Category: Reviews

REVIEW: Shazam!

REVIEW: Shazam!

When DC Comics revived Captain Marvel in the 1970s, it was out of step with the audience and struggled to find success. Ever since, the publisher has been trying to find a formula to make the character and his world relevant to the readership. With Carol Danvers’ popularity as Captain Marvel ascendant, DC finally capitulated and began calling Billy Batson’s alter ego Shazam to keep the two from being confused.

With Captain Marvel out in March and Shazam out in April, there’s a good reason to rename the latter. (No one back in the day would ever have imagined either getting a big screen treatment or coming out so closely together.) Warner Home Entertainment has released Shazam in all the usual formats this week and it remains a fun, but not perfect film.

After countless screenwriters tried to crack the light-hearted world created by Bill Parker and CC Beck, it appears that Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke found their clues less in the classic work and more in the contemporary incarnation from Geoff Johns. As a result, if you loved the older stuff there’s plenty to like and even more of you love the new take.

We have the wizard (Djimon Hounsou) seeking someone with a pure heart to take his powers and defend the world from the Seven Deadly Sins. So far so good. After rejecting poor little rich boy Thaddeus Bodog Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto), he waits until he finds Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a homeless teen seeking his birth mother (Caroline Palmer). In trouble, Billy is taken to a group home run by Rosa and Victor Vasquez (Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews) and meets his foster siblings. As he struggles to adjust, he also is given the powers of the gods.

The whole foster family is a Johns addition and introduces a new sense of family, skewing far from the source material where Billy and Mary Bomfield (Grace Fulton) turn out to be twin siblings. Later, when they all gain rainbow-colored costumes it dilutes the Marvel Family feel.

Anyway, Billy turns into the World’s Mightiest Mortal (Zachary Levi) and has trouble acting like adult. While Billy tugs at your heart strings and Shazam is funny, they act as entirely separate beings rather than symbiotically connected. We see him trying to make money by putting on lighting shows (a power he doesn’t have in comics nor needs). To me, this is the biggest fault with an otherwise entertaining film. The sheer exuberance the adult displays is totally absent from Billy and the wisdom of Solomon seems entirely missing from the film.

Just as he’s getting acclimated to his power set and trying to find a name for himself, an amusing thread, the adult Sivana (Mark Strong) has been corrupted the Seven Deadly Sins and uses their power first for revenge against his father (John Glover) and then trying to gain the powers he feels are rightly his.

The problem here is that Sivana was a scientist and the conflict between them since 1940 was always science versus magic. Here, it’s magic versus magic and the David and Goliath riff is exchanged for muscle versus muscle. Strong does a fine job, but feh,

The siblings all have their moments to shine before Shazam shares his power with them, turning one family into another, just in time for the climax at the carnival. I’ll admit, the varying kids are all interesting, engaging varieties and their adult versions are good-looking heroes, but the adult heroes are just boring.

Overall, the movie works just fine when viewed as Big with Super-Powers but it could have been so much more. Director David F. Sandberg does a fine job making us care for the characters and keeps the action pieces moving, a growing challenge with every subsequent super-hero film. I’d be curious to see what he does with a sequel.

The high def transfer retains the 2.39:1 aspect ratio and is a strong image. The colors pop, the blacks are deep, and the lightning crackles. This definitely retains its comic book look and feel which goes a long way towards the enjoyment. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is possibly a touch better than the visuals so the music and special effects pop.

The Blu-ray comes complete with an above-average assortment of special features starting with Exclusive Motion Comic: “Superhero Hooky” (4:05) which reminds us why motion comics have never taken off as a medium although its nice the cast does the voices in this short. We than have The Magical World of Shazam (26:56) which briefly covers different aspects of the film’s production; Super Fun Zac (3:13); Deleted & Alternate Scenes (37:27 total), with Sandberg explaining why he reshot or edited out each scene giving you additional insight into the production; Gag Reel (3:16); Who is Shazam? (5:42), a too-brief history of the character in comics; Carnival Scene Study (10:22); and Shazamily Values (6:06) pairs the kid and their adult counterpart for some fun commentary.

REVIEW: Pet Sematary

Stephen King was on a roll when Pet Sematary came out in 1983, with each horror novel seemingly creepier than the last. After all, everyone loves a loyal pet, and many families can recount how they commemorated an animal/fish/bird’s life at death. Turn that domestic normality on its head and you can terrify most everyone. King admitted this was perhaps his most disturbing work, the one where he may have gone too far (which is saying a lot).

The 1989 film adaptation starred Fred Gwynne, Dale Midkiff, and Denise Crosby and did a fairly good job capturing the spirit of the novel. It performed well enough that it spawned a best-forgotten sequel.

And as with all things, it was been remade this spring and is out now on disc from Paramount Home Entertainment.  

The premise remains the same: the Creeds have moved into a rural home near the local Pet Sematary. No sooner do they settle in than their cat is killed and therefore becomes the latest resident of the graveyard but then things get weird.

Adapted by horror film writer Matt Greenberg, it was polished by Jeff Buhler (David Kajganich went uncredited) and then directed by the duo of Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, the movie performed well at the box office but I, like so many others, question “was this a necessary remake?”

The cast of Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence, Maria Herrera, and Sonia Maria Chirila are all good in their roles but the entire production has been a read this, seen that already feel and despite trying to explore some new aspects of the town and sematary, it just never rises to the feeling of freshness. The first film did a more faithful job adapting the novel and here they try to go deeper into the mythology of the land but isn’t enough. The more gruesome visuals and thrills also fail to overcome the ho-humness of it.

The film was released in the usual assortment of formats including the $K Ultra HD/Blu-ray/Digital HD combo pack. The 2160p/Dolby Vision UHD is only a slight improvement over the Blu-ray, despite being shot at resolutions of 2.8K and 3.4K and finished at 2K. Yes, the image is sharper overall, especially important when offering an atmospheric film with creepy shadows, lots of night scenes, and shapes that go bump in the night. Colors, notably within the Creed house, do pop nicely. The exteriors build on soundstages are brought into sharper relief here which does spoil the overall feel the producers were hoping for.

