Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Dark Knight earns its name.

In "Batman Begins" Christopher Nolan presented a version of Batman mythology that promised two things: gritty realism and a whole lot of darkness. Nolan reinforced that promise by naming the sequel "The Dark Knight," and then delivered on it with the finished product. The success of the second installment of this new series of films about a classic hero is well deserved and easy to understand when the subject matter and execution are considered. Though the movie falls into some of the same shortcomings as ts predecessor, it is one of the best movies to come along this year, and is certainly the savior of a lackluster summer.

The story begins in a bright place and descends from there. A new day has begun in Gotham, as we are actually shown daylight, something that rarely made an appearance in "Batman Begins." For anyone who has seen the first movie, and for me who watched it earlier in the day, this contrasting tone is clearly evident. Gotham sees light. The day is safe. The city's criminals once again know fear, well, all of the criminals except for one anyway: the Joker. The maniacal clown-make-up-wearing psychopath immediately dares to destroy the daylight by robbing a bank. But this scene isn't just any old bank robbery. Nolan and actor Heath Ledger's take on the Joker is quickly established. He is concerned about the "long con" first. The showmanship comes second, as a means of reaching the endgame of his plan. And in this robbery, the plan is for him alone to end up with the money. It is sickly entertaining to watch the Joker's henchmen off each other due to their bosses orders and admire the brilliance of such a plan. In that perverse genius is where the darkness of this film and the subtlety of Ledger's performance live.

About halfway through the movie, my friend turned to me and said, "I thought Heath Ledger was in this movie." I laughed, demonstrating my agreement. While Ledger steals the movie, Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, and Gary Oldman carry it. This story is not about the Joker, it is about the Joker messing up everyone else's story. Thus, he does not act as a traditional Hollywood character of recent years. He walks into a scene, achieves his purpose, and leaves. He is not multi-faceted, and unlike an onion, ogre, or parfait, he does not have later. No, the pontificating and soul searching are left to the other characters, except for Caine's Alfred anyway, who just always seems to know what's up and how to deal with it. The events the Joker sets into motion spark a healthy amount of philosophizing and monologuing by the inhabitants of Gotham. Don't try and convince yourself otherwise, this tale is a deeply intellectual, with a strikingly conservative perspective.

When approaching this sequel, I anticipated a sermon on the evil inside all of us, how we're all dark, with Batman being able to walk the line the best of all men (besides Johnny Cash). I never anticipated what I actually saw, a complex parable about the evil of some men, and our need to acknowledge it or put all we have in danger. The intricate details of the metaphor of "The Dark Knight" are too many to explicate here. What is important is the following: the Joker is the terrorist, Eckhart's Harvey Dent is the (in)corruptible hero, and Bale's Batman is the conflicted guardian. The Joker utilizes terror tactics that hit close to home. He makes viral videos of hostages. He threatens authority figures with death if his demands aren't met. Dent inspires the masses, using the law system that has been set up to protect them for its purpose. But, he also envies Batman and is tempted by the Joker. Batman pushes forward, doubting himself through the pressure of the people, and admiring Dent as the man who embodies the answers to that doubt. The skill of this story is how the Joker plays this odd and unique relationship between Dent, Batman, and the citizens of Gotham in the same way that terrorists play those same relationships in America. I won't spoil the ending, but it involves Batman endorsing the Patriot Act, and ultimately realizing that he is the hero Gotham deserves and Dent is the hero Gotham needs because as long as men like the Joker exist, men like Dent can't, and men like Batman will be oxymoronically called for and condemned by the callers.

"The Dark Knight" delivers and builds upon the promise of "Batman Begins." Buried underneath the action and drama is complex political and social commentary that is shockingly intelligent and informed. However, the movie does make a few missteps. As with the first installment, the run time feels a bit long, although it is much better paced. Dent's appearance as Two-Face is so ridiculous it's almost laughable. The replacement of Katie Holmes with the much less attractive, to put it politely, Maggie Gyllenhaal is curious, especially considering the resolution of her story. The Joker, though he is in control of the plot until the final act, isn't used as much as Ledger's performance warrants. What's important for us is to not let these shortcomings overshadow the immense successes of this movie. Doing so shouldn't be hard as it's not possible to overshadow darkness and, in regards to darkness, nothing eclipses "The Dark Knight."

4/5 Stars

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Buffy the Vampire Slayer "Chosen": Where's the payoff?

(Note: This blog entry is about the final episode of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It contains plot points and references to the ending of the series and the series as a whole. The show ended a little over four years ago, so I feel fine writing about it, but am providing this disclaimer for those people, like myself, who may not have found the show until recently. Although, I must admit that I have yet to watch Angel and am as of yet unsure if I ever will.)

