Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Merry CrimesMas: Pete Dragovich on The Proposition

Christmas Day is brilliantly used in John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, the bloody Australian western and modern classic from 2005. Firstly, it provides a ticking clock for bandit Charlie Burns’s mission. Captured along with his brother Mikey by Captain Stanley and his troops in an ambush that opens the film, Charlie is offered a, you know, proposition: Kill and bring back his older brother Arthur by Christmas Day or gentle Mikey will be hanged. The Jesus B-day deadline puts pressure on the journey but also underlines how biblical such a premise is. Betray the evil brother Arthur, who Charlie and Mikey previously abandoned after he massacred the Hopkins family who were friends with Stanley and his wife Martha, to save the good one.

While we’re hovering around Cain and Abel territory, let’s discuss Morris and Martha Stanley’s little Eden in the meatiest Christmas connection A film in large part about the tragic hubris of colonialism, Christmas in all its 19th Century British genteelness is a major aspect in illustrating Stanley’s delusions as a heroic conqueror. Captain Stanley has aims of civilizing the land assigned to him and ridding it of Arthur Burns is a large piece of that plan, but in the meantime he intends to keep his house and his wife free from the viciousness around them. He expects his men to be groomed in his wife’s presence, for them to never discuss police matters while she is in earshot. She keeps a lovely house surrounded by a modest garden and a little fence that is a bad joke- it could never keep anyone out and there’s no neighbors around to even care about things like where the property line ends.

While everyone in town and in the hills is shown covered in red dirt and sweat, Morris and Martha always wear fine clothes and are nicely powdered and coiffed while at home. After he helps them unpack their imported Christmas tree, Stanley sends their Indigenous servant home. The man goes outside and takes off his shoes at the fence gate, wishes the Captain a Merry Christmas, and walks barefoot into the desert. Then the English couple have a candlelit dinner in front of a decorated tree with presents and cards in its branches. After carving the turkey and making lovely plates, they say a prayer and toast each other a Merry Christmas. It’s the ultimate scene of domesticity, a painstakingly recreated version of the long-held traditions of their previous homeland. Naturally, this scene, their home and their persons are brutally violated by precisely what Stanley has tried to keep at bay immediately following this toast.

By this point in The Proposition Captain Stanley hasn’t kept up his end of his bargain i.e. he hasn’t kept Mikey alive and likewise Charlie has failed to kill Arthur. As revenge for Mikey, Arthur and his psychopathic protege Samuel Stoat ruin the Stanleys’ Christmas. A candelabra is blown out and the locked door blown in by rifle blast and Stoat is left to watch Martha at the dinner table while Arthur takes Stanley off-screen and beats him nearly to death. With the muffled sounds of blows to Stanley’s body in the background, we watch the child-like Stoat feast greedily and admire some earrings gifted to Martha and insist she read to him what Stanley wrote to her in his card. 

Of course, when she tries to get up from the table the comically innocent reverie is interrupted by his assurance to her that he will stab the carving fork through her eye if she moves again. When Arthur calls them into the room Stoat drags her by the hair and Stanley is made to watch Stoat rape his wife while singing “Peggy Gordon.”

After we watch Stoat and Arthur truly trample with their full weight and power any notions of civility out of the Stanley’s quaint playacting of British holiday festivities, it is Charlie’s turn to resolve what he can of his bloody arc. Having buried Mikey while his brother and Stoat went ahead to the Stanleys, he shows up mid-rape to stop from happening what he didn’t at the Hopkins household. He puts a bullet through Stoat’s brain and Arthur barely flinches since, naturally, his brother could never do such a thing to him. When Charlie puts one in his gut and one in his chest Arthur is genuinely surprised. He stumbles out of the house and crashes through the sad low fence to watch his last sunset free of the Stanley’s Lil’ Britain. Charlie sits beside him and stares at the coming darkness. Arthur acknowledges that he has been bested before asking what Charlie’s going to do now. Then he dies and leaves him alone on Christmas to puzzle it out in the fading light. That he doesn’t go back inside and kill Stanley for his part in Mikey’s death is a Christ-like mercy in the world of this film. Who is to say he doesn’t while the credits roll?

