Monday, May 22, 2017

Monday at the Movies - May 22, 2017

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” We continue to review movies adjacent to Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword without actually approaching the critically panned Camelot flick.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) – My immediate reaction after seeing this film, one confirmed by consulting with my resident expert (hat-tip to you, pops), was that this was a film that didn’t need to be called The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to succeed, both in its construction and in the general lack of major audience appeal for the 1960s television show. Put another way, this could have been “The Adventures of Jack and Vlad” without affecting the plot at all. As it stands, though, we have an entertaining action flick which would have been just as good on its own strengths; slick CIA man Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) begrudgingly teams up with his opposite number from the KGB, Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), to guide an East German mechanic (Alicia Vikander) into the lion’s den to stop a nuclear weapon from falling into the wrong hands. I very much enjoyed the period piece aspect of the film, set in 1963, and the trademark Ritchie sense of humor, reminiscent of Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films. While this is clearly intended as an opening salvo in a franchise which the mainstream audience didn’t seem to demand any too highly, Armie Hammer acquits himself finer than he did in The Lone Ranger; though it’s difficult to see Cavill and not think “Superman,” he’s well-cast as a smooth operator, a kind of American James Bond. Vikander is her usual engaging self, though the film waits until the third act to give her more to do than wear mod fashion; surprisingly, it’s Elizabeth Debicki, late of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, who gets the meatier role as the scheming villainess. In short, I dug it, and I’d happily watch more installments.

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

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Vendetta"

“Look, Harvey Bullock is hard to work with. Even harder than I’d like, but he's a good cop, Batman. He’s clean!”

Things don’t look good for Harvey Bullock (Robert Costanzo). Several low-level convicts, set to testify against Bullock in a graft corruption case, have vanished. But Batman smells a rat – a giant man-sized crocodile of a rat, the sewer dweller known as Killer Croc (Aron Kincaid).

I think Bullock sums up this episode best when he says, “Not a bad piece of work.” I’ve never been especially enamored of Killer Croc, nor does he leave me cold. But I can honestly say I’ve never been ecstatic when I discover that I’m reading a Batman story that has Killer Croc in it. Maybe it’s just that Killer Croc has never had a “Heart of Ice” story that defines the character in an incredibly moving and effective way, and as ostensible origins go “Vendetta” is no “Heart of Ice.” Then again, that’s an incredibly unfair bar to set, and “Vendetta” certainly doesn’t do anything wrong. Put another way, it’s not a bad piece of work.

Maybe more than Killer Croc, this episode got me pretty invested in Harvey Bullock and his place in the Gotham City police department. As far back as “On Leather Wings” and “POV,” we’ve seen that Bullock is none too keen on Batman, but that’s been lost in the shuffle of late as the writers have instead opted to treat him like a donut-munching buffoon, a punching bag of a punch line to counter the more competent efforts of Renee Montoya. But with “Vendetta,” writer Michael Reaves – he who will co-write Mask of the Phantasm, for interest’s sake – returns to the gruff exterior, Bat-disdain, and do-it-myself attitude that define Bullock. In a way, it’s his “Heart of Ice.” And Robert Costanzo is a fine presence as Bullock, one of the more underrated but nevertheless definitive performances Batman: The Animated Series frequently gave us.

Speaking of buffoonish, though, it’s interesting to see just how capable Killer Croc is portrayed to be in this episode. I say that because devotees of the show likely remember Killer Croc for six words (which, if we’re being nitpicky, he never actually spoke) from an episode down the road, “Almost Got ’Im” – “I threw a rock at him!” But aside from that moment, I do recall that the show portrays Killer Croc as increasingly tragic and doltish (the former often the consequence of the latter), and so it’s refreshing to see him as clever enough to hatch a scheme like this one, with a method and motive that are actually quite sophisticated and very nearly work.

