by Steve Habrat
While I credit Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman for shaping me into the hardcore fan of the Caped Crusader that I am, my favorite Burton Batman film is without question the bizarre 1992 sequel Batman Returns. Darker, uglier, and meaner than the 89’ original, Batman Returns is a macabre circus of freaks that goes right for the jugular in more ways than one. Burton punches up the violence, the gore, and the sexual innuendos that would make overly sensitive young children cower in fear and nurse scars for life. Burton still makes the grave mistake of putting more emphasis on the formation of the foes rather than Bruce Wayne/Batman’s demons that plague him but Keaton does still get the chance to elaborate on the classic character, giving him more depth here than in Batman. Criticized by many critics and fans for putting more thought into the gothic world of Gotham City than the storyline, Batman Returns does have an even more flamboyant style than the original film but with this style, Burton piles on a sense of dread that practically snaps the film in two. With Batman Returns, Burton goes full goth on the viewer and I love it.
Batman Returns flashes back thirty-three years and ushers us in to a the lavish home of the Cobblepots, a wealthy couple who has given birth to a deformed child that they quickly smuggle out into the snowy evening and dump into the Gotham City sewers. The film jumps to present day with the deformed Penguin (Played by Danny DeVito) readying his plot to reveal himself to the world. It is the Christmas season and hundreds of Gotham’s citizens have gathered in Gotham Square for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony held by the Mayor (Played by Michael Murphy) and crooked businessman Max Shreck (Played by Christopher Walken). The Penguin unleashes his merry gang of freaks onto the city as a diversion so he can kidnap Shreck and blackmail him into helping him re-emerge into the world. Shreck, meanwhile, takes out his frustration with the incident on his timid secretary Selina Kyle (Played by Michelle Pfeiffer) by threatening her and then shoving her out of a window in disgust. She survives the fall and in the wake of the accident, she takes to the streets as a mysterious leather-clad vigilante who enjoys helping women in trouble while also leaving a trail of destruction across Gotham. As the violence escalates, Commissioner Gordon (Played by Pat Hingle) is forced to call upon the mysterious Batman (Played by Michael Keaton) to protect the city.
You’d never guess that Burton was hesitant to return to the world of Gotham City because Batman Returns comes at the viewer like, well, a bat out of Hell. The film begins with the disturbing images of a horrified couple dumping a baby into frigid waters and then quickly shifts over to the Penguin unleashing the Red Triangle Circus Gang on the city to commit mass murder. He cuts the scene up with the Batsignal shooting up into the sky while Bruce Wayne sits sulking in his darkened study, alone and away from the world yet completely comfortable in this isolated world of darkness. He notices the signal in the sky and he dutifully stands up to ready himself for battle. This is one of my favorite scenes in any of the Batman films that have made it to the big screen. Now you understand why I prefer this film to the original blockbuster. Burton isn’t playing it safe anymore and he keeps the gloom up for slightly over two hours. We get to spend quite a bit more time with the man behind the cowl and Keaton continues to fascinate us. He has apparently learned to let love in, yet this time, the destruction is deadlier and he fidgets if he has to make a dash to the Batcave. Keaton sizzles when he plays off of Pfeiffer, who is both his love interest and his villain here. When the two are all dressed up and prowling the rooftops, get ready to have your world rocked. Their showdowns are explosive.
Batman Returns gives us a brief look at the tragedy that has given birth to the Penguin but it takes its good old time to really give us Catwoman, a sultry menace who aligns herself with both Batman and the Penguin. Her shift from timid to seductive is compelling and is a testament to Pfeiffer, who single handedly creates one of the best villains in this series of Batman films. In many ways, she overshadows most of the other villains because you never quite known if she is going to be playing friend or foe. Her origin, though slight cheesy, is one that will have the feminists cheering as she ditches the “His Girl Friday” routine and becomes a snarling liberator who warns the women she saves that they shouldn’t count on the BatMAN to save them anymore. After slicing up a mugger’s face, she whispers to the victim, “I am Catwoman. Hear me roar!” When she is paired up the slobbering sicko Penguin, a perverted freak of nature, it becomes a gothic Beauty and the Beast. DeVito is absolutely perfect as the sad sack Oswald Cobblepot, one who is eager to drain the citizens of their empathy and cackles behind closed doors at people’s gullibility. When he finally reveals his master plan, many may be covering their mouths in horror. Oh yes, Burton plans to go there and when one of Penguin’s gang members speaks up and tells Penguin that his plan may be a little too dark, he quickly reaches for his shotgun and blows the softie away. When I saw this in the theater, my jaw was on the floor.