It’s a Christmas movie befitting our current holiday season. One man is left without any family to celebrate with while another’s attempt at family holiday normalcy is violently disrupted. Those of us not living with families or friends can relate to the former this year while almost everyone can relate to the latter. Let’s hope Christmas 2021 brings to mind a Crimesmas movie with a happy ending, one of the Shane Blacks, maybe.

Pete Dragovich
used to regularly review stuff as the Nerd of Noir for places like Crime Factory and Spinetingler. Now he just writes a little something about everything he watches at letterboxd (Nerd_of_Noir) and puts up a few words on twitter (@nerdofnoir) about everything he reads. He lives in Minneapolis.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Merry CrimesMas: Eryk Pruitt on The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Lost Holiday and Fatman

Call me old fashioned, but nothing gets me in the Xmas spirit than a down-home, heartwarming holiday classic movie. I’m talking about the true classics. It’s not Christmas at my house until Hans Gruber falls off the top of Nakatomi Plaza. The need for lighter fare calls for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Not to mention the “Bloody Christmas” in L.A. Confidential. Also, if you haven’t seen Rare Exports yet, you better remedy that shit, toot sweet. 

However, this year—2020—has been “extra” and it will require a bit more than Elf, Bad Santa, and the old yippee-kay-yay.

This might be an interesting link here.

Thank the gods for a new slate of holiday movies that may or may not be introduced into the canon. 

First up is The Wolf of Snow Hollow.

This movie will scratch itches you didn’t know you had. The movie is written/directed/starring Jim Cummings (Thunder Road) who really knows what tools are in his box. His portrayal of Deputy John Marshall is one of the best holiday performances we’ve seen since that kid stuck his tongue to the frozen light pole. Marshall is clearly out of his own element, having been assigned to investigate a series of gruesome (highlight that) murders in a small, snowy Utah mountain town, all while his personal life is falling to pieces.

How Christmasy is it, you ask? Not very. Not even a little bit. But they do pipe in some Christmas carols into the soundtrack, almost as an afterthought, which means they at least knew what time of year people were most likely to stream this bad boy. But there is a message about family embedded into this film (I think) and it features Robert Forster’s final role, so go get you some. 

Also available: Lost Holiday.

Listen, I like drugs as much as the next guy, so long as the “next guy” has a head full of LSD. However, this movie was not for me. The plot centers around a couple of bored twenty-somethings who return home from New York City to their small town and have nothing better to do than get fucked up and half-ass investigate a crime. The crime element appears as slapdash as the Christmas carols in The Wolf of Snow Hollow, but it’s not even at the top of the list of things you will just have to “go with” while watching this film. To its credit, there is one moment in the film which manages to wrench some heart strings, but the mumblecore, the acting, the shaky camera work all adds up to feeling like you’re stuck watching your buddy’s student film during a lame Christmas party full of tacky sweaters.

How Christmasy is it? Well, it actually takes place during the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s, so that counts, and anyone who has ever had to return home can easily relate to the central premise. And furthermore, the last line alone will make you want to axe-murder your entire family, which earns its spot on this list. 

But if there is one holiday movie that belongs on the top of everyone’s holiday viewing list in 2020, it’s Fatman.

You read that right. 

Fatman has everything 2020 has, needs, and deserves. There’s a spoiled rich kid who’s never been told “no.” There’s ridiculous government overreach. And, oh yeah, don’t forget about your racist uncle.

Fatman is lean, mean, and pulpy AF. It’s the film you would get if someone gave Adam Howe a sleigh full of money to make a holiday film. 

