Monday, November 15, 2010

"The Dark Knight" - director Nolan strikes again

Their turn on "So You Think You Can Dance" was provocative, but brief.

Batman gets close to reaching his goal of stopping Gotham's crime problem. Once he does this, he can hand the reins off to trustworthy authorities who will help restore the city. Meanwhile, everyone feels the pressure from collapsing mob empires, as well as a new villain who's bent on destruction at all costs. What's left to say about this critical and commercial megahit?

Putting it simply, it's a fantastic action film. Everything about the movie is an enjoyable pleasure for a movie-goer, whether you like big fight scenes, snappy dialogue in a fleshed-out world, or a visceral story that is as psychological as it physical. I can't really argue if people say it's the better picture, but I still prefer "Batman Begins" because the pace was more even and the emotional tone affected me more deeply.  It's like comparing an "A++" to an "A+."

The action is great, the actors are fine. "The Dark Knight" has a fun and emotional tale with brilliant visuals to stun you all the while. Scenes effectively use near-dark lighting, IMAX footage gives a stunning depth to the scenery, the city-scape is magnificent, and the fx are smooth. Heath Ledger's part is a thoughtful and entertaining masterpiece. Your jaw drops at the poor (dead at 28) guy's transformation, and the exceptional writing that backs him. It's wonderful.

Above all, you have to keep in mind that this movie can occasionally be scary, much as "Batman Begins" could. And it's much darker than its predecessor... I won't spend more time harping about what a gift it is. I'll actually discuss the picture: PLOT SPOILERS FROM HERE ON

Christian Bale's Batman is a well-acted, but slightly "off," part of the film. The City of Gotham is the real protagonist here - the movie audiences got tells a story about one Place, and the Big Bat is just one of the most important people in it. Astoundingly, this brings "TDK" close to classic Film Epics like "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Spartacus." Closer to them, in my opinion, than supposed successors like "Gladiator." Bale's lead doesn't receive much more screen time than the minor roles, though, so he feels sort of under-served.

That's not to say the writers and actor didn't make the most of his limited time. Bruce Wayne is a man who's proudly approaching the finish line - he's backed the mob into a corner, and surely he'll be able to retire and live his life. He's happy, confident, and starting to make plans for his future. They presumably involve having romance and athletic sex with his childhood crush, Rachel (now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal)

Rachel, the ADA, has dated each DA in each Batman film.  Um, problems? 

But like any good mythological story, success doesn't come easily, minds will be messed with, and the hero won't get to rest until he's been exhausted. Bruce Wayne's hopefulness in regaining a normal existence is introduced throughout his brief appearances; this makes saving his hometown from corruption and decay even more emotionally complicated. Best of all, it's more engrossing for an audience. It's weird to see so little Batman in a Batman movie, but it's still done well...

There's a worse problem with the film's pacing, however. It's an impressive achievement - and a great nod to its comic book origins - that "TDK" gets in such a large and varied cast of characters. Some place the blame there, saying the film was cluttered by spreading attention over multiple villains. I think the problem is a villain-related subplot, a screw up that was handled very well: the River sequence near the end.

When the city is presented with a horrible lose-lose scenario, it's a major move by the film's Big Bad Guy. The problem presented to Gotham (and its best vigilante) is appropriate to the action and themes of the story and roles. But cutting back to the River sequence breaks up the arc of Harvey Dent (nicely handled by Aaron Eckhart), and interferes with our superhero's big play for victory.

Sadly, if you're like me, you also notice - and then can't un-notice - a big problem with the problem. SERIOUS PLOT SPOILERS FROM NOW. THIS MOVIE IS GOOD, SO WATCH IT AND COME BACK! Part of The Joker's sick plan gives a ferry full of convicts and a ferry full of commuters triggers to bombs each other's boats. All the passengers freak out and agonize over the dilemma: to commit murder before a midnight deadline, if one bomb doesn't go off, they all do.

Throughout this, many citizens shout that it's an easy choice because one vessel is full of murderers, thugs, and mobsters. "They're scum! They made their choice!" But that boat is also full of police officers who are transporting those criminals and who the hell wouldn't be bothered by killing cops to save their own life?! There's no moral paradox about that. So this (thematically-appropriate) 15? minute sequence first breaks up the emotional turmoil and momentum of TDK's two other climaxes; then it also fails an easy logic test. They could've gotten mileage out of truly ruthless commuters, but...

