Monday, November 19, 2007

The Batman Franchise

In an effort to get caught up with the massive backlog of DVDs and DVD-Rs stacking up in a silently mocking fashion in the office and on the shelves downstairs, I am attempting to start watching these things at a more accelerated pace (say, more than one every few weeks) for as long as is feasible and writing about the ones I feel are worth passing along. Perhaps this way I'll keep myself writing and hopefully lose this nagging feeling that I am unwittingly turning this condominium into a museum full of pretty silver discs. I'll also try to keep the spoilers to a minimum. Promise.

The batsignal and its intended recipient, sometime late last week
I think it was due to a used copy of the current 2-DVD version appearing in the used bin at work that I decided to revisit Tim Burton's original blockbuster take on Batman. Watching that movie for the first time in well over a decade sparked a desire to re-experience his follow-up Batman Returns a bit later, and from there I got the rather masochistic notion that I should re-experience all of the films in the series (as well as the recent franchise "reload" project Batman Begins) for a review project. Obviously, there are times when I should stop listening to my brilliant creative impulses.

Yes, I knew in advance what I'd be getting myself into with those two mid-1990s entries in the series as I had seen them once apiece in the theater upon their release, and loathed them enough that I made the mistake of not even bothering with Batman Begins when it appeared in theaters a couple years back, despite the coaxing and protestations of friends (in meat-life and otherwise). What can I say? We all make mistakes.

Batman and The Joker have a difference in opinion.
To get in the frame of mind that people experienced Batman when it was new, you have to put yourself back into the early summer of 1989, which is the time period when that movie was the single biggest marketing power on the planet. Long before such things as viral campaigns and the modern 24-hour media news suite that is now the primary component in the entertainment promotion machine, Batman was perhaps the most anticipated movie event since Return Of The Jedi in that it was impossible to go anywhere without seeing something or someone sporting that ubiquitous "bat signal" logo. Even amongst such high-flying roman-numeral-heavy competition as Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Ghostbusters II, Honey I Shrunk The Kids, and Lethal Weapon 2, Batman was the movie event of that summer, and an unstoppable cultural juggernaut that squashed everything in its path.

This is hardly the first time anyone has said this of a summer blockbuster, but it's far more interesting to talk about Batman as a commercial/cultural powerhouse (not to mention how much shit hit the fan when Michael Keaton was announced as Bruce Wayne/Batman instead of, uh, I dunno, Sylvester Stallone or something) than it is to discuss it as a movie since there isn't an awful lot of substance to dive into here. That said, I have been informed by quite a few people over the years when drawn into discussions of comic book movies that Batman represents one of the all-time peaks of the genre. Mmmhmm. I'll respectfully disagree there. I will, however, allow that Batman was certainly the crowning "event movie" of that decade and the template for nearly all of the superhero films that were made in the years since ... but it sure hasn't aged very well.

Despite an attempted "love triangle" storyline and a drawn-out ending set piece atop an old clock tower, there is never a tangible feeling of tension built up during any point in this film. It's also impossible to take most of Batman seriously when it seems like Jack Nicholson's portions of the movie bend over backwards trying to be as screwy and over-the-top as possible. So, this is a comedy, right? Well, no ... Keaton's half of the movie is weighty and ponderous and has only Michael Gough's splendid interpretation of Alfred the butler to provide any kind of subtle (though no less welcome) relief. It's all so very complicated being a hero, you see ...

The plot of Batman, luckily(?), is far less complicated: The Joker appears, kills the crime boss of Gotham City, and then poisons some cosmetics products while Batman occasionally beats up his hired muscle. There is also a lot of forced exposition we have to sit through whenever Nicholson and Keaton are off screen, and we are left to deal instead with Big 80s Hair-wearing Kim Basinger and the woefully under-used Robert Wuhl. The other name actors spread about the flick in order to give this movie some kind of clout (Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Jack Palance and, uh, Jerry Hall) are used so sparingly in window dressing roles as to almost be highly-paid cameos.

Like I said before, you have to put yourself in our shoes at that time to derive enjoyment out of this movie on any level. In 1989, we all believed the hype and convinced ourselves that Batman was, like, the bees knees. In retrospect, I'll stick with that Indiana Jones film instead, thanks very much.