An economic downturn forces the Kringle family to become a subcontractor for the American military, and the strain of this decision can be read all across Mel Gibson’s timeworn face. With only his top elf Seven, and the perfectly cast Mrs. Claus, he bemoans the state of the American youth, which is personified by an evil rich kid who declares vengeance after receiving nothing but coal from Santa. That vengeance is delivered in the form of Walton Goggins, who goes balls out to replace Alan Rickman as Xmas Baddie #1. There is great joy in watching a megalomaniacal super villain get his origin story, as well as the inevitable comeuppance that will soon be meted, but I digress, lest I veer too hard into spoiler territory. 

All you need to know is that this flick is streaming on Amazon prime and you can watch it right now if you wanted. Sometimes you are looking for the right movie, well look no further. 

And think of all the arguments you can have with your friends after you tell them how much you think Fatman is the best Xmas movie of 2020. In fact, feel free to start some right now in the comments. I’ll @ the living shit out of you.

Happy holidays.

Eryk Pruitt is a screenwriter, novelist, filmmaker, bar owner, and true crime investigative journalist who more than likely ate the milk and cookies your mom left out for him last night.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Merry CrimesMas: Tim Hennessy on The Long Kiss Goodnight

When The Long Kiss Goodnight was released in 1996, I'd seen the trailer a few times, but I wasn't racing out to see it. For someone with a steady viewing diet of action films, a movie about a rural school teacher with amnesia who, after suffering a head injury in a car crash, regains her ass-kicking instincts, "one bullet at a time" was sure to hit the right spot. It was the out of the blue recommendation from a classmate, a perma-grin cheerleader, who was also relegated to waiting for a ride after school, which prompted me to check it out. While I was known for loving movies, cheerleaders weren't going out of their way to acknowledge me, let alone chat with me about movies.

A few weeks later, I caught a matinee of The Long Kiss Goodnight in a second-run theatre. Within a short span of its release, the film faded fast. Now, if people think of The Long Kiss Goodnight, it's for the excesses, a Christmas time action packed antidote to the steady stream of saccharine rom-coms and holiday melodramas, not the film that was the career tipping point for its creative team.

The film premiered with considerable expectations – Shane Black's spec script, written specifically with Renny Harlin in mind to direct, was one of the highest sales at the time.Then-Variety editor Peter Bart penned an editorial attack piece, taking umbrage at Black and his work, balking at the $4 million payday for the script."I've been talking to people around town who've read the thing," Bart wrote, "and based on my survey, the breakdown is something like this: About one-third of the readers vowed to quit the business forever; another third made firm offers; the final third simply threw up."

Known for revitalizing the buddy-cop genre, Black's mark on action films reverberated widely in the ten years since Lethal Weapon launched his career. A few years earlier, the original script of Last Action Hero parodied his work. The film was intended to be the epitome of summer blockbusters. The script grew unwieldy, enough so, Black was among the many credited and uncredited writers brought in to fix it. Black's contributions were substantial enough he got ascreenwriting credit and took heat for his role in creating one of the 90's highest-profile commercial and critical fiascos. 

With his reputation as one of the highest-paid screenwriters of his generation preceding him, Black needed a hit. Riding high from the success of Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Die Hard 2, and Cliffhanger, Harlin was able to pick his projects and he and then-wife Geena Davis had a production company with an eye toward furthering her growing career. The first project they took on to launch Davis as an action lead, the swashbuckling epic Cutthroat Island, was hindered by a troubled production, escalating budget, and script with an uneven tone that doomed it. Following in its wake with a cloud of schadenfreude already forming was The Long Kiss Goodnight

In it Davis stars as Samantha Caine, a suburban mom with an eight-year-old daughter, living in rural Pennsylvania with her boyfriend. Eight years earlier, she was found on a New Jersey beach,pregnant and having no memories. Samantha has gone through several private investigators trying to dig up any information about her past in the years since. The latest low-rent P.I., Mitch Hennessey (Samuel L. Jackson), gets a lead from a deceased woman's family who rented a room to Samantha. 

