Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises, Pros and Cons

My usual start to any blog entry, apologies for not having written anything for ages...

I saw Dark Knight Rises yesterday evening and thought of writing a few words about it as soon as I got home. Then I decided to wait a little and to let my thoughts digest a bit before spewing forth. So here, about 15 hours after I walked out of the cinema, are some observations.

I texted a couple of friends with spoiler-free "reviews" on the way out of the cinema (in fact even before I was out in the street) - one word each, "WOW". But then I had to climb down a little and say that while this film is awesomeness on a stick, the stick is not quite as long or sticky as the first two entries in the trilogy - having re-seen them in the last couple of days I still can't decide whether I prefer Batman Begins or the Dark Knight - they each have elements to recommend over the other, but at this stage I would have to consider this the weakest - though given the incredibly high benchmark set by the first two, it's still one of my top movies of this year!

What follows firstly are some general spoiler-free observations, and then a few minor spoilers followed by some detailed plot niggles which will by definition be spoiler-rich. Beware of warnings and scroll down only as far  as you dare! (some spoilers will be hidden behind black-on-black display so you have to highlight the text to see).

First and foremost, Tom Hardy as Bane is just astonishing. It's received wisdom that meaningful acting behind a mask is difficult, or even nigh on impossible. With half of his face concealed by Bane's inhaler and with his head shaved smooth, all Hardy had to work with were his eyes. And his distorted speech, in an odd accent-from-nowhere-or-anywhere, should have been really difficult to follow, and yet I for one could catch every word and every nuance. I understand from an interview with Chrtistopher Nolan that this was entirely Hardy's doing and he deserves every plaudit for it. (That said, while Bane's background and origins are gone into in very fine detail, the exact nature of his inhaler and what he's inhaling are given no exposition at all.)

On the subject of Bane, another observation: with just two exceptions, if my memory is correct, Bane is only every shown from below, making him look even more massive, and pretty much literally, larger than life. By contrast, in those moments when we see him from above, he really does look small and puny - deliberately so. I realise this is Film Directing/Photography 101 but it is really effective and  shows exactly how story-telling can be enhanced by clever camera angles rather than excessive use of CGI (though I expect a little was involved here and there) - all glory to Nolan and his regular DoP Wally Pfister!

In fact, the cast did an amazing job all told, and the Nolans pulled off quite an amazing stunt by peppering the screen with a huge number of characters, but with a few exceptions (see spoiler section below) they were well drawn from the moment of their entrance and they all had a very good reason to drove the story forward. Given almost every major character in this film has a sidekick or assistant of some kind, that's no mean feat! And considering we are given at least four separate narrative strands within the first 40 minutes or so, it's down to intelligent writing and direction that they all come together in a largely satisfactory fashion (not to mention bringing in several other strands from the earlier two films in due course, too!)

Without giving anything away, the two final scenes making up the end sequence (I don't remember in which order they come, both are awesomely done) really counter the bleakness of the foregoing almost three hours with hope for the future - depending on how you look at them. You could also think of them as just wishful thinking. Another master stoke of Nolan's genius direction and writing, it's all open to interpretation.
One thing I really miss from the previous films is more of the Nolan brothers' pitch-black humour. Dark Knight Rises is not entirely without quips both visual and spoken, but there are considerably fewer than before and I think the film suffers for it. The nature of the story is so bleak that the occasional little pick-me-up would really have  been helpful. I sniggered or laughed a few times but apart from one occasion, I realised that nobody in the packed auditorium had  had a similar reaction.

Something I found wanting even as I watched were the hand-to-hand fight sequences. I won't go into details for want of spoilers but these sequences never seemed to go anywhere other than their immediately obvious conclusion, story-telling 101, and the stunt choreography seemed somewhat wanting given what we've seen in the last few years in the Bourne or Bond films . This was a bit of shame, coming from the man who'd made Memento and Inception. That said, Lucius Fox's gadgets are just incredible, whether old, new, or old ones given a few tweaks, and do some astonishing stunt work. If it's possible, even more so than the first two films, all of these gadgets look like they belong in the real world and should exist, whether or not they come in black!

One problem I have with this film (a bit like the latter Bourne or Bond films) is that is is possible to have too many plot twists. After a while, you end up going back on yourself,  and that does the audience no good at all. Again, coming from the writer/director of Memento and Inception, which had astonishingly tricksy and convoluted plots, this was not a very good move. The big plot question throughout the film is, who is pulling whose strings, and I for one went a bit WTF when all was made clear, not least because I genuinely saw it coming and was disappointed that this is all it was. I certainly didn't expect it to be greeted as a major revelation! (I think I've seen too many modern spy films!)

That said, oddly enough, for an intelligent film director who unlike most others chooses to accept that his audience might have more than two functioning grey cells between them, there were a few too many knowing nod-winks to those paying attention - it would have been better if they hadn't been quite so blatant or written quite so large! (minor kind-of-spoiler that everyone can see coming from a mile away anyway but I'll black it out, highlight the box to see: In particular,  Robin's big reveal left me groaning rather than smiling - unlike the character's smirk: it really, really wasn't necessary to bang us on the head with it!)

