Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (Warner Bros., 6.15) is the smartest and most adult-minded superhero film Hollywood has ever made.
For the first time ever, a major studio has made a comic-book movie that plays it fairly straight and grown up without letting the usual downmarket distractions run the show.
Batman Begins is somewhere between exceptionally good and awesome during the first hour or so, which is what sold me and put me in a relatively placated and open-to-whatever place for the film’s slightly more conventional remainder, which — don’t get me wrong — is entirely decent and rousing and even spooky here and there.
I love the way Christian Bale’s Batman is always hunching over and scowling…this is one very pissed-off bat…and the general fact that Batman Begins is always a sharp, intelligent, well-written ride, and is exceptionally well acted by everyone.
Especially by Bale (in the dual role of Batman/Bruce Wayne), Michael Caine (Alfred the butler), Liam Neeson (Zen criminal Henri Ducard) and Morgan Freeman (Batman’s congenial tech-support guy Lucius Fox). It’s just pleasurable as hell when a movie is as well-cast as this one and nobody drops the ball.
I was even excited by Katie Holmes, who nails her part as a childhood friend of Wayne’s and a Gotham City prosecutor so nicely and skillfully that I momentarily forget about the bogus offscreen show she’s been putting on lately with a certain couch-bouncing actor.
But then at the very end, after the bad guys have been wasted, Batman is told by his plainclothes detective ally, Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman), that there’s a new troublemaker on the horizon, a guy with a flair for the theatrical…
Christian Bale, star of Batman Begins.
And Gordon hands Batman a business card that says “Joker” on it, and my heart sank.
Nolan has saved the Batman franchise by taking it seriously and treating every aspect and line of dialogue and character like they really and truly matter without any Joel Schumacher attitude mucking things up, and for his Big Follow-up he’s going back to the old Batman vs. Joker routine?
Screw that, Chris. Create new villains, new perils…the hell with the damn comic book.
I thought this was going to be the Nolan Way when I realized the big threat to Gotham in Batman Begins is, believe it or not, mass psychedelic insanity…a gas that sends people into a state of instant hallucinatory psychological torment. This is way darker and stranger than the kind of material that Bob Kane, the original Batman comic-book guy, used in the ’40s and ’50s.
Well, enjoy this installment anyway. Batman Begins is the only comic-book superhero movie I’ve ever truly admired and enjoyed. And for a crabhead like myself, that’s saying something. I know a tiny bit about the original Batman comics, and that they never smirked or screwed around or cracked wise. This movie gets that, honors that.
Especially in the how-Bruce-got-to-be-Batman section, which is edited in a not-entirely-linear, time-flipping way that, for me, improves the delivery. Cosmetic improvements can really enhance a film if they’re well applied, and this is one such occasion.
This section is about overcoming rage and cynicism…about channeling energy and facing one’s fears. About Wayne getting past his parents’ violent death by blowing town and ending up in some snow-blanketed section of what appears to be northern India or Tibet.
Here in Kundun-by-way-of-Insomnia country (surrounded by the same chunky bluish-gray ice fields that put the spell on Al Pacino) Wayne learns to be a hard-core opponent of evil from a team of gangster monks called the League of Shadows, led by Henri Ducard (Li am Neeson) and Ra’s Al Ghul (The Last Samurai‘s Ken Watanabe).
I love Nolan and co-screenwriter David S. Goyer’s decision to bring Neeson and his Zen goons back in the third act in a nicely symmetrical way. I guess what I really mean is that I love their not using some prancing-around supervillain to go mano e mano against Batman/Wayne.
I’m amazed, frankly, that a genre film this good came out of Warner Bros., a studio that encouraged and supported the anti-Christ Schumacher in the making of Batman and Robin and Batman Forever…movies that everyone despised and which showed, really, that Warner Bros. was kind of an anti-Christ movie studio, which is a harsh way of saying they couldn’t stop being clueless.
And then came all that ridiculous floundering around with Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One and those different Superman movies (including one proposed with McG as director) and also that moronic notion of making a Batman vs. Superman film. It’s obvious these guys never had an idea what works, and still don’t.