The film’s Dolby Atmos soundtrack works quite nicely, well matching the atmospheric feel of the film. The sound effects are sharp and do add a nice feel to the experience.

The Special Features are found on the Blu-ray and contain an Alternate Ending (9:16), followed by Deleted and Extended Scenes (16:09); Night Terrors (4:57); The Tale of Timmy Baterman (3:04); Beyond the Deadfall: Chapter One: Resurrection (16:54), Chapter Two: The Final Resting Place (12:38), Chapter Three: The Road to Sorrow (13:59), and Chapter Four: Death Comes Home (18:07). These are all moderately entertaining and informative but nothing out of the ordinary, much like the film being supported.

REVIEW: Gotham: The Fifth and Final Season, Gotham: The Complete Series

REVIEW: Gotham: The Fifth and Final Season, Gotham: The Complete Series

When Gotham screened its pilot episode at conventions, I watched with fascination, because it showed such promise as a moody, atmospheric take on the pervasive corruption that created the antibody of The Batman. Sure, it wasn’t entirely based on eighty years of canon, but nothing could do that, so I was prepared.

I stopped watching with regularity halfway through the second season because it stopped being what was promised and became something else entirely. It was a ham-fisted, over-the-top camp take on a modern-day comic, more beholden to the ABC Batman series than the comics.

With each successive season, the twists came faster, the characters stopped making sense, and internal logic was found only in the dictionary. This was a manic Gotham City, where the line between good and evil, moral and corrupt, quality and crap was blurred with every scene.

While earlier a ratings darling, it crashed under the weight of its own absurdity and was given a ten episode fifth and final season to wrap things up, get Bruce Wayne under the cape and cowl and call it a day. Then, Fox granted them two more episodes which felt more tacked on than organic.

Gotham: The Fifth and Final Season and Gotham: The Complete Series are out tomorrow from Warner Home Entertainment. You can find them as Blu-ray or DVDs with nary a difference between them so take your pick.

Apparently, showrunner John Stephens had been planning for their take on the No Man’s Land storyline for some time, and then, for good measure, tried to graft on the horrible Zero Year arc from the current Rebirth line of comics. He shoved both under the title Legend of the Dark Knight, but really, that’s reserved for episode twelve.

The nonsense from season four led to the city being cut off from the rest of America, leaving Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), having found his moral bearing once more, a still-teenaged Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), and others to take the city back from Bane (Shane West), sent there by Nyssa al Ghul (Jaime Murray), seeking vengeance for the death of Ra’s al Ghul (who should be getting better any second now).

Turning the tide against impossible odds is, of all people, the Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) who, like Carmine Falcone in the pilot, declares his love for the city, despite its evil. “But then what? Stand on the shores of the mainland and watch the army burn it to the ground? Then watch tasteless industrialists and vapid politicians rebuild it? My life is etched on the walls of every alley and dirty warehouse here. My blood lives in its broken concrete. I’m staying to fight for my legacy,” he declares.

We win, of course, just as Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) has given birth to a daughter, named Barbara Lee Gordon, combining the threesome that fueled much of the romance for five years. We know she’ll become Batgirl down the road so it’s a nice nod even fi the timing makes little sense, like so much else of the show.

My biggest complaint was always that by having Mr. Freeze, the Riddler (Cory Michael Smith), Penguin, Scarecrow (David W. Thompson), Hugo Strange (BD Wong), and others a decade ahead of Batman’s arrival, would make them too old to be true threats when they would eventually face off. The teen Selina (Camren Bicondova) made more sense as she grew up experiencing much the same as Bruce, only to make different choices. The ever-aging Poison Ivy (Peyton List) also made a kind of sense given the life of a plant.

And it shows in the finale, where we pick up a decade later, but only Selina (Lili Simmons) has aged, the others stuck in place, stretching credulity. Bruce has finally left Gotham City, after leaving a series of farewell letters to Selina and Alfred (Sean Pertwee) for his training, something way overdue, and comes back, shadowing Gordon until things get dire thanks to Jerome (Cameron Monaghan), the faux-Joker of the series, who shoots Barbara and threatens baby Babs at the Ace Chemical plant. We finally get the Dark Knight and then credits roll.

Yes, the show had its admirers and fans, that’s how it lasted five tortuous seasons. It never lived up to my expectations, going so far in the other direction, my distaste grew visceral. Still, if you liked the show, you can relive every quirky, oddball, hyperkinetic moment.

The box set contains the existing versions of the first, second, third, and fourth seasons with nothing new added. The Fifth and Final Season contains several bonus features to sate your appetite for more craziness. There’s the lengthy Villains: Modes of Persuasion, plus Gotham S5: Best Moments at NY Comic Con 2018, Gotham’s Last Stand, and Unaired scenes.

REVIEW: Jonny Quest: The Complete Series

On September 18, 1964, a serious animated adventure series, demonstrating cartoons didn’t have to always be comical such as The Flintstones (still airing then on ABC). Instead, Jonny Quest captured the sense of exploration Americans were longing for thanks to the Mercury astronauts and the rising tide of espionage films, headed by James Bond. However, Jonny was a young boy, making him an ideal feature for the Friday at 7:30 p.m. slot.

While the 26 episodes are all that were produced, the show’s overall quality proved influential to subsequent generations of animators, comic book storytellers, and audiences. It has pretty much remained in syndication for the last forty years.  Jonny Quest remained the benchmark for dramatic animated fare for decades, enjoying brief runs as a comic book (notably Comico’s 1980s run).

The series has been collected and polished to a brilliant shine on a just-released Jonny Quest: The Complete Series Blu-ray from Warner Archives, where it will be celebrated in San Diego later this month.

The credit for the Hanna-Barbera series starts with Doug Wildey, who was asked to adapt the radio serial Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy for a cartoon series. Instead, Wildey threw himself into research and so thoroughly updated the concepts and cast that it was something entirely new.

