End of the Road – “Batman Begins” (2005) / “The Dark Knight” (2008) / “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)

After the box-office failure of Joel Schumacher’s goddamned-awful “Batman & Robin” in 1997, the Batman film franchise remained in a state of purgatory. Will the franchise retain its heavenly glory, or will it remain in satirical hell? For the next six years, Warner Bros. schemed and plotted to make a brand-new Batman film: one that stuck to the comic-book roots of the Caped Crusader and strayed away from the self-parody, toyetic approach and overall campiness that made “Batman & Robin” so unbearable to watch. Meanwhile, a British-born director named Christopher Nolan, who was known back in the early 2000s for his mind-fuck masterpiece “Memento” and the impressive psychological drama “Insomnia”, pitched an idea to Warner Bros. of a possible Batman reboot. Together with David S. Goyer, writer of 1998’s “Blade” and eventual director of “Blade Trinity” (a painfully disappointing end to a trilogy dedicated to an African-American half-human/half-vampire bad-ass), Nolan set to work on the arduous task of reviving the film franchise of the Caped Crusader.

 

In 2005, “Batman Begins” was released to a public who had learned to cope with the catastrophe that was “Batman & Robin”. It was a critical and commercial success, and Christopher Nolan became a household name. According to MTV’s Shawn Adler, “Batman Begins” was the literal beginning of a popular Hollywood trend of darker genre films, like “Casino Royale”, “Star Trek” and “Sherlock Holmes”.  With the monumental success of 2008’s “The Dark Knight” and 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises”, the Batman film franchise had reached a level of greatness never imagined.  However, the success of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy also came with its share of heartache. Heath Ledger, who delivered an astounding performance as the Joker in “The Dark Knight”, passed away six months before the film’s release due to a toxic combination of prescription drugs. On Friday July 20th 2012, the world was shocked by the mass shooting which occurred in a Colorado movie theater during the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises”. The suspect, James Holmes, dressed in tactical clothing and armed with tear gas grenades and multiple weapons, killed 12 patrons and injured 58 others. Minutes later, Holmes surrendered willingly to police minutes later. Sources claimed that he called himself the Joker.

 

Like everyone else, I was heavily disturbed by the mass shooting (so disturbed that I chose to delay my review from that Friday). But then I began to ponder this situation from a filmmaker’s point of view. For years, movies have been blamed for society’s ills. Gangster movies are blamed for inciting lawlessness; action movies are blamed for developing violent tendencies in individuals; horror movies supposedly promote Satanism. Now, with this mass shooting, people are pointing their fingers at “The Dark Knight”. James, with his red-dyed hair, homicidal tendencies and disregard for anything and anyone,  has clearly emulated Heath Ledger’s Joker. Though he is mentally unstable, it can be argued that he was (in some way) influenced (somehow) by the previous Batman film. Does that mean that “The Dark Knight” is a bad influence? Definitely not. Though the Joker character was focused solely on anarchy, and the film itself showed how society can easily fall apart in the face of anarchy, it never encouraged the viewer to kill anyone. Even worse, some people are blaming “The Dark Knight Rises” itself. Last week, I even heard a pastor on radio condemn the film (which was released in Trinidad one day after this broadcast), calling it “dark and occult” He even called the midnight screening of the film in the Colorado theater a “satanic affair”. Seriously, how dumb can you get?!

 

My point is, movies are indeed influential (both positively and negatively), but it all depends on you, the viewer. If  “Superman” teaches me to use my skills and abilities to make the world a better place, then that’s what I gathered from the film. If it teaches you that anybody can fly, and you decide to jump out the window of a tall building, then that’s what you gathered from it.  But I’m not here to preach. And I’m not here to talk about Superman. I’m here to talk about the Dark Knight trilogy.

 

“BATMAN BEGINS” (2005)

Unlike the Batman films of Joel Schumacher, Tim Burton, and even what’s-his-face who directed the first Batman movie in the 1960s, “Batman Begins” was the first to go deep into the mind of the man behind the mask, Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale). His fear of bats (which he used to strike fear into the hearts of criminals as the Batman), his understanding of the criminal mindset,  even his training in martial arts and ninjitsu (which shows why Batman uses shadows to sneak up on his foes) among other things, are finally showcased in this film. But more importantly, we get to understand Bruce’s motivation to become the Caped Crusader. He feels guilty for the murder of his parents years ago, and seeks to rid his hometown of Gotham City from the scourge of crime. He achieves this with the fatherly advice and support of his butler Alfred Pennyworth (played BRILLIANTLY by Michael Caine) and the technological expertise of Lucius Fox (Morgan “The voice of God” Freeman). The villain in this film is Ra’s al Ghul (Liam “I played God… oops, I mean, Zeus” Neeson), leader of the clandestine League of Shadows, whose sole purpose is to rid Gotham City (by any means necessary) of the crime suffocating it. Their plan is to use a hallucinogenic drug created by Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a psychiatrist who uses the persona “Scarecrow” – complete with scary-ass mask and dosage of the same drug – to scare his patients/victims) to cause mass hysteria in Gotham City. Bruce’s love interest of sorts is assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (played by Katie “formerly Mrs. Tom Cruise” Holmes) who tries to knock some sense – even slapping him a couple of times in a brief, unintentionally hilarious scene – into a younger, thick-headed Bruce Wayne. Under Christopher Nolan’s careful direction, “Batman Begins” delivers first-rate performances (and a second-rate performance from Katie Holmes – she does try her best though) and a deep, well-written story of one man’s quest to confront his fears and face his destiny. And of course, the action sequences are riveting, the musical score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard is powerful, and the new Batmobile (a.k.a. the Tumbler) is REALLY FREAKIN’ AWESOME! Don’t expect to see any neon lights and spinners on that pimped-out ride! Long story short, “Batman Begins” is a GREAT movie. Unless you truly hate superhero movies, this is one that you definitely need to see. 4  1/2 out of 5 stars.

