Batman Begins, Again.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005 | 1:30 am

I cruised over to the matinee showing (one advantage of being unemployed!) of BATMAN BEGINS tonight with my darling wife, who seemed to be more eager for the film than I was. I was strictly forbidden from seeing the film over the weekend while I was in Boston without her, and instead went to Fenway to see the Red Sox not begin anything at all—not even a run.[Dark Knight]
And ohhh what a beginning it is

I think this little extra waiting period may have helped heighten my desire though, as by the time I strolled into the theatre I harboured some moderately-high hopes myself—and a large dose of trepidation borne of the number of times Hollywood–hype bears very sour fruit, especially during the "summer blockbuster" season.

My faith was placed squarely at the feet of director Christopher Nolan, who at his best is superb (Memento is firmly fixed in one of my top ten movies), and even at his worst (Insomnia) is still cleverly adult, and can pull some gripping atmosphere from his cast and script.

[Oingo Boingo]
The origins of Danny Elfman

I must also admit to being a big fan of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman movie. I loved its gothic feel, was gob-smacked by the manic Jack Nicholson hamming it up as The Joker, and Danny Elfman's score was one of my absolute favourite's for a year, displacing even the 3-year love-affair I had been having with James Horner's Aliens score. Batman Returns was a carnivale-like spectacle, enjoyable for the great-leads, and an interesting story of the principle players, even though it added little to Batman himself. But it was all downhill for the franchise from there. And not a slow decline, but a screaming vertigo-inducing plummet like one of Mark's carnie rides.

To cut to the chase for those with a busy night of web-wandering to get through, this movie is excellent for the action loving non-juvenile's amongst us. But if the summary is all you came for, your missing the point of blog-reading. ;)

In what I assume is a completely co-incidental nod to Tim Burton, the trailers started with Willy Wonka (am still hoping, but looked underwhelming). They then middled (time-wise and interest wise) with Sky High (how do they expect to compete with The Incredibles?), and finished with the low-brow comedy The Dukes of Hazzard—worth mentioning only for the priceless look the female actress gives Bo/Luke when he finds out she's from Australia, and launches straight into "put another shrimp on the barbie". (they are bloody prawns to us, not shrimp!). It's a look I have tried to subtly communicate all too often.

WONDER-OUS TRAILERS? Lynda Carter (T.V's Wonder Woman) appeared in not one, but two of the previews! I am reasonably sure half the boys my age ogled her sometime back in the mid-70's before we even really knew what ogling was for. And if you remember doing that, you probably also sang the phrase "Wonder Woman" when you read it above! Needless to say, she's aged, but deserves a mention for her part in my formative years. Do you believe they called the first series/pilot (?) of that T.V show "The New Original Wonder Woman"? Sounds like a stain remover.

The main feature delivers exactly what its title promises. The myth behind the legend of the Dark Knight. The initial act covers the years and events that will define the Batman persona, and hone it from a blunt rage for vengeance, to a sharply reasoned edge. There aren't a massive amount of surprises in the backstory, but even a Fan Boy may be delighted to learn tidbits such as Bruce's guilt at his parents death, as well as this version of his martial training at the hands of Ra's Al Ghul and the League of Shadows.

The strength of the film is how it crafts a realistic hero story, that treats the legend of The Dark Knight with reverance and intelligence, but never hamstrings the story-telling by what has been already written or filmed. This is action for the adult, where the characters are more than just latex nipples. And although the plot bends dangerously towards its graphic novel parentage during its denouement, it never looks like just a comic book.

Where even the Burton Batman movie provided insight into the demise of Batman's parents, this film expands to flesh out the origin of so much more, such as Batman's abilities, equipment and villains. This is the movie that explains where he gets "those wonderful toys", as well as how he got the metaphorical monkey on his back.

Christian Bale is good in this role. I must admit that it took a while for me to warm to him in the cape and the cowl (something about his cheek/chin shape?), but I got there. He is absolutely spot-on though as the billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, beating out all previous actors in that side of the role for my money. And in this movie, that time outside the suit is as important as the time inside it.

Cutie Katie Holmes has copped a lot of flak lately, thanks primarily to the overt-love expressions of her current fiance, and she isn't terrible here as Bruce's childhood playmate Rachel. The problem though is that she is not great in this role either. In many movies, she would have been passably fine, but she is surrounded by such a luminous supporting cast here, that she suffers by comparison. My wife's complaint was that she looked far too young for the role of a world-weary DA. She gets some great scenes though, especially the one with Bruce early on in the car that sets him on a reveals his selfish-revenge fantasy for what it is.

The reason for such strong supporting performances is not just a function of the great writing and directing, but also due to the skill of the big-name actors filling out the roles. Michael Caine is excellent, and although I have a soft-spot for the butler from the old TV series, Caine's Alfred is much more rounded, a little harder edged in that "stern father" kind of way, and delivers some wry jokes with a great touch (his line about borrowing the Rolls is priceless). He even provides some of the brains of the outfit, making him so much more than just a breakfast-carrying lackey.

Liam Neeson is exactly as we have come to expect—accomplished, enigmatic and commanding every time he is on screen. After Star Wars Episode I, Gangs Of New York, Kingdom of Heaven and now this,the man absolutely owns the role of the "wise mentor". All others must now aspire.