Jonny (voiced by young Tim Matheson) is an 11-year-old homeschooled boy, who accompanies his father, the brilliant Dr. Benton C. Quest (John Stephenson/Don Messick), who is sent by the USA government on various expeditions. They are accompanied by Race Bannon (Mike Road), an agent from Intelligence One, designated as Jonny’s tutor and bodyguard, and Hadji (Danny Bravo), a Kolkata orphan adopted by Dr. Quest. With their dog Bandit, they circle the globe getting in and out of danger with regularity. The stories are imaginative and varied, giving the series its lasting appeal with heavy doses of technological plausibility plus pterodactyls.

There were several recurring characters, notably Race’s old girlfriend, Jade (Cathy Lewis), a mystery never fully solved.

The superior animation lavished on this, compared with most of Hanna-Barbera’s output from the era, looks great here with the traditional 1.33:1 aspect ratio. These files were cleaned up so the colors and heavy black line work is crisp, the colors popping and shadows properly murky.

The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio mix nicely preserves the one-channel original audio and works just fine with the beautiful visuals. Hoyt Curtin and Ted Nichols’ theme and music have never sounded better.

The special features from the 2004 DVD release are carried over here, including The Jonny Quest Files: Fun, Facts & Trivia (25:19), Jonny Quest: Adventures in Animation (15:15), complete with comments from Brad Bird, Steve Rude, Dan Riba, and Alex Ross; The Jonny Quest Video Handbook (16:57), and P.F. Flyer Sneaker Commercial (1:00).

REVIEW: Popeye the Sailor: The 1940s Volume 2

If younger people today know Popeye at all, it’s probably his connection with spinach. The brilliance of the animated cartoons from the 1940s is forgotten as is his Can-Do personality and rich supporting cast. A while back, the classic black and white cartoons were being collected as a three volume DVD so it is most welcome that Warner Archives is releasing the color ones using restored and remastered in HD 4K scans of the original nitrate Technicolor negatives for Blu-ray where we can appreciate the detail.

Popeye the Sailor: The 1940s Volume 1 came out last December and now we have Volume 2 with 15 more in chronological order on a reasonably priced disc ($17.97 if you look around). There were released in 1946 and 1947 just after World War II so the content reflects that euphoria and forward-looking approach.

These are a fanciful collection with adventures under the sea, on Mars, out west, and in darkest Africa.

The cartoons lack the imagination and brilliance of the earlier Fleischer Studios, but the renamed Famous Studios still offered up some of the finest animation of the era thanks to the efforts of director Jim Tyer and director Bill Tytla who worked on the majority of these offerings. Veteran director Seymour Kneitel and writers Jack Ward, Carl Meyer, Otto Messmer, and Woody Gelman also well represented here.

We open with “House Tricks?”, which is the first to feature Popeye on the title card and is a remake of the earlier “The House Builder-Upper”. Harry Foster Welch does Popeye’s voice the first few toons before Jack Mercer arrives and takes over with “I’ll be Skiing Ya”. You will watch styles change, notably Olive Oyl, but the antics remain fresh and engaging.

“The Fistic Mystic”, “Wotta Knight”, and “The Island Fling” both feature Black stereotypes that have been edited or not aired on television and are here for inclusiveness. Look for a Herman the Mouse cameo in the latter one. Similarly, there was a moment in “Popeye and the Pirates” where he changed into drag with a glimpse of nudity that screened in 1947 but was snipped for airing and is thought lost, so remains missing here.

The loving restoration from the negatives means we’re seeing crisp, clear version with brilliant colors, a superior collection compared with the first volume. The cleaning also means we’re treated to a superior sound track without the artifacts and hissing that mar broadcast versions.

There are no special features, but I can live with that given the overall quality.

For the record, the titles include are:

“House Tricks?”

“Service with a Guile”

“Klondike Casanova”

“Peep in the Deep”

“Rocket to Mars”

“Rodeo Romeo”

“The Fistic Mystic”

“The Island Fling”

“Abusement Park”

“I’ll Be Skiing Ya”

“Popeye and the Pirates”

“The Royal-Four Flusher”

“Wotta Knight”

“Safari So Good”

“All’s Fair at the Fair”

REVIEW: Us

I was captivated by Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, until it devolved into over-the-top horror film fare, spoiling the social commentary. Apparently, I was not alone in this and Peele decided his sophomore outing would be a straight on horror film, Us. When it opened, my students flocked to see it, many enjoying it, and several saying they needed to see it twice to fully appreciate it.

The film, from Universal Home Entertainment, is out on home video tomorrow, and I have to say, I don’t get the fuss. Once again, Peele layers in social commentary mixed with his horror tropes (a modern-day Body Snatchers?), but I was fairly bored for the majority of the film.

In short, your perfect nuclear family, headed by Lupita Nyong’o (in a part Peele wrote just for her) and Winston Duke, has their lives turned upside down when their home is invaded by red-tracksuited doppelgangers. We eventually learn that they are not alone and the local town is overrun with these silent, deadly clones.

It becomes a race for survival although there appears to be something personal between Nyong’o and her double, who she first saw in 1986. She (Madison Curry) was so traumatized, she fell silent for years, and today is uncomfortable in crowds and easily spooked. There’s also some odd connection between her son Jason (Evan Alex) and his double.

As in all good horror films, people make stupid decisions so at various points when the family could escape to safety, they chose the less obvious path, extending the threat.

As we learn, these are imperfect clones, dubbed the tethered, developed and raised by the government in some harebrained scheme to control the masses. Why they were allowed to remain alive is never addressed. Nor is there a hint of government response to any of this. Similarly, and in keeping in the horror tradition, our heroes appear to be the only ones to have survived their deadly encounter. In fact, there are lot so internal logic questions left dangling.

The cast is appealing as Duke and Nyong’o play parents nicely and it’s good to see Elizabeth Moss in something other than a red robe but I wonder why she took the role since there’s absolutely nothing to work with. She’s just the highest profile cannon fodder in the cast.

