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It’s time to liberate Hollywood’s franchise characters from the shackles of copyright. Not because the gradual expansion of American corporate intellectual-property rights is a crime against free expression, although that argument can be made. For now, let’s just recognize that Batman, Darth Vader, and the Human Torch should be set free so as to prevent the major studios from boring audiences into an explosion-punctuated stupor.
Just weeks ago, The Revenge of the Sith proved that the responsibility of consummating a much-loved series was not enough to force George Lucas to show any imagination. Now Batman Begins demonstrates that entrusting an emblematic character to an “edgy” younger director and a cast of foreigners won’t avert a formula flick that’s just one notch above a Joel Schumacher production. Clearly, a few remixes are in order, and why not open them to everyone with a desktop editing program? The fanboys, hackers, and high-school Dadaists could hardly do worse than Memento auteur Christopher Nolan, who with Batman Begins gains $100 million in production value but loses every vestige of cool.
Technically, this is not a bad movie. It looks better than the two Schumacher efforts, Batman Whatever and Robin’s Nipples, and is more tightly plotted than any of the four grown-up Batflicks (excluding the 1966 spinoff from the campy TV series). Yet it’s nothing more than a routine procession of stock characters, pulp-fiction conflicts, and FX spectaculars. Everything that co-scripters David S. Goyer (who also gets the “story by” credit) and Nolan have appended to the character was just cribbed from some other comic book or comic-book adaptation, notably Frank Miller’s Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns. (At least the much-pillaged Miller was compensated indirectly earlier this year, with co-director status on the flashy if repugnant Sin City.)
As its title promises, Batman Begins offers yet another version of the hero’s origins. It includes the basic story that Bob Kane wrote back in 1939: Young Bruce Wayne watches Mom and Dad (Linus Roache, Priest’s cruising cleric) gunned down by a mugger and grows up to avenge them by battling crime. The film includes a moment of childhood trauma with bats, as well as some lost years that lead Wayne (Christian Bale) into the underworld and to a stint in a Chinese prison. (This sequence recalls Bale’s Hollywood debut as a World War II prisoner in Empire of the Sun’s Japanese-run camp in China.) Like Miller’s Daredevil, Wayne then meets a vaguely Asian guru, who teaches him ninja techniques.
Rescued from the slammer by mysterious savant Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson, now typed permanently as a mystical combat mentor), Wayne travels to the CGI monastery of Ra’s Al Ghul (The Last Samurai’s Ken Watanabe). The young man learns martial techniques and sub-Nietzschean homilies (“Embrace your own fear” and so on) while sparring amid the glaciers of the Himalayas (actually Iceland). After splitting rancorously from his teachers, Wayne returns to his rotting American hometown—Gotham, which was originally New York but now includes elements of a Buck Rogers Chicago—to fight corruption and psychotic costumed villains.
Wayne develops his costume, technology, and caped-crusader schtick with the help of faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and cagey Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who curates shelved military products for Wayne Enterprises. Introducing himself as Batman, the crime fighter allies with one of Gotham’s few good cops, James Gordon (Gary Oldman). His do-gooding soul mate, however, is childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), now an assistant district attorney; she’s investigating crime lord Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson, Priest’s other priest) and slippery shrink Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), who is secretly one of those psychotic costumed villains. To assure her safety, Bruce can never tell Rachel that her old chum and secret true love is Batman—although in this case “never” lasts about 45 minutes.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. Despite Nolan’s young-turk reputation, Batman Begins is one of those films that tries to do the exact same summer-movie things that its predecessors did, only more loudly and slickly: Batman equals Superman equals Spider-Man; Rachel Dawes equals Lois Lane equals Mary Jane Watson; the Scarecrow equals Lex Luthor equals Doc Ock. And Ra’s Al Ghul equals Ming the Merciless. (Just because martial arts are now trendy doesn’t mean one need forgo stereotypes of Asians as ruthless and inhuman.) The movie is endowed with shadow-rich widescreen compositions, frantic quick cuts, and inventive hallucinations but not a shred of wit. Whenever Batman—in a rumbling, electronically treated voice—delivers the occasional one-liner, it clangs mirthlessly.
