Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Shadow of the Bat"

“Batgirl, I presume?”

Just when things were starting to look up for Gotham City, no sooner does Commissioner Gordon lock up Rupert Thorne than his deputy Gil Mason charges him with corruption and accepting bribes. Gordon’s locked up, and Batman takes to the streets as Matches Malone, an enforcer in search of a gang; meanwhile, Gordon’s daughter Barbara (Melissa Gilbert) finds herself in need of a bat and so becomes one herself – Batgirl – in order to clear her father’s name and save Gotham from the new mob filling the Thorne vacuum when Two-Face (Richard Moll) returns to Gotham.

Without question, the undisputed star of the episode is Barbara Gordon, and I’m glad to have met her well in advance of her caped-and-cowled debut. Between “Heart of Steel” (penned also by this episode’s writer, Brynne Stephens) and “I Am the Night,” Batman: The Animated Series played an abbreviated long game in introducing the commissioner’s daughter before she became Batgirl. Those episodes had established Barbara’s fearlessness and her detective skills, so this episode feels very much like a natural extension of the character we already know and recognize. There’s a sense of fate in the moments that Barbara becomes Batgirl, and Stephens crafts those moments with logic. Though Batgirl will appear in only one other episode of BtAS (the very last episode, in fact, appropriately entitled “Batgirl Returns”), she becomes a featured co-lead in The New Batman Adventures, where she really shines.

Here, though, it’s impressive how quickly Batgirl becomes an equal partner in Batman and Robin’s fight against crime. Though each crimefighter tries giving her the “it’s not that easy” talk, Batgirl frequently proves that she’s more than qualified to the task. She matches Robin deduction for deduction, and she stands shoulder to shoulder with Batman as mobsters open fire. Thank heavens we’ve come a long way from the casual misogyny of “The Cat and the Claw” (“Red Claw... a woman?!”) with a Batgirl who can hold her own – and against Two-Face, no less, who reenters the Gotham crime scene in a big way. In this two-parter, Two-Face orchestrates the downfall of Rupert Thorne and stages his coup for the top spot in Gotham’s underworld. For Batgirl, it’s a real baptism of fire, but at no point does the episode give us the notion that she’s unprepared for this. It’s only too bad the show doesn’t continue to pit her as a chief foil for Two-Face, because I imagine he’s stinging that a newcomer showed him up. As it is, though, future appearances of Two-Face focus more on his inner turmoil than any outer conflict.

I can’t oversell just how effective “Shadow of the Bat” is when it comes to establishing Batgirl as a new force for justice in Gotham. This episode contains a number of memorable setpieces and clever bits of detective work where Barbara proves herself formidable. She’s an expert tracker, a fine lip-reader, and a quick hand with a one-liner. In an unforgettable subway encounter, we watch her rebound from a rookie mistake to help save the day. But the episode also establishes a smaller bit of the canon when it presents Batman’s underworld alter ego Matches Malone – comics fans everywhere feel a thrill whenever that name is invoked, and so it’s a real treat to see Batman don a new and recognizable identity even as Barbara Gordon undergoes a similar metamorphosis.

For an episode called “Shadow of the Bat,” there’s a remarkable balance struck between Batgirl and Batman; neither feels upstaged, and yet neither is given short shrift. It’s an episode that feels of a piece with the series and yet feels fresh and original. Indeed, I’ll make the snap statement, absent a thorough pass of research, that Brynne Stephens is the most consistent writer on the show after the great Paul Dini. “Shadow of the Bat” is certainly a standout entry in The Animated Series.

Original Air Date: September 13-14, 1993

Writer: Brynne Stephens

Director: Frank Paur

Villain: Two-Face (Richard Moll)

Next episode: “Blind as a Bat,” in which Batman sees red.

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

Monday, December 25, 2017

Darkest Hour (2017)

When I saw Dunkirk back in July, I can safely say that at no point in the film did I think to myself, “This movie could use more Gary Oldman.” And yet, here we are, with Darkest Hour as the unintentional other half of Dunkirk, treating at length the only part of the event that Christopher Nolan didn’t recount in full – the homefront. There is probably a very intriguing “Dunkirk Saga” to be crafted from editing the films together, though I think Hollywood’s efforts would be better spent at giving us more films of Oldman as Winston Churchill.

Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill, appointed Prime Minster of the United Kingdom after the appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) become untenable. Churchill, his wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), and his secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) move to 10 Downing Street to prepare for war – or peace – with Nazi Germany as it marches further into France.

It need not be said – for everyone already seems to be in unanimous agreement – that Gary Oldman gives a bravura performance as Churchill. Oldman’s name is being bandied about once more for an Oscar, to which I have to say it’d be about time. As Churchill, Oldman is (as ever) chameleonic, disappearing behind the jowls, the glasses, and the cigars in a performance that is not quite impersonation and certainly far from caricature, though it does resemble an uncanny impression in that Oldman is difficult to recognize in character. There’s something in the eyes, the voice, the stance, yes, but by and large it’s quite easy to disregard the artifice and believe we are watching Churchill himself. And while many times we clamor for a sequel because we want to know what happens next, I’m first in line for Darkest Hour II (“Dark Harder?”) because I want to spend more time in the company of a performance this fine.

The time frame of Darkest Hour is quite tight – less than a month – which is all the more astonishing when you consider what was asked of Churchill in those brisk days. To inherit an office diminished by one’s predecessor, and to be faced with several forms of political and military extinction, with little more than the English language as your principal weapon of defense... well, it’s not for nothing that Churchill’s wife at one point remarks that her husband has “the weight of the world on your shoulders.” A brief telephone call with Franklin D. Roosevelt might seem a moment for the Americans in the audience to feel involved, but it quickly becomes a reminder of how maddeningly unhelpful the isolationist America was at the time and how bitterly alone Churchill must have felt as he stared down the barrel of Hitler’s gun. “It’s late,” he breathes wearily, a sense of hopelessness edging into the film’s middle.

Director Joe Wright is perhaps still best known for directing the first-rate Atonement, so it comes as a slight shock that here too Wright takes the opportunity to revisit Dunkirk – recall, James McAvoy finds himself separated from Keira Knightley by the evacuation. Earlier this year, Christopher Nolan set his exploration of humanized hopelessness and fractured time at Dunkirk, but here Wright treats the event as the tipping point of a global conflagration, an Atlas-like burden which Churchill must shoulder with the full knowledge that the fate of the very world rests upon his response. But Wright is careful to keep his Churchill human, too; rather than err on the side of hagiography, Wright presents a Churchill wrestling with his doubts and willing to laugh at his faults, as when he initially mangles the “V for Victory” gesture.

At the heart of the film is a moment that shouldn’t work as well as it does. Having hung Chekhov’s gun on the wall when he mentions offhandedly he’s never ridden the subway, Churchill takes to the underground and mingles with the people. It feels initially like Screenwriting 101, setting Churchill amongst the proletariat, but the scene works so well that I didn’t want it to end. In that cramped subway car – and the film is, if nothing else, devoutly claustrophobic – Oldman imbues Churchill with such grace, humor, and candor that it’s not hard to believe a nation (indeed, a globe) was charmed by such a charismatic leader.