Apparently, people smarter than me have plumbed the film’s deeper meanings and what Peele is trying to say about ourselves, our psychological states, but nothing about why a republican wants to control its citizens. I think people want to see more in this movie than is really there. And then Peele pulls the rug out from under us with a reveal at the end that raises plenty of unanswered questions, but by then, I was done.

The movie is out in the usual assortment of formats including the $K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and Digital HD combo pack. The film works very well in 4K as the 2160p digital transfer allows the deep shadows and figures running in the dark to look clear. The Dolby Vision color palette lets the limited color palette work just fine. Coupled with a fine Dolby Atmos sound track, the film will play nicely at home, spooking its audience.

The Blu-ray, by the way, is nearly as good so if you just get that, you’re fine.

The Special Features included don’t reveal as much as one would have hoped and are a fairly average assortment. We begin with The Monsters Within Us (4:45), examining the main family; Tethered Together: Making Us Twice (7:29, which touches on how the cast played two versions of themselves, aided by the crew; Redefining a Genre: Jordan Peele’s Brand of Horror (5:31), although I question if anything actually got redefined; The Duality of Us ( 9:56), with Peele admitting he’s scared of his own double; Becoming Red (4:09), shows Nyong’o getting into character; Scene Explorations – Seven Second Massacre (2:41), It’s a Trap (2:02), and I Just Want My Little Girl Back (2:53); Deleted Scenes (6:28); We’re All Dying (6:22), an extended beach scene; and, As Above, So Below: Grand Pas De Deux (5:02): Zora dances.

REVIEW: Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Surprising to some, Batman and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have some commonalities. After all, the half-shell heroes were initially created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird as a parody of Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil, before coming to DC and turning his talents to The Dark Knight. Both properties work best in the shadows and had the producers of this animated adventure leaned into that, this could have been a cut above an obvious cash grab.

The participants have met before, in three miniseries from DC Comics and IDW in addition to one strictly set in their “Adventures” incarnations, aimed more at all-ages readers. Now, we have Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a briskly paced story. It’s not bad, but boy, it could have been so much more had anyone made an effort.

The versus portion of the story is the most obvious bit of fan service since time immemorial has required crossovers to begin with a fight before a partnership can begin.  The Foot Clan arrives in Gotham City for nefarious purposes and gets discovered by Batgirl (Rachel Bloom) just before Leonardo (Eric Bauza), Donatello (Baron Vaughn), Raphael (Darren Criss), and Michelangelo (Kyle Mooney) arrive. As usual, they are on the trail of Shredder (Andrew Kishino) and the next target is, of course Wayne Enterprises. Enter: Batman (Troy Baker) and Robin (Ben Giroux). Mix, repeat.

And if the usual felons arrive for one team, surely we must have equal villains for the other so toss in The Penguin (Tom Kenny), Mr. Freeze John DiMaggio), Two-Face (Keith Ferguson), Ra’s al Ghul (Cas Anvar), Scarecrow (Jim Meskimen0, and of course, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn (both Tara Strong).  All of these are underutilized which is s shame since the turtles versus the rogues could have been as interesting as watching the Caped Crusader face off against Shredder.

This works when your young viewer knows both properties because introductions and backgrounds are the least concern to writer Marly Halpern-Graser and director Jake Castorena. Instead, it’s to keep things upbeat and moving for 84 colorful minutes. One thing rising above the sameness is Kevin Riepl’s score.

The film is out in a variety of formats including the 4k Ultra HD/Blu-ray/ Digital HD combo pack, which was reviewed. The 2160p transfer works best with the colors and is acceptable all around, just not stunning. The Blu-ray actually might work a little better for overall balance. The audio is more than up to the task, just not in a noteworthy way.

In keeping with the same old feel of the main feature, the special features continue that with perfunctory features starting with Cowabunga Batman! When Comic Book Worlds Collide (12:31), Fight Night in Gotham (18:06); and A Sneak Peek at Batman: Hush (9:18). That’s it no extra cartoons from either property or anything about their comic book meetings, which is a shame.

 

REVIEW: Batman Forever and Batman & Robin

REVIEW: Batman Forever and Batman & Robin

With the box office less than hoped for, Warner Bros. decided it was time to entice parents and the children who stayed away from the darker Batman Returns. Despite the comic book source material of the late 1980s being grim and gritty, Warner saw the dollar signs after the success of Batman the Animated Series and wanted those younger viewers.

Batman Forever and Batman & Robin are out this week in newly restored 4k UHD editions, part of Warner Home Entertainment’s 30th anniversary salute to Burton’s Batman. That and Batman Returns were reviewed yesterday.

Forever is transitional, keeping a lot of the menace from the previous films and replicating the two villains are better than one formula.

Desiring to go younger, the execs turned from Tim Burton to another visual stylist, Joel Schumacher. He was ordered to lighten things up and finally bring in Robin. Burton, star Michael Keaton, and composer Danny Elfman were out. Schumacher’s two films are therefore considered lesser works, colorful but vapid, wasting some good performances.

What hurt was that the original script by Lee Batchler and Janet Scott Batchler focused heavily on the Riddler and then Two-Face was added and the entire story was revised by Akiva Goldsman. As a result, Two-Face, teased with the introduction of Billy Dee Williams in 1989, is now wasted with an inconsistent performance by Tommy Lee Jones. On the other hand, the addition of Nicole Kidman’s Dr. Chase Meridien was nice, giving the new Bruce Wayne, Val Kilmer, someone to relate with. I always liked Kilmer’s work here and it holds up. Chris O’Donnell’s Dick Grayson, though, was a bit too old and there is a distinct lack of chemistry between the Dynamic Duo. The potential for a much stronger film was there as noted by the many deleted sequences but style won out over substance.

