I was dubious about Star Wars Rebels when it first launched. I was still sore over the premature cancellation of The Clone Wars and not that interested in what looked like a very kid-centric new show. But I gave it a try with an open mind, and the early episodes were enough to keep my interest. The final episodes of season one were terrific, and I was thrilled by the involvement of Darth Vader and Ahsoka (a popular character with an unfinished story from The Clone Wars) in season two. There were moments in season two that were as good as Star Wars had been in twenty years, in my opinion. With The Force Awakens and then Rogue One bringing back Star Wars in a big way, I was eager to see where Rebels would go in season three.
While season three does not have the incredible high-points of season two (am I exaggerating to say that Ahsoka’s discovery that her master Anakin Skywalker is Darth Vader is one of the greatest moments in the entire Star Wars saga? It’s a shocking and heartbreaking scene), it is nevertheless a very solid, very entertaining season filled with some wonderful episodes and exciting connections to and expansions upon the wider Star Wars universe.
It’s tough to beat using Darth Vader as the main villain of season two, but showrunner Dave Filoni and his team made the perfect choice to use Grand Admiral Thrawn as the villain here in season three. Thrawn was introduced as the villain of Timothy Zahn’s novel Heir to the Empire, way back in 1991. Back then, Star Wars was only the original three movies. Mr. Zahn’s trilogy of novels was the first attempt at continuing the Star Wars story beyond the events of Return of the Jedi. The success of those novels led to the explosion of Star Wars novels (the “expanded universe”) and comics and, I am convinced, had a hand in the eventual return of Star Wars to the big screen with the Special Editions and eventually the prequel films. (But don’t blame Timothy Zahn for that!!) Mr. Zahn’s novels are terrific, and Thrawn was a spectacular villain. So the idea that Thrawn would finally be brought into “official” on-screen Star Wars canon was a delicious prospect for fans when this was first announced last year.
Rebels season three did not disappoint. Thrawn looked perfect, and he was wonderfully brought to life by Lars Mikkelsen, who perfectly voices the silky-smooth manipulator. I loved seeing Thrawn popping up throughout the season. While of course his appearances aren’t as exciting as those of Vader, the show admirably took the time to develop Thrawn as a patient … [continued]
Netflix’s Marvel shows came out strong from the gate, with the one-two punch of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Both of those first two seasons were extraordinary, with adult, sophisticated story-telling brought to life by a phenomenal cast of actors. Both shows looked gorgeous, and were fun and action-packed. Things started to slip a little with the next two Netflix shows, though. I liked Daredevil season two more than many people did, but I freely admit the season ended in an anticlimactic whimper rather than the epic finale I’d been hoping for. As for Luke Cage, I loved the cast and I loved the look and feel and music of the show, but narratively it was a bore. Things have gotten worse, not better, with Iron Fist, which is huge misfire and Netflix’s first big disappointment of a Marvel show.
As the show opens, Danny Rand (Finn Jones) has returned to New York City after 15 years away. As a child, his parents were killed in a plane crash. The world thought that Danny, too, was dead, but Danny survived and was raised in the mystical city of K’un-Lun. There, he trained to become a living weapon, the Iron Fist. Returning to New York, Danny expects a joyous reunion with childhood friends Joy and Ward Meachum, but in Danny’s absence Joy and Ward have turned their parents’ company, Rand Corporation, into a global behemoth and they are not eager for Danny to come in and mess things up. Danny is also shocked to discover that the Hand, the ancient enemy of K’un-Lun, is operating in New York, and that the Hand is using the Rand Corporation as their tool. With enemies all around him, Danny’s only ally is his new friend, the martial arts instructor Colleen Wing. But even Colleen has a secret that she is hiding from Danny.
That plot description sounds like the basis of a cool TV show. Unfortunately, Iron Fist does not deliver on that promise.
The biggest problem with the show is Finn Jones as Danny. The biggest strength of both the Marvel Studios movies, as well as the Marvel Netflix shows, has been their perfect casting of their lead characters. But they’ve stumbled here with Danny. I am sure Finn Jones is a great actor and a fine human being, but to me he seems totally miscast as Danny. I also have to put a lot of fault on the show’s writing, which failed to craft a story for Danny that a) makes much sense and b) allows the audience to engage with his character. Together, this proves to be a problem the show is unable to overcome.
