Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Review: The Dark Knight

Riding ridiculous waves of hype, The Dark Knight was dubbed the greatest movie ever by nerds the world over and Oscar talk circled the late Heath Ledger for his take on the Joker, all for a film that nobody had actually seen yet. As such, now that The Dark Knight is actually out it's difficult to resist the urge to lash back at the hyperbole and lean on the film's many real flaws. Unsurprisingly, it's not perfect. It's too long and I left the theater largely dissatisfied.

But is it any good?

I'm one of the few who found series predecessor Batman Begins to be awkward and boring, an attempt to reinvent the series in a style that didn't exactly play to the source material's strengths. The film was so intent on taking itself seriously that it jettisoned the weirdness and color of a good Batman movie, and its few comic-booky moments felt like they were grafted in from an entirely different (and more playful) film. Not a bad film, exactly, but dull and disjointed.

Thankfully The Dark Knight is a massive step in the right direction on almost all fronts, in no small part due to the massive influx of color that his Heath Ledger's Joker. His comment that Gotham "needs a better class of criminal" holds true to the series as well, and his limping, lip-licking embodiment of chaos is the nerve center of the film. He isn't all that Joker, really--not prankish enough, and where's the twisted glee?--but just try to resist leaning forward in anticipation every time he appears on screen.

And yet part of the charm is his Joker is genuinely terrifying, a destructive nightmare of a villain. He isn't some likable antihero with plans to take over the world so much as an unhinged self-made terrorist. He's as repulsive as he is compelling, an uneasy wild card you wouldn't want in your backyard. He's not without a certain charisma, true, and he does draw laughs, but only of the most queasy and uncomfortable kind.

Ledger is a highlight, but the rest of the cast holds their own. Aaron Eckhart is great as Harvey Dent, all hard-nosed vulnerable bravado, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is the better Rachel Dawes in that unlike Katie Holmes she can actually act. Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Michael Caine all do their usual excellent work, despite being given some of the film's most awkward dialogue.

Yeah, about that: the script is largely rubbish, with far too many self-important monologues on being the hero the city needs or the nature of chaos and sixteen ways in which it can be presented. Even Ledger's seductive performance can't quite rescue some of the clunkers he's handed, all subtlety erased by the time he's done expounding on whatever the fuck. The film repeatedly swings for gravitas and utterly misses, hamstrung by ambition that frequently outstrips the writing.

And god is it too long, overstaying its welcome by at least a half hour. The last act is largely bungled, with Joker's arc unceremoniously dumped in favor of clumsily shoehorning in another villain. The offenses aren't on the level of Spider-man 3 but it's disheartening to see a film turn soggy and confused right when it should be soaring to a tidy conclusion.

Additionally, Nolan still can't quite nail the propulsive energy that defines truly infectious action sequences. Most of the big money scenes unfolded without cohesion and rhythm, getting enough right to squeak by but not exactly pulsing with infectious adrenaline. The climactic scene where Batman infiltrates a skyscraper with hostages, clowns, and a SWAT team (yes, you read that right) was passable, but I dare anyone to explain just what the hell was going on.

But in the end The Dark Knight is a success, an evil little mindfuck of a movie that settles in and refuses to leave. The movie is a study in chaos, with Ledger's Joker pushing the topic from lip service to vulgar display. There is a very real sense of society's safety net falling away, the situation spiraling out of control as the stakes keep escalating. Nolan's decision to de-sexify Gotham into a reskinned Chicago actually helps bring the chaos to a stage we can all relate to. We are the victims of the Joker, our friends and family nothing more than playthings for his violent whim. His reign of terror hits a little too close to home, which is why it just fucking gets under our skin.

The Dark Knight isn't a great movie by any stretch of the imagination. It certainly isn't film of the year material--hell, it wasn't even the best movie I saw this month. But it gets its hooks in you, growing spikes as it settles in. I left the theater largely glad it was over and yet I find myself increasingly thinking of chaos-ravaged Gotham and the depth of Ledger's madness. The Dark Knight wasn't up to the level of, say, Iron Man, and yet it struck a deep chord that only grows stronger over time.

I'm not exactly sure what to do with all this.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The trouble with cheese balls

One thing my two year old nephew discovered this past weekend is that he really likes cheese balls.

Not actual balls of cheese, mind you. We're talking puffy round crisps of toxic waste that come in a big plastic barrel and were available at a family picnic this past Saturday. Little orange terrors that exist to make room for baby carrots.

