Friday, July 30, 2010

Monday, July 26, 2010

Batman (serial; Hillyer 1943)

(My review of Inception will be up by Friday of this week)

In my review of Batman and Robin, the 1949 serial from Sam Katzman, I noted that one of the key reasons the serial works despite the clear and abundant flaws is due to the innocence of the whole effort. It set out to tell a Batman and Robin adventure, and low budget (and narrative logic) be damned, it did it with enthusiasm.

I cannot, however, give the same good will towards the first ever live action Batman film, the 1943 serial Batman, produced by Columbia pictures and directed by Lambert Hillyer. While the film comes out of the same low budget roots as the latter film, Batman is not a simple adventure serial, but rather a piece of war time propaganda designed to drum up anti-Japanese sentiment. The film is thus full of racist caricatures and slurs, with an extremely jingoistic attitude permeating every frame of the film. While the context out of which the film was produced may make these elements understandable, it doesn’t make them any less uncomfortable in the context of a boy’s adventure serial. And even if one is able to watch with the understanding of why the film is what it is, it doesn’t change the fact that the serial isn’t really all that good.
In Batman, Batman and Robin (Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft) are secret crime fighters who work for the United States government. In Gotham City, a Japanese spy and master criminal, Prince Tito Daka (J. Carrol Naish) operates, taking control of the criminal underworld and seeks to sabotage the United States war effort. It is up to Batman and Robin to stop Daka, but can they do so when Daka possesses a league of zombies at his command (old style zombies, not the Romero flesh eaters) and a deadly radiation gun?
As an adaptation of the Batman character, the 1943 serial is an abysmal failure. Since his first appearance in 1939, Batman has always been an aggressively individualistic character, working for the law by working outside it, and on his own terms. While the comics of the 1950s and the 1960s television adaptation tried to mitigate this element of the character, it has never been able to be fully purged, and it is one of the most appealing elements of the character. He is totally uncompromising in his fight against crime, but it is a personal war, not one beholden to any specific country or ideology. In transforming Batman into a government agent, that individualism is lost, as his quest is subsumed into the larger war effort.
The film however cannot even get the concept of a ideologically driven Batman right. Lewis’ Batman is less of a crime fighter and more of an overgrown man-child looking for excitement. There is no sense of commitment or drive to his Batman: he instead opens up his assignments from Washington like a kid opening a Christmas gift, and more often than not seems to have no interest in the people he is supposedly trying to help. In fact, Lewis’ Batman is a mean spirited individual, viciously pulling pranks on his Alfred and treating his supposed romantic interest Linda (Shirley Patterson) with outright contempt and negligence. If this were a persona to throw people off from figuring out that he is Batman it would have been one thing, but here, this is simply who Batman is. At least Croft’s Robin is likeable enough to balance out Wilson’s failings as our “hero.”
These problems with our hero go beyond Wilson’s performance however, as the filmmakers set about making Batman the saddest superhero committed to film. Batman is repeatedly beaten by the criminals he is after, and more often than not, it is either Robin and/or Alfred who are bailing him out of trouble. The final chapter of the serial actually involves Batman being sidelined until Robin rescues him and subdues the villain. While I am all for a fallible hero, in making Batman this inept, there is no sense as to why anyone should be interested in following his adventures.
Then, there is the racism. Now, while it is certainly true that the film is a product of its time, this in no way forgives the vitriol in which the film engages with such attitudes. The whole film seems to seethe in an open desire to attack the Japanese at any given moment, and there is rarely a moment in the film that goes by without some form of anti-Japanese sentiment raising its head. Some of it is so absurd that it could almost be laughed off, such as a scene in which an American criminal gives a bafflingly patriotic speech, but then the film heads down much more serious territory, including an unsettling moment when Batman himself starts using racial slurs against Daka. Perhaps no moment sets the venomous tone of the film more than an early scene in which the narrator points out the “wisdom” of the interment camps which Japanese Americans were placed into during the war. The moment lays bare the film’s intent, and it is hard to try and see the film as anything more than a historical artifact of war time propaganda afterwards.
There are aspects of the serial however that are worthy of mention. While he plays the role for laughs, William Austin’s Alfred is actually one of the few parts of the film that works, even though he is victimized by those he serves. Placed in various disguises and situations he shouldn’t be in, Alfred does manage to get a few real laughs throughout the film. And the opening theme sets the mood perfectly, and as it plays over the Columbia logo, it feels reminiscent of the Danny Elfman Spider-man theme. Unfortunately, nothing in the serial lives up to the expectations set up by the music.
When it comes down to it, Batman is of little note: As an artifact of World War II era filmmaking, it is only one among many example;. serious film serial fans will likely find it forgettable and a poor representation for the format. As for diehard Batman fans, the film is a must watch, but only from the perspective of the character's evolution into a cultural icon.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Updates: New Contact Info, etc.

