Double Agent (Teen Titans: The Judas Contract review)

Animated comic book movies have been around for decades at this point, but I think it’s high time we recognize the efforts of one studio in particular who has consistently show up to play ball.

 

Teen Titans: The Judas Contract (2017)

Cast: Stuart Allan, Jake T. Austin, Taissa Farmiga, Sean Maher, Christina Ricci, Brandon Soo Hoo, Kari Wahlgren, Miguel Ferrer
Director: Sam Liu
re-released on blu-ray April 18, 2017
******** 8/10

IMDB: 7.0
Rotten Tomatoes: 80%, Audience Score 71%
The Guardian: n/a

I’ve written about Sam Liu before. He also directed the Batman: The Killing Joke movie which I reviewed last summer, so in order to save some time, I’m going to dive right into the plot summary and then tell you what I think about this most recent DC original animated film.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Five years ago, the original Teen Titans (consisting of Dick Grayson as Robin, Speedy, Kid Flash, Beast Boyand Bumblebee) rescue Princess Starfire of planet Tamaran from her captors sent by her evil older sister Blackfire who had staged a coup and forcibly took the throne. As she is no longer able to return to her world, the Titans offer her a home on Earth as one of them.

In the present, Dick Grayson (now called Nightwing) rejoins the Teen Titans to track down a terrorist cult led by Brother Blood who plans on capturing the team to absorb each of their unique abilities with a machine that he has tested on Jericho (whom his assistant and lover Mother Mayhem quickly shoots afterwards). Brother Blood hires the mercenary Deathstroke to deliver the Titans to him, which he obliges to do for both the money and get revenge on Damian Wayne for foiling his evil plans a few years ago and replacing him as Ra’s al Ghul’s heir before Damian turned against the League of Assassins. Deathstroke monitors the Titans through his double agent Terra, who joined the team a year prior and whom he rescued after her parents turned their whole village against her and tortured her. When Damian grows suspicious of Terra’s behavior and starts tracking her, he is captured by her and Deathstroke, thus revealing her as a spy to Damian.

Terra acts cold and distant towards the otheTitans despite their welcoming attitude, but eventually warms up to them. During the night celebrating her one-year anniversary with the Titans, she shares a tender moment with Beast Boy and kisses him. The next day, Deathstroke kidnaps Blue Beetle at the soup kitchen he works at, Beast Boy at a convention where he thought he would do a podcast with filmmaker Kevin Smith, and Starfire at the apartment shared by her and Nightwing. Dick discovers what happened to the otheTitans and is attacked by Deathstroke. He manages to escape by faking his own death, while Terra captures Raven in Titans‘ Tower.

Deathstroke and Terra bring the Titans to Brother Blood, but since the machine cannot operate properly without a fifth Titan (as Slade had failed to capture Nightwing), Slade hesitantly offers him Terra instead. Brother Blood starts draining the Titans of their powers and ascends to godlike status, but they are rescued by Nightwing. Nightwing and Robin fight Deathstroke, while the rest take on Brother Blood, who has absorbed all of their powers. The two villains are stopped by the intervention of Terra, who is thoroughly hurt and enraged at Slade for his betrayal. Brother Blood is depowered by Raven unleashing her inner fury as a demon and killed by Mother Mayhem, while Deathstroke is buried underneath multiple rocks thrown by Terra. Too ashamed to face her former allies after betraying their trust, Terra decides to bring down the entire area. Beast Boy attempts to assist Terra in escaping the crumbling fortress, but Terra pushes him back and is buried underneath multiple layers of rubble. Beast Boy digs her up, and she dies in his arms.

In the epilogue, Beast Boy goes on Kevin Smith’s podcast and talks about the Titans with the host. He mentions that the team has a “wonderful new member” and that he will always miss Terra.

In a post-credits scene, Jericho is shown to have survived the bullet Mother Mayhem shot at him earlier.

I’ll just come right out and say that this movie is refreshing to watch. There are complex adult relationships portrayed on the screen, some well placed profanity, and while the violence doesn’t overwhelm, it is decidedly more graphic then your average PG-13 fare. Featuring an ensemble cast, and then spending time with each character was a wise movie on the part of DC, because each of characters is developed in such a way that they become more compelling then any live-action counterparts we’ve seen thus far.

