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My Mind Has Just Been Blown

July 30th, 2010

I have got to share with you all the secret to the score of Inception, which I first saw posted over at CHUD:

That is awesome.… [continued]

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Josh Reviews Live From New York: An Oral History of Saturday Night Live

July 28th, 2010

My buddy Ethan has been pestering me to read this book for quite a while, and I am so happy that I finally followed his sage advice!

Live From New York is described on the cover as “an uncensored history of Saturday Night Live as told by its stars, writers, and guests.” The book is an oral history of SNL. There is almost no prose to be found in the entire 600-plus pages. Instead, the entire book is a collection of interviews with a dazzlingly dense array of the writers, performers, guest hosts, directors, producers, network executives, music coordinators, production assistants, and many, many more of the folks who worked on Saturday Night Live since the show’s inception in 1975.

Moving chronologically through the years, the books moves from one person’s recollections to another. The interviewed subjects’ comments weave in and out of one another as authors (perhaps they should almost be called editors) Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller piece together the story of the show.

And what a story. To say that Shales and Miller delved deep would be a dramatic understatement. It is staggering to see how many people they interviewed in putting together this book. The result is an incredibly revealing peek behind the curtain of how SNL got made – filled with stories of all the painful struggles and bitter disputes and moments of pure creative genius that have been going on at 30 Rock for the past 35 years.

I feel like I know a decent amount about SNL – I’ve read a lot about the show, and I’ve certainly seen many of the behind-the-scenes specials and retrospectives that have been made over the years (usually to mark one of the show’s anniversaries), but this book was filled to overflowing with stories both hilarious and heartbreaking that I had never heard before. It kicks off with a perfect opening line from Rosie Shuster (former writer for SNL, as well as former wife of Lorne Michaels) that sets the tone for the book perfectly – and things just go from there.

My personal favorite anecdote was Al Franken’s recollection of a terrible, terrible prank that he played on the women assembled for his wife’s baby shower. This page of the book had me literally howling with laughter.

The cover describes the book as uncensored, and it certainly is. Not so much in the sense of being raunchy (though it is at times!), but more to mean that this isn’t a white-washed, everyone-was-happy sort of corporate-approved history of the show. Quite the opposite – Shales and Miller seem to almost revel in all of the juicy stories of arguments and disputes and turmoil from over the … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Inception!

Thank goodness – finally a good movie! I was beginning to think that Toy Story 3 was going to be the only bright spot in this rather dismal summer of movies.

With Inception, writer/director Christopher Nolan reunites a great many members of his Batman ensemble (Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe) with some terrific new faces (Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, and Marion Cotillard) to create a wonderfully mind-bending twisty-turny dream of a movie.

I went in knowing practically zero about the plot, which I think is the best way to approach Inception, so I’m going to avoid even a hint of a plot summary here. I will tell you that Mr. Nolan and his team have been able to create yet another tense, fun piece of summer-movie entertainment that is also sophisticated and adult. There’s some great action in Inception, but this isn’t one of those check-your-brain-at-the-door summer blockbusters.

I’ll be interested to see how well Inception holds up to multiple viewings. Will I remain as entranced by the layers-within-layers narrative structure, or will the movie become boring once I know how things unfold? It’s hard to say, but on this first pass I found the film’s M.C. Escher staircase-like structure to be a hoot.

Right now, Christopher Nolan’s greatest competition is with himself. He’s directed so many wonderful films that I adore with such fervor, that I can see it starting to become a challenge for his new films to stack up to his previous work. Indeed, underneath all the pyrotechnics and special-effects wizardry, Inception is actually a much simpler film that the brilliantly complex Memento. And, while exciting, it lacks the edge-of-your-seat-shit-is-going-DOWN intensity of The Dark Knight.

But that still leaves Inception as a superbly entertaining film. I must again praise the cast, who really are terrific across the board. I was particularly taken with Tom Hardy as the forger Eames. He brings a toughness and a humor to the role that I found very compelling. (Hard to believe this is the same actor who was in the abominable Star Trek: Nemesis.) I also really enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance as Dom Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio)’s loyal partner. I really wanted to know more about this guy!

