Thursday, June 16, 2005

Wholly Bats: "Batman Begins"

Batman Begins (2005, Dir. Christopher Nolan)

Batman has always been the most saturnine of superheroes -- no ordinary Joe bestowed with extraordinary powers, like the Marvel heroes who have dominated our screens recently, Bruce Wayne and his caped crusader alter ego have never asked for our approval, nor appealed to the common geek in all of us. Rather, he has always been at a remove, remote and lone, rich beyond our wildest dreams, cynical about the infinite fallibility of humankind even as he sets out to reedem it. The impenetrability of his motives, even when draped in Freudian motifs of caves and murdered parents, means that directors can have a field day twisting and distorting him to fit their own artistic and thematic ends. What other superhero could have withstood the charming but dated serials of the 40s, the glorious camp of the 60s TV show, Tim Burton's Gothic carnivals (1989's Batman and Batman Returns), or especially the homo-psychotic bombast of Joel Schumacher, who almost ended the comic book film genre single-handedly with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin?

So here comes a new, sober Batman for a new, sober millenium, and fittingly enough, the director is Christopher Nolan, who has made isolated, dislocated characters his stock-in-trade (see Memento and Insomnia). This is a fat-free version of the Batman origin story, skittering from childhood flashbacks to rough-and-ready training scenes in the Himalayas to night-drenched standoffs with mobsters and psychopaths, to the inevitable roar of the Batmobile's engines and a final face-off on an out-of-control train.

Does it succeed? Mostly. Certainly this Batman has a gravitas that the other big-screen versions lack. Nolan and co-writer David Goyer take pains to ground this Batman in something resembling reality, right down to how the winged one obtains all his wonderful toys (it turns out that Mr. Easy Reader himself, Morgan Freeman, is the Merlin behind the scenes). Most daringly, the movie is focused squarely on Bruce Wayne, his moral and spiritual development, and the back story that leads him to Bat-dom. Thanks to Thomas Newton Howard's brooding, surging score (with an assist by Hans Zimmer), intelligent acting all around, and Nolan's understated approach, the movie holds our interest.

Christian Bale will likely garner a fair share of criticism for his performance, which seems to be nothing more than Patrick Bateman's leer butted against his Equilibrium sneer, but his interpretation of Bruce Wayne gains in stature as the movie progresses. Physically, he's the most imposing Batman to date, but he scores his best points by revealing, crack by crack, the madness behind the man's methods. You can almost buy him in his various poses as millionaire playboy, or thoughtful crusader against crime -- and then innocent joy or sadness crosses his face like a cloudburst, or he unleashes rumbling bass thunder in his voice as Batman. The script keeps a fairly tight rein on Bale -- for all the travails his character experiences, he is not fully put to the test emotionally -- but his turn hints at wondrous potentials waiting to be mined.

He is also ably abetted and humanized by a supporting cast that gets to dig into their characters more than would be expected in films of this ilk. Michael Caine is the clear winner as Alfred, mixing British Army sergeant bravado with glimmers of depth that establish what may be the best onscreen Wayne-Alfred relationship yet. As Sergeant (someday to be Commissioner) Gordon, Gary Oldman is the audience surrogate, and with a shambling sincerity and blinking eyes behind thick glasses, he portrays a common man uncommonly well. His tête-à-têtes with Bale are terse yet pregnant with irony -- it seems only fitting that the only champions of justice in a messed-up town like Gotham would be a rumpled, slightly nerdy cop and a guy who dresses up as a bat. The evildoers this time out aren't flamboyant, but they are well represented by Cillian Murphy, who is the one juicy hambone among the cast as the demented Scarecrow (with pleasing results), and Liam Neeson, who oozes command and elegance as Ducard, Wayne's wayward former master -- one can only mourn what he could have done in Star Wars: Episode I with an actual role.

As Wayne's would-be love interest, Katie Holmes isn't necessarily convincing as Gotham's one incorruptible DA, but her appealing girl-next-door quality allows her to skate by, even when the script burdens her with pop-store psychology lines as she attempts to get to the heart of Bruce Wayne ("I heard you were back. But the man I loved, the man who vanished, never came back").

