Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Batman (1989)

Sets A High Standard For Other Superhero Films

- Sturgeon's Law states that "90% of everything is crap." I find this statement to be quite accurate in general but Sturgeon's Law must be extended another 5-9% when it comes to the superhero film genre. The vast majority of superhero films strike me as built from the bottom-dwelling up with cheap thrills and lifeless acting, completed with an added bit of overtired film clich├ęs, cheesy jokes, and lame overall atmosphere, made simply in poor quality to top it all off. However, the nice thing about Sturgeon's Law is that the percentage of great things tends to overshadow the 90% of crap that surrounds it. Tim Burton's Batman (1989) is not the average superhero movie crap - it is a fantastic action/thriller with strong atmosphere and character.

One of the biggest reasons that Batman is such a great film is the great ensemble cast. Michael Keaton stars as Batman/Bruce Wayne and was a risky casting choice. Having never done an action film before, and being noted mainly for his physical comedy (film fans of the day scoffed at the idea of "Mr. Mom" as Batman), Keaton would have been one of the last thought actors for this role. However, I think that there has never been a better Batman than Michael Keaton. With a cool, collected and confident swagger, Keaton has the perfect mix of qualities for Batman and he does a great job convincing as Bruce Wayne as well, an ordinary guy with a noticeable amount of mystery and stuff going on underneath it all.

Kim Basinger does a good job as Vicki Vale in the film as well. While there is not much to the character besides being the damsel in distress and the name "Vicki Vale" does sound like a really bad Quentin Tarantino character, Basinger is an elegant screen beauty and also gives an overall enjoyable performance. Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Michael Gough, Billy Dee Williams, and Jack Palance are all very memorable in their small-to-tiny roles.

Jack Nicholson's performance as the Joker in this film could be his most entertaining performance to watch. Before Heath Ledger, Nicholson defined the character - and still does for me. Even though Nicholson is playing "the Joker," he is not just goofing around for two hours; he is seriously into his character. It just so happens that the character is very funny and just far-out crazy, which brings out Nicholson's creative and out-there side that is an absolute delight to watch - but Nicholson's Joker is still a dangerous dude (so don't mess with his rhubarb). Nicholson may be best remembered in Hollywood and history for this statue-winning performances in films like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and As Good As It Gets (1997) - but for me, Nicholson's performance as the Joker in Batman is (outside of his performance in Chinatown (1974)) as good as it gets.

Apart from the great acting, Batman is just a very well made film on really every technical level. Arguably more than a mere "superhero" or "action film," Batman includes many memorable action sequences but is not completely focused on that aspect. Instead, Batman is focused more on the film's characters and style. It is interesting though: despite Wayne/Batman being the most focal character in the film (being the hero and all), he almost plays a supporting role to the Joker in his own film. While that might sound bad, to not give Batman a monopoly on screentime in a film entitled "Batman," this actually could not have worked out better for the film. By highlighting the Joker character a little bit more than Batman in the film, Batman becomes a more shadowy and mysterious character and subsequently a more imposing force in the film since the spotlight is not focused on the character 24/7 - the audience feels the presence of Batman more because he is not around so often. And, of course, with more screen time for the Joker, we as the audience get to see more of Jack Nicholson's awesome performance - which does nothing but good things for the film.

The film's overall story is not incredibly interesting in and of itself.... You know the drill: the bad guy wreaks some havoc and the good guy tries to stop him. This really does not hurt the film at all - simple can be good too after all - and the story provides opportunity for the characters (and the wonderful performances) to take center stage over events or gimmicks. Plus, the Bruce Wayne and Joker characters are written so well that the audience forgets how simple the plot is (if they cared in the first place).

However, one thing the story does particularly well is bring out the humanity of Batman; one of the reasons that Batman is such a great and popular character, especially for me, is because of his humanity. Instead of being an unreachable and untouchable "super-human," like so many screen superheroes are, being human - damaged, driven and vulnerable - makes the Batman character relatable and is a huge, fundamental part of who he is.  Michael Keaton and the film's script bring this dimension out very well and the audience is able to invest more of themselves into the character and entire film as a result.

While the film does focus primarily on the characters, there are some great action scenes as well. Batman gets his gadget on during this film, none of which are too over-the-top; it is easy to believe that Batman throws this stuff together in the cave next to his giant computer and waffle iron and that they would really work in real life. The most memorable gadget of the film is of course the flashy Batmobile that looks cool, unique and stylish enough not to look overdone - unlike the other pimped-out Batmobiles of the later films.

