'Batman & Harley Quinn' Reunion Overly Juvenile, Smutty

Directed by: Sam Liu; Runtime: 74 minutes
Grade: D

Criticisms are in no short supply for the current state of DC's cinematic universe, but there's one so widespread that it approaches being a running pop-culture joke: that these movies, especially the ones featuring Batman, are exceedingly dark and lack humor. It's such a prevalent issue that reports (true or not) circulated that David Ayer's Suicide Squad -- starring everyone's favorite Joker minion, Harley Quinn -- underwent reshoots to alter the tone and pump more humor into its heavy chaos. Over the years, even pre-Zack Snyder, the versatility of WB's animation department has swooped in to offset this "grimdark" perception, executing more upbeat, comic-book style elements tangled within the Caped Crusader's signature brooding. Thus, Batman and Harley Quinn seems like a sure thing, boasting deliberate levity and unquestionable potential with the involvement of Harley's creator and Batman: The Animated Series co-creator Bruce Timm, which makes it rather shocking to be left thinking, "What the #$&% did I just watch?!", following its juvenile, bewilderingly trivial escapades that fly too far in the other direction.

Pegging down a specific point in the Batman mythos for when Batman and Harley Quinn takes place isn't a straightforward process, and that's primarily because this caper has been designed to exist in its own little self-contained, inessential space. There are some "clues" one can follow to get a grip on it, though. Harley Quinn has recently gotten out of Arkham Asylum on parole -- considering the existence of the Suicide Squad, the release of this murderous, dangerous henchman to the Joker isn't the biggest leap in believability here -- and has been trying to live as normally as possible for a discredited psychologist and ex-rogue. In response to a dangerous plot cultivated by Poison Ivy and deep-cut DC baddie Floronic Man, Batman and Nightwing (aka a grown-up Robin) hunt down Harley Quinn for help due to her close ties with the plant-based villainess. Reluctantly, she teams up with the Dynamic Duo to unearth the details of their plot and prevent the world from being turned into an overgrown disaster area.

Upon the sight of vaguely art deco scenery and familiar wide-eyed and square-jaw characterization, Batman and Harley Quinn gets one revved up for a detour back into the realm of The Animated Series, even more so with the assurance that Bruce Timm's behind the wheel in the story department alongside director Sam Liu. Something quickly feels … off about what's going on, though, beginning with jokes involving Batman's blackmail tactics and leading into blunt sexualization of female heroes and villains in a Hooters-like diner -- SUPERBABES -- and an unexpected carnal rendezvous that seems yanked off someone's fanfiction.net page. The resulting tone attempts to mix the zany, frivolous rhythm of the ‘60s West television series with modern, adult-leaning brashness, eventually even incorporating literal dick and fart jokes into its comedic pursuits. Where side-story comics like "Mad Love" and "Harley & Ivy" naturally entwine silliness and vulgarity with the accepted constraints of their universes, Batman and Harley Quinn clumsily pushes for its blatantly pubescent shenanigans to veer outside those limits, and it doesn't wear that look well.

Expectedly, vets Kevin Conroy and Loren Lester turns in wonderfully grumbly, nostalgic performances as the Caped Crusader and Nightwing, yet they largely take a backseat to the presence of Harley Quinn, whose saccharine nuttiness and sexuality are given a different voice, literally and figuratively, by The Big Bang Theory's Melissa Rauch. Whereas recent comics feature her in an enjoyably wild situation following her release where she owns an apartment building and cracks skulls in roller derby, Batman and Harley Quinn takes a more solemn approach, depicting her as a near-unemployed waitress weighed down, dare I say depressed, by her post-villain lifestyle. Considering her evolution into a Joker-rebuffing antihero in other iterations of the character, this seed of an idea might seem appealing, yet it doesn't communicate well with the inanity of her "hiding in plain sight" at this diner and the deliberate male-gaze exploitation that occurs shortly thereafter. There's always ruffled feathers whenever Harley's voiced by someone new, but Rauch tones down her vocal registry for a familiar, yet grounded take that would've played fine with better material.

