Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Prick Up Your Ears (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Prick Up Your Ears, the 1987 feature by director Stephen Frears about the short life and brilliant career of English playwright Joe Orton, whose rise to success in the theatrical scene of mid-sixties London was cut short by his brutal murder at the hands of his long-term partner, Kenneth Halliwell.  Based on the biography of the same name by John Lahr, the film approaches Orton’s life with a macabre sense of humor much like that found in his plays, and features superb performances by Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina (as Orton and Halliwell, respectively); it was greeted by enthusiastic reviews by critics upon its release, though its popular appeal was, naturally, somewhat limited by its subject matter- particularly outside of Britain, where Orton’s name is less familiar.  Nevertheless, it achieved relative box office success due to the wave of interest in British imports during the eighties, and, along with the previous year’s Sid and Nancy, helped to secure Oldman’s place as one of the most promising- and sought-after- young actors of the decade.

The screenplay of Prick Up Your Ears– penned by Alan Bennett, another renowned playwright whose own career dates back to the same era as Orton- is expanded from the book upon which it is based by the inclusion of author Lahr as a character, using his research and writing of the acclaimed biography- particularly through his interviews with Orton’s agent and close friend, Margaret Ramsay- as a means of framing the story.  This device allows for a non-linear exploration of Orton’s life, centered around the notorious murder-suicide which brought it to an end, that reveals key moments of the playwright’s history as it makes a more in-depth examination of his relationship with Halliwell.  In this manner we are given a narrative which chronicles Joe’s life from his working class youth in Leicester, where he pursues an interest in drama despite the intentions of his parents to educate him for a career as an office worker.  He manages to earn a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where he meets and becomes involved with Halliwell, an older student attending the school through a small inheritance.  The two take a flat together, and begin an unsuccessful, decade-long attempt to collaborate as writers; Joe also indulges in an almost daily habit of anonymous sexual encounters in public places- mostly men’s restrooms- and writes about them in his diary.  The two are eventually arrested (for defacing library books) and serve short jail terms, during which Joe writes- on his own- a play that he submits to BBC Radio; it is accepted and produced, marking the beginning of his rise to fame- and also of the deterioration of his relationship with the jealous, insecure Halliwell.  As Joe becomes the toast of the London theatrical world, with smash hit plays and an offer to write a screenplay for The Beatles, Ken becomes increasingly morose and frustrated at being kept out of the spotlight, even after the couple spends a lengthy vacation in Morocco; finally, no longer able to face a life lived in the shadow of another’s success, Ken kills Joe as he sleeps, beating him savagely to death with a pall peen hammer, then takes an overdose of pills to follow his lover into death.

As a rule, I generally find film biographies to be somewhat unsatisfying; though, at their best, they can be a showcase for tour-de-force acting, superb direction and magnificent scenic and costume design, at their core they often suffer from an impossible desire to somehow encapsulate a person’s entire life and essence into a two-or-so-hour time frame, or to interpret their motivations and actions in a way that casts them in a particular light.  In truth, of course, even the strictest documentary cannot avoid inserting a subjective viewpoint, but biopics, at their most banal, make a deliberate effort to deify- or vilify, in some cases- their subjects, resorting to the manipulative tactics of melodrama and completely ignoring or altering facts in order to tell a more “satisfying” story.  The most artistically successful examples of this genre are those that use their subject as a means to communicate ideas about universal experience, or simply to entertain us with a little-known story from our past that may, hopefully, encourage us to learn more on our own.   Prick Up Your Ears does both.

Frears’ movie is blessed with the participation of numerous talented individuals with a clear affection for- and familiarity with- Joe Orton and his work, and they have here taken pains to create a picture of this influential and iconoclastic figure that presents his life in a manner that is, if not 100% factually accurate, at least true to his own vision of the world in which he lived.  Much of this is made possible by the use of his diaries as a source of information, both for the original published biography and for the screenplay; through this remarkable document, which has since been published in its own right, we are granted unprecedented access to Orton’s most private thoughts and experiences- most obviously his frequent and adventurous sexual escapades, recorded with particular pride and relish- and allowed to see the author’s own perspective on himself and his life.  Of course, that perspective- dark, cynical and full of deliciously salacious humor- comes as no surprise to those familiar with Orton’s plays, brilliant farces which skewered traditional theatrical forms while undermining and exposing the hypocrisies of social convention and the ugliness hidden behind the all-important facade of so-called “decency.”  Bennett writes the story of Joe and Ken as if it were itself penned by Orton, peppering the dialogue with lines that seem as if they were lifted directly from his writing and presenting the people that surround the two central figures as if they were characters in one of his plays.  This approach makes for a truly Ortonesque experience of Orton himself, but it also has the shrewdly observed added effect of showing how the playwright drew inspiration from the people and circumstances of his real life; seeing the world as Joe himself saw it makes it clear that his particular genius came simply from transcribing what he saw around him into his work.  The farcical absurdities of his real-life experience fed his writing, and the fact that they are here no less believable for their absurdity suggests that very little exaggeration was required to translate them to the stage.

Joe’s perspective is not, however, the only one brought into play in Bennett’s and Frears’ vision of his life.  The film is also, of course, heavily informed by Lahr’s biography, which casts a more detached and empirical eye on the playwright- in particular on his relationship with Halliwell- and allows us to see him in a more humanistic light, perhaps, than that toward which he might have been inclined.  This does not mean, however, that Prick Up Your Ears takes any kind of moral stance on Joe- or Ken, for that matter- in its depiction.  On the contrary, the movie takes pains to portray the pair as they were, without imposing judgment, and allows us to draw our own conclusions; though their end was undeniably tragic, and a good deal of the film can be seen as an examination of the factors that led up to it, there was more to Joe and Ken’s connection than their horrific final destiny, and Frears and Bennett make sure we see as many other facets as possible of their lives together.  Finally, in exploring their relationship, and the changing dynamics created by collaboration, success, fame, and failure, the movie also explores the way these factors are reflected in John Lahr’s marriage, and by extension, suggests certain observations about the nature- and the pitfalls- of mixing creative endeavor with romantic attachment.

