Batman and Robin (1949, Spencer Gordon Bennet)

Batman and Robin is fifteen chapters; all together, it’s just under four and a half hours. It is not a rewarding four and a half hours. Not at all.

Of the fourteen credited actors, one gives a good performance. Don C. Harvey. He gets to be chief henchman for a while. But not even half of the serial. After Harvey, uncredited Lee Roberts becomes chief henchman; Roberts is terrible. Though he’s less awful once he becomes lab assistant to the mysterious, masked serial villain, The Wizard. The Wizard is stealing technology to remote control moving objects and, eventually, turn himself invisible. The invisible thing is a lot more amusing. Shame it’s only in the last few chapters.

Besides Harvey, the best performances are from George Offerman Jr. and Eric Wilton, both uncredited. They both have rather significant parts–Offerman is leading lady (and literally only lady in Batman and Robin) Jane Adams’s good-for-nothing crook brother while Wilton is faithful butler Alfred. Wilton gets some decent comic relief, Offerman actually has subtext in his performance; they’re all-stars in Batman and Robin.

Because besides those three, the acting in the serial is quite bad. Leads Lowery and Duncan are terrible. The perverse thrill of watching Lowery try to steal scenes while he’s in costume–chirping the thin, exposition-heavy dialogue–runs out somewhere around the halfway point. It’s a very, very, very long fifteen chapters. Most of the chapters’ “plots” relate to the Wizard and his gang wanting to steal something and Lowery and Duncan trying to stop them or something involving discovering the Wizard’s identity. Lowery and Duncan always screw something up–or just get beat up–and then Lowery bosses everyone around like he shouldn’t have egg on his face.

When Lowery’s not in costume, he’s much worse. For a while, Lowery–as Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy and fop–is advising police commissioner Lyle Tablot (who’s usually tolerable) on important matters. Most of these scenes happen in the first half of the serial, when Adams is still in it more regularly; she spends most of her scenes complaining about Lowery being such a lazy good-for-nothing. Who apparently is a police consultant, which she never notices. Because her character is terribly written. As her brother, Offerman gets more to do–unbilled and in a handful of chapters–than Adams ever does. It’s not like there’s any chemistry between Adams and Lowery. He seems stuck up and she seems to loathe him.

Duncan probably ought to loathe Lowery too since Duncan basically just spends his days in the Batcave trying to science things but being too stupid and having to wait for Lowery. But Lowery’s too busy teasing Adams about something. Batman and Robin’s first chapter does most of the Batman setup–the Batcave, stately Wayne Manor (or just a suburban house), the Batmobile (Lowery and Duncan just drive around Bruce Wayne’s car, telling people they have permission). It starts dumb. It starts a train wreck. Then it just keeps going and going and going and going.

When Harvey’s still lead thug, there’s a certain fun to the serial. The bad guys all walk around in sync; it’s visually amusing. Of course, they’re usually walking around the same handful of locations–Batman and Robin has at least two lengthy chase sequences in the same office building hallway sets, maybe three. But Harvey makes it seem fun.

Since it’s a serial with a masked, mysterious villain, there are a bunch of suspects. There’s radio newscaster Rick Vallin. He broadcasts out of his living room, presumably in a house down the street from Batman’s. Michael Whalen is a private investigator who never really figures in but the script talks about all the time for a few chapters. William Fawcett’s mad scientist, who’s wheelchair-bound but zaps himself in a special chair to walk. Fawcett’s the prime suspect. For most of the serial, whenever he has a scene secretly zapping himself, it cuts to the Wizard entering his cave lair. His cave lair, incidentally, is much cooler than Lowery and Duncan’s. Probably because it’s a converted suburban basement.

The serial doesn’t do much with the suspects. They’re just suspicious as needed, particularly Vallin. While Fawcett’s certainly acting suspiciously, no one ever finds out about the walking zapping, so he’s only a suspect for the audience. In fact, Fawcett’s walking is such a nonstarter the serial eventually just drops the wheelchair. Instead, Fawcett walks around with no one acknowledging a difference. It’s not even a fun stupid, it’s just stupid.

Technically, the serial doesn’t impress much. It does a little–Ira H. Morgan, so long as there’s not much action, shoots day-for-night rather well. It gives some character to the otherwise boring backlot-shot city scenes. It’s not like director Bennet brings anything to them. He’s thoroughly competent but never interested in anything. It might be contempt. Contempt for Batman and Robin is, frankly, a perfectly good excuse for not doing your job on it. Why bother.

