Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Bane: Son of Anarchy

     The villains of the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy have each dictated the tone of their respective movies and brought out a new side of Batman himself. Where Rhas Al Ghul became an elegant extremist in the name of justice and balance, the Joker was an agent of chaos with no motive other than turning Gotham around on its head so many times that it would inevitably stab itself in the heart. Everyone knows that the Joker is Batman’s ultimate nemesis, and readers of the books would identify Rhas Al Ghul as the legendary leader of the League of Shadows. Bane is a new kind of villain, and relatively unknown at that, except to avid graphic novel readers. So who is the Bane of Gotham and how does he fit into the Nolan interpretation of the Dark Knight?

     Bane is first and foremost, an anarchist. He is part revolutionary, part dictator, but never setting himself up as an authority figure in Gotham. Even in the peak of his success of turning Gotham inside out and letting its heart rot in the trenches of terror and tyranny, Bane is an embodiment of the spirit of fear. He “rules” Gotham like a prison where he is the alpha inmate. He is a prisoner as well, but he builds a kingdom of horror and dread within that isolated world. His creation is a mockery of democracy, even as he parades the perverse beauty of equality, toppling the wealthy in the manner of the French Revolution where Gotham’s rich are the doomed aristocracy.

     For the first half of The Dark Knight Rises, Bane’s motives are unclear.  He is obviously not the sophisticated strategist that Rhas Al Ghul was, nor is he an unpredictable madman with a promiscuous lust for bedlam like the Joker. Bane is shown to be working for a sniveling power-hungry usurper, almost reminiscent of the relationship between Justin Hammer and Ivan Vanko in Iron Man 2. It doesn't take too long for Bane to assert that he is no one’s pawn (at least not for that money-grabbing weakling), but it's still just as uncertain what he is about. His moves are too calculated and mysterious to be purposeless, but not quite refined enough to be seen as the final step in some grand master plan laid down for generations beforehand. Bane does not seem to be acting as part of a plot—he seems to be dictating his own path, but no one can tell what it is. He does not want political power or wealth, nor is he a mindless machine of destruction.

     Well, spoiler alert for the rest of this review, Bane is an accomplice. Before I come under fire for saying such a thing, finish reading this bit. There is no denying that Bane is a powerful leader. As previously stated, he is part revolutionary, part tyrant. In the engaging opening sequence of the Dark Knight Rises, a very elaborate and grisly plot unfolds to kidnap a scientist off his plane, involving a rather brilliant hijacking if it can even be called such. Here we see a brief but clear demonstration of Bane’s power as a leader when a word to a “brother” convinces the other to die in the wreckage of a plane. Bane’s rule by fear and illusions of brotherhood bring to him a following of cowardly and brutish criminals who blindly follow his merciless lead. All offenses are punishable by death, and yet they flock to tremble in his shadow.

     But even in his mastery of the power of lawlessness and unquestionable brute strength, Bane is (almost disappointingly so) not the brains of the operation. He is the brawn, the passion, and the one who carries out the grand scheme, but he is not the mastermind. That is not to say that he could not be— he certainly has the power and despite comic book archetypes equating bulky bodies with low intellect, Bane is not stupid. But minutes from the credits, his true master steps forward. He is shortly thereafter disposed of unceremoniously in a manner befitting a sidekick.

     Bane may not have been the brains behind the fall of Gotham, but he did the dirty work is his own brutal way. He may be Talia’s pawn, but make no mistake that she does not keep him a leash—she does not have to. She may the only one who does not fear him, so she releases him to accomplish her purposes in whatever way he sees fit. He is still allowed to be the radical terrorist without any real restrictions on his methods.