Of course, for most people who have even heard of Joe Orton- outside of theatrical and literary circles, of course, and often even there- the lurid and scandalous circumstances of his death are far better-known than his work.  Frears and Bennett make certain that their audience knows, right from the start, that this event is the central focus of the film, a sort of epicenter from which everything else radiates.  The movie opens with a glimpse into the final, terrible moments, followed by the discovery of the bodies and the subsequent invasion of the bloody scene by the authorities.  We are, however, given only a peek, so that for the rest of the movie, we are left to hope for the kind of graphic, gruesome detail we want to see- and we do want to see it, as Joe himself would likely understand better than anyone.  Indeed, it is this gory revelation that the director uses as bait, like a carrot dangling before us as we make the journey through Joe’s life and times, motivating us to stay with the story so that we can get that nasty payoff at the end; and Frears gives it to us, alright, in a harrowingly real depiction of the brutal murder and its aftermath that is likely to affect even the most hardened viewer and leave nightmarish, lingering visions for some time afterwards.  Yet even this dose of cold, hard realism in the midst of the film’s wacky theatricality is in keeping with its dedication to the flavor and spirit of Orton’s work; his writing, for all its juxtaposed sophistication and irrepressible rude-boy naughtiness, carried at its center an acute awareness of the ugliness of human experience, an ignoble convocation of bodily functions- sexual, scatological, and otherwise- which makes ludicrous all attempts to dignify it with pretense or affectation, and is made all the uglier by the mean-spirited cruelty with which we treat each other.  Orton’s brutal death at the hands of his lover- the ultimate bodily function as a result of the ultimate cruelty- serves as a reminder of the nihilistic truth of which he was a champion.

The darkness that underlies all the glib merriment, though, is only a part of the Orton mystique; though he was bent on exposing the inherent nastiness of the human condition, he also derived a great deal of fun from it.  He was a literary rebel, using his wit as a weapon against the stifling social conventions that made him feel like an outsider; he was a master marksman, and his wicked skills gave voice to a new generation that despised the stodginess of their moribund culture as much as he did.  More to the point, though, he had fun doing it; Joe Orton was all about having fun, an obvious fact to which his hedonistic lifestyle plainly attested, and the glee he felt in skewering the pompous and the conventional was almost certainly his main (if not only) reason for doing it.  That glee comes across in his writing, and is readily shared by audiences who see his plays, which are still frequently performed today.  It also comes across in Prick Up Your Ears.

Aside from Bennett’s screenplay, the movie benefits greatly from Frears’ steady, assured direction.  Noted for his skill in handling stories about socially isolated people adapting to new circumstances, a theme which runs through most of his films from My Beautiful Laundrette to The Queen, he shares with Orton an origin in Leicester, a fact which no doubt helped to solidify his understanding of and connection to the material here, and has a long collaborative history with Bennett.  He crafts his film with a perfect balance of the cinematic and the theatrical, creating a blend of gritty realism and heightened style enhanced by flourishes from both media; he also exhibits a showman’s knack for storytelling, managing to form a cohesive and unified narrative which engages our interest and remains easy to follow throughout its non-linear structure.  He is aided by meticulous production design which smartly re-creates the atmosphere of London in the swinging sixties, contrasting it with the mundane and utilitarian environment of working-class Leicester, as well as with various institutional settings and scenes of the seedy sexual underworld that arise within Joe’s checkered story.

Most importantly, though, Frears’ film is blessed with the magnificent performances of its two stars.  Oldman and Molina are electrifying, offering layered, chameleonic portraits of the cheeky, good-natured rude boy and his arch, affected lover that reveal the traits, both positive and negative, in both without sentimentality or comment.  Oldman truly seems to channel his subject, not only bearing a strong physical resemblance to “the most perfectly-developed playwright of his day” but capturing the particular seductive swagger that is evident in photos and the few films that survive of Orton; it’s not mere mimicry, however, for he also infuses the doomed writer with a palpable humanity that allows us to truly involve ourselves with him emotionally, and understand why even those who thought him shocking and indecent found him irresistible and endearing, nonetheless..  The more difficult task, though, is Molina’s; he gives us Halliwell in all his insufferable pomposity, and takes us through his deterioration without varnish, and yet he, too, finds the human element here that makes poor Ken as much a tragic figure as Joe- a man of intelligence, wit, and emotional generosity, clearly affected by psychological issues that might have been more readily understood and addressed in our modern day, but which, at the time, were subject to as much stigma and shame as his homosexuality.  Molina gives a heartbreaking performance, and it is largely thanks to him that Prick Up Your Ears succeeds in capturing the full ironic scope of the Orton-Halliwell saga.  In the third principal role, that of legendary theatrical agent Margaret “Peggy” Ramsay, Vanessa Redgrave is, as always, superb; her glittering charm and sophistication light the screen, but she also gives us a clear view of the character’s opportunistic and manipulative aspects- she, like Joe, is “getting away with it,” but that doesn’t make her any less likeable, in the end.  Redgrave’s presence also adds an important pedigree that links the film directly to the world it portrays; she is, of course, a member of one of Britain’s great acting dynasties, and was deeply immersed in the London theatrical scene during the era in which Orton was active.  This connection is, perhaps, immaterial in terms of practical application to the execution of the film, but it does contribute a sort of authenticity to the proceedings that does seem, to me at least, to have an effect, however intangible, on its sense of validity.  Wallace Shawn (another renowned playwright) uses his familiar nerdy intellectual persona to good effect as biographer Lahr, Frances Barber has a touching turn as Orton’s sister, Leonie, and Janet Dale provides a memorable illustration of classic Ortonesque caricature as Joe and Ken’s doting landlady.  In smaller, cameo-style roles, familiar English character actors such as Julie Walters, Richard Wilson, and Margaret Tyzack bring their considerable talents into the mix, contributing much to the overall perfection of tone and style that makes Prick Up Your Ears such a delightful marriage of film and theater influences.

It’s pretty obvious, by now, that Prick Up Your Ears is a highly recommended cinema adventure, as far as I am concerned.  The fact that I am personally a great admirer of Joe Orton is really not a factor in my enthusiasm for the film, except in the sense that my expectations of any work dealing with him are stringently high, making Frears’ movie all the more impressive to me for its worthiness to the subject matter.  I am confident that this smart, stylish and accessible piece will be an enjoyable experience for almost any mature viewer, whether they are fans of Orton or have never heard of him; even if you have no interest whatsoever in theatrical history, British or otherwise, Prick Up Your Ears offers up a fascinating story that is no less entertaining for being true.  That said, it should be mentioned that it is a film in which homosexuality plays an integral part, and it does include extensive, if not graphic, depictions of gay sexual behavior; if such matter is uncomfortable for you, for whatever reason, then consider yourself warned.  This subject brings up an important point concerning Prick Up Your Ears, and indeed about Orton himself; though the playwright was not overtly involved in any form of struggle for gay rights- his death took place two years before the Stonewall riots in New York, after all- and though the film does not address or take any sort of stance on the issue, the subject is inseparably woven into the fabric of this story.  As gay men living in a society that criminalized and ostracized their kind, Orton and Halliwell lived their lives as disenfranchised outcasts, forced to suppress their true nature in order to avoid persecution and even imprisonment; though it was the older Halliwell who helped Joe to accept and embrace his sexuality, it was the younger man who would go on to live an audaciously open life in the face of societal disapproval, and despite his efforts to bring Ken along, he was unable to overcome the obstacles of shame and insecurity that would eventually result in the tragic conclusion of their love story.  Each man took a different direction in reconciling his sexual identity with cultural expectation, and though this was clearly not the only factor in the murderous frenzy that took their lives, it is beyond question that it played a substantial part.  In this way, though on the surface it seems only a parenthetical circumstance that defines the two central characters, homosexuality- or to be more specific, the rejection of homosexuality by so-called “normal” society- is the issue at the core of Prick Up Your Ears.  Those with a more militant bent might wish that Bennett and Frears had taken a more direct assault on the social injustice that marked the cultural landscape of Orton and Halliwell’s England; but the story, like Joe’s plays- and Joe himself- speaks for itself.  Joe Orton chose not only to be open about who he was, but to flaunt it; he simply was, and the strength of that assertion was sufficient to make him an icon.  Prick Up Your Ears is a celebration of that bold spirit, and it tells Joe’s story in a voice very much like his own; that makes it not only a testament to the lasting mark he made  in his short life, but also a bloody good time.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093776/?licb=0.2046471543502929

 

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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which once again uses a realistic and politically charged approach in bringing the DC Comics hero to life, and puts him into a decisive battle which will determine the very fate of Gotham City.  Continuing in the dark and violent vein that characterized The Dark Knight, Nolan creates an apocalyptic finale for his exploration of the Batman universe, one designed to provoke and challenge even as it entertains; in the process he continues to develop the characters and relationships introduced in the previous chapters, as well as offering up new twists on other familiar figures making their appearances here for the first time.

In this new chapter (with the screenplay written again by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, based on a story developed by Batman Begins co-writer David S. Goyer), eight years have passed since the “murder” of D.A. Harvey Dent, whose supposed martyrdom in the fight against crime (a fabrication created to cover up the ignoble circumstances of his death) has resulted in legislation that has all but eliminated the criminal underworld of Gotham City.  During the intervening years, billionaire Bruce Wayne has become a mysterious recluse and his financial empire has fallen into disarray, while his alter-ego, Batman, has disappeared, having become a wanted fugitive after taking the blame for Dent’s death.  The city has grown soft and complacent, and economic imbalance has led to a new kind of cynicism in its population; but its greatest threat is building beneath its streets, as Bane, a powerful urban warlord with a mysterious past and a cataclysmic agenda, prepares to enact a master plan designed to plunge it into hellish torment as a prelude to its final annihilation.  Drawn from his seclusion, Wayne must resurrect his Batman persona in order to combat the new danger; but, like the city he protects, his long stagnation has weakened him and created new conflicts within, leaving him vulnerable to defeat by this titanic enemy.  In order to triumph, he must not only regain his former strength and his faith in himself, he must also place his trust in allies- some old and reliable, some new and untested- and be prepared to face the ultimate sacrifice.

Picking up the thematic threads left hanging at the end of The Dark Knight, the Nolans show us that the uneasy compromise of image over truth has provided a temporary victory in the battle against chaos- but the consequences of the choice have taken their toll on our champions of justice, and the complacency of peace has led to its own form of disorder.  A widening gap between wealth and poverty breeds anger among the citizens, while the prosperous civic authorities seem too interested in self-congratulation and self-promotion to pay attention to the signs of danger approaching from without and within; but nevertheless, despite this uncomfortably topical political situation, when disaster strikes it is the result of a long-forgotten threat which has been festering unnoticed all along.  Bane and his plot represent the shadows of the past, deferred but not defeated, a pattern of destruction that has risen repeatedly throughout history; Gotham’s blissfully false sense of security and its unheeded civil unrest have merely provided a smokescreen for the incursion.  The only chance for averting the impending doom lies in facing the truth, taking responsibility, and working together for a common good which outweighs all considerations of ideology or principle.  Contrary to the commentary of some who have seen The Dark Knight Rises as a conservative polemic against the “Occupy” movement (due to the fact that Bane disguises his takeover of Gotham and subsequent reign of terror as a “people’s revolution”), the film in fact hinges, like its predecessor, on the idea that blind pursuit of self-interest is the real root of the problem, and that it is only through a desire to help each other that we can reclaim the power to conquer the enemies that threaten all of us together; the arrogance of the wealthy and the anger of the poor are both used by Bane as the instruments of his rise to dominion, and his defeat can only be brought about by the protagonists’ willingness to sacrifice everything they hold dear for the sake of others.  It’s also worth taking note of another factor which contributes significantly to the threat to Gotham’s future- the seeking of revenge for old wrongs, and worse yet, revenge against an entire population for the actions of a single man.  This is a powerful reminder of a principle very much at work in the world today, and one which has perpetuated the cycle of bloodshed from the most ancient of times.  Further than that, the film suggests through the telling parallels it draws that by ignoring the lessons of the past we are doomed to re-enact a historical cycle that has brought down one civilization after another; in other words, if we don’t learn from history, we can only become history.  To paraphrase an echo from the film which began the trilogy, we fall in order to learn how to get back up; but once we are on our feet again, we must always remember how we fell in the first place- after all, as more than one important character realizes before the end of The Dark Knight Rises, a fresh start is no good at all if you’re not willing to change the way you do things.

