Month: February 2011

Phantom of The Paradise

1974

20th Century Fox

Written and Directed by Brian DePalma

Produced by Edward R. Pressman

Mention the name Brian DePalma and most people will probably cite him as the director of Hitchcockian style thrillers such as ‘Dressed To Kill’, ‘Blow Out’ or ‘Sisters’. I myself would be more apt to mention ‘The Untouchables’, ‘Scarface’ or his vastly underrated and overlooked Vietnam War movie, ‘Casualties of War’. And nobody would even dare bring up ‘Bonfires of The Vanities’ but very few would have his satirical horror rock musical PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE be the first title to come to mind. And I can understand why. It’s a movie unlike any other Brian DePalma had made up to that point and he never would again. In my research for this review I learned that apparently the only place this movie was a success was Canada and everyplace else was considered a major box office flop. And then ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ was released the year after and we all know what a cult phenomenon that became and so PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE became further eclipsed.

It’s a shame, though. For my money, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is the far better movie with a compelling story based on the Faust legend as well as ‘Phantom Of The Opera’ with a generous helping of ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ tossed in and done well with great energy and style. Everybody involved looks as if they’re having a great time and best of all; nobody’s taking themselves or the material too seriously. They know they’re making a satirical spoof of horror films and taking broadly generous pokes at the record industry but it’s all in fun. I’ve spoken to plenty of people who worship at the altar of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and have seen the movie more than a hundred times. I’ve seen it exactly twice and have no intention of ever seeing it again but I’ve seen PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE about five times and could cheerfully watch it another five times.

Swan (Paul Williams) is the hideously powerful creative genius behind Death Records, capable of influencing musical trends on a day-to-day basis. Swan can create rock stars and elevate them to godhood or destroy them and leave them broken with a frightening ease. Swan is searching for just the right music and singer for the opening of his music palace, The Paradise. He finds the music in a cantata written by Winslow Leach (William Finley) that is over 200 pages long and based on the Faust legend. Swan’s number one henchman Arnold Philbin (George Memmoli) goes to meet with Winslow and through a combination of generous flattery, heaping helpings of bovine excrement and just plain lying; he gets hold of Winslow’s cantata, promising that Swan will make him a star.

Hah. That’s a laugh. Swan takes the cantata, refuses to meet with Winslow and has him thrown out time and again from the Death Records building. But Winslow is persistent and during one of his efforts to get in and confront Swan, meets up with Phoenix (Jessica Harper) who has the most beautiful voice he’s ever heard. Swan finally has Winslow set up on a phony drug possession rap and sentenced to Sing Sing. Winslow is a broken man until he hears that his cantata is to be performed at the opening night of The Paradise by Swan’s cheesy 50’s doo-wop boy band, The Juicy Fruits. Winslow’s mind snaps and he goes berserk, escaping from Sing Sing and making it to the Death Records pressing factory where he tries to destroy the huge machine pressing out copies of the album.

(We Interrupt This Review For A Historical Footnote: Before there were CDs and MP3s there were these things called ‘albums’ that people used to listen to music on. They were made of vinyl and a device known as a turntable was used to play them. We Now Return You To Your Regularly Scheduled Review.)

Winslow’s head is caught inside the hot record pressing machine but he manages to get free.  Driven totally mad by physical and psychological pain he flees from pursuing police who chase him to The East River where he falls in and is presumed dead. No such luck. Soon, The Paradise is being haunted by a leather clad, caped figure wearing a silver bird-like mask who commits acts of murder and destruction, delaying the opening of The Paradise. It’s Winslow, of course. But he’s horribly deformed and his voice has been destroyed. And he won’t allow Swan to let anybody except Phoenix sing his music. Swan agrees to this and even makes a deal with Winslow (they sign a contract in blood) who agrees to rewrite his cantata for Phoenix. But Swan has other plans up his well-tailored sleeve…

From that short summary it sounds as if PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is a straight up horror film and if it was told in a straight up and down manner, it would be. But DePalma tells the story in a loopy, freewheeling style with crazy camera angles, split screens, a jumbled up music score that has everything from doo-wop to heavy metal, drugs, orgies, outrageous violence and yes, a lot of laughs. It also manages to get in a hell of a lot of plot in its 97 minutes, which means that the movie is never slow, and never lags. There’s always something happening and the twists and turns the story takes ensures that your attention won’t be allowed to wander.

I like all the performances in this movie. This is probably the best acting job Paul Williams has ever done and he is obviously enjoying himself. Swan is a terrific villain who relishes being such an unprincipled bastard. Along with George Memmoli as Philbin, they make a great team. They go about their villainy with just a day-to-day attitude that it makes it seem almost reasonable that they do such horrible things to people.

William Finley is wonderfully sympathetic as Winslow Leach/The Phantom and never fails to make you feel the pain of his character. I like how after his transformation into The Phantom he takes on a definite superheroish flair, climbing over rooftops, swinging from ropes and such, racing down corridors with his huge cape billowing behind him. Gerrit Graham nearly steals the movie as the bitchy hard rocker Beef. Every time he appears on screen he’s doing something that left me sore with laughter, including the scene where he slips and falls on stage and is trying to get up but his two foot high platform shoes keep getting in the way.