I often feel I don’t talk about the visuals enough in this review series, but there are a number of arresting frames in this episode, a good number of them having to do with eyes. There’s one scene with Bullock in the shadows where it’s not initially clear whether it’s Bullock, Batman impersonating Bullock, or Killer Croc impersonating Bullock. The voice starts to clue us in that it’s not Bullock, but the eyes aren’t the dead giveaway you’d expect. And speaking of eyes, Batman deploys a gadget which requires his eyes to use a red filter that gives him a distinctly cyborgian appearance, while the breathing mask he dons recalls the visual design of The Phantasm. Finally, there are a few shots of lightning illuminating a silhouetted figure that really just take my breath away. They don’t amount to major elements of the episode, but these are standout visuals that remind the viewer how impressive Batman: The Animated Series can be on a technical level.

Sidebar: “Vendetta” does make me wonder if the abysmal early episode “The Underdwellers” might have been better served as a Killer Croc episode. The Sewer King was underwhelming at best and mystifying at worst, and I can’t help but feel that the episode would have gone into much more interesting territory with Killer Croc, who could have lent ambiguity to whether the underdwellers were abducted or actually ran away from a surface world that scorned them. We would have lost the righteous wrath of Batman, but we would have gained a better Killer Croc story and a better episode overall with a little more depth than the Sewer King could offer.

Original Air Date: October 5, 1992

Writer: Michael Reaves

Director: Frank Paur

Villains: Killer Croc (Aron Kincaid) and Rupert Thorne (John Vernon)

Next episode: “Fear of Victory,” in which the Boy Wonder is shown fear in a handful of football games.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Monday at the Movies - May 15, 2017

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” There’s a new King Arthur film at the box office this week... this is not a review of that movie.

Excalibur (1981) – Amid the dismal reviews for Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, I went back to the well for an ostensibly definitive film of the Arthur legend which I’d managed to miss, even amid an Arthurian phase in my adolescence. Although there are moments that, oddly enough, recall a straight-faced Monty Python and the Holy Grail, John Boorman’s Excalibur is otherwise iconic and epic, sweeping in a way that sometimes makes the film seem episodic because of its steadfast refusal to identify a singular protagonist. Is it Merlin (Nicol Williamson, delightfully quirky as the aging wizard), the magician who shepherds England to prominence even as his time is passing? Is it Arthur (Nigel Terry), the squire who has greatness thrust upon him? Or is it the sword, whose absences and presences account for the failures and triumphs of Camelot? Boorman isn’t choosy, which allows the legend to spread out and take on a proper epic fantasy form. In just over two hours, Excalibur squeezes in the sword in the stone, the assembly of the Round Table, the grail quest, Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere, and the final battle with Mordred – a far-reaching and ambitious effort that aims to do more in one movie than most trilogies accomplish. Keep your eyes open, since Excalibur stars a number of soon-to-be major stars in supporting roles: Helen Mirren turns up as the sultry Morgana, the mother of Arthur’s adversary Mordred, while Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, and Ciarán Hinds pop in as knights of the round table. Excalibur has a visual style that sets a standard for mystical medieval fare and an admirable amount of ambition befitting its subject matter.

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

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Joker's Favor"

“Now, look, my rude friend – we can’t have people cursing at each other on the freeway. It’s simply not polite! I’m just going to have to teach you some manners...”

Sad sack Charlie Collins (Ed Begley, Jr., at his shlubbiest) has had a rough life and a rougher day, but it’s about to get a whole lot worse after a traffic altercation with none other than The Joker (Mark Hamill). The Joker spares Charlie’s life in exchange for a favor to be called in at Joker’s pleasure... two years later, despite relocating in witness protection, Charlie gets the phone call he’s been dreading, and you can bet it’s no coincidence that Commissioner Gordon is being honored on the same night.

