Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Dark, Dark Knight

"This is what you call raising the bar. Christopher Nolan sprung from Batman Begins like a man possessed — possessed with the idea of showing exactly how a city crumbles, how hope vanishes, how evil can win even as it loses. I've heard Batman: The Dark Knight described lots of different ways — it's either the Godfather or the Citizen Kane of comic films — but I prefer this: it's like Seven, but with a cape. And, honestly, I can't pay a higher compliment." (Entertainment Weekly)

It's fair to say I'm not a superhero fan. The Spiderman trilogy did nothing for me, the Fantastic Four gave me indigestion, the X-Men were embarrassing to watch, Superman should have never been made... and the less said about Joel Schumacher's approach to Batman (Batman Forever, Batman & Robin), the better. On the other hand, I did like Ang Lee's introspective Hulk movie, and Tim Burton's surreal approach to Batman (Batman, Batman Returns). These were character films, tragic as much as comic -- schizophrenic, artistic, with enough lurid ambiguity in the hero to please an elitist like me.

But nothing compares to the new Batman films (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) by Christopher Nolan, who has given the genre a complete overhaul and proven that superheroes can be about more than nerdy escapism. According to some critics, in fact, The Dark Knight isn't even suitable for kids (I would have loved it as a kid, but don't trust me: you're looking at someone who saw The Exorcist when he was 11.) It's not just the violence, but the kind of violence, even the sadomasochistic kind. More than this, there's an inner crushing spiral of despair. The Dark Knight is almost an anti-hero film, showing how vigilantes escalate terror in the name of combating it. This was foreshadowed at the end of the first film, and now comes the payoff, as archetypes like the Joker and Two-Face are born out of perverse emulation for the "hero". By the end it's clear that Batman is more a problem than a solution, and that Gotham City hasn't a whisper of hope.

The hype for The Dark Knight has centered around Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker, a cold-blooded maniac who likes to put a smile on people with his knives, blow up hospitals and ferry boats, and burn mountains of money he goes to the trouble of robbing from Gotham's banks. He's a masochist too. The scene where Batman is beating the daylights out of him in a police interrogation room captures the essence of the film as good as any other. Here we have the hero giving in to self-righteous fury, torturing a prisoner, while the victim completely gets off on it. Forget Jack Nicholson's Joker in the Tim Burton film (which was actually pretty good); Ledger takes the character to a new level entirely. Nicholson attacked Gotham's residents through hairspray and makeup, laughing like a hyena all the way. Ledger is a real-life terrorist and serial killer -- and his Joker-laughter much more disciplined -- with no camp at all.

The films are entertaining, with all the action and showdowns we expect from superhero films, but also deep enough to warrant the various comparisons to The Godfather, Citizen Kane, and Seven. The sequel in particular breaks formula in so many ways. Batman Begins was about the politics of fear, while The Dark Knight is about the destruction of hope itself. In the first, Bruce Wayne overcame guilt and phobia to save Gotham City from being destroyed "for its own good" (by a centuries-old organization that sacked Rome and burned London when they reached similar pinnacles of crime and decadence). Now he struggles against worse monsters he's called into existence, in the end hunted by Gotham's police as the worst monster of all.

Suffice to say that Christopher Nolan has impressed me with his revisionist approach to Batman and the whole superhero genre. The Dark Knight easily ranks among my top 40 films of all time.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Journey's End: The Fourth Series of Doctor Who

s4artwork.jpgRose is back in her parallel universe (for now), Donna's in her ignorance (for which she should be grateful), Davros is vanquished (until next time), the Doctor moves on (as always), and all is well that end's well. Or not. I've had things to say about Russell Davies, good and bad, but even a curmudgeon like me has to admit the good wins out on whole. New Who has transcended the classic series enough times that we can blink at Davies' shortcomings.

Of which there are plenty, even if Mark Goodacre is blind to it. But I suppose we've kept each other in check through our ratings of the season four episodes (see Goodacre and Rosson at Doctor Who), and Mark wrote wonderful reviews for each story. Now for my own brief reviews, which follow what I did for the first, second, and third seasons last summer. I've added these to the older post, which sits on the sidebar (under "Film/TV reviews"), so all four seasons are now consolidated. And a special hat-tip to Lee Johnson for a smashing piece of artwork which I've pasted above. It's a bit Star Wars, but I really like it.

