REVIEW: SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)

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SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the sixth flick featuring the web-head in the last fifteen years and the second reboot in the last five…and this is not counting his extended cameo in Captain America: Civil War. Marvel was in a hurry to add the wall crawler to the MCU, once they ironed out the legal details and so we have another Spider-Man flick with our third Spidey in Tom Holland. The character might have needed a break instead of a reboot as, despite all the attempts to ‘freshen’ it up, there is still a stale familiarity to the proceedings.

This movie opens with working man Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) and his crew cleaning up after the Chitauri invasion of New York and being escorted off the site by a shady government agency…without compensation. Eight years later, Toomes and his crew have made some high-tech weapons and gadgets out of some un-returned alien artifacts, including a flight suit which they use to steal more artifacts to make more illegal weapons to sell. At this same time, young Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is excited over being chosen to aid Iron Man/Tony Stark and is chomping at the bit to join the Avengers and be a real hero, something Stark now feels he is definitely not ready for. As the “flying monster” and his henchmen get on Peter’s radar, Spider-Man decides to try and take them down and prove to Stark there is a hero within the awkward fifteen year-old boy.

Film is directed this time by Jon Watts (Clown) from a script by six people and it shows. The film gives the impression of being a bit of a mess bouncing back and forth from superhero flick to awkward teen comedy and it doesn’t always mesh together well. The first half is especially weak as it focuses on Peter, once again back in high school, wanting the best of both worlds in being a normal teenager, who gets the attention of the pretty Liz (Laura Harrier) and a bona fide hero in Spider-Man. Instead he’s a nerdy outcast with only one true friend (Jacob Batalon) and someone Stark doesn’t trust to join the team, yet.  There are some funny bits, but here in the first half Spider-Man isn’t a heroic alter ego, but actually just as awkward at being a hero as he is socially as Peter Parker. His attempts at heroics cause more trouble than good and this approach starts to wear out it’s welcome quickly, as do the segments that enter routine teen comedy territory. It’s nothing new for something that’s supposed to re-invent the character for the MCU and comes off as clumsy as Peter. The second half picks up when he and Keaton’s Vulture start to go head to head and Parker has to go it alone when Stark takes away his toys. There is some decent action here, thankfully scaled down from the last few Marvel flicks, but again, nothing new. Another problem here is the attempts to fit Peter/Spider-Man into the MCU themselves don’t seem to fit and seem too obvious. Not only is there the Chitauri connection with Toomes’ toys, but the extended cameos by Stark and Iron Man. And if that’s not enough, Stark appoints Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to watch over Peter which really doesn’t add anything but yet another MCU link. The Spider-Man/Vulture storyline suffers, so we can spend time with Hogan and Stark. There are also numerous name drops to other Avengers and even a cameo or two from MCU familiar characters. This film feels even more like a deliberate attempt to force a connection with Spidey to the MCU than his cameo in Civil War. It’s obtrusive. Even Toomes’ big scheme involves MCU plot elements from past films. The film is still somewhat fun at times, but never feels like it’s own movie as even other flicks in the MCU series do.

The cast is good here. Holland does make a good Spidey. While the awkward approach was a bit much at times, the actor is charming and conveys both socially inept nerd and the hero within quite nicely. Keaton makes for an interesting villain. He is more a common criminal with some cool toys and that worked better than yet another megalomaniac. He has a couple of scenes where he is quite threatening and he is certainly more effective than Jamie Foxx’s Electro. Robert Downey Jr, at this point can play Stark in his sleep and he is Stark as usual here. Favreau seemed to be phoning it in as Hogan, which doesn’t help as the character has little to do but look annoyed anyway. Marisa Tomei is fun as Aunt May and while she is adorned in glasses, mom jeans and some corny dialogue, she is still Marisa Tomei…if you know what I mean and the film does have a little fun with that. Jacob Batalon is entertaining and has some very funny moments as Peter’s only friend Ned and Bokeem Woodbine has a minor role as Spider-Man villain Shocker who is one of Toomes’ thugs. There are also a couple of fun Marvel cameos, too, for fans to look out for.

