Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "Make 'Em Laugh"

“Funny thing happened to me on the way to the theater last year. It seems three no-talent hacks tried to stop me from winning. But guess what? I’m back!”

Gotham City trembles before the might of the Condiment King (Stuart Pankin), who’s summarily dispatched by Batman and revealed to be stand-up comedian Buddy Standler. Shortly thereafter, another comedian winds up on the wrong side of the law when Harry Loomis (Grant Shaud) makes his criminal debut as The Pack Rat. With the annual “Laugh-Off” competition just around the corner, Gotham doesn’t seem so funny anymore, yet Smilin’ Shecky Rimshot is still grinning, despite losing last year’s “Laugh-Off.” As if you couldn’t guess, Batman and Robin discover that Shecky is actually The Joker in disguise, readying his final punchline.

“Make ’Em Laugh” is the final Joker episode of Batman: The Animated Series, and while it’s not the Clown Prince’s best outing it’s a fine finale for the fiend. The episode does well to focus on Joker’s desperate need to perform and to be applauded, his deep insecurities manifesting as a conspiracy to win a trophy and a title; moreover, the episode is chock-full of Mark Hamill’s laugh, which is so infectious that it ought to be investigated by the CDC. Hamill gets one last crack at most of his great laugh styles, from his hearty guffaws to his bubbly giggles, and not a one of them is a letdown. And without Harley Quinn by his side, it’s fascinating to see once more what happens when Joker is on his own, without someone to enable him or to remind him how sick he is (both of which, Harley fulfilled).

It’s a real wonder that BtAS has one last original character to bestow upon us, and it’s quite amazing to think that The Condiment King carried over into the comics (and film, with The Lego Batman Movie) in a way that Baby-Doll and Red Claw never did. I have no idea why this is the case – other than Red Claw is lame and ketchup guns are, frankly, unspeakably awesome – but it’s worth noting that I remembered this episode first as the Condiment King episode and second as the Joker’s swan song. Somewhere between pickle puns and his exclamation of “Horseradish!” we fell in love with this strange beast of a bad guy, who demonstrates that the greatest strength of this show has always been its ability to distill a character to a diamond absolute. Whether it’s the underutilized Mr. Freeze (who we’ll see next week) or the Batman himself, BtAS knows what works about its characters and always gets there (at least, in the case of Catwoman, eventually).

What works so well about the Condiment King does not, however, translate quite as effectively to Joker’s other two creations, The Pack Rat and Mighty Mom (Andrea Martin). Pack Rat never takes off as a concept, juxtaposing machine guns with stealing junk in a way that doesn’t resonate as much as it needs for being the entire second act of the episode. Mighty Mom, too, isn’t alchemically successful, reminding one more than a little of a broom-wielding Stompa from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga. What’s more, after last week’s oddly topical prefiguring of Donald Trump, there’s no getting around the fact that Mighty Mom is a deliberate caricature of Roseanne Barr. Were it not for the short-lived reboot of Roseanne over on ABC, this is the kind of joke that would not have aged well, much less recognizably, but even with a new season of the Conners, Mighty Mom is nowhere near as effective beyond a throwaway gag.

“Make ’Em Laugh” does, however, begin and end with a bang, and any episode that includes Hamill’s Joker has an uphill battle toward being unengaging. And if this episode is only remembered as the one that gave us the Condiment King, I really don’t think that’s such a bad thing. The world needs more offbeat Bat-villains like the Condiment King and Mister Toad and Kite Man (“hell, yeah”); Gotham may be a worse place for them, but our world is all the better with them in it. “Make ’Em Laugh” remembers to leave us with a smile, and the “just another night in Gotham” atmosphere takes the sting out of this being the antepenultimate episode of the show.

Original Air Date: November 5, 1994

Writers: Paul Dini and Randy Rogel

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villain: The Joker (Mark Hamill)

Next episode: “Deep Freeze,” in which Mr. Freeze returns for his only other episode.

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

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "Lock-Up"

“Before I came here, Arkham was a revolving door for every maniac in Gotham. I kept them in. Me! Now I realize I was wrong to punish those pathetic miscreants! They’re only symptoms! You’re the cause!”

A generous grant from the Wayne Foundation allows Arkham Asylum to hire a new chief of security. But Lyle Bolton (Bruce Weitz) is proving to be something of a tyrant, scaring the inmates with his brutal tactics. A panel convenes to dismiss Bolton, who swears revenge on all the soft-hearted types who enable the villains of Gotham. Six months later, Bolton rebrands himself as Lock-Up, out to imprison those who expelled him from Arkham. 

