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…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

I fear I’ve snapped his Gregory.

Twin Peaks 3.14: We are like the Dreamer.
(SPOILERS) In an episode as consistently dazzling as this, piling incident upon incident and joining the dots to the extent it does, you almost begin to wonder if Lynch is making too much sense. There’s a notable upping of the pace in We are like the Dreamer, such that Chad’s apprehension is almost incidental, and if the convergence at Jack Rabbit’s Tower didn’t bring the FBI in with it, their alignment with Dougie Coop can be only just around the corner.

Now you're here, you must certainly stay.

The Avengers 4.1:The Town of No Return
The Avengers as most of us know it (but not in colour) arrives fully-fledged in The Town of No Return: glossier, more eccentric, more heightened, camper, more knowing and more playful. It marks the beginning of slumming it film directors coming on board (Roy Ward Baker) and sees Brian Clemens marking out the future template. And the Steed and Mrs Peel relationship is fully established from the off (albeit, this both was and wasn’t the first episode filmed). If the Steed and Cathy Gale chemistry relied on him being impertinently suggestive, Steed and Emma is very much a mutual thing.

He’s a good kid, and a devil behind the wheel.

Baby Driver (2017)
(SPOILERS) Pure cinema. There are plenty of directors who engage in superficial flash and fizz (Danny Boyle or JJ Abrams, for example) but relatively few who actually come to the medium from a root, core level, visually. I’m slightly loathe to compare Edgar Wright with the illustrious likes of Sergio Leone and Brian De Palma, partly because they’re playing in largely different genre sandpits, partly because I don’t think Wright has yet made something that compares to their best work, but he operates from a similar sensibility: fashioning a movie foremost through image, supported by the soundtrack, and then, trailing a distant third, comes dialogue. Baby Driver is his most complete approximation of that impulse to date.

How dare you shush a shushing!

Home (2015)
(SPOILERS) Every so often, DreamWorks Animation offer a surprise, or they at least attempt to buck their usual formulaic approach. Mr. Peabody & Sherman surprised with how sharp and witty it was, fuelled by a plot that didn’t yield to dumbing down, and Rise of the Guardians, for all that its failings, at least tried something different. When such impulses lead to commercial disappointment, it only encourages the studio to play things ever safer, be that with more Madagascars or Croods. Somewhere in Home is the germ of a decent Douglas Adams knock-off, but it would rather settle on cheap morals, trite messages about friendship and acceptance and a succession of fluffy dance anthems: an exercise in thoroughly varnished vacuity.

Those dance anthems come (mostly) courtesy of songstress Rhianna, who also voices teenager Tip, and I’m sure Jeffrey Katzenberg fully appreciated what a box office boon it would be to have her on board. The effect is cumulatively nauseating though, l…

Cool. FaceTime without a phone.

Sense8 Season One
(SPOILERS) The Wachowskis do like their big ideas, but all too often their boldness and penchant for hyper-realism drowns out all subtlety. Their aspirations may rarely exceed their technical acumen, but regularly eclipse their narrative skills. And with J Michael Straczynski on board, whose Babylon 5 was marked out by ahead-of-its-time arc plotting but frequently abysmal dialogue, it’s no wonder Sense8 is as frequently clumsy in the telling as it is arresting in terms of spectacle.

I frequently had the feeling that Sense8 was playing into their less self-aware critical faculties, the ones that produced The Matrix Reloaded rave rather than the beautifully modulated Cloud Atlas. Sense8 looks more like the latter on paper: interconnecting lives and storylines meshing to imbue a greater meaning. The truth is, however, their series possesses the slenderest of central plotlines. It’s there for the siblings to hang a collection of cool ideas, set pieces, themes and fascina…

And you people, you’re all astronauts... on some kind of star trek.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
(SPOILERS) Star Trek: First Contact (also known as plain First Contact, back when “Star Trek” in the title wasn’t necessarily a selling point to the great unwashed. Or should that be great washed?) is probably about as good as a ST:TNG movie could be, in as much as it actively rejects much of what made the TV series what it is: starchy, placid, smug, platitudinous exchanges about how evolved humanity has become in the 25th century. Yeah, there’s a fair bit of that here too, but it mainly recognises that what made the series good, when it was good, was dense, time travel plotting and Borg. Mostly Borg. Until Borg became, like any golden egg, overcooked. Oh, and there’s that other hallowed element of the seven seasons, the goddam holodeck, but the less said about that the better. Well, maybe a paragraph. First Contact is a solid movie, though, overcoming its inherent limitations to make it, by some distance, the best of the four big screen outings with Pic…

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 Reeves in the summer of ’91 (inflatio…

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…