Darkest Hour is rated PG-13 “for some thematic material.” Directed by Joe Wright. Written by Anthony McCarten. Starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, and Ben Mendelsohn.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Harley and Ivy"

“Cheer up, kid. You just need some lessons in good old female self-esteem. In other words, let’s play with the boys on our terms.”

After a falling-out with The Joker, Harley Quinn strikes out on her own to prove her criminal abilities. She sets her eyes on the theft of the Harlequin Diamond but runs afoul of Poison Ivy mid-heist. Realizing that two heads are better than one, Harley and Ivy team up, becoming the new scourges of the underworld as Batman and The Joker both try to stop them for very different reasons.

Insert the standard praise of Paul Dini here. You know that this Bat-fan believes Dini can do no wrong, and “Harley and Ivy” is one of the finest of his many fine episodes for its remarkable freshness. Dini takes Harley Quinn, already a newcomer to the world of the Bat, and does something even further unique with her by taking her out of Joker’s orbit and seeing what she can do when she’s on her own. This episode gives a full character portrait of Harley, mired as she is in an abusive relationship with The Joker and yet irresistibly drawn to his side. Dini wisely juxtaposes her with the avatar of femininity, the incarnation of Mother Earth herself, Poison Ivy, and it’s a match made in heaven. Opposites do attract: maternal/juvenile, aromantic/boy-crazy, scientific/instinctive, sultry/squeaky. Of late, Harley and Ivy have been posited as a romantic couple, but here Dini suggests Ivy as a kind of surrogate mother for Harley, who struggles against her urges to return to Joker’s side.

Some of the episode’s gender politics feel a bit on the nose, but I’d argue that the episode needs it when you’re dealing with someone as far gone as Harley. I don’t recall that the show has foregrounded the abusive qualities of the Harley and Joker “romance” (or, to put it another way, their mad love) to the degree that this episode does. Harley only leaves the gang when she’s forced out by The Joker, who doesn’t remember that she’s gone and expects her at the ready with his socks. Ivy lets us see the relationship with fresh eyes; blinded as we may have been by the visual gag of a harlequin sidekick and the vocal stylings of Arleen Sorkin, we might have missed that Joker is wholly incapable of love. And yet there remains a kind of “oh, you” incorrigibility about their fatal attraction, a romance that plays by the same rules as cartoon physics, where an anvil to the head only makes you see stars and where loving a madman leads only to an indistinguishable stay in Arkham (where, recall, the doors are literally not locked).

Batman: The Animated Series has done this strange yo-yo between two different kinds of episodes that barely feature Batman – the ones that work and the ones that don’t. Last week, “The Mechanic” showed us how dull a story can be without the Dark Knight as its anchor; this week, we see how madcap and magnetic the world can be when it spirals wildly from its bat-shaped center. Dini has long since proven himself the master of misrule, an expert hand at the till of insanity; no one writes The Joker like Dini does, but more importantly I’d say no one has ever written Harley Quinn with the pinprick precision and deft navigation that Dini did (at least, not without the character quickly descending into unaware self-parody). Dini strikes such divine equilibrium between his trio of villains that one could easily have forgotten that Batman’s even in this episode (confession: I myself forgot Batman has a running subplot of pursuit in this episode). I’ve said it in one form or another before, but it bears repeating – Paul Dini is one of a very short list of writers who could probably pen the greatest adventures of Gotham City without using Batman for so much as a minute. So densely populated with fascinating characters is this fantasy universe that Paul Dini could revel in it for months at a time without needing to draw on the narrative’s ostensible protagonist.

Batman does arrive, though, and order is restored, but it’s Harley who gets the last laugh when she proves herself wholly irrepressible, unburdened by the events of the narrative. We, however, in full control of our sanity, can’t help but remember what’s happened; we’re changed by it, and we’ll always look at Harley knowingly askance, wondering if she’ll ever wise up and drop her Punchinello paramour in favor of her poisonous playmate. “Harley and Ivy” is a real treat, the start of a thematic trilogy for Harley (with “Harlequinade” and “Harley’s Holiday,” “Mad Love” being a prequel), and it happens to be one of the best episodes of the entire show. Not bad for an episode that manages to pass the Bechdel test in the process.

Original Air Date: January 18, 1993

Writer: Paul Dini

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villain: Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin), Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing), and The Joker (Mark Hamill)

Next episode: “Shadow of the Bat,” a two-parter in which the Bat-family grows by one.

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

Monday, December 18, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

No one, it seems, hates Star Wars as much as Star Wars fans. To be fair, we’ve been wronged by the franchise we profess to love – the much-maligned Prequel Trilogies are cumbersome and inelegant, and the less said about the “Holiday Special” the better – but I think by and large the fanbase has been spoiled by a profusion of content and thus has developed a very narrow view of what Star Wars ought to be. The Last Jedi, the eighth episode in a franchise that now also includes “Anthology Films,” flies in the face of that narrow vision of Star Wars and does something truly unique with the franchise while remaining (to borrow a phrase from its composer, John Williams) quintessentially Star Wars-ian.

(As ever, you can trust me to give you the spoiler-free treatment. Believe me when I tell you that the plot summary below is only half of the first act, but if you haven’t seen it and want to go in totally unspoiled, skip down to the last paragraph, and don’t listen to the soundtrack, because Williams is not shy about quoting identifiable cues.)

The Force having awakened in the previous film, The Last Jedi picks up moments later, as Rey (Daisy Ridley) encounters Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in his self-imposed, grimly pessimistic exile. While Rey implores Luke to rejoin the galaxy and teach her the ways of the Force, Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) leads the Resistance in evacuating their D’Qar base; Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) butts heads with Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern); and defector Finn (John Boyega) joins up with mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) to seek out a way to keep the First Order off their tail. And speaking of the film’s villains, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is dispatched by the Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) to snuff out the Resistance, the Jedi Order, and his own demons.

The Last Jedi covers a lot of ground, and it’s been rightly compared to The Empire Strikes Back for its divergent plot structure. Where The Force Awakens was relentlessly linear and unilaterally focused on a tight narrative, The Last Jedi sprawls out on this galactic tapestry and gives us no shortage of plots to follow. Like in Empire, the plots splinter off and converge in unexpected ways, and the audience is never quite sure what’s going to happen. I’ve seen a lot of outlets that report the film doesn’t “play it safe” and “takes risks” with the franchise – there is a moment, about halfway through the film, at which point I realized I had no idea what was going to happen because something I’d taken for granted had changed completely. After that, I found myself trying to keep up with the film as it heroically outpaced my expectations. As we galloped into the third act, I found myself quite literally gasping for air; I’d forgotten to breathe, and it took an unexpected shock to jar me back to life.