Which brings me on to the music. Despite being musically illiterate, I am fairly sensitive to the use of music in movies and on television. I've never really been a fan of Hans Zimmer, his orchestrations or  the way he uses music, but in the other two films, his excesses were undercut by the presence of co-composer James Newton Howard (Zimmer scoring the action while Howard dealt with the more personal drama). Here he goes out full throttle and some of his cues, especially at moments of major plot revelations, are straight out of cartoon composition, banging us on the head musically blaring out THIS IS IMPORTANT, PAY ATTENTION. Bleurgh.

Read on at your peril, specific and detailed plot descriptions will follow!

By way of spoiler space, here's a kitty...

and some bats

On with the spoilers which will get more spoilerific as I go on...

I said above that the characters are all well-rounded and have defined functions to play in the story and personal dramas. I was utterly baffled by the Nolans' decision to write Alfred out of most of the movie though. While I can understand the notion of leaving Bruce Wayne totally alone and with his spirit broken, I just don't see it as part of Alfred's character to leave Wayne Manor - and Gotham - on the flimsiest of pretexts. Wayne is presumed dead at least three times during the course of the movie by some sub-set of the players, and of course Alfred's speech about his absence during the events of Batman Begins becomes prescient. But for Alfred to disappear completely and not try to keep contact with Fox or otherwise try to help Gotham in its hour of greatest need - or provide minimum backup for Wayne, if not Batman - just rings entirely false. Yes, he berates himself at the graveside but to quote another English superhero in a uniform, it's just not good enough!

As with any superhero movie, I remain perplexed by the astonishment on anyone's face (not least SuperCop James Gordon's) at the revelation of Batman's true identity. Just far too corny for words in a film which otherwise eschews the corniness and cheese which come with superhero territory!

And the death of a certain female character was just ... insipid. As some people know, I'm part of an  am dram group here in Birmingham and our last performance included several of us dying on stage.  I must say we all did a considerably better job of it than this distinguished personage.

I am equally baffled by the general population of Gotham City which succumbs to Bane's invitation to revolution and anarchy. As I said above, I dislike being bashed over the head with allegories and parallels but the fall of the Roman Empire and French Revolution (storming the prison, come on!) were just a bit too far for me. And then the majority of the population just sit there for five months doing... nothing. And where are the women (except for that single character we see coming out of her front door at the end)?

As, apparently, does the entire Gotham City Police Force, caved into their subterranean abyss. Who after five months of living on apparently nothing, come tearing out of the ground all together, in fine fettle, raring for a fight, every one of them to a man (am I the only one to note the complete absence of any women officers at all?) shaved clean and wearing pristine uniforms...

I really missed some kind of view into the daily life of Gotham under siege from within, and why did nobody apparently care to discover who the holder of the detonator was? In a film a about paranoia and anarchy, why not ramp up the paranoia within the population? After all, the speech in the stadium was geared up precisely to engender it? This was fairly well foreshadowed in the middle movie of the trilogy, but seems to have gone nowhere. Shame.

Another shame, and it has me scratching my head, is how does Bruce Wayne get back to Gotham after his escape (is it really a spoiler that he gets out?) , and indeed how does he manage to get over his back injury so quickly? I'm no osteopath but  "You have a vertebra sticking out of your back, let me punch it back in and then you can hang around" seems a bit simplistic to me. Fairly recent Bond films (Die Another Day in particular) and even more the first Bourne film show that it's not easy to get back to . Some reference to his journey apart from an arty cut from coming into the daylight to encountering Selina in Gotham, please? Sure, Wayne showed his resourcefulness in the first movie but that was a lifetime and a repaired broken back ago...

To end, I have a couple of pure nitpicks which don't really lessen my enjoyment of the film - but I did notice them and I'm sure many others are out there too.

How does Batman in all his finery, plus half a dozen police officers, not to mention his little trick with lighting a trail of (?)petrol(?), manage to stay put on the half-frozen river when we've seen a single man on his own come a cropper?

And another from the climactic end. This a significant spoiler for anyone who's not seen the film, so highlight to read.  Before Batman even attaches the bomb to the Bat there's roughly 1'30 left on the clock until it goes BOOM. The bomb has a blast radius of six miles - though as anyone will tell you, the damage caused by a nitro bomb isn't just the blast, it's the fallout, so he really needs to get it at least 12 miles off the shore. Twelve miles in ninety seconds while carrying a payload in the region of a couple of tons is some serious va-va-voom! Who designs a machine for crowd control (Fox's words) that does 500-ish mph while carrying more than its own weight?

When all's said and done, The Dark Knight Rises is a fine film and an honourable way for Nolan to say goodbye to these characters (unless he were to choose to pick up any of the potential spinoffs the ending sets up. It's just a pity that a little more attention wasn't paid to some significant narrative inconsistencies which ultimately mean this film ends up the weakest of the trilogy.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Same-sex marriage

I’ve never considered myself to be the marrying kind - although as I grow older I’m increasingly fond of the idea of settling down with someone long-term (of course, the older I get, the less likely I am to find anyone willing to share my life, but that’s a different matter).

