‘Hamilton’s America’: a non-stop roller coaster

It’s 2014 and Lin-Manuel Miranda describes his life as a roller coaster — as if he were strapped into the ride as it’s climbing up. At this point of his life, he’s waiting for rehearsals to begin while still composing the words to “Hamilton.”

At this point of his life, “Hamilton” hasn’t sold out in its off-Broadway production at the Public Theater.

“Hamilton” hasn’t been touted as “the greatest thing we’ve ever seen ever” on the “Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.”

“Hamilton” hadn’t moved to its Broadway location at the Richard Rodgers’ Theatre.

“Hamilton” hasn’t won 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. 

At this point of his life, Miranda’s just moved into a new apartment, waiting for the birth of his son and preparing for “Hamilton.”

“This is the part of the roller coaster’s that’s just going up,” he says.

And that’s what watching Alex Horwitz’s PBS documentary “Hamilton’s America” (2016) feels like — as if you, too, were on strapped into a roller coaster as it climbs the tracks. The pinnacle of this ride would have been seeing the musical in its entirety on the Broadway stage with its original cast members, but watching “Hamilton’s America’s” premiere on PBS Friday may have been the next best thing.

“Hamilton’s America” builds with momentum, taking you behind-the-scenes as Miranda tells the story of Alexander Hamilton — America’s founding father who derived much of the modern banking system, penned most of the Federalist Papers and was shot by Aaron Burr.

You probably know more of his story — like how he was George Washington’s chief of staff during the Revolutionary War or how he was was “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman.”

Much of Hamilton’s modern fame is due to Miranda’s musical, which you’ve probably sampled on iTunes, Spotify or YouTube.

But while watching a complete run through of “Hamilton” would have been educational and entertaining enough, Horwitz’s documentary delivers both history and insight. Told by interviews from Miranda, Senator Elizabeth Warren, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, President Barack Obama, composer Stephen Sondheim, rapper Nas and historian Ron Chernow, “Hamilton’s America” gives you an understanding of Hamilton’s accomplishments as well as Miranda’s creative process.

The inspiration behind “Hamilton” is Chernow’s biography “Alexander Hamilton.” Miranda saw Hamilton’s story as a hip hop story and wrote and performed its title track as part of the White House’s Poetry, Music & Spoken Word Night in May 2009.

He spent the next seven years researching and writing the words to “Hamilton,” visiting historical sites such as Valley Forge National Historical Park, the Morris-Jumel Mansion and Mount Vernon.

The project gained speed with the help of Tony Award-winning musical director Alex Lacamoire and director Thomas Kail. But the real magic is in Miranda’s words — which translate history to music and brings lessons from the classroom to life.

“What it did was capture the fact that the Founding Fathers were to some degree flying by the seats of their pants and making it up as they went along,” said President Obama. “And the fact that the experiment worked was a testimony to their genius and you can draw a direct connection to what the founders were doing and what we’re doing today.”

That’s one of the remarkable things about “Hamilton’s America” — that his story is ours. But to hear “Hamilton” in our language of rap and R&B and hip hop makes it more real than reading it in a textbook.

Just like how the “Hamilton” musical made American history more accessible, Horwitz’s PBS documentary makes the musical “Hamilton” accessible to the America who’s heard the music, but haven’t been able to buy tickets to the show.

But while “Hamilton’s America” teases us with performances from the musical, it doesn’t satiate our thirst to watch and learn more.

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Reliving ‘OXD: One Extraordinary Day’

It’s either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid to willingly fall flat on your face again and again, until the bridge of your nose is bleeding and taped up. The doctors warned you that this type of impact will harm your body. And you know too many friends and teachers who have broken limbs perfecting this craft. You’ve already ran through all the awful scenarios of everything that could go wrong. Yet you still climb the 40-feet of scaffolding and take that leap of faith, completely trusting the command of choreographer Elizabeth Streb.

Directed by Craig Lowy, his 100-minute documentary “OXD: One Extraordinary Day” captures what it’s like to be one of Streb’s PopAction dancers in the Brooklyn-based Streb Extreme Action Dance Company.

