Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Joker (2019)

I wasn’t going to review Joker. As you can probably tell from the infrequent updates here, I’ve been taking a little hiatus from movie reviews to recharge, focusing on other creative projects while waiting for the right film to spark up my reviewing energies again. But I can’t get Joker out of my head – nor, it seems, are media outlets interested in letting this movie just get away. On the one hand, you’ve got ardent comics fans who are beating the drum and hard for this movie; on the other, you’ve got the media at large trying distressingly to will into existence a mass shooting in this film’s name. Then again, the movie seems to anticipate and decry the media’s bloodthirsty and misguided reaction… all of which makes me wonder how certain I am that as movies go Joker is, well, just fine.

Joker is part Batman prequel, part Taxi Driver remake, leavened with The King of Comedy and flame-broiled by an incendiary performance courtesy of Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a sad clown-for-hire with a bevy of psychological problems and a handful of pills whose prescriptions are about to run out. He’s the caregiver for his addled mother (Frances Conroy); he’s carrying a torch for Sophie (Zazie Beetz) down the hall; and he never misses a late-night episode of Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). But Gotham City circa the 1980s is a pressure cooker of decadence and madness, and it’s about to boil over.

But is it? And is he? Or did he…? One of the central tenets of The Joker is that he’s an inscrutable cipher, a man without an identity or an origin. “If I’m going to have a past,” Joker says in Moore & Bolland’s Killing Joke, “I prefer it to be multiple choice!” (Bolland gets a “special thanks” credit, and if Moore didn’t hate movie adaptations he probably would have, too.) Without giving away too much of the game in Joker, director Todd Phillips is very careful to intimate (and at one point outright declare) that Arthur Fleck is an unreliable narrator. For any of my grievances about the film, I have to give Phillips a strong pat on the back for circumventing the certainty that would have run this film counter to The Joker’s innate unknowability; indeed, the one moment where Phillips baldly explains that a thing we saw happen did, in fact, not happen is one of the film’s major missteps, assuming the audience is not clever enough to understand that what Arthur sees isn’t always what’s real.

Joker has been surrounded and very nearly drowned in a morass of “hot takes” and cultural extrapolations that wonder if the film is “bad for society” or “dangerous.” And the truth of the matter is, Joker is nowhere near dynamic enough to merit such extensive commentary. It is, in a word, fine, elevated by Phoenix’s bravura performance as the man who would be clown prince. Phoenix is stratospheric as Arthur Fleck, manic depressive and skeletal with a painful persistent laugh that nags at him like a hiccup. Wholly void of mirth, Arthur’s laugh is, like its owner, a shell of humanity, an empty imitation of glee. He’s trying to fit in, trying to find joy, but the world beats him down again and again. It is in this sense that Joker is a kind of four-color Taxi Driver, and if you’ve seen the preceding film you’ve seen much of what makes this Joker tick. (Perhaps I would have loved Joker if I didn’t already love Scorsese.)

The comparison to Taxi Driver explains and simultaneously deflates the hogwash claim that the movie is sympathetic to the kind of lunacy the media has feared this film will inspire because – and this is key – presentation is not sanction. Or, as Mark Kermode so eloquently puts it, “He’s not sympathetic; he’s pitiful.” It would take a very special and deliberate misreading of the film to find unchallenged sympathy for The Joker in this film. Again, Phillips is quite deliberate about deflating Arthur’s own notions about himself, about unbalancing the audience just when it thinks it understands him. In that sense it’s a surprisingly smart and nuanced film, coming from the director of the hilarious but hardly erudite Hangover, whose sequels were the very definition of diminishing returns. 

In another sense, though, the film is brutally one-note, single-minded in its relentless bleak worldview. Its gags (if one can call them that) are telegraphed loud and clear, with all the subtlety of an oncoming train. This brutal directness works to the film’s advantage in a climactic third-act sequence, which works like a perfectly tense setpiece, though the film doesn’t quite build to the scene in a unified manner. Throughout the film, everything is terrible, no one is trustworthy, and hope – so key to what I love about comics and the superhero genre – is nowhere to be found. Batman, too, is just out of reach, though the sidelong glances Phillips throws his way are among the more interesting pivots from conventional mythology, interesting precisely (though perhaps only) because they are pivots. In a genre that is constantly imperiled by sameness, persistently in danger of being “note-d” to death by bonebrained studio heads, I’ll always be a champion of the peculiar, of the different, of the unique, though I find I can’t quite muster up the enthusiasm for Joker in the same way that I did and continue to do for Batman v Superman. Where the latter is positively bursting with ideas, doomed like Icarus never to see its full potential met, Joker contains only about one or two – intriguing ideas, no doubt, but hardly enough to merit the vociferous condemnation of those who haven’t even seen the film.

