We are not all cubists. And yet the images that try to move us these days continually present a multi-sided, shaky-cam landscape that rarely sits still. It's a prismatic media age, and this sort of visual confusion reigns supreme in everything from Scorsese pictures to laxative commercials.
At the very least, this stuttering-kaleidoscope gimmick is a trend--and maybe even a genuine dialect, provided the production crew knows how to speak it. (Think TV's Homicide or Spike Lee's Nike ads.) But whoever talks this picture talk is also telling us a story--usually--and sometimes the visual fragments impress more than the shaky foundation they're broken from.
That's certainly the case with Batman & Robin. Bruce Wayne/Batman (George Clooney) is back with partner Dick Grayson/Robin (Chris O'Donnell), saving Gotham from some chemically altered meanies: Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who requires permanent refrigeration; and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), a former post-doc researcher in plant/mammal synthesis who's gotten a little too much chlorophyll into her blood. Mr. Freeze has a big gun that literally stops people cold (Overused Effect/Verbal Pun Number One), while Ivy's kiss is truly toxic (Femme Fatale Metaphor Number One). These two mutants challenge the dynamic duo to various cataclysmic duels that are standard in the series.
Batman & Robin is stuffed with atmosphere: The skyscrapers are taller than Frank Lloyd Wright's mile-high vision. The city is packed and congested in dystopian fashion, although at odd moments it seems the Bowery Boys might stroll by to purchase some Doublemint. The problem is, for much of this movie I couldn't figure out where I was, in the consciously active sense that a viewer needs to be. Caught up in the web of its own disorientation, Batman & Robin provides nothing but atmosphere.
Allow me to dis this orientation. Movies these days frequently bet the farm on "big sets"--like the ship from Hook or the garbage island of Waterworld. But to borrow a concept from a newer medium, these behemoths are all home page and no links. Once a budget is spilled on a set or two like these, there's little advantage to leaving them. Hence the particular blend of "atmosphere" and confusion: Get a great angle, preferably extreme, on that ornate Grecian pilaster high above the garish villain as he crashes to his death atop the Regency bird cage. While he's falling, throw in some slo-mo or an abrasive looping effect--and can we get some more smoke on the set? The frayed drywall is showing!
Let's point out that the Bat-films came from comics, which abbreviate so much into oddly shaped panels, and heighten the slippery sense that dream equals reality equals story. Indeed, many of Batman & Robin's frames look like panels, but somehow they're even more inert. As in the worst of '50s film noir, a cockeyed angle stands in for emotion or tension. Joining this shorthand are umpteen closeups of Bat-gadgets doing material damage.
Big budgets also obliterate clear storytelling. Mr. Freeze needs to have frosty skin and wear a suit like a Borg on steroids, but that makes Schwarzenegger's patented smile less visible. And this in turn makes him dependent on his not-so-patented flat voice, with no body language to help it. The same happens to Chris O'Donnell, whose own flat voice is forced to plead for a Robin-car or Batman's trust or a date with Poison Ivy, while his puppy-dog eyes are trapped behind a mask.
Ultimately, this alleged $225 million-plus carnival succeeds only with the temporary sideshows provided by Clooney and Thurman. They're both given some campy dialogue--or at least some smutty wisecracks--and they're clearly happy to have it. In the Batsuit, Clooney's teeth say more than previous Batguys' about what Bruce Wayne turns into; and Thurman's take on a smart girl's frustrations brings back fond memories of Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman. Still, this neat stuff is just frosting for the movie's larger (and pitifully sentimental) project, which is to define "family" for the Bat clan.
Speaking of shaky-cam prismatics, Hong Kong action films likewise offer cool fights and visual kaleidoscoping, but they tend to be set in pretty ordinary places: Jackie Chan once cooked his opponents in an open-air spice warehouse, while the acrobatic ghosts of HK period stories do their spooking through forests of tall trees. The latest in Asian Media Access's "Cinema With Passion" series at the Riverview, God of Gamblers 3: The Early Stage is a prequel to a long-popular series starring the great Chow Yun-Fat, who as it happens is not involved in this one. The Gamblers genre mixes the caper film and love story; in this chapter, a younger Ko Chun (Leon Lai, playing as sweet as Edward Norton in Primal Fear) is taught to be a great gambler but then meets betrayal. The gambling-table stuff is plenty arresting, but it's the action of Ko Chun's sidekick, Lone Ng, that defines the film's take on cubist confusion.
As is often the case, the fights here involve hidden trampolines and breath-stopping horizontal leaps. Lone Ng is something else again: First, he spars with Ko Chun on a subway train at close camera range; then, he's caught in the bathtub by ninjas. Wasting them involves some towel-clad kicking, which leads to a final send-off during which he manages to get dressed in his opponents' clothes while also knocking them out. Of course, all this is just as implausible as Batman & Robin's skysurfing. But because it marries the razzle-dazzle to a prosaic setting, it's both more confusing and less pretentious. Watching God of Gamblers 3, I had the heartwarming impression that no spreadsheets were terribly harmed during the production.
Batman & Robin is playing at area theaters;God of Gamblers 3: The Early Stage screens at the Riverview Theater on Friday at midnight, Saturday at 11 a.m., and Saturday, July 5 at midnight.