Friday, July 18, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW






















The Da
rk Knight
Directed by: Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Prestige, Memento, Insomnia)

Written by: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer

WARNING: Do not read this review if you do not want to have anything spoiled for you. Although I will not discuss key plot points or surprises, I will talk at length about everything else. If you plan on seeing this movie, come back and read this after you’ve seen it. Seriously, this is one you don’t want to ruin.

Okay, first and foremost, I have to tell a small story. My wife and I are driving to the theater last night and arrive about 11:15 p.m. for the 12:05 a.m. show. Plenty of time to get in line, get some popcorn and chillax ‘til show time. However, at the monumental moment when I’m supposed to dish out the tickets we bought early, I discovered that only a driver’s license, military I.D. and debit card were in my pocket.

I didn’t want to carry my overweight wallet, so I grabbed only the essentials, sans the tickets to the SOLD OUT show. There’s no sweet talking at that point. So, in the rain, at 11:15 p.m., like a stage in a videogame, I had to drive back to my home in bumfuck Eagle River and back, stopping for gas on the way, and get into the sold out show in time.

Luckily, I made it with ten minutes to spare, but seriously…can you imagine? All the hype, anticipation, and preparation…and I forget the fucking tickets. I win dickhead of the year award. Fortunately, some good friends held us seats (hey, we already had tickets, so chill out seat Nazi’s). Moral of the story; don’t let anticipation cloud out preparation.

So, The Dark Knight. I don’t think a Batman film has been anticipated so much since the release of Tim Burton’s 1989 film. I remember sitting in the theater for that one, jam-packed and everyone giddy as hell. The amazement and awe of seeing a Batman film crafted with care and vision was a new experience for moviegoers.

That was twenty years ago, and although Burton’s vision was strong and capable, it wasn’t perfect. It was fun and cool and weird in that Burton-esque way. Then came Batman Returns, which was high on the weird factor and low on the wow factor. I remember leaving the theater and hearing the word of death when exiting a movie: “sucked.” Over the years I have come to appreciate Batman Returns for its oddities (It doesn’t hurt that Michelle Pfeiffer was sexy as hell as Catwoman)

Batman Forever and Batman and Robin were the nail in the coffin for the Bat-franchise. Director Joel Schumacher brought a lot of color and light to a dark character and seemed to almost make fun of the Batman legacy, not to mention adding nipples to their costumes. I love to hate both of those movies. They are laughable and embarrassing to every individual involved.

Batman and Robin was particularly excruciating to get through. It gave me a headache and I just wanted it to end. Upon leaving the theater from that little gem I had only one thought: It’s over. No more Batman movies. And at that point, if that’s what they wanted to make, I didn’t even want to see another one.

Then, along came Christopher Nolan, who got out the shock pads for the Bat-franchise and zapped it back to life. When I heard that Batman Begins would be a complete reboot I knew it was the right way to go. To build off of the mess that was left behind would have been a complete disaster. I now view them as two totally different franchises. And it’s easy to see how they could be viewed as such. The similarities are so few and far between that there’s no contest.

Batman Begins was the perfect origin story. It focused on the character of Batman/Bruce Wayne, without relegating him to a side character overshadowed by a plethora of obnoxious villains. It’s a common action/adventure movie cliché; the bad guys becoming more interesting than the good ones. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if the title of your movie is Batman then that’s who it should be about.

Most people are very confused about Batman’s origins or simply don’t care. However, the hordes of fans that have read the character’s legacy for decades in the numerous comic series’ from DC, have come to expect a certain level of respect, integrity, and authenticity to his portrayal. Batman Begins does just that.

Although Batman Begins takes many liberties and makes many twists on old storylines, it condenses the true-to-comic origins of Batman/Bruce Wayne into a two-and-a-half hour movie. That is no small feat. Whereas Burton and Schumacher’s vision relegated the origin of the character to minute flashbacks, Nolan took us deep into the heart and mind of the character, exploring every depth of who and why he is.

It is a rare thing for someone to take so much care in crafting a tale like Batman Begins. Not only did that film defy all the traditions of comic book movies, but it redefined the genre, letting other future filmmakers know that it was okay to follow the traditions and lineage of a character rather than pissing it all away to make a big, loud, messy, Hollywood machine.

Which brings us to The Dark Knight. There is no other movie this year that I looked forward to more. There still isn’t. I’m more excited to see this again than I am to watch any other new film this year.

