Tag Archives: Batman

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

1.5 stars out of 4. Hints at narrative focus and cohesion are casually disregarded. A messy narrative with false conclusion that has nothing to do with Batman.

The Dark Knight Rises liberally borrows from its comic book sources, freely adapting structure and elements from the grand story arcs of Knightfall, No Man’s Land and the groundbreaking piece of literature and film-they-should-have-made-years-ago-with-the-animated-series-cast The Dark Knight Returns. For a movie with such deep mines to well from, the bucket surprisingly always comes up empty. It’s all tossed together in one giant melting pot and severely underdeveloped just like the Michael Mann movies that inspired it. (Heat or Public Enemies anyone?)

The Batman has been gone for eight years after taking the blame for Harvey Dent’s death and crimes against society. (Why this is done to protect the people is still head scratchingly stupid. Especially when one sees how this is discarded.) Gotham is essentially crimeless, and Bruce Wayne remains hidden Howard Hughes-like among the shadows of Wayne Manor.

The pace is very slow building at first, in fact almost non-moving at all. We are treated to a multitude of new characters with as always in these films very little to go on. These people talk, walk, fight and scheme all the while leaving us in the dark as to what exactly is going on. These events build up to the horribly overdone climax where one plot point increasingly piles on top of another until there is a whirlwind of nonsensical thoughts that are tied up into one all too neat little package that just refuses to go down my throat however shoved it may be.

Among the introduced are Catwoman and industrialist Miranda Tate. They provide the ubiquitous love interests for Bruce, as there can never be a Batman film without one. There is a young cop, John Blake, who for some unknown reason does most of the legwork for everyone. (Hmm, I wonder…) Lucius Fox and Alfred return once more to be again underutilized and steal every scene they are in.

A private army begins to infiltrate Gotham via the corporate scheming of John Daggett (Roland on vacation or something?) under the leadership of the mysterious Bane. Bane of course is an unstoppable force and quickly asserts his own control and sets forth a seizure of the city claiming to carry forth the legacy of Ra’s Al Ghul and The League of Shadows.

All of this and more provoke the Batman to return, no matter what the cost.

There are attempts at drama that are absolutely welcome, but these are always sabotaged by the lack of story development and background as was with The Dark Knight. What makes this even more painful is having such a larger scope to work within. This creates such a shallow central core that there is no hope of ever…rising from it.

Bane is a different and grand villain, just as he always was in the comics. Sadly his backstory was changed but even then there is plenty of potential for a great…oh wait this is TDKR I’m talking about-there’s no room for meaning here. Move along. Here is an actor giving wonderful dialogue that can be simply absorbed on its charm and again we are left with a villain given nothing to actually do other than cause chaos. What’s his plan you may ask? Answer: Is there even one?

There are far too many plot twists and conclusions in the second half of the film, so much so that each one undoes the one that came before finally leaving the audience in enough confusion for the big coincidental, cliched,  gift-wrapped and all tied up with a big pink bow ending to not ring so horribly false. The final villain denouement is also unnecessary and absolutely wasted.

One key thing that stands out is the idea that the Batman can end. Sure Bruce will age; become slower, clumsy, and unable to keep up with his adversaries yet this does not ever mean the end of the Bat. Batman is the man; the crusade fueled by vengeance became the life of Wayne far too long ago for anything to change this. It is an indisputable fact that Batman is the sole purpose of Bruce Wayne breathing, and yet we are presented with the notion that Bruce can merely stop his crusade, and effectively “win” over human weaknesses?

No. This is not so, and can never be because the heroic quality that has always surrounded our winged avenger is due to his unobtainable goal. Batman can never achieve his victory. His battle is his curse, it is a self-appointed Sisyphean task that will last forever and is the one constant in all of the character’s incarnations for the past 73 years.

There is no win or lose, because one man can never possibly hope to make any sort of difference in the world. That is his curse, the curse he himself assigned to carry in his childhood torment. When examined the meaning of Batman is insignificant which is what makes his sacrifice all the more interesting. He is the shadowy figure of the night, a damaged shell of a man barely holding in a obsessive repressed tragic figure who dedicates his existence to detecting and stopping injustice.

This is not Batman. I said this about The Dark Knight and feel this way again, just as I initially had concerns with Begins. I don’t say this because Batman is supposed to have a sense of fun. I like my Batman dark. I like serious stories and would likely if ever given the chance make a Batman film with an unbelievably hard R rating. But as with all modern reboots of franchises, the decision is made to strip away essential parts of the character in order to present a supposedly more modern “realized” version that is “psychologically complex” because of being emptier. In Rises there are many references to Bruce’s soul, which I found confounding because in these films he has no soul. There is no Batman in the Nolan universe, as evidenced by his extremely limited screentime in the longest of the films.

Begins at least presented the idea that it dealt with the fundamentals of Batman, and that eventually the fully fledged Dark Knight would emerge into this new Gotham after much fine tuning and toughening up. THIS NEVER HAPPENED!

The fleeting moments of life in TDKR  were obviously with supporting characters, as they are made to shoulder the bulk of the film’s universe seeming believable in any sense. The characterization of Catwoman is simple, and it is this simplicity that makes the character interesting. We can understand Selina Kyle’s fears and desires, thus forming an emotional bond as we are supposed to do with the major characters. This also manifests itself with the cop, Blake, and when we feel more interest and emotion in scenes with a mere beat cop than the Batman himself, there is seriously something gone wrong. Sadly, it was not decided to resurrect Liam Neeson’s immortal Ra’s Al Ghul, who was a great adversary to Bruce and Batman both. Instead we are treated to an agonizingly brief “what might have been” in a prison not unlike the opening of Begins. I must also add that Cillian Murphy’s cameo as Jonathan Crane was easily my favorite part of the film and the only moment that could have been ripped straight from a comic book panel.

TDKR looks and feels as if it had a greatly increased budget. The scope is far vaster, yet the execution does not quite match the setup. The film demands the IMAX screen, as this time over an hour was shot in the format. The only way to experience the film is in one of the select theaters that received a full 15 perf/70mm IMAX film print which I attended a packed screening of. The film seamlessly alternates between the immersive IMAX sequences and letterboxed 2.35 Panavision remnants, but the switch is quite distracting. The IMAX scenes are blurred on the edges due to the curvature of the screen, viewing angle, and odd 1.44:1 ratio. This is a format never intended for feature film exhibition and it clearly shows despite the grand visuals of the full image. One needs a more conventional viewing experience in order to take in everything, as in IMAX one is left with the perception of peering through a foggy peephole and a very sore neck attempting to keep everything in sight line. The blurriness runs around the image almost creating the effect of a camera iris, and the viewing angle is so forced that eventually one must simply ignore the top and other edges of the screen.  The print itself was stunning, with very very fine tight grain and finally some color in these far too drably shot settings. The 35mm Panavision scenes exhibited some occasional shimmering and even some artifacting here and there as if the blowup process was not fully completed. The brief flashbacks to the two previous films were all far less in quality. The sound mix was overly loud in the highs with extremely amplified low end and overdone LFE. When things quieted down there was disappointingly little to no immersion and allowed me to focus on the stars of the film: Mr. Projector hum and Miss Dirty screen. They were quite wonderful, I assure you.

I applaud all of Christopher Nolan’s efforts in preserving the usage of film and his tireless efforts to produce a quality in filmmaking. I love to read his interviews, finding it extremely refreshing to hear a major industry player saying many of the things I’ve been laughed at for years. Yet, why is it that I intensely dislike nearly all of his films? They are well made and certainly have lots of thought behind them, but always come up short in the human department. They feel like the inner workings of a grand machine, perfectly balanced probes into the human psyche that are scientifically removed from emotion. The fundamentals approach utilized in Batman Begins is built up throughout this “trilogy” to create a hollow shell of a man. This is a man who founds his life on an idea of vengeance but ultimately is little more than a quasi-industrialist with mercenary skills, toys and body armor.

Is a watered down Batman still Batman? The Dark Knight convinced me that it wasn’t, and its sequel only drove the stake further into the heart. It took me about three quarters of TDK to realize that I no longer cared about anything happening onscreen. With TDKR, I stopped in the first act.

Note: “Hey, look! No hockey pads this time!” The terrible over-processed joke of a voice is much better, but Batman is still very much in need of a lifetime supply of Halls and a very good ENT.

For those who find this story compelling, originally Bane broke Batman across his knee, leaving Bruce completely paralyzed and in a wheelchair. Silly new guy, you got off easy. Everybody, read Knightfall or Dark Knight Returns.

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Filed under 1.5 stars, Batman, Film Review

The Dark Knight (2008)

2 stars out of 4. Unbelievably confused and completely perplexing because it should have never been like this.

It has often been said that a Batman story lives and dies on the strength of its villains. This is a slight miscalculation. A Batman story lives or dies on the strength of its story. This is something that The Dark Knight both prides itself on and ultimately is its biggest failure.

