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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Many Faces of Batman

With the horrifying image of a giant bat this hero strikes fear into the heard of the superstitious and cowardly lot of Gotham’s underworld, Batman, the Caped Crusader, the Dark Knight, the World's Greatest Detective, whose never ending battle for truth, justice and the American way…wait, no, that’s the other guy. Next to Superman you’d be hard pressed to find a more iconic character than Batman, his very silhouette is more identifiable than any other figure, with maybe the exception of Mickey Mouse, but he hasn’t been a static figure over the years, he’s had many incarnations, and today we will look at a few of them.

may faces of batman

It all started back in 1939 when the success of Superman was about to open the floodgates of a whole new genre of comics. National Publications (later to become DC Comics) wanted more superheroes and Bob Kane, along with collaborator Bill Finger, were more than happy to oblige, and so The Bat-Man was born. The character was clearly influenced by Johnston McCulley's Zorro and Walter Gibson’s The Shadow, and with design influences from Leonardo Da Vinci, but though Batman started as amalgamation of characters ranging from Doc Savage to Sherlock Holmes he quickly became his own man. His first appearance in issue Detective Comics #27 includes all the iconic elements we know of Batman today; cape, cowl, utility belt, and a duel identity as rich playboy Bruce Wayne, but he was also a rather different hero than what he’d later become.

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Many fans, me included, were not too fond of the amount of killing Batman carried out in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice, but back in the early days of Detective Comics the Caped Crusader was not all that averse to killing. He was even known to carry a gun from time to time, which came in handy if he had to dispatch vampires with silver bullets.

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The Batman of this early period was more akin to the pulp heroes he stemmed from, with no compunctions about killing or maiming his enemies, and more than a few villains had fatal encounters with Batman; from tumbling backwards into vats of chemicals, having their necks snapped with a well-placed Batman kick, or even being gunned down from the Bat-Plane.

Batman in batplane


It wasn’t until Detective Comics #38 in April of 1940 and the introduction of Robin, Batman's under aged sidekick, that the hard pulpy edge of Batman began to soften. Robin was suggested by Bill Finger as a kind of Watson counterpoint for Batman to talk to, but Bob Kane preferred his dark avenger to run solo, and was not originally a fan of this addition.  As much as Kane may have disliked the idea the doubling of sales clearly indicated that Robin the Boy Wonder was here to stay. And it was the aforementioned gunning done of criminals via the Bat-Plane that prompted Editor Whitney Ellsworth to decree that the character could no longer kill or use a gun. One can understand the reticence of having Batman murdering villains in front of his eight year old partner.

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Psychologist Fredric Wertham, in his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, implied that children imitated crimes committed in comic books, and that these works corrupted the morals of the youth. This eventually led to the adoption of Comic Code of Authority which in turn forced Batman even further into the light. Also being this was the 50s the popularity of science fiction skewed the stories towards more outlandish adventures and introduced such characters as Batwoman, Ace the Bat-Hound, and Bat-Mite. But fighting aliens and teaming up with outer dimensional imps were the least of Batman’s problems as the stories became sillier with almost every issue published.

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Batman, crime fighter or fashion victim?

With a character as popular as Batman had become it's no surprise that Hollywood would come calling, and in 1943 Columbia Pictures brought Batman to the big screen for the very first time with two movie serials. The first one starred Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin.  Kids of the time were thrilled to see Batman brought to life, and didn't seem to care if he looked like their dad dressed up for Halloween.

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"Trick or Treat, anyone?"

Movie serials were not known for having lavish budgets, and so viewers were not too surprised to find Wayne Manor to be a small house in the suburbs, or that the Batmobile was just Bruce Wayne’s car with the top up, but they may have been a bit shocked to discover a Robin who looks to be in his mid-twenties.

The film is most notable for introducing the Bat Cave, though here it’s basically a desk with a bat on string hovering over it, and the Bat Signal was just an overhead projector the police pointed out the window, but the film's racist overtones will certainly surprise modern audiences. Filmed during the height of WWII the chief villain of the film is Dr. Daka, an evil Japanese scientist turning people into pseudo-zombies.  That the Japanese villain was played by white actor J. Caroll Naish, with terrible Asian make-up, is only a tip of the iceberg of racism for this serial as the opening narration described the stories setting thus, "This was part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America and known as little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street." Yeah, not America’s finest hour.

1949 serial 

"Batman, you are under arrest for Hate Crimes."

In the 1949 serial Batman  Robert Lowery dons the cowl while Robin now is played by Johnny Duncan, who looks even older than Croft. This time the dynamic duo face off against the Wizard, a hooded villain with an electrical device which controls cars. We are not talking Joker level of villainy here. The Batmobile is still just Bruce Wayne’s car with the top up, but there is a brilliant moment when reporter Vicki Vale (Jane Adams), who is attempting to tail the Batmobile, is spotted by the caped crusaders.  Batman pulls over and demands that Linda explain why she was following them. She answers with a question, “Why are you in Bruce Wayne’s car?” and the World’s Greatest Detective comes up with the dazzling retort. “He loaned it to us.

