Batman vs. Two-Face: two icons of 1960s television series facing off in a film reconciling the Bright Knight and Dark Knight sides of Batman

Rick Morales, “Batman vs. Two-Face” (2017)

Adam West’s final outing as Batman before his death in June 2017 brings him face to face (or face to faces) with a criminal he never met on the 1960s television series: Harvey Dent aka Two-Face. Apparently the crooked district attorney who relies on tossing a coin to make his decisions had been set to appear on the old comedy series (with Clint Eastwood in the role) but studio executives deemed the character too dark and Two-Face was sidelined. Finally with William Shatner (yes, that William Shatner!) giving voice and his familiar look from the classic 1960s TV series “Star Trek” to the character, Two-Face takes his rightful place among other villainous favourites like Catwoman (Julie Newmar), the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, Mr Freeze, Bookworm, King Tut, the Clock King and Egghead, all of whom appear in this sequel to “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders”.

The sequel is not so much a homage to the original TV series and carries fewer of the jokes and other gags that burdened its predecessor, with one exception where Catwoman exchanges costume with lawyer Lucilee Diamond (voiced by Lee Meriwether, who played Catwoman in the 1966 Batman feature film when Newmar was unavailable for the role) in order to break out of jail. This episode in the Dynamic Duo’s adventures is tighter with a faster pace and not so many twists in the plot, although the Joker, Pengy and Riddles are now very minor characters.

Dr Hugo Strange (based on the Peter Sellers character Dr Strangelove in the famous Stanley Kubrick film) has invented a machine that will extract evil from Gotham City’s most criminal masterminds and invites the Dynamic Duo, District Attorney Harvey Dent, Commissioner Gordon and police chief O’Hara to a secret demonstration. While Dr Strange’s assistant Dr Harleen Quinzel operates the levers, Batman and Robin voice misgivings that the experiment extracting evil from the brains of the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, Egghead and Mr Freeze will not go as planned. Sure enough, the machine malfunctions and explodes, and Harvey Dent receives the full force of the noxious fumes enveloping him.

Several months later, after racking up a not-so-respectable resume in crime, Harvey Dent is captured by the caped crusaders and receives plastic surgery to restore him to his previous whole self. But the surgery literally proves to be only skin-deep and Dent’s Jekyll is soon overcome by his Two-Face’s Hyde. He uses King Tut and Bookworm to commit false-flag crimes to distract our masked heroes but they quickly deduce that the various characteristics of the crimes, all exhibiting doubled-up or dual natures, point to Two-Face as their mastermind. Batman and Robin disagree on Harvey Dent’s likely role in these crimes, with Batman willing to defend Dent’s good character, and the two briefly separate. The crime-fighters eventually reconcile but not before Robin is captured and given a whiff of the same noxious substance that Dent received months ago. The Dynamic Duo follow Dent / Two-Face to a casino where he manages to outwit them.

Duality and double identities are the major theme of this episode, and fittingly Dent / Two-Face deduces Batman and Robin’s real identities while he has them strapped to a giant silver dollar which, if they move, will roll down to a giant bed of nails that will impale them. Since Batman has already been a bad Batman in “… Return of the Caped Crusaders”, Robin gets a turn in playing a bad Robin, and even his alter ego Dick Grayson is jealous of Bruce Wayne’s friendship with Harvey Dent. Catwoman also finds herself playing both villain and Batman’s ally. The plot ends up in a pedestrian battle of good versus evil as Dent / Two-Face literally struggles with himself amid explosions in an oil refinery.

The animation is adequate for the plot though at least Dent / Two-Face does look like Shatner and the main characters also resemble the actors playing them to some extent. One wishes again that Gotham City could have looked less generic and more like a city of light (where everyone and everything wears a prim and proper face, save perhaps public institutions like the Sisters of Perpetual Irony Hospital) during the day and a city of darkness in the night when masked avengers sally forth to fight and vanquish evil, in keeping with the theme of duality. The actors voicing the various characters do excellent work in making the cheesy dialogue work and seem plausible although West’s voice is quite frail. Viewers do not need to be as familiar with jokes, gags and other references to the original television series and the various Batman / Dark Knight films.

This sequel is an improvement on “… Return of the Caped Crusaders” which also brings the television series closer to the official DC Comics Batman universe with the introduction of characters like Harvey Dent / Two-Face and Harleen Quinzel aka Harley Quinn in a very minor role. It is a fitting way for West to bow out and end his acting career.

 

Carrying a heavy legacy of numerous interpretations of Batman in “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders”

Rick Morales, “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders” (2016)

The series of Batman films by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher in the 1990s and by Christopher Nolan in the early 2000s, along with the various animated television series featuring the character and the astonishing array of criminals  he fights in not-so-fair Gotham City, revived interest in the goofy late 1960s live-action television comedy series starring Adam West and Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo. The two reunite (well, at least their voices do) together with Julie Newmar, reprising her role as Catwoman in the TV series, in a new animated adventure that parodies the old television show and throws a sly dig or two at the more recent Dark Knight movie trilogy. This film is intended as a fun nostalgia trip back to the 1960s television show for fans who perhaps find Christian Bale’s portrayal of the Dark Knight in Nolan’s trilogy disturbing with the character using almost any means at his disposal, whether ethical or not, to nab his enemies whether they deserve the brutal punishments he deals out or not.

