Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Dark Knight (2008)

Christopher Nolan
2008 • 152 Minutes • 2.35:1 • United States
Color • English • Warner Bros.

Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman
Writers: Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan from a story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer based on characters created by Bob Kane
Producers: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Charles Roven
Cinematography: Wally Pfister

Awards & Honors

The Essential Films
#66 - The 100 Greatest Movie Villains of All Time - Harvey "Two Face" Dent

Academy Awards:
Winner: Best Achievement in Sound Editing
Winner: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role - Heath Ledger (as "Joker")
Nominee: Best Achievement in Art Direction
Nominee: Best Achievement in Cinematography
Nominee: Best Achievement in Film Editing
Nominee: Best Achievement in Makeup
Nominee: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
Nominee: Best Achievement in Visual Effects

American Film Institute
Official 2008 Selection

BAFTA Awards
Winner: Best Supporting Actor - Heath Ledger
Nominee: Best Cinematography
Nominee: Best Costume Design
Nominee: Best Editing
Nominee: Best Makeup & Hair
Nominee: Best Music
Nominee: Best Production Design
Nominee: Best Sound
Nominee: Best Special Visual Effects

Director's Guild of America, USA
Nominee: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures - Christopher Nolan

Golden Globes
Winner: Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture - Heath Ledger

Grammy Awards
Winner: Best Score Soundtrack Album for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media - Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard

Hugo Awards
Nominee: Best Dramatic Presentation - Long Form

MTV Movie Awards
Winner: Best Villain - Joker (Heath Ledger)
Nominee: Best Fight - Christian Bale, Heath Ledger
Nominee: Best Movie
Nominee: Best Male Performer - Christian Bale

People's Choice Awards
Winner: Favorite Action Movie
Winner: Favorite Cast
Winner: Favorite Movie
Winner: Favorite On-Screen Match-Up (Christian Bale, Heath Ledger)
Winner: Favorite Superhero - Christian Bale (Batman)

Screen Actor's Guild
Winner: Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role - Heath Ledger
Winner: Outstanding Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture

Writers Guild Award
Nominee: Best Adapted Screenplay

Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

(Warning, this review contains spoilers)

Christopher Nolan returns the Batman mythos by co-writing, producing and, most importantly, directing the second film in the epic Dark Knight Trilogy.  The Dark Knight is a follow-up to 2005's Batman Begins, which revitalized the Batman character in popular culture as well as on the big screen.  What Begins did for Batman, Dark Knight does for the character of The Joker.  Gone is the fantasy background of a gangster thug who falls into a vat of acid. This time, The Joker is a criminal mastermind that is terrorizing Gotham City with an ever-escalating series of robberies, murders and bombings. The Joker holds the city hostage in a reign of terror, while Batman, this time joined by criminal prosecutor Harvey Dent, is still trying to clean up the streets by going after the mob.  Eventually, the mob hires Joker to take the Batman out, and the Joker finds a new calling in life: to torment and psychologically destroy the Dark Knight.

Elements from two major Batman comic story arcs appear in the film: 1988's The Killing Joke and 1996's The Long Halloween. The Killing Joke, as one would imagine, is a Joker-based storyline that revolves around the psychotic clown trying to drive Commissioner Gordon insane intercut with scenes from his supposed origin that may or not be true.  The Long Halloween takes a look at the early years of Batman's adventures in Gotham City, while retelling the origin of how Harvey Dent became Two-Face.

Christian Bale once again takes on the cape and cowl as the masked vigilante known as Batman.  Being the second film in the series, Bale is clearly more comfortable with the role. Bruce Wayne is really three different people: an aloof playboy to the public; brooding and calculating in private; and the aggressive vigilante when wearing Batman costume. Bale navigates through the three personas effortlessly. While "the voice" is still greatly exaggerated, one can't argue its effectiveness at disguising his identity.