Nolan’s pitch to Alan Horn about how to save the Batman franchise (which I read about recently) was probably approved with some kind of hunch on the way to lunch.
“Let’s see…everything we’ve tried to do to revive Batman and Superman has been a total embarrassment or a wipeout or has run out of steam,” Horn probably said to himself. “We look like total fools, the fanboys think we’re retarded…how badly can Nolan’s approach turn out, given our embarrassing track record?
“I don’t know if it’s a good or bad approach…I don’t know anything…but I know nothing’s worked so far so I might as well roll ‘em.”
Batman Begins director Chris Nolan, Christian Bale, and Ken Watanabe.
Don’t get the idea that Batman Begins is anything more than a very smart and well-made programmer. It’s not Tokyo Story or highbrow suggestive like Val Lewton’s Cat People or anything in that realm, but it is high-quality merchandise because it digs in and tells a mythical, hyper-real story about people who think and behave with logic and reason.
Aside from Tom Wilkinson’s Falcone, a grossly mannered gangster guy, and 28 Days Later star Cillian Murphy as a double-dealing (make that drug-dealing) psychopath called Scarecrow. Both are a bit mannered, but then criminals in a comic-book movie can’t act like notary publics.
There’s plenty of action in this film, but it all flows from Wayne’s pain. I liked Bale for the first time in this role, and I say this having never warmed up to him before this. Nolan’s decision to have him bend over and get all raspy-voiced and rodent-like when he puts on the suit was inspired. Bale’s character is no smoothie. The ground he’s standing on is never that solid, and he’s just waiting for the next trap door to fall through.
Batman Begins is definitely breakthrough material. The fanboys are going to love it. It’s going to be fairly big and stay that way for, I don’t know, five or six weeks….maybe longer.
I’m glad I finally found a comic-book film I could stand behind. It’s a relief. I’m just sorry I was too backed up by Wednesday’s column to go see the IMAX version, which will surely be a trip in itself.
I’m shocked — shocked — that there are guys out there who will walk into a Banana Republic tomorrow or next week and look at these shirts and go, “Cool…gotta pick these up.” Or a wife or girlfriend pointing them out to a significant other and saying, “Look…perfect for you.”
I shot these utterly revolting dress shirts two days ago at a Banana Republic in the West Village, on the corner of Bleecker and Sixth Avenue. I would go to jail before putting one of these on. It’s the bulky collars. They’re getting close to the size of those elephant collars of the `70s, so named for their resemblance to elephant ears.
Collars are for the wearing of ties. Without a tie they’re the stupidest and most pointless fashion accessory of all time, unless you’re X-factor and wearing some cool Italian-designed thing and the collars are narrow and delicate or in some way unobtrusive.
Clunky collars prove nothing, add nothing, accomplish nothing…and they’re ugly.
Tell this to the Ed Norton-Brad Pitt generation. These guys wet themselves over collars and zippers and shirts with absolutely horrible designs and rancid color schemes. I’m tellin’ you, men’s stuff was in a much cooler phase back in the late `80s…before the tastes of GenX Fight Club-bers started running the show.
“Thanks for mentioning my contribution to The Beautiful Country , since the Writer’s Guild arbitrated me out of credit, and when Pressman and Malick listed me as a producer they were threatened with a lawsuit for the sin of offering ‘consolation credit.
“That’s the Writers Guild for you, harming its own membership for as long as I can recall, but that, as they say, is another story.
“The project began as an idea of Terry Malick’s and was developed by Sunflower Films, a company belonging to Malick and [producer] Ed Pressman. I believe they had a low-budget overhead deal with Sony.
The Beautiful Country screenwriter Larry Gross.
“Sabina Murray, a published writer of fiction, had worked with Terry as a consultant on The Thin Red Line because of her expertise concerning events in Asia during WWII. She worked initially on the Wonderful Country script under the guidance of Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers).
“Around this time Terry was offering Zhang post-production assistance on some of the smaller films he made in cooperation with Sony Classics. After a couple of drafts Zhang Yimou stepped away.
