Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Greenstreet/Lorre: Passage to Marseille (1944)

If last week’s Background to Danger was an attempt to recapture the magic of CasablancaPassage to Marseille is an even more transparent effort to reunite the stars, the director, and the atmosphere of its iconic predecessor. Passage gets nearer to the mark, thanks especially to returning star Humphrey Bogart, though its labyrinthine structure plays a weird and distancing game with its audience.

Passage to Marseille begins with the journalist Manning (John Loder) interviewing Captain Freycinet (Claude Rains) about a Free French outpost in England. Freycinet tells Manning the incredible story of the naval voyage aboard the Ville de Nancy, where he was introduced to the garrison’s infamous gunner, Jean Matrac (Humphrey Bogart). There Matrac relays the strange way and his band (including Peter Lorre, Helmut Dantine, George Tobias, and Philip Dorn) made their way from the Devil’s Island into the service of the French air force. 

 

Passage to Marseille has become notable for its Inception-like plotting, which features a flashback within a flashback within a flashback. It’s evident that the film is an adaptation of a novel, where such narrative devices are commonplace, but in a film it’s a bit disorienting to be continually reminded that what we are seeing is actually just a story being told to one of the characters. Freycinet tells Manning about his first meeting with Matrac, at which time Matrac told him a story about being imprisoned on Devil’s Island, at which time the prisoners told each other the story of Matrac’s arrest. The film spirals ever backwards into history, with four separate timelines; none of it is too confusing, and as narrators go one could do a lot worse than Claude Rains, but it is peculiar to have to wait for nearly half the film to understand why we should care about most of the characters.

 

Fortunately, Bogart’s star power does much of the heavy lifting. The minute we see him, we too are eager to learn more about Matrac, this haunted and driven gunner. Bogart’s performance is clearly meant to emulate Rick Blaine of Casablanca, with his specific brand of morality driving him away from, then into, the Second World War. But there is something too of Fred C. Dobbs from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in Jean Matrac, particularly in the Devil’s Island sequence where we see Matrac wrestle with his captors, false imprisonment and his own budding madness. As ever, Bogart is electrifying, though the film neuters itself by reminding us that we have already seen that Matrac will escape.

 

While sporting an eyepatch, Claude Rains does his usual Claude Rains thing, all elegance and precision. I was a little surprised to see the film not flash back to the loss of Freycinet’s eye, though Rains weaves it into the understated backstory of the character, treating it not as a handicap but as a welcome challenge to how he can continue to serve France. Among the rest of the cast, Lorre is a stand-out, though perhaps I’m biased. His Marius seems to be Matrac’s deputy, helping first to recruit Matrac in the escape attempt and then aiding him as he leads the other men to freedom. In the Ville de Nancy timeline, Marius is eager to speak for himself and his brothers, while simultaneously deferring to Matrac when he deigns to lift his voice. 

 

Relative to our purposes this month, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre are once again kept apart for nearly all of the film, though the rampant chemistry between Bogart and Lorre is on full delightful display. Where he stumbled as a Nazi in Background to Danger, Greenstreet is better cast as the martinet Major Duval, who relies solely on his own intuition and who wields respect like a bullwhip. Greenstreet and Lorre only have the one significant scene together, in which Duval’s interrogation precedes Freycinet’s more sympathetic dialogue, and it’s a fine centerpiece for Greenstreet to tell us plenty about Duval. As usual, in this sequence Lorre tells us more about Marius in the moments when he’s not speaking, but one cannot help – especially this month – wanting more, more, more.

 

Director Michael Curtiz, himself of Casablanca, went to great pains to reassemble as much of the magic from that film in Passage to Marseille. So much of the cast returns for this one, right down to a cameo from singer Corinna Mura. (Even Michèle Morgan, in her thankless role as Matrac’s wife, has a Casablanca connection – she screen-tested for the role that inevitably went to Ingrid Bergman after Warner Bros lowballed RKO for a release from her contract.) Between Curtiz’s directorial eye and the musical ear of Max Steiner, who bombards the film with refrains from the French national anthem La Marseillaise, the film’s every impulse seems to invite comparisons with Casablanca – short of thinly remaking the film, as was the wont of the Golden Age of cinema, it seems there was little more that anyone could have done to make this film more like Casablanca

 

You don’t need me to tell you, however, that Casablanca needs no remake. It’s cute to watch them try, and a film starring Bogart in his prime is never a misuse of one’s time, but Passage to Marseille is neither quite what it aims to be nor precisely what its audience expects of it. As the old saying goes, though, here’s looking at you – even a vanilla Golden Age war film is still worth a look.

 

Passage to Marseille is not rated. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Written by Casey Robinson and Jack Moffitt. Based on the novel Sans Patrie by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Michèle Morgan, Claude Rains, Philip Dorn, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, George Tobias, and Helmut Dantine.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Greenstreet/Lorre: Background to Danger (1943)

For the month of June, we’ll be celebrating the 117th birthday of Peter Lorre – one of my all-time favorite actors – by looking at five of his lesser-known collaborations with fellow character actor Sydney Greenstreet. The two met during Greenstreet’s film debut in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and starred in eight films together (nine, if you count their fun cameo in Hollywood Canteen). Despite being two very different performers, their chemistry was electric, their mannerisms impeccable. When you see their names on a bill together, you know you’re in for a treat.

After The Maltese Falcon, Lorre and Greenstreet were not quite reunited in Casablanca (1942); both give unforgettable performances as the squirrely Ugarte and the voluminous Ferrari, respectively, but the only misstep in an otherwise perfect film is that they never share the screen. (Their presences are so indelible, however, that you’d be forgiven for not noticing until now.) It would not be until Background to Danger in 1943 that the pair inhabited the cinematic frame together, albeit only for one tense sequence. The film is one of a host of Casablanca imitators, unmemorable but not unwatchable.

 

George Raft stars as traveling salesman Joe Barton, secretly a spy for the United States. After meeting the beautiful but doomed Ana Remzi (Osa Massen) on a train to Turkey, Barton comes into possession of secret documents that indicate the Nazis are about to implicate the Soviet Union in a fictitious invasion of Turkey, the better for Germany to take control. Barton is pursued by the plan’s architect, the Nazi Colonel Robinson (Greenstreet), but he’s also caught the attention of two Soviet spies, Nikolai Zaleshoff (Lorre) and his sister Tamara (Brenda Marshall).

 

Background to Danger is surprisingly complex in its plotting, taking its cue perhaps from the similarly suspicious Maltese Falcon, in which no one can be trusted and everyone is lying about something. Here, the MacGuffin is likewise an artifact of deception; there is to be no invasion, but the Germans want Turkey to think there will be. With Greenstreet as provocateur, authoring fiction after fiction to cover his own failings, there is something prescient about the film’s emphasis on “fake news” and its value as a weapon of war. As his Gutman was in The Maltese Falcon, Greenstreet’s Robinson is the only character with all the answers, and his mere presence alone gives you a satisfactory antagonist.

