Sunday, July 27, 2008

Review of The Dark Knight

Mere hours after viewing the film which stirred up so much hype, I'm still trying to figure out why it is I don't like it. And when it comes down to "did you like it?" I have to answer no, but hesitantly.

Christian Bale's arrest for assault and Heath Ledger's untimely death merely heaped more fuel onto an already-existing inferno of publicity and expectation, and that was just the status updates across the networking site Facebook.

The film had the biggest opening ever, and quickly recouped its $180 million costs and rapidly continues to stock up profits bigger than the piles of cash featured in the film. Critics gave it good ratings, and the scuttlebutt about town is that Heath Ledger is being pressed for a posthumous Oscar for his performance.

So why don't I like it? The reasons aren't simple, but I'll try to spell them out.

Basic plot, Batman's crime-fighting capers coupled with "White Knight" District Attorney Harvey Dent's fearless prosecution (aided by Batman/Bruce's former flame Rachel Dawes, played by a new actress who is less impressive than Katie Holmes) is starting to make a serious "dent" in Gotham City's crime. Batman's heroics are even spurring minor league imitators trying to prevent crime. (Batman reminds a protesting would-be vigilante of the difference: "I'm not wearing hockey pads!")

Usually, I make sure the movies I see aren't needlessly brutal and decidedly light on "adult" content and check reviews at ScreenIt and PluggedIn. These promised the film would be darker than its predecessor(s). PluggedIn's reviewer wrote "The Joker forces us to imagine every cut and tear. He makes Jigsaw from the torture-porn Saw flicks look positively ethical ... the violence here feels more real, visceral...painful."

And later, "It's not just kids who'll walk out of the film shaken."

There's some truth to it, but the film fell short of living up to the hype, and I don't just mean the violence. I didn't find the film to be as dark or as brooding. Parts of the movie show us a Batman who is close to giving up because "a hero with a face" (Dent) is stepping up. Then the Joker steps in...a villain who is so incomprehensible that even the villains begin to turn against him. He has no clear motivation other than dystopia and laughs even as Batman "interrogates" him - with his fists.

"Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money," Alfred explains, relying on obscure war experience (who knew?). "They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men...just want to watch the world burn."

But the Joker doesn't just want to plant incendiary devices around Gotham City. His goal seems to be to disprove the idealism of Gotham's heroes (Dent, Gordan and Batman) by pitting citizens against each other. Joker takes control of two large ferries, one full of criminals, one full of regular civilians, and pits the one against the other in a "social experiment" of his own invention, offering each the chance to survive by killing the other.

And of course, the other trick all super villains must resort to when dealing with the seemingly indestructible; presenting two mutually exclusive threats, and demanding the hero choose between the two. (The original Superman movie's two missiles, for example, or the Green Goblin's much shorter-ranged threat to Spider-Man.)

But we still haven't gotten to why I didn't like it. So let me try to explain.

First off, there was no clear victory, and no clear climax. I noticed even in the soundtrack (which I got before I saw the movie) there wasn't a definitive "buckle up, here we go" moment. (At least the tracks were more clearly labeled than the Batman Begins soundtrack.) There was no satisfaction gained. We see that the citizens of the city are brought very close to the brink of proving Joker right. Not fully pushing them over the edge of anarchy could be considered the Joker's only defeat. The only true defeat is bereft of true victory, because the villain spent most of the movie being a hero.

We're certainly not hard up for superhero movies in the past decade. Spider-Man, X-Men, Hulk, Iron Man, Superman, Hellboy, and the Fantastic Four have all been brought to the big screen, in addition to less successful attempts such as Daredevil, Catwoman, Ghost Rider and Punisher. New heroes are even being created in Hancock and The Incredibles.

So we've seen all kinds of sides to superheros, their strengths and their weaknesses. Batman's values never waver, but they do get lost in a seeming cloud of moral ambiguity, and I wonder if that's something that expectant audiences neither need nor deserve.

I found myself asking, "Why did you make this movie?" To foster an unfulfilled loathing for a man too psychopathic to even muster a good, sound hatred for - and rob us of any true triumph in the end? Joker's not an enemy you can love to hate nor even one you can hate to love. He just exists for the sake of creating chaos. The entire film seems to assume his completely nonlinear personality.

In the end, Batman keeps his virtues. Even the Joker is forced to admit it; he's incorruptible. But at what cost? Sacrificially taking the blame for crimes he didn't commit, Batman sadly explains "sometimes, truth isn't good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded."

Batman may be the dark knight, but there were two knights who shone as brightly - Gordan, and an unnamed prisoner whose silent act of heroism was perhaps one of the most memorable moments in the film.