    After hours of watching the son of anarchy wreak ruthless havoc upon Gotham City, it seems strange and almost out of character that Bane’s downfall would in fact be love. Bane and Talia form a deep and impenetrable bond that resembles a twisted father-daughter relationship, and when he determines to be her protector, she becomes the brains and he becomes the muscles of an elegant, intricate, peculiar partnership. It is never suggested that Bane’s relationship with Talia exceeds that of a fierce and loyal protector. Talia, for all her curves and subtle manipulation, has no need to use her femme fatale tactics on Bane. She rescued him and refused to accept her father’s decree of excommunication against him, so Bane, to the degree that the extremist monster is able, loves her. For her part the favor is returned, but Talia has much of her father in her and believes in sacrifices for the greater good. Her ultimate goal is to finish what Rhas Al Ghul begun, and Bane is her pawn--an unleashed pawn with a presence and power all his own, but a pawn nonetheless. He knows it, and wants to be thus.

     To be fair, even as the right hand man of the true villainess, he is still a force unleashed, worthy to be feared, even if his personality and speech are somewhat suppressed by his facial apparatus. Tom Hardy does as well as he possibly can to bring Bane to life through expressive voice inflections and wild glances, but at times Bane is hard to understand-- literally. His motives are not fully revealed until the condensed finale, making him less compelling than he could have been as a character. By the time Talia is revealed as the alpha-villain, it is too late to just push Bane aside--  he has been the face of evil for the entire movie! Because of this, his exit was unsatisfying, as is his final showdown with Batman. Throughout the film, the fiend has snapped necks, ruthlessly broken Bruce's back, thrown him into the pit of the earth, gutted Gotham inside-out, trapped hundreds of police officials in a claustrophobic nightmare, and toppled the already unstable ruling powers of Gotham. In return for these heinous misdeeds, Batman punches him in the face. To add insult to the injury of not having a finale-worthy Mano-a-mano confrontation, Batman does not even get to finish Bane himself.

     Bane works in a league of his own not to be compared with previous nemeses-- he simply can't be. He is not a perfect villain, but he does well, and he possesses the soul of Gotham adequately enough to be counted a notable adversary. Bane's description of himself as "a necessary evil" sums up quite eloquently his mission and his views. Bane is mysterious, dangerous, and unexpected, but true to his nature and his namesake, is the bane of Gotham and Batman.



1. a person or thing that ruins or spoils
2. a deadly poison
3. death; destruction; ruin

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Classics Archive: Citizen Kane

I found the following piece in an old forgotten file logged away on my trusty computer. I wrote this piece back in 2008 for a film class, long before Reel Rambling was thought of. Having recently read over this old review, I deemed it worthy to be blog-published. I present from my archive of reviews of classic movies, the illustrious masterpiece, CITIZEN KANE.

     When Citizen Kane was released in 1941, Orson Welles brought far more than a story to the big screen; he used a unique narrative form to tell the story of Charles Foster Kane in such an artful way that the audience actually cares about the otherwise unlikable character. Before we are told about Kane himself, we see a montage of his life’s accomplishments. But as the editor of the newsreel says, “It isn't enough to tell us what a man did. You've got to tell us who he was.” The subsequent hours of Citizen Kane are devoted to showing the audience who Charles Foster Kane was as a man, not just a public figure.

     The story opens with one of the most famous scenes in film history in which Kane lies upon his deathbed and utters the mysterious word “Rosebud” with his final breath. It is the only scene which shows Kane in the present time; the rest of his appearances take place in the past. As soon as the audience meets Kane, he dies, and the rest of the film takes us through his life as told by various people including friends, ex-wives, employees, etc. By showing exactly what will become of Kane in the first minutes of the film, then backtracking to fill in the rest of the story, the narration would seem to have limited itself. Instead, the audience is driven by the curiosity of what brought a man who had everything to such a miserable end.

     In the first few minutes of the film, the audience realizes that the story will be more psychologically based rather than centered on the accomplishments of the character. Following the newsreel of Kane’s public life, the audience knows what he did before the story even begins, but we do not know who he was. According to Bordwell and Thompson, “Unlike many biographical films, Citizen Kane is more concerned with psychological states and relationships than with the hero’s public deeds or adventures” (97). By the film’s end, this fact is sealed when the reporter does not get his story, and only the omniscient audience shares the secret of “rosebud” with the deceased Kane. I found the mystery of “rosebud” to be the driving force of the film. The character of Kane is not particularly personable, relatable, or likable, so it is certainly not his personality that kept my attention. Rather, it was the knowledge that someone who had everything, died with essentially nothing, and that backtracking through his life may reveal one crucial fact about his inner self that explains the motivation for all his actions.

