Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?"

“My, my. Can we actually have brain beneath that pointy cowl of ours? So tell me, have you brawn to match?”

Sacked from his software job at Competitron, Edward Nygma (John Glover) rebrands himself as The Riddler, a supervillain whose revenge scheme is predicated on the solution of elaborate puzzles and brain-teasers. Robin recognizes some of Riddler’s traps from the computer game Nygma invented, but he’ll have to take Batman into the center of the labyrinth to solve the riddle of the minotaur.

Forty episodes in, we say hello to one of Batman’s greatest adversaries (introduced in Detective Comics #140, circa October 1948). And why has it taken so long? The Joker’s been on six times, while we’ve already seen others more than once. The writers have long maintained that Riddler’s a tough cat to write because of the intensely cerebral nature of his character, so it’s a real loss for the show that Riddler only gets three episodes dedicated to his mad genius (four, if we’re counting his appearance in “Knight Time,” an episode of Superman: The Animated Series with a Riddler subplot). Compounding the pain of Riddler reduction, “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” is handily (no pun intended) one of the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series.

I keep returning to the chestnut that the best episodes of BtAS involve the villain in a plotline that is uniquely theirs, and “So Smart” does just that. Riddler’s plot isn’t even a criminal conspiracy in the traditional sense, as it involves getting his revenge on a corporate executive by proving how much smarter he is before attempting to kill him. Indeed, his only reason to tangle with Batman and Robin is because they dare to defy him, and so Riddler must devise a maze to outwit them, as well. (See also “The Clock King,” where writer David Wise portrayed the eponymous villain as similarly maddened by being resisted.) This episode is less about Riddler needing to acquire money; his only goal is conquest of the mind, for his own personal satisfaction rather than any profit.

If there’s a complaint about the episode, it’s that Batman takes a strange backseat to Robin, whose experience with Nygma’s computer game allows him to pierce through the mystery of the minotaur’s maze. The riddles in this episode are expertly crafted, but it’s a little surprising that the world’s greatest detective can’t piece them together without a major assist from his Boy Wonder. It’s inconsistent, though, since Batman does display a fair amount of cerebral acumen with some of the riddles. One almost wonders how this episode would have played without Robin altogether. And while Batman’s ultimate solution to the riddle of the maze is a bit of a cheat, Riddler’s response is to cheat better and sooner, which is such a fantastic moment to display Riddler’s brains – I can’t imagine the episode’s conclusion working with any other villain, because of the great amount of forethought required to put this plan into action. Riddler is a master chess player in this episode, and “So Smart” does a first-rate job of introducing him into Batman’s world and making him a credible danger to our hero.

After a few rocky episodes, visually speaking this episode is a real treat. The animation is on point, and Riddler’s character design is stellar. Several scenes involve lush painted imagery, and the sequences set in the maze are delightfully claustrophobic, slick and well-done. The voice acting hits the spot too, right down to the robotic minotaur voiced by Brock Peters (he of Lucius Fox fame on BtAS and of NPR’s Star Wars adaptation, if the bull sounds a bit Vader-esque). John Glover is a fantastic choice for The Riddler, his distinguished haughtiness a far cry from the gleeful cackles of John Astin and Frank Gorshin. Glover is a default Riddler voice now, even in spite of Wally Wingert’s digitally stuttering Riddler in the Arkham games. And Kevin Conroy, who’s had no shortage of opportunities to shine as Batman, has a particularly memorable moment when he toggles between Bruce Wayne and Batman mid-sentence without losing stride.

“If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” is a banner episode for Batman: The Animated Series, introducing one of its hero’s greatest adversaries in a polished episode that shows what BtAS can do at its best. If you’re so smart, though, writers, why didn’t we get more Riddler episodes like this? Why didn’t we get more Riddler episodes, period? Why is a raven like a writing desk? (Sidebar: the tie-in comics – The Batman Adventures, and later The Batman & Robin Adventures and Batman: Gotham Adventures – had some standout Riddler issues, worth tracking down.)

Original Air Date: November 18, 1992

Writer: David Wise

Director: Eric Radomski

Villains: The Riddler (John Glover)

Next episode: “Joker’s Wild,” in which the Clown Prince of Crime presses his luck.