There are some okay special effects; they usually come off better when Mischa Bakaleinikoff’s picked some good music for them. There’s no original music for Batman and Robin, but musical director Bakaleinikoff utilizes some more than adequate stock music themes. Certainly more adequate selections than the serial deserves (or needs).

The costumes are bad. Batman and Robin’s anyway. The Wizard’s costume ends up looking all right in the exterior action scenes. Not so much Batman or Robin. Sometimes Duncan has an obvious stunt double for Robin. Lowery at least has the mask, which doesn’t fit right so he’s always peering down his nose, head tilted back. Combined with the way Lowery folds his forearms (does he think bats hold things like squirrels or something), it leads to some silly visuals. Especially when Lowery tries to be authoritative. He’s not, the dialogue’s not just bad but factually ludicrous, and he looks like a jackass. He’s a bore.

But neither Lowery or Duncan are ever good. They’re terrible. Duncan’s a bad actor. Lowery’s a bad actor. Lowery’s a little more unlikable because he teases Adams whenever he gets the chance, costumed or not. It’s obnoxious. Even if Adams isn’t any good.

I’m sure Batman and Robin could be worse–I’m sure someone involved actually improved what the cast and crew were doing (I mean, probably they did)–but I can’t imagine how it could be any more boring. Somehow the chapters manage to move well–the plots are stupid but the pacing is competent–while still being exasperatingly insipid and dull.

It doesn’t help the opening titles for each chapter have Lowery and Duncan, in costume, running around in front of black backdrop and getting confused. Of course they’re confused, they’re jackasses. Each chapter starts with a threat of their inevitable stupidity.

Actually, wait, I did think of a way to improve Batman and Robin. A laugh track.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and Royal K. Cole, based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Robert Lowery (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Johnny Duncan (Robin / Dick Grayson), Jane Adams (Vicki Vale), Lyle Talbot (Commissioner Jim Gordon), Don C. Harvey (Henchman Nolan), Lee Roberts (Henchman Neal), William Fawcett (Prof. Hammil), Leonard Penn (Carter), Rick Vallin (Barry Brown), Michael Whalen (Private Investigator Dunne), George Offerman Jr. (Henchman Jimmy), and Eric Wilton (Alfred Beagle).


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The Station Agent (2003, Tom McCarthy)

The Station Agent is not a character study. It does try, at almost exactly the one hour mark (it runs a breezy, but deliberate eighty-nine minutes), to become a character study, but it is not a character study. It is actually a perfect example of how to not make a character study.

Writer-director McCarthy spends the first hour avoiding showing the audience enough about protagonist Peter Dinklage to even hazard an understanding, then gives Dinklage a series of challenges to overcome in the third act. The challenges are mostly hackneyed; if they aren’t hackneyed, McCarthy doesn’t want to stick with them because there’s no character development for Dinklage (onscreen). So instead of achieving something sublime, Station Agent rushes a finish. It’s a long rush–the last third–and an obvious, predictable one.

It’s all thanks to the actors it works out. Dinklage is awesome. If McCarthy weren’t terrified of making the film about him, Dinklage would be even better. There’s the potential for a great role, but McCarthy doesn’t write for it. He wants to keep things genial. Station Agent is a comedy with some melodrama. Most of the comedy comes from Dinklage’s sidekick, Bobby Cannavale.

Dinklage inherits a train station depot. He’s a train enthusiast. He moves across New Jersey to live in the depot. Cannavale runs his recovering father’s food truck–inexplicably stationed in the same remote lot as the depot. It’s got nice scenery, I suppose. Station Agent is a visually precious film. Oliver Bokelberg’s photography–except at night, really–John Paino’s production design, the locations. McCarthy succeeds with a visual result better than his composition.

Anyway, Cannavale wants to be friends because there’s “no one cool in town.” Dinklage doesn’t want to be friends because he doesn’t want to make friends; he lives a solitary life, avoiding social interactions because he has dwarfism. McCarthy’s inability to convey that aspect of Dinklage’s character in the script (and plot) is Station Agent’s big problem. He can’t figure out a way to talk about it.

Dinklage even tells Cannavale–who is so charming and lovable and downright good, they have to become friends–Dinklage even tells him he doesn’t want to talk about it. Because Station Agent doesn’t want to think about it, even though it informs all of Dinklage’s actions.