Once more, in writing about Nolan’s Batman cycle, I find myself reveling in the complexities of its themes and making new realizations as I ponder how to express them here.  In the end, however, these films- each one of them, in their own distinctive way- speak for themselves.  With his final chapter, this gifted director has once again created a movie which stands firmly on its own merits, building an epic structure on its own individual themes, while maintaining and bringing to fruition the elements of the entire trilogy.  He does it in his characteristically detailed style, full of arresting visuals, fluid camera work, spectacular action sequences, and intimate moments of unexpected emotional power.  He gives full deference to the importance of character while simultaneously driving the complex plot at full speed, juggles themes within themes while devoting every moment of screen time to the progression of the story, and manages a sweeping social and political allegory in the midst of an explosive action fantasy.  There may be those who quibble about his motives, or who take exception to his re-interpretation of the iconic characters and conceits of the Batman premise, but such concerns are, quite frankly, moot in the scope of what he has accomplished here.  The Dark Knight Rises is the final proof, if more were needed, that Christopher Nolan has done what no other director has done before him: transcended the “comic book” genre to create an intelligent, mature and wholly sophisticated series of films that is worthy to stand with the great socially significant films of our time- more worthy, in fact, than most of the self-consciously highbrow self-styled “art” films that Hollywood tries to pass off around awards season.  For this (though he is not likely to win any of those awards himself- the stigma against this kind of fantasy content still seems too strong for that), he deserves all the accolades he has received so far, as well as the satisfaction of his phenomenal box office success.

Part of Nolan’s success with all of these films, of course, lies in the work of the people he has chosen to work with him, and the names in the credits that roll at the end of this one show more or less the same list of usual suspects.  Once again, the design team is headed by Nathan Crowley (this time co-credited with Kevin Kavanaugh as production designers), and once again they have provided us with new and exciting gadgets to go with the old favorites, as well as giving Gotham yet another new look- it’s still a spectacular city, but somehow not so new and shiny, a little worn down and lived-in, and with a dirtier, more East-Coast-urban feel to it.  The locations, as always, have something to do with this, with recognizable landmarks from New York, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles underlining the sense that this is truly meant to be a microcosmic world representing an entire culture; but the look of its skyline, clearly created with some impressive digital cutting-and-pasting, conveys the feeling of a place with a soul all its own.  Wally Pfister’s cinematography continues with the gritty-but-slick style of The Dark Knight while also echoing the sepia-infused tone of Batman Begins, a highly appropriate approach for a film that draws its life from both; he complements the worn-down look of the city with a style that evokes bleakness, particularly in the visually striking scenes of Gotham in winter which come late in the film.  Hans Zimmer, working solo this time, gives us another driving score, incorporating more vocal instrumentation than usual but still, for the most part, focusing on mood and subliminal effect than overtly recognizable melodic sounds.  In short, The Dark Knight Rises gives us more of the same outstanding, exemplary work that made the first two entries in this trilogy so effective.

The same holds true of its cast, comprised again of heavy-hitters; most of them are, of course, returnees to already-established roles, and without exception they live up to their previous work, bringing new flavors to their continued development of these familiar characters and closure to the arcs they began in the first film.  Christian Bale once again proves what a brilliant actor he is with his portrayal of Bruce Wayne; he gives us a new vision of this billionaire vigilante, grown physically and psychologically dissolute through his self-imposed isolation, but seemingly marked more by a sense of disorientation than by underlying bitterness over the events that have led to it.  He also gives his character, which has always fitted him like a tailor-made glove, a deeply personal feeling of emotional connection, building on the previous revelations of his psyche to create a complete picture of this man and the needs that drive him- showing us, ultimately, the good heart that lies beneath the darkness of his sometimes-morally-questionable actions.  We have never questioned it, of course, but he has- and his final evolution into a complete hero, with a clarity of purpose and a full understanding of his motivations, shines through in a way that makes him both admirable and infinitely likable.  It’s the first time I can honestly say I loved an onscreen “super” hero because of who he showed me he was and not because he was, well, a hero.  Michael Caine, as Alfred, has been quietly superb all along, lending his calm, assured dignity to the proceedings and serving as the key grounding influence for Bale’s Batman- but in this entry, he gets the chance to remind us all of why he has been one of the hardest-working actors in the business for fifty years.  His scenes are fewer, this time around, but they stick with you, and the dimension he has given this usually-perfunctory character pays off with some key moments that give the entire series its deepest emotional resonance, proving once more that it is the depth and honesty underlying these films that have elevated them to the level of higher art.  Gary Oldman shines once more as now-Commissioner Gordon, wearied by the chafing of his conscience over his part in the Dent cover-up, and bored by eight years of peacetime- but dedicated as always to his mission to protect Gotham and revived by the chance to jump into action once more.  Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox is also wearier, but with characteristically subdued optimism he gives us a refreshing energy that reminds us it is possible to gracefully endure the changing of fortune without losing one’s belief in the future.  There are a few other returning faces, but many of them are likely to be surprises so I won’t go into them here; suffice it to say that they, along with the rest of the cast, provide uniformly superb contributions.

As for the new blood, obviously there are a few that deserve mention.  Topping that list is Anne Hathaway, portraying Selina Kyle, an audacious cat burgler whose gear and manner make it clear that she represents another iconic Batman personality- though the name “Catwoman” is never used.  She nails the character, with just the right blend of saucy seductiveness and dangerous unpredictability, matching Bale’s Bruce Wayne in a way that no previous female character has done- a significant point, and one which highlights the importance of her key role in the film, as well as the timing of her appearance in his life.  It would be improper to give anything away, but it’s safe to say that she- and Nolan- bring a number of surprises to the table in their re-interpretation of this feisty, feline female.  Tom Hardy, the English heartthrob who gained 30 lbs. to portray the hulking Bane, provides an awe-inspiring physical presence and clearly conveys the disarming intelligence of his character- the trilogy’s closest thing to a “super-villain.”  He manages to give the character depth and even a degree of sympathy with his performance- not just through his voice, but in his physicality and, most importantly, with his eyes, which are left visible by the cruelly sadomasochistic mask he wears in all but one key scene of the film.  Marion Cotillard brings an elegant nobility to the proceedings as Miranda Tate, a wealthy board member of Wayne Enterprises whose dedication to an environmentally-friendly project plays an important role in the developments of the plot, and leads to a relationship with Wayne that becomes closer than he expects.  Finally, Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays John Blake, an earnest young policeman whose personal belief in Batman leads him to deduce Wayne’s true identity and helps provide the impetus for him to return to the fight against evil; it’s a character that could very easily be too-good-to-be-true, but thanks to Gordon-Levitt he is more than believable, a welcome addition to the collection of loosely-affiliated heroes that aid Batman in his quest for law and order.  A number of other actors make their first- and, presumably, last- appearance in Nolan’s vision of the Batman legend, including Matthew Modine as Gordon’s ambivalent second-in-command, and Willam Devane as the President of the United States; as with the old-timers, the new cast does a universally stellar job.

