TBT – Batman Begins (2005)

anniversary, Batman, Christian Bale, Christopher Nolan, comic book, DC, film, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, review
This week marks the 10thanniversary of the film that launched one of the most popular film franchises of all time. 2005 was the first time since 1989 that it was OK to be a film fan who also loves Batman. Batman Beginsset the trend that has plagued Hollywood ever since: the dark comic book reboot. Batman had already been the star of 4 films since in the 16 years prior to the release of Christopher Nolan came along and each subsequent movie had made the supposed dark knight more of a laughing stock. The hero, first created by Bob Kane in 1939, was patiently waiting for the chance to show what he could really do and Nolan and co-writer David S Goyer knew the only way to go was to be super-serious . Nolan’s film was the dark comic book movie that Tim Burton wished he could have made in 1989 and it was a refreshing change. Of course, now it’s just par for the course but Batman Begins was a revelation in 2005. It was fucking exciting.

Batman Beginsstarts a afresh with Batman’s origin and assumes that its audience knows fuck all about the motivation behind Bruce Wayne’s double life. Drawing a lot of inspiration from classic storyline Batman: Year One, Nolan introduces us to the tragedy that shattered Bruce’s childhood and the path he took to give it a positive conclusion. Batman Beginsalmost tries to remove the comic book traces from one of the most popular superheroes as Nolan makes his Gotham City a very realistic pit of poverty, crime and greed. Of course, the Batman myth is never going to be a plausible one but Nolan came the closest to make it happen. His re-imagining of the journey from orphaned young boy to night-time vigilante has such depth that it almost felt like the obvious reaction to your parents murder was dressing up in a cape.
Nolan’s greatest success with the first film in his Dark Knight trilogy was how subtle he was. Batman Beginsforgoes the superhero staple of relying too heavily on action sequences. Nolan places more of a focus on story and character. The film is as much of a success in terms of drama as it does in sheer entertainment. The final act contains the obligatory good vs bad showdown but there is a distinct lack of high-tech action on display. The action sequences use CGI sparingly yet still offer enough visual spectacles to keep explosion nerds more than happy. It has all of the elements you need for a comic book movie but without the blinding sheen that Joel Schumacher dripped over his efforts. It’s understated, it’s held back, and it’s bloody good.
The film features the type of jumpy narrative that Nolan had used so effectively in his previous film Mementoas we piece together Bruce’s past. We first meet the grown Wayne (Christian Bale) after he was arrested trying to steal a crate of his company’s goods. After being visited by the mysterious Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), Bruce treks to the mountain-top retreat of the League of Shadows, an organisation that promises to help him on his path for vengeance. Although, this assistance comes at too large a price, as the League’s leader, Ra’s al Ghul, wants Bruce to help him destroy the city his parents helped build.
Returning alone, Bruce sets out on a more righteous path by defending the people of Gotham from mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and his dangerous ally Dr Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy). Crane’s alter ego, the Scarecrow, is planning to tear Gotham apart using his own brand of hallucinogenic drug. Working alongside police sergeant James Gordan (Gary Oldman) and scientist Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce must stop Crane whilst still keeping his identity a secret.
When it comes down to it, Batman Beginsis the only film of the trilogy in which Batman himself really shines. Christian Bale, growly voice aside, did a great job at getting to the real heart of the character. Considering the film is all about Batman’s origin, the actual murder of Bruce’s parents is fairly perfunctory. It has been dealt with so many times that Nolan gets it out of the way as efficiently as possible. Instead he focuses on the emotional and psychological resonance of that one moment. We see the young Bruce being comforted by a young Jim Gordan and the college-aged Bruce determined to make his parent’s killer pay. This is richer and deeper depiction of Bruce Wayne than we have been treated to yet.
My number one main quibble with Batman Beginsis the romance that Nolan clumsily inserts into the narrative. I’m not saying that romance and Batman shouldn’t go hand-in-hand but I don’t think it works here. That’s partly thanks to the complete lack of chemistry between Bale and Katie Holmes, who plays his childhood friend Rachel Dawes. On the whole though, the romance just feels like a misstep in a story that is about one man’s struggle to work out who he is. It seems unnecessary and drags the already bloated plot out even further. It is a long film, after all, and does take some time to get going. Nolan never really loses his audience but there is a lot that could have been cut to streamline the process. The lack of Katie Holmes could have done a great deal in his favour.
Although, the rest of the cast do a pretty sterling job and, with supporting cast of the likes of Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, Nolan’s work is treated with respect and care. None of them necessarily get a great deal to do but each bring what emotional depth to the narrative as possible. The performances, though not major, are reliable and memorable enough that you want to see more from them in the future. Of course, it is the bad guys that usually stick in your mind in these sorts of films and Batman Begins is no different. Cillian Murphy is both terrifying and comical in his portrayal of the freak Scarecrow. He’s still one of my favourite parts of the trilogy and I’m still upset he didn’t get bigger roles in the sequels.

