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Guardians of the Galaxy

October 29th, 2014
New comics posted daily, Monday through Thursday!

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Days of De Palma (Part 7): Wise Guys (1986)

Hello!  And so, after a delay of nearly two years, we arrive at the film that nearly derailed my “Days of De Palma” series: 1986′s Wise Guys.  I’m not exactly sure why I avoided watching this film for so long.  I’d never seen the film before and I new next-to-nothing about it.  (I’d never even heard of it before starting work on this De Palma series.)  There was just something about what little I knew about the film that made me think it would be dumb.  My movie “Spidey-Sense” was going off.  So without realizing I was doing it, I kept putting off and putting off watching this film.

But last month I decided the time had come to return to my “Days of De Palma” series and complete my journey through Mr. De Palma’s filmography.  And so I buckled down and popped Wise Guys into my DVD player.

The Italian Harry Valenti (Danny DeVito) and the Jewish Moe Dickstein (Joe Piscopo) are best buddies who are extremely small-time mobsters.  The two men live next door to one another, do everything together, and even have very similar morning routines.  They’re technically in the mob, but they are the smallest of small fries in the criminal undertakings run by mob boss Anthony Castelo (Dan Hedaya).  Their job doesn’t consist of much more than starting Castelo’s car to make sure it won’t explode before Mr. Castelo gets in.  One day Harry and Moe are assigned to place a bet at the racetrack on behalf of their boss.  Harry is convinced he knows which horse will win, and he convinces Moe that they should place Castelo’s money on that horse, and then split the winnings.  Unfortunately, Mr. Costelo had fixed the race, and so by not betting on the horse Costelo told them to bet on, Harry & Moe wind up costing him tens of thousands of dollars.  The two men must flee from the vengeful Castelo and his goons, especially the huge and vicious Frank “The Fixer” Acavano.

Unfortunately, Wise Guys is even worse than I feared it would be.  The film is a catastrophe, through and through.  It’s supposed to be a goofy comedy, but this is one of the most un-funny films I have ever seen.  You can see the flop sweat.  The whole thing is, frankly, embarrassing.

I knew we were in for trouble early on, in the scene in which poor Harry is sent outside to start Mr. Castelo’s car.  Everyone is convinced the car will explode, and Frank is scared out of his wits.  When the people in the neighborhood see that Frank is heading out to start the car, they all flee.  In what is supposed … [continued]

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Days of De Palma Returns!

I am a sucker for series.  Whether we’re talking about novels, comic-books, TV shows, or movies, I love long-form story-telling.  When it comes to stories, I love continuity rather than one-offs.  I’m also something of a collector/completist at heart.  These qualities combine to give me a special joy in reading or watching different works that share some sort of connection, whether it be of theme or a common creator.  Often when I read or watch something, I like to continue on and read or watch similar works, or other works by the same artists/creators.  Recently I was reading some Hellboy/B.P.R.D. comic-books by Mike Mignola, and I was seized by a desire to go back and re-read the entire series from the beginning.  (Thus launching my Great Hellboy Re-Reading Project series of blogs.)

A couple years back, I re-watched Terrence Malick’s WWII film The Thin Red Line after picking it up on a beautiful Criterion Edition DVD.  Re-watching it made me curious to go back and see some of Mr. Malick’s earlier films, the ones that earned him such acclaim.  And so I launched a brief series of blogs which I called “Days of Terrence Malick” (playing with the title of one of Mr. Malick’s famous films, Days of Heaven).  I watched and wrote about The Thin Red Line, Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Tree of Life.

I had fun with that series, and decided it would be fun to launch another, similar series, watching or re-watching the films of another filmmaker.  After batting around some ideas, I settled on Brian De Palma.  Mr. De Palma seemed a good choice as he was a filmmaker of some note, but also one about whom people’s opinions are often split, so it’d be fun to see where my thoughts landed.  I had seen several De Palma films that I was eager to revisit, and there were many other famous films of his that I had never seen.  I figured it’d be fun to dive into his lengthy filmography and write about the films as I went, and at the end I’d have defined my opinion about Mr. De Palma’s work over-all.

I wrote about six of Mr. De Palma’s movies: Carrie (1976); The Fury (1978); Dressed to Kill (1980); Blow Out (1981); Scarface (1983) and Body Double (1984).

