Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "His Silicon Soul"

“You cannot prevent the inevitable, Batman. H.A.R.D.A.C. is reborn, in the very image of the man who destroyed him!”

In a Gotham warehouse, a lost H.A.R.D.A.C. duplicant awakens, unaware that it is not actually Batman. The duplicant leaps into crimefighting action and retreats to Wayne Manor, where it begins to confront the truth of its robotic existence. Meanwhile, Batman becomes aware of the duplicant and seeks out Karl Rossum (William Sanderson), who has retreated from the failure of his H.A.R.D.A.C. experiment.

“His Silicon Soul” is the kind of episode that one might expect to have appeared instead in the tie-in comic The Batman Adventures (one of the better Bat-books, incidentally, in recent years). It’s a one-off sequel to an earlier episode, and that’s the kind of baton the comic book would have loved to pick up. Batman: The Animated Series has always done well building its own internal continuity, but a direct sequel like this one is a nice way for the series to revisit some of its finer hours. Recall that I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed “Heart of Steel,” and so I was all the more eager to revisit “His Silicon Soul.”

You have to get past the absurd hurdle of the episode’s basic conceit – there was another duplicant, unseen and unmentioned until now – before you can wrestle with the really interesting things in “His Silicon Soul.” It’s a bit of a thin justification for a sequel episode, since we never saw any indication that H.A.R.D.A.C. had tried or even wanted to duplicate Batman (let alone Bruce Wayne), and moreover it would seem that this duplicant is more advanced than those of “Heart of Steel,” which made very unconvincing substitutes. Here, though, we’re not dealing with mere animatronics; this duplicant truly believes itself to be the real Batman, and that premise allows the writers do some fascinating work that, for my money, entirely excuses anything that goes awry with this episode. Indeed, this case of mistaken cybernetic identity ends up getting us to the very core of Batman.

The duplicant Batman – voiced, I must say, expertly by Kevin Conroy with the aid of a slight metallic filter – finds itself caught between two seemingly contradictory sets of programming: H.A.R.D.A.C.’s decree to save Gotham by replacing it, and Batman’s steadfast refusal to kill. It’s one of the more philosophical episodes of the series, grappling with this central tenet of Batman that the series has otherwise largely left unspoken. (I recently read an interview with Conroy, in which he cited the show’s “stay alive groan,” which let audiences know that Batman hadn’t actually killed anyone.) But this is key to Batman’s notion of heroism; himself orphaned by a double homicide, Batman has vowed to find a better way, steadfastly refusing to find justice in the very act that took his parents from him. It’s deeply affecting, then, to see the duplicant realize that that’s a core of its own programming too, and to struggle against H.A.R.D.A.C.’s insistence that the real Batman be killed.

The episode is padded out with neat little moments, like Rossum’s retreat to an idyllic farm, or the duplicant Batman’s instinctive turn to Alfred when it realizes that something is amiss. How about the very fact that the duplicant Batman’s first impulse is to stop a gang of thieves? Writers Marty Isenberg and Robert Skir demonstrate that they understand the intrinsic nature of Batman by showing what happens to a blank robot when you download Batman into its mind. It fights crime. It turns to Alfred for help. It seeks out its father. And it never, ever kills. I had brushed off the “duplicant trilogy” for a long time, but I’ve come around to seeing how it ultimately accesses the foundation of Batman, tells a unique story in his world, and (if nothing else) gives us a real eyeball kick with the unforgettable image of the cyborg’s half-destroyed face – to say nothing of the fact that “His Silicon Soul” includes a moment when Batman swordfights with a cyborg wearing half his face. If moments like those are immature, I never want to grow up.

Original Air Date: November 20, 1992

Writers: Marty Isenberg & Robert N. Skir

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villain: Duplicant Batman (Kevin Conroy) and H.A.R.D.A.C. (Jeff Bennett)

Next episode: “Fire From Olympus,” in which Zeus smites Gotham with a thunderbolt.

🦇For the full list of Batman: The Animated Series reviews, click here.🦇

Monday, January 15, 2018

Monday at the Movies - January 15, 2018

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” The Cinema King had noted that Get Out was up for “Best Picture – Musical or Comedy” at the Golden Globes, and this week, he finds it to belong to neither genre.

