Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Dark Knight (movie review)

I don't see a lot of popcorn movies anymore. It's not that I don't like them, it's more a matter of not getting to the theater very often. As good as home video has gotten, our home setup just isn't up to reproducing these kinds of movies. Anyway, I had the day off and my daughter talked me into going to a summer matinee of the Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's second shot at Batman.
In case you were wondering, my personal definition of “popcorn movie” is a big budget action movie that emphasizes special effects over acting. It usually opens in the summer and measures its success primarily in box office receipts. They've always been around, but began to dominate Hollywood about twenty five years ago. My take is that the modern form began in 1981 with Indiana Jones. While Jaws, Star Wars, Ben Hur, etc. all had been huge hits, it was roughly around the time of Indiana Jones that the popcorn movie really began to dominate Hollywood.

Let me get the first bit out of the way. Did I like the Dark Knight? The simple answer is “Yes.” What did I think? That one's not so simple. When Indiana Jones came out, it was liberating. The basic idea was to turn the movie experience back into a visual roller coaster ride (literally so in Temple of Doom) . Lucas and Spielberg's sought recapture the simple pleasures of the Saturday afternoon adventure movie a la Republic films, entertainment that kids could love. Indiana Jones was 's'the wisecracking good guy. The bad guys were not just dressed in black, they were actual Nazis. While it had bits of religion in it, the premise was to dump all pretentions- Let's stop thinking/worrying so much and just have fun. While Spielberg/Lucas's personal politics are quite different, the special effects action genre perfectly caught the mindset of the Reagan era.

In 1981, the viewing public was certainly ready. After a decade of All the President's Men, Midnight Cowboy, Sophie's Choice (actually 1981 too), they wanted to escape the seventies with all its talk of energy crises, hostages in the Middle East, and Small is Beautiful. If you remember, even Jaws had political overtones.

Eighties Hollywood became something of a studio arms race with various movie makers vying to see who could come up with the most spectacular special effects and gather the biggest grosses. In the process, the 100 million dollar gross became the benchmark of legitimacy and things like critics and Academy Awards became secondary considerations. If movies are the most commercial art, then action movies of the time turned them into a pure commodity. It's no coincidence that the last mega-hit movie of the eighties was a John Peters'/Tim Burton production starring Michael Keaton called “Batman”. It was the biggest grossing picture of its time. Any talk of acting was about the performance of Jack Nicholson as the Joker. Batman, the movie, broke with the campiness of the Batman tv series and returned to the comic book's roots of portraying Batman as a complex somewhat tortured soul and the darker action movie (possibly started with Empire Strikes Back) came into being.

For various reasons, both the Batman franchise and the action movie began to struggle in the Clinton Nineties. For one, Batman started casting the likes of Jim Carrey, George Clooney, and Alicia Silverstone in the series and went from Dark to goofy again. More significant, Spielberg went serious with Schindler's List and that was a signal to the heavy hitters in Hollywood to go back to making movies that weren't just about adrenaline and bravura set shots.

So let's digitally fast forward to 2005 and the post-9/11 era. Christopher Nolan revives the Batman franchise by going back to the darkness of Batman 1 and focusing on script and character development not instead of but along with spectacular state of the art CGI effects. It worked. Batman Begins proved to be a dark movie that struck a chord with an increasingly dark time.

In 2008, the Dark Knight turns out to be one of those rare sequels that's better than the original (Batman Begins). As a director, Nolan has always shown an interest in treating traditional Hollywood forms as a serious vehicle. His first movie, Memento, was a sort of post-modernist take on the detective movie that used a device shared by both detective fiction and post-modernism, the unreliable narrator. In the Dark Knight, Nolan's tries to marry film noir to the popcorn movie. In addition to spectacular action sequences and never before seen visuals, he blends in moral ambiguity and a brooding complexity. Most significant, the hallmark of film noir is that the villains tend to be more interesting than the good guys. Traditionally popcorn movies have been all about the hero/heroine with plots that often involved saving damsels from distress. In film noir, the plot often involves one of the two dying at some point. Bottom Line, the Dark Knight shares as much with LA Confidential (Hollywood's last successful attempt at retro-noir) as it does with Indiana Jones.

Darker more complex themes have been present in the genre for some time going back at least to Empire Strikes Back, but the Dark Knight completely dwarfs Spiderman's web of neuroses and Peter Parker's one step forward two steps back courtship of Mary Jane Watson. It appears that Nolan really does want to say something about the relationship between good and evil. The Dark Knight dabbles in Jung, Manicheanism, and bits of Civilization and Is Discontents (or is it Shirley Jackson's The Lottery) though Nolan wisely doesn't directly reference them. My take is that he's attempted something more ambitious than Spielberg. Instead of jumping from Jaws to Schindler's List, Nolan is trying to combine the two in the same movie. Film Noir managed to do that to the murder mystery. Does Nolan manage to take the ultimate escapist movie form and turn it into a serious vehicle for metaphysical discussion? For me the more significant question is should you? Sometimes you get things like the deep fried Snickers bar....sometimes you wind up with something like a lobster milk shake. Which one is the Dark Knight?