Filmed by Lucas Smith and Raul Santos and edited by Lucas Groth and Lowy, “OXD: One Extraordinary Day” invites us to be a part of Streb’s crew as they prepare and perform “One Extraordinary Day” — a seven-part series where Streb and her crew canvas the city of London landmarks as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiads.

Rather than focus on a fluid and seamless transition from one move to the next, these dancers work to defy what the human body’s capable of. Streb tells her dancers that she wants their bodies to behave exactly like a piece of plywood when they free fall off of 30 feet of scaffolding parallel to the mat. She tells her dancers to hide the transitions, so the human eye sees one move and another, but never how they get there. While bungee-jumping off the Millennium Bridge and dangling off of the London Eye, these dancers feel like superheroes, performing moves called “Superman,” “Spiderman,” “X-Man” and “Peter Pan.”

Although “OXD: One Extraordinary Day” shows us death-defying stunts, the special effects are surprisingly spare. In a few scenes, we see the camera rewind so that the falling dancers look like they’re flying in slow motion; these scenes are few and far in between. For the most part, we see their stunts in real time as Lowy spends much of the documentary building up that extraordinary day.

Four months of practice, preparations and performance are edited down to 100 minutes, but the documentary contains too much exposition, removing the suspense and magic of the actual performance itself.

The dancers tell us about how much adrenaline it takes to get through these performances, but the camera doesn’t show us what it looks like to hover more than 200 feet above any solid ground. Lowy’s camera is either too zoomed in or too zoomed out and we feel disconnected rather than in the moment.

As a result, the viewer feels safe and protected, harnessed and secure. And when that extraordinary day comes, the performances are disappointing.

It’s a shame, really. While Craig Lowy’s documentary captures such an intriguing world, its edits are poorly executed, splatting hard on the floor and failing to get up.

“OXD: One Extraordinary Day” was directed by Craig Lowy and had it’s Western New York premiere as part of the tenth Buffalo International Film Festival. 

‘Ovation’ in a theater

If you’re looking for a way to picture Henry Jaglom’s “Ovation,” think of a movie about a play within a play that wants to be a movie.

Written by Jaglom and Ron Vignone, “Ovation” is a smart and self-aware 110-minute film that plays with its art form.

Layered like one of those paintings of a painting within a painting of a painting, Jaglom and Vignone write a play within the confines of a film. Jaglom, who’s a film director and playwright, uses the structure of a play to provide the film’s narrative skeleton.

Set within the span of a week, “Ovation” houses a good dose of foreshadowing, humor, dramatic irony and many of the conventions found in a play. It even employs a soothsayer, who takes the form of a fortune teller who stars as a psychic who plays a fortune teller in a neighboring theatre production.

There’s a lot of this kind of play within Jaglom and Vignone’s script.

While we see standing ovations for “The Rainmaker” (that’s the name of the play within Jaglom and Vignone’s film), the “The Rainmaker’s” also having trouble making it rain.

Filmed and edited by Vignone, “Ovation” is mostly seen through actor dressing rooms and backstage corridors. We watch the top of people’s heads sitting in the audience while the play itself is mostly offscreen. 

Onscreen is TV actor Steward Henry (played by James Denton of “Desperate Housewives,” “Devious Maids” and “Good Witch”), who tries to convince “The Rainmaker” star Maggie (Tanna Frederick) to lead in a television show with him.

While “Ovation” is a package of paradoxical parameters, it’s cleverly wrapped. The film’s opening credits remind us of the opening of a TV show.

Jaglom and Vignone continue to break the fourth wall with some bits of sophisticated dialogue. In one scene, a playwright has a revelation that one of the film’s subplots would be great for a play.

It is, of course. And when the curtain rises, we can’t help but applaud.

“Ovation” was written by Henry Jaglom and Ron Vignone and directed by Jaglom. It premiered in Western New York as part of the tenth annual Buffalo International Film Festival. 

‘Tower’ sheds light into the Texas Tower massacre

Near the end of “Tower,” is a montage of news clips — too familiar scenes from Columbine and Virginia Tech and Umpqua Community College. It puts Keith Maitland’s 93-minute documentary, “Tower,” into perspective — that “there are monsters and they walk around us.”

