Monday, 18 September 2017

Movie Review: Whispering Smith (1948)

A thoughtful western tackling themes of friendship and lost love, Whispering Smith packs action, tension and drama in a zesty package.

Rail company detective Luke "Whispering" Smith (Alan Ladd) reconnects with his old friend Murray Sinclair (Robert Preston) while on a mission to track down the Barton Brothers gang. When he finally catches up with the bandits at a telegraph office, Smith is wounded but kills two of the three outlaw siblings. Smith recovers at Murray's house, reigniting his passion for his lost love Marian (Brenda Marshall), who is now Murray's wife.

Smith doggedly goes after Blake Barton, the sole surviving brother, and finds him hiding under the protection of influential landowner Barney Rebstock (Donald Crisp) and his gunslinger henchman Whitey Du Sang (Frank Faylen). Smith starts to suspect that his friend Murray, who runs the rail company's local wrecking crew, may be involved in sordid business with Rebstock. With his allies Bill Dansing (William Demarest) and George McCloud (John Eldredge), Smith starts investigating Murray and Rebstock, creating a deep rift in a lifelong friendship as well as romantic complications.

Based on the often-adapted novel by Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith is a superior western, buoyed by an almost perfect mix of action, character conflict, romance, secondary depth and high production values. Directed in rich Technicolor by Leslie Fenton, the film is a feast for the eyes. Paramount constructed a large western town complete with an active railway for Whispering Smith, and the set became a much-used stage for many later productions. Here Fenton creates a bustling environment nestled against mountains and lush nature, with several highlight scenes featuring 1870s-era trains up close and at their noisy best.

The heart of the film is a love triangle complicated by an established friendship and greed, and the complexities of the human relationships transcend what is expected in most westerns. Luke and Murray absolutely care for each other, but start to drift apart over Murray's less than honest dealings at the train wreck sites and his alliance with Rebstock. The resulting imbalance opens the door for Marian and Luke to start imagining a different future, but here again the character depth shines through: Luke cares about doing right by Murray just as much as he cares for Marian, meaning there are no easy decisions.

Alan Ladd, Robert Preston and Brenda Marshall bring the three central characters to vivid life. The acting is admirably stoic yet nuanced enough to carry the narrative weight. Ladd in particular portrays a range of emotions mostly through the intensity level of the fire in his eyes, while Preston is more emotive, capturing increasingly frantic attempts at self-delusion. In her penultimate screen role, Marshall shines as the dignified wife potentially losing a husband but regaining a true love.

A large part of the film's appeal resides in well-developed secondary characters adding plenty of texture. Donald Crisp has rarely been more intimidating as a land baron running his own black market. By his side is Frank Faylen, delivering a simply chilling performance as bloodless albino gunslinger Whitey Du Sang, his dead eyes always fixated on his next victim-to-be. William Demarest, Fay Holden and John Eldredge ensure that there is talent in every role that matters.

Fenton stumbles a bit in staging the action scenes, most of which appear hurried and awkwardly edited when it matters most. Otherwise Whispering Smith is a western that speaks softly but leaves an impressively loud impression.

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Sunday, 17 September 2017

Movie Review: Paper Bullets (1941)

A B-movie crime drama, Paper Bullets (also known as Gangs, Inc.) packs too many characters into too much plot and loses all focus.

Young Rita Adams is orphaned when her stool pigeon father is gunned down. She grows up at an orphanage, forming friendships with Mickey and Bob. Mickey (Jack La Rue) grows up to be an underworld nightclub manager, while Bob (John Archer) becomes an aeronautical engineer. The grown-up Rita (Joan Woodbury) and her roommate Donna (Linda Ware) scrape together a living, but Rita has to serve a stint in prison after she naively agrees to take a hit-and-run rap for her no-good boyfriend Harold, the son of powerful businessman Clarence DeWitt.

After Rita's release, Mickey gets his hands on evidence that DeWitt was involved in falsely incriminating her. Meanwhile the police force is under pressure to act against the underworld, and Jimmy Kelly (Alan Ladd) is recruited to infiltrate the criminal syndicate controlling the protection and gambling rackets. When DeWitt reveals his political ambitions, Rita makes her move to seek revenge, and audaciously teams up with crime bosses to get a cut of the criminal action.

