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Justice League: Gods and Monsters

Posted : 3 months, 3 weeks ago on 1 May 2017 04:49 (A review of Justice League: Gods and Monsters)

Elseworlds, as they are known in the comics, are a long-standing tradition with DC. They provide creators a chance to explore the rich mythology and complex character relationships in standalone stories that can recontextualize the entirety of the character without infringing on the main continuity. Some of them are just bugnuts crazy like Batman as Victorian detective in Gotham by Gaslight, or Superman as Russian agent in Red Son, while others are epic visions of the final years of the universe like Kingdom Come.


Dark versions of the characters are a dime a dozen though, and darker versions of the Justice League in particular have been done to death. Several episodes of the Justice Leauge/Justice League Unlimited tackled the subject, so did Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, the video game Injustice: Gods Among Us, and Justice League: Gods and Monsters feels anemic in comparison. It also feels like it’s been seen and done before, which it has several times over. Maybe if it wasn’t a one-off I could get more excited about it all, but there’s little chance we’ll see these versions of the characters again.


Shame because these versions of the characters are interesting in the smaller moments that reveal their backgrounds. Superman and Batman are born from mistakes and violence, but it’s Wonder Woman that hits us hardest with her tragedy, vengeance, and tortured emotional state. It doesn’t hurt that Tamara Taylor’s voice work out paces both Michael C. Hall and Benjamin Bratt as the vampire Batman and Mexican immigrant Superman. Hall and Bratt are both a bit too stiff, and they fumble their emotional moments with their detached line readings.


There’s some good here, with Timm’s retro-futuristic designs and angular animation style making a welcome return, but the film relies so heavily on blood-letting and scenes of shocking violence that it all ends up feeling like it’s being edgy and dark just for the sake of it. Eventually all of the violent, gory scenes end up feeling dull and blurry into each other, but the scenes of emotional purging and character investment really linger. And the never-ending cameos from DC’s deep bench of characters, both known and obscure, are a treasure trove for any fan. I just wish Gods and Monsters added up to something better. 

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Justice League: The New Frontier

Posted : 3 months, 3 weeks ago on 1 May 2017 03:59 (A review of Justice League: The New Frontier)

Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier is a sprawling, seminal, absolutely brilliant love letter to the Silver Age of comics. Any adaptation of the work will inevitably be viewed through a sliding scale of success and/or failure, yet Justice League: The New Frontier is a resounding success. Possibly because Cooke played such a strong hand in shaping the material. Undoubtedly there’s a rushed nature to the material that cannot be avoided, and it does hamper things a bit, but it’s a glorious piece of pop entertainment.


I wonder if there was ever any discussion of treating this material as two halves of one long film, like they would eventually do with The Dark Knight Returns. The New Frontier could handle such an extensive adaptation though, as the source material tracks the changes from the Golden Age to the Silver Age, the forces that changed the older icons, forged the newer ones, and explained how the Atomic Age anxiety/Cold War paranoia shaped all of these influences. Pieces of that are glimpsed throughout, but there’s just not enough breathing room to really explore it in the same manner that the comics did.


There’s also the problem of the massive cast. Again, the book had the time and pacing to doll them out, go on tangents, and explore them all as individuals while the film merely presents a series of vignettes that string them all together as individuals, slowly bring them together as a group, then unleash them all in a grand finale of superheroes versus prehistoric beasts and tentacle monsters. The film never feels rushed, but prior knowledge of the history and the massive universe they encapsulate helps fill in the gaps. I mean, would a more casual viewer known who exactly the Blackhawks are? I doubt it.


If much of the scope and complexity of the narrative has been forsaken for expediency for the broad strokes and big character moments, then at least The New Frontier consistently looks stunning. Cooke’s drawing style isn’t entirely Jack Kirby, Bruce Timm, or any renowned Silver Age artist, but a clear progeny and collaborator of them all. His style translates beautifully to animated images, and I would not complain about seeing more of his work given the direct-to-video animated film treatment. I mean, hiw work on Catwoman is just begging for it.