We try not to get too political around these parts, but I had to do a double-take that this episode was from 1994 and not this year because I can honestly say I was not expecting Donald Trump to show up in this episode. No, the current president doesn’t appear in any physical or wholly recognizable form, but there are a few beats in this episode that felt very prescient these fourteen years later. It starts with Bolton’s vocal critique of “the permissive, liberal media” – a sneer that I didn’t know existed that long ago – and continues through Lock-Up’s invitation that he and Batman “can make this city safe again.” Coupled with Lock-Up’s hardline attitude against criminals and those he believes enable them, there’s just something oddly timeless about this episode.

Adding to the odd familiarity of this episode, I had only just recently read the comic book issues that took Lock-Up from the animated series and brought him into the comics continuity. It would seem, then, that Paul Dini came up with another winner of a character. What works in this episode is the way that Lock-Up serves as a dark reflection of Batman himself (a key component of all Bat-villains); his fanatical devotion to incarcerating criminals matches Batman’s drive to clean the streets of Gotham, but his willingness to serve as both jury and prison warden is a line Batman must never cross. Batman here possesses a healthy respect for the institutions of Gotham, which Lock-Up casts aside as soon as he is discovered to have transgressed the ethical lines of those systems.

Lock-Up serves as a good reminder to Batman that he needs those systems to curb his own vigilante impulses, but it’s not a lesson he particularly needs to learn. This episode wisely begins with the revelation that the Wayne Foundation has been financially supporting Arkham Asylum, and there are two ways to look at this. Either Batman is subsidizing a prison to hold his prey, or Bruce Wayne is genuinely invested in helping rehabilitate the asylum’s inmates, and I prefer to think it’s the latter. Once he gets wind that Bolton is terrorizing his charges – even, in a particularly Dini point of irony, the Scarecrow – Bruce steps in and investigates. He doesn’t unilaterally dismiss Bolton; he waits for due process to determine his guilt. There’s a beautiful beat where Bruce realizes the witnesses are lying out of fear, but he doesn’t say anything because he believes so ardently in the process. To me, that’s beautiful because I want a Batman who believes in law and order, who knows the sad irony that his nightly activities must step outside the law he’s sworn to protect because, at some point, he knows he has to step back and let the system at least try to do its work.

Harvey Bullock knows it too, and this episode was smart to include him in the conversation. Robert Costanzo continues his underrated run as the definitive Bullock (though over on Gotham, Donal Logue is giving him a run for his money), and as the show winds down, there’s a sobering sense that this might be the last time we see any of these people (barring, of course, The New Batman Adventures). While it might seem like a waste to introduce a brand new villain when there are so many other toys in the toybox, Lock-Up lets us see one more time how all these toys fit together. Bullock gets a wonderful sequence with Batman where he begrudgingly enlists Batman’s help, a pleasant reminder of the long road these two men have traveled together; Bullock was never all that crazy about Batman, but he’s come a long from the openly hostile man we saw blame Batman for his own mistakes in “P.O.V.”

Robin, too, gets a moment to shine in this episode, which is extremely helpful to a character who has too often felt like an ancillary sidekick for a show that was at least nominally marketed as “The Adventures of Batman & Robin.” Here Robin serves as a light in the darkness, gently ribbing Bruce for accidentally funding Bolton’s mania, but more importantly, he serves as a kind of face for Batman’s crusade. While Batman tussles with Lock-Up, Robin rescues the hostages, directing them to safety. This is what Robin should be – the smile that Batman can never wear, the helping hand while Batman tackles the physical threats, the kid-at-heart who reminds us everything is going to be all right. It’s the same function Robin serves for Batman himself.

I admit I didn’t remember this episode very well, but structurally there’s a lot going on that makes “Lock-Up” more successful than one might expect. I’ve no doubt that much of that is due to a Dini story, but the careful scripting and the inclusion of a number of BtAS faces (including an all-star panel of witnesses at Bolton’s inquest) remind us how full this universe is and how many storytelling opportunities exist in a playground as rich as this one.

Original Air Date: November 19, 1994

Writers: Paul Dini, Marty Isenberg, and Robert N. Skir

Director: Dan Riba

Villain: Lock-Up (Bruce Weitz)

Next episode: “Make ’Em Laugh,” in which we meet the Condiment King.

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

Monday, June 4, 2018

Monday at the Movies - June 4, 2018

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, more pudding than I was expecting.