There are moments of depth and great insight, but these are like the IMAX sequences, in a word: fleeting. The Dark Knight is a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be and neither does its main character. This is the key problem. I felt at times as if I were watching some other guy running around in body armor and not Batman.

Though flawed, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) is so completely full of subtext and feeling that it remains a good film, if not an even more entertaining one twenty-three years on. Where’s the feeling in The Dark Knight? The characters are so broadly painted that if we did not know it was a Batman story, there would be little to ever care about. Fans may decry that I am overlooking the late Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance as the Joker with this criticism, but as brilliant as his performance is…IT. DOESN’T. MATTER. IF. YOU. DON’T. EVER. GIVE. THE. CHARACTER. ANYTHING. TO. DO. ISOLATED. SCENES. DO . NOT. A. CHARACTER. MAKE.

And that’s what this overlong film really is, a collection of isolated scenes and setpieces that are cut together in such an incoherent and confusing way so that we become so confused that whatever the film says must be gospel. These are collected in an uninspired attempt to create a large story arc of defining importance when in fact all this does is hollow out every single bit of depth that was established by Batman Begins.

As I watched this unfold in the theater, I found myself at first confused. It was confusing as a story on the surface, but what began eating away at me was the simple fact that there was no sort of resonance to anything in the film. Executive producer and Batman historian Michael Uslan has said of the 1960’s TV series that he felt “the whole world was laughing at Batman.” Well, experiencing The Dark Knight made me feel as if the whole world was being spoon-fed a heavily watered down version of Batman and even more disconcerting was the fact that they took to it like mad.

When something becomes a worldwide phenomenon, it can be quite lonely and hard to be the one voice of dissension. So, as with the issues I had on Begins, I again thought it was my own mistake and that there must be something I was missing. Everyone couldn’t be wrong.

The passage of time and revisiting the film twice has told me one thing: I was not mistaken.

 

The film sets us up with a new Gotham after the events of Begins. It has been a few years, and through his efforts, The Batman has been able to clean up a definite percentage of the city’s streets and instill a deepening confidence in some Gothamites. The main conflict is now between the police and the more centralized Mob in a never-ending tug of war political battle. Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) has his “secret” aid in the Bat (Christian Bale)  and gains a new public ally in the form of new D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) who is hell bent on crushing the Mob once and for all. Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) remains Bruce’s love interest but shows far more attraction to her new boss which creates a complicated love triangle where one guy seemingly just doesn’t get it. Into this mess is thrown a Joker (Heath Ledger) who orchestrates everything and everyone in his path into absolute doom.

The Mob attempts to hide their money with a wily Chinese accountant who actually absconds with their funds for “protection”. The Joker bursts in upon this little meeting and makes his first demand of the Mob that they pay him to kill the Bat who has caused their fear of doing business.  They laugh at this ridiculous scheme but when the Joker warns of Batman having no jurisdiction he is proven correct. Batman goes to Hong Kong and returns the embezzler to Gordon. This leads to a mass trial of the entire Mob on misdemeanor charges simply to make a statement and have clear streets for a short while.

This pushes the Mob to back the Joker’s mad plan and essentially accept his “contract-for-hire”. Of course, the Joker has no real plans except his own mad vision of chaos that only he could envision. He inventively dispatches the judge and Police Commissioner and demands Batman’s identity revealed otherwise innocents will start dying.

As Batman, this situation should present an extreme test on one’s moral conscience and on the obsession with vengeance. As the ever-faithful Alfred (Michael Caine) simply states when Bruce asks “What would you have me do?”, Batman would could and should “Endure.”

Of course this incarnation does nothing of the sort and plans to turn himself in. Before he can do this, Harvey Dent claims he is the Batman and is suitably arrested. Then what follows is an extremely long and convoluted chase sequence where the Joker attempts to destroy a convoy transporting Dent to prison with Batman attempting to hold the mad clown at bay. What makes this fall apart is the incomprehensible editing and design of the sequence which absolutely ruins any chance of it working. It takes until the final moment of the sequence with the Joker standing in the middle of the road playing chicken for things to finally make any sense or be of any interest.

The Joker is captured, and Dent cleared to reveal an elaborate police hoax to catch the Clown Prince of Crime. However, Dent and Rachel disappear any only the Joker knows where…

To make an already long story much shorter, Dent becomes Two-Face at the Joker’s hand and holds the world at large responsible for the destruction of his life. A Wayne Enterprises accountant realizes Batman’s identity and attempt to go public with it. The Joker re-utilizes his same plan and threatens the lives of every hospitalized person is the puny bean counter is allowed to live. In the midst of chaos, he slips into Dent’s hospital room and actually convinces the man he destroyed to take his revenge upon the world.

Two-Face begins going through the city and exacting his own brand of justice on any and all he deems responsible for his misfortunes, of course using his lucky coin. The Joker blows up a hospital and takes some hostages. He later sets up a scheme to distract the police with two ferries rigged to explode. Each has a detonator set to explode the other boat and a strict time limit in which they must decide. One boat contains hardened criminals and prisoners, the other full of innocent civilians.

This scene goes on far too long and effectively undoes any tension it may have instilled in the audience. Batman then supersedes the police force in taking down the Joker, who reveals his ace in the hole: the newly pissed off Two-Face.

Now there is yet another conclusion to add to the already innumerable amount of conclusions, where we are told that the knowledge of Harvey’s misdeeds in madness would undo all the good work done by the police. Because people are just stupid, I suppose. There is a big hoopla about Batman being made to order for the blame and so he must now run off into the night and be hunted by the very law enforcement he once worked hand in hand with. The semblance of a score picks up and we are supposed to feel some kind of exhausted exhilaration that Batman is the hero we deserve, “a dark knight”. It feels seemingly like a grand dramatic conclusion but on the whole it really isn’t, not with the story we’ve just been told. It is another puzzle piece that has been shoved into a spot where it really doesn’t fit.

True actual interest lies only in the small moments. This is primarily due to the fact that the story is so broad that the only humanity is displayed in simple interactions between characters about mortal problems. The instance where Batman realizes that the Joker holds both his salvation and his dream hostage grabs out attention because there a definable issue at stake as opposed to simply the sanctity of Gotham.

Only the supporting characters are fleshed out enough to invoke our care or worry. The main characters are drawn so broadly that the universe that they inhabit and the ground rules are left to be established by the supporting cast. The Joker here is defined as an agitator who works primarily behind the scenes in order to create chaos and mayhem. This would be fine if the script decided to use him for something other than plot facilitation. Michael Caine’s Alfred is again so completely interesting that you often wish the film were actually about him, and that Bruce had died or gone on holiday or something.

Christopher Nolan has cited Heat (1995) as an influence on TDK’s methods, a film which exhibits some of the exact same symptoms of this film right down to the convoluted plot falling apart in an overlong runtime. The characters seemed just as broad and empty, a trait that I find shared in nearly every Michael Mann film. (Oddly there are two bits uselessly appropriated from the Bond films in TDK.)

Christian Bale’s voice as Batman has long been a joke due to its severe overdone hoarseness. The moment where he declares the difference between Batman and copycats as the fact that he is “NOT WEARING HOCKEY PADS” has become the lynchpin for such horribly over the top line delivery. (It was recently revealed that this was overly enhanced in post-production.)

Seeing the film in its intended quasi-IMAX presentation opened up the visuals to some extent but ultimately proved to be worthless, as only certain sequences were shot in the format. For a film shot on 35mm and processed for film, this is a very uninspiring look for Gotham. Then again, it is merely a redressed Chicago in order to tie in with the film’s desire to place the comic books in a real world setting.  Gotham City becomes a nonentity altogether.  The cinematography is a bit too drab with its over-reliance on blues and fluorescent lighting with the IMAX scenes being almost a relief to get away from the style used on the Panavision scenes.

On the other production fronts, TDK is well made to a point. The editing is a seemingly intended slipshod mess. There are countless moments where it seems the edits were made with the audience directly in mind. These are done to “involve” the viewer in such a way that our brains must be actively involved in order to process the event onscreen. By changing shot order, dropping linking shots, and other subtle little tweaks and cuts this creates a highly kinetic but downright muddled vision for the brain to comprehend. There are even several jump cuts in the film that make absolutely no sense, even for a jump cut!

Knowing it was a big summer movie clocking in at 2.5 hours, I thought it would be really tightly plotted and cut to match. Coming out of the theater, I was convinced that Warner Bros. or someone else had done a big hack job on Nolan’s final edit to get something more releasable out quickly. After the relatively well plotted Begins, this just couldn’t be the way they wanted to continue. But it was. This was the final cut, and there wasn’t some longer and more relaxed edit out there. In the final release version, there’s just no time to savor, enjoy or even take in what the heck is going on. There are two moments that glaringly stand out, both of the Joker in seemingly unimportant non-dialogue shots. Both are the single instances where there are finally cracks in the wall separating comic book fantasy and reality. In the shot of the Joker standing outside the hospital in a ridiculous nurse outfit the surrealism of the scene is so great that it takes a bit of time to process. But we are not allowed the opportunity to do this and the powerful image is completely diminished. Even more regrettable is the unbelievably powerful shot of The Joker sticking his head out of the window of a speeding police car in absolute ecstasy. The trailer displayed this to great enticing effect and I looked forward to seeing this fully in context. In the final film, this is merely flashed at, ruining any chance of an emotional connection with the sequence.

