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Josh Reviews the Interactive Animated Film Batman: Death in the Family

Batman: Death in the Family is the new animated film from DC/Warner Brothers.  For the first time for DC Animation, the film is presented as an interactive experience, with the viewer having several opportunities to choose the fate of the characters, using one’s remote control, as the story unfolds.

The film is based, of course, on Batman: A Death in the Family, the four-issue storyline that ran through Batman #426-429 in 1988.  That story was written by Jim Starlin (creator of Thanos for Marvel) and illustrated by Jim Aparo (one of the most iconic Batman artists of all time) and Mike DeCarlo, with incredibly iconic covers by Mike Mignola.  The end of issue #428 is memorable for asking readers to call a 1-900 number to determine whether Jason Todd, the second Robin after the original Dick Grayson, would live or die.  Fans narrowly voted for him to die, and so he did in the final issue.

I started reading Batman comics soon afterward.  A Death in the Family is one of the first collected editions I ever owned.  (I still have my beat-up, much-re-read copy!)  The events of that story, and the death of Jason Todd, had ripple effects that were felt for years in the DC universe.  In many ways, those ripples are still being felt today.

Seeing as the original comic had a “choose your own adventure” feel to it, with the 1-900 number call-in, this story is a cool choice to use as the basis for an interactive film.  The interactive experience works fairly well.  It’s cool to be able to play a role in deciding how the story unfolds.  Once you get to the end of the story-path you’ve chosen to follow, the disc helpfully provides a simple menu which allows you to easily retrace your steps and to choose different paths.  I appreciated that a lot.

Netflix has pioneered this approach with its two interactive movies, the Black Mirror special Bandersnatch and the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt movie, Kimmy vs. the Reverend.  As much fun as Death in the Family is, it pales somewhat in comparison to those Netflix films.  While the branching options worked well on my blu-ray, there was a longer pause between options than there was in the Netflix specials, which somewhat interrupted the smooth flow of the story.  More importantly, there are far fewer points of choice in Death in the Family than there were in either Netflix special.

That’s my biggest disappointment with this film, actually.  It is advertised, correctly, as a short film.  Most paths through the story offer the viewer between three to seven points of choice, for a total run-time of around twenty minutes.  What we get … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary

November 30th, 2020
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Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest documentary is exactly what it sounds like — a feature-length look back at the making of 1999’s Galaxy Quest!  I makes me so happy that Galaxy Quest is now getting this type of love.  I love Galaxy Quest, and this documentary was a delight from start to finish.  It’s a joyous celebration of this terrific film.  Never Surrender is available to watch right now on Amazon Prime video!

I am not a late arrival to Galaxy Quest love.  Although the film didn’t make much of an impact at the box office when it was originally released, I saw it in theaters and immediately loved it.  I got it immediately, and long before others started describing it as the best Star Trek movie never made, I was saying that to anyone who would listen.  Galaxy Quest is a very funny comedy but it is also an exciting adventure films with real stakes, both physical and emotional.  It’s a spoof of Star Trek but it’s one done with love, not empty mockery, and in its second half the film transforms into a true, exciting Star Trek-style adventure!  These are very difficult balances to strike — that the film manages them so perfectly is the secret to its greatness.  Galaxy Quest is a film I have revisited regularly over the years, and I still find it as delightful now as I did back then.

It makes me so happy that director Jack Bennett and his team share this Galaxy Quest love!!  That love is on full display throughout every frame of this documentary.  Mr. Bennett was able to get the entire Galaxy Quest cast to participate: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Justin Long, Sam Rockwell, Tony Shalhoub, Daryl Mitchell, Enrico Colantoni, Missi Pyle, Rainn Wilson, Patrick Breen, Jed Rees, and more.  I loved how extensively we got to hear from the dilm’s director, Dean Parisot, as well as writer Robert Gordon.  We also get to hear from many of the film’s other key behind-the-camera players, including producer Mark Johnson, executive producer Elizabeth Cantillon, set decorator Linda DeScenna, costume designer Albert Wolsky, visual effects artists Bill George, Shane Mahan, and Mark “Crash” McCreery, editor Don Zimmerman, composer David Newman (whose Galaxy Quest main theme is brilliant) and more.

It sure seems, from the film, that Galaxy Quest is held as dear by the film’s cast and crew as it is by the fans.  That is fun to see.

