The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight is the sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins, which I enjoyed quite a bit. Remember when Batman came out in 1989 and everyone was wondering whether it would be a campy film like the 60s TV series which had influenced 1978’s Superman to its detriment? Fans lauded Tim Burton’s take on the caped crusader for being dark and serious.

Well, Burton ain’t got nuthin’ on Christopher Nolan, director of the current franchise.

Here, Batman (Christian Bale) and squeaky-clean district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) are on the verge of shutting down Gotham’s crime families, especially after Batman manages to haul in the crime lords’ “accountant” from Hong Kong. The crime lords get into bed with the maniacal Joker (Heath Ledger) to take out Batman, and the Joker sets out to do in all the big names who are maintaining law and order in Gotham, showing himself capable of intricate, seemingly-impossible crimes of murder and mass destruction.

Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, has high hopes that Dent can be the hero Gotham need and that he can put aside his double identity and marry his childhood sweetheart, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). But, unable to wait for Bruce forever, Rachel is not only working with Harvey in his office, but dating his publicly. Which, of course, also puts her in the line of fire of the mob and the Joker.

The Dark Knight is a very dark film indeed, even though much of it takes place in the daytime: Harvey, Rachel, Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman), the commissioner, the mayor, all the good guys are constantly under siege by people who vanish in the shadows after striking. The Gotham police department is deeply corrupt, which bothers Dent to no end even though he knows that dirty cops are better than the only alternative, which is no cops at all. It makes the film feel constantly suspenseful, even in the daylight scenes, even in places we expect will be safe for the heroes. Only his secret identity gives Batman himself any safety. (Although one does wonder why Bruce Wayne isn’t a high-profile target for the criminals of Gotham.)

Ledger is quite good as the Joker. Jack Nicholson’s performance in the 1989 film also drew kudos, but I always thought he was just playing ‘nutty old Jack Nicholson’, and I thought his performance was a low point of that film. Ledger is dark and menacing and convincing in being “crazy like a fox”, the sort of crazy where he’s willing to do anything to get what he wants, and where his appearance makes others underestimate him, often for the last time. Is his performance worthy of an Oscar, as has been suggested? I didn’t think so, but he did do a good job.

The film is a fine suspense and action-adventure piece. What makes it really work is that there’s some real characterization behind the cape: Bruce isn’t as meaty a character here as he was in Batman Begins, but Harvey, Rachel and Lt. Gordon all pick up the slack and contribute to giving the film more heft than just a lot of chasing and fighting and lunacy, it gives the characters something to fight for.

Despite that, the film does have its flaws. First, it’s overlong, with perhaps one too many clever plans of the Joker’s that Batman has to stop, and one too many nifty gimmicks that Batman can employ – his little trick with Lucius Fox’s (Morgan Freeman) latest technological innovation was cool, but implausible and unnecessary. Second, while the resolution of the Bruce-Harvey-Rachel triangle works for the film (though it’s not a happy ending), the Batman-Harvey-Joker triangle ends rather anticlimactically, separating the Joker and Harvey into two separate threads when it would have been far more satisfying to have them all merge together in the final fight against the Joker. While the Joker’s character is rife with meaning, I thought Nolan missed a chance to imbue Harvey Dent’s fate with the same degree of meaning – or at least a demonstration that even the Joker should sometimes be careful what he wishes for.

Still, The Dark Knight is quite a good film, stylish and intense. Definitely not a kids’ film, as there are some pretty brutal scenes. But maybe the most serious superhero film ever made. Which shows how far we’ve come in 40 years.

A few more, spoiler-laden comments after the cut:

Continue reading “The Dark Knight”

WALL-E

I never went to see Ratatouille, since the premise didn’t appeal to me and something about Brad Bird’s approach to story construction puts me off (The Incredibles could have been a great film, but it’s rather an unfocused hodge-podge), but tonight we resumed riding the Pixar bandwagon by going to see WALL-E.

