The saga continues in....

Interstellar

December 18th, 2014
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There and Back Again: Josh Reviews The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies!

Endings are a difficult thing.  Sticking the landing of a long-form story is perilously challenging, and I’m sure we can all think of plenty of examples of failed endings, whether we’re talking about TV shows (Seinfeld and Lost both come to mind) or to movie trilogies (as the years pass, I become more and more disappointed by The Dark Knight Rises).

I am very pleased to report, then, that Peter Jackson’s third and final Hobbit film, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, is an excellent conclusion to his Hobbit trilogy.  This film isn’t going to make anyone who disliked the first two Hobbit films change their mind, but if you did enjoy those films I suspect you will love this one.  I feel pretty confident in stating that it is the strongest of the three Hobbit theatrical editions.  (Like Mr. Jackson’s LOTR films, the first two Hobbit films were both improved by their Extended Editions, so a complete comparison of all three films isn’t really possible until next year when we get to see the extended version of The Battle of the Five Armies.  But in terms of the theatrical experience of the three Hobbit films, I think this one wins by a fairly wide margin.)

One of the reasons why?  This is the shortest of the three Hobbit theatrical editions.  (It’s also, unless I am mistaken, the shortest of the theatrical editions of all six of Mr. Jackson’s Middle Earth films.)  This helps a lot, as the biggest problem of the first two Hobbit films was a sense of bloat.  I don’t condemn those first two films for that the way so many reviewers have, but I certainly think those films were far longer than they needed to be, especially in their theatrical form.

But this film moves, boy.  It’s got the best pacing of all three Hobbit films.  For all that I enjoyed those two films, they both felt LONG.  But this film roars by.

We begin with a great James Bond-like pre-credits action sequence in which ol’ Smaug is dealt with.  I’d wondered how much of a factor Smaug would wind up being in this film.  The answer is not much, as he’s dispatched with fairly quickly.  It works, but I will admit to having expected a but more.  I felt like this sequence was missing a little something.  Maybe more of Smaug’s dialogue?  Smaug was surprisingly silent for the first several minutes of this sequence.  I’d expected him to be gloating or boasting as he attacked Lake Town.  It’s remarkable how Smaug comes to life once he finally speaks.  Credit to Benedict Cumberbatch for how much his voice clearly was a critical … [continued]

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News Around the Net

Well, everything I have seen or read so far of the Terminator reboot Terminator: Genisys has looked abysmal (and good lord I hate that ridiculous title more each time I write it).  But I have to admit this trailer is intriguing:

I love how the first half looks like it’s the behind-the-scenes of what we already knew happened just prior to the start of the original Terminator film, and then when Sarah Connor crashes that truck through the department store window we see that we’re in some sort of alternate timeline.  I am curious how they’ll explain the cause of this alternate timeline, but I like much of what I see so far.  She looked ridiculous in the early photos that were released, but here in the trailer I can see why Emilia Clarke was cast — she’s fantastic as Sarah Connor in this glimpse.  And while I still think that including an aged Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film was silly, seeing old Arnie and CGI young Arnie and the new Terminator played by Byung-Hun Lee is exciting, they all look pretty great.  My biggest concern is how horrible Jai Courtney seems as Kyle Reese.  Absolutely none of Michael Biehn’s charm and presence.  I still think it’s pretty likely this film will suck, but at least this trailer makes me somewhat excited and curious to see the film, so that’s a big step-forward in terms of T-5′s marketing.

In more important sequel news, the new James Bond film will be called Spectre.  Excellent.  Ever since The World is Not Enough, I have been dreaming of the return of Blofeld to this series.  The first trailer for that film featured a glimpse of a bald Robert Carlyle, and at the time I dared to hope he was playing Blofeld.  Not so.  That character has been tied up in lawsuits for decades (all stemming from a conflict over who wrote what for Thunderball back in 1965).  But finally last year that lawsuit was resolved, and I am thrilled that SPECTRE is finally returning to the Bond series.  They’re playing coy, though, as to whether Blofeld will be in the film.  It’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t be, unless Bond 24 is a long tease for the villain’s return in the next film, Bond 25.  I could see that happening.  But for now, I am really hoping that Christoph Waltz (who is starring in the film, reportedly as a character called Oberhauser) will be Blofeld.  That would be amazing.  I am thrilled the film is called Spectre, I love that return to the old Bond style of the villain’s name being the title.  (Ex.: Goldfinger.)  The only thing that would have … [continued]

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Days of De Palma (Part 10): The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

Well, I’d certainly heard of The Bonfire of the Vanities, one of the most famous flops in movie history, but I’d never before seen it.  This was one of the movies I was most curious to see as part of my journey through the films of Brian De Palma.  Was the film truly as bad as I’d heard??