The first half-hour of this film is rather slow and hews closely to the original TV series’ formula in which the criminals are introduced early on and their dastardly plan of dominating the world (with a stolen ray-gun that replicates its victims) is sketched out in some detail. With the criminals being none other than Catwoman, the Joker, the Penguin and the Riddler colluding to rule the Earth, the film harks back to the 1966 movie in which the foursome were also plotting a takeover of Planet Earth. Batman and Robin are soon hot on the quartet’s trail but the villains have a surprise for them both. After the obligatory fight scene at a derelict factory (that used to make TV dinners!) in which title cards of POW! BAM! and SPLAT! have to pass by, Catwoman knocks out the heroes with her feminine wiles and hair-spray and the two end up as a possible main course in a giant TV dinner on a moving conveyor belt taking them into a microwave oven going full blast. Catwoman administers Bat-nip to Batman, expecting that its intended effect of turning him into something crooked with none of his usual cheesy Boy-Scout wholesomeness will take effect straight away. Instead Batman suffers a delayed reaction to the Bat-nip; but when it does begin its malign influence, the results can be very drastic. Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne fires faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth and insults Aunt Harriet. The super-hero deposes Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara with clones of himself created with the replication ray-gun seized from the super-villains. Before long, Gotham City is over-run with Batman clones dishing out their own warped forms of justice and faithful side-kick Robin is forced to team with Catwoman to get hold of the antidote to the Bat-nip and cure Batman of the drug that has unleashed his dark, unethical side.

The plot is a throwback to a story in the old 1960s TV show in which Catwoman had scratched Batman (or so she believes) with a drug that turns him into a near sex maniac and Catwoman’s partner in crime. The clever twist in this plot is that the film uses it to reference and comment on the Dark Knight films and other interpretations of the super-hero in the comics and in other movies and TV shows: as bad guy, and free of moral inhibitions, Batman uses excess violence as a first resort in confronting and finally sending the Joker, the Riddler and the Penguin to Arkham Asylum where they are forced to work alongside other known Batman villains. Once the twist comes, the film goes off on a loopy tangent referencing various gags from the TV show (such as Batman and Catwoman’s secret romance and the problem of what to do with Robin) and introducing more improbable twists that all but turn the plot into hierarchical layers of a game. The Bat-nip administered to Batman turns out to have been nobbled by the Joker; Robin and Catwoman’s near-demise in the Bat-cave’s atomic reactor is foiled by Robin’s prior application of the Bat anti-nuclear isotope protection spray (or whatever the darned gadget was called) because he foresaw that the bad Batman would try to use the reactor to despatch him and Catwoman; and Alfred reveals to Robin that his sacking was a signal to him from Bruce Wayne that he (Wayne) was a victim of mind-control.

Silly as it is, the plot races merrily along although once it is foiled and the Batman clones disappear, the fim enters a long denouement in which Batman and Robin still have to fight their enemies on top of the Penguin’s airship. Catwoman opts to risk her life escaping the long arm of the law courtesy of an even longer industrial chimney-stack.

The animation is not too bad but it looks much the same as other animated Batman movies and TV series like “Batman: the Brave and the Bold”. The original 1960s show’s cozy and goofy charm seems to be lost on the animators: Gotham City is shown as a dark, forbidding city with mostly empty streets, and Robin’s tendency to utter his trademark “Holy ___!” expletives reaches the peak of really ridiculous referencing when, on seeing Catwoman’s Catmobile, he exclaims “Holy Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill Kill!” Elsewhere Robin blurts out “Holy unsatisfactory ending!” when Catwoman proposes (in a clear reference to the happy ending of “The Dark Knight Rises”) to Batman that they meet in a restaurant in Europe to take tea together. The TV series’ fondness for alliterative expressions and Batman’s aphorisms of advice to Robin about such things as why we should not jaywalk and why building up one’s upper body strength is so important to crime-fighters can become a bit wearying – as does the constant iteration of the TV series’ theme music – when these appear POW-POW-POW, leaving viewers not much time to marvel at the silly appropriateness of the utterances in their context.

Adam West’s sometimes frail and quavering voice reminds audiences that the actor was in his octogenarian years at the time of filming (and he was not well either) while Burt Ward rattles off the teenage Robin’s lines with the same intense and uptight emotion he mustered half a century earlier. Equally octogenarian Newmar does, well, workman-like (or should that be workwoman-like?) work on Catwoman’s lines. Wally Wingert as the Riddler pins down the original portrayal of Frank Gorshin’s exactly, and the other voice actors playing the Joker and the Penguin are adequate but not outstanding for their jobs.

The film is rather over-long and perhaps it’s too self-referential and plunders the various multiple interpretations of the character over the decades. As an exercise in nostalgia, it’s not too bad and for many viewers it will comes as a breath of fresh air after the grimness of Nolan’s Dark Knight films. It could have been done better and with less of a burden than it was forced to carry.

I Am Not Your Negro: stepping back in the wrong direction with a narrow focus on black-white relations

Raoul Peck, “I Am Not Your Negro” (2017)

Initially an expose of the modern history of the United States as seen from the viewpoint of black US author and activist James Baldwin (1924 – 1987) and serving as a personal memoir of his early experiences and meetings with black activist leaders Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, this film becomes an exploration and critique of American culture and values generally. Director Raoul Peck based the film on Baldwin’s unfinished work “Remember This House” and extends the work to the present day to demonstrate that the pervasive racial discrimination of white people against black people back in Baldwin’s time continues – as does also black people’s resistance against that discrimination, as exemplified by (in Peck’s view) the Black Lives Matter movement.

With voiceover narration from actor Samuel L Jackson, who reads from Baldwin’s work, the film moves back and forth in time, which can make following it hard, but there is a general chronological order and structure shaped around Evers, Malcolm X and King. Baldwin remembers early childhood experiences of watching Hollywood Western films and identifying with the “good guy” cowboys, not realising that the Injuns being shot could just as easily have been replaced by upstart black people. He later comes to see how much Hollywood brainwashes people to see the world in terms of, well, black and white, and how Hollywood films serve to inculcate a particular paradigm of how the world supposedly operates. There is nothing in the film though how that paradigm influences not just black people like himself to accept their place in US society but also brainwashes white people to believe they are special and to believe in violence as the only acceptable tool to confront and solve problems.