It’s a cute film. It does a terrific job of portraying the eponymous character’s unending life as nearly the last living thing on a used-up, abandoned Earth. Without dialogue, but with plenty of body language, WALL-E conveys his begrudging acceptance of his workaday life, with his hopes and dreams behind it. And when the more advanced robot Eve shows up on a mission, his realization that his dreams could come true is quite poignant. From there the film turns into a madcap adventure as we find out what happened to humanity, and WALL-E and Eve try to complete Eve’s mission and figure each other out (not necessarily in that order.

The film is at its best when it’s dealing with the robots – and there are plenty of them – but at its worst when dealing with the humans, and what they’ve become after 700 years. Okay, it’s a cautionary tale about out consumer culture, but it has all the finesse of a sledgehammer to the forehead, with people having become obese and slothful, entirely reliant on stimuli from the computer network. It’s not like it’s particularly new, either; except for the fat angle, it’s pretty much the same premise as that of Adventure Comics #379, which was published around the time I was born. I think if they’d come up with a more nuanced explanation for humanity’s absence it would have been a much better film.

Still, the robots are at the front and center, and that makes it a fun film despite its flaws. WALL-E is a terrific-looking creation, expressive and sympathetic, and Eve isn’t far behind him. And the film is touching and funny and exciting as WALL-E and Eve try to get together. The animation is stunning, of course, and the music is very distinctive compared to earlier Pixar films. Overall, a fun film.

Topping it off – actually leading it off – is the short before the film, “Presto”, which is absolutely hilarious, as good as any old Warner Bros cartoon. Sometimes it seems like the shorts are better than the features!

Indy 4

A few weeks ago we caught the last 45 minutes or so of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on television. There was a scene in which Indy is fighting some Nazis in a tank and the tank goes over the edge of a cliff. His father and friends run to the edge and start to mourn his passing. Meanwhile, a few dozen feet away, Indy pulls himself up over the edge of the cliff and limps up behind them and looks over the edge with them. It’s a moment which perfectly illustrates why Last Crusade and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were basically crappy films: Their sense of humor sucked eggs, exploiting the foibles of the characters for the cheapest sort of laughs. Last Crusade, although with a nominally better plot than Temple, was especially guilty of this sin, using Indy’s father (played by Sean Connery at his most ridiculous) and friends as little more than comic relief. It was like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg wanted to make a couple of bad James Bond films, but didn’t even make it that high.

How the heck did these two manage to take basically the same elements and turn them into the excellent Raiders of the Lost Ark?

Anyway, nearly 20 years later, Harrison Ford is back as Henry Jones Jr., in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Taking place in 1957, the film opens with Indy and his partner Mac McHale (Ray Winstone) having been captured by a team of Soviets, led by Colonel-Doctor Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett with a black bob haircut), who have brought them to Area 51 to find a certain item in a military warehouse. They get what they’re looking for, but Indy escapes, and then manages to survive an atomic bomb test (!) before telling what he knows to some government officials, who are notably suspicious of him for having helped the Russians at all.

Back at the university, Indy finds that he’s being placed on a leave of absence. As he heads out to who-knows-where, he’s contacted by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a young man who’s friends with an old friend of Indy’s, Dr. Henry Oxley (John Hurt). Mutt says that ‘Ox’ is in South America on the trail of Akator, a mythical ‘city of gold’, but that he’s been captured, and that Mutt’s mother followed him and has also been captured. Managing to elude both the Russians and the FBI, Indy and Mutt head to South America where they once again meet both Spalko, and Indy’s old flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen, reprising her role from Raiders), and the various parties battle their way towards Akator while trading ownership of a mysterious crystal skull dating back hundreds – maybe thousands – of years.

The film is irrepressibly silly – c’mon, surviving a nuclear explosion? – but I enjoyed it a lot more than I’d expected to. In a sense it completes the “arc” of the four films’ storytelling “feel”: Raiders was an absolutely straight adventure film until the supernatural bit at the very end, but later films get less plausible until in Crystal Skull the film is pretty ludicrous almost from the get-go. But it’s also comfortable in its implausibility; you know there are going to be ancient traps that couldn’t possibly work, and it’s pretty obvious very early on what the Crystal Skull really is and what its Kingdom almost certainly is, and although it ends in a climax that’s maybe even too over-the-top for this movie, it’s still a lot of fun getting there.

