Film Review: Batman Returns (1992)

Release Date: June 16th, 1992 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Daniel Waters, Sam Hamm
Based on: Batman by Bob Kane, Bill Finger
Music by: Danny Elfman
Cast: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Michael Murphy, Vincent Schiavelli, Andrew Bryniarski, Cristi Conaway, Paul Reubens

Warner Bros., 126 Minutes

Review:

“My dear penguins, we stand on a great threshold! It’s okay to be scared; many of you won’t be coming back. Thanks to Batman, the time has come to punish all God’s children! First, second, third and fourth born! Why be biased? Male and female! Hell, the sexes are equal with their erogenous zones blown sky high! Forward march! The liberation of Gotham has begun!” – The Penguin

When I was a kid, other than Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Back to the Future, Part II, this was my most anticipated sequel. This was also the second and final time that Michael Keaton would play Batman, as well as being Tim Burton’s last Batman picture.

While I don’t quite love this chapter in the film series as much as the original, it is still really damn good and certainly better than the two Joel Schumacher films that followed.

We lose Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl and Jack Palance but we gain Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, as well as small parts by Vincent Schiavelli and Paul Reubens. Plus, Michael Gough and Pat Hingle return to accompany Keaton.

The two top billed villains in this story are the Penguin and Catwoman, although when you really analyze the picture, Walken’s Max Shrek is the true villain and his name was an obvious homage to Nosferatu actor Max Schreck. By story’s end, Catwoman is more of an antihero like she would become in the comics.

Danny DeVito was probably a perfect choice for the Penguin back in 1992. He had star power, charisma and definitely a similar body type. However, in this adaptation of the Batman mythos, he is reinvented to be more grotesque and much larger in girth. While he comes from wealth and opulence, this version of the character was rejected as an infant and went to live out his life in the Gotham City sewers where his only friends were sewer penguins and eventually the circus themed gang that he controls.

Catwoman also has a different origin. Here, she is a pushover secretary who gets in over her head and is shoved out of a high rise window, presumably to her death. There is a sort of mystical moment where alley cats swarm her body and she is magically reborn with cat-like reflexes and confidence. It’s pretty silly but Tim Burton made this film more like a dark fairy tale than his previous Batman movie.

Even though Gotham City is a massive place, the sets and design of this film make it feel pretty confined, even when we are in what are assumed to be wide open spaces. Maybe it was designed this way, intentionally. But the film feels smaller than the previous Batman movie, even though it cost a lot more to make: $80 million, as opposed to the $35 million budget of the first chapter.

Still, the cinematography is pretty good and the world looks much more like a Tim Burton world than the first film, which had tighter controls on it from the studio. It was the Burton elements though that I feel bogged this picture down a bit. Plus, the film was considered less family friendly and caused the studio to make drastic changes to the franchise after Burton was booted before the next picture. Granted, the followup movies were pretty horrendous.

This is a pretty good Batman picture, even if it does take some tremendous liberties in altering the source material. The right kind of spirit was there and this really just sort of exists in its own Tim Burton universe. That’s not a bad thing and if it wasn’t for the Burton Batman movies, we would have never gotten the near perfect masterpiece that was Batman: The Animated Series.

Film Review: Juice (1992)

Also known as: Angel Town 2 (Europe video title)
Release Date: January 17th, 1992
Directed by: Ernest R. Dickerson
Written by: Ernest R. Dickerson, Gerard Brown
Music by: Hank Shocklee and The Bomb Squad
Cast: Omar Epps, Tupac Shakur, Jermaine Hopkins, Khalil Kain, Cindy Herron, Vincent Laresca, Samuel L. Jackson, George O. Gore II, Fab 5 Freddy, Doctor Dre, Ed Lover, Donald Faison, Oran “Juice” Jones, Special Ed, EPMD (Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith)

Island World, Paramount Pictures, 95 Minutes

Review:

“You gotta snap some collars and let them motherfuckers know you here to take them out anytime you feel like it! You gotta get the ground beneath your feet, partner, get the wind behind your back and go out in a blaze if you got to! Otherwise you ain’t shit! You might as well be dead your damn self!” – Bishop

Any film that opens with a Rakim song is going to get me pumped up. Juice opens up with the best Rakim song, so I was hooked right away.

