Thursday, July 31, 2008
"The Dark Knight"
I don't know if I can really be objective about "The Dark Knight," Christopher Nolan's sequel to "Batman Begins."
The original "Batman," released in the summer of 1989, back when I was an impressionable 12 years old, cemented my lifelong movie habit. Everything about that movie combined to create a cinematic punch to my overlarge adolescent head. I'd always considered becoming Batman a legitimate career choice, but after seeing Michael Keaton stand on the top of that building at the end of the movie with the bat signal blazing in the clouds behind him, I kind of just wanted to be the guy who made others feel the way I was feeling at that moment. So I've got a soft spot for Batman. Two hours of Batman reading "The Great Gatsby" would probably get a thumbs up from me.
That said, if the original "Batman" was a punch to the head, "The Dark Knight" was a hard, teeth-shattering kick to the teeth. This movie kicked my ass and hard. I loved every second of this thing.
And this one's been a long time coming. After 2 highly disappointing misfires and one godawful bomb so bad that it sunk an otherwise talented director's career, 2005's "Batman Begins" was kind of miraculous. It was the Batman movie we'd all imagined but hadn't thought possible: a summer action spectacle that doubled as a studio prestige picture. The budget, the director, the actors -- everything about the project bespoke its seriousness of purpose, (which included making a seriously entertaining movie). But after it was over, I was almost more excited about the possibility of the next film as I was about the movie I'd just seen. If all went well, then a true Batman movie was in the offing. The sequel would involve no obligatory rehashing of the tired Batman origin story. In this potential sequel, the filmmakers could devote all of their energies to create a straight-forward Batman film that could explore all the dark themes and moral complexity hinted at in the first film. It was a lot to hope for, and so I waited to see what Nolan would do with the next installment.
Nolan delivered. "The Dark Knight" is dark, epic, exciting, mesmerizing, and smart.
So I loved the movie, but I admit there were a few things working in my favor. 1.) I saw it in IMAX. 2.) I actually had fairly low expectations for Heath Ledger's performance.
As to 1.) sections of "The Dark Knight" were filmed in IMAX. To my knowledge, this is a first for a theatrical 35MM/IMAX co-release. The bank heist sequence that opens the film, for instance, is shot entirely using IMAX equipment.
[Commence IMAX monologue.] After seeing this film, I now firmly believe that each and every multiplex should begin construction of at least one IMAX theater, with the eventual goal of converting all theaters currently showing films in 35mm to the IMAX format. I know I'm parroting IMAX's CEO here, but IMAX truly is how films should be seen. When a movie that's already brilliant is playing on an 8-story screen, and when that 8-story screen is filled with, variously, sexy Chicago architecture, sweeping helicopter shots of almost completely vertical Hong Kong, or a head to toe view of a man we'll come to know as the Joker waiting on the street corner, a clown mask dangling from one hand, it's like a shot of pure cinematic adrenaline. So, in all honesty, I don't know if this movie would have kicked me in the head so hard if it hadn't been on IMAX (even though I suspect the answer is probably yes). [End of IMAX monologue.]
So that was one thing going in my favor. The other, as I said, was that I didn't think I was going to get blown away by Heath Ledger as the Joker. I thought his performance in "Brokeback Mountain" was overrated--the gravelly, constricted-throat voice he used was so strange that instead of selling me on the character's reality it just made me wonder again and again what Ledger was going for with it. I thought the rapturous response to Ledger's Joker was probably another overreaction, likely heightened by his tragic and untimely death.
Not so. Heath Ledger's performance is everything you've heard. Just like I didn't forget that Heath was playing a part in "Brokeback," I completely forgot Heath was playing a part while I watched him be the Joker. And it is Ledger's Joker, more than any other component of the film, that makes "The Dark Knight" as good as it is, and in my view, it is very very good.
I think "The Dark Knight" is easily the best Batman film made to date, and I also think that, if Nolan signs on for the third (and why wouldn't he with the cash Warner Bros. is going to throw his way?), he could potentially finish this thing off as the brains behind one of the greatest trilogies ever filmed. For the first time in some time, the filmmakers have used the 2nd film of a trilogy as the 2nd act of a larger overarching story, just as "Empire Strikes Back" did so well about 25 years ago. The film ends in a dark place, with Batman locked into this character he's created for longer than he'd hoped, and worse, vulnerable now to both cop and criminal as he works to clean up Gotham.
