"There are only two ways of telling the complete truth—anonymously and posthumously."Thomas Sowell

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Batman Begins Again

I saw Batman Begins today, and what it said most powerfully to me was how bad the earlier films in the series were—and how crippled by stylistic cliches today's Hollywood action films are.

The best way to experience Batman is still to read the original DC comic books from years ago and watch the TV cartoon series. This one ain't bad, but they're the real thing.

I remember that the various filmmakers involved in Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Whatever, and Batman Yadaa Yadda Yadda were uninamous in pointing out how much more serious their films were than the 1960s TV series, as if seriousness precisely equalled intelligence, and as if being more serious than the Batman TV series were some sort of accomplishment. I could do that while telling knock-knock jokes in a tutu.

As hard as they may have tried to capture the essence of Bob Kane's comic book series (well, that's what they said they were trying to do), the Batman films were frequently silly and usually not very interesting. The first one, Batman, was endurable, although I think Jack Nicholson was incredibly boring as the Joker. OK, he's angry, we get it. Now can you try to do something interesting? At least the TV show was fun, and the actors playing the villains were first-rate and managed to find the right tone for their performances. Excellent performers such as Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Frank Gorshin, Julie Newmar, Anne Baxter, Reginald Denny, and the like all seemed to be having as much fun as the viewer (and not more!). The movie series, by contrast, was like some kind of career graveyard. Remember Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face? Alicia Silverman as Batgirl? Is it any wonder their careers went into the dumper after those stinkers? Heck, even Michelle Pfeiffer has pretty much disappeared, and I thought she did an excellent job as Catwoman.

Batman Begins is much better than that. Christian Bale is actually a decent Batman, although the affected, Dirty Harry-style growl he uses when in costume is, well, rather embarrassing for him after a while. But he's good, overall. The supporting cast is largely excellent, with Gary Oldman giving a standout performance as Sgt. Gordon (who will eventually become Commissioner Gordon, we presume.) Katie Holmes misfires in a poorly conceived role as an assistant district attorney, but Cillian Murphy is terrific as Dr. Crane/the Scarecrow, Rutger Hauer is splendid as Bruce Wayne's manipulative business partner, and Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Tom Wilkinson, and Liam Neeson lend their formidable presences in other important supporting roles. The acting is one of the real pleasures of this film, and Bale holds his own within this powerhouse cast.

In addition, Batman Begins actually has some consistent themes that are worked out in a surprisingly comprehensible way—such as the ways the theme of fear and human reactions to it comes up in different situations throughout the film. Well done, that. And it really does present the issues of vigilantism, justice, personal responsibility, and the role of government in a rather thoughtful manner.

That, however, is also one of the problems with the film. It is awfully slow, with more expository dialogue than a documentary on how to caulk bathtubs. Do really really need to see another version of how Batman obtains all his Bat-weapons and Bat-whatnot? (Hint, the answer starts with an n and ends with an o. Multiple explanation points are optional.) Do we really need to waste a lot of time watching Bale and Freeman reprise the Q-James Bond relationship? (That has become extremely wearisome in the Bond films, for goodness sake.) It's like showing us long, boring scenes from the early years of Hercule Poirot. OK, he can solve crimes, we get it. Gee, just let us see the dang Bat-things in action and we'll figure out that he must have got them somewhere. Who but an obsessive geek weirdo gives a darn where he got them from, anyway? Save that for the novelization.

And what's up with those early sequences in Asia, stolen from the film version of The Shadow and done a heck of a lot better there? It's all way much more than we need to know. We already understand the situation, people! He's a vigilante but he's conflicted about it. We can puzzle that out without watching him fight multiple Asian prison guards simultaneously or climb an unnamed mountain to get to some ancient hideaway for global vigilantes. We don't need to know about that, so just skip it. Now can we just get on with the Batarang-throwing?

OK, I understand it's Batman Begins and you feel obligated to show his beginnings, which is acceptable as a premise even though we've seen his beginnings some 55 times before, but that doesn't mean it has to Batman Begins with a Whole Bunch of Boring Dialogue and Puzzling Fight Scenes Shot in Close-Ups So That You Can't Tell Who the Heck Is Doing What or Why. That's another pet peeve for me: the fancy-schmancy tendency of Hollywood directors to cut the fight scenes up into close-up shots lasting approximately three tenths of a second apiece, quite obviously to disguise the fact that the actors couldn't fight their way out of a preschool birthday party. Man, make them learn the moves and then step back and let us see them fight it out a little.

