Monday, July 28, 2008

The Dark Knight

I would have liked for this review to have gone up at Comics Bulletin, but due to the vagaries of international release dates, I missed the Slugfest by a week. Still, what are blogs for?

(I don't give scores for things here, but over at CB I do, and this would get four bullets out of five.)

I didn't much like Batman Begins. The cinematography and editing were ill-judged, relying on far too much in the way of MTV-style fast-paced cutting and never letting the audience get a good look at what was going on. What plot there was was choppy and confused, veering listlessly from storyline to storyline, with a feeble attempt to tie everything up into a cohesive but nonsensical whole by the end. Katie Holmes had barely anything to do, which is something for which I suppose we should be grateful, because she was awful, and Christian Bale was dull as ditchwater, sleepwalking his way to a paycheque as Bruce Wayne, and growling like a disgruntled terrier as Batman. Worst of all, the film overreached for po-faced seriousness, thinking somehow that this meant it was more intelligent and highbrow than its predecessors, when there was in fact nothing to it below the grime and darkness. All that said, the film looked quite good (except for the lumpy Batsuit), when we were actually allowed to look at anything for more than a picosecond, and both Gary Oldman and Michael Caine were excellent in their rather undeveloped roles.

So yeah, I wasn't exactly leaping with excitement over the sequel. Indeed, I was much more excited about Hellboy II, which is due out in Britain sometime in 2017, I believe.

So I was pleased to discover that The Dark Knight is a vast improvement over the first film, particularly in terms of writing and editing. This time, we actually get to see Batman now and then, and yet the film-makers retain that slight sense of him being an unnatural, otherworldly presence by occasionally showing him from the perspective of the common person, so we'll be sitting in a car with a family when a black shape whizzes by (the Batbike), or we'll follow a boy's line of sight up into a darkened corner to see a pair of eyes looking back, and the vague shape of something huge and dark perched up there. While the idea of Batman as an elusive phantom is hugely important to the mood of this revamp, it's also good to actually see him once in a while; after all, that's what we've paid our money for. All that said, some problems remain; while the action scenes thankfully now make sense, the editing elsewhere in the film is a bit choppy, with scenes switching abruptly for no particular reason.

Christopher Nolan wrote the previous film by himself, but is joined by his brother this time around, and the improvement in the writing is astounding. The Dark Knight is actually about something; competing concepts of order, chaos and justice, as embodied by Batman, the Joker and Harvey Dent respectively. The clash between these philosophies, and the way they change and develop as a result of that clash, is what drives the plot. And there is a plot this time around, which is a blessed relief after the seemingly random nonsense of the first film. On the other hand, the dialogue is a bit choppy at times, with characters occasionally breaking into speeches about their feelings and motivations, instead of conveying them through their actions.

Christian Bale's performance also shows marked improvement. Bale seems to have less to do in this film, but does seem more comfortable in the role. His Bruce Wayne is much improved, although his Batman retains that ridiculous growl. Furthermore, I suspect that the film-makers have told him to emphasise his mouth movements when he speaks, to make up for the rigidity of the cowl, but he's gone a bit over the top, and most of the film consists of him looking like he's chewing on tobacco while having some kind of facial spasm.

Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent is a tad disappointing, as he's potentially the strongest character in the film, but instead is not given enough to do. He hovers around as a sort of contrast to Batman, and to a lesser extent, the Joker, until his accident, when he just runs around shouting a lot. In this film, Harvey is the negative space that defines Batman's role, and while that works, it does short change the character somewhat. Meanwhile, Maggie Gyllenhaal is a huge improvement on the pudding-faced Katie Holmes, since she can at least act, but the character remains underwritten and largely pointless.

