Tuesday, July 29, 2008

My Review of "The Dark Knight"

I know this is overdue, but...I was *doing research*, as I saw it 3 times...Basically, please, please, please see this movie. It's that good.

*Non Spoiler Review*
The Dark Knight is an excellent film and I would highly recommend it to anyone, comic book fans especially but movie-goers in general. It easily outclasses any of the current crop of superhero movies: Iron Man, Hellboy 2, Hulk, etc., and that's not to downplay any of those films (Iron Man especially is quite good) but rather to give you a sense of perspective on how good it is. Only time can tell, but I believe director Christopher Nolan and co. *may* have knocked off Spider-Man 2 as the greatest comic-book/superhero movie of all time.

It is long, occasionally complex (sometimes too complex for its own good) and especially on repeat viewing, has a number of readily apparent conceits and plot holes. Regardless, it is *still* one of the best films of the year, and the only one I've seen so far that I would recommend to anyone.

Rating: Five Bats out of Five

*Spoiler Review*
OH. MY. GOD. This film is unbelievable. It's soooooooooooooooooooooo good. Let me put this in perspective: Tim Burton's "Batman" in 1989 was considered revolutionary, dark, edgy, and grittily realistic. It obliterated the campy 60's version of Batman so much that people rarely talked about it anymore.
"Batman Begins" had the advantage of following some truly terrible Schumacher-helmed bat-flicks, but it was still good enough that watching "Batman '89" became painful because of its cartoonishness. The Goyer-and-Nolan script was clever, realistic, true to the tone (if not the content) of the comics, and occasionally brutal.
Flash forward three years. "The Dark Knight" is so good, so real, so dark, that "Batman Begins" feels cartoonish (ninjas? Qui-Gon Jinn as Ra's? a monorail? that ridiculous water vaporizer thing?).
I will try to encompass TDK's goodness in three perspectives: as a filmgoer, as a film critic, and (of course) as a fanboy/geek.

FILMGOER
The Dark Knight is slick, well-shot, and brilliantly acted by each of the performers. The script is sharp and doesn't pull any punches; it is genuinely enjoyable to watch because you keep expecting it to follow the conventional 3-act-structure of most action movies, and it doesn't (my friend AJ kept asking, "Wait, is that the end?") It doesn't take the easy way out of anything, and when it appears to, it's just setting you up for another gut punch. It is unpredictable but well-structured, keeps you guessing but never wondering "How?" (although there are a LOT of plot holes), and creates tension even in the absence of action (although there is plenty of that).
Moreover, TDK isn't dark merely for the sake of being dark; everything and everyone (save for the insane Joker, of course) has a motive for being the way they are and doing the things they do, including, most importantly, Two-Face and Batman. You can empathize with them, you can feel their emotions, and you can feel the way they are forced into action.
The actors all do a great job, right down to the bit parts like Gordon's wife and all of the detectives in the MCU. Ledger, of course, is amazing, and more importantly, fun to watch. His part is well written and his delivery of some of the Joker's quips actually *are* funny.
And his charisma is magnetic; Gary Oldman, Christian Bale, and Aaron Eckhart are all giving performance-of-their-lives brilliance, and *you don't notice* because you're so focused on what the Joker is going to do next.
Finally, the movie is chock-full of set pieces, jaw-dropping shots, and "chill scenes". Again, compare to Batman Begins, which had maybe 3-5 legitimate "chill scenes": Ducard talking by the fireplace, the introduction of Batman as a horror-film-type slasher, Dr. Crane's fear gas, anytime the Tumbler is onscreen, and the shot of Batman flying over the narrows through steam, eyes lit like a demon. TDK, in contrast, has so many stunning shots that they run together: as an example, the extradition of Lau would count as the major setpiece for a Mission Impossible movie, but in TDK it's presented as a teaser 20 minutes in, and is forgotten midway through the movie. Finally, there are three unbelievable scenes: Batman's interrogation of the Joker, the Joker's conversation with Harvey/Two-Face, and the two ferries scene, which I can't in good conscience spoil, all of which match or surpass the best moments in any comic book film, including the "passing over hands" of Spider-Man 2, which was my previous top comic-book-film moment.
The cons are that you have to ignore some pretty egregious errors of logic and logistics (easily done on first showing, not so much on the second and third) like why does Batman just leave the Joker at a party? Where is the Joker's supply of goons coming from and how do they all get to the right place at the right time in the bare time provided? How does Harvey get out and get the same suit he was wearing when he was burnt when the Joker blows up the hospital right after exiting the room? But the movie is good enough and smooth enough you never stop to think about that.

