Saturday 22 October 2011

Battle in Seattle (2007)


The first film to be considered after all that Batman goodness seems a rather appropriate one for a couple of reasons. On the back of The Dark Knight’s telling of one man’s attempts to sink society into a chaotic frenzy, today’s film takes the docu-drama approach to a real-life event when that almost actually happened. It’s also particularly timely because there are, at the time of writing, numerous protests and demonstrations going on across the US under the banner of Occupy Wall Street, which relied very heavily on the Internet as a means of organisation. For actor Stuart Townsend’s first (and so far only) crack at writing and directing, he chose to look at one of the most famous and incendiary topics that occurred in the final year of last millennium. Taking its title from one of the media labels attached to the event, this is Battle in Seattle.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is a body that is under near constant protest and objection by a significant portion of society. At the 1999 WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle, thousands of activists arrive to protest on a number of issues and causes. However, riots and chaos eventually consume the city as demonstrators try to stop the WTO meetings. The events are told from numerous perspectives, such as protestors, the media, the police force, the government and the WTO delegates.

If I’m honest, I had no idea about what happened in Seattle until I watched this film. For all of it being one of the most significant events in recent US history, important for several reasons, one of which was forcing the mainstream media to engage with the concept of the Anti-Globalisation Movement, which had been largely ignored by most outlets until 1999, I honestly can’t remember a single instance of hearing about it at the time. I didn’t have much interest in global events then, and still don’t to some degree. Besides, there were other things that I did hear about which got my attention much more: the shootings at Columbine, which shook a lot of people up for a long time; the beginning of the impeachment process against President Clinton; Scotland opened its first Parliament in 300 years; there was war in Kosovo; worldwide preparations for the Millennium were underway; and, who could forget, Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released upon the world. When you think about it, there was a hell of a lot that happened in 1999.

Given the circumstances, can I really be blamed for letting that one thing in Seattle slip by?… I think the answer to that is yes. At least, that’s probably what most people who were involved would say, and I’d have to agree a little bit. The Clinton impeachment was a joke; the Millennium plans were stupid; I don’t have a patriotic bone in my body, so couldn’t care less about the Parliament; and, well, fuck The Phantom Menace. The only other things of great concern (at least from the list I’ve made) were Columbine and Kosovo, which, without meaning to detract in any way from the gravity or tragedy of those events, happened months before Seattle. And considering the global implications of what was being discussed and demonstrated against at the WTO conference and the subsequent riots, it probably would have been prudent to cast the occasional glance towards it every now and then.

One person that was certainly paying attention at the time was Stuart Townsend, the Irish actor known best for appearing in high-profile flops and never quite getting the break needed to become really big. He’s certainly not untalented, as he’s shown in past smaller ventures like Shooting Fish and Resurrection Man, but it’s never quite swung far enough to get him as known as he maybe should be. As it is, he turned his hand to writing and directing a relatively low-budget feature that took a multi-stranded view of the events that occurred over those few days around the end of November in 1999. The film took in the perspectives of the protestors and demonstrators, the police, the mayor, and some of the delegates and speakers in attendance at the conference. To fill the various roles within the film, Townsend assembled a damn impressive cast: André Benjamin, Jennifer Carpenter, Woody Harrelson, Martin Henderson, Joshua Jackson, Ray Liotta, Tzi Ma, Ivana Milicevic, Connie Nielsen, Michelle Rodriguez, Rade Serbedzija, Channing Tatum, Charlize Theron… sweet Jesus, that’s a lot of talent in there, especially in a film with a budget of less than $10 million.

Now, when taking on a film like Battle in Seattle, it’s difficult to try and identify just what it is you want to do with it. It’s a very emotive subject, with plenty of ammunition for addressing real world concerns, and it damn sure has some fine talent to be utilised in discussing those issues, but it’s also a minefield of potential problems. If Townsend were to follow just one group, it offers the chance of deeper involvement with those characters and motives, but can end up feeling uneven, lopsided, unfair in the portrayal of everyone else. As it is, he’s gone for the other approach, taking in all sides, which can make for a more balanced account of events, but can also hinder the depth of exploration of these characters, particularly in a film that’s only 90 minutes long. There are also the political aspirations of the film. Films like these need to be able to provide some sort of insight into the cause being observed, either good or bad. Be too forceful and you’ll just end up alienating people; whereas being half-assed about it will just seem like a waste of time, effort and potential. Then there’s the simple level of filmmaking and drama. No matter what your intentions with the final product, if it fails as a film, with poor characters and lacking in drama, it will generally be dismissed or ignored, making it all for nought. For his first time as the primary creative force behind a film, Stuart Townsend has picked himself a tough one.

Now, the temptation for some would be to look at one and ignore the other. It’s either to be taken as a political text where its existence as a film isn’t really a concern; or it’s a filmed drama to be considered, with the political worries left to others to take from it what they will. Doing only one of these would be to look at only half of the film, which I’m sure Townsend et al would be rather annoyed with. So, I’ll take a swing at both.

First, the filmic aspects. With so many characters being looked at over the course of Battle in Seattle, there is the feeling of being mildly short-changed on some level, which comes simply from being spread too thin. Arcs are there to some degree, but feel squashed down, underdeveloped, or just unnecessary. It’s largely left to the skill of the actors involved to flesh out whatever they get. For example, Martin Henderson’s Jay (who does have an interesting backstory) and Michelle Rodriguez’s Lou (who seems built mainly on platitude) seem to have some sort of romantic thing going, but it’s never entirely convincing because it never goes anywhere and just distracts from what’s going on. Removing this subplot, or the character of Lou altogether, would have freed things up a bit. The relationship between Jay and Sam, played by Jennifer Carpenter, feels more substantial, but is left relatively untouched, which greatly detracts from Sam’s overall impact in the film.

On the other side of things, there’s Ella and Dale (Charlize Theron and Woody Harrelson), a couple in the fifth month of pregnancy. She works in an upscale clothing store downtown, and he’s a cop set for crowd control/riot duty for the demonstration. We get a bit more time with these two, and their relationship is much better drawn, and anchored by two of the best performances in the film. As things start to go south and all hell breaks loose, we get a much better sense of these characters, both individually and together, the pain and love between them. We get much more from these two than people who are more directly in the fray.

Other characters are a bit lacking, though are handled very well. Mayor Jim Tobin, played by Ray Liotta, spends most of his time just looking very worried and trying to find solutions to the escalating problems, but Liotta shows the strain in the man nicely, his voice audibly cracking when he is forced to declare a state of emergency in the city. Rade Serbedzija also does some great understated work as Dr. Maric, who is set to deliver a presentation to the conference about making medicine more available to Third World countries, but is largely denied his chance because demonstrators won’t let the intended audience into the building. The frustrated worry on his face is clear, which eventually bubbles over as the few who made it to his talk begin to walk out. Isaach De Bankolé actually has a similar role as delegate Abasi, looking to get more respect on the international stage. And André Benjamin makes a lot from relatively little as Django, maintaining an upbeat, though not impervious spirit in the face of being ignored by the press and arrested by the police.

There’s one character, Johnson (Channing Tatum), who suffers being a bit stock, which is rather reflected in the most basic name possible. He’s a young cop who can’t wait to get out there and enforce the law on these protestors, but changes his tune when he finds himself on the wrong end of a billy club. That’s kind of it. He does get some dramatic splash-back from his friendship with Dale, but that’s just a residual thing.

And then there’s the media, represented by Jean, played by Connie Nielsen. She’s an on-the-streets TV reporter, going live from the demonstration, and who plunges into the melee with her cameraman when it all hits the fan. She’s certainly not unwilling to chase the story, nor is she shy of ignoring her bosses and dropping the story in favour of lending a hand, either to injured parties or making her own statement… I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to make of her. She’s too individual to be “the media”, but then that rather cuts down on her as an effective representation of her field. I certainly liked her and thought Nielsen was good, but that may be it. Her own on-air protest is okay, but it’s a bit fleeting and doesn’t seem like it has a huge impact… I don’t know. For the amount of importance placed on the media in such instances, you just expect the character to have way more dramatic weight. It’s just a bit anaemic.

As can perhaps be gathered, Townsend’s script is relatively hit-and-miss, with most of the responsibility being placed on the actors for covering holes. As a director, he’s certainly got some great moments on the screen. The demonstrations and riots do have a good feeling of being in amongst it all, the camera often taking on the literal role of a demonstrator’s POV, placing the viewer in direct firing line of mace-wielding police. There are some effective bouts of claustrophobic panic as people run every which way, too. Amidst all of the emotive thrall of riots and people getting beaten and pepper-sprayed (a fair bit of this comes from actual news footage not dissimilar to those being seen at the OWS protests), Townsend has also actually done a pretty good job setting the geo-political stage. The film begins with a sequence explaining whom the WTO are, why they were built and why they get protested so much. It’s clear, concise and effectively done to aid people like me who need the crash course.

However, Townsend’s clarity does rather ebb away as the film goes on. The film seems to have the same problem that occurred during the demonstrations, which is that it allows all the different factions to come along and distract from what was the central issue in the beginning. Points of hope and despair are dropped about so casually that, by film’s end, you’re not sure if anything was actually accomplished, or even could be. Certainly, most of the characters we followed seem happy, some even calling it all a success, but a final series of titles and photos would suggest that nothing was really achieved.

