Reel Talk

A Cure For Wellness and Style Over Substance

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Not every movie is going to be for every person. That should be a no-brainer of a statement, but in our current world where everything is so tailor-made for our interests, it seems like that needs to be out-right stated. And there are certain things a movie can do to almost immediately put me off. And when I first saw the trailer for A Cure For Wellness I kind of assumed that it would be completely out of my interests. I’m not exactly the world’s biggest Gore Verbinski fan, since other than Rango he’s kind of a slightly more artistic Michael Bay, so that alone kind of put me off from the movie. But there was just something off about the trailer that I can’t quite put my finger on, and yet which became almost immediately apparent when I decided to go check out the movie. I had actually heard that it was a unique movie, and one worth seeing despite it’s flaws. So I decided to give it a shot, and went to check out this odd little movie, which somehow seemed to be slipping through the cracks while trying to be a huge blockbuster. I mean, why did this movie get a big studio push at the Super Bowl? Whatever, I’m not a marketer.

This film starts off with a businessman working late and having a heart-attack due to exorbitant amounts of stress. And from that chipper image we get a bunch of exposition tossed at us. The man from the beginning works for a massive financial firm that is currently in chaos because their CEO Pembroke has visited a mysterious health spa in the Swiss Alps, and appears to never be coming back. The company needs his signatures on some merger forms though, so they send an oily  young executive named Lockhart to the spa to fetch him. So Lockhart heads to Switzerland, and makes his way to the ominous castle atop a mountain that has some seriously insane history. It was once owned by a crazy baron who did experiments on peasants to try and cure his sister/wife’s infertility, until the peasants burnt the castle down. Surely none of that will be important. Anyway, Lockhart gets to the creepy spa, and is stonewalled by the staff, being told that he can’t meet with Pembroke. This causes Lockhart to have a hissy fit and announce that he’s going back down to the village but will come back. And as he and a driver head down the mountain things are ruined when a CGI elk comes bounding out of the woods, crashes into their car, and Lockhart passes out. And when he wakes up he’s shocked to find that he’s apparently broken a leg, and has now become a patient in the spa.

And from there Lockhart just begins heading around the spa, trying to find Pembroke and discover what the hell is going on in the creepy spa. He meets the man in charge, Dr. Volmer, who is obviously evil, and gets all of the spa’s odd procedures inflicted upon himself. Like being submerged in a giant tank of water that appears to be full of eels. And while all of this is going on Lockhart starts to question his sanity, and that of everyone around him. Everyone in the spa seem to be obsessed with it, and have no intention of leaving, which is obviously horrifying to Lockhart. Oh, and he also meets a creepy woman named Hannah who lives at the spa, and apparently always has. She basically has the mind of a child, and just says creepy things nonstop. Lockhart continues investigating what’s going on, stealing patient files and creeping around the spa. This comes to an end though when he heads into a secret part of the spa and finds the truth about their special treatments, and the vitamins that Volmer and Hannah take. Turns out Volmer has uncovered a process that the baron discovered that involves the aquifer under the mansion, eels, and bodies that somehow creates a cure for basically everything. He then pumps some eels into Lockhart, and turns him into yet another zombie at the spa. Which would have been a great place to end. Instead things keep going, we see Hannah get her first period, we learn that Volmer is actually the baron and has been alive for hundreds of years to become some sort of eel-man, Hannah is actually his daughter who survived the assault on the baron, and he plans on marrying Hannah and continuing their bloodline. Yep. Lockhart figures all of this out by the way, and comes storming down to Volmer’s secret laboratory under the castle. He and Volmer fight a little, and Hannah ends up killing Volmer. They then burn the castle down, and ride a bike off into the sunset together.

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Okay, this was not a good movie. It was the very definition of a slog. There were some good things about it, but basically all of them were visual. The film is absolutely beautifully shot, with a really masterful eye for cinematography. The production design for the movie was also fantastic. Verbinski had wanted to make a film of BioShock for quite some time, and this movie does show that he probably would have nailed the design of that project if it had ever gotten off the ground. The spa was beautifully designed and full of unique and beautiful sets. But where the movie didn’t exactly shine was basically everything else. I’m not a fan of Dane DeHaan in general, and a combination of his performance and the script he was acting out made Lockhart an immensely unlikable protagonist. I mean, we seriously were supposed to care about some little trust-fund brat who called his co-workers pussies? Honestly, no character in this movie was likable. Everyone was hammy and over the top, which maybe would have worked if this film didn’t take itself so deadly seriously. I suppose this movie is nominally a horror movie, but it just comes across as incredibly strange. It’s full of hackneyed horror tropes, like flickering lights, little girls singing, and a soundtrack that was mostly jump-scare stings. However there was a lot of other weird things that didn’t necessarily fit in the traditional horror mold, and maybe say more about Verbinski than anything else. I would wager that Verbinski really has issues with water, eels, doctors, and teeth, because this movie was jam packed with these elements, and then the movie just kind of would sit back and expect you to be horrified, as if we all had weird eel phobias. I really think this movie would have been somewhat less interminable if it had ended when Lockhart was first zombified. There’s a moment where he talks to Hannah and says that he would never want to leave, and that would have been the perfect place to cut to black. The reveal that Hannah was the baby and Volmer was the baron was incredibly obvious about twenty minutes into the movie, and I think ending the film without explicitly explaining this would have been a great move. And ending it with Lockhart losing and becoming just like everyone else would have been even better, and not features bad CGI eel-man combat.

