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February 23rd, 2015
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Days of De Palma (Part 14): Snake Eyes (1998)

A few years ago I decided to start watching all of the films directed by Brian De Palma.  He’d always struck me as a very interesting director, one who had helmed a variety of very different films, and about whom there seemed to be a strong split in critical opinion.  I knew that there were several De Palma films that I had seen and enjoyed, and many more that I had not seen but was curious about.  And so my “Days of De Palma” series began.  It’s taken me far longer than I’d expected to make my way through Mr. de Palma’s filmography, I kept getting distracted and moving onto other things, but I never gave up and I am happy to say that, as I write this, I have completed my viewing project.  Now all that remains is for me to write about this last stretch of films!  Let’s begin with Snake Eyes.

Snake Eyes

I believe that Mission: Impossible was the first Brian De Palma film that I ever saw in theatres, back in 1996.  I really liked that film, and so when Mr. De Palma’s follow-up film, Snake Eyes, was released, I remember being eager to see it.  The film was something of a critical dud, but my recollection of seeing it in a theater was being really blown away by it.  I hadn’t seen the film in the two decades since, and so as I was making my way through this “Days of De Palma” viewing project this was the film I was most eager to revisit.

Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) is a fast-talking Atlantic City police detective.  His best friend is US Navy Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinese).  Rick considers himself the master of his town, a mover and shaker who is buddy-buddy with everyone important and always knows the score, but that certainty is shattered when the Secretary of Defense is assassinated under Rick’s nose at a boxing max.  Rick struggles with increasing desperation to unravel the complicated mess that he has found himself smack in the middle of, but it’s possible he never had a chance.

I know this film doesn’t have a great reputation, but I don’t understand that at all.  Watching this film again I enjoyed it every bit as much as I had originally twenty years ago.

First of all, David Koepp’s script is terrific, a nice taut, twisty mystery.  I have commented before that I believe Mr. De Palma is at his best when working from a strong script (I think blame for most of Mr. De Palma’s stinkers can be laid at the feet of those films’ poor scripts) so it’s great to see Mr. De Palma working here on … [continued]

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Tales From the Blu-Ray Shelf

Not long after checking out the extended cut of Batman v. Superman (click here for my review on this “Ultimate Edition”), I decided to watch the recently-released-to-disc extended cut of Ridley Scott’s The Martian.  I adored that film when it was released (and it was my second favorite film of 2015), and Ridley Scott has released some wonderful extended directors’ cuts of his films (most notably, as I mentioned in that Batman v. Superman review, Mr. Scott’s magnificent extended version of Kingdom of Heaven, which transformed a disastrous failure into a near-masterpiece), so I was curious to see this extended version of a film I already loved.

Whereas some extended editions transform a film, the extended version of The Martian is only very marginally different than the theatrical version.  It’s about ten minutes longer, but the vast majority of the additions are subtle extensions to previously-existing scenes; an extra line of dialogue here, an extra beat there.  The only completely-new sequence that I noticed was a brief bit (taken from the book) in which we see Mark Watney working to finish the science experiments that his crew-mates left behind when they aborted the mission.  These additions are nice and allow the story to breathe a bit, but they don’t substantially change the film.  I am not sure what my preferred version of The Martian will be going forward; I suspect it might be the slightly-more-concise theatrical cut.

The blu-ray of the extended cut also has a more substantial set of special features than the original blu-ray/DVD release.  Charles de Lauzirika has, for years, been creating extraordinarily in-depth “making-of” features for the DVD/blu-ray releases of Ridley Scott’s films.  This new blu-ray features the expected complete “making-of” documentary that I was surprised was missing from the original release; albeit one that is shorter than usual for Mr. Lauzirika’s usual work for Mr. Scott (running about an hour and ten minutes).  It’s a wonderful documentary, though one that doesn’t ever get quite as in-depth as those Mr. Lauzirika has created for some of Mr. Scott’s other films.

Speaking of which, a few weeks ago I watched Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings for the first time (click here for my review).  While that film was a failure, the blu-ray release contained an extraordinary, two-and-a-half-hour “making-of” documentary by Mr. Lauzirika.  I am surprised that Exodus, which was a dud, has such an elaborate “making-of” documentary while The Martian, which was a far more successful film, has a less-substantial one.  It’s weird.  Regardless, watching the “making-of” documentary for Exodus is arguably more fun than watching the film itself.  It’s fascinating (and a little sad) to see the incredible effort that so many … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black Season Four

The fourth season of Orange is the New Black picks up right after the end of season three with the arrival of a large batch of new prisoners to Litchfield.  The new prisoners, along with a new cadre of COs led by the military Piscatella, added a variety of interesting new characters and stories to the series this season, though I was also pleased by the way season four continued to explore and deepen so many of the familiar characters who make up the Litchfield prison inmates and staff.