 

“THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008)

…. or as I call it, “Mount Everest”. Why? This film literally raised the proverbial “bar” past the tip of Mount Everest …. fuck it, the bar itself is hovering over Earth as we speak. No other movie ever transcended the capabilities of a superhero film at that time than “The Dark Knight”.  From the opening scene of an absurdly elaborate bank robbery orchestrated by Joker (played masterfully by the late Heath Ledger) to the subsequent apprehension of Scarecrow (yeah, that guy again!) by Batman amidst a group of gun-toting Batman copycats, the themes of symbolism and influence are brought to light within the film’s first ten minutes. Joker is much more than a petty thief. He is an individual that doesn’t give a fuck about riches or power. According to Alfred, “some people just wanna watch the world burn”. And that’s Joker’s M.O. – to cause chaos in Gotham City. And my God, does he cause chaos. But thanks to Heath Ledger’s superb performance, and quotable dialogue (“Why so serious?!” quickly comes to mind), you can’t help but watch in wonder and amazement at, and even laugh along with, this guy. Calling him one of the greatest villains in superhero films is an understatement. One of the greatest in film history? HELL YES! And what about the Caped Cruasder? Well, Batman has become so influential in the fight against injustice that many consider him to be above the law. When a string of violent acts occur throughout Gotham City, Batman becomes the scapegoat. But the film truly reaches an emotional high when Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), new district attorney and boyfriend of Rachel Dawes (played by Maggie “I can act better than Katie Holmes anyday” Gyllenhaal). Eventually, things go from bad to worse when he ends up in the middle of the crossfire between Batman and the Joker. With “The Dark Knight”, the scope is bigger, the tension mounts at a feverish rate, and the stakes are indeed higher. Almost everyone, from Lucius Fox to even Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) are caught in a web of chaos and danger spun by the maniacally-intelligent Joker. And the end result is both memorable and tragic. This movie is, by far, the most emotional and powerful of all the Batman films, and one that’ll remain in your subconscious for years to come. One of my all-time favourite films,  “The Dark Knight” is one that you should definitely see before you die! Seriously, I mean it!  5 out of 5 stars.

 

“THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” (2012)

And now, we have the long-awaited conclusion to the Dark Knight trilogy. Without revealing too much of its multi-layered plot, eight years have passed since the events of “The Dark Knight”. Gotham City is in a state of peace, Batman has disappeared from the public eye, and Bruce Wayne, now losing control of his company, Wayne Enterprises, has become a recluse. Things get complicated when Bane (played by Tom “I’m the new Darth Vader, bitches!” Hardy), a terrorist who wears, and speaks through, a custom-made gas mask, makes his presence known in Gotham City. He is aware that the city’s state of peace is built on a lie (what that lie is, I won’t reveal). And just like the League of Shadows in the first film (hint), Bane seeks to cleanse Gotham City of those who supported this lie (i.e. the authorities). And being the megalomaniac that he is, he plans to rule Gotham City with an iron fist….and an army of criminals….and an assortment of Tumblers stalking the streets. Bruce Wayne, of course, must take action – despite the warnings of a greatly concerned Alfred Pennyworth. Throw in an idealistic police officer named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and an attractive cat burglar named Selina Kyle (a.k.a. Catwoman) (Anne Hathaway) into the mix, and you have a film in which the stakes are even higher than before, lives will be changed forever and the legend of the Caped Crusader will finally come to a close.

 

With a running time of close to 3 hours, “The Dark Knight Rises” is always engaging, always intriguing and never boring to say the least. The main performances in this film are top-class. Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a strong performance as John Blake and Anne Hathaway far exceeds the level of Selina Kyle/Catwoman established by Michelle Pfeiffer in 1992’s “Batman Returns”. And yes, Tom Hardy was fucking BRILLIANT as Bane. Sure he’s no Heath Ledger, but his character is not trying to be Joker. While Joker dreamed of seeing Gotham City burn to ashes, Bane literally started the fires. With his army of ruthless criminals, he blows up a football field (in a sequence worth seeing on the big screen), a number of buildings and even two bridges leading out of Gotham City. While he does come across as a tad bit over-dramatic and full of himself, Bane gets the job done – and it is truly a sight to behold. Interestingly, more emphasis is placed on the character of Bruce Wayne than on his persona of Batman. In a sense, this is a return to the main element of “Batman Begins” – the journey of Bruce Wayne into the Caped Crusader. In this case, Bruce must become Batman begins, and even when he falls by the hand – or should I say fists (in a WWE-ish fistfight that really isn’t as brutal as you may think) of Bane, he is forced to rise again. Hence – “The Dark Knight Rises”. And speaking of “rise”, the Moroccan Arabic chant “Deshi Basara! (Basara!)” used during the film’s score means “he rises”. And speaking of score, Hans Zimmer’s musical score is PHENOMENAL!  His music adds an epic sense of grandeur and emotion to every scene it’s used in. And in the second half of the film, where music is used to a greater extent, and the “Deshi Basara” chant is used in certain instances, you WILL be on the edge of your seat, with your heart racing and your nails bitten. FYI, biting your nails is a rather unhealthy habit – according to Dr. Oz.