My nephew couldn't get enough.

The problem with all this is an afternoon spent eating cheese balls results in an afternoon spent shitting cheese balls and my poor nephew was no exception. By the end of the day his poor butt was so sore from crapping cheese balls that my brother-in-law decided to slather him with vaseline for relief.

A further complication, though, was the cheese ball farts, which descended upon my nephew at that very moment. I heard him giggling like a little boy and then regrettably turned to see what was so funny. There he was, hoisted up by his feet and beaming while he repeatedly farted vaseline out of his anus.

I saw this.

There is an identical plastic barrel of cheese balls three cubicles down at work.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Quick Reviews: What Is the What by Dave Eggers and God's Middle Finger by Richard Grant

What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng

Dave Eggers shelves his literary prankster aesthetic for What Is the What, the story of Valentino Achak Deng's perilous flight from his native Sudan and eventual rocky relocation to the States, split by a ten year stay in a bleak Kenyan refugee camp. While never less than readable, Eggers' decision to tell the tale in Deng's voice and bill it as an autobiography--perhaps Eggers hasn't quite shelved the prankster, after all--hamstrings the books; the events are extraordinary and heartrending but the storytelling is just too matter of fact and flat--this happened then that happened then this--for the prose to every really take flight. What Is the What provides a valuable education by presenting a true human story from war-torn Sudan, but one is left wishing Eggers had taken a little more initiative to arrange events into a compelling narrative. A book to read but not quite recommend.

God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre

British journalist Richard Grant makes clear his "unfortunate fascination" with the Sierra Madre, the mountain range in Mexico that produces most of the marijuana and cocaine that crosses the border into the United States. God's Middle Finger documents Grant's attempt to travel down the spine of the mountains, a network of largely lawless territories marked by dangerous suspicion of outsiders enforced by a proliferation of AK-47s. Grant as narrator is likable, slightly gonzo but generally evenhanded as he tours places with names like El Contrabando and rubs shoulders with corrupt cops and coked-up druglords. Grant manages to (mostly) keep sensationalism at bay and present things fairly, although he finds special glee in kiss offs to the American/European mindset, such as the indigenous Tarahumara who excel at two things: binge drinking and long-distance running. Grant's decision to start things with an explosive scene of being hunted for sport by drugged-out Mexican hillbillies does create a promise that the rest of the book can't quite live up to, but overall God's Middle Finger is a fascinating study of a stretch of land most gringos wouldn't last two hours in.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Dram is too tightly

I did something this past weekend that I swore I'd never do.

I've always built my personal computers from parts purchased individually. It was a point of pride, for one, and I also just liked the physical nature of laying one's computer on the operator table and rearranging its guts by hand. I enjoyed taking it apart, putting it back together again, and then finally powering it up.

Which transitions nicely to what i didn't like about assembling computers by hand: troubleshooting why it didn't power up successfully.

Let me relate to you a brief story.

Two years ago I was having problems starting up my computer. It would turn on but then hang before the BIOS options were even available. It would hang for several minutes until the following error message of tortured English appeared: "Dram timing is too tightly so reload timing"

I will never forget those words.

This problem was initially a minor inconvenience as the machine would power up after a false start or two, but eventually the situation got so bad that I once spent the better part of a Sunday evening trying to power up my computer.

As you can image, I was also relentlessly troubleshooting this issue. I did a bit of googling and decided to replace the RAM.

That didn't help.

I decided to replace the power supply.

That seemed to help a bit, but the problem still persisted enough to suggest the power supply to be little more than a red herring.

Running out of options, I decided to replace the motherboard.

This ended up being a multi-step process as it wasn't until I had completely disassembled my computer that I realized the motherboard wasn't compatible with my processor.

I was due for an upgrade anyway, so I replaced my processor.

That didn't help.

What did help, though, was the diagnostics light grid on my new motherboard. As I sat there, utterly dispirited as my computer whirred away while doing nothing, I noticed the lights blinking at me, and looking up the pattern in the manual I realized the motherboard was reporting graphics card problems.

The graphics card, incidentally, being the one part left that I hadn't replaced.

And so I replaced the graphics card.

Which did help.

And so it was--via new RAM, power supply, motherboard, processor, and finally graphics card--that my computer could finally be reliably powered up.

And on that topic: I did something this past weekend that I swore I'd never do.

I bought a Dell.