And this sort of brings me on to attempting to engage with the political side of things: what does this film actually want to achieve? I suppose the short answer would be that the film wants you to sit up, take notice, get involved, fight the good fight. However, it makes it seem like, in the end, it’s all rather hopeless. There are no villains (except for the faceless WTO), but only differing opinions, tactics, causes. Everyone ends up treading on the others’ toes, which drowns out the message at the centre of it all. Political posturing gets in the way of the media, which gets in the way of the demonstrators, who get in the way of the delegates and doctors, and since the demonstrators lack direct action, it brings on the anarchists, who smother the protests and set off the police, who then go clubbing their way through the masses whilst under orders from upper echelons who are taking political pressure because the businesses (big and small) are being affected. Even within the demonstrators, there’s arguments over which causes come first, like labour versus poverty versus corporate greed versus environment versus health… good God, it does go on. It’s no bloody wonder a clear message is difficult to grab hold of.

Now, obviously, you don’t expect answers from films like these. If it were able to answer the problems it looked at, then we wouldn’t really have those problems anymore, and we clearly do, as evidenced by the OWS protests happening right now. For those who aren’t too sure what that’s all about, here’s a very potted version:

Occupy Wall Street is an ongoing series of protests in New York and other states that seek to resolve the growing socio-economic inequality in the world and end the influence of corporate lobbying on Washington politics. It was mostly co-ordinated through social network sites like Facebook and began on September 17th 2011. It started when, back in July, a Toronto-based counter-culture magazine called Adbusters posted an article, #OCCUPYWALLSTREET, which appealed to have 20,000 people to assemble in Lower Manhattan, setting up tents, kitchens and “peaceful barricades” and thereby occupying Wall Street. The idea is basically to demand that President Obama ordain a presidential commission whose job it will be to end the influence of money in US politics. On September 17th of this year, an estimated 1,000 protesters gathered in Lower Manhattan despite police blockades surrounding the Wall Street Stock Exchange. Initially, there wasn’t much news coverage, but that changed when the demonstrators tried to march north and were confronted by police officers, leading to dozens of arrests. In the fray, two female protesters were sprayed with pepper spray, which was caught on video and instantly hit YouTube. This in turn triggered a call for Internet Vigilantism, to which many responded by posting the identity, including a photo, of the officer responsible. Other troubles came when around 1,500 protestors tried to march across the Brooklyn Bridge on October 2nd, but were met with heavy police resistance, with more than 700 protestors arrested for violating the law of occupying the roadway. Many protestors have gone on record as saying they felt like they were “lured into a trap,” having been escorted part of the way across the bridge before finally being contained. After this, similar protests sprouted in other cities, like Boston, New Jersey, and Washington D.C. The movement has been accused of having a lack of direction, though most participants feel their goal is clear: to end the overwhelming influence of corporations and the wealthy in governmental policy-making, and to promote an economic system that benefits everyone, ensuring fairness and equality for all socio-economic walks of life.

Sound familiar? After having watched Battle in Seattle, it does to me. It all actually lines up with the final feeling you get left with at the end of the film, which is this: The old issues keep coming back, no matter what. Townsend clearly wants people to get involved, but it presents such an overwhelming task that you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’d be genuinely inspired by it all. I feel more smothered in all of this understanding and balance. You’re likely to feel more impotent and frustrated than driven and motivated…

I’m looking over what I’ve written in all this and, typically, it looks like I’ve tied myself in knots trying to get to grips with the enormity of the real issue at the film’s core. And this is what happens. You may feel the need to act, but it all seems so pointless. You want to help, but you see the myriad ways in which it can be short-circuited. Whilst it’s not a completely depressing affair, it’s not the hopeful film it needs to be to inspire.

God, I should’ve just stuck to the film review side of things. That I can do.

Battle in Seattle is, if nothing else, an interesting film. It highlights important issues, brings a significant event to the attention of people who may have missed it in all the pre-Millennium stuff, and gives people something to talk about. However, I get the feeling that Townsend wants people to do more than just talk about it, which I’m not really sure comes off. That the film was a huge failure at the box office (it made less than $1million) would suggest that few saw it and so therefore it’s impact was minimal. I would say to find it and give it a watch. It may inspire, it may not, but it deserves at least one viewing and will make you that little bit better informed, which is never a bad thing.

Thursday 20 October 2011

The Dark Knight (2008)


Following the huge success of Batman Begins, audiences were hungry for a sequel. With one strike, Christopher Nolan had all but completely eradicated the memory of the Schumacher debacle and restored hope in the Batman films by putting the Dark back in the Dark Knight. Of course, now that the groundwork was done, the task was even greater - he had to outdo himself. Nolan was understandably hesitant about returning to Gotham, much like Burton was after his first Batman film. However, the main thing that brought him back was the chance to look at and reinterpret a particular character from the Rogue’s Gallery: the Joker, arguably one of the greatest, if not the greatest villain in the comic book world. Amidst near constant fan speculation, hype and the kind of expectations that would instantly cripple any other film, in 2008, Christopher Nolan released The Dark Knight.

Six months into his crime-fighting career, Batman (Christian Bale) is close to ending organised crime in Gotham, with help from Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and new D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). In a last attempt to stop this from happening, the mob turns to the Joker (Heath Ledger), a dangerous psychopath intent on engulfing Gotham in chaos and violence. Batman’s struggle against the Joker becomes very personal as the villain pushes everyone to the very brink of madness and moral collapse.

At the end of Batman Begins, Jim Gordon delivers a monologue on the nature of escalation in the fight against crime. He tells Batman, “We start carrying semi-automatics; they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar; they buy armour-piercing rounds. And you’re wearing a mask and jumping off rooftops.” It’s a simple, elegant, positively Newtonian way of addressing how one thing begets another. And from this comes the root of conflict within The Dark Knight, where Batman is confronted with the first direct reaction to his method of fighting crime. By employing some extreme means of restoring order, his nemesis is one who would be even more extreme in order to create chaos. And that last word is very important: Chaos.

The Joker describes himself as an agent of Chaos, with no real plan other than to destroy everyone else’s plan. He looks at the other people in Gotham - the police, the criminals, the politicians, even Batman - and sees how weak and pathetic their plans are. They all want some kind of order, an order that benefits them, and one that rests in contradiction to the others. Not only does this provide a great deal of enjoyment for the Joker, but it gives him the chance to ask his questions of these people: If you’re going to reorder society, what makes one person’s plans any better than the others?… What’s the point of trying to instil order with rules that can’t stand up to real strain?… Why not just do away with all the rules and let chaos reign?… Why so serious? To this end, the Joker has a fondness for games, particularly those that force the players to break their own rules of conduct and morality, like having three rival henchmen fight to the death to which of them can join his crew, or the infamous ferry boat game. His games are never particularly fair, but then they don’t have to be, and that’s the point. In a scene where Batman interrogates him, the Joker delivers his view of the world.
            Joker: You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first
sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show
you. When the chips are down, these... these civilized people, they’ll eat each
other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.

Not only is this an utterly chilling monologue, but it’s also unnervingly convincing as a stance on societal morality. For all of the influences behind the Joker on a level of design and performance, it would seem that the horrifying mix of intelligence and murderous nihilism that makes up the root of his persona is akin to that of Charles Manson, and that makes him goddamn terrifying. On the two occasions when someone seeks to “teach him some manners,” the Joker easily turns things around on his would-be teacher, likely because the mere fact that they have tried to beat their rules into him means that they have already lost the fight.

Batman isn’t exactly very far from this guy, and they both know it. As I talked about in my Batman Begins review, his weapons are generally the same as those of the city’s criminals, like fear and brutality. The only difference is that he uses them on those same criminals. He’s a hero seemingly only by virtue of his targets. And it’s precisely because of these methods that they create someone like the Joker. When Batman finds Harvey trying to extract information from one of the Joker’s henchmen, he tells him that it’s useless, that the henchman in question is a paranoid schizophrenic from Arkham Asylum, “the kind of mind the Joker attracts.” Of course, the corollary of that is to acknowledge that Batman attracts minds like the Joker’s. Batman never had problems fighting the mob or the more common criminal element of the city before, because they had rules. Batman only had one rule so could fight them because he was, to some degree, much worse than them, which is why they were so scared of him. In the Joker, the Dark Knight has found someone without identity, loyalty, rules, empathy or limits. Make no mistake, Batman is scared of the Joker. In order to fight someone like him, Batman would have to break his own rule and become something worse, which is what the Joker has wanted all along. In that purple-suited nutcase, he is shown just how fine that line between them really is and the seeming inevitability that he will cross it.

