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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The Dark Knight Rises and the Dynamics of Heroism in the Democratic Age
It was funny to have just finished the eminent Military Historian John Keegan's 'The Mask of Command' before I headed off to watch The Dark Knight Rises. Keegan's book is a study of Generals and Commanders through time, and on the phenomenon of heroic leadership and how it has changed under the changing contexts of society and culture through the ages, from Alexander the Great to Hitler.
To Keegan, heroism is an essential tool of being a Commander, but one which has had to be adapted to the growth of democracies and become deleterious in the nuclear age. With the growth of democracies, and the rise of mass citizen armies, elector-soldiers, such as in the United States in the Civil War, heroism has had to move on from solely being the concern of a warrior elite, such as Alexander and his Diadochi, to a more broader concern for each individual in modern times. It also goes on a lot about the mystique of leadership and how basically a good leader needs to bullshit and present a happy, glowing front, an idea which motivates the citizen army. Hence the Commander's speech rallying those to war etc. This is even more an imperative to the soldiers of an army than simple fear or love. And a citizen army still needs the mystique of the hero.
Now to relate this back to The Dark Knight rises. The movie begins about how Harvey Dent is the model for heroism, but as everyone who's seen The Dark Knight knows, Dent is a false idol. Gordon nearly spills the beans but moves back from doing so and Batman is of course the bad man, taking the warp for Dent's murders etc, 'I believed in Harvey Dent' etc.
Now Wayne is in retirement and Batman disappeared etc, but the film is at first about Batman needing to come back to save Gotham from the puritanical fanatical remnants of the League of Shadows etc. The idea is that the citizen army, in this case the Police of Gotham, can't cope alone against Bane etc.
Batman, so the film leads us to believe (despite Alfred's protestations), as the Nietzsche Superman etc. is the only one who can fight against the master criminals. But then the movie turns that on its head. Bane beats Batman and sends him packing to that hole of Calcutta like prison in the East. So the hero is beaten. Batman comes back, but only in conjunction with, and actually only supporting the remnants of the Police. Batman is the symbol that Keegan writes about in his book. The citizen army, despite being a mass, still needs the mystique of the hero, the example of Batman to rally under. There is a very telling scene where Matthew Modine's Police Chief cautiously leads the re-emerging troglodyte police force against Bane's hordes. He does this cautiously, squeaking about there being only one Police force, until Batman appears out of nowhere. Invigorated, the police charge Bane's hordes.
But then the movie kills the symbol, Batman; the idea, it seems, being that the age of the hero is dead. This is very interesting as Keegan states that in the nuclear age, and Batman dies carrying off an imminent nuclear bomb, the individual hero is not needed. So Batman dies and we almost have a post-heroic age. But not quite. The hero has become truly democratic, as Batman says to Gordon just before he flies off in his kamikaze-like way that anyone can be a hero, as Gordon indeed was in simply consoling the child Wayne after his parents were murdered, which ties in with the very democratic idea that anyone can be a hero. In this way, Joseph Gordon Levitt's nascent Robin, a street orphan and very normal cop (slight, boy-looks) represents this new everyman hero.
The Painted Veil (2006)
The Painted Veil is definitely of the Merchant Ivory school of filmmaking. Stuffy English Characters from an old English novel grappling with their Victorian/Edwardian constraints in regard to love and society, in an exotic setting. It looks great and the music is excellent. The actors are excellent. The plot unravels slowly and with great care and taste. Moreover, there is a very modern re-appreciation of colonialism, as of course the English can't get away with rampant imperial colonialism anymore.
So far all good standard Merchant/Ivory, and I do think The Painted Veil is a good film. But I think it's weighed down by its central moral about love and marriage. Naomi Watts is excellent and very believable as a racy woman bound by a stuffy husband. But this plot line drags with morality. I also think Edward Norton is a rare American actor, of the De Niro school, in that he is willing to go to the depths of his character without compromise. In this case stuffy, cold, moralistic, withheld. And its with Norton's Doctor, and his obsessive pursuit of science, that I think the film rises above good into great. The scenes where he tracing the cause and cure of the cholera epidemic are very special. This could have been a very fine, oddball film about a batty doctor in China, but it's bound down by a conventional story. Also the film should have had no flashbacks and started at the couple's arrival in China. That way, the tensions would have simmered away, leaving us guessing and slowly working out what happened to this mismatched couple. A braver filmmaker,probably European, could have made this a great film had he trusted his brilliant actors.