I woke up this morning with a heavy feeling. No, I don't mean I ate too much yesterday or have heartburn or am still tired. I'm suffering from the hangover of disappoint. Last night, I watched the final five episodes of the seventh season of Buff the Vampire Slayer, completing a three month journey through the entirety of the series. Immediately following the end of "Chosen," the series finale, I was confused and put off. "That was how they ended it?" I thought. "After all the great episodes Joss Whedon has written, he ends with his weakest effort?" Today, I woke up less confused and with the gravitas which usually only comes following a big loss by one of my favorite sports teams. The level of disappointment is not actually anywhere as strong as that of a big loss, but it still warrants explanation.

Character Deaths

It's hard for me to get behind a show that kills two of my three favorite characters at the end. While Xander survived, the sort-of-love-of-his-live Anya did not. Anya is one of my favorite characters from television ever. I loved her straight forward dialogue. In a show where the players were frequently unnecessarily verbose and danced around the issue, she would cut straight to what was important. Also, as a recently human ex-demon, her perspective of learning the world as an adult offered humorous takes on the absurdity of humanity. I also can't deny loving her for being the capitalist voice on the show. Her highest moments were when she ran The Magic Box after Giles returned to England. But then, in the climatic battle of the series, she is cut and half from behind. No one except Andrew, the likable but "why are you still in this show" character from season seven, witnessed it. The only reflection on it was Xander saying "That's my girl, always doing the stupid thing." Really, that's it? Not only was Anya around for a large portion of the series (she first appeared in the third season), but she was an integral part of Xander's story. Obviously her death destroyed her own story (as did her lack of screen time in season seven. Andrew had more time than her), but I'd be remiss to how much it hurt Xander's tale as well. What exactly happened to him in season seven, he lost his eye and bonded with Dawn? Out of the big three, he was certainly the most mishandled, and I would have said big four if not for Anthony Stewart Head's intriguing demotion to "Special Guest Star" in season six. Still, Anya's death isn't even the most poorly done of the episode. The other one is.

As Anya didn't survive, neither did the almost-love-of-Buffy's life Spike. How can I begin to say how trite and conventional the story behind his death was? Bad guy goes on an upward arc by falling in love with the heroine of the series. The arc ends with his redemption through self sacrifice of his life. The story is cliche and worth a yawn, but that obvious truth of it is not the worst part of it. His death invalidates four seasons of the show. Right before he dies, Buffy tells him she loves him and he replies, "No you don't, but thanks for saying it." You see, at the end of the previous episode, Angel, Buffy's first vampire lover, showed up, hung around for the first 10 minutes of the finale, and disappeared back to LA and his spin off show. In those ten minutes, Buffy and Angel made googly eyes at each other and hinted that they would spend "some day" together. Look, I don't care if the story was Buffy and Angel. He wasn't that unlikeable of a guy. I think the story was a bit repetitive when he was around that's all. What I do care is that, if the story was those two, why give him his own show at all? Why give us Spike for four seasons only to have a few scenes in the very last episode that say trump everything the character had been through. The mismanagement of his ending is a prime example of the mismanagement of his story. His character always felt like it was held back. He was witty. He saw the truth. He kicked butt. But really, he only did all three halfway. He had a great speech in a Thanksgiving episode about why they shouldn't feel sorry for a vengeful Indian spirit:
You won, alright? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That’s what conquering nations do. It’s what Caesar did and he’s not going around saying, ‘I came. I conquered. I felt really bad about it.’ The history of the world is not people making friends. You had better weapons and you massacred them. End of story.
It was an incredible bit of social commentary that utilized his unique voice and the acting talents of James Marsters. It was the only such instance in the series. Just as the beauty of Anya was unceremoniously chopped in half from behind, the brilliance of Spike was cut off at the ends and then sacrificed for no good reason other than not offending the delicate sensibilities of those viewers who felt he still wasn't redeemed from his days as an evil vampire and his attempted rape of Buffy, as if allowing himself to be tortured to be given a soul and joining the Scooby Gang wasn't enough.

And on one final note on death in the finale, you're fighting The First (evil) and the only people that die are an underused series regular, a mistreated series regular, and a couple minor guest stars? Wouldn't this plot have been the perfect opportunity to kill off someone like Giles or Faith or Dawn? What about offing Principal Wood or Andrew?