Get Out (2017) – Jordan Peele’s directorial film debut has a much-hyped 99% on Rotten Tomatoes (you guessed it, Armond White is one of the naysayers), and while I have my own problems with that site’s aggregate approach to film ranking, in this instance I can only say, “I’m with them.” Daniel Kaluuya stars as Chris, a man visiting his girlfriend Rose (Alison Williams) and her parents (Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener), when he discovers that the family’s black servants are acting strangely. Peele’s script manages to generate empathy for Chris and his mindset, and Kaluuya gives a first-rate performance in communicating all the unease, fear, and hesitation that Chris feels in this strange place. It’s not a musical or a comedy, though it is thickly satirical; without spoiling anything, the film leans into some strange plot elements that regardless manage to align with the story’s thematic concerns. I’m impressed that Peele has created a film that is very much of its moment but is also a highly successful genre outing in its own respect. My cynical hackles had been raised purely by the overwhelming number of people who said Get Out was one of the best movies of the year (last time I heard that claim, it was Mad Max: Fury Road, and we all remember how that turned out). But I found myself hypnotized by the film, unnerved in all the right places, and surprised that – in a world where we’re told that cultural divides are too deep and unbridgeable – a first-time writer/director effortlessly took me into Chris’s head and told a parable about how painful, violent, and condescending even the best intentions can be. Peele has said he’s mulling a sequel, and I have no idea how that’d play out, but I’ll be right there for it; I can only hope, however, that Lil Rel Howery’s TSA agent Rod can somehow team up with Michael Peña’s Luis from Ant-Man in a race to see who can be the more charming and helpful.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you next week!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "The Demon's Quest"

“I am he who is called Ra’s al Ghul.”
“The Demon’s Head. I thought you were only a legend.”
“I am quite real. And as I’m sure you realize by now, my reputation for resourcefulness is well-deserved.”

One rainy night at Gotham University, Robin is abducted from his dorm room by a masked figure. Batman looks for his apprentice but is instead found by Ra’s al Ghul (David Warner), who reveals that his daughter Talia (Helen Slater) has also been kidnapped – and moreover, that he has deduced Batman’s secret identity. Batman accompanies Ra’s al Ghul and his overzealous manservant Ubu to Calcutta on the trail of Robin’s captors, where Batman begins to learn of Ra’s al Ghul’s true designs for global extremism.

Back on “Off Balance,” I had teased that I have so very much to say about Ra’s al Ghul, and “The Demon’s Quest” is finally the place to have that conversation. I’ll make the claim that Ra’s al Ghul was the first great addition to the Batman canon in decades, introduced as he was in 1971, and I’ll go even further to say that even with that thirty-year handicap he still managed to become easily Batman’s second or third greatest adversary (depending, I grant you, on where you rank The Riddler). Ra’s poses both a physical and mental threat to Batman; Joker and Riddler require great cerebral effort of Batman – Riddler to outthink him, and Joker to wrap one’s head around thinking like him – but Ra’s can go toe to toe with Batman, as he does in the exceptional swordfighting scene, so iconic that Arrow poached it for its third season. The Demon’s Head is a criminal mastermind, with a vast network of perils, he’s more than a match for Batman both intellectually and physically, but he adds something new to the Bat-canon in that he doesn’t want to defeat Batman, not entirely – he wants Batman to be his heir, to marry his daughter Talia and embrace his vision of how to save the world. (And may we say, the ecoterrorism thing works better on Ra’s than it ever could on Catwoman.) Ra’s is, in fact, Batman’s complete opposite number – indescribably wealthy and influential, manically single-minded in his pursuit of his particular vision of justice, and unstoppable in every way; he even has a first-rate mask and cape to conceal his identity.

If Ra’s is the Professor Moriarty to Batman’s Sherlock Holmes, whose danger is concealed only by his immense dignity, Talia is the apex version of Catwoman, a woman hopelessly in love with Batman but equally impossible to reform, so obsessed is she with following her father’s vision. (I do wonder – when the comics revealed in 2000 that Catwoman was actually the daughter of mobster Carmine Falcone, were they trying to make her more similar to Talia?) In the comics, Talia would ultimately become the mother of Batman’s son Damian, but here she’s almost Tracy di Vicenzo from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the heiress to a criminal empire whose hand in marriage is the thing that brings father and lover together, in a conflict in which Talia is at one point quite literally a weapon, hurled at Batman. Though the original comics by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams leaned heavily into the James Bond vibe, especially with Ra’s and his snowbound ski chalet, this two-part episode (scripted by O’Neil and Len Wein, two veritable titans) replaces the espionage with a more classical swashbuckling attitude. We get major Lawrence of Arabia overtones from the score, and the journey through Calcutta really recalls the better moments of the Indiana Jones franchise. Even the kiss at sunrise, which closes out the episode, feels like a classic moment from the golden age of Hollywood.

Indeed, there’s an overall classical atmosphere that pervades the whole episode. David Warner is absolutely perfect as Ra’s al Ghul, his clipped British accent giving the character a dismissive aristocratic air that nevertheless suggests he’s a man of intense culture and sophistication. As the very first adaptation of Ra’s al Ghul, Warner sets the gold standard for the character; Liam Neeson is quite close in Batman Begins, but Warner’s influence can be heard to this day. You believe every word he says, too, from his deduction of Batman’s identity to the revelation of his plot against earth’s population; we even buy that he’s a capable swordsman as he taunts Batman with every parry and thrust (though the silhouetted swordfighting with the Errol Flynn score doesn’t hurt).

