Monday, March 27, 2017

Monday at the Movies - March 27, 2017

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” If you have, like me, been enjoying FX’s eminently entertaining Feud: Bette and Joan, you’ve likely been compelled to go watch What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? If not, well... maybe you ought to.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) – Director Robert Aldrich united famous feudsters Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in this creepy camp classic that finds former child star Baby Jane Hudson (Davis) barely playing caretaker for her crippled sister Blanche (Crawford), whose film career far outshined Jane’s. Davis was justly nominated for (and cruelly robbed of) that year’s Best Actress award at the Oscars; she goes for broke as the increasingly deranged Baby Jane, serving up dead rats and tumblers of scotch while lamenting her ignominy with skin-crawlingly awkward serenades to a full-length mirror. Crawford has the more restrained performance, the plot permitting her much less room to go mad, though she’s particularly interesting to watch on a second viewing once you know the Hitchcockian twist the film conceals until its final sequence. This is Aldrich at his best Hitchcock level – he would later go on to direct the stellar proto-Suicide Squad film The Dirty Dozen – filmed in black and white to accentuate the garish shadows and angles of the Hudson mansion and of the caked-on makeup Baby Jane wears to disguise her many faults and hang-ups. Victor Buono has what amounts to a cameo appearance as a shiftless pianist who stumbles into Baby Jane’s web; when he’s sober, Buono’s character dramatizes on his face so many of the awkward cringes the audience is feeling as Baby Jane revives her old vaudeville act (revives, insofar as any life can be injected into that long-dead performance). But the film is rightly more interested in Baby Jane and Blanche and the ways these two sisters make each other miserable, and in how much campy fun can be derived from watching two golden-era performers nibble on the decaying scenery.

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

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "I've Got Batman in My Basement"

“A vulture in Gotham City is a mystery worth checking out!”

The theft of a Faberge egg leads Batman into a mystery involving vultures and birdseed – yes, it can only be the work of that fowl foe The Penguin (Paul Williams). But when Batman is debilitated in combat, it falls to two basement detectives, Sherman Grant and Roberta, to put the pieces together, repel the Penguin, and safeguard Batman in – where else? – the basement.

I had said earlier in this series that I never understood the hate for this episode... Okay, I get it now. This episode is pretty terrible. As is usually the case on Batman: The Animated Series, there are so many interesting ideas in this episode, particularly the concept of Batman respecting and later supervising the efforts of a junior detective. But there is a significant problem in tone, swinging between what ought to be the A-plot of Batman and Penguin and the B-plot of what can only be described as “booger kids.” The youngsters in this episode are too cute by half, their antics border on empty slapstick, and some of their gags play off as lifted directly from Home Alone.

Moreover, there’s a discontinuity in Penguin’s scheme. At first, it’s the theft of a Faberge egg, which is a perfectly respectable Penguin plot. Then, however, in his search for the egg, he transitions toward the petty disheveling of the Grant home for the simple fact that it’s far too “bourgeois” for his liking. For a guy with a deadly vulture as a pet, there’s something altogether too flippant about this Penguin. Perhaps in a better episode, these tonal shifts wouldn’t be noticed, because Paul Williams does a very good job portraying the Penguin as this sophisticated criminal with contempt for everything as beneath him. But when he’s thwarted by two kids with Macaulay Culkin’s playbook, it’s tough to take him seriously.

To that point, I should add that the episode commits the major blunder of nerfing Batman even before he’s rendered unconscious. In the episode’s first act, Batman is stumped by the presence of birdseed and a vulture at the scene of a Faberge egg theft. Really, Batman? It shouldn’t take the world’s greatest detective to figure out that this birdbrained burglary is the work of The Penguin. Moreover, there’s no Bruce Wayne at all in this episode, and we barely hear any of Kevin Conroy’s voicework. When you have such a strong weapon like Conroy’s voice in your arsenal, it seems an awful shame not to use it.

My fond childhood memories notwithstanding, for I once collected the trading card stickers associated with this episode, “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement” stands in even starker contrast to the very next episode, which is one of – if not the – finest hours in the show’s history. The very next episode, “Heart of Ice,” is rightly regarded as seminal for many reasons, and this episode’s major fumble only looks worse in comparison. “Heart of Ice” won an Emmy; “Basement” ought to be relegated to such.

