Friday, July 18, 2008

REVIEW: THE DARK KNIGHT - ***1/2

WARNING: Spoilers lie ahead. Tread carefully.

My ex-roommate rarely used his Hollywood connections to bring me anywhere cool but two weeks ago he passed along the opportunity of a lifetime… a chance to see The Dark Knight early, in glorious IMAX, with a post-screening Q+A with producers Charles Roven and Emma Thomas and co-writer/director Christopher Nolan. In short, it pretty much lived up to the hype.

Forget Tony Stark. Forget Speed Racer. Forget Prince Caspian. Forget Indiana Jones (oh wait, you already did…). Forget Carrie Bradshaw and Po the Panda and Bruce Banner and Maxwell Smart. Hell, forget about Wall-E! Because this summer belongs to one man, one myth, one legend: The Joker. Excuse me, The Joker as imagined and brought to life by the late Heath Ledger, whose remarkable performance is worthy of all the Oscar buzz and in the process, somehow makes his tragic death that much more sad. It’s true that by the end of the movie, Ledger’s Joker has become one of cinema’s most iconic bogeymen, up there with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs and Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men.

Ledger’s performance is scary-good on its own merit but his overdose makes it all the more haunting. I hate to go off point here so early but you really can’t discuss this film without talking about Heath’s death. A lot of really famous, influential artists and performers have died recently including but not limited to Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack, Stan Winston and George Carlin. It’s always terrible news to hear and my condolences go out to all of their families, friends and fans, but I’m in my 20’s and those guys all meant something truly special to the generations before me. I was a fan of all of their work but it didn’t really affect me on that personal level. Heath’s death was something different.

I’d actually met Heath once while working for the NYU paper. It was a press junket for Brokeback Mountain. He was a really nice guy. He went around and shook everyone’s hand at the table and looked them in the eye and asked them their names. And whether or not he was just acting nice to be polite to us pen-pushers (after all, he was a pretty great actor), it seemed like he genuinely listened and cared. You know how sometimes when you meet people you know you’re never going to see again and you exchange names but it goes in one ear and out the other. Well Heath wasn’t like that. Imagine that, a movie star who actually cares. Anyways, he spoke about how much Brokeback Mountain meant to him and I think we all understood what a risky role it was to take. The career ramifications it could have for a leading man in Hollywood. Personally I thought it was a beautiful film and the only ramification I saw was an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Anyways, it was probably a 20-minute interview and I remember only getting one or two questions in because there were a lot of veteran sharks around the table, but it was an incredible experience because I knew from the tears on my shirt at the end of Brokeback that I’d just witnessed an incredible performance that in my mind, deserved an Oscar. (Plus, Toby Jones’ Capote was better than Philip Seymour Hoffman’s!)

This was a guy with an incredible future ahead of him, not just career-wise, but with his fiancĂ© Michelle Williams and their daughter Matilda. I actually cried when I heard he died. I was speechless. It just didn’t make any sense. It still doesn’t. I’m just glad I got to meet him. And I’m glad he gave us The Joker to remember him by. Why so serious? Because seriously, Ledger gives an unforgettable performance that’s chiefly responsible for making The Dark Knight the best Batman film ever.

The Dark Knight starts off with the prologue we’ve all already seen by now, a stunning bank heist starring The Joker as one of his own henchmen. Now I’m not very political but I believe it was Barack Obama who recently said that being a good American is about having faith in your fellow man. Well The Joker doesn’t have faith in his fellow man. He sees the worst in everybody, including the lazy, greedy colleagues in crime whose only concern is money. The Joker is about the principle of crime. He gets pleasure from senseless debauchery. The Joker is The Man With the Plan to be sure, but for someone who wants to harness the seething rage of Gotham’s criminal element and concentrate it on something larger itself (anarchy), he sure does pride himself on having no plan at all. He just… does. And that’s the theme of The Dark Knight. What would you do if the world ran amok? Would you give in to the chaos and join it or would you fight back in the name of justice, even if it meant your life?