Here’s the thing – I could transcribe every amazing thing that happens in this episode. I could talk about the inventive use of a precredits scene to establish the plot and set this episode apart. We could talk about the pitch-perfect beat where Batman puts his mask on – his true face – to talk to Ra’s al Ghul, or the moment when he takes his shirt off to completely devastate the plans of the Demon’s Head. We could joke about how Robin isn’t quite useful in this episode or marvel at how lush Batman’s suit looks when a dark gray cast eliminates the blue accents from his cape and cowl. But all of it falls under the rubric of O’Neil and Wein doing a bang-up job with the script, adapting the original issues almost frame for frame and crafting a mystery story which features some excellent detective work by Batman but also remembers to allow the audience to follow along and maybe solve the mystery with the world’s greatest detective.

“The Demon’s Quest” is such a good episode that I keep checking to make sure Paul Dini didn’t write it – the highest compliment one can pay an episode of this show. It’s one of the show’s finest hours, doing potent work to introduce a rogue to an audience who hadn’t seen him adapted before without forgetting to present an illegal amount of fun, adventure, and excitement.

Original Air Date: May 3-4, 1993

Writers: Dennis O’Neil and Len Wein

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villain: Ra’s al Ghul (David Warner)

Next episode: “His Silicon Soul,” in which a replicant returns.

🦇For the full list of Batman: The Animated Series reviews, click here.🦇

Monday, January 8, 2018

Monday at the Movies - January 8, 2018

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, we inaugurate 2018 with its first movie reviews as we charge headlong into the seventh year of “Monday at the Movies.”

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) – I had real reservations about this film, the first of five in a prequel series to the beloved but occasionally laborious Harry Potter franchise. My misgivings ultimately proved unfounded, though it took me a year to surmount them; I found the film to be a self-contained narrative with a conclusion, and I found it to be immensely cheering. Returning to writerly duties, J.K. Rowling remembers to keep the whimsy in the wizard’s world with a clever and fun film to which a disservice is done when we brush it off as merely a prequel to Harry Potter. Eddie Redmayne stars as the wide-eyed Newt Scamander, whose bigger-on-the-inside briefcase full of magical creatures pops open in 1920s New York, drawing the attention of former Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and biting a No-Maj (no-magic, played by Dan Fogler) on the neck. The film takes its time building a world – at once recognizable but simultaneously quite fresh in its exploration of wizards in America – and it’s to Rowling’s credit that I went from Hogwarts fatigue to genuine enthusiasm anew for the mythology. (I plied my moviegoing companion and tested her saintly patience for nearly forty minutes of exhausting detail about nifflers, no-majs, and school houses.) Moreover, the film contains at least one genuinely surprising turn, about which I am probably the last man in America not to have been spoiled. David Yates shows no signs that this is his fifth directorial outing in the Potterverse, bringing a renewed energy to the project and restoring that Spielbergian sense of awe. As someone who had previously regarded the prospect of Fantastic Beasts with cynical dread, I now say, roll on the sequel (The Crimes of Grindelwald, due in November).

Would You Rather (2012) – If the Marquis de Sade hosted a dinner party and invited the cast of Saw, it’d be something like this joyless film. Brittany Snow stars as a woman down on her luck and caring for her ailing brother; she accepts an offer to play a mysterious game on the promise of untold riches if she wins. Naturally, the invitation conceals the horrific nature of the game, a sadistic version of “would you rather.” I’ve seen this film lauded for its “restraint” within the torture porn genre, and it’s true that the film is surprisingly not gory for the number of violent acts that transpire, but it would seem that the restraint applied to Steffen Schlachtenhaufen’s script, which is the very definition of thin; everything in the film is designed solely to get bodies to the dinner table so that they can slice, electrocute, whip, and drown each other. The script sacrifices character and plot for easy scares and drops all its Chekhov’s guns for a tawdry Twilight Zone ending. If there’s any glee to be had in the film, it’s from Jeffrey Combs, who turns each line of dialogue into a fine slice of honey-baked ham as Shepard Lambrick, the game’s host, he of indeterminate wealth and profound amorality. As Lambrick’s son, Robin Lord Taylor turns up with a performance that anticipates his sociopathic Penguin on Gotham, but the film seems less interested in him as the runtime progresses. Only Combs seems to understand that he’s in a C-list horror film and elects to have the most fun possible, bathing (as Kenneth Branagh would put it) in a river of ham. By no means is this a good performance by technical standards, but it is a delight to watch in a film that is utter, utter dreck.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you next week!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "Blind as a Bat"

“Alfred, I’ve got to find some way to stop him. Sight or no sight.”

Wayne Enterprises unveils its latest innovation, a stealth helicopter nicknamed The Raven. The prototype’s nomenclature would seem to be tempting fate, as the equally avian Penguin (Paul Williams) steals the aircraft wholesale; in so doing, he triggers an explosion that temporarily blinds Bruce Wayne. Against medical advice, Batman develops a technology that hacks his own eyesight, risking permanent blindness in order to recover his weaponry and stop The Penguin.

