Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "The Forgotten"

“The police have their hands full. And homeless people disappearing is not big news.”

When the law fails a community of vagrants and disadvantaged who are disappearing from the darker corners of Gotham, it falls to Batman to investigate. His undercover work (which I can’t believe doesn’t involve him using the identity of Matches Malone this time) leads him into a trap, and an amnesiac Bruce Wayne awakens in a slave labor camp with no memory of who he is or how to get out.

Like a lot of these early episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, before the creators really find their feet, there’s some good stuff and some really dull stuff in “The Forgotten” (an apt title if ever there were one – I can’t say I’d ever remember to watch this if it weren’t on the same disc as “P.O.V.”). What’s really uninspiring is the villain, a slobbering caricature of a man whose motives are either unclear or really mundane; is this whole scheme really just about mining valuable ore? And how far out from Gotham are they? If it’s as far as it seems, why come all the way to Gotham to kidnap your labor force?

While the idea of an amnesiac Batman regaining his memory sounds like a really compelling storyline, the execution isn’t as on-point as we’ll see in episodes like “Perchance to Dream” further down the pike. This might be a spoiler to say so, but the fact that his real identity only comes to him in a series of dreams is decidedly uncinematic, and even then the dreams aren’t particularly subtle. (We do, however, get to hear Kevin Conroy’s version of a Joker laugh, which is good fun.)

That idea, though, is a really intriguing one, and it follows up on what’s been a nascent thread throughout these early episodes – in this interpretation, Bruce Wayne is the false identity, and Batman is the genuine article. There is a moment at the end where we see that Bruce Wayne uses his corporate alter ego as a tool for good, providing jobs to the disenfranchised, and this is usually the tack that Batman scribes have taken, that Wayne Enterprises exists to do the kind of legitimate good that Batman performs outside of his extra-legal activities. For the most part, though, BtAS has approached Batman as the core identity. Recall in “On Leather Wings,” his performance of the Bruce voice while in costume. Remember Bruce Wayne’s disengagement with the orphan Frog in “The Underdwellers.”

And speaking of “The Underdwellers” (which no one really ever does), it’s again Alfred who steals the show in a series of bizarre interludes which find the butler in pursuit of his employer while commandeering a remarkably sassy Bat-plane in the process. It’s shamelessly slapstick in an episode which doesn’t quite know what tone it wants to set for its primary antagonist, but it’s a real bright spot nonetheless sold by the surprising juxtaposition of a clownish Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., with the dry deadpan of Richard Moll’s turn as the Bat-Computer. Ordinarily we’d expect Alfred to be the voice of droll one-liners, so the inversion ends up being the best part of “The Forgotten.”

There’s a lot about this episode that feels very one-off, since we never see Boss Biggis, his slaves, or indeed the problem of homelessness in Gotham City again. Perhaps “The Forgotten” is best left precisely as its title intends.

Original Air Date: October 8, 1992

Writer: Jules Dennis, Richard Mueller, and Sean Catherine Derek

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villain: Boss Biggis (George Murdock)

Next episode: “Be A Clown,” in which The Joker disguises himself as a clown.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "P.O.V."

“The department works months to nail that drug lord. We lay out two million in cash for the sting. And in five stinking minutes, you idiots blow it!”

After a police sting goes awry, an Internal Affairs investigator has detectives Harvey Bullock (Robert Costanzo) and Renee Montoya (Ingrid Oliu) in the hot seat with a new rookie, and all of them have different takes on what went wrong – Montoya accuses Bullock of rushing, but Bullock says Batman’s to blame. What really happened that night, and is there any chance of salvaging the bust?

This episode is very clearly Gotham City by way of Rashômon, and I’ve got to say it works pretty well. It’s understandably a little watered down from the Kurosawa film – I mean, hey, the target audience was kids like me back in the day – and while I would have appreciated an episode that leaves a little more nuance when it comes to where the truth really lies, I have to say that “P.O.V.” takes a very interesting tack to the very idea of what an episode of Batman: The Animated Series can be and is allowed to be.

For starters, Batman is barely in this episode. That’s the kind of bold move I applaud from the occasional Batman story – a look at his supporting cast of characters and how they interact with a world in which their most prominent citizen dresses like a nocturnal flying mammal. In “P.O.V.,” you can see seeds of Gotham Central, the must-read comics series by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka, which treats Gotham City like NYPD Blue. It’s the kind of genius “why didn’t I think of that?” idea with which the Batman mythos seems rife, and “P.O.V.” is a wonderful example of how creative and how fun these unexpected ideas can be.

What’s particularly interesting, as previous episodes have hinted, is that the Gotham City Police are somewhat divided on the question of Batman. Gordon’s in his corner for sure, and Montoya seems assured of his benevolence, but Bullock isn’t a fan and seems to resent the Bat; meanwhile, rookie Wilkes is convinced that Batman’s a supernatural force of vengeance, which plays out to great comedic effect. It’s the episode’s best visual gag, a wonderful way of juxtaposing truth with misinterpretation, something Rashômon does in a different direction but no less engagingly.

