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BATMAN BEGINS (2005). One of the finest superhero films ever made, Batman Begins marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship -- between the creative forces who have resurrected a popular franchise and the fans who felt betrayed when that same franchise went belly up during the late 90s. Never afraid to peer into the darkest recesses of the mind, director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) has created a brooding picture that has as much in common with his previous works as it does with the storied saga of the Caped Crusader. To dismiss this as escapist fare would be to ignore the myriad adult themes that bulk up the picture, issues ranging from the duality of man to the politics of fear. Christian Bale leads a sterling cast that also includes Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson; their committed performances helped make this that rare summer movie in which thought often speaks louder than either action or words. The movie's available in various DVD packages, but the most impressive is the two-disc Deluxe Edition. Extras in this set include a 72-page comic book, menus set up as comic book panels, and a wide range of behind-the-scenes features covering everything from the production's genesis to its costumes and sets.

Movie: *** 1/2

Extras: *** 1/2

BATMAN: THE MOTION PICTURE ANTHOLOGY (1989-1997). The Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher quartet of Batman flicks were first made available on DVD back in 1997, but only in bare-bones sets devoid of extras. Coinciding with the release of Batman Begins, the four titles have been reissued in two-disc special editions (sold separately or as a box set) crammed with enticing extras.

The pros far outweigh the cons in Batman (1989), a mega-smash that nevertheless continues to divide viewers. Burton's quirky sensibilities prove to be a perfect match for this eye-popping yarn in which the Caped Crusader (Michael Keaton) squares off against The Joker (Jack Nicholson). Nicholson's insane performance received all the ink, but Keaton's somber turn is no less noteworthy: Pound for pound, he remains the screen's best Batman. Danny Elfman's terrific score charges the proceedings, while Anton Furst's Oscar-winning sets combine the worlds of comic books, film noir and German Expressionism.

With Batman Returns (1992), Burton, Keaton and Batman all return for a sequel that retains the original's dark currents while adding some colorful new characters. Danny DeVito is all sputtering malevolence as The Penguin, yet top acting honors go to Michelle Pfeiffer for her sexy and spirited rendition of Catwoman. Pfeiffer's interpretation was so potent, in fact, there was talk of putting her in her own movie. Sadly, that project never materialized; instead, we were belatedly treated to last year's Turkey Hall of Fame contender Catwoman, with Halle Berry. Me-ouch!

For Batman Forever (1995), Joel Schumacher takes over the series from Burton, and the slide begins. Val Kilmer is effective as the new Batman, and the normally bland Chris O'Donnell is better than expected as Robin. But their nemeses are another matter altogether: As The Riddler, Jim Carrey is so buffoonish and over-the-top -- and without any of the stabilizing menace Nicholson brought to The Joker -- it's impossible to take him seriously as a villain. As for Two-Face, perhaps the most complex Batman baddie on the printed page, Tommy Lee Jones makes a complete mockery of the character with a broad performance that's difficult to stomach. Nicole Kidman's on hand, too, but she's wasted as Bruce Wayne's new lady friend.

Batman & Robin (1997), the final nail in the coffin, is a complete grotesquerie, a movie that's about as much fun as a 20-year stint in a Turkish prison. Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mr. Freeze) and Uma Thurman (Poison Ivy) are the forgettable villains, George Clooney is deadly dull as Batman/Bruce Wayne, and Alicia Silverstone is an annoying presence as Batgirl. The script is incoherent, and I've seen colonic X-rays more visually appealing than what Schumacher throws up on the screen.

DVD extras on the various discs include audio commentary by Burton (on the first two) and Schumacher (on the last two), making-of documentaries, heroes and villains profile galleries and music videos by Prince, Seal, R. Kelly and others.

Batman: *** 1/2

Batman Returns: ***

Batman Forever: **

Batman & Robin: *

Extras: *** 1/2

LAND OF THE DEAD (2005). George A. Romero has always been as much a social commentator as a horror filmmaker, which is why his zombie flicks have always remained as popular with critics as with cultists. Two decades after his last foray into the genre, Romero has decided to add a fourth chapter onto his established trilogy; it's good, gory fun, even if its satiric jabs at societal mores are more heavy-handed than in the past. This entry centers on a conscientious mercenary (Simon Baker) who has to contend with a ruthless CEO (Dennis Hopper) who caters to the wealthy while ignoring the unwashed masses, a hired gun (John Leguizamo) with his own agenda, and hordes of zombies who are starting to take baby steps up the evolutionary ladder. Romero's wit remains intact -- one scene lends new meaning to the term "finger food," while another features a headless zombie who still has some bite left in him -- but the film's allusions to modern-day America (Hopper's raging capitalist even states, "We do not negotiate with terrorists!") seem more obvious this time around. Recommended, but with reservations. DVD extras on the Unrated Director's Cut include audio commentary by Romero and producer Peter Grunwald, three minutes of deleted scenes and several short making-of pieces (most focusing on the makeup effects).

Movie: ***

Extras: ***

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