Better material this isn't, though. Batman and Harley Quinn swings entirely on Harley's personal, documented connection to Poison Ivy -- that can range from mere partners in crime to outright lovers depending on which iteration of the DC universe you're in -- as justification for a joyride she takes with Batman and Nightwing to follow her scent and cause trouble. Between cruises in the Batmobile that coax humorous banter, among other things, out of this Dynamic Trio, the pitstops they make amount to little more than shallow, tedious diversions, especially a lengthy sequence that takes place in a whacked-out bar between the spaces of two metropolitan cities. It's at a point where an unabashed sexual innuendo featuring twin male singers and a microphone (one on his knees front and center on the bar's stage) soon moves into a shot of a grinning Batman after he guzzles milk to prepare for a barfight that this roadtrip really goes screeching off the road. Imagine The Lego Batman Movie's satirical self-flagellation on a "mature" level, and without its sweetly reverential consideration and love for the character's history.

Considering the energy that's been devoted to Batman and Harley Quinn's exaggerated character moments, it's unsurprising that the end-of-the-world scenario at the root of the story doesn't lead to something fresh or particularly intriguing. Mixing apocalyptic transformations that'd lead to a garden world with the same sociological even-playing-field component as that of Lizard's motivations from The Amazing Spider-Man, this all blossoms into essentially every other scheme that Poison Ivy has cooked up beforehand, with a mini-Swamp Thing as her partner and a climate change undercurrent tossed in for some timely geopolitical inspiration. Therefore, yes, it's a fantasy-driven Batman story instead of one that tries to preserve the illusion of staying grounded, and most of the action sequences respond accordingly. Unfortunately, so much effort has gone into the attempts at humor that equal, if not more, commonsense gets overlooked about the potential for the villains to manipulate their verdant surroundings. Yet, with a wink and a kiss at the end, Batman and Harley Quinn suggests that it doesn't really care, so long as it keeps things light.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]

Movies I Love: Whale Rider

Tales of rising women warriors -- notably women on the cusp of adulthood -- who must work against the resistance of a masculine environment, often tribal or clannish in nature, have arisen in many different forms through history. Spanning from Grecian mythology and the Chinese dynasties of centuries past to the latest animated works of Disney, these stories often hit certain archetypal points in their stories, yet the context of their individual cultures and the nuances of how the heroines tackle the challenges before them bestow specific, expressive meaning upon each one. Cinema has recently embraced a spotlight in terms of empowering female-centered films of this type, though, with the one-two punch of Disney's Moana and Wonder Woman over the past year, which will hopefully draw further attention to films that achieved similar, arguably more potent high points in prior years. Whale Rider, a powerful movie about heritage, mysticism, and a girl harnessing her potential against the odds of a masculine setting, deserves to stand tall among these contemporary reexaminations.

Niki Caro's coming-of-age saga certainly garnered attention when it was released in 2002, earning awards both for the film itself -- it won best feature accolades at the Independent Spirit Awards and Sundance Film Festival -- and for Keisha-Castle Hughes portrayal of Paikea, aka Pai. She's the only child of a chieftain's son (Cliff Curtis) from a Whangaran Maori tribe in New Zealand, and a direct descendant of the eponymous "Whale Rider" Paikea, indicating that she's technically next in the bloodline to lead her tribe. The problem, naturally, is that Pai was born a girl instead of a boy, which creates murkiness in terms of how she's to be raised and trained in the ways of leadership. As her grandfather, tradition-oriented elder Koro (Rawiri Paratene), establishes a cultural school for the other young men of the tribe, preparing them to be chieftains, Pai tries to learn as much as she can on her own accord and assert herself as equally as capable as her male contemporaries, while also dealing with the absence of her estranged, traveling father.

Whale Rider quickly and passionately immerses the audience in the cultural dynamics of the tribespeople, asserting the significance of preserving legacy and of the necessities for male offspring in terms of hierarchal leadership. This occurs in the intimacy of a hospital room, though, surrounding the birth of Paikea and the melancholy circumstances that lead to her being an only child, driven by firm yet comprehensible conversations that pit the elders' concerns of their lineage against the real-world emotional challenges of her place amongst the tribe. While these are themes well explored in other stories, Caro's screenplay -- an adaptation of Witi Ihimaera's novel of the same name -- smartly navigates the disappointment, the chastisement, and the begrudging acceptance with a lack of expectation and certainty over what'll come of this. And that's just within the first, introductory scene, but it's a property that flows along with the rest of the film, the burden on the shoulders of the young girl whom soon emerges on the screen coasting on a bicycle.