Let’s start with the … [continued]
From Batman: The Animated Series, which launched in 1995, all the way through the final episode of Justice League Unlimited in 2006, Bruce Timm and a team of extraordinary writers and artists crafted an interlocking universe based on characters from DC comics. This was long before the current popularity of connected universes, as every studio in Hollywood struggled to copy what Marvel Studios has done so successfully since 2008’s Iron Man. In 2007, Bruce Timm returned to the DCU, at the helm of a series of stand-alone direct-to-DVD animated films. There were some successes (the best was, I feel, Batman: Under the Red Hood) and some failures. Eventually, Bruce Timm moved on to other projects, but the series of animated films has continued. In 2014, with Justice League: War, they began connecting the animated films together again, in a series of stories based on the recent relaunch of the DC comic book universe called “The New 52.” I was delighted at the idea that the films would connect to tell a larger story, but disappointed in pretty much everything else. I didn’t love the “New 52” relaunch (other than Grant Morrison’s wonderful reinvention of Superman, which was almost immediately ignored once Mr. Morrison completed his initial story). I felt the animated films were based on weak source material, had terrible character designs, and were so desperate in their attempts to be “adult” by adding in some sexual content, violence, and curse words that they wound up being more juvenile. While the DC comic book universe has already moved away from the “New 52” reboot with yet another reboot, called “Rebirth,” the animated films based on the “New 52” are continuing, with the latest being Justice League Dark.
In this story, Batman’s investigations of a series of seemingly random incidents of civilians losing their minds and committing horrible atrocities because they were convinced they were seeing monsters leads him into the mystical, magical side of the DC Universe. He meets up with John Constantine, Zatanna, Deadman, Jason Blood/Etrigan, Swamp Thing, and several other occult characters from the DCU. Though Batman is initially distrustful of magic, it will take this motley team of magicians to end the threat to mankind.
I can’t say Justic League Dark is a great film, but I rather enjoyed it. It’s easily the best film of this “New 52” animated continuity, though it possesses many of the flaws that weakened the previous films in this series, most notably horrific character design and juvenile dialogue for the characters filled with unneeded cursing and innuendo. But this film actually has an interesting story, and it was fun seeing all of these bizarre characters from the … [continued]
I’m not sure which just-released Star Wars trailer I am more excited about. This:
It’s a jump ball!
Together, these two trailers give us a fascinating peek at the future of Star Wars, and suggests confirmation of a theory about which many Star Wars fans like myself have been speculating.
One of the many aspects of the Prequels that bothered me was the whole business about the prophecy of Anakin Skywalker as the “chosen one” who would bring “balance to the Force.” The Original Trilogy had framed Obi-Wan’s hubris as responsible for Anakin’s fall to darkness. (“I thought I could instruct him just as well as Yoda. I was wrong.”) That prophecy mumbo-jumbo muddled what had been, to me, a fairly clear story. Plus, the Jedi’s faith in the prophecy made them look extremely dumb. If there are hundreds of Jedi and only two Sith in the universe during the time of the Prequels, then why would the Jedi think the “chosen one” who would bring “balance to the Force” would be something GOOD for the Jedi? In fact, Anakin’s actions bring balance to the Force by slaughtering the Jedi, resulting in there being only two surviving Jedi (Yoda and Obi-Wan) and two surviving Sith (The Emperor and Darth Vader).
This whole “balance” business has been an aspect of the Prequels that, for a long while, I wanted to forget. But lately the idea has been coming back in a big way. Two key things have happened in the third season of Star Wars Rebels (watch for my full review of season three coming soon). First, they introduced a mysterious character called the Bendu, an ancient Force-wielding creature who was neither Jedi nor Sith, but who claimed to represent a middle path, balancing light and dark and incorporating both into himself. Second, in the season’s brilliant penultimate episode, “Twin Suns,” we caught up with Obi-Wan Kenobi on Tatooine, a few years before the events of the original Star Wars. In that episode, Kenobi refers to Luke, rather than Anakin, as the “chosen one.” Hang onto this idea for a second.
Following The Force Awakens, fans like me have speculated as to why Luke ran away from the universe, and what he’s been up to. In this trailer for The Last Jedi, we see Luke state emphatically that “it’s time for the Jedi to end.” Is it possible that, following the failure of Luke’s attempt to restart the Jedi Order (with Kylo Ren’s turn to the Dark Side and the Knights of Ren’s apparent massacre of Luke’s new Jedi school — I assume that’s what’s happening in the trailer when we see Luke fall to his knees in … [continued]
Almost twenty years after the last new episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 aired (“Danger, Diabolik!” On August 8, 1999, though true MYSTies know that one additional episode, intended for earlier in the final season, actually aired later, in September 1999, because of an issue with the rights for that episode’s movie), an incredible FOURTEEN new episodes of the show launch on Netflix TODAY.
