Monday, January 30, 2017

The Top 10 of 2016

I can delay no longer – the time has come for my “Top 10 of 2016.” Now, as a film reviewer of a decidedly non-professional nature, I’m limited in what I see in a given year by time, budget, and preference (yes, there’s a certain amount of pre-screening each year that saves me from having to see films like A Dog’s Purpose), and so I make no pretensions about this being a “Greatest Films” list. I’ve missed more than a few films that are on other critics’ lists. Instead, it’s more of a “Favorites,” the ten films in 2016 I liked the most, the films I’d recommend above all.

We present, then The Cinema King’s “Top 10 of 2016,” with quotations from the original review, as well as a few words about the film in perspective.

Honorary Mention: The Founder
 “Keaton is wolfish as Kroc, with that lean and hungry look with which Shakespeare fixed ‘yon Cassius’ in Julius Caesar; his impish winks and raised eyebrows speak volumes in unflinching close-ups that revel in the character lines on his face.

I’m not wholly convinced this was a 2016 release, but it’s still a magnificent picture with a dynamic central performance by one of the underrated greats. A week later, and I’m still craving a cheeseburger.

10. Fences
 “It comes as no surprise that Denzel Washington is the very picture of commanding; he’s one of a select few actors who can swing the pendulum from exuberantly gregarious to crushingly emotional without feeling anything but natural, and Troy Maxson is a perfect vehicle for Denzel to show us what he can do.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a devout disciple of Denzel Washington, and Fences is an apex presentation by a master craftsman giving a performance that, for my money, ought to earn him his second Best Actor trophy.

9. Silence
 “At 74 years old, Scorsese has a clear and unapologetic reverence for the source material and the thematic content of Silence, and as Rodrigues undergoes his trials, we can sense something of Scorsese’s own wrestling with his faith amid the apparent silence of God.

Scorsese is usually guaranteed a spot on the Top 10 of any given year, but one senses Silence is the film he’s been working toward for much of his career. It’s a sobered and somber take on religion, faith, and persecution, but it uses its “endurance test” quality to help audiences understand the trials of its central protagonist.

7 (tie). Hail, Caesar! -&- The Nice Guys
 “I’m personally delighted to see more of the madcap mania the Coens have turned into a personal brand because it’s not something I get anywhere else at the cinema. No one does horseplay like Joel and Ethan Coen. “The Nice Guys goes for the comedic jugular and left me wheezing with laughter throughout much of the picture.

I just couldn’t choose between these two blasts of hilarity, certainly the funniest films of the year and likely the funniest in recent memory. They’re somewhat of a piece – one a Hollywood farce, and the other a satire of 1970s Los Angeles – and a guaranteed good time for all.

6. Hell or High Water
 “It’s truly riveting stuff, a two-hour trip that flies by despite its fairly small scope and tight narrative focus. The key is the well-crafted screenplay, as precise as the bank heists and wisely funny in a way that the trailers didn’t let on.

The neo-western is fast becoming a new favorite film genre for me, with Hell or High Water as a worthy successor to the mantle of No Country for Old Men. Equal parts contemplative and comedic, here’s a film that feels like a throwback but which still has so many pressing things to say.

5. Arrival
 There are moments in Arrival that feel a bit as though Stanley Kubrick is directing an adaptation of Wuthering Heights in which Heathcliff is an immense being at which we can only marvel, slack-jawed, while we attempt to comprehend.

Amy Adams was viciously robbed of a Best Actress nomination in this thoughtful science fiction film that takes the impossibilities of the genre as a way to represent that which is unthinkable – to change our paradigm of thinking by changing the ways we think. Less puzzle box and more slow unveiling, Arrival is that rare science fiction that treats its audience with respect.

4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
 “Maybe I’m a little more forgiving just because these are ‘my’ genres, movies that feel made for me. But Rogue One is, I think, a great Star Wars movie that does everything a Star Wars movie ought to do.

We’re getting into the “genre shill” portion of the Top 10, but there’s no way I wasn’t going to include a new Star Wars film on the list, especially when it’s as fresh and diverting as Rogue One. Padded out by a ground-level take on Star Wars with more than a few rousing action sequences, Rogue One has what might be the best finale of the year, with an unforgettable five-minute closing act that’s equal parts terror and hope.

3. Captain America: Civil War
 “Civil War manages to be both sweepingly epic and deeply personal, with far-reaching consequences stemming out of what is essentially a clash of personalities, a philosophical difference of opinion about the nature of individual power.

One day I’ll get around to updating my ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Civil War is easily top three at this point. While not quite as self-contained or effortlessly perfect as The Winter Soldier, Civil War is the big-screen equivalent of a superhero crossover comic, replete with all the big-budget action of a Marvel movie, the reliable filmmaking on display, and the subtle treatment of nuanced moral questions. On top of it all, Civil War is a rousing good time.

