Category Archives: Reviews

Some Chicks Just Won’t Take A Hint

Burying_the_ExObviously, it’s never really too early to start watching scary movies in anticipation of Halloween, and if they’re funny as well, how can you lose? Along that line of reasoning, Joe Dante’s zombie romcom Burying the Ex seemed like – pardon the expression – a no-brainer. But while it’s a perfectly agreeable little film, it doesn’t seem to be very much else; far from flaming the passions of my love of horror-comedy, this one seems to be rather doggedly going through the motions. Not unlike the hero’s supernaturally clingy ex, this film seems desperate for us to be in love with it, but just doesn’t have a spark of real life in it to latch onto.

It’s the story of horror movie enthusiast Max (Anton Yelchin, Only Lovers Left Alive) and his fanatically ecosensitive girlfriend Evelyn (Ashley Greene, from all of those Twilight movies), who have recently decided to move in together. Evelyn is a sex-crazed hottie, but she’s also controlling and manipulative, and Max eventually realizes that they have nothing in common. She’s not interested in supporting his dream of owning his own horror-themed shop, she hates his womanizing half-brother Travis (Oliver Cooper), and any time another girl says even two words to Max, she wildly overreacts.

When Max meets his dream girl, Olivia (Alexandra Daddario, True Detective), who owns her own horror-themed ice cream shop (I Scream. The name of the shop is I Scream), sparks begin to fly and Max comes to the conclusion that, uncomfortable as the idea makes him, it’s time to end things with Evelyn. But on the day he’s decided to break things off, Evelyn is hit by a bus and killed.

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Unfortunately, Max had promised that he and Evelyn would be together forever, and even more unfortunately, he made the promise over a piece of magical bric-a-brac that came from somewhere, we never find out where, and anyway it’s destroyed as soon as its usefulness to the story is concluded, because it’s that kind of movie. And so Evelyn claws her way back from the grave, horny as hell, super-strong, decaying, and ready to reclaim her guy.

Even though we’ve seen better from Joe Dante – much better, like Gremlins, for instance, or Innerspace – the movie isn’t altogether unwatchable, and from time to time even displays flashes of savage wit reminiscent of The ‘Burbs and even some of the playfully gory gallows humor of Piranha. But it’s also lifeless enough to make you wish that Dante had opted to fully commit to a deadpan genre parody like Piranha or played it a bit more straight to produce a genuine horror creature feature along the lines of The Howling, or anything, really, that would have kept the movie from shuffling along like the cinema of the dead. Even his recent Goosebumps-style offering, The Hole, mostly satisfied as a kind of a family-friendly horror film that evoked nostalgic memories of Amazing Stories and the 80’s Twilight Zone, but with Burying the Ex, it may be time to accept that Joe Dante’s best era as a director is already behind him.

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There are some major problems with this film, which, by all rights, ought to be a lot funnier than it actually is. There are plenty of interesting angles that get set up but never fully explored – that some relationships just seem to drag on after the romance has died, the idea of a smothering partner wanting to suck the life out of you (in this case, literally!), and the fact that most, if not all, of Max’s problems could have been avoided if he’d just worked up the nerve to break up with Evelyn in the first place. As it stands, it’s not scary enough to be effective horror, it’s not funny enough to be effective comedy, it’s not sweet enough to be an effective romance… it’s not even crass or offensive enough to be a bro-centric ‘ditch the bitch’ picture. It’s shallow and emotionally uninvolving and, for a zom-rom-com, it’s infuriatingly devoid of any satisfying romance or zombie shocks.

But it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d watch if it came on TV and you didn’t have anything else to do, or if you just happen to have an affinity for zombie movies, or perhaps for Alexandra Daddario, who is as cute as she is inexplicably bland in a role that ought to be quirky and charming. I’m not singling her out, by the way – none of the characters seem to reach their full potential, even as stereotypes. Anton Yelchin is a wonderful actor with inherent nerd charm, but even he seems to be phoning this performance in. Oliver Cooper as Travis is supposed to be a lovable pig, but he’s neither particularly loveable nor particularly committed to his character’s piggishness; he’s not really even offensive enough to make you laugh. Evelyn is supposed to be just the worst, but honestly, she really isn’t that bad; she and Max really aren’t a good fit, but hers needs to be the sort of character that makes you root for the bus, and she just isn’t that level of awful. How bad could she really be if she (grudgingly) puts up with Travis bringing over an endless parade of hot chicks (who inexplicably find him sexually irresistible) for sex fests on their living room couch? Even Zombie Evelyn isn’t that much of a pill, really, until she spontaneously develops a craving for brains after watching a gory film – I guess she just sort of realized in that moment that she was supposed to have a craving for brains, not nookie. She certainly isn’t the kind of bitch-from-the-grave she needs to be to make the movie work. Not even the movie’s soundtrack lives up to its potential – they talk a lot about Johnny Ramone in the movie,  but what you get is… The Kobanes?

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“Am — Am I zombieing correctly? Am I doing it right?”

One can’t help but think that, like Evelyn, it would have been better for everyone if this movie had just stayed buried.

And it is a shame, because a Joe Dante in his prime would have taken Alan Trezza’s painfully thin script and spun some gold out of it. What happened to the guy who gave us the completely bonkers self-parodying Looney Tunes horror-comedy Gremlins 2? This film needed that guy, the subversive maniac, behind the camera… Not the guy who just goes through the motions and doesn’t have the guts to make us chuckle, cry, or cringe. It’s just not enough to cram in cute little horror references and pepper the film with clips from classic B-movies – but even those hover in the background, just out of focus, their presence implied but never really explored. And it doesn’t help that this material was already done much, much more effectively – and hilariously – in the 2014 Aubrey Plaza comedy Life After Beth, which also starred Dane DeHaan, Molly Shannon, and John C. Reilly. On the other hand, it’s a film that may find a following on the strength of Dante’s reputation, but I wonder how much currency that reputation will carry after a few more apathetic films like this.

The movie did have one surprise for me, though: a cameo from the great B-movie staple Dick Miller. Which was especially surprising to me, since I could have sworn that he died a few years back. Like, it was in the papers, wasn’t it?

Nothing’s weirder than seeing someone you thought was dead turn up in a zombie movie.

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It’s not what you think it is.