     According to Bordwell and Thompson, two storylines dominate Citizen Kane. One is the reporters, scrambling and investigating the person of Charles Kane. The other set of events has already taken place, and although we know they ultimately end in Kane’s death, we do not know the whole story of how he came to be one of the most powerful men in America, or how he ended dejected and alone. While the reporters gather information in the present time, flashbacks are used to show Kane’s story, but curiously, these flashbacks do not occur necessarily in chronological order. What could have been a confusing way to tell the story is instead extremely effective in building suspense and mystery.

    With the help of the “News on the March” early on, we are able to place events chronologically ourselves as they occur in further detail throughout the movie. From the start, we know that Kane’s marriages will not last and his friends will drift away, so the outcome of the story is known to us, forcing the audience to “focus on the how and when a particular thing will happen. Thus many scenes function to delay an outcome that we already know is certain” (100). This ordering of events builds suspense for viewer who is waiting to discover how and why an already revealed ending will result. For example, we know when Kane marries Emily that it will fall apart, and we wait to see how it will play out. A passing remark is made about how Emily and Kane’s son were killed in a car accident, which makes one wonder if Kane’s first marriage ended because of this tragic accident, or because of a divorce shortly before.

    Another place of suspense that encompasses more time and story than the aforementioned is that we know that Susan will eventually leave Kane, but we do not know when she will finally walk out. Therefore every time there is conflict between Charles and Susan, we expect her to leave him. Each time she does not fulfill the audience expectations, the suspense grows towards a more dramatic climax.

     Because the story is told through the recollection of multiple individuals, there are years of time missing from Kane’s story, and several hours of time missing from the reporters’ investigation. The gaps in Kane’s life are filled in for the most part by several montage sequences to speed up slow and enduring themes or events. Shortly after Kane’s first marriage, we see the montage sequence showing the gradual breakdown of the mutual love between the couple. Initially they are seated close together, but by the end of the sequence, they are at opposite ends of the table, years later in their time, but only a few seconds in screen time.

     By using a few montage sequences to compress time, the narration can focus on the highlights of the story without losing any of the emotion and feeling. Susan’s opera career is shown through a montage, which allows the audience to see her transformation from a young starlet to a depressed celebrity in a matter of seconds, leaving the remainder of the film with the knowledge that she has attempted suicide, and remains static as she plays with jigsaw puzzles, consumed with loneliness in a separate montage sequence.

     In the course of the reporter’s investigation, the people he contacts reflect different phases of Kane’s life, showing the progression of events, and “giving a distinct type of information about Kane” (104). Each person interviewed gives a glimpse into the life of Charles Kane until the time of his death.
“Thatcher establishes Kane’s political stance: Bernstein gives an account of the business dealings of the newspaper…leading into Leland’s stories of Kane’s personal life, where we get the first real indications of failure. Susan continues the description of his decline with her account of how he manipulated her life. Finally, in Raymond’s flashback, Kane becomes a pitiable old man” (104). 
     Each character provides the audience with a different view or different period of time in Kane’s life, adding layers to the complexity of Kane’s character. Each time a story is shown through a different character, the story comes together like a jigsaw puzzle. We have the benefit of seeing a little more than is revealed to the reporters, and we have the advantage of discovering the meaning of “rosebud”—a mystery that will never be revealed to the characters of the film.

     Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of Citizen Kane is the revelation of the meaning of “rosebud” in the end of the movie. As soon as the audience sees the word printed on an old sled, the pieces of the puzzle all come together. Not only does this final scene serve as a powerful ending to communicate what the deepest desire of Kane’s heart was, it made me want to see the film again immediately to look for hints throughout the film that I may have missed the first time.

