Monday, June 27, 2005

"Batman Begins" with a Bang


directed by Christopher Nolan
starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, Rutger Hauer...basically your average cast to die for...oh yeah, and Katie Holmes (who's actually not bad)

Batman’s back. And in a big way.

It’s too early to tell whether “Batman Begins” will revive the ailing franchise. Artistically, however, it’s single-handedly rescued the dark knight’s checkered cinematic legacy—and not a moment too soon.

By now, Warner Bros.’ mishandling of one of its most valuable properties has become a cautionary tale to greedy studios. (Moral: When making a movie out of a comic book, do not piss off the fanboys. And do not, under any circumstances, hire Joel Schumacher to direct.) I never saw the last Batman (“Batman & Robin”), having been unfortunate enough to suffer through the inanities of “Batman Forever. “ However, my father, who did witness the final train-wreck, summed it up best: “A very expensive comic book made for IDIOTS.”

Well, that was eight years ago, and we’ve come a long way, baby. Not as long as we could have: although WB reportedly flirted with the idea of going über-dark by courting indie darling Darren Aronofsky (“Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream”), the studio honchos ended up striking a safer middle course, tapping Christopher Nolan (“Memento,” “Insomnia”) instead. All good. However intriguing (or vomit-inducing) an Aronofsky spin on the Batman myth might have been, choosing Nolan was a smart move. The key was to restore some of the gravitas and mystique to a superhero who had descended into a wretched swamp of camp, but without becoming too dour or pretentious. Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer ride this fine line with remarkable success. *This* is the myth of an icon’s origin and genesis that “Star Wars” should have been, and wasn’t, over the course of three prequels.

True to its title, “Batman Begins” traces how Batman first emerged as the alter ego of charming billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). Turns out that when Brucie was just a wee lad, he fell down a hole in his thousand-acre back yard into a dark grotto, where he was promptly attacked by a legion of bats. His resulting fear of the creatures indirectly leads to his parents’ death one fateful night in Gotham City. (Here, the double murder is a random crime, and not, as in Tim Burton’s original “Batman,” the work of the Joker.) Still haunted by guilt and anger a decade or so later, young Bruce disappears for seven years, slumming in search of his lost soul. His wanderings land him in a prison in some vaguely Asiatic mountainous country, where the movie begins, then lead him to the vaguely Asiatic monastery-like stronghold of a group called the League of Shadows, who are committed to wiping out evil and corruption at any price. There, Bruce is trained by a Jedi-master type named Ducard (wonderfully played by Liam Neeson, always at his best in a didactic role), and the head of the League, the vaguely Asiatic Ra’s al-Ghul (Ken Watanabe of “The Last Samurai”). After a major falling-out with the League, stemming from—well, philosophical differences, he decamps and returns to Gotham, hoping to save the city from itself.

Does that all sound terribly corny? Oh, undoubtedly. But, somehow, it isn’t. The mood of “BB” is solemn, yet not unduly so, and even in its most static and clichéd moments it’s never less than riveting. A good part of that is due to its crisp pacing, all the more striking for a movie that clocks in at nearly 2 1/2 hours. Pacing is something Nolan has down pat as a filmmaker, even if he’s no longer pulling the narrative shenanigans that first caught Hollywood’s eye. Also, Nolan is a hell of a lot better than George Lucas at directing actors. Unlike their “Star Wars” counterparts, the characters in “Batman” can actually get away with bad lines—e.g., “It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” (To borrow another viewer’s quip, never you mind who I’m underneath.) That’s because they don’t merely recite the lines; they utter them as if they really believe them.

