Monday, 23 June 2014

Some Thoughts on the 25th Anniversary of Tim Burton's "Batman"

Richard Donner’s Superman (1978)- starring Christopher Reeve- made people believe a man could fly and laid the seeds for the domination of the superhero genre years later. But if Superman is the father of the superhero genre than Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) is its creepy uncle. Today marks the 25th anniversary of Batman’s release and in the 25 years since the superhero genre has evolved significantly, with superhero films becoming the dominant blockbusters of modern cinema.  Many superhero films now feel manufactured but Batman is still a distinct and twisted vision- funny, dark, and compulsively re-watchable even after the impact of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
Before Batman’s release many non-comic readers’ image of the Caped Crusader was of the 1960s Adam West TV series. Those more familiar with the comics became accustomed to a darker vision of the character thanks to late 80s takes on the character such as Frank Miller's Batman Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, as well as Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. Batman brought that more mature take on the character to life, aiming to satisfy comic fans and to show that the character was more than the comedic West series.
Though before the film was released many were afraid the film would be an updated version of the 60s series. These fears stemmed from the casting of Michael Keaton, best known for his performances in comedies such as Night Shift and Mr. Mom. People presumed Keaton’s presence meant the film would be a comedy. Upon hearing about the controversy Jon Peters- one of the film’s producers- released a trailer, highlighting the film’s dark tone, to squash peoples’ fears about the casting. In many ways Keaton’s casting was the first controversial casting in a superhero film. Heath Ledger, Robert Downey Jr., and now Ben Affleck as the new Batman would follow in the years to come.
While actors such as Willem Dafoe (who would go on to play the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man), John Lithgow, and Tim Curry were considered for the role of Batman’s nemesis the Joker, screen legend Jack Nicholson was chosen. He had been a favourite of producer Michael Uslan for the role since the early 80s. Nicholson’s contract gave him a large percentage of the film’s gross along with his salary for the film.

Many criticize Nicholson for playing himself in the role of the Joker but whether you’re a fan of the performance or Nicholson as an actor, he’s much more memorable than several recent super-villains of the superhero genre. Personally, I find Nicholson incredibly entertaining in the role and get a kick out of his dialogue: “Can somebody tell me what kind of world we live in, where a man dressed up like a bat gets all of my press?” “Where does he get all those wonderful toys.” This film established the tradition of getting big names to play Batman villains- Jim Carrey as the Riddler, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, etc.  A significant flaw in the Batman franchise is that the villains would always get more back-story than Batman and would often overshadow the character in his own movies.

Tim Burton was a relatively new director to feature filmmaking at this time, having mostly directed shorts and two feature length films- Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, which starred Keaton. Burton was a risky choice to handle such a big property but this film would solidify Burton as a big Hollywood filmmaker. Burton was not a fan of comics growing up but he admired The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns.

Burton actually pays homage to Moore’s version of the Joker’s origin story. In both Batman and The Killing Joke the Joker’s origin involves Jack Napier (in the film)/the unnamed engineer (Killing Joke) falling in to a vat of acid and going insane upon seeing his reflection, his skin now bleached. What’s noticeable about Batman is it’s more of a Joker origin story than Batman origin story. While Superman and future superhero films focus on the hero’s origin, in Batman the titular character has already taken on the mantle of a vigilante. It's not until later on in the film that Batman's origin is revealed when Bruce Wayne thinks back to the night his parents were murdered. One of the most striking departures this film makes from the comics is that Napier, when he was a young hoodlum, was the murderer of Bruce’s parents. To my knowledge this is the first and only incarnation that interprets the Joker this way. This controversial re-interpretation is one the boldest changes in a superhero themed film and foreshadows the risks filmmakers would take when re-interpreting comic book mythology.
Burton keeps the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman largely a mystery to the viewer. Thus we need a character to be a representation for the audience. The character we actually follow throughout the film is Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), a photographer who’s come to Gotham City due to her interest in the rumours about Batman and teams up with reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl), who's also obsessed in discovering who or what Batman is. Vicki begins a romance with Bruce and it’s through this relationship we discover who the real Bruce Wayne is behind the rich playboy facade. A large theme of the film is that Bruce has been locked away behind facades for so long that he doesn’t quite know how to embark on a courtship.     

