Wednesday, July 7, 2021

A lot of moves, but most of them brilliant

I'm a huge Steven Soderbergh fan and I know I'm far from alone. In fact, I get the feeling that many of his recent pictures have been made up of actors whom are also Soderbergh fans, not only because of the quirky, seemingly-insouciant way that he produces and directs his films, but also because he tends to focus on screenplays that give them a lot to work with. No Sudden Move is no different in this respect, as it boasts a star-studded cast in larger roles (Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Brendan Fraser, Jon Hamm) and smaller ones (Amy Seimetz, Ray Liotta, Bill Duke, Frankie Shaw), and has the twisting story that gives all of them their moment(s) in the spotlight. In brief, the film is about a bunch of gangsters trying to make some money while eagerly double-crossing each other at every turn and sweeping a bunch of "normal" people into their cloud, while the real gangsters that run everything from above simply wait for the dust to settle. That really doesn't do the story justice, but it's difficult to go into detail without revealing what should be experienced firsthand by anyone reading this.

Given my childhood origins, the setting of mid-50s Detroit is appealing to me from the outset. The fact that the story centers around people trying to press every lever they can to get ahead in a society described by one character as "You think you have power. You think you have influence. But you don't." As it turns out, that character is basically right because history tells us that he's right. But those characters don't know that and they play every scene like they have the world by the short hairs or are ready with a backup plan (or two or three) if their grip happens to slip. The script also weaves in the sordid history of Detroit's "urban renewal" (Black Bottom, etc.) and the rampant corporate corruption that still rules the nation (and soils the air.) This is a regular feature of Soderbergh's films, as he's never far away from dropping a statement or two into the otherwise fictional stories that he delivers. This one also carries little allusions to America's racial politics and their constant presence in the automotive industry (Big Corp's attraction to fascism springs to mind these days), as well as subtle hints to the sexuality that so many kept hidden at that time.

Another aspect that's been a regular feature of his career is the use of unusual equipment. Having shot films with only a Super 8 camera or with only an Iphone, this time he doesn't go quite that far, but does use a recurring format for most of the scenes around and inside the homes of the few "regular" Detroit inhabitants, which I can only call a "peephole cam", as it shades the corners of the screen and enlarges the center, just like it would if you were looking through a peephole in a door. I'm not sure if the intent was to represent the audience peeping into the lives of regular folk, while we were part of the vast conspiracy that the otherwise criminal element (both street and corporate) pursues throughout the story, but that's the closest I can come to figuring out what the purpose of that particular mechanic was. I have to say that it was kind of a distraction to the film overall, but it didn't quite reach the level of an annoyance. Maybe it's just because I wasn't in on the joke. But a lot of the characters could say that, too.

Don Cheadle does well as a man just trying to catch a break after a life gone wrong. Likewise, Del Toro handles his role as the unreliable gangster with aplomb, although I feel like he's become a bit typecast, as his role resembled something of a fusion of his parts in Traffic (another Soderbergh production) and Snatch. It's always good to be thought of whenever the right casting is needed for a specific role, but it becomes less so when those roles start looking and sounding the same. Similarly, Jon Hamm seems locked into "straight man" roles, whether they're genuinely straight/heroic/law-abiding or not. In contrast, David Harbour (of Stranger Things fame) is a semi-surprising joy as an imposed-upon accountant who's living the typical American, middle class home life, while carrying on an affair at the office and, when pressed to confront his boss for a document that will keep his family alive, announces every punch that he's about to throw with: "This is a punch." It's as effective a declaration as one might expect from a man who's never thrown one and who later reveals just how much of a lack of control he has over what's going on around him, especially in an excellent motel room scene with the partner of his affair, played by Frankie Shaw, who simply shines in her few minutes of screen time. Bill Duke also has several excellent moments with his usual penetrating-stare-above-lowered-glasses move.

I thought the production was really well done on a visual level. Those homes looked like they came right out of a lot of Detroit neighborhoods that are still standing today. Also, many of the city's landmark buildings looked appropriately spiffy as they were at that time. I wondered a bit about a couple details, such as the regular references to the "Big Four" of the auto industry. I've never heard anyone refer to anything but the "Big Three" (aka GM, Ford, Chrysler) and I'm pretty sure Packard-Studebaker was never large enough to be in that grouping. (Similarly, 1954 was the year that AMC was created and they were still never considered to be in the top tier.) I appreciated the mentions of the unjust removal of the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods, but wondered that they didn't cite the highway construction that was the official reason (removal of Black residents and businesses being the primary one.) But a tip of the hat to writer, Ed Solomon, for also being cognizant of Detroit's mob history, with the mention of The Purple Gang, although 1954 was long after they had any presence in the city.

