Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Harley Quinn (video review)

All this Batman talk and yet I couldn't talk about my favorite girl since she never got her chance to be in the films.  Nevermind, let's celebrate her animated series appearances!

I fully realize that the sound suddenly changes in quality at the 2:00 mark.  Next time I promise I'll set it right from the beginning.  I'm learning.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Leading up to the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, I have to admit I was a little underwhelmed by what I had seen.  From behind the scenes photos of Catwoman's costume to the trailers, there really wasn't anything there that made me excited about the film.  However, given that the only film of Nolan's I've had problems with was Inception, and that was mostly just the ending, I was fairly confident that this would be a good one.

As far as I'm concerned, my confidence was well placed.  I was very impressed with how he took those underwhelming individual pieces and turned them into a great film.  Lots of great action scenes, good tension and character moments, and once again Nolan showing that he has a feel for just what Batman is all about as a character.

My biggest complaint is definitely Bane's voice.  I understand that a character with a mask over his mouth isn't going to speak clear as day, but it really seemed like there were moments where you could understand him fine, and others where I was "squinting my ears" to try to figure just what was coming out of his mouth.  For the most part it was just him preaching or showing bravado, so I didn't miss any key plot points or developments, but it's annoying to know that I'm probably not going to fully understand him until I turn on the subtitles on the Blu Ray.  Beyond that I really enjoyed the character and the changes they made to him.  It was nice to have a calculating Bane after that pathetic stupid grunt we saw in Batman & Robin.

More than anything, I really loved this Catwoman.  Michelle Pfeiffer's version will always be dear to me from a nostalgic perspective, but Anne Hathaway was fantastic.  She was really like the Irene Adler to his Sherlock Holmes and I loved the change we saw in her over the course of the film. 

I have spoiler oriented thoughts, but before I get to those, for anyone who hasn't seen the movie yet - I highly recommend it.  Nolan has managed to create a fantastic trilogy that tells both three separate stories and one complete overarching one about Batman and the many characters that surround him.  Even if you don't love it as much as I did, I think you'll really enjoy it.


First off, Miranda Tate, who I swear I didn't even know was going to be in this film.  I think I may have read ages ago that another woman would be Bruce's love interest, but then I clearly just forgot about her.  How interesting then that near the beginning of the film I was thinking "I don't think I trust her" and then about halfway through I decided I was just paranoid.  Silly me, of course she was Talia!  All this talk of Ra's Al Ghul's heir, and I'm just accepting the movie on its word that it's Bane?  Come on!  I was smacking myself on the inside for not catching that one.  Of course this was from the man who directed The Prestige, so he knows all about misdirection.

Speaking of misdirection, it wasn't much of one to have Blake's first name be Robin.  He was clearly meant to be a sidekick of sorts, and he was a blend between Dick Grayson and Tim Drake. So it's probably no surprise that I absolutely loved him immediately.  I loved watching him learn and grow and eventually reject law enforcement for vigilantism.  While I doubt we'll ever see a film with him as the new Batman, I'd love to see it.

I was a little disappointed in how things played out with Bruce and Alfred though, I must admit.  It was definitely a way to get Alfred out of the city when all the chaos went down, but I hope we weren't meant to believe that Bruce planned it that way.  Also, it seems incredibly cruel to make the man who raised you believe you are dead.

I'm not ashamed to admit that when Batman told Gordon his identity, I got tears in my eyes.  It was such a sweet and wonderfully handled moment.  I also love that Gordon got his own story arc throughout the series, acknowledging that he's just as essential to the safety of Gotham City as Batman is.  What a fantastic performance by Gary Oldman.

I feel like I could just keep writing about this movie forever and I know I'll have even more to say after I watch all three movies together. For now I'll just save further discussion for the comments.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Dark Knight

It seems like there are two types of people.  Those who think this movie is incredibly awesome, and those who think those other people are exaggerating and ignoring a lot of flaws.  I'm afraid I'm one of those who thinks it's awesome, and yes, I am ignoring the flaws, because I don't think they're as important as all the good stuff that happens. But I can still be sensible enough to acknowledge that they do exist.

Once again, the beginning of the movie is a little slow.  We see the Joker's heist, which is fantastically executed and shows just what kind of ruthless criminal we're dealing with, and then we cut to Batman fighting at night. It works really well, as it both fulfills Batman's promise to Gordon at the end of Batman Begins that he would catch Scarecrow, but it also shows us that Gotham is being affected by the Batman with these sudden copycats popping up.  I have to wonder where they got such accurate masks.  Do you think it was the big costume for Halloween that year?  Probably.  The "not quite as realistic as you think" theme pops up here when Batman bends the gun nozzle of one of  the fakers as if it was made of wire rather than metal.  Seriously, is he Superman all of the sudden?

But then the movie slows down a bit in the name of set up.  We're introduced to all the gangsters as they meet the Joker, Lau runs off with their money, and Batman goes all the way to Hong Kong to get them.  Similar to the beginning of Batman Begins, I'm hard pressed to say these scenes should be taken out of the film, but they do feel largely pointless as you're watching them.  Nolan Batman films, it seems, take a lot of investment and trust in the beginning that what you are seeing will in fact pay off in the end, and I think everything here does.

I didn't really have time to mention Lucius Fox in my previous review, but there's no denying how much Morgan Freeman brings to this series.  He's essentially Q from the James Bond series, but he's also got his own distinct personality.  I love that in this film he has no problem telling Bruce when he disagrees with his methods and isn't afraid to just walk away.  The sonar, by the way, is also definitely in the realm of unrealistic, though I suppose if we pretend this is somewhere in the not too distant future, you can just run with it.

