Bodied


Bodied

Going mano a mano.

(2017) Dramedy (NEON/YouTube Premium) Calum Worthy, Jackie Long, Rory Uphold, Jonathan “Dumboundead” Park, Walter Perez, Shoniqua Shandai, Charlamagne Tha God, Dizaster, Debra Wilson, Anthony Michael Hall, Lisa Maley, Eddie Perino, Eric Allen Smith, Candice Renee, Daniel Rashid, Vivian Lamolli, Yves Bright, Corey Charron, Sloane Avery. Directed by Joseph Kahn

 

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: I will try to refrain as much as possible from using hip hop slang which only makes me sound like a middle aged movie critic who has absolutely no understanding of the culture or the language. You’re welcome.

Once in awhile a movie will come along whose subject holds no interest for me and I’ll give it a pass when the opportunity comes along to view it. After all, realistically speaking there are only so many movies that anyone can see in a week, even a reviewer. All of us are forced to pick and choose somewhat, making room for movies we figure are either important or hold some interest for us. I’m not a big fan of rap – it just doesn’t speak to me personally – and a movie about battle rap, as this one is, held no interest for me. However, a colleague recommended this film so enthusiastically that when the publicist approached with a screener link I gave in and said okay, not really expecting much.

Mea culpa. I was wrong, wrong, wrong. This movie is as entertaining as anything you’ll see during this busy season for movies. Worthy plays the somewhat unfortunately named Adam Merkin, a grad student at Berkeley who is doing his English Literature master[s thesis on the use of the “N” word in battle rap. He takes his uptight feminist Vegan girlfriend Maya (Uphold) to a rap battle, explaining to her (and to us) what’s going on and the various terms which is an ingenious way of using the terminology so that everyone can understand it – and they do use a lot of it.

Adam interviews Behn Grymm (Long), a master battle rapper who finds Adam’s genuine enthusiasm amusing and for giggles sets up the nerdy ginger up for a parking lot post-battle battle with a wannabe named Billy Pistolz (Charron). After a weak start, Adam suddenly finds the confidence to absolutely destroy his foe which he finds invigorating and eventually cell phone footage of his win is discovered by a promoter who signs up the youngster in a try-out battle against an L.A. Korean rapper named Prospek (Park) and Adam wins that too, gaining the respect of his opponent and other battle rappers like Che Corleone (Perez) and Devine Write (Shandai). It’s a feeling he is not used to never having gotten much respect in his life.

As he continues to rap, his repertoire includes increasingly homophobic, misogynist and racist slurs – all perfectly acceptable within battle rap but at Berkeley the student body and administration have a collective coronary and soon he finds himself persona non grata even with his own father (Hall) who teaches there. Nonetheless YouTube fame and respect are a heady mixture and Adam begins to change radically – or is this the person he has always been but has kept submerged?

The writing here is phenomenal. Eminem, who is a producer here, isn’t spared; during one meta moment (and there are several) a group of battle rappers discuss the Detroit star and his movie and let’s just say they’re none too charitable. Liberal white guilt is skewered here as charges of “cultural appropriation” are thrown about like fish at Pike’s Place Market. Berkeley liberals are shown to be none too tolerant here and there’s some truth in that, sad to say.

Then again, rap culture seems to get a pass. Within a rap battle, anything goes – you can say what you want about a person’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, weight, appearance, anything at all – and you get a pass particularly if you’re black. Behn Grymm explains to Adam that certain aspects of black culture are off-limits for him because he’s white. There will be those who will call that a double standard and they’re not wrong, although the reasons for it are not unjustified either. It’s pretty thoughtful stuff for a comedy in which when battle rappers make “gun hands” at their opponents, animated smoke comes out of their fingers and faux gunshots are heard on the soundtrack. However, the filmmakers are also unafraid to test our own preconceptions about battle rappers; most of them have jobs, none of them are broke (except college student Adam) and one of them turns out to be a middle class computer game programmer with a nice house and a beautiful family.

Worthy, best known for his work on American Vandal on Netflix, gives a star performance here. He is perfectly cast, a skinny and nonthreatening  redhead who shows some teeth later in the movie once he’s been pushed to the limit and essentially abandoned by those closest to him. It’s a powerful performance but Worthy shows a light touch when he needs to.