This trend accelerated with 1997’s Batman & Robin, which derailed the franchise for decades and spoiled more comics from being adapted for the screen. Schumacher and Goldsman were back and now the director wanted to pay homage to the ABC series and the work of artist Dick Sprang. The problem is, the audiences of that time, didn’t want that approach and their critical word of mouth, coupled with scathing reviews, made the film reviled. George Clooney, replacing Kilmer, continues to apologize for his charismatic-less performance.

And if two villains were good, three would have to be better, right? Not with the horrible work of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze. Vying with him for screen time in this overstuffed production was Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy, which was at least an interesting approach to the character. Totally wasted was Bane (Jeep Swenson), reduced to thoughtless body guard rather than the brilliant tactician as created in the comics. Then you have Alicia Silverstone being shoved into the story as Alfred’s niece so a Batgirl can be added for balance.

None of this is good or works and made the DC staff groan out loud long before the audiences got to see this embarrassment.

Whereas the 2160 high definition upgrade perfectly caught the darker tones on Burton’s films, here, we nicely capture the brilliant colors applied to these films. You might need sunglasses at times, as Schumacher went for brilliance (much as the ABC series did, but that was designed to sell color TVs). On the few occasions when things grew dark, the details are never lost, letting you appreciate this aspect of the production design.

The high-quality care extends to the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which nicely captures Elliot Goldenthal’s brand new score, ordered to avoid Elfman’s more somber sounds. Like his predecessor, he included pop tracks which sound just lovely.

Both films are released as combo packs with newly restored Blu-ray discs and Digital HD codes.  A box-set of all four will be out in September if you want to consider Christmas gift-giving. All the previous special features are replicated and there are no new pieces, which is a shame.

Batman Forever offers up Audio Commentary: Director Joel Schumacher; Riddle Me This? Why is Batman Forever?; Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight Pt. 5 – Reinventing a Hero; Batman Forever: The Heroes; Batman Forever: The Villains; Beyond Batman; Deleted Scenes; “Kiss From a Rose” by Seal; and Theatrical Trailer.

Batman & Robin contains Audio Commentary: Director Joel Schumacher; Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight pt. 6 – Batman Unbound; Batman & Robin: The Heroes; Batman & Robin: The Villains; Beyond Batman; Deleted Scene: Alfred’s Lost Love; Music Videos: “The End is the Beginning is the End” by The Smashing Pumpkins, “Look Into My Eyes” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and “Foolish Games” by Jewel;  and Theatrical Trailer.

REVIEW: Batman and Batman Returns

REVIEW: Batman and Batman Returns

Suddenly thirty years ago doesn’t seem that long back, especially as so much from that era is being resurrected, repurposed, and remembered. This month we celebrate the anniversary of Tim Burton’s Batman and Warner Home Entertainment is offering up all four films from that period in spiffy new 4K UHD editions (a box set collection will be out in September). We will look at those DVDs divided in half, the two Burton films now and tomorrow the pair from director Joel Schumacher.

It’s been argued that this film made super-heroes palatable to Hollywood once more, although it can be said it took until 2008 before that became a reality. What we did get was this film coming after mainstream media began recognizing comic books had “grown up”. In 1989, we already had Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ The Watchmen, etc. set the table and get people to pay attention.

The first Batman feature film languished in production hell since the rights were granted to producers Mike Uslan and Benjamin Melniker in 1980. It took Miller and the press to get Hollywood off their collective asses to get the film made. The brilliant stroke was turning it over to visual stylist Burton, coming off the visually spectacular Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. He, in turn, brought on Anton Furst to make certain Gotham City was as much a character as the guy in the cape and cowl.

Casting was the final element with Burton recognizing that Michael Keaton could bring the gravitas to Bruce Wayne and his alter ego. Pairing him against Jack Nicholson’s Joker made certain we’d be sitting up and paying attention.

It was super-hero noir in the best possible way as Danny Elfman’s haunting score reminded us that this was a dark world that needed a hero. The Sam Hamm script was serviceable with only a few questionable plot points but it was secondary to the visual feast.

With this smash success, Burton was quickly resigned for a sequel and here he upped both the ante and weirdness factor. Danny DeVito’s Penguin was malicious, grotesque, and a far cry from the Joker while Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman was a wonder. Unfortunately, the script made a lot less sense and callbacks to plot points from the ABC television series marred the effort. Had it been a Bat and Cat story, it would probably have been stronger.

The box office was good, but not as great as expected. The darker tone, in the wake of the billions earned in bat-licensing since 1989, scared Warner Brothers. As a result, they turned the franchise over to Schumacher with directions to lighten things up. The results speak for themselves.

As with other rereleases, Warner has done a superb job with the new edition. The 2160 high definition images are excellent, well matched with the Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Each film is released in a combo pack with a restored Blu-ray edition, making it superior to the 2009 Anthology Collection. Unfortunately, there are zero new extras just imported ones from that previous boxset. If you want the upgraded picture and sound, then these are for you.

Here, the upgraded images allow you to revel in Gotham’s darkness, with the colors popping for emphasis. Yes, it’s a dark place matching a dark story featuring a guy in mostly black so here, we can see the details with a clarity that makes you appreciate Furst’s designs and Cinematographer Roger Pratt’s work all the more. Similarly, when we get to the Joker and his colorful takeover of Gotham in the latter half, the colors pop in dazzling detail.

Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky has even more darkness to work with in the sequel since so much of the Penguin’s antics occur at night plus Catwoman being in the shadows as well. Again, the restoration is superior and you pick up on the grit, grim, and ghoulish aspects of the city and its protector. When we do go into the light, such as the scenes between Keaton and Pfeiffer in Wayne Manor, the color is warm and saturated.

Again, the Dolby Atmos soundtrack brilliantly captures every sound effect and musical note with crisp clarity.

The special features ported over from the last Batman Blu-ray include Audio Commentary: Director Tim Burton; On the Set with Bob Kane; Legends of the Dark Knight: The History of Batman; Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight; Batman: The Heroes; Batman: The Villains; Beyond Batman; Batman: The Complete Robin Storyboard Sequence; Music Videos; and Theatrical Trailer.

