Friday, 25 July 2008

Review - The Dark Knight

‘The Dark Knight’ is big. Really big. Especially for a superhero movie. It’s like ‘Catch-22’ or ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ or ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ or ‘The Stand’: a narrative with a huge cast of well-drawn characters, a whole city full of people where the plot is simply the myriad interactions of these characters. What makes it brilliant as well as big is the nuance of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s script (a strange sentiment for a screenplay which features an 18-wheeler truck flipping end over end). The viewer doesn’t realise until the end that the story isn’t about a man dressed as a bat fighting crime or a psychotic clown terrorist: the story is the tragedy of Harvey Dent. And by the end it comes across beautifully: one man, his struggle for justice, and his tragic suffering at the machinations of a psychotic.

With all these characters, Batman does become something of a bit player in what is ostensibly his own film. Bruce Wayne’s struggle never really seemed to click with any emotional resonance; at least not to the degree that Dent’s struggle did. Still the film works as a great ensemble piece and every cast member does a stand out job. Except perhaps for Maggie Gyllenhaal who tries valiantly to salvage a boring character and to be fair she does a better job than Mrs. Xenu Cruise.

A lot has been said about Heath Ledger’s performance, his final performance prior to his sad and untimely death. He gives a fantastic performance as the Joker: brilliantly complex with the illusion of complete spontaneity; unpredictable, insane, and sometimes terrifying. This is the Joker that Jack Nicholson never pulled off. This is the dark Joker, the epitome of chaos. The character is made all the better for not having an origin story: he emerges fully-formed as if manifested from nothing in antithesis to the rigid order of Dent and Batman. He is the sweeping force of anarchic destruction, free from rules, regulations and laws. This lack of back-story also makes him an absolute psychotic villain: as great as the psychological superhero phenomenon can be, it’s refreshing to have a villain who the audience isn’t expected to feel sympathy for. An inexcusable bastard. Someone to freely fear and revile. He’s certainly no Doctor Octopus and it’s a strange relief.

Does Ledger deserve a posthumous Oscar? No. It’s a masterful performance but it’s not Oscar-material. Academy Awards are not given to superhero, sci-fi or fantasy films (‘Lord of the Rings’ notably excluded). The Academy wouldn’t even consider Heath Ledger were he still alive and it would be hypocritical to give him an award for that role now. We shall see.

In short, ‘The Dark Knight’ is a brilliant and serious movie giving an interesting insight into the sacrifices and compromises it takes to fight crime, a short but meaningful exposition on what justice is, and some awesome action set-pieces mercifully free from the blight of CG. It is not, as IMDB proudly proclaims as of writing, the greatest film ever: it is however brilliant.

Where to go from here? Personally I think Nolan should call it a day as no-one ever manages to top their dark-bad-guys-win-‘Empire Strikes Back’ sequel. Unfortunately Hollywood loves a trilogy and so there probably will be another film. After making Two-Face realistic and sympathetic – successfully wiping Tommy Lee Jones’ dire exaggerated performance from our minds – they can probably make any Batman villain realistic. The sky is the limit. As for the Joker, I can see him in a kind of Hannibal Lecter capacity with some screen time: not too much but some, akin to the amount of Scarecrow in this movie. The scene with Batman and Joker in the interrogation room was easily one of the best in the film so it would be great to get a little more of that in a threequel. The only problem would be recasting after Heath Ledger. It would take serious cojones for the actor brought in to do it. My humble advice would be to try it but if it doesn’t work when it comes to filming, have the courage to stop filming and rewrite the script. The Joker now needs to be equal to Ledger’s performance or not at all. The next film would be need to be as big as this or not at all.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Review - Watchmen

Nowadays it’s hard to imagine the impact that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s ‘Watchmen’ must have had on its audience when it was first released. Studies of the superhero’s psychology are commonplace now: many recent comic book movies and recent comic book series’ explore the question of what compels a human to don a mask and fight crime. Modern pop-culture aficionados are familiar with the loneliness of Superman, the anguished responsibility of Spider-Man, and the sheer vengeful torment of Batman. And so, while the message of ‘Watchmen’ has been diluted over the decades since 1986, it must have always been strong to remain so potent even in this dark and brooding decade.


As a comic book ‘Watchmen’s intent is obvious: it’s a genre-breaking work aiming at lovingly parodying the superhero archetype and portraying the strange psychology that would lead to someone literally fighting for true ‘all-American’ justice in the real world. That is why, upon reading ‘Watchmen’, the fans’ outrage at the 2009 film version becomes understandable. A film would be superfluous. Superhero films already explore the tortured psyches’ of the protagonists. They’re already reasonably philosophically complex (relative to the entertainment industry). No subverting of the genre needs to be done.

Yet the recent trailer proved that the film has a purpose beyond making money (although being a product of the monstrous hydra that is Hollywood, profit is undeniably its main aim). The trailer proved too irresistibly cool for me to resist: the promise of engaging characters, the gorgeous cinematography, the mystery, the nuance, the haunting Smashing Pumpkins track. It was too much and I finally did something I’ve always lightly contemplated: I read ‘Watchmen’. The purpose of the film is therefore to bring a new audience to this brilliantly layered work packed with insight into the human condition. Thus the film has already achieved its purpose.