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I am pleased that I am enjoying Orange is the New Black as much as I am, this deep into the show’s run.  The show has wisely done what many felt it should have done from the beginning — pushed Piper somewhat to the background, shifting her from being the lead character to being just one member of the show’s vast ensemble.  Piper made sense as the audience surrogate character back in season one.  A key element of that first season was the way the show put the viewer into Piper’s shoes, exploring what it would be like for a relatively sheltered middle-class white person to suddenly be sent to prison.  That worked great in season one.  But the great discovery of that first season — and, I think, the main reason the show worked as well as it did — was the extraordinary richness of all the other (mostly non-white) characters in the prison.  As the show moved into seasons two and three, the Piper character began to feel far less interesting than so many of the other characters, and I started to resent a bit the time spent with her.  I like the new balance that season four has struck.  Piper is still an important character on the show, but she doesn’t feel dramatically more important than Red, or Taystee, or Crazy Eyes, or any of the other characters, and the time given to each of their story-lines felt more balanced to me.

The show has an embarrassment of riches, now, in terms of great characters.  There are so many wonderful characters, all of whom need to be serviced by the show, that this means that sometimes great characters have to be pushed into the background for a time — for instance, Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) doesn’t have much to do this season until the final few episodes — which is a shame but understandable.  For the most part, I was very pleased with the way the show gave time and attention this season to so many of its characters.  OK, there wasn’t such a meaty story-line for Crazy Eyes, but on the other hand there was GREAT stuff … [continued]

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Josh Reviews HBO’s All The Way

The HBO film All the Way, directed by Jay Roach and written by Robert Schenkkan (adapting his play of the same name), is an in-depth look at the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.  Specifically, All the Way focuses on the time between Johnson’s stepping into the Presidency following JFK’s assassination in 1963 and his re-election in 1964, and his long journey during that times working to get Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The film explores President Johnson’s often cantankerous, adversarial manner, and explores his relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other key figures in his administration and in Congress.

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I very much enjoyed All the Way.  Jay Roach has made some wonderful political films in the past (Recount, Game Change), and he continues that win streak here.  I loved the way the film so deeply explores the nuts and bolts of how the sausage gets made in governance.  The film spends a tremendous amount of time following all of the political maneuverings that President Johnson had to do, over the course of such a long period of time, to ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  I suppose some might find that boring, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  (Though I freely admit the film’s lengthy run-time is challenging.  I watched it over two nights, which I think is a good way to enjoy this film, more as a mini-series than as one single long film.)

As I was watching All the Way, I was struck by the ways in which it felt to me like something of a counterpoint to the recent film Selma.  I adored that film, but like many reviewers I was struck by the ways in which that film seemed to minimize the involvement of President Johnson in Dr. King’s attempts to ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  In many ways, Selma cast LBJ in something of a villainous role, as someone obstructing Dr. King’s efforts.  Here in All the Way, it seems like we get a completely different picture.  LBJ is squarely the central heroic figure of this film, and instead it is Martin Luther King, Jr. who feels minimized, and cast in the role of someone who is not so helpful in ensuring the bill’s passage into law, but who is instead someone LBJ has to maneuver to get to do what he wants.  Reality, I suppose, is somewhere in between.

The chief reason to watch this film is to enjoy Bryan Cranston’s fierce, mesmerizing performance as Lyndon B. Johnson.  Mr. Cranston eats up every inch of the role, commanding the screen in his bulldog-like depiction of President Johnson.  This is a bravura, … [continued]

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Josh Actually Doesn’t Hate the Extended “Ultimate Edition” of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice!

