Saturday, July 26, 2008

Praise For "The Knight"

I was going to divide this up with non-spoiler stuff to start and then getting into details in the second half, but that just seems like a hassle. Plus, you should have seen The Dark Knight by now, unless you’re waiting for an open IMAX screening. At that point, check back here in mid-September. Official spoiler warning for TDK from this point on.

Let’s just get the childhood hero/fanboy stuff out of the way now: So seriously, how awesome was The Dark Knight?

Pretty freaking awesome. There were definitely flaws, which we’ll address later on, but there was so much goodness that you could overlook any minor discrepancies. It boils down to the fact that I don’t think I’ve been this excited for a movie in a very long time, and it totally lived up to the personal hype (much like Superbad did last summer, but on a totally different scale). The entire film was so dark, gritty and intense for its entirety that you have to give Christopher Nolan all the credit in the world for the consistency in visuals and theme for the entire two and a half hour running time. Sure, he had the budget to do it, but ignoring CGI[i] and focusing on making the film as realistic as possible shows the type of vision Nolan had in his second Caped Crusader feature.

The Dark Knight has repeatedly been called the epitome of superhero movies, and A.O. Scott even had a piece in the Times this week about there being nowhere left to go for the genre after the probing done by Ironman, Dark Knight, and to a lesser extent, Hancock, but I’m hesitant to even qualify what might end up the highest grossing film of all-time as a superhero movie. There’s nothing mutant, paranormal, supernatural or even unbelievably science fiction in the movie. Your hero is just a well-trained athlete with a lot of money to spend on toys and your villain is a make-up-wearing freak with a relatively high tolerance for pain, a disregard for human life and a sweet tooth for explosives. I like the idea that a lot of critics have put forth that TDK is not a superhero flick, but just an epic crime movie, more along the lines of Heat and The Departed.

Christian Bale put in another great performance, but even though he portrayed the title character, you had an ensemble cast delivering top-of-their-game performances. It seems silly to discuss the quality of a Michael Caine or Morgan Freeman performance, or the merits of replacing Katie Holmes with Maggie Gyllenhaal, but they deserve some praise for their work. Gary Oldman, the chameleon, now has the honor of representing two of the more heroic, fist-pump-worthy characters in pop culture, Jim Gordon and Sirius Black. The two really couldn’t be more differerent, but Oldman makes them both fantastic in their own way. Even the bit parts – Bill Fitchner as the heroic but stupid bank manager, Eric Roberts as the top crime boss – and ones I wasn’t even aware of (Anthony Michael Hall, Patrick Leahy) seemed to have a special shine.

Depending on where you read on the internets, there’s either high praise for the screenplay or a condemnation of it as a muddled mess. I find myself in the camp of the former, and think one would appreciate its layered nuances more on subsequent viewings. The over-arching themes of Nolan, Nolan and Goyer’s are touched upon in so many of the subplots that you have to note the craftsmanship. They took Alan Moore’s basic principle from The Killing Joke – that any man, no matter how valiant he seems, will snap if put through right circumstances – and applied it to Harvey Dent instead of Jim Gordon. There are a lot of great stories in the Batman universe to draw from, and TDK drew on a lot of them perfectly.

Was Heath Ledger as good as everyone said he was?

That, and then some. Critics got all hot and bothered for Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men, but Ledger’s Joker is about a hundred times more interesting, terrifying and bad-ass than Anton Chigurh. As cliché as it is to say, you really couldn’t take your eyes off of him when he was on the screen. The ominous bank heist at the beginning, the first meeting with the mob bosses that included the delightfully violent pencil magic trick, the invasion of the black gangster’s game room via body bag, the scenes at Major Crimes – you can just rattle off scenes where the Joker had the audience cringing, laughing or cheering for him in spite of themselves.

The ability to crack the audience up, at least at the midnight screening I attended, was perhaps the most amazing part of the performance. The movie was so intense from the beginning, as taut as any thriller, that the way Ledger could say a word – or even, in one instance, just mouth the number “six” – would shatter the tension in the room and have everyone laughing, if only for a brief, cathartic moment before the white-knuckle plot continued chugging relentlessly along. There are only a few villainous film characters I can think of – perhaps most notably, Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal – that inspired fear, respect and a hint of jealousy, and none of them were nearly as funny as Ledger was.

