Josh Liebster Writing Samples:



Red Herring Magazine:
The Matrix
The Matrix is loaded with extras.
From November 1999 issue

Only six months and $500 million after the release of the sci-fi thriller The Matrix (Warner Brothers, $25) comes the DVD, loaded with extras and offering terrific production values. The presentation of the film is stunning: the print is pristine and complemented by a fantastic bass-sweetened 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. The superb sound is most evident in the "Bullet Time" sequence, in which the gunshots and bullets whizzing by actually follow the camera movements and seem to move around the room.

The DVD's menu design includes some easy-to-find "Take the Red Pills" Easter eggs that lead to other clips. The disc's extras, however, are a mixed bag. The PC-only DVD-ROM section is the most disappointing of the feature set: the "Are You the One?" trivia game is an annoying click-fest, and the storyboard and screenplay section is awkwardly designed and poorly suited to the computer screen. The production featurettes are pithy and informative, but largely standard fare (one is even a recycled "HBO First Look"). The commentary tracks generally shine: the best one by far is the music-only version, which showcases both Don Davis's score and the electronica songs chosen by Andy and Larry Wachowski, the film's writers and directors. The "Follow the White Rabbit" version links certain special-effects sequences to behind-the-scenes montages of how it was done. The cast-and-crew commentary track, however, seems like an afterthought -- Carrie-Anne Moss, the only cast member featured, is given short shrift; the Wachowski brothers are missing entirely; and the commentary itself adds nothing to the information in the extra tracks. Yet even with these minor flaws, the Matrix DVD is an essential -- and inexpensive -- addition to any videophile's library.


James Bond Collection
Bond offering
MGM releases the seven-disc James Bond Collection retrospective.
From January 2000 issue

Right on the heels of the theatrical release of The World Is Not Enough, the 20th installment of the James Bond oeuvre, MGM has released the seven-disc James Bond Collection retrospective ($149 at most retailers). Although the studio has pledged to release all of the films eventually, the selection in this gift set is odd and inconsistent at best. The DVDs are Goldfinger, Thunderball, Live and Let Die, For Your Eyes Only, License to Kill, Goldeneye, and Tomorrow Never Dies.

The set's producers, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, have inherited the Bond legacy: they are the daughter and stepson of Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli, the late producer of almost all the Bond films and the character's fiercest protector. At first glance the selections look like a nice cross section of the major Bond players: two films each from Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Pierce Brosnan, and one from the pro tempore Bond, Timothy Dalton. But why pick the relatively low-key and aimless For Your Eyes Only over The Spy Who Loved Me? Why even bother with the Dalton movie when there are better Moore and Connery selections? On further investigation, a possible motive for the oddball choices emerges: Mr. Wilson, credited as either the writer or producer for each of the seven films, seems to be playing favorites.

The films themselves are treated with great care. All are transferred from excellent prints, and the audio of Thunderball, for example, has not only been remastered but upgraded to Dolby Digital 5.1.

The DVD menus are well designed, especially those for Tomorrow Never Dies, which simulates a fingerprint and retinal scan for menu access. There are, however, errors throughout the set that indicate a rush to get it out in time for the holiday season, including scene-selection typos in Goldfinger and incorrect menu labeling in Thunderball, resulting in the wrong track selection. Once inside the interface, you'll find a panoply of features to sift through. In all the titles, the production extras are great fun to peruse for Bond esoterica and perspective on the particular film's place in the series. There are a few trivia gems, stills, the standard trailers, and at least one documentary per disc.

With the exception of Goldeneye, each film has two audio commentaries; unfortunately, most are abysmal and consist of pieced-together recycled interviews padded with information duplicated on other tracks and placed at incongruous, irrelevant moments in the movie. The interviews in most tracks are loosely strung together with narration by Mr. Cork, whose lethargic Southern drawl brings to mind episodes of Great Chefs of New Orleans. There are nevertheless a few standouts, including writer Tom Mankewiecz's solo commentary on Live and Let Die, Dan Petrie, Jr.'s interview of director Roger Spottiswoode overlaying the action of Tomorrow Never Dies, and even an interview involving Mr. Cork on Thunderball.

As a full box set, the collection leaves a lot to be desired for anyone but the most ardent James Bond fan. Individually, however, most of the films are well worth owning if you have even a passing interest in the world's most famous superspy.