Unlike West, Keaton creates a distinction between the two personas of Bruce Wayne and Batman, emphasizing the character's dual psyche. Keaton puts fears to rest as soon as the film opens with Batman beating up two criminals who committed a mugging that echoes the character’s origin. Gone is the “old chum” Batman of the 60s series. Keaton’s Batman is a stoic, intimidating creature who strikes fear in to the hearts of criminals.  
Batman came out in 1989. At this time the blockbuster/action movie scene was populated by Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Indiana Jones and John McClane. This was long before the comic book superhero was the dominant franchise headliner at the cineplex. Despite his popularity, Batman wasn’t the hero people were used to seeing on screen.  And Keaton was not anyone’s image of an action hero. But this is what makes the film and why it had such an impact upon its release. It wasn’t like anything people were seeing at this time.
This is largely due to its production designs, which places Batman outside of any specific time setting. There’s a distinct 1930s/1940s vibe to the gangsters’ outfits, cars, etc. but the film doesn’t specifically take place during that period. Aside from the inclusion of music from Prince in one sequence the film’s aesthetic qualities lend it a timeless feel. Similar to the Christopher Reeve Superman films, the film attempts to creates a stylized reality rather than place the character in a modern setting.

The success of Batman led to the creation of the great Batman: The Animated Series, which premiered in 1992 and ran until 1998. The style of the series was influenced by Batman. The film's success also made Warner Bros. give Burton creative control over the sequel, Batman Returns. The result was one of the darkest, depressing,  and most twisted films, superhero or otherwise, to come out of a major studio. The darkness turned off people, namely parents who dragged their kids off to see it.. Warner Bros. then went in another direction and hired Joel Schumacher to helm Batman Forever, a much lighter take on the character.
I can’t call Batman a masterpiece or a great film but it’s a memorable, highly entertaining piece of pop entertainment. It's beautifully gothic and an interesting prototype for the future films in the franchise. Happy 25th anniversary Batman.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Shakespeare on Screen: Orson Welles' "Macbeth"

In 1947 Orson Welles began plans to bring a Shakespeare drama to the screen. He initially wanted to adapt Othello but he couldn’t get investors to support the project. Welles would eventually make an adaptation of Othello in 1952 but for the time being he decided to film Macbeth, Shakespeare’s tale of the supernatural and its affect on the human heart. Welles- whose background was in theatre- had staged a production of Macbeth back in 1936. It was nicknamed the “Voodoo Macbeth” due to Welles setting the story in the Caribbean instead of Scotland and substituting the play’s use witchcraft with voodoo.    

Welles was able to gain the support of Herbert Yates, the founder and president of Republic Pictures, to back the film. Yates came on board, hoping that producing a Welles’ directed film would increase Republic Pictures’ prestige as a studio; but Yates wasn’t able to provide Welles with a big budget. Welles agreed to shoot the film in three weeks on a budget of 700,000 and would also pay out of his own pocket if it went over budget.      

Welles’ Macbeth (1948) has been eclipsed over the decades by Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) and Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) but it’s nevertheless a striking and atmospheric piece of filmmaking. While it’s low on budget it’s an expressionistic vision that’s alive with cinematic gusto. With his first film, Citizen Kane (1941), Welles revolutionized the way we think about filmmaking and how a movie could look and sound. And despite his struggles with studios and funding in the following years, he never stopped creating unique cinema.  