Of course, the performance everyone will be talking about is Heath Ledger's Joker, and while it is definitely a strong role, I think that's more down to the writing than Ledger. As mentioned above, the writers have given the Joker a philosophy and meaning, and to me it's that philosophy that drives the character, rather than the actor; while Ledger was a good actor (although I'm not sure he was quite as good as all the hysterical tributes following his death suggested), any quality actor could have done a portrayal of similar strength given the material. For me, it is Gary Oldman's Gordon who steals the film with a very human and natural portrayal of a simple man trying to do his best in a world gone mad. Oldman is quiet, thoughtful and real in the role, a humble hero, but a hero nonetheless. Towards the end of the film, when Gordon speaks of Harvey Dent as being the pure white knight, the "best of us", he seems to be speaking about himself, but is too modest and down-to-earth to perhaps even realise it. It is Ledger who will inevitably receive all the plaudits, but it's Oldman who deserves them.

The film also drops some interesting hints and potential continuity seeds. Early on, we see a nascent Bat Army, reminding us of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, there's an oblique reference to the new armour being cat proof, and the weasely ex-employee of Wayne Enterprises who discovers Batman's true identity has more than a hint of Riddlerishness to him. I'm probably reading too much into that last one, but I suspect we will see him again in some capacity, if not a costume, and I'd be very surprised if we don't see Catwoman in the next film.

All in all, Tim Burton's 1989 blockbuster remains the better film, I think, and the 1966 movie is more ingenious, but The Dark Knight is nonetheless a good solid film, and it has convinced me that this update of the franchise is worth doing. I eagerly anticipate the inevitable third instalment.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Monkey Magic!

The Beijing Olympics. Bit of a dodgy subject, and I'm not sure I approve of our athletes going out there to compete; after all, we boycotted South Africa's sporting events and teams for decades. Still, politics aside, at least one good thing has come of the event already:


Friday, July 25, 2008

Watch Out!

Right, so is everyone excited about the Watchmen trailer because it's any good? Or has the fact that it's, you know, Watchmen, distracted them from the dodgy lighting and pedestrian cinematography on show?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

My Life in Movies

Over here, Rol lists the best film from each year of his life, and gets some of them wrong. Here's my list, which probably tells you an awful lot about my tastes and personality. Apparently, I'm really quite fond of horror and scifi and am easily bored by "proper" films. Who knew?

Okay, technically I wasn't born until 1979, but Halloween is my favourite film ever, so it makes the cut. Ha.

The Warriors because it's the best video game adaptation ever made, even though it predates the beat-em-up genre by years and its own adaptation by about fifteen.

It really is a toss-up between The Blues Brothers and Flash Gordon, but Jake and Ellwood just pip the magnificent comic strip glamgasm. Ask me again in a month, and I'll have gone the other way, most likely.

A really tricky year, this one. 1981 gave us An American Werewolf in London, Clash of the Titans, Escape from New York, Excalibur, Mad Max 2, Superman II and Time Bandits, all favourites of mine. But 1981 also gave us Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that'll do the job nicely.

Conan the Barbarian. I know I probably shouldn't, but I adore this film.

It has to be Return of the Jedi. An unpopular choice, most likely, but it's not a great year for me, and unlike 99% of Star Wars fans, I've never been bothered by the Ewoks. 1983 and 1997 flavours only are acceptable.

A much better year, but as such much more difficult to pick just one film. Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (possibly my favourite of the series), The Karate Kid, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Night of the Comet, and The Terminator all came out this year. I think we'll go with Peter Venkman and the gang, with Nausicaä coming a very close second, and Indy trailing by not very much at all in third.

There's not much of a contest here. It's Ewoks: The Battle for Endor all the way.

No, it's Back to the Future. Obviously.

How can I choose between Aliens, Big Trouble in Little China, The Fly, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Highlander, Labyrinth, Little Shop of Horrors, Stand By Me or Transformers? It's between Wil Wheaton and his pals, Optimus Prime's noble demise and Matthew Broderick breaking the Fourth Wall, but Ferris Bueller, you're my hero.

Bad Taste and Evil Dead II come out this year, and I'm torn. In half. By a zombie. We also get Full Metal Jacket, The Lost Boys, Predator, The Princess Bride, Raising Arizona and Robocop, but I think that Bruce Campbell and his chainsaw just edge out Nicolas Cage and the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse. Just.

