Batman Begins (2005, Christopher Nolan)

Well, now, I’m surprised. Batman Begins is not terrible.

It’s not good either. Not good at all. It has damning faults in three areas, and since this film is the first critically praised one I’ve thrashed–at least the first critically praised one currently still in the theaters–this post is going to be a little more “formal” than we’re used to around here.

I’ll get the good stuff out of the way. Christian Bale is good. Now, that’s not actually the biggest surprise–though I imagined it would be since Christian Bale has long been my candidate for the worst working “serious” actor (Hayden Christiansen or someone like him doesn’t count). For evidence, I offer Velvet Goldmine and Shaft. Still, I’m not surprised, since I thought as much from the trailers. Bale might belong in this sort of film–something big and emotionally empty. Whenever he tries to act “real,” he as convincing as … oh, Samuel L. Jackson. No, the big surprise of Batman Begins is Katie Holmes. She’s good. She has some terrible lines and the way she says “Bruce” is annoying, but she’s actually quite good.

Nolan’s direction is adequate. The “epic” shots of Bruce Wayne in China are between annoying and stupid. Never knew so many Chinese people spoke English, I guess those recent college graduates who go over to teach English really get into the boonies. There are a few excellent shots in Batman Begins, but the direction is in no way superior to Tim Burton’s take on the material and I don’t even like Burton. Nolan shoots Batman really well. The costume, in the publicity shots, is incredibly silly. It might not have nipples but it obviously has limited motion. Nolan hides it in the dark.

Now for the damning faults. I made notes during the film, so let’s see if that provides any structure (I doubt it).

Firstly, the guy who plays Bruce Wayne’s father. He sucks. The kid who plays young Bruce Wayne, he sucks too. I hated him. I wish the mugger had shot the little British twit who couldn’t keep his accent. And what was the deal with the mother? She had three lines. For the entire movie, it’s all about Papa Wayne. Apparently, Bruce didn’t love his mother very much. Oh, and there’s some awful exposition explaining Gotham City to young Bruce and the audience (in the film’s only incredibly offensive CG portion). If the Adam West TV show did an episode about the death of the Wayne parents (it didn’t, but if), it would have done a better job.

Damn, I wanted to segue into the next point from that one, but I got all caught up in Adam West’s tighties… Basically, Gotham City is the most important city on the face of the globe. Everything that’s anything is all about Gotham City. And, conveniently, Wayne Enterprises or Industries or whatever the movie calls it, is the world’s most important company. Batman Begins has no concept of scale. Robocop took place in Detroit, but managed to convincingly set-up the huge corporation effecting the film’s world. Batman Begins doesn’t do any such convincing. In fact, it goes so far to tell the viewer Wayne Inc. is the huge corporation that effects everyone. In dialogue.

But for such a huge metropolis, again, Gotham City seems to have only one neighborhood, just like in the other movies. There’s the skyline, of course, which looks a lot like Chicago on a bright day, but the only neighborhood where anything ever–visibly–happens is called the Narrows. And it’s small. But Batman actually doesn’t need that much space to play with. Because he doesn’t actually fight crime. He fights corruption and he fights masterminds, but only if it’ll further the plot along. Batman’s first fight is the drug importers who clue him in to the larger scheme at work, his next fight is to save Katie Holmes, who he makes his wary ally–who’s being attacked by agents of said importers’ boss. I think the next fight is with the film’s only supervillain, the Scarecrow, a psychologist gone evil.

There’s no “first night out,” which shows the audience the hero doing all sorts of heroic shit. Superman is the perfect example (and where the name for the sequence comes from). Batman doesn’t show any concern for the people of Gotham themselves. He doesn’t beat up any spousal abusers or average muggers, it’s all got to be about furthering the lame story. And it is a lame story. Batman Begins is all about Bruce Wayne “becoming” Batman. Well, we all know he’s going to become Batman. Somewhere along the line, shouldn’t it be a choice? Shouldn’t we think, oh, not everything is predestined, that there’s a living, breathing, thinking character at work here? Not just someone who can be an action figure and be slathered on underwear… But there’s not and that’s one of the major reasons Batman Begins fails. It asks the audience to take the character seriously, then refuses to do so itself. Would Bruce Wayne have become Batman if he didn’t have body armor or finding the “batcave?” The film never convinces us he would. It’s all about synchronicity.

