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The Top 10 Episodes of TV in 2012 — Part One!

I hope you’ve been enjoying my Best-of-2012 lists so far!  Follow these links to read my Top 15 Movies of 2012: part one, part two, and part three, and my Top 15 Comic Book Series of 2012: part one and part two.

When writing my Top 10 Episodes of TV list last year, I wrote that I’d considered not doing a best-of-TV list anymore, and the same thought crossed my mind this year.  My life has gotten so busy these past few years, and as a result I watch far, far less TV than I used to.  I manage to do a pretty good job of still seeing lots of movies, but I am much more of a niche TV viewer these days.  There are not that many new shows that I watch, and much of the TV that I see is actually old stuff in the form of DVD season sets.  But I do still love me some great TV, and so here is my list of the most wonderful television I watched this year.  One last caveat before I begin: know that I have not seen seasons 2 or 3 of Louie or seasons 2 or 3 of Boardwalk Empire, or any episode of Breaking Bad and Community. All of those are shows that I would love to catch up on, and I actually have DVDs of all of those shows sitting on my to-watch shelf.  Someday!  OK, enough delay, here’s my list:

10. Mad Men: “The Phantom” (season 5, episode 13, aired on 6/10/12) — This was a spectacular season of Mad Men, possibly my very favorite season.  The year was stuffed with memorable moments and fantastic episodes.  I thought about including on this list the season 5 premiere, “A Little Kiss,” for the Zou Bissou Bissou scene; or “Tea Leaves” for the fantastic comedy of Harry and Don Draper back-stage at a Rolling Stones concert; or “Signal 30” for the hysterical and awkward dinner party in which Pete and Trudy host Ken and his wife and, of course, the fantastic moment in which Lane punches Pete.  But, instead, I opted for “The Phantom,” the fifth season finale.  There’s a lot of greatness in this episode, moments both comedic and very sad, including the connections between Lane’s suicide and that of Don’s brother , Adam (from season one); Peggy and Don at the movies; and Roger on acid again.  But what earned this episode a spot on my list is its closing shot, that iconic image of Don Draper, in all his James Bond badass glory, walking away from his wife on a brightly-lit soundstage and into the darkness of … [continued]

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Back in 2010, I had a hard time coming up with ten movies I liked enough to put on my Top 10 Movies of the year list.  Last, year, in 2011, I thought there were so many great movies that I had a Top 15 list (and I even squeezed in a few extra movies by including several ties).  I thought 2012 was another fantastic year at the movies.  I could have easily had a Top 20 list this year, but I thought that might have been excessive.

There were a lot of great films I saw in 2012 which didn’t make this list, including: Silver Linings Playbook, Wanderlust, Skyfall, This is 40, Ted, Chronicle, Paul Williams Still Alive, and many more.

As always, I also like to make mention of the many films that interested me that I just didn’t get a chance to see in 2012.  These include: Killing them Softly, Flight, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hyde Park Hudson, Butter, Hitchcock, Wreck-It Ralph, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Holy Motors, Smashed, Detention, and Savages.  So if you loved one or more of those films are are wondering why they’re not on my list, well, now you know.

Here now is my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2012:

15. The Five-Year Engagement This film has really grown on me since I first saw it, early this year.  I love how unusual its structure is — whereas most romantic comedies keep the two main characters apart until the very end, this movie starts with Tom (Jason Segel) proposing to Violet (Emily Blunt).  Things go downhill for there.  For a romantic comedy, this film goes into some grim territory — since much of the movie is about the happy couple slowly growing apart, there are certainly some parts of the film without a lot of yuks.  That threw me a bit the first time I saw the film, but I have come to really love and admire this film for its weird structure and premise.  And while there certainly are a few serious moments in the film, everything else is is pretty much jam-packed with big laughs and wonderful, very memorable characters.  Chris Pratt (Parks and Recreation) and Alison Brie (Mad Men, Community) steal the film as Tom’s best-friend and Violet’s sister, who meet at Tom and Violet’s engagement party and quickly fall in love, get married, and have kids before Tom and Violet even make it to the altar.  (Chris Pratt singing to Alison Brie at their characters’ wedding is one of my favorite moments I’ve seen onscreen all year.)  But wait, this film also has substantial, … [continued]

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An Evening with Kevin Smith at the House of Blues in Boston!

December 3rd, 2010
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I’m a big, big fan of Kevin Smith.  I love the man’s flicks (Chasing Amy and Dogma are my favorites, but I’m also very partial to the lunacy of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), but some of my favorite of his projects are not actually his films.  I hold great, enormous amounts of love for the six-episode Clerks cartoon, and I think the commentary tracks for Mallrats and Chasing Amy are pretty much two of my favorite things ever — to say that they are endlessly entertaining is to undersell their greatness.  But probably my favorite thing that Mr. Smith has ever been involved with is An Evening with Kevin Smith.