Punch-Drunk Love (2002) – Voluntarily watching an Adam Sandler movie is quite low on my list of priorities, and yet Punch-Drunk Love is just a film that happens to have Adam Sandler in it. Guided by the masterful script and direction of Paul Thomas Anderson, a true Cinema King favorite ever since There Will Be Blood, Sandler proves himself quite competent when he puts forth the effort. Sandler stars as Barry Egan, a plunger salesman with seven sisters, an anxiety problem, and a temper to match; contemporaneous with meeting the besotted Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), Barry’s life falls headlong into a number of implausible schemes, ranging from identity theft to exchanging pudding cups for airline miles. It’s the sort of oddball plot that might fit in a Coen Brothers movie (think Burn After Reading), only Anderson is more deadly serious than I suspect the Coens would ever attempt, aided by a tense and clattering score from Jon Brion that seems to anticipate Anderson’s later work with Jonny Greenwood. That Anderson gets as good a performance from Sandler as he does a score from Brion is one of the film’s greatest pleasures, as Sandler funnels his nervous energy into a compelling character who bears none of the lame humor pervasive in the rest of his career. Among the surprises of the film, aside from the pudding, is a captivating appearance by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman as a shouty mattress salesman slash phone sex pimp; Hoffman is as commanding as he ever was, an apt reminder of his unsettled performance as Anderson’s eponymous MasterPunch-Drunk Love is a brisk forerunner of Anderson’s longer epics, but it displays his consistent manipulation of tension, even in the screwiest of circumstances.

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

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "Harley's Holiday"

“I tried to play by the rules, but no! They wouldn’t let me go straight. Society is to blame. Back off, rich boy – I’m armed!”

In a staggering development, Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) is released from Arkham Asylum, declared competent and crime-free. What’s a girl to do with her newfound freedom? Go shopping, naturally, with her pet hyenas in tow. A little snafu with a security tag, however, turns a simple shopping trip into a night of larceny, kidnapping, and explosions as Harley digs herself deeper and deeper, pursued by what seems to be a relentless Batman.

In the final hours of the show, it’s only appropriate that Paul Dini gets the last word on Harley Quinn (though it won’t be his last word, since he writes or co-writes all but the last episode from here on out). Harley, his finest creation, has been without fail the shining light of this show, an impeccable manic pixie partner for The Joker, matching his madness and mood swings with her own daffy brand of demi-sanity. Brought to fine life by the practically irreplaceable Arleen Sorkin, Harley might be the only character on this show not to appear in a bad episode. And her swan song, “Harley’s Holiday,” is a note-perfect capstone on her wacky run; I’ve spoken about this as the ostensible third part in a trilogy comprised of “Harley and Ivy” and “Harlequinade,” and the good news is that this isn’t a trilogy of diminishing returns.

One is immediately struck by the madcap logic that governs this episode, a crystalline reflection of Harley’s own demented way of looking at the world. Right around the moment when the tank rumbles down a Gotham bridge, driven by a spittle-flecked army general, I stopped and said, “Wait, all this over a security tag?!” And yet, as Emily Dickinson once noted, “much madness is divinest sense / to a discerning eye,” and Dini’s eye is nothing if not discerning. The escalating consequences stemming from a basic misunderstanding and the sheer amount of stuff packed into this episode might seem out of place and out of hand, but so too should a psychiatrist falling in love with her homicidal patient; this whirlwind is how a Harley Quinn story should work. As a result, the episode’s intended pathos works extremely well. We feel immensely sorry that Harley has found herself in the middle of this great big mess, and we want to see her resolve what should be a fairly straightforward mix-up. Even if we don’t buy into the idea that any governing body would declare her sane (although if any institution would, it’s Arkham, where – recall – the doors are literally not locked), we accept her earnest desire to reform. Her heart’s in the right place, even if the marbles aren’t all in the bag.

I can’t oversell what a delight Sorkin is. Her unique voice aside, a veritable godsend for an all-audio cast, Sorkin has always walked the line between effortless comedy and repressed tragedy, a four-color Judy Holliday with a nasty temper. Like Anthony Hopkins, in the space of a breath, Sorkin can slip between great rage and pleading despair, between a romantic swoon and a proud one-liner. She’s helped, of course, by Dini’s clever-as-ever dialogue (“Talk about grasping at straws! Oh well, at least I’m going out on a joke”), but it takes a special kind of performer to sell the sorrow behind “jiggety-jig.” Clearly Sorkin was a kind of muse to Dini, and neither is quite as good alone as when they’re together. (See also the Arkham Asylum videogame, which gave us “Nurse Harley.”)

And as ever, Dini finds ways to make his Gotham seem larger than life, paying tribute to the subtle continuity being drawn into this series. The episode begins with Scarecrow’s latest arrest, while Veronica Vreeland, late of “Birds of a Feather,” makes her least contemptible appearance here as a victim of circumstance and a bewildered straight man caught in Harley’s vortex. Boxy Bennett, meanwhile, returns from “Harlequinade” and remains the quintessential midlevel Gotham gangster, snarling his way through dropped vowels and elided consonants. We even get a good dose of Harvey Bullock thrown in for good measure (“You ain’t got nothing on me!” “I’m sure I can find something. Move it!”).