There’s a moment at the end of “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement” where Batman fights Penguin, clumsily fencing with a screwdriver. It’s an apt metaphor for the entire episode, actually.

Original Air Date: September 30, 1992

Writer: Sam Graham & Chris Hubbell

Director: Frank Paur

Villain: The Penguin (Paul Williams)

Next episode: “Heart of Ice,” in which we may as well pack it up and go home early, because it never gets any better than this.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Batman: The Brave and the Bold - "Mayhem of the Music Meister!"

“And now my friends you have the chance / To show Batman how well you dance!”

The Music Meister (Neil Patrick Harris) “sings the song that the world wants to hear,” but when he does, anyone who listens falls under his “hypnotic trance” – a musical mind-control that compels all who hear it to sing, dance, and prance along to his criminal schemes. Can Batman (Diedrich Bader) stop this concerto of crime, or will he fall victim to the melodic maladies of the Music Meister? And will Black Canary (Grey DeLisle) prove herself sidekick – or lover?

While we’ve been looking week by week at Batman: The Animated Series, “Mayhem of the Music Meister!” represents something completely different from Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Focused less on neo-noir in the shadows of Gotham, The Brave and the Bold instead turns a loving eye toward the Silver Age of the DC Universe, with creative off-beat villains whose defeat can only be accomplished when Batman teams up with a different hero each episode, be it Aquaman, Red Tornado, the Doom Patrol, or OMAC. Tonally, it’s much closer to Batman ’66 than Batman (1989), but for true believers like myself, there’s much to love about this playful take that’s more “Caped Crusader” than “Dark Knight.”

“Mayhem” is unique also for being a musical episode, which seems pretty far beyond the pale for a character like Batman. (Tellingly, Batman never sings, save for a warbling vocalization at the episode’s climax.) But this episode is definitively one of the best of The Brave and the Bold’s 65-episode run because of how enthusiastically it embraces its quirkiness and develops an unforgettable new nemesis for Batman – The Music Meister, brought to maniacal life by Neil Patrick Harris. The songs are catchy, populated by more clever couplets than any Bat-shark repellent could rebuff, but Harris is so into the character that his dulcet tones and power chords come to wicked gleeful life with one of the best supervillain laughs of all time. (Hat-tip to NPH’s other villainous musical, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.)

On the surface, a villain whose power is essentially song-and-dance compulsion sounds quite bizarre, and it’s certainly the kind of thing that’s difficult to accomplish in a comic book – hence why Music Meister debuted here, even though he feels like he’d have fit right in on Batman ’66. “Mayhem” and indeed the show at large are hyper-conscious of the significance of legacy to the character of Batman, and so Music Meister unveils a number of costumes over the course of the episode – a Music Man outfit, a Liberace-esque number, a 90s-style exxxtreme suit punctuated by pouches and giant speakers, and the classical music-note suit that’s become his trademark in his short stint with fans. Even the episode’s songs gesture toward the long shadow of the bat; Green Arrow croons of his envy of Batman’s popularity as “top cat,” while Music Meister gets a ballad of frustration with the inmates at Arkham because Batman “really drives us bats.”

And against all odds, the episode also manages to include a romantic subplot that does more justice to the Green Arrow/Black Canary relationship than Arrow has accomplished in five seasons. It’s a great treat to see a completely asexual Batman obliviously repudiating Black Canary’s offer to be his “gal-pal,” and it’s equally fulfilling for Green Arrow to duet with her in a reprise of her romantic elegy “If Only,” in which she croons with a straight face, “A brave man / like no man / Be my man / Batman.” But as irresistible as the Caped Crusader may be, it’s difficult to imagine he could ever love someone “like he loves fighting villainy.”

But the unapologetic star is Music Meister himself, who gets no fewer than three starring numbers to himself. The first, “I’m The Music Meister,” introduces him with all the pomp and fanfare befitting a man who loves the sound of his own voice. Then it’s the aforementioned “Drives Us Bats” and a brief stopover to try to convince Black Canary, in “If Only,” that their voices are perfectly matched – and really, how ingenious a stroke is it that the musical villain is paired off against the hero whose superpower is her voice? Finally, it’s the James Bond-esque “The World Is Mine,” where the Music Meister trills his way through global conquest. His larcenous scheme ultimately seems quite petty, but then the character himself is frequently petulant, imprisoning Black Canary in a death trap when she rejects his advances.

