Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Dreams in Darkness"

“‘There’s always time to heal,’ the doctor told me, but he was wrong. There was no time left. Not for me, not for him, and not for Gotham City.”

Batman finds himself incarcerated in Arkham Asylum in this noir-narrated episode. Exposed to Scarecrow’s fear toxin, Batman grapples with his own sanity while trying to convince a well-meaning dunderhead of a doctor both that he’s compos mentis and that the clock is ticking on Scarecrow’s latest scheme. But has Batman finally snapped? After all, the good doctor knows that The Scarecrow hasn’t left Arkham...

“Dreams in Darkness” is the third appearance of The Scarecrow, but it’s the first one where I felt that Batman: The Animated Series really made him a compelling adversary for Batman. (Tragically, it’s also his last major appearance until The New Batman Adventures.) In the past, I’ve lamented the way that series reduced Scarecrow to the level of a common criminal who uses his remarkable intellect and terrifying chemical abilities to grab up some cash and maybe squeeze in a bit of revenge on the side. Here, though, writers Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens remember that Scarecrow is also the noted academic psychologist Jonathan Crane, and so his big scheme this time around is to douse Gotham City with fear toxin in order to study its effects. What I love about this plot is that it’s finally a Scarecrow-specific story, one into which you can’t readily swap another villain, with an endgame that only makes sense for The Scarecrow. (Imagine: The Riddler bombards Gotham with questions to see how they’ll react? Two-Face sends every citizen a silver dollar to test the city’s odds?)

This episode introduces a feature that is somewhat unique in the world of Batman: The Animated Series – voiceover narration. I mentioned above that it feels noir-esque to have Batman narrate an episode, especially one with a mysterious hook like “Batman’s locked up in Arkham.” (“I’ve Got Batman in my Arkham”?) However cool Kevin Conroy’s foreboding voiceover can be, though, it does undercut the initial mystery of Batman’s sanity; that is, despite what we see on screen, we’ve got a Batman in our ear telling us that all is not what it seems. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I know that I may be asking for a bit more psychological sophistication than possible from what is at the end of the day a children’s cartoon, but we’re two episodes away from “Perchance to Dream,” which is one of the show’s finest (half-)hours and delves into very similar themes with less willingness to hold the audience’s hand through the valleys of Batman’s psyche.

Appropriately, this is the second Scarecrow episode that takes Batman into the bowels of Arkham, and the idea that Batman’s nightly quest for justice might have broken him – even if the episode never takes it seriously – is a fascinating one, and I greatly appreciate that Arkham psychiatrist Dr. Bartholomew (Richard Dysart) isn’t an opportunistic glory hound out to make a name for himself. Instead, he’s genuinely saddened by Batman’s apparent fall from sanity and has the utmost faith in his institution’s curative properties. Unfortunately for Dr. Bartholomew, he’s an employee at Arkham Asylum, which renders laughable his straight-faced protestations that no villain could have possibly escaped. (Light spoilers: then again, Scarecrow hasn’t technically escaped Arkham, with a plot point that feels as if Batman Begins might have sat up and taken notice.)

Where “Fear of Victory” featured a memorable moment of Batman pacing the halls of Arkham, the leering faces of his foes following his every footfall, “Dreams in Darkness” moves those figures into a nightmarish sequence in which Batman is confronted by funhouse mirror incarnations of his foes, his friends, his parents, and the gun that changed his life that one fateful night. While Batman: The Animated Series has always been a little gun-shy (no pun intended) about the particular circumstances of Batman’s origin, gesturing obliquely and sporadically toward jigsaw pieces of the whole puzzle, it’s intriguing that this episode hangs its climax on the things that Batman fears the most. Strikingly, though, losing his identity as Batman is never on that list.

Original Air Date: November 3, 1992

Writers: Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Director: Dick Sebast

Villains: The Scarecrow (Henry Polic II)

Next episode: “Eternal Youth,” in which Alfred finds a lady-friend who can’t see the forest for the trees.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Monday at the Movies - June 19, 2017

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, it’s another classic case of “57 Channels And Nothin’ On.”