In anticipation of the release of TDK I read the cliff’s notes of many reviews. I usually do this with any movie I’m about to see, because with rare exception, you can get the gist of whether or not a movie is going to be shit or not by the percentage of positive reviews (rotten tomatoes is a great resource for this). In nearly every review there were words that kept repeating; Oscar, haunting, brilliant, intense, and dark.

The Dark Knight is deserving of all of those words and more. It’s one of those rarest of film moments when you can say: Believe the hype.

The film picks up in what seems like only a few months after Batman Begins ends. Batman is an established force in Gotham City and has become feared by the criminals and somewhat respected by the police. Nearly all the players from Batman Begins are back with the exception of Katie Holmes (Mad Money over The Dark Knight? Are you kidding me?), whose character of Rachel Dawes is replaced by Maggie Gyllenhal.

The other new addition to the cast is Aaron Eckart (Thank you for Smoking) as Harvey Dent. Now, most comic aficionados know that Dent becomes the villain Two-Face, a classic Batman villain, previously portrayed with embarrassment by Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever.

Now, everyone is buzzing about Heath Ledger as the Joker. And I’ll get to him. But, here’s the real surprise of The Dark Knight; Aaron Eckart is bloody brilliant in it. Eckart makes you believe in Harvey Dent (which is his campaign slogan). He sells the character and for every second onscreen up to the point that he becomes Two-Face, you want Harvey Dent to be the good guy. You want him to be, as he is called in the film, the white knight. Unflinching in his quest for justice and the righteousness of good, Dent is on a crusade to save the city and if Gotham City were real and you were a registered voter there I have no doubt he’d win his election by a landslide. He sells it that good.

Harvey Dent would send John McCain and Barrack Obama back to the old folk’s home and the nursery, respectively. Dent sells it so good that you almost feel ashamed that there aren’t candidates like him running for office today. Of course, the twist of the character makes it a moot point. However, the metaphor of “two-face,” fits perfect with the political as well as literal transformation.

Eckart emotes the rage that is unleashed with ferocity. You truly feel his pain, his loss, and the disappointment in his sudden departure from white knight to fallen villain.

Gyllenhal as Rachel is just fine. She seems to be the most underwritten character, but she has enough to work with that helps you understand why both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent would pursue her. Her arc in this film is both monumental and subtle, depending on which character it is affecting. Rest assured it runs deep. In my opinion, however, I think Katie Holmes sold the tenacity of the character much better than Gyllenhal.

Gary Oldman is the quintessentially perfect Lt./Commissioner Gordon. Gordon is a staple in the Batman legacy and Oldman plays the character straight out of the comics. He has always been an amazing actor (If you’ve never seen him in The Professional then you need to go to Netflix right now and put it in your queue) and he is an asset to the film.

Michael Caine may not look the character of Alfred the Butler from the comics, but he plays him to a tee. Caine brings a gentle strength to his character, acting like a matronly parent to Bruce Wayne/Batman. He is the only family Bruce has (unless you read the comics, which recently revealed Bruce has a son named Damian) and acts as his mother, father, and caretaker. Caine brings a professional legitimacy to the film, a solid veteran actor who nurtures every character he plays.

Also returning is Morgan Freeman as Lucious Fox, Batman’s equipment and company head. Freeman, like Caine, brings the clout and respect of a veteran actor to the film, bringing life to a character that could easily be relegated to a no-name actor whose only screen time necessities are to introduce gadgets and drop small plot points. And that’s the beauty of the casting for this film. No one is treated as a bit player or a walk on. Everyone, including those that have a mere two seconds onscreen, treats their part as integral to the story.

Alas, there is Heath Ledger as the infamous Joker. If you asked anyone prior to seeing this film who they thought the best Joker was, they would undoubtedly tell you Jack Nicholson in the ’89 film. And, in my opinion, they would be correct.

Now, after you see TDK, I’m willing to bet that Ledger would take the top prize. Some reviewers have said that they are now almost disappointed in Nicholson’s Joker from the ’89 film because he didn’t take it to the lengths that Ledger did. I don’t agree with that. Nicholson was every bit sadistic and twisted in Burton’s vision as Ledger is in Nolan’s. However, each film is within its own context, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Ledger, looking like a more colorful version of Brandon Lee in The Crow (another tragically lost actor), doesn’t play the Joker in this film. He oozes the Joker. When he looks in the camera you don’t see a great actor giving a great performance; you see a sick, sadistic, twisted, and evil man. What Ledger brings to the character is a gritty and homicidal portrayal of a man with no morals, no values, no consequences; a complete sociopath with no regard for anything but the chase.

