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"The Dark Knight"- (Ben Kenber's) Movie Review
Ben Kenber
Studio: Warner Bros.
Genre: Action Release: 7/18/08
Cast: Christian Bale/Heath Ledger/Maggie Gyllenhaal
Christopher Nolan

OK, let's just get it out of the way here. The new Batman sequel entitled "The Dark Knight" is brilliant! It is a triumph not just of action and direction, but also a triumph of acting and characters. This is not simply a story of the good guys versus the bad guys, but of flawed human beings whose childhood scars have formed them into people who can never lead a truly normal life (whatever that means anyway). How thrilling it is to see a movie that actually lives up to the hype. I was desperately trying to control my expectations before going in, but it was hard to with all the glorious reviews that the movie was generating. How relieved I am to see that all these reviews are more than justified!

No longer burdened by the traditional comic book setup of who the "hero" is and how he came to be, the movie thrusts us right into the action with a brilliantly staged robbery. Director Christopher Nolan has said that the movie "Heat" was actually a big inspiration in the making of this movie, and it does have the look of a Michael Mann movie. It also allows us an inspired intro to the chief nemesis of Batman in this movie, Joker. Unlike other movie villains who are interested in money and power, the Joker really has no discernable movie other than creating total chaos. This makes him the scariest kind of villain in that he really has nothing to lose while everyone else around him does.

We catch up with Bruce Wayne, once again played by Christian Bale, whose alter ego of Batman is starting to take its toll on him psychologically. Like Peter Parker in "Spider-Man 2" or Clark Kent in "Superman 2," he is starting to tire of the role he is playing, and he yearns to spend his days with his childhood crush, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, stepping in for Katie Holmes), as she represents his best chance at leading a normal life. This is even more so as Batman is starting to be seen more as a vigilante and a danger to Gotham City, despite all he has done to clear the streets of Gotham of the crime that nearly consumed it. This is made all the more complicated when the Joker ends up getting everyone's attention by saying that he will kill one person a day until the Batman takes off his mask and reveals himself as who he really is. Naturally, the public wants blames Batman for what the Joker is doing, and this adds to his desperation to rid himself of the Batman costume. Gotham City may be able to live without Batman, but can Bruce Wayne live without him?

Of all the Batman movies so far, this one gives us a Gotham City that is totally rooted in reality. All the previous movies in this franchise have presented Gotham as a place of gothic buildings and ominously dark colors that consume the spirits of those who live there. It ends up looking like a place that can really only exist in the imagination, and that goes for even "Batman Begins" (also directed by Christopher Nolan) which was the first Batman movie that rooted the comic book character in a world more real than what Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher dreamed up. Shooting in downtown Chicago, there is not the fantastical city we have seen Gotham as in the past, but a city like others we know that deal with high levels of crime and corruption that are seemingly uncontainable. As a result, the look and locale of the movie really adds a lot to the story and the characters in it, and it makes everything seem more dangerous and precarious. To do this I think is a brilliant move on the part of Chris Nolan, and along with this summer's "Iron Man," it helps to completely redefine how a comic book movie can and maybe even should be made.

I actually got to catch the movie on opening day with colleagues from my day job. We were having an end of quarter party, and we celebrated by having lunch at a Hawaiian restaurant conveniently located in Southern California. Then we went out to see the movie, and we even got reserved seating which saved us sitting on our asses on the hard carpeted ground as we waited to be let into the theater. Now some of the people I work with live or have lived in some of the tougher parts of Los Angeles, so they definitely saw some of that in this movie. When we got out of the movie, one of the ladies replied:

"Gotham is even worse than South Central!"

To quote a line by John Travolta from "Pulp Fiction:"

"That's a bold statement!"

Christian Bale now effectively owns the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Before him, it was Michael Keaton who gave us a highly effective portrait of this character in the gothic versions of the franchise directed by Tim Burton. Once Keaton left, the role of Batman became interchangeable. Val Kilmer made for a good Bruce Wayne, but not for a particularly effective Batman. As for George Clooney, he was... well... George Clooney. Of course, the colossal failure of "Batman & Robin" did lead to him taking a different path in his career that his led him to great success. But with Christian Bale, you get a Batman and Bruce Wayne with different levels that he plays ever so effectively. Bruce goes from being a swinging playboy to a fighter of crime in no time at all it seems. Even if Bruce comes off as a cad, you still care about him and root for him because it seems like no one can take care of crime the way he does.