So there are mixed feelings for a film that had some fun moments and a few solid action scenes, but felt rushed as far as reintroducing Spider-Man yet again. The script is a bit of a mess and with six scribes it’s no wonder. Jon Watt guides things well enough, but he can’t overcome the familiarity it still has and that the film tries way too hard to stuff Spidey into the MCU, which is now in it’s third phase. Holland makes a fine hero and Keaton a solid villain, but in all honesty, Stark and Happy Hogan really didn’t need to be there and their scenes don’t feel like they are part of the rest of the film. At this point the Web Head needs a bit of a break, but apparently will be back as the end credits forewarn us. Stay through the credits for two post credits scenes, one which playfully has fun with us for waiting through the credits for post credits scenes.

-MonsterZero NJ

2 and 1/2 webs!

 

 

 

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BARE BONES: BIRDMAN and FURY

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BIRDMAN (2014)

Birdman is a quirky and refreshingly off-beat comedy/drama from director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and appropriately stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, an actor trying to reignite his fading star. Riggan was once world famous for starring in the lead of the popular superhero franchise, Birdman. Now he’s entering his 60s and trying to validate himself and add some relevance back to his life by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play. Obviously, what can go wrong, will go wrong and there are an eccentric group of characters…including his imaginary, costumed alter-ego…in the mix to add to Riggan’s troubles. Iñárritu has a very original style that fits the story so well. It’s filled with lengthy tracking shots following our characters from scene to scene and some delightfully surreal moments as well. The cast are all top notch, with Keaton giving one of his best performances and it definitely is his show. He is supported by the likes of Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough who are all excellent in their roles, too. But, in my humble opinion, it is Emma Stone who steals every scene she’s in with her best work to date as Riggan’s fresh out of rehab daughter. She is simply a powerhouse in some scenes and holds her own…and more…with the seasoned veterans. A flick worthy of it’s praise. The only negative I had was that the jazz drum score got on my nerves after awhile. Otherwise, a great little movie.

three and one half stars rating

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FURY (2014)

If you are a fan of WWII flicks and all the familiar trappings, then you’ll probably enjoy this. I found it to be kinda dull and any dramatic weight or intensity of the action is brought down by an overload of clichés. The story, written and directed by David Ayer, finds Staff Sergeant Don Collier (Brad Pitt) leading his tank crew deep into Germany in 1945 to clean up the last of the German military resistance…and not having an easy time of it. Ayer throws every cliché in the book from situations to stereotypical war movie characters and adds some Private Ryan style violence, but the effect is still that we’ve seen it all before, since the very first WWII movie was made. The film is well-directed and action well-staged, but it’s just too familiar to be interesting and takes very few risks to liven things up. If you like this kind of film, go for it. Otherwise it’s nothing you haven’t seen in countless other likewise movies. The solid cast also stars Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal and Logan Lerman as the stereotypical green newbie.

2 and 1-2 star rating

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CULT CLASSIC CUTIES: DAWN DUNLAP as TRACY in FORBIDDEN WORLD

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I thought I’d start a new column focusing on those characters/actresses from some of our favorite cult classics and midnight movies who captured our hearts and then, sadly, were either one hit wonders or whose sexy stars shined only briefly, not quite achieving scream queen status…
I am going to start off this new feature by highlighting one of my favorites, the sexy and adorable Dawn Dunlap whose brief career included a role in one of my all time favorite Corman classics, Forbidden World as shapely and sweet scientist Tracy Baxter. Tracy not only wore outfits more fitting of a Playboy bunny but, had the delightful habit of frequently shedding those clothes. Dunlap’s Tracy was a girl next door hottie that not only caught my teenage (at the time) eye but, captured my heart as she ran screaming from the flick’s alien terror dressed in skimpy robes or less. The lovely Miss Dunlap had a brief career from 1979 to 1985 including a part in the Michael Keaton classic Night Shift and another Corman flick… which was to be her last appearance… the trashy (and in my opinion, misogynistic) Barbarian Queen. Did Barbarian Queen‘s scenes of rape, abuse and nudity finally drive Dunlap back home to her native Texas?… or was it the fact that the adorable actress rarely found a role that required her to keep her clothes on? Only Dunlap can tell us for sure.
Whatever the reasons for her leaving her film career behind, I will always cherish her sexy scientist, Tracy from one of my favorite Roger Corman’s 80s cult classics!