Happily, the script crafts just enough of a world around the character to make it feel like Indy’s really been doing things for the 19 years since Last Crusade: Fighting in the war, doing jobs for the government, continuing his archaeological exploits, and seeing old friends pass on. The world hasn’t stood still but neither has he.

The film also takes its characters seriously: Mutt, Marion and Ox aren’t there just for comic relief, nor is Dean Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent) at the university, who fills the role Marcus Brody did in the earlier films as Indy’s friend and confidante (without being reduced to the woeful caricature that Brody was in Last Crusade). Mutt is both a little in awe of Indy, and competent and willful in his own right. Marion was I think the weakest character, and Karen Allen mugs her way through most of the film with a maniacal grin on her face, which makes her seem not very much like the character in Raiders. That’s too bad, but the main relationship in the film is between Indy and Mutt, so it doesn’t hurt the film very much. Blanchett as the villain is pretty generic, not given much material to work with, and not really managing to transcend the material; Spalko is just a necessary driving element of the plot.

But it’s the action sequences and Ford himself which holds the film together. Considering Raiders got all the best jokes about how Indy isn’t quite as tough a guy as he sometimes acts, it’s been tough for the later films to plumb that territory. Now that Indy’s pushing 60 he both has to make the action scenes plausible while not making the character seem pathetic through “OMG Indy’s pushing 60!” jokes. To the film’s credit I think it manages to make that narrow passage and ends up being a fun adventure film with many good action scenes and a few nice character bits. Not all the action scenes work – the swordfight is a little too gratuitous, and there’s a really nasty and unnecessary sequence involving carniverous ants – but mostly it’s a really fun ride.

Honestly given George Lucas’ awful track record as a screenwriter – none of the recent Star Wars trilogy were worth much in the story department – I didn’t know what to expect here, but overall I enjoyed it. I’d probably even watch it again, which is more than I can say for Temple or Last Crusade. And in fact I’d even go see a fifth film, if they make one. Sure, I think it would have been a substantially better film if the ending had been toned down to be less ridiculous, but still.

So if you have a healthy tolerance for cheese in your adventure films – and frankly, you’d be something special if you have a lower tolerance for it than I do – then you’ll probably enjoy Crystal Skull. It ain’t Raiders, but it’s fun.

Time Flies By

I can’t believe how fast this weekend went by. How fast? Well, it’s already Tuesday!

Friday night we finished watching season three of Doctor Who, as I posted a few days back, but that was just the warm-up.

Saturday afternoon we went to a baby shower for Susan and Subrata, who are expecting their first in a couple of months. It was a lot of fun, with about 30 people there and lots of good food. Our friends Chad and Camille hosted at their house, and everyone ooh’ed and aah’ed over their remodeled kitchen (we’d seen it before, but it was new to a lot of people).

Of course, we also ooh’ed and aah’ed over Susan and Subrata, who had a blast receiving gifts and seeing friends. Subrata’s parents also attended, having flown in for the weekend. They’re very excited about having their first child and have been getting their house ready for the new arrival. So everyone had a great time.

Then Sunday we got together with S&S and Subrata’s parents to go to the double feature at the Stanford Theatre: North by Northwest and The Trouble with Harry. NxNW as I’ve said before is one of my very favorite films, maybe my favorite. I’ve seen it so often that I’m well past the point of getting something new out of it on each viewing. This time around I think I enjoyed the scenes with Martin Landau in them the most, although the airplane scene is always terrific.

I thought I’d never seen The Trouble with Harry, but it soon started to seem very familiar. In fact I saw it back in 2000. It’s what passes for a comedy in Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre, and it’s certainly one of his lesser films. Pretty to look at and with snappy dialogue, but it moves too slowly and the ending is just too unbelievable. Shirley Maclaine does a perfectly quirky turn as the female lead, and John Forsythe reminded me strongly of George Peppard for some reason. Not exactly essential viewing, but a nice try.