2. Batman v Superman – Dawn of Justice [Ultimate Edition]
 “Batman v Superman takes the claim that superheroes are modern mythology to its logical extension – this is comics mythology writ large, in which men and women stand shoulder to shoulder with gods, do battle, and discover something about both god and man.

On principle (and for one other reason), I couldn’t give BvS the number one spot on the list because it’s actually the non-theatrical release that emerges as the stronger film. But it’s certainly the film I’ve thought about the most in 2016, the film to which I keep coming back. BvS takes itself as seriously as I take this stuff, and it rewards multiple viewing in a cerebral way lost on most other blockbusters.

1. La La Land
 “La La Land embraces the aesthetic of the musicals of the 1950s (though in color, there are also affinities with the Fred-and-Gingers of the 1930s), lamenting the way that reality all so often fails to live up to the romanticized spectacle of a big Hollywood musical. Reality can be sweet, La La Land posits, but it’s got nothing on the polish and image surfaces made on a movie studio backlot.

Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are that my #1 film of the year isn’t the one with Batman in it. La La Land represented something of an emotional sucker punch, one that still hits me if I think about it too hard or listen to the soundtrack in the right mood. It’s a film that does everything I want a film to do, in a formally integrated way, with a confidence and grace that too many other films lack. I’m proud to take this moment to announce that it’s my 66th Personal Canon film, and like the 66th book of the Bible, La La Land is a real revelation.

How about it, folks? How does my Top 10 stack up to yours? What’s missing? Sound off in the comments below.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "The Last Laugh"

“I believe I've contracted a giant case of the giggles!”

It’s April Fool’s Day in Gotham City, and The Joker has a real doozy for Batman – he’s gassed the city and plans to loot whatever’s left. It’s up to Batman, his Batboat, and his bat-gas-mask to save the day before faithful butler Alfred (in Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s first appearance in the role that headlines his Wikipedia page) permanently succumbs to Joker’s laugh-inducing airborne poison.

With “The Last Laugh,” Joker is two for four in appearances thus far. Although Batman: The Animated Series will dig pretty deep into the rogues gallery, creating new foes and rehabilitating the public image of others like Mr. Freeze, The Joker is always the specter that looms over the whole series, even turning up in episodes that aren’t devoted to him. And while those of us who’ve seen the whole show know why, it’s a surprisingly bumpy set of false starts along the way – ultimately entertaining nevertheless, but far from the heights the show is about to hit.

Where “Christmas With the Joker” mismatched a thuggish Joker voice with a quintessentially Joker plotless plot, “The Last Laugh” sees Mark Hamill slip into his more polished Joker voice, but in a scheme that seems far too conventional for the Clown Prince of Crime: he gasses the entire city with his laughing toxin, only to rob stock exchanges, pick pockets, and loot storefronts. No, really, that’s the extent of it.

Then the episode does its level best to convince us it’s trash by setting most of the episode on a garbage ferry and then in a waste management facility. Except... well, it’s not that bad. Believe me, I’m passing up too many good puns about garbage to lie to you, folks. After a rocky first act (Batman: The Animated Series is structured tightly around three acts, separated by commercial breaks), “The Last Laugh” ducks back into the playfully bizarre, with a noirish bass soundtrack marrying an accordion for a score that’ll just make you scratch your head.

Ditto for Captain Clown, Joker’s surreal cybernetic crony. Why is one of Joker’s goons a robot? How did he come to possess Captain Clown? These aren’t questions about which the episode is terribly concerned. But I’ve found that the best answer to most questions about The Joker is, “Why not?” As a comics purist, that’s why the simplicity of the scheme bothers me – Joker’s always been much more complicated than the bottom line.

Then again, this is the second episode in a row where the villain has used toxic gas to accomplish his nefarious ends. But where “Nothing to Fear” asked us what scared Batman, “The Last Laugh” asks us what makes him laugh. It’s the funniest episode to date, and we get a rare look at Batman’s sense of humor and his undeniable delight in his tousles with The Joker, who ends up coming off quite well, despite the episode never quite knowing whether he’s a quintessential gangster or a jester to the end. (Psychologically richer episodes, mostly penned by Paul Dini, are coming down the pike.)

Little by little, the show is starting to find its voice. It’s not as fulfilling as “On Leather Wings,” which is the best of the four thus far, but there’s enough in this episode to save it from a “bottom ten” list. And as for who gets the last laugh? The answer may surprise you!

Original Air Date: September 22, 1992

Writer: Carl Swenson

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villain: The Joker (Mark Hamill)

Next episode: “Pretty Poison,” in which the ladies get a chance to be the naughty ones.