With archival film footage, the film shows Baldwin advocating on behalf of black people in talk shows, arguing why racism continues in spite of the apparent social and economic progress black people were making in the 1960s. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King loom large as two leaders whose opinions and leadership styles were as polarised as could be, to the extent of Malcolm X accusing King of being an Uncle Tom for adopting a non-violent approach emphasising love and compassion.

Where the film really could have taken off and become something very special is in moments where Baldwin criticises American society generally for its materialism and consumerism which cover over its soullessness and an unwillingness to confront and own up to the brutality and psychological violence meted out to black people over 200 years of its history. There could have been an exploration of how the US controls its people through a mix of both hard power (such as genocide, the use of police and discriminatory laws to keep minority groups in positions of inferiority) and soft power (through culture and education) which also serve to divide and rule people on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion and other categories; but perhaps this was going too far for Peck who keeps the discussion within a narrow framework of whites-versus-blacks.

Unfortunately from this film, excellent in parts though it might be for showing rare archived film footage about the black American struggle for social, political and economic equality, and for detailing how Hollywood reflected and upheld racial inequality, I get no indication that either Baldwin or Peck sees beyond the white-black racial divide to realise that both white and black people – and plenty of other groups in US society – are being crushed alike by capitalist ideology and the systems and institutions that support it. Discrimination on the basis of race among other artificial categories is just one method of keeping people weak and divided – and set against each other – so that the elites who control them can continue to exploit them.

At a time when both white and black people, and others as well, most need to unite and recognise their common oppressors, “I Am Not Your Negro”, by allying itself to the Black Lives Matter movement – known to be infiltrated by US billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Foundation – is actually a step backwards in the wrong direction.

 

“Batman (Season 2, Episodes 51 / 52: A Piece of the Action / Batman’s Satisfaction)”: two sets of heroes wasted in a mundane plot with a mundane villain

Oscar Rudolph, “Batman (Season 2, Episodes 51 / 52: A Piece of the Action / Batman’s Satisfaction)” (1967)

Even for the lightweight situation comedy / family show that was “Batman” in the 1960s, these two episodes could have been beefed up a little more with a better villain and a more malevolent support team of murderous myrmidons that would justify having special guest crime-fighters The Green Hornet and his trusty sidekick Kato. In these episodes, The Green Hornet (Van Williams) and Kato (Bruce Lee) come to Gotham City to bust a stamp-counterfeiting scheme run by the cunning Colonel Gumm (Roger C Carmel), a man of many disguises from Argentine to Russian. Local Gotham City masked heroes Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) are also aware of this scheme but believe that The Green Hornet and Kato are part of it. Gumm also happens to be the foreman of the Pink Chip Stamp Factory owned by Pinky Pinkston (Diane McBain) who inherited it and a valuable stamp collection from her late grandfather Pincus Pinkston. Pinky herself also has two prospective suitors for her hand: billionaire Bruce Wayne and rich newspaper publisher Britt Reid, both of whom are none other than Batman and The Green Hornet themselves!

Dual identities (and responsibilities!), duplicity, deception and mirror-image rivalry (of a friendly sort) constitute the underlying theme of these episodes as Bruce Wayne and Britt Reid both admit to having been rivals since boyhood in many ways. In the second episode they also have a very brief discussion together about whether they would trade their mundane everyday lives for the more exciting life of fighting crime with masked identities and Reid – a little too quickly perhaps! – exclaims he’d like to stay just as he is! To Wayne, that means he’d rather stay a humdrum publisher – but viewers know exactly what Reid is referring to! The theme of polarised duality is carried over into the show’s sets of deep over-the-top pink hues in the factory, the workers’ uniforms and Pinky’s wardrobe and accessories (including her dog Apricot!), contrasting with more sober greens and greys in other scenes.

The tone of the episode ranges from light-hearted and comic to the frankly silly, especially in scenes where McBain appears with her bouffant pink wig and her Maltese terrier; and where Wayne must disappear every time Commissioner Gordon (Alan Hamilton) or Pinky needs to phone Batman. Yet no-one ever asks Wayne why he can’t be in the same room as Batman (even if the latter is just on the phone). Needless to say, no-one ever realises that Wayne and Batman speak in similar voices and use similar vocabulary and aphorisms.

The mundane plot in which Gumm abuses his employer’s trust and reputation by making fake stamps runs through the usual formulaic structure that  always features a death-trap cliff-hanger in which the Dynamic Duo’s lives are threatened in the most improbable way: on this occasion, they face being turned into Flat-man and Ribbon on life-sized stamps. As usual, Batman and Robin save themselves in the nick of time but in trying to accost The Green Hornet and Kato, allow the real crooks to get away. In the second episode, Batman and Robin must scale a building to reach a stamp exhibition and this part of the plot sets up yet another mini-episode in an ongoing gag in which the two converse with a resident (usually played by a famous actor) in the building who opens a window to see who is outside. The resident is played by then well-known Hollywood actor Edward G Robinson who talks about his (real-life) passion for art and his dislike of “pop art” artist celebrity Andy Warhol.

The acting may not be great but at least it’s adequate enough for the plot to sail through smoothly. Williams does not impress much as The Green Hornet / Britt Reid and his character seems very one-dimensional. The fight sequence – there’s always a fight sequence! – looks better than fight sequences usually do in “Batman” episodes, thanks to well choreographed scenes, collapsing tables and Bruce Lee’s restrained kung fu sparring with Robin and a few of Colonel Gumm’s henchmen. Young viewers will probably wish Lee had been allowed to clean up Gumm’s minions by himself while Robin goes after Gumm and Batman and The Green Hornet argue over who will free Pinky from Gumm.