But all of that detail can add to a perception that there's simply too much going on at any one moment. While I'm always interested in a complex story or one with multiple angles, there is a limit to all things. While it's a measure of respect for the intelligence of many of the characters that they can see multiple angles and seem prepared for most of what befalls them and have already mapped the routes around the bad spots (Soderbergh takes care to show Curt Goynes (Cheadle) setting up his backup plans, rather than using them as deus ex machina-style surprises), one occasionally has to wonder at the ability of any one person to cover that many angles and not be completely paranoid. I think Soderbergh does a good job in representing Goynes and Russo (Del Toro) as essentially friendless because of the lives they've chosen to lead, but I think it's fair to wonder just how much off-the-cuff scheming can go so right. Until it doesn't. So, I can't say this was Soderbergh's best crime/heist film (Out of Sight still probably takes that title) but it's definitely a solid example of his craft and well worth seeing.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Internal echoes

I went through something of a transformation about a decade ago. I got divorced, moved out of the house I'd never wanted, and spent a large part of a year mostly isolated. I still went to my dojo fairly often, but unless someone contacted me or showed up at the door, there were times when I could go for days without seeing or hearing another human. It was me and the cats. As you might expect, that led to a fair amount of introspection in the depths of a very, very low period. What came out the other end was largely positive (I think.) It allowed me to grow up in some respects. (You'd like to think a 40-year-old wouldn't have that much growing up to do, but we all know that's rarely the case.) Watching The Sound of Metal this evening brought some vivid memories of that period back to me and now I wonder, a decade later, if I might have forgotten some of the lessons that slowly dawned on me in the darkness.

The film is about a nomadic heavy metal drummer in a two-person band with his girlfriend. They live in an RV and simply move from gig to gig. The music is, almost literally, their life as Ruben (Riz Ahmed) uses it to give his life purpose away from drugs and Lou (Olivia Cooke) seemingly does the same to escape her inner demons. But then Ruben begins to lose his hearing. What is it like when you have the whole focus of your life removed, whether by your own hand or something you can't control? I've been there. What is it like when you feel like you're failing simply by existing without that focus? I've been there. What is it like when you desperately want to fight back against something which can't be fought, because it's an essential part of you? I've been there, too. This is Ruben's entire existence being disrupted, not by a mistake that he's made, but a bodily function that can only possibly be repaired. In the making of himself into the whole person that keeps him from addiction, he suddenly finds himself feeling like less of a person in a way that's more mundane, but every bit as crucial.

Director and co-writer, Darius Marder, does a sterling job of keeping us immersed in Ruben's experience and allowing all of the emotions to progress naturally. It's almost documentary-like, but delivered with a deep grasp of the story being told, without deviation. Ahmed handles the textured and difficult role without becoming maudlin, which is a feat in itself. It would've been easy to overemote into the tragedy of the situation, but he keeps himself tied to what Ruben's reality should be even through the scenes where the character pulses with rancor. The actor has had a fairly regular career on large and small screen (plus an intriguing moment as The Corinthian in an audiobook presentation of Sandman), but mostly on the other side of the pond. But his performance here was so good that I'm kind of eager to seek out his larger roles and see what he could do with screenplays perhaps not quite as grounded. Paul Raci, as Joe, the director of the deaf addicts shelter that Ruben is convinced to stay with, is another standout. It's during their most emotional conversation in the film that Joe points out that the stillness of their condition is where he finds the most peace; not simply that he's been able to accept what has happened to him, but has embraced it as something that makes him a whole person and which he was using alcohol to avoid.