It was fun seeing Ellen Page (Juno) in this type of film, though her character’s arc was probably the weakest part of the film. No fault of Ms. Page’s, but it seems to me that the film never really sold her friendship with Cobb. I didn’t really believe that he opened up to her about his history because he had connected with her – it just seemed like that was the point in the … [continued]

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Down in the Treme…

July 22nd, 2010

In addition to watching the first two new episodes of Futurama last week, I had a chance to catch (a few weeks late) the final two episodes of Treme, the magnificent new HBO series by the fine folks behind The Wire (A.K.A. The greatest television series ever created).

When I wrote about the initial installment of Treme I was pretty dang high on the series, and I am pleased to say that, if anything, I think even MORE HIGHLY of the series now that its first ten-episode series has wrapped up.

It’s remarkable to me how fleshed out the vast ensemble of characters on the show have become over this first short (ten episodes) season.  There’s been more character development in these ten episodes than in the entire run of many TV shows.  Over the course of the season, each and every character on the show got their due, and I’m impressed and stunned at how attached I’ve become to these characters (even the less-than-noble ones!) in such a short time.

In my review of the premiere, I commented that the one cast-member who seemed to stick out to me was Steve Zahn’s full-of-himself, bumbling character Davis.  I found Davis to be annoyingly childish, and he felt out-of-place on the show.  Well, I stand corrected, because now at the end of the season I think that Davis is one of my favorite characters!  As noted above, this is due to the writers’ great work in exploring and deepening their characters over the course of the season.  The fine acting — on the part of Steve Zahn and the rest of the superb cast — doesn’t hurt, either!

As was always the case on The Wire, the writers of Treme have managed to tell a complete story over the course of the season.  The final episode, “I’ll Fly Away,” brings closure to a number of story-lines and character-arcs, while still leaving ENORMOUS untapped story-potential for future seasons to (hopefully) explore.

What else can I say?  The first season of Treme was heart-breaking and hilarious, and gripping from the first minute to the last.  The music of the show is extraordinary (and the show’s theme-song is my favorite since Firefly).  If you haven’t seen this show, go watch it now.  Me, I’ll be counting the days until season two…… [continued]

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One Small Step For Man…

July 21st, 2010

Forty-one years ago.  Amazing.

July 20th, 1969.… [continued]

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Good News Everybody! Futurama Lives!

July 20th, 2010

Sometimes things really do work out all right in the end, after all!  After being dumped by Fox back in 2004, Futurama has returned to life — first as a series of four direct-to-DVD movies (click here for my review of the final DVD, “Into the Wild Blue Yonder”) and now — huzzah! — as a regular series on Comedy Central.

I don’t get to watch too much TV while working at camp each summer, but last week on my day off I was able to enjoy the first two new episodes.

The new premiere, “Rebirth” begins with the apparent deaths of the Futurama gang (nice little unsubtle reference to their cancellation).  Luckily, Professor Farnsworth is able to restore everyone to life by bathing their skeletons in a vat of stem cells.  Well, everyone except Leela.  For some reason the Professor’s miracle stem cell bath doesn’t return her to life, so instead he downloads her memories and personality into a new robot body.  This proves somewhat awkward for Fry and Leela’s burgeoning romance!

“Rebirth” is far from the funniest Futurama episode ever, but it’s such a delight to see the characters back on TV that I hardly noticed.  There are a lot of great gags and all sorts of references to sci-fi TV shows and movies.  There’s a subplot with Bender (now powered by one of the Professor’s doomsday machines that will blow him to kingdom come if he ever stops partying) that got tiresome pretty fast, but the episode makes up for that with a third-act twist that I thought was really clever and surprising.

Things got even better with the second new episode, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela,” in which Leela finds herself marooned with Zapp Branigan.  With no hope of rescue (and under the impression that the Earth has been destroyed), will she contemplate repopulating the Human species with Zapp?  Brannigan is a terrific Futurama character, and it’s great to see him get so much screen time in this episode.  I particularly enjoyed the glimpse we got into his dreams (presented in the style of 1950’s black-and-white serials).

I’ve heard that the production budget of the series was cut in order to get picked up by Comedy Central.  Luckily, the show still looks great.  There were a few moments of slightly wonky animation (the attack by the Cyclophage in “Rebirth” looked particularly flat, and there were some moments between Zapp and Leela in “In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela” where both characters looked a bit off-model), but nothing too troubling.