Pretty much everything about the Dark Knight is well done. I do have mixed feelings about the way Heath Ledger's death and Christian Bale's personal problems have become more or less a marketing vehicle for the movie ( like all the stars of Poltergeist dying mysterious deaths), but I have to say that Nolan is a skillful even masterful director. The opening bank heist scene that culminates in an escape by school bus with the sound of chattering children just above subliminal in the audio mix manages to both jump the tension and advance the plot all at once. Fwiw, it's also the first hint of my issues with the movie. Nolan uses the audio technique of keeping at least one synthesizer droning throughout the movie whether that's in the many action sequences or the quieter scenes that allegedly develop the characters. Without question it contributes to the sense of tension and menace, but it's also annoying and where a pure escapist movies get away with this sort of thing routinely, I found myself feeling manipulated in a movie that wanted to engage me intellectually as well as viscerally.

The movie itself is strewn with brooding movie shots. There's Batman on his solitary perch surveying Gotham from a tall building. There's batman hanging from a stairwell watching over the Gordon family. There are shots of longing between Batman and his two actor surrogate fathers, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, who both try to remind him of the need for restraint and perspective. These shots connect a series of well choreographed though inevitably chaotic set pieces that repeatedly cross ziplines with hang gliding. In any case the movie hums along, literally in the case of the audio but also in the more abstract sense.

Before I go on, I should mention that I was a bit offended by the presence of yet another sinister Asian banker character in this movie who as it happens lacks the courage to fight back physically. I'm not mad at Batman, it's more that I'm a bit frustrated with Hollywood, but at least it gives them an excuse to get the movie out of Gotham for a bit.

In any case, Nolan overlays a character triangle on top of this action foundation. There's Batman, of course, the man/creature who has channeled his anger over his parents' murder and all the evils of Gotham into an obsessive attempt to set the world right. Has he given up his humanity in pursuit of ultimate nobility? Christopher Nolan has mentioned that one reason he chose Bale for Batman Begins was that the actor was the one candidate who could do Batman and Bruce Wayne equally well. Per Nolan's vision, the character is in equal parts both identities at all times. One is not a cover for the other. Bale's good at it. For one thing, he recognizes that the essence of playing an action hero is less a matter of carrying off the fight scenes than it's a matter of mastering silence and the stiller qualities of the character. In fact, Bale tends to get more power from his character when he's brooding or in silent pain then when he's slugging people or jumping from high buildings. Batman is the anhedonic super hero, he does right but unlike Spiderman, he never gets to take pleasure in it.

So much has been made of Heath Ledger's last performance as the Joker that I was prepared to be disappointed. One of the fascinating things is that in his relatively short career Ledger went from the cartoonish First Knight to playing the heavy in the Dark Knight so well that he outdoes Jack Nicholson's Joker. As the embodiment of chaos, Ledger's joker prances, trash talks, and laughs hysterically just to the point of comic book parody. At the same time, he brings enough humanity to the scenes where he tells different versions of how he got his smile that you feel the pain. Minutes later he's parodying the Jerry Macguire line “You complete me” in full on camp yet the character somehow stays coherent. He leaves us as sort of a Montgomery Clift for the internet age with two terrific complex yet very different performances in Brokeback and Dark Knight.

Aaron Eckhart completes the triangle as the noble DA, Harvey Dent, whose soul becomes Batman and the Joker's real battleground. I'm not sure that this one works quite as well. It might be the script, but Eckhart never achieves the layered quality that Bale and Ledger manage with this. This results in a somewhat unbalanced triangle dramatically in that Eckhart's white knight doesn't really balance Batman's dark knight and his alter ego never comes close to measuring up to the Joker. The bit with the coin flips seemed to be Nolan's nod to quantum theory, but to my taste it got old fast. Another oddity is that Maggie Gyllenhal's character seems purely incidental in the story.

Finally, Nolan goes full on political as he drops in references to Guantanamo, the telecommunications bill, and other bits of the war on terror. Rather provocatively, he drops Batman onto the Whitehouse's side of the debate. I do have to say that Mission Accomplished would have been much more entertaining had the president dressed up as Batman instead. In addition, the Batmobile looks like Arnold Schwarzenneger's favorite Hummer. Given that the Governor of California once made action movies, it's an interesting hint. For a bit, I wondered if Nolan was trying to send a right wing message with this movie. Batman is after all vaguely fascist or at least appears to have roots in Nietzsche's long lost tome Also Sprach Batman.....It then struck me that he was after something a bit more subtle. Nolan is trying to make a super hero movie that reevaluates the need for super heroes and actually argues against them. He's suggesting that as long as Gotham needs to be saved by Batman, the city plan is fundamentally flawed. It's ordinary people who need to find a way to be better. Nolan brings this home in a well done duelling ferry scene towards the end that indirectly references the Millgram experiments.

