Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Frank Review of "The Dark Knight" and the trailer for "Watchmen"

Like most every other comic book fan in the continental United States, I was roped into seeing "The Dark Knight" opening weekend, so I might as well review it. My caveat is that I've actively disliked the Batman for at least a decade, and never been much on the films, so don't expect much gushing. But then again, this is ...nurgh... so you should know I hate everything by now.

I will not say that this is my favorite Batman film of the series, though time and reflection may change that, but I will say it is objectively the best Batman film ever made. A problem I have with super-hero movies, which I generally dislike, is that they always seem to me like a series of set pieces strung together. Factoring in my contemptuous familiarity with most of the subjects, I'm typically bored to tears by one rote, obligatory moment after another. "The Dark Knight" is the first comic book movie I can readily recall where I was absorbed by the narrative. For once, instead of sitting in a theater making mental comparisons to the comics or simply being aggravated by a weak narrative, I was immersed in the story being told by Nolan. I actively cared about what was happening onscreen, both to the characters and with the plot, which is exceptional. Clearly, that makes "The Dark Knight" one of the best films of its ilk, period.

I believe in Harvey Dent. Since at least Miller and Mazzuchelli's "Batman:Year One," he's been among the most fascinating rogues to face the Caped Crusader. I was greatly disappointed in Tommy Lee Jones' pass at Two-Face in "Batman Forever," his being a once favored actor in the midst of a creative free fall and determined to out-clown Jim Carrey. Aaron Eckhart seemed a perfect remedy for that foul memory going in, and coming out all the more so. Dent is the hero of "Dark Knight," the whole movie turns on his journey, and I was with Eckhart every step of the way. My only complaint is that Eckhart needed a second picture to progress from Dent to Two-Face, as he earned so much good will, my sympathies could not reasonably be expected to turn on silver dollar.

In "Batman Begins," I felt a more personal connection to Katie Holmes' sweater than her character, as she could not have been more of a tacked-on love interest in a film that needed to be trimmed of that fatty subplot entirely. Maggie Gyllenhaal redeems the character, imbuing her with life in her performance, while the script made her presence essential. The combination had me falling for Rachael Dawes, now made a unique and surprising heroine that added immeasurably to my enjoyment of the movie.

Gary Oldman is certainly one of the most daring actors working today, sometimes to the peril of his productions. His portrayal of Jim Gordon is full of distinct ticks that had the potential to distract, but instead allow him to fully inhabit a character never remotely as fully realized outside comics as he is here. Again, the influence of "Batman: Year One" is more deeply felt in this sequel than in "Batman Begins," and it is all to the good.

The same can be said of Gotham City itself, as for the first time it feels like a place human beings live, as opposed to having slightly more dimension than the cardboard backdrops of the German Expressionist films that so clearly inspired the Tim Burton cycle. Aiding in this is the support of many name and unknown actors filling out the population, including Nestor Carbonell as the mayor, Eric Roberts and Michael Jai White as crime bosses, Anthony Michael Hall as a television reporter, Colin McFarlane as the police commissioner, William Fichtner as a bank manager, Ron Dean as a veteran cop, and Monique Curnen as *not* Det. Montoya. Sure, they're all from stock, but they're at least quality stock, not glorified backdrop.

Morgan Freeman, as usual, plays Morgan Freeman. Thankfully, Lucius Fox might as well be Morgan Freeman, so the shoe fits comfortably. Michael Caine, as usual, plays Michael Caine. As Alfred, I find myself less forgiving of the coasting, but I allow myself to let it go by just watching Michael Caine do his thing.

