Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

The Dark Knight

Review by Eoin O’Faolain 

It’s no secret that The Dark Knight is the most anticipated film of the year, after Spielberg and Lucas destroyed a great franchise earlier this summer. The promos for the second revived Batman movie have been astounding, as have the rumors that the recently deceased Heath Ledger has delivered an Oscar-winning performance. But, is the story of Batman’s battle with Joker and Two-Face going to live up to its expectations? 

Before I continue with The Dark Knight, I should explain that I found Batman Begins to be a disappointing film. While I appreciated Nolan’s attempt to reinvent Batman according to Miller’s grim style, Batman Begins felt too serious, too much in love with its sense of unjustified gravitas to acknowledge that the plot was rather silly, despite Nolan’s best efforts to portray the villain as a moral force. 

Fortunately, the sequel manages to avoid this, by generating a dizzying world of chaos and violence, represented by one figure: The Joker. This is not the prancing prat from the “CRACK! POW!” Batman television series, nor is it the self-destructive maniac that is Jack Nicholson after a few pints of booze. No, this Joker has a one-track mind on a mission to revel in endless destruction. 

Heath Ledger gives a mesmerizing performance. At times, some of his quirks (the lip-licking, for example) are a little distracting, but at other times Ledger is as intimidating as Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter. The Joker reminds me of Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (albeit in a more anarchic way as opposed to the Coen’s 80’s Judeo-Christian figure), a symbol of the stretched fabric of peaceful society, a deadly reminder of the fragility of the world we live in. Yet, he manages to fire out a few one-liners that will make you laugh, though it’s probably a nervous laugh to relieve the film’s tension.

But the Joker is only a part of what makes The Dark Knight so engaging. The Nolan brothers and writer Dave Goyer never lose track of the villain’s purpose: to represent something. What sets this film aside from most other superhero films is that it successfully sticks to its themes, and tells its story to develop that, and not just to keep the action rolling. Two central strands determine the plot of the film: the dormant chaos in society; and the limits of a symbolic hero’s role in society. For while attempting to stop Joker’s fiendish games, Batman must also consider that, as the Joker says, he and his enemy are the same, they are destined to act together. And thus, Batman must ask if he should hang up the cape to save his city. 

Batman’s motivation is tied to the third main character of the film: Harvey Dent. While Joker provides the action for the film, Harvey Dent’s journey is arguably more interesting. We start with Dent as an optimistic crime-fighter, dedicated to prosecuting every crime organization possible, unfazed by the threats. But once the Joker introduces his organized chaos, and despite Dent’s most honorable attempts to fight on, the film slowly shows the man cracking. Other filmmakers would have most likely made Dent into a one-dimensional hero that with the flick of a switch becomes a mass murderer. But this film spend just enough time to feel proud of his achievements, devastated by loss, and disturbed by his disillusionment, that gradually turns into insanity.

Nolan obviously paints a very dark picture of Gotham City. Indeed, the last time I left the cinema having difficulties distinguishing fantasy from reality was when I walked down a busy Dublin street waiting for a gang of gun-wielding mobsters to assault me after watching Sin City. Yet while the mood and the disturbing characters create a dense atmosphere, the film has one brilliant scene toward the end, a life-affirming moment that feels real yet instills faith in humanity. It’s writing of the highest quality. 

There’s no doubt that the fanboys are going to be wetting themselves over this film for years to come. But for those of us who don’t dream of donning a cape, it is worth noting that the film isn’t perfect. The films is slightly too long, and that’s because Nolan felt the need to inundate us with action scenes. While most are directed excellently, there are one or two (such as the Hong Kong scene) that are unnecessary. Also, Nolan returns to the origin story by again highlighting his masturbatory obsession for the invention of gadgets. The Hong Kong scene starts with Batman learning how to use his new equipment. Then the next 5 minutes are dedicated to showing us what we’ve already been told what’s going to happen. For a 2 ½-hour movie, surely that deserved a spot on the cutting room floor. I also see very little point in having Morgan Freeman in the movie, for his role is far too similar to Alfred’s to be justified. The Scarecrow (who was under-developed in the first movie) appears again, but acts as an insulting reduction of Cillian Murphy’s talents to that of an extra. 

And of course, there’s Nolan’s ongoing problem of female characters. Katie “Scientologist #2” Holmes ruined the first Batman movie, though her character wasn’t particularly well-written. And Scarlett Johansson in The Prestige was completely forgettable. And here, Maggie Gyllenhaal improves on the role of prosecutor Rachel Dawes, but again her role is incredibly weak, somewhere lost between the affection of two men, and then barely acknowledged later in the film. 

