Archive for June 1989

Batman (1989)

June 23, 1989

It’s easy now to laugh at the studio’s pre-release paranoia (Mr. Mom as Batman? $40 million budget? Are we gonna die here?) that led to a marketing Bat-blitz not seen since the ’60s. But this project, which Warner sat on for years, was considered a big gamble. As everyone knows, it paid off. Tim Burton’s spectacularly depressed vision took a page from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and restored Batman to his dark pulp roots, with added elements of opera and German silent films (the latter would be much more evident in the first sequel). Narratively, it doesn’t make much sense; almost petulantly, Burton skimps on plot basics. For example, when is the moment that crusading photojournalist Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) discovers Batman’s identity as Bruce Wayne? Burton never tells us.

By his own account, Burton was miserable during the making of Batman, and the anxious exhaustion shows; the movie isn’t an effervescent cartoon like Burton’s previous features. But it’s a fascinating watercolor in purple and black, with a surprisingly subtle performance by Michael Keaton, who plays Batman/Bruce as a borderline case who needs to climb into a bat-suit and kick some ass. And, of course, there’s the top-billed Jack Nicholson hamming it up as the Joker — though his admittedly crowd-pleasing turn isn’t quite as brilliant as everyone said; he’s antic and loud without being especially funny (or scary). Burton sees himself in both Batman and the Joker, which is what gives Batman the complex duality the comic books generally lack. This gloomy opera isn’t so much heroic as it is bitter and wounded. Many critics expecting an ordinary adventure movie had no idea what to make of it.

Murky, eye-punishing cinematography (which looks sharper on video) by Roger Pratt; Oscar-winning sets by Anton Furst; costumes by Bob Ringwood; great score by Danny Elfman, with some mewling background things (one hesitates to call them songs) by Prince. With Michael Gough as Alfred, Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, Robert Wuhl, Tracey Walter, a hambone Jack Palance, Jerry Hall, Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, and William Hootkins. You might remember (uncredited) co-screenwriter Charles McKeown as the guy who occupies the office (and desk) next to Jonathan Pryce in Brazil. Followed by Batman Returns; Burton’s next was Edward Scissorhands.

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Vampire’s Kiss

June 2, 1989

A fascinating cult black comedy with an infamously left-field performance by Nicolas Cage as a Manhattan literary agent who thinks he’s a vampire. The movie barely opened in theaters (and was cut by the distributor prior to its shabby release), probably because it was sold as a spoof á la Love at First Bite. After a night with mysterious Jennifer Beals, who may or may not be a bloodsucker, Cage deteriorates into a cross between Dwight Frye’s Renfield and Max Schreck’s Nosferatu. He intimidates and then rapes his frightened secretary (Maria Conchita Alonso); he gobbles pigeons and cockroaches (notoriously, Cage actually ate a live roach on camera); eventually he staggers through the streets with a wooden stake pointed at his heart, begging people to kill him. For pure, undiluted Cage-osity, Vampire’s Kiss is the film to beat and is a strange, uncommercial, and worthwhile movie in its own right.