It helps, of course, that Nolan has such a stellar cast to work with. As portrayed by Bale, the young Batman has a darkness of soul that seems genuinely internalized rather than imposed by the demands of the story arc (hear that, Anakin Skywalker?), and a reservoir of suppressed rage that’s just barely channeled into his efforts to do good. Luckily for him, he finds allies ready at hand: among them, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a Wayne Industries employee who supplies Bruce with the armor, gadgets, and wheels to kick-start his crimefighting ventures; not-yet-Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), who’s apparently the last honest cop in Gotham; and, of course, Alfred (Michael Caine), the Waynes’ wry, faithful butler, who sparks most of the movie’s few moments of levity. Katie Holmes stars as the token female, Rachel Dawes, a childhood friend and/or sweetheart now grown into a gravely earnest assistant D.A. Holmes acquits herself reasonably well amid “Batman”’s roll call of moviedom’s finest, though she’s a bit young and lightweight for the character she plays, with a fluty voice oddly reminiscent of Kirsten Dunst’s. (Indeed, the final encounter between Bruce and Rachel at the end of the movie carries more than a whiff of the final encounter between Peter Parker and Mary Jane at the end of the first Spider-Man—only with the roles oddly reversed.) Lined up on the opposing side is the requisite formidable array of villains, including Tom Wilkinson (one of my favorite lower-profile actors, here struggling with a quasi-Bronxian accent) as a thuggish drug-lord, and “28 Days Later”’s Cillian Murphy as the cat-eyed, smooth-faced Dr. Crane (aka the Scarecrow), a superbly creepy forensic psychiatrist who likes to experiment on his patients.

Obviously, there’s a grand showdown building—but unless you’re a Batman aficionado, it may not be the one you’re anticipating, and it’s certainly not the highlight of the movie. The plotting is indifferent, culminating in the dastardly use of what appears to be the mother of all microwave ovens to turn the people of Gotham into rampaging maniacs (a popular theme, lately, from “28 Days Later” to last season’s finale of “Alias”). As an action flick, “Batman” is competent without being spectacular. The scenes of combat are brief, graceless and somewhat chaotic—none of your lyrically choreographed, balletic fight sequences here—though that may be appropriate, considering Batman’s trick is that he hits his targets out of nowhere, out of the darkness. Moreover, this being the chronicle of his origins, it shows his fighting techniques and persona as a work in progress rather than a signed and sealed M.O. Far from being calmly invulnerable or immortal, or even giddily swept up by his own powers (à la Spiderman), this superhero is shown battered, bruised, and brooding on his own limitations.

Visually, “Batman Begins” bears the stamp of its new director, and marks a refreshing change, to say the least, from his immediate predecessor. This is, I believe, the first and only Batman movie that spends a significant portion of its time outside Gotham City, and those scenes are beautifully filmed—from the windswept heights and frozen lakes of central Asia to the lush grounds of the Wayne estate, including, of course, the bat-filled grotto that becomes the Batcave. One of the movie’s most strikingly gorgeous images is that of the adult Bruce standing inside the cave, arms outstretched, allowing himself to be engulfed by the glittering swarm of bats. It’s that archetypal moment in which the hero confronts his deepest, most primal fear (reminiscent of that other great grotto scene, Luke’s in “The Empire Strikes Back”), but it stands out for its unearthly beauty and its underlying streak of perversity: Bruce conquers his fear by becoming at one with it, yes, but also by co-opting it and turning it against others.

As for Nolan’s Gotham, while it lacks the loopy fever-dream sensibility of Burton’s vision, it’s effective and nightmarish in its own way—less gothic-deco and more urban-decay in the tradition of “Metropolis” and “Blade Runner.” Perhaps the best and most expressive image that captures its essence is the elevated train that connects the heart of the city to its outer-bank neighborhoods. At the beginning of the movie, shown soon after it’s built by Wayne, Sr., as a gift to the city, it’s a sleek, pristine thing that seems to hail a future of progress and connection. By the end, some twenty-odd years later, it’s a decrepit wreck of its former self, filthy, rusty, covered in graffiti, and infested with crime. As such, it serves as a nicely self-contained chronicle of the city’s losing war against corruption.

It also throws into stark relief Batman’s grim determination to stem the tide while operating out of his gated and palatial estate. Some viewers have noted the classist underpinnings of the Batman myth, or even characterized it as an exposition of classic liberal guilt. Others see it as championing individual enterprise over collective inertia. The movie lends itself to these and many other readings. But Batman’s self-appointed mission is at bottom an expurgation of an intensely *personal* guilt, a public projection of his private struggle to accept a legacy tarnished by his own memories. It’s that constant struggle with past and potential powerlessness that gives this hero his enduring power.


