Monday, July 30, 2012

Ranking the Batman Movies: #16

16. Batman & Robin
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Batman…George Clooney
Alfred…Michael Gough
James Gordon…Pat Hingle
Batgirl…Alicia Silverstone
Mr. Freeze…Arnold Schwarzenegger
Poison Ivy…Uma Thurman

If ever there were an easy pick for the worst of anything, this is it. It’s so beyond terrible you have to see it to believe it. The script is one painfully unfunny pun after another. Way too many of these were coldness related and grunted by Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze. We’re talking riveting dialogue like “Let’s kick some ice!” Or, ahem, in Arnie’s voice: “Les keek sohm iiiiicccee!!!” Somehow, his is both the best and worst performance in the movie. And this is a cast that includes George Clooney. I’m a fan of the guy, but Batman? Doesn’t even sound right, does it? Robin is grown but has the dialogue of a 12 year old. Batgirl is introduced solely for the purpose of having a fist fight with Poison Ivy who is played poorly by Uma Thurman. Gotham City is depicted as a garish collection of oversized statues and neon lights. The movies tries desperately to recapture the magic of the old Adam West show and build on the mediocrity of Schumacher’s prior Bat-flick (more on that later), but fails miserably at both. Instead of being a campy fun ride, it will forever be remembered for giving us nipples on the Batsuit. Let’s not forget about those ginormous codpieces, either. Maybe Batman and his faithful ward really are…nevermind.

Ranking the Batman Movies - Preview

Like most slightly unstable and somewhat insomniac American males with visions of crime-fighting grandeur, Batman is my favorite superhero. Okay, all you guys on that side don’t totally geek out on me and tell me that technically he’s not a superhero because…nevermind. Just know that the Caped Crusader is my guy. Obviously, he’s a fave of plenty others since pop-culture is filled with the cape and cowl. Of course, it all started with the comics, then the serials of the 1940s, the live action TV series, several animated ones, graphic novels, video games, and all sorts of other merchandise. I’m willing to bet more people know the legend of Batman and can name a handful of characters than can name the President and Vice-President of the United States. Not sure what that says about us as a society, but this isn’t a political piece or social commentary. This is a concentration on the full-length features focused on Batman.

For this exercise, I’m not distinguishing between live-action and animation. They’re all lumped in together. However, I am eliminating movies that include Batman as part of a team. That means no Batman/Superman or Justice League movies. Yes, movies involving Robin and/or Batgirl are OK since they’re really part of the Batman universe. To the best of my knowledge I’ve seen all of the movies that meet the criteria. If I’m missing something, let me know. And I am a Batfan so, no matter how low a movie is ranked on this list, rest assured that I do like it, with the exception of the bottom two, of course. Oh, we’re doing the one at a time reveal so this will play out over the next few weeks. I will intersperse reviews of other movies. After all, this isn't an all-Batman blog. Feel free to discuss, share your own rankings, bash mine, etc. View all of the entries here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Directed by Christopher Nolan.

Billionaire Bruce Wayne (Bale) has retired from life just as his alter-ego, Batman, has bowed out of the crime-fighting arena. For the last eight years he’s been a recluse, relegating himself to the east wing of Wayne Manor with no human contact other than his trusty butler Alfred (Caine). It’s just as well since Batman is wanted for the murder of Harvey Dent. If this is a surprise to you, please watch both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight before reading any further. Anyhoo, the Caped Crusader is forced back into action when the mercenary known as Bane (Hardy) threatens to destroy Gotham City.

One of the things that happens to movie franchises is that by the third movie, the spectacle overwhelms the story. The scope expands beyond its breaking point. Throngs of new characters are introduced, convoluting an already weak tale. Special fx substitutes for substance. Often, all of this coincides with a shift in tone to make things overly cartoonish. In short, the focus becomes being bigger than the previous movies, not continuing its saga. The Dark Knight Rises falls victim to some of these things and manages to avoid others.