Again, movie can get away with it because it’s got a good sentiment, great performances, and solid dialogue. It’s fun to watch.

Dinklage and Cannavale find a third Musketeer in Patricia Clarkson. Clarkson’s good, but she gets the shaft as far as a character. She’s separated from husband, painting (weird faces), her toddler son has died. If it weren’t for Clarkson’s nervous distraction, the character would be as caricature on screen as in script. But Clarkson does a lot with the part.

Until McCarthy kicks her out of the movie. Then he kicks Cannavale out of the movie. In their place, he brings in Michelle Williams as a possible love interest for Dinklage. Williams’s good, she and Dinklage have chemistry, but McCarthy chickens out of it.

The Station Agent is a charming, beautifully acted, solidly constructed film. But seeing as how everyone showed up to do some work–even Stephen Trask’s slightly overbearing, omnipresent score excels–it would have been nice if McCarthy had something for them to do after the movie hits the one hour mark.

I mean, it’s not even clear Dinklage gets water and power at the train depot. The one plot thread McCarthy follows up on is to make a plotting thing work. The subplots are all fake; Cannavale’s father is a contrivance, ditto Williams’s home situation, ditto Clarkson’s mourning. Dinklage gets a charming but empty subplot with a fellow train enthusiast, middle schooler Raven Goodwin. Because McCarthy’s scared to do an actual subplot. And, no surprise, Goodwin even gets a fake subplot in an otherwise disposable, yet charming scene.

The Station Agent is good. But it’s frustratingly close to being great; it just needed some development for its characters. Onscreen character development for its cast. Dinklage, Cannavale, and Clarkson are all good. And they all showed up ready to be exceptional. And McCarthy chickens out every single time they can be.

But always in a charming way.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Tom McCarthy; director of photography, Oliver Bokelberg; edited by Tom McArdle; music by Stephen Trask; production designer, John Paino; produced by Robert May, Mary Jane Skalski, and Kathryn Tucker; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Peter Dinklage (Finbar McBride), Bobby Cannavale (Joe Oramas), Patricia Clarkson (Olivia Harris), Michelle Williams (Emily), Raven Goodwin (Cleo), and Paul Benjamin (Henry Styles).


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Batman and Robin (1949, Spencer Gordon Bennet), Chapter 15: Batman Victorious

For a few minutes in Batman Victorious, which is mostly a chase sequence–the invisible (though only temporarily) Wizard is on the run from Batman and the cops. There are some questionable (but more ambitious than anything else in the serial) invisible man special effects and a more lively feel to things.

Or maybe it just feels more lively because last chapter means Batman and Robin is almost, finally over.

There’s some Batman and Robin running around outside, which is good. Robert Lowery and Johnny Duncan (unless its one of his many stand-ins) are always exuberant when they get to play outside in their costumes.

It’s a dumb reveal on the Wizard, but Batman and Robin has always been pretty dumb.

Jane Adams gets more to do than usual–including being a damsel in distress for the first time in a while. Of course, Lowery (as Batman) does leave her tied up in the driver’s seat teetering on a cliff but whatever, she’s not going to fall. She still never reacts to her brother being murdered. And William Fawcett’s walking goes unaddressed.

Lowery, elbows bent so he looks like a squirrel holding a nut (it’s so prevalent it’s almost like he thinks it’s a “bat” gesture), has an exposition dump at the end to wrap up loose threads. They make no sense. Because it’s just terrible.

But it’s finally over. Finally.

CREDITS

Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, and Royal K. Cole, based on characters created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Robert Lowery (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Johnny Duncan (Robin / Dick Grayson), Jane Adams (Vicki Vale), Lyle Talbot (Commissioner Jim Gordon), Don C. Harvey (Henchman Nolan), Lee Roberts (Henchman Neal), William Fawcett (Prof. Hammil), Leonard Penn (Carter), Rick Vallin (Barry Brown), Michael Whalen (Private Investigator Dunne), George Offerman Jr. (Henchman Jimmy), and Eric Wilton (Alfred Beagle).


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The Sin of Nora Moran (1933, Phil Goldstone)

It’s hard to have worse written characters than dialogue. Like, how can character motivation be worse than what the characters speak to show their motivation.