 

While the scope of “The Dark Knight Rises” is wider than “The Dark Knight”, the film itself is nearly as great, but not better than, its predecessor. The story, while excellently written, is a bit flawed, and there are a couple of plot points and twists that don’t really work as good as they were intended to. Fortunately, these flaws are minor within the context of the entire film. With previous superhero film trilogies, the third film always falls short. Look at “X-Men”, “Spider-Man” and even the “Blade” trilogy that I mentioned earlier. But with “The Dark Knight Rises”, a film trilogy that literally reinvented the superhero genre has finally been established. And yes, this trilogy ends on a high and satisfying note.In short, “The Dark Knight Rises” is one of the best movies of 2012, and the best film I’ve seen so far this year. I’m dead serious. It’s THAT GREAT! If you plan on seeing “The Dark Knight Rises” – and you should…like, ASAP – you really need to see the first two films to truly get that sense of completion that the final film delivers.

 

And on a closing note, as the road to “The Dark Knight Rises” has finally come to an end, I must acknowledge Christopher Nolan’s successful efforts in taking the legendary character of Batman and making him into more than just a comic book character. He made him into a true legend. Thank you, Mr. Nolan.  “Deshi Basara”.   4  1/2 out of 5 stars.

 

– Matthew

Road to ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ – “Batman Forever” (1995) / “Batman & Robin” (1997)

 

Previously on Road to ‘The Dark Knight Rises’: Warner Bros. felt dissatisfied with the negative feedback Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns” (1992) received due to its dark, violent content. The higher-ups decided that the next Batman film be more family-friendly (*cough*childish*cough) than its two previous counterparts. Tim Burton was asked to step down as director and restrict himself to the role of producer.  Directing privileges were left to New York-born Joel Schumacher, who had already established himself as a respectable director, with hit movies like “The Lost Boys” (1987), “Flatliners” (1990) and “Falling Down” (1993) on his résumé.

 

“Batman Forever”, which starred Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne/Batman, became the sixth-highest grossing film of 1995.  With flashy visuals, fun action sequences, inclusion of science fiction elements, and an over-the-top performance by comic actor Jim Carrey (who, during the early 90s, you either liked or hated), it was obvious from its success that the higher-ups will green-light a sequel. The ill-fated “Batman & Robin”, which starred George Clooney (of E.R. fame) as Bruce Wayne, and Arnold Schwarzengger as Dr. Victor Fries (pronounced “freeze”)/Mr. Freeze, was a critical and commercial flop. Criticized for its homosexual undertones (among the title characters), campy dialogue and toyetic approach to its franchise, the film is considered by many to be the WORST – if not one of the worst – movies ever made.

 

As a kid, I enjoyed the HELL out of “Batman Forever”- which, in retrospect, is ironic since the film was tailor-made specifically for kids. And I was bombarded with R&B superstar Seal’s hit song/music video “Kiss from a Rose” on an almost daily basis (which I still enjoy – even though the chorus is really weird: “I compare you to a kiss from a rose on the grave—– Now that your rose is in bloom, a light hits the gloom on the grave”). Is the girl he’s singing about DEAD? Or is she still alive? And why would I compare a girl to an inanimate object associated with funerals? I didn’t care then….and I really don’t care now! Anyhoo, when “Batman & Robin” came out, I just HAD to see it! I remember sitting inside the darkened theater, watching the film’s opening montage of close-ups of Batman and Robin’s asses and crotches in rubber pants, followed by close-ups of their chests where the infamous “Bat-nipples” can be clearly seen, and thinking to myself: “Something’s not right here”. When the film was over, I was baffled.  This was not like the “Batman Forever” I enjoyed two years ago. This was something different. Even R. Kelly’s post-“I Believe I Can Fly” R&B anthem “Gotham City” was something different, with contradictory lyrics like: “A city of justice, a city of love, a city of peace for every one of us”. Are you fucking kidding me?! Mentally disturbed villains regularly threatening to hold the city hostage? Fear of being shot, killed, kidnapped, robbed, brainwashed, frozen to a giant ice cube etc.? Not one sports bar, dance club or local hangout? The LAST place I want to live is Gotham City! How dare you persuade me to visit there, R. Kelly?! But anyway, I eventually forgot about the film and the R. Kelly song and moved on with my teenage life. When I watched the film on cable television a few years later, it finally made sense. I couldn’t believe that the reason behind my bafflement was so obvious. “Batman and Robin”  SUCKED ELEPHANT BALLS!!

