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Josh Reviews Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay

In the latest direct-to-DVD/blu-ray DC Animated movie, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay, we’re presented with the latest incarnation of the Suicide Squad.  Amanda Waller dispatches her Task Force X (the “Suicide Squad”) to obtain for her a mystical “Get out of Hell free” card that allows anyone who perishes while holding the card to have all of their sins forgiven, no matter how dastardly.  This iteration of the squad is, as always, made up of villains — this time the team consists of Deadshot, Bronze Tiger, Harley Quinn, Killer Frost, Captain Boomerang, and Copperhead.  Over the course of the movie, they cross paths with many other villains from the DC universe, including Vandal Savage, Professor Zoom, Two Face, Count Vertigo, and Professor Pyg.

I don’t have anywhere near as deep a love for the DC Universe as I do for the Marvel Universe, and so I’m not nearly attached to this group of supporting DC Universe characters as I might have been to a corresponding group of Marvel villains.  I’ve always thought the Suicide Squad was an interesting concept in the comics, but I’m only passingly familiar with John Ostrander’s well-regarded run on the title from the eighties.  (Mr. Ostrander created the modern iteration of the Suicide Squad.)  This animated movie is the third movie version of this concept that we’ve gotten in the past few years.  There was the live-action film, of course, which I thought was a big mess, and we also got a prior animated version in 2014’s Batman: Assault on Arkham.  Frankly, I haven’t really loved ANY of these versions!

This new animated movie is not in continuity with Assault on Arkham… but while the details are different, overall I found this version of the Suicide Squad to be quite similar to that version, so much so that I’m not sure why they didn’t just make this film a sequel to Assault on Arkham.  I guess they wanted this new film to be a part of the new continuity of the past few years’ of DC animated films, a version based on DC’s “New 52” reboot of their universe.  (As reboot that has already been abandoned by the comics, which makes these new animated films feel curiously behind the times.)

There are elements of Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay that work, but its tone is all over the place.  Sometimes the film feels like it wants to be a tongue-in-cheek play on violent crime capers.  There are some moments when the film is edited to resemble an old “Grindhouse” B-movie; moments which are silly and loose even as they are hyper-violent.  The whole premise of a “Get out of Hell free” card is … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Agent Carter: Season One

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I had high hopes for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. when it launched last year.  The idea of a Marvel TV show was of course of interest to me, but what really excited me was that, as opposed to the various DC Comics superhero shows over the years, this new Marvel TV show would be set in continuity with the Marvel movie universe.  It seems like a total no-brainer of an idea, and yet, nothing like this had ever been done before.  I was super-excited.

And yet, right from the pilot, I was underwhelmed.  Despite the involvement of some great talent both in front of and behind the camera (particularly the show-runner husband-and-wife team of Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, of whom I have been a far for years), the show seemed surprisingly lifeless.  The characters were dull, the writing was flat, and the episodic structure did not engage me.  Things picked up a little towards the end of the season, when the series’ story-lines took a major turn in connection with the revelations about S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  The first half of this second season has seen the show continue to improve, and I’ve enjoyed the way the show has utilized elements of the mythology of the Inhumans, a classic group of Marvel Comics characters.  But I still think the show is surprisingly mediocre, lacking either the fun or the edge-of-your-seat intensity I was hoping for.

I was excited to hear that Marvel would be launching a second TV series (a mini-series of sorts to fill the time-slot during Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mid-season hiatus) that would allow Hayley Atwell to reprise her role as Peggy Carter from Captain America: The First Avenger.  I loved everything about that idea.  Ms. Atwell was marvelous as Peggy — she was one of the best things about that first Cap film.  I felt there was still a lot of life left in that character, and I loved the notion of seeing what happened to her in the years following the loss of Cap.  I also loved the idea of a period-piece show; that seemed like a lot of fun, and something unusual for a superhero TV show.  And considering the revelations in Captain America: The Winter Soldier about the nature of S.H.I.E.L.D., suddenly a show about the origins of S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed ripe with potential.  We’d seen that this premise had juice in the wonderful Peggy Carter one-shot short film attached to the DVD of Iron Man Three.  Frankly, the only thing that had me worried was the mediocre quality of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — would Agent Carter be of just as middling a level of quality?

Well, … [continued]

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Batman: Assault on Arkham

September 12th, 2014
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I have soured recently on the DC Animated direct-to-DVD/blu-ray releases, and I’m afraid their latest release, Batman: Assault on Arkham, does little to change my general impression that this line of animated films has lost its way.

This film had a few things going for it off the bat (no pun intended).  One, it was a separate tale from the new continuity of animated films (begun in the horrible Justice League: War and continued in the not quite as bad but still not that good Son of Batman).  It also featured the return of a few of the classic voice actors from Batman: The Animated Series and the Bruce Timm-run shows that followed, most notably the great Kevin Conroy as Batman (for me, THE definitive voice of Batman) and also C.C.H. Pounder as Amanda Waller.

On the downside, this film was set in the continuity of the Arkham video games, something in which I have little interest.  I am pleased to say that the film totally stands on its own — there weren’t any points where I was confused or felt that I needed to have played those games in order to understand the story.  On the other hand, I wonder if this story would mean more to people who had played the games, since for me I was left rather cold.

