Aug 9, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008): B+

The former, a sound-deprived wall of blue flame from which the Batman logo emerges – silently and swiftly, as if closing in on prey – scored to the dissonant, unnerving strings of a barely audible soundtrack. Consumed by the darkness, the effect is that of both condensed madness and the thrill of anticipation, as if waiting for the gunfire to mark the beginning of a race.

The latter, quite unexpectedly in its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it immediacy, a variation on the traditional into-the-sunset exit (a single cut that, in this critic’s opinion, alone demands the film be nominated for an achievement in editing), elevating all that has come before into the realm of modern pop mythology.

Were films judged entirely by the emotive impact of their opening and closing images – those ever-so-important first and last impressions, ushering us into and out of the darkness – Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight would be a masterpiece. That these respective shots, detailed above, are brief moments anything but lingered upon speaks to Nolan’s growing sensibilities as a visual storyteller, their impact not merely heightened by, but manifest of, their barely-glimpsed presence – temporary sensory overload that’s gone before you’ve quite gotten hold of it. Ironically, though, it is the presence of these and several other moments of transcendent greatness that serve to highlight the relative inferiority of much of the product, like a massive house of cards build on an otherwise unstable foundation. A key moment sees The Joker (a consistently brilliant Heath Ledger) describe his conflict with Christian Bale’s Batman as that between an unstoppable force and an immovable object, the shot and actor aligned in such a way that it suggests the heady immensity of his claim. In a way, his words effectively summarize the conflict inherent within The Dark Knight itself, a blockbuster as finely crafted as any of its kind even as it stands guilty of more cardinal offenses, a irrevocable schism between concept and execution

At The House Next Door, Keith Uhlich articulates his own disappointment as a “now you see it, now you don’t” kind of artistic hodgepodge. After multiple re-reading and three viewings of the film itself, I think I’ve a handle on his exact meaning(s) (as his thoughts often throw my own perceptions for a loop), and while I sense agreement as regards parts of my own viewing experience, overall I feel something more akin to two steps forward, one step back. Though not meant to its detriment, The Dark Knight feels not unlike an ultra-high concept theme park ride: the film is always moving forward, quite unlike any I’ve ever seen, not merely kinetically but narratively, like a freight train too heavy for even the strongest breaks. Not a moment isn’t meant to expose something – a character trait, an unfolding tragedy, the indication of a death, the presentation of a conflict, the resolution to a crisis, etc. – and if the film has any singular flaw (of which there are many arguable), it’s that it often smothers itself with excessive exposition. Not simply free of anything that could be called relative pacing or mood (such are present, but always attached to facts, facts, facts), let alone languishing, the film flaws itself via numerous redundancies – overemphatic repeats of ideas and questions meant to impart philosophical or emotionally probing thought. In his own 2005 franchise reboot Batman Begins, Nolan abused dialectic development of theme by saying “fear” more times than in George W. Bush’s combined 2002-2005 State of the Union addresses. The broken record nature of the screenplay reached inadvertently comedic heights when Ra’s Al Ghul’s (Liam Neeson) purportedly wise statements played like parenthetical comments never erased from the screenplay, like markers leftover from sketched lines of screenplay architecture. Similarly in The Dark Knight do themes start fresh, turn ripe, and suddenly rot on screen in distinct phases, though whereas Begins often meandered on its emotions – never quite grand, but always feeling and poetic – TDK (as the fans like to call it) feels like a rush from one point to the next.

In a way, this approach is absolutely right: the characters of the film themselves face continual battles with limited choices at their disposal and unpleasantries at every turn, their very lives often sacrificed in their perpetual effort to survive. By turning the central cat-and-mouse conflict into a narrative tool on audience expectations, the film posits said scenario onto our own sensibilities. Implicitly reflecting 21st Century physical and psychological warfare, The Dark Knight renders its tale with sufficient timeliness without explicitly vocalizing such connections, much in the same way that 12 Angry Men still serves as a reminder of Great Ideas regardless of how long ago the movie was released and the original play written. Pity, then, that The Dark Knight can’t settle for good enough, throwing in the mix a last-minute anti-Patriot Act diatribe via Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox that feels less like genuine character thoughts than a lame grab at cinematic legitimacy via lip service to timely issues. In using the comic and crime genres to wax philosophical on our political moment, the film overdoses on talking points excessively and almost unforgivably, often utilizing the same description or miniature catchphrase, two, three or four times in the same scene. Praise be to Heath Ledger and company for making even the most mundane of dialogue sound passionate and meaningful (hollow though the oft-repeated words become), and damn Nolan for his pounding away at our heads with a rusty hammer. It’s called a thesaurus, Chris. Use it.

