Thursday, July 19, 2012

Film Review - Batman Retrospective - Batman Forever (1995)

Hey all!

Still excited about The Dark Knight Rises?! Damn right you are!

As such, Ranticular will be running a fortnight retrospective of all the Batman films that have received theatrical release ever! Because my love of my fans is only exceeded by my love for Batman...

 Batman Forever (1995)

Plot: Batman must over-come a police psychologist stalking him and also stop the Riddler from eating all the scenery on planet Earth. Meanwhile, the Joker appears to have been reborn in the body of Two-Face. Despite Robin being in the title of the next film, he actually makes his first appearance here. He has a silly looking earring and looks like a gay pirate. Holy falling franchise Batman!

Director: Joel Schumacher

Actors: Val Kilmer (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Jim Carrey (Edward Nygma/The Riddler), Chris O'Donnell (Dick Grayson/Robin), Tommy Lee Jones (Harvey Dent/Two-Face), Nicole Kidman (Dr.Chase)

The Film Itself:

After Batman Returns suffered a huge public back-lash for it's more adult nature (and since no one saw Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm), Warner Brothers decided that an innocent, more family-friendly (read: more toy-erific) direction was needed for future films and with that in mind they recruited Joel Schumacher, director of Time To Kill, The Client and ranticular favourite Falling Down. Joel had made a name for himself with hard-hitting, socially aware drama's, often with a vicious undertone. So obviously his directing of this toy commercial of a film made total sense.

In his defense,  Joel was noted as being legitimately a huge Batman comics fan. In fact, Joel's original pitch to Warner Brothers, a very faithful adaption of Frank Miller's classic comic Batman: Year One was shot down by Warner Brothers who instead urged him towards a film harking back to the classic 1960's Adam West Batman Tv series. Tim Burton agreed to stay on as producer, so all your Burtonites don't get off that easily, Tim Burton still had a hand in ruining Batman!

The problems start early in Batman Forever. The title screen which has the actors name's travel across the screen comes complete with (I shit thee not) car engine noises. Yes, the noises one might make as a child when pretending their toy cars were real. Oh sweet baby Jesus...

To set the tone for the rest of the film, Batman Forever formally opens with this shot.

What Tea-Bagging The Audience Looks Like

It doesn't really get a whole lot better from here. Now before I get accusations of being homophobic for not liking Bat-cock shoved in my face, i'd like to point out that...

A) - I'm bi (and not a self-loathing bi either) so this doesn't bother me for being 'gay'. However...

B) - Batman's crotch never actually factors into the film in any way.

C) - This scene doesn't actually look like a suiting-up scene. More like Batman is doing a series of twirls and half-turns for Alfred, perhaps on the bat-fashion-walkway they just installed in the Bat-cave.

D) - If I was put off by homo-erotic subtext, the Batman movies would have defeated me quite a few films ago.

Anyhow, aside from the fact he has a penis, how does Val Kilmer's Batman hold up? How to put this...He is the George Lazenby of the Batman film universe. Other then admittedly looking rather bad-ass in the costume, his Batman and Bruce Wayne are horrible, in my opinion the worst ever. His Batman comes across as if he is half asleep, which makes the quip-heavy script seem even lazier then it is (and ohhhh is it lazy!) This gives some lines a hilarious dead-pan delivery that was evidently not intended, such as Batman explaining to police psychologist Dr.Chase that "Bats arn't rodents" as if the good doctor was two years old. 

In fairness, Dr.Chase's response ("By the way, do you have a first name, or should I call you Bats?") is the worst line in the whole damn movie. Yes Dr.Chase, his first name is Joe. Joe Batman.

Anyhow, marvel at Batman's look of steely determination no that's not right... his look of focused aggression nope that's not it either... his look of constipated apathy. Yeah that's the one.

Apart From This Face, Which Is Terrifying

Kilmer's Bruce Wayne, one the other hand, is a turtle-neck wearing snob who seems to be constantly condescending and irritated even when trying to emote. Also, I'm not sure if it's intentional or not but Val Kilmer's attempt at an upper-class accent results in Bruce Wayne having a very slight lisp, which at least guarantees no one would suspect him of being Batman. He also has a plot point involving his father's red diary that is developed but never resolved, seemingly one of many things lost in Warner Brothers editing-room-recut of the film. I sense the red diary plot was a major factor in fleshing out and motivating the character of Bruce Wayne and it's lack of resolution means Bruce Wayne has no evident arc to speak of in this film, despite plenty of screen time (unlike Batman Returns).

I also feel that the film mis-handles Bruce Wayne's reasons for being Batman. At the end of the film, when faced with the Riddlers final riddle, Batman claims (out of nowhere) that he is both Bruce Wayne and Batman, not because he has to be but because he chooses to be. This scene, while a complete reverse of the Batman mentality from Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm, might have worked in that it shows Batman accepting the role of Batman as a necessity in his life... except not twenty minutes before-hand Batman told Robin that he was immediately retiring from being Batman. Because of a woman he kissed, once. This decision being made, I might add, while Two-Face and the Riddler are still at large and happily killing the citizens of Gotham. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen!