Even better is how The New Frontier remains hopeful, heroic, and finds a nice tonal balance between the grittier parts of the story and the lighter ones. The PG-13 feels about right here for the brief moments of blood and violence and occasional swear words. Later films would prove unnecessarily gore and blood heavy, as if everyone involved thought that the PG-13 rating made it necessary to include these moments just because instead as a natural outgrowth of the story they were telling. The violence in The New Frontier is what a natural outgrowth looks like.


Then there’s the uniformly strong voice cast. Neil Patrick Harris feels right at home in the Flash, Lucy Lawless makes for a tough and imposing Wonder Woman, and Kyle MacLachlan a perfectly square and stoic Superman. These are just three of the cast members, but there’s not a voice that doesn’t work nor a performance that doesn’t fit the tone. Later films would stick in bigger names to parts that didn’t mesh entirely well, either with the character or the material, but the symbiosis between tone, character, and vocal talent here is stellar.


After the uneven and mildly disappointing Superman: Doomsday, Justice League: The New Frontier was the second film to emerge from the DC Universe Animated Original Movies line. Not only is it an improvement over its predecessor, but it remains one of the best movies to emerge from the line to this day. Just the ending alone, a collage of superheroes and American culture at large while JFK’s famous speech which gives the project its name plays over, is a moment of miniature artistry that boils down the entire project to its purest essence.  

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Superman: Unbound

Posted : 3 months, 3 weeks ago on 1 May 2017 02:38 (A review of Superman: Unbound)

A ton of fun is packed into this 75 minutes, but do you get the vague sense that it looks and feels like a movie and more like the series/season premiere/finale of a never-made Superman show? I do, but it would have been on hell of a Superman show. The angular look is pleasing, the voice cast is solid, the pacing is tight, and the action scenes are uniformly solid.


Superman: Unbound is just another example of the pendulum swinging back after going hard the other way. What do I mean by that? Well, every few years there’s a pervading sense that DC wants to make Superman the last son of Krypton, and then they want to bring back Supergirl, Kandor, Krypto, and the like. Unbound is clearly swinging it back towards populating Superman’s supporting cast with fellow remnants and survivors of Krypton and its neighboring planets.


This is not a bad thing since it’s always a chance to explore the duality of the character as someone who is both an alien (quite literally) and a symbol of Americana. Throw in the ever encroaching threat from Brainiac and his hellbent sense of petty destruction, and you’ve got a greatly enjoyable little piece of action-adventure entertainment. But if you’re looking for something that explores the nuances of the characters as well as several episodes of Superman: The Animated Series or Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Superman For All Seasons, then you’ll need to look elsewhere.


Superman: Unbound is heavy on that sub-title. Granted, one doesn’t exactly come to a Superman property looking entirely for existentialism and deeper questions. You do want to see him throw his might around, and beating down on Brainiac challenges not only his super-strength but his mind and the lengths he would go to do the right thing. For all of those purposes, Unbound is a towering success, hell, it even throws in plenty of jokes and light moments that keep the hopefulness alive in the character.


But, like so many of the other films that DC has released, the limited running time doesn’t leave a ton of time leftover to really dive into the meat of the story. There are great, quiet moments between the characters where they express their fears and hopes, where the stakes are clearly laid out. Then we’re swiftly thrown back into exaggerated fight scenes. A little bit more time for the reflective moments would go a long way with a lot of these films, and maybe DC should invest in making a few that expand beyond the persistent 75 minutes. Sometimes the hardness of that allotted time leaves things feeling rushed or breathless.


Still, there’s a lot to like here, and even more that just feels right. Maybe the live-action franchise could take a look at films like this and steal a few ideas from them. I mean, Superman and actually inspire hope, smile, crack jokes, and level wave after wave of robotic enemies here. Oh, who am I kidding? Snyder and company would only borrow the weird, kinda ugly overly stylized visuals that are more distracting and a nuisance than anything else.