 

One cannot help but feel, however, that Greenstreet is only slightly miscast as the German spymaster. There is nothing German about his performance, neither his accent nor his wardrobe; nor is his very name – Robinson – anything less than stiff upper-lip British. Greenstreet is delightfully villainous, but something in his performance feels held back, as though he’s careful not to have too much fun as a Nazi. Likewise, George Raft seems out of his element as Barton, a role that hinges on the reveal that he’s an American spy. When Barton plays the part of a salesman, there’s never a sense that he’s not in total control of the situation; it’s worth noting that the original novel saw Barton as a forerunner to Cary Grant in North by Northwest, bewildered after an accidental plunge into the world of espionage. (The change was made at Raft’s insistence.) Here, though, it’s hard to see why anyone buys Barton’s “babe in the woods” routine, and when he shifts into spy mode, it’s hard to see Raft as anything but the hardboiled gangsters he played.

 

Perhaps the only casting that really works – at least, of the cast with anything of note to do in the script – is Peter Lorre as the Russian spy Nikolai. There is something stagey about Lorre’s performance here, and I mean that in a good way; Lorre imbues the character with a broad physicality, all stooping hunches and balled fists, such that you can imagine his parts of the film being stage plays. Even when he’s not the focus of attention, Lorre is constantly doing something, clutching his fists to his head or bemoaning his lack of vodka. Of all the times that the film asks you to doubt what you suspect about a character, Lorre is the best at walking that line of uncertainty, and I can’t help but wish Nikolai had been a recurring character in other WWII films.

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best scene of the film is the moment when all the spies are in the same room together – Raft, Greenstreet, Lorre, and Marshall. At the top of the film’s third act, all the cards get put on the table, and all the actors get to play off each other like some of the more claustrophobic scenes from The Maltese Falcon. To add to the tension, everyone’s got a gun pointed at each other, but more importantly, it’s one of the most successful moments of shifting alliances and casual deception. Everything clicks in this scene, and the audience ought to be genuinely surprised at where the moment goes. It’s not quite the climax of the film, but everything that follows feels like denouement compared to the energy level of this dynamite sequence.

 

Between the restrictions of the Hays Code and the rah-rah patriotism of the era, there are not many surprises in how the film turns out, and it leads to an ending that is perhaps too overtly cheery to fit with the rest of the film, which tries to be a shadowy tale out of John le Carré’s playbook. Background to Danger is fairly emblematic of the Warner Brothers brand of 1940s war films, with most of its familiar faces flitting in and out. It’s not as good as Casablanca – but, then again, few films are.

 

Background to Danger is not rated. Directed by Raoul Walsh. Written by W.R. Burnett. Based on the novel Uncommon Danger by Eric Ambler. Starring George Raft, Brenda Marshall, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Osa Massen, and Turhan Bey.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Bat-May: Batman & Robin (1997)

Last week, I assumed I was going to pan Batman Forever, but between my childhood nostalgia and a nugget of narrative complexity, I ended up finding things to admire about the film. (I might even go so far as to say it’s underrated when it stays out of its own way.) Now that we come to the end of Bat-May, we find ourselves in the dubious company of Batman & Robin, the film which killed the franchise stone dead for nigh on a decade. I’d argue that director Joel Schumacher’s career never really recovered, though he continued to work steadily.

And it’s also worth saying that, Catwoman (2004) aside, Batman & Robin changed the way that Hollywood treats superhero movies. Kevin Feige has said as much, and it’s certainly true that you don’t get an earnest Marvel Cinematic Universe without X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) looking at Batman & Robin as the wrong way to do things. It is, they say, always darkest before the dawn, and in this case Batman & Robin is a very dark night indeed, a film that, at best, has nothing to say beyond reveling in the most arch camp imaginable – and, at worst, exists only to sell merchandise. 

 

Gotham City has a new menace – Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), whose diamond heists have plagued the city while he tries to cure his wife’s terminal illness. Batman (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) suit up to save Gotham from a deep freeze when the villainous Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) and Alfred’s young niece Barbara (Alicia Silverstone) come to town, each ready to give the Dynamic Duo their own unique brand of headaches.

 

It may go without saying at this point – and perhaps it should – but I like movies. I like to enjoy movies. I don’t take a lot of pleasure in deliberately watching bad movies, nor am I often content to dislike a movie. As we saw last week, I’m almost always looking for some redemptive reading of a film, some kernel of potential or some recognition that the film accomplishes its own goals. I try not to judge a film based on how I would or would not have made it. If something in a film doesn’t work, I usually try to figure out why, instead of dismissing the film out of hand. So believe me when I say that I want to like Batman & Robin. It stars my favorite fictional character of all time, and it’s got actors who are really good in other films. The best I can say about Batman & Robin, though, is that it’s really hard to look away. With all the reasons I should enjoy this movie, I kept asking myself what wasn’t working. What did this film do wrong?

 

The answer, I think, is very simple. Batman & Robin has nothing to say. It combines the camp “crime doesn’t pay” attitude of Batman ’66 with the “look at this, look at that” mentality of a toy commercial. For all its faults, Batman Forever at least had some narrative integrity; it made some degree of sense to include Two-Face in a movie about psychological duality, with The Riddler as a kind of emergent repressed persona. Framing Robin as the redemption of Batman’s self-imposed curse, too, fits into the unified whole of the screenplay. (It’s the delivery that doesn’t work, but we talked about that last week.) Batman & Robin, on the other hand, is a collection of bits that don’t relate to each other at all; there may be a loose thread of family between the addition of Batgirl, Mr. Freeze’s love for his wife, and Poison Ivy’s demi-adoption of Bane – but that so-called theme never rises above the level of “Some people have families.”

 

Where Batman Forever – and indeed the preceding three Batman films – picked its villains because of their relationship to the central theme of the film, Batman & Robin seems to have chosen its antagonists based on who was unused but popular all the same. For context: Mr. Freeze had recently been reborn, thanks to Batman: The Animated Series; Poison Ivy was too sensuous to be included on Batman ’66; and Bane was a recent addition to the rogues gallery after a top-selling comics storyline in the early 1990s. They have nothing to do with each other, and the film doesn’t even play with the incongruity of a frozen villain teaming up with the embodiment of lush, verdant life. Worse, it neuters the character of Bane, strips him of his intellect and fighting prowess, and reduces himself to a grunting accessory. (Thank heavens for Tom Hardy.) 

I will say this about the lead villains, though: clearly Schwarzenegger and Thurman are having a blast in their respective roles. The campy atmosphere of the film gives both performers a license to overact, and they are devouring the scenery without discretion. Schwarzenegger cackles his way through the corniest of one-liners, but the only thing that makes his Mr. Freeze remotely compelling is airlifted from the animated episode “Heart of Ice.” Thurman, meanwhile, turns vamping into a whole new artform; her cartoonish Poison Ivy is equal parts Mae West and Eartha Kitt, a child’s idea of what dangerous sexuality looks like. These two fit right into what is essentially a high-budget episode of Batman ’66, but it is undoubtedly all spectacle, all surface.

