Batman (1943, Lambert Hillyer)

For the majority of Batman’s fifteen chapters, the serial has a set formula when it comes to the action. Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) get into fist fights with the same five or six thugs. Croft gets beat up early while Wilson takes on at least two of the villain, then two or three of the thugs beat up Wilson. They either put him in danger, triggering the chapter’s cliffhanger, or Croft just wakes up and helps him. Or, in the subsequent chapter’s resolution at the beginning, Croft wakes up and helps him.

Even on the rare occasions it’s something different, elements of the formula remain. Screenwriters Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser don’t have much plotting ingenuity. Especially not for fifteen chapters. Other variations to the fight and cliffhanger formulas include whether or not Wilson abandons Croft to the thugs or, you know, whether or not Wilson kills someone. Sometimes he means to kill them, sometimes it’s incidental. The only time he ever stops to worry about it is when it’s bad guys–as opposed to when he kills an innocent civilian through his ineptitude–and, in that case, the bad guys turn out to be dead anyway.

Not much of a role model, this Batman, despite being an official government agent. Or, maybe, because of it.

In addition to Wilson’s careless crimefighting, he’s not really good at investigating. Despite fighting the same group of thugs throughout the serial–and even bringing some of them to his “Bat’s Cave” for rather ineffective interrogation–Batman doesn’t even discover his adversary’s identity until the final chapter. He’s dreadfully bad at his job.

The villain of Batman is J. Carrol Naish. He’s playing an evil Japanese scientist, in full yellowface. The serial is exceptionally racist. Even as wartime propaganda, Batman is a lot to take. The first chapter narration makes special mention of the just internment of Japanese Americans. It, and the way the serial’s heroes are, you know, heroic for their stupid ignorance when they meet Naish, is astoundingly gross. The racism does not, however, distract from the serial’s utter stupidity. Sometimes, though not with Naish’s thugs, it manages to be gross and stupid. Usually it’s just stupid, with occasional flakes of racism.

The worst part of it? Naish gives the best performance in the entire thing. Even though he’s a coniving villain, out to use a giant radium gun to wreck havoc (it’s actually entirely unimportant as the serial progresses), Naish gives the role a lot more characterization and personality than anyone else gives theirs’. He even figures out Batman’s secret identity at one point.

Besides Naish, the best performances are from Charles Middleton and William Austin. Middleton is a radium miner, which seems likes it’s going to be important in the middle chapters of the serial. It’s not, but it does at least give Batman a chance to get off the backlot and go on location in the mountains. Director Hillyer does a little better with those exteriors. He never does well, but he does do a little better there.

But Middleton’s not around for long and, even if he were, it’s doubtful the screenwriters would give him anything to do. Middleton as bearded, folksy mountain man brings energy to Batman, something the serial sorely lacks. Hillyer doesn’t direct the actors’ performances–at least, one hopes he doesn’t, because then it’d be even worse–and Wilson and Croft aren’t engaging. Croft even less than Wilson.

The one time Wilson and Croft do get energized is opposite Austin, who plays Alfred the butler. Austin drives Wilson and Croft around town most of the chapters, whether they’re crimefighting or not. Occasionally, he gets roped into helping them in the crimefighting, which is usually at least mildly amusing. Austin’s got fine comic timing. Timing is another thing Batman tends to lack. Editors Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner are better than anyone else on the crew, but Hillyer’s a lousy director and James S. Brown Jr.’s photography is rarely competent. Lots of bad day for night in Batman. Lots.

Shirley Patterson plays Wilson’s love interest, who just can’t figure out why Batman is always around once Wilson leaves the room (or vice versa), and she’s got almost nothing to do. The serial treats her like an annoyance or a victim or a damsel in distress. Wilson usually just treats her like a pest, condescending or dismissing her. For a while, those moments are actually Wilson’s best as an actor. Until he puts on a fake nose and pretends to be a thug to get in with the gang. Shockingly enough, Wilson’s engaging during those scenes. It’s a downright treat when he skips the Batman costume for a chapter to (stupidly) investigate in his disguise.

Some of Naish’s thugs actually give decent performances–Robert Fiske the most, but also George J. Lewis and Warren Jackson. Competency helps a lot in Batman. There’s not much of it, so when someone isn’t terrible, it’s a big deal.

Sadly, Charles C. Wilson is atrocious as the moron police chief who occasionally pops up to answer Wilson’s questions about bad guys the Batman has apprehended. Even though Naish spends at least half the chapters assuming Batman has died (in the lame cliffhangers), he’s still too savvy to get taken down by the bumbling “heroes.”

The script has no character development, no character relationship development (it’s not like Wilson treats Patterson any differently as things go along, he always treats her like crap), it does nothing with Naish’s various schemes, just kills time. In the end, only the first two and last two chapters are relevant to the narrative. The rest could be chucked… if only we could be so lucky.

But we aren’t. And Batman trucks along, its best chapters never even registering mediocrity, Austin and Middleton’s contributions for naught, Naish’s relative success a debasement.

