Thursday, July 31, 2008

Dissenting Opinion

Am I the only one who thinks all the noise surrounding the Dark Knight film is over the top?

John Scalzi (who is an awesome writer btw and you should go and buy his Old Man's War books if you haven't already) has a column out where he dissects the film's Oscar chances. He makes a lot of very sensible points, both for and against, and concludes by saying that Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan (the director) will probably get their Oscars, and there will be a bunch of wins in technical nominations - but that it will not win Best Picture, because, quote, In the end, I expect giving the Best Picture to a movie about a guy in a bat suit will still be out of the mental comfort zone of the Academy.

Really? It was well within the Academy's mental comfort zone to give Best Picture to a film about a burning cunt suspended on top of a Gothic tower and a guy in spikey leather.

No, the reason why Dark Knight will not win Best Picture is because - and this is where I will ask that you hear me out before throwing various metaphorical kinds of rotten tomatoes at me - it is not an outstandingly good movie.

Not on balance.

There is absolutely no denying that The Joker was a spectacular, genre-shattering performance; this is the new gold standard of on-screen villainry and if, by some fluke of politics or mathematics, Heath Ledger will not receive a posthumous Oscar, it will be the end of the Academy, because its opinion will not be taken seriously by anyone again. Heath Ledger has had a tough time growing out of his heartthrob career (see his odd performance in Lords of Dogtown, where his character was a decrepid ruin opposed to the core cast of teenagers, producing a cognitive dissonance: Heath Ledger is suddenly old), but his Joker is absolutely phenomenal. No actor was this good in 2008; no actor has been this good in recent memory.

However, except for The Joker, what does Dark Knight really have? Batman Begins only got a single nomination for Best Cinematography, and the sequel has not actually moved the game on in any meaningful way. Christian Bale's Batman is as wooden as ever, and while he made this sort of character work really well in Equilibrium, here he has little opportunity to do that. Batman simply walks around responding passively and predictably to cues fed to him by the other characters; Bruce Wayne is better, as Bale actually manages to convey the disillusioned billionaire with a death wish. It would be entirely possible to go through the entire movie without Batman ever actually showing up. Bale gets far more screen time as Bruce Wayne anyway, and the fight scenes are your typical Hollywood choreography showcases; the fanboy audience expects a caped crusader, obviously, but if this wasn't a studio blockbuster, it might have been done as an arthouse adaptation without any footage of Batman in action at all - only scenes presumed and described by the other characters. Would not have limited Heath Ledger at all, but it would have been far more of a challenge (and accomplishment) for the director.

Aaron Eckhardt is far, far better. He's best known for Thank You for Smoking; both there and here he did an excellent job on pure, raw charisma. For two thirds of the movie I was impressed that they portrayed him as an absolute, incorruptable force for good, and the Two-Face character has merit as well; while the coin-flip plot device is long established in the Batman canon, Eckhardt somehow manages to pull off the ultimate sociopath: he is not the least bit disappointed if chance says the victim lives. He can kill you or not. Either way's good.

What he doesn't do quite as well is the transformation. Both Harvey Dent, the white knight, and Two-Face, the sword of chance, are excellent characters, but I am not convinced by the way one became the other. Two-Face's motivation could not simply be grief for his lost love and outrage at the betrayal of the corrupt policemen and inept superhero; surrendering yourself so utterly to blind luck requires true soul-searching, coming to the inevitable and logical conclusion that chance is the only thing in this universe that makes sense.

Besides all of which, longcat is looooooooong. Dark Knight feels drawn out in a way that the Lord of the Rings movies never did. They needed to pack in not only a lot of special-effects showmanship (in addition to giving Heath Ledger all the screen time he so richly deserves), but also the plot arc for a whole additional supervillain, plus the love interest - the latter felt like an afterthought with a strong Spiderman influence, which is absolutely not a compliment.

What else? The cinematography? It's good, but the long-established Gotham aesthetic readily lends itself to breathtaking backgrounds and haunting details. It'd almost be more effort to get it wrong.

The upshot is that Dark Knight is an excellent film, well worth the ticket price to go and see on the big screen (your home theatre would do it an injustice); but it is surrounded by an inordinate amount of hype. Heath Ledger's performance deserves all the hype it is getting, and more; but it does set a standard for the film's other components that they just do not live up to. Ledger is the best actor in 2008; Dark Knight simply is not the year's best film.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

"It was well within the Academy's mental comfort zone to give Best Picture to a film about a burning cunt suspended on top of a Gothic tower and a guy in spikey leather."

Schweow! Went right over my head. What movie are you referring to?

Flasher T said...

The one in 2004. (...narrowly missing the spoiler)

Mingus said...

Much as I'd hate to criticize a dead guy, and as much as he did a pretty good job as Joker, the character itself didn't change very much. He didn't really have moods. Then again that's the writers' fault, not the actor's.

And dark as it was, I was expecting much darker. I didn't like the outcome with the boats, for one.

But yeah, it's definitely worth getting a babysitter so you can go watch it!

Anonymous said...

Hmm in 2004 it was Million Dollar Baby. I've seen the movie and I can't tie it up with your description.

http://www.filmsite.org/bestpics.html

Are you maybe talking about 2003?

Flasher T said...

Yeah. IMDB got it wrong. :)

Anonymous said...

OK. I didn't get your reference because I must be the only person on the planet who didn't see this film.

Anonymous said...

...and my pick for this year is The Happening.

stu said...

For an hour there, I thought, Jesus, I have to get my hands on the uncut version of Million Dollar Baby...

Flasher T said...

Shyamalan? Doubtful...

Kerli said...

The Happening? Best picture? Er ... nooooo. Ain’t gonna happen.

But, holy shit, Batman! Dark Knight is good, Heath Ledger’s brilliant, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s (I want to be her when I grow up) Rachel Dawes is times better than Katie Holmes’s performance in Batman Begins.

Kept thinking throughout the film that Batman Begins lacked gravity, unlike this one, but I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. Dark Knight feels too much like a social commentary, too real for its own good (You call that Gotham?), and it can be enjoyed without ever having seen a Batman movie, which all takes it further away from the canonical comic book stuff.

Heath will deservedly get his Oscar. The Academy has acquired a liking for villains – take, for instance, Javier Bardem, who earned his Best Supporting Actor award for his portrayal of the „unstoppable evil“ in No Country For Old Men.

Loved the opening sequence; loved the line „You complete me“. Clever, witty, ironic, sadistic.

Bunch of kids when leaving the cinema: „Päris julm oli.“
Indeed.

Giustino said...

Am I the only one who thinks all the noise surrounding the Dark Knight film is over the top?

Yes.

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