Assault on Arkham is interesting in that the story is told, not from Batman’s point of view, but that of the villains.  The Suicide Squad is a group of villains who have been assembled by Amanda Waller to undertake black-op, off-the-books missions.  In this case, they need to break into Arkham Asylum in order to recover the Riddler’s question-mark-shaped cane, in which he has hidden valuable data he stole from Ms. Waller.  (This whole concept of using unstable super-villains to do your dirty-work seems crazy to me, but the Suicide Squad has long been a popular concept in the DC comics.)

I like the idea of a Batman story told from the point of view of the villains, I just wish the villains were more interesting.  (Assault at Arkham pales unfavorably to the last season of Justice League Unlimited, which also spent a lot of time telling stories about the villains.  The penultimate episode of that show ONLY featured the villains, and it was phenomenal, one of the best episodes of the series.  I can’t say the same for Assault on Arkham.)

I also have the same complaint I have had about the last few animated films, in that it has some bad language and some sexual content/references that are supposed to feel adult but to me just feel out of place and juvenile.  … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Captain America: The First Avenger!

And so we come to it at last, the final piece in the puzzle before next summer’s unprecedented super-hero cross-over movie, The Avengers.  There was Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor, and now we have Captain America: The First Avenger.  Captain America is overly simplistic and a little corny at times, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a rollicking good time in a movie theatre.

As with all of the Marvel Studios films so far, the film sets itself up for success with its impeccable casting.  Chris Evans was the best thing about the terrible Fantastic Four movies, and he’s found an even better role here in that of Steve Rogers/Captain America.  He absolutely looks the part, and more importantly than that he’s able to sell Steve Rogers’ aw-shucks good-hearted nature without coming off as silly.  He’s an un-ironic heroic lead, and I found his honest, open-faced portrayal to be quite compelling.  This performance is assisted by some wonderful CGI effects that create the 90-pound weakling version of Steve Rogers that we see in the first act.  This isn’t The Curious Case of Benjamin Button style photo-realism, not by any stretch.  But the effects are convincing, and after a few moments I really did stop thinking about the visual effects and just accepted skinny-Steve as a fully-realized character.  It’s a terrific achievement in effects.

Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings) creates yet another iconic villain in the role of Johann Schmidt, The Red Skull.  Putting on what sounded to me like his best impersonation of Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, Mr. Weaving chews a lot of scenery but never tips over the edge into camp.  The Red Skull is a big, bad, totally EVIL comic-book villain, and I thought he was just terrific.  (Possibly the best bad-guy in a Marvel Studios film so far.)  I loved the look of his make-up effects, and I was pleased that once his fleshy mask comes off, it stays off for the rest of the film.

I was surprised at how large a role Tommy Lee Jones has in the film.  I thought this would just be a cameo, but his Colonel Phillips becomes a key character throughout the film, and Jones just kills.  He gets many of the film’s best lines, and his gruff, warm presence is a delight.  Most of the rest of the film’s best lines go to Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine, the inventor of the super-soldier serum that transforms Steve Rogers into Captain America.  This was another surprise for me, and I appreciated that we really got to know Dr. Erskine in the film’s first … [continued]

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It’s been a busy month here, but that hasn’t stopped me from checking out a bunch of DVDs recently, new and old:

The Conversation — Released in 1974, this masterpiece was written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.  Gene Hackman stars as twitchy, secretive surveillance specialist Harry Caul, whose life is up-ended by a seemingly-innocuous conversation that he is hired to record.  Confidently directed by Coppola at the height of his abilities, the film is a perfect study of a slow burn as we watch Hackman’s character gradually fall to pieces.  This is Hackman’s film, without question, but it’s also fun to see the great John Cazale (Fredo in The Godfather) and an incredibly young Harrison Ford in supporting roles.  The film is also notable for the contributions of master editor Walter Murch (American Graffiti, Apocalypse Now) who created an incredible sound-scape that plays with sound and dialogue in some incredibly inventive ways.  The bravura opening sequence, in which Caul and his team records the titular conversation, is staggering — like Caul, we attempt to follow the couple and their conversation, but keep getting distracted by people talking, music playing, and a myriad of other background noises, with the conversation itself flittering in and out of our perception.  It’s really quite astonishing.  Everybody loves The Godfather these days, but I feel that The Conversation is a film that has fallen out of the popular consciousness.  Do yourself a favor and help remedy that by checking out this brilliant film!

Band of Brothers — Speaking of masterpieces, there is this 2001 HBO miniseries executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.  Adapted from the book by Stephen Ambrose, the series follows the men of Easy Company (of the US Army 101st Airborne Division) from their training in 1942 through to the end of the second world war.  I have watched this series through four times now since it was released, and each time I watch it I am just as over-come by the power of the story of these extraordinary heroes.  The production quality of this mini-series is unbelievable — each episode is really its own mini-movie.  The vistas are stunningly beautiful, and the action is gut-wrenchingly intense.  There are few movies. let alone TV shows, that are able to stage combat sequences with as much ferocity.  Over the ten episodes we follow and grow to love an enormous ensemble of characters: Damian Lewis as Richard Winters, Ron Livingston as Lewis Nixon, Donnie Wahlberg as Carwood Lipton, Scott Grimes as Donald Malarkey, Michael Cudlitz as “Bull” Randleman, James Madio as Frank Perconte, Neal McDonough as “Buck” Compton, Frank John … [continued]