I have to admit some of the digs at women, Asians, plus size people, Hispanics, and yes, white people did make me a little bit uncomfortable. I guess that’s my own liberal guilt at work. Still, I found this movie to be smart, insightful and extremely funny in places. I still am not a rap fan but I am living proof you don’t have to be to really enjoy this movie – although it helps enormously – but certainly those who love the music will likely want to see this forthwith.

The movie is the first to be picked up by the YouTube Premium channel for theatrical release which is handled by the indie company that also distributed the Oscar-winning I, Tonya for a brief theatrical run. It will also be available on YouTube Premium at the end of the month. Whether you see it online or in a theater, by all means see it. You won’t be sorry.

REASONS TO GO: The script is smart and funny. Worthy is perfectly cast. Those unfamiliar with battle rap won’t get hopelessly lost.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the less savory aspects of battle rap are cast in a more flattering light than they should be.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, some drug use, sexual content, brief nudity and a heaping helping of racial slurs, homophobic slurs and misogynistic slurs.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer Alex Larson is a veteran battle rapper, going by the name of Kid Twist.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews: Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 8 Mile
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Can You Ever Forgive Me?

War Machine (2017)


War is an all-American pastime!

(2017) Dramedy (Netflix) Brad Pitt, Ben Kingsley, Tilda Swinton, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, Scoot McNairy, Lakeith Stanfield, Alan Ruck, Will Poulter, Nicholas Jones, Meg Tilly, Josh Stewart, Tim Downey, Richard Glover, Griffin Dunne, Andrew Byron, Daniel Betts, John Magaro, RJ Cyler, Emory Cohen, Rufus Wright, Sean Power, Sian Thomas, Paul Hickey, Georgina Rylance. Directed by David Michôd

 

Netflix has been producing original movies for several years but their Adam Sandler comedies aside, their first serious attempt at a blockbuster of their own was this fictionalized Brad Pitt film based on a non-fiction book about the War in Afghanistan. It is not a promising start, although they have several films that have been released since then that are far better and far bigger.

The movie is meant to be a black comedic commentary on the nature of 21st century war as practiced by the United States. It moves at a kind of snail’s pace (at roughly two hours long, it is about a half hour too much) through a bloated script full of unfunny bits. The fault here isn’t Pitt’s although this is perhaps his most deranged work yet; his General Glen McMahon is a walking tic machine, exhorting troops that “We WILL prevail” at the same time expressing frustration with the bureaucracy he has to deal with. His square-jawed expression is the epitome of every Hollywood American military commander yet his odd gait looks like he has some sort of wound in his genitals.

Despite having a cast of some of the best actors and character actors working today, there are simply too many roles and you forget who is who after about five minutes, leading to further confusion that the screenplay hasn’t already caused itself. This has all the earmarks of moviemaking by committee.

I liked the concept and thought that given the pedigree of Michôd (Animal Kingdom) that this project had promise but it pretty much falls apart of its own weightiness. I get the sense that the filmmakers were told to make a comedy, then told to make a commentary on war, then told to make a drama by the powers that be. What they ended up making was a mish-mash that is neither one nor the other but is a tedious waste of two hours. I expected much better

REASONS TO GO: Even at his most subdued, Pitt still exudes star power.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is bloated and dreadfully unfunny.
FAMILY VALUES: There is war violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film references actual events that took place during the command of Stanley A. McChrystal between 2009 and 2010.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wag the Dog
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Suburbicon

Live By Night


Ben  Affleck is all business.

Ben Affleck is all business.

(2016) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Chris Messina, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Robert Glenister, Matthew Maher, Remo Girone, Sienna Miller, Miguel J. Pimentel, Titus Welliver, Max Casella, JD Evermore, Clark Gregg, Anthony Michael Hall, Derek Mears, Christian Clemenson, Chris Sullivan, Veronica Alcino. Directed by Ben Affleck

 

What makes a good man do bad things? Sometimes it’s circumstance, sometimes desperation, sometimes it’s because they believe that they are doing it for a greater good. Once they a good man goes down that path however, how long before it changes him from a good man to a bad one?