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

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Founder (2016)

There’s a moment in The Founder when Michael Keaton preemptively apologizes for blasphemy before comparing McDonald’s to American institutions of church and state – crosses, flags, and golden arches. It’s a peculiar but apt metaphor, playing it far less safe than lumping burgers in with baseball and apple pie, but The Founder isn’t a biopic that plays it safe. It’s brisk and taut, slick as its salesman protagonist, but it’s also sobered and smartly self-aware. If nothing else, Keaton gives a must-see performance.

Michael Keaton stars as Ray Kroc, the ostensible (read: self-proclaimed) founder of McDonald’s, whose golden-arched fast food peppers the global landscape to this day. (Indeed, Thomas L. Friedman once noted the synchronicity between the end of global conflict and the prevalence of McDonald’s across nations.) The film is resolute in its depiction of Kroc as an opportunist driven by the brass ring he sees in the form of a franchised version of the burger stand built by Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman & John Carroll Lynch).

Maybe it’s the score by Carter Burwell, a frequent Coen Brothers collaborator, but this really felt like a Coen version of There Will Be Blood, a capitalist morality play set amid the playfully absurd backdrop of a burger joint. But unlike There Will Be Blood (which took itself deadly seriously, despite staging its climactic murder in a basement bowling alley) or a Coen product (which is always already silly), The Founder conducts itself with a knowing wink, aware of the moral/economic paradox it presents. McDonald’s feeds 1% of the world’s population each day, closing text declares, but Ray Kroc had to circumvent, then buy out, two innocuous restaurateurs to do it.

Yet, thankfully, The Founder does not stoop to preach against the big bad capitalist who bilked two well-intentioned yokels. There’s no scene where Kroc wrings his hands and soul before the camera and wails plaintively at what his schemes have cost him. Instead, Kroc is presented as hungry, driven, and shrewd, willing to breach contract for the sake of his vision – but, as the film notes, only when the other party of the contract lacks vision and willfully obstructs progress.

Kroc is presented, then, as a man who is entirely honest – perhaps not wholly in matters of business but always honest to and about himself. Keaton gives a master class in antiheroism; his Kroc is perpetually transparent about his motivations, his desires, and his intentions, and the film frequently poses the question of who’s at fault when one allows a wolf into a henhouse. Keaton is wolfish as Kroc, with that lean and hungry look with which Shakespeare fixed “yon Cassius” in Julius Caesar; his impish winks and raised eyebrows speak volumes in unflinching close-ups that revel in the character lines on his face. Closing archival footage reveals that Keaton has nailed down many of Kroc’s mannerisms and the unique cadence of his voice, a kind of nasal gravel that gives one the impression of a perpetually dynamic grinder. Keaton appears noir-style in nearly every scene, showing that same command of an audience’s attention that he displayed in Birdman, Spotlight, and yes, even The Other Guys.

It’s Keaton’s show, but Offerman and Lynch do yeoman’s work as the uncomplicated McDonalds who don’t much care for franchises or even a bankroll beyond what their modest location provides. There’s real pathos in Lynch’s face, while Offerman provides the vehement protests to Kroc’s plans, and the two provide a strong counterpoint to Keaton’s manic energy. They both have the look of someone straight out of 1954, but they have the chops to hold their own opposite Keaton.

In the film’s closing moments, Keaton gives the camera a short monologue and a look that communicates more than most actors pull off in an entire movie. I don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s a look that stops shy of rendering a moral judgment on the whole film. It’s a look that asks, “Have I done the right thing?” It’s a look that represents everything the audience will be thinking as the film concludes. The Founder closes on precisely the right note, weighing the gravity of the story and allowing its star one last moment to shine. Between Keaton, Denzel, and Andrew Garfield, it’s anyone’s game for Best Actor this year.

The Founder is rated PG-13 for “brief strong language.” Directed by John Lee Hancock. Written by Robert Siegel. Starring Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Patrick Wilson, and Laura Dern.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Nothing to Fear"

“What hidden terror keeps the Batman awake at night?”

That’s the question The Scarecrow sets out to answer, robbing his way through a revenge scheme that Batman has to understand before he can put an end to the wiry villain’s plot. But just who is The Scarecrow? What does he want? And what really scares Batman?

“Nothing to Fear” is a great example of why Scarecrow is a tricky villain to get right, an A-list gimmick mixed with a B-level (at best) threat to Gotham City. We saw in Batman Begins much ado about Batman’s use of the power of fear, turning his adversaries’ fear against them. To that end, Scarecrow ought to be a first-rate foe for the Dark Knight, a feedback loop of phobia. And when Scarecrow douses Batman in his fear gas and delivers the line above, it seems we’re in for a real treat.

Bafflingly, however, that’s not quite the focus of the episode; indeed, it’s difficult to say what the focus is. The episode bounces between establishing Scarecrow’s motive for revenge, his execution of a fairly mundane heist-not-heist, and Bruce’s underlying fears that he’s failing the memory of his murdered parents. The last of those is where the real meat of the episode ought to be, but puzzlingly the writers throw in a wrinkle that Scarecrow’s fear gas is “time-released,” deferring a fuller consideration of the psychology of Batman until the very ending of the episode.

