Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Cine-Thematic Retrospect of the Dark Knight: "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" and Other Animated Series

With The Lego Batman Movie in theaters, many children today will have their first memories of Batman as a toy figure, as well as a self-aware parody of the Batman mythology (as last seen in The Lego Movie, 2014). It's almost the same as our parents' generation grew up with the campy T.V. series from the 1960s, while my generation grew up with the dark and serious version from the 1980s and 1990s. I thought I'd spend this blog recapping on the later version via animation.

"Batman: The Animated Series" was one of my favorite shows as a kid. It was, first and foremost, a successor to Tim Burton's 1989 film, which first introduced me to the character. Yet this was more accessible for a kid and adult audience than for the latter crowd that the aforementioned film was really intended for. I vividly recall the opening segment where two bank robbers flee an explosion while Batman gets into action and corners both criminals on a rooftop. The imagery of this segment alone was both thrilling and a little terrifying, if only for Batman's iconic close-up where he squints his eyes.

Nevertheless, I grasped in the many episodic adventures of the Caped Crusader and his alter ego Bruce Wayne (both brilliantly and distinctively voiced by Kevin Conroy) as he pursued his many adversaries, from Two-Face to the Riddler to the Scarecrow to the Man-Bat and to, of course, the Joker (an unforgettable and scene-stealing vocal performance by Mark "Luke Skywalker" Hamill).

Since then, the animated series has led to several successful spin-offs, including "The Adventures of Batman and Robin" series, Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubzeroBatman Beyond: Return of the Joker, several Justice League films, The Killing Joke, and a scene-stealing role in The Lego Movie. But none would arguably be possible without the animated counterpart's first cinematic outing.

The trailer for the 1993 spin-off feature film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, excited me just as much as the T.V. show. (Anybody remember the VHS tape of Free Willy?) Like the trailer for the 1989 film, this preview was simple yet extremely effective in its high-concept presentation of Batman's pursuit of both the Joker and a new villain known as the Phantasm. And although I never saw the movie in theaters, I did geek out when it came on video.

The story follows a mysterious masked figure (think a cross between Death and the Ghost of Christmas Future) who eradicates the head crime lords of Gotham City, while Batman is framed for it. This impacts Gotham's view--or at least that of Councilman Arthur Reeves--of the character's role as a hero or vigilante ("He's just as bad as the crooks he brings in!"), even though Batman himself vows for justice over vengeance. Meanwhile, an old flame of Bruce Wayne's returns to town, and is somehow connected. And then the Joker shows up.

The film shows a side of Bruce Wayne that had never been seen prior to the animated series: human, traumatized, and conflicted about which life to live--as a costumed crime fighter in honor of the vow he made over his parents' dead bodies, or as a married man. ("I didn't count on being happy," he once laments.) Even the world of Gotham City, once implied as a promising future of hope for via a Tomorrowland-type theme park, later becomes a bleak, desolate and dystopic wasteland far from what was hoped. By juxtaposing Bruce Wayne's backstory with the present action in Gotham (a la The Godfather Part II or Citizen Kane), the film proves a thoroughly engrossing, captivating, and tragic tale of vengeance, romance, and mystery.

With an untouched and detailed animation style and voice cast (including Conroy, Hamill, Dana Delany, and Abe Vigoda) that far exceeds the "cartoony-ness" of the medium, the film is rightfully rated PG, due to its dark and violent atmosphere, including various fights and offscreen deaths. Though tame compared with Burton's more haunting variations, this film is recommended for preteens and adults, showcasing the Batman as Bob Kane and Bill Finger intended him to be.

REVIEW: "Sing" (2016)

2016 saw the release of several animated features starring anthropomorphic animals, or animals with top billing. (No offense, Daffy Duck.) Disney Animation's Zootopia recalled the studio's classic style of characters from Mickey Mouse to the fox version of Robin Hood and even the bears and rabbits from Song of the South, while each animal got their respective nature and size. The Angry Birds Movie was adapted from the popular phone app about silly, big-eyebrowed birds against silly, villanous pigs. And the blockbuster Pixar sequel Finding Dory saw the return of the ever-popular (and forgetful) blue tang on an (unforgettable) adventure to find her parents.

Sing marks the seventh feature film from Illumination Entertainment, the Universal Pictures-owned studio famous for escapist and entertaining films as the Despicable Me franchise as well as last summer's The Secret Life of Pets. Their latest feature stars anthropomorphic animals in an American Idol-esque singing competition. From that description, the ensemble cast is colorful and terrific, and the vocal talents are stellar.