Livey and I were trying to find a more eloquent way to say this on the drive home from the show, but you do find yourself rooting for The Joker in the movie, and not just in an “it’s fun to root for the entertaining villain” sort of way. In a world where everyone was trying to correct seemingly insurmountable problems or be something they weren’t, the Clown Prince of Crime understood his role in Gotham and how things worked. He believed that in a crazy, screwed-up city one life wasn’t worth a whole lot, and held to that standard whether he was threatening the life of a mobster, a judge or himself. The only man he had no desire to kill – again, just like it should be– was Batman, because I can’t imagine it’s a whole lot of fun for a man like The Joker to just blow stuff up without a respectable opponent to piss off doing it.

So Ledger’s death was even more of a shame than we all initially thought?

For so many reasons. Perhaps most notably was that this performance was so good it was going to be nominated for and probably win an Academy Award whether it was posthumously or not, but now his accomplishment will forever be accompanied by the caveat that “Well, he only won the Oscar because he died.” No, he won the award because he put on one of the most impressive performances you’ll ever see in cinema and happened to die between the filming and release of the movie that contained said performance. Of course, since everyone will probably end up seeing this movie – or at least it seems like everyone will – the entire population will be aware of how great he was and that won’t be a problem.

It also sucks he’s dead because the way the movie ended, Nolan could have just busted out the Joker for a third film – or put him in a Lecter-like role as Batman’s duplicitous advisor in tracking some other demon – and every single person who saw The Dark Knight would gladly line up weeks in advance to see it. There’s no way they can recast – not even if they dusted off Daniel Day-Lewis for his once every three years performance – so the best villain in the best interpretation of Batman has been laid to rest permanently.

There’s also the fact that I have no idea what they can possibly do now to follow up The Dark Knight, so Ledger might have effectively killed Batman movies for the near – and perhaps distant – future simply through the sheer force of his performance. That, and he totally stole the thunder from a great performance by Aaron Eckhart.

Was that a cheap segue to talk about the other great performance in The Dark Knight?

You bet. Eckhart’s performance of Harvey Dent/Two Face would be garnering all the Oscar buzz if not for Ledger totally stealing the show. I’m not that familiar with Eckhart’s work beyond Thank You For Smoking, but many a critic has said this is by far the best of his work, a realization of the talent that always seemed to be behind the good-looking surface. He is comfortably confident as Dent at the beginning and maintains that poise for as long as one can when everything around them is unraveling. The moment where Batman bursts into the room to save him after Joker’s cruelest trick, and Dent realizes that it means that his beloved Rachel is sure to die, is one not many people have mentioned to me but one I think was one of the best in the movie. Just to really drive the stake into his hideously scared heart was his lucky coin lying by his hospital bedside, seemingly safe and sound, until he flips it over.

One of my main complaints with the film is that the Two Face transgression seemed rush. One night Dent is willing to turn himself in as Batman to keep the real one fighting Joker on the street, and the next he’s threatening Gordon’s kid. There are some that think Two Face has to be dead to really drive home the screenplay’s point, but if so, I think it’s a momentously wasted opportunity. Eckhart was just beginning to scratch the surface of the splintered soul, and for him to die because of a particularly high fall is incredibly lame. It’s not a waste to the point that Spiderman 3 wasted Venom, but I want to see more of both Joker and Two Face, and due to that tragic overdose in January, it’s going to have to be the latter.

Other stuff that was perhaps wrong with the movie?

1) Batman’s weird growl whisper. You need to have a different voice for Batman versus

Bruce Wayne, but come on. It just sounds silly.

2) Again, Two Face’s transition, but this stands only if he’s dead. It was just a fall of a few stories, come on.

3) The fact we couldn’t swap the Rachel Dawes performances, meaning Maggie Gyllenhaal would have helped out Batman Begins and we all would have gotten to see Katie Holmes and her weird, crooked smile blown to bits in The Dark Knight.

4) The whole part with tracking the bullet down, finding the room with the timer and the blind rolling up. Probably need to see it again to really get that.