Samantha gets in a car accident during the Christmas season, and the subsequent concussion slowly unlocks her dormant skills and personality. The suitcase Hennessey brings her leads them to Dr. Waldman who, in the midst of a sudden attack by a team of government agents, reveals Samantha is really Charly Baltimore, an expert CIA assassin. She and Hennessey are on the run, seeking out more answers to her past, while operatives from both sides of a government conspiracy are in hot pursuit.

In a 1996 interview with Pauline Adarnek, Geena Davis described the film's pulpy plot,"It's kind of a goofball premise, that the character has amnesia so it's fun to try and take it seriously and make it work. I first tried to figure out who Charly is; why is she so tough and lethal and how and why did she become so hard? … She'd so divorced these soft sides of herself that the mothering, nurturing instincts had no way to live – she'd amputated half of her personality that she needed to get shot in the head and this other side of her fought to come out. When she got amnesia, that's when the person she never got to be could exist. …By creating a family, she's let herself get vulnerable and she's put her life and family at grave risk. These two personalities are at war and she had to find a way to be both."

Geena Davis threw herself into the role, training extensively, learning how to handle firearms, and performing her own stunts. Despite her efforts and performance, the film performed poorly. The shadow of failure cast by Cutthroat Island may have been a hindrance; some saw it as further proof that an action film with a female lead couldn't be financially successful.In the same interview with Adarnek, Geena Davis said, "Mostly I just look for characters that arein charge of their own fate. …I like to play characters that aren't victims, or just waiting to be rescued or waiting to have decisions made for them about their lives. They get to be involved actively in their own fate and that's what I look for – it's just more interesting to play somebody like that."

While those may have been the roles Davis wanted, she turned 40 right after coming off two high profiled action movies viewed as commercial failures – her career came to a near stand-still. Almost overnight, the same woman who was a lead in A League of Their Own, and Thelma & Louise, iconic roles in two of the 90s' most culturally significant films no longer was viewed as a viable lead.

Unhappy with her career direction and the lack of control over her fate, Davis changed her focus to activism. In 2004, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, using actual data comparing the number and types of male and female roles and used that data to convince the industry it needed change. Her ongoing work led to an investigation into the systemic discrimination against women directors and an ACLU campaign against discrimination. She executive produced the documentary This Changes Everything, which investigates gender disparity in Hollywood and its impact. 

Also during the time, Davis took up archery and became an Olympian. In an interview with Terry Gross, she described what she enjoyed about archery."Once you have a really good shot, your job is to recreate it exactly and – every time. And everything gets in the way of that, every possible thought you have, every different circumstance. Like competing – if you're nervous, your shot's going to be off. And so it's just a battle with yourself the whole time.""

A battle with yourself to not battle with yourself" was how Gross put it.Although Davis didn't have the action career she'd intended, her impact on a generation will outlast any one of her roles. While we were robbed of more bad-ass Geena Davis movies, actors like Charlize Theron, Regina King, Carrie Coon, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Gardner, Gal Gadot, to name a few have followed in her footsteps.  

A regularly re-watched Christmas classic in my house; we can only hope one day the rumored Long Kiss Goodnight sequel will be more than fanboy daydreams.

Tim Hennessy is a bookseller and a contributor to Publishers Weekly, Tough, Mystery Tribune, Crimespree, & others. He is the editor of the anthology Milwaukee Noir from Akashic Books. Follow him on Twitter @timjhennessy.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Merry CrimesMas: Matty B. on Last Action Hero

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!” posits the prodigious F. Murray Abraham in the early minutes of Last Action Hero. A film where the kid (Danny Madigan) who knows that Abraham was in Amadeus, and won an Oscar for his role, also happens to be standing next to the fictional character that Abraham’s playing in a movie within the movie set around, wait for it…Christmas. 

