The Dark Knight Rises

I was in a cranky mood when we went to see this. I was in Editing Mode. Is it a horrible movie? Hardly. Is it a great movie? Definitely not.

I think Christopher Nolan did great things with The Dark Knight. Even that one has some holes in it, but I can’t say I don’t enjoy watching it, again and again. It’s the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy, and Rises … well, it’s not Return of the Jedi. It tries to go darker, and fails. But not without failing greatly, and giving us solid entertainment in the process.

What I liked/What I Didn’t:

Bane. Great villain, a big hulking menace for Batman to whale on. I really liked all the similarities to The Dark Knight Returns, the comic book that made me like Batman (and Year One, which Batman Begins cribbed heavily from). Topping the Joker may have been impossible, and Thomas Hardy- a great, rising actor- does the best he can with an idiotic mask that makes him look like Hannibal Lecter and sound like a kid talking through a paper towel tube. Hint: Darth Vader was INTELLIGIBLE. Bane needed subtitles. Coupled with “The Batman voice” by Christian Bale, the most important dialogue of the movie sounded like it was uttered while both men were trying to expel a twelve pound impacted fecolith. “Can I have a bat-lozenge?” Bane’s origin was interesting, and almost makes him a tragic antihero in the end, but his final scene is played for a very weak joke.

The parallels to current politics. TDK had the surveillance device that mimics Carnivore and Echelon (what the FBI is using to read this, right now) and Rises has The Dent (cough, PATRIOT) act, a heist on the Stock Exchange, and a Catwoman (never so named) who openly loathes and steals from the 1%. Anne Hathaway does a decent job, but lacked character development; the film suffers a bit from too many villains, including a surprise one in the third act. It’s not a perfect parallel, but it does make you think, something you rarely do in a comic book movie. The peace in Gotham is based on a lie, and this poisons the city. Sadly the villains reference the first film instead of TDK, for a couple of needless cameos; the poison lie of Harvey Dent is a brilliant bit of writing, but they don’t cultivate it. And finally, I found it very funny that a “failed energy project” was played as Wayne’s scandal, and I am glad that it doesn’t make sense now unless you followed politics very closely.

For the final act, the entire city is held hostage for three months. I couldn’t suspend disbelief for this one. The Joker’s plan in TDK lasted hours. Bane’s siege depends on Commissioner Gordon making a terrible tactical mistake, which I didn’t buy. I did like how it made Gotham into the crime-infested hellhole that opens Frank Miller’s 80’s-era “The Dark Knight Returns.” It seemed a bit forced, but the images Nolan gets to use to depict it are stunning. So I’ll forgive it. The music throughout the film is a sledgehammer to the heartstrings, and became incredibly annoying. THIS… IS.. EXCITING! DUN DUNT!  OOH ANGELIC SINGING! SOMEONE GONNA DIE! Yes, that bad…

The setup in the first act is excruciating. As a writer, I have never felt the pain of backstory and exposition inflicted on me in such a manner. And yet I forgot why Bruce Wayne has a limp (he jumped off a building with Two-Face, to save Gordon’s son).  If I watch this on cable and skip the beginning, I know I will like it a lot more. I can’t even remember how Bane was introduced. That’s not good.

Michael Caine has an early scene that makes you wish the movie was better. He’s utterly gripping in it. Once again, I never liked Christian Bale in this one except for the physicality. He looks like Batman, and he looks like he can pull off the stunts. But I never care about him, ever. He never looks haunted, just tired. He plays the Bruce Wayne playboy parts perfectly, but when he’s supposed to be the haunted orphan… I don’t buy it. Never did. But I still don’t want a reboot.

The ending was fantastic. The fight with Bane was pretty awful- two guys throwing haymakers and grunting and grimacing, when they are martial arts masters, and Bane was originally a wrestler- but they pull a decent switcheroo on you, and point the story to a definite ending, with not all loose ends tied neatly. And you know what must happen next. I look forward to that story, and I hope Nolan gets to tell it. If anyone can make the story of the Joseph Gordon Levitt character compelling, it would be him.