Though Lee Zahler does eventually get to some good music, albeit only in the last couple chapters.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lambert Hillyer; screenplay by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser, based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; director of photography, James S. Brown Jr.; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; music by Lee Zahler; produced by Rudolph C. Flothow; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Lewis Wilson (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Douglas Croft (Robin / Dick Grayson), J. Carrol Naish (Dr. Daka), Shirley Patterson (Linda Page), William Austin (Alfred Pennyworth), Gus Glassmire (Martin Warren), George J. Lewis (Burke), Robert Fiske (Foster), Charles Middleton (Ken Colton), Warren Jackson (Bernie), Dick Curtis (Agent Croft), Ted Oliver (Marshall), and Charles C. Wilson (Police Captain Arnold).


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Batman (1943, Lambert Hillyer), Chapter 15: The Doom of the Rising Sun

Titling the final chapter, The Doom of the Rising Sun, might give away whether or not J. Carrol Naish succeeds with his awful plan–which Batman never quite defines and sort of forgets about anyway. The screenwriters try to drum up some excitement as Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft finally face off with Naish. It’s rather lackluster.

Oddly, even though the cliffhanger resolution is fairly predictable–just like the previous chapter forecasted–there’s enough built around the resolution to make the reveal nearly interesting. And it gives Croft and William Austin a decent moment.

Then Doom just turns into a rush for the finish. How fast can Austin get the cops, how fast can Wilson chase Naish, how fast can Wilson tie up the bad guys–the only time Batman and Robin prove competent in a fight and it’s the last chapter in the serial.

The last few minutes tie up plot threads from the first chapter. Nothing in between mattered much, apparently, and it goes out with Wilson being a jackass to Shirley Patterson again. It reminds why it was so nice for him to do something else for a while.

Technically, the finale doesn’t attempt much–all the action takes place on existing sets, using already introduced foils. Though it is maybe the first time Lee Zahler’s score is all right, even if it’s just momentarily.

The biggest letdown, besides Wilson’s Batman being just as much of a bigot as the narrator and the serial itself, is how little anything in between the first chapter and this final one mattered. The rest–almost ninety percent of Batman–was prattle.

CREDITS

Directed by Lambert Hillyer; screenplay by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser, based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; director of photography, James S. Brown Jr.; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; music by Lee Zahler; produced by Rudolph C. Flothow; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Lewis Wilson (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Douglas Croft (Robin / Dick Grayson), Shirley Patterson (Linda Page), William Austin (Alfred Pennyworth), and J. Carrol Naish (Dr. Daka).


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Bluebeard (2017, Lee Soo-youn)

Bluebeard runs just under two hours. The last forty-five minutes of it basically undo–or seem to undo–everything in the first seventy-five minutes. Writer and director Lee doesn’t want to answer the questions the film’s mysteries raise, but reveal entirely new mysteries with entirely new answers. With some exception.

It’s a shame, because until that point–and there’s a very definite point when Bluebeard jumps off the track–it’s a rather outstanding thriller.

Down on his luck, recently divorced doctor Jo Jin-woong moves into a crummy little apartment and discovers his landlords might be infamous serial killers. He’s not entirely sure about it, but more and more evidence comes to light, whether he pokes around or not.

Lee composes these wide shots, with fantastic photography by Uhm Hye-jung, where Jo finds himself reluctantly finding out more and more. Especially when one of the landlords, Kim Dae-myung, starts buddying up with him. There’s this palable danger, which Kim Sun-min’s editing helps with immensely.

It’s just a shame Lee’s script is, after that seventy-five minute mark, nothing but a combination of trite, predictable, and manipulative. Not even Kim Sun-min’s editing withstands the film’s plummet in quality. Uhm’s photography weathers it, though Lee’s composition quickly fails. There’s the first directing approach, the second directing approach, then an even more narratively ill-advised third approach. Stylistically, the second approach is bad. The composition, even Lee’s direction of the actors, which had previously been fine, everything goes. All of the newly introduced script elements, which simultaneously try to surprise and reveal, are a mess. Had Lee paced out reveals better, it might have helped. Probably not, just because all the reveals are inane, but at least Bluebeard wouldn’t immediately lose it’s momentum.

The script failures even drag down Jo, who’s excellent when Bluebeard is actually suspenseful and not a trite thriller. Similarly, the narrative eventually trashes everyone else’s performance, though Kim Dae-myung’s okay enough throughout. Lee Chung-ah suffers the most (besides Jo, of course).

It’s a shame Bluebeard doesn’t deliver on any of its many promises, though it could be a lot worse. Lee has many worse instincts and impulses, she forecasts them throughout the picture. After almost forty minutes of the film hemorrhaging goodwill and good ideas, Lee throws on an epilogue sequence in way of a bandage. It does slow the bleeding, but it can’t stop it, much less seal any of Lee’s later incisions.