 

Now, I am older and wiser – and I have my own blog. I shall use this blog to unleash hell on the film that nearly decimated the Batman franchise and its flagship character. But first things first…

 

“BATMAN FOREVER” (1995)

 

From the film’s colour-coded opening credits, to the neon-lit Batcar which Batman drives, to the colourful Gotham City that Batman drives around, “Batman Forever” is the polar opposite to Tim Burton’s dark, goth-themed “Batman Returns”. And similar to Burton’s masterpiece (in my honest opinion), “Forever” has two villains: Harvey Two-Face (played gleefully by Tommy Lee Jones), a facially-disfigured district attorney with an appetite for chaos; and The Riddler (Jim Carrey playing himself…literally), an intelligent (though he hardly shows any on screen) ex-scientific researcher with a fetish for green body suits, question marks and clever riddles. The love interest in this film is a psychiatrist  named Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) who, after meeting Batman in the film’s opening action sequence, (and despite her “doctor-patient” relationship with Bruce Wayne), is intent on fucking Batman. I’m not exaggerating! Apart from assisting Bruce in dealing with the repressed memories of his parents’ deaths, Chase’s primary goal in the film is to fuck Batman! Talk about “family-friendly”!  And of course, we have Dick Grayson (Chris O’ Donnell), a trapeze artist turned orphan turned eventual partner of Batman (PAUSE!).

 

Looking at the film today, I can understand why “Batman Forever” was so fun to look at when I was young. From start to end, the film is COLOURFUL: greens, reds, yellows, blues, purples. It’s like cinematic Crayola. Or Lucky Charms. And the action scenes, such as the Batcar driving up the wall of a building, and Batman jumping off a building to capture Two-Face, looked really cool. However, style wins over substance in this film. There’s hardly any depth to the characters. Two-Face and Riddler are literal cartoons, with their manic antics and loud, obnoxious dialogue. Matter of fact, both villains are similar – they’re both carbon copies of Jack Nicholson’s Joker! Robin is bent on revenge, and Batman tries to warn Robin not to follow that path. A father-son relationship of sorts is established between the two, but never explored. And as I mentioned earlier, Chase Meridian just wants to fuck Batman. Nothing more. And while the story is okay enough, there are a couple of pointless moments. Take the aforementioned scene when the Batcar drives up the wall. It starts with a car chase with Two-Face and his goons and ends with that scene. What does that have to do with the overall story? Nobody knows. The acting is passable, even though Val Kilmer fails to surpass the great acting performance of Michael Keaton in the previous Batman films. And for a character who speaks when he needs to, the Batman in this film has some rather cheesy lines: “It’s the car. Chicks dig the car”. Yeeeeah. Sounded funny back in 1995…..and doesn’t today. But it’s Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey who ultimately save the film from certain disaster. Though they act like cartoons, the chemistry between the two is still fun to watch – and they provide almost all of the film’s genuine laughs. There’s even a scene where they play “Battleship” – with naval mines, of course. And yes, Jim Carrey says “You sunk my battleship”. Now, THAT’S how you do an homage to “Battleship”. Right, Peter Berg?

 

Overall, while it pales in comparison to Tim Burton’s Batman films, “Batman Forever” succeeds in being fun, silly and pure escapist entertainment. If you loved this film back in the 90s, or if you’re into 90s nostalgia as I am, you’ll find something worth enjoying in this film – even if it’s Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” which plays during the last two minutes of the end credits. It’s not the best Batman film by a long shot, but believe me, I’ve seen worse.

 

“BATMAN & ROBIN” (1997)

 

Speaking of  “worse”, here we have “Batman & Robin”, hailed by many as the “worst film of all time”. Similar to “Citizen Kane” (1942), hailed by many as the “greatest film of all time”, one can literally study this film shot for shot, line for line, bad acting for bad acting, and understand why it was such a monumental flop.   “Based on the DC Comics” (I swear to God, that’s an actual opening credit from the film), “Batman & Robin” tells the engrossing story of the Dynamic Duo and their mission to save Gotham City from the combined forces of Mr. Freeze (Arnold “GET TO THE CHOPPAH!” Schwarzengger), Poision Ivy (Uma “congrats on the birth of your baby girl” Thurman) and Bane (Robert “I can’t believe this was my last performance before I passed away” Swenson). Assisting the Dynamic Duo is Batgirl (Alicia “Yes, I spit food into my baby boy’s mouth like a bird…but that does NOT give you the right to call me CLUELESS!” Silverstone).

 