Starfire, Beast Boy, Blue Beetle, and Deathstroke all have great arcs, and it’s very satisfying to watch Terra meet her end as the revealed Judas of the team.

Pros: The animation, pacing, and storytelling are all top-notch, but as already mentioned, the relationships between characters, especially the romantic ones, are fascinating to watch. The Teens are all so dramatic and appealing to watch.

Cons: There is a decent amount of filler at the beginning of the film, with previous Titans on a mission and the meeting of Starfire. This flashback and the one of Terra’s home life seem out of place and very uncomfortable to watch, especially with the Deathstroke seduction scene. Also, Terra turns too quickly.

Runtime: 1 hour 24 minutes

Points of Interest: Adapted from a Teen Titans series from the 1980s, this story has also been adapted for the Teen Titans animated series of the early 2000s. Beast Boy appears on a podcast with Kevin Smith in the movie, in real life Kevin Smith is a huge comics fan, and has a particular affinity for Batman.

I think that overall the plot with Brother Blood, the contract with Deathstroke, and the hidden mole of Terra gave the movie the steam it needed to make it around the block. It should be celebrated for it’s adventurous and adult themes, even if Deathstroke and Terra have be really weird personal relationship in the background. The leadership tactics of Star Fire, versus old hat exercises from Nightwing.

theories Summarized

With over twenty movies in their catalogue at this point, DC has done an excellent job of adapting some of their best stories for home release, and this Teen Titans story is one of the better ones. Yes you can see a lot of the plot twists from a mile away, but it does such a good job of getting you there, that I think the journey really is the most important part in this case.

Speaking of twists, this week on Watch Culture, Andre and I give a recommendation on 2011’s Source Code, and I bet you’ll enjoy it. That said, I’m out of theories for now.

Tim!

Why Did Batman Cross The Road? Because We Were Sick of His Clucking (The LEGO Batman Movie review)

Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na nah. Just kidding. It’s like a 1000x yeah instead.

 

The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)

Cast: Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Zach Galifanakis, Jenny Slate
Director: Chris McKay
re-released on blu-ray June 13, 2017
********** 10/10

IMDB: 7.4
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%, Audience Score 81%
The Guardian: ****/*****

Chris McKay also know as Chris Taylor, is an American director and animator of film and television. Best known for his work directing and editing the shows Robot Chicken and Moral Orel, The LEGO Batman Movie is his first film. He is also set to direct a live-action Nightwing movie which has yet to be scheduled.

Having spent most of his early career involved in video production, McKay learned about editing and eventually landed an editing job with ShadowMachine, which allowed him the opportunity to work on what would become the hugely successful Robot Chicken stop motion animated sketch comedy show. Which led him to help co-direct animation for The Lego Movie and giving him the opportunity to direct the film of today’s focus.

A little flavour on the film

Taken from Wikipedia and edited down –

The Joker (Zach Galifanakis) has plans to destroy the city, then Batman (Will Arnett) hurts his arch-rival’s feelings by telling him he is not as important in his life as he thinks he is, leading Joker to seek the ultimate revenge on him.

During the city’s winter gala, which also celebrates the city’s new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), Bruce Wayne falls head over heels, only to be infuriated by Barbara’s plans to restructure the police to function without the need of Batman. Joker then crashes the party with all of Batman’s rogues gallery, and oddly enough surrenders, with the exception of Harley Quinn (Jenny Slate), who disappears during the confusion.

Suspicions now raised, Batman plans to steal Superman’s Phantom Zone Projector, a portal to a prison housing some of the most dangerous villains in the Lego multiverse.  Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) intervenes and involves Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), whom Bruce unwittingly adopted as his ward during the gala. After the heist, the pair break into Arkham Asylum and send Joker to the Phantom Zone, but Barbara locks up Batman and Robin for their reckless actions.

Harley steals back the project and frees Joker, with all the Phantom Zone villains in tow. Barbara has a change of heart realizing what has happened. She frees Batman and Robin, and along with a suited up Alfred, the four of them team up to stop Joker. When they meet one-on-one again, Joker confronts Batman, stating they are arch-rivals, but Batman baulks at it and Joker zaps him with the projector. In the Phantom Zone, Batman accepts that even he needs help, and makes a deal with the Zone’s gatekeeper, Phyllis (Ellie Kemper), to retrieve the villains so that he can stop the destruction of Gotham.