Though not overtly Christmas-ey in tone, Last Action Hero, despite its snowless set pieces and drenched sunlit camera tilts, reeks of wonderland dreams. At least, as much as any LA set movie around this time is capable of. Much like writer Shane Black’s other films, such as Lethal Weapon and Kiss, Kiss Bang, Bang. Adorning a city not known for its rah-rah festive spirit with Christmas lights, reindeer decor and pairing that with a youthful lead discontent with his real world obligations, gives this film all the holiday cheer it needs. Especially the shot of Danny eclipsing the moon on a stolen bike; paying homage to E.T., and ultimately paying the price for the stunt as he tumbles into a neighbor’s bush and crashes, shortly thereafter. 

How do you gain cult status as a singular studio blockbuster well ahead of its time?
You stick around long enough for society, or just movie culture, to catch up. Last Action Hero, in essence, is a meta-commentary on the types of action movies its director—John McTiernan—helped create and subvert in the first place (i.e. Predator and Die Hard). It worked with a similar self-referential, though significantly more toned down template that Quentin Tarantino adopted in the 1990s, that Scream played with a few years later, and that Deadpool took to the extreme some 25 years afterwards. In poking jabs at and making fun of “those” action movie stars of Hollywood’s not so distant past, Last Action Hero also posed as a love letter to them. To their clich├ęs and repackaged tropes. To their boilerplate plot points and foreign villains. To all their highpoints and blemishes. 

The film centers on teenager Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien), who lives with his widowed waitress-working mom, Irene (Mercedes Ruehl), in a dingy apartment somewhere in grimy, rainy New York City. Think Se7en only more neon lights. Danny’s days are spent at an equally dingy and downtrodden three-story movie theater slap dab in the middle of a busy street surrounded by other movie theaters (one that even plays Chinatown). Danny is seemingly the theater’s only patron and with the unkempt flooring and graffiti filled walls, it’s easy to see to why. The theater’s projectionist, Nick (Robert Prosky), gives Danny all the access he wants to early movie screenings but even he, and Danny’s mom, insist on the importance of attending class and going to school. 

Yet, in history class, Danny can’t help but imagine Laurence Olivier’s performance as Hamlet, in Hamlet, replaced by his favorite movie star—Arnold Schwarzenegger aka Jack Slater. The fact that the class is taught by actress Joan Plowright—who was married to Olivier—is by no accident either. In his faux-Indiana Jones coat jacket, muscular physique, Wrangler jeans, and cigar puffing tendencies, Jack Slater is the embodiment of a post-Reagan era superhero. An all-American veneer coupled with unparalleled machismo underneath. In other words, the last action hero. 

After Nick hands Danny a golden ticket, once owned by Harry Houdini (yeah, that guy), the film escalates. Danny uses the ticket to gain entrance to a personal, early showing of Jack Slater IV, wherein, just a few minutes in, he’s actually transported into the film. Specifically, in the backseat of Slater’s drop-top. Aside for riffing on and poking fun at 80s action flicks, Last Action Hero does its best to include contemporary works as well. Jurassic Park, for instance. Terminator 2 is shown in cardboard cutout form with Sylvester Stallone emblemized on the front. “I’ll be back” “I’ve been waiting for you to say that the whole time,” states Danny, knowing Arnold’s body of work inside out. If Total Recall and The Running Man already, shrewdly manipulated and played with Arnold’s leading man powers, then Last Action Hero ratcheted up that sardonic, winking tone tenfold. 

It wouldn’t be a successful satire or an even adequate one without a character actor lineup of epic proportions. Piggybacking on Robert Altman’s The Player’s ability to include ostensibly every movie star (i.e. Sharon Stone, Chevy Chase) for five seconds or less, Last Action Hero does that but then also gives Charles Dance (as Benedict) and Anthony Quinn (as Vivaldi) time to shine and steal scene after scene as the film within the film’s mendacious duo. 

Shane Black’s screenplays have often included a buddy-cop dynamic where a smart-allecky, precocious teenager joins forces with a single, divorced dad. Here, both Danny and Jack are victims of familial trauma. Danny, with his dad passing away early and Jack with his son getting killed by Ripper (Tom Noonan) in the sequel to his life as a movie star. Jack’s teenage daughter Meredith (Bridgette Wilson), like pops, is equally versed in the art of ass-kickery. She’s given just a few moments of screentime but manages to dismantle a pair of villains and transport a massive SUV to Jack when danger calls.