There’s so many things in this film that makes little to no sense. Take Mr. Freeze’s evil scheme, for example. He needs diamonds (big ones) to power his freezing device, which he plans to use to freeze Gotham. By doing so, the city will be held hostage, and the powers-that-be will give Mr. Freeze large amounts of money. He’ll use the money to continue his research in treating his wife (who’s encased in a chamber of cold water) who’s suffering from a rare illness. So….why couldn’t Mr. Freeze simply rob a couple of banks, and use the fucking money to fund his research?! Why this elaborate scheme of freezing Gotham? Because he’s  a super-villain, and a stupid one at that. Every line of dialogue he spits is a one-liner: “Stay cool, Birdboy”; “COME ON! SING!”; “I hate it when people talk during the movie”. It’s a shame to see Schwarzengger’s talents wasted in this film, as is everyone else’s. Uma Thurman embarrasses herself entirely in this film, with her pseudo-British accent, and campy outfits. As Poison Ivy, her evil scheme is to re-populate the Earth with mutant plants (I shit you not!) after the world is frozen by Mr. Freeze’s device. Her weapon of choice is a pheromone that she blows from the palm of her hand. She uses this regularly on Batman and Robin, making them fight like fucking eight-year-olds. Minor characters like Barbara Wilson (who becomes Batgirl) and her dying uncle Alfred Pennyworth (played once again by Michael Gough) are forgotten entirely in the second and fourth-quarter of the film respectively. Approximately 28 minutes before the film concludes, Barbara finally learns the truth of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson (“I’M BATMAN” “AND I’M HIS PARTNER ROBIN” PAUSE!).  Barbara shows up in the film’s final action sequence to join the Dynamic Duo, and declares with a stupid smile on her face: “I’m Batgirl!” (FACEPALM!). And what’s a review of “Batman & Robin” without talking about Bane? Serving as henchman to Poison Ivy, Bane lumbers around, smashes doors, beats up policemen and talks like a baby: “BOMB!” “BOMB!” “BOMB!” (that’s actually the longest line of dialogue he has in the film). And yes, the film is toyetic. From Mr. Freeze’s outfit (which looks like it costs half of the film’s budget) to the vehicles that the Dynamic Menage-a-Trois drive around with, the film looks like a big-budget toy commercial, but with a shitty story to support it.

 

As a sequel, “Batman & Robin” is bigger in scope than all the previous Batman films. But as Michael Bay continually teaches us, bigger is better. Bigger sets and flashier visual effects are poor substitutes for laughable costumes, piss-poor acting, unappealing characters and a script devoid of logic or common sense. This is a mind-numbing film experience unlike anything you’ve ever seen, or avoided seeing. If you truly enjoy watching and laughing at really bad movies, look no further than this gigantic pile of bat-shit. To everyone else, avoid this at all costs – like a one-way trip to Gotham City, or being compared to a kiss from a rose on the grave.

 

“BATMAN FOREVER” – 3 out of 5 stars (“It was aight”)

“BATMAN & ROBIN” – 1 out of 5 stars (“Of course it sucked!”)

– Matthew

Road to ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ – “Batman”(1989) / “Batman Returns”(1992)

With one more week before “The Dark Knight Rises” hits American theaters (one and a half in Trinidad….unfortunately), my daunting task to review ALL the previous Batman films is still underway. My first post was dedicated to the little-known “Batman” movie which was based on the well-known (even if you’ve never seen it – or don’t intend to) live-action TV series of the 1960s.  Today’s entry focuses on the two films that re-invented the comic-book character for a new, goth-loving, summer blockbuster-consuming generation, and established a movie franchise that paved the way for more superhero titles to come.  And despite the worldwide acclaim that “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” have received, there are those Batman purists out there who firmly believe that Tim Burton’s “Batman” and “Batman Returns” are still the best films – PERIOD – in the franchise.

 

Tim Burton, a director with a portfolio of dark, quirky and slightly fucked-up (but in a good way) movies, including a number of collaborative efforts with the equally quirky Johnny Depp, was hired by Warner Brothers to direct “Batman” after the success of his first film (and cult classic) “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” in 1985. The project was green-lit in 1988 after Burton’s second film, the horror-comedy “Beetlejuice”, became a commercial success. Michael Keaton, who played the funny-as-hell “bio-exorcist” Betelgeuse, was hired by Burton to play Bruce Wayne/Batman. Warner Brothers received more than 50,000 letters of complaint, mostly from fans of the Batman comic book,  stating that Keaton was a poor choice to play Batman. He was a comic actor, and he lacked the  physical attributes associated with the Batman character. Fans also felt that Burton shouldn’t direct the film, as he became synonymous with “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” (which was actually a really fun movie, by the way).

 

Boy, were those fuckers proved wrong! “Batman” was a huge success in the box office, though it was criticized for its dark, eerie tone. Burton was praised for his directing, and Keaton wowed critics with his strong acting performance.  However, when the offer was made to sign on to direct a sequel, Burton was skeptical. He went on to direct the fantasy-romance “Edward Scissorhands” which marked his first collaboration with Johnny Depp. Desperate for a “Batman” sequel, Warner Brothers granted Burton a large amount of creative control as long as he signed on to make the film.  Reluctantly, he agreed – and filming began in 1991. The end result was nothing short of spectacular.

 

Compared to its predecessor, “Batman Returns” was bigger in scale and emotion, and darker in tone and visuals. It was a financial success, though it was criticized for its violence and sexual references. Parents felt that the film was unsuitable for children – which is ironic since its marketing was aimed solely at kids (Batman cups, drinks, shoes, video games, etc. etc.).  I remember seeing this film for the first time when I was seven years old, and I thought it was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen in my life! Having seen it more than TEN times since then, it still is.

 

But after the constant re-invention of the Batman film franchise over the years,  are the films of Tim Burton still great? And if so, do they still hold up? Let’s see, shall we?