One of the best things Meera Syal has written
Tandoori Nights was created by Farrukh Dhondy for C4, who was also a top exec for the channel. For series 2 Meera Syal wrote the opening episode, and it's a cracker. In this episode you see a lot of things she would develop and that play to her strengths as a writer- creating a vibrant sense of place full of great comic characters- Asian West London (Goodness Gracious Me, Bride and Prejudice etc.)- but this episode shows a sinuousness and complexity that is missing from her crowd pleasing later work- not that this is unfunny- actually it's very funny.
The series is about Jimmy Sharma, played by the great Saeed Jaffrey, a Punjabi Indian restaurant owner who is being undone by his former Bangladeshi waiter and now rival restaurant owner, Rashid (played by that other excellent veteran actor, Baddi Uzzaman).
In this episode, Jimmy is at his nadir and wit's end- The Far Pavillions (the rival restaurant) is puling in the punters with its cheap and cheerful, 'chips with everything' approach. Jimmy, in the vein of great comic characters, sees himself as a superior restaurateur, but with little business, he resorts to an old friend's advice to go on the PR slog and set himself up rather like an Indian Bernard Matthews- which he feels is a debasement.
Meanwhile, his equally stubborn daughters are both playing havoc- one, played by Rita Wolf, is trying to make a documentary for her degree on the Asian Community, while the other, Bubbly (played by Shelley King) is trying her best to lead the community through running a youth centre which is trying to put on a special Community evening- both are diverting resources and attention away from Jimmy'crumbling business, which leads to a head when Jimmy's oddball Bangladeshi chef, Alaudin, is invited to perform for a Community night.
Syal's script cleverly plays with the clichés of Indianness- community and the compromises of migration to a post-colonial West. These are all themes in Syal's (and most other British Asian writer's) work- but is explored so smartly and entertainingly in this episode, in a manner you find with the best British Sit-Coms- like Fawlty Towers and Keeping Up Appearances.
Meera Syal scripted episode foreshadowing her later major work
Plot: Sweetie, Jimmy's niece, visits from Bombay. While everyone at The Jewel in The Crown restaurant expects her to be a demure innocent thing, she turns out to be anything but! The beautiful Sneha Gupta (who worked with Merchant Ivory) stars as the Bombay niece of Saeed Jafarey's Jimmy Sharma- owner and proprietor of The Jewel in The Crown. Scripted by Meera Syal, clearly the idea that the Indian cousins of British Asians should be more modern was a striking one then (and so utilised here for comedy)- nowadays we see the modernity of India and Bollywood daily.
A bit soapy- but nicely women centred (so foreshadowing Syal's later work- e.g. Life is not all Ha Ha Hee Hee'), the performances are all very good, with the great Zohra Segal as a demented Gran (so foreshadowing again Syal's love of this character- e.g. Kumars.
Farrukh Dhondy kicking off 1980's series with a good first episode
The plot of this is that Saeed Jafarey is the widowed owner of an Indian restaurant, The Jewel in The Crown, in London's East End. He is Punjabi and lives with his mother (Zohra Segal) and two daughters (one who is Rita Wolf of Beautiful Launderette fame). The older daughter is a socialist lawyer who runs the local community legal advice centre and the younger (Wolf) is a gobby college girl.
The chef of the restaurant is an oddball Bangladeshi, named Alaudin. He has entrusted the hiring of new staff to Alaudin, as his old staff have mutinied (which leaves the superior Punjabi Jafarey to say 'you can never trust a Bangladeshi') and decided to open up a new restaurant, The Far Pavillions (you get the literary joke)- and Alaudin is using nepotism to fill it with family relations (a funny old guy who suddenly becomes a wine waiter- joke is being Bangladeshi he is a teetotal Muslim) and also a young man who is obsessed with Rita Wolf, Saeed's daughter.
But she has her own problems with Jafarey's new squeeze, a white lady who Jafarey invites to the restaurant- however everyone is surprised with the white lady's reaction to the restaurant! Overall, I found this a sharp, well-written (with a few cracking lines), humorous traditional British Sit-com with an ethnic twist- a good first episode- everyone clearly feels a bit new and unsure of what they're doing but work well to get over this. Saeed Jafarey is, as ever, superb, and the playing in general is good. Also Jafarey's problems with an old man who, despite all his qualifications and previous status, cannot find a job (and has clearly cracked over his failure to land a job even as a waiter!) lend the mordant air to this sit-com which is so prevalent to British sit-coms, and which makes them in my view quite special.
On a last note, this was directed by Jon Amiel around the same time as his masterpiece, The Singing Detective.
A book-keeping Billy Liar starts his own Fightclub-like crusade worthy of the Unibomber....
Christie Malry's Own Double Entry should get a rare reprieve from the vaults of British film obscurity, a rare thing in British film, particularly as it came out during the attack of British idiotic Indies, out-and-out failures, mostly funded by the Taxpayer (e.g Shooting Fish, Rancid Aluminium, Lock, Stock.... etc).