Look, the headline for this episode is that it’s the debut of Harley Quinn, arguably the most important and successful character introduced to the Batman canon in the last twenty-five years (and that includes Bane, who debuted in 1993, and Batman’s own son, Damian Wayne, introduced in 2006). And we’ll get to her in a minute, but lost in the shuffle of this episode’s historic nature is the fact that it’s a damned good episode, almost certainly the best of the four Joker episodes we’ve reviewed thus far. That’s entirely due to this being Paul Dini’s first episode writing The Joker, a character that I daresay no living writer “gets” as well as Dini. Dini understands that Joker ought to be equal parts deadly terrifying and genuinely, if uncomfortably, funny. And despite featuring Batman very little at all in this episode, something I’ve chastised other episodes for doing, “Joker’s Favor” goes one better by fashioning a story that could only happen in Batman’s world, exposing a little slice of the common man’s experience of this madcap metropolis.

One of the episode’s punchlines involves – spoiler warning for the rest of this paragraph – the revelation that The Joker’s “favor” is simply to have Charlie open a door... that’s a stroke of dark comedic genius. Dini deflates Charlie’s two years of suffering with a shaggy-dog gag, quickly followed up by the revelation that Joker plans to go back on his word and kill Charlie anyway by coating the doorknob with adhesive. “Of course it’s nonsense!” we realize, before it dawns on us, “No, of course he’ll kill him!” And the episode’s last laugh, naturally, will surprise you.

Paul Dini is, I daresay, the most underrated Batman writer of the last few years, and that’s even before we get to Harley Quinn, almost inarguably his greatest creation. The concept of a harlequin moll at Joker’s side is so perfect that it’s almost unfathomable it hadn’t happened in the 53 years Batman had been around thus far, and it’s almost impossible to imagine The Joker without Harley Quinn. I’ll have more to say about Ms. Quinn when we get to some of the Harley-centric episodes down the line, but suffice it to say that Arleen Sorkin’s Jersey squeak is the perfect counterpart to Mark Hamill’s pseudo-theatrical growl, though her joke about cosmetology school rings somewhat false in a world where we’ve seen (or read) “Mad Love.”

In short, “Joker’s Favor” is just about a perfect Joker episode, and it succeeds at being a great Batman episode too, with the Dark Knight getting a tender moment to laud his colleague Commissioner Gordon before running the gauntlet through a museum exhibit turned death trap. In these moments, Dini understands that Batman’s great appeal is that he is thoroughly human, but the most exaggerated and frankly awesome version of humanity. Above all, Dini knows how to tell a dynamite self-contained story in little more than twenty minutes, proving himself – and I think the numbers on my Top 10 list will bear witness – the undisputed master of this form.

Original Air Date: September 11, 1992

Writer: Paul Dini

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villains: The Joker (Mark Hamill) and Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin)

Next episode: “Vendetta,” in which Bullock takes it personally.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017)

It’s a bit weird to reflect on the idea that, three years ago, there had been speculation that Guardians of the Galaxy, starring a talking raccoon and a walking tree, might be Marvel’s first box office bomb. In 2017, though, we are Groot; put another way, it’s Star-Lord’s galaxy, and we all just go to the movies in it. As for Vol. 2, it’s a real delight, often more of the same but in a way that feels like qualitatively more.

Having saved the galaxy once before, the Guardians have inflated their prices and their egos to match. In disparate plotlines that coalesce in surprising ways, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) meets the omnipotent Ego (Kurt Russell), his long-lost father; Gamora (Zoe Saldana) takes up anew her feud with wicked sister Nebula (Karen Gillan); and Rocket and Baby Groot (voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively) find themselves caught up in a war between Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his mutinous band of Ravagers. And then there’s Drax (Dave Bautista), the metaphor-less marauder, who’s happy just to slice and dice as needed.

I’ve got a soft critique of the film, though it’s more a bit of a backhanded compliment, and it’s that the film is wearingly funny. And I don’t mean that Vol. 2 ever becomes unfunny, but around the second act I had this surprising and acute desire for the jokes to take a breather and get back to the character work that made the first film such a rousing success. Indeed, a more cynical moviegoer might lament that the film is undercut by the overabundance of jokes, gags, and giggles, and I certainly feel the balance tipped in favor of humor this go-around.