Dr.Chase, the world's least professional criminal psychologist, is the love interest for both Batman & Bruce Wayne in this movie. Nicole Kidman does her best with what the script gives her and the idea of her falling for both Batman and Bruce Wayne at the same time is an interesting twist on Catwoman's romantic arc. Sadly, Dr.Chase's scenes with Batman have her practically begging Batman to repeat that opening crotch shot for her, while her scenes with Bruce Wayne have zero chemistry. Maybe it's because I studied psychology myself in college but I find the writers complete disregard for her field (using the term 'wacko', making up conditions that don't exist) to be teeth-grindingly annoying. Her one great scene is when she manages to make Bruce Wayne irrationally sexually jealous of Batman, which is hilarious. Not that Kilmer's acting makes his easy to notice mind you... 

For such child-friendly fare, the sexual sub-text of Dr.Chase is incredibly potent. I entirely believe the sum of Joel's direction for her character was to drip like a broken fridge in every scene she is in with Batman. While Catwoman did have a similar dual love affair going on, Catwoman was technically two different characters, mentally ill and not an employee of the Gotham police department. Dr.Chase goes so far as to deliberately mis-use the Bat-signal to show Batman her underwear, only stopping because police chief Gordon (reduced from a police officer to a lost OAP) wanders out in his pajamas to see why the signal is on. 

"Hey Guys, I Had The Most Wonderful Dream. It Was 2005 And My Character Was Being Shown Some Respect..."

Lastly on the heroes side there is Dick Grayson, the circus performer turned crime-fighter better known as Robin. While Batman is the worst part of Batman Forever, Robin is the most confusing. After watching Two-Face murder his parents, Robin vows revenge and... gets adopted by Bruce Wayne. Which would be fine if not for the fact the film clearly highlights that Robin is over the age of 18, meaning Robin gets illegally kidnapped and detained by Bruce, who refuses to let him go out and bribes him using Alfred's delicious beef burgers. I didn't make a single line of that up. 

Robin's dialogue consists almost entirely of "Wahhhhhhhhh wahhhhhhhh wahhhhhhhh." He complains and moans his way into becoming Robin (he literally does nothing else the entire movie), creepily helped along by Alfred, who seems to be delighted to put another young life in danger for fun. Robin feels wrong here, with his script clearly written for someone much younger then Chris O'Donnell, resulting in a very strange performance that quickly becomes incredibly annoying. There is no difference between the characters of Dick Greyson and Robin, which makes the character even more tedious.Thankfully, there is little for Robin to do in the film beyond steal the Bat-mobile to pick up chicks (who appear to be prostitutes... Red Robin indeed...) and get kidnapped by the Riddler at the end.

So the casting of the heroes has no redeeming features but what if I told you the casting of the villains was strangely even worse?

No Wai!

Let's not mince words, Tommy Lee Jones is fucking terrible in this, almost as bad as Val Kilmer. I like him as an actor (Men In Black is one of my favourite sci-fi movies ever!), but he plays Two-Face like he's imitating Cesar Romero playing the Joker dressed like Two-Face. He obviously had little familiarity with the character, and Schumacher apparently forgot to explain that his character goes like so...

In the comics, Two-Face is Gotham's former district attorney who gets horribly disfigured by acid that a mobster throws in his face. Harvey suffers a mental break-down and becomes Two-Face, a villain obsessed with duality, who uses a scarred silver dollar to decide if his victims live or die. He is often regarded as one of the great Batman villains, especially as Harvey Dent was a former ally of Batman. Like Batman, Two-Face follows a strict code regarding his coin, symbolising the two personalities inside him battling for control. At least, that's how he is in the comics. 

In Batman Forever, he is a supposedly violent criminal with an incredibly garish wardrobe and a pantomime manner. While he does kill a few people, it's debatable if that is just an indirect result of how incompetent he is. Hell, several times Two-Face breaks his own rule regarding his coin, including a horrible scene where he just keeps flipping his coin over and over until he gets the result he wants and shoots at Bruce Wayne! In his final scene, Batman has to remind Two-Face about his OWN OBSESSIVE COMPULSION ("Remember your coin Harvey...?") and uses it to kill him, throwing up many silver dollars and confusing Two-Face so he... sort of slides off a pipe to his death. As a fan of the comics this Two-Face is just hard to watch, I really don't see how they could have missed the point of the character more. Probably the worst part of Two-Face in this movie is how little he matters once the Riddler appears. Two-Face is reduced to trying to out-gurn Jim Carrey (an insane challenge if ever there was one) and just becomes a goofy distraction/Riddler cheerleader from around thirty minutes in.

"Oh You're The Most Evil!" "No, You!"

