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A lot going on under the cowl: Bale in Batman Begins.

The Dark Knight
By Ann Morrow

Batman Begins

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins exists in world of its own, outside of the realm of other comic-book flicks, and above and beyond all the Batman movies. Starring the unconventionally talented Christian Bale and a stellar supporting cast, this Batman is more of a crime drama with terrific action sequences and a hero who, for perfectly good reasons (such as hiding high-tech listening devices) wears a hooded mask with ears. Batman Begins emphasizes its hero’s flesh-and-blood vulnerabilities—he bungles his first attempt at descending a skyscraper—along with his tortured psyche, which ups the ante in a plot that is unusually rich in emotional connections and convincing moral struggles. This Prince of Gotham has more in common with the Prince of Denmark than with the other big-screen Caped Crusaders.

Struggle is the very soul of young Bruce Wayne, who is floundering in a Chinese prison when the film opens. In dreams, he reexperiences his defining childhood trauma, at the bottom of a bat cave, and the murder of his parents, which is indirectly related to his fearfulness, and for which he is consumed with guilt and anger. Flashbacks also reveal Bruce’s tender relationship with his good and generous father (Linus Roach). His father’s teachings are kept alive by their loyal butler, Alfred (a marvelous Michael Caine). Bruce is rescued from the prison by a mysterious warrior-philosopher named Ducard (Liam Neeson, old enough to play very wise, yet still imposing enough to convincingly throw Bale around like a rag doll). Ducard shows him the path to the League of Shadows, an all-powerful secret society headquartered in Tibet. Ducard teaches Bruce the martial and other arts, including the use of theatricality and deception to psyche out the enemy, but there is a price to pay for his instruction.

Bruce’s objective is to “turn fear against those who prey upon the fearful,” giving the film an intelligent recurring theme—conquering fear—that resonates throughout: When a mysterious contingent of evil envelops Gotham, it chooses widespread panic as its weapon of mass destruction. But by then, Bruce has become Batman, a fearsome, crime-fighting persona he creates with the assistance of the astute Alfred, and a scientist from Wayne Enterprises (Morgan Freeman) who supplies the military prototypes that become his costume. (In one topical bit, the bat suit is customized from advanced infantry body armor that was never put into production because its cost was deemed higher than the value of a soldier’s life.)

This a very human Batman, albeit one who has been ever so slightly twisted by the long, painful years before he found “the will to act.” Still boyishly handsome, Bale is both subtle and effective in all of Batman’s incarnations: His shit-eating grin when Bruce is letting loose as a billionaire playboy turns into a demented sneer while battling bad guys. He also has a warm banter with Caine and Freeman that is one of the film’s greatest pleasures—as is watching the two old pros make the most of their droll dialogue. Among several other delectable performances is the Irish hunk Cillian Murphy cast against type as a creepy criminal psychiatrist. The only disappointment is Katie Holmes as a DA and Bruce’s childhood friend; she’s stiff and uncomfortable instead of authoritative, and she also seems too intimidated by Bale for their characters to project any closeness.

Batman’s real costar, of course, is Gotham, a thinly veiled New York City that is set both in the near future (shades of Fritz Lang via Tim Burton) and the recent past; Nolan draws on the economic crisis of the 1970s and the crack epidemic of the 1980s to create a believably hellish landscape of fear and loathing (the film could’ve easily been terrifying). But not to fear: This Batman may be a loner, but he’s willing to ask for help, to be rescued, and to recognize the hidden strengths in others. Despite the beautifully nightmarish combat scenes (which sometimes mimic the motions of frenzied, flying bats), perhaps the most rousing moment comes when the last good cop (Gary Oldman) asks, “You’re one man alone?” And Batman answers: “Now we’re two.”

Unstable Character

Palindromes

Directed by Todd Solondz

Forward or back, a palindrome is the same: like “a man, a plan, a canal, Panama,” “ten animals I slam in a net,” or Aviva, the lead character in Palindromes, Todd Solondz’ most recent contribution to the cinema of rubbernecking. It’d be too much to say that Solondz invented the genre, but he does operate within it as if it’s his natural element. His earlier films (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness and Storytelling) present a steadily increasing coldness of observation, a coldness that borders on misanthropy and the cynical exploitation of his characters. Unlike more conventional filmmakers, Solondz does not seem to believe that character development means character growth: There are no redemptive epiphanies in his films; his characters are richly imagined but in some ways static, unlearning—almost classically fated (that is, doomed). Solondz is the Sophocles of suburbia.

