The plan…

[This post includes reviews for Closer, The Weather Man, The Chumscrubber, and Batman Begins.]

Now for a more official greeting: welcome to Remote Wanderings, a blog dedicated to news and criticism on today’s film, television, and other entertainment. While I’ll be adding this to the approximately 7 trillion blogs on similar topics, hopefully this one will make a bit of a mark. I’ve got a goal for the content of this blog that fuses the popular with the niche, the academic with the raving film fan, which I hope will set this blog aside and situate it in the burgeoning arena of well-written but wide-ranging Internet pop culture criticism.

These reviews encapsulate my approach, which is driven by a frustration at what passes for movie reviewing in most corners of the media. I see no reason why a film lover’s joy in a great movie must be cloaked in clinical restraint if that enthusiasm is well expressed and avoids slobbering fixation or celebrity adoration. Similarly, too many reviewers are instantly suspicious of big-budget films and even niche genre work, laying bare their deeply entrenched preconceptions and refusing to acknowledge that ‘big’ filmmaking can be artistic or that science fiction, adult animation, or any manifestation of the fantastic must be either judged by more relaxed criteria (because we can’t expect too much from such frivolity, now can we) or assumed to offer less of substance.

This can reveal itself either in the dismissive reviews themselves or in pre-release commentary. For example, many reviewers instantly wrote off X-Men: The Last Stand, not because of the bad word coming from those behind-the-scenes, but because it was a franchise picture. Now, I most assuredly have my beef with the proliferation of sequels and remakes these days, and I was disappointed by the rushed pace and poor judgement of the third X-Men film, but I insisted on keeping an open-mind and getting excited!!. This is not verboten. Besides, big filmmaking can indeed deliver even within the constraints of a studio – V for Vendetta is a recent case in point, although many critics still couched their praise in diligent disclaimers regarding its comic-book origins.

Regardless, that anticipation is part of the joy of being a film fan, especially with the staggering amount of pre-release information that the Internet age gives us (perhaps too much? A topic for another time…). I believe in passionate but informed criticism, a blend of academic insight and the unabashed exuberance of film geeks, which is a label that should be worn proudly if discernment and rationality are along for the ride. Much mainstream film criticism only offers bland and narrow-minded commentary and convenient soundbites – just check out the excerpts on the page for any recent movie on Rotten Tomatoes for an example of how pithy and bored (or boring) many reviewers are. The other problem is the reviewers that do offer insight but restrict their scope of interest immensely. This isn’t just a criticism of ‘those fussy movie critics who only like art films’, but frustration with their staggering inability to be pleased. It’s damaging and elitist.

Now, I understand that most film critics do indeed like movies and save their raves for the truly deserving, but in the cases of many critics I read, those raves never actually come. Instead, I look to reviewers like Ain’t It Cool’s Moriarty and sites like CHUD for the vanguard of contemporary film writing on the Internet. Far more than film geek dwelling grounds, these sites offer constructive but impassioned commentaries on films and their industry, and not just on big-budget or fantasy offerings. They’ll give you as much insight into non-genre and independent cinema as any more ‘highbrow’ site (as I will be, notably with forthcoming reviews of Brick and Jindabyne. They’ve been my yardstick in the reviews I’ve written thus far, so if you’re a fan of those sites, you’ll hopefully like what you see here. I believe that reviewers and film lovers can demonstrate their love of the medium without sacrificing critical standards. That’s the ethos that will be informing this blog and its criticism. If you’re gagging to see both The Dark Knight and Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, clamouring equally for Spider-Man 3 and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, and you love both The Wire and Battlestar Galactica and can’t be bothered with the new season of CSI: Law and Order, this blog may be for you, especially since I’ll be dispensing the cream of film and television news to boot. And fear not – despite the serious pseudo-activism of this post, Remote Wanderings will be FUN. I enjoy movies and TV, and will be making that abundantly clear.

And after that lengthy preamble, here are some select reviews from my personal blog over the last year or so to give you a taste of what I do. There are looks at Closer, The Chumscrubber, and The Weather Man, followed by a lengthy appraisal of Batman Begins. Apart from some other old reviews that I’d like to archive here soon, the content from here on out will be largely about the here-and-now.

I unexpectedly watched Closer for a second time after catching it at the cinema back at the end of 2004, and I assumed that I would dash in and out while my flatmate was watching. I ended up staying for the whole film, because Closer utterly captivating, which is all the more surprising given how unlikeable the characters are.