But Jessica Harper is the real star of the movie. I think Jessica Harper is a marvelous actress and one of the world’s most gorgeous women and it shows here. The camera simply loves her and when she’s on screen you don’t want to take your eyes off of her. I can’t help but feel she’s been vastly underused in the movies. When she gets a meaty role in movies such as ‘My Favorite Year’ ‘Pennies From Heaven’ and ‘Suspira’ she’s magic. Wish I could say the same about her dancing. Just sit back and watch her dance in this movie. She makes Elaine Benes look like Tina Turner. I’m serious, folks. She’s that bad a dancer. But what the hell, her acting more than makes up for her two left feet and she gets to sing and that ain’t bad at all.

So should you see PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE? A lot of people are probably going to be turned off by the production values of the movie as it looks as if it were filmed on the smallest budget possible. The concert scenes look as if they were filmed in a high school auditorium and the attitudes of the characters is pure cheesy 70’s. The music score is done by Paul Williams and while it’s not memorable, it serves the needs of the story and the closing theme, “The Hell Of It” is probably the best song in the movie but I like the goofy opening song, “Goodbye, Eddie” as well. And Jessica Harper gets to sing two ballads that may not be show stoppers but they don’t suck, either… Hell, I’d watch Jessica Harper sing VCR instruction manuals without complaint.

So don’t let the movie’s 70’s production value stop you from checking it out. It’s done in a flamboyant visual style with an intriguing mix of the horror, musical, social satire and comedy genres and mixed very well in my opinion. One genre doesn’t dominate the others and the mix ensures that it’s not a boring movie. If you get The Fox Movie Channel on your cable/satellite provider, you’ll be sure to see the movie. Somebody in Programming there must be a fan of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE since it seems to get run there twice a month, usually after midnight on a Friday or Saturday which is really the best time to see the movie. But if you don’t go ahead and Netflix it. It doesn’t have the polish and sophistication of Brian DePalma’s later films but that’s part of its decidedly goofy charm.

97 minutes

Rated PG

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride

2005
Warner Bros.

Directed by Tim Burton and Mike Johnson
Produced by Tim Burton and Allison Abbate
Written by John August, Pamela Pettler and Caroline Thompson

There’s only two types of filmmakers that would do a stop-motion animation film these days: one who is either insanely patient or one who has a genuine and deep love for the art form. Most animation is done on computers these days and stop-motion animation just simply isn’t done any more because…well, let’s put it this way: you don’t do a stop motion animated film if you’re in a rush. Simply put: the process involves building extraordinarily detailed model figures and then moving them just a millimeter, shooting one frame of film, then moving the character another millimeter, shooting that frame and so on and so on. I’ve read that when this process is going well, stop-motion animators can get two minutes of film every two weeks, which they consider fantastic.

Ray Harryhausen is the undisputed master of stop-motion animation and the battle between half a dozen live actors and nearly a dozen skeleton swordsmen in “Jason And The Argonauts” is still considered to be the greatest stop-motion animated sequence of all time and even Mr. Harryhausen has said that doing that sequence nearly drove him crazy. There’s a nice little homage to Mr. Harryhausen in TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE that I liked. I like it when I see acknowledgments to artists like Mr. Harryhausen as it’s easy to forget that men like him were the ones who were able to pioneer their art form that give us movies like TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE.

And the movie should be seen and appreciated for the brilliant technical work that’s gone into making it but as for the actual story itself…well, that’s another matter altogether….

Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp) is roped into an arraigned marriage by his parents (voiced by Tracy Ullman and Paul Whitehouse) who have gotten rich from selling fish, if you can believe it. The marriage will bail out the parents of Victoria Everglot (she’s voiced by Emily Watson while Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney are the parents) who have position, breeding and social standing but are stone cold broke. The marriage is advantageous all way around: The Van Dorts get social credibility while The Everglots get a much needed transfusion of cash into their blue blood veins. The only ones not happy about the marriage is Victoria who was hoping that she’d be in love with the man she going to marry while Victor is simply too much of a nervous wreck to be able to go through with the rehearsal.

Victor goes to the graveyard behind the church to practice his wedding vows and while doing so places the ring on what he thinks is a rotted twig but is actually the finger bone of Emily (Helena Bonham Carter)

whose arm is sticking up out a hastily dug grave. Emily was murdered by the man she was supposed to run off with and marry and when she comes up out of her grave, still garbed in her tattered wedding dress she falls in love with Victor and takes him with her to the land of the dead where their marriage is celebrated. Meanwhile, back in the land of the living, The Everglots have decided that since Victor has apparently run off, they quickly fob Victoria off on the mysterious and sinister Baron Barkus Bittern (Richard E. Grant) whose eventual role in the story will come as no surprise. Will Victor be able to return to the land of the living in time to prevent Victoria’s marrying Baron Barkus? And even if he does, what will happen to Emily since he did marry her of his own free will and even though she’s dead as Julius Caesar, she do love that man of hers and has no intention of giving him up to some floozy whose heart is still beating.

TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE is the kind of movie that I expected I would fall in love with as I did with “The Nightmare Before Christmas” but I just couldn’t get into this one. It’s absolutely wonderful to look at and the stop-motion animation is spectacular but the story didn’t grab me at all. Only Tim Burton would make a love story this gothic and dark, filled with murder, death, betrayal and good-natured mean-spiritness.  But I found myself admiring the technical aspects and not really paying much attention to what was going on story-wise. I liked the voice work a lot and I liked how the animators even managed to make Emily sorta sexy even though she’s a rotting corpse. But the movie isn’t horrific enough or romantic enough or funny enough. Tim Burton throws in a lot of elements but none of them seem to come together, especially the big musical number, which explains the story of The Corpse Bride. The sequence is just thrown in there mainly because I think Burton wanted a sequence with a chorus line of dancing skeletons.

