6/15/05 Edition

The BATMAN Returns!

Andy Reviews The Latest Incarnation of the Caped Crusader
Plus: The Mail Bag (Also) Returns!

It’s easy to see why filmmakers have had such a difficult time trying to capture the exploits of Bob Kane’s Dark Knight on-screen.

The inherent psychological aspects of the Bruce Wayne character, his inner-demons and guilt over the death of his parents, and the curious costume he wears are all obstacles one faces in trying to make a filmed adaptation of the DC Comics hero.

From the campy Adam West-Burt Ward ‘60s TV show to Tim Burton’s uneven though entertaining box-office hits and Joel Schumacher’s poorly-received, decadent sequels, the live-action Batman productions have all illustrated -- to one degree or another -- the problems that bringing the super-hero’s adventures to the screen entail.

Now the franchise has started anew with the release of Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS, an epic “re-imagining” of the hero that captures some of the essence of Frank Miller’s superb “Batman: Year One” comic book.

It’s an ambitious, at-times enthralling entertainment that unfortunately falters during its final third -- in a manner that ironically recalls the problems of its immediate predecessors at that.

First the good news: Christian Bale makes for a superb Bruce Wayne, who we meet at the beginning as a young man searching for his soul. Having left Gotham City and his name to the point where he’s believed dead, Wayne encounters a mysterious man named “Ducard” (Liam Neeson) while serving time in a Far East prison. In a sequence reminiscent of “The Shadow,”Ducard tutors Wayne in the ways of the “League of Shadows,” a group attempting to bring justice to the world by tilting the axis of power in various global locales.

Wayne leaves the group behind, though, after he refuses to execute a criminal, and returns to find Gotham City in the same, depleted condition one will recall from the old Tim Burton films. Criminals run amok, including a city mobster (a miscast Tom Wilkinson) and an Arkham Asylum shrink (Cillian Murphy) who has more up his sleeve than just treating his patients. One good cop -- Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) -- attempts to fight the injustice along with Wayne’s childhood pal-turned-D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), but their efforts are thwarted by a ring of corruption that extends to every nook and cranny of the dank metropolis.

Meanwhile, back at Wayne Manor, trusty butler Alfred (the wonderful Michael Caine) attempts to pick the troubled Bruce up by his bootstraps by indulging in his master’s latest interest: combating evil by becoming a one-man wrecking crew. Armed with weapons from Wayne Industries engineer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce springs into action and fights his childhood traumas by becoming Batman, or -- as Murphy at one point intones -- “The Bat-Man!”

Impressively shot in widescreen in a way that looks more like the work of Ridley Scott than Burton or Schumacher’s efforts, Nolan’s “Batman Begins” starts well, if not a bit leisurely. Bale looks the part and is given a well-crafted backstory courtesy of Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer. His interplay with Caine -- who’s given one of his best roles in years -- is tremendous, and being able to see veterans like Caine and Freeman together on-screen is worth the price of admission alone.

Nolan effectively illustrates Wayne’s guilt over his parents’ murder and perfectly sets up the springs that set his transformation into Batman in motion. Heck, we even get to see Batman doing some detective work -- a cornerstone of the comics that was almost entirely lost amongst the bombastic action and effects of the previous “Batman” films.

Where the movie gets into trouble -- and unfortunately a fair degree of it -- is in its final third. After doing such an impressive job setting up the plot, Nolan and Goyer come up with an absurd finale where the villains attempt to turn Gotham’s residents against one another by contaminating the water supply. Their method? A chemical that -- once sprayed through the air and in concert with the poisoned liquid -- makes its victims hallucinate really bad CGI make-up effects.

This results in a weird, choppy climax that almost feels like “Escape From Gotham City,” except with Batman filling in for Snake Plissken. What’s worse is that the special effects are laughably bad -- the affected Gothamites see Batman as a blurry figure with glowing eyes and light emitting from his mouth, much the same way that Michael Mann depicted vampires in “The Keep.” Needless to say it doesn’t work, while the “demise” of the nefarious Scarecrow is hysterically funny -- and not in an intended way, either.

The cast is also a mixed bag. Bale and Caine work so well together that they help to off-set some of the picture’s curious, and less effective, performances. Tom Wilkinson, a fine British character actor, seems totally misplaced here as an inner-city mobster -- a role that cries out for the likes of a young Paul Sorvino or, at the least, Joe Pantoliano. Cillian Murphy seems far too young as the shady Dr. Crane, with his over-the-top “look out for the Bat-Man!” line providing a few unintended chuckles for the audience I screened the movie with. Katie Holmes comes off as a lightweight against the likes of Bale, Caine, and Freeman, and her final scene with Bale is too pat and predictable.

Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s “tag team” soundtrack also doesn’t work well enough to justify the collaboration between the two veteran composers. Though propulsive and at times effective (thankfully in a less blaring way than Elliot Goldenthal’s excessive scores for the Schumacher films), it’s also highly forgettable. There’s no central thematic material to grasp onto, and their tiresome cue for the Batmobile chase -- which sounds like what Samuel Barber might have come up with in an “Adagio For Batman” -- stands as a severe miscalculation.

Ultimately, “Batman Begins” has nearly as many problems as it has positives, yet Nolan is enough of a craftsman and artist that the pros outweigh the cons. Always exciting to watch and with strong central performances from Bale and Caine, this is a flawed but fascinating new take on the comic book legend -- better than the Schumacher films and essentially as satisfying as Burton’s efforts. Which is to say, it’s entertaining, but there’s still room for improvement. Even now, there must be something about Batman and movies mixing together... (***, PG-13, 137 mins.)

Aisle Seat Mail Bag

From Preston Neal Jones:

Three separate items in today's Aisle Seat column move me to write you, and if there's one commonality which unites all three different topics, it might  be "nostalgia."

My nostalgia for LIFEGUARD is mostly personal, partly having to do with the fact that Mr. Petrie used his own living room for one of his settings, consequently one scene begins on a close-up of a painting done by my late brother Deke.  (He and Petrie had acted together on Broadway in the late 40's.)  I'm glad you appreciate this off-beat film, and I'm glad to learn it's now available on DVD -- which will allow me to freeze the frame on my brother's artwork...
You're also right on target in your high appraisal of THE REIVERS and its score.  You probably already know that this was a replacement score, done by Williams at Rydell's insistence.  (If memory serves, the original score was by Lalo Schifrin.)  You're also correct, I believe, that in terms of motion pictures this was a watershed for Williams.  I'm old enough, though, to remember some obscure work for television in which Williams foreshadowed the musical sensitivity and also the feel for Americana evinced in REIVERS.  I'm speaking of a drama anthology series sponsored by Alcoa and broadcast on ABC called "Alcoa Premiere" (when it wasn't simply "Premiere.")  It was hosted every week by Fred Astaire, which is why I, a high schooler, was watching every week, recording each show on my Wollensak reel-to-reel.  Very quickly I became impressed by the quality and the versatility of Mr. Williams' music each week, and I weep that this was all under the auspices of that famous dog-in-the-manger mega-studio, Universal.  Somewhere in its vaults, if they haven't been destroyed, lie, unheard since the early sixties, a wealth of wonderful material by Mr. Williams which I pray, against all odds, will some time finally see the light of day.  If you could hear it, I think you'd share my mad dream.
Finally, THE FAR HORIZONS, with its "standard score by Hans J. Salter."  For a lot of us golden-agers, a score by Salter set a very high standard.  I haven't seen HORIZONS for many years, but just a few weeks ago I was enjoying the brief suite from it that Tony Thomas released on LP, particularly the lovely theme for Sacajawea.  Sorry you didn't care for it.  Perhaps some day you'll be more favorably impressed by one or another of Hans' western scores.  For me, his high water mark in the genre was BEND OF THE RIVER.

Preston, thanks so much for your comments. I meant no offense to Mr. Salter -- just that I didn’t think the score was particularly noteworthy, especially at a time when so many outstanding Golden Age works were being routinely composed (makes one lament just how awful the state of modern day film scoring currently is, doesn’t it?).

From Terry Hartzell:

I enjoyed your review of the DVD release of our mutual favorite, "The Reivers".  Now, if we can just get an expanded original score soundtrack
(including the music from the climactic race).  

I’m right with you Terry. I can’t understand why just one brief cue was added to the Columbia “Legacy” CD back in the ‘90s -- a disc which also has a compressed dynamic range when compared to Masters Film Music’s more satisfying 1990 CD release. Hopefully the masters are still out there somewhere!

From Michael Contreras:

Hello Andy,
I've followed your column religiously on FSM for several years and find that you and I agree on most of your film evaluations.  So, I was thinking today about those movies that on first viewing I really didn't like, but on subsequent viewings have come to love.  Some of mine are The Fifth Element, Gladiator, Magnolia (perhaps my favorite movie of all time), 25th Hour, and believe it or not, The Empire Strikes Back ( I must have been too young at the time).  I thought you might share a few of yours.
Great job with your web site and your writing style is enjoyable.
Michael, thanks for the comments! There are a handful of films where I’ve changed my initial reaction, though more often than not it’s the other way around -- where a second viewing made me question what I saw in the film to begin with. Case in point is MINORITY REPORT. I was excited by some of the individual set pieces when I saw the film the first time, but after I watched the DVD, I was more agitated by the "gritty" elements Spielberg brought to the movie...the kind he tried so desperately to bring to A.I. and backfired. All of that left a bad taste in the mouth and really soured the movie for me on its second go-around. Hopefully WAR OF THE WORLDS will be a return to form!
NEXT TIME: COACH CARTER, Anchor Bay and More!
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