Filled with sub-plot that go nowhere, characters that drop in and out of the story with dizzying speed, and some external car chase scenes too dark to be comprehensible, Paper Bullets lives well within its miniscule budget. Filmed in 6 days by director Phil Rosen and released by poverty-row studio Producers Releasing Corporation, the movie is mostly known as the debut production effort for the King Brothers (here still known as Kozinskys), who went on to cobble together a string of low-budget but sometimes not-bad efforts through to the late 1960s.

Paper Bullets also features Alan Ladd in a relatively small but pivotal role, although the importance of his character depends on whether or not the convoluted plot makes sense to anyone. The film was later acquired by competing B-movie studio Eagle-Lion films and re-released as Gangs, Inc., with the now-famous Ladd ridiculously given top billing in the opening credits.

As for what made it onto the screen, there is plenty to try and follow. Rita's story heads in many different directions, and it is all crammed into a breathless staccato-style, hammer-down storytelling package. While the first half is engaging enough, with Joan Woodbury delivering a more than decent performance, once Rita's revenge narrative takes off the film starts to completely unravel. The numerous criminal types, the many enforcement folks, the parade of victims, hangers-on and romantic interests, and the wannabe politicos all converge into a mess of a story hurtling away from logic at breakneck speed.

Paper Bullets wraps up in a rough and tumble 72 minutes. While there is easily enough plot for another 30 minutes, sadly there wasn't the budget to go there.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Movie Review: Thunder In The East (1952)

A war drama and romance set in India, Thunder In The East aims for a Casablanca vibe but settles for methodically mixing the ingredients without any of the magic spices.

It's 1947, and India has just won independence from the British. Jaded American arms trader Steve Gibbs (Alan Ladd) lands his plane loaded with machine guns and ammunition in remote Ghandahar province, intending to sell the weapons to the local Maharaja. A local rebel group under the leadership of the elusive Newah Khan is threatening to seize power, but Prime Minister Singh (Charles Boyer) believes in Gandhi-like peaceful negotiations and blocks Gibbs' sale, instead impounding and storing the weapons.

The stymied Gibbs mingles with a group of foreigners caught up in the violence, and starts to fall in love with blind British woman Joan Willoughby (Deborah Kerr), the granddaughter of local priest Dr. Willoughby (Cecil Kellaway). Seductive French woman Lizette Damon (Corinne Calvet) throws herself at Gibbs to try and win a seat on his outbound plane. But with Khan's men making rapid progress and Singh refusing to authorize the use of heavy weaponry in defence of the government, options to evacuate the city starts to diminish, and Gibbs reveals his true colours.

Alan Ladd tries his best to channel his inner Humphrey Bogart, the character of Steve Gibbs intermittently aligning with Bogart's independent emotional mercenary persona. But the Thunder In The East script, based on the novel The Rage of the Vulture by Alan Moorehead, patently lacks the bright spark and sharp wit needed to ignite the drama and romance around its cynical anti-hero. The film settles into average territory and oscillates between an awkward love-hate relationship between Gibbs and Joan as the romantic anchor, while Singh's internal conflict as his abhorrence of violence confronts increasingly desperate surroundings represents the dramatic counterweight.

In support of Ladd, Deborah Kerr flirts with abject boredom as the too-pure Joan who may have enough angelic dust to save Gibbs' soul, but certainly doesn't offer anything else of interest. Charles Boyer just about overcomes the bizarre spectacle of a French actor playing an Indian Provincial Prime Minister.

Director Charles Vidor does a decent job of creating an exotic India location out of the Paramount Studios sound stages, although some of the backdrops are painfully clear paintings and rolling footage.Vidor conjures up a modest sense of overlapping sweaty crises and subplots, with relatively minor characters like Lizette, the retired General Harrison (John Williams) and Dr. Willoughby adding welcome depth in several sequences. The action-oriented scenes of siege, shoot-outs and explosions are mostly held in reserve until late in the proceedings, and then handled proficiently.

With the situation desperate, Thunder In The East finds a surprisingly potent emotional crescendo, but then lands a bewilderingly abrupt ending. Once the bullets start to fly with steely intent, there is apparently not much more to say.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Saskatchewan (1954)

A fairly routine Western, Saskatchewan (also clumsily known as O'Rourke Of The Canadian Mounted) examines tensions with native tribes from the Canadian perspective.