Off the top-of-the-head favorite parts?

1) All of the action scenes were really great, especially the chase scene with the semi, the Batpod and Dent’s paddy wagon. Chicago never looked so good.

2) Joker’s pencil magic trick. Quick, violent and a blink-and-you-miss-it introduction to the skillset the Clown Prince is bringing to the table.

3) Jim Gordon’s return from the dead with a shotgun to the head, just in time to save Batman. There were “Yoda with a lightsaber”-type cheers in the theater at that point.

4) Bruce Wayne tossing the champagne off the penthouse balcony after his toast to Dent. Such a tiny, yet perfect, touch.

5) The used of the word “Absconded” in the newspaper article about the Russian ballet leaving, followed by Michael Caine getting to lather up bikini-glad ballerinas. If you were to trim the running time down, axing the Hong Kong part would be the quickest way, but there was enough good there to justify leaving it in.

6) From one professional to another, a fall from this height won’t kill me.” “I’m counting on it.” (or something to that effect.)

7) And perhaps the most underrated, under-discussed aspect of the whole film: whoever was in wardrobe totally nailing both the Joker suits and Two Face’s split wardrobe. You might not notice or care, but trust me, they were perfect. They deserve an Academy Award for costume design just for that.

Was that another cheap segue to discuss Academy Awards?

Guily. I imagine Ledger will be nominated and win for Best Supporting Actor, although if Forest Whitaker can win Lead for Last King of Scotland, Joker surely had enough screentime to qualify for the big award. Eckhart should be but won’t be nominated for Supporting, and Nolan may or may not get some love for Screenplay or Directing.

The big question is whether Dark Knight can carry on the tradition of enjoyable action movies that get Best Picture nominations like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Fugitive. It obviously deserves it, but that’s a moot discussion at this point. I have all sorts of Oscar sites bookmarked, and the only one that’s updated in the wake of The Dark Knight hysteria has it in the running against The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Australia, Revolutionary Road and Milk. Button had a solid initial trailer, and has all the credentials (Fincher directing, Academy faves Swinton and Blanchett), but as the above link states, the early hype will do it no good unless it is truly that good. Revolutionary Road, which reunite Leo and Kate under the direction of Sam Mendes, also seems like a relatively safe bet at this juncture and another film whose inclusion I can support at this sight-unseen stage.

Milk stars Sean Penn, so shoot me now, but that’s not even as bad as the trailer/synopsis for Australia, which reads as so: “After a long hiatus, Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) is back with this epic love story about two people who embark on a journey herding cattle across the outback, and then must survive numerous obstacles including bombing by Japanese forces. Once again, Luhrmann has enlisted the services of his leading lady Nicole Kidman and teamed her with the versatile Hugh Jackman.” No word on whether it follows the same Academy Award checklist that Atonement did.

It’ll be an interesting position to be in until the Oscar deadline reaches to root for every other movie to be a total let down, but I think it would do everyone – Hollywood, the Academy, viewers, people who actually like movies – to have The Dark Knight and Wall-E in the conversation come February.

In the words of Joss Whedon, where do we go from here?

I’m really tore up about where they can go for the third film that everyone is already signed on for. Bale said if they did Robin he was out, and Nolan said he didn’t really want to use Penguin, and I suppose that means even if it was attached to someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who would get to expand on the villainy of his Mission: Impossible 3 antagonist that got far too little screen time. Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze could both be done seriously and more straight – just to correct the horrors of Batman and Robin ­– but I think it’ll probably end up being Riddler, Catwoman, or to pick a wild card from the lesser known Rogues Gallery, the Mad Hatter. Johnny Depp as a particularly creepy Riddler would be nice, or Catwoman working both sides of the law along with an underworld-pillaging Two Face and vigilante Batman might work as well. I need to bounce some ideas off of people and see if the rumor mill starts churning anything out, but consider me stymied.

[i] It’s not that CGI is inherently bad. If it’s done well, like Doc Ock’s arms in Spiderman 2, Davey Jones and his crew in Pirates or the suit in Ironman, then you don’t even notice, but too many filmmakers (*cough*George Lucas*cough) can’t help themselves but to load up on as much computer-generated stuff as possible.

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