 

Clooney, meanwhile, inherits the mantle of the Bat and has been of two minds about the role. On the one hand, it catapulted him from television’s ER into the role of Hollywood’s top leading man; on the other hand, the film is abysmal, and he’s admittedly not very good in the role. He plays an adequate enough Bruce Wayne, but he’s missing the nuance that Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer brought to the role. Clooney’s Bruce is all genuine, a civic-minded billionaire who’s less playboy and more socialite. (There’s also a very compelling argument to be made for a reading of this Bruce Wayne as gay, which the film probes not at all but which seems inescapable, particularly in the moment when Bruce hems and haws at the notion of marrying a lady.) I’ve long remembered Clooney as a commendable Bruce Wayne, but this time around, I think “passable” is the kindest word for the performance. As Batman, though, he’s nearly no good at all, stiff and unconvincing, with his only standout moments coming in his interactions with Robin.

 

On the subject of Robin, Chris O’Donnell remains strangely cast, playing the role as emotionally stunted, prone to outbursts of jealousy and impotent fury. One does wonder why this fully grown adult, bristling at his partner’s mentorship, still hangs around the Batcave at all. He has so little to do in the film that he’s barely referred to by name throughout much of the dialogue; by the time his name is spoken aloud for the first time, one almost forgets his name is “Dick,” assuming instead that Bruce has chosen that moment to resort to bratty name-calling. And then we come to Alicia Silverstone, who is so wildly out of her depth with a thankless role in a script that gives her nothing much to do at all. Indeed, one wonders why Batgirl is in this film at all; she arrives on the doorstep of Wayne Manor unbidden, with no real purpose for coming to town, and with no incentive to become a superhero other than the fact that her uncle Alfred has, inexplicably, taken the liberty of designing a molded rubber suit for her to wear.

 

As Alfred, Michael Gough is commendable, the only one of the cast who’s doing any acting at all. While the rest of the cast is competing to overact past each other, Gough is giving a delightfully restrained performance, deeply affecting and emotionally tender. The film’s decision to afflict poor Alfred with a nebulous medical condition notwithstanding, the genius Gough takes that opportunity to present Alfred as concealing his symptoms from his charges, halfway between the British stiff upper lip and a father’s fear that he will leave his children unable to care for themselves. Throughout the “Batman Quadrilogy,” as it’s come to be called, Gough has been one of the only steady unifying presences, and in this film you truly see why.

 

But the question of Alfred’s illness raises a larger point about the way the screenplay is put together. Batman & Robin is a series of MacGuffins and Chekhov’s Guns where plot elements only exist in the first half to come up in the second half, yet when these things resurface it’s without any logic or purpose. Bruce Wayne’s colossal telescope is only in the film to be used by Mr. Freeze in the climax (where it behaves like a telescope doesn’t); likewise, Alfred’s diagnosis with “MacGregor’s Syndrome” is only included so that he can get better. In the same vein, Barbara is introduced only so that she can become Batgirl – but why? There’s no narrative or thematic purpose for Batgirl in this story, and the only conclusion I can draw is that she’s been included to sell toys. And I can say that because I bought the action figure. I bought a lot of the action figures from this film.

 

Maybe there’s beauty in that, creating a superhero narrative to give children more fodder for their imaginative (and actual) toyboxes. But Batman & Robin is not a children’s movie in the way that, say, The Phantom Menace – a similarly “toyetic” film – was. There’s no place for children in this innuendo-laden film (I don’t even think there is a child in the film!). It’s more than just a cartoon come to life; Batman & Robin may as well be a children’s playground reenactment of a cartoon. You may see some redemptive beauty in that idea, but to me it seems sad to think that this film and these characters were cobbled together carelessly, with concern only for how these likenesses could be merchandised. It’s a sad fact of the comic book industry writ large, that unique site where art meets commerce, but after having seen some of the best films starring Batman, this one feels soulless. 

 

In that sense, that cold and emotionless cynicism of chasing valuables, perhaps Mr. Freeze is the perfect villain after all.


Batman & Robin is rated PG-13 for “strong stylized action and some innuendos.” Directed by Joel Schumacher. Written by Akiva Goldsman. Based on the DC Comics. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone, and Michael Gough.

For more Bat-May action, the good folks at Collected Editions posted my review of Batman: The Movies, the comic book adaptation of the Batman Quadrilogy. Give them a click - no one reviews comics like Collected Editions!

Monday, May 24, 2021

Bat-May: Batman Forever (1995)

In an interesting way, Batman Forever was foundational for me. It was the first Batman film I had seen in theaters and, in 1995, must have been among the first films I saw in theaters. (I was bitten in 1994 with The Lion King.) I had the poster on my wall, the action figures in my toybox, and the comic book adaptation in my collection. I lived and breathed it. It was the greatest thing I’d ever seen in my life.

Time’s gone on, and it hasn’t been kind to Joel Schumacher, who picked up the directorial reins from Tim Burton and put his own avant-garde camp stamp on the franchise. For many years, fans used Schumacher as a punching bag to defend their own aggressively macho, insistently grown-up takes on Batman. Whatever Batman is, the argument went (and I admit I was in that crowd for many years), Batman Forever wasn’t it. Now that I’m older and wiser, I know that Batman can be everything at once – the genius of the character is that he is at once immutable and simultaneously infinitely adaptable. He fits into any genre, and still he persists. And I’m pleased to see that the fans are coming around to this perspective with Batman Forever, which has undergone a kind of cult reclamation such that cries of “Release the Snyder Cut” have, now fulfilled, been followed by “Release the Schumacher Cut,” which promises a longer and darker version of Forever.

 

Only I don’t know that it’s necessary. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll happily watch a three-hour Batman Forever, but I’m not convinced that it’s what Schumacher wanted. My sense of Batman Forever is that Schumacher intended to update the Batman ’66 format with an inflection of the Tim Burton aesthetic, and on that count – even if I don’t love it – I have to admit he made exactly the movie he set out to make. It’s silly, it’s daft, and it’s over-the-top, but it’s also got an undercurrent of psychological complexity that gets lost in the static of Schumacher bashing.

 

Val Kilmer dons the cape and cowl as a Bruce Wayne haunted by the death of his parents and what he sees as a disturbing reprise when acrobat Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell) is orphaned by Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones). While Bruce attempts to dissuade his newfound ward from vengeance, Batman is facing a new adversary in the form of The Riddler (Jim Carrey), secretly a disgruntled employee of WayneTech who has developed a mind-control device.

 

Batman Forever begins, rather unfortunately, with a joke that falls very flat. Alfred (the stalwart Michael Gough) offers Batman dinner before his nightly vigil; after a strangely long pause, Batman says, in a reedy squawk, “I’ll get drive-thru.” It’s perhaps an effective table setting – we’re in for a Batman that’s cornier and more prone to one-liners, even if they don’t always work – but I suppose it’s also an indicator of how much worse the film could have been if every scene had this tone, if nothing was taken seriously. It’s also an unfortunate opener because it sells Val Kilmer short; neither the voice nor the mannerisms are quite right in this first scene, but Kilmer gets it right almost immediately thereafter. His Bruce Wayne is psychologically broken, emotionally dead, but he embodies a key interpretative theory of the character – that Bruce Wayne cannot be both happy and Batman. Instead, Kilmer finds a cold middle ground, which might read as disaffected – but isn’t that what the Bruce Wayne persona should be? Isn’t Bruce an airheaded satire on the notion of a billionaire playboy?