DAWN DUNLAP as TRACY in FORBIDDEN WORLD

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Wherever Dawn Dunlap is now, I will never forget her nubile and adorable Tracy!

-MonsterZero NJ

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE and BEETLEJUICE

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This week’s double feature is one that not only works perfectly but, is a lot of fun. It pairs Tim Burton’s first two films together, the hilarious and delightfully surreal Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and the supernatural Gothic laugh fest that is Beetlejuice. Both films would introduce the world to Burton’s cartoonish visual style and have gone on to become cult classics in their own right. When stacked up against his body of work, they still rank as two of his best. So crack open your favorite beverage and enjoy this double bill of offbeat hilarity.
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PEE WEE’s BIG ADVENTURE (1985)

Paul Reubens’ Pee Wee Herman character became a sensation in the 80s. He started out as a more adult-themed comedy act and cable TV show and then became an all-out, though still pretty bizarre, hit children’s show. So, the transition to feature films was a natural and quirky new filmmaker Tim Burton was perfectly picked to guide Pee Wee to the big screen in this cartoonish and surreal adventure.

The plot is simple. Pee Wee’s prized bicycle is stolen and the strange man-child sets off on a cross country adventure to hunt it down and get it back. His travels lead him to some strange places, where he meets some equally strange characters as he follows a trail that takes him all the way to the Alamo and then eventually brings him to Hollywood.

Tim Burton was the perfect director for this project scripted by Reubens, the late Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol. It’s a colorful, yet bizarre, road trip populated by some very eccentric and equally colorful characters. And Burton’s Edward Gorey-ish visual style is perfect for the weird situations Pee Wee gets into such as his encounters with escaped convict Micky (Judd Omen), a rowdy biker gang, the phantom-like Large Marge (Alice Nunn) and the climactic chase through Warner Brothers Studios. Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman was brought in to score and his whimsical musical style was a perfect fit for the situations on-screen. Reubens, Burton and Elfman where so perfectly matched here, it’s sad the three have never, at least so far, collaborated again on another movie, unless you count Reubens’ small role in Batman Returns. Burton brings a sense of whimsy to the proceedings and has no problem indulging in the surreal such as two amusing nightmare sequences where Pee Wee fears about the fate of his bike. The FX are simple and quaint and even involve a little stop-motion animation and it adds to the film’s charm which it has lots of. It gives the film an almost demented fairly tale vibe at times, which fits the universe Reubens has already created for his character.

The cast have a lot of fun with this, too. Reubens is at his Pee Wee best and his reactions to things, such as his impatience with The Alamo tour guide, Tina are just as hysterical as is the broader physical comedy. 80s cutie and icon E.G. Daily plays the only, fairly down to earth character in the film, bike shop repair girl Dottie, who crushes on the reluctant Pee Wee. The rest of the characters are all cartoonish such as spoiled brat and bike theft suspect Francis (Mark Holton) and of course, Lou Cutell as Amazing Larry. And the actors all have a lot of fun with their over the top screen personas. Burton gets good work out of everyone for the gallery of oddball characters that inhabit Pee Wee’s world.

Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is a comedy classic and rightfully so. It’s delightfully offbeat and amusingly surreal at times and Burton was the perfect choice to bring Pee Wee’s off-kilter world to the big screen. The movie is incredibly quotable and I still laugh heartily when I watch it all these years later and it definitely is one of my all time favorite comedies. And if that makes me a geek, fine… I know you are but, what am I ?

3 and 1/2 Pee Wees!

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BEETLEJUICE (1988)

Burton’s sophomore feature teamed him with another comic icon Michael Keaton, in this tale that puts a spin on the traditional haunted house story by having the ghosts trying to remove the humans from their house and not the other way around and turning in desperation to the demonic bio-exorcist Beetlejuice (Keaton) for help.

