Dead and Buried and Back Again (The Serpent and the Rainbow, 1988)

Taking inspiration from author Wade Davis’ book of the same name, Wes Craven explores spirituality and politics. This is not a direct adaption of the book, with Bill Pullman playing Dr. Dennis Alan. Alan is sent by his employer (a pharmaceutical company) too Haiti to investigate the stories of Christophe, a man who died in 1978, but has reappeared from the dead.

While there, Alan starts to work with Dr. Marielle Duchamp, who is treating Christophe. With her help, he is introduced to practitioners of Voodoo who are open to teaching him how to make the toxins that produce the zombie state. Dennis is convinced there are medicinal uses that would revolutionize medical care.

However, Haiti is in a state of revolution, and runs afoul of the local corrupt constable Dargent Peytraud (played with ominous relish by Zakes Mokae). After a threat to his life Alan realizes he cannot escape Peytraud’s grasp and returns to Haiti to help the friends he has made and confront Peytraud.

For the two thirds of the story, Craven plays things a bit coy. Any horror moments could simply be happening in his head, under the influence of hallucinogens. Up until the moment he returns to the United States, Voodoo is treated pretty respectfully. But then the film swerves into horror fantasy with a spiritual showdown between Alan and Peytraud.

The effects in the film are really solid with all sorts of creepy imagery. But what really stands out is the beautifully shot scenery. Filmed largely on location in Haiti, the cinematographer John Lindley takes full advantage of the environments.

Wade Davis has expressed some disappointment with the film for how it sensationalizes Voodoo, while the whole point of his book was to present it as a valid religion alongside the more popular and accepted religions of the world. He does not seem to lay this at Craven’s feet, whom he has suggested was trying to make something less in the horror vein (Davis had hoped for something more like the Year of Living Dangerously). He feels the studio kept the pressure on to provide them with a Wes Craven thriller.

While the film has some tonal flaws, it is still a very strong return to form for Craven, especially after Deadly Friend. This is Craven managing to bring his more intellectual ideas alongside his thriller instincts. And it works. This is an engaging film worth a watch.

Gotham Crumbles (Batman & Robin, 1997)

Batman_&_Robin_PosterRemember how I said Schumacher hoped to make Batman Year one by giving the studio what they wanted?  Well, Batman Forever was actually a hit.  It made a ton of money.  And guess what the studio wanted?  If you said, “A gritty look at Batman’s first year”?  Slap yourself.  They said “Give us more toys and product placement.  Which led to a seen where Batman uses his BatCredit Card.

In addition, Kilmer was the George Lazenby of the franchise.  He was out…in was ER heart throb George Clooney.  Clooney got the luck of putting the nails into the coffin of the original Bat-Franchise.

Batman & Robin is bloated, as it has introduced Robin and now Batgirl (who is Alfred’s niece, rather than Commissioner Gordon’s daughter).  The villains are Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze.  Freeze is almost wonderfully miscast with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role.  The character has always been a thin and lanky dude.  So casting a muscled action star only makes the most sense. In addition to the two villains, the film includes Bane as one of the henchmen of Poison Ivy.

Batman and Robin try and stop Freeze and Ivy who team up for reasons…even though their reasons are kind of in conflict.  Alfred is sick (and Freeze may hold the cure) and Commissioner Gordon is still around because people expect to see him in a Batman movie.

Like the last film, this one contains a big deal soundtrack, part of a thing in the 90’s where soundtracks featuring bands was a sign of a cool and with it movie.  Scores were for suckers in the 90’s.  The soundtrack help more to date the film than make it truly memorable.

Clooney is not terrible in the role…I mean, he is clearly trying to be a good Batman.  But the problem is, he is in a toy-centric movie, where his role is only as important in as much as it can sell toys to kids.  O’Donnell already feels to old to be playing a whiny entitled brat…but there he is.  Alicia Silverstone was a very 90’s choice.  She faced a brutal and unfair onslaught of abuse over fluctuating weight that simply did not belong in coverage of the film.  Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy is okay in performance, but her hairstyles are pretty terrible.  My favorite performance is actually John Glover…his Jason Woodrue is manically entertaining.

Bane is portrayed as a mindless drone under Ivy’s control.  Which shows how they just treated characters a something to be cherry picked with little regard for the original visions of these characters.  Visually the lush color schemes of Schumacher’s previous film.

The entire film is a crazy mess of an art department cut loose in concert with a demand for product tie-in to the point of almost beautiful obnoxiousness.  It never comes together in the end…but if it does not give you a seizure? You probably got out okay.

Batman Will Go On (Batman Forever, 1995)

Batman_Forever_PosterBatman Forever had some big shakeups.  Tim Burton and Michael Keaton were out.  Joel Schumacher and Val Kilmer were in.  But the real shakeup was…Warner Brothers wanted to sell more toys.  Schumacher had read Batman: Year One.  He really wanted to tell that story.  The studio was not interested.  Schumacher thought that if he gave them the movie they wanted, he might be able to persuade them on the next film to do the film he really wanted to do.

For the Riddler, the film hired Jim Carrey (fresh off Ace Ventura:Pet Detective, the Mask and Dumb & Dumber) and for Two Face?  Tommy Lee Jones (their established actor choice-no doubt selected for his uncanny resemblance to Billy Dee Williams) was their choice.

