Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "Harlequinade"

“And here you thought I was just another bubble-headed, blonde bimbo. Well, the joke’s on you – I’m not even a real blonde!”

Gotham’s worst nightmare has come to life – The Joker (Mark Hamill) has taken possession of an atomic weapon, and he’s just crazy enough to use it. With the mayor insistent on covering up the threat to avoid a panic, Batman realizes he doesn’t have time to catch The Joker on his own. He’ll need the help of a mind as twisted as Joker’s, so he deputizes Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) to help him catch her puddin’ before he turns Gotham City into a crater.

By now you’re probably sick of me saying it, but “Harlequinade” demands I repeat the mantra that’s guided me through this rewatch: the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series are written by Paul Dini, and the best Paul Dini episodes invariably star The Joker and/or his checkered jester moll, Harley Quinn. And boy is “Harlequinade” a soaring return to form for the show after last week’s letdown, “The Terrible Trio.” This episode is filled with a bonkers energy, from its opening at a gangland arms auction to the very premise of Harley riding shotgun in the Batmobile, through the roller coaster of emotions as Harley realizes that, yes, Mr. J is actually going to detonate this bomb.

In traditional theatrical pantomime, the harlequinade is the moment when the jester and the harlequin take center stage, and so it’s quite appropriate that “Harlequinade” is a real farce of an episode, with Batman ceding control of the investigation and the narrative to Harley Quinn. The result is wildly entertaining, as Harley proves to be an exceedingly poor substitute for Robin; she has her own grappling gun, yes, but it’s in the shape of a clown head, and it inevitably bonks her on the noggin. She ably defers the suspicion of gangster Boxy Bennett (voiced by Dick Miller, in a definitive mob boss accent), but it involves apparently betraying Batman before belting into a violent rendition of “Say that We’re Sweethearts Again” (“And I thought it was a lark / When you kicked me in the park / But now I think it was rude”).

When I reviewed “Harley and Ivy,” I had said that it was “the start of a thematic trilogy for Harley,” of which “Harlequinade” is the ostensible second entry in Harley’s peculiar attempts to go straight and fly away from The Joker. As before, Harley seems aware that her relationship with The Joker is unhealthy – her musical interlude explicates as much – and yet she finds herself irresistibly drawn to him. “He’s a genius,” she swoons; “it’s just a joke.” Perhaps more than any episode before, Arleen Sorkin really shines as Harley Quinn, a role quite literally written for her and which she owned in ways no other performer has quite accessed. She’s believable in every iteration of Harley this episode presents – lovesick puppy, independent woman, serenading siren, white-hot rage, demented admiration – “Harlequinade” asks so much of her and yet she rises to every challenge.

The beautiful tragedy of Harley Quinn – at least, as far as she’d be presented on BtAS – is that she comes so very close to learning her lesson, only to fall for her puddin’ one more time. And in a way, how could she not? She and Joker are perfectly evenly matched, furious anger and creative flair unequalled by any soul in Gotham. Dini pads the episode out with quintessential Joker moments – his old-style bathing suit, his aviator’s cap and tommy gun – but the episode is careful to give Harley her own unique touches, like her love for her hyenas, her need to “slip into something more comfortable” (namely, her red-and-black costume), and her “ha-hacienda.” Dini is such an eccentric writer that his episodes are filled with so many lovely touches, but he’s also a writer who understands the souls of his characters, even if they are warped and perverse. They love each other, and we can’t help but love them right back. “Baby,” Joker closes the episode by telling Harley, “you’re the greatest!” And on the subject of “Harlequinade,” I can’t help but agree. It’s one of the best.

Original Air Date: May 23, 1994

Writer: Paul Dini

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villains: The Joker (Mark Hamill), Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin), and Boxy Bennett (Dick Miller)

Next episode: “Time Out of Joint,” in which an underrated villain returns, “faster than a speeding bullet.”

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

Monday, March 26, 2018

Monday at the Movies - March 26, 2018

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” Today we look at a forgotten entry in the history of comics at the movies.

