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Star Wars: Episode III

September 16th, 2014
New comics posted daily, Monday through Thursday!

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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]

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Star Trek The Lost Era: One Constant Star

In 2003 Pocket Books published a six-book series called “The Lost Era” that told tales from the almost-century between the end of Star Trek VI and the launch of the Enterprise D in “Encounter at Farpoint,” the premiere episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Since then, there have been only two additional “Lost Era” novels published.  In 2007 we got Christopher L. Bennett’s book The Buried Age, which told what happened to Jean-Luc Picard in the decade between the loss of the Stargazer and his assuming command of the Enterprise D.  (Click here for my review.)  Then, earlier this year, Pocket Books published David R. George III’s novel One Constant Star, which tells a story of the Enterprise B under the command of Demora Sulu.

Star Trek: Generations introduced Hikaru Sulu’s daughter, Demora, as the helmswoman of the Enterprise B.  Several novels set in the years that followed have chronicled Captain Harriman’s years as captain of the Enterprise, and established that Sulu rose through the ranks to eventually assume command of the ship, many years later.  One Constant Star presents us with a Sulu who is already well-established as captain of the Enterprise.  During a mission near Tzenkethi space (these aliens were mentioned but never seen on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and recent Star Trek novels have fleshed out this race and developed them as an adversary of the Federation), an Enterprise landing party discovers a weird situation on the planet Rejarris II.  The planet shows signs of a pre-warp civilization, but there is no sign of life.  What happened to the planet’s inhabitants?

The first half of One Constant Star explores this interesting sci-fi mystery.  I found myself enjoying it, but wondering why this seemingly inconsequential tale warranted a return to “The Lost Era.”  This felt like a story that could have been told with any Trek crew in any era (the TNG crew, Riker’s crew on the Titan, etc.).  In the second half of the book, though, we discover the reason this story is being told, and why this mission was a significant moment in “The Lost Era.”

I think David R. George III is one of the very finest Trek authors out there.  His previous “Lost Era” novel, Serpents Among the Ruins, was phenomenal, one of my very favorite Trek books.  His Crucible trilogy for Star Trek’s 40th anniversary, as well as his recent Typhon Pact/Deep Space Nine duology Plagues of Night and Raise the Dawn are also absolutely spectacular and count among the very best Trek books I have ever read.  One Constant Star, unfortunately, was a bit of a let-down for me.

The preponderance of coincidences upon which this story’s … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Sin City: Dame to Kill For

For me, growing up, Frank Miller was one of the gods of comic books.  He seemed to be a master of the form of a super-hero comic-book, crafting some of the finest mainstream super-hero comic-book stories I had ever read (his long run on Daredevil; Batman: Year One; The Dark Knight Returns; and many others) before moving into less-mainstream, even more interesting work (Ronin, Give Me Liberty, and of course Sin City).  I loved Sin City as a kid.  It was a potent distillation both of Mr. Miller’s incredible drawing style (boiled down into deceptively simple black-and-white with bold shapes and brush-strokes) as well as his writing.  Plus, it had that edge of transgression (Violence!  Nudity!) that made it impossible for a kid to resist.

I enjoyed Robert Rodriguez’s 2005 film Sin City, which adapted three of Mr. Miller’s Sin City yarns: The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill, and That Yellow Bastard.  The film wasn’t perfect.  I thought it moved too fast, not giving the stories enough of a chance to breathe.  I also thought that in places Mr. Rodriguez was too literal in mimicking Mr. Miller’s comic-book panels for the screen in a way that weakened the film.  Example: early in the film, Marv is being cornered by the police, so he busts through his door before they can come in and arrest him.  Mr. Miller drew that like Marv exploding through the door, and it’s a great panel.  But in the film, where Mr. Rodriguez copies that image exactly, it feels like Marv set off a bomb on the door, or like he’s a super-human like Superman.  I don’t think Marv is a super-hero.  He doesn’t have super-powers.  He’s just an incredibly tough lug.  A more naturalistic moment of him breaking down the door would have worked better for me than the super-hero-like explosion we got.  There are lots of little examples like this all through the film.  It’s a question of taste, I guess.  You don’t want to remove all of the craziness and idiosyncrasies of Mr. Miller’s stories, but when translated so literally there were a number of moments that would up reading as too comic-book-silly to me, in a way that undercut the threat and drama of the story being told in the film.