That is not to say, however, that there isn’t really compelling character work being done, although surprisingly it’s the supporting characters that really get developed over the core five. Ego has a pretty engaging story arc, and writer/director James Gunn was right to make the film less about the mystery of Star-Lord’s paternity and more about what he does with that knowledge. If you’d told me that Yondu was going to be the most interesting member of the cast this go-around, I’d have thought it had something to do with the size of his red fin, but Gunn and Rooker did the pleasantly unexpected and gave Yondu a plot arc that goes over the course of the film and also clarifies a few bits about his role as Star-Lord’s erstwhile stepfather.

It’s the main cast that doesn’t quite make the leap from A to B as they did in the first, discovering their capacity for working together and finding a kind of family. Star-Lord grows, sure, but how could he not, where Gamora’s arc mainly consists in convincing other characters of things; Rocket and Groot are the same lovable violent pair, a kind of Rocketcrantz and Grootenstern for the cosmos. It is – and this should come as no surprise – Groot who steals the film wholesale, from his opening performance of ELO’s “Mister Blue Sky” to the perpetual challenges he faces in expressing himself. These characters are, however, fun enough that it’s still a treat to spend two hours with this particular “bunch of a-holes.”

Gunn continues not to play ball with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, eschewing the usual batch of cameo appearances (though Stan Lee appears, naturally, in what might be a kind of game-changer). There’s nary an Infinity Stone in sight, yet as we dash apace toward Infinity War, there’s something refreshing about that; as much as I love the shared universe, there would have been something inorganic about seeing Iron Man or even Thor wander in. Lest we forget, though, Gunn maintains and exacerbates the central rule of Marvel Studios with not one but five post-credits sequences, which suggest that the shared universe will bend toward the cosmic, if only because there’s more nodded toward than can possibly be encompassed in a Vol. 3. And while I can’t say I’ve ever been a big fan of “Cosmic Marvel” – The Silver Surfer is about as far as I go, and Marvel Studios doesn’t own him (yet) – if Gunn is guiding the Guardians, I’m on board.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is rated PG-13 for “sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and brief suggestive content.” Written and directed by James Gunn. Based on the Marvel Comics by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, and Kurt Russell.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Feat of Clay"

“There is no Hagen, it's only me now. Clayface! See?”

While pharmaceutical magnate Roland Daggett (Ed Asner) is ready to roll out his latest product, Bruce Wayne is framed for an attack on his own associate Lucius Fox. Batman’s pursuit of the case leads him to Daggett’s underlings and to Matt Hagen (Ron Perlman), a disfigured actor whose exposure to Daggett’s new facial cream turns him into the hulking Clayface, a malleable man of mud who’s out for revenge, even if he has to take down Batman to do it.

After a lackluster two-parter in “The Cat and The Claw,” “Feat of Clay” does the form justice by returning to something closer to “Two-Face.” In the first part, we get a pathos-laden origin for a new villain amid Batman’s own derring-do, while the second half features said villain coming into conflict with our hero, amid our own sense of tragedy and sympathy for the ostensible baddie. In terms of narrative, there are a lot of similarities with “Two-Face,” which augurs quite well for an episode that never actually feels twice as long as usual. (For those playing the home game, there are only four more two-parters in the series, three of which are quite good.)

The episode is penned by two veteran superhero scribes, Marv Wolfman and Michael Reaves, who bring Clayface to life with aplomb. Unlike Harvey Dent, Matt Hagen is never completely sympathetic, particularly after we’ve just seen Simon Trent in “Beware the Gray Ghost,” and he comes off more deeply flawed, with his addiction to Daggett’s Renuyu cream played like a drug addiction. As Clayface, Perlman is particularly adept, demonstrating a versatility in his emotional range, from infuriated to desperate, from drunk over his newfound powers to salivating with bloodlust at the prospect of vengeance.

