Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Batman Returns (1992)

One of my odd quirks is that I remember what year people were born based on movies that came out the same year.  My Grandma shares a birth year with the original 'King Kong' for example, and I have a brother who is quite proud of the fact that he was born the same year 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' was released.  Thanks to 'Batman Returns' the ol' Geekboy can also remember when HE was born.

'Batman Returns' is a follow up to Tim Burton's 1989 'Batman'.  Like the '89 Batman, this movie spends most of it's time focusing on the bad guys.  '89 Batman only has one main villain however, the Joker, whereas 'Batman Returns' has THREE villains.  Penguin, Catwoman, and a sleazy businessman named Max Shreck who is pulling all of the strings in this puppet-show.  As you may guess, Bruce Wayne/Batman once again gets a little lost in the mix, particularly since he didn't have the focus and character development he deserved the last time around.

Visually speaking this is an all-out Tim Burton movie, and the visuals are the strongest part of the movie.  Burton ditches the Noir/Gangster inspiration from the last time around in favor of Gothic/German Expressionistic style costuming and architecture.  The German influence is evident as Penguin's look is clearly modeled after the titular villain of 1920s 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' AND Max Shreck is named after the actor who portrayed the Vampire Count Orlok in 1922's 'Nosferatu'.

So, let's take a look at the villains of the film.  They're clearly the characters Tim Burton was most interested in anyway.  We start off with the birth of the hideously distorted Oswald Cobblepot, an infant with a taste for any sort of raw meat he can catch.  He is quickly abandoned by his high-society parents and ends up in the sewers of Gotham where he is discovered and raised by sewer penguins.  No, I am not making this up.  Tim Burton is the one making this up, because that's not Penguin's canon comic book origin.

Two minutes on Wikipedia will tell you that Penguin was bullied as a child for his strange looks.  He was raised by a very human mother and he fixated on her pet birds.  There's nothing in there about sewer penguins.  That said, I do enjoy Burton's take on Penguin.  Burton took a villain who is rather hard to take seriously, cast comedic actor Danny DeVito to play him, and turned him into a truly terrifying figure lurking in the sewers and devouring raw fish.

It's Christmas in Gotham City, and as this is a Tim Burton movie, Christmas is the most scariest time of the year.  LAST year I actually watched this on Halloween.  It works well for either holiday.  Businessman Max Shreck is doing great humanitarian acts to schmooze up to the mayor so that the mayor will approve of the new power plant Shreck wants to build.  The power plant is important.  The power plant is what motivates Max Shreck, and Max Shreck is what - in one way or another - motivates all of the other villains in the story.

Penguin wishes to return to his rightful place in society.  He kidnaps and blackmails Max Shreck so Shreck can help Penguin with his goal.  Shreck reluctantly agrees, but he has plans to use Penguin for his own agenda.

Meanwhile Shreck's timid and mousy secretary Selina Kyle accidentally discovers Shreck's real plans for his so called 'power plant'.  He wants to build a gigantic capacitor that will steal electricity from Gotham for some sinister purpose that is never fully explained.  To shut her up Shreck pushes Selina Kyle out of a skyscraper window.  But because Selina had been shown as being nice to alley cats, the cats are in turn nice to Selina.  Selina is brought back to life by the cats, and now somehow has nine lives.  She's also rather mentally unbalanced and out for revenge on Shreck.

Just like Penguin, this portrayal of Catwoman has very little in common with her comic book  counterpart.  She's an ordinary cat-burglar in the comics.  There's nothing supernatural about Catwoman, She doesn't have nine lives, and she's one of the few sane members of Batman's rouges gallery.  These changes to Catwoman are less easy to justify than the changes to Penguin.  I personally don't think they add that much to her as a character.  I'm personally left scratching my head as to how somebody who adapted Joker's origin faithfully to the comics in the previous film would take so many liberties in the follow up movie.

I would like to point out that by the time all of the villains are introduced and their motivations are set up we are half an hour into the movie and Batman has only been in one scene and hasn't yet had a single line of dialog.

Max Shreck hatches a plan to make Penguin into a local hero.  Penguin 'rescues' the mayor's son after first faking his abduction.  Shreck then talks Penguin into running for mayor of Gotham, thinking he can use him as a puppet and get him to approve of that oh-so-important-to-the-plot power plant I mentioned earlier.  They plan to make the old mayor, the city's law enforcement, and Batman look completely incompetent in order to obtain this task.