The story is conventional (and, in a way, predictable), as head honcho Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), a koala bear, struggles yet determines to keep his theater from closing down. The problem, though, is that Moon has not had one successful hit in his career, and everybody doubts him. All but the talented singers he brings in--a band of misfits, if you will, who (not surprisingly) become a family. Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is a mother pig of 25 piglets, and wife to a workaholic husband, who desires to pursue a lifelong dream. Gunter (Nick Kroll) is a flamboyant and energetic European pig. Johnny (Taron Egerton) is a teenage gorilla with a master thief father. Meena (Tori Kelly) is a shy teenage elephant with an amazing voice. Ash (Scarlet Johansson) is a punk-rock teenage porcupine. And Mike (Seth McFarland) is a Sinatra-eque con artist mouse/musician. All characters are inspired by music that parallels their circumstances and ambitions, for better or worse, and they soon help Moon realize that he's helped them become more than they thought they could be. As he tells a shy Meena, "Don't let fear stop you from doing the thing you love." And it's these characters (and their music) that carry the film. Furthermore (without spoiling), the situations these characters get into turn out different than what we may expect.

As they showcased with Minions and Pets, Illumination proves itself a lead animation studio in terrific character design and personalities, recalling what made Warner Brothers (particularly the films of Chuck Jones) and MGM produce enduring and universal hits. Another film Sing can be compared to is the period musical Cats Don't Dance (1997), which also featured anthropomorphic animals in early-20th century Hollywood. Sing is great fun to look at, with its eye-popping animation and attention to detail, while it's acts are entertaining (save for one, which is a little risque). It's a character-driven story that recalls the theater experience as much as it centers on the singing experience, while bringing life to both, and also delivering a message on pursuing dreams, even while at rock bottom.

Vocal cast of Sing with their respective characters (l-r):
Seth McFarlane (Mike), Tori Kelly (Meena), Reese Witherspoon (Rosita),
Matthew McConaughey (Buster Moon), Taron Egerton (Johnny),
Scarlet Johansson (Ash), Nick Kroll (Gunter) 
It's also noteworthy in how it encompasses almost a century of show tunes and pop hits up to today. While the year saw the unexpected passing of several famous artists and musicians, from David Bowie to Leonard Cohen to George Michael to Prince, Sing, on a positive note, pays homage to many of these artists' popular songs and their enduring cultural status. The result, like La La Land, is so showstopping, cheery and entertaining, you can't help but dance and sing along. Talk about ending the year on a high note.

Monday, February 6, 2017

REVIEW: "Fences" (2016)

Fences began as a Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play by August Wilson in 1983, and featured James Earl Jones and Mary Alice as the original leads. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starred in a 2010 revival and won Tonys for their performances as a married couple in 1950s Pittsburgh, and they reprise their respective roles in the feature film version (which Washington also directed, from a screenplay Wilson wrote prior to his death in 2005).

Washington plays Troy Maxson, a sanitation engineer and former baseball player who was rejected from the Major Leagues (apparently for his age) in an era of racial tensions that seem to have affected his worldview and his way of dealing with the world, including expectations and judgments regarding sports, work, economics, ethics, and family. His relationships include those with his sons Lyons (a musician) and Cory (an aspiring football player), his wife Rose (Viola Davis), his friend and coworker Bono, and his handicapped brother Gabriel (who suffered brain damage following the war).

Jovan Adepo and Denzel Washington
"Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in."

The symbolism of the fence Troy builds around his yard is the thematic representation of his worldview. It particularly affects how he holds his son back from his sports aspirations ("I don't want Cory to be like me, I want him to get as far away from my life as possible") and how he keeps everybody at a certain distance. His relationship with Rose gets tested particularly during a shocking revelation ("It's not easy for me to admit that I've been standing in the same place for 18 years."), to which she feels disappointed that she can't live up to the expectations of others, nor that she could be all that she could have been. The times may be changing, as Bob Dylan famously sang, but some things and/or people obviously don't. (Rather, they choose not to.) Furthermore, Troy even challenges death against what he tries to keep out or keep in the walls he builds or intends to build around his home and specifically around himself.

From a filmmaking and thematic standpoint, Wilson's dialogue is rapid and sharp, Washington's direction is crisp and intense (and very much recreates and recalls the thrill of seeing a stage play on screen), and the acting speaks for itself. From the opening scene, Washington is thoroughly phenomenal--and, at times, menacing. Davis arguably takes her time, but once she opens up (in a moment truly deserving of an Oscar nomination), she's incredibly engrossing and heartbreaking.

Viola Davis
More importantly, Fences is a cautionary morality tale--a character-driven, emotion-driven, and relationship-driven one, at that--that showcases the consequences of "the sins of the father" and the cost it amounts towards those near or dear to him. It is, perhaps, this theme that make it the year's most riveting and provocative film.

Oscar Nominations 2017: "Diversity," Milestones, and Upsets

Now that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has announced its nominations for the best work in film from 2016, there are surprises as well as upsets.