A good portion of the supporting cast from Begins returns in this film. Michael Caine is back as the loyal butler, Alfred Pennyworth as well as Morgan Freeman returning as Lucius Fox, Batman's one-man technology & weapons resource.  Katie Holmes does not return, however, due to her commitment on another film. The role of Rachel Dawes in this film was played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhall may not be as beautiful as Holmes, but she certainly brings a better performance. The big star of the returning cast is Gary Oldman as Lieutenant Gordon, getting promoted to Commissioner in this film.  I've said many times before, but I'll say again: the fact that this man does not have an Academy Award is a crime.  Oldman's portrayal of a street-wise cop that rose through the ranks by paying his dues and doing the right thing is flawless, and he gets to be a bit more of a hero in this film than in any other Batman film. You can feel his struggles as a lawman that has to work within a corrupt system... a system that causes comes back to haunt him in the film's climax. Gordon is a cop that wants to do the right thing, but sometimes the right thing involves doing the wrong thing... and do the ends justify the means? By the film's end, Gordon has to choose between doing the right thing (telling the world about Harvey Dent's fall from grace) or doing what he feels is best for the city (letting Harvey die a martyr and allowing Batman to take the blame.) It's a difficult choice, and one that has repercussions leading into the third act of the trilogy.

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

Speaking of which, this review could not be complete without mentioning Aaron Eckhart and his
portrayal of the tragic hero/villain, Harvey Dent, a.k.a. Two Face.  "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." What an excellent piece of writing. This quote directly applies to not only the Harvey Dent character, but the entire series as a whole.  The nature of Two-Face, naturally, is duality. What is fascinating is that his nature also applies to Batman himself. Harvey Dent, played absolutely perfectly by Eckhart, is a man that is trying to clean-up Gotham by putting the major leaders of organized crime behind bars as his job as District Attorney. He's the "White Knight" to Batman's "Dark Knight." As the film progresses, his choices blend more and more into grey areas until a crucial moment: The Joker, in an attempt to drive Batman insane, kidnaps both Dent and Bruce Wayne's love interest, Rachel Dawes. He keeps them in two separate locations, strapped to bombs, and tells Batman the location of both of them forcing to choose who to save. Batman goes after Rachel, but when he arrives realizes that Joker lied to him and sent him to Dent. Batman saves Dent from death, but not fast enough to save half his body from being horrifically burned. Rachel, unfortunately, dies.  This is the crucial moment of the film... the moment Dent snaps, the moment Joker wins and the moment that Batman is lost.  Dent, who had always carried a coin with "heads" on both sides, now carries the same coin, this time one of the sides is charred.  Dent now leaves everything to chance, the shiny side of the coin and the healthy side of his face represents the good that is still in him, while charred side of the coin and the disfigured side of his face represents the evil that the Joker brought out of him.  Dent goes on a killing spree, getting revenge on everyone who wronged him, leaving their fate up to the flip of his macabre coin. Dent lives long enough to become the villain but, in the end, after his final, deadly confrontation with The Batman, Dent also dies a hero. That is beautiful writing.

You wanna know how I got these scars?

The real star of the film, however, is Heath Ledger as the sinister Joker. In January 2008, six months before the film's release, Ledger had passed away due to a lethal combination of prescription drugs. His death, already tragic due to his young age, was also a huge loss to the world of acting, as his performance in this film highlights just how excellent of an actor he was. To prepare for the role, Ledger reportedly spent a month in a hotel room, by himself, creating the character's voice, posture and even kept a diary as "The Joker." His hard work paid off as, in one of his final on-screen appearances (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus being the final one), Ledger delivered a career-making, and furthermore, iconic, performance as The Joker.  Ledger's Joker is, as far as The Essential Films is concerned, the greatest screen villain of all time. Unlike previous incarnations of the character, this Joker had disturbing scars running up both sides of his mouth to form a sadistic smile that made the character even more psychotic than he already was. His wardrobe was still the flamboyant purple and green that audiences were used to, but toned down to work in the more realistic setting of Nolan's universe. The Dark Knight is a film about balance and duality.  Batman is the personification of justice, law and order while The Joker is the personification of violence and chaos (and Dent ends up encompassing both.)  Joker, originally hired to kill the Batman by the mob, instead refocuses his agenda to psychologically torture him instead. Why? Because it amuses him. He forces Batman chose between saving Harvey Dent or the love of his life, he goads Batman into killing him, he turns the people of Gotham against him and he terrorizes citizen for fun. Joker is chaos.  Ledger's manic mannerisms are sublime and add more menace to the already terrifying clown. Throughout the film he asks different victims if they want to know how he got the scars on his face, each time telling a different story, to the point that the audience wonders which story, if any, is the real story. Why does he do this? Because he is chaos. He wants to watch the world burn. He forces Batman and Dent to continually make morally questionable decisions to the point that he practically destroys everything they stand for. The character has so many iconic and quotable lines, thanks to the excellence of the screenplay and Ledger's delivery. Ledger brought so much depth to this character that it is no coincidence that he posthumously won every single acting award he was nominated for the following year.