There’s not a bad performance in the bunch, and to say more might encroach on the territory of spoilers. Daisy Ridley gives a fantastically driven performance as a woman who is finally running toward her destiny, while Adam Driver is magnetic as he wrestles with the legacies he’s being forced to inherit. Far and away, the film belongs to Mark Hamill, who’s given a meaty character arc once Rey holds out that lightsaber on the island of Ahch-To, but Carrie Fisher gives a hell of a swan song as General Leia, who looms over the film like the regal war hero we know her to be. Then there’s the trio of new faces, of whom Kelly Marie Tran is the most engaging and likely a new fan favorite as she presents a giddy new look at what it means to be a hero of the Resistance from the vantage point of the mechanic Rose Tico; Laura Dern and Benicio del Toro turn in compelling performances, too, and all three of them are examples of what Star Wars has done best – introduce us to slices of a character’s life and invite us to study further into that galaxy far, far away. For The Last Jedi is, like all of the Star Wars universe, a story about the personal stakes of good and evil, about a series of individual choices that add up to galactic mythology because every life is precious, every moment sacred, every interaction blessed by significance because each life exists in its own expanded universe of stories. (Rose has her own tie-in book; Holdo appears in an earlier novel about Leia; and del Toro’s DJ has his own comic book coming soon – crass consumerism it may be, but sign me up for the lot of it.)

By way of critique, I’ll say that there are a few moments in the movie that don’t quite feel like Star Wars to me – new abilities we see on display, new technologies, even incidental characters who feel as if they’ve been imported from another franchise. Where some have taken this with resentment, #NotMyStarWars, I’m in the camp where those plot devices feel like fresh angles on a franchise that had already recapped its greatest hits with The Force Awakens and, to an extent, Rogue One. The tone of the film does, however, occasionally flirt with the line between deflating comedy and moments of high drama; where Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 tripped headlong over its own shoes into a pratfall in its best effort to prevent us from engaging with an emotion beyond laughter, The Last Jedi uses these moments to show us that a person is never only one thing. Someone mired in the deepest depression can find an opportunity for levity; life-or-death stakes end up blinking when they stare us down and we shrug our shoulders as if to say, “Do your worst.”

Surprisingly, I didn’t cry at this one. I still get a little choked up at the reunion of Han and Leia in The Force Awakens – kudos to John Williams, who did nonpareil work there and who continues to live up to his own legend. (Thank goodness, by the way, the “Canto Bight” theme is on the soundtrack!) I did, however, feel a swell of admiration at a film that managed to defy my expectations and yet make a perfect amount of sense. There may have been a few things I would have done ever so slightly differently, but of what movie isn’t that true? At film’s end, I felt thrilled, breathless, captivated. Though it’s the longest entry in the franchise, I could have easily done another hour. We’ve got two years until the as-yet-untitled Episode IX, but director Rian Johnson has given us a lot to pore over, and I can’t wait to see it again. Moreover, my excitement for the future of the franchise is stratospheric, because this all could have gone horribly wrong. The galaxy is in good hands, and there’s room for hope.

The Last Jedi is rated PG-13 for “sequences of sci-fi action and violence.” Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, and Benicio del Toro.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "The Mechanic"

“It was a challenge of a lifetime. It took me six months to come up with the design specs alone.”

After a bumpy night in pursuit of The Penguin (Paul Williams), Batman and Robin take the Batmobile in for repairs. Their mechanic, Earl Cooper (Paul Winfield), owes Batman for saving his life, but Penguin imperils it when he deduces that Earl might be his conduit to rubbing out the Dark Knight once and for all.

“The Mechanic” is such a strange episode, not because it does anything outlandish or controversial, but because it takes Batman into the dense quotidian by focusing on the question no one was asking – “Who changes the tires on the Batmobile?” If you stop and think about Batman’s world too long (and believe me, I’ve done that), you start to ask questions about the practicality of the universe and how things really work, but I wouldn’t say it’s essential storytelling that we learn all about a figure like Earl Cooper, particularly because I think most people assume that Bat-maintenance falls under “other duties and responsibilities” in Alfred’s job description. Or that, y’know, Batman does it himself. But no, “The Mechanic” takes the subject very matter-of-factly, approaches it soberly, and ends up being largely forgettable when it’s never revisited by the show.

The character of Earl Cooper is a classic example of overcomplicating a simple answer to a question no one asked. It’s the kind of story that could work really well if it’s developed thoughtfully and adds a new layer to the Batman universe, but “The Mechanic” doesn’t seem interested in plumbing thematic depth. It’s just a very straightforward story about a mechanic who happens to work for Batman. This episode is competent, and it does what it needs to do, but it’s a little like doing a story about the janitor in whose closet Clark Kent changes into Superman. You’d expect that Earl Cooper might know who Batman is, but that’s never addressed; one could imagine a version of this story, as Christopher Nolan did, in which Lucius Fox fills this role and comes to learn something new about his billionaire employer.

The introduction of Batman’s mechanic exists almost exclusively to set up the main premise of the episode, in which The Penguin sabotages the Batmobile in order to remotely control the vehicle and steer Batman to a fiery demise. This sort of kooky gag has always worked well on this show, whose larger-than-life villains have been at their level best when they’re maniacally committed to a single peculiar scheme. (See, for example, “Joker’s Wild,” in which Joker’s casino heist has nothing to do with the contents of a hotel’s vault.) There’s nothing intrinsically Penguin about this episode, which has often been a cause for lament from me, but somehow this episode succeeds regardless in that respect. Then again, hadn’t we just seen that dastardly plot a year earlier in Batman Returns? It’s not the only reprise from that film, either; we get a reocurrence of Penguin’s rubber ducky sewer boat – which is specifically a Penguin feature, and which looks fantastic in this episode.

The fun and frankly awesome visual of the rubber ducky boat ends up sailing into a whirlpool, which doesn’t make any sense in the context of a sewer, which is maybe a more apt metaphor than the episode’s creators intended. At its core “The Mechanic” has a good idea or two, but the episode sails away from the show writ large. It features some campy good fun from The Penguin, but the truth of the matter is that Earl Cooper is actually kind of boring once you get past the fact that he’s the Batmobile’s mechanic. But if nothing else, this episode does remind us that when Batman rides a motorcycle, his helmet has built-in Bat-ears. Because of course it does.

Original Air Date: January 24, 1993

Writers: Laren Bright, Steve Perry, and Randy Rogel

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villain: The Penguin (Paul Williams)

Next episode: “Harley and Ivy,” in which a harlequin comes down with a bad case of poison ivy.

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

Monday, December 11, 2017

Monday at the Movies - December 11, 2017

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, I’m a year late to the Split party, but imagine how the rest of the audience felt when they wound up sixteen years late to the party. Caution: spoilers for Split do follow.