There was one phrase that was cycling through my head nonstop when I was watching this movie. And that was “style over substance.” I know that film is a visual medium, but I’ve never personally been a fan of movies that focus completely on the visuals and ignore the writing. That’s why art films have never really been my cup of tea. It’s probably because I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and have been a rabid consumer of stories. Movies should be a union of visuals, music, stories, and acting. If any of those factors become more important than the others it tends to be problematic. This movie clearly was obsessed with it’s cinematography and production design, and clearly did not give anywhere as much effort into it’s script. Such a beautiful movie shouldn’t have had such a bland, predictable, and overall boring plot. I tried to like this movie, but it just seemed to make every obvious choice, and just dragged on and on. I really think that the movie should have ended about twenty minutes earlier than it did, and not just for narrative reasons. This movie limped along like a CGI elk after being hit by a car. This movie was very pretty, but there was nothing below the surface. And I know some people like that. Some people can get swept up in the beauty and poetry of the visuals. But I’m not one of those people. I can certainly appreciate some beautiful cinematography, but it needs a story to prop it up. And this movie could not accomplish that.

A Cure for Wellness was written by Justin Haythe, was directed by Gore Verbinski, and released by 20th Century Fox, 2017.

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House-Keeping

Brief Vacation

Hey there everybody. I’m going to be taking this week off from my Lifetime of Simpsons project, because my wife and I are taking a brief trip to California to visit relatives and check in on the Happiest Place on Earth, and then take care of some medical stuff. I’ll be back next Monday with a really big week of Simpsons, and then things will be back to normal.

 

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Reel Talk

The Lego Batman Movie and the Importance of Robin

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I talk about Batman a whole lot on this site, and I probably have far too many opinions about a fictional man who dresses like a bat and punches mentally challenged people. But it’s not like I’m alone. Everyone loves Batman, and luckily there’s a version of the character for everyone. Unfortunately most of the interpretations of Batman that have been in pop culture for the last decade have not exactly been my type of Batman. But I guess that’s what people like now, so I just have to deal with a pseudo-fascist Batman that’s full of hate. That is until a few years ago when I went to check out what seemed like one of the most absurd movie ideas I’d ever heard of. The Lego Movie. There’s really no reason that that movie shouldn’t have just been a soulless cash-grab, but somehow it became an immensely funny and shockingly poignant movie that really clicked with me. And one of the breakout performances of that movie was Will Arnett’s over-the-top ridiculous portrayal of Batman. It was seemingly universally loved, and it was only a matter of time that they gave this Lego Batman his own spin-off. So I was always going to be down with this film. But then details started coming out about it, showing what direction they were going with it, and I started to get really excited. And let me tell you, this movie exceeded those expectations.

The movie takes place fully entrenched in the world of Batman, not really serving as a sequel to the Lego Movie by featuring the multiple worlds established in that one. We really just stick in Gotham City, and the Lego version of the DC universe. And things are very Batmany. We start off with an army of all of Batman’s villains (and they get some deep cuts) hijacking a plane full of explosives, and preparing to hold the city ransom by threatening to blow up a nuclear power plant. This of course does not come to fruition when Batman arrives and promptly beats them all, leading to a showdown with the Joker where Batman tells him that he means nothing to him. This turns out to have been a bad call, because this really sticks with the Joker, who decides he needs to do something big and crazy to show Batman that he’s his archnemesis, and the greatest villain of all time. Which is right when the Joker sees an interview with Superman, who is talking about how great the Phantom Zone is, and how many incredibly powerful villains he has locked up in there. So now the Joker has a new idea.