Joe Coughlin (Affleck) went to the First World War as a good man. The son of a police captain (Gleeson), he returns home to Boston disillusioned and bitter, vowing not to follow orders ever again. He becomes a petty thief with a small gang but Coughlin is bold and smart and soon comes to the attention of Irish mob boss Albert White (Glenister). Coughlin wants no part of a gang but it’s one of those situations where he doesn’t have any attractive alternatives.

Unfortunately, soon White’s mistress Emma Gould (Miller) comes to Joe’s attention and the two start carrying on a rather dangerous clandestine relationship. Of course, it inevitably leads to tragedy and Joe goes to jail. When he gets out, Boston is essentially closed to him and he goes south to Tampa along with his right hand man Dion Bartolo (Messina) where they will oversee the rum running operation of Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Girone). There he meets two pivotal people – police chief Figgis (Cooper) and Graciela (Saldana); the former he forges a business relationship with and the latter a romantic one.

Joe’s interracial romance soon garners the attention of the Ku Klux Klan who makes life a mess for Joe. Joe appeals to Chief Figgis for help but the Klan’s most visible guy (Maher) happens to be the Chief’s brother-in-law. Although he admires and respects the Chief a great deal Joe uses blackmail photos of the Chief’s daughter Loretta (Fanning) to force the Chief to betray his brother-in-law.

Some time after that, Joe hits upon the idea of building casinos in Florida and begins construction on a magnificent one. Pescatore is happy because Joe is making him cartfuls of money and plenty of important people want to see the casino built. However, Joe is opposed by an evangelist – Loretta Figgis – who helps turn public and political opinion against him. Now Joe is in a great deal of hot water and finds himself once again between the two Boston mob bosses except that this time they are BOTH against him. Surviving this battle may not be possible.

Let’s cut to the chase; this is the weakest entry in Affleck’s otherwise stellar directing filmography. That doesn’t mean this is a terrible film, it’s just the most convoluted and least interesting of Affleck’s films to date. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a truly talented director and some of the scenes he has shot here are simply magic, but there aren’t enough of them to make a cohesive whole. Some of the blame lies at the feet of Dennis Lehane whose book this is based upon; the book itself was somewhat plot-heavy and it doesn’t translate to the silver screen as well as other books that the author wrote like Mystic River for example.

There are a ton of characters in here and a pretty high-end cast; that leads to a logjam of performances, some of which get short shrift and others seem to simply disappear in the bedlam. Standing out are Cooper as the bereaved and aggrieved chief of police, Saldana as the patient girlfriend and Messina as the loyal right hand man. All three get substantial screen time; not so much for fine actors like Miller, Gleeson and Greenwood among others.

And with all this, sometimes it feels like you’re riding a lazy Southern river that seems to be all bend and no destination. There are at least three false endings and when the final credits role there is a feeling of relief. The movie could have very easily ended at a much earlier point (I won’t say where but if Ben Affleck wants to e-mail me, I’d be glad to discuss it with him) and have been much more satisfying than the place it finally did end.

I’m hoping this was just a fluke and that on his next film Affleck returns to form. He has shown in his career that he’s a bit streaky, both to the positive and to the negative. He is capable of greatness and he is also capable of movies that are utterly forgettable. This falls in the latter category – it’s not horrible, not really cringe-worthy; just inconsequential. That’s not an adjective you want used in connection with your film and I’m sure Affleck doesn’t want to make films that even potentially could have that adjective used to describe them. I sure don’t like feeling that the adjective is apt.

This is a nice looking movie that captures the era convincingly to my mind. Affleck looks pretty chic in the tailored suits of the era and the ladies have that elegance that the 30s were known for. There is a fair amount of violence – some of it bloody – but you would expect that in a film about gangsters. There is also a moral ambiguity that might be troubling for some. When watching the Corleone family, you got a sense that they knew what they were doing was wrong but this was what they knew how to do. Coughlin seems to have more options and a moral compass but he still chooses to do things that are expedient rather than right. I suppose that’s true for a lot of us.