Burton scales back some of his action in Batman Returns, making things a bit more claustrophobic but still thrilling nonetheless. There are lots of brawls in the snow-covered streets of Gotham between the vicious Red Triangle Circus Gang and Batman that are a lot of fun. The opening riot is appropriately shocking, especially when you see the whacked out appearance of the gang members. There is a fire-eater here, a pair of maniacs on stilts, and tons of freaks on motorcycles that don some horrifying skull masks. Near the end of the film, things take a turn into silliness with the Penguin unleashing hundreds of armed penguins on Gotham. It takes things into campy territory, which is a bit perplexing considering how dark the film was up until this big reveal. Burton regroups with a gruesome four way stand-off between a maskless Batman, a battered Catwoman, a dying Penguin, and a desperate Shreck, who seems slightly out of place in this trio of freaks. Much like the 89’ original, the effects have held up marvelously. Wait until you get a load of the scene where Batman glides over the chaos riddled streets of Gotham City, blending in with a swarm of bats that are filling the streets.
Batman Returns is certainly not a film for children and it erases some of the goofier elements that bothered me in Batman. Luckily, there is no villain dancing around the tunes of Prince, which was a giant relief. The plotline does get a bit weak in points, with the style masking the fact that the story is flying off the rails. Burton botches it at the end with the army of penguins and a funeral procession with six gigantic penguins, but I am willing to forgive due to how great the other 95% of this film is. Once again, Burton wastes the character of Commissioner Gordon, with the beloved ally only making a few minor appearances in all the action. Michael Gough shows up again as Alfred, the kind butler who realizes that he may have to aid Bruce in his battle against two foes looking to level Gotham. Walken is also a lot of fun as Shreck but he sort of clogs up the story at times. Overall, if Burton were hesitant to make this film, you’d never know it because it seems enthusiastically made. It also seems like he got a bit more freedom from the studio to really get weird. Once again, there are some minor tweaks to the stories, which will no doubt drive the fanboys like me nuts but I love this film because it dares to venture deeper into the darkness of the comic books. For that, Batman Returns remains my favorite Batman film from Burton.
Batman Returns is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
One of the most important films from my childhood is without question Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, the first big screen adaptation of the Caped Crusader that dared to remain buried in the shadows. With Batman, Burton proved to Hollywood that audiences would eat up a deliciously dark and violent superhero movie and they wouldn’t even bat an eyebrow. Burton’s Batman, along with the campy Adam West television series, is what shaped me into the diehard Bat-fan (and collector) that I am today. Yet Burton’s original film had two aspects that I have never been able to really get over and one is the fact that the story is told mostly from the Joker’s point of view. Bruce Wayne/Batman is almost a secondary character to Jack Nicholson’s cackling madman. To make things even more infuriating for this Bat-fan, Burton reshaped Batman’s origin by having the Joker be the one who gunned down Batman’s parents in that dark and damp alley. Despite these flaws that are a BIG no-no to me, Batman is still an awesomely gothic vision of the DC Comics vigilante created by Bob Kane (who gets an awesome cameo here). I firmly believe that Burton was put on this earth to convert Kane’s winged vigilante into movie material and replace the campy tone of the 60’s television series with a freakishly haunting mood that you won’t soon forget.