Batman Returns
Everyone knew a sequel to Batman was inevitable from the instant it smashed its first opening day record, and when Batman Returns arrived three years later the anticipation for it was nearly as feverish as the mass jonesing that had greeted the first movie. This time, however, the results actually seemed worthy of the hype, though the overall tone of the film was perhaps a tad too bleak for Warner Bros. (not to mention thousands of freaked-out youngsters who were treated to one of the most relentlessly schizoid and melancholy superhero films ever created). Burton had been talked into returning to the director's chair once again only on the condition that he had free reign to make exactly the kind of Batman film he had wanted to make the first time around. Warners, seeing nothing but stacks of profits in their heads, said "Sure, yeah, whatever" and gave him the green-light with no strings attached. With Burton back on board, Keaton returned as well, and in an inspired bit of casting, Danny DeVito was announced as The Penguin.

Given a creative license to kill and pots of studio cash at his disposal, Burton may not have delivered the biggest movie of all time (as I'm sure was the idea from corporate), but he certainly made one of the most visually arresting films of his career. The exteriors, all of them reflecting the grim, obsidian metropolis of Gotham City plunged into wintertime (to reflect the movie's Christmas setting), look like a ravishing cross between Blade Runner and Edward Scissorhands. Whether or not you are into superheroes or action films, Batman Returns is impossible to take your eyes off of: the luxuriant amount of detail in the sets and costumes make this the most expensive piece of Gothic eye candy ever released.

If the rich production design alone made this film worth a look, the performances and more character-intensive script helped sealed the deal. Batman Returns also sets up the pattern of a revolving love interest for Batman that would continue throughout the rest of the series to date, with Basinger replaced by the infinitely-more talented Michelle Pfeiffer (who, by the way, looks absolutely delicious in skintight PVC). Portraying Selina Kyle, the harried secreta ... sorry, executive assistant to Wayne's corporate adversary Max Schreck (points for those who spotted the reference the first time they saw the flick), and also the double-identity of Catwoman, the newest semi-crazed anti-hero in town. As expected, DeVito's Penguin chews scenery every bit as loudly as Nicholson's Joker did, but this time there is a second villain to counter weigh his showboating in the form of the icy smooth Schreck. Brought to life by a hilariously deadpan Christopher Walken, Schreck is the true villain of Batman Returns, seeking to play Batman, Gotham City, and the victimized and misguided Penguin against each other for his own future gain, all other priorities rescinded.

Commercially, Batman Returns did pretty good bank over the summer of 1992, but "pretty good" was not the kind of box office cume that Warner Bros. had in mind following the utter world domination that the first film had managed three years before. While Burton's vision was certainly guaranteed of drawing a hip and devoted following, Warners decided that they really wanted someone with a far more "safe" and crowd-pleasing approach to helm the Batman series for a while, and they eventually settled on none other than Joel Schumacher ...

The Riddler and Two-Face attempt a ''subtle'' emotional scene.
Batman Forever marked a turning point in the franchise as the stars and creators of the first two films were successfully replaced with more marketable personnel (and Tommy Lee Jones). To his credit, Val Kilmer makes a surprisingly good Bruce Wayne/Batman (being much younger and more energetic, though somehow less charming, than Keaton's haunted recluse), and could have easily made the part his own if he had stuck around for longer than one movie. Along with the new Bat comes a new love interest: Nicole Kidman plays a criminal psychologist named Chase Meridian, and she lays it on hot and heavy right from the start, doing her utmost to make even Vicki Vale look like a prude.

I'll be totally honest here, Batman Forever was nowhere near as awful as I'd remembered, though it certainly is no monument to bravura film making. Despite Burton's name seen in an executive producer's capacity during the opening credits (I guess this was a kind of symbolic passing-of-the-torch), the feel of this movie couldn't be any more different from the previous two. Schumacher takes wheel and puts the pedal firmly to the metal in a blatant attempt to create a Batman movie that appeals to nearly every possible target audience. Cranked to eleven, stuffed with crowd-pleasing jokes and double entendres, and possessed of a sense of breathless momentum throughout, Forever makes the first two films in the series seem like Masterpiece Theater in comparison.

Now here is the weird thing: somehow, this almost works. But it's with the twin villains (or perhaps just the villains themselves) that Batman Forever starts to come apart at the seams. I suppose these new baddies were a direct reaction to the truly creepy Penguin from Returns; instead of a true sense of twisted, psychotic menace, Jones plays Two-Face as a complete bumbling idiot (or at least a hapless buffoon with a .45 and a hair trigger) while Jim Carrey taps into an even more obnoxious version of his usual shtick as Edward Nygma/The Riddler. These two are supposed to represent a challenge for Batman? Hell, they're no more than cartoons, as safe as milk and never posing any kind of real threat to anyone or anything aside from their henchmen. Considering how kiddie-friendly this movie was, it's somewhat startling that ancillary characters still manage to die onscreen (though nearly always in utterly bloodless fashion), which apparently was one of the biggest issues parents had with the first two movies. It appears, though, that this particular issue more of that had to do with the depictions of death more than anything else. Surprise.

