Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Actual good movies

The Monkette2B and I usually see whatever looks like it won't suck, and we saw Episode III the night it came out. Nonetheless, there has been really thin gruel this year other than Crash, so I was pleased when Batman Begins received good reviews. And the Monkette2B wanted to see Mr. and Mrs. Smith (although she was getting sick of me imitating Angelina Jolie's query after taking a few shots at her hubby I saw on the commercials: "Still alive, baby?").

So we hit both, Batman Begins Friday and the Smithfest Saturday.

Batman Begins: Here were the two main problems with the Batman franchise in the other four films: (1) the directors; (2) the Batmans. Pretty deadly combination. And be honest, it's true. Fans of the Batman comics despised the choice of Michael Keaton to play Batman, and I thought he actually did a better job as Batman than as a rather doddering Bruce Wayne. But he was upstaged by the villains (especially JACK) and Keaton's weak chin always detracted from the stalwart defender of justice Batman is supposed to be. Tim Burton did a decent job in Batman, but he mailed it in on the sets and atmosphere in Batman Returns and all that BS about hiding behind masks was just a useless directorial essay inspired by a 17-year old (at that point) Billy Joel song, The Stranger. Who cared?

As for Val Kilmer -- a nondescript Batman and Bruce Wayne hampered by a cruddy director (Joel Schumacher), a poor script, an overemphasis on the man-boobs in the batsuit and a just-picking-up-my-paycheck performance by Tommy Lee Jones. So bad, I didn't even see Batman & Robin, with the over-smug George Clooney and what were reportedly the two worst performances by villains in any action movie not involving Timothy Dalton.

So the bar is not high for Batman Begins to beat any of the prior four. It does, but it does more than that. Indeed, if Batman Begins had been the first of the five Batman movies, its reputation as one of the most mismanaged comic-hero legacies would never have been made. And here's why:

First, the Batman. Christian Bale is a creepy bugger primarily because of his starring turn in American Psycho. But as a brooding, damaged and haunted Bruce Wayne, he conveys the essential roots of the Dark Knight as an avenger who will do justice better than any other on-screen Batman. Indeed, the only one who approximates Bale's heavy soul is Kevin Conroy -- the voice actor who was Batman in Batman: The Animated Series. A milquetoast Kilmer and clueless-playboy Keaton did not come anywhere near to conveying Bruce Wayne's pain or dark side; Bale hits those notes and does it well.

Second, the direction and story. Christopher Nolan essentially destroys the previous Batman movies in order to recreate the legend here. Batman begins as a rich American in a Southeast Asian wilderness who has lost his sense of himself, only vaguely knows his ultimate goal and needs a lifeline from the mysterious Ducard to help him find his way. Nolan shows the decline of Gotham as it parallelled the decline of the Wayne family, the death of Bruce Wayne's parents, the child's stifling guilt and loss of his moorings, his Asian martial arts training (shown also in the animated series) and his initial fight against the corruption of Gotham. Through all this, Nolan is capable of showing the building of the basic foundation of the legend: the Batcave, the Batmobile, the Batsuit, the utility belt, and the answer to Joker's question in the 1989 Batman: "where does he get those wonderful toys?"

Some critics complain that this is a slower, duller Batman. Not so: there's plenty of action throughout, but this really isn't a classic action movie, it's an action movie and a drama rolled into one.

Third, the villains: not merely oddly twisted by fluke physical transformations, these villains are power hungry, clever and coldly evil.

There are weaknesses: Katie Holmes is 26 but seems 21; so she's miscast as a hard-charging anti-corruption assistant DA. The motivations of the Scarecrow (one of the villains) is unexplored (although that may be fodder for another film) and there are other minor concerns.

Ultimately, however, Batman Begins is the only Batman movie that is a flat-out good movie. It deserves the sequel it will probably spawn.

UPDATE: There will be a sequel, which I sort of knew but forgot, and the main villain will be the Joker. Potential Jokers include Mark Hamill (yes, Luke Skywalker himself), who voiced the character on Batman: The Animated Series. Katie Holmes is out, which is no loss.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a popcorn movie with eye candy galore: Brad Pitt is what he is, and the women definitely get something they want to look at; and to balance that pretty boy out for me I have five words = Angelina Jolie is smokin' hot. You know the premise, they're assassins for rival clients and eventually try killing each other. The narrative trick: the Smiths are in couples counseling when the movie opens because they're bored in their marriage and not having marital relations (abstaining from Angelina Jolie? Straining credulity). The movie cuts to about two other "sessions" with the off-camera shrink (top-notch character actor William Fichtner in an uncredited role) before the final on-screen session.

Yeah, there are plot holes you can drive a truck through and this is no intellectual exercise. But it has humor (especially Pitt and his business partner Vince Vaughn), some nice subtleties (the computer-geek, uber-technical, hyper-planning Jane Smith v. her just wingin' it, seat-of-the-pants, yet ultra-clever hubby; the kill from afar weapons preferences of Mrs. Smith, v. the in-the-trenches style of Mr. Smith, etc.), and some funny stuff as the two stars each get reintroduced to his/her spouse after 5 or 6 years of marriage. As an is-what-it-is movie, the Smithathon is dang good.

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