This two-DVD set was released back in 2002, and contains lengthy excerpts from a series of six Q & A sessions that Mr. Smith conducted at a variety of colleges.  Kids ask questions, and Smith answers.  That’s it.  Those were the shows, and that’s the DVD.  That might sound like it could be dry, but I can’t put into words just how fascinating and insightful and hilarious the result is.  Smith reveals himself on the DVD as one of the best tellers of ripping yarns on planet Earth.  He’ll take what sounds like a simple question and turn it into an extended anecdote that will have you on your knees with laughter.  I have watched An Evening with Kevin Smith through many, many times, and at one point or another I’ve made pretty much everyone I know listen to Smith’s Superman Returns and Prince stories.  So funny.  (Chaka mad?  Chaka REAL mad!)

I also, of course, devoured the two DVD follow-ups that presented later Q & A sessions — the very cleverly titled An Evening with Kevin Smith 2: Evening Harder, and A Threevening with Kevin Smith.  (Click here to read my review of the Threevening DVD.)  When I read that Mr. Smith was coming to Boston to conduct one of these Q & A sessions, I immediately snapped up tickets to go!

The show — held this past Thursday night at the House of Blues in Boston — was as phenomenal as I’d hoped.  Things started off really well, when Smith took a fan’s simple question about whether the criteria by which he judges his success has changed at all over the years and launched into a very funny forty-minute monologue of anecdotes within anecdotes in which he discussed his current obsession with pot, the time he smoked pot with Seth Rogen after finishing up Zach and Miri Make a Porno, a recent pot experience with his wife Jen, and the very first disastrous time that he and Jen smoked pot … [continued]

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Great Scott!! Josh is Blown Away by the 25th Anniversary Screening of Back to the Future!

October 27th, 2010
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In celebration of the film’s 25th anniversary (and also, not coincidentally, to promote yesterday’s release of the trilogy on blu-ray), movie theatres across this great nation of ours screened Back to the Future this past Monday night.  I’m thrilled to say that I had tickets to the showing here in Boston, and it was an absolutely magnificent event.  It’s been a long time since I’ve had more fun in a movie theatre!!

What a delight it was to get to see this spectacular film on the big screen!  The film played like gangbusters — the audience I was in was captivated by the movie from minute one.  Of course everyone in the theatre knew the movie backwards and forwards, but that could lead to an audience laughing at the film, and the experience becoming more like watching the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  (Not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly a different experience from when an audience is really engaged by a film’s story.)  But the audience I was with was kept spellbound by the film all the way through — laughing hard at all the jokes (even the subtle ones) and cheering at all the key places.

It’s hard to believe that Back to the Future is a quarter-century old.  The film holds up remarkably well.  The acting, the direction, the score, the visual effects — everything works almost exactly as well as it did back in 1985 when the film was released.  OK, there are one or two dodgy moments (like the effects shot when Marty & Doc whip around to look at the fire tracks left by the just-vanished DeLorean in the Twin Pines Mall — if you look closely, Marty and the Doc appear to be floating in the frame) but these are barely noticeable and, really, sort of endearing if you do pick up on any of those tiny flaws.

At the screening, the film looked and sounded amazing.  The print that we were shown had been gorgeously restored.  The image was sharp and with vibrant colors.  The dialogue was clear, the music was rocking, and the effects were booming (especially the climactic clock tower lightning strike!).

There were so many aspects of the film that were really highlighted when seeing it on the big screen.  First and foremost is the eyeball-acting of Christopher Lloyd.  Seriously, I could spend the entire run-time of the film just watching Mr. Lloyd’s eyeballs pop and squint and wriggle.  Lloyd is a riot, and he makes then most of every single second he has on screen.  Take the scene in the Doc’s garage, when Lorraine shows up (having trailed Marty there).  Doc has maybe one line of dialogue in … [continued]

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Josh Enjoys Rifftrax Live: Reefer Madness!

I’ve written before about Rifftrax, the on-line enterprise from Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy (formerly of Mystery Science Theatre 3000).  Rifftrax continues the familiar MST3K model of making fun of terrible movies, via downloadable podcasts that you can play along with DVDs of the films being riffed.  It’s a clever concept, and I’ve found the hit-miss ratio of the tracks to be very high.