If the villain is undercooked, it almost doesn’t matter. We have Ron Perlman in what amounts to a cameo as a henchman with a power tool fetish, but it’s far from his leading role to come as Clayface. There are moments when I thought it’d be interesting to see this as a Penguin episode or a Rupert Thorne plot, but I think those villains have such titanic presences that it would take away from the bigger questions about how a legitimate police force reacts to the presence of a vigilante in their midst – one on their side, to be sure, but one whose very presence destabilizes our notion of an objective legal center. “P.O.V.” ultimately asks whether we can trust or rely on a traditional police force when we have a Batman in our belfry.

The answer is unsurprisingly affirmative, even in the case of Bullock, ever the old softie when it comes to his partner and his costumed counterpart. “P.O.V.” goes a long way toward humanizing Bullock away from the bullying donut addict we’ve seen thus far, and it’s on the shoulders of episodes like this one that Bullock’s comics persona got rehabilitated, to say nothing of this show introducing Renee Montoya concurrently with her debut in comics. “P.O.V.” gives life to the GCPD beyond Commissioner Gordon, and the show is a richer experience for it.

Original Air Date: September 18, 1992

Writer: Mitch Brian, Sean Catherine Derek, & Laren Bright

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villain: Driller (Ron Perlman) and The Boss

Next episode: “The Forgotten,” in which Batman’s version of Cool Hand Luke is anything but.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

I was pleasantly surprised – I think we all were – by The Lego Movie, which ended up being more heartfelt and entertaining than it had any right to be. Its ostensible spin-off, The Lego Batman Movie, is quite fun, albeit in another direction; rather than critique what in 2014 I called “Hollywood’s remake-happy philosophy,” The Lego Batman Movie lasers its vision on Batman for a loving farce of all that the character can be, has been, and ought to be.

Will Arnett returns to voice The Dark Knight, darker than ever with a new theme song and a smashing set of gadgets, vehicles, and outfits. He’s a Batman that has it all, except for a family, and at the insistence of his trusty butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes, delightfully droll), Batman takes under his wing the young orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera). While Batman learns to work with new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) plots his latest scheme, smarting from Batman’s declaration that Joker is not his greatest enemy.

With The Lego Movie, there was a sense that anything was possible and everything was awesome. For The Lego Batman Movie, everything is still awesome (though that earworm won’t wend its way to your brain in the movie proper), though there’s less a sense that anything can happen and more a focused attempt to bring every aspect of Batman to bear on this adaptation. I’d venture to say every corner of the Bat-mythos is spotlighted here, from the 1940s serials to Batman v Superman, from Crazy Quilt to The Mutant Leader.

For this reason, I’d hazard a guess that I loved this movie more than more filmgoers because it engages with my favorite aspect of my favorite fictional character – this idea that Batman is a conceptually rich figure with a myriad of possibilities built into his very nature. It’s difficult to imagine Captain America in space, or Superman in a mafia noir, or Iron Man in a detective story, or Green Lantern in World War II. Yet Batman works in all these settings, and so I reveled in the idea that The Lego Batman Movie embraces everything that’s ever been done with the character as equally valid (even if, as Alfred says, 1966 was “that weird one”).

There’s something of a farce at play, but it’s one done in earnest and without a trace of malice. Batman is the same grim-n-gritty caricature from The Lego Movie, snarling and petulant, but it’s giddy fun to watch him serenely chow down on lobster thermidor in his Bat-dinghy. Batman’s aversion to teamwork gets turned up to eleven here, providing the framework for a fairly boilerplate “learn to get along” plot that works largely because it’s dressed up in a cape and Bat-ears. In spite of gently spoofing the Bat, there’s something very accurate about the film’s portrayal; Joker’s obsession with Batman rings quite true with the comics, which have leaned toward interpreting his hate as repressed love, while Batman’s “master builder” status (inherited from The Lego Movie) feels of a piece with his apparent canonical ability to create any gadget.

If I have a critique about the film, it’s that its marketing was a little misleading in the sense that the trailers and posters promised a coterie of Bat-villains running the gamut from The Riddler to Egghead. Yes, these characters all do appear, as does the entirety of the Justice League, but I can’t help feeling that they’re somewhat underused, particularly considering the all-star voice cast behind them (Channing Tatum returns as Superman, while Conan O’Brien debuts as Riddler). Only The Joker gets any considerable amount of screen-time – appropriate, naturally – though the reduction of the other villains to near-cameo status feels a bit like someone wafting cake beneath your nose, only to deliver pie. (Fortunately, though, it’s not Joker’s preferred “cyanide pie in the face.”)

The Lego Batman Movie is delirious in its satire and throws everything into the mix for a playful romp through the Bat-mythos. I’ve seen a lot of critics take Lego Batman as an opportunity to turn up their nose at Batman v Superman, as if two competing interpretations of Batman can’t coexist. Rather, I think Lego Batman makes quite the opposite argument – that Batman can wear any suit he likes (with apologies to Henry Ford, even if it’s not black; even if it has rabbit ears, Bat-nipples, or a tutu). Batman goes through cultural evolutions all the time – about every four years, by Alfred’s math – and so Lego Batman ought to be something that cultivates our appreciation for the character’s infinite possibilities, not something that we use to tear down the past. Heck, it’s a Lego movie. Let’s build something.