Gotham City itself is also noticeably transformed by the change in directors. While Tim Burton's vision was pretty much what you might expect from a sad-sack, black-clad college art student type, Schumacher's tendencies seem to come straight from modern Broadway extravaganzas, particularly his penchant for utilizing gaudy, brightly colored lights to fit different moods in different scenes. In Batman Forever, Gotham City is a garish, day-glo cityscape so MTV-like in appearance that you're almost expecting characters to start singing (or packs of choreographed dancers to spring from every doorway along the strangely de-populated looking streets). The neon lights and lasers flashing about randomly in the background look pretty silly on their own, but things get really over the top when we reach the Riddler's hideout at the movie's climax, where so many VariLites are twirling about in programmed unison that it feels like we just wandered into a Pink Floyd concert by mistake.

Another remarkable change Schumacher institutes in Forever is the daring use of daylight once in a while: we are actually shown exterior shots of the city and Wayne Manor basking in the sun, which somehow makes them even more surreal than they were under Burton's watch (now that we can actually see it, Gotham City looks a hell of lot more like New York City by way of ancient Rome with phallic columns and statues of beaten, slumped figures scattered hither and yon). We also get a redesigned, blue-lit, one-seater Batmobile with a silly mohawk-like fin on top: watching this flytrap on wheels taking curves during chase scenes gave me the distinct impression that it handled more like a box kite than an armored car.

Finally, Batman Forever heralded the introduction of Robin to the franchise at last (Burton, who was no fan of the character, delayed this development for as long as he was in the director's chair). Of course, having another poseable action figure to license must have pleased the Warners shareholders, but casting the nearly charmless Chris O'Donnell in this role was probably not the greatest idea ever. At first, we sympathize with the character: the scene in which we are introduced to young Dick Grayson just before we get to see Two-Face kill his entire heroic family in one fell swoop is handled better than could have been expected. It doesn't take long to figure out why: O'Donnell has hardly any dialogue in it. Once he starts snapping and whining, our good faith sours in a hurry. I never figured I'd miss Burt Ward as Boy Wonder, but I sure do now ...

(Incidentally, I'm guessing that the above murders are considered as "lighter" in tone than anything in the Burton films since none of the deceased are ever seen spitting black and green fluid out of their mouths, but if I'm wrong on this, lemme know. )

Batman & Robin.
Released a lightning-quick two years later, Batman & Robin starts off in very unpromising fashion: we get to watch the Dynamic Duo suiting up for their next mission in a series of whoosh-y, tightly-edited flashes that make sure we get a very close look at their chests, asses and crotches (all encased in rubber, thankfully). From there, we're off and running with the film that killed the whole franchise for nearly a decade.

As dopey and silly as Batman Forever was, Batman & Robin was a thousand times worse in every possible category. Serving up two hours of extreme audience punishment that should have resulted in a class action lawsuit, Batman & Robin is a true freak of cinematic nature: the kind of unbelievably atrocious product that only a large multinational entertainment corporation can create with an unlimited budget, a callous attitude towards their audience, and a belief that simply throwing money around willy-nilly will result in box office gold (and that will then translate into a half-dozen highly successful satellite revenue streams from action figures, breakfast cereal, "music from and inspired by" soundtrack albums, fast-food promotions, et cetera). Sadly, of course, this kind of movie making actually works once in a while, but every now and again a stinker as ruthlessly calculated as this one falls on its face and restores, however briefly, a sense of faith in the American moviegoer.

The chief characteristic of a truly dumb digital-age blockbuster is to function like a kind of theme park "thrill ride," which is to say that the object of the film is to entertain the audience by continually assaulting them where they sit. Once beaten into submission, some ancient reptilian part of the human brain makes the audience believe they are having the time of their lives when all they're really doing is watching buildings and vehicles exploding while characters yell lines at the top of their lungs at each other in order to artificially raise the level of tension. Finally, movies like these must have at least one sequence, ideally in the third act, where the heroes race against the Countdown Clock Of Doom and save the day with only seconds (or less) to spare.