The increasingly subtle Clint Eastwood continues to astound me with his film craftsmanship. You could say that his entire career, as actor and director, has been a progressively thoughtful exploration of violence and the effects of violence, the unseen costs of violence, and the lingering consequences of violence. In American Sniper, he’s made a film so well that pretty much everybody in the country completely missed the point of it. It’s an astoundingly disturbing portrait of how an environment of continuous war dehumanizes not only the people we send to fight it, but the people who cheer them on from the distant homeland, far removed from the day-to-day realities of that war. The problem is that the reaction to the film has proven that the film’s point is on target, if you’ll excuse the expression. In a way, the popularity of the film in certain hawkish circles is as eloquent a statement on how disconnected the people are from the realities of the violence committed in their name; similarly, the wave of disgust for the film in more left-leaning circles demonstrates a distinct inability to process any commentary less subtle than a sledgehammer – small wonder when what passes for ‘politically incorrect’ these days is the decidedly bland non-personality Bill Maher. I have no doubt that in years to come, when it can be viewed outside of the entrenched partisan ideologies that have misdefined it, American Sniper will be seen as one of the most insightful anti-war films ever made, a chilling exploration of the dehumanization society suffers through publicly-approved slaughter.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

First comic book movie of the year that I’ve seen: Kingsman: The Secret Service, which was a pleasant surprise for February, where studios send crappy movies off to die unnoticed deaths. It’s a fantastic concept that’s so obvious that it seems odd nobody ever did it before, and a surprising commentary on money, class, aristocracy, elitism, and that peculiar habit people have of thinking that other people are expendable towards their noble goals. It’s not as smart as Kick-Ass, by any means, but it is a fun ride and a fantastic spy film.

I also feel vindicated in thinking, back in the day, that a “James Bond, Jr.” movie would totally have worked. It helps that the cast was a parade of awesome British actors who would never be chosen to be James Bond getting to be James Bond:

> Colin Firth, who gets to unleash in one of the most spectacular orgies of violence I’ve ever seen on screen… But Bond? Naaah. Call him when you’re ready to do another Harry Palmer film, though, definitely. Or when you’re ready to do a new “Avengers” (or possibly a new “New Avengers“).

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> Jack Davenport: Okay, granted, everybody likes this guy, and he very rarely seems to get to be Super-Awesome Action Guy, so it was fun seeing him in full-on James Bond/Jason Bourne mode. I doubt that (Darkman nonwithstanding) anyone suspected that Liam Neeson would have a run as Super-Awesome Action Guy, either, though, so it’s not too late for Jack. Maybe as our new Simon Templar? He’s got the charm.

> Mark Strong: Are you trying not to be the bad guy all the time, Mark? Remember, the last time you tried to be a spy on the side of the angels you got yourself shot. Bond is probably forever out of your grasp, but a Bond villain, on the other hand…. Now we’re talking.

> Taron Egerton: He’s very young, obviously, but I don’t see it happening. Loads of personality, though – He’s your working-man’s hero, more John McClain than James Bond. What would the British Die Hard series be? Snuff It? Bollocks!? Brown Bread? Not ‘ardly, Mate?

Of course Michael Caine was already Harry Palmer, so no regrets there. And he used to bring Batman his tea, which has to count for something. Also, Sophie Cookson was great, but we already have an Emma Watson, thank you very much.

I also marvel at Samuel L. Jackson’s ability to own roles that he’s been miscast in, like the philanthropist tech billionaire planning on yadda yadda yadda it doesn’t really matter anyway except a lotta people gonna die… It really should have been somebody half his age, but that’s the magic of the man, isn’t it? No matter who he plays, he’s Samuel L. Jackson, and that’s always worth seeing. Surprisingly, not a single ‘motherfucker’ that I can recall. You’re slipping, Sam. Still, his handi-capable assistant/assassin Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) was pretty much born to play this part.

Also: MARK HAMILL!

With Kick-Ass, and now Kingsman, I wonder why studios are so skittish about that R rating on comic book movies. Granted, I’d never want to see an R rated Batman movie, or Spider-Man, or anything like that, but some comic books fit the R rating perfectly, and Kingsman is one of them. Deadpool is another, and it’ll probably get the PG-13 rating so as not to taint that most precious of cash cows, the X-Men franchise. But it could, and should, frankly, be R rated. Of course, then there’s the OTHER problem, which is when studios DO try to make an R rated comic book movie, what they actually do is make a PG-13 movie and cram as much blood and gore into as possible, as if upping the graphic violence count is a fair substitute for writing a decent screenplay. Punisher: War Zone springs to mind, although what the heck – I still stand by that movie, warts and all.

Here’s your run-down:
So many dead bodies you can’t count ’em all.
No breasts.
Multiple colorful explosive decapitations.
Thatcher reference.
Off-screen aardvarking.
Gun-fu.
Umbrella-fu.
Prosthetic Leg-fu
Implied off-screen ass-fu.

Four stars. Christopher Chance says check it out.

Observations on The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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So, I finally got to see it, and it was awesome! But I mean, anything with Orcs in it has got to be good, right? And a dragon. François Truffaut would agree with me. But let me tell you ten things:

1) The movies were all enjoyable, and I understand that Bilbo’s only been gone for 30 months, but the series felt like it lasted 30 years.

2) In any given film featuring Hobbits, you can always seem to depend on the admittedly very useful eagles to arrive in the film about two hours too late to do anybody any real good. I mean, if you’re going to go to war with all the Orcs in the world, and you have access to giant eagles that can dive-bomb the enemy with freakin’ grizzly bear payloads, wouldn’t you think that would be a pretty good opening gambit?

"About 50,000 good guys would still be alive if theyd only gotten here a half an hour sooner."

“About 50,000 good guys would still be alive, Bilbo, if they’d only gotten here a half an hour sooner.”

3) Speaking of which, if Galadriel can have an Exorcist-style conniption and flip out and kill all evildoers within a 50-mile radius like the vengeful willy-pete of justice, why didn’t she go to to the mountain battle, too? ‘Cause then it would have been The Battle of Everybody Getting Their Asses Handed to Them by Galadriel. Was she recharging?  Could they hook her up to one of those portable jump-starters (but a magical one, of course, because wizards)?

4) Oddly, considering that it’s a movie called The Hobbit, the Hobbit probably had less screen time than anybody else. Huh.

