Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Dark Knight

The alarm bells started to ring the week before The Dark Knight opened here in the UK (officially on Friday, but with previews available pretty much everywhere on the preceding Thursday night), thanks mainly to the fact the film had opened in the States to an unbelievable amount of hype a week earlier.

I'm always suspicious when films get the best rating ever on imdb, start appearing at the top of bloggers' "Top 10 Films of the Year so far" lists, have the media calling for oscar awards, and fans boasting of having seen the film three or four times - all within just hours of the thing officially opening. Such ridiculous knee-jerk reaction, without proper time for reflection and comparison with some truly great movies over the last century, has invariably in the past lead to a set of expectations that can only realistically end in disappointment when one finally gets to see what all the fuss is about.

The Dark Knight is a film I've been waiting a long time to see, for a couple of reasons. One: Chris Nolan hasn't made a bad film yet (Insomnia is probably his weakest, but even that was extremely watchable) and his Memento still remains one of my favourite films of all time. Two: Heath Ledger has always shone as a chameleon-like actor (my favourite type) in everything he's done, even when the film he's appearing in has been pretty disappointing (Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm anyone?). Check out Monster's Ball, Brokeback Mountain and The Patriot (as well as the afore-mentioned Brothers Grimm) for examples of what I mean.

Of course in saying this I risk looking like one of those morbid idiots who are suddenly calling for an oscar for Ledger, based solely on some sort of Princess Diana-like overly sentimental obsession with death. Or like the sort of people who can ignore real talent in great films for years and years until the second they appear in a major mainstream blockbuster, when they suddenly think they've discovered a 'new' talent that's actually been around doing great work for years. Why IS it that people too lazy to bother go and see anything other than big budget movies at their local cinema multi-plex seem to think they're experts on discovering 'new' talent?! In my defence I'd like to point out that if you check back through previous blog entries you'll see I've been enthusing about Ledger (and his co-star in The Dark Knight, Christian Bale) since quite some time before pre-production work even commenced on The Dark Knight.

But (as ever!) I'm veering into off-topic rant mode. What I'm trying to say here is that with all the hype I was prepared to be hugely disappointed with the second film in the rejuvenated Batman franchise that's been co-written and directed by Nolan.

Admittedly the film has flaws. So let's get those out the way first. There's some silly, totally unrealistic gadget gimmick McGuffins that are completely unnecessary - the most ridiculous being a video wall that uses sonar to pinpoint someone anywhere in the city by their voice! There's a lack of emotional depth meaning there's no real viewer involvement or sympathy for any of the main characters which makes it hard to care whether or not one of them dies. There are a couple of rather bad edits and plot jumps that indicate this was originally a 4 hour movie that had to be drastically edited down even to make a two and a half hour cut. And I should add that a major weakness in my first viewing was the fact that although the IMAX hi-def presentation is exemplary, this is only true if you're not unfortunate enough to be sat in the first few rows where it's impossible to take in the whole frame, and one is at such an extreme angle you're likely to spend a great deal of the film's running time feeling nauseous. By all means go and see it at an IMAX for the best experience - but NOT if you're stuck with a seat in the first few rows!

But those minor criticisms I mentioned really are minor in the grand scheme of things, and the truth is I loved the film. So much so that I'm rather keen to go and see it a second time to catch the subtleties I missed on the first viewing. So much so that yup, at the moment this is at the top of my 'Best films I've seen this year' list. Bizarrely, the two and a half hour running time (which would usually have me running a mile with moans about 'self-indulgent directors who need to learn to edit') flew by, such that I was kind of disappointed when the film ended and didn't have another half hour or so to go.

Quite simply, the film has a depth and intricacy - and intelligence - that is quite astonishing for a big Summer blockbuster movie from Hollywood. And, those minor criticisms aside, it's pretty flawlessly executed, with great pacing, stunning cinematography, skillful editing and cast performances to die for.

