Blog Archives

Batman Week Day 3: Michael Keaton in Batman (1989)

Batman 1989Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance, Jerry Hall, Tracey Walter, William Hootkins

Plot: As a pair of muggers in Gotham City go through their loot, a black-clad figure wearing a bat symbol attacks, incapacitating them both in seconds. When one of the criminals begs for his life, the man in black tells him he wants a favor… he wants him to tell all his friends. When the crook asks who he is, he hisses in reply, “I’m Batman.”

Commissioner James Gordon (Pat Hingle) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) make a public pledge to take down crimelord Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), an announcement watched on TV by Grissom’s chief lieutenant, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson). Jack has been having a fling with Grissom’s girlfriend Alicia (Jerry Hall), but is confidant Grissom has no idea what’s going on under his nose. Reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) is approached by an award-winning photographer named Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger). As two of the only people in town who believe the Batman exists, they form a partnership to try to dig out the story. They attend a casino night hosted by Gotham’s richest son, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), hoping to get the authorities on record about the Batman. Encountering Bruce, who comes across as somewhat absent-minded, leaving a bizarre impression before he is called away by his butler, Alfred (Michael Gough). While at the party, Gordon is given a tip that Napier is robbing a local chemical company. Bruce, now in a hidden cave beneath the mansion, listens to Gordon’s conversation as picked up by a hidden camera.

At Axis Chemicals, corrupt police Lieutenant Eckhardt (William Hootkins) prepares his men to take down Napier’s gang, giving orders to shoot to kill. Inside, Jack finds the safe empty and realizes they’re being set up. The cops and gangsters begin a shootout, but Gordon arrives and commands the police to take Napier alive. Batman rounds up the criminals and manages to grab Jack, but his chief goon Bob (Tracey Walter) threatens to kill Gordon if he doesn’t let him go. Although Batman tries to save him, Jack tumbles over a rail into a vat of chemicals, his face damaged in the battle.

The next evening, Vicki returns to Wayne Manor for a dinner with Bruce. It goes well, but she can’t help but notice that so much of the image of the playboy doesn’t fit as she begins to get to know him. Jack, meanwhile, has escaped the chemical bath, but not without damage. As he removes the bandages from his face, he smashes the mirror and stumbles away, giggling maniacally. He returns to Grissom’s home, confronting him over the double-cross. He reveals the extent of the damage – his skin bleached, his hair turned green, his mouth frozen in a permanent grin. Calling himself the Joker, Jack guns Grissom down.

Jack (wearing fleshtone makeup) meets with the rest of Gotham’s crimelords, announcing he’s taking over Grissom’s operation. One of them indicates an unwillingness to cooperate, so Jack offers a friendly handshake, roasting him with a supercharged joy buzzer. His power solidified, he instructs Bob to trail Knox and find out what he knows about the Batman.  Vicki leaves Wayne Manor the next morning, happy with Bruce and looking forward to seeing him again after he returns from a business trip. As she bids farewell to Alfred, though, he lets it slip that no such trip is forthcoming. She leaves, confused, and trails Bruce to a bad part of town, where she sees him lay a pair of roses on the ground in an alley.

That night, Gotham’s Action News reports on the deaths of two models who died after an extreme reaction to cosmetics leaving them with horrible grins on their faces. A bulletin announces three more similar deaths, when suddenly one of the anchors has an uncontrollable laughing fit and keels over. Suddenly, the Joker cuts into the feed, announcing his “Joker Brand” products – products that, chances are, everybody in town has already bought. Bruce studies Jack’s past, learning he has a background in chemistry, and he and Alfred go on a shopping trip. Gotham begins to struggle as everyone is terrified to use food, cosmetics, or anything that may contain the Joker’s “Smilex” chemical.

Vicki leaves a message for Bruce to tell him she’ll be late meeting him at the museum, but he has no date planned. It’s a trap by the Joker, who has become infatuated with her after seeing one of Bob’s surveillance photos of Knox. The Joker and his goons come in, smashing and defacing the exhibits. He approaches Vicki, proclaiming himself to be the “world’s first fully-functioning homicidal artist.” As proof, he has Bob bring in Alicia, whose face he has horribly scarred, and tells Vicki he wants her to record his “art” in photography. Batman rescues her, but the Joker’s thugs pursue him and nearly take him down. Just as Bob is about to remove his mask, Vicki snaps a picture, distracting them long enough for Batman to fight free. He brings Vicki back to the Batcave, where he tells her he’s cracked the “Joker Products” code – there’s no one single product that’s harmful, but certain combinations of products that are deadly. He gives her his research, instructs her to bring it to the press, and gasses her. When she wakes up, she’s safe at home, and realizes he took the film from her camera with the picture of his upturned mask.

