Bat-Riddles Solved! Yawn, Not Really

I guess I should try to like-or at least understand-some of the summer schlock that pours up from Hollywood hell every year, when the weather turns unbearable and otherwise sane people think nothing of throwing away large chunks of mad money to seek air-conditioned relief at the movies. But Batman Begins is a bad place to start.

Dragging Batman addicts back to the beginning of the Bob Kane action heroics published by DC Comics, the producers of this sadistic mess spent enough money to find a cure for AIDS, but they couldn’t find a way to keep me awake. Batman Begins is like a corny ride at Disney World, pushing its way through cardboard tunnels with silent passengers, second-rate thrills and no payoff at the end of the trip. Even with an excess of special effects, kung fu, martial arts, car crashes, runaway trains, enough violence to make you retch and enough noise to burst your eardrums, it’s still silly and boring-a massive labyrinth of incomprehensible gibberish that left me asking, “Huh?”

This is the fifth of the big-budget Batman flicks (I’m not counting the cheesy TV series with Eartha Kitt as Catwoman and the cheap movie knockoff with Adam West), and they’ve saved the worst for last. With Christian Bale as the latest camp crusader, this is the one that answers such burning Zeitgeist-curdling questions as: Who is Bruce Wayne? Why does he live in the kind of underground cave usually reserved for bat droppings? Why does he prowl the night, even in a heat wave, wearing a rubber sweatbox with big ears? Why doesn’t he have a girlfriend? This movie goes to elaborate means to actually provide a few of the answers we’ve all been waiting for. Nothing about the relationship between Batman and his adoring young sidekick-cum-roommate-cum-jailbait Robin, although their dark Bat Cave does have only one bedroom and … but I’m getting ahead of myself. One revelation at a time, please.

First, there’s little Brucie, traumatized by two childhood setbacks: falling down a cistern into a subterranean cavern populated by thousands of bats, and watching his parents gunned down in the streets of Gotham on a night that changed the course of his life and drove him to seek revenge. Tortured by guilt and rage, Bruce turns his back on his inheritance, runs away from Princeton and roams the world. Years of existential drifting lead him to a sadistic prison in the middle of what looks like Mongolia or Tibet, from which he escapes to the snowy mountains of Bhutan and the hideout of the League of Shadows, a murderous vigilante group headed by Ken ( The Last Samurai) Watanabe. Under the wing of a mysterious mentor named Ducard (Liam Neeson, mumbling the most pretentious mumbo-jumbo since Qui-Gon Jinn), Bruce masters the physical and mental disciplines to fight the evils of the underworld by eating the petals of a rare blue flower that grows out of the ice and has only been previously munched, one presumes, by the Abominable Snowman.

“What are you seeking?” asks Ducard. “To fight injustice,” says Bruce. To save others from fear, he must first confront his own, which of course means-egads!-bats! Trust me when I tell you that the first 45 minutes of this movie are devoted to a ludicrous, nonstop philosophical debate about the theory of anger and the principles of justice. (I timed it with a watch.) At the end of 45 minutes, anybody who is still awake will be treated to a wild martial-arts melee in which bones crack in Dolby and Bruce burns everyone to death in an explosion massive enough to annex the Himalayas to mainland China. Then Bruce returns to Gotham to wipe out corruption in a Halloween costume.

After seven years’ absence, he takes over his father’s empire, but it’s not easy fighting the rats and the hoods in their underworld sewers when you’re a rich playboy in a Ralph Lauren tux. Without Superman’s Kryptonite or Spider-Man’s wall-scaling cobwebs, poor Bruce has to find his power in an indestructible symbol-the kind that will scare the crap out of the criminal underworld, land him in the tabloids and attract good P.R. Aha! How about the thing he dreads most? A bat! “To conquer fear, a man must become fear-bask in the fears of other men!” is the talisman he lives by. I know: It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s the reason for the bat costume. Also the Batmobile and the flexible-fabric Batman cape, designed by Morgan Freeman, and the glistening Batcave, fluffed up by his long-term butler, valet and family retainer Alfred (Michael Caine, slumming and sardonic, but the money was good).

From preppie nebbish to crusading masked vigilante, it’s good to see Christian Bale looking healthy again. After destroying his body to lose 63 pounds for the role of the emaciated human cadaver in The Machinist, he’s wisely back on ice cream and mashed potatoes again. The second half of the movie is recycled comic-book splat-pow-zowie, with Batman and the good guys (Caine, Freeman and Gary Oldman as Gotham’s only honest cop) declaring war on the villains (notorious drug lord Tom Wilkinson, corporate thief Rutger Hauer and evil insane-asylum doctor Cillian Murphy), who are smuggling toxins into the city to poison the water supply. Toxins (are you ready?) from the weird blue flowers back in Bhutan! There is a girl: Katie Holmes, too young for the part and hopelessly miscast as an assistant district attorney. She’s around for window dressing. She says things like “It’s not what you are underneath-it’s what you do that defines you.” No wonder Bruce is waiting for Robin.

Batman Begins is for morons. There isn’t one sincere or convincing moment in it, and even the stunts are too boring to sustain interest. It’s a miracle that any of the actors can speak their lines with the remotest iota of conviction, and most of the time it’s obvious that the big talents like Neeson, Caine, Freeman, Oldman and Wilkinson are not even trying. I liked the design of Gotham-a mechanized jungle of steel girders and elevated trains, where it is always midnight-but none of the other elements that made the previous Batman movies so entertaining are present here. The film has no interesting villains. No Catwoman, no Mr. Freeze, no Penguin, no Poison Ivy, no Batgirl. The plot is all over the place. The numbing script and lame direction, both by Christopher Nolan, who made the overrated, mind-bending Memento, smacks of desperation. There’s not one train crash, but two. Not one Batmobile chase, but many. The movie seems to be running the same footage over and over again. The plotting is careless and lacks coherence. Mr. Bale’s unremarkable performance as the masked creature of the night is a lot of empty swaggering.

