12 August 2008

"The Face of Britain's Falling Standards"- A Pre-Emptive Strike About A-Levels

So, it's that most wonderful time of year again. A-Level results!

You can tell it's this time, because pictures like the one to the left will appear in newspapers or online up and down the country in relation to stories about how much easier A-Level results are compared to when the authors of the pieces were young.

Before we get to that, I'll clarify what I mean by pictures "like these." Think about it- every year, pieces on students receiving their A-Level results are accompanied by photos of usually attractive 18 year old girls grinning and holding envelopes that contain their grades. While I accept the point that no one wants to see lads who look like Austin Powers underneath the mask of pubescent spots that blights their visage, it's remarkable how the media can find titillation even in pieces on education. Being an 18 year old male of the heterosexual persuasion myself, I can find no complaints with such pictures and maybe I'm taking this a little too far, but female readers out there, imagine the sweaty palmed Sun reader who gets a copy of the paper on the day that the reports are published. He's finished with Page 3, where Candy, 18, from Middlesex gets her tits out as a tiny bubble super-imposed to her right proclaims her disapproval of Gordon Brown's foreign policy, even though she probably can't spell "Zimbabwe." What does he find on the next page but a picture of you and your friends, looking all excitable, hugging each other... maybe some girls even caress each other, he thinks.

You see where I'm going with this, so I won't go any further down the "eww, eww, eww" route. I'm no prude, but you will never ever see a photo of a male student who has achieved A grades in all of the sciences and is off to Oxford on a scholarship in the papers, without an accompanying report saying how the exams are getting dumbed down and thus students are getting by with less valuable qualifications. Of course it's a generation thing- someone once said every generation wants to be the last, and thus has a tendency to deride its successor, and the current generation of newsreaders, reporters and journalists all say around this time of year that students have it easy. With youth being characterised so much these days by either yobs or emos, it's a wonder that relations between the young and the old haven't collapsed entirely. By 2030, the first Prime Minister who is from "our" generation will be saying "What's that, Dad? Our generation doesn't know nearly as much as yours? It's all because of A-Levels being easier? Well you have trouble peeing now, so I'll just bring back national service, and that ought to sort the problem out fine."

Of course it's the media's annual reports that exacerbate this issue- there is more evil in the special "Have Your Say" section that accompanies such pieces on the BBC News website than could be gleaned from Darth Vader reciting the speeches of Hitler while slaughtering babies. Last year, the BBC had a video online as a reporter interviews two students- surprise, surprise, they were female- as they open their results. The customary giggling and feminine celebration ensues, as they're both excited about having received the results they need to attend their first-choice universities. Huzzah! But no! One of them has got it wrong. Her face falls as she reads the results again and works out the grade boundaries... she's fell short by a few marks of having the right grades for said university. The smirking reporter turns to the camera as celebrations turned to commiserations behind them and says some aren't so lucky. This begs the question of why the BBC still posted it online. Even that aforementioned Sun reader would have to pull his pants up, realising the video he'd just watched was actually the academic equivalent of a happy slap. Fair enough, this is an isolated case, but one exemplary of these things all the same.

Older readers may be claiming I only care about this issue because I myself await my A2 results, which arrive on Thursday. Perhaps in five years time, I will bemoan how crap the examinations are nowadays, undermining the work of the students of the future. If that happens, someone please fucking shake me. I don't think it will, because I'll have my own beef with the next generation, just as the current older generation don't begrudge their children free love or terrible 80s fashions as their parents might have. Luckily, I'm maintaining low expectations for my results- I plan to defer my entry to university, for which I need at least three B grades, and take a year out to write a novel, get work experience and perhaps travel if I can save up enough money. Of course the media would lead you to believe I will either...

a. change my mind by September 2009 and go stab somebody instead.
b. be killed abroad while travelling during my gap year.
or c. my personal favourite, be one of the first to be press-ganged when Gordon Brown bows to the calls of bringing back national service to fix the whole of Britain's under-21 population.

Hey, perhaps I should try and get interviewed! There's surely got to be some money in becoming the Face of Britain's Falling Standards? That ought to tide me over until I can get a 17 year old pregnant and claim benefits for the rest of my life, eventually becoming a Sun reader who opens his paper around August to see lots of excitable young women!


The bottom line is, as blase as I and certain others claim to be about our A-Level results, it doesn't mean we didn't work hard for our exams, and it stinks that the media undermines our work and that of the teachers who made the effort to help us out with it. Especially as the general standards of the media in the last 30 years have gone right downhill. Talk about pot and kettle.