 

The only times we start to see the real Bruce Wayne – the damaged orphan boy, stunted by his parents’ murder – is in his scenes with psychologist and lover Dr. Chase Meridian, which is honestly one of the all-time great fictional names ever. Now raise your hand if you’d forgotten that Nicole Kidman was in a Batman film. (I myself forget every so often.) Her performance vamps a little bit – nowhere near what Uma Thurman would do in Batman & Robin two years later – but Kidman is pretty effective as a Jungian femme fatale. Though the film is a bit condescending with her inability to decide whether she loves Batman or Bruce Wayne, this motif of duality plays into the film’s larger investment in Bruce Wayne’s fractured psyche. Michael Keaton’s Batman recognized the disconnect between his own romantic fulfillment and his vow to avenge his parents; Chase Meridian helps Bruce to draw out the fact that he is utterly incapable of functioning as a human being while fighting crime as Batman.

 

Indeed, Bruce Wayne is fundamentally unable to connect with his new ward, Dick Grayson, until he unites his own twin personas, ultimately accepting the young lad as his crimefighting partner, Robin. I have no idea how old this incarnation of Dick Grayson is supposed to be; he must be under 18, for Bruce to take him in as a foster father, but Chris O’Donnell plays him like a brash mid-20s, and there’s something in that performance that doesn’t quite work. He’s hot-headed like the second comics Robin, Jason Todd, and his Dick Grayson has a dated youthful edge that perhaps hasn’t aged well. (The contemporaneous animated series took a similar tack with Robin, but it seemed to work better there.) It might be the weakest performance in the film, because it’s not quite dialed into what this film needs of a Robin; his mood swings and impetuous plans to murder Two-Face never really connect with the audience.

 

Then we come to the villains. I have long maintained that the fundamental problem with Batman Forever is that both Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey are playing their characters as though they were Jack Nicholson’s Joker. I stand by this claim, because it certainly explains what keeps these performances from being truly faithful to the comics, but there are some nuances to draw out. It’s been widely reported that Jones and Carrey didn’t get along during filming, especially because Jones reportedly hated Carrey, telling him at one point, “I cannot sanction your buffoonery.” (True or not, has there been a more Tommy Lee Jones sentence than that?) Though to that point, I would have to ask Jones what he made of his own performance, because it is prancing buffoonery at its finest – again, precisely what the film needs of him, but it is a far cry from the more grounded Harvey Dent given us by Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight. But the cleverness of joining Bruce Wayne’s bifurcated psyche to a plot involving Two-Face is genius, and one wishes the screenplay had borne that out a little more directly. One also wishes that Jones had played his Two-Face a little more seriously; unlike Kilmer, whose first scene is a dud, Jones’s first scene is note-perfect as he monologues to a hostage bank guard about the universal fairness of luck.

As for Jim Carrey’s Riddler, it is a Jim Carrey performance from the mid-90s, largely indistinguishable from the rest (costuming aside). It’s that same manic oscillation, bounding and mugging. There’s a hearty helping of Nicholson in there somewhere, but the performance is perhaps more properly an amalgam of Frank Gorshin and Max Headroom – which may indeed be the Rosetta Stone for Carrey’s whole career. Carrey’s Riddler is overdone, his riddles aren’t great, but at least his chemistry with Two-Face is commendable, particularly if the off-set animosity was as feverish as it seems. His Riddler is gleefully vain, too, applied more to his appearance than to his genius, and there’s something in his envy of Bruce Wayne that gets echoed in Sam Rockwell’s begrudging RDJ-worship in Iron Man 2. These days, though, I’m particularly intrigued to see what Paul Dano brings to the role in The Batman, with his Zodiac-killer take wildly distinct from the gleeful tricksters we’ve seen thus far.

 

Batman Forever is filled with performances and setpieces that are watchable for their spectacle, and I practically inhaled a bowl of popcorn during the film’s bombastic first act. It’s an energy that never really lets up, but the script is full of things that happen only because the movie needs them to happen. Two-Face has no master plan, striving only to kill Batman in a disconnected string of death traps (more shades of Batman ’66), while the Riddler’s mind-control plot is both too outlandish and much too easy to foil. One can easily see why a seven-year-old Cinema King would have been enamored of this cartoon come to life, but there is a kernel of something greater in here that keeps the adult coming back – occasionally against my better judgment, but compelled all the same. There is something very savvy about Batman Forever, and one wishes the film had leaned harder into that aspect of the story rather than the neon pop-art comic book come to life (which was, after all, what Schumacher intended). Perhaps there ought to be a Schumacher Cut, after all.

 

Batman Forever is rated PG-13 for “strong stylized action.” Directed by Joel Schumacher. Written by Lee Batchler, Janet Scott Batchler, and Akiva Goldsman. Based on the DC Comics. Starring Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, and Chris O’Donnell.

For more Bat-May action, the good folks at Collected Editions posted my review of Batman: The Movies, the comic book adaptation of the Batman Quadrilogy. Give them a click - no one reviews comics like Collected Editions!

Monday, May 17, 2021

Bat-May: Batman Returns (1992)

I was four years old at the time, but I remember Batman Returns feeling like the most important movie ever made. I had an oversized “making of” book that I read practically to shreds. I studied the biography of Tim Burton, pored over the photographs and teasers for the plot. I could even name for you the producer of the film (Denise Di Novi, a wonderfully Gotham-esque name). I had the toys, the fast food cups. And yet, I have no memory of when I first saw the movie itself. In a way, that’s the best metaphor for a review of Batman Returns – chock-full of unforgettable bits and bobs and yet so unwaveringly strange that the whole gets lost amid the mad sum of its ludic parts.

Batman Returns is the story of three freaks – The Bat (Michael Keaton), The Cat (Michelle Pfeiffer), and The Penguin (Danny DeVito). After the events of the first film, Batman spends his nights waiting for action, silently anticipating the call to fight crime. Amid an invasion of circus clowns, The Penguin arrives from the sewers, pleading with Gotham for an opportunity to learn the truth about why his parents abandoned him. Meanwhile, exhausted secretary Selina Kyle is defenestrated and murdered by her boss (Christopher Walken), only to be reincarnated with nine lives, a feline fixation, and a Shakespearean desire for revenge.

 

Just like I can’t say when I first saw Batman Returns, I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen it, but on this latest viewing I was largely unprepared for just how weird this movie gets. I have always maintained that the difference between Burton’s two Batman movies is that Batman is a Batman movie directed by Tim Burton, while Batman Returns is a Tim Burton movie (co‑)starring Batman. The difference is so apparent in this one; the Gotham sets are freakishly Burton, all odd angles and grim shadows, and Returns doubles-down on its predecessor’s premise that freaks beget freaks, with a brooding meditation on how these freaks find their place in a hostile society (they retreat, or they rebel).