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016) – Back in April, I had a soul-crushing experience with Dirty Grandpa, an utterly unbearable nightmare of a movie, and so I’m not quite sure why I stayed in my seat when Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates appeared on my television screen. Actually, I know why – Dirty Grandpa has been like a bad stomach flu that I just can’t shake, and I wanted to remind myself that Zac Efron and Aubrey Plaza weren’t to blame. But the bad news is that Mike and Dave, starring Adam DeVine and Efron as the titular brothers, is almost exactly the same film as Dirty Grandpa, with essentially the same grisly randy plot, though it is significantly less viscerally offensive and has quantitatively more chuckles and even the occasional laugh. The good news is that, in those moments of levity, it’s Efron and Plaza to blame, because they’re much improved from Dirty Grandpa, if only by dint of working from a script that doesn’t aim to offend every single decent sensibility. This is not, however, to say that Mike and Dave is squeaky clean, with at least two staggeringly racist jokes and a few more revolting bouts of physical comedy, to say nothing of the jokes that fall flat on a purely technical level. Then there’s DeVine, who seems to be trying much too hard and has never met a joke he couldn’t mug his way through, while Anna Kendrick really looks to be slumming it in scenes where she’s alternately depressed or doped up. But every once in a while, Efron and especially Plaza land a solid snicker or two, and while the film is overall a louse, the dingy light from Dirty Grandpa won’t reach it for a million years – that’s how far from polite civilization Dirty Grandpa resides – and Mike and Dave does pass a “five laughs” test, though it’s not memorable enough for me to repeat most of them.

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Mad as a Hatter"

“Twinkle, twinkle, little bat; how I wonder what you’re at!”

Paul Dini returns to scripting duties with another supervillain origin story, this time for the Mad Hatter (Roddy McDowall). A gifted scientist named Jervis Tetch falls head over heels for his coworker Alice, and as his mind warps into a wonderland of his own making, his obsession with Alice leads him to conflict with Batman, who can’t help but notice all the strange mind-control devices plaguing the city.

“Mad as a Hatter” is a strange episode for me because I remember really loving it as a kid (maybe just because for a while I had a difficult time getting a Mad Hatter action figure). The older I get, however, the more unsettling this episode becomes, the less sympathetic the villain, and the more genuinely dark I find “Mad as a Hatter.” This is somewhat unique for a Paul Dini origin story – I’m thinking specifically of “Heart of Ice” and “Mad Love,” both of which give their villainous main characters a humanizing and sympathetic backstory. Even though we’d probably never become the villains ourselves, we understand them, and we see just where and why it all fell apart for them.

With Jervis Tetch, however, there isn’t that moment where his life changes. His wife doesn’t die; he doesn’t meet a sociopath who manipulates him. He’s just a creepy loner who develops an unhealthy obsession with his coworker and the Lewis Carroll novel from which he will eventually take his criminal moniker. What’s striking, though, is the way that Dini makes Gotham City the initially unlikely but ultimately inevitable site for Tetch’s distinctive brand of madness to run wild. His Wonderland-inspired mania, combined with the coincidence (or perhaps not) of his friend Alice’s name, play out in a bizarre amusement park modeled after – you guessed it – Alice in Wonderland. (Sidebar: years later in the comics, Paul Dini would create a character named The Broker, whose job it was to find these happy coincidences of real estate and sell them to the optimal villain; fortunately for The Broker, Gotham City was – under Dini’s pen – revealed to have been a tourist trap many years ago, populated with this daft superfluity of derelict theme parks.)

“Mad as a Hatter” is an engaging enough episode, highlighting that mainlined insanity Dini so frequently brings to his stories, but it does lack a little in the department of psychological complexity; put another way, The Mad Hatter is more pathetic than sympathetic. There’s also a pronounced lack of detective work on Batman’s part, as he chases Tetch around the city, waylaid by the mind-controlled goons in Lewis Carroll attire, until the grand guignol climax at Storybook Land, which takes all this allusive subtext and renders it on the level of the literal. Batman encounters the Hatter at a mad tea party, wards off the Red Queen and her soldiers, and encounters an actual flying jabberwock (of sorts).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t draw out the episode’s most remarkable strength – not its deliberate peculiar brand of strangeness, though that’s certainly memorable. No, it’s Roddy McDowall’s casting as The Mad Hatter; McDowall’s unique cadence gives Tetch a titch of lilting deranged pathos, but he does indignant fury almost as well as Mark Hamill’s Joker at the moment when his mind irrevocably snaps and he blames Batman for forcing him into the role as this episode’s villain. “Mad as a Hatter” is maybe a B-list episode at worst (a high-B from Paul Dini, which is as good as an A from anyone else, mind you), but McDowall’s characterization and the abject unapologetic weirdness push it just shy of Top 10 material – as I’ve said before, if only because there is so much other good stuff coming down the pike.

