BATMAN in the Media, Pt.2

BatmanMediaP2

As most readers will know, The Batman did come to television in the 1960’s and became a smash success, a pop-art phenomenon that would long outlast it’s short-lived network life in syndication. But the road to the show was a circuitous one.
The first attempt to bring Batman to the small screen was by Ed Graham Jr. (LINUS! THE LION HEARTED), who had optioned the TV rights to Batman from National Periodical Publications. He was planning a straight kid’s adventure show for Saturday mornings. It’s said CBS was interested in airing the proposed program, but no pilot was ever made. Perhaps this is because Graham’s previous outings as director or producer were all in animated cartoons and TV commercials, with no live-action credits that I’ve be able to identify. Without a track record, the network may have been unwilling to finance the show’s development. But Ed Graham would not be the only person to see potential in the caped crusader.

An Evening With Batman & Robin
An Evening With Batman & Robin

Starting around 1963-64, enterprising theater owners (notably in Chicago) began renting the Batman serials from Columbia for weekend showings, and to everyone’s surprise it began to catch on with college students, who found the old kiddie fodder ‘campy’ — humorous because it’s ridiculous, overdone, or just plain bad in an amusing way. These bookings were so successful that Columbia officially re-released the serials in 1965, with marathon viewings offered as AN EVENING WITH BATMAN AND ROBIN.
Reportedly, ABC network executive Yale Udoff saw the serial at the Playboy Mansion, and thought the idea of a Batman TV series for prime time might be a workable proposition. National’s (DC Comics) option with Ed Graham Productions must have been up, because ABC in partnership with 20th Century Fox were able to obtain the TV and film rights. (Said to be only $7,000.)
ABC originally wanted an action-adventure show, perhaps with a certain amount of coy self-awareness, as in NBC’s THE MAN FROM UNCLE. 20th Century Fox production executive William Self originally approached screenwriter (A NIGHT TO REMEMBER) and spy novelist (The Mask of Dimitrios) Eric Ambler to write a film that would launch a Batman TV series. Ambler passed, and ABC wanted the series to go to pilot quickly, so Self’s choice for producer William Dozier (ROD BROWN OF THE ROCKET RANGERS, THE LOSER) picked Lorenzo Semple Jr. (PRETTY POISON) to write the pilot script. Semple had previously written a modern update of Charlie Chan for Dozier called NUMBER ONE SON, which would have featured Dozier’s discovery — martial artist Bruce Lee. The network wasn’t ready for that idea. They weren’t quite ready for what Dozier and Semple had in mind, either.
William Dozier had obtained several issues of Batman and Detective Comics to read while flying from New York to Los Angeles. He was not happy with what he read, and worried. He felt that if he tried to make a serious adaptation of the comics it would flop, and he would become the laughingstock of Hollywood. The only way to save face would be to spoof the character, play up the straight-faced juvenile aspects as intentional high camp. The kiddies would love it, and the adults could laugh if they wanted. Lorenzo Semple agreed with the approach and signed on.
DC's NEW LOOK BATMAN
DC's NEW LOOK BATMAN

Batman in the comic books had become almost a mockery of his former self in the late 1950’s to early 60’s. The noir-ish crime stories had given way to more whimsical adventures, visits from space aliens and other pseudo-scientific plot devices, along with juvenile attempts at awkward soap opera with Batwoman and the first Batgirl attempting to interest the dynamic duo in romance.
By 1963, DC was considering canceling at least one of the Batman titles. Editor Julius Schwartz was given control of the books, with carte blanche to make changes. He brought in Carmine Infantino, who had redesigned the Flash into a modern superhero to update Batman’s look. The hero’s increasingly broad ( in more ways than one) cartoon appearance was abandoned, slimming him down and adding a yellow circle around the bat insignia on his chest as a symbol of his “New Look”. Stung by public sniggering about a homosexual context to the Bruce-Dick-Alfred living arrangements, they even took the odd choice of killing off Alfred Pennysworth, and had Dick Grayson’s quickly invented Aunt Harriet Cooper take his place as housekeeper. Sales began to pick up somewhat.
At some point in this process, former NFL football player Mike Henry was apparently up for the part of Batman, and it’s claimed that photos were taken of him in a Batman costume. Whether these were for the CBS or ABC proposals is unclear, nor is the there any certainty this actually happened. (In the late 70’s I was shown a picture purported to be of Henry as the character, but it looked to me like the work of an airbrush rather than a tailor.) Mike Henry would in any case be busy starring as another icon, Tarzan in three films — and did a creditable job.
Many actors were considered for the role by Fox and ABC, including western TV star Ty Hardin (BRONCO), but Dozier had set his sights on Adam West (William Anderson), a handsome actor with a flair for light comedy that he had seen spoofing James Bond (as Captain Q) in a series of Nestle’s Quick commercials. At ABC’s request, he also tested future WONDER WOMAN star Lionel Wagner and former child actor Peter Dyell (MR. NOVAK) as Robin. With West he tested gymnast-turned-fledging actor Burton Gervis as Robin. ABC went with the second pair, and Gervis soon changed his name to Burt Ward. It’s interesting to note that the acting and lighting of the screen tests is noticeably more subdued than what the series would feature.
Batman TV Screen Test
Batman TV Screen Test

Going into production on the pilot was a gamble for ABC and 20th Century Fox. Wanting to have a good looking show (and one that could be exploited as a movie), the decision was made to build a big Bat Cave set. Production designers Serge Krizman, Ed Graves and the rest of Jack Martin Smith’s staff proposed a massive, two-story structure, that essentially took up an entire soundstage. (Part of the atomic pile came from the recently wrapped OUR MAN FLINT. ) This and other space concerns at the busy Fox Studios led the company and Dozier’s Greenway Productions to make the series not on their own stages and facilities, but at Desilu’s Culver City Studio. This was the old RKO-Pathe/Selsnick International Studios, not their main facility on North Gower Street, next to Paramount.
KING KONG, GONE WITH THE WIND, and the first season of  THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN had been filmed there. The backlot (called Forty Acres) was where THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW filmed the Mayberry scenes — and both Desilu 1960’s adventure shows STAR TREK and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE  would often visit. The BATMAN crew would often use the same backlot, though certain episodes would use the Fox lot — and the regular location of Gotham City Hall, where Commissioner Gordon’s office was located was actually (a still-standing structure) on the Warner Brothers backlot. The choice of filming at a rental facility, while solving Fox’s immediate concerns, would later have repercussions.
BATMAN - Hi Diddle Riddle
BATMAN - Hi Diddle Riddle