Hey everyone!

Quick update: new review will be up Monday, and one will follow on Friday.

Second, the site now has a new e-mail address if for some odd reason somebody wanted to contact the

See you Monday!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Batman and Robin (Serial: Bennet 1949)

Given my love of serialized fiction, classic cinema, and B movies, it is odd that I have never watched a film serial from start to finish before now. I have seen selected episodes from some serials, including the classic Flash Gordon from 1936, and I am familiar with the overall structure and production style of these efforts, but I have never gone out of my way to watch one. Luckily, I can wipe that off my list of cinema fan failings, having now watched the 1949 Columbia Pictures serial Batman and Robin, from producer Sam Katzman and director Spencer Bennet.
From what I have been able to find online, starting with a Sam Katzman serial might not be considered ideal for diving into the history of serials. Katzman’s productions appear to have a reputation for being cheap, quickly produced works, a far cry from the earlier noted Flash Gordon serials which were expensive productions, by serial standards. And indeed, the cheapness does show on screen in Batman and Robin, from the poorly designed Batman cowl, to the low budget animation which appears from time to time, and the fact that the Batmobile is a simple 1949 Mercury. Worse, the writing is often lacking, leaving the film full of plot holes and lapses in logic, problems which are exacerbated by shoddy production values and direction.
Yet, I despite these clear and abundant flaws, Batman and Robin remains an oddly fascinating and entertaining experience, particularly when considered within the context of Batman’s later cinematic adventures. Batman and Robin manages to be remarkably faithful to its comic book source material, and despite the lapses in logic, the presence of an odd super villian, and beyond questionable science, the serial actually manages to take itself seriously enough to be a legitimate and noteworthy adaptation of the character. At the very least, it is better than the other Batman and Robin (Schumacher 1997).
In Batman and Robin, the dynamic duo (Robert Lowery and Johnny Duncan) are caught in a battle with a mysterious foe known as “the Wizard,” who has stolen a remote control device that is capable of controlling automobiles, trains and planes. As Batman and Robin attempt to solve the mystery of who the Wizard is and retrieve the device, they must also contend with photojournalist Vicki Vale (Jane Adams), Bruce Wayne’s romantic partner, as she comes closer to figuring out just who Batman and Robin really are.
Given the format and era in which the serial was produced, it should be no surprise that Batman and Robin is bereft of the characterization and the psychological depth of both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s live action Batman films: the point is to get on with the adventure, not spend time studying Batman’s psychology. Having said that, Batman and Robin does ask that the viewer invest in the adventure taking place, rather than playing the concept and adventure for deliberate laughs, unlike other adaptations. Batman and Robin here are heroic and hardworking figures in this film, planning stakeouts, searching for clues, and engaging in fisticuffs with low level thugs. Moreover, they are far from the demigod Batman and Robin written by Grant Morrison, with this Batman and Robin being more than capable of making mistakes and being injured. The logic of the adventure/mystery itself might not always make sense, but the effort to ground the film in some semblance of reality is appreciated.
As the title characters, Robert Lowery and Johnny Duncan make for a solid, if unremarkable, set of leading men. Lowery struggles somewhat as Batman, working hard to overcome the costume which doesn’t make his Batman the most formidable looking of heroes. However, Lowery is more comfortable in the Bruce Wayne persona, which actually is one of the film’s more memorable achievements. Like the comics, the public Bruce Wayne is used to deflect people from connecting Wayne to Batman. However, unlike the pompous playboy or recent films and comics, Wayne here is played as a boring, lazy and borderline narcoleptic individual, which oddly enough does make sense. After fighting a long battle against crime each day, why wouldn’t Bruce be tired, and use that to his advantage? Duncan is given less to work with, but his youthful enthusiasm makes him a memorable balance to Lowery’s calm, collected Batman.
More surprising than either of the title characters though is the portrayal of Vicki Vale. While technically Bruce Wayne’s love interest, Vale spends more time as a take charge journalist who doesn’t simply wait around for Batman to rescue her (even though she is rescued at a few points). Yes, this type of characterization was developed long before by the likes of actress Katherine Hepburn, but to see it featured so prominently in a boy’s adventure serial is still quite shocking. Some of the writing remains questionable surrounding the character, such as why she is interested in Bruce Wayne when all Bruce does is act like a self centered, boring jerk, but Jane Adams brings enough life to the character that even the most questionable of scenes are usually sold by her energy and spunk.
I don’t want to give the impression that I am ignoring the serial’s various flaws however. For starters, the central threat of the remote control device makes little sense: how is it that devices that are, by all accounts, not operated by remote able to be remote controlled? Or why doesn’t Batman, Robin or Commissioner Gordon (Lyle Talbot) actually investigate radio personality Brown if they wonder where he is getting his information from? Problems such as these of course have a simple answer in that the plot requires the padding to stretch the story out, but it is hardly an excuse. Other problems have less clear answers, such as why Bruce Wayne, as a rich playboy, would live in the suburbs rather than, say, a mansion that would give him more cover for his activities. The answer might have been that a mansion set and/or location would have been too much for the film’s budget, except that the filmmakers clearly had a mansion set to use for another character’s home in the film.
Such flaws however tend to add to the film’s overall charm and give it a layer of unintended but amusing comedy, which would sink the production if it were not so innocent. And really, that is what allows Batman and Robin to hold up: it aims to do nothing more than to entertain with its limited resources. While it may not be the best adaptation of the character ever committed to film, Batman and Robin does have the distinction of being an entertaining adaptation that is worth checking out for fans of B cinema and the Batman character. Plus, the film is filled with enough fistfights, car chases and explosions to live up to the serial’s promise of exciting adventure.
Given my enjoyment of this film serial, I will soon be delving into more of the Classic Hollywood era film serials which gave birth to the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg era blockbusters. But before I get into those, there is a matter of reviewing two genuine science fiction film classics from the past two years…

