June 16, 2005

Batman Begins (Review)

Last night, the office crew saddled up after work and off we went for dinner at No Problemo for some pre-film chow. Then on to Flagship Cinema.1

We’d bought our tickets in advance, but it wasn’t necessary. Opening night is still just “Wednesday night” in New Bedford, and when the nine of us arrived reasonably early, the theater was absolutely empty.

There was the usual making-fun-of-the-pre-film slide-show ads, but Flagship refreshingly does not show a bunch of actual commercials during the coming attractions. We got what seemed like 20 minutes of solid trailers.

On to the movie.

Batman Begins.

The Batman I like is, at his heart, a regular guy. A regular guy who just happens to be rich, sure. And driven by the vision of his parents being murdered in front of him… yes. But he has no super powers. He only has his will. And his friends, like Alfred.

This film focuses on Bruce Wayne’s struggle rather than throwing up ridiculous villains like the previous big-screen outings (and the campy TV show we all grew up loving). These villains are noticeably understated for a Batman film.

Other Batmen

I admit to having enjoyed Tim Burton’s first take on Batman back in ‘89. I had a lot of complaints, but it was a fun movie. The franchise only went downhill from there. Tim Burton turned it into Edward Batmanhands. We’ll, he had already Tim Burtonized it, which seemed to be OK for one film, but for two it seemed to be trying to supplant my own memories of Batman too much. And the films which followed were so bad I couldn’t remember if there were two of them or only one. So bad that I could barely remember watching “Batman and Robin” until I read a synopsis which reminded me of the absolutely horrible way it trashed your ability to suspend disbelief.2

Forgive and forget, they say. Well, Warner Brothers, all is forgiven.

Star Power

Perhaps it is the great acting they pulled in for this film. Michael Caine, Liam Neeson (who can act when Lucas isn’t directing him), Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman… No one is mugging. No one is trying to be over the top. Also excellent: Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe, creepy Cillian Murphy, and Tom Wilkinson.

Katie Holmes was the best Batman female lead ever (sorry Michelle Pheiffer) because she doesn’t do much and she’s not Batman’s girlfriend. Thank you, Chris Nolan.

Fans of the “Batman: Year One” comic book will recognize a good portion of the story, but Nolan has squeezed a good deal of other Batman mythology into the nearly 2.5 hours of this film. Not to spoil anything, this film is about Wayne’s struggle and how he becomes Batman (evidence by the title). We’ve done away with any previous movie canon and are sticking to the comic books here. Joe Chill killed the Waynes, not any flamboyant super villain. M’kay?

I feel like everything else follows from this correction of Batman history. It was just some street thug. Most of the evils Batman wants to fight are everyday ones. But the theme here is trying to get back to the pulpy roots of why Batman is so great. He’s the inheritor of the legacies of The Shadow and Doc Savage, not some prancing guy who just likes to wear tights. This is the Batman movie I wished I could have watched with Manny back in ‘89 or Mike in ‘97. It;s Batman done right.

The Look of Batman

The cinematography follows suit. Yes, Gotham city has its stylized elements. But instead of the gothic over-designed cityscape, we see more of what a real city looks like, especially in the bad parts of town. Of course, most of it is in darkness, for effect. Bats are nocturnal, and all.

And just as you would expect from the theme of “fear” which runs through the Batman origin story, Batman in this film is shown like you would see the monster in most films. That is, they hide him from view more often than not. Batman is a creature of the shadows. You don’t seem him standing around in his armor all the time, and the armor doesn’t have nipples this time, thank the comic book gods.

An unfortunate side effect of the cinematography there is that the fight scenes are almost all in close and very mysterious. A sense of motion is there, but little context, as we are never given the wide shot. I’m sure this is intentional and it does increase the suspense, but I really don’t like shot after shot of blurry, confusing motion. This is my only real complaint of the film, and it was one shared by both Maggie and Sharon as we discussed it on the drive back to the office.

