Movie #85: Batman (1989)

Director: Tim Burton

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, and Jack Palance

Academy Awards (1990):

Best Art Direction-Set Direction: Anton Furst, Peter Young

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Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight?”

Batman explores Bruce Wayne’s past in a much darker, more realistic tone than had previously been used in film and television.  Tim Burton created what has since become a bit of a standard-bearer for comic book heroes taken to the big screen.  While Christopher Nolan has given a more modern take on Batman with his trilogy of films, it’s this foundational work that paved the way for it.

I’ve only seen this film a couple of times since I was too young to see it when it originally came out.  Unfortunately, Batman Forever was the first Batman movie I saw.  I will always remember it in a better light than I probably ought to as a result.

There is a lot that works in this film.  Exploring Bruce Wayne’s past and the slow reveal throughout the film is well written.  Since I already knew what caused Bruce Wayne to become Batman his parents’ death was no surprise, though I didn’t remember it being Jack Napier who pulled the trigger.  I would imagine someone seeing this for the first time with little knowledge of Batman enjoying the slow crescendo leading to this reveal.

The film’s set design and costumes were on par with the time period.  It seemed a little campy, though nowhere near the Adam West or Joel Schumacher.  The only other film from the era that comes to mind is Dick Tracy (1990), and it was more comic-like, so it works.

Michael Keaton was a bit of a controversial pick for Batman.  He nails the performance.  I feel like with this and Batman Returns, Bruce Wayne doesn’t have nearly as much screen time, and while the movie is about him, as much time is spent developing the villain, something Burton does well.  Keaton makes the most of his screen time, and especially in this one, he lays a strong foundation for Batman’s character.  The thankless work and suspicion of government officials are things that can get a person down, but Keaton rises above those and gets to the heart of why Bruce Wayne became Batman.

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Though Keaton did brilliant in his role, it’s Jack Nicholson who steals the show.  Though it’s not much of a surprise, his over-the-top performance as The Joker is both uniquely his and faithful to the character.  The man is crazy, but also brilliant.  This character has the Nicholson touch, and though the over-the-top elements of The Joker aren’t what Jack usually does, he still pulls it off convincingly.  I think he does a great job of giving Cesar Romero’s Joker a modern twist.  It’s a little gaudy, but still entertaining.  His one-liners are brilliant, and his matter-of-fact way of saying them makes it even better.

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The supporting cast in this film do great.  Kim Basinger is both strong and vulnerable, and Vicki Vale complements a conflicted Bruce Wayne.  Basinger and Keaton have great on-screen chemistry.  Robert Wuhl was just plain annoying.  Though people in the press are more naturally annoying, his performance, though small, was more obnoxious and unnecessary in my opinion.

I would have been interested to see how Billy Dee Williams would have done as Two Face in the third Batman film, but no Burton means no Williams.

In my opinion, there is only one great Alfred Pennyworth, and that is Michael Gough.  Sorry Michael Caine, you just pale in comparison.

In my opinion, there is only one great Alfred Pennyworth, and that is Michael Gough. Sorry Michael Caine, you just pale in comparison.

Alfred is a great character, and though Michael Gough has fairly limited screen time, he does fantastic in providing a moral compass for Batman and entertaining interactions with everyone else.  He’s one of the few great elements on the 3rd and 4th movies in this series.

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In its time, Batman was great.  As one of the first comic book heroes to have as wide of success on the big screen, it remains a standard-bearer for all that have followed.  Keaton and Nicholson do great as Tim Burton gives a much darker take on Batman than had been given in the past.  Bringing these characters into a more realistic light and strong performances helped make this film as successful as it has been.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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Movie #84: Big (1988)

Director: Penny Marshall

Starring: Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia, John Heard, Jared Rushton, David Moscow, Jon Lovitz, and Mercedes Ruehl

Academy Award Nominations (1989):

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Tom Hanks

Best Writing, Original Screenplay: Gary Ross, Anne Spielberg

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12-year-old Josh (Moscow) is beginning that awkward teen stage where so much changes so fast.  Unable to ride a ride at the local carnival, and facing embarrassment in front of a young girl he likes, Josh comes across a Zoltar Speaks game and wishes he was big.  The next morning he awakens as a 30-year-old man (Hanks).  With help from his best friend Billy (Rushton), Josh runs away to New York City and gets a job at MacMillan Toys.  He quickly rises to a Vice-President position, much to the delight of Susan (Perkins) and the dismay of Paul (Heard).