Ultimately, I think Joker ends up as a cipher, a bit like its titular character. It means what you bring to it, and it doesn’t quite challenge any of those notions – except, I maintain, that we are meant to sympathize with Arthur Fleck. In true noir fashion, every scene is told from Arthur’s perspective, so even in those moments where you might feel sympathy, you must recognize that it’s because the story has been filtered through a teller who is (perhaps willfully) unstable. If you want to read this as an “eat the rich” Occupy fable or a prayer for mental health care or an argument on one or the other side of the gun debate, Joker gives you a coil of rope but doesn’t commit enough to hang you with it. Put another way, Joker is only ever really dedicated to showcasing Joaquin Phoenix’s idiosyncratic madman, and in that regard it’s the only place where the film unapologetically succeeds. 

Anyone who has a passing familiarity with my review style and my tastes in pop culture should know that I would love nothing more than to love this movie. I should probably see it again to make sure I’m confident in my take on the movie, but I’m not in a particular rush to see it again. It was fine.

Joker is rated R for “strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images.” Directed by Todd Phillips. Written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver. Based on the DC Comics. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, and Brett Cullen.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Monday at the Movies - July 1, 2019

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, and there have been a good number of summer blockbusters since. So, let’s do this one more time.

Shazam! (2019) – DC has had a rocky road to a shared universe, never quite managing to find its crowdpleasing niche until solo outings for, of all people, Wonder Woman and Aquaman. With Shazam! DC is starting to recognize that its characters fare best when handled in standalone adventures that play to the characters’ strengths. Here, it’s Billy Batson (Asher Angel) with a chip on his shoulder, learning that family is where you find it, while his magical-heroic alter ego (Zachary Levi) plays out a superpowered take on Big and fending off attacks from the Seven Deadly Sins. It’s quite fun and a fine double-feature with, ahem, the other Captain Marvel this spring, and director David F. Sandberg does a keen job straddling the line between the boisterous antics of Shazam and the genuinely scary menace of Mark Strong’s Dr. Sivana, striking a notable balance between competing tones in a demi-franchise that has drawn audience derision for seldom transcending the dire. (As for this filmgoer, why can’t we have both?) You know that I think Batman v Superman remains the gold standard for DC’s latest efforts, but Shazam! is roughly the third winner in a row for DC (because the less said about Frankenstein’s Justice League, the better). And for those who haven’t seen it yet, it’s truly remarkable that a third-act development wasn’t spoiled in the marketing – even though the comics-initiated among us anticipated it coming in a sequel or two, it was great fun to see the film play with its family dynamic in a bold and inventive way.

Avengers: Endgame (2019) – How do you review a masterpiece in 250 words? (You’d need, perhaps, 3,000 to do it justice.) Make no mistake, true believers – Endgame is an impossible film that shouldn’t work at all but manages to work perhaps the best of any Marvel movie at what it sets out to do. Here’s a three-hour film with no baggy weight that manages to tie together 21 preceding films while doing something new; its greatest-hits nostalgia tour is baked seamlessly into the narrative, but it advances the Marvel Cinematic Universe by leaps and bounds while setting a daunting precedent for whatever comes next. The movie is chock-full of things that, even if I spoiled them, you wouldn’t believe me, as when the film hard-180s within its first fifteen minutes by breaking a cardinal rule of superhero epics and then manages to deal with that game-changing plot point with enviable aplomb, both having its cake and eating it too. Recency bias is still pretty strong with this one, so I’m not quite ready to say if it’s the best of the 22 MCU movies just yet (Winter Soldier remains a perfect movie). But I think it’s handily the best of the four Avengers movies for its audacious scope, unreasonable challenge, and entirely confident triumph. How a three-hour film leaves you wanting more is beyond me, so hats off to Anthony and Joe Russo for turning in what very well might be Marvel’s finest hour(s). You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and if you’re anything like the two audiences with whom I saw this one, you’ll be outright sobbing in equal parts sorrow and jubilation. “Part of the journey is the end,” indeed, though I’ll expect you haven’t heard the last from me on Endgame.