Most of all, it’s just a great thrill to have the series back, and I hope they’re able to build some momentum as the season continues.… [continued]

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Superhero Movie News!

July 16th, 2010

There has been some exciting news recently in the world of superhero movies.

EW has premiered the first look at Ryan Reynolds in his Green Lantern costume.  I think it looks absolutely terrible, frankly — but I often think that the first time a live-action superhero costume is revealed.  I remember really disliking the first glimpse I got of the X-Men costumes, and the Spider-Man costume, but both worked well on film, so I’ve learned not to put too much stock into that first pic.  Still, not encouraging.

More encouraging is the word that, following the whole brou-ha-ha over Edward Norton getting booted from the upcoming Avengers movie is word that Mark Ruffalo is being considered for the role of Dr. Bruce Banner.  That’s an inspired casting idea, and I really hope this happens.

Is Kevin Bacon going to be the villain in the upcoming X-Men prequel? That’s a sort of weird idea.  The casting so far for X-Men: First Class has been superb, so hopefully this isn’t the first wrong turn.  (I still think making an X-Men prequel is a dumb idea… Let’s move teh story FORWARD and make X-Men 4 already!!)

Here’s some news on Marvel’s next films: Thor and Captain America.  There’s a fun pic of Anthony Hopkins as Odin, but I’m not sure what to think of the idea of converting the two films to 3-D.  The jury’s still out, in my opinion, as to whether and of these late-in-the-game 3-D conversions can be done with any decent level of quality.  We’ll see…… [continued]

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Camp Ramah Pandora

July 13th, 2010

I have written before about our annual parody videos that we create at Camp Ramah in New England to kick off our beginning-of-Staff-Week competitions.  This year we had some fun with the biggest blockbuster of 2009-10.  Behold:

Take a look at our previous parodies of Lost, The Office, and 24.[continued]

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Star Trek: Titan (Book Five): Under a Torrent Sea

Author Christopher Bennett returns to the Star Trek: Titan series of novels (chronicling the continuing adventures of Captain William T. Riker and the diverse inter-species crew of his new command, the deep-space exploration ship Titan) with the fifth installment in the series, Under a Torrent Sea.  (Click here for my review of book four, Sword of Damocles.)

The Titan crew discovers a water planet that, despite apparently having no land masses whatsoever, seems to contain sentient life.  Titan‘s navigator, Aili Lavena, takes the lead in the investigation of this strange new world (which the Titan crew quickly nicknames Droplet), since she comes from a water planet and is fully comfortable exploring Droplet’s oceans without the aid of a shuttlecraft or environmental suit.  Guess what, things go wrong, and she soon finds herself stranded on the planet along with the injured Captain Riker.

Following on the heels of book four’s investigation into the background and character of Bajoran science officer Jaza Najem, Under a Torrent Sea provides us with a similarly detailed look at another Titan crew-member, the Selkie Ensign Lavena.  It’s great fun to read along as these novels explore these fascinating created-for-the-novels characters, while also continuing to throw lots of new wrinkles towards the from-the-TV-shows characters like Riker and Troi, and even the Elaysian Melora Pazlar (who appeared in one second season Deep Space Nine episode).

What I enjoy most about the novels written by Christopher Bennett is the time and space that he devotes to fully investigating and exploring the alien societies that he creates.  His previous Titan novel featured his extrapolations about the workings of an entire society of space-faring Cosmozoans, while Under a Torrent Sea contains a wealth of details about the conditions on a water-planet and the type of life that might be found there.  Of course this is all science fiction, but Mr. Bennett has clearly devoted time and attention to researching the scientific underpinnings of his story.   This brings his novel closer to speculative fiction than it is to pure fantasy, and enhances the engaging nature of the story being told.

All of this wouldn’t amount to much if he didn’t have a strong story to tell within that framework, and as always Mr. Bennett does not disappoint on that score.  I really enjoyed getting to know Ensign Lavena over the course of the novel and (spoiler alert!!) I was pleased that she wasn’t written out of the series at the end of the book, the way the focus of the previous novel was!  The strength of this main story keeps the book moving along at a quick pace.  It may be why I found myself enjoying this … [continued]

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Let the Remake In?