Don’t get me wrong – that moment packs a punch, often imitated but seldom duplicated. Amid the spectral accusation that he has failed his parents, Batman retorts, in the gravelly gravitas that only Kevin Conroy can bring, “I am vengeance! I am the night! I AM BATMAN!” It’s the kind of moment that would belong in the opening credits, if the opening credits to Batman: The Animated Series weren’t already so perfect, and it’s an affirmation – maybe the first of its kind in the show thus far – of just what Batman stands for, of how confident he is (and ought to be) in his mission. I would have liked, however, to see more of the episode devoted to that psychological journey rather than the criminal threat of Scarecrow.

You see, Scarecrow works best when Batman has to overcome him on a psychological level. Once Batman gets his hands on Scarecrow, it’s a fairly quick fight. Again, Batman Begins did it just right, using Scarecrow as a preliminary to the main threat. I’ll say this a lot throughout this series of reviews, but it’s not that this is a bad episode per se; even a mediocre episode of Batman: The Animated Series is a perfectly fine diversion. Episodes like this do, however, underscore just how much more thoroughly these themes are explored in future episodes, like “Perchance to Dream” or “Over the Edge” (the latter featuring Scarecrow, in a shocking redesign – about which, much more later).

While parts of “Nothing to Fear” are more undercooked than I might like, there’s some good stuff in this episode. Last March, moviegoers were treated to one more iteration of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. A lot of us felt like, “This again?” (even though it proved essential to the climax of the film), so kudos to “Nothing to Fear” for going in another direction and implying the backstory in order to foreground the effect this absence has had on Bruce Wayne. It’s wise that the show does this early in the run, permitting us to keep this knowledge in the back of our minds. This isn’t the overconfident Batman of 1966 or even the brooding detective of 1989. Here’s a Batman who exposes his humanity by wrestling with his doubts about whether his nocturnal missions are making the difference he needs to see.

It’s important to remember that in 1992 the Scarecrow wasn’t exactly a prominent member of the rogues gallery, so “Nothing to Fear” needs to do a certain amount of introduction for him, and in that sense it works. It also concludes with a delicious bit of irony when Scarecrow gets a dose of his own medicine (on which I suspect Batman Begins riffed). And the episode’s final moment introduces the looming motif of the Wayne family grave, a central image in the Batman: The Animated Series playbook. Bruce’s absurdly “cool” sunglasses, thankfully, aren’t in subsequent episodes.

Original Air Date: September 15, 1992

Writer: Henry Gilroy & Sean Catherine Derek

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villain: Scarecrow (Henry Polic II)

Next episode: “The Last Laugh,” in which a clown dies, and a bath is drawn.

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

Monday, January 16, 2017

Silence (2016)

In thirteen years, I’ve not missed a single Scorsese theatrical release. In fact, most of them I’ve attended more than once. (The only other director who’s earned that degree of loyalty, you may be unsurprised to learn, is Christopher Nolan, who I’ve followed for twelve.) You should know – if you don’t already – that Martin Scorsese directed my all-time favorite film, The Departed, that I’ve never really been disappointed by him, and that I consider him easily one of the greatest and most reliable living film directors. Perhaps, then, I’m a little biased, but I contend that his latest, Silence, is an accomplished feat, a moody and mature contemplation of many of the themes that have dogged Scorsese throughout his oeuvre.

Based on the Shusaku Endo novel, Silence finds Jesuit missionaries Rodrigues and Garrpe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) journeying to seventeenth-century Japan to investigate reports that their predecessor and mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has turned apostate and renounced the church. In the course of their investigation, they find a community of Kakure Kirishitan (“hidden Christians”) persecuted by a local inquisitor and his interpreter (Issei Ogata and Tadanobu Asano), testing their faith and demanding more of them than they may be prepared to give.

Two of Scorsese’s dominant themes have been the struggles of faith and the tensions of duty; in Goodfellas, Henry Hill labored under his obligations to his criminal friends, while Scorsese acquired some notoriety for the inquisitive The Last Temptation of Christ. And in The Departed, a film rife with Catholic guilt and misplaced paternalism, the blurred line between cops and criminals becomes too much for both protagonist Billy Costigan and antagonist Colin Sullivan. In Silence, our protagonists have their faiths tested in more severe ways, facing torture and death in a way that’s almost biblical. Silence has long been a passion project of Scorsese’s, and I mean that in several ways, as the Jesuit priests face their own Christ-like trials, compared alternately to Gethsemane and to the crucifixion.

