Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight

I had planned on writing a post on AMC's excellent show "Mad Men" today, but after having neglected to write about The Dark Knight for so long, and given the hype surrounding the film, I think that Mad Men will just have to wait until tomorrow.

The Dark Knight sits atop this past weekend's box office. After having recouped its $150,000,000 budget and then some in its opening weekend it went on to set a box office record by making over $300,000,000 in 10 days. It also sits atop IMDb's Top 250 list, with a score of 9.4, and it has a 94% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film has been on the lips of an entire nation, with many calling it one of the best films they have ever seen (I seriously heard this exact phrase as I was leaving the theater). Reports have it that it is drawing in audience of all ages and even enticing those who don't go to the movies that often to venture back to the cinemas. The hype and popularity of the film will surely endure and stand as one of the top cultural moments of 2008. But, can the movie live up to the hype?


In a word: no. Although it has taken me nearly a week of reflection on the film I have come to the conclusion that, as good a film as it is, it doesn't live up to the hype. To be fair, there is really no way it could, given the early reviews and raves of preview audiences. Plus, cold as it may be to say, the death of Heath Ledger earlier this year put the excitement at a fever pitch, a level no film could ever reach.

The important question though is this: if viewed in a cultural vacuum, is it a good movie? Here the answer is a bit more murky. It doesn't redefine the Batman franchise, nor does it depart in any meaningful way from the great Batman comics that have come out over the course of the last 20 or so years. It is still heavily indebted to the work of Frank Miller, Jeph Loeb, Grant Morrison, or Allan Moore. Although that shouldn't theoretically have any bearing on the film, when you are dealing with such a storied franchise, these things must be taken into account...oh wait, we were trying to view the film in a cultural vacuum. Sorry.

Well, the good bits are among the greatest action scenes of all time. The bad bits, well, I'm sorry to say they are pretty awful. I think the most egregious offense comes in the form of Two Face. Aaron Eckhart brilliant plays the idealistic D.A. Harvey Dent, but after he turns into Two Face he gets lost. I have no real problem with the way that his face was burned (in fact I rather liked it), but I hated the fact that he blamed new Commissioner Gordon instead of turning his wrath in the proper direction: Batman. His beef with Gordon seems so petty, well maybe not petty per se, but he has just as much cause to hate Batman as Gordon. Finally, the decision to: a)give Two Face something to do in the films final act instead of setting him up as the villain for the next film, and b)KILL HIM were inexcusably terrible decisions. Everything having to do with Two Face (aside from his transformation) felt forced, tacked on, and idiotic.

This leads me to my second criticism, which is two fold: first, the transformation of Lucious Fox into some kind of Q for Batman is just idiotic. The cell phone sonar device seemed like it was a James Bond throwaway. This also led to the most ineptly staged action scene in the film: which takes place in a semi-constructed building and involves Fox (played with a quiet dignity by Morgan Freeman) telling Batman where villains are and doing something else, but I'm not entirely sure what. It was confusing to watch, sloppily edited, poorly shot and terribly anti-climatic. Of course all of this cell phone sonar nonsense had a root...yes, the trip to Beijing or Shanghai or Hong Kong or wherever they had to go to bring the twisted businessman back to Gotham. I understand why the twisted businessman was necessary, but was the trip to China REALLY as necessary? I think not. The scenes contained a few impressive shots, but little else. And speaking of things that were unnecessary, I knew Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow would have only a brief cameo, but come on, if it as useless as that cameo was, why bother?

This final complaint might be the controversial one; dark as the film is; it isn't dark enough. Two boats. Both with bombs. Neither of them explode? If you've got a set-up like that, let's try a pay-off. Blow one of them up. If you want to fuck with the Batman formula a little bit, here is an idea: Batman doesn't win. The Joker gets the best of him for once, especially when you have a Joker as incendiary as Ledger's.

So, even though those complaints may seem like major defaults they are actually quiet easy to overlook while you are watching the film, primarily for three reasons: Christopher Nolan's solid direction (the sole exception being the pseudo-James Bond fight in the building scene), Christian Bale and Michael Caine's solid portrayals of Batman/Bruce Wayne and Alfred, respectively, and Heath Ledger's flat out masterful performance as the Joker.

Although mountains of praise has already been tossed Ledger's way, I will add to it. As far as Ledger's creation of the character is concerned, I don't know how much of the stories are truth and how much are myth, but in the end it doesn't matter. All that really matters is what is down on celluloid, and what is there is brilliant. Ledger, not unlike (and perhaps more so) Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, redefines what a movie villain can be. He is terrifyingly riveting, and Ledger's performance stands as one of the great screen transformations of all time. He won't win an Academy Award, in fact I would be surprised if he was even nominated, but it won't be because he didn't deserve it. As I think we all know by now, the Academy Awards are never about honoring those who are deserving; they're about honoring the things that make the Academy comfortable, but in the end it doesn't matter. Ledger gives a titanic performance that more or less carries the film on his back when it seems to falter, and in so doing has achieved a James Dean-like immortality as one of the true talents that was taken too tragically soon.

Finally, I think that director Christopher Nolan needs recognition. The film, for all of it's faults and lack of subtleties, is still a jaw dropping achievement. It is the best summer blockbuster since Jurassic Park, and perhaps even since Jaws. This connection to Steven Spielberg is quite appropriate as Nolan's directorial career has more than a passing resemblance to Spielberg's. Both began their careers with small, low-budget films (Nolan with Following and Memento; Spielberg with Duel and The Sugarland Express)which then gave way to big budget blockbusters, very successful and very good blockbusters, mind you. It remains to be seen if Nolan's career sees the same kind of success as Spielberg's, but what is not in question is that Nolan, like Spielberg, knows how to use the budget he has to great effect, and the car chase through the streets of Gotham (Chicago) is proof-positive of that. In a film filled with great scenes, this is by far the best.

So, what are we to make of The Dark Knight? Well, one thing is for sure, it ain't the best movie I've ever seen. Not even close. But it is the best summer blockbuster I've seen in quite a while. It may not be flawless, but what movie is? It's entertaining as hell and boasts the best performance I've seen in...well, I quite frankly can't think of the last time a performance has been so transfixing as Ledger's. It's that impressive. In the end the film is worth seeing just for that. To be honest it is a film that I loved, even though I can see many flaws, I loved it warts and all.

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