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Todd Phillips’ Joker

Gotham City, 1981. Sanitation services are on strike, leaving piles of garbage curb side. Mounting inequality and rampant poverty poison the collective climate and spur on bubbling unrest. Billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) makes the kind of callous comments on live tv that don’t help anyone’s situation much. “Is it just me or are things getting crazier out there?” laments Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck. He’s more right than he knows, both in terms of ‘out there’ and closer to home. Todd Phillips’ Joker is a brilliant, flammable, uncomfortable, thought provoking, beautifully crafted piece not only on its own terms as a standalone character study but also as part of the Batman universe as well.

Arthur lives with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy) in a shit box apartment, works as a street clown for an agency that resents him, sees a dour social worker until funding is cut along with access to his medication. He idolizes a funny-man TV talk show host (Robert Deniro in scenery chewing mode) until the guy cruelly mocks him for laughs. Arthur is as close to snapping as the entire city around him and one can almost use his gradually disintegrating grasp on reality and coherence as a barometer for that of Gotham itself and the world outside the cinema that we know too. Phoenix is indescribably good in the role, shedding pounds and growing a shaggy mane to portray this beyond iconic antagonist and giving us a portrayal that is so well built up, so scarily developed that by the time he has incarnated into the full fledged clown prince of crime we feel like running for the door in terror. But he’s also madly human too, a man repeatedly stomped down by the forces around him until a combination of stress, untreated mental illness, hurt and humiliation push him over that edge in a startling act of violence. Joaquin is the star here but Phillips also populates his Gotham with a variety of faces both new and familiar including Douglas Hodge, Zazie Beets, Brian Tyree Henry, Josh Pais, Bill Camp, Shea Wigham, Glenn ‘The Yellow King’ Fleshler and more.

So, about that elephant in the room. I don’t usually like to address this kind of thing in my reviews but this film has inexplicably whipped up a hilariously misguided fever of opinions, so read loud and clear folks: The Joker is a comic book character. This is a film. The way he’s written here is as a mentally ill victim of an would be standup comedian who is pushed to the brink, left to stew in his own mind as well as a horrifying cycle of abuse and finally loses it. This film in no way glorifies, condones or puts lone wolf violence onto a pedestal and if you think otherwise than you either haven’t seen the film or gravely misunderstood it’s themes. This maniacal, dogmatic, woke-a-cola nonsense has no business here and those peddling it should be embarrassed of themselves, shut both their mouths and their laptops, go into the corner and count to ten. Got it? Good.

Philips has created quite the vision of Gotham and The Joker here, drawing inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s work, lovingly observing key touchstones of the Batman universe and adding his own stylistic flairs that help this thing do a dance all its own. This is not a crowd pleaser or a pleasant experience though. Gotham has none of the Hammer aura of Burton or Broadway kitsch of Schumacher, but is simply a weary, dirty, worn out avatar for late seventies New York with just a tad of 30’s/40’s atmosphere present in the soundtrack choices and a terrific cameo from Charlie Chaplin. Phoenix owns the film and can’t really be compared. I love every Joker portrayal so far in cinema (yes even Jared Leto) for a host of different reasons and Phoenix adds another incendiary notch to the belt here with his psychologically shredded howl of a performance. Add to that gorgeous, gritty urban cinematography by Lawrence Sher, stunningly grimy and beautifully lit production design by Mark Friedberg and a surprisingly ethereal, skin crawling score from Hildur Guanodóttir and you’ve got quite the package. One of the best films of the year so far.

-Nate Hill

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Tim Burton’s BATMAN

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Frank is joined with filmmaker and recurring Podcasting Them Softly co-host, Derek Wayne Johnson to discuss one of their favorite films, Tim Burton’s BATMAN. Derek also speaks on his current projects in post-production, STALLONE: FRANK THAT IS and his documentary on the original ROCKY.