Batman begins on the dangerous streets of Gotham City, a gothic metropolis that is plagued with decay and filth. Despite efforts from the newly elected district attorney Harvey Dent (Played by Billy Dee Williams) and police commissioner Jim Gordon (Played by Pat Hingle), the city is still controlled by mob boss Carl Grissom (Played by Jack Palance), who rules the streets at night. The real terror is Grissom’s right hand man Jack Napier (Played by Jack Nicholson), who gets a kick out of murder and carries on a hushed affair with Grissom’s gorgeous galpal. Gotham City is also rampant with rumors about a masked vigilante who prowls the rooftops, seeking out the criminals who terrorize the innocent citizens. This vigilante happens to be billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Played by Michael Keaton), who vowed to wage a war on crime the night his parents were murdered in cold blood. One evening, Napier is sent by Grissom to raid the chemical company Axis Chemicals, but once he arrives, he realizes that Grissom has set him up to be taken down by Gotham City police. As the standoff intensifies, the masked vigilante known as Batman reveals himself to both the mobsters and the police. In the midst of the chaos, Batman, who is trying to detain Napier peacefully, accidentally drops him into a vat of chemicals that horribly disfigures him, turning him in to the giggling Clown Prince of Crime known as the Joker.
There is no question that Batman belongs to Nicholson’s roaring manic, which is a blessing and a curse. He rips through the movie delivering line after line of iconic dialogue that you will be quoting for days with your buddies. Burton eases Nicholson onto the path of a deadly buffoon who gets a kick out of practical jokes and jabs aimed at the Caped Crusader. The downside of all of this is that his sinister nature is saturated with scenes where he parades around with his goons listening to Prince. They shimmy and shake through the most bizarre art museum you have ever seen, defacing classic pieces with spray paint while belting out “Party Man” at the top of their lungs. This was the type of stuff that really bothered me about Batman. It feels like Burton was pressured into lightening the mood just a little bit so the studio could grab a younger audience. He repeats this at the end with a parade sequence that, once again, is blaring Prince at us (If you weren’t aware, Prince contributed a number of songs to the soundtrack). It’s another party anthem that is meant to get you rocking and drown out the idea that the Joker is about to commit mass murder. Luckily, Burton doesn’t let it completely overtake the scene and we do get the ultimate taste of how evil the Joker truly is.
The emphasis on Nicholson overshadows Keaton’s magnificent performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Keaton gives a grade-A performance as Bruce Wayne and in my eyes, he is still the second best movie Batman. He really isn’t given very much time in the spotlight but what little he gets is perfectly brooding. The scenes he gets with Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale, a photographer eager to nab a photo of the crime fighter, are delicately structured and distantly aching. Bruce so desperately longs for a normal existence but his work overshadows his love life. He brushes over the longing with a dismissive attitude, the cold face of a billionaire playboy who can have any woman he wants. Basinger is a lovesick puppy who wants into Bruce’s heart, but as she discovers more and more about the man and the demons he conceals, the more she views her task as hopeless. He is too removed and distant to ever allow someone to get close. Keaton’s best scenes, however, come when he confides in his trusted butler Alfred (Played by Michael Gough), who is the acting father figure in his life. Gough is, was, and ever shall be the best Alfred ever put on film, at least to me. He is so affectionate and strong with Bruce, acting as both the push Bruce needs to continue on as Batman as well as the stern voice of reason that he searches for.
There is plenty of action to thrill over in Burton’s Batman, all leading to an epic fistfight between the Joker and Batman at the very top of a dilapidated cathedral (Would you expect anything less from Burton?). The opening moments of the film still give me goosebumps, the Batman emerging from the shadows to clobber a duo of thugs who swap rumors they have heard about this winged demon with a taste for blood. The eerie confrontation ends with the thug squealing, “Who are you”, with Batman tugging him a little closer and whispering the iconic answer, “I’m Batman.” Burton is only wetting our appetite with the scene and he carefully places a number of money shot moments throughout his film that will drive any Batman fan wild with delight. The “I’m melting!” scene is a personal favorite of this Batman fan and I still can’t help but smile over how the scene plays out. It is wildly demented with Batman swooping in at just the right moment. All these teases really amp up with a street showdown between the Joker and Batman that hasn’t aged a day. I am still filled with awe during the Batwing battle that leaves the Joker stammering, “Why didn’t anyone tell me he had one of those…. THINGS!” The effects are timeless and the fights are bare-knuckle bloody, which is exactly how they should be. Bravo, Burton!