We went to P.F. Chang’s China Bistro for dinner, which we’d never been to. I guess I’d always suspected it was overpriced mediocre Chinese food, but it’s actually tasty, Maybe slightly expensive (though in the Bay Area who knows what that really means?), but it has just a hint of fusion flavor while still being essentially a Chinese restaurant. We consumed everything in sight and had a good time. And celebrated Subrata’s mother’s birthday, to boot.

All of that explains how the weekend could fly by so quickly. Since then it’s been work, bill-paying, ultimate and preparing for our fantasy baseball draft which has occupied my time. No doubt it will be Sunday before I know it!

Richard Dawkins on Expelled!

Richard Dawkins reviews the creationist film Expelled!, including recounting that he was able to view the premiere while his friend PZ Myers, who was Dawkins’ viewing companion, was, uh, expelled from the line to get into the theater (lots more links on this here, and Myers also wrote a follow-up).

Dawkins was even among the scientists interviewed by the filmmakers before he realized that their agenda was rather different than he’d understood.

Bonus Long Weekend

I’m taking a long weekend this weekend, which is nice. A little extra time to relax, and a lot of extra time to get stuff done around the house. Not to mention reading Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin for tonight’s book discussion group. (Review forthcoming, natch. 🙂 )

A couple of strange thing happened on Friday. First, I had a lot of trouble getting through to Debbi at work. At first I suspected my cell phone, but after calling around a little I realized it must have been her work phone. Sure enough, later she told me that their phones had been down for much of the day – along with their Internet service. How frustrating!

More directly annoying to me was getting a call from my bank (on the home answering machine) that they have reason to believe my ATM card has been compromised, and they’re sending me a new one. What made this strange was that the time on the message on the machine was the exact same time – to the minute – that I’d been taking money out of an ATM, 5 minutes before I got home. I called my bank and it seems that that was sheer coincidence; apparently they had several hundred cards flagged this way, so I’m just part of a mass event. No word on exactly what happened; I don’t use my card for anything except ATMs (I’ve never used any card I’ve ever owned as a debit card), and I haven’t lost the card. So it’s possible that my card actually hasn’t been compromised, but they’re using some algorithm to identify cards which “might have been”, somehow, and mine happens to be a hit for whatever algorithm they’re using.

Anyway, assuming the new card arrives on time and nothing bad happens in the meantime, then it won’t be anything worse than a little extra stress. Still, kind of annoying.

Otherwise we’ve been taking care of things around the house and running errands, as well as going for a bike ride. The weather has been sunny and close to 70 degrees out, which after all is why we live here, right?

Oh yeah, and last night we went out with Subrata and Susan to catch a Hitchcock double feature at the Stanford Theatre. The first show was To Catch a Thief, which I first (and last) saw in 2002. I’d forgotten how whimsical it was, how snappy its script was, and I enjoyed seeing it again more than I’d expected. Of course, I always enjoy seeing Cary Grant – and Grace Kelly ain’t bad, neither.

The second film was Dial “M” For Murder, which I’d never seen before. It’s a sort of locked room mystery, except that the viewer knows exactly what happens, indeed gets to see the plan, execution, and aftermath of the whole thing. Former tennis star Ray Wendice (Ray Milland) married rich girl Margot (Grace Kelly). He later learns that she still carries a flame for her American friend Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), and resolves to do her in to inherit her money. To this end he blackmails a ne’er-do-well college chum, Charles Swann (Anthony Dawson) to kill her. Things go badly awry, but he then manages to set up a last-second frame to throw suspicion away from himself, while Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) looks into things.

The film almost entirely takes place in the Wendice’s flat, making it a small-cast suspense flick. Wendice is cool and calculating and seems to have set up the perfect murder, but Hitchcock manages to squeeze every ounce of suspense out of the film, by having trivial things go wrong with the event followed by one really big thing, followed by the characters circling each other – with little idea of who knows what – as they pursue their own agendas. The whole puzzle hinges on a single fact, and I’d expected it would be something cheesy, yet it turned out to be an elegant and entirely sensical fact.

