Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Batman Double Feature

Batman (1989)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Kim Basinger
Director: Tim Burton
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Two maniacs are prowling the night of Gotham City. One is the criminal mastermind known as the Joker (Nicholson) and the other is the mysterious crusader against crime known as the Batman (Keaton). Will sexy reporter Vicky Vale (Basinger) survive getting caught in the middle when the two square off?

"Batman" has been praised repeatedly as the best Batman movie ever. While I loved the look of Gotham City, while I got a huge kick out of Nicholson's portrayal of the Joker, while I still reference the "Who are you?"/"I'm Batman" scene--my favorite moment of the movie--I simply can't get on the Great Movie Band Wagon here.

Is it a superior film? You bet. However, it's too inconsistent in both pacing and tone to be great.

Keaton's Bruce Wayne is a non-entity, and his Batman has only slightly more presence. They both have a cool and spooky air about them, but there isn't much personality in either. It's the "wonderful toys" that Batman has that makes him interesting. Adam West's Batman showed more pesonality and spirit than the one we have here... and it's a sorry state of affairs when a show that was made with tongue-in-cheek at every stage of the process has a Batman that's more engaging than a film that's presented as a "serious" attempt at bringing the character to cinematic life. (And even with his "wonderful toys", the Batmobile from the 1960s movie and TV show is still cooler looking. The plane was excellent, though!)

Nicholson's Joker is almost TOO much at some times... or maybe he comes across that way because he's most-often playing against Basinger, an actress of limited talent and range (she doesn't even make a good Scream Queen). I enjoyed his performance, but some brakes really could have been put on him here and there.

The merchandizing tie-ins also cripple the movie. Danny Elfman wrote one of his very finest scores for the film, but instead of letting his sweeping orchestral movements carry the film, we're subjected to Z-grade Prince tunes every so often. And whenever the Purple One plagues us, it's as if the film comes to a screeching halt. (The songs were there to sell one of those obnoxious "Music from and inspired by" CDs.)

"Batman" is a superior adaptation of the DC Comics character to the screen, and it's one of the best of the Batman films from the 1990s (although "Batman Returns" is better). It's entetaining and worth seeing--particularly if you're a big fan of Jack Nicholson--but it's not a Great Movie.

Batman Returns (1992)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Jack Palance
Director: Tim Burton
Eight of Ten Stars

When a corrupt business magnate (Walken) and a physically deformed man who was raised by penguins (DeVito) set about carving up Gotham City, only Batman (Keaton) can stop them. But who is the demented woman in the leather cat outfit (Pfeiffer) and whose side is she on?

"Batman Returns" is a dark and surreal take on Batman that on one hand seems to be inspired by nightmares but on the other hand gets almost as funny as the 1960s film "Batman: The Movie" at times. It's a visually impressive movie with a great cast that give some very fine performances--there even seems to be a little more life in Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne than there was in the first film where he played Batman.

There is a dream-like-, or perhaps fairy tale-, quality to the entire film, a quality that is enhanced by the origins of the Penguin and Catwoman (Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer), two characters whose appearance and natures in this film are very different than what we're used to from the comic books. Further, their natures are so grotesque that they couldn't really exist anywhere but in a dream.

Even Gotham City feels a little like a dreamscape in many scenes. The film takes place in winter, and it's staged mostly in cool colors. The overall effect is very impressive.

The only complaint I have with "Batman Returns" is the "re-imagining" of Selina Kyle. I've always liked this character the best when she was potrayed as a sneak-thief and adventuress and the mystical origin she is given here--not to mention the fact that she's a complete nutjob--doesn't sit well with me, even if I will grant that Michelle Pfeiffer puts on an excellent show.

The Penguin, on the other hand, is more impressive in this film than he's ever been in any other comic book or movie. The Burton/Devito Penguin is a character that we both feel pity and revulsion for, and, although we know that Batman had to defeat him, we can't help but feel very sad for the end he comes to.

"Batman Returns" was the last Batman movie in the 1990s to get it right. From this point on, they just get worse and worse. But, this film is as praise-worthy as either of the two recent Batman flicks.

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