I’ve therefore never given much thought to the legalities, or even the concept, of gay marriage, although the introduction of civil partnerships a few years ago was a long-required step to protect the interests of long-term same-sex partners. I remember the days when AIDS was seen as the “gay plague” and I knew many gay men who fell to the disease when it was a definite and fairly quick death sentence. None of those men’s partners were allowed to sit at their hospital bedsides or to inherit their pension or other rights without a lot of cajoling and complicated legalese. The right to equality under the law was hard fought and changed many perceptions about gay lifestyles - noth least within the gay community itself!

Socialogical research shows that young gays increasingly value long-term relationships and monogamy over one-night stands - certainly when I was growing up, being gay really was equivalent to being both sexually and emotionally promiscuous. Of course that's a generalisation and there's a great deal of sleeping around today (just pick up your smartphone and look at any gay "dating" app) and there are loads of famous long-term relationships from generations past, but over the last decade, the gays really have grown up a lot. Legal, social and personal pressures have meant that we have refocussed our energies and expectations. And this can only be a good thing.

So while many were satisfied with the idea of civil partnerships, It’s not until I started talking with people like Jay Kay that I realised that if our society really believes in equality regardless of religion (or lack thereof), gender (or confusion about it) or sexual orientation (regardless of  nature or nurture arguments), using two different terms for a legally equivalent state is BY DEFINITION discriminatory and inequitable. 

On the day President Obama got off the fence and risked political suicide by unequivocally coming out in favour of marriage equality, a whole host of religious leaders have come out decrying his statement in their wish to protect the “sanctity” of marriage.

Dear Cardinals, Archbishops, Imams, Rabbis and other believers in whatever imagined “higher powers”, please explain in what way opening CIVIL matrimony to same-gender couples will undermine the values of your religious marriage ceremonies?

Despite their vows of chastity and celibacy, Catholic priests have fathered innumerable children down the ages and raped (let’s stop pussy-footing about with the word “abused”) children of both genders since forever. All the while, church institutions consider it more important to paint fig leaves over all this bullshit rather than actually care for the people they have damaged. Until very recently, the catholic view of marriage insisted that women had no say whatsoever in the running of the matrimonial couple, and were little less than their husbands’ chattels.

Is this how you sanctify your vows and your views of HOLY matrimony?

Anglican and miscellaneous protestant denominations who can’t agree among themselves about the nature of marriage or divorce, you’re happy to allow philanderers, avowed adulterers and other reprobates to participate in your sacrament without making a hue and cry about how the state of marriage has become completely debased and devalued in the last 100 years and yet now all of a sudden you’ve found the deeper meaning of matrimony and want civil unions to follow your outdated and hypocritical values?

Sort out what YOU believe in, act accordingly, and only THEN will you have the right to impose your views on the rest of society, which shares fewer and fewer of your beliefs and values.

Jewish and Muslim couples fare no better. The civil state has accorded their ceremonies the full power and benefit of law and those following your faiths full and equal protection under the law. Why can’t you show the civil state the same rights and privileges so that those who do not follow your outdated views born of generations of patrician nomads?

Mixed marriages, whether between races or faith systems, are increasingly common. My immediate neighbours are a Muslim-Hindu couple (he's Hindu, she's Muslim) with three adult chuldren (one daughter and two sons). Neither pair of grandparents has visited them for years because of religious hatred, to the extent that none of them turned up to the daughter's civil marriage ceremony (to a Westerner).

If the religions can't agree among themselves what marriage is about, and that love conquers religious differences, how on earth can they all speak in one voice against same-sex unions?

I have two questions to all you people of faith:

1. Why should civic society, built on principles of equality and democracy, give any credence to your ideas of what marriage is about, given they are based at their very soul on inequality and patrician values, generated when people rarely lived beyond 40?

2. In what way will civil marriages between same-sex couples undermine your definitions of marriage? All existing and proposed same-gender marriage legislation protects your right to marry whomever you want in whatever manner you want without forcing you to marry anyone you don’t want to.

In all the millions of words spewed forth, I have yet to see any religious leader approach either of those questions, never mind propose an answer. So please, religious nut jobs, how about it?

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The Chaos

Just before Christmas, The Poke published the text of Gerald Nolst Trinité's poem about the idiosyncrasies of English spelling and pronunciation called The Chaos, misattributing it and spouting a certain amount of spurious bullshit about the significance of being able to read it all.

Their suggestion to share readings of it went viral and now there are loads of versions of it on Youtube and elsewhere.

Being interested in this kind of thing, and after a little research into the text and its history, I've recorded my own reading. I have used the author's much longer version as the basis for my own, and have made a few changes, subtractions and additions.

Here it is, my contribution to The Chaos:

I'd love to hear other people's attempts, and i can share the slideshow I used (either in the form of a Powerpoint presentation or a series of PNG graphics) , so if you want to do that, leave a comment ;-)