The gimmicky irony here is that, despite the fact that in Palindromes Solondz has a character state explicitly to Aviva that character is unchanging, she is played by seven different actresses—and one actor (albeit an androgynous one). It’s a commendably confident bit of stunt flying on Solondz’ part to create such tension, but it drums up other problems: By destabilizing the film’s center, Solondz forces the viewer to cling more tightly to peripheral characters, and though the performances to be found there are, by and large, very nicely done, the effect is to highlight the sometimes mean-spirited freak-show aspect of Solondz’ work. Palindromes is a picaresque with no hero and no authorial point of view.

Given the plot, it’s no wonder Solondz is reticent: Aviva is a 13-year-old New Jersey girl intent on having “as many babies as possible” so that she will “always have someone to love.” After she is forced to have an abortion by her well-intentioned, slightly hysterical mother, she runs away from home by stowing herself in the back of a tractor-trailer headed for Kansas, where she falls in with an ad hoc family of multiethnic and multisyndromed born-again Christians: There’s the blind albino girl, the deaf midget, the Latin-American epileptic, the Down’s Syndrome boy, the boy who nightly “needs the mucous sucked out of his lungs” and, of course, Cuddles, the dog. Aviva is warmly received here—she is even invited to join the Sunshine Singers, the family singing group—but she is surprised to discover that members of the family are planning to kill the very same doctor who performed her own abortion (what are the odds?), and have hired the driver of the tractor-trailer, with whom Aviva had a sexual relationship, to do the job. Aviva is eager to help.

Solondz avoids an even implicit statement on the issue of reproductive freedom; the contrasts between Aviva’s liberal, “organic,” biological family and her adoptive evangelical, right-to-life clan are clearly rendered, but without judgment. Nevertheless, Solondz’ natural morbid sense of humor will out. So, while he avoids the political, he cannot help but make fun of his characters: Aviva’s introduction to the assembled Sunshine family is a cartoonish parody of sickly sweet Christian love. It’s a setup, of course, for the grim plans later revealed, but Solondz can’t wait that long. As the children all gleefully describe the ways in which they pitched in to help with the meal, the blind albino girl defers praise. When the others point out that she did cut open the bacon package, she modestly acknowledges the appreciation with a handful of bandaged fingers. The blind girl. Funny.

The absence of moralizing in the film is brave and refreshing; the absence of a moral center, however, is disorienting. Solondz offers up only fleeting purchase on the film in the form of two speeches by Mark Wiener (Matthew Faber), a character brought back from an earlier film. We are given first the lesson of palindromes and the immutability of character; then, a soliloquy on the absence of free will and the ultimate pointlessness of ambition or hope in the face of genetic programming and undeniable nature.

Apparently, Solondz just can’t help himself.

—John Rodat

I Put a Spell on You

Howl’s Moving Castle

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Trying to convey the story of a Hayao Miyazaki film is a fool’s errand. Take the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away: A young girl’s parents are turned into hogs, and she’s forced to work in a resort for demons and spirits while being pursued by a reaper-like friendly ghost that swallows everything in site.

Come again? What?

It’s easy to dwell on the weird plots and critters in his movies, as these fantastic creatures and places are so beautifully imagined and realized; the eye-candy factor is always high. What makes his films enchanting, however, is their bracingly honest look at children and the emotions of childhood. In Miyazaki’s world, children are heartbreakingly able to adapt to situations that would crush an adult, and face dilemmas that most humans past puberty would flee from. And, as in the real world, kids in his world both love and hate their parents.

Maybe that’s why Disney always finds it so hard to market Miyazaki’s work: It is so wildly different from their own product.

In his latest mind-bending anime feature, Howl’s Moving Castle, almost everyone is under some kind of spell. There is Sophie (Emily Mortimer), a teenage girl maliciously transformed into an old woman (Jean Simmons); turnip head (Crispin Freeman), a helpful scarecrow who must wander the countryside alone; Calcifer (Billy Crystal), a “good” demon trapped in the form of fire; the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), a self-enchanted villain; and Howl (Christian Bale), proprietor of the titular moving castle, under a spell so powerful it’s quite probably killing him.

Based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, the film is set in a version of 19th-century England with most of the “Englishness” drained away. Fantastic, Jules Verne-esque flying machines soar above grubby industrial landscapes, while, in a sly bit of ecological commentary, spirits and witches wander a rugged-but-beautiful countryside derided as “the Waste.” The film has a bleak story, even for Miyazaki: His spiritually addled characters, on their journey to have their assorted spells lifted, have the added burden of avoiding being killed in the middle of a ghastly war.

Still, as bewildering and grim as the story often is, it’s Miyazaki’s trademark emotional honesty—and wondrous animation—that make Howl’s Moving Castle great.

—Shawn Stone


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