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Batman: Bad Blood

Posted : 5 months, 3 weeks 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 : 5 months, 4 weeks 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 : 5 months, 4 weeks 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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Scoop

Posted : 5 months, 4 weeks 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 : 6 months 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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Logan

Posted : 6 months ago on 14 April 2017 11:39 (A review of Logan)

We have spent nearly twenty years watching the time-traveling, claw-heavy exploits of the X-Men, and Logan proves a fitting conclusion to many of these characters. In a perfect world, this would be the last X-Men film for a while, allowing enough time to go by for the audience to warm-up to the eventual reawakening of the franchise with entirely new players. (Baring, of course, the fringe players like Deadpool or the in-the-works New Mutants and X-Force.)

 

Logan plays out like a gritty Neo-Western, Shane but with claws and a dementia-addled telepathic genius. It is unquestionably the best of the three solo Wolverine outings and in the upper echelon of the X-Men franchise in general. Not only for its bloodstained hard truths and emotional complexities, but also for the ways in which is finally engages with the darker impulses and heart of Logan’s character that the prior PG-13 films could only flirtatiously blush at.

 

It would seem that co-writer/director James Mangold learned from his few questionable choices in The Wolverine, an already solid and terrific Wolverine film, to make something greater. There’s still a problem of bloated running time, something that’s gotten a strange-hold on our modern blockbusters in general, and the comic book superhero genre in particular. Personally, I could have easily trimmed a few sections here and there, and cut out a couple of the facial stabbings, but Mangold’s generally onto some thrilling sights and sounds here.

 

Not only for the ways in which the carnage is liberally dished out, but for the ways that he makes sure we pull back and look at the physical and emotional cost it takes out on our characters. The best of these films, like the Nolan Batman trilogy, never lose sight of the people beneath the heroics and the moral, emotional, and physical dilemmas and traumas they encounter in their pursuits for the greater good. This is felt throughout the script, but given visceral life in Hugh Jackman’s strongest showing in the role up to this point, and if this truly is the end for him then he’s going out on a glory note.

 

Jackman’s long been a charm bomb in any of his projects, and he makes the odd sight of an elderly Logan wearing reading glasses while wearing blood stained clothing strangely hilarious and nearly poetic in its world-weary and battered heroism. He gets a rich symphony to play here, acting as both surrogate son to a sundowning Xavier and father figure to Laura, a young girl with similar powers, claws, and rage issues. If you stuck this performance in an end-of-year drama without the superhero sheen, he’d be rolling in awards considerations and hosannas.

 

While reliable players like Patrick Stewart and Stephen Merchant are invaluable to pull your emotional interest, and Richard E. Grant is reliably oily as the big bad, it’s newcomer Dafne Keen as Laura that’s the most unexpected performance. Of course, X-23 is one hell of a character in the comics, another lab experiment alternating between taking their rage out upon the world and finding a place of peace, be it inner or a physical location. Keen is charismatic and enigmatic in the role, having to convey complex emotional shifts in a primarily mute role through body language and non-verbal grunting. I want big things for her in the future.

 

Logan is the strongest showing for an X-Men film since Days of Future Past, and one of the strongest recent showings for a Marvel property in who knows how long for its daring to shake up the formula. That near two-and-half-hours runtime can prove a case of too much (the aggressive clone, the farm scenes, protracted scenes of ultra-violence), but there’s just too much that’s good, smart, and emotional engaging here. If this is truly how we say goodbye to many of these characters as played by these actors, then it’s a near-perfect and deeply satisfying way to say goodbye to old friends.



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The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2

Posted : 6 months, 1 week ago on 10 April 2017 12:47 (A review of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2)

The finale to The Dark Knight Returns is a stronger film, and one that is informed by the escalating paranoia, trauma, and nihilistic violence of its predecessor. It hits the ground running at full speed and never slows down until the dust settles between Superman and Batman’s climatic fight. It’s a strong showing for DC’s animated film branch, and a worthy adaptation of a towering piece of comic book iconography.

 

That last piece becomes clearer when you watch the films in one go, as a deluxe two-and-half hour descent into how a legend dies and reemerges in the underground. It picks up with the mutant gangs dispersal into various sub-groups after Batman defeats their leader and we get to witness the brutal fight between Batman, Robin, Bruno and her gang. This sequence also quickly introduces us to Superman, here reconfigured as the lapdog of the Reagan administration. From there we plow through the final confrontation with Joker, Gotham descending into chaos, a nuclear strike, and, of course, the infamous battle that closes out the story.

