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.

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.