Original Air Date: October 12, 1992

Writer: Paul Dini

Director: Frank Paur

Villains: The Mad Hatter (Roddy McDowall)

Next episode: “Dreams in Darkness,” in which Batman finds himself on the wrong side of a cell at Arkham.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Mummy (2017)

Going to see The Mummy, ostensibly the first film in Universal’s monster mash-up “Dark Universe,” is a bit like going on a first date with an overeager suitor. After a number of headscratching decisions regarding the opening course, said suitor quickly begins planning out your entire future together, only for you to slam the breaks on and say, “Hang on a minute, we’ve only just met! What was your name again?” By the end of the date, you’re asked, “Shall we do this again for the next few years?” while you struggle to form a response that won’t insult by asking your suitor to change everything that brought you two to this moment.

Put another way, and I don’t imagine this has been said by too many people very recently, I would have rather spent the foregoing two hours with Brendan Fraser.

(Note: there’s some degree of disagreement about whether or not the identity of Russell Crowe’s character is a plot spoiler. I had thought Universal had long ago announced this, but I’ve seen critics be cagey about it. I’ll say that it’s not revealed until about halfway through the film, although Crowe appears here and there in the first half, and if you’d really rather not know, skip the plot summary and just imagine it says “Tom Cruise meets a mummy.”)

Tom Cruise stars as Nick Morton, soldier of fortune and antiquities looter in present-day Iraq who stumbles upon – or rather, quite literally falls headlong into – the hidden tomb of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), the forgotten princess of Egypt who was mummified after a string of wicked misdeeds. Morton falls in with Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) and her shadowy employer Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), who have their own designs on the unearthed sarcophagus.

I’ll not say that The Mummy is a travesty; I won’t get angry about it or inveigh against it. I’ll say, however, that The Mummy is clunky and mechanical and, like its eponymous villainess, more than a little bit lifeless. Perhaps it’s a case of over-trailer-itis, which seems to be going around these days, and indeed more than three-quarters of the plot of The Mummy, in precise chronological order, is contained in the trailers, such that the only real turns of the plot left for the film proper involve how exactly Tom Cruise gets himself out of this pickle. (The climax of the film, meanwhile, is its own little bundle of problems, about which I’ll say more later.)

Take for example the centerpiece action sequence, a plane crash that was done with a surprising amount of practical effects. And if you’d seen the trailers, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a page out of the Mission: Impossible playbook, but where it’d be a rousing thrill over there, here it’s somewhat leaden, devoid of much suspense (again, partially because the trailers outright revealed who survives the crash, and how). At least one horror/thriller set piece ends up being just a product of a character’s imagination, while death itself becomes quite impermanent – par for the Mummy course, I grant you – resulting in a film that feels bereft of consequence and ultimately void of significance.

Unfortunately, the things in the film that feel of the most significance are the elements one senses are being introduced, with all the subtlety of a flashing “detour ahead” sign, to set up future films in the Dark Universe franchise. The director, Alex Kurtzman, had done the press rounds in December talking about making these aspects – including a secret organization, Prodigium, which is essentially a monster S.H.I.E.L.D. – organic to the story of The Mummy, and I have to say on that front the film fails spectacularly. It is, in fact, akin to entering another film entirely; Tom Cruise leaves the plot of The Mummy, enters the Prodigium plot, and then returns to The Mummy without that second act doing much more than introducing a plot-sized bottle of continuity glue to hold the franchise together. The worst of it is that the Prodigium plot is actually a little bit interesting, a bit unpredictable, and a bit audacious for a film that otherwise plays so safely by the numbers. That is not, however, to say that the Prodigium plot works particularly well as the second act of The Mummy, overladen as it is with exposition that continually reminds us of the inorganic, grafted-on quality of this subplot. Russell Crowe turns up, monologues a bit about the film we could have been watching, and then ushers us away to our regularly scheduled movie, already in progress.