Season Four

Voyage of the Damned - 1
Partners in Crime - 2
Fires of Pompeii - 5
Planet of the Ood - 4
The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky - 2
The Doctor's Daughter - 2
The Unicorn and the Wasp - 3
Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead - 5
Midnight - 4 ½
Turn Left - 3 ½
The Stolen Earth/Journey's End - 0

Voyage of the Damned. 1 star. Damned in every sense, this Christmas special offends like last season's Runaway Bride but twice as garishly. The Doctor finds himself on a floating spaceship, caught between corporate greed, sabotage, and robotic angels armed with killer halos. It sounds impressive but be sure it's not. There's comedy in every line, but nothing funny; noise and action in every other sequence, but no excitement. It's a sign of how bad a story is when the body count is so commendably high (as in classic Who) but you just don't care about who dies. I'm glad Russell Davies is retiring, and I pray these Christmas specials soon go with him. The Christmas Invasion is already a classic, to be sure, but it can't be relived.

Partners in Crime. 2 stars. Fatsos look out: a company in present-day Britain is selling diet pills which make body fat come alive, break off in chunks, and kill the host. The adipose aliens are silly -- marshmellow cubes straight out of Pokemon -- but the kind of fluff we've come to expect from season openers introducing a new companion (Rose, Smith and Jones). I do get a tickle out of the way Russell Davies milks so much fun out of obesity, but let's face it, this is dumbing down to an all-time low. On the bright side, Donna Noble turns out to be more than a fishwife (when we last saw her in The Runaway Bride) and a worthy companion -- better than Martha, in fact, though certainly not Rose -- more subdued and genuinely funny. Wait for her emotional performances in some of the heavier stories.

Fires of Pompeii. 5 stars. "We're in Pompeii, and it's volcano day!" says the Doctor before the sting, having no idea that he'll be the one to blow up Mount Vesuvius and kill thousands. The season's most ambitious story tackles the dilemma of whether or not history should be altered to save lives. Tennant's struggle to pull the lever and doom Pompeii recalls Tom Baker's agony over committing genocide on the Daleks. Dark stuff. The Sibylline Sisterhood is another throw-back to the Hinchcliffe era (The Brain of Morbius), and half of the season's special effects budget seems to have gone into creating the Pyrovile (stone-magma creatures resembling Balrogs) which the priestesses are hideously transforming into. Easily the best historical piece of the four seasons with a bit of everything -- drama, comedy, horror, tragedy -- and not a minute of screen-time wasted. You'll be weeping with Donna at the end unless you're made of stone yourself.

Planet of the Ood. 4 stars. It's not often Doctor Who gets political and crushes oppression, but it happens from time to time, especially on alien planets in the future. Revisiting the Ood in the year 4126, this time on their icy home base, he takes on and topples the conglomerate which has kept them in slavery for centuries. The best "revolution" story after Tom Baker's Sun Makers (taxation), Warriors' Gate (slavery), and Sylvester McCoy's Happiness Patrol (fascism). It's great seeing the Doctor bring management to its knees when provoked, and in this case he clearly feels guilty for having let so many Ood die in his battle against Satan two seasons ago. But savor the musical climax above all, so haunting it defines the story in a way never seen on the show.

The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky. 2 stars. Don't get excited over the Sontarans: they're not as menacing as in the classic years, and they even chant hakas like football jocks. Don't cheer for UNIT, because the military outfit isn't the same without the Brigadier we knew and loved. And don't applaud Martha, who for crying out loud just left at the end of season three. Groan and exasperate over a substandard invasion-of-earth story in which Sontarans are using human agents to release poison gas into the atmosphere. Like last season's Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks (though not quite as abysmal), this story laughs at our expectations and gives us the finger. I did like the Doctor's passing remark about working for UNIT "back in the 70s...or was it the 80's?", a nod to the unresolved contradictions in the classic chronology. But boobytrapped automobiles don't do it for me.