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

Monday, August 28, 2017

The TOTAL FILM Quiz, Part 1

The British film magazine Total Film has a recurring feature called “My Life in Movies,” and the questionnaire got me thinking. As The Cinema King, my life has been significantly affected by the movies I’ve seen and the one’s I’ve continued to carry with me. It’s ten questions – with an eleventh question for Brian Michael Bendis, the comic book scribe whose Total Film interview convinced me to take a stab at the quiz – so here goes. Post your answers in the comments below!

The First Movie I Ever Saw
This question is almost like asking what your first words were; unless there’s documentation, beyond hearsay it’s difficult to recall for certain. My instant thought was The Lion King, which in 1994 would have been pretty close to the mark. Then again, that’s probably more correctly the answer to the question “the first movie I ever saw in the theaters”; I have a strong memory of this being a significant outing for the family, of turning around in my seat to look at the projectionist’s booth as the kaleidoscopic colors and auditory overload of “Circle of Life” screamed into the theater. There’s video evidence that I was watching Fantasia as early as three years old, and on the tape I’m even dressed as Sorcerer Mickey for that Halloween. (Mind you, this was years before any official merchandise authenticated my trick-or-treat vocation, so a sorcerer’s-hat-tip to my mother for meticulously recreating my painstakingly screen-accurate costume.) Further back, I really can’t say.

The Movie That Always Makes Me Cry
As much as I pride myself on being a cerebral and coolly logical sort, I’m on record as being more emotional than the average moviegoer. I’m a misty-eyed featherweight, so it usually doesn’t take much beyond a counterpointed musical note or a carefully inflected facial gesture to move me. Indeed, it might be easier just to list the movies that don’t make me cry, or only the last five that did. There are so many small moments in many movies that get me there – Anton Ego’s closing monologue in Ratatouille, the airport scene in Casablanca, Pa Kent’s “You are my son” in Man of Steel – but if we’re talking about a whole movie, it’s La La Land. It was my favorite movie of 2016 precisely because of the emotional impact it had on me, and it makes the list because I’m getting teary just writing this paragraph. If you’re not a sopping mess during the film’s “five years later” finale, I’m not sure what to tell you; without spoilers, the film winds down with a potent juxtaposition of fantasy, reality, and the musical memory of the film’s peppy and romantic opening numbers. It’s the kind of ending that works on a visceral, emotional, rational, and sensory level, and knowing how La La Land ends makes the whole film a tearjerker.

The Movie That Everyone Loves But I Hate
As the song goes, “Hate is a strong word.” But my answer to this question is, unreservedly, Mad Max: Fury Road. I don’t understand the love for this film – and I don’t think it’s just a case of unrealistic expectations. I heard gushing, glowing things about Baby Driver and loved it, but the same chorus of praise for Fury Road was met with my tidal wave of apathy. It’s not a matter of being a contrarian or disliking this sort of movie; it’s a matter of the film failing to engage me on any level once the initial thrill of the chase subsided while the chase itself went on for two more hours, partway through which Max turns around and drives back the way he came. When I reviewed the film in January 2016, I said, “I got quantitatively the same emotional rush from the trailer for Fury Road as I did from the full film, in about a single percentage of the time,” and I stand by that assessment.

The Movie That Everyone Hates But I Love
Unpredictably, it’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s holding 27% on Rotten Tomatoes, although in what just world is Batman v Superman a worse film than Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, which logged a 65% rating? The two persistent critiques I hear of Batman v Superman are its plodding tone (rubbish) and its infidelity to source material (stuff and nonsense). For my money, it’s a smart (not pretentious – ‘pretentious’ is a three-syllable word for any thought too big for little minds) film that takes us through an object lesson about hope without moralizing, using characters with a 70+-year pedigree to tell us something new about ourselves and the way we relate to the stories we continue to tell ourselves. It’s intricately crafted, such that I find something new every time I rewatch it (which is a lot of times). And I will concede that the theatrical release, excised of thirty vital minutes, did the film no favors, but the Ultimate Edition is where it’s at. I will fight for this film to the death.

My Desert Island Movie
Is there a fate worse than this, to be relegated to an island with but a single film to entertain yourself? (Having to select one book, I imagine, might be worse.) I’m going to fudge my answer a bit and say The Godfather Saga, which remixes The Godfather and its sequel into chronological sequence for seven hours of cinema at its lush and glorious best. With deleted scenes and reorganized content, it’s essentially three films in one: the rise of Vito Corleone, The Godfather, and the fall of Michael Corleone. If I’m watching this film once a month when I actually have more important things to do, I’ll be glad to have it on a deserted island.