In short, “Mayhem of the Music Meister!” is an episode that seems improbable at best, but it succeeds against all odds through brute force enthusiasm and unapologetically vibrant musical entertainment. It’s the kind of episode that gets stuck in your head in more ways than one, and as a one-off venture into a lighter corner of Batman’s legacy, you really can’t do much better.

Original Air Date: October 23, 2009

Writer: Michael Jelenic

Director: Ben Jones

Villains: The Music Meister (Neil Patrick Harris); Black Manta (Kevin Michael Richardson), Clock King (Dee Bradley Baker), and Gorilla Grodd (John DiMaggio)

Next episode: The Cinema King’s plate is a little too full to start reviewing two Batman cartoons at once... Wednesday, it’s back to Batman: The Animated Series for “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement.” Tonight, however, The Music Meister makes his live-action debut portrayed by Darren Criss on Supergirl, for a two-part crossover with The Flash. Tune in to The CW Monday at 8/7c for Supergirl, then Tuesday at 8/7c for The Flash!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "It's Never Too Late"

“I seen it. Like a dark angel snatching the guy from the fires of Hades, man.”

While the criminal empire of Arnold Stromwell (Eugene Roche) begins to collapse, the man who owned Gotham City faces the prospect of conceding his town to Rupert Thorne (John Vernon), even amid his suspicion that Thorne has kidnapped his son. It falls to Batman to turn Stromwell’s abdication to the cause of justice, in the hopes that Stromwell’s knowledge might prove useful in dissolving the mob’s hold on Gotham.

On the surface, this sounds like a fantastic episode, a worthy successor to the supervillain noir of last week’s phenomenal “Two-Face” two-parter. Having seen the destructive influence the mob had on Harvey Dent, we’re primed for an episode about the internecine conflicts within the mob, even as Batman: The Animated Series has always maintained a somewhat loose continuity between individual episodes. That is, the sequence of the episodes is somewhat less essential than the world they build, with any given episode standing more or less on its own while existing in the same world as the rest of the bunch.

A standalone episode, then, on the order of “It’s Never Too Late” ought to have been a microcosm of Gotham’s criminal underworld, a passing of the guard from Stromwell’s regime to Thorne. (Sidebar: how hilarious is it that the gray-haired Thorne is described as the “younger rival” on the criminal scene?) Instead of the Batman equivalent of Goodfellas, we have something much more in the vein of Angels With Dirty Faces meets A Christmas Carol, and Gotham City has certainly done better by Dickens than here (see, for one, the “Ghosts” comic by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, from Batman: Haunted Knight).

For one, there’s a tonal clash here between the gritty crime drama of the episode’s first half and its preachy morality play in the second, one that never really reconciles with the episode’s full potential. The idea of an eleventh-hour repentance spurred by the memory of a childhood trauma – one which involves a man who grows up to be a priest, no less – seems too maudlin by half, particularly in a show which has already demonstrated how comfortable it is with psychological complexity. The fact that we’ve never heard of Stromwell before – or since, for that matter – doesn’t aid the audience in rallying behind the urgency behind Batman’s quest to convert the criminal.

That’s maybe the worst part of this episode – Batman is reduced to a supporting character in a story that frankly doesn’t require him. The above quotation suggests that Batman is seen as a grim figure of vengeance, some hellish unforgiving beast loosed on the city’s seedy underbelly. Instead, he’s barely a guardian angel, standing near Stromwell and imploring him to repent like something closer to Frank Capra than Frank Miller. If Batman had lived up to the promise of that imagery and the, truthfully, badass moment when he beats a mobster with another mobster, I might be looking more forgivingly on this episode.

Director Boyd Kirkland does some interesting things with the imagery of light, juxtaposing a train’s lamp with squad cars and a little shadowplay against building walls, but a visual flourish isn’t enough to redeem an episode. I had said last week that I didn’t remember this episode at all, and now I know why. “It’s Never Too Late” is a little like a general anesthetic – you know something happened, and you have a vague sense of who was around, but you won’t remember much until you see the recording. Even then, it might actually be too late.