     As Citizen Kane ends, digressing back through the images that ushered the audience into Xanadu, I left with a strong sense of melancholy and satisfaction. While the story of Charles Foster Kane was by no means inspiring, Orson Welles’ genius allowed me to share in the secret of “rosebud” before the key to the secret disappeared into black smoke, billowing out of the ominous Xanadu. As a viewer, the satisfaction was in knowing that I knew something of Kane that the characters in his world would now never know. While they could surmise about the spirit of the mysterious man, I held the final piece to the jigsaw puzzle.

 Cited: Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. McGraw-Hill Publishing 2006

Memoirs of Stargate SG-1

     It began one summer with a new friendship. I had met a certain guy who shared my love of science fiction and through the combined efforts of my new fellow nerd and my roommate, I entered into the ten season relationship of Stargate: SG-1. Having grown up on the movie Stargate, I had always been curious about the series spin-off but had been unable to watch the series. Until 2009. One Sunday afternoon, my roommate and I settled down and she put in the first of many discs from her deluxe box set. One episode led to another, and then another. Soon our numbers grew from two to three to six, convening once a week to watch and enjoy together.

     I will admit that the pilot episode did not immediately evoke devoted following. The TV-level special effects were dated and unimpressive by 2009 standards—the quality of the special effects seemed to pick up technologically where Star Trek: The Next Generation left off. Still, I was generous with my judgments, allowing that this was a product of late 1990’s television. When the premiere villain Apophis made his grand entrance however, it was more difficult to excuse the campy costumes and overdone makeup. My companions advised me to focus on the story rather than the visual efforts, as they did have a smaller budget in their earlier seasons. Beyond that, the “visual efforts” involved content more suited to an HBO type series. So I suspended judgment despite thinking deep within myself “it’s going to be like this for a few seasons?” I pushed through with the hope that better entertainment lie on the other side of season one. I was right.

     As in most TV series, the actors involved took some getting used to in that first season as they settled into their characters. At times I wondered if they were being prompted or reading their lines off a faraway wall. But eventually as the actors became more comfortable with their characters, I became more comfortable with them as well and began developing impressions of each and guessing at their motives, personalities, and destinies. I latched on to Jack O’Neill and his sardonic humor. I sympathized with Daniel Jackson and his quest to rescue his wife from her captivity. Teal’c gained my interest as I pondered his loyalties and dark past. Even Samantha Carter gained my approval once I got past her Princess Diana haircut and frequent tendency to play the exposition fairy with her ridiculous knowledge of… everything (thankfully all these characteristics were toned down as the series went on).

     Season two came around and as the story improved, so did the special effects, costumes, and writing. The actors, now comfortable in their roles, carried their parts naturally and effortlessly. Events were now happening that would carry ramifications lasting several seasons or at least revisited multiple times. Sam became host to Tok’ra symbiote Jolinar, Daniel began his long track record of attracting abnormal females, both the formidable and the ridiculous Goa’uld made appearances and reappearances, and Sam’s father Jacob was set up as a returning guest character. Not only did SG-1 have alien threats to deal with, they now fought domestic politics on their home turf, developing strained and cantankerous relationships with the corrupt Senator Kinsey and the hated Maybourne. Finally, the plot was thickening!

     One storyline would lead to another and then taper off, birthing a greater arc, or even memorable stand-alone episodes. As the series went on, the relationships deepened and even Jack and Daniel developed a certain respect for one another despite what ought to have been irreconcilable differences. Teal’c grew a sense of humor and Jack actually had sensitive moments. Sam became a strong leader, but retained her femininity and never crossed the line into becoming Jane Bond. Thank goodness. I will say that the writers went overboard playing with my heart in terms of the Jack-Sam dynamic, because they became in my opinion the most frustrating “will they, won’t they?” couple in TV history, but without the satisfaction of a definite resolution in one direction or the other. The obvious affection swelled to breaking point and then... was brushed off. Unlike Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher of Star Trek: The Next Generation, whose relationship was left open for possibilities at the finale of the series, Jack and Sam just forgot about their feelings and then Jack left. Simple as that. I suppose I can give the show props for not getting soapy, at least most of the time. Sam’s relationship with Pete was not a high point for me.