“Then Wayne Wang came on, and suggested that I rewrite Sabina’s script. I wrote a couple of drafts for Wayne, and then he stepped away too.
“Pressman, however, finally had a script everyone now liked. He had a list of indie and foreign directors with English-speaking experience or credentials, and Hans Petter Moland was on the list.
“I had just been at Telluride and seen Moland’s superb Aberdeen, a dysfunctional family drama, with Stellan Skaarsgaard, Lena Heady and Ian Hart. Moland had also been responsible for launching Skaarsgaard’s movie career in Scandinavia with a naturalistic period action film called Zero Kelvin.
The Beautiful Country director Hans Petter Moland, star Damon Nguyen during filming.
“Moland is a filmmaker of wide humane interests and tremendous skill I recommended him avidly to Pressman. Terry screened Aberdeen and promptly told Ed that Hans Petter Moland was the guy who should do this.
“It took two years to get the money. And it was a ridiculously tiny amount of money to make so physically arduous a film.
“The element that stayed firm and true to the project from before my involvement, I`m forgetting to mention, was Nick Nolte. I think his fifteen minutes at the end is some of the finest work in his glorious career. The most recent bit of comparable stature was his superb part in The Thin Red Line. Obviously he and Terry have a connection;
“Again, thanks for supporting the work.” — Larry Gross (also screenwriter of We Don’t Live Here Anymore, the excellent Gunshy, Crime and Punishment in Suburbia, 48 HRS.
“Great riff on the new Rent trailer, although I have to say I share your fears about Revolution Pictures (i.e., the can’t-get-it-right Joe Roth) and Chris Columbus having their mitts on this one.
“This was arguably the best musical of the 90s. It helped to push the boundaries of what the mainstream could digest in that wonderful pre-millennium time. The rawness of the piece just might be best suited for the dreary Nederlander Theatre. Time will tell if it translates to the screen.
Adam Pascal, Rosario Dawson in Rent, due Nov. 11 from Columbia.
“I am encouraged that 90% of the original cast is back to do the movie. If they can bring one tenth of the energy to the screen that they brought to the stage, they might just push the film to the fresh side.
“I will say this: the Rent trailer is the best music video I have seen this year. (Not that I watch them anymore.) You are 100% right — Jonathan Larson wrote a beautiful song in ‘Seasons of Love.’ The cast knows it, the audience knows it — I just hope Columbus can do the whole thing justice.” — Brendan Noone
The only significant addition to the Mr. and Mrs. Smith roster of shame, announced two days ago in this space to try and hold certain critics accountable for liking or giving even a mixed pass to Doug Liman’s action thriller, is Jamie Bernard’s review in the N.Y. Daily News.
“I was so happy to read your reaction to Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Perfect. I haven’t seen the film itself, but I saw the trailer, and that was all I needed to see. Ever.
“I’m so tired of films that not grounded in reality. It seems like 90% of all action movies have to have The Matrix style of effects, without being in a sci-fi world that would allow any of it to be remotely plausible. The action is so ludicrous that it takes me right out of the picture.
“The real stunner is that Doug Liman would resort to the McG school of filmmaking. Why, why, why?!? There are so few directors that can lay down a quality, gritty, realistic action picture, and Liman is, or at least was, one of those guys. It’s an awful waste of talent, and it’s disgraceful for him as a filmmaker.
“I know that people eat this crap up, as I always hear the classic line `the story was o.k., but the effects were really great.’ It kills me. I really, really hope this thing tanks.” — Jeff Horst
“I’m beginning to develop this theory that marquee-level critics in the last 10 years seem to have resigned themselves to the realization that certain films are critic-proof and to attack them is a fruitless Tar Baby exercise.
“Films like Mr, and Mrs, Smith may have their merits, but we all know if they starred the guy from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and one of the chicks from Charmed instead of Brangelina then all those 13 to 35 year olds would deny it the $45 million opening it will most probably earn and just make it an X-Box weekend.
“Certain critics apparently have a `choose your cinematic battles carefully’ attitude when it comes to major studio releases. The worst offender seems to be Roger Ebert who has given a pass to a veritable sewer of shitty films.