Director Dan Riba has notably remarked of drafting this episode, “We kind of lost track of what the characters’ motivations were,” and this episode is a little all over the map on that count. It’s ultimately a decent episode, but there are some really baffling character choices, not the least of which is the revelation that Leslie Thompkins – the elderly and serene family physician – is something of a master welder. (The scene of her in enormous protective goggles is alone worth the price of admission.) It’s Bruce Wayne, though, who behaves strikingly out of character. For a man who has dedicated his life to a war on the very idea of guns, his company’s production of a giant floating firearm is more than a little unnerving. To Riba and company’s credit, there is the implication that Bruce has been metaphorically blind to his corporation’s activities, but it’s incredibly understated and easy to miss. (When the show crosses over with Superman, we’ll meet a Bruce Wayne who is adamantly opposed to weaponized tech, at the expense of a business deal with Lex Luthor.)

Batman also becomes the unwitting subject of physical comedy when he’s struck blind. The episode does some great things with the plot, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the garishly broad portrayal of Batman stumbling around, arms flailing wildly when his sight is lost; it’s a wonder Penguin manages to mount an assault without laughing off the farcical pantomime. Moreover, Batman’s cybernetic vision glitches throughout the episode, the fix for which is Batman repeatedly smacking himself in the back of the head, somewhere between “stupid, stupid” and “you got a bee on your hat.” Having said that, the visuals representing Batman’s blindness are pretty compelling, and the ways Batman compensates for his blindness prove once more why he’s the greatest crimefighter in the world. Even without his eyes, Batman lures his enemies into traps, mounts staggeringly successful offenses, and lands his Batplane mid-downspiral without injuring himself further.

The red-eyed Batman is an astonishing visual, and the metaphorical resonance of “blind as a bat” is ultimately quite successful on a number of levels, including his resolutely stubborn refusal to rest, even if it costs him his own health. It’s almost like the idea of Batman – a tech-savvy force of unstoppable justice – gets dialed up to eleven in this episode: essentially, Batman fights crime so hard that he almost gives himself brain damage. The Penguin too reaches his apex form in this episode; it’s his last major outing as a criminal before he’s rebranded as a semi-legitimate nightclub owner for the New Batman Adventures redesign, and the creators go for broke. They give Penguin a deliciously absurd aviator’s cap and amp up the bird fixation to the point where Penguin won’t tolerate so much as a pigeon pun from his henchmen. His wicked glee at Batman’s plight is met with a “Waugh Waugh” straight out of the Burgess Meredith playbook, taking this verbal tic to the Hamill-level of definitive. Paul Williams is clearly having the most fun possible with the role, and it’s his enthusiasm for the part that transcends most of the silly bits in this episode.

“Blind as a Bat” is, then, not the best episode of Batman: The Animated Series, populated as it is with a few head-scratchers. (Really, I can’t get over Leslie Thompkins with a blowtorch.) But the infectious fun of The Penguin, coupled with the strong use of a blind Batman, pushes this episode to becoming one of the better Penguin episodes. It’s a far cry from “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement,” at least, though I’d say it’s on a par with “Birds of a Feather” (sans, however, the trademark BtAS pathos).

We say au revoir, then, to one of Batman’s finer fowl foes, just in time for the arrival of arguably his other nemesis. The Joker may be no laughing matter, but this next guy is a real demon.

Original Air Date: February 22, 1993

Writers: Len Wein and Mike Underwood

Director: Dan Riba

Villain: The Penguin (Paul Williams)

Next episode: “The Demon’s Quest,” a two-parter which might very well be the best episode not written by Paul Dini.

🦇For the full list of Batman: The Animated Series reviews, click here.🦇

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Shadow of the Bat"

“Batgirl, I presume?”

Just when things were starting to look up for Gotham City, no sooner does Commissioner Gordon lock up Rupert Thorne than his deputy Gil Mason charges him with corruption and accepting bribes. Gordon’s locked up, and Batman takes to the streets as Matches Malone, an enforcer in search of a gang; meanwhile, Gordon’s daughter Barbara (Melissa Gilbert) finds herself in need of a bat and so becomes one herself – Batgirl – in order to clear her father’s name and save Gotham from the new mob filling the Thorne vacuum when Two-Face (Richard Moll) returns to Gotham.

Without question, the undisputed star of the episode is Barbara Gordon, and I’m glad to have met her well in advance of her caped-and-cowled debut. Between “Heart of Steel” (penned also by this episode’s writer, Brynne Stephens) and “I Am the Night,” Batman: The Animated Series played an abbreviated long game in introducing the commissioner’s daughter before she became Batgirl. Those episodes had established Barbara’s fearlessness and her detective skills, so this episode feels very much like a natural extension of the character we already know and recognize. There’s a sense of fate in the moments that Barbara becomes Batgirl, and Stephens crafts those moments with logic. Though Batgirl will appear in only one other episode of BtAS (the very last episode, in fact, appropriately entitled “Batgirl Returns”), she becomes a featured co-lead in The New Batman Adventures, where she really shines.

