Batman Begins (2005)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #8

Evil fears the knight.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English, Urdu & Mandarin
Runtime: 140 minutes
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 10th June 2005 (Russia)
US Release: 15th June 2005
UK Release: 16th June 2005
First Seen: cinema, June 2005

Stars
Christian Bale (American Psycho, The Fighter)
Michael Caine (Alfie, Harry Brown)
Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Taken)
Katie Holmes (Go, Woman in Gold)
Gary Oldman (Léon, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

Director
Christopher Nolan (Memento, Interstellar)

Screenwriters
David S. Goyer (Blade, Man of Steel)
Christopher Nolan (The Prestige, Inception)

Based on
Batman, a comic book superhero created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. In part inspired by Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli.

The Story
After Bruce Wayne’s philanthropic millionaire parents are murdered when he’s a kid, he dedicates his life to fighting crime, travelling the world to learn combat skills, then deciding the best way to scare the Mafia-esque scum of his home city is to dress as a bat. As you do.

Our Hero
Nana-nana-nana-nana nana-nana-nana-nana Batman! But, y’know, serious. Important crimefighting jobs include getting hold of cool gadgets your company developed, messing around in restaurant fountains with models, and perfecting a ludicrously gruff voice to use when in costume.

Our Villains
Batman really has his work cut out for him this time: there’s crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), mad scientist Dr Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), commander of a league of assassins Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), his subordinate — and Bruce’s one-time mentor — Ducard (Liam Neeson). That’s not to mention the bloke doing something dodgy with his family company (Rutger Hauer).

Best Supporting Character
It’s a toss up between two British thesps: there’s Michael Caine as the most involved and caring version of the Waynes’ butler Alfred that we’ve yet seen, and the ever-excellent Gary Oldman as Gotham’s only honourable cop, Jim Gordon. Both are a world away from previous screen incarnations of their characters.

Memorable Quote
“Well, a guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues.” — Bruce Wayne

Memorable Scene
Trapped in Arkham Asylum, surrounded by police and with SWAT officers storming the building, Batman activates a device on his boot for “backup”. Moments later, hundreds of bats flood the building, allowing him to make a dramatic escape.

Technical Wizardry
Previously, the Batmobile was a sleek and desirable supercar-type vehicle. Taking inspiration from some of the comics, Begins reinvents the vehicle entirely, rendering it essentially a road-ready tank. A massive change in the very concept, but one that now seems only natural.

Letting the Side Down
Hardly a major point for the viewer, but the design of the Bat-costume meant the actor in it couldn’t turn his neck — a problem also in the previous post-’89 Bat-films. Christian Bale’s frustration with this led to it being redesigned for the sequels (and explicitly referenced on screen, too).

Making of
According to some trivia on IMDb, before shooting began Nolan treated the crew to a private screening of Blade Runner, after which he told them, “this is how we’re going to make Batman.” For more on how exactly Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi thriller influenced Begins, check out these interview excerpts.

Previously on…
Batman’s big-screen popularity was kicked off by Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, but that goodwill was gradually squandered, ending with 1997’s Batman & Robin, which many regard as one of the worst films ever made. It killed a once-profitable franchise, therefore paving the way for an eventual reboot.

Next time…
The Bat-world shaped by Nolan and co reached its apotheosis in the first sequel, The Dark Knight. The trilogy-forming second sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, did that rarest of things: it gave a superhero a definitive, final ending.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Cinematography)
3 BAFTA nominations (Production Design, Sound, Visual Effects)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Supporting Actress (Katie Holmes))
3 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Actor (Christian Bale), Writing)
4 Saturn nominations (Supporting Actor (Liam Neeson), Supporting Actress (Katie Holmes), Director, Music, Costume, Special Effects)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form.

