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BATMAN BEGINS

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The DC Comics franchise flies high again with “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan’s almost-exemplary “origins” account of the Caped Crusader. The Dark Knight has, of course, been rescued before, from camp-TV infamy by Tim Burton in his two uneven but delightfully eccentric tent-pole pictures from 1989 and 1992, only to be quickly interred once more by the Las Vegas-style excesses of Joel Schumacher in “Batman Forever” (1995) and “Batman & Robin” (1997). Now he returns from development limbo in a prequel that, like the more recent comics, adopts a distinctly more serious tone than any of its predecessors. The result isn’t quite up to the standard of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” movies, but it matches Ang Lee’s sadly underrated “Hulk.” Until the sort of overblown, chaotic finale that appears to be obligatory in Hollywood action pictures nowadays, it’s an abundantly moody, amply exciting exercise in cinematic resuscitation.

After battling Batman at one point in Burton’s first episode of the series, Jack Nicholson’s Joker marveled at the remarkable contents of the crime-fighter’s utility belt and wondered, “Where does he get all those wonderful toys?” Nolan’s movie answers not only that question, but why as well. It presents what’s essentially the back-story familiar to comic fans: how young Bruce Wayne, traumatized by the senseless killing of his parents in a robbery, decides to assume the Batman persona and use his immense wealth–and the physical skills he hones through years of training–to clean up the streets of Gotham City while posing as a businessman and somewhat foppish philanthropist. What Nolan and his co-writer David S. Goyer have done is to flesh out this sketchy summary with detail and local color. The death of Bruce’s parents is set in the throes of the Great Depression, and his father portrayed as an idealistic doctor who’d hoped to relieve social distress by using the family fortune in high-minded ways. The distraught young man, filled with guilt that he was responsible for his parents’ loss, here abandons control of his family’s industrial empire to underlings and becomes a self-loathing world wanderer, inviting pain and humiliation while searching for the means to serve in the war against evil. In an unnamed Asian country where he’s been imprisoned, he’s recruited by the mysterious Henri Duchard (Liam Neeson) to train in the martial arts “academy” of Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), only to rebel against their plans to “cleanse” the polluted world by destructive vigilante action through a secret organization known as the League of Shadows. Returning to Gotham determined to put his new talents to work in a principled way, he becomes the Batman with the aid of his loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and Wayne Industries’ Director of Applied Science Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who’s being squeezed out by the company’s aggressive director Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer). Unfortunately, taking on such caped responsibilities means going up against the powerful gang headed by crime lord Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), who seems to have the entire police force but for Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) in his pocket, and who employs peculiar psychiatrist Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) to secure the transfer of his henchmen from prison to Arkham Asylum; there Crane, as the Scarecrow, a masked villain armed with a powerful hallucinogenic drug that induces rabid fear in its recipients, is putting the final touches to a plan to destroy Gotham by driving its entire population mad. Aided by Alfred, Fox, the initially suspicious Gordon and honest Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), his childhood sweetheart, Bruce/Batman struggles to overcome his own demons and the army of conspirators–including the most dangerous one, who shows up unexpectedly near the close–to foil the plan and save the city, an imperfect place perhaps but one he believes still worth improving, for further installments of his adventures (the next of which is hopefully indicated in an epilogue).

It should be apparent that “Batman Begins,” like “Revenge of the Sith,” doesn’t do a great deal with the legend that one mightn’t have anticipated from the existing comic mythology, except for the insertion of Ra’s al Ghul into Bruce’s early training; but unlike George Lucas’ picture, it pulls off the trick of doing the predictable with aplomb and relatively literate dialogue. To be sure, some of Duchard’s oracular pronouncements are pretty heavy going, and the script lacks the saving touch of humor in the early reels, though a few lines later on are better in that regard. One can also complain of the absence of a really great villain: Murphy’s Scarecrow is a pretty pallid creation, and the effect that accompanies the use of his power isn’t terribly impressive, either, while Ra’s al Ghul never manages to develop the larger-than-life mystique he does on the printed page. There are also chronological eccentricities (presumably the action is taking place in the 1940s or early 1950s, but things look vaguely contemporary–perhaps an intentional effort to make it all seem timeless) and elements in the staging that might be criticized. As shot by cinematographer Wally Pfister and edited by Lee Smith, for instance, the fights are all very close in and fragmented, and done in darkness, probably to suggest Batman’s ability to appear virtually out of nowhere–which in a wider frame couldn’t be very convincingly portrayed; but while one can understand the rationale behind the technique, it still has a somewhat muddled effect. And the climactic confrontation, which goes for the biggest effects and splashiest thrills, is a messy blur in which it’s difficult to keep track of what’s going on and which proves more exhausting than enjoyable to watch.