     One thing I would say Stargate: SG-1 did better than most shows would be able to in a ten season run, is excellent continuity. One of the most satisfying things about continuity is getting to say with a simultaneous sense of dread and anticipation “you again…” When SG-1 introduced an antagonist, it was sure as tax that he or she would be seen again in some capacity or another if they got away. While Linea, Destroyer of Worlds yielded a somewhat anti-climactic one-episode reappearance, the encounter with Fifth the Replicator brought far-reaching consequences and an unexpected tangent to the Replicator arc, spanning several episodes. Likewise a seemingly insignificant episode centered on a relationship between Daniel and an old colleage released a new Goa'uld enemy, leading into one of the most intense story arcs.

     As in most sci-fi, you could never depend on someone actually being dead. Would Apophis ever die for good? Would Maybourne ever stop popping up at the worst possible time? And die? Would Kinsey ever do the world a favor and get himself assassinated? And just when I thought the team could relax a bit, having not heard from Apophis in some time, we were dealt Sokar and an Apophis encore. The Goa'uld held legendary grudges, and would never forget a grievance dealt them, be it a few seasons ago, or a few millenia ago. While certain story points that seemed like they would be monumental trailed off without too much ceremony, thinking back I can't recall a real loose end anywhere.

     The fall of one Goa’uld would give rise to the next, each one strikingly unique in his, her, or its own vein of evil. I was just about to grow tired of the endless reappearing schemes of Apophis when the writers wrote in a timely and truly fitting end for the villain. Appropriately, Apophis had one of the most glorious exits of all SG-1 nemeses, and watching the fiend helplessly face his demise was just spectacular, not to mention poetic. With Apophis now out of the way, new overarching threats needed to be created that did not repeat Apophis. SG-1 came through fantastically with Osiris and his alliance of system lords, Anubis, Ba’al, and the rise to prominence of more Replicators. While more minor villains such as the insipid Nirrti or overly sensual Hathor were not even fun to hate, the dominating powers of evil became every bit as essential to the sagas as SG-1 itself, and I even had favorites among the adversaries.

    Among the greater adversaries of Stargate SG-1, my favorites were the classics. Anubis, a seemingly unbeatable entity with an evil so pure that other Goa’uld considered
Anubis’ ways unspeakable, brought a supernatural element to the Goa'uld threat. As an ascended being, his powers of evil operated on a level outside the realm of reality -- a different dimension if you will, making him an especially formidable foe. Ba’al, so arrogant and yet borderline charming in his unexcitable manners and elegantly brutal mind games (such as his repeated killing and resurrection of Jack) seemed a straightforward enough Goa'uld, but he had more on his side than legions of fear-bound followers; he was cunning. Ba'al was a true strategist and tactical artist, constantly surprising. Even in the face of certain defeat, Ba’al remained maddeningly poised and unwaveringly superior in all his mannerisms. Lastly, I had to love the presence of the Replicators. Until the encounter with Fifth, the Replicators were a mindless destructive machine without a face or a heart. This in itself made the Replicators an entity that forced a new battle-mode. Fighting an enemy that does not bleed or hurt proved to be a challenge that even the superior Asgard found daunting. When the SG-1 team lands on a Replicator planet, the machines entered a new level of dangerous destroyers: they were shown to be self-aware. Soon SG-1 was not just dealing with mechanical spider-like Replicators, but they had Fifth and Repli-Carter-- a Samantha Carter replicator impostor.