After Rorschach’s moody soliloquy in issue 2, I could see why ‘Watchmen’ is the only graphic novel to win a Hugo and appear on Time’s list of great 20th Century novels. Each character is developed, some given their own chapters, and each is given their own unique philosophy on this place called the world which creates a richly complex narrative. It is a subtle work, at least towards the beginning, and this makes it so rewarding to discover the hidden lines of pure poetry and the panels full of symbolism. You could read it several times over and never pick up everything hidden beneath the layers upon layers.

Without wishing to spoil the ending for the new audience of the impending film, I will say that it perfectly encapsulates a theme of the whole book: that of right and wrong never being black and white. Shades of grey are all we, as humans, have access to. With regards to justice, good and evil, and humanity, in the abstract I tend to edge towards idealism. But I’m also enough of a realist to recognise that extreme measures can be required and even justified. The ending makes it obvious why Hiroshima was mentioned throughout the story: personally I’ve never been able to decide whether the ends justified the means with regard to President Truman’s actions. There’s a similar conflict in ‘Batman Begins’ where I’ve never been able to choose a side. Are the people of the world redeemable or is a sudden purge required to thin out humanity? Does human society require sympathetic nurturing or a firm hand? Aristotle’s everyday virtue ethics or Plato’s stern Republic? Kant’s deontology or Nietzsche’s Übermensch? These are the morally complex themes that ‘Watchmen’ was instrumental in bringing to the forefront of the comic book genre.

I’m also enough of a realist to know that in this world without superheroes we have to work within the confines of the established system, gradually changing it from within hopefully for the better. Maybe small idealists are the only hope for a brighter future, no matter how big our ideas for radically different social systems might be. We have to do what we can while we can where we can. Rorschach may be insane but at least he never compromises. The small idealist’s everyday hunt for harmonious justice is a message that can never be diluted even though as ‘Watchmen’ makes clear extreme measures can be justified.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

"The overlooked factor."

What is it that creates human relationships?

There is one decisive factor pivotal to creating a bond with another human being, one that is often overlooked because of its simplicity and perhaps what it says about humans as fickle creatures scurrying about in search of company. This factor is proximity: nothing more or less than the people who coincidentally happen to be in the area surrounding someone. Proximity is the overlooked factor in human relationships, much more important than mutual interest, mutual advantage, or genetic links. If a human is spatially close to another human for long periods of time, some manner of bond will inevitably develop. Admittedly these bonds are strengthened by sharing of common interests and relationships may be sustained without proximity and across long distances through a mutual desire to see one another, to spend time in one another’s presence.

All relationships begin with proximity. A mere crossing of paths. A convergence of events precipitously bringing two people or more into contact. This proximity can be generated by a confluence of myriad activities: people forced to work together, people striving for education in shared vocations, children forced to live with their relatives until such a time as they have the means to leave, people who share a place of recreation, entertainment, or belief. When people are brought together for extended periods of time under any circumstances, a relationship will form. Great bonds are said to develop between humans in prison, in the army, in support groups, in school: areas where people collide; where they are brought together and left no alternative but to form teams relying upon mutual dependency. Would the protagonists of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ have sought each other’s comfort had they not been forced together on the side of the titular mountain?

This view may at first seem indeterministic, a dour and glib view of the human condition whereby relationships are formed randomly based upon chance encounters and nothing more. No soul mates. No lovers destined to meet. No familial attachment keeping kin together through thick and thin. Nothing but disparate atomic beings swirling in the void, sticking to those within close distance. Nothing but human creatures meeting and reaching out, reaching for a chance to escape the solitary confines of one’s own body, reaching for something more than the deafening silence within a lone mind, reaching, always reaching. Humans find packs and run with them: relationships have no more dignity or status than wolves enjoying one another’s musk.

However this unveiling of proximity as the overlooked factor can be liberating. How refreshing to believe that a great bond of sharing and intimacy can be formed with anyone who we are made to contact! The freedom to form a relationship for the ages with any person we come close to spatiotemporally. Anyone, any human no matter how different, could be the next great friend or lover of a lifetime. In scientific and clinical terms, force two elements together and cohesion will occur, at least in human sociology. In more poetic terms, a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met.


BONUS:

If you want to assess your relationships in the best possible fashion - mathematically - you can now do so with this simple formula:

FQ = Friendship Quota

P = Proximity = Hours spent within ten metres of one another

I = Number of commonly held interests/beliefs

(IQ1 – IQ2) = Difference in IQ levels

O = Number of offensive/annoying characteristics

Sunday, 20 July 2008

"Tired."

Been camping.

Been working.

Too tired.

Watch these.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Review - Prince Caspian

A two word review of ‘Prince Caspian’: “surprisingly good”.