The darkness in The Dark Knight is prominent, but hope isn’t ignored in all of this. Indeed, without hope, the Joker would have nothing to try and break down. Hope in this world is represented not by Batman, but by Harvey Dent, referred to so regularly as Gotham’s White Knight. Harvey is such an important figure for so many reasons. He’s smart and courageous, standing resolutely against corruption and crime, even if he does it alone, and he does it all without wearing a mask. He’s not just the ray of light for the city, but for Bruce Wayne, too. Wayne sees in him a way out, someone to accept the challenge of cleaning up the streets the right way, and allowing him the chance to hang up his cape for good. Harvey knows this and seems willing and able to do it. Batman calls Harvey “the best of us,” specifically relating to himself, Harvey and Gordon, but also in a more general sense. Harvey is the best of society, decent, capable and with great integrity… and that’s exactly why the Joker goes after him. As we’ve learned, the Joker wants to break down society, with its rules and codes and laws that are only as good as those that make them. To prove this point, he chooses to make an example of Harvey Dent, making him twisted and ugly and a hideous living embodiment of a society at war with itself. He becomes someone like Bruce Wayne: consumed by anger and pain, driven to act on it. As such, he becomes a corrupted agent, not of chaos or anarchy, but of chance, a warped instrument of fate that leaves a trail of death up to the flip of a coin. He becomes Two-Face.

Beyond the direct implications of chaos and morality, Nolan has managed to work in a sort of tragic love story, too. Bruce Wayne still holds onto the hope that, should he be able to give up being the Batman, he and Rachel Dawes will finally be able to be together. After all, she did make a promise to this effect in Batman Begins. However, in the time that Wayne has been fighting crime, Rachel has found that she can’t wait around for Bruce to give up his alter ego. She has fallen for Harvey Dent, which would really have to sting. Not only is Harvey capable of taking on the criminal world of Gotham himself without gadgets or a mask, but in doing so he is also able to win the affections of Rachel. On some level, this would perhaps act as an extra push for Bruce to give up his crime-fighting ways, passing the torch to Harvey, or rather saddling him with the burden, and thereby freeing himself up to pursue a relationship with Rachel. However, Rachel has already made up her mind. The Batman will always be inside Bruce, and she knows that there will never be room for another in his life, even after he quits. The darkness, the psychosis will always be there. Harvey is clearly the better choice because he is really is the better man. That these modest hopes end so badly for all of them just plunges them all into despair.

The supporting players become so much more in all of this, too. Alfred, having been established as a guiding light to Bruce Wayne, continues to act in a way that makes him more than just a butler. He protects Bruce from the things that would hurt him, threaten his already questionable mental stability. It’s perhaps precisely because he has Alfred that Bruce is able to hold onto that last remaining sliver of decency and faith, that he never succumbs to the Joker’s efforts of corruption and destruction. And it’s never done in a way that amounts to directly telling him what to do, but more advising him in a way that allows Bruce to make his own decision. Jim Gordon becomes a more prominent figure, not just professionally (he finally attains his status as Commissioner), but in the grand scheme. He acts as the midway point between Harvey and Batman. He’s a decent man trying to do good, but by working with the corrupt and dishonest, he’s somewhat tainted by them. He’s the most direct and relatable version of us onscreen. He tries to make the best he can with the means at his disposal, but sometimes that just isn’t good enough. Is it a bit much to say that when he tells Harvey he’s sorry for allowing what happened that it’s metaphorically us telling the corrupted and ugly face of society that we’re sorry? Perhaps, but it’s certainly not without basis. Lucius Fox also serves as another good example of decency within the film, but a decency that knows when lines must be crossed (he continues to assist and protect Wayne as Batman) and when they shouldn’t be (his horror upon being presented with Batman’s new sonar computer system). Even Sal Maroni, the new head of the Falcone crime family, has his place as both bad guy and good guy.

On a production level, The Dark Knight is near flawless. As I’ve more or less said, the script for the film is superb. Really, really superb. The story was conceived by David S. Goyer around about the time he was coming up with Batman Begins, though the actual scripting duties fell to Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who wrote the script for Memento back in 2000. Nolan’s vision of Gotham is noticeably different from the previous film. It’s a bit of a cleaner look, less infused with that griminess, which is probably an allusion to the effect Batman has had on the city, cleaning it up, as it were. The design of the characters is equally great (I’m rapidly running out of positive adjectives here). Batman has been redesigned to be more agile, freer in movement, but still effective in combat. Also, he’s been given a new vehicle, the Bat-pod. It’s a cool bike, though it did pain me that it came at the cost of the Tumbler. Then there’s the Joker, who looks genuinely maniacal, from his punk-influenced clothes to his make-up, which has the occasional effect of making him look somehow infected.

The performances themselves are a gallery of fine work. Christian Bale continues to do a damn good job as Bruce Wayne/Batman. In the same way that Bruce would be a bit more comfortable as Batman, Bale is a bit more comfortable in the performance. A lot of people actually found this to be a little flatter than he previous turn, but the emotion of Batman Begins was more raw, he was a character still struggling with how to channel his anguish. The Bruce of The Dark Knight has had some time to get used to it, and more importantly has found an outlet for his aggression, even if it is “beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands.” Something else a lot of people found off about the performance was the voice, which was different from that of the previous film, where the vocal change was more subtle. Here, he growls much more. Honestly, I’m fine with this voice for a few reasons: 1) Fear - Batman is supposed to be scary, and regardless of what many people say, if someone started threatening and snarling at you in that voice, you’d be scared; 2) Practicality - You certainly can’t say that Batman’s voice and Bruce Wayne’s voice are similar under these circumstances, so it’s not as easy for people to link the two; 3) Persona - It’s a mark of Bruce’s psychosis that he keeps doing the voice, even when just talking to Lucius, who knows who he is; and 4) Post-production - Though Bale did do the voice, it was Nolan who amped it up in the edit, so it was a conscious decision on the part of the director and, goddamn it, in Nolan we trust.

Aaron Eckhart is superb as Harvey Dent. He holds himself with the great poise and stature throughout. From the get-go, Eckhart looks like someone you can have confidence in, that you can place your trust in. His political slogan was ‘I Believe in Harvey Dent’, and Eckhart makes a damn sure that the audience can do just that. And he handles the shift to Two-Face with great skill. It’s not a complete break of character, as if making the transition from Henry Jekyll to Edward Hyde. This is still the same man, but defeated, broken, torn apart by the machinations of a lunatic. Eckhart plays these two sides so well, in contrast and parallel, that it’s so easy to be convinced by the character. And the horrifying design of the look of Two-Face made this even easier. It’s grotesque, almost painful to look at. Any potential for it to be regarded as darkly amusing is removed by Eckhart’s anguished conviction behind it all. He’s a man angered and hurting, inside and out, and he’s looking to take that out on the people responsible.

Then… there’s Heath Ledger. When Ledger was announced as the choice to take on the role of the Joker, many were not convinced about the decision. Most were incredulous that the guy who once played some gay cowboy could hope to play a part that was last done by Jack Nicholson, and to great and lasting effect. Even the film writer Philip French (of whom I am a great admirer) said in his review of Batman Begins, “[N]o one would be foolish enough to compete with Jack Nicholson’s 1989 Joker.” What in the hell made Nolan think this would work? When asked, his response was simple: “Because Heath is fearless.” I don’t care who says it, that’s a good answer, and he sure wasn’t wrong. Ledger is unbeatable in this film. As strong as the other performances are (and they are), Ledger utterly destroys everyone else. It’s a performance so wholly conceived and convincing that you find yourself longing for him to be onscreen because he’s so damn electric. Jack Nicholson’s Joker was a malevolent lunatic, but there was still something fun about him; Ledger’s Joker is a full-blown psychotic, murderous, sadistic, and just scary as hell. Just watch the scene where he films his tormenting of a “Son of Batman”, listen to the viciousness in his voice and that laugh… shudder. And it’s as complete and committed a performance as Ledger ever gave, and he had some great roles in CV (that gay cowboy one was one them). Just listen to the voice, watch the mannerisms, the genuine glee in his campaign of chaos. So completely caught up in his character and the film was I that it wasn’t until his final scene that I remembered that Ledger had already passed away by the time the film was released. It occurred to me just as the Joker and Batman were having their final words of the film, and it made the moment he says, “I think you and I are destined to do this forever,” so much harder to take. I knew that not only would we never get to have Ledger around for what would have been an awesome career, but we’d never even get the chance to see this Joker again. And as much as people would be hard-pressed to follow Nicholson’s performance as the Joker, it’s going to be pretty much impossible to follow Ledger.

Rachel Dawes came with a casting change, going from Katie Holmes (who I maintain did a fair job in the last film) to Maggie Gyllenhaal (who is one of the bravest actresses of her generation). Contrary to popular belief, it was Holmes that turned the role down, leaving it open for recasting. And Gyllenhaal does give the role what Holmes tried to do. Rachel seems more capable, more mature, better equipped to handle the stresses of her life in the hands of Gyllenhaal. Given the pull of the job and being torn between Harvey and Bruce (another of the film’s relationship triangles), I get the feeling that this would have proved too much for Holmes. However, Gyllenhaal carries this off wonderfully. She’s a strong and capable actress, and this shines through very well, but still holding a degree of vulnerability. It’s a great show.

Gary Oldman typically does a really great job as Gordon, giving a performance that’s understated and naturalistic and solid as a rock. Oldman has always been one of the best at doing a lot with very little, so when he’s given a more prominent part to play in all this, he is able to do some excellent work. Michael Caine continues to bring a solid air of class and dignity to it all, with a dry delivery and warmth. And Morgan Freeman continues to be a presence of great stature and really funny. Just watch how he handles the employee who looks to blackmail Bruce Wayne when he discovers his secret. It’s absolute gold.