On a show that was so heavily romantic, there were no positive conclusion to any of the relationships except, arguably the Wood/Faith connection, which was sprung on us at the end of the last season meaning I wasn't very invested in it. Buffy didn't even really make a choice. Sure, she hinted at it and made a few coy statements, but Angel still walked away. Once again, I get that the point was she didn't need a relationship, which I think is a great point more people need to realize, but her romantic storylines weren't the only ones that were ignored. What happened with Willow and Kennedy? I don't remember Kennedy being in the final scene. I get that she was only around in season seven, but then don't make her so important if you don't want her around at the end. Likewise, the death of Anya killed the one stable and strong relationship on the show for good. Season seven featured a lot of "What about Xander and Anya?" comments from me. I almost feel like I should have been told up front how they would end so I could have not cared as much. What's the point of having a tragic ending if there's no fallout or aftermath? How can there be no happy romance endings after writing great speeches such as these:

Xander to Anya in "Into the Woods":
I've gotta say something... 'Cause ... I don't think I've made it clear. I'm in love with you. Powerfully, painfully in love. The things you do... the way you think... the way you move... I get excited every time I'm about to see you. You make me feel like I've never felt before in my life. Like a man. I just thought you might wanna know.
Spike to Buffy in "Touched":
You listen to me. I've been alive a bit longer than you, and dead a lot longer than that. I've seen things you couldn't imagine, and done things I prefer you didn't. Don't exactly have a reputation for being a thinker. I follow my blood... which doesn't exactly rush in the direction of my brain. So I make a lot of mistakes. A lot of wrong bloody calls. A hundred-plus years, and there's only one thing I've ever been sure of. You... Hey, look at me. I'm not asking you for anything. When I say I love you, it's not because I want you, or because I can't have you. It has nothing to do with me. I love what you are. What you do. How you try. I've seen your kindness, and your strength. I've seen the best and the worst of you, and I understand, with perfect clarity, exactly what you are. You're a hell of a woman. You're the One, Buffy.
Spike to Buffy in "End of Days":
I've lived for sodding ever, Buffy. I've done everything. I've done things with you I can't spell, but I've never been close to anyone, least of all you, until last night. All I did was hold you, watch you sleep, and it was the best night of my life. So, yeah, I'm terrified.
Yeah, there were some magic moments in Buffy, but to not end with one, not one, hurts everything that came before. Dawn had no plot in season seven. It seemed like she and Andrew had a certain amount of chemistry that went unacknowledged. Why not them?


When I started this post, I had a lot more to say, but now I feel as if I said what needed to be said. I'm not saying I didn't enjoy the entire series of Buffy. I did. There were some really bright spots. I enjoyed seasons two and four a lot. Seasons three and seven were good. The season five finale was ridiculously awesome (the season suffered from a bad actress playing the villain). I'm glad I watched the show and own. There are a lot of strong episodes, and I learned a lot about storytelling, especially in the television medium.

And for the record, in the Angel or Spike debate, though in this entry I espoused the mistreatment of Spike as a character, I side with Riley.

And if you disagree with that, well then:
Shut up, you're wrong.

Friday, July 18, 2008

So you say you want a Revolution?

Then they'll bring it to you. This news morsel was just too good to pass up. Check out the following story:

FBI: Soccer team members help subdue man on flight

An American Airlines flight from Boston to Los Angeles was diverted to Oklahoma City on Friday after a passenger stripped nude and later tried to open an emergency exit door before being subdued by members of a professional soccer team and others, the FBI said.

Members of the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer were among those who grabbed the passenger near an exit door, FBI spokesman Gary Johnson said. Tie wraps were placed on the man, whose name was not immediately released. He was taken into custody in Oklahoma City and placed under psychiatric evaluation, Johnson said.

So what if it was only the general manager, an assistant coach, and former player Mike Burns? Not only are they the best soccer team in North America, they also fight crime.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Middle Magic

LOST has succeeded in influencing the entertainment world positively again. Javier Grillo-Marxuach, supervising producer on the first two seasons and writer of such episodes as All The Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues and Orientation, now executive produces his own show on ABC Family. Based on his graphic novel series, The Middleman is the story of Wendy Watson (known as Dubdub or Dubbie by her roommate and boss respectively) and her superhero boss The Middleman, who "fight evil so you don't have to." If Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Pushing Daises, and Doctor Who were liquefied and poured into a premise blender, this show would be the shake the infomercial host would chug. It features absurd situations, the duoinc (hey, cool, I invented a new word I that sounds, uh, cool) collaboration, and reference-laden-oh-so-quirky dialogue. The third episode even featured the star of Only The Strong. I was shocked. Here are a couple gems I really appreciated:

Ben: I'm such a dolt. I thought that it would be art. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
Wendy: So did the Carter administration.

Wendy: We're going to China?

The Middleman:
As soon as Ida gives us the precise coordinates for the heir. Let's just hope it takes mudman a good amount of time to figure out transcontinental travel and passport control.
Why can't the Chinese Middleman just take over the case?
The Middleman
: Don't be ridiculous.
China's a communist country. A hero will be reduced to the level of the common man.