Lorenzo Semple’s pilot episode was loosely based on “The Remarkable Ruse of the Riddler” which appeared in Batman #171 (May 1965),written by long-time DC writer Gardner Fox. Semple revised and fleshed out the story considerably, turning the short comic book tale into an hour-long TV series. Actor/impressionist Frank Gorshin (INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN) played the role of the manic and obsessive villain The Riddler, investing the part with great energy and a high pitched laugh inspired by Richard Widmark’s mad psycho killer’s giggle in KISS OF DEATH (1947). Jill St. John guest starred as Molly, a buxom red-head who with the aid of a rubber mask somehow becomes the spitting image of Robin the Boy Wonder.
The show comes off with great style, directed by Robert Butler who also directed the first pilot of STAR TREK. It was full of production value, including comic book-inspired superimposed ‘visual sound effects’ such as POW! BIFF!, etc. superimposed over the fight scenes. The cost of all this flashy, vividly colored action adventure was around a half a million dollars.
The first regular that had been cast was British character actor Alan Napier, to play the role of Alfred. Dozier thought killing the character off had been a mistake on DC’s part, and insisted on including him in the series. Subsequently, the comic books would contrive a science-fictional way of reviving the trusty butler. (Originally as a mutated monster out to destroy the dynamic duo.) The producer agreed with the idea of Aunt Harriet as a blance to the all-male home, and cast Madge Blake (THE REAL McCOYS). Neal Hamilton, with a career as both leads and character roles since the silent days, played the part of Commissioner Gordon. Stafford Repp, once a sound effects man, created the role of Police Chief O’Hara. His faux Irish accent reportedly irritated his irascible co-star Hamilton throughout the series.
Busy jazz and film composer Neal Hefti composed the soon to be famous BATMAN theme, a blues-influenced surf rock number for bass guitar, brass, percussion and vocals that helped set the tone and would win a Grammy.
George Barris proved a sleek black Batmobile, forced by the short time-frame allotted to convert the already existing Ford concept car the 1955 Lincoln Futura. The car, originally pearl white with a double-domed clear canopy, had been painted red for the 1959 comedy IT STARTED WITH A KISS. It was given a through make-over for the pilot, painted glossy black with added details and came off quite impressively on film, though it had be filmed under-cranked to safely exit the narrow Bronson Canyon mine tunnel that was used to depict the exterior of the Bat Cave — and to look as swift as the flame-thrower ‘atomic turbine’ that had been mounted on the back suggested.
The costumes for the caped crimefighters were a good attempt to translate the then-current look of the comic book characters. Costume designer Jan Kemp went to the trouble of matching the color of Batman’s leotards as printed; rather than just gray, they’re actually a subtle mauve, an artifact of how grays were generally achieved in the 4-color process. Unfortunately, the indigo blue material that covered the fiberglass shell of Batman’s cowl had a tendency to quickly turn purple under the stage lights. The cape would face similar problems, and would also be made shorter as the series progressed, so that it wouldn’t get stepped on or snagged in action scenes. The ‘face’ of the cowl was hand painted black, with accents for the nose and eyebrows in lighter blue. The Bat-insignia was a sticker that would be applied and removed daily. Though a printed item, the bat is actually not quite symmetrical. Unfortunately, Batman’s utility belt — made to appear functional — tended to make the in-shape Adam West look a bit thick-set. (Adding to the problem West’s stuntman Hubie Kerns, despite being quite athletic had a slight pot belly, which the belt accentuated noticeably.)
Robin’s costume was right out of the comics, though the cloth gloves in the pilot would be replaced with green leather ones in the series. The palm sides of Batman’s finned gauntlets would be refurbished with suede to avoid tearing.
Stuntmen Victor Paul and Hubie Kearns in the Batmobile.
Stuntmen Victor Paul and Hubie Kearns in the Batmobile.

ABC liked what they saw, and committed to 16 episodes. Of course, the show would have to be audience tested. The reaction nearly scuttled the series. The results supposedly were the worst of any program test in television history. William Dozier thought he knew why; the audience was confused — not getting the concept that the show was essentially a farce. He quickly did some narration with a preface explaining that the idea was to have fun, to ‘hiss the villains and cheer the heroes’ — along with an archly-announced middle cliff-hanger break. It’s rumored that a version with a laugh track was made and tested. Early footage (a network and affiliate promo reel) still exists, scored with stock music from Peter Gunn episodes, which was in the ballpark of what they had in mind. Eventually, well-known big band composer Nelson Riddle would score the show quoting the Nefti theme often, and coming up with distinct personal motifs for the major guest villains as the show progressed.
Ceasar Romero as the Joker
Ceasar Romero as the Joker

The show needed work, and initially there was time, as it wasn’t due to premiere until the Fall of 1966. However, ABC had a problem, several of its 1965 season shows were bombing and would be canceled. What was the solution? Launch a ‘second season’ in January of 1966. Batman would be one of the new programs, though the time slots available weren’t the most favorable. ABC figured that kids would be the primary audience, so the show couldn’t be on too late. In the 60’s most children were in bed by 9:00 PM. The answer? Well, the show was inspired by the cliff-hanger serials — instead of coming back after a mid-point break, turn the hour-long show into two half-hour shows at 7:30 on successive nights. Twice the bang for the buck. (There’s some evidence that ABC briefly considered cutting the episodes into 15 minute segments, but if so this never went past initial discussions.)
After a huge promotional campaign, Batman premiered on Wednesday January 12th, 1966. with the episode “Hi Diddle Riddle”. The second segment “Smack in the Middle” aired the next day. The show was an instant hit, with kids excited by the larger-than-life characters and action, and adults generally amused by the then relatively straight-faced spoofing.
BATMAN #73, Basis for the first Joker episode.
BATMAN #73, Basis for the first Joker episode.