Then the film ends – or rather, doesn’t end, because every plot thread that’s tied up gets unraveled almost immediately, and you can hear any one of the six screenwriters saying, “Hold up a second, we might want to use that in another film.” (Six screenwriters! No wonder this film feels more like a collection of bits than a singular narrative.) The film is trying to end, but the corporate demand for a franchise results in, appropriately enough, a Frankenstein’s corpse of a creature that isn’t permitted to fade away. Consequently, The Mummy ends up being more Iron Man 2 than Iron Man, forgetting that it was the insular success of the first film that allowed the series to bend toward franchise, in all its best and worst excesses. Then there’s a bit that feels unfinished and deferred to another film when you realize that one of the main characters closes the film in shadow and obscurity because something has very probably changed about that character’s face, but you’ll have to come back for another film to see what precisely that change looks like. In yet another way, then, this Mummy refuses to wrap up.

The Mummy would have been in a better place had it decided what it wanted to be. Is it a Tom Cruise action vehicle? Is it a horror film about ancient evil? Is it an espionage thriller about monster hunters? Or is it an origin story for a shared universe that, quite honestly, not many audiences were requesting in the first place? And although it shares next to nothing except a core concept with 1999’s The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser, this Mummy emerges all the worse for the comparison because of how fluid, energetic, and frankly well-crafted the former Mummy flick was. I still carry fond memories of the 1999 Mummy and wish I’d been watching that film instead. It had a sequel, yes, but it also had a singular plot leading to a singular ending. Rick O’Connell, we hardly knew ye.

(And what does it tell you that, nearly 20 years later, I still remembered Rick’s name but had to look up the name of Tom Cruise’s character a scant day later?)

The Mummy is rated PG-13 for “violence, action and scary images, and for some suggestive content and partial nudity.” Directed by Alex Kurtzman. Written by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman, John Spaihts, Alex Kurtzman, and Jenny Lumet. Starring Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, and Russell Crowe.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Appointment in Crime Alley"

“I told her to be careful. Bad things happen to people in Crime Alley.”

Industrialist Roland Daggett (Ed Asner) won’t take no for an answer, so after Gotham City declines his bid to rezone Crime Alley, he hires a pair of goons to level the block at precisely 9 p.m. Little does Daggett know, though, that this evening holds a special significance for Batman, and he has an annual appointment to keep with the neighborhood physician Dr. Leslie Thompkins (Diana Muldaur).

There’s a trio of episodes from Batman: The Animated Series that always ran together for me – “It’s Never Too Late,” this one, and “Paging the Crime Doctor.” They’re all underworld episodes, and the latter two star Leslie Thompkins, but more importantly none of them left an impression on me. I’d always gloss over these on rewatches, but I’m really glad to go through the series again because “Appointment in Crime Alley” is actually a great episode. You might not think it to look at it, since it’s not written by Paul Dini, nor does it feature a big-name villain, but that’d be an underestimation. And if I didn’t know we have so many perfect episodes down the pike, I’d wager this might be a new “Top 10” episode.

“Appointment” is written by comics veteran Gerry Conway, who’s best known for creating Killer Croc and The Punisher as well as killing Gwen Stacy, and what’s not immediately apparent is that he’s working from a story written by Dennis O’Neil, a man who probably belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Batman stories (if only for creating Ra’s al Ghul with Neal Adams). That’s a colossal assembly of authorial talent, but director Boyd Kirkland is no slouch, either, he of “Joker’s Favor” and “Beware the Gray Ghost.”

Kirkland’s direction here is really quite amazing, creating a great atmosphere of suspense as he continually reminds us of the ticking clock governing the action of this episode. Add to that a notably remarkable score by Stuart Balcomb, which makes long scenes without dialogue all the more punchy (and often literally, given Batman’s nocturnal activities). This is a very fluid episode, one that works exceptionally well, and it does so without much pomp or flair. Indeed, there’s a “just another night” feeling to this episode, showing what Batman’s nights are like when he isn’t involved in saving the city on a macro scale. It’s small acts of heroism, only some of which add up to the larger plot, showing that Gotham City is a massively dysfunctional place in need of a protector even if all the colorful rogues are incarcerated.

