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

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Easy Virtue


Easy Virtue

Colin Firth and Jessica Biel trip the light fantastic.

(Sony Classics) Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth, Kimberley Nixon, Katherine Parkinson, Kris Marshall, Christian Brassington, Charlotte Riley, Jim McManus, Pip Torrens. Directed by Stephan Elliott

Part of the way we are brought up is to keep our problems and tragedies hidden. Therefore, even the lives that seem most perfect on the surface have some kind of ugliness hiding just below the façade.

John “Panda” Whittaker (Barnes), scion of a wealthy English family, is attending the 1924 Grand Prix at Monte Carlo where he witnesses the triumph of a beautiful blonde American, winning the race. He falls instantly in love and impulsively marries her. The hard part comes next; he has to bring Larita (Biel), his new bride, back to meet his family.

Like many wealthy English families, eccentricity runs through the family like rain through the gutters. Father (Firth) is a veteran of the Great War and who hasn’t been the same since he returned home, taking a slight detour through Europe to do so. Sister Hilda (Nixon) is a busybody who dwells on morbid news clippings and has a vindictive streak a mile wide. Sister Marion (Parkinson) is searching for a husband with a desperation that borders on hysteria and has her eye on Phillip Hurst (Brassington), the son of Lord Hurst (Torrens). Phillip, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with her. Finally, there’s Mother (Thomas), an icy woman with a sharp tongue and a heart of solid steel. She runs the family with an iron hand and even Father steps aside for her when she’s in one of her moods.

Larita couldn’t have come at a worse time. They are entering a busy social season, and the family estate is crumbling into disrepair. There is an odd disconnect with John’s father, which is becoming more and more pronounced. And she’s running into Mother at her most venomous.

Things aren’t going well but it’s not for Larita’s lack of trying. At first she tries to be friendly and respectful but Mother’s sharp barbs put an end to that. Eventually it settles into a bitter cold war with the two daughters taking Mother’s side and Father, who has a great admiration for all things American, on Larita’s. When her past threatens to catch up with her, the staid life of the manor threatens to explode.

This is based on a 1924 Noel Coward play. It has been made into a movie at least once, by none other than Alfred Hitchcock(!) back in 1928. This time, the director is Elliott, best known for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. This is his first feature in nine years and he is aided by the auspices of Ealing Studios in England, one of the most famous in all the UK. They are well-known for their drawing room comedies of the sort that Coward excelled at, and this is right down their alley.

Of course, this isn’t the play that Coward wrote. Writers Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins have taken some liberties with the original material – Elliott himself admits on the commentary track that the script is about “30% Coward” – and it seemed to me that the movie was at its weakest when it departed from the original material.

Elliott at least brought together a magnificent cast, but the surprise is Biel. I’ve always thought her more of a pretty face than as a strong actress, but she does very well with the material she has to work with which makes me wonder that if she were getting more challenging roles she wouldn’t be getting more respect as an actress. I hope she is given some based on her performance here; she plays a woman who is somewhat trapped by the strictures of her time but has a great deal of inner strength and an independent spirit. She has survived some of the most awful events you can imagine and is still able to keep her heart open despite that. Not Oscar-winning material mind you, but a superior performance nonetheless.

And the cast she has behind her! Firth is an Oscar-nominated actor just beginning to get the kind of notice that an actor who has delivered consistently strong performances should be bestowed. He gives a layered performance as a man haunted by horrors thee and me could not even begin to conceive of and walks through life with the ghosts of those horrors haunting him. Not many could pull it off as effectively as Firth does here.

Finally there’s Thomas who plays the bitchy mom. This could easily be a part that spirals into shrillness but Thomas plays the mother with dignity and decorum. She’s as British as you can get and has a burden of her own that she bears, keeping hidden with the typical stiff upper lip of the wealthy class. In a time when image was everything, she is terrified of the façade crumbling and the real face of the family showing up. Thomas makes an unsympathetic character largely identifiable to most of us.

Noel Coward is definitely an acquired taste but it is one I have learned to appreciate. It’s nice to watch a comedy once in awhile that doesn’t have to do with high school students trying to get laid, or adult losers trying to get laid, or stoners trying to get stoned…and laid. Coward had a flair for the English language and as someone who uses it as a tool I can appreciate and admire his gift. This wasn’t his best play to begin with, and it has been adapted for the screen nearly beyond recognition, but 30% Noel Coward is better than 100% most anyone else.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s a nice change of pace from modern comedies. Jessica Biel shows some acting chops. Fine supporting cast helps elevate the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Film strays from the original Noel Coward material quite a bit and is at its weakest when it does.

FAMILY VALUES: It’s a little bit sexy and there is smoking throughout as was common during the era; however it might be a bit more sophisticated than the average youngster would be into so make this part of your adult post-kids bedtime viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the end credits, all the musicians playing on the track are introduced as they would be from a bandstand during a live performance.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Stone Angel