by Steve Habrat
After Joel Schumacher and the money hungry Warner Bros. put the final bullet in the Batman franchise in 1997, the character lay dormant for many years at the studio, sitting on the shelf collecting dust. Every so often, rumors would emerge that the studio was trying to get a Batman project off the ground but you knew nothing would come of any of these rumors. There were also whispers of a Batman/Superman mash-up but that was also unlikely due to how long Superman had been sitting on the bench. Plus, if you even mentioned Batman in a normal conversation, it was followed up by laughs and eye rolling. Then the news came that upcoming filmmaker Christopher Nolan, the director of solid but small thrillers like Memento and Insomnia, was planning to reboot the Batman franchise and take it back to its darker roots. This was glorious news to anyone who was a Batman fan. In 2005, the world was graced with Batman Begins, a darker, meaner, and deadly serious adaptation of the Dark Knight that stayed furiously true to the DC comic book origins of the character. Audiences were a bit hesitant to flock to the film at first but as positive word of mouth leaked out, Batman Begins slowly became a big hit. It was a hit that made up for the Batman & Robin atrocity while also proving to both mainstream audiences and Batfans that there is still plenty of life (and brains) in this masked vigilante. It was untapped potential that the world would be starving for, they just didn’t know it yet.
In the wake of the death of his parents, millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Played by Christian Bale) travels the world to study the behavior of criminals. He is soon detained in Asia where he meets the mysterious Henri Ducard (Played by Liam Neeson), who works for a shadowy organization called the League of Shadows. Ducard promises to train Bruce in ways of battling crime and if he can make it through the grueling training, he can join the League of Shadows, which is led by the equally peculiar Ra’s Al Ghul (Played by Ken Watanabe). Bruce makes it through his training but as he discovers the sinister true intentions of Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows, he escapes and heads back to Gotham City, where he is reunited with his faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Played by Michael Caine). Once he lands in Gotham, Bruce reveals to Alfred his master plan for saving Gotham City, which is gripped by organized crime and corruption. Bruce also tries to work his way back into the family company, Wayne Enterprises, which is slowly deteriorating at the hands of slippery CEO William Earle (Played by Rutger Hauer). Once back at Wayne Enterprises, Bruce meets longtime family friend Lucius Fox (Played by Morgan Freeman), who shows Bruce a number of prototype weapons that were shelved by Wayne Enterprises. With access to a slew of nifty gadgets and Alfred and Lucius on his side, Bruce puts together his alter ego that he plans to use to strike fear in the criminals of Gotham City. He also begins trying to form an alliance with Sergeant Jim Gordon (Played by Gary Oldman), the last good cop in Gotham City who hasn’t given in to corruption. With all the pieces in place, Bruce hits the streets as the masked vigilante Batman and his war on injustice begins.
Throughout the two hour and twenty minute runtime of Batman Begins, director Nolan breathlessly explains all angles of Bruce’s transformation into Batman. Both Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher failed to ever really explain where Bruce was getting all these snazzy vehicles and these high-tech weapons to battle the evildoers of Gotham City, which was always a bit frustrating to me. Furthermore, how did he ever get so good at being stealthy and how did he get so powerful in a fistfight? Nolan covers all of that and more, which was incredibly exciting as a fan of Batman. We also get a psychological look at Bruce Wayne, who is consumed and driven by fear and anger, emotions that he is taught to control. He blames himself for the death of his parents, angry that he got scared in the theater that fateful evening. Fear is ultimately the theme of Batman Begins, with Bruce’s father Thomas (Played by Linus Roache) explaining, “all creatures feel fear”, wise words that would lead Bruce to create Batman. Nolan uses this theme of fear to reflect our post 9/11 world, where American citizens are gripped by the fear of terrorism and attacks by rebel organizations that lurk in the shadows. He goes on to reinforce the idea that fear can be one of the most powerful weapons on the face of the earth, more powerful than bullets, bombs, fists, or roundhouse kicks. Entire cities can collapse through mass panic, a heady idea for a summer blockbuster.