The Batman Returns special features include Audio Commentary: Director Tim Burton; The Bat, the Cat, and the Penguin; Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight Pt. 4 – Dark Side of the Knight; Batman Returns: The Heroes; Batman Returns: The Villains; Beyond Batman; “Face to Face” by Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Theatrical Trailer.

It Tolls for King’s Landing, Innocent Civilians, and a Once Well-Written Show: A review of Game of Thrones episode 8.5, “The Bells”

As Drogon flies across King’s Landing, torching its buildings, caches of wildfire erupt into green flame.

Warning: There be dragons! But ye shall be burned even more by the SPOILERS that abound! 

So she finally went and did it.

Daenerys Targaryen, who over the course of eight seasons, went from an apparently innocent waif, traded like a piece of chattel, to an assertive and determined navigator of the Westeros chess board who freed entire cities of slaves, acquired two armies in a quest to reclaim her family’s throne from usurpers and tyrants, has snapped, and borne out her family’s penchant for insanity. Not content at conquering King’s Landing, and defeating Cersei, she threw morality and human decency to the winds, and torched entire sections of King’s Landing, turning scores of innocent men, woman and children into French fries for no justifiable reason.

In so doing, she adds The Mad Queen to her list of titles, becoming her father’s daughter, and the true heir to King Aerys II. 

And it’s not like this wasn’t pre-ordained, right? Both novelist George R.R. Martin and the producers who adapted his Song of Ice and Fire for the screen, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, made it clear early on, by establishing the Targaryen family’s propensity for insanity, and through the prophetic visions experienced by Bran and Daenerys herself, that she would eventually make it to King’s Landing, but that it would not necessarily be a happy ending, which have always been few and far between on a show that’s always been more about employing subversion to illustrate the horror of war and the dangers of absolute rule by narcissists who see themselves as the center of all things.

In this sense, setting us up to think that Varys deserved to be executed, and to feel joy at seeing the gates of King’s Landing disintegrated as Drogon flies through them on a giant torrent of flame, only to later be horrified when Dany refused to stop, and realize that Varys was “right” all along, is right in line with this modus operandi. Irrespective of her words and even her actions regarding tyrants, Dany has never indicated that hers is a war for egalitarianism or democracy, even if she freed some cities’ worth of slaves along the way.  Her actions have always centered upon what she wanted for herself, and her kindness and generosity always stopped at those who came between her and her goals.

So no, her rampage at King’s Landing wasn’t without setup. That isn’t the problem.

The problem is the same one that’s pervaded the entire season.

Lousy execution.

It’s the writing, stupid!

The last five episodes, especially the last three, have been marred by major established premises that have been ignored or dropped; a conclusion to the Night King storyline that while satisfying on an action level, did not tie into the status quo of Jon or Bran, the Cersei storyline, or even affect Dany’s ability to wage war on King’s Landing; unceremonious exits of important characters like Sam, Gilly, Tormund and Ghost; and plot holes bigger than that one Viserion blew through the Wall.

In “The Long Night”, we saw the Dothraki snuffed out by the horde of the dead, with only one or two horseriders coming back from that idiotic charge-with-no-dragonglass. In the next episode, “The Last of the Starks”, Grey Worm tells Daenerys that half their forces are gone, and takes some pieces off the map. The lone unnamed Dothraki in the room does the same. Yet in this episode, a large group of Dothraki charge King’s Landing in force. In “Starks,” Dany is flying toward Dragonstone, and all of a sudden neither she, nor Drogon nor Rhaegal can see eleven ships below them, allowing Euron’s ships to land not one, not two, but three arrows at Rhaegal in rapid succession, while missing Drogon entirely. According to Benioff, this his because Dany “kind of forgot” about Euron’s fleet. I’m not making that up. Read it yourself.

But now in “The Bells,” she has regained the sense to properly take advantage of her altitude in the very way she should have, and can destroy a fleet that now numbers at least 137 ships? (Yes, I counted.)

In “The Last of the Starks”, Drogon swoops down to Euron’s fleet, which numbers eleven ships (left), but in “The Bells” (right), its numbers have swelled to well over 100.

But what’s far worse than changed or ignored premises or plot holes is how this season has handled the show’s signature quality: Characterization.

The series has always been one of the best works in modern popular fiction when it comes to depicting the motivations that drive a large cast of characters’ actions, and how those motivations interact with the plot, theme and allegory. But this season, the character work has seemed so phoned-in that AT&T should’ve gotten an onscreen story credit. (Hey, it beats a Starbucks cup.)

Take Varys’ turn as traitor. In “The Last of the Starks”, Dany says she wants to rip Cersei out of King’s Landing “root and stem,” and Tyrion reminds her that the plan is to do that without destroying the entire city. Dany gives no indication that she disagrees with this. Quite the contrary, she adds that under her rule, all of the people of Westeros would live under her rightful rule “without fear or cruelty.” But then Varys starts talking to Tyrion about finding someone else to rule Westeros. This comes about not because Dany’s reaction to Missandei’s execution, because while they sail to Dragonstone before that happens, simply because Tyrion has just informed him of Jon’s true parentage. This appears to have been done to provoke our animus toward Varys for his disloyalty, so that when Dany does go postal, Benioff and Weiss can again go, “Gotcha!” with our expectations. But Varys wasn’t right, since his disloyalty was about being picky about prospective ruler pedigrees, and because Dany ever gave any inclination toward tyranny. In this way, Varys seems to have acted they way he did because he read the script. And I’ve come to expect better from this show.

Then take the Stark women’s soapy motivations. In “Starks,” Arya and Sansa say that even though they harbor respect and gratitude for Dany helping them fight the Night King, that they’ll never trust her because “She’s not one of us.” Really? Were the Wildlings “one of us”? How about that giant, Wun-Wun, who died fighting for the Starks in the Battle of the Bastards? For that matter, Robert Baratheon himself wasn’t from the North. Did the Stark women fail to observe loyalty among their people to King Robert, despite what an incompetent, cruel boor he was? By contrast, Dany loves Jon, and lost one of her dragons just saving Jon’s life (risking her own in the process) and lost half of her soldiers and one of her dearest friends fighting for Winterfell. Just what does she have to do to earn Arya and Sansa’s loyalty? Arya certainly feels loyalty to the Hound. Should Dany kill Arya’s best friend, kidnap her and then ride with her up and down Westeros while occasionally slapping her around?