Like the past few episodes, “Harley’s Holiday” is one more story about a rogue’s inability to reform, and consistent with the others Harley proves to be her own worst enemy, her temper and rash judgments coloring the world as perpetually against her. Like her puddin’ himself in “Joker’s Wild,” Harley proves unable to recognize Batman out of costume, but where Joker had no interest in Bruce Wayne, Harley is consequently unable to recognize her greatest supporter. Joker wants only to joust with the Batman, but Bruce Wayne genuinely wants to help Harley, wants her to find peace. “I had a bad day too, once,” he tells her, with that heartbreak that only Kevin Conroy can leaven into the subtext. But because it’s one of Dini’s clown episodes, he makes sure to leave us with a laugh, a reminder that Harley isn’t all bad, even if she is a little nutty.

Original Air Date: October 15, 1994

Writer: Paul Dini

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villain: Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin)

Next episode: “Lock-Up,” in which Arkham finally hires a new chief of security.

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

Monday, May 28, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

It’s always a strange place to be, writing a review after learning that the movie hasn’t resonated with audiences in a big way. Solo: A Star Wars Story proves that you can in fact recast an iconic figure like Harrison Ford with a high degree of success, but it would seem also to prove that audiences aren’t terribly interested in that. I do wonder in what universe an $80-some million opener isn’t a smash (sounds like a lot of dough to me!), but I do feel a twinge of sorrow at the notion that the narrative of Solo might end up being not one of a scrappy against-all-odds winner but one of a misfired also-ran.

Alden Ehrenreich stars as Han Solo, desperate to escape the harsh streets of Corellia with his partner (in every sense of the word) Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). This being a prequel to Star Wars, you know at some point he’s bound to encounter the mammoth Wookiee Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and the roguish gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), though getting there is half the fun – the other half being Han’s introduction to smuggling, courtesy of heist man Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).

Prequels can be tricky territory – heaven knows George Lucas learned that one the hard way – but Solo manages to navigate that terrain as deftly as its titular flyboy might, finding an appealing balance between fan service and genuine surprise. In the case of the former, there is a certain thrill to be had when we sense that Chewbacca is just around the corner or that Han’s about to see the Millennium Falcon for the first time; on the other hand, Solo manages to hold a few tricks up its sleeve, narrative about-faces that feel about as surprising as Vader’s “I am your father” must have seemed in 1980. Despite Beckett’s insistence that “people are predictable,” there are at least two or three genuine shocks in Solo that ought to excite anyone with a modicum of investment in the storytelling of the Star Wars universe, which bodes well for a prequel that may as well spin-off its own spin-offs.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of all is that Solo actually hangs together as a film. We’ve all heard the troubled production history of the film, with director Ron Howard replacing original filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller at as close to the eleventh hour as humanly possible. And having just seen a case of how aft agley these things can gang with last year’s Justice League, where the seams on the reshoots were as transparent as Wonder Woman’s invisible jet, Solo feels like a singular film with a singular vision, a consistent way of looking at the seedy underbelly of Star Wars. Whether we get another Solo movie is almost less important to me than whether Ron Howard gets another shot at the sandbox, with all the Western pioneer grit that gives Star Wars that lived-in feeling. Put another way, it’s a short putt from here to Tatooine in a way that never feels as reiterative as Jakku did, instead feeling much more of a piece with the danger and the dust that made Luke Skywalker so wistful for anything but.

As far as the cast goes, I’ll wager that anything I say here, you’ve probably already heard elsewhere – for one, Ehrenreich acquits himself quite well once you get past the fact that he’s not Harrison Ford. He’snot, true, but neither was Roger Moore entirely Sean Connery as James Bond, though no one raised such a fuss on general principle. We’ve seen recasting before, and Ehrenreich does find the core of Han Solo – clever, hapless, and a sucker for a good cause – to the point where even the most stubborn among us should find him an acceptable substitute for the otherwise unavailable late-70s Ford. Clarke is a welcome new kind of protagonist in a galaxy populated by princesses and queens, while Glover does a masterful riff on Billy Dee Williams as the smoothest operator in the galaxy. Harrelson and Bettany, meanwhile, are just fantastic, with the latter especially giving a performance that just exudes casual menace with every gleeful bite of the scenery. 

If the original Star Wars was The Hidden Fortress by way of Alphaville, I think there’s a conversation to be had about which visual languages Solo reappropriates. I don’t want to say too much by way of spoilers, so I’ll just note that the film begins as a Star Wars-ian riff on the outdoor sections of Blade Runner (with what appears to be a Blade Runner take on a Star Wars crawl) before moving into a heist film courtesy of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, detouring through the light tunnel sequences from 2001: A Space Odyssey (as scored not by Strauss but by the greatest hits of John Williams), before ultimately cycling back around to the interiors of Blade Runner. Spoiler-phobes can rest easy while the rest of us try to draw points of connection, which I raise not to accuse Howard of any sort of plagiarism – indeed, this may just be my own filmic apophenia – but to note with some curiosity how he may have taken a trick from George Lucas’s own playbook and made a Star Wars film out of a cinematic bricolage.

