August 24th, 2005

Batman Begins

After seeing it, I would say that "Batman Begins" bumps up to number 2 on the summer movie list. This is the dark and gritty Batman, very similar in tone to the Frank Miller "Batman: Year One" that so revitalized the chracter in the comics. This new adaptation adds a new and ironic twist to the Batman legend--that, as a child, he was terrified by bats, thus making the ultimate choice of the bat-icon a gesture of defiance in the face of fear. The movie continues the legend, again with some twists: it is an opera performance of Boito's "Mefistofeles" the waynes are leaving when they have their fateful encounter. (In the comics they were leaving a movie--"Zorro" with Douglas Fairbanks, also a symbolic choice.) Originally a nameless thug, the film restores the later name given the killer--Joe Chill, a petty criminal. (The first of the recent Batman movies made thte Waynes' killer the man who would later become the Joker--anothe change unique to the movies.) Bruce grows up traumatized and disaffected,nearly wasting his life to take revenge on Chill, when the Underworld reaches out and cheats him of that as well. He then journeys across the world learning the fighting skills he will later use as Batman.

The choice of villains was interesting. Scarecrow has always been a secondary Bat-villain, a sort of reverse-Joker, but his "fear gas" makse a believable city-destroying weapon, even if the delivery system is not. (A microwave emitter sufficiently powerful to areosolize all the water in a buried pipe system would kill every human in its range all by itself--.) In the comics, Ras Al Gul is the legendary "Old Man of the Mountain," leader of the Brotherhood of Assassins. The movie version heads a different sort of secret society dedicated to promoting social evolution by destroying decadent cultures--and no place is more decadent than Gotham, at least in Al Gul's measurement.

Christain Bale made a very good Wayne/Batman, even if the shape of his face does eerily resemble tht of Adam west, the notorious TV Batman of the 1960's. The supporting cast was well chosen, except, in my opinion, the too-pretty actor who played Jonathan Crane, who was always a notabley homely character in the comics, and no longer young when he turned to crime.

I'm not sure if this is the best Batman film, but it's a close call between this and the first modern Batman, with its Gothic Gotham and over-the-top-Jack Nicholson as The Joker (The Joker is one of my favorite comic villains) but Bale may be the best Batman yet.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The allegation by Tim Burton and Johhny Depp that they were not so much remakeing the 1971 musical "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" as redoing a new movie from the book may be somewhat disingenuous, since ther are shote in both movies that are not in the book. However, they are both very different films. Gene Wilder's trickster/teacher Wonka had a glint of madness, but there was definitely method there. Depp, with his cyanotic complexion and Jack-the-Ripper-gone-Carnaby-Street outfit is obvioulsy channelling Micheal Jackson, a fact made more disturbing in that his portrayal is that of someone gone "queer" in the old sense through paranoia and isolation. Burton's wonka Works is grander and darker, but somehow not more dangerous than the musical's more candy-colored sets. After Augustus Gloop, Verucha Salt, and the other brats disappeared inthe musical, they were never seen again, which made their fates more ominous. Was Augustus in fact rescued fromthe fudge beaters? Was the incinerator REALLY turned off? Thought hemagic of special effects we can now see that they all do in fact survice, although some in strangely altered states.

The musical version outraged Dahl purists, although I actually think Wilder's manic Wonka is truer to Dahl's book than Depp's mad candymaker. If the musical's main offenses were the pompous and tedious Oompa-Looma songs and the outlandish Ooompa-Loompa makeup, it more than made up for it in pace and energy. In Burton's version, parents stand around for agonizingly long times doing nothing while the children amble into danger. The 1971 version avoided that with tighter pacing and the fantastic logic of musicals tht everyone else stops what her or she is doing while someone else is singing. And I thought the songs added a lot. "I've got a Golden Ticket" is sucha joyous song, you can accept the aged Grandpa Joe dancing for joy. By contrast, the version where David Kelly's "Grandpa Joe" dances without song or music seems pointless. Remember that "The Candyman" was a good enough song to be a hit on its own before being run into the ground. And is there a more beautiful song than "Pure Imagination"? And i've always had a soft spot for Verucha salt's over-the-top explosion of brattiness in "I want it Now!"

Depp's is certainly a wonderful if eerie characterization, supported by significan new backstory of his strange childhood dominated by his dentist father (Christopher Lee!). David Kelly is charmingly feeble and sweet in the early parts of the film, but once into the factory fades into the background, unlike Jack Albertson's Grandpa Joe, who reamined an influential, if not always wise, commentator on the action in the older film. The kids are kids, although the new bathch of brats seemed to be worse than their earlier counterparts, especially Mike Teevee, whom I defy anyone not to want to slap.

Ultimately, in the bet of all possible worlds, I would choose Burton's sets and costumes with the 1971 script, cast, and score (except replace the Oompa-Loompa songs with the new ones by Elfman, which were a scream--).

Fantastic Four

Fantastic Four is this year's movie adaptation of a classic Marvel comic book. As these go, I think it bits fair to rank perhaps along with Daredevil. Well done, but not destined for wild success like Spider-Man or X-Men, but not a failure like The Hulk, either.

I was particularly pleased by the updating of the origin story, which worked well. Reed Richards is a down-on-his luck inventor, scrounging for funding for his latest project from former classmate and rival, Victor Von Doom. Susan Storm is a scientist and administrator in her own right, and her brother Johnny is a qualified shuttle pilot, which gives them both good reasons for going along on Reed's space mission. This is a marked improvement on the early 1960's "spaceship-under-the-apple-tree" original, wherein Reed built his own insufficiently shielded spaceship and took his girlfriend and her kid brother along apparently for no other reason than that he built the ship with four seats.