Here are a few of the specific moments from the movie that I loved:
1.) Batman doing his no-neck swagger to the edge of the parking deck in the Scarecrow sequence, and then later asking Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to make him a costume that will let him turn his head. This has been a "thing" in all the Batman movies to date, and here Nolan addresses it right out in the open, and then incorporates it into the story.
2.) The very awesome William Fichtner shotgunning clowns as a mob-bank manager.
3.) The Joker's off-hand use of a machine pistol to kill the school-bus driver.
4.) The mayor's eyeliner.
5.) The thump of the dead Batman-imposter as he hits the window outside the Mayor's office. Scared the hell out of me.
6.) One of the coolest movie moments in recent memory: Joker's use of a pencil as a murder weapon. Not in recent memory has 5 seconds of film managed to accomplish so much. In one shocking moment, we learn that the Joker a.) likes a good magic trick, b.) really just wants to entertain, and c.) even when surrounded by cold-blooded killers, the Joker is always the most dangerous guy in the room.
7.) The Joker's glare as he backward-kicks his way out of the crime-boss meet.
8.) Christian Bale's one-hand-in-the-pocket GQ-stroll as he walks coolly away from Maggie Gyllenhaal in his penthouse apartment.
9.) Christian Bale's total douchebag entrance into Harvey Dent's fundraiser. This guy's a pro-- there's no limit to how callous and vapid he'll pretend to be just so no one ever thinks he could possibly be Batman. Major dedication.
10.) When the first henchman tries to take off the mask of the unconscious Batman and gets electrocuted, the Joker laughs, kicks his own downed man, does an impersonation of what the guy had looked like getting electrocuted, and then spits on the guy. Freaking brilliant.
11.) Bruce Wayne's quick, no-look disassembly of a bad guy's shotgun.
12.) The way the sound cuts out and the music gets low as the police convoy carrying Harvey Dent to county heads out of police headquarters.
13.) When the lights cut on in the interrogation room and Batman is standing behind the Joker. Also: that entire scene. Also: the fact that I got to see Batman beating the hell out of the Joker in an interrogation room in a movie. How awesome is that?
Obviously, I could go on and on (I know -- I already have), and I'm not even hitting a lot of the obvious stuff (like the entire Singapore sequence, or Joker in a red wig and a goddamn nurse's outfit.) But I know there are some "Dark Knight" doubters out there, and after having read some of their critiques of the film, I have to say that they do have, in a few instances, valid points.
Some of the stuff I wasn't too hot for:
1.) The rooftop ending with the Joker. Seemed to kind of end with a writerly bit of dialogue from the Joker on the nature of their relationship. It was kinda cool, what he said, but maybe a little professorial for a guy who'd just rather get on with it than talk about getting on with it.
2.) Since when are dogs Batman's nemesis? They seemed to be in this movie. On second thought, maybe that's cool because, if there really WAS a crime-fighting Batman-type guy out in the world, sans gun, wearing bulletproof armor and enough moves to put down a knife-wielder in seconds, maybe a hungry rottweiler is the thing most likely to worry you. But then again, attack dogs don't seem to play so great in movies. Too many edits.
3.) Harvey Dent's tortured Two-Face logic. By the end of his scene with Gordon and the wife and kids, I didn't know what the hell Two-Face was after; I doubt he did. Maybe I just didn't believe that a guy that looks like Aaron Eckhart would get that worked up over Maggie Gyllenhaal. Yeah, I guess that's it.
But even these little imperfections didn't much phase me while I was watching the movie. Even when certain moments weren't quite working perfectly, I think Nolan crafted the movie to build in such a way that the forward momentum carried him through those moments.
Bottom line, "The Dark Knight" was a blast, and I walked out of that giant IMAX theater with a Joker-brand smile on my face. I loved "Iron Man," and I liked "Wall-E," but "Dark Knight" has my vote hands down for movie of the summer, and will no doubt be most fun movie of the year. I think it may be too geeky to say this could be the movie of the year -- hopefully something that fits that bill will come out before year's end (I'm hoping "The Road" ends up in the running for that)-- but I doubt I'll have a better time at the movies this year or next, or for quite a while. Probably not until the next Nolan-directed Batman movie comes out.