Tag: Katie Holmes

Batman Begins (2005)

Christian Bale redeems the Batman in Batman Begins

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred Pennyworth), Liam Neeson (Henri Ducard), Katie Holmes (Rachel Dawes), Gary Oldman (Lt James Gordon), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Cillian Murphy (Dr Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow), Tom Wilkinson (Carmine Falcone), Rutger Hauer (William Earle), Ken Watanabe (Ra’s al Ghul), Mark Boone Jnr (Detective Arnold Flass), Linus Roache (Thomas Wayne), Colin McFarlane (Commissioner Loeb)

In the mid-2000s, Batman on film was a joke. A series that started with the Gothic darkness of Tim Burton had collapsed into the pantomime campness of Joel Schumacher. The franchise was functionally dead, so why hot burn it all down and start again from scratch. It was a radical idea – one of the first big “reboots” of a comic book saga. It was a triumphant success, changing the rule book for a host of film series and one of the most influential movies from the last 15 years. 

After the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) life drifts as he is unable to get over his own guilt at believing he was partly responsible for getting his parents into a situation where they were killed. In a Gotham run by organised crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), Bruce exiles himself for years to try and learn the skills he will need to return and try and find some peace and deal with his fears by tackling crime head on. Recruited by his mentor Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) into the League of Shadows – a dark group of ninja inspired vigilantes – Wayne eventually rejects the group’s ruthlessness and returns to Gotham. There, working with his old guardian and family butler Alfred (Michael Caine), he starts to build a new identity: by day shallow playboy Bruce Wayne, by night The Bat Man ruthless vigilante, fighting crime. 

Why did it work so well? Because Christopher Nolan understood that the key to making a film that will kickstart a series and win the love of both the casual viewer and the fan is ‘simple’ – just make the film good. Make it a film powered by ideas, characters, a deliberate story and intriguing beats and audiences will love it. Make it a lowest common denominator film offering only bangs and crashes and ‘fan service’ and audiences will reject it. Because at the end of the day we know when we are being manipulated, and the assumption too many people behind making films like that is that people don’t really want intelligent films. They do.

Batman Begins works so well because it places character front-and-centre in a way no other Batman film – and very few superhero films – had before. Unlike all the other Batman films, here Bruce Wayne (and it is definitely Bruce Wayne) was the lead character, not a staid stick-in-the-mud around whom more colourful villains danced. Combine that with Nolan’s inspired idea to return Batman to something resembling a real-world, a more grounded, recognisable version of Gotham which has problems with organised crime that we could recognise from the real world. This are intelligent, inspired decisions that instantly allowed the film to take on a thematic and narrative depth the other Batman films had lacked. 

It’s Bruce Wayne’s psyche at the centre of the film – in an excellent performance of emotional honesty and physical commitment by Christian Bale – and his attempts to find solace in a sense of duty from his fears and his loss of a father figure. It’s Fear that is possibly one of the central themes of Batman Begins and the power it has over us. Fear is what Bruce must master – on a visceral level his fear of bats, on a deeper level his fear that he has failed his parents by failing the city they loved – and fear is the weapon all the villains use. Fear is the petrol for Falcone and his gangsters. Fear is the weapon Batman utilises. Fear is the study of choice of disturbed psychologist Joanthan Crane (a smarmily unsettling Cillian Murphy). A weaponised Fear gas is the WMD that the film’s villains intend to introduce into Gotham.

Understanding fear, working with it, finding its strengths and using these for good is at the core of the film. It’s there from the first beat – a traumatised young Bruce attacked by bats after falling into an abandoned well they nest in – and it’s there at the very end. Bruce’s training with mentor Ducard is as much about understanding and living with these terrors as it is physical prowess. His impact as Batman on the city is central towards channelling his own fears – bats, the dark, violence on an empty street – into universal fears he can use to terrorise criminals. 

It’s all part of the film’s quest to work out who Bruce Wayne is. With Bale superb at the centre, the film throws a host of potential father characters at Bruce, all offering different influences. He has no less than three father figures, in his father (a fine performance of decency by Linus Roache), the austere and understanding Ducard (Neeson channelling and inverting brilliantly his natural gravitas and calm) and the firm but fair and caring Alfred (Michael Caine quite brilliantly opening up a whole new career chapter). 

The influences are all there for Bruce to work out. Should he follow a path of compassionate justice as his father would do? How much muscular firmness and earnest duty, such as Alfred represents, should this be spiced with? How does Ducard’s increasingly extreme views of justice, combat and social order play into this? Which influence will win out over Bruce – or rather how will he combine all this into his own rules? It’s telling that the film’s villain turns out to be a dark false-father figure – the entire film is Bruce’s quest to come to turn with his own legacy and allow himself to accept his father and forgive himself.

