Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight

In my opinion, this movie doesn't really require any type of synopsis because, unless you've been in living in a cave for the past six to eight months or suffering from a chronic case of Cranial Rectal Insertion, you should already have a decent idea concerning what this movie is about. In fact, the end of Batman Begins pretty much spelled it out for you, and if, for any reason whatsoever, you didn't see the previous Batman film, then leave now. Just go. Now, in order to be nice, here's a quick troglodyte catchup: Batman is still fighting to rid Gotham City of it's heinous criminal element. Things are getting down and dirty as the organized crime leaders get desperate. Harvey Dent is the new District Attorney and he's not afraid to team up with the police (or Batman) and take on the city's underworld. Oh, and there's a new guy on the block with knives in his pockets and a smile on his face.......and he's not joking.

Who would've thought that I was so looking forward to this movie? Did my ever present sentinel at the top of the page give it away? Well, no matter, I confess I've been anxious since I heard the first sound bites last summer and my anticipation only expanded with every new viral clue I'd uncover. Finally, after months of waiting (and having talked myself out of going to the midnight show on Thursday), I found myself comfortably seated, along with twenty or so others, in front of the expansive IMAX screen at 8:00 a.m., a full hour before the movie was scheduled to begin. With the minutes ticking by, each time I looked up from my book, the influx of people continued to grow until, with twenty minutes still to go, the theater was practically full, which is saying quite a bit for an IMAX size theater at 8:40 a.m. As the three minute mark approached, I put away my book, turned off my iPod, removed the earbuds and noticed that, even with the theater almost full, there was a prevailing silence and sense of excitement and it was at that moment I understood that even though I had not yet seen the film, I was already part of an event. As I looked around, I saw perfect (and imperfect) strangers looking at each other with smiles and expressions that implied acknowledgment of a unification of spirit, that spoke of a freshly forged camaraderie among people who would normally ignore each other - and all these exchanges of looks and smiles taking place silently, as if they feared the slightest vocal utterance would unravel the fabric of communion that seemed to nestle us all. As the lights dimmed and the screen flickered to life, I felt the ripple of motion as every person in the theater straightened up in their seats and collectively tensed for the beginning of the movie. A swirling mist appeared on the screen and, as the music transformed into the recognizable theme, solidified into the title card for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, indicating the release date and 3-D scenes for IMAX before fading to black. The fifteen second Harry Potter trailer was followed by a spectacular trailer for Watchmen, set to the song, The Beginning is the End is the Beginning by Smashing Pumpkins and ending with Rorschach saying, "The world will look up and shout, 'Save us!' And I'll whisper....'No'". Awesome. Then, after the trailer, black screen, rumbles, blue flamed explosion, logos and, as the theater erupted in spontaneous applause, The Dark Knight began.

Is it all that? Yes, and then some. Worth the hype? No doubt about it. Live up to the expectations? Absolutely. I would say that this is the greatest comic book film ever made, except for the fact that this film actually transcends the comic book world. This is the Godfather, Citizen Kane and The Empire Strikes Back of comic book films while simultaneously being an action inclusive dramatic exploration of Jungian Archetypes and moral rectitude. The varying layers are what create such an ultimate story and will, in the long run, make the film more appealing to a broader spectrum of moviegoers. There's the well spaced (and placed) action for the surface entertainment of a Batman vs. Joker story that will appease the average action/comic book crowd - oh! There's even a magic trick! - There's the relationship issues, examination of responsibility and hard city crime story for the dramatic crowd and there's the exploration of the cold dark place that hides inside each of us for the crowd who's not afraid to look and see things for what they are, could be or should be. The combined aspects form a film that can easily be enjoyed over multiple viewings with different qualities becoming predominant depending upon the viewer's frame of mind, while the story's emphasis on reality serves as the metaphorical glue holding each layer together and creating a cohesive world for the viewer regardless of mental framing. In other words, Christopher Nolan, the writer/director, has crafted a "superhero" movie with a greater resonance of "truth" than some documentaries I've seen, while remaining faithful to his source material. Now don't me wrong, there are some truly spectacular comic book moments, but they are based in fact and not preoccupied with making you "believe a man can fly", as it were. The other joining factor that shares space with the reality aspect is the fact that there are no "sun shiny" happy moments, no "rainbows and cotton candy" break times, no "All You Need is Love and Kumbaya sing-a-longs" - Gotham City is a hard place and there's gritty work to be done by all sides involved, and it's this perspective that helps illustrate exactly what it is that Batman is striving for - he wants Gotham City to be a shiny safe outpost in a world of horror, even if he can never live there because, as it's explored in this movie, Batman/Bruce is beginning to understand that the dark remains with him whether he's wearing the cape or not. Some people may be put off by the overall sinister feel of the film, but I found it incredibly refreshing, immersing and honest.