The Lego Batman Movie is rated PG for “rude humor and some action.” Directed by Chris McKay. Written by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, and John Wittington. Starring Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, and Ralph Fiennes.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "The Underdwellers"

“It is I who care for you, I who provide for you, and it is only I who knows what’s good for you!”

Gotham falls under a plague of robbery-by-leprechaun, leading Batman into the sewers where he apprehends the silent Frog, a young boy who’s been living underground. While Alfred engages in a slapstick routine in housebreaking the child (who, shockingly, is not once considered as a protégé Robin), Batman uncovers the lair of the Sewer King and his imprisoned progeny.

I’ve never liked this episode. As a child, I had a fickle palate and preferred the episodes with big-name villains, and the Sewer King always struck me as a little lame when compared to surface-scorners like the Penguin or Killer Croc. In fact, I almost never watch this episode unless I’m doing a thorough rewatch, such as for occasions like this one. The truth of the matter is that this isn’t an objectively bad episode, though there is little of Batman: The Animated Series in it (put another way, nothing in this episode makes it an intrinsically Batman story, not even any detective work).

“The Underdwellers” is, however, unsettling on a very basic narrative level. For one, the episode revolves around a gang of children dwelling in the sewers in captivity at the hands of a deluded Fagin whose cruelty seems utterly purposeless. We don’t know under what circumstances the children came into the hands of the Sewer King – runaways, kidnappings, or something else altogether – nor do we know who the Sewer King is, what he wants, or what he does with the riches his pupils pilfer. We’re left either to imagine the worst or to wonder just what this is all about, anyway.

There’s probably a very good story to be told in here somewhere, maybe playing up the idea that the sewer people are society’s rejects (akin, perhaps, to Bruce Wayne’s own sense of alienation). One could also imagine a version of the Sewer King who’s more menacing than just a shouting dandy with an eyepatch. But what we get is rather feeble and thin, remarkable on a technical level for how little dialogue there is in the episode but narratively unspectacular.

The disappointing execution of the Sewer King is compounded by the physical comedy in which Alfred tries to teach Frog manners and personal hygiene. If we’re meant to take the Sewer King seriously, these scenes contrast starkly with the tone of the episode, but if there isn’t a conflict in tone then we’re meant to see the Sewer King as a paltry threat. Either way, it’s not a win for “The Underdwellers.”

This episode isn’t altogether irredeemable, though, for it includes a wonderful motif of Batman’s concern for the children, in which we see him angrier, darker, and more violent than we’ve heretofore witnessed in the series. Again, were this the primary focus of the episode it’d probably be a top-notch episode. Instead, it’s a motif reduced to highlights on Kevin Conroy’s demo reel as he growls his way through lines like, “I don’t pass sentence. That’s for the courts, but this time – this time... I am sorely tempted to do the job myself.” Alas, we can’t hang a whole episode on a snarling Batman who wrestles alligators.

As awesome as that sounds.

Original Air Date: October 21, 1992

Writer: Tom Ruegger, Jules Dennis, & Richard Mueller

Director: Frank Paur

Villain: The Sewer King (Michael Pataki)

Next episode: “P.O.V.,” in which Batman meets Akira Kurosawa.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Eleven to Watch for 2017

Last week, I waxed nostalgic on my Top 10 films of 2016, surprising more than a few, I wouldn’t wonder, when my #1 was La La Land and not Batman v Superman.

Today, it’s eleven films I’m looking forward to in 2017 (because I just couldn’t narrow it down to ten). Now I’ll say at the outset that this list is pretty franchise-heavy, though I should think that’s because studios nail down these big-budget dates first and open their smaller films later. For reference, I don’t think we knew about Fences and La La Land back in February 2016. It’ll be interesting to see which of these films make it to my end-of-year list in eleven months!

The Lego Batman Movie – Feb. 10
We start with something pretty imminent – next week, in fact. I had remarked that The Lego Movie was “delightfully self-aware” and better that it had any right to be, and so I’m excited to see that film’s ethos carried over into a full feature film about my all-time favorite fictional character. Will Arnett returns, joined by Michael Cera as Robin, Zach Galifianakis as The Joker, Ralph Fiennes as Alfred, and Rosario Dawson as Batgirl, but we have a whole bevy of characters on display, from the Justice League to the Condiment King. Early reviews are coming in positive, which augurs well for this fan.

Logan – March 3
Director James Mangold and star Hugh Jackman managed to wipe away the bad taste of X-Men Origins: Wolverine from Joe Popcorn’s mouth with the fine pseudo-sequel The Wolverine in 2013, and it looks to be another first-rate solo film with Logan, which borrows loosely from the “Old Man Logan” comics to show our favorite X-Man on the run in the barren wastes of Texas. Taking Logan into the neo-western looks luscious and fun, and the inclusion of both Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and X-23 (newcomer Dafne Keen) roots Logan in the X-Men film universe.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 – May 5
Everyone’s favorite a-holes are back! James Gunn has carved out a weird kind of auteur status within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, apparently bucking the studio influence in favor of keeping his Guardians divorced from the major franchise proceedings. And although we’ve already gotten confirmation that most of the Guardians and their friends are showing up for Infinity War (May 4, 2018), there’s enough in Vol. 2 to guarantee my attendance – chief among them, Baby Groot and Kurt Russell as Ego the Living Planet. Finally, it’s more than a little liberating to know that the trailers haven’t given us a sense of the film’s plot!

