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Monday, July 28, 2008

Husky Voices, Winning Smiles: Dark Knight

We finally got to see this on Saturday, after having given up delusions of IMAX. The theater was very crowded, but not completely full, and we did have to line up. However, we had good seats, and I did not have to kill the two 11-year-olds behind us as it looked as if I might have to throughout the trailers. Although perhaps I should have, if they were the ones surreptitiously sucking down Keystone in the bathrooms. I mean, Keystone! Really!

I'd seen the entire opening sequence for Dark Knight, strangely enough at the IMAX theater when we saw I Am Legend. It loses nothing on second viewing, and there was an added frisson seeing Heath Ledger for the first time and holding and holding for his fantastic first line. It's a kick-ass opening sequence on all fronts.

Having seen it in teaser form, it establishes the very different look of Gotham in this film. Well, very different for others. It could hardly be more familiar to me if it were my own back yard. It also establishes that the Joker is a kill in the daytime monster. The shot of the Joker's bus pulling out of the bank and into the convoy of school buses isn't just comedy gold, it prepares us for the complications the Batman (a nocturnal, cold-blooded jelly doughnut by nature) is about to experience in battling this particular foe.

What's impossible to appreciate from the teaser alone, though, is how important it is as the set up for the Joker's Mission Statement: It Just Takes a Little Push. Sure, he's talking about madness when he deploys that line, but when he does, it illuminates the long and winding road of dominoes that have been falling all the while: The little push of greed disposes of the Joker's cronies, leaving him the last clown standing and sending an unambiguous message to Gotham's lords of organized crime; the little push of desperation and disillusionment turns two in Gordon's trusted inner circle against him and his cause; and the little, persistent push of fear and certainty that each individual must do what is necessary, no matter how violent, evil, and unthinkable, to protect those closest to them, because society will not; Dent "makes his own luck" with a little pushing of his own; and, of course, you have the previously-pushed-for-your-convenience henchpersons, who are already enthusiastic recipients of the Joker's newsletter.

The Bat's opening scene is an admirable, deliberate mess in comparison. The TiVo recently picked up Tim Burton's Batman, which I haven't seen since its original theatrical release. I only watched the very opening, right up to the first appearance of Himself, and . . . well . . . it's pretty goofy isn't it? But you wait for it and you watch and you can't help getting at least a bit of a chill when you first spy those ears.

Giving the audience its first glimpse of the genuine article amidst a cavalcade of impostor ears is . . . hilarious. And as the movie wears on, poignant, tragic, and moving. (I recognize how manipulative-to-the-point-of-heavy-handed-and-soon-to-be-dated the Joker's "terrorist" video with the Bat-wannabe is, but damn if it didn't still get tome.) I was also completely thrilled with Cillian Murphy's cameo. I'm so glad that the Nolans thought of injecting that continuity between the two films, pleased that Murphy was up for it, and delighted with the value added to the crucial hero's opening scene and to the movie overall. The Scarecrow "pushed" with his fear homebrew and his high-brown insight into the psychology of fear. The Joker is a blue-collar, Everyman pusher and fear monger. Neat.

Heath Ledger's death is a shame and a tragedy in so many regards, but one of the shallower aspects of it is the fact that his and the Nolans' combined vision of the Joker can never be evaluated on its own merits. I know there's talk of posthumous Oscar, I know there are accusations of tackiness and opportunism in emphasizing the Joker in the movie's marketing. (For my money, I'm with Kel on that: I can't see making or marketing a movie that includes the Joker without being at least as much about the J man as it is about the Bat.)

I wouldn't dream of arguing that my perception of Ledger and this Joker are not influenced by his death. I will argue to the point of my own death that Ledger dead, Ledger alive, I think both the performance and the concept were fucking brilliant. The look I can honestly say I fell in love with from my first peek at it. Having now had an extended gander, I love it even more. I love that the make-up exaggerates every naturally occurring line on Ledger's face and that it's in those lines that the face he was born with and the face he gives himself meet (the creases are outlined in clown white, but the wrinkles themselves are flesh toned). I love that the rings of black around his eyes mirror the Bat's (and that the Bat's are meant to blend into the black of the cowl, the Joker's to make the white of his face starker).