This was one of Penny Marshall’s first films to direct, and I must say she created a lovely gem of a movie with Big.  This movie is fun, enjoyable, and something that can appeal to a wide range of audiences.  I’ve seen this film in bits and pieces mostly, and seeing it from start to finish, deleted scenes included, was a good experience.  There’s a good balance of comedy without it being too over-the-top.  Marshall and the writing staff don’t treat the audiences like idiots, which is a good thing.

One of Marshall’s strengths as a director is how she got Tom Hanks to give authentic mannerisms and reactions that a 12-year-old boy would have in the situations that Josh was placed in.  “He was helped in this by Penny Marshall who had young Moscow play each of big Josh’s scenes first, so that Hanks could absorb the reactions and body-language of a 12-year-old.”

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This film has a great supporting cast.  Elizabeth Perkins is charming, even though the thought of her falling for a 12-year-old is a little creepy.  John Heard does a great job as a man you just love to hate.  He turns most childish as the movie progresses, but you can expect that from a character like Paul.  Jon Lovitz provides just enough comic relief.

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I also enjoyed Robert Loggia’s performance in Big.  It’s enjoyable to see him in a more light-hearted role since I’m used to seeing him play some military hard-ass type character.  His scene on the piano with Hanks is just classic.  One of the deleted scenes in the movie is a conversation between MacMillan and Josh about how and who to market toys to.  MacMillan points out that all a 13-year-old boy wants is a 13-year-old girl, and that’s one of the main reasons their primary demographic ends at 12.  It’s adding that kind of insight, though it’s something most of us already know, that humanizes and brings a character like Josh down to earth and puts things into perspective.

I feel like a broken record every time I say it, but a movie like this only works with a strong lead character.  Tom Hanks delivers.  Though he’d had a number of great acting roles, Big seems like a turning point where Hanks went from a good to a great actor.  His balance of being a 12-year-old boy trying to fit into the adult world takes pure talent, and throughout the film it’s easy to believe Hanks is playing as a 12-year-old.

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Big is an entertaining flick that many ages can enjoy.  There are a few vulgarities that would cause caution to showing to a young kid, but otherwise this movie has a broad appeal.  A true-to-character performance from Tom Hanks makes this film great, earned him his first Oscar nomination, and established him as a versatile, balanced actor.  I will enjoy this film whenever I see it, and I’d definitely recommend it.

My Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

Movie #83: Die Hard (1988)

Director: John McTiernan

Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Paul Gleason, William Atherton, and Reginald VelJohnson

Academy Award Nominations (1989):

Best Effects-Sound Editing: Stephen H. Flick, Richard Shorr

Best Effects-Visual: Richard Edlund, Al DiSarro, Brent Boates, Thaine Morris

Best Film Editing: Frank J. Urioste, John F. Link

Best Sound: Don Bassman, Kevin F. Cleary, Richard Overton, Al Overton

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While visiting his wife Holly (Bedelia) at her company Christmas party in Los Angeles, New York City cop John McClane (Willis) becomes the only defense for Holly and her co-workers from a group of thieves led by Hans Gruber (Rickman).  Working with LAPD Sgt. Al Powell (VelJohnson) via radio, and at times against the local FBI officers, McClane takes down the thieves and saves the hostages.

Though this movie was huge for Bruce Willis, the real star of this movie is the building itself.  Die Hard is more or less a combination of Rambo and The Towering Inferno, and the various floors and parts of the skyscraper offer a variety of venues for great confrontations, explosions, and action sequences.  The four Academy Awards this movie was nominated for all have to do with effects, and in this particular movie the backdrop for those effects set it apart from other movies.

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What makes Alan Rickman a great villain is his ruthlessness and simple objective.  I liked that he wasn’t looking for world domination or something completely unrealistic.  For him it was all about the money, and nothing else.  The cat-and-mouse game he and McClane have throughout the movie were well-done and the adversarial chemistry the two have help make this movie work.

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Both Reginald VelJohnson and Bonnie Bedelia do great in their supporting roles.  They complement both Willis and Rickman in their respective roles.

This film established Bruce Willis as a reliable movie star who plays the bad-ass cop who doesn’t play by the rules and whose quick wit matches his action star capabilities.  Die Hard was one of his first film roles, with most of his prior experience being on the TV Show Moonlighting.  Though it’s a bit of a pitfall that Willis has more or less remained typecast in this particular role throughout his career, he does a convincing job of it.