“Feat of Clay” also features one of my favorite Batman narrative tropes, in which Batman has to clear Bruce Wayne’s name (see also: Bruce Wayne is held hostage by an unwitting villain). I love this subplot, because the unsuspecting antagonist accidentally invites the scrutiny of the Dark Knight, who knows better than anyone that Bruce Wayne is innocent. And involving Lucius Fox is tantamount to turning the knife, so Kevin Conroy gets plenty of delectable moments of outrage (including the chance to spew expletives like “scumwad” and “lying sleaze”). Additionally, we’re treated to one of the better Batman interrogation scenes, where he traps a hypochondriac (voiced by a sniveling Ed Begley, Jr., who’ll be back next week) in a supply closet full of infectious diseases. Batman is in rare form!

I was wondering as I watched “Feat of Clay” if we’ll ever see Clayface in live-action. We’ve seen him in a video game, but I imagine the morphing effects might be intimidating to a live film. As it stands, the clay effects are pretty strong here, and I’m disappointed that the series didn’t use him more often. I understand, though, that that’s so as not to dilute the power of this episode (ditto for Mr. Freeze in “Heart of Ice”), and to that end I must say it’s an effective move. Aside from maybe the Arkham City videogame, this is for my money the most memorable Clayface story, and it’s certainly the most emotionally effective. Shirley Walker’s Clayface motif, the musical equivalent of mud running down a drain, gives the episode that added emotive sucker punch.

Original Air Date: September 8-9, 1992

Writers: Marv Wolfman and Michael Reaves

Directors: Dick Sebast and Kevin Altieri

Villains: Clayface (Ron Perlman) and Roland Daggett (Ed Asner)

Next episode: “Joker’s Favor,” in which Paul Dini writes his first Joker episode, and the rest is history.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Monday at the Movies - May 1, 2017

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” We’re not at the movies, though; if you’ve wondered what your Cinema King thought about the last few rounds of the Marvel/Netflix experiment, look no further.

Daredevil: Season Two (2016) – After falling head over heels for the first season of Daredevil, knocking it out in about four days thanks to the binge model of Netflix, I definitely felt the law of diminishing returns in effect for Daredevil’s sophomore outing, which took me a few weeks to wrap up. After last season’s singular focus on how Wilson Fisk’s rise paralleled Daredevil’s, this season has two main components: an arc introducing the gun-toting vigilante The Punisher (Jon Bernthal), followed by the return of the deadly Elektra (Élodie Yung) into the life of Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox). The first of these is exceptional, and had the rest of the season been as good it would have pushed Season Two to the top of what Marvel Television has been able to accomplish; Bernthal is frankly definitive as the violent, tortured Punisher, with iconic moments ripped from the comics and given their due. The Punisher’s arc over the season takes him to fascinating places, interacting with fantastic characters, and setting him up for a dynamite solo series (which, of course, is happening). It’s the second half, though, which failed to impress this reviewer, as it goes full ninja into what I think is the least interesting aspect of Daredevil – his battles against The Hand. The stakes of this conflict are nebulous – the city is in danger, but isn’t it always? – and would appear to pull their punches in advance of The Defenders. Though Yung is a fine choice for Elektra, the plotting never fully convinces us that she’s anything but trouble for Matt Murdock, who’s exceptionally angsty this season. Hat-tip, though, to Elden Henson, whose portrayal of Foggy Nelson ends up being a major show-stealer and a bright light in a season that can be dismally dark.