Dick Tracy (1945) – There’s a video of me from an age younger than five, reading (or reciting) the names of characters from Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy adaptation. Imagine my surprise to learn that there were not one, but four, preceding adaptations of the iconic Chester Gould comic strip from the RKO studio. It seems that these films have been largely forgotten because of their B-picture quality, filmed quite transparently on a tight budget with a dearth of recognizable players (though Boris Karloff would ultimately appear in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome [1947]). Morgan Conway stars as Dick Tracy; though he lacks the chiseled profile and yellow coat that Beatty brought to the role, he plays the detective like a lean noir Fred MacMurray, avuncular but never resting in his pursuit of justice. In fact, I was surprised at how lean and noir the whole film is – at a tight 61 minutes, the film does all the beats of a police procedural, and it does so with an atmosphere of surprisingly effective dread and a soundtrack that recalls The Maltese Falcon on more than one occasion. I was also struck by how effectively the film apes the Gould comic, with narrative pauses to explain forensic clues (like footprints from a puddle of oil or tire tracks leading off into a garage); moreover, the moments when Tracy interrogates a suspect are framed like comic strip panels, over which one can almost imagine a nervous speech bubble or Gould’s caricatured linework. The film is not ultimately a slamdunk, though it is about the best B-movie treatment of Dick Tracy one could imagine; its villain, Splitface, is rather underwhelming, especially given the more famous foes who appear penciled over the opening credits, and Conway feels somewhat undercooked as Tracy. But what is surprising is how quickly and how effectively the film captures the ethos of the Gould comic strip, a noteworthy if forgotten installment in the exciting history of comics on film.

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

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "The Terrible Trio"

“Ah, therein lies the problem. After all, what do the rajahs do when there are no more tigers to hunt?”

I’m at a loss on how to summarize this episode. Usually I try to retell the plot in an exciting way, giving a full summary of the first act and teasing what’s to come, but there is really no way to make “The Terrible Trio” exciting or interesting. The eponymous threesome are a band of spoiled rich kids who dress like a fox, a vulture, and a shark to rob from the rich and give to themselves, and it takes far too long for Batman and Robin to catch them.

Bruce Timm has notoriously apologized for “The Terrible Trio,” decrying it as “my nomination for all-time worst dcau ep[isode].” I’d have to take that under advisement, perhaps in the form of a “Bottom 10” list – we’ve had some real stinkers in the bunch – but this episode is surprisingly, disappointingly, basic. The plot is something much closer to the less scientific bits of a CSI episode, and aside from the fact that it takes place in Gotham, nothing about the scale of this case ought to draw Batman’s attention. For all the high-stakes action we’ve seen Batman undertake – for heaven’s sake, next week’s episode literally threatens Gotham with an atomic bomb – a trio of privileged fraternity brothers seems laughably under-menacing.

Then again, maybe I’m reacting to the fact that this episode essentially stars the Terrible Trio, with Batman in a minor supporting role, and these characters are so deplorable in their very essence that spending any amount of time with them quickly becomes unbearable. For all their faults, the villains of Batman: The Animated Series have often been the best part of the show because of their entertainment value, their tortured souls, or their Shakespearean flaws. But the Terrible Trio is just, well, terrible. They’re grotesque caricatures of the affluent, with nothing redemptive or even entertaining about them. Their voices are nigh indistinguishable, a rare misfire from casting director Andrea Romano. But I don’t know that it’s fair to lay any of the blame at her feet, especially because everything else about the episode is so bland and uninspiring that the voice cast weirdly fits into that atmosphere.

