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Sunday, January 27, 2019

BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES; SEASON 1 (EPISODES 15-21)

I'm halfway done covering the first season of "Batman: The Animated Series", so let's carry on by looking at episodes 15 and 21 in this review.

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Catwoman finally crosses Batman's path in this two-part episode! After Batman meets Catwoman for the first time during a chase on the rooftops for stealing a diamond necklace; Bruce Wayne and Catwoman's alter-ego Selina Kyle meet at an Animal Rights Celebrity Auction, by outbidding the other women for a date with Bruce. She only bided for the cause but decides to date Bruce anyway. Their date, however, gets postponed when Selina discovers that a resort is going to be built over a mountain lion preserve that she purchased by a rich tycoon. Both Bruce and Selina find something suspicious about the resort being built practically in the middle of nowhere and investigate as Batman and Catwoman, where they discover that it's actually a front for a terrorist organization head by Red Claw who plans to hold Gotham City hostage for ransom.

The number one element that makes this episode work is the relationship between Batman and Catwoman, as well as how the show adapts the character, which I feel is important to any episode that involves these two. Catwoman's design is loosely based off of Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman in "Batman Returns" in order for Warner Brothers to capitalize on the film (the same way how the Penguin was made to loosely resemble Danny Devito's Penguin), and though there are indeed a few similarities between both versions of the character's appearances, there's still enough alterations to her design here for her to stand out on her own. For example, Pfeiffer's Catwoman had stitches across her suit that makes her appear monstrous while at the same time as beautiful as "The Bride of Frankenstein"; while the animated series version of Catwoman doesn't. Her suit is also very toned down in terms of looking as tight and sexy as Pfeiffer's suit given the show's target audience. Respectfully you can say that she's simply just a toned version of Pfeiffer's Catwoman in terms of her design, but she still appears to look both strong and seductive in her appearance which is two of the essential characteristics that we know the character for whether she's evil or neutral.

These characteristics, of course, are put into action as well, rather than her just looking it, because she appears to be just as physically fit as Batman is, and is shown to be flirting with him multiple times in the episode. The highlight of the episode in both action and the interaction between Batman and Catwoman is when they first meet. Aside from it being fast and exciting, as the two show off some of their trademark styles and characteristics, what I find so amusing is when they first find themselves interested in each other. Catwoman is impressed as opposed to being shocked that there's another man in a tight and dark outfit that’s as strong, quick, and slick as she is; while Batman finds her as equally amusing. And as the episode moves forward their connection becomes more and more interesting and compelling, where they go from fighting against each other to working together and using their different talents. Unfortunately what sets the two apart is that they're both working on opposite sides of the law where their feelings regarding that barrier between them are handled in a subtle and mature way, especially when Batman figures out that Catwoman is Selina (even though it’s a bit jarring of how he figures it out).

While I'm on the topic of her alter-ego, her relationship with Bruce is just as amusing. I admire how Bruce (before he later finds out who she is) finds her to be just as fascinating. When he first sees her apart from looking beautiful, he's more amazed how this woman who he's never seen or heard of before is paying a large sum of money that's more for the cause instead of him, and just brushes him off, when this woman could've easily been just an ordinary lovely gold-digger that he would usually date. Because of her differences from the other women he's dated, he starts to go after her, which she agrees to even though she's not fully interested in him. As we see the two date, we see a change for each character. Bruce goes from acting humorously nervous around her, to starting to feel comfortable to the point where he doesn't have to pretend to be his usual rich playboy self; while Selina feels reluctant towards him since she's in love with Batman, to eventually warming up to him for how much he cares and respects her. It's the kind of romance that only takes two days, but their connection is both strong and believable given their short amount of time.

If I had any issues with Catwoman's portrayal in the episode, I will say that I wish more depth was given to her character. All we're pretty much given is that she's a rich animal rights activist, and dresses up like a cat at night to rob jewelry. Comparing her to the other origins that other villains and characters had on the show, she gets the same lack of treatment to an origins story as the Penguin (probably since they're both tied to "Batman Returns" and weren't allowed to really flesh them out because of the film's recent release). I would love to know why she is so obsessed with felines, and what motivated her to wear a catsuit and do crimes. There just seems to be a big piece of the puzzle missing, which results with us only getting half of her character instead of the whole package deal. With that said, I still find her to be intriguing and emotionally engaging enough to overlook her missing origins story, that's carried greatly through her romance with Batman/Bruce Wayne,  and Adrienne Barbeau voice acting performance where she plays both identities of the character purrffecctly.

After all, at least the episode didn't make her as boring and confusing as the episode's main villain Red Claw. As tough and intimidating as she appears nothing about her in terms of character stands out. She's just a dead cold and muscular leader of a terrorist organization from a communist foreign country. It sounds cool, but when comparing her to the previous villains she's just very dull. Her appearance looks like a rejected character design from an 80s Saturday Morning cartoon-like "G.I. Joe", and her personality is boringly lifeless. Her overall plan doesn't make much sense either. She purchases the land to temporarily build a base before destroying it and plans to release a deadly virus on Gotham City for money, but then just decides to use it on Batman and Catwoman and uses a fake virus instead? Why does she want to waste a deadly virus that can contaminate an entire city on two vigilantes? Why bother stealing the virus, if she can create a fake one? Why not create something of her own to threaten Gotham City? Why just threaten a local city for a million dollars, as opposed to an important part of the country? What exactly does she plan to do with the money? Does she just constantly threaten cities for money, or does she have something much bigger planned? It would seem like something that The Joker would do for how senseless the whole scheme is.