To help TDKR stay above the fray littered with failed third installments is another splendid villain. A seemingly indomitable foe for our hero creates tension, keeps us on the edge of our seats. Bane gives us this, perhaps even more than The Joker did in the last movie because, unlike the Clown Prince, we fear he is physically superior to Batman. This is in addition to possessing the same maniacal passion to blow Gotham to smithereens. Tom Hardy gives us a menacing performance in the role, both aided and hindered by the mask that covers most of his face. With that and his bulky physique he’s simply intimidating to gaze upon. In action, he just as much, seeming to dwarf our hero in both height and width and the ability to put both to good use. The problem is the mask is equipped with a Vader-esque voice-box that lacks the clarity of having James Earl Jones voice the dialogue, occasionally making it difficult to understand what he’s saying.

As for Batman himself, he’s ever the tortured soul. Life without his beloved Rachel (again, watch the first two movies) and also without the cape and cowl has proven to be a struggle. It’s the most interesting the character has been and Bale gives his best performance in the series. However, donning the costume again may not be the best thing for Bruce. It also strains his relationship with his oldest and best friend Alfred. Alfred wants nothing more for Bruce than a happy ending. He realizes this might be an unattainable goal. Michael Caine plays the role superbly. The most touching scenes in the film are of him pleading with Bruce to find a better way than constantly putting himself in harm’s way.

Alas, there is plenty of spectacle and a number of newcomers. Aside from Bane, the main newbies Selina Kyle AKA, but never actually called Catwoman (Hathaway), Miranda Tate (Cotillard) who may be able to save Wayne Enterprises from financial ruin and young police officer John Blake (Gordon-Levitt). The handling of Selina Kyle is perhaps most interesting. She’s much less a villain than she is simply selfish and connected to all the wrong people. Unfortunately, the sparks needed to make some things towards the end work just aren’t there. Their relationship is much more reminiscent of a father and his adult daughter than two people sexually attracted to one another. Regardless of what she does dad, or Batman in this case, is there to show how much he believes in her. By itself that would be fine, but it renders the shift that takes place between them unbelievable and forced, even if predictable. When you add in all that’s going on with Wayne Enterprises’ board of directors, a romance with Miranda Tate, following around John Blake for long stretches and the movie can begin to feel a bit cluttered.

The spectacle is handled in magical fashion. The easiest thing to point out is Batman’s newest toy, an aircraft creator Lucius Fox (Freeman) simply dubs The Bat. It’s an oddly shaped flying machine, but still more plausible than the giant flying aircraft carrier in The Avengers. Whenever it appears it takes center stage. However, the eye-popper is Gotham herself. One of the greatest strengths of Nolan’s trilogy is making the city a living, breathing character. She is Bruce Wayne’s true love. She is our damsel in distress. The cinematography exploring, exploiting and damaging her is amazing.

Though very exciting and containing most of the action, the last third of TDKR is a point of contention with me. Timelines become incoherent, plotholes pop up in droves and the last minute or two feels like a bit of a copout. This is completely understandable since TDKR is intended to be the last Batman movie Nolan will helm. I don’t think he wanted to upset too many folks on his way out the door. However, the previous movie in the franchise, along with his other movies like Memento and Inception, proves that he’s willing to end on a surprising and disconcerting note. For the first time in the trilogy, the director flinches. He shies away from challenging us and is content with merely entertaining us. This is all fine and dandy, but the finale doesn’t leave the lasting impression of its predecessor.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

R. I. P. Bat-fans

The massacre that took place at a movie theater in Colorado yesterday is beyond senseless. It is particularly hurtful because this terrorist is not someone whose national or political allegiances lie elsewhere. This troubled person seems merely interested in involving the rest of us in his misery. Movies are meant to entertain and/or inform us. They are not intended to be guidelines for the demented. The flipside of this is we shouldn't have to fear for our lives when we attend movies, or ball games, or anywhere else we gather to have fun. Unfortunately, we constantly have to be on our guard. My thoughts and prayers go out to those in the Denver area and especially to those directly affected by this tragedy.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Batman: Gotham Knight