Meanwhile, Batman is living his life, trying his hardest to be sullen and alone, and never Bruce Wayne, when he’s invited to the retirement party for Commissioner Gordon. Bruce goes, and meets a young orphan named Dick Grayson that he accidentally adopts while fawning over the new commissioner, Barbara Gordon. The party is cut short though when Joker and all the villains arrive, and promptly surrender. They’re all sent to prison, and Batman realizes that without villains his life has no meaning. So he starts fixating on them, and decides that prison isn’t good enough for the Joker, and ends up being gaslit into thinking that he should send the Joker to the Phantom Zone. So Batman heads to the Fortress of Solitude, with the newly created Robin, and they steal a weapon that will send people to the Phantom Zone. The Dynamic Duo then go back to Gotham, and zap Joker straight into success. Joker enters the Phantom Zone, and recruits an eclectic group of villains, such as King Kong, some Gremlins, Daleks, Voldemort, and Sauron. They then free themselves from the Phantom Zone and begin destroying Gotham City. Which requires Batman to face his greatest fear, and depend on others. He, Robin, Barbara, and Alfred head into Gotham, and fight wave after wave of villains, eventually being joined by Batman’s whole Rogue’s Gallery. And, in the end they all come together and help save Gotham City, and Batman learns that depending on people is a strength, not a weakness.

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This movie is a whole lot of fun. It has a very similar sense of absurdist humor that the Lego Movie had, just with an extra dose of Batman goodness. Because this movie really gets Batman. It’s full to the brim with amazing references and moments that show that the creators of this movie are huge fans of the character, in all his iterations. I mean, the Two-Face in this movie is Billy Dee Williams and there’s a scene where Bat-Shark Repellent comes into play. Hell, they even mention some of the old serial adventures from the 1940s. This was a movie that took the vast world of Batman, and lovingly embraced all of it. It lovingly mocked the characters weaker points, and fully embraced the delightful weirdness that the character has had over his 75 plus years of existence. It was also a movie that was clearly not half-assed. This wasn’t pumped out to capitalize on the success of the Lego Movie. It was well-crafted and animated, featured some truly clever writing, and a ridiculously great cast. Seriously, go check out that cast-list and appreciate how genius almost every pick for the villains are. And most of them barely said more than one word, but were completely memorable. We got a high-flying and crazy Batman adventure story really unlike any that we’ve gotten lately. This wasn’t a movie that was striving for realism, or “maturity.” It was just a really fun Batman story that ends with Batman and his villains finding common ground and not trying to kill each other. And we don’t get too many of those these days.

Plus, at it’s heart, this movie examined one of the most important aspects of Batman, that so often gets overlooked in modern pop culture. The importance of the Bat Family, and Robin in particular. Batman didn’t exist for very long before Robin showed up, but it really was a formative addition to his character. A Batman without a Robin, and therefore without the larger Bat Family, is not a particularly pleasant character. Without the stabilizing force of Robin, Batman is usually completely focused on vengeance. He becomes a vigilante, not a hero. A solo Batman is more violent and mean spirited. Which seems to be what a lot of people like nowadays. But when you add Robin, or really any of the other Bat Family members, into the mix, there’s a profound change in the character. Batman goes from being a stoic crusader to a mentor and father-figure. The blood-lust gets taped down and he grows a conscience. And that’s where we get the Batman that I love. The beginning of the movie featured a cartoonish Batman who loved being alone, unattached, full of anger and who most loved beating up bad guys. Which is basically the guy that we’ve been getting in movies for the past decade. But this movie showed that that Batman is unsustainable. That Batman isn’t a good guy. That’s a Batman who has more in common with his villains than the police, and who would probably brand people. But by the end of this movie we have a Batman who realizes that there’s more to life than hate, and he becomes a better person for it. Which is kind of exactly what we need right now.

The Lego Batman Movie was written by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, and John Whittington, was directed by Chris McKay, and was released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2017.

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Reel Talk

John Wick: Chapter 2 Continues Building a Fascinating World

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Hey everyone, look whose back. John Wick! I talked about John Wick a couple weeks ago when I felt the need to revisit the film, and I still stand by the opinion that John Wick was one of the best action movies of the decade. It’s inventive, weird, colorful, and features some of the most insane and ingenious action setpieces I’ve ever seen. It’s an incredible film, and as soon as I saw it I knew that I needed more of it’s world in my life. So of course I was going to be excited when I heard that they were making a sequel. And that excitement increased tenfold when I started to hear some early reviews of the movie, and some critics were saying that it may have been even better than the original. This seemed like kind of a ridiculous statement, but the thing people kept going back to was the idea that if you enjoyed all the weird world-building of the first movie, everything with the elaborate world of crime, that you would like this movie even more, because it jumps fully into that insane universe and revels in it. And folks, that weird world that the first film created may have been my favorite part of John Wick. That movie crafted a unique and bizarre world from whole cloth and left me wanting more. So the idea that this movie delivered the same level of crazy action and pushed it’s insane world even further made me very excited. And it did not disappoint.