As I usually do with lackluster episodes, I can point to a few pieces of gold in “The Terrible Trio.” The visual design of the animal masks is a good starting point, particularly the unsettling way we can’t see any moving mouths; however, the episode biffs that touch because we can see the wearer’s mouth beneath the mouth of the mask, and that’s not always moving either. Some of the best moments in “The Terrible Trio” belong, unsurprisingly, to Kevin Conroy, who gives the necessary humanity to this episode. When one of the trio asks snarkily if Bruce Wayne stoops to thanking his garbageman, Conroy gives a strikingly heartfelt “If I happen to run into him.” There’s a reprise of one of my all-time favorite Batman gags, in which Bruce admits slyly, “Well, I do have a nightlife.” Finally, Conroy gets one of his heavyweight champion moments of righteous indignation when he fumes, “Scoundrels like these are worse than the Joker. At least he’s got madness as an excuse.” Conroy’s Batman is at his best when he’s shouting with all the divine rage of his vigilante alter ego, and seeing a set of characters who ought to be his precise opposite number puts Batman in a position of furious integrity.

That’s the thing that disappoints me most about “The Terrible Trio” – it’s objectively bad and its creators have distanced themselves from it, but there’s a nugget of something quite good at hand. That’s an old chestnut in this review series – Batman: The Animated Series almost never missteps with everything it’s got – but this episode might be the most boring misstep in the show’s long and storied catalog.

Original Air Date: September 11, 1995

Writers: Alan Burnett and Michael Reaves

Director: Frank Paur

Villains: The Fox (Bill Mumy), The Vulture (David Jolliffe), and The Shark (Peter Scolari)

Next episode: “Harlequinade,” in which Batman sponsors a jailbreak, Harley croons a tune, and The Joker considers buying a goldfish.

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

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Take Two Tuesday: Justice League (2017) or... Looking at the League through Snyder-Colored Glasses, Everything is Whedon Now

Last year, I spent more than four months going through Batman v Superman in exhaustive detail, and so it may not come as a surprise to readers of this blog that I do occasionally find it difficult to remain objective about this sort of thing. Though I maintain that there is objective gold in BvS, occluded by its occasional thematic indigestibility, I freely admit that much of what I like about Justice League is born out of my desire to like the movie.

I can see why the average filmgoer would not have liked this film, and I can certainly sympathize with the disciples of Zack Snyder (largely being one myself). As before, I do not want to relitigate the “Snyder v Whedon: Dawn of Reshoots” guessing game; indeed, I’d wager that within five years, if Snyder’s recent social media presence is any barometer, we’ll know more concretely about one or both sides of the question. What I think is key, though, is not to think of this as a Snyder film – it isn’t. It is closer to a Joss Whedon film, particularly his Avengers duology, but like the Justice League comic itself it more closely resembles a “greatest hits” collection of all the things that work so far about the DC universe. We have the strong casting of Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, and Henry Cavill; we have the striking visual design of Gotham, Metropolis, and Themyscira; and we get new pieces bolted on to those aspects, including – most striking on this rewatch – a terrifically engaging Ezra Miller as The Flash, whose boisterous Spider-Man charm is a brilliant audience substitute for a guy who’s really just excited to be in the company of gods and heroes.

Sitting a few feet from the screen on home video rather than dozens of feet in the theater, the film looks different. Some of the CGI on Henry Cavill’s Gumby mouth looks dodgier, though Steppenwolf acquits himself better, and there are at least two surprising moments when a green screen is solidly visible (once on Aquaman’s cheek, once on Flash’s boot). Where Batman v Superman worked very hard to bring superheroes into our world and give us a stylized vision of the struggles of their souls, Justice League follows instead the giddiness of The Flash and runs with an aesthetic that reminds one of the original X-Men film, in which the prevailing mood was, “Look, the comics are walking around!” While a lot of folks took Whedon to task for apparently altering the color grading of the film, I think it helps distance the film from the “Snyder Cut” we may never see, instead taking the movie into a surrealistic cartoon corner that feels more like a comic book come to life, rather than a comic book coming into my life.