Last year the Rifftrax gang broadcast a live riff of the sci-fi classic-in-its-awfulness Plan 9 From Outer Space to theatres nationwide, and I was lucky enough to catch the showing at a theatre here in Boston.  It was a hoot, and I guess successful enough that the Rifftrax team is continuing to occasionally broadcast live shows.  I missed the show in the spring, but I was able to attend Thursday night’s screening of a riff on Reefer Madness, the 1936 anti-marijuana (or marihuana, as it’s spelled in the film) screed.

As always, Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy did not disappoint — the event was hilarious.

The evening began with the screening of two old shorts.  As they always do, Nelson, Corbett and Murphy made jokes over the broadcast.  (Usually we’d see the film shown in the main part of the screen, with the heads of the 3 Rifftrax members in little boxes on the right-hand side.)  The first short dealt with the epidemic that was apparently sweeping the nation back in the ’30s of housewives washing their laundry in gasoline (you read that right) and then blowing themselves up.  According to this film, that’s a bad thing.  The second short was from the ’70s, and dealt with all the sorts of fun art projects one could make from grass (the stuff that grows in your lawn, not marihuana).  This second short was the highlight of the event for me — the short was absurd all on its own, and the riffs were priceless.  I was practically crying from laughter.

After two quick animated shorts by Rich “Lowtax” Kyanka of Something Awful, we were treated to our third short of the evening — an acid-trip of a black-and-white animated cartoon from the ’30s.  Despite being titled as an Aesop’s Fable, the cartoon depicted a menagerie of bizarre animals living in the North Pole skating through the snow, getting haircuts, and bouncing happily… then fighting with one another and eating one another.  So weird.

Then we got to the main event: Reefer Madness.  Made back in 1936, the film is an absolutely loony look at how marijuana would destroy teenagers, turning them into manic, wild-eyed murders.  The whole thing seems to have been made by a bunch of adults who had … [continued]

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Josh Enjoys Two Sweet New Classic Soundtrack Releases: Back to the Future & The Goonies!

April 16th, 2010
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I am a bit of a nut for movie soundtracks.

I don’t purchase a lot of CDs — but I do own quite a number of great movie soundtracks.  Not every movie soundtrack can stand on its own — but the ones that do are pure gold.  James Horner’s score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; John William’s Star Wars scores, Howard Shore’s scores for The Lord of the Rings — these are epic creations that I can listen to over and over and over again.

Recently, two phenomenal scores from the ’80s were finally released in their complete form on CD: Alan Silvestri’s score for Back to the Future, and Dave Grusin’s score for The Goonies.  Both are absolutely PHENOMENAL.

Intrada released the Back to the Future score on two discs, with disc one being the complete score as heard in the finished film, and disc two being an alternate, early version of the score.  The wonderfully detailed liner notes (written by Mike Matessino) detail the process by which, after Mr. Silvestri recorded his score for the film in May, 1985, it was decided (in consultation with director Robert Zemeckis and Executive Producer Steven Spielberg) that Mr. Silvestri would re-work and completely re-record the score.  This is extremely unusual.  As Engineer Dennis Sands recalls: “Steven Spielberg loved the theme so much that he felt more of it was needed in the score.  So Alan augmented a number of the cues and we recorded them on a second set of dates.”  As usual, Mr. Spielberg’s instincts were right on the money.  Alan Silvestri’s Back to the Future theme is incredibly iconic, and the filmmakers absolutely made the right decision to feature it more prominently in the finished score.

I enjoyed listening to the original version of the score on disc two, though I wouldn’t have objected to paying a little less for a version of this release without that second disc.  Many of the alternate cues are pretty similar to the finished versions found on disc 1 — and where they’re different, they’re mostly inferior.  It was fun to listen through once, but I doubt I’ll spend too much time listening to that second disc in the future.

But Mr. Silvestri’s final score, on disc 1, is absolutely magnificent.  No surprise, the stand-out piece of music is track 19: “Clocktower.”  This ten-minute-long track is a tour-de-force of action movie music, in which most of the major character themes from the score are interwoven to create a powerful, suspenseful sequence.  It works wonderfully with the edited film, and is also quite effective when listened to on its own.  This track has gotten a lot … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke!

March 24th, 2010
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On Monday I wrote about Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

After re-watching that film last month, I was driven to pick up Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey off my book-shelf to re-read that as well.

I had read all four of Arthur C. Clarke’s Odyssey novels many years ago, back when I was in college.  After so thoroughly enjoying seeing 2001 the film again, I was excited to take another look at the novel.  As Mr. Clarke explains in the introduction (to the 25th anniversary edition, which is what I have), the novel and the film were created simultaneously.  Neither was an adaptation of the other, which is pretty unique.  Instead, Kubrick and Clarke developed the story together.  Then, while Mr. Kubrick assembled his film, Mr. Clarke crafted his novel.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a terrific read.  It succeeds as an engaging creation in its own right, and also as a fascinating companion to Mr. Kubrick’s film.

