Sunday, June 19, 2005

Batman Begins: The New Yorker experiences some growing pains, but enjoys herself nonetheless

At last, after months of speculation and expectations, I saw Batman Begins Friday night.

The Look & Tone

As my friend reminded me last night after we got out of the theatre, this interpretation of the Batman stories were based out of the darker grittier Frank Miller Batman books. No doubt about it, the film’s director, Christopher Nolan definitely made sure it looked the part of Miller’s visualizations. The landscape CG shots of Gotham were unique and impressive. We saw sprawling islands of skyscrapers, and in closer view a mecca of gargantuan glass towers. In front of this futuristic urban metropolis, was the compounded shantytown of “The Narrows”, with puffs of steam being emitted from rickety building pipes. My favorite part of the city’s design, were the zoomed out shots of the subway running under these majestic archways. The archways over the elevated train were a perfect architectural blend of urban regality and the aerodynamics of the technological revolution.

I was not as struck by the closer exteriors of “The Narrows”, the impoverished crime ridden section of Gotham. Everything was done in tones of browns and yellows, instead of a more comic-book gray scale, and the production designers did a very good job of making it feel grimy and filthy. Something about it just didn’t sit as well with me, and I think most of that had to do with the fact (and this is something I found myself doing continuously throughout the film) that I kept comparing it to the shots of Gotham in the Tim Burton Batman films. I wanted the super art deco dark, black and blues. The insane attention to detail of each stylized little corner of Gotham, from a street lamp to a garbage dumpster.

Another portion of the production design that I felt was a little lacking was the Wayne Mansion. First of all where the hell was that thing? I had heard that Nolan had shot in three different locations, New York, London and Chicago to achieve the look of a metropolis that was familiar but not altogether recognizable. But to me this created a bit of a lack of uniformity. The shots of the view from the mansion, showed green pastures shrouded in mist as far as the eye could see. I didn’t really buy that this place was only a quick commute from Gotham. It felt like it was in a different country, because, well, it probably was. I thought those big steps in front of the mansion were neat, but over all I thought the mansion was sort of “blah” both in its interiors and exteriors.

I will say this. The Bat Cave was very cool in both conception and appearance. I really loved the way that they made a connection between this hellish ditch that Bruce had fallen into as a child and been terrified of, and the origin of his new identity. It was through a source of his own terror that he was lead into the womb where he would be born into the next phase of his life.

In fact, almost all of the look of BatMan himself was terrific. His costume, the cape, constructed from the memory cloth, his mask. I liked the idea of Morgan Freeman playing this character who worked in the basement of Wayne Industries, storing and concocting new technology which had never gone anywhere. I enjoyed those scenes where Bruce was putting together his “outfit” that would become his signature look. The incredibly macabre prototype of the bat signal – the crumpled corpse of a man on a city spotlight was very neat. Even the Bat Mobile, which I was so livid about when I first saw photos of it, grew on me quite a bit. The pseudo military look sort of fit the seedy look of “The Narrows” and the interior of the mobile was all excitingly high tech.

The camera work was artfully done, and the film was solidly edited. Those moments when Batman first swoops down and yanks those henchmen off the ground were truly terrifying and atmospherically done. Technically speaking, the film was very strong, but I still felt the slightly unsettling sensation that I was reading a careworn book that I had read many times over but suddenly had new illustrations. One of the differences that really popped out at me between this film and the original Burton pieces was the musical score. The score to Batman Begins fulfilled its role and purpose. It was co-written by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer, two huge composers in Hollywood, who’ve done zillions of films, though they usually work separately. Still, I wish there had been something as elemental and theme oriented as the Danny Elfman score. Elfman’s scores for the original Batman and Batman Returns were organically matched to the visuals, and each bar of music seem to glide up and down in perfect harmony with each motion of the camera. I know, I know, I have to stop comparing! But overall, I didn’t think this score was anything to write home about.

One last thing about tone. As one of my friends and I stood outside of the theatre discussing the variances of the Batman story being grounded in stark realism vs. flighty fantasy, I came to a realization. I think I might just prefer the fantastical tone. My friend said he preferred it when things were realistic and grounded and seemed like they could really happen. That he liked to see a world where it seemed like just maybe Batman could really exist. I think I enjoy watching more metaphorical reflections of reality, where the relevance of the story is intimated through symbolism. I think when done well the fantastical can be so tangible and authentic that it eclipses reality with its universal truths.