Split (2016) – M. Night Shyamalan is a figure of some controversy, the bulk of whose oeuvre Wikipedia aptly describes as “poorly received but sometimes financially successful.” Split was reviewed by many as the debut of late Shyamalan, a slight return to form and a turn toward a more prosperous cinematic career. Split is, to be fair, leaps and bounds better than much of Shyamalan’s recent work, but – in the words of Mark Kermode – “so is, y’know, slamming your hand in a car door.” Split features a rightly well-regarded performance by James McAvoy as Kevin, possessed as he is by 24 personalities, some of which drive him to abduct a trio of vulnerable teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) for sinister, mysterious purposes. The film is largely competent and even occasionally terrifying as the girls are menaced by McAvoy’s multiple personalities; McAvoy does a remarkable job creating personas recognizable by different distortions of the same face even before he speaks in a variety of intonations, and Shyamalan has found three actresses very effective at bearing the burden of the film’s horror. The film’s climax, though, felt a bit of a letdown as the plot quite literally runs away after making what might be a condescending interpretation of self-harm before pulling a Prometheus and deferring the story’s end for a future installment; the truth about Kevin is apparently revealed (though not much else is resolved, and even that’s up for a spot of interpretation).  But Shyamalan makes a bizarre decision when his final scene casts the entire film as a sequel to Unbreakable (2000). It’s a peculiar way to build a franchise, and indeed a third film – Glass – is evidently due in 2019 to unite the two disparate films, but it does feel that Shyamalan has traded an ending for a reminder of what might have been his last great film. Come for McAvoy’s compelling performance, but leave with a peculiar taste in your mouth as the film ends with a few bewildering creative calls. Having said that, though, I’m always up for more Unbreakable.

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

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Zatanna"

“Tonight, I can promise you a few surprises, a thrill or two along the way, and with luck, a happy ending.”

Stage magician Zatanna (Julie Brown) makes the Gotham Mint disappear, but when it reappears it’s $10 million light. Bruce Wayne, though, is sure she’s innocent, having trained with her father Zatara (Vincent Schiavelli) years ago. Zatanna, too, knows she’s been set up by skeptic/debunker Montague Kane (Michael York), so the two pair up to clear her name faster than you can say “abracadabra.”

Is it a coincidence that Paul Dini, who’s penned more Zatanna adventures than just about anyone, himself married a professional magician, Misty Lee? I’m going to plead the fifth on that one, but it’s intriguing that the first DC superhero guest star on Batman: The Animated Series is Zatanna, of all people. Over on Superman: The Animated Series, we see Aquaman, Green Lantern, and The Flash (warming up for the Justice League cartoon), but Batman played it a little more insular. Indeed, to my memory this might be the only such guest star until we get to The New Batman Adventures, when we see the likes of Supergirl and Etrigan the Demon pop up.

So, Dini’s fan-crush aside, why Zatanna? For one, she allows the show to remake “Night of the Ninja,” in that this episode links Bruce’s early training to his life as Batman, but it does so more effectively than “Ninja” because the flashback training comes in handy – Batman learned his escapistry from Zatara and uses it in this episode (and, as some have surmised, as directly as in “Be A Clown,” which prefigures his Houdini escape in Zatara’s training flashback). Zatanna also allows us to see Batman as human because there’s a playful flirtation here, posing her as a sort of Catwoman on the right side of the law. Zatanna allows us to imagine an end for Batman in which he lives happily ever after. It’s a shame that the show never circles back to her (and won’t until Justice League Unlimited), because there’s a real interesting chemistry between the two as Batman bristles against revealing his true identity to Zatanna.

In rewatching this episode, I was struck by the fact that Zatanna never performs any actual magic in this episode. That is, all of her magic is explained by sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors, or simple stagecraft. In the comics, Zatanna is a genuine practitioner of magic, but here she’s an illusionist who’s comfortable explaining her tricks to Batman (who, let’s be fair, had figured them out already). I’m sure this adjustment to her character was made to keep her fairly consistent with the BtAS universe, which largely steers away from the supernatural and unexplainable, but one wonders how much further Zatanna could have gone on this show had those artificial constraints not been placed. To wit, she’s a featured player in one of the best episodes of Justice League Unlimited, “This Little Piggy,” in which Batman needs her help after Wonder Woman is transformed into a pig. (Yes, that episode too was written by Paul Dini.) It’s a wildly entertaining romp through the unpredictable toybox that is the DC Universe, almost Batman by way of Bewitched, and it’s yet another reason why I wish we’d seen more of Zatanna.

Overall, though, the episode is expertly paced, drawing on a classic three-act structure. Michael York gets the rare opportunity to play two different villains; he’d been (Count) Vertigo a few episodes back, now he’s Montague Kane, a kind of Orson Welles circa F for Fake by way of Howard Hughes’s aviation obsession. He’s a pretty straightforward villain with an uncomplicated motive – profit – and that’s good, because it wouldn’t have made much sense to use a major villain like Two-Face, who would steal the spotlight from Zatanna. No, the episode is wise to keep the focus on Zatanna, her relationship to Batman, and the side of our hero’s quest she allows us to see. I always thought there was more to do with Zatanna and her father Zatara’s involvement in Bruce’s training – hat-tip to Vincent Schiavelli (a Batman Returns alumnus, no less), who gives a delightfully theatrical performance as the master magician. But then I’ve thought that about a lot of the show’s better episodes; like an expert showman, “Zatanna” leaves us wanting more, but we’ll have to wait until “This Little Piggy” for the encore – and boy is it a showstopper.

Original Air Date: February 2, 1993

Writer: Paul Dini

Directors: Dick Sebast and Dan Riba

Villain: Montague Kane (Michael York)

Next episode: “The Mechanic,” in which Batman Returns is reprised.

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

Monday, December 4, 2017

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

Amid my evolution from a trailer addict to a moviegoer who’d almost rather not see a preview for fear of having the whole movie spoiled, along comes Roman J. Israel, Esq., for which I’d seen nary a poster, let alone a trailer. While I’ve been burned more than a few times by trailers that give away an entire plot, this film flew entirely under my radar – all the more surprising, given it stars Denzel “Best Actor” Washington and comes from writer/director Dan Gilroy (who kept me awake one night with that masterfully unnerving Nightcrawler). In hindsight, I’m very glad not to have encountered a trailer for the film – not just because I’ve since learned the trailer unflinchingly gives away all the surprises (honestly, avoid at all costs), but because I genuinely didn’t know what to expect from Roman J. Israel, Esq. and enjoyed it all the more for it.

Denzel Washington stars as the eponymous attorney, self-conscious and awkward despite being a sharp legal mind and a faded major player in the civil rights movement. After his partner takes ill, Roman J. Israel, Esq. finds he must navigate himself into an unfamiliar world, where the legal game is sharkier than ever (epitomized by Colin Farrell’s lean turn as George Pierce) and the social justice game has changed, which Roman learns when he seeks employment with activist Maya (Carmen Ejogo).

Denzel Washington’s performance in and as Roman J. Israel, Esq. is like a great big tree. Not because it’s wooden – far from it, Denzel turns in a nuanced and offbeat performance unlike anything I’ve seen from him and yet irresistibly compelling as we try to figure out what to make of a man like Roman. No, he’s like an enormous tree in that it’s difficult not to stand in amazement at him once you stumble upon this untrumpeted performance. Indeed, there are moments in the film when even the other actors seem to be quite taken by Denzel; the expressions on their faces seem to supplant their scripted dialogue with, “Holy socks, I’m in a scene with Denzel Washington!” Not that I blame them: it’s hard enough merely watching someone else in a scene alongside the perennially mesmerizing Denzel.