So okay, that's two reasons, lack of satisfying conclusion, and a haze of moral ambiguity. Is that enough? Maybe not to some. To me, if you're going to set up a villain, you'd better bring him to some sort of justice in the end...some sort of satisfying conclusion. Batman foils the bad guy's scheme, and hauls the villain's protesting butt to jail, or manages to see them meet a timely end. Neither happens. One friend shared with me a reviewer's take that Dark Knight is to Batman Begins what Empire Strikes Back was to the original Star Wars film - but we're hardly left with any indication of a third sequel that redeems the story. In addition to no clear victory, various high-profile characters meet their death in the film.

In the end, the film failed to live up to any expectations - neither as violent nor as menacing as we were told, nor as satisfying. I can't say I'm compelled to go back for a second helping, or to rush out and buy the DVD. The movie was certainly a respectable attempt, but for me, it just didn't cut it.

"He's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now...and so we'll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he's not a hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector...a dark knight."

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

More Discounted Literary Goodies

I wrote in September of last year about a library close-out book sale I attended, and the books I purchased. I would say I've read close to half of them. (My sister is a voracious reader, and I allow her to act as a sort-of screener for good books, and if she recommends them, I read them.)

I went to another sale today, and as usual, there's rows and rows, hundreds of books to browse through, and it takes a while to hone in on the proper section. It's always hard to know when and what to get, especially when prices are a dollar or less in most cases. Do I really want to buy Barbara Bush's memoirs, and will I really read them? Is it worth it to purchase Aldous Huxley's Brave New World just because he and his brother were noted for some interesting admissions regarding evolution?

At any rate, I finally found my zone inside a back (air-conditioned!) room, and harvested the following:

The Confessions of St. Augustine edited by Ernest Rhys, translated by E.B. Pusey. (The edition is from 1945...I love holding a book that old!)

The Age of Chivalry - The Legends of Charlemagne compiled by Thomas Bulfinch (1965)

Celtic Tales by Barbara Leonie Picard (1962)

The Age of Chivalry by Sir Arthur Bryant (1963)

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord (1964 edition - it's the story of the Titanic)

A Concise Treasure of Great Poems - English and American compiled by Louis Untermeyer (1963)

Colonial and Federalist American Writing edited by George F. Horner and Robert A. Bain

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells


Chowtime.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

One Small Step for Great Britain

From The Guardian: New self defence laws back 'have-a-go heroes'
"This law will help to make sure that the criminal justice system is firmly weighted in favour of the victim," he said.

He added: "These changes in the law will make clear - victims of crime, and those who intervene to prevent crime, should be treated with respect by the justice system. We do not want to encourage vigilantism, but there can be no justice in a system which makes the victim the criminal."

Aside from misspelling "defense" (it's one of many quirks between British and American spelling), this is fantastic news for self-defense in the United Kingdom. Hearty congratulations to Jack Straw and others for empowering their own citizens to take a stand against crime and refuse to be a victim.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Within Temptation: A Musical Quandary

Lately, I've had some freedom to explore new genres and artists because of the free-but-nontransferable music offered by Ruckus through my university. I've been able to screen new soundtracks, pick up on musical gems that not even the major services like iTunes and Yahoo Music have, and find new groups or genres that fit my tastes.

In short, I've been expanding my musical base.

Which leads me to my "musical quandary." I've always disliked heavy metal, rap, and hardcore rock and roll. (I say "hard core rock" because it turns out the genre of "rock" really doesn't mean what it used to be.) I've even gone so far as to accept that many of these styles are detrimental to psychological and spiritual growth.

But I heard a song on a YouTube fan video that was coupled with footage of Lord of the Rings. The song, "Somewhere" was sad, achingly sad, but somehow tinged with resolve and carried it off without abandoning hope altogether. I went to find and buy the song very quickly after hearing it. It became one of those "play over'n over" tracks on my portable music device.

I was curious enough to learn more about the group, Within Temptation, who could craft such a meaningful song.

Pandora.com's Music Genome Project describes Within Temptation in a couple of different ways:

  • Vocal/choral foundation, smooth female lead vocal

  • Guitar-driven force of hard rock with the sweep and grandeur of symphonic music

  • Acoustic rock instrumentation, subtle use of vocal harmony, mild rhythmic syncopation, acoustic rhythm piano and intricate melodic phasing

Other classifications have been attempted, such as symphonic rock, or Goth-influenced symphonic metal. Regardless, they're not just any metal/rock sound and they don't fit neatly into any one general category. Their choral backgrounds are a highlight, as well as lead singer Sharon den Adel's very melodic wailing.

Using that splendid Music Genome project at Pandora, I've looked into similar groups such as Evanescence, Nightwish and Epica, and all fall short of the good songs by Within Temptation.

The problem is, their music is either feast or famine. Some of their work features what I suppose are classic metal elements, such as torturous drum beats, hideous guitar-jamming, and screeching "death yells" (raspy-voiced growls and other guttural, inhuman vocalizations).

On the other hand, there are splendid arrangements that really break out of the metal bindings and fill in a new sound all its own...a sound which I can only describe as epic tragedy or hauntingly fateful poignancy. (Songs like "Pale", "The Swan Song", "Forgiven", "Memories" and the instrumental "Intro".)