5) Can somebody explain to me where the handicapable orc leader got that bat’leth that he jammed up his forearm? Cause that was seriously badass, except, I guess, when he wants to unscrew something or play his drum set to unwind.

6) Those bats are bred for only one thing. No, Legolas, not war. They’re bred to show up for about two minutes and swoop through the scene and not really do anything at all. Which makes sense, because they’re bats. You can’t train bats. They have rabies. They’re like the opposite of eagles: The bats show up on time but accomplish exactly nothing at all. It’s a trade-off.

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7) So who has the MacGuffinstone now? Is it still in play? Did the Dwarves get it back? Does Bard still have it? If so, what is he going to do with it? Did I miss something?

8) I know people were complaining about Legolas being in the movie, and I get that, because he didn’t really do anything worth mentioning except to go and confirm that, yes, they did have war bats, and then show up to kill some CGI in a stunning display of acrobatic badassery. But that’s not necessarily an argument against his being in the movie. Legolas should be in every movie, as a matter of principle. When Mad Max: Fury Road finally comes out later this year, I hope Legolas is in it. Terminator Dontmakenosense? Legolas. Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2? Definitely.

9) It’s pretty awesome that the spectacle of a bunch of Dwarfs riding goats into battle can simultaneously look endearingly comical and yet undeniably badass. And yet, they were completely overshadowed by the unbearable awesomeness of Thranduil riding into battle on a Goddamn moose.

10) I think I have a bit of a crush on Tauriel.  But she’s still not as pretty as Legolas. Nobody is.

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Also, if we can revisit these guaranteed improvements to An Unexpected Journey, I think numbers 7 and 10 could also apply to The Battle of the Five Armies.

The Bears Are Not Your Friends.

Grizzly-ManHere’s a funny observation: Politicians are sort of like grizzly bears.

Have you ever seen Werner Herzog’s heartrending 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, about the life and death of nature enthusiast Timothy Treadwell? It’s hard for me not to be struck by the depth and breadth of the delusion that the unfortunate Mr. Treadwell harbored until he and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were mauled to death by grizzly bears at Katmai National Park in Alaska: The delusion that the bears were his friends.

It turned out, in the end, that the bears were not his friends. But he didn’t understand that until he was being ripped and clawed and eaten by a bear. And maybe not even then.

Timothy Treadwell loved the bears, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong at all with being enthusiastic about grizzlies – they are, after all, magnificent creatures. It’s understandable that a person would be in awe of their sheer power and commanding presence and natural beauty. I suppose that it’s not even terribly surprising that a person might come to desire being part of the bear’s world, to travel in the wake of their magnificence. Who doesn’t want to think that danger will not touch us if we hold a strong enough belief that it won’t? Who doesn’t want to believe that one might control and even command the kind of power that makes others tremble with fear? But there is a point at which admiration and respect becomes a kind of manic, obsessive idealization. Earlier, I used the word ‘unfortunate,’ and it was a poor choice of words – fortune is defined as “chance or luck as an external, arbitrary force affecting human affairs.” The word implies randomness, coincidence, the unexpected. It is a tragedy that Treadwell and Huguenard lost their lives at so young an age, and in so horrific a manner. But really, given their actions, is there anything unexpected in this?

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At no point does Herzog make the claim that Treadwell was a bad person. But this film, like so much of Herzog’s work, explores madness; in this case, the inherent madness of Treadwell’s beliefs. “I am a kind warrior!” Treadwell railed, “I will not die at their claws and paws! I will be a master!” Whether this bombastic declaration is born of sincere conviction or arrogant speciousness or some mixture of both we cannot say. So much of Treadwell’s belief and manner seem to make him a ripe target for ridicule (and indeed, much of the news coverage that followed in the wake of Treadwell’s death skews towards the sarcastic), but Herzog avoids the cheap shots and his calm, measured narration never treats his subject with anything less than dignity and compassion even as he highlights, through interviews and Treadwell’s own wealth of video footage, how inevitable the misguided environmentalist’s death was.

This is perhaps the most maddening aspect of the documentary – the fervor with which Treadwell clings to his delusion, despite repeated warnings from park rangers and officials that his interaction with the bears could only have one ending. “At best, he’s misguided,” Deb Liggett, superintendent at Katmai, told the Anchorage Daily News two years before Treadwell’s death. “At worst, he’s dangerous. If Timothy models unsafe behavior, that ultimately puts bears and other visitors at risk.” In other words, anthropomorphizing the grizzly bears was foolish enough, but his delusion gave other people a false impression of the nature of the bears. Amie Huguenard would pay with her life for accepting Treadwell’s naïveté – or arrogance – as being representative of reality.

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NOT your friends.

For thirteen years, Treadwell, convinced of his mastery of the bears and of the bears’ own good will towards him, interacted with the bears and escaped death, to the incredulity of of park rangers and experts. The park rangers even tried to use Treadwell’s love of the bears to save him from them – they pointed out how horrible it would be if they had to kill bears in order to save his life. As it happens, Liggett’s prophecy was completely accurate: Two bears were killed during the retrieval of Treadwell and Huguenard’s remains. So even in sacrificing his life and his companion’s life to his ideals, he ultimately betrays them. So it is when you trifle with bears, and with government.  Don’t try to feed them; don’t try to pet them.  Keep a respectful distance, and always keep a wary eye open.

Did Treadwell have a connection with the bears? Of course not. But if we judge by the portrait that Herzog paints of Treadwell in this film, he needed to feel as if he did have that connection. Like some people are rabidly Democratic or immovably Republican, Timothy Treadwell’s identity was completely consumed by his relationship with the bears. He had been rejected by the world of people, or so he thought, and so tried to make his place in the world of bears – the only existence that mattered to him, by the end, was his identity within the context of the bears.