But I think we all know this movie is really all about the Joker, with a bit of Harvey Dent/Two Face added in.  Heath Ledger manages to bring something completely new to the character that also just feels right to me.  He's unsettling, he's psychotic, and he just doesn't care.  I just love watching every scene he is in.  My only problem is that he claims to be an agent of chaos, but the fact is he has a large amount of order in his plans and schemes.  Though I suppose you could say that was just lies he was telling Dent to manipulate him.

I love that they took inspiration from The Killing Joke but twisted it so that instead of trying to corrupt Gordon, Joker corrupts Dent, who us Batman fans know is just a little too susceptible to such things.  His turn is handled fantastically by Aaron Eckhart, as I think we can all sympathize with what he's been through even if we can't agree with his decisions.  Once again, those special effects are amazing.  He's truly horrifying to look at, and while once again, not that realistic, it is a good way to bring that look into the real world.

Once again, I find Rachel Dawes to be largely forgettable.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is a better actress than Katie Holmes, but there just isn't much to say about the role.  She's there to tease the idea that Bruce could have a normal life, but none of us truly believe that could ever happen.

Alfred seemingly has changed his mind from the last film, now convinced that Gotham needs Batman and that Bruce can't give it up.  I suppose there's nothing wrong with a character changing his mind, but bookend this with the other two films and it's a little confusing.  I love Michael Caine and I think his performance is great, it just seems like his feelings change with the wind on  this subject.

This movie manages to be both a really fun time with lots of action, and also really smart.  The two boats pitted against each other toward the end creates a great amount of tension, and I love when the big burly prisoner definitively throws the detonator out the window.  I love that Joker's plan fails here, because sometimes, people really are that good and it's the kind of thing we need to be reminded of.

More than anything else, I love the ending of this movie.  It gets me every single time.  It gets right to the heart of what Batman is, why he is a vigilante and not an agent of the law, and it makes me giddy with excitement.  It is quite possibly why I'm so willing to overlook the various flaws of the film, because Nolan seems to know how to get to the heart of what Batman stands for and presents him in a way that even non-comic book fans can understand.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Batman Begins

After the mess that was Batman & Robin, I don't think anyone was too upset when they announced they would reboot the Batman franchise.  It had been eight years, and the previous series of films had shown that changing directors and actors and yet trying to continue on really wasn't the best route.

I remember enjoying this film quite a bit the first time I saw it, but strangely I never actually owned this film until I went to do this marathon.  Watching it again, I think I know why.  It's a very serious film and it takes a while to really get started.  It jumps around a lot in time, which while never confusing, does slow down the story a bit.  And while his origins and training are essential to the plot, we technically don't even see Batman until one hour into the film.

I like that unlike the previous films, we actually get to know Thomas Wayne and what kind of man he was before he's murdered.  Though I can't help but be frustrated by the fact that Bruce's mother Martha doesn't seem to have any significance beyond the pearls she wears.  She's even portrayed in a slightly negative light as she seems to be a little annoyed when Bruce's fear of bats causes them to leave the opera early.  It's a strange choice for a woman whose murder is about to scar our protagonist for life.  Even as the movie goes on, it's always "your father" or "your parents" being referenced as a whole.  I suppose given the time period we're supposed to figure that Martha couldn't play a large role in the politics of the city or maybe even have a steady job, but still, it bugs me quite a bit.

Beyond that, the scenes of Bruce's early life are touching and heartbreaking, and I love seeing Alfred with young Bruce.  I'm a bit divided on their relationship in this and the later films though, as Alfred seems very much against Batman from the start.  It makes perfect sense that he's worried about Bruce's well being, but you would think he could also appreciate what he's trying to do for the city.

Katie Holmes is perfectly average as love interest Rachel Dawes.  She's not a particularly interesting character, but she's not annoying or offensive either.  The only complaint I have is that I don't really see her and Christian Bale of being around the same age, which is odd because they're only four years apart in real life.  She just has a very young look to her, I guess.

Gary Oldman's part as Sergeant Gordon is fairly small, but I love that we also get to see his beginnings in the police force alongside Batman's development.  Seeing him get to drive the Batmobile (or Tumbler, if you prefer) and play such a large role in saving the city is also great.

Cillian Murphy's portrayal of the Scarecrow is fantastic.  He's just this perfect mix of smarmy and wicked that I really enjoy.  The effect they used on his mask when people are under the effects of the gas is also great.  Once again, I would have liked to see  him play a bigger role and to see more of what he's doing at Arkham, but fortunately this isn't the last we'll see of him.

The reason why we don't get to see too much of the two above characters is because the focus is largely on Ducard/ Ra's al Ghul.  I'll admit I was genuinely surprised when the reveal happened the first time I watched it.  Liam Neeson's performance also reminds me a lot of the Ra's al Ghul I'm familiar with from the animated series, so I enjoy it.  But I still feel like we spend an awful lot of time on it than maybe we need to.

Perhaps the best thing about this version of Batman is that we're finally seeing a Bruce Wayne who is drastically different from Batman.  This is essential if we're going to believe that no one will figure out Batman's identity.  There were glimpses of this in the 1949 serial, where that Bruce acted generally lazy and didn't care about what was going on around him, but this Bruce goes all out.  He's a tabloid headline mess of a celebrity, a male version of Paris Hilton.  It brings some much needed comic relief to the film's otherwise serious story, and it's just plain believable.  We also get to see the pain Bruce experiences when playing that role doesn't allow him to keep friends and has people generally regard him as a failure compared to his father.  It's the classic device of doing all the work but getting none of the credit.

One thing I feel I need to bring up is that people always stress about how Nolan's Batman films are heavily grounded in reality.  While they're certainly more realistic than the previous films, they're not that realistic.  The most obvious moment in this film is when Batman presses a button on his boot that somehow summons bats to his current location.  Does anyone think that is a real thing you could actually do?