Keeping with William Dozier’s plans, well-known actors were sought out to play the guest villain roles. Burgess Meredith would take the part of the top-hatted Penguin, developing his eccentric quacking from trying to suppress coughing from the cigarette smoke of the long holder the character sported. Caesar Romero, once typed as a latin lover, was so amused by the costume designed for the Joker that he cackled helplessly with glee. This became a signature for the role — and to add to the absurdity, rather than shave his trademark mustache, the make-up artists simply spread the clown white make-up over it.
Taking a comic book character originally named Mr. Zero, George Sanders would be the first of theer actors to take on the part of the villain re-named Mr. Freeze (with the supposed identity of a Dr. Shivel in his introductory episode).
TV actor Malachi Throne (IT TAKES A THIEF) would play the role of the always-masked False Face, but the use of name actors coupled with his question mark billing led to insistent speculation that it was really some big star unwilling to show his face — certainly an intended result.
After originally planning for the petite Suzanne Pleshette to take on the part of Catwoman, when she proved unavailable the producers went with the statuesque Julie Newmar, who relished the chance to do more comedy, and she became iconic in the role. New villains would be invented for the show, including King Tut (Victor Buono). Unlike most of the guest foes, who never have their comic book real names mentioned, Tut is given an in-joke secret identity; William Omaha McElroy. William Dozier’s middle name was McElroy, and he was born in Ohmaha, Nebraska.
The show was a huge hit, and a wave of Bat-Mania flooded the airwaves, record shops, toy stores, and even adult nightclubs.  Celebrities happily did window cameos on the show as West and Ward walked along a set built sideways, capes held up by wires. Shot with a camera on its side, it gave the illusion of the pair scaling a wall. Adam West in later years would remark that the 1960’s entertainment era might well be thought of as “The Three B’s:  The Beatles, James Bond,  and Batman.”

The Bat Climb -- Simple but effective.
The Bat Climb -- Simple but effective.

Buoyed by the success of the show, 20th Century Fox greenlit a feature film, BATMAN (1966) to be filmed during the series’ hiatus. Rather than Dozier’s Greenway Productions, the film was made by a new production company he created, Greenlawn Productions. This and (presumably other) legal reasons permitted the film to be released on video decades before the TV series would be. Adam West and Burt Ward negotiated nice salaries for the film, but their duties would extend to a great deal of traveling and promotion when it was released. (Up to this point, Ward was only making $350 an episode.)
1966 BATMAN Movie Poster
1966 BATMAN Movie Poster

Caesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Frank Gorshin would reprise their TV roles, but Julie Newmar was unexpectedly unavailable for the film. She’d committed to another feature and the production had to scramble to find a replacement. (This is usually said to be McKENNA’S GOLD (1969), but that film didn’t shoot until 1967. I believe the film project Newmar did was the UK-shot Zero Mostel comedy  MONSIEUR LECOQ (1967).
It wasn’t until after production had commenced on BATMAN that the producers were able to bring in former Miss America Lee Meriwether (THE TIME TUNNEL) as the Catwoman. The replacement casting makes the idea that Batman/Bruce Wayne doesn’t recognize Catwoman as the romantic interest Russian reporter ‘Miss Kitka’ in the storyline somewhat easier to swallow. The only fanboy explanation for this — as in the series Batman had seen the feline villainess without her mask more or less regularly — is that the film must take place before the Catwoman episodes of the show. There also doesn’t seem to be any hint of the personal attraction the characters shared on the show, despite Wayne’s infatuation with her false assumed identity in the film. The original plan was for a feature to precede the series, perhaps this was a plot ‘hangover’.
The far-fetched sci-fi storyline by Lorenzo Semple Jr. involved the four villains kidnapping the security council of the United World Organization (read U.N.) by dehydrating them into colored powders, with the plan of reconstituting them only after spectacular ransom was paid.
Soon to be The Green Hornet, actor Van Williams did a voice cameo, using his rather good Lyndon Baines Johnson impression as the President. Direction by Leslie H. Martison is serviceable, as is Howard Schwartz’s photography. A number of scenes actually appear a bit less effective or atmospherically shot than comparable ones from the TV show. Running around in broad daylight on real locations seemed to emphasize the ridiculous nature of the material, as did the stronger embrace of outright comedy. The budget (in the area of $1.3 million) allowed for the building of the Batboat and Batcopter, stock footage of which soon would find itself nicely adding production value in the next season of the program.
The film was at best a moderate success in the United States, taking in approximately 3 million dollars, playing mostly kiddie matinees. Adults largely stayed away — why pay for something you could watch free on television? However, foreign box office and re-releases put the film well into profit. (About $7.5 million world-wide over the years.)
A Trio of Catwomen: Julie Newar, Lee Merriweather, Eartha Kitt
A Trio of Catwomen: Julie Newar, Lee Merriweather, Eartha Kitt