This little adventure could have been much improved had it been extended to three episodes and featured either a more outrageous villain – Burgess Meredith’s Penguin would have been ideal – or two villains, in a plot with twists and turns that would have given Williams and Lee more to do. Another fight scene featuring Lee taking on an entire army of bad guys would have been welcome! As it is, this crime caper remains more notable for its cast and crossover of two heroes from another TV series than for its story. While there is occasional with, there is also much less of the satire and black humour that were hallmarks of the television series.

Inherent Vice: a faithful if meandering and flat adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon neo-noir comedy

Paul Thomas Anderson, “Inherent Vice” (2014)

Director Paul Thomas Anderson must be commended for daring to tackle a Thomas Pynchon novel and managing to be faithful to the book’s convoluted comedy neo-noir plot with its quirky cast of characters and Pynchon’s themes of paranoia, conspiracy theories in sub-plots that are never resolved, and strange sinister groups and individuals operating underground as both criminals and law enforcement. Beneath an apparent surface of late 1960s / early 1970s hippie counter-cultural ideals lurks an evil force – the “inherent vice” – that is infecting US politics and American institutions. Not for nothing “Inherent Vice” is set in a period just after the infamous murders committed by acolytes of Charles Manson at Spahn Ranch in California in 1969 and during Richard Nixon’s first term as US President (and presumably before his meeting with Elvis Presley): this is a period when US soft power (through its youth culture and music) was at its peak, together with US prosperity, before the Vietnam War and its huge expenses, financially and socially, along with Nixon’s own corrupt activity, among other things set the nation on its path to slow decline.

Everything seems to begin simply and innocently enough when down-and-out private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receives an unexpected visit from ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston) who tells him that she has been approached by the wife of her current lover, property developer millionaire Michael “Mickey” Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), to help the missus and the missus’ boyfriend to arrange for Mickey to be kidnapped and committed to a mental asylum. At the same time, Sportello gets a call from Tariq Khalil, a black underground activist with a prison-based revolutionary group, to find white supremacist Glen Charlock who owes Khalil money and who happens to be working for Wolfmann. Visiting a massage parlour in one of Wolfmann’s developments, Sportello meets Jade (Hong Chau) while searching for Charlock; unbeknownst to him, Jade and the police have already set him up for murdering Charlock. Facing murder charges, Sportello is interviewed by detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who tells him Wolfmann has disappeared. Sportello’s attorney Sancho (Benicio del Toro) rescues him.

If that sounds complicated enough, another sub-plot develops: Sportello is asked by junkie Hope (Jena Malone) to look for her missing musician husband Coy (Owen Wilson), whom Sportello finds in short order. Coy is in hiding because he is a police informant and he fears for his life. Sportello gets a message from Jade who apologises for setting him up and warns him to “beware of the Golden Fang”. Meeting Jade in an alley, Sportello learns the Golden Fang is an international drug-smuggling ring. Some time later, Sancho gives Sportello information about a suspicious boat called the Golden Fang which apparently sailed away with Shasta Fay on board. Sportello later receives a postcard from Shasta and uses it to search for and enter a recently constructed building shaped like a golden fang. There, he meets eccentric cokehead dentist Dr Blatnoyd (Martin Short), making out with teenage girl Japonica Fenway (Sasha Pieterse), whom Sportello had found as a runaway and returned to her parents some years previously. Sportello explores the building and discovers the Chryskylodon Institute, an asylum run by the Golden Fang organisation (the name “Chryskylodon” itself refers to Golden Fang) where, lo and behold, Coy and (later) Wolfmann happen to be inmates.

Some time later, Bigfoot notifies Sportello that Dr Blatnoyd has been found dead with fang marks in his neck and tells him to look for a guy called Puck Beaverton. While going about his business, Sportello is visited by Shasta who is oblivious to the fuss she has caused. He later gets a file from Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) on contract killer / loan shark Adrian Prussia: the file not only shows that Prussia was hired by Los Angeles Police Department to get rid of people but also that he killed Bigfoot’s former partner Vincent Indelicato. Hey presto, Prussia is also connected to Golden Fang and most likely killed Charlock. Sportello pays a visit to Prussia and Beaverton, and narrowly escapes from their clutches when the visit turns sour. Bigfoot rescues Sportello and plants drugs in his car. Sportello arranges through Japonica Fenway’s wealthy dad (Martin Donovan) to return the drugs to Golden Fang in a deal that also releases Coy from being a police informant and returns him to Hope and their daughter Amethyst.

The fiendish nature of the fragmented plot and inter-linked subplots and the rich cast contrast with the lackadaisical characters, the meandering narrative and the minimal direction and music soundtrack. One expects the film to be quite colourful given its Los Angeles setting and time-period, and it is though not to the zany extreme that might also be expected for a comedy neo-noir film. While the characters are not especially deep, given that most of them occupy a few minutes of film-time and then they’re gone forever, they can make quite an impression through their sheer loopiness or (in the case of Adrian Prussia and Puck Beaverton) hardened brutality. The one character viewers really care for is Sportello, played with all his stoned-out eccentricity by Phoenix who immerses himself in the role fully. As corrupt cop Bigfoot Bjornsen with a fixation for sucking on chocolate bananas in an embarrassingly explicit way, Josh Brolin sends up the stereotype suggested in the character in his distinctive no-nonsense, hard-bitten way.