Although its origins as a play are abundantly clear (only four principal characters; all the scenes are long conversations in single rooms), Closer works surprisingly well as a motion picture, as Patrick Marber’s script is aided by a constantly roving camera, weaving through conversations or zooming into a character’s enraptured eyes. Still, a film such as this is made or broken by the screenplay and performances, and both are exceptional. Marber’s dialogue flows in a beautifully natural fashion, striking just the right balance between everyday banalities and poignant insight. Plus, his script is brave enough to lay the characters’ flaws sprawled helplessly for all to see – but more on that in a moment…

The casting is exceptional, and all four performances carry the film effortlessly, consistently holding interest even without the help of a single other major (or even minor) speaking part. Julia Roberts is surprisingly good, especially since here she gives a subtle, restrained performance that still speaks volumes. Jude Law is a terrific combination of charming and pathetic, and Natalie Portman is entrancing as Alice, deftly switching between immense confidence and a disturbingly childlike innocence. But Clive Owen is perhaps the standout, showing a huge charisma despite being utterly wounded, although a terrific character arc helps him out, which sees Larry begin as the most sympathetic character due to his apparent goodness and his cuckoldry and then descend into being a cold, vindictive bastard.

These character shifts are what make Closer so intriguing… and the subject of much disdain. I’ve spoken to people who find the film abhorrent due to its apparent refusal to offer any constructive commentary on human relationships, instead beginning as a sensitive exploration and ultimately revelling in its own moral vacuum. To me, Nichols and Marber don’t reject insight, but resolution. Since the crux of the film is the Destructive Relationship, it follows that no cohesion should ultimately be presented. Although certainly the pessimistic approach, it’s not necessarily a redundant one. Closer is merely shining the spotlight on relationships that seemed to start well and then soured but that may have had no healthy foundation to begin with. So we watch the characters enduring their realisation of this and also their narcissistic, selfish choices to try and fight against it. Owen’s character arguably begins the film as the most ‘innocent’ of the four (although that may just be because we discover so little about his past), and while the external circumstances of his wife’s adultery are clearly major factors, his inherent fixation on the potentially destructive nature of relationships leads him to abandon whatever morality he may have had in order to achieve some kind of stability – he’ll forgive his wife for cheating on him for a year, but to try and preserve his self-respect he will taunt and manipulate the lover she has just left with exquisitely diabolical revelations.

Although those who may react against this starkly nihilistic characterisation are not necessarily craving a clear-cut sense of right and wrong, I feel that to condemn the film for failing to offer worthwhile insight when it is merely inverting the common narrative trajectory of flawed protagonists overcoming their weaknesses is wrongheaded. While it is clearly a film from which a variety of conclusions can be drawn about relationships, to assume that it offers only a bleak outlook is to oversimplify it. Its surprising resonance for me on second viewing, even with the knowledge of key choices and betrayals, is perhaps testament to this.

The overlap between the teen movie and the surburban angst subgenre has been an interesting development over the last few years with films like Donnie Darko, Thumbsucker, and… others I can’t recall :D. Most have been welcome and original, but one was bound to come along that has good intentions but falls short of the mark. The Chumscrubber is that film.

While describing it as Donnie Darko meets Desperate Housewives is an oversimplification of the film’s goals, that’s certainly how The Chumscrubber feels. Yeah, it’s another intertwining story of angst and middle-class repression. While The Chumscrubber has lofty goals, it falls short by indulging in cliché (the housewife high on vacuous self-help programs) and occasional caricature (Wilson’s character complains of Troy’s mother’s (Glenn Close) lack of consideration in scheduling her son’s funeral on her wedding day – “She KNEW I was getting married today!”). Plus, it lacks any visual distinctiveness and features a bizarre parallel with a post-apocalyptic video game (from which the film’s title comes) that we see in interludes and just doesn’t work, aiming for some form of ultra-modern poignancy and ending up with redundancy. And then there’s Ralph Fiennes’ obsession with dolphins… I can take a lot of weird for weird’s sake, but there’ s not enough successful material to outweigh these missteps.

However, the film impresses at its climax, as Charlie’s relatively comfortable abduction reaches a harrowing, bloody, and moving conclusion, and Dean finally confronts his feelings about Troy’s death to his friend’s grieving mother as she emerges from her denial. And the performances are strong, particularly by the two Bell/es. But this really offers very little new insight. I usually loathe such conservative recommendations, but if you’re up for a movie like this, revisit Donnie Darko – there’s always more to be gleaned from that film’s glorious ambiguities, and it’s filled with gorgeously tender and funny moments. But kudos to The Chumscrubber for trying to actually say something. It certainly kicks the shit out of most movies teens flock to these days, in their own genre and whatever studio-concocted comedy that’s out this week.