Regardless, I do really enjoy this approach as it reminds me greatly of the animated series' style.  It's also the first that I feel really seems to respect the original comic source material and adapts those into something that really reflects the spirit of those storylines while also creating something new. Was there any better way to end this movie than to tease us with that Joker card?  I think not!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Batman & Robin

I remember being really mad when they announced that Val Kilmer would not be returning as Batman, and that George Clooney would be playing the role instead.  I didn't particularly care for Clooney at that time and I definitely didn't think he had the proper look to be Batman.  I can't remember exactly how I felt about Batgirl being introduced, but I know I really disliked her in the animated series, so I can't imagine I was too excited.  I also honestly can't remember if I saw this movie in the theater or if I waited for home video.  I think my brain may have tried to block out as much about the experience as possible.

However, the entire point of this marathon is to fairly appraise every Batman film, and so I was not going to skip this one.  I would watch it again, and give it a fair shot.  My Strangers from the Internet co-host Bethany recently said she liked the film because it reminded her of the 1960s TV show.  So maybe there was something I could glean from this film that could be enjoyable?

This film's structure follows Batman Forever's pretty closely.  We start off with an immediate action scene of Batman and Robin going up against Mr. Freeze.  Arnold Schwarzenegger actually received topped billing in this film over Clooney.  Every single line out of his mouth is a pun.  Usually featuring "cold," "ice," "freeze," or some other variant thereof, but even when they couldn't fit that in, he still makes a corny joke.  And he's grinning through nearly all of it, to the point that you can just tell Arnold was having the time of his life playing this role.  To his credit, when the very few times come around for him to get serious, he handles those scenes well too.

Watching this opening scene, you would expect to be watching an extremely cheesy comedy with some action elements.  Batman and Robin both surf or skate over various surfaces, and when Mr. Freeze's henchmen show up as evil hockey players, the two of them nod at each other knowingly and pop ice blades out of the bottom of their boots by clicking their heels together.   It's absurd.  It's perfectly understandable why so many of us were angered by this movie from the get go - despite the silliness of the previous films, this one is above and beyond.

And I could accept that we all just had the wrong expectations and try to appreciate this film for what it is, but the fact is it doesn't know what it is.  After that first scene we cut to the origin of both Poison Ivy and Bane, and it's all about on par with Batman Forever.   John Glover plays Dr. Woodrue in these scenes, and he voiced The Riddler in Batman The Animated Series, so that's a nice crossover.

Barbara is then introduced as Alfred's niece, who strangely has no English accent despite being English and living in London up until recently.  There's then all this serious talk about how Batman thinks Robin is too reckless and takes too many chances, and Robin thinks Batman needs to learn to trust him, and Alfred scolds Bruce while Bruce keeps seeing images of Alfred raising him as a small boy.

Then Ivy starts using her phermones on the men, and we're back to absolute ridiculousness all over again.  There's madcap adventure and silliness until - oh, by the way, Alfred's dying.  It's just way too many sudden turns in tone and it just doesn't work.  Schumacher has claimed that the studio wanted a family friendly film and that's why things turned out the way they did.  But then why does Ivy use so much innuendo?  I suppose you could argue that it might fly over the heads of children, but it feels obvious to me.  And the whole thing with Alfred should really be upsetting, but it happens so quickly, and we're also dealing with the fourth guy to portray Bruce Wayne, so I'm just not feeling a closeness between them at all.

I wouldn't say that George Clooney makes an awful Batman, but he's not a notable one either.  Once again he barely has a storyline, and the ones he is involved in don't have much meat.  We see he's been successfully dating some woman for over a year, which is a little strange considering that every other relationship he's been in in previous films in the series was all about how he couldn't balance that.  But then she basically disappears after giving him a marriage ultimatum so I guess it doesn't matter.

There are glimmers of potential here.  The conflict between Bruce and Dick could have easily led into him becoming Nightwing in a future installment.  I like this portrayal of Ivy for the most part and I could see her easily carrying a film as the main villain, though if I'd like to see her use more plant creations than seduction in the process.  You also could have made a zany short film with just Freeze and the ultra-silliness and it would have been a great comedy.  But unfortunately we get them all mashed together instead, with Alfred Headroom in the computer adding Batgirl into the mix and it just doesn't work.  It's a complete mess.  It's very easy to see why this essentially killed the series.  At least we got a pretty good Smashing Pumpkins song out of the deal, with a decent alternate version as well.

I was laughing hysterically during the opening scene, so afterwards I thought it might be fun to film my reactions as I watched the movie.  I ended up getting a good sampling of the range of feelings I felt throughout:

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Batman Forever

If I had been excited leading up to Batman Returns' release, I was absolutely giddy waiting for Batman Forever.  There was one word alone that lead to this giddiness, and that word is "Nightwing."  I bet you expected me to say Robin, didn't you?  But no.  While I had already been ridiculously excited about the fact that Robin was going to be introduced into the films, it was the preview clip where Dick Grayson says "I don't know.. Batboy, Nightwing, what's a good sidekick name?" that made me jump up and down in fangirlish glee.  It was a teeny, tiny detail, but for me it was a moment where I first felt I was in on a secret joke.  I knew exactly what they were referring to, and the fact that they had taken the time to acknowledge comic book fans in that moment was enough to make me really happy.

I was also 14 and therefore at the appropriate age to like Chris O'Donnell and be happy with the choice.  I also may have been young enough to overlook some of the goofier aspects of the film.  So having not really watched the film in years, I was very curious to see if I would still love this film as much as I used to or be a bit embarrassed by the fact that I still own the Batman, Robin, and Riddler mugs that McDonald's sold. No, I don't know why I don't have the Two-Face mug either.

