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Batman Begins

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It is so satisfying to see a movie that fulfills your hopes and expectations. It is doubly so when the movie is based on a comic book character that is – well, there’s no other way to say it – sacred. After the last two horrifying installments, something even half as good as the 1989 Tim Burton Batman probably would have sufficed; this installment makes that well-loved predecessor look like a farce. Even the cartoonishly cherubic Katie Holmes can’t dampen the delicious, adult tone of this movie.

Filling in the holes in young Bruce Wayne’s transition from terrified (and wealthy) orphan to terrorizing vigilante citizen, posing dramatically on rooftops, Batman Begins expands the myth beyond the well-trod “Well, see, he saw his parents killed. So that messed him up. He’s rich, so you know, he built some bat stuff.” Wayne has more to rage about than a life-altering homicide; more legacy to fulfill than just petty revenge. And training! By the redoubtable Ken Watanabe and Qui-Gon himself, Liam Neeson, no less. Characters in general are not painted black or white, with some clear exceptions, but they make the picture more interesting all around.

What’s fantastic about this movie is how it makes the hyperreal seem real, seem solid. It’s genuinely dark and the action is all justified, and perfectly paced. It seethes and it revs and it truly does rock; it rocks intelligently, but it is still very cool. A particularly effective scene is staged much like a horror movie, but our hero is the lurking, unseen danger. It’s very effective, both at humanizing the bad guys (antithetical to most comic adaptation) and at giving us a sense of Wayne’s power.

Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) likes cerebral movies that take the audience inside the mind of the cerebrum in question, and this is no exception. As co-screenwriter (with David S. Goyer) he explores fear as a causality rather than a result, and justice versus revenge. What makes a man good, or turns a man bad? Where does madness begin and justified behavior end?

Gotham is envisioned as the biggest, worst city imaginable – it has the depressed elements of Chicago, the impossible density of New York, and the remote selfishness of Los Angeles. Its enhanced reality complements Wayne’s mechanical aids in his batmanism. Even the “bat sports hummer” you have seen in the commercials doesn’t feel creass. It should also be noted that casting talents like Watanabe, Neeson, Tom Wilkinson, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Cillian Murphy never hurt any movie; and yet this movie exhibits the hard-won knowledge that the movie is about BATMAN. Not the showy villains (you hear that, Governor Freeze?), but the man under the cape. Christian Bale calls upon his American Psycho gravitas and his Empire of the Sun vulnerability to create a rich, delicious Batman who yes, also looks good posing on a rooftop. Come on, we don’t just love Batman because he’s deep. But he’s so much more gratifying when there is content behind the cape.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 6/15/05
Time in minutes 134
Director Christopher Nolan
Studio Warner Brothers

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Road to Perdition

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I honestly have delayed writing this review for so long because I was terrified I would not do the film justice. Armed with my friend’s superior analysis which I will blatantly steal so you who missed this film will decide to see it, please let me assure you that it is a truly spectacular piece of filmmaking, fine craftsmanship, etc. It is a Tiffany diamond among JC Penny fine jewelry.

Based on the graphic novel of the same name, mobster Michael Sullivan must rescue his child from Sullivan’s secret gangster life, protecting himself and his real family from those he used to call family. Human grace and brutality exist side by side. Yet although the film is rated R for violence and language, it is not a slapdash gratuitous gore movie like the Untouchables. The most violent acts in the film take place in contrast to serenity and beauty to amazing effect.

As director Sam Mendes proved with his American Beauty, the emotional landscape of unhappy men can be explored with tenderness. Cinematographer Conrad Hall (also Beauty) makes this movie *look* like a graphic novel. Not a comic book, but one of the serious graphic novels (like The Watchman) so overlooked these days. My friend likened every frame to an Edward Hopper painting; I thought Vettriano, but you see, the feel is of a rich painting. Even with motion, the colors and textures are so glorious they feel still and solid. We both went into orgasmic tizzies about the amazing lighting. It’s so narrow and carefully placed and gives such depth and contrast!

My friend was also astute enough (I wasn’t) to notice how many shots are through chinks and reflected in mirrors and in glass and so on…not so much that it felt like a gimmick, but enough to add depth to every shot. I had noted a Deakinsian quality to the film (Roger Deakins being my all time favorite cinematographer), it was so sublime to look at. Composer Thomas Newman (who wrote the music to Deakin-lensed Shawshank Redemption) recycles that film’s sound but it is so effective I can’t even be upset about it. I don’t know much about editing but I have read enough to know that this movie will be studied in the future for precise characterization and flow. It never seems slow.

I love the feel of everything. My friend gave me the scoop that they had actually had fabrics woven to make the textures and colors be as saturated as they wanted. Production designer Dennis Gassner’s name sounded familiar. I looked Mr. Gassner up on the old imdb.com and now he is my favorite production designer. Most of the films he’s done that I have seen have unbelievable production design. Wow.