And where do they go from here? At the end, somebody presents Batman with a photograph of Gotham’s next big colorful and devious hoodlum: the Joker! But we’ve already been there, done that. With any luck, Batman Begins is also Batman Ends.

The Enchanter

Mr. Bale is seen to better advantage in Howl’s Moving Castle, in which he isn’t seen at all. In this animated children’s fantasy by Japanese icon Hayao Miyazaki, he is heard as the voice of Howl, a handsome, manly and quite beleaguered Mitteleuropa wizard who travels from town to town in a magical house with gigantic chicken legs that looks like a cross between the Mill on the Floss and the Toonerville Trolley.

Into this flying junkyard comes the heroine of the story, a warm-hearted, appealing but sadly plain-faced 18-year-old hat maker named Sophie (Emily Mortimer), who has been turned into an old crone by the disagreeable Witch of the Waste (a hilarious turn by that most revered of all Gravel Gerties, Lauren Bacall). Searching for the magic potion that will reverse the spell, the romantic Sophie, trapped in the body of an arthritic, ratchety-voiced old Grandma (the legendary Jean Simmons, with a vocal bass fiddle of a rumble that stops the show), joins Howl’s moving castle as a cleaning woman and proceeds to change the lives of the inhabitants, each of whom is under a different kind of spell.

They include Markl, the wizard’s apprentice (Josh Hutcherson), and Calcifer (Billy Crystal), the fire flame that gives the house its energy, heat and personality, as well as the once-glamorous witch, who has melted into a blob of oozing double chins and varicose veins. One by one, Grandma transforms all of their lives, including her own, while they wait for a miracle from the powerful Madame Suliman (Blythe Danner), the sorceress who has caused all of the problems in the first place. But it’s not the plot that will stoke imaginations of every age. It’s the depth and dimension of the imagery-beautiful landscapes in a setting that looks like a cross between Berchtesgaden and Vermont, a silent scarecrow named Turnip Head, armies of soldiers marching to war, battlefields and markets and town squares teeming with people, airplanes and explosions and violence and romantic entanglements that make you laugh and sigh and applaud the beauty and scope of Mr. Miyazaki’s unique, all-encompassing and completely original visions.

The whole thing has the heavenly whimsy of Ludwig Bemelmans’ illustrations from the classic French children’s books. The result is 118 minutes of rapturous enchantment. None of this magic can be properly described in a way that can fully serve its unforgettable flavor. Sublime and splendiferous, there has simply never been anything like the sophisticated animation of Hayao Miyazaki. All I can say is that if you think you’re too old or too jaded for the ingenuity and wonder of Howl’s Moving Castle, you better check to see if your heart is still beating.

Puzzle People

For discerning viewers with attention-deficit disorders and challenged tailbones who like their plots juicy and their movies short, Heights is just what the chiropractor ordered. Sensitively written by Amy Fox and carefully directed by Chris Terrio, both making sound, intelligent feature-film debuts, and produced by the late, lamented Ismail Merchant, Heights is one of those layered ensemble pieces that tells several different stories simultaneously, fatefully connecting the lives of a disparate group of conflicted people with surprising twists of irony in the Robert Altman tradition. Like Short Cuts or Magnolia-or the recent Crash-it has a cantilevered effect, like an architectural curiosity in which the levels balance each other with hanging beams that seem to appear from nowhere.

During one hot 24 hours of a steamy Manhattan summer, Diana Lee (Glenn Close), a celebrated and neurotic Broadway star, is rehearsing for a revisionist production of Macbeth in which the three witches are modeled after Laura Bush, Lynne Cheney and Martha Stewart. While she agonizes over the lack of onstage passion in her director (Eric Bogosian), her husband is creating some backstage passion of his own with another woman. Her daughter Isabel (Elizabeth Banks), a beautiful photographer, is shivering with fear and doubt over her forthcoming wedding to her dreamboat roommate, Jonathan (camera-ready pretty boy James Marsden), a promising young lawyer tortured by a dark secret he can’t even tell his rabbi (George Segal). Isabel’s predicament is exacerbated by her old boyfriend Mark (Matt Davis), who offers her a great assignment for the ultra-boring New York Times Magazine section.

The tension mounts when Peter (John Light), a handsome reporter for Vanity Fair, arrives from London to write a piece about Benjamin Stone, a famously gay British celebrity photographer with a notorious history as a homosexual Casanova, and mysteriously telephones Jonathan incessantly for an interview. Meanwhile, at the theater, Diana takes a fancy to Alec (Jesse Bradford), a struggling actor with soulful eyes and sensuous lips-who, as fate would have it, lives in the same apartment building as Isabel and Jonathan.

Maneuvering their way through the broken asphalt of New York life and trying not to step on the cracks, all of these people are obviously heading for a collision. The intersection at which they meet is a party that night at Diana’s loft on Bethune Street. When the London writer shows Diana some of the scandalous Benjamin Stone male nudes shot by the subject of his article, one of them is her future son-in-law! While the draconian Diana rushes through the night with the bad news to save her daughter from a fate worse than bad reviews, Isabel climbs to the roof and finds her fiancé in the arms of their neighbor, Alec-the same young actor who auditioned earlier in the day for her mother, and then … but enough! There is so much more to discover for yourself as the film explores loneliness, inequity, desire and self-denial, and the human pieces of an eloquent jigsaw puzzle find self-discovery, redemption, optimism and truth. The film is never dull, the writing and direction are impeccable, the ensemble performances are uniformly seamless, and Heights is brave, eloquent and riveting. One of the summer’s most serendipitous surprises.