So it’s flawed, sort of like Spiderman 3, but not as weak. It reaches for the heavens and doesn’t make orbit, but it wasn’t a disappointment. I commiserate with Nolan- he has a lot to say in this one, and he manages to get it all in there, but in places, it is muddled and we nod along, waiting for the good stuff.

Worth seeing if you liked the other two. Bravo to Nolan for writing a story with an ENDING, something Hollywood and Television are loathe to do. Stories don’t really end, I know. But the interesting parts do. They end this where it should be ended, and open doors for other stories that I want to see.

3/5 bat-lozenges

Always be Batman

Not normally one to jump on the viral meme wagon, but I liked this one. Because Batman is about being yourself. Poor Bruce Wayne has to be the billionaire playboy by day, but at night he dons tights, drives a motor head’s wet dream and beats the crap out of thugs.

It’s the small rebellions.

Everyone likes Batman. He’s just a guy. No gamma rays, no parents from planet Krypton. No heat vision. I could say he’s a rich guy who slums it in the poor side of Gotham beating on crooks, but he uses his power for good. And he drives himself to be the best, even when he was born on third base and could be an idle rich twit if he wanted.

Reminds me of what my friend and MMA teacher says. You can buy a Ferrari, or you can BE the Ferrari.

Or if you’re Batman, you can do both.

I wrote a story for Beat to a Pulp: Superhero  starring Denny the Dent, which involves Batman. I always loved the Hulk, but Batman was a close second. People see the Hulk in Denny, but he wants to be Batman. Smarter, moral. Not a slave to the green rage. I give Denny his legs in this 7200 word tale, and we go deeper into his world. He’s killed a lot of people since he got out of prison. He never wants to go back, so he is keeping a lower profile. But trouble has a way of finding Denny. People see their own resentments in him. He inspires fear, and misplaced fear makes us behave at our worst.

The story, “Garbage Man,” will be appearing soon, e-book only, but readable in Amazon’s Kindle Cloud Reader. For now, get a taste of Denny in:

Pulp Modern #1, “Legacy of Brutality.” The first Denny story; where his friendship with Chareese, a trainer at the gym, gets him into trouble.

Crimespree no.4,  “Rain Dog.” A flash fiction story written for Daniel B. O’Shea’s tornado relief challenge, Denny goes for a run in the rain, where he won’t be bothered by people… and runs into thugs using the weather for cover of their own.

Plots with Guns, “Junkyard Dog.” Denny finds a job hauling scrap with Earl, and a little dog brings them big trouble. This one is available for free online, and “Garbage Man” directly follows, so give it a read.

And try to be Batman. He keeps his dark side in check, but he doesn’t let the accident of his entitled birth keep him from doing good for us all.

© 2012 Thomas Pluck
I post on Twitter as TommySalami ~ My Facebook Page

Dark Knight IMAX

Finally saw The Dark Knight in IMAX with the Firecracker this week, and boy was it worth it. It’s been re-released, so if you missed it, now’s your chance. It definitely holds up. I forgot how good Aaron Eckhart was in this, even beside Heath Ledger, who managed to create a new Joker from what we new, and make him fresh and frightening. Ledger is a cinch for the Oscar even without the sympathy vote, he’s that iconic.
Yes, the “Batman voice” gets grating, but he would have to disguise it. They manage to weave many plotlines deftly, and it reminded me of Michael Mann’s Heat in how it put two driven, obsessed men against each other on two opposite sides of order and chaos. The IMAX scenes are stunning, and hopefully more and more action films will be using the format thanks to this film. It truly sets the bar extremely high for the “comic book movie” and I wouldn’t even call it a superhero film. Batman’s “wonderful toys” were so much a part of the background that this was more of a technothriller, if only because of the sonar.
Truly one of the best films of the year, despite what the Academy says. Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky aren’t getting respect this year, so I plan to record the Oscars and fast forward through the commercials, in a half-assed sort of boycott. NYAH!

