Monday, June 20, 2005

To the Stars on Borrowed Wings

As I may have mentioned previously, I am an Old Movie Junkie. Love ‘em. I’m especially fond of serials from the 30's, 40's, and early 50's, and have collected a bunch of them over time. They’re cheaply done, badly written and great fun to watch. They were also a great influence on some of the most successful film-makers of all time, chief among them one George Lucas...
Apart from American Graffiti, the well George Lucas most often returned to for his inspiration are the Saturday afternoon chapter plays. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. My book “ The Great Heroes League” came from that same well. In fact pretty much anytime Lucas has strayed from the Serial source, it’s been a disaster (Howard the Duck, Willow). And while there are some things that were great to bring along from the serials, like action, pacing, and stunts, there are some things that were better left behind...Which brings us to Episodes 1, 2, and 3...
What should have been left behind from the serials in the Prequel Trilogy were bad writing, wooden acting, one dimensional characters and gaping plot holes. All 3 movies have these faults in Spades.

I hear the gasps of fellow geeks everywhere, as one of their own breaks ranks. Sorry guys, but there it is. Rosebud is a sleigh, the Emperor is wearing your mom’s panties under the robe and George Lucas can’t write for beans. He has a gift for imagination(or borrowing from enough different sources so that at least it looks original, from Kurosawa to Flash Gordon), for outline, but he can’t write dialogue to save his life. And twas ever thus...American Graffiti he co-wrote with Gloria Katz, so it doesn’t count. The original Star Wars (or episode 4, if you insist) has some very bad dialogue(oddly enough among the myriad changes he’s made to the first 3 movies fixing the writing on Episode 4 wasn’t one of them). The Cast complained about the dialogue long and loud. Supposedly Harrison Ford said something to the effect of “You can type this shit, but you can’t say it!”.

You will note that what has been generally acknowledged as the best movie in the series, “The Empire Strikes Back”(Another nod to the serials are the cheesy chapter titles). You will also note that it was neither written nor directed by George Lucas. And suddenly the characters are fleshed out, the dialogue is sharp, the acting leaps up a few notches and we start to care for these people, because they finally are people. Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett, 2 of the best screen writers in movie history, are the ones chiefly responsible for the change, also Irvin Kershner, the director.

“Return of the Jedi”(or Episode 6, like I care) isn’t as good. Why? Leigh Brackett died in between, and guess who stepped in to take her place. That’s right . George. And so we have the Ewoks...And the smiling waving Jedi trinity at the end...Yeesh...Larry Kasdan could only do so much...

And we finally get to 1,2, and 3...George Lucas as solo writer and director for the first time since Star Wars (or a New Hope or Episode 4...Aahh get a life!). The Saga is about, among other things, The Fall of the Republic, The Fall of the Jedi, and Anakin Skywalker becoming the Emperor’s Chief Enforcer, Darth Vader...but wait...All that happens in Episode 3...What are the other 2 stories about...Some would argue backstory. I say padding. He promised a trilogy( Hell, when he was really ambitious it was supposed to be 9 movies) and he had to deliver. Unfortunately he only had enough material for 1 maybe 2...) So what do we get...Episode one introduces a bunch of new characters who die, or ( mercifully in the case of Jar Jar Binks) are rarely seen again. His choice for Anakin Skywalker is annoying and apparently difficult ( check out the Making of feature on the DVD) and yet he’s built the movie around him. The new great villain that fanboys went out of their way to get the makeup down perfectly on, ends up getting killed at the end. And the relationship being set up between Padme Amadalla and an 8 year old Anakin Skywalker is disturbing, because of the fact that you know what has to happen in the next 2 movies if you were paying attention during the first 3...this will be a recurring theme. The movie is mired in trade negotiations, racial stereotyping, and celestial political bafflegab. The dialogue is gibberish (Harrison Ford’s words were never truer). The same holds Episode 2 (Attack of the Yawns)in which Hayden Christensen steps into the role of Anakin Skywalker, 10 years older, but not a lot brighter. More action figures are introduced and dispatched with. Nothing much about this movie makes a hell of a lot of sense if you stop to think about it. The only saving grace of it is the duel between the amazing Christopher Lee and the now fully CGI Yoda. Anakin and Padme are secretly married, which is basically the only purpose this movie has in the great scheme of things.