So, yeah, I wrote a pretty scathing review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and also of the DC follow-up film Suicide Squad.  I wouldn’t have imagined that I’d be in any sort of rush to watch Batman v Superman again any time soon (or even ever).  But when I read that Warner Brothers was releasing a new cut of Batman v. Superman (I’m just refusing to keep writing out Dawn of Justice, OK?) with almost thirty minutes added into the film, I found that, despite myself, I was intrigued.  Thirty minutes is a lot of additional footage.  Was it possible that this longer cut salvaged the mess that I had seen in the theatre?  I doubted that this was a Kingdom of Heaven situation (in which a truncated to the point of being almost nonsensical version was released to theatres and was rightfully savaged by critics as being terrible; and then when Ridley Scott’s much-longer director’s cut was released to DVD we all discovered that the film was, lo and behold, almost a masterpiece), but was there a chance this longer version might salvage the film?  I was dubious but, like Fox Mulder, I wanted to believe.

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Well, I am pleased to report that the “Ultimate Edition” of Batman v Superman is actually, wait for it, not entirely terrible!  It is actually sort of almost OK.

Most of the major flaws of Zack Snyder’s film remain.  The film almost completely misunderstands the characters of both Batman and Superman, turning Superman into a dopey, wishey-washy moron and Batman into a criminal-murdering crazy-person.  The film’s version of Lex Luthor is lame and criminally disappointing.  The way glimpses of all the Justice League characters are inartfully shoehorned into the movie is painful, and Batman’s long dream/vision/whatever of a future in which Darkseid controls Earth and Superman is his lackey is head-scratchingly confusing and totally out of place stuck in the middle of the film.  The entire extended climax is a disaster, in which Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman don’t talk to one another at all while spending an inordinate amount of time punching an ugly, horrible CGI creation and Superman sacrifices himself for no reason when Wonder Woman (who doesn’t happen to be deathly allergic to Kryptonite) could have easily killed Doomsday with that spear.

But the new material provides a lot of useful connective tissue for the film’s various interwoven stories, and at last I can understand what Zack Snyder’s vision was for the film: a dark, complex epic that attempted to blend the ultra-serious and “grounded” approach that Christopher Nolan used so successfully in his trilogy of Batman films with more of an embrace of large-scale super-powers … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Stranger Things

September 19th, 2016
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Stranger Things, created by the Duffer Brothers, is an eight-episode Netflix mini-series.  Set in Indiana in 1983, the story begins with the disappearance of twelve-year-old boy, Will Byers, in mysterious and possibly supernatural circumstances.  Will’s three best friends Mike, Lucas, and Dustin set out to investigate what happened to their friend.  They soon meet a mysterious, near-mute girl who goes only by the name Eleven who seems to have telekinetic powers.  Does the government facility from which Eleven has apparently escaped have a connection to Will’s disappearance?  Will’s distraught mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) is also desperately searching for her son, and she becomes convinced that she has been able to be in contact with him somehow through the electronics in her house.  Although the town Sheriff, Hopper (David Harbour), who has a past with Joyce, is at first dubious of Joyce’s claims, he gradually becomes convinced that she might be on to something.  Mike’s sister Nancy is going through her own drama, entering a new relationship with Steve Harrington, one of the most popular boys at school.  But when she sees something terrible in the woods behind Steve’s house, she and Will’s weird, outsider brother Jonathan start doing their own looking-into the weird happenings in their small town.

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Stranger Things is a lot of fun, and I very quickly got sucked right into the story being told.  The series is a loving homage to a whole host of influences that many who were kids in the eighties (as I was!) likely have a wonderful warm nostalgic feelings for: Amblin Entertainment and the films of Steven Spielberg, particularly E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial; and also The Goonies, which was directed by Richard Donner and released by Amblin; and also the novels of Stephen King.  There are a lot of common narrative threads that run through those stories, which have been adapted here in Stranger Things: a story set in a small American town with supernatural elements, focuses on a group young kids who come together to go on the adventure.  The combination of a coming-of-age story with some sort of adventure/supernatural/sci-fi element proved a potent combination for so many of those great movies/novels/etc. in the eighties and the combination works every bit as well here in Stranger Things.  The show is filled with lots of little touches that are designed to strike that nostalgia chord in viewers, such as the very distinct font for the show and episode titles in the opening credits, as well as the sight of the boys riding around their small town on their bicycles.  These elements are fun, but luckily they don’t overwhelm the show to become nothing more than reminders of things we’ve seen in other things … [continued]

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Star Trek: Armageddon’s Arrow

