Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "Batgirl Returns"

“You’re smart, and you’re fast. I thought maybe you’d like to work together. After all, against the two of us, whoever took the jade cat doesn’t stand a chance.”

Taking a break from studying for her midterms, Barbara Gordon (Melissa Gilbert) takes on what seems to be a fairly open-and-shut Catwoman case. But why would Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau) return to the scene of the crime? Protesting her innocence, Catwoman proposes an unlikely alliance with Batgirl; Robin remains suspicious, but Batgirl sets off in search of the real thieves.

Taken as the final episode of Batman: The Animated Series, “Batgirl Returns” is a curious bird. Batman appears not at all, save for a cutesy dream sequence, while Bruce Wayne is relegated to Paris, handling a Wayne Enterprises business deal on which the fate of the entire European economy seems to lie (“This WayneCorp merger is vital for the European common market,” he says). So it’s a shame that we don’t get a proper sendoff for Kevin Conroy. We do get brief appearances from three of the show’s greatest villains – The Joker, Two-Face, and The Penguin – but they too appear in said fantasy sequence, wordless yet nevertheless menacing. It’s a nice moment when the stellar designs are trotted out once more, allowing us to appreciate how effortlessly iconic this show could be.

This opening fantasy, though, is a very strange place to begin this episode, hinging as it does on Batgirl’s fantasy of rescuing Batman and wooing him over. Put another way, now I see where Bruce Timm gets it. For an episode that ought to be about the empowered women of Gotham, there’s an odd tendency of the episode to try to put Batgirl “in her place,” as when Robin’s efforts to protect her usually come off as condescending and perhaps even a little toxic. Indeed, the very notion that Batman needs Robin to watch over Batgirl seems needlessly paternalistic, given how well she acquitted herself in “Shadow of the Bat.” It’s quite a shame, then, that BtAS never gave Batgirl more than two episodes to breathe; seeding Barbara Gordon’s journey toward the cowl was one of the great slow-burn long games of the show, but I can’t help but feeling there was more here. (The New Batman Adventures would ultimately prove me right, with Batgirl joining the cast more or less full-time, including in one of the best episodes of the series.)

As a finale, though, perhaps it’s for the best that BtAS doesn’t go for a predictable wrap-up but instead reminds us that the show has often been less about Batman and more about the world he inhabits. Without Batman, we see the budding romance between Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon, who remain delectably unaware of their alter egos and the simmering tension there. That dynamic could have comprised its own episode (and though the show never quite got there, the tie-in comics had a good bit of fun with it). We also see a new side of Catwoman, still smarting over her treatment in “Cat Scratch Fever” (me too, Selina, me too); her opportunity for revenge is classic Catwoman, as is her inimitable way of keeping her promise to Batgirl to turn herself in. The extension of the cat-and-(winged)-mouse game to the wider Bat-family leaves Catwoman in a fascinating place, a perfect note on which to part with her.

Furthermore, “Batgirl Returns” ties up one more loose end on the show when it revisits Roland Daggett and his bid for control of the Gotham underworld. With characters like Daggett and Rupert Thorne, this show had an extensive subplot about the class of criminal who would come to rule the city, with Two-Face putting in his own bid in “Shadow of the Bat.” With Thorne appearing largely retired in “Second Chance” (after his last-ditch effort in hiring the titular “Bane” to kill the Bat), Daggett reaches his absolute zero here – circumstances brought on by his own doing, as distinct from the more interesting villains being victims of circumstance – and having Catwoman twist the knife at episode’s end puts a fine button on that plotline. The city, it turns out, belongs even in absentia to the Bat. 

A good finale should leave us wanting more, and this episode really does. Fortunately, The New Batman Adventures to come would fulfill much of that promise – more Batman, more Batgirl, more Gotham, and even more unlikely team-ups like this one (Catwoman allies with Nightwing, while Batgirl gets a “super” visitor from out of town). “Batgirl Returns” is, however, Melissa Gilbert’s swan song as Batgirl; she’d be replaced by Mary Kay Bergman for the SubZero film and ultimately by the definitive Tara Strong in TNBA, but I always appreciated the way Gilbert gave Barbara wisdom beyond her years, a kind of playful adultness to match Loren Lester’s youthful trying-too-hard attempt to be a grown-up. But this interpretation of Batgirl was always someone who refused to believe she had something to prove; rather than the full-fledged member of the family we’d meet in TNBA, this Batgirl was content merely to take inspiration from a team that never quite embraced her as it should have. We did, though; it’s hard not to read a Batgirl comic without hearing Shirley Walker’s orchestral swell, so suited to her swooping dives into action.