Directors: Yasuhiro Aoki, Futoshi Higashide, Toshiyuki Kubooka, Hiroshi Morioka, Shoujiru Nishimi.
2008. Rated PG-13, 76 minutes.
Kevin Conroy
Kevin Michael Richardson
Gary Dourdan
David McCallum
Parminder Nagra

Six vignettes on the crime-fighter’s early career in Gotham. Basically, it seems to depict a period of time after Batman Begins but before The Dark Knight and even attempts to fill in the one glaring plot hole from the former.

This is no softening of the legend to make it more palatable for the kiddies. It’s a journey through Gotham’s grimiest streets and even the Caped Crusader takes plenty of lumps. Gotham as a whole is represented as desolate as we’ve ever seen her and everyone in town is in a decidedly somber mood. We get to see Batman (Conroy) try out some new gadgets courtesy of Lucious Fox (Richardson), including one he rejects because it works too well. The scene of this rejection is one of the few that offer any insight into the character. The entire section about him learning to deal with pain does this as well. Surprisingly, the action is more graphic than anything I can recall from the rest of Batsy’s onscreen canon.

The animation can be seen as overly experimental. When used properly, visuals enhance the story being told without becoming the story. Here, because they’re so in-your-face and change from one scene to the next you can’t help but be distracted by them. It may not have been so bad if they hadn’t kept changing Batman’s appearance. Early on, it was okay because the story is being told by some kids who all got a glimpse of him in action but don’t really know how to describe him so they use their imaginations to fill in the blanks. One even describes him as an actual giant bat. However, his look keeps changing even after the story has moved away from that tactic. In one scene he’s kinda fat, in another he’s rather plainly built, looks Japanese in one then finally he looks like the Incredible Hulk squeezed into the cowl and tights. Because this movie seems to heavily favor style over substance, you get the feeling it’s more about perfecting the craft of Batman rather than the character. Of course, the fact that a different director worked on each segment probably has a lot to do with it.

This is pretty much for us jaded fans who like their Batman real gritty. This isn’t for casual fans because it can be cryptic at times and none of the villains people are familiar with are on the loose here, just a few generic bad guys. Don’t get me wrong, they inflict some serious pain on our hero but the charisma that the super villains bring is sorely lacking. It isn’t for most youngsters, either. They’ll either be mortified or confused by it. Or both. Still, it's a look at a part of the character's existence that's not often seen, or truncated to fit into a more traditional narrative. Therefore, leave this for us fanboys.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Batman: The Movie

Directed by Leslie H. Martinson.
1966. Rated PG, 105 minutes.
Adam West
Burt Ward
Lee Merriweather
Cesar Romero
Burgess Meredith
Frank Gorshin
Alan Napier
Neil Hamilton
Stafford Repp
Madge Blake
Reginald Denny

As a youngster, I used to watch reruns of the late 60s TV series “Batman” every weekday at 4:30 on channel 11, WPIX in New York. I’d even seen this movie several times. With both, I was enthralled by all the superhero action. I was amazed by Batman’s detective abilities. I eagerly waited to hear what exclamatory word or phrase Robin would use after “Holy” after we were both stunned by one of Batman’s revelations. The various ladies who played Catwoman all made me feel a little tingly. Best of all, I loved the fights. The way “BAM!” or “POW!” would pop up on the screen whenever one of our heroes connected with a punch was exhilarating stuff. Going back to this film so many years later makes me realize how dumb I was. I had no idea what I was watching. I hadn’t the foggiest notion of the comedic brilliance on display before my very eyes. Just so there is no doubt that what we’re about to see is not to be taken seriously, a blurb at the beginning tells us this movie is dedicated to “lovers of the ridiculous and the bizarre.” Of course, this meant nothing to me as a child. As an adult, it set the proper mood.