Luke Cage (2016) – Fresh off a stint on Jessica Jones, Mike Colter is back as the man with unbreakable skin, and his performance as Luke Cage deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the top performances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His Luke is a resolute figure of unflappable grace, of tough decisions, and uncompromising morality, and for all that we say that superheroes are figures of admiration, Colter really embodies it. Put another way, I want to be this guy. Like Daredevil: Season Two, Luke Cage is narratively bifurcated, though it’d be a spoiler to say precisely why; suffice it to say that the villains, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (the recently-Oscared Mahershala Ali) and Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard, who’s deft enough to make you forget she’s an entirely different character in Civil War), are as variable and fascinating as Luke is stalwart and unfaltering. It’s unquestionably among the timeliest, most political material Marvel has turned out of late, and that thematic resonance gives Luke Cage a weight that I don’t think the other Netflix programs have quite attained (though Jessica Jones felt psychologically and personally heavy). Consequently, we feel quite tangibly all the struggles and expectations placed on Luke, justly or otherwise, as he finds himself in a position to navigate issues so much larger than a man without superpowers might be able to bear on his own. Notably, Luke Cage has a real pulse in the form of its soundtrack, which significantly differentiates it from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; the show’s use of music, both diegetic and otherwise, becomes the lifeblood of the show and a fitting barometer for the mood of the community.

Iron Fist (2017) – For the past month, everyone’s been talking about Iron Fist, though not for the reasons Marvel would have liked. A good number of people are upset about the character’s race, while an even larger contingent is dubbing this show the worst thing Marvel’s ever done for other reasons altogether. For my money, and this may be a reaction to having my expectations titanically lowered by early reviews, Iron Fist is not terrible, but it’s not especially good, either. If you can power through the first episode (as seems to be the advice for most shows), you’re in the clear; Iron Fist has one of the least successful openers of any show I’ve watched, with characters who behave irrationally and without any sense of a motivation or indeed of characterization in any sense. As the show progresses, though, the characters crystallize a little more clearly, particularly the increasingly compelling brother-sister duo of Ward and Joy Meachum (Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup). Aside from the fact that I still don’t care what The Hand is doing, a recurring problem for the show is that its titular protagonist Danny Rand (Finn Jones, late of Game of Thrones) is a bit of a stunted man-child who behaves like an idiot and makes one ill-advised decision after another between bouts of temper tantrums and social awkwardness. If the character is deliberately crafted that way, Jones is bang-on, but it’s off-putting to have a show where everyone knows better than the main character. The show’s women, though, end up its greatest strength; Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) is the capable badass Marvel’s Netflix universe deserves, Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho, back from Daredevil) is a captivating character and a continuity hound’s delight, and it’s always a treat to see Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) try to talk some sense into the self-destructive vigilantes who headline these shows. Iron Fist seeds a few tantalizing developments for a likely second season, but the show needs to do some major work on its eponymous hero if audiences are going to connect with this aloof kung fu dope.

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

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Prophecy of Doom"

“Peace to all, brothers and sisters. The negative plane is aligned with the positive, bringing forth astral harmony!”

Concerned that the self-proclaimed prophet Nostromos (Michael Des Barres) is bilking his wealthy friends, Bruce Wayne endeavors to infiltrate “The Brotherhood” to learn the truth. Batman discovers the criminal past of Nostromos while the prophet’s final prediction grows ever nearer...

Nostromos joins the pantheon of forgettable villains created for Batman: The Animated Series (right alongside Red Claw and The Sewer King), which is perhaps remarkable for the show that gave us Harley Quinn, Roxy Rocket, and The Condiment King while also reinventing rogues like Mr. Freeze. We’ll never see Nostromos again, which is probably for the best. It’s ironic, though, that a show which revolves around a singular hero so often rises and falls on the strengths of his antagonists.

The underwhelming nature of Nostromos sheds light on the bigger problem with “Prophecy of Doom” on the whole, and that’s that it isn’t incompetent by any means; it’s just largely uninspiring, and it feels like there could have been a lot more done with it. For one, Nostromos doesn’t behave like a Batman-level villain until the very end, which boasts a Batman ’66-style death trap which unfortunately doesn’t feel quite earned by this episode. Furthermore, Nostromos’s greatest crime seems to be bilking rich idiots out of their fortunes, to which I say, serves ’em right! There’s nothing in the episode to suggest Nostromos isn’t a con artist, and had his villainy come as a surprise – if, for example, the magician Zatanna had been around to lend at least a semblance of credence to the inclusion of magic in Batman’s world – “Prophecy of Doom” might not have been a flop, and Nostromos might have been worth revisiting at some point.