It's dialogue like that which tends to keep Batman Begins prosaic when it should be soaring -- I blame most of it on David Goyer, who has never demonstrated much subtlety in his previous writing gigs (Blade, for example). Like FDR, the film's mantra is that there is nothing to fear but fear itself, and just in case we didn't get it, nearly every character soliloquizes about it -- fear's paralyzing consequences, "You always fear what you don't understand," "You must become fear to conquer fear," yaddaya yaddaya. Too bad Nolan doesn't have the visual or emotional dexterity to actually frighten the audience. The film opens with an apocryphal moment, young Bruce Wayne's first traumatic encounter with bats, and it's presented as matter-of-factly as an after-school special, rather than as the subjectively terrifying experience it should have been. Likewise, the brain-bending toxin released by the Scarecrow leads to some nifty visual effects, but nothing that will haunt your nightmares. Batman himself provides some jolting moments as he disposes of various goons, but the zest and wit that informs the brutal moments of other superhero movies -- think of when Doc Oc is first unleashed in the operating room in Spider-Man 2, or even the Joker's demise in Tim Burton's Batman -- is nowhere in evidence here.

Perhaps what Batman Begins should truly have feared is the inevitable air of "been there, done that" that now hangs over every big-budget comic book movie. The film echoes key moments from earlier Batmans, especially the Burton version (a flight by night in which the hero drives the disoriented heroine to the Bat-Cave, or the hissed self-introduction by our protagonist: "I'm Batman"), and as it progresses, Wayne's voyage of self-discovery relents to blurry action scenes and yet another "release poison gas on the city" gambit by the villains, the sense of originality frittered away. One can all but hear the studio suits breathing down Nolan's neck: "But Chris, baby, where's the crazy scheme by the bad guys? Where's the over-the-top car chase? Where's the cheesy one liners?" Nolan handles these scenes in workmanlike fashion, but one wonders what he could have done if the story had remained rooted to Earth -- would Batman's intelligence and detective skills come to the forefront? Would the emotional stakes be raised? Sadly, I'm not sure if he would have risen to that challenge. He's at his best when the characters and stakes remain chilly, as with the folding-back-into-himself, memory-addled protagonist of Memento, or the sleep-deprived cop/criminal in Insomnia. It's just not in him to embrace the hot-blooded, escalating intensity a saga like this requires.

So what we have is a conundrum -- a Batman movie with finely tuned performances and an admirable reluctance to indulge in the garish excesses of previous entries, but lacking in the big beats and outsized emotions that elevate the best comics into the realm of pop art. When Liam Neeson intones, "Now if you'll excuse me, I have a city to destroy," his delivery is subtle, naturalistic, almost normal -- and then you think about the actual lines. If given another chance, Nolan is capable of crafting a sequel that can build on what he's accomplished here -- but as an opening salvo in a reinvented franchise, Batman Begins, like Neeson's performance, is admirable and intriguing without being wholly engaging.

Monday, June 06, 2005

We're a Happy Family: "Saving Face"

Saving Face (2005, Dir. Alice Wu)

You'll never catch me dissing a first-time filmmaker, especially one with no formal film school training, who decided to adapt a treatment for a novel to a script, and found herself directing a film starring Joan Chen, with backing from Will Smith, of all people. And as the cherry on top, how about raves at Sundance and the Asian American Film Festival? Such is what happened to Alice Wu, who was a guest at the screening of her film, Saving Face, at the Albany Twin in Berkeley Sunday night. Besides the usual asinine Q&A questions that northern California audiences seem to specialize in ("Why do you have your two most compelling characters smoke cigarettes?" Yes, we are on Planet Earth), the session with 35-year old director Wu after the movie was refreshing and genial, as she expounded on her lesbian identity, her intention for the film to be a valentine to her mother and an antidote to her middle-age malaise, and the touching episode in which her mother took all her friends to see the movie -- the ultimate signifier of parental approval.

Saving Face is a canny mix of universal concerns (acceptance by your elders, the potential for fresh starts and new perspectives even in the midst of middle age) and the culturally specific (Asian-American traditions versus modernity, the Chinese-American "scene" in Flushing, New York). It's also a light dramatic comedy with a remarkably polished look (considering it was shot in less than a month on a $2 million budget), an uncluttered plot, and a healthy sense of self-deprecating humor -- worth seeing if you have any interest in contemporary Asian-American cinema.

The film centers on Wilhelmina “Wil” Pang (Michelle Krusiec), an overachieving, overworked surgeon who develops a crush on free-spirited ballet dancer Vivian (Lynn Chen). As the two carry on a roller-coaster affair, matters are complicated when Wil's widowed 48-year old mother (Joan Chen) is discovered to be pregnant, and summarily thrown out of her grandparents' home. Outcasts in their own ways, the two share rooms and an uneasy detente in Wil's apartment, both hoarding secrets from the world and each other (the identity of the man who has fathered Ma's kid, Wil's lesbian proclivities). Secondary characters bounce off these two main plots, including frightful would-be suitors with designs on Ma, an African American neighbor who ends up getting hooked on Chinese soap operas, a Greek chorus of hair salon denizens who click their tongues disapprovingly at Mom's antics -- and we haven't even mentioned the fact that the head surgeon at Wil's hospital happens to be Vivian's father ...