On the other hand, the genius of Mr. Rodriguez’s film, and the reason I loved it as much as I did, was the way he really did bring Mr. Miller’s comic book panels to life.  Making extensive use of computer-generated effects, Mr. Rodriguez created extraordinarily simplified looks to the sets and characters in a way that exactly, and I mean exactly, mimicked Mr. Miller’s drawings.  The whole film was … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Dear Mr. Watterson

September 5th, 2014

The materials for Joel Allen Schroeder’s film Dear Mr. Watterson describe it as “a documentary film about the impact of the best comic strip in the history of the universe.”  That’s a funny line, but also accurate, as I do believe that Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes is probably the finest comic strip that I have ever read.

I first discovered Calvin & Hobbes years ago, when my parents bought me Something Under the Bed is Drooling, the first Calvin & Hobbes collection.  I am not sure how they knew about Calvin & Hobbes — the strip was in its early days; I believe at the time there were only two collections available, maybe three — but I applaud and am grateful for their good taste.

Like millions of readers worldwide, I was immediately hooked, and for the decade that followed I read Calvin & Hobbes religiously in the paper, cutting out and saving my favorite strips, while also of course collecting the book-sized collections every year-or-so when they were published.  The quality of Mr. Watterson’s writing and his artwork were both unparalleled, and together, as every fan knows, they were magic.  Motion Pictures exists because of Bill Watterson and Calvin & Hobbes, and I know that many, many, many more of today’s syndicated comic strips and web-comics are similarly the result of the influence of Mr. Watterson’s brilliant cartoon.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that when I read about Dear Mr. Watterson, a documentary about Calvin & Hobbes, I was interested.

Joel Allen Schroeder’s film is a sweet love-letter from a super-fan to the maker of his favorite comic strip.  The film, though, is far from revelatory when it comes to the story of Mr. Watterson himself or the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip.  I was hoping for more of an exploration of Mr. Watterson’s life and career, and how it was that he developed this extraordinary comic strip.  But the film is very superficial in that respect, and it doesn’t tell us anything that I’d wager even a fairly casual fan of the strip wouldn’t know.  (There’s a whole bit in which Mr. Schroeder goes to look at some original Calvin & Hobbes cartoons, and is amazed that they were drawn larger than the final printed panels appeared in the newspaper.  Well duh!  I know I’m an artist, but surely most people know that the original comics are drawn larger than they are printed, right?  I was rolling my eyes at that.  Don’t go into this film expecting revelations any deeper than that.)

I tend to enjoy documentaries in which the documentarian is a part of the story of the film, but in this … [continued]

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Star Trek The Lost Era: The Buried Age

I read Christopher L. Bennett’s novel The Buried Age back when it was originally released in 2007.  I remembered loving it, and I’ve been wanting o re-read it for a while now.  When the latest “Lost Era” novel was published recently, David R. George III’s One Constant Star, it seemed fitting to return to The Buried Age before reading Mr. George’s new novel.

“The Lost Era” was a six-book series of Star Trek novels published back in 2003 that chronicled some of the events in the approx. eighty years between the end of Star Trek VI and the launch of the Enterprise D in “Encounter at Farpoint.”  (I have reviewed several of these “Lost Era” novels: click here to read my thoughts on The Sundered, Serpents Among The Ruins, and The Art of the Impossible.) Several years later, in 2007, one additional “Lost Era” novel was published, Christopher L. Bennett’s The Buried Age.  That’s been it for the series, until the publication this year of One Constant Star.

The Buried Age takes place over many years, moving from the destruction of Captain Picard’s first ship, the Stargazer, in 2355, to his assuming command of the Enterprise D in 2364 just prior to the TNG pilot episode “Encounter at Farpoint.”  This is fertile grounds for a story, as Mr. Bennett has astutely realized that, though the Stargazer was destroyed many years prior to Picard’s assuming command of the Enterprise, almost nothing had been revealed about what Picard was up to during those missing years.

The book begins with the story of the final day of the Stargazer, and the Ferengi ambush that resulted in the ship’s having to be abandoned.  This is probably my favorite section of the book.  It’s a phenomenally compelling blow-by-blow chronicle of how everything went wrong on board the Stargazer.  Mr. Bennett has taken the hints we got in the first-season TNG episode “The Battle” and brilliantly worked backwards to reconstruct the full story, showing us how Picard could have been taken unawares by the Ferengi.  It’s tough to imagine the Ferengi — not a very threatening species, despite the intention that they would be back when they were initially introduced in the first season of Next Gen — could have possibly beaten Picard and the mighty Stargazer.  Mr. Bennett successfully constructs a scenario in which this seems plausible, while also sticking carefully to the continuity as established in “the Battle,” in which we see that DaiMon Bok was able to recover the Stargazer intact.