Most of those films came and went. But Christie Malry, based on the novel of cult English experimentalist novelist BS Johnson, and in which Lock Stock actor Moran plays the lead, is the best of these, although ironically it was never released or given any attention, presumably due to its playful, po-faced attitude to terrorism, which would never play post 9/11 (it was made before those events). This in itself is ironic, as Christie is an interesting study in terrorism, a sort of book-keeping Billy Liar who starts his own Fight Club-like crusade worthy of the UniBomber, which attains an added poignancy post 9/11- after all, in the film, made remember in 1999, Christie's surreptitious efforts help start the second Gulf War (and he is portrayed by the media as an Arab).
I understand some of the criticisms of the film made by others below, such as Christie's unbelievable jobs, although Christie's bizarre double-entry system- e.g. "debit: Wagner's Lack of Sympathy: Credit: girl at butcher's shop smiled at me", to my mind makes him a more believable character- after all, he is hardly a balanced character.
I can add some more myself (the failure to update the seventies novel to the present decade, leading to weird anachronisms- a result of lack of funding or attention in art direction?). But I also believe the film is a brave attempt at finding intelligence and depth in the British indie.
Tickell is clearly an admirer of Greenaway, and this shows throughout, in the film's theatrical flair and sense of the visual, as well as the oddball eroticism, all part a way of understanding Christie's abnormal psychology. This is particularly evident in the 'historical' sub-plot of the film (the development of double-bookkeeping in Renaissance Milan by a priest with links to Da Vinci).
And I think the acting is marvellous throughout, particularly the Renaisance Italians and Shirley Ann Field as Christie's mother, and Moran, while not a brilliant actor, clearly works hard in the complex task of being Christie (he says it is his best film, although I don't think there's much competition- with the exception of Puritan, another little known British Indie with Moran at its centre).
Red Mercury (2005)
A Mature, Intelligent and Ambitious Thriller Let Down by Uninspired Direction and Terrible Production Values
With a cast of great TV actors, Stockard Channing, Pete Postlethwaite, Juliet Stevenson, to name but a few, and an excellent script from the writer Farrukh Dhondy, I was definitely interested to see the film when it was listed on satellite TV.
What other films with the subject nature of terrorism fail on is insight into character. As a long standing British Asian writer and educator, Dhondy has a clear insight into the three dimensional Asian terrorists he has created (all well played by young, little known actors). These are people he understands intimately, and represent the patchwork nature of British Islamism. Further, Dhondy does not flinch from telling harsh truths, both about Muslims and Non-Muslims. It is a must for all who want an insight into the roots of British Islamism.
Moreover, Dhondy's gifts as a storyteller also shine through and his script is intelligent, funny and gripping, a rare combination. His only fault is in trying to pack too many characters and plot-lines in. I can understand he was trying to create a climate around the theme of generation gap and cultural degeneration, but the tapestry feeling seemed a little contrived.
What lets the film down is its clearly pathetic budget. In a small, low-key drama, this hardly matters. However, in an upmarket, 'big' thriller such as this, the cheap production jars in the eye of the viewer. This doesn't matter so much when dealing with the holed-up terrorists and their hostages, but on the parallel plot following the police, it really shows. The police seem to have the resources not of the entire Met, but of a village police station. Related to this, the direction, while competent, is also uninspired, making it look very much like another piece of unoriginal TV, and there is one truly howling continuity error, for which the editor should be shot (figuratively, of course).
Red Mercury certainly would have been better off as a Channel 4 Mini Series, instead of the childish, unimformed Britz (a major Channel 4 mini series of 2007- even stranger when you consider that Dhondy himself was a senior Channel 4 Executive for many years). It is also a real shame that this film was made in 2005, clearly just before the London Bombings, as its ultimately upbeat message was obliterated by the actions of real 'home-grown' terrorists. This must have been one of the reasons for its commercial collapse when it was finally released.
Sit Down, Shut Up (2000)
Surprisingly Good in a Lo-fi Sort of Way.
Just stuck this into IMDb search after looking at PJ Hogan's profile. Obviously, this sitcom has nothing to do with PJ Hogan, but it just popped into my mind. This was shown a number of years ago on Paramount here in England, if I remember correctly.
While it at first looked amateurish and pathetic, I quickly learnt that it was funny and intelligent (hence the PJ Hogan connection), while retaining a distinctly Australian feel. I felt a real 'gang feeling', that the people involved really had fun making this, and my undergraduate self really liked the idea of being able to do this kind of thing, a sort of Lo-fi.