It all sounds wacky and sit-comish, and it is, but in a refreshingly restrained way. The closest the film comes to pure slapstick is a climactic wedding ceremony that is a twist on The Graduate, but apart from that bit of craziness, Wu keeps matters naturalistic, and the actors all do yeoman jobs. Even as it trudges through the cookie-cutter plot twists (on cue, we have our third act crisis, a sudden revelation, the breakup of our main lovers) that plague other films of this ilk, the film maintains a sure, ingratiating pace.

There's a lot to admire about Saving Face, but setting aside its accomplishments for a few moments, and looking at it with the admittedly jaded eye of a film buff who happens to be Chinese American, I found the film to be fasincating on several problematic levels (how's that for veiled criticism?). It's very indicative that more than a decade after Ang Lee's Wedding Banquet, we're back to the same old story -- a gay couple seeking acceptance from their tradition-bound elders even as they strive to conceal their lifestyle. This says less about Wu's film than it does about a film establishment that seems unwilling to let a major Asian American production expand past the established template (one could argue that Better Luck Tomorrow breaks the mold, but that film merely relocated Boyz in the Hood to Orange County, and spiced it up with pretend-MTV hipness). Wu is at least subliminally aware of this conundrum -- in one amusing vignette, Mom pops down the local video store to find a Chinese movie, only to find shelves full of The Joy Luck Club, The Last Emperor, and Asian porn. This film clearly wants to present itself as a hip, unfettered alternative to those monolithic undertakings, but it isn't necessarily a ground-breaker, either.

More specific to the film, it's clear we haven't quite escaped the whole "model minority" thing yet -- Wil and Vivian are not only good at what they do, they are the best, and labor under parental pressure throughout. At the end of the film, this pressure is presented as benign, but Wu either doesn't have the interest or desire to confront this particular devil in the closet.

She's also not much for subtlety in character interactions. The Wedding Banquet rides hard on the same beats as this film does, but Ang Lee has a surer grasp of the intuitive give-and-take within families, where the silences, furtive looks, and non-explanations are just as important as what is actually said. With Wu, everything rides on the surface. Characters like Grandpa reveal themselves through simple declarative statements ("You have shamed this family") rather than behavior. On a related note, Saving Face has little use for the compromises and negotations that inform family dynamics, as it concludes on an unabashedly optimistic note, every relationship healed, every complication solved, everyone becoming exactly what he or she wants to be without disapproval or ostracization, one big happy family, the end. It works for fairy tales and comedies that aspire only to be the purest fizz of champagne, but for a film that takes a thoughtful, sometimes knotty look at the differences that plague us, it reads more like a cop-out.

Likewise, the parade of clownish suitors who attempt to win Mom's hand are amusing as caricatures (and indeed Wu cheerfully admits that they are nothing more than stereotypes), but contrast that to the passage in Wedding Banquet in which Winston Chao's character throws out impossible standards to his parents for a prospective wife ("PhD, plays an instrument, knows six languages") so as to escape their meddling matchmaking, only to find himself on a date with a woman who fulfills every single requirement -- and to our surprise, we find this woman surprisingly normal. These are subtleties, but they comprise the difference between sit-coms and social comedy.

The wild card in all this is Joan Chen. It's almost -- almost -- possible to believe her as a frumpy housewife who blooms in her newfound freedom, but with her porcelain face and effortless elegance, she seems like she's beamed in from another world. Her presence provides the film with its one element of dissonance and mystery -- while the other characters end up falling into straitjacketed roles as the film progresses (Wil is the uptight careerist who must "let go" and be honest with herself, Vivian is the free-spirited artist who represents desire), Chen only becomes harder to divine. Wu's characters like to over-talk and pontificate, but Chen shrugs it off with silent bouts of TV-watching, and wistful looks that could suggest regret or greater understanding. Her hidden depths remain hidden until the aforementioned Graduate scene, easily the best passage in the movie, when her secret is revealed. Sitting with Wil at the back of the bus, flush with excitement, her burden lifted, Ma gabs and fusses and effuses. Wil is all but overwhelmed by the torrent of emotion, but still musters enough bravery to be firm with her, for the first time. And suddenly both are silent, both comprehending the changes that must happen for both of them to be happy. In a film that is sometimes content to plod from plot point A to plot point B like assembly-line product, this rarified pause, and Chen's nuanced performance, break the mold.