What the Critics Said
“If there is one Batman film anyone should see, this is it. It’s a superhero film with a dark tone that’s very well-written with nothing but incredible actors involved. In a world where most movies these days are usually either remakes or films that are made as quickly as possible to cash in on the latest trend in Hollywood, a reboot that is not only worthy of your time but tends to make you forget about every other version that came before it says quite a bit.” — Chris Sawin, examiner.com

Score: 85%

What the Public Say
“One of the best things about Nolan’s Batman is that he grasps the idea of the three personas of Bruce Wayne. There’s Bruce when he’s playing the billionaire playboy, Bruce when he’s alone in the cave or with Alfred, and Bruce when he’s wearing the cowl. This movie truly delved into this in a way that no Batman movie had before it and was performed flawlessly by Christian Bale — whether you like the voice or hate it, Bale did a great job at playing three distinct personas.” — Blue Fish Comics

Elsewhere on 100 Films
Just before the release of The Dark Knight Rises I went back over all the live-action Bat-films of the ‘modern era’, i.e. since Tim Burton’s Batman. Of Begins, I wrote that “Nolan’s first foray into Bat-world really is a stunning piece of work… The monumental achievement of The Dark Knight has come to overshadow Begins, which is now rendered as a functionary prequel to the next film’s majesty. Don’t let that reputation fool you: on its own merits, this is very much a film at the forefront of the action-adventure, blockbuster and superhero genres.”

Verdict

If there was one thing the Burton and Schumacher Batman films were collectively notorious for, it was focusing on their villains more than their hero (not least because they cast bigger name actors in the villain roles). Personally, I don’t think that’s wholly true, but there’s no doubting that Christopher Nolan’s much-needed reboot of the franchise focuses on Bruce Wayne, his reasoning and his psychology, more than ever before. In the process, Nolan and co made us believe a man might reasonably choose to fight crime and corruption by dressing up as a bat. No small feat, that.

For #9 Burton’s Bat’s back.

The Lone Ranger (2013)

2015 #177
Gore Verbinski | 149 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Hated by Americans and loved (well, ok, “liked”) by everyone else (well, ok, “by lots, but by no means all, of people who reside outside America”), Disney’s attempt to pull a Pirates of the Caribbean on Western adventure IP The Lone Ranger is by no means as successful as the first instalment in their piratical franchise, but is at least the equal of its sequels — and, in some cases, their better.

The convoluted plot sees us arrive with John Reid (Armie Hammer) in the frontier town where he grew up, where his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is now sheriff. Construction of the railroad is running by the town, spearheaded by Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who letches after Dan’s wife (Ruth Wilson); but work is plagued by a band of outlaws led by Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Receiving information on his whereabouts, Dan rounds up a posse and heads out to tackle him, with John insisting on tagging along. Unfortunately it’s an ambush and they’re all slaughtered (oh dear)… except John just about survives, and is found and nursed back to life by a Native American, Tonto (Johnny Depp). He has his own grievances, and together they set out on a mission of revenge.

And if you’re wondering where Helena Bonham Carter is in all that: despite her prominence on many of the posters, her role is really just a cameo. That’s marketing, folks.

I know some people complain about simplistic stories that are used to just string action sequences together, and that’s a perfectly valid thing to get annoyed about, but The Lone Ranger swings to the other extreme and uses an over-complicated story to string together its action sequences. All it actually needs is a little streamlining, because the film is allowed to swing off into too many sideplots. This makes the middle of the film a slog, and you feel every minute of its excessive two-and-a-half-hour running time.

That slog is made worthwhile by what comes before and after said middle: a pair of train-based action sequences that are each truly fantastic. The second, in particular, is arguably amongst the grandest climaxes ever put on screen (providing you don’t feel it’s tipped too far into being overblown, of course). It’s inventively choreographed, fluidly shot, and perfectly scored with just an extended barnstorming version of the Lone Ranger’s theme music (aka the William Tell Overture). It’s an adrenaline-pumping action sequence that single-handedly justifies the entire film’s existence, if you’re into that kind of thing.

With multiple trains, horses, actors, guns, stunts, and copious CGI to tie it together, that sequence must’ve cost a bomb. Notoriously, the whole film was deemed too expensive and Disney insisted the budget be slashed, resulting in delays… and it still cost a fortune. That, quite apart from the negative critical response in the US, is a big part of why it flopped at the box office — a recurring problem for Disney at the minute. To be frank, I’m not convinced anyone made a truly concerted effort to stem the overspend. When a gaggle of CG rabbits hopped on screen, all I could think was, “who allowed this?!” You’ve got a massively over-budgeted film that the studio want cut back, and one reason for that is CG bunnies that have almost no bearing on anything whatsoever! The amount of time and effort that must’ve gone into creating those fairly-realistic rabbits for such a short amount of screen time… it cost millions, surely. Millions that could’ve been saved with a simple snip during the writing stage if only someone had said, “well, those bunnies don’t add anything and they’ll be bloody expensive, so let’s lose them.”