Yet as much as the episode goes for the quotidian, there’s something pointedly noteworthy about this particular evening, and I believe this is the first time that BtAS has gone into the concrete specifics of what happened to Thomas and Martha Wayne. We’ve known that they died and that Batman feels intensely guilty about this, but seeing the details – even in newspaper clippings – carries a power that those earlier dreams and flashes could only glimpse. Moreover, tethering those feelings to Leslie Thompkins, who struggles to do good in a part of town on which Gotham has entirely given up, anchors Batman’s drive for justice in his core optimism that there are still good people in Gotham, even in the darkest part of town. It’s a lesson that Ben Affleck’s Batman needed to relearn – “Men are still good...” – and indirectly this episode shows why it’s so important for Batman to remember that. As much as the city would seem to fall apart without its caped crusader, Batman is continually reminded that there are others who, in their own small way, are holding the city together. It’s damned poetic that one such hero held Bruce Wayne together after his parents died.

The episode closes with the revelation of Batman’s appointment in Crime Alley, and if you haven’t figured it out yet, there’s a spoiler here, but it’s one you’ve probably seen in other adaptations of Batman – The Dark Knight returns to Crime Alley once a year to lay flowers at the spot where his parents were gunned down. It’s a theme that originated in the O’Neil story back in 1976, but it’s chill-inducing here; no matter how many times I’ve seen a variation of this image, be it in Tim Burton’s Batman or in the Arkham City game, it’s sobering to see the humanity and the tragedy of Batman laid bare in a moment of remembrance. “Appointment in Crime Alley” does it in a moving way that reinforces the optimism of Batman, particularly important for a young audience seeing this animated show.

Original Air Date: September 17, 1992

Writer: Gerry Conway

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villains: Roland Daggett (Ed Asner), Nitro (David L. Lander), and Crocker (Jeffrey Tambor)

Next episode: “Mad as a Hatter,” in which the vorpal blade goes snicker-snack.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

In a word, wow.

Diana, princess of Themyscira (Gal Gadot), has trained her whole life – against the wishes of her mother, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (Connie Nielsen) – to defeat the god of war should Ares return centuries after his defeat at the hands of his father Zeus. When man’s world, in the form of downed fighter pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), comes to her island home, Diana has the chance to fight the war to end all wars, joining the First World War as Wonder Woman. As she crosses the trenches of no man’s land, she faces Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), the German general intent on avoiding an armistice, and his chemist, Dr. Isabel Maru, alias Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya).

Let’s get the preliminary out of the way up front: I’m perpetually aghast at the fact that it took more than 75 years for Wonder Woman to headline her own live-action feature film, but if that’s time we spent “Waiting for Gadot” I’m almost inclined to say it was worth the wait. Gal Gadot is frankly definitive as Wonder Woman, and I’m relieved that audiences are embracing her as much as she has embraced the role; I look forward to many more films with her as Wonder Woman because it’s almost as if she’s stepped out of a comic book and onto the silver screen. The moments when she’s unleashing her warrior’s fury, backed by Tina Guo’s electric cello theme (thankfully maintained from Batman v Superman), are at once fist-pumpingly thrilling and simultaneously genuinely awe-inspiring.

There’s certainly a meta-level reading here, with Steve Trevor telling Wonder Woman that no one can cross a no man’s land before watching her accomplish just that. In many ways, that’s an echo of all the bigwigs and even audience members who sniffed at the notion that a female-led superhero film could do big business, and here we are, $100 million later. But even on its own merits, the moments when Wonder Woman charges into battle are legitimately inspirational, as is her continual emphasis on personal acts of heroism; for all that Wonder Woman is looking to defeat Ares, she never neglects the personal cost of war, as in the deeply touching moment when she heals a traumatized soldier by asking him to sing. Gadot embodies the character’s unique blend of compassion and ferocity, as well as her welcome sense of humor amid the absurdities of man’s world.

Wonder Woman is unquestionably Gal Gadot’s show, but she’s surrounded by strong supporting characters. Chris Pine is a well-nuanced Steve Trevor, funny and somewhat dunderheaded but never incompetent; previous incarnations have struggled with whether Steve is a patronizing patriarch or an empty-headed buffoon, but Pine finds a way to make Steve capable yet human. The Amazons who dominate the first act are wonderful enough that I’d have gladly taken a ticket for a movie just about them, particularly Robin Wright’s fierce Antiope, and I do hope we’ll see more of Themyscira, perhaps as soon as Justice League in November. And our villains are clearly having a good time playing evil to the hilt; there’s a fascinating backstory to be told about Dr. Maru, while Danny Huston’s Ludendorff takes the occasional chomp out of the scenery in a snarling, vamping performance that manages also to be scary.

