Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Bambrick on Batman

Devin Bambrick wrote to share some thoughtful comments about "Batman Begins:"

Rachel has assured me that you won't be as bored by this as I feared
you would, so perhaps against better judgement, a young film-buff
wearing one of his two Batman t-shirts (seriously) composes a bit of a
minority judgement in the case of Christopher Nolan's Batman for a
well-respected movie mom.

First, you advised those who enjoyed this to see Batman Forever. I
have trouble seeing that flick as anything but a neon-tinged attempt,
with the requisite gosh-wow starpower, to sell Happy Meals to
snotnosed children (I was one of them, I still have the entire Batman
Forever set of Pogs). But kudos on the Frank Miller recommendations.
I'm heading to the MLLL as soon as I get back to Portland.

Personally, I loved the 60's Batman work. The 1966 movie version is
hilarious (if not maddeningly long--but I guess that's the sixties
for you), and I love Gorshin's Riddler--the absurdity is pitch

But Batman Begins is something different. It's something children
shouldn't see. Sure, if we are talking MPAA semantics, it doesn't do
much in the way of swearing or bloodwork. It just wasn't made for
them. We knew that when Darren Aranovsky was briefly attached to
direct. And the last action sequence is a bit of a yawn-fest. It's
clear Nolan's strength was in atmospherics, something you've noticed
quite well in your review (and how cool was that Hong Kong set!?). So
when things get to exploding, it got to be boring. In fact, all the
action sequences were underchoreographed, stealthy affairs of quick
camera work. It was an action movie without the action. In fact,
Batman Begins has more to do with Kill Bill, comic books, and martial
arts films than any other Batman movie. Because seventy one million
dollars be damned, America just got fooled into seeing a movie about
stoic philosophy, justice, and the very existence of superheroes.

When I stepped into my nearest megaplex, I didn't "check my brain at
the door." I don't believe in doing that with movies ever. But I had
to do something else I did with Troy and Lord of the Rings and Star
Wars. I had to gird myself with the understanding that this movie was
going to be told in epic language. Speeches would be improbable,
themes would be drilled into our heads, and imagery would be clear and
iconic. Batman did this. But here's the thing: it did it better than
any movie I have ever seen.

When I came out of the theatre, I told my dad "That was awesome. So
perfect." He looked at me, incredulous. "Really?" Astounded. Well,
Nell, take it from me. Parents just don't understand. But after
reading epic poetry and big tragedies all year, it'd be pretty silly
for me to call Batman on specifics. (why exactly did these Shadow cats
need Bruce Wayne? Why does a pretty boy from a rich family fight so
well in prison brawls with dudes who did way harder stuff than
stealing some Wayne Enterprise sprockets?)

I disagree with your villain analysis. While Batman surely had some
good ones-- Egghead, King Tut, Two-Face-- Begins put the focus where
it needed to be: the genesis of a legend. As for too many, I thought
it was the screenplay's attempt (which I thought brilliantly
conceived) to complete the requisite ramping-up of a superhero in a
shorter time frame. While Spiderman had his little wrestling scene and
his minor successes at the beginning, told via near-montage, Batman is
thrust right into the main conflict--his training is realizing it's
bigger than the crime boss and then the Scarecrow. But really, the
villain is there to challenge Batman's mission. It's a movie about
morals, really just hacking away at the Batman myth and succeeding
surprisingly well in justifying his existence. What about society's
role in crimefighting? Is the superhero simply revenge? Wherein lies
the human aspect? The brilliant dialogue between Katie Holmes and Liam
Neeson is played out throughout the movie (and thank God, not in
flashbacks or overdubs! Enough is left to the audience. The only
pandering imagery is the repetition of Batman's trauma, and that seems
reasonable) We didn't get this level with Tobey's webslinger. We were
so busy mired in CG crap that we didn't get the cool discussion of
superheroism. And here's my point, finally. Batman Begins doesn't skip
to what Neeson's character calls the theatricality of superheroism.
Sure it does that fine. The gadgets are awesome, the icon-creation is
riveting, and the imagery is absolutely beautiful, but this is a
questioning movie, meditative. It's a reconsideration, not a slick
Burton-does-Planet-of-the-Apes style reimagining. But the Batmobile is
slow and clunky, the action scenes don't deliver the Zap! Whoosh!
Bang! we've come to expect.

