Saturday, July 19, 2008
film review: the dark knight
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I went to see the new Batman film, The Dark Knight. This is not a traditional film review, per se- but one with a commentary. Lord knows, you've probably seen plenty of the film reviews out there. Besides being an all- around film fan and classic film geek, I was a comic book geek in a previous life. Long-time Shelfers will remember how I love the Superman flicks, and was excited about Superman Returns. In the end, however, I was ultimately disappointed but what the film wasn't. I still think Superman II was the last great one. I liked some of the Batman films, but to me some of the animated series caught the character much better than the flicks. Tim Burton did OK with the first one, but everything after that was like watching your favorite Snowman melt: slowly, but surely, everything you liked about it just ebbed away.
Then came Batman Begins, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It still felt like it lacked...something, but it was definitely a step in the right direction. No apologies for taking out the bad guys, an origin story and a great cast. In fact, Christian Bale was great and Gary Oldman and Michael Caine were inspired bits of casting. Now comes The Dark Knight. I am not trying to be over the top, or anything, but when I say it's a masterpiece, I am using my words carefully. Forget all the posthumous Oscar talk for now- who knows how the Academy will look at this film, if they even consider it, given their recent track record. For now, just forget about the Oscars, and just think about this- The Dark Knight is everything a Batman movie should be, and everything the previous Batman flicks didn't get right.
Director Christopher Nolan has pulled together one of the best films, not just superhero film, of the year. The Dark Knight, like the great Iron Man flick, ventures out of the comfort zone and forces the viewer to think and to ask questions. Sure it provides the great suit and great gadgets, but these two films have a hero who has to ask - what being a really hero is all about and what defines making a difference. The Dark Knight has stepped up the superhero drama and provided a test of wills in a real world setting about real world problems. You cannot watch the film and not think about the post 9/11 world we live in and how we fight the bad guys who cannot be reasoned with, and the bad guys within who can be bought off. In fact, there is no stylistic, crazy looking Gotham city. The backdrop looks like every other huge metropolis. Perhaps that was the point- not to distinguish Gotham apart as a dark fantasy land, but to reinforce the idea that this could be, and in a way has been, us.
There is no Batcave this time (Wayne Manor burned down last film, and they allude to the fact that it is being rebuilt in this one), there is no flashbacks to Bruce Wayne's tragic past. He is Batman- he knows what he is and what he has to do. He also makes the hard choices and takes the consequences when lesser men cannot. To paraphrase Oldman's Police Commissioner Jim Gordon at the end of the film: "Batman is not the hero Gotham wants, but the hero Gotham needs." I know some commentators and politicos have been talking about the film in relation to terrorism and Bush, etc. I don't know how else to say it, but some of them are right. I don't want to make this political, but the film is very much tapped into where we are now, but also still evokes ageless themes. The Dark Knight presents some of the same choices that our real world is throwing at us right now- do we appease a madman, because he says he'll stop killing? Can we truly handle the sacrifices necessary to stop the madmen and bad guys of the world? Can we have faith in our fellow man when it seems everyone is out for themselves? Can we allow the good guys to do their job, even if it isn't quick and neat without casualties? What kind of world do we really want to live in and is peace merely the absence of violence- or is it a peace of heart, being able to live strong making the right choices and knowing that good will out in the end- if we stand up for it? In a way, The Dark Knight continues the themes and discussion started by 300.
Heath Ledger's Joker is one of the best performances where an actor has taken an iconic part and completely inhabited it and made you forget anyone else had the role before. All of the praise is warranted- he is the standout performance in the film. But then again - so was Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon, Michael Caine as Alfred and Morgan Freedman as Lucius Fox. Heck, everyone was great- but this was a turning point to be sure for Ledger. If this is where he was headed as an actor, then we lost a great one on the cusp of some really great performances. His Joker not only redefines the role and reinforces what he was conceived to be, but it also is the perfect foil to Bale's Batman. This is one of those rare instances where I disagree with Leonard Maltin's take and agree with Roger Ebert (read their reviews). The evil that the Joker represents isn't about money, or even power- it is uncompromising. It is destructive and resents that which is good. Even the Joker acknowledges to Batman that he doesn't have any rules- he is chaos personified. He even manages to take the crusading district attorney Harvey Dent, (Aaron Eckhart) and push him to the brink and create the classic villain Two-Face.
But trust me this isn't a "Batman versus several costumed villains" flick. Batman isn't about the camp- it's more about the heart and philosophy of good versus evil; personified by the choices and actions of the characters- not their costumes. The best way I can describe it is- the story and flow is organic. Even the introduction and story arc of Two Face is integral and organic to the larger story. The Joker is the real villain, and taking down evil isn't going to be pretty. Some particular scenes are very strong. Although Ledger dominates every scene he's in, Oldman is a fantastic presence. Towards the big climax of the film, even the average citizen making a life and death choice in the ferry scene is so powerful as to have you wondering how things are going to play out. Look for a great small performance by Tommy "Tiny" Lister as a prisoner on the ferry that will have you second guessing what you think will happen.
The rest of the supporting cast is great. Nolan not only pulled off a brilliant directing job and screen writing job (with his brother Jonathan), but he inhabits the cast with some great performances. These are pros turning in a great job in small roles: Anthony Michael Hall, Michael Jai White, William Fitchner, Nestor Carbonell, Monique Curnen and Eric Roberts. (Yep, that Eric Roberts. Excellent as a mob boss.) All in all it is a fantastic movie. One worth seeing several times, and one that deserves a great DVD release with all the bells and whistles so you can enjoy it again and again.
It's not often that I step out of my comfort zone of classic film and write about current flicks, but this film warranted it. I am really enjoying this year's popcorn cruncher bonanza. Indy 4 and Iron Man were great rides (although I have qualms about the Indy 4 ending) and I am excited to see Hellboy 2 (another favorite), The Mummy, Tropic Thunder, and even the new Bond flick Quantum of Solace, which had a great trailer attached to The Dark Knight. (Two other great flicks that had trailers before The Dark Knight that look to be great are Ridley Scott's Body of Lies and Zach Snyder's Watchmen.) It's just turning out to be a fun and action packed popcorn movie summer.
The Dark Knight is a solid 5 stars- go see it. In the theater. You won't be disappointed.
Some men aren't looking for anything logical. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.