Like the comics, where Joker and Batman have gone tit-for-tat since the 40’s, these characters are the yin and yang of one another. At one point, the Joker says to Batman, “I think you and I will be doing this for a very long time…” to which Batman can only reply that the Joker will rot away in a cage. And that’s the journey, the everlasting battle between the two.

(If your curiosity ever takes you outside the realm of the movies, I recommend checking out Frank Miller’s [300, Sin City] visionary graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns which takes you into the future of Batman and how his struggles with the likes of Joker, etc. have progressed and how they ultimately end. Great stuff.).

Ultimately, Ledger creates a Joker of brutality, a gothic terrorist hell-bent on destruction for destruction’s sake. Ledger perfected the mannerisms, the ticks, and that cackling sadistic laugh to perfection. He slipped into the dirty, purple suit and got lost in the character. You couldn’t ask for anything more, because he simply brought so much to the table. It is a fitting and lasting tribute to the talent and professionalism of a great actor.

As for Christian Bale as Batman; as far as I’m concerned he IS Batman. Adam West was a cartoon character as Batman, so it’s hard to even compare him. Michael Keaton played Bruce Wayne/Batman as an odd, eccentric and conflicted character, but at least a distant second to Bale’s portrayal. Val Kilmer and George Clooney were mere fill-ins, men in capes, playing second fiddle to the larger than life villains in Schumacher’s Power Ranger-tized Bat films.

Bale is the clear winner. He is also the strongest of all those actors. As Bale’s star rises higher and higher (from Batman to the new Terminator to the new Michael Mann crime drama Public Enemies) he has become a force to be reckoned with. Bale balances the debonair billionaire façade of Bruce Wayne delicately with the quiet and deadly rage of Batman. The challenge of dealing with public outcry, police and government corruption, mob bosses, and deranged villains, puts Batman’s entire mission out of balance, forcing him to make choices he never anticipated. Bale transcends his performance with these issues, starting off cool as ice in his dealings with the bad guys to a near scale tipping balance of crossing completely into the dark side.

It’s important to examine the context of Christopher Nolan’s Bat films within the larger picture. Nolan has crafted a Gotham City that feels real. The dialogue, the interactions, the choices and decisions; they all feel real. They feel like things we would encounter in our own world, not in a comic book. we feel like we could exist in Nolan’s DC universe, alongside the likes of Batman, the Joker, and Harvey Two-Face Dent.

The Dark Knight, in many ways, feels like a Michael Mann (Heat) directed crime thriller, rather than a Christopher Nolan directed comic book film. The intensity of this film is nerve shattering. You will be at the edge of your seat from start to finish because as the story progresses, from one scene to the next, the stakes continue to rise and never let up.

Usually, certain plot points are resolved before the third act, freeing up the story for the “one last thing.” Not here. Everything builds, like a Beethoven symphony, the story unfolds, layer by layer, note by note, finally into a crescendo of resolution and certainly not under the same circumstances as any of the other Bat films.

And the action. Oh, yes, the action is every bit as stepped up and extravagant as a sequel normally is, only there’s one difference; it doesn’t feel indulgent; it feels like a perfect fit. The violence is quick and real. The body count is high and the film takes great pains to let you know that it’s not messing around. Had they shown just a bit more blood and gore this would easily be an R-rated film.

What I am anticipating is parents whining about the violence and saying that they should be able to take their kids to this film. Listen, don’t take your snot-nosed little eight year old to this movie. Take them to Wall*E. I would very much like to throw a batarang into the first whining parent’s face that says this film is too violent. They have likely never read a Batman comic or know jack shit about his origins enough to be an expert on that.

The great myth is that Batman is a kid’s character. Look, just because you put him on your bed sheets or your underoos doesn’t make him a kid’s character. I have no such illusions when I walk around the house in my House of 1,000 Corpses bath robe.

The bottom line is (and this is surly to be a blog later on) I’m sick of the parental whining about violence in TV, film, and video games. They already have their borderline censorship warning labels and ratings systems and if they’re too dumb to figure those out then they shouldn’t be procreating anyway. PG-13 means it may not be suitable for anyone under 13. So, don’t take your eight-year-old son, Johnny Shitpants, to go see The Dark Knight and then whine on some message board that the film is too violent.

Just go get your tubes tied.

Tangent complete. Back to business.