 

In short, Batman Returns is so idiosyncratically Burton that it is impossible to imagine a major franchise film – a sequel, no less – surrendering so entirely to its auteur’s vision that the titular hero ends up being subsumed by the villains. (Today, the claim is usually the reverse, that the villains are largely indistinguishable when the movies are governed by the large personalities of franchise heroes. Can you name, for example, the three villains of the Iron Man franchise?) Indeed, Burton is much more fascinated by the monstrous Penguin and the sideways-feminist Catwoman (“I am Catwoman – hear me roar”), with Batman relegated to a largely supporting role in a film that is nominally his. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is heroic mainly in that he has sublimated his freakish impulses and wears a mask of normalcy, which Penguin is unable to do while Catwoman is entirely unwilling. In a standout sequence, Bruce and Selina attend a masked ball sans disguise, underscoring that their civilian identities are the costumes. (It’s an image that has been appropriated forever since, with a notable reprise in The Dark Knight Rises.) Penguin, meanwhile, crashes the party, as DeVito crashes the film itself, all shouts and gurgles, bile and bodysuits. 

 

It's clear, however, that Burton’s sympathies lie with the villains. The film begins with the birth of Oswald Cobblepot, ultimately cast into a river for his monstrous appearance; despite the fact that the infant Oswald is clearly dangerous, murdering and devouring the family cat, Burton manages to find pathos in this act of attempted filicide. Likewise, at film’s end, Burton stages Penguin’s final scene as high tragedy, with oversized penguins waddling in what appears to be an impromptu funeral procession. In much the same vein that Batman (1989) belonged to Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Batman Returns is paced as if it’s Selina Kyle’s film. Selina gets a full origin story and ends up in a sort of inverted will-they-won’t-they, akin to Bruce’s arc with Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) from Batman. Again, Burton feels more sympathy for Selina than he does for the curiously submissive Batman, evidenced by an elegiac sequence where Selina relives the trauma of her murder and proceeds to dismantle her entire apartment in a fugue of rage.

 

Putting it into plain English makes the film sound entirely normal, but I can’t undersell how bonkers this movie gets by adding a number of elements together. And these are all things that happen in the same movie: There’s an extended subplot about Penguin’s borderline-Trumpean bid for mayor, buoyed by Christopher Walken’s industrialist Max Shreck, who wants mayoral regime change to greenlight his construction of a power plant that will instead drain power from Gotham. (Shreck’s son, meanwhile, is played by Andrew Bryniarski, doing a transparently meatheaded Walken impression.) Circus clowns invade the edges of the frame, with Danny Elfman’s score veering carnivalesque at each turn. The whole thing is set at Christmas, casting a Burtonesque pall of sarcastic cheer over the affair. There are actual marching penguins, wearing rocket launchers, plotting to murder the children of Gotham. As delightfully strange as the movie is, one has the acutely nagging question during the whole film, “Warner Brothers was okay with this?!” (Spoilers for next week – they weren’t.)

 

I mentioned Danny Elfman, and he’s one of the main reasons this film succeeds. A good score can buoy any film, and while his Batman Returns score isn’t as bombastic or iconic as his work on Batman, it works really well by being dialed into exactly the movie Tim Burton wants to make. It’s traditionally superheroic when it needs to be (in those rare moments that Batman is doing hero work), but more often than not it’s playing in a strange realm of uncomfortable tragedy. His descending Penguin theme grows more and more militaristic, balanced as it is by the aforementioned carnival music. His Catwoman theme, on the other hand, plays like a tragic music box, swirling like his Edward Scissorhands work while highlighting the tragedy of Selina’s fall from innocence and her attempts to claw her way back toward peace.

 

Batman Returns is a film of beauty and of pain, in distinctly Burton ratios, but it is also a film almost as broadly painted as Batman ’66. Walken plays Max Shreck like a boogeyman, right down to the electrified hairdo, while DeVito’s Penguin is a thing of perverse revolting fascination, gruesome and grotesque in equal measure. Burbling black-green bile and groping every woman he finds, it is nearly impossible to find the tragic sympathy Burton feels for this grunting, snarling antagonist, who is handily the most revolting Batman foe ever committed to film. And yet, there is something expertly calibrated about Burton’s Gotham; as exquisitely eccentric as Burton’s vision may be, his Gotham seems very much of a piece with the comic book depiction. Gotham is a city of unending crime and corruption, of perpetual peril. Despite the mayor’s objections, a marauding gang of killer clowns seems to go hand-in-hand with Gotham City as a whole, particularly given the intimation that the clowns constitute a kind of haunting courtesy of Nicholson’s Joker. It’s almost a chicken-and-egg situation, where it’s unclear whether the comics birthed Burton or if Burton’s shadow warped the comics in his wake. (I’ll go out on a limb and venture the latter, though it’s equally Frank Miller’s fault.)

 

When I drew up the Personal Canon in 2016, there was no question that Batman belonged on it. That movie was nigh elemental in my love of superhero narratives. But Batman Returns was always the weird younger brother, the one who went away to art school and came back a changed man. I was never all the way comfortable with it, but neither could I relinquish it entirely. It’s always had a weird pull, especially as distinct from the twin day-glo Schumacher films; it was, before Christopher Nolan, what Batman movies ought to be.

 

Batman Returns is rated PG-13 for “brooding, dark violence.” Directed by Tim Burton. Written by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm. Based on the DC Comics. Starring Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Christopher Walken.

For more Bat-May action, the good folks at Collected Editions posted my review of Batman: The Movies, the comic book adaptation of the Batman Quadrilogy. Give them a click - no one reviews comics like Collected Editions!

Monday, May 10, 2021

Bat-May: Batman (1989)

I have so many fond memories of this movie that I scarcely know where to begin an objective review of Tim Burton’s Batman (affectionately dubbed Batman ’89 by a generation hoping – nay, longing – to distance it from an earlier era’s Batman ’66). I can’t recall with precision the first time I saw the film, but I can say with confidence that it was the very first DVD I owned, a gift from my father when the home video format was in its nascence. But when I first built my Personal Canon in 2016, it was a natural inclusion; I’ve loved this film for years, and it occurs to me that its peculiar bizarre nuttiness has really permeated my identity as a moviegoer.

Batman redefines the Dark Knight more than two decades after the go-go groovy incarnation embodied by Adam West and his Swinging Sixties interpretation. Here, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is a brooding specter of unrelenting justice, a mystery to his city and to Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), who’s come to town to photograph Bruce’s vigilante alter ego, The Batman. While busting up criminal activity at Axis Chemicals, Batman inadvertently creates his greatest nemesis when Jack Napier emerges from a vat of acid as The Joker (Jack Nicholson), a self-described homicidal artist with murderous plans for Gotham City.

 

Batman is a film that is so iconic because of how quickly it dominated the cultural landscape. Much has been said and written about the cultural saturation of the film, how it changed the superhero genre and action films more broadly, how it reimagined how a blockbuster could perform at the box office. Nicholson’s Joker is both inextricable from the actor’s persona and yet wholly of a piece with the villain’s own flexible characterization; meanwhile, Keaton is to this day still proudly declaring, “I’m Batman.” While the comics had been taking Batman grim ’n’ gritty since the early 1970s (peaking in 1986 with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns), Batman has the titanic reputation of being the movie that set the superhero genre down the straight and dour path.