Some of the coincidences that occur, especially those near the end, seem very forced – Prussia’s connection to Golden Fang and Charlock’s death seems a bit too stretched and convenient – and the film resolves all its plot threads rather too tidily for a conventional Hollywood ending in which Sportello unites a family before he and Shasta sail off into the sunset happily ever after. In the Pynchonesque universe where few things are ever that neat and plots and sub-plots may come and go without resolution, such an ending would never be entertained.

While well acted and looking distinctly day-glo bleached-out, and with a casual style all its own, “Inherent Vice” does meander at a slow pace and probably should have been made as a two-part mini-series. The various characters may be too kooky and stoned-out for present-day Western audiences to accept. Why Sportello and several characters should be this way, and whether being high on drugs is actually a way for people to cope with repression, brutality and a fear that society is becoming more dysfunctional and not less, are never explained. A better Pynchon novel to adapt into a film might have been “The Crying of Lot 49” and some of Pynchon’s longer works may lend themselves to mini-series adaptations. The possibility that Anderson made “Inherent Vice” as a vanity project just to prove that a Thomas Pynchon novel can be made into a film is too strong to ignore; the film does reek of self-indulgence on Anderson’s part.

Batman and Harley Quinn: oddball tag team of superheroes and quirky villain flounders in a thin story

Sam Liu, “Batman and Harley Quinn” (2017)

Teaming Batman and Nightwing together with The Joker’s on-off girlfriend Harley Quinn might have seemed a good idea at the time it was first proposed but the result is just dreadful. A thin story is stretched even thinner with an unnecessary middle section referencing the old campy 1960s television series, too much biffo, inadequate plotting and superficial characterisation that would justify having the quirky and talkative super-villain join the Dynamic Duo in their search for the equally Terrifying Twosome of Poison Ivy and Jason Woodrue. Throw in deliberately crude animation, an unsatisfactory resolution featuring a deus ex machina device, and a very shallow environmentally based theme about how best to preserve Earth’s flora and fauna against human greed and destruction, and what emerges is a mess that doesn’t quite know which audience to target so it targets everyone – teens, pre-teens, adults – alike.

Arch-villains Poison Ivy and Jason Woodrue, sometimes also known as Floronic Man, band together to kidnap botanist Dr Harold Goldbloom and force him to recreate the formula (stolen from a lab) that turned a scientist into a giant human-plant hybrid known as Swamp Thing. On hearing of Poison Ivy teaming with Woodrue, Batman and Nightwing search for Harley Quinn, recently released from prison, to persuade her to lead them both to Poison Ivy’s whereabouts. After agreeing rather reluctantly – and not without putting up a fight – Harley Quinn piles into the Batmobile with the superheroes and what then follows is an excruciating trip out of Gotham City into the countryside with Quinn blabbing and bleating and pulling off toilet gags while Batman tries to drive and Nightwing tries to navigate. At one point the three pile into a club and stay there too long (wasting viewers’ patience) before the crooks who run the joint finally recognise them and try to stop Batman and Nightwing from leaving without paying – in blood. After trashing the place, the trio continue their way. An encounter with Poison Ivy and Woodrue results in similar mayhem with Dr Goldbloom caught in the crossfire, and the chase starts up again with the Dynamic Duo and Quinn hot on the heels of the super-villains as the latter try to rendezvous with Swamp Thing down in the backwater ways of Louisiana.

Voiced by Melissa Rauch, Harley Quinn is more screechy and ragged than bratty and brilliant as the former psychiatrist turned criminal. Kevin Conroy maintains a stoic and taciturn Batman who remains the same cardboard cut-out enigma at the end as he was at the beginning. The potential of Nightwing and Harley Quinn actually being chums trading smart witticisms exists but remains dormant. Poison Ivy and Jason Woodrue are little more than eco-terrorist extremists; in any case the film spends little time delineating their characters and why they should want to work together in the first place.

The film adds very little to the Batman universe and only the most diehard fans who live and breathe everything Gothamesque and who cannot imagine a world without the Dark Knight should see it. Pruned of its unnecessary baggage, the film would have been a manageable 30-minute cartoon.

The Phantom Thread: best viewed as a comedy romance that turns into a tedious and repetitive ordeal

Paul Thomas Anderson, “The Phantom Thread” (2017)

If viewed as a comedy romance about a successful narcissist couturier who aspires to be part of the upper class, along with his sister (who is outwardly submissive but just as ambitious and domineering in managing his business), and who falls in lust with a working-class waitress who ends up extracting as much as she can out of him and the sister for herself, in the confining social culture that is mid-1950s London high society, this film is quite clever satire. There is an insinuation that for all its preening, its careful attention to detail and outward appearance, the social layer which dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) believes he’s part of is as empty of human feeling and warmth, and as self-obsessed as he is. For all that though, the film itself falls into the same trap of worshipping nuance and the result is an overly long work that wastes its actors’ talent in a thin and hollow plot that ends up repeating itself.

Woodcock (jeez, what a name!) is a fussy and snooty middle-aged dressmaker of fixed habits and routines who, as usual, is overwhelmed by overwork (not unexpected, given his need for obsessive control over his creations) and must take a short holiday in the countryside for some nooky. He meets a young waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), at a cafe and decides to seduce her. He sweeps her up in a round of wining and dining and compulsively takes her dress measurements. Before long, she becomes his latest plaything. Woodcock’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), a mother-replacement figure who just as obsessively manages his business and household, is initially miffed at Alma’s manners and tries to lecture the younger woman on how to conduct herself. Alma, though genuinely in love with the much older man, has ambitions of becoming his equal in love and business, and resorts to taking extreme measures, at the risk of killing Woodcock and getting into trouble for murder, to force Woodcock to see and appreciate her as a person with her own mind.