And... here... we... go!

The Dark Knight is an excellent piece of filmmaking that is not limited to just the acting and the story. Nolan puts together a masterpiece, demonstrating his ability to craft a a highly satisfying piece of blockbuster entertainment while also creating a beautiful piece of art. He has demonstrated, from his first work in Following to his break-out film Memento all the way through last year's Dark Knight Rises, that he is one of this current generation's best filmmakers. Everything works in The Dark Knight. Each of the film's three acts has a satisfying payoff, while keeping a break-neck pace that leaves the audience wanting for more as it continues to escalate and the stakes keep raising higher and higher. The costume design on Joker is perfectly suited (pardon the pun) for the character and the production design make Gotham City look less like Chicago (where it was mostly filmed) and more like a real, tangible location.  The cinematography, specifically the IMAX shots, are gorgeous and should have won an Academy Award for Wally Pfister. And the score? Epic. In fact the only films in recent memory that have a more epic-sounding score are Inception and The Dark Knight Rises... both Nolan films, unsurprisingly. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard distinguish themselves from their Danny Elfman predecessor to create a score that perfectly incapsulates THIS universe.   

Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded...

The film's legacy cannot be denied. The film was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, which was a record for a film based on comic book. Ledger's win for Supporting Actor was the first time any major Oscar category was awarded to a comic book movie, which went a long way in legitimizing the genre.  Which is exactly what it did. While superhero films always have a place in the "geek" community, they are oftentimes seen as popcorn entertainment. The Dark Knight showed critics, audiences and the Hollywood community that a comic book movie can be more than just entertainment, it can be legitimate art. In fact it was so successful amongst critics and audiences that there was legitimate controversy when the film was NOT nominated for Best Picture. Many feel that the following year, when the Academy expanded their nominees for Best Picture to ten films instead of five, it was to correct this mistake and allow more mainstream and genre films like District 9 and Avatar to compete.  The Dark Knight topped many Top 10 lists of the year (including the prestigious American Film Institute) as well as being named #15 in Empire Magazine's "500 Greatest Movies of All Time", #5 in Entertainment Weekly's "100 Greatest Characters of the last 20 Years" and Total Film's 6th most accomplished film of the last 15 years. Added to this are the multitude of awards and nominations (see above) and placement in almost every Essential Films countdown list including Greatest Villains, Greatest Heroes, Greatest Blockbusters and Greatest Films.  The film clearly resonated with audiences as it grossed over $1 billion at the box office worldwide (the first comic book film to ever do so). It is the 16th highest grossing film of all time worldwide, the 4th highest grossing film of all time domestically (behind Avatar, Titanic and Marvel's The Avengers respectively), the 2nd biggest superhero movie all time (behind The Avengers) and the biggest film of 2008.  When released to home media, The Dark Knight set a sales record for most discs sold in one day, totaling over 3 million purchases, including 600,000 Blu-rays.

The Dark Knight is the greatest superhero film of all time and an iconic masterpiece.

Why so serious?

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