The Batman

I have seen several comments in social media over the past few months, which question the need for a new Batman movie. That is a little understandable since the character has been trotted out a dozen times or more in the last thirty years and the D.C. Extended Universe has not made the best use of the character possible. That last bit has been rendered obsolete by the latest film which does in fact make “The Batman” a relevant character and which manages to give him something a lot more interesting to do than battle interdimensional beings from outer space. Instead of trying to fit Batman into a super hero story modelled after the MCU Infinity war, director Matt Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig have set him in what may be the most realistic version of Gotham City we have seen in the movies and given him a task that doesn’t require technology from the future. 

It seems that every iteration of the caped crusader in the last couple of decades has gotten grimmer and grimmer, and this is the current end point. The Batman is facing a job that makes him the equivalent of Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in the movie “Se7en”, he must track down a serial killer who has a hidden motive and a set of elaborate clues that he leaves behind. This story goes to some bad places, and it might be appropriate to nickname our hero “The Darker Knight”. The killings are gruesome, the clues are also pretty forbidding. We are spared seeing some of the crimes, but we do see enough to be put off by the actions of the villain, even though some of the victims seem deserving of some kind of retribution. The killer is known as The Riddler because he leaves clues that are language puzzles, for the Batman to figure out. For two thirds of the film, the character is only seen in a get up designed to limit any forensic clues and to hide his face. There is a vocal performance but it may be enhanced through audio technology. When actor Paul Dano finally appears on screen as the character, he sparks up the movie considerably, having been built up so well in the first couple of acts, his mild mannered dementia is plenty creepy even though he is not a physical threat to the hero. 

This story is set relatively early in the career of “The Batman”, and we don’t get the usual origin story, we are simply dropped into the set up as if these activities have been going on for a while. Lt. Gordon has a tentative working relationship with the masked vigilante, and that connection is resented by most of the cops but the authority of Gordon allows Batman into crime scenes where he is both forensic investigator and  profiler. This film could aptly ne subtitled “C.S.I. Gotham”. The puzzles are sometimes answered quickly by our title character but just as often, he and Gordon struggle to come up with solutions and they follow a macabre path to the next clue to try and bring them closer to the killer. Gordon is played by Jeffery Wright, who is making a career out of playing second fiddle to the main characters in films (see James Bond and The Hunger Games). His low key persona and low modulated voice are good counterparts to the title character. “The Batman” is played by Robert Pattinson, who seems to have shed the “Twilight” baggage and is building a very credible resume of films, including “Tenet” from two years ago. Usually, the actor cast in this role gets his best moments as Bruce Wayne, but this is the least Bruce Wayne heavy Batman film I have seen. Wayne is a secondary character and The Batman is front and center for the key events in the movie. The Wayne Family plays a more prominent role in the film than Bruce himself does. 

Gotham is a dark place with lots of evil around every corner, but much like the Nolan Trilogy of films, the city looks fairly normal, except for the fact that no one turns on a light and it rains almost continuously. The thing that is disturbing is how much the corruption, feckless law enforcement, and gang related violence shown in the movie, mirrors the cities like Chicago. It is taken as a given that the politicians are craven tools of special interests, in this case the mob. Two characters that are known to officials, including the police, but for which no one seems able to do anything about are Carmine Falcone and his underboss known as The Penguin. It is an open secret that they run the city and why The Batman and Gordon should be surprised at who all turns up as a victim of the Riddler is unclear. The targets are pretty well marked. The Riddler is starting at the top of the Official List and working his way down. What is a surprise is how easily one of the victims fall prey to the serial killer when he should know that his role in the crime world is connected to the first two victims. The part of the Penguin was secondary, but it was significant enough to draw Colin Farrell to it, even though he is unrecognizable in costume and make-up. As a lynchpin to the story he does have a very solid sequence that includes our introduction to the new version of the Batmobile. 

The movie looks great when seen on a big screen, I am less confident that it will translate to home viewing, unless home audiences are willing to change the settings on their televisions in some dramatic ways to see what the hell is going on on screen. For a nearly three hour movie, there are not as many action set pieces as you might expect, although there are plenty of hand to hand fistfights where Batman punches the crap out of dozens of opponents. It’s not quite at John Wick levels of preposterousness. Pattinson’s Batman has a temper and he definitely takes it out on the bad guys. When he punches someone in the face, he is not doing so indifferently, he means to punish them, without necessarily killing them. There are no real light moments in the film, but the presence of “Catwoman” Zoë Kravitz, does give us some quiet moments with a hint of romance. Her character is like Farrell, a keystone for the story but not a main character. Wright and Pattinson are the dynamic duo in this film and Dano is the formidable opponent. There is a hidden villain who shines in the few scenes he gets and that is John Turturrow’s Falcone. Be aware that there is a surprise plot turn in the last half hour of the film, That storyline is only partially set up and it feels a little tacked on, although is is explained in a very effective way.

