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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 19, 2005

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Disappointment, Comic Book Movies, Batman Begins, Cinderella Man

It's such a mistake to look forward to a movie. You get yourself worked up to expect something wonderful. Or even adequate. And then the movie lets you down.

So you get angry at the movie. You've seen people who responded that way. The film they were so looking forward to failed them; they feel betrayed; therefore it's the worst movie ever made. The movie doesn't deserve such opprobrium, but that's how it feels.

Of course, anticipation can lead to the opposite response. You're so sure it's going to be wonderful that the mere fact of sitting in the theater watching it fills you with so much happiness that everything looks good to you.

Which explains why there are people who honestly liked Star Wars Episode I. The movie really did make them happy, and afterward they could only explain this phenomenon by declaring it to be a good movie.

So I'm wary of movies I have high hopes for. For instance, I thought casting Johnny Depp as Willie Wonka in the remake of the Gene Wilder classic was a masterstroke. I was forgetting that the man behind the camera was Tim Burton -- he of the egregiously repulsive vision.

Now the extended trailers for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are in the theaters, and I have to say that I no longer look forward to the movie at all. I'll probably go see it, but my attitude will be more like that of someone visiting a friend in a hospital after a tragic accident. You hope everything will be fine, but you don't really believe it will be.

Because it is painfully obvious that Johnny Depp's Willie Wonka is modeled on Michael Jackson.

Of course they'll probably deny it, because it's such a vile thing to do. But somewhere during the development of the film, somebody made the connection: Willie Wonka's chocolate factory is "just like" Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch.

Wow. Cool. Depp can model his performance on Jackson, only without the crotch-grabbing! That will give it a spooky kind of reality!

And apparently there wasn't a grownup in the room to say, "Perhaps that isn't the 'spooky kind of reality' that any parents in their right mind would expose their children to."

Everyone will deny it of course (not least to avoid a lawsuit by Jackson himself, fresh from his triumph of outlawyering the prosecutors trying to keep him from taking little boys into his bed). But even children have seen (without adult prompting) the connection between Depp in the trailer and the weird Michael Jackson they've been seeing on the news.

Comic Book Movies

I never had high expectations for movies based on comic books. I suppose that's because I wasn't a fan of superhero comics. The only comics I enjoyed as a kid were Classics Illustrated, Scrooge McDuck (and his relatives), and, for a couple of issues, the Superboy comics.

Why did the superhero comics leave me cold?

I think it was the stupid, unbelievable villains.

I had no trouble imagining the superhero's amazing powers -- I wasn't committed to realism. But the villains were so overtly, self-consciously evil that I found them ridiculous. I stopped caring.

And that's what happens to me with the big-budget superhero-comic movies.

That's why, with the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve Superman movies, I was a real fan of the first two. The first movie I loved only because of the Glenn Ford sequence, where Superman is a kid being raised by the Kents on their farm. There was no villain there at all, just real people -- good people -- trying to help their kid deal with the world and his own power to harm people.

Heck, that's what child-rearing is all about -- teaching kids to deal with their aggressions and other potentially damaging problems so they can go out into the world and function well enough to have a shot at reproducing. Evolution in action.

But I didn't care for the Marlon Brando sequence, which was melodramatic, and I loathed Lex Luthor as portrayed by Gene Hackman (though he is one of my favorite actors).

That's because in adapting comic books to film, the filmmakers invariably seemed to think that they had to have something "comic" in the fundamental story.

Now, there's plenty of room for humor in a comic book movie. But if you derive the humor from making the villain silly, you're cutting your own story off at the knees.

The second Donner/Reeve Superman movie was much better, specifically because Luthor was supplanted as the main villain by Terence Stamp's Zod, and Zod had real motivations: a lust for power, yes, but also a score to settle with Superman's family.

This was the best of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies; the later ones just got sillier and more pointless until the series petered out.

A similar thing happened with the Batman franchise. The original Michael Keaton Batman movie made a stab at giving him human motivation. I endured the Jack Nicholson Joker because of Nicholson's innate charm and because I was already trained to ignore the villain if I was going to enjoy the movie at all.

But each movie seemed to get worse than the one before. Danny de Vito's Penguin was repulsively written and portrayed, and Schwarzenneger's Mr. Freeze was so silly he was boring. I found excuses to spend much of each movie out in the lobby.