Tim Burton’s Batman

Tim Burton’s Batman has to be of one of the most unique caped crusader films ever made. One villain, where in every other outing there’s a handful. A Prince soundtrack. The craziest gothic production design this side of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It’s one of my least favourite in the string of cinematic Batman films, probably falling somewhere under Nolan’s efforts and Burton’s superior sequel Returns, but that doesn’t mean much because on it’s own terms, it’s really something special. The aesthetic employed here is important not just in comic book films but in the realm of special effects in general. Burton carefully composes a world that reminisces on the grainy Hammer horror movies of the 50’s and infuses that with the stark trench coat noir from 30’s gangster flicks. He’s a director who has always understood that atmosphere is key above most other things in a production and it’s thick as a fog bank here. Then there’s the casting of Michael Keaton, a physically unassuming choice for Batman who seized the moody aspects of the character and took them to new introspective heights, barely uttering three words as both Bruce and Bats. The hook of this film was obviously meant to be Jack Nicholson’s rowdy, boisterous Joker, so much so that he got billing above Keaton. In a subdued, musty Gotham city, he’s the one splash of psychotic colour that stands out, a relentlessly cartoonish yet very scary ignoramus who cements the aforementioned old school gangster vibe, especially in an origin prologue where he’s just Jack Nicholson sans makeup and fanfare, which is when we see some of his best work of the film no less. Kim Basinger feeds off of Bruce’s sullenness as Vicki Vale, a news reporter and obligatory love interest, but Basinger dodges the cliche a bit and simmers underneath the sex appeal, especially when she falls into the Joker’s clutches and we see past trauma burning in her eyes, whether it’s Vicki’s or Kim’s, we’ll probably never know. Robert Wuhl, Billy Dee Williams as a pre Two Face Harvey Dent, Pat Hingle, and Michael Gough all make vivid appearances, but I especially enjoyed Jack Palance as a nastily corrupt kingpin/politician who’s partly responsible for Nicholson’s epic caterpillar into sociopathic butterfly metamorphosis. The real star of the show here though is Gotham City itself, seemingly conjured up from the darkest shared dreams of Count Dracula and James Cagney. It’s a monumental achievement in set design that has influenced countless other projects since and serves as one of the textbook urban hellholes in cinema. This may not be my favourite Batman flick as it is for some, there’s a few things that stand out. The celebratory score by Danny Elfman, although brilliant in it’s own right, seems to clash a bit with the dingy, cobwebbed vibe of Gotham and I’m always curious how the atmosphere would have been if they went with something a bit darker. A minor quibble in an overall picture that’s a stroke of genius though. From that baroque Batmobile catching air through a giant waterfall to the inky black and deep purple silhouettes of Bats and Joker atop a cathedral loft, this film has since been engraved into legend and stands as one of the most iconic comic book flicks.

-Nate Hill

Batman Forever: A Review by Nate Hill 

It’s true, Batman Forever is a silly, overblown, cartoonish riot of buffoonry.  But so what? It’s also awesome in it’s own way, and inhabits a certain corner of the Batman culture, the side of things that is rooted in camp and unhinged wonderment. Now, there’s an important and discernable difference between taking things far and taking things too far. That difference is delineated on one side by a willingness to be goofy, colorful and not take this superhero stuff too seriously. The other side of that of course is a disregard for limits, throwing every ridiculous line, costume and awkward scene into it you can imagine. I’m referring to Joel Schumacher’s followup to this, Batman & Robin. Everything that is weird, wonderful and extravagant about Forever just revved up to much in Robin, resulting in a piss poor typhoon of mania and over acting. Not to say that Forever doesn’t have over acting. Ohhhh boy is there over acting. Between Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey, the thing is liable to give you epilipsy. But it somehow works despite its madness, a lucky stroke that Robin couldn’t have cared less about adhering to. Val Kilmer is the sedating antidote to Jones and Carrey, a remakably laid back Bats and a pretty solid casting choice, both as Brooding Bruce and Buttkicking Bats. Eternally broken up about the death of his patents, Bruce fights off Harvey Two Face Dent (Jones) in a garish, disarming Gotham City that resembles Mardi Gras in Dr. Seuss land. Jones’s Two Face is so far over the top, so rabid that it’s a wonder he didn’t give himself a bloody heart attack in the first take. Anyone who’s interested can read up on his performance, and how he pushed himself right to the heights of bombast in order to try and out-Carrey the Jim. Carrey, playing the Riddler, is a ball of twisted nerves himself, set loose on the wacky sets and basically given free reign to.. well.. go fucking nuts. It’s one of his most physical performances too, prancing around like a loon in green spandex that leaves nothing to the imagination. Aaron Eckhart’s Two Face may have had the edge for grit, but Jones has the rollicking clown version, and runs away to kookoo land with mannerisms that even call to mind The Joker in some scenes. The only thing I’ve seen him more hopped up in is Natural Born Killers, but shit man its hard to top his work in that. The story is all over the place, involving a nonsensical subplot with a mind control device, multiple elaborate set pieces, endless scenery chewing and the eventual arrival of Robin, played by Chris O’Donnell who is like the cinematic Buzz Killington. Michael Gough and Pat Hingle dutifully tag along as Alfred and Commissioner Gordon, both looking tired at this point. Debi Mazar and Drew Barrymore have amusing dual cameos as Two Face’s twin vixens, and Nicole Kidman does the slinky love interest shtick for Bruce as a sexy psychologist. Watch for an uncredited Ed Begley Jr. Too. There’s no denying the silliness, but one has to admit that the achievment in costume, production design and artistry are clear off the charts with this one, and visually it should be a legend in the franchise. Say what you will about it, I love the thing. 

Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice – A Review by Nate Hill

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Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Wow. Where to even start. What a symphony of scorched earth heroics, a two and a half hour maelstrom of thundering action, introspective gloom and very current vibes of apocalyptic dread. I’m not sure if I was watching an entirely different film from some of these bitter bottomed critics who are maiming it with inaccurately nasty reviews. Balls to them. Zach Snyder should be proud of this achievment, for in the face of both ruthless odds and rabid fans who would make any one of us piss down our legs at the thought of ‘getting it right’, he has mounted a titanic epic of a superhero flick, hitting all the right notes and fuelling both casual moviegoers and salivating super fans with a rekindled love for comic book films. A much welcomed grit and violent edge creeps into the proceedings here, a tone which Snyder has a passion for and is incredibly deft with. We begin with a visually arresting opening credit sequence, which Snyder previously perfected to hair raising brilliance in Watchmen, a ten minute opus set to Bob Dylan. Here he inter cuts shots of young Bruce Wayne, both discovering the prophetic swarm of bats and on the fateful night of his parents murder, a sequence done over a thousand times in film, but never quite with the inventive flair used here. We then arrive with adult Bruce (Ben Affleck) in Metropolis right as it’s being ripped to shreds by the Def Jam smackdown match of Superman (Henry Cavill) and Zod (Michael Shannon). There’s eerie shades of 9/11 as Bruce darts through the ashen rubble, attempting to save the employees in one of his towers. One senses the fear and rage in Wayne right off the bat (pun intended). He glowers in seething fury at the man of steel, primally threatened and haunted all over again by loved ones he couldn’t save a second time around. This film addresses the ludicrous amount of destruction that Superman wrought upon Metropolis in several ways. Political nerve endings are fried as Senate and State alike get hostile towards the god in the red cape. No one is more aggressive than Batman, though. This brings me to Affleck as Batman. Without a doubt my favourite cinematic incarnation of the caped crusader, and his debonair counterpart to date. Yes, even more so than Bale. Nolan’s The Dark Knight is still tops for me, but the  portrayal of Batman by Bale didn’t strike as harmonious a chord with me as Affleck. It just didn’t feel like pure Batman, it was real world Batman. Affleck feels much more rooted in the comics, and God damn it all if he isn’t the most savage, violent Bats to come our way, well… ever. I’ve always been bothered by the nagging fact that Batman refuses to kill. Even in in a beatdown he could easily inadvertently cause death, so why bother trying? Here, he doesn’t go out of his way to deliberatly kill, but he sure has no problem brutally breaking bones and stabbing his adversaries without an iota of faux-noble hesitation. That’s the kind of Batman I want to see. Fuming, fired up and full of rage demons that erupt into fantastic action scenes. One sequence involving a room full of thugs is just jaw dropping and probably my favourite sequence of the film, even over the titular smackdown with Superman. There’s an earthy, simplistic take to him as well, with a modest suit that gives nods to Frank Miller and even Batman: The Animated Series. He is by far the elemental force that the character should be, and the part of the film that I connected with most. I hope he gets his standalone film real soon. Henry Cavill has grace and intuition as Superman, and a surprisingly earthly aura as Clark Kent, in a fit about Batman’s vigilante tactics. He’s the outsider here, an orphaned deity truly trying to do his best in a world that often shuns him in fear. He was never my favourite superhero, or even on the list, but Cavill combined with Snyder make him a force to be reckoned with, and a hero I can get behind. The two eventually meet in a remarkably choreographed clash of the titans, a duel that really only lasts a few minutes and isn’t central theme, which raises questions in my head about the first part of that title. Their fight is composed of Batman’s hard hitting, blunt force physicality pitted against Superman’s fluid, elegent invincibility which is satisfyingly put to the test by the appearance of a certain green mineral we all know about. The James Cameron-esque suit Batman wears for the fight is a grinding wonder that looks like it weighs a metric ton