I love Ledger's body language down to the last detail. I wanted to stand up and applaud his girly little flounce off the curb just before he blows Gotham General into oblivion. I wanted to conduct the note-perfect soundtrack accompanying his jaunty gunwork from the side of the semi as he goes after the armored car carrying "the Batman" to county. I wanted to be on the top of the tryout list when he snaps the pool cue and casually tosses it into the ring of abruptly ronin-ized mobsters, then struts out.

I also loved his vocal work: Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and yes, even Nicholson. They're all there, and they're all carefully deployed for comedy, sincerity, insanity. He slips in and out of caricature and sincerest flattery of these unmistakable voices, but they're all built on the hard, jagged surface of something all his own. I don't think there was a single moment that led me to feel it was over- or underdone. His delivery of the "He completes me" line was the best non-parodic recognition of the thin line between hate and homoeroticism inherent in male-male relationships in action movies.

The highest praise I think I can offer to his performance, though, is that I believed—really believed wholeheartedly in the moment—every single bullshit origin story as he told it, down to really wanting shush up the Batman when he launches into another when he's hanging upside down. So my verdict is that it's unfortunate all evaluations and accolades of Ledger's Joker will be marred with the dread asterisk of his death, because it's a performance that stands up to the gimmicky moments as well as it does the character long haul. IMDB says that Christopher Nolan answered "Why Heath Ledger?" questions by saying "Because he's fearless." Ledger more than earns that response.

As unassailable as Ledger and the Nolans' Joker are, the screenplay certainly has chinks in its armor. I has a job of work before it, as it's really telling so many stories. Viewed from one angle, Bruce Wayne/the Batman is really the B-side of Harvey Dent/Two-Face's: Bruce's stalled romance with Rachel is withering on the vine as Rachel makes some believable, painful realizations about the two men in her life and comes to see Harvey as something more than a consolation prize or an also-ran; Bruce himself flirts with the heady possibility of hanging up the cowl thanks to the competence of the new sheriff in town; and, of course, Dent does the heroic thing (which ultimately results in Rachel's sea change in affections) by taking up the Bat mantle and taking himself out of the game so that Batman can do what Batman does best.

It's a brave take and an interesting one. Unfortunately, though, there are some aspects of the story that are problematically underwritten. We don't really get a sense why Bruce believes that Dent is the real deal or when he comes to that realization, given that the first meeting between Wayne and Dent is all classic dick-waving. It seems unlikely that we're supposed to think this is weariness, wishful thinking, and pining for Rachel on Bruce's part, but the story doesn't firmly establish that.

The biggest character problem, though, comes at the climax of the film (or one of them, which is something of a problem in and of itself). You have the Joker's interrogation scene. Not only am I not prepared to lodge any complaint about that, I will happily punk anyone who does. But! But! But! The Joker gives the Batman two addresses: Rachel is at one and about to be blowed up real good; Harvey is at the other and ditto. As the Batman races out, Gordon asks which one he's going after. With no hesitation, Batman answers, "Rachel."

Despite the classic visual misdirection that ensues as the Batman races toward Avenue X at Cicero and Gordon and his men race to 250 52nd Street, I'm not sure that we—or the Batman—are meant to be surprised that the Joker has lied about who is where. Rachel and Harvey are both so positive that he's for it and she'll be saved. Certainly, there's not a single moment's shock or hesitation when the Batman shows up and finds Dent. Worst of all, there isn't a moment's commentary on it at any point later in the film, not even in Bruce's heartbroken conversation with Alfred. (That's an unusual scene in a Nolan film: It's visually perfect but the content is just off. Caine and Bale are usually on 100% of the time and have great rapport, so my inclination is to blame the script.)

I'm all for not over-explaining plot points, but the audience very much needs to be sure that it was Bruce (who'd clearly choose Rachel) who made the decision about whom to save, not the Batman (who, less clearly but probably, would choose Dent). And we need to know what that choice means to Bruce Wayne. We especially need to know these things given the Batman's acceptance of the mantel of the Dark Knight—and responsibility for what Dent does after he's been "pushed" into his own alternate identity (incidentally, that's sloppy too: Gordon tells the Batman that Dent has killed 5 people, 2 of the cops, but we had a hard time figuring out who those were, especially the second cop)—at the end of the movie. No further reference to the switch is just sloppy, and I expect more of the Nolans.

