TV Review — Manhunt: Unabomber (2017)

There was a man, there was hunting, there was a una, there was bombing. That’s more or less the story of us all, isn’t it? But for those of us who value a more detail oriented approach to the human condition, FBI Special Agent James R. Fitzgerald and Professor Theodore J. Kaczynski are on hand, ready, willing, and able to venture forth into unknown frontiers in search of the answer to that most fundamental of questions, one that has haunted man since the time of Plato: should unas be bombed? But of course I’m joking, ha ha ha. Count the laughs, measure the mirth. Manhunt: Unabomber is the story, in a manner of speaking, of how an experimental linguistic approach to criminal investigation saw perhaps the most infamous domestic terrorist in modern US history caught, serving multiple life sentences in solitary confinement in an administrative maximum security prison.

While most people have heard of Ted Kaczynski, the titular Unabomber, and most people know more or less what his deal is, I might as well indulge in a little padding so I can feel better about my meagre efforts in writing this. Kaczynski’s life is more or less characterised by his inability to feel at home in modern society, whether at Harvard, which he attended at the age of sixteen as a child prodigy in mathematics, or in his assistant professorship at UC Berkeley, which he suddenly resigned after just two years in 1969. In the early 1970s he began living self-sufficiently in the woods of Montana, where gradually he became convinced of the effectiveness of letter writing campaigns. Over the course of almost two decades, he sent sixteen bombs to various academic and industrial figures, all with the eventual aim of having his long-form essay “Industrial Society and its Future” (popularly known as the “Unabomber Manifesto”), in which he espouses an anarchistic, anti-technology, ecologically sound way of living, published by a major newspaper, in exchange for which he promised that he would cease his terrorist activities. Ultimately this led to his arrest, after his brother David recognised Kaczynski’s ideas and writing style and sent a tip to the FBI.

The show dramatises more or less the whole of Kaczynski’s life in bits and pieces, and he is by far the best thing in it. While its attempts to make him compelling and even sympathetic often fall flat, because the show is simply too ensnared in a run of the mill programme of police procedural antics, Paul Bettany’s portrayal of Kaczynski is in itself terrific to watch, frequently elevating the cutesy script, occasionally finding anchorage in the deep waters of pathos. Bettany wrenches what complexity he can out of the scenes he has, and it’s unfortunate that out of the entire eight episode run he has so little to actually do. Since so much of the show is told from the perspective of his nemesis, FBI profiler James Fitzgerald, and set predominantly within the bureaucracy of the UNABOM task force, it makes sense that we don’t spend that much time in the direct company of the Unabomber himself, and yet Fitz, as he is most commonly referred to by his colleagues, is a mediocre character whose psychological links with Kaczynski, the slim dramatic meat of which the show hopes to make a substantial meal, are as fragile as the paper their concomitant dialogue was printed on. It is no coincidence, then, that the best episode of the series centres entirely on Kaczynski qua Kaczynski, framed in a letter of reminiscence that Ted writes to his brother.

The script attempts to present Fitz, who is not the real James R. Fitzgerald but a heavily edited and augmented construction bearing his name, as a highly intelligent but insecure outsider who has some difficulties with authority and feels that he is underappreciated by his superiors, a man similar to Ted Kaczynski himself. When Fitz, who for his insistence that linguistic clues to the Unabomber’s identity are the best, indeed only way forward, begins to be perceived as being disruptive of official Bureau business, is taken off the taskforce, he begins working regular hours and is able to spend more time with his family, but he finds himself distracted and increasingly alienated from them. In one scene, Fitz lies awake in bed, unable to sleep due to his awareness of a buzzing electric street light outside his house, he goes outside and trains his service weapon on the light before ultimately resisting the urge to shoot it out. This scene is the first in which the show attempts to sell us on the idea that Kaczynski is inside Fitz’s head, and that Fitz is sympathetic to Kaczynski’s ideas about the harm that industrialisation has done to humanity. The amount of tension the show tries to build out of Fitz’s apparent inner turmoil over this development is not at all commensurate with the actual information we are given, which is essentially that Fitz is annoyed by lights, not just street lights but, quelle horreur, traffic lights and the way they control us by making it safe to cross the road and so forth. By introducing Fitz to us in 1998, two years after Kaczynski’s arrest, as a man who has himself retired to a small cabin to live simply and self-sufficiently, the show avoids the comedy that would have resulted from a chronologically linear plot, wherein the much put-upon profiler is driven so mad by electric lights that he simply can’t stands no more, and, after munching down a tin of spinach, puts his mightily and meatily embiggened forearms to work building a refuge out in the wilderness.

While it would be easy to take a passing glance at Hollywood tough guy Sam Worthington and sneeringly find executive fault, his efforts are not at all the problem with Fitz. Worthington in fact does a commendable job with the character, building an understated presence through a small, well observed suite of verbal and physical tics. A physically imposing actor, he plays small within the sprawling city of computer desks that makes up the home base for the FBI’s most intensely watched taskforce, and convinces as the underdog trying to convince his superiors to take a chance on his unique perspective with appreciable nuance. But the script is too surface level to support Worthington’s efforts. While it can occasionally thrill with plot surprises, as in the scenes leading up to Kaczynski’s trial, there is so little in the script that convinces on its own, meaning that the characters—so far as they can impress themselves upon the audience as characters—are more or less what the actors bring to the role. With the exception of Fitz and Kaczynski, what we have left to us is a cast of characters bought wholesale from the annals of 2000s police procedurals, all-business tough talkers whose tongues are never not in thrall to the dictates of an unwritten but osmotic style guide, spitting one-liners so slick that they hit the camera and leave a cold and viscous grease trail as they slide down the screen.

The cheapness of much of the supporting cast’s and indeed main cast’s script, the verbal environment in which Fitz and by extension we operate, is at odds with the show’s high production value, surprisingly high when you consider that it was commissioned by, of all things, the Discovery Channel. The series features several well done reconstructions of the Unabomber’s attacks. The first of these attacks occurred in 1978, but Kaczynski has maintained in his own correspondence that his decision to begin making bombs and mailing them out came in 1983, when he found a new road had been built by his favourite camping site, which he regarded as an aggressive invasion of his own way of life by the technological society he had rejected. The impact of these bombs varied from minor flesh wounds to loss of limbs, blindness, deafness, and ultimately death. Towards the end of his campaign, Kaczynski had near enough perfected the design for a lethal bomb, and most of the last few of his targets were killed outright. The reconstructions do not shy away from the bloody aftermath of the explosion, and credit must go to the effects crew, who did a magnificently convincing job of detailing the carnage wreaked by these bombs. I can only imagine they, like practical effects workers of the good old days of silicone, chicken guts, and jelly, had a great deal of fun making up the grim spectacle of a shuddering body pierced with long shards of shrapnel. Such shots as these, though tastefully brief, do more to convey the horror and inhumanity of Kaczynski’s actions than the script itself can even begin to muster.

I have debated with myself (and I’m sure your mind can supply a suitable prefix to form a relevant homophone there) whether to delve into the many allegations of historical inaccuracy levelled against the show, such as those of former FBI agent Greg Stejskal, who worked the UNABOM case, and even Kaczynski himself, who, though he admits having not seen the show, has received plenty of correspondence about it, and says that what he has read about it amounts to “bull manure”. I could point out also that the real James Fitzgerald, who did consult for the production, disputes Stejskal’s account with great vehemence, but ultimately I think that, regardless of its fidelity to the truth of the events upon which it is more or less based, any drama ultimately stands or falls on simple artistic merit, which in fact is not simple at all, but for the sake of brevity let’s pretend that it is. I see Manhunt: Unabomber as a frustrating viewing experience, because I can see the potential for a really gripping story about two opposed but similar characters lurking in the periphery of what’s there, but that potential is bound so heavily by the workaday writing and overly generic trappings of the often sumptuous production that the two most compelling elements, the performances of Worthington and especially Bettany, can’t hope to break out and illuminate the screen with the fullness of brilliance to which they might otherwise have attained. And with that, yeronner, the prosecution rests.

Film Review — All Is True (2018)

Lauded playwright William Shakespeare’s famous Globe Theatre burns down after a stage prop cannon used in the première of his Henry VIII ignites a consuming blaze. Will returns home to Stratford-upon-Avon where at last, freed from the yoke of creative life, he comes to terms with the death of his son Hamnet, whose passing he never truly mourned, and devotes himself to the cultivation of a memorial garden, while also dealing with the nuisance of a public who cannot understand why he has now ceased to write. Meanwhile his daughter Susanna struggles in a loveless marriage to a puritan reformist, his other daughter Judith grows old (for a woman of that time) and has yet to marry, and Anne Hathaway can only view her husband, who has spent so much of their married life away from her in his London, as a guest in his own house.

