A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 183 – The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight – August 30th, 2010

Andy and I first saw this in IMAX. It wasn’t our first feature film in IMAX experience. We’d seen one of the Matrix movies at one of the two Boston IMAX theaters. And we weren’t strangers to IMAX even then, since the Mugar Omni theater at the Boston Museum of Science has been doing documentaries for ages now. Unfortunately, when we saw this we were running late and the only seats were at the extreme front of the theater or a row this jackass claimed he was saving for friends (who turned out to already be seated behind him) So we ended up seated in either the first or second row. I do not recommend watching a 150 minute movie in IMAX from the front rows. It is an unpleasant and neck pain inducing experience.

All that being said, I did enjoy the movie itself. It has a whole host of flaws, but I enjoyed it (as much as one can when one is practically staring up Christian Bale’s nostrils). This is a movie that, for the most part, knows its roots and knows its characters and is, like Batman Begins really very character driven. Even though we never get the Joker’s true backstory (a conscious decision on the part of the writers, making him a force instead of a person), his character serves to illuminate the others. He’s a catalyst, driving others to act. And as a study of the characters of Bruce/Batman and those around him, the movie does well to use this enigmatic figure who has no past and no clear motivation other than wanting to poke things to see what happens. It’s just that he likes to poke things with knives. Or pencils. But I’ll get back to the Joker. I’ve got more to say about him later.

The other big character plot is Harvey Dent. Comic fans or anyone who’s seen the 1995 Batman Forever know that Harvey Dent ends up a villain. Two-Face is a classic Batman enemy from the comics, dating back to the 40s. First an ally of Batman, a Gotham DA who fights the good fight, then disfigured and sent mad, one side of his face a scarred mess, one side of his mind evil. And his coin gimmick is how he determines which side wins in any given scenario. The character of Harvey Dent/Two-Face is a difficult one not to make too gimmicky, really. The coin thing takes it right to the edge on its own. But in this movie Aaron Eckhart does an excellent job showing a good man pushed so far that he’s hit his breaking point and gone past, but still looks back at what he was. He doesn’t get the luxury of a mask and a dual life where he can be the good guy at parties and the vigilante in the streets. He has both right on his face, all the time. I think the movie was certainly setting up Harvey and Bruce as two sides of a coin – to use a gimmick myself – even going to far as to have Harvey take the fall for Bruce, then Bruce return the favor later on. It works when I stop and think about it. The problem is that no matter how good Eckhart played the part, the movie doesn’t really let you stop and think.

There is a fuck-ton going on in this movie. Seriously, this is a movie that is packed to the gills with plot points and character points and explosions and gadgets and capes and maniacal laughter and growly snarls and tough moral decisions and mob bosses and the press and foreign businessmen and romance and corrupt cops and I could keep going and going. This movie does not let up for two and a half hours. And I think that’s a major flaw. In a movie that’s trying to do all sorts of interesting things with chaos and duality and morality and parallels between everything, it doesn’t ever really let you stop to get your bearings because as soon as you get a tiny quiet scene for Alfred to dispense some wisdom or Lucius to deliver a kindly smackdown or Rachel to be, um. A plot device? Anyhow, as soon as there’s a moment, it’s over and the Joker’s killing people or threatening people or blowing something up. Or lots of somethings.

Don’t get me wrong for one moment. I love the Joker. Heath Ledger captured something amazing in his performance in this movie. Or perhaps he didn’t capture it. He flaunted it. He took every broken and wrong and twisted and incomprehensible thing about the role and reveled in it, producing a villain to end all villains. When other movies have bad guys who are bad for the sake of being bad? This is what they’re aiming for and missing. This is the only one of those characters I really truly buy. It’s just that I think the script didn’t really trust Ledger to display the Joker so well. I get that each new threat and plot and display of depravity is meant not only to show us who we’re dealing with but also how high the stakes are and the tension in the city at large. It just feels like the movie’s swatting flies with C4 when Ledger brought thermite and fireworks to the party already. I don’t need half a dozen crises. I just need Ledger as the Joker, detonator in hand, nurse outfit on, giggling as a hospital explodes behind him.

There are a few other problems with the movie. It takes a little bit to really feel like it’s moving, which is bizarre, given the kick-ass opening scene. The plot, involving the Joker’s takeover of the city’s criminal organizations and assassinations of various public figures, moves at an oddly sluggish pace. There’s a whole bit in the beginning where Bruce takes off for China and it feels like the same end could have been achieved through other more efficient means. The city doesn’t quite feel right to me in this one. It’s supposedly only been six months since the first movie and yet the whole city feels cleaner and less gritty. I realize we’re supposed to feel like change is happening in Gotham, but six months is a short period of time. There’s one particular bit of tech that’s as close as you can get to a deus ex machina without having an AI involved. It doesn’t really suit Batman, though it does perform a bit of character development in that it requires a difficult moral choice. And then the movie misses a fantastic opportunity to show Oracle as a little girl, putting the focus instead on Jim Gordon’s son, Jim Jr. Fine, do the whole father and son deal, I get it. Hark back to Bruce and his father, blah blah blah. I would have preferred to see Babs as the focus as a nod to her later role in the Bat-family, but then I’m biased. She grows up to be a super librarian.