We jump into the plot with both feet. Four of Gotham’s super villains – The Joker (Romero), The Riddler (Gorshin), Catwoman (Merriweather) and The Penguin (Meredith) have joined forces. Together, they kidnap a famous inventor who’s created a thingamajig they’ll use to yada yada blah blah blah. Of course, it’s up to The Dynamic Duo, Batman (West) and Robin (Ward) to stop them. From there we get a relentless spoof of the Batman serials of the 1930s and 40s, even of comic books themselves. The unbelievable gadgets Batman whips out of his utility belt are hilarious. The sexual innuendos are nothing short of genius, including all sorts of jokes about Robin’s “inexperience.” Most of The Riddler’s riddles are wonderfully nonsensical. Finally, Batman is so smart even the most benign clues lead him to the correct answer. His pontification on each of these will make your head spin. We can’t forget those unbelievable escapes, either. This is where the skewering of the old serials is most evident. In those old shorts the heroes escaped impossible situations with flimsy explanations. Here, those explanations are remarkably thin. To make sure all these pieces congeal into a satisfying dish, a perfect tone is struck throughout. This includes almost always having the camera tilted just a bit whenever our focus is on the bad guys.

In the years since the TV series was cancelled, the Batman character has not only returned to his roots, he’s gone beyond them, becoming increasingly darker. On screen, this began in earnest with Tim Burton’s 1989 movie with Michael Keaton beneath the cowl and continues today. I, for one, am glad for it. Christopher Nolan is my hero for what he’s done with the franchise. The exceptions are the two Joel Schumacher entries into the Bat-canon, Batman Forever with Val Kilmer in the lead and Batman and Robin with George Clooney. It is these two movies that show us how great Batman: The Movie is. Schumacher’s flicks go for the same gusto that director Leslie H. Martinson goes for, but fails spectacularly. The purposely silly and slightly naughty dialogue is far more entertaining than having Arnold Schwarzenegger recite a million puns using the word ice.

With all that said, this isn’t for everyone. If you just have to have your Batman as a dark, brooding vigilante this is not for you. If you think movies such as the Austin Powers and The Naked Gun trilogies are stupid without being funny, this is not for you. If you’re not made to smile by reading the phrase “If I…could only reach…my utility belt!” This is definitely not for you. Fine, that just means more for me.

Friday, July 13, 2012


Directed by Lars von Trier.
2011. Rated R, 135 minutes.
Kirsten Dunst
Charlotte Gainsbourg
Keifer Sutherland
Stellan Skarsgard
Alexander Skarsgard
Brady Corbet
John Hurt
Charlotte Rampling

Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Gainsbourg) are a pair of emotionally unstable sisters with a half of the movie Melancholia devoted to each of them. I mean this literally. It’s divided pretty much down the middle. Part 1 is called “Justine”, part 2 “Claire”. For what it’s worth, Justine is the more damaged of the two. Her problems play out across both chapters. She suffers from severe depression. At times it cripples her to the point she can’t even will herself out of bed for days on end. Though married with her own family, Claire spends lots of time tending to Justine. Perhaps she also suffers from depression. She’s prone to break down and cry when things get to be overwhelming. This seems to be at least once a day. She’s also freaked out by our pending doom. More on that, later.

As part 1 opens, Justine has just gotten married. We go on to witness one of the most bizarre wedding receptions in the history of mankind. It’s held at the luxurious estate, golf course included, by Claire and her husband John (Sutherland). The location is the only thing luxurious about this reception, though. Justine’s mom announces to everyone that she doesn’t believe in marriage and, I’m paraphrasing here, “all you people suck.” Her boss sends his newly hired nephew to follow her around to bug her about the ad campaign they’re working on. Justine herself disappears for long stretches to have weepy conversations with Claire, who’s often sent to fetch her, or one of their parents whom she seeks out. All the while she alternately teases and gives the cold shoulder to her new hubby. None of it makes a whole lot of sense except to show that Justine is indeed depressed. And trust me, I’m leaving out some of the more colorful moments.