The Characters & Actors

Mama Mia, what a cast on this movie, ah?!. Overall, really creative and successful casting, and wonderful acting performances here.

Christian Bale as Batman. I think Christian Bale is definitely the best Batman since Keaton, though as you have probably have gathered by this point of the review that I’m a purist, and I still think Keaton is tops. Bale’s hardened edge and natural arrogance made him a good fit for the sardonic yet brooding Wayne, AND the dangerously gruff Batman. I do think he might have gotten a little bit too growly at times with his Batman voice. Bale lowered his speaking voice so much as the Dark Knight, occasionally I thought it wavered a little towards being over the top.

Michael Caine as Alfred. Caine was terrific. His performance just seemed so comfortable and natural, he was never too much or too little. He perfectly encapsulated a parental, witty, fun, caring, formal, wise, companion and care taker. As sweet as Michael Gough was in Burton’s films, Caine gave the character an emotional depth we had never seen before. I think it was because he wasn’t just perennially sweet and soft but gave Bruce some good doses of “tough love” This made him more endearing to me..

Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. Freeman is always terrific, and this role was not exactly a stretch for him. Once again he was playing Lucius Fox, an older, friendly, character, who’s purpose is to help the protagonist along his journey. He was easy and warm and had good chemistry with Bale.

Tom Wilkinson as villain Carmine Falcone. An unexpected choice as Wilkinson a British actor is not usually chosen to portray New York Gangster types. Still he did a solid job, his accent seemed like a bit of an effort for him, but definitely an interesting move on the Nolan and the casting director’s part.

Gary Oldman as Comissioner Gordon. Holy Macoroni, I never thought I’d live to see the day when Oldman played a sweet old man type! By far the straightest performance I’ve ever seen out of Oldman, I kept waiting for him to have a scene where he just explodes, or momentarily turns evil, but he didn’t. This was quite a refreshing and understated role for Oldman and I actually got such a kick out of watching him ride around in the Bat Mobile. He was so cute and I wanted to give him a big hug.

Cillian Murphey as the Scarecrow. I love this guy. I thought he was great in 28 days, but he played the lead in that, and I wasn’t sure what he was going to do with this. I was again pleasantly surprised – he really took on the role like a seasoned character actor, and was snide, cold, and calculating, and slowly devolved into the sneering, insane mad scientist. I thought the whole way his mask worked with the hallucinogenic gas was brilliant, and the CG on that rag cloth mask of his was terrifying. What a fun villain. Hooray.

And finally Katie Holmes as Rachel. As much gossip as there is going around about her right now, I can’t really dredge up much to say about her. She was fine. Neither poor, nor outstanding. I thought a lot of what was lacking with her character had to do with the fact that the writing in the script didn’t give her a lot to do or a lot of depth. She was a idealist with a heart of gold, who had old memories tied with Bruce Wayne. But that’s about all I got from her. She never wavered from her stalwart do-gooder routine, and I would have liked to see a little more range from her. At least she was working in the D.A.’s office trying to do something, instead of sitting at home like a helpless damsel in distress.

The Mythology & Story

I really liked the way that fear was a constant motif in all aspects of this movie. I thought the fact that Bruce had had a bad childhood experience with bats was brilliant. I liked the way Nolan illustrated just how terrified he was of them, so much so that Bruce couldn’t even watch men dressed up as bat-like creatures on the stage in the opera, ( a scene which I though looked gorgeous). The whole emphasis on the socio-economic stratification of Gotham city, and how each group, the rich and the poor, feared each other because they represented the unknown to one another, added another nice layer thematically. The whole concept of learning and absorbing one’s own fears in order to conquer them, as taught to Bruce by Liam Neesen was all artfully done.

But let’s talk about Ducard, Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows shall we? This was the portion of the movie that I had the most issues with. I realized as the movie started and then continued for a bit, that the introduction of Bruce Wayne’s character was going to be done by flashback, back and forth between different moments in the past and present. That’s fine enough. But the beginning felt really abrupt to me when Ducard suddenly appears out of the shadows of Bruce’s cell, and just starts spouting all this gibberish to him about fear and fighting. Ok, maybe gibberish is a little too harsh on my part, but I mean the movie had just started, and who the hell was this guy anyway? I realize this all gets explained and elaborated upon later, but I wish there could have been a little more time spent showing just Bale living in the skin of the character of Bruce Wayne. If you ask me the whole League of Shadows plotline, and the explanation of how they knew about Bruce was pretty dodgy.