In the opening minutes, I thought perhaps the general view of this film was wrong.  The movie opens with a gorgeous opening shot, as we watch a sped-up version of a full day of a city unfold from the point of view atop a tall skyscraper.  It’s a beautiful image and a clever one.  So far so good!  Then we jump into a staggeringly impressive five-minute-long continuous tracking shot.  This jaw-droppingly audacious shot follows a drunk Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) as he staggers in and out of rooms, down hallways, in and out of an elevator, and eventually into an enormous ballroom where he is supposed to be making a speech.  Brian De Palma’s cinematic style and skill is on full display with this sequence.  I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult this must have been to stage and to shoot.  It’s a wonderful sequence, hugely impressive.

The problem is that it has absolutely nothing at all to do with the movie!  This incredible opening sequence makes it feel like the story we’re about to watch is that of Bruce Willis’ character, the author Peter Fallow.  But the film that follows isn’t Fallow’s story at all, it’s that of the hapless rich white finance-guy Sherman McCoy (played by Tom Hanks).  So while I was initially impressed by this opening sequence, as the film progressed I came to see it more and more as a complete waste of time, an empty exhibition of style over substance.

It doesn’t help that the next 45 minutes or so of the film, after that crazy five-minute tracking shot, contain some of the most haplessly amateurish filmmaking of Mr. De Palma’s career (at least what I have seen of it so far).  When we first meet Sherman McCoy, it’s in a painfully failed comedic sequence in which he is trying to sneak out of his apartment that he shares with his wife, Judy (Kim Cattrall) so he can call his mistress Maria (Melanie Griffith).  Sherman uses taking the dog for a walk as his excuse, but the dog doesn’t go out in the rain, so then we cut to Sherman dragging his unconscious dog through the rain.  It’s supposed to be funny but it is so painfully unfunny that I just winced.  Between this and the entirety of Wise Guys (click here for my review[continued]

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Star Trek Section 31: Disavowed

One of the most intriguing story threads left hanging by last year’s five-book Star Trek The Fall series was the fate of Julian Bashir. Though Dr. Bashir was able to solve the Andorian reproductive crisis (a story-thread that has been running through the Star Trek books since the post-finale DS9 relaunch fifteen years ago), to do so he wound up disobeying his superiors and was discharged from Starfleet. This was an exciting development for the character, and I was very curious to see where his story would go next.

Luckily I didn’t have to wait long, as David Mack’s new book Section 31: Disavowed, focuses on Bashir, now on the outs from Starfleet and at something of a loss as to what to do with his life.  No surprise, Bashir is soon approached by Section 31, who have been trying (since the final seasons of the TV show) to recruit Bashir into their organization.  What unfolds is a game of spy-versus-spy, as Bashir and his girlfriend Sarina Hanfling enter the folds of Section 31 with the goal of undermining the organization from within.  Meanwhile, their handlers in 31 are fully aware of Bashir and Hanfling’s goals, but confident that they can keep the two under their control.

It’s interesting that this book has been published under the “Section 31″ label.  Very soon after DS9 went off the air, Pocket Books published four “Section 31″ books, but they haven’t used that label since.  One of those books, Abyss by David Weddle & Jeffrey Lang, was also a Bashir-focused story, and the events of that book have some relevance to this story.  Disavowed is also a direct continuation of the Bashir and Sarina developments that occurred in David Mack’s Bashir-and-Sarina-focused Typhon Pact novel Zero Sum Game, as well as everything that went down in the five-book The Fall series.  I love the way the stories of these books, published years apart and written by various different authors, fit together.  Mr. Mack has done a terrific job of pulling together various story and character threads and moving Bashir and Sarina’s tale forward, as well as that of their efforts against the mysterious Section 31.

To my delight, Disavowed also picks up the story of the Mirror Universe!  David Mack wrote several wonderful Mirror Universe-focused books, most notably The Sorrows of Empire (click here for my review) and Rise Like Lions (click here for my review).  Rise Like Lions felt like the triumphant conclusion of the Mirror Universe story-line, so I was not expecting to return to those characters.  Nevertheless, it was an absolute delight to check back in with the Mirror Universe, seven years after the Terran Rebellion emerged … [continued]

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Monty Python Live (Mostly)!