Speaking of the fans, the film shines a spotlight on several Galaxy Quest fans.  Many of them are famous names!  We get to hear from Star Trek stars Brent Spiner and Will Wheaton; writers/show-runners Damon Lindeloff (Lost, The [continued]

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Josh Reviews Todd McFarlane: Like Hell I Won’t

The documentary Todd McFarlane: Like Hell I Won’t shines a spotlight on the incredible career of superstar comic book artist Todd McFarlane.

Todd McFarlane shot to super-stardom in the late eighties when he took over as the artist of Marvel’s The Amazing Spider-Man comic book series.  His incredibly unique and dynamic illustrations won him legions of fans, as well as the ire of many editors and older comic-book pros who didn’t care for his break-all-the-rules approach to comic book illustration.  I remember clearly discovering Mr. McFarlane’s work on Amazing Spider-Man and being absolutely blown away.  I eagerly followed him when Marvel gave him his own brand-new Spider-Man book to write and draw (a book whose first issue smashed all previous sales records, selling 2.5 million copies).  In the nineties, Mr. McFarlane and a group of other superstar Marvel artists broke away to form their own company, Image.  This was an industry-shaking event at the time, and Image continues to thrive to this day.  At Image, Mr. McFarlane created his own new super-hero, Spawn.  That comic continues to be published today, recently publishing its three hundredth issue, a record-breaking number for an independently-published, creator-owned comic book.  (Dave Sim’s Cerebus was published for 300 issues.  No other series has even come close… though Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon, another Image book, is getting there…!)  I followed Mr. McFarlane to Spawn in 1992 when the series began, and I read the series for about 50 issues.  (Ultimately, I didn’t love Mr. McFarlane’s writing, and the series didn’t hold my interest after the excitement of the initial few years.)

Mr. McFarlane is one of the most famous and successful comic book artists of all times.  He’s notable not just for his incredible art skills, but for his role in creating Image, a place where comic-book artists could create and own their own projects (as opposed to doing work-for-hire jobs for Marvel or DC).  Mr. McFarlane has succeeded in expanding his character, Spawn, into a movie and a TV show, and he is the CEO of McFarlane Toys, a company that revolutionized the collectible toy market.  Mr. McFarlane has long has a reputation for his forward-thinking and his deep stubbornness, characteristics that have contributed to his successes and also gotten him into trouble over the years.

He’s a terrific subject for a documentary, and I was eager to learn more about his life and work in this film.

I enjoyed Todd McFarlane: Like Hell I Won’t.  I appreciated seeing the curtain pulled back (somewhat) on Mr. McFarlane’s life.  It was fun getting to see his offices; getting to see him work on illustrating comic book pages (I was interested to see that draws using both traditional … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Parker (2013)

I’ve had a fun time watching the many films based on Donald E. Westlake (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark)’s Parker Character.  I really enjoyed 1967’s Point Blank (click here for my review) and 1968’s The Split (click here for my review).  I thought 1973’s The Outfit was a step down, though I did still enjoy the film.  (Click here for my review.)  I thought 1983’s Slayground was a dud.  (Click here for my review.)  I enjoyed the 2006 Director’s Cut of Payback (which was released theatrically in 1999), though wow, was it dark!  (Click here for my review.)  And now we’ve arrived at 2013’s Parker, starring Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez.

I remember seeing trailers for this film when it came out, but I ignored them because Parker looked like yet another generic Jason Statham action vehicle.  I actually quite like Mr. Statham as an actor!  I thought he was a hoot in Guy Ritchie’s early films like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, and he is hilarious in Paul Feig’s 2015 film Spy.  But I haven’t been interested by the many bland-looking action films he’s been putting out for the past decade or so.  Similarly, I know Jennifer Lopez can be a terrific actor.  I think she’s spectacular in Out of Sight, for instance.  I just haven’t been interested in most of the films she’s been in lately.  So while I skipped Parker back in 2013, I was curious to give the film a chance now.  They actually let the filmmakers use the Parker name!  Did that give reason to hope the film had merit??

Parker is adapted from the novel Flashfire.  Jason Statham stars as Parker.  When the film opens, he’s working with a crew in a heist, robbing a state fair.  As usual in these Parker stories, he winds up double-crossed and left for dead.  But he survives, and sets to hunting down his former crew to get revenge.  He tracks them down to Palm Beach, Florida, where they’re working on their next big job.  While undercover, Parker’s path crosses with Leslie (Jennifer Lopez), a smart, capable real estate agent who is desperate to get out of her unfortunate situation.  (She’s heavily in-debt and stuck living with her mother.)  Leslie figures out that the under-cover Parker isn’t the wealthy Texan he claims to be, and the two work together to take down Parker’s former crew and get away with the loot.

