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February 23rd, 2015
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Josh Reviews Arrival

December 1st, 2016
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As the film Arrival opens, we are introduced to Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist living a quiet, solitary life following the death of her daughter.  That life is shaken when Earth is visited by extra-terrestrial life, with twelve enormous round objects appearing in different locations around the globe.  Dr. Banks is visited by US Army Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker), who tasks her to join a team working to find a way to communicate with the alien life-forms (huge creatures that the human scientists refer to as “heptapods”) within one of the objects/ships.  Dr. Banks is paired up with a physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and together they work to find some way to translate the mysterious, circular shape-based written language of the alien heptapods so that they can discover why the aliens have come to us.

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Arrival is a magnificent film, a gorgeous, original, cerebral sci-fi story.  The film has the visual splendor of a big-budget movie, but this is not an action-adventure film, rather this is an intelligent drama that is a fascinating exploration of language and communication.  I was enormously impressed by the way the film was able to take these difficult-to visualize concepts and bring them to glorious visual life.

While the film has a very quiet, elegiac tone throughout most of its run time, don’t mistake my calling the film cerebral to mean that it doesn’t have a heartbeat.  I was very surprised by how emotionally affecting I found Arrival to be, as the film is as much about the emotional internal life of Dr. Banks (Amy Adams’ character) as it is about the scientific story of language and communication.  The developments in the final twenty minutes or so of the film are devastating — heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measure, an extremely difficult balance to achieve — and I find that I have been continually thinking about this film ever since seeing it.

There are some wonderfully mind-bending aspects to the film’s third act, and this is a film I am eager to see again so I can see how it plays knowing where the story winds up.  At first viewing, I was enormously impressed by the careful way in which the story was constructed, with all the different pieces fitting together beautifully in the end.  The film was directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, adapting the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.  Together, this team has crafted an intricate puzzle of a film that was assembled with great skill and craft.

Amy Adams is magnificent in the lead role.  She develops the character of Louise Banks through a lot of small gestures and quiet moments, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

November 29th, 2016
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Set more than a half a century before the events of the seven Harry Potter books (and the eight movie adaptations), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them introduces us to a young man named Newt Scamander.  Mr. Scamander was mentioned in the original Harry Potter series as the author of a textbook called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  This film of the same name introduces us to Mr. Scamander as a young man, traveling to New York City with a suitcase full of magical creatures.  When several creatures are accidentally set loose, Mr. Scamander and several new friends — the magic-wielding sisters Tina and Queenie, as well as the No-Maj (non-magical) Jacob Kowalski — set off to recapture them.  All the while, though, a terrible threat haunts New York City…

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I can completely understand the desire to continue the Harry Potter saga beyond the adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter novels.  I can of course see the studios’ financial desire — the eight Harry Potter films were huge money-makers, so of course the studio would want to make more .  But as a fan, I can also understand the desire to tell more stories in this rich universe.  Although the seven books told the story of Harry Potter, and that story has been completed, the wizarding world created by Ms. Rowling — and brought to life on-screen by so many talented craftsmen and women — has such life in it that I can see there being plenty of room for further adventures.  Just as I believe there is room for more Star Wars adventures beyond the story of the Skywalker family (and I am excited to see the first on-screen attempt at this, Rogue One, in just a few weeks!), so too do I believe there is room for additional Harry Potter adventures that don’t involve Harry Potter.

So I have no automatic objection to the notion of a Harry Potter spin-off film.  And this film has been assembled with some key creative people in place to help make this feel like a legitimate expansion of the Harry Potter universe rather than a cheap cash-grab.  First and foremost, the script was written by J.K. Rowling herself.  What better way could there possibly be to ensure that this spin-off is legitimate??  It’s a clever move, and although Ms. Rowling did not write any of the screenplays for the previous Harry Potter films, her work here is strong.  But it’s the legitimacy that her involvement gives Fantastic Beasts that is the most important aspect of her participation, I think.  On the film-making side, Fantastic Beasts is directed by David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter films.  … [continued]

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We’ve been getting some fun teases lately for Guardians of the Galaxy volume 2.  (Great title, by the way.)  This is a solid poster and the tag-line, “obviously”, is genius.  And then there is this tantalizing new trailer:

That hits all the right notes for me.  Love it.