and could level buildings alongside the man of steel. The combat feels urgent, from the gut and roars into action perfectly. Of course, that isn’t where the fireworks stop, but I ain’t sayin any more than that. Gal Gadot is truly wonderful as Wonder Woman, I also can’t wait for her solo outing, and wish she’d been in the film more. Her much talked about entrance is the definition of crowd pleasing, and will make you cheer in approval, which I did out loud. She’s  endlessly gorgeous, and has the toughness to go along with it, a great casting decision by anyone’s tally. Jesse Eisenberg wowed me as a young, jittery Lex Luthor, in what is probably the most clinically insane portrayal thus far. Forget bumbling Gene Hackman and hammy Kevin Spacey, this guy seals it for me. There’s a true madness to his Lex, which when given enough money and resources can have cataclysmic results. It’s a villain  to remember, and Eisenberg exudes palpable danger from every pore, his psychopathic sheen of logic barely shrouding the mania beneath. Jeremy Irons is a more restrained, jaded Alfred who is still unconditionally supportive of Wayne, but is reaching the end of his rope which is tethered to pure world weariness. He gets some of the only humerous bits of the film, albeit of dry, brittle variety. Amy Adams is reliably terrific, her eyes pools of perception that mirror the horror and spectacle of the events through the mind of a human, with every ounce of nerve and courage as those around her that have superpowers, or expensive toys. Diane Lane is weathered wisdom and maternal compassion as Martha Kent, nailing her scenes with the small town, kindhearted patience that a film this noisy deserves, tipping the scales to provide occasional serenity in the eye of the hurricane. Kevin Costner makes a brief appearance in one of the films numerous and often confusing dream sequences. He was a highlight in Man Of Steel, and brings the same baleful, gruff adoration here, in a wonderful but brief scene with Clark. Laurence Fishburne is another source of rare humour as the perpetually exasperated Perry, CEO of the Daily Planet. Aggravated and cheeky, he commands every frame he’s in and had me chuckling no end. Holly Hunter has forged a career of playing no nonsense hard asses, here a ballbreaking US Senator here who shares a moment of distilled intensity with Luthor proving that Superhero films can have some of the best written dialogue. Harry Lennix makes great use of said writing too as the steely Secretary Of Defense. Callan Mulvey and Scoot McNairy are memorable in supporting turns. Listen hard for Patrick Wilson and Carla Gugino, and look for a certain ocean dwelling dude in the briefest of moments. Jeffrey Dean Morgan also has a cameo that’s almost too good to be true. Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, who was so top notch with Mad Max: Fury Road, combine efforts for a score that knocks it out of the park and several miles further. Batman has a soul rousing battle cry of an overture, with subtle shades of Zimmer’s work on the Nolan films, built upon to give us something truly unique and fitting for the character. Lex Luthor is accompanied by a fitful cacophony of strings that sound like the Arkham Asylum charity orchestra having a collectively unnerving seizure. My favourite riff though I think is for Wonder Woman, a deviously disarming jaunt that strays from the grandiose, baroque theme and feels wickedly subversive, getting you just so pumped for her character. Zimmer’s work on Interstellar made it my top score of 2014, because he leapt out of the box of his usual tricks and gave us something we’d never heard from him before. Here he shreds that box with ingenuity and creative output, a varied, explosive piece that assaults your ears splendidly. My one concern with the film was a dream sequence midway through concerning Batman, and anyone who’s seen the film knows what I’m talking about. I’m sure comic book fans have some point of reference or context regarding it, but the casual viewer doesn’t, and a little more explaining would have been nice. I will say though it showcases Batman in an entirely new light which took me off guard nicely. This is what a superhero movie should be, plain and simple. Big, bold, audacious, stirring and full of high flying action, dastardly villains, conflicted heroes clashing like the ocean tides and a sense of pure adventure. Forget what the critics are saying, this one comes up aces in all categories and is a perfectly wonderful start to the stories of a group of characters that I look forward to seeing in many a film to come. Especially Affleck’s Batman.