The only reason why this plan and villain exists is as a tool for the majority of the action that takes place in the episode, and to have Batman and Catwoman settle their differences, as opposed to just having a two-part episode strictly based on their relationship where we learn about Catwoman's origins, which overall makes it feel very drawn-out since the story we have is not worthy enough for it to have two parts. From an action stand-point this episode throws nearly every possibility there is. You have car chases, train chases, roof-top chases, scenes of them using stealth, Batman using his methods of intimidation, Catwoman using her gadgets and weapons, Batman flying in the air on his bat-glider, hand-to-hand combat, giant explosions, the climax being held at the terrorist compound, it's just a non-stop roller coaster of action with a love story in the center of it. I was quite amazed and entertained how fully action-packed this episode is. There are some nitpicks that I have with the action that is a little weird and far-fetched ironically in the first scene of the episode like Batman being knocked-out by an unbelievably large stack of trash cans, and Catwoman's pet cat being able to see hidden lasers for reasons. I'll even admit that the animation can be very clunky at times, for having noticeable continuity errors, stiff movements, awkward reactions, and coloring that seems a bit off. But despite these flaws, I wasn't as bothered by them compared to how other people felt about those elements. I was still amazed and sucked in by its action, from the designs, pacing, music, and writing.

OVERALL THOUGHTS

It's easy to see why this episode isn't one of the popular ones due to Catwoman's lack of backstory, the noticeably clumsy animation, and the bland villain and her confusing motivation that ties everything together, but I don't think it's one of the bad or mediocre ones in the series at all! The relationship that Batman and Catwoman share in both identities is compelling; the non-stop action makes the experience to be an exciting thrill ride; and it carries most of the trademarks that make the series so memorable and both characters so awesome! It's flawed, but not flawed to the point where it isn't fun and intriguing.

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Lloyd Ventrix is a small-time hoodlum who isn't allowed to see his daughter Kimmy because of his life of crime. In order to make himself rich and see his daughter with his wife not seeing him or his daughter knowing who he is, he creates a suit from stolen lab equipment to make himself invisible as he steals from the wealthy, and pretends to be Kimmy's imaginary friend. Batman eventually encounters this invisible crook and tries to figure out the crook's identity while making sure that the family is safe from Lloyd.

This is one of those episodes that gets overlooked by many, probably because this one features an original baddie made for the show that didn't make an appearance outside of it and doesn't feature any of the supporting characters that are seen throughout the show. Most episodes that lack these elements though weren't necessarily bad are either mediocre or not as well remembered when compared to the many other episodes on the show. And after seeing it, I found myself getting many legitimate chills from the opening scene with Kimmy talking to what she suspects to be her imaginary friend, to the very last shot of Batman standing in the darkness.

A large part of that has to do with the animation and the music from Shirley Walker. I know those are usually the key elements that make these episodes so emotionally touching and awesome, but there are certainly plenty of moments where the animation really shines. There are many cool shots of Batman in the shadows as his eyes appear to be sharper than ever, however the most chilling of images and music come from the scenes involving Lloyd when he's invisible, mainly whenever he encounters Kimmy. The designs for her room looks innocent from the colors and cute toys she has, and yet foreboding at the same for how dark and gloomy it is, where the only colors that really stand out are the stolen goods he gives her, the doll, and her nightgown, and hair. And even though you can't see his expression you feel every inch of emotion he's feeling from the voice acting, Kimmy's reactions towards him, and the little things he does (like kicking a can on the street out of frustration). The theme used for Kimmy is also just as chilling and enchanting as the music composed for "Heart of Ice" that just makes these gloomy backgrounds seem more depressing, and the emotions more compelling.

Another cool feature in the animation is the amount of creativity of watching him turn invisible and the evidence regarding his invisibility to create the illusion of Batman fighting against him to make him appear strong and witty for a low-life criminal who just happened to have a device that he stole to aid him. They are actually some of the best and imaginative action sequences that involves Batman fighting another criminal, where they can be suspenseful since Batman is trying to find ways to figure out where he is; exciting such as the climax involving Batman grabbing onto an invisible car as he speeds through Gotham; and even at times leads to some laugh out loud gags involving people's reactions to these fights. There are even some great moments of Batman sneaking around and using his detective skills that further the interest in the story and the criminal he's facing. Plus Kevin Conroy is given some very badass lines and even a cheesy one in the climax that he just manages to make sound so intimidating.