Original Air Date: November 12, 1994

Writers: Michael Reaves and Brynne Stephens

Director: Dan Riba

Villains: Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau) and Roland Daggett (Ed Asner)

Next episode: That’s all she wrote for Batman: The Animated Series, but stay tuned for a few end-of-series debriefs, Top Ten style. But Batgirl returns, and so will we, old chum, as we charge headlong into The New Batman Adventures.

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

Monday, June 25, 2018

mother! (2017)

I can honestly say that after Black Swan (which I listed on my Personal Canon as a film that influenced the way I approach movies), I was ready to follow Darren Aronofsky anywhere, even through the strange exhibit that was Noah, diverting if peculiar in its biblical revisionism. With mother!, however, a film that sacrifices signification for surreal spectacle, writer/director Aronofsky has transparently lost the plot.

In many ways, mother! most resembles Eraserhead by way of Rosemary’s Baby, a nightmarish portrait of a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) and her older writer’s-blocked husband (Javier Bardem), whose pastoral life restoring a home is interrupted by the arrival of two strangers (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) who bring with them a litany of family strife, consumption, and destruction.

mother! is perhaps the most infuriating film I can recall seeing in a very long time, and I say that as a person who very much appreciates a film that asks its audience to perform leaps of analytical reading. I like a film that makes me think, and there are few passions in my life more ardent than the work of interpretation, of thoughtful analysis, and of cinematic cryptography, but I have never wanted to throw something at a screen more than I did during mother!. There were more than a few moments when I wanted to walk away from the film – something I almost never do because of my abiding devotion to the sacredness of narrative – though it would seem that Aronofsky does not share that same investment in storytelling. mother! is catastrophically ghastly, maddening for its steadfast refusal to give the audience anything to which we can cling when the film verges, as it is wont to do, between poles of frustrating uncertainty and chaotic turmoil.

In a film where the characters are not named, even in the end credits, we have to grasp onto the performers to give the characters some kind of identity. Javier Bardem is captivating, though perhaps the word should be used in the sense of “abducting,” as the film more closely resembles a hostage situation than a moviegoing experience. One hires Bardem for his ability to turn a smile into menace without adjusting a muscle on his face, and on this count he excels as the husband (“Him,” in the credits). He’s scary, and he’s emotionally abusive, but I need more from a film than watching Jennifer Lawrence in perpetual terror for two hours. Her acting in mother! is first-rate, and she’s a perfect audience surrogate as she too faces bewilderment over the myriad of home invasions she suffers. She’s clearly terrified, but at no point did I feel that same fear. I felt angry – furious, even – at the way the film left me at the door without bothering to address the nonsense “logic” governing the whole thing.

Perhaps this is Aronofsky’s whole point, that we are, like Lawrence, thrown into a world that refuses to make sense, that tortures us to the point of despair. I did not, however, have the opportunity to despair because the sensory overload in the film transgresses far beyond human registers into the point of feeling naught but numb. Furthermore, there are things in this movie that are just vile, that would cross the rubicon of the palatable if for one second we had any emotional involvement beyond its appearance as the latest in an inventory of tasteless violence. Aronofsky peppers the film with halfhearted biblical allusions, as if applying Burroughs’s cut-up technique to the book of Genesis. (A riff on Cain & Abel approaches some interesting ground, especially as Aronofsky tips his hand that he’s going for the story of the first murder, but it flies off the rails once the film and its characters appear to have forgotten that it had happened.) If the film is an Old Testament allegory, though, what are Mother Mary and talk of forgiveness doing in the midst of all this? Noah had a similarly loosey-goosey take on textual fidelity, but at least that film had the good sense to throw in rock monsters to keep us engaged. In their place, mother! walks instead through a first-person videogame of destruction, wanton lasciviousness, religious zealotry, and the devastation of a war zone without bothering to clue us into the point of it all.

And if pointlessness is the point, if the object of the game is to obfuscate the message with colliding allegories, isn’t there a way to do that without nauseating your audience to the point of disconnection? I cannot oversell how frustratingly vile this film is, how fiercely irritating it becomes when it, like its houseguests, overstays its welcome and refuses even to gesture at what it’s trying to accomplish. It abuses us and taunts us with our unwillingness to leave. mother! undercooks its plot, overloads its allegory, and assaults the senses until anyone who cared has long since checked out. Aronofsky then slams on the gas in the film’s final minutes, recognizing he’s almost out of time and accelerating past the event horizon of the point I presume he’s trying to make – that people are terrible and God is an abusive, aloof narcissist. mother! leaves its audience with more sound and fury than its narrative could signify, but mostly I’m just left with fury – empathic fury at first, but ultimately just fury at being suckered into a two-hour vanity project that tells us only that Aronofsky is infatuated with Lawrence and with seeing her suffer while wearing translucent blousy nightwear. And if sadism is your thing, mother! is a rip-roaring good time. I, on the other hand, find it grotesque and infuriating.

mother! is rated R for “strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity, and language.” Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "Deep Freeze"

“Look at me, Mr. Freeze, I’m an old man. I’ve created wonders in my lifetime, but there is still so much to do! I want to change as you have, to become like you—a being of blessed, eternal cold!”