Broader narrative problems may help to explain the specific slip-ups.The movie is nearly 3 hours long, and there are the storyline is dense. To name just a few of the major threads: Dent's mass prosecution of the mob, which is interwoven with the Gordon/Batman sponsored radioactive tagging of money (not really well explained); the mob's interactions with the Chinese (I, like the Batman, have never heard of Sky Hook, but its ideas intrigue me, and I'd like to receive its newsletter; also, I would not sacrificed one minute of the Hong Kong scenes, which were rife with the Nolans' spin on Woo-y goodness); the Joker's wanting to get the mob's attention (not particularly well explained); Harvey/Rachel; Bruce/Rachel; a pretty meaty supporting storyline for Gordon; local Gotham politics; the evil that does or does not lurk in the hearts of ferries full of convicts and ordinary joes; and the Wayne Industries employee's discovery of the Batman's true identity. That's a lot going on on top of a minor villain's origin (and apparent demise) and the story of the most major villain of them all. Things, perhaps unsurprisingly, feel cluttered at some points and superficial at others.

Most of these complaints need to be viewed in the context of the really high bar the Nolans' have set for themselves. They're very good writers and excellent filmmakers. I guess I've heard some minor whining about C. Nolan's proclamation that Chicago has always been Gotham in his mind. With my unholy love of my city, I'm unlikely to be among the balkers in the first place, but I think the whole tone, look, and feel of the movie is a more elegant defense of Nolan's statement than I could offer.

As heartbreakingly beautiful as I find Chicago to be every minute of my life, Dark Knight does for Chicago what Meet the Robinsons for William Joyce: It's a walk through a familiar landscape with someone who defies belief in showing you dark and beautiful and terrifying new things about it. There's no question this is the Joker's movie as much as it is Batman's, but it's Gotham's, too, and in being Gotham's it makes every citizen therein a heroes, villains, victims, and saviors. Without at all being dark and tangled as the Gotham of Batman Begins so wonderfully is, Dark Knight's Gotham is clotted, congested, slow, and sluggish, by day and by night. Without drawing attention to the device, Nolan is having some fun with how superheroes and villains can get a damned thing done when they're hung up in traffic or trying to get past the knot of morons having deep and meaningful conversations at the foot of the escalator.

I've given the lion's share of performance rumination to Ledger, which seems fair because, alive or dead, all eyes are and would have been on him. I'd say Bale's performance is maybe not quite up to Batman Begins, but I acknowledge that I really only "discovered" him in that, and everyone knows you can't go home again. It's just that there's less for him to do in the acting department this time, and there are the scripting missteps explored above. On a pretty petty note, both M and I wish they'd tone down the attempts to disguise the Batman's voice. The voice so husky it could pull a sled was pretty distracting at times, and Bale's more than good enough to inhabit and project two distinct characters.

Caine's good again, Freeman's excellent (although the Bat Sonar gag was visually goofy, conceptually muddled, and Bruce doing the 'right thing' by giving Lucius Fox the power to destroy it after it had been used to find the Joker was too predictable). I always love to see Bat Manuel getting work (I'm perhaps the only person on the globe still mourning the cancellation of Century City , and you can't top the fact that Nestor Carbonell always brings Eyeliner!Gate to the party. Gary Oldman: man I loves me some Gary Oldman, and Jim Gordon may be my favorite character of his. I continue to get a complete kick out of his utter lack of weirdness. He may be Nolan's most brilliant piece of casting.

Aaron Eckhart is very good as Harvey Dent and pretty good as Two-Face. The Two-Face look is entirely nauseating (and more importantly, not as anatomically implausible as these things normally are), and unfortunately the narrative demands that he go to 11 pretty much immediately. (Ok, that's not entirely fair to the Nolans' script: His potential for 11 is nicely explored when he takes the Joker's henchman hostage and it's the goddamn Batman who stops him from giving himself that little Joker push.)

Maggie Gyllenhaal is better than Katie Holmes, and Dark Knight's Rachel Dawes is better than that found in Batman Begins. Yes, some of her lawyering dialogue is hokey, but at least she gets to do some lawyering (and actual badass interrogation), some personal growth, and so on. But she's still a girl in a superhero movie, so there's some whining, some damsel-in-distressing, and ultimately, some getting blowed up real good being overshadowed by how the boys feel about her getting blowed up real good.

Overall, it's a more than stand-up second entry by the Nolans into the Batman mythos. Furthermore, the film's visuals and Ledger's performance, at least in my opinion, more than stand-up to the hype. Drink the Kool-Aid, people.

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