While the cinematography is beautiful and crisp, the piano music soundtrack (perhaps the best feature of the film) is flowing and transports viewers into a very different time and place, and the acting is very good, all these elements cannot make up for a thinly stretched plot about three people, at least two of whom are control freaks and potentially sociopathic, and the other using subterfuge and possibly fatal means to exert her own form of control, stuck in a dysfunctional relationship out of which there appears no means of escape. All three are dependent on one another in some way and all three distort and are distorted by the power and control they exercise. Alma becomes as much of a bitch as Woodcock is a brute but whether she is a cunning woman by nature or becomes so because of the weird circumstances she has been thrust into is not clear.

The result is a film which at first begins brightly and flows quickly into developing Woodcock and Alma’s relationship and explores Woodcock’s psychology through his work and the daily breakfast-table spats; but which eventually becomes tedious and gruelling through sheer repetition and a loss of focus. Woodcock’s character becomes physically as well as mentally haggard as Alma gradually exploits her control over him and starts to control his body and health through serving him poisonous mushrooms in his meals, just as he has tried to control her body by dressing her in expensive and flattering gowns. There is no hint of character development though Woodcock himself eventually realises what Alma is doing to him.

While the film is set in mid-fifties London, there is (deliberately so) no hint that the outside world makes much impression on the Woodcock household, and the characters seem so removed from reality that Alma appears not to realise that the doctor she confides in could report her to police. The doctor himself seems so stunned by her story – the whole film is built around the framework of Alma confessing her misdeeds to the doctor – that viewers can guess he will not turn the young woman in to authorities. It seems that the rich really do live on another planet after all, making their own rules to suit themselves and indulging in empty material enjoyments, at the cost of their own mental and emotional health.

The Andromeda Strain: a lesson in how situations and the clash of characters generate drama and tension

Robert Wise, “The Andromeda Strain” (1971)

Although made over 45 years ago, this science fiction film about a team of scientists battling to identify and contain an extraterrestrial microscopic life-form before it brings death and destruction across Earth can still teach modern movie-makers a lesson or two (or even more) about how to draw out drama, tension and pace from situations and the clash of characters and personalities without resorting to contrived or stereotyped plots, sub-plots, or character types. There are no preachy messages or big-name actors playing themselves in roles tailored to their limitations. While there’s a huge emphasis on special effects and modern technology, these aspects are appropriate and subordinate to the narrative. The minimalist style of the film throws viewer attention onto the plot and its cast of characters. The plot may be mundane but the care given to plot details and how a group of people with particular personality quirks and weaknesses work together in a situation they cannot control and which quickly becomes urgent and life-threatening flesh out the thin plot and manage to make it absorbing. The film’s ultimate message – that humans have less control over nature and the Earth’s systems than they realise – is very humbling indeed.

A satellite crashes to Earth near a small town in Arizona and the town inhabitants promptly drop dead from a mysterious disease that turns their blood into powder. Only a drunken old man and a bawling baby survive the infection. The two are brought to a secret underground laboratory called Wildfire where a team of four scientists drawn from different scientific and medical disciplines study them and the remains of the satellite to learn more about the xeno-organism. The scientists themselves have undergone an elaborate series of decontamination procedures through four floor levels to reach the fifth and lowest level where the actual laboratory is located. This level also contains an automatic nuclear-powered self-destruction mechanism to stop all infectious organisms from escaping. One of the four scientists, Dr Mark Hall (James Olson), is given the key to turn off this mechanism.

The scientists identify the xeno-organism, which they dub the Andromeda strain, and discover its unique properties that enable it to grow and mutate rapidly. The xeno-organism quickly changes into a form that eats through the laboratory’s plastic and rubber seals, setting off the facility’s self-destruction mechanism. Dr Hall has only minutes to turn off the mechanism when the scientists realise that the organism can absorb the energy of a nuclear explosion and turn into a super-colony that might wipe out all life on Earth.

Some of the hard science and medicine can be implausible and if the original novel were to be written now rather than nearly 50 years ago, its writer Michael Crichton (of “Jurassic Park” fame) would incorporate current scientific and medical advances to make the novel more realistic: for example, the baby and the old man’s survival would now be attributed to their having vulnerable or weakened immune systems that did not over-react to the organism. This reasoning would be consistent with the hidden message in the film which is that the elaborate procedures that safeguard the people working in Wildfire from virulent microorganisms turn out to be their potential doom when an alien organism escapes their control. Wherever possible, computer and other technologies in the film are used to their utmost potentials: computers are not just used to crunch out data and statistics, they are also incorporated in scientific analysis and to describe (in text and animations) the nature of the alien organism under study.

The cast of actors is credible in the level of restraint they exercise and in the way they flesh out their characters. All the scientists are ordinary people with easily bruised egos, prejudices and weaknesses which they try to hide. One of the scientists, the cantankerous Dr Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid), has an epilepsy problem which threatens the safety of the Wildfire laboratory when she experiences an epileptic fit caused by flashing red lights while performing an experiment on the alien organism. Dr Mark Hall displays quiet and unexpected heroism in his quest to shut down the self-destruct mechanism in spite of tremendous obstacles in his path from the fifth level to the third level of Wildfire.

At one point in the film, Leavitt and fellow scientist Dr Charles Dutton (David Wayne) accuse team leader Dr Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) of wanting to use the team’s findings about the Andromeda strain to develop bio-weapons. Indeed, the whole Wildfire laboratory itself seems to be under the control of the US military which says something profound about how the United States perceives its role in guarding or protecting Earth from possible alien contact: aliens are to be regarded as potentially threatening rather than as possible partners in exploring and understanding space, and perhaps understanding our place and purpose in the universe.