A small film that was largely ignored last year, and can currently (barely) be seen in Australian cinemas, is The Weather Man, starring Nicholas Cage as a Chicago TV weather-man going through a divorce. From the poster, trailer, and other publicity, Gore Verbinski’s film (sort of a respite between Pirates of the Caribbean and its sequels) appears to be an amiable Nicholas Cage comedy, a fluffy studio confection that’s moderately entertaining but fairly forgettable.

Nothing could be further from the truth. This film is a genuine surprise.

If you get a chance to see the trailer, either before or after the film itself, do so – it’s a remarkable example of how a film’s tone and intentions can be utterly transformed with judicious editing. In this case, a dark, fairly cynical drama has been publicised as a feel-good, off-beat comedy (although I still wanted to see it on those merits – it just looked nice). While it has a fair bit of those elements (very black, at that), The Weather Man is a solemn, melancholy, and ultimately moving contemplation of gleaning purpose when life presents you with so little to latch on to. Cage’s Dave Spritz understands that his job is vastly overpaid for little time and skill (he doesn’t even have a meteorology qualification). His marriage is over and he’s becoming painfully aware that his wife (Hope Davis) has genuinely moved on when he has yet to find new romantic prospects, and he also has quite a bit of difficulty relating to his children.

The latter is reflected in Dave’s relationship with his own father, famed novelist Robert Spritzel (Michael Caine). While Robert openly cares about his son, he has difficulty relating to him, especially given his largely absent sense of humour. But Dave isn’t entirely blameless either. He makes bad, boneheaded decisions throughout the film, and not in an endearing fashion. The script isn’t afraid to make Dave not only a tad unsympathetic, but something of a social incompetent. His lot in life is not just portrayed as bad luck, and he must then contend with middle-class desperation. Dave has brought some of this on himself, but we still feel for him – as we do all the characters – despite the film’s relentlessly dour atmosphere, which comes about from both some surprisingly confronting content (Dave’s daughter is subject to horrendous sexual insults at school, and his son falls into the sights of a paedophilic drug counsellor) and Verbinski’s deliberately cold and oppressive direction. The harsh Chicago winter setting contributes substantially to this, and to the story’s themes of alienation. I’ve rarely felt an on-screen climate so palpably as I did in this film. As a long-time winter-person, I’m amazed to say that the Chicago weather seemed truly unpleasant and I really didn’t want to be there.

But I’m focusing a lot on this film’s depressing aspects; while prevalent, they don’t make The Weather Man a nasty experience, and certainly not an unrewarding one. There are some haunting and resonant moments, such as when Dave sets his bow and arrow (he’s just discovered archery) on his ex-wife’s unsuspecting boyfriend from afar. We know that he has no intention of letting the arrow loose, but merelt watch him place himself on the edge of such an act to approach what it might feel like. We know how desperate he is for his life to return to what it was, and it makes the scene heart wrenching. And Cage’s scenes with Caine are very affecting too, and the two have unexpected father-son chemistry. These elements and others give the film a vibe and intent akin to Lost in Translation or the films of Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways), but with a dash less humour, which is certainly not the impression given by the publicists. Maybe I’m just a sucker for middle-class angst flicks, but I believe that The Weather Man is quite the hidden gem, especially due to the strong performances, stark direction, and Hans Zimmer’s beautiful score. A cruelly ignored film that will stick with you, I can’t recommend this one enough. Despite being a downer for much of its running time, this is a moving and life-affirming film, emerging as more feel-good than those that claim to be, as it’s willing to wallow in murky waters so as to earn its right to offer lessons.

After Joel Schumacher destroyed the Batman movie franchise in more creative ways than anyone dreamed possible in 1997’s Batman and Robin, there was speculation about whether the character would return to the screen and move back to his dark roots. But there was an assumption that Tim Burton’s vision of Batman in the first 1989 movie and in Batman Returns was the correct way to portray Batman on screen. In truth, the character has never been interpreted properly in live-action form. The 1990s animated series did a tremendous job, but the movies never quite nailed the character. The largest problem was that Batman himself, arguably the most interesting character if written accurately, was sidelined by the colourful and depraved villains.