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – May 26
Jack is back, baby, and I don’t mean Jack Bauer (though 24 returned after last night’s Super Bowl, I wasn’t watching). Johnny Depp sails again as Captain Jack Sparrow, and although the franchise is not without its detractors, I love Pirates of the Caribbean. New directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg bring Javier Bardem to the high seas as the ghostly Captain Salazar, who’s pursuing Sparrow for reasons unknown. As much as I’m looking forward to more pirates, I’m eager to hear what Geoff Zanelli brings to the score; alas, Hans Zimmer is not returning (though if we’re being fair, he did phone it in a bit for On Stranger Tides).

Wonder Woman – June 2
FINALLY. It’s patently absurd that we are getting two movies about a raccoon and a talking tree (see above) before Wonder Woman gets a solo feature, but thank heavens we don’t have to go another year without our favorite Amazon throwing down in her own film. Gal Gadot was one of the brightest spots of Batman v Superman, and her enthusiasm for the role looks to be transferring to the audience, as well. Director Patty Jenkins has a titanic endeavor ahead of her, helming the first female-led superhero film, but Wonder Woman looks to be a home run.

Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7
Tom Holland was one of many, many bright spots in Captain America: Civil War, and you don’t need your own spidey-sense to get excited about seeing him usher the wall-crawling webhead into his own film. Michael Keaton continues his avian-themed career resurgence, going from Birdman to The Vulture, which he looks to be reinventing as a blue-collar criminal rising to the occasion of supervillain. Best of all? The film starts in the midst of Spider-Man’s career, meaning we won’t need to see Uncle Ben killed one more time.

Dunkirk – July 21
It’s a toss-up whether my favorite director of all time is Martin Scorsese or Christopher Nolan, but either way it’s a good day at the movies where these guys are concerned. Scorsese had a meditative win with Silence, and Nolan is moving from high sci-fi to historical drama with this World War II true story and an all-star cast, many of whom are Nolan staples: Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Mark Rylance. That’s Hans Zimmer music in the trailers, too. Seeing Nolan’s particularly fantastic vision applied to that which is not fantastical, that which is undeniably real, will surely be worth the price of admission.

Thor: Ragnarok – November 3
The Incredible Hulk aside, Thor has been something of an also-ran in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not as critically beloved as Iron Man or Captain America but also not as lushly crafted as those two’s standalone films. Director Taika Waititi is responding by sending Thor into space, teaming him up with The Hulk, and stirring in Cate Blanchett as Hel, Jeff Goldblum as The Grandmaster, and Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie. This is also likely our best shot at a lead-in to Infinity War (May 4, 2018), to boot.

Justice League – November 17
Some of you might have stayed home from Suicide Squad in protest over Batman v Superman, but you’ll be back for Justice League. (“Just a hunch...”) For my money, Zack Snyder’s done exemplary work with the DC film universe; even if it’s not for everyone, as popular opinion has shown, it’s just right for me – he takes this stuff as seriously as I do, and he’s not afraid to engage in big ideas about faith, human nature, gods, and myth. Heck, let him direct The Batman while we’re at it. The inclusion of Ciaran Hinds as antagonist Steppenwolf also bodes well for the inevitable inclusion of Darkseid as the next big villain.

Murder on the Orient Express – November 24
This one might seem like the odd man out on this list – indeed, it’s probably the only movie on the list where nothing will blow up – but a new version of the Agatha Christie classic is cause for excitement. It’s a great mystery, one I guarantee will keep you guessing up until Hercule Poirot’s “two solutions” monologue, and the Albert Finney version was fascinating, but I’m curious to see what a few new faces do with the material. Kenneth Branagh stars and directs (in typically self-aggrandizing fashion, I am sure), but there’s a star-studded cast snowed in aboard the train, including but not limited to: Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley. And speaking of Daisy Ridley...

Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi – December 15
Nuff said? The recent announcement of the film’s title sparked a slew of speculation about its significance (though the title crawl for The Force Awakens identifies Luke Skywalker as “the last Jedi”), adding fuel to the fire that sparked when we left Luke and Rey on that cliff. I for one can’t wait to rejoin that galaxy far, far away; Rogue One was a sufficient appetizer, but even at one film a year I’m chomping at the bit for more Star Wars.

Five Honorable Mentions:
·      Kong: Skull Island – March 10
·      Beauty and the Beast – March 17
·      Kingsman: The Golden Circle – June 16
·      War for the Planet of the Apes – July 14
·      Blade Runner 2049 – October 6

What’s on your list? What is guaranteed to get you to the cineplex in 2017? Sound off in the comments below!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Pretty Poison"

“Bruce runs around with a high class crowd, but he still manages to get his kicks.”