The cast is easily the best you'll find in any movie this Summer or, so far, this year. Christian Bale in his second outing as Batman/ Bruce Wayne has really come into his own while raising the bar for any actor stepping into the role of a serious crime fighter. In the previous film, Bale adequately displayed a young Bruce dealing with his scars and fears while slowly transforming into a darker hero. This time, Bale is effectively playing two characters: Bruce Wayne: philanthropist, humanitarian and head of Wayne Enterprises and Batman: night dweller and scourge of the criminal underworld and, make no mistake, these are two very different creatures and Bale combines and separates them expertly.

Next we have Heath Ledger and because of who the Joker is and what he represents, he must be the standout character of the film and with that notion obviously in mind, Ledger uses the very nature of the character to craft a standout performance that I'm sure goes beyond what any fanboy could have imagined. Ledger is amazing and scary as the Joker and (being the huge fan of the comics that I am, I can say this matter-of-factly) his performance makes Jack Nicholson's look like a bad impression of Cesar Romero. I mean that, I really do. In the world of Batman that I know and have wanted to see, Ledger could not have achieved a better outcome - his Joker is unpredictable, uncaring, nuanced and, at times, terrifyingly sane - he definitely did his homework on not only the Joker character, but other psychotics as well because I'm sure I spotted a touch of Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Ledger's performance will propel the batfans to new heights, greatly impress serious connoisseurs of acting and become a benchmark for all who attempt to follow. I firmly believe that people who are not remotely fans of Batman, action films or movies based on comic books would enjoy this film because of Ledger's performance, alone.

My other choice for a standout performance is that of Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon. I've been a big fan of Oldman and his eclectic repertoire for quite some some, and even though most people would recognize him for his work as psychotic or flamboyant antagonists, recently he's been making bold statements as quietly heroic and compassionate characters like that of Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films and, now, Lt. Gordon. In the first Batman film, Gordon was known as one of the few honest cops but, before that is ever stated, you knew what kind a man Gordon represented based on what Oldman was able to convey in a short flashback early in the film - by his demeanor, facial expressions and delivery there was no doubt he was a good man and a good cop. That theme is greatly expanded for Gordon in The Dark Knight to the point where you see to what length the character is willing to go in order to do the right thing while remaining humane and conscious of his loved ones, and Oldman succeeds brilliantly with displaying the dedication, uncertainty and concerns of an "average Joe" unconsciously being virtuous in a world gone mad. Put it this way, the character of Gordon is such a good guy and played so well by Oldman, that, even though I know that in the Batman universe Gordon eventually becomes Commissioner, there were points in the film where I was actually worried that something was going to happen to him. (This is Hollywood, after all - there's no telling what could come to pass.) So, as a character who is scared but can only do the right thing, Oldman pulls it off amazingly and makes it believable with as little as a set jaw and a thoughtful look. What's surprising is that in a film populated with so many larger, louder and flashier characters, Oldman's Gordon doesn't lose any ground.

The rest of the cast are as good as you would expect them to be. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine both expand on their mentor, moral compass, and confidence support roles that they easily stepped into in the first film while Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over as Rachel Dawes from Katie Holmes, brings a more believable sincerity and maturity to the character that is Bruce Wayne's love interest. Eric Roberts shows up as crime boss Salvatore Maroni and perfectly utilizes his patented "slimy guy who's full of himself" character to it's fullest extent and, lastly, additional newcomer Aaron Eckhart as D.A. Harvey Dent, who was a real surprise for me, flawlessly plays the role of a suave and captivating individual who is so focused on pushing himself toward reaching his devoted idealistic goals, that he's oblivious to what the price of failure could be - an individual who sees every issue as a right or wrong or positive and negative, like two sides of a coin.

As you can tell, in my opinion, everything about the film fell perfectly into place. I have absolutely no complaints and, trust me, being the die hard Batman fan that I am, I'm pretty picky when it comes to representations of the Dark Knight, his world and surrounding characters. I'm really glad to see that Bob Kane's creation (thanks to a little help from The Mark of Zorro) has finally reached a point of being taken seriously and treated with such reverence. After years of camp (even though I love the Adam West creation), non focus, misdirection and day-glow horrors with putrid story lines, it's truly refreshing to be able to sit in a theater (or at home for the first film) and enjoy an honest recreation of a practically hallowed world that, up until now, has been the domain of comic book geeks like myself. Now everyone's going to realize what they've been missing.

As for what comes next. Who can say? I'm convinced that as long as Christopher Nolan is allowed to follow his internal drive, the next Batman will be just as good as the first two, even though I realize how hard it will be to top this one. The great thing about being a true fan is that the next film doesn't have to set out to best the first two - as long as it's treated with the same dedication, everything will turn out fine and I'm sure that everyone working on the films feel the same way. In fact, Christian Bale recently said that he'd be happy to keep returning as Batman as long as Nolan was in the driver's seat and as long as there was no Robin character. Happy Day! At this point, and judging from what the returns have been in just two days, we're pretty much guaranteed a third film and I'm as pleased as can be about that and I plan on seeing The Dark Knight again, as soon as possible.

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