Batman

July 30, 2012

Since last December, a coming-attractions trailer has provided some sights that often outclassed the movies that followed it. It was the preview for Batman, a new treatment of the great comic-book character (created 50 years ago by Bob Kane), and the trailer was full of tantalizing visions of a slick Batmobile, an incredible Bat-costume, and an outrageous look for Batman’s arch enemy, the Joker.

That the Joker is played by Jack Nicholson and Batman by Michael Keaton helped fuel the anticipation. So did the fact that the movie was directed by the gifted young director of Beetlejuice, Tim Burton. And the news that the budget had climbed to anywhere from $30 to $50 million suggested all the stops had been pulled.

So, how is it? Well…Batman is fun, offers an evening’s worth of thrills, and contains a few shots and moments that are quite flabbergasting. It is also not a very good movie. On some basic level, Batman doesn’t really know what it’s about, and from the first, it fails to find a satisfying groove.

One reassuring aspect becomes clear from the beginning: This Batman has nothing to do with the campy 1960s television series. Bruce Wayne, the millionaire, spends his free time wearing tights and a hard-shell bodysuit and scaling the skyscrapers of Gotham City in search of evildoers. He’s avenging the death of his parents, shot down in the street before his eyes when he was a child, and he’s serious about it.

In the film’s early scenes, a loopy criminal, Jack Napier (Nicholson), is cornered by Batman in a chemical plant. Falling into a vat of toxic material, he is transformed into the Joker, whose hideous face is matched by his hideous jokes (and yet, as he points out, “Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?”).

The Joker takes Gotham on a roller coaster of terror, but Batman is there to counter every move. What’s a criminal genius to do: “Can somebody tell me,” the Joker wonders, resplendent in his purple suit and green hair, “what kind of a world we live in where a guy dressed up as a bat gets all of my press?”

These battles are played off against the rather pallid romance of Bruce Wayne and Vickie Vale (Kim Basinger), a photographer who falls for the troubled millionaire.

Burton achieves some dazzling angles on Gotham City, a weird, overgrown metropolis, and he catches the menace in the dark clouds than glower over the church tower that serves as the setting for the final showdown of the adversaries.

A triumph of design, the film can’t seem to tell a story. It took 10 years for the project to pass through various scripts and directors before this version hit the screen, and no one found a coherent tale to tell. Scenes feel isolated, unconnected; a scene in which the Joker parties down in an art museum is weird and funny, but what does it have to do with anything else in the movie?

Burton cast Michael Keaton as Batman because he thought an everyman was needed (the theory: if Bruce Wayne were a superman to begin with, why would he dress up like a bat?). Keaton is not bad, but the conception of the role renders him nearly catatonic—an eccentric who simply doesn’t hold down a 9-to-5 job.

This leaves the field open for Nicholson, who is not about to miss this opportunity. Of course Nicholson attacks the role with demonic fury; he twists out the Joker’s punchlines with heroic energy. When Batman flags, just watch Jack: he’ll pump in the laughing gas.

First published in the Herald, June 22, 1989

Yeah: shrug. I remember that summer, hearing people quoting lines from the movie to each other, and thinking that a new generation (I was 30) was taking over the watching and processing of movies, somehow. The word “fanboy” wasn’t in use, as far as I know (and I wouldn’t have known then whether it was), but this movie, and the increasingly complicated arguments about its authenticity and faithfulness to the spirit of the meaning of Batman, was a turning point that has led us to movies today.


Supergirl

June 20, 2012

There are few things sadder than the unmistakable chill of a craze gone cold. The first two Superman movies captured the imagination of the movie-going public and made a star out of the likable leading man, Christopher Reeve. The excitement was already cooling when Superman III appeared, awkwardly tailored to incorporate Richard Pryor.

Reeve has long since hung up his cape, but those industrious producers of the series, the Salkind family, insist on going to the well at least one more time. Yes, it’s Supergirl, the Man of Steel’s feminine counterpart—also a longtime DC Comics character—but this time out, the thrill is gone. And, apparently, not too many people care.

The Salkinds went back to the formula that made the original Superman such a delight: an unknown player as the hero, a big-star villain, a largely comic tone, and the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

Some of these elements actually work. Helen Slater, making her film debut in the title role, is quite adorable. She shares Reeve’s ability to communicate goodness without making it seem yucky. But she doesn’t always hold the screen too well against her fellow actors—one of whom is Faye Dunaway, the villain who has a hunger for “total world domination,” as she demurely puts it.

