Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight

This weekend The Dark Knight broke box office records, a remarkable feat for a movie that was not released in May. The reason may well be simple. With The Dark Knight Christopher Nolan has given us a remarkable film that is unlike any superhero movie ever made.

There are those who will say that he has transcended the genre, but as a comic book fan I know this is not true. After all, comic books are capable of great artistic works. What Nolan has done instead is brought Batman back to his roots, as a dark knight who had more in common with pulp heroes such as The Shadow and The Spider than his fellow comic book heroes such as Superman and Captain Marvel. The early Batman stories were dark, gritty and full of violence. In the first Joker story alone, The Joker killed four people. In the second story featuring the Harlequin of Hate, he killed seven more. This was the world of the early Batman stories and Nolan has translated that world perfectly to the screen.

Indeed, Heath Ledger's realisation of The Joker on the big screen may be all the more chilling for fans of the comic books, because Ledger has grasped the heart of the character in a way that no actor before him (not Jack Nicholson and certainly not Caesar Romero) ever has. Even for people not familiar with the comic books, Ledger's performance of The Joker must go down as one of the most terrifying in film history. His Joker does not commit murder and mayhem for profit or an agenda or any rational reason. As Alfred, Bruce Wayne's loyal butler observes, "Some men just want to watch the world burn." This makes The Joker all the more frightening, for his acts of terror simply cannot be predicted.

While much is made of Heath Ledger's performance, it would be unfair not to state that the whole cast of this film gives what may be the best performances of their careers. Christian Bale stands out as Bruce Wayne and The Batman, pondering if perhaps if it is time for The Batman to retire with the arrival of earnest, new district attorney Harvey Dent. Aaron Eckhart is excellent as Harvey Dent, the crusading DA who has his own share of darkness to deal with, Both Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman give their best as Batman's allies, Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox, CEO of Wayne Enterprises and Batman's armourer. Gary Oldman, after long being the consummate heavy (after all, he played Sid Vicious, Dracula, and Dr. Zachary Smith), proves again he can play a good guy by reprising his role as Lt. Jim Gordon.

There is no shortage of action in The Dark Knight. The movie includes some of the most thrilling action scenes of late to grace the screen, including a three way chase between The Batman, The Joker, and a Gotham City paddywagon. Another highpoint is the first meeting between the Harlequin of Hate and The Caped Crusader at, of all places, a fund raiser held in Wayne Tower. And the film is undoubtedly cinematic in scope and epic in scale. Some scenes were shot using IMAX technology. One scene will particularly stand out in viewers' minds, as Batman stands atop a skyscraper (possibly the tallest in Gotham) looking out over the city, right before leaping downwards, his bat cape unfurling like wings.

The Dark Knight is ultimately much more than a superhero movie. In many respects, this is very much a crime drama, with more in common with the pulps of old and movies such as The Road to Perdition (itself based on a graphic novel) than the Spider-Man. It is definitely not a movie for children. Not only might they be disturbed by The Joker's acts of violence (at one point he kills a mobster with a pencil....), but they probably would get lost in what is a complex, deeply psychological plot.

There are those who will chalk up the movie's already incredible box office to the death of Heath Ledger (The Joker was his last completed role). I suspect it is much more than that. Batman is perhaps the superhero with the most visceral appeal, an ordinary man (albeit a rich one) who has built himself to the peak of perfection and chosen to fight crime. Is it any wonder that in 1966 and 1989, and now perhaps again, the world was in the grip of Batmania? But more than that, it may be because Christopher Nolan has given us a truly remarkable film. The Dark Knight is a true epic, a crime drama in which the hero wears a bat suit and the villain is a psychopathic clown. Alongside such recent entries as Iron Man, it certainly shows what superhero movies can be. In fact, I dare say, The Dark Knight may be the greatest superhero movie of all time.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Guillermo del Toro has directed well received genre movies and critically acclaimed films. His movie, El laberinto del fauno (Pan's Labyrinth) not only received critical acclaim, but received six Oscar nominations. It won three. Mike Mignola worked on such comic book projects as Batman: A Death in the Family and Gotham by Gaslight. In 1994 he created the Hellboy series. Not only would Hellboy become a cult favourite, but would go onto win both Harvey and Eisner awards. Del Toro's 2004 movie Hellboy would change Hellboy from a cult character to a household name.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army is not of the same quality as El laberinto del fauno. I do not think it is even as good as the first Hellboy movie, but it is nearly its equal. Del Toro has once more succeeded in giving us another very fine and very entertaining film.

In this go around Hellboy and his comrades at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence find themselves in the position of having to prevent all out war between mankind and the world of fairy tale creatures (fairies, trolls, and so on). It seems that there has been a truce between man and the fairy world for thousands of years, and now Prince Nuada of Bethmoora wishes to break the truce for total war on man.