The only big problem I have with the episode (aside from some of the occasional clunky animation that's not an uncommon problem in the series) is the villain. It's not necessarily the villain himself. I mean sure he's not going to be remembered as one of Batman's ultimate foes, but he's certainly by no means a weak foe or an uninteresting character. There's a great understanding for why he's doing all of this, the same way how Bruce would dress-up like a Bat. He wears an invisible as his only means of seeing his daughter and doesn't care about its side-effects for how much he loves and misses her. And since the life of crime is all he knows to make ends meats, he also uses this high tech suit to steal items to make him appear to be rich in hopes that it will win back his ex-wife, which doesn't thus resulting with him to take more drastic measures to be with his daughter. It's a motivation that's twisted but relatable and sentimental. The problem is his design. He's written and played out as a desperate man who wants to be with his daughter, but whenever I have to look at his sinister-looking design (who has red eyes) I have a little trouble sympathizing with him, for how frightening he looks, even when trying to reconnect with his wife. I guess that may have to do with the suit causing him to look and act this way for being toxic, like in the classic Sci-Fi horror "The Invisible Man", but we're never really given enough information on what the exact side-effects are which makes the logic surrounding the dangers of the suit to be quite puzzling.

OVERALL THOUGHTS

This episode falls under the same level good, but not so memorable episodes as "It's Never Too Late". It's beautifully animated, dramatic, atmospheric, solidly acted, has suspenseful action, and contains some good comedy. In many ways I find it to be a better-overlooked episode than "It's Never Too Late" for being more original, and giving Batman more of a reason to connect with the family he's protecting since the criminal is just as much as like him as Mr. Freeze is. If the villain didn't always look so damn demented as the writing would give the whole toxic element of the invisible suit more detail, I would say that this one needs more attention. And it does in many ways, but it's not an overlooked gem that I feel should be considered to be one of the greats.

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A mysterious villain called "The Mad Bomber" is blowing up buildings in Gotham City without leaving a trace, aside from a calling card. Batman recognizes these crimes from a TV Show that he grew up watching as a kid called "The Gray Ghost" that he took big influence from for him to be a crime fighter. However, since he fell asleep as a kid while watching the episode that the crime connects to, and can't find a copy of the show since they were all destroyed in a fire, Batman finds the actor who played the Gray Ghost Simon Trent to get answers.

I'm just going to the jump into the number 1 element that makes this episode so special, and that's the casting of the actor who they hired to voice the Gray Ghost, Adam West! When casting the original actor whose best known for playing the comical and lighthearted version of Batman from the 60s, and has spent most of his career making appearances as the caped crusader, or poking fun at the show he was in, you'd expect him to do the same here. But he doesn't! I honest to god can't think of any moments from him that were funny or meant to be goofy. The character and Adam West's performance is in many ways sympathetic. I mean West really gets to show his acting chops for a serious role, that's not only well written but relates to his career on so many levels. The character of Simon Trent is a washed-up actor who is trying as hard as he possibly can to distant himself from the Gray Ghost character, feeling that he can't find purpose in the character since no one really cares about the show anymore, and that he can never get a break for gaining new and challenging roles for how much audiences know him strictly for the character he played and won't be able to see him in anything outside of it. And while I'm sure West wasn't living in the slums like his character was, his struggle to distance himself from the character that he was best known for portraying for a long period time became a role that he had regretted and loathed.

But just like how Adam West would later grow and accept his role as Batman, the same applies to Simon Trent's story-arc through his relationship with Batman. Seeing how much he influenced Batman, and is needed to help him solve a crime that can destroy the lives of many people without his help, though he doesn't embrace it at first since he's still frustrated with his status as the Gray Ghost, he gradually realizes the purpose of what he left behind as his character and therefore later on accepts it, which flows very well. Him suddenly dressing up as the Gray Ghost towards the climax did seem a bit of nowhere, but given his conversation with Batman prior to that, it does make sense why he decided to aid him. And it's awesome seeing the old Batman team up with (Arguably) the best Batman! In some ways as I watch this team up while Trent finds the purpose to the character's he played, it makes me think of the purpose of the 60s Show for how much it brought Batman to the mainstream which resulted with comic-book writers and film directors to steer the franchise back to its dark and depressing direction that everyone associates the Batman character because of the show's popularity.

It's almost as if that this episode along with West's casting was created as a loving "Thank You" to the 60s Show for help inspiring and launching the franchise to where it is today, that can greatly be shown through Batman's relationship to "The Gray Ghost" character. When Bruce usually thinks about his parents it's usually played out in a traumatizing way, so for a change of gears we finally get flashbacks of him fondly remembering his time with his parents from how he used to watch the show with his father, and getting all excited while watching the show, which legitimately has a warm feeling of nostalgia for the viewer to relate to Bruce's childhood memory that plays out naturally as opposed to being a corny and romanticized portrayal of childhood. And as we're watching him reminisce about the show and his parents, we ourselves along with Trent learn in what ways how the show has helped influenced him to be a crime fighter, which is quite touching and fascinating. I further admire the constant on and off relationship that Batman has with him, as he goes from being disappointed in his hero to admiring his hero for when he finally steps up, that's treated in a way that doesn't feel out of character.