 

That’s a lot of material to get through, but the film never feels rushed or incomprehensible. A lot of that triumph goes to just how engaging and fluid the animation is. Some of Frank Miller’s more bonkers sequences and ideas look incredibly dynamic and unique in motion, like the two plump robotic children that work for the Joker or the sight of Batman and Robin emerging into self-destructing Gotham on horseback. Even better is just how astounding the action sequences translate here. Part 1 had a few minor sequences of action and violence, but that was more of a prelude to the never-ending violence on display here.

 

Sure, I can rhapsodize about just how awesome it is to see Superman and Batman’s Thunderdome-style death match, but the real sequence that stuck with me is the Tunnel of Love last stand with Joker. Michael Emerson’s vocal work is astounding, marrying to Miller’s more feminine, ambiguously queer psychotic reading of the Joker like a hand in glove, and his unhinged cackle and daring brings a certain elevated height to the scene. Joker’s eventual snapping of his own neck pushes the nihilistic violence of the sequence into even darker and more brutal territory than it existed on the page, and that’s really saying something.

 

Peter Weller’s vocal work in Part 1 was consistent, but there’s a few moments here that his line readings completely deflate. His reading of the “I am the law!” monologue doesn’t really jive with the scene playing out. He lacks a certain mania and guttural push that would have really sold the scene. Weller’s too even-keeled in a few scenes where Batman’s sanity should be questioned, too controlled when his obsession should be reaching a scary, near breaking point. He’s still solid for most of the film, but these moments of tonal inconsistency stand out.

 

There’s still a lot that’s good to great about this film. The reunion between Batman and Catwoman, however brief, is filled with unresolved emotions and a lived-in intimacy that’s quietly heartbreaking. The scene where Superman becomes a zombie-like creature after a nuclear bomb explosion is terrifying in all the best ways. While Ariel Winter’s vocal work brings a youthful sense of gumption and verve to every scene she’s in, and Mark Valley’s Superman is a worthy new addition to the stable of voice actors who’ve brought him to life. How exactly the managed to reign this material into a PG-13 zone is anyone’s guess since so little of it is watered down or elided instead of shown outright. While neither one is a complete home-run, both of them are uniformly strong and out-epic many of the live action brethren. This is what Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice was supposed to look like.



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The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1

Posted : 6 months, 1 week ago on 9 April 2017 09:46 (A review of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1)

Adapting Frank Miller’s iconic deconstruction of the Dark Knight mythos is a herculean effort for any creative team ballsy enough to try it. Not only was it a meta-commentary on the logical end-point of Batman’s borderline-insanity and obsessive nature, but a pitch-black satire on the entirety of the superhero enterprise. There’s just so much narrative that adapting proves a challenge of which tone to stick with, what material to exercise, and just how long do they want this thing to last?

 

Well, by this point, the minds running DC’s direct-to-video animated film line deserves your trust that you’ll figure it all out. The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is an immensely satisfying work that acts as something of a vocal warm-up for the operatic mayhem to follow in Part 2. It begins with Batman living a dull life in retirement, watching as Gotham has descended into chaos with its savior/symbol, and ends with the reemergence of his greatest villain from a catatonic state. In-between these well-known moments Batman takes on the mutants, Carrie Kelley becomes the new Robin, and panel-after-panel is giving vivid life from the source text.

 

It’s notable that despite the numerous flirtations various other Batman properties have done with this material, including Tim Burton’s 1989 film, the Nolan trilogy, and a segment in Batman: The Animated Series’ episode “Legends of the Dark Knight,” just how well this material takes to the film medium. BTAS’ tiny segment was proof that Miller’s distinctive angular artwork could translate well to animation, but seeing it here is really something else. Not only were they faithful to the look and feel of the original work, but they fine-tuned it enough for fluidity’s sake.  

 

While not everything is a successful translation of the bleak source material, or its abundant dark humor. Look no further than the media’s various talking heads. In the comic, they acted as something of a Greek chorus and response to more paranoid and unhinged mental ramblings of Batman, and losing much of Batman’s inner monologue weakens the presence of the media’s interjections. It feels tilted too far to one side of the equation instead of finding a nice balance.

 

And for all of the grit and darkness on display, there’s also a few instances too many of the animation being brightly lit or somehow dulling the grittier, darker tone of the material. This is slightly to be expected given how inky and scratchy Frank Miller’s drawings can be, but when something like the fight with the mutant gang leader is so expertly done, then moments of a too sleek and shiny looking Gotham-in-chaos tend to standout more.

