Sunday, March 6, 2022

Dinner and a show

The local movie house in downtown Park Rapids, Minn. has been closed for the winter, which is regrettable. A certain sense that one has to get out in the evening builds and builds until it becomes intolerable, and for me, that means the movies. From here, I could drive between 30 and 50 miles each way to visit movie theaters in Hackensack, Wadena, Detroit Lakes, Perham, Cass Lake and Staples (that list is in ascending order of distance). For some odd reason, I've only gone the Wadena route until last night; maybe it's because I frequently head that way to visit my parents, who live one town over. I've never traveled from here to Hackensack, even though it's the closest; I can't say why, other than never having any business there. But work has taken me to Detroit Lakes several times, and traveling to visit family has taken me through it even more often, so it was that direction I decided to drive last night when I couldn't stand not going to the movies any longer.

I found the movie theater with no problem. It was in a mall that also had some restaurants in it, including a Chinese place that I decided to try for dinner. I hate to judge based on only one visit, and admittedly, I've been to worse Chinese restaurants. But dinner didn't at all upstage the movie, I'll tell you. Upon arriving at my booth, I thought I smelled a barnyard, which is not a really appetizing aroma. The menu was huge and covered in fine print, confronting me with more choices than I knew what to make of. Desperate for a signpost, I asked my waitress for a suggestion. She recommended something called Governor's Chicken that was supposed to be like General Tso's, but its flavor lacked anything interesting or memorable, and the fried rice that came with it had a horrid surprise buried in it for me to spit into my napkin. I was given a choice of rice soup or egg drop, and having never had rice soup before I gave it a try; funnily enough, it turned out to be a bowl of light broth with some rice in it, and about three slices of green onion, and only wanted a couple glugs of soy sauce to taste like anything in particular. The egg roll was above reproach. Maybe I'll give the place another chance, and next time I'll order a duck dish (which I had toyed with for a moment) or something especially spicy, and I'll give the fried rice a good stir before I start shoveling it in.

So much for dinner. The movie theater, directly across the mall corridor from the Chinese place, was called Washington Square Cinemagic and it was pretty nice, although again, I think it could be nicer. I was confused to see cash registers only at the concession stand and no box office; I actually had to ask an employee where I was supposed to buy tickets, because in all my years of going to the show, I don't recall ever seeing the box office and concessions combined into one-stop shopping. My next problem is that I didn't know what the showtimes were, and despite having plenty of wall space for the concessions menu and more, and even a flat-screen displaying promotional video, the management didn't see fit to put a screen with the showtimes inside the theater. I had to go back out into the mall to look at a screen on the wall outside the theater. It was such a confusing place that I dithered around and had to ask staff a couple more questions before I'd figured out where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do.

Once seated in the auditorium where my movie was going to be screened, I found the seats comfortable, but the pre-trailers video entertainment was repetitive and obnoxious. The theater wanted everybody to pull out their phones and download an app so they could interact with onscreen games and take movie trivia quizzes. It was a strange way to begin the cinema experience where, usually, you're encouraged to silence your phone and put it away. And then, after warning the audience in the sternest language to do just that, and to behave themselves, I found their threats to be ineffective because the row behind me was filled with rowdy schoolboys who talked among themselves all the way through the movie.

But now, despite having every reason to give the finger to the entire experience, here's a review of the movie I saw. It was The Batman, a fresh reboot of the DC Comics movie franchise previously headlined by Michael Keaton, then Val Kilmer, then (ugh) George Clooney, then Christian Bale, then Ben Affleck, and a partridge in a pear tree. And that's just since I was the age of the brats in the row behind me last night. Now, after all those films, they've given the role to Cedric Diggory, I mean Edward Cullen – I mean, of course, Robert Pattinson. Before I go any further, let me lay on you One Line That Made It For Me, and it's part of the No. 1 Scene That Ditto, below. The Batman and the Riddler are face to face – well, face to mask; the Batman is there in his professional capacity, but the Riddler has been captured and identified. Otherwise, there's only a sheet of wire-mesh-reinforced glass between them when the Riddler says (and here I paraphrase), "You know, the people who want to unmask us are missing the point. I'm most truly myself when I wear the mask. I'm sure you get that. In fact, I think I'm looking at the true you right now." This quote is literally the saving of this movie, and of Robert Pattinson's portrayal of Bruce Wayne. I'll say more on that later.