Many people complained about Batman’s fighting style in Batman Begins, saying it was too quick cut and hard to follow. It looks like Nolan took a slight hint and this time gave Batman a more brutally advanced style. When Batman punches a thug, he doesn’t do it so much with martial arts precision, but with a deliberate full force punch, going for the knock out.

What it shows is the adaptability of Batman to his environment, modifying his tactics and techniques for a more successful outcome. The other change is the use of the Batpod, a miniature, motorcycle like vehicle that essentially branches out of the tumbler a.k.a. the Batmobile.





At first I saw the Batpod as gimmicky, a new vehicle to help sell toys to kids.

Boy, was I wrong.

It’s one of the coolest pieces in the film. I sat with a schoolboy smile watching Batman do his work on the Batpod, obliterating vehicles in his path, driving up walls, and underneath tractor trailers. Nolan and co. really took their time in crafting the action pieces, playing the stunts hard and fast, but intricately detailed and choreographed to produce the maximum effect.

One thing that seems to hardly get a mention in all TDK reviews is the music. Lest we forget that the film is scored by none other than Hans Zimmer (The Rock, Gladiator, Crimson Tide, etc) and James Newton Howard (Signs, Blood Diamond, Unbreakable), two of the absolute best composers working in film today, creating a collaborative score just as they did for Batman Begins.

The score is an amazing mix of different themes and textures, balancing the action and emotion in perfect harmony. You can feel where Zimmer begins and Newton Howard ends and where they meet in the middle. The score is every bit heroic, dark, tragic, and inspiring as the film itself, rattling a terrifying violin mixed with deep guitar thrusts whenever the Joker arrives on scene to symphonizing the challenges and ultimate victory of Batman. It is a powerhouse score and if you’ve never sat down and listened to one, checking this one out would be a great start.

So, with all that said, where does it leave The Dark Knight in the grand scheme of things? Is it a masterpiece? Is it brilliant? Is it Oscar-worthy? I think so, absolutely. I am the first to tout that the Oscars are bullshit, but when an organized award recognition event takes place to recognize the achievements in film and crowns a film like Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, I start to think that they might be coming to their senses.

As far as the whole Oscar concept goes, if that’s the measure of a great film, then I think The Dark Knight presents the greatest challenge so far this year to anything competing for best picture and certainly, as most tend to agree, best actor to Ledger for his uncompromising Joker.

But, more importantly, what The Dark Knight does is set a bar, built upon Batman Begins and recently by this summers Iron Man. That bar is placed squarely in the category of putting passion, integrity, and respect into a character which has a decade’s long legacy to uphold. Nolan and co. pay tribute by both respecting the original mythology and by building upon it without tearing away what makes it great. And they do this without being pretentious or trying to prove anything. They do it to make a great film that both fans and non-fans can appreciate and enjoy.

The comic book movie is here to stay. It has taken a long time to find its niche, but finally, they are here. The challenge is to sustain the greatness while not letting it get sour. Such are the challenges of any genre. Thankfully, there are filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau, and Sam Raimi to build and uphold the new standard.

I think most people will walk out of The Dark Knight with a thoughtful smile, feeling that sense of amazement at what they just saw. The film wows and haunts at the same time, pulling all the right emotional strings, leaving a lasting impression.

It’s the perfect mix of action and drama, a pitch perfect crime drama, a tale of tragic loss, a fall from grace, and an epic story of one man’s journey from an orphaned child to a vengeance seeking vigilante to, ultimately, a dark knight, a flawed hero who will sacrifice all he has to bring justice to the world.

MOVIE GRADE: A+

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I thought it was even BETTER than Batman and Robin! And you know how hard I am to please.

The whole experience was great...even down to making to BACK home and BACK to the theatre in under 35 minutes since YOU forgot our tickets at home.

-Cherie

Limey said...

Not to mention the underlying themes of choices and how the choices we make ultimately shape ourselves. The quote from Dent in the trailer - "Either you die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." is spot on.

Well done review, Shirey.

Zaki said...

Great review, Pablo. We're completely simpatico on this one.

Brian said...

Okay, so I finally got ahold of a Hajivision copy so I could read your review, and even in the midst of the requisite poor quality picture and audio, I couldn't help but think to myself during the viewing that I was witnessing not just one of the best films of the year, but possibly of all time. TDK is right up there with Empire Strikes Back in terms of upping the ante in a multi-film drama series.