As Paikea, Keisha Castle-Hughes projects the promising attributes of an admirable would-be leader, showing initiative toward the Maori rituals without being provoked and leading ceremonies with her confident poise. There's a lot of emotional intelligence within Pai, which can be surprising upon her reactions to seeing her father after a long absence and to her grandfather's changing attitude toward her. Through Castle-Hughes' commanding eyes and heartening body language, there's no doubting the young girl's potential to transform into the kind of leader her people might need in the modern era, whose enthusiasm and respect for the culture comes from something voluntary and deeper than the tribes' desperation to persevere. Unlike other stories featuring reluctant young leaders who must "come of age" to accept and fully appreciate their role, Pai embraces her birthright while also waging a mini-war with the elders -- her grandfather -- to assert her worthiness, and it's only through Castle-Hughes' layered portrayal of her dedication that those cultural and emotional nuances are plainly visible.

Much of Whale Rider ebbs and flows with the importance of Pai's innate connection to her ancestors, but there's more going on in her tale than mere acknowledgement of her lineage, hinged on the mysticism of generational prophecy and the depths of her people's connection to the sea. Like every other aspect of Niki Caro's film, this otherworldly component is handled with restraint and surprising impact, first emerging in a simple scene of Pai gazing upon the blue expanses of her home and feeling an unexplainable, important lure preventing her from venturing far from her tribespeople. The essence of Maori lifeforces looming in their communal hall and the significance placed upon the retrieval of a tribal necklace provide an undercurrent of spirituality throughout, handled by director Caro in a fashion that feels ever-present yet doesn't intrude upon the story on a respectably grounded level. While Pai secretly trains in speechcraft, ceremonial posturing, and wielding a wooden staff as her tribal brothers stumble over the same tasks, the omnipresence of ancestral fate and responsibility palpably stirs around her.

Absorbed on their own, the elements that make up Whale Rider form into a tender, complex portrayal of cultural obligation and coming-of-age resilience, but the magic of Niki Caro's film only truly rises to the surface once they all rush together into its breathtaking conclusion. Because of writer/director Caro's clever navigation -- and subversion -- of Pai's interactions with her people and their heritage, certain expectations about where her heroic journey's headed veer into uncertain territory, despite being a family-oriented film with seemingly clear objectives and tonal paths. With splendid, unpretentious beachside cinematography juxtaposed with a deeply expressive tribal display occurring indoors, featuring a tear-eyed Keisha Castle-Hughes standing front-and-center in ritual garb, the story's brave finale mixes personal catharsis with smartly-handled spiritualism and poetic imagery into something even more profound. Whale Rider's a beautifully meaningful piece of cinema beforehand, but it becomes a masterclass by its end because of how far Paikea's willing to go.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]

'Sleight' Has Emotive, Archetypal Tricks Up Superhero Sleeve

Directed by: JD Dillard; Runtime: 89 minutes
Grade: C+

The line between realism and fantasy continues to be tested in certain superhero movies, notably with independent films that look at their budget and production constraints as challenging opportunities instead of burdens. While some like Chronicle and Midnight Special possess monumental other-worldly powers that only emerge at specific points, others tailor their content toward using as little "magic" as possible -- if any -- perhaps integrating small flickers here and there while telling largely dramatic stories. Sleight pulls that gap tighter together with its tale of street magic, electromagnets, and a bright and promising urban kid who resorts to unsavory business methods to help provide for his family. An observant, captivating eye for visual language and measured character development intertwines with JD Dillard's grasp on a foreseeable, yet absorbing growth of tension, but the preposterous leaps in common sense required to get Sleight out of tough situations pulls it down when and where it really matters.