But one area of Batman really separates it from the rest of the superhero pack: its style. Thanks to Tim Burton's visual genius, Roger Platt's lighting and Anton Furst's one-of-a-kind art direction, Batman has an incredibly unique and interesting look equipped with dark atmosphere, very creative art direction, fantastic makeup and great costumes. Burton takes his signature style and infuses it with a classic gangster/film noir look and Furst's divergent art direction to create a visual presentation that cannot be duplicated. The resulting film world for Batman is pretty ambiguous as far as architecture and what time period the story is set, which holds a realistic yet other-worldly quality at the same time.

Also, I cannot end a review of Batman without mentioning the unforgettable score by Danny Elfman. The score for the film is exceptional, adding an incredible amount of power and feeling to each scene. Two decades and many Batman films later, no other Gotham-set score says "Batman" quite as forcefully or definitively as Elfman's score.

Sturgeon's Law notwithstanding, 1989's Batman gives the superhero genre a good name. Nicholson, Keaton, Burton, Elfman, Furst - what a job well done. When I think of the genre, Batman is part of the elite handful of superhero films that stands the test of time and begs for more re-watches. Few superhero films leave as strong a sense of character and as mighty an impact visually as Batman does. However, with all the awesome performances and Tim Burton's stylistic talent that go into the film, Batman is not just a great "superhero movie," it's a great "film."

CBC Rating: 10/10

Batman Returns (1992)

Burton Returns

- With the monumental success of the original Batman film in 1989, it comes as no surprise that the studio begged director Tim Burton to make a sequel. However, this was an idea that did not exactly excite Burton, as he did not see himself making Batman films for the rest of his life. In the end however, greater creative control over the project persuaded Burton to direct Batman Returns in 1992. One can see Burton's creative control in every shot of the film; where Batman does feel more than just a good "superhero film," Batman Returns feels particularly more like a "Tim Burton film" rather than a "Batman film." To my surprise, this factor ends up being one of the lower aspects of the film, as some of the Burtonesque elements make the film too bizarre for its own good while the all-Batman aspects stand-out as the film's greatest strengths.

Rather than repeating the same outline as Burton's first Batman film by pitting Batman against one villain who is causing havoc and chaos, Batman Returns sees Batman up against three villains and four different avenues of schemes that he needs to stop.

First there is Danny DeVito's the Penguin, who ends up being less like the actual comic book character (a short, fat, big-nosed MAN) and more like an odd Burtonesque creature: deformed and savage. Burton tries to make this Penguin character "misunderstood" but it does not work, as the Penguin is anything but something that resembles human, completely evil and very unsympathetic in my view. As much as the film tried to make me, I could not weep for him - I just wanted Batman to dropkick the sucker at every possible opportunity. The Penguin does not want to rule Gotham or get rich, he, at first, just wants to find his parents - then he wants to run for Mayor of Gotham to be accepted by society followed by a desire to steal all of the first born children in the city and drop them in the river as he was. DeVito portrays the Penguin well enough; however, there are many times when DeVito himself comes through stronger than the actual Penguin character and it feels like we are just watching DeVito try to branch out as an actor. I never like watching actors act - I like watching actors perform great characters and then, after the movie is over, admiring what a great job the actor did, but I get absolutely nothing out of watching actors fail to create convincing characters and just act.

The second villain is Max Shreck (a riff on the silent star Max Schreck), played by Christopher Walken, a powerful business figure who wants to drain Gotham's power supply through a fake power plant he is trying build. Shreck ends up being a villain for both Bruce Wayne and Batman: Wayne tries to stop Shreck's plan through legal and business-oriented means and, when Shrek tries to help the Penguin run for mayor to get his power plant created, Wayne must stop him through his alter-ego Batman. Shreck is not as interesting on paper as Christopher Walken eventually makes him through his odd yet subtle portrayal of the character (subtle for Walken anyway).

Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman is the third and final villain who ends up being both a villain and a hero. Selina Kyle can blow up buildings, steal, and join forces with the Penguin to get rid of Batman as Catwoman while at the same time romancing the ever-intrigued Bruce Wayne. Pfeiffer is very good as the Catwoman/Selina - one can easily see both why she is so dangerous and why Wayne is so intrigued by her but Pfeiffer also puts sexy into crazy in a way that is just flat-out fun to watch.