Gary Oldman is one of my favourite actors (who scared the crap outta me as one of the most fearsome baddies ever in a minor yet scene-stealing role within True Romance), and finally the character of Gordon gets some love that is much overdue. Portraying a character slightly reminiscent of his aged-role in The Contender (an excellent movie also), he adds a repressed desperation to Jim Gordon, and shows that although he believes in good, he is not idealist enough to think it will spring forth from the muck of Gotham City by its own volition. Oldman imbues Gordon with a sense of hidden strength beneath the battered cop exterior, but strength tinged with cunning. His final scene with Batman and the signal lamp is remarkably restrained for a Hollywood finale, but brilliant.

My beloved would slap me upside of the head if I didn't give mention to Cillian Murphy as the Arkham Asylum psychiatrist Dr. Crane. He plays it very passively, but boy does he carry some cold-eyed menace. I also liked Tom Wilkinson as the mob boss Falcone, a role that could have been so easily overlooked and just played run-of-the-mill by a lesser actor. His first scene with Bruce is mesmerizing, and carries enough "old boss" experience to make you understand his point of view, but tinges it with enough impatient menace to make him a credible foe. This scene really does thump Bruce Wayne squarely in his ideals.

Morgan Freeman is in good—if perfunctory—form here, and once again plays the gentle but not to be underestimated humanist you would be proud to have as your dad. If nothing else, his delivery of the line "The tumbler? Oh, you wouldn't be interested in that" carries one of the best wry smiles seen on film in years. Rutger Hauer is a favourite from the old days of The Hitcher, Flesh & Blood, and of coure Blade Runner, and he carries his post-retirement (I am sure he publicly gave away acting back in the 90s?) wrinkles well. Perhaps the only actor in the supporting cast I felt was under utilized was Ken Watanabe, who I loved in The Last Samurai, (and I still think he was unfortunate to miss out on a Best Supporting Oscar that year, although it was a strong field). He gets precious little to play with, but certainly looks the part. I suppose someone has to be just "supporting".

And a quick mention to the score. Hans Zimmer holds the credit for my current favourite film score of all time (Gladiator), but when he took on this job with James Newton Howard (King Arthur), they must of felt the weight of all they had to live up to like a burning log across the chest. What they produced though (from all those push-ups!) is an atmospheric yet orchestrally resonant underpinning that is definitely unique, and one I will look to purchase (even if it may be from some cheap Russian online store).

You get the idea. Put a smart script in front of good actors and a clever director who carries a coherent vision, and even The Batman franchise can be resurrected with panache. Ignore what you have seen on the trailers (the fire breathing horses and the otherworldy Scarecrow). This smart-adult action movie grounds Batman and his foes firmly in reality, as just a man (albeit one with some fiscal advantages). But it is this real-world telling of the tale that helps you feel what the film and its characters throws at you. The first time the Batman appears on film suited-up for action and puts the fear of Bat into the hoodlums, you feel gleeful at their cold sweat—because the script has pushed the fear element so well. And the first time you see him really fly, it is exhilirating because you know it is not a Superman, but a just a man, flying (and they have shown you how he does it without taking the wonder out of it).

And like any man, his humanity is indeed his weakness as well as his strength, bringing with it demons he has tried 14 years to assauge, but is only now coming to terms with. And even though he starts to find some hidden joy in the bat-suit (and indeed, in the role he must maintain as Bruce), it comes with emotional consequences as he must distance himself from regular life and love. Luckily, he has billions of dollars to ease the pain.

My best recommendation is that I found myself sitting in the theatre toward the finale, and noticed that deep down within me, in a small pocket right beside my cynicism gland, there was a secret glowing-wish that my every-day world would bring me such a hero. Not just one who does good by rounding up baddies, but one that scares them into reconsidering their career choice. I would even catch it more than once at the theatre if the chance arose. You must become more than a man, and this movie definitely becomes more than just a superhero movie.

FOUR PRAWNS OUT OF FIVE! If there is any good left in Gotham,it will make a lot more money than any Joel Schumacher film.


At 21/6/05 8:54 am, Blogger Mkae said...

A quick explanation on the titling of "The New Original Wonder Woman":

A few years prior to Lynda Carter picking up the tiara and bracelets, the networks (ABC, I think) cast Cathy Lee Crosby as Wonder Woman. They changed the costume and the lore considerably creating something that was fairly unrecognizable to fans. That's why two years later, the Lynda Carter version needed differentiation.

At 21/6/05 5:51 pm, Blogger Dave(id) said...

Now that is a movie review. Where else could you find the word "assauge" or the phrase "like a burning log across the chest". Only at An Aussie Askew. Of course I'd rather not know of any "secret glowing-wish" beside anyones "gland" but hey, what'd you expect?

At 25/6/05 7:27 am, Blogger Shocho said...

Man, that Cathy Lee Crosby thing was awful.

Great review, but I'm just jealous of the sidebar box things.

I also thought the Dr. Crane guy was scary creepy and forgot to mention him. Some of my compatriots at the theater thought he was not so hot, but it worked for me.

And Rutger Hauer! Good part for him, he always does a good job.


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