Original Air Date: September 10, 1992

Writer: Tom Ruegger & Garin Wolf

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villain: Rupert Thorne (John Vernon) & Arnold Stromwell (Eugene Roche)

Next episode: “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement,” in which Batman’s wings are clipped by a certain fowl foe.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

For an early March release starring a giant computer-generated ape and a jukebox soundtrack to make Suicide Squad blush, designed to be the second installment in an ongoing yet untested franchise, Kong: Skull Island is far better than it has any right to be. While far from the second coming of monster movies, it’s worth a look because of its fun use of the adventure horror genre with a cast that is never less than engaging.

What is the secret of Skull Island? In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, a government researcher (John Goodman) assembles a team for an expedition to the mysterious landmass – including a British tracker (Tom Hiddleston), a military escort (Samuel L. Jackson), and a war photographer (Brie Larson). However, not everyone on the team knows that Skull Island is home to the colossal Kong, a mighty ape who’s far from the least of their worries.

I’ve seen a lot of critics lament the belabored point that Kong: Skull Island does not live up to the original 1933 film, to which I have to say – is it supposed to? Isn’t this a bit like complaining that your girlfriend’s recipe for apple pie can’t compare to the one that’s been in your family for generations? And as apple pies go, Kong: Skull Island is a real peach of a pie. I laughed, I held my breath, and I thrilled to the spectacle (and seeing it in an immersive 3D IMAX experience didn’t hurt). It’s popcorn fun at its finest.

Kong: Skull Island is exuberantly fun, enthusiastic about its content, but more importantly it gets the audience on board with that with equal fervor. After an opening scene that ably demonstrates the scope of the action, the film stages several scenes of character development – admittedly, this isn’t War & Peace, and the characters aren’t exactly breaking any molds, but the performers are having so much fun nibbling on the scenery that it’s easy to play along. Once we get to Skull Island, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts stages a number of very engrossing set pieces that I’ve called adventure horror – think Pirates of the Caribbean by way of Alien, Stephen King’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kong: Skull Island mixes the period piece atmosphere of a comedic adventure film with the sudden onset of terrifying dread as these funny characters find themselves in genuinely perilous situations, and it’s to Vogt-Roberts’s credit that these tonal shifts manage not to feel disjointed.

I’ve said that the character work in Kong: Skull Island won’t dazzle you with originality, but again, in a film that stars King Kong, I’m not sure they need to do so. And the good news is that Kong is really quite stunning, like the recent Planet of the Apes movies on steroids. While I was aware that Kong has been, for lack of a better term, embiggened so that he can eventually go toe-to-toe with Godzilla in a sequel down the pike, I couldn’t help feeling that a larger Kong was what set this one apart and justified another Kong film. (I was surprised, however, to read that we’ve had fewer than ten King Kong films since 1933. That number seems low to me.) That larger Kong motivates our characters to react differently to him; he’s no longer a sideshow attraction to be captured and tamed. He’s a dangerous monster, either an object of fear or a massive target to kill. Tom Hiddleston does broody and British as well as ever, tracking and understanding Kong, while Brie Larson gets to do a fun updated riff on the Fay Wray “damsel” who draws Kong’s eye in a way that feels fresh and more female-friendly than before. While Shea Whigham ends up stealing the show with his blissfully oblivious army captain, it’s Samuel L. Jackson’s eyes themselves who become a star attraction. Frequently shot in intense close-ups that look like something out of a samurai revenge film, Jackson’s eyes play the fury of Preston Packard like Captain Ahab by way of Colonel Kurtz, pitted to perfection against the deftly-animated human-like peepers of our snarling simian star.

To tell you the truth – I never lie, dear reader – I am not all that thrilled with the idea of King Kong vs. Godzilla, which feels a little bit like another studio’s attempt to crib the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s success by building yet one more franchised shared universe. I’m not opposed to the idea in principle, and you’ll probably see a review of Godzilla vs. Kong right here in 2020, if all goes well. But the truth of the matter is that I enjoyed Kong: Skull Island so much as a standalone that I’d rather not look too far forward just yet. Let me enjoy this one for a while, and if there’s more of the same coming down the river, all the better.

Kong: Skull Island is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language.” Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Written by John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, and John C. Reilly.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Two-Face"

“The brighter the picture, the darker the negative.”

We’ve come to know district attorney Harvey Dent (Richard Moll), but in this two-parter we meet his repressed dark side, which threatens his campaign against crime boss Rupert Thorne (John Vernon, playing a kind of Dean Wormer by way of Scarface). Indeed, Batman is less than present in these episodes, as it’s very much a conflict between the noble DA, the crooked mobster who tries to bring him down, and the internal demons that might do the work for him – demons that manifest themselves on the literal face of Harvey Dent, who finally becomes Two-Face.