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“That was some quick thinking, Batman."

The serials were re-released in 1965, with the racist elements wisely edited out, and was called An Evening with Batman and Robin. This proved so popular that its success is something many consider to be the inspiration for the William Dozier’s Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.

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Batman (1966)

The cultural impact of the 60s Batman television show cannot be overstated. Batmania swept the globe as stars from both big and small screen vied to get a chance to be a “guest villain” on the show.  And if any series was a product of the sixties it's this one, with its far out colours, it's pantheon of wild characters, and brilliant comic touch, it has no equal. At the heart of what made this show work was of course Adam West, at no point does Batman ever look at the camera and wink, every goofy off-the-wall statement Batman utters was delivered with utmost sincerity.  The series did so well that it got a mid-season theatrical released movie.  What TV show has ever had that?

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Batman still has the best rogues gallery.

Though many consider the show to be the height of camp West himself believed they were merely satirizing the character, and not in a mean spirited way. Some consider this series as the death knell of Batman being taken seriously in the comics, but before this show aired DC was seriously considering killing off the character. So this show could be actually be considered a stay of execution, and if purists fans hated that the comics were starting to get as goofy of the television show all someone would have to do is remind them about Bat-Mite and the Rainbow collection of Bat-Suits.

As all good things must come to an end the Batman series was cancelled after just three seasons, and with its death once again sales of the Batman comic began to decline. Enter writer Dennis O'Neil and artist Neal Adams who decided that the character needed to return to his roots as a "grim avenger of the night."

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"Nooooooooo!"

Dennis O'Neil, Neal Adams, along with inker Dick Giordano, not only reinvigorated the comic but they also gave us Ra's al Ghul, one of Batman’s greatest foes, and the story “Daughter of the Demon” is easily one of the top Batman stories ever told. Of course during the 70s many writers and artists put out excellent Batman stories but it was these guys who managed to yank Batman from another ignoble death.  Speaking of ignoble things...

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The Filmation Batman Years (1968-1969)

Let’s talk animation for a minute. In the 1940s Fleischer Studios produced eight excellent Superman cartoons, which were released theatrically, making it rather odd that it wasn’t until the late 60s for Batman to make the move into animation. First there was The Batman/Superman Hour, later followed by the The Adventures of Batman, and then finally ending with Batman with Robin the Boy Wonder. All were from Filmation Studios, an animation studio not known for stellar work, and as these were made on the cheap for Saturday morning cartoons the animation was limited at the best of times.

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The Super Friends

Running in many incarnations from 1973 to 1986 the Super Friends was a kid friendly version of the Justice League. Now it certainly had better animation than the Filmation series, but the show was still rather goofy.  In the first season Batman, Superman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and Robin the Boy Wonder were joined on their adventures by Marvin, Wendy and their Wonder Dog. Later that trio was replaced by Zan and Jayna, the Wonder Twins with their space monkey Gleek.

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Who needs dynamic action when you have these two?

Due to Standards and Practices of the time Hanna-Barbera was not allowed to have overt acts of violence. That meant no kicking or punching. Now when your team includes Batman and Robin that is going to be a bit of a problem. The Dynamic Duo were forced to set aside their hand-to-hand combat skills and rely totally on the gadgets in their utility belts.  "Holy Bat-lube, Batman!"

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The Dark Knight Returns

Frank Miller's limited series The Dark Knight Returns hit comic stores in 1986, and really shook things up for the character. Writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman were already starting to show the world that comic books weren’t just for kids, but it was Miller’s story of an aged Batman coming out of retirement to battle a gang of street thugs that really blew new life into the character. Its influence and design is still affecting how many people perceive the character to this day, and obviously it greatly inspired Zack Snyder’s movie version. One could argue that if not for the popularity of this four issue series we may never have gotten Tim Burton’s Batman.

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Batman (1989)

When Mister Mom was cast in Tim Burton’s upcoming Batman film it was quite controversial, but Michael Keaton proved naysayers wrong by giving us a well crafted performance of a psychological disturbed Bruce Wayne, a person you could believe would but on a bat suit to punch criminals. Jack Nicholson’s Joker was less of a surprise as all he did was basically channel Cesar Romero’s Joker from the television show. What Burton managed to pull off was the same thing that Richard Donner did back in 1979 with Superman; he made a serious movie that just happened to be based on a comic book character.  Tim Burton's version was also aided by Anton Furst’s fantastic designs for Gotham, which dominate the movie as does Prince’s soundtrack, and if Burton had been a little more interested in story than visuals we could have had a film that would have rivaled the Nolan series. What the film really lacks is a decent amount of Batman, though the Joker laments that Batman is getting "all his press" it’s Nicholson who dominates the film’s screen time.

