Friday, July 4, 2008

REVIEW: "THE DARK KNIGHT"

July 18, 2008 is still two weeks away.

But I was lucky enough to see THE DARK KNIGHT in IMAX last Tuesday, complete with a Q & A featuring Director/Producer Chris Nolan and Producers Emma Thomas and Charles Roven. Here's my thoughts.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD (although not too many)

First let me say how much I loved BATMAN BEGINS. It's my favorite superhero movie EVER, with SUPERMAN THE MOVIE and X-MEN 2 close behind. THE DARK KNIGHT is not as good as its predecessor. It is, however, enjoyable and has many memorable moments. Just lower your expectations a bit -- you'll be glad you did and have a better time than I did.

The best part about TDK? Hands down... it's HEATH LEDGER's absolutely brilliant performance as The Joker. Seriously, you're going to hear a ton of hype about it. IT'S ALL TRUE. My God... he's just phenomenal. I could not take my eyes off The Joker every time he appeared onscreen. He's truly a malevolent force of chaos and destruction. An "agent of chaos" as the character describes himself in the film's first of two climaxes.

Yes, that's SPOILER NUMBER ONE. Keep reading if you dare.


As brilliant as The Joker is in this movie, it's TWO-FACE that's going to split audiences. Simply put, the story of Harvey Dent's rise and fall as Two-Face takes up as much time in this movie as does Batman's battle with The Joker.

And that's one of my biggest problems with the movie.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the end of the movie. After a cool battle in which The Joker is finally captured, one which sets the character up to return in subsequent sequels... the movie cuts to a SECOND ENDING, the one which wraps up the Harvey Dent/Two-Face storyline. I'm sorry to say that it's a bit predicable and kinda boring.

I know I'll probably get flayed for saying this, but let me be the first to go on record with a formal complaint about an otherwise GREAT MOVIE: There's waaaaaaaaay too much Harvey Dent/Two-Face. So much so, that the character with the most emotional story, the character with the big arc in the film... IS NOT BATMAN. It's Two-Face.

And that sucks.

I didn't go to see a movie called TWO-FACE'S KNIGHT OUT. I went to a BATMAN movie, and anytime the focus strays too long from our lead character (which the film does... and which is the same mistake that all the 80s and 90s Batflicks made, too) or when the most poignant moments in the film (cliche though they are) belong to a secondary character / villain, I just tune out. Therefore, the ending of this movie was a disappointment for me.

Another recent superhero flick made this same mistake: SPIDER-MAN 3. In that film, WAAAAAAAAAY too much time was spent with THE SANDMAN and his cliche redemptive arc. Conversely, the brilliant conflict set up between Spidey and VENOM was dismissed too soon. It's as if the filmmakers didn't care for the character (ignoring his popularity with audiences) and therefore, just used him as window dressing. Now THE DARK KNIGHT is LIGHT YEARS BETTER than Spider-Man 3. And The Joker is NOT WINDOW DRESSING in the movie by any means.

But it's essentially the same problem in both movies...

It's not that Aaron Eckhart isn't great in the part. He's fine. But there's just too much of him, and his character arc is as old as the hills. The film's one big twist--AGAIN, STOP READING IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW--is the death of a certain female lead, and acts as the catalyst for Harvey's descent. But to be honest, all of this felt like it should have been saved for a third Batman movie, not this one. This is because the Joker storyline is SO GOOD, SO FULFILLING and SO UNPREDICTABLE... that having Two-Face's ultra-conventional plotline drags down an otherwise brilliant film that breaks with traditional conventions at every turn.

Just how UNCONVENTIONAL is THE DARK KNIGHT? Its tone, mood, and brooding atmosphere make the film feel like "SE7EN" with superheroes. How's that for unconventional?

But back to TWO-FACE for a moment. I'd now like to point out a DISTURBING TREND I'm starting to see in the way films are advertised, one which applies to the lack of this villain's presence in the TDK trailer. For now I'm calling it.. THE HYDE.

The "hyde" is that PART of a movie which is NEVER MENTIONED or FEATURED in the advertising campaign. It's a SURPRISE the movie studio is trying to HIDE from us, in hopes that we go into a movie expecting one thing... and when we get this BONUS THING-STUFF-SECRET... that we'll go nuts. It's no coincidence that the "hyde" is another ANTAGONIST or VILLAIN or PLOTLINE with screws with a film's hero in a different way from the main conflict. It also makes the film feel SCHIZOPHRENIC (get it? "Dr. Jekyll and MR. HYDE?") to an audience member, because you feel like your not getting the movie you paid your hard-earned money for, and were dying to see.