Apparently the IMAX scenes look awesome on Blu-Ray:
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2008 Retrospective

Top ten lists suck. Movies can be so different, yet so enjoyable, that it can be difficult to compare them against one another. For example, one of my favorite cinema experiences this year was Role Models, but is it really one of the top 10 movies of 2008? Then again, who the hell am I to think that this blog post is a monument in history, and by leaving out Frost/Nixon I’m upsetting the balance of the universe?

Here are the movies I enjoyed most in 2008. This means they can be the pinnacle of their own genre. That’s why something twee like Son of Rambow or brutal like Rambo can beat out The Curious Case of Benji’s Mean Buttin’.

10. The Fall
Probably the most gorgeous visuals of 2008, other than Wall-E. A injured stuntman (Lee Pace) tells tall tales to a little girl in the hospital, but not just to befriend her. The fantasies he constructs reminded me of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and the story itself is engaging enough to make it more than eye candy. A sleeper of the year.

9. Milk
Sure, Sean Penn’s performance is incredible. But let’s not give James Franco, Emil Hirsch and Josh Brolin short shrift! Even Diego Luna is good as a drama queen. But beyondf the acting, this is one of Gus Van Sant’s best- he brings us to ’70s San Francisco as deftly as David Fincher did in Zodiac, he captures the feel of the era and makes an engaging biopic out of a political life. And he doesn’t make any pointers to Prop 8 like another hamfisted director might (cough, Oliver Stone).

8. Rambo
Best pure action picture of 2008, one of the most bloody and brutal of the genre, and a fitting end to the John Rambo story (if it’s over). A return to the roots of First Blood and Stallone doing what he does best- staring and killing.


7. Son of Rambow
This is listed as a 2007 film in IMDb but it only got theatrical release in the U.S. this year. So I’m counting it. It’s a delightful childhood fantasy about kids making their own sequel to First Blood, back in the early 80s, in small town England. Great characters, great story. If you liked Big Fish but don’t like Tim Burton’s mopey goth bullshit, this is infused with that childlike sense of wonder, some emotional dashes of reality and no smarm, and none of Timboy’s hangups.

6. In Bruges
The dark comedy sleeper of the year, this is an utterly fantastic hit-man thriller comedy from Martin McDonagh. Colin Farrel redeems himself as an actor after S.W.A.T., and his eyebrows deserve the Academy Award. I warn you, the comedy is fiercely gallows-esque, but everything happens as it must. It’s on DVD, rent it now.

5. Happy-Go-Lucky
Mike Leigh’s newest is a character study at heart, with Poppy’s indefatigable cheer, her roomie Zoe’s unfazeable calm and driving instructor Scott’s fierce armor of seething rage. But we see through the chinks of that armor, and see something nailed down and in torment (thanks to Gerald Kersh for that great line). Sally Hawkins won the Globe for best comedic actress and hopefully she’ll get a nom at the Oscars, or Eddie Marsan will get supporting, but I think this film will be sadly overlooked. Don’t make that mistake yourself.

4. Slumdog Millionaire
It’s as good as everyone says it is. Go see it. It’s an uplifting experience, and an eye-opening look into Mumbai. Solid acting, and few subtitles if you care about that. Different, exuberant, and an emotional thrill ride. Danny Boyle’s best in years.

3. The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan transcends the comic book genre with this excellent thriller that reminded me of the best of the Batman Animated Series remade for adults. Heath Ledger gave an incredible performance as we all know, but the secondary characters played by Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart and Michael Caine fill in the cracks in reality that form when we watch an eccentric billionaire dress up to fight an insane terrorist in clown make-up. The film is built more like a labyrinthine criminal takedown procedural by Michael Mann, and gripping throughout. I missed it in IMAX, to my enduring shame.

2. The Wrestler
The best drama of the year, and Mickey Rourke’s return to fame. Even if you don’t like wrestling, and think it’s stupid, this is a great movie and deserves you give it a shot. Aronofsky is one of the best directors working today.