Joker intends to blow up the city’s Energy Facility, forcing the thin floor of the city apart and be destroyed, and so Batman assigns Barbara a Batgirl costume, and recruits the other villains Joker has left behind. It’s too little too late, and the bomb rips the city apart. Knowing this was his fault, Batman reluctantly convinces Joker that he is the true reason for being the hero he is, before they, their friends and allies, and the city’s inhabitants, chain-link themselves together and pull the plates back together, saving the city.

Phyllis decides that Batman can remain after seeing how much he had changed in order to save everyone. Batman then allows Joker and the rest of his rogues gallery to temporarily escape, with the confidence that whenever they return, they will be no match for his new alliance with Robin, Batgirl, and Alfred.

Now, what the synopsis I have provided doesn’t tell you is how self-referential and hilarious this movie is to experience.

It is at-once a biting satire of previous Batman franchise outings, teasing the ever-popular use of Bruce Wayne’s backstory as plot motivation, as well as directly addressing the eternal dance between The Joker and The Batman. And yeah, it’s great that The Batman wants to fight around, but The Joker wants him to commit to him as an arch-villain. And rightfully so, they’ve only been at it for over seventy years!

The zaniness of Lego also fits well with Batman’s wonderfully odd and sometimes embarrassing tacky history of stories, costumes and villains. Think Disco Batman, Eraser and Clock King. And yes, you get to see King Tut, Polka Dot Man and Egghead make appearances too.

Pros: It is surprisingly sophisticated in it’s exposure of Batman, how pop culture has appropriated him, and core issues we’ve all been thinking about for what seems like decades. Top it off with a smart bow, riddled with fun for kids, and this is a movie not to be taken for granted. Michael Cera is heartwarming as Robin.

Cons: It does become a bit difficult to swallow all of the bricks towards the end, surprisingly enough because the story works so well to disengage us from the kitsch of the format it’s presented in. And the happy Bat family moment feels a bit shoehorned.

Runtime: 1 hour 44 minutes

Points of Interest: In a blink and you’ll miss it moment, Batman references the 1989 movie when he says  “You want to get nuts? Let’s get nuts!” to the Joker. Billy Dee Williams voices Two-Face for the movie. He also portrayed Harvey Dent in the 1989 movie, but never got to play Two-Face in the third movie because Joel Schumacher recast Dent with Tommy Lee Jones.

I cannot say enough good things about this movie. It is so reinvigorating to see DC poke fun at The Batman for once. Acknowledging all of the missteps over the past few years, *cough* Suicide Squad, Batman V Superman, and Man of Steel *cough* it’s great for them to realize that Batman is their best character, but that people are sick of seeing the same old Bruce Wayne.

The LEGO Batman Movie gives the people something to look forward to. It’s fun, interesting, and even humanizes the Bat. Go Will Arnett go.

theories Summarized

Maybe it’s my fine art background or maybe it’s simply my love deconstructing and reconnecting the LEGO assemblages I made as a young boy, but this is exactly what postmodernism should have been doing with Batman in the 1990s, not making him a goof with big nipples, but a caricature worthy of dissection and primed for exploration.

That said, you should also check out this cool vid we did for episode three of Watch Culture!

Out of theories for now creative cuties, tune in tomorrow for some wisdom. Same Bat time, same Bat channel.

Tim!

For The Lolz (Paramore, After Laughter review)

A friend of mine once told me that the kinds of music you prefer to listen to can tell you a lot about your personality, maturity and proclivities.

Not to mention all of the hundreds of articles and quizzes out there which claim to predict your personality based on how you answer certain questions. For instance, someone who listens to classical music would be typified as smart, hip hop fans are extroverts, and punk rockers are intense, energetic, and low on empathy.

Here’s an example, for the lolz.

 

Paramore – After Laughter

released May 12, 2017
******** 8/10

Paramore are an American rock band. Led by vocalist Hayley Williams, guitarist Taylor York, and drummer Zac Farro, they have seen more than their fair share of lineup changes over a thirteen year career. Have released five studio albums to-date, After Laughter is their most 80’s influenced and pop rock styled recording. Consider their greatest single Ain’t It Fun – which was released with the fourth album, 2013’s Paramore.