The film’s downside is the wan acting; no one here manages to rise above the level of a cliche character, although Dawson as the hired gun does his darndest to give him a little depth and uncertainty. Kelly, in particular, sleepwalks her way through the role and seems almost unrecognizable compared to her role in Thief.

Still, despite its limitations the film is overall a win and I’m glad I saw it.

Today in Obituaries

Read this morning that actor Roy Scheider died, aged 75. I always liked Scheider, as he always brought warmth, humanity and humor to his roles.

And now I read that comic book writer Steve Gerber passed away, aged 60. Gerber is probably best-known for having created Howard the Duck, and has lately been writing the Doctor Fate series in Countdown to Mystery. It’s not clear to me whether he’d actually finished writing the 8-issue series when he passed away.

Sometimes when it rains, it pours.

The Golden Compass

Review of the film The Golden Compass.

Friday night we saw The Golden Compass (2007), the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novel Northern Lights (released in the US as The Golden Compass). Although it’s been in the shadows of the mega-popular Harry Potter books, Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, is smarter, cleverer, and more challenging than Rowling’s series. At times it’s maybe too smart for its own good, but that time is in the third book of the trilogy; Northern Lights is inventive, beguiling and exciting.

I didn’t get around to re-reading the book before seeing the film, so my memories of the book are hazy, but judged strictly as a movie, The Golden Compass is enjoyable but is built on haphazard storytelling. My recollection is that the book spends a great deal of time crafting its setting and the many inventive creatures and cultures the heroine Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) encounters. The film spends a little time at the beginning setting up Lyra’s position as a gutter-rat who happens to be the ward of the scholar Lord Azrael (Daniel Craig, who’s essentially wasted in a role with only one meaty scene), but otherwise thrusts Lyra rapidly from one situation to another with very little transition between events.

While this is a risk in turning any modern novel into a film with a running time under 2 hours (in this case, 113 minutes, including credits), I think the filmmakers just did a poor job here, and since Chris Weitz is both director and screenwriter, I think the blame falls on his shoulders. TGC spends its lingering shots on the special effects, and although the animated bears and giant zeppelins are very impressive, that time would have been much better spent on character moments. The film also wastes precious minutes on scenes that have almost no value, like Lord Azrael’s arrival in the north, or a solitary scene with the nasty Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman, who at least gets more to do than Craig) musing about Lyra in the company of her daemon. What was Weitz thinking?

And with all that the film still ends with a cheesy speech and well before the end of the story in the book. While the book does end in a cliffhanger, it’s really no less unfinished than the abrupt ending of the film, and it deliberately sets up the adventure in the second book. The sequel film – assuming this one did well enough for it to finish production – is going to have a weird opening in order to get Lyra where she needs to go.

Oh, and to add insult to injury, the closing credits roll with an amazingly crappy song sung by Kate Bush. Ee-yuck.

So what did the film do right? Well, Richards is terrific as Lyra, effectively conveying the emotion and intensity of the character. The armored polar bear, Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellan) looks great, moves great and overall is another triumph of the ever-evolving technology of digital special affects. The daemons – creatures bonded to every person in Lyra’s world, embodying each person’s soul – also look great, and their constant presence really underscores the differences in Lyra’s world. The acting is generally fine, but really no one besides Richards and McKellan really gets much chance to show their stuff; the cast is too large, and the scenes too short.

There are several very effective scenes, too. The scene where Iorek Byrnison gets to redeem himself among his people is an even better battle sequence than the film’s climax. And the scene where Lyra and Iorek strike out across the snow to investigate a lone shack in the next valley is chilling from start to finish.

But overall The Golden Compass really could have benefitted from a longer running time (the first films in the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series were each nearly 3 hours long, why wasn’t this? Even the first Narnia film was 25 minutes longer), and a smoother script. It’s not so much a bad film as a lightweight one, and “lightweight” isn’t something the book can easily be accused of being.