The animation is certainly some of the show's best not just in terms of action, landscapes, and how it captures Batman, but also for the design of the Gray Ghost, and how his show reminiscences classic black and white TV shows and film serials of superheroes, the same way how the show itself calls back to the Fleischer Brothers Superman cartoons. The music itself composed by Carl Johnson also sounds like the type of music that you'd hear in those shows for how old and heroically upbeat it sounds, and I admire how the theme for "The Gray Ghost" is reused in other scenes in different ways to convey the emotions that the characters are feeling. The mystery element of the episode of who "The Mad Bomber" is itself is a captivating mystery that keeps you guessing who it is, until the reveal, who the villain may not be anything special, but the person who voices the character and the subtle hint of trauma attached to this fiend is more than enough to make this reveal stand-out as a swell pay-off.

OVERALL THOUGHTS

The casting of West, Trent's character arc, and the relationship that the characters have are the main ingredients that make the episode so wonderful, but all the other elements surrounding the episode in terms of mystery, action, music, and animation are just as masterful as it pays a wholesome and loving tribute to the old days of superheroes and combine it with the darker take on the modern vigilante. It's one of the best combinations of the two different generations of superheroes that you'll ever see and is one of the best appearances that Adam West has ever made that maturely represents his career as the caped crusader.

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A fortune teller named Nostromos has gained the trust of many of Gotham City's richest citizens including Ethan Clark who is a friend of Bruce Wayne, by saving them from accidents that could mean death to them through his predictions that have come true. Bruce believes that Nostromos is nothing more than a con-man who has staged the accidents himself, and decides to get on the inside by joining the cult of millionaires who follow him and give him a massive amount of money to help them from an economic collapse that he predicted known as the "Great Fall".

I've been able to find good in bad episodes like "The Underdwellers", "The Forgotten", and even in the one that many fans consider to be the worst episode of the series "I've Got Batman in my Basement", but this one I can't think of anything in it worth checking out for comic-book fans, Batman fans, or so much as children for how forgettable and dull it was. If you haven't already noticed, I didn't mention Batman at all when describing the episode's synopsis because Bruce Wayne is the focus, which is kind of neat seeing him try to get himself on the inside as a rich playboy but it isn't all that amusing for the little he does and says. And when we see him as Batman, his presence isn't nearly as stunning as it usually is, and the action that he gets involved in is pretty standard. There's the moment when he throws a Batarang at a crooks leg that seems painful despite showing no blood, and the scene when he's fighting against Nostormos henchman in front of a spotlight looks cool. But they only last for a short period of time where all the other action surrounding it isn't as thrilling or amazing as it would usually be in the series.

Michael Des Barres as the villain Nostormos is entertaining to listen to through his delivery, but it isn't enough to make the villain memorable, interesting, or even all that fun to watch. He's nothing more than a simple con-man who just wants money from people, and how he pulls it off is not as creative or amusing as the show would normally do with villains like him. He was a villain who I knew that Batman could easily defeat for how less of a challenge he is, who has a henchman alongside him that doesn't have any special traits and skills to make him stand-out as a threatening obstacle before getting to the main villain himself. The only memorable thing about Nostormos is his design for how overdone it is to make him stand-out as this evil wizard archetype that looks more silly than it does scary. As for the supporting characters, they don't leave much of an impression either. William Windom as Bruce's friend is just there as a tool for him to meet Nostormos where their friendship doesn't feel as special as say his friendship with Harvey Dent or Selina Kyle. And his daughter Lisa voiced by Heather Locklear seems like a strong and independent character at first for how she too believes that Nostormos is a phony and tries to discover the mystery herself, but she gets kidnapped before she can contribute anything.
  
The animation is some of the shows weakest when compared to the other great episodes. Right from the opening shot with a cruise ship sailing across the ocean, that looks still where the only thing moving is the water underneath it to try create the illusion that it's moving when it clearly isn't, that's then followed by a dull scene of the ship being blown-up and sinking, made me realize that the episode was already in big trouble. Nothing about the animation stands-out for how standard the movement, background, and designs look that all plays a big contribution to why this episode is a bore to watch, where even Shirley Walker's score is just as bland. The worst scene in terms of animation is the silly death-trap that Nostormos sets on Lisa involving a model solar system where she'll be cut by the razor sharp rings of Saturn, that is lacking any suspense since we're never sure how close the planet is gaining on her as they constantly change size (which Bruce Timm himself was very displeased with).

OVERALL THOUGHTS

This episode offers nothing that's new, fascinating, or exciting when compared to any of the previous episodes. It looks boringly standard; the animation quality is weak; the villain and his motivation are dull; the new characters are forgettable; and there's little excitement from Batman and little that he does as Bruce Wayne. You're much better off skipping this episode for how uneventful it is. 