The Sin of Nora Moran shows what it’s like to have worse characterizations than dialogue. It’s not pretty. What’s sort of frustrating is the occasional bursts of interest. They seem to be accidential or just further attempts at manipulating the audience while not providing the actors any possible explanation for their motivations. Because Sin of Nora Moran turns out to be all about its reveal.

And not the reveal it promises from the first few minutes or from the title. It has a second big reveal, which negates the first big reveal, but also casts a shadow back on the entire film. Sure, it’s only an hour and change, but it’s a long shadow. Or, more aptly, it’s one of the terrible filters director Goldstone and editor Otis Garrett use to show characters suffering internal turmoil. The performance and the narration (and the performance of the narration) isn’t enough. Nora Moran has to cloud everything over to make sure audience gets it.

But it doesn’t matter, because there’s nothing to get because the whole thing’s based on a twist and none of the characters seem aware of that twist. And they really, really, really should be aware of the twist. And, no, Bruce Willis isn’t a ghost. If only.

Here’s the movie. Governor’s wife Claire Du Brey confronts her brother, Alan Dinehart, about her husband having an affair. Dinehart is a political fixer; they’re both blue bloods, the husband (Paul Cavanagh) isn’t, but they both fund Cavanagh for their own ambitions. W. Maxwell Goodhue and Frances Hyland’s script falls over itself to remind the viewer Du Brey is an evil rich woman who shouldn’t be upset Cavanagh’s stepping out.

Of course, Cavanagh doesn’t tell his girlfriend he’s married, which should be a thing but isn’t. Zita Johann is the girlfriend. She’s Nora Moran. Is her sin having the affair with Cavanagh? No. Is her sin killing the man who raped her (John Miljan)? No. Is her sin covering up the murder with Dinehart’s help? No.

Sorry. I got distracted. So Dinehart tells Du Brey the story of Johann. He starts it with the revelation Johann is dead; she was executed for that murder she committed. It takes a while for victim reveal, but it’s sort of obvious. There aren’t very many characters in Sin of Nora Moran. It’s low budget. The filmmakers do a lot to try to draw attention away from those budget issues, but Gladstone’s direction of the actors is so bad and the script is so thin… well, it’s hard not to long for the stock footage montages when compared to the unrewarding narrative.

Because Nora Moran never delivers on anything. Dinehart’s narrating the story, but then it goes into Johann on the night of the execution doped up and remembering what got her there. What could be awesome layered narrative is instead muddled crap; Goodhue and Hyland’s script isn’t there; Gladstone’s direction isn’t there. Johann’s even aware she’s in the memory and able to change minor details–like she’s free to break from the scene to comment on it–which the film later forgets. Nora Moran seems like it had some behind the scenes disasters, anything to explain the slapdash narrative, but apparently not.

The overbearing music from Heinz Roemheld doesn’t help things, though I think it quiets down after a while. It’s sort of a blur. The music probably settles once Garrett starts with the filters. The movie always has bad swipes, but they’re nothing compared to that nonsensical filter the second half.

The acting is uniformly unimpressive. Zohann, Dinehart, and Du Brey come out best, but Zohann’s material is terrible and Dinehart and Du Brey are both fairly bad through the entire first act. It’s when they’ve got the most to do. They’re better at sitting around talking about the movie’s plot than acting it out.

Paul Cavanagh makes very little impression until he makes a lot of impression and it’s a bad one. He gets the big final acting scene and he’s lousy. It’s not his fault–the direction’s bad, the writing’s bad–but he’s still lousy.

Miljan’s barely in it, which is fine. He plays a drunken rapist. His performance is adequate, but his presence unpleasant.

Told straight, The Sin of Nora Moran might be a decent soap melodrama. Could be. With a better script, better direction, no filters. Some different actors. A lot more money. See, the movie’s got a lot going against it and nothing really going for it. It relies entirely on tricking the audience, with zero reward.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Phil Goldstone; screenplay by Willis M. Goodhue and Frances Hyland, based on a story by Goodhue; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Otis Garrett; music by Heinz Roemheld; released by Majestic Pictures.

Starring Zita Johann (Nora Moran), Paul Cavanagh (Gov. Dick Crawford), Claire Du Brey (Mrs. Edith Crawford), Alan Dinehart (District Attorney John Grant), Sarah Padden (Mrs. Watts), John Miljan (Paulino), and Henry B. Walthall (Father Ryan).


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