Mr. Freeze (Michael Ansara) has escaped from Arkham Asylum, but Batman suspects this was less a breakout and more an abduction. After a visit with old associate Karl Rossum (William Sanderson), Batman follows the trail to Grant Walker (Daniel O’Herlihy), a theme park mogul with designs on introducing a new park – one to fuel his coldhearted utopian ambitions. His plans for Mr. Freeze are equally chilling, as he extorts the doctor with his cryogenically-frozen wife Nora as leverage.

I’ve seen this episode a few times, and once I get over the initial disappointment that “Deep Freeze” can’t compare to “Heart of Ice,” I usually come around to confessing that it’s a pretty good continuation of the redemptive reading of Mr. Freeze as a man of science tortured by his inability to save his wife. Put another way, it’s about as good a Mr. Freeze episode as you can do with a version of the character who is not unrepentantly evil, who leans more toward tortured than torturer. And in the same way that Mark Hamill’s Joker is so definitive that his very presence elevates any episode, Michael Ansara is killing it on every level as Mr. Freeze. His deadpan monologues nevertheless convey an acute sense of pain and loss.

“Deep Freeze” finds Mr. Freeze not in opposition to Batman but as his begrudging ally in battle against a more dangerous ideological foe. It’s striking to see Mr. Freeze terrified at the prospect of his involuntary exit from Arkham; his fear suggests that he’s apprehensive about his unknown ostensible rescuers, yes, but it also seems to imply that on some level he believes he deserves his incarceration. “I failed you,” he had said at the end of his debut episode; “I can only beg your forgiveness.” If he cannot find absolution in the arms of his wife, he will find his penitence in a penitentiary.

As I write this review, I find I’m talking myself more and more into liking this episode. It’s a Paul Dini/Bruce Timm joint (among the pantheon of the platonic ideals of Batman storytellers, if ever there was one), so perhaps that should come as no surprise. As ever, this episode of Batman: The Animated Series does a masterful job opposing its dichotomous images; Mr. Freeze postures as emotionless but demonstrates a profound care for his wife and fellow man, while Grant Walker pretends to be avuncular and welcoming but proposes instead a tyrannical world where his will reigns supreme. Batman, interestingly enough, is given fairly short shrift, providing the compulsory detective work but absent much else to do beyond encourage Mr. Freeze to reexamine his priorities. 

One thing, however, needs to be said, and that’s the strange case of Grant Walker – namely, why is he a Walt Disney allegory? Between theme parks, imagineers (here, visioneers), and what feels like an extended reference to the urban legend that Disney was cryogenically frozen, this episode really pushes the comparison in a way that never feels insulting, but feels so on-the-nose that its specificity is downright peculiar. This is a peculiar axe to grind, but it would seem that there’s no malice behind the parallel. What, then, is the point of this? Dini was always more of a Looney Tunes guy than a Disney man, right down to his previous job as a writer on Tiny Toon Adventures. Its ultimate end, then, is mostly as a cranky curious footnote to the episode – and a distracting one, at that.

Perhaps sensing that Mr. Freeze didn’t get a full shake from appearing in only two episodes (though Clayface also received only a pair of stories, one was a two-parter), the showrunners and powers-that-be selected him as the primary antagonist for Batman and Mr. Freeze: Sub-Zero. It’s a fine enough animated film, far beneath the status of Mask of the Phantasm and still never quite living up to the perfect crystalline promise of “Heart of Ice,” but we must remember, as the show says farewell to him, that BtAS did give us this particular iteration of Mr. Freeze. And that in itself is a finer feat than many shows manage to accomplish in their entire run.

Original Air Date: November 26, 1994

Writers: Paul Dini and Bruce Timm

Director: Bruce Timm

Villains: Mr. Freeze (Michael Ansara) and Grant Walker (Daniel O’Herlihy)

Next episode: “Batgirl Returns,” in which a dynamic duet closes out the series.

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

Monday, June 18, 2018

Incredibles 2 (2018)

Fourteen years is not the longest we’ve had to wait for sequels – Indiana Jones waited eighteen years to find the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, while Blade Runner 2049 incorporated its 35-year gap into the narrative – but it’s certainly the longest for Pixar, who have expanded four of their films into franchises while The Incredibles stood alone. Because The Incredibles has had (but did not need) fourteen years to become one of my all-time favorite films, it’s hard for me to say whether Incredibles 2 is better, but it’s certainly a worthy successor to what was, for a good long while, possibly the greatest superhero movie ever made.