Amidst a quick-witted, uproariously written script, there is empathy and tenderness lurking at its core and that’s largely thanks to the fellowship its two leads develop. Concluding the plot would do less good than describing the film’s overall tone or sensibility. Though the last third is an even bigger mind-trip when Benedict steals the golden ticket from Danny and—through an arbitrary wall—teleports into the real world. Our world. 

This of course leads to a confrontation, and a hilarious one at that, between Arnold Schwarzenegger (the actor) and Jack Slater (the character from the movie). “Listen, I don’t like you,” Jack tells Arnold, and it sounds like he means it. The fictionalized world, however, seems to have more consequences than the real one. At one point Benedict shoots a random pedestrian in the middle of the street and starts shouting in admittance of the crime. No cops come running and the only sound heard is a nearby apartment resident asking Benedict to shut the hell up so he can sleep. Politicians and police are openly critiqued on a number of instances throughout film. Maybe, Black was onto something.  

You can’t die until the grosses go down,” Danny tells Jack. Admittedly true and an apt foretelling of the Hollywood blockbuster model that would be status quo for decades to come. Where the sequels double and films kept getting made, as long as the box office results pointed in a favorable direction. In riffing on the genre he helped bestow, McTiernan still leans into the action scenes. They’re not played as a farce nor for the laughs. Extreme and ridiculous? Sure. But he’s still going for it. Included are scenes of a car speeding off the highway and landing upright on the LA river or a broken elevator that causes Jack to jump on a crane and then land safely into a bleak colored lagoon. It is amusing, though, when every Sicilian at a funeral scene—set on a rooftop of a huge Hyatt skyscraper hotel—comes equipped with a machine gun and the crowd begins firing at Jack within a moment’s notice. 

Last Action Hero
is assuredly the type of script Shane Black was born to write. Yet, McTiernan taking on this project speaks to both the director’s selfless nature and also to his awareness of the monster he—along with your Spielbergs and Camerons—helped promulgate. To appreciate Last Action Hero is to love film and the history of the American blockbuster. An ever-evolving phenomenon even at the time of the film’s release in 1993. 

As if Shakespeare wasn’t enough, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal comes to life in a climactic scene involving the film’s leads. High art meets high-octane entertainment. Only Black could link these two worlds and make it feel ripe. Where Marty Riggs was reckless and suicidal in Lethal Weapon or Joe Hallenbeck was a drunkard in The Last Boy Scout, Jack is neither, if not focused and responsible. He’s a PG-13 version of Danny’s idea of a superhero. 

Finding chemistry and sweetness in a story almost entirely preoccupied with showing off how many other films it could reference is a tall order. But Jack looking at a photo of him and his lost son and then despondently eyeing up Danny, leaning against the wall, strikes a chord. As does Danny and Jack moving into a crappy motel (room #69, of course) along the freeway together. Then doubly so when Jack is on the verge of returning to his movie life from the real world. Jack promises Danny that they’ll meet again, that this isn’t their last hoorah. If Arnold tells his inspector chief that he’s resolved towards blowing up fewer buildings, then Danny—the stand-in for Shane Black—has a career in writing or endless imagination, staring him in the face. Last Action Hero didn’t just break the fourth wall decades before superhero movies and prestige TV shows followed suit, it made us remember why we love movie stars like Arnold in the first place. “There are worse things than the movies, like politicians,” Nick tells Jack upon first meet-cute in the ransacked projection room. Even if Danny was smarter and already knew all the right moves, heroes like Jack give people, especially lost teenagers, someone to root for. Good can win out and look badass while doing so. 