As for the Riddler, one must remember that at the time Jim Carrey was one of the most sought-after comedic actors on the planet, thanks to films like Dumb & Dumber and Ace Ventura. He was hired to make the Riddler a funny, camp, manic character, similar to Frank Gorshin in Batman (1966). While Carrey is only doing what was expected of him, his Riddler is a flamboyant, rubber-faced idiot, with a plot consisting of growing smarter on stolen neural energy. Side effects of growing smarter appear to be insanity, effeminate swaggering and losing all understanding of how to dress without looking like a complete fuck-wit. Meanwhile, he leaves riddles because... I suppose leaving crosswords wouldn't have been as exciting? This Riddler is painful to endure, a bad pun factory in neon-green tights. Also, the Riddler is the easiest villain in the entire film catalogue for Batman to beat, the final fight in Batman Forever pretty much not existing. Batman asks him a bad riddle, throws a baterang and voila, Riddler defeated! Riddle me this, riddle me that, why be afraid of this silly green prat...?

Conversely, The Riddlers alter-ego Edward Nygma is the best part of the film and manages to pull the film out of unwatchable for me. Jim Carrey gives him a geeky menace that the film sorely needs, with some really nice delivery on lines like "You were meant to understand... I'll... MAKE... you understand..." Edward Nygma is played as obsessed (mentally and sexually) with Bruce Wayne, leading to Edward dressing exactly like Bruce to the point of dying his hair and wearing fake glasses at one stage, which is a really nice touch for the character. To the film's further credit, the last five minute suddenly get very dark for the Riddler who, driven mad by his own invention and screaming nonsense in Arkham Asylum, now genuinely believes he is Batman. Pity the film waits until the very end to show it can create atmosphere...  While short on screen time, Edward is a convincingly insane sycophant and his scenes break up the otherwise goofy feel of the film and allow some breathing room between all the bat-bum-shots and "Joy-gasms!" Other then the Edward scenes, the Riddler is sadly more bore-gasm then anything else.

Ok so the characters are almost completely awful, but what of the story and themes? The story features the Riddler inventing a mind-reading device (that looks like a blender filled with styrofoam) which allows your wildest dreams to come through, provided those dreams involve fishing and/or half naked ladies. Bruce gets smack-talked into using the machine at a charity event and The Riddler discovers that he is Batman. Meanwhile, Two Face kills Robin's family looking for Batman and Robin swears revenge. That is actually a solid plot and would have worked fine were it not for the awful characters and strangely truncated final studio cut. The real meat of Batman Forever comes from its heavily sign-posted yet curiously under-developed theme of duality. 

While the theme of duality would seem like the perfect back-drop to dissect Bruce Wayne and Batman's relationship with each other, the film squanders any potential this idea has, with all the themes of duality and psychology never explored enough. The Riddler wants to absorb brain-waves to be smarter, while his alter ego Edward Nygma just wants to be Bruce Wayne. Two Face is obviously a character given to duality. Robin's story of becoming two separate individuals (who sadly act the exact same... stupid script) is very similar to the origin of Batman in Batman (1989). Even Dr.Chase, a psychologist, showing interest in both sides of the Dark Knight... All these concepts are pretty good at their cores but just get tossed on screen half-heartedly, almost as if Joel (or more likely, Warner Brothers themselves) figured such concepts would be too complicated and distracting for the children watching in the theaters. It's a real shame as for all the over the top silliness, Batman Forever had some real potential.

Lastly, the design... This element always pisses people off about Joel's Batman films. The choice of replacing Gotham's gothic, elaborate architecture with lots of neon and half naked male statues was an aesthetic touch that fans felt betrayed Batman's history and tone. To say nothing of nipples on the Bat-suit. I think that if people could accept Tim Burton's fetishes for leather and S&M played out on the screen then why should Joel's fetishes for the gay scene not be allowed? Need I remind all you so-called Batman fans that Batman spent many more years being very colourful and silly then he did being dark and brooding. To say gay subtext doesn't have any place in Batman throughout the years would be flat-out wrong. To claim that a camp Gotham isn't in keeping with Batman is at best woefully ignorant of the comics and at worst just cheaply excused homophobia.

Although I Got To Admit, The Bat-mobile Probably Didn't Need A Dorsal Fin...

Overall it's an interesting but flawed film, mostly due to characters that are both written poorly and portrayed badly by actors who didn't get them to begin with. It's got a weak script, although it's still nowhere near as tattered as Batman Returns. It doesn't have the deftness of touch or the on-the-nose smarts of Batman (1966), which hurts the campy segments of the film. The film doesn't know if it wants to be campy and fun or serious and deep and as a result it ends up neither. There are certainly a lot of great ideas under the surface but they never really get a chance to shine. It's still a watchable affair but it is a huge step down from what the previous films managed to achieve. Though as we will see in the next review, it could always get worse...

Rating : 2 out of 5 - For At Least Taking Some Bold (If Silly) New Risks.

See If You Like : Lowering Your Expectations.

Til next time!

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