In fact, the land of the dead doesn’t seem to be such a bad place as everybody seems to having a better time dead than they did alive. The colors are brighter, everybody’s partying and wisecracking all over the place and Victor is happily surprised to be reunited with his dead dog Scraps who is now just a playful skeleton. “You should have seen him when he had fur,” Victor says fondly while tickling the dog’s skull.

I think Tim Burton was going for a different sort of Halloween movie just as his “The Nightmare Before Christmas” was a different kind of Christmas movie but I thought that earlier film much more fun and entertaining with characters that really moved the story. That doesn’t happen here and actually, the movie seems slow moving and even plodding in spots and even though it’s only 76 minutes it seems twice as long. But most of the wisecracks coming from the dead folks are really funny and The Town Crier has what is perhaps the best line in the movie and the only one that made me laugh out loud.  But the Peter Lorre inspired maggot who lives in Emily’s head was just downright annoying and a distraction from what was really going on.

So should you see TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE?  It’s a magnificent movie if you’re looking at it strictly from a technical standpoint and as a Tim Burton movie it’s definitely worth a viewing if you’re a fan of the director.

Rated PG
76 minutes

Popeye

1980
Paramount Pictures/Walt Disney Productions

Directed by Robert Altman
Produced by Robert Evans
Written by Jules Feiffer
Based on the “Thimble Theater” comic strip created by E.C. Segar

POPEYE is kinda like the bastard child that nobody talks about or even acknowledges at family reunions. Whenever discussions about movies based on comic books or comic strips are mentioned nobody ever remembers POPEYE. Hell, people will remember really obscure films based on comic strips such as “Friday Foster” starring Pam Grier or “Brenda Starr” with Brooke Shields and Timothy Dalton. But I mention POPEYE and people give me a look of honest surprise, saying : “They made a movie out of POPEYE?” Which is a shame because POPEYE is really outstanding in a lot of ways.

It’s an origin story we’re given as Popeye (Robin Williams) comes to the remote seaport town of Sweethaven. searching for his long lost poppa, Poopdeck Pappy (Ray Walston) who abandoned his orphink (that’s how Popeye pronounces ‘orphan’) son years ago. Popeye is regarded with hostile suspicion by the townspeople but finds lodging in the home of the Oyl family: family patriarch Cole Oyl (MacIntyre Dixon) his capable wife Nana Oyl (Roberta Maxwell) their well-meaning but slightly shifty son Castor Oyl (Donovan Scott) and their beloved daughter, the vain, prissy and impossibly skinny Olive Oyl (Shelly Duvall).

During the course of his search for his poppa, Popeye meets the other residents of Sweethaven: Olive’s ex-boyfriend Ham Gravy (Bill Irwin). The greengrocer George W. Geezil who is constantly at odds with and continually threatens to murder his best friend, professional moocher J. Wellington Wimpy (Paul Dooley). The Taxman (Donald Moffat), town drunk Bill Barnacle (Robert Fortier), the gambler Harry Hotcash (David McCharen), professional dirty fighter Oxblood Oxheart (Peter Bray) and His Mudder (Linda Hunt). And then there’s Bluto (Paul L. Smith) the hulking mass of muscle who runs the town and collects the taxes for the mysterious Commodore who no one can ever remember seeing.

Popeye and Olive don’t take to each other right away. He thinks she’s a dizzy dame and she thinks he’s too short. But their feelings for each other soon change when they find an abandoned baby Popeye names Swee’pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt) which Olive thinks is a stupid name but Popeye comes back with one of the movie’s best lines: “Well, what were you going to name him? Baby Oyl?” This doesn’t sit very well with Bluto who was supposed to be engaged to Olive. He beats the hell outta Popeye and taxes the Oyls into bankruptcy. But salvation comes from an unexpected source: Swee’pea, who can apparently predict the future by whistling to signify ‘yes’ when he’s asked a question. Bluto learns of the baby’s talent and hatches a plan to get Olive for himself and use Swee’pea to find The Commodore’s treasure, located somewhere on the treacherous Scab Island.

That’s not much of a plot but then again how much of a plot do you actually need? The real fun of watching the movie comes from the extraordinary sets and performances. An entire town was actually built on the island of Malta and it still exists today as a tourist attraction/theme park http://www.popeyemalta.com/ so the town of Sweethaven has a solidity that you don’t normally see in other movies of this type. Sweethaven doesn’t look like a movie set on screen. It looks like a real town.

Robin Williams and Shelly Duvall do such a great job of bringing Popeye and Olive Oyl to life it’s scary. Shelly Duvall in particular does an amazing job of giving Olive an incredibly unique gangly body language. Robin Williams has Popeye’s well known mutterspeak and hilariously mangled mispronunciations down so well that if you decide to watch this I’d advise you to turn up your TV’s volume a couple of notches higher than usual or turn on the closed captioning or you’ll miss half of Popeye’s best lines. But it’s the little things in this movie I find amusing. Such as Cole Oyl’s constantly insisting that everybody owes him an apology. Or the way Olive holds her head and the look on her face when she answers other characters. Or the character of Roughhouse who would seem to be a pretty tough guy in his own right as there’s a couple of scenes where Bluto intimidates the citizens of Sweethaven but actually goes around Roughhouse or ignores him totally. And Ray Walston is always a joy in anything he does. Look closely at the gang of toughs Popeye has a brawl with in Roughhouse’s Café and you’ll see one of ‘em is Dennis Franz.