The director and his Brit-heavy Batman have a few new tricks, but they’re minor ones. Whenever presented with an opportunity to break with tradition—hire fresh-voiced composers rather than hectoring hacks Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, say, or cast an actress who looks old enough to have graduated from law school to play Gotham’s assistant DA—Nolan declined. The result is lugubrious and predictable, and desperately in need of being turned over to the superhero-flick equivalent of DangerMouse’s Cosgrove Hall Productions. Clearly the only thing that can resuscitate Batman and his fellow cash cows is a healthy measure of disrespect.
Satan-haunted evangelical Christianity and the first budding of Sapphic desire. Those would seem to be enough to buffet a 16-year-old girl for an entire coming-of-age season. But My Summer of Love is British—which means that it has something even more oppressive in reserve: the class system.
Polish-born British director Pawel Pawlikowski’s third fiction feature—following Last Resort, a tale of exile in an English seaside town—focuses on two teenagers, freckled and working-class Mona (Nathalie Press) and the wealthy Tamsin (Emily Blunt), whose name and dark looks are more exotic than anything Mona has previously encountered in or around her Yorkshire village. The first scene immediately identifies the story as the local girl’s. She’s lying on her back in the grass, somewhere in the dales, when an apparition appears, upside down: It’s Tamsin, riding her horse.
Both girls have been cast out from their usual abodes. Mona, whose parents are dead, lives above a local pub that’s just been converted to a Christian fellowship center by her explosive older brother, Phil (the ever-intense Paddy Considine), an ex-con who found Jesus in the slammer. Tamsin has been suspended from boarding school and is living practically alone in a vast country manse. Mom is on tour, “pretending to be an actress,” and Dad is busy with his mistress. She also had a sister, Tamsin explains, but she died of anorexia.
Though the two teens don’t have much in common, Tamsin desires company in her “creepy” home, and Mona wants to avoid Phil, as well as the middle-aged, married lover who just dumped her. Soon the rich girl is explaining the pleasures of art and literature to her new friend: Tamsin plays Saint-Saëns on the cello, “adores” Edith Piaf, and quotes Nietzsche. “God is dead” is the not the sort of wisdom Phil wants his little sister to hear, of course, and his mistrust turns to rage when he learns that the girls have been sunbathing nude, sharing a bed, and kissing in public. Phil can’t have his sister indulging in scandal while he’s planning to erect a massive hillside cross that will somehow drive the devil from the valley. Of course, class differences and the end of summer are certain to separate Mona and Tamsin, regardless of Phil’s actions.
My Summer of Love was derived by Pawlikowski and screenwriter Michael Wynne from a novel by Helen Cross, but it’s hardly the typical British literary adaptation. The director began by making documentaries and has tried to retain some of that form’s spontaneity and serendipity. His approach to filmmaking is not unlike that of Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda, another documentary veteran: Pawlikowski workshops extensively before filming begins and encourages improvisation in front of the camera. The finished film never seems sloppy or tentative—Blunt and Press couldn’t embody their roles any more convincingly—but has a looseness that’s both welcome and atypical of U.K. cinema.
Among British filmmakers, Pawlikowski is perhaps closest to Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. But the former rarely depicts upper-class characters, and the latter invariably renders them as caricatures. My Summer of Love, however, lets all its major players have their say and doesn’t seem to prefer one to any other. Even the monstrous Phil has his nuances, reflecting the fact that the character, who doesn’t exist in Cross’ book, is based in part on the real-life subject of a Pawlikowski documentary. This smart, gentle film may be the tale of Mona’s summer, but it’s just as open to everyone else’s stories.CP