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Batman: The Killing Joke

Posted : 3 months, 3 weeks ago on 27 April 2017 02:35 (A review of Batman: The Killing Joke)

Well, here’s a mixed bag. The Killing Joke is a powerful but slim volume that could never be feature-length without expanding the narrative, so expand it they did. And maybe it should have remained a slim 45 minutes now that I’ve seen just what they’ve done with it.


In the original text, Batgirl’s role is merely that of a broken female body that functions as the inciting incident for Batman and Gordon to take down the Joker. The prologue makes vague hand gestures towards giving her more agency, but she’s clearly still a novice pupil to Batman’s hardened veteran. Even worse is how they sexualized the character. It’s as if the creators wouldn’t buy the fact that Batman can care about Barbara Gordon as an actual human without turning first forcing her into his creepy hookup.


But wait! The prologue just keeps getting worse the longer it goes on. Eventually this chunk of the story just ends, and all of the threads and characters that we have spent the past thirty minutes investing in are immediately jettisoned off into the ether. There’s no smooth transition between this unnecessary stuff and the actual adaptation of The Killing Joke, unless Barbara Gordon as sacrificial lamb qualifies as such.


However, once The Killing Joke just adapts the text as is the film perks right on up. Brian Bolland’s art style doesn’t entirely mesh well easily with DC’s in-house animation style, but there are a few moments of noir-ish and cracked beauty. At times, scenes with the Joker look like motion comics, and I mean that as a compliment. The artwork isn’t always consistent though, with Barbara’s mouth frequently looking like a trout or going strangely off model.


It’s in these later scenes that everything is cooking. Not only do we get Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill in top form, but Ray Wise makes for a nice Gordon. If any of these three performances would have faltered, then the film would not have worked at all. Tara Strong’s Batgirl is a nice lived-in performance, but it’s just a shame some of the scenes they’re forcing her to play.


Then there’s just how freaking creepy the whole carnival business is once you see it played out in action and not just on the page. I’m dying for a movie to adapt the image of Joker sitting atop a throne of baby doll parts. These are the strongest and best moments of the film. The Killing Joke has never been a story about Batgirl, it has always been a story about the Joker. Drop the awkward prologue and fast-forward to the straight adaptation for a chilling time.   

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Batman: Assault on Arkham

Posted : 4 months ago on 24 April 2017 02:53 (A review of Batman: Assault on Arkham)

After seeing just how wonderful the Arkham games designs and overall style takes to animation, I’m hoping that maybe we’ll get a few more of these. Anything involving the Suicide Squad, or Task Force X depending on which character is spouting their code name, should be like this: dirty, smaller scale, and with a strong focus on a small handful of characters. They’re a duplicitous gang of amoral scoundrels, and half of the fun in watching them is wondering if they’ll turn on each other before completing their mission or getting revenge on their captors.


If you’re wondering if that description was a read at the live-action film, then yes, your reading skills are fundamentally solid. Assault on Arkham was the movie that I wanted Suicide Squad to be, but alas, that was not meant to be. I hope that a sequel or something like Gotham City Sirens can prove a course-corrective and bring the scale down to a smaller scale. We can clearly differentiate each character here, get a feel for their personalities and talents, and which ones are mostly likely to prove expendable as the narrative chugs along.


Coherence is always a solidly dependable friend to any storyteller, and there’s a clear objective in mind here. There’s the requisite twists and shocks that raise the dramatics like a frog in a boiling pot, but none of it strays from the core of these characters. It’s also just a ton of fun to watch Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, Harley Quinn, Shark King, Killer Frost, and Black Spider interact with each other. Throw in smaller roles for Batman, the Joker, Penguin, and the Riddler and you have a solid ensemble of major names dropping in to fill in some gaps on which these lesser-known entities are.