For part 2, we switch from disheartening drama to bleak science-fiction. Sorta. This is where that pending doom thing comes in. We see the extent to which Claire goes for her sister. It’s a tiresome job that strains her marriage. Justine eventually snaps out of her funk, somewhat. Once she’s up and about she exudes the kind of attitude that makes us want to smack her. Regardless, we shift our focus to Claire who is understandably freaked out by the heavy-handedly named Melancholia, a planet suddenly very visible in our sky. It’s visible because it is racing towards us. The question is will it actually hit us and end it all. John thinks it will not. Everything on Google says it will. So essentially, this becomes a movie about whether or not you can trust what you read online. OK, maybe not, but the subtext is there. Unlike more standard sci-fi, we don’t see armies of scientists trying desperately to come up with a solution. Bruce Willis and a rag-tag bunch of drillers turned astronauts aren’t sent up to deploy a nuke. Instead, we get Claire hoping against hope that things will turn out for the best.

On its own, each part is an interesting character study. More accurately, one and a half of the two parts is an interesting character study of Justine. Up to that point, everything we see of Claire is merely a reaction to her sister. The portion dedicated to Claire is not as complex and therefore less compelling. Of course, it’s saddled with the urgency of another planet possibly slamming into Earth. The problem is, especially with the dearth of characters in part 2, it’s less an apocalyptic event than an overwrought metaphor that overwhelms the story of the two sisters rather than aid in its telling. The fate of the world is clearly less important than the sanity of these two women. The planet merely succeeds in making a film that’s already a downer even more of one. That said, Melancholia is a mixed bag for me. It’s artistic and well-made but pessimistic without even a hint of humor. It’s interesting and different, yet relentlessly dreary. In other words, just forget about feeling good for a while after watching it.

MY SCORE: 7/10

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Tree of Life

Directed by Terrence Malick.
2011. Rated PG-13, 139 minutes.
Brad Pitt

Jessica Chastain
Sean Penn

Hunter McCracken
Laramie Eppler
Tye Sheridan
Fiona Shaw
Nicolas Gonda
Kelly Koonce
Cole Cockburn

Mr. O’Brien (Pitt) is an overbearing father. He doesn’t take any guff from his three boys, or his wife, for that matter. He doesn’t physically abuse them, but it’s clear who is in charge. Things have to be done his way or not at all. Well, actually all this comes later.

Jack (Penn) doesn’t have the greatest relationship with his dad. That’s understandable since that’s the guy in the first paragraph. Jack’s grown up to be very successful, but is agonizing over something he’s said to the old man. He mopes around looking like his dinner didn’t agree with him, calls his father and apologizes profusely. Wait, that also comes much later.

In the beginning. By the way, given what actually happens early on, in the beginning is a holy, er uh, wholly appropriate phrase. So in the beginning, Mr. O’Brien’s wife, of course she’s named Mrs. O’Brien (Chastain), receives a telegram. Yes, I said telegram. This happens during the 1950s. The telegram informs her that their oldest son has died at 19. With that, we break into an updated version of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. We see something that looks like The Big Bang. There is also fire, shots of the sky, wide open plains, prehistoric creatures and so on. A number of these images include voice overs whispered by one of the three people named above. Often, they’re questioning God. For the most part, the questions boil down to “Why did You have to let him die?” These theatrics go on for an excruciating 45 minutes or thereabouts and feels like a half-baked mix of Creationism and Evolution. It desperately wants to be deep, but simply feels pretentious. I feel the same way about 2001. I hate 2001. My apologies to the legions of that movie’s fans.