Directed by Maitland, “Tower” is a chilling recreation of the 96 minutes near the University of Texas campus on August 1, 1966.

Maitland grew up hearing the first-person stories of the Texas Tower shooting when he was in seventh grade. After reading Pamela Colloff’s 2006 Texas Monthly article, Maitland was inspired to capture some of these narratives in a documentary. Over the course of six weeks, his project raised $70,000 on IndieGogo.

Maitland and producer Susan Thomson interviewed more than 100 eyewitnesses to research the film. The interviews are the basis of the film’s narrative, which began on the steps outside the campus tower. Tom Eckman (voiced by Cole Bee Wilson) and his heavily pregnant girlfriend Claire Wilson (voiced by Violet Beane) were heading to the parking meter near campus when they were shot. It was “like stepping on an live wire, like I’ve been electrocuted,” Wilson describes.

Alternating between animation, grainy archival footage, photos and more recent interviews, “Tower” lets us live through the events of August 1, 1966. Interviews are dubbed and animated to allow us to picture the younger shelves of Texas Tower shooting survivors. We don’t see actual interview footage of much older versions of cops Ramiro Martinez (voiced by Louie Arnette) and Houston McCoy (voiced by Blair Jackson), KTBC anchor Neal Spelce (voiced by Monty Muir) and others until the end of the film.

This technique allows the animators to recreate events and emotions from 50 years ago. We see hope in bright colors — like the vivid, orangey-red hair of Rita Starpattern (voiced by Josephine McAdam), a women who ran into the face of danger. And for the bleakest moments, they strip the animation of color so all we see are black and white. As we listen to the sound of gunfire, white silhouettes of people fall over a crimson red background.

“Tower” is emotionally draining documentary, yet it’s an important testimonial of the unfathomable events that plague our country. Rather than focus on the killer though (his name is only mentioned briefly at the end), Maitland makes sure the stories of the 13 people killed and the many more wounded are remembered forever.

“Tower” was directed by Keith Maitland and premiered in Western New York as part of the tenth annual Buffalo International Film Festival. 

The idea behind ‘Idea Thief’

University of Herfordshire Master student Dani Alva is an idea thief in his own way. He borrowed the idea for his and Juan Lozano’s three-and-a-half-minute animated UK short from a quote from fantasy author Ursula K. LeGuin:

“I doubt the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, that child would grow up to be an eggplant.”

In “Idea Thief” (2015), eggplant-like men exist in the world — these rotund purple beings with pink bulbous noses. But eggplants still crave the imagination of children.

With a pair of binoculars, an eggplant burglar is drawn to boy with a bright incandescent light bulb above his head. He attempts to steal it, but some ideas can’t be stolen.

There’s no dialogue in Alva and Lozano’s animated short. There’s no need for it. Some ideas are universal.

“Idea Thief’s” been shown at many international film festivals, even winning the Sand Dune 1st Jury Award for Animation in India. Directed and animated by Dani Alva and Juan Loranzo based on Alva’s story, “Idea Thief” made its Western New York premiere at the tenth annual Buffalo International Film Festival. 

‘Some Kind of Quest’ to maintain the largest model train set

“Some Kind of Quest” is about a man chasing windmills. Not literal windmills, of course, but the kind of thing that’s absurd or crazy.

Bruce Williams Zaccagnino’s windmill is Northlandz, the 52,000-square-foot miniature model train museum in Flemington, New Jersey. Track by track, he painstakingly designed and built this museum over 16-plus years.

Directed by Andrew Wilcox and filmed by Matt Clegg over half a year, their 11-minute documentary showcases Zaccagnino’s creation within Northlandz. More than 100 model trains run over 50,000 feet of rail road track over 400 bridges.

Zaccagnino’s quixotic quest began in the ’70s when he began building the model train set in his basement. Over the years, it grew and grew as Zaccagnino spent 17-hour days with his trains. Now, it takes about two and a half hours to walk through the mazes in Northlandz. Zaccagnino considers expanding.