Many film fans consider Batman Returns the darkest Batman film to date and I could not disagree more. Returns has far more goofy scenes and puns than the 1989 Batman film ever had (Nicholson was able to make the Joker funny and psychotic at the same time) and Batman also offers a far more brooding Bruce Wayne than Returns does. Also, where Batman looks and feels influenced by film noir, classic gangster films and the like, Batman Returns feels more like Frank Capra and Howard Hawks-meets-Burton's era-neutral Gotham City. While this element is FAR from bad (I would actually list the visuals as the film's greatest aspect and something that keeps it both similar yet very different from the first Batman film) it also makes the film definitely not as dark as 1989's Batman.

Burton is back in Batman Returns with some more interesting visuals (as I just explained) but the story he tells also has some interesting elements. I love the idea of Batman being framed by the villains so that Gotham City will hate him and I really enjoy the relation and tension between Batman and Catwoman - these two themes feels like essential Batman stuff to me.

Unfortunately, while Michael Keaton gives another great performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman, the character is not remotely close to being as interesting as he is in 1989's Batman. He is not the damaged loner that we saw in the first film; now he is headstrong and a little too eager to open up to someone he hardly knows. This direction taken with the character is very disappointing. Also disappointing is something I alluded to earlier in this write-up: the film is filled with too many Burtonesque oddities. Selina's apartment-ravaging freak-out has little point to it and just feels weird, the Penguins sub-street underworld is too weird even for the comic world of Batman, and little things one just raises an eyebrow at (whether it is a stupid line, weird character, or lame prop) are improperly seasoned throughout the entire film. Burton's creativity could be strongly felt and was a huge plus for the 1989 Batman film but Batman Returns feels too much like a Burtonesque nightmare.

When taking the big Batman picture into account, Batman Returns makes for a pretty good second act with some new ideas, themes and characters; familiar yet new atmosphere; an extension of Burton's Batman fantasy world; and a fairly entertaining story for the dark detective to unravel. Nevertheless, Batman Returns also falls into the disappointment category, unable to match strides with the previous Batman film and being a little too Burtonesque bizarre for its own good.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

I'm Not There. (2007)

I'm Not There: The Bob Dylan Movie

- Fans of Bob Dylan will most likely really enjoy I'm Not There (2007) but for those who are not exactly Dylan fanatics.... Well, you might not. While enjoying many of his songs, I am not what one could call a Bob Dylan fanatic. I respect his uniqueness, music pioneering and ability to express himself - I am just not a big fan of his music in general. I am more into melodies and musical atmosphere - Bob Dylan always has something to say and it takes center stage often times, in my opinion, at the expense of melody and atmosphere. However, although I do not particularly like Bob Dylan's music as a whole, I ended up generally liking I'm Not There - though I have a couple of bones to pick.

I'm Not There approaches Bob Dylan through the supposed facets of his life and personality. The many sides of Bob Dylan are only what the film tells you they are however and are shown through different characters: child prodigy, poet, spiritual thinker, superstar, rebel and outlaw. This is an interesting concept, although it is not completely carried out well. You have to come into this film already knowing a little bit about Bob Dylan since the characters are all representations of Dylan's supposed personality and also because the film hops from one character to another and it is easy to get lost in the timeline.

There are positive points to I'm Not There to be sure. Much of the film's cast members are mediocre at best in their roles like Heath Ledger, Richard Gere and Marcus Carl Franklin - but other actors are absolutely fantastic. Ben Whishaw and Christian Bale are both excellent with their Bob Dylan personalities and Cate Blanchett's performance is a sight to behold – altering her voice, look, and mannerisms to be just like Bob Dylan.

The story for the film is so oddball that there better be some interesting pictures to accompany it - thankfully there is. I really liked the way that I'm Not There is filmed as well - both in color and in black-and-white and with great style. There is also a good deal of great and thought-provoking dialogue in I'm Not There. I do not think that the film is as poignant as it thinks it is; however, there is a lot of clever dialogue. So many weird expressions exist throughout the film that are thought provoking on face, making you think if not just by immediately as yourself the question "What the hell did that even mean?"

Because of its off-beat exposition on the supposed multi-faceted personality of Bob Dylan, I think that it would be safe to say that die-hard fans of Bob Dylan are going to deeply dig this movie. However, for the exact same reasons a Dylan fanatic might enjoy the film, this film might not speak to you if Dylan's music does not float your boat or even if you are just a casual Dylan fan. While I would say that I'm Not There is not a perfect film, it did include enough good qualities to leave a generally positive impact on me. Still, if I ever get the urge to want to experience Dylan, I'll just have a listen to "Tangled Up In Blue."

