Batman (1989, Tim Burton)

Batman‘s an odd success. It has almost constant problems–Kim Basinger’s bad, Jack Nicholson’s phoning it in (but never contemptuous of the material, which makes it a peculiar performance) and the movie never really finishes the story it starts in the first act–but it’s also got constant greatness. Tim Burton’s direction is fantastic–the only scenes he doesn’t wow with are the ones both he and the viewer are bored with–Danny Elfman’s score makes the movie in a way no one’s done since John Williams and the original Star Wars trilogy, Michael Keaton’s mesmerizing and there’s a whole lot of good stuff.

This good stuff occasionally features the badly acting Basinger, mostly in her romantic scenes with Keaton, only because the combination of writing, direction, music and Keaton are so strong, they overpower any of her silliness (and her goofy outfits). The Batman action is all good too, again because of the direction and the music. Batman might have kicked off the contemporary blockbuster, but it does so in a way no one else has ever duplicated. Burton, apparently unintentionally, peppers the film with iconic sequences. It’s hard not to get involved with the scenes, even though they don’t make any sense, when Burton’s really going. The big Batmobile car chase is not a particularly interesting car chase, but it’s spell-binding. Burton’s Gotham City is obviously false–the matte backgrounds and the (excellent) miniatures–but once the viewer accepts it, it’s impossible to leave.

Still, as the film enters the third act, the good isn’t quite overpowering the bad. The bad’s still putting up a pretty good fight. Strangely, it isn’t the Prince music empowering the bad… though it certainly isn’t hurting it.

But more than any other film–with the possible exception of The Last Temptation of Christ and that example doesn’t count because it’s a far more precise moment–the last five or ten minutes of Batman make the movie. It finally delivers. Keaton’s been good as Batman throughout (in the costume) and great otherwise, but when he faces off with Nicholson and the two banter… it’s other-worldly. I think my favorite part is the use of Keaton’s Bruce Wayne voice. He drops the Batman voice a little for the last scene and it works beautifully. The scene’s so good, the illogically, instantly appearing goons he fights before Nicholson didn’t even bother me.

Then there’s the close and the close is perfect. Not even Basinger can screw it up (though she only has a few lines, but her outfit is ridiculous for a photojournalist).

There’s some really good supporting acting in the film. Billy Dee Williams, Robert Wuhl, Michael Gough. Tracey Walter’s pretty good too. But there’s some absolutely atrocious acting as well–both Jack Palance and William Hootkins are astoundingly bad. They’re both so bad, I can’t believe they weren’t recast. Palance wasn’t famous again yet and Hootkins was going to be pulling in a lot of Porkins supporters.

Technically, besides Burton, Elfman and production designer Anton Furst, Batman‘s kind of underwhelming. Roger Pratt’s cinematography is competent but indistinct. Ray Lovejoy’s editing is fantastic though, especially how he cuts the effects sequences together (I love how Batman’s obviously a little model in the Batwing, but it doesn’t matter).

The last time I saw Batman–must have been ten years ago–I was really down on it. But it’s solid. It’s a chore to get through the first third, but after it, the movie’s solid.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Burton; screenplay by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, based on DC Comics characters created by Bob Kane; director of photography, Roger Pratt; edited by Ray Lovejoy; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Anton Furst; produced by Peter Guber and Jon Peters; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Michael Keaton (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Jack Nicholson (The Joker / Jack Napier), Kim Basinger (Vicki Vale), Robert Wuhl (Alexander Knox), Pat Hingle (Commissioner Gordon), Billy Dee Williams (Harvey Dent), Michael Gough (Alfred Pennyworth), Jack Palance (Carl Grissom), Jerry Hall (Alicia), Tracey Walter (Bob the Goon), Lee Wallace (The Mayor) and William Hootkins (Lt. Eckhardt).


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