As Gotham returns to normal, Alfred urges Bruce to tell Vicki the truth about his identity. He visits her apartment, intending to do just that, but they’re interrupted by the Joker, who tells her that Alicia tragically “threw herself out of the window.” Bruce reveals himself and threatens the Joker, who casually asks him if he’s ever “danced with the devil in the pale moonlight” before shooting him. He leaves Vicki alone, and she turns to find Bruce gone, a tray from her mantle lying on the floor with a bullet-sized dent.

Knox has researched the alley where Bruce left the roses and discovered his parents were murdered there before Bruce’s eyes when he was just a child. Bruce, meanwhile, is delving back into the case himself. The Joker’s “dance with the devil” taunt has dredged up memories, and he realizes Jack Napier is he nameless thug that murdered his parents. The battle is personal now, and becomes moreso when the Joker seizes Gotham’s airwaves again to announce he’s going to dump $20 million on the crowd for Gotham’s 200th anniversary celebration that night, challenging Batman to a confrontation.

Using the Batmobile via remote control, Batman destroys the Axis Chemical Plant, taking a number of the Joker’s goons with it, but the Joker remains at large, flying above in a helicopter. He retreats to the city, where he’s started a parade full of balloons and floats, hurling money into the crowd before gassing it with Smilex. In his Batwing jet, Batman cuts the gas-filled balloons loose. The Joker shoots the Batwing down with an improbably long-barreled gun, but Batman survives the crash. The Joker snares Vicki and leads her to the bell tower in Gotham City Cathedral where he awaits his helicopter. Batman and the Joker face off at the top of the Cathedral, where Batman vents his rage at Jack Napier for killing his parents. The three of them wind up dangling over the edge of the Cathedral, Joker dangling from a ladder to his helicopter. Batman snares him with a line, attaching him to a gargoyle broken from the cathedral. The added weight is too much, and the Joker plunges to his death. Soon afterwards, the police round up the Joker’s men and announce an alliance with the Batman, complete with a signal – an enormous spotlight that casts the emblem of the bat against the night sky. Vicki meets Alfred in a waiting limo… he apologizes for Bruce. He’s going to be a little late.

Thoughts: When Tim Burton’s Batman came out I was 12 years old, just at the perfect age to be heavily influenced by it. The prospect of Batman on the big screen was thrilling to me, and I was excited as I’d ever been to see a movie in my life. Looking back, my perspective has changed a little. While I never achieved the level of distaste I sometimes have for the Adam West incarnation, looking back on this film nearly 25 years later, I realize that it’s a good Tim Burton movie, but it isn’t really a great rendition of Batman.

You see, Tim Burton is a particularly distinctive filmmaker. He’s got lots of visual tricks, certain pacing techniques and other elements that all combine to make a movie distinctly his. This would be the first time he did a major adaptation of somebody else’s characters, but it sets the stage for his career in the future. Years later when he’d tackle Planet of the Apes, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the like, it would become clear he had his own sub-category of film… adaptations run through a Burton filter. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s a disaster. This Burton-filtered Batman is a good movie, much darker and more serious than the movies we’ve discussed in this project so far, but still lacks certain elements that keep it from being great as a Batman film.

There is a lot of good here. This is the first film in the project to tackle Batman’s origin, for instance, and it does it in a very good way. Certain superhero origins are so well known that it’s become redundant to go over them yet again, and working it in as exposition rather than taking an hour to cover it works very much to this film’s advantage. It’s also the first time we’ve seen a Batman that isn’t a fully authorized officer of the law. The outlaw status works better for the character, even when he’s allied with the police.

I also really like Michael Keaton’s version of Bruce Wayne. There isn’t a lot of comedy in this movie, but Keaton (who previously worked with Burton in Beetlejuice) supplies most of it when he’s trying to maintain his absent-minded playboy image. There’s a sort of awkward sincerity to him, but he has a distinct competence right beneath the surface that makes it easy to accept him as Batman when the transformation begins. There was, I’m told, quite a controversy around casting Keaton (best known as a comedic actor) in the role, but he balances the humor with the depth of the character very well. The scene where he struggles to explain the truth of his double life to Vicki is just fantastic – very human, very charming, very honest.