Ben Elton, a writer about whom much could be said, for he can be as brilliant as he oft is shit, wrote the script, and it is somewhat infuriating that he can write an absolute showstopper of a scene one moment then stagger his pen about the page like a weepy drunk. We are treated to a marvellous firelit tête-à-tête in which Kenneth Branagh’s Will Shakespeare and Ian McKellen’s Earl of Southampton reckon with each other’s view of the world and all that’s in it, the former’s tireless work-oriented life pitted against the libertinous excesses of the latter, capped off with two opposed recitations (which of course must be credited to Shakespeare and to the actors themselves, not Elton) of the same sonnet that sets them so brilliantly apart. Yet the scene in which Judith decides that she will after all marry, the dialogue between the not exactly star-cross’d lovers is as uninspired as it is barely perfunctory. Ultimately, Elton’s script is too much in love with Shakespeare, both the dramatist and the man himself, to give all that much to the others, and on that point it is worth noting that the Earl of Southampton appears in only one scene.

The film is passably directed by Branagh, who, though he has no masterpieces under his belt as a filmmaker, does know a good shot when he sees it. Unfortunately, many images that should have great impact are near enough ruined by the most aggressively sentimental, and worse still generic score I have heard in a very long time. What’s more, a cardinal sin in my view, the soundtrack to a film set in the early 1600s features a fucking piano. Anachronism’s all good and well in a film that partakes, but this one does not, and a composer should have the courage and decency to do the same. Failing that, recordings of Byrd, Dowland, Gibbons would suit far better the English countryside than this lamentable hackwork, or perhaps even Morley, who set Shakespeare’s verse contemporaneously. I repeat that the film is infuriating on some level, because it does so well in some parts and so poorly in others, its presentation sometimes soaring, sometimes weighed down under a soggy script and even soggier partiture, but Branagh’s central performance is compelling enough to just about get it to work. A terribly uneven film, but one that I can’t deny finding overall enjoyable.

Chinese Girl Cartoons – Bio Hunter

Do you ever get so hungry that you could just bite a guy’s hand off with your tits? Me neither, but I know a girl who does! She’s a character in Bio Hunter, sort of. I mean, she becomes forgotten pretty quickly after her initial gore and tits (perhaps the most literal use of the term I have ever had the privilege to make) extravaganza, but you know, whatever. Bio Hunter is the tragicomic, indeed picaresque tale of two happy-go-lucky biologists who moonlight as exorcists for sufferers of the demon virus, which causes extra mouths and other weird shit to appear on their bodies, and instils in them the need to eat like Goku to sustain their monstrous new forms. Our dashing heroes Komada, who has a John Waters moustache and a penchant for fucking his students (trying to square those two things in my head, and nope, can’t do it), and Koshigaya, who has been infected with the demon virus but is able to control it and use it for good(!), go out at night injecting infected people with green shit and occasionally violently assaulting them for good measure. All in a day’s work!

I watched this one in English, and sadly the shitdub isn’t rife with clunky swear-laden dialogue. If that is the case, can it really be called a shitdub? I’ve used the term quite often in my anime reviews to describe poor quality English translations, but is there a difference between a bad but boring English dub and a bad but hilarious English dub? Bio Hunter is never going to win a Pulitzer, which is apparently the go to award for literary excellence, damn you Americentrism, but it also isn’t going to win the Devilman Award for Face-Planting into a Pair of Breasts and Shouting “Fuckin’ Hellfire!” It resides in that middle ground, the Engdub Desert, if you will (and why wouldn’t you, eh, ladies? *wink*), unremarkable and turgid as its environs. So, technically not a shitdub, not so notably terrible that you laugh and cry for all the wrong reasons, and yet there is nothing in it that is not also included in that term. It’s almost as if “shitdub” was only ever intended as a vague and amusing shorthand, yet here we are, wastin’ paragraphs.

Like most OVAs that offer up gore and tits as part of their opening gambit, Bio Hunter becomes a largely tame affair for the rest of its runtime, but it does have a few surprises in store. For example, the main villain is actually a tentacle monster, and you can already guess where I’m going with this. But before you get all worked up, this ain’t no hentai, it just threatens you with the idea that it might be, occasionally coming awfully close to the mark. Like a shitdub, one knows pornography when one sees it, which is apparently the go to pithy quote to reference on pornography, damn you Americentrism. Far from being a tentacular spectacular, the murderously lascivious advances of this monster either happen off-screen or are dutifully interrupted before they can get out of hand by our pair of parasite pulverising professors. But sure enough, the monster has to eat women’s livers to survive, so approaching the event horizon of a black hentai hole (looks worse on the page than it sounded in my head) is an inevitability here. In some ways it’s like the “Squeeze” episode from The X-Files, but more rape-y.

There’s not much else to say about Bio Hunter. It’s a more or less serviceable piece of occasionally grotty mid-’90s sci-fi horror anime, not too impressive on the gore front with the exception of its opening sequence, and lacking in laughs owing to the workaday translation and dull voice acting. Coming out in 1995, the same year as both Neon Genesis Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell, I wonder—tethered as I am by my non-expert level understanding of anime as a cultural phenomenon in the West—if there was a scramble to find the next big import sensation from Japan’s animation studios, and that, for a brief period, even cheesy OVAs like this one were treated as deserving of somewhat more care than they actually were. Yes, we may have lost some comedy gold here, folks! But apart from that, Bio Hunter seems to be one of the very last of my Japanese animes of its kind, or rather, as anime got bigger in the English speaking world the plurality of genres that are common in Japan were also brought over and the ultraviolent sleazefests of yore, the marketably extreme new thing from Japan that made a big splash in the home video market in the early ’90s, was buried under a tidal wave of slices of life. Personally, I don’t think it’s worth writing long elegiac sentences about trashy OVAs, but I just did, so clearly I don’t have the first clue what in the heck I’m talking about.

Film Review: Batman Begins

A new decade, a new series, a new Batman, a new you! The first major reboot in Batman’s cinematic history sees Christopher Nolan, then a rising star known for reasonably clever thrillers like Memento and Insomnia, in the director’s chair. Immediately I must make a confession, which is that throughout my years of knowing his work, I have found Nolan’s oeuvre consistently underwhelming. While I am trying to prevent this from clouding my judgement of Batman Begins, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that, criticism largely being a vehicle for vanity and all, I have doubtless failed in that task, and for that reason I won’t make any overtures to fairness. Having said that, I don’t think this review reads as unnecessarily critical, but then what the fuck do I know? I just wrote the damn thing, you’re actually reading it, and possibly not for much longer.

Batman Begins begins (it’s a bit I can only do once, let me have it) in a much different manner than either Burton’s or Schumacher’s films. As the title implies, the film deals with Batman’s origin story, and it spends quite a lot of time trying to establish the moral code of Batman through comparison and contrast of his childhood experiences against his later interactions with various figures, such as Joe Chill, the man who killed his parents; Carmine Falcone, a mob boss whose sphere of influence encompasses all levels of Gotham City’s social and legal power structures; and the League of Shadows, a mystical fraternity of assassins lead by the mysterious Ra’s al Ghul. His apprenticeship under Ra’s culminates in his refusal to execute a criminal, and the subsequent burning down of the base of the League of Shadows high in the Himalayas. I think this introduction to Bruce Wayne, which invites us to view Gotham as he does, both in the idealism of his father’s vision for the city in his youth, and in the tattered idealism of his own as he returns to save the city, mostly works as written.

However, there’s something odd going on with Christian Bale in this film. Especially in the pre-Batman portrayal of Bruce Wayne, Bale simply seems like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. This may well be deliberate, since it is appropriate to the character at that time in his life, but there’s something off about it that I can’t quite put my finger on, it’s as if we are seeing Bale not getting it rather than Wayne not getting it. However, once Wayne returns to Gotham, Bale fits much more comfortably with the material. In this film, Bruce Wayne plays up to an expectation of rich youth, lacking in morals and manners, which, for his parents were good people, beloved of Gotham, he must have chosen to cast aside to indulge in nihilistic libertinism. The scene in which Wayne gets his birthday party guests to leave so that he can confront Ra’s al Ghul is brilliantly played, and ultimately shows just how deliberate his decisions have been ever since his return to Gotham.

