Wednesday, July 23, 2008
A Better Class of Criminal
As far as THE DARK KNIGHT goes, I may as well start with the actor everyone has been talking about lately: Nestor Carbonell. Why is the Mayor of Gotham City wearing eyeliner? What’s up with that? Doesn't anyone else find it distracting? Checking out Google I see other people asking about this very subject, not only for this film but also for roles like Carbonell’s recurring character on LOST. I don’t remember ever noticing this on the show, but maybe the big screen caused it to stick out to me this time. Oddly, I’m pretty sure I saw the guy the other week at a bagel place over on Larchmont. Presuming it was him, he looked pretty normal.
This distraction aside, I have very few problems with THE DARK KNIGHT. Yes, the whole thing is very big, dense and long that I’m kind of glad that I saw it early in the day on Saturday (as always, I'm lucky to have the Vista nearby) as opposed to late at night. But even though I feel like I’ve been so bombarded with this movie that it’s going to take some time before I can really sort out how I feel about it and all I can offer now are a few brief initial thoughts. Suffice it to say that as big as it is, the movie is fully satisfying in ways that go beyond spectacle.
It occurs to me that this is set in even less of a dystopian-science fiction world than BATMAN BEGINS was. There’s next to no inkling of the grime and filth seen there, the “depression” that the Katie Holmes-version of Rachel Dawes spoke of. And if that massive subway system which played such a key role in that film is ever seen here, I must have missed it. Instead, we get what feels like an brightly gleaming Gotham, looking more like the Chicago it was filmed in this time, with many extremely wide views outside windows to make it all seem ultra-larger than life. This is just as stylized, of course—hell, HEAT, obviously a big influence here, is pretty stylized as well. But it signifies to me how much Christopher Nolan was trying to solidify the tone and wipe out anything that could veer into the realm of fantasy. Even the effects are staged and shot as if they were done live on set—certainly some of this stuff was achieved digitally but I’m not always sure exactly what. And while after the first act of BEGINS, which I love, the rest of the film always feels slightly off in a way that’s hard for me to pin down, like maybe in the way it’s paced. But as long as THE DARK KNIGHT is and even if maybe some stuff could have been trimmed, I don’t feel that way this time. There are some points of basic confusion, especially in the action near the beginning and Nolan does the trick of cross-cutting from various locales, building up to a Big Event a few too many times, but nothing that bothers me too much. I didn’t even always mind the staging of the action, something some people seem to have a problem with. In all honesty, there were points where I was pleasantly surprised how well I was able to follow the geography of certain action scenes. If anything somewhat negative occurs to me, it's the undeniably chilly feel Nolan brings to it, just like each of his other films, almost as if the film were being directed by a Vulcan. How much this really matters, considering what he is going for with the film, is open to debate.
So yes, it’s better than BATMAN BEGINS. Hell, it’s possible I can’t think of many comic book movies that I might prefer over it, outside of the first SUPERMAN and DANGER: DIABOLIK. I hate the idea of comparing it to the two Burton films. BATMAN RETURNS has, after all, aged especially well and even if the story becomes so top-heavy that it can’t sustain all the elements, at its best it is so potent that I feel like it’s been underrated through the years. At the least, the various ways it is allowed to be more of a pure Tim Burton film makes it better than the 1989 film.
Nolan’s obvious interest in his actors continues and I was particularly struck by how Gary Oldman is putting together such a memorable portrayal of James Gordon as this saga continues. Fifteen years ago, I don’t think anyone ever imagined that one of the best roles of this actor’s career would have been such a decent, upstanding person. I always like Christian Bale but did find his Batman voice this time distracting in ways that it wasn’t in the first film. I half expected him to ask Alfred for some hot tea with lemon, but no dice. It feels like Michael Caine has less screen time this entry, but at least he’s allowed to make every moment he gets count—I especially like his speech about Burma. Aaron Eckhart does a terrific job as Harvey Dent, making him an interesting contrast with Bruce Wayne, taking what is again someone who seems merely decent and honorable and bringing to it an array of shadings. Eckhart deserves much more attention for his performance than he’s getting. Points to William Fichtner for his role during the opening heist sequence, which has to be a nod to HEAT.
Unlike a lot of people out there, I didn’t particularly want to go see THE DARK KNIGHT again right away after seeing it. To me, the movie feels too exhausting to do that and I wanted it to simmer in my head for a few days. By now, I’m at the point where I’m looking forward to that second viewing. But just from that one time it seems so superior that it puts all the other would-be blockbusters of this summer to shame. I can imagine a headline in The Onion reading “Studios Mad at Warner Bros. for Making Good Summer Movie”. Just because it’s the summer, just because it involves superheroes, doesn’t mean that these films shouldn’t be given to the best filmmakers possible, the ones who want to raise the bar higher than we once thought possible. That’s the triumph of THE DARK KNIGHT. Heath Ledger’s pretty good in it, too.