 

“BATMAN” (1989)

 

Yes, you saw correctly. Like the opening credits of “Batman”, Jack Nicholson’s name appears before Michael Keaton’s. Hell, he even appears in the film before Keaton does (in actuality, Keaton shows up after the first 19 minutes of the film). And this is what makes “Batman” unique, as compared to most superhero films. Batman’s origin story is not the main plot point of the film – even though the deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents (the main catalyst that turned Bruce Wayne into a bad-ass vigilante) are shown in a later flashback. But it’s the physical and mental disfigurement of Jack’s character, Jack Napier, from the second-in-command of a crime boss (played by the late, great Jack Palance) to a criminal with white skin, green hair, a permanent grin and a demented sense of humour. Though the rest of the performances in the film are great, it’s Nicholson who truly steals the show.  Jack certainly knows how to play crazy characters (Look at “The Shining” for God’s sake!)  and here, he plays a character that’s so full of himself with his great one-liners (“Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight?”) and crazy schemes of chaos (spraying lethal laughing gas over Gotham City) that you can’t help but admire him. Kim Basinger is great as Vicki Vale, photo-journalist and love interest to Keaton’s Bruce Wayne. Michael Gough (R.I.P.) makes his first appearance as the iconic butler Alfred Pennyworth, and even Billy Dee Williams (a.k.a. “Am I the only black man in Gotham City?”) shows up as District Attorney Harvey Dent (Tommy Lee Jones’ character in “Batman Forever”).

 

The film is focused primarily on the duality of the Caped Crusader; the well-respected, yet emotionally distant millionaire Bruce Wayne by day, and the mysterious, shadowy, mythic Batman by night.  Both worlds collide when Joker steps into the picture, and Bruce’s relationship with Vicki proves deadly when Joker sets his sights on her. The story is pretty good, though the pacing between drama and action can get a bit uneven at times. The score by Danny Elfman is fucking EPIC, and the few Prince songs included in the film don’t brings a sense of much-needed fun and 80s nostalgia. Who’d ever believe the Joker was a fan of Prince (formerly known as the Artist formerly known as Prince)?  He dances to “Partyman” in the film but I would’ve LOVED to see him perform to “Batdance”. Too bad the song’s not in the movie. Goddammit!  Anyway, “Batman” isn’t perfect, but it has stood the test of time as the blueprint for nearly every Batman film that followed after it. And it remains one of the greatest superhero movies of all time. What more can you ask for – except a worthy sequel?

 

“BATMAN RETURNS” (1992)

 

Speaking of a worthy sequel…. here we have “Batman Returns”.  And in this film, we’re given two villains for the price of one – Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer).  Born Oswald Cobblepot, the villainous Penguin rises from the sewers of Gotham City to discover the names of his parents who abandoned him when he was just a baby. He employs the help of the manipulative millionaire Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) to become part of Gotham’s elite – and possible candidate for Mayor. Penguin’s gang of bizarre circus performers cause chaos in Gotham, which of course, is thwarted by Batman (played once again by Michael Keaton). Meanwhile, Max’s assistant Selina Kyle (Pfeiffer), uncovers private documents that can affect the future of Max’s company if revealed. In order to keep the company’s secrets hidden, Max pushes Selina from the top of the company’s building, in hope that she doesn’t survive the fall. But she does,  thanks to a bunch of stray cats who lick her back to shape – literally!  Selina undergoes a psychotic breakdown, and later dons a black leather costume. Now completely changed into Catwoman, she joins forces with Penguin to humiliate Batman. But she seeks vengeance against Max, the one man Penguin needs in order to become Mayor. Things get complicated when Selina falls for Bruce Wayne who, clearly, has to deal with keeping his secret identity….secret. And also, beyond his quest to become Mayor, Penguin has an ulterior motive – one that will affect Gotham City for years to come.

 

The elements that made “Batman” such a great film, give or take the acting – and with an exception to Prince, is stepped up a notch…hell, stepped up FIVE notches in “Batman Returns”.  While the previous film had a noirish look and feel, “Batman Returns” is dipped entirely in goth. From the cold, snowy, shadowy locale of Gotham City to the bizarre-looking characters that assist the even-more-bizarre-looking Penguin in his nefarious exploits, the film looks and feels like a twisted fairy tale. The performances are superb, especially by Michelle Pfeiffer who’s both sexy and disturbing as Catwoman, and Danny DeVito who’s both loathsome and pitiful as the Penguin. Michael Keaton delivers another fine performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and Michael Gough (R.I.P.) impresses yet again as the dutiful Alfred Pennyworth.  The story is exciting and engaging, the dialogue is well-written, and the pacing feels more even than in “Batman”.  Danny Elfman delivers a haunting, operatic musical score that’s even more fucking epic than his work in the original film.  But what truly makes this film work is Tim Burton himself.  By gaining creative control over the production of “Batman Returns”, he’s made a film that feels more “Burtonesque”  than “Batman” ever was. He’s created a world that’s both extraordinary and creepy, with characters both fearsome and lonely, and a thin line between sense and madness. “Batman Returns” remains one of my all-time favourite movies, and it’s one that never gets old – regardless of how much times I’ve seen it over the years. And since the story is set during the Christmas holidays, the film is a perfect antithesis to the cutesy, cuddly, sugary-sweet Christmas movies one avoids during the holiday season. Long story short, “Batman Returns” is to “Batman” as “The Dark Knight” is to “Batman Begins”.  Highly recommended!