December 8th, 2014

This past summer, the five surviving members of Monty Python reunited for a series of ten live shows at the 02 in London.  The final show, from July 20th, was recorded and recently released on blu-ray.  I can’t believe how phenomenal Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down Five To Go is!

Right from the beginning I knew this was going to be something special.  First, the initial full sketch is The Four Yorkshiremen, which is one of my absolute favorite Monty Python sketches.  This isn’t one of their most famous sketches, but it’s a perfect choice to begin this reunion program — four old men grousing about the days of their youth.  I love that they chose this sketch.  This is immediately followed by a rendition of The Penis Song, which has been expanded into an elaborate song-and-dance number.  Watching the thirty-some dancers mime incredibly raunchy behavior made me laugh and laugh, and I knew we were in for something special.

This show isn’t just the five guys performing sketches.  Monty Python Live (Mostly) is a very elaborate stage show, with huge musical numbers and an impressive array of different sets and costumes (for all the different sketches), lots of singing and dancing, and a great use of old video material (projected on a huge screen above the stage).  Turning some Monty Python sketches into big musical numbers could have been absolutely awful, but the way this show has been put together is extremely clever.  And the whole thing is thick with the usual Monty Python cheekiness.

Where to begin?  I mentioned the musical numbers, but don’t fear, the focus of the show is on the Monty Python gang (John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin) performing all of their classic sketches.  The guys are phenomenal, and seeing these brilliant entertainers together on stage again is a thrill.  OK, maybe they’re not as quick as they once were, and clearly Terry Jones had trouble memorizing his lines (you can see him reading his dialogue in sketches in which he has to deliver long lists of verbiage, such as the Crunchy Frog sketch), but even the rough edges remain very endearing.  There are some flubs (John Cleese losing his place at one point, Eric Idle’s moustache falling off in the “wink wink nudge nudge” sketch) but the guys are able to spin all these mis-steps into huge laughs.  And over-all, they each remain impressively nimble and in command on stage.  This is a LONG show, well over two hours.  It’d have been an impressive endurance test even for far younger performers!  The sketch selection is impressive — all of the great Monty Python sketches have been included.  … [continued]

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Star Trek Lives! Josh Reviews Mind-Sifter

December 5th, 2014
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Mindsifter.13.cropped

The fan-film series Star Trek: Phase II came roaring back with the release this week of their tenth full-length Star Trek episode: “Mind-Sifter.”  This episode has a fascinating history.  “Mind-Sifter “was originally written by Shirley Maiewski all the way back in 1974 for a fanzine called The Star Trek Showcase.  In 1976, Bantam included Ms. Maiewski’s story in their The New Voyages anthology of Star Trek fan-fiction, although their editors changed the story in ways that Ms. Maiewski did not approve.  Many decades later, the folks at Star Trek: Phase II decided to adapt Ms. Maiewski’s story.  In honor of that old New Voyages book, they released this episode under their series’ original title of Star Trek: New Voyages. 

With me so far? In this episode, Spock is placed in command of the Enterprise when Captain Kirk goes missing for several months.  Somehow, Kirk has become lost in Earth’s past, trapped and abused in a mental hospital in 1958.  It’s all part of a Klingon plot to uncover the location of Gateway, the planet on which stands the Guardian of Forever, the powerful time-portal discovered by Kirk & co. in the seminal Original Series episode “The City on the Edge of Forever.”  With Kirk missing and presumed dead, the crew of the Enterprise attempt to move on with their lives, while Spock and McCoy’s relationship frays to the breaking point.

I remember reading that New Voyages book years and years ago.  “Mind-Sifter” was a memorable enough story that I still remember it, well over two decades since I read it.  I love the idea of this story being adapted by Phase II, and over-all they have turned in a very solid episode.