I hate being told that I just don’t get something. This has been the statement I have received from many, many people over the past four years if ever expressing any sort of discontent with the supposed gospel truth of TDK. Because it was “important”, because the production had a tragedy, because it was slightly serious in tone, because it was “realistic” it seemed to be beyond mere criticism. Well, here’s some more.

Batman is nonexistent in TDK. This is a man who wears a suit of body armor because he can and because he wants to fight crime. There is no bearing on his psychological issues any longer, seemingly because these were addressed in the first film.  This Bruce Wayne is not The Batman. He is not a detective; he is not working for vengeance.  What he is doing is working out of some sort of a developed sense of civic duty. Because he became the Batman he can do things normal civilians cannot. He can go further than the law. Well of course he can, he’s a vigilante isn’t he?

Indeed what is most sorely lacking in the film is the sense of Batman, which must be present in any incarnation of the character for it to ever work. Throughout his seventy-three year existence our pointy-eared friend has seen multitudes of different interpretations. Some may be preposterous and some over serious, but they all share a common link-they are all Batman stories. This is why the 1966 Batman film can be enjoyed by a fan of The Dark Knight Returns or why a reader of Knightfall can still be entertained by Batman Forever. But The Dark Knight may just be the first Batman story to not feature Batman at all. What the film resembles most closely to me is in the comics. There have been many hyped and lauded story arcs that ultimately fail to deliver on their potential due to drawn out, overlong, overcomplicated characterizations and plot lines. This is exactly what The Dark Knight feels like. Coming out of it feels exactly as one does when finishing one of these overdone graphic novels. In comics one can simply file it away with all the other stories and move on to another but with the film it isn’t that simple.

Or is it? For years I have held the belief that a comic book film cannot be made in live-action. There is simply too much imagination and escapism present on the panels to truly make the jump to live-action cinema. There is always an element of disconnection inherent that holds the comic book film back from being truly free as are the drawn pages. This is why comic book animation works so inherently well, as it is a medium that is not as far removed from the comic book itself.  Combine this with a knack for storytelling and you simply cannot lose. In 22 minute little episodes, the makers of Batman: The Animated Series were able to incorporate and effectively use more storytelling than is contained in the entire Batman film franchise. The visuals are just as if not more stunning than anything physically shot and the performances are legendary among Bat-fans. Along with the Fleischer Superman theatrical serial cartoons, these are the definitive comic book superhero adaptations. Their only limitation is the scope of one’s imagination and a short runtime.

The Dark Knight took all of the negative elements from the first film and did away with any of the positive strong ones dealing primarily with storytelling. I kept waiting for this film to go somewhere, but it never did. And this lack of nearly anything somehow gives it the pretense of “importance”? Batman always has always been about  well thought out storylines so that even in their most convoluted state they don’t seem like random snake pits and double crosses with a random line run through at the end to tie it together. Bad story construction, some editing and sound mixing mistakes, all compounded by not knowing how or where to end the darn thing. If they had really wanted to make a tortured realistic hero story, just show how Batman never can stop his crusade and how Bruce Wayne doesn’t really exist. That in the end it doesn’t really matter if there is such a vigilante because one man could never possibly hope to make a difference. Okay, it’s not bad-but it certainly does not in any circumstance deserve its reputation.

The Dark Knight is not a bad film, but an infuriating one. It is well made to a point yet the story seems horridly underdeveloped. What the length adds to this is a giant layer of fat covering the very little amount of meat at the center. I really want to like this movie. I did going in and still do after watching it three times, but damn it if I still don’t come out with a bad taste in the mouth.  I liked Begins, and though the film glossed over some elements to quickly, it has a much more complete narrative and thus to me at least is much more satisfying as a movie.

It is with a heavy heart that I go into The Dark Knight Rises this week. After the painful debacle of the second film, one can only foresee even more pain ahead that is inevitable with the end of a “trilogy” and tying up loose ends. Of course, I want the film to be good and be something enjoyable but I truly have no expectations. I will enter as a blank slate and hopefully come out of it not feeling so dejected. Then again it looks as if elements of Knightfall will be carelessly chewed up. Sigh.

I must admit I will feel an unavoidable sense of “I told you so” when audiences come away with disappointment after they realize the faults in the Nolan Batman universe.

EDITIONS: Released simultaneously on DVD and Blu-ray in a multitude of different exclusive editions and sets. The DVD has the film at a uniform 2.39:1 as was seen theatrically. The Blu-ray uses a cropped 1.78:1 for the IMAX scenes and alternates between this and 2.39:1 for all the Panavision shot scenes which form the bulk of the film. I wish they had presented the full IMAX image at about 1.44:1, but the decision was made in order to fill modern 16:9 displays. (The DVD Special Edition supposedly has all the IMAX sequences at the original IMAX ratio, but I haven’t been able to confirm this.) The film works better visually with the largest format somewhat intact and even some establishing shots are done in IMAX to boot. The alternating is seamless, though you do find yourself wishing they had just bitten the bullet and shot the thing that way, as the switch back to standard Panavision with the lighting style they used is very grating at times. Bitrate is fine for such a long film, though there could have been improvement in quality so far as the encoding Warner used perhaps by moving the features to an additional disc.

Color and everything else seems exactly like the theatrical presentation, if a bit less than what the format can really show off.

Audio is relatively impressive, though at a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track. Nice depth and bits of rumbling with a good amount of spatial reference.

It’s a well produced disc, but not completely befitting of a big film completely shot and processed in 35mm and IMAX. It is however, exceptionally well-done for the format and regularly at less than $10 the best the film will look for some time.

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Filed under 2 stars, Batman, Film Review

Batman Begins (2005)

I still think the new cowl looks a bit stunted and silly.

3 stars out of 4.

Batman Begins is an unexpectedly interesting origin story. Yes, we are treated to yet another origin story of the Batman, but this time around, there is never a reveal of the character we expect. See, there is no true Batman in the Christopher Nolan universe. Begins strips everything bare so that only the fundamental elements of Bruce Wayne and Gotham City are left to delve into. Then everything else is layered on before our eyes in a promise that there will be a dark knight rising. (Whoops, did I make a pun there?)

The only problem is that that promise is never fulfilled. The fundamentals and elements of the Batman character are slowly built up in this 140 minute film and never actually completed. You may argue that this is a clever way of introducing and setting up the sequel, but it l;eaves the audience with a decidedly empty feeling when exiting the theater. And stealing the ending shot to Mask of the Phantasm doesn’t help matters.

This may come as a surprise from reading what I have just written above, but I like this movie. I like the design schemes and the risks they tried to take with the characters. I like the performances, I like the look with all the dark browns and copper reds and I even like Katie Holmes in the film. (One of those supposed black sheep performances that never does anything to deserve the criticism.) What I do not enjoy is the fact that at nearly every plot point, the story takes an abrupt left turn away from the natural completion of the arc. There’s no fleshing out of the storylines or the characters. We understand their motivations and the plot, but must always stop to ask why.

I thought this was just me originally, maybe I was just expecting too much from a new Batman movie. It had taken eight long years to get off the ground, emerging like a phoenix from the ashes of all the Batman projects that langui9shed in development hell during that time period. I stuck with this mindset for some time and still enjoy the movie for what it is; a decent attempt to re-imagine the Bat in a post-modern context with a psychological skew on Gotham’s humanity.

I was wrong. Actually, I’m pretty glad I was wrong. This would have been an easy 3.5 star review before I read the novelization. Yes, I can hear the cries of “foul!” already. Film tie-in novelizations are little more than an earlier draft transcribed to book form by some hack writer in another attempt to wring the last dollar out of a merchandising run, and these are usually only read by the most desperate of airport business traveler.  This would be true if not for one little fact: the tie-in was written by legendary Batman scribe Dennis O’Neil. For those who do not know, O’Neil is one of the few responsible for returning Batman to his dark roots in the 1970’s. He served as editor for many of the great storylines, so if there is one person who could write a heck of a Batman story it would be he.

The novelization honestly plays better than the film. All of those little touches I had craved are here, with fuller character development. For example, we see Bruce sitting around Wayne mansion before the Batman is created, just simply soaking in life and his wealth while realizing the fact that he has never truly lived at all. That is something so decidedly simple yet so completely profound that adds an incomparable amount to Bruce’s background. It only increases our sympathies for him and in turn increases our admiration for the Batman. I don’t know if this is merely bits form an earlier shooting draft that were jettisoned for the final edit, but it feels complete in a way. Yes, there are differences between the novel and film format, but the novel fleshes out the film to such a degree that it enhances the experience. I enjoy the film more now because I can actually envision the characters speaking the dialogue form the novel.