What I loved the most about Wonder Woman – aside from the mere fact of its existence and the notion that, finally, others love a DC movie as much as I do – is that it takes subtext from Batman v Superman and literalizes it. We have had to imagine and defer the promise of Jor-El’s prophecy to his son – “They will stumble, they will fall, but in time they will join you in the sun” – but Wonder Woman shows us what that looks like in the real world. The audience who joined me for Wonder Woman was probably the most diverse audience (in terms of age, gender, and race) I’ve seen at a superhero movie, at least in recent memory, and that alone is something to celebrate, that finally everyone understands the power of the superhero, that we see what they can do, and that we’re standing behind them.

Put another way, you go, Gal.

Wonder Woman is rated PG-13 for “sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive content.” Directed by Patty Jenkins. Written by Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder, and Jason Fuchs. Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, Elena Anaya, and David Thewlis.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "The Clock King"

“It’s about time.”

Harboring a seven-year grudge, Temple Fugate (Alan Rachins) assumes the moniker of The Clock King, hellbent on disrupting Gotham City as an elaborate revenge scheme against Mayor Hamilton Hill (Lloyd Bochner) amid his reelection campaign. Batman finds himself short on time as the clock runs out for Mayor Hill, and it’s high time to stop these time-related puns from running one second longer.

I’ve always thought that The Clock King is largely underrated – both as an episode, a Batman antagonist, and a villain for the DC Universe at large. He appears in only three episodes of the DC Animated Universe – including a particularly inspired turn as the master strategist for Task Force X (alias the Suicide Squad) – and he’s been a sporadic presence in the Arrow-verse of television shows; you might even remember him from back when I reviewed “Mayhem of the Music Meister!” in his appearance as a man with an actual clock for a face.

The thing I love about The Clock King is tied to one of the core tenets of my conception of Batman. In The Dark Knight, The Joker is portrayed as an agent of chaos, whose villainy metaphorically and literally represents the introduction of anarchy into Batman’s ordered world. Batman represents the struggle against madness, forcing the world to make sense by taking a stand against the irrational. He’s a detective; every crime can be solved, every mad act restrained. Yet The Clock King’s villainy stems from his ability to create a system of pure order while at the same time finding that one domino which can completely disrupt the rational order of Gotham; he can, at once, derail a subway train by altering its schedule by seconds, but he can also calculate the precise amount of time needed to entomb Batman in a bank vault.

The Clock King is presented, then, as a particularly clever Bat-villain, on an intellectual par with The Riddler (whom we haven’t yet met, though both debut episodes are written by David Wise) but with a more personal motivation than Riddler’s more compulsive behavior. As is generally the case with Batman: The Animated Series, the visual design of The Clock King is elegant and expressive – though, unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the animation in this episode, which comes off uneven and jerky. Matched with an arrogant nasal clip of a voice, a perfectly irritated how-dare-you quality that can’t believe Batman would interfere with his perfect plans, The Clock King’s costume is a restrained brown suit with only the clock hands on his glasses indicating his particular modus operandi. That little flair is one more reminder at how objectively successful the BtAS crew was at distilling a character’s entire essence into a singular image.

The plotting is really bang-on, too. David Wise turns in a script that manages to be impressively clever, groaningly pun-laden, and genuinely scary, as in the surprisingly alarming subway crash sequence. Like The Clock King, Wise only contributed three episodes to Batman: The Animated Series – this one, Riddler’s debut, and Hugo Strange’s only appearance – and if you don’t see him on my Top 10 list, he’s a solid contender for the “Next 10” (also known as “Top 10 Episodes NOT Written by Paul Dini”). Not a one of Wise’s three episodes is anything less than strong, solid Batman fare.

Aside from the curious decision to have Batman appear exclusively in daylight for this episode, “The Clock King” is a well-oiled machine, a tasteful timepiece of a thing that holds up for this reviewer, who always remembered it fondly, even if the rest of the Bat-fan community seems to have moved on. It earns extra brownie points by including a pointed number of streets named after famous Batman comic book creators (Breyfogle, Toth, Broome, and a nod to Jack Kirby among them).