And for somebody like me who really only knows Popeye from the cartoons I was amazed at how many supporting characters there actually are in his universe. I’m only familiar with Popeye, Olive, Bluto, Swee’pea and the Jeep and until I saw this movie and did a little research I had no idea all of those other characters existed. And they are some characters indeed. POPEYE benefits from some of Robert Altman’s signature directorial traits such as overlapping dialog and there’s always something going on in the background. The characters aren’t just standing around to give the scene window dressing. A lot of times they’re not even reacting to what the main characters are doing. They’re going about their own business, doing something totally unrelated to what the main characters are doing. In other words, living their own lives.

The musical numbers are written by Harry Nilsson and they’re not done like your traditional musical numbers where everybody stops to sing. They’re interwoven with the dialog and don’t so much start and stop as just fade in and fade out. They’re not memorable songs by any means but they’re cute and charming enough. I’m particularly fond of the “Sweethaven Anthem” and “Everything Is Food”. Ray Walston has a catchy number called: “It’s Not Easy Being Me” But “I Am What I Am” and “I’m Mean” end abruptly just when they’re starting to get cooking. And the ending is something of a letdown because the whole movie has been building up to a massive knockdown slugfest between Popeye and Bluto but it never happens. There’s a really silly swordfight before we get to the moment we’ve been waiting for: Popeye eating that can of spinach and walloping the piss outta Bluto. The resolution of the fight is over much too fast to be satisfying. But we do get to learn what Popeye really thinks about spinach and it’s the biggest laugh in the movie.

So should you see POPEYE? Sure. It’s so good spirited in its desire to entertain that only a rock hearted person could dislike it. The best word I can come up with for this movie is ‘charming’. It’s a nice little movie for the whole family to watch together.  POPEYE is a great Saturday or Sunday afternoon fun movie. Enjoy.

Rated: PG
114 minutes

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

20th Century Fox

2010

Directed by Oliver Stone

Produced by Edward R. Pressman and Eric Kopeloff

Screenplay by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff

Curious thing about WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS.  The whole movie is about money.  People in this movie talk about it constantly, obsess over it, worship it, and revere it.  But never once in the movie do we actually see anybody handling money or using it to purchase anything except for one important scene.  And I’m inclined to think that Oliver Stone excluded the actual appearance of money for a reason.  Instead we see the things that money can buy.  The luxurious condos and lofts.  The elegant mansions.  The beautiful clothes and stylish cars.  The exclusive restaurants you can eat in and the clubs you can party at.  And we see the effect the pursuit of money has on people as well.

But as Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) himself says, money even isn’t the point.  It’s playing the game.  The game is all there is and the more money one has is just the way the game players tell who’s winning and who’s losing.  And who should know better than him?  The character of Gordon Gekko became the symbol for Wall Street in the 80’s and 90’s.  Michael Douglas has said in interviews that for years after he made that movie, young stockbrokers would come up to him and tell him they got into the game because of his performance.

The movie picks up on one time corporate raider Gordon Gekko after he’s done time in jail following the events of “Wall Street”. Upon his release he writes a successful best-selling book and goes on the lecture circuit.  It’s at a book signing he’s approached by Jake Moore (Shia LeBeouf) a hungry and ambitious young trader who also happens to be engaged to Gekko’s daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan).

Jake wants Gekko’s help to get revenge on Bretton James (Josh Brolin) CEO of a major investment bank.  James engineered the collapse of the investment firm Jake worked on.  The collapse of the firm and the humiliation of the way it was done caused the managing director and Jake’s mentor Lew Zabel (Frank Langella) to take his own life.  Gekko’s willing to help, working behind the scenes to gather information and advising Jake on the best way to use it to get back at James.  But in return, Gekko wants Jake’s help so that he can reconcile with Winnie who wants absolutely nothing to do with her father.

Jake is walking a fine line here as Winnie tells him plainly that her father is not to be trusted and he’s only using Jake for some reason.  But Jake is undeniably attracted to Gekko’s uncanny business insight and knowledge and is eager to know what Gekko knows.  It’s an unenviable position to be in.  Especially when Jake learns first-hand that James is as manipulative and cruel as Gekko himself.

WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS is one of those movies where I didn’t understand a blessed thing the characters were saying when it comes to stocks and trading and securities and anything having to do with that world.  But on the other hand I felt smarter listening to them talk.  And it’s to the credit of the screenwriters that they break it down so that you can follow who’s doing what to whom and who’s manipulating what and why without making the characters sound as if they were dumb.

Michael Douglas is clearly having a ball playing Gordon Gekko.  He’s all smiles and charm with a ‘Hail and well met, good fellow!’ type of cheerfulness.  I didn’t get the impression he was trying to top his legendary performance in “Wall Street” but instead simply slipped back on Gordon Gekko’s skin and walked around in it.  It’s an effortless performance that provides the movie with a lot of the best lines and best scenes.

I’m still not sure how I feel about Shia LeBeouf as an actor.  He’s professional, sure.  And he’s enjoyable to watch.  But he hasn’t yet mastered the knack of disappearing into his role and letting the character do the work.  Josh Brolin is always worth watching and he doesn’t disappoint here.  No matter what he’s in, I’m guaranteed a good performance.  Carey Mulligan holds up her end quite well but her character is a puzzle and even in the movie other characters wonder why she’s engaged to a Wall Street guy when she hates her father so much.  There are also a couple of cameos in here that are worth looking for.