The casting of Kilmer was treated like this was a James Bond casting choice. We can replace anybody.  Anyways, The story also introduced Robin (played by Chris O’Donnell).  Batman’s love interest is sexy psychiatrist Chase Meridian.  Really.  Adding more characters means more action figures…and vehicles…Super-heroes gotta have a lot of rides…as do their arch enemies.  Well, unless you are Chase Meridian…you do not get to be an action figure.

Much of the film is given to Jim Carrey to do his typical over the top goofiness that he was known for.  This was three years before he started playing roles that required him to tone it down.  It can become obnoxious, and Tommy Lee Jones tries to keep up, going over the top himself.  Kilmer just fills his tuxedo and walks through the film.  Multiple villains make for a bloated plot.  Add to that the introduction of Robin?  This is not O’Donnell’s finest moment.  He is just not convincing as a skilled martial artist or acrobat.  Chase Meridian is a very boring character.  She seems to be a character existing solely because they felt there should be a love interest.  You know…for the girls.

Again, there is little meat for characters like Commissioner Gordon…and the films make him feel like an old man who is ever so ineffective…and knows it, so he waits on Batman to save the day.

Visually, Schumacher goes more Art Deco with his Gotham City.  He plays with vibrant colors and visual queues.  This is certainly an interesting change…except it also becomes highly implausible that such a city would be built this way.

This was the Bat Franchise teetering on collapse.  But there were no lessons learned.

Back In Gotham (Batman Returns, 1992)

batman_returns-posterJack Nicholson kind of established the villains would always be played by big names.  Danny DiVito was brought in to play the Penguin.  But this was not the traditional Penguin from the comics.  Not merely a short round guy is a top hat, Burton envisioned an origin in which Oswald Cobblepot is born to an affluent family who are repulsed by his grotesque appearance. His father (played by Paul Reubens, who would play Penguin’s father on Gotham decades later) and mother (Diane Salinger) dump him over a bridge where he is found by penguins.

Batman Returns is a rather odd duck.  Selina Kyle is a meek secretary who discovers the evil plans of her boss Max Shreck (Christopher Walken).  She is thrown out a window and barely survives…but wakes after being found by cats.  She flips out and apparently has the nine lives of cats and a really sexy persona.

While the film still  has the gothic visuals, it really feels all over the place.  Adding the secondary “villain” of Catwoman means there is that much more story to address.  On top of that you have a villain in the name of Max Shreck.  Add to that a few moments of implications of Penguin being a bit of a sexual creep (for instance, he is running for mayor and he puts a button on a young woman, groping her breast as he does it).

The film has a more interesting plan than the first film, but still, the sheer goofiness makes it almost to campy.  You have penguins fitted with rocket launchers, weird carnival henchmen, evil businessmen, latex covered secretaries…It never really comes together, and falters repeatedly.

Last Laugh (Batman, 1989)

batman-poster1989 saw the release of the most controversial Batman casting until Batfleck.  Michael Keaton, known almost entirely for comedies such as Mr. Mom, Johnny Dangerously and Gung Ho was cast as Batman…oh the horror and oh the wailing.  A long tradition of freaking out over casting began right here.  People were a bit more open to Jack Nicholson playing the Joker.

As it turned out, Keaton was okay in the role.  His Batman was appropriately serious, while his take on Bruce Wayne was an interesting approach.  His Bruce Wayne seems to be constantly distracted.  After the 1960’s series, Batman’s comics had returned to a darker version of the character.  A dark soul, haunted by his parents’ deaths at the hands of a low level criminal.  People feared Keaton would make this more 60’s Batman, rather than the Dark Knight Returns.

With Tim Burton at the helm, the film was a dark and gothic affair filled with crime bosses and corrupt police officers.  And the fabled Batman haunting the city.  In a attempt to thwart a mob crime, Batman knocks aspiring Crime Boss Jack Napier into a vat of chemicals.  He emerges with a chalk white complexion and a new smile.  He goes off and takes over the Grissom (Carl Grissom, played by Jack Palance) criminal Empire.  This leads to an ongoing battle with Batman.

The film has a great cast, headlined by Keaton, Nicholson and Kim Basinger.  They are supported by a crew of character  actors and well known faces.  You have Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon and the glue that held the franchise together?  Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth, Batman’s trusted butler and aide.

While the visuals are grand, the Joker’s motives seem supremely mundane.  He wants to be a mobster.  And woo Vicki Vale.  He may be cruel and ruthless, but so are lots of mob bosses in the movies.  Take away the grin and face-paint? He would not stand out.  Batman’s greatest weakness is not Keaton, but the fact that he cannot even turn his head.  The costumes look good in still shots, but seem goofy when Keaton is having to turn his whole body to look around.

In addition, Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent feel more like set decorations than characters.  They are almost entirely inconsequential to the story.  They seem to be there because they have to…it is a Batman movie.  Gough is the bright spot in the film.  His Alfred is kind and wise.  He is not as involved in the day to day support of Batman, he is more there to support Bruce Wayne.

While 1989’s Batman is not terrible, it does not quite stand the test of time.  It is still enjoyable, but it does not live up to the character’s full potential.

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