Dark Phoenix (2019) – I said it with Venom, and I’ll say it with Dark Phoenix – this movie is fine. It’s a perfectly serviceable X-Men film, and since it’s ostensibly the last one for a while, some of its more compulsory plot beats can be forgiven. In the title role, Sophie Turner slays it as Jean Grey, and Hans Zimmer turns in a great score that sounds like Dark Knight had a baby with Interstellar. It’s probably not as epic as the source material (which, nerd confession time, I’m only just getting around to reading), and the villains led by Jessica Chastain are the very definition of undercooked. More noticeable, Magneto is really only there because it’s the last X-movie from Fox (though his best line, from the trailer, is sadly omitted – “You didn’t come here looking for answers. You came here looking for permission”). But there’s something to be said about the way this movie shows the X-Men at their peak, emphasizing their family dynamics. The film’s action, too, is pretty cool, especially that climactic train sequence. Most importantly, it’s light-years better than The Last Stand. So maybe the X-Men didn’t go out on their highest note (which is, I believe, still X2: X-Men United?), but it’s a perfectly fine capper to twenty years of X-movies, and it seals off this iteration just in time for the MCU to adopt the mutants into their new home. In short, it does just about what you’d expect an X-Men movie to do, and it does it better than some of its predecessors without feeling too much like a retread of familiar ground.

Men in Black: International (2019) – Mark Kermode took the word right out of my mouth when he said that the latest Men in Black film is “perfunctory.” The premise of an MiB reboot with Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson (late of Thor: Ragnarok), with Emma Thompson and Liam Neeson on either side of the pond, practically sells itself, and indeed it seems the film was sold primarily on the chemistry between its two leads. What the movie is lacking, however, is precisely character because its protagonists are sadly underwritten, its villains are maddeningly vague, and its structure is bizarrely shambolic as it careens from setpiece to setpiece. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t need a Men in Black film to be Shakespearean in its plotting, but I do prefer that it make a modicum of sense without leaning on attitude as a special effect. (Though if it does, the ever-watchable Tessa Thompson is ILM-levels of sassy.) It feels as though the studio is rolling the franchise out on a lunch tray, as if to say, “Want some more of this?” And in that respect the possibility is about as tantalizing as mystery meat casserole – perfectly edible, but hardly anyone’s first choice. Several times throughout the film, I found myself wishing I were watching the original Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones vehicle. International gestures at an intriguing sideways take on the central conceit, but man oh Manischewitz did the script need another pass to make it anything but generic and forgettable.

Toy Story 4 (2019) – “Did we need a fourth one of these?” I asked myself when Toy Story 4 was announced. Hadn’t Toy Story 3 been a perfect capper to a perfect trilogy? (This has to be the last one, though, right?) And yet, as they usually do, Pixar found a way to surprise me, with 4 tying up 3’s loose end with the absence of Bo Peep (Annie Potts). Bo ends up being only one of the core ideas in 4, including also Woody (Tom Hanks) and his struggle to fit in with new kid Bonnie, while the playroom crowd grapples with the creation of Forky (Tony Hale), Bonnie’s new toy molded from garbage. I think your mileage on this film will depend very much on how much you indulge the movie’s central premise that there’s another story to be wrung from this universe; I myself was sold fairly quickly, particularly with the way Forky – omnipresent in marketing and toy aisles – allows the film to do something quite unique while giving us a fascinating angle into Woody’s psyche. And yes, 4 is well and truly Woody’s show, even more than Toy Story 2 was. It’s a bit of a shame, because we love all the other toys so very much, but it’s very challenging to imagine, for example, what more Rex or Mister Pricklepants could have done in the movie. It’s a thoughtful and engaging romp through the standard Toy Story plot – toys get separated and find their way back together after meeting shady toys and new friends like Duke Caboom (Keanu “Yes He Canada” Reeves) – but it’s as emotional and essential as the preceding installments. 

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” This was fun; we should do this again some time...