That a great deal of the movie ultimately sticks, then, speaks to the filmmaker’s almost-masterful execution of formula, packaging emotions, plot, ideas, and mood into compacted chunks that flow purposefully from one to the next. Nothing in the construction of The Dark Knight hasn’t been carefully thought out, a point on which I think even the film’s detractors can agree (however blatantly misguided some of its choices are). In the Gotham environment of disorder and death – the film itself is driven by a taste for self-preservation and the need to know – the redundancy of plotting info is a major blow to any developed mental buzz, and it horribly upsets the big-budget successes on prominent display, often sending this $200 million tank of a movie off the course. Though damnable in itself, the fact that the problem remains isolated to moments of intended thematic development is, in a way, something to be grateful about: where the entirety of the film this riddled with verbal diarrhea, I think I might petition to suffocate every single last one of the characters. It’d be a quiet threequel, for sure.

If the aforementioned elements do nothing less than bug the shit out of me, rest assured that the extremity of my reservations comes entirely from the fact that they dampen the almost absolute excellence of everything else they coexist with from beginning to end; so great is it that I’m tempted to forgive the systems on life support and pass the whole thing with flying colors. Burdened it may be, The Dark Knight features some of the most immediate and savory blockbuster artistry the medium has ever seen, bringing to mind the feral plow of Cameron’s Terminator 2 and Spielberg’s pro-life Jurassic Park arguments, even if it never quite touches those film’s respective pinnacles of development and articulation. Like a Greek morality play with concise themes and specifically tagged representatives, Gotham City is the fertile nesting ground for these peripatetics in action, figures of power engaged in constant struggle for the upper hand. A love-torn Batman represents democratic virtue, The Joker unbridled chaos, and a late-entry vote by a fallen Harvey Dent suggests that only pure, black and white chance can serve as an issuer of justice. Let the debate begin.

From the opening, Heat-inspired bank robbery through the centerpiece highway chase, Nolan’s spectacle carries with it a sense of formidable momentum – violence, both physical and emotional, enervated by hefty dynamics and a brooding sense that nothing can be taken for granted. Gotham City is under attack and even Batman lacks the resources necessary to combat it, forced to discard all traditional notions of justice in the face of a villain who wants nothing more than “to watch the world burn”. As the plot progresses and the influence of criminal activity deepens, the all-encompassing power of The Joker begins to take on almost-profound, if device laden, levels of magnitude, and Ledger’s much-hyped posthumous performance – though certainly influenced by the dark circumstances surrounding it, in much the same way that any artist’s work takes on new levels of importance in the wake of their passing – entirely lives up to the hype preceding it. Though ticky and quirky in all the “expected” ways, Ledger’s mannerisms reach beyond a mere physical arsenal of gestures and touches on deeper psychological tremors, the inexplicable nature of which is only elucidated by the film’s decision to never provide him with a proper back story. In a way equals with the much-touted 2007 “ambiguous villain,” Oscar-winning duo of There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Day-Lewis and No Country for Old Men’s Javier Bardem, Ledger goes beyond the written page so effectively that all around him suffer in comparison. Too bad that Nolan botches the character’s finale, a disastrous bit of manipulation in the form of a “social experiment” that plays like a scene from an imaginary follow-up to Paul Haggis’ shrill Crash. Woe too is Aaron Eckhart, who eagerly dives into Harvey Dent/Two-Face only for his arc to be crammed into a poorly developed third act. Such are the sore thumbs that stick out embarrassingly from The Dark Knight’s canvas, valleys amidst an operatic landscape that threaten to swallow up that which surrounds them, no matter how high the peaks themselves rise.

How high, indeed, although “big” seems a more accurate overall descriptor. Though crafted deliberately with IMAX screenings in mind (the screens of which utilize a screen closer to 1:66:1 than traditional widescreen), Nolan’s use of said format’s customized cameras translates quite seamlessly to the 1.85:1 ratio of the standard theatrical exhibition; in both arenas, the camerawork effectively pronounces the immensity of the action at hand, swooping over the urban landscapes like a maze in which various combatants writhe for the upper hand in a titanic battle. Both the narrative and locations are effectively labyrinthine, the series of unfortunate events that plague the citizens of Gotham doubling as an expert – if, in hindsight, blatantly calculated – play on audience emotions, reinforcing the notion that comics have and continue to inform real life in the same way that drama has always aided in the exploration of the human condition. Cluttered though it may be, a great genre movie exists at the heart of this wild and untamed, if occasionally misguided, beast, and one can only hope that Nolan will become more confident in his expressive devices after his experience on The Dark Knight. It’s the Batman movie we need right now, if not entirely the one we deserve.