Yet, with all that said, these problems feel almost superficial. Nolan and his team have managed to improve on my problems with the first movie: it’s bigger, it’s darker, it avoids being too serious and preachy, and it vastly improves its portrayal of James Gordon (played wonderfully by Gary Oldman). It should become the prototype for future blockbusters. Iron Man showed us the possibility of great popcorn entertainment, but The Dark Knight is testimony to the potential of cinema to make blockbusters that are as thought-provoking, philosophical, in tune with society’s anxieties, and yet deeply, truly enjoyable.

Review by David Ranscht 

Don’t get me wrong; I liked The Dark Knight. However, to count it among the best films of all time is a stretch.  

As you might expect with any superhero movie, Batman (Christian Bale) is on a mission to save the city from some remarkable danger – in this case, the thugs and thieves that run the underbelly of Gotham City. With the help of a thicker-skinned District Attorney in Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), finally it appears that Batman is (ahem) making a dent in the criminal roster of Gotham. Once the deliciously crazy Joker (Heath Ledger) begins to make waves in Gotham, however, the public calls for Batman’s arrest. Vigilante justice, after all, is still against the law, helpful as it may be, and in an attempt to rid Gotham of Batman and take back the streets for the crooks, the Joker threatens more deaths every day until Batman remains masked and anonymous. 

Let’s face it… if Heath Ledger were alive today, there would be nowhere near the same amount of hullabaloo over one of his final roles as the Joker. It sounds like a heartless thing to say, but all the talk of being a shoo-in for a posthumous Oscar is, I think, a little premature. His performance is solid, his dedication to creating the character is highly evident, and his ability to play this psychotic madman is truly and breathtakingly chilling. However, I just feel he lacks the certain oomph that, say, Daniel Day-Lewis provides in There Will Be Blood. 

Aside from the hailing of this film as an all-time masterpiece, though (which really has everything to do with those who’ve seen it, and nothing to do with the movie itself), my complaints are minimal. Director Christopher Nolan’s vision of Gotham City, though he makes no effort to hide that it’s modern-day Chicago, appears both intimate and sprawling at the same time – a commendable feat, to be sure. The film’s connections to real life are at times extremely poignant – “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” And while I was bothered by the overly-frequent use of 360-degree camera angles, that’s hardly something worth quibbling over. 

To put it most simply, The Dark Knight is far from your typical mindless summer popcorn flick. At the core, it’s still a comic adaptation – but it’s a wildly entertaining one at that.
4/5 stars


Review by Rebecca Roth 

I sat down to The Dark Knight midnight grand opening with the most raucous opening night crowd I have ever been a part of: fans were standing and shouting back and forth at each other, commentating for all to hear about the commercials before the film began to roll. As soon as the “Feature Presentation” screen popped up the demeanor of the crowd took a 180, you could quite literally have heard a pin drop. To say the movie entranced the audience is a massive underestimation. From that moment forward it is obvious that this is not only a film, but an experience like none other.  

The Dark Knight opens with two contrasting sequences, a bank robbery that introduces us to the Joker in all his insane glory, and a mob meeting that Batman swoops down upon to save the day. In both instances we are shown how the landscape of Gotham has changed since we last saw our hero in action; the world is taking a stand against evil and corruption, and all because Batman set the example. He’s become weary of the mixed response to his heroism, as well as the bad copy cats, and though the tide is turning, there is still a long way to go leaving our hero with no end in sight.  

Enter Harvey Dent – the new D.A with an unapologetic and commanding desire to cleanup the streets of Gotham. All that Harvey Dent is, Batman is not – in the time since the last iteration Batman has become jaded, overwhelmed; meanwhile, Harvey is an idealist, hopeful, genuine, and transparent in his belief, he sees in black and white with no room for any grey area or compromise.  

As we get to know these characters through the film, Christopher Nolan artfully deconstructs each one so that we can look inside for ourselves, and through their qualities see our own reflection. Heath Ledger absolutely becomes the Joker; his portrayal is terrifying and raw, yet so real his twisted intentions are unraveled as only a magnification of our human tendencies to evil. His prerogative is to turn the world on its head, to show the world how much anarchy is lurking deep down just waiting to be coaxed out – and he is more than willing to do the coaxing.  

As an alternate to the Joker, Christian Bale’s Batman is, as ever, brooding; the world he protects endlessly takes him for granted despite his best efforts. Batman perpetually battles the inner demons threatening to bring about his retirement, throughout the film he is faced, nearly forced, with a decision to end it all and simply fade away. This turmoil is further complicated by the blurred lines of Batman’s world, in which it is often difficult to tell if he is doing what is absolutely right or what he wants to be right.  By the end he is in anguish over what is best for Gotham, and rightly so as the Joker has pressed him to the point where he claims they aren’t so different from each other; and to Batman’s dismay it is true.  