Throughout this review, I have put my inner fanboy on hold and left a few of my gripes with the movie on the backburner. While I think the image of the Batwing covering the moon is neat, I think it is a bit ridiculous. There are hundreds of people dying below and I hardly doubt Batman would stop to cover the moon up with the Batwing. I also seethe over how Burton wastes the characters of Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent. I always loved the relationship between Batman and Gordon and I get none of that here. He is such a spectacular ally for the Dark Knight and sadly, Burton gives him absolutely nothing to do. I still get worked up over the fact that Batman can’t turn his neck, something I have always loathed in these early Batman movies. How is he supposed to fight crime if he can’t even look left or right? Still, Batman has plenty of style and atmosphere, which fits well in this interpretation of the character. Burton’s Gotham City is filled with menace and can really be an intimidating place when the sun goes down. The galloping score from Danny Elfman, who conjures up an iconic theme to for our triumphant hero, compliments all of this gothic tension Burton musters. Grand, exciting, and featuring some of the best performances in a comic book movie, Batman is a flawed but undeniably fun classic that never gets old. A total crowd pleaser for both the diehard Batman fans like myself and the average movie-going public.
Batman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After taking the freaky detour into cult territory in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg retreated back to the winning formula that they had with Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, once again pitting our fedora-wearing hero against the dreaded Nazis. Sadly, they seemed really half-hearted about that return, almost a bit reluctant and preoccupied. There is quite a bit to like about 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the addition of Sean Connery as Indy’s father is a brilliant one, but the action and storyline do not seem as spry as they did in both Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Temple of Doom. It appears that the franchise is a bit winded and in need of a breather, much like our hero after doing battle aboard a tank full of Nazis. With a slightly dull storyline, the true hero here is without question Connery, who is wonderfully effortless as Indy’s father. The two argue, squabble, and work on their relationship all while bullets fly overhead. The plus to all of this is that we get to know just a little bit more about the whip-cracking Indiana Jones but the downside is the film is relying a bit too heavily on the father/son relationship and not enough on the task at hand: Finding the Holy Grail.
Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade picks up in 1938 with Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Harrison Ford) in search of an ornamental cross that he has been looking for every since he was young. After recovering the cross, Indy returns to the university he teaches at where he finds himself approached by Walter Donovan (Played by Julian Glover), who tells him that his father, Professor Henry Jones (Played by Sean Connery), has vanished while searching for the Holy Grail, which he had been obsessed with finding his entire life. After mysteriously receiving his father’s diary in the mail, Indy sets out to locate his father with the help of his colleague Dr. Marcus Brody (Played by Denholm Elliot) and the strikingly beautiful Dr. Elsa Schneider (Played by Alison Doody). As Indy’s search for his father continues, he discovers that the Nazis are also in search of the Holy Grail and if they obtain it, they are guaranteed world domination.
At the time of its release, The Temple of Doom was met with mixed reviews from critics. While The Temple of Doom was a step down from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film was a bit too exotic for some tastes. Lucas and Spielberg were hell-bent to get the franchise back on the familiar path that won fans over in the first place. While the familiarity is welcome, I still enjoyed the exotic flavor of the second installment a bit more than the third chapter. The Last Crusade feels a bit too Hallmarky at times, like it is playing things too safe. The tone here isn’t nearly as dark as the previous two films and certainly not as violent. It is clear that this is for a much younger audience unlike the adult oriented Raiders and The Temple of Doom. It is obvious that Lucas and Spielberg don’t want to cause too much of a stir after producing a film that was responsible for creating the PG-13 rating. With playing things safe, Lucas and Spielberg seem to have little heart in the project, almost like they are just cranking it out so the fans will shut up. This doesn’t mean that they disrespect the character of Indiana Jones, giving him even more depth than before, doing away with the macho personality established in the second film, and giving him a proper send-off into a blazing sunset.