Jack Nicholson also puts in a bravura performance as the Joker. He’s got some of the chaos of Cesar Romero, but unlike that earlier incarnation, he actually manages to apply some menace to it. Romero’s Joker was fun, but never scary. Nicholson’s Joker is both. There’s a great moment in the boardroom scene where it really starts to come through… not when he murders the unsuspecting Antoine, but a few seconds later when he orders Bob to trail Knox. Nicholson imitates a speech Palance gave to him just before sending him to his death, and although he’s not planning to have Bob killed, the result is downright disturbing. His cheerful chant that he’s glad Antoine is dead a few seconds later simply compounds it. While not the best Joker of all time (we’ll get to that), Nicholson is a great Joker.

The performances really are excellent. The elements that make it harder for me to accept this as a straight Batman movie and more of a Tim Burton movie come in plot, tone, and atmosphere. For example, the first moment where the “Burtonian” elements overtake the “Batmanian” is when the newly-christened Joker kills Carl Grissom. While not at all out of character for him, Burton uses a rousing carnival tune as the background music for the scene, something that stands in stark contrast to what we’re watching. It’s a very effective moment, something that encapsulates the madness of the character, but it’s also a very Burtonian trick, and the first point where we’re clearly seeing his fingerprints on the mythology.

From there, there are many other such moments that feel Burtonian. The more we see of Gotham City, the more it feels like the sort of world he’s conjured up for films like Edward Scissorhands – not exactly reality, but a strange sort of postcard that depicts a version of some stereotypical  world at Halloween. (In Scissorhands it was a Leave it to Beaver-style community, in this it’s a grungy cityscape.) Even the woods outside of Wayne Manor, where the Batmobile drives to reach the Batcave, are distinctive. Something about the bare, sparse trunks of the trees combined with the pounding Danny Elfman score (the #2 superhero theme of all time, after John Williams’s Superman) give an effect that reminds me more of Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas than any other film I can think of. The cathedral where the climactic battle takes place appears to be deserted, the wood rotting away and everything is ready to break for the sake of the fight scene. For sheer Burtonian symbolism, though, there’s no bigger moment than when the Batwing sweeps up in front of the full moon, forming a perfect Bat-Signal for absolutely no reason other than the rule of cool, before diving back down at the city.

Burton and the screenwriters introduce another element that happened in a lot of superhero films afterwards and, in fact, continues to this day: the idea that the hero’s origin has to be tied into the villain of the piece. From a purely thematic standpoint I understand it – it makes things much more personal for the characters and gives you a tighter narrative. From a larger perspective, though, I think it’s often a mistake. It requires either an uncomfortable level of coincidence or a ridiculous level of conspiracy that only a few movies have pulled off well.

Then there’s one thing that I’m never comfortable with in any incarnation of this character – a Batman who kills. His bombing of the Axis plant bothers the hell out of me… no matter how scummy the Joker’s goons were, they were still humans, and it’s hard to accept Batman killing them. The end of the film presents a similar problem, where Batman first opens fire upon the Joker with an array of bullets and missiles (all of which miss, but still), and then apparently drops the Joker to his death. Ironically, in the earliest comics Batman had no code against killing, and even used guns to cut down hoods on more than one occasion. The no-killing code has worked its way into most versions of the character, though, to the point where a Batman who kills feels wrong in any context.

I like this movie, I like it a lot actually. It’s just that being years removed from the childhood excitement of actually seeing Batman on the big screen, the various faults and flaws are a lot easier to pick out. None of them are enough to kill the movie for me, but shifting perspectives over the years have made me want something different out of Batman than what Burton gave us. Still, it was leaps and bounds ahead of the Adam West incarnation, and lightyears ahead of what was to come, when Burton stepped back from directing with the third film in the franchise and ushered in the disastrous Joel Schumacher years. Either way, though, the popularity of this movie helped to lead to the first screen version of Batman that I felt – and still feel – was truly, purely, and amazingly true to the character, and it’s that version we’re going to look at next.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Advertisements

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 24: The Shining (1980)

shining-posterDirector: Stanley Kubrick

Writer: Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson, based on the novel by Stephen King

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Joe Turkel

Plot: Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a desperate writer, takes a job as the winter caretaker to a mountain resort hotel. Jack and his family – wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) — move to the hotel for the long, isolated winter months, during which there will be little or no contact with the outside world. Even before arriving at the hotel, Danny (via his imaginary friend, “Tony”) has visions of a pair of horrifying twin girls and a river of blood gushing from an elevator. The family makes the long drive to the hotel and meets the outgoing staff, including the chef, Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers). Halloran senses Danny has a psychic gift, and reveals to the boy that he shares the same power, something Halloran’s grandmother called “Shining.” Halloran tells Danny that the hotel has its own “shine,” including some bad memories, and warns him to stay away from room 237.