Part Two next week...

Friday, August 25, 2017

10 @ a Time - Batman v Superman, Part 6

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Part Six: Must There Be a Superman?

Welcome to the sixth installment of “10 @ a Time: Batman v Superman.” Last week we talked about daddy issues and the Bruce/Lex parallel, but today we’re served a heaping helping of plot alongside a powerful meditation on what Superman ought to be in the 21st century.

[For those playing the home game, we’re looking at the “Ultimate Edition” home video release; for today’s 10@T installment, we’re looking from 0:53:05 to 1:04:29.]

"In time... they will join you in the sun."
When Man of Steel came out in 2013, there were two major complaints, each constituting one half of the same coin: “Superman killed someone” and “Superman didn’t save anyone.” I’ll be honest – I have little patience for either of these critiques because they both fall victim to what I feel are some of the most pernicious attitudes toward comic book movies, the first of which is this belief that comic book movies must absolutely adhere to the source material as though it were gospel. It is supposed that, because Superman currently has a policy against taking the life of another, a film version must immediately operate under that rule. Such a policy, however, forgets the basic storytelling dictum that Superman did not form that rule ex nihilo – he took up that policy after the taking of a life was so grievous to him that he chose never to do it again. (Not coincidentally, Superman killed Zod in the comics in 1988, and also on film in Superman II in 1980.) Lest we forget, Man of Steel is literally Superman’s first day on the job.

The second critical trap to which comic book movies are often subjected is this ludicrous notion that any origin movie must conclude on a note where the bulk of the comic book adventures can be assumed to take place immediately thereafter. That is to say, a fair number of moviegoers expect an origin story to conclude such that the next movie might be an adaptation of their very favorite storyline, treating an origin story like the foam of Zeus’s head out of which Superman might arise, Athena-like. This is not to say that comic book movies haven’t done this; Batman Begins ended on a note of “Here we go!” while older films like Superman, Spider-Man, and X-Men have all taken similar tacks to the imagined “next chapter.”

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Heart of Steel"

“Humans make errors in judgment. It is sometimes necessary to protect them from their own inadequacies.”

In this two-part episode, a robotic suitcase pilfers Wayne Enterprise and absconds with advanced wetware technology, which Bruce Wayne hopes will be the future of artificial intelligence. His old mentor Karl Rossum (William Sanderson) has no leads, but he’s got a glamorous assistant and a colossal computer in his basement – both of whom are at the heart of a scheme to replace Gotham’s elite with android duplicants. They weren’t counting on Barbara Gordon (Melissa Gilbert), though, who notices right away that something’s amiss about her father, the commissioner.

A recurring theme throughout this series has been my reversing my opinion on episodes I didn’t previously enjoy as a kid (it seems hard now, for example, to believe that I ever had an unkind word to say about “Robin’s Reckoning”), and boy howdy does that apply here. My thought halfway through the second part was, “Man, this could be the backbone of a really cool Ben Affleck movie.” I think maybe I was too young to appreciate what’s going on in this episode, probably mildly resenting the absence of a recognizable villain.

Before we get to the main plot, let’s talk about Barbara Gordon. In “Heart of Steel,” she starts to get the Harvey Dent treatment, by which I mean the show is seeding her character long before she’ll become the major player we know is in her future. Though she doesn’t don a cape and bat-ears, there’s much of Batgirl at play in this episode; Barbara is smart, intuitive, something of a detective, with the moxie to light the Bat-signal and tug on Batman’s cape. The episode ends with her conspiratorially winking, “I sort of enjoyed it,” but the characterization of Barbara is so spot-on that you almost don’t need that foreshadowing.

The plot proper involves the supercomputer H.A.R.D.A.C. and its attempt to replace humanity with a race of robotic duplicants. It’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers by way of Blade Runner (with William Sanderson here playing a role comparable to his part as replicant designer J.F. Sebastian in Blade Runner), probably the closest to science-fiction horror that BtAS will ever get. “Heart of Steel” fosters an amazing sense of paranoia from its opening moments, where anyone could be an android, and it continues with moments like the one where Mayor Hill is confronted in his office by his menacing duplicant. The repetition of cold hands (mirroring, dare I say, a heart of ice) and the bait-and-switch where characters are revealed to be robots – these are the narrative beats that stick with me. (Well, them, and the playful inclusion of Barbara’s plush companion Woobie Bear, who ends up being a pivotal plot point when Barbara suspects something’s afoot with her father.)