Others have a coursing power feel to them, songs such as "Our Solemn Hour", "Forsaken", "Ice Queen" (which works perfectly as a theme song for the Chronicles of Narnia's White Witch, as evidenced by the number of fan videos coupling the song with movie footage) and "Angels".

What was interesting to me is how many of these songs fit so well with the Lord of the Rings motion picture trilogy, as evidenced by the number of YouTube fan tributes centered around them. I'm often impressed by the skill of these "amateur" editors who edit clips and montages together for free.

"Our Solemn Hour", for example, was brilliantly set against clips of the films by one YouTube user named KatePevensie - I still go back to rewatch the video from time to time.

The song "Forsaken" was edited with LotR clips by a user named Endareyn. (Incidentally, for those who have read deeper into the history of Tolkien's Middle-Earth, "Forsaken" would be more fittingly matched with AkallabĂȘth and the downfall of NĂșmenor.)

When I heard the song "Pale", I knew I had only to search to find its LotR tribute, and YouTuber LadyLupin3's video is the first one I came across.

Another YouTuber by name of Elvira27 coupled "The Swan Song" with more clips in a montage. The song perfectly reflects the decline of the race of Elves.

The appeal of these videos is partly to provide an alternate score for moments from the film, but also to draw part of the story out of the whole and tell it independently. (IE, "the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen" or "Frodo's suffering", etc.)

I even got in on the game after hearing a song called "The Howling" from the latest Within Temptation CD, "The Heart of Everything". The song was picture-perfect and begging to be matched with battle footage from Lord of the Rings. Over the space of a month or two, I managed to download various clips of LotR battles such as Moria, Amon Hen, the Pelennor Field and the Black Gate from YouTube (not possessing the technology to rip the movie from the DVDs themselves), and splice them together in Windows Movie Maker to produce my own montage/tribute, titled "When We Start Killing" that I feel is equal to others on YouTube, and perhaps even equal to the song.

There is at least one other video that used "The Howling" for a film tribute, although mine is unique in at least one regard - I edited the music to make for a longer video. Because I wanted to feature important battles in the film (except Helm's Deep, since it just didn't fit) I had to repeat one of the verses. It didn't work seamlessly, but I was still happy with the result.

One of the things that is most appealing is the ability to capture sadness in such a moving way. I had a friend ask me why it was I "enjoyed" sad songs or at least, why they appeal to me. That's a question I hope to answer in a future entry.

In the meantime, I encourage you to check out some of the above-mentioned music, and if you find something that truly is similar, give me a holler.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Evolution, Hypocrites and Heroes

From LiveScience: Why We're All Moral Hypocrites
The researchers speculate that instinctive morality results from evolutionary selection for team players. Being fair, they point out, strengthens mutually beneficial relationships and improves our chances for survival.

This story was linked from me mate over at Creation-Evolution Headlines.

It's hard to believe it took a study (and a small one, if I am reading correctly that the study contained only 84 participants) to conclude that people are more accepting of their own vices and harder on others. Personally, I think humans tend to be hardest on those who most closely reflect our own vices, because we see those traits which we live with so often, but without the self-interest to defray the response.

What's intriguing in this article is the very small and woefully inadequate explanation for how evolution "selected" for morality. I studied this issue for while when I was writing an article for a creationist collective several years ago. It seems that among the vast phenomena evolution is unable to explain, human behavior ranks near the top. No matter how long evolutionists theorize, they are working with a framework which is cold, mechanic and ruthless. (We know this because the Discovery Channel narrator reminds us all the time so we won't write nasty letters for showing seal intestines scattered across the beach.) Whenever evolutionists attempt to explain why a ruthless process such as evolution (that cleverly designing non-designer) would select for self-sacrifice, altruism and selflessness, they are stuck. Either they negate the value of truly good actions by suggesting good deeds are performed only because of expected returns, or they negate the reason for selection at all - for the highest goals of an organism are the survival and propagation of itself and its offspring.

It seems, therefore, that there is no evolutionary (or, if you will, scientific) explanation for the actions of soldiers like Matt Croucher, Michael Monsoor and Ross McGinnis who gave their life, or were willing to, at the greatest possible cost to themselves.

It is this kind of heroism that staggers the great, and confounds evolutionists.

It is here where intuition and common sense are most strongly offended by evolution. Evolution teaches that an organism is functioning properly according to evolution only when it seeks its own betterment and benefit; aught else is an aberration from nature's design. (Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species that "Natural selection will never produce in a being anything injurious to itself, for natural selection acts solely by and for the good of each.")

Yet conscience and morality tell us that the people who put others before themselves are the better members of society.

Interestingly, a Biblical worldview has no trouble explaining the sacrifice of the military, or any other everyday hero - without diminishing the deed. Christ tells us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him (Matthew 16:24), and we're told to die to self (2 Corinthians 4:11), and consider others as higher than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). Which side would you choose?

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