Hong Kong directors use brief shots, too, but at least they know how to make the fight comprehensible by pulling the camera away from the protagonist's elbow or bad guy's ribs once in a while. In Hollywood films, the only way you know who's winning a fight is by how far we are into the movie: the good guy typically loses early and wins late. And in the climactic fight, he has to look like he's losing until the bad guy does something really dirty and then the good guy gets all morally outraged and wins really quickly.

Maybe if you'd let us actually see the fight, we wouldn't have time to think about how hokey the whole situation is. Just an idea, which I give you for free.

And by the way, a note to Hollywood's fine stable of directors and cinematographers: dark, muddy cinematography does not equal depth of insight. It equals dark, muddy cinematography, and that is absolutely all. You can see everything perfectly clearly in a David Lean film or an Anthony Mann epic or a John Ford drama, yet there is never any sense that the director is stupid and just doesn't know how to make us have to squint to figure out which character is the protagonist, which is the antagonist, which the leading lady, and which is actually a lamp emanating a dull, brackish nimbus. Actually allowing the viewer to see what's happening could even be thought to be an advantage, or at least common courtesy.

So, could you people buy some lights? I know, I know, that will mean that your actors will actually have to act, as the audience will be able to see their stupid, bovine facial expressions all too easily, but what you'll lose in employability of bad actors you might well gain in the ability to express the occasional insight into the human condition. At least, that's what Lean, Mann, Ford, and the like managed to do. Tom Cruise and John Travolta have enough money and can afford to be tossed aside for people who can actually act a little. Besides, they can always do some reality TV.

Nevertheless, even though Batman Begins was photographed through a jar of Smucker's Plum Preserves, includes the most boring love interest character of all the films in the series, steals ideas and scenes from countless other movies, and is more unreal than the average Wagner opera, it's a fairly thoughtful film with some real conflicts, tough moral choices for the characters, important themes and ideas, and good performances. Those things make it worth seeing. But it certainly would have been much better if it had avoided the silly stylistic cliches that blemish most of today's Hollywood action films.


James Elliott said...

A couple of thoughts: First, you left out the always-great Ken Watanabe as Ra's al-Ghul. Second, you should read Alan Moore's Batman: Year One, since that is the comic series the movie is based on (in fact, Moore wrote the first draft of Batman Begins as an adaptation of it).

S. T. Karnick said...

Well, actually, I deliberately refrained from mentioning Watanabe, because I didn't think he was very good as al-Ghul. Not an interesting character, to me, as presented in the film. Just my opinion. I have read Alan Moore's BYO, and am not the biggest fan of the Moore Batman. I prefer the classic, Bob Kane version. I know that's a huge heresy among contemporary vesperphiles, but that's just the way I see it. I respect what Moore has tried to do, and I am very glad that he has revived public interest in the character, but I just don't think his work is as good as Kane's. Again, however, I recognize that it's a matter of taste.—STK

James Elliott said...

I'll give you that. Have you ever read some of Moore's later stuff, like Sin City or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (what a baaaad movie that was!)?

Personally, I prefer Garth Ennis, Brian Michael Bendis, and Warren Ellis for my comic book reading. What is it with the British? They took rock n' roll AND comic books from us. That's so wrong.

Hunter Baker said...

I saw the movie last night.

I'm also an avowed comic fan. Read them throughout childhood and into the teen years. Eventually, I was no longer willing to pay huge dollars for the super glossy pages when I could pay the same amount for a book.

Anyway, I'm one of those who has been very happy to see comics translate well on the big screen after the great period of awfulness that preceded what we now enjoy.

A few problems with the flick:

1. Lighting, lighting, lighting. S.T. couldn't be more correct.

2. The League of Shadows. They love justice, so they want to kill a lot of innocent people rather than take out criminals, which they appear quite well-equipped to do. Huh?

3. The lame corporate storyline.

On the other hand, I think the Scarecrow villain was hugely successful. One of the best in film so far.

Unlike S.T., I enjoyed the Asian Shadow rip-off. It gave a good explanation of how Bruce became so formidable. Not original at all, but well done aside from the ridiculous explanation of what the League of Shadows is all about. Ducard's advice to Bruce that he must "become a terrible thought," was pretty superb stuff.

Thanks for reviewing, S.T. We need you there!!!

S. T. Karnick said...

Thanks, Hunter. Did I mention how much I liked the villain, The Scarecrow, in this? SO much better than those in the other movies, and about as good as those in the TV cartoon series. (I have both seasons on DVD, plus the feature-length cartoon movies.)