Polanski’s Macbeth was filmed on real locations and but had an otherworldly atmosphere. Welles’ version was filmed on leftover sets from Republic Pictures’ westerns. Cinematographer John L. Russell- who shot Psycho for Alfred Hitchcock- creates the feeling of a nightmare. Like Welles’ other films there’s a surreal quality to almost everything we see and we’re never truly comfortable in this world. This is a world is entirely shrouded in fog, creating a sense of isolation. We are trapped in with Macbeth (played by Welles) and Lady Macbeth’s (Jeanette Nolan) descent in to evil and madness. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s leanest plays and this film- just less than two hours- is a streamed lined adaptation.

Welles makes changes in terms of the text. One alteration/interpretation of the text I find the most fascinating is having Banquo (Edgar Barrier) recite his speech from the beginning of act III, scene III- wherein he communicates his suspicions that Macbeth killed the King Duncan- directly to Macbeth. This adds even more tension to the relationship between the two men. Welles also combines certain passages and puts others in different places in the narrative. It’s a risky thing to play around with the text but I think Welles’ makes these changes work. As an adaptation and as a film Macbeth work as a cohesive piece rather than come across like a jumbled mess.

Despite the low budget Welles is able to create a visually striking and imaginative film. The clay version of Macbeth that the witches mold and is beheaded at the end is a sly call back to “Voodoo Macbeth.” I love how he films the banquet scene. When we see Macbeth’s point of view, all the chairs are empty except for the one in which Banquo’s ghost sits. Macbeth points to the ghost and as he does so we see huge ominous shadow of Macbeth’s finger. There’s also a simple but cool scene transition that appears very theatre inspired. It’s after the banquet scene and as Macbeth crosses the stage we’ve shifted locations from the banquet to a barren landscape. Macbeth goes to the top of a hill and speaks to the witches as thunder and lightning comes down around him. Another shot which sticks out in my mind involves Macbeth in a long shot. He comes toward the camera as he speaks. The camera follows him as he moves to the left of frame, revealing the soldiers in the background. It’s brief but it’s a shot I really admire.

Welles uses voiceover for several of the soliloquies- a technique Polanski would use in his version and Laurence Olivier would also utilize in his version of Hamlet, released the same year as this film. I used to not like it in Polanski’s version but I’ve grown accustomed to it as a cinematic technique. However, I think Welles should’ve had Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy spoken over an image of fog.   

Welles isn’t the obvious choice to play Macbeth but he equips himself well in the part. He has the proper girth and ruggedness for the part. While there were stronger and more subtle Shakespearean performers at this time Welles was clearly committed to the part. Welles originally wanted Agnes Moorehead or Vivien Leigh for Lady Macbeth but circumstances led to him casting an actress named Jeanette Nolan. Nolan only worked in radio and had no film or stage experience, which makes her turn as Lady Macbeth all the more impressive. Nolan is a commanding presence in the role and this film would lead to a long career in film and television for Nolan.

I felt there was a considerable lack of emotion from Macduff (Dan O’Herlihy) when he learns his family has been slaughtered by Macbeth’s men (another change Welles makes is he has Macbeth present when Macduff’s family is murdered). I understand that Macduff is a restrained man, being a soldier- and certain actors take a more subdued approach towards Shakespeare’s language but I felt that there should’ve been more of an outpouring of grief and anger from Macduff’s, considering it’s his family’s murder that sets in motion the play’s climatic events.

Welles actually had the actors pre-record their dialogue and notably the actors use Scottish accents. When the film received poor reviews, with specific complaints labelled at the supposed incomprehensibility of the dialogue, the actors were called in to re-record their lines, sans accents. The film was also cut down to 89 minutes, from the original 107. It was only years later when the full version was restored, along with the Scottish accents.