Here, though, it’s impressive how quickly Batgirl becomes an equal partner in Batman and Robin’s fight against crime. Though each crimefighter tries giving her the “it’s not that easy” talk, Batgirl frequently proves that she’s more than qualified to the task. She matches Robin deduction for deduction, and she stands shoulder to shoulder with Batman as mobsters open fire. Thank heavens we’ve come a long way from the casual misogyny of “The Cat and the Claw” (“Red Claw... a woman?!”) with a Batgirl who can hold her own – and against Two-Face, no less, who reenters the Gotham crime scene in a big way. In this two-parter, Two-Face orchestrates the downfall of Rupert Thorne and stages his coup for the top spot in Gotham’s underworld. For Batgirl, it’s a real baptism of fire, but at no point does the episode give us the notion that she’s unprepared for this. It’s only too bad the show doesn’t continue to pit her as a chief foil for Two-Face, because I imagine he’s stinging that a newcomer showed him up. As it is, though, future appearances of Two-Face focus more on his inner turmoil than any outer conflict.

I can’t oversell just how effective “Shadow of the Bat” is when it comes to establishing Batgirl as a new force for justice in Gotham. This episode contains a number of memorable setpieces and clever bits of detective work where Barbara proves herself formidable. She’s an expert tracker, a fine lip-reader, and a quick hand with a one-liner. In an unforgettable subway encounter, we watch her rebound from a rookie mistake to help save the day. But the episode also establishes a smaller bit of the canon when it presents Batman’s underworld alter ego Matches Malone – comics fans everywhere feel a thrill whenever that name is invoked, and so it’s a real treat to see Batman don a new and recognizable identity even as Barbara Gordon undergoes a similar metamorphosis.

For an episode called “Shadow of the Bat,” there’s a remarkable balance struck between Batgirl and Batman; neither feels upstaged, and yet neither is given short shrift. It’s an episode that feels of a piece with the series and yet feels fresh and original. Indeed, I’ll make the snap statement, absent a thorough pass of research, that Brynne Stephens is the most consistent writer on the show after the great Paul Dini. “Shadow of the Bat” is certainly a standout entry in The Animated Series.

Original Air Date: September 13-14, 1993

Writer: Brynne Stephens

Director: Frank Paur

Villain: Two-Face (Richard Moll)

Next episode: “Blind as a Bat,” in which Batman sees red.

🦇For the full list of Batman: The Animated Series reviews, click here.🦇

Monday, December 25, 2017

Darkest Hour (2017)

When I saw Dunkirk back in July, I can safely say that at no point in the film did I think to myself, “This movie could use more Gary Oldman.” And yet, here we are, with Darkest Hour as the unintentional other half of Dunkirk, treating at length the only part of the event that Christopher Nolan didn’t recount in full – the homefront. There is probably a very intriguing “Dunkirk Saga” to be crafted from editing the films together, though I think Hollywood’s efforts would be better spent at giving us more films of Oldman as Winston Churchill.

Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill, appointed Prime Minster of the United Kingdom after the appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) become untenable. Churchill, his wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), and his secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) move to 10 Downing Street to prepare for war – or peace – with Nazi Germany as it marches further into France.

It need not be said – for everyone already seems to be in unanimous agreement – that Gary Oldman gives a bravura performance as Churchill. Oldman’s name is being bandied about once more for an Oscar, to which I have to say it’d be about time. As Churchill, Oldman is (as ever) chameleonic, disappearing behind the jowls, the glasses, and the cigars in a performance that is not quite impersonation and certainly far from caricature, though it does resemble an uncanny impression in that Oldman is difficult to recognize in character. There’s something in the eyes, the voice, the stance, yes, but by and large it’s quite easy to disregard the artifice and believe we are watching Churchill himself. And while many times we clamor for a sequel because we want to know what happens next, I’m first in line for Darkest Hour II (“Dark Harder?”) because I want to spend more time in the company of a performance this fine.

The time frame of Darkest Hour is quite tight – less than a month – which is all the more astonishing when you consider what was asked of Churchill in those brisk days. To inherit an office diminished by one’s predecessor, and to be faced with several forms of political and military extinction, with little more than the English language as your principal weapon of defense... well, it’s not for nothing that Churchill’s wife at one point remarks that her husband has “the weight of the world on your shoulders.” A brief telephone call with Franklin D. Roosevelt might seem a moment for the Americans in the audience to feel involved, but it quickly becomes a reminder of how maddeningly unhelpful the isolationist America was at the time and how bitterly alone Churchill must have felt as he stared down the barrel of Hitler’s gun. “It’s late,” he breathes wearily, a sense of hopelessness edging into the film’s middle.