If this, dear reader, sounds like your ideal movie experience (or if you have a terrible case of Attention Deficit Disorder), then grab a copy of Batman & Robin and enjoy the ride. Here's the best of what lies in store ...

*Just about every moving object in this movie that does not respire will either explode, sprout wings, or turn into a rocket ship. A chase sequence of some kind usually ensues shortly afterward.

*Lights in Gotham City (whether in the streets or indoors) are always twirling or twinkling busily away and never standing still.

*The music (whether the score or a song by whatever Warners artist's manager begged the most for screen time) utterly dominates the mix when there aren't sound effects aren't going off cannon-like all around us.

*The Batmobile looks even more like a flimsy fiber-optic toy than the last one did.

*Something, or someone is always flying through the air (and making noise while doing so).

The whole effect of this complete overload is a feeling of odd dislocation when we break away from the cacaphony to see how weak Alfred is looking and how worried Bruce Wayne is becoming over his father figure's worsening condition. The drama of these scenes is leavened somewhat by our knowledge that Alfred's death in this movie is about as likely as Fred Durst winning the Nobel Science Prize for biochemistry.

The character overload factor that became a real problem in Forever was actually upped in Batman & Robin: Batgirl is added late into the mix almost as an afterthought in order to help our heroes face two more idiotic and incompetent villains in the monstrously irritating form of Poison Ivy, (played by Uma Thurman as the retarded offspring of Mae West and Emo Phillips), with Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his kinder, gentler post-Terminator 2 form) portraying the gullible, blue-skinned moron Dr. Victor Freeze.

If these new villains weren't lame enough, George Clooney's Bruce Wayne/Batman is so detached and phoned-in that one wonders if he was channelling Dean Martin for inspiration. This was at a time when Clooney was still busy playing variations on his Doug Ross character from ER, and he makes perhaps the least-believable Bruce Wayne yet. Meanwhile, O'Donnell is, if possible, even more irritating than he was in Forever, while dependably pouty Alicia Silverstone plays the rebellious, motorcycle-lovin' Batgirl whose biggest contribution to the movie is being in the obligatory "catfight" scene with Poison Ivy. All of this leaves Michael Gough as the only actor to come out of the last two films with his dignity intact (Kilmer had a few too many silly lines during his turn as Batman to qualify for this award), though it might have been more fitting if Alfred had been allowed to expire instead, as Goat knows the entire rest of the franchise did after this dog was over.

Random thought that popped to mind while Batman & Robin was blaring continuously in front of me: it certainly seems like a lot of people in the comic book universe must be privy to Bruce Wayne's dual identity. Consider that one of the first things we see in this movie is a brand new, gleaming Batcave (which had been pretty well trashed at the end of Forever). Sure, Alfred, Bruce and Dick have loads of free time and swimming pools full of money to spend whenever the mood strikes, but I just don't see this kind of large-scale rebuilding and refurbishing happening without an awful lot of farmed-out handiwork, and unless it was a bunch of illegal immigrants installing all the computer systems, dressing rooms, and cutting-edge electronic hardware (not to mention building a new Batmobile fer crissakes), these workers had to know exactly what they were building underneath that big ol' mansion on the hill.

I may have had a bit of fun pissing all over this movie, but please don't get the idea that watching it was enjoyable on any level. Seriously, Batman & Robin is really bad, people. We're talking Mystery Science Theater 3000 minus-the-robots kind of bad. Even for standard summer action movie fare, this is an aggressively stupid and annoying movie that will either damage your brain or partially dissolve your soul. Move along, folks. Nothing to see here ...

Batman Begins
For nearly half a decade after Batman & Robin, no one dared attempt another Batman film, as the stink left behind from that fiasco lingered for years. Eventually, enough time must have passed, for Warners decided to return to the well once again. This time, however, the company took an interesting approach by forgoing A-list action directors in favor of a more intellectual, measured approach. Ultimately, Christopher Nolan (a man with meager box office clout) was selected for the directing job, and the studio allowing him to pursue his idea of a prequel/"origin film" instead of a chronological "follow-up" to Batman & Robin.