“For the majority of people cannot endure the barreness and futility of their lives unless they have some ardent dedication,” writes philosopher Eric Hoffer, “or some passionate pursuit in which they can lose themselves.” For some people, it’s politics; for others, it’s religion. For Timothy Treadwell, it was the bears. In the footage displayed by Herzog in his documentary, Treadwell rails with profanity against civilization in general and the park service in particular. He declares himself the bears’ protector, stressing his own importance as the only thing that stands between the fierce animals and some vague, undefined doom. “I am the only protection these bears have,” he snarls, completely convinced of the indispensability of his crusade, likewise completely oblivious to his actual irrelevance to the bears except, perhaps, as an object of curiosity… or, later, as a food supply. He whispers with almost manic intensity, over and over, “I would die for these bears. I would die for these bears. I would die for these bears.” The bears themselves had done nothing to inspire this feverish devotion… except to be bears. But Treadwell looked for, and found, an affinity with the bears that he could not find with other people.  But grizzly bears do not become our friends because we wish them to be.

Yeah. Politicians are like grizzly bears. Government bureaucrats? Grizzly bears.

It’s not a compliment, by the way, or an insult. It’s just, I think, a felicitous metaphor. Bears, like politicians, are what they are. Expecting them to be anything other than what they are is foolishness. Ignoring what they are because you like them is dangerous. Grizzly Man could be considered a nature documentary, I suppose, but really, if it’s about any sort of nature at all, it’s about the nature of humans to delude themselves about the nature of other things. Like grizzly bears, for instance. Or government.

You may delude yourself into thinking the bears understand and like you, and give them whimsical names like ‘Rowdy’ and ‘Mr. Chocolate,’ but the reality is that they are still bears. It doesn’t matter how strongly you believe in the bears’ good will. It doesn’t matter how much you love the bears and support them. It’s not enough. The bears do not care. The bears will do whatever instinct tells them is in their best interest. They are not driven by friendship or mutual respect. They are driven by hunger, the need to feed, to consume. When salmon is available, they consume salmon. If roots and berries are available, they consume roots and berries. If garbage is available, they consume garbage. And if you happen to be the thing that is easiest to reach, then you are the thing that they will consume.

NOT your friends.

Like the bears, the State does whatever is in its best interests, not yours, and like the lumbering grizzlies, the mechanism of government cares little for your belief in the system or your unswerving faith that it would never harm you. But in reality, government is driven to consume to sustain itself as ravenously, as instinctively, as any grizzly bear. And if you should happen to find yourself in its path, it will consume you, too. It’s madness, or arrogance, to assume otherwise. This doesn’t mean that you should fear the bears, or hate the bears, or reject bears altogether. If you like bears, there’s nothing wrong with that. The bears have a place in the ecosystem that is useful. Appreciate the bears. Love the bears, if you like. But never, ever make the mistake of thinking that the bears are your friends.

The bears are not your friends.

Know Your Place… And Stay There.

lady-for-a-night-movie-poster-1942-1020258410I watched, and enjoyed, this kind-of okay costume drama set in 1870’s New Orleans called Lady for a Night, starring Joan Blondell and John Wayne, if you can believe that. The Duke hangs up his gunbelt and spurs this time around and exchanges them for white tie and evening dress, which suits him surprisingly well, especially if you think he looks his best with the grit and dirt of the trail about him. He’s a riverboat gambler who’s in love with Joan Blondell, who happens to own a riverboat casino (imagine how well THAT marriage would play out). Joan is in love with him, but she’s also in love with wealth, social standing, and power, of which John Wayne has little. So she forces a reckless drunken playboy socialite sap from a fine old family into marrying her in exchange for forgiving his steep gambling debts. In response, the fine old family vows to make Joan’s life a living hell, and when the sap dies suddenly (with a little help), his evil old aunt tries to send Joan to the gallows for murdering him. Through it all, the Duke stands by her, faithful and stalwart, hoping she’ll eventually figure out that he’s the guy she wants (good luck with THAT).  And the moral of the story is:  Keep to your own kind, know your place, and stay there, because your insolent attempts at social mobility can only end in disaster.

It’s pretty standard soapy melodrama stuff, but Joan Blondell is a little too sweet for the part – it’s obvious that Republic Pictures must have wanted a Scarlett O’Hara type figure in the lead, and Joan Blondell just ain’t it, no matter how nice her legs are, which has nothing to do with Scarlett, but they are nice legs. She’s just too cute. She’s got the sass, but not the smolder.  Likewise, John Wayne is too sincere and earnest to fit the Rhett Butler mold, and he’s kind of wasted since he’s hardly in the picture and when he is, it’s to fawn over Joan. It’s an interesting but unremarkable relic from a transitional period in both their careers – John Wayne was just starting to get big enough to crawl out of B-movie purgatory, and Joan Blondell was trying to figure out where her career should go, having recently split from Warner Bros. 

But hey. nobody can say they didn’t have fun making the picture!

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No Loose Ends, Baby!

Richard Fleischer, over the course of his very long career, delivered a number of indelible classics to the movie-going public in every imaginable genre from science fiction to musicals to fantasy scoring hit after hit after classic movie hit.  But given my predilection for a meaty crime drama, it should be no surprise that my absolute favorite work from his impressive filmography are the hard-boiled noirs that he directed in the late 40s and 50s. His best-known noir is probably 1952’s The Narrow Margin, starring noir staples Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor, but two years earlier, Fleisher teamed the rock-jawed, gravel-voiced McGraw with the other essential B-movie goddess, Adele Jergens, in Armored Car Robbery.  James Ellroy thinks this film is bloody brilliant, and brother, so do I.  Certainly, the no-nonsense direction that will make The Narrow Margin such a terse, fast-moving ride is well in evidence here.

Like The Narrow Margin, Armored Car Robbery is a sparse, tightly-directed crime picture brimming over with sex and violence and suspense and hard-boiled characters as straightforward and direct as the title suggests. Charles McGraw is such a great movie tough-guy cop, I never understood why nobody ever tapped him for one or two of those Dick Tracy B-movies. He even has the comic-strip detective’s trademark hawkish nose and jutting jaw! He certainly makes the most out of his role as L.A. police lieutenant Jim Cordell, blowing a two-dimensional character up to pulp-novel (dare I say Dick Tracy-esque?) proportions, and even though the story itself is nothing too imaginative, its hard-driving grit wouldn’t seem out of place in Chet Gould’s long-running crime comic, at that. Of course, McGraw did his time on the other side of the law, too, in earlier noirs like The Killers, where he teamed up with William Conrad to erase that poor son-of-a-gun The Swede, but I always liked him better as a cop than as a hood.  In Armored Car Robbery, the rather dull dialogue that McGraw is saddled with just seems to sparkle when it’s snapped out by that sandpaper voice of his, adding an extra bit of rush to an already fast-paced production.