FILM CRITIC
This is the kind of movie that even critics have to love. There's a substantial amount of philosophy that went into this movie, and themes of existentialism and anarchy that would fit right in with an avant-garde art film like Memento. Some reviewers have commented on the post-9/11 mentality of the film; to avoid talking about the politics of it I will not go there but you can certainly see it. More than just talking about the issues of that disaster and its aftermath, TDK deals with the deeper emotions of it: fear, loss, vengeance, irrationality, outcry, scapegoating, questioning of the meaning and purpose of one's life (liberals looking for short-sighted cheap symbolism, however, will be placated with a nice backhanded slant at the Patriot Act).
The Joker is superb. He is written as the kind of anarchist that Alan Moore's V or Anthony Burgess' Alex would be envious of, and has some brilliant, brilliant moments: the pencil, the burning of the money, driving the truck, his conversations with Harvey and the Batman, all the mind-f*** tricks he plays on everyone, the endless stories about where he got his scar...and he is played by Heath with both enormous, crackling energy and a degree of subtlety that is surprising, especially on repeat viewing: beyond merely the tics and the small gestures that establish his character (e.g. the lip-licking, the hair, the twitchiness, the hand-soaping in the hospital), Ledger creates impossible layers to what should be a black hole of a performance: the Joker is a simple agent of chaos, with no origin or background, and yet.... Watch closely the way his voice changes when he is accused of being crazy; the way he teases and pokes and prods at the detective who is guarding him; the way you can *feel* him making up the stories about the scars on the spot yet still be sold on them; watch him shove others in the way of harm and the looks he gives to the party-goers. It's amazing to watch, and given Ledger's untimely and unfortunate death, the Academy might even reward him for it.
Even as I gush about the shots and the action sequences in the movie, the best parts are in the conversations: the rooftop tussling between Batman, Harvey, and Gordon, Gordon's speeches, Harvey's speech to the reporters, Bruce Wayne shifting from faux playboy to genuine supporter in his speech at the party, every Batman/Joker encounter, the perfectly timed, written ,and played Two-Face/Joker encounter...it's perfect coaching and perfect players, with a few exceptions (especially towards the end, where you wonder if an extra half-hour of scenes with Two-Face might have helped develop his character's tragic arc a little more instead of feeling rushed through what should be a grand, almost Shakespearean fall).
The cinematography and music are spot-on. I'm not sure if the shift from burnt-orangish coloration to the cold blue of this new Gotham (which does do more than its share of resembling Chicago) was intentional or not, but from the opening scene it works well. The music doesn't overwhelm and is almost unperceived but hangs in the background like a pulse or a heartbeat, the heartbeat of the city, which goes well with the gorgeous establishing shots of Gotham (if possible, see this baby in IMAX)
Finally, because of the length of the movie, Nolan and co. have really expanded the scope of the setting. Reviewers have said it should be called "City of Gotham" or "James Michener's Gotham" and to a certain extent, they're right. The way Nolan fleshes out the supporting cast, their hopes, fears, and stories, and the brilliant casting of everyone from Gordon and Harvey (arguably the best of the lot) all the way down to William Fichtner's cameo as the cold-hearted bank manager, is wonderful; more than just advancing the plot, these roles all give the movie a sense of depth that is often missing from action movies where typically everyone knows everyone. And, again, I cannot emphasize how good the casting is: Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, two top-notch actors who give top-notch performances, don't stand out because *everyone* is playing at that level.
There are a few flaws: although Goyer (a fine writer in and of himself but not at the same level as the Nolans) didn't write the script directly, there are a few of his fingerprints around (the line "I'm not wearing hockey pads" irritated me the most) and some of the CSI-ish moments really detract from the realism (the bullet, the bomb in the body, the sonar system etc.). The ending feels rushed and though the editing is competent, too much feels like it is going on at once; crucial events lose a sense of weight because we're too busy cutting between clowns, sonar-vision, and Harvey. But the flaws are almost imperceptible on first viewing because it is so smooth and compellingly watchable.
The bar has been raised for comic-book films; beyond besting "Batman Begins", "Iron Man", the "Spider-man" series and many other pulp films, TDK stands comfortably with crime dramas like "Heat", "Se7en", and "Traffic". It has both honored and transcended its roots. Somewhere, Bill Finger is proud. And Bob Kane wants his money.