In other words, each movie was more disappointing than the last, until finally I had zero expectations. The movies couldn't disappoint me, because I expected nothing and simply didn't watch.

That was what happened with the DC Comics heroes -- Superman and Batman.

Marvel Did It Better

Then came the Marvel Comics movies: X-Men and Spider-Man. Maybe it's something about Marvel's attitude toward their own stories; maybe they learned from the disastrous decay of DC's franchises. Or maybe it's the very talented directors who were in charge of the adaptations.

But the two X-Men movies showed wit, and their villains weren't played for grins or (as the Penguin was) to make you nauseated. And Spider-Man was a masterpiece, taking us through an exaggerated version of the adolescent experience of waking up one day to find yourself wearing a body that has astonishing new powers that also lead to important responsibilities -- if you dare to take them on.

The first Spider-Man suffered from silly-villain syndrome, but only when Willem Dafoe was wearing the stupid Green Goblin outfit. Through most of the movie, he was a plausible, motivated villain. And in the second movie, the villain wasn't overdone at all -- he remained a recognizably human character to the end.

Best of all, both X-Men and Spider-Man got better with the second movie in the series.

Back to DC Comics

DC Comics undoubtedly noticed that where their franchises had petered out and died in the movies, the Marvel movies were getting a far better reception from the critics and the audience.

So they went back to the drawing board and started over ... sort of.

We're getting a new Superman, though the previous series is only partially repudiated. They're treating the first two Reeve movies as part of the backstory of the new Superman film. And that's right -- there were good things in those first two movies.

But they're treating Superman III and IV as if they never existed. And that, too, is the right choice.

With Batman Begins, though, they didn't try to salvage a thing from the original movies. Gone is Tim Burton's weird mixture of lighthearted repulsiveness. Instead we get a Gotham City that is tied to the real world. They refer back to a "Depression" and the common people are suffering.

The villains, too, are plausible enough, at least for the movies. There are criminals with standard criminal motivations, and a wacko psychiatrist who is scary but believable. There is also a band of vigilantes who, despite the standard oriental-martial-arts religious mumbo-jumbo (really, do we have to have the same mysticism now, or can we just assume it and go on?), have a chilling resemblance to self-righteous terrorists and governments who think they have a right to impose their solutions on a world that might prefer to muddle through without their "help."

And let me get one thing out of the way right now: I don't know whether the filmmakers were deliberately trying to make some point about the War on Terror or not. It doesn't matter. Because you could easily compare the League of Shadows to Al-Qaeda or to the World's Only Superpower, and probably people on both sides will accuse the filmmakers of intending one or the other.

True to human nature, of course, they will probably assume the filmmakers intended whatever meaning would make the particular critic most angry, which the critic will proceed to act out.

But what I see in the storyline is that it reflects human nature and the arrogance of groups that seek dominance. All such groups always have some altruistic or injured-innocence justification for their violence -- Hitler and Stalin had them, just like Al-Qaeda.

The good guys have such justifications as well ("Remember the Alamo/the Maine/Pearl Harbor/9-1-1!" "Make the world safe for democracy!") It would have been unrealistic for the League of Shadows not to have such a justification, and even more unrealistic if it could not be easily compared to real-world justifications for real-world interventions, good or bad.

So ignore the people who want to read this movie as a commentary on contemporary events. I think what the filmmakers were trying for was something timeless and deeply true; and I think they succeeded.

At the heart of the success of Batman Begins is the brilliant casting It begins with Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne, showing us the moral complexity of his response to his parents' murder by a street thug.

Unlike the first movie, this one does not assume that because he lost his parents that way he automatically turns into a recluse and then a vigilante. Instead, he moves through his obsession and gradually becomes Batman in small, believable, and very specific increments.

And here is where the casting was crucial. From our first sight of Bale in an important film -- Spielberg's greatest movie, Empire of the Sun -- Bale has shown a deep intensity even in stillness. It is impossible not to watch him, and impossible not to see great depth and suffering and a glint of madness in him, along with an innocense that is almost painful sometimes, it cries out so for our compassion.

Bale has put this gift of his to work in movies good and bad (he did make Reign of Fire work quite well, I thought, silly as the core story was; and he brought in most of the energy that Little Women had). Never, though, has he had the chance to command the screen in a mainstream movie with the sheer force of his personality the way he does in Batman Begins.