As I said with “Robin’s Reckoning” – something my younger self would never have conceded as possible, with his short attention span – I almost wish that “Heart of Steel” were longer. It seems that H.A.R.D.A.C.’s plot is just getting started once Batman catches on (though Barbara gets there first), and I wouldn’t have minded an episode that shows more of what might happen to Gotham if its top producers become robots. One could imagine the tragic terror of Bruce Wayne with a robotic Lucius Fox or (heavens forfend) Alfred Pennyworth, and one wonders what duplicant Mayor Hill might have tried to accomplish with the power of his office. If the best episodes leave us wanting more, then, perhaps “Heart of Steel” is among them.

Original Air Date: November 16-17, 1992

Writer: Brynne Stephens

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villains: H.A.R.D.A.C. (Jeff Bennett) and Randa Duane (Leslie Easterbrook)

Next episode: “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?,” in which Edward Nygma manipulates the hand of fate.

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

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Hitman's Bodyguard (2017)

When I started to see the reviews trickle in for The Hitman’s Bodyguard, I began to worry. Was this yet another case of all the good moments finding their way into the trailer, leaving the movie an emptier experience? The good news is that the exact opposite is true – most of the funniest lines in this action comedy were not spoiled by the advertising (largely on the basis of Samuel L. Jackson’s perennially creative love affair with a certain four-letter word). That’s not, however, to say that The Hitman’s Bodyguard is as successful as it ought to be, but it is diverting enough.

Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is a down-on-his-luck personal protection agent scraping the bottom of the barrel until a call from Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung), who just happens to be an ex-girlfriend. Agent Roussel asks Bryce to transport the boisterous hitman Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) to The Hague to testify against a war criminal (Gary Oldman) in exchange for a full pardon for Kincaid’s wife (Salma Hayek).

The Hitman’s Bodyguard is, in effect, a murderous Planes, Trains, and Automobiles with Samuel L. Jackson and explosions instead of John Candy and feel-good holiday cheer. And like its late-80s comedic predecessor, The Hitman’s Bodyguard sails on the strength of the chemistry between its two leads. Jackson is essentially playing one more facet of himself, a wisecracking, foul-mouthed badass with an infectious laugh and a violent temper. Ryan Reynolds does yeoman’s work as the straight man, but he’s a straight man with an edge, capable of playing deadpan punchlines like, “I hope they kill him, I really do.” Together, the two are comedy gold, and one senses that the best moments are the ones that developed through improvisation and riffing off each other’s strengths.

The moments that feel the most like the familiar Reynolds/Jackson personas are particularly strong because there are other parts of the film that feel overly scripted. The first act in particular feels like the most perfunctory beginning to a film since the on-the-nose opener for Ant-Man, though like Ant-Man the movie turns around rather effectively once the plot is permitted to progress. The first few scenes of The Hitman’s Bodyguard do the work of introducing the film and its characters, but in a way that baldly displays the mechanics behind the narrative. In the scene introducing Kincaid, for example, Interpol explains his motivation to him as he predicts how their plan will go awry; meanwhile, the villain is introduced while he murders a small child in cold blood.

Speaking of the villain, what was the size of Gary Oldman’s check and – given the brief screen-time allotted to him – was it worth it? From my perspective, Oldman is always worth the price of admission, but the film catastrophically underutilizes him. He’s entirely effective at creating a villain who is instantly loathsome, and in that sense you need an actor of Oldman’s caliber to make quick work of a thin character. It is, however, more than a little distracting to cast Oldman as a villain who spends most of his screen time as a silent defendant in court. Likewise, Salma Hayek is an odd choice for Kincaid’s wife, whose appearances on screen are largely limited to a prison cell and a flashback south of the border. One wonders if she was cast preemptively for a larger role in a potential sequel, because again these strike me as very expensive choices for comparably small roles.