REASONS TO GO: Affleck remains a gifted director even on his less successful films.
REASONS TO STAY: A meandering plot sabotages the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly graphic violence, lots of profanity and a little sexuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie based on a Dennis Lehane novel that Affleck has directed (the first was Gone Baby Gone back in 2007).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Untouchables
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing

Results


Running on empty.

Running on empty.

(2015) Romantic Comedy (Magnolia) Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, Kevin Corrigan, Giovanni Ribisi, Brooklyn Decker, Anthony Michael Hall, Constance Zimmer, Tishuan Scott, Zoe Graham, David Benton, Greg Dorchak, Donn Adelman, Graham Carter, Laura Frances, Lindsay Anne Kent, Stephen Latham, Katie Folger, Elizabeth Berridge. Directed by Andrew Bujalski

Florida Film Festival 2015

When it comes to fitness, only results matter. Either you go from overweight and flabby to fit and muscled or you don’t. Either you start a wellness regimen that works for you or you don’t. If the latter, than no matter what your diet is, no matter how much effort you put in, you are still out-of-shape.

Trevor (Pearce) owns a gym, or as gym owners tend to characterize them these days, a fitness center. He has high hopes to expand his Austin-based property into a franchise, and is on the verge of doing just that. His Power 4 Life fitness center has incorporated a goals-based training philosophy into its way of doing business and employs some fairly expert personal fitness trainers. Chief among them is Kat (Smulders), a high-strung trainer with anger issues. She’s an effective motivator and a patient teacher for the most part but get her outside the training regimen and she’s a mess.

Into the mix comes Danny (Corrigan), a lonely divorcee who is new to Austin. Just days after his divorce became final, he inherited millions and now has nobody to share his new-found wealth with. He vaguely wants to become more fit, fit enough as he tells Trevor, to take a punch. Trevor is a little bit nonplussed but everyone has their reasons for getting fit. As long as the check clears, it’s all good. After some soul searching, he assigns Kat (with whom he’s had a previous relationship that didn’t work out) to be Danny’s personal trainer and sends her to Danny’s palatial but empty mansion.

Danny has enough money to buy him everything but happiness and while he has made the acquaintance of a kind of semi-shady lawyer sort (Ribisi), he really has no friends. So of course he becomes a bit besotted by Kat who reacts – or some would say overreacts – accordingly. This leads to an adjustment in the relationship between Trevor and Kat, a new friendship between Danny and Trevor which eventually dissolves – because of Kat. Relationships are a hell of a lot more complicated than getting in shape.

Bujalski has plenty of indie street cred for his quirky black and white comedy Computer Chess. This is his second feature and has a much bigger budget and recognizable stars, not the least of which is the always reliable Pearce who as usual has the kind of screen presence that plenty of bigger stars don’t come close to possessing. Utilizing his native Aussie accent here, Pearce gives Trevor a kind of Zen-like external calm but inside he’s the proverbial chicken with his head cut off as he tries to cut a deal with the Russian fitness master Grigoriy (Hall) to invest in his gyms.

Smulders, who’s stint on How I Met Your Mother made her a TV star and her work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Agent Maria Hill has given her a steady paycheck after that series ended gets to exercise her indie legs, albeit in quite the challenging role. She doesn’t quite pull it off though, being written to be so thoroughly unlikable that even Leona Helmsley seems like Mother Teresa in comparison. Even though she mellows a little by the end of the movie, she has just been so damn annoying all the way through that you don’t much care.

Corrigan, a long time indie stalwart, shines here. He is kind of an Oliver Platt for this generation and that’s a pretty high compliment. Even though Danny is quite the schlub and turns out to be rather petulant and a bit of an asshole at the end of the day, you still end up liking him a little bit.

In fact none of the characters are truly likable, although you end up rooting for Trevor kind of by default. Also, don’t be fooled by the “comedy” portion of the romantic comedy; the wit here is dry as the Mojave in August and those into a broader kind of humor and a more formula kind of romantic comedy may take issue with what they find here. Still, those who appreciate that kind of humor are going to really dig this movie which has a lot going for it, although at the end of the day ends up being a fairly entertaining film but ultimately one that you aren’t going to remember much about once the end credits roll.