There are a couple of holes in proceedings again, though most people (again, including me) didn’t notice them the first time round… or second time… or seventh. One comes from the prisoner transport scene, when the vehicles taking Harvey Dent to jail after he claims to be Batman are forced to take the underground route. They get diverted when a burning fire engine (typical Joker humour) is placed in their path and they need to find an alternate route. Strictly speaking, they could have just gone along the other side of the road. Traffic was clear and there was no obvious obstruction that way, so why not avoid the way that is so clearly a trap? Perhaps the cop that made the call was on the Joker’s side, or there were other minions waiting to force the convoy that way, but it's not made clear. Either way, it’s kind of odd. The bigger hole that doesn’t strike you at the time (which is generally how Nolan gets away with some of these things) comes from the party scene, after the Joker has just pitched Rachel out the window and Batman leaps out to save her. We follow them down to their rough landing, and then cut to the next scene. But wait, what happened with the Joker? Did he just leave the party after that? Wasn’t that a bit awkward? Now, to this, there is the potential explanation that the Joker initially believed that Harvey was Batman (he alludes to this later in the interrogation scene), or at least got that impression at the party. As such, when Batman jumped out the window, it seemed that the man he’d come to find (i.e. Harvey Dent) was now no longer in the building and a bit more dangerous than first anticipated, leading him to temporarily retreat and regroup. This does hold up, though it still holds a couple of awkward minutes in the reality of the film. Finally, there are some basic editing issues in the film. An example would be the scene where Alfred helps patch up Bruce near the beginning of the film, where there’s a couple of times when someone is being heard, though not actually speaking onscreen. It’s blink-and-you-miss-it stuff, but it’s still there. However, I can overlook these, because the rest of the film is so damn good.

The Dark Knight contains so much that it’s really kind of hard to do it justice when talking about it. Honestly, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what a proper in-depth look at this film can do. Its thematic concerns are timeless and woven together in such a fantastically intricate way that creates a tremendous sense of depth to the whole. It’s a tragedy of almost operatic scale, with the rise of Chaos, the fall of Hope and the wrenching pull to act without knowing the best course to take. It’s a sort of psychoanalysis on what makes society function on some of its most basic levels, with the Freudian conception of the Id, Ego and Superego represented in a manner that’s accessible and natural. It’s an excellent character drama, and a downright superb action film. I’m not kidding when I say that when I first saw this two-and-a-half hour film, I could’ve stayed for as long as it wanted to continue. Batman Begins was the film that we needed; The Dark Knight was the film we deserved.

And so, with that, Batman Week, which has managed to last nearly three weeks, comes to an end. I’ll be moving out of the Gotham City limits to look at other films from here on. Hope you enjoyed the ride.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Batman Begins (2005)

Much like the very long wait for this blog post, there was a very long wait for Batman to hit the big screen again. Specifically, an eight-year wait. Eight years before another Batman film was finally released after the universal drubbing that was laid on Batman & Robin. During that time, Warner Bros. pursued a number of different avenues and approached a number of different directors. Straight adaptations, original storylines, there were a lot of ideas flying around. Eventually, in 2003, Warner Bros. asked director Christopher Nolan, who achieved much acclaim for his 2000 film Memento, as well as his 2002 remake of Insomnia, to take the job. Accepting the role, Nolan opted for an origin story for the Batman, and playing it out in a more realistic setting than had been tried before. The result was the 2005 film Batman Begins.

When Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) was a boy, he witnessed his millionaire parents being murdered, which led him to become obsessed with revenge. After disappearing to the East, where he is trained by ninja cult leader Ra’s Al-Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and Ducard (Liam Neeson), he returns to Gotham City, now decayed and overrun by organized crime and corruption thanks to Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). Seeking to find the injustice in his city, Wayne uses his wealth and skills to adopt a new persona, one that will strike fear into the hearts of evil men. He becomes Batman.

Right from the off, Christopher Nolan had one pretty clear idea that he was going to build his Batman venture on. Although he has said that he loves Tim Burton’s Batman films for their distinctive style and atmosphere, Nolan still regarded them as an exercise in (superb) visual style over character and drama, which I rather agree with. As such, Nolan made the decision to locate the action within a more realistically drawn world. Taking a cue from some of the more gritty and sober titles in the Batman comic oeuvre, Nolan planned to tell the story of how a young boy, born of a wealthy family, grows up somewhat twisted and haunted by pain and guilt when that family is killed. The overall story that runs through the film is a mixture of different elements from the comics, like Bruce Wayne’s early life and world travels where receives his training (The Man Who Falls), his dealings with Carmine Falcone (The Long Halloween), and his first forays into crime-fighting (Year One). Each of these titles were possessed of the more grounded tone that Nolan was aiming for, and presented a great array of characters and themes to play with.

For help on the script, Nolan worked with writer David S. Goyer, who already had some success with comic book adaptations like Blade and Blade II (we’ll just pretend Blade: Trinity didn’t happen), and who worked the basic chronology of the events from the canon material into a complete story. The pair eventually finished a script that works very well, with each maintaining a sensibility that is unique to themselves but without competing for attention. The idea of fear, an incredibly important part of what the Batman is, is regularly considered for how it can be used. Gotham is a city populated by those who are afraid of something, with only a select few having the willingness to use it to their advantage. Carmine Falcone uses it to maintain his criminal empire; Scarecrow uses it to control his patients/victims; and Batman uses it to destroy criminals and restore order. And therein lies another conflict: both Batman and Ra’s Al Ghul would use fear as a weapon to restore order to chaos, but where Batman’s fearful wrath is more precise and defined, Ra’s Al Ghul is more malevolent and fascistic, looking to turn everyone into a panic-stricken wreck. This nicely underlines just how fine the line is between the two. Indeed, there was a time when Bruce and Ducard were close enough to be family, filling the need for a father figure in Bruce’s life. That Bruce then severs this link, rejecting this surrogate patriarch, both shows his resolve and that he isn’t quite as prepared to become his own man as he thinks. It’s another facet that adds a wonderful sense of texture to proceedings, showing you just how important Thomas Wayne was to young Bruce. In fact, that they spend a full hour developing Bruce Wayne as a character is an indication of just how much importance they place on this aspect of the story.

It’s one of the things I appreciate the most about Batman Begins, and it’s something that most people I know also like: they explain everything. Not just on a level of the emotional and psychological draws on what it takes to turn Bruce Wayne into the Batman, but just on a level of practicality. In Tim Burton’s Batman, the Joker asked that often-quoted question, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” In Batman Begins, Nolan finally answers. Be it through dummy corporation purchases, his own tinkerings or what is effectively embezzlement, it shows how the Dark Knight assembles his arsenal of gadgets, his suit and… his car. It’s a mixture of the practical and the theatrical that dictates what Batman uses to fight crime and one thing is for sure, if you’re going to take on an entire city’s criminal underworld by yourself, bring a tank. Enter the Tumbler, Nolan’s Batmobile on steroids, a hulking 100mph monster. I’m going to take a moment out from trying to be a grown up here and do this…

The Tumbler is freakin’ awesome. It’s a tank! A tank! I don’t care what it costs, I want one and I want one now! And if Morgan Freeman could be the one to teach me how to drive it, that would be great, thanks.

Anyway, back to mature mode. There’s not a single thing shown that’s wasted. His bat-ears aren’t just for decoration, but to hide a radio receiver; the cape isn’t just for show, but is capable of becoming rigid and used as a glider; and the cowl isn’t just to hide Wayne’s face, but it’s a fully functional helmet. This is the manner in which someone goes to war, not with Bat-nipples, but with Kevlar and a damn tank.

If there was one aspect of doing a Batman film that likely gave Christopher Nolan some pause for thought, it was the design and overall look of the film, particularly in the creation of Gotham City. As I said before, Burton made something special in his films, and Nolan was very open of his admiration for the styling. In Batman Begins, Nolan had to create a look that was distinctive, but also still plausible in his more realistic world. He has done a fine job. Filming on location was a huge part of this, going to places like Chicago, London, Hertfordshire and Iceland. He also had his production team, led by Nathan Crowley, pull design elements from various cities around the world, covering various architectural disciplines, in order to create a sprawling cityscape that looks aged and lived in. The most consciously stylised part of Gotham is the Narrows, the slum area of the city, a grime-covered, dirty brown mess. The difference between this portion of the city and the rest of it highlights the scale of the corrupt devastation that covers Gotham. Arkham Asylum is in the Narrows and, much like the poisoned water supply that flows from its bowels, it’s from here that the fear and despair spreads. I’ll say that I still prefer the superb visual creation of Burton’s Gotham, so excellent in evoking an oppressive atmosphere with little budget, but Nolan’s is at once the more believable one, and still capable of instilling an effective atmosphere, too.