We got Beetlejuice, and we got The Gump's last decent film in Big (which is not to say that it's a great film, or even a favourite of mine, but I feel it's worth mentioning). We also got buzzing silver balls of death in the excellent Phantasm II, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which has not aged a day. In the end though, it's a toss-up between my favourite Christmas film ever (Die Hard) and the best film about childhood ever made (My Neighbour Totoro). I think I have to give it to Totoro, even if the current DVD release has been contaminated by The Insipid Fanning Creature.

"Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?"

Total Recall came out this year, and that's one of those films that I've never considered owning, but if I come across it while channel-hopping I will always, without fail, sit and watch it to the end. My pick of the year is Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, however, and that's about as highbrow as this list will get.

Does anyone remember Meet the Applegates? Great film. Anyway, James Cameron made his last decent film this year, and there are far worse ways to end one's career than with Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

As much as I like and admire A Few Good Men, Braindead runs away with the prize. Then slips a bit in all the blood.

Any year that sees the release of Super Mario Brothers and Beethoven's 2nd is a good year for movies (sarcasm), but I have to pick The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk, which is the film that made me fall in love with martial arts cinema, and remains Jet Li's finest two-and-a-bit hours.

Well, it has to be The Shawshank Redemption, doesn't it? Like everyone else, I came to it quite late, but it's just a brilliant, brilliant film about friendship and I will never tire of it.

Wow. The first year where I've found it difficult to pick because nothing has really jumped out at me. Mallrats, I suppose.

While I dearly love From Dusk Till Dawn, Fargo wins it.

Alien 4 is eleven years old. Crikey. To my endless shame, I still haven't seen LA Confidential, despite borrowing it at least twice in order to do so. The Fifth Element is a definite contender, but the runaway winner is the absolutely perfect Princess Mononoke, one of the best movies ever made, animated or not.

What a crappy year, with Armageddon/Deep Impact, Saving Private Ryan and Godzilla all festering like sores, an ill-advised film version of The Avengers and an even-more-ill-advised Blues Brothers sequel. On the other hand, there was American History X, The Big Lebowski, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Ringu. You know, I didn't like Lebowski at first, but I warm to it a little more each time I see it, and it may well become a favourite one day. But I think I'll have to go with Fear and Loathing.

Ah, the year that saw M Night Shyamalan unleashed upon an unsuspecting public. Lots of good films from this year, and lots of interesting and unconventional films coming out of Hollywood too, although that didn't last. I mean, we got Fight Club, The Straight Story, Being John Malkovich and American Beauty in one year. We also got Inspector Gadget, The Virgin Suicides, and The Phantom Menace, but every silver lining has a cloud.

I'm told that I'm not going to get the full benefit of The Matrix, having never seen it in a cinema, but it's a moot point because as the years have gone by, Sleepy Hollow has supplanted it as my favourite from '99.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? I used to think that this tied with Raising Arizona as my favourite Coens film, but since that didn't make the list, I suppose I've made a decision. Looks great, sounds great. Great great great. Unbreakable, Shyamalanadingdong's only good film, comes in a close second.

The year I paid 20p to see Pearl Harbo(u)r. I still feel cheated. Spirited Away, Amélie and The Devil's Backbone are favourites, but The Fellowship of the Ring has to be my pick. I don't think the trilogy as a whole is a successful as it could have been, but the first instalment is spot on.

Lots of good films (and also Attack of the Clones), but it has to be Spider-Man. It's not perfect, and Blade II is probably the better film, but Blade II didn't overwhelm me with joy from the first moment.

The sequels did absolutely nothing for me, but I could watch Pirates of the Caribbean over and over again and not get bored of it. However, Orlando Bloom isn't in Kill Bill, and Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu are, so we have a clear winner.

Spider-Man 2 finally supplanted the 1989 Batman as the best superhero film ever. They couldn't top this, and indeed didn't. Honourable mentions go to Hellboy and Kung Fu Hustle, but it was always a one-horse race.