Matty B is a sometimes lawyer, writer, and podcaster (the movie talk pod) at The Third Take. He enjoys texas hold ‘em almost as much as a good 90s thriller. But he a Moscow Mule over everything else. Find him on Twitter @JagrWatch68.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Merry CrimesMas: Kelby Losack on All is Bright

Phil Morrison’s All Is Bright opens the way any great holiday film does: nearly ten minutes of Paul Giamatti on a long walk home from prison, napping in a church pew and bumming a cigarette from an off-the-clock prison guard along the way. We’re not expecting our man to receive warm embraces when he finally makes it to the trailer home his wife and child reside—I mean, we just watched him walk through night and day down cold Canadian highways, and who but a friendless sad sap has to walk home on the day they make parole?—but Dennis (oh yeah, his name’s Dennis) doesn’t deserve what he does come home to: a soon-to-be ex explaining to him through notes in the window that their daughter thinks he died of cancer. The long-suffering kind. Oh, and also, she’s going to marry Dennis’s best friend and crime partner Rene (Paul Rudd).

If this sounds less than festive so far, don’t worry, it gets even more depressing. See, our man Dennis was locked up on burglary charges, plus this is Canada, so his job prospects are dim to say the least. And the old partner who’s been playing house with his wife for four years has gone straight, so there’s no getting the gang back together. Unless Dennis wants to camp out in a parking lot in New York for several months to sell Christmas trees with said man who’s been fucking his wife, which he does, because he desperately wants to give the daughter who thinks he’s dead a grand piano for Christmas.

Take the two biggest fuck-ups out of one of those family reunion B-movies and place them in a hopeless New York City Christmas tree lot to be at each other’s necks while reluctantly working together and challenging each other to achieve a common goal, inevitably bettering each other in the process, and you have this modern day Christmas classic. It’s a bleak, disjointed, so-sad-it’s-funny Odd Couple meets “Gift of the Magi” sort of tale that has bummed out the majority of its viewers, but that’s exactly what makes it perfect for a holiday season notorious for spikes in suicide rates. Merry Christmas.

Kelby Losack
is the author of Heathenish and The Way We Came In, both from Broken River Books. Wood and resin artisan by trade. Host of Heathenish Radio. Currently working on a rap album. He lives with his wife in Gulf Coast Texas.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Merry CrimesMas: Jay Stringer on Batman Returns

At twelve years of age, I was pretty sure
Batman Returns was one of the greatest movies ever made. At forty, I’m sure of it. 

It’s interesting to look at how this picture has aged. At the time all the attention was on how dark, violent, and grisly it was. Parents and Happy Meal enthusiasts were so unhappy with the film that the franchise was wrestled out of Tim Burton’s hands, meaning we never got to see Marlon Wayans as Robin or Billy Dee’s triumphant return as Harvey Dent. But looking at the same film now, from 2020, it feels quaint to think this was ever considered dark. 

It has an almost monochromatic colour scheme, yes. But ultimately this plays out more like an art deco love letter to the 60’s TV show, and is all the better for it. It’s silly. It’s low-key campy. And it’s funny as hell. We have puns. We have an army of penguins with missiles strapped to their backs. With have a giant motorised rubber duck, killer circus acrobats, and a Batman who cracks jokes. (Okay, eat floor, high fibre barely qualifies as funny, but still, he said it.) 

1989’s Batman feels very much of its time. Joel Schumacher’s two entries are very firmly placed in the late nineties. Even the Nolan trilogy has already started to feel out of date, trapped in the War on Terror era and unsure of message. But Batman Returns could have been made thirty years ago or yesterday. It’s the one truly timeless Batman movie. 

Why has it aged so well? 

Perhaps it’s because it’s a #MeToo movie. The story of Selina Kyle, struggling to balance all of the expectations placed on her as a woman, driven mad by an attack from her male boss, kicking out against the world and slowly unravelling through PTSD as she doesn’t know who to trust. Michelle Pfeiffer puts in a performance every bit as impressive as Heath Ledger’s Joker. 