The second season saw a number of changes. William Dozier left most decisions up to producers Howie Horowitz and William D’Angelo, while Semple — who’d been serving closely as a story/script consultant — contributed far less frequently. Stories by writers such as Stanley Ralph Ross and Charles Hoffman would venture even more deeply into comedy and farce. Per episode budgets went down, seen with slightly less elaborate sets, somewhat scaled down fight scenes, and more obviously with the money saving expedient of replacing the costly animated overlays with quick cut-aways to solid art cards with rapid lens zooms and color shifts.
Julie Newmar reprised her role as Catwoman, Meredith and Romero returned, but Frank Gorshin’s Riddler did not appear in the second season, apparently due to a salary dispute. John Astin (THE ADDAMS FAMILY) donned the green tights for one two-parter and Maurice Evans (PLANET OF THE APES) received a re-written Riddler script as The Puzzler — a minor Superman villain. Batman co-creator Bill Finger (and writing partner Charles Sinclair [THE GREEN SLIME]) brought in Green Arrow nemesis The Clock King (Walter Slezak) — though mixed with Finger’s earlier creation The Clock, and not quite like either iteration in the BATMAN episodes. Many more villains invented for the show appeared in the second season, allowing guest roles for actors as diverse as Vincent Price, Van Johnson, Cliff Robertson, Michael Rennie, and even Liberace.
To try to save THE GREEN HORNET series, the titular crimefighter and Bruce Lee’s Kato appeared, to no avail. The Hornet would fly no more, and The Batman was soon to get his wings clipped, though not as drastically.
Detective Comics #359 January 1967 Cover Date
Detective Comics #359 January 1967 Cover Date

Though ratings were still good, they were not as spectacular as they had been. Batman was an expensive show, and the Wednesday show was consistently weaker in its audience draw. Women and girls were less interested than males. It was time to shake things up a bit.
Dozier had been conferring with the DC editors regarding female interest, and Julius Schwartz, Carmine Infantino and Gardner Fox came up with a new Batgirl (Betty Kane had been Bat-Girl, niece and partner of the Kathy Kane Bat-Woman of the `50’s.) This updated version would be Barbara Gordon, the previously unknown librarian daughter of Commissioner Gordon.
Former Miss America (1959) Mary Ann Mobely was the first actress considered for the role. (She was the first April Dancer on THE MAN FROM UNCLE in a backdoor pilot episode, when THE GIRL FROM UNCLE went to series Stephanie Powers got the part, instead.) Yvonne Craig, a dancer and film actress (two Elvis Presely musicals IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD’S FAIR [1963] and KISSIN’ COUSINS [1964]) was chosen to portray Batgirl in a presentation film for ABC.
The network approved the actress and the concept, so much so that they briefly considered giving her a solo lead-in series. Craig was given a vivid purple and yellow version of the comic book character’s somewhat more subdued costume, featuring a mask with sharply angled points on the cheekbones in the non-broadcast short. These left red  marks on her face, so they would be eliminated when the character was added to the show.
Yvonne Craig as Batgirl
Yvonne Craig as Batgirl

The try-out film had suggested a teasing romantic relationship between Batman and Batgirl, this would be largely ignored in the third season. There wouldn’t really be time in the once-a-week 30 minute format. There was also about half the money, since the costs weren’t being spread over two episodes.
As the third season progressed, new weekly settings for hide-outs and other script locations gradually disappeared, with black ‘limbo’ sets filled with simple props, often two-dimensional brightly painted cut-outs similar to pop-art stage dressings taking the place of more realistic designs. 20th Century Fox was known for such cost-saving shortcuts on Irwin Allen’s science fiction adventure shows (LOST IN SPACE, TIME TUNNEL, et al), though those shows benefited from having accrued a good supply of technical-looking set pieces that were available to fill up space. BATMAN would beg and borrow some of these assets.
Nelson Riddle left most of the third season scoring to his associate Billy May, a jazz trumpeter turned composer/arranger who had also scored THE GREEN HORNET series. He wrote a brassy Batgirl theme to give the character a sense of edgy action, although the producers limited the motor-cycle-riding heroine to relatively lady-like kicks rather than trading punches with evil-doers.
Frank Gorshin would return for a single appearance as the Riddler, but Julie Newmar was unavailable (actually filming MCKENNA’S GOLD this time), so the producers brought in singer/dancer Eartha Kitt as Catwoman. Choosing a black actress was a bit of a daring move in 1967, but the show defused the characters’ former sexual tension. With a great purr, Kitt was a fiercer feline adversary, more interested killing Batman than kissing him. The over-all attraction to the Caped Crusader was winding down.
However, BATMAN very nearly went to a fourth season. ABC was willing to renew the series, with several caveats. To 20th Century Fox’s complaints of insufficient budget to cover production costs, the network had some ideas to further streamline the show. Madge Blake, already ailing and only appearing in two third season episodes would not be in the new season. To save time and money, Chief O’Hara was considered unneccesary. Most surprisingly, the network felt that they could dispense with Burt Ward’s Robin, and that Batman and Batgirl would become the new dynamic duo. William Dozier and Adam West both protested the elimination of Stafford Repp’s and Ward’s roles. 20th Century Fox wasn’t happy with the idea of essentially financing a portion of the show out of their own pocket. The studio felt they probably had enough episodes to go into syndication. Not getting the response they wanted, ABC cancelled the show.
What to do about the huge Batcave set filling up that rental stage at Desilu Culver? Hold it for a couple of weeks while Fox offered the series to the other networks, just in case. NBC had evidenced some interest. Weeks passed without firm results, and the Batcave set was bulldozed.
The next week, NBC contacted Fox Television to say that they’d pick up the series, and even restore it to it’s twice-weekly format. But the main set was gone. How much to rebuild it? At least a half million bucks, maybe more because some of the re-purposed set-pieces such as the atomic pile had been destroyed. NBC didn’t care to pick up that tab.
However, this seemingly effective death-trap did not kill off the show’s career on TV.
20th Century Fox was right, the series 120 episodes were perfect for local syndication, and even ‘stripped’ daily, kids would not tire of the series for decades.
The Titantic Trio at work as the series' end nears.
The Titantic Trio at work as the series' end nears.