When I was staring into the darkness alone, my outlet at the dojo was something that allowed me to find that same kind of stillness. The motion, the interaction with others without speaking, the absorption of form and ritual, the actual stillness of zazen; all of these things contributed to that introspection that led to a similar kind of change that Ruben experiences. He had created a life that was driven forward to keep him from slipping backward into a lesser state. He had to constantly be doing something. When deafness initially robbed him of that, he felt lost. I'm still often in that frame of mind. If I'm not doing something, learning something, conveying something, I still feel as if I'm wasting time; as if I'm failing. In that respect, this film was a small reminder that learning to be comfortable with one's own existence, no matter the physical requirements or hurdles, can occasionally be all the accomplishment that any one person needs. I'm still not certain of that and, thankfully, the film avoids a pat ending, as well. We're simply left with an understanding that this, too, is part of the journey to whatever end.

Highly, highly recommended.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Batman: TAS, episode #32: Beware the Gray Ghost

This episode hearkens back to the past of our main character in a couple different ways. First off, the premise is that one of Bruce's childhood heroes, the Gray Ghost, is being used as a template by a modern version of one of the TV hero's enemies, The Mad Bomber. The idea that the Ghost was an inspiration for young Bruce Wayne's later alter ego is similar to that of the character itself. The Batman was inspired by The Shadow, menace to criminals everywhere via his radio show that had been running for several years prior to Bob Kane's creation of the Dark Knight. Indeed, The Batman emulated his inspiration in more ways than one, as in his first couple appearances in Detective Comics, he wielded twin .45s just like The Shadow and, uh, killed the criminals that he hunted down. The Gray Ghost in this episode isn't quite that visceral in his approach and in both technique and appearance is much closer to heroes like The Sandman and The Phantom; willing to duke it out with the ne'er-do-wells but not go past at least that level of taking the law into his own hands.

But the other side of the trip to the past is that the character Simon Trent/Gray Ghost is voiced by Adam West, the man behind the bat ears for the 1960s TV show, Batman. Much as I decry said show and its perpetuation of what I see as a distorted view of the character, there's no way to deny both the show's and West's impact on pop culture. Until his death in 2017, West was widely beloved for the three seasons (120 episodes!) he spent in cape and cowl and it was a good thing that affection went as far as it did, because the role basically typecast him as "The Batman." What had been a growing career to that point was subsequently relegated to B (at best) movies, small guest spots on other TV shows, and voice work, despite becoming a household name. He couldn't just be Adam West, actor. He could only be Bruce Wayne and the flying rodent. One of the best writing touches of this episode was setting up Simon Trent with the same problem; still wanting to act, but unable to escape the shadow(!) of his most famous role. And, again, despite lacking interest in ever going back to watch Burt Ward exclaim "Holy Etruscan vases, Batman!", there was still a broad grin on my face when hearing that breathy delivery of excitement when Simon Trent, actor, first spoke a line in this episode. It was, as with Bruce Wayne's experience, just like when I was a kid.

The downside to the writing of this episode had to do with both of the characters that were set up to be Stereotypical Nerd. Both the clerk at the video archive and the villain of the piece were portrayed as different versions of antisocial closet cases. The clerk was unhelpful and treated Bruce with the disdain of those who have knowledge that the target of their contempt doesn't possess and the Mad Bomber himself (voiced by producer, Bruce Timm) was blowing up buildings in the name of being able to... buy more toys. This was the early 90s, when it was still considered socially acceptable to shame comic book/TV/SF nerds and laugh at them (i.e. pre-Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and especially Marvel Studios and the broad based acceptance of those interests that they encouraged.) So, it was kind of disappointing to look back on that version of the past, but this series, like Adam West as The Batman, is an artifact of its time. The division in the eras within the episode was made plain with the gray tone of the animation, not only for the old TV show, but for Bruce's memories, in general, before we were certain that we'd actually arrived in Oz with the color of The Batman's witnessing of the Mad Bomber's first action. But I could've done with a little less of the thinly-veiled denigration of a large chunk of the audience that was probably watching BTAS at the time.