So criticism is not unfounded, but the film doesn’t deserve the level of vitriolic scorn poured on it by the US press and, consequently, public. Discussing this, the “critical response” section on the film’s Wikipedia page is interesting, and this part pretty much nails it:

Mark Hughes of Forbes, analyzing what he felt was a “flop-hungry” press desiring to “control the narrative and render the outcome they insisted was unavoidable” for a highly expensive movie with much-publicized production troubles, found the film “about a hundred times better than you think it is … [a] well-written, well-acted, superbly directed adventure story.”

I’m not quite as effusive as Hughes, but The Lone Ranger is worth the time of anyone who enjoys an action-adventure blockbuster. It’s a three-star adventure-comedy bookended by a pair of five-star railroad action sequences, which make the trudge through the film’s middle hour-or-so feel worthwhile. There was a better movie to be made here — one that was half-an-hour shorter, more focused, and probably several tens of millions of dollars cheaper to make — but that doesn’t mean the one we got is meritless.

4 out of 5

Valkyrie (2008)

2015 #41
Bryan Singer | 108 mins* | TV | 16:9 | USA & Germany / English | 12 / PG-13

On the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s death, the true story of some people who tried to kill him…

ValkyrieAfter abandoning the X-Men franchise for a Superman reboot/continuation that was retrospectively branded a commercial and critical flop (it actually grossed $391 million worldwide (more than Batman Begins, for example) and has a fairly strong Rotten Tomatoes score of 76%), director Bryan Singer returned to more traditionally dramatic fare — and Nazis — with this true-story war movie about a German plot to assassinate Hitler.

Tom Cruise is Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, an army officer who believes Hitler needs to be removed for the sake of Germany’s future. Invalided home after an RAF raid, he discovers he’s far from alone in his beliefs when he’s recruited into a conspiratorial group who have already failed to assassinate Hitler several times. There he concocts a plan to take out Hitler with a bomb during his weekly briefing at the Wolf’s Lair, blame it on the SS, and use the Führer’s own Operation Valkyrie contingency plan to seize control before any of his cronies can do it first.

There’s no point beating about the bush: they don’t succeed. We all know that. The film’s marvel, really, is in making us believe they might. Well, not believe it — we’re not stupid, are we? — but invest in it. It’s also a revelation how far they got. No, Hitler isn’t killed, but the associated confusion engineered by the plan (they cut off communications from the remote Wolf’s Lair, meaning the news that Hitler survived takes a long time to come out) means an awful lot of Valkyrie is enacted. In the end, they’re done for by bad luck — some people make some decisions which undermine the plan, whereas if they’d gone the other way it might have succeeded even with the Fuhrer still alive. What might have been…

Edge-of-your-seat tensionOne of the stated aims of the conspiracy is to show the rest of the world that not everyone in Germany believed in what Hitler and his inner circle were doing. It may have taken us a long time to realise that, for fairly understandable reasons, but quality films like this help get the message out. Singer has crafted a proper thriller here, replete with scenes of edge-of-your-seat tension. Many a filmmaker can’t manage that with a fictional storyline, never mind one where we know exactly how it turns out.

A top-drawer cast help keep the drama ticking over too. Complaints that accompanied the theatrical release, about the German characters all speaking English, feel thoroughly bizarre. How many movies in history have foreigners all speaking English? I mean, what about Schindler’s List, for just one broadly-related broadly-recent example. Have we really reached a point where everyone is so accepting of subtitles? No, of course we haven’t. I think it’s a baseless criticism to latch on to; one that misses the point so severely it’s difficult to think how to rationally argue against. It’s just wrong. Anyway, most of the cast are British thesps — Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin McNally, David Schofield, Tom Hollander, even Eddie Izzard — so you’re guaranteed quality. Even Terence Stamp proves that he can act, in spite of what some other performances would have me believe. Cruise is a suitable leading man. This isn’t one of his greater acting performances, Brave men who tried to do the right thingbut nor is he in simplistic action hero mode.