In The Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones was a flexing superhero that looked like he could have run alongside Rambo. In The Last Crusade, he is back to the Dr. Jones we knew in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Maybe this is due to his father’s supervision? In this installment, he isn’t knocking every single bad guy clean off his feet or ripping off his shirtsleeves to show off his biceps to Elsa. This is a much headier showdown than the battle of the brawn in The Temple of Doom. Here, Indy has to use his wit and intellect to stay one step ahead of the Nazis who stop at nothing to make sure he doesn’t get to the Grail before they do. I did not see Temple of Doom Indy getting swept up in the beauty of Venice and lusting after pretty blonde bombshells. Also enjoyable is the glimpse of a younger Indy (Played by River Phoenix) at the beginning of the film. In it, we get to see that the love of the chase began at an early age and that his relationship with his father was a on the rocks.
Professor Henry Jones end up being the salt that The Last Crusade is in desperate need of. He’s downright hilarious with precise comedic timing. You’ll love his reaction when Indy mows down a handful of machine gun toting Nazis or how proper Indy becomes when addressing his stern father (he calls him “Sir”). Their interactions turn out to be the highlight of The Last Crusade and watching them repair their relationship is a real treat. Connery also gets memorable interaction with bird-brained Marcus Brody. Alison Doody is a scorcher as the flip-flopping Elsa but she serves basically no purpose other than being another thorn in Indy’s side and a wobbly love interest. Glover’s Donovan, who early on reveals that he is working with the Nazis, is probably the nicest villain of the Indiana Jones trilogy, never really making us chew at our nails. He is very similar to the character of Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Michael Byrne steps up to the plate to play the real nasty General Vogel, the guy who gets to trade punches with Indy. John Rhys-Davies also returns as Sallah, who isn’t really given much to do outside of add a bit more comic relief to the action.
There are a few action sequences that do manage to capture some of the adrenaline pumping thrills of the first two films. A battle aboard a tank has some edge-of-your-seat moments but is thrown off by too many laughs and “how convenient” moments. The strongest two action scenes end up being a boat chase and Indy and Professor Jones trying to outrun Nazi fighter planes. Unlike The Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade dashes all over the world, jumping from Nazi occupied Berlin to Venice to Jordan. Of all the Indiana Jones films, The Last Crusade is without question the funniest installment, more concerned with making us chuckle rather than filling us with that sense of adventure that Raiders and The Temple of Doom were keen on. Overall, I think that is why I favor Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Temple of Doom to The Last Crusade. This film feels like a dry rehash without the iconic moments to spice things up. That is not to say that I think that The Last Crusade is a bad film. The Last Crusade is a nice wrap up but it was time for Indy to retire the fedora and hang up the whip for a while. All that globetrotting and saving the world really wears a guy out.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If you are in the market for big laughs during the holidays, stop your search at National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the third and perhaps best entry in the Vacation series. Hugely slapstick and loaded with good intentions, Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold is somewhat of a bumbling hero to the comedy realm. He wants nothing more than to spend quality time with his family and goes to great lengths to make sure their trips and holiday’s are something to talk about for years to come. Yet this should not be confused with intellectual depth, an attribute that is severely lacking in much of the National Lampoon cannon. But as a mindless distraction, Christmas Vacation will tickle your funny bone with its dry wit, raucous charisma, smart aleck one-liners, and none other than Griswold himself. I wish I could go on about how this film makes profound statements about the meaning of Christmas, but I can’t stretch it or sugar coat this film.