Popular Verdict

As far as I could tell, the nine of us all enjoyed the film. Some more than others. Ryan wanted to return to the theater immediately to see it again. On the other hand, Jake thought that Bale borrowed from the “Keanu Reeves school of acting” and felt he had too much of a lisp. Bale does have an odd voice, but I thought it added to the realism of Wayne. And his “Batman voice” was quite forceful.

So that I don’t ramble on any further, I’ll sum up here and say, I loved this film. I’d see it again if it were convenient, and will be showing up at Newbury Comics or wherever to buy a copy as soon as the DVD is released.

If you have ever liked Batman, and particularly the comic book versions in Batman Year one, Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns or any of those other gritty volumes, you will like this film.

1 Flagship Cinema is one of two cinemas close to the university. The other is the North Dartmouth Mall cinema. “Cinema 140” is the long gone New Bedford cinema that old-timers may remember. It closed in 2000. If you look at the timing, Cinema 140 was basically sunk by the opening of Flagship on the night Phantom Menace premiered.

2 I saw “Batman and Robin” at the now closed Cinnema 140. Not only was the movie bad, but Cinema 140 was boasting a new sound system, which is what drew us there. The sound malfunctioned while Mike and I were watching and they kept losing everything but the center channel. Horrendous. Absolutely horrendous. If I hadn’t had Mike there with me for support, I think I might have tried to end my suffering by crushing my own skull in the folding seat.

Posted by James at June 16, 2005 8:29 AM
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There were 4 of the previous Batman movies in all. I gave up at #3. It was awful and I heard #4 was worse. I'm not sure if Burton did 3 and 4 though. I also concluded that the guy in #3 (don't even remember whether it was Kilmer or Clooney) didn't need to be Batman.

I am horribly jealous that I had to miss it last night and I hope I can see it soon.

Posted by: Julie at June 16, 2005 10:12 AM

Burton didn't do 3 or 4, but that didn't help them. They became over the top star fests. Poor acting, poor story, poor us for having to watch. I am looking forward to the new film. I hope I get to see it.

Posted by: briwei at June 16, 2005 11:03 AM

I wish you had been with us, Julie.

I didn't like the movie as much as James and the others did. But right from the start, which I won't spoil, I thought, "oh, good, I'm watching a real movie." It wasn't stylized crap. It was gritty. My three major complaints:
1. too-close action sequences, as James already described;
2. a lot of contrived stuff to get people to places they needed to be, along with a lot of people being in the right place at the right time -- way too much of that;
3. not great characterization, although much better than the Tim Burton version.

I loved Michael Caine. I mean Alfred. Okay, I could never forget that he's Michael Caine, but who cares. He's Michael Caine. All of the acting was good. I got over the fact that Katie Holmes was in it, after the initial shock of thinking I was accidentally in a supermarket check-out line. I never stopped thinking, when she was in a scene with Christian Bale, "look, it's Katie Holmes and not Tom Cruise." Sorry, but the guy looks like an ugly Tom Cruise.

I'd put the movie well above X-Men 1 and 2, and slightly below the Spiderman movies, although I far preferred realistic villains to goofy villains like Green Goblin. I think masked villains are just ridiculous, and if they do a sequel with one of the silly Batman villains, I hope they make the guy (or gal) just quirky, and not a freak.

Posted by: Maggie at June 16, 2005 1:51 PM

I'd love it if it could be Louie the Lilac. ;)

Posted by: Julie at June 16, 2005 2:09 PM

Sounds like y'all had a great time! Glad to hear it!

Posted by: Chuck S. at June 16, 2005 4:39 PM

For those unfamiliar with our lingo, when Maggie says "not Tom Cruise" she means, "someone who looks like Tom Cruise but isn't."

For years we'd use it as shorthand when we hadn't yet learned the name of an actor.

"Not Rae Dawn Chong" for Gloria Reuben, a notable example.

This is only peripherally related to the practice of yelling out names during a movie, Tom Servo (MST3K) style.

For instance, you see an actor who looks like Tom Cruise in a movie and yell out (in a lilting almost surprised/annoyed-sounding whiney voice) "TO-om CrOO-ooze?"

Do it. It's fun.

Posted by: James at June 16, 2005 5:25 PM

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