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.

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Prizzi’s Honor

February 17, 2012

Prizzi’s Honor is just about as black as black comedy gets. That’s to be expected, considering the creative team behind the movie. It’s based on a novel by Richard Condon (who also co-wrote the script), the author of such appallingly funny books as Winter Kills and The Manchurian Candidate.

The director is John Huston, whose directorial personality, since The Maltese Falcon, often finds voice in the driest of dry chuckles. Huston has made the occasional out-and-out black comedy (Beat the Devil), but is more known for the understated drollness of even his serious films. At the age of 78, Huston is droller than ever, and with Prizzi’s Honor he’s found a good vehicle for his bitingly sarcastic observations.

Condon and Huston are aided by Jack Nicholson, whose comic talents have always had a black side—especially seen in his wildly funny, very scary performance in The Shining (directed by Stanley Kubrick, who knows a thing or two about nightmare comedy), which was ostensibly a horror movie.

In Prizzi’s Honor, Nicholson plays the favorite son of a Mafia family. He does odd jobs for the clan, jobs that sometimes include zotzing (killing in Nicholson’s parlance) people who have displeased the family.

That’s all part of the job, and Nicholson has few moral qualms about it. The family comes first, after all, and since they provide for him, he always comes through for them.

His lifestyle is altered when he meets a beautiful Los Angeles tax consultant (Kathleen Turner) and carries on an affair with her. This affair, which culminates in their marriage, is at the emotional expense of Nicholson’s former paramour (Anjelica Huston, the director’s daughter and Nicholson’s longtime real-life companion). She’s the daughter of the patriarch of the Prizzi family, and her rejection leads her to hatch a nasty double-cross against Nicholson and his bride.

But, this being Richard Condon country, that’s just the first of the double-crosses. Most disturbing of all to the befuddled Nicholson is the revelation that Turner is not what she seems. It would ruin a few surprises to reveal her true vocation, but it’s about as far from tax consultation as you can imagine.

Prizzi’s Honor is deliberate and sly, never tipping its hand toward out-and-out comedy. In fact, so dry is it that some viewers may be put off by the ending—but it’s meant to be just as sneakily humorous as the rest of the film. It’s all a smoky, deadpan poker game in which the players maintain their bluffs with their very lives at stake.

Turner, having proved herself game (and gifted enough) for just about anything with Romancing the Stone and Crimes of Passion, seems unperturbed that her role here is relatively secondary (at least in terms of onscreen time). She conveys a lot in that short time. Nicholson is splendid, sporting a Brooklyn drawl and a perpetually puzzled look—he’s usually just a half-step behind everyone else.

The real prize performance comes from Anjelica Huston, who has heretofore led a peripheral existence as an actress—most notably in her father’s A Walk with Love and Death, and a brief but memorable bit as a lion tamer in Nicholson’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. She’s just superb here, as she elegantly leads the Mafia bosses (led by William Hickey and John Randolph) around by their noses, and quietly plays a game of tightrope with Nicholson. Like the rest of the movie, she’s coolly delicious.

First published in the Herald, June 15, 1985

Nice experience, this movie; people may not recall now how thoroughly this movie rebooted Anjelica Huston’s career, and what a forceful tear she went on for years thereafter. (She won an Oscar, which you do recall.) It also re-started things, to some extent, for William Hickey, the strangle-voiced, Hawkingesque acting teacher who was rediscovered here.


Terms of Endearment

September 13, 2011

Some people call them warm human dramas, others call them “people” movies. Whatever they’re called, they don’t rely on stunts or special effects to tell their stories. Ordinary People was the title of one such movie, and maybe the promise of no-frills, ordinary drama is part of the appeal.

Terms of Endearment probably wouldn’t have been made without the success of Ordinary People. Human drama may be bankable now, and Terms of Endearment has nothing particularly extraordinary in its subject matter, just the behavior of people in the face of life, love, and death.

The people are a bit unusual—and that’s all to the good. Aurora Greenaway (Shirley MacLaine) is a cool, eccentric widow who keeps a tight rein on her daughter Emma (Debra Singer), even after Emma moves away from home to live in Des Moines with her husband, Flap (Jeff Daniels), a college professor.

Aurora and Emma are amusingly at odds through much of their lives—and we get to see a lot of those lives, since the film’s two hours and 20 minutes cover 30 years or so. Aurora so disapproves of Flap that she boycotts her daughter’s wedding. That’s an act characteristic of their testy relationship.

Emma is as trusting and open as Aurora is careful and tidy. Their lives start to look more similar, however, when they both find new loves: Emma, disenchanted with her ne’er-do-well husband, starts spending afternoons with a shy bank manager (John Lithgow).

Aurora really cuts loose. She takes up with the irresponsible, irresistible former astronaut who lives next door (Jack Nicholson, in a wonderful role). Their scenes together are the most liberating in the film, for both Aurora and the audience.

Terms of Endearment is full of such changes of plot and character. That’s both a strength and a weakness. It’s nice when you can’t predict where a film is going, but too many of the plot devices in Terms of Endearment feel like—well, devices.

This is writer-director James L. Brooks’s first job as director (he’s had extensive work as a television writer—especially with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi,” and he wrote the Burt Reynolds movie, Starting Over). Brooks has written (from Larry McMurtry’s novel) some terrific dialogue here.