With the psychology and reflection of a world gripped by fear firmly in place, Batman Begins can focus on the performances, particularly Bale’s Bruce Wayne. For the first time, a Batman film actually puts the most emphasis on our conflicted hero, who grapples with his identity once he pulls the cowl over his face and begins his never-ending battle. Bale is a whirlwind of emotions from the first time he is on the screen. He suffers from nightmares of a traumatic childhood event that sparked his fear of bats. We see him consumed by vengeance and anger as he contemplates assassinating Joe Chill (Played by Richard Brake), the man responsible for the murder of his parents. He coldly shuts out the affection of Alfred, who desperately tries to reach him before he disappears on his quest to study criminals. His metamorphosis under Ducard is equally gripping as Bruce learns to control his emotions, a discipline that paves the way for the awakening of Batman. This exploration of the character goes on for slightly over an hour before Bruce finally unleashes his alter ego on Gotham City but you will never once find yourself clamoring for the Dark Knight to finally emerge from the shadows. Nolan said that he wanted us to really care for the man behind the mask and he absolutely meant it. Once Bruce becomes Batman, he also has to become the reckless playboy for the paparazzi, a third side to a character that already has two interesting faces. With the reckless playboy, Bale really gets to let loose and have some fun, but the pain and longing creeps in.
Then we have the supporting players who compliment Bale quite nicely. The second best here is Michael Caine’s Alfred, who has looked after Bruce ever since they buried Thomas and Martha Wayne. He is an authority figure, coming down on Bruce after he witnesses a destructive chase between Batman and Gotham police department. We also have Lucius Fox, a gentle “Q” who looks the other way when Bruce asks him to show him the Tumbler, a heavily armored tank prototype that becomes the Batmobile. The best exchanges in the film are between Bruce, Alfred, and Lucius. Gary Oldman’s Sergeant Gordon also gets the proper attention that his character deserves, which was a huge relief for Batfans disappointed with the way Pat Hingle’s Gordon was handled in the previous films. Oldman really gives a reserved performance that ranks as one of my favorite in Batman Begins. The love interest here is Rachel Dawes (Played by Katie Holmes), who has caught quite a bit of criticism for her performance here but I fail to see where she is so bad. She only becomes the damsel in distress one time throughout the film, a strong gal who holds her own when one of the film’s main villains bears down on her. The bad guys here are Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow (Played by Cillian Murphy), mob boss Carmine Falcone (Played by Tom Wilkinson), and a figure from Bruce’s past that I won’t reveal here if you have never seen the film. Murphy’s Scarecrow is a real weasel of a villain, one who really uses fear to manipulate and intimidate. Wilkinson’s Falcone is a nod to Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27, a snarling mob boss who controls the law in Gotham. There is also the superb Liam Neeson as Ducard, a father-figure mentor who hides a devastating secret that will rock Bruce’s world.
Batman Begins is heavy on the human drama and the raw emotions but it also delivers plenty of thrilling action to satisfy the summer movie crowd hungry for explosions. An extended car chase will get the adrenaline flowing and a massive prison break that unleashes hundreds of psychos into the streets of Gotham will have you holding your breath. There are plenty of twists and turns in Batman Begins that will keep you guessing about certain characters, with a slow build plot of destruction that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand at attention. The film is relentlessly dark, disturbing, and violent, with plenty that will terrify the children who will want to see it. Batman Begins does come with a few flaws, mostly in the way that Nolan cuts his fight scenes. They are marred by a strobe light approach that makes some of the battles incomprehensible, which was slightly disappointing. Flaws aside, Batman Begins is still an absorbing, chilly look at Batman’s rise, our post 9/11 jitters, and the psychology of a hero. It restores honor to the Batman name and makes fans everywhere proud to stand behind the Dark Knight.