The music of the film would also have provided a challenge. Danny Elfman’s work on Batman and Batman Returns have become so intrinsically connected to the Dark Knight, that it’s near impossible to separate them. Even Elliot Goldenthal’s music for Batman Forever and Batman & Robin has its own distinctive flair. However, considering this film was about wiping the slate clean and reinventing the filmic mythos of the Batman, the pressure was probably a little easier. Nolan hired two fine composers for the score - James Newton Howard, who would handle the more collected character-based scenes, and Hans Zimmer, who would take the action-oriented beats of the film. Honestly, I think the music for Batman Begins is excellent, and much of that can be found in the simplicity of the primary Batman theme. In the themes from Elfman and Goldenthal, the Batman theme is a more traditionally complete theme, whereas the Howard/Zimmer effort is altogether simpler. It’s just two notes, the second being three notes higher than the first, but therein lies a great flexibility. The whole tone of the piece can change with the subtlest shift in orchestration or chord structure. Nothing can take away from Elfman’s work, but this is still superb stuff.

The casting of Bruce Wayne/Batman was a big issue, because it always is with these films. There are certain roles that just seem problematic when it comes to who should fill them because it’s likely to draw snorts of derision from some people regardless of who is cast. Weirdly enough, the role went to someone who actually auditioned for the role of Robin in Batman Forever - Christian Bale. This is a great choice, because Bale is a fine actor, possessed of great physical presence and intensity. It also served as an interesting echo of a previous role. Bale played Patrick Bateman in American Psycho five years prior to Batman Begins, a wealthy and rather goofy yuppie whose nocturnal antics showed him to be a crazed psychotic… not exactly a million miles away from Bruce Wayne. Of course, Bateman was just an entitled lunatic; Wayne has legitimate cause for his mania, and Bale doesn’t let this side down. You can see the various conflicts within him, being torn between losing himself in his anger and bitterness and holding himself as someone worthy of his father’s name, between being taken seriously by his old friend Rachel and being seen as a flippant yuppie douche. Bale shows these different aspects pulling at him, but never to the point of inaction. And to that end, there’s his Batman. The most important thing about Batman has always been how intimidating he is, which Bale carries off nicely. His interrogation scene where he has his victim dangling upside down high above the street is great stuff, particularly his growling delivery of the line, “Swear to me!” The Bruce Wayne/Batman actually seems more like a complete character in this film, being that you can feel sorry for him, be annoyed with him, want him to kick ass, and maintain his compassion throughout, and Bale carries all of this wonderfully.

The supporting cast of this film is the kind of thing people make up as a fantasy roster for ‘what if’ films taking place in their own head. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, Rutger Hauer, Linus Roache… Christ, there are 15 Oscar nominations amongst this lot alone. Michael Caine gives us a version of Alfred that I much prefer to versions of old. Michael Gough was a great, dignified presence in the previous films, but that Alfred was rarely seen to be much more than a butler and assistant to Bruce Wayne, even making some baffling moves like showing Vicki Vale into the batcave in Batman. Hell, the best we ever get as to how important he really is Bruce’s life comes from Batman & Robin, and that’s just sad. In Batman Begins, Alfred is more than a butler; he’s a conscience, a guiding hand, someone who does as much to protect Bruce from himself as Bruce does to protect Gotham from criminals. Morgan Freeman is great, too. Just look at him, you can see just how sharp Lucius Fox is, and how funny he is. Freeman is really funny in this film. Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon is a rock of decency and integrity, understated and wholly dependable. Again, he’s turned a character of convenience from previous works and made him a person. Liam Neeson is a really interesting choice since he plays someone who is very similar to, but clearly different from his role of Oscar Schindler. He’s smart, classy, distinguished, but he’s a dark soul, driven by the very megalomaniacal sensibility that Schindler sought to undermine. Cillian Murphy is always bankable, and does some quietly creepy work as Dr. Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow. Rutger Hauer does a great smug corporate scumbag, Ken Watanabe is an very unsettling presence (I don’t think that guy’s eyes close once in the entire film), and Linus Roache gives a solid (though generally overlooked) turn as Thomas Wayne.

There are two performances I want to highlight, though. I actually think Tom Wilkinson’s performance is a bit off. To me, he seems like he’s putting on an act, and it’s just never sat right with me. Now, I suppose you could consider that Falcone himself is putting on some sort of tough guy act (he constantly refers to how scary he is, which isn’t really something scary people do), that he should be less convincing as a frightening bad guy when compared to the legitimate threat of Ra’s Al Ghul. However, what this does is make him less of a hurdle for Batman to overcome, and brings down the comparative threat level of Ra’s. Plus, to play with the notions of how convincing Falcone is as a bad guy by having Wilkinson be less believable in the role is something that I think rather exists outside of this film’s purview, given its realistic desires and all. In the end, it still seems to me like an otherwise excellent actor doing a rather hammy imitation of a Chicago crime boss.

Then there’s Katie Holmes, who most people regard as the weak link of the film… I don’t think she’s that bad. She’s better here than she is in a lot of her other roles. The problem with Katie Holmes is that she always looks like she’s a kid. Because she looks so young and is known to most people through her days on Dawson’s Creek, that’s how many continue to see her. Whilst Michelle Williams has grown since her days on the Creek and matured as an actress (and one I’ve yet to see give a bad performance), Holmes hasn’t, still seeming like a child playing grown up. Now, in fairness to her, she actually does pretty well in Batman Begins. She makes a concerted effort to project a sense of maturity and capability in line with the character of Rachel Dawes. The worst that I can really say about her is that I can see her trying to be Rachel, rather than just seeing Rachel. Not really a total triumph then, but she still deserves credit for giving a performance above her usual standard.

I will say that there are some other kinks in the show. For example, a lot of people didn’t appreciate the so-called “shaky cam” approach in the fight scenes. Honestly, this isn’t something that I noticed and so it didn’t bother me, though Nolan clearly heard this critique and chose to change it up for the sequel. Also, the whole microwave emitter device seems too unexplained to work for the purpose shown in the film. The idea is that it uses “focused microwaves” to instantly vaporise an enemy’s water supply, which is how it gets used by Ra’s Al Ghul for nefarious purposes in the final act. Given its capabilities, wouldn’t a giant microwave emitter instantly cook everything in its path? Wouldn’t water, oil, paper, plastic, metal, even people get heated immediately when the thing is turned on? That’s kind of a lot of explaining to hang on the word “focused”. There’s never any explanation given about how this isn’t the case, with everything resting on the likelihood that no one would notice this detail amidst all of the ass-kicking and riots. I certainly didn’t think of it the first time I watched it, but it’s something that sneaks up on you. I suppose that you could just say, “it’s a comic book movie,” which could buy you some leeway, but this does somewhat rest contrary to the more realistic aspirations of the film.

Despite these problems, I will maintain that Batman Begins is a great film, where almost everything is considered and handled in a manner both stylish and intelligent. There’s a wealth of talent throughout the whole endeavour and it doesn’t disappoint as an action film or as a character study, complete with concerns about the nature of fear as a weapon and the line between justice and vengeance. What’s more, this film gave Batman back his dignity and restored the hopes of people who had all but given up on seeing a proper Batman back on the big screen.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)


Thanks to the success of Tim Burton’s first Batman film in 1989, an animated TV series was put into development and began airing in 1992. Lasting almost exactly three years in its original run, the series became one of the most respected TV shows of the time, animated or not, and praised for its maturity and faithfulness to the source material. A year into the show, a feature episode that was originally meant as a straight-to-video release was given a theatrical run instead. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was not a success on its release, largely because of the last minute nature of the theatrical release, but it at least found its feet on home video and DVD, now regarded as one of the best Batman films to be released.

A ghostly new figure, the Phantasm, has begun killing off some of Gotham’s mob leaders, vanishing without a trace in a manner that has people believing that Batman (Kevin Conroy) has snapped. Now hunted by the authorities, Batman must solve the mystery of the murders and regain his reputation. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is distracted by the return of Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany), the woman whom Bruce Wayne nearly married before becoming the Dark Knight. Bruce may now have the chance to give up his vigilantism and return to a normal life.

Although I did watch it when I was younger, Batman: The Animated Series was never a huge part of my childhood watching. As such, it took me a long time before I got round to seeing Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. And it received a fair amount of build-up. I know a few people who are affirmed Bat-fans and said that this film is the best Batman movie of them all, beating out all efforts from Burton, Nolan or Schumacher, though that last one wouldn’t be difficult. And some of this was from people whose opinion I do hold with some respect. Many people on the internet have expressed that same view. Even the Nostalgia Critic, who is a huge Bat-fan, called this film one of the best and most underrated classics going. I’m generally quite good at flattening my own susceptibility to hype, but it certainly seemed like this was something worth catching. That I was able to get it on DVD for pretty cheap sealed the deal. I bought the film and, on arrival, sat down to watch it… and I hated it. Violently.

I could not even begin to see how people could like it, let alone love it. I thought that some of the animation was terrible and that the overall story made absolutely no sense and it was all just a bit dull as a result. Upon voicing my opinion, I was then met with several people who agreed, with a couple saying that, of all the animated Batman features, Mask of the Phantasm was actually the worst. Suffice to say that, since I was really unimpressed with the film, it went back on my shelf and stayed there. However, much like Baise-moi, it was one of the films I actually rather looked forward to re-watching and re-evaluating for this blog. So, here we are now.