1. Wall-E
The best film of 2008. First, it looks stunning- you don’t even know it’s CG until the little cockroach shows up. Secondly Wall-E may be a robot, but he’s one of the best characters this year; and his simple love story, set against the backdrop of a hilarious satire on the future of human expansion (pun intended) hits us smack in the gut to play our heartstrings like a certain Marx Brother on a harp in the middle of a terrific comedy. If you haven’t seen it, this isn’t “just” a kid’s film, it’s Brazil done by Chaplin, and one of the most refreshing science fiction stories in a good while.

Yet to see: Doubt, Choke, Good, Synecdoche, New York, Towelhead, W., Miracle at St. Anna, Australia, Waltz with Bashir, Encounters at the Edge of the World, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Shotgun Stories; I was gonna wait until I saw them all, but the Oscar noms come out tomorrow so I want this here first. Then I can make my predictions, and what I think deserves it- which are almost always at odds.


Documentary:

Standard Operating Procedure – The most important documentary of the year, about Abu Ghraib; Frost/Nixon for real, he gets confessions you won’t believe. No one wants to hear about Iraq anymore, but if you care about this country’s name being dragged in the mud, you should see this film so this doesn’t happen again.

Man on Wire – Excellent doc about Phillippe Petit, who tightroped between the Twin Towers.

Foreign Films:
Let the Right One In – Coming of age movie and vampire tale that throws away Anne Rice’s horrible influence on the genre, and makes us frightened of them again. Incredible.

Tell No One – Excellent thriller based on Harlan Coben’s novel, moved to Paris. The Fugitive with more thrills and twists.

Honorable Mentions (worth seeing):

The Reader
– fine performances in a somewhat overlong and convoluted telling of a strong story about guilt, shame, and the eagerness to go along that makes those who stand up even more extraordinary.

The Visitor – Emotionally powerful indie by the director of The Station Agent, about a withdrawn, widowed professor who gets attached to a couple he finds squatting in his New York apartment. A touching and heartfelt film that shouldn’t be overlooked; if a big name played the prof, this would be huge.

Religulous – Bill Maher shows us the religious who border on crazy and makes fun of them.

Defiance – A fine WW2 story we’ve not heard before. Old-fashioned good movie.

RocknRolla – Guy Ritchie does his thing again, good fun but takes a long time to warm up.

Rachel Getting Married – Fine drama by Jonathan Demme, Anne Hathaway gives an excellent performance, but it is a bit indulgent in the overlong wedding scenes.

Role Models – Funniest comedy of the year.

Iron Man – Probably the most fun I had in a theater. Great action, and Robert Downey Jr. embodies the part and makes Tony Stark his own. Gwyneth Paltrow is delightful as Pepper Potts and isn’t just arm candy. Jon Favreau did a great job directing, and I’m sad Terence Howard won’t be returning as War Machine. Hopefully the inevitable sequel will live up to this.

Gran Torino– Clint Eastwood’s performance will be remembered as one of his best, and it’s a solid story that gives us insight into a culture not many people know about.

Revolutionary Road – great acting, but this is American Beauty: The ’50s.

Frost/Nixon – Great performances but a bit sketchy inbetween the interview parts.

Be Kind Rewind – Overlooked cute and quirky comedy by Michel Gondry with Jack Black and Mos Def.

Kung Fu Panda – One of Dreamworks best- a classic old kung fu movie done for kids with a great voice cast a funny script. Better than expected.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall – Very funny Apatow gang film with new guy to watch, Jason Segel.
The Bank Job – Solid British heist film.
Pineapple Express – Terence Malick makes a stoner action comedy.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno – Kevin Smith does Apatow; not his best but lots of laughs.
Tropic Thunder – Very funny, Robert Downey Jr.’s second hit of the year. Tom Cruise? yawn.
Quantum of Solace – Too short but a fine Bond film.
The Ruins – Survival horror in Yucatan; very effective.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army – Beautiful and strange; great comic book adaptation.
Get Smart – Solid movie version of the classic series.
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay – Funnier than the original? Maybe.
Doomsday – Modern homage to postapocalyptica with Rhona Mitra as the new action heroine.
Where in the World is Osama bin Laden – Another good doc by Spurlock.
Young People Fucking – a very funny Canadian sex comedy about 3 couples and their sex lives.
The Wackness- Nice coming of age story about a pot dealer in 1994.
The Foot Fist Way – Danny McBride plays a small-town Tae Kwon Do instructor trying to get his idol to perform at his school. If you liked him in Hot Rod you’ll love this. It’s all cruel, sick humor, so it’s not for everyone.