Overall, I'm not ashamed.  While the movie is definitely more about action and humor then drama or emotion, it excels at those two elements for the most part.  The action scenes may completely defy the laws of physics, but they're fun enough to watch that I find myself unable to care.  Everything is a mix of blacks and neons, and while certainly a very different color palette from what Burton was previously using, it still looks really nice.  While some of the humor is a little stretched, the rest is over the top silly fun that can make you smile.

The stretched humor lies with Jim Carrey.  While there's certainly a Frank Gorshin influence in his Riddler, there's also a lot of Ace Ventura there.  I think being a former fan of his allows me to tolerate this style now, even though I definitely can't say that I like it much anymore.  I imagine individual opinions on that are going to dictate just how someone feels about this film today.

But if you can ignore it, I think you're in for a treat.  Tommy Lee Jones plays Two Face with the kind of gleeful psychotic mayhem we're often used to seeing in Joker portrayals, but then every now and then Harvey Dent surfaces and he's suddenly so serious and somber.  It's unfortunate that he mostly plays second billing here to Riddler.  I think a movie that would have shown us more than the abbreviated version of his story would have been really great.  There is of course also the fact that Billy Dee Williams had previously portrayed Dent in the first film, but this isn't the first or last time a character has been recast through the course of a film series.  And considering that Batman was also recast, it's very easy to overlook.

I appreciate the fact that Kilmer seems to have at least tried to create a distinction between Batman and Bruce Wayne, even if this Bruce Wayne isn't the bungling playboy we're used to in other adaptations.  He's a little closer to Adam West's Bruce Wayne I think.  But I like that he at least tries to change his voice a bit when he's Batman to disguise his identity.

This is also the first time in this series that I feel like we're getting a real story arc for Batman himself - both in dealing with his repressed memory of his youth and the fact that he's finally found a female who understands him in a way the previous two didn't.  Chase Meridian is a little too forward for my tastes at times, but there's no denying that she's a strong woman who knows exactly what she wants.  The only thing is when you've got Bruce Wayne coming to you about the trauma of his past, and you fully acknowledge that Batman must have had a trauma in his past... you shouldn't have to wait until you kiss both of them to figure it out.

But let's face it, this move is still all about Dick Grayson for me.  I feel like they gave him a little bit more attitude than necessary, but I guess with the older age and the fact that he's currently reeling from the death of his family it's excusable.  I'm also fairly certain that the main reason he has a brother is just because most acrobatic acts are in fact made of four people, but I could be wrong.  Considering that he dies along with his parents I don't think it is a horrible change.  I really enjoy the dynamic between Dick and Bruce, and how it's very obvious that even from the beginning, Bruce truly cares about him.  Alfred's push to have Dick become Robin reminds me a lot of A Lonely Place of Dying,  where Tim Drake and Alfred both insist that Batman needs a Robin, until eventually the latter hands the costume over to the former to take on the role. 

Once again, this isn't a great film.  It's far more campy than the 1960s show ever was in some ways. It's silly and generally played very over the top.  A lot of the dialogue sounds more like something written to aid the movement of the story rather than how people would actually talk.  There are nipples on the Batsuit, and Riddler might as well be Ace Ventura or The Mask.  But I feel like it manages to strike enough of a balance that this is still a fun film to watch.

By the way, I find myself completely unable to fairly comment on whether or not the soundtrack is dated or appropriate.  See, I purchased it even before the movie release and it got a lot of play from me.  I love nearly every song on it.  Even Method Man's "The Riddler." So if anyone else has opinions on whether Brandy, The Offspring, and The Flaming Lips belong in the midst of a Batman film, I'd be interested to hear it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

I'll admit that I almost didn't include this movie in my marathon.  I was thinking that since it was an animated film, I could skip it.  But it is a theatrical release and therefore does count, and really why miss an excuse to talk about my favorite version of Batman?

The movie begins with yet another variation on Danny Elfman's Batman theme.  In an effort to make the opening titles more epic, they included choir voices and the tall buildings we normally see animated in 2D on the show are now CGI.  Unfortunately, all it really does is make me want to watch the normal opening credits again instead.

I had another disconnect as the movie began, as the voice actor playing Chuckie Sol in the opening scene would return to the show again later to voice Boxy Bennet.  He even literally uses a line that Boxy will use in "Harley's Holiday" - "This time I've got you, you lousy stinkin'-" and then he's cut off before he can finish it.  There's no way this wasn't something they did intentionally.  They must have really loved his voice and the way he executed that line and so they brought him back.  And now I've probably revealed just how freakishly well I know this series, that I can actually recognize that.  Oh well.

I had forgotten that this movie had a bit in common with Batman Begins, in that we see Bruce preparing to fight crime before he actually takes on the Batman persona.  Given that we have already been spending time with this Batman for one season of the show, it's nice to go back and see this younger version.  I also love that in the early scene when he faces down the thugs, he's using a gruffer voice but not the Batman voice yet.  It's a credit to Kevin Conroy that he's able to use that voice in such varying degrees.

They also take advantage of the fact that they're making a movie rather than being stuck on television.  Bruce tells another character "you know where to stuff it," Batman and Joker both bleed in their final fight, and Batman even has sex.  This latter part completely flew over my head when I went to see it when I was 12.  The only way I found this out was as we were leaving the theater.

Dad: "Man, they really pushed the limits with that movie.  Batman had sex."
Me: "What?  No he didn't."
Dad: "She was wearing his shirt the next morning.  That means they did it."

Me: "Oh....."

And that's how I learned to always look for that silly trope in movies and TV.

Unfortunately the main plot of the film with the Phantasm mystery and the love story just isn't terribly interesting.  Watching it now, it's pretty obvious that Andrea is the killer, though I'll admit as a kid I was fooled by the false voice she uses and took her on her word.  It makes Batman look a little naive, but then this is a woman he was deeply in love with, so you can understand why he might ignore the obvious evidence in front of him.