As it stands, the best parts of the episode have nothing to do with the villain, a surprising statement given what scene-stealers the villains of Batman: The Animated Series often end up becoming. No, I’m not referring to Bruce Wayne’s one-and-done circle of socialite friends, who are so bland it’s amazing their surname isn’t literally Whitebread. There’s an engaging scene in the second act where Bruce Wayne escapes an elevator crash, giving chase as Batman to the saboteur; it’s set up with a nice bit of dreadful foreshadowing from a cheery security guard and Bruce’s dawning realization that something is afoot, and it gives Batman one of his two standout sequences.

It’s that planetarium death trap, though, that never congeals with the rest of the episode, and it seems a tad overblown for Nostromos, who spends most of the episode pouting and prognosticating while his partner-in-crime does most of the heavy lifting (but who’s otherwise so forgettable that I can’t recall his name). There’s also a distracting visual similarity between Nostromos – an original creation exclusive to this episode – and the pre-established Justice League villain Felix Faust, which gestures toward a less forgettable version of this episode. Ultimately, then, “Prophecy of Doom” refuses to embrace the mystical potential of its plot, incongruous as it might be in the established world of BtAS, but consequently it never manages to be the kind of threat that merits a Batman-level response. That, I suppose, is a task to which next week’s episode is much better suited.

Original Air Date: October 6, 1992

Writers: Dennis Marks and Sean Catherine Derek

Director: Frank Paur

Villain: Nostromos (Michael Des Barres)

Next episode: “Feat of Clay,” in which things get a bit muddy.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Top 10 Kermodean Rants

From the delightful ongoing comic book series Giant Days. I have a similar process for writing these reviews.
Today, The Cinema King is proud to bring something completely different and yet somewhat familiar. It’s a Top 10 list, but it’s a Top 10 list of someone else’s reviews.

Who is Mark Kermode? Kermode is, for my money, one of the sharpest critics alive, an astute cinephile and an indisputably entertaining reviewer in his own right. He’s a noted academic, his favorite film is The Exorcist, and he is – with Simon Mayo – a presenter on BBC Radio 5 Live’s “Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review.” He’s the chief critic for The Observer, has authored a number of books (both high-brow academic and more widely accessible), carries a PhD in English (much like yours truly), and plays double bass in a skiffle band.

Mark Kermode loves film, but there are a number of movies for which he simply doesn’t care. In that respect, he’s responsible for making short videos – filmed podcasts of his radio show – that are often more entertaining than the films he’s reviewing. He’s pithy and punchy, clever and well-read, a gifted(ish) impressionist, and an endearing personality whose adoration of cinema is matched only by his engagingly effusive disdain for movies that get it wrong. To that end, we present “The Top 10 Kermodean Rants [aka The British Do It Better].”

Note: The rants below are (almost exclusively) for films that Kermode rejected; if you’d like to see what it’s like when The Good Doctor approves, check out his reviews for Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises. You will find a reverence and a depth of thinking that demand a second viewing of the films (or perhaps, like me, you’ll find yourself nodding along in approval, as you’ve seen this films easily a dozen times over).

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Beware the Gray Ghost"

“As a kid, I used to watch you with my father. The Gray Ghost was my hero.”

When a series of bombings imperil Gotham City, Batman is reminded of his favorite television show as a boy, “The Gray Ghost,” which featured an episode eerily similar to current events. Batman tracks down the show’s star, Simon Trent (voiced lovingly by Adam West), and hauls him out of typecast obscurity to solve the mystery of the Mad Bomber.