Abominable Mentions (view at your own risk):

Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Aliens from Close Encounters – Need I say more?
The Crappening – I didn’t review this because so many had eviscerated it that I felt I couldn’t possibly add anything useful. It’s a heavy-handed ’50s sci-fi that isn’t very scary.
The Strangers – Dumb people get killed.
Get Smart’s Bruce and Lloyd Out of Control – Cash in or TV pilot. Yawn.
Death Race – Paul W.S. Anderson continues to make forgettable crap.

A New Year’s Toast to Mediocrity:
Burn After Reading – Fargo in D.C.
Slacker Uprising – A Private History of a Voting Campaign That Failed
The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor – Better than 2 not as good as 1
The Incredible Hulk – Everything but super-serum Blonsky is forgettable.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Forrest Gump 2
Vicky Cristina Barcelona – Woody coasting with a good cast.
Speed Racer – Longer than several seasons of the cartoon.

R.I.P. Eartha Kitt – Emperor’s New Groove review, too

Jill of all trades Eartha Kitt passed away yesterday at 81; calling her a singer pigeonholes an artist of many talents, and robs a brave performer of her accomplishments. Probably best known as the singer of “Santa Baby” and as the second Catwoman in the Batman TV series, she performed alongside Sidney Poitier in film, under the direction of Orson Welles onstage, and in several Broadway shows, including Shinbone Alley and Timbuktu. She and Welles had a torrid affair, after which he called her “the most exciting woman in the world,” this from a man who knew plenty of exciting women.
In 1968 she was outspoken against the Vietnam war, and it was claimed she made Lady Bird Johnson cry when she spoke her mind at a White House luncheon; this led to a professional exile in the States, but at least she kept her principles. Details are here; being ‘uppity’ in front of a Texan first lady had her blackballed within hours. Sources vary, but one quote is that she said “We’re marching them off to die, no wonder they’re smoking pot,” and Lady Bird considered this “uncivilized.” Eartha would return to Broadway, disco hits, and movies in the ’80s after working in Europe. So Catwoman led 9 lives.

“The thing that hurts, that became anger, was when I realized that if you tell the truth — in a country that says you’re entitled to tell the truth — you get your face slapped and you get put out of work,” -Eartha Kitt

My favorite role of hers of recent memory is as the evil witch Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove, one of the most underappreciated of Disney efforts. The whole film was nearly torpedoed by boss idiot Michael Eisner, and it remains one of the best of Disney’s final attempts at traditional animation, despite his meddling. She was to have a big music number in the film, but Eisner had it cut. This is detailed in a documentary called The Sweatbox, which Disney has unfortunately kept from wide release.


Like Lilo & Stitch, this was an original story with just enough hipness and wit to make it appeal to adults, some beautifully stylized animation, a kickass soundtrack with Tom Jones and Sting, and celeb voice actors who are recognizable but also craft characters instead of playing themselves. It’s great stuff. The story? Emperor Cuzco (David Spade) is your typical self-absorbed royal type; after he fires his witchy advisor Yzma and her henchman Kronk (Patrick Warburton), she curses him and turns him into a llama. Hilarity ensues, and Cuzco has to beg for help from the lovable peasant lug Pacha (John Goodman) who he’s already humiliated by planning to build a pool on his ancestral village.
The humor varies from deadpan to cute to absurd, and perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that it never felt like a typical Disney movie when I saw it back in 2000. They briefly embraced this kind of humor before diving face first into the pop-culture toilet with dreck like Beverly Hills Chihuahua, but The Emperor’s New Groove holds up surprisingly well. Lacking any classic Batman episodes on DVD, I’m watching it now. Eartha’s Yzma is one of the funniest Disney villains, a self-effacing role that plays on her status as an aged diva, and she never misses a beat. Playing against the snarky David Spade at the height of his popularity is no easy task, and she nearly steals the show.
The movie isn’t perfect, and is kind of short at 77 minutes- Eartha’s song (included on the soundtrack CD) would have padded it to only 80 or so. But it’s a fine showcase of Eartha’s range, humor and talent, and shows she was still sharp well into her seventies. As recently as 2006 she was performing off-Broadway in Mimi le Duck, and her final role looks like a role in an indie film, And Then Came Love. She worked until the end, on her own terms, and what more can an artist want? 