Monday, June 20, 2005

It's Not Easy Being "Wicked"

music & lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
book by Winnie Holzman, based (very loosely) on the novel by Gregory Maguire
at the Pantages Theatre, Los Angeles, CA

This past Friday I finally saw my first play in Los Angeles.

Should I be ashamed that it was a Broadway musical?

It’s not the “musical” part that embarrasses me. Far from it—if I were in New York, I’d feel no qualms about satisfying that fix, and “Wicked” was definitely on my Broadway list.

But that’s just it: I’m not in New York. I’m in L.A. And considering I’ve waxed rhetorical in the past about supporting homegrown theater & performing arts, I feel like a bit of a hypocrite admitting that I haven’t yet put my money where my mouth is. (Even my ticket to “Wicked” was a birthday present.) As a general matter, I can honestly say that I’ve made a good faith effort to embrace the local arts & cultural life beyond the Hollywood shuffle. I’ve been to all of the major art museums, a few art gallery openings, and concerts at both the Walt Disney concert hall and the Hollywood Bowl, and I’ve pledged an annual membership to a local classical public radio station. But L.A.’s drama scene just hasn’t sufficiently sparked my interest to get me into the theater. And I don’t think seeing one touring Broadway production is going to change that.

That said, my first time at the Pantages was quite an experience. As theaters go, it’s one of a kind—art deco gone wild, complete with a mechanically controlled brass dragon presiding over the stage that might not actually breathe smoke, but sure looks like it could. The Pantages used to be an all-purposes entertainment venue, back in the day, featuring everything from vaudeville to movies to stage pieces, and was only recently restored to its former splendor in preparation for Broadway’s “The Lion King.” Good thing they dim the lights for the show, or I might easily have been distracted by the decor. Fortunately, there was plenty onstage to hold my interest.

Live theater has a peculiar effect on me. The first half hour or so always feels incredibly, almost painfully mannered and artificial, and I can’t believe that what I’m watching is ever going to win over any part of me. Then, as the modulated voices, sharpened diction, and enhanced gestures begin to feel natural, I gradually give myself over to the weird, pure joy of the theatrical experience. But I always need that half-hour lead-in, and it’s always uphill going at first.

This was especially true of “Wicked,” a modern-day retelling of "The Wizard of Oz" from the viewpoint of the Wicked Witch of the West. Everything about the production initially felt rough around the edges: The slinking choreography called to mind a muddled mixture of “Les Mis” and “Cats”; some of the soloists wavered off pitch; the humor felt feeble and forced, despite some spot-on delivery by veteran Carol Kane (as Madam Morrible), while the earnest lines felt...well, a tad too earnest. As for the two leads, Glinda, the Good Witch (Kendra Kassebaum), seemed a bit tentative, while the title character, aka Elphaba (Stephanie Block), was rather colorless—notwithstanding a lovely absinthe-green hue that made me wonder idly (as I did with the Blue Man Group in Boston) whether the makeup she must wear night after night was at all harmful to her skin. The shifting social dynamics and rivalries of the two women—who move from mutual loathing to fast friendship—unfolded somewhat stiffly, and not entirely credibly.

Then, all of a sudden, about a third of the way in—right when Glinda and Elphie arrive in Oz to seek the Wizard—things clicked into place. Not coincidentally, that’s when Elphaba’s personality fully emerges for the first time (with the electrifying and literally soaring number “Defying Gravity”), and the political and social allegory behind “Wicked” becomes most pointed. The really subversive idea behind “Wicked” is not so much that goodness is manufactured and/or ultimately illusory, but rather that *happiness* is. In a world where “Oz” is the equivalent of “God,” happiness becomes the opiate of the masses, and Elphaba becomes the bearer of the unhappy truth: the powers that be have no real power to bring happiness, and being (or looking) different from the norm can get you killed or silenced. The rest of “Wicked” is about her struggle with the regime that seeks to either turn her into a mouthpiece or destroy her by defaming her as an enemy of the state. (Parallels with any current political situation are, of course, in the eye of the beholder.)