Some people have gone so far as to say this is the best Batman film ever, and have even called it a masterpiece. I can’t go quite that far but it is top tier and on a par with the Nolan trilogy, but be warned, the seriousness of the plot up until that final turn, will remind you more of “The Silence of the Lambs” than any previous Batman film. Not a lot of humor, but some good characters effectively realized and a main plot that is driven more by detective work  than the action man with the marvelous toys. 

Tenet

This was probably the most anticipated film of the summer for a lot of people. Because of the Pandemic shutdowns, it got pushed back three times before finally making it to theaters this week. Bu all means, see this movie if you are interested, in a theater. The scope, photography and action sequences will be diminished if you choose to see this on a tablet, TV screen or heaven forbid, on a phone.

I want to start with a message that is also a warning. If, during the course of this Two and a half hour film, you need to visit the restroom or concession stand, and you are worried you will miss something that clarifies the story or advances the plot in the time you are gone, go ahead and go. Nothing explained in any five minute sequence during the film, will help you keep track of what the hell is going on in this movie. “Inception”, “Memento” and “Interstellar” all play with time and parallel events. If you ever had trouble following those concepts, which are reasonably well explained although still confusing at times, get ready to feel completely lost. For the first hour, things made sense and you could follow the logic of the world Christopher Nolan has created here. The premise is interesting and it contains the usual conundrums that time travel stories face. The problem is that about a third of the way into the film, two or three additional plot elements are introduced, each one with different time influences , and they all start influencing each other. Sometimes those effects are so complicated that a map would not help you. Events start moving faster and trying to keep up will be a waste of time if you are also trying to enjoy the movie.

There is nothing inherently wrong  in having a complicated plot, if at some point you can make sense of how it all comes together, “Tenet” attempts that but largely fails to be coherent, even though several of the twists involve tricks you have seen a hundred times before in a time travel story. Ultimately, I think you can view this film as one loop in an event that has a limitless number of possible variations. Doing that will not make the story more satisfying however. I would have to see the movie several more times to pick out the inconsistencies and  conundrums that pop up, but to be honest, Nolan himself doesn’t seem to care about them. He even has one of the characters say as much, fairly early in the film. Stop trying to make sense, let’s just let this wash over us. I can live with that, but it will leave Tenet as an exercise in style and film making, rather than a piece of cinematic art. 

With a pre-title sequence that feels a lot like a Bond film, Nolan sets this up as an espionage story, that potentially would be confusing the way some double and triple cross stories can be, but it would still be grounded. As the science fiction element takes center stage, the tradition spy tropes get doubled back on with a wink and a nod to time travel twists we have seen before. I won’t spoil it for you, but during a heist scene, one character confronts another and we don’t see the second characters face in that sequence. You know that will play out again, and there will be a reveal.,,guess what’s coming.

John David Washington has just enough charisma to play the low key “Protagonist” of the story. The scene that shows off the potential of what might have been a solid spy film, involves his lunch with Michael Caine. It is not his fighting skill, or dramatic intensity that makes the scene work, rather, it is his bemused self confidence in the face of being judged by others. One place I don’t think he was quite successful at was the near romantic element of his relationship with the character played by actress Elizabeth Debicki. I can buy that he feels a sense of responsibility for her in a paternalistic way, but the embers of romance that are supposed to be the base of this are not there.  He can sell that he cares, what is not clear is why he cares.

We get a pretty good preview of what the next Batman movie will be like because Robert Pattinson, plays a much more active Felix Leiter to Washington’s 007. I suspect, that as in most of the good Batman films, the quirky Bruce Wayne will not take a back seat to the brooding “Dark Knight”. Pattinson plays Neil, the mysterious counterpart to the Protagonist, and he has a light touch with the humor and enough presenter to sell the physicality. 

