorian and has any interest in seeing how the sausage was made.

Each episode had some fun tidbits, even the early ones.  I loved seeing all of the behind-the-scenes footage, exploring both the digital and practical effects, including sets, costumes, etc.  (There’s also some cool older footage from the archives that they drop in every now and then; I loved that stuff.)  While I was at first nervous about the extensive footage of the roundtable conversation, I found myself quite enjoying being a fly on the wall for those conversations.  It was fun to see the easy conversation among these collaborators — in … [continued]

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Josh Reviews 30 Rock: A One-Time Special

July 20th, 2020
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A silver living of Coronavirus’ tremendous disruption of TV and film production has been the reunion shows I never expected to see.  I loved the Parks and Recreation special, and now here comes something else I never expected to see: a new installment of 30 Rock!

30 Rock: A One-Time Special is only sort of an episode of a TV show.  Its primary purpose is as an advertisement for Peacock, NBC’s new streaming service.  It’s also a replacement for the traditional Network “upfronts”, in which they’d trumpet all of their shows to advertisers.  So make no question, this TV show is NBC propaganda, pure and simple.

But frankly it’s a genius idea to utilize the 30 Rock characters for this propaganda, and it proves to be a remarkably smooth fit.  30 Rock always took an amusingly meta and cynical approach to its depiction of NBC (the network on which the show actually aired, and also the fictional network on which Liz Lemon’s The Girly Show aired on the show).  The characters 30 Rock often told the audience straight out that NBC’s sole reason to exist was to make money, so it’s very smooth to see them make jokes here about pretty much the same thing.  The special is totally up-front about its main reason for existing.  Bravo to Tina Fey & co. for being able to so skillfully do so many things at the same time: 30 Rock: A One-Time Special is a very funny return visit with the 30 Rock characters, and also a successful piece of advertising for Peacock and NBC product!  (Although I’ll confess to one moment of confusion: there was a batch of promos for NBC shows, late in the special, that I thought at first were jokes.  I was laughing at the ads until I realized they were for real shows, not 30 Rock parody shows.  D’oh!)

I loved 30 Rock, and so for me, the overriding feeling when watching this new hour-long special was delight at getting to spend time with the 30 Rock gang.  This special is very much in continuity with where everyone was left at the end of the series finale back in 2013.  Former NBC page Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) is now the head of the network (ably assisted by his loyal assistant Vivica, also played by Mr. McBrayer), and we follow him in his preparation for a Zoom version of the annual “upfronts”.  Meanwhile, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) and Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) are both happily retired, Tracy (Tracy Morgan) has moved to Canada, and Jenna (Jane Krakowski) has been “cancelled” after an incident in which she apparently pooped in Mandy Moore’s thermos.  As this special opens, Jack … [continued]

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News Around the Net!

In recent months we got new installments of Parks and Recreation and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt... and tonight there will be more 30 Rock???  I can’t wait!!

The first trailer for the new Star Trek animated series, Lower Decks, has dropped:

I’m cautiously optimistic.  I am all for the idea of a humorous Star Trek show.  This trailer is pretty funny.  (The holodeck waste removal joke is gold.)  But Discovery and Picard both had great trailers, and look how they turned out.  As always for a new Star Trek show, I want this to be good.  But I just don’t have much faith that the people behind Star Trek these days have any idea what makes a good Star Trek show.  (Also: why can’t any of the designers working for the Trek movies or series these days design a decent-looking new starship?  Ever since the horrible-looking J.J. Abrams Enterprise it’s been one mess after another.  This new ship is no better.  The TNG-looking saucer looks great.  But what’s with those awkward, ugly pylons connecting the nacelles to the primary hull?  They look terrible — and also don’t make any logical sense.  How could a crew-person get from the saucer section into the engineering section when the two aren’t connected??  Sigh…)

In Star Wars TV news, they’ve announced a new animated series: The Bad Batch.  This will be a spin-off from the animated Clone Wars series, focusing on the group of Clones introduced in the final run of episodes.  I am super-excited for a new Dave Filoni executive produced Star Wars animated series, and the prospect of picking up story and character threads left hanging from the Clone Wars series is very exciting.  On the other hand, I wasn’t so wild about the “Bad Batch” four-part episode of The Clone Wars, and those characters don’t seem to me like such an interesting focal point for a new series.  But I have faith, and I’m excited to see what this will be all about…

Wow!  The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson has released his first new cartoons in 25 years!!  And they’re great!  Check them out here.

This is cool: a great deleted scene from Avengers: Endgame, in which Natasha gets to meet the Smart Hulk.  I’m not certain where exactly this scene would have fit into the movie (it looks like it takes place in Wakanda at the end of Infinity War, but Smart Hulk wasn’t around until after the time jump in Endgame) but it’s a great scene and worth watching.  (Why wasn’t this included on the blu-ray of the film?  The special features on the recent Marvel discs have been disappointing…)

Is there really … [continued]

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