After rounding up the usual suspects one evening, Bruce Wayne meets district attorney Harvey Dent for dinner and finds that his friend is newly engaged to botanist Pamela Isley. Shortly thereafter, Harvey collapses, poisoned, and the police are stymied for leads. In a brilliant piece of observational deduction, Batman realizes that Harvey Dent is the target of one Poison Ivy, Gotham’s latest green-thumbed ne’er-do-well (voiced to sultry perfection by Diane Pershing).

With this episode, we say hello to Paul Dini, who has his first writing credit so far. When I go back at the end of these reviews and rank my Top Ten episodes, you can reliably expect to see Dini’s name on a fair percentage of the list. (I’ll conservatively estimate four of the ten being Dini-penned.) Dini has a flair for writing iconic and definitive one-and-done episodes that distill the Bat-mythos to a core tenet and present it with an unironic and infectious enthusiasm. And after a bit of a mixed bag in Batman: The Animated Series, “Pretty Poison” is just what the doctor ordered.

You might know Poison Ivy from 1997’s Batman & Robin, which I’ll venture to say wouldn’t exist as we know it without this episode and “Heart of Ice” stripping its villains of the taint of camp and reintroducing them after a languishing period in the comics. Unlike Mr. Freeze, though, a flamboyant caricature of himself in the hands of Arnold Schwarzenegger, this Poison Ivy is somewhat of a piece with Uma Thurman’s seductress, albeit rather less risqué in animated form (though the Freudian implications of the Venus flytrap are nigh inescapable). For the show’s first supervillainess, she’s a sign of good things to come from the show that literally invented one of today’s most popular ladies. (Hint: You’ll meet her in episode 22, “Joker’s Favor.”) Poison Ivy has a clear motivation, a deadly serious way of getting what she wants, and a tongue-in-cheek awareness of the inherent absurdity in valuing plants over human life.

Surprisingly, for an episode that has to introduce Poison Ivy and remind us that Harvey Dent is still a clean-faced agent of good, “Pretty Poison” has without a doubt the best Batman moments since “On Leather Wings.” We get a brilliant montage of Batman taking down some common thugs while Harvey Dent gives wry commentary about his playboy friend Bruce Wayne; if humor is the collision of the expected with the unanticipated, this is its finest form, joining Batman’s fierce dedication to Bruce’s aimlessness. Then there’s the moment of detection, one slight observation that propels the investigation forward to a fun and thrilling third act (although it’ll be interesting to see – how many Paul Dini episodes end with [spoilers] a scene of the villain in their cell? I can think of at least two now).

I’ve been of two minds about some of the bizarre and unsatisfying episodes in this early part of Batman: The Animated Series, wondering I’m too old now to love the show as I have all along. But with “Pretty Poison” I get a glimpse of the show I remember so fondly, see just what the series is capable of doing. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, the episode cautions, but heaven hath no joy like a Bat-fan getting the episodes he deserves.

Original Air Date: September 14, 1992

Writer: Paul Dini, Michael Reaves, & Tom Ruegger

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villain: Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing)

Next episode: “The Underdwellers,” a strong contender for the bottom ten episodes of all time.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Top 10 of 2016

I can delay no longer – the time has come for my “Top 10 of 2016.” Now, as a film reviewer of a decidedly non-professional nature, I’m limited in what I see in a given year by time, budget, and preference (yes, there’s a certain amount of pre-screening each year that saves me from having to see films like A Dog’s Purpose), and so I make no pretensions about this being a “Greatest Films” list. I’ve missed more than a few films that are on other critics’ lists. Instead, it’s more of a “Favorites,” the ten films in 2016 I liked the most, the films I’d recommend above all.

We present, then The Cinema King’s “Top 10 of 2016,” with quotations from the original review, as well as a few words about the film in perspective.

Honorary Mention: The Founder
 “Keaton is wolfish as Kroc, with that lean and hungry look with which Shakespeare fixed ‘yon Cassius’ in Julius Caesar; his impish winks and raised eyebrows speak volumes in unflinching close-ups that revel in the character lines on his face.

I’m not wholly convinced this was a 2016 release, but it’s still a magnificent picture with a dynamic central performance by one of the underrated greats. A week later, and I’m still craving a cheeseburger.

10. Fences
 “It comes as no surprise that Denzel Washington is the very picture of commanding; he’s one of a select few actors who can swing the pendulum from exuberantly gregarious to crushingly emotional without feeling anything but natural, and Troy Maxson is a perfect vehicle for Denzel to show us what he can do.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a devout disciple of Denzel Washington, and Fences is an apex presentation by a master craftsman giving a performance that, for my money, ought to earn him his second Best Actor trophy.

9. Silence
 “At 74 years old, Scorsese has a clear and unapologetic reverence for the source material and the thematic content of Silence, and as Rodrigues undergoes his trials, we can sense something of Scorsese’s own wrestling with his faith amid the apparent silence of God.

Scorsese is usually guaranteed a spot on the Top 10 of any given year, but one senses Silence is the film he’s been working toward for much of his career. It’s a sobered and somber take on religion, faith, and persecution, but it uses its “endurance test” quality to help audiences understand the trials of its central protagonist.