 

This is not to say, however, that Batman isn’t a whole lot of fun. In my reviews of Batman: The Animated Series (and even The Killing Joke), I’ve consistently noticed how Mark Hamill’s Joker sets me giggling on a dime, but I’d forgotten that Nicholson’s Joker has the exact same effect. Nicholson’s strength comes from imbuing casual lines like “You’ll never believe what happened to me today” with deadpan sarcasm and repressed theatrical fire, to say nothing of how well that unique Joker look has aged, even on Blu-Ray. His wheezing laugh, too, so quintessential to any successful Joker, is a hoot, especially when it transforms into a fearless manic cackle, often looped over the following scenes, giving the sense that this movie is well and truly The Joker’s. Keaton’s great, too, a perhaps unexpected choice; in fact, he’s so good that we’ve all forgotten that there’s an extended sequence of Bruce Wayne in blue jeans, which feels more out-of-character than having Joker (spoilers) revealed to be the murderer of Thomas and Martha Wayne. But Nicholson doesn’t lean on his reputation; he earns top billing on the poster with a riveting performance that’s so markedly different from Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn two decades later.

 

The older I get, and even as the world begins to retreat from the notion that superhero comics are (or at least ought to be) strictly for kids, I give a lot of thought to why these characters have become a kind of religion for me. Why do I cling to these four-color figures? In the case of this film, I think part of the appeal was that Batman was, for me, one of the first grown-up movies I’d ever seen – or at least it was one of the first that felt grown-up. It was a movie that didn’t talk down to me, didn’t try to pretty up the world. It painted a picture of life as a horrific carnival, Gotham City as a funhouse reflection of what civilization ought to be. It felt larger than life, but simultaneously it seemed entirely within reach, more gothic than the bright colors of a comic book page and yet divorced enough from reality that I could access it without fear. And it was a movie that didn’t really look like anything else I’d seen; it was almost certainly my first Tim Burton film, and the way it manages to make the dated feel timeless gave the film a very specific stylized identity I couldn’t find elsewhere on the video shelf. (His next film, Edward Scissorhands, feels very much a period piece, an homage to 1950s Anytown, USA.)

 

Of course, any discussion of Batman has to acknowledge the exquisitely baroque score by Danny Elfman, which has become the gold-standard anthem for multiple generations of Bat-fans. (No matter what you thought of the theatrical cut of Justice League, you had to love hearing that theme once more. It just felt right, scoring Ben Affleck astride the Bat-Signal.) The Animated Series owes so much to Elfman, as does this film overall. I’ll even venture to say that Elfman’s score is a character in itself, serving the same inextricable role here that John Williams’s work does for Star Wars; put another way, this film doesn’t work without Elfman’s ostentatious gusto over the scenes. That Bat-theme, the playful Joker melodies – heck, even the zany zeitgeist of including Prince in a few key scenes – there’s a reason these tracks are seared into our brains (and it’s not just the Lego Batman games, which aired them on an obsessive loop). Elfman is doing career – and genre – defining work with Batman.

 

If you haven’t seen Batman in a while, it’s high time for another look. On this latest rewatch, I was quite surprised by Alfred’s subplot. If at all, Alfred’s role lives on in cultural memory for the moment when he escorts Vicki Vale into the Batcave, blowing Bruce Wayne’s secret identity. But it’s a moment that the film earns by continually seeding Alfred’s desire for Bruce to move on and find safety in an end to his nightly crusade – all of which, if it seems faintly familiar, seems to anticipate Michael Caine’s “I won’t bury you” plot from The Dark Knight Rises. Michael Gough is quiet and unflappably avuncular as Alfred, a pitch-perfect counterpart to the high mania of the film’s dueling leads, but his deep compassion is so key to the character often brushed off as Batman’s butler. 

 

I was also struck by the mystery atmosphere that pervades the film, which feels quite fresh nearly thirty years later. We’re so used to superhero films that walk us through the origin story as a matter of course. But here, Batman’s backstory is presented as something of a mystery; it’s The Joker who gets the straightforward origin, lending further credence to the notion that the film is as much (if not more) his as Batman’s. Of course, it’s hard to imagine any filmgoer who doesn’t know who Batman is and how he came to be (I’ve only met one such person in my life), but the film introduces the familiar story beats in an innovative story structure that doles it out slowly, with gravity. When we finally get to the shooting of the Waynes, it’s nightmarish and ethereal, a hazy encounter with trauma, and it’s presented as the final cue to understanding Bruce Wayne’s psyche.

 

On that count, I’m not sure that the film succeeds – nor, I think, does it want or need to do so. Burton is content to leave Bruce Wayne as a somewhat enigmatic freak, locked in a chicken-and-egg struggle with Jack Napier. Who created whom? Were it not for the film’s ironclad concrete conclusion, one might almost imagine Burton’s universe operating under the conditions suggested by Heath Ledger’s Joker in his final sequence: “I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” With the news that Michael Keaton will be reprising his role in the Ezra Miller Flash film, at least half of that statement ended up applying. As for me, it’s one of my favorite movies of all time, so I’ll be returning to it forever.

 

Batman is rated PG-13. Directed by Tim Burton. Written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren. Based on the DC Comics. Starring Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, and Jack Palance.

For more Bat-May action, the good folks at Collected Editions posted my review of Batman: The Movies, the comic book adaptation of the Batman Quadrilogy. Give them a click - no one reviews comics like Collected Editions!

Monday, May 3, 2021

Bat-May: Batman: The Movie (1966)

Once upon a time, the most divisive fault line in fandom was whether or not you loved Adam West’s Batman. (It was a simpler time.) Chances are that you held him in higher regard if you grew up with him, but if Tim Burton or Frank Miller got to you at a young age, you might not have had the patience for a groovier, campier Batman. By the time Adam West passed in 2017 – and indeed long before that – the tides seemed to have turned in Bat-fandom: even if Batman ’66 (as it came to be dubbed) wasn’t your Batman, it was at least a Batman with its own redeeming qualities. 

Within that neon outpost in the Dark Knight’s long and storied history, amid the pow-biff-bam of the television series, Batman: The Movie finds the Caped Crusader (Adam West) and his sidekick Robin (Burt Ward) facing the unfathomable – all their greatest villains have teamed up, with global domination in their sights. The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), and The Riddler (Frank Gorshin) have joined forces with Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), who is posing as the Russian journalist Miss Kitka, in a fiendish plot to rule the world.

 

Batman: The Movie is not quite a movie because it feels like three or four episodes of the television series strung together. You can even mark the narrative intervals with each time it seems Batman and Robin have been blown to smithereens; just supply the Bill Dozier “same bat‑time, same bat-channel” narration yourself. While this pacing can be fun on television, even if you string a two-parter together, it becomes a bit interminable as a feature film with an episodic quality. Perhaps Batman: The Movie is better understood as an artifact, a kind of analogue to comic book crossovers. Where the episodes of the television show usually only featured one high-profile villain (often played by a major celebrity guest star), the selling point here is that the show’s four biggest villains are sharing the screen. (Scrapped plans for a second film, with Batgirl in tow, suggest this pattern would have continued on the big screen.)