Elucidating a sometimes-overlooked aspect of an over-covered era of history, managing to tell its story with all the thrills and tension of a narrative where we don’t know the outcome, Valkyrie is a film to be commended. It’s also a fitting tribute to very brave men on the ‘other side’ who tried to do the right thing.

4 out of 5

* I always try to list the running time of the version I watched, but I feel this one needs a quick explanation, because it’s a full 13 minutes less than the listed running time. Was it cut? Probably not. I watched it on TV, with PAL speed-up and end credits almost entirely shorn. PAL gets you down to 115 minutes; I can well believe there were seven minutes more to the full credits. So there you go. ^

The Conspirator (2010)

2014 #54
Robert Redford | 117 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The ConspiratorAlthough John Wilkes Booth is famous as the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln, he was merely the person who pulled the trigger: eight people were tried for conspiracy to kill America’s 16th President; this is the story of what happened to the only woman among them.

Or, rather, it’s the story of the young lawyer who is forced to represent her. Rather than cave to pressure and more-or-less let the prosecution have their way, he fights her corner against a ludicrously biased system that would execute her without trial if only they could. The sheer weight of this bias — and the fact the story is from history, rather than a created-for-the-movies tale (with all the idealism that would bring) — means there’s a sort of crushing sense of inevitability about how it plays out. Some have criticised the film for lacking tension, a complaint that I think is to some degree misplaced — especially as, not knowing what happened, I felt it was fairly tense towards the end.

As the lawyer, James McAvoy has to lead the film against a few experienced names, but he can hold his own (which I suppose shouldn’t be a surprise at this point) and is easily the best thing in the movie. OK, so he’s saddled with a well-worn “lawyer so dedicated to the case he sacrifices his personal life” character arc, but that doesn’t mean he plays it so half-heartedly. The only acting weak link is Alexis Bledel, who somehow seems far too modern; Co-conspirators?or rather, like an actress versed in playing modern characters struggling gamely with a period one, and coming up short.

The Conspirator takes a footnote from history and turns it into an engrossing legal drama. What it lacks in originality is made up for through compelling performances and the exposure of little-known facts and incidents surrounding one of American history’s most famous events.

4 out of 5

A Good Woman (2004)

2010 #121
Mike Barker | 89 mins | TV | PG / PG

A Good Woman adapts Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play Lady Windermere’s Fan, switching the setting to the Amalfi Coast in 1930. If one didn’t know better, one would believe that’s when and where it was always set.

And if one does know better, apparently one should hate it. Most reviews, which are largely negative, focus on it being a poor conversion of the play. I’ve never seen nor read the original and thought it slotted seamlessly into its new ’30s setting (even though I am of course aware that Wilde was not writing (or doing much else) by the 1930s).

It remains a very funny piece — well, I presume “remains” rather than “becomes”, because it seems this is purely thanks to Wilde’s outstanding wit rather than any particular skill in adaptation or acting. While I have nothing against either, it’s the witticisms — or one-liners, if you prefer — that give the film most of its quality.

Another point reviewers like to pounce on is the US cast members. Scarlett Johansson is neither here nor there, as per usual, but I thought Helen Hunt was quite good. It’s undoubtable that they’re overshadowed by British thesps like Tom Wilkinson and Stephen Campbell Moore however, but that’s just par for the course.

Lady Windermere's FanSo it seems one’s perception of the film lies in what it is compared to. Compared to Wilde’s original, it may indeed be a pale imitation, relocated to an inappropriate country and period, with lacklustre performances and incongruous Wilde-penned lines crowbarred in. Taken without the context of the work it’s adapted from, however, I thought it was a flawed but, more importantly, highly amusing film.

4 out of 5

Wilde (1997)

2007 #90
Brian Gilbert | 112 mins | TV | 15 / R

WildeStephen Fry leads a starry British ensemble in this biopic of poet, novelist, playwright and genius Oscar Wilde. The film focuses not on Wilde’s literary achievements and public life, but on his private relationships with various men, and in particular his obsession with the young Lord ‘Bosie’; of course, eventually, all of these things collide.

Fry is perfectly cast as Wilde and Jude Law is suitably horrid as the spoilt, stroppy and thoroughly dislikeable Bosie, whose selfishness brings about Wilde’s downfall. Also worthy of note is the ever-excellent Michael Sheen in a smaller but vital role; he’s a criminally under-acknowledged actor.

4 out of 5