The actual plot of the film is a little dense so I’m not going to say much about it, but suffice to say, The Dark Knight deals with the grey area in the spectrum of justice, where black and white and the phrase “by the book” just doesn’t cut it. It’s about how a city needs its heroes, and more important, how it needs the right ones wearing the right colors. Batman is ‘The Dark Knight,’ but Gotham’s White Knight is District Attorney Harvey Dent as played by Aaron Eckhart in a nearly-as-incredible performance that will almost surely be overshadowed by Ledger’s, unfairly or not. He puts Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face to shame and let me tell you something gang, Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones ain’t too shabby an actor. To be honest, The Dark Knight is really about Harvey Dent and his fall from grace. It’s his story arc, his revenge story, his romance that we’re ultimately involved in. Batman and The Joker just provide the appropriate pushes to move his narrative along.

Now as for the title character, Christian Bale just may be the best Bruce Wayne ever, imbuing the man behind the mask with both a cocky swagger and a quiet vulnerability. Then again, Bruce’s mood swings are all part of Batman’s charm. It’s clear more he’s more comfortable as the playboy billionaire, and of all the actors to play the character on the bigscreen, he looks like he’s having the most fun without the cape. But while he’s certainly better than Val Kilmer and George Clooney, I still think Michael Keaton rocked the suit the hardest. For starters, Bale’s voice as Batman is kind of ridiculous. I don’t know how people can deny this fact. Bale is one of the greatest actors of his generation but he snarls every line in this growling baritone like he’s Bruce’s cousin, John Wayne or something. Bale is still solid in the role but even as the straight man it seems like he’s settling for triples instead of swinging for the fences.

Maybe it’s the costume that hides his expression but there’s always been something kind of cold about Bale’s Batman. I think Tobey Maguire’s done a much better job in the Spider-Man series except for that ill-advised Saturday Night Fever moment in the last one. Maybe it’s because this Batman hasn’t had a great romantic interest since Katie Holmes was the weak link of Begins and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel is more into blondes than brunettes. Either way, Ledger and Eckhart clearly overshadow Bale, although I acknowledge they get much juicier material to chew on while Bale makes good with the scraps he’s given, selling the occasional one-liner but for the most part, unable to escape being background noise in his own movie.

I guess it’s tough when you’re acting opposite Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman. Jesus, those are some of the best character actors alive. What a cast! Freeman does the same old song and dance more or less but Caine has some choice moments to work with and Oldman is fantastic as Gordon despite being saddled with a quasi-lame plot twist. His performance goes a long way toward selling the finale, which by the way, is better than the lackluster climax of Batman Begins but still leaves something to be desired. But more on the ending in a moment.

As for the rest of the cast, Katie Holmes would probably look better in IMAX but there’s no doubt that Maggie Gyllenhaal is an improvement in the thankless role of ADA Rachel Dawes. She’s much more womanly where as Katie always felt too young for Bale and lacked that combination of mature intelligence and elegant beauty needed to play Rachel. And while he’s not quite as good as Tom Wilkinson (who seems bound to add a Sir to his name soon), the habitually underrated Eric Roberts is also strong as Mob boss Salvatore Maroni. Elsewhere, Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow makes a brief, meaningless cameo that could’ve been worked in better. Lost’s Nestor Carbonell looks like he’s wearing eyeliner. Anthony Michael Hall is wasted. Colin McFarlane’s Commissioner Loeb has a nice if all-too-predictable scene opposite Oldman. Tiny Lister makes the most of his bit part as a criminal who’s tasked with a significant decision and William Fichtner is great as a bank manager.

The film also stars Joshua Harto as a conniving Wayne Enterprises staffer who learns Batman’s identity and attempts to blackmail him on the news; Chin Han as a potential business partner of Wayne’s who is really an accountant helping the Mob hide its money while fortifying his empire in China; David Dastmalchian as one of Joker’s crazy-eyed henchmen; Andy Luther as a good cop who gets a bad idea, and a couple of crooked cops to keep things interesting as we try to deduce who is on Maroni’s payroll.