First things first: the number of nominations for the respected films. La La Land now ties with All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997) as the most-nominated film in the history of the Academy, with a total of 14 nominations, including Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay (both Damien Chazelle), and two of its songs. Not bad for an original musical in the spirit of Fred & Ginger and MGM's Golden Age. The film's distribution company--the Lionsgate-owned Summit Entertainment (known for blockbuster films like the Divergent franchise)--received a total of 22 nominations, including those for two of its other films, the war epic Hacksaw Ridge (six nominations) and the disaster story Deepwater Horizon (two nominations).

Other key films that were recognized include the intelligent and unconventional sci-fi pic Arrival (eight nominations), Barry Jenkins' coming-of-age drama Moonlight (also eight), true story Lion (six), Kenneth Lonergan's family drama Manchester By the Sea (six), August Wilson's cautionary tale Fences (six), chase thriller Hell or High Water (four), and NASA true story Hidden Figures (three). Interestingly, many of these films earned pairs of nominees in the acting categories, specifically Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone (La La Land), Denzel Washington & Viola Davis (Fences), Mahershala Ali & Naomie Harris (Moonlight), and Dev Patel & Nicole Kidman (Lion).

(l-r) Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Dev Patel, Naomie Harris, and Octavia Spencer 
Perhaps the biggest news of all is that the Academy broke its two year streak from the controversial #OscarsSoWhite campaign by including and recognizing actors and filmmakers of color. Furthermore, this is the first year in the event's history that each acting category has had at least one nominee that is African-American or of color. Along with the aforementioned names, others include Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) and Ruth Negra (Loving).

My piece on last year's nominees touched on this issue of a lack of diversity in detail (read here). And while this year is an improvement in many ways, it does also feel kind of limited. Nominee Octavia Spencer (who won in 2012 for her supporting performance in The Help) has recently gone on record saying that, while she is grateful for her nomination and for those of others this year, "diversity" is not limited to "black and white." And while other nominees this year hail from England/Britain (Andrew Garfield, Dev Patel, Naomie Harris), Ethiopia (Ruth Negga), France (Isabelle Huppert), Israel (Natalie Portman), and Australia (Nicole Kidman), there seems to be a lack of other nationalities, such as Latinos, Asians, and other minorities (read here). (After all, Taiwanese director Ang Lee and Mexican directors Alfonso Cauron and Alejandro G. Inarritu won Best Director the last four years, for Life of Pi, GravityBirdman and The Revenant, respectfully.) 

(l-r) Alfonso Cauron, Alejandro G. Inarritu, and Ang Lee
Biggest upsets
Two years ago, the biggest mistake the Academy made was not nominating The Lego Movie (a clever and fun adaptation of the popular Dutch brand of toys) for Best Animated Feature. (Its catchy Lonely Island-penned song, "Everything Is Awesome," was, on the other hand, recognized, and brought down the house at the ceremony that year.) Last year, drama Spotlight (which brilliantly and graphically chronicled the Boston Globe's investigation of sex scandals inside the Boston Catholic Church in the early 2000s) beat out hopefuls (and more deserved award-winners) The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road. Sylvester Stallone's loss of the Best Supporting Actor award (for his incredible return as Rocky Balboa in Creed) to Mark Rylance (a brilliant performance in Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, nonetheless) was another upset. It also would have been nice to see young Jacob Trembley get a nomination for his great work with Brie Larson (last year's Best Actress) in Room (arguably one of the best films of the decade).

Amy Adams in Arrival
Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool
Chris Evans in Captain America: Civil War
While many were upset that the hard-R Marvel comic (and surprise smash) Deadpool wasn't nominated for Best Picture nor for Best Actor (Ryan Reynolds), as the film has picked up a ton of recognition at recent awards shows, the biggest upset, in my opinion, was Amy Adams not getting a best actress nomination for Arrival, arguably her best role to date. And speaking of Marvel comics, Captain America: Civil War--another great film in the studio's ever-growing canon--wasn't even recognized. 

Despite all of this, the Oscars still had room for a few other notable surprises.

Meryl Streep received her fiftieth nomination (for her lead performance in Florence Foster Jenkins), making her the most nominated actor/actress above Jack Nicholson and Katherine Hepburn.

Mel Gibson made something of a comeback this year with Hacksaw Ridge and nabbed his first nomination for Best Director in over 20 years (his last being 1995's Braveheart, which he won).

Kubo and the Two Strings is the first animated feature to get a nomination for visual effects since 1993's The Nightmare Before Christmas.

With three nominations including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer) and Best Adapted Screenplay, Hidden Figures marks the fourth consecutive year that the Academy has recognized a NASA-themed or -related film (following Gravity, 2013; Interstellar, 2014; and The Martian, 2015). Talk about reaching for the stars, to the moon and back, or in La La Land's case, "another day of sun".