So in Batman Begins, it’s a relief to the discerning Bat-fan that not only has the character been taken back to his darker, decidedly non-comedic roots, but he’s now the star of his own movie. Now, for those who are about to stop reading because you couldn’t give a stuff about Batman, fear not. What’s terrific about this film is that it’s accessible to all, not just as a geekgasm for the character’s fans, and that’s because the character of Bruce Wayne anchors the picture. The people I saw it with, none of them particularly enamoured with Batman, were proclaiming it the best film so far this year, so delighted were they with its all-too-rarely successful combination of subtle character work and effective action. The film is very much worth seeing even if not a fan, but interestingly, it’s because the character has been done justice that Batman Begins is so compelling. Batman is one of the most famous superheroes, but in popular culture terms, he’s a do-gooder lumped into the same category as Superman and Spider-Man. In reality, each character has his own distinctive and appealing character traits, and Batman in particular is a rich psychological conundrum, a man driven to achieve either justice or vengeance in the name of a childhood tragedy that he cannot move beyond. The explorations of these facets are what make Batman Begins so damn interesting.

Stepping into the director’s chair is an unlikely, but ultimately fitting choice. Christopher Nolan previously directed Memento and Insomnia, and the dark and subtle characterisation of those films, including their determined focus on their conflicted protagonist, made him a terrific choice to explore Batman more substantially than he ever has been on-screen. The only uncertainty came from his inexperience with directing action, but he delivers with aplomb, although there are a few issues (more on those later). Given the critical and commercial disaster that was Batman and Robin, Warner Bros. allowed Nolan virtual creative freedom, which included the luxury of completely ignoring the previous films. This is not a prequel at all, or even a remake – although both Begins and Burton’s 1989 Batman both depicted the hero’s emergence in Gotham, the event is tackled at a completely different pace, and Begins frequently contradicts what Burton put forward, usually in the name of doing greater justice to the comics. This free rein has allowed Nolan to construct Bruce Wayne as the complex character he has become over his 70-year publishing history, and he is so committed to establishing how this tragic young man could even contemplate dressing up like a giant bat and fighting crime that he even fabricates details that were never described in the comics, and the result is a genuinely credible journey for the title character, from the murder of his parents through to his first appearance to the criminals of Gotham. This is a blockbuster that actually deals in understatement, and while the transition Bruce makes may not be explicitly rationalised, when he finally dons the Batsuit, it makes sense in a way it never did before, and as a result, makes the film of interest to more than just fans or action movie buffs. This is about Bruce Wayne trying to understand the roles of justice and vengeance in his life, not about a superhero beating up bad guys.

Christian Bale is central to the success of this. A fan-favourite for Batman for years, especially following his turn in Equilibrium, he suits the role more than any other actor before him. Not only does he have the chin for it, but the conflict within Bruce Wayne is more apparent than it ever was in Keaton, Kilmer, and certainly Clooney. As many have pointed out, he’s essentially playing three characters here: the genuine, tormented Bruce Wayne, the spoiled, carefree playboy Bruce Wayne that the real one uses as a distraction (never seen in the movies thus far), and Batman himself, and he distinguishes the first and the last more decisively than ever before. I was pleased with his casting mainly because he would do justice to Wayne, but his efforts inside the suit are remarkable. As Batman, Bale adopts a guttural growl that some may find amusing, but others compelling. This is the first time that Batman has been remotely scary; there’s a scene where he hoists a man in the air and demands information, and Bale’s face virtually convulses with fury as the growl explodes from his mouth. Similarly there’s a calmer scene where Katie Holmes’s character first meets Batman, and the growl, along with the design of the cowl and a truly intense stare that bores into you, creates a truly definitive Batman. That single scene encapsulates the character more than in any of the previous films; he’s never been this effective in live-action before, and it’s a joy to behold.

The rest of the cast is top-notch, and their sheer calibre, not star-wattage, should signify how different Begins is to Batman and Robin. Michael Caine’s Alfred does greater justice to the character partly by just having more screen time, as his father/servant relationship with Bruce Wayne has been crucial for decades, but the previous films failed to pay him the attention he deserves. But on top of that, Caine delivers an exemplary performance (as should be expected), and although his face and accent aren’t really ‘Alfred’s’, his attitude, delivery, and chemistry with Bale are ideal.

Where Alfred was ignored in the prior films, cop Jim Gordon was virtually pissed on. Completely miscast and utterly peripheral, the significance of Gordon to the Batman mythos has never been apparent on screen until now. Finally accorded the requisite moustache, Gordon in Begins, as portrayed by Gary Oldman, is respected by Nolan as a central figure in Batman’s life, the defender on the right side of the law who works with a vigilante to achieve a common goal. They ultimately become the strangest of friends, and the beginnings of that relationship can be seen here. Oldman is terrific, disappearing into the role of an everyman thrust into an unbelievable urban situation. It’s virtually impossible to find Sirius Black, or any of Oldman’s other roles, within Gordon – he’s outstanding.