Monday, March 11, 2019

Captain Marvel (2019)

Twenty-one movies in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe makes winning look effortless. As its original crop of Avengers begins to rotate out (so we assume), Marvel’s been marching toward Avengers: Endgame with the dually unenviable tasks of wrapping up a decade’s worth of stories while seeding another decade’s. With Captain Marvel, the franchise tries so many new things that it’s a wonder the film seems so comfortable, with its star Brie Larson feeling right at home as the hero who’s always already been woven into the Marvel tapestry.

Circa 1995, the Kree warrior Vers (Larson) crashlands on Earth, where she’s met by rising SHIELD agent Nicholas Fury (a de-aged Samuel L. Jackson). Fury is understandably baffled by her stories of intergalactic war and an invading army of Skrull shapeshifters, but it’s Vers who finds herself jumbled by impossible memories of a life on earth. As her commanding officer (Jude Law) sets out to rescue his protégé, the Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) searches earth for a device that will turn the tide in his peoples’ war against the Kree.

It used to be that the phrase “comic booky” was thrown around derisively, to cast the aspersion that a film emulated the gaudiest, most puerile impulses of the medium. Now, however, I’m comfortable saying that Captain Marvel is the best kind of “comic booky” movie, in the sense that it packs in an expansive mythology, replete with nods forward and backward to the MCU’s continuity (Djimon Hounsou and Lee Pace reprise – or is it preprise? – their roles as Korath and Ronan from Guardians of the Galaxy). It’s also delightfully comic booky in its use of the cinematic screen as a comics frame, with visual images overlapping and echoing in a way that reminds me of how well Zack Snyder mastered the technique in Watchmen; directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck manage to communicate almost exclusively visually, as in the myriad ways they use, for example, the color of blood to indicate chronology, revelation, and memory. 

Moreover, Captain Marvel is exceedingly comic booky for its willingness to reinvent what came before. I won’t spoil any of the film’s big twists, but suffice it to say that the movie’s Captain Marvel does not have the same secret origin as she does in the comics, largely because the comics are as tangled, refracted, and impenetrable as the stereotypes portend. In streamlining and refashioning, though, this Captain Marvel’s origin echoes all the versions from the comics and repurposes the story into something new and potent, something that works for this character and for the trajectory of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With its mid-90s setting, the film does fascinating work fitting into this long-running story, particularly with young agents Nick Fury and Phil Coulson.

But the film is rightfully Brie Larson’s, and she is far and away dynamite as the woman who would be Captain Marvel. Her performance is being compared to Gal Gadot’s in Wonder Woman or to Chadwick Boseman’s in Black Panther, but I think she’s much closer to Chris Evans in Captain America: The Winter Soldier – coming into herself with ease and a grin, effortlessly comfortable with herself and her friends even as her world is changing seismically around her. She’s funny, she’s confident, and she’s able to sell the trust and intimacy that comes with the kind of deep friendship she forms with Fury and others. It’s the kind of performance that can carry a franchise quite readily, and I for one am ready for Captain Marvel 2 (Kree Boogaloo?).

Special shout-out section: Samuel L. Jackson is a blast as a young Nick Fury. We get to see shades of the hardline Director Fury, but his youth and inexperience lets some of the Sam Jackson charm trickle in, and we never tire of seeing him cozy up with Goose the cat. Ben Mendelsohn is buckets of fun as Talos, who’s got more personality than a lot of unmemorable Marvel villains; Mendelsohn’s play with accents and his dexterous hand at manipulating his Skrull prosthetics make me hope that if/when the Skrulls do return, Mendelsohn will pop back into the MCU. Finally, much has been made of the fact that Pinar Toprak is the MCU’s first female composer, and she turns in a pretty exciting score. The music has often been a sticking point for Marvel, who are usually criticized for bland forgettable scores, but I’ve loved most of them and hope to hear more from Toprak in the future. Like Larson, she fits right in.

The Winter Soldier remains the gold standard for me, but Captain Marvel continues very nicely the easy-winning streak of debut films like Doctor Strange and Black Panther. It’s a movie with plenty of surprises, for newcomers and true believers alike, and it clicks into place with the delicate precision of the best comic book “retcons,” asking us to look back at the past and wonder if it really happened the way we think it did. At one point in the credits, we’re promised “Captain Marvel will return” – though where precisely, I shan’t spoil – as if we had any doubt that Marvel’s latest gamble would have a long-running payoff. Marvel has been on a real winning streak, and for a character whose namesake is, in a way, the very studio that’s introducing her, Captain Marvel is another success.