Ultimately, I think Solo will end up being something of a litmus test for Star Wars fans, telling us more about the moviegoer than the movie itself. For the xenophobes boycotting the film until producer Kathleen Kennedy is fired for the crime of daring to include just a whiff of diversity (both cultural and narrative in The Last Jedi), Solo is a staging ground for protest. For those of us living on planet earth, however, Solo is either a lackluster cash-grab or a fine diversion through a side street in Star Wars. It’s not a game-changer for the saga (though it may contain one, in the very last place you may be expecting it), but I’m of the opinion that these Anthology films – subtitled A Star Wars Story, as Rogue One was – need only be engaging standalones that just so happen to take place in that galaxy far, far away. While we wait for Episode IX to reveal the final fate (for now, at least) of the Skywalker bloodline, Solo is the kind of side-trip that reminds us why we fell in love with Star Wars in the first place.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is rated PG-13 for “sequences of sci-fi action/violence.” Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan. Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, and Paul Bettany.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "Second Chance"

“Good old Bruce. He’s never given up on me. Always been my best friend.”

An experimental procedure promises to restore Harvey Dent (Richard Moll) and rid him of his Two-Face persona for good. But as the former district attorney goes under anesthesia, he’s abducted by a gang of ne’er-do-wells, who threaten that their boss wants to “teach him some respect.” Bruce Wayne was funding the procedure, but it falls to Batman and Robin to catch the crooks – with Rupert Thorne and the Penguin as top suspects in the abduction.

On the occasion of Two-Face’s final appearance in Batman: The Animated Series (and with only five more episodes in the entire run), it’s an appropriate time to begin to think about the overall arcs of the show, and so these reviews may start to feel a bit final as the showrunners close up their bibles and move toward The New Batman Adventures. With last week’s episode, “Second Chance” is one of three episodes in a row that deals with a villain’s efforts to go straight, and BtAS remains in its final hours deeply pessimistic but equally empathetic about the impossibility of a rogue’s reform. If you haven’t seen the episode or figured it out yet, spoiler warning – the episode’s third act turns on the revelation that it was Two-Face himself who kidnapped Harvey Dent, a painful psychological break that was as much madness as it was self-defense.

In this way, “Second Chance” is a worthy sequel to the masterful two-parter “Two-Face” from the earliest days of the show, and this is something that BtAS has always done well; in the absence of long-running arcs, the writers often revisited standout episodes with remarkable follow-ups that built on the themes and characters. (See also “His Silicon Soul,” “I Am the Night,” and “Day of the Samurai,” to name a few.) In “Second Chance,” the writers pick up the tragedy of Harvey Dent and further explore this idea that Harvey’s worst demons have always been himself. From a clever use of flashbacks to the reappearance of Harvey’s psychiatrist, “Second Chance” picks up the baton from “Two-Face” in giving us a painful exploration of a man whose scars run so much deeper than the cosmetic fix his doctors pursue.

Usually on episodes like this one, with three distinct writers and a director, I’ll wonder why so many cooks got involved with the broth, but in this case the three writers work together pretty seamlessly. There must have been some division of labor between the Two-Face bits and the search for Harvey, but I think it’s evident that the Paul Dini bits are the ones that make this episode feel like one day in a vast tapestry of Gotham nights. Continuity with “Two-Face” aside, it’s quintessential Batman to discover that our Dark Knight has a readymade list of suspects even before the abduction. Moreover, the scene with Penguin (featuring Paul Williams at his Burgess Meredith best) introduces a lengthy backstory and rivalry between Penguin and Two-Face. In the hands of a less capable craftsman, that sort of brute-force exposition might feel hamfisted, but the writers here have a way of working those words into conversation, helped perhaps by the fact that Penguin’s syntax is more circuitous than the long way through a thesaurus.

The only sour note struck in this episode is at the very end, when the episode plays through its denouement and one last somber reminder of the sad state of Harvey’s psyche. It’s the kind of melancholy beat this show usually grasped in its best episodes. Here, though, the writers pivot toward a schmaltzy retread of the final shot in Casablanca, in which Dick and Bruce remind each other that, goshdarnit, life is grand because they’re such good pals to each other. I actually had to rewind the episode to make sure that’s where it ended because it’s a tonal catastrophe with the rest of the episode’s serious interrogation of split-personality. It’s also a reminder that the show was attempting to move into a more visibly kid-friendly mode (note the increased appearances of Robin as the show went on), which was never why it gained prominence in the first place. We came for the earnest exploration of the Batman and his world, who he was and how his enemies came to be; we stayed for stories like this one, that remind us that these stories matter because they are about superhuman figures who remain, at the end of the day, failingly human.