But the thing is, even with those flaws, it’s still a great movie. Lucius and Alfred are still awesome, showing themselves to be more level-headed and ruthless, respectively. Alfred gives a little speech to Bruce mid-movie, about a bandit he helped track down and how some people just want to see the world burn. Later on, when Bruce asks how they caught the bandit, Alfred tells him they burned down the forest. That there isn’t just a little plot device. Read further into the story and it’s not just that everything had to be destroyed to catch the bandit. It’s that the bandit got what he wanted. The world burned. And he got the self-proclaimed good guys to do it for him. Personally I think this is a telling tidbit about Alfred himself, but it also gives good insight into not just the actions of Batman and the Joker, but their psychology. And the inner workings of Bruce/Batman and how he deals with this threat that is so alien to his way of thinking and working is really what’s at the core of this movie for me. It’s what I enjoy about it. Which is why I can get past the flaws, because what I enjoy was done so amazingly well.

August 30, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Dark Knight

August 30, 2010

The Dark Knight

Let me start out by saying right up front that I don’t believe that this is as good a movie as Batman Begins. Its plot is convoluted and inconsistent. It gives the impression of being written by committee and perhaps re-written as well. The deus-ex-machina super tech device Batman uses in the movie’s conclusion is not only a cop out because it gives Batman powers he never had in the cannon but it contributes nothing to the end of the movie.

Oh, the movie has its great parts. Plenty of them. It just gets it a bit muddled.

Let’s start with the good bits. The greatest of which, naturally, is Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning portrayal of the Joker. As I said in the conclusion to my review last night The Dark Knight is about villains. It’s about what breaks a man and drives him to unspeakable acts. What’s funny about this is that we get no real insight into what created the Joker. He bursts onto the scene fully realized as an unpredictable force of nature. What’s so delightful about Ledger’s Joker is that he’s such a simple character. I am reminded of Don John in Much Ado About Nothing: “though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain.” The joker is an odd mix of impulsive acts of random violence with meticulously planned schemes. At one point he claims to be “a man of his word,” which is pretty much true. No matter how brash and insane his ultimatums may appear he does follow through on them.

The way Heath portrays the Joker, with his twitches, his gravelly voice and his strange mannerisms, is mesmerizing and horrifying. The Joker of the comic books uses “laughing gas” to kill people and leave their faces in a taught grin, but this Joker isn’t scarred by chemical burns, he is just scarred by violence. (It’s never explained where he gets his scars, and it doesn’t really matter.) So he mutilates his victims in a much more hands-on way; with knives. It’s more real, more direct, and lends a lot of tension to scenes in the film.

The other primary character introduced in this movie is Harvey Dent. Aaron Eckhart portrays Harvey and has to embody his tragic tale. I do appreciate the tone that Chris Nolan has chosen to take with the story of Two Face. He’s always been a sort of sad figure, what with his fall from grace and descent into madness. Nolan here removes a lot of Dent’s obsession with duality and concentrates instead on his transformation from a steadfast crusader for justice into a madman who relies on chance to remove any responsibility for the atrocities he commits in his insanity. Once he gives up on the notion of justice it’s not Harvey Dent that does any of the killing – it’s the coin that commands him and absolves him.

If anything I kind of wish this aspect of Dent’s tragedy could have been explored in greater depth. One of the problems the movie has is that once it has meticulously spent a couple hours bringing Harvey to the breaking point and pushing him over it then has to quickly resolve his plot in double time. This is symptomatic of a greater problem that plagues the entire movie; it is very strangely paced. The meat of the movie is in the Joker and his schemes and Dent and his fall, but there’s a whole lot of superfluous stuff padding out the first half of the film. There’s a plot about all the remaining mob bosses in Gotham pooling their money and having it stolen by a bookkeeper from China which is entirely unnecessary. You could cut everything having to do with the mob and Lau and it would leave the movie much streamlined and tighter. Maybe it would have allowed for more time resolving Dent’s plot.

Another problem is the Joker’s wildly changing attitude towards Batman. At the start of the movie he tells the mob mosses that he’ll kill Batman for them in exchange for money. Then he tells the people of Gotham that he’ll kill people every day until Batman gives himself up and removes his mask. Then in a sudden and complete 180 he declares that he DOESN’T want Batman’s identity revealed after all and will blow up a hospital unless somebody kills the one person who claims to know Batman’s identity. On the one hand it makes little sense to expect consistency from a madman like the Joker, but on the other he is portrayed as somebody with simple tastes for chaos and violence who knows what he wants and will hesitate at nothing to achieve it, so this strangely morphing attitude towards Batman feels wrong.

My final problem with the movie is the entire final act with the Joker. He has this moment of absolute triumph where he has succeeded in corrupting Harvey Dent and created Two Face, and blown up a hospital besides (by far my favorite scene in the movie) and then he goes off on this complete tangent. Rather than concentrating the end of the movie on Harvey Dent and what the Joker describes as a battle for Gotham’s soul there’s this silly extrapolation of the prisoner’s dilemma with a bunch of people trapped on a pair of ferries. To top that off there’s the sonar technology that Batman uses to battle Joker’s minions and a couple SWAT teams, which doesn’t actually contribute to the resolution of things in any way and is just an excuse to have a bunch of swirly blue and white computer animation during a fight scene.

Part of what made Batman Begins so wonderful was the way that the story was told on so many levels and was so cleverly threaded through the whole movie. This movie has a deeper and darker story to tell, but it loses the plot and ambles off into generic action movie land in the later half. Still: I enjoyed watching it again in spite of its flaws because Heath Ledger’s Joker is so compelling, terrifying and entertaining. I could wish that it were more, but I do appreciate it for what it is.

August 30, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 2 Comments