Our modern era of what TV critic Alan Sepinwall calls “peak TV” has witnessed some joyous resurrections of long-dead TV shows, from a fourth season of Arrested Development to last year’s six-episode run of new X-Files episodes, but the return of MST3K is particularly exciting. And, in the end, far more creatively successful than either of those other two resurrections I just mentioned.
The brainchild of Joel Hodgson, Mystery Science Theater 3000 has always had a gloriously simple premise: a guy and his two robot friends riffing on old movies. This was a groundbreaking idea for a television show when Mr. Hodgson and his team first launched the show thirty years ago. For ten seasons (first on local KTMA in Minneapolis, then on Comedy Central and then on the Sci-Fi Channel), Joel and then replacement host Mike Nelson riffed on an array of endearingly goofy old movies.
In the years since the show went off the air, several of the key creative players have been involved in efforts to continue the idea behind the show in different ways. Creator Joel Hodgson, along with Trace Beaulieu (the original voice for Crow; he also played Dr. Forrester), Josh Elvis Weinstein (the original voice for Tom Servo), TV’s Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester) formed Cinematic Titanic. They traveled around the country, performing live shows riffing on old movies projected on the big screen. I caught one terrific performance back in 2009. Meanwhile, Mike Nelson, along with Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett (the lead players of MST3K during its later years), launched Rifftrax, which applied the MST3K idea to modern, well-known movies (rather than old, obscure ones), allowing folks to download audio tracks to play along with moves at home. I have enjoyed many terrific Rifftrax over the years. The players from both groups have continued to collaborate with one another, most notably Rifftrax’s recent MST3K reunion show.
But now, finally, the mothership has returned. Joel Hodgson launched a Kickstarter campaign last year which resulted in an extraordinary success, eventually crowdfunding a whopping fourteen new episodes, and then landing a deal with Netflix to stream the new episodes. All fourteen shows are now available on Netflix as of today, so you can go watch them right now!!
The new episodes were made … [continued]
In defiance of CBS/Paramount’s outrageously restrictive new fan film guidelines meant to crush the Star Trek fan films that have flourished over the past decade, Vic Mignogna and the talented team of Trek fans who make up Star Trek Continues have released their eighth episode, “Still Treads the Shadow.” Star Trek Continues is a fan-made project to create new episodes of the Original Series, featuring episode-length adventures of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the crew of the original starship Enterprise, in the style of the Original Series. After the release of the new fan film guidelines, Mr. Mignogna announced that he would be releasing four additional episodes to wrap up his series. It’s a shame that the series will be ending, but I am glad that Mr. Mignogna has decided to at least complete and release these final four episodes, of which “Still Treads the Shadow” is the first.
In this episode, while investigating a black hole phenomena, the Enterprise discovers the U.S.S. Defiant adrift in space. The Defiant was last seen getting lost in interphasic space in the Original Series episode “The Tholian Web”. But the ship has returned, with a surprising passenger on-board: an elderly James T. Kirk. Though Captain Kirk was rescued from the Defiant in “The Tholian Web,” somehow a duplicate version of himself remained trapped on the Defiant, and he has lived his entire life in solitude aboard the lost starship, with his only companion being the Defiant’s now-sentient computer, which now calls itself Tiberius. With both the Enterprise and the Defiant both caught in the singularity’s pull, and a vengeful Tiberius out to destroy the Enterprise in a misguided effort to protect his only friend, will two Kirks be enough to save the day?
As always, I am staggeringly impressed with the enormous skill on display in every new Star Trek Continues episode. As I have written every single time, this episode is an extraordinarily professional recreation of the look and feel of an Original Series episode. It is remarkable. There is almost nothing to mark this as a fan-made undertaking rather than an actual episode of the Original Series. The sets, the costumes, the props, all are incredibly accurate recreations of Classic Trek.