John Wick: Chapter 2 starts off basically exactly where the last film ended, with John still taking down the Russian mob. He’s trying to find his missing car, which has been taken by the brother of the mob leader from the first film, and he starts mowing down Russian goons like the good old days. For a brief moment I thought that this movie was going to be a John Wick version of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure where he just travels around trying to find his car, but that was just a little cold open before we get to the ridiculous real plot. Because once he gets his car John heads home, plays with his new dog, and buries all of his assassin stuff in the basement again. Which is right when his doorbell rings and he’s dragged back into the criminal world. John’s visitor is a man named Santino D’Antonio who is a member of a powerful Italian crime family. Apparently Santino helped John in the past, and John became in his debt. And now Santino is calling in that debt. Apparently the world of crime is run by several crime families around the world, called the High Table, and Santino’s father was a member. He’s died, and has given the empire to Santino’s sister Gianna. And Santino would like John to kill Gianna for him so he can take over this father’s empire. John refuses this, insisting that he’s done with murder again. Santino does not care for this response, and decides to blow up John’s house.

This spurs John to bring his dog and head back into the city to visit the Continental Hotel again, and visit with Winston the Manager. Winston tells him that the only way to let this whole thing blow over is to do what Santino wants, and then fall back into obscurity. So John bites the bullet, flies to Rome, and gets ready to kill Gianna. He visits the Continental in Rome, goes to a tailor who gives him a bullet-proof suit, buys guns from some sort of gun sommelier, and talks to a historian who gives him blueprints of the D’Antonio estate. John heads into the catacombs of the estate during a coronation celebration for Gianna, and then proceeds to sneak in and find her personal room. The two talk for a bit, and Gianna decides to kill herself rather than have John do the deed. So, contract’s done! Which is when Santino sends his army of goons, lead by the mute Ares, to kill John. This then leads to John realizing that now that the debt is repaid, he’s clear to kill Santino. Thus begins John Wick murdering his way through waves and waves of Santino’s goons, until Santino realizes he needs to step things up. So he sets out a hit on John, offering $7 million to whoever can kill John. We then get a veritable Street Fighter game of insane assassins going after John, including Gianna’s former bodyguard Cassian, who has taken John’s survival as a personal insult. But, since this is a John Wick movie, he manages to defeat them all, fighting his way through a series of crazy set-pieces, all until he corners Santino in the Continental. Unfortunately you can’t kill people in the Continental, otherwise you get excommunicated from the the world of crime. And this is apparently worth it to John, because he shoots Santino, accepts his excommunication, and heads out into the world with the knowledge that he still has a bounty on his head, and has nowhere to turn to now.

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This movie is a hell of a good time. I watched it with a grin plastered on my face basically the whole time. Sequels are often really hard to get right, because they’ve got to try and top the original without going too far and becoming a parody of the first movie. And this flick somehow succeeds in doing that. Because this wasn’t just a retread of the first movie, which is kind of what I thought was going to happen. The through-line of revenge was still present, but it was a much larger scale. The action was still just as absurd, and featured such crazy set-pieces as the fight with Common where they fight and fall down stairs and a ridiculous gun-battle inside a hall of mirrors. And it wasn’t just the action, really everything about this film worked for me. It was shot beautifully, full of amazing colors and frenetic but followable scenes, and just about everyone killed it in this movie. Keanu continued to be terrific as the stoic and tortured Wick, but all of the new-comers were great as well. I’ve been a big fan of Common’s acting work, and he was delightful as Cassian. Ruby Rose’s Ares was a whole bundle of weird character traits, but she was a goddamn joy, dominating every scene she was in. Laurence Fishburn was kind of all over the place as a weird ‘King of the Hobos’ type character, but he was a lot of fun, and it was great to see him and Keanu in a film together again. All in all it was just a really well-made and fun action flick.