The film is noteworthy for its restrained use of special effects that emphasise the virulent nature of the alien organism and how colour is used to define the different levels of the Wildfire laboratory. Special mention should be made of the use of an electronic avant-garde music soundtrack to emphasise the film’s technical approach to its plot and themes. Funnily, while much of the film is drawn out and devoted to detailing the elaborate procedures the scientists follow to observe the laboratory’s hermetic nature and in the way they conduct their experiments, the way in which the alien pathogen is brought under control seems hastily written and not very well explained.

Even though the technology featured in the film looks very antiquated, the film itself has not dated a great deal and much of it – and the attitudes expressed towards the alien organism – still remain relevant. Microorganisms from outer space are still to be regarded with horror and dread, to be held at bay or wiped out altogether, rather than as life-forms that could enrich Earth’s ecosystems.

The Pianist: a potentially great film let down by shallow characterisation and a bland and thin plot

Roman Polanski, “The Pianist” (2002)

Polanski has been a very significant director capable of making very moving and epic films with a strong message about the survival of vulnerable individuals in situations that threaten to overwhelm them psychologically and spiritually as well as physically. In “The Pianist” though, the objective of translating the memoirs of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (1911 – 2000), who survived Nazi German occupation of his homeland in spite of the dangers that faced him as a Jew, seems to have defeated the Polish director. While the film appears on the surface to be faithful in recounting the events that Szpilman observed and sometimes participated in, and is restrained in the way it portrays violence and brutality, it makes little attempt to study its protagonist’s psychology and his reactions to the brutality that robs him of his family and everything he has ever known, in addition to chronicling what happened in Warsaw from the time Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany in September 1939 to its liberation by the Soviet Army in 1945. The result is a film that can feel very arduous and bland with a thin story stretched even thinner by the film’s 140-minute length.

The film follows Szpilman (Adrien Brody) from the time he and his family are rounded up in Warsaw and forced into a crowded ghetto with other Jewish families where they all try to keep up the appearance of a normal society – Szpilman finds work playing piano in a cafe for upper class Jews – while food supplies gradually dwindle and the overcrowding that occurs as more Jews are pushed into the ghetto leads to unsanitary conditions resulting in poor health and disease. Eventually everyone is forced to walk to the train station where they will be transported in cattle trucks to the Treblinka concentration camp. Szpilman is pulled away in time by a Jewish Sonderkommando police officer while the rest of his family is sent to the camp; Szpilman will never see his parents or his siblings again.

From then on, Szpilman struggles to survive inside and outside the Warsaw Ghetto with the help of others, including former fellow Polish Radio employees Andrej Bogucki (Ronan Vibert) and his wife Janina (Ruth Platt). Szpilman helps supply ammunition to ghetto inmates planning a revolt against the Nazi oppressors (this is the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943) and later witnesses the Warsaw Uprising, undertaken by the Polish underground resistance movement, in mid-1944. Like the Jewish revolt, this uprising fails, and in their anger the Germans systematically destroy the whole of Warsaw. Szpilman flees the apartment where he is hiding and find shelter in an attic of a house which turns out to be the headquarters of a Nazi German army unit. A German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, discovers Szpilman in hiding and learns that he is a pianist. Hosenfeld allows Szpilman to stay in the attic, if Szpilman will play the piano for him when he visits with food and clothing.

Watching Brody as Szpilman, good as he is and thoroughly deserving of the Academy Award for Best Actor won in 2003, I could not but feel that the character is essentially passive and helpless, and survives mainly through luck and the beneficence of others including the Wehrmacht officer. There are not enough moments in the film where Szpilman is inspired by thoughts of once again performing for Polish Radio or in concerts to continue living. His scenes with significant others such as Hosenfeld, the Boguckis and a radical activist in the Warsaw Ghetto are rather perfunctory and the audience has no real sense of these people making a deep impression on Szpilman. (For that matter, the characters of these people are also woefully under-developed.) At the end of the film, Szpilman seems little different from his youthful self back in September 1939. His effort to find Hosenfeld after the war is treated too sparingly and seems like an afterthought tacked inserted into the film’s coda. What might have helped the film develop some psychological depth is occasional moments where Brody’s voice narrates from the English translation of Szpilman’s memoirs passages of conversations he has with the people who save his life, what they talk about, what he thinks of them and they of him. The unlikely friendship between a starving, sickly Jew and the Nazi officer could have been invested with curiosity on the part of both about each other, what each thinks the other will do after the war and if he will have any regrets about the war and his participation in it.

With a flat matter-of-fact story culled from the memoirs, lacking in much insight, combined with a minimal style of direction and cinematography, the film seems much too long, especially in its middle part where Szpilman scurries from one hiding-place to another and major events happen around him as a helpless observer, and viewers not familiar with the history of Warsaw and Poland during the Second World War will become bored very quickly.

The film does work very well as a fictional chronicle of the tragedies that befell the Jewish community in Warsaw and of the failed revolts against the Nazis that resulted in the petulant actions the German occupiers took against the city itself by razing the majority of its buildings to the ground and destroying its culture. In its own minimalist way, “The Pianist” can be very moving and quite emotional as Szpilman manages – but only just – to survive the war and rejoin Polish Radio. Unfortunately though the plot is too paper-thin and the characters not defined enough for the movie to be more than just good.