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Batman Returns (1992)

In Burton’s sequel Batman Returns Keaton is back in all his rubber suited glory, and he's still playing a very interesting Bruce Wayne, but by now it’s clear that Batman is more rubber suit than a full-fledged character. The second film also makes the mistake of overloading itself with villains; a latex clad Catwoman (Michelle Pheiffer), a hideously deformed Penguin (Danny DeVito), and Corporate Tycoon Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) all vie for screen time. Gotham City is still a nightmarish place of an indefinite time period, Alfred (Michael Gough) is still bringing tea down to the Bat Cave, but even though there is a Bat Signal now to call him when he’s needed he still feels like a guest star in his own movie. Burton clearly has more sympathy, and interest, in the more disturbed villains of the Batman universe than he is about the title character.

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Batman: The Animated Series (1992)

Taking inspiration from Tim Burton’s Batman movies, and from the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons as well, series creators Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski brought us one of the best incarnations of Batman to date. Timm’s decision to go with a noir feel and color palette still makes this one of the better looking animated shows out there. Kevin Conroy, as the voice of Batman/Bruce Wayne, nails the character perfectly, and it’s here that we clearly see that Batman is the real person and that the Bruce Wayne persona is the disguise.  Not many will argue the fact that Mark Hamill’s Joker is brilliant, and to me he is still the definitive Joker. He is chaos personified. He loves death and destruction, but only as long as he has fun doing it. The show ran from 1992 to 1995, changing to The Adventures of Batman and Robin for season two. The series owes a lot to Bruce Timm but the voice direction of Andrea Romano is definitely one of the key reasons for this shows success, as well as the excellent music by Shirley Walker.

  

Batman Forever (1995)

In this movie entry Tim Burton steps out of the director’s chair to be replaced by Lost Boys director Joel Schumacher. Though Burton remained on as producer this movie is clearly Schumacher’s baby. If one can take anything away from Schumacher’s Batman movies it's his love of showing us Bat Nipples and Bat Ass shots. Val Kilmer is now playing Batman because Keaton read the script and wisely bailed. Once again the filmmakers assume more villains means a better movie, they are of course wrong, but not only do we get The Riddler (Jim Carrey) and Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) we also get the origin story for Robin (Chris O’Donnell) to clog up the running time even more.

Question: Why would a millionaire take a twenty-something circus performer as his ward?

Gone is Anton Furst’s gorgeous gothic city as it's now replaced by a neon-epileptic inducing Gotham that is 60% giant statues. Kilmer is bland as both Bruce Wayne and Batman, while Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones try to outdo each other in the over-the-top terrible acting department. The only loser is us.

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Batman & Robin (1997)

More Bat Nipples and Bat Ass shots than you can toss a Batarang at in this final Batman movie of the series. Joel Schumacher ups the garish visual levels to eleven with this entry, and because the last film wasn’t too overloaded characters we have Batman, now being played by the human bobble head George Clooney, a returning Chris O’Donnell as Robin, Arnold Schwarzenegger here to deliver a countless amounts of ice puns as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman as plant loving Poison Ivy, Robert "Jeep" Swenson as Bane, who here is relegated to monosyllabic bodyguard duty to Ivy, and finally Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl, who for some reason is Barbara Wilson, Alfred’s niece, and not Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. This movie reached such levels of terribleness that it completely imploded the franchise, and we’d have to wait eight years before they’d be able to get another one off the ground.

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Batman Beyond (2001)

In this futuristic take on Batman Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and Alan Burnett teamed-up to produce an animated series that was across between Batman, Blade Runner, and Tron. Surprisingly this worked rather well. The basic premise was that in the year 2019 an aging Bruce Wayne had hung up his cowl because on his last case he was forced to betray a lifelong principle by threatening to use a gun. Twenty years later Terry McGinnis (Will Friedle), an athletic 17 year old, discovers that Bruce Wayne was Batman. With Bruce, working as basically Oracle from the Bat Cave, McGinnis dons a high-tech Batman suit and fights futuristic villains. The show ran for three seasons, and was overall quite good, the animation style was fresh and exciting and the techno-pop soundtrack was the bomb.

