Monday, June 27, 2005

Film: Star Wars ends; Batman Begins

A couple of mini-reviews of things I've seen lately, in an effort to make up for my having had so little time to write here.

First, I saw the big-screen rendition of the trailer for Serenity this weekend, and it looks terrific. If you didn't see Firefly, the TV series on which this film is based when it aired on the network I now call TWB (Those Weasel Bastards) for its shabby treatment of the show, you should immediately buy, borrow or rent the DVD series of the aborted first season. (Pay no attention to the cheesy graphics and music on the discs. Just watch the episodes and enjoy.) Then you'll be ready for the feature film. If the writing and the wonderful ensemble performances are as good as those on the small screen, this film will be one of the true highlights of 2005's movie offerings.

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith: Lord, how I wish George Lucas had stopped after Return of the Jedi, not least because after seeing Sith, I have utterly lost respect for him. I was steeled for a third round of stilted dialogue, pointless (and seemingly endless) graphics sequences and awful performances from actors who clearly know better. I was not prepared for a character to become unrecognizable, a morass of moral confusion and light-saber battles so darkly lit that it was impossible to see the fighting.

The most shocking problem is the sudden, unexplained change in Padme's character. It's painfully obvious that Princess Leia didn't get her spunk from her mother, who, under the stress of Anakin's transformation, loses all will to live even for the sake of her children. (Didn't Leia say, in Jedi, that she vaguely remembered her mother? I guess Lucas forgot.) Padme's main contribution to this story line is to stand around wringing her hands and looking tearful (and very, very pregnant). She does finally work up the gumption to do something really stupid: Go looking for Anakin long after it's too late and arrive just in time for him to whack her one. What a worthless dishrag she'd become by then.

I don't expect a whole lot of moral clarity from Hollywood, but Obi-Wan's final accusation for Anakin ("Only the Sith deal in absolutes!") was just laughable after the Jedi had decided that Anakin had to face the absolute punishment for the absolute crime of killing younglings. (Not that I'm arguing that's not an absolute that ought to be enforced.) This really is something of a case of the kettle and the pot calling each other black. Neither the Jedi nor the Sith manage to hold the moral high ground. In fact, the story seems to argue there's no such thing as a moral high ground. That's sinking pretty low from where the series started.

As for everything else, it had all the failings of the first two prequels…except more so, especially in the acting department. It's no longer enough to fall back on the excuse that the dialogue didn't give the actors much to work with--although, in truth the script only favored Ian McDiarmid with anything interesting to say. But Ewan MacGregor, at least, managed to get a little traction into his performance this time. Nobody else did, though, and this from a group that includes Oscar and Emmy nominees. I predict Hayden Christensen will sink even farther and faster into obscurity than Mark Hamill did, and much more deservedly. Hamill, at least, could do more than scowl darkly.

To say this film was an utter disappointment is an understatement--even my very low expectations didn't help. If there's anything nice I can say about it, it's that Jar-Jar Binks never opened his mouth. Honestly, halfway through, I was looking at my watch.

Batman Begins: Movies based on comic books have come a long way recently, but this one sets a new standard, especially in the realm of character development. If I have a minor complaint, it's that the film started off a touch slow. But once it got going, it hit escape velocity and never slowed down. I could nitpick some of the plot logic, but even the story line was so much better than the previous Batman films that there doesn't seem to be much point. The romantic subplot didn't add much, but then, it didn't detract much, either.

There's some moral ambiguity here, too, but it makes pretty good sense in the context of the young Bruce Wayne trying to figure out what his morality is and where to draw the line. A good bit of the film is spent on this struggle to find the boundaries of right and wrong--to make up his mind what the appropriate response to evil is. He attempts to get into the criminal mind but can't quite pull it off. He's willing to get mean, but draws the line at murdering murderers. Ultimately, he comes down to the concept that evil triumphs if good people do nothing. That's simplistic, of course, but in a comic-book movie, I'm willing to overlook thematic material that's painted in broad strokes. Nuance is probably a bit much to ask. And, interestingly, it's exactly the nothing Batman does against Ras al-Ghul that provides a truly satisfying conclusion to the story.

A spectacular cast fires on all cylinders throughout, with Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine occasionally stealing scenes despite Christian Bale's wonderful portrayal of the Dark Knight. Liam Neeson, who must really regret having gotten involved in the Star Wars series, is also a genuine pleasure to watch here.

I really enjoyed watching Bruce and Alfred, with help from Fox, put together all that cool bat-gear. Admit it, you've always wondered about that, right? I particularly liked the misstep with the headgear--there had to be something that didn't work right the first time, and it was a nice touch that made the whole process more believable.

Great fun--bring on the sequel.


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