Once again, Star Trek Continues has attracted an exciting guest star. This time it is Rekha Sharma (Tory from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica), playing Avi Samara, a scientist assigned to the Enterprise to study the black hole phenomenon, who also has a long-ago connection to Captain Kirk. Ms. Sharma is phenomenal in the role. She plays the character with exactly the right amount of naturalism, underplaying her lines enough to make her character feel real (avoiding the tendency of actors … [continued]
In Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Andy Samberg stars as Conner Friel. Conner used to be “Kid Conner” in a popular three-person group, the Style Boyz, along with Lawrence “Kid Brain” Dunn (Akiva Schaffer) and Owen “Kid Contact” Bouchard (Jorma Taccone). But the group broke up, and while two of the boys faded into obscurity, Andy Samberg’s “Kid Conner” morphed himself into Conner4Real and became a global superstar. But while Conner is on the top of the world at the start of the film, as you can imagine, things are about to come crashing down around the ears of the oblivious, self-absorbed and self-obsessed superstar.
This film didn’t make much of an impact when it was released this year, but I thought it was terrific. This is Spinal Tap is the first and last word on fake, funny music documentaries, but Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping finds a lot of places to mine for big laughs in this parody of modern pop silliness.
I’m not that familiar with the Lonely Island team, but all three members do great work here in this film. Andy Samberg has demonstrated his movie-star chops in films like Celeste and Jesse Forever, and these days he is doing fantastic work every week on the terrific Brooklyn 99. He’s effortless in bringing Conner to life. Mr. Samberg is incredibly skilled at playing charming and self-absorbed, and his comedic timing is incredible. I was less familiar with the other two members of the Lonely Island team, but both Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone do absolutely terrific work. They’re both so funny and so invested in their characters. All three men have an extraordinary chemistry together, and Popstar works as well as it does because of the wonderful rapport that the three leads have with one another. It’s a pleasure to see them on screen together.
Beyond the three leads, there is a wealth of spectacular comedic actors who appear in supporting roles. This film’s cast is a king’s ransom of riches. Tim Meadows is slyly hysterical as Conner’s manager, while Sarah Silverman plays it very deadpan as Conner’s publicist. Bill Hader gets big laughs in a few small scenes as a bumbling roadie. The great Joan Cusack only has a few moments as Conner’s mom, but boy is it great to see her on-screen as always. Imogen Poots is fun as Conner’s girlfriend Wednesday, and Justin Timberlake kills as Conner’s chef. Will Arnett, Will Forte, Maya Rudolph, Kevin Nealon, Mike Birbiglia, Chelsea Peretti, and many other familiar faces pop up throughout the film.
Then there are also a million famous faces from the music world who all appear as themselves. Snoop Dogg, Questlove, RZA, 50 Cent, … [continued]
Set during the latter half of the original Enterprise’s five year mission, Christopher L. Bennett’s novel The Face of the Unknown is a sequel to the Original Series episode “The Corbomite Maneuver.” That episode introduced the diminutive Commander Balok and his enormous orb-ship, The Fesarius. “The Corbomite Maneuver” is a terrific early episode of The Original Series, with a wonderful twist ending. But by leaving the reveal of Commander Balok until the very end of the episode, we don’t actually learn much of anything about Balok or the people he represents, who call themselves The First Federation. Enter Christopher L. Bennett and The Face of the Unknown.
In the novel, reports of First Federation attacks on nearby planets send the Enterprise on a quest to locate Commander Balok’s mysterious people. What Captain Kirk and his crew discovers is astonishing: the giant-headed puppet that Balok used in an attempt to intimidate Kirk and the Enterprise in “The Corbomite Maneuver” was in fact a representation of an actual alien race, gone for millennia but now returned to seek vengeance on those in the First Federation who they believe had wronged them.
