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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Beetlejuice

January 27, 2012

Keaton and friend, Beetlejuice

When Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was such a surprise hit in the summer of 1985, credit for its success went mainly in the direction of its nutty star. Somewhat lost in the phenomenon was the director of the movie, a first-time feature filmmaker named Tim Burton.

It was his first feature, but Burton wasn’t exactly unknown. He had a cult reputation already, based on two remarkable short films he had made for Disney: Vincent, an animated film about a morbid little boy who imagines himself as Vincent Price; and Frankenweenie, a bizarre live-action piece about a dead dog brought back to life. Those familiar with the shorts could see a lot Burton’s visual imagination at loose in Pee-wee’s movie.

Burton has now made his first post-Pee-wee film. Beetlejuice is very much in his wild, cartoony tradition, a real romp for an utterly original filmmaker. Not enough of it works as well as it should, and it may be a bit too anarchic, but it certainly doesn’t look quite like anything else to be found in a movie theater today.

As the film opens, a young couple (Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis) drive into town from their storybook house on a hill above a small Connecticut village. Just as we’ve gotten to know and like them, they drive their car through the side of a covered bridge, plunge into the river, and die.

Dead, they return to their house and pick up a copy of The Handbook for the Recently Deceased. Turns out they have to inhabit their old house for 125 years before passing on to the next phase. They’ve reconciled themselves to this idea when an obnoxious couple (Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara) buy the house and move in. In order to get these people to move out, the dead must haunt the place, and for that, they need the help of a professional “bio-exorcist,” Betelguise (Michael Keaton, in rotting-corpse makeup).

So Burton turns the film into an amusement ride of goofy thrills. It’s full of his macabre humor, from the sudden outpouring of “Day-O” at a sophisticated dinner party, to the Charles Addams daughter (nicely played by Winona Ryder) who likes the ghost couple better than her own geeky parents, to the mind-boggling casting of Robert Goulet (as Jones’ business partner) and Dick Cavett (as one of O’Hara’s pretentious art-world friends), both of whom are eventually assaulted by crazed shrimp salads.

But Burton’s masterpiece is the waiting room of the dead, an office where newly deceased people await the next step in the afterlife bureaucracy. The people here look like what they looked like at the moment of death, so there’s a surfer with a shark chewing his leg, and a steamroller victim who confesses he feels “a little flat” today.

What a strange movie. For some reason I have a funny feeling that 11-year-olds are going to like it a lot—not a bad recommendation, at that.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

The movie seemed like a fun mess when it came out, destined for certain cult status, and then somehow it became a huge hit. That’s great, although I still don’t quite get the vault from little cult weirdie to multiplex sensation, but good for Burton—he’s had kind of a charmed career that way.