That track was the single greatest predecessor for all of the fun Paramore are having on this latest album.

So what does it sound like you ask? Well, it’s a combination of pop, emo pop, pop rock, alternative rock, and indie rock. So according to that personality test, it means that Paramore are outgoing and nervous, creative and curious, but have low self-esteem.

Apparently this test is working out for me because I would have to agree with all of that. This is a very upbeat and creative album, exploring a ton of different topics includes the oft ignored arenas of mental health and suicide. It’s a more mature vibe and different then what we’ve seen from Paramore on previous outtings, with Hard Times exemplifying the high energy and shift into synth and the odd. Further demonstrated by Rose-Coloured Boy, the track has a pop music tonality, with Williams showcasing her chops to keep the tempo up, but if you listen to the lyrics she is coming from a place of depression and anxiety. It’s chilling really.

Told You So continues in the same fashion, with a sobering outlook on the future and no expectations for more from life. It’s almost as if the bard are using pop music as a vehicle to showcase the challenges in pretending to be happy all the time, when the internal battle is far more difficult and filled with disparaging thoughts.

Forgiveness, Fake Happy, and 26 all channel 1980s movie soundtracks like something that Blondie would have featured in or better yet, Madonna. Before she really went grunge in the 1990s. Forgiveness in particular is quite powerful as a ballad, and easily one of the albums best, especially when paired with Pool, which I think sandwiches that section of the record quite well.

This album really does mark a shift for the band and while the ska and reggae towards the end of the record seemingly come from no where in Caught In The Middle, it’s fucking brilliant. Reminding me of early No Doubt and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

 

Pros: Moving away from their grunge-rock ways was a ballsy move from Paramore, but if anybody has the vocal range to play in the 1980s, its Hayley Williams. And while Idle Worship tells us they might not like themselves anymore, I still think they’re pretty damn cool. *Hugs*

Cons: I don’t really know where No Friend fits in this album, it’s kind of an odd duck, black sheep and red mark on an otherwise perfectly tuned effort. Also kind of slow? And ominous?

Runtime: 43 minutes

Points of Interest: After Laughter marks the return of former drummer Zac Farro to the band, as he recorded drums for the album and officially returned in February 2017 as a full member. Hard Times is the first single and Told You So is the second single.

I’ll admit I didn’t really pay attention to Paramore much when I was younger, which is odd given that they cite certain bands which I personally like as influences – Fall Out Boy, Blink-182, Death Cab for Cutie, Jimmy Eat World, Thrice and New Found Glory. Plus Hayley Williams takes personal inspiration from the  likes of the Ramones, Blondie and The Cure. For realz. I think John from ARTV said it best by declaring this an album that doesn’t sound like Paramore, but which is a good album nonetheless.

theories Summarized

Paramore are pop punk for the 21st century. They do all of the things that punk music are supposed to do, rhythm, high energy and tackling social issues, while having the fun, heart, and catchiness of pop music. That they’ve been able to transition into other areas of pop music while keeping the messages alive demonstrate their character and willingness to make meaningful music. The kind that makes you laugh heartily.

Tim!

Sweet Stardust of a Thriller, Boy (The Weeknd, Starboy review)

The synthesizer seems to be back in full force ladies and gentlemen. That desire for quality samples, lossless file compression and physical models seems to be something that most if not all top shelf pop music trend setters are using right now.

But for why?

The Weeknd – Starboy
released November 25, 2016
******* 7/10

starboy

Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, known professionally as The Weeknd, is a Canadian singer, songwriter, and record producer. The Weeknd got his start by anonymously uploading several songs to YouTube under the pseudonym “The Weeknd,” of all things. At that time he had released three nine-track mixtapes throughout 2011: House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence. Which surprisingly enough to many critics at the time, were received quite well. In 2012 he decided to release a compilation album known as Trilogy, effectively the remastered mixtapes he had released before but with three additional tracks and totally thirty songs alotogether. It was released under Republic Records and his own label XO.