Truth be told, this was a favorite film of mine during my middle school years. It came out at the very beginning of the black film movement that happened in the ’90s. This, along with New Jack CityBoyz N The Hood and Menace II Society made a huge cultural impact and for good reason.

Watching it now, I do notice some of the weaknesses of the film, which weren’t as apparent in my younger days.

A big part of the narrative towards the end of the movie has to do with how the gun crazy Bishop (Shakur) is pinning his killings and crimes on his ex-best friend Q (Epps). While Bishop gets his just desserts and Q survives, it’s left unknown what the outcome really was. Was Q in trouble? Would he still be punished for these crimes? Or would his other friend Steel, who survived an attempt on his life, be able to save his friend. While Steel mentions that Bishop is setting up Q to a nurse that is their friend, you don’t know if he survives his trip to the ER. I guess it is to be assumed that it worked out okay but after Bishop’s death, the film ends abruptly.

Another issue I have with the narrative, is that it doesn’t really develop Bishop’s power trip enough. Sure, having a gun is power but it is pretty one-dimensional in how it is handled. Also, the group of friends, who skip school and steal records, still feel like decent kids. The plot shifting to them all of a sudden deciding to rob a corner store just happens out of nowhere.

Still, shaky narrative aside, the film is an adrenaline rush, especially over the course of the last act.

It is well acted by all important parties in the film. Epps and Shakur are pretty exceptional and both men were incredibly young in this. In fact, this was what brought Tupac into the mainstream for most people. He was given an opportunity, ran with it and did great.

The film is very stylistic and represents early ’90s east coast hip-hop well. There are also cameos from several known rappers and hip-hop personalities besides Tupac: Queen Latifah, Treach, Special Ed, EPMD and from Yo! MTV Raps, Ed Lover, Doctor Dre and Fab 5 Freddy. You also get to see Samuel Jackson in an early role, just before he broke out as a star in 1994’s Pulp Fiction.

I also love that they focused a lot on Q’s quest to make it as a respected DJ in the super competitive New York City landscape. The movie does a good job of showcasing what DJ battles were like at the time, when DJs still mixed manually and didn’t have computers and gadgets to make their lives infinitely easier.

Juice is gritty and has a strong feeling of realism to it. Plus, it has a lot of energy and a great soundtrack.

TV Review: Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995, 1997-1999)

Also known as: The Adventures of Batman & Robin, The New Batman Adventures (relaunched direct sequel series)
Original Run: September 5th, 1992 – September 15th, 1995 (original series run), September 13th, 1997 – January 16th, 1999 (sequel series run)
Created by: Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski
Directed by: Kevin Altieri, Kent Butterworth, Boyd Kirkland, Frank Paur, Eric Radomski, Dan Riba, Dick Sebast, Bruce Timm
Written by: Laren Bright, Alan Burnett, Sean Catherine Derek, Paul Dini, Steve Perry, Michael Reaves, Randy Rogel, Brynne Stephens
Based on: Batman by Bob Kane
Music by: Danny Elfman (theme), various
Cast: Kevin Conroy, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Bob Hastings, Robert Costanzo, Loren Lester, Mark Hamill, Arleen Sorkin

DC Comics, Warner Bros., Fox, 109 Episodes, 22 Minutes (per episode)

Review:

*Written in 2014. Also covers the sequel series, which is more or less now considered the final season of the show.

I’ve been revisiting this series lately, as it has been a long time since I’ve watched it in its entirety. Also, I wanted to do a list for this site that counts down the top fifty episodes of the series. That post will come in the near future.

In my estimation, this is probably the greatest animated series of all-time. Many will argue against that but I can’t think of any other that was as entertaining, epic, stylish, consistent, engaging or that had the quality of this series. There were a few hiccups with episodes drawn by lesser quality animation studios but those houses were quickly let go, as the show’s producers felt a necessity to maintain the show’s otherwise impeccable quality.

Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski created a unique world for Batman to play in and Paul Dini (who later went on to write amazing Batman comics) created some amazing scripts. In fact, their legacy and the influence of this show will live on forever, as many of the characters and situations created for the show, went on to live in the comic books.

Without this show, we would not have Harley Quinn, Renee Montoya and the awesome origin of Mr. Freeze, which was so awesome that it propelled him to being the greatest villain in this series and lead to him being featured as the main protagonist in the second animated film based off of this series.

Batman: The Animated Series was also innovative in the way that they produced it visually. As opposed to the industry standard of designing large set pieces and landscapes by coloring in white paper, they instead used light colors painted over black backgrounds. It provided this show with a dark atmosphere but not in a dreary way; it was more of an inviting film-noir style with very complimentary and carefully chosen colors added in.

The voice actors in this series were top notch. Mark Hamill, who was typecast after playing the iconic Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy, was given a second life when he was cast to voice the Joker. Kevin Conroy was equally as good as Batman. Both men actually continued to voice these characters for years after this show went off the air. In fact, both voiced these characters as recently as the Arkham video game series and some of the animated movies.

For an American produced animated series, this show is about as perfect as you can get. There are very few shows that can maintain a level of quality this high for over 100 episodes.

Film Review: Sleepwalkers (1992)

Also known as: Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers
Release Date: April 10th, 1992
Directed by: Mick Garris
Written by: Stephen King
Music by: Nicholas Pike
Cast: Brian Krause, Mädchen Amick, Alice Krige, Ron Perlman, Glenn Shadix, Stephen King, John Landis, Joe Dante, Clive Barker, Tobe Hooper, Mark Hamill

Columbia Pictures, 91 Minutes

Review:

“Stop looking at me! Stop looking at me you fucking cat!” – Charles Brady

I didn’t like this film when it came out way back in 1992. I was in middle school, at the time, and all the kids were obsessed with Stephen King. While I love many of the film adaptations of his work and did enjoy a couple of his stories, Sleepwalkers was not among King’s work that I found worthwhile. I did see it in the theater, after having my arm pulled by several friends and because I was crushing hard on Mädchen Amick back then, thanks to her character on Twin Peaks.

Seeing it all these years later was not a better experience. It didn’t age well, there wasn’t some sort of endearing or charming quality to the film and frankly, it was hard to sit through.

The special effects are pretty crappy. the transformation animations when the werecat characters’ faces shift is quick and fluid but just looks insanely hokey and bizarre. It is on par with something you would see in a music video from the same era. And while I’m aware that this movie had a modest budget, other similar horror films with modest budgets were doing better effects a dozen years earlier. Look at An American Werewolf In London and The Howling, for instance. Hell, look at the amazing effects in Fright Night, which came out in 1985, seven years before this.

The film also suffers from being completely bogged down by awful 1990s cliches. The fashion, the music, the overall style… it all just reeks of the worst things that decade had to offer. Sleepwalkers is teen horror at its worst and the 90s panache really just shovels a few extra pounds of shit into this gaping hole of a movie.

The creature effects, once the monsters appeared in their final form were okay. The werecat vampire monsters looked fairly cool but it wasn’t anything that could save the picture.

At least the film had cameos from several horror directors and also had small roles for Ron Perlman, Mark Hamill and Glenn Shadix.

So does Sleepwalkers deserve to be put through the Cinespiria Shitometer? To quote the legendary professional wrestling manager Paul Bearer, “Ohhhhhhhh, yessssssss!” So the results read, “Type 4 Stool: Like a sausage or snake, smooth and soft.”