But the thing that really stood out about the movie to me, was exactly what the reviewers had said. It had the same amount of action as the first film, but took the foundation of the world-building that the first film did and ran with it. I know this movie may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, especially if they were just looking for another crazy action movie and not exactly seeking out the examination of the political structure of Crime World. But I dug the hell out of it. I’m obsessed with the fact that these films aren’t based on anything, and are completely created for the films, because the world that they’ve created is so elaborate and fascinating that I would legitimate read novels about how this world functions. Learning about the High Table, the system of Continental Hotel’s around the world, and the vast organizations that spread from the two. We get to see the call-center where hits are called into, we get to see a huge group-text informing all of the assassins about a hit, and learn about Laurence Fishburn’s network of hobo spies. And yet there’s still plenty we don’t understand. There’s more backstory that remains vague, aspects of the world that haven’t been uncovered, and plenty more dots to connect. And that’s what’s going to keep me coming back. The action and direction of these films are tremendous, but the thing that really clicks with me about them is the world-building, and this movie proves that they aren’t going to be dropping it anytime soon.

John Wick: Chapter 2 was written by Derek Kolstad, directed by Chad Stahelski, and released by Summit Entertainment, 2017.

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Page Turners

The Nix and the Cycle of Parenthood

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First novels can often be a bit of a crap-shoot. Sometimes you get staggering works that were clearly being tinkered with for the author’s whole life, and come off as works of genius, and other times you can tell that things aren’t quite polished yet, but hopefully there’s some sign of talent that could be cultivated in the future. The later is more common, and it’s always a joy to find one of the former. Which I have. I first heard about the Nix when it was being featured on basically every “Best Novels of 2016” list I came across, and I figured that this was something worth checking out. Plus, not to be a cliche, but that cover is very intriguing to me, and certainly helped spur me onto checking this novel out. And I’m very glad I did, because this is a terrific novel, and one that will force me to eagerly await any future projects from Nathan Hill, because if he can sustain this level of craft, he’ll be destined for greatness. Because anyone who can spin this many plates, make it all come together and seem worthwhile, while also creating a fully realized world has some serious talent.

At it’s heart, the Nix is the story of a mother and a son. And it all pivots around one crucial moment in their life, when Faye Andreson-Anderson abandoned her husband and adolescent son Samuel. This exact moment is barely examined in the novel, but it’s what everything before it lead to, and what everything after caused. A large portion of the novel is told in the semi-present of 2011, when Samuel Anderson is an English professor at a small college, trying to distract himself from his failure of a life, when he’s suddenly brought back into his mother’s life. Which happens when Faye is caught on camera attacking an ultra-conservative presidential candidate, and arrested for assault. Her lawyers hope that Samuel will be able to provide some character testimony to show the court that Faye isn’t a monster, and hopefully aid her sentencing. However, Samuel still feels quite a bit of resentment for the mother he hasn’t seen since he was a boy, so he instead starts working against his mother, trying to get enough information about her past to write a tell-all book about her, riding on the coat-tails of her accidental fame.

But when Samuel begins digging into his mother’s life, trying to figure out what exactly it was that spurred her to abandon her family, and trying to make sense of the fact that she was apparently involved in the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago, a detail of her life he’d never known and can barely believe. And that starts Samuel down a rabbit hole that eventually gives us plenty of flashbacks to Faye’s younger life. We learn that Faye grew up in rural Iowa, being told that her life had to be just like everyone else’s, and that her thoughts and opinions didn’t matter. So she ran away to Chicago to go to a liberal college, where she got swept up in the counter-culture of the time, and was eventually thrown directly into the protests, getting involved in the riots and police brutality that was spawned by them. This brief taste of freedom terrified Faye, and she ended up going back to Iowa, marrying Samuel’s father, and trying to live the life that was told she was supposed to, until she couldn’t take it anymore, and had to split. Samuel learns the truth about his mother, she learns what kind of man he’s become, and the two have to reconcile what’s going to happen from there. Along the way we also learn about a depressive gamer who is friends with Samuel and spends all of his time playing a World of Warcraft-esque video game, a slacker student that’s trying to destroy Samuel’s career, the lives of a pair of twins that Samuel knew when he was a kid who became his best friend and his greatest love. These stories seem superfluous on the surface, but they end up contributing to the rich tapestry that Hill is crafting, and end up feeling very necessary to the novel.

I really loved this book. Basically from the get-go I was hooked, finding myself drawn in by Hill’s writing style, character choices, and dialogue. It was a fascinating book that jetted around several different time-periods, featured dozens of actualized characters, and a fully lived-in world. Which is no easy feat. It’s kind of stunning that this is Hill’s first novel, because it has a level of craft that’s usually reserved for more prolific novelists. And naturals. Which is what we appear to have in Hill. Which does give me some slight pause, mainly in fear that we may have an Infinite Jest on our hands, a towering achievement that took Hill ten years to write, and which he may never top. Your first novel tends to be something you’ve been working on your whole life, and encompasses basically all of your creativity. Hopefully the well isn’t dry. Especially because this novel feels so deeply personal, to the point that by the end I was second-guessing myself over the fact that this may have been mostly true to life, and basically auto-biographical.