Wes Anderson's Rushmore.
From April 2000 issue

Some say Wes Anderson's 1998 prep-school comedy Rushmore was completely overlooked at Oscar time. Perhaps to rectify this, in mid-January the Criterion Collection gave it the complete DVD treatment. Those who bought last June's bare-bones Disney version will wish they'd waited for Criterion's ($40).

Mr. Anderson is one of the few directors who has taken his love of movies and moved it from film-school theory to great filmmaking. The DVD's Dolby Digital soundtrack highlights the subtleties in the sound effects, the soundtrack, and the great neobaroque score of Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo fame). Mr. Anderson, always a purist, refused to do postproduction special effects, instead doing all of them live, and the visual quality is preserved in the excellent digital transfer to DVD.

The extras, with their classroom-themed menus, are voluminous: supremely geeky audio commentary by Mr. Anderson, cowriter Owen Wilson, and earnest lead actor Jason Schwartzman; quality stills that aren't just public relations pieces; a "making of..." that actually follows production from beginning to end; a film-to-storyboard comparison; and even two enlightening Charlie Rose interviews with star Bill Murray and Mr. Anderson. Especially gratifying is an entire segment on the Max Fischer Players, the main character's acting troupe, which is one of the film's finest touches. Their fantastic interpretations of Armageddon and others, performed for the 1999 MTV Movie Awards, are the best part of the disc's extras.

Like the film itself, the Criterion edition of Rushmore requires thoughtful attention to detail on the viewer's part. With that in mind, be prepared for a journey into the depths of a great film and a talented filmmaker.


Natural Born Killers: Director's Cut
Natural Born Killers: Director's Cut
From May 2000 issue

According to the documentary on the DVD version of Natural Born Killers: Director's Cut (Trimark , $30), the original film was the biggest student/experimental film ever made. If only it were that good.

The "enhanced" version is no improvement, thanks to the sophomoric effort put into the DVD itself. The disc opens from a studio promo montage into a menu design that resembles a second-grader's magazine collage. Often a DVD's extras bring out subtleties in an apparently shallow film, but such is not the case here. If you thought that the characters and antimedia theme of NBK were patronizingly transparent, just wait until you hear the commentary of director and writer Oliver Stone. Anything that Mr. Stone didn't make clear in the film, he makes painfully so in his DVD narration, delivered in a condescending tone more appropriate for a dog trainer.

And the disc's documentary, "Chaos Rising: The Storm Around Natural Born Killers," drives home what an infantile, drug-addled director he is: Mr. Stone injured two cameramen and did 'shrooms while scouting a location. The 25-minute track discusses the actual controversy of NBK for only five minutes. It was, however, pleasing to hear actor Tommy Lee Jones reference both Molière and Picasso's Guernica with a straight face. The other extras almost show Mr. Stone's intelligence as a filmmaker. The alternate ending and deleted scenes reveal the restraint used in the editing room.

Mr. Stone has said, "Films have to be subversive and have to push the edges of the envelope." Unfortunately, he doesn't mention anything about them having to be good. The DVD edition reflects this.


The Abyss: Special Edition
Cameron releases special edition of The Abyss.
From June 2000 issue

Long before he shouted "I'm the king of the world!" at the Oscars, director James Cameron was working on "art house" films like Aliens and Terminator 2. One of those was The Abyss, created in 1989 and rereleased in 1993. Both versions are now on the two-disc DVD, The Abyss: Special Edition (20th Century Fox , $34). While the second, recut version is a great action/human-interest movie, there is little else of value to the average viewer.

The set opens to a fantastic interface: a computer-generated and animated version of the film's submarine bay with doorways and hatches leading to different parts of the discs. The video transfer is adequate, presented in widescreen for both versions, but the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound and mix are off-kilter and are actually presented better in the menus and two documentaries. The other extras are voluminous enough to require Cliffs Notes. The now-standard director's commentary is done in subtitle format, making the entire experience feel like a poor, over-technical version of VH1's popular show, Pop-Up Video.

Adding to the monotony are 28 multiscreen chapters of behind-the-scenes data. The Imaging Station section is a mixed bag: many duplicated stills with some "filler" videos (like the special-effects reel sent to the Academy for Oscar nomination). But a couple of videos are worth the search, like the storyboard-to-film progression of the computer-generated alien "pseudopod" scene.