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Batman Begins (2005)

After the utterly awful direction Joel Schumacher took the Batman franchise the world was more than ready for Christopher Nolan’s grounded version of the Caped Crusader in his Dark Knight Trilogy. Gone are the giant statues, now replaced by the mean streets of Chicago (with a few not so great CGI matte paintings), and we are also given a new and fleshed out backstory for Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). We learn after his parents were killed he wandered the world until becoming a pupil of Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson), and when he returns to Gotham with his new found skills he becomes Batman.  With the aid of his butler Alfred (Michael Caine), tech-master Luscious Fox (Morgan Freeman), and Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) the Dark Knight keeps the citizens of Gotham safe.  Still unable to make a Batman film with just one villain Batman Begins gives us, along with Ra's al Ghul, crime lord Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy).  Though flawed Batman Begins was a definite nice step in the right direction, and tries to answer that age old question, "What will happen when the train reaches Wayne Tower?"

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The Dark Knight (2008)

In The Dark Knight we once again have a plethora of villains; crime boss Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts), Lau (Chin Han) a triad boss, and several other Gotham gang leaders who are all upset about the headache that is Batman, but of course the stand-out villain in this movie is the Joker (Heath Ledger). The late Heath Ledger swept twenty acting awards for his performance as the demented and scarred clown of terror, and they were all well deserved. He plays a Joker that just wants to see the world burn. In contrast Bale’s Batman, with his increasingly silly Batman voice, pales in comparison. We also have District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) turning into Two-Face for the last act, which is a shame as his character comes off unfairly as a bit of a loss when compared to Ledger’s Joker. Eckhart’s Two-Face deserved his own film.   Overall The Dark Knight is simply a fantastic movie, and still the best Batman film to date.

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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The last entry in this trilogy is The Dark Knight Rises, which pits Batman against Bane (Tom Hardy), the villain notoriously known for being the man who broke Batman’s back in the comic book Knightfall. Having one of Batman’s relatively newer villains was apparently not enough so we again get more villains stuffed into this film; Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) is both villainous and a potential love interest for Batman, and even Scarecrow returns to make an extended cameo, but the orchestrator behind it all is Talia al Ghul (Marion Cotillard) who wants to finish her father’s work, which just so happens to be destroying Gotham City. Batman Begins was a nice jump start to the Batman franchise while The Dark Knight completely blew our collective minds with its awesomeness, so The Dark Knight Rises really had its work cut out for it. Sadly it doesn’t quite match up to its predecessors, it’s a decent enough film, but there are enough problems with the story to keep it from being one of the more re-watchable Batman movies.

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Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice (2016)

In 2013 Warner Brothers hired director Zack Snyder to bring his vision of Superman for their first installment in the DC Extended Universe movie series. Man of Steel was a dark and gritty version of Superman, which caught many off guard as one does not think “Dark and Gritty” when thinking of Superman, cause that’s kind of Batman’s thing, but flash forward three years and we have Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice, where we get dark and gritty hero versus dark and gritty hero. The key to the Superman/Batman dynamic is their differences, but in this movie they are both kind of dark and brooding assholes. Superman (Henry Cavill) seems pissed that not everyone on the planet worships him like a god, and Batman holds Superman responsible for the thousands of deaths during the Battle of Metropolis. So if I have to pick sides I’ve got to go with Batman, but he is a bit of a dick about the whole thing, “ He has the power to wipe out the entire human race and if we believe there is even a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty." I'd say Batman could use some Netflix and Chill.

Now as live action Batmans go I’d say Ben Affleck is pretty damn good, his Bruce Wayne and Batman personas aren’t as defined as say Kevin Conroy’s, but he still really sold the character for me. Also I love this older Batman look, clearly taken from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Ben Affleck completely owns the part. My biggest complaint here is that we should have had a solo Batman movie before we got this overcrowded team-up, because once again the cast is just jammed back.  We have Jesse Eisenberg’s atrocious Lex Luthor, Gal Gadot's nice turn as Wonder Woman, a cave troll from The Lord of the Rings as Doomsday, and an email of the Justice League.

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"And I'm going to write it and direct it myself."

As the DC Extended Universe continues there is no doubt that we are going to see a lot more of Batman on the big screen. He is going to appear in the upcoming Suicide Squad, and of course in the Justice League movie, but I do hope he gets another standalone film.

Now I didn’t include the television show Gotham in this list because it's more about James Gordon and Batman’s rogues gallery, and kid Bruce is no Batman, but if I've missed one of your favorite versions of Batman please let me know in the comments below.

Before I leave you I'd fill remiss if I didn't mention an awesome animated series called Batman: The Brave and the Bold. This is a brilliantly fun cartoon based on the comic book series that focused on Batman’s team-ups over the years. Diedrich Bader provides the voice of Batman, and he brings a nice classic heroic flair to the role. These are all standalone episodes, are also incredibly fun, and the comic tone for this series is a treat.  I will now bid you adieu with the song “Birds of Prey.”  Click on the link and enjoy.

birds of prey 

"Birds of Prey"

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) – Review


Spiders have too many goddamn legs. This simple truism has led the arachnid to being one of the chief villains in countless horror films over the years, and during the 50s era of big insect attack films a movie called Tarantula (1955) was one of the better of that genre. It was this “magic” that director Bill Rebane tried to recapture with his film The Giant Spider Invasion.  Sadly he didn't quite capture it, but he certainly made a film one won't forget seeing, no matter how hard you try.