Welles’ Macbeth suffered a similar fate as many of his other post-Kane films in that it was tampered with by the studio and didn’t receive strong reviews. But as with other Welles’ films Macbeth now receives considerable acclaim. I think it’s one of the most unique cinematic interpretations of the Bard’s work we have.  It’s a small triumph of ambition and talent over the limitations of budget. And it’s another film that shows how ahead of his time Welles was as an artist.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

This is as far as you go: "Edge of Tomorrow"


Edge of Tomorrow is the kind of action blockbuster of which I don’t feel we get enough. It’s a good film in the way that many modern day blockbusters aren’t. It has strong characters, one of which goes through a satisfying and clear character arc, a layered and involving story- and it doesn’t rely on easter eggs or teases for future films to make an impression. It simply tells a standalone story that’s smartly written and develops organically. Edge of Tomorrow is essentially the film people wish Hollywood would churn out on a regular basis.

As the film opens mankind has been fighting an alien race called the Mimics for several years. Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage, a spokesman for the United Defense Forces, which has created weapon/exoskeletons called jackets to win the war effort. General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) summons Cage to London and orders him to cover the war effort from the frontlines in France. Cage attempts to blackmail the General to get out of being on the frontlines. When that doesn’t work Cage attempts to escape but is arrested and stripped of his rank. He is sent to Heathrow airport and later is dropped in to the war zone. The Mimics have anticipated the invasion and the soldiers are slaughtered. Cage kills a Mimic, resulting in him being covered in the Mimic's blood. He then wakes up back at the airport.

Cage begins to realize he is in a time loop and every time he dies he "resets" to the day before the invasion. On the battlefield he meets Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the "Angel of Verdun," who won a major battle in the war against the Mimics. In one of Cage’s loops Vrataski discovers Cage has foreknowledge of the future. She tells him to find her when he resets. They’re both killed and Cage seeks out Vrataski before the invasion. He discovers that Mimics are part of a collective consciousness called the Omega. The Omega has the ability to control time, which is why they knew about the invasion in France; and being covered with the Mimics’ blood is what allows Cage to reset after he dies. Vrataski once had the same ability but lost it after a blood transfusion. With Vrataski’s help Cage trains to become a better soldier.

The film that comes to mind when talking about Edge of Tomorrow is the late Harold Ramis’ 1993 film Groundhogs Day. And while it’s an understandable comparison, Edge of Tomorrow exists as its own story. Groundhogs Day had a more spiritual and metaphorical reason behind its premise. In Edge of Tomorrow the time looping has a more specific, sci-fi indebted reason behind it. The explanation for Cage's situation isn’t forced; rather, it's an integral part of the film’s mythology and story. And while the film may become too exposition-y at times the internal logic never becomes too confusing or bogs down the film.

Part of the pleasure of the film is seeing Cage' growth throughout the film. He starts out as somewhat shallow man, never having been in combat nor understanding the sacrifice of men and women during war. He’s also a coward, which makes Cage a different kind of action role for Cruise. But as Cage keeps reliving the same events we see him become  more self-aware about things around him and how he can use foreknowledge of things to his advantage. Like a video game, Cage has to move further in the “level” in order to win. If you’re a gamer at all it’s hard to relate. I  love the bit where Cage attempts to roll under a truck to escape from the military base- and he gets crushed. In other action films the hero would do it right the first time but here Cage can’t immediately be a perfect action hero. The film emphasizes how exhausting it must be for Cage to constantly die over and over again, always getting a really rude wakeup call from a soldier. “On your feet maggot” is this film’s “I’ve got you babe.” Through his training and his relationship with Vrataski Cage not only becomes a better soldier but a better man as well. It’s a simple but satisfying character arc.

Cruise is one of the most polarizing figures in Hollywood but this film shows he can still be a convincing action hero. It’s fascinating to see Cruise go from the more cowardly Cage to a more recognizable Cruise action hero; and he's strong enough an actor and action star to sell both sides. This is one of his best recent performances.