Meanwhile Catwoman is taking her revenge on Shreck by vandalizing one of his department stores.  Rather than outright killing him, which is allegedly her motivation.  As his secretary she should know his daily routine well enough to take him out at any time.  Maybe the logic is that like a cat she's toying with her prey, so I suppose this is justifiable.  Anyway, she crosses paths with Batman, and after he bests her in battle she decides she wants revenge on him too now.

So.  Catwoman teams up with Penguin to discredit Batman even though Penguin is already clearly working with her arch nemesis Shreck.  Huh?  The two of them frame Batman for kidnapping Gotham's 'Ice Princess' a bubble-headed blond who is a big part of the Gotham City's tree lighting celebration.  While Batman is occupied with trying to rescue the Ice Princess, Penguin's henchmen hijack the Batmobile.  Penguin then frames Batman for murdering the Ice Princess - causing Penguin and Catwoman to have a falling out - and then he takes over the Batmobile by remote control.

The part where Batman is trapped in the Batmobile as Penguin is controlling it is actually my favorite part in the entire movie.  It's a very Pulpy/Cliffhanger Serial idea - careening through the streets at high speeds and trying desperately to regain control of the vehicle.  Penguin plans to kill two birds with one stone - eliminating Batman and showing him to be a reckless driver to further discredit him.

But Batman escapes and manages to turn the tables on Penguin - revealing to the general public that he is truly monstrous not only in look but in deed.  And at this point the movie falls apart structurally speaking.  The first half of the story is pretty good.  The plot to discredit Batman is interesting and well done.  But like the '89 Batman, after the bad guy's first evil plan fails the story just becomes a series of backup evil plans.

Remember Max Shreck's evil power plant that has been the driving motivation of all the characters in this story?  This plot thread goes no where.  After the plot to make Penguin the new mayor is thwarted Shreck is demoted to a really minor villain.  Even though he was the driving force of the entire story up to this point.  Now Penguin is somehow the main villain and the plot quickly degenerates from something as sophisticated as framing Batman for murder to strapping missiles to an army of remote control penguins.

My consensuses?  This is a very flawed - but still enjoyable - movie.  It takes a ton of liberties with the source material - particularly with Catwoman's character - doesn't deliver on plot threads that we are tricked into believing are really important from the very beginning of the story, and Batman is once again barely in his own movie.  But when all is said and done I actually like this movie a little better then Batman '89.  Unfortunately that only makes the weak parts of 'Batman Returns' all the more frustrating.

I may be in the minority, but I personally believe that 1995's 'Batman Forever' is the best of the pre- 'Batman Begins' Batman movie.  Next time I blog Batman you should find out why.

Merry Christmas.

- Geekboy.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

'Manhunt of Mystery Island' is a 15 chapter Republic serial.  I feel like it's a bit of an underdog as far as cliffhangers are concerned.  Odds are good you won't hear about it in the same breathe as 'Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe' or 'The Adventures of Captain Marvel'.  'Manhunt' probably wouldn't make anybody's 'Top Ten favorite cliffhanger serials' list.  Until today.  Because I rank 'Manhunt' in my top 2 right after 'Jungle Girl'.

Linda Stirling, one of the serial queens of the 1940's, plays the female lead.  Ms. Stirling is probably best known for 'The Tiger Woman' and 'Zorro's Black Whip,' but in my opinion 'Manhunt of Mystery Island' is her best work.  In 'Manhunt' she plays Claire Forrest, whose scientist father has been captured by the legendary pirate 'Captain Mephisto'.  Mephisto is trying to force Dr. Forrest to build a 'radio-atomic power transmitter' a device the evil Captain wants for some unclear but nefarious reason.  So Claire teams up with world renowned criminologist Lance Reardon, and the two pick up her father's trail to the titular 'Mystery Island'.

Mystery Island is owned by the four descendants of Captain Mephisto.  Some believe that the ghost of Mephisto still haunts the island, but in reality it is one of the owners masquerading as the pirate with the aid of a transforming ray.  Hopefully you enjoy seeing Mephisto's transformation, because you get to see is over and over again over the course of 15 chapters.