Of course, nobody would want to rush past the luscious Adele Jergens as Yvonne LeDoux, a.k.a. Mrs. Benny McBride, a.k.a. Trouble, sashaying her way through a gloriously mild strip-tease number, so the movie pauses the story just long enough for us to appreciate Miss Jergens’s charms.  As it happens, Adele Jergens started out in showbiz as a Rockette, quickly becoming crowned ‘Number One Showgirl in New York City,’ and she makes these brief modest scenes sizzle.  Not as much as the filmmakers would have liked, maybe; you see, Yvonne is just the kind of easy, sleazy female character that used to make those creeps at the Hays office get their rosaries all in a tangle.  So for purposes of screen modesty, those quite considerable aforementioned charms remain safely under wraps and out of reach.  When we’ve seen all of Adele that we’re going to, and nuts to that, pallie, we can turn our attention to her cuckolded husband Benny (Douglas Fowley), who sleazily leers at her from the audience the way a hungry dog might eyeball a bit of prime steak.

Helloooo, Nurse!

See, as it is known far and wide by all, and especially by fans of the noir genre, dames like Mrs. McBride do not come on the cheap.  These being the conditions that prevail, Benny is out to cash in on a big score so that he might be in a position to properly woo his wife out of the arms of the unknown interloper in the commonly accepted method, that is, with cash on the line.  But she’s poison, as curvy glamorous dolls with long shapely legs tend to be in noir-world. Still, Benny is perhaps not seeing things as clearly as he might be if he were not dazzled by Mrs. McBride’s attributes, which are for the record a most respectable blonde 34-24-36.  Unfaithful thought she may be, those are the kind of curves that’ll rattle your nerves, and Benny’s still carrying a torch.  Which he would no doubt use to set fire to the skunk who’s been poaching his pulchritudinous doll, provided that he could ever lay hands on him.  Slick gangster Dave Purvis enters the picture, played by William Talman, who’d go on to star in one of the defining classics of the noir genre as the psychopath serial killer Emmett Meyers in Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker before getting on the right side of the law as District Attorney Hamilton Burger on TV’s Perry Mason. Purvis, who imagines himself to be a kind of criminal mastermind type,  has a meticulously planned robbery lined up, an armored car heist worth half a million dollars, plotted out with a detailed diagram and involving a trick exploding car and gas masks and all such as that, as all really good half-million dollar robberies should. It’s one of the charms of a life of movie crime – planning the caper can almost be more fun than actually pulling it off.

But plan as they might, it’s just not enough (is it ever, really?) and the robbery goes awry, as merticulously-planned robberies tend to in noir-world, and Purvis finds himself on the run with the gang, pursued by Cordell. A bit of bad luck throws off the heist’s clockwork execution, but Purvis’s biggest mistake is killing Lt. Cordell’s partner.  The hoodlums manage to escape with the loot, but now it’s personal for Cordell.  He’s real broken up about his partner”s death, as you can see when he takes a short break from his investigation to stop off at the hospital and sit awkwardly with his partner’s widow for a minute or two so that he can comfort her in the best way he knows how:  “Tough break, Marsha.”

Jim Cordell has no time for the mushy stuff – he’s got killer crooks to round up, and the tough cop casts his net far and wide to catch the would-be mastermind and make him pay. Backing Cordell up is his new partner, baby-faced rookie Don McGuire, who found more success behind the camera than in front of it (his screenplay for the Dustin Hoffman comedy Tootsie scored him an Oscar nomination). As Cordell keeps the pressure on and investigates every clue, no matter how small, members of the gang begin to crack under the pressure. So Purvis decides to pull the mother of all double-crosses, keeping all the loot for himself. As you can probably guess, it doesn’t work out for him.

Based on an actual true crime, in the way that Hollywood usually tells true stories, which is to say very loosely, the movie zips along far too quickly (67 minutes!) to ever get tedious.  And once or twice we return to the enticing Adele as she shakes her moneymaker – but the scenes, like her act, is more tease than anything else.  Thanks to the economical storytelling, we spend more time gawking at burly men in suits gawking at her while tersely talking out of the sides of their mouths than we do gawking at Adele’s shapely legs. Because of the rapid-fire action and quick succession of twists, there’s just no time to linger.  Shame, though – as Cordell’s freshly minted partner wistfully observes, “That’s a lot of woman!”

Well… Some guys might go for her.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Road To Shadaloo…

There’s a scene in Street Fighter that serves as a nice metaphor for the movie itself.

When the heroes storm the secret fortress of bad guy M. Bison, one of his henchmen, Dee Jay (Miguel Núñez Jr.), decides to make a run for it. Grabbing a trunk of valuables, he makes his way towards a hidden exit. But before Dee Jay can make good his escape, he is confronted by another henchman, Zangief (Andrew Bryniarski), who tries to convince him to stay and “fight the enemies of freedom and justice.”

Exasperated, Dee Jay turns and sighs. “Are you totally demented? Our boss is the enemy of freedom and justice,” he explains. “These people came from all over the world to stop him.”

“General Bison is a bad guy?” Zangief is sincerely puzzled. “If you know this,” he asks, wide-eyed, “then why do you serve him?”

“Because,” Dee Jay replies, “he paid me a freakin’ fortune, moron!”

Zangief stares, slack jawed, as Dee Jay disappears through the secret door. “You got paid?!?”

Poor Zangief. His heart was in the right place, but he made a few bad choices and wound up unwittingly serving the forces of evil. The same might be said about Steven de Souza, writer and director of the 1994 live-action movie version of Street Fighter. Understand this right from the start: this movie is a bad movie. But for all its flaws, it manages to sort of overcome them and deliver something much greater than the sum of its parts, something that a lot of technically better made films don’t deliver — a good time. It’s certainly not the worst video game-to-film movie – there are lots of worse ones, like Super Mario Brothers or Double Dragon. Heck, it’s not even the worst theatrical Street Fighter movie: the much more slickly-produced but infinitely less watchable 2009 Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li fills that slot.