Liam Neeson provides the gravitas that he always does, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with his performance. It’s just not particularly stellar, and is essentially a variation, though with better dialogue, of his role in Star Wars Episode I, but he still delivers a more subtle and effective foil than any Batman villain until now; you can never really accuse Neeson of a bad performance. Unfortunately, the incredible Ken Watanabe, from The Last Samurai, is sadly wasted in a small role, but being able to attract a recent Academy-Award nominee for such a small and frankly dull role signals the pedigree of this project. Katie Holmes’s performance is effective but nothing special, and her character suffers as being a love interest whose relationship with the protagonist is never foregrounded enough for the audience to be invested in it. Spider-Man succeeded in this regard because the love story is so central to the characters and the plot, but here it’s unfortunately superfluous.

Morgan Freeman is also perfectly fine as Lucius Fox (a familiar Batman character not even featured in a prior film), but like Neeson offers nothing new. Cillian Murphy is splendidly slimy as Dr. Jonathan Crane, and his Scarecrow alter-ego is very effectively portrayed. What victims of his fear toxin see can often be truly freakish, but the handling of the Scarecrow character exemplifies how Begins excels: the villain is prominent but never dominant, while actually serving the plot and furthering the rationalisation of the Batman universe. Before Scarecrow, there were essentially no freakish bad guys in Gotham. Mobster Carmine Falcone ran the town (a fun Tom Wilkinson), and Crane’s actions in this film precipitate the creation of that outlandish environment, leading to a final tease that’s deliciously executed.

That’s pretty much where Nolan succeeds with Batman Begins: execution. He takes already potent source material, streamlines it without betraying it, and transfers it to the screen as genuine cinema. What he’s ushered on to film here lends Begins a greatly rewatchable quality, so as to more fully discover how he’s constructed Gotham as a society and Bruce Wayne as a character. As a whole, the film is both a stronger franchise-starter than Burton’s Batman ever was while also serving as an effective film in its own right. Because Bruce Wayne has a distinctive arc, the film exists as an independent entity, unlike the original X-Men, which cried out for a sequel in order to capitalise on the first film’s potential, particularly that of several poorly developed characters. If there was no sequel to Begins, it would be a solid achievement in itself.

However, it’s not a perfect film, and Nolan’s inexperience with action creates slight problems. He’s chosen to shoot the fight scenes in a very rapid, choppy fashion, so that it’s often difficult to see what’s happening (the final fight is a notable offender). Although this could be justified as conveying how fast Batman is, it also raises suspicions that Nolan is instead concealing the Batsuit’s lack of manoeuvrability. Like action, the idea of a villain’s scheme as seen in the second half of the film is also far removed from Nolan’s previous work, and like Magneto’s in the original X-Men, it’s not particularly original or compelling. But it certainly doesn’t sink the film, because like the villains themselves, their scheme isn’t foregrounded and doesn’t anchor the film’s second half. Nolan certainly makes it more interesting than other directors would have, and there’s still enough exciting material to make up for it, such as the extraordinary sequences with the new Batmobile.

However, the reactions of bystanders to Batman’s swanky new car typify the film’s other problem – some of the dialogue can be atrocious. Now, not Star Wars-prequels atrocious, with their consistently diabolical efforts – indeed, on the whole, the dialogue in Nolan and David S. Goyer’s (the Blade trilogy) script is credible and effective, but some of the humour is forced and a little cheesy (Oldman’s reaction to the Batmobile, along with those of various random cops, exemplifies this), more suited to the often tongue-in-cheek Spider-Man films than Nolan’s serious take on the superhero. It’s not all bad though, as a speech by Wayne to his party guests is delicious, and most of Caine’s lines are too. But it’s quite a surprise that the offending lines, so obvious in their banality, got past Nolan, whose prior films were certainly not lacking in quality dialogue. But these are minor problems that may seem less apparent with repeated viewing.

In short, this is both a marvellous resuscitation of the Batman film franchise and an extremely effective action-adventure with genuine characterisation and feeling. And while the cynical may decry any setting up of sequels as forced and commercial, Batman Begins’s one concession in the final scene not only hints at one future character, but also at what this series can achieve as a whole. No longer is it about a vaguely interesting Batman fighting the film’s assigned villain/s – it’s about a compelling and wonderfully acted Batman fighting in a well-established universe of darkness and moral ambiguity. When villains are thrown at Batman, the films will concern themselves with how they affect him, rather than whether he can foil their bombastic and attention-seeking plans. There’s still more than can be said about Bruce Wayne and the themes of justice and fear that he represents, and I’m looking forward to those explorations.

More soon.

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