You are spot on about the Michael Mann influence. It had elements of Heat and Collateral from the bank heist scene all the way to when Batman mercilessly fights his way through a plethora of club bodyguards to get to Eric Bana's character. I think the biggest factor to this film's brilliance is that the "Batman" motif is only incidental to the storyline, in a sense. You could remove the costumes and comic book origins from the characters and they would be just as compelling to watch.

Moreover, the film hits on some pretty big themes of our current times: namely, the war on terror, with Batman as the U.S. and the Gotham public standing in for the rest of the Western world, and even much of our own indifferent populace. Batman (the U.S.) takes the hard stands and makes the hard choices that many don't want to face, against a nihilistic evil (the Joker, standing in for Al Qaeda), who, as Alfred poignantly quips, "can't be reasoned or bargained with," but "only wants to watch the world burn." Also breached in the film are treatment of terrorist detainees, extraordinary rendition, the "ticking bomb" scenario of public safety vs. civil liberties, as well as public eavesdropping, aka the "wiretapping" issue, all in the name of security concerns.

I don't know if Chris Nolan set out to tackle such weighty issues with the latest Batflick, but he seemed to hit the nail on the head regardless. Batman does what he has to do, makes the ethically gray choices that no one else is willing to face, and is villified for it by an ungrateful public. (Sounds pretty familiar to these military ears).

As far as Ledger's performance goes, I was expecting him to dominate the film and chew up massive screen time based on all the hype I'd been reading, but to my pleasant surprise his performance (if one can even dare characterize it as merely a "performance") is so spot on and at all times appropriate to the storyline, that at times it feels as though his Joker is a wholly original character, never before seen on film. If he does not win an Oscar for this role, then the Oscars will have made themselves irrelevant and the tipping point tilt toward the full legitimacy of the MTV Movie Awards will be complete. Best Picture nomination for sure, or again, see prior comment.

The only criticisms I can even think of are the scene where Bruce/Batman goes to Honk Kong to do a snatch & grab of the rogue businessman (kept taking me back to MI:3 for recent similarity), as well as the high-tech wizardry I felt was done to excess at the film's final act (the cell phone eavesdropping mumbo jumbo). But per my earlier comparison to the GWOT, these scenes are necessary to show what extraordinary lengths the Dark Knight will go to in order to protect civilization as we know it.

Civil libertarians argue incessantly that no compromises can be made with regards to such rights, yet history has repeatedly shown that in times of national crisis our individual rights have been rolled back at times only to be fully restored once the storm has passed. (See Lincoln, FDR, Truman, Bush, et al.) Thanks ACLU, but we got habeas corpus back without your help about 150 years ago. But thanks for nothing in terms of the recent 2nd Amendment victory. I'll give the benefit of the doubt and allow that perhaps your copy of the Constitution is missing a page.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, The Dark Knight.

One-word movie review:

STELLAR.

Brian said...

Holy Vulcan mindmeld, Batman! Look what I just found in the WSJ:

What Bush and Batman Have in Common

Now while I wouldn't go so far as to compare President Bush himself to Batman, I do feel that it's Bush's actions and steadfastness as embodied through the country itself that are comparable to the film's moral dilemmas.

Anyway, interesting stuff.

Paul said...

Great comments, Brian...I'm glad you enjoyed the movie...I am very aware that you are tough to please on the movie front, so it means something when you are genuinely intrigued by a movie.

I agree on many fronts with the "current" feel of the film. Christopher Nolan has expressed that it was his intent to mirror the current state-of-mind in the world...I think it definitely evokes those sentiments.

I have seen the movie twice and plan to hit a homer with the third.

The movie really seems to have reached the masses, which is great. While getting my weekly comic fix last weekend, there were two kids, about 14 or 15 that had just seen the movie and wanted to get into the Batman comics.

While I listened the comic shop owners lead them in all the wrong directions, I had to smile, because it so reminded me of myself when the first Batman came out in 1989 and I bought my first Batman comic (Detective Comics #276, part 3 of the famed Batman Year Two saga) and it was brilliant.

I piped up and told them to check out year two and it felt kind of good in a dorky, cheesy way. While I waited to check out I did the math and realized that I have been reading comics for more than 15 years. I'm so fine with that.

It's such a great medium with kick ass stories, awesome art, and they're just great visionary pieces of work. It's pretty kick ass to see some kids pursuing the interest as most of them today are sucking the video game teet.

Anyways, that's my little story. Victory for the comic nerds! Rejoice!