The Dark Knight Rises, though already one of the most successful movies of all time, has generated a great deal of controversy over its supposed political leanings, one way or the other, and for a violent tone which has sadly been thrown into stark relief by tragic real-life events.  There is no denying the important influence of movies over our real-world culture, and unquestionably, an artist has a responsibility to consider this in deciding the nature of the content they wish to present.  It must be remembered, however, that Nolan’s film is, first and foremost, an action/adventure-fantasy.  Though it may be laden with recognizably current political and social issues, and though it explores questions of morality and social responsibility, these things are ultimately merely the background for a story that depicts a realistic, contemporary world- a tale in which the ongoing conflicts of society are exploited by an outside evil who is an enemy to all sides.  Likewise, by its very nature, it’s a movie filled with the kind of disturbing images of mayhem and tragedy that have been blamed by many for the casual attitude towards violence in our collective contemporary psyche; but Batman is a modern myth, and like all myth it deals in symbolism drawn from everyday experience in order to convey its true purpose.  For all its scenes of brutal combat, exploding football stadiums, and collapsing bridges, The Dark Knight Rises carries a positive message that emphasizes the importance of compassion and the value of human life; it’s a principle repeated throughout the movie, and the intense battle action is a metaphor for the difficulty of the struggle required to preserve these things.  Those who see only the overt content of this film, or indeed of any film, are likely to get the opposite meaning of the one intended; and whichever side they represent in the ongoing debate, they, like the citizens of Gotham who ignore the real menace while they seek to place blame for their troubles and justify it with sweeping generalizations, would do well to look deeper than the surface- as would those who glorify the violence they see there without recognizing the consequences it is shown to breed.  After all, cinema, like all art, holds up a mirror to society, and what we see in it depends on how closely we are willing to look at ourselves.  In the world of The Dark Knight Rises, the ability to candidly face the reality of our problems is our only hope for saving our way of life from destruction; I strongly suspect that this is also a reflection of real life, and that unless we heed the warning that is implicit in Nolan’s film, we may find that out all too soon.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1345836/

The Dark Knight (2008)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s massively successful 2008 sequel to his earlier Batman Begins, tracking the continuing progress of DC Comics’ iconic hero in his quest to free Gotham City from the grip of rampant crime and corruption and pitting him against a new breed of criminal- the costumed madman known only as the Joker.  Continuing his re-imagination of the comic-book premise as a crime drama grounded in realism, the director takes it even further this time around, creating a gritty, violent vision of urban warfare in which the line between right and wrong becomes blurred in a larger struggle between order and chaos.  The formula obviously struck a nerve; the film broke box office records and earned the kind of massive critical accolades usually reserved for more “serious” fare.

Working from a story developed by Batman Begins co-writer David S. Goyer, Nolan this time fashions a screenplay with his brother, Jonathan, in which billionaire Bruce Wayne, working in unofficial partnership with Police Lt. Gordon, has made headway in the campaign to weaken the control of organized crime over Gotham City.  With the rise of the city’s idealistic new D.A., Harvey Dent, he sees a chance to hand over his role as the city’s protector and at last embrace the comforts of a normal life; but a new threat arises in the form of the Joker, a disfigured psychopath in clownish makeup, who begins an escalating campaign of terror.  To combat this new adversary, Wayne and Gordon join forces with Dent, and the trio works in secret alliance to put a stop to his deadly game before Gotham deteriorates into a state of total anarchy.  The Nolans use their plot as a means to explore a wide variety of inter-connected themes, making the scope of The Dark Knight much wider and its moral landscape more ambiguous than its predecessor’s, and as a result they transform what is essentially a fantasy adventure into a complex parable about the ethical dilemmas of preserving order in the modern world.  Throughout the film, the intricately plotted storyline is threaded with dialogue and situations that clearly evoke the complicated morality of post-9/11 society; the age-old cops-and-robbers scenario has been co-opted by a battle between ideologies, in which those who would protect society come dangerously close to becoming an even greater threat to it themselves.  Indeed, the antagonist’s master plan is to subvert the established order by turning it against itself, exploiting the contradictions in its own rules and ethics to create an environment of fear and chaos in which he can, in the words of one character, “watch the world burn.”  In the course of the action, we are given a remarkably detailed portrait of Gotham City- which serves as a microcosm of American civilization- which includes a look at its politicians, its media figures, its businessmen, its criminals, its public servants, and its average citizens; the effect of the city’s peril on its population is presented as a mirror to our own society, and the drama enacted by the key figures of the story reflects our efforts to reconcile the moral conflicts inherent in dealing with our own terrorized world.  As the story moves relentlessly towards its climax, it raises questions about the implications of working outside the law for a greater good, the manipulation of public perception for political purposes, the ambiguous role of invasive technology in preserving communal security, the potential corruptibility of human nature, and the danger of becoming your enemy when you fight against him on his own terms.  Most significantly, it examines the role of choice in the struggle to define humanity; whether our actions are dictated by chance and motivated by self-interest, or whether we are ultimately responsible for the decisions we make, for good or for ill.

If it sounds like heavy, existential themes dominate The Dark Knight, that’s because they do; but that doesn’t mean it’s a film that favors philosophical debate over a good story.  Rather, the story is the debate.  Nolan uses his epic themes to propel the action, leading us through the conditional parameters until the core issue is revealed at the heart of his plot.  Batman and his allies, the self-sacrificing champions of order and justice, are pitted against the Joker, a self-serving personification of chaos and amorality.  At every step of the game, the Joker challenges his opponents’ dedication and their beliefs, forcing them into no-win situations in which they have no choice but to act against their own principles; convinced of their hypocrisy and their fallibility, and confident that he can- and will- break their spirit, he manipulates the scenario not only to prove his point, but to inflict torment for his own gratification.  It is this, perhaps, that Nolan suggests as the ultimate definition of evil- the pure selfishness that satisfies its own desires at the expense of others- and it is this basic quality that the Joker wishes to expose as the true nature of mankind.  Whether or not he is right is certainly not resolved by the end of the movie- after all, there is still another chapter to come- but Nolan’s skill at cinematic storytelling ensures that the arguments on both sides are illustrated with a sense of urgency and an emphasis on action.