Batman Beginsis not the best example of a comic book film that you will ever see. Nor is it, in the minds of most people, the greatest in its own trilogy. However, it was undoubtedly an important film at the time and, despite a few missteps here and there, it was the reboot that the Dark Knight desperately needed in Hollywood. It made Christian Bale the true A lister than he is to this day and it showed the world that the director of Mementowas truly a great director. Just think where we would be without it.

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

Amanda Seyfried, cowboy, Liam Neeson, meh, review, Seth MacFarlane, Wild West

Not that I want to start sounding like a broken record but I’ve often thought Seth MacFarlane is my ideal man. He’s clearly hilarious, likes classic musicals and sings like fucking Frank Sinatra. Due in part to my continuing romantic delusions, I was very much looking forward to his latest film A Million Ways to Die in the West. To be honest though what isn’t there to be excited about? Wild West setting, Liam Neeson and Charlize Theron, and a shit ton of gratuitous violence: sounds ideal. 

A Million Ways to Die came about after an off the cuff remark about how shitty it would have been to live during this deadly time period. MacFarlane set about researching American history and a full script was created with the help of his regular collaborators, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. After the huge success MacFarlane and co had with Ted in 2012 there was a great deal of anticipation for this star studded follow-up. 

Unlike his decision with A Million Ways’ predecessor in which only his voice was featured, MacFarlane steps into centre stage and casts himself as our leading man. Albert is a mild mannered sheep farmer who is not only bad at his job but also ill suited for life in the Old West. After losing his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried) to his moustachioed nemesis Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), Albert challenges him to a gunfight. With some help from the mysterious and beautiful Anna (Charlize Theron) Albert montages his way to becoming a successful cowboy. 

Anyone who knows of MacFarlane’s back catalogue will know that his sense of humour often falls on the wrong side of crude or risqué. Unfortunately for A Million Ways, the humour also falls, at least predominantly, on the wrong side of lazy. There are a fair few laughs to be had along the way but there is little to get inspired by. The film has delusions of grandeur and believes itself to be something akin to Blazing Saddles. Sadly though, MacFarlane’s second-feature film just comes across as one of the dribbling patients in the corner of a mental hospital dreaming that they’re someone else. 

I doubt the humour is helped by MacFarlane’s performance. We all know he has a pretty tight grasp on comic timing but place him in a live setting and everything becomes awkward. He just looks uncomfortable on screen and there is never any sense that Albert is anything other than MacFarlane but surrounded by sheep. 

Thankfully the rest of the cast are on steadier ground and both Sarah Silverman, playing a pious prostitute, and Alex Borstein, as the whorehouse Madame, offer us some straight shooting comedy in an otherwise aimless affair. Also, for the limited time he gets to do anything, the great Liam Neeson is a standout as the fearsome gunslinger Clinch. However, he is relegated to an underused side note with no real drama and even fewer jokes. 

This isn’t the tightest script ever written and the action gets lost in a great deal of unnecessary subplots. Unfortunately, we are also presented with undeniable proof that MacFarlane’s trademark patchwork narratives doesn’t work in a normal full-length feature. There are some funny moments that pop in and out but the often take precedence over the main story. More effort is put into creating singular moments, sight gags and pop culture cameos than there was put into creating a clever and logical storyline. 

I wanted to like this film but ended up being incredibly disappointed. There was very little that I could celebrate in the end. Although, there is no denying that the visuals of A Million Ways are good enough to rival any classic Western and Joel McNeely’s musical score is something pretty magical. 

It’s just unfortunate that this whole project is just tainted by MacFarlane and co’s vanity post-Ted. It was a fun idea to begin with but it seems to have spiralled out of control. With a plot that makes several detours through Native American Communities and group dance routines and a leading man who is clearly overwhelmed by the role, A Million Ways to Die in the West just feels like an amateur film students hastily written Western parody which, for some stupid reason, wasted many of its greatest moments on the trailers.