REASONS TO GO: Has a bit of fun with gym culture. Pearce always does yeoman work.
REASONS TO STAY: Mostly disposable. Cat is so unlikable that she becomes annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of harsh language, some sexuality and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Smulders was five months pregnant during filming and great pains were taken to disguise her pregnancy. Director Bujalski’s wife also gave birth with two days left remaining in the shooting schedule, forcing a brief delay.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Breaking Away
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: San Andreas

Foxcatcher


Steve Carell suggests to Channing Tatum that he do an American version of a British sitcom to further his career.

Steve Carell suggests to Channing Tatum that he do an American version of a British sitcom to further his career.

(2014) True Life Drama (Sony Classics) Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice, Jackson Frazer, Samara Lee, Francis J. Murphy III, Jane Mowder, David Bennett, Lee Perkins, Robert Haramia, Daniel Hilt, Bryan Cook, David Zabriskie, Frederick Feeney, Alan Oppenheimer (voice). Directed by Bennett Miller

The making of a tragedy doesn’t necessarily unfold the way you’d expect. Sometimes there is a slow build in which there is a feeling of inevitability (but only when you look back). Most times it appears suddenly and without warning, turning lives and families upside down.

Mark Schultz (Tatum) is an Olympic gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling from the 1984 Olympics but that doesn’t buy many groceries. He is subsisting on ramen, wrestling practice with his brother Dave (Ruffalo) who is a coach at the local college which supports his budding family including wife Nancy (Miller). Then Mark gets a bizarre phone call from one of the richest men in America – well, one of his flunkies – John DuPont (Carell), who wants to meet with Schultz. Mark doesn’t really have anything better to do so he heads out there.

It turns out that John, a kind of diffident, odd duck of a man has a thing for wrestling.  A big thing. He also has a bit of a patriotic streak. America’s wrestling program is chronically underfunded with facilities that can only be called archaic. DuPont wants to change all that, building a state-of-the-art world-class wrestling facility on his family estate, Foxcatcher Farm. Mark, who doesn’t get enthusiastic about much, is enthusiastic about this. He pleads with his brother to come on board, but Dave – who like Mark underwent a vagabond-like childhood, moving from place to place – doesn’t want to put his children through the same thing and refuses to uproot them to move to the countryside outside of Philadelphia. Mark goes it alone.

Other wrestlers are brought on board but Mark is clearly DuPont’s favorite and when Mark wins the world championships that year, DuPont is clearly thrilled, taking Mark’s success as his success. In turn, Mark looks up at DuPont as a father figure.

Things begin to go sour though. DuPont introduces Mark to cocaine and Mark soon becomes addicted, skipping out on practices and showing up high or drunk. DuPont is concerned and brings in Dave to help right the ship, but Mark is clearly in an unhealthy place. Can his brother help pull the budding superstar out of his downward spiral in time for Olympic glory in Seoul?

This is clearly a morality play, as Bennett Miller’s two previous movies have been (Capote, Moneyball) but it’s also at the same time more than that. When you look back on it after having seen it, you’ll understand that there is also a randomness to the events, none of which would spell out the conclusion. In fact, Miller suggests, life sometimes isn’t a succession from A to Z. Sometimes it leaps around and ends up at Z after having gone from C to E to Q, followed by a stint in Chinese and Arabic characters, numerals and symbols.

There is a kind of chill in the look of the film, from the stark apartment Mark lives in at the beginning, the snow-covered farm in winter, even the somewhat antiseptic look of Foxcatcher itself. John DuPont tends to bottle up his emotions, often staring into space, wanting to say something, catching himself, and saying something else. The coldness of the film is a reflection of DuPont himself, and the slow, methodical unfolding of the story is also a reflection of DuPont, who speaks in a very deliberate manner.

What stands out here more than the story are the performances. Carell has been getting Oscar buzz since the film’s festival premiere and is almost a lock to get a nomination next week and, in my opinion, deservedly so. He underplays DuPont rather than overplays him, making him kind of the ultimate straight man, prone to eccentricities and never quite sure if he’s the butt of the joke or not. He is also a very wealthy man and he is used to being treated with deference. He is also a bit of a lonely boy, having had no friends other than those his mother (Redgrave) paid for. He is desperately trying to please her, but she thinks wrestling is “low” and he thinks that horses, which she has spent her life raising and riding, are “dumb.”