The story has young couple Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam (Alec Baldwin) Maitland, living a peaceful life in their large house in a remote New England town… until a horrible accident brings about their premature demise. But, things get worse for the dearly departed couple when, as they try to adjust to their new after-life, their home is invaded by the new owners, the new age Deetz family, Charles (Jeffery Jones), Delia (Catherine O’Hara) and their Goth emo daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). With their gaudy interior decorator Otho (Glenn Shadix) in tow, they begin to completely remodel the Maitland’s house. The ghostly couple try to haunt the new family out but, only wind up intriguing them and in desperation, they turn to the demonic entity known as Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) to evict the Deetzes from their home. But, they have started to bond with Lydia and realize all too late that the funky phantom they have unleashed has a far more sinister agenda and becomes a far worse problem then the Deetzes and their plans to turn the house into a paranormal sideshow attraction.

Written by Warren Skaaren and Michael McDowell from a story by McDowell and Larry Wilson, this was another film perfectly suited to Burton’s gothic, offbeat visual style and his quirky sense of whimsy. Burton really gets to have some surreal visual fun with his presentations of the afterlife and in the design of some of the supernatural beings that inhabit it. His teaming with Keaton is also perfect as the actor gets to really chew up the scenery as the bizarre and slightly perverse Beetlejuice. The character comes across less an actual demon than your creepy, pervy, alcoholic uncle… on crack… and that’s kinda what makes it work. Keaton is completely over the top and it fits Burton’s over the top style directing style very well. While not all the bits work, most do and the film is not only flat out hysterical at times but, whimsically spooky at others. The climactic last act when Beetlejuice is loosed on the Deetzes dinner party and trying to wed Lydia so he can remain corporeal is an amusement park ride, almost literally, and it makes it worth the wait to see him finally and fully unleashed. The film also makes it’s ghost characters, The Maitlands, the only normal people in the movie which adds to the turning the traditional haunting premise on it’s head. The film is a lot of fun and Burton imbues it with some nice sentimental moments too. Here he still knew when to temper the outlandish with the subtle, something some of his recent films seem to have lost. The FX here are very inventive and not only include some very bizarre make-up and prosthetics but, some charming stop-motion animation as well. A time before CGI and it’s all the more charming for it. Despite a modest budget the quaint FX enhance the film’s atmosphere and add to the fun. Again Danny Elfman was brought into score and again his music fits the film like a spooky glove.

As for the human cast elements, despite not having as much screen time as you might think, it’s Keaton’s show and he takes the demonic ball and runs with it. He is completely and unapologetically over the top as the perverted and devious oddball demon that is Beetlejuice. He has a lot of great bits to chew on and while not every line is knee-slapping, Keaton gives them his all anyway and the film would not have worked so well without him. Davis and Baldwin make a very endearing couple of ghosts and they have a really great chemistry together and with Ryder. The fact that they are played as the most normal characters in the film adds to the charm and they both give very down to earth performances… pun intended. It really works as a nice contrast to the eccentric Deetzes and their weird friends and, of course, Beetlejuice himself. And as the Deetzes there is also a nice contrast here with Jeffery Jones’ more down to earth real estate developer and Catherine O’Hara’s delightfully eccentric new age sculptor wife. Add in the adorably gloomy Lydia brought to life by a cute, young Winona Ryder and the obnoxious and self centered Otho, made all the more amusing by a scenery chewing Glenn Shadix (who sadly passed away in 2010 due to injuries sustained in a fall in his home). A very well cast comedy with some very talented people doing what they do best.

I love this movie. Sure, not all the bits work and a slightly tighter script could have made it even more of a tour de force for the eclectic cast but, with Keaton creating an iconic character and some truly inventively designed otherworldly characters and sequences, you get a very original and now classic comedy and a film that is still, in my opinion, one of both Burton’s and Keaton’s best. A delight even close to 30 years later. Also features cameos by Robert Goulet and Dick Cavett.

3 and 1/2 Beetlejuices!