However, a certain cloudiness surrounds Elphaba’s character – whether she’s really at all wicked, or, as Glinda quips, merely has wickedness thrust upon her. “Wicked” suggests the latter—that she’s a victim of bad press, so to speak, and bad luck that seems to dog her whenever she tries to set things right. “No good deed goes unpunished,” she sings passionately. But she’s too strong-willed to be a victim. Unfortunately, Schwartz, Holzman, et al.—unlike Maguire—don’t have the guts to let her become either an ironic or tragic heroine. Instead, rather improbably, amor vincit omnia.

In freely adapting the novel (which contains a lot of interesting ideas that aren’t very coherently brought together), the musical largely streamlines and simplifies Maguire’s multiple narrative and character arcs. However, it also introduces new twists—new romantic triangles, as well as new stories of “origins” that don’t appear to be thought through very carefully. Some characters fall by the wayside; several are reimagined, with indifferent success. Elphaba’s sister Nessarose—the Wicked Witch of the East, a quietly menacing presence in the book—fades into a fragile, lonely passivity here: if this were “Little Women,” she’d be Beth to Elphaba’s Jo. But then the book’s general atmosphere of quiet menace and inarticulable dread is largely absent here. Still, enough traces of it remain that the more vaudeville-style numbers—light, easy, forgettable—seem particularly rusty and out of sync with the rest.

The strong selling point of “Wicked” is, of course, the complex relationship between Glinda and Elphaba, and in that respect the touring production doesn’t disappoint—despite having some very big shoes to fill. (Well, ok, very little shoes in the case of Glinda, who was played by the incomparable Kristen Chenoweth on Broadway.) Kassebaum gets more comfortable as she goes on, and in some ways her character is the more interesting of the two. But the real star of the show is, of course, Elphaba (originated by Idina Menzel, who won a Tony for the role), and Block more than holds her own in the role. With an amazingly supple voice that can go from liquid softness to spine-tingling soprano to abrasive cackle, she makes Elphaba larger than life, ready to spring from the confined formula of a Broadway musical. Wicked she may not be, but powerful she certainly is.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Some Day My Prize Will Come: "Cinderella Man" Mixes Grit, Schmaltz, and Gloss


directed by Ron Howard
starring Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko, Paddy Considine, Bruce McGill

When I first saw the trailer for “Cinderella Man,” the friend I was with commented, “It’s just like ‘Seabiscuit,’ but with a man instead of a horse.” And indeed, everything about that trailer, and the way the movie’s been packaged, screams out Oscar bait. Which is a bit of a shame, really, because the movie’s perfectly enjoyable on its own terms without having to contend with the collective weight of Oscars past, present, and prospective. The more so since “Seaboxer”—excuse me, “Cinderella Man”—is just a cut below Oscar consideration, at least as far as any Best Picture hopes are concerned. It’s too formulaic, even for the Academy, and too hamstrung by its own mission to simultaneously rouse, uplift, and jerk more than a few heartstrings.

That’s standard-issue Ron Howard, some might sneer. But there’s little doubt he’s capable of better—one has only to look to “Apollo 13” and the solid, though overpraised, “A Beautiful Mind.” “Cinderella Man” is harnessed in the predictable rhythms of an unimaginative script and the handsome but inert trappings of Hollywood “historical” filmmaking. Its driving force, not surprisingly, lies in the remarkably fluid yet visceral boxing sequences, and the power of its to-die-for cast. Russell Crowe is—well, Russell Crowe. Lord knows I have no affection for the man—tabloid gossip and phone-throwing aside, in interviews and news stories he’s always struck me as a prickly fellow at best, and at worst, a prick, plain and simple. But unlovable as he may be in real life, there’s no denying that he’s one of the greatest actors out there today. He's not a human chameleon, like Daniel Day-Lewis, Ed Norton, or the late Alec Guinness. But in the intensity with which he takes over and *inhabits* a role, makes it his own, yet convinces you that you’re watching Bud White, or Maximus, or Jack Aubrey, rather than Russell Crowe per se, he’s unrivaled. In this—with all due respect to Sean Penn—he’s the closest thing we have to Brando these days.