In 2013 he released his first studio-length album Kiss Land, which featured the singles Kiss Land and Live For. But it was his second album, Beauty Behind the Madness that really charted his success. This is where Earned It, The Hills, and Can’t Feel My Face factor in. Fun fact, these songs made him the first artist to simultaneously hold the top three spots of the Billboard Hot R&B Songs chart. The Weeknd has also won two Grammy’s and been nominated for an Academy Award.

Oh, and did I mention that he’s Canadian? Yeah Canadian content!

But what about Starboy? Well, look what you’ve done… I’m a motherfuckin’ starboy.

This record starts off quite strong, Starboy, Party Monster, and False Alarm in particular hold your attention with their commitment to the beats The Weeknd and his team of production engineers are famous for. After all, we know he isn’t doing this all on his lonesome. Which reminds me, I think that Stargirl might be the most fascinating interlude/intermission I’ve heard in years. Lana Del Rey is excellent as the female foil to The Weeknd, and she manages enough tension to keep the pace of the record, at least for a little while.

Now let’s consider the album as a whole for a moment. I have this rather wild theory that The Weeknd might not have had as much time with this project as he would have liked. He’s known for his ability to construct strong narrative levelled projects, I’m looking at you Trilogy.

And while Starboy (the album, not the song) is mostly about The Weeknd’s relationship with a woman, that message doesn’t easily come through. The collaboration with Kendrick Lamar on Sidewalks for instance, is kinda cool, but feels out of place, if I’m being really honest. Also am I crazy for hearing Michael Jackson AND David Bowie when I listen to his voice long enough?

Probably not, because The Weeknd is more than capable of floating between pop, rap, R&B, disco and electronica. Hell, he can even do 1980s pop justice. Maybe that’s where the deceased pop stars come in…

And while The Weeknd has en endearingly dark and uniquely hedonistic voice in the realm of music, it can be a bit much to stomach his lyrics against those typical pop structures. That, and as I mentioned already, the narrative doesn’t feel as tight on this album. Abel Makkonen Tesfaye is more than capable of being a motherfuckin’ starboy and he knows it, but this album isn’t him at his best.

 

 

 

I have this theory that analog synthesizers went out and digital synthesizers came in because they were cheaper, but nowadays that isn’t really a motivating factor for musicians.

However, the variety of sounds that digital synth offers feels unrivalled in many cases. And when an artist is capable of spreading their music talent across several genres, employing synthesizers to craft that sounds seems like a natural fit. The Weeknd gets this, and when he spends his time on both production and telling a strong story, it makes all the difference. Starboy might not be the greatest, but The Weeknd sure is a star boy.

Tim!

 

11 Ways People Die Before Death (Cross Talk Ep. 9)

Death is a difficult thing to write about, I think. After all, I’m still alive and so I have no life experience (death experience?) with this particular topic. Films have addressed death since their inception in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that more honest portrayals of death started to come to light. Much like sex, drugs, and rock n ‘roll, filmmakers have slowly opened up and arts and culture have become more accepting of these harder to digest themes.

For instance, one of my favourite movies about death is The Fault In Our Stars, which is full of love and beauty, but is also a very real in its depiction of the nearness to death that the two leads are experiencing.

But when we record an episode of Cross Talk, we want to present a nuanced view of whatever topic we set out sights on. So why would we treat death any differently. We wouldn’t, is the answer – because we think using our brains is important.

you-brain-is

With that made clear, we are going to explore a lot of great examples of the nature of death, in film on this episode nine of Cross Talk. You want to know more, dear readers? Well how about I lay it out for you?

We’re going to share an example of a character that can’t die, but not for an very obvious reason, associations of death and greed, an animated movie death that changed a franchise, whether we are really alive, dead or somewhere in between, if death is as unique as life is, and two movies that explore the idea of what we might do if knew we couldn’t die OR if we knew when we were going to die.

Just a quick disclaimer, Singh won’t be present for this episode, but we do give him a shout out, so please stay tuned for his next appearance; and as always, I’ve included a direct link to the full video for you here, but because we have the ability to embed vidoes you can click through here. After all, wouldn’t want you to waste any precious life overexerting yourself watching episode nine of Cross Talk!

I’m out of theories for now, but please check back tomorrow for an album review that is full of lemonade and bae. It’s a heart breaker for sure. Please comment, subscribe, and share this with friends. We want to hear your feedback!

Tim!