If there’s any surprise here, it’s in Oliver Stone’s direction.  He’s mellowed out as a director and the man who directed such angry movies as the original “Wall Street” “Born On The Fourth Of July” or “Salvador” isn’t directing this movie.  He’s gotten more thoughtful and even-handed I think.  And it shows in his solid direction.  I love a director who puts the camera down, doesn’t jiggle it all over the place, puts the actors in front of the camera and lets them act.  And that’s what Stone does here.  But he seems to have relaxed a bit and his usual political slant isn’t in evidence here or at least I couldn’t see it.  In fact, WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS plays out as a more-or-less conventional drama set in the financial world and isn’t the searing indictment of Wall Street and the nation’s current financial crisis I expected it to be.

So should you see WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS?  I think so.  It’s entertainment that has enough of modern day relevance to provide just enough of thought to edge it out of the “it’s just a popcorn movie” tier.  And it is fun to see Michael Douglas give life to his most famous movie character again.  It’s not as good as the original “Wall Street” but after all these years it’s a whole lot better than it had to be and that’s something right there.

Rated PG-13

133 minutes

Batman (1966)

1966

20th Century Fox

Directed by Leslie Martinson
Written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.

Based on BATMAN created by Bob Kane

Most moviegoers today are mostly familiar with the Tim Burton film version of BATMAN in which The Caped Crusader was re-invented as the grim and somber guardian of a Gotham City that looked as if a lunatic designed it. That version was inspired by Frank Miller’s legendary ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ which in itself was inspired by the revolutionary reworking of the character back in the ‘70’s by Denny O’Neal and Neal Adams, who took the character from his campy ‘60’s incarnation and brought him more back in line with what Batman’s creator, Bob Kane had envisioned.

And more recently Christopher Nolan has done his version of Batman in two movies that have given us what is the most realistic film version of the character to date.  Nolan wanted to do a ‘real world’ Batman and I think he did a helluva job.  “The Dark Knight” was the first superhero movie to sell a billion dollars worth of tickets at the box office and rightly so.  The story, the characters, the performances and the direction were all so on point that “The Dark Knight” elevated the superhero movie to a new level.

However, it’s the ‘60’s version of BATMAN that has been playing on my DVD lately.  I recently watched it one Saturday afternoon.  Which for me is the best time to watch it, along with the largest bowl of potato chips I can find and a 3 liter bottle of Coca-Cola.  Thus armed I relived one of my childhood pleasures with a great deal of fondness and fun.

Y’see, I was there when Batman was originally shown on ABC and like every other kid (and more than a few adults) I went absolutely nuts over the show and watched it faithfully. It was shown two nights a week and the first episode always left off with a cliffhanger than forced you to come back the next night to see how Batman and his trusty sidekick, Robin The Boy Wonder would escape. Batman was always a hot topic at school the next day and the TV show was also my first exposure to Bruce Lee, who appeared as Kato in a legendary two-parter that guest-starred The Green Hornet. Kato and Robin had a memorable fight that ended in a draw when realistically, Kato would have handed The Boy Wonder his ass in two seconds flat. But I digress…we’re talking about the movie here….

BATMAN: THE MOVIE has The Dynamic Duo up against Underworld United, which is an alliance of four of their greatest enemies. The Joker, The Penguin, Catwoman and The Riddler have all joined forces to once and for all destroy Batman and Robin and take over the world. They mean to achieve world conquest by kidnapping the members of The World Council and using an experimental dehydration machine to reduce them to dust and hold them until the nations of the world capitulate. Meanwhile, they spend their time thinking up increasingly bizarre traps to kill Batman and Robin and good googlymoogly do they spend a lot of time doing that.  There’s about five deathtraps they think up that take an amazing amount of time, money and sheer wasted energy when somebody could have just taken a gun and shot The Dynamic Duo dead.

Some of these deathtraps have become cult favorites among fans of the movie. Right at the beginning there’s a trained exploding shark that tries to eat Batman’s leg while he’s hanging from The Batcopter. Luckily he’s got a can of Bat Shark Repellent handy. Don’t even ask why he would have a can of Shark Repellent in a helicopter, okay? He’s Batman. And then there’s the big black bomb with the world’s longest fuse which Batman is trying desperately to get rid off but he keeps running into innocents in the way of him throwing it (A mother with a baby carriage, a group of nuns, a Salvation Army Band) which causes Batman to mutter the film’s most memorable line; “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!” But he does manage to get rid of it. How? Need you even ask? He’s Batman.

The fight scenes in the movie are extremely entertaining and downright exhilarating in their sheer destructiveness. Clearly inspired by Saturday morning serials, they’re huge set destroying melees in which not a stick of furniture is left standing. There’s no blood, nobody gets hurt and the actors (it’s pretty obvious that they’re not using stunt doubles) all are incredibly energetic and lively. Two of the best fights is one in which Bruce Wayne (!) has to fight his way out of the United Underworld hideout and at the end where Batman and Robin take on all the villains and their henchmen in a sea battle aboard The Penguin’s submarine. Batman and Robin fight something like two-dozen bad guys at one time and everybody is thrown and knocked into the water and climb back aboard the sub for more good-natured ass-kicking mayhem.