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In this two-part episode, movie star Matt Hagen (Ron Perlman) is addicted to a special kind of face cream with a dangerous and untested chemical called "Renuyu" that can temporarily reconfigure a person's face to hide his true deformed face that was caused by a car accident. In order for Matt to get more of the substance, he's required to do crimes for the creator of the chemical Roland Daggett (Ed Asner) that involve taking down his competitor Bruce Wayne. Hagen starts using the chemical to make his face resemble Wayne's as he attempts to the kill the manager of "Wayne Enterprises" Lucius Fox and steals incriminating records. Lucius survives but is severely wounded resulting with the police searching to arrest Wayne. Upset that a criminal is impersonating him, Batman goes off to spread terror to Daggett's men to find some answers! Meanwhile, Daggett decides to kill Hagen for his botched attempt of killing Fox, and no longer being of use to him. Two of his henchmen grab him when he breaks into the lab to steal more of the Renuyu and force feed it down his throat. Hagen being left for dead wakes up to discover that he is alive but has now been mutated into a shape-shifting monster made of clay. Angered for now having to live the rest of his life as a monster, he goes after Daggett for revenge before he sells the Renuyu to the public.

If you feel like that you've heard this type of story before in the series, it's because that it follows a similar formula to episodes like "Two-Face" and "Heart of Ice". The origin story surrounding the villain is a tragic figure who is dealing with a struggle that's he trying to keep a secret. The villain is a cold-hearted businessman who makes him the way he is. And Batman feels sympathy for the criminal and wants to try to help him. Furthermore, both parts follow the same layout that the episode "Two-Face" had where Part 1 is about the character’s origins story, while Part 2 is when we see him fully become the villain he's best known for as he's out for revenge against the person who wronged him. These similarities may sound like a lazy re-trend of two solid episodes where at this point may seem redundant, but this episode manages to touch on your heartstrings just as powerful as the two episodes that it resembles.

In both parts, the episode carries a very eerie tone that's emotionally haunting through its atmosphere, music, and especially the voice acting as its centered mainly around the character of Matt Hagen, who's a realistic and relatable character regarding his obsession with the Renuyu. He struggles with his addiction the same way how an alcoholic or a junkie would. He's never happy, knows it’s not good for him, but can't quit it because it helps him deal with his pain and give him the strength to move forward even though it's slowly destroying him and making him do extreme things by order for him to get more of the Renuyu as he refuses to listen to the pleas of the people close to him, which is quite ballsy for a kids show to tackle on. And it isn't hinted, downplayed, or played out like a drug PSA; the writers take it very seriously to the point where it's chilling to watch Matt's torment.

When he does turn into Clayface, the emotions surrounding the character get even stronger and more tragic because he's no longer an addict with a face that resembles Lon Chaney's Phantom, he's now a monster who can never be his normal self ever again since he is now the product that he's addicted to, where the only thing keeping him going is revenge on Daggett. This is the first time we're introduced to Bruce Wayne's rival Roland Daggett (originally going to be Max Schreck from "Batman Returns"), and though I can't say he's anything special as a villain, Anser's voice acting excellently gives the character a slimy personality that's very unlikable, much like what John Vernon did for Rubert Throne or Christopher Walken as Max Schrek.

A complaint that I hear from many fans of the show is how part 2 is better than part 1. From an animation stand-point, I can see where they're coming from. The animation in part 1 wasn't bad for its designs, pacing, and movements, but part 2 is definitely more impressive and looks a little bigger when compared to what we've previously seen. That mainly has to do with Clayface for how monstrous his design is, and how much detail and creativity is put to the way he moves, morphs into people and forms weapons in his arms, and seems impenetrable while Batman is fighting him where you feel the impact of every movement he makes for how much effort and time went into animating these bits, that's highly impressive for an animated show aimed for kids. Personally, I don't find the difference in quality to be distracting because there are indeed some great highlights to the animation in the first part like the Batwing sequence, but the criticisms aren't unwarranted.

Now what I don't get in terms of the fan's complaints to the first part is for it being boring! I don't understand why fans feel that way. Is it because we don't see him as Clayface until the end of the first part? The episode Two-Face did the same thing, and I hardly hear anybody being turned-off by the first part. Is the character of Matt Hagen not intriguing enough, if that's the case I 100% percent disagree for how messed up of a person he is that's carried through Perlman's moving performance. To each their own, but I can't grasp why people despise the first act (with the exception of the animation) and yet claim that the second act is incredible.

What heightens the levels of drama in both parts of the episode when we're not with Clayface, is Batman's determination to search for the person who's been impersonating his alter-ego. There's no mystery to it, but to be fair, it's not really being played-up as one. We know that Batman will eventually come out of this struggle fine in the end; however, we're still left with the question of how he will accomplish it. After all, Bruce Wayne is in danger of being imprisoned for his crimes, and if he's locked away he won't be able to protect Gotham, thus causing his vendetta of discovering the identity of the person posing as him to be more engaging. Batman has had plenty of moments of striking fear into the hearts of criminals, but here he comes off as more of a threat because you're not completely sure if he's actually going to kill the thugs that he's threatening if they don't talk, which is quite intense for the near-death situations that Batman puts them in where you feel the weight of their lives being at stake as you listen to Batman's cold and demanding voice delivered effectively by Conroy. Conroy also does just as creepy of a job for when he acts sinister for the scenes when Clayface is impersonating as him.