But now I come prematurely to Three Scenes That Made It For Me, because I don't think I can say what I mean about this movie without first discussing those.

(1) They've caught the Riddler, a masked lunatic who has been committing a series of heinous murders of high-profile public figures, leaving cryptic messages to "the Batman" (although the guy in the bat suit actually calls himself Vengeance) and posting videos on the internet, claiming to be exposing the lies behind city leaders' promises of renewal. He'd even tried (unsuccessfully) to blow up Bruce Wayne, under the rubric "the sins of the father are visited upon the son." Under the killer's scary mask, he turns out to be a wimpy, bespectacled accountant, played by Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Ruby Sparks). Vengeance and the cops are searching the wacko's apartment, trying to understand who his next target was going to be. Venge, a.k.a. the Batman, spots a collage of photos and newspaper clippings, and thanks to a graffito about revealing the truth being right next to a photo of Bruce Wayne, he apparently begins to think the Riddler is onto his secret identity. Then the cops get a text saying that the Riddler wants to see the Batman at Arkham Asylum. So, Venge goes to the interview, all bat-suited out, and after the Riddler does the expected "I knew you would come" thing, he begins to mouth the name "Bruce Wayne," very meaningfully, then say it aloud. He spits it out, like it's burning his tongue. He begins a harangue about how Bruce Wayne was the orphan everybody in Gotham was thinking about, when his parents were killed, even though his standard of living was way above the kids in the orphanage where the Riddler grew up. You see the Bat's eyes darting around the room, observing video cameras recording their interview. You can tell, despite the mask concealing half of his face, that he's bracing himself for his true identity to be outed. Then the Riddler sighs and says something about Bruce Wayne being the one who got away, and then turns the subject toward what he and the Batman have (in his diseased mind) done together. This leads to Pattinson displaying, a second time in the same scene, an amazing feat of acting considering how much of him was covered by the bat suit – a look of relief that passes over the lower half of his face, and his eyes, when he realizes that the Riddler hasn't actually riddled out who he truly is. The Batman's relief is short-lived as he then realizes his "Vengeance" persona actually inspired the Riddler (and others) to don masks and sow chaos, even considering him to be working with them. And then the Batman issues a cruel putdown that shakes the Riddler out of his maniacal gloating and turns him into the whining lunatic that he remains for the remainder of the movie – except for a flash of malice as he realizes that the Bat hasn't solved his last riddle yet.

(2) Police Lt. Jim Gordon (played by Jeffrey Wright, a.k.a. Felix Lighter in the last few James Bond films) is caught between an interrogation roomful of cops and the Batman and has to figure out how to separate them before they tear each other to pieces. After narrowly managing to de-escalate the situation and getting the Batman alone (to a degree), he basically says, "You're gonna have to punch my lights out, steal my key to this room, let yourself out and run up this stairwell to the roof." Pow! It happens, and the next time they meet, Gordon rubs his jaw and says, "You could have pulled your punch," to which the Batman says, "I did."

(3) A tie, because honorable mentions are for sissies: (a) Whenever Selena Kyle/Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz) and the Batman are face to face and close enough to kiss, which they do at least a couple times; these moments always heat up the screen. Also, she always tells him interesting things in these scenes, like when she responds to one of his antisocial comments with an offhand remark about how he must have grown up rich to be able to say stuff like that. But the best instance is at the end of the movie, when Selena urges the Bat to run away with her because if he keeps doing what he's doing in Gotham City, it's going to get him killed. And you sense that she's right. (b) A scene in which the Batman, holding a blazing red flare about his head, leads a group of survivors through a pitch dark, flooded disaster area, which is not only a turning point for his character in relation to the people of Gotham City but also just an awesome image. (c) Any scene featuring the Penguin, because I could never quite recognize the actor under the makeup but I knew it was somebody I should know. I had to watch the end credits to find out who it was, and it blew my mind to see that Colin Farrell played the role. Though I knew it had to be someone big, because despite a ton of prosthetics, he still had a vivid character and an expressive face.