As might be expected of a movie that centres on legendary creatures, Hellboy II: The Golden Army is filled with wonders. As might be expected, the fairy tale creatures of del Toro and Mignola are hardly the lovable sort found in the Shrek movies. In fact, with the exception of the elves (the ruling elite of the fairy tale creatures) such as Nuada and his twin sister Nuala (who more or less look human), most of the creatures are downright monstrous. As might be expected, Hellboy gets to battle another gigantic creature, in this case an Elemental or Forest God that rampages through part of New York. Of course, most of the creatures are closer to human size. Among these is Mr. Wink, an enormous troll who serves as Nuada's enforcer, and the many denizens of the Troll Market (del Toro's own homage to the cantina from Star Wars Chapter IV: a New Hope. By far my favourite creatures were perhaps the smallest. Tooth fairies are tiny, little more than the size of Tinkerbell. Unlike their namesake, however, tooth fairies are vicious little critters who are definitely not intent on leaving money in exchange for teeth... Not all of the unusual characters are from the fairy realm. Introduced in this film is another character from the comic books, Johann Krauss. Krauss is a disembodied ectoplasmic spirit who must wear a containment suit (complete with bubble helmet) in order to have a physical form. Krauss, voiced by Seth MacFarlane, is also one of the most entertaining characters in the film.

As might be expected, all of this entails a good deal of special effects. Fortunately, the special effects in Hellboy II: The Golden Army are in top form. Indeed, the Golden Army of the title is so convincing it is hard to believe they simply weren't built in some factory in Detroit.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army also has some truly great action scenes. Prince Nuada is absolutely deadly with the spear and sword, making him a challenge even for Hellboy. The battles with the various fairy tale creatures are well executed and often very original. The sequence with the tooth fairies must be seen to be believed.

As impressive as the special effects and action sequences are,
Hellboy II: The Golden Army may be at its best in its quieter moments. Ron Perlman and Selma Blair are in top form portraying Hellboy and Liz as their relationship has reached a crisis. Hellboy's resentment of Krauss (who is now his superior) makes for some amusing moments. Perhaps best of all is a scene between Hellboy and Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), both lovelorn, getting drunk while listening to Barry Manilow.

While Hellboy II: The Golden Army is not quite as good as Hellboy, it is nearly its equal. It is a entertaining, fun film with strong characters, great dialogue, and some fantastic action sequences. And it is so filled with wonders, all made convincing through excellent special effects, that for two hours at least, viewers will believe in fairies.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Talk Show Host Les Crane Passes On

Talk show host Les Crane passed on July 13 at the age of 74.

Crane was born on December 3, 1933, although it is unclear where he was born. By some reports he was born in New York City, but according to an American Broadcasting Company biography he was born in Long Island. The New York Daily News claims he was born in the Bronx, while IMDB and other websites claim he was born in San Francisco. He was born Lesley Stein. Regardless, he graduated from Tulane University and served four years in the Air Force as a pilot. He first rose to prominence at KKYA in San Francisco as a rock'n'roll DJ. He then moved to KKGO in San Francisco, where station manager Don Curran gave him the last name of "Crane." KKGO could be received as far as Seattle, Washington. When the late night talk show Crane hosted became a hit, he was then known in several states. Crane was often known for being brusque with callers to his show, even violating usual standards of politeness by hanging up on them. His style was open and forthright.

It was in 1964 that ABC hired him to host ABC's Nightlife (also known as The Les Crane Show, the first late night talk show to challenge Johnny Carson. Crane's show relied on spontaneity and Crane showed no respect for the traditions of TV talk shows. The New York Times referred to Crane as "the bad boy of late night television," He interviewed celebrities such as Richard Burton and Shelley Winters, as well as more important individuals such as Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and even controversial Governor of Alabama George Wallace. The Rolling Stones had their first interview on American television on Crane's show. Unfortunately, although the show was well received by critics, it never seriously challenged Carson. As ABC's Nightlife the show only lasted from November 1964 to February 1965. Revived as The Les Crane Show, it only managed to last from June 1965 to November 1965.

Following the cancellation of The Les Crane Show, Crane hosted another talk show on WNEW in New York. This one also lasted briefly. He also had a small acting career. Crane guest starred on such shows as Burke's Law, The Virginian, and It Takes a Thief. He also appeared in the failed television pilot, I Love a Mystery and the film An American Dream.

In 1971 Crane had a hit with a spoken word record, his interpretation of the poem “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann. He won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording. In 1980 Les Crane expanded into the software market, becoming the CEO of Software Toolworks. Among other programmes the company manufactured were the Chessmaster series and Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.

Les Crane was a true innovator in his field. His outrageous antics pre-dated those of similar hosts such as David Letterman and Conan O'Brien. In some respects, he could be considered a forerunner of shock jocks, except that he tended to quite a bit more polite. Although his show on ABC only lasted briefly. Crane would have a lasting impact on late night talk shows.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Dark Knight Trailer

Today I am feeling a little under the weather and a bit tired. I thought instead of a usual post, then I would simply post the trailer to what could be the most widely anticipated movie this summer, The Dark Knight.