Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Gab

Werth: Greetings, Citizen.

Wise: Werth, I see you're in the your cape and tights again. Can I take this to mean we're going to gab about superhero movies... or should I call the men in the white coats?

Werth: Put your phone away, Wise, because in honor of the premiere of Christopher Nolan's finale to his Batman trilogy The Dark Knight Rises, I would like to give a Film Gab salute to the Caped Crusader. As early as 1943, Batman and Robin were BAM-ing and POW-ing their way through villains on the big screen in serialized shorts based on the popular DC Comics characters. 

Wise: Which were almost as popular as the Boy Wonder's shorts.  

Werth: And in 1966 the Dynamic Duo swung onto the silver screen again with Adam West and Burt Ward reprising their successful television personae along with a bevy of villainous character actors.

Wise: Particularly the sourball delights of Burgess Meredith's Penguin and Cesar Romero's Joker. 

Werth: Then Tim Burton resurrected the franchise in 1989 with his hugely successful Batman before Joel Schumacher took over with Batman Forever (1995) and Christopher Nolan gave a grittier, more realistic take to the crimefighter in 2005 with Batman Begins.

Wise: Batman's had more facelifts than Jocelyn Wildenstein

Werth: But the Batman movie that I'm most fond of is Burton's 1992 sequel, Batman Returns. Burton returns to Gotham City with even more visual punches than he served up in his first film. Batman (a stern Michael Keaton) is celebrating Christmas by trying to save the city from a trio of Scrooges: The Penguin (disgusting Danny DeVito), Catwoman (Michelle "Cat Nip" Pfeffier) and city power-grabber (literally) Max Schreck (a be-wigged Christopher Walken). 

Wise: Even Tiny Tim couldn't reform that crew.  

Werth: The plot is pretty silly, but what makes this film work is Burton's grasp of the mix of the dark and the fantasticalwhich has been one of the draws of comic books from their inception. On one hand you have The Penguin attempting to blow up the city using hundreds of adorable missle-wearing penguins, but on the other, you have two very touching origination stories. 
One about a deformed child who was tossed into the sewers by his 1% parents and the other, a lonely woman who is shoved out a window to her "death" after being taken advantage of by every man she's ever come across. The Penguin and Catwoman aren't just mean-spirited baddiesthey're victims. 

Wise: I almost felt bad for them... until Halle Berry made us her victim

Werth: And because of comic book touches like Catwoman's hardcore, latex, fetish-wear costume, Batman Returns dances nimbly between comic-book fantasy, and dark, sexual  melodrama.  
Bo Welch's production design makes the whole thing look gorgeous, gracefully merging a snow-capped Gothic cityscape with a host of circus and carnival sideshow touches that make this film dark, but fun enough not to be taken too seriously.

Wise: Batman may be the DC star getting the most attention this summer, but for a long time the company's main attraction was the Man of Steel himself. Hollywoodland (2006) acknowledges the power of cinematic superheros, but also examines the costs in bringing these comic book champions to the screen.  The film presents a fictionalized version of the events surrounding the death of TV's first Superman George Reeves (Ben Affleck).  A second-tier actor who always seemed to be on the cusp of something bigger, Reeves became an idol to millions of 1950s children, but found that defending Truth, Justice, and the American way prevented him from being taken seriously as an actor.

Werth: Ronald Reagan had the same problem.

Wise: His champion, and lover, Toni Mannix (Diane Lane) supports him through the bad times, but also complicates his relationship to Hollywood because her husband Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins) is one of the MGM studio chiefs and his displeasure could spell disaster for Reeves career.

Werth: That's why sleeping with the boss' wife is always a bad idea... even if you're Superman.

Wise: Interlaced with scenes from Reeves' life is a second narrative following ramshackle (and entirely invented) private investigator Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) as he descends into the mysteries surrounding Reeves' death from a gunshot wound in his Beverly Hills home.  Simo has an ex-wife, a kid obsessed with the dead guy in tights, and a bad habit of being on the losing end of a fistfight.  Still, he's determined to expose the sordid underbelly of the Tinseltown in his search for the truth.

Werth: Sounds a lot like L.A. Confidential.

Wise: That's the inevitable comparison—and, most likely, Hollywoodland probably benefited from Curtis Hanson's success—but the two films are actually quite different.  Director Allen Coulter and writer Paul Bernbaum are more interested in meditating on the nature of fame and the need to be heroic in private life than in the double backing plot twists that makes Confidential such an entertaining thriller.  
What both films do have in common, besides their period and setting, are great performances: Diane Lane is amazing as a woman well aware of her shelf life and determined to make the most of it; 
Ben Affleck mostly tamps down his tendency toward glibness and reveals the sorrows of a man who playacts the dreams of others while unable to achieve his own; and Bob Hoskins snacks on the scenery as an exalted thug with a tender spot for beauty.

Werth: I notice you're not mentioning Brody.

Wise: Brody does fine work here, although his sections feel a bit overlarded with incident.  Films with parallel plots are difficult to balance, especially when one half is much more compelling than the other, as is the case here with Reeves, or when the normally delightful Amy Adams ran smack onto a Meryl Streep juggernaut.

Werth: It's hard to make duos work. Luckily neither you nor I are Meryl Streep.

Wise: Tune in next week for more Film Gab from blogdom's Dynamic Duo!

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