Original Air Date: September 21, 1992

Writer: David Wise

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villain: The Clock King (Alan Rachins)

Next episode: “Appointment in Crime Alley,” in which Batman anticipates the lesson of Batman v Superman.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)

Here’s the thing about Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales: for all that critics have contorted themselves to work the film’s subtitle into some kind of indictment of whether this particular tale should have been told, it is for all intents and purposes Pirates of the Caribbean 5, resurrecting plotlines from past films and trotting them out again for more high-seas adventure. So if you’re already weary of Captain Jack Sparrow and his ilk, this one won’t win you over. For those of us dyed-in-the-wool landlubbers, though, it’s more of the same good fun.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is down on his luck when he learns that the ghostly pirate Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) is coming for him and the rest of the pirates on the seas, including the lucre-laden Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). Meanwhile, Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) needs Jack’s help to seek out the Trident of Poseidon to free his father Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) from the curse of the Flying Dutchman, while horologist Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) knows how to read the map to find it.

I was struck by how many parts of Dead Men felt familiar, almost like clues along a treasure map that loyal fans know how to read. I first caught it when I noticed that the romantic theme from At World’s End was repurposed for an action cue involving Henry Turner; I chalked it up to new composer Geoff Zanelli slyly remastering Hans Zimmer’s superlative earlier score, but then the similarities really started manifesting. There’s a curse, and Jack’s responsible; there’s a mystical artifact buried on an island to which the compass points; there’s a witch and a crew of inhuman pirates with a decaying ship; we’ve got a chase through cobblestone streets and an execution sequence that doesn’t quite go as planned; and there’s a well-intentioned pretty boy paired off with an unconventional woman. I would go so far as to hazard a guess that every scene in Dead Men involves a callback to another moment in the franchise.

What I can’t determine, doubtless because I am too uncritical a critic in my appreciation for a film series that’s been a favorite for nearly half my life, is whether this is for better or worse. Put another way, I’m not sure if the franchise has run out of ideas or if the crew of Dead Men, like Roald Dahl on You Only Live Twice (itself a fifth film in a franchise), have taken stock of the preceding films and attempted to canonize the rules and tropes that govern such a movie, for there does seem to be a sense that Dead Men is going back to square one for a kind of velvety-soft reboot and revivification. I did not, however, feel that On Stranger Tides strayed too far from the Pirates brand and indeed appreciated the new corner it carved out in the universe. Dead Men does, then, feel a bit like playing it safe, not unlike the ship at the film’s climax which risks falling into an immense cavern (though I never perceived that metaphorical cavern).

What Dead Men does contribute is a deeper sense of the mythology of the universe, just ahead of what might be an extension of the franchise (and yes, the post-credits scene is, as ever in these movies, pivotal). We’ve got flashbacks and “secret origins” and retroactive continuity vis-à-vis the curse of the Dutchman, as well as an expanded family tree that Geoffrey Rush has compared (spoilers in the link) to a Dickens novel, an assessment with which I’d have to agree; Dead Men feels very much like “the next chapter,” perhaps more than On Stranger Tides did.

But for all the critical hemming and hawing over whether this is a fresh or stale “next chapter,” I have to say that it’s a fun one, and I think one’s overall take on this Pirates film has very much to do with the degree to which one has ever enjoyed a Pirates film. As before, you’ve got spooky villains with quirky gimmicks, which are animated with grisly compelling detail, and you’ve got the trademark Pirates brand of humor on display, from an uproarious bank heist that goes awry in the strangest way to hilarious confusion over the precise meaning of the word “horologist.” But there are no false notes, no moments where one might tweet out #NotMyPirates. There’s continuity here, not unlike the devoted patience one affords the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is thrice as long.

In short, dead men tell no tales, but franchise newcomers Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have directed a safe yet entertaining one that makes me equally, not less, enthusiastic about the prospect of a sixth Pirates film. (Remember, Penelope Cruz’s Angelica is still out there somewhere...) Dead Men is a useful primer on what the Pirates franchise has done, and here’s hoping that a sixth will demonstrate what it can do.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is rated PG-13 for “sequences of adventure violence, and some suggestive content.” Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. Written by Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio. Starring Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, and Kaya Scodelario.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Fear of Victory"

“It’s no joke, I assure you. It’s the fear of victory and the agony of... The Scarecrow!”