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REVIEW: ROBOCOP (2014)

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ROBOCOP (2014)

The original Robocop is a film classic and one of my all-time favorite flicks. Obviously I was enormously apprehensive when they announced a remake and one that would shoot for a tame PG-13 tone at that. But, I tried hard to go into this remake/re-imagining/whatever with an open mind and let it stand on it’s own but, even if you ignore the original Verhoeven version, this flick is just routine, bland and forgettable, despite having a fairly solid cast. The basic problem here is that Joshua Zetume’s script is weak and director José Padilha brings nothing to the table in terms of style or energy. The movie’s pulse, like some of it’s robot characters, is flatline. The story is set in a near future world where Omni Consumer Products and it’s CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) has it’s armed peace-keeping robots all around the world making the planet a supposedly better place to live but, in fact has turned it into a virtual prison. A law has been passed in America that forbids the use of armed robots and OCP needs to come up with a way to sway the American people into accepting their automated police and soldiers. They come up with the idea of a cyborg cop, a part man, part machine law enforcement agent to charm the American public into warming up to their cold hearted machines. Now they just need a human subject to set their plan in motion. Enter Det. Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) who has a wife and son and is a good, honest cop, who, unfortunately, steps on the wrong toes and gets his car blown up right in front of his house. Sellars and scientist Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) convince Murphy’s grieving wife (Abbie Cornish) to let them save what’s left of a near-dead Alex through the Robocop program. A new hero is soon born but, one who’s human qualities hinder OCP’s attempts to use him as part of their PR campaign to get their drones on American streets. But, the more they try to make him a machine, the more Murphy fights to stay human. And the more he rebels against his programing, the more Sellars believes it’s time to turn their hero into a martyr and the people who created him now seek to destroy him. Can he save himself and his family? While the story here does deviate somewhat from the original film and the enormous budget allows the film to take us to other parts of the world, it doesn’t make up for the fact that the film has none of what made the original such a great movie. And I’m not talking about the gruesome gore that permeated the original, the flick could have succeeded without the massive bloodletting, I mean the strong emotional undercurrent, the biting social satire and the twisted sense of humor. We never warm up to Kinnaman’s Murphy either, like we did with Weller’s immediately likable cop, even with having far more time for us to get to know him and there is little spark between he and Cornish to make them believable as a couple and thus sympathetic to their fight to remain a family… despite that dad is now 80% hardware. It’s all presented rather generically and we never bond with them therefor, making us root for them as a family. Making his partner a wisecracking man (Michael K. Williams), removes the dynamic between the original film’s Murphy and Lewis, as in that film, Lewis became the anchor for his humanity after his wife thought him dead and left town. These two are just generic (there’s that word again) TV show style cops with one serious and the other wise-cracking bad jokes. Which brings me to the next point, the few attempts at humor in the film just fall flat and the attempts at social satire, through the rhetorical ramblings of right-wing TV show host Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson in an obvious paycheck part), fall equally flat and only serve to illustrate how shallow this new film is. Technically, Padilha is a competent director and the film’s budget is on screen but, he doesn’t give the film any soul or energy. I was never bored but, I was never really involved either. The action scenes are all very by-the-numbers and are instantly forgettable once they are over, much like the rest of the film. Forgettable characters going through the motions in forgettable scenes. The original film had colorful and memorable characters and vividly memorable action, not to mention, some very funny moments that never invaded the drama. This film takes itself far too seriously and yet with much less to offer. The cast is decent. Veterans like Keaton, Oldman and Jackson do the best they can with their weakly written parts but, even Keaton’s Sellars is no Dick Jones villain-wise. Kinnaman tires hard and has a few moments but, he never becomes endearing like Weller’s Murphy and his performance is ironically a little too robotic at times for us to really like him. Cornish is pretty and does the stereotypical long-suffering wife but, she also never becomes endearing or sympathetic because, she never rises above that stereotype into a three dimensional character. Jackie Earle Haley has a moderate part as OCP’s military expert but, his Rick Mattox is also a stereotypical military bad guy and he never is given much chance to give him the rage or depth of his Rorschach character from Watchman and that is just another of this film’s woes. Weak villains… not that the good guys fair much better… and the whole corporate conspiracy thing they are involved in makes no sense. If the public accepts Robocop because he is part human, how does it somehow make them suddenly accept the drones who are all machine. If they like Robo because he is a person underneath the armor, that should make them even less accepting of the inhuman machines that OCP wants to shove down our throats but, this is even more evidence of the weak script. At least production value is strong. The FX in the film are all quite good but, without an emotional center, they are as cold as the rest of the movie and while I liked the initial Robocop design that pays homage to the original’s look, the final  black ‘tactical’ version looks like a plastic Batman costume with a helmet instead of the cowl. Boring. The score by Pedro Bromfman adds little to the atmosphere or drama and is equally forgettable. I couldn’t hum a single note unless it’s the few times it revisits the original score by Basil Poledouris. Yes, I did try to look at this flick on it’s own but, ultimately the comparisons do have to be made as it is called Robocop and is technically a remake and, with or without comparisons, this flick fails on most levels. Basically, the makers of this new generation of Robocop have taken something that was very special and recreated it into something routine and quite forgettable… uh… bravo?