Okay, how about the performances, you ask? It’s pretty clear to me at least that everybody was having a good time making the movie, especially the actors playing the villains. When Tim Burton gave the character new life in 1989, every actor wanted to play a Batman villain.  And why not? The only fictional character with better bad guys is Dick Tracy.  And it was the same way back in the 60’s. Quite a lot of talented actors actively sought out roles as villains on Batman and four of the best are in this movie. Burgess Meredith and Cesar Romero are just fine as The Penguin and The Joker. Romero especially had the kind of manic energy that The Joker needs. I only wish that Eartha Kitt had played Catwoman in the movie because she was the one Catwoman who really turned my crank. Lee Meriwether is fine in the role but hell; Eartha Kitt could make me turn to crime any day. And I’ve always loved Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. He’s the only villain with more than one outfit. When he’s in action, he wears a skin-tight green jumpsuit, but he also has this cool double-breasted green suit complete with a derby, spats and tastefully placed black question marks. Gorshin also has one disturbing scene aboard The Penguin’s submarine where he horrifyingly shows the sheer psychotic insanity of The Riddler, as well as a blood thirst for Batman’s death.  Wait for the scene where he screams at The Penguin to stop fooling around and kill Batman without delay. Make sure you look at the reactions of the other villains. They are clearly aware at that moment that this guy does not have all the spots on his dice. It’s a great moment in the movie and it shows that Frank Gorshin perfectly understood what made The Riddler tick and more importantly, he understood what made a Batman villain tick.

And what else can be said about Adam West and Burt Ward that hasn’t already been said? The two of them made the perfect Batman and Robin for this more innocent and light-hearted version of the characters and part of the fun of the movie is that West and Ward know they look ridiculous but they give it their all and even in the silliest of situations they play it with straight faces.

And to give Adam West his due, there’s a scene near the end when Batman discovers that his emotions have been played with by Catwoman and it’s perhaps the finest acting West has ever done as Batman since he has to communicate his thoughts and feeling with only his eyes and his lips and it’s an effective scene, indeed.

In recent years the movie has been derided by comic books fans who claim that the movie “ruined the character” without taking into account that the Batman of the comic book at that time was even wackier than the TV version.  At least the TV version never had Bat-Mite.  But it did have Yvonne Craig as Batgirl.  Yowsa.  And y’know, I really feel sorry for those who can’t get into this movie and enjoy it for what it is.   I really enjoy watching BATMAN: THE MOVIE.  It’s an innocent movie, designed for nothing else than to entertain and make you feel good. And maybe that’s its true charm: It’s simple, good-natured fun and if you stick that part of you that’s become oh so sophisticated and worldly in the closet and access your inner 10-year old, you might find yourself enjoying it. Catch it in the right mood on a Saturday afternoon.

105 minutes


The Whole Wide World

1996

Cineville, Inc./Sony Pictures

Directed by Dan Ireland

Screenplay by Michael Scott Myers

Based on “One Who Walked Alone” by Novalyne Price Ellis

Here’s a romance movie that I think is wonderful for a couple to watch but it’s not exactly the first movie that would come to mind when you and your sweetie hit the Netflix for something cuddle up with.  But you really should give THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD a try.  Let’s face it; aren’t you guys tired of seeing “Ghost” over and over and over?

In 1933, Novalyne Price (Renee Zellweger) is an independently minded young woman living in rural West Texas who dreams of going off to college and maybe becoming a teacher.  She really aspires to be a writer.  She has these huge diaries she writes her daily activities in and has been sending off stories to the confession/romance pulp magazines with little success.  She desperately longs for someone to talk to about her ideas and stories and one day while sitting on her porch drinking lemonade, a friend of her drives up and asks her would she like to walk over to his car and meet the greatest pulp writer in the whole wide world: Robert E. Howard (Vincent D’Onofrio)

Robert E. Howard grew up and lived most of his painfully short life in Cross Plains, Texas and created what is probably the most famous pulp adventure character of all: Conan The Barbarian, the hero of short stories, novels, comic books and movies.  But Robert E. Howard created many more characters than that and wrote so prolifically that whole issues of ‘Weird Tales’ magazines were filled with his stories, written under half a dozen pen names.  Even today nobody is sure exactly how many names Robert E. Howard used or how many stories he wrote.  For me, when it comes to writing, Robert E. Howard has few equals when it comes to sheer storytelling power.  He wrote stories about lusty adventurers who spent their days hunting for treasure, fighting demons and roaming uncharted lands and spent their nights wenching, drinking and gambling.  There’s nothing but total testosterone in a Robert E. Howard story and it’s easy for me to understand why they were so popular during The Depression Era when so many men felt impotent and powerless.  After a hard day of trying your best to feed your family and keep a roof over their heads, for a man in the 30’s, picking up a copy of ‘Weird Tales’ and reading a Conan story where he kills a mad god and makes off with his priceless giant diamond is the equivalent to a modern day Joe Punchclock coming home from work and watching ‘24’ to cheer Jack Bauer kick terrorist scum ass and save The President from being blown up by a neutron bomb in his shower.