The novel and the film share many similarities.  Since they were created simultaneously and in partnership, the basic structure of both tales is identical.  There are none of the dramatic revisions found in even the best film adaptations of novels, which is refreshing.  The themes and “tone” of both works are remarkably similar.

The novel also shares some of the film’s, er, more challenging aspects.  There isn’t a whole heck of a lot of “plot” that actually happens over the course of the tale.  And the somewhat episodic structure (in which the story is divided into several distinct parts, set in different locations and wildly differing eras of human history) is unusual, to say the least, and provides something of an obstacle to the narrative building up a full head of steam.  (Just when we’re “settling in” to one setting and group of characters, the story moves away from that location, never to return.)

There are also a number of interesting differences between the novel and the film.  In the film, Discovery‘s ultimate goal (and the location of Dave Bowman’s encounter with the Monolith) is Jupiter, whereas in the novel it is Saturn.  (Indeed, Mr. Clarke devotes a decent chunk of time towards describing the mechanics of Discovery‘s journey through the solar system towards Saturn.)  One of the film’s most iconic sequences, in which Dave and Frank discuss their concern over HAL’s increasingly erratic behavior while hiding in one of Discovery‘s small pods (in an attempt prevent HAL from hearing their discussion which proves fruitless when HAL reads their lips) never occurs in the novel.  There’s also a lengthy stretch of time, in the book, in between the final confrontation with HAL … [continued]

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Lost: The Questions I Need Answered in the Final Season — Part One!

February 1st, 2010
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Since early October, my wife and I have been engaged in our Great Lost Re-Watch Project!  We started with the pilot episode, and have been slowly re-watching the entire run of Lost, all five seasons.  With the exception of the first handful of episodes, I had only seen most episodes of the show one time.  For a show as complex and inter-connected as Lost, that seemed crazy!  To prepare ourselves for the sixth and final season of the show, Steph and I thought it would be a fun idea to revisit the show from the very beginning.

Boy, has it been a blast!!  We have thoroughly enjoyed our trip back through Lost.  I’ll have lots more to say about the first five seasons of Lost in the coming weeks, but for now (in anticipation of tomorrow’s season 6 premiere) I thought I’d list the burning mysteries of Lost that are really weighing on me.  Lost is a show whose cup runneth over with mysteries.  In re-watching the show, it became clear that practically every episode of the series raised fascinating questions, an enormous number of which remain unanswered.  I certainly recognize that there is no way that the final season is going to answer each and every hanging question, nor would I expect it to.  However, there are a large number of burning questions that I feel really demand answers.  Here are the ones that come to mind:

(Obviously, SPOILERS ARE AHEAD for the first five seasons of the show!!)

What is the smoke monster? Described as the island’s security system, the creature referred to as Cerberus (on the map of the island found in the hatch, as seen in “Lockdown”) has been one of the most confounding mysteries of the show since the pilot episode.  We have seen the creature kill brutally (the fate which befell the pilot of Oceanic 815 in the pilot episode, the mercenaries in “The Shape of Things to Come,” as well as Mr. Eko in “The Cost of Living”), but we’ve also seen the monster confront certain characters and then let them live (Locke in “Walkabout,” Ben Linus in “Dead is Dead,” and Mr. Eko — at least at first — in “The 23rd Psalm”).  What is this creature?  Who created it?  Is it alive?  What is it protecting, exactly?  Is part of its role to somehow judge the people on the island?  If so, by what criteria does it evaluate people?  (I remain confused as to why Eko was able to stare down the monster in “The 23rd Psalm” only to later be brutally murdered by the creature in “The Cost of Living.”)

“The Cost of Living” also contains … [continued]

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Martin Wagner, Kevin Smith, Alan Moore, David Lapham, Grant Morrison, J. Michael Straczynski, and a lot of other comic book creators owe me some money!

January 8th, 2010
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Back in 1999, Tom Spurgeon wrote a piece in The Comics Journal entitled “Martin Wagner Owes me Fifty Bucks.” The subject of that piece, Martin Wagner, was the writer/illustrator of an acclaimed black-and-white comic book called Hepcats. What had begun as a comedic strip when Mr. Wagner was a student at the University of Texas gradually morphed into something much deeper, and the storyline “Snowblind” received an enormous amount of critical acclaim in the comics community in the early ’90s. But after the publication of Hepcats issue twelve in 1994, the series ceased publication, leaving the “Snowblind” storyline frustratingly incomplete.