This film deals much more with Gotham as a living, breathing society than any of the previous series of films did, even Batman Returns, with its three-way intersection of crime, politics, and business, and one of its major villains an outcast aristocrat, doesn’t present a full picture of Gotham’s interdependent social strata. To be fair, this film doesn’t present a full picture either, but it is more willing to delve into social themes, to show the effects of poverty on ordinary people, even presenting Joe Chill as a victim of circumstance rather than a cold-blooded killer—in fact, Tim Burton praised the film for going where at the time it was felt that he couldn’t in his own Batman films. Chill is assassinated by Carmine Falcone, against whom Chill testified in order to shorten his prison time, and who is flooding Gotham’s ghetto neighbourhoods with drugs. While Batman works with an unwitting old acquaintance, district attorney Rachel Dawes, to get leverage on Falcone, the seemingly all-powerful mobster is swept away by a yet greater tide of evil washing over the city in the form of Ra’s al Ghul. This is one of the film’s major missteps. While Bruce Wayne’s actions absolutely should have consequences, the reveal of Falcone as a pawn in a game of global proportions causes Batman’s first crusade to lose its identity as a reclamation of a city and people that were failed by his own socio-economic class. I think Ra’s al Ghul’s return should have been simply implied at the end and brought to fruition in a later film, since in the final scene we see that they were already confident of a sequel.

But Ra’s al Ghul’s what we get, so what he got? He is played by Liam Neeson, which apparently is supposed to be a shock. I read that Nolan cast Neeson since he had usually played mentor figures, which Ra’s very much is at the start of the film. Given that Neeson is now known for appearing in endless reiterations of the same action movie in which the editing cuts so frequently that you can’t tell what is actually happening, it seems like the choice was made for the wrong reasons. Having said that, I like Neeson’s performance quite a lot. The character is not necessarily well served by the writing, especially in the latter half where he seems to be there only to fulfil the need for a big villain reveal, but Neeson himself is very convincing as the leader of a global terrorist organisation. From his very first scene, laying out a path for Bruce Wayne to become the Batman, he exhibits calm and debonair charm, with a charisma and mystique that makes us want Bruce to accept his offer so we can see what he’s all about. As we learn the truth behind Ra’s’s (you didn’t think I would, but I did) philosophy of justice, the film gambles on the hope that we’ll be torn between Bruce’s loyalty to Gotham, to the ideals of his father, and the more cosmically minded campaign of Ra’s, who seeks to save the world through catastrophe. You can see that the film in this conflict takes its cue from Watchmen, but is it really that compelling? For me, at least, the idea that disaster begets some kind of cleansing empathy was never sound, but I think the film is designed to be perceived to be more morally complex than it actually is.

Ra’s is being supported by Jonathan Crane, better known as Scarecrow. Crane is in charge of Arkham Asylum, and is using a substance derived from a rare Himalayan flower in experiments on the inmates. Under the guidance of Ra’s, Crane dumps the substance into the Gotham water supply, though I have to question just how rare the flower is if enough of Scarecrow’s fear toxin can be produced to poison the entire city. Regardless of the mechanics of their villainous plot, I rather like this portrayal of Scarecrow. Cillian Murphy plays Crane as a weasely, insidious, amoral figure, and while there’s more than a dash of the stereotypical mad scientist who doesn’t care what lines he has to cross in pursuit of his research, the understated relish of Murphy’s performance makes him engaging to watch. Instead of appearing in full costume, the Scarecrow is a simple sackcloth head covering with eyeholes and a mechanism for dispersal of the fear toxin. The Scarecrow therefore appears less a persona in itself than Crane’s perversion, lending him the air of a serial killer, which I suppose he is, since his drug so completely destroys the mental faculties of those exposed to it, including, ultimately, his own.

By the time of Batman Begins, the caped crusader had yet to star in a film which really sold him as a capable fighter. The Tim Burton films were deliberately theatrical and often featured unrealistic fighting in keeping with their urban fairytale style, while Joel Schumacher’s Batman would usually flash some improbable gadget or found prop as a goof in the face of his foes. Nolan’s foray into the franchise shows a martial arts based approach, more grounded than that of its predecessors and also of earlier high-profile western examples of martial arts action like The Matrix. Christian Bale even trained in kung fu as part of his preparation for the role of Batman, but for all of that, and perhaps foreseeing (or sealing?) Liam Neeson’s own fate, the fight scenes in this film are absolute pants. Nary a punch is thrown that isn’t cut in two with needless editing, and while it isn’t quite as bad as Taken, in which the least movement of Neeson’s body must be captured in three different ways cut against each other, the impacts lack weight because they are so often shorn of their actual physical context. The relationship between the physical impulse behind a punch, the movement of the body, from the core up and out through the chest and down the arm to the fist, the cadence of the impact, simply isn’t there, and any potential for real excitement is wasted.

All scenes, cut to ribbons or not, are set to the predictably dull music of Hans Zimmer, king of the hack composers of Hollywood. Even if the fight scenes were awe-inspiring, there is nothing this man cannot make boring by association. But the flavourless harmonies and workaday rhythms of Zimmer’s score are a perfect match for the film’s bland colour palette and pedestrian camera work, so in a way the composer has done a brilliant job. I didn’t intend here to talk about both music and visuals, but seeing as the one underlies and enhances the other, or at least as that is the intended relationship, it seems as good a time as any to say that there are no arresting images in the entire film. From dockyard drug deals to opulent mansions, the film exists in light grey and dark brown, with anything in between getting dragged one way or the other into a black hole. Pretending towards realism is one thing, but the desaturation of colour coz dark innit seems rather to take life out of the equation. Still, the music and visuals are of a piece, so despite their aesthetic beigery they cannot really be faulted in that they serve the overall purpose of the work.

The lack of character present in the film’s cinematic elements are compensated for somewhat by a range of likeable performances from the supporting cast, chief among them Michael Caine, who replaces Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth. Caine is refreshingly unposh, while retaining the understated wit of prior incarnations, and bringing a fatherly warmth to the butler of Wayne Manor. I guess it’s hard not to like Michael Caine, generally speaking, but Alfred might be my favourite of his performances next to his impeccable Ebenezer Scrooge in The Muppet Christmas Carol. Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman. Agreeable, reliable old Morgan Freeman. There’s not much to say, he does what he does very well, even if it is nothing we haven’t seen from him before. Jim Gordon, not yet commissioner, is played by Gary Oldman, and he comes off as a bit of a doofus, occasionally betraying his Englishness through inconsistent accent work, but he looks Gordonesque, far more than did Pat Hingle in the previous (alleged) continuity.

The wealth of content lifted from the comic books lends authenticity to the film, which is rich with elements and references lifted straight from the panels themselves, but the tone seems to have arisen partly from embarrassment, if not disgust at its comic book origins. The use of an amalgamation of real world metropoleis as a model, as opposed to the grandiose invention of previous films, often leaves Gotham City without even the semblance of a character of its own. While I’m wholly in favour of getting away from the nonsensical neon nightmares of Joel Schumacher, they could at least boast some unique and memorable architecture. Nolan’s Gotham, realistic though it may be, is a city like any other, and in its universality it is reduced to a kind of nowhere, a state of being which reflects the film as a whole. Competence is consistently substituted for style, but there is little of value in mere competence. The platitudinous mantra “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” speaks of taking risks only as it applies to characters within the film, while its rote form and flat, simplistic vision more adequately suit the form of the film itself. No risks are taken here, Nolan is too competent and too satisfied by his competence for that.

Batman Begins is an underwhelming film. It lacks the stylishness of previous Batman films, and while, by varying degrees, it undeniably outdoes them in consistency of quality, it also cannot reach the heights that those less assured efforts could, even if it avoids the lows to which they sometimes sank. A mountain range is dangerous and difficult to cross, but a flat line provides little challenge or reward. See? I can do simplistic lines, too. Flaws can often add character and charm, but in Nolan’s vision of Batman, the flaw is the lack of character itself. Character is often located somewhere in the margins, never allowed to take too much away from the central idea of a grounded superhero movie, something that can wipe away the occasionally mad excesses of what has come before it and replace them with the reassuring beige of competence. I, at least, find myself in the throes of desire for mad excess, if only to break from the monotony of “realism” as it is presented here. It seems, then, that where this Batman begins, I must stop.

Chinese Girl Cartoons – Psycho Diver: Soul Siren

You know, normally I wait to write the review until after I’ve actually watched the thing I’m reviewing, but sometimes things happen that impress upon the viewer their need to be recorded with great immediacy. First, a guy’s head explodes. Second, the protagonist has an answering machine that uses DVDs for storage. Third, there is J-pop featuring gibberish intoned in a fake Jamaican accent. Fourth, the protagonist’s name is Superman. The extent to which subtitles in Comic Sans on a low quality YouTube video can be trusted is minimal even when approached in the most charitable of spirits, but Superman absolutely definitely for real tells another guy: “You have the pot. You are incapable of killing me.” To which said other guy responds: “Don’t speak too soon. Try some.” Like I always say, when life gives you shitsubs, you make… whatever the hell this is.