As always, the show looks phenomenal.  The sets and costumes are amazing, perfectly mimicking the look and feel of the Original Series.  In many ways, it looks even BETTER than the original!  The visual effects are extraordinary.  This episode, for the first time for Phase II, was released in two different versions. One has modern-style visual effects overseen by Tobias Richter and The Light Works.  The second has sixties-style visual effects created by Daren Dochterman, who oversaw the Director’s Edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Both versions are fun, but the modern-VFX version is far superior and definitely the one to watch.  These effects, though “modern” and far more advanced than what we saw in the sixties, still feel exactly right for an Original Series adventure.  The Enterprise and the other Starfleet ships and the Klingon vessel all look and move and feel exactly right.  Except they are looking better than they ever did before, far better than the original sixties goofy effects and also far better … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I

December 3rd, 2014

I’ve never read any of the Hunger Games novels, but of course I knew of the phenomenon and so I was curious to see that first Hunger Games film.  I found it entertaining but rather mediocre.  But I was stunned how much I enjoyed the second film, Catching Fire I thought that film was a huge leap forward from the initial installment, and its cliffhanger ending left me quite eager for the third film.

And so I was a little bummed that Mockingjay Part I felt rather flat to me.  I think it’s a superior film to the first one, but lacks the narrative energy of the second.

The film picks off immediately after the end of Catching Fire.  We’ve seen social unrest lurking around the edge of the dystopian future of the Hunger Games world, but now a full-scale revolution seems about to emerge.  Unlike the first two stories, there is no new Hunger Games competition as the center of this story.  Rather, we follow Katniss as she finds herself the symbol of the revolution being led by the residents of District 13 against President Snow and the capitol.  Katniss never set out to be a revolutionary, she just wanted to save her sister and then find a way to survive herself in the brutal Hunger Games.  Though she recognizes the evil of President Snow’s rule, her primary motivation is to find a way to save her friend Peeta, who was left a prisoner of Snow following the dramatic events of the end of Catching Fire.

I like that this installment doesn’t feel the need to try to somehow ropes Katniss back into another Hunger Games competition.  The scale of the story has grown beyond that, which is exciting.  Here in Mockingjay, the struggle isn’t just for one hero to survive the Games, but instead this story is about the struggle to determine the future of this society itself.  Will the districts continue to allow themselves to be subjugated by the forces of the capitol, or will they find a way to unite and find a new path?  How can fractured, poor, basically unarmed districts possibly overcome the well-armed, technologically superior forces of the capitol?

A story about the mechanics of a populist revolution in a dystopian future sounds like an exciting focus for a film, as does the idea of following Katniss’ journey to becoming an actual participant in the growing revolution.  But I was a little surprised by how dull I found Mockingjay to be.  Not a whole heck of a lot happens in the film.  Really, except for the rescue attempt in the film’s final minutes, has the status quo for Katniss or her … [continued]

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Return of the Jedi

December 1st, 2014
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So let’s talk about this:

I am still extremely dubious as to whether this movie is actually going to be any good (it will be a long time before I forgive J.J. Abrams for Star Trek Into Darkness) but boy, that is a pretty phenomenal teaser trailer right there.

When I was a kid there were three Star Wars movies and I really never imagined that there would ever be any more.  Then the prequel films were announced, and I remember like it was yesterday that huge thrill of seeing, in the first teaser trailer for Episode I, that first glimpse of new Star Wars footage:

I’m not someone who went to see Meet Joe Black just because the trailer was attached before that film, but I boy do I remember painfully waiting the minutes it took for my dial-up modem internet connection to download the Episode I trailer to watch.  I also stayed up late one night to watch one of those cable shows that showed movie trailers because I’d heard they were showing the Episode I trailer.  I recorded it on my VCR and I re-watched that tape of the two-minute trailer over and over again.

It’s fun to be back in that place, and this new 88-second spot certainly got me excited for Star Wars again.  That’s a great feeling.

I was impressed with the amount of new footage we saw in this trailer.  I was expecting to see hardly any new footage.  This far out from the release of the film (over a year away), I figured we’d just get an elaborate title treatment and a handful of quick shots.

Yes, I was a little surprised not to see a single glimpse of any of our recognizable heroes from the original films (I thought for sure we’d see a shot of a bearded, cloaked Luke Skywalker), but I have to say I love that this trailer focuses on the NEW.  New faces, new characters, new droids.  I love that the first person in the trailer is a very sweaty John Boyega.  (Go watch Attack the Block, everyone!!)  It’s cool to see a black face in a Star Wars film, and I love that right from the start of this trailer the focus is on introducing us to the young new characters who will, I assume, be the focus of The Force Awakens.

I like the mysterious voice-over.  Like everyone I spent a lot of time wondering just whose voice it is.  Turns out it’s the great Andy Serkis (I love that Andy Serkis is in a Star Wars film!!).  But wow does he make his voice sound like Benedict Cumberbatch, though, am I … [continued]