That said, the overall pacing of the episode was excellent and we returned to our noir approach with both the patient examination of the crime scenes and the tragedy and angst of Trent's situation; not only in his inability to pay the rent except by parting with treasured physical memories, but also in trying to escape the confining role that those possessions embodied. This is a man whose only link to success is in something he detests and wants to avoid, as he points out in his exchange with our hero: "I used to admire what the Gray Ghost stood for!" "I'm not the Gray Ghost!" "I can see that now." On the other hand, I think it was fair to wonder if writers Garin Wolf and Tom Ruegger were swiping an idea from The Dead Pool, the last of the Dirty Harry films released in 1988, with their remote-controlled cars to deliver explosives. It's certainly the first thing I thought of when seeing the Mad Bomber's method. I'd also have to say that defending a library with a flamethrower against explosives would probably not be my first choice. But the episode does veer back around to acknowledging the value of superhero stuff and having heroes, in general, when we witness The Batman geeking out with the Gray Ghost over the former's shrine to his hero in the Batcave, so the sole memory of nerd culture in this story isn't the villain shrieking: "My toys! My beautiful toys!" In the end, there was far more positive to be said about this episode than negative and I think the cultural ties winding through all of the self-referential material make it one of the highlights of the series so far. At least for us nerds.

We've reached the halfway point in the series, so I'm thinking about doing a couple more "extras" posts, like the Robin discussion; one about the main character and one about the series itself. We'll see. Meanwhile, next time is Catscratch Fever (No, not Ted Nugent. Someone much more socially acceptable in the form of Catwoman.)

Batman: TAS, episode #31: Dreams in Darkness

We finally return to one of The Batman's classic opponents with the Scarecrow. We also open this episode in Arkham Asylum, which speaks to a greater immersion in the mythos by this point in the series. We don't need the setup on the streets of Gotham before we travel to one of its key locations. We start there with, of course, The Batman as the latest patient. Something else that's new is Bruce/Batman doing a voiceover for the first half of the episode, as he recounts the events that brought him to our cold opening. It's a pretty standard technique for beginning a "shocking" scenario and then discovering how it came about, rather than building into it linearly. But I have to say that I found the narration felt a little clumsy. We're so accustomed to simply following our lead character wherever he goes and experiencing what he does alongside him (It's like... we're Robin!) that putting him in the narrator role seems off.

However, a number of the basic elements of the rest of the story were really well done. The plot is that of a large part of Batman Begins, with the Scarecrow attempting to dump his fear serum into the city's water supply and reduce things to chaos. The episode was, in fact, an inspiration for that film and also a loose adaptation of the first four issues of Shadow of the Bat, written by Alan Grant, but replacing Victor Zsasz with Scarecrow. But getting to the point where The Batman is able to foil that plot involves him dealing with any number of hallucinations caused by the chemical. While that's a bog standard plot for a superhero story, the visuals created to execute it here were excellent. We see the standard "parents in Crime Alley" moment, but it's set up in such an abstract style with the massive gun and Bruce unable to prevent them from venturing into the tunnel and to their deaths that it doesn't seem as tiresome a retelling as it often can be. Later, when fighting with his visions of the other inhabitants of Arkham and beyond (Joker, Penguin, Two-Face, Poison Ivy), the transition between all of them (and in that precise order) gives one some indication of where they rank in the rogues' gallery and the transformations are bizarre enough to provide some element of actual threat to the visions that our hero is seeing. This is a distinct step above the 1960s illusions of Princess Projectra or Mastermind and it's good to see that the producers didn't skimp on the time and attention to detail needed to make this look good. This is also Jagged Teeth Scarecrow, which I think continues to be the more threatening visage of the character.

Still, there are some "comic book" moments that one can wonder about. Why does The Batman think pulling steel pipes out of a wall instead of flexible tubing out of the Scarecrow's prototype is the better approach? Do asylums normally use tranquilizer darts to subdue the patients? Especially darts that can embed themselves in concrete? One also has to wonder if The Batman is one of those people who can do the dislocated shoulder thing to free himself from a straitjacket. At one point in the final showdown, The Batman whistles into a PA to "stun" the collection of thugs, but not himself or the Scarecrow? And why does The Batman, of all people, have to ask where the city's water supply comes from? However, as with the other visuals, it has to be said that the Scarecrow's pocket watch is brilliant, with a slashing Grim Reaper and scythe as the second timer. Also, the final sequence with the shadow of the bat(!) covering the sleeping Bruce Wayne was another nice visual touch (although one wonders why he'd be sleeping in the Batcave.) I'll also admit to being a bit mystified by the skin tone transition of the Scarecrow's initial thug (the driller killer), since he seems to shift from non-White to regular White guy over the course of the encounter and his final destination in the hospital. Also, it's kind of funny for those of who know the mythos well to hear The Batman dismiss The Joker as not being capable of this kind of madness because "there's only one criminal twisted enough" to be so... the Scarecrow. That may be the only time you'll ever hear someone assert that The Joker is not capable of being twisted.