In 1996, Mr. Wagner signed a deal with the small comic book publisher Antarctic Press to re-print the first 12 issues of Hepcats and then continue the series onward. This is when I started following the series. But while the twelve original issues were re-printed as planned, no new material ever arrived, and to this day the “Snowblind” story remains incomplete.

That is what lead Mr. Spurgeon to write his piece for The Comics Journal, expressing frustration that he (like many others) had invested in the storyline (both emotionally and monetarily), and if Mr. Wagner was not planning on finishing the tale, he owed us all our money back!  I suspect Mr. Spurgeon was not seriously asking for a refund check from Martin Wagner, but his piece expressed the frustrations of fans who follow the work of a particular writer and/or artist, only to have a beloved project left unfinished. (This is not unlike the frustration felt by fans of canceled TV shows whose storylines are left forever unresolved.)

After finally seeing the publication of the years-delayed final issue of Planetary (read my review of the series here and the final issue here) earlier this year, I got to thinking about the other criminally unfinished comic book stories that haunt me. You’d think most of these unfinished series would be small, indie books, whose creators ran into monetary difficulties that made it impossible for them to continue their series (as may or may not have happened to Mr. Wagner, depending on whose story you believe), but that’s not entirely the case…

Stray Bullets – David Lapham’s black-and-white self-published crime comic absolutely blew me away when I read the first issue back in 1995. I was familiar with Mr. Lapham’s work from the Valiant Comics line of books in the ’90s, but Stray Bullets was an entirely different sort of project. The series was told mostly through single-issue stories, each one spotlighting a different character and the tragic circumstances that would befall him/her. The series would jump, from issue to issue, around to different protagonists in different … [continued]

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Camp Ramah Gets Lost!

October 9th, 2009
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It’s become a bit of a tradition that, each summer at Camp Ramah in New England, we kick off our Staff Week at the beginning of each summer with a silly video that introduces our first program (which usually involves some sort of elaborate competition between the counselors of each division).  We’ve taken to doing parodies of movies or TV shows.  This year was our most elaborate video yet — a parody of Lost that was created by Ethan Linden, Davey Rosen and myself.

There are a few Ramah “in-jokes” to be found within (such as a reference to Yehuda Gubani and camp’s new eruv), but I still think y’all might get a kick out of this:

I’m particularly proud that we were able to get Lost’s signature eyeball shot in there!!

At the end of our Staff Week program, we showed this 45-second epilogue.  This is for the true Lost fans out there!

Heh heh heh.  Pretty proud of that joke.  Have a great weekend, everyone!… [continued]

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Death in the Shadow of New Life — Josh reviews J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek!

It’s been a long road.  After walking disgustedly out of the opening weekend screening of the catastrophically terrible Star Trek: Nemesis back in December, 2002, I knew that Trek was at a low point.  It seemed uncertain what, if any, future the franchise had after the release of that bomb and the subsequent cancellation of the last Trek TV show, Enterprise.  Then, about 3 years ago, word came that a new Trek film was in the works.  Gradually news began to leak out, some very exciting, some rather worrying, and I soaked up every tidbit with great anticipation, some nervousness, and extremely high hopes that one day Star Trek could be great again.  A few hours ago, I watched the result of J.J. Abrams and his team’s efforts: the simply-titled Star Trek.

Abrams and his brain-trust — consisting of Damon Lindeloff (one of the top minds behind Lost) and screen-writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman — dared to do what no man has done before: to re-cast the iconic roles of the Original Series characters.  As everyone knows by now, instead of creating new characters and situations and moving the Star Trek universe forward beyond the adventures of Picard-Sisko-Janeway-etc., they decided to go back and tell an Original Series story, with new actors playing younger versions of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and all the other familiar characters.  This was an incredibly risky move.  While similiar “how it all began” prequels such as Batman Begins and Casino Royale worked well, audiences had already become accustomed to seeing lots of different actors take on the roles of Batman and James Bond.  But could someone other than William Shatner play Kirk?  Could someone other than Leonard Nimoy play Spock?

Although sadly this film fails in some powerfully annoying ways (more on that in a few moments), I am happy to report that, in this respect — that is, in regards to the viability of rebooting and recasting Star Trek — the film succeeds magnificently.  Bravo to the choice of talented actors selected to be the new command team of the Enterprise — there is not a weak link in the bunch.  None of the actors resorts to mimicry, and yet they all, somehow, truly manage to embody their characters!