7 (tie). Hail, Caesar! -&- The Nice Guys
 “I’m personally delighted to see more of the madcap mania the Coens have turned into a personal brand because it’s not something I get anywhere else at the cinema. No one does horseplay like Joel and Ethan Coen. “The Nice Guys goes for the comedic jugular and left me wheezing with laughter throughout much of the picture.

I just couldn’t choose between these two blasts of hilarity, certainly the funniest films of the year and likely the funniest in recent memory. They’re somewhat of a piece – one a Hollywood farce, and the other a satire of 1970s Los Angeles – and a guaranteed good time for all.

6. Hell or High Water
 “It’s truly riveting stuff, a two-hour trip that flies by despite its fairly small scope and tight narrative focus. The key is the well-crafted screenplay, as precise as the bank heists and wisely funny in a way that the trailers didn’t let on.

The neo-western is fast becoming a new favorite film genre for me, with Hell or High Water as a worthy successor to the mantle of No Country for Old Men. Equal parts contemplative and comedic, here’s a film that feels like a throwback but which still has so many pressing things to say.

5. Arrival
 There are moments in Arrival that feel a bit as though Stanley Kubrick is directing an adaptation of Wuthering Heights in which Heathcliff is an immense being at which we can only marvel, slack-jawed, while we attempt to comprehend.

Amy Adams was viciously robbed of a Best Actress nomination in this thoughtful science fiction film that takes the impossibilities of the genre as a way to represent that which is unthinkable – to change our paradigm of thinking by changing the ways we think. Less puzzle box and more slow unveiling, Arrival is that rare science fiction that treats its audience with respect.

4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
 “Maybe I’m a little more forgiving just because these are ‘my’ genres, movies that feel made for me. But Rogue One is, I think, a great Star Wars movie that does everything a Star Wars movie ought to do.

We’re getting into the “genre shill” portion of the Top 10, but there’s no way I wasn’t going to include a new Star Wars film on the list, especially when it’s as fresh and diverting as Rogue One. Padded out by a ground-level take on Star Wars with more than a few rousing action sequences, Rogue One has what might be the best finale of the year, with an unforgettable five-minute closing act that’s equal parts terror and hope.

3. Captain America: Civil War
 “Civil War manages to be both sweepingly epic and deeply personal, with far-reaching consequences stemming out of what is essentially a clash of personalities, a philosophical difference of opinion about the nature of individual power.

One day I’ll get around to updating my ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Civil War is easily top three at this point. While not quite as self-contained or effortlessly perfect as The Winter Soldier, Civil War is the big-screen equivalent of a superhero crossover comic, replete with all the big-budget action of a Marvel movie, the reliable filmmaking on display, and the subtle treatment of nuanced moral questions. On top of it all, Civil War is a rousing good time.

2. Batman v Superman – Dawn of Justice [Ultimate Edition]
 “Batman v Superman takes the claim that superheroes are modern mythology to its logical extension – this is comics mythology writ large, in which men and women stand shoulder to shoulder with gods, do battle, and discover something about both god and man.

On principle (and for one other reason), I couldn’t give BvS the number one spot on the list because it’s actually the non-theatrical release that emerges as the stronger film. But it’s certainly the film I’ve thought about the most in 2016, the film to which I keep coming back. BvS takes itself as seriously as I take this stuff, and it rewards multiple viewing in a cerebral way lost on most other blockbusters.

1. La La Land
 “La La Land embraces the aesthetic of the musicals of the 1950s (though in color, there are also affinities with the Fred-and-Gingers of the 1930s), lamenting the way that reality all so often fails to live up to the romanticized spectacle of a big Hollywood musical. Reality can be sweet, La La Land posits, but it’s got nothing on the polish and image surfaces made on a movie studio backlot.

Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are that my #1 film of the year isn’t the one with Batman in it. La La Land represented something of an emotional sucker punch, one that still hits me if I think about it too hard or listen to the soundtrack in the right mood. It’s a film that does everything I want a film to do, in a formally integrated way, with a confidence and grace that too many other films lack. I’m proud to take this moment to announce that it’s my 66th Personal Canon film, and like the 66th book of the Bible, La La Land is a real revelation.

How about it, folks? How does my Top 10 stack up to yours? What’s missing? Sound off in the comments below.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "The Last Laugh"

“I believe I've contracted a giant case of the giggles!”

It’s April Fool’s Day in Gotham City, and The Joker has a real doozy for Batman – he’s gassed the city and plans to loot whatever’s left. It’s up to Batman, his Batboat, and his bat-gas-mask to save the day before faithful butler Alfred (in Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s first appearance in the role that headlines his Wikipedia page) permanently succumbs to Joker’s laugh-inducing airborne poison.

With “The Last Laugh,” Joker is two for four in appearances thus far. Although Batman: The Animated Series will dig pretty deep into the rogues gallery, creating new foes and rehabilitating the public image of others like Mr. Freeze, The Joker is always the specter that looms over the whole series, even turning up in episodes that aren’t devoted to him. And while those of us who’ve seen the whole show know why, it’s a surprisingly bumpy set of false starts along the way – ultimately entertaining nevertheless, but far from the heights the show is about to hit.