Katie Holmes delivers the most important line (unfortunately she comes
off as annoying rather than passionate and wise like her character
demands) when she tells Bruce that Batman is the real him and Bruce
Wayne is the costume. Exactly! David Carradine's monologue from Kill
Bill, anyone? Here is the thematic examination we need! And the theme
of fear is so well executed, from the bats to the chemical weapon
threatening Gotham. In fact, there are hardly any wasted lines. They
are all perfect comic book philosophy, pop art's intellectualism. If
it doesn't have a huge "oh my God, that's so deep" ring to it, it's
probably a perfect goofy quip from someone or other (probably Caine).
I guess one really just needs to allow oneself to get into this stuff
to enjoy it. It's the same with goofy martial arts flicks. The stuff
is all discount Stoic philosophy, packaged for the stoner and the
twelve-year old. It requires getting into. Which is why I was wholly
interested while that ten-year-old behind me talked through the flick.
But when I left that theatre into the blinding light of a June parking
lot, I wanted to be right back in that dark place with Batman.

Anyways, I'm sorry for completely geeking out on you there. Perhaps
you can forgive me with time. Oh and I really liked Cilian Murphy, but
to each her own.

Here's my response:

My dear Devin,

I loved your email. I wish I had enjoyed the movie as much as I
enjoyed your discussion of it. Can I post it on my blog?

It seems to me that you raise three key issues, and I will address
them sequentially.

The first issue is the origin stuff -- does it provide depth and
texture and context or is it some "are we there yet" distraction on
the way to the good stuff we really care about? We are basically in
agreement there but you come down a bit farther to the left on that
continuum than I do. Yes, I am glad to see how Bruce Wayne becomes
Batman, especially because, as you so Kill-Bill-esque-ly know, it is
really a story about Bruce's becoming his true self -- he is taking
off layers, not putting them on. And all of that connects him more to
the bad guys than to his fellow good guys. His attraction/repulsion
relationship to evil is part of what makes him such a compelling
character. You think all of that was handled better than I do -- I
guess I would like to have seen more choices by Bruce than the usual
origins-style stuff of here's your suit, here's your car, here's your
martial arts boot camp. So, I appreciated it, but not as much as you

Second is what for want of a better term we'll call "production
design." I'm a Tim Burton girl, which is why I liked the look of the
Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson "Batman." But I liked this one a lot,
too (I grew up in Chicago and loved the architectural nod to my home

Third is where we part company the most decisively. All of that good
stuff in the first category really has to pay off when he has his
first major confrontations with bad guys, and for me, that didn't work
at all. I didn't think any of the villians were worthy -- I wanted
bad guys as tortured and demented and unnervingly twisted as Batman is
at his core.

Thanks for a fabulous email, which made me think more deeply and
appreciatively about the movie. Keep letting me know what you think
about the movies you see.

All best, Nell

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Bad News Poster art for Bad News Bears remake

This comparison of the posters for the original and remake of "The Bad News Bears" is not, I hope, an indication of the quality of the new version. Not that the original was a classic, but, like the Jack Davis artwork on the poster, it has an unpretentious sincerity. I have a lot of faith in Richard Linklater ("School of Rock," "After Sunset"), and hope this remake is more than "Bad Santa" coaches little league.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Rated R for Rude -- Media Mom column in the Chicago Tribune

My latest Media Mom column in the Chicago Tribune, inspired by "Mad Hot Ballroom," encourages parents to remember that it is important to teach -- and practice -- good manners and respect.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


As I have said before, all lists are "indefensible but irresistable" and this latest AFI list of the top 100 movie quotes is no exception. All the quotes on the list have in common is that they are memorable -- anyone with a Netflix account can probably identify at least 2/3 of the movies from the quote alone. Any list is susceptible to endless debate, which is part of the fascination. So here come some quibbles from me.

