Skip to main content

You’re Beauty and the Beast, in one luscious Christmas gift pack.

Batman Returns
(1992)

(SPOILERS) I always feel as if I should like Batman Returns much more than I do. It gets several things very right, and it’s fairly undiluted Tim Burton. But perhaps that’s part of the problem. Enough of it shows off the slightly indulgent, sentimental Burton of Edward Scisssorhands, as opposed to the uncompromisingly anarchic one of Beetlejuice, such that the possibility this might be his equivalent of Gremlins 2: The New Batch – a director let loose on a sequel, given carte blanche to do his own thing by a wilfully unsuspecting studio, especially so since it’s Warner Bros again – is left unfulfilled. But, if it has massive problems, one of them is definitely not Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, possibly the best thing in all the post ’89 incarnations of the franchise, period.


If Gremlins 2 is one touchstone, another is the attitude of co-writer Daniel Waters, coming off the imbroglio of Hudson Hawk (a classic, but not for want of trying to be anything but, and in the eyes of most, of being anything but) and picked by Burton no doubt partly for his contribution to Heathers (since Winona Ryder would have been whispering in his ear at the time). The anarchy here is much more Waters than Sam Hamm, certainly (who gets a story credit; Wesley Strick also did an uncredited rewrite, introducing the moribund third act firstborn device), and I find it difficult to believe he didn’t suggest Andrew Bryniarski, who gave a stunning performance as Butterfinger in Hawk (and has more recently played Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw: The Beginning), as Max Shrek’s beloved son Chip. There’s something fundamentally hilarious about the devotion of Max (a typically off-the-wall Christopher Walken), the casually ruthless empire builder, to his entirely gormless son that defines what the picture could have been more than anything else.


But what it is, is fundamentally imbalanced. And not imbalanced in the way Batman is, where Jack Nicholson steals a picture shot through with elements Burton clearly doesn’t give a rat’s arse about (Vicki Vale). No, its imbalanced by an almost total inertia when anything not involving Selina Kyle is playing out. And that includes Keaton/Batman/Wayne, who’s hardly in the thing  (I’m sure someone has timed his screen time, but it can’t be much).


The Penguin: I am not a human being. I am an animal.

There’s more of Danny DeVito’s Oswald Cobblepot/the Penguin than anyone else, and the fantasy/fairy-tale trappings related to his subplot are the most definably Burton element (maligned, shunned, scorned – more than the other leads, who are beautiful people, relatively – he’s a pasty-faced grotesque living in the darkness, one who can only make friends with animals or circus freaks since no one else loves him). DeVito’s performance is technically very good, and immersive enough that you never really think about it being him under all that latex, which probably makes it his least “DeVito” performance in some respects. But somehow it completely fails to grab. Oswald isn’t appealing or magnetic, not in a villainous way, not in a pathetic way, not really in a funny way (although he gets some good lines), and not when Danny Elfman’s frequently infuriating score goes all Scissorhands with fluttery angelic choirs to prod our emotions (the zoo is the equivalent of Edward’s castle).


The Penguin: Why is there always someone who brings eggs and tomatoes to a speech?

Sure, Burton pulls some coups; there’s a certain level of demented genius to the Penguin sailing the sewers of Gotham in a giant rubber duck, and the finale with penguins armed with rocket launchers is suitably off-beat, but none of it has any energy. Burton at this time simply stank as an action director (he’d find a bit of mojo, or begin working more fluidly with his second unit, around the time of Sleepy Hollow), which doesn’t help – the set pieces are dreadfully flat, and Elfman only underlines it with listless, ear-gouging carnival music that makes you wonder if the director actively wants you to hate his movie – but the real problem is he’s unable to find the villain’s spark. Oswald just isn’t fun. He’s lecherous, and he’s piteous, and twisted, but he isn’t fun, which means his scenes sink.


Catwoman: I don’t know about you, Miss Kitty, but I feel so much yummier.