Captain Marvel is rated PG-13 for “sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language.” Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Written by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Nicole Perlman, and Meg LeFauve. Based on the Marvel Comics by Stan Lee, Gene Colan, Roy Thomas, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and David López. Starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Lashana Lynch, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, and Jude Law.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Top 10 Batman Animated Episodes (As Written by Paul Dini)

If there’s one thing on which we can agree after two years and more than one hundred episodes (beyond the indomitable, indispensable powers of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill), it’s that Paul Dini was the show’s finest writer. As I said back in July, Dini is “arguably the show’s greatest writer, a man who fully understands Batman and his world, who can craft tales therein unlike nearly anyone else.” As master of his craft, Dini deserves his own Top 10, and with a new crop of episodes under our belt, it’s time to see how this shakes out.

Just like the preceding reprises, this list reproduces the July 2018 text where relevant, adding TNBA episodes where appropriate; removed from the immediacy of watching these episodes, commentary addenda will appear in blue. With that said, on with the show!

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Worst 10 Batman Animated Episodes

A reminder of the words of Anton Ego: “We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.” As good as Batman: The Animated Series and its follow-up The New Batman Adventures could be, they had a commensurate propensity to disappoint. I had initially struggled to come up with ten bad episodes, settling for eight bad ones with a forgettable flop and a two-thirds bad episode. Now, however, I’m proud to say I’ve gotten ten worst-of-the-worst.

Just like last week’s “Top 10” redux, this list reproduces the July 2018 text where relevant, adding TNBA episodes where appropriate; removed from the immediacy of watching these episodes, commentary addenda will appear in blue. With that said, on with the show!

Remember, nobody’s perfect.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Top 10 Batman Animated Episodes (Not Written by Paul Dini)

It seems hard to believe that it’s been more than two years since we began this journey through Batman: The Animated Series and its follow-up The New Batman Adventures. Back in July 2018, after eighty-five episodes of BtAS, I took time out to rest and re-view, sorting episodes together into “Best” and “Worst” lists, giving writer Paul Dini his own special list in recognition of his standalone achievements in the field of Gotham narrative.

Now, at the end of the road, it’s time to check in with those lists one more time to see how twenty-four episodes of TNBA changes the calculus of the rankings. In the interest of being definitive, this list reproduces the July 2018 text where relevant, adding TNBA episodes where appropriate; removed from the immediacy of watching these episodes, commentary addenda will appear in blue. With that said, on with the show!

Monday, February 11, 2019

Cold Pursuit (2019)

With variable returns beginning from Taken, the indisputably finest of the genre, Liam Neeson has become Hollywood’s go-to for grizzled revenge thrillers. While Cold Pursuit has been marketed as the next high-concept riff on an old classic – Liam Neeson kills people with a snowplow, the posters promise – the end result is something closer to Fargo than Taken, more dark comedy than dark night of the soul, though Neeson seems not to know it.

Neeson stars as Nels Coxman, snowplow driver and citizen of the year in Kehoe, Colorado. When his son turns up dead of a heroin overdose, Nels senses a darker truth and sets out for revenge on the drug dealers who killed his boy, working his way to the Viking (Tom Bateman) at the top of the distribution ladder.

In my journey toward avoiding trailers altogether (I’ve worked my way up to ignoring the “final trailers,” often riddled with spoilers), I admit I never saw a promo for Cold Pursuit and only knew of its existence because of early posters that showed Liam Neeson dragging a body past a snowplow. “I’m in,” I said confidently, but now that I’ve come out of the theater, I’m not exactly sure what I had gotten into in the first place. Cold Pursuit is an odd movie with a meticulously tuned sense of what is funny, what is conventional, and what constitutes finality. “What the hell was that movie?” I asked when the credits rolled, and I genuinely don’t know what to make of it. I enjoyed it, certainly, and got a fair dose of thrills from Neeson’s ability to turn mundane vengeance into Shakespearean violence. But at the same time I felt myself being recalibrated over the course of the movie, aghast at an early gag about morgue equipment but gradually realizing that the whole film finds humor in offbeat interruptions, as in a gag of magnifying returns where the names of the deceased appear as title cards. 