In fact, the action is virtually non-stop.  Even when The Dark Knight concerns itself with quiet, more intimate matters, Nolan’s directorial choices give it a driving, restless feel- continuing the sense of momentum that he initiated in Batman Begins.  His camera is almost never still, with slow zooms and pans in almost every shot, and he pieces things together with quick edits, giving us just enough of an image to establish what we’re seeing and then sharply moving on.  He crams so much into the film this way that there are whole subplots which can go unnoticed without repeat viewings, and it allows him to provide an expansive view of the life of Gotham City into his 2 1/2 hour running time.  He confidently moves his tale through its escalating developments with a speed that keeps the viewer on edge, establishing key points without belaboring them, relying on the completeness of his screenplay- and the intelligence of his audience- to ensure clarity.  Likewise, he depends on the writing and the skill of his gifted actors to convey the important nuances of his characters that make the film so compelling, though he certainly takes the time to explore the dynamics of their relationships onscreen, rightly understanding the importance of this aspect in the overall scope of his vision.

Of course, however, as in any movie about a titanic struggle of heroes and villains, the primary focus is on thrilling action, and Nolan certainly delivers this in spades.  Continuing in the vein of Batman Begins, he chooses to construct his movie with a minimum of computer trickery, instead utilizing live action stunt work filmed in actual locations or on elaborate soundstage sets.  He fills his film with gripping set pieces, from the opening bank heist sequence- which rivals anything in the best of Hollywood’s caper films- to the climactic confused free-for-all in which Batman must fight a SWAT team to protect the Joker’s hapless hostages who have been disguised as his henchmen; in between are a breathtaking depiction of a nighttime kidnapping from Hong Kong’s tallest building and the movie’s action centerpiece- an extended urban roadway chase in which Batman rides his souped-up cycle to defend a police convoy from a semi-truck containing the heavily-armed Joker and his men.  Adding to the excitement is the fact that Nolan chose to shoot these sequences- as well as some of the smaller-scale scenes- in an IMAX format, although the effect of this is somewhat diminished by viewing on a small screen.

In service of his visual spectacle, Nolan’s production team provides an impressive display of their talents; most significantly, perhaps, cinematographer Wally Pfister, who gives the film a style that is simultaneously slick and grimy, and appropriately creates a significantly darker look than that of the earlier film.  The production designers, headed once more by Nathan Crowley, have revamped the technological aspects of Batman’s world- a redesigned, lightweight suit that makes the hero more agile, as well as the dazzlingly well-realized, aforementioned “batpod” that he rides into battle with his demented adversary, stand out as distinct advancements over the gadgetry in the previous chapter- and Gotham’s cityscape has been completely overhauled.  Gone is the deco-flavored mix of nostalgic and futuristic elements that marked the city of Batman Begins; here we find an utterly contemporary metropolis of steel, plastic and glass, a world-class capitol of industry and commerce with shining citadels and utilitarian infrastructure that is more directly representative of the typical modern urban environment of America.  Its familiarity adds another layer to the realism that is Nolan’s goal, and with this backdrop against which to play out his epic drama, the more implausible elements of the comic-book scenario are somehow more believable.  The score, once again the product of collaboration between Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, echoes the mood-oriented style of Batman Begins, but with even more of an emphasis on driving the pace with an undercurrent of rippling and restless rhythms, suggesting the chaos that threatens to envelop Gotham City.

Nolan’s modern re-invention of the Batman mythology, however, is most clearly and successfully exemplified by the one element of The Dark Knight that has- justifiably- received the most attention: the performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker.  The young actor delivers a stunning portrait of this well-known character, accomplishing the seemingly impossible feat of giving us something completely unexpected and unlike any interpretation we have seen before.  His psychotic clown is a million miles away from the fruity camp of Cesar Romero’s goofy TV persona, and totally unlike Jack Nicholson’s self-parodying turn in Tim Burton’s Batman film of two decades before.  Ledger makes the character a frightening, dangerous madman, clearly deranged but chillingly sharp and lucid; we are given no background for him, aside from the conflicting stories he tells himself within the film, but we can plainly see that whatever traumatic occurrence has led to the development of his deeply disturbed personality, it has left him utterly and completely devoid of humanity.  His makes it plain that his Joker lives for the thrill of the moment, taking great pleasure in pain- including his own, greeting each blow from his caped opponent with a rush of giddy adrenaline-laced delight.  His voice, his physicality, the coldness of his eyes, all combine to create an unforgettable portrait of menace, and for the first time in the history of comic-based films, he has given us an utterly believable super-villain.  The one completely human moment he exhibits comes late in the film, a reaction of genuine surprise over an unforeseen development which throws a wrench in the works of his master plan- it’s a subtle but dazzling moment which instantly casts into stark relief the sheer brilliance of everything we have seen from him before that.  Ledger’s tragic death before the film’s release may have contributed to the publicity surrounding his work here, but had he lived the performance would still have stood as a triumph, and was fully deserving of the multitude of awards and accolades it received posthumously for him.