One of the things that automatically set me off the first time round was the opening credit sequence, with the title and names being cast over a CG rendering of Gotham, a black city under a red sky. I like the idea, and the attempt to create a thoroughly noir-ish tone right from the off. However, I just can’t past how clumsy it actually is. As the camera slowly moves back, between and through the buildings, there are moments when bits of these buildings will appear or disappear. This is a small criticism in the grand scheme, but it just makes it look so untidy that it put me on a bad foot immediately. If it was smoother, I wouldn’t have noticed, but the fact is that I did. On the second viewing, it still annoys me, but I can deal with it better the second time around.

Overall, the animation that I once believed to be rather poor in places is… well, still rather poor in places. Now, I will say that when it’s good, it’s really very good. There is a real smoothness to it that makes it flow very nicely. Also, the manner in which they have evoked a genuinely atmospheric and gothic sensibility throughout is absolutely wonderful. However, I can still spot what are, again, relatively minor problems here and there that just irked me more and more. For example, there are a few occasions when character shadows are missing. Yes, I know that this is actually being rather pedantic. It’s a small issue generally, and I did say it was on only a few occasions. However, in an animated film that seeks to establish a gothic mood in the visuals, shadows are kind of important, particularly in a Batman story.

Now, there is an explanation for some of these animation problems. As I said earlier, Mask of the Phantasm was only meant to be a straight-to-video release, so was not rendered for a big screen showing. However, when Warner Bros. saw the quality of the project, they decided, late in the production, to put the film out in theatres. They increased the budget so that it could be reformatted for a cinema release, but it still left less than a year to convert the film’s aspect ratio and such. Also, the opening CG city sequence was originally constructed for the TV series, replacing the more time-consuming hand-drawn backgrounds with a more flexible virtual set for characters to use. This idea was abandoned, though some of the work was clearly still there and they thought that it could be used as the opening for Mask of the Phantasm.

I’m not really sure why I find it so difficult to get over these things, especially since so many of them are of a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ variety, but they still jump out at me. It should also be much easier to overlook these flaws with a good story and good performances. But then we hit another snag.

Not the performances, I’ll say that now. There’s a reason Kevin Conroy is regarded as the Official Voice of Batman. Conroy alternates between two voices, depending on whether he’s Batman or Bruce Wayne. Though still clearly the same person, Wayne is lighter, warmer, with more humour; whereas Batman is deeper, colder, more threatening. The rest of cast do a great job, too. Dana Delaney does a great job, as does Hart Bochner as Councilman Reeves, Mark Hamill as the Joker and Stacy Keach as the Phantasm. Really, there’s not a bad show in the voice talent. So that only leaves…

I was never convinced by the story. Whilst I rather liked the attention given to Bruce Wayne’s initial attempts at vigilantism, his guilt over his parents’ death and how generally haunted he was, at no point did I buy into the rest of it, i.e. the Phantasm storyline. I’m honestly still not sure if the film was trying to keep the identity of the ghostly assassin a secret or not, but all I can say for myself is that there was no surprise or tension at all. I knew who it was from the beginning and was only waiting to be told why. I don’t particularly like it when I have to spend almost an entire film waiting for it to catch up with me. That tends to make me bored, and when a film bores me I end up looking at things much harder than necessary, hence seeing flaws in animation.

Also, there are things within the logic of the film that I never bought into, either. For example, the way in which Andrea discovers Batman’s true identity is a leap that’s just too big to accept. When visiting her mother’s grave, she notices Batman watching her. When she turns to him, he leaves. She runs to the spot he was standing, which happened to be the spot next to the grave of Bruce Wayne’s parents, where she then says, “Bruce?” From then, she knows and they both know she knows. Any memories she would have of seeing Bruce in vaguely the same spot, as shown in a flashback, happened over ten years ago, so it’s a bit much to use that as a basis for the connection.

One thing that is nice about Mask of the Phantasm is that it puts a great emphasis on Batman as a detective, which was an aspect of his personality that was never really given much attention in the films. But again, it rather drags out because the final solution is so damn obvious that watching the World’s Greatest Detective plod through the motions, with almost every other character figuring things out before him, is just a bit tedious.

If I’m honest, I still don’t like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, though my disdain for it is greatly reduced from that first viewing. Much of the problem was allowing the huge amount of hype to affect me, which was my fault and not that of the film. Having my expectations greatly reduced, I can appreciate the film in a much clearer way, like the vocal work, the grim atmosphere and the attempt to treat the audience with a greater sense of maturity, which is ironic considering the direction of the subsequent live-action films (it’s rather strange that the animated film has more respect for the audience than the live-action successors). However, leaving aside my points about the animation, I still don’t like the story, it having only a vague relationship with logic and being as transparent as a really really transparent thing. If you do like it, that’s fine, but I cannot agree that it’s the best Batman film. Better than Schumacher’s? Yes, certainly. Better than Burton’s or Nolan’s? Not even close.

Sunday 9 October 2011

Batman & Robin (1997)


I know, I know, I’m horrendously late with this one. Believe me, I never thought it would happen on Batman Week. Still, you don’t want to hear me go on about why I’m late… you, for whatever reason, want to read my thoughts on the fourth film of the original run of Batman films that started in 1989 with Tim Burton’s Batman and ended in 1997 with Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, which has gone on to become one of the most reviled films ever made. Well, you’ve all waited long enough; let’s get to it.

Batman (George Clooney) and his partner Robin (Chris O’Donnell) work together to stop the new bad guy of Gotham: Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a sub-zero scientist stealing the city’s diamonds. Tensions appear between the duo, made worse when another villain comes into town, Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman). When the two evildoers join forces, it takes the crime-fighting pair to breaking point.

It’s a bit difficult to find things to say about a film like Batman & Robin. Not because there’s nothing to say about it, be it good or bad, but really just because so many people have already gone to town on it. You go to the IMDb page for this film and you will see a slew of one- and two-star reviews and comments that so thoroughly tear it a new one that it seems unnecessary to go over the same ground. Those that defend it often do so in a manner that’s half apologetic. Even Joel Schumacher himself went on record apologising for the film, and George Clooney said that this was the film that officially killed the Batman franchise. This would seem like a pretty solid statement considering that any and all plans for further Batman films and projects were instantly halted and cancelled due to the critical battering this film took. You have to admit, rarely has a film had such a negative impact as this one. Films cancelled, careers stunted, the Bat-signal decommissioned for almost a full decade… that’s a lot of hate. But is it all justified? Is this truly worthy of the vicious tirades and outbursts it receives?

Well, yes, kind of. However, let’s have a proper look at it and measure the damage of what’s said to be one of the worst films to make almost twice its budget back in box office returns.

Primary writer of Batman Forever, Akiva Goldsman, returned to scripting duties on this film, conceiving of story (alongside Schumacher), character arc and dialogue. Goldsman is such an interesting case study as a figure in Hollywood, but particularly a writer. Most of Goldman’s work as a writer since his beginnings back with 1994's The Client have been as someone who works primarily on adaptations of other works, such as A Time to Kill, Practical Magic, I, Robot, I Am Legend, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, as well one foray into adapting a classic TV series, Lost in Space. You may look on these and think to yourself that this guy does nothing but write scripts for awful, but financially successful films. In that case, you’d be wrong, since he actually won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on A Beautiful Mind, which won quite a few other awards, like Best Film and Best Director. So clearly the man has something in him that can produce good work. However, looking at his track history, as writer or producer, specifically on comic book films (Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, Constantine, Jonah Hex), it’s almost all downhill. I mention these things purely to make the point that, for my view, Akiva Goldsman simply doesn’t really get comic book films, though I’m sure he has tried to educate himself in the ways of medium. It could be that he continues to hold on to some worn out notions of stylisation, character, or simply the commonly held belief that comics are for kids and idiots, so any hackneyed storyline is acceptable. This, coupled with his clear orders from producers, director and studio big-wigs to make things more kid-friendly and cartoony, means that Goldsman has produced a script that is an unholy concoction of flat characters, truly grating dialogue, and a story so simple and dull that you would struggle to care less about it.

The tentative steps of trust, partnership and what it means to be part of a team that were addressed in Batman Forever between the two crime-fighters returns again in Batman & Robin, but just feels so much more forced. It’s been over a year since Dick Grayson partnered up with Bruce Wayne to kick Gotham’s criminals in the collective nuts, but they still seem to have a problem with trust, partnership and what it means to be part of a team. Robin wants his share of the glory, but Batman thinks he isn’t good enough yet. Honestly, this whole storyline just makes Robin come off like a petulant child, which sort of worked for the frustrated emotional arc in the last film, but here is very off-putting. And the introduction of Batgirl is just clichéd and lazy. Here, she is Alfred’s niece (rather than Commissioner Gordon’s daughter) who shows up, says something about computers, rides a bike and becomes the latest addition to the team… that’s it. She does have other stuff about wanting to take her dear uncle away from his life as a servant, which is supposed to open things up to be a consideration of family, but it’s completely hollow. Effectively her entire drive becomes ‘I’m taking my uncle away from this life of servitude’ ‘But he’s family’ ‘Well, then so am I’. She doesn’t really earn a spot on the team so much as force her way in through some sort of vague sense of nepotism.