The setting is Western Canada in the 1870s. Thomas O'Rourke (Alan Ladd) was orphaned as a child and raised by the peaceful Cree tribe. Now a member of the Mounted Police, he is a soul brother of Cajou (Jay Silverheels). Together they stumble across Grace Markey (Shelley Winters), the only survivor of an attack on a wagon convoy by the aggressive American Sioux tribe. Empowered by their recent stunning victory over General Custer, the Sioux are planning to expand their influence northwards.

O'Rourke clashes with his new stuffy commander Benton (Robert Douglas), whose hard-nosed approach to the Cree creates an opening for the Sioux to bait the Cree into a warmongering alliance. Meanwhile US Marshall Carl Smith (Hugh O'Brian) arrives to arrest Grace, who is accused of killing her lover, who happened to be Smith's brother. With help from good natured scout Batouche (J. Carrol Naish), O'Rourke has to figure out a way to avoid a bloodbath and broker peace when all around him are agitating for a fight.

Filmed in rich, gorgeous colour in Banff National Park, Alberta, and directed with galloping efficiency by Raoul Walsh, Saskatchewan is proficient and also rather uninspired. Unlike the scenery, the characters are for the most part monochromatic, and the stock dialogue is delivered in clipped, read-the-damned-lines mode.Shelley Winters serves up flagrant sex appeal in low cut tops, her sub-plot stuck in neutral as O'Rourke bashes Marshall Smith at regular intervals to demonstrate turf supremacy.

Walsh does better staging the larger action scenes, finding enough extras for impressive legions of Mounted Police in resplendent but not-safe-for-battle redcoats and native tribes to stalk each other and occasionally charge. Despite a couple of impressive explosions the bloodshed is kept to respectable levels, the film's premise hinging on highlighting the relatively better relationships built with the natives in Canada compared to the United States.

In addition to the various levels of enmity between the white man and the natives, there is also enough within the main plot to tease out rivalries between different tribes as well as tensions inside the RCMP as clueless by-the-book commanders ignore the wisdom of trail-smart troops. Walsh rides his story to a climax somewhere between rousing and clunky, but the real highlight comes earlier in a most Canadian wrinkle for a standard western: a canoe chase.

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Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Movie Review: The Bible: In The Beginning...(1966)

The Book of Genesis brought to life in an American-Italian co-production, The Bible: In The Beginning... is a ponderous adaptation of some of ancient history's most famous stories.

God creates Adam (Michael Parks) and then Eve (Ulla Bergryd) in the Garden of Eden. After they eat the forbidden fruit God condemns them to a life of toil. Their son Cain (Richard Harris) kills his brother Abel (Franco Nero). Generations later, God decides to reset humanity with a massive flood and asks Noah (John Huston) to build the Ark to help restart all forms of life. Hundreds of years later the Tower of Babel is built under the leadership of the overly-arrogant King Nimrod (Stephen Boyd); God punishes his conceit by giving each man a different language and scattering humanity.

Abraham (George C. Scott), a descendant of Noah, follows God's command and leads his followers towards a promised land. His wife Sarah (Ava Gardner) cannot conceive, but she offers her Egyptian handmaiden Hagar (Zoe Sallis) to Abraham and she provides him with a son Ishmail. In the meantime the Cities of Sodom and Gomorrah become havens of corruption. God sends his Angel (Peter O'Toole) to oversee their destruction, but Abraham's nephew Lot (Gabriele Ferzetti) is spared. Sarah finally does conceive the child Isaac, but the elderly Abraham still has to face God's most difficult test.

Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by John Huston, The Bible: In The Beginning arrived at the tail end of Hollywood's obsession with religious historical epics, and captures all that was bad with the bloated genre. Overly serious, with plastic characters and a complete absence of nuance, the film is unequivocal, overly reverential and way too long. It's The Bible set to slow moving albeit sometimes pretty images, with every episode prolonged well past what is needed, inflating the running time to a tiresome 174 minutes.

In addition to directing, Huston narrates, provides the voice of God, and has fun in the role of Noah. And it is the Ark episode, while still overextended, that is peppiest. Huston's twinkle in the eye introduces an element of human levity sorely missing from the rest of the film.

The Adam and Eve and Abraham stories get the bulk of the rest of the film. The Creation is a narration-dominated 30 minute opening interlude dominated by the hazy colours of an imagined Eden, kicking off the film on a dull note. Despite a dedicated George C. Scott performance channeling his inner Charlton Heston, Abraham's story is rather botched. The Christopher Fry script shortchanges the man and his mission and devolves into a sordid drama about who will provide him with an offspring and when. The rivalry between Sarah and Hagar sets the precedent for catty television soap operas just a few thousand years later.