True, comic-book devotees would revile the show, even if those who had been kids when the show debuted might harbor some nostalgia for the series. This nostalgia would grow after BATMAN was no longer found daily on local stations. It would have seemed perfect for release on video, but there were major problems involved.
National Periodical Publications/DC had been sold to Kinney National (originally a parking garage concern) in 1967. By 1969 they would buy up Warner Brothers/Seven Arts studio and holdings. (Bob Kane profited by this, as the new Warner Communications wanted to own all the characters free and clear. He walked away with millions, ultimately. ) By the time the video revolution came about, Warner Bros. (Time-Warner) who owned Batman, and Fox Television who co-owned the series with Greenway Productions were at loggerheads. Neither corporate entities wanted the other to be able to release and profit by the show. William Dozier, and then more complicatedly his heirs wanted whatever profit they felt they were due, and all guarded their interests fiercely.
Ultimately, an accord was reached, and now in November of 2014 the show is finally coming to video with DVDs and Blu-rays, complete with special features with Adam West, Burt Ward, and others.  A decades-long cliffhanger has been at long last resolved.
But what of Batman’s fate in film and television? The 60’s TV series had cast a light on the Dark Knight, bringing him into widespread public notice, far more so than comic books, newspaper strips and serials ever had.  However, his three years in the limelight would also  throw a long shadow, keeping the character squarely pegged as kiddie fodder by Hollywood for nearly twenty years. Yet he would return, and once again a kind of Bat-Mania would sweep the entertainment world.

X-Men: Days of Future Past review

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

The most astoundingly okay movie so far this year – which is apparently all it takes to earn high praise these days

If you want to thrill to the excitement of an astoundingly, supremely, stupendously okay movie, then run – don’t walk – to a theatre showing X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. This film truly has it all: profoundly okay plot; jaw-droppingly okay action sequences; eye-poppingly okay 3D; superbly okay special effects; and amazingly okay acting. It truly is the most finely tuned okay movie of the summer season so far, and it’s hard to imagine any other film surpassing its okay-ness. On the other hand, if you prefer something more than okay, you should stay home and read the film’s reviews instead; there, you will encounter a staggering validation of director Bryan Singer’s return to the X-Men universe, an almost universal paen to the best that fantasy cinema has to offer. It seems that, in this case, being okay was not merely enough; it was far more than enough, earning accolades normally reserved for something good, or even great.
Why this should be so is a bit of a mystery. It’s not as if the annual build-up to a season’s worth of summer blockbusters has been fraught with terrible disappointments. Sure, there was THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, but also there was CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, which was also okay. Even better was GODZILLA, which avoided the overblown bombast of most blockbuster fare. So why is X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST being fanatically embraced for being merely okay?
I suspect the answer can be summed up in two words: Brett Ratner. The X-Men tribe has never forgiven Ratner for directing X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006), or more precisely, the tribe has never forgiven the film for having been directed by Ratner, who is perceived as an outsider, a hack, who hijacked the franchise and ruined it. By embracing X-MEN DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, the tribe is embracing the return of their tribal elder, Singer, whose helming of the first two X-MEN films (2000’s X-MEN and 2003’s X-2: X-MEN UNITED) – helped elevate the movie franchise somewhat above the standard we had come to expect from cinematic comic book adaptations. (Anybody remember TANK GIRL? No? How about STEEL?).
The problem with film as tribal identifier is that actual quality is often overlooked; flaws that would have been scorned in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND are blithely overlooked in X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. So let’s examine just how okay the new film is, flaws and all.

X-Men: Days of Future Past - Halle Berry as Storm
Great thing about alternate timeline stories is that you can kill of characters with impunity.

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST gets off to an okay start with an okay action sequence, set in a murky future when the X-Men are hunted down by Sentinels (essentially robots). There are some mutants who will be familiar to fans of the comic book, but their presence means little to anyone else, except insofar as we get to glimpse a variety of different superpowers.  The most visually impressive of these is Blink (Fan Bingbing), who can open portals in space through which she and her fellow warriors can leap.
I say “visually impressive,” because in terms of actual strategy, the power is rather useless. Rather than being transported to safety or some strategically appropriate place, leaping through a portal places someone only a few feet from where they were, and it becomes very quickly clear – to the audience, at least – that any blow struck, weapon thrown, or shot fired will simply follow the fleeing mutant through the portal and strike its target – which is what finally happens when these super-smart Sentinels finally figure out the obvious.
For a man who died recently, Dr. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) looks remarkably like his old self.
For a man who died recently, Dr. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) looks remarkably like his old self.

Sharp-eyed viewers with brain cells that can access memories back to 2006 will marvel at the novelty of seeing Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen once again playing Charles Xaviar and Ian McKellen,  former friends turned rival mutant leaders – one peaceful, the other militant. What’s marvelous here is that Xaviar died in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND. We knew he would return because, in a post-credits sequence, we heard his disembodied voice emanating from a comatose body in a hospital; however, it was a bit of a surprise to see the same old Xaviar back in the surprise post-credits sequence of THE WOLVERINE – a surprise that, we expected, would be explained in this film. But no, we just have to assume that when Xaviar beamed his mind into that body it took on all the physical characteristics of his old self, including both his mutant powers and his spinal cord injury. It’s a horrible continuity lapse, but that’s okay because it’s perceived as a bit of an f.u. to the events of Ratner’s film.
The next bit of okay-ness involves the plot of X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. In order to prevent this terrible future from taking place, the surviving X-Men need to send someone into the past. That someone turns out to be Logan (a.k.a., Wolverine), ostensibly because the character’s healing powers will allow him to make the life-threatening journey, which would kill anyone else, but mostly because everyone knows that Hugh Jackman is the real star of this franchise, and no one wants to sit through another X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, without him. Kitty Pride (Ellen Page) will send Logan back in time – which is pretty impressive when you consider that this was not previously  Kitty Page’s mutant power. But that’s okay, because Bryan Singer directed this film.
Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique
Jennifer Lawrence as would-be assassin Mystique