Bottom line, Nolan does the whole package about as well as it can be done, but I came out of the theater more than a little uncertain. How can you be exhilarated and thinking about moral ambiguity at the same time. It's a bit like the droning synthesizer. It presses all the buttons, but philosophical movies at their best should totally refrain from pressing buttons. I was wondering if I'd just been taken through two states of being that simply don't work well together. I mean do you really take a copy of Nietzche to read while you're on a roller coaster ride? Was some of the pleasure lost in mixing the two?

I'll certainly give the inevitable installment three of this series a shot, but this may be one of those movies that I'll have to absorb for a bit before I decide if I actually like the thing.

P.S. I should mention that Nolan isn't the only one trying this mix. The movie V which Americanized Alan Moore's Graphic Novels (apparently somewhat to Moore's frustration) had a number of similar elements and also had sort of mixed results.



At 7/28/2008 12:03:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

I missed your very insightful reviews Chancelucky. I haven't seen the film yet and have been worried about the hype causing disappointment but I'll give it a go when the 'popcorn movie' crowd thins a bit.

This comment is not accompanied by a sinister synth track. Unless you hear one always?

At 7/29/2008 06:34:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Make your daughter take you to the fabulous new XFiles. Best shot movie for chiaroscuro I've seen in years. Should be seen on big screen. Is movie, not tv show. Loved it.

More on your review later. Is dawn. Must sleep, I guess.

At 7/29/2008 12:17:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

yes, I hear one always particularly when I'm blogging. Thanks for reading the thing and let me know what you think when you see the Dark Knight for yourself.

Mr Pogblog,
We'll check out the x-files when we get a chance. I'm just not sure where it's out there right now, at least at a theater near me.

At 7/31/2008 07:50:00 PM, Blogger benny06 said...

Midnight Cowboy was 1969, but besides the point.

I would like to see the film, and even my spouse who wants "adventure" or "thrillers" I cannot convince to get to the theater.

Thanks for the Review. Your reviews should be included in the regular Rotten Tomatoes list, but perhaps you could be submitted for DVD reviews.

At 8/01/2008 09:18:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

when we went, the theater was mostly empty. Let me know what you think of the movie when you do get to see it.

I think the reviews for Rotten Tomatoes are taken from regular newspapers and magazines. James Beardanelli is one of the few bloggers who gets included.

At 8/03/2008 02:39:00 PM, Blogger inkyhack said...


Your review of Dark Knight is pretty much right on target. I had many of the same thoughts and ideas after seeing it. It was great, but I definitely found some flaws.

As for when the "popcorn" movie was born, I would have to point to either Star Wars or Jaws for that instead of Indiana Jones - though the Jones film was definitely a "popcorn" film, according to your definition.

For evidence, I suggest you put the documentary "A Decade Under the Influence" on your Netflix list. It's a history of the film industry from 1968 to 1978 and looks at the birth of the big budget action film and how it has completely changed Hollywood.

At 8/04/2008 10:11:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks. I did mention both Jaws and STar Wars. My take was that Indiana Jones was the beginning of the special effects becoming the star of the movie and the first week's gross being the measure of artistic success. I realize that it wasn't the first of its kind, more that that's the point where these movies became ubiquitous. It's also the marriage of Spielberg and Lucas which I think was a significant marker of a time when American business became a long series of mergers.

At 8/05/2008 05:10:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

I enjoyed the film overall but as is the norm for me, a few things annoyed me.

The ever present soundtrack (I generally really like soundtracks) overshadowed moments that would have been just as or more impactful with the acting. Batman's voice nearly drove me to distraction but not so much as the other patrons who seemed to be there for the food alone (who needs that many snacks? no in and out priveleges are allowed in my home theatre unless I hit pause).

A couple of times, I wished things would have been moved along a bit quicker but I'll look forward to seeing it again on dvd and reassessing. Heath Ledger was very memorable as the Joker and I certainly didn't expect so much funny with my sinister. Parts of it were just outstanding although a couple of things were a bit heavy handed. I somehow felt more satisfied with Batman Begins than with this one but again, once I see it again, I may need to rethink things.

The other blockbustery goodness I'm hoping to see before long is Hellboy 2.

At 8/05/2008 09:29:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks for letting me know what you thought of the movie. I saw an article yesterday about Batman's weird Clint Eastwood voice. Yeah, it definitely was weird.

I liked Batman Begins, but thought this was more ambitious (may or may not be a good thing). This run of BAtman though is much better than the 80's-90's Batman.

At 4/08/2009 01:21:00 PM, Blogger Treasures By Brenda said...

Excellent, detailed review! I had to read it at the very least to find out what the heck a popcorn movie is. Thanks for educating me.

I did enjoy your review and I am going to add a link to it on my page The Little Family's Batman: Dark Knight Blu-ray Review.



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