I haven’t even gotten to the story or to our hero, Tom Hanks. In his AFI Lifetime Achievement tribute, it was clear that Hanks always has an element of humanity in him that we all connect with and instinctively love. Here’s Tom, a strong-arm for the mob, a gun-toting thug who commands fear and respect, who loves his kids but doesn’t make a big show about it. How can any actor make that role human. Hanks can and does. It’s surreal, but it works beautifully. It would be too hard to believe any level of that character’s internal battles if he was slick and cool and unknowable.

His son, Michael, played by Tyler Hoechlin, has not done many films yet but I hope he does. Walking the line drawn by Hanks, he was excellent, scared and brave, tempted by the glamour of the guns and terrified of the deeper consequences. Then there is Jude Law. Why cast someone so preternaturally beautiful as him just to make him ugly? The war of the ugly makeup with his own real face made his character somehow creepier and more unpredictable than if say, Clint Howard had been cast. Unpleasantly, Maguire’s portfolio of work is true-life death shots. Ick.

Without giving too much away, Hanks’ road to Perdition takes him through the basement of a church, filled with derelict sacred objects-cum-junk. The delicious symbolism of the scene and the actual content of the scene with Paul Newman-oh so tasty!

I quote my friend’s brilliance: Does watching excessive violence create the desire to do it? Or can it be used to horrify, to make one turn from it? Both, evidently. The end is a beautiful yet shocking dialogue on this whole concept. Go see it now, it’s what we always hope for in a film.

MPAA Rating R for violence and language.
Release date 7/12/02
Time in minutes 108
Director Frank Darabont
Studio Dreamworks/Fox

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Spider-Man

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As with many comic-book hero film adaptations, I was apprehensive about this latest attempt. Not only was it Spider-Man, whose story still reeks with the scent of 1960’s nuclear misinformation and silliness, but also it starred Tobey Maguire! Tobey Maguire for Pete’s sake. Skinny, sloe-eyed, whiny of voice, and not exactly someone you imagine being able to put down the self-torture kit long enough to go save someone. I was pleased to discover that he actually did a good job, and his weird wimp act really worked for him as Peter Parker. Once he’s buffed out and has put the mask on, it doesn’t really matter who is playing Spider-Man, because the computer is doing it.

Sure, lots of the action shots were so hyper as to feel rushed and odd; and his Spider-bod was too rubbery and flexible as it flipped through the air. Overall the computer effects were very very good, especially in marrying live action with CGI; the previews that started airing a year before were clearly 100% CGI and 0% actor, even the explosively obvious nipples of Kirsten Dunst. Understanding why they famously withdrew the preview shot of the World Trade Centers (with a helicopter caught in a huge web between them, twitching like an insect), I still hope it gets included on the DVD for posterity. It was one of the only reasons I ended up seeing the film. It was creative and impressive and actually a lot of the sequences honestly lived up to that level.

Thankfully, director Sam Raimi knows a little bit about exposing the cool in something that is irrevocably cheesy. Take, for example, Spider-man’s costume debut, hilariously parodied for the MTV Movie Awards by Jack Black (that whole segment was excellent). I won’t say what it was, though I am sure you have seen the film by now, but Bruce Campbell makes his requisite cameo as a dubious and abusive MC. Because we know the Spider-Duds are a little corny and not all that arachnidesque, we can laugh with the audience laughing at Parker jumping about in a proto-super-hero uniform.

However, I do not think we were meant to laugh at the Green Goblin as much as we ended up doing. The Goblin is played with full on histrionics by Willem “Jesus Christ” Dafoe, and he does an admirable job making the Goblin’s whole…thing seem very deep and meaningful. The mask designer, well, we need to talk. There is one scene, a dialogue between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin; they both have their masks on and guess what – all the head bobbing in the world won’t replace being able to see an actor’s eyes. It was actually so comical it was kind of embarrassing, especially when Goblin strikes an “Alas poor Yorick” pose. It was like watching a Thunderbirds episode with no strings. Cuh-reepy!

A few of the scientific details were changed about Spidey’s abilities, which I appreciated from a reduction-of-corn value, even though purists were disgusted at Parker’s downgraded science achievements. Hey, the lad drinks Dr Pepper, what more do you want? In fact, every brand name Spidey touches is right out there for you to emulate. Come on kids, don’t you want nasty little hairs growing out of your fingertips?

Oh yeah, Kirsten “Bring It On” Dunst. She sure is pretty, but after crazy/beautiful and this she had better do some more great character roles because she is going to lose all that great acting ground she got on Interview With a Vampire, ER, and of course, the greatest cheerleader movie of all time. The sequel is already slated for 2004…

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 5/3/02
Time in minutes 121
Director Sam Raimi
Studio Columbia Tristar