However, another quote signaled the fact that writers Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens were on firm ground with the character and his demesne, when narrator Bruce mentions that "Some thought I'd gone mad. Others thought I always had been." That's someone(s) who "gets it", as it were. Next time, we veer away from the standard villains again, but bring back a voice from the past with Beware the Gray Ghost.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Basic tenets

Supposedly, the origin of the idea for Christopher Nolan's latest film, Tenet, is the Sator Square; a Roman word symbol of joint palindromes that's been attached to a variety of Christian and mystical beliefs over the past two millennia. Just like with the square, one can derive a number of deeper meanings from the film just by framing its approach in different ways or rearranging its story to fit whatever perspective you'd like to have. One can do that with the square because it was probably never intended to carry different meanings, but simply to present something universal. Like a tarot deck, one can attach what seems familiar and ignore the rest. The film works in the same way because it's an exercise in basic storytelling and structure with most of the action just being window dressing for those essential (ahem) tenets. The question becomes whether that's actually a good film.

The film's lead is only identified as The Protagonist. (One hearkens back to Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, with a lead similarly labeled (Hiro Protagonist.)) That's because the film's story isn't really important. What's important to Nolan is how the story is told. The Protagonist is a stand-in for Nolan himself; demonstrating to the audience that the characters are just ciphers for the writer and/or director. The latter are the storytellers, with the actors serving as tools to deliver that story. This is in contrast to what films often labeled "an X vehicle" become, in which they're simply window dressing around the performance of a leading person (a Clint Eastwood vehicle, an Al Pacino vehicle, et al.) With Tenet, Nolan decided to bring us all back to film school and give us an elaborately decorated example of how basic story structure works: Here is your protagonist. Here is the conflict and the antagonists. Here is the protagonist working their way through said conflict. Resolution. Of course, the resolution in Tenet is a little murkier than many other basic stories, but the end result is essentially the same. The question for the viewer is: Was it all worth it?

That's the basic question for anyone who watches a movie, right? Was this worth my time/money/attention? The question of story is the central one to me for any film. I don't need to be wowed by special effects or blown away by a performance. Those things are good and can, in and of themselves, often make watching worthwhile. But, first and foremost, tell me a story. Even better, tell me a good story. If you can't do that, then I'm usually wasting my time, no matter how many cool explosions you put on the screen. Is the story in Tenet worthwhile? Well... yeah, if you like things broken down to their most basic elements without any particular attachment to the who and why they're being told, I guess. The reason for that very qualified answer is that the film is basically an exercise in the technique more than it is an actual story. It's an interesting exercise in a lot of ways, but it's not something that's going to produce an emotional release or any real level of excitement that one would normally associate with watching a good story.

I didn't particularly care about any of the characters in the film because they were really just ciphers. Watching them solve the elaborate puzzle constructed around the very basic plot with no motivation to do so other than the fact that the puzzle existed is kind of like watching someone else work a crossword without suggesting any answers to them. While John David Washington does well in injecting some life into the overall sterility and generates some interest in the proceedings (Is it a 'John David Washington vehicle'?), he can't possibly succeed in making anyone care about what's happening because that's not the point of the exercise. Kenneth Branagh, as stock "modern Russian villain", also doesn't help, although he's conveniently named after the aforementioned square (Andrei Sator.) Elizabeth Debicki unfortunately doesn't raise the basic exercise above cliché as the damsel in distress (Wants to protect her child, the one who gets shot and needs to be saved by the hero, yadda yadda yadda.) either. You can see all of the regular notes being played and you come back to the original question: Is it worth it? Robert Pattinson, unfortunately, is handed that irritating role where he obviously knows more than either the viewer or the protagonist but won't tell either of them what he knows in order to keep the story going. This is a phenomenon from poorly-executed roleplaying games where the gamemaster finds himself more important than the ones who really should be the stars of the show: the players.