Of course the film is about Batman and how Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) came to take up his mantle. We get the obligatory origin of young Bruce losing his parents outside a theater in the dark alleyway of Gotham. But this time around it is all rooted in Bruce’s fear. His fear of bats causes his parents to exit an opera (What happened to The Mark of Zorro?) and be gunned down in a failed mugging. Thus fear becomes the root of all of his unending grief. The pain his grief is built upon is a manifestation of his own guilt for inadvertently causing his parents death and leads to his desire for vengeance. He kicks aimlessly about schools for years until returning for the trial of his parent’s killer. He intends to kill the man and when this goes awry, he throws in the towel and loses himself amongst the world in a search for the strength and knowledge to do what he desires and possibly discover himself. He eventually is found by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) who trains him to be a member of the League of Shadows. This shadowy origination is led by the mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and is revealed to be little more than a grand terrorist group hell bent of destroying Gotham.

Bruce barely escapes with his life and in the process saves Ducard. He returns to Gotham and takes up his old life much to the surprise of all. Quickly he remembers his fear of bats and uses that fear to create The Batman. While taking down the Carmine Falcone mob, he encounters the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) who happens to be working for a certain someone believed to be dead…all this while the world at large including childhood friend turned assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes)  think him a disgustingly rich buffoon too full of himself.

So, I highly recommend the novelization of Batman Begins which if it were a film would get a 3.5 from me if not higher. The film  itself is not bad, just not fully able to achieve its set goals. It is a slight disappointment in that regard only. In any case it is a massive improvement over its unbelievably confused, empty and over-complicated sequel. Begins is the fifth best of the film series overall. Not bad for a gutsy reboot.

EDITIONS: Warner did an initial transfer back in the early days of HD-DVD versus Blu-ray, with the DVD being merely a standard definition version of the same.

The DVD looks fine for the format, if a bit muted on color, 16:9 anamorphic 2.35:1, with a expectedly  thumping 5.1 Dolby track. The Special features disc has one of the worst DVD menus ever though. The Blu-ray is the exact same transfer as the old HD-DVD and is thus limited in it’s overall impact. The colors are much richer and very much like the theatrical experience on 35mm. Still there isn’t quite as much depth as I would like to see and this I think comes from the recycling of transfers. Audio is increased over the DVD in a lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, which is great but could have been improved using a DTS-HDMA track with a higher bitrate.

The Blu-ray is regularly had for less than $10 and is a steal for this film. Hopefully they strike a newer transfer sometime, but that isn’t likely with Warner for several years.

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Filed under 3 stars, Batman, Film Review

Batman & Robin (1997)

Look at this mess. Do you really have any desire to sit through this?

Zero stars out of 4. A complete trashy waste of everyone’s time. Infuriatingly bad on every level.

“Rubber lips are immune to your charms.”

You think to yourself: “Oh, it’s not really that bad. It’s merely an overdone update of the 60’s TV series.” But you would be agonizingly wrong. Despite years of derision, the 1966 TV series has a sense of dignity that makes it Shakespearean tragedy when compared to this garbage.

And garbage is exactly what this is. There is no single redeeming feature to the madness. Pushed to create a sequel immediately after Forever’s unexpected success, Joel Schumacher & Co. really got in over their heads with the imposed marketing and time constraints. This easily becomes apparent when looking at the production. The first meeting about the film was held with the toy company who demanded all story and plot elements to be handed in then so that their products would be ready in time for the launch.

This enormous pressure seems to have put everyone in the mindset of “Who cares what it is! Let’s just get the thing done and it doesn’t matter how weird or campy it gets!” What this notion did however is take a bad film with no point and bury it under multiple layers of camp compost.

This becomes almost unbearable to slog through and I remember just how many walkouts occurred in 1997. In the opening week. On the second day of release. Nothing has changed, except the damn thing has become even worse over time and looks terrible on video. This goes without mentioning the fact that nearly everything is ripped off or based on the exact same elements from Forever.

Guess we have to get on with the story…do we really have to? Batman (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) are called into stop Mr. Freeze (AHNULD) from stealing diamonds from a museum. Terrible fight choreography, bad lighting, repeated music cues, bad line delivery, and atrocious dialogue ensues. By the by, none of these ever let up for the entire film. They have a fight with Freeze’s hockey playing goons and of course, the Dynamic Duo magically sprout ice skates form their boots. Freeze uses a rocket seemingly to escape, but freeze and kill Batman, and then plummet back to Earth killing more people. Of course the Dynamic Duo escapes by surfing down from the atmosphere on the rocket’s doors!

Freeze escapes again by freezing Robin and forcing Batman to stop and free his partner. Then we are treated to the 2nd villain’s creation because we are following in the same formula as the previous films in the franchise. Dr. Pamela Isley (Uma Therman) is a botanist in some remote South American laboratory working under another scientist who lost his Waynetech funding. He has been diverting all the money and plant research into creating a super-soldier and performs this mad experiment in front of a whole spattering of various world leaders who begin to bid on the weakling turned stupid hulking brute. His name is Bane of course. Isley witnesses this and is discovered by the mad doctor who, in one of the only slightly interesting bits in the film proclaims: “I’m afraid you’ll have to die!”, (but even this is just lifted from Batman Returns) kills her by throwing her into her plants and chemicals. Like that would work…oh but it did!

In the Batcave we are treated to Freeze’s backstory, appropriately ripped off badly from Batman: The Animated Series. This Freeze was a bit clumsy and fell into the freezing solution he had made to preserve his dying wife. Ooooo how sad…in TAS, the laughable villain form the comics was made over into a tragic figure with a definite reason for hating all humanity. Instead he’s now a cartoon.  So now can we move on? Oh yes, let’s get back to the Bruce/Dick Grayson dynamic that has grown from their distrust in Forever into a growing partnership between two friends…and that’s another movie of course, because Batman & Robin simply repeats the exact same thematic issue between the characters that was resolved at the climax of the last movie!!! And this time Robin is constantly whining about his sad situation and complaining to no one in particular that Bruce will never trust him. Bruce himself says the same lines about recklessness etc. for some reason. Maybe it was just to give the two characters some kind of interaction. It sure as hell doesn’t work.

The dead Isley then rises from the ground as Poison Ivy, supposedly Mother Nature’s one-woman machine for natural causes. She quickly kills everyone and recruits the hulking idiot to be her compatriot. If only Bane had just killed her then and there. Oh wait, he would have done that if he was in any way shape or form like his comic book counterpart, the brilliant inmate who brought Batman to a weakened state before deducing his secret identity and breaking his back. But no, he just says his name in agreement and follows Ivy to Gotham City where she has set her sights on the man behind the funding of the laboratory, Bruce Wayne. Now that’s convenient isn’t it! Now the villain’s scripts are all tied into the main story nicely!

Freeze hides out in an abandoned ice cream factory (not at all obvious) and spends his time attempting to lead his hockey Eskimo minions in song. In this awful setting he explains both his plans to extort and freeze Gotham, and visits his frozen wife. All while smoking a cigar. (Which for a character who cannot stand any source of heat is absolutely unbelievably STUPID!)

Meanwhile back at Wayne Manor, a strange girl arrives and is revealed to Barbara, Alfred’s niece. She has come all the way from England (with the worst non-attempt at an accent possible) to visit and spend time with her favorite uncle. Don’t you just love these characters who get invented by screenwriters just to fill a story need or pad time, who were never referenced in any way before that point? She is truly stunned to see that a butler serves people.

Barbara later sneaks out and steals a motorcycle. Gasp! Could all not be what it seems? the next day, like Edward Nygma before her, Ivy appeals to Bruce in her civilian guise to back her plans to save the rainforest at the cost of human suffering. Bruce of course refuses, and we quickly drop the whole eco-warrior bit. Batman & Robin setup a trap for Freeze by holding a charity ball featuring diamonds on display. We go through an agonizing scene where rich old farts bid on “nights” with young women for “charity” then Poison Ivy appears in a bear suit (Just what was it with these? Therman appears in The Avengers in one too!), strips and blows pheromone dust to enrapture all men’s minds to do her bidding. This causes a bidding war for her company, with Batman and Robin getting into a putrid shouting match about who is worthier, culminating in Batman pulling a credit card with the expiration date “forever”. Thank god at that time Arnold breaks into steal the diamonds.

Ivy is fascinated with him, especially because her charms do not work on the cold heart of Freeze. Batman & Robin leap into pursuit, with Batman capturing Freeze and sending him to Arkham Asylum.We now switch back to plot no. 12, with Dick catching Barbara sneaking out to go and participate in an underground motorcycle race populated by all sorts of nice folks. (right down to a gang dressed as Alex DeLarge & friends. Yes, I am not making this up. What exactly is kiddie about this?) They race and people try to kill them…oooh…wow, no one cares.  Dick saves Barbara from a fall towards a terrible blue screen matte and they wind up back at home where Barbara reveals how she’s been doing this to deal with the pain from her parent’s death. She wants to use her winnings to take Alfred away from his servitude. How nice…if we cared at all.