For the most part, this release was designed by and for the special-effects industry, making it inaccessible to all but the most hardened FX fan.


Three Kings
David O. Russell's Three Kings.
From July 2000 issue

Take a talented, truly offbeat writer-director like David O. Russell and match him with a heist story set at the end of the Gulf War. Add Mr. Russell's unique storytelling, and you have Three Kings (Warner Brothers, $25), one of the best movies of 1999. Praise is due to Warner Brothers for "green-lighting" this project and giving the DVD release the respect it deserves.

From the ground up, this disc was well built: the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound is subtle and refined, the picture brings out the color quality and detail that Mr. Russell intended, and the menus are fluid and easy to navigate. Dig deeper and you'll find a bevy of exciting extras. Mr. Russell's audio commentary is one of the best produced on DVD. Both informative and entertaining, it gives real insight into the entire filmmaking process without getting too technical.

The commentary by producers Charles Roven and Ed McDonnell should satisfy those interested in the logistics of bringing a film project to fruition. Mr. Russell's Video Journal is a lighthearted look at the casting process. There are also sections on the production designers and the director of photography that shed light on their artistic tasks.

The crown jewel of the extras, however, is "An Intimate Look Inside the Acting Process with Ice Cube," a tongue-in-cheek documentary by Spike Jonze, where Cube mulls over the pivotal line: "This bag."

This DVD is perfect for viewers who want to see an intelligent film well analyzed by the right people. It is a must-have for anyone's DVD library.


The X Files: Season One
Scares and alien skullduggery.
From August 2000 issue

Anyone but the most ardent X Files fan realizes that the series has all but run its course. The writers must come up with more and more convoluted ways for Agents Mulder and Scully to avoid kissing, and obfuscation is created anew any time there is even an allusion to "alien conspiracy." But, Fox's new box set, The X Files: Season One (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, $149) wipes that aside with the episodes that made this series great.

A complete collection of all 24 episodes broadcast in the 1993 season, the set boasts extras like behind-the-scenes documentaries, special effects reels, and deleted scenes, but it falls short on its promises. The special effects comprise a five-second excerpt from "Fallen Angel," and the deleted scenes are only from the pilot.

The bonus disc contains the documentary as well as an interview with creator Chris Carter about his favorite episodes. But neither is particularly enlightening. The "Behind-the-Truth" shorts are a nice look behind the making of the season, but they seem a bit staged for the camera.

Despite its lack of significant extras, this seven-disc set is worth a look. The picture and sound are clear and crisp. The stories themselves show a superb mix of truly original suspense, mystery, and crime drama, all set amid the paranormal.

For those who want some good popcorn TV or are just looking to hearken back to the pre-Y2K early '90s, this set is a great deal and a few rainy Sundays' worth of scares and alien skullduggery.


Fight Club
A special edition DVD of David Fincher's Fight Club.
From September 2000 issue

Upon first viewing, Fight Club (20th Century Fox, $35) appears to be a trite, homoerotic boys' movie about guys hitting each other, its meaning lost behind the film's brutal violence and twisted ending. However, upon a repeat look, it becomes a complex indictment of Generation X and the Boomers who instilled their values. The special edition DVD gives its all in trying to reveal the Fight Club's intricacies and messages.

Inside the well-designed box is a technically brilliant DVD. The print is sharp, perfectly depicting the dismal environment that director David Fincher envisioned. The sound is a high-quality 5.1 Dolby Digital mix.

Past that, the two-disc set has some great extras, including audio commentaries with the director, the actors, the writers (both book and screenplay), and the art crew. While they don't all seem necessary, the DVD producers appear to have a little niche in mind for each track. The one with the most mass appeal features Mr. Fincher and lead actors Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter.

Behind-the-scenes tech-heads will enjoy the art-crew track, which includes commentary from the costume designer, director of photography, and director of computer effects. Together, they present a unified vision of the world portrayed in the film.

The first disc alone is worth the price of the set. The second disc contains some cut scenes and extras, like special-effects reels and location scouting. It is the nihilistic, anti-Ikea icing on the cake, flavored with a touch of dark, dark irony.


Magnolia, all 3 hours and 25 minutes of it, is rewarding.
From October 2000 issue

The marathon day-in-the-life drama Magnolia (New Line Cinema, $30) was hailed as one of 1999's best movies. Some say its length prevented it from walking away with an Oscar and stunted its box office acceptance. But those that had the attention span to sit through the 3-hour, 25-minute film were rewarded with a rich tapestry of six stories woven into one complete narrative.