As I noted above, “The Corbomite Maneuver” gave us only the barest of hints about the First Federation and Commander Balok’s people. The episode was thus ripe for a follow-up, and Christopher L. Bennett has done an impressive job of exploring this alien society, fleshing out its people as well as its social structures and history. I have always been impressed, in his novels, by Christopher L. Bennett’s attention to detail, and the way he is able to expand upon those small details to fill in backstory and to answer questions that I never even knew I had. That talent is once again on fine display here in this novel, as he has used a variety of small references and suggestions from “The Corbomite Maneuver” to flesh out a fascinating new alien culture. I loved reading about the First Federation’s hidden “Web of Worlds” (a vast, interconnected refuge for countless different alien races, hidden deep within a gas giant planet), and I enjoyed the way that Mr. Bennett developed several of the different races who make up this society. The Web of Worlds is a fascinating concept. It fits logically with what we knew of the First Federation from “The Corbomite Maneuver” while also expanding upon Balok’s people in fascinating new directions. (I also enjoyed how the description of the Web of Worlds sounded, in a very clever touch by Mr. Bennett, very reminiscent of the interlocking dome design of the Fesarius, as seen in the book cover image above.) I was even more taken by the very interesting idea that … [continued]
I am not sure what to make of Disney Studios’ apparent desire to remake every single one of their animated films into a live action version. I wasn’t interested in Cinderella, nor did I see 101 Dalmatians. I did see Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, as I was drawn by the CGI spectacle, and I quite enjoyed it. When I heard that a live action Beauty and the Beast was in the works, I had some interest because I love the original animated film. (I remember going to see it when it first came out, on a trip with a high school film class, and being blown away by the film.) So I was intrigued by the idea of a new version, but also as perplexed as I am any time Hollywood decides to remake a great film. I can understand remaking bad movies, in an attempt to spin a failed concept or execution into a more successful undertaking, but what is to be gained by remaking an already great movie?
This new version of Beauty and the Beast is an interesting exploration of that question. On the one hand, I freely admit that this new version is terrific. I have a lot of great things to say about it, all of which I will get into in just a moment. But is it better than the original film? Not in my opinion. It’s just different. It’s an extraordinarily well-crafted piece of work, and I had a heck of a lot of fun watching it on a humongous IMAX screen. But after seeing it, I have been wondering, what was the point? Why did so many people work so hard for so many years just to remake an already great film?
Perhaps I should say “recreate” rather than “remake,” as this new Beauty and the Beast hews extremely faithfully to the original film. There are a few tweaks here and there. They delved a little bit more into the Beast and Belle’s backstories; they changed the character of Belle’s father Maurice a bit; they tweaked Belle’s involvement with the other villagers; they gave the Beast a new song; etc. But whereas The Jungle Book was a far more complete reinvention of the story, one that took full advantage of what modern CGI can do, this film uses modern CGI not to reinvent the original movie but rather to recreate it as faithfully as they could. What changes have been made to the original film’s story are entirely superficial. (I read a LOT in the press, in advance of this film’s release, about the changes made to Belle’s backstory, how she was now more of a fighter for the other … [continued]
In much the same way that I never imagined a TV show based on the Coen Brothers’ magnificent film Fargo could possibly be any good, when I first read about Legion, a new TV show based on a minor character from the X-Men comics, I was not at all interested. I’ve been burned by many previous super-hero shows, and with the X-Men movie franchise floundering without much direction, this looked like a cheap way to cash in on the X-Men name. Well, Noah Hawley has proven me wrong twice now. I will never doubt him again. Just as Mr. Hawley’s reimagining of Fargo was an incredible success, so too has he created a rich, thrilling, wonderfully bizarre version of a super-hero show with Legion. I loved pretty much every minute of it.
Based on story-lines written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz in the X-Men spin-off comic book The New Mutants from the 1980s (as well as some key issues written by Mr. Claremont in the main Uncanny X-Men book), Legion tells the story of David Haller, a young mutant with incredible psychic powers whose apparent schizophrenia makes him an enormous danger to the people around him and perhaps the entire world. As the series begins, we see that David has been institutionalized, but he soon falls into the hands of a mysterious agency called Division Three. They suspect what David will soon learn, that what he has always thought were his deep psychological problems might be a manifestation of his incredible mutant abilities. David is rescued from Division Three by a group of fellow mutants, though neither they nor David realize that he had been hiding, deep within him, a powerful evil.
That brief plot description doesn’t begin to capture the head-spinning complex narrative that Mr. Hawley and his team have crafted, a joyously madcap journey through David’s past and present in which one can never be quite sure what is real and what is imaginary. The entire structure of Legion has been designed to put the audience right into the middle of David’s madness and his broken mind. Its fiendishly clever. Watching the show becomes an incredibly fun exercise in attempting to unravel the tangled of mystery of David’s past.
Every inch of Legion has been crafted with great care. The overall narrative, as I have just described, is an impressively clever piece of work. Beyond that, time and again the show delights in zigging when you would expect it to zag. We spend several episodes wondering about the mystery of Melanie (Jean Smart)’s frozen husband Oliver. When we finally meet him, or at least his astral projection, its in the instantly iconic, and very … [continued]