15 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:27 AM

    You write as if you are a 15 year old who has just discovered the thesaurus in Microsoft Word.

    Pretentious...

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  2. What? Microsoft Word has a thesaurus?

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  3. Anonymous10:53 PM

    The non-IMAX portions of the film were shot in 2.35:1, not 1.85:1.

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  4. Anonymous10:54 AM

    AHAHA
    dude. don't try to use SAT words in every sentence. It actually detracts from your points by making them too lengthy and needlessly complicated. And besides, you don't have to sound intelligent to make your point. Conciseness is important. Just be yourself.

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  5. Anonymous12:36 PM

    ironic that you accuse TDK of verbal diarhea when your entire "review" is nothing but a poorly constructed, poorly written, pretentious piece of obtuse verbal diahrea itself.

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  6. Disagree with other posters... I find the more descriptive and accurate words to help your critique. A 'vocab word' to the ignorant is a perfect descriptive word to the well-versed.

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  7. kancer12:35 AM

    "Nolan’s use of said format’s customized cameras translates quite seamlessly to the 1.85:1 ratio of the standard theatrical exhibition; in both arenas, the camerawork effectively pronounces the immensity of the action at hand, swooping over the urban landscapes like a maze in which various combatants writhe for the upper hand in a titanic battle."

    That's so many half baked, over described ideas in one sentence I just don't know what to say. And clear the reviewer doesn't know either. Garbage doesn't even begin to describe this bizarre rant/review. Sigh.

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  8. Steve7:23 PM

    You have the word ARE at the end of every sentence. Useless these reviews are. What're you Yoda or something? Movie reviews with Yoda you are.

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  9. Anonymous10:40 PM

    Rob, lay off the drugs, that review reads like a BS high school student's work, so shallow that one needs to cover it up by making it convoluted to the point of parody. Yea vocab!

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  10. Anonymous11:35 AM

    reading your review was a test of endurance. stop showing off.

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  11. Isn't it funny how most of the responses criticize the review, not the opinion? I am strangely unsure which one of those approaches is the correct one, or if criticizing a review in any way can ever be condoned. Ever since RottenTomatoes began providing talk-back section to individual reviews, the classic way of critiquing the reviewer's opinion has gradually transformed to criticizing the reviewer's skill in grammar usage and sentence-building. You have become one of my movie critic role models, not because our opinions frequently match, but because I think your reviews are some of the best-written on the internet. That, in turn makes me as guilty as the rest of the responders in this comment section of paying more attention to the writing style, rather than the actual opinion.

    To that end, I would like to defend it. I think any time someone sets out to write something that will be published on a website, magazine, book etc. he or she risks revealing a personal flaw, whether it is in the way their mind works or more personal things like feelings, emotions, regrets. My writing, if read closely (something I don't recommend to anyone) reveals my ADD (finally officially diagnosed) as I repeat words too often from one sentence to another making some of the stuff almost unreadable.

    But getting back to your writing, it is worth defending simply for its existence because you took that risk, but also because even though I have looked for flaws in your psyche in every review, the only thing I have found are good things like honesty and the aforementioned fearlessness.

    Thanks.

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  12. Stefan is right. It's pathetic that the only ammo these people have is criticizing the so called grammar mistakes in the review, at no time even questioning the content or making a valid argument as to why they disagree. The reason of course is that they have no argument, because they probably love the movie just because they feel like they're supposed to. If they don't, they're beloved fanboy license will be revoked and they won't be allowed back in the clubhouse. To have a real argument would actually require some thought, and that would take way too much effort.

    Also, there's no bigger sign of a spineless idiot than someone who goes by anonymous. So, basically what you're saying is you have the balls to talk shit about someone else's writing, but you don't have the balls to say who you are. Pretty childish...

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  13. fo sho4:30 PM

    the word you objectors are searching for is " hifalutin' "

    still, i approve of his message and hyper-criticism, even though i would give the film an A

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  14. Anonymous11:06 AM

    Don't you mean "their beloved fanboy" Lee?

    When the whole review reeks of pompous high-school level antagonism, why even bother critiquing it? It's like analyzing the contents of a landfill.

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  15. Anonymous2:59 PM

    I really enjoyed and agreed with this review. I think it plays fair! The Dark Knight is certainly a good movie (with moments of true greatness) but it has flaws which should be considered. I found this review to be refreshing, considering how many people have been calling the film a "masterpiece." A very thoughtful and well-written review, indeed.

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