“I mention this because I was thinking of the reaction to the Mr. and Mrs. Smith trailer I witnessed on opening day of Revenge of the Sith. In a crowd of Summer ’05 blockbuster-to-be trailers that included War of the Worlds and Fantastic Four, the loudest reaction was for the Smiths, so be prepared for more positive reviews.” — Steve Coppock
“The overriding thought I have whenever I see a promo for Mr. and Mrs. Smith is not that it’s about gorgeous people acting out their fantasies — shooting guns, doing stunts, not acting but play-acting the way children do. What I think of is what Hitchcock could’ve done with the same basic premise.
“Instead of allowing Carole Lombard to hornswoggle him into directing a rather tepid domestic comedy, imagine he and, say, Ernest Lehman, coming up with a black comedy centered not around big guns and explosions, but a couple surreptitiously and cleverly trying to kill each other, all the while remaining polite to each other’s faces and never admitting openly what they’re up to.
“Of course, at the end, after one of them finally, perhaps even accidentally, dispatches the other, he or she sits down to eat the sandwich and glass of milk the other one so courteously laid out for them.” — David Ludwig.
“I agree with you on this movie. There is no way I am seeing this thing. It seems to me that the director knew of the happenings between Pitt and Jolie, and he used that chemistry (if there is any) to try to make the movie slicker, because people are going to see it just to check out said chemistry between the two.
“I also can’t help thinking about True Lies. They just made the Jamie Lee Curtis part as a spy. How many people would like to see Ms. Jolie in the bedroom dance scene from that movie?” — Gil Padilla, Dayton, Ohio.
“It’s been a while since I’ve actually laughed out loud at something I had read online, but your piece about that War of the Worlds picture made me do just that this morning. Thanks for that — made my day. ” — Jeremy Wockenfuss
“I always love your stuff, but there’s something wonderful and, I dunno, vaguely magical about your breakdown of that War of the Worlds publicity photo in [Wednesday]‘s column. Every face you describe just makes the description you’re writing a little more perfect, until you’re no longer just making a point, you’re creating a perfect little work of art. That’s really beautiful writing, man.” — Name lost in the shuffle
“Your description of that War of the Worlds still is hilarious! I love that you caught that girl smiling behind Tom Cruise. Also love the NYC shots you’re putting in – I miss it there. ” — Sharon Mann, Paris, France.
Not an all-girl restaurant, appearances to the contrary. Tartine on West 4th Street — Wednesday, 6.8.05, 7:35 pm.
West 4th Street near Charles — Wednesday, 6.8.05, 7:20 pm.
There’s a Whole Foods on 14th street in Union Square — full of exquisite pickings and a great salad bar and costly as hell. (The nickname, I’m told, is “Whole Paycheck.”) I was there the other night and filled up one of those plastic trays full of salad and vegetables, and was told by the cashier that I owed them $20. I’ve never paid $20 for a salad in a restaurant. Le Basket (pictured above) is about four or five blocks south of Whole Foods with a nice salad bar of their own, and they only hit you for about $10, so Whole Foods can bite me.
Northeast corner of Broadway and 47th — Thursday, 6.9.05, 6:10 pm.
“I remember seeing Year of the Dragon when it came out and enjoying it. It became a guilty pleasure of mine. I rented it a couple of times over the years and always enjoyed the performances of some of the supporting actors (Raymond Barry, Caroline Kava).
“Mickey Rourke’s hair is quite strange, but what also is curious is the noticeable sore on his nose, which changes shape and size depending on the scene.
“And Ariane, giving the worst performances by an actress in the history of movies.
“And Rourke’s salty language in front of couple of old Nuns. And the old character actor who I remember being on Barney Miller speaking through what Howard Stern calls a ‘cancer kazoo.’