It’s unfortunate that they decided to revive the Die Hard franchise with Live Free or Die Hard and A Good Day to Die Hard.  As with many of these huge franchises, I wish Hollywood would just leave them alone.  I’ve seen Live Free, and while I thought it was decently made, I’ve skipped the most recent installment entirely.  It’s all about the money, and I suppose as long as people keep going to these remakes that pale in comparison to their predecessors, they’ll keep getting made.

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Die Hard is an entertaining film, plain and simple. Though there’s some of the conflict between McClane and his wife, McClane and Gruber, and Powell’s own internal demons, for the most part this summer blockbuster is about entertaining the audience.  The memorable one-liners and great action propelled this film to great success, four sequels, video games, and a comic book.  With this I’ve now seen Die HardDie Hard with a Vengence, and Live Free or Die Hard.  I’ll probably check out Die Hard 2 at some point, and will re-visit this movie when I need to shut my brain off for a couple of hours.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Movie #82: Lawrence of Arabia

Director: David Lean

Starring: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, and Arthur Kennedy

Academy Awards (1963):

Best Picture: Sam Speigel

Best Director: David Lean

Best Art Direction: John Box, John Stoll, Dario Simoni

Best Cinematography: Fred A. Young

Best Film Editing: Anne Coates

Best Music, Score: Maurice Jarre

Best Sound: Shepperton Studio Sound Department, John Cox

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Peter O’Toole

Best Supporting Actor: Omar Sharif

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium: Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson

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Following a fatal motorcycle accident, a reporter tries to gain insight into the life of T.E. Lawrence (O’Toole) from those who crossed paths with him over the years.  Lawrence of Arabia tells the story of Lawrence’s service in World War I as a leader of the Arab tribes in their revolt against the Turks.

This film was a marathon to watch, needless to say.  Just shy of 4 hours, I ended up watching it in three sittings.  That was good, for me it made the film more enjoyable.  I don’t think the film would have had as big of an impact had they cut out anything, so in that way the length of film was acceptable, if far longer than usual.

Visually this film is deserving of the 5 Academy Awards it received with its use of visual and audio elements.  Lawrence of Arabia is considered one of the greatest films of all time in part because of its influence and lasting effect in cinematic history.  Films of this scale have to be done right.  In contrast, Cleopatra, which was released just a year later, was a mess and a half to film and went way over budget.

To bring it back to Lawrence of Arabia, there was a good balance of visual effects, background music, and a score that I found enjoyable.  The battle scenes were done very well, though there were a few times that it was a little over-dramatized for my liking.

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The cast worked well together.  Though Sherif Ali (Sharif) was resistant to Lawrence at first, and a constant sounding board and skeptic, it was interesting to see the progression of their relationship throughout the film.

A film like this absolutely has to have a strong lead, so going with an unknown actor like Peter O’Toole is a tremendous gamble.  However, that gamble paid off.  O’Toole, having been trained as a stage actor to this point in his career, brings a certain level of professionalism and class that is a unique quality.  Playing T.E. Lawrence required a tremendous acting range, and O’Toole did an excellent job of portraying them all.  It’s one thing to be a strong military leader, but to struggle with losing an orphan kid who tags along, having to shoot a friend to maintain peace, and so on can wear down a person.  It speaks to the strength of Lawrence himself and O’Toole in his acting range.

lawrenceofarabiaotooleguinnessOne pleasant surprise in this film was the performance by Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal.  It’s a fine line having the British accent and yet pulling off a convincing Arab prince, but Guinness does a great job in this film of separating his native accent with the person he is portraying.  He wrote that while filming, a few people had mistaken him for the late prince.  I’ve come to expect acting greatness from Alec Guinness, regardless of how big or small the part.  He certainly didn’t disappoint.

The only part I didn’t like was at the end of the film when Feisel essentially brushed Lawrence aside after Lawrence had done the military side.  Feisel had shifted his primary alliance to the British leadership in order to maintain power after the Arab council in Damascus can’t get anything done.  It’s not so much a critique on his performance but instead on how the script was written.

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Lawrence of Arabia is a great film.  Without a doubt, it deserves the accolades it has received over the years.  Strong lead actors, brilliantly balanced music and visual effects, and an entertaining script make this film one worth watching.  I probably won’t watch this one too many more times, it’s a good one to see at least once.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

My Thoughts on Peter O’Toole’s Passing

I realize this post should have been written a few weeks ago, but the holidays were a lot busier than I anticipated, so here we are.