As he did in Nightcrawler, Gilroy presents a curious specimen, indisputably a product of his times, and puts him in situations where his moral fiber can be tested. Washington proves himself more than capable of handling a character as demanding as Roman, giving the character weight with which the audience must wrestle. When Roman makes difficult choices, it’s difficult to determine our allegiances because we see Roman as concretely human, entirely understandable and yet somewhat inscrutable. When characters tell Roman about his inspirational value and his legacy as an activist, we buy it, because Denzel wears the history of Roman Israel with as much grace and comfort as he does the character’s trademark afro. (Has an afro been as iconic since Pulp Fiction? You decide.) And in the film’s final moments, Denzel brings to astonishing life the tough choices Roman faces, makes a decision that seems at once bewildering and entirely consistent with his character, and then leaves the final judgment to us. Where it was perhaps easier to render a verdict in Nightcrawler, Roman J. Israel, Esq. ends up more prickly, gladly indigestible.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a very strong character study, so I was both surprised and disappointed to see that the trailer cast its titular attorney as an irreverent, speak-his-mind throwback – which, don’t get me wrong, is certainly a part of his character, but it’s a reductionist view that looks only at one set of creative decisions. The film includes one of the most uncomfortable job interviews committed to film, imbued with such heartening pathos as Roman quite literally chokes on his own pride during a job interview and barely stammers his way through handing over a business card. Elsewhere we see the struggle between Roman’s code of conduct and the demands of the world in an encounter with a homeless man, throwing into question issues of perception and how stereotypes lead to false conclusions. Through it all, Denzel & Gilroy are careful to treat Roman with all his intricate layers rather than stack personality traits without understanding the core of the character.

One of the standout sequences of Roman J. Israel, Esq. takes its protagonist to the beach for a sequence which is entirely wordless, save for a moment when Roman orders a gourmet doughnut. It’s the sort of scene that, in nearly any other movie, would have been filler, designed to hawk a hit single on the soundtrack or pad out a runtime by trying to seem deep. But Denzel & Gilroy find ways to make the scene immensely potent, calling back to a throwaway one-liner and turning it into a turning point for the character. I can’t remember the last time a doughnut figured so pivotally into a film’s plot (think Forest Whitaker scarfing down evidence in Taken 3, but those were bagels), but then I can’t remember a film that snuck up on me like Roman J. Israel, Esq. did. I can’t remember the last time a command performance like Denzel’s singlehandedly elevated a movie that might otherwise have been lightly unmemorable and turned it into a late-season must-see. But then, I don’t know what else I could have expected from Denzel Washington.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is rated PG-13 for “language and some violence.” Written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Starring Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, and Carmen Ejogo.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Paging the Crime Doctor"

“I brought you some more equipment, the latest in medical technology. After all, nothing’s too good for my brother, the crime doctor.”

Crime lord Rupert Thorne (John Vernon) has taken ill and needs the help of his brother Matthew Thorne (Joseph Campanella), a physician who lost his medical license after failing to report a bullet he removed from his felonious brother. In order to help his unlawful medical practice, Matthew Thorne pressgangs an old friend, Dr. Leslie Thompkins (Diana Muldaur), into operating on the crime boss. Her disappearance, however, naturally attracts the attention of the Batman.

I mentioned last week that I barely remembered this episode, a remarkable moment of aphasia for someone who prides himself on a photographic memory of all things Gotham. It’s even more noteworthy, then, that I’ve said this once before, of the lamentably forgettable “It’s Never Too Late,” with which this episode has a number of affinities. Both are family tragedies about the toll taken by a life of crime, pitting brother against brother while one pursues control of the underworld. Both see Batman take a backseat to the geriatric crowd, standing by in witness like some grim Greek chorus. Most significantly, though, both episodes are exceedingly dull, competent in a way that prevents them from being “bad” episodes, but inexplicably forgettable and difficult to imagine on any “must-watch” list.

Let’s be very clear – we’re not dealing with another “Underdwellers” (thank heaven) or even a case of a weird one-off like “The Forgotten” (even if that title would apply quite well here). What is peculiar about “Paging the Crime Doctor” is how little it feels like an episode of Batman: The Animated Series. Indeed, Batman’s brief appearances are entirely incidental; this story doesn’t have anything intrinsically Gotham about it until the very end, at which point Batman catches up with the Thorne mob and has a few words with the eponymous doctor. Even Leslie Thompkins, genuinely touching in her intimate caretaker role from “Appointment in Crime Alley,” treats Batman like just another patient, such that he could conceivably be replaced by a nameless police officer.

Two weeks ago, we saw “The Man Who Killed Batman,” which is indisputably one of the show’s finest episodes, and while I doubt very many people have compared these two episodes, I find it difficult to escape. (Maybe it’s just nostalgia looking back at the most recent perfect episode.) This episode might seem to resist comparison, beginning as it does with Rupert Thorne refusing to believe that one of his goons killed Batman (“Not on your best day, Jake!”), but it’s worth seeing how two different episodes grapple with the omission of Batman. Where Batman’s absence was acutely felt in “The Man Who Killed Batman,” the episode nevertheless lived in the Dark Knight’s shadow and inexorably belonged to his world, a world permeated by sinister gangsters and eccentric clowns. Here, though, Batman’s just not present. His detective work is a little thin – identifying “Rose Commercial Laundry” as a Thorne front because rose, thorn, get it? – to the point where even Alfred comments on it: “How clever, in a prosaic sort of way.” So it’s not just that Batman isn’t around for much of the episode (though he isn’t); it’s that he is entirely incidental to the plot’s proceedings.

When he’s on-screen, though, Batman is far and away the best thing in an otherwise negligible episode. The episode is scripted by a number of notable Bat-scribes, including Mike W. Barr, whose contributions to the Batman comics have included the underrated Year Two and the creation of the Outsiders (think an alt-Justice League led by Batman). There’s a scene in which Batman is cornered at an elevator by Thorne’s thugs – from the moment he steps out of the elevator to the beat where he’s cornered by gunfire, that all reads as classic Barr and even better Batman. I’ve commended this series for its plotting and its dialogue, but sequences like the elevator fight show just how well-directed, how cinematic, the show can be in its visuals.

If the rest of the episode had been as good as that scene, which leaps to my memory without hesitation, I’d say “Paging the Crime Doctor” is a worthy sequel to “Appointment in Crime Alley.” But I can’t say many good things about “Paging” because I’ve already forgotten most of it. In its attempt to load pathos onto the rather one-note comic book figure of The Crime Doctor, it ends up telling a story as competent as any other on the show, but it’s nevertheless a story that doesn’t quite fit with the tenor of the rest of the show. Most tragically, it’s an episode that is a bit of a snooze, a one-and-done that’ll never come up again, and an episode without much worth remembering – a lethal trifecta. “Paging the Crime Doctor” is DOA.

Original Air Date: September 17, 1993

Writers: Mike W. Barr, Laren Bright, Randy Rogel, and Martin Pasko

Director: Frank Paur

Villain: Rupert Thorne (John Vernon)

Next episode: “Zatanna,” ni hcihw a lleps si tsac, dna cigam si degats.