On rewatch, consciously trying to watch Justice League as the next superhero film in a long tradition and looking for points of connection rather than disconnect, it does feel very much like an episode of the 2001-2004 Justice League cartoon as informed by The Avengers. We have the same emphasis on team dynamics, informed by the unhealthy mistrust that, for better or for worse, holds the Avengers together. Whedon (or Snyder – at this point, who cares?) cribs a few notes from his playbook with a scene that echoes the “we’re a timebomb” argument from The Avengers; in the film’s climax, which I previously described as “airlifted from Sokovia,” reprises the family-as-microcosm we saw menaced by Ultron, which in turn syncs up with Batman’s direction to The Flash: “Save one.” Save one, then a truck, then the world. These heroes ought to be about hope, about the belief that one human being can become something greater and can save the world, and in Justice League I believe that Batman learns that lesson enough to teach it to the next generation. I buy that Wonder Woman is the gifted and capable leader of the team. I buy that Flash and Cyborg rise to the challenge. And I completely accept that the very idea of Superman is enough to make them all believe in the promise of tomorrow, not least because I believe that too.

Back in November, I found myself enjoying Justice League. Five months later, I still liked Justice League, but I liked it from a different angle, a sideways enjoyment of the film for what it was and not in spite of what it could have been. I don’t know that I will go to the mat for Justice League in the way that I will, every time, for Batman v Superman, and I will always believe that there is a universe out there somewhere in which Zack Snyder was given the time and the resources to complete the vision he introduced with Man of Steel. I had hoped to change minds about Batman v Superman with my “10 @ a Time” series, but I accept that it’s not worth the effort to try with Justice League. You get out of this movie what you seek to find in it, and as it stands, this Justice League is fun enough to justify each matching set of hours I choose to spend with it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "House & Garden"

“I don’t know who has been duplicating my old crimes, but I can assure you, gentlemen, Poison Ivy is dead.”

A familiar plant-based poison is found at the scene of several robberies, and Batman’s initial suspicion naturally falls on Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing). Commissioner Gordon insists, however, that she’s gone straight – turned over a new leaf, if you will – and settled down with the psychiatrist who successfully reformed her. With Ivy safely ensconced in domestic bliss with her new husband and his two sons, Batman is short on clues, especially when his ward Dick Grayson is abducted, and a ransom is extorted.

Paul Dini is rightly credited with his work on the Harley & Joker-centric episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, though he usually gets the short end of the shrub when it comes to Poison Ivy (excepting, of course, “Harley & Ivy”). But between “Pretty Poison” and “House & Garden,” Dini proves that he’s got a good handle on more Bat-villains than just the ones who wear clown makeup. Dini continues his portrayal of Ivy as a vamping narcissist who uses her seductive powers to advance her own goals and protect the plants, the only things about which she truly cares in this world. (Oh, spoilers? Poison Ivy totally doesn’t reform in this episode.) Dini does, however, paper on a layer of pathos when the episode begins to wonder just how real Ivy’s affection was for the family she created.

The revelation, casually heartbreaking for how quickly it’s dashed off, that Ivy can’t have children, takes on a few powerful layers as Dini explores Ivy’s connection to her ostensible step-children. Though Ivy loses much of what she never had in the first place, the mere fact that she created such a simulacrum in which to couch her alleged reform speaks volumes to the depths of her character. How much of her dedication to Mother Earth, we might ask, is a reaction to her own inability to become a mother? We could extend that question to her affection for Harley Quinn, too – though the show and its fandom have treated that relationship as anywhere from lightly flirtatious to full-on sexualized, I’ve always sensed a maternal note in her efforts to keep Harley away from The Joker. It’s to Dini’s credit, then, that he finds a deeper level of Poison Ivy than the creepy sexuality of “Eternal Youth.”

That’s not to say, though, that “House & Garden” is the cozy domesticity it pretends to be. There’s plenty of Cronenberg-esque horror in the basement; where we had a dreadful Penguin episode set in a home’s lower level, this episode might very well be called “I’ve Got Disturbing Plant Child Incubators in My Basement.” The stilted, jerky animation, coupled with Ivy’s monologue about how her plant children evolve to become the behemoths menacing Gotham, is patently unnerving, warping the innocence of childhood by presenting it as manufactured, replaceable, and emotionless. That Ivy appears to fall for her own simulation of a family is a fascinating ineffability.