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The Dark Knight


There will be a sea of nerds waxing superfluous about the utter success of this film; I’m afraid I am among them. Any movie as hyped as this one will generate backlash, and some will anticipate it and thrive on it. We are so easily jaded by our entertainment. The Dark Knight is beyond mere spectacle and elevates the superhero movie beyond all previous heights, as its material dives into the darkest depths, going into the abyss we never expected “comic book movies” to go. It builds a tragedy worthy of Greek myth and sets it in a complex, living Gotham as real as one of James Ellroy’s crime epics.

The Nolan brothers wisely delve into the rich past of the Batman character and pluck many of the best themes from the classic stories- the rise of fellow vigilantes, the misguided “Sons of the Batman” from The Dark Knight Returns; the Joker as the agent of disorder, pushing those with moral codes to the precipice of breaking them, from The Killing Joke; the concerns about surveillance from Kingdom Come. The script is definitely the best of the superhero crop, surpassing such classics as the original Superman as it weaves the tale of the Batman, District Attorney Harvey Dent– the white knight of Gotham, and the Joker.

There’s a glimmer of hope in Gotham when we return; Detective Gordon is now running an elite squad, D.A.’s Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes are putting high-profile mobsters away, and Bruce Wayne and Alfred are rebuilding the Manor, operating from a concealed bunker. The movie opens with a bravura heist sequence inspired by Michael Mann’s Heat, where the Joker’s minions rip off a mob bank. Batman is hunting down the top dogs in the crime world, one being a money launderer he follows to Hong Kong; while he’s away, the Joker hires himself out to the crime bosses, to eliminate their nemesis.

Heath Ledger’s Joker is more theatrical psychopath than clown; with his grungy make-up, and scarred cheeks recalling the old silent film The Man Who Laughs that inspired the character, he carves a swath through the underworld because he’ll do things even they won’t. His war with Batman is full of surprises, and seems more at home in a thriller like the Bourne Trilogy– lethally cunning ambushes that would be an assassination plot worthy of their own movie. They come one after another, and the films 152 minute running time only drags long enough to for the Joker to pull the rug out from under us- again. No one is safe, and by the end of the movie you’ll realize that like the villain, the Nolan brothers through the rules out the window when they wrote the script.

The emotional turmoil that Bruce Wayne and his allies go through is as terrorizing as the bombs going off left and right. There’s even a dash of Seven in the mix, when the Joker rigs up two ferries with explosives, and gives each group the other’s detonator; if one of them doesn’t blow up the other, he’ll detonate both of them at midnight. The resolution is pretty daring, and recalls The Killing Joke, when Jim Gordon was the target. The brutality is leavened with dark humor- the Joker in a nurse outfit, and of course the steadying hands of those two great actors, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman.

They’re back as the butler who gives Batman his center, and the inventor who gives him his gadgets, and while their roles are reduced this time, they are given memorable, irreplaceable moments. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Aaron Eckhart cover the lawyer roles with aplomb; Gotham’s white knight is no cardboard cut-out. But the movie isn’t all thrilling plot and fine acting- we get our share of action movie excitment as well. The Batmobile returns and is trumped by the faster, more maneuverable Bat-pod, which looks a lot like that 4-wheel motorcycle concept Dodge based off the Viper. He pulls some amazing tricks with it as he duels with the Joker in a ten-wheeler on Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago.