Initially I thought this was going to be a rip-off of Scanners, you’ve got the psychics, you’ve got the head explosion, you’ve got the weird cult trying to make the cult leader’s daughter a vessel for their god. Okay, so maybe that last part wasn’t in Scanners, nor really 99% of what happens(?) in this OVA, but I really thought that was where it was going. Instead, it’s just complete nonsense. There is a girl, who seems to be pretty consistently referred to as Yuki throughout, and she is psychic, or she can be psychic, but all she wants to do is sing, but her mother, who is the leader of a cult (oh, you know how those mothers are!), wants to give Yuki god powers for reasons. Her father doesn’t like this, so he hires Superman, the titular psycho diver, to dive like a psycho into Yuki’s head and get rid of the craziness. At first, Superman doesn’t want to, since Yuki was the cause of the head explosion we see at the very beginning, but then someone kills his dog off screen, prompting him to reconsider.

As with most 50 minute OVAs, there’s the sense throughout that a lot of detail has been left to implication of the variety that requires extreme leaps in logic on the part of the audience, which is bizarre when you consider just how much time is devoted to explaining the very, indeed almost impossibly one-dimensionally simple fact that Yuki, head explosions and all, just wants to sing songs. The fake Jamaican “singing” seems to be accompanied by some kind of music video in which she smashes up a burning car with a guitar and then goes to jail and does laundry, but at first I assumed it was showing us some kind of back story for the character. No, it ain’t. The diving sequences occasionally show us a doll-like thing that is apparently possessing Yuki, but apart from that it shows us a fairly accurate representation of what happens in dreams, that is to say it shows us completely random shit. These give us most of the gore content of the OVA, which is usually done in quick cuts, probably both to suggest yet stronger images to the audience and to save money, since anime has ever been a budget affair.

I wish more random intercutting of nonsense had occurred, since most of the time we have to look at Superman’s supremely ugly character design instead. His face fits neatly with the generic corporate goon archetype that so readily populates anime of a certain era, and his dress sense matches without fault, but his hair, my god! Not being much for memes, I would ordinarily refrain, but this is a “just fuck my shit up fam” barnet if ever I saw one. Outside of this central oddity, the rest of the cast is disappointingly generic. There are a couple of pretty girls, one of whom we have the distinct pleasure of ogling naked after she has just been murdered off-screen. I mean, you kind of expect it at this point, but it sticks out here because, while it is cheap, Psycho Diver is pretty tame in the scuzz department overall. Padding out the male side of things we have a generic heavy, a giggly knife man, a guy who looks like he got lost on his way to the clown gang meet in Neo-Tokyo, and an old man who gets his face mushed into the floor. So it goes.

Now, not being one to leave stones unturned, albeit with a gloved hand, since you never know what you might get on your fingers with terrain of this nature, I was given ample reason to watch Psycho Diver a second time, for the video misleadingly titled “Psycho Diver – Soul Siren (1997) – English Subbed” on YouTube is in fact—drum roll please—a shitdub! To start with, we still get the fake Jamaican nonsense, but the female vocal, which I guess is supposed to be Yuki’s own, features rapping that sounds like it came from Hip Hop eJay. “I’m reduced to a number, a cog in the machine, involuntary member(?), they try to take your dreams.” I’m just doing my bit for those of you out there who actually remember eJay, which as far as I can tell hasn’t been a thing for over ten years now. In any case, this more or less confirms that the opening sequence, minus the head explosion, is a music video for a song by Yuki, which is apparently called “Warfare Beware”. Unfortunately, the dub itself is nothing special, occasionally warranting a few unintended laughs, but mostly consisting of droning monotones reciting perfunctory dialogue.

Psycho Diver is a complete mediocrity and it’s really no wonder that it’s so obscure among its sleazy OVA brethren. It pretends to the artistic but trips up over its own lack of style. Of the psychic themed anime I’ve seen, it’s more competently organised than the abysmal Hell Target but lacks the boneheaded fun of Oedo 808, taking itself far too seriously for the minuscule amount of substance it has to offer. All told, a pretty weak start to my 2020 season of delicate tolerance for anime bullshit, but at least that means there’s a good chance things will improve from here.

Film Review: Batman & Robin

How exactly do you follow a film like Batman Forever? The question must have been front of mind for Joel Schumacher and Akiva Goldsman when they returned to the franchise to craft the fourth and final entry in Warner’s first attempt at a Batman feature series. With both Schumacher and Goldsman being complete hacks, it is frankly surprising that they rose to the challenge of answering it as well as they did, which is about half as well as they would have had to were they to actually make a good film. Make no mistake, Batman & Robin is every bit the superior to its predecessor, it is more cohesive, more stylish, more deliberate, and more enjoyable, if only because it doesn’t come across as being actively hostile towards the audience. Yet for every good idea there is a lingering cloud of noxiousness, for every great moment a dull quarter of an hour, for every refreshing change an inescapable reminder that you are watching the sequel to Batman Forever.

The film’s first move is to both acknowledge its status as a sequel and to shit on the thing it is a sequel to. “I want a car,” says Robin. “Chicks dig the car.” “This is why Superman works alone,” Batman replies, almost rolling his eyes at the camera. Alfred completes the undoing of the previous film’s opening exchanges with the line “I’ll cancel the pizzas.” Through this, it makes a promise to the audience that it is proceeding in good faith with an attempt to deliver a knowingly silly Batman experience. Yet it fails to progress from that stage in a holistic way, rather some parts advance while others linger, entangled in the wreckage of prefatory catastrophe. This piecemeal approach to making improvements over the misbegotten formula of its prior efforts means that the film ends up being very much in two halves, one an agreeable camp caper, the other a mess of half-baked characters reciting often simply unfunny jokes in service of a story that doesn’t make sense. In lieu of needlessly prolonging this review, so without delving into details of plot, I invite you to ponder this question: are there any plants that can thrive in an ice desert?

While many cast and crew members returned for the sequel, Val Kilmer did not. You could hardly blame him for wanting to be somewhere else, though of all the somewhere elses he could have ended up, The Island of Doctor Moreau was probably the one he was least prepared for. But Kilmer’s absence is notable only because his replacement in George Clooney so effortlessly provides the qualities he could not. In a film like this, Batman absolutely has to be the unflappable straightman, someone who can deadpan his way through all the plot has to throw at him, and Clooney is most definitely up to the task. Very early on we see Batman skating down the spine of a model dinosaur after announcing, in a calmly assured voice, “Hi Freeze, I’m Batman.” It is of course ludicrous, but Clooney’s unflinchingly suave coffee advertisement demeanour totally sells it. Chris O’Donnell’s Robin is meanwhile thrust into being the comedy sidekick, a role which he is not best suited for. In the previous film he excelled, or at least came closest to excelling in quieter scenes which more or less called for plain, indeed borderline human charm, but here he is left floundering in the form of a wholly unnatural goofball while Alicia Silverstone sort of takes over the troubled-but-good-kid role he played previously. It isn’t so much that O’Donnell lacks the chops for comedy, but that he is essentially performing the role of the ignition to the engine of this comedy and the key doesn’t fit.

The mismatch of role and player in Robin’s case is nothing compared to that of Mr Freeze. In any other possible world, Arnold Schwarzenegger, forever best known for playing a cold, emotionless killing machine in The Terminator, would have been perfect for playing a cold, emotionless cure-researching machine here, but Akiva Goldsman and whoever else clearly ignored the superlative—and surely most popular with this film’s alleged target audience—version voiced by Michael Ansara in Batman: The Animated Series, so Schwarzenegger is staggeringly miscast. The infamous ice puns rarely make any sense and are only ever remotely funny because they’re so incredibly awful. There is a reason the “ballpoint banana” joke from the 1966 Batman works, and that is Burt Ward’s complete earnestness of delivery. There’s no grinning or winking, just a straight-faced, clear-voiced annunciation of absurdity. Arnie meanwhile bites chunks out of the scenery like he’s bulking for Mr Universe. Of course, by this time no one would have expected much else from Schwarzenegger, who had since the mid-’80s become a mainstay of the Hollywood action-comedy blockbuster scene, providing a springboard to questionable comedies like Junior and Jingle All the Way, as well as increasingly mediocre action movies like Eraser. The two meet in Batman & Robin, which should have been the nadir of his career, but alas, who among you could have foreseen four more Terminator sequels, let alone his starring in three of them?

As ever, these characters inhabit Gotham City, which returns in a more fleshed-out and stylish vision that can occasionally impress the eye. In Batman Forever it was reduced to a kind of lifeless neon interstice between scenes of questionable cohesiveness, here it is not so much a believable city as it is a gigantic art museum, but at the very least it has physicality and style. In its design it pays homage to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with elevated roads snaking their way around gigantic statues, but here all is surface, and the answer to the question “why did you put that there?” is “because!”, which goes some way to summing up the film itself. Unlike in Batman Returns, there is little sense of society (that’s another eleven years down the line, folks) in the Gotham of this film, the characters exist pretty much entirely apart from the broader world around them. Not that, for example, a man in a diamond-powered exosuit (the only remotely subtle ice pun in the entire film, by the way) who goes around freezing people has to have a deep relationship to his context to be effective as a villain, but Mr Freeze seems to have nothing at all to do with the world he inhabits, and this is not addressed in a way that makes it appear deliberate, if it is even addressed at all. Everything we see of Gotham is supersized to match the operatic performances it is intended to contain, but there are precious few combinations of role and player that can actually expand to fill such a space, and this leaves Batman’s beloved city feeling empty for entirely different reasons than it did in the previous film.