Did I mention the annoying little kid he meets in the bad neighborhood who reappears later in the film? Because Gotham City–though the world’s sparkling jewel and the only place a serious terrorist would attack–has a limited number of SAG card-carrying citizens.

Now for the actors. Let’s call them the Pork Pack. I though the Ham something or other, but couldn’t think of a second H-word. I didn’t want to give this one away at the beginning, but Bale and Holmes turn two of the five acceptable performances in the film. Liam Neeson is awful. Michael Caine is slightly less awful. Gary Oldman (who’s got terribly written scenes) is bad too. These three suck, nicely put. They’re silly. Neeson in particular is giggle-inducing. Morgan Freeman is fine but has nothing to do. Rutger Hauer does good. He has shit to do, but he spins it interestingly. Mark Boone Junior (anyone else remember this guy, he was great in Trees Lounge) has a small role and is a welcome breather. Cillian Murphy (Christopher Nolan’s great discovery) sucks. Tom Wilkinson sucks too. Most of the Brits in the film playing Americans can’t hold their accents the whole way through, I think Bale is the only one who does…

The film has some nice sequences. I’m not wild about the entire car chase, but some of it was good. There was no weight to it, of course, it was just an excuse for them to use the Batmobile. The end is particularly hilarious, because the whole thing boils down to an over-the-top Steven Seagal Under Siege movie (just without the good acting). There’s a bomb on a train business. What else… Oh, the DC logo at the beginning. This addition is the saddest. Warner’s is doing it to counter the familiarity of the Marvel logo before their movies. Warner is doing it, not DC. Batman belongs to Warner Bros. From 1989 to 2002–with that first Scooby-Doo teaser–audiences around the world have associated Batman with the Warner Bros. logo. And now they’re supposed to associate it with the new DC logo? Why, because the DC logo will be on the underwear? Because no one who sees Batman Begins and is unfamiliar with the comic books is going to find anything they like in the comic books. If you want to read a Batman comic book, you’ll have to spend a few hundred bucks just to understand what he’s talking about–reborn Robins, brainwashing and whatnot. Batman Begins has little to do with the comic books and nothing to do with the spirit of the current Batman character. Anyone who says otherwise is either stupid, a salesman, or an deliberate liar.

Batman Begins tries to present the audience with a Batman we can identify with. A “realistic” Batman to identify with. Because the whole thing about identifying with Michael Keaton’s pains and human struggles, well, to hell with all that, he can’t compete with Tobey Maguire. And there are moments when Batman Begins almost succeeds. Unfortunately, none of them are when Bale’s in costume (though he’s fine as Batman too) and most involve Katie Holmes being around.

Except, it’s not called Tom Cruise’s Fake Girlfriend Begins. And, yeah, the title is lame. At best it’s a sentence fragment, at worst it’s a grammatical offense to the language Coca-Cola’s ad department (the people who said that the average American doesn’t understand the difference between “everyday” and “every day”) would appreciate.

Oh. I forgot to mention the shitty music. It’s really shitty.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher Nolan; screenplay by Nolan and David S. Goyer, based on a story by Goyer and characters created by Bob Kane; director of photography, Wally Pfister; edited by Lee Smith; music by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard; production designer, Nathan Crowley; produced by Emma Thomas, Charles Roven and Larry J. Franco; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred), Liam Neeson (Henri Ducard), Katie Holmes (Rachel Dawes), Gary Oldman (James Gordon), Cillian Murphy (Dr. Jonathan Crane), Tom Wilkinson (Carmine Falcone), Rutger Hauer (Richard Earle), Ken Watanabe (Ra’s al Ghul) and Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox).


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White Dog (1982, Samuel Fuller)

I kept getting sad during White Dog, probably for a few reasons. First, the film is effective: it’s about people faced with a reality (a racist training his dog to attack black people) they can’t fix, but they’re going to try. I have a bootleg from Denmark (everyone’s bootleg is from Denmark), but hadn’t watched it. Only the end.

Second, because White Dog is a different Sam Fuller. It’s an early 1980s Fuller telling a contemporary story, using more advanced filming technology (location cranes and steadycam), with an Ennio Morricone score. I kept getting sad because White Dog‘s Fuller had a lot of interesting films in him and folks ran him out of the country without even seeing his film.