Let’s start with Chris Pine as James Tiberius Kirk.  He’s got the swagger, he’s got the arrogance, and yet he’s able to also convey a tremendous likability.  You can see that this is a man that others will follow.  The film doesn’t shy away from the “lady-killer” aspects of Kirk’s persona, but Pine never crosses the line into camp or, on the other hand, into boorishness.  Rather, there’s terrific fun to had … [continued]

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The Twenty Greatest Episodes of Star Trek

April 28th, 2009
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I have watched a lot of Star Trek in my day.  A LOT of Star Trek.  And quite a lot of it was pretty damn good!  Here’s what I feel is the best of the best.  (Hmm, no episodes of Voyager or Enterprise to be found on this list…!)

20. Unification Part I (ST:TNG season 5, episode 7) — A high-ranking official of the United Federation of Planets is believed to have defected to the Romulans, and Captain Picard is sent after him.  The individual in question?  Ambassador Spock.  Having Leonard Nimoy reprise his role in this Next Gen two-parter was an astounding moment, something the fans never thought would happen.  But as great as all the Spock-Picard-Data stuff is in part II, I’ve chosen part I (in which Spock only actually appears at the very end) for the brilliance of its gripping build-up in Picard’s, ahem, search for Spock.  My favorite moment?  The late great Mark Leonard’s show-stopping scene as Spock’s father Sarek, at death’s door and suffering from a debilitating neurological disease, who delivers a monologue that is one of the most powerful and emotionally devastating things I have ever seen on television.

19. Rocks and Shoals (ST:DS9 season 6, episode 2) — In the middle of the Dominion War arc, Sisko and his crew have commandeered an enemy Jem’Hadar warship behind enemy lines.  In the exciting opening moments of the episode, they are shot down on a desolate planet.  But a small group of Jem’Hadar have crashed on that planet with them.  The focus of this episode isn’t on the action — it’s on a fascinating exploration of the Jem’Hadar.  Phil Morris (most famous as Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld) is fantastic as the central Jem’Hadar character.  (“Then we will hold this world for the Dominion.  Until we die.”)  But what really gets this episode onto this list is it’s cold, tragic ending.

18. Penumbra (ST:DS9 season 7, episode 17) — Deep Space Nine’s “final chapter” (the last nine episodes of the show’s final series) begins with this engaging installment, in which so many long-running character story-lines and plot developments begin to weave together for the show’s denouement.  Worf is lost in the Badlands after a Klingon attack group is destroyed by the Jem’Hadar, and Ezri Dax sets off on a desperate mission to find him.  The female changeling in charge of the Dominion’s forces in the Alpha Quadrant begins to succumb to the plague that has stricken the Great Link.  A weary Damar sinks further into a daze of alcoholism, but is spurred into action by a visit from Gul Dukat.  And Captain Sisko finally proposes to Kassidy Yates, although a … [continued]

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“Sorry, we’re closed” — Josh’s Favorite TV Series Finales!

As I prepare for this weekend’s series finale of Battlestar Galactica (and contemplate life without that brilliant show, one of the greatest of the last two decades), I’ve been thinking about some of the great series finales of the recent past.  Here are some of my favorites, counting down from ten!

10.  Cheers — “One For the Road” — Diane Chambers (Shelly Long) returns in an attempt to re-kindle her romance with Sam (Ted Danson) in this extra-long finale.  To be honest, it’s been years since I’ve seen this one, but my recollection is of really enjoying it.  Bringing back Shelly Long, who was pretty much the star of the show (along with Danson) for the first half of its run, was a brilliant idea.  And the final scene is perfect — Sam waving away a customer while saying “sorry, we’re closed.”  Sniff!

9.  Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — “What You Leave Behind” — I am giving props here to the entire 10-hour, 9-episode “final chapter” of this, the greatest of the Star Trek series.  The show finally becomes what it has always flirted with: a true serial, as seven seasons worth of storylines come to fruition over the course of this magnificent final epic run of episodes.  The Dominion War escalates, a secret section of Starfleet’s complicity in attempted genocide is revealed, and Captain Benjamin Sisko must finally fulfill his destiny as Emissary of the Prophets (a story thread begun in the series’ pilot episode). The show was notable for its enormous cast of recurring characters, and everyone gets his/her due here (with quite a number of popular characters meeting their demise!).  The show gets bumped down a bit on my list because the actual final two-hour episode isn’t quite as great as the episodes leading up to it (it looks like they used up their special effects budget, as one of the major battle sequences is composed almost entirely of recycled footage, something that eagle-eyed fans like me noticed).  Still, the melancholy tone (so unusual for a Trek series) and the sad, final shot of Jake Sisko looking out the window for his lost father as the camera pulls back and the station slowly fades away into the blackness of space is just perfection.