At two hours and forty minutes, Silence will likely test moviegoers as well; Scorsese movies have always been something of an endurance test (his last, The Wolf of Wall Street, topped three hours), but usually they’re padded out with flashy editing, nonstop dialogue, and at least one Rolling Stones track. With Silence, none of those is on display; indeed, this is one of Scorsese’s least stylized, most subdued works – and it’s also among his most mature and most contemplative. At 74 years old, Scorsese has a clear and unapologetic reverence for the source material and the thematic content of Silence, and as Rodrigues undergoes his trials, we can sense something of Scorsese’s own wrestling with his faith amid the apparent silence of God.

As Scorsese seems to extract himself from the equation, directing in a subtle manner with only a few trademark quirks on display, Andrew Garfield is proving to have quite a year for himself. (And, strikingly enough, between this and Hacksaw Ridge, he’s not had much luck going to Japan.) His performance of Rodrigues as religiously challenged, horrorstruck by the conflict between his religious obligation and his sense of duty to the faithful, is sophisticated in a way that makes me worry he’ll split the Best Actor vote for himself with Hacksaw Ridge. The film’s Japanese cast – particularly Ogata, who’s been rightly compared to Christoph Waltz from Inglourious Basterds – more than hold their own opposite their western counterparts, and in some ways with the harder job as their roles are largely silent. And Neeson, as ever, is brokenheartedly stoic as the alleged apostate, whose appearance in the third act layers the narrative with pathos of a surprisingly tragic dimension.

As a fan of the 1966 novel, I had wondered how the film would capture the multiplicity of narrators in the book, but I needn’t have worried. Scorsese pulls it off beautifully, opting for meditation over exposition. But where the novel ended somewhat optimistically, redemptive in a way that reaffirmed the reader’s faith, Scorsese continues the story for a few more minutes, allowing the audience to ask whether Silence is actually a tragedy, the despair of a man who wonders whether God has been silent all along. Or do we too hear the voice of God in the silences of Silence?

Silence is rated R for “some disturbing violent content.” Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese. Based on the novel by Shusaku Endo. Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Issei Ogata, Yôsuke Kubozuka, Ciarán Hinds, and Liam Neeson.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Christmas With the Joker"

“It’s never easy with The Joker.”

Jingle bells, Batman smells... and The Joker got away, making good his escape from Arkham Asylum on Christmas. While Batman and Robin pursue their greatest foe, The Joker broadcasts his threats of murder and mayhem on television, daring the Dynamic Duo to stop him before midnight.

Contrary to what Batman tells Robin (who makes his DCAU debut here, Loren Lester’s boyish charm matching perfectly the grim baritone of Kevin Conroy’s Batman), media adaptations of Batman have flocked to The Joker and reinterpreted him in a number of ways that seem almost effortless because The Joker defies fixity. He is, in essence, a floating signifier, represented variously as a buffoonish Punchinello of crime, a sinister rictus grin of death, a charming sociopath, a master planner, or an agent of chaos. In this episode, we’re introduced to Mark Hamill’s iconic take on The Joker, regarded by many (including this reviewer) as the definitive take on the character.

But surprisingly, this isn’t a particularly strong debut, especially with the benefit of hindsight. Don’t get me wrong – this episode is eminently watchable because of how playfully strange it is, but it’s not a fair indicator of what Hamill will bring to the table. For one, the voice is a little off; it’s obviously a first try, a rough draft, a voice in progress, somewhat more thuggish than the snarling British accent Hamill will perfect in later episodes.

The laugh, however, is spot on. Future episodes, particularly those penned by Paul Dini, will see The Joker with some real bellyachers of lines that are at once hilarious and uncomfortable. Here, the greatest glee is in the chortles, guffaws, and freewheeling giggles that burble from The Joker in unpredictable configurations. Hamill nails the laugh instantly, defining the character by it in a way that’s almost inhuman.

The plot of the episode, though, doesn’t do Hamill many favors, nor is it a specifically Joker episode – by which I mean, you could substitute any Batman villain in the role and the episode still works. Luring Batman out on Christmas with a holiday-themed hostage situation isn’t intrinsically Joker, so we don’t get to see much in the way of dramatic fireworks. That is, however, until we get to the punchline of the episode, which I won’t spoil.

Dr. Andrea Letamendi has advanced the theory that the episode demonstrates the Joker’s psychological need for Batman, whom he regards as a surrogate family on Christmas, a repressed desire expressed in the abduction of Commissioner Gordon, Summer Gleason, and Harvey Bullock as the “Awful Lawful Family.” It’s a great theory that adds a nifty layer of depth to the character, and as we’ll see later in the series this Joker doesn’t want to see Batman dead because “Without Batman, crime has no punchline.” As if it needed one!

If you’re playing along for the first time and haven’t seen the show before, don’t be alarmed: this is maybe one of the two least successful Joker episodes (“The Last Laugh,” reviewed two posts from now, being the other that doesn’t quite impress). That’s not to say this is an unwatchable episode, but when it comes to the Clown Prince of Crime the best is certainly yet to be. But hey, first time out of the gate, it’s never easy with The Joker.