 

It’s a shame that Tim Burton never directed another Batman film. Though Burton produced “Batman Forever”, the film itself was visually and stylistically different than the cold, brooding world which he created. But for better or for worse, he left an indelible mark in the Batman movie franchise.  Both of his films still hold up rather well to this day, which is more than I can say for the next two films in the Batman movie catalogue. But more on that next week. In the meantime, go forth and watch “Batman” and “Batman Returns” back-to-back. You will NOT regret it – unless, of course, you hate clowns…and bats…and cats….and penguins….and Prince.

 

“BATMAN” – 4 out of 5 stars (“See this movie”)

“BATMAN RETURNS” – 4 1/2 out of 5 stars (“Definitely see this movie”)

– Matthew

Road to ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ – “Batman” (1966)

 

With less than two weeks before “The Dark Knight Rises”  comes out in American theaters (and less than three before it’s released in Trinidad),  I’ve decided to take the arduous task of reviewing ALL the Batman films that came out before Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited masterpiece.  I’ll only focus on the live-action films, as watching and writing about all the animated Batman films is way too time-consuming (I’m a lazy sonuvabitch – sue me!).  With the anticipation of “The Dark Knight Rises” at a fever pitch, a number of YouTube movie reviewers have already recapped the Batman films of Tim Burton (“Batman”, “Batman Returns”), Joel Schumacher (“Batman Forever”, “Batman and Robin”)  and Christopher Nolan himself (“Batman Begins”, “The Dark Knight”). But for some reason (maybe the fear of online humiliation), they’ve avoided the grandfather of Batman movies… the one that started it all…. Leslie H. Martinson’s “Batman”.

 

The first feature-length theatrical Batman film in movie history, “Batman”  is based on the ABC TV series of the same name.  Starring Adam West (yes, the Mayor of Quahog on “Family Guy” – he’s a real person, kids) as Batman, and Burt Ward as Robin, the series was as corny and cheesy as the era in which it was shown weekly on television. Less dark and more hilarious – both intentionally and unintentionally, the TV series is best known for its use of campy dialogue, saturated colours, cheesy special effects, extensive use of “Dutch” camera angles, assortment of vehicles and devices with the affix “bat” attached to their names (BAT-copter, BAT-boat, BAT-gas etc. etc.), comic-book exclamations during the show’s fight scenes (POW! WHACK! SPLOOSH!  among many others) and occasional tongue-in-cheek parody. It’s also known for its catchy surf rock theme song (which consists of the two words “Batman” and “Na” being repeated to a childish degree).

 

Surprisingly, 120 episodes were cranked out by Twentieth Century Fox (not Warner Brothers, the home of the Batman franchise) before the series’ cancellation in 1968.  Today, the series is considered to be a cult classic, mostly by die-hard Batman fans.  Its influence can be seen in the recent Cartoon Network series “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” – which is perhaps the only Batman series, animated or otherwise, that (believe it or not) I HATED.  To many, it’s an affectionate homage to the 1960s live-action series, but to me, it’s totally unnecessary in a world that has grown to accept the dark tone of the Batman universe.  And personally, I think the show is BAT-shit! I’m just saying.

 

Anyway, the “Batman” movie was filmed right after Season 1 of the TV series concluded.  Members of the original cast  starred in the film, with the exception of Julie Newmar (the original, and most famous, Catwoman) who, due to scheduling issues, was replaced by Lee Meriwether.  A moderate success upon release, the film has gone on to receive positive reviews throughout the years. It even has a 83% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website – which is a higher rating  than both Batman Forever and Batman and Robin combined (ain’t that some shit!). But despite the overall campiness one expects from a Batman movie of the 1960s, is the film itself any good? Well….

 

PLOT

On a peaceful afternoon motor-ride, millionaire Bruce Wayne and his significant other “youthful ward” Dick Grayson receive an anonymous tip that Commodore Schmidlapp (inventor of a revolutionary gadget called the Dehydrator) is in danger aboard his yacht.  Knowing they have a job to do, Bruce and Dick slide down their individual bat-pole (that’s not a double entendre….or is it?), flip the “instant costume change lever” while sliding down, and land in the entrance of the Batcave dressed in their superhero outfits. On a side note, if fire stations had instant costume change levers, a lot of innocent cats would not have lost their respective nine lives to hazardous fires. Anyhoo, the Dynamic Duo locates the yacht via their Bat-copter. When Batman climbs his way down the Bat-ladder (Wow! Even the fucking ladder has a “Bat” on it), a shark (clearly rubber) bites Batman’s leg (I shit you not!). Robin is now faced with a decision. Which oceanic repellent bat spray works best in getting rid of sharks? He has only a few options:

 

 

Robin selects the correct spray, which he passes to his partner (that’s not a double entendre….or is it?). Batman sprays the shark in its eyes, causing it to fall to the ocean. The shark EXPLODES upon impact! WTF?!!  It’s later revealed that the Penguin, one of Batman’s arch enemies, stuffed TNT inside the poor animal. I wonder what the American Humane Association has to say about that. Penguin, after successfully stealing the Dehydrator, joins forces with The Joker, The Riddler and Catwoman – forming a group called the United Underworld (which is actually a really cool name). Batman, Robin and Commissioner James Gordon learn of the fiendish union between four of the most powerful villains in Gotham City. They surmise that TWO criminals can take over Gotham City, THREE criminals can take over the whole country, but FOUR criminals can take over the entire world! And that’s their minimum objective! WTMF?!!  What the United Underworld are actually seeking to accomplish is to dehydrate the nine Security Council members of the United World Organization, and eliminate Batman and Robin in the process. Will the Dynamic Duo get to the United World Organization before it’s too late? Will Catwoman’s seductive allure prove too much for Batman’s questioned heterosexuality? And how many times will Robin say “Holy”? Tune in tomorrow, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!