In fact, when I say “precious few,” I actually mean “precisely one.” For there is among the main cast one above all else, a woman who could almost make you believe you’re watching a better film. If ever a “yas queen” should escape my begrudging lips, let it be for Uma Thurman in this film. She throws herself into every line, every pose, every glance, every scene without the faintest care about looking stupid, which is precisely the fearlessness required to sell such questionable goods. From knowingly clichéd eco-warrior to genocidal plant goddess, there isn’t a moment in the entire film when Thurman is both on screen and outdone. The only problem is that she’s playing Catwoman from two films ago. Pamela Isley sees something she wasn’t supposed to, her boss kills her, she comes back with superpowers to get her revenge. When the best part of your film is just one ingredient of a much better film warmed over, you should rethink just what in the heck you’re doing, but since “you” in this sentence is either one of or an almost definitely satanic fusion of both Joel Schumacher and Akiva Goldsman, maybe it is in fact I who should rethink just what in the heck I’m doing. Besides inviting the unflattering comparison to better days, the film also serves the Poison Ivy character poorly by encumbering her with weak practical effects and even worse CGI. Poison Ivy has the potential to be a one-woman circus, and Thurman is more than a match for any level of lavishness, but she is consistently undercut in the phantasmagoria department by lacklustre support.

But what wasn’t Pamela Isley supposed to see? What was it that brought forth her untimely demise? I’m torn between “a golden retriever with gland problems” and “a man in an inflatable rubber suit,” so for one time only you get two (count em’) shitty yet accurate and dismissive jokes for the price of one, said price probably being your patience. Bane is pretty much a non-entity throughout the film, his job is to be large and throw less large people around, and to respond to button presses like some kind of Pavlovian golden retriever with gland problems (three! …sort of! (count ’em)). Professional wrestler Robert Swenson, who wrestled for WCW and other promotions, plays the beefed up version of Bane, but his mat skills are not really put to any good use here. It’s unfortunate, since, for all the supposed homoeroticism in this film, one would think that the chance to have a big muscular man do a thing he is good at would not be passed up. But alas. Well, I guess so far as Swenson is a supremely large lad, his performance is successful. Bizarrely, one of his most active scenes is to the film’s detriment, highlighting one of the major tonal issues it struggles with, or rather ignores throughout. The Turkish bath scene, in which Poison Ivy has him throw a bunch of street punks out of a derelict building, features numerous cartoon sound effects that feel totally out of place. Taken at face value it is a relatively minor blunder, yet one which brings to mind the deep-seated identity confusion of Batman Forever. While the film makes overtures to outlandishness, its stagey acting style and often clunky action scenes mean that attempts to play up an atmosphere of cartooniness rather than of operatic drama fail miserably.

Opposed to the one-dimensional Bane, Alicia Silverstone plays Barbara Wilson, this film’s Batgirl, with not so much multi-dimensionality but rather the sense of lots of individual unconnected dimensions existing in separate realities. With the Hardyesque Pat Hingle playing Commissioner Gordon, there’s no way Silverstone could have convincingly played his daughter, so it makes sense to shoogle the role around a little. Instead of the usual ties, then, Barbara Wilson is in fact a relative of Alfred Pennyworth. Alfred is sick and Barbara has come to petition Bruce Wayne to send Alfred back to his native England, where he may live out his final days in the bosom of family. I bring this up not to pad out the review, but because this sub-plot, while as vigorously bungled as one might expect, is a nice send-off for Michael Gough, who returns to play the much mistreated butler one last time. As for Silverstone, her performance is, as previously mentioned, quite strange. In her very second scene she sleepily proclaims “both of my parents were killed in a car accident five years ago,” which I must confess caused me to burst out laughing. Her nonchalant line delivery and not-all-there smile are presumably intended to be read as an affectation of unassumingness by which she hides her true rebellious biker chick hacker chick ten-words-per-minute chick self, but in practice she simply appears to be high. Despite having just arrived in Gotham, on break from “Oxbridge Academy,” she speaks without the faintest hint of received pronunciation (this is probably for the best), and is furthermore intimately familiar with the meet locations and customs of the city’s underground bike racing scene. (Said scene is apparently being run by Coolio, who, originally just a cameo, has been revealed to have been playing Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow. If you think that sounds like complete nonsense, it is, but it’s also true.) Her performance is as confused as the role itself, yet as Batgirl, Silverstone’s scenes have probably the most straight up fighting of any of the main cast’s, and she also has the best hero/villain banter in her scene with Poison Ivy.

With the main cast now fully accounted for, surely there can be no love interests? Well, you’d be right, and also wrong. Elle Macpherson, one of several supermodels featured in the film, plays Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend Julie Madison, a throwback to Batman’s original run on Detective Comics. I will, broken record as I am, now talk about past episodes from the annals of cinematic Batlove history. Vicki Vale is nothing special, but her relationship with Bruce Wayne and Batman begins as two separate threads which weave together over the course of the film, culminating in the third act. Selina Kyle brings this idea to new heights by having her alter ego act as an adversary to Batman while she romances Wayne, and by having their dual natures so closely mirror one another. Chase Meridian, well, she’s at least involved in both sides of Bruce’s life. Julie Madison simply sits or stands near Wayne in some scenes but mostly just doesn’t exist. We’re supposed to believe that there is some conflict when Wayne, under the lingering effects of Poison Ivy’s pheromones, spaces out during a kiss with Madison, but Madison’s sparse appearances render her a thin gruel of a character, and there is not a moment that, despite the false amours of Poison Ivy fogging his mind, we can ever believe that Wayne gives a shit about her in the first place. Given that there is no indication that Macpherson can act, this is probably for the best, and Madison is thus saved from being the worst of the Batman love interests in the first Warner series only by virtue of the fact that, unlike Chase Meridian, she is completely irrelevant to the main action of the film.

So that’s Batman & Robin. It far outstrips Batman Forever, but it can almost never be spoken of positively in itself, only in relation to the disaster that precedes it, and too many of its own failings are reminiscent of said disaster for it to successfully make the case that it has learned and moved on from it. Add to that the fact that so much of its good parts are either homages or perhaps unwitting reiterations of good things in previous Batman films and you end up with something that can’t with any sincerity be heralded as an actual improvement, the same bunch of idiots simply got luckier overall with their selections of material this time around. Schumacher, may he rest in peace, I suppose knew he was making some bullshit, and later on he went so far as to apologise for his contributions to Batman’s career on the silver screen. Yet at the time this film was released, a third, or rather fifth entry was slated for production. Batman Unchained, which was to feature cameo Coolio as Scarecrow, and allegedly, and most bafflingly, Jack Nicholson returning as Joker, was planned to be a darker and more serious Batman, closer to the comic books of which Schumacher claimed to be a fan, but the box office intervened and for better or for worse we shall never know what hell may yet have been unleashed, or unchained, or whatever. Well, looks like I’m running out of things to say, guess that’s my cue to put this review on ice!

Film Review: Batman Forever

Let’s begin by being as clear as possible. This film sucks. It really sucks. I’m aware that people might think Batman & Robin a more memorably bad film, and it probably is, since I must admit that, in the time between my father taking me to see it in the cinema and the viewing I undertook for this review, I had pretty much forgotten everything about Forever except for one or two things, but make no mistake: this is a diabolically confused mess of no small magnitude. Initially it may have shown some promise, as Joel Schumacher wanted it to be an adaptation of Frank Miller’s much lauded Batman: Year One, one of the comics of the late 1980s that defined the modern idea of Batman, but the project was gradually transformed into something that was most decidedly not that. Batman Forever is sometimes described as a throwback to the Batmania of the 1960s, but in making that comparison people seem to forget that while that version of Batman was very silly, it knew what it was doing and carried itself with a warmth and affability that made it very fun to watch. What we have here is a charmless, directionless, oddly cold and synthetic vision of a Batman without purpose.

So, what happened? How the hell should I know. Tim Burton and Michael Keaton were originally attached for a third and probably final entry in their Batman series, with the working title “Batman Continues”, and then they ceased to be so. It seems that from the start Warner Bros. execs were actively pushing Burton to go lighter in response to the (in my view wrongly) perceived “darkness” of Batman Returns, so it’s likely that at least some of the nigh unutterable stupidity that goes on in the finished product was there from near the beginning of its production. At the very least we know the character of Chase Meridian was there in the early stages, since Burton had already cast Rene Russo in the role. So while Joel Schumacher often gets the blame for this movie and its sequel, it seems that here at least he was simply the chump they brought on board to clean up whatever mess had been left behind in the wake of Burton’s departure, and was later left fumbling even more blindly as Keaton followed suit and walked away. Of course, we know Burton later signed back on with the project as producer, since his name is pretty much the first thing you see in the opening credits, and while the question “why?” might be intriguing, I’ll leave that where it is in favour of simply discussing the mess that is the film itself rather than the mess surrounding it.