Batman Begins is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
While watching Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the new horror film from writer/producer Guillermo del Toro and director Troy Nixey, one would swear that the film had some creative input from Goth director Tim Burton. The film relies heavily on its gothic atmosphere and gloomy landscapes to carry what is otherwise a painfully dull horror movie with an utterly monotonous storyline. The film, which was the penned by del Toro and Matthew Robbins, is a repetitive bore that keeps the same formula up for an hour and forty minutes. It’s frustrating, really, because del Toro is much better than this and capable of whipping up some truly original material. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, however, just keeps looping jittery attacks on a peculiar little girl by an army of whispering, hunchback critters that resemble a pack of demonic meerkats. If I were the girl’s father in the movie, I would have had enough of her blubbering and called in the exterminator just to get some peace.
Most horror films that are produced by Hollywood these days have stellar build-ups with a crash-and-burn payoff that nearly sends the whole project up in a fireball. Take a look at the excellent haunted house flick Insidious for example. It was a great horror film that was marred by a quivering, out of place ending. Another prime example is 2008’s The Strangers, which was consistently intimidating all to add up to the biggest “What the fuck?!” ending I had seen in quite some time. It copped out and played things safe. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark does the exact opposite. It has one of the most tedious build-ups that ends in a fifteen minute finale that had me sitting on the edge of my seat and yelling “Oh, shit!”
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is totally devoid of any real scares. The film follows a young girl Sally (Played by Bailee Madison), who is sent by her dingbat mother to live with her workaholic father Alex (Played by Guy Pearce, who for the first time in his career is overacting). Alex is an architect, who is attempting to revitalize his career by fixing up the Blackwood Manor. He is staying there with his girlfriend Kim (Played by a surprisingly good Katie Holmes), who is also aiding in the restoration. Shortly after moving in, Sally discovers a hidden basement while exploring the Shining-esque garden in the backyard. Soon, she starts hearing voices from the basement, which beg to be set free and become friends with her. Unknowingly, she unleashes a dormant army of bloodthirsty pint-sized critters who hate light and scamper the house in search of a life to take. Are you quivering in terror yet?
Director Nixey has a gifted cinematic eye. He gives the whole project a gothic gloss that suits the storyline of the film and actually gives it brief hints of life. I’m sure that Tim Burton is currently out there somewhere just gushing over this film. The major problem here is that the creatures that lurk in Blackwood Manor are about as scary as my puppy. They bang around in the air vents and steal screwdrivers, razors, and more. In one brief, uncanny moment, they attack one of the workers at Blackwood Manor and reduce him to a staggering, bloody mess. I should point out that this is only one of two scenes that actually deliver on the R-rating the film posses. The rest of the time, they shred Kim’s clothing and knock over lamps. They bicker with one another in their hissing voices and beg Sally to “come play with us.” It’s absurd and unintentionally funny at some points. Nixey and del Toro are so anxious to show off the little pests and they constantly give us a good look at them rather than keeping them in their preferred dark. This adds to the disappointment because del Toro can dream up some creatures that surpass anything our imagination can conjure up on it’s own.
Another aspect of this disappointment that surprises me is Pearce, who is a truly gifted actor, does such a poor job here. He must have been bored between projects and playing darts with the stack of scripts he received. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark must have been the bull’s eye. This movie made me want to go home and watch The Proposition, Memento, and The King’s Speech all in a row so I could be reminded how incredible his talent is. Holmes gives a sufficient performance, especially in the final moments of the film. I’ve always found her to be a mediocre talent but she actually takes this one seriously. Bailee Madison, the child star, seems robotic and clearly being coached by the muted director. She delivers her lines in a stiff tone and seems to have only gotten the job because she can scream until your eardrums pop.
If you are a fan of del Toro and want to see everything he touches, I’d say see this film. You won’t be left a changed individual and you will probably be left wishing for greatness like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Otherwise, this is a half-baked horror movie that drags on entirely too long. It won’t leave you pulling the covers over your head at night or sleeping with a nightlight on. The film could have benefitted from a scarier monster at the heart of it and maybe some more emotional depth. It’s a missed opportunity that left me wishing I had stayed at home and watched Insidious again. Is it too much to ask for more than one good horror movie a year? Grade: C-