Mark Kermode - Animal magic

Film - Black study of a comic-book hero, and a shagging dog story. By Mark Kermode

Batman Begin

After the resounding raspberries that greeted Joel Schumacher's camp-pantomime Batman & Robin, the future of the multimillion- dollar Bat franchise seemed dead and buried. Wisely, Christopher Nolan's big-screen revival (or, more precisely, "reinvention") looks back into the past, searching for the dark heart of its title character in the emotional traumas of Batman Begins. In the hands of Nolan and his co-writer David S Goyer, Bruce Wayne's transition from terrified orphan to masked avenger becomes a peculiarly thoughtful and imaginative study in guilt-ridden psychosis cleverly disguised as a big, noisy Hollywood blockbuster. In the process, Batman Begins gets closer to the adult ambiguities of Frank Miller's inspirational Dark Knight and Year One comic strips than Tim Burton managed in either Batman or Batman Returns.

Allowed an hour of character-building back story before clambering into the (functionally redesigned) Batmobile, Batman Begins boasts an engagingly unhinged central performance by Christian Bale, whose weird physicality has lifted such diverse fare as the murderous comedy American Psycho and the emaciated psycho-thriller The Machinist. Surrounded by a hall of fame of thoroughbred "character actors" (everyone from the underused Rutger Hauer to the overexposed Michael Caine), Bale brings a depth and darkness to the schizoid titular role that perfectly suit Nolan's rebellious purpose. The paranoid mysteries of identity confronted in Memento and Insomnia are here addressed in only slightly more populist style, Nolan tempering each explosive action set piece with intriguing internal pyrotechnics, and sneakily employing zealous criminals and corrupt law enforcers to blur the traditional Manichaean divide between good and evil. By the time the identity of the real villain is revealed, Gotham is teetering on the brink of collective madness, leading Gary Oldman's odd-man-out honest cop, Jim Gordon, to opine that a war of escalation is inevitable. "We get semi-automatics," he husks morosely, "they get automatics."

With such grim realities at stake, it is necessary for Batman Begins to hide its true identity (like its hero) behind a veneer of playful extravagance. Hopefully, the final 30 minutes of whizz-bang visual mayhem will help recoup the huge investment in what is in effect a hundred-million-dollar entryist escapade. While references to Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner have long become staples of mainstream cinema, nods to George Romero's Day of the Dead remain rare treats in the "summer spectacular" market. Hats off, too, to cinematographer Wally Pfister, who learned his craft in the vibrant underworld of straight-to-video erotic thrillers and here paints the big screen with the shadowy hues of darkness visible. In the words of Spinal Tap: "How much more black could it be? None more black."

At the other end of the financial spectrum, Undertow is an independently minded American South drama that bears a significant co-producer credit for the Badlands director Terrence Malick. Despite suggestions of a factual source, this tale of the sins of warring brothers being visited upon their innocent offspring plays more like a parable than a docudrama. Images of nailed feet, cursed gold coins and trips across the River Styx litter an essentially incidental narrative that lilts like a deep Southern drawl, broken by moments of startling violence.

British actor Jamie Bell (the spunky star of Billy Elliot) displays an acute ear for the languorous melodies of this gentle American nightmare, while the director David Gordon Green builds upon the intimacy of George Washington and All the Real Girls. The result is a haunting if occasionally soporific affair, which plays like a waking dream on a hot, sweaty after-noon. Philip Glass's spiralling accompaniment adds to the spell-like charm, with ominous discord prowling the edges of its fairy-tale themes.

From the merely meandering to the wilfully whimsical: Bombon El Perro is an award-winning Patagonian tale of one man and his dog which keeps threatening to stray into the tough territory of Amores Perros but remains kennelled closer to the melancholic comedy of Best in Show. Juan Villegas smiles with benign uncertainty at the unfolding chain of non-events that lead this amiable shaggy-dog story from one dramatic lamp-post to another. Having lost his job as a mechanic, 52-year-old Juan tries his hand selling knives before being given a pedigree Argentinian Dogo - the country's only home-grown breed - for whom competition beckons. Doors are opened, friendships fostered, prizes won and executive carpets peed upon. Structurally, it's a dog's dinner, but its heart is in the right place, and it's the only film I can remember in which the sight of two dogs humping constitutes a genuinely happy ending.

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