The Shape of Water: a magic realist mash-up of several genres lays on identity politics and self-indulgence too thickly

Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water” (2017)

Inspired by the famous Hollywood classic “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro delivers his homage to that film and Hollywood’s Golden Age in this magic realist mash-up of horror, science fiction, romance, spy thriller, musical and political / social commentary.  The main plot – a “Beauty and the Beast” recreation – is straightforward and quite thin, and the Beast is very much under-utilised to this viewer’s disappointment. What makes the film work is the various little sub-plots, several of them admittedly very undeveloped little hints to the point of being stereotypes, that flesh out minor characters and make them interesting in their own right, with a subtle message about how people live and cope in a highly restrictive and conformist society. The film is set in the early 1960s during the Cold War at its most paranoid and thus becomes a criticism of the current world political climate in which Russia is being constantly demonised by an American empire whose politics, economy, culture and influence are in severe decline.

The film bears comparison with del Toro’s earlier “Pan’s Labyrinth”: both begin and end as Gothic realist fantasies about fairy princesses born as fragile humans who undergo trials that test their mettle to prove they are worthy of their royal heritage. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) begins life as an orphan baby found beside a river with neck injuries that prevent her from being able to speak. She grows up mute and finds work as a cleaner at a secret government science laboratory in Baltimore. Fellow worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African-American, befriends her and learns how to interpret Elisa’s sign language for the other staff and their employers. Outside work, Elisa lives alone in an old, dilapidated apartment above a movie theatre next door to unemployed graphic artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) with whom she shares a love of old musicals and romantic comedies.

Not much happens for a long time until the laboratory receives a strange creature captured in South American by US Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Curious, Elisa discovers the creature is an amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones) and feels pity for it, especially as Strickland treats it cruelly by administering electric shocks with a cattle-prod. She secretly visits the creature and though neither can speak, they form a fast bond.

On discovering that Strickland has been ordered to kill and dissect the creature for any anatomical features that might benefit the US in its race against the Soviet Union to put humans into space, Elisa determines to rescue and eventually free the creature. She enlists Giles in an elaborate scheme to get the creature out of the facility. Zelda is quickly co-opted into helping Elisa and Giles as is also Dr Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a scientist who happens to be a Soviet spy and who has been ordered by his handlers to kill the creature against his beliefs that it deserves to live for further study.

Elisa keeps the creature in her bath-tub at home and plans to release it into the city canal when the rains come and the canal opens into the sea. Meanwhile Strickland searches for the creature and interrogates the two cleaners without much success. An incident involving the creature, Giles and the artist’s two cats reveals the creature’s ability to heal wounds and delay some symptoms of advancing age. Over time, Elisa and the creature become romantically and sexually involved but as the days pass, the creature’s health deteriorates and Strickland begins to close in on this very odd couple in his search, especially once he discovers Hofstetler’s Russian identity after the scientist is shot by his handlers and tortures him for information about who is holding the creature and where.

The acting is very good with the stand-out performance being Michael Shannon’s tortured Strickland who, although a villain through and through, manages to elicit sympathy as a man who desperately desires approval and acceptance in a culture and a hierarchy that demand a great deal of him and more. He lives what del Toro imagines a typical social-climbing upper middle-class life-style in a stylish house with a submissive wife and two rambunctious children, and gives in to a salesman’s smooth pitch to buy the latest model Cadillac. What happens to the car later on helps emphasise Strickland’s existential torment as a human hamster who has willingly chained himself permanently to a never-ending capitalist wheel of constant material consumption and the need to prove himself to his superiors, his family and society at large. At some point in the film, after the grilling he gets from his superior, Strickland seems to realise that his situation is hopeless, that no matter how hard he tries he will never gain the approval he has sought all his life and this realisation throws him into a blind rage against Elisa, Zelda, Dr Hofstetler and the creature that endangers them all.

Elisa, Zelda and Giles are essentially marginal characters who through no fault of their own will never be accepted by a highly racist, prejudiced and judgemental society and who are more or less resigned to living on its edges. Elisa and Giles find relief from life’s daily grind through their friendship and their love of old Hollywood flicks. The actors playing these characters invest them with quirky spirit, with the result that viewers come away feeling that Zelda especially is a much under-used character. Dr Hofstetler comes across as a man of conscience despite his duplicity.

The cinematography is often very imaginative with ingenious segues from one scene to another suggestive of dreaming or seeing something through water. Dark colours emphasising the paranoid Cold War atmosphere and the characters’ isolation prevail throughout the film. In spite of all this, del Toro inserts comedy and a fantastical sequence in which Elisa gives vent to her dream of starring in her own B&W musical playing a Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire … and guess who plays the Astaire role!

True, parts of the plot are forced – how does the creature manage to learn sign language so quickly? and Elisa’s scheme to rescue the creature and the help she gets from Zelda and Hofstetler strains credibility – and the identity politics aspect is painted very thickly. There’s no reason to assume that gays, handicapped people, non-white people and others who don’t conform to the heterosexual white alpha male archetype will readily help one another against a common foe in a highly stratified society as early 1960s, pre-Civil Rights America. Male characters tend to have some weakness or character flaw while female characters are steadfast with inner strength despite outward vulnerability. For some viewers, the film packs in far too much in the way of different genres, that some sub-plots appear stereotyped, and Elisa’s fantasy musical dream sequence may stretch patience too far.

Above all, as social and political commentary and criticism, the film is shallow and offers no new insights or perspective on US capitalism as a system that divides and then slowly grinds and destroys people, and through its hostility towards other social and political systems (such as Communism) and nature generally, distorts those other systems and draws them into a downward spiral of mutual paranoia, suspicion and further hostility. Compared to “Pan’s Labyrinth”, this particular fairy tale is lacking in punch.

The obsession with past Hollywood glories is becoming a feature of many Hollywood films now and draws this viewer’s attention to the general decline in the movie industry, in its ability to create or find new stories to tell and new or revitalised ways of telling them. Poaching movie directors as well as actors from foreign countries to the detriment of their film industries is another indicator of decline.