Incredibles 2 follows up immediately on the original, as the arrival of the Underminer once more calls the Parr family out of hiding. But patriarch Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is stunned to learn that the media-savvy Winston Deaver (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) believe Elasti-Girl (Holly Hunter) is the key to winning over public perception of re-legalizing superheroes. While Elasti-Girl pursues the case of the villainous Screen-Slaver, Mr. Incredible faces his greatest challenge yet – embracing his role as a stay-at-home dad to adolescent Violet (Sarah Vowell), mathematically-challenged Dash (Huck Milner), and the unpredictably-powered infant Jack-Jack.

As the director of my two favorite Pixar films – The Incredibles, naturally, and Ratatouille – Brad Bird earns a lot of goodwill from me. Despite Tomorrowland being a bit of a flop, there’s been something about it that hasn’t left my mind since I saw it (not counting, of course, Michael Giacchino’s masterful score), which means it’ll make a great “Take Two Tuesday” one of these days. Point being, even when Bird is off his game, he’s still capable of turning in unforgettable work with something to say. For Father’s Day weekend, Incredibles 2  provides a nice reminder that the act of raising a family can indeed be a superheroic feat, that gender roles are just what we make of them, and that the gifted cannot help but seek out their unique purpose in life. Bird’s appreciation for the extraordinary is on full display in Incredibles 2, though he wisely flips the script to show Elasti-Girl’s taste for superheroics; where the first film saw Mr. Incredible revel in his clandestine activities, here we get to see Elasti-Girl have her day in the sun, and the ways she and her husband find peace and fulfillment in their new roles is frankly inspiring for anyone of my generation, staring down the barrel of starting families.

Incredibles 2 does not, however, do much in the way of genre deconstruction after the fashion of the first film. For example, there is a moment when a villain launches into exposition, and in the first film that would have followed up on a winking joke about “monologuing.” Here, though, the superheroics are fairly straight-faced, largely because Bird is less interested in the superhero genre this time and more interested in a story about a family that happens to wear spandex. Put another way, Incredibles 2 is less about reckoning with the past and more about preparing for the future. (Whether that augurs well for a possible Incredibles 3 is anyone’s guess, but I’d wager that the box office receipts will find Bird receiving no shortage of blank checks for a threequel.)

Indeed, the restraint on display is artfully done, refreshing for a sequel that’s been more highly demanded than any other in recent memory. In a production with less integrity, it’s easy to imagine vast subplots dedicated to Edna Mode or even Honey Best, but here they’re part of the narrative world and fit into the story without pandering to an audience that craves so much more of them. Bird also introduces a number of new characters, too many to enumerate, but again they fit into the aesthetic and the world of The Incredibles with that essential hunger to see more. Doors are, of course, left open for further adventures in this world, be they on film, on television, or in comic books, but one is reassured that the film took so long to arrive because its creators are acutely aware of how special the final product needs to be. 

Incredibles 2 feels very special, but it also feels good. At a time when everything seems divisive, when no one can agree on anything from politics to Star Wars, it’s refreshing to go to a film that embodies the purest form of escapism – not escapism from something but escapism to a place where the good guys are unreservedly good, where they have an irrepressible need to help and a visually amazing way of doing so. The film includes a number of sequences that are breathtaking, even as far as a mesmerizing animation of a motel swimming pool, hypnotic in all its simulated eddying glory. Incredibles 2 looks beautiful; its inimitable style is an enviable treat, effortlessly cool yet painstakingly rendered. We want to live there. We want to be these people; at least, I do, because Incredibles 2 reminds us that there is a hero inside of all of us, just waiting for an opportunity to answer the call to do something amazing, even if it’s just changing poopy diapers. From start to finish, Incredibles 2 is a joyride, with heavy emphasis on “joy.”

Incredibles 2 is rated PG for “action sequences and some brief mild language.” Written and directed by Brad Bird. Starring Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Bonus review! Incredibles 2 is preceded by Bao, a short film from Domee Shi in which a dumpling comes to life and brightens the life of his ostensible mother. In the best Pixar tradition, the short is bracingly original, emotionally potent, and dialogue-free, allowing the power of the images to speak volumes. After last year’s “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” overstayed its welcome, Bao is refreshingly brisk, condensed in a way that shows the tight economy of the narrative. I didn’t know quite what to expect from Bao, beyond seeing still images of its adorable protagonist, but I found myself touched by its sincere sentimentality. Bao is a fine return to form for a studio who has done some of its best work in its pre-feature shorts.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original Air Date: November 5, 1994

Writers: Paul Dini and Randy Rogel

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villain: The Joker (Mark Hamill)

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

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

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Batman: The Animated Series - "Lock-Up"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original Air Date: November 19, 1994

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

Director: Dan Riba

Villain: Lock-Up (Bruce Weitz)

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

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

Monday, June 4, 2018

Monday at the Movies - June 4, 2018

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

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

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