Even better than the story of the battle is the story of Picard’s subsequent court-martial, and the end of his relationship with Phillipa Louvois.  Here again, Mr. Bennett … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

September 1st, 2014

I knew of Elaine Stritch mostly from her spectacular recurring role on 30 Rock as Jack (Alec Baldwin)’s imposing mother.  But that was more than enough to interest me in Chiemi Karasawa’s recent documentary about her, titled Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.

Filmed in 2013 and released in February, 2014 (only a few months before Ms. Stritch sadly passed away in July), the film gives us a look back at her incredible life and career while also following her efforts to launch a new tour, in which she would perform songs by Stephen Sondheim.

At eighty-seven years old, Ms. Stritch was long past the age at which most people should undertake such an enormous endeavor.  And indeed, in the film there are some unsettling moments in which we see Ms. Stritch struggling with her performance — her ability to remember her lines, her ability to hit her notes, and all the stamina needed for such a tour.  These moments are hard to watch.  It is toughest when Ms. Stritch herself is forced to confront the limitations imposed on her by her age.

But the film is also incredibly joyous and life-affirming.  It is incredible to watch this grande old dame fight through her limitations and press onward, not giving up, not giving in and fading away into a quiet retirement.

And, of course the primary joy of the film, and, I would say, the primary reason to watch it, is to get to spend some time with this incredible, irrepressable personality.  Ms. Stritch was perfect casting on 30 Rock, and there is quite a lot of Colleen Donaghy in her.  She is an absolute hoot, saying exactly what she is thinking and not pulling punches with anyone.  It is incredible fun getting to watch her interactions with everyone around her.  (I particularly loved getting to know the woman who has become something of an assistant to Ms. Stritch, after having gotten sucked into the powerful gravity-well of Ms. Stritch’s personality.)

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is a great little film, and a worthy swan-song for this incredible woman who so recently passed away.  For anyone who knew her broadway work, and for any younger fans like me who only got to know her through 30 Rock, this is a film worth seeing.… [continued]

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Josh Reviews Snowpiercer

August 29th, 2014

An attempt to reverse global warming has gone catastrophically wrong, resulting in frigid temperatures covering the entire planet and wiping out almost all life on Earth.  The few survivors of humanity exist inside Snowpiercer, an enormous train on a track that circles the globe once each year.  The product of a wealthy inventor, Snowpiercer is a fully self-contained, self-supporting ecosystem.  But within the train, a strict class system has developed, with the wealthy in the front cars living a life of luxury, while the impoverished are crammed in together in the tail section, living in gulag-like conditions.  Curtis (Chris Evans), assisted by the wizened old man Gilliam (William Hurt), decides to start a revolution, breaking out of the tail section and leading his followers through one train-car after another, on their way to the front and the revered, perpetual-motion engine.

Any time I get to see an original work of science fiction I am happy, and the South Korean film Snowpiercer (adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige) sure is original.  The film reminds me of the wacko-crazy extraordinary visual sensibility of Terry Gilliam.  (is it a coincidence that William Hurt’s character is named Gilliam?  I doubt it.)  The movie is gorgeous, a feast for the eyes, with extraordinary work done by the sets and costume departments.  Each train-car is its own unique, fully-contained world.  Each time Curtis and his fellows enter a new car, so are we the audience drawn into a wonderful new, fully-imagined reality.  It is extraordinary.  (All the more-so considering this was far from a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster.)

I am not sure how much of Snowpiercer is meant to be taken literally.  There are many questions I could ask about the logistics of the reality of this sci-fi world within the train.  But I don’t think we’re meant to ask those questions, and the film is strong enough that I never got bogged down in asking myself those questions.  There is extraordinary power in the simple metaphor of the train’s linear class system.  Like the best sci-fi, Snowpiercer dazzles at creating a world outside of our own, while, at the same time, having so much to say about our present-day reality.

The film also reminded me of Apocalypse Now, as with each train-car Curtis’ group passes through, it’s as if they are on their own Heart of Darkness journey down the river into the unknown.  Just like Willard (Martin Sheen’s character in Apocalypse Now), Curtis finds at the end f his journey a figure of complex, ambiguous morality.  And just like for Willard, it is left to Curtis to make the final moral judgment as to whether this individual can be permitted to remain alive.… [continued]