Film Review: American Samurai (1992)

Release Date: December 22nd, 1992 (Germany)
Directed by: Sam Firstenberg
Written by: John Corcoran
Music by: Craig Stuart Garfinkle, Robbie Patton
Cast: David Bradley, Mark Dacascos

Cannon Films, 94 Minutes

Review:

“Why couldn’t we just be brothers?” – Drew Collins

The poster for American Samurai has the tagline “…Bloodsport with blades”. That is an incredibly accurate description. Although, this pales in comparison to the awesome Bloodsport.

However, many fans of Cannon’s various ninja films see Sam Firstenberg as the premier 80s ninja genre director. Also, Firstenberg left the American Ninja series after part 2 and fans never got to see him work with the second star of that series, David Bradley. This film, however, teams these two guys up and gives you a taste of what American Ninja 3 could have been if Firstenberg stayed on to direct the debuting Bradley.

That being said, this is nowhere near as good as the two Firstenberg American Ninja movies or his two films before that, when he was working with Japanese ninja actor Sho Kosugi. This is better than American Ninja 3 and 4, however. But I would put American Ninja 5, slightly ahead of this.

This film brings back John Fujioka, who was Joe Armstrong’s ninja master in the first American Ninja. Also, it is the first major film role for martial arts bad ass Mark Dacascos. The film actually pits Bradley against Dacascos, who plays his jealous foster brother but legitimate son to his father’s samurai legacy. Dacascos wants to prove to his father that he is superior to his adopted son. He leaves his father and foster brother behind, becomes yakuza and forces his brother to eventually fight to the death in the climax of the movie.

American Samurai actually plays like a live-action version of an arcade fighting game from the early 90s. It predates the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat movies but definitely takes its inspiration from those franchises and the Jean-Claude Van Damme movies BloodsportLionheart and Kickboxer.

Filmed in Turkey, you don’t get to see too much of the geography, as most of this takes place indoors and on confined sets. The arena is pretty drab but then so are the fighters that populate it. You didn’t have a cast of cool and unique fighters like you saw in Bloodsport or Lionheart.

American Samurai is entertaining enough if you are into 80s and 90s martial arts pictures. It certainly isn’t exceptional in any way but David Bradley gets to work with a better director and it opened some doors for Mark Dacascos.

Film Review: Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Release Date: January 21st, 1992 (Sundance)
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney, Michael Madsen, Edward Bunker, Quentin Tarantino

Live America Inc., Dog Eat Dog Productions, Miramax Films, 99 Minutes

Review:

“Hey, why am I Mr. Pink?” – Mr. Pink

Every great director has to start somewhere and this is where Quentin Tarantino’s career truly began. This is his origin story and for a first real attempt at creating a full-fledged motion picture, the young director absolutely nailed it and gave the world something exceptional.

The film also has a great ensemble of actors who would go on to do great things, as well as Harvey Keitel, who was already established as a master of his craft, especially in crime pictures.

The bulk of the movie, from a performance standpoint, mostly falls on the shoulders of Keitel and Tim Roth. While Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn and Lawrence Tierney were all perfect, it is the bond between Keitel and Roth that drives the picture and gives it the needed emotional weight and purpose.

The majority of this film takes place in one room. It actually only leaves this room when the actors walk out into its parking lot or during a flashback sequence. It is a very confined film but that works to its advantage and for its building of tension.

Reservoir Dogs also showcases Tarantino’s mastery of dialogue. While I feel that his dialogue tends to get really carried away in his later films and almost ruins them, in this picture he has the perfect balance of great dialogue, pivotal plot developments and overall motion. The conversations may go on for a bit but they are the driving force of the film. But never does it go on too long or go off on drawn out unnecessary tangents that don’t work as well on a second viewing. Every scene says what it needs to say and serves a purpose. The film just moves, flows and keeps you on edge in the right way. It is witty and it is fast in a way that Tarantino’s later pictures aren’t.

Now the film is also surrounded in some minor controversy, as people have gone on to notice that this film seems to borrow quite heavily from the 80s Hong Kong film City On Fire. Ringo Lam’s well-known picture in the Hong Kong crime genre predates Reservoir Dog by five years. It features an undercover cop infiltrating a group of jewel thieves, tension around the fact that no one knows who the cop is, a Mexican standoff finale and a whole laundry list of other similar plot points. Tarantino has casually denied that Reservoir Dogs is a sort of remake of City On Fire but it is hard to deny the myriad of similarities when you have seen both films.