Batman: The Animated Series has played the long game with Harvey Dent, introducing him as a crusader for good, and that setup pays off in this episode. Having seen him as a force for good, a close friend of Bruce Wayne, and a figure of some popular acclaim, “Two-Face” doesn’t need to do any preliminary set-up of the character; instead, it launches into – and revels in – a mode of high tragedy. Like every tragic hero, Harvey Dent labors under hamartia, a fatal flaw that will prove to be his undoing: for Hamlet, it was indecision; Oedipus had hubris; and Harvey Dent has a repressed violent personality, which causes him to lash out when sufficiently provoked.

This psychological depth is something we haven’t quite seen on Batman: The Animated Series just yet; we’ve had very engaging villains in The Joker, Poison Ivy, and Scarecrow, but I wouldn’t say they have a fully fleshed-out psychological profile like Two-Face does. We know him intimately by the time this two-parter concludes, and we mourn for him just as we revile the villain he has become. Richard Moll deserves some kudos for the doubling act he plays in voicing Dent, wavering between smooth polish and sharp snarl, and “Big Bad Harv,” but it’s the writing that shines on this episode.

Or should I say, episodes, for how perfect it is that Two-Face gets two episodes to develop! Better still, the two episodes feel somewhat bifurcated, two distinct halves rather than a seamless whole; the first is a noir-ish gangster tragedy, while the second delves into the tropes of the supervillain, with Two-Face embracing his new identity and indulging in henchmen, a secret hideout, a new costume, and a criminal scheme that heartbreakingly still seeks to do some of the good Harvey Dent was unable to accomplish.

It’s been said that “Two-Face” is the episode when BtAS grew up, and I’d have to agree; after ten episodes, this one feels the most mature, the most thorough, and the most compelling. It’s likely due to the time given to flesh out the story and its characters – it’s no coincidence that most of the show’s two-part episodes are among its best – but I think it’s also due to the script’s willingness to take the concept seriously, to confront the tragedy at the core of Harvey Dent rather than simply run with the gimmick of twos. We have plenty more Two-Face episodes down the pike, and they’ll all pack a punch now that we know who he is and how he came to be. And “Two-Face” sets a high bar for the villains BtAS has yet to introduce. And the good news is that many of them live up to – and, in the case of at least one, exceed – the reputation of this two-part episode.

Original Air Date: September 25-28, 1992

Writer: Randy Rogel & Alan Burnett

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villain: Two-Face (Richard Moll) and Rupert Thorne (John Vernon)

Next episode: “It’s Never Too Late,” in which ... I gotta be honest, I don’t remember this one at all.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Logan (2017)

Does anyone else feel old when we consider that Fox has been making X-Men movies for seventeen years? I haven’t missed a one among the ten – and yes, Logan brings us squarely into double digits (the Marvel Cinematic Universe, incidentally, hit that milestone in six years and will double it by 2018). But fortunately it’s only the characters who are showing their age, as director James Mangold, his performers, and the story are as fresh and vibrant as can be, sending out Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine with what is undoubtedly his strongest solo outing yet.

In the year 2029, the world has seen the last of the mutants, with only Logan (Hugh Jackman), the ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), and his caretaker Caliban (Stephen Merchant) left. Though Logan is looking to rest as his healing factor shows signs of slowing down, the arrival of a mysterious child (newcomer Dafne Keen) forces him to unsheathe his claws to protect her from the forces pursuing her.

Logan is not a film that is likely to leave you cheering in your seats, eagerly awaiting for a post-credits tease for the next chapter in the story. (Indeed, there’s nothing after the credits.) Instead, it’s a complete package that left me stuck in my seat for a little bit as I processed what I’d just seen. It’s a film, and I say that as someone who loves the popcorn movie installments of the X-Men franchise just as well (well, maybe not all of – or even much of – The Last Stand). Whether it’s the best of the X-Men films makes me wonder if critics have forgotten the masterful X2: X-Men United, certainly the best movie about the X-Men as such, but Logan is certainly the best of the Wolverine trilogy and the best work done with the character.