Maybe I’m just getting old in my moviegoing years to be concerned about the budget for a film that otherwise entertained me. The Hitman’s Bodyguard is not as entirely as funny as I’d hoped it would be – at least in terms of quantity – but it did leave me with a good feeling and a few memorable one-liners which would be abjectly criminal to spoil. It has a few unsurprising but crunchy action sequences to pad out the funny bits, and if the plot had been a little less direct to allow more room for Reynolds and Jackson to bicker, it’d be an instant home run. The Hitman’s Bodyguard is good but not great, not a movie which demands to be seen theatrically but for which I am pretty glad to have done so.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard is rated R for “strong violence and language throughout.” Direct by Patrick Hughes. Written by Tom O’Connor. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Elodie Yung, and Salma Hayek.

Friday, August 18, 2017

10 @ a Time - Batman v Superman, Part 5

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Part Five: The Magical Thinking of Orphan Boys

Welcome to the fifth installment of “10 @ a Time: Batman v Superman.” Last week we talked about the way the film portrayed its interpretation of Lex Luthor, and we’re going to continue that conversation this week.

[For those playing the home game, we’re looking at the “Ultimate Edition” home video release; for today’s 10@T installment, we’re looking from 0:40:45 to 0:53:05.]

Inverted by request of the owner.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne"

“But you wanted to do something. You were filled with anger. You desired... what? A need filled you... all-consuming, all-controlling. What was it, Mr. Wayne? What was it?”

After Batman rescues a judge from blackmail, he tracks her blackmailers to Yucca Springs Health Resort, nominally a relaxation spot for top executives. As Bruce Wayne, he infiltrates the spa but discovers that the unorthodox treatments from Dr. Hugo Strange (Ray Buktenica) are anything but relaxing. But Dr. Strange has learned something as well, and he’s about to auction off Bruce’s terrible secret to the highest bidder.

First of all, different Dr. Strange. This isn’t Marvel’s narcissistic neurosurgeon but rather one of Batman’s earliest foes, originally of Detective Comics #36 (Feb. 1940) but late of Arkham City and Gotham (where he’s played by B.D. Wong, doing his best George Takei). Here Strange is a goblin of a man, a scientist implied to be in the employ of Roland Daggett, though I’m sorry to report that throwaway line doesn’t pay off by episode’s end. Strange does manage, though, to be a pretty compelling villain, particularly for one who doesn’t throw a punch or try to take over Gotham City. With a shifty Eastern European accent and a quick-thinking mind, the terror of Strange is all implication.

I’ve said throughout, in episodes like “Appointment in Crime Alley” and “Dreams in Darkness,” that there is great potency in the moments when BtAS approaches, like infinity, but does not explain the circumstances of Bruce’s turn to Batman. Like “Robin’s Reckoning,” which masterfully used only the silhouette of a broken trapeze to convey its eponymous hero’s orphaning, “Strange Secret” invokes a hallucinatory dream of Bruce’s memory of that night – two gunshots, akin to the thunderclaps that follow, fired from a gun held by an invisible man, leaving Bruce surrounded by graves and raging his fists against the stormy sky. It’s a scene whose language is so undeniably effective that you completely forget the improbability of the mind-reading machine used to conjure it. The dialogue, too, between Strange and Bruce, overlaps the images in fascinating ways.

At the risk of sounding like “Strange Secret” does a lot of the good things we’ve seen earlier, the team-up between Joker, Penguin, and Two-Face echoes and one-ups the hallway scene from “Fear of Victory.” Here the villains disembark from an airplane (oh, to have been a fly on that wall!), deliver a line that sums up their personalities, and step in time to the melodies of the musical themes crafted by Shirley Walker and company. It’s a moment that the show has earned, and it’s among the episode’s highlights because now, finally, we can see some of these radiant rogues side by side – and get some of that first-rate Mark Hamill Joker voice. (Sidebar: if you’ve ever wondered whether The Joker has an answering machine, this episode answers that question, to glorious effect.)

And lest you think “Strange Secret” is but a best-of compilation, it’s notable for being an episode in which Batman isn’t the main focus. We seem him every now and again, but the episode really plays up the notion of a true Bruce Wayne beneath both Dark Knight and playboy billionaire personas. It also concludes on one of my favorite gimmicks in any Batman story – reconciling the revelation of Bruce Wayne’s secret identity by having Batman and Bruce Wayne appear in the same room at the same time. I won’t spoil how it’s accomplished here, but the script is particularly clever in its use of Chekhov’s guns, dropping a line of dialogue that pays off much later in the episode, usually once you’ve forgotten it’s coming.