I went into ‘Prince Caspian’ expecting a quasi-childish fantasy film with talking badgers and magic Jesus-lions and joviality and whimsy and all the other stuff C. S. Lewis stuffed Narnia full of. Instead what Andrew Adamson delivered on screen was a tale of medieval politics and battle. At certain points when in Lord Protector Miraz’s court which was filled with intrigue, ambition, and backstabbing, it felt more like George R. R. Martin than C. S. Lewis, particularly when Dr. Cornelius appeared (the first time the character was on screen I seriously thought it was a cameo by Martin).

The battles portrayed were especially impressive and were amazingly accurate with respect to medieval battle tactics – aside from the presence of the centaurs, minotaurs and dwarves. The locations and the numbers for both the major battles were shown in their completeness on screen before the battles took place allowing the audience to think for themselves how such a battle could be won. Realistically, the Telmarine castle could not have been taken by force even by a superior number of troops: I don’t care how many centaurs you have, it couldn’t be done. It was a well-fortified fixed position with the only entryway being a narrow causeway, perfect for overhead archers to pick off infantry and cavalry. As such it was good to see that the heroes didn’t manage to take it. It also gave an insight into a strong emotive theme of the film: the challenges of leadership.

Both Peter and Caspian’s acting abilities were excellent. Both were leaders struggling to be true to their people, both faced insurmountable odds and were held responsible for soldier’s lives. Peter’s anguish at the failure to take the castle was a chilling insight into the responsibility of a general; a man whom soldiers trust with their lives. When he made a mistake, people died in front of him. The actor brought out that being a leader is a huge burden to bear. Caspian felt the same level of responsibility and almost succumbed to the temptation for quick and easy victory in the form of the White Witch. This being a Disney film, he ultimately managed to hold onto hope and become a great leader precisely because he “wasn’t ready.”

Naturally I have some criticisms. Firstly the romance was awful: Susan and Caspian had no scenes featuring significant dialogue between the two; their attraction was superficial at best. Secondly, Reepicheep.

All in all though it was a fantastic film, surprisingly rich in actual medieval-fantasy techniques, surprisingly accurate period armour, surprisingly great battle scenes, surprisingly deft characterisation, surprisingly adult thematic undertones (the responsibility of leadership), and surprisingly convincing Hispanic accents. Special mention must also go one of the greatest portrayals of a fantasy dwarf ever from Peter Dinklage as Trumpkin: just the right amount of world-weary cynicism and downplayed expressions which quickly made me think him the perfect actor for ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’s’ Tyrion.

Surprisingly good.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Review - The Children of Húrin

Fantasy as a genre – in literature, film, and video games – owes its modern existence and development to J. R. R. Tolkien. Whenever a dwarf resides in his mountain halls, there’s Tolkien. Whenever a hero battles to claim his rightful crown, there’s Tolkien. Whenever a dragon flies overhead, there’s Tolkien. And whenever the sun rises on a majestic world where good and evil are clear-cut, there’s Tolkien.

Tolkien once wrote that “Those who enjoy the book [The Lord of the Rings] as a “heroic romance” only, and find “unexplained vistas” part of the literary effect, will neglect the Appendices, very properly.” Like much of Tolkien’s posthumously published legendarium, ‘The Children of Húrin’ seems to be only for those who really want to know the backstory and mythology of Middle-earth.

It’s a classic grand sweeping epic in the vein of Norse mythology or Wagner’s Ring Cycle. As such the story moves through events quickly not lingering on characters or describing the backdrops. There is a story here and it could even be a powerful one but as presented there’s nothing more in the novel than the bare bones of the story. When editing, Christopher Tolkien probably didn’t want to deviate far from his father’s notes. This bare bones approach to story-telling comes across as exceedingly clinical: there isn’t the heart or the humour of Tolkien’s masterpiece. Characters come and go and seem very generic.

Since it is one component in a body of mythology, the text is particularly dense. The reader is bombarded with names from the start and it can be hard to find one’s bearings. It doesn’t help that the main character, Túrin, declares a grand name-change every damn time he joins up with another group. The names are relentless which can make the story seem like an excuse to ladle out heaping spoonfuls of fictional genealogy, geography, and history. Some backstory and world-building is great but not at the expense of narrative: that’s what appendices are for.

Special mention must go to Alan Lee’s fantastic illustrations and we can only hope that, like with the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, he’s somehow involved in art direction on ‘The Hobbit’.

I hate to criticise Tolkien so instead I’ll criticise his son. ‘The Children of Húrin’ as a fully-fledged novel feels superfluous. Yes, it’s one of the three Great Tales of the First Age but it has been published before in a very similar form in ‘Unfinished Tales’. I personally can’t see that a great deal has been added or improved upon.

The real tragedy is not the story of Túrin and Niënor: it’s that Tolkien’s legacy will always be ‘The Lord of the Rings’ rather than, as I get the impression he would have preferred, the legends surrounding ‘The Silmarillion’ and his elaborate history and languages of his fictional universe. As for me, I discovered that I’m in the fantasy game for the “heroic romance only”.