8.  Justice League Unlimited — “Destroyer” — Classic DC Comics villain Darkseid launches a full-scale invasion of Earth, and even the combined might of practically every character (hero & villain) who ever appeared on this amazing animated show are powerless to stop him.  In an epic battle atop the ruins of the Daily Planet building, Superman ultimately falls before the might of Darkseid.  (That sequence, by the way, is a showcase for the … [continued]

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Han Shoots First! Josh is astounded by Adywan’s Fan-Edit of Star Wars: A New Hope!

February 9th, 2009
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I have just seen the definitive version of Star Wars.

And it wasn’t created by George Lucas or anyone at ILM.  It was made by one fan.

For years I have been reading about the variety of “fan-edits” of the six Star Wars movies that have been floating around the internet.  Last month I finally got ahold of the famous Phantom Edit of Star Wars: Episode I, which I wrote about last week.

I was so blown away by the high quality of that edit that I decided to check out some of the other fan-edits that are out there.  I am eager to watch the Phantom Editor’s take on Episode II (and I’ll certainly write about that here once I see it), but after perusing various sites such as fanedit.org and originaltrilogy.com, it became clear that people were very excited about a fellow called Adywan’s special edition re-edit of Star Wars: Episode IV, titled Star Wars: Revisited.  I decided to track it down and take a look.

Wow.

Let me say again: Wow.

This one fan has produced an astounding re-edit of Star Wars that is, in my mind, by far the best presentation this film has ever received on any home video format.

Before I go into detail about what Adywan has done, let me give you a brief history of the many versions of Star Wars.  Even in the earliest years of its existence, George Lucas had a habit of fiddling around with it (adding in the Episode IV: A New Hope subtitle, for instance, or the brief scene on the Death Star where Chewie growls at the little black droid).  In 1995, Lucas returned the original three Star Wars films to the big-screen with the Special Editions.  In addition to giving a whole new generation of folks (like me) a chance to enjoy the Star Wars films on the big screen, these versions contained a number of CGI enhancements.  Some of these changes were very cool (particularly many of the snazzy new space-ship shots, like the Millennium Falcon blasting out of Mos Eisley and some action-packed additions to the Death Star battle).  Some were controversial (the re-insertion of a scene between Han Solo and Jabba the Hut; the many new creatures added into the background of Mos Eisley).  Some were down-right stupid (Greedo shooting at Han and somehow missing at point-blank range, before Han shoots and kills him).  In 2004, the Star Wars Original Trilogy was finally released to DVD.  Sadly, it was a mess.  There were additional changes to the film that were not for the better (the Han-Greedo scene was further mucked with, with Han and Greedo … [continued]

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“He was Some Kind of a Man” — An Orson Welles Double Feature

I first saw Citizen Kane in college, during a fantastic class called Film Architecture (one of the best classes I had in college).  I’ve seen it several times since then, and while I wouldn’t list Kane as my favorite film of all time, I certainly understand why many consider it to be the greatest film ever made.  It is a magnificent piece of work, and seeing Kane instantly made me an enormous fan of Orson Welles.  Last month I had the great pleasure to watch two Welles films on DVD, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Touch of Evil — Made in 1958, Touch of Evil was written and directed by Welles, and he has a major role as police Captain Hank Quinlan.  In the opening moments of the film, a man places a bomb in a car driving across the Mexican border into the United States.  When the bomb goes off on the U.S. side of the border, high-ranking Mexican narcotics official Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas (played by, believe it or not, Charlton Heston) and his young American wife (Janet Leigh) quickly get swept up in the investigation and a tangled web of dirty cops, drug dealers, and a lot of other nastiness.

Visually and technically, the film is a masterpiece.  The dynamic camerawork is astonishingly inventive for a film made 50 years ago.  The movie opens with one of the most famous shots in film history, a long tracking shot (3 minutes and 33 seconds) that starts with a bomb being placed in the trunk of a car and then follows the car’s slow drive down streets and across the border, paralleling Heston & Leigh’s walk across the border.  The camera constantly pulls in and out to follow both the car and the couple, making sure the viewer can follow exactly where they are in relation to one another, and charting their progress through a Mexican border-town and across the border.  The soundwork here is also magnificent, as we hear an interwoven stream of sound with the levels shifting from moment to moment, allowing us to catch snippets of music from the street, the car’s radio, and Heston and Leigh’s conversation as well as their interactions with various others such as a border guard they pass.  