The fact that Von Doom shares the cosmic irradiation is a marked departure from canon, although it does give him a more plausible origin and motivation (and cause of madness) than the stereotypical master villain riff he started out with in the comics.

So far, this film has not overlapped with any of the other Marvel films, so we get to see yet another iteration of inventing the super-hero job from the ground up, which has interesting aspects, although Reed seems to have come into control of his powers a lot faster and more effectively than the others do.

Overall, very good work by Ioan Gruffud as Reed, Jessica Alba as Sue, Chris Evans as adrenaline junkie and general jerk Johnny, Julian McMahon as Doom, and especially Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm. The producers made an excellent choice in deciding to do "the Thing" as a prosthetic suit rather than computer generation, and Chiklis manages to emote sufficiently under all that latex foam to make us feel for his plight. Also, a very bold and interesting choice to make Alicia Masters a black woman, given the world of comics where interracial dating is more likely to mean that one of them's an alien.

Recommended, although I don't know if this franchise has any life in it. The Four's main advantage was the group relationship, which gets mostly ironed out here--Reed and Susan are together , and Ben seems reconciled to his state. Unlike Spider-Man, after Dr. Doom, the FF never had a really great Rogue's Gallery--who would be next, the Mole Man? Nor did they ever have a long, strong story arc like the X-Men have had with the Sentinels, Phoenix/Dark Phoenix, et al. The FF usually seem to be the ones that crossover into other people's books and furnish that extra bit of strength, skill, or science that does the trick.

Arts and Crafts

he Milwaukee Art Museum is hosting an exhibit on the Arts and Crafts Movement. The Arts and Crafts Movement name was coined in 1887, when a group of designers met in London to found an organization-the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society-for which applied art would be valued as equal to fine art. Many in the movement championed the moral and spiritual uplift that would come with the revival of making objects by hand. The improvement of working conditions, the integration of art into everyday life, the unity of all arts, and an aesthetic resulting from the use of indigenous materials and native traditions also were central to the movement's philosophy.

The Arts and Crafts Movement, in large part, was neither anti-industrial nor anti-modern. While its adherents idealized the pre-industrial past, they did not reject the present. They believed that machines were necessary but should be used only to relieve the tedium of mindless, repetitive tasks. Britain, at the very epicenter of the Industrial Revolution, was the center for designers most opposed to the dehumanizing consequences of factory production. Without joy in labor, making goods would have neither merit nor value. At the same time, they felt that objects should be affordable and useful, and therefore, objects such as the exhibition's Small Window Bench, made by the Charles P. Limbert Company in 1907, were produced in factories. The conflict between these two beliefs, and the attempts to reconcile them, comprised the focus of design debates during the first two decades of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, the movement was overtaken by two world wars, which pushed industrialization and mass production into the forefront, and giving rise to the following period of "modern" design, the best of which was expressed by Brooks Stevens and his ilk, and the worst of which tends unfortunately to be still with us.

The exhibition contained many lovely items from books (a Canterbury Tales printed by William Morris and illustrated by pre-Raphealite painter Edward Burne-Jones--oh, drool!) to tableware, furniture, and architecture. Some of the pieces were beautiful, some bizarre, but they tend to share a sense of homey design and having been made by and for real people. I think it no coincidence that watercolors of Scandinavian and British designs tend to look like Tolkien's paintings of Bag End--. There were examples given from nations I had never associated with the movement, such as Finland and Hungary, and a well-produced concise timeline for each country. This exhibit was fascinating and well worth the time.


Ironically, it seems we decided to head down to Bristol Renaissance Fair the same Saturday that Madisonians Tracy Benton and Bill Bodden did, and we totally missed seeing them, or they us. Not that we knew the others were there. The grounds are somewhat winding and there are hundreds of places to be inside, not to mention lost in the crowd, but considering that we spent a good amount of our time haunting the clothing shops, it is strange we didn't meet. Most of this trip was spent looking at the shops, although we took in the nobles' dancing, and refreshed our memory as to a lot of the other performers briefly. We did decide that, if we won a lottery jackpot we would need a truck to haul away loot form Bristol--boots, blades, clothes, jewels--oh, my.
This year there were a few new vendors, including a kilt maker, and several of the stores seemed to have been rearranged and brightened up, which made the experience more pleasant. Georgie bought a multi-colored "scroll" skirt from Moresca which may show up as part of her carnival outfit at WisCon--.

The following Saturday we made a somewhat abbreviated trip to the Wisconsin State Fair. The weather was good and crowds reasonable, but the two friends we were with, who are both dear to us, unfortunately are getting so arthritic that after the initial entry to the park, anything more than a few minutes of walking requires a rest break. Add to that that they will NOT eat breakfast before coming, so that the first thing that must be done is a trudge to the middle of the fairgrounds to get omelets. Resultantly, at least half the fair visit consists of sitting in some more-or-less uncomfortable spot chatting while second winds are gathered. We like chatting with our friends, but we can do that anytime--. Nevertheless, we managed to get in a minimally satisfying sample. Some years, we've had time to make more than one trip with one on just our own so we can cover the ground we want to hit. Next year, we'll have to plan that.