With a film as confused and scrappy as Batman Forever, it’s hard to know exactly where to begin. Normally a plot synopsis would suffice, but the plot itself may be the least remarkable thing about the film, not just because the rest of it is so misguided on pretty much every level, but also because it barely even registers as a story told. The stakes are clear-ish, but none of them has any weight. We are told for example that Riddler’s machine will suck all the intelligence out of Gotham’s citizens and pump it straight into his brain, yet at no point does this ever actually seem to happen. I mean, we see the machine working, allegedly, yet the Riddler’s level of intelligence never seems to rise above that of a small child thrown into a bathtub full of sugar at any point during the film. It’s easy enough to joke that the writers weren’t smart enough to write the Riddler as a super genius, especially since, as we shall see, they were hardly capable of writing the Riddler at all, but when you realise that they weren’t even able to write an accurate if fairly shallow elaboration on the phrase “idiot box”, that’s when you start to consider just how much of this particular iceberg’s mass is hidden below the water line.

While the film pays a little lip service to its villains’ defining traits every now and then, neither of Batman’s foes really maintains more than a passing resemblance to his namesake from the source material; Two-Face is basically “Joker with a Coin”, while Riddler is “Jim Carrey Funny Moments 10 Hour Compilation SO RANDOM!!! xD”. So when the two get together you’re essentially left with a pair of failed Joker auditions sandwiched together into a sort of villainous near non-entity, a duo of (in the sincerest mode of charity) embryonic personalities crushed under the weight of conflicting and unrealistic expectations: don’t recall Burton, but also play bigger than Nicholson. For Batman Returns, both Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer understood well enough that their characters could not simply be sartorially differentiated retreads of Nicholson’s Joker, that to step out from under his shadow they would have to find their own voices, their own physicalities. Whatever you think of them, they cannot reasonably be accused of copying their predecessor, and I suppose in their results neither Tommy Lee Jones nor Jim Carrey could be accused of resembling Nicholson’s Joker either, but it is clear enough to me from what they seem to intend to be doing on screen that they were being pushed in that direction. Indeed, I get the feeling that the goal of this film from the studio’s perspective was to spiritually retcon Batman Returns.

Perhaps the worst thing about these rather horrible portrayals is that it’s very difficult to tell who is at fault, since at least in the case of Jones I want someone else to blame. Carrey I could probably leave to the wolves, but as we see from later performances in his career, much as with Robin Williams, a good director can rein him in and channel his naturally extreme energy in the service of pathos, which on some level is a state to which most Batman villains can aspire. So there at least we might blame screenplay or direction, although it is possible that Carrey, whose star was arcing very high in the Hollywood sky at that time, was granted executive carte blanche to “Carrify” his performance as much as he liked. One thing is certain: something went very, very wrong. Whether it is the character’s totally unbelievable claim to being a genius scientist, his terrible one liners which seem to come out of some deep recess of juvenile tastelessness, so deep that I can hardly believe real grown adults actually came up with them, or his mediocre attempts at being anything remotely resembling a threat to anyone whatsoever, the Riddler is simply bad in this film. Sure, he’s supposed to be insufferable, his whole shtick by and large is that he envies Batman’s intellect and wants to outdo him by the most spectacular means possible, in one of the comics he even goes to extremes in an attempt to drive Batman insane, but the insufferability of Carrey’s Riddler seems to be almost entirely directed at the audience, so many of his cringe-worthy verbal eruptions are made when no one else is around that it is hard to believe I am not being personally targeted when he screams “joygasm!!!” after blowing up the batmobile.

With Jones, you might be tempted to exclaim “who the fuck knows”. It may be that an actor used to playing fairly down to earth dramatic roles might struggle to walk a mile in the larger than life shoes of a comic book villain, but really his delivery matches the garbled lines he has to work with, so in that sense at least he did a good job. Indeed, short of walking off the set while telling the writers to shove their dialogue up their arses in whatever form should prove least comfortable, Jones could probably not have done any better. Two-Face is a complicated character, on the one hand he is still Harvey Dent, a former District Attorney, much closer to the kinds of roles Jones had usually played up to this point; on the other he has succumbed to a sort of scarring of the mind equal to the scarring of his face, such that the ideal of blind justice is taken to extremes with the aid of a defaced coin, pure chance, a fifty-fifty split. The character is then dramatically compelling fare for a film, a dark mirror of Batman’s own dual nature to match Returns‘ Catwoman, yet here he is, as I said before, treated as “Joker with a Coin”. Jones is not really given the basis of Harvey Dent to expand from, and any sense of Two-Face’s actual character is subsumed into a shambolic medley of cackles, mumbles, and circus ringmaster pomp, yet the gravest crime committed is not that he barely resembles himself, but that for all his gun-waving, coin-flipping antics he is about as threatening, about as compelling, and about as tragic as a slightly misshapen Werther’s Original.

Now might be the time to mention that this film, and indeed its sequel, are intended as continuations of the Burton films. The only real on-screen confirmation of this is the presence of Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth, the stalwart and stately butler of Wayne Manor. Of course, he too has not survived the transition from Burtmania to whatever the hell this is. He is reduced to playing a doddering old man who is easily fooled by the buffoonery of fake trick or treaters that couldn’t have been less convincing even if they had been dressed up as the titular villains from Killer Klownz from Outer Space. He is at his best in his few scenes with Dick Grayson, here played by Chris O’Donnell, forming perhaps the only relationship in the film that comes close to resembling genuine human interaction. O’Donnell is probably the most likeable major screen presence in the film, and while his Robin is more akin to the wayward Jason Todd than your typical Dick Grayson, he doesn’t do too badly with the fairly shoddy material he has to work with. But the inclusion of Robin at the halfway point of the film immediately comes across as an unnecessary addition to a stage that is already overcrowded, albeit by a bunch of cardboard cut-outs and other non-entities, and it is through this perpetual narrative greed that the film’s confused identity is matched by its confused focus. There’s a reason Two-Face essentially retreats behind Riddler later on in the film, this being that the writers, or perhaps meddlers from the darker recesses of the studio system, began to realise that the film was trying to contain too much stuff and basically jamming it in any which way it could, such that the audience is left trying to navigate a room where two thirds of the doorway are blocked by furniture and the floor itself is totally covered with stacked chairs, tables, and garishly upholstered sofas, none of which can be sat upon or at with any comfort. Forever lacks any of the sense of proportion, balance, tonal continuity, or purposeful storytelling that grounded and propelled the action of its predecessors.

Possibly the most notable difference when comparing this film to the previous two is the near total absence of Gotham City itself. In the Burton films we are often treated to shots of its bustling streets, political and social events, alleyway robberies and so forth. Batman feels for all his high-tech gadgetry like a street level crime fighter; he has amassed his formidable arsenal essentially to save people who, just like his own parents, take a wrong turn on their way home from the theatre, to fight the rot that festers in the dark corners of the city, and to instil fear in the hearts of the cowardly and superstitious lot that lie in wait in the long shadows. Because we see almost nothing of Gotham except for some rather unappealing CG cityscapes devoid of so much as even Lowry-esque stick-figure crowds, Batman’s crusade is made to feel like a vanity project, this sense not being helped by his ludicrously flashy vehicles and, yes, his overly sculpted suit, replete with injection moulded nipples and “dummy thicc” rear end. Bruce Wayne of course first donned the cowl for personal reasons, but Batman do what he do with a view to upholding values that actual human beings tend to hold as universal: justice, crime and punishment, rehabilitation, mercy. Here the entire world seems to exist for a handful of characters, anyone else who might happen to appear in frame is so much ephemeral, almost accidental decoration, you might even take them for ghosts from the previous films still haunting select interior spaces of a now largely abandoned Gotham. Along with the art design, this feeling would be surreal were it not so eminently forgettable.