The rules of time travel are laid out well enough, but the logic conforms to standard screenplay myopia: in order to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) – an event that will spur the Sentinel project into reality – Wolverine travels back to a time just before the assassination. Not, you know, to a time decades before, when he might prevent Mystique from turning to the Dark Side in the first place, because that would derail the whole time-lock plot device of desperately trying to reach her just before she can pull the trigger.
There is one nicely okay quality to Wolverine’s time-jump: selected for his physical resiliency, he really isn’t the right man for the job, which consists of convincing the younger versions of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr) to put aside the enmity and join forces to prevent the catastrophic consequences that will result from the assassination. A man of action rather than words, Wolverine struggle to play diplomat provide a few nice moments before the character is sidelined – because even though the filmmakers knew they needed to put him in the story, the story isn’t really about him.
It’s also well and truly okay seeing Xavier walking around and feeling sorry for himself, wallowing in self pity over the way things ended between him and Lehnsherr and Mystique.* Xavier’s disillusioned condition echoes the opening of THE WOLVERINE (2013), except that sequence set Logan on a character arc that the rest of the film would follow; in this case, Xavier’s state is just a temporary distraction, a plot device to give him something to do and to explain why he might be initially too weak to face off with Lehnsherr when the inevitable betrayal comes.
Oh wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. You know that, as the franchise’s icon villain, Lehnsherr (a.k.a. Magneto) will inevitably betray Xavier’s new-found trust in him, right? What you didn’t know was how soon it would happen and how stupid it would make Xavier and Logan look. But let’s set that aside and ignore it, because the film certainly does. But that’s okay, because X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is directed by Bryan Singer
In a scene that gives new meaning to Bullet-Time, Quicksilver does the impossible - upstages Wolverine.
In a scene that gives new meaning to Bullet-Time, Quicksilver does the impossible - upstages Wolverine.

Before friends-turned-enemies Xavier and Lehnsherr can become friends again, Wolverine and company need to break Lehnsherr out of prison. This leads to one of the few, exceptional scenes in which X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST exceeds being okay: Quicksilver (Evan Peters) breaks Lehnsherr out of the bowels of the Pentagon in an amazingly photographed sequence that conveys super-speed by, ironically, slowing everything down. Giving new meaning to the phrase “bullet-time,” the scene plays from the fast-paced mutant’s point of view as he calmly weaves in between guards, dodging and deflecting bullets. In fact, the movements of everyone else are so slow that Quicksilver can barely be said to be dodging anything; it’s more like someone stepping off the sidewalk while noting a car headed in his direction from a block away. Why the sequence is almost as good as Hammy’s hilarious jump to hyper-drive in OVER THE HEDGE.
The only problem with this scene is that it establishes Quicksilver as a potentially invaluable asset to Logan and Xavier – he’s so fast he’s invisible to everyone else, including the dangerous Magneto – and yet they leave him behind because…well, just because they don’t want him around to solve the inevitable crisis we know is coming. If he can just flit around unseen and fix everything, where’s the drama? So script contrivance wins out. But that’s okay because Bryan Singer directed this film.
X-Men: Days of Future Past - Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Magneto
To stamp out fear of mutants that leads to an apocalyptic future, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) attempts to assassinate the President on national TV. Um, how was this supposed to help?

The initial assassination attempt is thwarted, but that does not solve the problem, because Mystique is still out there, planning a second attempt. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST purports to dramatize the battle for her soul between Xavier and Lehnsherr, but since Lehnsherr’s solution to the problem is to kill Mystique, it’s a bit of a one-sided tug-of-war. But that’s okay because Bryan Singer directed this film.
So the film builds toward a second assassination attempt, this one involving both Trask and  President Nixon (Mark Camacho), which also involves Lehnsherr lifting a baseball stadium and plopping it down around the White House. He’s also taken over the Sentinel prototypes (which were made of non-metal so as not to be subject to his power) by using his magnetic power to insert metal rods into them. The scene suggests Magneto has some previously unacknowledged clairvoyant power, since he is able to perform this metallic surgery at a distance, without being able to see inside the complex technological network inside the Sentinels. Quibbling aside, Lehnsherr’s plan to avoid a horrible future in which human fear of mutants has led to virtual extinction, is to assassinate the president on national television. The logic eludes me (unless the fact that the president happens to be Nixon is supposed to curry favor). But that’s okay because Bryan Singer directed the film.
Continuity with the previous films is a mess (a problem with the previous X-MEN: FIRST CLASS as well), but we’re not supposed to worry, because Logan’s trip back to 1973 will reboot the time line anyway (so that the new, younger cast can take over, a la 2009’s STAR TREK), erasing all of the events seen in the previous X-MEN films. You might think fans would be a bit ticked off about this, but apparently not – because it erases the reviled X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, so fuck you Brett Ratner – and if that means erasing Singer’s X-MEN films and the far superior THE WOLVERINE, so be it. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs; after all; besides, the alternate timeline gives you license to kill off major characters, whom you can then easily resurrect in the new version of the future. But that’s okay because Bryan Signer directed the film.
Anyway, you get the idea. Lots of stuff happens; some of it is fun; most of it is okay; but the tribe loves all of it, regardless. Any why not? It’s an okay movie. But nothing more than that. It’s better than the abysmal X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE and the almost as bad X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. It falls short of X-MEN and X-2: X-MEN UNITED – and far short of THE WOLERVINE. Ironically, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is just about on par with the unjustly reviled X-MEN: THE LAST STAND – another flawed film with enough good stuff in it to be okay.
[rating=3]
A mild recommendation
FOOTNOTE

  • Xavier can walk because he’s taking a drug that inhibits his mutant powers. His mutant powers have nothing to do with his inability to walk – his powers are genetic; his paralysis the result of a bullet wound at the end of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS – but that’s okay, because…well, you know.

X-Men_Days_of_Future_Past_poster
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST.  20th Century Fox and Marvel Entertainment. Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Simon Kinberg; story by Jane Goldman & Simon Kinberg & Mathew Vaugh, based on the Marvel Comics characters. Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Kinklage, Evan Peters, Patrick Steward, Ian McKellen. 131 minutes. PG-13.
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EPIC: stunning beauty, stolid story

EPIC (2013) movie poster verticalBlue Sky Pictures offers epic artistry bereft of lively characters or dialogue.