This is not to take credit away from any of his co-stars.  Every member of Nolan’s cast gives a stellar effort, starting with Christian Bale, whose Batman is leaner and more haggard than in his previous appearance in the role, reflecting the maturity and the effects of the stress that have shaped him in the intervening years since Batman Begins.  He gives the character a wearier edge, exuding more confidence but also more contempt for his criminal prey; even his Bruce Wayne seems a little worn down from all the partying with supermodels and prima ballerinas his public image requires him to do.  Underneath it all, though, he clearly shows us the power of his dedication to the job he has appointed himself, and his refusal to yield to the Joker’s efforts to bring him down to a baser level is utterly convincing- particularly in light of the self-doubt he shows us in response to his costly failures- giving us the glimmer of hope we can cling to through the film’s dark finale.  Returning as his trusted servant and co-conspirator, Alfred, is the magnificent Michael Caine, who continues to provide a grounding center of wisdom and genuine class, and whose chemistry with Bale offers the film’s strongest example of deep, close human connection.  Maggie Gyllenhall replaces the absent Katie Holmes as Rachel, Bruce’s childhood friend and would-be sweetheart for whom he still carries a torch, and though it is somewhat jarring to see a different actress in the role, she provides a fine performance, making the character a strong, independent, and empowered woman, an equal partner in the battle against crime, rather than just another helpless female in need of rescue.  Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman continue to expand on their own brands of quiet heroism as Lt. Gordon and Lucius Fox, respectively; and, though his work was eclipsed by Ledger’s dazzling performance, Aaron Eckhart is equally superb, in his way, as Dent- who is both the film’s secondary hero and secondary villain, transforming from the dedicated “White Knight” whose unflinching integrity gives the city hope to the vengeful and deformed “Two-Face,” driven to madness by personal loss- and providing the perfect symbol for corrupt politics with his half-handsome, half-grotesque features.

The Dark Knight has been subject to much discussion and debate regarding its political messages; some have viewed it as an endorsement of hawkish, right-wing tactics in the war against terrorism, while some have declared it as an indictment of the dangers inherent in using such methods.  Like most art- certainly most good art- it is ultimately a blank slate, a mirror in which the viewer sees their own perspectives reflected back; it seems to me that Nolan presents his subject matter without political agenda, exploring the thematic issues that arise out of the situation, but making no judgments, preferring to allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions.  What interests Nolan much more, perhaps, is the issue of basic human nature; and though his vision has the dark and cynical trappings of the noir style that has been a clear influence on his work, and though many have seen the film as a story of evil overwhelming good, at its heart is the message that, though some may waver or even fall, there is a desire inside us to do the right thing; as long as there are men who hold onto the standard of decency and set an example- even an illusory one- there is hope for us yet to conquer the forces of darkness that threaten our world, both from within and without.  That is an idea the filmmaker will explore further in the third (and supposedly final) installment of his Batman cycle; but, at least as this one rolls to an end, we can still believe in a champion that represents the best in us all, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a pretty optimistic note for such a “dark” movie to end on.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0468569/

Batman Begins (2005)

Today’s cinema adventure: Batman Begins, the 2005 action fantasy feature with which director Christopher Nolan initiated his vision of the classic comic-book hero, embodied by actor Christian Bale, re-envisioning the character and his world in a darker, more realistic vein that influenced a number of other subsequent franchise re-boots and brought a new level of depth and sophistication to the genre.  Focusing on Batman’s origins, Nolan traces the story of billionaire Bruce Wayne from childhood, when he witnesses the senseless murder of his parents by a mugger, through his recruitment and training by a mysterious organization called the League of Shadows, to his eventual return to Gotham City and his efforts to fight its rampant crime and corruption using both the skills he has learned and the high-tech gadgetry made available to him by the limitless financial resources he has inherited.  As he faces a host of opponents, he must also confront the enemies inside himself, learning to conquer his own guilt, anger, and fear in order to emerge as the symbolic hero he is driven to become.

It’s a familiar premise, by now, and one which has fueled a variety of interpretations since it was first invented by DC Comics artist Bob Kane in 1939; originally presented with a serious tone,  by the 1960s cultural “sophistication” had become such that the character had deteriorated to the level of a campy and outright comedic TV series- a classic in its own way, to be sure, but a far cry from the darker complexity suggested by the original comic books themselves and loyally embraced by generations of their fans.  Though the character was later reclaimed from this goofy image by such now-renowned graphic novelists as Frank Miller and Alan Moore, his incarnations on the big screen maintained a decidedly cartoon-like sensibility.  When Nolan was approached to resuscitate the franchise on film, he decided to take an approach more in step with the traditions of the comic books themselves.  With co-writer David S. Goyer, he fashioned an adult-oriented screenplay, centering more on the exploration of the character himself than on his far-fetched exploits- and making those exploits seem less far-fetched by infusing them with a hearty dose of realism.  The standard conceits of the story are built from the ground up, explained with a fresh perspective that makes them seem plausible; everything from the hero’s dual identity and theatrical tactics to the “Bat-cave” and “Bat-mobile” (which are never referred to as such) are presented as logical and necessary extensions of his self-creation, formed from the building blocks of his unique personal situation and the psychological forces which drive him, instead of being taken as rote.  It’s an imaginative approach that breathes life into the given clichés of the material, making the well-known mythology of the character feel fresh and contemporary.  In addition, by paying more than just perfunctory attention to the dominant themes of the Batman mythos- the importance of a father figure, the thin line between hero and villain, the relationship between fear and power, the purifying role of ethical behavior in a corrupt and chaotic world- Nolan and Goyer manage to give their film at least as much weight as most mainstream films aimed at a mature audience- and more than many.

All of which is not to say that Nolan’s vision of Batman is in any way light on action.  On the contrary, he fills his film with exciting set pieces made all the more satisfying by the care he has taken in laying a solid foundation; the various technological tools are more impressive for having been de-mystified, and the personal drama woven into the action raises the stakes and solidifies our investment in the outcome.  Furthermore, the action is structured into the story in such a way that the narrative is never put on hold; instead of digressing into extended displays of flashy spectacle, the plot advances through these sequences, making certain that there isn’t an extraneous or gratuitous moment in the film’s 140 minutes.