Surrendering too easily to earnest intentions, The Bible: In The Beginning never finds the flint needed to spark inspiration and creativity.

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Sunday, 10 September 2017

Movie Review: Clouds Of Sils Maria (2014)

A life imitates art imitates life drama, Clouds Of Sils Maria offers layers of emotional discourse but remains narrowly constrained within a deeply personal story.

Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is a middle-aged Europe-based star actress going through an ugly divorce. With help from her ever-present assistant and friend Valentine (Kristen Stewart), Maria is on her way to Switzerland to accept an award on behalf of reclusive writer Wilhelm when the shocking news arrives that he has committed suicide.

Years earlier Maria had become a star playing an 18-year old provocative character called Sigrid who seduces middle aged mentor and businesswoman Helena in the Wilhelm-penned play Maloja Snake (a reference to stunning cloud formations through the Alp mountains). Now director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger) wants Maria to take on the role of Helena in a reworking of the play, opposite brash up-and-coming American starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) as Sigrid.

Taking up residence Wilhelm's house in the magical settlement of Sils Maria deep in the Swiss Alps, Maria struggles to emotionally prepare for the role of Helena. Val helps her with line readings, but a rift starts to emerge between the two women, Val expressing admiration for Jo-Ann's in-your-face talent and lifestyle and Maria trying to adapt to being the older woman.

Directed and written by Olivier Assayas at Binoche's suggestion, Clouds Of Sils Maria contains parallels with Binoche's experiences at it exposes what goes on behind the curtains of a star performer's life. This is both the film's appeal and its limitation. For all its fly-on-the-wall, vulnerabilities-laid-bare credentials, for very long periods the script defaults to a two-person talkfest, Maria and Val engaged in cerebral conversations about the past and the present, revealing the plot of Maloja Snake through line readings as Maria struggles to face her present and future and let go of her ingenue past.

The rehearsal scenes intentionally meld the lines between Helena / Sigrid and Maria / Val, and it's often pleasantly unclear what is a play and what is real life. To the extent that these scenes work at all is testimony to two flowing performances from Binoche and Stewart, heartily recruited as volunteer comrades representing their age groups.

The broader applications of the dialogue to Maria's life, actresses' dimming wattage and appeal as middle age takes hold in a merciless industry, inter-generational divides and more broadly the rapidly changing role of women from young disruptors to mature victims of disruption are all compelling. But these are themes that reside between the lines of Clouds Of Sils Maria. The film is to be commended for triggering conversations; in itself, the viewing experience sometimes resembles watching paint dry.

Ethereal elements creep into the story's final act, Maria facing up to her prospects and letting go of the past, in some cases literally. Clouds Of Sils Maria sits heavy in the sky, a largely private battle between provocative and pretentious.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Rock The Kasbah (2015)

A muddled drama comedy, Rock The Kasbah cannot decide what it is and defaults to a series of abandoned plot fragments.

Los Angeles-based washed-up talent producer Richie Lanz (Bill Murray) claims to have discovered Madonna, among many other wild tales. Now he is reduced to living in motel room, his only client the willing but hapless singer Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), who also doubles as his assistant and suffers from unmanageable stagefright. Desperate and cashless Richie accepts an offer to take Ronnie on tour to war-torn Afghanistan, where the military money is flowing and US troops are desperate for any entertainment.

Once there, Richie and Ronnie are immediately exposed to the horrors of war. He tangles with military contractor Bombay Brian (Bruce Willis), rogue gun runners and local tribesmen, and creates a business alliance with American prostitute Merci (Kate Hudson). Richie then stumbles on the magical voice of local woman Salima (Leem Lubany) and immediately recognizes a star-in-waiting, but Afghanistan's culture may not be ready for a female entertainer.

Directed by Barry Levinson and written by Mitch Glazer, Rock The Kasbah is loosely inspired by the true story of Setara Hussainzada, who appeared on Afghan Star, a local version of American Idol. The problem is that Salima is a non-entity in the film, appearing late and they barely featuring as a character other than as the stereotypical subjugated woman in a male-dominated culture.