But, again, that's largely because Tenet is a basic exercise in storytelling. There's nothing wrong with that and it's done well. I think Christopher Nolan is one of the best directors currently in the business and you can draw comparisons with previous masters like Stanley Kubrick, who were also fond of taking basic elements of the craft and creating larger spectacles around them that remained rooted in those basic elements. There's nothing wrong with that. Does it make for an "instant classic" that I would recommend to everyone? Not really. I'll probably go back and watch Tenet again because I'm a Nolan fan and I like the way he works and I'm interested in particular technical moments. But am I compelled to go back and watch it again because there are great characters and gripping, emotional moments and because it's a great story in the same manner as something like Blade Runner? No. There really aren't any of those. And I cite the latter not only because the director's cut is one of my favorite films, but also because it's a science fiction film that initially faced an uneven response from both critics and fans, despite similar appreciation for its overall quality and construction. Blade Runner grew into a cult classic and then an acknowledged classic because of its strong underlying message and the emotional underpinnings of that message. Tenet doesn't really have the former and utterly lacks the latter. It's an exercise with possibilities, just like the square.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The search for meaning

I was in Montana for a few days many years ago. I remember thinking to myself that when people called it "Big Sky country", they were right. The openness and the emptiness seemed to go farther than any other place I've seen. "Emptiness" doesn't have to mean "barren", though. There was life everywhere. It was just about looking for it in the right spots. This, to me, seems to be a central element to Chloé Zhao's film, Nomadland. From a certain perspective, the film is about emptiness. But it's a desired emptiness- a desired solitude -that the protagonist, Fern (the perfectly cast Frances McDormand) basically requires in order to live her life the way she is compelled to do.

Except for two sentences on a card at the beginning about the circumstances of the dissolution of Empire, NV, the story is told without any preamble and there are none of the normal setup cues, in which characters are introduced and some of their history and/or motivation are put on display. We're just dropped into the action and compelled to follow along with wherever Fern is going (I've often referred to this as the 'Howard Chaykin approach', after one of my favorite comic authors.) We only slowly learn the details of Fern's life before her current wandering, but all of her reality is written on McDormand's wonderfully-expressive face and in the matter-of-fact process by which she conducts her existence; traveling from job to job and gathering to gathering, making just enough to keep her and her van moving. She is the very essence of a nomad within the larger shell of the society that surrounds her. That society is pointedly demonstrated by Zhao with the long shots of an Amazon warehouse, a South Dakota national park, and a beet processing facility in Nebraska. We see the remnants of that society when she returns to the hollowed out remains of Empire and her former life. We see the open spaces that she yearns for on the California coast, the Badlands rocks, and the Black Rock Desert just past her former back yard in Empire.

Other than the capable David Strathairn, many of the rest of the nomad community that Fern interacts with are actual members of that community currently on the road in this country. Fittingly, most of them are there by choice, having not found what they wanted in that larger society. That's appropriate for McDormand, who often plays characters with tragedy hovering over them but with steel in their spines that won't let them be overcome by it. And, as usual, you can see every figment of that perspective on her face without her having to utter a word. Despite losing her long-time husband and her home, we later discover that she only stayed in Empire in the first place so that he, a man without parents or children, wouldn't be forgotten if she moved on. It's that sense of responsibility to the people around her that makes her a solid fit for the nomad community, who are made up of people just like that; presence remembered and given life by the people they associate with, whether they're actually present or not. Zhao does an excellent job of portraying that presence, those living memories, without allowing the story to become maudlin.  No matter how often she's presented with offers to stay with people who care for her, Fern can't bring herself to do it, as the solitude is the only thing that brings her respite from the memory of what she's lost and, mostly, what she's never found.

Tricia said she found the movie to be depressing and I can see why someone would think that. But I think that, despite the obvious pain and the struggle, the point was, in fact, the journey. It was predicted by a former student of Fern's whom she ran into in a store who, when asked if she remembered anything that Fern had taught her, recited one of my favorite bits from Macbeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

It may seem depressing to those who can't understand the need for the solitude that the road and the life provides and it may seem as if it signifies nothing to simply keep moving and leave behind all the connections that most people feel help make them who they are. But Fern and the people like her feel that they don't fit into that model of society and it's better for them to escape the petty pace and keep finding new candles to light their way.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Batman: TAS, episode #30: Tyger, Tyger