So, now that that's out of the way, let me tell you what I thought about the movie. It's different from all the other Batman films. So, so different. For starters, Gotham City looks lived-in, like a real-world city that has lots of history – unlike the cartoon-Gothic urban hellscape designed by Tim Burton et al. Batman's suit, gadgets and vehicles don't look impractical to the point of campiness; he just comes across as incredibly well-equipped. And with all respect toward Adam West and George Clooney, Robert Pattinson's Batman is about as funny as a landmine. When he stomps out of the shadows with his heavy-soled boots and his impressive bat suit (a bit less constricting of head movement than the Keaton/Kilmer/Clooney versions), particularly to the accompanying theme by Michael Giacchino played in an ominous, low register on the piano, he's terrifying. When he revs up the turbocharged Batmobile and races after you in a death defying chase scene, with the same theme played by a full, screaming orchestra, the terror dials itself up to gut-deep horror. He has a freakish lack of qualms about wading into a fight against superior numbers, and he takes a serious beating and keeps going (though not without feeling the effects, or wearing scars to show for it).

Meanwhile, unlike the Keaton, Kilmer, Bale and Affleck iterations, Pattinson's Bruce Wayne is entirely lacking in social graces. He couldn't pass for a philanthropic billionaire, even though he has the billionaire part down cold. This Bruce Wayne is so tight-lipped, so surly, so socially non-functional that it tempts you to speculate about where on the autism spectrum he is. Alfred (played by Andy Serkis of "Gollum" fame) has a lot to put up with, though he also halfway admits to being partly to blame for it. The guy's in danger of not being a billionaire for much longer, he's that bad at keeping up appearances even with the company that he (barely) controls. He's got "always been a moody brat and stayed that way even when he should have aged out of it" written all over him, in every scene in which he doesn't wear the bat suit. And yet, when said suit is on, without changing any mannerisms or becoming anything like a sparkling conversationalist, that attitude suddenly works for him and he becomes impressive to the point of instilling awe. It's just like the Riddler said, way back in that approximate quote I dropped at the top of this review: he isn't himself as Bruce Wayne. And though he introduces himself as Vengance in an early scene, stuff happens that ... well, let's just say that he's most who he is when he's the Batman. And you see him working on exactly who that is as this movie goes along.

It's a thinking movie. It's a nerve-rattling movie. It's a psychological movie. It's kind of a hardboiled mystery, with loads of noir and plenty of space (by which I mean, time) to develop a mood without any dialogue intruding on it. It's a movie in which Gotham City doesn't seem like an exaggerated version of the real world; not exaggerated at all. It's a world that goes to your heart because it could be your world, and it needs a hero, and the Batman is the best it's gonna get, and that ain't necessarily good news – and finding out whether it's gonna be good news or not is part of what this movie is about. It risks things that risk-averse studio executives usually wouldn't stand for. It pulls them off, not in spectacular style, but in a dark, brooding, dangerous style that makes you uncomfortable in exactly the way it intends to. It has action – fights, chases, escapes, rescues – and it builds to a terrific climax despite faking you into thinking it's gone to anticlimax hell. It has a visual design that brings Gotham into the 21st century, and a memorable musical score that, unfortunately, is going to ruin Schubert's Ave Maria for the next generation, and maybe the In Paradisum from Faure's Requiem into the bargain (cf. the scene where Alfred opens a letter bomb meant for Bruce). I'll also say of Giacchino's score that it does musically what this film's art design does, stripping away every whimsical vestige of Danny Elfman's gothic cartoon world.

The movie also has a great, if British-centric cast, including John Turturro as a crime boss, Peter Sarsgaard (who played the villainous Walter Duranty in Mr. Jones) as a corrupt D.A., and British soap villain Alex Ferns as a corrupt police commissioner. It has a reboot of the Bat-franchise that doesn't weary us with an unnecessary, onscreen rehash of the whole death-of-Thomas-and-Martha-Wayne thing, although Bruce's bat-quest to find out who was responsible for their deaths is woven into the storyline. Thanks in part to that one line, that made a virtue of Pattinson's morose performance as Bruce Wayne, I admired everything about it except the ignorance and disrespect displayed by the people in the row behind me. I'd watch it again.

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