Novalyne is totally astonished at meeting someone who actually makes a living by writing and they begin a friendship that develops into a rocky romance.  Novalyne has a mind of her own and is ambitious with an independent spirit.  In that respect she’s somewhat more progressive than most of the other young ladies in the town but she’s never met anybody like Robert Howard who is socially inept and extremely close to his mother, who is in poor health.  When they go out on dates, Bob Howard prefers to take Novalyne on long drives where they can talk about the dreams and aspirations they have as writers.  As much as Novalyne grows to love Bob, she soon realizes that he’s not husband material.  Robert E. Howard is a wonderful man but he lives too much inside of his own head.  And while his incredible imaginative power and lust for life draws her to him, his emotional insensitivity and manic depressive moods drive her away.  They maintain their romantic relationship in a sort of on-and-off again basis but the real romance is between their imaginative minds and the love they both have of writing.

I really love THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD for number of reasons: first of all, while it’s not a straightforward biography of Robert E. Howard, we do get to see some very important moments in his life filtered through the eyes of Novalyne.  And there are some moments between Howard and his mother (Ann Wedgeworth) that are really touching.  You may remember Ann Wedgeworth as the sexpot neighbor on ‘Three’s Company’.  She does a really good job of acting here as Howard’s possessive mother who obviously loves her son a little too much.

The acting by Vincent D’Onofrio is first rate and convinced me that I was looking at Robert E. Howard in the scenes where he’s writing a Conan story and he’s speaking the dialog out loud.  There’s another scene where’s he’s walking down the main street of his home town, shadowboxing an imaginary enemy and mumbling descriptions of the fight that’s taking place as he works out a story in his head.  It’s made clear in the movie that Howard’s neighbors and friends think it’s pretty damn odd for a big grown strapping man such as himself to be making a living writing stories and talking to imaginary people in his head but D’Onofrio plays Howard with such an ‘I-Don’t-Give-A Damn-‘ charm he sells the performance.  Renee Zellweger is simply wonderful as Novalyne Price.  She understands Robert Howard.  She loves Robert Howard.  She thinks Robert Howard is the greatest writer in the whole wide world.  She just can’t allow herself to fall enough in love with him to marry him.  She’s smart enough to see that such a marriage would end in tragedy.   Novalyne Price went on to become a teacher and she wrote the book the movie THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD was based on after she grew angry at reading so many articles that she felt distorted the truth about what Robert E. Howard was like.

The relationship between Robert E. Howard and Novalyne Price is handled with a great deal of romanticism and sensitivity.  Robert continually amazes Novalyne with the places he takes her to where they gaze upon beautiful sunrises and sunsets.  These scenes also give D’Onofrio a chance to show off the stare he learned from Stanley Kubrick when we worked on “Full Metal Jacket” as Howard tells Novalyne about his stories and in the background we can faintly hear swords crashing together, the curses and yells of men fighting and the sounds of war which get louder and louder until Novalyne says something to snap him out of it.  The thing that really comes across in the movie is that in a lot of ways, both Howard and Novalyne were born out of place and out of time and even though they were lucky enough to meet, they still could not connect on a lot of levels.  It’s a really classically bittersweet love story.

It’s a great movie for lovers of the work of Robert E. Howard as I think it really gives fans of the man and his work a really good look at what his everyday life was like.  It also works as a movie about writers.  Movies about writers are really hard to do since most of the work takes place between their ears.  Fortunately, Robert E. Howard was as big as life as the heroes he wrote about and his life makes for an interesting movie.  I really enjoyed the movie just on that basis since I identify a lot with Robert E. Howard.  Like him, I have no illusions that my work is great art.  I just like telling a good story and Robert E. Howard was one of the best storytellers ever born.  Vincent D’Onofrio does an excellent job of showing Howard’s sheer exuberance and delight at just being able to tell a hell of a good story and I felt that deeply.

So should you see THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD?  Absolutely.  It’s a movie that works as a biography of one of the most influential and popular writers of all time.  It also works as a movie about writers and their internal lives and how they connect, interact and deal with others who are not in tune with those wavelengths writers are in tune with.  And it most definitely works as a romantic film as the relationship between Robert E. Howard and Novalyne Price is touching, sad, funny, and poignant and I freely admit that the last scene of the movie is one that had my eyes watering.  Netflix THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD and watch it with a writer you love.

111 minutes

Rated PG

Westward The Women

1951

MGM

Directed by William Wellman

Produced by Dore Schary

Written by Charles Schneer

Based on a story by Frank Capra

Here’s a movie that even fans of movies in general and westerns in particular have told me they’ve never seen or heard of when I mention it and I can well understand why.  WESTWARD THE WOMEN is by no means a traditional western and every time I watch it I’m kinda amazed that it was made in 1951 since the story is told in such a raw, unglamourized fashion.   It features women and minorities prominently in the cast and they are treated not as stereotypes but as honest human beings.  Sex and death are handled with realistic brutality and this is a movie where the happy ending is truly deserved by the characters and not just a manufactured one to make the audience feel good.  The characters in this movie well and truly go through Hell and when they come out on the other side we feel as though we’ve made every step of the hideously horrible journey with them.

Roy Whitman (John McIntire) is an extraordinarily wealthy landowner who owns an entire California valley that he’s turned into a thriving community.  Now the only things his men need are wives. ‘Good women’ Whitman insists and not the floozies and harlots his men have become used to consorting with.  Whitman intends to go to Chicago, recruit 150 brides and bring them 2000 miles across country to his valley for his men.  To accomplish this he hires Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) one of the best guides and wagon masters around.  Wyatt turns down the job at first and for good reason.  He’s a confirmed misogynist, doesn’t like anything about women, and doesn’t even want them to cook for him.  This guy’s not only a member of The He-Man Women Haters Club, he’s the president.  After Roy promises him a thousand dollar bonus, Buck agrees to take the job.