Tim Burton’s Batman Returns: A Review By Nate Hill

Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is my second favourite Batman movie thus far. It’s pretty underrated, stylishly cheeky and full of ornate, wonderfully oppressive, melancholic set design and drips with a gothic sensability that only Burton included in his versions, and seems to be missing from the franchise these days. It’s dark, comical and just a little bit campy, always a winning combination. Michael Keaton steps back into the batsuit for a second time, and he’s even more somber and downbeat than in Burton’s original 1989 film. Keaton is so talented, and one only needs to look at his zany work in Beetlejuice and compare it to the heft and restraint he shows as the caped crusader to see this. Here he’s faced with a snowy, blackened and endlessly corrupt Gotham City, this time under siege from three wildly different villains. Danny Devito plays Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. The Penguin, in what is probably the most outlandish character in the otherwise grim film. He’s a bad tempered, knobbly little gremlin, encased in sallow makeup and sporting disgusting, pasty little flippers. It’s hard to tell it’s even Devito at all until that little smart ass mouth opens up to hurl calculated obscenities at anyone and everyone. He aims to be mayor, and only in freaky deaky Gotham would a plan like that ever be taken seriously, from a sewer dwelling, animalistic mobster with an army of clowns following him. Christopher Walken plays evil, ghoulish Max Schreck, an amoral monster of a businessman with nefarious plans of his own, and a haircut that would make Andy Warhol run for cover. Last and most memorable is Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle, Schreck’s awkward, meek secretary who eventually becomes Catwoman. And what a Catwoman she is. Forget Anne Hathaway, Julie Newmar take a number, and we won’t even mention Halle Berry. No one played the pussy quite like Pfeiffer. She’s got a shiny, skin tight outfit with the body to match, a sassy, sexy attitude, a whip smart mouth on her and just a hint of psychosis, making her my favourite film incarnation of the character. “Meow” she purrs sensually as an incendiary bomb detonates behind her. Damn. They all get wrapped up in various schemes and scams. Penguin wants ultimate power, which apparantly involves kidnapping a bunch of infants. Schreck wants ruthless progress to tear Old Gotham up in worship of the almighty dollar, and Catwoman is content to slash and burn everyone’s plans, until she gets a bit of a smolder in her eye for Batman, providing some electric sexual tension between the two of them that’s a highlight of the film. Neither of them are sure whether they want to kiss or kill, fight or fuck the other, and it’s devilishly entertaining watching them hash out their hormones in naughty little action sequences and slow, slinky intimate scenes, involving both Bruce and Selina as well as their feral alter egos. Their chemistry revolves at the center of the piece, with all manner of circus sideshow madness happening around them. Pat Hingle and Michael Gough diligently put in work as Commissioner Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth, with Doug Jones, Michael Murphy, Andrew Bryarniarski and Paul Reubens rounding out the roster. Burton outdid himself with style on this one, his trademark eye for loving detail laboriously employed here to the point where it surpasses the artistry of a comic book and starts to look like some mad dream of Vincent Price. He dipped his toe in the water of the Batman universe with his first outing. Here he plunges headlong into it and fully commits to a style and tone that’s distilled to a satisfactory point that he wasn’t quite at with Batman 1989. A treasure in the franchise, and a wicked fun film at that.