The other actors who played Batman are blown away by his performance. Keaton was good; it's no shame that Bale is better. Because Bale has, without anyone quite noticing it, become a great actor. And the director is smart enough to let up on the gimmickry and let Bale's face and voice carry the film.

But not alone. Because Bale is joined by some powerful actors in lesser, but still well-written, roles. Cillian Murphy, who plays the mad shrink, is marvelously creepy without ever going beyond believability; Morgan Freeman as the man who provides Bruce Wayne with his cool gear is as charming and reassuring as ever; Michael Caine pierces us to the heart in the role of the butler who shares Bruce Wayne's secret; and Liam Neeson, as Bruce Wayne's teacher, makes us forget that he was ever in an embarrassing Star Wars movie.

For me, though, the standout performance in a supporting role was by Gary Oldman, as Jim Gordon, the one trustworthy cop, who becomes Batman's ally. This would ordinarily have been a nothing role, a placeholder. But Oldman doesn't know how to play a placeholder: he always turns his characters into human beings so real that you feel like you've known them all your life.

The talent assembled for this movie was astonishing. A few things might explain it. They might all have been dying to work with director and co-writer Christopher Nolan. They might have seen the script by Nolan and David S. Goyer and recognized its merit. The money might have been really, really good. Or all of the above.

But star casting rarely makes a great movie if the film doesn't hold together. This one does, because it all revolves around Christian Bale. It's hard to imagine any other actor who could have given Batman such dark fire that he could hold his own on screen -- in or out of the mask -- with such scene-stealers as Freeman, Oldman, and Caine.

Maybe this time somebody involved with the project realized that what makes a comic book work on film is not playing up the unreality, but the opposite: making it compellingly real. And Batman is well suited to such a project, because the hero has no innate powers at all. He's a normal guy who, with the help of superb training, really cool equipment, and a manic will, is forcing the world around him to change.

*

Cinderella Man is definitely not a comic book movie. Nobody is larger than life. Indeed, under the pummeling of boxing gloves, everyone can be brought down.

The story is ostensibly about Jim Braddock, a promising boxer whose injuries sideline him just when the Great Depression makes it impossible to recover financially from any kind of loss. He and his family barely survive by his occasional work on the docks as a longshoreman.

But when he gets a chance at a fight, it turns out that his work on the docks has strengthened him, especially his left arm, which used to be his weakness. Now it's his strength, and he shocks everybody (not least himself) by beginning a comeback.

Really, though, this movie is the story of a marriage. Jim and Mae Braddock do what so many real families had to do -- sacrifice whatever it took to try to support themselves and keep their family together. A lot of folks back then had to farm their kids out to relatives who were just a little more prosperous -- it happened to my mother, when she was a little girl -- and such a decision is always wrenching. More than any other movie I've seen, Cinderella Man gives the audience the experience of what it was like to live through those times.

So even if you care nothing at all for boxing, or actively dislike it (put me on that list), this is a beautiful movie. As a film about a family, it is moving, sometimes sweet, sometimes poignant.

As a sports film, it soars: The fighting itself is perfectly filmed, and the significant fights are presented clearly enough that you are never in doubt about what happened (a hard thing to do).

I believe that this is Russell Crowe's finest performance. It required so much understated emotion, so much reality, and yet so much believable passion that it's hard to think what other actor currently working in Hollywood could have played the part. And Renée Zellweger is also at her best, flashing with fire and stubbornness under her trademark sweetness.

There were two writers on this project. Cliff Hollingsworth gets the story credit as well as sharing screenplay, so the film undoubtedly originated with him. It's his first major feature, and I hope we see more work from him in the future. The co-writer, Akiva Goldsman, is an industry mainstay who produces as well as writing such blockbusters as A Beautiful Mind, I Robot, and The Client (though we must also remember that he wrote such embarrassments as Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, and Lost in Space).

And it's no surprise at all that the director of the film was Ron Howard. Is there any director more sensitive without sentimentality, more real without cruelty, more honest yet optimistic about human nature? Of course, he did direct Jim Carrey's Grinch movie, but nobody's perfect.

If Crowe and Zellweger and Howard and Hollingsworth and Goldsman are not all nominated for Oscars, I can't wait to see the five movies that pushed them aside. Because this film is what Oscars exist for, I believe -- to honor films that both entertain and elevate the audience.


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