Director Joel Schumacher died on Monday, at age 80. With a decades-long career, Schumacher has made many iconic and fantastic films, entertaining and inspiring generations.
Along with being enjoyable, Schumacher’s films are incredible to look at. Extensive design training gave him the skills to create striking and remarkably specific worlds for each of his films. After studying at Parsons, he started his career as a costume designer, working on several films including the 1973 Woody Allen film, “Sleeper,” before becoming a writer, director, and producer, and this history shines through in his detailed and beautiful productions.
He also had an incredible knack for casting, launching the careers of many storied and talented actors. Colin Farrell has declared that, if it weren’t for Schumacher, he would not have had a career. He provided Matthew McConaughey and Rob Lowe with their breakout roles as leading men.
St. Elmo’s Fire
“St. Elmo’s Fire” is one of the most mature of the “brat-pack” films, focusing on a group of recent Georgetown University graduates as they attempt to navigate life after college in the 1980s. Fidelity, maturity, parenting, ambition, drugs, and sex are all explored with honesty, in what could have been a sensationalized bit of melodrama in less skilled hands.
The fantastic young cast, including Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, and Mare Winningham, are excellent under Schumacher’s direction, demonstrating the strained closeness of the group, and their stunted adolescence, with complexity and humanity.
The Lost Boys
“One thing about living in Santa Carla I never could stomach, all the d-mn vampires.” “The Lost Boys” is an odd gem of a movie that follows a teenaged biker gang of vampires. The ’80s grunge aesthetic of the teen horror comedy creates a bizarre and compelling world that shifted the cultural perspective on vampires, ushering in works like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
The ensemble cast work spectacularly together, but the film is entirely owned by Kiefer Sutherland, who plays the enigmatic and dangerous leader of the vampire gang. The movie never takes itself too seriously, and as such, is a thoroughly enjoyable ride.
“Batman Forever” is far from a perfect Batman movie. Tommy Lee Jones was woefully miscast as Two-Face, seemingly doing a bad Jim Carrey impersonation in the same film as the comedian. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) is a comedically one-dimensional damsel-in-distress, especially compared to the previous films’ more interesting love interests, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Vikki Vale (Kim Basinger).
However, what works about the film more than make up for its flaws. Carrey is pitch perfect as Riddler. Val Kilmer does a fine job in the eponymous role, taking over from the exemplary Michael Keaton.
As the first film in the Batman franchise not directed by Tim Burton, Schumacher balanced the studio’s demands for a more family-friendly take on the caped crusader, honoring Burton’s vision for the series, and exerting his own influence. The film is frenetic, with wild colors and exciting action, but also isn’t afraid to face the quieter moments of Bruce struggling with the duality of his nature and questioning his role as Batman.
One should not discuss “Batman Forever” without mentioning the associated music video to “Kiss from a Rose” by Seal, also directed by Schumacher. The catchy, romantic, and dramatic ballad is oddly enhanced by watching Seal sing in the light of the Bat Signal, interspersed with film footage.
A Time to Kill
John Grisham’s novels have adapted beautifully to screen, and none have been as powerful as “A Time to Kill.” The film follows the murder trial of Carl Lee (Samuel L. Jackson), who killed the men who raped his 10-year-old daughter, for fear two white men who raped a black girl would not be convicted.
Matthew McConaughey portrays Carl Lee’s attorney in his first outing as a leading man, leading an all-star cast. The compelling story and excellent actors are all heightened by atmospheric direction.
The film is an intense watch, diving directly into issues of racism in the a Ku Klux Klan-occupied area of Mississippi, and centering around the rape of a child. The powerful messages against prejudice and demonstration of community and familial love make the film a powerful and moving watch.
Batman and Robin
This list would feel incomplete without bringing up what unfortunately has cemented Schumacher’s legacy: the legendary flop that was “Batman and Robin.” Between a recast of the eponymous Caped Crusader from the Val Kilmer to George Clooney and studio interference pressing for an increasingly child-friendly film for merchandising.
Little can be said that hasn’t been said to death. The costumes are oddly anatomic, with exaggerated nipples and codpieces. The dumbing down of Batman, including the “batcard,” is endlessly frustrating. Robin (Chris O’Donnell) is especially whiny, even for Robin. Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), Mr Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone) are poorly used as characters, supported by terrible performances.
The film is a fascinating mess of a movie, which saves the current DCEU from going down as the worst cinematic portrayal of Batman. It’s frustrating to watch how this mess has come to define Schumacher’s career.
He has created so many incredible films, and the fault is far from entirely on his shoulders. This was the first Batman movie without original director Burton’s involvement, and studio interference was high. We should be able to appreciate the film for the train wreck that it is, without writing off a talented director in the process.
Phantom of the Opera
Despite its complicated critical reception, I’ve always harbored a deep affection for the 2004 film adaptation of “Phantom of the Opera,” starring Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, and Patrick Wilson. In fact, I believe the film is unfairly judged, and is both an excellent adaptation and a strong film on its own. “Phantom of the Opera” is my favorite musical, and the film captures everything that makes it so incredible.
Schumacher’s talent for filming incredible visual spectacles has never been better on display than in this musical movie about a masked composer stalking a beautiful soprano in the Paris Opera House.
However, style does not overpower substance, as the heart of the long-running musical translates beautifully to screen. The chemistry between Butler, Rossum, and Wilson is fantastic, as all three inhabit their roles with grace and depth. The comedic relief, particularly Minnie Driver as a diva past her prime, add the needed levity and fun to the drama and romance.
However, Schumacher’s direction (paired with Butler’s enigmatic and charismatic performance as the Phantom) is what elevates the film. He effortlessly rendered cinematic the highly theatrical stage show, making the most of the medium without sacrificing that which makes the musical a masterpiece. The grandeur and beauty of the production design never detracts from the intimate and personal central story.
This defines to me what made Schumacher such a talented director throughout his career. He balanced style with substance to create some iconic, entertaining, moving, and beautiful films that will stay with us for generations.