Dillard's film also deserves recognition for standing out as a portrayal of a black "superhero", directed into the story of Bo (Jacob Latimore), a late-teenaged street magician in Los Angeles. His promising scholastic future and dedication to sleight of hand gets derailed upon the sudden death of his mother, leaving him as the sole caregiver for his sister, Tina (Storm Reid). As with many artists, the income for being a street performer doesn't quite cover the bills, which leads him down the path of selling drugs for local dealer Angelo (Dule Hill). Bo's passion isn't for money or the life of drugs, though, but remains with the allure of magic, to such a degree that he's modified his body so that he can project magnetism through his arm through a complicated, dangerous, and entirely homebrewed mechanical network. Everything goes smoothly enough for Bo, even with the potential for a budding romance with an admirer, Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), but his proximity to the life of crime finally begins to catch up with him, forcing him to use his tools of deception and magnetism in other ways.

In no way does Sleight rush through its development of Bo and the conditions of his challenging, yet rewarding way of doing things, capturing his satisfaction during performances on the streets with attentive cinematography, allowing the audience to absorb his craftiness and natural glow. Dillard offers a portrait of the young man that smartly emphasizes the highs and lows of his days, even going so far as to add levity to his network of drug-dealing, showcasing the variety of "regular" people with which he associates and adding an acceptable degree of normalcy to what he's required to do. The seeds for suspense and supernatural elements are planted throughout, as well as how he'll use sleight of hand for more nefarious purposes, but Sleight needs for its audience to embrace the context of the young boy's disrupted life before moving forward with those. There's a stiff, transparent comic-book style rhythm to the dialogue, but Jacob Latimore's faintly solemn, attractive performance succeeds in drawing those watching into how Bo makes his life work while continuing to follow his passion for magic.

Sleight focuses so intently on the drama involved with Bo's day-to-day that the mildly fantastical elements of his body modification come close to feeling tacked on, but the way in which Dillard does so still grasps onto a degree of meaningfulness, justifying its supplemental position in the story. Throughout, the dangers of the drug-dealing culture incrementally close in on Bo, forcing him down paths of violence that he reluctantly accepts to maintain the status quo with his living situation. These on-the-nose aspects of Bo being involved with the Los Angeles drug-dealing lifestyle are counterbalanced by the mystique and mild body horror involved with his incremental modifications to his arm, integrated into his pursuit for more awe-inspiring -- and lucrative -- tricks he can have literally up his sleeve. At his core, Bo wants to get out of that way of life and impress others with his passion, which adds a unique spin to the fairly routine progression of his "ascent" in that other world, which, admittedly, is given gravitas by Dule Hill's measured, menacing performance as drug lord Angelo.

Unfortunately, the title Sleight also inadvertently covers the substance of the film's dramatic and suspenseful buildup, hitting recognizable and unadventurous notes while events take shape into a (super)hero origin story of sorts. Between the progression of Bo's relationship with Holly, which echoes the Peter Parker and Mary Jane tempo from Raimi's Spider-Man in crucial ways, and the run-of-the-mill escalation of his interactions with Angelo's drug-dealing syndicate, writer/director Dillard doesn't take many risks in the chronicles of his protagonist before he fully taps into his quasi-supernatural capabilities, despite dropping in a few sharp, unflinching actions that accentuate the impact of what's going on. Dread does incrementally grow throughout Sleight as the dangerous aspects of the criminal underbelly maneuver around Jacob Latimore's sympathy-earning street magician, but the moving parts all channel toward a blatantly foreseeable climax, partly because of the script's design but also due to the limited options at Dillard's disposal because of the emotional corner he's written Bo into.

Sleight has bigger issues to contend with, though, in how it attempts to stay as plausible as possible through the introduction of Bo's increase in power and application of his fantastical abilities. Director Dillard may hit speedbumps with foolish decisions made on Bo's part, inviting problems upon himself only partially justified by his desire to leave behind the drug business behind, but the magnitude of the street magician's control of metallic objects using his self-made electromagnetic arm truly complicate matters. That's largely because the film takes such a raw, moderately authentic approach to his life that these embellishments of science -- effectively turning Bo into a nascent, good-guy version of Magneto -- collide with the grounded happenings beforehand, especially in the chaotic and violent final act that, yet again, can't resist stealing other films' X-factors for its potency. In trying to stay bound to reality while mixing the struggles of urban survival and the magic of magnets, Sleight attempts to both sell its realistic illusion and lean upon suspension of disbelief, and those sides instead up repelling against one another.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]