 

CHARACTERS

Bruce Wayne/Batman- Adam West

Dick Grayson/Robin – Burt Ward

The Penguin – Burgess Meredith

The Joker – Cesar Romero

The Riddler – Frank Gorshin

Catwoman –  Lee Meriwether

Alfred Pennyworth – Alan Napier

Commissioner James Gordon – Neil Hamilton

Commodore Schmidlapp – Reginald Denny

 

MY THOUGHTS:  “Batman” begins with a written acknowledgement, dedicating the film to the “lovers of unadulterated entertainment”, “lovers of the ridiculous and the bizarre” and “fun lovers everywhere”. It’s as if…through time and space… the filmmakers were speaking to me! Now I must admit –  I do fancy watching ridiculous and bizarre movies every once in a while.  But I have to be in a particular mood to watch shit like that – whether it’s curiosity, figuring out why they have large cult followings in the first place, or boredom. And believe me, you have to be in a particular mood to watch, and to a lesser extent, enjoy “Batman”.

 

From beginning to end, “Batman” is CAMPY!  The acting, the colours, the dialogue, the music, the gadgets….EVERYTHING!  And this is where the movie succeeds  – and fails. While it maintains the silliness of the TV series, it refuses to take risks, and never attempts to “raise the bar”. For example, the 1993 animated film “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” (considered by many – myself included – to be the GREATEST animated Batman film of all time) is a feature-length film based on the BRILLIANT “Batman: The Animated Series”.  While “Mask of the Phantasm”  maintains the dark, neo-noir vibe of the TV series, it “raised the bar” by telling a relatively mature story of love, loss and revenge, but in a way that both adults and children can watch and appreciate. “Batman” never does that.  It plays itself too safe, sticking behind the boundaries of what made the first season of the TV series a  success. In other words, it feels more like a 104-minute episode of the series than an actual movie.

 

The dialogue is laughable and quotable – from Batman’s “Some days, you just CAN’T get rid of a bomb”  to Robin’s “This brassy bird has us buffaloed!”.  The story itself is fucking ridiculous (the concept of transforming individuals with a Dehydrating laser into small batches of coloured powder alone is silly). But honestly, with a film like this, who cares about story? Not to mention, there are scenes aplenty that are both intentionally funny and unintentionally DUMB, depending on your point of view. The aforementioned “shark repellent” scene is a CLASSIC example of the so-bad-it’s-good appeal that made the movie, and TV series, timeless- and it’s still the funniest scene ever conceived for a Batman movie!  This scene alone is definitely worth seeing… and free to watch on YouTube. Just search for “Holy exploding sharks, Batman”. Do it now. I’ll wait.

 

On the subject of scenes, there is one I’d like to mention (*cough*spoiler alerts*cough). At a later point in the film, Batman and Robin are stuck onto a floating buoy (their utility belts are magnetized to it, in case you were wondering).  The Penguin, The Joker and The Riddler fire two consecutive torpedoes (from the Penguin’s submarine, in case you were also wondering) at the buoy, which are deflected by a sound-wave device-whatchamacallit.  A third torpedo is launched. Unfortunately for the Dynamic Duo, the batteries in the sound-wave-device-whatchamacallit are DEAD! Fortunately, the torpedo blows up just before it reaches the Dynamic Duo. The next scene shows them driving away in their Bat-Boat (but of course, they have a Bat-Boat!). Batman and Robin begin to reflect on the “nobility of the almost-human porpoise”.  According to Batman, a porpoise (unseen in the film, in case you were sorta wondering) NOBLY HURLED HIMSELF in the path of the oncoming torpedo. ONCE AGAIN, I wonder what the American Humane Association has to say about that.  And by the way, Batman and Robin should be thanking AQUAMAN for saving their asses! I mean, who the fuck else can summon a porpoise to conveniently step into the line of fire of a torpedo?!  It’s a goddamn shame that Aquaman still remains one of the most underrated superheroes in the DC Universe. A goddamn shame indeed.

 

SHOULD I SEE THIS FILM?  If you’re really, reeeeeeally curious about the humble beginnings of the Batman movie franchise, then it won’t hurt to check out this film. If you’ve fully accepted the dark vibe that has become synonymous with Batman, thanks to the visionary efforts of both Frank Miller and Tim Burton (more on that next time), then you’re not going to enjoy the film that much. But for what it’s worth, it’s still a fun, entertaining movie that’s will make you laugh your ass off, whether you’re inebriated or not. As a matter of fact, this is the perfect movie to watch with your drinking buddies. Every time Robin says “Holy”, take a shot of rum. You’re guaranteed to be fucking wasted by the end of this film.  But just in case, it doesn’t hurt to have a Bat-chaser nearby.

 

MY RATING – 2  1/2 out of 5 stars (“See it if you really have to”)

– Matthew