Original Air Date: November 13, 1992

Writer: Eddie Gorodetsky

Director: Kent Butterworth

Villain: The Joker (Mark Hamill)

Next episode: “Nothing to Fear,” in which Batman shouts his new catchphrase at The Scarecrow.

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

Monday, January 9, 2017

Suicide Squad [Extended Cut] (2016)

2016 was a curious year for superhero films and their afterlives. Marvel and DC released two each, but only DC took its home video releases as opportunities for longer versions of its film slate. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice got an Ultimate Edition, half an hour longer and a little clearer in its execution. Suicide Squad, meanwhile, found itself the heir of an “Extended Cut,” gaining only ten minutes in the offing.

In a way, the nomenclature says it all. Suicide Squad isn’t a movie that was intended to be seen in a longer version like BvS, cut down by studio heads balking at three hours of Bat-sturm und Super-drang. Instead, director David Ayer presents an “extended cut,” more of the same that doesn’t shed much new light on the film, doesn’t clarify it in any meaningful way, but does provide more opportunity for the film to showcase its greatest strength – quirky personalities, well-casted, bouncing off of other strange rangers of whom I do hope we see much, much more.

Comparing an extended version naturally requires me to throw up a SPOILER WARNING, although it’s not exclusively the sort of spoiler that gives away the ending. (I do, however, discuss the film’s final scene at the end of this paragraph.) This is just an “extended” take on the story we’ve already seen, and it’s not substantially different from the film we got back in August. But discussing the differences naturally involves spoiling what they are, and the first (and perhaps most recognizable) difference is probably the film’s most appealing. We have a whole new flashback in which Dr. Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie, still the film’s shining star) chases down The Joker (Jared Leto) and demands that he make her his clown queen. It’s a smart move that adds agency to Dr. Quinzel’s fall into the identity of Harley Quinn, and it helps distance the film from the abusive relationship from the source material. Subsequently, it sheds more light on Harley’s dive into the vat of acids at Axis Chemicals; we have more context, and we know she’s chosen to go down this path. (Remember, in the theatrical cut, we move from Joker’s electroshock treatment right to Axis.) Harley’s less of a victim here, even if she’s still a dangerous psychopath, and it makes the film’s final frames – in which The Joker rescues Harley from prison – a little more palatable, a little more – dare I say it? – darkly romantic.

In the wake of Suicide Squad, a lot of buzz was devoted to Jared Leto’s Joker, and in this version he’s changed not at all. Even his modified involvement in Harley’s origin remains of a piece with his characterization in this film; he’s exasperated by her desire to join his criminal empire, but he goes along with it, because... well, why not? But while news emerged that much of Leto’s performance had been cut from the film (reported both by Leto and by eagle-eyed trailer viewers who detected something missing), rumors swirled that we’d see it all back in the Extended Cut. Not so, true believers, and so Joker exists unchanged in the Extended Cut. I’m still of the philosophical opinion that this is #NotMyJoker though he serves this film as well as he’s expected to be.

Margot Robbie continues to benefit most from the Extended Cut in two fun extended group scenes, which deepen the character dynamics while giving the performers a chance to get more comfortable in their clown paint, yakuza mysticism, and reptilian skin. It’s apparent why these scenes we’re cut – they’re far from cinematic, with long takes of characters walking and talking on their way to the next big special effects bonanza – but it’s a real loss for those who wanted Suicide Squad to be more of a character piece than it was. In one scene, Harley puts her psychotherapist skills (emphasis on the “psycho”) to work in diagnosing Killer Croc and Katana. The off-beat dynamic among these Gotham-centric characters in particular makes me hope that we’ll see them all together again in Ayer’s follow-up Gotham City Sirens (which nominally ought to include Catwoman and Poison Ivy alongside Harley Quinn).

In another scene, which ends up comprising an entire deleted subplot, we see that the Squad is plotting against Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), a plan later abandoned when they realize how dangerous Midway City has become. It’s this kind of fun scheming that restores a sense of danger to these characters, a kind of inevitable unpredictability that reminds us that “Task Force X” is actually kind of a bad idea, and it’s something only a royal badass like Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, in pure “hell hath no fury” mode) could pull off.

I don’t know that I’ve heard anyone compare Suicide Squad to Watchmen, the seminal mid-1980s comic that redefined (and/or reminded) what the medium could accomplish using its own bag of tricks. So allow me to be the first in saying that Suicide Squad’s extended cut reminds me a great deal of Watchmen – but Zack Snyder’s Watchmen and the way its visual tricks aped the comic’s scene transitions. It’s not a major change at all, and it might even be that I’m misremembering the theatrical version, but it did jump out at me in this cut. For example, Harley Quinn looks down a flight of stairs, reminding her of the long fall at Axis Chemicals, or she sees a motorcycle that takes her mind back to chasing The Joker. It’s a small touch, but it aligns the film a little closer with the Snyder aesthetic by way of a non-DCEU comic book film, a little insider information much appreciated for those of us in the know, and it makes the film just a little bit more of a comic-book.