Giantspiderinvasion

 The movie opens over a star field as something streaks through the depths of space. Is it an alien spacecraft? Could it be a laser attack from a distant world? Or is it a collapsed star on a collision course with Earth? The last one turns out to be the case and though I am certainly no science expert I'm betting a spider invasion would be the least of our worries if a black hole crashed into the Earth.  What is even more worrying is that the town where it crashes has Alan "The Skipper" Hale Jr. for a sheriff, and as the film goes on you almost wish Gilligan was there to help as even he seems more competent than this guy.

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 We then meet Dr. Jenny Langer (Barbara Hale), who runs the local observatory when she isn’t boring highs school students with lectures on the types of stars, informs NASA of a heavy gamma shower, an incredible fast drop in barometric pressure, an aura with no sun activity, and an extremely potent unknown x-ray source nearby. Certainly sounds like a black hole strike to me. NASA sends Dr. J.R. Vance (Steve Brodie), their top scientist and sexist idiot, to investigate.

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Fox Mulder would have only been 15 at the time but he still would have been the better choice.

This all may sound insanely dumb but in all fairness to Bill Rebane he was working mostly without a script as the two writers he had didn’t talk to each other, so he was shooting a movie without a clue as to where it was going, but some of the characters and dialog in this film are pretty atrocious and inexcusable. Case in point Dr. Vance’s sexism; we get the standard clichĂ© that when he goes to meet a Dr. Langer he assumes he will be meeting a man, but when he finds Jenny Langer working in the observatory we get this scintillating piece of dialog…
Dr. Langer: “I’m so glad you are here Doctor. I’m Jenny Langer.
Dr. Vance: “Nice to meet you. I have an appointment with your father.”
Dr. Langer: “Uh no, he passed away in 1952.”
Dr. Vance: “Oh I’m so sorry, than the appointment must be with your husband.”
Dr. Langer: “I’m not married.”
Dr. Vance: “I’m not sorry. Then it’s probably with your brother.”
Dr. Langer: “No, he’s an interior decorator ins Oshkosh. You see Doctor Vance, I’m afraid your appointment is with me.    I’m Doctor Jenny Langer.”
Dr. Vance: “Ohhh?”

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 Now this is supposed to a “meet cute” but all it does is paint the hero scientist as a bit of an asshole. Sure she didn’t immediately identify herself as a doctor but she was working on a telescope and wearing a white lab coat. Did he think she was the maid dusting the equipment?

Question: Do astronomers even wear white lab coats?

When the movie isn’t focusing on Dr. Langer and Dr. Vance, as they spout scientific gibberish that would give Neil deGrasse Tyson laughing fits, we spend much of the time at the Kester farm. It’s at this farm that the black hole landed. The patriarch of this family is Dan Kester (Robert Easton) who lies about visiting religious revivals so that he can have an affair with a local waitress. Dan’s wife is Ev Kester (Leslie Parrish) has but a sole character trait, aside from not liking her husband but then again nobody likes him, and that is she is an alcoholic. When she isn't browbeating her lazy good-for-nothing-husband she's downing booze as if prohibition is about to return. Then there is her teenage sister Terri (Diane Lee Hart) who both her husband and her husband’s cousin routinely hit on. This comes across as both creepy and sad.  Terri is also not the sanest person in the world as she tends to wander into the kitchen naked, have a heated conversation with her brother-in-law's pervy cousin, but not tell the asshole to get the fuck out.

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 These are the kind of people you are surprised have lived long enough to be killed by a giant spider. The day after the black hole hits behind the Kester farmhouse Ev is finally able to get her lazy husband to go out and investigate, but instead of a huge crater they find almost a dozen mutilated cows. Dan’s first impulse is to quickly chop up the mangled cows and sell the meat to the local cafe, but then they discover some geodes lying around that when broken open reveal what looks like diamonds inside. What they failed to notice is the spider that crawled out of it first.

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 How did this meteorite/black hole open up a doorway to another dimension? Will these eight legged
nightmares decimate this small town? What kind of a people would elect The Skipper as sheriff? All these questions and more are answered in this nail-biting science fiction thriller…well it may not be exactly nail-biting but some of the tarantulas were creepy, and the effects could make you laugh so hard you will cry.

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This film is very low budget. At a total cost of $300,000 dollars they only had $10,000 set aside from the effects budget, and so the bulk of this 85 minute movies is just Dr. Vance and Dr. Langers wandering around spouting scientific gibberish with the occasional cut to the Kester farm and the idiot goings on there. Not a whole lot of giant spider action, but just how tight was the budget? Well they couldn’t even afford to supply Sheriff Jones with an undershirt.