Perhaps it’s because of the story of a scheming billionaire with silly hair, who is obsessed with power (You can never have too much power. If my life has a meaning, that’s the meaning). Christopher Walken dominates almost every scene that he’s in, beaten only by Pfeiffer. 

Or perhaps it’s because of the plot involving a deeply unpleasant sewer creature who runs for office on a populist ticket, while whipping up his supporters to commit violent acts and talking in private about groping people. 

If it seems strange that I’ve talked on for four hundred words without mentioning the main character, you probably haven’t watched the film. Batman only shows up for thirty minutes. He’s the loose connective tissue between all of these stories. The plot has often come in for criticism. People complain about the random nature of events, the reliance of coincidence in characters meeting each other, and in not being clear whose film this really is. But a large part of what I love about this movie is that the three main characters -Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, and Oswald Cobblepot- are each both protagonist and antagonist of their own story. They’re struggling to get out of their own way, fighting with themselves over whether to accept who they really are, or try to become something ‘better.’ There’s an almost Elmore Leonard angle to this, but that’s an essay for another time. 

If it now seems strange that I’ve talked on for nearly six hundred words without mentioning Christmas, in this piece on my favorite Christmas movie, well here’s the magic sauce. Batman Returns is absolutely, one hundred percent, a stone-cold Christmas movie. And, since I’ve now argued that it’s one of the best movies ever made, this means it’s the best Christmas movie. And it’s also a crime movie, because Batman is a costumed crime fighter. I mean, that’s just math. From start to finish, the whole thing is covered in snow. And the claustrophobic set-bound nature of the production adds up to a feeling that the whole thing takes place inside a snow globe on Tim Burton’s desk. The first line of dialogue is a hurried “merry Christmas” (as two panicked parents are on their way to dump a baby in the river because, you know, holiday spirit.) The last line is, “Merry Christmas Alfred, and good will to all men….and women.” Selina Kyle goes out on “Two lives left. I think I’ll save one for next Christmas. Meantime, howbout a kiss, Santie Claus?” 

Biblical themes run throughout the movie, though it pulls from the Old Testament just as much as the New. The first thing we see is a baby thrown into a river in a Moses basket, and the Penguin’s ultimate plan involves killing the first-born sons of Gotham. In between these, we are given a female Jesus, with Selina Kyle dying for the sins of men and being“resurrected” (or waking up after a concussion…) to show a better way. 

I could make the argument that Batman Returns and Elf are sister films. Both of them are about a lost child, raised by diminutive foster parents in winter wonderlands, who both travel back to fictionalized versions of New York in search of their real parents. Buddy the Elf ultimately finds happiness and acceptance reconciling both sides of himself. Oswald Cobblepot is rejected by the society from which he craves acceptance and tries to take violent revenge. Would his life have turned out differently if Zooey Deschanel was there to sing Christmas songs? 

The first major set piece takes place at the ceremony to light the Gotham Plaza Christmas tree, and features a giant exploding Christmas present, filled with murderous circus clowns, acrobats, sword-swallowers, and….well, whatever those guys on the motorbikes were. Kissing under mistletoe becomes a major plot point (and there is still no scene in superhero cinema to match the ballroom dance between Selina and Bruce for depth and nuance.)

Danny Elfman’s score -his career best, in my view- plays around with the familiar themes from the first movie, adding in plenty of bells and wintery motifs that help create a dreamy almost Christmas soundtrack.

Finally, all good Christmas movies contain a redemption story, right? Well Paul Reubens played the Penguins father. Batman Returns was filmed in the summer of 1991, at the height of his legal troubles, and this movie was one of few pieces of solid work he was offered at the time. If that doesn’t say Christmas, I don’t know what does.

Jay Stringer was born in 1980, and he’s not dead yet. His crime fiction has been nominated for the Anthony Award, the Derringer, and the McIlvanney Prize. His latest adventure novel Marah Chase and the Fountain of Youth is available now from Pegasus Books. He is not a sex therapist.