More surprising (and less talked about) are the performances of Tatum and Ruffalo. Tatum, who at one time was more of a pretty boy than an actor, has delivered the best performance of his career. I have to admit, he’s been getting steadily better and here he blossoms, showing that he can be as good an actor as anyone. There’s a scene where his frustration boils over in a hotel room and, furious at himself for not turning in an acceptable effort at least as far as he’s concerned, begins slapping himself in the face before graduating to pounding his fist on the walls and eventually, smashing his head into a mirror (which was ad libbed by the way – Tatum was initially not supposed to go that far). He has a kind of simian profile and at times a thousand yard stare that is positively chilling.

Ruffalo has in many ways the toughest job of the three. Dave is likable, supportive and charismatic. He makes it clear why everyone loved Dave Schultz who knew him – and plenty of people who didn’t. In many ways it’s kind of a white bread role but Ruffalo gives it depth and meaning. He was nominated for a Supporting Actor Drama Golden Globe and has a good shot at an Oscar nomination, but at the Globes ran into the J.K. Simmons buzzsaw from Whiplash and likely will again but that doesn’t mean it’s not a powerful performance and in most any other year would be a clear Oscar favorite for the win.

Foxcatcher is a fairly dark film and might leave you feeling down, but there is something about it that carries a touch of the resilience of the human spirit. One character in particular escapes the alluring snare of Foxcatcher the training facility and ends up becoming better for it. This is definitely a movie that demands to be seen, particularly by those who are lovers of good movies, and it is definitely one of the year’s best.

REASONS TO GO: Awesome performances by Carell, Ruffalo and Tatum. No foreshadowing of final scenes which makes them even more shocking to those not familiar with the story.
REASONS TO STAY: Maybe too laid-back and slow.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of drug use and one scene of disturbing violence are what got this an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The glasses that Ruffalo wears in the film are Dave Schultz’ actual glasses, given to him by Schultz’ widow Nancy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fruitvale Station
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Imitation Game

The Dark Knight


The Dark Knight

Batman heads towards Sturgis, not realizing he's about to have the crap kicked out of him by 100,000 bikers.

(2008) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Eric Roberts, Nestor Carbonel, Cillian Murphy, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Ritchie Coster, Anthony Michael Hall, Michael Jai White, William Fichtner, Ng Chin Han.  Directed by Christopher Nolan

Most of us have light and darkness within our souls in equal or near-equal measures. There are few of us who are truly evil or completely good. In many ways, those sorts of personalities are aberrations, mutants that deviate from the norm. For most of us, that darkness and light are constantly at war as we strive to do the right thing…or the easy thing. For some of us that war ends in victory; for others, crashing defeat.

A bank robbery of a bank that launders money for the mob sets a chain of events in motion. The gangs, once completely in control of Gotham City are on the defensive after Batman (Bale) has largely cleaned up crime. They are approached by The Joker (Ledger), who offers to kill their nemesis for half of their funds, which their Chinese accountant Lau (Han) has transported to Hong Kong for safekeeping. The crime lords turn down the Joker’s generous offer, with one of them, Gambol (White) putting a bounty on the Joker’s head. That doesn’t end so well for Gambol and his gang is taken over by the Joker.

Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Oldman) and Batman decide to bring in the new crusading District Attorney Harvey Dent (Eckhart) on board their attempts to bring down the mob once and for all. Dent is dating assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Gyllenhaal), who was the childhood sweetheart of Bruce Wayne, Batman’s civilian alter ego. While that raises Batman’s hackles somewhat, he realizes that Dent is the city’s great white hope and the best chance for him to retire the Batman cowl and live a normal life.

Batman captures Lau in a spectacular and daring raid in Hong Kong, allowing Gordon and Dent to arrest the mob en masse. The Joker announces that until Batman reveals his true identity, he is going to kill somebody in Gotham and he makes good on it, murdering the police commissioner and the judge presiding over the mobster’s trial. An attempt to murder the mayor is foiled by Gordon who is apparently killed in the process. Wayne decides to reveal his secret identity and is about to do so when Dent announces that he is the Batman, prompting Dent to be put into protective custody. The Joker goes after him and Batman rushes to the rescue. The Joker is captured with the help of Gordon, who had faked his death.