After the release of a series of photos, we also got our first real look at the upcoming Wolverine solo film, titled Logan, with this trailer:

While this trailer squashes any hope I might have had for a more faithful adaptation of Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s brilliant comic book story Old Man Logan (something I really never should have even dared hope for, since this X-Men series, even when it is great, has never shown any interest in faithful adaptations of classic X-Men stories), I am very happy by what I see here.  It looks like they’ve taken some of the general ideas of Old Man Logan to craft an entirely new story, and I am impressed that they’ve chosen to jump into the future and leave the rest of the X-Men franchise behind.  Hugh Jackman (sporting a crazy Mel Gibson-like beard) and Patrick Stewart both seem as awesome as usual.  I am excited for this.  (My one quibble — one of the coolest ideas of Old Man Logan was that Logan had vowed never to unsheathe his claws again, and so they make you wait a long, long, long time before you finally get a “snikt.”  From this trailer, in which we see plenty of Logan’s claws, I guess the film is taking a different approach…)

Holy cow, is there really a new Martin Scorsese movie coming out next month??  Here’s a look at Silence:

Whoo, that looks harrowing.  I am very intrigued by that trailer.

This new look at Kong: Skull Island is… well… take a look:

This trailer really shows us a lot of the shape of the movie.  Most significantly, we see the real monsters/villains of the film other than Kong.  I was surprisingly taken by the goofy tone of the trailer.  Is this movie going to balance a war-movie aesthetic with a lot of humor as well as this trailer does?  We’ll see…

Cars is my least favorite of all the Pixar movies.  As a result, Cars 2 is the only Pixar movie I’ve never seen!  So I’m not really interested in a Cars 3, though I admit that my eyebrows were raised by this weird, grim teaser:

I’m not sure I understand Disney studio’s desire to seemingly create a live-action remake of every single one of their animated films, but this trailer for Beauty and the Beast is impressive:

That’s a spectacular cast and the … [continued]

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From the Blu-Ray Shelf: Josh Reviews Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

I enjoyed the first Neighbors. I wouldn’t call it a comedy classic, but it was a very funny film with a great cast. I loved the Seth Rogen-Rose Byrne combo, and all the frat boys (Zac Efron, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jerrod Carmichael) were fun. So I was interested in a sequel, though I missed it in theatres this summer.

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Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising got weak reviews when it was released but I enjoyed it. As with the first Neighbors, this isn’t a brilliant or groundbreaking in any way film, but it’s pretty consistently funny and with a very short run-time (only 92 minutes!) it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

While the first film dealt with Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), young parents and first-time home-owners, dealing with the nightmare of a frat house moving in next door, here in the sequel they are preparing to sell their house but now have to deal with a sorority moving in next door.

On the one hand, that premise is such a clear attempt to reset the characters so they can basically retell the story of the first film that it’s somewhat eye-rolling.  On the other hand, it’s such a natural way to get back to the concept that made the first movie fun, that I can’t really complain.

Sequels are hard, and comedy sequels particularly so. There’s a tension between wanting to tell a new story while also preserving what everyone enjoyed about the first film. So often, what happens is that these sequels basically wind up telling the same story again. When this approach doesn’t work, the result is a film that feels boring and repetitive. So the trick for a sequel is to somehow be both new and familiar at the same time.  And so I sort of have to admire the simple premise of Seth Rogen & Rose Byrne battling a sorority instead of a fraternity.  It feels clever at the same time as it is obvious. This is not genius level comedy film-making, but it works.  The film’s short run-time helps the viewer not have to much time to overthink this obvious set-up.  And the terrific cast mines enough humor out of the fun of seeing these characters back in a similar situation that it all comes together.

Where the film is weak is that the new characters introduced, the young women in the sorority, are not anywhere near as interesting as the boys in the first film. They feel far less well-defined, less interesting.

Chloe Grace Moretz feels like good casting on paper as the main new character, Shelby, but I never quite got a bead on her character.  On the one hand, she … [continued]

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Star Trek Legacies: Best Defense

David Mack’s novel Best Defense is the middle book in a new trilogy of novels, entitled Legacies, intended to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek.  Click here for my review of the first book in this trilogy, Greg Cox’s Captain to Captain.