All told, “House & Garden” is maybe not the greatest Dini episode, solely by dint of the other ones just being amazing storytelling, but it is as ever an engaging chapter in the ongoing Bat-saga. It’s also (fittingly) Ivy’s farewell from BTAS; though she gets a nice little punchline in “Harley’s Holiday,” “House & Garden” is largely her swan song, and it’s a fitting end of sorts for her character. Man, Dini’s got it.

Original Air Date: May 2, 1994

Writer: Paul Dini

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villains: Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing)

Next episode: “The Terrible Trio,” in which the rich get richer.

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

Monday, March 12, 2018

Monday at the Movies - March 12, 2018

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” Today’s installment is one of those “how’d he miss that?” reviews.

Sicario (2015) – If Denis Villeneuve isn’t already one of my favorite working directors, Sicario ought to cement that reputation. I’ve loved Prisoners and Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, so Sicario fills in a gap with a movie that combines the seat-edge tension of Prisoners with, well, Blade Runner 2049’s fascination with dust. Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent whose safehouse raid goes wrong, leading her to take a new role in the war on drugs alongside two Department of Justice operatives (Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro) who redefine playing their cards close to the chest by keeping her in the dark about their ambiguous, ultra-violent mission. From the film’s opening scene, which takes several brutally unexpected turns, Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (he of Hell or High Water) keep the audience guessing as Blunt’s Kate Macer tries to find her own footing in a plot that is never quite transparent about its goals. Indeed, for a film that doles out its cards so slowly, it’s almost alchemical how Villeneuve keeps the audience on his side for the duration of the film; he’s helped ably, one should note, by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has been the cinematographer for many of the most gorgeous films of the last twenty years (favorites: Skyfall and No Country for Old Men, whose visual influence is acute here). Points also to Benicio del Toro, who gives a riveting, largely silent performance as Alejandro, the man who “If he says to do somethin’, just do it” – and you buy it from del Toro’s quiet intensity. Hours after watching Sicario, I was elated to learn that there’s a sequel, Soldado, due in June of this year. And as a moviegoer, I don’t know if there’s a better feeling than discovering a delight you’d missed along your way, only to be told that there’s more coming just around the corner.

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

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "Avatar"

“Thoth Khepera was not simply a woman, Detective, nor merely a ruler. Through her flowed the power of the gods.”

Shortly after Bruce Wayne donates it, the Scroll of Osiris is stolen from a Gotham museum, and Batman is amazed to learn that Ra’s al Ghul (David Warner) – presumed dead by the Dark Knight – is to blame. Batman journeys to Gibraltar, where Talia al Ghul (Helen Slater) tells her beloved why her father has returned and what terrible secret the Scroll of Osiris contains.

I had thought that this was the Ra’s al Ghul flashback episode with Jonah Hex, but that’s about a dozen more episodes down the pike (“Showdown”), so imagine my surprise when this episode actually does begin with a flashback, to a fin de siècle Egyptian expedition. It’s a great opener to the episode, silent storytelling that introduces the ageless Ra’s al Ghul, establishes his centuries-long quest for the tomb of Thoth Khepera, and builds in a credible sense of dread. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t link up with the episode that follows; Ra’s never mentions it, and the literal dangling thread – the severed rope that lowers Ra’s into the pit – is never resolved. We’re left to wonder what Ra’s found down there, which might be for the best. (Or am I reading too far into it, and that’s not Ra’s in the flashback? It turns out there’s some debate about this online.)

Aside from that moment of confusion, “Avatar” presents a case study in the inherent indestructibility of Batman as a character, able to drift seamlessly between every imaginable genre without compromising the core identity of Batman. If “The Demon’s Quest” introduced Ra’s al Ghul in a version of Lawrence of Arabia by way of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, “Avatar” is Boris Karloff’s The Mummy by way of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s so organically composed that it’s almost a little jarring to realize, “Wait, ten minutes ago he was in Gotham, and now Batman’s in an underground temple fighting an immortal mummy!” Any unease you might feel, though, is immediately checked by the episode’s effortless cool and its fidelity to the character. If nothing else, the brown hue cast on Batman’s suit in the pyramid caverns looks strikingly fashionable, almost prefiguring the Knightmare Batman suit.