Other complaints feel almost petty in the face of such a good movie. The voice Batman uses sounds over the top, 'til it's almost silly. The Joker's plans work a bit too smoothly/easily and are probably aided by absurd luck. Harvey Dent's condition and development are handled far too quickly/easily. The good guys think Gotham's spirit is very fragile, and the sacrifices made to defend it had easy alternatives. Batman might get stalled by attack dogs once, but a $2 high-pitch whistle is smaller than a grappling gun.

If Batman starts talking 80's music, run like hell.

Yet these are actually very small flaws in a movie that constantly impresses. You'll notice this because you'll be utterly entertained throughout the 2 & 1/2 hour running time. Even better, the film is a real, well-written and -crafted work of art with themes, a thesis, and many stylistic choices.

For one thing, you can tell a lot about your hero by what kind of villains he has. Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy rocks) uses fear against his enemies, just like Bruce Wayne. Heather Ledger plays a man who's inventive, ruthless, unyielding, and effective - just like Bruce Wayne.

The worst sign for our hero is that Batman's biggest enemies are all crazy people. Look again at Bruce's traumatic past and eccentric lifestyle. Is he insane too? Is he just the sanest guy in the asylum?

Like a well-written novel, the dominant themes in "TDK" are emotional: anger, despair, and hope. The mob's drive to stop Batman is as vicious as their hatred for the new competition. Eckhart virtually stalks Bale, as both race to instill their city with hope and make a future with the same woman. Pretty much everyone in this movie loses something.

The emotional themes show through in The Joker as well. Ledger and Nolan's choices gave the role an incredible sense of annoyed weariness. The lines make it clear: The Joker hates the mob, claiming success has made them lazy and boring.

The Joker's superiority complex is clear - he's one of the few bad guys that with a passion for crime. There's nothing inspired in bribing the cops, or sitting at a table to collect your extortion profits. He believes he's a hungry artist in a world full of utter amateurs.  He says it simply, "this city deserves a better class of criminal."

The Joker is so tired of it all that he's only half-trying - you can see it in his costume. The man's makeup is smeared; he wears just enough to look like his namesake. Whether he sneers at a wealthy fund-raising crowd or mocks the police, you can tell Ledger's part finds society so boring that it's an insult.  None of them are really worth the effort.

He makes a little effort, but the world isn't worth a real makeup job.

But The Joker also thinks the world is an ugly place, and wants to bring all that ugliness out. Whether it's fear, hatred, selfishness - they are pieces of his art, violent adventures. Oddly, he's not crazy in thinking he can achieve that goal - the world is a tough place, and Gotham is full of danger and corruption. It helps greatly, I think, that insane people can make sane people act crazy.

From high-profile robbery to high profile murder, the man makes an impression. The Joker wants to make the world act ugly too - bribing or threatening them into turning in enemies, witnesses. If that doesn't work, he can kill their leaders (judges, prosecutors, police officials), then threaten to explode public places. He'll even try to make people hurt each other, just because he finds it fun.

In every way, he's the anti-Batman, inspiring fear and anger. And in Batman, he finds himself completely energized.  Even in the end, he begs Batman to murder him, trying to corrupt the hero. Batman wants to restore and improve the same city that Joker wants to bathe in acid. An enemy like this can't lose - he's too crazy to get the death penalty, and he's the only one who get to have a good time!

As long as you're not looking for a non-violent film or light comedy, there's every reason to watch "The Dark Knight." Christopher Nolan excels at great story-telling through film, and he draws co-workers as if he were blessed.  TDK is rewarding by every measure - the great Hans Zimmer score, the un-dumb plot with tons of real-life allegory (terrorism and illegal eves-dropping, duh). Best of all, you see two skilled, unbalanced fighters - one good, one evil - who are drawn to each other like a pair of magnets. The worst kind of enemy you can ever have is one that you inspire without even trying.
Yes, "The Dark Cowboy" rides again.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Chime in!