There’s a very funny Photoshop going around in which the only difference between two Suicide Squad posters is that a wound on Harley Quinn’s forehead is only slightly longer – hence, an extended cut. And it’s quite an apt metaphor in this case: the Extended Cut features Harley Quinn front and center, but the differences are more or less otherwise cosmetic. A little deeper and a little bit more fun, the Suicide Squad Extended Cut is more of the same for fans but less substantial than the much-improved Batman v Superman Ultimate Edition.

Suicide Squad is still rated PG-13 for “sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language.” Written and directed by David Ayer. Starring Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, and Cara Delavingne.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "On Leather Wings"

“This is Gotham Air One reporting in. Things are actually quiet for once.”

As night falls in Gotham, the city is gripped by terror when a mysterious bat-like creature goes marauding through robberies and violent assaults. There are only two people who know it isn’t Batman, and one of them is Batman himself, who sets out to solve the mystery of Gotham’s latest ne’er-do-well.

As first episodes go – and recall, this is the first episode (at least, in production order) of the entire DC Animated Universe, not just of Batman: The Animated Series – “On Leather Wings” might initially ruffle a few feathers. Neither retelling the classic origin story (rarely tweaked since 1939) nor pitting Batman against one of his most iconic foes, “On Leather Wings” instead demonstrates my favorite thing about Batman: The Animated Series: namely, how damn smart it is.

On the surface, “On Leather Wings” might seem fairly boilerplate – a bat-like creature is terrorizing Gotham, and Batman figures out what’s going on, tousling with the beast until he brings its crime wave to a halt. I’ve often wondered why “On Leather Wings” was the first episode, but I think I get it now. This episode isn’t about Man-Bat, as so many episodes of Batman ’66 were more about the colorful guest stars than the Caped Crusader himself. “On Leather Wings” is a show bible unto itself, a manifesto for who Batman is (and even a wink toward how he came to be).

First, any sense of how this episode defines the rest of the show in microcosm needs to acknowledge the stellar title sequence, which lays out in an eloquent 57 seconds the show’s take on Batman. I really can’t do a better job than Chris Sims in dissecting why the title sequence works so well, only to add that this teaser sequence also introduces us to the lushly gorgeous art deco aesthetic that governs this Gotham City somewhere between Tim Burton and Bob Kane.

The opening titles tell us facts about Batman, but “On Leather Wings” proceeds to interpret Batman for us through the most classic of comic book storytelling techniques – by pitting him against his direct opposite. As we’ll see, every Batman villain comments in some way on the Dark Knight’s psyche (Joker – order vs. chaos; Two-Face – identity crisis; Riddler – brains gone wrong, etc.), but Man-Bat is about as inverted as you can get. Instead of a Batman, he’s literally a Man-Bat. He’s a criminal instead of a hero. And he’s utterly inhuman, contrasted to Batman’s intense humanity.

That last part is very important. Notice in the final confrontation, Batman suffers multiple injuries, scratched and bloodied by episode’s end. Yet Man-Bat remains unwounded. Both men have refashioned themselves into bats, both fearing extinction (Batman, having seen his parents murdered, vows to end crime before it claims his life too, while Kirk Langstrom senses the impending evolutionary extinction of the human race), but Man-Bat has become a monster in the process. He injures the innocent, while Batman defends the police, even from their own grenades. (Hmm, if Gotham PD is so inept, maybe that bit about extinction wasn’t far off.)

Finally, they’re both detectives of a sort. Kirk Langstrom deduces the chemicals he needs to steal, and Batman pieces together the clues that lead him to Man-Bat. My favorite part of this episode is how methodically the episode depicts Batman as the world’s greatest detective, following the leads until he unites disparate cases of mistaken identity, theft, assault, and unethical biological experiments. It’s here that we’re introduced to a hallmark of the show – Kevin Conroy’s vocal variations between airheaded Bruce Wayne and cool meticulous Batman, another contrast that juxtaposes who Batman is with the performance he isn’t.

See, in contrasting Batman with a dark reflection of himself, we can learn something about what he is by seeing what he isn’t, but we also get a sense of what he could be if he loses track of his humanity. We see how important it is that Batman not lose those things that separate him from Man-Bat, lest he become the thing the city fears. That’s another great angle in “On Leather Wings”; the episode seeds a longer story about Batman’s status in the public eye. Is a costumed vigilante by definition a criminal? How much faith are we to put in him, as opposed to in the police force itself? It’s a battle for Gotham’s soul – a plot thread more directly picked up by Christopher Nolan – but the show wisely introduces us to the conflict and its central battlefield – Harvey Dent – all in the first episode. Tall order, “On Leather Wings,” but I think I finally get you now.

