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Friday, June 17, 2005

Billionaire Playboy with Issues---Lots of Issues

I can't decide if it's pathetic to be on the Christian (a remarkably difficult name to type, given my own [and my difficulty typing that]) Bale bandwagon, or simply out of date, but do shove over. There's no doubt about it. He has a quality: copious charm combined with the essential dollop of insanity. He also has fascinating lips. Not Shirtless!Super!Lindsey Lips, but close, and these are critical when one spends a large portion of one's time in a cowl.

I'd say this is my favorite of the Batman movies, but that lacks weight, given I've only seen the original Tim Burton movie and the execrable Batman and Robin. In many ways, it's not even fair to really consider it in the same light as the previous movies. During dinner, M mentioned that fans of Christopher Nolan were disappointed with it as a follow-up to Memento (huge slam on Insomnia, I guess), which seemed like the silliest bit of criticism imaginable. How could a Batman movie---or any movie set within such a well-known universe---really be compared with a self-contained original creation? That actually sells Nolan short, though. I don't anticipate theatres being swamped with hoardes of Merchant-Ivory refugees or anything, but the movie stands well as an interesting, well-acted story and a terrific piece of filmmaking.

Visually, it's gorgeous. Obviously the scenery during Bruce's training is meant to be the breathtaking part, but dying Gotham is no less so. The building-to-building clotheslines twining through the tangle of seemingly dead power and phone lines, the faint, oily sheen to all the buildings, and the honest-to-god filth all huddling in the shadow of Bruce's father's dream of progress---it's pretty delicious urban decay. Wayne Manor didn't do a lot for me, but it's a tough sell: It's so quintessentially English, and yet it has to be near enough to Gotham that Bruce's feeling for his homeland seems genuine. That doesn't quite work, but it's about the only visual thing that doesn't.

There's a terrific shot near the beginning when Bruce is making his way up the mountain with his blue flower in tow. He climbs clear of the face he's scaling and finds himself standing inches from an incongruously small, black doorway. Bale gives just the perfect beat of confusion before he looks up and the camera pulls back to reveal the fortress of the League of Shadows, huge, squat, and menacing, yet built into the contours of the peak, rather than on level ground, dominating it. It's just a half a minute's worth of screentime, but it took the concept of delving into the nature of crime, justice, revenge, etc., and put it on visually solid ground.

This young Batman takes a turn away from the League's brand of vigilantism, but not without a backward glance or two. Somehow that series of images managed to bring to mind all the dark places one could go if they were Bruce Wayne at that time, in that place, under those circumstances, and it salvages the one or two moments later, with Katie Holmes, when the movie treads dangerously close to simplistic and preachy, which is not the Batman way.

There's no doubt that Gary Oldman being the least weird person in a movie is just plain weird, but he's great as the Young(er) Gordon. Cillian Murphy was unrecognizable and effectively creepy as The Scarecrow. It's hard to imagine him auditioning as Bruce Wayne (Uh, Christian Bale's athletic antics swinging from The Machinst to this uh . . . let's just say they really paid off, and it's hard to imagine the wee little CM stepping into CB's latex), but I'm not surprised that it was impressive enough to get him the secondary role. Mwas more worried about Michael Caine than I was, but he was fine. Even Katie Holmes wasn't an active negative (although I attribute that more to the fact that her role is all but irrelevant than any talent eked out of her by Nolan).

Ebert seems to have given it four stars and a weirdly sedate review, but this struck me as a good way to sum it up: "I said this is the Batman movie I've been waiting for; more correctly, this is the movie I did not realize I was waiting for, because I didn't realize that more emphasis on story and character and less emphasis on high-tech action was just what was needed."

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