On the way to Salima's story Rock The Kasbah ambles along rather aimlessly, pinballing from Richie's career decline, to Ronnie's never-gonna-make-it stage antics, to encounters with fast and loose gun runners, then the mandatory working girl Merci padding her retirement account by servicing the troops, and plenty of predictable interactions with tribesmen in the desert. None of these sub-plots go anywhere, and when Salima finally enters the story, her narrative is just as tired, predictable and unsatisfying.

There is an unseemly level of throw-everything-at-the-screen desperation to the script, peaking with Richie landing in the middle of an inter-tribal coup with a bewilderingly botched climax. Stymied in his search for any cohesion, Levinson rushes the ending and leaves all the threads loose, the film packing up and leaving all the characters wondering where to go next.

Bill Murray delivers his now overly familiar older-man-out-of-place schtick, enough to rustle up some laughs and hold the center of the movie together but here buffeted by an overabundance of cultural clichés. Rock The Kasbah rolls downhill on a wayward path to insignificance.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Movie Review: Dark Places (2015)

A crime thriller mystery melding the past with the present, Dark Places has a promising, brooding premise but flubs the resolution.

The film takes place in two timelines: 1985, when a notorious crime happened, and the present day. In 1985, eight year old Libby Day is the only survivor of a Kansas farmhouse massacre that kills her two sisters and her mother. Based on young Libby's confused and fractured testimony, her teenaged brother Ben, a heavy metal music fan who dabbled in Satanism, is convicted.

In 2015, Libby (Charlize Theron) has wasted her life doing nothing and living off the charity of others. Now nearly broke, she accepts an offer from amateur murder sleuth Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult) to research the real story of what happened at the Kansas farmhouse. Libby visits Ben (Corey Stoll) in prison for the first time and starts to piece together the events preceding the murders.

Prior to the massacre Libby's mother Patty (Christina Hendricks), divorced from the sleazeball Runner (Sean Bridgers), was struggling to make ends meet, while Ben was spending time with his older girlfriend Diondra (Chloë Grace Moretz) and criminal hardhead Trey Teepano. Ben was also facing accusations of sexually abusing young girls, including Krissi Cates. The grown up Libby tries to track down Diondra, Krissi and Trey among others to finally understand what really happened and why.

Based on the book of the same name by Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl fame), Dark Places builds up a satisfying head of steam as the past and present story of Libby Day is revealed. Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner actually plays in three time zones, adding in increments a jerky recreation of the night of the murders, mostly from the muddled perspective of young Libby, to the two main narratives.

And there are enough subtle riddles about the events of the night to create a rich atmosphere of evil, and open up possibilities for motives and villains. Many family members, friends, associates and hangers on had reasons to unleash violence on the fateful night. At the centre of the mayhem then and still suffering now, Libby has to decide how much she wants to care, and whether poking away at the scars of the past is worth the emotional pain.

But the narrative thrust starts to unravel the closer Paquet-Brenner gets to his conclusion, and in some ways the story picks the weakest path towards resolution. The ending is rushed and jumbled, and in many ways inconsistent with some of the more determined character traits that the film invests in.

The choice for the two lead actresses gets in the way. Charlize Theron and Christina Hendricks don't do anything wrong; they are simply too glamorous for their roles, and have to work back from the starting line to convince as rural, poor and borderline white trash folks. Theron spends the entire movie covering her hair and eyes under a baseball cap in an unsuccessful attempt to get into the skin of a woman with nothing going for her except an offer for a few paltry bucks from true-life murder nerds.

As for Lyle Wirth and his club of amateur crime solvers, they fade out of the story after contributing a base level of interesting irritation.

Dark Places launches into a captivating and twisty mystery, but flubs the landing.

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Friday, 8 September 2017

Movie Review: A Million Ways To Die In The West (2014)

A western comedy, A Million Ways To Die In The West contains plenty of rude and crude laughs, but remains confined to a few repetitive themes.

It's 1882 in the small town of Old Stump, Arizona. Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane) is a peaceful and meek sheep farmer, constantly worried about the many ways people can die in the west. When he walks away from a gunfight, his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) dumps him and immediately starts a relationship with moustache grooming business owner Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). Albert's only friend is Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), who is deeply in love with the town whore Ruth (Sarah Silverman).

Heartbroken after the breakup with Louise, Albert find solace with the newly arrived and mysterious Anna (Charlize Theron), who teaches him to shoot but forgets to tell him that she is married to Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), the meanest outlaw and gunfighter in the territory. Despite his peaceful nature Albert finds himself bracing for showdowns with both Foy and Clinch.