In an episode with an undying mummy, there’s something quite chilling about Batman’s description of Ra’s al Ghul as “my most powerful enemy.” I had said back in my review of “The Demon’s Quest” that Ra’s was Batman’s “complete opposite number,” and it’s great to see Batman acknowledge just how close the two really are. David Warner remains one of the all-time definitive villain voices, the intensity and precision of his words matching the furious drive of his quest for true immortality. He tells his daughter in an unnerving farewell, “It is said that one finds immortality in one’s offspring. Alas, I know that to be a lie,” and that alone should cement him as Batman’s second greatest adversary (no one can top The Joker).

But if Warner is taking up much of the air with his grandiloquent performance, let’s not forget Helen Slater, returning as Talia, in a heartbreaking role as she discovers the ways in which her father has abandoned her while she reckons with his position between her father and her beloved. I won’t spoil her choice, of course, but I will note that it’s interesting that even Ubu seems a little kinder to Batman in the wake of Ra’s al Ghul’s apex villainy – the moment when he tosses the “infidel” Batman a canteen of water seems apologetically compassionate and beautifully layered in a series highly regarded for its nuance.

The most striking nuance of all, though, comes from Kevin Conroy, who continues to slam home run after home run. In two back-to-back sequences, Conroy struts every wrinkle in his vocal arsenal. First, he’s dressed as Batman in the cave with Alfred, expressing a clear tenderness solidified by their mutual dedication to the mission. Then Conroy makes the particularly brilliant decision to remain in the Bat-voice, even when he’s in civilian clothes with Talia, his voice now tighter, more guarded, and more forceful – it’s an hall-of-fame creative choice that shows how intimately Conroy understands the character. Like the local guide in the episode’s prologue, Conroy leads us into the world of Batman and shows us around.

Original Air Date: May 9, 1994

Writer: Michael Reaves

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villains: Ra’s al Ghul (David Warner) and Thoth Khepera (Nichelle Nichols)

Next episode: “House & Garden,” in which Ivy settles down.

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

Monday, March 5, 2018

Monday at the Movies - March 5, 2018

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” And since it’s Monday, it must be time to review something from the animated realm.

Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2018) – This film ended up being, to quote a popular Star Wars meme, “a surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one.” The Scooby Gang, alias Mystery Incorporated, comes to Gotham City, where they find themselves invited by Batman (Diedrich Bader) to join the Mystery Analysts of Gotham, a clubhouse of super sleuths (including Black Canary, Detective Chimp, Martian Manhunter, Plastic Man, The Question, and the aspirant Aquaman) who find themselves wrapped up in one of Batman’s earliest – and only unsolved – cases, which just so happens to involve a ghost. I was a big fan of Batman: The Brave and the Bold, a first-rate animated series that embraced everything in Batman’s long history, from the nutty and the zany to the grim and the gritty; I’ve also been a monthly reader of Scooby-Doo Team-Up!, the comic that pairs the Scooby Gang with guest stars from the DC publishing wheelhouse. This film, then, seemed like a natural extension of two things I already like, and so I’m pleased to report it’s great fun. It strikes a balance between the pseudo-supernatural sleuthing of the Scooby-Doo universe and the high concept superheroics that put Batman next to a talking chimp to solve crimes, managing quite well to strike a balance between two distinct brands. This is a crossover done right, with plenty of fan service and a decent story in its own right. Moreover, the film actually includes a well-crafted mystery (with at least one “red” herring), with sufficient clues for the audience to piece together. I’d happily watch more installments of the Mystery Analysts, particularly if they give us an opportunity to revisit Diedrich Bader’s Batman, a collegial and dead(pan) serious Bat who captures that surrogate father quality of Batman comics from the 1950s and who can render immortal a line like “The hammer of justice is unisex.” (Points also to Jeffrey Combs, who returns as the definitive Question, and John DiMaggio, whose Aquaman is as delightfully ‘outrageous!’ as ever.)

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