At the conclusion of the galaxy-reshaping events of 2013′s five-novel crossover series, “The Fall,” Captain Picard and the crew of the USS Enterprise E embarked on a new mission of exploration and discovery.  In Dayton Ward’s excellent novel, Armageddon’s Arrow, Picard and his crew stumble into the middle of a war between two neighboring alien races, the Golvonek and the Raqilan.  The Enterprise encounters a gigantic, planet-destroying super-weapon, sent from the future by one side to annihilate the other.  While Captain Picard hopes that the discovery of this weapon might spur the two sides to come to the negotiating table and pursue peace, rather than this future of mutual annihilation, he instead finds a situation quickly threatening to spiral out of control as both sides seek to gain control of the super-weapon and its secrets from the future.  An already difficult situation is further complicated as Picard weighs his obligations to his oath of non-interference, his responsibility to protect the timeline, and his guilt at the Enterprise’s role in discovering the super-weapon.  Is there any way out of this impasse?

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While I was somewhat disappointed by the first stand-alone post-”The Fall” novel, Takedown, Dayton Ward’s Armageddon’s Arrow shows ‘em how its done.  While Armageddon’s Arrow is (like Takedown) also a stand-alone adventure with a new sci-fi mystery/situation for Picard and his crew to unravel, it’s successful because not only is the new sci-fi situation rewardingly rich and complex as it unfolds, but because the novel also focuses deeply on the characters, exploring many of the crew-members of Picard’s Enterprise E and moving their stories forwards.

While familiar characters such as Captain Picard, Doctor Crusher, Worf and Geordi are very much front-and-center in the novel, Armageddon’s Arrow takes the time to shine a spotlight on many other members of the Enterprise crew, most of who have been created for Pocket Books’ post-Nemesis-set Trek novels from the past decade-plus.  We see the part-Vulcan first-contact specialist T’Ryssa Chen struggle with her feelings of uselessness on board a starship that has, for years, been engaged in local political struggles rather than exploring strange new worlds, and also with her conflicted feelings toward Lieutenant Commander Taurik (a character introduced in the TNG episode, Lower Decks who has been enjoyably fleshed out in these post-Nemesis novels) as well as the Betazoid security officer Rennan Konya.  We see the progression of Geordi’s relationship with the doctor Tamala Harstad, introduced back in Paths of Disharmony (she and Geordi have moved in together as the novel opens), and I was pleased to see Dr. Harstad also get involved in the story as more than just geordi’s love-interest, as she is a member of the way … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Animated Adaptation of Batman: The Killing Joke

Released in 1988, Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland is widely considered a masterpiece, one of the greatest Batman/Joker stories ever told. And yet, over the last few years I have noticed something of a critical re-approximation of the work, with many finding fault with the story, primarily because of the degrading act perpetuated upon Barbara Gordon, and the way that act is used primarily to drive the actions of the male characters (Batman and the Joker) rather than in any way exploring the impact if that act on Barbara herself.

This is a perfectly valid criticism of The Killing Joke, and I can understand why some reject the tale entirely.  For myself, I can still appreciate the story in the context in which it was made, going on almost thirty years ago now, and I can appreciate the incredible artistry of the writing and gorgeous illustration work, even as I freely admit to being troubled, as a modern reader, by certain aspects of the story.

The decision to adapt the story for an animated DVD/blu-ray raised my eyebrows, because the not-for-children content of The Killing Joke is central to the story.  Recognizing that, the folks at Warner Animation made the decision to not pull any punches in the adaptation and allow it to earn an R rating.  I must confess that I am somewhat torn about this.  On the one hand, I have long been a champion of the idea that comics, and animation, do not have to be limited to being media for children.  I love the idea of an animated film embracing adult ideas and concepts.  On the other hand, The Killing Joke is so controversial, and such a product of its time, that I wonder whether it was really the best idea as a subject for an adaptation?  To be honest I am not entirely sure where I come down on this question.

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Unfortunately, this animated adaptation of The Killing Joke is something of a mess.  To address the criticisms of the original story’s treatment of Batgirl, the filmmakers made the very curious decision to add a lengthy prologue — forty minutes long, almost half the length of the whole feature! — that focuses on Batgirl.  In theory I understand why this is done, but in execution it fails almost completely.  The actual content of this forty minute prologue has problems (which I will discuss in a moment) but the biggest problem is that this sequence — which feels like a full episode of Batman the Animated Series tacked on at the beginning of the story — totally unbalances the film as a whole.  The events of the prologue don’t have any … [continued]