Director Joe Wright is perhaps still best known for directing the first-rate Atonement, so it comes as a slight shock that here too Wright takes the opportunity to revisit Dunkirk – recall, James McAvoy finds himself separated from Keira Knightley by the evacuation. Earlier this year, Christopher Nolan set his exploration of humanized hopelessness and fractured time at Dunkirk, but here Wright treats the event as the tipping point of a global conflagration, an Atlas-like burden which Churchill must shoulder with the full knowledge that the fate of the very world rests upon his response. But Wright is careful to keep his Churchill human, too; rather than err on the side of hagiography, Wright presents a Churchill wrestling with his doubts and willing to laugh at his faults, as when he initially mangles the “V for Victory” gesture.

At the heart of the film is a moment that shouldn’t work as well as it does. Having hung Chekhov’s gun on the wall when he mentions offhandedly he’s never ridden the subway, Churchill takes to the underground and mingles with the people. It feels initially like Screenwriting 101, setting Churchill amongst the proletariat, but the scene works so well that I didn’t want it to end. In that cramped subway car – and the film is, if nothing else, devoutly claustrophobic – Oldman imbues Churchill with such grace, humor, and candor that it’s not hard to believe a nation (indeed, a globe) was charmed by such a charismatic leader.

Darkest Hour is rated PG-13 “for some thematic material.” Directed by Joe Wright. Written by Anthony McCarten. Starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, and Ben Mendelsohn.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Harley and Ivy"

“Cheer up, kid. You just need some lessons in good old female self-esteem. In other words, let’s play with the boys on our terms.”

After a falling-out with The Joker, Harley Quinn strikes out on her own to prove her criminal abilities. She sets her eyes on the theft of the Harlequin Diamond but runs afoul of Poison Ivy mid-heist. Realizing that two heads are better than one, Harley and Ivy team up, becoming the new scourges of the underworld as Batman and The Joker both try to stop them for very different reasons.

Insert the standard praise of Paul Dini here. You know that this Bat-fan believes Dini can do no wrong, and “Harley and Ivy” is one of the finest of his many fine episodes for its remarkable freshness. Dini takes Harley Quinn, already a newcomer to the world of the Bat, and does something even further unique with her by taking her out of Joker’s orbit and seeing what she can do when she’s on her own. This episode gives a full character portrait of Harley, mired as she is in an abusive relationship with The Joker and yet irresistibly drawn to his side. Dini wisely juxtaposes her with the avatar of femininity, the incarnation of Mother Earth herself, Poison Ivy, and it’s a match made in heaven. Opposites do attract: maternal/juvenile, aromantic/boy-crazy, scientific/instinctive, sultry/squeaky. Of late, Harley and Ivy have been posited as a romantic couple, but here Dini suggests Ivy as a kind of surrogate mother for Harley, who struggles against her urges to return to Joker’s side.

Some of the episode’s gender politics feel a bit on the nose, but I’d argue that the episode needs it when you’re dealing with someone as far gone as Harley. I don’t recall that the show has foregrounded the abusive qualities of the Harley and Joker “romance” (or, to put it another way, their mad love) to the degree that this episode does. Harley only leaves the gang when she’s forced out by The Joker, who doesn’t remember that she’s gone and expects her at the ready with his socks. Ivy lets us see the relationship with fresh eyes; blinded as we may have been by the visual gag of a harlequin sidekick and the vocal stylings of Arleen Sorkin, we might have missed that Joker is wholly incapable of love. And yet there remains a kind of “oh, you” incorrigibility about their fatal attraction, a romance that plays by the same rules as cartoon physics, where an anvil to the head only makes you see stars and where loving a madman leads only to an indistinguishable stay in Arkham (where, recall, the doors are literally not locked).

Batman: The Animated Series has done this strange yo-yo between two different kinds of episodes that barely feature Batman – the ones that work and the ones that don’t. Last week, “The Mechanic” showed us how dull a story can be without the Dark Knight as its anchor; this week, we see how madcap and magnetic the world can be when it spirals wildly from its bat-shaped center. Dini has long since proven himself the master of misrule, an expert hand at the till of insanity; no one writes The Joker like Dini does, but more importantly I’d say no one has ever written Harley Quinn with the pinprick precision and deft navigation that Dini did (at least, not without the character quickly descending into unaware self-parody). Dini strikes such divine equilibrium between his trio of villains that one could easily have forgotten that Batman’s even in this episode (confession: I myself forgot Batman has a running subplot of pursuit in this episode). I’ve said it in one form or another before, but it bears repeating – Paul Dini is one of a very short list of writers who could probably pen the greatest adventures of Gotham City without using Batman for so much as a minute. So densely populated with fascinating characters is this fantasy universe that Paul Dini could revel in it for months at a time without needing to draw on the narrative’s ostensible protagonist.