But the thing that really was interesting about this novel to me, and the theme that stuck with me the most, was how it looked at parenthood. I am not a parent yet, but it’s one of those universal themes that come up in art, and something that is pretty hard not to be familiar with. As the novel begins you assume that this is going to just be a book full of mommy-issues, following Samuel as he reconciles with the fact that his mother wasn’t very caring, and who eventually abandoned him. I’m sure the loss of a parent, especially a voluntary one, is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to a person, and an event that’s rife with dramatic potential. But the novel didn’t end up being a hatchet-job on Faye. Instead, we got a peak into her own life, and saw that her parents weren’t exactly caring and loving either. Faye had a domineering father who was never satisfied with her, and who belittled her at every turn. And it’s almost certain that Faye’s father didn’t have a stellar father either. Because parenthood is a cycle. No one is perfect, and if you have any problems with the way your parents raised you, you can almost certainly find out about their childhood and figure out why it was that way. No one really knows what they’re doing, they carry their own baggage from their childhoods, and they’re just trying to do a better job than their parents did. And that cycle of parenthood, and the effects that your whole familial history can have on your own development, is what took this already terrific book and made it essential reading for me. The Nix is a spectacular novel, and one that I hope everyone will give a chance. And I look forward to what Nathan Hill has up his sleeve next.

The Nix was written by Nathan Hill and published by Random House, 2016.

Bat Signal

Issue 532 – “Laugh, Killer, Laugh!”

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Hi there everyone and welcome back to another installment of Bat Signal, my ongoing project to read random issues of Detective Comics with little to no context. And we have a fun and goofy little issue to talk about today. I usually get irritated when I pull issues that don’t have proper beginnings or ends, because they just come off as gibberish. However, today I got a special kind of middle-issue. One that is completely insane and hilarious given no context. It appears that the beginning and end of this story take place in Batman, not Detective Comics, so I will never get to the stories during this project, but that’s okay. I can figure what’s going on in this story well enough, at least to enjoy some absolute nonsense. I mean, check out that cover. The Joker is going to run over Batman in a train with his own face on it. And while that exact thing doesn’t happen in the issue, trust me, thing get equally if not more insane. We do kind of get a Joker that is rapidly approaching the uninteresting monster Joker that I hate so much, but he’s still pretty fun, and spewing weird puns. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s do this thing.

The issue starts exactly where you’d think it would. With Batman and Vicki Vale being held captive by a group of soldiers inside some sort of Joker Cave, while the Joker explains that he’s ready to take over Guatemala. Um, yeah, let’s just roll with it. The Joker has apparently built this Joker Cave inside of a Guatemalan temple, and he’s busy monologuing to Batman about all of his insane goals. Well, until one of the goons tries to tell Joker that it maybe isn’t a good idea to tell Batman their whole plan, which results in Joker killing said henchman with a giant jack-in-the-box. This results in the goon firing his machine gun wildly, which provides Batman a brief respite to try and come up with a plan to defeat Joker. Which is when we get some insight into what Joker is plotting. And it’s a doozy. Basically, he and an army of soldiers made up of Gotham criminals are going to overthrow the Guatemalan government and transform the country into a gigantic Joker-themed theme park, specifically modeled after Disneyland. I’m not kidding.

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Yep. The Joker is going to take over a South American country and convert it into an amusement park. That’s certainly a unique plan. They don’t really explain why the Joker thinks that this is a good idea, why it has to be Guatemala, or really anything about the plan at all, but I assume this was perhaps covered in the previous issue. What we do know is that Batman is incredibly confused about the plan as well, and just keeps plotting ways to get out of this predicament while not actually doing anything. He just stands there, thinking and mocking Joker while he makes speeches. The Joker’s plan is basically to have his guys assassinate the leader of a rebel militia, and then sit back while the rebels assume it’s the government, leading to a full-scale war. And then, when both sides are weak, the Joker and his army of Gotham City thugs will defeat both the government and the rebels, and take over the country. More than a little convoluted, but I guess it’s feasible.

But before we get more into the Joker’s para-military theme park production we get a brief moment where we check in on some other plot strands that are going on in the comics, an that make no sense to me. First we see some apartment in Gotham City, where Alfred is delivering groceries to some young woman who we eventually learn is apparently his daughter. Then we go to a hospital in Gotham where Harvey Bullock and Barbara Gordon are hanging out in, waiting for Commissioner Gordon to come out of a coma. No clue why he’s in the hospital, but I’m sure he’s going to be fine soon. Anyway, we should probably go back to Guatemala, and see what the Joker and Batman are up to. Still just standing around talking about plans?