Much of the success of Batman Begins obviously hinges on its cast.  Nolan, drawing inspiration from classic seventies-era blockbusters like Superman, peppers his movie with an all-star list of gifted players, designed not just to lend credibility to the project but to provide the depth and complexity necessary for his conception.  It is not just the central figure that is subject to the director’s humanizing treatment; the entire array of familiar characters is infused with the kind of detail that raises them from the level of stock cardboard cutouts to three-dimensional beings with a life of their own.  Clearly, the writing plays a major part in this process, but the performances are a crucial factor, and the actors rise to the challenge admirably.  Heading the list is beloved veteran Michael Caine, whose portrayal of trusted manservant Alfred Pennyworth transforms the character from a mere source of comic relief to a powerful force to be reckoned with; thanks to Caine’s justly renowned skills, this aged gentleman’s gentleman is also a man’s man, wise and compassionate, brave and capable, serving both as a much-needed surrogate father and an indispensable ally to the troubled billionaire playboy in his charge- but grounded firmly in a reality that prevents him from ever seeming too good to be true.  As the future Police Commissioner, Jim Gordon, Gary Oldman matches Caine’s understated style in the creation of a sympathetic, powerful character, far from the pompously oblivious buffoon so often seen in previous versions; representing the traditional values of honesty, humility and family, he is an Everyman who becomes an unlikely hero, a worthy and equal partner in Batman’s fight against the forces of evil.  Liam Neeson is dangerously cool as Ducard, the mysterious figure who first becomes Bruce Wayne’s mentor and then his adversary in the fight for justice; Morgan Freeman provides his usual air of approachable dignity and intelligence as Lucius Fox, the techno-genius behind Batman’s bag of tricks; and Cillian Murphy brings an eerie, off-kilter edge to the proceedings as a corrupt psychiatrist with a dual identity of his own.  Rounding things out are Tom Wilkinson, memorable as an arrogant mob boss who finds himself a pawn in a game more powerful than his own, and Katie Holmes, earnest and likable as Wayne’s childhood friend and potential love interest.

It is Christian Bale, however, that must make or break the film with his interpretation of its iconic central character; and make it he does, going well beyond the usual troubled hero persona associated with the role and giving us a layered, remarkably specific and deeply personalized incarnation.  He fully inhabits Bruce Wayne, giving us a clear window into the young billionaire’s psyche and charting his psychological journey as he grows from an angry, vengeful youth to a passionate champion of justice; we believe in his commitment to the ideal because he allows us to see where it comes from, and because he invests so much of himself in Wayne’s emotional landscape he makes it possible for us  to identify with him- a rarity in screen portrayals of this character, which usually make him an aloof, distant figure, hard to fathom and harder to relate to.   In addition, Bale plays Batman as a clear extension of Wayne, a heightened version of his real self rather than a differentiated personality; indeed, in this version, it is the persona of the shallow playboy that seems artificial, a sham perpetrated half-heartedly by a young man for whom worldly extravagances hold no appeal and whose true nature chafes at being confined in so trivial a role- all of which, of course, serves to make us like him even more.  The only unsatisfying element of Bale’s work here is his lack of chemistry with Holmes; their relationship exhibits little of the spark that might give it meaning beyond its obligatory presence in the plot, so that when the would-be emotional payoff finally comes it feels like an afterthought.  Nevertheless, it’s a minor quibble in an otherwise wholly engaging performance.

This impressive line-up of A-listers inhabits a superbly realized vision of Gotham City, created by Nolan in collaboration with production designer Nathan Crowley, which draws heavily on visual influences from Ridley Scott’s classic, Blade Runner, incorporating the use of informed imagination in its depiction of the cityscape; featuring layered architectural styles that reflect the changing tastes of its long history and the mix of elegance and squalor that marks any major real-life metropolis, it’s a place that goes a long way towards establishing the realistic base from which Nolan draws his story.  Contrasting this claustrophobic urban atmosphere are the stately expanse of Wayne Manor and the breathtaking Himalayan landscape of the early scenes, all beautifully photographed by cinematographer Wally Phister, giving Batman Begins a distinctive look and feel that lingers in the mind’s eye.  It’s worth mentioning that Nolan chose to create the environment of his film largely through old-fashioned filmmaking techniques, using extensive footage of actual locations, soundstage mockups, and miniatures, and relying only minimally on computer graphic effects (mostly for animation of the elevated train sequences and construction of scenery using a composite of different locations layered together).  The action sequences were likewise completed with live action stunt work instead of computer-generated trickery, making the slick perfection of the film’s effects somehow even more dazzling.

The force that brings everything together, of course, is Nolan’s powerful and decisive direction.  He landed this project fresh on the heels of his surprise indie hit, Memento, and instead of choosing to helm yet another predictably generic franchise-based blockbuster, he decided to make the film his own, bringing into the mix such now-familiar trademark elements as his inventive, intricate plotting, his exploration of thought-provoking psychological and metaphysical themes, and his noir-influenced use of dark, morally ambiguous characters and situations- all of which fit the Batman milieu like a glove.  Aided by a moody, atmospheric score (jointly composed by Hans Zimmer and Thomas Newton Howard, who resist using the theme-driven formats typically found in films of this genre), he keeps the story driving forward with his heavy use of fast-paced editing and his intercutting of parallel threads, seamlessly interweaving themes and character development as he goes.  Keeping the momentum is key to Nolan’s purpose here: the film, after all, is called Batman Begins for a reason; though it has a completeness and a distinctive energy of its own, it is in fact a prologue, the first chapter of a saga that is meant to continue through a full cycle of films.  The director shrewdly provides sufficient thrills and closure to allow his film to stand on its own, but one can’t help feeling that he is holding back the use of his full arsenal to leave us wanting more.  As Batman Begins rolls to its conclusion, the final scenes feel more like a pause than a full stop, and the sequel-minded hints dropped within the final minutes only serve to feed an anticipation that Nolan has already been building from the very first frames.

As to that sequel, it will hardly be a spoiler for me to say that it was to become the single most successful movie of all time (at least until it was recently deposed by another comic-book film, The Avengers) and that its financial triumph was equally matched by its critical reception; but I’ll touch more on that subject later this week, in anticipation of the imminent release of the final installment of Nolan’s Batman trilogy.  My purpose here is to revisit the first of these remarkable, genre-defying films, which, though it falls somewhat short in comparison with at least one of its future companion pieces, gives more than a sufficient hint of the audacious brilliance that is to come.  Batman Begins is polished and powerful, a movie that treats its source material with the respect and maturity it deserves and, at long last, frees the “comic-book movie” from the assumed stigma of being second-rate schlock, opening it to the possibility of being considered as worthy and important as any “serious” genre.  It’s the first movie in which a so-called superhero (though technically, of course, this particular hero possesses no super powers) is presented in a manner realistic enough to be believable, and even if its fantasy elements are strong enough to ultimately keep it from breaking completely free of its genre, it sets the stage for its creators to accomplish that landmark feat with their next effort.  All these considerations aside, however, it’s more than enough to say that Batman Begins is a pulse-quickening piece of entertainment, fully deserving of its own considerable success and worthy to stand alongside the best this increasingly popular genre has to offer.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0372784/