Batman does arrive, though, and order is restored, but it’s Harley who gets the last laugh when she proves herself wholly irrepressible, unburdened by the events of the narrative. We, however, in full control of our sanity, can’t help but remember what’s happened; we’re changed by it, and we’ll always look at Harley knowingly askance, wondering if she’ll ever wise up and drop her Punchinello paramour in favor of her poisonous playmate. “Harley and Ivy” is a real treat, the start of a thematic trilogy for Harley (with “Harlequinade” and “Harley’s Holiday,” “Mad Love” being a prequel), and it happens to be one of the best episodes of the entire show. Not bad for an episode that manages to pass the Bechdel test in the process.

Original Air Date: January 18, 1993

Writer: Paul Dini

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villain: Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin), Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing), and The Joker (Mark Hamill)

Next episode: “Shadow of the Bat,” a two-parter in which the Bat-family grows by one.

🦇For the full list of Batman: The Animated Series reviews, click here.🦇

Monday, December 18, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

No one, it seems, hates Star Wars as much as Star Wars fans. To be fair, we’ve been wronged by the franchise we profess to love – the much-maligned Prequel Trilogies are cumbersome and inelegant, and the less said about the “Holiday Special” the better – but I think by and large the fanbase has been spoiled by a profusion of content and thus has developed a very narrow view of what Star Wars ought to be. The Last Jedi, the eighth episode in a franchise that now also includes “Anthology Films,” flies in the face of that narrow vision of Star Wars and does something truly unique with the franchise while remaining (to borrow a phrase from its composer, John Williams) quintessentially Star Wars-ian.

(As ever, you can trust me to give you the spoiler-free treatment. Believe me when I tell you that the plot summary below is only half of the first act, but if you haven’t seen it and want to go in totally unspoiled, skip down to the last paragraph, and don’t listen to the soundtrack, because Williams is not shy about quoting identifiable cues.)

The Force having awakened in the previous film, The Last Jedi picks up moments later, as Rey (Daisy Ridley) encounters Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in his self-imposed, grimly pessimistic exile. While Rey implores Luke to rejoin the galaxy and teach her the ways of the Force, Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) leads the Resistance in evacuating their D’Qar base; Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) butts heads with Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern); and defector Finn (John Boyega) joins up with mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) to seek out a way to keep the First Order off their tail. And speaking of the film’s villains, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is dispatched by the Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) to snuff out the Resistance, the Jedi Order, and his own demons.

The Last Jedi covers a lot of ground, and it’s been rightly compared to The Empire Strikes Back for its divergent plot structure. Where The Force Awakens was relentlessly linear and unilaterally focused on a tight narrative, The Last Jedi sprawls out on this galactic tapestry and gives us no shortage of plots to follow. Like in Empire, the plots splinter off and converge in unexpected ways, and the audience is never quite sure what’s going to happen. I’ve seen a lot of outlets that report the film doesn’t “play it safe” and “takes risks” with the franchise – there is a moment, about halfway through the film, at which point I realized I had no idea what was going to happen because something I’d taken for granted had changed completely. After that, I found myself trying to keep up with the film as it heroically outpaced my expectations. As we galloped into the third act, I found myself quite literally gasping for air; I’d forgotten to breathe, and it took an unexpected shock to jar me back to life.

There’s not a bad performance in the bunch, and to say more might encroach on the territory of spoilers. Daisy Ridley gives a fantastically driven performance as a woman who is finally running toward her destiny, while Adam Driver is magnetic as he wrestles with the legacies he’s being forced to inherit. Far and away, the film belongs to Mark Hamill, who’s given a meaty character arc once Rey holds out that lightsaber on the island of Ahch-To, but Carrie Fisher gives a hell of a swan song as General Leia, who looms over the film like the regal war hero we know her to be. Then there’s the trio of new faces, of whom Kelly Marie Tran is the most engaging and likely a new fan favorite as she presents a giddy new look at what it means to be a hero of the Resistance from the vantage point of the mechanic Rose Tico; Laura Dern and Benicio del Toro turn in compelling performances, too, and all three of them are examples of what Star Wars has done best – introduce us to slices of a character’s life and invite us to study further into that galaxy far, far away. For The Last Jedi is, like all of the Star Wars universe, a story about the personal stakes of good and evil, about a series of individual choices that add up to galactic mythology because every life is precious, every moment sacred, every interaction blessed by significance because each life exists in its own expanded universe of stories. (Rose has her own tie-in book; Holdo appears in an earlier novel about Leia; and del Toro’s DJ has his own comic book coming soon – crass consumerism it may be, but sign me up for the lot of it.)

By way of critique, I’ll say that there are a few moments in the movie that don’t quite feel like Star Wars to me – new abilities we see on display, new technologies, even incidental characters who feel as if they’ve been imported from another franchise. Where some have taken this with resentment, #NotMyStarWars, I’m in the camp where those plot devices feel like fresh angles on a franchise that had already recapped its greatest hits with The Force Awakens and, to an extent, Rogue One. The tone of the film does, however, occasionally flirt with the line between deflating comedy and moments of high drama; where Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 tripped headlong over its own shoes into a pratfall in its best effort to prevent us from engaging with an emotion beyond laughter, The Last Jedi uses these moments to show us that a person is never only one thing. Someone mired in the deepest depression can find an opportunity for levity; life-or-death stakes end up blinking when they stare us down and we shrug our shoulders as if to say, “Do your worst.”