Of course, it’s all fun and games until the Joker breaks loose, heads start exploding, Arkham turns into a madhouse, and there’s a dirty bomb on the loose. By this point, Assault on Arkham threatens to fly completely off the tracks, but the strength of the characters saves the day. Deadshot, Harley, and Joker fighting it out on a helicopter while Batman tries to defuse a bomb is solidly entertaining stuff. I’m not entirely sure we needed seemingly every boss fight from Arkham Asylum glimpsed in quick cameos, but they’re so nicely done that I can’t complain too loudly.


I would if we can get a whole spinoff series from the Arkham-verse of these films. I wouldn’t mind seeing the Arkham-verse variation of Gotham City Sirens, Birds of Prey, Hush, or any number of other stories that the games have either flirted with or outright referenced through mini-games without digging into their larger significance and strengths. While not as strong as Under the Red Hood or Year One, Assault on Arkham still ranks fairly high in DC’s animated Batman film canon.

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Batman: Bad Blood

Posted : 4 months ago on 24 April 2017 02:34 (A review of Batman: Bad Blood)

As of right now, this is the final entry in the Damian Wayne trilogy of films detailing his introduction into the Bat-Family, his eventual crossroads, and here we see him returning to the fold fully converted. Bad Blood also introduces us to Batwoman, already operating but brought under the wing (so to speak), and Batwing, brand new to the superhero game and team. This is clearly the best of the trilogy for one simple reason, and that’s how closely the story sticks to character and drama and moves away from violence and explosions.


The tension between Damian and Dick, Bruce and his protégées, and the two new recruits to the entirety of the Bat-Family keeps this thing humming. Batwing doesn’t get quite enough play here, but he adds a nice spark of personality and diversity to the team. It’s quite humorous to see Dick Grayson wear the cowl, and his distinct discomfort in the role adds some fun comedic moments both solo and with Damian’s snotty intellect. Yet it’s Batwoman that’s the clear standout in this thing, bringing a tragic backstory, a fully realized female character, and a sense that we want to learn more about her. Would it be outside the realm of possibility to see DC animated films take a swing at Elegy soon?


However, there’s still a glaring problem with Talia in these films. She plays a larger part of the narrative this time around, but she’s a complete 180 from her appearance in Son of Batman. Granted, caring and occasionally sympathetic anti-heroine and callous, psychotic mastermind exist simultaneously for her in the comics, but one film places her entire characterization on one side and the other on the reverse side. There’s no bridge between the disparate sides of her personality between them. In Son of Batman she’s a devoting mother, and in Bad Blood she’s ready to consider him expandable at a moment’s notice. It doesn’t entirely work when taken as three films telling one stretched out story.


Still, we watch these things for the sense of adventure and fun that they bring us, and Bad Blood’s glut of villains and smartly paced out action scenes. They’ve also stopped with the needless bloodletting and believability-shattering injuries. In the end, what saves the day are a surrogate and biological son making emotional pleas to their father. This choice feels like something stripped directly from the comics, and it’s a smart choice. Bad Blood’s still somewhere in the middle of the pack as far as these direct-to-DVD films go, but it’s a marked improvement in the Batman’s New 52 inspired loose adaptations. Check that cameo appearance for where the next eventually entry will take us. Frankly, I’m ready to see what that character has to offer.

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Batman vs. Robin

Posted : 4 months ago on 20 April 2017 08:20 (A review of Batman vs. Robin)

A sequel to Son of Batman, Batman vs. Robin is an improvement over the first film, but it’s still mired in the blood and explosions that undermine the emotions at play here. We should care deeper about the fractures between Batman, Robin, Nightwing, and the presence of the Court of Owls. There’s simply too much story for too little a running time, and things that should mean more just dissolve on impact.