I understand why at the end of his training Bruce does not wish to perform the execution on the man that Ducard and Ra’s Al Ghul (played by Ken Watanabe, sort of) have set before him. It’s important to show that Bruce recognizes and holds dear the value of his own compassion. But why does he burn down the whole joint and try to kill Ra’s Al Ghul? Sure he saves Ducard from death, but I didn’t understand the need for such a dramatic exit. I certainly wasn’t led to believe that Ra’s AG and Duc would have had him murdered if he didn’t strike down the criminal before him as they had requested. Also, this whole idea that the League of Shadows knows about Gotham, that they are familiar with the level of crime and depravity and actively care and act on it. Aren’t they just some Shaolin type monks who live in Mongolia? How do they know so much about Gotham? And honestly, why do they care so much. Later on in the film Ducard comes into the Wayne mansion and reveals to Bruce that the league has been doing this for centuries, and that he is actually Ra’s Al Ghul, the leader of the league. This league has purportedly been crushing empires before they get too powerful. Striking down corruption in cities where social Darwinism has become the ruling force and making everyone equal. Ok, I can dig the Marxist vibe, but I still find this idea kind of hokey. I’m to believe that the forefathers of this modest size black clad crew was responsible for the downfall of the Roman and British empires? Yeah, yeah I know, suspend all disbelief and what not, but for a movie that tried to be so consistent in its realism, with logical explanations for everything (example: the reason people saw the scarecrow’s face to be so monstrous was due to a drug, not because it was actually supernatural in any way), these plot elements felt kind of clunky.

Another thing I had a bit of a difficult time swallowing was the change in mythology of Bruce Wayne’s parents being killed. I thought the lead up to the scene in the opera house with Bruce getting scared and all that was terrific. But in my mind, I’m so married to the idea that it was Jack Napier, The Joker, who murdered the Waynes in the alleyway. All I can heard is Jack Nicholson saying, “have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight…” (a wonderfully poetic line in my opinion) The fact that in Batman Begins, the perpetrator is just a desperate bum who’s a victim of society himself, is an interesting concept, but so different than the previous mythology. Napier is pure evil and depravity, where as “hungry bum” (I’m blanking on his character’s name right now, forgive me) is theoretically as much of a victim of Gotham as Bruce Wayne’s parents are. I thought the scene where Bruce comes back from Princeton, and attends the “hungry bum’s” release trial was very interesting. I liked that he brought a gun and intended to kill him and enact revenge for his parents, and I liked the scene with he and Rachel in the car, when she slaps him. It was interesting to see that for a while, between nearly killing his parent’s murderer and hanging out with miscreants all over the globe, that Bruce Wayne/Batman really did walk a fine line between becoming a criminal instead of a crime fighter. Unlike the moralistically squeaky clean Superman, and the naïvely idealistic Spiderman, Batman really treads closer to the dark side than any of the other super heroes, and that’s why I love him. But as dark and isolated as this character is, I would have liked to see a little more of an emotional longing and/or connection with other characters in the film. It was clear that Bruce’s trauma of loosing his parents at such a young age in such a violent way was a huge source of angst for him. This was all logically shown and properly referenced throughout the movie. But other than Alfred, there was really no one else with in the movie that he seemed to have a real emotional bond with. Even Katie Holmes’ character, Rachel, while Bruce/Batman obviously feels some affection towards her, and cares about her well being, there does not seem to be any real passion between them. If you ask me that last scene between them when they are standing in the burnt rubble of the Wayne mansion, is ridiculous. Her lines are incredibly cryptic and while they conjure clever metaphors they do not really jive with her character’s motives. Rachel says that Bruce’s face is now the mask he wears, and that his new real identity is the mask of Batman. Ok, I can dig it, that’s a nice line. But she then goes on to talk about the “man that she loved” who knew right from wrong and fought for what he believed in, blah, blah, blah. So this man, this piece of Bruce’s identity is now exemplified in Batman and his actions, right? But then she says she can not be with him until that man returns. But….wait. He doesn’t need to return, he is already there, because Bruce Wayne puts on a costume to become who he truly is inside, Batman. Rachel’s garbled explanation as to why they can’t be together didn’t really work for me, and I wish that their relationship had been utilized more in the script to show breaks in Bruce’s/Batman’s overall emotional detachment.