Original Air Date: September 6, 1992

Writer: Mitch Brian

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villain: Man-Bat (Marc Singer)

Next episode: “Christmas With The Joker,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

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

Monday, January 2, 2017

La La Land (2016)

In one of the most famous passages from his Confessions, Saint Augustine realizes he has been moved to tears by the suicide of Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid. In hindsight, Augustine recognizes that the true tragedy was not the death of the Carthaginian queen but Augustine’s blindness to his own reality as a sinner – that is, he had no tears for the reality of his soul but rather had wasted them on the dimension of the imaginary.

I couldn’t help but think of Dido while I watched La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s eagerly-awaited follow-up to the masterful Whiplash, because it does feel like Chazelle is directly rebutting Augustine on this count. Yes, La La Land seems to declare, it is right and proper for us to weep for that which is not real, that which we cannot help but imagine in the language of film, for reality can often be dispiriting, unexpected, or filled with fear of the future.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star as Sebastian and Mia, a jazz pianist and an aspiring actress whose paths continue to cross in Los Angeles until finally, inevitably, they surrender to temptation and fall in love. Amid the continual anxiety that they won’t make it in Hollywood, Sebastian and Mia inspire each other to pursue their dreams, even when they seem difficult and unattainable.

Aside from a few shots of single spotlights on jazz musicians, it’s difficult to tell that La La Land, wistful and nostalgic, comes from the same writer/director as the intensely furious Whiplash. Instead, La La Land feels like the postmodern thematic sequel to 2011’s The Artist, which reveled in the tropes of the silent film while reminding audiences of the acute sense of loss that came with the passing of an era. In the same way, La La Land embraces the aesthetic of the musicals of the 1950s (though in color, there are also affinities with the Fred-and-Gingers of the 1930s), lamenting the way that reality all so often fails to live up to the romanticized spectacle of a big Hollywood musical. Reality can be sweet, La La Land posits, but it’s got nothing on the polish and image surfaces made on a movie studio backlot.

And whether that makes the film’s final statement one of tragedy or beauty is, I think, in the eye of the beholder. If you have a romantic eye, thank God we have the movies; if yours is a cynical vision, how ignoble that we supplant reality with the image. But Chazelle is content to leave the rose-colored glasses of Hollywood in place as a filter, amplifying the emotions of the story by blowing them up into something extravagant, with a clever sense of humor that I hope isn’t lost on moviegoers. Mia and Sebastian’s first date takes them, naturally, to the movies, to see Rebel Without a Cause, but when things go awry they visit the Griffith Observatory, where parts of Rebel were set.

There, if we hadn’t been paying attention, Chazelle reveals his end game. What begins as a typical cute date turns into the fantastic (emphasis on fantasy) as they dance in the observatory and join the stars in a beautifully-shot midair waltz. It’s breathtaking in its unreality; there’s no doubt that this isn’t really happening – this isn’t Superman, after all; you won’t believe a man can fly – but isn’t it beautiful to imagine it so?

It’s really difficult to talk about this without discussing the ending of the film – and don’t worry, I won’t, because the third act has maybe the best gut-punch in recent memory, at least as far back as the last time my whole theater collectively gasped, at Frozen – so let’s shift gears and talk about the music. For those who, like me, still tremor a bit when thinking about the climax of Whiplash, there’s none of that in La La Land, thank heavens, but as far as the singing goes, I’ve seen a fair bit of critique laid at Gosling and Stone’s feet. While I do concede that they’re not the strongest singers on the screen these days, I do wonder if some of that is the point – Mia and Sebastian, as much as they want to be, are not stars just yet; Gosling’s piano playing, though, has rightly earned its share of accolades, and I do have to say that Emma Stone’s final number, “Audition” (as heard in many of the trailers), is as affective as Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream,” which in 2013 I described as a “heart-breaking . . . despairing ode that would drive even the stone-hearted Pharaoh to tears and will likely garner her an Oscar nod.” I have similar words to say about “Audition,” which pins all our hopes on Mia’s ability to connect with her auditioners, even as we quickly lose track of them and fall into the story Mia weaves.

La La Land is not Whiplash, although J.K. Simmons appears in both (here, he cameos as a club owner who’s a stickler for seasonal set-lists). Instead, it’s an elegy for a bygone film genre, a glimpse of a relationship which imagines itself in loftier terms, positing the question of whether “la la land” – suggesting Los Angeles, “la la” singing, and “la la” head in the clouds – is such a bad place to be. Under Chazelle’s watch, it’s anything but.

La La Land is rated PG-13 for “some language.” Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Music by Justin Hurwitz. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.