Clumsy oaf Clark Griswold (Played by Chase) wants none other than to provide his family with a good old-fashioned family Christmas. One with the perfect tree, warm company, gaudy outdoor decorations, and a big fat Christmas bonus so he can build a luxurious pool in his backyard for his children and extended family to enjoy. Along with his affectionate wife Ellen (Played by Beverly D’Angelo) and his disinterested offspring Audrey (Played by Juliette Lewis) and Rusty (Played by Johnny Galecki), the Griswolds face entertaining their in-laws, snooty neighbors, wild animals laying waste to their home, and the unannounced visit from their southern fried cousin Eddie (Played by Randy Quaid), a beer swilling moron who makes Clark look like a rocket scientist.
A much more adult oriented holiday funny flick, Christmas Vacation is loaded with toilet humor, sexual innuendos, and a finale that includes kidnapping and a massive SWAT siege on the Griswold homestead. It main goal is just to make you belt out hearty laughs at the expense of Clark’s pain. They throw him into every situation imaginable, ranging from tumbling off ladders while covering every inch of his home in white Christmas lights, to him stepping on boards and whacking himself in the face. The impatient one-liners from his children are also winners; one includes a disastrous trip to the lingerie section of a department store. At odds with Clark is Cousin Eddie, who spouts off with even more stupidity than Clark, although Clark’s comedy centers more around him getting hurt or frustrated. Yet Christmas Vacation manages to be spot on about your in-laws and extended family shacking up with you for the holidays. Personalities conflict, arguments arise, tempers flare, and you have to put up with at least one family member you have no desire to see. In Christmas Vacation’s case, that is Cousin Eddie.
If dealing with nagging family members is the extent of this film’s depth, we can only further evaluate it on its performances, which are all quite fine and bursting with the right amount of silliness. The film relies on its how-much-worse-can-this-actually-get premise to the point where it literally ends in explosions and fireworks. Quaid’s Cousin Eddie steals the show with his asinine remarks and constantly hindering the fun that Clark and Ellen try so desperately to provide. It’s nice to see him on Clark’s turf this time around and not in his native hillbilly setting. D’Angelo’s Ellen really doesn’t undergo any drastic change to her character. She still sticks by her Clark even at his dumbest. William Hickey and Mae Questel show up as the elderly Uncle Lewis and Aunt Bethany. Lewis is cranky and shrill, constantly snapping and disinterested in the entire effort by Clark. Aunt Bethany is a senile old bat that delivers one hysterical quote after another. Just try not to burst into hysterics when she sees Clark’s outdoor lighting scheme for the first time. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest show up as Clark’s hip neighbors who scoff at his attempts for a family Christmas. They also deliver their fair share of memorable moments to keep Christmas Vacation afloat.
Credit should also be given to director Jeremiah S. Chechik who allows the film to coast along and expertly balances out the laughs. He makes a moment where Clark watches old films of Christmas and his childhood a tender moment. He allows the film to be warm and accommodating, making us almost feel like actual guests in the Griswold home. We see scenes of darkened rooms where the guests are sleeping. We laugh over Rusty and Audrey awkwardly sharing a bed and being furious over each other’s movements. We almost feel like we are staying over with all of these characters. The inviting nature of this film always made me a softie for it. I will say that the film seems to wait a little too long to reveal its big twist and the hurries the final events. You’ll forgive it though.
Christmas Vacation is the furthest thing from cinematic brilliance but it sure can get the inevitable moments we all face at this time of the year correct. The film opens with a snazzy cartoon number and a catchy little tune you will be humming along with. It’s also insanely quotable and will have you and your family spouting off lines to each other for days. Ranking as the most polished and probably the most consistent Vacation film, it easily has the most replay value. It is without question the most family friendly entry, just outdoing the sub par Vegas Vacation. It should also be noted that the film has aged miraculously, never truly reeking of the 80s. Hell it even makes a good holiday double feature with A Christmas Story. If you the adult finds this a tough glass of eggnog to drain, your kids will sure be howling with delight. If you can lower your pretensions long enough to appreciate an innocent laugh, you’ll enjoy dropping in on the Griswold’s old fashioned family Christmas for years to come. I just hope you make it out alive.
Christmas Vacation is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.