Eventually, we get back to the story of the domineering father. This part of the movie holds some intrigue. It’s not that the story is so unique, it’s that the storytelling is. There aren’t many scenes that would play as conventional. We get a constant barrage of short bursts that advance the plot. They play as memories might, in quick flashes of our most unforgettable moments. It’s an interesting technique used effectively.

Unfortunately, the part of the movie I enjoy gives way to more surreal visuals. This is obviously meant to complete a number of circles. It does. However, it’s all just a bit much for me. Many will praise the movie for being different and for some stunning visuals. Director Terrence Malick does indeed deserve kudos for this. The same goes for the massive quantity of symbolism and the wonderful performance by Hunter McCracken as the young Jack. Still, a huge portion of the movie, while beautiful, bored me to tears. Yes, I know. People smarter than I have put it on many of their “Top 10” lists for 2011. It was even nominated for Best Picture. Maybe I just don’t get it. You’re probably right. I’m OK with that.

MY SCORE: 4/10

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Margin Call

Directed by J. C. Chandor.
2011. Rated R, 107 minutes.
Kevin Spacey
Zachary Quinto
Simon Baker
Paul Bettany
Demi Moore
Jeremy Irons
Stanley Tucci
Penn Badgley
Aasif Mandvi
Mary McDonnell
Ashley Williams

It’s already a tough time at NBS, one of America’s largest companies. They’re laying off a sizable chunk of the risk management department at their Wall Street office. This includes department head Eric Dale (Tucci). Just to let him know they’re not screwing around, his company cell phone is shut off as he is being escorted from the building. On his out, he hands a flash drive to Peter Sullivan (Quinto), one of the young guys lucky enough to survive. It contains a project Dale was working on. He urges Peter to take a look at it and “be careful.” Talk about ominous. Peter does, finishes it up and voila! He figures out that the company’s business module is broken beyond repair and they’re going to go belly up any day now. Meetings with people all the way up the chain of command ensue.

Yes, I said meetings ensue. However, don’t get these confused with the nod inducing type you fight through at your job by taking coffee intravenously. These meetings have the gravity of deciding how to react to a world altering event. These people are literally trying to figure out whether or not a company whose collapse will have far reaching consequences can survive the next day. If so, how? How many of their own will have to be sacrificed? Is their best play an unscrupulous one? And on, and on. The weight of the world is truly on their shoulders. The tension between them is almost unbearable. Almost.

At it’s core, Margin Call is just people talking their way through a problem. Movies like this require strong acting. After all, there are no action or sex scenes to bail out the plot. The plot is all there is. The ensemble cast puts its collective best foot forward. As an admitted apologist for Kevin Spacey (Sam Rogers), I’ll have to start with him. He endows his character with such world weariness he constantly seems on the verge of checking out. In a career chock full of showy, over the top performances, this is one of his more subtle and impactful turns. Demi Moore (Sarah Robertson) is another standout. You can really see the Herculean effort it takes to restrain herself. We can tell that the words coming from her mouth are a mere fraction of what she wants to say.

There are two actors who get to cut loose. Not that either character is flashy, they just say what’s on their mind. One is Paul Bettany playing Will Emerson. He’s Sam’s right hand man. Most of his time is spent with Peter and his buddy Seth (Badgley), both subordinates of his. Therefore, he can speak freely more often. Occasionally, he even does so to a couple of his superiors. It’s a well done portrayal. The other is the great Jeremy Irons as company CEO John Tuld. He has an immense presence and as the top dog, never minces his words.

In addition to excellent acting, MC gives us a compelling story. Obviously, its heavily inspired by the events that sent the U.S. spiraling into a recession in 2007 and 2008. Indeed, NBS is loosely based on Lehman Brothers which declared bankruptcy in ‘08. It’s a story we’re familiar with. Essentially, it’s a film about the fate of its target audience. Like so many things, the strategies that will affect the 99% are begrudgingly agreed upon in boardrooms we’re not allowed to enter. This is one we get to peek into.

MY SCORE: 9/10