Heath Ledger is very nearly the physical embodiment of the Joker. The way that he moved-- fought-- his mannerisms-- the build-- all so close to the ideal gestalt of many comic book incarnations. The script reflects this, as for once, the Joker is maddeningly brilliant; his insane motivations and general unpredictability made a force above and beyond any super-villain to ever make the leap into live action. This is a mind that could clearly bedevil even the Batman. That said, the scars and voice do not suit the character. Too often, the barely-there green hair dye gives way to Ledger's long blond locks, betraying the pretty boy under the half-assed make-up. Ledger can't pull off the iconic laugh, and irritations like his constant licking about the mouth recall a sexual deviant more than the Clown Prince of Crime. The "Disappearing Pencil Trick" was a movie moment for sure, but also a physical dynamic outside the more dandy comic book Joker's abilities. This is not an Oscar-worthy performance, but "Brokeback Mountain" was, so let's not kid ourselves should it yield posthumous reward to balance a prior neglect.

After seeing "American Psycho," I joined the legions of fanboys in casting Christian Bale as the best possible Bruce Wayne. Unlike those legions, I'll own up to my mistake. Bale's American accent continues to underwhelm, and his grasp of Wayne remains tenuous and utterly without charm. His Batman is worse-- his affected rasp so seemingly painful and occasionally unintelligible it amazes that anyone can take him, seriously or otherwise. His costume does him no favors, so tight around the mouth as to make it puff out like fat around overstuffed pants. The stunt work involving the suit is terrible, necessitating the banal obfuscation that comes from extended use of vehicles, firearms, and quick cuts. When Iron Man comes across as more lithe, it's time to reconsider fabrics.

I loved the modern comic book continuity, with a mini-episode early on involving a returned Scarecrow, again (if briefly) played by Cillian Murphy. The movie could have used a couple more of those, but for reasons you may not expect. You see, this movie comes to a rousing conclusion, and then the sequel starts, leaving you squirming in your seat. Characters speak voluminous dialogue and spoon feed text and subtext to the point where you wish someone would take a hit from the Riddler or something. The film is so bloated, it needed bullshit extras so that it could be chopped in half and sold to audiences twice. Also, that theoretical sequel has a really awful, ham-fisted ending that taints much of what came before. Jim Gordon's closing monologue had me begging for the credit crawl as it droned on without consideration for the audience or its own inanity. The movie closes the deal, then won't shut up, and ends up going home alone (but still has your number.)

On the other hand, more action means more lousy action directing. When it comes to fisticuffs, everything is muddy and the mind checks out. Also, speaking of Iron Man, there are numerous, ridiculous leaps in technology that would destroy the film's credibility if it didn't run so blasted long you eventually forget the contrivances. The Batman movie plague continues in that the villain so outshines the hero, the Dark Knight Detective must resort to deus ex machina to save the day. The screenwriter and direction serve so many characters so well, and then the ball is dropped on every level when it comes to the supposed star of the production.

In the final analysis, "The Dark Knight" is a swell crime movie with horrific digressions, and the only thing getting in its way is the super-hero business. I'm glad I saw the movie, and believe it to be the best made of the perpetually flawed Batman movies. Do go see it, do enjoy it, but do get over the hype.

A major draw for my going into "The Dark Knight" was the opportunity to see the trailer for "Watchmen," if only for the irony of seeing the two titles intertwined once again. "Watchmen" seems to be in the submissive role here, with the trailer's use of the Smashing Pumpkins' "The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning" from the "Batman and Robin" soundtrack. Its also a variant version of their "The End Is the Beginning Is the End," which won the '98 Grammy for "Best Hard Rock Performance" and was an international, if perhaps minor hit. Even the Batman-centric video was up for a bunch of awards. Odd choice that.

I strongly suspect that the CGI on display will improved greatly by next March, or else it will look embarrassing on DVD. There's a slightly rubbery and highly staged feel to the world presented. The costumes are pretty damned nice and functional, though. I'd say Nite Owl looks more like Batman than the stiff Cat-Man from "Dark Knight." My only problem there is that they look too good, seeing as how these are supposed to be silly poseurs well past their prime.

There is so very nearly a peener on Dr. Manhatten that I'm delighted by the audacity. Jackie Earle Haley, based on one line and gorgeous visuals, seems absolutely perfect as Rorschach. "Watchmen" has never been one of my favorite graphic novels, but the movie looks to be such a strong adaptation, I may well end up preferring it to the source material. We shall see...

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