I did not see it in IMAX, but I will be, as soon as the local theaters aren’t all sold out. The movie is a marvel of editing, and if the Nolans ever tire of the franchise they can give Michael Mann a run for his money in the gritty crime movie genre, but he still has them on style. Is the movie perfect? The ending is. Like the comics I mentioned, The Dark Knight shows the Joker and Batman as two sides of the same coin, and this one lands right on the edge- they each own this film, and who truly wins in the end will be discussed on message boards and on the way out of the theater. Go see it, it lives up to the hype.

Batman Begins … Revisited

In anticipation for The Dark Knight, I finally got around to watching my HD disc of Batman Begins. After hearing oodles of comic book nerds complain about Katie Holmes, and Gordon driving the Batmobile, I wanted a fresh look to see if it’s as good as I remembered, or if it was just great compared to Joel Schumacher’s bat-nipple camp-a-rama and Tim Burton’s Gothic take, which concentrated more on the villains.
I wanted to see how this held up after Iron Man. The movie still has the weak points of Katie Holmes’s superfluous Rachel Dawes and Gordon’s goofy Batmobile adventure, but other than that, it’s one of the best superhero movies yet made. Christian Bale gives a nuanced performance, only dipping into the well of Patrick Bateman when he’s expected to play the sleazy playboy. We meet him as a man consumed with the desire for revenge, whose morals barely keep him from killing the man who murdered his parents in broad daylight. This is where we first meet fiery Rachel Dawes, the one Assistant D.A. in town who can’t be bought. Her fury at Bruce’s attempt at vengeance is what sends him on his pilgrimage to find what he must do. He first confronts mob boss Carmine Falcone; he tried to corrupt the young Wayne heir by putting a hit on the man who killed his parents, and this adds a layer of depth to the story. When faced with Falcone’s brute power and control over every element of justice in the city, Bruce realizes that facing him head-on is a death sentence for him and the people he cares about. He has to find another way. He needs to learn how the criminal element works.

Stop calling me “padwan,” dude.


This eventually leads him to China; a place he can disappear and infiltrate a gang of thieves, and toughen himself for the battle ahead. He is still aimless and confused, picking fights with groups, penitence for letting Rachel and his parents down. When Liam Neeson and the Brotherhood of Shadows find him, he is once again tempted down the wrong path, and this second time it nearly works. The movie’s complexities are what make it so good. We spend a lot of time watching him train, and such montages are commonplace, but here they build a bond between Bruce and his mentor, making the inevitable betrayal hurt that much more. While having three villains hurt the previous Batman movies, here they are woven together, using each other for their own purposes, creating a singular enemy unbeknown to some members of the triumvirate. It’s clever, and works much better than teams of rival super-villains ganging up for shallow reasons.

We’re telling you you’ve got issues, mate.

Bruce has allies as well; we see the young Detective Gordon as the lone good cop in a sea of corruption, and trusty Alfred kept things running for him while he fled his problems. Michael Caine is the real glue that holds the film together, since we believe everything he says and he’s wise enough to know how far to push the comic relief. Alfred and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox “Q” character together give us a foundation to make the ridiculous comic-book world believable. Yes, the latest reboot of the Batman franchise is much darker, but in essence it is still a rich man who dresses up to fight crime. The film takes great pains to justify the bat costume, and succeeds- but Caine and Freeman’s little smirks and grins at Bruce Wayne’s issues help us along as the ears get explained as communicator antennas, and the cape– shown in The Incredibles to be a deadly bit of foppish extravagance– here becomes a hang-glider, so the bat has more tricks up his belt than the grappling hooks we’ve seen since the Adam West days.

It runs on testosterone.