One of Brooks’s best scenes has the astronaut telling Aurora that he can’t continue seeing her. He needs greater freedom, etc., etc. Halfway through his spiel, she looks at him, makes a face, and start muttering, “Blah, blah, blah.” She’s angered by his shallowness, and he realizes what a rotten egg he’s being—and eventually slinks away, ashamed. “Blah, blah” may not sound like good dialogue, but at this moment, it is—and Brooks recognized that.

Unfortunately, Brooks doesn’t have the knack for structure that he does for dialogue. The film has a lumpy shape to it, and it’s sluggishly paced. There’s also a melodramatic curve in the last 40 minutes that seems as though it might have worked better in the novel than in the film, where it feels rather contrived.

The strange coincidences of life sometimes feel contrived, too—and maybe Brooks was trying to make that point. But despite the good intentions, flavorful dialogue, and engaging performances, Terms of Endearment comes off just a little too pat. That’s regrettable, because with fewer easy answers, the film might have been much richer, just on its own terms.

First published in the Herald, December 9, 1983

I sort of generally feel, when I see a movie, that I can predict what kind of a reception it is going to get. This is not very difficult to do. Terms of Endearment I did not guess. Before today’s hype machine came along to prepare us all for a movie’s box-office and Oscar chances well before it opens, I saw this film, enjoyed it, wrote a review, and expected it to pass along like the nice crowd-pleaser it was. I didn’t have a clue it would be a smash and sweep the main Oscars in a few months. In fact I don’t know when I’ve been so wrong when it comes to sensing how a movie is going to ride the zeitgeist. Winger and MacLaine are terrific, Nicholson is hilarious, and for almost a year there was no stopping the thing. Brooks had written, along with his great episodic TV work, one of my favorite TV movies, Thursday’s Game, a wistful little should-be cult title with Gene Wilder and Bob Newhart.


Heartburn

June 9, 2011

The last time Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep got together at the movies, the result was Silkwood, perhaps Nichols’ most casually assured film and definitely Streep’s loosest performance. It makes perfect sense that Nichols should direct Streep in her first comic role—and that she should pull it off quite effortlessly.

Actually, Heartburn is not your average romantic comedy—it’s more in the bittersweet vein of Woody Allen’s Manhattan love stories. But that still means Streep gets to engage in more funny business than she ever has—with considerable help from Jack Nicholson, the ideal actor to bring out her playful streak.

Heartburn is based on Nora Ephron’s best-selling novel about a New York magazine writer (Streep) who marries a Washington Post columnist (Nicholson), a fellow who turns out to be less than reliable in the fidelity department. Just before they’re to have their second baby, Streep finds out that her husband has been having an affair—a discovery that sends her into a crisis of faith and indecision.

That’s the skeleton of the plot; the film itself is full of wandering incidents in the lives of this couple and their friends. Ephron’s screenplay (she also scripted Silkwood) sketches the sorts of little behavioral scenes that Nichols excels at capturing: the pre-wedding sequence, when Streep refuses to leave her room and has to be coaxed out by a variety of wedding guests; a picnic during which the fate of all the unmatched socks in the world is debated; and the news of Streep’s first pregnancy, which is accompanied by the couple singing all the songs they can think of with the word “baby” in the title, their mouths full of pizza.

All of these scenes involve food, and eating is the central metaphor here: the consumption of food and the consumption of love. The motif builds so that the climax—Streep’s final gesture of defiance—is much, shall we say, tastier than it otherwise would have been.

While Ephron’s dialogue is keen and Nichols’ direction is supportive, there’s a sense of meandering in the film, especially in the second hour, when Nicholson drifts into the background. The film is told completely from Streep’s point of view, and Nicholson’s behavior is largely inexplicable.

Nicholson has his inimitable charm, although Nichols perhaps allows him to overmug in a couple of scenes (however, Nicholson does bring the house down with his singing in the baby-song scene).

The supporting actors are a fine, mixed bunch, although none of them seem to get enough on-screen time. Richard Masur and Stockard Channing play the couple’s best friends; Jeff Daniels (Purple Rose of Cairo) is Streep’s editor; Steven Hill has a nice scene as Streep’s father (“You want monogamy? Marry a swan.”); Catherine O’Hara, formerly of “SCTV,” plays a gossip (“Thelma Rice had her legs waxed. For the first time. Need I say more?”); and director Milos Forman (Amadeus) has a tiny role in which he gives a memorably accented reading to a line I can’t repeat here.

Ephron’s novel was reportedly a transparent fictionalization of her marriage to and divorce from Washington Post writer Carl Bernstein. This means that Bernstein has now been played by two of America’s better actors: Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men and Jack Nicholson here. The guy may be unfaithful and a bit of a cad, but seems to be doing something right.

First published in the Herald, July, 1986

The filmography of Mike Nichols is a truly unusual subject. Heartburn sounds like a project that should have been a Nichols classic, especially with that lead casting, but it’s not particularly special beyond those comic highs. And yet, in something like Biloxi Blues, where your expectations might be ratcheted down quite a bit, he brandishes a real grasp of mise-en-scene and sense of place. Silkwood, for that matter, still feels like maybe his best movie, even if it doesn’t stand as a pillar of film history as, say, The Graduate does.