OVERALL THOUGHTS

Aside from the difference of animation quality in both parts, it’s still one of the greatest episodes from the series. It reuses story elements from other episodes, but makes it feel new and emotionally investing for how the character of Clayface is written and acted, as we have Batman eagerly seeking vengeance on the man who could end his life as a crime fighter, where both stories feel compelling for how much we feel for the characters. The animation may have their differences in both parts, where it truly shines when Matt finally becomes Clayface, but the animation in the first part is nowhere near bad either! This is an episode that brought nothing but goosebumps in both parts for how dark, intense, and mature it is, and is a terrific way to bring the series back up after seeing a very dull episode, and witnessing a two-part episode that wasn't bad but wasn't the greatest where it quite frankly could've worked better as one episode given its very simplistic premise.

I shall review the rest of the episodes from the first season soon.

Friday, January 18, 2019

CANNIBAL! THE MUSICAL

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Trey Parker and Matt Stone are one of the most unique pairs in modern comedy. Their material is sick, raunchy, sadistic, grotesque, offensive, racist, mean, and juvenile to the point where you wonder about their mentality until you realize that underneath all their madness lies genius and wisdom. They use their extremely harsh and wild comedy to create an exaggerated outlook of our reality to tie into their clever commentary on controversial topics such as religion, politics, and racism, as well as trends whether it would involve celebrities, technology, and pop culture; than just using their humor as a cheap way to shock us and make us laugh (not to say that they don't occasionally do that). They're the kind of comedians who don't care what you think and are just going to express their views on current events and touchy subjects through their insane brand of comedy no matter what. It's their honesty and how they use comedy to help prove a point while also coming across as highly entertaining is what makes them such geniuses, which is why their works like "South Park", "The Book of Mormon" and "Team America: World Police" have been praised and celebrated.

Being curious to look back at the early stages of their career; after they made "The Spirit of Christmas: Jesus VS Frosty" that would later lead to a sequel and then a hit TV show, their next project was a live action dark musical comedy.

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As Trey Parker was attending the University of Colorado at Boulder, he made a short trailer for his film class of a dark musical comedy of the infamous prospector of Colorado, Alferd Packer, who supposedly resorted to cannibalism when he and a few other men were snowbound in the high mountains. Though the trailer was a fake, the students were interested in seeing it as a full-length movie, so after raising a budget of $125,000, Trey and Matt began filming their independent project (while still in college) during the weekends with some of the students (as many of them were reported to have flunked their film class) and even some of the professors, as well as Trey's own Father (who plays the judge). The film was distributed from "Troma Entertainment" and changed the title from "Alferd Packer: The Musical" to "Cannibal! The Musical", because Packer isn't a well-known figure outside of the state of Colorado. And when the film was premiered to a theater close to the college, Trey and Matt had their friends organize a fake protest against the movie to help draw attention. The film is mainly considered to be Trey Parker's work since he wrote, directed, produced, and stared in the film, but Matt Stone who was uncredited did act and helped write and produce the movie. When I first heard of the movie, I've only seen the trailer (unknown that it wasn't the real trailer) and saw 3 of the songs from the movie during my Middle School years, and it seemed like a movie that I would enjoy, only I didn't push myself to see it for its low-budget quality. However, now that I'm more familiar with Trey and Matt’s style of comedy, and have taken tons of enjoyment and awe from it, is their early project up there with the works that I have mentioned earlier? Enough (if not many) people feel that way due to the film gaining a bit of a cult following for being adapted to theater and the film getting a 13th anniversary two-disc DVD release, but it isn't widely known as "South Park" and "Book of Mormon". So in spite of its small cult following, is this an underrated treasure from two comedians at an early start in their career that deserves more attention; ON WITH THE REVIEW!

The film (as the title card suggests) is a perfect digital restoration of a lost musical film from 1954 that was upstaged by the classic "Oklahoma!". Taking place in 1883, Alfred Packer played by Trey Parker (who is credited as a play on Packer's alias when he was in hiding Juan Schwartz instead of John Schwartze) is on trial for eating 5 men up in the mountains, where it's most likely that he will be pleaded as guilty. Reporter Polly Pry (Toddy Walters) visits Packer in his jail cell who he claims to her that the events discussed in court happened very differently. Flashing back to 1873 in Bingham Canyon, Utah; a group of miners hears about the discoveries of gold in Breckenridge Colorado, as a few of them go out to find it after finding none in their current location, with Packer as their guide. But it appears that Packer is terrible a navigating, and seems more focused with tracking down his beautiful horse that ran away from him during the middle of their journey than he is with finding gold. Eventually, the men grow tired, insane, and hungry when being stranded out in the middle of nowhere as they are shivering out in the brutal cold, and may have to resort to eating each other in order to survive.