But then the series hit something of a snag.  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what happened.  I got busy with other things, and watching the next De Palma film kept getting pushed back and back and back on my “to-do” list.  It probably didn’t help that I wasn’t that excited about watching the next de Palma … [continued]

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Josh Reviews This is Where I Leave You

October 27th, 2014

This is Where I Leave You is written by Jonathan Tropper, adapting his book of the same name, and directed by Shawn Levy, who has directed many popular comedic films, none of which I have ever had any interest in seeing.  (These films include the two Cheaper By the Dozen films, the Steve Martin Pink Panther remakes, the Night at the Museum movies, and others.)  But I was intrigued by This is Where I Leave You because of the phenomenal cast and the interesting premise, and my wife really enjoyed the book on which it is based.

When their father dies, the four Altman children learn that his last wish was that they all return home to sit shiva together for him.  (Sitting shiva is a seven day-long Jewish ritual of mourning.)  Though the family is not Jewishly observant and are estranged from one another, they all agree to do so.  The film follows the seven days during which the Altman family-members are forced to interact with one another under one roof for the first time in many years.

Each member of the family has their problems.  Judd (Jason Bateman) has just discovered that his wife has been sleeping with his boss for the past year.  Wendy (Tina Fey) is trying to handle two young children without much help from her distant businessman husband, and she still carries a torch for the boy who grew up across the street.  The eldest brother, Paul (Corey Stoll), feels that he has carried the family business without any help from his siblings, and also is carrying a lot of tension with his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) because they are having trouble conceiving a child.  The youngest brother, Philip (Adam Driver), is the irresponsible baby of the family, and he’s currently dating a wealthy therapist, Tracy (Connie Britton), who is much older than he is.  These characters are joined by their non-Jewish mother, Hillary (Jane Fonda); Penny (Rose Byrne), the girl who used to have a crush on Judd; Judd’s unfaithful wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer); Judd’s former friend and boss, the loudmouthed D.J. Wade (Dax Shepard); Horry (Timothy Olyphant), the boy next door who years ago suffered a brain injury; and the Altmans’ neighborhood friend who has now become a rabbi, Charles Grodner (Ben Schwartz), who can’t seem to shake his unfortunate childhood nickname of “Boner.”

Just look at those names.  This film boasts an extraordinary ensemble of actors.  I wish they were in a better movie.

Don’t get me wrong, This is Where I Leave You isn’t bad.  It’s just extremely middle-of-the-road.   This is a movie that feels very designed to be appealing to as wide an audience as possible.  I wish that … [continued]

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Late to the Party: True Detective Season One

October 24th, 2014
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It took me a while to find the time to watch True Detective — I’d been interested in the show ever since I first read about it but was so busy last Winter/Spring that it took me a few months to get to it — but holy cow was it worth the wait.  I was absolutely dazzled by this dense, dark noir, brought to life with gorgeous cinematography, brilliant actors, and a rich, complex script.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the first season of True Detective follows the difficult partnership of Louisiana detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrison) and “Rust” Cohle (Matthew McConaughey).  The show’s story unfolds simultaneously in two timelines.  In 1995, we see Hart and Cohle investigate the murder of Dora Kelly Lange, who is found displayed in a ritualistic fashion, bound and posed with a “crown” of antlers on her head.  In 2012, long after their partnership dissolved in acrimony, Hart and Cohle are questioned, separately, about the events of their investigation.

I was blown away right from minute one by this incredible production.  The story is incredibly complex, as we follow Hart & Coehle’s labyrinthine murder investigation while also trying to puzzle out many other questions about what happened to these characters and the others in their orbit in the years between 1995 and 2012.  While the central murder mystery is a compelling hook for the series, what really engages the viewer are the characters. I am hard-pressed to recall such an in-depth character study that I have ever before seen on TV.  Over the course of these eight episodes, we dig deeply into these two incredibly complicated, rich characters of Hart and Coehle.

The casting of friends Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaighey was inspired.  I’m sure it helped the show get made that these two big stars were attached.  But the show works because both men turn in incredible performances, among the very best of their two careers.

It’s amazing how Woody Harrelson once used to be so indelibly defined as the goofily simple, naive Woody Boyd from Cheers.  It’s impressive that he has managed to avoid being type-cast by that iconic role.  Martin Hart is about as far from Woody Boyd as you can get.  Mr. Harrelson is incredible in bringing this arrogant, dick-swinging tough-guy to life.  Marty Hart is a train wreck of a man, and he does some pretty despicable things, but Mr. Harrelson never loses sight of the character’s humanity, and his force of personality is magnetic.