But the movie is saved by the fact that Jack Napier used to work for these gangsters, and therefore we get to include the Joker in the film as well.  I love that when Salvatore Valestra (voiced by Abe Vigoda, by the way) comes to the Joker for help, Joker gleefully messes with him for a bit, then kills him but leaves the trap to try to catch Batman committing these murders.  And when he realizes it's not Batman, he knows who the killer is almost immediately.  Mark Hamil will always be my Joker, and this film shows why.  He'll laugh at anything, with a gleeful enthusiasm that is somehow both unsettling and infectious, but he's also got that temper that makes him turn into a truly frightening psychopath at any moment.  So wonderful.  I really love that final fight between him and Batman in the miniature of Gotham because the props just make the fight so much more interesting.

Remember how I said I love Michael Gough as Alfred?  I do,  but I have to say I love Efrem Zimbalist Jr. so much more.  He has such a wonderful dry sense of humor, and he also has such a great relationship with Bruce.  There's one point toward the end of the film where he calls him "sir" and then by his first name from one sentence to the next, and while it should sound awkward it doesn't.  You just really see what a complicated but also wonderful relationship these two characters have with each other.

This movie is basically a slightly longer two part Batman the Animated Series episode, with a bit of edginess thrown in to earn that PG rating.  There are better episodes of the series than this film, but this still ranks pretty high in terms of quality.  There were two direct to home release sequels made after this movie, Batman & Mr Freeze: SubZero and Mystery of the Batwoman.  I've seen both and they're of pretty decent quality.  There was also a Batman Beyond film that's technically set in the same universe, but I haven't seen it since I haven't watched that series yet.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Batman Returns

My main memories of Batman Returns revolve around a lot of the hype that preceded the film's release.  I remember watching behind the scenes moments with Michelle Pfeifer talking about how she had accidentally hit Tim Burton with her whip in one scene.  Despite not really caring about the first film, I was pretty excited for this one.  Batman The Animated Series was probably the main culprit.  And while this film is probably just as ridiculous as Batman is, for some reason I remember it much more fondly.

While both Burton films are remembered for being dark, this one definitely takes a much grimmer turn than the original.  Only Tim Burton can start off a Christmas film by showing parents throw their baby away.  (I'm sure everyone knows by now that it's Paul Reubens playing the father, but I still grin whenever I see him here.) The film is primarily about its villains, with Batman/Bruce Wayne taking more of a backseat role, and that probably explains just how twisted it is.  In a lot of ways this movie is all about the Penguin, with just a side story for Catwoman that intersects at certain points.

Perhaps that's why I don't really care for Michael Keaton as Batman.  After watching both of these films, I have to admit that he barely has any real screen time as Batman where he isn't just fighting or driving one of his vehicles.  As such, I see no true distinction between his two personas.  We're mostly told about his issues with duality far more than we ever see it.  He's also absolutely terrible at concealing his identity, though Alfred isn't helping either.  The way Alfred just let Vicky Vale into the batcave last film really bugged me, and I like that we get a throw away line here to point that out.  But then of course Bruce goes and rips his mask off right in front of Max Shreck at the end, so he has no room to talk.

Speaking of Alfred, there wasn't too much in the movie last time for me to really mention him, but Michael Gough is just awesome in these movies.  He's witty, he's a concerned father figure, and he's quite technically adept for a man of his age.  I don't know how you couldn't love this version of Alfred, really.

After having such a cookie cutter female in the last film, I really love that we swung in the opposite direction this time around with Selina Kyle.  She starts off so timid and weak, but she still has this wonderful sense of humor when she's alone that you can't help but like and sympathize with her.  She then goes through being killed and somehow surviving, and to this day I always get this big smile on my face when she changes the sign from "Hello There" to "Hell here."  Sure, it's obvious and why would anyone have "Hello There" in neon hanging in their room to begin with, but it's such a simple action that shows her current state of mind.  She's too cruel toward the female victim in the alley that she saves, but I think it's easy to see that she's mad at her old self and therefore projecting it onto that woman.  I also can't give enough props to Michelle Pfeiffer here for portraying Selina's divided emotions so perfectly.  That scene under the mistletoe where she gives out that crazy laugh is just great, and her sad "Does this mean we have to fight now?" really gets me.

The movie is entirely absurd and has no logic for most of its situations.  Somehow, a bunch of cats walking over her and licking and biting her manages to give Selina nine lives, or at least make her really hard to kill.  The penguin somehow manages to hack into the batmobile security system and rewire it, and he's got plans hanging on the wall as if he could just pick up a batmobile blueprint at the store somewhere.  He also managed to secure tons of missiles and develop little mind control devices for his many penguin friends at the zoo.  But I'm willing to overlook all this because the film is fun in its own dark twisted way and never feels like it drags over its running time.

The Penguin is just so weird and so disgusting.  His oddly shaped body, his flipper hands and jagged teeth, and apparently his saliva and blood are green besides.  The Penguin I'm familiar with from the cartoon was a very polite individual, but this one doesn't hesitate to bite off the nose of a guy who makes fun of the way he looks.  He's incredibly over the top, but Danny DeVito plays him with such sincerity that you really believe it.  That moment at the end, when he comes out of the water and slowly heads toward Batman, and Elfman's music swells and then he's dead with that sudden choking gasp and the penguins escort him back into the water... I really hope I'm not the only one feeling a little sorry for him at that point.

