The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight

Why are people so excited for this weekend's The Dark Knight Rises? Because Batman Begins was good, and 2008's The Dark Knight was great, setting the bar about as high as a movie can possibly go. The rare sequel that improves on the original, it is everything you would hope for in a superhero movie and much, much more. Just a little more timely reviewing today, and I hope to see 'Rises' Sunday so expect a review soon.

Helping clean up Gotham City and all its crime, the very mention of the name 'Batman' sends shivers up the spines of Gotham's criminal underworld. But for all Batman (Christian Bale) has done, he's never fought a criminal quite like this one, the Joker (Heath Ledger), a deranged murderer who wears faded, unkempt make-up and favors knives. The Joker has offered his services to the all the different heads of the criminal underworld, offering to kill the Batman and make their lives infinitely easier. The Caped Crusader might finally have some help though in Gotham's hierarchy as crusading district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) vows to help Batman however he can. With a nut like the Joker around, nothing happens as expected.  

It's hard -- and probably not very fair -- to compare this second Batman movie from director Christopher Nolan to its predecessor. 'Begins' is an above average, highly enjoyable movie on its own, but it is merely one that opens the door for all that Nolan had planned with this sequel. 'Begins' introduces the Batman lore, the characters, the situations, laying the groundwork. 'Knight' takes the jumping off point and sprints with it. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's score is again booming and epic and just right. Almost the entire film was filmed in Chicago, and the movie looks AMAZING. Talk about a director utilizing his locations, Nolan knocks that one out of the park. It's the little things that start things rolling, and the movie never looks back.

But what really sets Nolan's movies apart from even the high quality superhero movies -- The Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America -- is the inherent darkness involved with the characters and story. There is no camp quality to the proceedings, no tongue in cheek humor. This is a cutthroat world where anyone and everyone is potentially dead in a flash. The word that comes to mind watching this movie was 'brutal.' More on this later, but much of that comes from the performance of Heath Ledger. His Joker is a villain described by Michael Caine's Alfred as someone "who wants to watch the world burn." There is no rhyme or reason to the Joker's brutality. He encourages murder (and handles a couple of his own), mayhem and chaos and doesn't care who gets caught up in the maelstrom that ensues. As a fan of a darker, graphic novel look at a "comic book" world, that darkness and brutality appeals to me in movies. Nolan commits to that deep-seeded darkness and never lets up.

Now onto Heath Ledger as the Joker. This movie was in the news prior to its release (more in the news at least) because Ledger died six months before the film's release. Before it had even been seen, buzz was generated about Ledger's amazingly memorable performance as the Joker, and when audiences finally saw this movie in the summer of 2008, they weren't disappointed. In a performance that won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Ledger delivers a performance that is terrifying, supremely dark, oddly charming and unlike any other villainous role ever. It's his voice, his speech, his peculiar mannerisms, his maniacal laughing, the distinctly iconic look with the faded, dreary make-up and purple suit, all these specific things that make this such a memorable and ultimately tragic performance.

Because Ledger's part was rightly given so much attention upon release, the rest of the cast doesn't always get the recognition they deserve. Other than developing that overly deep "I'm BATMAN!" voice since 'Begins,' Bale tweaks the character for the positive. He begins to question what he's taken upon his shoulder. He begins to doubt if he can actually win in the end, especially with a counter like the Joker. Eckhart too is a scene-stealer as Harvey Dent, the crusading district attorney who takes a no-nonsense approach to everything about his job. An idealist who wants the best, he's also a frustrated realist kept in check to a point by the system. Caine again is perfect as Alfred, Morgan Freeman returns as Wayne Enterprises resident genius Lucius Fox, and Gary Oldman gets much more to do as Lt. Gordon. Even Cillian Murphy makes a one-scene appearance as the Scarecrow. Additions include Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes (an improvement over Katie Holmes), Eric Roberts as Maroni, a powerful Gotham mobster, and Nestor Carbonell as the mayor of Gotham.

Like any classic, something has to set a movie apart from the average. The Chicago locations help that cause, especially an epic action sequence on La Salle Street and Lower Wacker Drive as Batman -- on a Bat-cycle of sorts -- does battle with the Joker who at different points has an automatic machine gun, bazooka and out of control semi trucks as weapons. There are the smaller but equally memorable moments, especially the Joker's infamous "pencil disappearing trick." The finale is the best though as the Joker's chaotic plan is revealed in all its cynical, brutal qualities. The final scene propels this 2008 movie into the trilogy wrap-up, Oldman's Lt. (now Commissioner as we all know him) Gordon delivering a monologue that is perfect in its simple, straightforward, forthrightness. Is that even a word? Eh. The movie is great, one all other superhero movies must measure themselves against. As for me, I'm counting down the hours until The Dark Knight Rises.

The Dark Knight <---trailer (2008): ****/****

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