I liked Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan's first take on the Batman franchise, but The Dark Knight is on a whole different level. Many are saying that it will be impossible for Nolan to make a better Batman film, and seem to be hoping he'll refuse to make a third on the basis that you should quit while you're ahead, and although I can see what people mean, I'd still like to see him try and top this one. When a director's best is this good, even his mediocre films are going to be worth seeing.

The obsession with Ledger's death means that certain critics are rushing to distance themselves from the gushing 'He should get an oscar' reports appearing on a daily basis at the moment. 'Christian Bale is the real performer here', says one critic. 'No! Aaroon Echkart is the ignored oscar contender' says another, 'his performance isn't a one-note pantomime trick like Ledger's and is far more subtle'.

I beg to differ! As Gary Oldman (who, incidentally, is the second best thing in the film, in another performance that deserves a 'Best Supporting Actor Role' nomination) repeatedly points out in promotional interviews, Ledger has created a truly astonishing and original take on a villain that will stand the test of time, and be remembered for years to come. It's an iconic performance of an iconic role. Just one example: there's a scene where Ledger's Joker approaches Bruce Wayne's love interest, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and somehow manages to convey pure male violence and aggression while on the surface playing it lightly as he playfully curls his hair effeminately behind his ears. It's a performance that alternately has you celebrating the pure joy of the maverick, while at the same time feeling an icy chill down the back of your spine.

Bale, so enigmatic in other films, seems to be coasting here and there's nothing really memorable about his performance - other than the silly fake voice adopted for when he's in costume, which just doesn't work and takes the film out of its neo-realistic take on the comic book character. Eckhart is fine, but he's really just playing the same character we've already seen in most of his films, and I never really bought into his 'so madly in love it drives him to insanity' relationship with Maggie Gyllenhaal's character.

Ledger, on the other hand, is totally mesmerising. A frison of anticipation and excitement enters the cinema every time he appears on screen, and he's reinvented The Joker character to an extent that even the very strong 'nobody will beat that' precedents set by Cesar Romero (in the 60's TV series) and Jack Nicholson (in the earlier films) are instantly forgotten.

This is one film that, for me, lived up to the hype. And it has sufficent plot and depth that I suspect I'm going to see it a second time at a cinema rather than wait for the shiny disc. Some argue that Nolan, as director and co-writer, has over-egged the pudding with too many strands, complexities and far-too-clever moral diversions that compare with the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Personally, I happen to like over-egged pudding in an industry that far too often seem to rely on dumb, formulaic content-free 3D software showcases. And the fact that such an intelligent, well constructed and well performed film has just won itself a 'best opening weekend ever' accolade, along with plaudits from critics and public alike is a cause for celebration.

Go see it if you haven't already. Even if comic book movies just aren't your thing. Just one word of warning: this is, as the title implies, a very dark film, and despite the comic book connotations is NOT suitable for children.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Mad Men

At the risk of becoming a bore on the subject, I keep being impressed by the quality (of the writing, acting, cinematography and writing values) of so many good American drama series, whilst dumbfounded at the endless critical praise heaped on the garbage that makes for drama series given peak viewing slots on British TV. The last gasps of Russel T Davies reign on the BBC's Doctor Who, which aired his season finale on Saturday, show just how dire a situation we're in. The last two episodes of this British award-winning series weren't just bad, they were dire. Actually make that diarrhoeia. Ask a six year old to write fan fiction and you'd get better results than the garbage that was put out as peak time viewing on the BBC last night.

What makes me so angry is that the Beeb are so busy pushing their tawdry tat as 'event TV', with constant updates on their news pages about what's happening and how everyone's tuning in, and the script's a secret etc etc that even the tabloids are all rushing to join in. Seemingly the need to cash-in on merchandising from the mindless masses who just follow what they keep being told to follow means that the real dramatic gems get consigned to the graveyard slots on BBC2 with not even the merest hint of promotion or advertising.