I think I prefer this film so much more than the previous because they really fixed a lot of the previous one's errors.  There's no cheesy music added to the soundtrack, the romance actually makes sense given the two characters involved, and beyond the Penguin's tech, we see enough about both villains to understand their motivations and capabilities.  This isn't a great film, but it's a fun film and therefore one worth watching.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Batman (1989)

A lot of members of my generation really love Tim Burton's Batman film.  Guys especially, I think, remember it being a really big deal and probably where they first fell in love with Batman.  While I do remember some of my brother's friends being really excited about the film, it was not something that we rushed out to see in theaters.  What I distinctly remember was that one of my mom's friends let us borrow the VHS so we could watch it.  And I'm sorry boys, but I wasn't too impressed back then.  When I watched it again later as an adult, I really, really didn't like it.  But for the sake of this review, I tried to go into it as fresh as I could and give an honest critique of the film.

Given my memory, I was honestly shocked to find myself really enjoying the first forty minutes or so of the film.  I liked the fake out that makes us think we're seeing a young Bruce Wayne, but we're not.  Instead, we immediately see a fully developed Batman going after criminals.  It's still early in his career, where he's mostly just a rumor on the streets of Gotham, but I actually really enjoy the fact that Burton trusted us to know enough about Batman to not have to spoon feed it to us.

It all has this wonderful noir look and feel, with the mobsters, the crooked cop, the reporter and the dame photographer.  Jack Napier shows no signs of madness yet, but he's a decent enough bad guy who makes the mistake of betraying his boss and being set up for death.  The build up to his transformation is also great, from the face off between him and Batman before he's plunged into the acid, and that great moment afterward where the plastic surgeon unwraps him.  Unfortunately, it's not long after this that everything goes downhill for me.

I really don't like the design of the Joker's face.  The comic influence is obvious, but it just looks far too cheesy in real life.  The prosthetic is impressive for the time, but it's still just too obvious that he's got something in his cheeks and I just hate the way it looks.  I could deal with that if it wasn't for the fact that his characterization is so tacked on and strange.  We saw him playing with a deck of cards before his transformation, but no sign of being a real jokester or liking clowns, so his sudden over the top personality seems like a different person.  However I'm also willing to excuse that, because seeing your face so horribly changed into this clownish appearance could also make you bonkers enough to embrace it.  It also helps that this is essentially just every character Jack Nicholson has ever played before, but with lots more laughing.

No, what's worse is that we're told he's an artist and a chemist through one line exposition and so that's why we need to just accept that he's capable of making poisonous chemicals and why he wants to destroy works of art and turn people into twisted creations that mirror himself.  I don't really see why there couldn't have been some kind of set up in the beginning to make this all worthwhile.  Especially since a lot of movie time gets wasted after this on how awesome and desirable Vicky Vale is.

Seriously.  I feel like the movie just slows completely to a crawl once Joker sets up a date with Vale.  He thinks she's beautiful, he appreciates her camera work, he wants her to take pictures of his creations.  Meanwhile Bruce Wayne is also totally in love with her, but is heavily divided by his commitments to being Batman that he doesn't know if he can open up to her.  I know Kim Basinger was considered pretty hot back in the 80s, but seriously, this character is no where near interesting enough to have these two men basically fighting over her.  It also makes her a little too generic damsel in distress.  Beyond one scene where she basically tells Bruce to fess up his feelings or leave her alone, she's a weak character pining for a man who by all outside appearances sweet talked her into a one night stand and then kicked her to the curb.  The fact that she's right and he does have feelings for her doesn't change that.

This movie has another element that leaves me completely and utterly divided - the music.  The score by Danny Elfman is incredible and gives me chills.  I know that main theme by heart thanks to the animated series, but they use a slightly different arrangement here in the film and it was a treat to hear it this way.  The score remains awesome throughout the film.  But we also have two Prince songs being used.  Please understand that I absolutely love Prince.  I had a love affair with his song "Seven" when it was released, and I've grown up listening to all his classics.  It just feels so wrong here and ages the film in a way that is hard to ignore.  Only in the 80s would someone think this is a good idea.  The song during the parade scene is a little better, but the one in the museum is just absolutely cringe-worthy.

That said, the film does have a decent payoff.  I like how the Wayne deaths are incorporated in a way that makes sense, and I like that both Batman and the Joker created each other even if it's not comic canon.  The ascent up the bell tower has good buildup, and the final fight is well done.  Though it's very interesting to see a Batman who willingly lets multiple people fall to their deaths.  One of the few things I do remember from my first viewing as a child was being really creeped out at that final moment with the Joker lying there motionless with the laughter going off, and it's still creepy to this day.

So while I do think this movie could probably stand to have its romance subplot removed and replaced with a better Joker origin, overall I have to admit it's a pretty good action film.  I didn't even mind Michael Keaton as Batman like I had thought I would.  Though I may change my mind after the next one.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Batman (1966)

My first encounter with the Batman television show was after having already seen both the Burton Batman films and falling in love with Batman The Animated Series.  As such, I was pretty confused about why this Batman was so overly silly, and figured it was related to people not taking comic books seriously back then.  However, it was still characters I was very familiar with and I was able to enjoy it for what it was.  I don't think I saw this film, which was made at the end of the first season, until some time later.

If anyone had any idea that this was meant to be a serious action movie rather than a comedy with action elements, I'm sure those thoughts were quickly dispelled the moment Batman gets a giant rubber shark attached to his leg that can only be removed with shark repellant. You have to love how gleefully aware of itself this film, and the show itself, really was.  Of course it's silly and goofy and stupid, that's the whole point.

The main difference between this film and the TV Show is that they clearly had a bigger budget, and they took full advantage of that.  We see the batcopter, batboat, and batcycle alongside the batmobile, and the Penguin has a "pre-atomic" submarine that he paints to look like a penguin.  I put pre-atomic in quotes because in one scene the characters tell us several times that's exactly what it is.  We also find out in that scene that the military in this universe isn't too bright, because when a Mr. P. N. Guinn came to purchase a submarine, they let him have it without even getting a physical address from him.  It's an interesting jab at the military's expense considering that this Batman is a deputized agent of law enforcement rather than a vigilante.