EPIC – the new computer-animated film from 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios – marks an achievement of note, though not of honor: it is the most beautiful boring movie ever made. The 3D virtual photography is not merely eye candy; it is an absolutely stunning display of artistry, with vivid color and intricate details bringing its miniature world to life with breath-taking impact. Unfortunately, what happens within that world will be of little interest to anyone over the age of 12; the story – which is barely enough to fill an after-school special despite the presence of six credited writers – moves as slowly at the snail-and-slug comedy relief duo, whose unfunny patter leaves one yearning for visceral visual gags of director Chris Wedge’s Scrat character from the ICE AGE films.
Two plot threads intersect a bit conveniently in EPIC: After the death of her mother, Mary Katherine (Amanday Seyfried) is reuniting with her father, who believes a race of tiny people exist in the forest near his home. Meanwhile, the tiny forest people are fighting off the encroaching menace of Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) and his evil minions, who want to turn the forest to rot. Mary Katherine (who likes to be known as M.K. now that she is not a child) stumbles upon Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles), who has been wounded after performing a ceremony to select a magical bud that will crown a new queen. M.K. is shrunk down to size, joining forces with the noble warrior Ronin (Colin Farrell) and the brash young Nod (Josh Hutcherson). There is a time-lock involved: the bud must bloom beneath the full moon at a very particularly time; otherwise, it will yield not a new queen but an evil dark prince.
Will M.K.’s quest to aid the Leaf People somehow resolve her estranged relationship with her father? You bet it will! Not that anything she learns or does leads to any maturation on her part; it’s enough just to know that his belief was not sheer lunacy after all. Unfortunately, that revelation occurs in the first reel, leaving little to develop over the remaining hour-and-a-half, which is loaded with more than enough action antics but not nearly enough of whatever magic elixir it is that makes us care about what is happening on screen.

Mandrake the meanie, voiced by Christoph Waltz
Mandrake the meanie, voiced by Christoph Waltz

The characters are all defined in simple ways, which should be good enough in a fairy-tale world of the imagination, but somehow never generates the primal sense of identification that should come from a confrontation between Good and Evil. Mandrake is a meanie but not a particularly memorable one; even with the benefit  Waltz’ voice, he never truly becomes a man you love to hate. Farrell fares a little better as the stoic Ronin because we’re supposed to imagine a softer side hiding beneath, but Nod’s character arc is as soporific as a lotus flower: he bristles at the rules and does things his own way, until he learns better. (This worked much better when the film was called RISE OF THE GUARDIANS last year.)
The dialogue (especially when it turns to jokes) lacks zing. The one exception is a brief hysterical bit, with a fruit fly going through it’s entire life cycle in a few seconds. The lesson here is that brevity is the soul of wit; unfortunately, EPIC takes its own title too close to heart, stretching its events out as if they were epic in grandeur and therefore needed to feel epic in length.
Ozzie the dog (here with the miniaturized M.K.) steals the show
Ozzie the dog (here with the miniaturized M.K.) steals the show

Sadly, this is not due solely to the script. As a director, Wedge attempts to build suspense – within individual scenes and within the film as a whole – by dragging out sequences that should have been short and snappy. He fares much better when avoiding dialogue and characterization; the film’s most fully realized character is Ozzie – an endearing one-eyed, three-legged dog who is as close as the film ever gets to capturing the manic energy of Scrat.
As for the rest: given forest full of beautiful creatures* (courtesy of production designer William Joyce, whose children’s book inspired the film), Wedge has little imaginative idea what to do with them. At various times, ravens and bats (for the bad guys) and hummingbirds and finches (for the good guys) duel in elaborate aerial battles, but none of them exhibits any defining flight pattern (you would think the hoovering hummingbirds and the acrobatic bats would offer an opportunity for an interesting match of competing skills, but you would be wrong). Instead, Wedge relies on sheer numbers to dazzle the viewer: so many birds that you cannot tell which is which, so many bats that they coalesce into an ominous cloud (admittedly, the last is a plot point, as they must blot out the full moon before it helps the bud bloom).
The stoic Ronin (Collin Farrell) astride his trusty hummingbird
The stoic Ronin (Collin Farrell) astride his trusty hummingbird

Wedge is at his best when portraying the pomp and circumstance of the Leaf People’s ceremony; otherwise, he is unable to invest the images with much excitement, let alone any kind of dramatic resonance. An exception is a doleful shot of a riderless hummingbird, waiting faithfully on a moonlit branch for a warrior we have seen fall in battle. A few more moments like this, and EPIC would have come closer to earning its name.
The final conflict is nicely realized if a bit generic, and the two plot lines finally dovetail nicely (M.K.’s dad discovered the voices of the little people while recording the sounds bats make to summon each other – a recording that proves useful at a crucial moment).
Even here, the film cannot resist the urge to over-egg the pudding, as the moment before M.K.’s return to normal size is elongated to allow a final romantic clinch with Nod. The filmmakers seem unperturbed by the notion of romantic longing frustrated by relative size, but no doubt they expect to shrink M.K. down again for a sequel – or, god forbid, turn the tables by growing Nod.
Queen Tara amidst the beauty of the Leaf People's world.
Queen Tara amidst the beauty of the Leaf People's world.

If not for the visual splendor, EPIC would be a total time-waster. Bereft of a compelling story, the imagery is better served in the film’s first trailer, where it is augmented by Snow Patrol’s song “The Lightening Strike” – which works much better than the Beyonce tune heard in the actual film. The haunting riff of “The Lightening Strike” suggests the epic grandeur that EPIC strives but fails to achieve. Potential viewers are advised to stay home and watch the trailer. Or better yet: watch THE SECRET WORLD OF ARIETTY.
[rating=2]
On the CFQ review scale of zero to five stars.
FOOTNOTE:

  • The one exception is Queen Tara, who angular facial lines are more suggestive of a plastic doll recreation of a Disney villainess.