July 6th, 2010

I was late in discovering the terrific Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In.  (Read my review here.)  But that doesn’t stop me from being dubious at the prospect of the upcoming Hollywood remake.  I just don’t understand the point of a remake of this film.  The original is so good, and so recent, that I just can’t fathom any reason to create a different version.  Yes, some talented filmmakers are involved, but still.

Anyways, a trailer has recently appeared.

It’s a pretty slick trailer, no argument.  And it impressively captures the look and feel of the original.  But, again, why watch a remake when the original film is so easily accessible?

Am I wrong?  Does this new trailer change anyone’s mind?… [continued]

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Looking Ahead to the Deathly Hallows…

July 5th, 2010

Boy, has this been a dismal summer for movies, or what?

I thought Toy Story 3 was a masterpiece.  I thought Iron Man 2 was OK.  And that’s about it for movies I’ve enjoyed.  Now, admittedly, I’ve hardly been to the theatres for the past few months — just too much going on in my life right now.  But other than Get Him to the Greek, which I’m still hoping to catch at some point in the next few weeks, there really isn’t anything that I’m sorry to have missed!

Shrek 4 held no interest for me — it looked like the final dregs of a failing franchise.  You couldn’t pay me enough to see The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.  (Though you can click here to read a terrific evisceration of that film.  I haven’t read any of the books or seen any of the movies, but that piece pinpoints exactly why the series could not interest me less.)  Knight and Day? Maybe if Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz had made that movie a decade ago I’d be interested, but for now, pass.  Grown Ups looks to me like the type of all-audience comedy that I hate to see talented comedians wasting their time making.  The Last Airbender? I think The Happening killed my last little bit of interest in the films of M. Night Shyamalan, and the early reviews certainly seem to support my sentiments.

So… can we start getting excited about some movies that lie a little further in our future?

The first big trailer for the two-part adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows looks dynamite, and I must say I am surprised by how eagerly I’m awaiting these final two installments in the series.  I though the first three Harry Potter films were pretty terrible, but film four was OK and I thought five and six were absolutely terrific, so I’m pumped for this one.  Check out the trailer:

This poster is pretty cool as well.

More tomorrow…!… [continued]

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Josh Reviews Toy Story 3!

July 1st, 2010

It’s not that the folks at Pixar are incapable of making a bad movie.  (I, for one, never cared for Cars.)  It’s just that it’s so very very rare that they do.  But after watching the marvelous Toy Story 3, it’s easy to believe that Pixar can do no wrong.

It’s been eleven long years since Toy Story 2.  One can perhaps be forgiven for doubting that even the mad geniuses at Pixar could recapture the magic of Toy Story after such a long hiatus.  But I am pleased to report that Toy Story 3 continues Pixar’s powerful winning streak.  It might not be quite the masterpiece that Toy Story 2 is (that film still stands as one of my all-time favorite movies), but I found it to be relentlessly entertaining and deeply moving.

At the end of Toy Story 2, Woody and the gang gave up the possibility of a lifetime of preservation (behind glass in a toy museum in Japan) in favor of a few more years being played with by Andy.  Toy Story 3 follows that decision through to its painful, inevitable conclusion.  Yes, Woody, Buzz and friends got a few more years being loved by Andy — but at the beginning of this film, he is all grown up and heading to college.  This leaves the toys facing the prospect of either years of storage in an attic, or being taken out with the trash.  Both prospects are devastating to the toys, whose main desire is to be played with and loved by a child.

Pixar could have easily kept Andy — and the rest of the characters — forever frozen in an ageless state, like Peter Pan or Bart Simpson.  I could easily imagine Pixar making sequel after sequel featuring the gang’s adventures in Andy’s room, without feeling the need to allow real-world issues like the realities of time and aging to intrude on the fun.  God bless the folks at Pixar, then, for not taking that route, and instead grappling head-on with the tough questions raised by the end of Toy Story 2.  The result is a film that — while still absolutely hilarious in parts — I found to be surprisingly melancholy.  This is not a criticism, it is a powerful complement.  The artists at Pixar haven’t created another simplistic, cookie-cutter franchise-extender.  They’ve produced a poignant fable that wrestles with issues that have no easy solution.

That statement leads me to consider (as I have many times since walking out of the theatre), the film’s marvelous ending.  (I’m going to be vague here, to try to avoid major spoilers — but nevertheless, please beware.)  I gladly admit that … [continued]