We’re now at the halfway mark…let the BS continue.

All are shocked to find that Alfred is sick. This is a fact that both Bruce and the audience have been aware of the entire film so far, as at nearly every opportunity Alfred has been shown to be in a weakened state in all possible stereotypical ways. He is dying of a rare disease, only to provide a reason to care about anything in this damn movie. Yes, this plotline about Alfred is the only damn thing you will pay any attention to in this glitzy shambles. It also gives Clooney a moment or two to act and even he cannot bring himself to care.

Freeze is in Arkham for all of a few minutes before Ivy and Bane appear to break him out. She proposes a partnership and of course Freeze accepts. They attempt to retrieve both diamonds and Freeze’s wife but run into both the police and the Dynamic Duo. A fight ensues with no result and the evildoers escape after wasting more screentime. Ivy departs, pulling the plug on the frozen bride as she exits to have Freeze all to herself.

He learns of her death, quickly attributed to Batman, and vows vengeance on “Gotham and then the world!”. He plans to freeze the city with an ice ray and the two begin setting up this nefarious plot. Dick and Bruce have continued fighting over Ivy, and Bane is dispatched to replace the Batsignal with a Robin one. Barbara discovers the Batcave where Alfred has made her a Batsuit…wait, what? That’s caring for your nieces according to this script.

Robin is lured to Ivy’s lair where she finally plants that kiss on him. He then imparts the wonderful line I began with, and the Dynamic Duo’s trap is sprung. By trap I mean they both immediately get captured by plants like idiots, leaving the new girl to save the day. Batgirl of course crashes through a skylight, and she and Ivy fight whilst exchanging terrible one-liners. Ivy is incapacitated and Batman quickly disregards the fact that this idiot is now running around with them.

Freeze has taken control of the observatory for his ice ray and begins to freeze the city. This means that we are treated to “hilarious” moments of everyday life being frozen in ice! Not so. The Dynamic trio (?) speed towards Freeze in three ridiculous winterized ice vehicles and an abrupt costume change to stupid looking silver lined outfits.

They begin an overlong battle atop the icy tower culminating in the defeat of Freeze and the unfreezing of the city via government satellites reflecting the sun’s rays. Oh joy, they won, what a big surprise. They then convince Freeze to show them the means to cure the early stages of his wife’s disease, because wouldn’t you know it-that what Alfred is dying of. Freeze is put in Arkham to cure his wife and torture Ivy, Alfred is restored and we’re left wondering just who would be doing the expansion work on the Batcave.

To say this film is uninspired is an understatement. The sets, costumes, cinematography, score, lighting, design, pacing, editing, performances and writing are all uninspired. This is what lies under all those coats of unnecessary glitter, a terribly weak and uninteresting film. When taken in all at once your senses are so quickly overloaded that the scenes become at first ridiculous, then tedious, tiresome and finally a chore to sit through.  If you really pay attention it also becomes readily apparent just how much of the film is simply lifted or copied directly from Forever. Bits of the plotting, themes, design, Batman’s end costume cowl and music score cues. In fact, this is so blatant that there are numerous moments in the film where they literally re-use the exact same music cue from the previous film in a scene that is totally unrelated!

The performances are as wooden as the dialogue, most notably that of Clooney, who gives us a Bruce/Batman so bland that he in fact becomes a non-entity in his own film. The attempts at Batman doing humor are so terribly bad that you end up wanting to punch Clooney in the face after a certain amount of time. (And I really like his performances. There’s a reason why he always apologizes for this.) Therman so grossly overplays Poison Ivy that you have no desire to even think of the character again, and wish for someone to shut her up much earlier. Then to add to those, three characters in the Batman universe are ruined: Mr. Freeze, Batgirl and Bane. They bear little to no resemblance to their original counterparts and should be quickly disregarded.  One of the bigger criticisms of the film has always been that Robin does nothing but whine and complain about Bruce’s lack of trust and is annoying because of this. To be perfectly frank, in a film so overloaded and badly written as this, Robin almost becomes a welcome distraction from the others in that he has an actual defined problem that we know of and is still somewhat grounded in reality.

For a Mr. Freeze story, look at the TAS episode which relaunched him as a Batman villain, “Heart of Ice”. In 23 minutes, the Animated Series sets up and executes a perfect story arc with defined tragedy that gives us everything we need and want from a Batman story, which is something that none of the films are really ever able to do fully. Batman & Robin fails on every level at this for 101 more minutes.

We’ve all blamed Joel Schumacher and the film’s production team for years because of this movie. It took eight long years of many development hells and scripts before another Batman appeared onscreen. (Including Schumacher’s attempts to do a true Batman film with a hard rating or his pet project of Batman: Year One) But I’m not so sure anymore. I think it was a rushed film, designed by the studio to capitalize on Forever’s unexpected success in every way possible. This forced production was then implemented on a very rushed schedule that further restricted everyone so that seemingly anything went before camera. Simply listen to the first 20 minutes of Schumacher’s commentary on the DVD and he gets into this in detail. He really was a director-for-hire here.

Batman & Robin never knows just what it is and never has a clear goal in mind. It falls apart for 124 minutes, all the while showing its many seams and attempting a knowing wink at the audience. Many have decried it as a big screen adaptation of the 60’s TV series, but the issue in that idea is that while campy the TV series played most of everything straight-faced. In fact, it wasn’t a comedy so much as it was a satire of Batman and comic books in general. It operates on far more levels than people give it credit for, and something which this film can never hope to achieve.

The final film in the first Batman franchise comes across as an over-budgeted, overstuffed, overinflated, mindless, marketing ruled mess of bats***. Which is something I have worked with and is quite unpleasant in any form.

EDITIONS: Same video history as the other three: VHS and LD, 1998 DVD, 2005 Special Edition, Blu-ray from the same master. The Special Edition looks fine on the surface, but like the other three films the HD master for the SE DVD and Blu-ray leaves much to be desired. Detail is lacking, giving an inherent softness which makes the film all the more unbearable. Colors seem a bit desaturated as well. The film has also been cropped form 1.85:1 to 1.78:1.

Audio is clear enough on the SE DVD’s Dolby and DTS 5.1 mixes with the DTS as always being the clear winner. (When has there ever been a DVD with a better Dolby track?) The Blu-ray’s Dolby TrueHD 5.1 is exactly the same just at a higher bitrate.

Do what I did, only get the film in the Batman boxset when it goes on sale, to save on the others and not be seen buying a copy of the travesty.

NOTE: At least there is one positive: The last great Smashing Pumpkins song came out of this movie. The alternate version was used in the trailer for Watchmen, a film that learned so much from this movie so that it could simply make the exact same mistakes in the opposite way.

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Filed under Batman, Film Review, Zero stars

Batman Forever (1995)

3 stars out of 4. Compromised edit befuddles a story meant to contain both heroics and darkness. And yes the Bat-asses are absolutely stupid.

Batman Forever has a noble idea: take the two least alike aspects of the Dark Knight and try to examine both in the same story. These two themes are the psychological trauma that befell and still haunts Bruce Wayne, and the heroic duty of Batman.

I always take a lot of flack for this, but I still love this movie. Call it leftover childhood nostalgia or something but I can’t help but enjoy this the 5,000th time around. I know it has many problems and I know it gets too campy in all the wrong places. But it is still to date the only Batman film to include the escapist adventure element of the character. Forever is a forgotten film that is only remembered in the wake of the indisputably awful Batman & Robin. The film’s problems stem primarily from studio meddling with the reputed 160 minute original cut of Forever, but the really big problem came in a last-minute meddling with the final film and dropping some crucial subplot scenes. Then they re-ordered the opening structure of the film and made things very discombobulated. Read the original novelization or a earlier script if you can find it, and you get a much better idea of what the original intent was.

Like the first film, there is a lot of subtext going on here. And again like the first film, it is impossible to get all of it due to not being given the whole picture. Val Kilmer’s performance goes beyond Michael Keaton in the psychologically damaged and tortured department. His Bruce Wayne is a quiet reserved man who puts on an air of ineffectiveness as a mask to hide his obsessed brooding. And boy does he ever brood. You begin to wonder if he does anything besides brood until he begins having flashbacks to the night of his parent’s murder. These come without warning and are the heart of the film. Deep in the shadowy visions of his subconscious is his soul crying out in repressed torment. This was the major subplot of the film and was unfairly ripped out by meddling studio heads. All that remain are bits and pieces of the flashbacks and references. Originally, this culminated with Bruce finally coming to terms with the beast deep within the caverns of the Batcave.

Kilmer deserved a straight Batman story that did not delve into the campier aspects of the Bat universe. As it stands, his character provides a strong mooring point so that the story doesn’t go flying off into lunacy, something that did happen on Batman & Robin. And as another plus his main appearances as Batman here are probably the most iconic we’ll ever get for live-action (save for the stupid Bat-nipples). It is rare to find an actor who can play both Bruce and Batman, but it is another to play both well and as two separate defined characters.