At Gotham University, Dick Grayson (remember him?) discovers that not only has his star quarterback roommate been infected with a strain of fear toxin, but the Boy Wonder himself has also come down with a case of terror, courtesy of The Scarecrow (Henry Polic II). If Batman can find the so-called professor of fear in time to stop his next attack, Robin will have to face his phobias.

We should talk a little bit about Scarecrow and Robin, since for both of them this is his second episode (Scarecrow in “Nothing to Fear” and Robin in “Christmas with the Joker”). First, Scarecrow gets a facelift of sorts with a redesign that makes him less angular and more globular. I’ve always had a soft spot for this look, in large part because I had/have an action figure of this incarnation in my childhood toy box; it’s not as abjectly scary as his later appearances in The New Batman Adventures or the Arkham games, which play up the rotting appearance of his burlap mask, but it’s definitely more polished than his “Nothing to Fear” look, which always felt unfinished.

As for The Scarecrow’s scheme in this episode, I’m of two minds. In short, Scarecrow douses Gotham athletes with fear toxin, then bets against them to make a windfall of cash. On the one hand, it’s another underwhelming objective for Scarecrow – for the second time in a row, we’re seeing him put that brilliant academic mind to work for petty cash. Then again, I really appreciated the moment when Batman suggests that Scarecrow might be amassing money to pull off a more terrifying plot against Gotham City. We’ve seen more contemporary treatments of Scarecrow take advantage of the metaphorical depths you can plumb with a subject as rich as fear, and maybe in 1992 Scarecrow wasn’t “there” yet as a character, but it does make this episode feel a little undercooked, as though there’s more beneath the surface.

That said, “Fear of Victory” isn’t a bad episode by any stretch of the imagination, and a big part of that is that it differentiates itself from “Nothing to Fear” by subjecting Robin, not Batman, to the fear-inducing toxins concocted by The Scarecrow. It is a little odd to have Robin just drop into the plot as though he’s been there all along – his “origin story” is still eight episodes away – and this episode certainly feels tonally different by virtue of his presence. The captivating idea of Robin is that he’s at once someone Batman wants to protect because he sees that same orphan boy in himself, while at the same time he’s also a beacon of light and hope in Batman’s (self-) darkened world. The latter is certainly true, as Batman cracks a few jokes in this episode, albeit uncomfortably; I’ll chalk it up to the writing that makes these jokes seem mean-spirited, as Kevin Conroy has proven elsewhere he can give Batman a less sardonic sense of humor.

I’ll close by highlighting a surprise standout sequence in the episode, which has very little to do with the main plot of “Fear of Victory” and everything to do with the overall narrative and aesthetic successes of Batman: The Animated Series. I’m talking about the scene set inside Arkham Asylum, where Batman discovers that The Scarecrow has indeed escaped. For one, the interior of a madhouse at midnight gives the animators a chance to do the kind of shadow-play they do best, reminding us that BtAS was drawn on black, not white, paper to give that dark mood. But as Batman strolls past the cells at Arkham, each pane of glass revealing another of his colorful rogues, I realized this is the first good look we’ve gotten inside Arkham (aside, that is, from the cells seen in “Heart of Ice” and “Pretty Poison”), and boy is it nuts in there. More importantly, though, twenty-four (of eighty-five) episodes in, Batman: The Animated Series has done a masterful job of populating Batman’s world with thickly developed, instantly recognizable villains whose backstories are somehow gracefully expressed through their visual appearance. It might be difficult to believe, but Scarecrow is only the second villain (barring the mobsters) to appear in more than one single episode – The Joker, of course, is the other – and this walk down the hallway gives one the sense that BtAS has really been warming up at the plate and building its world.

Postscript: how awesome are those retro sports designs? Football hasn’t looked like that since the Great Depression, but it’s a delightful addition to the timeless atmosphere of Batman: The Animated Series.

Original Air Date: September 29, 1992

Writer: Samuel Warren Joseph

Director: Dick Sebast

Villain: The Scarecrow (Henry Polic II)

Next episode: “The Clock King,” in which the tolling of the iron bell calls the faithful to their knees.

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!