By dint of how strong so many other episodes are, “Strange Secret” probably isn’t a Top 10 episode, but it’s through no fault of its own. The episode is smart, intriguing, and rife with memorable characters. Neither strange nor a secret, it’s a winner.

Original Air Date: October 29, 1992

Writers: David Wise, Judith Reeves-Stevens, and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Director: Frank Paur

Villains: Dr. Hugo Strange (Ray Buktenica), The Joker (Mark Hamill), Two-Face (Richard Moll), and The Penguin (Paul Williams)

Next episode: “Heart of Steel,” a two-parter in which Batman meets Blade Runner, Harvey Bullock takes Robocop to a whole new level, and we meet a certain commissioner’s daughter and her Woobie Bear.

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

Monday, August 14, 2017

Atomic Blonde (2017)

Between Atomic Blonde and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I’m really digging the “retro spy” genre – and I’m including throwback spy flicks like Kingsman. There’s something very satisfying about the technological limits placed on the story, which must proceed without the advantages of cell phones and Wi-Fi; usually that careful crafting leads to a more cerebral script – something I always appreciate – and ends up having a trickle-down effect on the rest of the creative process. Going into the theater, I hadn’t known that Atomic Blonde was a period piece, nor had I realized quite how much I’d like the film – both of which were welcome surprises.

It’s 1989. The Berlin Wall is about to come down, and MI6 sends Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) behind the Iron Curtain to find a list of operatives stolen from a dead agent. Berlin station chief Percival (James McAvoy) helps her into East Berlin and enlists her help with East German defector Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), who’s stolen the list. While Lorraine looks for the truth amid a dalliance with French operative Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), she begins to wonder who she can trust.

I was exhausted after Atomic Blonde – not because the movie was overlong or boring to the point that my hindquarters went numb, but because I’d had to keep up with the film’s sneaky storytelling while enduring the intense and enervating action sequences. Atomic Blonde is not a film that goes for easy moments; none of it looks effortless, and the audience has to work just as hard as Lorraine to discover the identity of Satchel, a traitor in the ranks of MI6. But at least we have the good fortune not to get in the middle of those fight scenes, because they’re incredibly vicious.

Director David Leitch has done a fair job of staging his action scenes like single takes; there’s some digital trickery, to be sure, but in the moment it looks as though these long fights are all done in a straight cinematic line. We’ve got two long and arresting fights staged in apartment buildings – one in the living room, one on the stairs – that most other directors might have done in forty-cuts-per-second shakycam, but Leitch’s patient attention to the intensity of the fights allows them to exhaust the moviegoer and the characters, whose breathy pauses and stumbles make the combat even more real. Brownie points are due to the storytellers who devised Lorraine’s creative uses of an extension cord, a record player, and a doorframe.

In the interminable wait for Bond 25 and the ever-present question of whether Daniel Craig will suit up once or twice more, Charlize Theron proves herself a capable “Lady Bond,” although that does a disservice to Lorraine Broughton. There are certain similarities – their capabilities in close combat, their equal dexterity in the art of seduction – but Lorraine almost feels more of a piece with Bryan Mills in Taken, possessed of a “certain set of skills” that make her unstoppable, even as the odds against her increase. She’s more vulnerable than Mills, though, emotionally and physically; her stake in this fight is personal, and her fling with Delphine seems more genuine than any Bond girl’s. Moreover, those moments where she picks herself off the floor and continues to fight, even as she’s bruised and short of breath, give the character a smartly-crafted strength.

The soundtrack to the film is a smashing mix tape of 80s tracks, and the cinematography is as unforgivingly fluorescent as I imagine the 1980s would have been. It all adds up to a nicely unified experience, where the stark white lights of an interrogation room echo the neon pipes of a Berlin hotel room. Amid it all, there is the brainy sense of needing to keep up and the fervent hope that, as the credits roll, this won’t be the last time we see Lorraine Broughton. I’m ready to enroll her in the same camp as Wonder Woman, welcome alternatives to the same-old/same-old dudes who have run these genres for fifty years. Roll on the new, but please give me a moment to catch my breath.

Atomic Blonde is rated R for “sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity.” Directed by David Leitch. Written by Kurt Johnstad. Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart. Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, and Toby Jones.