Still, he’s erecting ephemeral monuments. Zaccagnino’s getting older and business is slow. There’s no plans for succession after he retires as the museum’s curator. And his hobby can easily put him in debt. His friends also think he’s an idiot for living with model trains as his companions.

Despite it all, Zaccagnino chases after that impossible dream — that quest to entertain somebody with his life’s work. For now, at least, if the windmills keep turning, Zaccagnino will keep running into them.

“Some Kind of Quest” was directed by Andrew Wilcox and premiered in Western New York as part of the tenth annual Buffalo International Film Festival.

‘Guru Dian’ hopes to expand your worldview

Sometimes you need a reminder that not everyone wakes up with high speed Internet at their fingertips. Somewhere in the world, even a cell phone signal is a cherished blessing.

That’s what Purnomo Aziz 79-minute Indonesian film, “Guru Dian,” reminds us: to look at things from another point of view.

Aziz’s feature film takes us to a remote and rural village in Indonesia, an half hour walk from any drivable roads.

This is a village surrounded by high rolling mountains cloaked with green vegetation — the kind of place where Mac Book Pros, televisions and cell phones look like alien objects.

Here, children grow up aspiring to become like their parents — entering the cycle of humble migrant workers and farmers. Small chores, like looking after the goats or minding the store, take precedent over schooling. And the village’s school has long been abandoned by both teachers and pupils.

That’s how Dian (Aji Sanrose) finds the dilapidated hut where she’s been assigned to teach. Her classes are empty because school isn’t as important as finding food.

The film shows us socioeconomic pressures in a small and poor rural community, but fails to emphasize why or how schooling can better these villagers’ lives. The village boys will take over their father’s trade and the village girls will be sent to a foreign country to work low-paying jobs as factory workers to earn money for their families.

Young and idealistic, Dian’s a transplant with a giving heart and Western values, but she lacks the insight that comes with experience. While she firmly believes that a child’s place is in school, she flounders at explaining how or why to the village’s elders. Without their support, it seems impossible to teach.

Slowly, but surely, though, Dian earns the children’s trust and attendance (Part of it involves installing a television in their school). But it’s hard to see how her schooling can change these student’s lives. And if that’s the lesson Aziz’s trying to teach us, it’s one that’s hard to reconcile.

“Guru Dian” was directed by Purnomo Aziz and written by Sad Purnadi, Risdi Sulaeman and Dirmawan Hatta. The film premiered in Western New York as part of the tenth annual Buffalo International Film Festival.

 

‘Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present’ documentary plays the record of his life

At a quick glance, “Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present” doesn’t look like a polished documentary. The camera’s shaky. The lighting on the subject’s overblown at times. The wires of a Lavalier microphone dangle noticeably in an interview shot. And that grating and monotonous drone of a violin playing the same note is enough to give anyone a migraine.

Yet the 102-minute experimental documentary is a film that shows filmmaking at its seams. Filmed and edited in a way that breaks most of the conventional rules of filmmaking, “Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present” abides by its iconoclastic subject’s avant garde and anti-authoritative values.

Tony Conrad, who passed away this past April at 76, taught so he could teach his students how not to do things — how not to follow the conventional rules where art, music, filmmaking and politics intersect.

As an artist, he pinned soiled granny panties to cork boards and filmed men dressed as women in jail cells. He fearlessly scored the controversial and pornographic Jack Smith film “Flaming Creatures” (1963) and encouraged reactions of disgust even from those who respected him in the art and music world.

It took Tyler Hubby 20 years to capture the footage for the film, initially meeting Conrad in 1994 when he toured with German Krautrock band Faust. Told in chapters marked by the record, play, pause, fast-forward, and rewind buttons on a VCR player, Hubby’s documentary begins on Ludlow Street in New York City, outside the very apartment that housed the inspiration for the Velvet Underground’s name. (Conrad’s roommate John Cale got it off one of Conrad’s books in their apartment. And while Conrad wasn’t a part of the Velvet Underground, he toured with two of its founding members, Cale and Lou Reed, before they became the Velvet Underground).

The camera’s subject, a 62-year-old Conrad, holds a ring of five microphones connected by an interwoven bundle of cords. Walking across the street conducting New York City traffic, Conrad looks like a senile old man. A passerby even stops him to ask him if he’s OK.