But there’s plenty of compensation for the flaws. Though mostly dark and gloomy from a visual perspective, the picture is lovely to look at–sleek and gleaming, thanks to the efforts of production designer Nathan Crowley, the art direction team headed by Simon Lamont and Alan Tomkins, and Pfister’s elegant lensing. Bale, happily recovered from the emaciation of “The Machinist,” makes a strapping hero, drawing a fine distinction between the initially despondent and later footloose Wayne and his intense alter-ego. (He also possesses a distinctive jaw-line, which is perhaps the single most important physical attribute a successful Batman must have.) He receives exceptional support from Caine, who transforms Alfred into an almost poignantly paternal figure, and Freeman, who puts his smooth delivery to good use as the unflappable Fox. Oldman, who’s reveled in nasty-boy parts in the past, manages an expert transition to simple decency as the rumpled, abstracted Gordon. Unfortunately, the villains don’t fare nearly as well. Murphy lays on Crane’s oddity awfully thick, and isn’t given the screen time to make it pay off, while Wilkinson snarls in a suitably oily fashion as crime lord Falcone but, once again, suffers from the attenuated nature of the part. Neeson brings his customary gravity to Ducard, and demonstrates again his agility in the opening reels’ martial arts scenes, but it too remains a thinly-conceived role. One can only hope that Batman’s adversaries in any future installments will be more formidable. Meanwhile Hauer puffs and preens to only modest effect as the greedy businessman Earle, and Holmes is merely adequate as Wayne’s purported love interest, a part far too shallow to invite any comparison to Peter Parker-Toby Maguire’s romantic longing for Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson in the “Spider-Man” movies.

So there are problems with “Batman Begins”–its predictability, the paucity of humor early on, the absence of a truly memorable villain, the almost claustrophobic character of its Gotham fight scenes, the bombastic finale. But Bale and his cohorts emerge victorious over them just as the Dark Knight always does over his foes. Nolan’s try at a summer blockbuster isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough to provide a solid foundation for a series of batty progeny. Fans can rejoice in the fact that the franchise is alive and well once more.

MADAGASCAR

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After the misfire of “Shark Tale” (which nonetheless scored big at the boxoffice), it’s good to see the DreamWorks CGI animation unit returning to something like form with “Madagascar,” a pleasant, periodically sharp romp about some New York zoo critters that wind up in the wild. It should please both youngsters and grownups–and, curiously, perhaps the latter even more than the former. That’s because while the littlest viewers will be amused by the slapstick action, ebullient characters and colorful backgrounds, many of them won’t catch a lot of the verbal and musical riffs, which tend to be references to pop cultural phenomena of considerable vintage. (And one wonders, for instance, how many even of the adults will understand a joke at the expense of Tom Wolfe.) But overall both groups are reasonably well served by a picture that, while it doesn’t measure up to “Shrek,” for instance, provides a pretty consistent level of inventiveness and energy.

The main character are Alex (Ben Stiller), the lion at Central Park zoo who’s filled with his own celebrity, and his pals Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the hypochondriacal giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith). Marty is depressed, even when the others throw him a birthday celebration, because he dreams of life in the great African spaces. Inspired by a bunch of “Great Escape”-like penguins aiming to bust out of the place and make their way to Antarctica, Marty sneaks out one night to enjoy a brief turn on the town. But his buddies come after them and all (including the penguins, who’ve left separately) are recaptured in Grand Central Station and packed off on a ship bound for Africa. When the penguins take over the vessel, though, Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria are accidentally dumped into the sea, winding up on the shores of Madagascar. They’re eventually adopted by a herd of singing-and-dancing lemurs headed by the oddball King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his aide-de-camp Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer), and all seems to be going reasonably well until Alex is gradually taken over by his natural urges and becomes a ravening danger to everybody, newcomer and native alike. Happily he doesn’t just gobble his chums up–his more enlightened self reemerges just in time (along with the return of the penguins, who have found Antarctica much less hospitable than they’d hoped) to save the day.

“Madagascar” is thus not much more than a premise so simple that one can imagine it having been turned into a five-minute Looney Tunes short. But the quartet of scripters have managed to flesh it out with enough gags and bits of business to justify its feature length. Alex’s swell-headedness and Marty’s exuberance can get a little tiresome at times (the lion’s shtick isn’t far from what Stiller ordinarily offers in human form, while Rock’s volubility isn’t far removed from Eddie Murphy’s donkey jive in “Shrek”), and though Melman’s whining is kept properly in the background, Gloria isn’t given anything to help her stand out at all; but to make up for the occasional pallidness of the lead quartet, the supporting figures pick up the slack. The penguins are great, and the two monkeys have some choice moments; Cohen’s Julian, with his weird accent and inflated sense of self-importance, is a scene-stealer as well, and though Cedric is stuck in straight-man mode, Andy Richter adds zest as Mort, a pint-sized member of the lemur tribe who has more than a passing resemblance to Gizmo the Gremlin. There’s even a feisty old New York lady in the early scenes modeled, it seems, after Granny of “Tweety and Sylvester” fame.

Technically the picture has a nice look, with solid character animation and stylized background art. And though it’s not a musical per se, it makes fairly good use of some oldies, particularly in the lemurs’ “I Like to Move It, Move It” number, which is repeated during the amusing final credits. The fade-out preceding the crawls, it should be noted, is nonetheless one of the script’s weakest elements. It allows for a sequel without making one seem urgently necessary.

“Madagascar” doesn’t achieve the status of an immediate classic; it’s a nice, colorful animated flick that will attract family audiences in theatres without becoming a repeat-business must, and when it wends its way to DVD and video it should become a staple. But unlike the loud, aggressive “Shark Tale,” it makes for an enjoyable trip. It’s a destination you should add to your summer moviegoing itinerary.