Friday, August 11, 2017

10 @ a Time - Batman v Superman, Part 4

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Part Four: The Greatest Criminal Mind of Our Time

Welcome to the fourth installment of “10 @ a Time: Batman v Superman.” Last week we talked about the continuing contrasts between Superman and Batman’s brands of justice (in the case of the latter, quite literally). We’ve had half an hour of good guys, so it’s time to see our film’s vision of villainy.

[For those playing the home game, we’re looking at the “Ultimate Edition” home video release; for today’s 10@T installment, we’re looking from 0:29:17 to 0:40:45.]

"Miss Teschmacher!"

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Cat Scratch Fever"

“I do hope you’ll be seeing Ms. Selina again now that she’s free to prowl again.”

Released on probation after saving the city, Selina Kyle (Adrienne Barbeau) vows to hang up her Catwoman suit, only to discover that her beloved cat Isis has been cat-napped by Roland Daggett. When Catwoman is bitten by Isis, who’s been infected with a virulent toxin, Batman races against the clock to save her life.

I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like this one, but in my head I was thinking this was the episode where Catwoman is turned into a were-cat. The bad news is that it isn’t, which means that episode (“Tyger, Tyger”) is still to come; the worse news is that “Cat Scratch Fever” isn’t much better. It is, in fact, largely rubbish, which means Catwoman is oh-for-two (hilariously, her best appearance so far is the one in which she was only a hallucination, in “Perchance to Dream”). The plot wanders and missteps, the characterization approaches development but never lands, and the animation is so bad that the animators (Akom Studios) were literally fired after this.

I said in Catwoman’s debut episode, “The Cat and the Claw,” that her characterization as a conservationist is peculiar and overly moralizing, and evidently the writers wanted to extend that trait to animal testing. We learn that Roland Daggett, ostensibly the upstart challenger to Rupert Thorne’s place as Gotham’s resident crime lord, has been rounding up stray animals to infect them with a plague, for which he plans to sell the cure to the city. The scenes in his facility’s basement, lined with cages of scared and injured animals, obviously invokes the idea of testing products on animals, but it’s a leaden comparison because Daggett is literally plotting to murder most of the city to turn a buck. Moreover, the episode enlists Professor Achilles Milo, which is a colossal waste of a solid second/third-tier Bat-villain.

Ultimately, I just don’t buy any of this episode. I can’t believe Daggett is in a position to market a major pharmaceutical after his public embarrassment in “Feat of Clay,” and I don’t believe that he’s mustache-twirlingly evil enough to introduce a viral pathogen into the city. Moreover, the episode suffers from a bifurcated identity; in the first half of the episode, which isn’t entirely bad, Catwoman takes center stage, but after she’s infected the writers seem to remember that this is a show about Batman, who promptly takes over the action while Catwoman rests in a sickbed. One of their only scenes together is surprisingly electric – in perhaps the best dialogue of the episode, delirious with fever, Catwoman smiles up at Batman as he remarks, “You’re hot!” and replies, “Now you notice.” This playful relationship, hyper-aware of the divide between them posed by the law, could have been the stuff of BtAS legend, but the Batman/Catwoman dynamic almost never gets off the ground on this show because, frankly, most of Catwoman’s episodes are clunkers.

To top it all off, the animation in “Cat Scratch Fever” is lousy. It’s jerky, flat, and uninspired; the dialogue doesn’t sync up with the video, and it features what might be the strangest-looking cat I’ve ever seen. (But on the plus side, it’s Frank Welker voicing the cat, in one of his patented “Wait, that wasn’t an actual animal?” roles.) The rest of the characters look astonishingly generic, particularly Milo’s two henchmen, and it’s no wonder that Akom were dismissed after “Cat Scratch Fever.” It’s not a good episode anyway, but it could have at least looked good.

Boy, after the winning streak we had, it’s almost karmic that we’ve got two in a row for the thumbs-down column.

Original Air Date: November 5, 1992

Writers: Sean Catherine Derek & Buzz Dixon

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villains: Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau), Dr. Milo (Treat Williams), and Roland Daggett (Ed Asner)

Next episode: “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne,” in which Batman’s secret identity can be purchased on VHS.