Anyway, the story is pretty basic. The tiny East Asian country of Shadaloo has been torn apart by warfare, most of it instigated by the megalomaniacal warlord General M. Bison (Raul Julia, The Addams Family), who has chosen Shadaloo as the launching point for his plan for world domination. After kidnapping a group of relief workers, Bison threatens to kill them unless the Allied Nations pays a 20 billion dollar ransom by his 72-hour deadline.

Enter Allied Nations commander Colonel Guile (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Knock Off), who comes to Shadaloo with a task force to restore order and bring an end to Bison’s reign of terror. Guile has a personal grudge against the madman, and enlists two traveling con men, Ken (Damian Chapa) and Ryu (Byron Mann) to infiltrate the criminal organization of Sagat (Wes Studi), an arms dealer who is in league with Bison. Things are complicated by the presence of reporter Chun-Li Zang (Ming-NaWen, Mulan and more recently on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), who is not entirely what she seems… and she and her crew are pursuing their own vengeful agendas against Bison.

It’s like the Village People version of the United Nations

The hardest thing in the world to do must be to adapt a video game for the big screen. You’ve got to expand the plot, or create one, and flesh out the characters, and do it all under the fierce scrutiny and harsh criticism of the legions of fans who adore the source material and react unpleasantly — to say the least — to the slightest changes to their favorite characters. Most of the time it just doesn’t work: either the filmmakers take the material as seriously as the fans (which is to say, far too seriously), or they infuriate the fan base by doing something so far removed from the game that it resembles the source material in name only.

Steven de Souza isn’t ashamed to admit that his movie is based on a video game; in fact, he seems to flaunt it at every turn, since almost every scene contains an homage or in-joke specifically targeted at the game’s fan base. This is his directorial debut and, bad movie though it is, it’s really not as bad as you’d think. You may remember de Souza as the writer of the box office smash hits 48 Hours, Commando and Die Hard. He also wrote box-office flops like Hudson Hawk and Knock Off. Hey, you win some, you lose some.

Of course, I actually liked Hudson Hawk, so read into that what you will.

Two tickets to the gun show.

Here, de Souza abandons the gritty gung-ho of Die Hard and swings back to the exaggerated testosterone fantasy of Commando. Instructed by Capcom (who owns the game and also produced this movie) to include all of the game’s sixteen characters in the movie, de Souza simply smiled, rubbed his hands with glee and crowbared them in, complete with their signature moves and video game outfits — prompting you to wonder, for instance, why one character would take the time in the middle of a full-scale invasion to put on a boxing outfit, complete with gloves, or why another bothers to change into a sumo wrestler’s diaper thingee. But so what? There’s no law that says you can’t fight a war half-naked and with your hair in a bun.

Jean-Claude Van Damme is unintentionally hysterical as Colonel Guile, the Allied Nations commander with a chip on his shoulder. But his stunningly awkward and ham-fisted performance actually adds to the charm of the movie — he seems to be having a good time, despite his inadequacy, and how can you hold that against him? He’s the Good Guy, gung-ho for freedom and tough as boiled shoe leather, able to spout the most cornball one-liners with a smirk and a gleam in his eye. He’s G.I. Joe, John Wayne and Rambo all rolled up into one marble-mouthed mountain of muscle, complete with a tattoo of Ol’ Glory on his bicep. And he has the sense of humor about himself to carry off the farce — he knows he’s a bad actor, even if he won’t say it outright. He’s not fooling anybody.

You want me to do WHAT?

Guile’s major problem in the movie (aside from his inability to communicate effectively with the English language) is Raul Julia’s way over-the-top M. Bison. I want to say, incidentally, that I absolutely love Raul Julia in this movie. There have been a lot of venerable actors who somehow find themselves in films like this – one thinks of Frank Langella in Masters of the Universe, for instance, or poor Henry Silva in that most cringeworthy of 80’s action disasters, MegaForce – but the best actors weather these things by embracing them to the fullest extent possible. Plus, playing the big bad is fun. You get the best costume. You get the secret base in the volcano and the absurdly-constructed superweapon. You get the crazy master plan that involves extorting the world by threatening to turn the population of Guam into chicken mcnuggets with some kind of ray. You get the ‘crack’ troops can’t hit the broad side of a barn in a firefight – of course, Bison seems intent on replacing these with the genetically-altered supersoldiers he’s cooking up in his lab (the first of which, created from one of Guile’s friends, resembles nothing so much as the illegitimate offspring of the Incredible Hulk and one of those weird Troll dolls).

General M. Bison’s ambitions are pretty straightforward. He wants global peace (through global domination), to crush the Allied Nations, and to get a bigger food court in his proposed ‘Bisonopolis’. Julia mentioned in an interview that he’d taken the role only because his two sons, who were great fans of the game, implored him to, and it shows. His performance here reminds me of a father telling his children a scary story, fingers clawed and a mock scowl on his face, before falling on the bed with them and tickling them mercilessly. Julia takes the character’s villainy to wild extremes of buffoonish egomania, lampooning such posturing dictators as Mussolini and Noriega, and his character, for the most part, has the best lines in the movie. This sort of comic book over-exaggeration is exactly what the movie calls for, and you sort of wish that the other actors had realized it… or that de Souza had bothered to let them in on the joke.

“I wish I’d gotten to wear an eye patch, too.”

A slightly more threatening counterpoint to Julia’s cartoonish Bison is Bond-villain reject Sagat, played with growly, raspy menace by the greatly underappreciated Wes Studi. A legendary ex-street fighter, Sagat is the head of the Shadaloo Tong, and supplies arms and ammunition to Bison’s army. Sagat and his henchman, Vega (a deadly street fighter in his own right) are the primary antagonists for Ken and Ryu, who find themselves on the crime boss’ bad side after attempting to swindle him in an arms deal. Sagat is eventually deceived into trusting the two con men and leading them to Bison’s secret fortress by Guile’s ‘clever’ plan — a clever plan that has been used by a hundred good guys to fool a hundred bad guys in a hundred b-movies. Oh, Sagat. If only you’d taken time to go to the cinema every week, or at least watched some old episodes of The A-Team, you’d have been unstoppable.

Yeah, he TOTALLY claimed he hit that.