To Mr. Elliott, I did like the LEG comic, and you're going to be appalled to know that I actually like the movie as well--even bought it on DVD. (Biggest problem I had with the film was technical: Sean Connery, as Alan Quartermain, is so thick around the middle that he would have keeled over in an instant if he tried to run around the way he does in the film. It did, however, provide an additional factor of suspense, in causing us to worry that Quartermain will die of a coronary thrombosis during one of the action sequences. Unfortunately, we know that the filmmakers won't do that, so the thing is a bit unrealistic. Which is funny to complain about in a fantasy, but hey, it's something you just can't fake.)

I have not read the Sin City comic book, but I did see the movie and, ooops, did not like it much. It's the first Robert Rodriguez film that did not work for me. Perhaps that is because it wasn't entirely a RR film. Bruce Willis showed himself to be still a tremendous actor and powerful screen presence, and the other performances were quite good as well, for which I reckon RR deserves most of the credit. It's worth watching for that.—STK

Hunter Baker said...

I should add that I still consider The Watchmen to be unsurpassed in modern comic history. Alan Moore was at his peak there, I think.

James Elliott said...

"Watchmen" is great. If you can stand comics that might (and probably will) offend religious and political sensibilities, I highly recommend Garth Ennis's "Preacher" and Warren Ellis's "Transmetropolitan." They are the most intelligent and adult graphic novels I have ever read. But, they are "graphic" in both the best and worse senses of the word, so reader be warned.

For a more toned-down feel, Warren Ellis's "Planetary" is great. It is an homage to great pulp fiction, like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Doc Brass, and to early comic books, like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Warren Ellis's writing is superb, and John Cassaday's art is wonderful.

Speaking of "The Martian Tales" of Edgar Rice Burroughs, I really hope they don't screw up the movie version of "Princess of Mars." The studio took it away from Robert Rodriguez when he left the Screen Director's Guild and gave it to that "Sky Captain" guy.

Kevin said...

Actually it is Frank Miller's Batman: Year One. Frank Miller did write a Batman draft but that was not the draft that Christopher Nolan and David Goyer worked with at all. However, they did take several homages of course and made some improvements

I do disagree with Sam about Miller versus Kane's Batman especially in terms of art alone, but Sam and I have talked about that before.

Also the League of Shadow concept is much better than Al Ghul's usual eco-terrorist reasons for destroying humanity and starting over (the film also hints at the fact the Al Guhl is also immortal through his use of the Lazarus pits).

Also, it is Frank Miller's Sin City, not Alan Moore.

For those interested in Watchmen, the film version just got dumped by Paramount and is being shopped around.

As far as the film goes, I did like it a lot. I have read different reasons for the close ups on the fights: some of the reasons being that they are deliberately trying to show how violent and effective Batman is (recall that Ducard says this is not a dance which in a sense is what martial arts are).

It was dark, but I think part of it was the fact that they did shoot in Chicago and London and wanted to both keep the reality of the set but not allow us to get stuck in the real world (although I caught several illinois license plates not blurred out). Of course, sometimes the film is dark because the movie theaters aren't playing the film at the right light setting (something Ebert points out a great deal).

Actually at the theater I saw it at, the sound was out of sync and too low which I'd normally complain about but was going to see it again anyway.

I agree that Katie Holmes was a useless character and it should have been Harvey Dent as the assistant DA, but I assume that Director Nolan could only get away with so much there.

I loved Steve Sailer's comment that Katie Holmes still looks like a 14 year old girl.

Any thoughts on the shared movie score by James Howard and Hans Zimmer. It didn't stand out which sometimes is a good think, but I am suprised that there was no detectable Batman theme (of course my sound was weak), which was probably the best thing of the first two Burton Batman films.

James Elliott said...

"Actually it is Frank Miller's Batman: Year One"

Gah! I went and committed a "Sin." Thanks for the correction. I went and rooted through my boxes and, sho'nuff, you're right.

Tlaloc said...

"The best way to experience Batman is still to read the original DC comic books from years ago and watch the TV cartoon series. This one ain't bad, but they're the real thing."

The cartoon was great. I remember being so very impressed after the terrible movies that a cartoon could do the character so much justice and so stylishly.

Watchmen- good
Dark Knight Returns- excellent
V for Vendetta- Excellent

Now I have to say I actually enjoyed the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie. It was just a fun romp. Connery's acting was beyond bad but the imagery and plot was sufficiently fun for me to buy it. Not a deep movie but decent brain candy.

I am very worried that a V for Vendetta movie is coming out. Despite the brilliant cast how do you make that story fit into two hours?

jona said...

I just saw the movie yesterday. S.T. was so on-target with his comments, I can hardly stand it!

I can well understand your fondness for the original Batman in the comics of the 40s. But I must quibble here, when you refer to Bob Kane as the creator of Batman. I'm of the impression that Bill Finger was mostly responsible (according to "Men of Tomorrow").