FANBOY
Alfred: My....God....
Remember Mask of the Phantasm? That line is how you feel throughout this whole film.
Nolan and company could easily have made this a pure-art, independent kind of film, but thankfully, the studios and David Goyer kept them from doing so or from turning it into one of those "edgy" Frank Miller/Darren-Arronofsky-on-"Batman: Year One" kind of films that tries to re-invent the wheel.
Imagine, if you will, Chris and Johnny Nolan sitting down, taking Year One, The Long Halloween, The Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum, the Dark Knight Returns, and many of Denny O'Neil's issues from the 70s, and boiling them down to produce a serum of all the best themes, iconic images, and philosophies from those graphic novels, without any of comic-bookiness of them. You'd be kinda pleased, no? Well, they did that, and then they went back and found as many nuggets of badassness from the comic books and sprinkled them over the stew. It's hard to imagine us wanting more than what they give:

The rooftop conversation from The Long Halloween? Check. "If I have a past, I'd like it to be multiple choice"? Check. Joker cards? Check. Sons of the Batman? Check. Batman with lenses? Check (if for no other reason than to show us fanboys and Sandy Collora how stupid it would look full-time). Bruce the Pimp? Check. Harvey, Apollo, the golden boy? Check (hell, they even include the line "I believe in Harvey Dent"). Tumbler destroyed and replaced? Check. Gordon having fun with Bullock, Montoya, et. al? Check (although they had to change the names since everyone dies). Alfred as producer of witticism? Check. The Mob as a fragile, internally splintered organization? Check. Batman: the Dark Detective? Check, check, check (even though it stretched reality, the gunshot and the databases were AWESOME). Setup for the next film as a Year One/The Dark Knight Returns redux? Check. City politicking? Check. Freaks and geeks? Check (no Alberto Falcone, though). Sick schemes of the Joker? Check. Frank-Miller-style media? Check. Batman as part of a team, a larger scheme? Check. Arrrogant film critics humbled into admitting it's a good movie? Check. $250+ million to convince Warner (and Hollywood) that good movies will make money? Check. $250+ million to get everyone to come back for another one? Check.
And the Joker, of course. This is going to become *the* definitive Joker. Remember how you felt at the end of "The Usual Suspects"? Or during "Silence of the Lambs" during the Clarice-Lecter conversations? That's how you feel...every moment Ledger is onscreen. And sometimes when he's not.
There are enough "Holy $#!^" moments to make any fanboy choke up with joy. The opening bank robbery. The pencil. The flying. The extradition. The chase sequence. The tumbling of the giant 18-wheeler. The burning of Harvey. The giant pile of burning money (another reference to The Long Halloween...). The Joker's entrance to the party. The endless, gleeful destruction. The parade. I could go on and on and on and on...
There was one, and only one thing that bugged me: Harvey/Two-Face got shortchanged. I saw a brief glimpse of the "I thought you were dead" "Half" scene online (cut to avoid the reveal and was hoping that would be A) the end of the film, setting up a sweet third movie and B) the first reveal of Two-Face. As it is, it's more realistic but misses some dramatic tension (not that the movie needs any more). Also, I was hoping/praying that Harvey would pull an Arkham Asylum and have some hope of redemption with the coin. But no film is perfect- yet TDK is damn, damn close.

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