After a month in the hotel, Jack is struggling with his writing and thirsting for alcohol (he’s been fighting his alcohol addiction since it previously cost him a teaching job and nearly his marriage, when he hurt Danny in a drunken stupor). Fortunately, while the hotel is well-stocked with food for the winter, there’s no booze left in the Overlook. A storm rolls in and knocks out the phone lines to the hotel, and Danny’s visions grow more horrific, while Jack’s behavior grows more surly, abusive, and erratic. When Wendy finds bruises on Danny’s neck she blames Jack, driving him to the hotel’s ballroom, where a friendly bartender ghost (Joe Turkel) pours him his first drink in months. Wendy suddenly bursts in, saying that Danny told her his wound was really the act of a crazy woman in Room 237. Jack investigates the room, seeing a dead woman rising from the bathtub even as Danny – and far away in Miami, Dick Halloran – has horrible visions of the same. Jack lies to Wendy, reporting that the room was empty and that Danny must have bruised himself.

Jack returns to the ballroom, now full of ghosts in a full-on 1920s soiree, and goes for another drink, only to encounter the ghost of a previous caretaker, who advises Jack to “correct” Wendy and Danny. Halloran decides to return to the Overlook, flying in to Denver and renting a Snowcat to get there. Wendy discovers the “work” Jack has been doing – page after page of nothing but the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” She knocks him out and locks him in the pantry, but learns he damaged their own Snowcat, making escape impossible. As Jack returns, Danny escapes, but Wendy is unable to follow him. He hides in the kitchen as Halloran arrives. Jack kills the old man, and Danny’s scream as he “feels” the death alerts him to the boy’s location. Danny flees into the hotel’s hedge maze and Jack follows him, but Danny manages to trick his father by backtracking over his own footprints. When Wendy arrives, fleeing the ghosts of the hotel, she and Danny take Halloran’s Snowcat and run for safety, leaving Jack to freeze to death in the maze. As the film ends, we see an old photograph of Jack, smiling… in a hotel party from 1921.

Thoughts: The statement I’m about to make will firmly divide everybody reading this, so let’s just get it out of the way quickly: I don’t like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. And the thing is, it’s not because I don’t think it’s a good movie – it is, for many reasons I’ll discuss in the next few paragraphs. The reason I don’t like it is because I think it’s a poor adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. I understand that it’s necessary to change some elements of any book when you make it into a movie – some things that work on the printed page just flat-out don’t work on the screen. I get it. But as the sort of person who always comes down on the side of the original storyteller, I think it should be the job of the filmmaker to at least capture the spirit of the original as much as possible. Kubrick took the skeleton of King’s novel and twisted it around, the ending in particular, to make something far more bleak and pessimistic. The amazing thing about King is (with a few exceptions, most of them written under his pseudonym of Richard Bachman) he’s actually a pretty optimistic writer. Good usually wins in his stories, although evil is rarely fully defeated, and the hero usually has to pay a pretty devastating cost. But he ends things with a grain of hope. In the novel, the story ends with Jack Torrance managing to overcome the demons that have him in their grip long enough to blow the Overlook Hotel’s massive boiler unit, destroying the hotel and sacrificing his own life to save his family. The way Kubrick ends the story, with Torrance freezing to death as he tries to kill the son he’d professed such love for earlier, strips the story and the character of Jack Torrance of any element of good he had. If he had done that with his own characters, that’d be fine. Doing that with someone else’s character, to me, is practically a crime.

Okay, enough of that. Let’s talk about why this film is considered to be a classic by many people. Kubrick was a very effective visual storyteller. Even though he downplayed the supernatural elements in favor of having the sense of danger emanating from Jack (were it not for the telepathic moments with Danny and Halloran and Wendy’s brief encounters with the ghosts at the very end, you could almost dismiss everything as the product of Jack’s insanity), he did managed to craft a very expressive Haunted House story, along with all the necessary tropes. The characters are completely removed from outside help – in their case by geography and, once winter comes, weather. Even when Halloran attempts to come in to help out, he has to get a snowmobile and winds up getting killed for the effort. The supernatural elements are introduced fairly early, then used as part of the story’s very slow build-up, with some characters ignoring their existence and others showing a particular sensitivity to the ghosts of the hotel.