She gets her chance. In the undersea community of Argo, Kara (Slater) asks the great Zaltar (Peter O’Toole) what a certain funny round ball is all about. Zaltar explains that the glowing orb is the power source for the whole society (at least, I think that’s what he says—the sound went out at this point when I saw the movie). Kara accidentally lets the ball slip through the Saran Wrap covering of the planet. She goes to the Earth’s surface to retrieve it.

This little doohickey happens to land in Dunaway’s lunch. She’s a witch, picnicking in the vicinity. Sensing (correctly) that it may instill her with ultimate power, she grabs the thing and heads back to her lair, in an old amusement park, and starts doing nasty things to people.

Meanwhile, Kara enrolls in a local girls’ school, claiming to be the cousin of Clark Kent. As luck would have it, Dunaway is often on the scene, and the two lock horns when the witch flexes her magical muscles by trying to make the campus hunk (Hart Bochner) fall in love with her. Instead, he loves Supergirl, and Dunaway starts twitching those magnificent eyebrows and flaring those unforgettable nostrils.

I wish this had been more fun, but the fact is, Supergirl is without style or wit. The early scenes are rushed—there’s none of the lovely myth-making of Superman—and the action is just plain silly. Superman was funny, but when the chips were down, you (admit it) cared about what was going to happen next. That never happens here.

Director Jeannot Szwarc, of Jaws 2 fame, used to be a pretty decent television director—he made many episodes of “Night Gallery” and “Columbo”—and he still is a decent television director. The good news is, he probably won’t be allowed near another Super… project (if there is ever another one). The bad news is he’s already filmed Santa Claus, another legend cinematized by the Salkinds.

The big S and the red cape may be retired for good with this one. On opening night of Supergirl, the thundering music and traditional stormy credit-roll were greeted by a half-empty theater. Nobody seemed excited in the way they did when the Superman movies opened. Regardless of what you think of Supergirl, that’s a little sad.

First published in the Herald, November 24, 1984

Obviously Reeve would later climb back into the role, but the proposed Supergirl franchise was not to be. Szwarc had his big-screen shot, then returned to television, where he is still crankin’ ’em out. He did only one “Columbo,” according to IMDb.com (the one with Vera Miles), but many a “Night Gallery” and other series fare.


The Return of Swamp Thing

October 19, 2011

Durock – Locklear – Swampy Redux

As comic-book heroes go, Swamp Thing is surely a poor cousin to Batman, especially in this summer of blockbusters. You don’t see any full-color spreads in Newsweek about Swamp Thingmania.

However, Swamp Thing also has a summer movie, and he acquits himself reasonably well, although admittedly at a lower level of ambition than the man in the cape. The Return of Swamp Thing brings us up to date on the status of the vegetative superhero, last seen in 1982’s Swamp Thing. Like that film, Return is a clever B-movie, delivered tongue-in-cheek.

Louis Jourdan returns as the evil genius whose experiments have gotten out of hand in the bayou country. (In one scene he begins reciting lyrics from Gigi, which is either an index of how far this actor’s career has fallen or a measure of his healthy sense of humor.) His laboratory in the swamp is full of experimental cross-bred creatures, such as a cockroach man.

Heather Locklear is his stepdaughter, who comes to his lab to investigate the mysterious circumstances of her mother’s death. Naturally, Jourdan takes one look at her and wants to use her for a genetics experiment.

Luckily, the Swamp Thing (Dick Durock) is around to protect her. The dialogue between these two provides the movie’s high points, as when Heather coyly asks the big man, “Is there a Mrs. Swamp Thing?”

They are meant for each other, although the Swamp Thing has his doubts: “Me—your boyfriend?” he wonders. She says, “Why not?” To which he replies, in a rare moment of self-reflective bitterness, “You said it yourself: I’m a plant.”

Director Jim Wynorski keeps things light. Locklear can’t act; when she’s called upon to sound anguished—”I seem to be haunted by things I can’t resolve”—she sounds as though she’s ordering a Diet Coke. But she can fill out an evening dress, which is the main requisite for the role.

First published in the Herald, July 6, 1989

The summer of the Tim Burton Batman—now that was a big deal, if not a great movie. That anybody even thought of putting out a Swamp Thing sequel is kind of charming, and apparently it wasn’t terrible. The question about Louis Jourdan, by the way, seems to have been answered in favor of his healthy sense of humor. Director Wynoski, according to IMDb, is an extremely hard-working gentleman, having most recently made Piranhaconda for Roger Corman’s zany series of made-for-TV monster movies.