Parker isn’t bad.  It’s better than I expected.  The cast is strong, and there are some well-executed sequences.  But it’s also not as good as it could have/should have been.  The … [continued]

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News Around the Net

Wow — Wonder Woman 1984 will be released on HBO Max on Christmas Day!  AND the film will also be showing in theaters.  This is a very interesting strategy.  I’m sure that most struggling theatre chains are happy to have this film showing theatrically — and I am overjoyed that I’ll be able to watch it, safe at home, on HBO Max.  This is far preferable to having to wait another year.

Interesting news that Warner Brothers (and J.K. Rowling) have dropped Johnny Depp from the in-production third Fantastic Beasts film.  I wasn’t happy when Mr. Depp appeared at the end of the first Fantastic Beasts film (as I noted in my original review).  My objection at the time had nothing to do with Mr. Depp’s personal life; it’s just that the days of his being an actor whose choices interested me seemed long past.  In my opinion, they should have replaced him before they made the second film.  (These allegations in the dueling lawsuits with his ex-wife Amber Heard are not new.)  It’s wild that they’re re-casting this major role right smack in the middle of the series.  (In the original Harry Potter film series, they had to recast Dumbledore mid-series due to the passing of Richard Harris, and that series went on just fine.)  I am extremely curious to see who steps into this major villain role as Grindelwald!  (UPDATE: It might be Mads Mikkelsen!!  What a perfect choice!!  Oh, now I am excited…)

I’ve enjoyed several of the documentary series on Disney+, such as The Imagineering Story, Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian, and Into the Unknown: The Making of Frozen II.  I’m excited for this new series, Inside Pixar:

This is amazing: a trailer for a (still in-process) documentary on the making of the legendary (and legendarily terrible) Star Wars Holiday Special:

That trailer is dynamite.  (I love all the clips from the pop culture references to the Holiday Special, especially that great Robot Chicken sketch.)  I can’t wait to see this, when it’s finished!

Here’s a new trailer for Zack Snyder’s “Snyder Cut” of Justice League:

That’s basically just a colorized version of the first teaser, but it’s fun to see.  As I’ve stated before, I doubt this new version is going to suddenly erase all the flaws in the theatrical version, but I’m definitely interested in seeing what Mr. Snyder has cooked up. It’s cool to see Darkseid (though I’m not impressed by the CGI version of the character in that trailer).  I’m more intrigued by all the other new footage and glimpses of stories and characters excised from the theatrical version.  I can’t wait for this … [continued]

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How to Watch Star Wars: The Clone Wars!

In the tradition of my previous blog posts How to Start Watching (and Fall in Love with) Star Trek and How to Watch Battlestar Galactica, I am proud to present my guide to How to Watch Star Wars: The Clone Wars!

Is there a better time to dig into this Star Wars animated series than following last week’s spectacular episode of The Mandalorian??  Not only did we get to see Katee Sackhoff play Mandalorian Bo-Katan, a character who she voiced on the animated Clone Wars and Rebels series, in live-action for the first time (a brilliant and joyous development), but we also heard the name Ahsoka Tano — a central figure in the animated Clone Wars — spoken aloud!!  (There have been rumors for months that Ahsoka would make the leap into live-action in this season of The Mandalorian.)

It’s very cool to me that there is an entire universe of animated Star Wars stories that many fans of the live-action films have not experienced.  The brilliant final episodes of The Clone Wars series were some of the greatest Star Wars stories I have ever seen, and those final episodes cemented the series, in my mind, as an essential part of the overall Star Wars saga.

It’s incredibly exciting to me that The Mandalorian is bringing characters and story-lines from the animated shows into the live-action Star Wars universe!  This makes sense, because there is continuity behind the scenes.  Jon Favreau, who crated The Mandalorian, voiced a Mandalorian character, Pre Vizla, on Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  And Dave Filoni, who oversees The Mandalorian along with Mr. Favreau, was also in charge of both Star Wars: The Clone Wars and the subsequent animated series, Star Wars: Rebels!  

Star Wars: The Clone Wars is set between Episode II and Episode III.  It tells the full story of the Clone Wars.  The series began with a movie released to theaters in 2008, and then ran for five seasons on Cartoon Network from 2008-2012.  Although eight series were originally planned, the series was cancelled when Lucasfilm was sold to Disney.  Thirteen episodes that had already been completed for season six were released to Netflix in 2014.  Then, just last year, Mr. Filoni and his team reassembled to complete and release twelve additional episodes for Disney+, including the originally-planned four-part series finale.