Yet Conrad knows exactly what he’s doing and exactly how to get it done. It’s like watching a brilliant magician reveal the secret behind his tricks. Even though the scene looks absurd, he’s pointing us to the music of the ordinary — the harmonics of passing trucks, bicycles, and sounds we wouldn’t typically think as music. The music in the streets otherworldly when magnified over the hum of his violin. Yet Conrad could have just as easily coaxed music out of a weed whacker.

This was the type of music Conrad was famous for — a minimalist style that can described as “sound coming at you like a railroad train.” Conrad produces these eerily hypnotic sounds with out-of-tune violins. Standing in front of a light with a curtain draped in front of him, his shadow would fill up a room, swaying back and forth as he played the same precise note as long as humanly possible. He once took this sound and dubbed it over itself, creating the piece “Four Violins” (1964).

In the mid-1960s, Conrad, along with his colleagues La Monte Young, John Cale, Angus LacLise and Marian Zazeela, created this minimalist movement while The Beatles were at its height. But even as one of the founding members of The Dream Syndicate, Conrad’s music legacy was often overshadowed by La Monte Young, whose often credited as the first minimalist composer.

Conrad’s work, however, transcended his field. He was an artist, first and foremost, but the form it took spilled beyond its medium. His piece “Yellow Movie” (1973) is a film designed to spans over the course of 50 years. He figured that if he painted a black square over cheap white paint, the paint would eventually erode and yellow over time. Conrad also produced a series where he cooked strips of film — currying, pickling, roasting and deep frying these strips so its composition changed entirely.

One of his earliest films was “The Flicker” (1966), where he played 30 minutes of flickering black and while slides on a film projector. Audience members at its first screening reported having seizures and discovering that if you stared long enough, these black and white slides were like a Rorschach test, and you begin to see shapes and images that weren’t really there. 

Hubby’s mesmerizing film mimics techniques in Conrad’s work. Parts of the documentary flickers to a metronomic beat. And the credits are bright flickering white lights — where you begin to make out shapes of names.

The biggest name on the screen is Conrad’s. He’s invasive and larger-than-life, bleeding beyond the silver screen. Even hours after you leave that dark theatre, you hear the droning hum of Conrad’s violin as the soundtrack of his life fills your mind.

“Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present” was written and directed by Tyler Hubby and premiered in Western New York as part of the tenth Buffalo International Film Festival.

5 best skits of SNL’s 42nd season premiere

Just in time for presidential debate season, “Saturday Night Live” returned with its 42nd season premiere, starring host Margot Robbie of “Suicide Squad” and musical guest The Weeknd. If you didn’t stay up past 11:30 p.m., here were the five best sketches of the night:

5. Actress Round Table 

This sketch follows the same awkward formula of “So Ghetto,” but this time four women are in a panel discussing how gals are treated in the modern film industry. Hosted by a representative from Glamour.com (Aidy Bryant), panelists Marion Cotillard (Cecily Strong),  Keira Knightley (Margot Robbie), Lupita Nyong’o (Sasheer Zamata), and DeBette Goldry (Kate McKinnon) compare the trials of discrimination and wage disparity.

While Knightley, Nyong’o and Cotillard had similar experiences, McKinnon’s Goldry, a former Golden Age of Hollywood MGM star, boasts about shooting up opium and “flappin’ my toots for a bunch of krauts.”

McKinnon’s performance is as stunning as Baddie Winkle’s Instagram account, even causing Robbie to break character for a second.

4. Weekend Update

The Weeknd gave Colin Jost and Michael Che another opportunity to give another “Weeknd Update.” 

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But that’s not all to look forward to. Jost compares our presidential candidates to the latest unwanted smart phones: Clinton’s the iPhone 7 because its forced upon us and Trump’s the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 because he might explode.

While most of Jost and Che’s jokes were lukewarm, they had strong guest stars with Kenan Thompson reprising his role as “Big Papi” David Ortiz and Cecily Strong reprising her role as  Cathy Ann, now one of America’s “undecided voters.”