It’s also telling that both hero and villain are driven by similar (but strikingly different) agendas. Both are looking to impose justice on the world. But where Bruce sees this as compassion with a punch – a necessary evil, protecting the good in the world while bringing down the evil – the League of Shadows see their mission as one of imposing Justice through chaos, of letting a world destroy itself so that a better one can rise from the ashes. 

Its ideas like this that pepper Christopher Nolan’s film. Throw in his superb film-making abilities and you have an absolute treat. Nolan’s direction is spot-on, superbly assembled with a mastery over character and story-telling. Beautifully designed, shot and edited it’s a perfect mixture of comic book rules and logic – the very idea of the League of Shadows – with the real world perils of crime, vigilanteeism and violence. With a superb cast led by Bale – and Gary Oldman also deserves mention, Nolan finally unleashing the decency, honesty and kindness in the actor that revitalised his career – Batman Begins relaunched Batman as a serious and intelligent series, that matched spectacle and excitement (and there is tonnes of it) with weighty themes, fine acting and superb film making. There is a reason why it’s been a touchstone for every reboot of a series made since.

Thank You For Smoking (2006)

Aaron Eckhart does the big spin on Thank You For Smoking

Director: Jason Reitman

Cast: Aaron Eckhart (Nick Naylor), Cameron Bright (Joey Naylor), Katie Holmes (Heather Holloway), Maria Bello (Polly Bailey), David Koechner (Bobby Jay Bliss), William H. Macy (Senator Ortolan Finistirre), Robert Duvall (The Captain), J.K. Simmons (BR), Kim Dickens (Jill Naylor), Rob Lowe (Jeff Megall), Sam Elliott (Lorne Lutch)

Lobbyists: paid smooth talkers, whose goal is to win influence for often unattractive industries. Not a popular profession. Thank You For Smoking follows a few weeks in the life of Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a lobbyist for the tobacco industry. With senate hearings underway to place a skull-and-crossbones picture on every pack of cigarettes sold, Naylor has a host of pressures to deal with, not least rebuilding a relationship with his young son (Cameron Bright).

Thank You For Smoking is a smart and amusing satire on a pretty simple target. It’s a great showpiece for the skills of Jason Reitman, who directs his sharply written script with wit and verve. Reitman crafts a satire that’s never too heavy-handed, a well-balanced film that’s about morality and freedom of choice, without banging the righteous drum to death. He’s also got a keen eye for the quick and effective gag, meaning the film moves swiftly from punchline to punchline.

It helps a great deal that Aaron Eckhart is terrific in the lead role: handsome, cocky, charming but with a strange vulnerability. Nick Naylor a fascinating character: while he does adjust his views on issues, he is never humbled by events, and there is no “road to Damascus” moment where he denounces his career. He’s totally confident in his skin, who has come to terms with his role and doesn’t care what people think of him. And you’ve got to respect a man so skilled that he gets a 20 year-old dying of cancer from smoking to shake his hand on live television.

Similarly, the film avoids an open condemnation of smoking (it doesn’t even feature a single character smoking). If anything, the real targets for its criticism are anti-smoking campaigners (William H Macy’s sanctimonious senator is skin-crawling and unbelievably smug and petty), and the opportunistic recipients of lobbying. The film makes clear smoking is a bad habit, but also pushes the right we have to choose – if we want to poison ourselves, we should do so! I’m not sure if Reitman is willing to admit an argument like this is partially an abuse of ill-informed free speech, but at least he hopes we are smart enough to make up our own minds. It’s all part of the careful discussion of lobbying – what kind of person can be swayed by a professional counter-argument man?

There are several other terrific performances. Simmons is hilarious as Naylor’s aggressively vocal boss. Rob Lowe offers a brilliant self-parody as a smoothly empty Hollywood super-agent obsessed with Japanese culture. Maria Bello and David Koechner are both sharply witty as Naylor’s fellow lobbyists for alcohol and firearms respectively. The scenes between the three of these “Merchants of Death” (or “The MOD Squad” as they call themselves) offer a sharply funny commentary on the action throughout.

If the film has a problem though, it’s that it never feels like it develops into being much more than a framework for some good jokes. There is a thinly veiled morality tale here, but the film never really feels like it makes a point or a conclusion. Sure there are tonnes of excellent jokes and laugh-out-loud moments, but is it much more than a series of skilled sketches? Eckhart is of course brilliant in each of these, but there is often a sense of watching a series of misconnected events. Characters drop in and swiftly out of the movie. There is no overarching plot, as such.

The film largely dodges any real narrative conclusion. This is of course part of the smartness of its design – it’s not trying to make moral points, or hector us on health – but it also makes the film feel slightly empty, narratively adrift. Little changes for the characters from the start to the end of the story. Of course, the film is not so crude as to make its hero learn “a lesson”, but it also means Naylor is a more difficult character to sustain interest in over a period of time: complete lack of self-doubt does not tend to make great drama.