Original Air Date: September 17, 1994

Writers: Paul Dini, Michael Reaves, and Gerry Conway

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villains: Two-Face (Richard Moll), The Penguin (Paul Williams), and Rupert Thorne (John Vernon)

Next episode: “Harley’s Holiday,” in which the going gets kooky, and so the kooky go shopping.

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

Monday, May 21, 2018

Deadpool 2 (2018)

From its opening salvo on Logan to postcredits potshots at movies I guarantee you’ve probably forgotten, Deadpool 2 wastes not a moment in reminding us that it’s the “bad boy” of the superhero genre, the riotous class clown not afraid to point out the absurdities and shortcomings that our favorite genre often exhibits. And yet Deadpool 2 manages to find a heart amid all its chaos – even if, as Deadpool’s love chides him, it looks like it’s in the wrong place.

Ryan Reynolds returns to the red spandex as Deadpool, hitman for hire, whose domestic bliss with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) is interrupted by his own murder sprees and the appearance of a time-traveling badass named Cable (Josh Brolin). Between an ersatz internship as an X-Man (with Stefan Kapičić and Brianna Hildebrand returning as Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, respectively) and forming his own X-Force team, Deadpool starts to learn that “family” isn’t just an F-word.

My immediate reaction to Deadpool 2 is that I like it better than the first, though I contend part of that difference is the absolute glut of trailers for the first film compared to a relative (and to a large degree self-imposed) drought for the second. There are lots of surprises in Deadpool 2, from metatextual references to surprise appearances from the source material. Ray Donovan fans might even be surprised to see Eddie Marsan crop up as one of the film’s antagonists. The real surprise, though, is that Deadpool 2 doesn’t just retread and overplay the successes of the first Deadpool film. Instead, it finds a way to expand the Deadpool world by bringing in a few new characters and ideas without losing sight of that irreverent brand of self-reflexive humor. If the next film is, as we’ve been led to expect, an X-Force outing, fans will be thrilled to see more of newcomers Cable and Domino (Zazie Beetz), who fit into their characters comfortably and with great cinematic flair.

What’s particularly interesting about Deadpool 2 is its pervading air of the unexpected and the postmodern fun Deadpool has with that novelty. In a scene that feels like an extended metaphor, Deadpool careens around the X-Mansion, playing with familiar props and wrecking the scenery, as if to bring life to the notion that he’s the franchise wild child, and Reynolds is delightful as this unrestrained super-id. He’s clearly having a ball with the part, which translates to uproarious laughs from the audience. But one senses also that Reynolds is frankly stunned at how successful the first film was, a sentiment that carries over into moments like the one early on, in which a stunned Deadpool notes that he’s the star of a film that’s literally spoken about in the same sentence as Jesus Christ (Deadpool famously jousted with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ for R-rated box office records). It’s a great gag but also a bemused “how’d this happen” moment that no one could have predicted.

Speaking of unpredictable, I was astonished to see the sheer number of characters packed into the film, particularly the ones of whom I’ve never even heard. I’m pretty deep into this stuff, but there are quite a few figures from the X-Universe unfamiliar to anyone who’s not a diehard X-Fan of the 1980s and early ’90s. (For good measure, Deadpool tosses in a joke about the art style of the last generation’s X-comics.) The film cleverly manages not to overpack itself, recognizing which characters to develop and which to throw away on a well-timed gag. And boy, are those gags expertly deployed, introduced in an offhanded way that doesn’t foreshadow their reoccurrence but which do manage to get funnier each time they’re echoed. On top of the jokes that are developed over the course of this movie, there are a staggering number of jokes built on moments from the first film – par for the course for a densely referential character like Deadpool, yes, but a true testament to the way that the filmmakers trust the audience to keep up. One could imagine a lazier version of this film that telegraphs each callback by having Deadpool remark on it, but instead Deadpool 2 plops them in, assuming you’ll remember the gags but recontextualizing them well enough for those who don’t pore over these movies like sacred religious texts. (Which, y’know, I do.)

There’s really only one joke in the film that runs on too long, but it’s near the end (no spoilers) and the joke ends up becoming about how long the joke is going on. It’s a gag that wallops another superhero movie in the best National Lampoon tradition of parody, and it’s one of the only times in recent memory that I can recall being successfully pummeled into submission by a single punchline. I recognized immediately that it was also simultaneously a callback to one of the first jokes in the film, and so I wasn’t terribly surprised to see the film go there, but what did end up surprising me was the fact that the film manages to land a truly heartfelt emotional beat on the heels of a tired-til-it’s-funny gag-o-rama. In a film that’s never afraid to deploy lazy writing and then hang a lantern on it, in a film that never fails to pratfall over a punchline, it was a real thrill to see Deadpool 2 stick the emotional landing in a way that manages to humanize a character who’s all too easy to reduce to a manic pixie one-liner. Deadpool 2 is one of that rare breed of sequels that manages to surprise – and perhaps even outdo its predecessor – by keeping sight of the old yet accessing something new about a character with a striking number of narrative layers.