Where “Christmas With the Joker” mismatched a thuggish Joker voice with a quintessentially Joker plotless plot, “The Last Laugh” sees Mark Hamill slip into his more polished Joker voice, but in a scheme that seems far too conventional for the Clown Prince of Crime: he gasses the entire city with his laughing toxin, only to rob stock exchanges, pick pockets, and loot storefronts. No, really, that’s the extent of it.

Then the episode does its level best to convince us it’s trash by setting most of the episode on a garbage ferry and then in a waste management facility. Except... well, it’s not that bad. Believe me, I’m passing up too many good puns about garbage to lie to you, folks. After a rocky first act (Batman: The Animated Series is structured tightly around three acts, separated by commercial breaks), “The Last Laugh” ducks back into the playfully bizarre, with a noirish bass soundtrack marrying an accordion for a score that’ll just make you scratch your head.

Ditto for Captain Clown, Joker’s surreal cybernetic crony. Why is one of Joker’s goons a robot? How did he come to possess Captain Clown? These aren’t questions about which the episode is terribly concerned. But I’ve found that the best answer to most questions about The Joker is, “Why not?” As a comics purist, that’s why the simplicity of the scheme bothers me – Joker’s always been much more complicated than the bottom line.

Then again, this is the second episode in a row where the villain has used toxic gas to accomplish his nefarious ends. But where “Nothing to Fear” asked us what scared Batman, “The Last Laugh” asks us what makes him laugh. It’s the funniest episode to date, and we get a rare look at Batman’s sense of humor and his undeniable delight in his tousles with The Joker, who ends up coming off quite well, despite the episode never quite knowing whether he’s a quintessential gangster or a jester to the end. (Psychologically richer episodes, mostly penned by Paul Dini, are coming down the pike.)

Little by little, the show is starting to find its voice. It’s not as fulfilling as “On Leather Wings,” which is the best of the four thus far, but there’s enough in this episode to save it from a “bottom ten” list. And as for who gets the last laugh? The answer may surprise you!

Original Air Date: September 22, 1992

Writer: Carl Swenson

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villain: The Joker (Mark Hamill)

Next episode: “Pretty Poison,” in which the ladies get a chance to be the naughty ones.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Founder (2016)

There’s a moment in The Founder when Michael Keaton preemptively apologizes for blasphemy before comparing McDonald’s to American institutions of church and state – crosses, flags, and golden arches. It’s a peculiar but apt metaphor, playing it far less safe than lumping burgers in with baseball and apple pie, but The Founder isn’t a biopic that plays it safe. It’s brisk and taut, slick as its salesman protagonist, but it’s also sobered and smartly self-aware. If nothing else, Keaton gives a must-see performance.

Michael Keaton stars as Ray Kroc, the ostensible (read: self-proclaimed) founder of McDonald’s, whose golden-arched fast food peppers the global landscape to this day. (Indeed, Thomas L. Friedman once noted the synchronicity between the end of global conflict and the prevalence of McDonald’s across nations.) The film is resolute in its depiction of Kroc as an opportunist driven by the brass ring he sees in the form of a franchised version of the burger stand built by Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman & John Carroll Lynch).

Maybe it’s the score by Carter Burwell, a frequent Coen Brothers collaborator, but this really felt like a Coen version of There Will Be Blood, a capitalist morality play set amid the playfully absurd backdrop of a burger joint. But unlike There Will Be Blood (which took itself deadly seriously, despite staging its climactic murder in a basement bowling alley) or a Coen product (which is always already silly), The Founder conducts itself with a knowing wink, aware of the moral/economic paradox it presents. McDonald’s feeds 1% of the world’s population each day, closing text declares, but Ray Kroc had to circumvent, then buy out, two innocuous restaurateurs to do it.

Yet, thankfully, The Founder does not stoop to preach against the big bad capitalist who bilked two well-intentioned yokels. There’s no scene where Kroc wrings his hands and soul before the camera and wails plaintively at what his schemes have cost him. Instead, Kroc is presented as hungry, driven, and shrewd, willing to breach contract for the sake of his vision – but, as the film notes, only when the other party of the contract lacks vision and willfully obstructs progress.

Kroc is presented, then, as a man who is entirely honest – perhaps not wholly in matters of business but always honest to and about himself. Keaton gives a master class in antiheroism; his Kroc is perpetually transparent about his motivations, his desires, and his intentions, and the film frequently poses the question of who’s at fault when one allows a wolf into a henhouse. Keaton is wolfish as Kroc, with that lean and hungry look with which Shakespeare fixed “yon Cassius” in Julius Caesar; his impish winks and raised eyebrows speak volumes in unflinching close-ups that revel in the character lines on his face. Closing archival footage reveals that Keaton has nailed down many of Kroc’s mannerisms and the unique cadence of his voice, a kind of nasal gravel that gives one the impression of a perpetually dynamic grinder. Keaton appears noir-style in nearly every scene, showing that same command of an audience’s attention that he displayed in Birdman, Spotlight, and yes, even The Other Guys.