The love interest this time around is Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), an imminent psychologist lured to Gotham by its notorious denizens.  She quickly falls for Batman and is intrigued by the endless mysteries behind the man known as Bruce Wayne. The Bruce/Batman relationship with a psychologist is a brilliantly twisted idea, but that too goes nowhere in the film.  The novelization has a great subplot where Chase realizes Bruce’s secret and wrestles with herself about revealing it, but that too is removed from the film.

The villains are Two-Face and the Riddler. Forever follows Returns’ formula by having one established villain with disfigurement, joined by a distressed person with psychological issues who loses it to become a costumed criminal. Two-Face serves as little more than plot advancement in the final film. Tommy Lee Jones is wasted as Two-Face, but I think the character was devolved in this way to eventually just be a silly watered down version of Nicholson’s Joker.

The Riddler begins life as a lowly WayneTech employee named Edward Nygma. He idolizes Bruce and presents him with his wacky invention for a 3D Televsion box to implant viewers directly into their shows.  In a twist of fate, Bruce notices the Batsignal and is forced to cut Edward short. Because of his temperamental nature, Nygma’s desire for an immediate answer gets a no from Bruce who was his idol. This rejection causes a break, and that night Nygma assaults his factory boss and uses him as a guinea pig for his invention. The test shows a side result that allowed Ngyma’s brain energy to feed off the schmuck hooked into the machine.He kills his boss and resigns his post, leaving little riddles for Bruce to find. Eventually he makes a costumed identity and seeks out Two-Face to start mass producing his Box to sap the mental energy of Gotham.

The problem with this is that Jim Carrey is too Jim Carrey as the Riddler, and lacks the panache and restraint that Frank Gorshin brought to the role on the TV series. In addition, the bit about Nygma’s intense devotion to Bruce is dialed down so that his constant attempts at one-upmanship go largely unnoticed. (Look at the party scene, where he even fatidously has done his hair in Bruce’s style and dons Bruce’s exact glasses and accent at times.) Robin Williams would have brought a much more chilling and intense portrayal in Tim Burton’s proposed version, much as Tim Curry would have as the Joker in 1989. (Two of the all-time missed casting opportunities in my opinion, but these would have been “R” rated 😉  Burton’s Batman III would have also featured Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Two-Face, Keaton in the Batsuit and followed in the same darkening vein as Returns.

Lastly, Two-Face wreaks havoc on a circus and orphans Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell). This happens right in front of Bruce and furthers his guilt over his parents’ death because in his eyes it has happened again. He has let his own tragedy happen to another and is just as guilty as the killer. In one of the finest moments in the film, Alfred comes across Bruce in a trance having yet another vision. Upon awakening he says: “It’s happening again. A monster comes out of the night, a scream, two shots. I killed them.”

–“What did you say?”

“He killed them. Two-Face. He slaughtered that boy’s parents.”

–“No, no. You said, “I killed them.”

Bruce takes him in and persuades him to stay for a time. All Dick cares about is vengeance. Bruce sees this as a way to correct the same mistakes he feels he has made and attempts to push him into the light indirectly. Dick causes Bruce some much unneeded headaches in the process before discovering the Batcave and taking the Batmobile for a joyride. Robin still feels shoehorned into the story a bit, but at least the dynamic works a little better by lifting the idea of an older Dick Grayson from the Animated series. Has anyone ever really liked the idea of the Dark Knight running around with a little kid with no pants on? It was only doable in the earlier comics really, as none of the film adaptations have attempted a young Robin. (Imagine the current films with a Robin. Hockey pad wearing Godamn Batman anyone?)

The look of the film is wonderfully realized, with batman having a distinct look to all of his arsenal right down to the soft blue glow seeping out of the Batmobile. The design changes bring in some fresh vitality, but lack the presence of Burton’s films because the Forever sets are primarily mattes, models and digital imaging. This works as a new vision of Gotham, but on the whole is never very involving because we are given very little detail other than the setting as a mere backdrop. Even the Batcave seems rather empty because we are never shown more than just a room with a car and a desk. (Yet another element cut out of the film.) And I really hope you like neon, because Forever is filled with it. In nearly every set this is some kind of neon trailing along something and there’s even a street gang composed entirely of black-lit neon paint. The setting is also harmed by the severe series of edits made to the film as much of the visual atmosphere was lost.

The cinematography attempts to match the tone and style Burton set, staying in the same 1.85:1 spherical universe instead of opting for Scope widescreen. Sets, costumes and lights are bright and colorful almost giving a somewhat wacky sense to the proceedings which no doubt come at the desires of new director Joel Schumacher.

The score however is fantastic. It works partially in-tandem with the motifs that Elfman setup all the while going for that big Batman fanfare. Elliot Goldenthal provides one of the best aspects of the entire film, able to accurately portray both the serious brooding of Bruce/Batman with the campy antics of the Riddler.

The initial idea seems to have been a meeting of Bruce’s tortured soul with the fantasy and adventure of Batman. What happened was that the studio wanted a more commercialized venture and here and there little changes became big changes. This started in the scripting process and continued throughout the shooting and into the editing suite.  The scenes in the film bang together if you really look at them, and there is a noticeable patchwork effect if you pay close enough attention. The original cut was rumored to be in the neighborhood of 160 minutes and features a number of scenes finally released on DVD in partially unfinished state. Some of these and other deleted scenes include:

Courtesy of Wikipedia:

  •         The escape of Two-Face from Arkham Asylum. René Auberjonois had more scenes filmed here, playing Doctor Burton but his role was reduced to a cameo in the final film. He encounters the escape with the psychologist hanged in Two-Face’s cell with “The Bat Must Die” written in blood on the wall. This was supposed to be the film’s opening scene, but producers decided this was far too dark for a family audience. This scene appears in a rough edit on the special edition DVD. Segments of the scene also appears in the music video for U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”.
  •         The construction of NygmaTech was more in-depth. There were scenes shot that appear in publicity stills of Edward Nygma with a hard hat helping with the construction of his headquarters on Claw Island. This scene does not appear on the new special edition release but is shown in the sticker album published by Merlin Collections.
  •         Sugar and Spice, played by Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar, try out the Riddler’s device during the montage when it goes on sale. They are seated with the Riddler and Two-Face on the couch where Chase is handcuffed later in the film. This scene appears in the comic adaptation but not in the final film.
  •         The most well-known deleted scene involved further backstory to the film. It involved Bruce waking up after being shot in the head by Two-Face, temporarily wiping a part of his memory; he has forgotten his origin and life as the Dark Knight. Alfred takes him to the Batcave, which has been destroyed by the Riddler. They stand on the platform where the Batmobile was, and Alfred says, “Funny they did not know about the cave beneath the cave.” The platform then rotates downward to another level where the sonar-modification equipment is kept, from the special Batsuit to the hi-tech weaponry. Bruce then discovers the cavern where he first saw the image that inspired him to become Batman – a giant bat. The bat appears and Bruce raises his arms and the shot shows that they are one. Bruce now remembers who he is and goes with Alfred to solve the riddles left throughout the film. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman admitted the scene was very theatrical on the special edition DVD and felt it would have made a difference to the final cut. The bat was designed and created by Rick Baker, who was in charge of the make-up of Two-Face. This scene appears in a rough form on the special edition DVD and is briefly mentioned in the comic adaptation.
  •         The original ending was an homage to the first film. When Alfred drives Doctor Chase Meridian back to Gotham she asks him “Does it ever end?” Alfred replies, “No, Doctor Meridian, not in this lifetime…” The Bat-Signal shines on the night sky and Batman is standing on a pillar looking ahead. Robin then comes into shot and joins his new partner. They both leap off the pillar, towards the camera. A rough edit of the first half of the scene appears on the special edition DVD, but not in its entirety. The sequence with Batman and Robin at the end of this scene appears in a teaser trailer for the video game, which is on the VHS release of this film, released in the UK on December 3, 1995.

You can begin to see some of the film’s original shape in these descriptions, and these are further explained in original drafts and the film’s tie-in book novelization. I highly recommend tracking the book down if you can find a copy, because given a few novel-to-film transitive changes, this could have easily been the best Batman film.

The film as it stands was cobbled together by a editor at the last minute to have the closest thing to a summer popcorn movie for 1995. But it isn’t bad. Just full of missed opportunities, some of which were originally present but removed at various points by a meddling studio. But dammit, Batman Forever is a Batman movie that actually feels like Batman! He is the comic book hero who is tortured and haunted by his past and desire for vengeance, yet whose crusade is in its own way a noble one. Just as there are different tonal versions of the character in the comics dependent of the time of publication and writers, there are differing Batman films. This just happens to like promoting the more traditional heroic aspects and what exactly is wrong with that? In Forever you can feel that childhood desire to be Batman, which is not something to throw out! There’s an actual dramatic arc still present despite the edits that some people nowadays could really learn from…clears throat…I’m not suggesting anyone in particular…

EDITIONS: Same as with the other Bat-films in the first franchise: 1997 DVD, 2005 2 Disc Special Edition with Dolby and DTS 5.1, and Blu-ray from the old HD master with Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Strangely, Forever appears to be the softest of all the films, and I don’t think this is part of the photography. It seems that Warner inadvertently or not did too much processing on the video resulting in this over-soft and frankly almost flat look. It did not look this way theatrically at all.