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I’m assuming he was supplied with plenty of Bourbon or Scotch.

When we finally get to see a giant spider attack first it’s just a dog sized puppet that springs out at Ev, and then she is jumped in the barn by one that is about the size of a person.  We never do get a scene showing spiders growing as mostly we see real tarantulas crawling around only to then randomly cut to an attack by a bad puppet.

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Was it hiding in her dresser to steal her panties?

Note: The intended size of the spiders was to be just about dog size but the producers insisted that Rebane provide bigger and bigger spiders to compete with the monster hit film Jaws. That they thought a low budget film could compete with a major studio blockbuster is just adorable.


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 Of course this demand for a larger spider did lead to one of the greatest/goofiest puppets in the history of cinema (The Giant Claw still holds the crown for the goofiest movie monster), as with only $10,000 dollars available for the effects budget they decided their best option was to cover a Volkswagen Beetle with fake fur, attach eight legs to it, and then stuff nine teen-agers inside to puppeteer the thing.

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Note: The puppet was driven backwards so the taillights could be used as eyes.

This is certainly one of the films that is charming in its cheapness. Among the cast the acting runs from passable to downright atrocious; Steve Brodie heads the group of “has been actors” and he is clearly phoning in his performance, but Barbara Hale on the other hand seems to be giving this performance more than it deserves. At one point she even doubled for Leslie Parrish who refused to be jumped by the spider for her death scene. But speaking of phone in performances Alan Hale Jr. spends much of the film at his desk providing us with some of the worst “phone acting” since the movie A*P*E* and whose attempts at humor falls flatter than a steamrolled pancake. They even have him call Terry’s boyfriend Billy (Paul Bentzen), “Hey, little buddy” in case we forgot his most notable role was The Skipper on Gilligan’s Island. There is comedy in this movie but it’s mostly unintentional; the sight of our aging two leads rolling down the hill to escape the spider, an angry mob of local extras trying to replicate a similar scene from Jaws, or really any shot that features the giant title creation.

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The cast not breaking up in peals of laughter at the sight of this thing was the real trick.

Director Bill Rebane once dubbed the film "The Giant Spider Disaster" referring to how problematic the production was, and though the end result is probably less than he desired I must say he certainly brought joy to many people across the country. Now the film may be listed on The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made' in the book The Official Razzie Movie Guide, but it also must be mentioned that it was the 50th top grossing film that year. So even though Rebane may have lost a portion of his mind making this film he certainly didn’t lose his shirt

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Return of Tarzan: Edgar Rice Burroughs – Book Review

TheReturnOfTarzan-C1When one thinks of Tarzan the term “Secret Agent” does not immediately leap to mind, but in this first sequel that is exactly what Tarzan becomes. Even stranger is that after the success of the first Tarzan book All-Story Magazine rejected The Return of Tarzan manuscript (twice) and so Burroughs went to New Story and ended up getting more money. So in the year 1913 fans were finally able to learn if Tarzan and Jane actually got together.

Tarzan of the Apes did end on a bit of a downer note with Jane deciding to marry William Cecil Clayton, denying her love for Tarzan, and the ape man himself nobly stepping aside even after finding out that he is the true heir of the Greystoke title. So The Return of Tarzan begins with our dejected hero returning to Europe via ocean liner. It’s while on this voyage that Tarzan encounters two of his most nefarious foes; Nicholas Rokoff and his henchman Alexis Paulvitch. Tarzan notices Rokoff slipping something in the pocket of Count Raoul de Coude, who is playing cards with Paulvitch, and is able to expose a plot to discredit the Count as a card cheat. Later Tarzan foils a plot where Rokoff attempts to besmirch the honor of Countess de Coude. This all stems from the fact that Rokoff is a Russian spy and he needs leverage to blackmail the Count. Tarzan’s thwarting of Rokoff’s plans earns the ape man the enmity of this dastardly spy, but Tarzan is unable to meet out jungle justice as he is repeatedly asked to spare Rokoff by the Countess.

Later in Paris Tarzan becomes great friends of the Count and Countess, but once again the nefarious schemes of Rokoff intrude and the evil Russian is able to trick Tarzan into a situation that results in him having to have “Pistols at Dawn” with the Count. Considering himself to be in the wrong, he was found with the Countess’s boudoir at night, Tarzan just stands there while the Count unloads three shots at him. Lucky for us it takes more than that to kill the Lord of the Jungle. Tarzan then offers his own pistol to the Count stating that, “Only death could atone for the wrong I have done.” Tarzan then hands a confession he had earlier beat out of Rokoff that clearly shows that neither the Countess nor Tarzan were at fault. (A document I may have handed over before the duel, but then again I’m not the noble Tarzan). Tarzan and the Count resume their friendship and the Count even gets Tarzan a job with the Ministry of War.