Speaking of magnetic, there is Matthew McConaughey’s home-run of a performance as the withdrawn, mysterious Rusty Cohle.  Rust is just as damaged an individual as Marty is, perhaps even more so.  Whereas the audience thinks … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Drop

October 22nd, 2014

Written by Dennis Lehane (adapting his own short story), The Drop is an extraordinary crime story, one that is hugely compelling and brutally tough.  I loved it.

Tom Hardy plays Bob, the bartender at a small dive in Brooklyn called Cousin Marv’s.  Marv, played by James Gandolfini, doesn’t really own the bar — it’s owned by the mob, and the bar serves as a “drop” where money can be deposited to be laundered.  Marv was once a power player, but now he operates on the fringes.  Bob doesn’t seem to be involved much with any criminal activity, though he’s certainly aware of what happens at Cousin Marv’s bar.  One night two young punks rob the bar.  The mobsters who own the place put pressure on Cousin Marv and Bob to recover their money.  Meanwhile, Bob has begun a tentative relationship with a neighborhood girl, Nadia (Noomi Rapace), after he finds a beaten-up dog in her garbage can and the two start caring for the dog together.  But Nadia has a violent ex-boyfriend who isn’t happy about another man hanging out with the woman who he still considers to be his girl.

These might seem like familiar story tropes, but in the film they are fantastically compelling and unfold in original ways.  The film is an electrifying slow burn, with the tension slowly ratcheting up and up and up until it is nearly unbearable.  I watched the entire last half-hour or so of the film from the edge of my seat.  You spend the whole film knowing that things are going to turn ugly, and you also spend the whole film wondering just how these stories are going to connect.  When they do, it’s an incredible pay-off.

The cast is magnificent.  James Gandolfini is unforgettable in his final major role, playing a man past his prime who is desperate to recapture the moment, now long in the fast, when he was somebody.  Cousin Marv is not Tony Soprano, but he has ambitions to be.  Watching Mr. Gandolfini work in the film twists the knife of his tragic loss.  What a shame this phenomenal actor is gone.

Noomi Rapace has always had something of an otherworldly quality to her, and while I have enjoyed her work before this is the first role in which I really connected to her.  Nadia is as much an enigma to the audience as she is to Bob.  We don’t quite know, until the end, exactly what her play is or what secrets she may be hiding.  And yet, she is as irresistibly compelling to the audience as she is to Bob.  Ms. Rapace brings great humanity to the role, giving Nadia a rich inner life and … [continued]

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Catching Up on My Cartoons: Star Wars Rebels and a Return to The Simpsons

Well, the jury is still out on the over-all success or failure of Disney XD’s new Star Wars animated show, Rebels, but boy, including the droid Captain Rex from Star Tours in the second episode sure makes it hard for me to dislike the show!!  More on that in a moment.

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Star Wars: The Clone Wars ran for five seasons on Cartoon Network, but was cancelled when Lucasfilm was sold to Disney.  That show started out with a truly dreadful animated movie, but somewhat miraculously turned into a pretty great show.  The animated that started out clunky became gorgeous (this season 5 trailer is a great example) and the story-telling, while still designed for an all-ages feel, became much more sophisticated.  The series shifted into a multi-part format, with most stories running for three or four episodes by the show’s end.  Over the seasons, we got to really dig into the scope and breadth of the Star Wars universe and the galaxy-wide Clone Wars in a way that was far more satisfying than the taste of the Clone Wars that the prequel movies gave us.  Eight seasons were planned, which would have taken the show right up to the start of Episode III; it’s a huge disappointment to me that we’ll never get to see this story’s proper conclusion.

But many of the show’s key creative personnel moved right into a new Star Wars animated show for Disney.  This is Star Wars Rebels, which takes place about five years before A New Hope.  The show focuses on a motley band of friends on the run from the Empire.  So far I’ve seen two episodes, the double-length premiere, “Spark of Rebellion,” and a second episode, “Droids in Distress”.  I’ve read some rave reviews of the new show on-line, but I’m not there yet.  I enjoyed these first two episodes enough to keep watching, but I’m not in love with the show yet.  It’s fun, but whereas The Clone Wars felt like it was telling the important stories that the prequel movies skipped, Rebels feels fairly irrelevant, since we know the main story of the fall of the Empire was told in the Original Trilogy.  But I’m hoping that, like The Clone Wars, this series will richen as it ages, deepening the characters and telling more compelling stories.  I’m also hoping that this series will eventually pick up story and character threads left dangling by the never completed Clone Wars.  Obi-Wan Kenobi popped up in the premiere, and I was particularly delighted that Bail Organa appeared in “Droids in Distress.”  If this series eventually builds to tell the story of the formation of the Rebel Alliance, I’d be thrilled for … [continued]