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From the first scene in the movie, I already found myself laughing and being amazed at how a film with a small budget made by college students was put together. Right after when we get a disclaimer explaining that the violence has been edited, the first scene we see is Packer killing and eating people in extreme grotesque ways similar to how a "Friday the 13th" film would play out their death scenes, where the only color that stands out is red as everything else appears to be faded to black and white (like in a Hammer horror movie), as we're treated to some very impressive gore effects and make-up designs for the victims that are inventive and fleshy, if not realistic. I didn't get to the meat of the story yet and already the film looked better than I expected. Afterward the film's look continued to impress me as I was able to see the different towns and outfits that resemble the period that the film is set-in, while still looking a bit exaggerated to the fit the film's comedy. And when we see the characters walk across the mountains on their trip, the locations that they chose and how they filmed it look quite beautiful. Trey even went out of his way to film the trail scenes in the very same courtroom where Packer was tried to give it a bit of authenticity. Now as much as I praise how their efforts for putting the film together from a visual stand-point are, that doesn't mean that the film's low quality doesn't show. The locations are nice, but half of the time I get the impression that they're being filmed at a nature preserve or a ranch, as opposed to being lost in the mountains which takes you a bit out of their struggle for survival since the environment feels local. The gore effects are nicely done, but there are times where you'll feel the manipulation of the effect and see some less impressive ones that are incredibly hokey (like when they are carrying a separate head). And the actors, though all of them are putting their heart and soul into the film, don't appear to be believable enough that they are people from the late 1800s, as some of them are shown to be obviously wearing fake beards.

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However, even though you're constantly aware that this is a low-budget film made by amateurs who received enough money to do more than what the average college student can do with a camera, the film doesn't shut itself away from its low-quality but instead embraces it and uses it to its advantage to create its own style while still being humorously insane the same way that "South Park" does through its cheap animation. And I like that the film isn't constantly mocking itself to the point where you feel that you're watching college students fooling around wasting all this money by having little focus on the story, and just be filled with one gag and song sequence after another, because the film does keep its focus on the story, giving you the impression that Trey and Matt sincerely want to offer a different point-of-view on such an infamous person with a well-structured story where they'll simply work their gags around it. From a humor standpoint, I can't say that this movie is as funny, or shocking and offensive as the stuff that the duo would later create (the film isn’t even infested with as much gore as you'd probably think), but there's still enough laughs to be had. Some of the lines and the delivery from the actors can bring a big chuckle; the visual gags are enjoyable if not die-hard hilarious (with a couple of them being blink and miss), and the pop culture references surprisingly fit the story than they are random and stupid. As the film's tagline would suggest, most of the parodies to pop culture lean more toward "Oklahoma!" and "Friday the 13th" which makes sense given its topic, setting, and that it's intended to be a musical! You get the "Oklahoma!” feel for how the musical scenes set in the old west are shot, sung, and choreographed where there are a few sequences that make fun of scenes from the show, while the stuff involving "Friday the 13th" show over-blown grotesque murders and the killer being unstoppable, as the characters enter a dangerous land where a crazy old man (dubbed by Trey Parker) claims that they are "doomed". And though "South Park" wouldn't become a show in 4 years after the film's release, there are a few of the show's classic jokes and trademarks added into the mix, such as a mock disclaimer, Matt Stone having a similar hairdo like Kyle when removing his hat, and a singing voice heard early in the film that sounds similar to a certain fat big boned racist brat, let alone that the film is satirizing real events in a matter similar to how the show would, thus making this film even more intriguing for how we're seeing Trey and Matt's famous humor at the primitive stage of their career. 

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Considering how anyone who knows their works will know what great songwriters they are for musicals whether it’s on stage, on TV, or for the big screen, their talent is also greatly showcased in this film too! Again just like the story and putting the film together, the music isn't lazily written, actually, I feel that these songs are quite underrated in Trey and Matt's musical library. The first song of the film "Shpadoinkle Day" as Packer rides on his horse, plays out as a charmingly funny satire on the scene when Gordon MacRae rode onto the screen on his horse singing "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" in "Oklahoma!". The song is as upbeat and tuneful as the song it’s parodying, only Trey Parker uses a silly made-up word to describe what kind of day it is as he phones in the charm and corn of this scene and at one point intentionally sings under his breath than belting it out as operatically masculine as MacRae would. The song is sung briefly two more times in the film and they each sound just as fun and cheerful as the first time its sung. Another song that captures the joy of the first song, is "That's All We're Asking For", where the characters on the expedition sing about what they want when they find the gold, that gives good insight to the characters, as Trey upstages them with a beautiful solo of what he desires for his horse, Liane. And much like in "Team America" where we had a sad reprise of the kickass theme song, there's a downbeat reprise of this song as well. There are enough happy songs in the movie that are catchy, but sometimes they'll be happy for the wrong reasons, like the "Hang the Bastard" sequence for instance. The scene is shot and played-out to be as happily gigantic as a musical scene from "Oklahoma!", but the darkness surrounding the sequence are the lyrics where they treat their excitement about watching a person getting hanged as if they are going to an annual party. And as if that a group of town's people expressing complete joy over watching a man slowly die isn't enough, before that scene there's the "Trapper Song" where a trio of fur trappers (their leader's singing voice being obviously dubbed by Trey Parker) sing about their love for killing animals, that's not one of the better songs of the movie for its lack of energy and not being as memorably catchy as the others I've mentioned, but is still entertaining and does get quite nasty just by the lyrics alone. The film does have its slow love ballets too, the best one being "When I Was On Top of You" that Packer sings after losing his horse that's played out as a heartbreaking scene except that the way he sings about his horse sounds as if that his horse was his lover, that contains lyrics with enough innuendos to make it seem humorous for how wrong it sounds. As sentimentally humorous as this love ballet is, the song "This Side Of Me" sung by Polly isn't as funny or touching. It's sung nice, and there is a good gag presented in the scene, however, it's pretty bland and forgettable for how generic it is, and the gag that we do get starts out funny but unfortunately overstays its welcome as everything else surrounding the scene visually is dull to watch. If you had to ask me what my favorite song in the movie is, it's "Let's Build a Snowman" sung by Swan (John Hegel) that's an incredibly catchy, happy, and hilariously corny song that just comes out of nowhere at the worst time. And what makes the scene so funny is everybody's reaction to it. It's just priceless, especially when it's sung a second time. It's a song that I could sing and listen to more times than "Frosty the Snowman" or "Do You Want to Build a Snowman". Apparently, there’s a short deleted song that was filmed for the movie and shown in non-US releases of the film titled “Don’t be Stupid” that involves the prospectors who turned down going on the trip telling the others who are about to head out, to at least wait until spring. It’s a shame that this short song isn’t featured in US releases because it not only contains cleverly funny lyrics but its sung incredibly well too. But at least you can currently find the scene on "YouTube"!