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3. Presidential Debate Cold Open

Last Monday’s bizarre presidential debate was comedy gold and “Saturday Night Live” didn’t disappoint us. The almost 10-minute skit opened with McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton limping onto the stage with pneumonia and leaving us with a somersault and shimmy.

Meanwhile Alec Baldwin nailed Donald Trump’s accent and mannerisms, repeating many of Trump’s debate (and after debate) lines verbatim. After two minute’s on the stage Trump gets ready to leave, yet moderator Lester Holt (Che) reminds him that he still has 88 minutes to go.

To this, Trump responds: “My microphone is broken.”

Clinton’s gleefully response: “I think I’m going to be president.”

2. Mr. Robot Parody feat. Leslie Jones

You gotta give Leslie Jones credit for this hilarious and self-aware sketch. After Jones’ very public website hack this summer after she starred in the “Ghostbusters” reboot, this “Mr. Robot” parody attempts to explain the culprit behind these hacks: Leslie Jones herself.

Pete Davidson stars as hacker Elliot Alderson, who’s confronted by Jones computer ineptitude (Her computer’s password is password on her Window’s 95).

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1. Celebrity Family Feud: Trump vs. Clinton edition

SNL celebrity game shows have been a wonderful way to showcase its talented cast of impressionists, but this episode of “Family Feud” is just too real.

The feud, of course, is between the Republican and Democratic candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Their teams seem to reflect the speakers at their respective party’s conventions.

In the Trump camp is campaign manager Kellyanne Conway (McKinnon), daughter Ivanka Trump (Robbie), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (Bobby Moynihan) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (Beck Bennett).

Meanwhile, the Clinton camp is filled with its cool celebrity stars: former President Bill Clinton (Darrell Hammond), former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (Larry David), comedian Sarah Silverman (Melissa Villasenor) and “Hamilton” star Lin-Manuel Miranda (Strong).

All these characters have good lines, but Larry David’s Sen. Sanders offer the best reason Clinton should be elected: “Sen. Clinton is the prune juice of this election. She might not seem that appetizing, but if you don’t take her now, you’re going to be clogged with crap for a long time.”

The Trumps reenact this creepy “Children of the Corn” campaign ad.

G.B.B.: ‘Gotham’ before Batman

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since 1939, it wouldn’t be a spoiler to tell you that Martha (Brette Taylor) and Thomas Wayne (Grayson McCouch) die and their son, Bruce (David Mazouz), grows up to be Batman.

The story, first penned by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, has been so heavily reimagined over the years through various comic books, video games and movies — including Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy — that you already know what happens.

But Bruno Heller’s “Gotham” promises more.

Not only does it attempt to tackle Bruce Wayne’s rise as Batman, but the FOX television drama is a gritty film noir that also covers the rise of Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) and Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) — the villains that eventually become Catwoman, Riddler and Penguin.

The lens in which we come to understand them is through a young idealistic detective named James Gordon (Ben McKenzie), years before he’s Gotham’s chief police commissioner. Here, Gordon’s partnered with the cynical Detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), whose age and humor balances the rash Gordon.

A later episode (“Spirit of the Goat”) reveals that Bullock, too, was like Gordon 10 years ago, impulsively rushing headfirst into danger; however, years policing in the corrupt city of Gotham has tempered Bullock’s impatience and resolve for justice.

Nowadays, Bullock’s more likely to setup someone for murder than chase after the real killers.

But Bullock’s not the only cop who occasionally barters in bribes. Heller’s Gotham shows us the revolving door between elected officials and career criminals. Most of those holding political office have done Faustian favors for one of the city’s two leading crime bosses, Carmine Falcone (John Doman) and Sal Maroni (David Zayas).

Yet our protagonist, Gordon, insists on surviving Gotham with his integrity intact.

Heller’s “Gotham” could have easily been just a detective drama, but one of the real strengths of the series is the amount of canonical material in which there is to draw from. Batman, after all, isn’t just about the Dark Knight. It’s about the Two Faces, Scarecrows and Jokers.

And this kind of retelling allows the viewer to also be a detective, uncovering clues for how our favorite heroes or villains came to be.