Also notable for its absence, the brooding neo-Wagnerian score that Danny Elfman provided for the two Burton films. Elliot Goldenthal was brought in to try and unify through music the fecklessly assembled budget caterer’s buffet of half-baked characters with some of that good ol’ leitmotivic special sauce. Goldenthal sort of apes Elfman here and there, but his themes are not as memorable, and we are at no point given the impression of a Batman, a crusader who roams the night seeking justice, but rather being told “look, it’s Batman, there he goes, being Batman”. It has the slimy wool-over-the-eyes quality of a carpetbagger. We can never really quite believe that what we’re hearing is the soundtrack to Batman, and like the film itself the soundtrack reads like a knock-off competitor hastily rolled out to make a buck. Things do not get better when we look at the attempts to lend weight to the villains through scoring. Two-Face’s music, which Goldenthal has rather bafflingly claimed was inspired by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, fails to ground Tommy Lee Jones’s messy performance with thematic stability because it is itself a complete mess of noisy effects, only serving to heighten the incoherence of the portrayal. Meanwhile, the Riddler is mismatched with a theremin heavy throwback to old science fiction scores, attempting to play up the intended mad scientist character, but instead hammering home just how little Carrey’s performance matches anything of that description.

But what of Batman himself? This is after all a Batman film. Well, sad to say, this iteration of the caped crusader, played by Val Kilmer, is neither equal to the task of succeeding Michael Keaton nor recalling the light-hearted straightman act of Adam West. I bring up West because, by all accounts, Forever is supposed to be the return of Batmania. As I said in my review of Batman Returns, Burton was already doing Batmania, especially in that film, but apparently cheesy rhymes about mistletoe and DJ scratching CDs are just too dark for kids. Pouty-lips Kilmer is not dark, but he is hardly light either, being at best a neutral earth tone, inoffensive at the side of his garish counterparts. It is only when you see him away from the obscuring presence of these paltry interlocutors that you realise he might as well be a potted plant, for that is basically the level of expressivity he manages to reach in any given scene. He’s cracking a joke with Alfred, he’s bashing down a door to try to save a life, he’s in a bank vault that is suspended from a helicopter and inexplicably filling up with acid; his plain and immutable foliage of an expression is not so much a reassuring anchor of calm and stability as it is the face of a man who is trying not to show how bewildered he is by the fact that he is in Batman Forever. This makes the scene in which he turns to camera and smiles quite surprising, but probably not in the way the director intended. It is surprising not just because Kilmer’s face has been in a single and completely different configuration the entire film up to that point, but because the change occurs over the non-person that is Chase Meridian.

Meridian, played by Nicole Kidman, is a woman what gets kidnapped, and that’s basically the entirety of who she is. Meridian succeeds only in making me nostalgic for Vicki Vale, who was easily the weakest part of the 1989 Batman, but there are some interesting points to consider when comparing the two love interests. Vale is essentially a bystander who is rescued by Batman, and their relationship deepens as the Joker begins to take a perverse interest in her. Vale is a fairly typical damsel in distress, but there is a developmental line that is established and followed over the course of the film, and it begins with her resisting her colleague’s fascination with the Batman myth. Meridian is the opposite, she is already possessed of a consuming obsession with Batman, and she thrusts herself into his path as often as possible. She makes herself the damsel in distress, but at no point in the film is this questioned, critiqued, or even so much as addressed in passing. Unlike the villains, I can’t even criticise Kidman for turning in a bad performance, she has almost no character to portray, and the most consistently surprising thing about Meridian’s relationship with Batman and Bruce Wayne is that he continues to fall harder and harder for what can at best be described as a cardboard cut-out of a woman. While it is a lazy criticism, the entire “why” of the romance subplot may be best explained as follows: because it’s in the script.

So that’s Batman Forever, two hours of people you’re never given a reason to care about doing things that make no sense because Warner Bros. wanted a kid friendly Batman movie, or rather because they desperately didn’t want another Tim Burton Batman movie. The film has the sense of having been guided so much by what it was to avoid, rather than by what it was to aim for, that it spends most of its duration in the violent throes of an identity crisis that is only resolved in the end by the realisation and acceptance that it in fact has no identity at all. Its synthetic, contrived narrative, character portrayals, and locations all combine into an offensively bland mush, and even the most refined of gourmands would be hard pressed to identify even one flavour in this broth spoiled not by too many cooks but by a disorganised kitchen led by a head chef who didn’t even know the recipe. It is not in thrall to the crass commercialism that permeates its infamous sequel, but its lack of even this as some kind of defining characteristic leaves it shambling in a pile of its own mess, miserable and forgotten down in the shadowy sewers where lie yesteryear’s most fleeting of pop cultural dalliances.

Film Review: Batman Returns (Orig. Oct 2019)

Batman’s second outing under the joint stewardship of Burton and Keaton is also his last. Burton was not interested in doing another sequel, and Warner Bros. execs were concerned about the dark tone of Burton’s films. The impasse thus formed led to the two quasi-neo-Batmania (I did the Kenosha Kid, I can do the Popcrit too) films directed by Joel Schumacher. Would that they could have seen their Snyderian future. Perhaps some did, those poor Cassandras of the executive suite. But it’s understandable: with the first Batman a big success, Burton was granted greater control over the sequel, and all that was suggestively fairytale and carnival of that first effort is foreground and writ large here. I always liked this film as a kid, it was equal parts goofy and nasty, vibrant and sinister, a cartoonish noir fantasy of the urban Gothic. But unlike the original Burton outing it has not been a film that I have thought about much since my childhood, let alone watched. Will it hold up? Let’s find out! I wrote this introductory paragraph before I even sat down to watch the film, so I literally do not know, but of course will have known for at least day or two by the time you get to the second paragraph.

Sidestepping any pretence of suspense, I can reveal that I had a blast watching this again, it’s seriously off-the-rails, wacky, hilarious, and occasionally violent. I don’t think the executive, or indeed critical assessment that it was too dark is at all fair. In comparison to the previous film, its dark parts are darker, but its light parts are lighter. Burton managed to ramp up the expressionist inspiration of the first film by putting it everywhere, not just in the architecture, the light and the shadows, but in the comedy, in the story, in the characters. Everything is heightened, more extreme, more sharply contrasted. While many would blame Burton’s successor Joel Schumacher for turning this first WB Batman series into an over-the-top silly cartoon, in a lot of ways Burton was already there. Consider the rooftop fight between Batman and Catwoman: Batman knocks her to the floor (Catwoman was an asshole etc.), she says “how could you? I’m a woman,” Batman drops his guard with concern for her, allowing her to get the upper hand and hang him over the ledge with her whip. It might as well be Adam West’s Bruce Wayne falling for Miss Kitka in his pursuit of improving US-Soviet relations.

The set-up to the story is a bit more complicated than that of the first film. An armed gang of circus performers attacks a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Gotham Square with the aim of kidnapping Max Shreck, a wealthy industrialist who is giving a speech there. Shreck escapes but falls through a mechanised grate into the sewer lair of the Penguin, who was abandoned by his parents as a baby and now wishes to return to human society. Shreck is eventually able to return to his office, having a made a deal with the Penguin. Upon arriving there he learns that his bumbling secretary Selina Kyle has been snooping in his private files and has discovered that his big plan, a new power plant, is actually a device by which he can suck up the city’s power for himself and hold it to ransom. To shut her up, he pushes her from a high window, killing her. Her body attracts a bunch of street cats who inexplicably bring her back to life, imbuing her with the agility, reflexes, and folkloric nine lives of a cat, as well as engendering the emergence of a dangerous new side to her personality. At another public gathering, one of the circus gang members kidnaps the Mayor’s baby and descends down an open manhole only to be “defeated” by who else but the Penguin. Ascending above ground with the baby in his arms, Penguin becomes an instant hero and press sensation, prompting Batman to investigate.

The focus of the film in the beginning is definitely on the villains. Batman shows up to fight off the circus gang at the tree lighting event, but the film wants us to know Penguin and Catwoman and Shreck. And why not? We know an awful lot about Bruce Wayne and his alter ego from the previous film, but almost everything else starts over from zero. So we have origin stories galore for each of the villains except Shreck himself. Although Penguin is this film’s equivalent of the Joker, Shreck is in truth the main villain of the story. He abuses and parasitises both Penguin and Catwoman for his own gain, and his latest business venture seeks to do the same thing to Gotham itself. Max Schreck, for whom the character was named, was a German silent film actor best known for playing the vampire in the original Nosferatu, and was even fictionalised as a vampire himself. Like Shreck’s impeccable wardrobe, the reference is extravagantly worn, he leeches the blood of the city while posing as its prime benefactor, and though the name refers to Count Orlok, the look and portrayal are definitely owed to Dracula. He is possessed of a kind of agelessness, serving as the embodiment of the concept of avarice.

It doesn’t get an origin story of its own, but even Gotham seems somewhat different this time around. It maintains its larger than life architecture and its distortions of space and form, but the overall feel is different, and it’s not just the Christmas lights. In the first film so much of the city seemed to be made up of pipes and vents, its theme was industrial sprawl, we were invited to hang around with the lowlife of the city, like rats crawling through the pipes. Jack Napier becomes the Joker in a chemical factory, Oswald Cobblepot is born the Penguin in a practically Victorian aristocratic home. The setting moves from the industrial to the commercial, to the political. This time the true villain is puppetmaster capitalist Shreck, a white collar criminal, a self-assured untouchable of the top floor penthouse class. The action takes place at political events, plush offices, government buildings, high-rise apartments, department stores, all of which tie back either directly or at least in some way to Shreck.