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Sir Peter O’Toole died December 14, 2013 at the age of 81.  As I’ve looked through his filmography, I realized that I’ve seen quite a few movies he’s been in.   However, I haven’t seen too many of the films that he received Academy Award nominations.  Now Lawrence of Arabia, The Lion of Winter, and Venus are the three I’ve seen.  He was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role 8 times, not winning one of them.   Unfortunately for O’Toole, he was competing with fellow titans of the industry, from Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, John Wayne in True Grit, Ben Kingsley in Gandhi, Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Robert De Niro in Raging Bull among others.

What stands out about O’Toole in my mind is his respect for acting as a profession and an art form.  Acting, at least for Peter O’Toole, was and is something that can be done properly and with dignity and class.  He had a tremendous amount of respect for the craft.  When the Academy wanted to award him with an Academy Honorary Award in 2003, O’Toole sent them a letter saying he was “still in the game” and would like more time to “win the lovely bugger outright.”  He eventually accepted the award, this is the video of that acceptance speech:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LVix_fUtCg

Venus, his final Lead Actor nominationportrays Maurice, a retired stage actor who befriends a young woman, and I got the sense that it was more or less a send off role for O’Toole.  Though it took me a couple of times to fully appreciate it, it was a tremendous send off for O’Toole, one of the last of a dying breed of actor.

Movie #81: True Grit (1969)

Director: Henry Hathaway

Starring: John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby, Robert Duvall, and Dennis Hopper

Academy Awards (1970):

Best Actor in a Leading role: John Wayne

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Music, Original Song: Don Black, Elmer Bernstein for the song ‘True Grit’

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Mattie Ross (Darby) hires the aging, alcoholic US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) to hunt down Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) the man who killed her father.  They are joined by La Boeuf (Campbell), a Texas Ranger searching for Chaney to collect a reward for previous crimes he had committed.  

This film has a lot to offer.  Though obviously a Western, there’s also the dynamics of the young Mattie seeking vengeance and in a way saving Rooster from completely destroying himself with his alcoholism.  Kim Darby has moments of being young, idealistic, and at times naive, but her hard-headed grit help establish her as more than the stereotypical damsel who can’t take care of herself. 

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John Wayne’s performance in True Grit earned him his only Academy Award, though honestly it was long overdue.  I can’t say I’ve watched a whole lot of Wayne’s films, but he particularly stands out here as a man who has certainly seen better days.  Though he’s been roughed up in life, there’s a delicate balance in working with the young Mattie Ross where Cogburn is both the stubborn S.O.B. everyone knows, but also having a heart in caring for Mattie.  His chemistry both with Darby and Campbell’s La Bouef make for a number of great one-liners, but also gives the story a genuine feel.

 

 

True Grit (1969) Though I’ve seen this film before, I didn’t really remember Robert Duvall’s role as Ned Pepper.  He was hard-nosed enough to be believable as a villain, but at the same time somewhat disinterested in Chaney’s troubles.  Though Chaney was a member of his gang, Pepper was more concerned with keeping himself out of trouble with the law.  Duvall does this convincingly, competent enough to hold his own, but in the end more worried about saving his own skin than Chaney’s.

 

 

Though True Grit benefits form strong lead and supporting performances, there are a couple of elemental things that bugged me.  Nothing major, but still a little bothersome.  One was Kim Darby’s age.  I just couldn’t believe her as a 14-year-old.  I realize using older actors and actresses is common, the writers could have said she was older without losing anything story-wise with it.  The other is more of a pitfall in older war and western movies.  The deaths, shootings, and fighting weren’t believable.  The worst of this was when Chaney hit La Boeuf with a rock.  I seriously doubt that a blow like that could kill someone, and Campbell’s performance as a mortally wounded man just didn’t work for me. 

Overall I thought this film was great, I want to make that clear in light of my minor complaints.

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True Grit is one of those films that should not be re-made. Period.  Especially by someone like the Coen Brothers.  They’ve proven that they can come up with original material, so why did they have to remake a classic.  As much as I like Jeff Bridges, I must say I was disappointed when I found out he was going to play Rooster Cogburn.  Some characters should be associated with one and only one actor.  Rooster Cogburn is one of those.  

True Grit is an entertaining Western that has great chemistry between the lead performers, enough smart alack quips to be funny, and lovingly caring enough to bring balance.  John Wayne does great in this movie, and deserved the Academy Award he received for his performance.  I could revisit this film from time to time,  it’s just that good.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.