The Doctor's Daughter. 2 stars. Susan's mother unveiled at last? Not hardly. "Jenny", spawned from the Doctor's tissue sample in mere seconds, is more Little Miss Rambo than Time Lord, born to kick ass in a war against the alien Hath. On an underground planet in the distant future, people have been fighting the Hath for "generations" -- meaning for a single week, since twenty generations are born daily from their progenation machines. Under the delusion they need to combat aliens who usurped power from them in decades past, they imprison the Doctor and Donna as pacifist invaders, while the Hath abduct Martha. The story's center of gravity is the relationship between Jenny and the Doctor, but it isn't impressive, and the emotional climax of her dying in his arms is robbed by a last minute return to life and zipping off like a comic hero. Disappointing overall.

The Unicorn and the Wasp. 3 stars. The Doctor and Donna invite themselves to a posh dinner party in 1926, and when a Professor Peach is killed in the library with a lead pipe they team up with Agatha Christie to find the murderer. Turns out the culprit is a huge alien wasp (the image of which would later appear on the cover of Death in the Clouds) that assumes human form at will. The wasp, for demented reasons, thinks Agatha's mysteries are the way the world really works, and so kills people in caricature of them (i.e. wielding a ridiculous lead pipe instead of just stinging the poor sap to death).It's an unusual story for Doctor Who because there's no threat to humanity, just a bizarre murder mystery -- a surreally comedic Clue game involving an alien. A fun romp for Christie fans, but with a climax feeling strangely like a non-sequitur.

Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. 5 stars. I dream of planet-sized libraries but wouldn't visit this one. Here shadows kill on contact and eat flesh to the bone, hard to distinguish from the garden variety, and as hard to evade as the weeping angels from last season's Blink. Not a nice place for the Doctor to run into his future wife, but there you have it. Professor River Song, leading a team of archaeologists, has come to investigate this 51st-century library, and with the Doctor learns that 4000 people have been "saved" from the shadows -- to the planet's hard-drive, while their consciousnesses live on in a warped alternate reality. The first half of the story is a horror piece ending on the cliffhanger of "Donna Noble being saved", while the second takes us inside the disturbing Matrix where Donna is married and has kids and no memory of anything else. A creepy, creative story; and the season's best, even if the epilogue waxes schmaltzy.

Midnight. 4 ½ stars. The season's filler episode scores big-time. On a leisure planet the Doctor boards a shuttle bus and gets possessed by an invisible alien, leaving him at the mercy of an hysterical mob. With the claustrophobic intensity of United 93, possession-horror of The Exorcist, and dialogue-drama of Twelve Angry Men, the story succeeds unexpectedly by undercutting the Doctor's hero qualities. Now it's precisely his arrogant superiority that renders him powerless by an alien force and turns people against him (opposite Voyage of the Damned, where his melodramatic speech about a being a Time Lord makes the ship's passengers obey him without question). The tension and yelling reach a horrifying crescendo, as the passengers try to kill him and he's unable to save the day -- something unique in the Tennant years. You'll remember this one for a long time.

Turn Left. 3 ½ stars. "Turn right, and never meet that man," hisses the fortune teller. "Turn right, and change the world!" That's what Donna does, and her life replays without ever meeting the Doctor, who dies as a result. This would have been 4-stars easy if not for gaping plot holes, most notably that if the Doctor died at the start of season three, the world would have retroactively ended in 79 CE, since he doesn't go back to Pompeii and stop the Pyrovile. We also have to revisit Davies' lemons (The Runaway Bride, Smith and Jones, Voyage of the Damned, Partners in Crime) though he makes lemonade out of them with a new outcome of loss and tragedy. There's a lot of good drama here: the Italian family being taken off to a "labor camp" is heartbreaking, as is Donna's life as a refugee. The return of Rose is handled surprisingly well, and Catherine Tate puts in a hell of a performance as she sacrifices herself to turn left and get the world back on track.

The Stolen Earth/Journey's End. 0 stars. A complete shower of piss. Davros is back but gets saddled with the worst story of the four seasons. Think The Five Doctors -- this time The Five Companions: Rose, Sarah-Jane, Martha, Captain Jack, and Donna -- all fanwank, no plot, and five times as hollow. The Daleks have whisked away 27 planets, including Earth, to a hidden part of space for their new empire. Sound promising? It's not. In the first half everyone is just trying to telephone the Doctor, ending in the mother of all cop-out cliffhangers: the Doctor starts regenerating but doesn't. The second part gets exponentially worse, with more cop-outs, mockeries of Rose's closure in season two, mockeries of Donna's character and fate, a romantic duplicate of the Doctor...it adds up to the worst script we've seen since Timelash in the Colin Baker era. Davros doesn't feel threatening, the Dalek Supreme is impotent, and the Daleks are easily disposed of with a cloud of deus-ex-machina technobabble -- by companions who do little more than greet each other with hugs, laugh and hug each other some more. To cap it all off, we're treated to the ridiculous spectacle of the TARDIS towing the Earth back home. Every TV program has its lemons, but when a season finale is this bad, it's a sign that something new is needed. Good-bye, Russell Davies. Time to move on.