I’m not, then, terribly interested in ranking this film among the X-Men canon, nor do I care much for whether the comparison to The Dark Knight is an apt one. (For my money, Nolan’s middle Bat-film is such a slick piece of work that I think we can safely enjoy one without comparison to the other.) What I care about are the characters, which is something I haven’t often felt about the X-Men movies; sure, it’s been a hoot to see Jean Grey and Beast alongside Magneto and Jubilee, but the X-films have always leaned perhaps a little too heavily on the benefit of fifty years of source material without doing the yeoman’s work of characterization on film. “Whoa, I care about this,” I remarked to myself near the end of the film’s second act, due in large part to the careful precision of character development on display in Logan. Rather than rely on the previous films’ relationship dynamics – or worse, their messy continuity – Logan takes that all as prologue to (re)introduce Logan and Charles as caretaker and curmudgeon.

Jackman and Stewart are doing what is demonstrably their best and most interesting work as these characters, in part because of how different they are from the Wolverine and Professor X we know, but also because of how deftly they manage to convey that difference without losing the core of the characters – the sublimated pain and rage of one, and the desperate need to nurture of the other. Fitting so comfortably into this dynamic is Dafne Keen, who’s so compelling as the girl who would be X-23 (and currently the All-New Wolverine) that I’m genuinely excited to see her grow into the role. That Keen’s role is largely silent speaks volumes (pun intended) for her dexterity as a performer.

I had worried that those who cried “Too dark!” at Batman v Superman might prove the dominating voice in the conversation about the evolution of superhero film as a genre, but between Logan and Deadpool I am gladdened to see a contingent of directors who, in very different ways, are challenging what superhero movies can be by allowing the characters, not the merchandise, to dictate the tenor of the narrative. The fact is that Logan is brutally violent, unflinching in its use of profanity to illustrate the frustrations of our protagonists, and it earns its R-rating with that breathless “wow” feeling.

We’ve got at least five more superhero movies coming this year, but the bar’s been set pretty high by Logan. It’s also a crying shame that Jackman and Stewart are signing off with this one, because one does leave the theater with the acute sense of loss at the X-Men movies that could have been if only they’d been this good from the start. In that sense, Logan is like The Dark Knight, in that it shows us what’s possible when a filmmaker is allowed to take these characters in fresh directions. Sayonara, bub. We hardly knew ye.

Logan is rated R for “strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity.” Directed by James Mangold. Written by James Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green. Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant, Eriq La Salle, and introducing Dafne Keen.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series: "Be a Clown"

“Alright, Joker, get ready for a little Bat-Magic!”

In order to bolster support for his public image in light of the frankly embarrassing state of Gotham crime, Mayor Hamilton Hill hosts a party for his young son Jordan, only to find that Jordan wants nothing to do with him. Instead, Jordan is enthralled with the party’s entertainment, Jekko the Clown – secretly The Joker (Mark Hamill) in disguise. Sore about being compared to his superheroic foe, The Joker concocts a scheme to embarrass Mayor Hill and rid himself of his hated enemy Batman, all with his usual taste for the theatrical.

In terms of popular reception, I often see “Be A Clown” compared to “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement,” another child-centric episode in which a youngster is caught between Batman and one of his villains. Moreover, these episodes usually don’t get much popular acclaim and are frequently derided because of their inclusion of young characters. For my money, though, “Be A Clown” has always been a favorite. It’s just so playfully weird, and the central role of The Joker is pitch perfect.

Shades of The Killing Joke abound in Joker’s use of a dilapidated carnival as his headquarters, but the episode replaces Alan Moore’s brutality with sideshow lunacy, as when Joker has a ready-made meringue pie to hurl at the television, or when he seeks advice from a fairgrounds fortune telling machine. This is to say nothing of the inciting action in which Joker doesn’t have any plans beyond getting even for a perceived slight in Mayor Hill’s statement that Joker and Batman are “cut from the same cloth.” Indeed, Joker isn’t even after Batman, but he snatches up the opportunity when it presents itself.

This is the Joker we’ve been waiting for, folks, neither too gimmicky nor too thuggish. Instead, he’s a perfect hybrid of master criminal and court jester, delightfully off-kilter in a way that nevertheless manages to come off frightening. And the thing I like the best about Joker’s role as antagonist is that Jordan Hill’s appearance at the carnival isn’t part of the plan at all, but Joker just rolls with it and decides to have a little fun warping a young mind while waiting for the inevitable confrontation with Batman. (This sense of inevitability pays off wonderfully, by the way, in one of the show’s finest hours, “The Man Who Killed Batman,” in Joker’s oft-repeated eulogy for the Dark Knight.)