This story uses the fairly common cliffhanger serial plot device of 'One of these guys is secretly the villain but we don't know which one! Is it you? Whoops, you have a knife sticking out of your back. I guess it must be somebody else.'  But usually the villain is a mysterious hooded figure or just a voice heard over the radio rather than somebody with a transforming machine.

Lance Reardon - played by Richard Bailey - is a little flat or deadpan at times (fairly typical of cliffhanger serials) but he holds his own in a fight, and at time his crime solving abilities manage to convince the audience that he really is a brilliant criminologist.  For example, at one point he finds a discarded envelope, turns it inside out, and uses a mirror to read the impressions left by wet ink.

Claire Forrest spends most of her spare time getting kidnapped so she can be used as leverage against her father by Captain Mephisto.  Though often imperiled, she is rarely shown as helpless.  She's quick witted, resourceful, and fast acting.  When she's captured she usually finds a way to leave a trail for Lance to follow, at one point using thread from her sewing basket to show Lance the entrance to a secret passage.  Tying her up won't keep her out of the action either - in a moment of pure awesomeness she pounces on a discarded gun and shoots one of Mephisto's henchmen whilst bound hand and foot.

Lance and Claire are one of my favorite serial couples.  They work so well together as a team and that's what really makes 'Manhunt' stand out so much in my mind.

While Lance and Claire are trying to rescue Dr. Forrest from the evil clutches Captain Mephisto, Dr. Forrest complicates matters by trying to escape from the evil clutches of Captain Mephisto by his-own-self.  Several of the cliffhangers are actually traps that Dr. Forrest sets for Mephisto that our heroes happen to stumble into.

'Manhunt' uses the island setting very well.  The island mansion where the four suspects hang out has some Scooby Doo stuff going on, complete with secret passages and henchmen spying through suits of armor and pictures on the wall. There's dockside action, speedboat chases, and a network of coastal caverns for our heroes to explore.   Lance and Claire return to the mainland for a couple of chapters as well just to shake things up.

One unfortunate aspect of crime-fighting serials is that they tend to have a re-cap chapter.  In this case it's Lance and Claire sitting around stroking their chins in deep thought trying to figure out which of the owners of the island might be Mephisto in-between back-flashes of exciting bits you've already seen.  Each of the suspects is equally suspicious, so they get nowhere.  Serials where the identity of the villain or masked hero are unknown often have one of these chapters - the only difference is if it's a superhero/vigilante story it's the bad guy and his henchmen stroking their chins in deep thought trying to figure out who the hero is.  Whenever a serial uses a re-cap chapter I suspect them of not having quite enough story for a full 15 chapters.

Another common theme of later serials is using stock footage from other chapter-plays for the cliffhanger endings.  If you watch enough serials you'll see the same endings over and over.  'Manhunt' is guilty of borrowing that flooding tunnel scene from 'Jungle Girl'.

This serial does have some notable chapter ending however.  One of my favorites has Lance dangling out a skyscraper window from the end of a fire-hose.  Mephisto's henchman is inside disconnecting the hose from the wall.  What I like best about this chapter ending is that it has a really clever resolution in the beginning of the next chapter.  Another of the best endings takes place inside a winery.  The bad guys use a wine press as a deathtrap.  This makes for an interesting variant on that 'the walls are closing in on us!' cliche.

If you need a serial recommendation, check out 'Manhunt of Mystery Island'.  It's one of the best.


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Batman (1989)

To fans who grew up with Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, the film is the definitive Batman movie.  Michael Keaton is the definitive Bruce Wayne, Jack Nicholson is the definitive Joker, and the Danny Elfman soundtrack is the definitive Batman theme.  Can't argue with that last one.  Danny Elfman is awesome.

As a Sam Raimi Spiderman fan, I think I know how Tim Burton Batman fans feel.  Tobey Maguire will always be MY Peter Parker, no matter how much I enjoyed Tom Holland in the role in Captain America: Civil War.  But I personally didn't grow up with the '89 Batman.  I had seen both Adam West and Christian Bale play Batman prior to Michael Keaton.  So, how well does this movie hold up WITHOUT the nostalgia factor?  Answer - a little better each time I watch it.