Blunt is also really great here. I’d hate to use the phrase “strong female character” It’s a little condescending- “look at you being strong”- and it’s unfortunate that a well rounded female character has to feel like an anomaly rather than a something to be expected. But for lack of a better phrase, Rita Vrataski is a strong female character. She’s a no-nonsense badass who actually has more depth than Cage. She’s not merely Cage’s love interest nor the "damsel in distress." I also think it’s cool she’s already went through Cage’s ordeal and has to teach him the ropes. And despite Vrataski’s hardened exterior we get hints of her vulnerability and her pain at losing someone close to her. While Cage doesn’t get much of a back-story we feel there’s a lot of history in regards to Vrataski’s character.

Bill Paxton also has a lot of fun here as Master Sergeant Farell. It’s a great character actor parts that’s a highlight of the film, though I wish there was more of a payoff for the character. Gleeson is underutilized but is  good in the two scenes he has with Cruise. I like the J Squad that Cage joins and I wish they were developed a little more, particularly since they’re a huge part of the climax.

One of the trickiest aspects of the film director Doug Liman and screenwriters- notably Christopher MacQuarrie- had to face was how to develop Cage and Vrataski’s relationship when Vrataski is constantly meeting Cage for the first time. It’s through Cage’s growing affection for Vrataski and encountering a situation where he can’t save her no matter what he does – as well as the script giving bits her back-story over the course of the film- that allows the relationship to develop despite the restrictions of the film’s structure.

A film in which events keep repeating themselves runs the risk of seeming too gimmicky or rigid in its structure. But what’s impressive about the film is it has an ongoing story despite being stuck in a specific period of time . The film eventually expands outside of the battlefield and we’re able to see different locations and events. It’s also through the film’s editing- by James Herbert and Laura Jennings- which gives the story a rhythm that makes the structure not feel rigid. The film knows when to show things in full, as early on in the film, and when to use montage and quick editing.  We also don’t see every loop but through Cage’s dialogue we clue in to what events he’s been through, notably in a farmhouse scene which defines the emotions and themes of the film. 

Doug Liman isn’t name that sparks much passion in the hearts of cinephiles but he directed what’s my favourite Jason Bourne film, 2002’s underrated The Bourne Identity, as well as 2007’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which began the world’s fascination with the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie relationship. While Liman isn't considered an “auteur,” what links the aforementioned films and Edge of Tomorrow is all three have a high concept hook- an assassin who has amnesia, a married couple that doesn’t know each other is a spy, a sci-fi version of Groundhogs Day- but  are also very star driven and it’s the stars that make the concepts work. Matt Damon reinvented himself as an action hero for the Bourne series and Pitt and Jolie’s chemistry is what got people in seats for Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Edge of Tomorrow’s concept works because of Cruise and Blunt.

Liman stages several stellar action sequences and make the war between humans and Mimics feel like an authentic conflict. The first time Cage and J Squad are dropped in the war zone is positively thrilling and invokes the sense of dread before battle and the chaos of war. Liman balances heavy sci-fi ideas and bombastic action while allowing the human elements to breath and to develop smoothly over the film. While some of the climatic action felt dragged down the third act for me, it’s hard not to be impressed with this film's set pieces.

If there’s one wonky element of the film it’s the ending. It’s confusing  in relation to what was established earlier. There needed to be rules established beforehand that made the ending click in to place. The ending is also a little too neat but that element is forgivable considering how likable the protagonists are. And the final moment is kind of perfect.

Edge of Tomorrow is a wonderful piece of entertainment that despite its high concept feels like a throwback to the type of action blockbuster that’s become rare these days. It’s unfortunate it’s struggling at the box office. This is a film you should see and maybe even see again. Cruise is at his best, Blunt is awesome and Liman has arguably made his best film since The Bourne Identity. Like Bill Cage, Edge of Tomorrow will get more chances at life in the near future on DVD/Blu-ray, Netflix, or what have you, which is a very good thing. For sci-fi fans and for fans of good Hollywood films, Edge of Tomorrow deserves your time.