I last watched this film on projected DVD in a sound suite. With amps and the like, the DTS 5.1 track was incredible. However, it sounded a bit too enhanced to my ears and not quite how I remembered the film sounding. I stumbled across this review from The Widescreen Review of the Laserdisc:

   Both versions of the soundtrack are a blast and you had better be braced into your seat when things get revved up and the 25Hz deep bass kicks in at reference level. The use of the discrete 5.1 palette is wonderful with energized directional and motion effects throughout the soundfield. But the Dolby Surround® version delivers an even fuller bass soundfield experience, with the discrete better articulated.

I’ve always felt that the Special Editions of the Batman films (ported to Blu-ray) had been tweaked and didn’t fully resemble the original presentations. The first film never felt right to me until the LD. I actually have a copy of the Forever LD, and decided to give it a try.

This Dolby Surround track has some of the most natural bass I’ve ever encountered on a film. Though I still lack an AC3 demodulator, it crushes the DVD 5.1 mixes (even DTS!) from sheer dynamic range alone. Every channel is well balanced with tremendous natural bass and my subwoofer sounding like it’s being fed a huge LFE. All this from a 2.0 matrixed stereo track! The rear surround is actually split as well so there is rear separation just like a 5.1 mix, but just a tiny bit muddy. This is like being in the theaters of old during the 90’s era of sound system wars.

In other news, La La Land Records has just released Elliot Goldenthal’s complete score on a Limited 2 CD set, available for the first time ever. The original CD was edited down substantially and has been impossible to find, so this is release is really welcome.

Don’t even bother with the videogames, they’re terrible. Many hours of my childhood were spent damning the Sega Genesis version.

And now…oh crap, it’s time for Batman & Robin. W H Y ?

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Filed under 3 stars, Batman, Film Review

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Gorgeous. When was Batman art like this?

4 stars out of 4. As of yet the definitive Batman on film.

Please! I need it to be different now. I know I made a promise, but I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t count on being happy.”

These words pour from the soul as a painful confession by Bruce Wayne kneeling before his parents’ tombstone in a moment of absolute despair. He has been presented with a never before glimpsed chance of happiness and it has become a torment to his vengeful spirit.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: “a 76 minute animated movie? How can this be a Batman film? How can it display realized drama and scope?” It does still feature numerous issues from it’s original direct-to-video format, but as an experience this is the truest representation of The Batman in cinema.

Often overlooked as an extended episode of the brilliant-beyond-description animated series, Mask of the Phantasm is told in the form of a classical noir, relying heavily on the use of extended flashbacks and deep rooted character perils. This alone sets it apart from all other Batman films for this is a bold departure from the accepted format. Th e entire film has a overtone of tragedy and loss and this was intended for children. Imagine what they could have done with a full scale motion picture.

The acting utilizes the cast from the series with a few additions. This means of course that Kevin Conroy is Batman and Mark Hamill is the Joker. Notice that I use the word “is” instead of “portrays”. These two actors so embody the characters that they literally are Batman and The Joker. They’ve done it for so long by this point in time (20 years now) that they could play these two in their sleep, but never can any of the live-action actors come close to showcasing these vocal powerhouses. Conroy has always been able to present the Bruce/Batman dynamic and like the actual comic character is able to slip in and out of both at a moment’s notice. His Bruce is a tortured crusader who must present a slightly clumsy and absent-minded mask to the public. Yet inside that head you can feel the power of the world’s greatest detective. His Batman is iconic, and can aptly play all aspects of the Batman character right down to Bats’ sense of humor.

Just as there are two sides of Bruce/Batman, there are two sides of the Joker. One is the comic clown as seen in the comics of the 50’s and Caesar Romero’s TV series Joker, and the other is a ingenious psychopath with a theatrical flair. Hardly is there ever a incarnation that incorporates both sides together as one individual who is both whimsically goofy and frightening. Hamill is the one actor who does this and is capable of taking dear old Mr. J in any direction possible. Story wise, Joker isn’t even the main villain and is only incorporated into events because of previous Mob associations. But his chilly clowning adds a certain amount of sparkle in the gleaming toothy smile.

The main plot set in the present day sees a new masked figure appear in Gotham, known as the Phantasm. This individual begins bumping off old Mob heads with seemingly no given intent. Due to a cape and mask he is mistakenly identified as Batman, thus straining the relationship between vigilante and city and setting a police task force on the tails of the Bat. Batman begins an investigation into this mysterious new figure and begins detective work-Gasp! Batman actually being a detective on film? What is this tomfoolery?

“There appears to be some chemical residue on the lawn. Could match the traces on the glass. Not much, but it’s been that kind of day.”

Then MOTP resurrects a figure from Bruce’s past, the beautiful Andrea Beaumont, or the one that got away. Through a series of long and delicate flashbacks their relationship begins and blossoms against the backdrop of Bruce becoming the Batman. He begins to wrestle between this incredible new found possibility of happiness and his solemn vow of vengeance. This culminates in a confused rejection of both paths until he makes up his own mind. And then it is decided for him…and The Batman lives.

It is unfortunate that MOTP was always intended as a video release for children. In fact it was only at the late insistence of Warner Bros. that the film was pushed to theaters. This very late rush resulted in little publicity and a quick death at the box office. The main problem is that the 78 minute canvas is too constrictive for this story. The big plot reveal becomes too apparent too quickly because there is not enough room for more development. This is the film’s major flaw, but it is not one that can really be attributed to the filmmakers. They were attempting to tell a more adult Batman story in keeping with the comics but in a smaller animated video format. This considered, all of the right elements are in place to fully realize the dark and corrupt Gotham City

“I can read lips.”

Let’s get down to it. The design and look if MOTP is gorgeous. Even if it’s just the animated series on the big screen. The big upside to MOTP getting a theatrical release was being printed on 35mm and projected on mammoth screens to obliterate the small  rounded TV’s of the day. And Technicolor handled the printing process, giving colors and tones never before seen in the animated universe. There are deep orange hues during the flashbacks and skin tones that give this warm feeling amidst the black coldness of Gotham and the present. Even the animation choices show a remarkable camera intent, with animated cinematography that rivals the live-action films.

This was my first theatrical Batman experience (I was one of the ones lucky enough to see this on the big screen) and although I was only three at the time it was unbelievably powerful. It was shown in a darkened huge auditorium, THX certified and designed, that was both empty and quite chilly. A perfect environment for this as it felt like being in the Batcave. I don’t think my mom knew how adult MOTP was but it was a defining Batman moment for me. Never have I felt the same after any of the later films (though as a kid I cherished Forever for being different) and like Returns is a film I never want to end.

I wrote that “Batman Returns is a haunted dream come to life”. MOTP is a haunted noir dream. This is the heart and soul of The Dark Knight on film. It doesn’t matter that it’s animated, for in fantasy animation you can do far more than with live-action. In fact, I still fully believe that the only true comic book adaptations that work on every level and actively create and elevate the hero portrayed are the Batman animated series works and the Fleischer Superman theatrical cartoons. Mask of the Phantasm deserves to be better known and widely seen by all Bat-fans if only to remember just who Batman is.

I am vengeance. I am the night. I AM BATMAN!”

EDITIONS: MOTP was released theatrically framed at 1.85:1 with Dolby Stereo surround audio. It was almost immediately released on VHS and Laserdisc. The DVD release is an earlier WB one, on a flipper disc featuring the theatrical 1.85:1 and a fullscreen presentation on the flipside. Sound is the Dolby surround represented in standard DVD quality Dolby 2.0 surround. The image is overly grainy and noisy, evidence that this is literally the old video master ported to DVD. The full screen version actually appears to be open-matte providing more information on the top and bottom of the frame but losing a bit on the sides. Either presentation is worthy, but it was re-framed for 1.85 so this is the preferred image. (Though noticeably a bit too tightly framed on a few shots.)

This open-matte version was re-released packaged with Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero.

This film deserves a new release, preferably a special edition with features and commentary. With some of the other DC animated films leaking out into Blu-ray hopefully we can see a new HD scan of a interpositive in the near future.

If only this would happen!

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Batman Returns (1992)

4 stars out of 4. The Batman broods, Catwoman roars, and Penguin schemes in a beautifully realized snowy Gotham.

“You’re just jealous, because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!”

–“You might be right

Batman (1989) is a strange cross between a huge commercial mammoth and a quirky art movie that later came to be known as a Tim Burton film. It is this constant back and forth struggle that simultaneously harms the impact but makes the first Batman so damn interesting. However, it cannot be considered a true work of the director behind the lens, so Warner Bros. made it up to his the second time round. In order to lure Burton back for Batman II they had to offer him full creative control on a story that he liked.