The film continues a surprising number of subplots, many of which overwhelm Neeson’s by the end of the film, and it’s in these side stories that the film stretches its dark comedic wings. When the film’s focus is on Nels Coxman and his drive for revenge, it’s a mostly straight action thriller; Liam finds a baddie, interrogates him with varying degrees of roughness, and executes him with brutal precision. Elsewhere in the film, though, mobsters struggle with fantasy football drafts, quarrel over who’s on body disposal duty, and take to the ski slopes because they were “born to fly.” One senses that Neeson was starring in one film – and perhaps the finest joke of all is that he is deadly serious in ways the rest of the film steadfastly refuses to be, that Neeson persisted in Taken form when the film called for Fargo

Cold Pursuit is director Hans Petter Moland’s American debut, remaking his Norwegian film, and perhaps the Scandinavian sensibility that gave us The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (famously marketed as the “feel-bad Christmas movie” for American audiences) is to blame for this mad experiment in tonal shifts. It’s certainly not conventional American fare and can catch a moviegoer off-guard if they, like yours truly, enter a theater unaware. And yet, as a moviegoer increasingly aware of his own idiosyncratic sensibilities, there is something undeniably appealing about a director throwing caution to the wind and making a film that only he could have made. One could imagine a version of this film from the Taken crowd that would have been exactly what I expected, for better or for worse. So in that sense, Cold Pursuit earns my respect for giving me something I didn’t expect but ended up liking all the same.

Cold Pursuit is rated R for “strong violence, drug material, and some language including sexual references.” Directed by Hans Petter Moland. Written by Frank Baldwin. Based on the film Kraftidioten by Hans Petter Moland. Starring Liam Neeson, Laura Dern, Tom Bateman, Emmy Rossum, William Forsythe, Domenick Lombardozzi, John Doman, and Tom Jackson.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Monday at the Movies - February 4, 2019

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, a two-parter, and long-time readers of the blog will know that I always think this sort of thing shouldn’t happen. For the record, this ought to be one movie, but if it’s going to be two, it’s probably best not to space them out too far; an hour’s intermission did the trick for me.

The Death of Superman (2018) – Famously killed off because the writers wanted to delay his wedding to Lois Lane, Superman perished in the comics in 1992, and The Death of Superman has persisted with surprising vigor for a story that goosed sales and was ultimately reversed within a year. DC’s animated stable trotted out this story in 2007 with mixed success, but this time the animators give scripting duties to noted comics scribe Peter J. Tomasi, who does a much better job adapting the comics slugfest into a narrative with real heart as Superman (Jerry O’Connell) wrestles with divulging his identity to Lois Lane (Rebecca Romijn), even as the beast called Doomsday begins to tear its way toward Metropolis for their fateful showdown. The film’s highlight is obviously the brawl promised by its title, and the action choreography is quite successful. The first half of the film is a little talky, though it hits all the right character beats and sows interesting seeds for the sequel. In a sense, The Death of Superman succeeds where The Killing Joke failed by devising an opening act that feeds into the emotional heart of the story rather than wasting time and defaming its characters. Here the emotional center is relocated onto Lois and Clark’s relationship, which gets added weight as the inevitable, eponymous death approaches. It’s hard to imagine this film working as well for someone who isn’t already a big fan of Superman, but Tomasi does a very good job at capturing the spirit and the scope of those early 1990s Superman comics, with a deep bench of supporting characters (remember Bibbo?) and a very of-its-moment approach to the Lois and Clark dynamic. But it’s sweet (with an adorable reference to the “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” from Superman) and touching, even if it feels a bit overlong at times.