HIDING TWO-FACE IN THE TRAILER CONSTITUES A "HYDE." Yes, they show Harvey Dent. But they DON'T show Two-Face. That's like not showing the T-Rex in a trailer for JURASSIC PARK or Darth Vader in STAR WARS.

Are they nuts?

The other problem is that... THE HYDE is often a HUGE PART of a movie, so much so that failing to prepare an audience for it borders on fraud. Just ONE QUICK SHOT of Two-Face in the TDK trailer would have gone a long way to telling folks, "Hey, Two-Face is IN this movie, not just Harvey Dent. And he's a BIG PART of it. In fact, he plays AS BIG A PART as The Joker does." But when you go into the movie expecting The Joker to be the main focus... and HALF THE MOVIE focuses on something barely touched upon, let alone SHOWN in the trailer... well, the studios are setting us up for a frustrating movie experience.

I have a feeling that CHARLIZE THERON in this weekend's HANCOCK is going to be the HYDE that pushes audiences over the edge and PISSES THEM OFF, because (and no, I haven't seen the movie yet) her involvement in the movie is NOT what anyone is expecting.

BUT I DIGRESS.

Another flaw with TDK is its LENGTH. At TWO-AND-A-HALF HOURS, it's 30 MINUTES TOO LONG. And the parts where it drags? Yup, you guessed it. The Two-Face stuff. I'm telling you, if you cut Two-Face out of the last 1/3 of this movie and get the length down to 1 hour, 45 minutes, this would be the greatest comic movie of all time, without question.

Again, many of the people I saw the movie with LOVED TWO-FACE. They also thought his VFX make-up was brilliant. I thought it was BRILLIANTLY EXECUTED and give BIG KUDOS to the VFX & MAKE-UP TEAMS. However, it always looked like A GREAT EFFECT to me, and not a character... because his storyline felt like something out of a John Wayne western (and NOT "The Searchers" either...!) It's probably because I just wasn't responding to the character.


OK... to summarize so far: Heath Ledger rocks, the movie's too long, and Two-Face was predictable. The look of the movie is EXQUISITE. Go see it in IMAX. You'll be glad you did, especially during those gorgeous wide shots of downtown Chicago and Hong Kong. However, a WARNING. THIS MOVIE IS EXTREMELY DARK. One of the folks in attendance (a very good friend of mine) announced over dinner after the movie that while she liked the film, she could NEVER see it again. It was just too relentlessly dark, and at times (especially during one particular Joker sequence) too vicious.

IF YOU HAVE KIDS UNDER THE AGE OF 14... I STRONGLY SUGGEST YOU DO NOT LET THEM SEE THIS MOVIE. It's PG-13 for a reason, and... if you ask me, BORDERLINE "R" RATED.

I'm serious, here. This movie is MUCH, MUCH DARKER THAN BATMAN BEGINS. You have been warned.

Will I see it again?

I don't know. I saw BATMAN BEGINS twice in theaters, but I'm not sure if I'll make the effort for this one..

Most likely, I'll wait and purchase it on DVD this Christmas.

Why?

Because to be honest, that's how great The Joker stuff is in the movie. Really. It's haunted me for several days now (in the good way). Also, as a horror geek I'm probably a bit more tolerant of movie violence that the average film-goer.

And what about the filmmakers themselves?


After the movie, I introduced myself and spoke briefly with Chris Nolan and Charles Roven. Chris was very nice, answering questions for all the fans who were there. Charles was also cool, clearly a Hollywood vet basking in what's about to become his latest box office triumph. (FYI: He also produced this summer's GET SMART, which is a really FUNNY, ENJOYABLE flick!)

I asked Chris about the changing aspect ratio of the film: when viewed in IMAX theatre, you'll notice the frame switching from 1:33:1 to 2:40:1 -- according to Chris, the film in conventional theaters will be entirely 2:40:1, same with home video and DVD. However, there is talk of having the aspect switch between the two for the BLU-RAY release, so that true moviephiles get the whole, unexpurgated movie experience on their widescreen TVs.

Well...

That's it. I'll be curious to find out what the general public thinks of this movie... what YOU think of this movie. I predict an astonishingly large opening weekend for THE DARK KNIGHT. I also expect international grosses for the film to be larger than the US box office by as much as 30% - 40%. But I don't expect this movie to have the legs that the first one did. I also think word of mouth will get around about how DARK this movie really is, and that this will keep some folks away.

Overall, I give THE DARK KNIGHT a "B-" compared to an "A" for BATMAN BEGINS. But I give Heath Ledger's performance alone an "A+" for what it's worth.


It's so sad that such a talented individual passed on before getting to enjoy the acclaim for what will become THE performance of his career (this and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, obviously...).

Wherever you are Heath, I hope you're having fun.

And now.. it's your turn to go make up your mind.

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