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Best Defense picks up a few weeks after the end of Captain to Captain. The alien “transfer key”, capable of displacing its victims into an alternate universe, has been stolen from where it had been hidden on board the Enterprise by Captain Robert April eighteen years previously.  Kirk’s attempts to track the Romulan spy who stole the key are cut short by the collapse of peace talks between the Federation and the Klingon Empire.  Summoned by Federation negotiator Ambassador Sarek to the planet Centaurus, Kirk tries to prevent the outbreak of a shooting war with the Klingons, while the Romulans use the power of the transfer key to wreak havoc.  Meanwhile, in the alternate universe to which the key permits access, Captain Una (the former Enterprise first officer nicknamed “Number One”, from the original Star Trek pilot “The Cage”) attempts to locate her friends and crew-mates who were banished to that desolate universe eighteen years earlier.

I feel about Best Defense very much the same way I felt about Greg Cox’s Captain to Captain. Like Captain to Captain, Best Defense is a fun, quick read. David Mack is a great writer, and man can he write a terrific action sequence. (This was clear from his previous books, and the climax of Best Defense doesn’t disappoint.)  But while I have enjoyed both Captain to Captain and Best Defense, for a fiftieth anniversary trilogy, so far Legacies feels surprisingly slight to me. It’s not telling a story that feels all that critical in terms of the larger Trek universe, nor does it dig that deeply into any of the characters.

Best Defense also suffers somewhat from a classic sort of “middle chapter” syndrome in that the story feels somewhat stretched in order to fill out this three-book trilogy.  Mr. Mack’s story throws all sorts of obstacles at Kirk and co., and brings back several characters from Trek lore.  While it is fun seeing all those characters, to me they didn’t feel all that integral to the story, more like writerly distractions and a way to stretch out this tale to a three-book length.

That being said, of course it is fun to see Ambassador Sarek and Amanda again (this story is set a short time after the events of “Journey to Babel”).  It’s interesting to see their relationship with Spock at this stage — the years-long feud between Spock and Sarek has been mended, but the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Better Call Saul Season Two!

I loved the first season of Better Call Saul I was blown away by Bob Odenkirk’s performance in the lead role, and by the extraordinary groups of actors with whom he was surrounded, most notably fellow Breaking Bad alum Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, along with new faces Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler and Michael McKean as Charles McGill.  I found that first season to be tense and gripping while also being a huge amount of fun.  This is an incredibly impressive balance of tone.  I wrote in my review that I enjoyed that first season of Better Call Saul more than any season of Breaking Bad except for Bad’s final run of episodes.  Soon after finishing Saul season one I eagerly dove into season two.

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While perhaps not quite as perfect as season one (and without the thrill of discovery of this new show), Better Call Saul season two remains a master class in television craftsmanship, hugely enjoyable and gripping, fun and also heartbreaking.  I loved it.  I tore through it at a rapid pace and am left eagerly counting the days until season three.

Season one began with a wonderful black-and-white vignette, a peek at the fate of Saul Goodman following the events of Breaking Bad.  I didn’t think we’d ever see any more of that time-period until the end of Better Call Saul’s run, but I was delighted to have been proven wrong as the first moments of season two gave us another look at the sad, lonely life being lived by Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman after his life had been torn apart by his relationship with Walter White.  It was fascinating to note that in the tiny, desperate bit of graffiti left behind by Jimmy/Saul, he identified himself not as Jimmy, but as Saul.  Watching the first season of Better Call Saul, I was stunned by how much I grew to love Jimmy McGill.  Rather than being impatient for the show to hurry up and get to Jimmy’s transformation into Saul — the fun, fast-talking, morals-free dude we’d gotten to know and love in Breaking Bad — I was dreading the day when the sweet, good-hearted Jimmy would be replaced by Saul.  And yet, while I as a viewer might lament the coming loss of Jimmy, it was fascinating to see in this intro vignette that, even after arriving at the sad lonely end of Saul Goodman’s road, this man considers himself Saul rather than Jimmy.  It’s heartbreaking and also a tantalizing glimpse of where this show is going.  Two seasons in, I am still not sure how the Jimmy who I have grown to love so much will eventually be crushed and … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 17): The Black Dahlia (2006)

I’m in the home stretch of my project to watch all the films directed by Brian De Palma!  Following 2002′s Femme Fatale, Mr. De Palma was off the scene for a while until 2006′s The Black Dahlia.  This noir murder-mystery was adapted by Josh Friedman from James Ellroy’s novel, which was itself inspired by the real-life murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947.  Ms. Short’s nude body was found mutilated, and her murder was never solved.