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Oh my. Things have escalated rapidly in the brief respite from the main plot. Apparently Joker has tied Batman up, stuck him on the little train with the Joker’s face on it from the cover, and is planning on sending the little train on a course around the Guatemalan temple they’re hiding out in until it runs over Vicki Vale. Sure Joker, this was a good use of your time. But that doesn’t matter, because the Joker has set the little train in motion, and Batman is rapidly approaching Vicki. Which means he has to spring into action. And he immediately does. Because as soon as the train takes off Batman realizes that there are some stalactites in this temple (huh?) and he jumps into the air, grabs one, breaks it off, and uses it like a knife to cut his bonds, freeing himself.  Oh, Batman, is there anything you can’t do?

Batman’s freedom isn’t the end of his problems though, because the train is still rapidly approaching the tied up Vicki Vale, so he needs to figure that one out. Which actually doesn’t take that much work, because Batman just whips a Batarang into the pistons of the train, causing it to jam and buck off the tracks. The train goes flying through the air, missing Vicki, and plowing into the Joker and his goons. And with that Batman and Vicki start fleeing from the temple, which obviously means Vicki has to pick up a machine gun, apologize to Batman, and just start mowing down goons. Batman doesn’t seem overly irritated with this method however, and they two just keep running into the jungles of Guatemala, knowing that they have to warn the Guatemalan government about Joker’s insane plans. But the Joker isn’t going to give up. He’ll be back!

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Yeah, I had a lot of fun with this issue. It would be interesting to learn why the Joker was in Guatemala, how he had an army of Gotham criminals, and why he thought creating a Joker theme park made any sense, but those aren’t things I’m allowed to know I suppose. And despite any of those issues, there was enough wacky nonsense in this issue to make it a whole lot of fun. I mean, the Joker seriously spent half of the issue just standing in a room with Batman, monologuing about his plots, but it didn’t even seem that tedious, because his plan was so insane. Plus, once we were done talking about Jokerland or whatever the hell he was going to call it, we got to see Batman outsmart the Joker while tied to a little train. That’s some Silver Age nonsense that I wasn’t fully expecting to see in an issue from the early 80s. The Joker would soon become the boring monster with no motivation that he is today, but at this point he was still somewhat interesting, and willing to play around with little toy trains, and not just beat a child to death with a crowbar. So I’m down with seeing the last gasp of fun Joker, especially in such an insane issue.

“Laugh, Killer, Laugh!” was written by Doug Moench, penciled by Gene Colan, inked by Bob Smith, colored by Adrienne Roy, and lettered by Ben Oda, 1983.

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Lifetime of Simpsons

S18 E21 – 24 Minutes

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Well, we’ve made it through another week of Lifetime of Simpsons, and it looks like we get to end on a real weird note. Looks like 24 was super popular at the time of this episode, so we get this little oddball piece of corporate synergy. That’s right, a whole episode-long parody of 24. This is a complicated one, so let’s get to it.

We start off with a “Previously on the Simpsons” gag that established Principal Skinner setting up a high-tech branch of the hall monitors called the CTU, or Counter Truancy Unit. It’s all the lame kids in school working with Skinner to rat on their classmates, and we has Lisa running the agents in the field, Skinner being in charge, Milhouse being a field operative, and Martin, Database, and a few other geeks being miscellaneous techs.

And while all of this is being established we learn that Homer is at the Nuclear Plant, and is being tasked with removing a tub of yoghurt that’s been in the fridge for years, and has become a biological weapon. We also see that Bart has been arrested by the CTU, and Skinner is trying to break him down. Oh, and Marge has realized that there’s a school bake sale that afternoon, and has to quickly cook up a raisin bunt cake and deliver it.

So now that we have all of the plates spinning, let’s actually see how it’s all going to shake out. And it all starts with Homer trying to return the yoghurt to the Kwik-E-Mart. And Apu wants no part of it. But while Homer and Apu are squabbling over the horrible smell we see Jimbo, Dolph, and Kearney wander into the Kwik-E-Mart and find the yoghurt. Apparently Milhouse has been stalking the bullies, and is able to spy on them stealing the yoghurt, which is obviously more than a little suspicious.

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Milhouse is then ordered to follow the bullies, and figure out what they’re doing with the yoghurt. Unfortunately he’s found out almost immediately when Homer makes a big deal about seeing Milhouse, drawing the bullies ire. So they beat up Homer and Milhouse, and toss them in a Dumpster, which they then push down a hill, taking the two on a mystical voyage. Oh, and Marge is baking a cake, but ran out of raisins.