It turns out however that Dent was captured after all as was Rachel. The two of them have been taken to buildings on opposite ends of town, and are set to blow up at the same time. While the police and Batman race to rescue both Dent and Rachel, events are set in motion that will change the lives of Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent forever, transmute friend into foe and change Batman’s image in Gotham City from Dark Knight to something far more sinister.

This was the movie that owned 2008 and to a large extent the ripples of its success still rumble through Hollywood and influence the way movies are made. For many, this is not only the best comic book movie ever made; it’s the best movie period. I can certainly see their point.

Nolan made a movie that is all about choices and that war between good and evil in all of us. The best of us can be pushed towards darkness under the right circumstances. Nolan seems interested in seeing how far the breaking point is for a good man and his interest in this is seen through the eyes of the Joker. It’s hard to even comprehend, but our avatar in the movie is the villain and most of us don’t even recognize. That is an act of filmmaking genius in my book.

What helps pull it off is a performance for the ages by the late Heath Ledger. By now most everybody knows that Ledger died shortly after filming completed of an accidental overdose of prescription medicines and would win nearly every acting award posthumously for his work here. There are those who felt that it might well have been a sympathy vote but even had Ledger not passed away he would have deserved every accolade. His Joker is complex, insane yes but not a caricature – this is a real flesh and blood madman who is equal parts brilliant to equal parts insane. He is the center of the movie even if he’s not onscreen for much of it. His presence is felt in every moment of the film and when he is onscreen, there is no doubt that Ledger is the center of audience attention.

It also helps that nearly every other performance in this movie is outstanding. Eckhart’s craggy good looks make him the all-American hero, from dimpled chin to brilliant smile making his fall all the more wrenching. Gyllenhaal, who replaced Kate Holmes in the role (she inexplicably gave up the part to work in Mad Money with Diane Keaton and Queen Latifah…huh?) is much sweeter and more down-to-earth, making her a better fit than the fidgety Holmes. Freeman and Caine are also terrific, playing both ends of Batman’s moral compass. Oldman gets to play the hero, something he rarely gets to do (although his Sirius Black performance in the Harry Potter film might bring more of those roles his way).

Bale is the lead role here but to be quite honest he isn’t the focus. It takes a generous performer to allow his cast mates to shine, particularly when you are the de facto lead but Bale did that here, stepping out of the spotlight (or the Bat-Signal more appropriately) to become a part of an ensemble more than the heroic lead. It’s a gutsy move by both director and star and it pays off in spades.

The movie has an epic sense to it as well as a sense of tragedy which elevate this above the usual popcorn fare. The excellent script, by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, is almost Shakespearean in its scope. Those who denigrate comic books and the movies based on them as childish and one-dimensional would do well to watch this movie. These are characters you care about that have problems you can relate to in a setting that’s grand and larger than life.

The Dark Knight proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a big popcorn movie can be intelligent and daring as well, and still make box office bucks. It establishes Nolan as one of the great directors working today. A sequel is currently being filmed as of this writing for release in July of 2012 and barring a complete meltdown will likely be the Big Kahuna in terms of box office next year. If it’s half as good as this movie was, it will earn that title proudly.

WHY RENT THIS: Ledger’s performance is one of the greatest ever on film. Tremendous action and a great story make this one of the best comic book movies ever made.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many characters create too many subplots.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the violence is awfully intense and the Joker can be extremely disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first Batman movie that features none of the following elements – Bruce Wayne in a tuxedo, Wayne manor or live/CGI bats. It is also the fourth movie to bring in a billion dollars in worldwide box office, and the first comic book-based movie to win an acting Oscar (Heath Ledger for Best Supporting Actor).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The 2-Disc DVD set includes some promotional viral videos of various cast members in characters being interviewed on a faux news program about the notorious Batman. There are also some featurettes on the Blu-Ray that cover the gadgets Batman uses as well as examining the psychology of Bruce Wayne.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1B on a $185M production budget; the movie was a ginormous blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

TOMORROW: Mammoth