The thing is, even if Tarantino ripped it off to launch his career, the fact remains that he made a much better picture than Ringo Lam’s City On Fire. Also, Reservoir Dogs, despite its inspiration, is very much a Tarantino picture. Also, hasn’t Quentin Tarantino’s entire career just been made up of artistic homages to all the things he thinks are cool? But I guess the thing that bothers people is that he won’t admit he lifted the plot when he very honestly states that Kill Bill was his version of Lady Snowblood or when he just borrows titles from other movies for his films like using Django in the title of Django Unchained or taking Inglorious Bastards and stylizing it Inglourious Basterds.

At the end of the day, I don’t care how Tarantino came to create Reservoir Dogs. It is still very much his and a work of modern cinematic art. It was, by far, one of the greatest debuts of any director in history and it will always be considered one of the greatest indie films of the 1990s.

Film Review: The ‘Hellraiser’ Film Series, Part I (1987-1996)

One of the greatest horror franchises in history is the Hellraiser series. Coming from the awesome mind of Clive Barker, this series offered up a mixture of terrifying tales and horrific visuals. It also brought a level of dark fantasy along with it, which became the norm with Barker’s work.

These films go beyond the standard slasher formula that was popular at the time and gave movie-going audiences something fresh and unique. When I was a kid, I was terrified of these films. There was Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers and all the other horror icons of that era… and then there was Pinhead. Pinhead was something more evil and darker than anything else I had experienced at the time. Years before even watching these films, his image on the video store shelf was enough to keep me from popping one of these films into my VCR.

Since there are so many Hellraiser films, nine to be exact, I am going to review the first four here. I will follow up in the near future with the rest of the films.

Hellraiser (1987):

Release Date: September 10th, 1987 (London premiere)
Directed by: Clive Barker
Written by: Clive Barker
Based on: The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker
Music by: Christopher Young
Cast: Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Doug Bradley

Film Futures, Entertainment Film Distributors, New World Pictures, 93 Minutes

Review:

“We have such sights to show you!” – Lead Cenobite (Pinhead)

The first film in the series is considered the best. Where I stand, it is my second favorite. The highpoint of this film, is that Clive Barker actually directs it and it is based off of his novella, The Hellbound Heart.

This film introduces us to the complex world and characters within this franchise, most notably Pinhead and the other Cenobites, as well as Kirsty Cotton, who is involved in four of the films. It also introduces us to a gritty and graphic visual style that was original at the time.

Visually, the colors, tones and style were hijacked by several industrial and metal artists for their music videos for years following this film. It had a style all its own that went on to transcend the film.

As a story, the plot is solid and one of the most original horror/fantasy tales I’ve ever experienced. Clive Barker is on a level all his own in what he creates. His mind is unique and never seems to disappoint in regards to giving his audience something original and provocative. The word “haunting” is used a lot in reference to dark and dreary things, this film is the epitome of the word, as it attacks all the senses in ways one cannot be prepared for before seeing this movie.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988):

Release Date: December 23rd, 1988
Directed by: Tony Randel
Written by: Clive Barker, Peter Atkins
Based on: characters by Clive Barker
Music by: Christopher Young
Cast: Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Kenneth Cranham, Imogen Boorman, Doug Bradley

Film Futures, Troopstar, New World Pictures, 93 Minutes

Review:

“Your suffering will be legendary, even in hell!” – Pinhead

Hellbound is a perfect sequel. It starred many of the same actors from the first film and was worked on by the same crew. The only main difference was that Clive Barker stepped down as director and that spot was filled by Tony Randel, who was an instrumental part in making the first film.

This is my favorite in the series. The style, tone and themes of the film are an expansion of what we were given in the first installment.

