28 June 2005

Media Update

A selection of the programmes and films which B. and I have watched recently, whether at the cinema or through the technology of the Digital Versatile Disk, would be these:

Bubba Ho-Tep

Any film which starts from the premise of an elderly Elvis Presley and a mad black man who thinks he's J.F.K. defending their old people's home against a soul-sucking Egyptian mummy in a cowboy hat, is unlikely to fall flat. Bruce Campbell's cranky Elvis is fabulous, and there's some extremely dark humour about old age, death and their attendant indignities. It's a decent script, which manages some touching moments (such as Elvis's dream of meeting his long-lost daughter) despite the intrinsic absurdity of the concept. The film's not actually either as funny or as scary as the better episodes of Buffy -- with which it shares a good deal of its approach -- but it's a good deal scarier and funnier than The Stepford Wives.

The Stepford Wives (2004)

The original film undeniably has its flaws -- it's slow-moving, and (although it may persuade us to suspend our disbelief) it does very little to convince us that an entire community of men could actually become so morally corrupt as to conspire to murder their wives and replace them with robots. Still, it has atmosphere, and it's creepy. I was intrigued at the idea of seeing it remade as a comedy, as I thought the change of approach could suit the material very well.

Unfortunately, it's a bit rubbish. Not dire in the way that, say, Three Men and a Little Lady or Look Who's Talking Too are dire, but not much good. Not even the ever-glorious Nicole Kidman, Christopher Walken and the creepy pharmacist out of Desperate Housewives can compensate for the poverty of the script (and Bette Midler most certainly can't). The satire splurges everywhere, undecided as to whether it's aimed at reality T.V., suburban life, career women, women who react against being career women, or gay Republicans. It's fairly shaky even on the definition of "robot". Its main legitimate subject-matter relies on the audience believing in a degree of misogyny which appeared violently extreme in 1975, and hence such satire as does actually work seems to be coming several decades too late. Very much a wasted opportunity.

The West Wing

This continues to be damn good, although from what I gather we should make the most of that while it lasts. Currently we're halfway through Season 3, and the Congressional hearings arising from the President's health problems are far more gripping than such a thing could ever be in real life.

I think this is probably the most tightly-scripted and intelligent mainstream T.V. drama I've seen. (I say "mainstream" because I'm sure there's some S.F. or telefantasy which is more intelligent, even if I can't think of it at present... I mean, there must be, mustn't there?) And the episode Bad Moon Rising, which introduces the recurring character of the White House 's legal counsel, has a pre-credits sequence with the funniest punchline I've ever seen on television.

Twin Peaks

Currently a third of the way through Season 2, and -- Oh my God! Leland's possessed by Bob! And he's murdered Maddy!

I was disappointed at first by Twin Peaks, because I felt that, bar the odd dream sequence, there was very little about it that was non-realist, except the implausibly high incidence of utter barking madness among the inhabitants of one small town (and an F.B.I. agent). Fortunately -- what with the introduction of the Giant, the messages from space, the "inhabiting spirit" in the One-Armed Man, the small child who teleports food and various characters' visions of Bob, this has long since ceased to be the case.

Apparently Frank Silva, who played Bob, was a set-dresser and prop-handler: this was his first acting job, and he died of a heart attack in 1995 without having another. Presumably only David Lynch would want to employ someone who looked so fucking scary.

Batman Begins

I didn't enjoy this as much as I expected to, but that may have been partly due to mood. Almost everything about it was fine, with the exception of the fight scenes, which I found unnecessarily confusing. This may have been a deliberate stylistic decision (as combat is, presumably, often a frantic and bewildering experience for those involved) but so much of the movie consists of fighting that I found it alienating.

I thought Christopher Nolan's earlier independent films, Memento and Insomnia, were great, and the idea of his doing a back-to-basics approach on such an iconic comic-book hero was very intriguing. There's a general feeling of the film throwing off unnecessary comics baggage; with Michael Caine, for instance, ignoring the traditional characterisation of Alfred as stuffy and stand-offish, and instead making him a warm and demonstrative working-class Englishman. This works fantastically well, as does the rejection of the usual presentation of Gotham as a Gothic monstrosity (whose presentation ranges from camp to sinister in various incarnations), in favour of an entirely realistic and non-stylised Chicago cityscape. (Erm... or possibly Seattle. I think it was Chicago.)

The film as a whole seems to have a programme of de-fantasticating Batman's world -- the immortality of villain Ra's al Ghul, a significant character point in the comics, is never mentioned, for instance. This has the effect of throwing the borderline dementia of Bruce Wayne's crime-fighting style into sharper relief than was perhaps intended. Indeed, one gets the impression that Nolan is more comfortable with corrupt cops and gangland bosses than with superheroes and supervillains. Both Ra's al Ghul and the Scarecrow (played chillingly by Cillian Murphy) are poorly motivated and underused. Ra's in particular now looks more like a conspiracy-theorist who wants to be part of the conspiracy than a machiavellian mastermind, and his philosophical basis for going around collapsing cultures which he considers "decadent" is hardly touched on.

There are a great many fantastic performances, although unfortunately Christian Bale is never entirely convincing in either of Bruce Wayne's personas. Caine is great, though, as are Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Rutger Hauer and pretty much every other male American character actor over fifty. There are some fantastic things about this film, and a great deal that's both impressive and enjoyable. It just never quite gels into as brilliant a whole.

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