 

This isn’t enough to hamper the overall work as it sets up the pieces beautifully for the carnage that’s about to unfold. I mean, we still have Batman fighting Superman, the Joker, and heaps of Cold War paranoia (which for a while there felt antique, but appears to be making a comeback). It’ll take you a minute to not expect Kevin Conroy and company’s infamous voices to emerge from these characters, but give Peter Weller and the others a chance, they do solid work. (Highest points goes to Ariel Winter who is positively perfect as Carrie Kelley/Robin.)

 

The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 is a deeply entertaining and engrossing adaptation of the first half of the material. I swear, ending it on Joker’s awakening was a stroke of genius that gets you pumped for the real visceral action that’s about to happen. It pays homage to the material while effectively working as a solid variation of it. Isn’t that all you can really ask of an adaptation?



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Only the Lonely

Posted : 6 months, 1 week ago on 7 April 2017 02:02 (A review of Only the Lonely)

A bittersweet romantic comedy riff on Marty that’s also the final big screen appearance of a cinematic legend? Yep, I didn’t know that this was a thing either, but Only the Lonely has its awkward charms in enough of the right places to give it a mild recommendation. Much of this praise goes towards John Candy and Maureen O’Hara mining the material for all its worth and doing their best to make the uneven tonal shifts work.

 

There’s only so much that multi-dimensional performances can do to distract you from slapstick that brushes up against more humane comedy, or loud moments of cartoonish behavior that takes some of the tenderness and sting from the more emotional ones. Dream sequences of Candy’s lonely beat cop fantasizing about his domineering, emotionally abusive mother encountering various bloody ends or guilt tripping him into taking different actions are cute in small doses, but Only the Lonely throws in far too many of them. The final one, where O’Hara and Anthony Quinn do battle on an airplane with hijacking terrorists, is an eye-roller of great magnitude.

 

The Catholic guilt of these dreams would work better more sparring, and their presence intrudes on more tender romance between Candy and Ally Sheedy. They sound like an incompatible pair, but Candy dives into the truth here and emerges with a portrait of a kind, lonely, man who glows with a sense of basic goodness and decency. Sheedy’s neurotic, awkward artistic type (something of a type for her) generates a believable romantic attraction and tension with O’Hara meddlesome mother. Even better is O’Hara as an iron willed and hyper-critical mother, and the ending scenes where Candy shakes off her domineering control reveal the vulnerable cracks in her exterior. O’Hara came out of retirement for this part, and she makes a meal out of it in the ways her tart sarcasm makes a lovely repartee with Candy’s gentler humor.

 

Perhaps Only the Lonely has no bigger sin than Chris Columbus’ bland, impersonal sense of direction. Even this becomes something of a virtue given how the film moves propels forward and doesn’t descend too far into treacle or grossly manipulative sentiment in the ways that films like Stepmom and Bicentennial Man do. There’s nothing here that’s terribly original, but it’s pleasantly old-fashioned in its romance and family dynamics. It’s something of a testament to how integral strong performers are to selling weaker material.



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The Wise Kids

Posted : 6 months, 3 weeks ago on 23 March 2017 03:18 (A review of The Wise Kids)

Color me shocked about this little film that’s surprisingly touching. A story about three close friends slowly drifting apart in that awkward moment between the end of high school and the beginning of college, The Wise Kids offers all of its characters moments of tenderness and grace. The uncertainty of what the change will bring, what the personal revelations will do to their relationships, and questions of faith and sexuality bring about these moments of humanity and connection.

 

The story follows three friends: the pastor’s daughter losing her religion (Molly Kunz), the devoutly religious friend (Allison Torem), and the gay boy slowly taking part of the coming out process (Tyler Ross). It’s not surprising that Torem is slowly losing the other two as they become ‘different’ from the body of the suburban Baptist neighborhood. The stasis of this society gets rocked, but not in the volcanic ways one would expect but in smaller ways with longer lasting ramifications.

 

The Wise Kids could easily be loud or provocative, but it refuses to do so. These moments would provide some technical fireworks but wouldn’t provide anything close to reality. It is much more likely for stolen kisses to lead to both parties agreeing to just never talk about it and go about their days as if nothing happened. The Wise Kids is smart in these instances, and the bottled up emotions build up and crack out in sideways spouts. There’s too much at stake here, the fragility of the situations requires a more delicate touch to really hammer home their points. 



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