 

Like the television show, the film is more enamored of its villains than of the Dynamic Duo. Adam West and Burt Ward play their parts in staid and stalwart fashion, their straight faces serving an essential role in the high camp atmosphere, but there’s no question the film only truly comes alive when it has its antagonists on screen. Of the foursome, Burgess Meredith’s Penguin takes the lead; it’s his submarine and his henchmen that run the plot, with the other villains deferring to his leadership. (Maybe it’s the monocle.) As the Penguin, Meredith is almost a Jack Burnley drawing come to life, all squawks and waddles, but what really stands out about his performance is just how hard he’s selling it.

 

Indeed, all the players are acting their parts with the gusto of a toddler at playtime, hammy in all the right places but never compromising the internal integrity of the thing with so much as a wink to the camera. Each villainous performer finds his or her lane and sticks with it. Frank Gorshin’s Riddler is giddy and over-the-top, but it’s dialed into what this incarnation of the Riddler should be (and a clear template for Jim Carrey’s Riddler in Batman Forever). Cesar Romero’s Joker, once you get past the painted-over mustache, puts the “clown” in “Clown Prince of Crime,” whooping and clapping at his own mischief. Meanwhile, Lee Meriwether (herself subbing in for television’s Julie Newmar) plays Catwoman/Kitka with all the purring puns a single screenplay can handle.

 

Kitka’s romance with Bruce Wayne is compelling enough, with Adam West suitably smitten with the passingly dismissive Soviet. In these moments, it’s a little disappointing that Bruce never sees through the disguise until the very end of the film – particularly since his Batman is marked with over-preparation for literally any other scenario he encounters. He’s got shark repellent in his helicopter, a torpedo deflector in his belt, and even a computer that can sort dust particles by color; it’s just too bad he doesn’t have a working set of eyes and ears to know when he’s being duped. Perhaps, however, that’s the point – this Bruce Wayne is a lover, not a fighter. (Though his seduction skills could use some work – quoting Edgar Allan Poe isn’t the first recourse for most casanovas.) 

 

For a Batman film, both Batman and Robin are woefully underdeveloped, static figures of justice and good manners – which is, again, the point. The camp of Batman ’66 requires heroes who are unchanging and unflinching; nothing flummoxes them, and nothing finds them ill-prepared to save the day. These do-gooders need only do good, despite the less-than-stimulating viewing pleasure such heroics provide. There’s never any doubt that good will prevail, with the only surprises being which unlikely gadget our heroes will pull from their bottomless utility belts. Like their villains, though, West and Ward commit wholeheartedly to their act, with West’s deliberately dramatic delivery matching Ward’s gee-whiz enthusiasm.

 

Batman: The Movie was originally intended to be the series debut, launching the television program in big-screen style. Released after the first season, however, it becomes instead a celebration of everything that Batman ’66 was – flashy, vibrant, and campy. It’s a feature-length distillation of the show’s successes and failings, its mod mentality dialed up to 11. If you loved the show, you’ll love the movie, but if West has never been your Batman, this film won’t change your mind. As for me, I like the show just fine, in small doses, and Batman: The Movie proves to be a bit too big a dose for one sitting. For a generation, this was Batman, so kudos to the crew for keeping the flame alive.

 

Batman: The Movie is rated PG. Directed by Leslie H. Martinson. Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. Based on the DC Comics, and on the ABC television series. Starring Adam West, Burt Ward, Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Frank Gorshin.

For more Bat-May action, the good folks at Collected Editions posted my review of Batman: The Movies, the comic book adaptation of the Batman Quadrilogy. Give them a click - no one reviews comics like Collected Editions!

Friday, April 30, 2021

April of the Apes: Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

Even if it weren’t the end of a franchise, Battle for the Planet of the Apes would be a strange beast. It’s a post-apocalyptic fable that seeks both to foreshadow an apocalypse to come and to assure the audience that the future is brighter than we think. That tension, between the planet of the apes to come and the planet the apes hope to create, gets brushed away in favor of a shoot-’em-up finale against uninspiring adversaries.

Battle picks up after the talking chimpanzee Caesar (Roddy McDowall) has successfully led apes to revolt against humankind, which has largely destroyed itself in an ensuing nuclear war. In search of guidance, Caesar follows the human MacDonald (Austin Stoker) and the orangutan philosopher Virgil (Paul Williams) into the ruins of the Forbidden City, where a recording of his parents exists. While the gorilla General Aldo (Claude Akins) foments unrest in Caesar’s absence, the ape king and his allies discover a band of irradiated humans living underground, led by Caesar’s old nemesis Kolp (Severn Darden).

 

I’ve said throughout this “April of the Apes” (and I hate to belabor the point) that the franchise is supposed to be a closed-loop time travel story, but Battle seems to hope that this inevitability won’t be the case. Virgil opines that the apes are blind travelers down a timestream with many paths, with no guarantee that the future will repeat itself this time around. Similarly, a framing sequence involving the Lawgiver (played by John Huston, who is quite plainly slumming it) rejects the ape supremacy of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, positing instead a utopia in which the children of man and ape may commune in peace. Yet despite the film’s trajectory toward a happy ending – and not the dystopia Dr. Zaius invoked – Battle (and by extension the entire franchise) ends with a statue of Caesar, weeping. Is the future written, or can we change our destiny? The film isn’t saying, yet it hopes to have it both ways.

 

It might seem unfair to expect this franchise to take a stance on weighty philosophical issues, but let’s not forget Rod Serling was at the helm of the first (and still best) film. This sort of sci-fi fable was exactly in his wheelhouse, and I can’t help but feel Serling would have embraced the dysfunction of dystopia, discomfiting though it might have been for audiences. Indeed, Battle is practically a cop-out in the name of happily-ever-after, still attempting nonetheless to sneak a bite of its dystopian cake. Battle is confused about what it wants to be, beyond being an excuse to trot out those impressive simian special effects one last time.

 

Make no mistake, those effects still hold up (though some of the ape voices seem more muffled this time around; perhaps the bean-counters skimped on the ADR sessions). McDowall continues to do masterful work under all those prosthetics, twitching and stooping his way to a very engaging protagonist. As Virgil, the apparent antecedent to Dr. Zaius, Paul Williams is fascinating, proving that vocal color is one of the keys to a good ape performance; fans of the blog may recall his impeccable turn as The Penguin on Batman: The Animated Series, and his film debut here is just as fun listening as his fowl fiendish felon. And as the film’s ape antagonist, Claude Akins is suitably gruff in the role of General Aldo, reminiscent of General Ursus from Beneath the Planet of the Apes but with a more revolutionary bent that makes him a fitting adversary for Caesar. The film’s chilling finale, in which the apes discover the violation of their central tenet – “ape shall never kill ape” – is grounds enough for an impressive franchise finale, with the assembled apes murmuring, “Ape has killed ape, ape has killed ape” over and over.

 

If the film had only focused on Aldo, it would have made for a very fascinating examination of ape society on the cusp of change. Aldo’s militant anti-human position puts him at compelling loggerheads with Caesar, and the political/military jousting therein is among the film’s best features. However, the film spends too much time on the human villains, who are creatively lifeless and without motivation beyond run-of-the-mill mustache twirling. As excited as a continuity wonk like myself ought to be at seeing Kolp, of all characters, return, Severn Darden’s performance isn’t exactly animated, and it’s very hard to be threatened by a militia that rides into battle in a dirty school bus. Mad Max: Fury Road, this isn’t. (But how much better might that George Miller film have been if Tom Hardy played an ape? Sound off in the comments: what movies would improve if they starred apes?)

