June 16, 2005

Batman Begins

Batman Begins is, to put it bluntly, the best film I've seen the year. The promise I'd seen in every other incarnation of the character, be it the mediocre preceding films or the very solid but episodic animated series, is realized here. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman all provide the definitive portrayals of their respective Batman supporting characters. While Batman himself is probably too big for any definitive portrayal, Bale is the best actor in the suit, and the second behind Kevin Conroy for best voice for the role.
Like Reeve for Clark Kent/Superman, Bale creates essentially two extraordinarily different characters for the lead. The movie spends nearly the entirety of its running time bringing us into Bruce Wayne's life, so that we understand and sympathize with him by the end. We never see Batman from Batman's point of view. Only through three characters' eyes do we even get to see him clearly — Sgt. Gordon, the last honest cop, Rachel Dawes, assistant D.A. and Wayne's childhood friend, and finally a little boy, who comes from a broken home and takes inspiration where he can get it. The rest of the characters who encounter Batman are criminals, and they see only the legend behind the man. A flash here, one bad guy's gone. Turn around, the other guy just disappeared. You're next, living a horror movie and Batman is the monster.
Unlike the previous movies, where the villains overshadowed Batman in presence as well as screen time, Batman hangs over the Gotham underworld like the Shadow over Mordor in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. One of the great achievements is that this Gotham has an underworld, among everything else you would expect of a fully fleshed-out city. It strikes a completely opposite take from the previous Batman saga, where Gotham was cramped and repetitive but never comprehensible. This Gotham feels huge, yet the movie takes the time to paint all of the proceedings into a coherent urban geography. This is the Narrows, mob boss Carmine Falcone (masterfully played by Tom Wilkinson)'s domain. That is Wayne Tower, at the centre of upscale downtown. Each location has it's cast of key players, who fit in like extensions of the set. It is essential that each be placed instantly as their given piece of the puzzle, because this film is ambitious - no less than six signature villains of various types and inspirations, all interconnected in a complex exchange of affairs.
If Clark Kent had the conflicting influences of Jonathan Kent and Jor-El to help shape his adult identity as Superman, this film gives Bruce way the conflicting influences of Thomas Kent and Henri Ducard to help shape Batman. Batman, as conceived in this film, could not exist without either. Thomas Wayne gave Bruce his idealism and his drive to see Gotham towards safety. Henri Ducard gave him the cruel brutal means and tactics through which to succeed. Bruce Wayne lacks super powers, so it is through Ducard's training that he becomes more than a man. The clash of ideals between Thomas Wayne's mission of compassion and Ducard's unyielding quest for vengeance is at the heart of this film. Both play into what Batman is, and each provides the check against the other that allows Batman to succeed where both ultimately fail. Justice unhampered by compassion is as criminal as the acts which required justice in the first place. Yet compassion without consequence for failure is neither sustainable nor ultimately desirable.
Finally all the pieces fall into place in a single medium and in a single story: how a scared and traumatized boy grew up to fight back against the darkness. The tenuous relationship between justice and the law, personified through Batman's relationship with Gordon. The full dimension of the relationship of between Bruce Wayne and his butler - which not only moves the plot along but has surprising emotional heft as well. The fantastic criminals, like the Scarecrow, are placed in a greater tapestry of Gotham's criminal underworld, and pleasingly, the real villains wear suits and ties rather than Halloween masks and garish costumes. The whole thing builds to a cohesive whole, creating a world no less complete or innovatively conceived than the Star Wars saga. We may never get a portrayal of Batman this good again. ()


June 01, 2005

Revenge of the Sith

The final hour of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith may rightfully go down as one of the finest examples of filmmaking ever. It represents George Lucas in top, almost effortless form. He achieves the amazing without ever stopping to admire what he has achieved, because there is so much more amazing left for him to get to. It is a staggering collision of story, character, and spectacle that comes together almost exactly as it should.
The first hour of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith may rightfully go down as one of the most unmemorable in filmmaking history. It represents George Lucas at his sloppiest, rustiest form. It begins with such blinding fury that the result is largely incomprehensible, and pauses only for dialog that makes Godzilla dubs sound like Shakespeare. There are moments of promise to be sure — that first epic shot that goes on and on and on, the way that Palpatine’s serpent tongue meticulously leads Anakin astray, and the final parting of Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. But they are awash in a sea of such mediocrity that a greater effort is required to invest myself in the proceedings than at any other point in the entire saga. The first two episodes each have deep and fundamental flaws, but even where they’re failing I still feel compelled and engaged, as I’m carried through the rough patches by the sheer energy of the tide they are awash in. Despite all the daring-do, the first epic action set piece utterly fails to rouse me, and the remainder of the first half takes a long time to recover from its stalled momentum. In fact, I’m just starting to think it may salvage itself as an acceptable movie when the rug is pulled right out from under me.
Because what many fans waited through Phantom Menace and Clones for happens in one blazing moment. Anakin is given a clear choice between the Jedi and the Sith, much like his son at the end of Return of the Jedi. And he chooses the other path. The great leader of the Jedi plummets to his death and Anakin Skywalker prostrates himself before the soon-to-be Emperor. This sounds perhaps lame on paper but in the space of a minute it is both shocking and electrifying. Much of the power of the final act comes from the ruthless — even brutal — efficiency with which Lucas sets the stage for the original Star Wars.
But not all of it. There are moments of profound beauty and joy too, the final shot of the film first and foremost among them. And there are several others: Yoda’s final moment on Kashyyyk has surprising poignance as he is carried away with a stirring rendition of the Force them, our only shot from the surface of Alderaan shows that one couple’s tragedy will allow for another couple’s greatest joy. These are small touches of humanity that challenge any critics’ decree that Lucas was never good at telling human stories. They further the mystery of why the first half is so lacking, all while helping the film transcend that first half into something really sort of wonderful.
Then there is the acting. Even as a generally big fan of the prequels I couldn’t find one cringe-worthy performance this time around, even when the words they were speaking were less than stellar. The only thing in the film that made me cringe at all was the droid humour, which seemed out of place compared to what the prior films showed us about the limitations of their abilities — particularly R2D2. The rest of the distasteful parts were able enough to be merely boring, which is perhaps a greater sin than outright terrible in the world of film.
Finally there is the melancholy. Critics like Roger Ebert insist that either Lucas or his company will go back to the well at least a couple more times before letting the franchise finally rest in peace. The film itself serves as a fundamentally clear rebuttal of that theory to me. By the time the blue Lucas credit pops on the screen, the entire saga has been completed. It feels complete, one seamless entity with a clearly defined beginning and end. Any other stories that are told in this universe will need to be peripheral. Coming out of the theatre on May 19th with my father just like Return of the Jedi years earlier, I felt I’d seen it all. And that is a very bittersweet thing. ()