2 remade Robocops .

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS

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Recently revisited these two classics and though they still cause controversy amongst Batman and movie fans years later, they are true classics whether you are for them or against them. I think they sit fine as their own series next to Christopher Nolan’s darker and more grounded films but, however, I did find that one of them has aged more gracefully then the other. It’s also my favorite of the two so, that might have something to do with it …

 

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BATMAN (1989)

Warner Brothers was trying to get a Batman film going for years with various directors attached and in various tones and with numerous actors sought for the lead from Bill Murray to Steven Seagal. But with the success of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, the studio settled on Tim Burton as a new upcoming director and fans began to buzz with interest. When Burton announced Beetlejuice star Michael Keaton as his Batman, the interested turned to outrage, though the outrage calmed down somewhat as it was also announced that film icon Jack Nicholson would be his arch-nemesis, The Joker. The film was finally made and after years of waiting, I remember enjoying it upon seeing it opening night on 6/23/89 but I had some problems with it that kept me from loving it. With a recent revisit, I found those problems still haunt it and to be honest, it is kind of dated especially with the Prince songs, which I never liked being in the film in the first place. They totally contrast and work against Danny Elfman’s moody and gothic score. But I digress…

Batman opens with a mysterious bat suited figure thrashing two criminals on a rooftop and the subsequent investigation by hard-nosed reporter Alexander Knox (a completely annoying Robert Wuhl and a character that could have been totally removed without any effect on the story) and intrepid photographer Vicki Vale (a bland Kim Basinger). We also get a second storyline of mob enforcer Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) who is sleeping with crime boss Carl Grissom’s (Jack Palance) girlfriend (Jerry Hall) and Grissom knows it. Grissom sends Napier on a job which is actually a set-up and when the police arrive, so does ‘The Bat” and Jack winds up shot in the face and falling in a vat of chemicals. The Joker is thus born, but so is a hero as The Batman (Michael Keaton) is secretly orphaned billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, a man who is avenging the murder of his parents by taking the criminals of Gotham head on as his masked alter ego. And with the Joker planing to ruin Gotham, he and Batman are fated to collide. But Wayne and Joker are also fated to collide too, as both men set their sights on the beautiful Vale…

And that plot element brings me to one of my first and biggest problems with Batman and that is the love triangle (quadrangle?) between Vale, Wayne, Joker and Batman. Not only does it not really work, but it provides some of the worst written scenes/dialogue in movie. The film stops dead for two scenes in particular when the Joker come to woo Vale and I never bought that the Joker would throw aside and endanger his nefarious plans, just for a girl… at least in how I see the character. That and Bassinger is just boring as Vale and one wonders how it would have been if Sean Young hadn’t been injured and lost the role. But this is also the product of the really weak script by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren that was reported to have been continuously tweaked throughout production. The script continually stops the already weak plot…The Joker messing with hair and beauty products? That was the best ‘evil scheme’ they could come up with for the greatest comic book villain of all time?…to pay attention to this subplot and takes the iconic Joker and Batman characters and makes their disagreement over a girl, like this was a John Hughes high school movie or something. At least Keaton shocked the world by being a great Batman and he gives this film a lot of the weight it has. He makes a brooding and mysterious Dark Knight and a perfectly aloof and eccentric Bruce Wayne. He even retains his dignity in an awfully written scene with him trying to explain his double life to Vale with an intrusion by The Joker. There is that ‘Vale’ factor again. As for Nicholson, despite what appears to be perfect casting…and I know I’ll get flak for this…Jack’s Joker is a mixed bag. He goes from dead-on threatening, such as the infamous “Wait’ll they get a load of me” scene, to just plain goofy and silly. I do understand that the Joker’s tone did change from dangerous psycho to goofy clown over the years in the comics, but the movie needed to pick one. I don’t know if it was Jack being overindulgent or Burton mishandling him or a product of the script, but Nicholson’s Joker is all over the place. He fails to solidify the proper threat and menace to make the character a solid villain as there are times when he appears to be a little too demented and silly to get away with his plans. He has some really effective scenes…his treatment of Alicia (Hall) is the kind of cruel streak the character needed a bit more of to remain frightening…but they are totally sidetracked by his sillier moments, but in his defense, and I can’t say this enough, the script doesn’t give him the best material to chew on. And as Burton isn’t always the strongest storyteller, so maybe Jack just winged it from scene to scene.