 

Just about the only good reason to include the underground humans comes in the film’s extended edition. Where the unrated cut of Conquest completely changed that film’s ending – and, I’d argue, the tenor of the entire franchise – the extended cut of Battle only embellishes here and there, but it does close the loop on one of the most baffling elements of the Apes series. You may recall the psychic bomb-worshipping mutants from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and Battle explains how that death cult came to be, introducing the first Mendez (Beneath featured Mendez XXVI). This restored scene provides little more than a frisson of continuity, but I suppose it’s enough to justify this subplot’s existence. I’ve never felt that the mutants fit into the Apes cosmology, but Battle makes an effort to integrate them more deliberately, tying them more organically into the rise of the apes.

 

Despite concluding on a battlefield, Battle is more than a bit boring. Its visual spectacle is a bit of a letdown after the more visceral ape riot of Conquest, and its plot never quite goes anywhere. For all the magnificent ape characters in the film, it’s not unwatchable, but nor would I say it’s highly rewatchable. It is, I might argue, the Godfather III of the series, essential only as an epilogue after the franchise has long since said its piece. Perhaps it is better to remember Caesar for his thousand-yard stare, gazing over the ape insurgence of Conquest, much like Michael Corleone watching Lake Tahoe eddy before him when all his enemies are defeated; apes and mobsters alike do not age well. Put another way, this is a Battle that need not have been fought, and it is hard to imagine anyone winning.

 

Battle for the Planet of the Apes is rated G. Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Written by Paul Dehn, John William Corrington, and Joyce Hooper Corrington. Starring Roddy McDowall, Claude Akins, Natalie Trundy, Severn Darden, Lew Ayres, Paul Williams, and John Huston.

Friday, April 23, 2021

April of the Apes: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

When it comes to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes – the fourth installment in the simian time-travel franchise – I can’t quite say whether I would have preferred the title to be Panic on the Planet of the Apes or Riot for the Planet of the Apes. (The conquest, you see, happens largely off-screen, after this movie ends.) It’s certainly the most violent of the Apes films, particularly in the unrated version that found its way onto Blu-Ray, and at times it seems as though the violence is merely an end in itself. But for all its low-budget sturm und brutish allegorical drangConquest is a compelling installment in a perennially strange series.

Twenty years after his parents arrived on earth, the talking chimpanzee Caesar (Roddy McDowall) has been hiding from the government under the protection of circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalbán). While the rest of the world domesticates apes to replace the dogs and cats that perished in a global pandemic, Caesar becomes the unlikely hero of a revolution after his secret is uncovered by the forces of the sinister Governor Breck (Don Murray).

 

Conquest is somewhat unique among the Apes films in that it exists in two different versions: there’s the 1972 theatrical release and the more recent (and, as far as I can tell, fan-preferred) unrated version that debuted on Blu-Ray circa 2009. While the differences are largely negligible, with the unrated version featuring more graphic and startling shots of blood and violence, the ending is bracingly different. I’ll throw up a spoiler warning, although I wonder whether it’s possible to spoil a closed-loop time travel story: in the theatrical release, Caesar heeds his better angels and talks his fellow apes out of violence, while in the unrated version, Caesar embraces the use of force and encourages the gorillas to execute Governor Breck.

 

When I first saw Conquest ages ago, it was the theatrical version, but having watched the unrated cut for “April of the Apes,” I can’t imagine going back. The darker, more fatalistic ending gives Roddy McDowall the centerpiece he deserves; in a dramatic monologue that is equal parts Shylock and Richard III, McDowall mouths a somber and grim portrait of humanity, invoking the darkest chapters of American history while positing himself as a Darwinian emperor ape. In this closing soliloquy, dark and chilling enough to elevate the entire film, McDowall’s Caesar reminded me very much of another science-fiction fable of revolt – HBO’s Westworld. And like the violent delights of the android theme park, the precarious peace of Conquest’s earth, Caesar insists, would have violent and inevitable ends. (One also cannot ignore the unanticipated lasting potency of the film’s civil rights metaphor, all the more heated in 2021, when Caesar’s essential thesis revolves around which lives matter.)

 

While McDowall is doing simian Shakespeare, the rest of the film is bogged down by cheap effects and on-the-nose metaphors. The first two Apes films featured an incredible prosthetics technique by John Chambers, but by the time we get to Conquest, we’re lucky if more than two apes at once are sporting that innovative makeup effect; instead, the bulk of the cast is sadly restricted to low-budget pullover masks, at once inexpressive and unconvincing. It’s a plus for Caesar, who stands out all the more, but it is overall to the film’s detriment, especially since the film does not invest much time in ape characters like Natalie Trundy’s Lisa (who, in the theatrical version, masters the power of speech in time to soften Caesar’s hardened heart).

 

Similarly, the villains of the film are thoroughly undercooked, evil for the sake of being evil without much in the way of motivation or character development. Doubtless the makers of the Andy Serkis mo-cap trilogy took note, as this was something the Serkis films greatly improved upon, particularly with Woody Harrelson’s unsettling Colonel in War for the Planet of the Apes. In Conquest, though, the antagonists are little more than Nazi stormtroopers, callously engaging in barbaric modes of torture without the self-awareness to realize that their shiny black boots and crisp black clothing telegraph their inherent villainy to the world. There’s a shining moment of insight when MacDonald (Hari Rhodes) chooses a side and turns against the other humans, but the film bludgeons the point home when MacDonald and Caesar repeatedly call attention to the fact that the black MacDonald is “a descendant of slaves.”

 

So much of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes isn’t subtle, though perhaps that’s asking too much of a franchise that involved Rod Serling only once. Still, like Escape from the Planet of the Apes, there is something of The Twilight Zone in Conquest, particularly in the darker unrated cut. There is a tragic sense of inevitability as the series winds down; in attempting to avert the planet of the apes, the human slavers end up creating it. There can be no peace through subjugation, the film warns, yet it is a lesson that Caesar seems not to have learned. Like Ben Affleck’s Batman, Caesar is blinded by his rage and his pain – yet the film is stronger and more chilling without the theatrical cut’s moralizing (and ultimately inert) denouement. While it’s very short and subsumes substance for spectacle, one can’t help but be won over by Conquest’s potent go-for-the-jugular approach – but none of it would work if it weren’t for Roddy McDowall treating this sci-fi hokum like Elizabethan tragedy.

 

Put another way, this might not be how we imagined the birth of the planet of the apes (nor does it quite align with the versions we heard from Cornelius or Dr. Zaius), but in the moments when it stays out of its own way Conquest is very nearly better than a fourth film with no budget has any right to be.

 

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is rated PG. Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Written by Paul Dehn. Starring Roddy McDowall, Don Murray, Natalie Trundy, Severn Darden, Hari Rhodes, and Ricardo Montalbán.