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

Monday, November 27, 2017

Coco (2017)

Over the last seven years, more than half of Pixar’s output has taken the form of sequels to their preexisting properties (disclosure: I’ve still not seen Finding Dory or Cars 3), and of their original fare only Inside Out has distinguished itself as belonging to that higher stratosphere of storytelling for which Pixar became known long ago. No slight to Brave or The Good Dinosaur, but I’ll claim Inside Out as standing quite apart from those fine but familiar endeavors. Coco is, however, a return to form for Pixar, taking us to a new world with a fresh narrative that ends up touching a few heart (and guitar) strings.

Against the wishes of his family, who believe that music has cursed their family, young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) has a secret shrine in his attic where he practices guitar and idolizes the world’s greatest musician, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Miguel wants to play in a talent show on Día de los muertos, but a series of mishaps drops him into the land of the dead, where he’ll need the help of the nearly-forgotten Hector (Gael García Bernal) to reach Ernesto de la Cruz and rejoin his living family.

Director Lee Unkrich has been tied up with Coco since Toy Story 3 (2010), which was arguably Pixar’s finest film in the last ten years, so it’s a welcome relief to see finally what’s taken so long. On that count, Unkrich does not disappoint; Coco is the kind of film that reminds you what truly exceptional animated material looks like when it’s married to equally compelling storytelling. Yes, it’s a version of that same Pixar plot in which a character travels through a new place in order to return home while learning something about himself in the process, but the film feels so remarkably fresh that I didn’t notice this plot similarity until I went back to my review of The Good Dinosaur to remind myself why that film hadn’t worked as well.

One of Pixar’s remarkable strengths has always been its ability to create a world, and it’s that dexterity at world-building that has made Pixar sequels so appetizing to the general public – who wouldn’t want to rejoin The Incredibles or see what else is in the Toy Story toy box? As good as those sequels have been (or are expected to be), though, revisiting a world comes at the expense of building another one. Pixar’s always been quite deft at giving us a sideways glance at our own world, seeing what’s just out of sight and asking us to reimagine – to re-envision (emphasis on vision) – how we view our toys, our feelings, our fish. Here, surprisingly soberly, Coco takes us into the afterlife, through the particular lens of Mexican culture. In so doing, the film does a remarkable job at introducing this tradition to an audience who may not know an ofrenda from an alebrije. Coco is never directly didactic, but it strikes me as a fine primer on what another culture does on October 31.

Visually, Coco is a real delight. My screening of Coco was preceded by a little vignette about how many people participated in the film and how intricate their work was, so perhaps I was readied to appreciate the many details within the film’s animation. Individual illuminated buildings, the peculiar way each skeleton walks, the delicate ornamentation on each skull – to say nothing of the trademark Pixar bouncy ball and Pizza Planet truck – all are brought to startling life with what can only be described as “Pixar showing off” (as in the best it does). Like the famous pencil adjustment scene in The Incredibles, there’s no story relevance to Miguel having only one dimple when he smiles, but it’s a moment when Pixar can flex its animation muscles and play magician with a peek behind the digital curtain and a wink at its own prowess.

At the heart of the film is a smooth, effortless narrative which feels unique and takes the audience to surprising places, both geographically and emotionally. The film’s emphasis on music, so pivotal to Miguel’s self-discovery, also feels like a revelation from Pixar; though composer Michael Giacchino (who himself makes a small cameo) always serves as a worthwhile hand on deck, Coco approaches becoming a musical in a way that most Pixar fare has not, echoing WALL·E’s use of Hello, Dolly! as Miguel makes his way closer to his idol. If you don’t leave the theater humming at least one of the tracks from the film, consult an audiologist, because the songs are so inextricable from the core narrative, so vitally integrated, that the film might not succeed without them.

Coco does succeed, though, and it’s a blessing to have films like this in the world. Without the benefit or burden of extended universes, with a runtime healthily shy of two hours, and with a style that identifies it as uniquely itself, Coco is a fine reminder of what Lee Unkrich and Pixar can accomplish when they do what they do best. And hey, if there’s a Coco 2 in the distant future, I’m all for it; they will have earned it.

Coco is rated PG for “thematic elements.” Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. Written by Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina, Jason Katz, and Matthew Aldrich. Starring Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Alanna Ubach, and Benjamin Bratt.

Bonus review! Coco is preceded by Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, in which magical snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) travels throughout Arendelle in search of a holiday tradition for Elsa and Anna (Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell). At twenty-one minutes, it’s evident that the short began life as a television holiday special in the vein of Toy Story of Terror! and Toy Story That Time Forgot, and perhaps the short would have fared better there than before a feature film, where it seems to overstay its welcome (conditioned as we are to expect an original short in the neighborhood of eight minutes). Audiences in Mexico have notably revolted, such that the short has been largely pulled from theaters there, and I do have to say that the short isn’t that bad. It’s possessing of the same charm extended from Frozen, though its songs are not quite as memorable and its story holds a little fat around the edges. But I certainly felt impatient around halfway through, so its length and placement would seem to have worked against the short. Frozen fans will love it, but the general audience might not be ready for a "short" of this magnitude.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Mudslide"

“I don’t know if I can stand this much longer. Trapped in this suit, surviving on chemicals – it’s a nightmare.”

Clayface is back, but he’s falling to pieces, his structural integrity compromised by the Renuyu chemicals that turned him into a man of mud. With a string of robberies to hold himself together, Clayface limps his way into the arms of Dr. Stella Bates (Pat Musick), whose medical experiments have caught the eye of Batman, as well.

A few weeks ago, we saw an operatic take on The Penguin’s villainy with “Birds of a Feather,” and with “Mudslide” it’s Clayface’s turn to get a dose of high tragedy. “Feat of Clay,” to which this episode is a sequel in all but name only, introduced Clayface in all his unmistakable villainy, but it layered in that particularly BtAS brand of pathos by metaphorizing his condition as a drug addiction in an image-conscious industry. Here, Clayface is a kind of Jean Valjean with a degenerative neurological disorder, resorting to robbery to stave off his own cellular decay. It’s Clayface’s own inability to ask for help that ends up his tragic flaw; Batman is only ever interested in helping Clayface, who can’t see the hero as anything but a punitive force of misapplied justice.

This episode’s Clayface is a perfect example of the voice and the animation working in alchemical tandem. Ron Perlman returns with a throat full of gravel, where the pain is all too evident and the rage isn’t concealed one whit. Joining the voice of a six-foot mountain of a man to a stubby mud-man oddly fits this character, especially as his physical form is deteriorating but his mind is all too aware of what’s happening. The animation on Clayface was slick in “Feat of Clay,” but here it’s really admirable, capturing every melting glob and roiling putrescence. (The sound design, too, with a sick squish at every melty step, helps this characterization land.) I have wondered at the possibility of a live-action Clayface, but it’s difficult to imagine a CGI version of the character working as well as this conventionally-animated one does.