Poison Ivy’s storyline is one born of environmental mania, with Dr. Pamela Isley trying splice the genes of plants and venomous animals to create plants that can fight back against their human predators. However, she is killed by the other mad scientist in her South American laboratory, who is busy creating a chemically-enhanced super soldier called Bane, who is to be auctioned off to the standard line-up of crazies bent on world domination. Three things: 1) The mad scientist creating a super solider bit is so trite that it’s painful; 2) It utterly destroys the character of Bane, turning the super strong and super smart monster of the comics into a walking blunt instrument; and 3) The bit about Dr. Isley being murdered by a co-worker only to be resurrected by the thing she loved in life, thus turning her into a villain defined that thing, is a near carbon copy of Catwoman’s origin in Batman Returns. When Ivy comes to Gotham, she starts using pheromone dust to drive men wild and turn Batman and Robin against each other, but it all seems so unnecessary. Her ultimate goal is make plants rise up against humanity, which she plans to do with a special flower/snake hybrid she created, but then why bother with anything else? She’s already made the plant, and has shown that she can grow things almost instantly and with a minimum of fuss, so getting near Bruce Wayne, messing with the crime-fighting duo, and teaming up with Mr. Freeze is completely pointless. She could have gone to a local park, planted whatever she wanted and had a floral army almost immediately. By showing up and aligning herself with the bad guy, she put herself in the firing line. She’s just thrown in to further aggravate the Batman/Robin conflict. She is almost nothing but plot hole.

The one interesting arc for the film comes from Mr. Freeze, who was a former Olympian turned Nobel prize-winning biochemist. When his wife contracts a deadly disease, he puts all of his effort into finding a cure, but an accident turns him into someone who can only live in sub zero temperatures. He then becomes a villain, but only to fund his own research to cure his wife. This is actually really good stuff, because it’s got heart and tragedy, as well as the moral questions of doing bad for a good cause. However, much like the Poison Ivy origin, it’s also got nothing to do with Akiva Goldsman. This arc was created for a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series called Heart of Ice, which won an Emmy for writing and is remembered as one of the best, if not the best, episodes of the series. It was so good that the comics took this origin on board and has served as the basis for the character ever since. What Goldsman did with this story was utterly destroy it. Partly because it’s supposed to be cartoony and partly because Schwarzenegger was cast, Freeze is a virtual non-stop pun machine (a “machine pun”, if you will) and completely ridiculous. He hangs out in an abandoned ice cream factory, wears huge bunny slippers and forces his freezing minions to sing cartoon songs for him. The small moments of pathos are ruined by crass jokes as soon as they begin to go in the vague direction of genuine emotion. For example, when a lackey interrupts Freeze watching old home movies of his wife, he freezes him solid and says “I hate it when people talk during the movie.”... Christ. Not only does Goldsman insist on utilising every story cliché, every tired plot device, every achingly bad pun going, but he also crushes any scene that tries to break away from this.

And the dialogue… dear sweet zombie Jesus, the dialogue is abysmal. Almost no one is immune from the clunky, awkward, unfunny words being forced upon them. Only Alfred manages to get away from this, but only because he’s British and dying.

You know what? I think I’ve harped on about Goldsman long enough.

Joel Schumacher takes the overblown approach he used in Batman Forever and manages to outdo himself in Batman & Robin. Supposedly before every shot, he called out to his cast “Remember, this is a cartoon!” This is an easy indication as to how he saw these films. As I said in the Batman Forever review, these were his orders from the studio. He was told to make a film like this, but even this was too much. Aside from helping Goldsman come up with the storyline for the film, he has turned the world of Gotham into a campy, colour-blitzed playground for people to jump around. Every character seems to come with their own signature colour, so the instant they show up, the whole lighting scheme in the room changes. In fact, the visuals match the script perfectly, holding the same subtlety and delicacy as using twenty sticks of dynamite of wash a dinner plate. He also compounds his bizarre addition of nipples to the costume designs by adding abs and asses. His casting choices are just as foolish.

Put simply, George Clooney is not a good Batman or Bruce Wayne, simply because he never stops being George Clooney. Bruce Wayne’s charm is actually just Clooney. Batman’s intimidation factor is non-existent because he’s just Clooney. It’s a wholly unconvincing show from someone I’ve seen do some great work before and since. Chris O’Donnell is just a whiny little annoyance. Alicia Silverstone follows Clooney’s turn and shows up onset as herself in a costume. The worst stuff comes from the villainous sector. Arnold Schwarzenegger is as bad as he always is, so there’s little surprise there. The thing that makes it more painful is that his was the most interesting character with the most potential. I’m not sure I really blame Arnold for this, though. He does show signs that he’s trying, but this is just something that's beyond his capabilities as an actor. Uma Thurman doesn’t really get the same consideration. Though not exactly one of the most revered actresses, she can pull off a decent turn when she wants to. The character of Poison Ivy is weak, and the direction was bad, but Thurman is hardly blameless for the twitchy and over-the-top show she puts on.

There are many people that will tell you Batman Forever is the film that truly ended the original Batman franchise, and that Batman & Robin was merely the final nail. Frankly, this is kind of true. Whilst I will hold that Batman & Robin is the worse film of the two, it was Batman Forever that helped pave the way for this one. If Batman Forever had been a flop, Warner Bros. may have changed their tactics again and tried to recapture the darker tone of the first two films, which they at least knew would get them a consistent audience, even if it wasn't as big as they wanted.

I’ll say again that Schumacher apologised for this film, saying that all he wanted to do was entertain. I understand this, as I think we all can. Nor do I really blame him entirely for Batman & Robin, or the demise of the original franchise, mainly because so many other people are equally responsible. Akiva Goldsman, Warner Bros., Tim Burton, the cast, the production crew, everyone who had their hand in making these films that pandered and patronised the audience at every turn. But most of all, the cinema-going public is responsible for this film, and I include myself in this. Only a few complained about the first two films being too dark, but we all had a part in allowing the change to happen. When Batman Forever dropped, we should have called it quits then and there. But we didn’t, the film became a massive success and made the filmmakers think that this is what we wanted as an audience. The most powerful people in the film industry are, and have always been, the audience. We let these things happen, by letting the crass commercialism and juvenile story-telling dictate where the series went.

We should all very ashamed of ourselves.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Batman Forever (1995)


Eager to keep the success of the Batman films going, Warner Bros. began the process of developing a third title. However, with the third film, there was a massive shake-up in how the films were made. Tim Burton was replaced as director by Joel Schumacher, though he did stay on as producer; Michael Keaton left the lead role, which was filled by Val Kilmer; the writing team was completely changed; new villains were brought in; and the whole tone and look of the franchise was shifted to something much different to the previous two. The reaction to the film was… mixed, with a bit more emphasis on dislike. As you’d expect, I’ll look at how these changes came to be before I talk about what the result was.

Batman (Val Kilmer) has his hands full fighting the criminal escapades of Harvey ‘Two-Face’ Dent (Tommy Lee Jones), former Gotham D.A. who blames the hero for the disfigurement that split his face and personality. Meanwhile, Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey), an inventor at Wayne Enterprises obsessed with Bruce Wayne, snaps after having his work shut down and begins leaving riddles his former boss. Both Two-Face and The Riddler team up to kill Batman and ruin Bruce Wayne. Added to this are the attentions of psychologist with a thing for Batman, Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), and Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell), an acrobat Bruce Wayne takes in after his parents are killed by Two-Face, but who discovers his secret.

Beyond the concerns of many critics and fans that didn’t like the first two films, there was a particular group whose complaints were heard: Parents. Obviously not all parents, but specifically those who objected the darkness of the previous films, saying that they were unable to take their children to see such films. Warner Bros., who generally believed the darkness of Batman Returns to be the reason it under-performed, took their comments on board because this was a firm chance for them to respond directly to audience opinion and make the film more marketable, opening the films up to a younger audience and with an eye on more lucrative and widespread opportunities in the toy market. The decision for these changes to take effect was handed down from on high, which then caused a major reshuffle in the production line-up. As you may have read in the last review, Burton was hesitant about doing even a second film, and was a bit more so for a third time out. What effectively sealed his leaving the director’s chair was the mandate to lighten things up, make them more colourful, more approachable for a younger audience. Although he has done some work, before and since, that had a campy feel to it, he was unwilling to make these changes to the world he had established and vacated the position, although he stayed with the project as a producer. To fill the role, Warner Bros. hired Joel Schumacher, whose most recent films (Falling Down and The Client) had done well, and who agreed to drastically shift the overall tone and feel of the project.

When Schumacher came on board, he brought with him Akiva Goldsman, the primary writer of his most recent adapted work The Client. Goldsman teamed with Lee Batchler and Janet Scott-Batchler, who had been brought on earlier to develop a story. Originally, when Burton was still considered the director of the project, the Riddler was the only villain in the film, but when Schumacher came on board, he chose to add Two-Face to the mix. It was also decided to finally introduce Robin to the films. When Tim Burton stepped back, Danny Elfman also did not return, in favour of Elliot Goldenthal. Director of photography duties were also handed to Stephen Goldblatt.

The casting also had a major shake. When Michael Keaton learned that such major changes were to be made to the new film, he decided to leave the project completely (though there were rumours that he asked for a major pay raise, and was turned down). This led to the casting of Val Kilmer, still riding the plaudits from his work as Doc Holliday in Tombstone. In fact, most of the roles were filled by people who were very hot property at the time, like Chris O’Donnell, Nicole Kidman, Jim Carrey, and Tommy Lee Jones, who had also worked on The Client with Schumacher.