CBC Rating: 6/10

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait Of Diane Arbus (2006)

Life Is But A Dream

- When first catching sight of the title of the 2006 film Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, one immediately thinks that it will be both imaginary and a portrait. However, before the viewer is able to jump to any more crazy assumptions, the film begins with an attempt to prepare the viewer for what they will experience with Fur, displaying a disclaimer in a Surgeon General warning sort of way:

"This film is about Diane Arbus, but it is not a historical biography."

Filled with fantasy aspects, Fur is "a tribute to Diane." Including little about the real Diane Arbus, Fur combines Beauty and the Beast and Alice In Wonderland and attempts to create a fantasy story with no actual portrait of Diane Arbus.

Before she begins her photography career, Diane Arbus (Nicole Kidman) was unhappy with her second fiddle life as her husband's assistant and housewife, staggering to find an answer to the question "What do you do?" and stuck in a snooty and stuffy upper class. One day however, Diane meets and falls in love with Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey Jr.), a man with a syndrome that covers his entire body with hair.

Yeah, I was creeped out too - but it actually gets worse than just that later on.

In the film, the viewer is basically taken along with Diane as Lionel gives her a tour of his world filled with the out-of-the-ordinary, feeding her interest for the unusual that would later be expressed through her photographs. The Diane Arbus in Fur is more of a grown-up Alice from Alice In Wonderland than the real life Diane Arbus; however, if you take Fur as a total fantasy film instead of a combination of fantasy and reality, then that may not be so bad - but I still personally found it bad. The love story between Arbus and Sweeney is just a little too bizarre for me - and the film's featured graphic nudity did not exactly float my boat either (there's something very unbeautiful about the naked human form when a bunch of naked human forms get together inside a "colony"). But hey, if you like nudist colonies or are of the mind that it is romantic if someone makes a coat out of their own hair and gives it to their loved one, maybe Fur will not seem so bad.

While some aspects of Fur are not the best, or even watchable, there are many other positive aspects. For one thing, the film looks great with interesting cinematography and outstanding set decoration that bring this fantasy world to life. Also,
composer Carter Burwell writes one of his best scores ever for Fur, calm but very atmospheric and adding a tremendous amount to the film's overall good.

As good as the music and visuals are, the lead performances from Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jr. are the absolute highlight in Fur. When Diane is feeling trapped in her family life or free in her exploration of the fantasy world with Lionel, you believe it through Kidman's emotionally-packed performance. Robert Downey Jr. also does a great job with his portrayal of Lionel Sweeney, with most of his performance coming just from his eyes and his quiet manner of speaking (because he is covered in hair).

Fur is not going to be a film that everyone will enjoy. The film certainly has a lot of odd components - a few that I definitely did not particularly enjoy watching. However, with great leading actors, music and look, Fur is a well-assembled film despite the fact that the featured story is bizarre and not so portrait-like.

CBC Rating: 6/10

300 (2007)

A Colossal Waste Of.... Well, Everything

- A whole bunch of my friends and family ran to the theater to see Zach Snyder's gory comic book war flick 300 when it was first released back in the spring of 2007. All of them came back with nothing but praise - apparently, I just had to see it.

So I did see it - when it came to DVD - And... I absolutely hated it. Yes folks, we are talking here about hatred. I am a fan of action films in general but 300 is not a good one.

300 is just chock-full of one big ridiculous event after another. Most of us are familiar with the historical event that the film is based on: 300 Greeks vs. thousands of Persians at Thermopylae – and while the general idea of story told in 300 is, in a nutshell, not terrible (though not historically accurate at all), everything that eventually makes it up and moves it along is terrible: from the painfully embarrassing character introductions to the bizarre Oracles and the flat love story to the homoerotic warrior bonding.

I also found the famed picture that so many had ranted and raved about to be absolutely nothing special. Hey, I am sure that the way they did it really was "revolutionary" or whatever but I just found it to be just unpleasant to look at. The film looks like someone had urinated on the original print, I'm sorry.

Plus, the vast majority of the film's featured performances are also all terrible; full of unintentionally hilarious line deliveries. Come on, how can anyone possibly keep a straight face when Gerard Butler squeals "THIS IS SPARTAAAA!"?