Monday, July 14, 2008

New Who: Further Reflections

Mark Goodacre promises a comprehensive review of the fourth season of Doctor Who, and I have some further reflections of my own. How does it compare overall to the previous three? (See here for my reviews of all the individual episodes.) Mark seems to think it's the strongest, while I think it's the weakest.

Season two was definitely the high point for me. It did almost everything right: The Girl in the Fireplace was pure magic, and The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit left me floored. Unlike the other seasons, it had a strong first half -- a good Christmas special introducing a new Doctor, no fluffy season opener introducing a new companion (like Rose, Smith and Jones, Partners in Crime), an excellent early double bill (a fantastic story about the Cybermen in a parallel world, unlike the disappointing double-eps about the Slitheen in London, Daleks in Manhattan, and Sontarans in the sky). Aside from a couple of lemons in the second half, I never felt let down in season two. The script writing was top-notch all the way.

And there was strong character drama: a special return of Sarah-Jane Smith, and heavy pay-offs with story arc going back to season one (with Rose's father, Mickey's departure, and Rose's swan song) -- in stark contrast to season four, where returning characters became forced attempts to relive the past. Season two showed Davies at his best with story arcs, and there were never any cop-out endings. The Doctor's romance with Madame de Pompadour ended in appropriate tragedy; Mickey, realizing his inadequacy, left Rose for another world; and Rose's swan song was just heartbreaking. (No, she didn't literally die as we were led to believe, but the end result was equally tragic.) All of this took Doctor Who to a new level -- the pinnacle, no less, of the new series.

Seasons one and three were great too. They had their lemons like any season, but stories don't get any better than Dalek and Blink. Even more memorably, Paul Cornell left his stamp on each -- with Father's Day and Human Nature/Family of Blood, dramas so tragic they're almost sinful to waste on TV. Unlike Davies, Cornell understands what the triumph of the spirit is really about. His stories are emotional without being sentimental, true to the heart in every way.

Season four, while on the whole enjoyable, didn't leave me soaring like the others. In terms of emotion, only Fires of Pompeii was that affecting. There were two strikes in particular. First, Davies was leaning way too much on the past instead of just letting new dramas carry their own weight. The return of Rose, Martha, and Sarah-Jane (and many others) were forced, unlike in season two where story arc fell perfectly and naturally into place. The returning characters in the atrocious finale had virtually nothing to do; they couldn't be developed in any way. They basically all greeted each other with hugs, stood around the TARDIS-consul pushing buttons to tow the Earth back home, laughing and hugging each other. Honestly.

Second, it was the season of cop-outs. The Doctor's daughter returned to life at the last moment, as did his future wife's consciousness, undermining the theme of sacrifice built so well up to those points. The worst, of course, came in the finale: the Doctor's non-regeneration, Donna's non-death (copycatting Rose in season two, but this time feeling like a complete cheat), and -- most offensively -- a romantic duplicate of the Doctor who now lives happily ever after with Rose. That last completely destroys what Davies accomplished at the end of season two. It's as if the new series has suddenly become afraid of good storytelling, afraid that viewers are too delicate and just want cheap thrills. That's too bad. Doctor Who has always been a kids (family) show, but one that allowed kids to grow up.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Journey's End and Good Riddance to Russell Davies

Even allowing for different tastes, I'm astounded by Doug Chaplin's reaction to the Doctor Who season finale. The Stolen Earth/Journey's End goes down easily as the worst story of the entire new series. There was nothing good about it; nothing at all. The Dalek Supreme was impotent, and for the first time in any Davros story, I didn't feel like the Daleks' creator was a serious threat. The Daleks were disposed of far too easily and cheaply, with a cloud of last-minute, deus-ex-machina technobabble.