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In the film, set in 1947, L.A.P.D. partners Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and the rookie Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) investigate the murder of Elizabeth Short, who the press soon nicknames “The Black Dahlia” (just as happened in real life).  In their own way, both Lee and Bucky become obsessed with solving Elizabeth Short’s murder.  Bucky learns that Elizabeth was a lesbian who was involved in a porno film.  He meets and then becomes involved himself with one of Elizabeth’s friends (maybe her girlfriend) Madeleine (Hilary Swank).  Meanwhile, Lee becomes increasingly unhinged, which drives a wedge between him and his girlfriend Kay (Scarlett Johanssen), while the sexual tension between Kay and Bucky begins to heat up.  The murder of one young woman threatens to uncover a much larger world of sex and crime in Los Angeles.

The Black Dahlia is probably the strongest film of the last almost-two-decades of Mr. De Palma’s career, his best since 1998′s Snake Eyes.  There’s a lot to enjoy in the film.  I loved the style and atmosphere of this 1947-set mystery.  This feels like a much tighter, focused film than some of the other late-career De Palma films (such as Femme Fatale, about which I recently wrote, and also Passion, about which I’ll be writing soon).  But it’s not perfect, and the film has some unfortunate weaknesses that keep it short of altogether working the way a great film does.

The film starts off strong.  I love the fast-paced opening sequence.  Right away this feels like a differently-styled film for Mr. De Palma.  It moves very quickly, with lots of short scenes.  There’s nothing overly flashy at first in this film, just a tight script, good actors, and solid directing.  Even when he’s restraining himself from his usual stylistic flourishes, Mr. De Palma’s master-level film-making skill is on clear display.  It’s a lot of fun to watch.  For these past several films (Snake Eyes, Femme Fatale) Mr. De Palma has been telling noir-type stories, and it seems right away here in The Black Dahlia that this will again be the case.  (Even though in the end the film turns out a lot different from how I’d expected — more on that later.)  This … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Doctor Strange

In Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the incredibly skilled, and incredibly arrogant, neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange.  Strange is at the top of his field and he knows it.  But his privileged life falls apart after a terrible car accident leaves him unable to use his hands.  As the months go by and attempt after attempt to repair his hands using a variety of increasingly experimental medical procedures all fail, one after another, Strange grows ever-more desperate.  He eventually heads to Kathmandu, chasing a rumor of a man whose crippled legs were healed.  What he finds is a mysterious woman known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who opens Strange’s eyes to an entirely different way of looking at the world.  She also draws Strange into the widening conflict between the followers of her order, who consider themselves the protectors of the world from all manner of mystical threats, and an outcast named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson) whose evil plans might have world-shattering repercussions.

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With Doctor Strange (as with last year’s Ant Man), Marvel has backed off of the increasing escalation of their super-hero films (best exemplified by the enormous superhero-battling-superhero epic Captain America: Civil War, a film I really loved) and gone back to what they did so well back in the early days of “Phase One” of their super-hero cinematic universe.  That is, tell a solid origin story of a new character.  Watching Doctor Strange reminded me very much of watching that first Captain America or Thor movie.  I wouldn’t hold up either of those films as the very best of what the Marvel cinematic universe has to offer.  But they are solidly entertaining films, perfectly cast, that take on the seemingly impossible task of bringing an outlandish comic-book character and world to life while making it all look incredibly easy.  Doctor Strange does all of those things.

Let’s start with the perfect casting, because once again Marvel has absolutely nailed, and I mean nailed, the casting of another of their classic heroes.  Benedict Cumberbatch was born to play Dr. Strange, and when he is finally decked out in full Dr. Strange attire at the end of the film (including that classic cape and even the Eye of Agamotto), he looks absolutely perfect.  (I cannot wait to see Cumberbatch’s Strange meet his “facial-hair brother”, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark.)  Mr. Cumberbatch is able to nail Strange’s fierce intelligence and his hauteur, but also allow us to see his nobility and his strength.  In the comics, Dr. Strange is one of the moral pillars of the Marvel Universe, and Mr. Cumberbach takes us there by the end of the film.  (After all the hubub over how the … [continued]