Epic2013posterhorizontalEPIC (20th Century Fox: May 24, 2013). Directed by Chris Wedge. Screenplay by James V. Hart & William Joyce and Daniel Shere & Tom J. Astle & Matt Ember; from a story by William Joyce & James V. Hart and Chris Wedge, inspired by Joyce’s book “The Leaf Men and the Good Bugs.” Rated PG. 102 minutes. Voices: Amanda Seyfried, Collin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Beyonce Knowles, Blake Anderson, Steven Tyler, Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd, Pitbull.
[serialposts]

Epic in theatres May 24

20th Century Fox releases this production from Blue Sky Studios (ICE AGE, ROBOTS) on Friday May 24 (with previews starting Thursday evening). The 3-D computer-animated film tells the story of a teenage girl (Amanda Seyfried) who discovers that her father’s belief in a miniature race of forest people is true; shrinking down to their size, she joins their quest to protect the forest from the evil Mandrake (Christoph Waltz). Other voices include Collin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Steven Tyler, and Beyonce Knowles as Queen Tara.
Chris Wedge directed, from a screenplay by James V. Hart & William Joyce & Daniel Shere & Tom J Astle & Matt Ember; from a story by William Joyce and James V. Hart & Chris Wedge, based upon the books “The Leaf Men” and “The Brave Good Bugs” by William Joyce.
EPIC (2013) movie poster vertical

The Croods in theatres March 22

20th Century Fox releases this 3D computer-generated prehistoric comedy from DreamWorks Animation. The story follows a curious daughter who chaffs against the restrictions of her father, who warns them of the dire consequences of disobedience and especially the danger of leaving the safety of the cave – until unforeseen circumstances force a reappraisal. Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders wrote and directed. Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, and Cloris Leachman provide voices.
U.S. Theatrical Release: March 22
The Croods 1-sheet

'Prometheus' International Trailer

Via PrometheusUK:
“Ridley Scott, director of “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” returns to the genre he helped define.
With PROMETHEUS, he creates a groundbreaking mythology, in which a team of explorers discover a clue to the origins of mankind on Earth, leading them on a thrilling journey to the darkest corners of the universe. There, they must fight a terrifying battle to save the future of the human race.”

Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba and Patrick Wilson headline this semi-prequel to ALIEN, script by Scott, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof.

Click to Enlarge
Click to Enlarge

In theaters June 8th, from 20th Century Fox.

New 'Prometheus' Teaser

Here’s something new to me— a trailer for a trailer. This is for the much-anticipated PROMETHEUS, 20th Century Fox’s semi-prequel to the ALEIN films.
Starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green
Directed by Ridley Scott from a screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof.
Due in theaters June 8th.

Click to Enlarge
Click to Enlarge

3 Stooges Trailer? Soitantly!

“Left on a nun’s doorstep, Larry, Curly and Moe grow up finger-poking, nyuk-nyuking and woo-woo-wooing their way to uncharted levels of knuckleheaded misadventure. Out to save their childhood home, only The Three Stooges could become embroiled in an oddball murder plot…while also stumbling into starring in a phenomenally successful TV reality show.”

Ok, sounds a little like THE BLUES BROTHERS, but don’t expect anything that sophisicated. They can survive truly superhuman levels of abuse, and the trailer made me laugh, so…
Starring Sean P. Hayes, Will Sasso, Chris Diamantopoulos, and Jane Lynch. Directed by the Farrelly Brothers.
Due in theaters April 13, 2012 from 20th Century Fox

Fox Developing 'Caves Of Steel'

Caves-of-steel-doubleday-coverDeadline reports that 20th Century Fox, is developing  a live-action feature film version of adaptation of Issac Asimov’s 1954 novel The Caves of Steel.
Simon Kinberg,  (X-MEN writer) is producing via his Genre Films production company, based at Fox. Henry Hobson is attached as director, with John Scott 3 (yep, that’s his moniker)  set to write the screenplay.
 Hobson is know primarily as a titles designer for films such as SHERLOCK HOLMES and RANGO, while Scott 3 works with the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, Seems like an odd pairing, but the two are first collaborating on a teenage Zombie film entitled MAGGIE.
Asimov’s The Caves of Steel was first published as a serial in Galaxy Magazine in 1963, and quickly picked up as a novel by Doubleday.
The tale is a murder mystery sent on an over-populated Earth about three thousand years in the  future. Here agoraphoic humans live in domed cities and rarely if ever see the outside world.
The rich and powerful Spacers’ (people whose ancestors left Earth for other planets) ambassador has been murdered and police detective Elijah Baley is forced to work with their chosen investigator,  the humanoid robot R. Daneel Olivaw.
This is a double-edged insult, as the Spacers are generally too disdainful and suspicious of Earthmen to spend time in their presence, and robots are equally distrusted and restricted on  Earth. Bailey and R. Daneel slowly come to bond during the potentially explosive investigation.
The book was a great success, and lead to the sequels  The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn . The  characters have ties to Asimov’s Robots series and, more loosely to the Foundation series.  
THE CAVES OF STEEL was previously adapted for live action on BBC televsion in 1964 starring Peter Cushing as police detective Elijah Baley and John Carson as R. Daneel Olivaw. That version, directed by Peter Sasdy, with a teleplay Terry Nation (DOCTOR WHO, BLAKES 7),  is considered lost, with only a few fragments remaining.

John Carson, Peter Cushing  BBC Televsion
John Carson, Peter Cushing BBC Televsion

'The Wolverine' Faces Rewrites

WOLVERINE_J_webVariety reports that  20th Century Fox has brought in Mark Bomback (LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD) to rewrite Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay  for THE WOLVERINE.
Hugh Jackman will be back both to play the Marvel Comics superhero and to Executive Produce the film, now slated to be directed by James Mangold. Mangold who helmed Jackman’s KATE AND LEOPOLD , replaces the departed Darren Aronofsky (BLACK SWAN). 
This film entry will be set in Japan, and filmed there and in Vancouver, B.C.
Mark Bomback also did rewites on Bryan Singer’s upcoming  (X-MEN) JACK THE GIANT KILLER and TOTAL RECALL “re-imagining”.