Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"Musée des Beaux Arts" by W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forget
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Painting: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Breughel.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Review :: The Dark Knight

Here it is, my altogether too long review of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.

I suppose it remains to be seen whether or not Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight will go down in history as the great piece of cinema that everyone is clearly calling it at the moment. Time, after all, has a funny way of making us all look bad and in serious need of better judgment. But, that being said, as far as I can tell there absolutely is no reason why it should not go down as one of the single greatest superhero movies of all time, if not the greatest. I normally do not trust the hyperbole and media hype surrounding a film, especially when it surrounds a big-budget superhero movie, so I went into a screening of The Dark Knight deliberately skeptical and demanding that Nolan and company work hard to convince. They did not disappoint. Nolan, Bale and Ledger were up to the challenge, it seems, because convince me they did. They fully convinced me. In fact, I haven't been so convinced of a movie's greatness since I stumbled out of my first screening of There Will Be Blood last year. It's that good. Believe the hype, believe the hyperbole: The Dark Knight is not only perhaps the most perfectly conceived and executed comic-book movie of all time but it is also, as far as I'm concerned, a legitimate contender for best picture of the year so far.

In the wake of the events of Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) continues his vigilante crusade against Gotham's criminal element. His determination to bring order out of chaos has led to a safer city and he is now even able to consider retirement: with people like the idealistic Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham's new District Attorney, stepping up and bringing down the mobster element, the Batman can perhaps forever hang up his cape and mask and pursue the more normal, domestic pleasures of life. At just the moment when it seems as if Batman and his loose partnership with the Gotham police force's Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) may have won the war on crime, however, a wild card is thrown into the mix: a disfigured, painted, lip-smacking angel of chaos, the Joker (Heath Ledger). Unlike any of the mobsters or villains Batman has faced before, the Joker does not want anything other than to revel in the complete collapse of order. He does not want power, he does not want money. All he wants, as Alfred tells Bruce Wayne, is to see the world burn. Can a villain such as this - one who represents not so much a type of criminal but a type of metaphysical flaw - even be defeated? If it can, can it be defeated by a rational mind or is this, as the Joker maniacally declares, a battle between freaks?

It is this sort of philosophical pondering that elevates The Dark Knight above its so-called peers. Despite it's own comic-book origins, and despite the Batman franchise's questionable cinematic pedigree (Batman Begins excepted, of course) The Dark Knight is piece of serious filmmaking. Unlike the experience of other superhero efforts - Spider-Man, for instance, or this summer's own over-praised Iron Man - in which you are constantly reminded that, yes indeed, this is a comic-book fantasy, The Dark Knight broods within a simmering pool of plausibility. I'm not saying that it is without its implausible moments but that it does not ever fall back upon the tired and conventional tropes of the genre. If I may make a perhaps slightly blasphemous cinematic comparison, The Dark Knight does for the comic-book movie what Stanley Kubrick's The Shining did for horror: by completely transcending the obvious limitations of the genre, the movie establishes itself as something greater than the genre even permits. The Dark Knight is not only a great comic-book movie, it is a great movie.

Even though it's his show, the Bruce Wayne/Batman character actually takes a step back from centre stage in The Dark Knight and Christian Bale, who proved in Batman Begins that nobody else should ever play Batman, takes a similar step back in his performance, allowing the stories of others to be told. Many of the themes that dominated Batman Begins return in The Dark Knight but are this time located in other characters. It's as if each character, from Gary Oldman's resolute Lt. Gordon to Aaron Eckhart's idealistic Harvey Dent and yes even to Heath Ledger's demonic Joker, have become thematic extensions of Batman himself and seem to represent individual aspects of Bruce Wayne's personality. Bale, who really is given the least glamourous role of the major characters, and whose character doesn't really have as strong an arc as either the Gordon or Dent characters, never once tries to one-up his co-stars but always delivers a perfectly taut and controlled performance, as we've come to expect from him. His co-stars, in turn, rise to the challenge: Oldman is fantastic and Eckhart is, for the most part, quite good, though his performance does get a little cartoony towards the end, which is one of my only criticisms of the film.