Now back to that pesky ending. It’s not entirely satisfying, it feels a little rushed and as a result, it’s just a tad disappointing considering the rest of the film. The Joker is literally left hanging and the Two-Face’s arc lacks a meaningful payoff. We don’t care about his tragic fall like we should. It also complicates potential directions for the inevitable sequel to go, and while Nolan may not have compromised his artistic integrity for the sake of a sequel-tease, we’re left with questions that a sequel can’t possibly answer. I suppose the ending is true to Nolan’s original artistic intention but I feel like the villains’ fates should’ve been reversed since I can’t imagine them recasting The Joker and it would seem silly to address his fate after the fact. The ending also raises questions as to what will become of Gordon’s son, played by Nathan Gamble. While the will-he-or-won’t-he climax raises genuine suspense and creates real dramatic tension, I found myself wishing Nolan had really gone for it and killed the boy. Rachel’s death is a great twist you don’t see coming but I feel like if you’re gonna kill off the love interest that early anyway, you might as take the brutality to the max. There’s another instance where you feel the restrictions of the PG-13 rating and the studio’s insistence that the film be friendly for summer tentpole-sized audiences of all ages despite Nolan’s natural inclination towards darkness. It’s when The Joker slashes Gamble and the camera cuts away. And it’s not that we need the gore to know how vicious and fearless The Joker is, but it feels a little too Charmin’ soft. I’ve also read multiple reviews comparing The Dark Knight to Heat but the end doesn’t resonate nearly as much and it certainly had the chance to since like Hanna and McCauley, Batman and The Joker need each other. Bruce Wayne needs to see that Bat signal in the sky. He needs to feel wanted. It’s hard having a purpose when you’re already a billionaire. What’s his goal as a businessman, to accumulate more unnecessary wealth? It’s only necessary to continue funding Batman’s technology. And The Joker needs Batman because like all rebels, he’s really just looking for someone strong enough to challenge his authority. . But ultimately The Joker serves as a mirror, showing Batman and Dent who they really are and what really lurks inside their broken hearts.

Other random thoughts on the film. We’ll start with the not-so-good. The whole story feels a little padded and too dense and there are times when the screenplay becomes a little too bogged down in superfluous cop talk that adds very little to the actual story. There’s also a sonar gimmick that looks kinda cool but seems more Bond than Batman to me, and there were times I found the whole idea kind of annoying, although there’s a great visual payoff in the Batlair where Lucius Fox pulls the plug on a wall of surveillance monitors. The action sequences are all gripping stuff, although there are some moments that get lost in the shuffle, whether it be the frenetic editing or the choreography itself, most noticeably in the nightclub scene where Batman is just tossing bodies left and right but you can hardly see anything in the club.. Besides the Heat-esque opening, there’s a spectacularly staged car chase with a great moment where a SWAT vehicle gets run off the highway into the water. Cross-dressing Joker R.N. is absolutely terrifying (as are the shaky-cam video clips on the news) and the hospital scene as a whole is really well done, especially the reveal of Two-Face. The Joker’s interrogation scenes are all awesome. The Hong Kong sequence is dizzying and amazing, even better than Mission: Impossible III’s eye-opening aerial sequence thanks to a truly great escape that had our audience applauding.. To truly appreciate the epic scope of this 2 and a half-hour film, you simply must see it in IMAX. I don’t care how many shows are sold-out, just wait at the theater until your first viewing is presented in the majesty of IMAX. The brooding cinematography by Wally Pfister is gorgeous and the rousing score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer perfectly captures the mood of the film, especially toward the end.

With The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan has weaved an epic crime saga and raised the bar for superhero movies, Hats off to everyone involved in this thrilling achievement including David S. Goyer and Jonah Nolan who, forgiving my minor criticisms above, co-wrote the for-the-most-part excellent story and screenplay, respectively, but especially Heath Ledger, who will be sorely, sorely missed by many, but particularly by this film lover. R.I.P.

2 comments:

Nick Plowman said...

Yeah I dug TDK, and Ledger. Saw it at a IMAX press screening myself, just no Q+A....oh well.


As awesome as The Joker was, Carrie Bradshaw is scarier...

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