The film also dips into the true reboot of the Batman that began when Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns. The bat-a-rangs aren’t little flying deus ex machinas, but more akin to ninja shuriken, made by hand on a grinder as painful, untraceable calling cards. It’s too bad we never see a criminal in the E.R. biting the bullet as a nurse pulls one out of his forehead with a pair of forceps. The new Batmobile most resembles the crazy riot tank Miller used from DKR, toned down into a cross between hot rod and Tonka Toy, tapping into every male moviegoer’s inner 6 year old. It’s even sillier than the ridiculous Burton-era vehicle, but when we see it in action, plowing through concrete and stomping squad cars like a monster 4×4, all is forgiven. Miller also wrote Batman: Year One, which brought the series back down to earth in the gritty streets, and built Batman again from the ground up. It’s from here that we get Carmine Falcone— played with delicious glee by Tom Wilkinson– and the Chicago setting for Gotham makes an above-the-law don running the city utterly believable. Gordon’s sleazy partner is underappreciated, and looks like he came from a Serpico-inspired cop movie from the 70’s. Just one look at him with a badge, and you know the city is corrupt top to bottom.

We get to see Batman learn the ropes, too- his first foray into crime-fighting isn’t all that perfect. He does get better, and his first strike at Falcone has us on the edge of our seats, showing how he strikes fear into the hearts of criminals and uses their panic against them. Nolan also took inspiration from the excellent Batman: The Animated Series, which was surprisingly brutal. When Batman pulls a bungee jumping act to get a corrupt cop to talk, it’s something we’ve never seen him do in movies before; he always had a supernatural ability to appear where crime was occurring, and he never had to do any sleuth work. Batman’s roots are in Detective Comics, after all.

What? I’ve got something on my face?

The fight scenes are a bit forgettable, reminiscent of the Bourne movies, which make better use of the close-up, jarring quick-cut method. Nolan does keep the fights nasty, brutish and short as they ought to be, especially when he’s up against multiple opponents. They seem believable and real, and you’re never wondering why they don’t just gang up on the good guy… they are. This foundation once again prepares us to accept the unreal, such as Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow. He’s yet another over-the-top character reined in perfectly to fit the film’s dark world, a mob-bought psychiatrist with sick fantasies of his own. The film does have flaws, but they aren’t with its villains, but its heroes.

Gary Oldman plays Gordon perfectly, but he is given very little to do except establish that he is not corrupt, and that he’s willing to help this unconventional vigilante clean up the city. He’s almost too much of a milquetoast everyman, and it feels like Oldman wanted to veer away from his over-the-top villain characters, and plays it too bland. When he echoes “I gotta get me one of these,” last uttered by Will Smith in Independence Day, it hits a sour note. It was the wrong thing for the beaten-down good guy to finally pipe up and say, when he sees the bad guys getting taken down.

Katie really nailed this scene.

I hadn’t seen Katie Holmes in anything since Go and The Ice Storm, and she seemed fine in those. Here she’s not given much to do except be a one-note character, chiding Bruce for his selfish moping, and not living up to his parents’ heroic philanthropy. I’d like to blame this on her future as a Scientologist baby factory, but it feels like the script. Unless there’s a lot of bad acting on the cutting room floor. It would have taken a great actress to do much with so little screen time and dialogue, and we all know Katie Holmes is not that actress.

That’s a small nitpick at what is a great script, executed with panache by Christopher Nolan, who wouldn’t have been my first pick for a Batman film. I was really interested when Darren Aronofsky was attached, and The Fountain remains one of my favorite underappreciated films. His Batman would have certainly looked interesting, and seeing Year One through the gritty, paranoid filter of Pi would have been something, but I think Nolan was obviously the right choice. Memento‘s complex web of motives is evident in the trifecta of villains in Begins; the noir edge of his masterpiece Following translated well to gritty Gotham.
The movie wisely never shows the bodies of its villains, and gave us a 3-year tease for the next one, all beginning with that little Joker card in an evidence bag. It set the bar high for superhero movies, and is on par with my other favorites- Iron Man, Spider-Man, and 1978’s Superman. Even if you include non-hero comic book movies like Sin City, A History of Violence, 300, and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, it’s high on the list. We’ll see if Zack Snyder’s take on the uber-graphic novel Watchmen takes its place next year. The Dark Knight is assured to be as good if not better than its predecessor, but Superman is in the emo toilet in Bryan Singer’s incapable hands, so Watchmen is our only hope.