It’s Keaton’s show, but Offerman and Lynch do yeoman’s work as the uncomplicated McDonalds who don’t much care for franchises or even a bankroll beyond what their modest location provides. There’s real pathos in Lynch’s face, while Offerman provides the vehement protests to Kroc’s plans, and the two provide a strong counterpoint to Keaton’s manic energy. They both have the look of someone straight out of 1954, but they have the chops to hold their own opposite Keaton.

In the film’s closing moments, Keaton gives the camera a short monologue and a look that communicates more than most actors pull off in an entire movie. I don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s a look that stops shy of rendering a moral judgment on the whole film. It’s a look that asks, “Have I done the right thing?” It’s a look that represents everything the audience will be thinking as the film concludes. The Founder closes on precisely the right note, weighing the gravity of the story and allowing its star one last moment to shine. Between Keaton, Denzel, and Andrew Garfield, it’s anyone’s game for Best Actor this year.

The Founder is rated PG-13 for “brief strong language.” Directed by John Lee Hancock. Written by Robert Siegel. Starring Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Patrick Wilson, and Laura Dern.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Nothing to Fear"

“What hidden terror keeps the Batman awake at night?”

That’s the question The Scarecrow sets out to answer, robbing his way through a revenge scheme that Batman has to understand before he can put an end to the wiry villain’s plot. But just who is The Scarecrow? What does he want? And what really scares Batman?

“Nothing to Fear” is a great example of why Scarecrow is a tricky villain to get right, an A-list gimmick mixed with a B-level (at best) threat to Gotham City. We saw in Batman Begins much ado about Batman’s use of the power of fear, turning his adversaries’ fear against them. To that end, Scarecrow ought to be a first-rate foe for the Dark Knight, a feedback loop of phobia. And when Scarecrow douses Batman in his fear gas and delivers the line above, it seems we’re in for a real treat.

Bafflingly, however, that’s not quite the focus of the episode; indeed, it’s difficult to say what the focus is. The episode bounces between establishing Scarecrow’s motive for revenge, his execution of a fairly mundane heist-not-heist, and Bruce’s underlying fears that he’s failing the memory of his murdered parents. The last of those is where the real meat of the episode ought to be, but puzzlingly the writers throw in a wrinkle that Scarecrow’s fear gas is “time-released,” deferring a fuller consideration of the psychology of Batman until the very ending of the episode.

Don’t get me wrong – that moment packs a punch, often imitated but seldom duplicated. Amid the spectral accusation that he has failed his parents, Batman retorts, in the gravelly gravitas that only Kevin Conroy can bring, “I am vengeance! I am the night! I AM BATMAN!” It’s the kind of moment that would belong in the opening credits, if the opening credits to Batman: The Animated Series weren’t already so perfect, and it’s an affirmation – maybe the first of its kind in the show thus far – of just what Batman stands for, of how confident he is (and ought to be) in his mission. I would have liked, however, to see more of the episode devoted to that psychological journey rather than the criminal threat of Scarecrow.

You see, Scarecrow works best when Batman has to overcome him on a psychological level. Once Batman gets his hands on Scarecrow, it’s a fairly quick fight. Again, Batman Begins did it just right, using Scarecrow as a preliminary to the main threat. I’ll say this a lot throughout this series of reviews, but it’s not that this is a bad episode per se; even a mediocre episode of Batman: The Animated Series is a perfectly fine diversion. Episodes like this do, however, underscore just how much more thoroughly these themes are explored in future episodes, like “Perchance to Dream” or “Over the Edge” (the latter featuring Scarecrow, in a shocking redesign – about which, much more later).

While parts of “Nothing to Fear” are more undercooked than I might like, there’s some good stuff in this episode. Last March, moviegoers were treated to one more iteration of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. A lot of us felt like, “This again?” (even though it proved essential to the climax of the film), so kudos to “Nothing to Fear” for going in another direction and implying the backstory in order to foreground the effect this absence has had on Bruce Wayne. It’s wise that the show does this early in the run, permitting us to keep this knowledge in the back of our minds. This isn’t the overconfident Batman of 1966 or even the brooding detective of 1989. Here’s a Batman who exposes his humanity by wrestling with his doubts about whether his nocturnal missions are making the difference he needs to see.

It’s important to remember that in 1992 the Scarecrow wasn’t exactly a prominent member of the rogues gallery, so “Nothing to Fear” needs to do a certain amount of introduction for him, and in that sense it works. It also concludes with a delicious bit of irony when Scarecrow gets a dose of his own medicine (on which I suspect Batman Begins riffed). And the episode’s final moment introduces the looming motif of the Wayne family grave, a central image in the Batman: The Animated Series playbook. Bruce’s absurdly “cool” sunglasses, thankfully, aren’t in subsequent episodes.

Original Air Date: September 15, 1992

Writer: Henry Gilroy & Sean Catherine Derek

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villain: Scarecrow (Henry Polic II)

Next episode: “The Last Laugh,” in which a clown dies, and a bath is drawn.