And “Cinderella Man” is no exception. Crowe plays the quintessential American hero, the quiet man who’s inspired to fight not for glory but for his family. The true story of James J. Braddock is tailor-made for the movies: a promising boxer whose career hits the skids, only to make a miraculous comeback at the nadir of the Great Depression. Only problem is, Braddock by all accounts was a rather dull fellow, personality-wise—certainly much less colorful than his nemesis and reigning heavyweight champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko, reduced to two-dimensional villainy and debauchery in this version of the story). It’s a credit to Crowe rather than the screenwriters that he invests what could have been a colorless archetype with just the right mix of gravity, humor, anger, and tenderness to create a recognizable flesh-and-blood character.

But this isn’t a one-man show. Crowe’s wonderfully supported and very nearly upstaged by Paul Giamatti as the sharp, smooth-talking, yet indefatigably loyal trainer and manager, Joe Gould, who sets Braddock back on the path to victory and stays behind him every step of the way. It’s hands-down the best supporting act I’ve seen so far this year, and should net Giamatti his long-overdue Oscar nomination. Personally, I think he delivers a better performance here than in “Sideways”—it’s nimbler, if less soulful, and a lot more fun to watch. His ringside interactions with Crowe have a crackle and verve that almost makes up for the latter’s wet-noodle marital dynamics with Renee Zellweger. I like Zellweger, scrunchy face and all, but she isn’t given much to do here besides either gaze (sorry, squint) adoringly at her husband or look worried about their precarious economic state or the health of their three adorable kids.

The other big pairing in the movie—Braddock and Baer—sets up a suitably gripping final showdown, mainly because Bierko cuts such an impressive physical presence as Baer. He has looks to kill, literally, and it’s quite possible that he genuinely wanted to kill Crowe by the end of filming—judging from their independent accounts of what was apparently a tense, if not openly hostile, relationship between the two actors, largely imposed by Method Man Russell. (Of course, Bierko, who’s as much a charmer offscreen as Crowe is a churl, referred to the tension in the most diplomatic terms possible, while Crowe, true to form, made it clear that he viewed Bierko as a hack. But that’s neither here nor there.) The one nagging little detail that mars Baer’s fearsome persona is Bierko’s weirdly flat, nasal intonation, which seems peculiar to this movie—I’ve seen and heard him on Broadway, and in other screen roles, and he has a hella sexy voice. Perhaps he was just trying to make his character as unsympathetic as possible.

Too bad, because it’s the distorted depiction of Baer, even more than the Zellweger sap quota, that highlights the film’s worst flaws. The writers could easily have given him a little more shading, to make him a little less loathsome, a little more compelling, while no less lethal, without taking away anything from Braddock’s story. Indeed, the story would seem less canned, the outcome more genuinely in doubt, if the deck wasn’t so heavily stacked against the movie’s designated villain.

As for the historical backdrop—the Depression with the capital D—it’s given the Hollywood polish treatment, yet there’s something oddly effective, if slightly unreal, about its artfully cast shadows and Hopper-esque canvases of cold, poverty, and pugilism. For all its artificiality, it does convey a sharp, if overly prettified reminder of how bad things really could (and did) get, which is as good an advertisement for the New Deal as the Democrats can hope for these days. Some critics have read an anti-socialist slant into the movie, in the character of a friend and fellow dockworker (played by “In America”’s Paddy Considine) who demonstrates fatal propensities towards alcoholism, violence, and Communism, and is clearly meant to be a foil to Braddock, who seems to have no vices and shows deep-seated resistance to going on the dole. In fact, however, the movie ultimately passes no judgment on either man’s choices. “Cinderella Man” is unquestionably a paean to the all-American virtues of the self-reliant man, and an idealized portrayal of the triumph of such a man over adversity. But it’s also, in its own limited and airbrushed way, a portrayal of that adversity—the same that afflicted millions of Americans, less fortunate than Braddock, and that gave his victory a special resonance for them.

RATING: ** 1/2