We know this isn’t the last we’ll see of Clayface – even if we weren’t reassured by knowledge of his subsequent appearance, nobody stays dead in comics except Uncle Ben – but I appreciated the way this episode wraps Clayface’s decline with a whole host of movie references. I recently read an issue of Secret Origins which introduced no fewer than four versions of the character, somewhat muddying the waters (no pun intended). This sort of immersion in the language of film would help cement Clayface (pun intended) as a singular character without these murky alternate versions. In one scene, he playacts at being menacing to scare away a crowd; in another, he throws every showbiz cliché at Batman to posture at being indestructible. “You’ve upstaged me for the last time, Batman. Time to bring down the curtain! [. . .] Time for your final bow, Batman!”

Pairing Clayface with Dr. Stella Bates – herself named for two significant film characters (hint, shout her first name while recalling she once owned a motel) – gives the show yet another examination of the way we’re molded by the media we consume. It’s not as on-the-nose as “Beware the Gray Ghost,” but it is radiantly successful in helping us understand why this doctor would willingly collaborate with a known super-criminal. The moments where she watches the DC equivalent of Dark Passage are darkly touching, and Clayface’s perversion of that film’s dialogue to manipulate Stella is equally chilling. (At least, I take it to be manipulation; the episode is surprisingly vague on that count.)

“Mudslide” is maybe not the best remembered of Batman: The Animated Series, solely by dint of not being remembered, period (and doubtless overshadowed by “Feat of Clay”). While the plot is brisk and moves quickly through its straightforward through-line, there’s enough nuance bubbling beneath the surface to make this one a winner and a heck of a note on which its villain can go out. Episodes like this always leave you wanting more – and the consummate showman Clayface would doubtless appreciate that.

Original Air Date: September 15, 1993

Writers: Alan Burnett and Steve Perry

Director: Eric Radomski

Villain: Clayface (Ron Perlman)

Next episode: “Paging the Crime Doctor,” in which I think Leslie Thompkins shows up? I honestly don’t remember this episode at all.

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

Monday, November 20, 2017

Justice League (2017)

I haven’t seen Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express yet, but I had a real Hercule Poirot moment as the credits rolled on Justice League, because I was of two minds about the whole thing. On the one hand, I’d had a great time with the film and felt a charge of excitement as I tried to calculate when I could see it next. On the other hand, I felt a distinct note of sadness for the Justice League I hadn’t seen, the one Zack Snyder had been unable to finish (Joss Whedon famously stepped in during post-production, and it shows). But as I looked around the theater, I heard people clapping (I can’t remember the last time that happened), saw them turning in their seats to talk to complete strangers about this or that aspect of the film – Justice League had brought us all together just as its protagonists are united. In these times, that alone is a superheroic feat.

The death of Superman (Henry Cavill) has opened the world to new threats, and Batman (Ben Affleck) knows that something wicked this way comes. With the help of his sardonic butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Batman brings together Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to honor the legacy of Superman and repel the invading apocalyptic forces of Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), who’s come to earth to finish the job of conquest he began millennia ago.

Having just spent the last eighteen weeks poring over Batman v Superman in exhaustive detail, it was difficult not to hope that Justice League had been a little more like its predecessor. The overall good feeling engendered by the film puts much of that yearning to bed, but a part of me will always wonder (at least, unless we get yet another “extended cut”) what Snyder had up his sleeve. Given the gratifying points of contact between Man of Steel and BvS, how much more might Snyder have pulled his trilogy together? We get glimpses of that Justice League, to be sure – as when Batman clings hopefully to “a fragment of a chance,” having previously feared “even a one-percent chance” – but the sheer volume of unused footage from the trailers makes me hope that one day, somehow, we’ll see an unfettered version of Snyder’s vision (perhaps, dare I say it, as a comic book?).

Indeed, it’s difficult to overstate the influence of Joss Whedon. There are many scenes reminiscent of his Avengers duology, up to and including the presence of two post-credits sequences. (I know, I didn’t think DC was doing those, either.) There are several scenes of the League bickering, recalling the internecine quarrels aboard the helicarrier in Avengers, and there’s a pretty striking reprise from Age of Ultron that seems airlifted from Sokovia. Moreover, Whedon’s penchant for quippy dialogue is abundant in Justice League, and it fits characters like The Flash and Alfred quite perfectly. Batman benefits from this brighter side, something foreshadowed in his evolution in BvS’s third act, though Whedon builds a bridge perhaps too far, with only one false note where a Batman one-liner might have better suited Aquaman or The Flash (a second gag flops when it verges crassly anatomical but is rescued by the appearance of the Lasso of Truth). Even Danny Elfman, who replaced Junkie XL at the eleventh hour and performed similarly for Whedon on Age of Ultron, gets in on the riffing game with a score that seems to have a few notes from the Marvel side of the street.

Setting aside the might-have-beens and the what-ifs for the version we did get, though, it’s a real crowd-pleaser. Tightly edited at just this side of two hours, Justice League clips along with barely any perceptible dead weight; though teasing multiple films to come (and with less interruption than in BvS), many of those teases are in service to introducing Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg to the DC filmic universe. Cyborg in particular acquits himself quite well by fitting into the larger narrative tapestry, though it’s Ezra Miller’s Flash who ought to become a fan favorite, quickly distinguishing himself from television’s Grant Gustin as an alternate but no less recognizable Barry Allen. Of course, I’m quite fond of Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot, who continue to develop their respective heroes through the cauldron of BvS into real team players, and I do hope to see more of them in standalone franchises.

Without losing the broad appeal of a crowd-pleaser, Justice League manages to pack in a number of surprises, many of them in the category of “Wow, they went there!” Batman v Superman wasn’t long on courage, you’ll recall, taking the exact opposite of the easy path, where Justice League plays it a little safer – a villain whose plan is quite simple, team dynamics that proceed without complication, and in-universe references that should seem quite familiar to audiences, like J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon, whom everyone ought to recognize by his mustache alone if not by his ignition of the Bat-signal. There are some risks taken in the film, as when Aquaman’s backstory is given brief allusion in a conversation with the merwoman who would be queen (Amber Heard as Mera) – and while I don’t want to play “Snyder or Whedon?” too much, this scene’s dense mythology is precisely the sort of thing of which I wanted to see considerably more, for I loved BvS’s profoundly immersive sense of depth.

But I can’t overstate how good Justice League felt. I had a big grin on my face for most of the movie, partly because I loved all the small references that the general audience might have missed but also because Justice League reminded me very much of the 2001 cartoon of the same name. Like the eponymous cartoon, Justice League does a solid job distilling its characters to their cores, bouncing them off each other, and uniting them against a threat that merits their collective attention. It is just jolly good fun to see these mythic archetypes bouncing off each other, and I do wish there could have been more of it because this is a movie that accesses the hopefulness of superheroes and the inherent wish-fulfillment of how awesome (in multiple senses of the words) these characters are. It’s a film that clips by so briskly that you’re ready to queue it up as soon as the credits have rolled. I don’t think too many people will be surprised to hear I enjoyed the film – I did go in with a clear head and am willing to admit when things didn’t work – but I do think audiences will be surprised at how grievously the critical majority have misjudged this film.

Justice League is rated PG-13 for “sequences of sci-fi violence and action.” Directed by Zack Snyder (and Joss Whedon). Written by Chris Terrio, Zack Snyder, and Joss Whedon. Based on the DC Comics. Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, and Ciarán Hinds.