It’s very funny, smart, well written and acted. However, while brave enough to avoid predictability, it’s also inconsistent enough to not have a real shape. Some moments – in particular the relationship between Naylor and his son – lean heavily on cliché. Some of its more unusual moments – especially a sequence where Naylor is kidnapped by anti-smoking campaigners – fall the wrong side of surreal. But for all that it’s an imperfect film, it is certainly funny enough to justify itself and features a superb performance of alpha-male arrogance from Aaron Eckhart (I’ve asked this elsewhere, but how unlucky is this guy to not be a bigger star?). I guarantee you’ll laugh several times when you watch this – and if nothing else you’ll have a think about lobbying.

Woman in Gold (2015)

Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds stumble through bland Philomena rip-off Woman in Gold

Director: Simon Curtis

Cast: Helen Mirren (Maria Altmann), Ryan Reynolds (Randy Schoenberg), Daniel Brühl (Hubertus Czernin), Katie Holmes (Pam Schoenberg), Tatiana Maslany (Young Maria), Max Irons (Fritz Altmann), Charles Dance (Sherman), Elizabeth McGovern (Judge Cooper), Jonathan Pryce (Chief Justice Renhquist), Antje Traue (Adele Bloch-Bauer), Allan Corduner (Gustav), Henry Goodman (Ferdinand)

The Nazi regime across Europe was a criminal one in every sense of the word. Along with the hideous acts of murder and warmongering, Woman in Gold uses its story to remind us their leaders were also little better than common thieves.

Maria Altmann was a young Jewish woman from a wealthy family, living in Vienna in the 1930s. She escaped from Austria to the US in 1939 with her husband, but had to leave the rest of her family behind. Their fine possessions, including several paintings by Klimt, were stolen by the Nazis.

Decades later, Maria (Helen Mirren) recruits struggling lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to help her reclaim the paintings, now owned by the Austrian government. The government are predictably dismissive of any claims on their heritage, and are particularly unwilling to give up Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (or Woman in Gold), a portrait of Altmann’s aunt, proudly displayed as a jewel of Austrian culture. So begins a case that will go, via the American supreme court, to the very heart of Austria’s uncomfortable relationship with its past. In parallel, Maria remembers her younger self (Tatiana Maslany) and her escape from Vienna.

I think it’s fair to say Maria is a role Helen Mirren could play standing on her head. It’s a cliché – the feisty, imperious elderly woman who cows all around her, but has a heart of (forgive me) gold. Ryan Reynolds Schoenberg is similarly predictably: a young, naïve, slightly bumbling do-gooder revealed to have hidden depths of strength, and ends up connecting with his own heritage in a “very personal” journey. In fact, every character in the “present day” plotline is a hopeless cliché. Katie Holmes has perhaps the worst role as Schoenberg’s wife – as The Wife always does in these things, she spends the first half of the film asking her husband to drop his time-consuming crusade, but come the second half she’s making the inevitable “you’ve come too far to give up now” speech.

Every bit of the modern day story is predictable, reheated slop from other, much better movies – you literally recognise every beat of every courtroom scene. Most conversations are essentially the actors spooling plot at each other, explaining everything from art history to Austrian mediation procedures. The moments where the dialogue allows the actors to focus on character land with a hamfisted heaviness, with all the subtly of Oscar “for your consideration” scenes.

Periodically the story abandons logical evolution altogether and leaps from A to B without explanation: Maria will never go back to Vienna, less than five minutes of screentime later oh no actually she will (explained by a timely, on-the-nose flashback), no she definitely won’t go back a second time, ta-da there she is. She wants to fight, then she wants to give up, then she wants to fight again. Whether these events were real or not, the film makes them feel like humdrum screenplay hokum.

You keep waiting for this to spring to life and do something fresh, but it never does. Even its odd-couple pairing is essentially Philomena reheated – but without the wit and warmth of that film’s script. It manages to turn what should have been an interesting story into something drier and duller than a documentary would have been.

The film takes wing a little more in the flashbacks to the 1930s. Again, there’s nothing new here, but the performances in are infused with a warmth, emotion and humanity missing from the other storyline – Allan Corduner is particularly good as Maria’s loving father. The sense of peril from the Nazis also gives the film a clear and unequivocal antagonist: the sequence where Maria and her husband flee Vienna is more engaging and tense than anything else in the film.

The weight of these flashbacks, however, only serves to contrast poorly with the strange, odd-couple comedy of the rest of the film. It’s literally two different films sitting uncomfortably together, neither doing either any service.

Woman in Gold is a confused film, that drags down what could have been a fascinating story into a safe, Sunday-afternoon film that never wants to say anything too controversial (even its potshots at the Austrians for overlooking their Nazi past is balanced by “good” Austrians). It reduces its characters to plot-spouting clichés, wrapped in a dry story. Although its flashback scenes carry some emotional heft, they can’t save the main plotline which spirals on and on, never engaging the viewer’s interest. It’s not gold, it’s very base metal.