The overarching theme of the film is the contrast between the hero that people want and the hero that people need. This idea frames the internal battle of doing what’s right even if it makes you the bad guy, Alfred (Michael Caine) stands by ever the voice of conscience to Bruce Wayne as he works it out for himself. In the end of his moral struggle, Batman recognizes that his obligation is to do what’s right no matter how difficult.  

Aside from its darkness and scathing social commentary, The Dark Knight has some incredible black comedy, all perfectly timed, and likely to make you cringe and laugh in the same moment. Every performance in the film is spot on, but Heath Ledger overshadows them all and delivers possibly the greatest villain of our time, perhaps of all time. This is such an all-encompassing film, a modern day Greek tragedy, yet despite having a serious and relevant message it is a bizarre joy-ride that you will be unable to get out of your head. 

5/5 stars


Review by Matthew Starr

People often think I am nuts when I tell them that the original Batman movie was my favorite.  I loved both Tim Burton-directed installments, and still believe his vision for Batman was the best. Batman Begins is by no means a poor film, but it is not the best Batman movie, and not nearly as excellent as everyone I know says it is. The movie had more great actors than it knew what to do with and no single villain was able to stand out from the rest, which to me is key in these types of movies.

Christopher Nolan, like any fine director, decided not to settle for something less than perfecdt, and by removing the flaws of the first film has directed a stellar action/drama in The Dark Knight. This film also features an all-star cast, but this time Nolan knows exactly what to do with them. He realizes that although Christian Bale is the handsome lead protagonist, the screen belongs to Heath Ledger’s Joker, and the talented Aaron Eckhart is displayed in a surprisingly detailed role as district attorney Harvey Dent. In Batman Begins, I felt Batman was the only character of any importance. In The Dark Knight, Nolan spreads the wealth. He needed 2 1/2 hours to get it done, but so be it.

In The Dark Knight, Ledger declares, “This town needs a new class of criminal, and I’m going to give it to them.” Truer words have not been spoken in a movie this year. He is exactly what the first film was so desperately lacking. There is no doubt that his performance is superior to that of Nicholson’s which, while entertaining, was the usual scenery-chewing show from Jack that we had become accustomed to seeing. Here, Ledger shows us a madness and fearlessness I can’t recall seeing in a villain before. His Joker will be, should be placed in the pantheon of the greatest on-screen bad guys of all time, alongside the likes of Anton Chigurh, Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, Rev. Harry Powell and Frank Booth.

Although Ledger steals the show, the rest of the cast is excellent. As previously mentioned, Eckhart is convincing and powerful as Gotham D.A Harvey Dent. Gary Oldman, one of my favorite actors, is given a more important role in this film and the supporting turns by Caine and Freeman are as solid as one would expect. Christian Bale proves that he was the perfect choice to be cast as Batman for the rebirth of this franchise, possessing the demeanor and aura that is expected from the character of Bruce Wayne.

On top of all this, The Dark Knight film is technically outstanding. Cinematographer Wally Pfister was nominated for an Oscar for his work on both Batman Begins and The Prestige. He can certainly expect a third nomination for his work here.  Accolades will also be given to the crew that worked on the sound as it was sharp, detailed and in your face.

As great as The Dark Knight is, however, I can’t give it a perfect score. Some elements of the film hold it back. I will begin with the most minor of issues, Christian Bale’s voice as Batman. I do not recall his voice being so forcefully deep in Batman Begins and I don’t see the reason why this was necessary. The audience knows it’s a comic book movie. We’re not going to leave the theatre wondering how nobody knew Batman was Bruce Wayne because he didn’t mask his voice. I am good at using my suspension of disbelief and I would much rather use it than hear that raspy voice.

I rarely have this problem with any film but I felt that at 2 ½ hours, there could have been more action. My favorite scene of the movie is an action sequence near the middle of the film (involving the brand-new Bat-pod and the semi flipping over that you saw in the trailer). It is a breathtaking sequence on par with the best action scenes of Terminator 2 and Heat. I was hoping that scene would go on for at least another five minutes.

The Dark Knight is great entertainment and really needs to be seen on IMAX to fully enjoy the spectacle. Christopher Nolan improves with every project and is steadily climbing the ranks of current great Hollywood directors. He improves upon the flaws of his former movies, and is always looking to push the envelope in terms of shooting film. We need more filmmakers like him.

4 ½ / 5 stars

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