And as for Burton, he is a great visualist and this film has a sort of grimy Blade Runner meets 1940s detective thriller look to it. The storytelling here is weak, but it is said the script was sometimes changed without the director’s knowledge, so not sure if the film’s weakest moments are totally his fault. There were apparently a lot of hands in this pot and that’s why the following sequel seems more like a “Tim Burton” film then this one. All it’s flaws aside, this movie is still endearing to me. Keaton is great and would get even better in the improvement of a sequel. There is a lot of fun action and when Jack is on, he is a delight to watch when he gives his Joker the appropriate menace and isn’t sabotaged by some bad dialogue or cartoonish behavior. I wish he had been given a better story then hair and make-up tinkering, but this is what we got. The film has a classic score by Danny Elfman and a very underrated performances by Michael Gough as Alfred and his scenes with Keaton are magic. Put all four of this era’s Batman flicks together and Gough is the jewel of this uneven series. The Phantom Of The Opera-ish climax is also a lot of fun and The Joker’s last scene might ironically be one of the most fitting scenes for the character… always having to have the last laugh.

So, in conclusion, despite a lot of flaws and the signs of a tumultuous production, the movie still has  a lot to entertain and certainly has it’s charm, especially now that it’s aged somewhat…though not as gracefully as we’d like. And as my idea of Batman and his Joker were better portrayed by Nolan’s The Dark Knight, I can now let this movie slide on a few of it’s issues as it is no longer the only film on the subject. Also stars Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent and Tracey Walter as Joker’s top henchman Bob.

… as a final note, it’s kind of interesting that I’ve read where Tim Burton has been said to say he finds the movie boring and proclaim that it’s not a great movie. I agree it’s not a great movie, but it isn’t boring and will always be regarded, even by me, as a classic despite it’s flaws. These statements only give more substance to me of the notion that this film was not totally his and there were a lot of cooks involved in the bat soup which may explain why many aspects of the production are so uneven.

3 bat signals!

batman 1989 rating

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BATMAN RETURNS (1992)

Now this was more like it! As for what I wanted from Burton’s first Batman, this sequel is a lot closer to it. The film feels a lot more like a ‘Tim Burton’ film and a lot of the problems from Batman, have been eliminated or fixed such as booting the Vale and Knox characters and having a more consistently sinister villain and a far livelier and sexier leading lady… and no Prince music to date the film like last time…And for the record, I think Prince is a musical genius and has some great tunes, but they don’t belong in a Batman movie. The story is still not the strongest…none of this era’s Batman movies had strong plots…but it makes up for it by strengthening a lot of other weaknesses including a more gothic look and a snowy Christmas setting with a bit more of a devious sense of humor.

We start out with the wealthy Cobblepot family (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure vets Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger) welcoming a new baby boy into their family…an unfortunately deformed baby whom they proceed to send a la Moses sailing off down a creek in a basket. The basket sails into the abandoned Gotham City Zoo and down into the sewers beneath where it is greeted by a group of penguins apparently left over from the zoo’s closure. Cut to over three decades later as Gotham is battling a new criminal element and there are urban legends of a ‘penguin man’ stalking the sewers of the city, and now that he’s established as a hero, the apparently useless Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) calls upon the Batman (Michael Keaton) to combat these problems. Meanwhile unscrupulous businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) is scheming to construct a power plant that will actually steal power from Gotham and is forced to throw his shy secretary Selena Kyle (Michelle Pheiffer) out a high rise window when she stumbles on his plans. But all these characters and stories are destined to clash as the criminal gang is actually run by The Penguin (Danny DeVito) who is the vengeful, deformed outcast son of the Cobblepots and he tasks Max Shreck to help him get his revenge on the city that abandoned him. Miss Kyle is resurrected, in a scene that evokes the Japanese horror flick Kuroneko (1968), by the touch of some stray cats and emerges as Catwoman, yet another vengeance seeking individual with chaos and bedlam on her mind. And the one thing they all have in common…none of their plans can come to fruition without the elimination of The Batman. The only hitch is that Batman and Catwoman may have found soul mates in each other just as the emotionally scarred Bruce Wayne has with the equally damaged Selina Kyle. But will the feline femme fatale side with the caped crusader or join the other villains to do him in?