It’s at this point that Tarzan becomes a secret agent for France. (It’s a shame we never got a story where Tarzan working for France faced off against James Bond working for Britain.) So Tarzan is sent to Algiers to investigate whether or not a French officer is selling classified information to the enemy. I must say it was a great idea thrusting the “Lord of the Jungle” into the deserts of Africa as it goes to show that he can pretty much adapt to any environment or danger. It’s also the beginning of the long tradition of Tarzan rescue a person who turns out to be related a person of power or prestige. In this case a beautiful slave girl that just so happens to be the daughter of a great sheik. Later, when death is almost a certainty, his earlier act of heroism will pay off and he will be rescued by his new friend(s). This is a situation that will play out in many of the Tarzan books, sometimes happening more than once per book.

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 It surprises no one, least of all Tarzan, when the foreign agent involved in Algiers turns out to be Rokoff, and once again Tarzan spares the bastard’s life because he is the brother of the Countess. The amount of times he could have easily ended this villain’s life in this book is almost staggering, but Burroughs always manages to give a reason for Tarzan holding back his bestial nature. Though considering in this book alone Rokoff tries to outright murder Tarzan a half dozen times I doubt such defenses as “He’s my brother” or “If you kill him they will arrest you for murder” would hold much water to a man who spent much of his life killing to survive.
While transporting the retrieved documents via cruise ship Tarzan encounters Hazel Strong, Jane Porter’s oldest and dearest friend, but he cannot let her know who he is as he is travelling incognito. Also aboard the ship are Nicholas Rokoff and Alexis Paulvitch, who have been trailing Tarzan in the hope of getting back the documents. Tarzan threatens Rokoff but now they are starting to feel like idle threats, and the two Russians steal back the documents and toss Tarzan overboard. Proving it is really a small world one of the boats passing in the night holds Jane and her fiancĂ© William Clayton.
What follows is unadulterated action and drama. Ships sink, there are battles over the morality of cannibalism, Tarzan washes ashore right by the cabin his father built (proving once again this little inlet is a magnet for Greystokes), he befriends the Waziri tribe by saving the chief’s son from a hungry lion, defends them from slavers and ivory poachers, and becomes their king when their chieftain falls. Jane and friends are shipwrecked themselves and end up on the shores of Africa just a few miles down from Tarzan’s cabin (seriously, it is a really small world), and included in this group is the villainous Rokoff.

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As if this isn’t enough for one book we are also introduced to the lost city of Opar, an outpost of Atlantis that was forgotten after the sinking of the fabled continent. It’s there that we meet the La, high priestess of Opar who at first is going to sacrifice Tarzan to the Sun God, but eventually wants him for more carnal activities. Will Tarzan pick this beautiful but deadly woman over his true love, or will he go back to living with the Great Apes? Will Nicholas Rokoff finally get his just desserts? Does Tarzan finally reclaim the title of Lord Greystoke? All this and more is answered in book so packed with action it’s hard to believe it’s just over two hundred pages. The Return of Tarzan is the book that clearly set the tone for the rest of the series, and a very good tone it is.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) – Review

Do you remember when comic book based movies were fun? I’d site Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie as the beginning of this new age of superhero movies as before what good comic based movies we had were few and far between; we had Donner’s Superman films in the 70s and Tim Burton’s Batman films in the 80s, but since the year 2000 we’ve had slew of good to excellent films from this genre. Sure not all of them have been good, but overall us comic geeks have been fairly happy. Now the point I’m trying to make is that even the bad ones had a sense of fun, and that is what is sorely missing in this latest DC venture from Warner Bros.

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Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the second installment of the DC Extended Universe that began with Snyder’s Man of Steel, and this film follows right on its heels, taking us all on a dark journey to Gritty Town. The movie begins eighteen months after the destructive battle of Metropolis, the one that left thousands dead, and has caused many to be a little concerned with this being of godlike powers and no accountability. At the forefront of this is Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter) who convenes hearings to discuss the controversial aspects of Superman (Henry Cavill), but then there is Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who is a bit more hands on with his concerns, and has managed to procure some kryptonite.  He wants the Senator's help in getting an import license so he can bring it stateside.

So super genius Lex Luthor needs help to get stuff through customs? *sigh*

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Lex Luthor, criminal mastermind or manic pixie twit?

This version of Lex did not work for me at all. He was just so over-the-top and silly that I couldn’t take him serioulsy as a viable threat to Superman, but then again this film is all about Batman vs Superman not Superman vs Lex Luthor, and boy does Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) really hate Superman. Bruce lays the blame for the thousands dead from Superman’s battle with Zod (Michael Shannon) right at the Kryptonian’s feet, and rightly so, but he really takes it to an extreme. He tells Alfred (Jeremey Irons) that if there is even a one percent chance of Superman going evil he must be put down.

