Thursday, July 24, 2008

I'm Like A Dog Chasing Cars! I Wouldn't Know What To Do If I Caught One!

The Dark Knight
directed by Christopher Nolan

I've been listening to all sorts of stuff recently, but there's nothing that I really have a lot to say about (except that TID are really good. Go download their album. It's free!), so this week we're going to take a rare detour into the world of film.

I very rarely actually go to the theatre nowadays, and considering what a fiasco I had getting there it's no wonder why. Most of the problems I had, as with most of the problems in the world today, were the immediate and direct fault of the Catholic Church. As you may or may not be aware, last week large portions of Sydney were closed down to facilitate the arrival of many hundreds of thousands of the gullible, simple minded and deluded who were here to see their favourite rotten old ex-Nazi and his cadre of kiddy fiddlers.

Quite aside from the personal inconvenience it caused me, I find it appalling and offensive that the NSW government is willing to close down half the city, attempt to suspend our right to free speech and spend literally millions of taxpayer dollars for the sake of the Catholic Church, who for all the people who seem to have forgotten, were the nice chaps behind the Crusades and the Inquisition, not to mention their general bigotry, the paedophilia and their consistent opposition to reason and progress throughout modern history. Attention Australian government! These people are not our friends! They are in fact one of the most corrupt and vile institutions in Western history! Please remember this next time!

So anyway all this meant that getting out to Bondi Junction was a total ordeal, as the entire central city was turned into some kind of neutered, conformist carnival, filled with roaming packs of teenagers alternating fascist style chants of “Aussie aussie aussie” and “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus”, and singing that godawful fucking 'Jesus loves me yes he does' song. And of course the additional strain on the public transport system meant that the trains broke down and I was stuck in Martin Place station with these people for a quarter of an hour. (In a typically droll piece of public transport organisation we were told after 15 minutes that the train wasn't coming and we should catch the bus, at which point everyone dutifully files out of the station only to hear an announcement that the train was fixed and was arriving in one minute.) It's enough to make you want to go Varg Vikarnes styles on the Sydney cathedral.

I arrived fifteen minutes late but of course, that was no problem. Having not been to the movies for so long I was surprised to learn that nowadays they run a full half hour of ads before the film actually starts. I can't believe that these fuckers get away with that, but I guess with margins being so slim for the cinema business nowadays they really have no choice.

So with all my bitching out of the way I can happily confirm that The Dark Knight is actually a damn good action movie. Perhaps a little long, and with some unfortunate cuts required for its PG13 rating, but otherwise unassailable.

Having not seen Batman Begins I had no expectations for this particular iteration of the franchise, and with relief I note that it has nothing in common with the retarded camp of the Joel Schumacher movies. It does share the Frank Miller inspired grimness of the Tim Burton films, but Burton's characteristic cartooniness has been removed to create a far more realistic tone (relatively speaking that is, in typical action movie fashion people still crash through glass windows, dive through explosions, get shot a couple of times and still manage to walk away afterwards). Gotham City is not so superficially gothic this time around. The demented baroque and art deco nightmares that populated the city in previous versions are gone, leaving cold, grim skyscrapers that somehow end up feeling more gothic than the cartoony buildings they replaced.

The story is familiar territory for anyone who's been exposed to Batman in any of his prior media incarnations. The villains used in this particular instalment are Two Face and The Joker, and while nothing really happens that hasn't been done before the plot is smartly executed, unafraid of complexity and subtlety and not at all predictable. As an action movie it works well too. Despite having enough intelligence in the plot and thoughtful character interaction there's a huge action setpiece every half an hour or so, each of which contains at least one moment that caused my inner fourteen year old to grin his head off and say “That was fucking cool!”.

The papers over here have been full of the predictable posthumous overselling of Heath Ledger's performabce, which needs to be called out as the knee jerk hysterical media overreaction that it is. “Oscar-worthy” they're all screaming, as if this was Shakespeare and not just a decent action movie, and as if anyone with a brain actually gives a shit about the Oscars, that sad tepid one night of the year where the brain dead pillocks in the movie industry make a misguided attempt to raise their artistic consciousness to the level of 'middle brow'. Having said all that Ledger's portrayal of the Joker is genuinely great. Even in Tim Burton's version the Joker wasn't a terribly threatening villain, as his comic nature tended to overshadow any potential menace he could provide. Ledger's Joker on the other hand is one of the most memorable villains to enter filmdom in recent years. Even aside from his hideous facial deformaties his grotesque hunched shuffle and disgusting lip smacking make him truly repulsive. Also his humour isn't overdone; this Joker is first and foremost a frightening psychopath, and although he's still consistently funny, it's very much a twisted, dark and violent kind of comedy. I loved this scene:

although it was better in the movie. I'm sure there were a few more seconds of the Joker muttering away about his magic trick that made the joke.

Other members of the cast deserve mention too. Christian Bale makes a great Batman. In previous versions Batman came across as being almost as fucked up and insane as the supervillains he battles but while Bale's Batman is still a man driven by an unhealthy compulsion he's more human, more sympathetic and more heroic than the Frank Miller inspired psychotics that populate other versions of the story. I also really liked his portrayal of Bruce Wayne, who's makes great comic relief as an apparently over privileged nincompoop. It makes for a far more convincing cover for Batman's secret identity. Maggie Gyllenhaal was very good as the love interest too, she was given a little more substance and personality than the standard damsel in distress, even if she did ultimately end up playing that role (and that she's far too cute to buy as a cop).

It must be noted that The Dark Knight is depressing as hell. On one side the plot is anchored by the tragic story arc of Two-Face, who goes from being a symbol of bravery and hope to becoming an insane murderous monster, and on the other we have the Joker, who is presented as a cypher with no backstory or motivation, an unavoidable consequence of Batman's attempts to do good in the world. If the universe itself will react to the presence of a truly selfless hero by creating a supervillian with an equal and opposite capacity for evil then it seems that the thesis of the film is that the world is a cruel, hopeless place and that any attempt to altruistically improve life for your fellow citizens will only cause a backlash that will make things worse because deep down, people would rather have the freedom to be selfish themselves than see the selfishness of others be punished. However the film fortunately throws in a few moments of redemption towards the end, providing just enough counterpoint to offer hope, but not enough to change the fact that this is one huge downer of a movie.

It's not high art, but The Dark Knight is far more intelligent than the clich├ęd pabulum that generally passes for action movies nowadays, and that's refreshing. The film has done very well financially on its opening week and it's being spun by the media as being totally attributable to Heath Ledger. Not to undersell his performance, which again is as great as the reviews are all saying, but I'd like to believe that the reason that it has done so well is mostly because it's a well made, intelligent movie. Compare it to the insultingly stupid, lowest common denominator films that it's competing with. Which would you rather pay $17 to see, a smart, well acted movie with a bit of depth, or You Don't Mess With The Zohan?

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