Deadpool 2 is rated for “strong violence and language throughout, sexual references, and brief drug material.” Directed by David Leitch. Written by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, and Ryan Reynolds. Based on the Marvel Comics by Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin, Julian Dennison, Zazie Beetz, T.J. Miller, and Brianna Hildebrand.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "Riddler's Reform"

“Now, now, I know what you’re thinking. But those silly riddle crimes are a thing of the past. Ancient history that’s gone now. I’m a new man. But you probably won’t figure that out until it’s too late.”

On their nightly patrol, Batman and Robin bust up what they think is the latest heist by The Riddler (John Glover), only to discover that Edward Nygma’s gone legitimate, licensing his image to a toy company. But has he? Batman’s unconvinced and believes Nygma is still dropping clues. Whether The Riddler has truly gone straight may prove to be the toughest riddle yet...

As fine an episode as Riddler’s debut remains, “Riddler’s Reform” always has a soft spot for me because it feels like a truer Riddler episode. Don’t mistake me – “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” is a bang-up episode and transparently one of the best in the whole run of Batman: The Animated Series. But its reliance on the computer game angle always felt, even in the 1990s, a little dated, like someone felt that The Riddler needed to be “hipped up” for a modern crowd. It’s a minor quibble, to be sure, but “Riddler’s Reform” doesn’t come with any of that baggage. It’s a straightforward story, with no technological frills on its riddles; here, The Riddler is just an intelligent guy trying to prove once more that he’s smarter than everyone else. 

The Riddler is at his level-best when he’s walking around with a haughty air of self-assured confidence that he’s the smartest man in the room; indeed, it’s probably his defining characteristic. This episode really gives John Glover a lot of material for his smirking arrogant Riddler, beginning with the poised opener in which Riddler knows he’s legally untouchable. I’ve praised the character animation on The Riddler before, but there’s something just effortlessly polished about the Riddler in his dapper suit, perched on a shipping crate and waiting for Batman to discover his mistake. Glover continues to be one of the best-cast villains in the already overqualified pool of applicants from this series, with one of those voices I can’t help but hear in my head when I read the comics. 

It’s just a shame that the Riddler didn’t make more appearances on this show, because this episode reminds us what a great villain he makes for Batman. The rhythm of this episode is classic Riddler – a riddle inviting challenge, Batman’s efforts to solve the riddle, pursuit and combat, lather, rinse, repeat – but “Riddler’s Reform” takes the formula into new territory by sowing doubt in Batman’s mind. Is Riddler really leaving clues, or is Batman just paranoid in his skepticism that Nygma might be going straight? (I almost wish the writers hadn’t resolved this subplot so quickly; a dark knight in doubt is a very intriguing premise, but then again they do only have twenty minutes.) Riddler’s frustration at being outwitted, then, is matched by Batman’s frustration with his own sense of being outsmarted (perhaps by himself).

I have said that “Ra’s [al Ghul] is the Professor Moriarty to Batman’s Sherlock Holmes,” and in the sense of a criminal mastermind with a vast network of ne’er-do-wells, I stand by that claim. But there is something admirable about the purely cerebral level on which Riddler challenges Batman that makes him a kind of Moriarty to Batman’s master detective. There’s no chance of a physical confrontation with The Riddler, nor should there be, because for him the game is all. Killing Batman only represents the final outfoxing, and in a moment of dark maddening irony the ending of this episode presents the perfect defeat of the Riddler (far better, at least, than the brain-mushing of “What Is Reality?”). If only we’d gotten more episodes as clever as this one; I’d trade a dozen “Terrible Trio”s for just one more Riddler episode.

Original Air Date: September 24, 1994

Writers: Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, and Randy Rogel

Director: Dan Riba 

Villain: The Riddler (John Glover)

Next episode: “Second Chance,” in which Two-Face gets a shot at singularity.

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

Monday, May 14, 2018

Monday at the Movies - May 14, 2018

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, a trilogy concludes.