And White Dog has a lot going for it. The only Paul Winfield-lead I’m aware of–he’s so good. Unless black guys star in action movies, they never get any recognition… Kristy MacNichol proves cutesy actress icons used to be able to act. Burl Ives is good. White Dog is a good film. It’s not a great film, however, because it’s too short. It runs about ninety minutes and there are two ideas never developed on–MacNichol’s boyfriend, played by “Simon and Simon” star Jameson Parker–yeah, he’s good too–was supposed to write something about her and the dog and some tranquilizers got replaced with regular darts but never showed up again. The tranquilizer scene probably was lost when Fuller absconded with a print over to France. With the writer part, I’m just correcting it in my head–ol’ boy writes an article, brings out the dog’s proud owner (who shows up in the third act for a second, letting MacNichol show why “son of a bitch” can be a great descriptor), and lets the characters get some sort of closure. I made up all of the parts past the darts. Fuller never intended of those–that I know of. Maybe I’m sitting here eating chocolate cake, drinking soymilk and channeling him, but I doubt it.

Before the film started, the college kid introduced White Dog as criminally under-seen and criminally unreleased on DVD. He was right on both parts, even though they’re really the same thing. I always hate seeing films about race in America and realizing that things have gotten worse. No one talks about it anymore, but there’s more division than there was when I was a kid. White Dog tries to talk about it. In contrast, Crash tries to tell you about it….

As for White Dog and you good people getting to see it–there’s always shitty Danish bootlegs and there’s always a chance the French will save it.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Samuel Fuller; screenplay by Fuller and Curtis Hanson, based on a story by Romain Gary; director of photography, Bruce Surtees; edited by Bernard Gribble; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, Brian Eatwell; produced by Jon Davison; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kristy McNichol (Julie Sawyer), Paul Winfield (Keys), Burl Ives (Carruthers) and Jameson Parker (Roland Gray).


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The Eagle Has Landed (1976, John Sturges), the extended version

We all know Winston Churchill wasn’t kidnapped or assassinated during World War II–except maybe President Bush, but he’s still waiting for John Rambo to call with info on Osama–so The Eagle Has Landed‘s ending is a bit of a give-away. The film suceeds–to some degree–since it presents the audience with characters they care so much about, the concern for their futures outweighs the known past.

There’s some good acting in The Eagle Has Landed. Donald Sutherland’s Irish accent is a little much, but he’s fine, so’s Michael Caine. Robert Duvall is so good–so amazingly good–I debated getting a copy for my collection. The beginning, the Nazi politics and the planning of the mission, all good. But once the film gets to England, it all goes sour. Once Larry Hagman shows up as an unexperienced American commander, well, you’re glad when he gets it….

John Sturges is good at making the audience identify with the “enemy.” Making you care about them on a human level. He does it with the Nazis here and in The Great Escape and with Confederates in Escape from Fort Bravo. Sturges doesn’t believe that a country’s ideology makes the man–the soldier. All Quiet on the Western Front presents a similar argument, so does The Thin Red Line and even Saving Private Ryan (or so the reviews said, I always read the lullaby scene differently). Sturges creates awkward emotions inside you during this film. The good guy getting killed feels good because he’s the antagonist. When the double agent dies, you’re sorry for her. It’s a big story told on very human levels (Jenny Agutter almost ruins it, of course).

The Eagle Has Landed was Sturges’ last film. The one before was the unbelievably bad John Wayne-Dirty Harry rip-off McQ. I knew I had negative thoughts about Sturges for some reason other than The Magnificent Seven, which was just mediocre. I have a lot of his films recorded, but haven’t seen that many. Probably five or six. But Sturges is good.

And Robert Duvall. Wow. I’m looking through Netflix right now.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John Sturges; screenplay by Tom Mankiewicz, based on a novel by Jack Higgins; director of photography, Anthony Richmond; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by Lalo Schifrin; produced by Jack Wiener and David Niven Jr.; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Michael Caine (Col. Kurt Steiner), Donald Sutherland (Liam Devlin), Robert Duvall (Col. Max Radi), Jenny Agutter (Molly Prior), Donald Pleasence (Heinrich Himmler), Anthony Quayle (Adm. Wilhelm Canaris), Jean Marsh (Joanna Grey), Sven-Bertil Taube (Captain von Neustadt), Judy Geeson (Pamela Verecker), Siegfried Rauch (Sergeant Brandt), John Standing (Father Verecker), Treat Williams (Capt. Harry Clark) and Larry Hagman (Colonel Pitts).