Stardust

Review of the film Stardust.

I remember when Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess‘ book Stardust was published in the 1990s: It first came out as a series of 4 squarebound comic books, and I looked forward to it eagerly, having greatly enjoyed the couple of issues of The Sandman they’d done together. But I was bitterly disappointed in the series.

First, rather than being a graphic novel, it was instead a prose novel with illustrations by Vess. Moreover, it felt like a step backwards for both creators in its quality. Thumbing through it today, Vess’ illustrations often are of very simple design and execution, and don’t illustrate the moments that I’d most have liked to see illustrated. Gaiman’s text seems extremely weak: The characters have none of the strength or humor he employed in Sandman as a counterpoint to the (intentionally) dreary title figure, and the narrative style is plodding. Gaiman seems to have a tendency to start by writing a “travelogue”, taking the reader on a tour of the ideas in his head, but without much actually happening. Stardust has this problem in spades, and with a decidedly anticlimactic ending. It’s my least favorite of Gaiman’s novels.

So I wasn’t enthusiastic about a film adaptation of the book – until I saw the previews for it. A good cast, and the scenes looked more dramatic than I’d recalled from the book. So I decided I was interested in going to see it, and I’m glad I did, because Stardust the film is much better than the book.

The story takes place in the 19th century: Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) is in love with Victoria (Sienna Miller), but she doesn’t love him. One night, they spy a falling star, and Tristan promises to find that star and bring it back to her. But it falls beyond the wall for which is town is named, and the guard won’t let him through. Tristan learns from his father that he was born beyond the wall, and a gift from his mother allows him to head beyond the wall to the magical world of Stormhold on his quest.

The star turns out to be a young woman, Yvaine (Claire Danes), who had been pulled to earth as part of a test by the dying King of Stormhold to choose his successor. Yvaine carries a jewel which will allow the successor to ascend the throne, and the jewel is pursued by the King’s sons Primus (Jason Flemyng) and Septimus (Mark Strong). Yvaine herself is sought for nefarious purposes by a trio of aged witches, in particular the evil Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer). Tristan finds her first, and they set off on paths to adventures as they make their way back to Wall, complicated by Yvaine’s dislike of Tristan as well as their pursuers.

Director Matthew Vaughn (who, like Charlie Cox, is entirely unknown to me) has assembled a terrific cast in support of a fine script which tightens up the novel and jettisons a lot of the boring stuff, while punching up the dialogue. Cox has an amiable-yet-bewildered nature which reminds me a bit of Matthew Broderick. Pfeiffer – as usual – is a thoroughly loathesome villain; a few more years of this and she’ll join Glenn Close among actresses I think are perfectly fine actresses, but they play so many roles of hateful characters that it’s hard to get behind her in any other role. Danes does a good job being by turns grumpy, resentful, insightful, lovestruck, and crushed, and she and Cox not only seem to have a good rapport, but they appear to build that rapport as their characters get to know each other.

Stealing the show is Robert De Niro as Captain Shakespeare, tyrannical commander of a lightning airship who isn’t all that he seems. He looks like he’s having the most fun he’s had in years, chewing scenery and acting like – well, you’ve gotta see it, it’s worth the price of admission all by itself.

I’ve never warmed to traditional views of Faerie; I find them depressing and capricious – maybe depressing because they’re capricious. So I was pleased that the film takes all of those elements out of Gaiman’s Faerie, as well as making several other changes, such as adding a climactic confrontation among the interested parties, something which was sorely lacking in the book. All the plot elements get neatly tied up in a much more satisfying manner than the book, especially in the epilogue.

The movie isn’t perfect: It still drags in places, especially in the first half. Yvaine’s behavior when they reach Wall lacks motivation (Debbi pointed this one out to me), and seems intended simply for cheap drama, which is too bad since plenty of expensive drama occurs immediately afterwards. But it gets a lot more right than it gets wrong, and all-in-all it’s a fun, exciting, and romantic film which is very well executed. I’m glad I saw it.