And then there is Heath Ledger. Watching Ledger descend into the Joker is like watching Daniel Day-Lewis become Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York; it's like watching Javier Bardem incarnate evil as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men; it's like watching Darth Vader, Freddy Krueger or Jack Torrence leave their mark on cinema; it's as irrefutable and iconic a performance as anything else that has ever come out of Hollywood. With all respect to Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill and anyone else who's ever taken a stab at the character over the years, Heath Ledger is the Joker. And yet, as insane as the role is, the Joker himself, as conceived of by Nolan and Ledger, is not merely a homicidal lunatic. He is chaos. Devouring, insatiable chaos. And he is beautiful and terrible to behold

That's all I have to say about The Dark Knight. I could get into a couple of minor criticisms: a few moments, most of which revolve around a particular character in the film's last act, are still a little too comic-booky for my taste and seem almost stylistically incongruous with the rest of the film; not all the performances are great - Maggie Gyllenhaal is straight up boring and Morgan Freeman is... well, he's just Morgan Freeman; and if anything there seems to be almost an over-abundance of plot. But I won't get into those. They hardly matter in the face of everything else that the film is doing. The Dark Knight is a masterpiece. There, I've said it. Hyperbole be damned, it's a masterpiece. If you haven't seen it yet, go; if you aren't planning on seeing it, go anyway; if you've seen it and don't agree with me, stop going to the theatre because you obviously aren't there to watch great movies.

experto crede: best film of the year so far, and this from a guy who on principle hates almost all comic-book movies (except Hellboy).

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

There is awesome and there is awesome... and then there is Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. I haven't always been the biggest Joss Whedon fan, not since the Buffy days anyway, but this, I gotta say, is something else. I mean really something else. No more words... go check it out.

UPDATE: Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is, sadly, no longer available as free, streaming video. It has vanished into the ethereal night. However, do not panic, gentle reader, for it is still available on iTunes and will be released on DVD shortly.

The Politics of Satire

The cover of the latest issue of The New Yorker's has stirred up the shit. It is quite possible to be just a little too clever, it seems, especially in the murky, hyper-literal waters of today's political scene. The cartoon in question, which depicts Barack Obama as a Muslim (presumable of the extremist persuasion) and his wife as a Black Panther-esque radical as they fist bump in the oval office while the American flag burns under the a portrait of Osama bin Laden, is high satire; it is supremely ironic, smirking not only at the contents of the cartoon but, more importantly, at those who would in fact create such a cartoon or be persuaded by it. Here is the cartoon, titled The Politics of Fear, in all its glory:

Of course, most people - Republican and Democrat alike - entirely missed the point of the cartoon. In such a depressingly ignorant and unthinking time as this, a time in which such scientific and altogether non-racially biased terms as black hole can lead to hurt feelings, heated arguments and apologies amongst adults, the irony of depicting a presidential candidate as a Muslim extremist - the very point of which is to mock the very idea that such a notion could exist! - is likely going to rub a lot of people the wrong way. (Note: Okay, I used a word I hate. "Ignorant." Terms such as "ignorant" and "unthinking" are often used these days as agenda-driven political buzzwords, as euphemisms used to denigrate the intelligence of those who do not believe the same things you do. I don't use the word this way. I mean it literally. When I say our historical time is unthinking and ignorant, I don't mean that it rejects what I believe, I mean that it is, quite literally, unintelligent and incapable of higher thought, regardless of what ideological direction those thoughts may take. If you cannot understand satire, or if you think that every phrase or term that includes the word "black" is racially biased, you have no business pretending to be an adult). That an alarmingly small amount of North American people today lack the hermeneutical ability to discern satire from sincerity is not The New Yorker's fault.

The New Yorker knew what it was doing when it ran the cartoon, likely knew that the majority of people who saw the cartoon would, especially as a first reaction, misread the cartoon and, in the parlance of out time, unleash a shit-storm of invective, denials, fury and hate, all of which they very predictably did, thank you very much. It is distressing that these are the types of people leading the free-world, people who cannot even read a cartoon, people who can't see the joke, people capable only of the most elementary and literal of thought. I do not necessarily applaud The New Yorker for their cartoon, nor do I agree with their take on the rhetoric surrounding Barack Obama or the need to denigrate people uneasy about Obama's political ties and agenda. I can see what the cartoon is, however; I can see the satire, which is more than most people do. As a piece of political propaganda, the cartoon is rather uninteresting; however, as a gauge for measuring North American literacy (and don't be fooled, the ability to recognize satire is a literacy issue), the cartoon may reveal a little too much about the intellectual short-comings of North American politicians.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Review :: Hellboy II: The Golden Army

I like Hellboy. I like it a lot. Along with Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy is one of the only comic-book based, summer blockbuster, superhero extravaganzas with which I am genuinely pleased and which doesn't make me feel as if I need to compromise my cinematic integrity to watch and enjoy it. However, I don't like Hellboy because it transcends its comic-book roots (it does not) nor do I like it because it is a serious film (it is not). I like Hellboy because even though del Toro understood the kind of movie he was making - a campy, loud and silly story - he nevertheless poured enough love and attention into it to make it thoroughly enjoyable. He took seriously the fact that he wasn't making a serious film and, as a result, delivered what I think to be one of the better superhero stories, one with a great emotional story and some spectacular sequences. There is a way to make big, loud action flicks without forcing everyone in the audience to pretend that they are 8-year-olds, and del Toro found it.

With Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Guillermo del Toro, coming right off his critical success with Pan's Labyrinth (which most definitely was a serious film and which I think was the best film of 2007), seems to have found that way again and delivered an action/adventure film that, without compromising the audience's intellect, is just as loud, just as silly and, most importantly, just as fun as its predecessor. Almost entirely disregarding the source material, del Toro has created a worthy sequel, one which remains faithful to the characters established in the first film and which should please most fans. This time around, Hellboy (Ron Perlman), Liz (Selma Blair) and Abe Sapian (Doug Jones) and the rest of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense face off against an elven prince (Luke Goss) who is intent of ending the centuries long truce between humanity and the world's magical creatures by awakening the legendary and titular golden army, a mechanical/magical army which he will use to eradicate humanity. Hellboy, caught between allegiances to the human world that raised but ultimately rejects him and to the fantastic world to which he more obviously belongs, confronts not only his friends and enemies but his own relationship to them.

If it sounds as if Hellboy 2 takes place in a different world than the first one did, that's because it does. While the characterizations remain intact, the world they live in is much different this time around. It is as if the grammars of Hellboy and Hellboy 2 are essentially the same but are used in the two films to say very different things. Hellboy told a story of arcane prophecy, occult ritual and of the intrusion of a supernatural element into an otherwise recognizably ordinary world; in other words, it for the most part followed the conventions of most supernaturally themed thriller and superhero stories. The Golden Army, however, tells the story of overlapping worlds, of a human world and a fantastical one, a story of elves, trolls and goblins and of a war between them and humanity. The Golden Army is more closely aligned with conventions of high fantasy, with the mythos of Tolkien or ever J.K. Rowling. In fact, the film's opening scene, in which Dr. Broom (John Hurt) reads a foreshadowing bedtime story to an adolescent Hellboy, sets up The Golden Army's new fairy-tale sensibility, a piece of thematic continuity that perhaps connects Hellboy 2 more closely with Pan's Labyrinth than with the first Hellboy and which, I think, will segue nicely into del Toro's upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit.

The film isn't perfect, however. As we can see from it's centerpiece, the Mos Eisly-themed Troll's Market scene, The Golden Army has a tendency to be a tad indulgent, especially in the creature department. Of course, del Toro's indulgences give us monsters like the one pictured above so they are, for the most part, awe-inspiring and quite easily forgiven. Perhaps they should even be encouraged. After all, no one seems to come up with great looking monsters like del Toro. Pan's Labyrinth's Pale Man is perhaps one of the best, and scariest, monsters I've seen in a long, long time. Another flaw, however, which is also a flaw in the first Hellboy, is that The Golden Army seems a bit too disjointed, as if it were merely moving from one set piece to the next, which, I suppose, is what a film like this normally does. Hellboy battles monsters in skyscrapers, on the streets of New York, and in ancient underground cities. He punches, shoots and stabs them. These scenes are often exhilarating; the confrontation between Hellboy and the elven prince is ferocious and quite spectacular; but overall I would have liked a bit more story tying all these scenes together. Del Toro is a first-rate story-teller so I would have liked to have seen a bit more of it here. But these criticisms are minor and, unless you are even more given over to cinematic snobbery than I, will probably not detract from your enjoyment of the film.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army isn't the There Will Be Blood of comic-book movies; it's not a new high-water mark; it probably won't win any awards. It doesn't reinvent anything. What it does do, however, is deliver a solid two hours or pure entertainment and uncompromised fun. It's the kind of movie I want to own and be able to watch over and over. Delo Toro revels in this franchise in ways that his serious high-brow efforts like Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone simply do not allow him to do. In the end, any evaluation of this film will probably be based simply enough on whether or not you had fun watching it. I had fun. I had a lot of fun. In a summer of disappointing and lackluster superhero and adventure flicks, Hellboy 2 gets it all right.