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…

Espionage isn’t a game, it’s a war.

The Avengers 3.3: The Nutshell
Philip Chambers first teleplay (of two) for the series, and Raymond Menmuir’s second (also of two) as director, The Nutshell is an effective little whodunit in which Steed (again) poses as a bad guy, and Cathy (again) appears to be at loggerheads with him. The difference here is how sustained the pretence is, though; we aren’t actually in on the details until the end, and the whole scenario is played decidedly straight.

Set mostly in a bunker (the Nutshell of the title), quarter of a mile underground and providing protection for the “all the best people” (civil servants bunk on level 43; Steed usually gets off at the 18th) in the event of a thermo-nuclear onslaught, the setting is something of a misdirection, since it is also a convenient place to store national security archives, known as Big Ben (Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain, Europe and North America). Big Ben has been stolen. Or rather, the microfilm with details of all known double agents on bot…

This is no time for puns! Even good ones.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)
Perhaps I've done DreamWorks Animation (SKG, Inc., etc.) a slight injustice. The studio has been content to run an assembly line of pop culture raiding, broad-brush properties and so-so sequels almost since its inception, but the cracks in their method have begun to show more overtly in recent years. They’ve been looking tired, and too many of their movies haven’t done the business they would have liked. Yet both their 2014 deliveries, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, take their standard approach but manage to add something more. Dragon 2 has a lot of heart, which one couldn’t really say about Peabody (it’s more sincere elements feel grafted on, and largely unnecessary). Peabody, however, is witty, inventive and pacey, abounding with sight gags and clever asides while offering a time travel plotline that doesn’t talk down to its family audience.

I haven’t seen the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, from which Mr. Peabody & Sh…

Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.

The World is Not Enough (1999)
(SPOILERS) The last Bond film of the 20th century unfortunately continues the downward trend of the Brosnan era, which had looked so promising after the reinvigorated approach to Goldeneye. The World is Not Enough’s screenplay posseses a number of strong elements (from the now ever present Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, and a sophomore Bruce Feirstein), some of which have been recycled in the Craig era, but they’ve been mashed together with ill-fitting standard Bond tropes that puncture any would-be substance (Bond’s last line before the new millennium is one Roger Moore would have relished). And while a structure that stop-starts doesn’t help the overall momentum any, nor does the listlessness of drama director Michael Apted, such that when the sporadic bursts of action do arrive there’s no disguising the joins between first and second unit, any prospect of thrills evidently unsalvageable in the edit.

Taking its cues from the curtailed media satire of Tomorr…

I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is an unassailable classic, held up as an embodiment of true spirit of Christmas and a testament to all that is good and decent and indomitable in humanity. It deserves its status, even awash with unabashed sentimentality that, for once, actually seems fitting. But, with the reams of plaudits aimed at Frank Capra’s most enduring film, it is also worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment or two. One can construe a number of not nearly so life-affirming undercurrents lurking within it, both intentional and unintentional on the part of its director. And what better time to Grinch-up such a picture than when bathed in the warmth of a yuletide glow?

The film was famously not a financial success on initial release, as is the case with a number of now hallowed movies, its reputation burgeoning during television screenings throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, It’s a Wonderful Life garnered a brace of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

He’d been clawed to death, as though by some bird. Some huge, obscene bird.

The Avengers 5.6: The Winged Avenger
Maybe I’m just easily amused, such that a little Patrick Macnee uttering “Ee-urp!” goes a long way, but I’m a huge fan of The Winged Avenger. It’s both a very silly episode and about as meta as the show gets, and one in which writer Richard Harris (1.3: Square Root of Evil, 1.10: Hunt the Man Down) succeeds in casting a wide net of suspects but effectively keeps the responsible party’s identity a secret until late in the game.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Dirty is exactly why you're here.

Sicario 2: Soldado aka Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)
(SPOILERS) I wasn't among the multitude greeting the first Sicario with rapturous applause. It felt like a classic case of average material significantly lifted by the diligence of its director (and cinematographer and composer), but ultimately not all that. Any illusions that this gritty, violent, tale of cynicism and corruption – all generally signifiers of "realism" – in waging the War on Drugs had a degree of credibility well and truly went out the window when we learned that Benicio del Toro's character Alejandro Gillick wasn't just an unstoppable kickass ninja hitman; he was a grieving ex-lawyer turned unstoppable kickass ninja hitman. Sicario 2: Soldadograzes on further difficult-to-digest conceits, so in that respect is consistent, and – ironically – in some respects fares better than its predecessor through being more thoroughly genre-soaked and so avoiding the false doctrine of "revealing" …

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.