First, and most unassailably, I don't think the list should include any quotes that are in essence instant spoilers. The quote from "Solyent Green" gives away the ending, for goodness' sake.

Second, some of the quotes are more memorable as catch phrases than lines of dialogue. "No wire hangers" from Mommy Dearest was instant camp. It took you out of the movie rather than revealing character, developing relationships, or taking the story forward. I'd argue the same applies to "Say hello to my little friend" from Scarface, a pretty delirious movie to begin with.

The list sets the record straight. It's "Play it, Sam," not Play it Again, Sam, even if Woody Allen gets it wrong in his tribute title. And Mae West's invitation (to Cary Grant!) in She Done Him Wrong was not "Why don't you come up and see me sometime" but "Why don't you come up sometime and see me?" (She adds, "I'll tell you your fortune.")

But some lines do it all. Two on the list are just one word apiece. "Rosebud" is the mult-layered mystery at the heart of Citizen Kane and "Plastics" is the literal and metaphorical advice that tells us everything about what Benjamin feels trapped by in The Graduate.

Some of the quotes helped to define characters, like “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” in The Godfather or “Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night,” in All About Eve. The same goes for “They call me MISTER TIBBS,” from In the Heat of the Night, which was so memorable it became the title of the sequel. One quote isn’t even words. It’s “La-di-da, la-di-da” from Annie Hall. But it was as much the reason we fell in love with Annie along with Alvy as her vest and tie, her unwillingness to cook the lobster, and her black soap.

But what is “No one puts Baby in a corner” doing on this list? That line from Dirty Dancing is remembered for its crashing awfulness.

Some remind us that real people say things worth remembering – George M. Cohan told us that everyone in his family thanked us for being in the audience and Lou Gehrig left baseball telling us he felt like the luckiest man in the world. But the best thing about this list is the reminder that movies have benefited from great writers as well as great stars and directors.

Six quotes from Casablanca, all magnificent, and they don’t even include my favorite. Rick says his gun is pointed at Louis’ heart. And Louis says, “That’s my least vulnerable spot.” “There’s no crying in baseball.” “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room!” Now that’s writing.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Movie Mom meets Traveling Pants Girls (Chicago Tribune)

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is the story of four close friends who are separated for the first time the summer they are 16, and who stay connected by sharing a very special pair of blue jeans. It's based on the popular book by Ann Brashares.

Two of the stars of the movie, Amber Tamblyn and Blake Lively, sat down for an interview, and it was clear that they were friends off-screen as well, as Amber draped her legs across Blake’s lap and questions led to memories that made them laugh and each wanted to make sure the other got the most attention.

What’s on your iPod?
Both: Everything!
Amber: John Lennon – the last thing I got was Ono Band Live. Also Tony Bennett, Squarepusher, and Autechre.
Blake: Etta James, Chet Baker, Britney Spears, Eminem, country, anything but hard metal rock.
Amber: Oh, I have to get you to listen to some Metallica! I like stuff that can’t be found on iTunes, like Master of Puppets.

Any favorite television shows?
Amber: I don’t watch anything but “Arrested Development” – pure genius, and “Carnivale”
Blake: “Rugrats!”

Last year, it seemed like all the movies were about mean girls, but your movie is about close and loyal friends. Which is more like your own experience?
Amber: Both are equally true. Mean Girls gets a lot of credit because it’s about the psychology of young women and how they treat each other. For some reason, we like to watch that more – we think it’s funny. Girls sticking together and not being pitted against each other the way they are in our movie is not in movies as often.
Blake: There are mean girls in high school, but your friendships are what get you through. That is what I’ll remember, the people I’ve had a connection with and who know me inside and out will be lifelong friends.

The girls in the movie are so different. What keeps them close to each other?
Amber: It’s the difference that makes them close. They have their separate lives but when they get back together it’s like old times. They have that great familiarity, which especially matters in hard times. Not having a lot in common makes conversations more interesting.