Really, it was one cop-out after another. I knew the regeneration would be bogus (and that it would lamely involve the Doctor's right hand) but it could have been sidestepped with more creativity than that! The Doctor-Donna business DIDN'T. WORK. AT. ALL. Donna as a motormouth Time-Lord was as offensive as the fishwife Donna from The Runaway Bride, and I completely lost the empathy I'd built up for her over the entire season. We didn't even get to see the Daleks exterminate anyone, save the indestructible Captain Jack.

Rose (like all the other returning companions) had virtually nothing to do, and the epilogue at Bad Wolf Bay made a complete mockery of her season-two swan song. As if things couldn't get worse, the Doctor double was the lowest point of all, and the fact that's he's half human was horribly contrived to provide the cheap fairy tale ending at Bad Wolf Bay. Rose gets her Time Lord lover after all. Good night.

Donna's fate was tragic, but I was unable to appreciate it because my emotional investment in the character was completely shattered in this story (so I just didn't care), and also because it was really a cop-out masked as tragedy. We have Dalek Caan repeatedly promising that one of the Doctor's companions would die, but the "death" turns out to be a figurative one (a memory wipe, and loss of her quasi-Time Lord status). This kind of maneuver worked once (for Rose at the end of season two, when she went to the parallel world and people from her world believed her to be dead), but not here. At this point it's become a transparent formula for jerking us around.

Honestly, if Russell Davies is going to trap the Doctor's best companion in a parallel universe and say she'll never see the Doctor again, he should have the balls to follow through with that. If he sets us up with repeated predictions about another companion dying, he should bloody well have the stones to kill someone. Does he think we're all five-year olds who can't handle good storytelling? Classic Who never copped out in so many ways; never pulled punches with body counts; never betrayed the audience so aggressively in every other frame.

The Den of Geek review gets it right with a comparison to the atrocious Superman films:
"If the ending of The Last Of The Time Lords was from Superman (with everything being rewound, and the reset switch being flicked), this was straight out of Superman II, as the Dalek's weapon was inevitably concentrated on themselves. Had Russell T. Davies stayed on for another series, then I'd dig out my copy of Superman III right now and save myself the bother of writing the end of series review in two years’ time. Combined with the bizarre sight of the Tardis pulling, well, an entire planet, it wasn’t anywhere near what last week had been tempting us with. That's being a little kind."
You better believe it. It's impossible to be too harsh with this finale.

My full review of the fourth season will follow later today. It was a good season on whole, but unfortunately a bad finale casts a pall on the whole animal. It's important to go out strong, and Davies was able to do that in seasons one and two. He failed miserably in season three, and even more horribly in this one. As I said before: Godspeed and good riddance, Russell. It's time for new blood.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Nine Regenerations... and a Tennanth

As Mark Goodacre observes, the U.K. is in a state of hysteria over the season finale of Doctor Who, in particular the question of how David Tennant's regeneration will resolve itself. Anyone who's been following the media knows that Tennant will still be our Time Lord hero next year, but it will be fun to see how that works out this afternoon. Will it be a non-regeneration? Will he regenerate into himself (with the help of his twice-regenerated hand from two seasons ago)? Or will he regenerate into someone else, be killed, and then supplanted by a Tennant from an alternate universe?

In the meantime, check out the following youtube clips of Doctor Who's previous regenerations. I like how each incarnation reacts and recovers differently to the process: Pertwee slumbered in a near coma for two whole episodes, Tom Baker was hyper-manic, Davison suffered a multiple personality crisis (imitating each of his four previous selves in turn), and Colin Baker -- my favorite, though quite controversial -- became homicidal and tried to strangle his own companion (Peri). (Tennant was a cross between Pertwee and T. Baker: manic with Rose in the TARDIS, then comatose through two-thirds of The Christmas Invasion).

William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton, Patrick Troughton to Jon Pertwee, and Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker

Tom Baker to Peter Davison, and Peter Davison to Colin Baker

Colin Baker to Sylvester McCoy, Sylvester McCoy to Paul McGann, and Christopher Eccleston to David Tennant.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Biblical Studies Carnival XXXI

And a day later, the thirty-first Biblical Studies Carnival appears on James Getz's Ketuvim.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Biblical Studies Carnival XXX

The thirtieth Biblical Studies Carnival is up on Tyler Williams' Codex Blogspot.