The one person that Bruce Wayne sees as the one who can relieve him of saving Gotham City is Harvey Dent, and he is played by Aaron Eckhart as a man with a big ego and endless integrity that he vows never to relinquish. Now if this movie does not make Eckhart into a star, then nothing will. It should have happened already last year with Jason Reitman's "Thank You For Smoking" where he played a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, but this one should do the trick. Seeing Harvey's transformation to strong district attorney to a tragic figure when he later becomes Two Face is quietly devastating. Aaron makes you believe in him as a public servant, and when it seems like so much has been taken away from him, you feel pity for him while he makes decisions that you never would have expected him to make before. Aaron has been a consistently excellent actor in so many movies over the years, and hopefully that will be more clear to audiences after they see this film.

By the way, his changing into Two Face was one of the movie's best kept secrets throughout its advertisements. His transformation to this sinister character is hideous in its look, and it is a brilliant mix of both makeup and technology. It's not at all like the Two Face we remember from "Batman Forever" as played by Tommy Lee Jones whose face was a comic visual of duality that was hardly threatening. It is a face burned to where an eyelid is missing as well as part of the lip and gums. It is a shocking visual when we first see it, and it really does look all the more real in its hideous appearance

The movie has a strong cast that who ably fit the roles they have been cast in. Maggie Gyllenhaal fits the role of Rachel Dawes much better than Katie Holmes was. Katie isn't a bad actress, but I thought she was too young for the role when she played it in "Batman Begins." Maggie is more appropriate for the role, and she makes it all her own by creating a character who you can believe is not easily intimidated by the criminals she prosecutes alongside Harvey Dent. When she is caught between with Bruce and Harvey, she never ever comes across as a pushover.

Also returning to the world of Batman is Michael Caine as Bruce's loyal butler and silent partner in justice, Alfred. Caine is always a welcome presence in a movie he does, and he acts as Batman's loyal conscience in making him see the things he may have missed without knowing. His moment of comparing the Joker to another criminal from the past is a strong moment as he makes it clear for Bruce and the audience as to what kind of nemesis he is facing up against.

Another actor who is always a welcome presence in any movie he's in is Morgan Freeman whose character of Lucius Fox is to Batman what Q was to James Bond. The moment where he stares down an employee making a threat against him and Bruce Wayne is a brilliant piece of stone faced acting which reminds us of why we love Morgan so much as an actor. Even as a supporting player in the movies these days, Mr. Freeman is still a force to be reckoned with.

We also have Gary Oldman back as one of Gotham's few incorruptible cops, Lt. James Gordon. In the past, Gary has given us some of the scariest and deadliest of villains we could ever hope to see onscreen. Now he has moved on to playing the good guy, and while that may seem like a bland choice for an actor to make, Oldman succeeds in making his goodness and unstoppable nature in getting the bad guys very appealing. There are not many other actors that I can think of who could pull that off and make the one of the few truly good guys one of the strongest at a time where other actors would be begging to play the bad guy. You come to truly respect the kind of man Gordon is thru Oldman's terrific performance.

But then there's Heath Ledger in what sadly became his final completed onscreen performance as the Joker. There was a lot of talk, before the movie came out, of how he should be nominated for an Oscar, and even receive it to become the first posthumous Academy Award winner since Peter Finch in "Network." Some like Terry Gilliam have found this to be utterly annoying and simply see it as Warner Brothers' way of juicing up the excitement for the movie so that it has one hell of an opening weekend. While that criticism is certainly justified in a lot of respects, having seen the movie, I now count myself on the bandwagon for Heath getting the damn Oscar. Ledger took on a role already made infamous by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's original "Batman," and he more than succeeded in making it his own. This seemed unthinkable when it was first announced that he would playing it, but Christopher Nolan was correct in his assessment that Ledger was "fearless."

Seriously, Heath Ledger's performance in this movie is a work of art. Whereas Nicholson made us share in his gleefully sadistic nature as the Joker to where we couldn't deny that we were endlessly entertained, Ledger gives us a Joker who is a viciously terrifying psychotic who is to be feared at every move he makes. God only knows what depths he went to in order to play this role, but it is easy to see why he lost a lot of sleep over it. His Joker is indeed the scariest of villains in that he has no real motive for doing what he does. This guy is in it for all the chaos and anarchy that he can get out of this city he inhabits, and he couldn't seem to care less about money and power. Ledger makes his Joker a live wire of a character, and the tension when he is in a room with someone he is taunting is so thick that you would need a heavy duty chainsaw cut through it. There is no real back story to his character other than a story he tells about his daddy cut his face to explain why his face is scared to look like a smile. But then again, can you really be sure that he is telling the truth?