All in all, I thought this was a very solid movie. Well written script, terrific acting, creepy villain, charismatic hero, it had all the ingredients of a great comic book movie. I really enjoyed the film while I was watching it, but I definitely feel as though I need to see it again – as I said before, I think a lot of my mind was instinctively comparing it to Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. I know I need to get over myself, but its hard to do. I just have to let go of the old legacy, and embrace the new – I don’t know if I ever will be able to do that totally, but I highly commend this new addition to the Batman franchise.


Anonymous Crazy Monk said...

I understand that Burton's Batmans hold a special place in your heart, begat from childhood, but you should also view Nolan's Batman Begins from the perspective of the entire modern series. Schumacher essentially killed Burton's vision -- his characters, his palette, his mythology, etc. Anything connected with the first four films is tainted from the get go. I for one credit Nolan for rejiggering the whole series successfully, for pulling us out of the mess that Schumacher got us into. If Nolan didn't make all the changes that he did, I think we would have all preferred no new Batman film to a tainted one.

BTW, I agree with you that the League of Shadows component was rather half-baked.

9:11 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

It is true that Schumacher decimated all that Burton had set up. But in my mind I've some how been able to block out that those two movies ever existed. That they are part of some abberation, and don't count as real Batman movies.

I understand what you're saying though. It is true to revamp everything. It is natural to compare, but Nolan does deserve "mad props".

9:38 AM  
Blogger Patrick A. Reed said...

As a longtime batfan and comic geek, I'd like to point out that Burton's Batman (or actually Sam Hamm's Batman) is the ONLY version where The Joker was responsible for the Waynes' deaths. No other version of the Batman myth has ever made his arch-villain the centerpiece of the origin, it was a device invented simply to strenghten the central conflict in the 1989 movie.

And for the dramatic purposes of this revitalised saga, I rather appreciate the dramatic impact of having Bruce's parents killed by an inconsiquential thug, rather than treating it as the beginning of some grand ongoing rivalry. Having to make the decision to save the city that (in its darker moments) produced such random cruelty lends an added resonance to Bruce's transformation into The Batman, and his quest for true justice, not mere vengance.

Just my two bits.

9:42 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

I can see your point about justice vs. vengance. But you still won't convince me that Nolan's Gotham looked nearly as cool as Burton's. I take it you're not a fan of the original though - and I suppose we must agree to disagree. Touche!

11:34 PM  
Blogger Patrick A. Reed said...

Oh, I'm totally a fan of the LOOK of the 1989 Batman. The plot is a bit cabbage, but it's a perfectly fun movie. I'm not arguing against the Burton treatment per se, just addressing the specifics of the Joker vs. random thug issue as it relates to the greater Batman mythos.

12:11 PM  
Anonymous DC Dionysian said...

I remember sitting in the theater as a nine year old and being pissed off that they made the Joker the killer. The whole point of Joe Chill is that he be faceless and the kind of thing that could convince a guy to war on a concept for his entire life.

I'd like to take a moment to stand in awe of Frank Miller. His name was only at the top of one of this season's comic book franchise embryos, but it should have been at the top of this one as well. With the exception of the 70's era Denny O'Neill, Neal Adams Kung Fu Demon Head Shite, this was pretty much his movie. Lieutenant Jim Gordon (His partner should have been blond), Batman's 1st cowl-less night out, the cave, the pearls, even the fucking batmobile, were all taken directly from his pages. Even the Gotham designs (sans Mono-rail) were pretty close to his. It's a pity that the CGI people haven't figured out how to do a cityscape in 3 dimensions even a tenth as well as he could in 2. Burton did a better Miller mood, Nolan got all the details right. I don't see why we should even be talking about Bob Kane anymore.

Geekier than thou

9:31 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

wow, thou hast left me speechless, I bow down to your higher order of geekiness.

2:16 AM  
Blogger Elliot said...

I thought that Cillian Murphy seemed to be channelling James Spader.

3:40 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

I adore cillian murphy. He was a little James Saderish wasn't he.... Spader is great too. I'm probably the only one looking forward to Red Eye. Woe is me.

4:06 PM  
Blogger Elliot said...

Oh yes - it wasn't a critisism at all.

5:31 PM  

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