The other advantage of the larger budget is that we get four villains all paired up together, and they're all the biggest villains of the time - Cesar Romero as Joker, Burgess Meredith as Penguin, Lee Meriwether as Catwoman, and Frank Gorshin as The Riddler.  Lee Meriwether was replacing Julie Newmar here, but honestly I didn't even realize she was a different actress until I went to look up the cast.  Granted, it has been a while since I watched the show.  Anyway, I think Penguin and Catwoman end up getting a bit more screen time over all, but Joker and Riddler are still used well, and it's great to hear their laughs if nothing else.

The plot is fairly simple - they're joining together to take over the world, and they figure kidnapping a millionaire will get the Batman to come after them, and once they've killed him they can take over.  The only trouble is they decide to kidnap Bruce Wayne, and they use Catwoman, pretending to be a Russian reporter, as bait to trap him.  This ends up in a classic storyline by now, where Batman and Catwoman are romantically involved while neither has any idea of the other's true identity.  Though in this case, I don't think Catwoman has any true interest in Bruce Wayne.

But of course this movie isn't so much about the plot as it is about the gags, and there are plenty.  For what is essentially a superlong episode of the TV show, it doesn't feel too slow or full of filler.  Basically they just took everything fun and included it.  We see Batman and Robin "climb" a wall, run through the streets (actually running in place with the projection screen behind them), we see the sound effects when they fight in the final scene, and there are so many great bits and sight gags I can't list them all.  "Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!" is probably the most well known by now, and it deserves it, as it reminds me of something on par with a Looney Tunes sketch.  I was also particularly tickled by the Riddler's riddles and the answers Batman and Robin come up with.

"What has yellow skin and writes?" Batman asks.
"A ballpoint banana!" Robin answers, while actually holding a No. 2 pencil in his hand.
"The only obvious answer, Robin." Batman agrees.

The only bit that doesn't really age well are the moments where we see the "United World Security Council."   They are seen constantly arguing, which is a nice parody, but it's the ridiculous accents and mannerisms which are a little too stereotypical.  Though it is funny that when Batman puts them together again (they were dehydrated by a gun the villains had) and they are all speaking the wrong language, Batman claims this will lead to them understanding each other better and declares his job finished.  Of course this is all pretty mild compared to that 1943 serial, but it still felt a little wrong by modern standards.

Since it doesn't look like we're going to get an official home release of the television series any time soon, this film is your best bet if you want to own a piece of the show.  I highly recommend it as a silly and wonderful good time.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Batman and Robin (1949)

I hope you paid attention to that year in the title, because we're not quite at that other Batman & Robin film just yet!  This is the second serial created, and fortunately being made in 1949 means we're past WWII and can just focus on telling a hero story.

This serial does share some things in common with its predecessor however.  The budgets are low, which means that the costumes look fairly cheap.  Batman fairs even worse in this one, as his bat ears are a little too pointy and off center.  His cape seems to be made out of some kind of material that almost always seems to get in the way during the fight scenes. For the time period however, those fight scenes are usually pretty good.  Lots of different things going on at once with lots of back and forth action.

There's also a nice heavy dose of pseudo-science that has to make you laugh.  The villain here, called The Wizard, has stolen a machine which was designed to remote control vehicles from a distance.  It's powered through diamonds.  Let's stop and think about that for just a moment.  I suppose a remote control vehicle is supposed to be useful because you wouldn't need a driver, but you'd need someone to control it remotely, so you're really not saving man power.  Then you power it with one of the most expensive and rare substances on earth - how is this going to be helpful to anyone but a villain?  Really they were not thinking about this one at all.

The Wizard also has some kind of blinky eyes in his mask that allow him to hypnotize people for some reason.  It's hysterical.  Apparently mind control was a really big plot device in the 1940s, because Dr. Daka in the previous serial put special headpieces on people to control them from a distance too. Eventually he also gains the ability to turn invisible.

We have a few more familiar pieces of Batman history being incorporated here.  The batcave is back, and is now full of lots of high tech gear.  Commissioner Gordon heads the police force, and Vicky Vale is Bruce Wayne's love interest.  Batman is once again a vigilante and not secretly working for the army.  We even see the batsignal for the first time, though how that tiny little light manages to be visible in the sky, I have no idea.

This serial includes a few mystery elements, as we have multiple possible identities for The Wizard, from the old man who invented the machine and also apparently has a device which charges him up and allows him to get out of his wheelchair and walk again, as well as a radio newscaster who always knows what The Wizard's crimes are going to be before they happen.  That last one is rather ridiculous - Gordon has his men speak to him, but when the newscaster says "trade secrets!" they let him get away with it rather than taking him into custody.  However the question of whodunnit keeps your interest and makes you want to come back for more far better than those overly silly cliffhanger endings do.

You might think that a serial would be fast paced and nonstop action, but you'd be wrong.  The episodes are generally about half slow plot development and half fight scenes leading to a cliffhanger, and I found it pretty hard to watch too many in one sitting.  But this one is definitely much more worth watching than the previous serial.  If you have an appreciation for a more classical style of film making, I recommend it.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Batman (1943)

In preparation for the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, I figured it was time to do a Batman movie marathon!  While most people tend to think of Tim Burton's Batman being the first, there's actually a few theatrical releases that proceed it, the first two being serials rather than full feature films.  As the blog title tells you, the first one was made in 1943.  Unfortunately.