P.S. You may remember if you know me that I had this rant last year in the Evening Gazette, but they cut out a lot of my comments about the media being so shit, funnily enough. I'll probably be back here with more to rant about when said coverage does kick off later this week, and to post what grades I actually did get.
P.P.S. Please remember- if you are an attractive female and a photographer tries to coax you into looking happy with your results for a picture, you'll be doing a great service to The Sun by complying. So stop it!
P.P.P.S. To that guy who wrote in supporting my argument when I did the Gazette thing last year, thanks very much. I can't for the life of me remember your name, but you were an older gentleman and I'm much obliged.

10 August 2008

The Dark Knight- Review

This is it, the big one... The Dark Knight is finally here. For the benefit of those who live in a sealed titanium war-bubble, that's the new Batman film. I'll get to summary in a moment, but the furore around this film has been massive- after just four days of release in the USA, it went to number 1 on the Internet Movie Database's top 250 films of all time, voted for by users, with a 9.5/10 average. Now the vast majority of imdb's users are the most abhorrent on the internet- for instance, some guy the other week was convinced that WALL·E was a threat to the national stability of America, which he called "the greatest continent in the world"... seriously- and some of them are quite pissed about it being above The Godfather, missing the point that by its very definition, being number one means it's also above every other film ever made. Doesn't matter in the long run, because there are two statements I'm going to make about this definitively before my review.

1. It's the Batman film that Batman fans have waited for all their lives.
2. It is the greatest film based on a comic-book character EVER. Sod Spider-Man, Superman (especially Superman- see my previous blog post) and X-Men- THIS is the new benchmark.

That said, off we go- I'll try not to spoil anything in this review, but if you haven't seen it, fucking shame on you. Sorry, I meant to say, if you haven't seen it, the previous two statements will generally give you the gist of my thoughts. Once again for the cheap seats, this review may contain minor spoilers. And because I'm considerate, I'll warn you that strong language also crops up throughout.


Who's in it?
Christian Bale, (The Prestige) Heath Ledger, (I'm Not There) and Aaron Eckhart (The Black Dahlia)

What's it all about?
After the events of Batman Begins, the titular caped crusader (Bale) is working towards bringing down the mobsters in Gotham City by hitting them in their wallets and taking out their banks, with the help of Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Gotham's self-styled white knight, the new district attorney Harvey Dent (Eckhart). With Batman closing in, the mob turns to a man they don't fully understand the motives of in their efforts to survive- enter the Joker, (Ledger) who simply wants to see society burn, and become a world without rules.

Any good?
First and foremost here, I have to say that I didn't view this as a Batman film- it's more like a crime thriller that happens to have Batman, the Joker and a couple of other freaks (who shall remain nameless to preserve plot details) running around within them. The trio of Batman, Gordon and Dent attempting to bring down the mob in particular is more reminiscent of The Untouchables or The Departed than the terrible trio that we were subjected to by Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin (which is easily one of the worst films ever made.) The plot twists and turns throughout the two and a half hour runtime- not beyond comprehension, but certainly enough to entrance the audience as the film embarks upon a study of human nature, good and evil and everything that goes with it with astonishing prowess from writer and director Christopher Nolan. And in two and a half hours, I didn't once look at my watch- it's a totally immersive film.

The general opposition of Batman and Harvey Dent in terms of character is set up on both sides of the former's identity- Harvey happens to be dating Bruce's childhood sweetheart from Batman Begins, here niftily recast as Maggie Gyllenhaal, whereas Batman is set up as the hero that Gotham needs rather than Harvey, who is the hero that Gotham deserves. From all sides here, Batman is under tremendous pressure, and not PG-rated Spider-Man 2 pressure where people just don't like him. No, this is pressure to the extent whereby his copycat admirers endanger themselves and others with their ill-advised vigilante tactics. Elsewhere, the blood of murder victims is splattered firmly across Batman's hands by the aspersions of the Joker, who gives him a dilemma in which he will kill someone every day until Bats unmasks.

Yeah, bet you were wondering when I was going to mention him.
To those readers who remain under the delusion that the tabloids started that immersing himself in the Joker was what killed Heath Ledger, rather than the accidental overdose on his legitimate medication, get a fucking clue and then come back to read the rest. Done? Good. Well, the performance IS as good as everyone has been saying- I do think that he'll be up for a post-humous Oscar next February, but contrary to some critics, I think the same would be true if Ledger had never met his untimely death. He's as creepy as Hannibal Lecter, but with none of his reservation, which is more akin to that of Randle McMurphy from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. And that doesn't count as a Jack Nicholson comparison, before you ask. Every minute he's on-screen is captivating, from the film's opening bank heist, ("I kill the bus driver") through the interrogation scene that reveals his insanely-detached worldview and is arguably the best scene in the film, all the way to the film's edge-of-the-seat final setpiece. People will expect from that last turn of phrase a huge amount of action, but happily, the film allows for the finale to explore human nature in a way seldom seen in summer blockbusters, but I'm not telling you how it does it if you haven't seen the film yet, (again, fucking shame on you if that's true.) The truth of Ledger's role though is that it's not the biggest thing in the film- this is an ensemble piece.