Thursday, July 15, 2010

New Review Tomorrow, and Here is a Preview...

New review will be up tomorrow, but here is a slight hint at what it is. Care to guess which film from the below choices?

The Evolution of the Live Action Batman Costumes

The Batman (1943 serial)
Batman and Robin (1949 serial)

Batman: The Movie (1966)

Batman (1989)

Batman Returns (1992)

Batman Forever (1995)

Batman and Robin (1997)

Batman Begins (2005)
The Dark Knight (2008)
See you tomorrow folks!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Neighbors (Avildsen 1981)

I like to believe that in some alternate dimension, another version of the film Neighbors exists, written and directed by David Lynch with the same cast as the version of Neighbors that actually exists. In that mythic universe, we would likely have a film with a stronger understanding of the material its playing with, from the suburban middle class values and iconography that are sent up, to the fact that the film is finding its humour out of situations of sheer horror. This film would have also been the final work of John Belushi, and likely would have given him a high note to go out on with a performance that acknowledged his great talent and showed the range that most people never really took notice of during his life.

Unfortunately, in our reality, Neighbors is a film directed by John G. Avildsen, a competent filmmaker whose cinematic grasp never really extended pass the underdog sports film, which he made twice to great success (Rocky in 1976; The Karate Kid in 1984), and several other times to middling results (including The Karate Kid Part III in 1989; Rocky V in 1990). This real version of Neighbors, despite boasting some excellent performances and a script by Larry Gelbart (best known for running the television series version of M*A*S*H*), is a mess of a film, with a unbalanced tone, awkward direction and one of the most inappropriate scores I have heard for a film.

I don’t mean to pick on Avildsen, but it would be dishonest for me to say that I consider him anything more than a lesser talent. He is a competent director when he has the right script, and in the case of both Rocky and The Karate Kid, he was the right man, at the right place at the right time. However, with Neighbors, Avildsen is completely out of his depth, trying to force the material to be funny rather than trying to play it straight and allow the humour to develop naturally out of the horror.

In fact, that is the key thing which Avildsen misses with the film, that the film is first and foremost a horror story which happens to be funny. The film's narrative concerns Earl (John Belushi), a middle aged man who lives a dull life that is seemingly being systematically destroyed by the newly arrived neighbours (Dan Aykroyd and Cathy Moriarty) over the course of one night. The film is something of an early precursor to the late 1990s classic Fight Club (Fincher 1999), as Earl finds himself caught in a seemingly endless nightmare of trying to maintain his dignity, sanity and values in the face of the chaos his new neighbours bring, while still oddly being attracted to their anarchic behaviour and lifestyle. In order for the comedy to work, the repulsion and attraction that Earl feels towards his neighbours and their behaviour must be established. Unfortunately, in trying to emphasis the comedic aspects of the film, Avildsen ultimately sabotages his attempts to make the film funny.