The Trip to Spain (2017)– After trips through Northern England and Italy, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are at it again in Michael Winterbottom’s third in the Trip trilogy, ostensibly reviewing restaurants but actually drinking in local culture and antagonizing each other in games of impressions and good-natured joshing. Three films in, The Trip to Spain shows some signs of wear, like a sauce that’s been on the pot a bit too long and is simmering a little thin. Where The Trip to Italy had a good laugh at the idea of just redoing the first film on the Italian peninsula, Spain feels more compulsory, intruded upon as it is by more constructed narratives (a subplot about Steve’s son) and a real head-scratcher of a conclusion that veers into weird satirical endlessness. The trip, though, has always been more the point of these movies than their destinations, and Spain does introduce a number of great bits, including a pit-stop amid a poor man’s Jurassic Park and an exceptionally apt James Bond reference apropos of Brydon’s preposterous choice of hat. The real stars of the film end up being, to the surprise of few, the impressions, chief among them Marlon Brando as the Spanish Inquisition by way of Python, a clapping Mick Jagger (who attempts his own Michael Caine impression), and Roger Moore, who on various occasions serves shellfish and narrates the history of the Spanish Moors as though they were his own family. A sort of “oh, this again” appearance by Yolanda the photographer does visualize the genius metaphor of Coogan as Don Quixote, with Brydon as his Sancho Panza, a gag that could have carried the film like Italy’s reference to The Godfather, Part II, but Spain doesn’t go there. Instead, it ends up somewhat less than the sum of its parts. I don’t anticipate (but would welcome) a fourth film to extend some of the matter of this film, but I do think that Coogan and Brydon are some of the most consistently funny comedians on film, even if this Trip seems less hysterical than the preceding two.

Sidebar: is this film the only time that the word “apotheosis” has been used as an insult? (Steve jeers that Rob’s “small man in a box” represents “the apotheosis of your career.”) A remarkable achievement in and of itself.

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

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "Showdown"

“Right nice sentiment, ma’am. But I never cotton much to luck. I like to make my own.”

When Ra’s al Ghul’s Society of Shadows abducts an elderly man from a nursing home, Batman and Robin are baffled before discovering that Ra’s (David Warner) has left them a recording. But the truth about the missing old man stretches back to 1883, a time when the Transcontinental Railroad was forging forward, with a bounty hunter named Jonah Hex (Bill McKinney) in hot pursuit of the fiendish Arkady Duvall (Malcolm McDowell) aboard a dirigible of death.

It’s very difficult to review “Showdown” as an episode of Batman: The Animated Series because, to state it plainly, “Showdown” is not an episode of Batman: The Animated Series. It is instead a weird hybrid one-off, only tenuously connected to the rest of the series and more of a piece with the anthology-esque Justice League Unlimited, which juxtaposed a grab-bag of characters from the DC Universe with unlikely counterparts. Summary notwithstanding, Batman and Robin are barely in this episode, which plays out much more like a backdoor pilot for Jonah Hex: The Animated Series.

One senses that this episode exists purely because the writers – three of whom you don’t even need to look up to recognize (the fourth, Joe R. Lansdale, penned “Perchance to Dream”) – clearly wanted to do a Jonah Hex episode set in the Old West. While Hex has endeared himself to me a little by his appearances on Legends of Tomorrow (another series governed by bonkers mash-up plotting), I’ve never wholly shared the enthusiasm on display for the character. But gee whiz, do the writers love Hex. His dialogue is populated with smirky one-liners, and his relentless pursuit of Duvall puts us in mind of an antebellum Batman. Indeed, Hex is practically Batman by proxy, with a dash of Indiana Jones for good measure, and in that sense, “Showdown” feels at least resonant with the attitude and style of BtAS

Strangely, “Showdown” puts one in mind of “The Forgotten,” one of the worst episodes of the entire series. You’d be forgiven if you too had forgotten “The Forgotten,” in which an amnesiac Bruce Wayne is forced into a slave labor camp, but “Showdown” seems almost to remember the episode and apologize for it, showing what could have been done with the Western setting, all Arizona sunsets and lush golden deserts. The scenes of Ra’s al Ghul’s airship recall Alfred’s ersatz efforts at flying the Batplane toward the camp, only the animation is better and the plotting receives more careful construction. And in Arkady Duvall, we have a much more loathsome slave-driver than the bloated Boss Biggis, with as sadistic a bent as one can imply in a cartoon nominally for children’s afternoon programming; of course, it helps that McDowell is a masterful talent, and his voiceover work next to David Warner’s is like a masterclass in “Accents on Parade.”

My kneejerk reaction to “Showdown” is that it’s probably the worst episode of BtAS but only by dint of not really being an episode of BtAS. It does contribute some interesting ideas to the BtAS mythos – namely, Ra’s al Ghul’s regrets about his own past, which has come to bear on Gotham in striking ways – though the show never managed, in its final episodes, to circle back around to those concepts. With a tenuous link to the rest of the show, “Showdown” does feel like a last-ditch effort by the writers to crowbar in their favorite character. And while I can’t quite see Jonah Hex the way they do, I can recognize their passion and admire the craft that goes into this strange, unique little one-off.

Original Air Date: September 12, 1995

Writers: Kevin Altieri, Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and Joe R. Lansdale

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villains: Ra’s al Ghul (David Warner) and Arkady Duvall (Malcolm McDowell)

Next episode: “Riddler’s Reform,” in which The Riddler is puzzled.

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