Talon and the Court of Owls deserve their own film trilogy to properly tell that story, one of the better modern Batman stories and the premiere tale of the New 52. Here, it’s merely background noise to the familial dysfunction between Damian’s darker impulses and Bruce’s more disciplined methods. The wedge they drive between father-and-son works thematically, but the Court and Talon remain vaguely defined presences throughout, especially the leader of the Court.


Economy of characters tells us that the lone female cast member is the most likely suspect, and she remains a cipher. There’s nothing to her, really, apart from her gigantic breasts that are constantly on proud display. Much like Talia in Son of Batman, this remains her defining characteristic. If these Batman films are going to continue to tell an on-going story, then they’ll need to branch away from the testosterone-fests of these two films or risk becoming dull.


Batman vs. Robin retains a similar animation problem in that characters like Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne look bizarre or have trouble staying on model, while there’s no element of that found in Nightwing or Batman. Then again, you came here for the action scenes, and those do not disappoint in their fluidity and grace. There’s still a problem of characters getting stabbed and mangled beyond a believable point of injury to still be able to complete such gravity-defying acts. Look, I’ll roll with the secret society, and gleefully watch the Dollmaker’s creepy cameo, but this is a pet-peeve of mine that quickly grates the more frequent it becomes. If I’m mentioning it, then it happens too often.


The film ends with Batman and Robin both reunited and fractured, and clearly paving the road for a further entry in the series. Hopefully we can get more voices from the Bat-Family in the sequels. Characters like Jason Todd or Tim Drake provide valuable contrast to Damian and Dick, and Barbara Gordon, Kate Kane, and Selina Kyle are sorely needed to readdress the gender disparity. There’s an entertaining film here, but DC and WB have released better films that found a nice contrast between the action and the emotions.

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Short Term 12

Posted : 4 months ago on 20 April 2017 04:24 (A review of Short Term 12)

We could have easily descended into emotional bathos and clichéd “hope and love wins” triumph of spirit stuff in Short Term 12, but we skirt past it. Oh, there’s a few spots where the machinations are in place to edge us towards that, but the remarkable work from an incredibly talented cast keeps it all real. Sometimes too painfully real, but these moments of bruised emotional connection are what make the film so magical and healing.


These kids come from rough spots, and two main facility managers understand their pains all too intimately. The story primarily concerns the lives of several of the kids and the managers, but as the film goes on it hones in on the connection between two of them. There’s Grace (Brie Larson, god she’s just so good), the facility manager with the deep understanding and empathetic connection with these kids, and new arrival Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a 14-year-old with a similar background to Grace.


Grace and Jayden take to each other slowly, and the scene where Jayden will eventually reveal the abuse she endures from her father is one that we know is coming, but not the particulars. Where Short Term 12 goes so beautifully right in this scene, as just one example, is how it manages to pack in character exposition and development in a way that feels grounded and real. Jayden doesn’t just verbally vomit up her confession, but presents it to Grace in the form of a fairy tale that’s emotionally devastating for in the ways that it’s both obliquely symbolic and metaphorically terrifying.


There’s several more scenes like this, perhaps no two more emotional cathartic or devastating than those involving Keith Stanfield’s Marcus. In one he sits with Mason (John Gallagher Jr., able to mine his role for laughs and quiet support) and delivers a rap detailing the emotional trauma his mother’s abuse left him with. In the other, Mason and Grace shave his head and Marcus bursts into tears questioning if there’s any visible scars left. You can feel the love and healing, the deep wells of emotional connection between these characters. Stanfield, a first-time actor, not only holds his own against stellar talents like Larson and Gallagher Jr., but he possibly emerges as the most memorable and deeply felt performance. Now that is really saying something.


Short Term 12 is a quiet little wunderkind that hits you hard with its sense of truth and honesty. Not even a moment that feels at odds with everything else around, Grace smashing a lamp of her higher-ups in a “damn the man” torrent of emotion springs to mind, can deter me from loving this film. It’s a great little movie all about the cycles of trauma, pain, healing, and moving on. I rooted for these kids, I’ve been these kids, and this feels incredibly authentic.