Eighteen episodes into Batman: The Animated Series, and as perfect an episode as “Heart of Ice” was, “Beware the Gray Ghost” is the first episode to bring a tear to my eyes. It has nothing to do with a sentimental plot twist, a surprising death, or a poetically romantic love story. No, “Beware the Gray Ghost” struck a chord with my very soul because it encapsulates in twenty minutes everything I believe and adore about the superhero genre. This nutshell quality probably occurred to me when I first saw this episode twenty-some years ago, but now it feels especially poignant because I feel that I fully get it and so appreciate what it’s doing in the full complexity of the episode’s project.

Put another way, when someone asks me why I love superheroes, I’ll respond, “You got twenty minutes?” and put this episode on play. In short, this is an episode about me, a love letter to my genre and a defense of that selfsame love. The episode opens with young Bruce Wayne glued to his television set, drinking in the latest exploit of his favorite superhero, The Gray Ghost. As the episode unfolds, we learn that Batman’s love for the character partly inspired his quest for justice and his nightly fight to save his city. (In the comics, there was always a nod to Zorro, right down to the Waynes having seen a Zorro film at the theater that fateful night.) Batman has a small shrine of memorabilia in the Batcave, which is itself a replica of The Gray Ghost’s lair, and his team-up with The Gray Ghost is at once a child’s dream come true and a grown man’s opportunity to tell his hero just what an impact he had on his life. Even the fact that Bruce never got to see the end of that episode makes me wonder if his neverending battle for justice is inspired by that oldest-and-noblest aspect of serialized storytelling, “To Be Continued...”

It’s an episode about fandom, about the transformative power of this genre to help us imagine ourselves as our best selves, and it’s something I hold very deeply in my heart to be true. The line I quote above, “The Gray Ghost was my hero,” is delivered with immense gravitas by Kevin Conroy, and we can hear his idolization and the pain of losing his father all at once, joined with his hope for the future. We see that Bruce Wayne managed to survive the pain of losing his family by enacting the lessons he learned from The Gray Ghost.

Equally touching, we learn that The Gray Ghost has value for his ‘creator,’ the actor Simon Trent. That Trent is voiced by Adam West, himself in a sense plagued by typecasting as Batman, adds a layer of pathos to the long legacy of these characters. As much as Trent feels boxed in by his most famous performance, his fortuitous encounter with Batman allows him to see that “it wasn’t all for nothing,” that his work has had far-reaching consequences. We’ve followed Trent over the course of the episode thus far as a man broken by his history, facing eviction and bankruptcy, selling off his most valued possessions just to scrape by. But just as The Gray Ghost saved Bruce Wayne, Batman saves Simon Trent by giving him a purpose, represented beautifully by returning to him the Gray Ghost costume he had pawned away. (Sidebar: I do wonder how much responsibility this episode bears for the ensuing resurgence in appreciation for Batman '66.)

Just to prove that the episode doesn’t take itself too seriously, there’s a subtle joke in the fact that The Mad Bomber ends up being a diehard fanboy who looks suspiciously like (and is voiced by) the show’s producer Bruce Timm. But that in itself teaches us another valuable lesson – The Mad Bomber is consumed by his obsession with The Gray Ghost and his desire to own every toy and artifact associated with him. Unlike Batman, The Mad Bomber hasn’t made something better of himself out of the media he consumes. He’s a dark reflection of Bruce Timm, too, who made a career out of his interest in the genre.

And if none of this has struck a chord, the episode’s stinger tugs at the heartstrings one last time in the scene when Bruce covertly outs himself to Simon Trent at an autograph signing. “As a kid, I used to watch you with my father. The Gray Ghost was my hero... and he still is.”

Original Air Date: November 4, 1992

Writers: Dennis O’Flaherty, Tom Ruegger, and Garin Wolf

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villain: The Mad Bomber (Bruce Timm)

Next episode: “Prophecy of Doom,” in which the magician Zatanna does not appear.