The BBC royally screwed up Rome, a series they'd invested millions of license payers money in, by doing what no other country did when showing the series - condensing the first two episodes of the series down into a single episode, cutting so much out in the process that what aired made no dramatic or cohesive sense. That they did so without telling anyone, presumably hoping nobody would notice in an attempt to make it fit between a couple of the cheap reality shows they'd rather be making, only adds to the general incompetence that seems to reside in the corporation's drama department. It was left to the episode's director, Michael Apted, to apologise profusely for what had been done behind his back, making it clear that he washed his hands of what aired in the UK as being in any way representative of what he'd filmed as director.

The BBC even manged to kill ratings winners like The X Files by introducing constantly changing schedules and time-slots that made it impossible to work out when the next episode might air, and on which channel.

They did the same, only worse, to The West Wing which never got off the ground despite rave reviews, because nobody could ever figure out what night and at what time the next episode might be on.

And now they've done it again. This time to Mad Men, the first season of which I caught a brief 10 minutes of by accident around midnight on BBC2 a few weeks ago just because I couldn't sleep and was channel flicking. I was so intrigued by what little I caught I imported the (thankfully region free) Blu-Ray disc of Season 1 from MovieTyme for just £22 (OK, £21.99 if you want to be precise). The show tells the story of ambitious, thriving ad men in Manhattan in the 1960's and is that rare thing - a subtle work of beauty, that's also thrillingly addictive.

It has more than lived up to my hopes. The writing is excellent, the cast are superb and the production values are exemplary - from the exquisite Saul Bass -homage opening titles, to the beautifully lit period detail in every scene. It exudes the sort of class and quality the BBC used to be famous for before it got obsessed with merchandising and producing infantile nonsense like Toshwood or endless free adverts for the two millionaires responsible for most West End musicals.

Thankfully, Mad Men has just been released on bog-standard DVD here in the UK and sells for £25 - a bargain thirteen 50 minute episodes of this quality - but, in yet another example of the great British rip-off, includes as extra's (if Empire magazine's reviews section is to be believed) just 3 commentary tracks and a couple of short extra's that deal with the music for the series and what advertising in the 60's was like. There is no hi-def release in Britian.

But my US imported hi-def release, paid for in British pounds and shipped to me from a British address, cost me £21.99. So, for £3 less than the official British 'standard definition - there's no other choice' release you can buy the hi-def version on Blu-Ray and get not just a far better picture that show the high production values the show has, but also had additional material. How much additional material? How about TWO commentary tracks PER EPISODE instead of three commentary tracks sperad across all thirteen episodes? Or a documentary on the making of the series itself?

Why would anyone with internet access buy the British release?! Come to that, why would the British release not only cut out so much additional material but then have the temerity to charge us a higher price? I think we all know the answer to that: it's just business as usual for the British distribution companies.

Things are so bad that I'm seriously considering purchasing an American Blu-Ray player to play the titles I want that AREN'T region free (basically everything from Fox, including shows like Lost which aren't available in hi-def formats in the UK). We get ripped off in so many ways - a big mark up in price for significantly less. How do they get away with it? There really is no excuse.

Empire gave Mad Men four stars by the way, which is a high mark for them, and I'd agree with that rating. But if you're going to check it out please buy American and don't encourage the UK industry which insists on ripping us off so much.

I heard over the weekend that another superb US drama series, Dexter, which kicks off its second season on a channel I don't have access to (FX) TONIGHT, is going to eventually surface on ITV. No doubt that will follow the fate of other quality drama over at the BBC and end up being aired too late for anybody to be able to watch it.

Still there was a little glimmer of hope for those interested in improving the quality of widely viewed British drama this week. In a Q & A session on the BBC web site hack writer Russel T Davies said that when he left Doctor Who at the end of the five specials next year he would never write for it again! Hoorah!

I hope and pray the BBC got that promise in writing! It's sad, especially as I loved his Queer As Folk scripts, but Davies' Doctor Who scripts have been the most inane, infantile, plot-hole filled, ex-deus machine ending filled garbage masquerading as drama that I've seen fill our screens in a long, long time. So, as far as I'm concerned, it's good riddance, thank God you're going, and please Mr BBC commisioner don't let him anywhere near sci-fi ever again if his work on Who is an example of all he can do.