Ah the year in which everyone got really excited about a bunch of really very mediocre films. I'll pick Sin City for the lack of anything better.

Oh dear, not much to choose from again. The Nightmare Before Christmas was re-released though, so I'll go with that.

Stardust was very, very good, but The Bourne Ultimatum was just a touch better, even if it didn't have Rupert Everett in it. Bear in mind that I haven't seen No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood or that Jesse James thing yet, so things may change.

Iron Man is my favourite film so far this year, but I'm expecting Hellboy II to topple it. I am not expecting much from Lost Boys 2 at all.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

New Who Clues (pt nothing)

Obviously, no Who this week, but rumours about the upcoming specials and fifth series are already beginning to circulate. This Christmas sees David Morrissey appearing as "The Doctor" alongside Tennant as The Doctor, a situation which reminded me of the audio story The One Doctor, in which a conman poses as the Time Lord, setting up alien invasions which he then repels... for a tidy fee. The new series hasn't been shy about going back to the audio and written adventures for inspiration, so it's no surprise that the more recent rumours suggest that the Chrimble story will turn out to be an adaptation of The One Doctor.

Much more unexpected is the suggestion that Sophie Aldred will be returning as proto-Rose companion Ace, and that Paul McGann might be making another appearance as the 8th Doctor! I'm not sure about that last one, as I'd imagine that there are some rights issues with bringing back anything from the Fox TV movie, but it would certainly be welcome, as McGann was a good Doctor in a terrible episode, and he deserves another chance. Oh, and Neil Gaiman has apparently been meeting with Series Five writer Stephen Moffat...

Friday, July 04, 2008

Crime and Punishment

Super Smash Brothers Brawl is brilliant. I knew it would be.

For those who might be interested, my Friend Code for the game is 0388 0323 8824, and my Wii Code is 7714 7295 2393 7107.

I've yet to unlock Sonic the Hedgehog, so I can make that mid-90's Sega versus Nintendo rivalry come to life, but I'll get there. I've waited long enough, after all; the game came out in Japan and the US circa 1758, and when it was finally released here last week, my copy was delivered to Meg's workplace and was then promptly stolen. The building CCTV caught the thief, who turned out to be someone from one of the other firms in the complex; the police have closed the case, however, deciding that there isn't enough evidence. That's despite the following in the footage:

Two people walk by the mailbox. Both can confirm the game was there.
Someone walks up to the mailbox, puts something in her bag, and leaves.
The earlier two people return and can confirm that the game was gone.

However, since the camera is at slightly the wrong angle, you can't see what exactly that third person puts in her bag, so the police have decided that they can't press the case. On the plus side, the building owners refunded the cost of the game, since it was stolen on company property.

This week's post also brought a copy of Rol Hirst's PJANG!, and this was thankfully not stolen. I haven't looked back on the art I provided since I finished it, and seeing it now makes me cringe a bit, but that's pretty common for me. I've heard that such a reaction is healthy, because it means you're aware of the faults in your work, and that's a first step to improvement. I hope so. The other two stories are illustrated by Tony McGee and Andrew Cheverton; I'm a huge fan of Tony's work (I thoroughly recommend Angel Nebula, in particular), but I have to say that Chev's strip is my favourite here. Part of that is down to the writing; it's the best of the three stories by far, a sort of revenge thriller with a creepy, almost Clive Barkerish, twist. Chev's art is what really grabbed me, though; I've not seen his artwork in print before, so I don't know if he usually goes for the Mike McMahon-esque style he uses here, but it's a striking approach and fits the unsettling tone of the story quite well.

Tony's work is good too, of course, and the writing in all three stories is as strong as I expect from Rol, but that one story is really good stuff, and easily worth the (very reasonable) £1.75 cover price. Sir Nigel of Lowrey disappoints by only providing a cover, but it's a great one, so I can't complain too much. And thanks for the Death's Head cameo, Nige!