Hellbound takes things to a whole new level and starts to open the doors of the Hellraiser universe much more than its predecessor. We are given insight into the origin of Pinhead and the Cenobites. The mythos is also expanded and explained to a larger degree.

The film’s main protagonist is frightening as hell and adds somewhat of a contrast to the personality of Pinhead. He is a much eviler character with more sinister and selfish motivations, where Pinhead is more of an automaton being summoned by characters throughout the films.

The expansion of the mythos, the bigger villain and the fact that this stayed true to the essence of the original picture, is why Hellbound is my favorite. I also feel that it has the best rewatchability factor compared to all the other films in the series.

Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth (1992):

Release Date: May 1992 (Milan)
Directed by: Anthony Hickox
Written by: Peter Atkins, Tony Randel
Based on: characters by Clive Barker
Music by: Randy Miller
Cast: Terry Farrell, Paula Marshall, Kevin Bernhardt, Peter Boynton, Doug Bradley

Dimension Films, Fifth Avenue Entertainment, Trans Atlantic Entertainment, Miramax Films, 93 Minutes

Review:

“There is no good, Monroe. There is no evil. There is only flesh.” – Pinhead

This is the start of the decline of the series.

Hell On Earth was not as good as the first two but it wasn’t an awful sequel. It continued to expand on the Hellraiser mythos and the complexities of Pinhead’s character.

Doug Bradley as Pinhead was the highlight of this film and he got to act a little more and experiment with the character, as this was the first film to really make him the star of the series. He got more screen time here than probably the first two films combined and it made this film enjoyable, despite its flaws.

While Kirtsy shows up in a cameo part, this was the first film without her as a protagonist. Actress Terry Farrell did good stepping into the role of hero. She was a strong character and was believable in the part, as she fought off the hordes of hell in order to bring a little balance to the universe.

The character of Terri was cute as hell but ultimately, her fate sucked. Between her and her scumbag boyfriend’s bickering and turn to evil, I kind of saw a very likable character too easily transformed into a despised character and it just didn’t seem to work well.

The biggest complaint about this installment in the series, is that the new Cenobites were awful. One had a television camera for an eye, another threw CDs like Chinese stars, it was gimmicky and atrocious. In fact, they looked like a couple fanboys doing some Borg cosplay at a Star Trek convention.

While this was a step down from the previous films, this one is still enjoyable.

Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996):

Release Date: March 8th, 1996
Directed by: Kevin Yagher (as Alan Smithee), Joe Chapelle (uncredited)
Written by: Peter Atkins
Based on: characters by Clive Barker
Music by: Daniel Licht
Cast: Bruce Ramsay, Valentina Vargas, Adam Scott, Doug Bradley

Dimension Films, Miramax Films, 85 Minutes

Review:

“Do I look like someone who cares what God thinks?” – Pinhead

Now we have reached the infamous fourth film in the series, Bloodline. I say “infamous” because the consensus is that this film was total shit and it was responsible for all the other sequels not getting theatrical releases. Well okay, it wasn’t a great movie. Although, it still had some good shit in it.

Granted, this film starts off in space and as most of us know, whenever a horror franchise goes to space, it is the end of the franchise. Friday the 13th tried it and failed, Leprechaun tried it and failed and Critters tried it and failed. There are probably others too but you get the picture. Unlike the films I just mentioned though, Hellraiser: Bloodline didn’t turn to complete shit when they decided to go the space route. I guess some of that can be attributed to the fact that this story jumped around in time.

In fact, due to following different generations in time throughout this film, Bloodline felt more like an anthology movie. It also expanded the mythos once again and gave us an interesting origin for the puzzle box a.k.a. the Lament Configuration.

Doug Bradley was fantastic again and at this point, four films in, he has reached the horror icon level only reserved for characters like Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers.

An added bonus, is that the Cenobites are back to being in awesome form and not looking like phaser fodder from the set of Star Trek: Voyager.

And that’s it for the first four films in the series, I will soon follow up with part two of this review, covering films five through eight… and maybe the recent remake, if I can stomach sitting through its weak 75 minutes.