Surprisingly, I didn’t cry at this one. I still get a little choked up at the reunion of Han and Leia in The Force Awakens – kudos to John Williams, who did nonpareil work there and who continues to live up to his own legend. (Thank goodness, by the way, the “Canto Bight” theme is on the soundtrack!) I did, however, feel a swell of admiration at a film that managed to defy my expectations and yet make a perfect amount of sense. There may have been a few things I would have done ever so slightly differently, but of what movie isn’t that true? At film’s end, I felt thrilled, breathless, captivated. Though it’s the longest entry in the franchise, I could have easily done another hour. We’ve got two years until the as-yet-untitled Episode IX, but director Rian Johnson has given us a lot to pore over, and I can’t wait to see it again. Moreover, my excitement for the future of the franchise is stratospheric, because this all could have gone horribly wrong. The galaxy is in good hands, and there’s room for hope.

The Last Jedi is rated PG-13 for “sequences of sci-fi action and violence.” Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, and Benicio del Toro.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "The Mechanic"

“It was a challenge of a lifetime. It took me six months to come up with the design specs alone.”

After a bumpy night in pursuit of The Penguin (Paul Williams), Batman and Robin take the Batmobile in for repairs. Their mechanic, Earl Cooper (Paul Winfield), owes Batman for saving his life, but Penguin imperils it when he deduces that Earl might be his conduit to rubbing out the Dark Knight once and for all.

“The Mechanic” is such a strange episode, not because it does anything outlandish or controversial, but because it takes Batman into the dense quotidian by focusing on the question no one was asking – “Who changes the tires on the Batmobile?” If you stop and think about Batman’s world too long (and believe me, I’ve done that), you start to ask questions about the practicality of the universe and how things really work, but I wouldn’t say it’s essential storytelling that we learn all about a figure like Earl Cooper, particularly because I think most people assume that Bat-maintenance falls under “other duties and responsibilities” in Alfred’s job description. Or that, y’know, Batman does it himself. But no, “The Mechanic” takes the subject very matter-of-factly, approaches it soberly, and ends up being largely forgettable when it’s never revisited by the show.

The character of Earl Cooper is a classic example of overcomplicating a simple answer to a question no one asked. It’s the kind of story that could work really well if it’s developed thoughtfully and adds a new layer to the Batman universe, but “The Mechanic” doesn’t seem interested in plumbing thematic depth. It’s just a very straightforward story about a mechanic who happens to work for Batman. This episode is competent, and it does what it needs to do, but it’s a little like doing a story about the janitor in whose closet Clark Kent changes into Superman. You’d expect that Earl Cooper might know who Batman is, but that’s never addressed; one could imagine a version of this story, as Christopher Nolan did, in which Lucius Fox fills this role and comes to learn something new about his billionaire employer.

The introduction of Batman’s mechanic exists almost exclusively to set up the main premise of the episode, in which The Penguin sabotages the Batmobile in order to remotely control the vehicle and steer Batman to a fiery demise. This sort of kooky gag has always worked well on this show, whose larger-than-life villains have been at their level best when they’re maniacally committed to a single peculiar scheme. (See, for example, “Joker’s Wild,” in which Joker’s casino heist has nothing to do with the contents of a hotel’s vault.) There’s nothing intrinsically Penguin about this episode, which has often been a cause for lament from me, but somehow this episode succeeds regardless in that respect. Then again, hadn’t we just seen that dastardly plot a year earlier in Batman Returns? It’s not the only reprise from that film, either; we get a reocurrence of Penguin’s rubber ducky sewer boat – which is specifically a Penguin feature, and which looks fantastic in this episode.

The fun and frankly awesome visual of the rubber ducky boat ends up sailing into a whirlpool, which doesn’t make any sense in the context of a sewer, which is maybe a more apt metaphor than the episode’s creators intended. At its core “The Mechanic” has a good idea or two, but the episode sails away from the show writ large. It features some campy good fun from The Penguin, but the truth of the matter is that Earl Cooper is actually kind of boring once you get past the fact that he’s the Batmobile’s mechanic. But if nothing else, this episode does remind us that when Batman rides a motorcycle, his helmet has built-in Bat-ears. Because of course it does.

Original Air Date: January 24, 1993

Writers: Laren Bright, Steve Perry, and Randy Rogel

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villain: The Penguin (Paul Williams)

Next episode: “Harley and Ivy,” in which a harlequin comes down with a bad case of poison ivy.

🦇For the full list of Batman: The Animated Series reviews, click here.🦇