     In ten seasons of character development and progression, certain emotional wrenches are inevitable. There was a certain tightness in my heart as Daniel tearfully bid goodbye to Jack and departed this world in Meridian. Eyes were wiped as Sam delivered her honoring speech at Dr. Frazier’s funeral in Heroes. While I never cared for Sha’re (or the dreadful acting her character was doomed to), I couldn’t help but sympathize with Daniel as he grieved over the loss of his wife in Forever in a Day. During Jack’s captivity under Ba’al, I couldn't help but understand his caving to hopelessness with his daily death and resurrection in Abyss. And as previously mentioned, it was hard not to hope that somehow Jack and Sam would stop ignoring their feelings. Teal’c may have been the strongest of the team both physically and emotionally, but he sensitively displayed feeling torn as a warrior, father, estranged husband, and friend. While his loyalties were often at odds with one another, Teal’c proved time and time again that he was an invaluable member of the SG-1 team, saving the lives of his comrades on numerous occasions. At times he frustrated me with how determined he was to pay penance for his past as First Prime of Apophis, but Teal'c remained a sterling hero.  

     In time, SG-1 moved on from the predominantly Egyptian mythologies and turned its attention to Arthurian and Atlantian themes. Unfortunately, with the final defeat of the Goa’uld came the unannounced departure of Jack O’Neill to be replaced by younger and inexperienced Cameron Mitchell. After eight seasons with O’Neill at the helm, it was hard not to feel like Mitchell was a cheap substitution. He dropped onto the scene suddenly and conveniently, bringing with him a few more new characters that just didn’t quite mesh with the eight previous seasons of development. General Landry was a far departure in leadership style and personality from the straight-laced General Hammond. And then there was Vala Mal Doran who was just… a fish out of water to put it most politely. Mitchell was not a bad character, just thrust forward as the lead a little too quickly. Despite character replacements being a little disappointing, the story continued, introducing an arc that might have lasted multiple seasons with the new threat of the Ori. Most of seasons nine and ten drew on basic Arthurian legend, adding the sci-fi twist and incorporating the Ori into the mix. And a timely reappearance of old nemesis Ba’al, just in time to keep things interesting. And then, just as I thought to myself that this Ori arc with the insatiably evil Adria could set up the show for a few more seasons, it ended. 

     After ten seasons of tension, rising action, falling action, new enemies, old enemies, secret enemies, gains and losses, and a just a little drama within, it is hard to envision what an appropriate ending would be. Truthfully I appreciated that the universe was not saved once and for all, leaving all the SG-1 members to go on and lead a quiet life hereafter. Nor was everyone conveniently bumped off in some horribly dramatic fashion. Unending took a different, more contemplative approach to finish off the series by allowing the remaining SG-1 characters to live out their lives in a time dilation bubble, trapped in what some would consider a fate worse than death. Warriors were now caged, helpless, and unable to even die in battle. Stuck with nothing but decades of time, age and hopelessness set in as day after day of analyzing proved fruitless. Of course they get out and get to be young again and continue their missions with only one of them retaining any memory of the events. The series ends with a “business as usual” tone, and SG-1 steps through the gate for yet another adventure just before the credits roll one last time.

     When Unending ended, SG-1 was over, and ten seasons worth of time were now complete. The stories were told, the battles were fought, and the book was closed. Yet thanks to the wisdom of the writers, although it was clearly the end of an era, I did not feel that it was truly the end. There were still undefeated enemies out there, and more planets in need of emancipation. The team would continue saving the universe one planet at a time, even if their escapades would no longer be available on DVD. No sooner had the Stargate activated one last time and hosted the heroes through the event horizon, I wanted to start over again. Now with the knowledge of how one thing affects the next episode to episode, I wanted to go back. Stargate SG-1 had many high points, a few low points, some fantastic comedic points, and some stirring dramatic points. Stargate SG-1 is a truly fine specimen that does justice to science fiction in all the best ways. A great show indeed.

~Special thanks to "Ecarganna" for sparking my interest so long ago during our long, nerdy sci-fi talks, "Freckles" and "Spud" for getting it started, and "Potter", "Jonface", and "Imspecial" for many, many nights of sharing the experience, as well as the friends who occasionally popped in~