Friday, November 17, 2017

10 @ a Time - Batman v Superman, Part 18

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Part Eighteen: The Postmortem

Welcome to the eighteenth installment of “10 @ a Time: Batman v Superman.” Over the past seventeen weeks, we’ve been on a roller coaster of film criticism, close-reading the film in deep dives of analysis, commentary, and review. That’s more than four months devoted to a film that proved one of the most contentious flashpoints in a particularly divisive 2016, and the fact that we’re still talking about it speaks to the film’s depth. Those of us who loved the film don’t want to let go of it, and those who didn’t like it nevertheless can’t stop talking about it.

Four months is a long time, and with Justice League making its debut this weekend (see how we synced that up?), we should mark the occasion with some sort of postmortem on the “10 @ a Time” project. For those playing the home game, we are and have been looking at the “Ultimate Edition” home video release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; the preceding installments in this series can be accessed below:


I was watching the theatrical cut of Batman v Superman when I conceived of this project. I realized that, even without the benefit of the Ultimate Edition, there were things in the theatrical cut that were lining up for me, things that made more sense the more I watched the film. The goal of the “10 @ a Time” project, then, became the explication of these connections, the revelation of the clockwork mechanism operating behind the film. Boy howdy, I didn’t think it’d take as much effort as it did, but I’d say the results were well worth it. In recognition of what I take to be the twin remarkable achievements of Batman v Superman and my laborious analysis of the same, I present The Postmortem, in the form of ten takeaways (in no particular order) from my hermetic immersion in the film.

"When people ask you who's your number one bad guy, you say--?" "Superman!"

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "The Man Who Killed Batman"

“Dear friends, today is the day that the clown cried. And he cries not for the passing of one man, but for the death of a dream.”

The word is out in the Gotham underworld: Batman is dead at the hands of Sidney Debris (Matt Frewer), a bumbling putz in the employ of Rupert Thorne. Dubbed “Sid the Squid,” Sidney tells Thorne what really happened the night Batman died, how he became the toast of the underworld, and how The Joker (Mark Hamill) reacted when he learned that his greatest adversary had perished.

Even though Batman is almost entirely absent from the episode, “The Man Who Killed Batman” is one of the greatest episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, hands down. It’s another Paul Dini/Bruce Timm collaboration, which is an automatic win for the audience as these two masters bring their expertise to bear on this deep dive into Gotham’s underbelly, a place both comically caricatured and surprisingly terrifying. In its focus not on its hero but on how the world looks from the vantage point of someone so close to the ground, “The Man Who Killed Batman” recalls the work of Will Eisner, who in his comic The Spirit would often devote whole episodes to this sort of story.

Sidney Debris would have fit right into the world of The Spirit; Sidney’s a lovable shrimp who somehow fell into a heist job with Thorne’s gangsters, only to find himself the center of Gotham City for a night. As ever, the character design on Sidney is first-rate; visually, he’s a small and doughy man, far from threatening, and Matt Frewer (of Max Headroom fame) gives him a spot-on stammer to match his status as a fish far, far out of water. Sidney is the kind of guy you’d love to see crop up again in the Gotham universe, but at the same time he’s designed like a nutshell to allow this story to play out, and I struggle to see a use for him in other stories beyond the charm of a reprise.

As usually happens with a Paul Dini episode, The Joker steals the show with his note-perfect blend of lamentation and jubilation at the news that Batman has died. His first instinct is to stage a robbery to see if Batman turns up, but his dismal sense of defeat at Batman’s absence is peculiarly haunting as he instructs Harley Quinn to put back the stolen gems because “Without Batman, crime has no punchline” – a note that sums up Dini’s Joker precisely. The episode reaches a crescendo with Joker’s ersatz funeral for the dearly departed Dark Knight, a two-minute tour de force through all the power of Dini’s alliterative prose wedded to Hamill’s wild oscillation between blind fury and dark comedy. (It’s no wonder Mark Hamill continues to perform this monologue in character at conventions – it’s a gasser!) Arleen Sorkin tries to steal the show back with a rendition of “Amazing Grace” on the kazoo, but Hamill elopes with it wholesale. This mad notion, that The Joker would sincerely mourn the death of Batman, speaks to the playful core of this interpretation of their relationship and why some of the earlier Joker episodes didn’t work as well – it’s never about the schemes, but rather it’s about the punchline, that bizarre sense of obligation Joker has to Batman for creating him and giving him a vast criminal playground.

Dini and Timm, too, are at play in the wondrous carnival of their own creation. Their version of Gotham City holds these kind of stories exceptionally well. I won’t spoil the ending of the episode (though the fact that we’re not even halfway through the full run should give you a hint), but it’s remarkable how little Batman needs to be involved for this story to succeed. One almost imagines that Paul Dini could man an anthology series about Gotham City with Batman solely on the periphery, his Gotham Central pervaded with the freaks and 1930s mobsters he deployed with aplomb in his episodes. (We almost got that in the late 2000s with Streets of Gotham, but that comic series quickly integrated Batman into the bulk of the stories.) Batman’s shadow looms over the story, but the real stars are the tight script, the cinematic directing, and that ineffable Joker voice.

“Well, that was fun – who’s for Chinese?”

Original Air Date: February 1, 1993

Writer: Paul Dini

Director: Bruce Timm

Villains: The Joker (Mark Hamill), Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin), and Rupert Thorne (John Vernon)

Next episode: “Mudslide,” in which the feet of clay melt away.

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

Monday, November 13, 2017

Monday at the Movies - November 13, 2017

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” Last week saw the debut of Taika Waititi on this blog, so today we flash back a few years for his vampire mockumentary.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) – It’s no surprise that this film, written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, is a laugh-out-loud riot; one need only look at their recent comedic pedigrees (Flight of the Conchords and Thor: Ragnarok) to know we’re in for a good time. Waititi, Clement, and Jonathan Brugh star as a trio of vampiric flatmates in New Zealand, the subject of a documentary in the months leading up to their annual Unholy Masquerade ball, during which time they make human friends and consider adding one more to their nocturnal number. The bulk of the film’s humor comes from the vampires’ rapid-fire delivery and gift with one-liners (describing a bloodstained couch as “Well, it’s red now”) and the distinctly unique blend of supernatural horror with the utterly banal, like seeing a vampire do the dishes or learn how to use Skype. There’s a divine subplot involving Rhys Darby as the leader of a gang of well-mannered werewolves (“We’re werewolves, not swear-wolves”) and the delightful presence of a fourth roommate, an 8,000-year-old dead ringer for Nosferatu’s Count Orlok. The film’s comedic timing is impeccable, perfecting the art of the mockumentary with the awkward way its characters continually break the fourth-wall with a self-aware smile, but there are also those moments that engross you so much that you forget about the mockumentary conceit – until a character hilariously mentions the fact that there are cameras in the room. At a tight eighty-five minutes, What We Do ends up doing the opposite of overstaying their welcome; I’d have been happy with much, much more of this irreverent and singularly inimitable vision of the vampire myth wedded to the quotidian.

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