Contrast that with anything between Keaton and Pfeiffer, or Pfeiffer and Walken (there are a couple of perfunctory scenes between Catwoman and the Penguin, and she can’t rescue them), and while they’re invariably talky scenes, they’re very, very watchable. Pfeiffer plays Selina with just the right air of exaggerated ditziness during the first few scenes, but Burton really brings his A-game with her transformation, thrown from a window and mystically resuscitated by cats, she ventures home and trashes her apartment (leaving her neon sign saying “Hell Here”). Some of the dialogue is on the nose (“Life’s a bitch, and so am I”, “I am Catwoman, here me roar”) but Pfeiffer modulates the delivery perfectly.


Selina Kyle: I guess I’m tired of wearing masks.
Bruce Wayne: Me too.

And the (un)masked ball sequence, as Bruce and Selina dance and confess to the accompaniment of Siouxsie and the Banshees, is just electric. The, “Oh my God, does this mean we have to start fighting?” realisation is marvellous, and ironically, this is a rare picture that actually comes together during the closing stages. The Penguin almost works in his final scenes, because the dramatic weight is carried by the tug of love between Batman and Catwoman as they wrestle over the fate of Max.


Max Shreck: And Bruce Wayne? Why are you dressed up as Batman?

Walken’s having a lot of fun with his fright wig, but Max Shreck is no kind of classic role. He’s given the funniest line (above), and his “Yawn” response to Bruce’s moralism has become its own animated gif, while his improv speech (“I wish I could hand out world peace, and unconditional love, wrapped in a big bow”) is a joy when delivered in that staccato Walken rhythm (“Frankly, I think it’s a bum rap”).


But the picture, even more than most Bat movies of that time, suffers from the Bond problem of not having a really tangible, coherent plot, so must rely on set pieces or performances. The former are a bust, and the latter only ignite depending on Pfeiffer. There are aspects that are moaned about that I never even notice (Batman kills people here, but I’m insufficiently invested in the character’s moral code to care), while the Christmas setting never really feels Christmassy, possibly because Burton is more Jack Skellington than Wonderful Life (but that didn’t stop Gremlins from feeling really Christmassy).


Batman Returns certainly doesn’t stumble because of the lack of the bat; there’s something to what Burton says about there being merit in keeping him in the shadows. Although, here its more symptomatic of the director having little idea of what to do with him (the scenes with Alfred are stiff, and even the letting Vicki Vale into the Bat Cave line sounds like lame fan service). Really, the subsequent Batman Forever would make many of the same mistakes this one did, it’s just Shumacher went for frenetic to Burton’s limpid. The end results are similarly lacking in cohesion. At least Batman Returns has Pfeiffer. It’s more than evident why WB were sure they had a spin-off. Unfortunately, it took them twelve years to make it, and Pfeiffer was no longer in the frame when they did.







Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Garage freak? Jesus. What kind of a crazy fucking story is this?

All the President’s Men (1976)
It’s fairly routine to find that films lavished with awards ceremony attention really aren’t all that. So many factors go into lining them up, including studio politics, publicity and fashion, that the true gems are often left out in the cold. On some occasions all the attention is thoroughly deserved, however. All the President’s Men lost out to Rocky for Best Picture Oscar; an uplifting crowd-pleaser beat an unrepentantly low key, densely plotted and talky political thriller. But Alan J. Pakula’s film had already won the major victory; it turned a literate, uncompromising account of a resolutely unsexy and over-exposed news story into a huge hit. And even more, it commanded the respect of its potentially fiercest (and if roused most venomous) critics; journalists themselves. All the President’s Men is a masterpiece and with every passing year it looks more and more like a paean to a bygone age, one where the freedom of the press was assumed rather than a…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

The head is missing... and... he's the wrong age.