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The Great Hellboy Re-Reading Project Part I: Seed of Destruction

October 17th, 2014
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I was a fan of Mike Mignola’s Marvel and DC work when, in 1994, he launched a new creator-owned comic for Dark Horse Comics with the four-issue mini-series Hellboy: Seed of Destruction.  I’m not sure what drove me to pick up that first issue.  Likely it was my previous enjoyment of Mr. Mignola’s mainstream super-hero work.  It probably also didn’t hurt that Hellboy’s actual first appearance wasn’t in Seed of Destruction #1, but in a cameo in John Byrne’s Next Men #21.  I was a monstrous fan of Mr. Byrne’s magnificent Next Men series, and that might have been what sealed the deal for me with regards to Hellboy.

I enjoyed the first mini-series, and eagerly followed Hellboy for many years that followed.  Mr. Mignola released about one mini-series a year, plus a variety of short stories and a few spin-offs.  After about a decade, Mr. Mignola’s productivity began to decrease (at least in terms of actual comic books published — he was still involved in a variety of projects) and new Hellboy stories became fewer and father between.  Around 2004 was an important turning point for the series.  Mr. Mignola brought in a small group of writers and artists to assist with some spin-off titles, most notably a series of B.P.R.D. mini-series (exploring the supporting cast at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense) and, eventually, to draw the main Hellboy mini-series.  At first I was extremely worried, and not at all eager to see these other writers and artists dilute the quality of the Hellboy stories.  But something magical happened.  Bringing in these talented collaborators allowed Hellboy to flourish, and what had been a sporadic series of mini-series grew to become a whole line of books (albeit one that, thank goodness, has remained small and tightly-knit, avoiding the common mistake that comic-book companies and creators make of overexposing their characters and diluting what had once been a special, unique product).

Today, twenty years into the Hellboy saga, there are often two-to-four Hellboy-related books published every month, and they are all amazing.  Over the years, Mr. Mignola and his team have published a wealth of mini-series focusing on many different characters and corners of the Hellboy universe.  Mr. Mignola and his collaborators have created an extraordinary fantasy universe, and because we don’t have to wait for Mr. Mignola too write and draw every single thing himself, we’ve been treated to lots of different stories that have explored numerous facets of this universe and its characters, their past and present.  Mr. Mignola has kept a very close handle on things and has been centrally involved with all of the new comics, giving the many different mini-series an impressively cohesive … [continued]

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Ok, ready to lose the rest of your day?  You might recall that this past summer, FXX ran a marathon of every single Simpsons episode ever.  Well, apparently a bunch of the best writers for Hitfix.com decided to list their favorite episodes of each day of the marathon.  Five writers each picked their two favorite Simpsons episodes from that day, and wrote about them.  Click here and thank me later.  This is a staggeringly wonderful walk down Simpsons memory lane.  It’s been way too long since I have revisited some of these classic episodes.  Reading those articles makes me want to blow off work for the next week or two of work and just watch old Simpsons DVDs…

Click here for a terrific interview with Nicholas Meyer.  Mr. Meyer is pretty much single-handedly responsible for all of the very best Star Trek ever made.  He wrote and directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and wrote and directed Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and he wrote the vast majority of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.  (He wrote everything that took place on present-day Earth, starting with the immortal Spock line: “Judging from the pollution content of the atmosphere, we have arrived in the latter part of the twentieth century,” all the way through to the escape with the whales.)  Nicholas Meyer is the reason for the odd numbered Star Trek curse (in which fans noticed that the even-numbered original Trek movies are far superior to the odd-numbered ones).  I had no idea he was involved in this Harry Houdini project for the History Channel, but now I am very interested in seeing it!  Mr. Meyer doesn’t work nearly enough to suit me.  It’s fascinating that the History Channel film is based on a biography of Houdini that Mr. Meyer’s father wrote.  The whole interview with Mr. Meyer is terrific, but I particularly loved his answer, at the very end, when asked his opinion of the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films.  ”That’s changing the shape of the bottle.”  (Read Mr. Meyer’s comments to understand the context.)  That is very well-put, and I 100% agree.

StarWars.com has released animatics for four unmade episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  These are four full-length episodes, with complete voice performances and sound effects, it’s just that the rough blocky animatics were never taken to full animation.  These are great episodes, well-worth the time of any fans of the show.  Anakin and Obi-Wan investigate the death of a Jedi on Utapau (a key location in Episode III) and discover that General Grievous is about to acquire a terrible weapon with ties to the secret of the construction of Jedi … [continued]