I am a huge fan of this series!  I would argue that the Clone Wars cartoon (and the subsequent series, Rebels), contain some of the best characters and stories Star Wars has ever told!  Ahsoka Tano, Captain Rex, and Darth Maul are now among my very favorite all-time Star Wars characters.  Yes, you read that right.  The first … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Memory: The Origins of Alien

November 16th, 2020

Memory: The Origin of Alien is a feature-length film chronicling the making of Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 film Alien, as well as a deep-dive exploration into its origins and its themes.  The film was directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, and features extensive interviews with many of the men and women involved with the production of Alien, as well as numerous scholars and authors who appear to have devoted quite a lot of thought to the film!

I’m a huge fan of Alien, and I was immediately interested when I heard of this documentary film’s existence.  At the same time, the Alien Quadrilogy box-set of DVDs or blu-rays boast some of the very best making-of documentaries that I’ve ever seen.  The discs feature hours of special features, lovingly created by Charles de Lauzirika.  Those documentaries are amazing, filled with insight into almost every detail of the Alien’s production.  I love them so much.  (For a full review of the Alien Quadrilogy, and an in-depth look at the special features, check out this review by Bill Hunt at thedigitalbits.com.  It’s worth noting, for Alien fans, that the Alien 3 documentaries on the original Alien Quadrilogy DVD set were censored by Fox, with about 21 minutes cut out.  This was mostly footage dealing with director David Fincher’s frustrations.  On the blu-ray set, renamed the Alien Anthology, all of the footage has been restored.  FYI, that set is currently available for at a great price at Amazon.)

So while I was interested in this new documentary, I wondered how much there was left to learn about Alien!

In some ways, not very much.  But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy watching Memory!

Memory sets out to be something very different than Mr. Lauzirika’s documentaries, which were focused on exploring the details of the making of the film, from pre-production through production through post-production.  Don’t get me wrong, Memory does spend some time on the action production of Alien.  In particular, there’s a lengthy sequence exploring the iconic chest-burster sequence, with a ton of wonderful behind-the-scenes footage showing the effort that went into creating that scene.  I loved that.  But Memory is more interested in digging deep into the film’s influences, into all of the disparate elements that came together in Dan O’Bannon’s original script that was the foundation of the film.  And Memory is also interested in exploring the film’s themes and meaning, and so the documentary spends a lot of time allowing us to hear lovers of this film dig deeply into what it’s all about and why it struck such a chord in so many people.  And so the result is that Memory is pleasingly and … [continued]

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Josh Enjoys Song Exploder’s Spotlight on Lin-Manuel Miranda and “Wait for It”

Song Exploder, created by Hrishikesh Hirway, began as a podcast.  Each episode focuses on the development of a specific song/piece of music.  It’s now also become a half-hour TV show on Netflix.  The first batch of four episodes launched in September.  The next four arrive in December.  So far I’ve only seen one episode, an exploration of the Burr’s show-stopping song “Wait For It” from Hamilton.  But that one episode was so good I wanted to post about it!

The spine of the episode is a conversation between Mr. Hirway and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Alex Lacamoire (who was the Music Director, Orchestrator, and Conductor for Hamilton).  There’s also an extensive interview with Thomas Kail, who directed Hamilton.

As the episode unfolds, we hear the three men chart the development of that specific song.  They discuss the development of the lyrics and the music.  Mr. Hirway goes carefully through the song, selecting specific elements to discuss with Mr. Miranda & co., allowing them to share details on how the many pieces of the song came together.  The conversation feels intimate, and it’s packed full of all sorts of incredible details and asides.  There was a lot of musical jargon that went way over my head but that I suspect musicians will eat up.  (And none of that prevented me from enjoying the conversation.)

The show utilizes some simple but fun animation to accompany the audio recordings that are utilized throughout the episode.  It’s a clever way to bring some visual life to what could have been boring moments of people just listening to music.

My favorite moment in the episode comes after Mr. Miranda describes the subway ride to a friend’s party, on which he first came up with some key elements of the song.  Walking around on the street, he recorded a voice memo to himself with the music that had just come into his head.  The episode then allows us to actually hear that recording!  It’s wild.

For all the music lovers out there, I suspect there’s a lot in this series for you to enjoy!  Check it out.

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