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He has the power to wipe out the entire human race. I have to destroy him.

I’d say this is out of character for Batman but in this DC Extended Universe heroes kill people willy-nilly. Batman is even seen using a gun to blow several people away (this is certainly something that will piss off many Batman fans), and if Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is ever in danger Superman will take…you…out. What’s bizarre is that Batman’s hard-on for killing Superman isn’t even the reason for the title fight (which is something we have to wait two hours for), Lex is of course behind it all, and it is such a contrived moment that both the “heroes” come across as complete idiots. The 1976 DC/Marvel cross-over "Superman vs Spider-man" gave a better excuse for why Superman would fight a fellow hero.

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“I’ve got this cool armor, it would be a shame not to use it.”

Now if you saw that spoilerific trailer you know that Batman and Superman eventually team-up to fight Doomsday, but what you don’t know is how awful this fight is. Doomsday looks like a poorly rendered cave troll who occasionally explodes with Godzilla like energy blasts, and Batman becomes a fifth wheel for the finale. Who steps up to help is of course Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), and she is the one ray of sunshine in this whole dreary mess. If one good thing came out of this grim and depressing movie is that I’m really looking forward to the Wonder Woman movie.

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Step aside boys, a real hero has arrived.”

The tone really is the problem with this movie; it’s as if Zack Snyder was thinking, “Mister Nolan, you call your Batman dark and gritty? Well I’m going to suck every iota of colour and joy out of mine.” And it’s not only the films colour palette that is grim and dismal as once again we question poor Clark Kent’s Kansas upbringing. In Man of Steel we got Jonathon Kent (Kevin Costner) telling young Clark that his secret is more important than the lives of a busload of children, and this time out we get Martha Kent (Diane Lane) telling her son, “Be their hero, Clark. Be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be... or be none of it. You don't owe this world a thing. You never did."

What the hell does that even mean? Clark may have been born on another planet but Earth is his home, which is like telling an immigrant to the United States that they owe no allegiance to their new home.  In these most trying times I don't think this is a message filmmakers should be touting.  Or at least not in a comic book movie.

And for almost the entire duration of this film that is exactly what Superman does, he shows no sense of duty to his fellow man, sure he saves the occasional cat from a tree but he’s only doing that stuff because he thinks his dad wanted him to (though from his dad’s “pep talks” from the previous film I’m not sure where he got that idea), and really if it wasn’t for Lois he’d have told the whole world to fuck off by now.

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Yep, that’s murder in his eyes.

This movie is two and a half hours long and that an extended “R” rated cut is due on Bluray terrifies me, this film is more padded than Affleck’s Batsuit. Lois Lane spends much of her screen time running around trying to prove that Superman wasn’t responsible for the death of a bunch of terrorists, and her proof is a bullet that not even the Pentagon can identify. My question is, “If these terrorists were killed by bullets who in the fuck would think Superman killed them?” Sure, this Superman has been known to kill, but when the person in question can incinerate an enemy with just a look why the hell would you think he'd be using a gun? That’s totally Batman’s thing.

Note: The movie actually opens up with Batman’s origin story because once again Zack Snyder is under the impression that are still people out there that don't know it. And seeing young Bruce’s parents’ gunned downed only highlights how stupid it is to see him use a gun later.

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"Bruce, weren't your parents killed by one of those things?"

As I’ve mentioned this is all part of the DC Extended Universe, and this movie really should have been called Batman v Superman: Dawn of the Justice League as along with Wonder Woman’s appearance we get peaks at The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. Warner Bros and DC’s desire to catch up with Marvel and Disney is quite apparent, and also quite sad because they are really going about it the wrong way. Say what you want about the Marvel films but dark and depressing are not adjectives one associates with them. Now Captain America: Civil War does look like Marvel is heading down a darker path, but they’ve earned it, they built up a great collection of heroes and now they can have fun shaking things up. With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Zack Snyder and friends have brought us the last act of Casey at the Bat without the proper set upThere will be no joy in Muddville.

Final Notes:
  • This Batmobile makes the Tumbler look like a Pinto
  • Though contrived the fight between Batman and Superman is pretty badass.
  • Perry White assigns Clark an article on a football game. Why would he do this? Kent isn’t a sports columnist.
  • Krptonians have the worst security measures. Three films have shown Lex easily access their tech.
  • Why would criminals branded by Batman be killed by fellow prisoners? Wouldn’t they form a club?
  • Two separate newscasters state how “No innocent bystanders” around during the big fight. Well that's a relief.
  • People in life threatening situations have mad art skills.
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