Reign of the Supermen (2019) – As the second half of the story, Reign of the Supermen is a lot more frenetic, with a good deal more plotting and easily half a dozen characters to explore. Where Death kept the focus tight, feeling protracted when it wouldn’t expand, Reign feels overfull, with barely any downtime. I knew the film was off to breakneck speed when its earliest scenes swiftly bring together the four Supermen in a clash of wills and fists, something the comics eased into over the course of about six months of storytelling. Surprisingly, though, Reign adheres to the comics story with remarkable allegiance; granted, major changes are made (Mongul doesn’t appear, but you can probably guess which hulking alien dictator replaces him), but screenwriters Tim Sheridan and Jim Krieg follow the broad strokes with the devotion of someone who’s read the book a hundred times. They also draw in a wide net from comics continuity at large, bringing in the 2003 retcon that Superboy has a helping of Lex Luthor’s DNA holding his clone body together. In Superman’s absence, the voice cast steps up their game; Rainn Wilson acquits himself better here as Lex Luthor than he did in Death, where he sounded too much like Dwight Schrute. Among the four Supermen, Cameron Monaghan is the standout as the brash Superboy, but Cress Williams is a fine Steel, and Patrick Fabian channels all his Better Call Saul superiority as the Cyborg Superman. Reign also does well to draw on the internal continuity of these DC animated films, linking its storyline as far back as Justice League: War and setting up a few future developments in a tantalizing post-credits sequence (Death had four, but Reign makes its singular stinger count). As much as DC’s live-action films have buckled under the weight of studio interference, it’s refreshing to see a Justice League film that isn’t pulled in a dozen different directions; indeed, you’ll be surprised how large the League looms in Reign, but it’s all in service of a pretty strong Superman story.

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

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Superman: The Animated Series - "The Demon Reborn"

“Old age, Superman – it truly is a shipwreck. One that I have survived more times than I can remember.”

An art exhibit in Metropolis attracts an army of ninja attackers, who steal a peculiar staff fabled to have mystical healing powers. Batman arrives to help Superman apprehend the ninja, who are working for his old flame Talia (Olivia Hussey). Talia wants the staff to help her ailing father Ra’s al Ghul (David Warner), but Ra’s needs Superman for the final stages of his plan, which will make Batman’s foe more dangerous than ever.

“The Demon Reborn” is a peculiar episode because of its bifurcated identity. Where “Knight Time” did a very good job bringing Superman into Gotham, the attempt to bring Batman into Metropolis is somewhat more overpowering. The character Superman feels very out of place in an episode that wants so desperately to be another Batman episode, revisiting one of his greatest foes in a plot that doesn’t have much use for Superman other than as a demi-MacGuffin for the al Ghul clan to chase. Lois Lane, too, gets the short end of the stick, though she has a charming scene with Batman that builds on their unconventional relationship from “World’s Finest.” It’s a fun moment in which both characters reckon with their strange past and muse on their impossible future – a conversation that’s only possible in this incarnation of the DC Universe, where Lois fell in love with Bruce Wayne but fled from the Batman. (“She likes Bruce Wayne and she likes Superman. It’s the other two guys she’s not crazy about.” / “Too bad we can't mix and match.”)

As a capper to more than two years of reviews, then, “The Demon Reborn” makes the case one last time for Batman as a genre-proof dynamo, able to airdrop into any type of story without any seams. Superman seems out of sorts in a mystical story like this one, and he’s ill-matched for the threat Ra’s poses because all Superman can do is politely accommodate Ra’s and his villainous monologue until it’s time to break free. Superman is vulnerable to magic, yes, but that always seemed to me to be a way to justify putting two divergent cosmologies together. Morality plays, colossal threats, iconic battles of good vs. evil, interrogations of the notion of America – these better suit Superman than an immortal man with a magic stick. (And conversely, Ra’s al Ghul deserves better, I think, than trying to steal Superman’s strength for no particular reason.) In the moments when Batman is doing his detective work, the episode is firing on all cylinders; oddly enough, it’s the Superman parts that drag – though perhaps I’d feel differently if I had just watched the 50 preceding episodes of Superman: The Animated Series.

It’s hard to imagine that Batman: The Animated Series marked the first time that Ra’s al Ghul had been adapted from the comics, but he had a character-defining portrayal there, with David Warner as the irreplaceable voice in my head. We can think of “The Demon Reborn” as the capper to the fine Ra’s episodes – “The Demon’s Quest,” “Avatar,” and “Showdown.” Indeed, in the latter we saw (through a Jonah Hex flashback darkly) Ra’s al Ghul beginning to reflect on his long life and his many regrets, and we see that painful legacy here, with the ecoterrorist’s body failing him as the Lazarus Pits have begun to lose their luster. We also see, for the first time, Ra’s demonstrating some degree of compassion for his daughter; all too often, Talia was treated like a devoted disciple and not a true member of his family. She’s been abandoned, beaten, manipulated, and literally thrown at Batman, but at least here she gets a modicum of respect from her father, who abandons his assault on Superman to save her. (The icky, bizarre conclusion to their strange relationship would come in an episode of Batman Beyond, penned by no less than Paul Dini himself.)