Twin Peaks 3.7: There’s a body all right.
First things first: my suggestion that everyone’s favourite diminutive hitman, Ike “The Spike” Stadtler, had been hired by the Mitchum brothers was clearly erroneous in the extreme, although the logistics of how evil Coop had the contingency plan in place to off Lorraine and Dougie-Coop remains a little unclear right now. As is how he was banged up with the apparent foresight to have on hand ready blackmail tools to ensure the warden would get him out (and why did he wait so long about it, if he could do it off the bat?)


Launching right in with no preamble seems appropriate for his episode, since its chock-a-block with exposition and (linear) progression, almost an icy blast of what settles for reality in Twin Peaks after most of what has gone before this season, the odd arm-tree aside. Which might please James Dyer, who in the latest Empire “The Debate”, took the antagonistic stance to the show coming back and dismissed it as “gibbering nonsen…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You’re the Compliance Officer. It’s your call.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
(SPOILERS) The mealy-mouthed title speaks volumes about the uncertainty with which Tom Clancy’s best-known character has been rebooted. Paramount has a franchise that has made a lot of money, based on a deeply conservative, bookish CIA analyst (well, he starts out that way). How do you reconfigure him for a 21st century world (even though he already has been, back in 2003) where everything he stands for is pretty much a dirty word? The answer, it seems, is to go for an all-purpose sub-James Bond plan to bring American to its knees, with Ryan as a fresh (-ish) recruit (you know, like Casino Royale!) and surprising handiness in a fight. Yes, Jack is still a smart guy (and also now, a bit, -alec), adept at, well, analysing, but to survive in the modern franchise sewer he needs to be more than that. He needs to kick arse. And wear a hoodie. This confusion, inability to coax a series into being what it’s supposed to be, might explain the sour response to its …

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

Oh look, there’s Colonel Mortimer, riding down the street on a dinosaur!

One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)
(SPOILERS) There’s no getting round the dinosaur skeleton in the room here: yellow face. From the illustrious writer-director team who brought us Mary Poppins, no less. Disney’s cheerfully racist family movie belongs to a bygone era, but appreciating its merits doesn’t necessarily requires one to subscribe to the Bernard Manning school of ethnic sensitivity.

I’m not going to defend the choice, but, if you can get past that, and that may well be a big if, particularly Bernard Bresslaw’s Fan Choy (if anything’s an unwelcome reminder of the Carry Ons lesser qualities, it’s Bresslaw and Joan Sims) there’s much to enjoy. For starters, there’s two-time Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Ustinov (as mastermind Hnup Wan), funny in whatever he does (and the only Poirot worth his salt), eternally berating his insubordinate subordinate Clive Revill (as Quon).

This is a movie where, even though its crude cultural stereotyping is writ large, the dialogue frequen…

You may not wanna wake up tomorrow, but the day after that might just be great.

Blood Father (2016)
(SPOILERS) There are points during Blood Father where it feels like Mel is publically and directly addressing his troubled personal life. Through ultra-violence. I’m not really sure if that’s a good idea or not, but the movie itself is finely-crafted slice of B-hokum, a picture that knows its particular sandpit and how to play most effectively in it.

Sometimes the more you look, the less you see.

Snowden (2016)
(SPOILERS) There are a fair few Oliver Stone movies I haven’t much cared for (Natural Born Killers, U-Turn, Alexander for starters), and only W., post millennium, stands out as even trying something, if in a largely inconspicuous and irrelevant way, but I don’t think I’ve been as bored by one as I have by Snowden. Say what you like about Citizenfour – a largely superficial puff piece heralded as a vanguard of investigative journalism that somehow managed to yield a Best Documentary Feature Oscar for its lack of pains – but it stuck to the point, and didn’t waste the viewer’s time. Stone’s movie is so vapid and cliché-ridden in its portrayal of Edward Snowden, you might almost conclude the director was purposefully fictionalising his subject in order to preserve his status as a conspiracy nut (read: everything about Snowden is a fiction).