The film’s pacing really isn’t bad, though, moving things along rather briskly, without dull, sagging stretches, as you might expect from a b-grade feature like this — which is surprising given the number characters we’re trying to keep track of. Maybe because of the number of characters we’re trying to keep track of. There’s certainly no time to get bogged down in sub-plots. Or any other kind of plot, for that matter. Every single character gets a backstory, paper-thin though it may be, and at least a few moments of screen time and even a couple of gags.It all seems to kind of work in de Souza’s favor, though, and that’s the real saving grace here. He is not afraid to embrace the silliness that most other directors would try to avoid, and he throws us full-force into this cockamamie world he’s created trusting that we’ll suspend our disbelief enough to have a good time. And that’s why Street Fighter, against all odds, manages to avoid becoming a complete waste of everyone’s time. There is an earnest innocence at the heart of the movie; it tries so hard and is so keen to entertain us that we can almost forgive the formulaic and predictable plot, the gaping plot holes, and the mediocre acting by most of the cast.

Almost.

Unfortunately, for an action movie called Street Fighter, there’s surprisingly little fighting taking place in the street. De Souza mentions in the commentary that he was caught in a tough spot: he couldn’t make the fights more realistic without losing that coveted PG-13 rating, essential for the video game’s preteen fan base, but he also had to include just enough action to please the wider audience that might, in a moment of weakness or despair, be tempted to plunk down some hard cash for the pleasure. However, as usually happens when you try to please too many people, he ends up pleasing none of them. What fighting there is cartoonish, as befits a living comic book, but Julia’s comical overacting and Van Damme’s uncomfortable but amusing non-acting help make up for some less-than-breathtaking fight sequences. On the other hand, there are some fight scenes where the actors actually seem devoid of any emotion at all, and in one scene, Damian Chapa, as Ken, even looks bored while punching Wes Studi repeatedly in the face. Of course, given the film, it’s actually quite possible that Chapa simply lost interest. But that’s the difference between a forgettable stock player like Chapa and a solid acting superstar like Raul Julia. Julia gives it everything he’s got even when the part and the movie doesn’t deserve what he’s got.

Princess Leia ain’t got nothin’ on me!

For that matter, the relationship between Ken and Ryu seems a little wooden. They’re supposed to be best buds from way back when, but it doesn’t feel that way. Byron Mann actually puts a lot into his portrayal of Ryu, but he’s not getting much to work with from Chapa, and they never achieve the sort of Hope-n-Crosby ‘Road Movie’ camaraderie that de Souza seems to be aiming for. The rest of the cast is mediocre at best, but how could they be anything else, considering the lack of screen time to develop their characters? Ming-Na Wen, for instance, is certainly capable of better things, but her character is so sketchy and clichéd that the battle is lost before it even begins. She is really, really cute in her little Chinese outfit, though. And that goes a long way.

Alas. If only we could give this movie extra points for effort. And for optimism: after the end credits have rolled, there is a short sequence that sets up, bless their little hearts, a sequel. Isn’t that cute? After all is said and done, though, this is a pretty harmless movie. If you like hard-hitting martial arts action with an intricate story, this might not be for you. But if you enjoy the old Adam West Batman, or silly Van Damme movies, or just a good time with some mindless fun and corny dialogue — or if you just have a fetish about watching Kylie Minogue kick people in the face — give Street Fighter a try.

streetfighterbdcap7_original

RomCom With A Rictus

Batman_PosterWhen I say that Tim Burton’s quirky 1989 neo-noir Batman is not really a good movie, it does not mean that I don’t enjoy it. Despite Burton’s lack of anything that even approaches any kind of depth of character or plot coherence, Batman is admittedly a visual triumph that saturates the screen with haunting images, loads of slam-pow action, and lurid, colorful tableaux played out against a gloomy German expressionistic background and to an astounding Danny Elfman score.

Though it has been argued that Burton’s take on the Dark Knight was the first to take the source material really seriously, this movie and its sequel have a lot more in common with the Adam West era than anybody really wants to admit. He’s not taking this that seriously. He just darkened the palette. Batman is the kind of a movie where the Batwing clearly looks like a model and half the city looks like a matte painting and the bad guy’s henchmen all wear matching uniforms and nobody cares because it’s all in good fun. Like 1966’s exuberant Batman: The Movie, Tim Burton’s Batman revels in the absurdity of the characters and their situations, but unlike the ultra-hip film version of the tongue-in-cheek, bitingly satirical Adam West series, this movie is not dedicated to “crimefighters the world over and to lovers of the ridiculous, lovers of the bizarre and fun lovers everywhere”, but seems instead dedicated to the freaks, the weirdos, the neurotic and the emotionally stunted. It is telling that the Joker is allowed to caper and clown on screen far more than Batman is allowed to fight crime – and given the lack of personality that Michael Keaton brings to his heroic alter-ego, it’s no wonder that Jack Nicholson dominates this film. Ostensibly, he’s the villain of the piece, but I tend to suspect that Burton sees him more as the underdog hero, the only truly free soul in the dark, steamy, claustrophobic, oppressive Gotham City.

Peripheral vision: The one enemy that can defeat me.

Gotham City, as imagined by Tim Burton and production designer Anton Furst, is really the only character in the film that isn’t upstaged by Jack Nicholson’s over-the-top Joker. Paired with Bob Ringwood’s costume design, the whole thing becomes an incredible, eye-popping visual feast. The real tragedy of the film isn’t the senseless murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, it’s that such a magnificent stage isn’t used to showcase a story worthy of it. It’s easy to get lost in the striking images that comprise this film. But it’s equally as difficult to care about any of the characters. The plot, such as it is, is disposable. But the movie looks awesome.

Michael Keaton, though… Don’t get me wrong, Michael Keaton does far better in the part than any of us were thinking he would way back when it was announced that he was taking up the mantle of the bat.  He’s a pretty good Bruce Wayne.  He plays it as too much of the neurotic for my tastes, but that has as much to do with Tim Burton’s take on the character as it does with Michael Keaton’s performance.  But it’s a little ridiculous when short, dumpy Michael Keaton goes into the Batcave and lean, toned Batman with giant (literally!) sculpted muscles comes out.  Not to mention the suit, which is so bulky and looks so restrictive that you wonder how he can possibly manage to fight an army of criminal thugs when the simple act of turning his head seems beyond his ability.  But what is disbelief for except to be suspended?  Especially in a superhero fantasy.  While my personal first choice would have been Alec Baldwin (facing off against Willem Dafoe as The Joker) , Michael Keaton fits the role well enough to deliver a performance that may not be perfect, but which works on a number of levels.  He may not be the Batman we deserved, but he was the Batman we needed, back in 1989.  Not that it matters that much anyway, since this movie belongs to the Joker, lock, stock, and extremely long smoking barrel.