Speaking of mad scientists, this episode is a complete Island of Dr. Moreau pastiche, including island. I'm OK with that, given that they were aiming for a younger audience who would be both unaware of and attracted to the idea of what is essentially just a ripoff. Also, it doesn't stray too far from the general concept of The Batman resembling Man-Bat. In this case, it's Catwoman becoming more Catwoman-like. One thing I'm less OK with is the general discordancy of the relationship between The Batman and Catwoman. We've already seen Catwoman and this episode continues with the "general knowledge" theme, assuming that viewers don't need to be told the origins of our hero's major opponents. But we've also seen Catwoman get arrested by The Batman for her various crimes in her earlier appearance and yet here Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle are back on the social circuit together, as if he has no idea who and what she is. This is DC Comics in a nutshell up to the mid-1970s, where they finally started following Marvel's lead. It's disappointing that this series, which extends credit to the knowledge and awareness of its viewers in so many ways up to this point, decided to partially abandon that courtesy here. It's not even ham-handed. It's just poor storytelling, since you're not extending credit to your viewer. You're suggesting that they ignore what they already know. In another discordant moment, Bruce Wayne simply brushes off the cops when investigating what happened at the zoo, despite them pointedly informing him that "This is police business." We know he can kinda do this because he's The Batman, but it makes no sense within the story for playboy Bruce Wayne to ignore the cops.

When we make it to the island, we're introduced to the main villain, Dr. Emil Dorian, who is bog-standard mad scientist, unlike Hugo Strange. And the main opposition is his perfect creation, Tygrus. The only real problem with him is that name, which sounds like "tigress", which is not exactly the audible image one wants to create for the aggressively male character that the mad scientist is using Selina Kyle as a potential mate to breed with. So we're already running into multiple odd style choices within act I. That pattern continues when we find The Batman going to Kirk Langstrom for help in identifying the combination knockout drug/genetic transformation serum used on Selina. Again, it's great that we're hearkening back to earlier episodes and creating a timeline within the series. But this is the same problem as before, since it would help to remember that this version of Langstrom, in a deviation from the comics, was criminally motivated in becoming Man-Bat, instead of inadvertently transforming as the original version does. And, yet, just like with Selina, The Batman is fine consulting with a criminal who's remarkably out of jail, despite arresting him the first time they encountered each other.

Another positive in this mixed bag is that the episode is filled with action, but it's not boring or confusing action, since much of the fisticuffs involves the "genetically-superior" Tygrus; a proper challenge for our master combatant hero. Despite the story not really involving what one would consider our preferred noir elements, since it's the Darknight Detective on a tropical island fighting mutant animals, it's at least paced well enough and in scenarios that involve The Batman trying to save his own life and that of Selina Kyle, while not trying to treat Tygrus as just any thug to be waved away or an opponent to truly be beat down, like most of his other villains. So the tragic aspect is played well, even if the genuine opposition in Dorian is fairly routine. Also in yet another upside of continuation and respect for the viewers, the effect of the first encounter with Tygrus is visually carried throughout, as the slashes on The Batman's chest never go away, which is a level of animation sequencing and continuance that was uncommon for cartoons of the time and hasn't even regularly been used in earlier BTAS episodes. We also take a slight deviation from our Island of Dr. Moreau retelling to also include elements of The Most Dangerous Game, which is fine because, again, we have to include our younger viewers who may not have seen something like this before, despite it being pretty old hat for those of us who've been around longer. On the other hand, I'm not sure why you'd include the line "Search your feelings, Tygrus (Luke.)" since viewers young and old will automatically associate that with the Star Wars franchise and be jarred out of any story you're trying to tell. And, perhaps appropriately for our discordant tale, the best line in the episode comes from a throwaway character, when the security guard at the zoo mentions that "Her taste in boyfriends lacks severely! Guy looked like an ape!" when talking about Garth, the substandard gorilla servant (in story and in action within the story.) Fittingly, Garth doesn't even get a voice credit(!)

So, a very mixed bag as an episode, for any number of strange plot and style choices. But the final product isn't horrible. Credit has to be extended for using the William Blake poem (even if Bruce Timm fumbled the pronunciation of the last line (symmetrI, not symmetree) and it was appropriate to wrap the episode with a return to the title card image. Again, it's a nice snippet of tragedy. It just doesn't particularly stand out, plot-wise, for only our second appearance of Catwoman. But next up is our third appearance of The Scarecrow in Dreams in Darkness.