Ledger's Joker is one of the scariest movie villains that I would put on the same level with Hannibal Lecter from "The Silence of the Lambs" as well as Robert DeNiro's Max Cady from Martin Scorsese's remake of "Cape Fear." I would even go as far as to put him on a pedestal with Ben Kingsley's ragingly raw performance as Don Logan from "Sexy Beast." I love a bad guy that totally gets under the nerves of the audience to such an effect where it's like he or she is reaching out of the screen and into the audience with their hands out to choke you. I get such a fiendish delight out of that, and this performance makes it seem like it has been so long since we have had a truly unnerving villain show up on the big screen.

While we revel in the brilliance of Ledger's performance as Joker, I felt a strong sadness coming over me after I walked out of the theater. It makes his loss seem all the more tragic because he succeeded in completely disappearing into the characters the same way Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro did in many of their films. We were tragically robbed of an actor who easily would have become one of the greatest actors to have ever worked in films. His role as the Joker is one hell of an exit, but it feels so unfair that he now has to join the ranks of actors like James Dean who left us way too soon.

Ironically, the one thing that is as tragic as Heath's untimely death is the story of "The Dark Knight" itself. Unlike other summer movie blockbusters, this one is not afraid to dare us in taking a journey to the darkest and despairing depths of its characters short-lived triumphs and endless sorrows. Like I said before, this is not a story about good guys fighting off the bad guys, but a story of how blurred our moral and ethical boundaries can get when we are pushed beyond our limits. Many choices are made not just by the main characters of the movie, but by the people of Gotham. What will they do to survive? What choice will they make? But more importantly, what will their choice say about them as a person? Are they prepared to live with the consequences of their actions?

These questions hit everyone hard, but it hits no other character harder than Batman. Bruce finds that in order to defeat the Joker, he has to become almost as bad as him. But can he live with that? Can the others close to him live with that as well? Bruce starts to find himself boxed into a corner as the Joker continually taunts him in a way that turns the public against him. In the end, Bruce Wayne becomes a lot like Jack Bauer from "24" in that he protects the people as much as he can, but he ends up paying a very high price for what he does and gets very little reward from it. Batman says that he is not a hero, and while his actions are heroic, he does kind of have a point. To protect what integrity that Gotham has left, he has to make some hard sacrifices.

Nothing in the city of Gotham is black and white, but an endless sea of grey as people are challenged to see what kind of people they really are. No one is innocent, and everyone is guilty of something. This reminds me of another Michael Mann movie, "The Insider," which many people thought was simply an anti-smoking public service announcement. In fact, the movie was really a look at about endangerment of ethics and morality in an increasingly corporate world. "The Dark Knight" finds its power and its tragedy in the characters who start off good, but soon lose their way and head down a path that they can never turn back from. That's the real threat that the Joker exposes by getting underneath his victim's psyches by manipulating them where they are most vulnerable.

"You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain."

Harvey Dent

Christopher Nolan is now officially one of the best directors working in film today, and I am so thrilled that he got away with making a film like this so dark and still gets a PG-13 rating. He started his career off with a bang when "Memento" was released, and it remains one of the best thrillers of the last few years. Christopher also gave his one of the few genuinely great remakes of the past few years with "Insomnia" in which he directed Al Pacino and Robin Williams to some of their best performances ever. With "The Dark Knight," he has continued to make Batman and the world he inhabits very much his own, and he may very well have made the best superhero movie ever (let alone one of the best sequels ever). How great it is that he succeeded in balancing out a strong story with very complex characters in a tragic setting with tremendous action scenes that get your adrenalin pumping. Even while the movie clocks in at about two and a half hours, you never feel the length because Nolan immerses you fully into what is going on.

All the things you have heard about this movie are true. It is indeed "The Empire Strikes Back" of the Batman movie series. It equals movies like "The Godfather II" in its epic scope of character and tragedy. I could gush and gush about this movie till the end of time, but a man does have to exercise something more than his fingers which have been endlessly typing at this keyboard.

After the movie was finished, I went right out and bought the soundtrack for it which was written by the same composers of "Batman Begins," Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It is a fantastic and intense score, and they easily best the work they did on the previous Batman movie. For me, that is a sign of how much I love a movie. I did the exact thing after I saw "Pulp Fiction" which has one of the all time great soundtracks, and then again several years later with "Boogie Nights."

Final Words:

I loved this movie. I LOVED IT!! I hope it makes a HUGE killing at the box office because this is the kind of summer movie that I want to see more often. It would be a tragedy if it failed because the odds of seeing a movie like this again would become increasingly bad. As of right now, "The Dark Knight" is the movie to beat for the year 2008.

**** out of ****


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