“The Demon Reborn” is in a weird liminal space where it’s not quite a Superman episode, but not quite a Batman one, either. It’s a terrible note on which to end a review series because of the way it resolutely resists finality; when Superman suggests that he and Batman work together more often, Kevin Conroy is given the unsettlingly glib line, “Yeah, right.” Of course, they would work together on a regular basis in the Justice League animated series beginning in 2001, but moreover it’s odd to hear a surfer bro’s response from the mouth of a grim avenger. Conroy sells it, of course, but I wonder if he’d have done better with a terse “We’ll see.” It’s not quite my Batman, not quite my Superman, and not even quite my Ra’s al Ghul – but even so, it’s not quite terrible. It’s silly and fun, and perhaps that’s all we need to ask from a show like this one.

Original Air Date: September 18, 1999

Writer: Rich Fogel

Director: Dan Riba

Villains: Ra’s al Ghul (David Warner) and Talia al Ghul (Olivia Hussey)

Next episode: Once more, we come to the end of a series. Next time we’re together, we’ll begin revisiting the best and worst of the Batman animated project.

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

Monday, January 28, 2019

Monday at the Movies - January 28, 2019

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, two films wildly different in tone and yet unmistakably British in their sensibilities.

The Death of Stalin (2018) – Few people can make me laugh as hard as Armando Iannucci, he whose British series The Thick of It can’t be enjoyed on a single viewing because you’ll miss half the jokes while splitting your sides at its creative profanity and monumentally madcap antics. After Iannucci ravaged the mundanely moronic ("All roads lead to Munich") in the lead-up to the Iraq War in Thick of It’s spinoff film In the Loop, he turns his satirical eye to the Soviet Union in the wake of Josef Stalin’s death and finds the Communist Party in chaos, beginning with the puddle of urine in which the party leader’s corpse is found. The cast is as unpredictable as the punchlines – we now live, folks, in a world where Steve Buscemi plays Nikita Khrushchev (and yes, Virginia, there is a “bury you” joke). Meanwhile we’ve got Jeffrey Tambor as the melancholy Georgy Malenkov, ill-suited to the leadership role he inherits; noted Shakespearean Simon Russell Beale as the oily Lavrentiy Beria of the secret police; and Jason Isaacs as Georgy Zhukov, all too eager to lead his army into open revolt. It’s a cast of all-stars (including Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s children), but the biggest draw is the film’s pitch-black humor, depicting Stalin’s worst atrocities as something akin to a Karl Marx Brothers film. There are moments when one is not quite sure whether to laugh or recoil in horror, as when an executioner just gives up halfway down his line of victims, but Iannucci is quite successful at capturing the ambient paranoia that comes from not knowing who to trust in a totalitarian regime – and the absurdity when a brood of vipers is forced to try to trust one another.

Paddington 2 (2017) – With the benefit of hindsight, Paddington 2 might well be one of the best films of 2017. A film like this has no right to be as charming, intricately constructed, or genuinely emotional as Paddington 2 manages to be. Now that the well-mannered Paddington (Ben Whishaw) has taken up residence in London, he goes in search of a birthday present for his Aunt Lucy, only to find the perfect pop-up book out of his price range. After a series of odd jobs, Paddington is framed for the theft of the book, landing unceremoniously in a Victorian-era prison where he befriends the entire population – including prison cook Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) – through the powers of civility and marmalade. Paddington 2 is even better than its predecessor, somehow more earnest now that it’s dispensed with the need to explain how and why an affable bear is living with ordinary people. Instead the filmscape is opened up to boundless adventures where Paddington’s relentless cheeriness persists, undaunted by his circumstances. Whether he’s shoved into the role of accidental barber or whether he finds himself teaching a prison how to make orange jam, Paddington is so endearing that it’s almost a personal offense when something unfortunate befalls him; “how dare they,” I said aloud at one point, “how dare the filmmakers do this to such a nice bear!” For all the antics and charm that the film possesses – really, I cannot overstate just how charming this movie is – it has an astonishing emotional depth rooted in Paddington’s love for his Aunt Lucy, and the film’s final moments are guaranteed to get you teary-eyed in a way that I thought only Pixar had been able to capture with computer-generated characters.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” Stay tuned for Wednesday’s final Batman animated review!