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Superman II (1980, Richard Lester), the restored international cut

I read about the Superman II restored international cut (RIC)–a fan effort to compile all the extra Superman II footage from various television prints, mostly from foreign markets–in Entertainment Weekly. It said to head over to Superman Cinema to get a free copy, just so long as you provide free copies. By that time, however, Warner Bros. had shut distribution down. I got my copy through a nice guy in alt.tv.tape-trading. It cost eight dollars, which is well worth it, considering the disc has a bunch of special features. It’s an impressive package.

The “restoration” was done in PAL pan and scan, then transferred to NTSC for the DVD. As far as the prints, they look great. As good as a regular VHS. But I’ve been seeing Superman II letterboxed since 1997 or 1998, whenever Warner got around to releasing the remastered laserdisc. But I grew up with a pan and scan Superman II, so I didn’t think it’d hurt me too much. Thought it might even be nostalgic.

Superman II, the RIC, does have some nice “new” moments. Mostly with the cast from the original film. A little more of Ned Beatty, some amusing Lex Luthor/Jimmy Olsen interaction, an attempt at a better close for the Lois and Clark romance. But it doesn’t fix the problems with the film. And watching it in converted from PAL pan and scan–which makes the film look, to me at least, like an episode of “Three’s Company,” or some other TV shot on video–made me hypersensitive. I couldn’t get lost in the magic. And then I realized why.

Superman II doesn’t have any magic. It doesn’t have the wonder of the first film. In fact, the attempt at furthering Superman as a character never appeared before this cut. In the North Pole, in the Lois and Clark scene I just mentioned, Lois tells Superman to “never forget” their romance, echoing Ma Kent telling him never to forget his youth. This scene doesn’t appear in the theatrical version and the end of the film–the idiotic super-brainwashing kiss–invalidates it. Fans constantly attack Richard Lester for the films’ faults, but he’s only partly to blame. The story doesn’t respect Superman enough. There’s no real romance between him and Lois Lane. Once he gives up his powers, it’s obvious she wants the super-dude. He gives them up, gets laid for the first (and, presumably, only) time, gets beat up, then gets them back–all in ten or twelve minutes. There’s no drama to it.

The initial online outrage about Superman II, once enough folks got together and shared what they knew of Donner’s original intent, was directed at Tom Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz responded, defending himself, and placed the blame–I think–on the Salkinds and Lester. Richard Lester is not actually dead. I always thought he was, but he’s not. He’s never responded and, unless Warner taps him for a special edition, seems to have no interest in his Superman efforts.

Watching the film, obviously there are production faults, but it is mostly Lester’s. The moments of comedy when Metropolis is being “blown apart” are inappropriate. It’s laughing at victims. The bad guys are silly, which may be partly Donner’s fault, though I think he mostly shot the good scenes, the Lois and Clark scenes towards the beginning. Since much was shot at the same time, on the same sets, but to far lesser success, Superman II–in any version–seems a disrespect to the first film. Maybe even to the characters themselves. The first film–through the wonderful combination of production, writing, and acting–created people we cared about. Hell, it did such a good job, we even cared about them in Superman IV. Superman II plays off that sentiment.

Sitting here, twenty-five years later, I can see, dramatically, what went wrong. This restored international cut shows, at the time, someone else cared about these characters, cared about developing them further, cared about doing good work. Unfortunately, whoever this person was, it wasn’t the people in charge of producing Superman II.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Lester; written by Mario Puzo, David Newman and Leslie Newman, from a story by Puzo, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; creative consultant, Tom Mankiewicz; directors of cinematography, Robert Paynter and Geoffrey Unsworth; edited by John Victor-Smith; music by Ken Thorne; production designers, John Barry and Peter Murton; produced by Pierre Spengler; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), Christopher Reeve (Clark Kent/Superman), Ned Beatty (Otis), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Sarah Douglas (Ursa), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Jack O’Halloran (Non), Valerie Perrine (Ms. Teschmacher), Susannah York (Lara), E.G. Marshall (The President), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen) and Terence Stamp (General Zod).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | SUPERMAN.

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