There is undoubted fun to be had in A Million Ways To Die In The West. The humour is sharp, dark sometimes brutal and always vulgar, and more often than not generates the required laughter. MacFarlane co-wrote and directed the film, and does not try to move it too far away from a modern piece of satire that happens to be set in the west. The film plonks self-aware personalities into a western context, and derives most of its charm from the characters commenting on a ridiculous way of life.

But MacFarlane also traps himself into a limited number of themes, and tumble dries the jokes to a stiff standstill. Yes, there are many ways to die in the west, yes Albert is sheep farmer, yes women married young, and yes Foy is insufferably full of himself. The humour don't stray far from these topics, and MacFarlane cannot climb down from a juvenile rate of one bodily fluid joke per minute. The romance elements never come close to clicking, and the many gunfight showdown set pieces don't try even try to generate tension.

The actors go through the film with various shades of smiles. None take their roles seriously, and given a prevailing tone that stops just short of openly winking at the audience, that's just fine.

At almost two hours the film is about 20 minutes too long. There may be A Million Way To Die In The West, but the point is made well before the end credits.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Movie Review: Batman Begins (2005)

A superhero origins story, Batman Begins kicks off the trilogy with an engrossing and cerebral character-centred experience.

In Gotham City, a young Bruce Wayne has a traumatic encounter with bats, then witnesses his parents' murder during a mugging. Wracked by guilt, Wayne (Christian Bale) abandons his family's wealth and heads out into the world, living a life of squalor and crime. Dumped into a remote prison in Central Asia, he is rescued by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), who oversees his combat training and inducts Wayne into the League of Shadows, an organization of elite warriors led by the mysterious Ra's al Ghul. Once Wayne learns the League's real agenda, he abandons them and returns to Gotham to fight crime on his own terms.

With help from long-time family butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), head of the Applied Science Division at Wayne Enterprises, Bruce gradually adopts the crime-fighting persona of Batman. He keeps his mission a secret from childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), now an idealistic Assistant District Attorney. Wayne embarks on a quest to both reclaim control of Wayne Enterprises and rid Gotham of corruption, starting with violent crime lord Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). He recruits honest police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and uncovers a vast psychotic drugs conspiracy involving psychologist Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy), a villain known only as Scarecrow, and an unexpected powerful mastermind.

A big screen reboot of the Batman mythology, Batman Begins is an exquisite effort from director and co-writer Christopher Nolan. Committed to a surprisingly bright palette and an emphasis on people rather than action, Nolan creates a seminal example of what a smart comic superhero adaptation can achieve. Batman Begins first and foremost engages the mind and forgoes cheap thrills, and the origins story goes a long way towards grounding the film in the person of Bruce Wayne rather than the antics of a man in a costume.

The 140 minutes are surprisingly brisk, and despite some jumping around in time Nolan tidily breaks down the narrative into three parts. The backstory is the longest and best, rich in the details of a young Bruce experiencing the trauma of being trapped in a well, triggering a close encounter with bats, with a direct line from that experience to the death of his beloved parents. His formative years are then scattered on a life in search of any meaning in the company of other lost souls, until the intervention of Ducard and subsequent training as an elite warrior.

The second act focuses on Wayne defining his mission in life, buttressed by Alfred and supplied by Lucius on his way to assembling the raw material for what makes a Batman. Both Alfred and Lucius carry echoes of the past with strong links to the legacy of Bruce's father, and a large part of Batman Begins' appeal resides in the continued multi-generational commitment to do right. The finale is what can be expected, the true villains making themselves known and triggering an opera of mayhem with Batman improvising on the fly to save his beloved Gotham.

On the way to the transition Nolan has plenty of fun providing backstories to everything from the Batcave to the Batmobile, with detours to explain the origins of the suit, the mask and the emergency light signal. This is a true beginnings story, and nothing is left undefined.

Christian Bale slips into the role comfortably, displaying enough emotional depth to play up the emphasis on the individual rather than the role. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer (a slimy executive at Wayne Enterprises) and Cillian Murphy ensure that every key role is bolstered by a serious talent boost. Only Katie Holmes is overwhelmed, with a difficult, underwritten role and an unconvincing performance.

Batman Begins is a storytelling masterpiece, a fascinating crime fighter finally receiving his deserved high quality big screen production.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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