American Television at its best- but not perfect
There really is no point in arguing over what drove Hanssen(although it is interesting to note the strong, equivocal feelings he seems to arouse). Hanssen will always be a deeply controversial and contradictory character.
What should be celebrated about Masterspy is the fact that the filmmakers didn't take the easy option and try to simplify Hanssen in order to please nonplussed viewers. Indeed, in an interview Mailer, who wrote Masterspy, said he found Hanssen the most fascinating living subject he has ever studied, and this shows in his careful, even a little obsessive screenplay. And Schiller's subdued, unfussy direction only highlights his own fascination with Hanssen in the form of his leading man, William Hurt. And Hurt really delivers as his performance drives the film- I can't think of another actor, let alone an American, who would dare portray Mailer's strange Hannsen and grasp his confused, contradictory but insatiable needs. In his endeavour, Hurt is strongly supported by inspired company who maximise their own well-written roles, Boyle's seedy, sadistic father Howard, Mary-Louise Parker's loving wife Bonnie, Ron Silver's sympathetic boss Mike, and Sthraitern's strange best friend Jack (though even he comes across as pretty normal alongside Hanssen!).
Television is increasingly becoming the only place for focused, thoughtful studies of complex characters in adult situations. And Masterspy is Television at its best. Still, it is not perfect. Mailer's old-fashioned view of women does affect the film slightly, especially in the case of a one-dimensional harridan female FBI intern, and Louise-Parker's Bonnie cries out for more screen time. Perhaps this is part of a more general fault, which is that the film needed to be longer (it seems too long for a TV Movie and too short for a Mini Series, and as far as I can understand has been billed as both). More detail on Hannsen's youth would have been desirable (perhaps a young actor to fill in for the Middle Aged Hurt?) and Hannsen's bizarre relationship with his best friend Jack needed more screen time.
An Unlikely Comic Horror Western Which Serves Its Various Genres, and also its High Artistic Pretensions
Ravenous is a film which refuses to be pigeon-holed. The only film I can think to compare it with, both in style and substance, is the genre-defying classic The Wicker Man.
Capt. Boyd (Guy Pearce) has just been honoured for his heroic part in a battle of the Mexican-American War (1846-48). But at the celebratory dinner, he cannot eat a rare beef steak. For this faux pas, his incredulous commanding officer sends him to a dilapidated, marginal outpost in California, Fort Spencer, run by a bunch of misfits unfit for service elsewhere. As he settles into the highly odd rhythms of this particular camp's life, a mysterious man (Robert Carlyle) arrives, telling a strange tale of cannibalism, which the band of misfits who make up Fort Spencer reluctantly decide to investigate.
The basic idea behind Ravenous is that eating animal flesh is akin to eating human flesh. The film shows that it is basically the same, once you know it came from something which had a life, and was killed for your nourishment, be it human or animal (not surprising to know, therefore, that director Antonia Bird is a vegetarian).
Ravenous, with the aid of an invented native American myth, the 'Wendigo', that a man who eats the flesh of another becomes superhuman and his appetite for cannibalism insatiable, takes this maxim to its extreme, creating a demi monde where eating 'pot roast a la Knox', is quite normal and rational, in the pragmatic sense. Capt. Boyd however, runs counter to the frontier tradition of hardy pragmatism, i.e. a blasé attitude to life and humanity (gunfights, massacre) in that he is a man with different, more modern sensibilities to your average mid-nineteenth century American man heading west. He abhors war to such an extent he suffers post traumatic stress disorder. In the times he lives in, he is easily confused (and confuses himself) as a coward, but is put to the test in extreme circumstances.
Along with this clash of mid-nineteenth century and modern sensibilities, is that of westward expansionism. Here the film cleverly adds to its brilliantly imaginative commentary on carnivorism, by making in the insatiable cannibalism inspired by the native American myth of the 'Wendigo', a highly critical allegory of American attitudes towards Manifest Destiny, the irrepressible, inexorable expansion westwards of the 'white man' across the continent.
All this could sound terrible arty, anachronistic and contrived, but the film is crafted so carefully and well, and with such verve, it is also highly enjoyable and thrilling. The dialogue is wonderful and subtly funny. The action is bloody and well-handled, with oddly idiosyncratic twists. The mixing of genres, western, horror and comedy, is seamless, and the film is aided with a wonderfully idiosyncratic soundtrack by the unlikely partnership of Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn. Lastly, but of course not least, the acting is roundly excellent, but the leads, Pearce and Carlyle are both brilliant. Pearce is in sync with the modern sensibilities of his character without making his character feel anachronistic, while Carlyle adds to his repertoire of extreme characters with a double performance that shows great daring and range.