Consider the score from frequent Avildsen collaborator Bill Conti, who manages to craft a selection of music that is memorable while being completely inappropriate for the film. Rather than working with the film as a whole, the Conti’s music overpowers the film, attempt to force the audience to find a scene funny or surreal with its mock Father Knows Best meets Twilight Zone sound. The music attracts attention to itself and never manages to feel like it belongs the film, instead coming across as some bad internet attempt at a joke dub that goes on throughout the entire film.

Luckily for Avildsen, not everything is a disaster, as Belushi actually manages to hold the film together almost single-handedly, giving a perfectly restrained performance that is far better than most film surrounding it. Belushi manages to make his Earl into a sympathetic figure, whose life is built on repressed feelings of disappointment and anger. Even more impressive however is Aykroyd, who manages to overcome the failure in direction to transform his character of Vic into a truly bizarre and sinister creature. Aykroyd’s work here is something of a watershed for him as an actor, pushing him farther than the amazing sketch comedian and straight man he had played thus far, and setting up the more dramatic performances he would later give. Unlike Belushi’s Earl, Aykroyd’s Vic is a character lacking in background and a cohesive sense of purpose, and Aykroyd’s patented mater-of-fact attitude which he brings to the role manages to give Vic a disturbing sense of purpose that another, lesser actor might have missed.

I am not sure however that I can recommend Neighbors based on the performances alone. At the end of the day, the film is little more than missed potential, and as a dark comedy is outdone by Joe Dante’s classic slice of suburban hell The ‘burbs (1989). Sadly, the best reason I can recommend it is to see Belushi giving his last ever role his all, effort that was ultimately in the service of a film that wasn’t worth it.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


Review almost done, but life seems to be conspiring against me to finish it! Will be up tomorrow, in time so I can go and see Predators.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Summer Film Blues

Tonight, I had planned to have a review up, and I did finish it earlier today. However, upon rereading it, I don’t feel satisfied with it enough to post. The ideas are there, but not executed to my liking.

Instead, while I take a day or two to rewrite the review, I am going to take a few moments to make comments on a point of interest to film geeks, and will repeat this tomorrow as well.

If nothing else, 2010 could be dubbed “The Year Hollywood Looses Contact with Audiences.” Well, that is assuming it ever understood its audience in the first place. However, this year has almost unarguably been one of the worst years of film in the medium’s history, and even by the populist standards of summer blockbusters, this year has come up short.

While the mainstream press once again seems to be taking this as an opportunity to claim film dead as an artistic medium, I am oddly enough looking at this as being a potentially opportunistic situation, if studios and filmmakers pay close attention. Hollywood has been hit where it hurts most, in the wallet, and while it might take a second disastrous year for those in charge to take notice, there is the off chance that this could force them to change their business plans.

The problem with Hollywood right now is that they are all seeking to score major blockbusters, and to that end have been mostly producing homogenized, safe material, backed with obscene budgets where seemingly half of the money ends up in the hands of the “top talent.” This has usually been justified by the attraction of stars and name directors, but this line of thinking has some up short this year. When a Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe Robin Hood film cannot make back its budget, something is wrong. Hell, the fact that such a film cost over $200 million to produce, before marketing costs, should have been a clear indicator that something was wrong from the start.

While I hate to point to a remake for guidance, and while I still think that at $40 million to produce it is way too expensive for what it is, The Karate Kid, on a financial (though not creative) level should be looked to as Hollywood’s new model for most (though not all) of the film’s they produce. While it is basic common sense, lower costs mean lower risks, and potentially make riskier projects an easier sell. What is worth more to you Hollywood: one Spider-Man every year, or several District 9 type films which earn $100 plus at the box office?

In fact, I would honestly be looking towards lowering the costs of the average film to below levels of $30 million dollars. Insane you say? Perhaps. But then again, the fact that the average romantic comedy seems to cost around $40 million, when most of the film is centered around people talking, sounds insane to me.

This isn’t to say that $100 million dollar blockbuster needs to disappear, but rather that it needs to be removed from being the center point of the studio business model. Moreover, the old star system of the multi-million dollar pay days need to end, because let us be honest, it doesn’t seem to be doing jack for the selling films in the first place. And when a large part of the world is going through a recession, the fact that ANYONE is getting paid the kind of money the “A-list” crew makes is insane.

Think of the trickle down effect here Hollywood: tick prices increase because films become more expensive to produce in order to pay the costs of these wannabe blockbusters. Cut the costs, pass it on to the consumer. If the tickets get low enough, then attending a theatre might just be more affordable for many to go on a regular basis. If that’s the case, than you might just your audience attendance up, rather than relying on jacking up ticket prices to make up for lost revenue. Isn’t that better in the long term?