The basics of the DVD version succeed. The transfer to DVD is crystal clear with no evidence of compression. The sometimes dizzying Dolby Digital Surround Sound track keeps viewers on their toes without going overboard. Unfortunately, the extras fall short of the enormous effort put into the film.

Highlights include two embellishments of Frank T.J. Mackey's character (the "male-power" self-help huckster played by Tom Cruise). One is an extended misogynistic "Seduce and Destroy" seminar and its full accompanying infomercial, seen only in snippets during the film.

But then there's the Magnolia Diary, a notoriously long, behind-the-scenes documentary, thoroughly lacking in quality. What is more disappointing about this set is the absence of any audio commentary, especially in light of the fantastic discussion writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson did for his previous work, Boogie Nights.

The producers seem to have over-indulged by filling disc two with too many trailers, television spots, and a music video. Fans of the movie should definitely get this set, if only to watch the complex film again. Those expecting a mountain of extras, however, will be left wanting more.



Next Generation Online:

War, Inc. (spec review)

War Inc. is one of those games that you try to enjoy, but try as you might, its just not going to happen. Ambitious at best, it is a real-time strategy (RTS) game that tries to focus too much on strategy and not enough on the game.

The general gist of the game is such: [INSERT GENERIC FUTURISTIC CYBERPUNK PREMISE HERE], except this time you play a militaristic mega-corporation. Your company (which is Incorporated - wink, wink) is hired out on some general defense and anti-terrorist actions for money. You can then use that money to invest in new unit designs, new tech research or even the stock market. Sounds interesting, doesn't it? A new twist on the Command & Conquer-style game. It falls apart in the end, though.

The corporate resource management aspect of the game is definitely intriguing and for the most part well thought out. Development of your army is one that is familiar to turn-based games like Master of Orion II, but has until now been absent from the RTS arena. In War Inc., you are not just given technologies to fit your troops and tanks; you have to research them. For this you hire scientists, as many as you can afford, and prioritize the areas that they research (you can have the computer prioritize automatically for you). Then, as each individual weapon, shield or targeting computer is discovered, you can use them in the design of your units. Your units are, in essence, built from scratch: a dab of armor from here, a pinch of fusion engine from there.

You can also make money on the side by investing your liquid cash in stocks. If you gain a majority percentage ownership of a company, you can buy it outright and reap even more financial benefits. Once again, the fiscally weak-at-heart can have the computer do this for you, which is recommended since there is neither rhyme nor reason to this stock market's ups and downs. If there is, the meager manual does nothing to explain it.

All this development - the research, design and investing - happens in between your contracts, or missions. Once you've started your invasion, no new development occurs until you've finished or failed. You have the option to wait up to a few months to get a few extra bucks or discover that plasma cannon, but at the risk of missing a contract and losing your job. After the mission is completed successfully, you get a payment, plus any building and unit salvage.

Then comes the Achilles Heel of War Inc.: the battle. Unfortunately the combat takes up a majority of the game so it is more like an Achilles Torso. The unit AI seems to be modeled after someone's dog, considering the troops seem to be hung up by trees and walls (CAT! WHERE'S THE CAT!). They are sometimes oblivious to the enemy, lying dormant while being attacked. And in the initial release, a vehicle destroying a building wouldn't switch weapons if it ran out of ammo with one weapon. This was fixed in the later patch, but the in-combat weapon choice hasn't improved much. The missions themselves are stagnant and repetitive, often requiring no panache or strategizing on the user's part. All these flaws take away from what could have been a great combat engine. First you mine resources. Then you build buildings to create the troops, tanks, helicopters and Mech-like robots at your home base area. Once your force is ready, you sent them to different locations on the mission map, where the C&C-type combat occurs. It is a welcome level of complexity to what could have also been the least-inventive RTS engine ever. However, considering the financial management aspect of the game as well as the significant mission time investment, it is hard to believe that any user would accept an expensive tank's loss simply because it was daydreaming.

The Bottom Line: War Inc. is "the little RTS that could have" if the combat was implemented better. If you've got a high tolerance for frustration, give it a shot. The novel resource management between scenarios might just make up for it.