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Posted : 4 months ago on 20 April 2017 03:04 (A review of Scoop)

Is this the sight of Woody Allen trying to make one of Alfred Hitchcock’s chic European comedic thrillers? If so, then Allen should promptly return to witty, urbane jokes, or his novelistic comedic-dramas, because trying to make something that combines murder-mystery with romance and ethnic supporting players like The Thin Man isn’t his strongest showing. It isn’t that Scoop is truly terrible, it’s far more mildly amusing and a pleasing time waster between his better works, it’s just that it feels discordant and repetitious.


And it’s never the fault of the game cast, chief among them Scarlett Johansson going all-in on the neurosis and tics and Hugh Jackman using his charm as subterfuge, who delivers their laughs with conviction. It’s just that the material is merely serviceable in spots, confounding in others, and just plain lazy in too many spots. There’s a sweet spot of about 45 minutes in the middle where everything is working well enough to make Scoop mute its loud problems. This is has got to be somewhere towards the bottom of the barrel for Allen.

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Son of Batman

Posted : 4 months, 1 week ago on 15 April 2017 12:24 (A review of Son of Batman)

For every positive attribute, there’s an equally negative one at play in Son of Batman. This sense of balance renders the film one of the more unmemorable and an indifferent entry in DC’s animated film series. It also marks the first entry in a trilogy of directly related films that up to this point had merely been a series of one-offs and adaptations of well-known and beloved titles. (The Dark Knight Returns’ two films function as a split singular volume similar to final entry in the Harry Potter film saga.)


It’s going to take me a while to warm-up to Jason O’Mara’s clenched and constipated vocal inflections as Batman, and I better get used to it since he’s not only voicing the role in the Damian Wayne trilogy, but in the Justice League/New 52 films as well. He just doesn’t feel appropriately intimidating or obsessive enough in the role, and his performance livens up during scenes where Batman engages in snark and humor. It begins to feel like an exceptionally violent sitcom or half-formed satirical take on the material.


While O’Mara’s voice work is a bit flaccid, Thomas Gibson as Deathstroke, Stuart Allan as Damian, and Sean Maher as Nightwing all do tremendous work. Primarily knowing Gibson from Dharma & Greg it’s mildly shocking to hear how dangerous and threatening he can make his vocals sound, but he brings a certain spark to the role that’s hard to pin down. It’s easier to pinpoint what works so well about Allan and Maher, they just absolutely nail their roles. Maher injects playfulness into Dick Grayson that’s entirely appropriate while Allan is perfectly entitled as the heir to one seriously warped family tree.


And all of that is well and good, voice work is a good chunk of the battle in making an animated film work, but the other is the animation itself. Son of Batman alternates between moments of great fluidity and beauty, and ones where the characters fly off model and generally appear like a gauzy, ultra-snazzy Saturday morning cartoon. It seems that all the animators cared about were the action scenes, the monstrous creations, and sight of characters defying physics in the ways that only comic book-style ninjas can. Meanwhile Bruce Wayne’s face frequently goes off model and Talia al Ghul’s characterization boils down to her gravity shattering breats.


This is the same studio that brought vivid life to Frank Miller’s drawings, that turned David Mazzuchelli’s expressionistic Year One into a gorgeous piece of animation, and captured Ed McGuinness’ dynamic drawing style? It’s a bit hard to believe given how disposable so much of it looks and feels. This isn’t just a fizzy early morning cartoon, but one that asks you to suspend your disbelief to such a degree that it becomes nearly comedic. Sure, a 10-year-old could take an entire army of highly trained adults, why not. But he takes two knives to his forearms, pulls them out, and still uses them like nothing happened? That’s beyond camp and quickly escalating towards audience condescension. I think Variety described this thing best when they called it a “chop-socky Full House, or maybe, Full Cave.”

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