“Revenge of the Sith” (What they’re getting revenge for is never really spelled out) is the movie where all of the aforementioned elements are brought together to link this 3 film albatross link to the first 3. Like I said, if you were paying attention at all during the first 3, you know what has to happen...And it does...No surprises...Nada...And that’s what the fans seem to want God love ‘em...Christensen is still hopelessly out of his element as Anakin , and as a result, the transition from Skywalker to Vader doesn’t work....The Skywalker Twins are born...Their’s a wholesale slaughter of the Jedi which they deserve( Hey , they should have seen it coming....They’re supposed to be able to do that, ya know). The only one who emerges out of this whole mess is the indistructible Ewan MacGregor who is the only thing worth watching in all three movies. But as a whole Episodes 1, 2, and 3 (even though it’s superior to the other 2, it had to be) are a colossal waste of time. I could be cynical and say they were a cash grab by a film-maker who’s run out of ideas. But I think it’s more a case of a guy not admitting to his own limitations. You could postulate what Lawrence Kasdan, or David Koepp etc.would have done with the scripts. You can fantasize what Spielberg(who was apparently asked) or Singer would have done with the direction and casting. But it ultimately is what it is, and it does what it does. And what I think it does, ultimately, is detract from the original trilogy which stood on its own.

May the Schwartz be with you...

“The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”Movie was Douglas Adams last gift to we, the unworthy earth types lucky enough to have shared( and happily destroying, without his permission) the planet with him. I’m not going to go into a lot of details here, but all the dread most Adams fans felt when we found out Disney was were making the movie, were pretty much unfounded. It’s good, It’s funny and if you cam find it, see it.

In 1978, Superman: the Movie came out. Upon its success a whole spate of Comic Book were announced were suddenly greenlit, including a new Batman movie. And I thought “Finally”.
You have to understand, I am a total geek when it comes to Batman. When I was a little kid my dad took me to see a revival of the original Batman Serial(1943) at a small theatre in Toronto. And I was hooked. Then the TV show debuted, and I didn’t know it was supposed to be funny, more to the point, I didn’t care. It was Batman, and that was enough. I bought the comics. I bought the records (hearing the real origin story for the first time, and the first Joker story scared the crap out of me), I bought the toys...I briefly switched allegiances to the Green Hornet...well, Kato really...but my heart belonged to Batman.

So the show gets cancelled and I’m left with the comics, but the comics started to change.
And Batman started to change. He became nastier, more of the vigilante he started out to be(the 1939 Batman of the comics thought nothing of shooting people who got in his way). This was when Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams decided to reclaim Batman from the TV series, and brought a more realistic approach to the stories. The Joker went from merry prankster to full blown psychopath. Robin pretty much disappeared. And they created the only other Batman villain, to come close to the Joker in intensity, Ra’s Al Ghul. The stories were well written, and the art was spectacular. Other artists have drawn Batman (Marshall Rogers being my 2nd favorite) but none have come close. Neal Adams (and I say, despite the fact that he snubbed me at Comic Con a couple of years when I tried to talk to him). That era was brilliant, and was in large part responsible for the comic book renaissance. And Batman was still my book...with occasional nods to X Men (John Byrne) and Spiderman (Ross Andru).

So here we are back in 1978, and I’m figuring “Cool, they’re finally going to make a serious Batman movie! Can’t wait!”. Well, it turned out I was gonna have to. There were rumors. Robert Towne had written a noirish script set in the 30's, putting The Batman in context, which became as legendary as his Tarzan script which was eventually ruined into “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan”(He was so pissed at what they’d done to the script that he put his dogs name on it, and was subsequently shocked when his dog was nominated for best adapted screenplay). Unfortunately, nobody wanted to make it as a period piece, so that one fell apart. It took 11 years for Tim Burton’s vision of Batman to start filming...

By this time the comics had started changing again. With the emergence of the small presses and independents, the Majors were forced to experiment to maintain sales. Enter Frank Miller. Miller had been doing amazing things at Marvel with Daredevil. He created The Dark Knight Returns, a seminal work that redefined comics in general and Batman in particular. It touched everything that came after. The book is set in a dark, depressing world (hinted to be the 1980s) where criminals run amok, and Batman's home of Gotham City is being terrorized by a gang of murderers called The Mutants. Bruce Wayne (Batman) is 55 years old, and gave up the role of Batman ten years before the story begins. Finally, he reaches a point in his life where he cannot sit back and watch the world be overrun by thieves and murderers.He dons the mantle of the Caped Crusader one last time and embarks on a final battle to purge Gotham of crime. The Dark Knight Returns deals in large part with Wayne's uncompromising obsession with his dual identity. In this bleak world, Batman's obssessions and demons finally, completely submerge the (at least slightly) sane Bruce Wayne, and Batman is finally given free rein to wage his war without inhibition. Miller also uses the story to satirize the way the modern media works. In their coverage of the Caped Crusader’s return, all the experts are trundled out to analyze the significance. There are debates as to the pros and cons of vigilantism. Reports on how pop culture is effected. Hell, the Joker even appears on a talk show (that looks suspiciously like David Letterman) and proceeds to kill the entire audience. The Dark Knight Returns was a phenomenon. It proved that comics could be literate, and deserved to be taken seriously as an art form