However, this does leave the CTU without an agent to follow the bullies. Which leads Lisa to realize that they only have one hope left. Bart. So they pull Bart out of detention, and start trying to convince him to help them. But he has some demands, namely that he gets immunity for all previous infractions and Principal Skinner has to teach him a new swear word. And after some consternation Skinner decides to go with it, and puts Bart into the field.

Which is a good call, because Bart quickly realizes with the available information that the bullies are clearly going to attack the bake sale, probably with a stink bomb. So Bart heads off to find the stink bomb while we start popping into other stories quickly. We see that Marge had to hospitalize Helen Lovejoy from a fight over raisins, that Homer and Milhouse are still carting around in the Dumpster, and that the bullies have weaponized the yogurt, and are testing it on Ralph.

But when they were testing on Ralph it turned out that Bart was watching from a cellar window. He now knows what’s going on, and calls Lisa to fill her in. But this is when we learn that Jimbo and the bullies have a mole on the inside. Martin. He’s apparently working for the bullies, and he tells them that the CTU are on his trail. So they flee from Jimbo’s basement, right as Bart is breaking in. He narrowly misses them, but was able to free Ralph. So Bart calls in his lack of progress, and his call ends up getting scrambled with Jack Bauer’s, and obviously has to prank call him for a bit.

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Hey, how’s everyone else doing? Well, Marge realizes that she’s in a rush, so she cranks the oven up way too high, and ends up ruining the cake, turning it into a charred husk that she just slathers with pink frosting. Homer and Milhouse are still stuck in their Dumpster, until they reach Moe’s. Unfortunately Moe is busy performing dentistry on himself, so Homer and Milhouse decide to go to the bake sale.

Meanwhile, the bake sale is getting ready to begin, and they have no idea what to do about it. Turns out Martin has found the stink bomb, which is in some sort of ventilation room, but since he’s the mole he just ignores it and throws everyone off the trail. So, everyone’s at the bake sale now, and it’s getting ready to begin. Homer and Milhouse come strolling in, the bullies have dropped off the bomb, Marge has her horrible cake, and Bart has returned to stop the bullies.

However, when the bullies are installing the bomb in the ventilation room they get an unexpected visitor. Willie comes strolling in, and ends up getting in a fight with the bullies, setting off a fire alarm in the process. This gets sent to CTU, and Martin awkwardly volunteers to go check it out. Which gets Lisa pretty suspicious. Bart also gets suspicious when he starts following Martin and notice Nelson just let him pass without harassing him.

This leads Bart to start torturing information from Nelson by putting a trash can on his head and banging it around. Nelson spills that Martin is working for the bullies, but before he learns where the bomb is Bart gets knocked out by Martin. He’s then dragged to the ventilation room where he’s tied up with Willie, waiting for the bomb to go off. So things aren’t looking good, until Bart’s able to use his phone to take a picture of the bomb and send it to Lisa.

Lisa then realizes that there’s only one way to stop the bomb, which is to destroy it with water. And it just so happens that there’s some sort of hot dog water valve in this room, which they trigger, despite the fact that that will probably drown Bart and Willie. Oh, and Martin is guilty about betraying the CTU, and gives himself a wedgie, which is shot like he hung himself. Neat.

Anyway, Bart and Willie are starting to drown in the ventilation room, when Bart realizes that there’s a window in the room that leads into the gymnasium where the bake sale is going on. So Bart floats to the window and gets Sideshow Mel’s attention. Everyone then freaks out, and Marge uses her horrible cake to break the glass, saving Willie and Bart. Lisa is then able to disarm the bomb, and the day is saved. Until Jack Bauer and the actual CTU show up to arrest Bart for prank calling him.

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Okay, so this episode is gimmicky as hell, but it’s a whole lot of fun. I used to really enjoy 24 back in the day, and this is a pretty spot-on parody of that show. The ridiculously over the top drama, the multiple storylines switching back and forth seemingly at random, the stylized cinematography, the pro-torture stance, the mole, just about everything is completely spot on. This was obviously a very timely and topical episode, that maybe doesn’t hold up as well as other more classic episodes that have a timeless quality about them, but this is a pretty fun episode on the whole. I don’t even really have anything else to say about it, there’s not a lot of depth to it, it’s just a silly little parody that works well.

Take Away: Don’t prank call pseudo-fascist government agencies.

“24 Minutes” was written by Ian Maxtone-Graham and Billy Kimball and directed by Raymond S Persi, 2007.

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