While technically a prequel in that most of the film takes place years before the events in the original Burton movie, Batman Begins is actually a "reboot." Unlike in the Superman series, where we were asked to simply believe that the third and fourth movies never happened (and believe me, that was something the audience was all too happy to do), Batman Begins wipes the entire damn series out and starts all over again from Bruce Wayne's childhood. While such a complete revamp might be a bit confusing to people who might only know the character from the previous films themselves, such bewilderment shouldn't last long, as Nolan does a smashing job re-establishing the Wayne backstory with situations both familiar and previously untold (particularly in regards to the years between the death of Wayne's parents and the public debut of his alter-ego).

While not entirely bereft of humor, Begins restores the reverent, graphic novel tone that Burton drew upon during his tenure. That said, Nolan also cuts sharply back on the sleek, technological sheen that Schumacher inflated to ridiculous proportions: gone is the sleek, electronics-laden Batcave, replaced with something far more inherently believable (and fitting of the character). Gotham City still resembles a tricked-out Manhattan, but the lines have been blurred and the silly circus lights tossed out to achieve something not terribly far off what Burton had in mind, though far less fanciful and far more run-down and forbidding. The same can be said for the Batmobile, which has been replaced by something so completely counter to our expectations that I'm not even sure we can use that familiar name on this vehicle: it seems too imposing and deadly to be saddled with a flippant sounding suffix as "-mobile."

If all of that weren't enough, the cast of Batman Begins is incredible, with the magnetic Christian Bale now in the title role and allowing Bruce Wayne a biting, urbane wit (and Batman a glowering, nearly unhinged rage) unlike anything previously seen in the series. Also shining brightly in a cast brimming with big names, the always-dependable Michael Caine brings his usual charm as a less-grandfatherly Alfred, Morgan Freeman plays Lucius Fox as a sly and not-unwitting corporate partner to Bruce Waynes' crime-fighting ambitions, and Gary Oldman plays very against type as the someday-to-be Commissioner Gordon.

While I was fairly liberal with dispensing plot details to the previous Batman films, it's really for the best that not I not go too far into the plot machinations behind this entry, many of which are plainly hinted at as the movie progresses, yet tied together beautifully by the time it's all over. I sorely regret skipping Batman Begins at the theater, but you can consider my ticket punched for the next chapter (especially since Nolan and Bale are both returning for a second round).

Batman Begins is, without reservation, the best film of the series and, despite the hugely different tone and overall aura of versimilitude, is also quite possibly the equal or superior to Superman and Spider-Man 2 as the best superhero film in the history of the genre. Even for those who normally avoid these kind of movies, I would recommend a viewing of this remarkable film without hestitation: it really is that good.

Batman rating 2/5

Batman Returns rating 4/5

Batman Forever rating 2/5

Batman & Robin rating 1/5

Batman Begins rating 5/5

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Prestige

"Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called 'The Pledge.' The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called 'The Turn.' The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call 'The Prestige.'" -- Cutter (Michael Caine)

When it comes to movies, I love being surprised, and it's stumbling across such unassuming-looking features as The Prestige that makes movie going such a pleasure. It also doesn't hurt that this intense, intricate film packs enough plot twists and unexpected developments for three movies during its two-hour running time.

We're somewhere in the late 19th century when we meet Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), two apprentice magicians about to split up forever after a performance of a standard illusion goes horribly wrong. Worse, the fallout from that night eventually entwines Angier and Borden together in a kind of eternal rivalry, with each man utterly comsumed with besting the other by whatever means necessary. Before long, the ever-increasing fits of vengeance and jealousy between the two men threaten to spiral completely out of control, especially after one of them develops and stages "The Transported Man," the greatest stage illusion of all.

Those who enjoy seeing revenge served up with true panache by two excellent actors at the top of their craft will find much to like here, as the mind games and one-upsmanship between the two magicians grow ever more diabolical (and just plain mean). Playing itself out with all of the theater and suspense a great showman brings to his magic act on stage, The Prestige is a wickedly fun ride that aims to keep you on your toes right up to the climax.

There is, however, one small catch to this experience: a point is reached in the narrative where the movie suddenly veers into the realm of the fantastical, and whether or not you allow yourself to make that leap with the characters will greatly impact on which side of the fence you'll be sitting when the credits roll (which is the only reason I docked this film a star). Personally, what allowed this startling development to work is that "magic" isn't really what The Prestige is about to begin with: this is a story about two men so consumed by jealousy and hatred that they're willing to sacrifice everything in their desire to ultimately "win" their personal contest.

I'm not going to talk about or hint any more about what happens during The Prestige for fear of wrecking the surprises awaiting you in this dark and fascinating film. Y'all are just gonna have to trust me on this one.

The Prestige rating 4/5