There’s also something divinely carnivalesque about the way Gotham is portrayed in this episode. A press conference on reduced crime gets interrupted by a car chase involving tommy guns. Mayor Hill’s selfless acts for his son are supplanted by his own currying for favor among Gotham’s elites. Jordan is terrified of Batman but wants to emulate The Joker. Here, Gotham is a topsy-turvy city of misrule, precisely as it should be, and the stark contrast between hero and villain fits in a world where crime in Gotham is already turned up to eleven.

Plus it’s a commanding performance from Mark Hamill as The Joker. I’ve been a little lukewarm on “Christmas with the Joker” and “The Last Laugh,” but “Be A Clown” is for me the episode that first cements Hamill’s status as the iconic Joker. The laugh, the accents, the snarls – this is what it means to be a clown.

Original Air Date: September 16, 1992

Writer: Ted Pedersen & Steve Hayes

Director: Frank Paur

Villain: The Joker (Mark Hamill)

Next episode: “Two-Face,” in which we double down on a two-parter.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Monday at the Movies - February 27, 2017

Welcome to 2017’s first installment of “Monday at the Movies.” Today, The Cinema King catches up on DC’s animated movies.

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016) – After fifty years, Adam West and Burt Ward reteam with Julie Newmar to bring the ethos of Batman back to life in an animated film that captures perfectly the spirit of 1966. Return of the Caped Crusaders is one sustained self-aware giggle as the audience revels in every alliteration, pow-biff-bam, and straightfaced platitude that West & Co. deliver with the same wry camp from the 1966 television show. This installment finds less attention paid to the Joker/Riddler/Penguin/Catwoman team-up and more focus on a Batman descending into darkness, replete with metafictional nods to grimmer ’n’ grittier interpretations of the character. Yet despite the character’s fall from grace over the course of the plot, this film never feels out of place with the culture of the classic television show; it’s all done with a wink to the camera, an embrace of the audience, and most importantly an abiding love for the character of Batman. The filmmakers have even captured the frequently nonsensical attitude of Batman ’66, with headscratching science, overly complicated plots, and plot resolutions that practically have speed lines coming off of their rapid conclusions. There are also great one-off gags that one could imagine the show featuring, such as a temporarily unemployed Alfred Pennyworth resorting to rifling through dumpsters, replete with a rickety shopping cart. Overall, it’s just a real treat to hear West & Ward back in the voiceover equivalent of ill-fitting spandex, and it’s evident that the filmmakers are having just as much fun as the moviegoing public. The best compliment one can pay the delightful Return of the Caped Crusaders is that it’s so much of a piece with Batman ’66 that you shouldn’t be surprised if you see more of Adam West around these parts...

Justice League Dark (2017) – Meanwhile, over in DC’s more self-serious animation department, Justice League Dark follows on the new Justice League animated films with a look at DC’s magical underbelly, complete with a “darker” R-rating that doesn’t actually manifest itself as it did in The Killing Joke. I think this might be my favorite of the new wave of DC animated films that began with Justice League: War, in part because this actually feels like something new rather than a different paint job on more of the same. Not that the new Justice League or Batman cartoons have been bad, per se, but they’ve been a little forgettable. (I haven’t rewatched any, for the record.) Justice League Dark feels more – pardon the pun – magical because most of these characters heretofore haven’t gotten their day in the sun. Magicians Zatanna (Camilla Luddington, late of the Tomb Raider games) and John Constantine (Matt Ryan, late of NBC’s Constantine and CW’s Arrow) join Batman (Jason O’Mara, still growling his way through the role) and the spectral trapeze artist Deadman (Nicholas Turturro, who plays Deadman as a wise-cracking Jersey boy) to thwart a magical threat of global, demonic proportions. The film descends into a generic urban fight scene by the middle of its third act, but the character work up to that point ends up holding the audience’s attention, even as deep cuts like Etrigan the Demon and Swamp Thing show up (always a treat for this viewer!). Justice League Dark is, well, darker than its counterparts, but the grim humor that emerges makes these characters more than likeable and leads me to want more of this sort of thing.

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

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.