That said, the best, but also most underrated performance in this one is probably Gary Oldman. It's wonderful, and this is his best role in years in my opinion- while he didn't have too much to do in Begins, he takes a much bigger role in the finale of this one, with much more personal stakes. Aaron Eckhart too is brilliant here- while previously somewhat typecast as shadier characters, he's a revelation here as Dent, a political knight-in-shining armour- I wanted to go out and vote for him after about twenty minutes on-screen. He undergoes a startling transformation from this later in the film when he's um... not so shiny, (swerving a spoiler there) and works just as well in either capacity. Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman also turn in sterling performances, together bringing into prominence Bruce's life unmasked as well as that of Batman. Caine and Freeman have some good comic relief one-liners in this film too, as they had in the previous film. I can't praise this ensemble enough, including Eric Roberts, who Doctor Who fans like myself will remember as the worst actor to play the Master ever, who manages to be a threatening presence even with the limited screentime his crime boss, Sal Maroni, actually gets. Didn't stop me leaning towards friends and quoting "I always drrrress for the occasion" when he came on screen, even if to this day I don't know what the fuck the Master was talking about at that point.

Alright, one negative thing about the cast, which is still a positive thing- Maggie Gyllenhaal is really good in this film too, also with a limited amount of screentime. The issue is that Nolan wanted her to play Rachel Dawes in the first film, but found she was unavailable and instead cast Katie Holmes. Katie fucking Holmes, who is inarguably the worst part of Begins, actually turned down a chance to reprise the role here due to other commitments. This was in 2005, so I can assume she looked ahead and recognised that her career was now dead, and her biggest commitment was to being Mrs. Tom Cruise. Even fucking Cillian Murphy came back for a three minute cameo, which can't have been hugely gratifying for an actor of his calibre, but Katie Holmes basically fucked up the character for this film. At around the mid-point, when Rachel reaches a big turning point, (that's the most spoiler-free I can say it) there is the feeling that Gyllenhaal's (far superior) Dawes hasn't been on-screen long enough for us to care about her. So Katie Holmes subtracts about a tenth of a decimal point in terms of marks out of ten, which would otherwise make this a more or less perfect movie.

A few more cursory suggestions though as to the content of this movie- firstly, if you like frothy superhero fare, do not expect the same from this. The key word for the tone of this film is in the title- a clue, it's the middle one. Indeed, it's so dark that it must have scarcely avoided a 15 certificate, which brings me to my second point. This is easily the most violent 12A film I've seen since the rating was brought in, back in 2002- it gets away with it on the merit of never showing any blood, which I suppose the studios must have stipulated in order to broaden the audience, but there's never any doubt as to what violent acts are occurring. And usually enacted by the Joker. This is NOT a film for kids- even sans violence, it's a rich and complex tale that may leave anyone less than a particularly clever ten year old scratching their heads and wanting to see
WALL·E instead. Discerning parents will do just that, but go to see this anyway without their less advanced off-spring. The third warning generally is concerned with Christian Bale's Bat-voice. Sometimes it seems a little forced and awkward in this film, and yeah, I've heard that some people found it funny. If you find the urge to laugh, or that it takes you out of the narrative, remember this guy could kick your ass. If you could so easily apply this to Arnold Schwarzenegger's films, he'd be the most revered actor in recent history, but Bale has the acting chops to carry off the role regardless of slightly awkward Bat-voice. Besides, it's better than Adam West's Batman voice in the 1960s TV series, i.e, his own, but slightly more consternated.

To conclude, this is the best Batman movie of all time. There are no bones about it I'm afraid, and given audience response, sheer consensus should overwhelm the Burton/West fans and the single Schumacher fan. It is also the best "comic-book movie", even if I've made my thoughts clear on that classification, because the ending, again without spoilers, takes the film in a direction that you could never ever do with other traditional heroes like Superman. Maybe they could pull it off with Spider-Man, but not if it translates into the likes of emo-Parker in Spider-Man 3, and here, you're left wanting more and more by the time the title on-screen heralds the beginning of the closing credits. As for that IMDB rating, I'm not sure I'd call it the best film of all-time. It needs to stand the test of time for that position, certainly not something that can happen two days since I first watched it, but if I were a betting man, I would wager that it probably will in a year or so's time. One more accolade to throw at it, and an impressive one at that- this is my favourite film of the 21st century to date. Absolutely magnificent.


There'll be more reviews from my perspective on the way- that's a given with all the movies I watch. Just keep an eye in the sky for the geek signal.

Until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch,