Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Why So Serious? This "Knight" is dark, all right...and not much else


directed by Christopher Nolan
written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan
starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal

As I write this, “The Dark Knight” is making money. Loads of it. Shitloads of it. Batman’s making Spiderman look like the weenie and Indiana Jones like the arthritic old coot we always suspected they were. And the box office isn’t his only conquest: his new movie’s got the critics eating out of his hand and is giving the fanboys multiple fangasms. Seemingly overnight, it’s become the #1 ranked film on IMDB, finally unseating long-reigning champ “The Shawshank Redemption” and confirming my suspicion that 80% of IMDB voters are males under 40.

The parade looks mighty fine from the sidelines. But I can't jump on that bandwagon.

For the record, I’d been looking forward to “The Dark Knight” as much as anyone, and more than many. I like the brothers Nolan, the bright boys behind the devilishly clever “Memento,“ the brilliant rug-puller “The Prestige” (one of my favorite movies of 2006), and the much-needed franchise reboot “Batman Begins,” which I also loved. Even Christopher’s Jonathan-less remake of “Insomnia” managed to elicit one of Al Pacino’s few truly great performances of the past decade. So when I heard Heath Ledger had been cast as the Joker, I was intrigued. And when I started hearing the terrific buzz surrounding him, and the movie generally, my expectations soared.

Having seen it, however, I have to admit to being a bit let down. Not by Ledger, whose maniacal bottled-lightning performance lives up to the hype and should easily net a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Nor by the rest of the cast—particularly Aaron Eckhart, who deserves more attention than he’s been getting for his turn as district attorney Harvey “Two Face” Dent, and Gary Oldman, a quietly effective presence as Commissioner Gordon. And “TDK” isn’t a bad movie; it’s admirably ambitious, and explores some interesting, if muddled, ideas about the nature of heroism, the unintended consequences of cornering evil, and the social cost of preserving order in the face of forces that have nothing to lose. But as a film, as a narrative, it’s rather baggy, with too many threads, too many turns that don’t feel fully thought out, and action sequences (not Nolan’s forte) that lack punch and are drawn out too long.

Where “Batman Begins” was principally about Bruce Wayne’s path to becoming Batman, “TDK” is about his ongoing grappling with that role and its vexing moral conundrums; his attempt to turn the reins over to a man with a public face (e.g., Dent pre-Two Face); his vying with Dent for the same girl (Maggie Gyllenhaal, squandered in an extremely underwritten role); his and Gordon’s attempt to sniff out internal corruption; and their efforts to track down the Joker, who spreads mayhem and panic like a kind of demented Johnny Appleseed, ostensibly to lure Batman to his doom but really just to fuck with him. While all of these threads are connected, they somehow don’t quite cohere into an organic whole. Perhaps the centerlessness is supposed to reflect the chaos unleashed by the Joker, but it produces problems in pacing: at certain points, the film sags, even when it’s striving to ratchet up the dramatic tension.

The latter may be as much a problem of tone as of plotting. For a movie that features the Joker so prominently, “TDK” is curiously humorless. Apart from a few fleeting moments of levity, mostly in the form of one-liners from Michael Caine as the dapper and unflappable Alfred, it stays within two registers: grim and grimmer. Undoubtedly this is the point, that the dark (k)night is only getting darker as the forces of “good” are increasingly confronted with some very ugly choices. Yet the result is a film that comes across as more dour and ponderous than chilling, perhaps because the script and the direction leave no doubt that this is a movie that Takes Itself Very Seriously. Too seriously; it left me feeling nostalgic for the days of Tim Burton, emotionally and psychologically a much shallower director than Nolan, who nonetheless understood that a Batman movie could be dark and still be playful at the same time.

“TDK”’s overriding flaw is that it tries to be too much at once. The darkness within Bruce Wayne in “Batman Begins” has now been projected outwards into a broader-ranging social and political commentary, only to become oddly less effective. The Nolans are strongest when they focus on the psychology of an individual as a prism for humanity, rather than his outward acts or their impact on society. This may be why the most riveting narrative arc in TDK belongs not to Batman (Bale in stoic mode), who in this movie functions more as a mirror of society’s demands and expectations than a character, or even to the Joker, who merely holds up his own distorted mirror to Batman’s, but rather to Harvey Dent, the only person who undergoes any real development throughout the film. Eckhart, who’s spent his entire career shifting nimbly between roles in which his character’s soul is either much bigger or much smaller than his plausible, dimple-chinned charm indicates, keeps us guessing just how straight an arrow Dent really is, and (POTENTIAL SPOILER) what it will take to make him the sociopath we know he becomes. When he does turn, he’s almost more frightening than the Joker, because he’s been the most sympathetic character up to that point. (END SPOILER) If the Joker is the id of Gotham and Batman its superego, then Dent is its ego. And to the extent the interplay of the three reflects the disordered state of "TDK," it succeeds. Perhaps a little too well.


Monday, July 07, 2008

The End of the World As Herzog Knows It


documentary directed by Werner Herzog

As a director and as a storyteller, Werner Herzog has always been drawn to extremes. Known for his portraits of individuals—both real and fictional—who push relentlessly, often self-destructively, at the outer edges of the human experience, he’s finally found an entire continent that exemplifies that obsessive impulse. Appropriately, “Encounters at the End of the World” isn’t so much his love letter to Antarctica as a testament to a place that, in more ways than one, embodies the limits of mankind’s striving.

While the impetus for “Encounters” is conventional enough, the resulting film defies easy description. Lured by the otherworldly beauty of a friend’s underwater footage of divers beneath the polar ice (shown periodically in the movie, accompanied by suitably unearthly choral music), Herzog embarks on an expedition to the source. He lands first at a distinctly unbeautiful station called McMurdo, which sounds unsettlingly like “McMurder” in Herzog’s Germanic tones and which looks, as he aptly observes, like a mining town or space colony on a distant planet. From there he ventures forth to various outposts, filming and interviewing the motley assortment of characters that populate the area. These range from scientists quietly going about their field research to miscellaneous service employees who have ended up at McMurdo for a panoply of reasons. Many are misfits, eccentrics with odd fixations, and quixotic adventurers of distinctly Herzogian vintage—wandering spirits who would have instinctively understood Chris McCandless, the protagonist of Into the Wild. (In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, Herzog locates their kindred spirit in a lone penguin with an apparent death wish.) Yet however harrowing or unfulfilling their previous existences, many seem to have found a measure of peace here, at the literal ends of the earth.

Per usual, Herzog achieves a tricky balance between irony and sympathy in presenting these individuals’ stories, although (or perhaps because) he actively injects his own voice, literally and figuratively, into the film: if ever there were a documentarian auteur, Herzog would be it. Not that this is a bad thing, by any means. His narration, combined with his characteristically high-handed editing, dryly deflates the loquacity of some while bringing out the latent poetry and startling insights of others. He also displays a keen eye for the surreal quality that’s conferred on mundane activities by the simple incongruity of their context—whether it’s growing hothouse tomatoes, operating an ice cream machine, watching old science fiction movies, or holding a midnight musical jam session in the brilliant sunlight of a South Pole summer.

Percolating underneath all this blithe strangeness, however, is a current of foreboding that the Antarcticans’ meticulous explorations and rituals are merely a form of whistling in the dark. Early on in the film, a “survival training” class performs what quickly devolves into a comically absurd exercise in futility, wearing buckets over their heads to simulate the total lack of visibility in a snowstorm even as they struggle vainly to work together to find their bearings. The sight, more than a little reminiscent of the painting “The Blind Leading the Blind,” serves as something of an omen—echoed later in other sequences and comments by both Herzog and, more obliquely, his interviewees—that humanity’s time on this earth may be drawing to an end. The double meaning inherent in the title gains resonance as the film progresses, reinforced by constant reminders of human mortality.

Still, the prevailing tone of “Encounters” is anything but bleak. In fact, it’s frequently laugh-out-loud funny, without ever descending into clownishness or diminishing a sense of genuine, unvarnished wonder at the power that drew Herzog in the first place. For every sardonic poke at human folly, there’s a pan of a sublime expanse of ice or sea, or a long tracking underwater shot revealing a breathtaking kaleidoscope of color and light, that manages to put mankind’s struggles in a distinctly humbling perspective. It’s that combination of humor and humility that makes the film irresistibly watchable and, ultimately, indelible.