Although that opening shot is the most famous, there is an even longer, more impressive uninterrupted sequence in the middle of the film, in which Welles is interrogating a young Mexican suspect.  Over the course of this shot we witness a lengthy interrogation, with characters moving around the house and coming in and out of various rooms.  The drama is so good that you might not realize the stunning camera work, … [continued]

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Third Prize is You’re Fired: The Films of David Mamet

As I’ve mentioned once or twice in recent posts, over the past few weeks I’ve been making my way through a whole slew of films by one of the best writers working in the film industry today: David Mamet.  Mamet’s works are always known for their intricate plots — many of his films revolve around some sort of con.  He is also known for the distinct style of his dialogue — a fast-paced back-and-forth, rat-a-tat rhythm that, in the hands of a talented actor, is pure gold.

After purchasing Redbelt on DVD, I decided to go back and revisit several earlier Mamet works.  This is in no way a complete trip through Mamet’s work.  In fact, let me first start by telling you a bit about two films which I didn’t re-watch this past month.  Not because I didn’t care for them — quite the opposite.  These are two of my favorite films, and they’ve been in my DVD collection for years.

Glengarry Glenn Ross (1992) — Unlike all the other movies that I’m about to list, this film was written by Mamet but directed by someone else: James Foley.  But like all the Mamet-directed films, the appeal is not due to the directing.  Its the acting, and the beautiful, beautiful words.  (Can you believe I’ve just described as beautiful the incredibly curse-laden dialogue in this film??)  Take a gander at this cast:  Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, and let’s not forget Alec Baldwin.  Baldwin is in only one scene, but he gives possibly the greatest movie monologue of all time.  There are more memorable lines in his one scene than there are in most entire films.  (One of my favorites: “Only one thing counts in this world: get them to sign on the line that is dotted.”  And, of course, there’s the title of this piece.)  The film follows one night and one morning in the lives of a group of real-estate con men.  Many have described it as a modern Death of a Salesman, and I’m not one to disagree.  Jack Lemmon’s sad-sack Shelley “the machine” Levine is such an iconic character he’s even been written into The Simpsons (as the hapless loser Gil).  Al Pacino is the man that Shelley was twenty years ago — a young, slick salesman at the top of his game.  (“You ever take a dump made you feel like you’d just slept for twelve hours?”)  Ed Harris is the angry and profane Dave Moss.  (“What is this, courtesy class?”)  Alan Arkin is the quietly despairing George Aaronow.  (Are we just talking about this or are we talking about this?”)  And Kevin Spacey is the man in … [continued]

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Adventures in Hollywood!

October 9th, 2008
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After my lengthy series of posts about Star Trek novels from last month, I bet people think that’s all I read.  And, its true, sci-fi novels make up the bulk of my regular reading list.  But every now and then I do branch out, and I’d like to share several great books I’ve recently read that peak behind the scenes of Hollywoodland.

What Just Happened?, by Art Linson — Mr. Linson has been a producer in Hollywood for a few decades now, and this book covers a period of several years in the late ’90s in which he went to work for 20th Century Fox and proceeded to produce a large number of bombs.  Now, did these movies bomb because of bad luck and ridiculous studio politics and lack of support (as Mr. Linson contends), or is Linson just bereft of talent?  Well, I don’t know the man, so I can’t really judge.  But either way, this book is relentlessly entertaining as Linson takes us through the making of several movies that, to put it gently, did not do well.  Linson is a good storyteller, and in the book he focuses on anecdotes — putting the reader right in the middle of a series of hilarious (and painful for the people involved in them) situations.  We join Linson as he tries to deal with Alec Baldwin who, tapped to play the young and handsome photographer in the David Mamet-scripted The Edge, shows up to the set overweight and bearing an enormous mountain-man beard which he refuses to shave.  We see him trying to respond when studio head Tom Rothman asserts that they absolutely positively cannot cast Gwyneth Paltrow in Great Expectations because she has no chin.  We see him flummoxed the day he finds out that a central scene in that movie, that of a young man sketching his female paramour in the nude, is also a centerpiece of another soon-to-be-released Fox movie, James Cameron’s Titanic.  And we’re right there with him the first time he and David Fincher screen Fight Club for a room full of horrified Fox execs.  

If there’s any weakness to the book, its the framing device that Linson uses for these anecdotes — that of a series of lunches he has with a former studio head.  There are some funny interactions between these two, but each time the book cut back to their lunches, I kept thinking “let’s get back to the real stories!”  Despite this, Linson’s book is really engaging — and at less than 200 pages, you’ll breeze right through it.  Its a lot of fun.

By the way, this book is being adapted into a film starring Robert DeNiro.  … [continued]