Giving Burton carte blanche was one of the single best things to happen to the cinematic Dark Knight. Batman Returns is not only a staggeringly dark and adult film, it heightens Burton’s fascination with duality to such an extreme that for the only time in a live-action Batman film we actively question the nature of Bruce/Batman’s crusade in reference to our own lives. (Well, we also do this in the other great Batman film, but that’s in the next review.)

Returns is a brooding experience, a slow-burning multifaceted portrait of deeply flawed individuals who resort to using masks to conceal their true selves. Many decry the film for not featuring Batman as the prominent character, but when is that ever in any of the films? Here Burton is not afraid to go all the way in crafting a psychologically complex cast of characters that make the first film look like little more than a Saturday morning serial. Batman Returns is a haunted dream come to life.

The real villain behind it all is the aptly named Max Schreck, portrayed by Christopher Walken who is one of those rare actors with the gift of making anything better by merely appearing onscreen. He is a power obsessed manipulator who is scheming to build a power plant that will actually stockpile energy. But he is trying to find a way to get it past the stodgy new mayor.

Into his lap falls the Penguin (Danny DeVito) who is a deformed outcast determined to take his rightful place in society with the help of his Red Triangle gang. They kidnap Schreck and Penguin attempts to blackmail him with knowledge of Schreck’s shady business dealings. Schreck agrees and later convinces Penguin to run for mayor.

Meanwhile, Shreck’s frazzled and ineffective new secretary is making a mess of her job. Her pathetic life is such that she spends one night going through locked files to prepare for an important meeting. Schreck discovers her and unfortunately for Miss Selina Kyle these files happen to divulge the power plant scheme. In a great sequence, Schreck teases her death and then flings her out a window. This does not kill Selina, who is awakened by a horde of alley cats. A return home and a mental breakdown later resorts in some quick sewing work…

Batman intercedes and reacts to all of these individual plots as a catalyst. He is never ahead of the curve and instead prowls as the winged protector instead of the crimefighter. Keaton’s portrayal of Bruce/Batman is even more nuanced in Returns, so that while his brooding might have been seen or displayed in Batman, Returns features a complete obsessive and deeply broken man. his introduction into the film is made while sitting in a pitch black study inside Wayne Manor. The Batsignal is flashed into the sky, and giant mirrors on the manor track it into the study window, illuminating the darkness with the Bat insignia. Bruce stands into the light and then moves towards it in a stunning visual of embracing destiny.

Batman’s eventual meet with Catwoman is mirrored by Bruce’s immediate attraction to the now brazen and fractured Selina Kyle, who presents as much of if not more of a challenge than Catwoman presents to the Dark Knight. Both pairs share an almost animal attraction towards one another that becomes manifested in a revealing human nature during the day, and turns towards violence when they don their masks at night. Bruce/Batman instinctively desires to save both women, and then realizes his more personal feelings beyond that. Catwoman acts as the aggressive side of Selina’s psyche doing all that she could never bring herself to voice previously. Initially this tirade is seemingly an anti-male fight, but as her “first time” out proves, she is just as sick of the women too. Her weariness matches Batman’s perfectly.

Batman has grown tired of his crusade. Burton and Keaton provide glimpses into Batman’s real world, for example after his first meeting with Catwoman Batman is shown sitting down in the Batcave wounded by her nail barb. He asks Alfred for antiseptic and stares at the blade partly undressed form the costume. His eyes look off into the darkness and he murmurs Catwoman’s greeting: “meow”. Batman reacts instead of actively searching out crime, yet his mind can never stop processing his never-ending thirst for justice. Upon the Penguin’s initial mass acceptance into Gotham, only Bruce/Batman harbors a distrust that may partially be from an odd sense of what is almost jealousy. As Alfred asks: “Why are you now determined to prove that this Penguin is not what he seems? Must you be the only lonely man-beast in town?”

DeVito’s performance as the Penguin is not really a truly menacing one. In fact, the Penguin is quite sympathetic as a deformed outcast desiring to take his revenge against a society so cruel that as an infant his own parents dumped him in the sewers on a cold Christmas Eve. His manipulation at the hands of Schreck only enhances this sympathy as a man hungrily tearing away at a raw fish being catapulted into a mayoral campaign. Yet the Penguin has a knowing sense of life that belies the script’s twisted sense of humor. Not only is this a deep film for adults to consider, it’s darkly funny too.

Gotham City is stunning to look at just like the first one was. The switch from the massive Gotham set built in England to soundstages on the Warner back lot sounds like a budget cut at first thought, but the production design actually goes beyond Anton Furst’s sprawling dingy Gotham to create a snowy oppressive landscape that seems to leap right out of Detective Comics. And snow. Did I mention the snow? In Batman Returns, it’s always snowing in Gotham. The use of refrigerated sets for the penguins allowed for use of actual snow in L.A. of all places. This wonderfully chilly atmosphere lends an air of dreamlike reality to the proceedings s much that at times one feels as if you’ve fallen into a dark snowglobe.

Danny Elfman’s score is much improved as he no longer is forced to rely on the heavy heroic theme and gets freed up to be a bit more operatic. There is always a note of tragedy in each character’s theme and this is no more apparent than in the conclusion where the music becomes Hermann-esque. The script is endlessly inventive and interesting, as the massive subtext that is so interesting in Batman is no longer “sub”. Returns is all subtext and truly fascinating to delve into. The gloom and sense of tragedy combine into what can truly be considered a form of operatic narrative.

It is this theme of duality and outcasts that further separates Returns from all the other Bat-films. Combined with the stupendous production design of a wintery Gotham, an actual adult witty depth far beyond the first film and a bold style from a director unafraid and not limited on self-creativity this time around; Batman Returns is not only the best live-action Batman film to this day, but is also the best and most fully-realized of all Burton’s films.

Meow.

Oh, and this Batman kills. Keaton punch.

EDITIONS: The first film given a wide release in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, Returns quickly debuted on VHS and Laserdisc. It follows the pattern of the other three Batman films in the franchise by seeing an early DVD release featuring image manipulation, slight cropping, artifacts and all the fun stuff. Then it was treated to a 2 disc Special edition like the others in 2005, from a new HD master. 5.1 mixes are presented in both Dolby and DTS, with the DTS being far superior due to bitrate.  Of the four, it has the best presented image and this comes out further on the Blu-ray release. This Blu-ray is a direct port of the same master to 1080p. Audio is present in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. However, there are still some issues with the image that distract my eyes as on the other three films based of this HD master. There still seems to be signs of grain reduction and image manipulation as on the ’05 SE DVDs, which prevents these from being definitive. Audio packs a bigger punch at about double the bitrate of the DVD’s DTS track.

Also, why do people feel the need to crop films composed and shot for 1.85:1 to 1.78:1? So what if your precious HDTV has two tiny miniscule black letterboxing bars? You’ve cropped the sides off! All four Batmans are cropped this way from their original 1.85:1.

Due to my love of the first film’s Dolby Stereo mix, and after noticing that the credits only list Dolby Stereo, I’m more than curious about the Laserdisc PCM surround. I’ll update comments here when I find a rot-free copy.

Notes: My only problem with this film is that Selina suddenly becomes quite adept at fighting and her other Catwoman activities. Where did all this skill come from?

-You know this film is going to be better when the soundtrack switched from cheesy Prince to Siouxie and the Banshees.

-Returns is beautifully self-aware:

Alfred: Let’s not forget about repairing the Batmobile. There’s certain security to consider. It’s not as though we can take it to any old “Joe’s bodyshop,” is it, sir?

Bruce: Security? Who let Vicki Vale into the Batcave? I’m sitting there working and I turn around, there she is. “Oh hi, Vick – come on in.”

EDIT 7/1/13: After listening and comparing the Laserdisc’s PCM version of the Dolby Stereo mix and the initial 1999 DVD with a 384 kbp/s Dolby 5.1 track, I’m convinced that they are the theatrical mixes from 1992. Both use the same video master and share the same mix qualities, with the matrixed surround having great midrange but the 5.1 having the superior highs and deeper LFE due to the discrete channels. Both completely outdo the remix struck in 2005 for SE DVD and Blu-ray which had loudness compression in addition to noise reduction. (Both theatrical mixes have very light tape hiss which the later mixes have erased.) Additionally only 11 theaters in North America were equipped for Dolby 5.1 in 1992 for the release of Batman Returns, so 99% of audiences experienced the Dolby Stereo mix. Judging from the sound, I’m pretty sure the initial mix was done in Dolby Stereo as it is very similar to the mix on the first film but with enhanced detail from being three years younger. Then I assume the go ahead was given for the usage of Dolby SR-D (as it was known at the time) and the mixers took the pre-existing 4 track master and maximized the detail inherent. Also, in addition to opening the film to 1.78, the color timing has been changed to make the film bluer in keeping with modern tendencies on the later transfer. In other words, I highly recommend the outdated LD and old DVD if you like this film as much as I do.

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Filed under 4 stars, Batman, Film Directors, Film Review, Tim Burton