I really like the way this movie approaches Batman's origin.  There's a fakeout in the beginning as we see two muggers attack a married couple and their young son.  We're supposed to think that the boy is a young Bruce Wayne and we're witnessing his parents murder, but then the thugs are stopped by Batman.  What's going on here ---?

We aren't show the actual deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne until much later in the story.  Instead Batman - and Bruce Wayne - are presented as a mystery that is slowly unraveled by our viewpoint character, photojournalist and golden age love interest Vicki Vale.

We are also introduced to villain Jack Napier, a mobster who wants a bigger slice of the pie AND has his eyes set on the ladyfriend of his boss Carl Grissom.  Grissom apparently finds out Jack's true intentions and sets him up as a fall guy.  In a showdown with Gotham's finest - and the mysterious Bat vigilante - Jack Napier falls into a vat of chemicals and is transformed into the Joker.

Even though the movie is more or less set in 'modern times' (or the late 80's) all the gangsters look and act like they belong in a 30's mobster movie - complete with fedoras, trench-coats, and pinstripes.  Batman '89 is the only movie going for the golden age feel.  'Batman Returns' is visually a Tim Burton movie first and a Batman movie second,  'Batman Forever' and 'Batman and Robin' are slightly campier silver age Batman, and everything after 'Batman Begins' has been inspired by Frank Miller.  But this movie has Batman fighting mobsters like in the golden age, has a golden age villain (Joker first appeared in 1940) Batman's golden age girlfriend (Vicki Vale's first appearance was in 1948) and the creation of the Bat-Signal (which first appeared in 1942).

So how is Nicholson as Jack Napier/Joker?  Is he the best interpretation of the character?  I'm not really a Joker authority - personally Two Face is my favorite Batman villain - but this version does seem closer to the Joker of the comics then 'The Dark Knight' Joker does.  His origin is the same.  True, in the comics his identity before he falls into the chemicals is unknown, and he isn't the one who murdered Bruce Wayne's parents, but other than that he's spot on.  But I actually like Nicholson's performance better BEFORE he's transformed.  It's a bit like Norman Osborn and Green Goblin in Sam Raimi's Spiderman.  To quote Weird Al Yankovic: 'He's riding around on that glider thing, and he's throwing that weird pumpkin bomb.  He's wearing that dumb Power Rangers mask, but he's scarier without it on.'

What about Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman?  Well, he's fine as Batman, but if you ask me he's a little lacking as Bruce Wayne.  He's happy-go-lucky, absent minded, very earnest, and shy.  Except for a few brief moments he doesn't really capture the darkness of Bruce Wayne's character.  In my opinion Val Kilmer and Ben Affleck are both superior in the role because they show the necessary brooding qualities of Bruce Wayne in 'Batman Forever' and 'BvS: Dawn of Justice' respectively.  Also, one downside of spending so much time developing Vicki Vale and Joker is that it cuts into the amount of time that CAN be spent on Batman/Bruce Wayne.

Back to the plot: After his transformation, Joker seeks revenge on Carl Grissom for stabbing him in the back.  He murders Grissom and makes himself man on the top.  He then becomes obsessed with all the press Batman is getting.  He's jealous because apparently mobsters want THEIR names all over the newspaper too.  (Sarcasm).  So he goes after Vicki Vale, first to find out more about Batman and then because he's developed a creepy stalker crush.

The second half of this movie really starts to feel like it's more about Joker than it is about Batman, and I think I figured out why that is.  The two characters are playing a chess match.  Joker makes a move and Batman blocks him.  Batman is never driving the action UNLESS Vicki is in danger.  Up until the climax he never tries to stop Joker for good.  He's just trying to stop Joker's current plot.

This does make the movie a little episodic as well.  Joker does something evil, and then Batman stops him.  So Joker comes up with a new way to cause trouble, and Batman stops him again.  Repeat spin cycle.

Since Joker is the one driving the action and Vicki Vale is our viewpoint character, Batman comes across as a third wheel in his own story.  This movie isn't about Batman as a CHARACTER so much as it is about Batman as an IDEA.

All that said, some of the things that seemed like flaws the first couple of time I watched the '89 Batman really didn't bother me as I watched it again for this review.  This is an enjoyable movie with more of the look and feel of the comics than more modern Batman movies like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy.  And the Danny Elfman soundtrack ROCKS.