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At the center of the film, you have Trey Parker making his first on-screen debut, proving that he can carry a film without speaking into a mic off-screen. He doesn't look confused on how he should behave, nor appear to be awkwardly shy when acting, he completely throws every single piece of talent and energy that he has for the camera showing that he's confident in the role and the project. The only time he was reported to be shy when filming is when he had to do kissing scenes with Toddy Walters until he, later on, re-shot the scenes after the two dated, where the final product appears to be that he's never felt that way around her off-screen. Through his delivery, movements, and expressions he practically sells the movie for how into it he is, making his presence overall a delight to watch, as he greatly shows all his talents as a performer before becoming famous for it. On top of it, while being funny, he appears to be very charismatic as well. His love for his horse is silly, but he still gives his character enough sentiment for you to still feel bad for him when she runs off and even touched by it as wrong as it may sound (not to mention that the horse had actually thrown Trey off and caused him to fracture his hip during the early stages of shooting). And when he's playing up the corn for scenes that play on the film’s gay musical nature, he still comes across as charming for how likable he makes his character out to be.

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And as I mentioned earlier, though Trey steals the show, everyone else puts the same amount of passion and effort into their character as he does. They're not the greatest bunch of actors, but I can't say I found a performance where the actors appear to be disinterested or half-assing it because they all look committed. With that said, the characters do fall a little short. There are plenty of ones that stand-out, like Swan who is always optimistic; the lady seeking George Noon (Dian Bachar); the goofy bully trappers; and the tribe of Asian Indians known as the Nihonjin tribe (played by Japanese exchange students, and their leader is played by the owner of a local Sushi restaurant). But characters like the Frank the butcher (Jason McHugh); Polly; the aspiring Mormon priest (see there are even references to Mormons in this film too) Shannon Wilson Bell (Ian Hardin); and even Matt Stone, though not bad performances aren't as memorable or that interesting. Actually, most of the characters including the ones that do stand-out are mostly just quirky, there's very few who actually develop and change in the story. And when the supporting characters do change, it's not as intriguing thus not making it feel all that deserving. The only fascinating character in the film is once again the main character, as the others exist to either entertain or move the plot along while staying relevant to the people that they are based on.

OVERALL THOUGHTS

I don’t want to just simply consider this film to be one Trey Parker’s and Matt Stone’s underrated works, but to also be one of their important works as well for showing what ambitious filmmakers they were during their early stages in their career, and how plenty of their material in this film would later be carried on into the films, play, and TV show that make them stand-tall. I won’t go as far to call it to be one of their masterpieces because it isn’t all that funny, the story while well put together isn't too intriguing or deep, the characters (aside from Packer) are nothing too special, and I can see it's low budget quality turning off the majority of casual viewers. But with that said, there’s still plenty of fun to be had from the performances (especially from Trey Parker), the humor, the cheesy yet impressive visuals given their budget, and the songs. And if I had to judge the film on its own if we lived in some alternate universe where Trey and Matt didn’t become famous after the film, it's still highly impressive for what these students did with the tiny budget they had to make a full-length picture where the hard-work and passion certainly does show that in the end creates a legitimately entertaining movie, which I find to be inspiring. If you’re a fan of Trey Parker and Matt Stone and want to see one of their early films in their career when they were just starting out, or if you’re an aspiring filmmaker who’s looking for some inspiration when filming independent film projects, this is a must see! Also be sure to check out the fake trailer that led to the making of this film, because that too (and even if I had to judge it on its own merits) is just as enjoyable and impressive.