And for all the talk of the supposedly "revolutionary" look and a hairy Gerard Butler in a loin cloth, no other film was supposed to be able to touch the amazing, eye-popping action sequences in 300. Well, imagine my surprise when I found the action to not only be quite un-revolutionary but quite dull! Sure, there is a ton of blood and chopped limbs set to raging drop-tuned heavy metal clips - but where is the uniqueness? We have seen this kind of sword swinging testosterone mania before and have seen it done far better in films of the past.

I have the greatest suspicion that I will never know why this film continues to gather praise. For me, 300 was just a waste of film, money, talent, energy and time.

CBC Rating: 3/10

Barnyard (2006)

The Udder King

- Nickelodeon Movies is obviously trying to get into the lucrative family-oriented animated film market with their 2006 animated production Barnyard. They have succeeded in getting into it, unfortunately they are easily dead last in this animated films market as far as quality and entertainment goes. What makes the Disney, Disney-Pixar, and even some of the DreamWorks animated films great are their animation quality, wittiness in their writing, and ability to entertain all ages. Barnyard subjects all of the audience to barnyard-level humor, cheap-looking animation, the most lame brained slapstick one could conjure up and flat characters one cannot dream of caring about (and somebody please explain to me why all of the MALE cow characters have udders!!!!).

Not only that, but Barnyard completely rips off The Lion King (1994) - and the filmmakers had to know that they were doing it too since everyone and their dog has seen The Lion King 100 million times over.

The plot for Barnyard goes like so: a young animal (in this case, a cow) must take over for his father who was died (HELLOOOO, Mufasa & Simba anyone?) and protect their land (in this case a farm instead of "pride lands") from the evil animals (in this case wolves instead of hyenas) while the main character tries to win the heart of the female animal (also a cow). There are even scenes in Barnyard that are seemingly ripped directly from the film reels of The Lion King; especially the fight in the wolves' junkyard lair that looks "surprisingly" a lot like the hyena's elephant graveyard lair seen in The Lion King.

Maybe this just is not my kind of movie but I simply did not like Barnyard very much in any way at all. I will admit that there are a couple of funny gags in the film - and when I say that, I mean that there are literally two or three (maybe four) gags that get a chuckle within the entire 90 minute movie. I like a well done animated movie but give me any of the classic animated Disney films and the Disney-Pixar films over Barnyard any day.

CBC Rating: 3/10

Hot Fuzz (2007)

Pegg, Frost And Wright Are Back In Hot Fuzz!

- The company that gave you Shaun Of The Dead (2004) - Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright - return for another truly unique and hilarious comedy in 2007: Hot Fuzz!

Excelling at his academic and on-the-job police work and unwavering in his by-the-book professionalism and honesty, policeman (oh, sorry: "police officer") Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is cleaning up the streets of London one thug at a time. Nicholas is so good at his job, in fact, that his superiors have decided to put his talents "to better use" by reassigning him to the small town of Sandford because, as his Chief Inspector put it, "you're making us all look bad."

As one might suspect, Nicholas is not happy about being taken out of the intense action of London and being put into the dull life of Sandford - and to make matters worse, Nicholas is partnered up with the clueless but good-natured Danny Butterman (Nick Frost). But the quiet country life of Sandford turns mysterious with the coming of many so-called accidents that have left people dead, and it is up to Nicholas and Danny to figure out if these accidents are just a string of tragic occurrences or the work of a dangerous killer.

Similar to Shaun Of The Dead in its placing of clever and eccentric comedy into a frightening situation, Hot Fuzz is a hilarious but different kind of comedy; packing this serious murder/mystery story with tons of laughs. Director Edgar Wright brings the same energetic pacing of Shaun Of The Dead to Hot Fuzz, helping to create not just a funny movie but also an exciting action flick.

So much of the film's comedy comes from the cast. Leading the way are Simon Pegg with his highly individual comedic style as the heroic and ready for action Nicholas Angel and Nick Frost with his bumbling and silly portrayal of Danny Butterman. Pegg and Frost really drive the film, their comedic back-and-forth is absolutely hilarious and the "buddy" relationship they create adds some meaning to the film.

Hot Fuzz definitely sees more internationally known stars than Shaun Of The Dead (many of them in fantastic cameo roles): The Oscar-winning Jim Broadbent brings his great veteran presences to the film as Inspector Frank Butterman (yes, there is a relation to Danny), versatile character actor Paddy Considine plays one of the very crude "Andys" and former James Bond Timothy Dalton shows how well he can do comedy as the enigmatic Simon Skinner.

Perhaps, in the end, not at the exact same high level as Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz is still a very creative, hilarious and action-packed film - one of the best comedies of its time.

CBC Rating: 9/10