They go to Chicago and recruit the women for the journey.  Among them is Fifi Danon (Denise Darcel) a dancehall girl who wants to go to California, leave her past behind and make a new life for herself.  Patience Hawley (Hope Emerson) is a woman of Amazonian proportions from a Massachusetts whaling town who has recently lost her husband and three sons in a storm at sea.  Maggie O’Malley (Lenore Lonergan) is a bespectacled schoolmarmish type who turns out to be a better shot, rider and roper than any man.  She soon finds herself in a rivalry with Jean Johnson (Marilyn Erskine) whose skills easily equal hers.  Mrs. Maroni (Renata Vanni) and her young son Tony (Guido Martufi) are also determined to go along despite the fact they speak not a word of English.

Right from the start the trip doesn’t go well.  The sexual tension between Buck’s crew and the women would be obvious to Stevie Wonder and there is a brutal rape that Buck handles in an equally brutal fashion by killing the man in a scene that you don’t find in most westerns.  The guy says to Buck, “Aren’t you going to give me a fair chance to draw?”  Buck doesn’t say a word, simply pulls his gun and shoots the dude dead before his hand even touches his gun.

The next morning Buck and Roy awaken to find that Buck’s crew has abandoned them along with about a dozen of the women.  The only other men besides them is Ito (Henry Nakumura),  the Japanese cook and Sid Cutler, one of Buck’s crew who has fallen in love with one of the women and wants to be the father of her unborn child.  Despite Roy’s misgivings, Buck insists that he can get the women through to California and he’ll do so if he has to turn them into skin, bone and muscle.  “They’re going to hate your guts,” Ito warns Buck who answers back without missing a beat, “I hope they do.”  And the rest of the movie is a grueling marathon of suffering and pain as we watch these women encounter Indian attacks, deadly flash floods, starvation, hailstorms, deserts, and that’s just the easy stuff as they make their way across an America that back those days was really savage,wild and hostile.  Death could come without warning and frequently did.

There are a lot of things in WESTWARD THE WOMEN that makes it different from your average western.  First off, the cast is mostly women but they’re not all your average glamorous Hollywood starlets.  Except for Denise Darcel who is exceptionally gorgeous the other women are remarkably realistic looking.  Some are very pretty.  Some are just pretty.  Some are okay looking. Some are thin.  Some are fat.  Some are ugly.  Some look like something you’d buy in a live bait store.  But all of them have their share of screen time.  We’re not just looking at Denise Darcel all the time.  And even when we are we grow aware of some disturbing things about her character Fifi Danon.   Y’see, she falls in love with Buck and it seems that she spends most of her time deliberately pissing him off so that he can whomp on her.  Their whole relationship seems based on their mutual love of violence.   There’s a disturbing scene where Buck lashes her with a horsewhip as well as smacking her around with the back of his hand a couple of times.  “Is that what you wanted?”  Buck asks.  Fifi looks up at Buck, wipes the blood drooling from the corner of her lip and there’s obvious sexual satisfaction in her voice and eyes as she answers, “Yes.  I’m okay now.”

Equally surprising is Buck’s relationship with Ito, the Japanese who signs on as a cook but we never see him cook a single meal in the entire movie.  In fact, after the rest of the men leave, Buck finds himself relying more and more on Ito for friendship and counsel.  Ito isn’t played as an offensive coolie type spouting pidgin English.  For much of the movie he’s riding side by side with Buck and there are scenes where he and Buck argue as equals about how to handle the women and how they’re going to finish this insane journey.  They bond one rainy night over a jug of rum they’ve dug up out of a grave. They bicker and quarrel.  They make up. They watch each other’s backs.  And when and if you watch this movie notice how every suggestion Ito gives Buck, he takes and acts upon.

The performances are first rate starting with Robert Taylor and going all the way down to the pooch playing Tony Maroni’s dog.  I’ve never been a big Robert Taylor fan but I like him a helluva lot in this movie.  His character of Buck Taylor may not go from being a misogynist to a pro-feminist which I would have found highly unrealistic but by the end of the movie he has come to an understanding and respect of women he didn’t have before.  Hope Emerson is a standout as Patience who refers to everything in nautical/whaling terms and the relationship between her, Buck and the other women is paticularly interesting.  Henry Nakumura is wonderful as Ito.  I really liked the scenes he has with Buck and what I like even more is there never any mention made of Ito’s race outside of when he and Buck first meet and after that, we never hear anybody refer to Ito being Japanese and in fact, there’s quite of bit of Japanese, French (Fifi Danon is French) and Italian spoken with no subtitles which isn’t as much of distraction as you might think and indeed, is quite powerful in one scene where Mrs. Maroni breaks up a fight between two women and chastises them in Italian.  Nobody understands a word she’s saying but everybody knows exactly what she means.

So should you see WESTWARD THE WOMEN?  I would certainly recommend that you do.  It’s a remarkably well-made movie that has a realistic feel and tone to it.  The filmmakers really tried to show how hard and difficult it was for people to get across the country back in the days of The Old West.  It was tough enough for whole families but for a bunch of women by themselves…well…lemme put it this way: there’s nothing in this movie that says it was based on a true story but it should have been because WESTWARD THE WOMEN is filled with enough heart and truth in it’s story to have been real.  And it probably was.  It’s a movie that you oughta put on your Netflix list.  Or if your cable/satellite provider carries Turner Classic Movies wait for it to show up there.

118 minutes