With all this as a background, movie talk started again. There was talk of making “Dark Night Returns” into a movie and Clint Eastwood was to star. Ultimately the project landed in Tim Burton’s lap, who immediately pissed off most comic geeks (seriously, there were petitions...I’m not kidding) by casting Michael Keaton. “Beetlejuice can’t be Batman!! Are you crazy??? He has no chin...Batman has to have a chin!!”

Oddly enough a friend and I had a chance to stop the Burton Batman movie in its tracks...We were driving to my apartment in Toronto and as we came around the corner a figure in jeans and a white t-shirt darted in front of us, so much so my friend Shawn had to squeal the brakes. The guy waves his hand and I notice that it’s Michael Keaton. He was there filming “The Dream Team”. He finishes crossing the street, and we move along, and I said “Gee, we could have saved the fanboys a lot of grief.” I had to explain to Shawn who is semi normal and not into the minutiae of the comics/movie industry. Sometimes I envy him.

But I didn’t have a problem with Michael Keaton as Batman. For one thing he looks like he enjoys inflicting pain which I think is an important aspect of Batman’s character. Secondly he arrived at the same conclusion that everyone save George Clooney has come to (Myself included when I read “Dark Knight Returns” to my dyslexic brother), that Batman sounds like Clint Eastwood. So I didn’t have a problem with his Batman...I had a problem with his Bruce Wayne. See when you play Batman, you’re actually playing 3 people...You’re playing Bruce Wayne, an obsessive who saw his parents murdered in front of him...You’re playing the Millionaire Playboy he fronts to the public...And you’re playing playing Batman, a vengeful vigilante whose raison d’etre is fear and punishment.

I liked the Tim Burton movie. It had a lot of great things in it. It had a lot of things I didn’t like. But Nicholson was great. I liked Keaton. Robert Wuhl irritated me, and I wasn’t crazy about Kim Basinger. It wasn’t what it could have been, but it would do. And (heresy alert) I actually preferred Batman Returns...For one thing they finally got the costume right, and for another...Michelle Pfeiffer.

But there was still something missing.

I won’t even talk about the 2 abominations Joel Schumacher put on screen. Suffice to say that for all the other Batman movies I was there, opening day, first show. For “Batman and Robin” I waited for it to come out on video...and even then I waited ‘til I had a free rental.

And so we arrive at “Batman Begins”

Quite simply, this is the movie I’ve been waiting for since 1978.

It answers all the questions we’ve wondered about all these years. Like, as Nicholson asks “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”. How did he learn the fighting arts? Who made the costume? How do they cover the purchases? Why the Bat? Where did he get the car? What happened between the time of his parents death and the emergence of Batman? This is the core of the movie.

Initially I had reservations over Christian Bale, but I happily admit to being totally wrong. His performance is simply brilliant. He plays all of the levels of the character and then some. His Bruce Wayne is complex, yet he knows how to turn on the shallow when he needs to. His Batman is everything you expect and, at times, actually scary.

The supporting cast with the exception of Katie Holmes, is great too. Michael Caine makes you pretty much forget everyone else who has ever played the role, and the relationship actually makes sense for the first time. Morgan Freeman plays a Morgan Freeman character the way only Morgan Freeman can. Liam Neeson goes over to the dark side, for his character is the complete opposite of the one he played in “Phantom Menace”. Cillian Murphy is suitably creepy as The Scarecrow. And Garl Oldman gives one of his most subdued performances as Sergeant then Lieutenant Gordon, and is totally believable and likable. Again, for the first time, the relationship makes sense(It owes a lot to Frank Miller’s Batman Year One). And Gotham is appropriately dark but not completely gothic, which gives you a sense that it just might be worth saving.

This is not to say the film is perfect. It ain’t. The fight sequences are confusingly edited. The pacing in the beginning is on the slow side. Katie Holmes, as previously mentioned But the pluses so outweigh the minuses, that I feel ungrateful kvetching about them. Compared to previous Batman movies, this is Citizen Kane...

I hope I don’t have to wait 27 years for another one.