“And Rourke interrogating a chinese gangster girl that he’s just shot (‘Look, you’re not gonna make it.’) It’s the gift that keeps on giving.” — Sean Griffin
“As a lifetime New Yorker, I was amused by your comments about the garbage littered sidewalk … Please realize, nobody in NY gives a crap about anyone or anything but themselves. The only ones who can be nice (and its rare) are the tourists who don’t know any better.” — Ron Koffler
“When the country was on its knees, he threw a telephone at its face.” — Kevin Kusinitz, New York, NY.
“I think the real problem is the title. Cinderella Man reads to your average moviegoer like a film about a transvestite. People equate Cinderella with the fairy tale who’s main character happened to be a female. It’s not that people are stupid but in today’s headlines about Michael Jackson it subconciously has a negative vibe.
“I don’t care for the title either mainly because it comes off too cloying or clever.” — Steven Hanna, brother of Detective Vincent Hanna, LAPD….keeping on the edge, with his angst, where he needs to be.
“The problem with the punchdrunk ad syntax for Cinderella Man is that it goes from a generalization to a specific, in essence choosing one out of many possible paths, and calling undo attention to itself as a result.
“Simply by switching it so the specific flows into the generalization, there is no subliminal ‘surprise’ and it is less disorienting, such as: When America was on its knees, he brought the country to its feet. Although, that said, ‘When America was on its knees, he brought the nation to its feet,’ is somewhat better focused, and ‘When America was on the ropes, he found the strength to inspire the nation,’ gets rid of that bothersome sexual double entendre.” — Doug Pratt DVD Newsletter.
“The reason for the repetition of `country’ and `America’ in the Cinderella Man slogan seems pretty straightforward to me. The marketing guys want to make the movie sound as broadly-appealing as possible and connect it to a certain patriotic sentimentality, so the word `America’ has to be in there somewhere. But at the same time, people don’t want to think of `America’ as being on its knees, implying that America is weak. So they have to make it abstract, substituting a pronoun, and making the sentence awkward.” — Jason Edgecombe
“Just read your excellent article on Werner Herzog. I’ve been an authentic fan of his ever since seeing Aguirre, the Wrath of God many years ago in San Diego. I lend this movie out whenever I can and to whomever I can, but always with the caveat that the movie be watched without interruption at a time when there is no chance of being too tired to pay adequate attention.
“But I’m writing to say how pleased and surprised I was to read the following which you wrote, `Herzog’s films should not be rented — they should be owned and pulled out every few months and not just watched in a social way with friends but seriously absorbed in a state of aloneness…like meditation, with incense burning.’
“Never were there truer words said on any subject under the sun. I thought I was strange admonishing my friends the way I described, but you’ve given me vindication. The paragraph above perfectly describes how I feel about Herzog and Aguirre especially. It took me by surprise, it was so on the mark.” — John Rosen.
“Thanks for the piece on Werner Herzog. Thank God that there are filmmakers like him — filmmakers with vision and passion still plugging away. In this age of loud, empty, mindless, obscenely expensive, loud, dumb films there is at least one filmmaker who, as you say, `cares more about getting viewers to trust their eyes … or more importantly their dreams.’
“How many filmmakers today are as obsessive, or crazy as Herzog to follow their vision to completion, like he did with Fitzcarraldo? I’ve been a fan ever since Aguirre, the Wrath of God, but unfortunately haven’t seen any of his documentaries. I’ll take your advice and head to the video store to purchase one of his docs and relish it. Then I’ll have to decide which of his narrative films to purchase; one that my family, who don’t care for foreign language films, should see. If they only knew the glut of riches they were missing out on.” — Edward Klein, Salem, Oregon.
“Cheers for your Herzog plug. I’d also recommend some other of his older documentaries, particularly Lessons of Darkness. On the feature film front, the recent Herzog/Kinski box set is a showcase for the (arguably) greatest director/actor pairing ever.” — Laura Clifford, Reeling Reviews.
Grabs, Part 2
Extra Virgin, 259 West 4th Street. Appetizers, $6 to $12, Entrees from $17 to $19. All major credit cards.
Waiting for L train in Union Square station — Thursday, 6.9.05, 10:05 pm.
West 4th near Jane — Wednesday, 6.8.05, 7:50 pm.