Maybe it is crazy for me to hope that Hollywood will learn anything like what I describe, but I would rather hope for this than accept the calls for film’s demise. Because if film were to die, than for people like me, that really is a depressing thought.

EDIT: and then there is this, which just goes to prove my point all the more -

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Mostow 2003)

(The following was originally written before the release of Terminator Salvation in 2009, and has been partly reedited for its debut here on the site)

In anticipation of this weekend’s release of Terminator Salvation (McG 2009), I have gone back and once again screened Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Mostow 2003), a film I’ve gone back and forth with over the years. When I first saw the film back in 2003, I enjoyed it while acknowledging that it was not anywhere near Cameron’s efforts. However, viewings since have allowed the massive flaws of the film to become increasing apparent, flaws which have tainted my views on the film quite a bit. Sadly, this viewing has only further reinforced just how much of a failure Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines ultimately is at the end of the day. Instead of a grand continuation of the story of John Connor, Mostow’s film only serves to remind audiences why Cameron’s original films work, and at the same time occasionally shows audiences that a much better film is buried somewhere in the finished mess, a film we will never get to see.

The reason the first two films work so well is the sense of reality that James Cameron built into his science fiction world. Everything felt lived in and natural, right down to the smallest detail and roles. Clothing is tattered and ruffled, the stars and extras look haggard and rough. Even the action scenes, as insane as they get, feel like news items that might get reported at eleven o’clock. This is why those films are unsettling even as you are having a blast: it is taking place in a world that very much feels like ours, with the future hell being an extension of our present existence.

What sinks Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines more than anything else is the lack of verisimilitude that Cameron mastered on the first two films. Everything in the film is too produced, too artificial: the computer effects are too clean; the sets look like sets rather than real locations. This extends even to the acting, which does not for one second feel natural. Nick Stahl never becomes John Connor; rather, what we see is Nick Stahl attempting to play John Connor. Even Arnold seems as if he is imitating his earlier performances rather than actually performing the role. This is all the more annoying given that the actors in the film have proven elsewhere that they are more than up to the task of giving the roles what they need.

This artificiality oddly enough is symbolized for me by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s jacket in this film. Take a look at the jackets Schwarzenegger wears in the Cameron films; they look like they were bought off of some random men on the street who had been wearing them for years. They were lived in BEFORE they were shot to hell over the course of those films. Now, look at the jacket in Mostow’s film; it’s clean, with carefully designed patterns throughout it. Certainly, it looks great, but it looks like a costume, a clearly made piece of professional work designed to impress rather than to wear. It appears to have just came off the rack, and nobody remembered to beat the living hell out of it before giving it to Arnold to wear.

What makes this all the more frustrating is that every so often the film manages to actually work, usually in the small character moments. A perfect example is a scene at Sarah Connor’s grave, as John remembers her final days. For a few brief moments, the film seems genuinely invested in the characters and their dilemmas, only to be interrupted by another awkward, cartoon-ish action scene that takes its inspiration from comic book films rather than James Cameron.

Then, of course, there is the ending. (SPOILERS) The end nearly redeems the film, going for broke and embracing the bleakness of the inevitable, as the world dies with John stuck helplessly in a military bunker, protected. The sleight of hand, in which the audience is deceived into thinking that, much like in Terminator 2, Judgement Day can be postponed again, works because John Connor himself believes in the possibility that it can be prevented. In any other film, this would have been fantastic. Unfortunately, this isn’t any other film. Instead, while a brilliant finish, the ending also serves as a reminder that the hour and thirty minutes leading up to it has been well below par, filled with bad sound effects, colourful lighting and bad acting. As a member of the audience, I am left to ask what the hell the filmmakers were thinking when they were working on the film. Were they asleep until it came time to shoot the ending? Or was the ending an accident, something that worked despite of the filmmakers efforts? I sadly think the latter.

So will McG do better? Well, visually for sure. However, no matter how hard he tries to reinvent himself, McG is still the man who directed Charlie’s Angles (2000), and has yet to be able to prove himself capable of anything better than that piece of trash. I hope to be proven wrong, but I’m not counting on it. Then again, I thought that the director of Breakdown (1997) would have done a better job than he did, so what do I know?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Darn It!

Ok, had to pick up an extra shift at work to cover for someone, so the review is delayed till Monday. However, will have a classic one up tomorrow.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

New review Friday

As the title says, the new review will be up Friday.