The story does lose a point for going with the rather clichéd “Indian Burial Ground” excuse for the hotel’s nasty disposition, but there’s at least a theory that Kubrick tried to use that to make a statement on the plight of the Native American. It’s kind of a strained metaphor, but if you squint really hard and tilt your head a little bit to the left, you can sort of make it out. The other cliché is much more on-the-nose, though. When Jack makes his way to the ballroom, he actually offers his soul for a beer, verbally, out loud, in case the Faustian elements could possibly be lost on the audience. Then again, when Lloyd the Ghost Bartender pours him a drink, he gets bourbon instead. Perhaps this was a subtle cue that the contract wasn’t entirely fulfilled? That Jack – at this point in the story – was still in rudimentary control of his own destiny? Perhaps I think about this a bit too much?

The hotel itself is nearly perfect – a gorgeous, classic-looking setting that changes very easily to a place of sheer terror. The film has a very slow build – we’re over a half-hour into the 144-minute running time before the Torrance family is finally left alone in the hotel, and with the danger implicit therein. Even once we’re alone, Kubrick uses slow techniques to build the tension, such as the long steadicam shots following Danny as he roams the hallways on his Big Wheel bike or the images of Wendy and Danny wandering the hotel’s hedge maze, juxtaposed with the terminally blocked Jack as he wanders the hotel itself.

King reportedly was against the casting of Jack Nicholson, on the grounds that audiences familiar with his role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would anticipate him going crazy too early. That may be the case, but he still plays the descent into madness well, if a bit too abruptly. Once he starts going loco about 45 minutes into the movie or so, he’s on a pretty straightforward plunge. Again – and I apologize for harping on this – this is a problem for me. We rarely get the sense that Jack is fighting his descent, or that he’s trying to cling to the love of his family. The scene where he tells Danny how much he loves him could have been played as a man who wants terribly to fight back the darkness, and is losing. It’d be a tragic scene in that case. But instead, you get the feeling right away that at this point he’s already completely Looney Toons and he’s going through the motions, even as the madness creeps through his eyes. To Kubrick’s credit, the next scene does show him waking up from a dream, horrified at the vision of himself murdering Wendy and Danny. It’s a rare moment where Jack is legitimately the victim of horror instead of the source. Later, in the ballroom, Jack bemoans Wendy’s lack of trust, claiming he’d never harm Danny and confessing to the one time Danny was injured by him – a “momentary loss of muscle control” when he yanked the boy up too hard by the arm. Again, this is an attempt to humanize Jack a bit, make him less of an out-of-control outlet for evil, and it’s appreciated. It would just be appreciated more if we saw some of that when he was actually with Danny.

Shelly Duvall – who was by many accounts brutalized by Kubrick on-set to get the performance he wanted – works as a woman who is clinging to a dying hope, then sees it shatter. Danny Lloyd is okay – not particularly memorable amongst the pantheon of child actors but not particularly offensive either. And Scatman Crothers? Hell, there isn’t anything in the world that couldn’t have been made 83 percent cooler by the addition of Scatman Crothers. In truth, I’ve always felt the Halloran character was somewhat wasted in this story – after a fairly epic run where it seems like he’s going to play the cavalry, he instead dies moments after entering the hotel, serving no purpose other than to reveal to Jack where Danny is hiding and to provide a second Snowcat – which, once Jack is dead, is kind of unnecessary. He’s a great character, and gets thrown away pretty much for nothing.

The pop culture footprint of this film is enormous, of course, and I don’t just mean that one SimpsonsHalloween episode that parodies it. Danny’s refrain of “Redrum” and the steady typing that gives us “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” have both become milestones, shortcuts to demonstrate horror in parody. Images like the blood flowing from the elevator and the frozen Jack in the hedge maze, too, are iconic at this point. Although perhaps the most recognizable moment of the film – Jack bursting through the door with a fire axe and exclaiming “Here’s Johnny!” was an ad lib by Nicholson on the set. It’s funny how things like that can happen – a moment of playfulness by Jack Nicolson makes it into the nightmare highlight reels for the next 30 years.

Moving on, it’s time to get to some of the real boogeymen of the 80s, the characters that kept my generation up at night (either scared or laughing, I’ll leave you to be the judge). Tomorrow we look at the first Friday the 13th.