Cobblepot’s ambition to reclaim his birthright as an aristocrat is seized upon by Shreck, who thrusts him into a campaign against the incumbent mayor, who is having difficulty containing the chaos caused by the circus gang, which is of course being run by Cobblepot himself. This sub-plot, based on two episodes of the 1960s TV show, presents itself as Preston Sturges by way of Burtmania, and it kind of works. The big climax revolves around Bruce Wayne’s infamous CD scratching. It is actually possible to scratch a CD like a vinyl record, albeit not in the way that happens in this scene. It’s either an ass-pull or an acceptable “of course he did” as we learn that Batman secretly recorded Penguin talking shit about Gotham’s citizens during one of their encounters. Wayne uses the sound clips when he hacks into the PA system at a Cobblepot for Mayor rally, prompting everyone to suddenly produce rotten fruit and veg to hurl at him. The knowing silliness of the film is, once again, much closer to the Batmania style than many people seem to think. And I haven’t even gotten to the rocket launcher penguins yet, or the remote control Batmobile arcade ride. This film has so many wacky setpieces that it’s hard to know which to address and in what order.

Like the film itself, I’m going to suddenly veer off topic here to talk about Catwoman. She has a lot going for her over the previous female lead. Vicki Vale was kind of a one note damsel in distress despite being a war photographer. Selina Kyle is the opposite of that, well, at least she becomes the opposite of that. When we first see her she seems like a laughtrack sitcom character, replete with knowingly corny one-liners and an impossibly ditzy manner. Whe she is pushed out of the window and resurrected by the street cats, she retains this basic personality, particularly her penchant for one-liners, but she has taken on a crazed femme fatale persona with a DIY aesthetic, stapling together her Catwoman costume from a cut-up old coat and fashioning claws out of various materials she has lying around the apartment. She proceeds to wage a one woman war against her murderer, Shreck, blowing up his department store, and later plots to assassinate him at a masked ball he is hosting.

While the other villains have an adversarial relationship with Batman in the case of Penguin, and Bruce Wayne in the case of Shreck, Catwoman/Selina Kyle is presented as a mirror image of Batman/Bruce Wayne. As their unmasked selves they begin a romance, while their night-prowling alter egos clash violently atop Gotham’s high rooftops. These relationships escalate in their intensity until somethin’s gotta give, and give it do. The impossibly cheesy refrain “mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it / but a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it” reveals the double life of each to the other, threatening to immediately throw their already quite bizarre relationship out of the frying pan and into ripping their masks off while electrocuting Christopher Walken in a subway tunnel. Different strokes for different folks. Bruce tries to save Selina from herself in the dramatic climax, but her suicidally pathological desire for revenge against Shreck proves too strong.

While Returns has never been as well received or fondly remembered as its predecessor, it does offer… and I won’t say “depth”, because there is nothing deep about it, it’s a film about people in ridiculous costumes hitting each other after all, but I think it is a richer film, with greater thematic unity and complexity than the 1989 Batman. That film, as much as I love it, is quite superficial, its conflicts basic, its characters archetypal and not much beyond that. The Joker is a villain who must be stopped, end of. Returns, through Catwoman, Penguin, and Shreck, forces Batman to reckon with possible other versions of himself. While the latter two are closer to the “must be stopped, end of” side of things, and this despite the nascent tragedy of the Penguin’s origin story, it is Catwoman who drives a sword of ambiguity right through the moral heart of the main character. While The Killing Joke propelled into the public consciousness the idea of Batman and Joker as two sides of the same coin, something that has been echoed strongly in a great many Batman stories since, Batman Returns gives a more multifaceted take on the dual nature of Bruce Wayne’s life, and how he is just a few steps removed from the villainy he fights both in and out of costume. On top of that, it’s just a big ol’ fun ol’ cartoon of a movie, and I think it’s pretty great.

Chinese Girl Cartoons – Baki (2018)

Spoilers! Come getcha spoilers! Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the show and don’t want to know any plot details! Spoilers! Spoilers here!

In which extremely large and hideously ugly men hit each other for reasons. We certainly have come a long way since the good old days of OVAs with excessive plot condensation, now this fucking thing gets 26 whole episodes of wildly inconsistent madness in which plot threads and characters are picked up and dropped at random. I guess this is what happens when you adapt a long-running manga and start and end in the middle with no intention of writing an original ending to cap it off neatly. Props to the writers for authenticity, of course, but by the time this series is over it feels no more conclusive than its beginning felt introductory. It definitely presumes familiarity with the Baki universe, which is fair enough since the original manga is incredibly popular in Japan, but prior to this point all I had seen of it was an OVA the main feature of which was Baki’s fight with a guy who could rip the nerves out of his opponent’s neck, so needless to say this series in which said nervy boy was only a minor player was quite confusing to start with.

The basic premise, which becomes less and less relevant as the story progresses, is that five of the world’s worst murderers have escaped death row and come to Japan in search of the ultimate fight and true defeat, both of which presumably will be delivered to them by our boy Baki. Well, spoilers: they ain’t. In fact Baki spends most of his time not fighting at all, and pretty much all the bad guys are beaten by other people, only one of whom I knew from the OVA. Instead, Baki is too busy having awkward and rather graphic sex with his girlfriend while the crims are beaten to a pulp very slowly by various martial arts masters and an enormous black man with a huge boner (I am not making this up) whose name is Biscuit (I repeat: I am not making this up). And then for no apparent reason we get Muhammad Ali… sorry, Muhammad Alai (yes, Alai) Jr., who becomes a major character out of nowhere during the last three episodes.

On the face of it, it should be a very entertaining and wonderfully violent affair, but for all the blood and teeth flying around there is a strong sense of of flatness and banality to the violence itself. Even when guys literally have their skulls caved in with bare fists, the impact feels dull. Even when someone literally has their face burnt off, there is no sense of revulsion or horror. The art style revels in ugliness, but when it must show wounds it seems to shy away. Whether it’s flayed skin, deep cuts, or broken bones, everything is presented in the manner of face or body paint; almost nothing looks like it actually hurts but was painted on, as if the whole thing is just playfighting. This isn’t helped by the bizarre and incongruous moments in which the characters suddenly become cel-shaded 3D models and animate dodgily at one another. Yes, yes, I know, cartoons aren’t real, but this cartoon has managed to make itself seem unreal in its own presented reality, and this weakens what should be an agreeable bit of skull cracking goodness.

It’s not all bad though. The patent ridiculousness, the absurdity of much of what happens across Baki‘s 26 episodes is very watchable, even when it decides to depict the most awkward and ugly sex scene you can imagine. Like, if you think back to The Room, and Tommy Wiseau’s bony-arsed navel humping style of intercourse, this is more like something out of a Goya painting. It’s not full-blown hentai, but it’s not far off, and there is something about it that is far more monstrous than any of the fight scenes. Again, I would say that this is largely down to the Halloween facepaint approach to depicting the result of having your face burnt off, but hey, even if the violence had been as extreme as it should have been, this would still be quite affectingly horrendous. But between the ridiculous facial expressions and behaviours of the characters, the bizarre conversations that amount generally to nothing, and the sudden inexplicable introductions and disappearances of apparently important characters, there is an undeniable hook (made partially of military grade weirdness) to Baki that kept me coming back even after episodes that I found rather boring. If JoJo is consistently weird and quite aware of how weird it is (“bizarre” is in the title, after all), Baki is like a show assembled by an AI, all the right materials are there, but it lacks the kind of sense and character that a human would impart on their creation. Now, not having read the manga, I can’t comment on the accuracy of this adaptation, but whether it is faithful or not there’s something awfully off about the pacing and the balance of it all.

Now, I get it, this isn’t the entirety of the Baki story, I know that. But to stay with that comparison for a moment, JoJo didn’t start halfway through Stardust Crusaders (okay, yes, the original OVA did) and end halfway through Diamond is Not Crash (stickin’ with it!). Baki feels not even half finished but half started, for that reason I would have a difficult time recommending it to someone as a piece of narrative fiction. However, as a piece of “what even is this?” I can kind of recommend it, assuming you aren’t squeamish about blood, which if you’re familiar with the trash I usually watch for these reviews you won’t be. It’s a severely weird show, wildly inconsistent in quality, with plot threads that go nowhere and characters that just disappear and reappear without rhyme or reason, and a main attraction of extreme violence that ain’t really all there. It is weird but in a way that doesn’t feel at all calculated or congruous or idiosyncratic, and ultimately it comes off as an unintentionally strange mess. But it is entertaining, and that has to count for something.