Monday, June 15, 2009

"Batman Begins" is flawless - so for a comic book film, it's perfection.

For my money, this is the perfect super-hero movie. Only a few approach the quality of this film. From the outset, I had a special kind of anticipation for this film. I avoided all information about it - I even closed my eyes and hummed when a theater showed a preview for it.

I have a deep contempt for the recent Hollywood focus on unneeded sequels and unwanted remakes (Starsky & Hutch? Land of the Lost??). But Christopher Nolan is among the most exciting directors in the last two decades, and Christian Bale is one of the best actors working today. So my weariness was abated (and I was sold) as soon as I knew three facts: Batman, Nolan, Bale. Without the last two, I wouldn't have been interested.

For the reboot of this doomed franchise, they chose "the origin story." In case you've never heard it: Bruce Wayne is a happy rich tyke, but his parents are mugged and murdered in front of him. He grows up learning martial arts (wise choice). He acquires the skills to terrorize the villainous.

At some point, he decides to become a vigilante who will protect his city from its vast number of criminals. His city is basically New York, operating under one of New York's most popular nicknames ("Gotham"). As he tries to protect his identity and his hometown, excitement ensues.

The dialogue, casting, tone, and plotting are perfect. I'll tackle them in reverse order. We're shown the life and formation of Bruce Wayne/Batman in a way that feels engaging, fresh, and emotionally powerful. Everyone is worried that their parents will die someday - and it's every child's worst nightmare to lose both, much less see them killed.

What this movie manages to do is make the events touch the audience. They build the story of our hero's past effectively, yet also show how he becomes what he will become. When the main crisis in the movie arises, we've already learned everything we need to know about everyone, and the story moves along with a thrilling urgency.

And it does this without succumbing to the weight of all that negative emotion. True wit - the sort that can grace even a life filled with tragedy - shimmers in the interactions between this deep cast. This is seen most in the conversation between Bruce and Alfred - who really feels like a life-long friend and helper to Bruce.

Any life can be a mix of tragedy, absurdity, comedy, romance, and more. Tinges of candor, anger, or wry comment pop in to keep one feeling from dominating the rest. To this end, it's a masterpiece of plotting and scripting.

As with many great movies, the setting has a leading role, as much as the top-billed actor does. Chicago was largely used, famed for its architecture. It also works perfectly with the indirect exposition at play here. This allows the movie to say things about the hero without actually showing (or talking about) him.

Why is the hero so rough? Because his city can kill people who aren't capable of being rough. Why is the hero so determined? Because crime is so prevalent that he must be steadfast. The movie is about the city - the city that made this boy become an unusual hero.

Neighborhoods, and the array of people living in them, are sketched out quickly, but in a way that feels true; the elite talk elitely, while poor folks talk like poor folks. The excellent use of smaller roles weaves a past and present for Gotham, as well as many exciting possible futures.

Michael Caine is effortlessly entertaining as Alfred. Morgan Freeman excels (as he always does) in a role that requires heavy exposition. Gary Oldman is letter-perfect as the weary, honorable cop in a dishonorable town. Liam Neeson carries himself magnificently. A variety of characters - villains, secondary-villains, people that may become villains or allies later - are all introduced with the sort of dialogue that makes them natural and memorable.

Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, and Ken Watanabe do more than hold their own here. No large city is built around one or two people, and the movie does a great job of introducing strong elements, and showing how they influence the environment and each other. Katie Holmes is often derided as the weakest link here, possibly a "Bennifer"-esque punishment by society. I feel she's perfectly competent - it's a bit of an illusion, as she's surrounded by people who've done excellent work for years.

For a movie based on a comic book, poor dialogue is expected. "Sin City," for example, had speeches and narration that were painful or laughable. Yet that doesn't happen in "Batman Begins." As with the best scripts, the lines do more than tell you information ("but that's the same man that killed your father!") - they tell you things about the person speaking them ("I ain't no rat! In a town this crooked, who's there to rat to, anyway?").

Earle's every line tells you what he is - a self-concerned man, caring only for business, who still knows how to say the right thing for the situation. Even better, characters say the sorts of things real people might say. Alfred says that the Batman plan almost made him call an asylum; Bruce Wayne sneaks a prototype suit out of a scientist: "Is it bulletproof?" "Do you expect to run into much gunfire?" [BW said he wanted it for cave-diving] A shrink is accused of collusion by a D.A. "the work offered by organized crime must have an attraction to the insane."

Some have complained about a common failing in recent films - fight sequences that have so many close-ups as to ruin the action. Although this does occur, it is not done too often. Also, the action does not boil down to several choppily-shot brawls.

One fight at the beginning - and another in Batman's first outing - do cry out for a middle-distance shot, or fewer cuts. Aside from these, though, the photographic composition is beautiful and lively - middle shots, long shots, close-ups: all are effectively employed.

Hans Zimmer produces his ninety-seventh (or so) excellent score. The child's life turns into unexpected horror, and all the sadness is there. A quietly-simmering theme builds anticipation for the danger about to break.

The hero sets out, and your adrenaline starts pumping. And yet, all of a sudden, the music changes at the right time - and you feel the struggle of a hurt little boy - while looking at a man in a tuxedo or body armor. The main theme is dark and exciting. Aside from engaging and thrilling music, the sound is excellent - little noises in the dark, rustling in the wind. High marks for the "Batmobile" - it sounds like a lion racing right at you. Don't turn the bass down when you watch this.

Everything about this movie works, and works majestically. For my part, I concede that "The Dark Knight" might be the better movie, but I prefer this one.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Chime in!