Burton may not be the strongest storyteller but he does far better guiding this one then the last. Maybe it was less interference from producers?…a less demanding actor as his lead bad guy?…or that Daniel Waters’ script is a vast improvement over that last film’s. Either way this flick is a lot more fun, while retaining it’s dark tone. It seems to move faster and despite it’s complicated story and numerous characters, seems to flow a lot better in the context of the telling of that story. The characters all seem to fit together better, especially Keaton and Pfeiffer whose scenes together both as Wayne and Kyle and their alter egos are a delight to watch and crackle with a sexual tension that was completely absent in the last film’s romantic pairing. They are also far better written and have some nice crisp dialogue between the two especially with Batman and Catwoman’s love/hate relationship. While it may be debated that Walken’s villain is one too many, his scenes with all three leads are amusing to watch as he basically seems to be playing everyone for his own benefit and also seems quite amused with himself that his partners in crime don’t see the wool pulled over their eyes or his thinly veiled contempt for them as he does it. Keaton is even better here as Batman/Bruce Wayne and seems to be more relaxed in the role and while he is still a wounded soul, I dare say his Batman here is enjoying his superhero role a little more now that his is out of the shadows and an outright hero instead of an outlaw. He works well with all the cast especially recreating the magic between Batman and butler with Gough’s wonderful Alfred. As for DeVito, his Penguin is a grotesque and sinister creature that instills discomfort and menace. He is having a blast with the role and is far more consistent with his portrayal then the all over the place performance Nicholson gave and this helps establish his character more solidly. Penguin may not be as quite iconic as The Joker, but in my opinion DeVito is far more successful in his portrayal than Jack was in his, because he picks a tone for the demented and sly Oswald Cobblepot and stays with it. It may also help that he has a better script and a director who is not having his script changed underneath him like last time. Pfeiffer is simply hot and spicy as the kitten with a whip that is her Catwoman. She is adorable as the shy and clumsy Selena Kyle and then is delightfully hot as the twisted and sexy villainess. She and Keaton have a wonderful chemistry together and make good use of the witty dialogue between them. She also has some fun scenes with DeVito, whose creepily horny Penguin would like nothing better than to get into her vinyl catsuit.

The production on a whole seems more relaxed. The budget is almost twice what the first film’s was and Burton goes with a more gothic look with less pipes and girders and more stone and castle-like architecture and the colors are less rust and rot with more blues and cool grays to accent his cold weather suited villain. The first film looked appropriately grungy, but here it more ‘Transylvanian’ and he makes good use of the snowy winter setting to present a beautiful snow swept city in contrast to the dirty dark sewers in which Penguin calls home. There are some fun action scenes too and the film benefits from the larger budget with better FX and model work. Even back in the day, some of the model work in the first film’s cathedral scene made me wince. Danny Elfman returns to once again composes a wonderfully fitting score. The two Batman scores are among his best work.

All in all, Batman Returns is a better film in every way and it’s a shame the studio decided to change direction in the next film and go with Schumacher who treated the next two Batman films like a gaudy burlesque show complete with bat nipples and gratuitous latex covered ass shots. Keaton sadly but wisely walked away as the next two films went from neon drenched car wreck to neon drenched train wreck respectively. Odd that the studios wanted the films to be lighter and more family friendly yet, Schumacher gave them far more of a kinky sexual subtext then the darker Burton films and were ultimately less successful.

3 and 1/2 bat signals!

batman returns rating

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