Of course, this isn’t what lit up the Web following the episode’s premiere.

Daenerys: Portrait of a Tyrant

The real dragon in the living room is Daenerys’s decision to burn large sections of King’s Landing, along with civilians running for their lives. While this may be a fulfillment of the visions that Dany and Bran experienced earlier in the series, and illustrative of how even good people in positions of power can let power go to their heads, it doesn’t ring true on a character level, since characters’ behavior has to make sense in the context of their overall arcs. It’s not enough to point out that people “snap” in real life, or that Dany’s father was nuts. Hell, even he didn’t suddenly “snap”, but was a naturally erratic man who gradually declined due to a combination of age, political tension, and jealousy of his Hand, Tywin Lannister.1 Characterization isn’t about just using real life as a precedent. It’s something that has to be constructed as part of the writers’ craft, just as any other art form, and thus having a character turn arbitrarily to simply match an established prophecy breaks our suspension of disbelief.

Was Dany’s rampage really out of anger over Rhaegal and Missandei? That look of barely restrained rage on her face after Missandei was executed was certainly one we hadn’t seen before. But if that’s the case, her anger should’ve been directed at Cersei and Euron, and Benioff confirmed that this was the case. Instead, she torches peasants who had nothing to do with it. In a behind-the-scenes featurette, episode director Miguel Sapochnik said that Dany felt “empty” when the bells went off, and producer D.B. Weiss explained that at that moment, she decided to make it “personal”. The problem with this is that killing people who probably hated Cersei as much as Dany did, isn’t personal, because it’s been made clear by now Cersei didn’t care about those people.

Benioff also pointed out that before her execution at the end of “Starks,” Missandei’s last word, “Dracarys,” which was her way of telling Dany to burn them all. So what? Dany has spent eight seasons fighting against slavery, tyranny and cruelty towards the innocent, and now she’s grown so myopic over the death of her best friend that she decides to honor a condemned woman’s dying wish to murder innocent people—even though she repated her anti-tyranny platform to Tyrion after Missandei’s death? Sorry, but this is a poor rationalization any way you look it.

Some reviewers have attempted to argue the Dany has always been a mad queen, pointing to her past brutalities to people like Xaro Xhoan Daxos, Pyat Pree, Kraznys mo Nakloz, and the Tullys, but this ignores the fact that those people had actually transgressed against her. Like it or not, “The Bells” represents the first time she has committed acts of unambiguous murder upon innocent people who had done nothing to her.

I noticed that the episode seems to try to provide other excuses for Dany, but none are particularly convincing. Consider her statement to Tyrion in Dragonstone’s throne room that she would not allow Cersei to use her mercy as a weakness. This cannot explain her killing spree, since she embarked upon it after the Lannister army surrendered. And if her actions at King’s Landing was Dany’s way of merely making a point to Cersei about Cersei attempt to use people as a defensive tactic, then this means that Dany committed mass murder out of spite.

There’s also the scene where she tries snogging with Jon in front of the fireplace, and after he fails to return her affections in earnest, she resolves, “Alright, then. Let it be fear.” Seriously? She burned countless civilians to a crisp because Jon wouldn’t give her some sugar? In HBO’s “Inside the Episode” featurette, D.B. Weiss states that this was the moment when Dany resigned herself to the belief that she would need to resort to committing an atrocity in order to “get things done,” but this ignores the fact that she had already gotten it done without it.

I want to make clear: I don’t have a problem with the idea of sympathetic characters taking tragic descents into darkness, provided that it naturally follows what’s been established up to that point. I do not, for example, have a problem with Grey Worm’s actions, since they were not inconsistent with his character. Ditto for the Dothraki and Northmen committing atrocities, since even if Dany decreed to the former that their raping and pillaging days were over (much as she had done with Yara and Theon), they may have taken her lighting up the city as a sign that it had gone out the window.

Dany burning large numbers of citizens would be more believable if it was prompted in a way that made things at least a bit more fuzzy: Imagine this: Cersei ties random citizens up against the walls of the city, and the Red Keep, using them as personal human shields. Dany then makes the decision to burn them because those innocents’ deaths are unavoidable, and then during the smoke and ash, it becomes more difficult for her to clearly see the Lannisters surrender, and to discern who is a civilian and who is a soldier, a tragic iteration of what happens in the during the “fog of war”. But this didn’t happen, as there was no “fog.”

Just ash.

There is, however, one nagging detail I noticed in the episode that gives me cause to hold off on final judgment of her turn, one that leads me to hope that what we saw in “The Bells” is not all that there was to see, and will pay off in the finale, once again prompting us to reevaluate what we previously thought was true: After that shot of Dany after the bells tolled, we never got a close-up shot of her during her destruction of the city. Why is this? Wouldn’t showing her face twisted into a grimace of pure rage during her rampage be crucial to that scene? It makes no sense not to show her face during this. I got to thinking that maybe they plan on showing us her rampage again in the finale, only from Dany’s POV, revealing something similar to what I just described. Perhaps she was trying to destroy fortifications that looked like armories or barracks or assets that Cersei could use to hide or escape, and Drogon’s limited precision with fire killed some civilians near those buildings, and when Grey Worm saw this, he misunderstood this, and took it as justification for embarking on a vendetta on those who murdered his love, and everything just snowballed from there. Perhaps when Dany then saw the fighting resume, she then took this as a sign that Lannister soldiers were ignoring the bells, and justified doing so herself, a sequence of causality that neither Jon nor any other single player would understand at the time. All of this could render her actions in a more morally ambiguous light. It would also fit squarely in the wheelhouse of both Martin and the showrunners, who have relied heavily on contrasting POVs in this way throughout the series. Is that what they’re going to do here, in order to make Dany’s actions and her reasons for them more morally ambiguous, with their seemingly threadbare explanations in the behind-the-scenes material a cover for it?