I say unfortunately because this means that it aired right when America was in the midst of fighting in World War II and is therefore chock full of propaganda.  Batman isn't a vigilante, he's a secret agent for the army.  Racism against the Japanese is prevalent in the serial from the very beginning when our narrator gleefully tells us that all the Japanese Americans in Little Tokyo have been rounded up and put in detention camps "where they belong" though our main villain Dr. Daka has somehow escaped their clutches.  Daka is of course not actually played by an Asian man but the Irish J. Carrol Naish in full stereotypical ethnic portrayal of the time.  This really isn't so much a Batman story as it is a Pro-American Anti-Japanese film starring guys dressed in Batman and Robin costumes to play the heroes.

I usually have a fascination with this type of stuff.  I'm a firm believer that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it, and I tend to enjoy it as a learning experience.  Here in New Orleans we have the excellent World War II museum, and the section dedicated to propaganda is fascinating, as it shows propaganda from both sides of the war.  But I really don't need to be reminded every single episode that the Japanese are trying to build an evil empire, the Americans are strong willed patriots who will always prevail, and that apparently the English are a little bungling and silly.  Both Alfred and another English character are shown in a silly light, and all I can imagine is that this was some kind of sentiment related to believing that the  English weren't capable of winning the war on their own and desperately needed us?  It's rather head scratching.

However, you can't deny that this film is important to Batman continuity as a whole.  While referred to as "The Bat's Cave" this is the first appearance of the Batcave and would lead to it being established in the comics as well.  Also, Alfred here is very thin with a mustache, while previously in the comics he had been more portly.  In a move we're all now incredibly familiar with in recent Marvel films and comics, Alfred went off to a health spa and came back looking more like William Austin's portrayal in this serial.

As a serial that means that every episode ends on a cliffhanger, and all I can think of is Annie Wilkes from Misery. She tells author Paul Sheldon that pretending Misery had never really died in the previous book was a cheat like the old serials she watched as a kid.  We see a car careen off a cliff and explode with the hero stuck inside, but then the next episode starts and we learn that he actually escaped the car just before it went off the cliff.  Well, Annie, I'm with you.  It is a cheat, and Batman didn't get out of that cockadoodie car either.  I can just imagine how incredibly tired people got of seeing heroes seemingly blow up, fall to their deaths, almost get run over by trains, etc. in cinema back then.  Seems like every serial I've ever seen uses those tricks.

However this silliness also led to another important part of Batman history - that being the 1960s TV series.  It's easy to see that series as a direct parody of this and the later serial, with tongue planted firmly in cheek all the while.

So I can't really recommend this serial for anyone other than the die hard fan, or perhaps someone who is a really big fan of WWII propaganda films.  But I am glad I at least checked it out.  It's available pretty cheap on DVD these days, so if you're curious, I say go for it.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Fritz the Cat

Sometimes I add things to my Netflix queue out of a morbid sense of curiosity.  I don't think The Garbage Pail Kids Movie or Bloodrayne are going to be excellent examples of film-making, but I am curious as to just how bad bad can get.  I added Fritz the Cat to my queue a long time ago on a similar reasoning.  I had heard it was all disgusting shock value and not much else.  I expected to turn the movie on and most likely shut it off in the first five to ten minutes once I had a good idea just what it was going for.  Imagine my surprise when I actually enjoyed it.

There's no doubt that the film is shocking and disgusting, but it's all in the name of satire.  Fritz is a college kid in the 1960s, claiming to be in search of the truth and adventure, wanting to connect with others who are all about waking up America to the dream it's been living in.  He claims to understand the plight of the black man and wants to help him usurp his white suppressors.  In reality, Fritz and most of those he runs into are just degenerate idiots, though the cops that call them so are just as ignorant and stupid.

Drugs and sex aren't helping them reach a higher consciousness, they're just acting like fools.  Fritz doesn't understand a single thing about what it's like for minorities, and his attempts to help only make things much worse.  He eventually rejects the counterculture, yet continues to help them in their cause while condemning them.  And at the end he hasn't learned a single thing.

While some of the satire here is very specific to 1960s America, I think a lot of it is still relevant today and therefore just as amusing.  I appreciate the fact that no one comes off looking good in the film - it's a nice way to point out that in one way or another, we're all part of the problem.

I couldn't help but liken Fritz to Candide, as a young man looking for answers and frequently being misled by others.  But while Candide is often misled directly by the philosophers he runs into, Fritz has been lied to by authors like Jack Kerouac.  And while Candide learns to focus by "cultivating his garden," Fritz shrugs off his near death experience and goes back to where he was before.  It's a more cynical outcome, to be sure, but perhaps slightly better than the original intent to have him die at the end.  Or is it worse?  I suppose that depends on your viewpoint.

I also think that the fact that this is the first X-rated animated film makes it significant.  Director Ralph Bashki wanted to make a film that was the complete opposite of a Disney animated film, and there's no doubt he succeeded.  I also think that's necessary.  Far too often, even today, animation is brushed aside as solely a children's genre, and there's no reason why that has to be the case.  Live action children's films are easy to recognize versus an adult live action film, and the same can be done for animation.  It's just another medium, and I think artists should be allowed to explore it in any way they choose.  The nature of it also really makes it best for exceedingly dark themes.  No one can get hurt this way, after all.

The one scene I found disturbing is when a female is stripped and abused.  After so much excess done with a humorous wink, that scene was not funny at all.  However, I think that was intentional - it is a wake up call for Fritz (however fleeting it may be for him) and therefore a sign to us in the audience just where all this depravity can lead.

This isn't the kind of film that everyone is going to enjoy.  We all have our own personal line on what offends us and what we consider funny. For me this was a well done satire, for you it may be trash.  But if you do enjoy satire and aren't easily offended, I'd recommend giving it a shot.  You can always turn it off after the first ten minutes if it's not your thing.
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