Bluebeard shouldn’t just be better, it should be good. For more than half its runtime, it’s good; then Lee decides to flush it all for some manipulative, ostentatious reveals. She can’t direct them or write them, the actors can’t act her script, and Kim Sun-min can’t cut them into good scenes.

The film ends up a race to end before completely imploding.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lee Soo-yeon; director of photography, Uhm Hye-jung; edited by Kim Sun-min; music by Jeong Yong-jin; production designer, Lee Soon-sung; produced by Cho Jeong-jun; released by Lotte Entertainment.

Starring Jo Jin-woong (Seung-hoon), Kim Dae-Myung (Sung-geun), Lee Chung-ah (Mi-yeon), Yoon Se-ah (Soo-jung), Shin Goo (Sung-geun’s Father), and Song Young-chang (Jo Kyung-hwan).


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Disco Pigs (2001, Kirsten Sheridan)

Disco Pigs might not be the best title for Disco Pigs, but it’s hard to imagine any other title for it so an imperfect one is better than a wrong one. Maybe disco had some appropriate cultural Irish relevancy. Or maybe playwright Enda Walsh, who adapted the screenplay himself, couldn’t think of anything else either.

The film opens with an unborn baby–who will grow up to be lead Elaine Cassidy–with Cassidy narrating her thoughts about being born. Writer Walsh gets in some foreshadowing during this narration, kind of some sore thumb foreshadowing, only it takes a long, long time for it to come out in the narrative.

The film quickly fastforwards to Cassidy at sixteen years, 348 days. In her crib at the hospital, she meets another baby in the adjoining crib. That baby grows up to be Cillian Murphy. He too is sixteen years, 348 days, when the present action begins. They live next door to one another and have been their entire lives. Their rooms are mirrors of one another, each with a secret window between so they can hold hands as they sleep each night.

Disco Pigs is the story of their seventeen days until their seventeenth birthday.

For the first third of the film, about ninety percent is Cassidy and Murphy together. They’re so wrapped up in one another–and have been for so long–they don’t seem to form outside relationships as individuals, just as a unit. They have their own shorthand language, somewhat fantastical, with the rest of the world utterly detached.

Director Sheridan keeps a bit of distance, occasionally developing Cassidy separate from Murphy–though Murphy’s the one who gets the eventual big scene in the first act. Even though they’re teenagers, surrounded by teenagers doing teenage things, there’s a chasteness to their relationship. Physical romance is still something for a giggle, not a fantasy. Until it becomes clear Murphy’s moving away from the giggling to the fantasy faster than Cassidy and even though they have their own language, it’s a child’s language, without the words they need to communicate now.

Their respective home lives reveal some more differences. Murphy’s mother, Eleanor Methven, finds him more of a laugh than a concern. She’s got another kid, a younger sister (presumably from a different dad, but it’s never mentioned). Meanwhile, Cassidy’s parents–Geraldine O’Rawe and Brían F. O’Byrne–are far more concerned Cassidy’s future. So they let the school talk them into sending her away.

The middle portion of the film is Murphy’s quest to find her juxtaposed against Cassidy socially developing away from him. It’s also when it becomes clear Murphy’s not just missing his best friend, he’s severely mentally disturbed. While Cassidy’s section quickly becomes affable (thanks to the influence of roommate Tara Lynne O’Neill), Murphy’s half is harrowing.

The third part of the film is the birthday, which director Sheridan and editor Ben Yeates methodically pace. It retains some of that harrowing momentum, only cut loose of any expectations, both from the viewer’s perspective and Cassidy’s.

Both Cassidy and Murphy are exceptional. It’s a toss-up who’s better; even though they start from similar positions, Walsh’s narrative gives them entirely different character arcs. There’s a relative staticness to the roles in the beginning, something Murphy retains, only it becomes clear entropy is affecting him as well. And he’s aware of it; it’s never part of the script, but it’s always present in Murphy’s performance.

Sheridan’s direction stays calm, even after she closes the narrative distance. There’s seemingly a greater sympathy with Cassidy, yet in hindsight–and after some foreshadowed backstory gets covered–it’s there with Murphy as well. The third act really is about integrating the various styles Sheridan’s been working with–that joint first act, which develops stress fractures, and the separate, wildly different second act. It’s all got to come together.

Great photography from Igor Jadue-Lillo. Great music from Gavin Friday and
Maurice Seezer.

Disco Pigs is difficult, terrifying, and lovely. Cassidy and Murphy give breathtaking performances.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Kirsten Sheridan; screenplay by Enda Walsh, based on his play; director of photography, Igor Jadue-Lillo; edited by Ben Yeates; music by Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer; produced by Ed Guiney; released by Renaissance Films.

Starring Elaine Cassidy (Runt), Cillian Murphy (Pig), Tara Lynne O’Neill (Mags), Brían F. O’Byrne (Runt’s Dad), Geraldine O’Rawe (Runt’s Mam), Eleanor Methven (Pig’s Mam), Darren Healy (Marky), and Michael Rawley (Foxy).


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