Even though the girls in the movie are the closest of friends, they don’t spend much time together on screen. What did Ken Kwapis, the director, do to help you create a sense of connection to each other?
Amber: He had us sit in a circle and then everyone else left the room so we could decide for ourselves what we wanted to do in the scene, how we wanted to handle the pacing and everything.
Blake: He trusted us. He was very open, very sweet, very loving, very patient. He shared stories about himself that showed he understood a story about young girls. And he showed he understood by letting us work together to let the scenes evolve instead of telling us what to do.
Amber: And off screen we joked and laughed and hung out, we went to movies and slept over, and did loads of shopping.
Blake: We meshed right away. When we got together, it was mayhem. We choreographed routines to Vanilla Ice songs! We had the same sense of humor and lots of inside jokes. So we were friends for real. If one of the four of us hadn’t been as weird as we all are, it wouldn’t have worked.

Most movies, especially movies for younger audiences, make sure they have happy endings with all the stories neatly tied up, but this one does not. Why is that?
Amber: I like it when things are not wrapped up. You want to see that there are still places to go. At the end of the movie, Tibby is still not sure how her experience has affected her. She began by looking for what was boring or stupid, but she learns from Bailey (played by Jenna Boyd), who looks for the light and the good, even in Tibby herself. The ending is happy because the friendships are still together.
Blake: It’s more like real life. Even movies about mean girls have happy endings, but that doesn’t always happen.

How is making a movie different from your previous experiences?
Amber: TV is 16 hours a day, 5 days a week. Film gives you a lot more room for the creative process, more time to spread it out, get into certain scenes. It gave me time to let go of physical habits that become repetitive to think about how this character sits, stands, and moves and think about quirky, cool things I wanted to do. For my part in Joan of Arcadia I have a certain way of talking and do a lot with my hands. For the part of Tibby in this movie, I had bad posture, didn’t use my hands so much.
Blake: This was my first job! Before you do it, you think about the glamour – someone to drive you, do your hair and clothes, you act like someone else for a little while and go home. I was surprised by how much work goes into it. We worked some 20-hour days and when we were shooting at night we didn’t see daylight at all for a while. You have to have as much energy 16 hours later as you did when you started.

Were there any scenes that were especially difficult?
Blake: I had to train for two months for the soccer scenes. And there was one scene of running on the beach that we had to do over and over because of a problem with the film. The running was hard, but important because the character is running away from her painful memories and feelings.

What’s next?
Amber: More films, including “Stephanie Daly” with Tilda Swinton, which I might also co-produce.
Blake: Next for me is graduation; no time to do anything else!

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Star Trek, RIP

Clut stud journal Flow finds a way to
argue in high brow terms that the end of "Star Trek" is a devastating loss for television in an engaging piece by Montana State's Walter Metz. He admits, "I find these series' Gene Roddenberry-inspired utopianisms thoroughly unpalatable. I see little evidence that the dysfunctional United Nations might serve as a model for interplanetary politics, even in the very distant future. I also find the racial allegorizing of most of the series completely impotent: the representation of discrimination against aliens does not necessarily engage real-world racism because people's racist impulses on Earth are founded on misguided interpretations of their surroundings."

But he adds, "Of all the Star Trek shows, I liked Enterprise the best. It muddied the utopianism of Roddenberry's Star Trek by making our intrepid human explorers thoroughly incompetent and outgunned at every turn. Furthermore, the Vulcans, those Mr. Spock-like rationalists praised by Roddenberry's system, are revealed as scheming hypocrites. What is important about this is that the ever-expanding Star Trek televisual universe requires radical alterations to the basic premise of the franchise to keep it alive. Enterprise accomplished this radical modulation with virtuosity."

Meanwhile, unscholarly but equally engaging Mutant Reviewers is devoting the first week of June to Stars Wars and Trek. Should be a treat.

Guess Which Movie

Guess Which Movie is an addictive little site that gives you four stills to identify a movie. You may find yourself still clicking "next image" an hour later. And logging in so you will be able to brag about your score.