Well, those were the most significant changes to the production. How did they fare?

There’s a word that comes up in Batman Forever at least three times, used by a different character each time. A word that is never used in either Batman or Batman Returns. A word that goes a long way to explaining a lot about the approach to this project as opposed to the other two. The word is “Superhero”. With that word, there comes a world of implication, of imagery, an expectation of a particular sensibility that can only be described as “comic booky”. The visualisation, the styling, the manner of how the characters act and relate is all drawn from this one word and everything that runs through it. What’s even more strange is that it seems like the word has been introduced into the series’ vocabulary not just to take advantage of audience expectations, but also to mock and satirise it. When Grayson claims to be Batman and tries to save a girl from a gang, she says to him, “Doesn’t Batman ever kiss the girl?” They kiss, the music swells in a rather insincere manner and then the fight continues. They’ve purposely acknowledged the whole superhero thing just so they can make fun of it, and that just leaves a bad taste behind.

The story has returned to a campy, over the top manner that the TV series adopted in the 1960s and that the previous films actively tried to distance themselves from. The primary narrative drive comes from the Riddler building a giant “box” through which he can steal people’s thoughts, memories and ideas. Right away, this is a million miles away from the more realistic concerns of the Joker, who just wanted to kill people, and the Penguin, who wanted to steal an election and rise to power. And whilst we’re talking about this, over how long a period does this film take place? It would take a very long time for Edward Nygma to build his company, manufacture products, have them in every household, build his giant island complete with death-traps… Seriously, there’s only one mention as to what time of year one particular scene occurs (Halloween), but even that’s just a trite plot device to get the Riddler and Two-Face into Wayne Manor. The part of teaming the Riddler and Two-Face to kill Batman itself is really just an excuse for destructive action scenes. Then there’s Bruce Wayne’s remarkably unsubtle psychological breaks, which have him randomly spouting lines about his parents being murdered right in front of him and how he promised it would never happen to anyone again and how he wanted to strike fear into the hearts of blah blah blah blah blah… good lord. Then there’s the convenient arrival in town of a hot psychologist with an interest in Batman. The actual introduction of Dick Grayson is probably the plotline most competently handled, although the manner in which he finds out Bruce Wayne’s secret and becomes Robin is hamfisted nonsense.

There’s also a use of the most ridiculous pop psychology. Psychological terms like “neuroses” and “scarred psyche” and “alternate personality” are dropped in every now and then to make it seem like it all makes sense, explaining the careful construction of each character’s motivation, but it’s all just surface. A moment like when Wayne sees a bat in a Rorschach test is played to have way more significance than it actually does. Even then, this notion of split identity, with Two-Face and Batman and Chase and that little sleep doll thing, was territory already covered by Batman Returns, and much better.

The characters themselves have simply become caricatures. Batman is still brooding, but he’s no longer the darkly introspective type. He has suddenly developed a desire to openly discuss his traumatic past. This immediately sets itself in opposition to the character of the first two films. In Keaton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman, he was a fairly dark guy, but he at least owned his own trauma and used it to drive him forward. Here, he seems to be just looking for an excuse to tell someone about it. He’s also been given more one-liners to make it more fun for the youngsters (“Can I persuade you to take a sandwich with you, sir?” “I’ll get drive-thru.”). Really, who is this guy? As it is, Val Kilmer does his job perfectly adequately, but that’s part of the problem. He portrays Bruce Wayne as written, but nothing more. He delivers the one-liners well, gets the humour and holds a nice charm, but he’s always much more convincing as Bruce Wayne than Batman, mainly because he’s never really a threatening presence, which is what Batman is meant to be.

For someone who is meant to be the living embodiment of split personality, Two-Face doesn’t have one personality, let alone two. He’s meant to be driven by revenge, but controlled by the whims of chance, hence the constant flipping of a coin, however this is just adopted as an affect rather than a compulsion. There’s a moment where he sits on a couch, flipping the coin to see if he will shoot Bruce Wayne or not. He flips; it lands on the good side. Annoyed by this, he continues to do it until he gets the bad side, where he then promptly pulls out his gun and shoots… this isn’t Two-Face. When the Riddler tells him that he has a “serious impulse control problem”, this is a clear indication that the writers have fundamentally misunderstood the character. Two-Face has supreme impulse control - the coin always makes the decision; he just acts on what it tells him, regardless of what happens. And Tommy Lee Jones is quite bad, spending the whole movie over-acting to the point of aneurysm, desperately chasing Jack Nicholson’s show in Batman. For such a usually bankable actor, this is a far cry from what we know he can do.

The Riddler is also one that has been rather misrepresented. He begins the film in a manner that’s rather appropriate: highly intelligent, massive ego, huge inferiority complex. However, things change as the film continues. Part of the Riddler’s personality was always that he believed he was smarter than everyone else and sought to prove it over and over again, hence all the puzzles. For his plan to revolve around making himself more intelligent by stealing other people’s minds is ridiculously over the top and somewhat contrary to his regular modus operandi. What’s even stranger is how he decides on his Riddler persona. When he first uses his machine on his supervisor and discovers its brain-enhancing power, he yells at him “Riddle me this!”… okay, fair enough. After this, he leaves two separate riddles for Bruce Wayne, each in envelopes adorned with a question mark… once again, okay. However, it’s only after this that he decides on both his costume and name. Why wasn’t that the first thing he thought of? Why did he consider the Puzzler (dressed in crossword robes), the Gamester (dressed as a giant chess piece) and Captain Kill (dressed in army fatigues) before deciding to name himself after the very puzzle he has already used and dressing like the question mark-covered figure that sits in his apartment and workstation? It’s bizarre. Jim Carrey does at least give you something to watch without being too grating, though that line is crossed a few times.

Dick Grayson is… well, he’s okay actually. His motivation is clear, and can at least be both sympathetic and a bit of dick. He’s impulsive, brave, strong-willed, though often infuriating in his ability to not think things through… so, he’s a pretty decent portrait of a young man with vengeance on his mind. It’s rather a shame that he never has any decent moments after actually putting on the Robin costume. Seriously, go and watch it. Before he gets his new duds and cape, he’s adept and handy; afterwards, he makes a bad joke, crashes a boat, gets beaten, kidnapped and then rescued. Weird, isn’t it? Chris O’Donnell’s performance is actually pretty well suited to the brash young man, though this does mean he becomes kind of an ass to the audience.

And Dr. Chase Meridian is, well, she’s quite fickle and a bit of a tramp. Yes, she’s smart because she’s a doctor and she’s tough because she knocks hell out of punch bag in her office, but the most prominent personality trait that shines through is that she’s really quite promiscuous and indecisive. She doesn’t know if she wants Batman or Bruce Wayne, generally deciding she wants to be with the one who isn’t there. And Kidman looks very pretty… that’s about all you can say.

Joel Schumacher’s handling of the film, though no doubt in keeping with what Warner Bros. wanted (i.e. an enormous toy advert), is such a visual and aural assault that it’s difficult to think of where to start. Put in the most all-encompassing terms, it all looks like a cartoon. The colours are all neons and piercing lights, so it’s like Gotham has relocated itself to the main dance floor of a nightclub; action scenes, and some regular ones, are filled with inane stings and sound effects, like tings and squelches and boings; and the character design is ludicrous. One of the most regularly decried decisions was to put nipples on the Batsuit, and it’s a fair complaint. Schumacher said that he wanted to give the suit a more “anatomical” look, which is all well and good but makes no sense in the practicality of the film world. Imagine the conversation between Bruce and Alfred on the reality of that choice:
            Bruce: Alfred, I’ve decided I want nipples on the Batsuit.
            Alfred: What for, sir?
            Bruce: I want it to look more anatomical.
            Alfred: Well, Master Wayne, in that case, how about I put a bellybutton on it,
            Bruce: Well, I…
            Alfred: And perhaps some eyebrows on the face? And some people ears?
How about a birthmark for good measure? You’re meant to be a symbol of
fear to the criminal underworld, not a freaking go-go dancer. You tossbag.

The same goes for the decision to give Robin an earring to “make him look hip.” Okay, kids may think he looks like a rebel, but all it takes is one evildoer to rip the thing off in a fight and he’ll be in trouble. Again, it’s a decision that holds little practical weight in the reality being presented. And when it’s more plausible for a street gang to go around caked in neon face paint than it is for a particular character to wear an earring, you know there’s a problem somewhere.

There are some things Schumacher did better than Burton. As I have said before, Burton was never particularly adept with action sequences, but Schumacher is. The fights and chases do look much faster and more dynamic, although the first fight sequence has an editing rhythm more suited to punching the audience than Henchman #3. However, giving it its due, compared to the previous films, this one is much more explosive and fast-paced. It’s just that everything that surrounds these scenes is pretty bad.

Really, the worst thing you could do before watching Batman Forever is watch the previous two Batman films, since it just highlights the massive gap in style and approach. By comparison, this film comes off as noisy, stupid, cheap and kind of heartless. Even when taken on its own terms, it still falls flat with absurd characterisation, a ridiculously overblown story and a general style that makes it all feel so flippant and disposable. The toys that were sold on the back of this film were more solidly made than this.