In perusing the Web, it seems that I’m not alone in noticing the lack of a close-up, with another reviewer speculating that the reason for this is that Bran had warged into Drogon to burn the city. If Dany spent the rampage trying helplessly trying to regain control over her dragon, this would explain why they couldn’t show her in close-up.

Not with a bang, but a whimper. And falling bricks.

Even if this is borne out, the rest of the major characters’ arcs fair little better, and unlike Dany, theirs are finished.

To understand what’s wrong with what happens to the characters in this episode and others, you have to look at how their stories have been developed to date, and you’ll see why they’re called arcs. For example, Tyrion sees his father writing a letter in the third season premiere, “Valar Dohaeris,” that includes the phrase “ripe for the trap.” In that season’s finale, “Mhysa,” which is the episode that takes place after the Red Wedding, Bran tells a story of the Rat Cook, who cooks his guests into the food served as a feast, an act whose heinousness stems from the Westerosian view that killing a guest under one’s own roof is an unforgivable sin. This establishes a cultural viewpoint explaining how the Red Wedding is regarded by the people of Westeros, warring families or not. So when Arya bakes Walder Frey’s sons into the pie she serves to him in the sixth season finale, and then poses as him to oversee her murder of his soldiers in the seventh season premiere, these cease to be mere events in individual episodes, but pieces of a cohesive whole. A single tapestry, in which climaxes feel more satisfying because they come as the payoff that follows a long setup. That’s what separates an abrupt shocking plot twist from a carefully crafted one.

This is what’s missing from this season, and this episode.

I just assumed, for example, that when Arya set out from Winterfell for King’s Landing to kill Cersei, that it was as much a mission handed to her by Dany as it was a personal vendetta. But nothing here indicates that Dany thought to take advantage of the skills she knew Arya had. I also assumed that this arc would tied into Cleganebowl, and with Cersei’s ultimate fate. Maybe Arya made her play for the Queen, killing a bunch of her guards in the process, and just when she was about to strike the killing blow upon Cersei, it’s blocked by the Mountain, who suddenly appears and beats Arya nearly to death. And just when he’s about to deliver a fatal blow to her per Cersei’s order, that’s blocked in turn by the Hound, who then has the fight of his life with his brother for Arya. This might’ve been an even sweeter turn of events if Arya and the Hound hadn’t been shown leaving Winterfell together. If they had the Hound leaving to go find some quiet hillside to retire, failing to convince Arya to stay at Winterfell, his sudden appearance there would be a more satisfying and poignant surprise. Maybe during this brawl, Cersei could have ended up falling from a tower into the spot where Ned Stark was executed, making her end all the more poetic. Or something like that. Anything.

Instead what we got was two tall brothers who decided it was time to fight when they could’ve done when the confronted one another in the seventh season finale, a number of gratuitously implausible stab wounds inflicted upon Jamie, and a bunch of bricks falling on Cersei. Instead of layering these denouements in a way that tied them together along with the Night King arc and the Azor Ahai prophecy, in a way that echoed with the series’ overall mythology, what we got was thematically flat. A series of endings that were journalistic rather than resonant. We got the who, what, where, when and how, but not the heart. The Night King was done away with mid-season, and Cersei is killed not in the series finale, but its penultimate installment.

Are there some good moments? Sure. That moment when Arya addresses The Hound by his given name for the first time ever was a nice touch. And the FX were excellent. That one over-the-shoulder shot of a Lannister soldier as a split suddenly appears in his torso upon the swing of a Northman’s sword was extremely impressive. But the sum of these individual moments does not add up to a story that transcends them.

Speculation for the finale

So going into the finale, what are we left with?

We saw Arya mount a white horse, much like Death, one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse described in the Book of Revelation. Where she’s galloping off to is fairly obvious, as is the conflict that will drive the violence in the finale. The only question will be whether she will kill Dany, or be foiled be Grey Worm, leading to a duel between them, which I admit, would redeem the Cleganebowl somewhat.

Perhaps as they fight, Jon finds a still-intact scorpion, perhaps half-covered in debris, that Dany and Drogon missed and then use it on the Drogon? I noticed that contrary to what Qyburn said, we didn’t see Drogon destroy all of them, and one shot of Drogon showed him passing over a number of them on his way to destroying a corner tower at the city gates. And if this leads the Unsullied to attack Jon and the Northmen, seemingly to the point of near-defeat, and they are saved by the arrival of Tormund on the Wildlings, with Ghost biting off Grey Worm’s head, it would redeem their inelegant departure in “Starks.” If only.

And then there’s that little girl, the last of Varys’ little birds, allowing one last manipulation of his to survive his death and manifest itself in the series finale.

Benioff and Weiss have not played their last hand, and I haven’t lost my last ounce of faith. The season is what it is. But the show can still go out on a high note. When Sansa told Tyrion about Jon’s secret parentage in “Starks,” one reviewer took issue with what he perceived as irresponsibility on her part, not realizing that this move was deliberately written as a “master stroke” of manipulation, as Dany herself tells Jon a few scenes into this episode, so it’s not like they’ve completely lost the ability to write good character work, and even disguise it.

In spite of everything I’ve written here, the lower quality of this season’s writing has not soured me on the sprawling epic created by my fellow native of Hudson County.

In fact, I’ve just started reading the first novel in the series. I intend to read them all, perhaps putting my run through Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series on hold in order to keep the continuity of the story fresh in my mind from novel to novel, and who knows, maybe by the time I’m done, my fellow native of Hudson County, New Jersey will have finished writing the final two novels, or at least decided upon a firm release date.

Hope springs eternal. 

Footnotes

1. Martin, George R.R. (2014). The World of Ice and Fire. Bantam. pp. 113 – 129.