You ready for a surprise? The actor who steals the movie is Kenneth Branagh. Taking the start he made on a similar character in the Jack Ryan film from a few years ago, Branagh manages to make a cartoon villain feel dangerously real. A kingpin of a Russian oligarch, it would be easy to just say the lines and have threats come off as empty bravado. Nolan gives Branagh actions to play that show us his ruthlessness, the actor adds a sense of menace to those lines, but never with the charm of a fictional character. Instead, the deadly earnestness of his performance is disturbingly real. The tiniest touch of humanity right at the end of the film paints just enough of a persona to make the character evn more real, and loathsome. 

Filmed in some of the most beautiful locales in the world, it would be hard to fault the look of the picture. The movie is not overcut in the action scenes, but the parallel time tracks and reverse structure do require some frequent cuts in perspective that can get a bit confusing at times. The backward car chase sequence looks great, but when it is followed up on, instead of being clearer, it leads us to start questioning what we really saw before, but not in the good way that it is supposed to work. 

At two and a half hours, despite a solid pace, the film feels long. Probably because of the plot conceit concerning inverted time elements. I loved “Memento” but it was less than two hours and the same kind of thing happens there. Adding another forty minutes to it would do to it what happens with “Tenet”, it makes you look at your watch and wonder how much longer it is going to go on.  Maybe when it is serialized as a four hour mini-series, it will work better. 

Christopher Nolan has one of the greatest imaginations in the film industry. There are terrific concepts in most of the movies he has made. There are simply too many times that we ravel on a tangent that takes up a chunk of time but might have been replaced with something simpler as just as easy to admire. The stacking Russian Doll story structure worked well in “Dunkirk”, it was clever in “Inception”, but it is simply overdoing it in this movie. 

I probably sound like I am down on the film, I’m not really. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Pattinson and Washington invading a penthouse in India, or doing a heist at an airport freeport, were well staged action scenes. The inverted battle at the climax of the movie was spectacular to look at but mostly incomprehensible. The inverted stories are fine but when you start to retcon your own movie to change the outcomes, you create dilemmas that Solomon could not work out and algorithms that might give Einstein fits. See the movie, go with what is happening on the screen at any point and don’t try to make it make sense. That extra brainwork will distract from the moment, and it is the moments that make this movie worth seeing, not the plot.  

The Lighthouse

If you were to take “Brokeback Mountain” and cross it with “The Shining” and add a little Herman Melville to the mix, you might get what this picture attempts to be. It is sort of a sea shanty about madness from isolation. Now sprinkle in a little tentacle sex and you start to get a clearer picture. What I have given you here is a far more coherent description of the film than you will get from watching it for 109 minutes. This pretentious piece of dreck has little to offer and everything to frustrate.

I will be honest, I was not a fan of the much admired first film from writer director Robert Eggers. “The VVitch” was slow, ponderous and the end of the film undermined what the movie seemed to be trying to accomplish. I don’t know what this movie was trying to do, but I can tell you what it did for me, it pissed me off. Both of the actors, Robert Pattinson and Willem DaFoe, dive in whole-heartedly to the proceedings, with Dafoe  hamming up the arcane dialect in a manner worthy of a pirate movie. Half of the dialogue will get lost in the style of delivery, but it won’t matter because there is no consistent voice to what you are seeing anyway. Oh, and by the way, you won’t be seeing nearly as much as you should. Eggers has decided to shoot this film in black and white, mainly at night, in a location with one source of illumination that can’t be turned into the camera.

At one point one of the characters suggests that the whole experience was just in the head of the other character. That would have been an indicator of where we might go, except that a dozen other things happen which suggest that the two characters might even be the same person. Which doesn’t make any sense even in a horror film, which this may or may not be classified as. I had no idea what the story was about, all I knew was that the two actors are in a lighthouse. After watching the damn thing, that’s still app I really know. The camera pans up slowly, then it holds on something for a while, then it pulls back, and then there is a close up, none of which contributes to suspense, terror or drama. There were some people laughing, so maybe it is supposed to be a comedy, but it did not strike me as funny at all.

It looks like I will be an outlier on this, there are great ratings on many of the mega sites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. I will try to listen to some of my fellow bloggers and podcasters as they talk about this, but if you hear a foghorn in the background it may simply be me calling “bullll…shiiit.” If I see Mr. Eggers name on future projects, I will be sure to let those who appreciate his torpid style and incoherent narratives enjoy themselves. I’ll be looking for something human beings might like.