For all the Joker’s murder and mayhem, he is a decidedly non-threatening kind of bad-guy, certainly much more interesting than the titular hero. Where Batman is gloom and ho-hum introspection, the Joker is the complete opposite: a streak of color and manic energy careening through an otherwise grey and muted film-noir world. Batman is the brooding conformist who is literally desperate to blend in; the Joker is the rebel misfit gleefully flaunting societal conventions. Think about it. The things that The Joker does to win Vicki Vale’s heart aren’t terribly different from what he’d do if the character were plucked out of Burton’s dark city and transplanted whole into a fluffy romcom: He falls in love with her from afar, arranges a colorful public display to impress her, shows her his more sensitive side by revealing his appreciation for art and wooing her with poetry, crosses swords with the rich jerk who’s also competing for her affections, and in the climax he literally sweeps her off her feet and takes her to dance with him in the sky under the stars and the moon. It’s all there; the popular rich kid, the misfit outsider, and the blonde cheerleader type they’re both trying to win. This isn’t really so much a superhero adventure as it is a sort of off-beat John Hughes movie for the emo set.

Basically, it’s super-villain prom night.

Which brings me to reporter Alexander Knox, a character created especially for the film who also happens to be completely pointless. It’s almost laughable that this bumbling nice-guy goof, affably played by comedian Robert Wuhl, is to be taken seriously as any sort of romantic rival for the brooding, mysterious, and  filthy rich Bruce Wayne, and there’s no reason to go setting him up as the third corner of a love triangle anyway, since the film clearly already has a love triangle established between Batman, Vicki, and The Joker .  What’s worse is that his presence in the movie actually makes Vicki Vale a weaker character.  There’s nothing that he does in the movie that could not have been done by Vicki instead, and it would have made her a more well-rounded and interesting character if she had been the one tenaciously investigating the rumors of the strange bat-creature stalking Gotham’s dark alleys and terrorizing the underworld despite the ridicule of her peers and the obfuscation of the police.  That would not only have given her discovery of Bruce Wayne’s tragic past (Vicki’s only really proactive moment as a reporter in the entire film) a lot more meaning, but it would have made her discovery of his secret identity seem like something she had worked for and earned, rather than something that was capriciously handed to her on a whim.  As it is, Vicki doesn’t do much in the film except shriek, get captured a couple of times, shriek, get rescued a couple of times, shriek some more, and awkwardly romance Bruce Wayne.

You can leave, Knox. I can handle this movie alone.

Merging the Knox character with Vicki Vale even makes the ending of the film make more sense.  During the balloon attack at the parade, Knox has a small heroic moment during the parade scene fighting off The Joker’s goon squad with a baseball bat, but is knocked unconscious when Vicki tries to escape the crowd in a panic and accidentally runs into him with his own car.  If her character didn’t already seem like a simpleton by this point, that scene certainly seals the deal. But having Vicki be the one to confront The Joker’s goons in the parade scene might have made her seem somewhat capable and a bit more substantial the screeching, fainting victim she plays for most of the film.  And if she’d been hurt in the attempt, maybe with a head injury, it might help to explain why she spends the remainder of the movie getting dragged around by The Joker like a rag doll, making no attempt to fight him off or escape.  No matter how you slice it, Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale is an absolute disaster — far and away the worst character of the bunch, portrayed by the movie’s weakest actor, but Batman is otherwise extremely well-cast, with exceptional character actors like Pat Hingle and Michael Gough and dynamic stars like Jack Palance and Billy Dee Williams giving the illusion of depth to cardboard cut-out characters who watch from the sidelines as the hero and the other hero fight over the girl. Add to the mix the painfully out-of-place Prince songs, goopy, shallow pop music concoctions which compete unsuccessfully with Danny Elfman’s thrilling, heroic score. Where Elfman’s music enhances the film and stirs the imagination the way John William’s epic Star Wars and Superman scores do, the featured Prince tunes seem to clash with the rest of the movie, yanking you out of the already fragile fantasy that Burton has created and dropping you headfirst into the harsh, inane blandness of corporate boardroom marketing reality.

After two hours of Kim Basinger’s screeching, I was tempted, too.

Given the comic book origins of the material, we can sort of forgive some of the more gaping plot holes as well as the glaring logical inconsistencies, even though genre should never be an excuse for sloppy storytelling.  Far from being the masterpiece of the genre that it is often hailed to be, judged strictly on its merits as a film, Batman is actually clunky, uneven, and a little obnoxious. As a superhero adventure story, it doesn’t even come close to Sam Raimi’s Darkman; as a Batman film, it pales in comparison to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Even the animated series that would follow in the wake of the Burton Batman is better, and it should give one pause to reflect when a half-hour cartoon can be more emotionally resonant and have stronger characters than a feature-length film. But this film did pave the way for better written, better cast, better acted and better directed superhero films to follow. And that is ultimately the real lasting impact that Tim Burton’s stab at adapting Batman for the big screen had, unquestionably.  It proved that superheroes could still be big box-office and big merchandising. The best that the once-soaring Superman franchise could manage in 1987 was a cheaply-made half-hearted embarrassment that failed to take flight at the box office. Marvel Comics had tried, without success, to generate interest in bringing characters such as Spider-Man and the X-Men to the silver screen. So the fact that Burton was able to take a comic book property and create a massive pop-culture juggernaut that dominated the summer of 1989 and came out on top after going toe-to-toe with established superstar franchise characters like Indiana Jones, James Bond, and the Ghostbusters is indeed an impressive achievement. $400 million dollars, after all, is nothing to sneeze at. And, like the 1960’s Batman, this interpretation set the tone for comic book film and TV adaptations for years to come.  But cultural impact and financial success aside, it must be observed that the film itself just does not hold up well over time.  It is the one of the most complete triumphs of style over substance ever brought to the screen, but it is admittedly a dazzling style. After all is said and done, a fun and entertaining film, a sort of cinematic cotton candy: It’s delicious while you’re consuming it, and the rush will leave you on a high, but don’t expect any lasting nourishment from it.

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