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

Friday, August 4, 2017

10 @ a Time - Batman v Superman, Part 3

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Part Three: Funnel Ferry Butter Bar

Welcome to the third installment of “10 @ a Time: Batman v Superman.” Last week we talked about Lois’s relationship to Superman and how that foreshadows much of the rest of the world’s inability to understand him. Maybe he’s just a guy... having said that, let’s check in with the other guy.

[For those playing the home game, we’re looking at the “Ultimate Edition” home video release; for today’s 10@T installment, we’re looking from 0:19:55 to 0:29:17.]

"I am vengeance, I am the night..."

While I’m not going to pretend that this is deliberate – at least, I won’t argue that it is (it very well might be) – there’s an interesting structure that reveals itself by taking BvS ten minutes at a time. In short, thus far: Bruce, Superman, Batman, Clark, Bruce. If we extend our gaze, the last thing we saw in Man of Steel was Clark Kent, and the pattern’s going to broken in the next ten-minute chunk by (appropriately enough) Lex Luthor.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Night of the Ninja"

“I did some research, Mr. Wayne. I know you spent some time in Japan. Do you think this ninja person is connected to that?”

A specter from Batman’s past appears when a slew of Wayne properties are burglarized by the ninja Kyodai Ken (Robert Ito). Kyodai harbors a grudge against Bruce Wayne, who embarrassed him years earlier in a training dojo, but even Batman isn’t sure he’s ready for this rematch.

I’m coming into this episode with a very heavy bias – I have never liked the intersection of ninjas and superhero narratives, and I am not even convinced that the two stories belong together. I understand the allure of the samurai, isolated warriors bound by a code of honor; these stories have worked well for Wolverine, for one, and I think you can do interesting things with Batman as a kind of ronin (a samurai without a master). But here and in Daredevil, I just don’t understand the appeal of ninjas, whom Batman describes as “spies and assassins. Their only code is to get the job done.” But if one mark of a good Batman story is that you can’t imagine another character in his place, this episode roundly fails; I could just as easily imagine this as an episode of Daredevil, and I still wouldn’t care.

I do like that the episode gestures toward Bruce Wayne’s formative years on the road to dark knighthood, but the episode doesn’t really do anything with the flashbacks other than use them to introduce Kyodai Ken. We’re left with a good number of questions, chief among them what drew Bruce Wayne to Japan in the first place, but it’s also apparent that the past doesn’t fully bear on the present. I can’t believe for a moment that Batman needed special ninja training to defeat Kyodai, though the scene in which Bruce Wayne has to fake incompetence because Summer Gleason is watching ends up being pure gold.

There are some good ideas in “Night of the Ninja,” though they’re not given much development. Summer Gleason, a top journalist in Gotham, sets her sights on the connection between Bruce Wayne and Japan, but she’s shuffled offstage to be bound and gagged without ever really pursuing the story; one could imagine, for example, a version of this episode in which she gets dangerously close to exposing Batman’s true identity through the Japanese connection. On the other hand, Kyodai’s vendetta against Bruce Wayne never really lands because his motivation is quite weak, on top of which Bruce actually calls him out on that – “I was forced to become a thief after I was cast out of the dojo.” / “As I remember it, being a thief was what got you thrown out in the first place.” Had the episode developed Kyodai’s lower-class envy of Bruce Wayne, there might have been more compelling subtext to the episode, particularly to this day. Then there’s the Batman/Robin relationship, in which Batman refuses to trust Robin, only to be bailed out by his sidekick in the episode’s climax. It’s a decent subplot for the pair, even if it does retread territory from “Robin’s Reckoning,” and I have to say Robin has two of my favorite moments in the episode (one, a goofy face made behind Bruce’s back; the other, an unwitting double entendre when he chastises himself, “Way to go, Dick.”).

After more than ten strong episodes, we were playing with the house’s money. I don’t know if “Night of the Ninja” is material for a “bottom ten” list – it’s light-years better than “The Underdwellers,” for one – but it probably won’t land on any other lists for me. That is, unless I come up with a “Top Ten Stories Ninjas Didn’t Improve.”

But the episode might all be worth it for the way Kevin Conroy pronounces “Kyodai,” as though he becomes a sumo wrestler for the span of two syllables.

Original Air Date: October 26, 1992

Writer: Steve Perry

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villain: Kyodai Ken (Robert Ito)

Next episode: “Cat Scratch Fever,” in which a leopard fails to change her spots.

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